Collision 2019 lets CMOs from Cisco, GE and other firms demonstrate startup-style agility in marketing

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Karen Walker might have momentarily wished she’d joined one of the hundreds of startups exhibiting at and attending Collision 2019 this week when she first joined Cisco as its marketing leader.

In a keynote speech to other marketers, entrepreneurs and technology professionals at the opening day of Collision on Tuesday, the networking giant’s CMO described the company as reaching a perfect storm. This included customers who were starting to express consumer-style expectations of the buying experience they wanted, a demand for software vs. routers and other hardware, along with a marketing department that had seldom moved beyond traditional demand generation kinds of activities. Events, for example, had become like “cocaine” within the team, according to Walker. Then there were long-standing challenges almost unique to Cisco.

“Even within the B2B space, we have a very complex go-to-market strategy,” she told the Collision audience. “We had customers who can buy WebEx with a credit card. I have 17,000 sellers and 65,000 partners. How do we manage brand and customer experience with that kind of complexity? We were kind of ready for a gut job.”

Walker’s strategy began by consolidating marketing into a single team, versus the many marketing employees who were sitting within sales and engineering functions. Next came to an operating model from only two U.S.-focused campaigns in a single year to an always-on approach. Cisco’s content, meanwhile, which Walker called “bad and boring,” got redone, and the company developed its own marketing curriculum to train staff in partnership with Kellogg School of Management.

The results that work have included an ongoing campaign that uses the San Francisco bridge in Cisco’s logo as a metaphor for connecting the world from one period of change to another, recasting the brand’s story in a way, Walker said, that “nodded to our future but is based in our heritage and our past.”

Since then, Interbrand has increased its rating of Cisco’s brand value by 16 per cent over the past three years, she said, a result of those efforts, as well as a decision to take back some of its own storytelling duties.

“We had outsourced creativity to the agencies,” she said.

Cisco wasn’t the only one using Collision to demonstrate large B2B firms can achieve the agility to pivot like a startup. Other sessions featured Linda Boff, CMO of GE, who said that while GE has a long-standing reputation for innovation over its 127 years, she and her team’s role is often about reminding the world about the things that are core to its DNA.

“It’s marrying reverence and relevance,” she said. “We all know the proliferation of channels are unheralded, so we have to think about how to find the right away to get attention but not disturb people from what they want to be doing.

A good example came during the recent Met Gala, where GE partnered with fashion designer Zac Posen to include elements from its additive manufacturing division into gowns he created for Hollywood celebrities like Katie Holmes.

“It was one fo those moments that was, yes, about buzz and brand awareness,” she said. “But there are times where you’re entering a new space — and we don’t enter many new spaces — where this was new, and I like to believe that because we’re Edison’s company, sometimes it’s a matter of finding the inventive way to tell that story.”

For companies less known than GE or Cisco but which have equally specific kinds of customers, marketing needs to be particularly creative. San Francisco-based Affinity, for example, makes software that aims to go beyond traditional customer relationship management (CRM) to help those in venture capital and public equity with deal-flow and other priorities.

According to Anne Gherini, the firm’s vice-president of marketing, key metrics are not simply leads but meetings booked with its sales team. That’s why, beyond the normal tactics, Affinity has sent out direct mail to key customers and prospects that consists of a box containing a device playing a personalized video, along with branded apparel like socks to follow up on initial conversations. This helps combine “social proof” of the relationship along with details that make customers feel a brand has done its homework.

“I might sign up for a demo and then next week totally bogged down and not want not take that demo,” Gherini pointed out in an interview with B2B News Network. “If I have to spend that first half hour explaining who I am and my problems, I might just bail.”

Boff also suggested direct mail and print were on the rise as marketing channels given some of the marketing challenges large enterprises like hers as well as the startups at Collision now face.

“I’m not sure how many of you are old enough to remember, but at one point you could get all the attention you wanted with an ad on (TV shows like) Cheers or Friends,” she said. “As we interrogate attention and engagement, it takes us back to more traditional forms.”

“It pissed me off that here we were as the market leader, and we weren’t leading the charge (of innovation),” Walker told the audience. “We weren’t really owning the major category that (represented) the vast majority of our business.”

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Shane Schick

Shane Schick

Shane Schick is the Editor-in-Chief of B2B News Network. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.