Helping Your Customers is Always a Good Strategy

Waiting in the lounge area for my flight back to New York City on American last week, I overheard a fellow passenger grumble that “I have a zillion upgrade credits but can never use them.”  Having not been upgraded either despite my lifetime Platinum status and early check-in, I thought for a moment about my loyalty to American — why did I keep choosing them? The answer, it turns out, is a melange of actions both on the product and marketing sides:

  • New planes: on its transcontinental flights, AA flies new planes with power at every seat so I can work the whole way if I want;
  • Online booking: speedy process and my Platinum status insures that I get preferential seats without paying extra;
  • App: makes it really easy to check-in and get my electronic boarding pass;
  • Upgrades: every once in a while it really does happen!

None of this had to do with their marketing messages although I will say that @AmericanAir is always responsive to my tweets.  My point here is simple — brands are built on genuine actions (not vacuous promises) that are of meaningful benefit to existing customers.  A prime example of this comes from Suzanne Copeland, CMO of Sterling National Bank, who shares her insights in our interview below (by the way this is just part 1 of our conversation!).  And assuming you enjoy what you read below, feel free to join us at the Incite Group Marketing Summit (October 27-28) where both of us will be speaking.

Drew: Can you provide a quick recap of your career path?

Suzanne: It’s interesting. I didn’t necessarily set out to be in banking per se. Some people start out their careers in financial services and I really didn’t. It’s just a place that I ended up. I actually started my career on the advertising agency side. I got out of college and I was an art director. And I think that’s a good background to have, but it definitely was not my strongest skill set. And so, I moved quickly to the dark side! Later I had an opportunity, my first sort of bigger corporate leadership job, at a medical device manufacturer. Then a bank opportunity in my home town of Memphis opened up and that’s really where I got into banking. I spent quite a bit of time there. And then I was really ready for some new challenges and this opportunity presented itself to come to Sterling in suburban New York and build the marketing discipline.

Drew: Very interesting. I’m curious how being an art director and having worked on the agency side informed your approach to dealing with agency partners.

Suzanne: So this is what they tell me, and I think they are telling me the truth, that actually I’m easier to work with. I may be more demanding, but I also understand how things work on that side of the fence. And so when I give feedback, I understand what it is they need from me to move forward. I’m not the person that says, yeah yeah, what else do you have? I am very demanding, but I think the respect is there simply because I also know where they’re coming from and I help them get there.

Drew: Do you think about your personal brand at all and if so, how would you describe your brand?

Suzanne: I do think having a personal brand is really important. I think that it’s like anything else. You’re interacting with people and how you’re coming across and what you’re like, it definitely influences the outcome of that relationship. So, I do think about that. I’d like to think that my brand is smart, creative and fun. I’d like to think that people think I know what I’m doing, that I have unique perspectives and have unique problem-solving skills, but then I’m still fun to be around!

Drew: I can see that. I’ll credit that to your agency training! Speaking of creativity, you’re now in an industry that isn’t exactly famous for innovative marketing. Do you see banking as a unique marketing challenge?

Suzanne: It does come with some unique challenges. I think it also has some great opportunities associated with it as well. Way back, banks were some of the first companies that actually had in their possession that big data that everyone talks about; it was necessary to do the job, to do the business of banking. And they were among the first to leverage that information for marketing, particularly direct channels. So I’ve had a lot of great direct marketing experience by working for a bank.

Drew: Interesting. So what are some of the other challenges?

Suzanne: I think the biggest challenges are that it is very much a commodity marketplace and it is difficult to differentiate your brand. I think it’s hard to say you’re really doing something that different. I mean being an intermediary for funds, well, there are plenty of companies that do that. Everybody tells you that their customer relationship is better. It’s kind of hard to really tease that out to some specifics that explain exactly how you’re better. And then I think the competitive marketplace is also extremely strong in banking. There are lot of non-bank competitors and they’re making great strides with regard to innovation, which is something that the clients are looking for. So, that’s a challenge too.

Drew: Let’s talk about Sterling and how you have differentiated the bank. 

Suzanne: Well, our business model is probably the stronger driver of what the differentiation is. We’re set up with dedicated commercial teams. Our key target is the commercial middle market client. This is a business that’s pretty big, that’s established, but they’re not large global corporations. Having that one stop shopping, dedicated person that you can go to work with on your finances is important. You have to have a big enough organization that can meet your credit needs that has a sophistication on the deposit side and cash management, but at the same time, you don’t want to be at a huge organization that you’re going to have to find those services on your own throughout their different silos.

Drew: Got it. So how do you communicate that?

Suzanne: One of the things that we did early on is to initiate a content marketing strategy and I think that is a really effective way to engage with this audience. We have been publishing Connect Magazine for over seven years now, and a key feature is that we do client profiles. We have a cover story with a client talking about their business. So, it’s a great value to them. And with that, they do sprinkle in where Sterling has helped them with their business, where we have helped them establish the credit necessary to move into new markets or expand their manufacturing or just manage their cash flows better so they’re more profitable.

Drew: To me, that’s a renegade move. You’re “zigging” to print when everyone else is “zagging” to digital particularly in content marketing.

Suzanne: Well, I think digital is certainly a piece of it and we are taking all the content from the publication and putting it on our new website and making it searchable. This means we have a huge database of information for businesses on how to run their business better. So, we definitely haven’t forgotten about digital, but I still think because everyone else is so focused on it, I think the “zigging” instead of “zagging” is to your benefit to help you stand out. I still get feedback that now what people get in their mail, instead of being overwhelmed and throwing it away, that it’s sort of a novelty especially if it is a quality piece. “Connect” is a beautifully produced magazine. This is a small magazine, but it’s something that you would stop and take a few minutes to look at.

Drew: I bet your customers love seeing their stories in print as opposed to on digital and being able to leave it on the desk and — the waiting desk when people come to see them, look this makes them more impressive and more prestigious.

Suzanne: That’s absolutely correct plus we go the extra mile and we provide a framed article for those clients and they display those in their main conference rooms. Those are not hidden away in the copier room.

Drew: It is interesting to me that so much of the marketing world focuses on straight acquisition — this seems more of an acquisition through retention approach. “Connect” seems very much about making your customers look good, focusing on them with the hope that maybe some new customers will come along–is that a fair characterization of your approach?

Suzanne: I think it is fair, although I would say that the commercial middle market target, like a lot of the B2B type targets, have a longer sales cycle. You’re not just going to send out a piece of mail no matter what it is and then they instantly choose a new bank. There is some relationship building with regard to the prospects and quite frankly most of “Connect” is mailed to prospects and that helps build our brand. But at the same time, it is going to our clients and you’re absolutely right, it is also creating brand ambassadors that will praise our services. So, I think that it works on all those points.

Drew: Are there any brands out there in your category or beyond your category that you admire?

Suzanne: Well, it’s interesting. One of the things is just a personal passion of mine, and in more recent times, is about women in the workforce and really helping to bring women up in their level of position within organizations. I feel that I’ve been fortunate and I’ve taken some steps to give back. I launched the women’s initiative here at Sterling. It’s been a great program, very rewarding. This has caused me to go out and look at activity out in the marketplace and one of the organizations that bubbled up with regard to being a good brand was Catalyst. They’re pretty targeted to working with organizations to help improve their inclusion strategies with regard to females. I’ve been impressed with the communication programs they do, the kind of the content that they’re driving. I found it’s very much in alignment with their message and their mission. And I think they’re doing a good job with it.

Drew: Interesting. Tell me a little bit more about the women’s initiative that you’ve done at the bank.

Suzanne: This is personal passion of mine. I brought this whole concept to the organization and they basically let me run with it. There are a number of ways that you can improve the workplace for women, but I focus on personal and professional development. The program includes networking and topics that help women be stronger within the organization. Each quarter, there’s a different topic. I launch the topic with an overview the first month. The next month, I’ll do a panel discussion with senior women on the topic. And then the third month, I have an in-person mini-conference. It’s two hours long. We have an outside speaker and then do small group workshops.

Drew: Amazing. What topics do you cover?

Suzanne: Back in the first quarter we did executive presence including personal branding. We offer very specific tips, things to do in meetings, things to do when you’re presenting, things that you need to improve your skills in. The second quarter we did moving your career up to the next level. What kinds of things do you have to do to move up? What steps can you take? And then the one we just finished was leadership lessons from extreme environments. This was leadership lessons that come out of climbing Mount Everest and crossing the North and South Poles. Interesting, the analogies there between what it takes to do that and the leadership skills that you need in an organization. So, it’s been fun.

Want to Understand Influencer Marketing? Become an Influencer Yourself

Every once in a while you meet someone who seems to be so much more productive than you are that you just have to stop and tip your hat. The recipient of my admiration most recently is Martin Jones of Cox Communications and as you will see in our interview below, Martin is a man who wears many hats from his day job as the leader of social/content/influencer/employee advocacy at Cox Business and the editor of to being a member of IBM’s Futurist influencer program, a program through which the two of us first met a couple of years back.

What brought us together again is the upcoming Digital Media World Forum (#DMWF) on October 18-19 during which Martin, Pat Zvick (, Sean Gardner (influencer nonpareil) and I will be running a workshop on Influencer Marketing.  The conversation below will give you a sneak peak at just some of the insights we plan to lay before the audience at DMWF.  It’s going to be an amazing event so I hope you can join us.

SME: You wear a lot of hats as a marketer for Cox, Sr. Marketing Manager, writer, editor, speaker and influencer yourself. Do you ever sleep? Seriously, how do you juggle all of this?

I do sleep once in a while, but looking at the clock, I can see that it’s already 1:00 am on a Sunday night, and I’m reminded that I have a plane to catch to Roanoke in 3 hours.
Currently, I lead the social media, content marketing, and employee/ambassador brand advocacy strategy for Cox Business. I am also the editor/manager of the Cox Business content hub/portal,
It’s a position that requires wearing a number of different hats at any given time. Marketer, publisher, coder, writer, editor, community manager, etc. Although it’s a Senior Management position, I’m still very much “in the trenches” on a daily basis.
Some days it can seem like a lot, but I’m now in my 20th year with Cox, and I’m still excited to get up and go to work each day. I work for a great company; I’m on an amazing team, and I can honestly say I love what I do.
As for how I juggle the different roles and responsibilities…
● Start each day with a great attitude (coffee usually works well, too!)
● Clarify and list priorities at the start of each day
● Stay organized and use a great task manager app (Yanado is my favorite)
● Automate the things that can be automated
● Learn when and how to say no (or maybe)
● Identify and use platforms and apps that streamline many of the day-to-day and recurring processes
● Delegate and trust others
● Be proud of what is accomplished at the end of each day

SME: Can you talk about a specific influencer program you’ve orchestrated? What were the goals of the program? How did it work out? How do you evaluate success?
The influencer/ambassador program our team has created for Cox Business is one I consider to be a best-in-class program. Instead of simply selecting a vendor and going from there, we determined what our needs would be from the immediate to the next few years out, and we built the program around that.
We’ve spent close to a year building, testing, and receiving and incorporating feedback to ensure we built something that met the needs of the organization, our employee advocates, and our influencers/ambassadors.
The primary needs/goals of the program included:
● Creating an end-to-end influencer/advocacy platform that integrated and incentivized frictionless content sharing and message amplification along with real-life – offline social activities and events.
● Ensuring that the program aligned with and supported our overall business objectives, but would also be flexible enough to easily adapt to small, localized micro-influencer initiatives in each market.
● Allowing influencers, employees, and consumers to participate whenever and at whatever level they felt most comfortable.
● Ensure that the program would be a two-way street in value for both the organization and our influencers. We wanted to create a program that benefited our influencers in terms of extending their professional networks, increasing thought leadership in their industry or community, and opening the door to new opportunities.
We recently completed beta testing in a couple of our markets, and the full program is rolling out now.

SME: Sticking with this particular program, how did you identify your influencers, and what have been some of the keys to bringing them on board?
That’s kind of like asking The Colonel for his 11 secret herbs and spices! We use a variety of methods and tools to identify influencers including social listening, blogger outreach, hashtag research, and more. We also have a direct link to the Cox Social Ambassador program on our site, where anyone who is interested can apply to the program.
Different groups of influencers had to be identified for each local market, as well as for a number of verticals—start-ups, small business, digital health, higher education technology, hospitality, enterprise technology, and more.
Because of the diversity of the programs and the various influencer/ambassador initiatives we will undertake in 2017 and beyond, identifying and on-boarding a wide range of influencers will be our ongoing focus.
To successfully onboard these influencers, we’re constantly working to ensure that the partnership is a good professional and cultural fit for both sides. To retain these influencers, we need to build relationships with them in order to understand their needs, making sure that they are receiving benefit from the partnership as well, beyond any type of recognition or incentives.
From the start, our influencers are given a documented agreement that provides clearly defined goals and measurements of success for each initiative and the overall ambassador program. We’re also very careful about providing our influencers with the tools and assets needed to make their role as achievable as possible.

SME: Can you identify three essential “do’s” when it comes to developing successful influencer programs?
In addition to what I’ve mentioned above, here are a few other steps we’ve found to be helpful:
1. Do support your influencer by promoting and amplifying their content and personal brand. As a brand or business owner, it’s important that you’re aware of what your influencers/advocates are up to and that you’re also supporting them, when and where it makes sense. Additionally, take time regularly to share and mention the content they’ve created for you on your social channels to support their efforts and increase exposure. Content, frequency and creativity, all increase when an influencer or advocate is being supported by brand he or she is working with.

2. Do select the right influencers for your brand and initiatives. Choosing influencers that have the right audience and personality for your brand is critical to success.

3. Do take a look at your prospective influencers’ social media channels to ensure not only that they are the right fit for your organization and have the followers you’re looking for, but also that they have an engaged, attentive audience. A high number of followers isn’t useful if those followers are not listening to and interacting with the influencer.

SME: Can you offer a couple of “don’ts” or influencer program faux pas?
1. Don’t assume that every person who has a large following or is a recognized name in social media will necessarily be a great influencer for your business, event, or campaign. A good influencer is not measured by the size of their following, but rather but by their ability to get their audience to take action.

2. Don’t underestimate the power of micro-influencers. For example, let’s look at the IT industry. A CIO may only have 300-500 followers, but if many of those followers are also CIO’s and other tech leaders, that person could potentially become one of your most powerful influencers. This applies to any industry, community, or niche.

3. Don’t overwhelm your influencers. This should go without saying, but it’s one of those things I’ve run into a couple of times and heard other influencers complain about. Don’t micro-manage influencers or try to get them influence “your” way. They know their audience better than you do, so let them influence by whatever methods are natural and authentic for them and their audience.

SME: You are among the IBM Futurists which is essentially an influencer program. How do you make sure you are helpful to IBM without seeming like a shill? Or asked differently, what kinds of things does IBM do that makes it easier for you to maintain the integrity of your personal brand?

I was honored to be named an IBM futurist. It’s an exciting program, and the opportunities I’ve had to network, learn, and participate in through that program have been incredible. Many of the things incorporated into our employee advocacy and influencer program are a result of what I have learned from the IBM team and their experience.
If I had to pick the one thing that makes it easy to participate, it would be that the activities that I’m invited to engage in are a natural extension of the work I that I am already doing.
I’ve attended a couple of IBM events as a futurist over the past few years, and each one has been an incredible experience. It has provided me with amazing learning opportunities in fields like business technology, start-ups, marketing, and digital trends—all the things that our audience at Cox Business and (our content hub) has a strong interest in.
I’ve come away from each event with an incredible number of ideas, strategies, and tactics. They make it a win-win, so it’s a very natural fit. The role of an influencer does not feel forced, there are no requirements, and I am not being paid to attend the events or share content. Instead, I simply do the same things I’m already doing every day: learning, writing, sharing, networking with our audience, and striving to bring to them the latest news, trends, and information that will help them grow their businesses.
IBM does an incredible job of connecting the futurists to conference speakers, experts, and others at these events, making it a truly a one of a kind experience for a business-tech-content guy like myself.

SME: How helpful do you think it is to be an influencer yourself when orchestrating influencer programs for your company?
In my opinion, it’s critical to the success of the program. As an influencer (although it feels odd to call myself that) I think it’s probably a bit easier for me to connect with other influencers and bring them on board than someone without a strong social footprint or experience.
There’s a comfort level of trust that influencers want from a brand. Having a personal connection—and knowing that person “gets” your needs and challenges—goes a long way in achieving that.
There are some things I’ve experienced as an influencer that have shaped how I have built and administered our program. Looking at things through the eyes of both the brand and of the influencer has helped us create a strong, well-balanced program that serves both sides well.

SME: Do you think more companies will try to do influencer programs in 2017? Should they? Since these programs often take a couple of years to gain momentum, what should their expectations be?
Yes. I believe more companies can and should jump on the influencer marketing bandwagon in 2017, simply because of the trends we’re seeing in organic reach.
While organic reach across most social networks continues to decline for brands, it has not declined for individuals. In 2017 and beyond it will become increasing important for brands to leverage both influencers and employee advocates if they hope to organically reach an audience.
Additionally, an influencer’s reach is going to be much different than that of a brand. The influencer will attract new consumers that the brand may not have reached through any other method. Better still, they’re coming via a referral from someone the consumer already trusts.
Like most successful marketing programs, building a strong influencer program does take time. An influencer’s primary objective is not to sell products, but to build or shape the perception of your brand in the mind of their audience. So while they will help drive traffic to your site or app, you can’t expect an immediate jump in sales. Think of your influencer program as an introduction to a new audience. It’s up to the brand to build the relationship from there, and that’s a process that takes time and nurturing.

Behind the Scenes with Hamilton & BNY Mellon

As a marketer, it’s not often that you meet upon perfectly aligned opportunities. The ones in which you can directly connect your brand story to something that is trending in the world, something that is relevant and of interest to your audience. The first step is identifying this moment; the second, and trickier of the two, is knowing how to use this to propel your brand. Only the most skilled of marketers are able to accomplish this feat, and one such person is Aniko Delaney, Global Head of Corporate Marketing at BNY Mellon. I spoke with Aniko to hear how she and her team successfully jumped on the opportunity of a lifetime when the bank’s founder, Alexander Hamilton, was thrust back into the limelight with the release of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical.  I also learned how Aniko and the BNY Mellon marketing team use new technology, social media, and their agency partner to keep their 232-year-old company current. (By the way, if you’d like to hear Aniko cover this program in more detail, join us at the Incite Group Marketing Summit October 27-28 at the Brooklyn Marriott.)

Drew: When did you become the Head of Corporate Marketing?

Aniko: Two years ago. It was a wonderful opportunity because I have a broad view of BNY Mellon, having been the head of marketing for six of our different businesses. It really gave me the chance to dig deeper into the businesses and get to know our clients and target markets. And again, now in this corporate role, it affords me a very unique perspective. So it’s been fun to have that.

Drew: Tell me about the campaign that has been nicknamed the “Hamilton” campaign.

Aniko: We affectionately call it the Hamilton campaign, but we officially call it our ‘Invested In Our Legacy’ campaign. As long as I’ve been at the company, we’ve always celebrated our founder Alexander Hamilton and his pioneering and innovative spirit. What’s been amazing is to see how Ron Chernow’s impressive book, Hamilton, inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s phenomenal Broadway show that has now led to a celebration of one of the lesser known founding fathers of our nation and the founder of The Bank of New York. 

Drew: From a strategy standpoint, was it opportunistic that this show came along? Were you able to hop on this crescendo of interest or were there other aspects that helped to expand the perceptions of the bank?

Aniko: We continue to build upon our strong brand, as a respected and trusted organization. But what we’ve been trying to do over the past several years is modernize our brandaSo it’s been a great chance to leverage the Hamilton phenomenon and evolve our message in a much more relatable way that is also digital and social media friendly. It has been this amazing opportunity to really use fun creative, create ‘snackable’ content and develop a multimedia campaign. 

Drew: How do you make something that is old – 232 years old – fresh and current?

Aniko: We have had some great times working with our wonderfully creative agencies to really bring our story to life. What we’ve done is celebrate our 232 years of innovative and pioneering spirit with a multimedia campaign.. So for instance, in our archives we have beautiful handwritten ledgers with client names in it like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Some of the client’s names are memorialised on street signs across Manhattan. However, today, the discussion that we have in some of our innovation centers is around Blockchain, which is a distributed ledger. It’s all about the new technology and exploring its potential for our industry.

Drew: How did you use digital and social to be more engaging and fun, which is very unusual for a bank?

Aniko: In imagining what our social campaign could be, we’re trying to have a lot of great educational content and activate it in creative ways. For example, in 1789, we were the first to make a loan to the U.S. government. Today, we service and offer investment management capabilities to 80 percent of the Fortune 500 companies. We can take these short messages and package them for use in the social media arena. We kicked off our campaign back on June 9th when we celebrated our 232nd anniversary with unique LinkedIn and Facebook posts We rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and tweeted the video and shared that we were the first stock to be traded on the exchange.That was followed just a week later with animated gifs during the Tony Awards, then more on Father’s Day to celebrate our founding father. We were able to enter conversations that we normally wouldn’t have before

Drew: How exciting was it when Hamilton practically swept the Tony’s? That must have been a wonderful moment.

Aniko: Our whole team has been just amazed with this great opportunity to celebrate Hamilton – the man, the book, the show. We had a lot of fun working with our agencies to come up with some very creative social media content. My favorite was: “Lin-Manuel gets a Tony for Best Book! Much-deserved, tho at a mere 20,000 words, I call it a pamphlet. A.Hamilton” Hamilton was such a prolific writer, so can you imagine him trying to tweet?

Drew: Your CEO might look at Twitter and say, “My Fortune 1000 customers are not exactly looking at our Twitter stream. Why is it important as 232-year-old bank for you to be on these social channels?”

Aniko: I think social media is incredibly important for raising our brand visibility in the digital arena. Gerald Hassell, our chairman and CEO, is an Influencer on LinkedIn, so he really has set the bar very high for our company. It’s very important to reach out to our diverse constituents in channels that they use.

Drew: Can you tell me a bit about some of the other campaign components?

Aniko: One of the things we’re really excited about is our sponsorship of PBS/WNET’s documentary – ‘Hamilton’s America.’ It explores the making of the Broadway show and includes footage of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show, as well as a variety of interviews. It really brings to life not only the story of the show, but also the story of Alexander Hamilton.. We have two TV spots that bookend the documentary and use fantastic creative to tell our story in just 15 seconds each, as well as a series of videos for our website and social media channels.

Drew: How do you measure the impact of an integrated campaign such as this one?

Aniko: We have our standard KPIs, and are zoning in on the analytics and really use the insights to adjust the campaign after seeing what content is resonating. And we’ve seen double and triple digit increases in engagement and awareness on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook!.

Drew: Can you give us a preview of the kinds of things we might expect to see in 2017?

Aniko: The marketing teams have really rallied behind this concept. What we’re trying to do is think of new ways to activate it in the digital arena. We’re even exploring augmented reality. We set the year-long campaign so that we have a really good yardstick to measure against. But again, this is a theme we’ve been using as long as I’ve been with the company. Now, we’re just able to tell the story in a much more engaging way.

Drew: If you were speaking to CMOs or aspiring CMOs, what would you say were some of the key lessons learned in terms of managing a campaign like this?

Aniko: I think it’s important to have a unique and authentic story that represents your brand. More and more, especially with social media channels, we have to be really careful to make sure the content is educational and meaningful, but then have some fun with the creative. The other thing is to think outside the box, think about unexpected conversations to join and make your brand relevant in unexpected and delightful ways.

Drew: We do a lot of content marketing programs here at Renegade and our emphasis is always on quality versus quantity because there is so much content out there. Certainly, Hamilton created a unique opportunity for you, but I applaud you for taking it a few steps further with help from TBWA Chiat/Day. 

Aniko: I have to give credit to our agencies. We gave them creative license by saying, “Look, we have this great opportunity, let’s share our brand in unique and special ways.” It’s been just an incredible chance to make a difference for the brand and really bring it to life in ways that we would not have only acouple of years ago.

Drew: What was the biggest surprise you encountered in carrying out this campaign?

Aniko: I have to say the biggest surprises were the engagement rates, both internally and externally. The content resonated and I think it’s more than just how cool Hamilton has become, but it’s the person he was. He was truly insightful and innovative, but he also got things done. He was an implementer. I think he’s been so inspiring to many and having that special connection has inspired our employees, clients, and other constituents to be really proud of the company that Hamilton founded

Drew: Oftentimes marketing is just thought of as an external activity, but it does really need to permeate the organization. How do you make sure your marketing is external as well as internal?

Aniko: We work with our internal communications team, and we’re able to really bring the story to life internally. The key goal is to inspire pride among our 50,000 employees. Each one of us should be an avid brand ambassador and share how we are continuing to drive the pioneering spirit of our founder, Alexander Hamilton.

Marketing Clean Water, A Career Journey

My son asked me the other day, “Which superpower would you prefer Dad, teleporting or flying?”  I knew my answer right away but I was surprised when he told me most of his friends choose the other option.  As it turns out, these folks just want to get to where they want to go which makes the idea of teleporting extremely appealing. But for me, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey and I can think of nothing cooler than the ability to fly (without a plane) a la Superman. It’s no wonder that I risk life and limb daily riding a Citibike all over Manhattan rather than taking the seemingly safer and slower subway.

Today you, my loyal readers, have just such a choice. You can spend a little time meeting Snehal Desai and getting to know his career path from college to becoming the Global Business Director for Dow Water and Process Solutions.  Or you can teleport directly to Part 2 of this interview in which we cover how Dow Water approaches consultative selling, stays relevant with an ever growing user base and is working to help solve water issues around the globe. As the old knight suggests, “choose wisely.”


Drew: Can you tell me about your career at Dow and how you got to where you are today?

Snehal: I work for Dow Water & Process Solutions, a division of Dow Chemical. I’m currently the Global Business Director. My background has always been sales and marketing, although I’m trained as a chemical engineer and chemist.

Drew: I imagine the combination of a chemical background and a degree in business was very appealing to Dow. Are there other members of the Dow team with similar backgrounds?

Snehal: Increasingly. When I joined the company, I was an engineer, and then I went straight into selling. It wasn’t until a few years later that I actually went back and got my MBA at Northwestern. It was a bit of a reinvestment in myself, after I realized that I was going to stay on the business side. Today, more than ever, there is a convergence of business and technology so having an MBA ends up being pretty important. We hire a lot of people on the selling and marketing side who are either business or technical-minded; in some cases, they have both.

Drew: How was it working towards your MBA while working full-time at Dow?

Snehal: While I was selling, I was living in Chicago and that gave me an opportunity to attend Northwestern. I then moved from a selling role into a marketing role right after I graduated. I spent about 16 years in Dow between selling, marketing, new business development, and working with a host of other science and technology platforms. I should also note that Dow gets into almost every industry. We support packaging, agriculture, and cosmetics. There are a lot of things that our technologies fall into, but my background has primarily been in the water space.

Drew: And you have been with Dow Water ever since?

Snehal: No. Right around my 16th year, I decided to try something different so I left Dow and went to work in two start-up technology companies. After seven years, I realized you need a lot of money and patience if you want to get involved in clean tech and sustainability. After coming to that realization, I actually returned to Dow as the Marketing Director for the water business, which is where I first started in the company back in 1987. I took on the general manager/business director role for Dow Water Process Solutions.

Drew: What does being Global Business Director for Dow Water and Process Solutions entail?

Snehal: I have the P&L responsibility for our global business. We are very focused on advanced separation and purification technologies that are utilized to clean water, and a host of other process streams. We have a global operation, roughly a billion dollars in revenue, 1,700 employees, 10 manufacturing sites, and several research centers. With all of that you have to operate profitably, reinvesting in people and in resources.


Drew: Can you talk a little bit about what consultative selling means?

Snehal: In consultative selling, you’re focused on customer problems and how you might be able to help them find solutions. In the water industry, it’s around having reliable operations. If you’re a water chemist, a power plant or microchip plant manager, and you’re putting out the next iPhone, the last thing you can afford is having your water system go down while you’re in the middle of production. What that really comes down to is being able to help that operator make his system the most reliable.

Drew: So the customer is the focus here. How do you develop a relationship with the Dow customer?

Snehal: For instance, when you have a conversation with a customer, you might catch them in year 1 of their product’s 7-year life, or you might catch them earlier. The bottom line is that you want to keep a relationship with them over the lifetime of that product so that they can get optimal use out of the technology.

Drew: Can consumers expect a call towards the end of the product lifespan?

Snehal: You just touched on one of our main business issues right now. In the early days, we could call many of our customers, and have a very intimate conversation about when it is time for them to change their products. However, we’ve gone from hundreds of customers to tens of thousands of installations. Now, we’re talking about how to integrate digital in a way that allows us to maintain some of that intimacy.

Drew: I’m sure that Dow being a global company makes the challenge even harder.

Snehal: Definitely. The business challenge right now is scaling this intimate consultative model in a manner that allows us to get not only to the thousands of installations. It’s also dealing with the brand becoming more global today than it was 20 years ago. I used to be able to do all my business in English, but now I can’t. Can I do all my business in my time zone? No. Oftentimes, what we’re finding is that many of our clients are doing what all of us do, which is going to the web first.

Drew: How are you dealing with this move to digital? Do you have customer service team active online?

Snehal: Our customers really try to help themselves before they really want to talk to anybody. So now, we have to make those tools and some of that decision-making information available to them online. Additionally, we have very smart people contact them and walk them through their issue.

Drew: How do you make sure that when you are consulting that you are acting as a truth broker and not solely promoting your brand?

Snehal: To be honest with you, sometimes I would prefer if our folks were the kind of people who understand how they could solve the whole problem without technologies. But oftentimes, we have people that are very close to the problem that they’re trying to solve. For instance, you could use ultrafiltration followed by reverse osmosis to purify unclean water. But the fact of the matter is that if the water isn’t that bad in the front end, you might not need ultrafiltration. In that case, we’re not going to recommend that process. Instead, we’re going to tell you, “Here is the trade off. Here is what you get if you did it but that’s going to cost you.” A lot of times there is no reason to advocate for anything other than one piece of the puzzle because it’s the only one that is needed.

Drew: What role does brand play in the selection of these replacements parts for Dow Water?

Snehal: It plays a big role because, as I said at the beginning, we pride ourselves on reliability and trust. I think that’s fundamentally what people in our business are seeking; they want to trust what they’re about to rely on to produce their water. We spend a lot of time showing how our products are working around the world. Doing this in our 35 years of business has resulted in a large amount of repeat buyers. The Dow brand isn’t necessarily just a product. It’s also the people, it’s the reliability, and it’s the warranty.

Drew: How do you battle staying both trusted and current?

Snehal: Over the years, we’ve done a nice job finding the early adopters that are willing to embrace a change in scheme, a new operating technology, or are willing to partner with us to deploy it. We really cultivate references all over the world and then push the technology. Competition in the marketplace also drives us to continue improving and innovating.

Drew: I know Dow is doing a working to help ease the water crisis in Southern California. What measures do you take to stay up to date on the issue?

Snehal: I’ve spent more time in the last year-and-a-half in conferences that you wouldn’t think that Dow would be a part of. It’s part of a conversation that says, “Here are all the things we can do. Here is what your role could be. Here is what Dow’s role is in helping us get to that outcome.” We’ve also joined a few advocacy groups like the Value of Water Coalition, which aims to answer a few questions: “What are we doing to invest in your water infrastructure? Do you know that we are severely underfunded? Do you know that before you put the road over the top of the water pipe, maybe you should fix the water pipe?”

Drew: How is Dow addressing the lack of water from a marketing standpoint?

Snehal: We’re really focused on this concept of courageous collaboration. That focus requires us to engage with a variety of stakeholders to get this topic on the table because it’s not a problem everywhere. In those places where it’s a burning question, we want to be a part of the conversation. Our technologies may or may not fit at that moment, but we’re at least informing the dialog.

Drew: Courageous collaboration is a very interesting term. What does the courage part of that phrase mean?

Snehal: We are challenged with engaging with people who may not always share the same point of view. But if you listen, you have a chance of finding out that you have a lot more in common than you thought. I think that the courageous part of it is being willing to engage with people that we wouldn’t traditionally think of as natural customers. It’s thinking about your ecosystem in a much broader way, and then acting as a speaker and a listener in that conversation.

Drew: How do you approach change?

Snehal: There was a period of time when to do something different would have been seen as very risky, “Why fix it if it isn’t broken?” But I find that even if there isn’t a better way to do something, there is always another way. It doesn’t have to be big bets, but the important questions are “What do you choose to experiment on? What do you choose to pilot?” I’ll tell you that over the last 18 months, I’ve spent more time in non-traditional venues which allowed me to see things that I might not have seen if I went to the usual places.

Drew: Can you tell me about the Water Academy series?

Snehal: It’s a resource for the new class of water engineers and water treatment professionals. We have traditionally built that content around the North America or the Western European market. Now, we have so many people from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America that are joining. We provide people with information on how to best pick and maintain systems, how to design, etc. We provide all this content through video, and we do Q&As through our LinkedIn community page.

Drew: Is all of the Water Academy content available via mobile?

Snehal: Absolutely, it’s important to think about making the content bite-sized, and highlighting the most important information. That’s very different than a two-hour seminar on everything you need to know.

Drew: On the homepage of your website, there is a search bar that says, “What can we help you find?” Is that a relatively new thing that you’ve added?

Snehal: People come to us for what they know they need, but there could be a lot of things we could do for them. If a person had a big question about something related to water, even though that may not be something that we do, we can direct them to a sister division, or a customer that does it.

Drew: Have you thought about adding a feature that can identify new customers?

Snehal: It’s definitely part of our thought process. We’re looking to use technology and interface with individuals on our team to personalize experiences and help people more easily find what they’re looking for.

Drew: Are you incorporating social listening into your research and if so how?

Snehal: We did two pilots in social listening, in which we focused on a topic in a region of the world to see what we would find. It was pretty fascinating because residential water treatments or point of use water treatment is a big trend in India. We ran an experiment with a provider to do social listening to see what people were talking about, particularly on the consumer side. We found that there was a lot of conversation going on around the topic of water and home water treatment.

Drew: How are you using social platforms for social listening?

Snehal: We’re looking more on LinkedIn and forums where people are asking each other questions. We’re experimenting where we can, and we find a lot of it is relevant to us so we’re just keeping our eyes open.

Keeping the Customer Front and Center

water skiing crash bigGripping tightly to the lifeless plastic handle I could only muster a fainthearted “hit it” to the speedboat skipper 50 feet away. This was to be my third and final attempt to rise above my skis and frankly I was already drained and shivering. The first effort had ended in a face plant with skis scattered across the surface like an old-fashioned yard sale. The second was only slightly less ugly. My already formulated excuse was going to be that the boat was too weighed down with passengers to yank my sad ass above the surface. Fortunately, the third time was the charm as I kept my weight back as instructed and let the skis do their magic. Once elevated, I hurled myself out of the wake regaining some semblance of the athletic confidence I usually take for granted and romped around the lake like a champ.

Had you not seen my false starts or heard any of the coaching I received before liftoff, you might have thought it was just another effortless and solitary accomplishment by an experienced (read middle aged) jock.  [Stay with me now as I deftly transition to the real story here!] This is not unlike the experience most of us have when seeing a finished product or a successful marketing campaign. Typically, we don’t bother to ask about the team behind the product or about any of the missteps along the way. As consumers, we take all that for granted as we should. But as marketers, we can’t afford such incuriousness. We have to go deeper. We must look under the surface. We must understand the process behind the success.
And yes, that’s exactly what I did during a recent conversation with Kieran Hannon, the CMO of Belkin, the makers of Belkin, Linksys and Wemo products. Kieran, as you may remember is featured in my book, The CMO’s Periodic Table under the element “Storytelling.”  This time we went even deeper, covering his impressive three-year plan, Belkin’s inclusive product development process, influencer marketing and more. While Kieran appears not to have had too many wipeouts along the way, what you will discover is a marketer whose seemingly effortless glide is wholly the result of determination, collaboration and well earned experience.

Drew: One of the things that you mentioned to me was your three-year plan. Where are you on that plan, and how is it coming along?

Kieran: We’re now going into year four. Year 1 was focused on the organization itself. It was aimed at educating our marketing teams across the globe, helping them understand their roles, the needs in the markets, and the priorities of the company. Essentially, Year 1 was building a team that could deliver global marketing programs and lead that development. Year 2 was aimed at aligning the region and the corporate goals because we were decentralized at that point. In Year 2, the global marketing teams were supporting all three brands. Some of the team members were dedicated to a brand but in a lot of other respects, the teams worked across multiple brands. For instance, the CRM team has worked across all brands. Now, CRM is embedded into each brand, they are in control of their own destiny and their needs as a great example. Additionally, we had designers sitting in 11 different functional groups around the world. Now, all designers are in one group in each brand, so there is a single management structure for each brand. Those are just a few examples of streamlining, and bringing focus and prioritization around the world.

Drew: What was the result of this plan?

Kieran: As a premium brand, Belkin is doing very well in a somewhat commoditized market. Our focus on highly differentiated products and experiences is making a big difference. For example, when you travel you’ll see Belkin in all the Hudson News stores around the US and around the world. For Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Hudson came to us and asked if they could build a Belkin store because travelers find the brand so compelling.

At CES, one of our products, the Valet Charge Dock for the Apple watch and iPhone was voted Best in Show. That’s another example of the design innovation Belkin is reknowed for — and it’s been a tremendous success.

Drew: Let’s talk about product innovation and marketing and where product development sits relative to marketing. How do you ensure that there’s a marketing idea built into the product?

Kieran: Sure. Let me tell you about ScreenCare +, a new applicator system that we launched in all Apple stores. That is not just a product; it’s an experience. The product management team, the industrial design teams and the marketing teams worked very closely in the development of that program from embedded testing to the testing of different formats for training of store specialists. We have what’s called our “E2” planning processes with different gates and as a product goes from formation into development, marketing and other groups provide input and feedback. This insures alignment throughout our exciting and rewarding process.

Drew: It really is amazing how Wi-Fi is at the center of everything, the enabler of the Internet of Things.

Kieran: It’s such a key enabler. A lot of people have so many devices at home, they don’t realize they’re probably sitting there with a three or four-year-old Wi-Fi router and it’s wrecking the experience of these great devices that they bought. What’s worse than when you want to go online in the evening with your family to stream a movie, and all you see is buffering? A lot of the issues are because you have an old router and there are another ten devices connected to the Wi-Fi that are impeding the ability to deliver that signal. To help our customers have a better experience, you can now prioritize within the Linksys system your Netflix streaming device and de-prioritize other devices.

Drew: How are you incorporating influencer marketing into your overall strategy?

Kieran: We’ve done a number of influencer programs over the years and they’re very target based. We spend a lot of time ensuring that we get the right type of influencers that can really amplify our cause. Importantly, we let them drive the project. We just want our influencers to express their feelings about the brand, the products and the experience in a way that’s most meaningful to them. Full transparency is pretty critical and we’ve been very pleased with every influencer program we’ve done.

Drew: What are the pitfalls of influencer program?

Kieran: I think the fundamental pitfall is trivialization, either trivializing the audience or trivializing the role the product plays. It doesn’t mean that you heighten the role of the product in that experience but you don’t want to trivialize it either. So, I think it’s best to be authentic throughout the partnership.

Drew:  I think one of the challenges clients encounter is evaluating the success of influencer programs relative to other activities. How do you evaluate these programs?

Kieran: It’s the crossover between paid and earned media that’s really powerful and puts the icing on the cake. We have both consumers and retail partners as our audience, and how they talk about and relate to our brands is very important. We think about that as we build up these influencer programs.

Drew: As a company that introduces innovative products and services, how do you make sure your media and your marketing is innovative? Is the medium the message sometimes?

Kieran: Oh, absolutely. I’ll give you an example. A great program that we do with Hulu is at the point of buffering, we deliver a message to people that you don’t have to have that experience – you just need a more powerful router. So, the medium can absolutely be the message. On the Belkin side, we’ve done some great programs with other mobile platforms that really bring to life what you’re doing at that moment in time. So yes, the medium is equally important as the message in a lot of cases.

Drew: The geo-fencing program you did is particularly innovative. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kieran: Yes, we are doing an interesting program with geo-fencing where we understand when the consumer is in the proximity of a retail partner and we can share with them the relevant personal message to that proximity.

Note: This is part 1 of my interview with Belkin’s Kieran Hannon, part 2 will appear on Social Media Explorer soon.