Talk to your customers and use that information. Most companies start with a focus on delighting a narrow audience. Many companies grow from that initial focused success, but trusted and believable brands never lose sight of the customer they want to serve. I’ve always been fascinated by the journey of VMware. A disruptor of the computing industry in the late 90s, they enjoyed rapid success and grew quickly. A decade in, they began to face market changes. Headwinds caused by market saturation, growing competition, and increasing customer expectations.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Avery. Erin is the Senior Vice President, Global Marketing at the global insights firm Vision Critical. Erin is an outcome-oriented marketing visionary leader with over 15 years of experience in the consumer and B-to-B technology markets. Skilled in crafting a value-based narrative that resonates with the market and customers, Erin is a thought leader and an effective communicator who influences product strategy and unifies cross-functional teams to create organizational momentum. Erin is committed to giving customers the best customer journey through proactive engagement. Prior to joining Vision Critical, Erin held senior marketing and product marketing roles at BMC, Quest Software and NetIQ. Erin holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business management from the Pennsylvania State University and is an avid runner and traveler.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started my technology marketing career in consumer electronics when an unexpected life change put me in Houston, Texas, where the only open tech jobs were in B2B software. During a final interview with a local software company, the then-CMO decided to take a chance on me. Although I was interviewing for a product marketing job in a category of which I had no knowledge, he offered me the job because I expressed passion and interest for understanding customers and markets. In those first few years as a product marketer, I learned everything I could about the customer who was buying and using our software. That initial job sparked a fire in me and laid the foundation for my ongoing obsession with customers, the constantly changing challenges they’re facing, and a desire to support them in creating new value for their business, regardless of the conditions they face.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
About a year into my first B2B software marketing job, my team and I were in a workshop where we were asked to draw the org chart of the buyer to whom we were selling. This was a way for us to demonstrate our understanding of the changing landscape our buyer faced. The org chart I drew had the CIO at the top and the technical, day-to-day user at the bottom. I stood there for about three minutes, cautiously peeking out the side of my eyes to see what my colleagues were drawing. In a moment of insecurity, I filled in a few “hypothetical” roles in between my technical user and the CIO and included some stick figures to fill in the white space. As we read out our pictures to the group, I quickly realized that while I’d focused on understanding the ultimate economic buyer, for most B2B buying centers there are many forces at work. Based on my drawing, my team recommended I stay away from a career in art or graphic design.
I learned a very important lesson about understanding the shifting dynamics in an organization. This foundational lesson gave me a much deeper understanding of organizational structure and business priorities and has helped me market, enable, and sell with greater empathy. This lesson has also remained close to my thoughts as I’ve been a part of and led organizational changes that have kept the businesses for which I’ve worked in alignment with changing market dynamics.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Vision Critical stands out in the customer insights industry because we help companies collect and apply consent-based zero party data as a way to better understand customers and build believable, trusted, and beloved brands. Our software allows businesses to create communities of opted-in, deeply profiled, and highly engaged customers that generate ongoing, meaningful insights that balance personalization and privacy. This direct access to customer attitudes, motivations, and beliefs increases customer value through trust and transparency and helps produce better business outcomes. Consent data allows companies to create products, services, and experiences that customers want and customers know their voice is being heard and acted upon, which improves brand sentiment, loyalty, and lifetime value.
The most powerful contribution Vision Critical makes to our customers is not limited to the improvement in their financial performance, customer satisfaction, and innovation. Rather, it’s the radical and positive impact our product allows the people who work for our customers to make on their businesses. Laura Lynn Fleck and Sara Shain at Red Bull will proudly tell you that no one at their company can “get answers” about customer motivation and preference faster than they can. They’ve become the defacto resource for reliable data the company uses to make informed business decisions.
I’ve witnessed countless examples of this story in hundreds of our customers globally. The ability for someone to elevate their personal brand, leveraging Vision Critical, is exponentially impactful. We have one of the highest Customer Satisfaction Ratings (CSAT) in the industry because we not only enable our customers to make a meaningful and tangible impact on their business, but we truly partner with the employees of our customers to help them on their journey to value realization.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Like in any relationship, customer trust is something that’s built over time, through a series of interactions and experiences. Vision Critical is working on an exciting software innovation that will help organizations connect with larger audiences of customers and prospective customers, leveraging the mechanics of trust and transparency. This is built on the idea that an organization should give before they get and that people want to know a brand is listening to them and people like them.
For years, organizations have had a deluge of anonymized transactional and behavioral data at their fingertips, but have had to draw their own conclusions about customer motivation and preference. It is our goal that, leveraging this innovation, organizations will more easily service their customers and that ultimately, the customer is more satisfied with the way they are serviced. We live in an age of mistrust, and Vision Critical is working to help brands build trusting relationships that increase customer lifetime value and aid brands in a deep understanding of their customers.
Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
This question reflects the world in which I’m currently living. I’ve recently had the unique opportunity to restructure and rebuild a B2B marketing organization. Brand marketing and product marketing are two critically important functions that must work in complement and building out those functions took the highest priority.
Brand marketing exists to develop an organization’s public reputation. This reputation reflects the organization’s vision and unique point of view. Brand marketing requires clear and consistent brand values — what the organization wants to be known for — that the broader market can trust and rely upon.
Product marketing shows how customers and the market can achieve the brand’s vision with the organization’s offerings — products, services, and partnerships. A mature and well-developed product marketing practice deeply understands the target customer, their challenges, the value they place on solving those challenges, and the alternative routes the customer could employ to solve their pain/challenges.
Brand and product marketing should work in harmony and should ebb and flow over time. Product marketing leaders are critically important to identifying and predicting shifting market trends, influencing product strategy, and influencing the brand narrative.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
Brand building is critically important for every company. As I mentioned earlier, an organization’s brand provides customers, prospective customers, the organization’s employees, and the broader market something on which they can rely. A well-developed brand also indicates the customer experience and journey on which a customer can expect to be taken if they do business with the organization. Customers want to do business with organizations that will meet their needs today and accompany them as their needs and challenges evolve.
Can you share 5 strategies that a large company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
Having worked in both large and small organizations, many of these truths are universal. Small organizations often benefit from a lack of legacy perception which enables agility and experimentation until they find the aspect of their point of view that resonates in the market. For large brands, legacy identity can be a powerful headwind, but the consistent actions of an organization of any size are the key to building a trusted and believable brand.
- The day in and out of your operation will build or destroy your brand.
Your brand reflects what matters most to your business. People want to do business with companies that are clear about what they deliver and why. The airline industry is a great reflection of this notion. Each airline’s basic product is transportation from A to B, but how they present that product differs among companies. There’s Southwest, a “company with heart,” low cost carriers that sell you just the basics, foreign carriers known for luxury and top-notch customer service, and some of the large U.S. carriers whose top focus seems to be financial success through added fees, etc.
Currently, one of the largest global airlines is in a standoff with its maintenance employees. While the airline is enjoying soaring profits, the inability to find balance with this critically important segment of its operations is degrading the brand. Their reputation is that of profit obsession over the safe passage of their customers.
2. Talk to your customers and use that information.
Most companies start with a focus on delighting a narrow audience. Many companies grow from that initial focused success, but trusted and believable brands never lose sight of the customer they want to serve. I’ve always been fascinated by the journey of VMware. A disruptor of the computing industry in the late 90s, they enjoyed rapid success and grew quickly. A decade in, they began to face market changes. Headwinds caused by market saturation, growing competition, and increasing customer expectations.
Rather than sit on their heels and ignore the changes they faced, VMware recognized these challenges and hired Kate Woodcock to lead customer advocacy. Within a few short months, Kate and her single team member identified a new pricing policy that was out of favor with customers. VMware leadership reversed the pricing policy and announced it at VMworld 2012, their annual customer conference. It was Pat Gelsinger’s first public engagement as CEO of VMware, and he received a standing ovation from over 22,000 customers. The voice of the customer is critically important for organizations of all sizes. Perhaps more critically so for large organizations that can easily fall prey to financial demands and lose sight of why they exist.
3. Employees are the best brand advocates or detractors.
Your employees are the most important aspect of bringing your brand to life. When they know who you are, what you do, why your organization matters, and where your organization is going, employees become exponentially powerful. I frequently reference Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s approach to creating organizational alignment, V2MOM, when I think about aligning our employees. Documenting and then enabling your organization on company vision, values, methods, obstacle, and measures is one of the most effective ways to create organizational alignment, which is fundamental to building a trusted brand.
4. Nurture customer-to-customer relationships and be the connective tissue.
It’s human nature to make decisions leveraging the advice of those we trust. It’s also human nature to want to belong to something bigger. One of the most powerful things a brand can do is build a “community” out of the brand’s customers who share a common interest. This builds a brand’s authenticity and, in my experience, has always paid exponential dividends.
Many technology and software companies have embraced this approach over the past few decades. One company that’s been highly disruptive in their category using this technique more recently is Splunk. Splunk recognized the pain of their customers, the developer, and zeroed in on it as they built and expanded their brand. Knowing their customer, they authentically embodied the persona of the developer as they built their brand. Today, as a growing publicly-traded company, they continue to embody the persona of their customers, which is why their customers trust them to connect and facilitate learning. Splunk is the connective tissue among an entire community of global developers.
5. With proper strategy, planning, and execution, an exclusive brand can become an accessible brand to grow their total addressable market.
There is a universally held belief among marketers that a brand can always start as a luxury brand and go down-market, but to start as an affordable brand and become a luxury brand is nearly impossible. As we look at the fashion landscape in 2019, there are countless examples of brands that started as exclusive and luxurious and that have grown their businesses through the mass production of their wares, sold at a more reasonable price point to aspiring audiences and customer segments. However, this strategy and associated tactics are not just limited to fashion and CPG. They extend to many categories from banking and finance to medicine.
One of my favorite recent examples is the highly exclusive industry of power boat racing. For 20 years, Marine Technologies, Inc. has custom-built high performance boats. A category available to very few around the world. While they build a variety of types of boats, they always produced racing boats with inboard motors, something that adds complexity and cost to the ownership and ongoing maintenance of any boat. They recently added one new product to their portfolio that leverages an outboard motor and, in making this move, have expanded their customer base while maintaining the exclusivity on which their brand was built. Their brand identity with their customer base and prospective customers is as strong as ever, but through the addition of one new product, they overcame the objection of significant customer segment and expanded their addressable market. As a marketer, I can’t help but wonder if this is the first well-executed step in a long term strategy to grow their business through brand accessibility.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
Away has done fantastic brand and reputation work since their inception just four short years ago. As someone who loves to travel, but who also puts in my fair share of miles for business purposes, I find Away fascinating. Luggage is a fairly utilitarian business, and for those who travel frequently, having a steady few pieces of luggage are critical. However, Away took a different angle. Rather than being another luggage company that went after the profitable business travel segment, they looked at the common challenges people face when they travel (heavy luggage, mobile device battery life, the infamous broken suitcase that you have to slug through the airport) and built a fashionable and functional product that is universally appealing to all travelers. If the number of Away suitcases I see in the airport on any given trip is any indication, their believable and beloved brand identity is propelling them forward.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
Most organizations exist to generate revenue. Any campaign, brand building or otherwise, should keep this critically important business goal in mind. I can think of an excellent brand building campaign that, while inspiring and beautiful, was so disconnected from the reality of the company that when the company filed for bankruptcy, in the middle of their global campaign, it destroyed the value of that company’s brand in my mind. What they wanted the world to believe and what was true were two radically different stories.
When measuring the success of a brand campaign, it’s important to clearly outline what you want to achieve with that campaign. Are you re-positioning the company to a new audience, shoring up the confidence of an existing customer base, or does your brand campaign exist to serve a different purpose? Regardless, clearly outline why you’re doing this and what impact you want it to make on your company — sales growth, customer retention, or another measure.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
Social media is fascinating, given the power social platforms play in human connection, both at the personal and organizational level. From a company perspective, it’s another channel to engage customers and presents brands the opportunity to be human and authentic. The ease with which information can spread is both awe inspiring and terrifying (especially when it comes to misinformation). I believe social media is a critical element to any company’s brand identity and marketing strategy — but in the context of where customers spend their time and what information they want to engage. There are platforms I use exclusively for personal relationships, and connections and platforms where I’m the professional persona of Erin Avery. There are a few, but not many, cases where I overlap. As social platforms evolve, I can see a future where this is less clear. But for now, these personas, for myself and many I know, are decoupled.
On the note of personal branding and social media, I became fascinated with the power of social as it began to gain traction as a tool for companies to reach new audiences. I still reflect fondly on the education provided by the social media managers at the companies I worked for in the mid-to-late 2000s. They were eager to share what was developing, and I was a captive audience. After a few years, I came to understand the identity I was developing on a few social platforms was a reflection of what my companies believed or messages they wanted to amplify. At that time, I took a step back and went into professional social observation mode, learning from the techniques from those whom I found most effective. To this day, I still chuckle that Seth Godin eschewed many social channels for a fairly long time because his channel of choice was his blog. Of course that’s changed now as social channels have evolved and so has his business. I learned from him that the power of what you say combined with the power of where you say it (which social channel) is a critically important combination when considering what you want to be known for.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Focus on building and enabling a strong team comprised of a diverse mix of talent, experience, and perspectives. I measure my own success by the success of my team. When I start to fatigue, it is usually the result of carrying the load alone. A trusted and empowered team with clear direction and course will invigorate an organization with positive and productive energy that is infectious.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Empathy. We live in such a contrasting world — a world of abundance and absence, wealth and poverty, varying belief systems, peace and war. Empathy is the most critical skill of a leader and leaders inspire others to embody their behavior. The ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and respect a different perspective is something I work on daily and coach my team to reflect upon because the impact of empathy is a much better world!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Where you’re looking is where you’re going.”
Time and attention are our most precious commodities. Where we focus and invest our time and attention are the strongest signals to the world about what we value. In a world where information and misinformation are wildly available and distractions are abundant, a clear center of gravity that aligns with personal values is critical. As an employee, a leader, a wife, and a mother, where I place my attention serves to build trust across my business, strengthen my marriage, and teach my daughters.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Seth Godin. His persistent commitment to his work and his own evolution has been for years, and continues to be, one of the strongest sources of inspiration for me, both personally and professionally.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn or on Twitter @ErinKAvery.
Thank you for all of these great insights!