Does viewing people as assets demean them (and us)?

Article by Ann Binnie.

I heard this morning on the radio a discussion about the various Olympic authorities’ deliberations on whether/who to ban from the Russian squad for misuse of performance enhancing drugs. I was struck by the use of the term “assets” for the athletes in question. Maybe the context of Russia made me think of spy novel (and real?) attribution of their people in the field as their assets. It prompted thoughts on how we in marketing think and talk about a corporate brand’s assets.

In a recent meeting with a client we recommended greater use of the client’s assets in their corporate story and that included using their CEO to greater effect. There was some smirking in response and quite a bit of jolly banter around the executive team about their asset (clearly not the way they had hitherto thought of their CEO).

Why had we felt it OK for us in that context to use the word asset, while its use to describe Russian athletes was jarring? In the latter context the asset loses their individuality and indeed their humanity – they become something akin to a pawn to be moved around at the will of some Olympian god. Somehow describing humans in any context as assets deprives them of their agency – someone else pulls the strings.

And we do this a lot, don’t we? We talk of “acquiring talent”, “human capital”, employees as assets. It is natural for us in the business world to think in terms of assets and liabilities, profit and loss, reputation and risk. While our work in corporate brand and reputation serves to contribute to the positive side of the equation and help mitigate the negatives, perhaps the conclusion to my musings is this. We should never forget that humans are central to all our businesses, as consumers, employees and stakeholders. And they will be assets only if they choose to be, they are their own agents. All we can do is remember our humanity, put ourselves in their shoes as far as possible and thereby demonstrate how much of an asset we all can be to our businesses.