What’s the role of a marketer in an organization? How have social media and technology altered the evolution of that role? And how do you get your customers (and would-be customers) to engage with your brand and the products you sell?
Those were some of the questions posed to a panel of marketers representing companies of all stripes—from the long-established (Kodak) to the upstart (Threadless), and a few in between (Virgin America, Benchmark Brands). The conversation took place at a marketing conference in Indianapolis. What follows is a synopsis of their take on marketing and business today.
1. What’s the role of marketing in an organization?
A marketer’s job in any organization, of any size, is to create awareness, set the tone for your brand both internally and externally, and drive bottom-line results—in creative ways, of course. But it’s also increasingly imperative for a marketer to find new and engaging ways to “tell your brand’s story, to find new ways of pushing the envelope to increase awareness,” says Cam Balzer, vice-president of marketing for Threadless a community-driven T-shirt and apparel company.
More generally, a marketer should “create tension,” believes Jeffrey Hayzlett, author of The Mirror Test: Is Your Business Really Breathing? (Business Plus, 2010), who left his job as Kodak’s chief marketing officer in May. Marketing should “move everyone from the center of the table to the edge. Make everyone feel uncomfortable.” In other words, it should challenge the organization to see its brand in fresh and different ways.
2. How has marketing’s job changed in the past few years?
In a world where one noisy customer can ignite a firestorm of negative publicity (Kevin Smith, anyone? Motrin Moms?), marketing needs to be more nimble than ever. Your organization needs to be prepared to mobilize instantly, says Porter Gale, vice-president of marketing at Virgin America. It’s Marketing’s job to be on the frontlines, listening, and routing conversations and responses accordingly, adds Hayzlett.
Businesses are increasingly content-producers and storytellers, which means that they are beginning to look an awful lot like media companies. They are publishing blogs, webinars, user-generated content, customer reviews and more to both engage and educate their audiences, says Trish Tobin, chief marketing officer of Benchmark Brands, which sells over 2,500 styles of comfort, wellness and therapeutic footwear through its Footsmart brand. “Who would have thought two years ago that an ecommerce company [like ours] would be thinking about media content?” Tobin says.
Along with the new emphasis on content comes the notion that, increasingly, everyone within an organization is ultimately part of Marketing. Today, everyone is an ambassador for your company, says Balzer.
3. What does storytelling have to do with business?
The idea of storytelling as it applies to business isn’t about spinning a yarn or fairytale. Rather, it’s about how your business (or its products or services) exist in the real world: how people use your products—how they add value to people’s lives, ease their troubles, help shoulder their burdens, and meet their needs. So think in those terms when producing customer stories, case studies or client narratives—so that people can relate to them. Your content is not about “storytelling,” it’s about telling a true story well.
The job of marketers is to generate new ideas and pull compelling stories out of their organizations by figuring out what their audience is genuinely interested in seeing and reading or knowing about. Think about what you do, how to tell that story, and how to engage your customers through the stories you tell, says Hayzlett.
That’s critical especially for business-to-business companies, which often sell intangible products or services that aren’t intrinsically interesting, but the way people use them are interesting. At Virgin America, for example, the hallmarks of what the brand is known for—leather seats, mood lighting on its aircraft—expresses the story, in part, of how the airline goes beyond the ordinary, adds Gale.
In other words, find the stories of how your product lives in the world. And look to your customers for inspiration. “Have their story be your story,” says Balzer. Benchmark Brands incorporates customer stories of how its products help people into its marketing. If a shoe is meant to help someone with heel pain, we don’t just state that fact, but we tell the story of someone for whom it made a difference, says Trish Tobin.
Likewise, at Threadless, an artist receives $2,500 if his or her shirt is printed and sold in the Threadless store, and his or her inspiration for that design is woven into the site, and, more broadly, into the company’s brand. Tell the story of how your products came to be, or how your customers use them. Even if you’re making something less naturally prone to story than customer-designed T-shirts or therapeutic shoes, “your product can still be content,” Balzer says.
4. How can an organization fuel conversations about its brand?
Social platforms offer brands an enormous opportunity to engage directly with their customers, rather that waiting for the media to tell customers about the brand. So what gets people talking about your brand is when you engage directly with your customers, or would-be customers—in others words, when your brand chimes in and joins the conversation.
“Put your people in front of people,” says Balzer. Threadless employees regularly talk to their fans via Ustream as part of a regular video podcast. The goal of Threadless Tee-V, he says, is to give an insider’s view of both the company and the people who work there.
Paraphrasing Jeffrey Hayzlett: How do you fuel the conversation? You just start talking.
Critical, of course, is how you speak: which includes banning corporate buzzwords and Frankenspeak: convoluted text that doesn’t sound like it would be uttered by a human. It’s important, too, to communicate with your customers sincerely, with humility and real empathy.
You are a real person, right? So it’s important to sound like one. Tobin recounted one of her favorite comments on Footsmart’s Facebook page, “It read, ‘This sounds like a real person.’” It helps to understand the new tools of social media from the inside out, by experimenting and understanding them yourself, says Tobin. “Walk the talk,” she says.
5. What attributes should companies seek out in marketers it hires?
Companies should look to hire creative, passionate people who can also get things accomplished.
First and foremost, Hayzlett looks for problem solvers. A business can move only as fast as its slowest common denominator, he says, so it’s important to cut the drag on the organization. Fire the nonperformers and the slow movers, he adds: Tell them, “I love you—but I’m going to miss you.” In a competitive, fast-moving world, your employees need to “get fast, or get out.”
Threadless likes to hire and empower creative people who have a passion for Threadless products and those who are already talking on Twitter or who have blogs or produce videos. “Empower them to be marketers,” Balzer says. Threadless hires a lot of artists and musicians as temporary warehouse workers, who as a whole are an “engine” that help drive overall fresh thinking and creativity at Threadless, he says.
6. What are the secrets to building successful teams?
Encouraging teamwork and ensuring that every employee has a voice in how things are run go a long way toward creating a winning team at any organization.
Virgin is big believer in creating an energized, positive corporate culture, Gale says. Make fun a part of your organization, and promote team activities to bond your best people to each other and “keep teamwork alive,” she adds.
Threadless hosts what it calls “DIY days,” which is a time set aside for all employees to bring their own ideas for moving the company forward, even if they don’t relate to their current responsibilities or position.
“The guy who breaks down boxes in our warehouse gets to raise idea for something doing on website,” Balzer said. Such deliberate effort removes barriers, engages employees further with the company, and often launches innovative ideas. “It’s inspiring to see it happen,” he says.
What do you think? What else might you add about how marketing is morphing?
Photo: L-R ExactTarget CMO Tim Kopp, Trish Tobin, Jeffrey Hayzlett, Porter Gale, Cam Balzer
Photo credit: Charles Nicholls