When Kathy Button Bell became chief marketing officer at Emerson in 1999, she wasn’t just the first CMO at the company that invented the ceiling fan. She had to build a marketing function for a legacy company in the middle of a digital transformation.
“An empty desk. An empty budget. I had to just invent it almost from scratch and it was great,” said Button Bell, who has since helped rebrand the 129-year-old Emerson as a technology company.
Emerson had grown over the years by bolting on acquisitions and adding the Emerson name to them, but without an overarching brand. It had to be rationalized, said Button Bell.
“It was really clear within about six months we were going to have to deal with the whole brand architecture of the company,” she said. “It was a very expensive model ”
The efficiency argument appealed to the engineers that make up most of Emerson’s internal stakeholders. They started by allocating a modest media budget that kept growing over the years, as Emerson built a new brand and launched new marketing efforts. On Valentine’s Day, it launched its latest advertising campaign, tagged “We See,” which included TV, online and airport advertising.
Button Bell spoke to Velocitize about the challenges of building a corporate marketing function from scratch and refashioning a modern image for a legacy brand.
Velocitize: Emerson is over a hundred years old. Why pivot to marketing?
Kathy Button Bell: One key thing: The Internet. It’s the internet and cable television and it’s the combination of that; it made the ground a lot different for competing.
You need to make yourself relevant to the people that are going to invest in you, and your customers watch it just as well. As soon as we all began to put solutions together instead of components, you had to explain that to people. You need a brand architecture, which you kind of have to be a marketing person to do.
What were the biggest challenges: getting buy-in from management, getting buy-in from the middle management that you were centralizing, or something else?
Actually the culture was by far the hardest thing and in general it was more middle management, because they were paid for their components sales. You’re kind of getting a volunteer army of solutions providers, then you’re there volunteering to collaborate, even though they aren’t rewarded for it. Your bonus, your salary and your raise come from your division.
This was pushing people’s boundaries on long, long-held cultural values of autonomy. So not only was I messing with their business, I was messing with their whole culture, which was really hard.
Your experience before this was mostly in consumer marketing. Is enterprise marketing really that different anymore?
Well, it changed because of the Internet. because it made everything so transparent. You know once upon a time being industrial was a black box. It was a pretty quiet universe that didn’t advertise much. There wasn’t an Internet to compare products.
The transparency, as it rose with the Internet, changed that forever. You had to communicate your difference.
The principles are the same, overwhelmingly. You know even how to brand sand. You can make it by making delivery of it, if it’s something you value, and you’ll pay more if I deliver it the day you want it. That sort of thing.
It actually made it really easy when I first went to Emerson because I’d had to guerrilla-market my way through Wilson and Converse, which were both in or near bankruptcy when I worked for them. I was used to working on thin threads.
And I loved PR first. I always say: If you have one dollar, spend it on PR. If you have two, I’d still spend them on PR. When you get to three, you can consider advertising. Because it’s the earned media that works harder.
But there has also been a content explosion. You’re doing things like your annual STEM survey. What is the place of content at Emerson?
That’s that is probably one of the toughest things for an engineering company to grow quickly, because the engineers generally aren’t writers by nature and they aren’t necessarily good storytellers. We’ve trained a thousand subject-matter experts and engineers within the company.
We use Elevate, that is LinkedIn’s product that curates information for them, to also share out and build their subject matter expert-ness, and then we are the storytellers.
STEM is really a great example. Our We Love STEM page is really fun to play in, I love it. We develop stuff, either with Hank Green and we develop a lot of stuff ourselves, or we curate it. And we curate a lot, because there’s such fun stuff out there. My target market is actually the media. I want the media to proliferate the message that we need more people in STEM education.
And has your approach had to change as Millennials and Gen Z becomes a bigger factor?
We do a lot more 15-second ads instead of videos that are four minutes or something. And those keep getting shorter and shorter and shorter.
We’re very purpose-driven now with things and we tie it all to bring people back to our Web site and let them play around. People like investors spend two minutes watching, a long time for someone to stay in your Web site. So people are interested, if you can serve them up what they want.
And how much of that is also to attract talent?
It’s especially to attract talent. We work hard on making ourselves a destination for women engineers. We’ve actually done a lot of work on that.
You also find that marketing of these days seems to be involved in a lot more departments.
We did a survey with Forrester and 85 percent of marketers said they do things that they’ve never done before. And they certainly do.
You have no choice; our worlds are so connected. The tough thing is finding good technical people that are capable of marketing and marketing people that are capable of technology. Because the capabilities tend to live a little bit apart. It’s dogs and cats sleeping together a little bit; you have to make it work.
Is the talent shortage still a problem?
It’s much worse. The unemployment numbers are so low and they just hit another record. It is very hard to get the talent and it’s really competitive. Especially since marketing people, and engineers as well, are going to Google, Apple and those kinds of hot-shot things.
When you’re hiring these days, you need to have a corporate purpose to attract the younger generations.
I just interviewed three interns. Every one of them talks to you about your purpose and they’ve gone through your (corporate social responsibility) report and seen how you’re doing there. That wouldn’t have been the case even 10 years ago. Now it’s now it’s one of the first things.
We have what we call “noble causes,” which is how we leave the world in a better place. We find that actually has kind of replaced a mission statement for the company. It’s a little more practical: Here are the things we believe in and here’s what we’ll do. Our values are on the wall of every building around the world.
At the same time, you simplified the brand architecture. How did that work out?
I said “I’m the chief complexity reduction officer.” You’re popular with everyone, because the CEO likes it, the COO likes it (and) the marketing people like it. The only people that don’t like it is the people you’re taking things away from like their brand, their logo. We just keep scootching them along, so they’re part of something bigger.
The (unit) presidents are the ones who take it on the chin the hardest, because it’s their quarterly report. It’s their P&L and their balance sheet. They’re the ones who really are the most sensitive.
It’s gotten a lot better and the pressure is less. Other companies are doing exactly the same thing that we are doing. Simplicity is good marketing, always.