The world has changed rapidly in recent times, and most of those changes have been catalyzed by some form of digital transformation. Many look at marketing driven transformation through two distinct lenses: creative and technology. Few however, have the vision to understand the critical intersection of the two that is required for true success. Even fewer understand the vital role empathy must play in any transformation, and miss the necessary human component required for meaningful growth.
Marketing is being asked to reimagine itself daily as the world continues to go through a period of transformation perhaps not seen since the days of the Industrial Revolution. As entire industries continue to be upended, change emerges less as an activity and more as a necessary course of action in today’s business environment. As a result, agility, disruption and vision in the world of marketing, has never been more vital, nor has the need for the marketing function to emerge as a powerful driver of increased revenue.
In a year defined by “fake news,” the media sector has emerged as among the most embattled. With that in mind, I felt that speaking to a visionary marketer within the media sector would be a great way to end my column for the year, as well as provide some behind-the-scenes insights for leveraging marketing as a catalyst of disruption, growth and competitive edge.
For my most recent piece, I had the pleasure of speaking with David Rubin, formerly in charge of brand at Pinterest and currently in charge of shepherding The New York Times into our new age of engagement-driven experiences. Following is a recap of our conversation:
Billee: A lot of what I have been focusing on lately is the changing face of the marketing function inside of the world’s leading organizations. There used to be a tremendous amount of uniformity across the discipline, and now, there is a lot more nuance and customization by company. I know you’re the Chief Brand Officer and that you work closely with your Chief Revenue Officer, so this paradigm has apparently played out at The Times. Can you discuss how these two disciplines now comprise the marketing function at the company and what your specific role is?
David: I’m the Head of Brand and then we’ve got a Head of Consumer Revenue. The two of us collaborate closely and our teams work together very closely. We both need each other and our teams need each other in order to be effective. Our team on the brand side is really responsible for all of our messaging up and down the funnel and the revenue team is responsible for delivering those messages in a way that impacts the business. What we get out of that synergy is really powerful. We get a consistent message and a healthy tension that pushes us to optimize the reader experience through both performance and delivery. We are constantly challenging ourselves to make sure that we’re really driving our business success and getting people to subscribe in ever-increasing numbers. We also want to make sure that we’re building the right brand connection at the same time, so we’re constantly trying to do our best at both.
If you go back two or so years ago, before my arrival, the marketing function was very much performative coming out of a of a classic subscription, circulation, direct mail kind of approach. What we’ve done is really tried to make sure that even when we’re doing subscription-driven work, that we’re leading with the brand and the quality of journalism that happens here.
Billee: Super interesting. Thanks for that overview. What I’m trying to get at in these conversations in my column is how increasingly important a marketing, branding, or revenue officer has become to the overall future growth of the business overall. To me, that’s what you’re describing, much more of a focus on creating revenue driving brand experience that people can buy into as opposed to just selling subscriptions?
David: The thing that’s really changed for The Times since 2013, but really has been a slow process over the digital era, is moving from a business being an ad model to being a subscription model. We always had subscriptions, but historically we’re talking sixty percent plus of the revenue coming in from advertising. Now it’s flipped and this is what really led to rethinking a decision about building the reader and customer experience as we go to market. We want to think with the subscriber first mindset and what the big difference is in a media company is you must shift your mindset from total audience to one of engagement. You’re not going to pay for a subscription for something you use only occasionally. You’re going to pay for subscription if it’s really a part of your life, and if you feel a real connection to it. So it’s really shifted our mindset and as a result of that shift, we have built our largest audience ever.
In some ways, it’s pushed us further in creating quality journalism that allows people to understand the world in its full context. Our customer’s demand for quality news and quality reporting has led us to make more investments in the quality of our reporting and the breadth of formats we use to deliver it, which I think is healthier for our business.
Billee: A new critical mandate is to make storytelling more effective and a part of business strategy, regardless of what type of business you lead. So, how does a storytelling company, if not one of the top media brands in the world, approach storytelling and content on behalf of itself?
David: We certainly keep the creation of journalism in the journalism side of the house. The journalistic editorial decision-making is entirely separate from the business side. However, what we’ve learned is people appreciate the difference in the process you’ve gone through to do the work. That’s where marketing comes in. In essence, it’s the story behind the story. Not so much about an individual story, but as it rolls up into a philosophy or a commitment that might be interesting to the reader.
If you look at the advertising work we did with (ad agency) Droga5 and Director Darren Aranofsky last Spring, we did a series of videos that looked at some of our journalists and some of the big stories we had told. All that was driven by marketing. For us it’s about the thing that matters to making you want to subscribe, which is, you’ve got to believe that you’re getting a quality of understanding at The Times that you can’t get somewhere else; that it’s worth paying for and is so vital. Particularly because I think one thing that is unique to our industry, is that the lion’s share of our competitors are not charging. So, the question becomes how do you address that? I used to work in traditional personal care consumer products and you had to make everyone understand your point of difference. We need to do that here too, but we need to do that against someone who’s not even charging a dime. That’s really the core of both our challenge and opportunity.
Billee: It sounds like, if I’m hearing you correctly, that the ‘story behind the story’ process kind of gets to the issue of what real journalism is and is not and a focus on delivering the truth. Did that grander purpose play a role in how you’ve worked to reposition yourself?
David: We titled the Oscars ad and the related campaign that’s pretty much permeated the whole year, “The Truth Is Hard.” And the reason that we think it’s important to say that, is that there are lots of sources of the truth and The Times doesn’t profess to be the only source or even the source that always get it right. What we strive to do is go to greater lengths to help you determine the truth and know what is true. “The Truth Is Hard” campaign is not about what is true and what isn’t. It’s about the process to get there. We believe that journalism plays a big role in that process for people and we think it plays a big enough role that everybody should be subscribing to a quality publication. We hope it’s ours, but we actually believe more strongly in the idea that people believe journalism plays a role in their understanding of the world.
Billee: The campaign seems to be part of a larger rebranding effort. Do you want to talk about the overall brand pivot and the before, during and after of that process?
David: Yes, absolutely it’s been a big part of how we set our thoughts for ourselves and the continued stories that we were trying to tell people. We found that just having the campaign has been really helpful for trying to be a part of the conversation about the role of the independent press today and why it is so important. Obviously, we think it is, so we needed to figure out how that matters to the reader. I think a large question we ask ourselves is, there are probably 15 million people paying for a digital news source in the United States, while there are 175 million people reading news online. So, why is that gap so large and why are other industries like digital music and digital entertainment not feeling that gap as acutely? As a market leader, we see it as our responsibility to define the essence of paid news as a category; one that we have helped create and build.
We are very happy with the way we’ve been able to get our story out there. I think there was the thesis going into the end of last year, that not only were we on this long journey to try to get people to understand they need to pay for the news, but that something had changed around the time of the election both with the change in administration, as well as the prevalence of the conversation about fake news. Public consciousness around the issue has really helped change the dialogue. The question became what is an independent free press? How can we be a part of that conversation and can we start to say what we think our role in that is? So that’s what we did, and “The Truth Is Hard” is our way of talking about the importance of journalism to an individual’s quest to understand the world.
Billee: I’ve looked a lot recently at the increasing need for marketers to create some type of an emotional connection beyond just a rational one. With that said, I would assume emotional intelligence played a significant role in your campaign as the subject matter is so visceral?
David: Totally, totally. Certainly, there’s a rational side of helping people understand the work we’re doing, but a large part that we know from our research is that people want to know that this type of stuff matters in the world. However, recently the idea of an independent free press has become more than just a concept for some people. It’s an important idea that goes back hundreds of years in our country — free speech and freedom of the press. There’s nothing more emotional than that. Today we are in a place where that emotional connection is not as widely understood, so I think part of our campaign was aimed at working to help people understand that emotional connection and what we think we stand for, which is helping people understand the world.
Billee: Right. A lot of people don’t realize that for a brand pivot to play out well externally and connect emotionally, it has to first start at home. Can you talk to me about that and perhaps some of the challenges of marketing internally, or selling a narrative inside a media company?
David: Sure. We’ve got a reasonably large team. A few thousand people work at The Times. Many of them have pretty big personal presences, with large social media followings. We wanted to engage our employees in our mission as they are our greatest brand ambassadors and can vouch for the brand and its authenticity in ways that advertising alone just can’t.
A great example I can share with you is a story about Jodi Kantor, who, as you likely know, did some of the incredible reporting about Harvey Weinstein and other stories in our sexual harassment coverage. Jodi decided to put a picture out on social media of the moment right before the Weinstein article was released. In the foreground fastened to the desk is a button with our “The Truth Is Hard” slogan. Someone had actually amended the button to read “The truth is really hard.” My guess is that years from now that photo will be among the legends of The New York Times, and on it will be that button from the campaign, capturing our purpose and all we stand for. I think there’s perhaps no better statement to the impact the campaign’s had internally for energizing and uniting everyone who works here.
Billee: Something else that seems to be a common thread with folks that I talk to is that while a lot of people say it’s one of the most challenging times to be a marketer, those who are doing it well, are really having a lot of fun and enjoying themselves. So, just curious as to what you enjoy most about your job right now?
David: The New York Times is one of the best journalistic enterprises in the world. The people who are doing our reporting are unparalleled in their skills, their strength, and their commitment. The output that they give people, I think, really makes a difference to the world. The marketer’s job here is to get people to subscribe so that we can continue to produce the type of world-changing work that we do. To be able to help do that is really rewarding and there’s nothing more fun than that. The small part I have in it all is really, really rewarding.
Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.
The importance of the marketing function has risen dramatically inside leading organizations in our experience economy. As the push for emotional engagement rises, brands are pushing themselves to find new and exciting ways of generating meaningful experiences. As a result, storytelling continues to move from the end of the supply chain to the beginning of the invention process, and the idea of “storydoing” vs. “storytelling” has emerged in the foreground. This notion seems to fuse the increasing need for brands to have a grander sense of purpose beyond the bottom-line with the growing appetite from consumers to be emotionally engaged through authentic stories and experiences that matter.
For my latest Ask the CMO column, a series dedicated to analyzing the latest trends and disruptions in the marketing landscape, I had the pleasure of chatting with Adam Petrick, Global Director of Brand + Marketing for Puma. His repositioning of a retro sneaker brand into one of the hottest fashion footwear companies in the world is a terrific example of marketing’s new ability to drive both brand as well as performance through winning experiences that are purposeful and tied to doing interesting things in the world. Following is a recap of our conversation:
Billee: I’ve been talking to leaders about how this period of flux we’re in right now in the marketing space is impacting business. So, can we start with your thoughts on the current landscape?
As brands, we have to push ourselves to be interesting . That’s a very different proposition than just a few years ago. I think that’s an exciting shift, and one that might even be better for the brand landscape overall.
Billee: I agree. Almost all of the folks whom I’ve spoken to for this column agree that it is an exciting time because there is a bigger opportunity for marketing to make a difference. So, we are in an experience economy and I think that gets to your point of the need to focus less on the WHAT, if you will, and more on the WHO and the WHY behind it to create emotional experiences that are purposeful. How do you feel about that?
Adam: I thought you were going to say HOW because I think that the how is also very, very important. To me, the how is critical and central to everything that we’re trying to do right now with our brand. We’re trying to do less “storytelling” and more “storydoing.” We are trying to DO more period. To broadcast less, and take more action. For example, it’s really interesting when we partner with a star like Rihanna and ask her to develop a collection with us that connects to her Foundation’s cause. Not interesting to us would have been writing a giant check to Rihanna and asking her to be the face of an ad campaign. By being interesting and doing interesting things, we get to take interesting actions that impact our consumers, our culture and also of course our business.
Billee: So, I like the idea of the “storydoing” as opposed to just storytelling. To me it sounds like it connects to a grander purpose that goes beyond just the bottom line. Do you have thoughts on that?
Adam: At the end of the day we are selling goods, but we also have to do it in a way that feels like a service.When I say that, purpose for us is about trying to give us as a brand a reason to exist in the world and to help give people a reason to have us exist in their world. The way we do this is by continuing to create stuff that is cool and fun. We like to take the role of a “co-conspirator” to our audience, our partners and the culture overall. I think that the idea of being a co-conspirator is what gives us meaning. To do this effectively and authentically, we have to listen more, and we have to pay close attention to what’s going on in the culture to deliver products that connect, resonate and matter.
Billee: That makes a lot of sense. I think that all of what you’re talking ties to this pivot we are seeing from rational engagement to more emotional engagement and connecting through the lens of feeling as opposed to just things. Do you agree?
Adam: I do agree. I think that rational engagement could be about selling people a product based on a technology or a specific benefit that makes sense from a price standpoint. But I think that emotional connection is now very, very important because when you choose to wear a brand, especially in our business, where the differentiation between the brands is sometimes hard to see, that choice is driven by an emotional connection. You’re either familiar with the brand and you understand what it stands for, or you don’t. And if you aren’t connecting with a brand, then you’re not going to choose that brand. So, it’s extremely important to have emotional depth or meaning in order to be in the top consideration set of your target consumers.
Billee: That’s a lot of great information, so how do we tie it to the fact that your brand has gone through a significant revitalization in recent years. I believe that I’m correct in saying that you have been at Puma for quite a while, so I guess I’d ask what kind of pivot did you execute to go from where you were when you started at Puma, to where you are now, which I would say is quite an admirable leap?
Adam: I think that we struggled for a long time to figure out what it was that we wanted to represent and what it was that we wanted to mean in the world. I think that there was a lot of discussion to get alignment around what we wanted to be. Were we a sports brand? A fashion brand? Or a lifestyle brand? I think what happened was three or four years ago we said we have to make some changes and focus, otherwise we are going to disappear. So, we said let’s get back to basics. Let’s get back to sports. Let’s reground ourselves in our history and our authentic connection to sport and view everything we do through the lens of sports.
I think what was critical to this pivot was the realization that sports aren’t just about performance. “Sports” is also about the culture of all the things that are around sports. If you’re only focused on a category within sports, such as performance, that can be quite limiting. But when you start to think about sports as culture or sports as a lifestyle, then things get interesting.
Billee: What you just said leads me to the idea that many brands I speak with when pivoting are looking first at optimizing the experience internally in their own cultures. Was that part of your transformation process?
Adam: Yes, yes, I couldn’t agree more that the transformation of the internal culture was a very important part of the brand’s transformation. Thank you for pointing that out because you’re absolutely right. That is where it began. For us it began with grounding ourselves in the history of the brand and our legacy as a performance driven brand. We also said that we had to behave in a different way as a culture. We started with a brand mantra – Forever Faster. You know it was something that sounded great and aligned with us as a sports brand, but it also really drove a behavioral shift internally. This happened when we said being Forever Faster is not just about speed necessarily, it also was about always striving to be better. To be better in staying ahead of trends, always striving to make connections faster and always striving to solve problems faster. Forever Faster took on a lot of meaning internally and a rallying cry that marked a significant moment in our brand’s transformation.
Billee: That’s awesome to hear because it sounds like a great example of why brands need to look internally before having positive impact externally. A lot of what people used to think of internal culture as being handled by H.R. people and saw it as a very utilitarian function as opposed to a strategic one. The shift in leadership that I’m noticing is that senior marketers, like yourself, are stepping up to impact the employee experience?
Adam: I would say definitely. You are asking very good questions (laughs). Yes, I think that in order to have a company perform at a high level, your brand values and the things that your brand stand for in your consumer’s eyes have to align with internal behavior and your brand values. You then have to walk the walk internally and externally. It’s one thing for a marketer, or a brand person, or even an H.R. person, to put a poster on the wall, and entirely another to do the things that we say we stand for. Because of this, senior leadership must be closely involved in internal culture initiatives, and marketing must be among the top leaders driving that train.
Billee: That sounds like an extremely authentic approach to culture building. Tying back to partnerships that you mentioned earlier, it sounds like you’re very deliberate and discerning in selecting the type of partnerships that you do based off what we just discussed, being true to your brand values. Do you want to tell me a little bit about the most recent Rihanna CLF Creeper partnership and how and why it reflects your values?
Adam: Yes absolutely. Let’s start with Rihanna. I think Rihanna as an individual, or a creative brain or personality is very brave and her choices are determined and always true and authentic to her creative spirit. She was a little bit edgy, and we loved her synergy with our brand values.
Rihanna’s foundation is obviously very important to her and therefore because we are her partner, it’s very important to us. She has an iconic sneaker called the Creeper. It is something that we’ve had in our offering with her for a couple of years now. They are always very highly sought after, always very popular. So, this year we said, hey let’s make another Creeper, but let’s do it in a way that also can benefit her Clara Lionel Foundation. So, we worked together to generate a unique design that would be unique to the foundation’s activities this Fall. The proceeds from the sale of that product are benefiting the cause. And the product is connecting super well in culture. So, a true win-win that is not only reflective of her but of the Puma brand and values as well.
Billee: Is there anything that you want to leave us with to recap the past year or more importantly, to address what we might see in 2018
Adam: I think that more and more we are focused on trying to do interesting things with people who have their finger on the pulse of our audience and our customers. We want to create unique partnerships. We want to create new products. We want to generate stuff that’s going to be interesting rather than us looking inward as a brand.We want to be listening to our customers, listening to what’s going on out there in culture and responding to that by behaving in interesting ways. You’re going to see a lot more of that from us and likely other brands in 2018 and 2019 and beyond.
Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.
We are in a period of transformation we haven’t seen since the days of the Industrial Revolution. Once untouchable market incumbents have fallen. Small and agile start-ups have come out of nowhere to reimagine industries. Digital has gone from a mere channel to a necessary and vital component of reimagining business. Within this sea change, the role in the C-Suite that has perhaps been impacted most is that of the CMO.
Faced with an increasing amount of responsibility and accountability for the long-term growth of a company’s brand and performance, it has perhaps never been a more challenging time to be a marketer. With that in mind, I have launched an “Ask the CMO” feature where I speak with some of the top marketers in the world to uncover the leading issues and trends driving change in the marketplace.
For my latest piece in this series, I had the pleasure of speaking with Toni Clayton-Hine, CMO of Xerox and marketing veteran who has overseen the recent transformation of Xerox and its Set the Page Free campaign. The platform is a great example of using marketing as a major driver of brand reinvention. Its core objective is not to focus on the brand’s legacy connected with hardware and paper products, but to instead highlight the ways Xerox can serve clients who need assistance in straddling the real-life and virtual realms, while advancing innovations imperative to the future of work. The project brings together fourteen world-renowned creative talents including authors, poets and songwriters to collaborate on a book about the modern workplace.
Billee: I’m excited to have a conversation with you related to the transformation I’ve seen going on at Xerox, particularly the whole Set the Page Free idea. So, why don’t we open up with your thoughts on the changing landscape?
Toni: I’m sure you see different definitions of what makes a great CMO and what makes a great marketing function, depending on the company, where it is and where it’s going. I can speak specifically to where Xerox is today and our unique position. We’ve got this iconic brand, with such a deep history, but one of the things that we have to deal with is not the awareness of Xerox as a company, but awareness of Xerox in terms of what we stand for today. My role is to create awareness and consideration around our current portfolio, with the changing set of people that are buying, selling or influencing our technology every day, and then making sure that that brand is connected not just at that broad awareness level but also down into the field.
I think that’s one thing that’s probably common in terms of the conversations that you are having with other CMOs. The need to make sure that the components of marketing are connected and creating a more holistic view from brand awareness, to offering consideration, down to actually closing the transaction in demand generation as opposed to running those activities in silos.
Billee: I think that that’s exactly right. Generally, everyone is on the same page, but when you get inside of different organizations, there’s a lot of nuance. I know you’ve been doing a lot of great things to instigate change. Do you want to talk about anything you’ve been working on that’s emblematic of making necessary shifts and best practices for being responsive to the market?
Toni: When I took over my role in January, the way that Xerox had been run was we had this really large very diverse portfolio, and we ran a brand office that was almost separate from the performance you mentioned. I saw an opportunity to bring those things together. So that’s been a lot of the change that I am trying to drive, which is making sure that we operationalize all the handoffs and the connection points from the brand down into the field, and ensure that that drives performance.
One example is “The Set the Page Free” campaign which we believe is a unique and creative way to show how people are using and leveraging the technology in an interesting and unique way. It’s 100 percent digital, which we did that on purpose in order to use the campaign as an overarching umbrella that will ultimately drive awareness, consideration, and ultimately demand.
Every choice we’ve made in terms of bringing this campaign to life has included some sort of digital signature so that we can then leverage it downstream, albeit sometimes very far downstream, into a potential lead.
Billee: I appreciate you sharing that as it’s certainly a really great example of how to make some of the necessary shifts that are required today to connect brand directly to performance. A question that I have for you relates to how many brands are trying to identify how their brand purpose can be a mechanism driving strategy and ultimately optimizing the experience. Was that a factor in your vision when you thought about making changes?
Toni: Our purpose has always been to innovate the way the world communicates and connects and works. And, because we have that overarching promise, we can view today’s technology and tomorrow’s workplace as the lens by which we can deliver on that goal.
The one thing that helps us with this is the research centers at Xerox. Our scientists at places like PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center, understand how people work. They watch people in the workplace and how they’re interacting with technology, as opposed to starting with a problem and then asking a customer or a user what problems do you have that we can solve? They start with observation. And when you have access to that information you start to see the different ways you could solve that problem. That helps make my job easier.
Billee: Right. A lot of what I’ve been talking about that’s connected to what you just said is the big switch from rational engagement and talking about the WHAT, to emotional engagement and talking about the WHY and the WHO. I would think that what you just said would make capturing emotional engagement a bit easier since it’s informed and tuned in to a specific problem that already exists. Is that, right?
Toni: That’s absolutely right. I like how you said that. I guess I’ve always looked at it as kind of experiential, meaning moving from delivering a great product to delivering a great experience. And we’re very lucky in some respects that the B2B space follows the B2C space. So, I know the experience that’s being developed and what you’re expecting in that space from Amazon or from an Airbnb will ultimately be what’s expected in B2B. So, I use B2C as a bit of a crystal ball. When we are going to design a web journey, I know what a consumer is looking for when they go out and buy some sort of consumer based package. Good. OK. Now, what’s that going to mean in my enterprise environment?
Billee: So, in essence you know that it doesn’t matter who you’re trying to connect with, everybody today is a customer. How does your observation about the need to deliver a great experience translate in the B2E-space, with your internal customer? We know culture starts at home and that it is becoming a much more visible responsibility for marketers. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Toni: We have been working very closely with our H.R. colleagues to refine the Xerox culture, take the best elements, and update it to reflect who we are as a company today. We’re definitely spending more energy trying to create that connection to make sure our employees are advocating and articulating our brand value proposition as part of our culture work.
Billee: At the end of the day, I think that what I’m hearing is that beside the fact that there’s general consensus that employees need to be treated as customers, is this idea that because personal and professional lives intersect so much today, employees want to feel that they’re doing something with a grander purpose, as opposed to just ‘selling stuff.” This makes organizations start to think about creating a campaign approach for them as well. Is that something you might consider as you continue to evolve your brand reinvention?
Toni: One of the things we brought forward in the Set the Page Free campaign was a tie to global literacy through a relationship with the 92nd Street Y and a donation to World Reader. One of the reasons we wanted to do this is because (when you think about our employees and how they are engaging with the world), the societal and philanthropic impact becomes very important to our culture and engages our employees.
Billee: That’s something I’m seeing and hearing as well, and I think, in my humble opinion, that it has to do what’s going on in the world. We see the need for businesses to play a grander role in moral leadership, and a sense of responsibility that extends beyond the bottom line. Do you think that trend will continue?
Toni: I would say that there’s probably a little bit of a pendulum shifting back.
But I think that it will it will continue to be part of a company’s vernacular for a long time. I don’t think we’re going to go back to something where it’s only about the product and what the product does for you. People have shifted their priorities to doing business with companies that do good or at least have an awareness of their social impact. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Billee: That emotional belief is a uniting idea that everyone I speak to stands behind. Another area that I have spoken about with many of your peers, is the idea of moving storytelling from vehicle of awareness at the end of the supply chain, to a vital business competency at the beginning of the invention process. This has become an increasingly important idea in the age of experience where brand purpose needs to be pulled into all customer touch points through stories that create interactions as opposed to transactions. What are your thoughts?
Toni: It’s a pretty natural thing for us. We make sure that we’ve got purpose-driven content that goes through the entire buyer’s journey. And I talk a lot about making sure that we’ve got the content that translates emotional response into action.
We also look at how we parse content between people who are selling our products, whether they’re our employees or our channel partners versus, those who are buying our products, which in our instance is the CIO/CFO, and those who are actually using our products for their business. So, for me it’s constantly looking at a cube view, and making sure that we’ve got an asset and a story around those different personas. We need to be sure that we’ve got the right content along those lines be able to drive somebody down their road. Today, everything related to brand, needs to be connected emotionally to an experience to drive performance. It’s that simple.
Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.
There has perhaps never been a more difficult time to be a marketer. We are in a period of seismic business change, catalyzed by the digital transformation that is upon us. This is requiring leading brands to reimagine the marketing function in ways that embrace a sense of purpose, uniting brand and product, to create emotionally driven experiences that create market distinction. With this in mind, I have launched an “Ask the CMO” feature where I speak with some of the top marketers in the world to uncover the leading issues and trends driving change in the marketplace.
For my fourth piece in this series, I had the pleasure of speaking with Alain Grant Mahmoud, CMO of ClearCove and marketing veteran who has served leading brands in his 20 plus year career such as Frito-Lay, Microsoft, Chevron and Wells Fargo. We discussed his thoughts on the importance of creativity and emotional connection in the new age of business transformation, along with the need to remember that brand and product must become one in our era of experience. The following is a recap of our conversation:
Billee: It’s probably the most challenging time to be a marketer in history as marketing has become more important than ever before in driving not just brand awareness but performance. What are your thoughts?
Alain: I agree with you in that marketing has become more challenging to a certain extent. More people, more brands, more competition, more technological advancements and so on and so forth. But, I also think it’s probably the most exciting time to be a marketer.
Marketing is more nuanced and complex than ever before as we’re able to engage with people throughout day-to-day life. With mobile devices essentially being an extension of ourselves, we live in an age of marketing micro moments and being able to deliver solutions accordingly, both in the digital world and its relationship with brick and mortar. There’s always been science in marketing and branding but it’s much more sophisticated now. What’s going to be key for companies and brands in order to differentiate themselves, is to figure out ways to authentically resonate with people in a way that facilitates meaningful, emotionally engaging, long-lasting connections. With AI and other technologies, everything is better, stronger faster, but we can’t forget the human component in marketing and the power of creativity.
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Billee: The last thing that you said is very powerful. Everybody is very overwhelmed with this idea of you using the science side of marketing to really change the way it’s done and to ultimately really impact performance. I personally feel that the innovation needed on the creative side is kind of being ignored a little bit. What are your thoughts?
Alain: The creative side should not be replaced but empowered by technology.
Science and automation can only do so much. As much as the technology has evolved, it still has a tremendous way to go. And it’s nowhere near being able to replace human intuition, human emotion or emotional intelligence and creativity. When you put a bunch of people in a room together and you start riffing off one another, there’s really no substitute for that, and I don’t see that being replaced. In the case of the marketing world, it’s become very data-driven and I think that you really need to step back and see the forest through the trees to create and deliver beautiful content that is emotional, engaging and evocative.
Billee: I love that as it’s a really contrarian answer that is so insightful. I agree with you especially because you lead marketing for a B2B brand. Most people would think the inverse-that a consumer brand would rely more on creativity and a B2B brand would perhaps need to rely more on data and science. Can you talk to me about how you are applying that thinking to your work at ClearCove?
Alain: It’s a really interesting question. At the end of the day we’re marketing to people. People have emotions no matter what you’re trying to sell them.When I first started going to work in the 90s, people didn’t really know how to behave. It was like you had two personalities. You had a work persona and then an out of work persona. Today, I think the boundaries to use technology between your business and personal lives have become very blurred. We’re always connected. We’re always working and so on and so forth. So, I think the need to instill that level of awe and that level of emotional engagement into all communications is greater than ever right now. Hence I believe we’ll see greater levels of Account Based Marketing and personalization in the B2B world, which will be driven by the power of technology.
Billee: You are at a startup that’s doing something meaningful in revolutionizing water technology, but a lot of brands, whether they are purposeful in their DNA, or not, have begun to evolve their purpose beyond a brand tool, it’s a business growth strategy. Can you talk a little bit about the power of purpose and its impact on a business and its long-term growth strategy?
Alain: You know that that’s a really good question in terms of what I do. We essentially mine resources out of wastewater. We transform wastewater into valuable resources, primarily clean water and energy. I love what we do at ClearCove; it doesn’t get much more inspiring than sustainably recycling critical resources that feed, fuel and water our planet.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes today. Authenticity is paramount in an age of transparency. Stakeholder knowledge and power is at an all time high. And I think having an inspiring purpose is incredibly important in terms of building a business; not just with your external customers, but internally, too, in terms of building your brand from the inside out and creating an inspiring rallying cry across both employees and other internal stakeholders that they can engage with. Brand is no longer separated from product. They are one in the same and have to be equal parts of the overall experience.
Billee: I couldn’t agree more. Something you just said ties back to something you mentioned earlier, which was super insightful: ‘in essence, the brand and the product used to be separate and now they need to be one in the same.’ As a result, I’m seeing different adjustments taking place in the C-Suite. The CMO is now much more closely linked to the CEO. We are also seeing more Chief Brand Officers because increasingly the overall experience of the brand is connected to performance. Do you have any thoughts on all that and how it pertains to you personally?
Alain: I’m encouraged by the change that has transpired over the last 20 years. We used to talk about marketing or branding as very much a tactical downstream tool. I think that’s really changed now. In today’s world, the entire C-suite needs to be a marketer and needs to be brand savvy. From a CMO standpoint I think you really need to be a little bit of everything these days. I think you need decent business acumen because ultimately branding is a bridge between the business or the business strategy and the marketplace. As a result, you really need to understand the business side of it and how to integrate the brand throughout an organization.
CMOs absolutely need to be savvy when it comes to the digital arena. If you don’t get digital you’re a dinosaur. I think there’s a need for CMOs to have a higher level of emotional intelligence in the world that we live in, and have a keen understanding that everything is exposed in these micro moments. Marketers of today are very different than even 5 or 10 years ago. When I look at a lot of the younger marketers starting out in their careers now, I’m super impressed. I think there’s a real need for senior level marketers to up their game.
Billee: Is there anything that you’re doing that demonstrates this new type of approach at ClearCove that you think would be illustrative of your thinking?
Alain: Yes. We’re in the planning stage right now for a campaign, a kind of ‘Pepsi Challenge’, that will demonstrate ClearCove’s technology leadership in the wastewater resource recovery space. The plan is to roll out this campaign platform out across multiple verticals in the food and beverage space, which is our core focus, with a view to building understanding and buy-in for our patented technology. Our technology is very different compared to every other resource recovery or wastewater treatment technologies in that we do not use biology, which is highly volatile and energy-consuming. Every other single technology has been around for 40, 50, 60 years, which is pretty scary. To highlight our unique approach, we will be taking the thinking of the ‘Pepsi Challenge’ product comparison concept, applying it to resource recovery and then using that platform to engage our audiences emotionally and intellectually across multiple channels through programmatic, social, earned and influencer media tactics. There’s a lot of skepticism and a lot of naysayers now. The technology is proven. It’s out there, it’s working and our customers love it. But, there are still a lot of people that are sitting on the fence. We need to address this, at least from a brand and communications perspective.
Billee: You mentioned this idea of emotion and the idea that neuroscience will continue to emerge in marketing because the need to emotionally connect is so important. I’d really be interested to have you share your thoughts with our readers about that.
Alain: That’s a really good question. Granted, I’m not a neuroscientist, but in today’s world we can connect and engage with customers 24/7. In many ways, life has become a vertical scroll. Consumers are completely and utterly saturated at any given moment in the day. They are continually consuming media or buying something online etc., hence the greater need to differentiate brands and personalize communications. I think neuroscience only becomes more and more important and in that context; the science is great, but it needs to inform the creative to create emotional connections. I see the evolution of neuroscience in marketing being catalyzed by the advancement of mobile and sensor technologies. As we migrate more toward wearables and embedded microchips, engagement solutions will be rooted in peoples’ emotional and physiological states.
Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.