ServiceNow’s CMO On How Great Creative Is Building Emotional Relationships in B2B

December 2, 2020

Taking the Long View: Alan Marks

In the latest edition of the “Taking the Long View – Conversations with The B2B Institute at LinkedIn” series, B2B Institute’s Global Head Jann Martin Schwarz speaks with Alan Marks, CMO of ServiceNow. Over the past three years, Alan and his team, including agency partner BBDO San Francisco, completely transformed ServiceNow from unknown B2B tech player into a well-known brand – a masterclass in how to lead with strong, emotionally resonant creative. The conversation happened during the ANA Masters of B2B Conference on October 14 and the below transcript is lightly edited for clarity.

Jann Schwarz: Alan, you worked at Nike, you worked at Gap, at Avon, some very well-known household brands. I think it's safe to say ServiceNow wasn't quite up in that category when you started about three years ago. Where was the company at and what was the mission that you were given to turn ServiceNow into a brand the general public would recognize?

Alan Marks: I joined in 2017 when John Donahoe became CEO. And John and I had worked together at eBay for about eight years. And so, when he became CEO of ServiceNow, he asked me to come help build the brand strategy and purpose of the company. ServiceNow had gone public in 2012, it was highly successful, and had been growing 30-35% a quarter ever since.

But what John and the management team started to realize in 2017, given the growth of the company, was a need to better define who ServiceNow was. And as the company scaled, we’d been growing with a strong product marketing focus on features, “speed and feed” type technology marketing to sell into IT stacks and enterprises. So, if the “VP of IT services management” was a key persona, our marketing reflected that. But ServiceNow had not really defined itself in a broader way and we realized that to grow we needed to engage C-suite executives.

We wanted to be more of an enterprise software partner. We wanted to be a strategic cloud partner in the context of digital transformation. And so, John and others realized that the way the company was going to market was insufficient and inadequate to help drive our growth. The company was also starting to face a talent brand issue. ServiceNow was growing very fast and it was becoming harder to recruit top talent because the company was not well-defined in the marketplace. I came in to do two things. One, help define the purpose of the company – who are we, what we stand for – and then use that purpose to develop a brand strategy.

Jann: How did you zoom in on the specific brand strategy that you chose and how did you bring in BBDO?

Alan: Well, it really started with purpose and I'm a strong believer that a great brand starts with purpose. I think of purpose as the definition of who you are and who we are as a company. What's core to our character? Why do we exist? What kind of impact are we trying to have in the world? And so that was job number one when I joined the company. And the first thing I did after I joined, I flew down to San Diego where the founder of the company, Fred Luddy, lives. And I just met Fred and sat down in a conference room and said, "Tell me your story." And two hours later we were still talking.

Jann: Most things in marketing are about humans and their stories, right?

Alan: Exactly. Fred is a product guy; he literally wrote the code to the platform to launch the company. But what struck me about halfway through the conversation is that this product guy, the founder of the company, wasn't talking about technology at all. He was talking about people and his vision of making work work better for people. And that had been a driving part of his vision through most of his career. It was the compelling reason why he started ServiceNow back in 2004. And so, that was really the beginning.

And then, I talked to executives around the world. We talked to customers, I talked to employees, and that led to our purpose which is: “we make the world of work work better for people”. And it was very intentional that we emphasized “for people”. ServiceNow is a company going back to the founder, the core DNA of the company. We're a company that very much believes technology should be in the service of people. Technology should enable people to do something better in their lives

And that really drove our purpose, and then ultimately that drove our brand strategy. And so, as we had the purpose in 2018, we first focused internally and that's been a consistent theme of our brand strategy as well, very much engaging our employees, engaging the leadership team of the company. Because this was new for ServiceNow. We spent a lot of time engaging people inside the company about why it matters and why a purpose, particularly in high growth companies, creates strategic clarity and helps you do things better, helps you prioritize better, helps you focus better.

Going into 2019, we knew we wanted to translate that into a company brand campaign. That's when we did an agency search and landed with BBDO as what we felt was the ideal partner. BBDO seemed to intimately understand the opportunity to bring a consumer mindset – a B2C mindset – to a B2B brand and marry that emotion with the rational side of the brand, and really do that head and heart strategy that we were looking for. This led to the company's first ever TV campaign, which we launched in Q1 of 2019 and we've been building it and evolving it ever since.

Jann: Great. I liked your first commercial which is called Warm Embrace. Pretty funny stuff.

Alan: Makes you want to get a hug, right?

Jann: Yeah, it's definitely not the kind of thing you would expect from a B2B company, so that’s good. What was the key insight like there's certain characters here you see, there is a humor, clearly that's deliberate?

Alan: One of our insights as we were doing research was that we're very much in digital transformation. That's what we're selling to companies. How do we as a cloud-based solution help you drive your digital transformation? But when you really go deeper with C-suite executives, you get to the notion that digital transformation is a means to an end. And what CEOs and C-suite executives are really trying to deliver are great experiences – great experiences for their employees, and great experiences for their customers. And so, that's not only a rational technical discussion, that's an emotional discussion. An experience ultimately is an emotional thing. And so, that's what drove the underlying insight of “Warm Embrace” – of a C-suite executive interacting with another C-suite executive about the experiences they are creating for their employees, and that's what led to the hug. And people just loved it.

People are people regardless of what industry you're in and that emotional connection and being able to marry the emotional connection in a way that is relevant to your customers and relevant to the industry you're in and the products you're selling is part of the formula that we've been refining.

Jann: Agreed, our B2B Institute research shows very clearly that in B2B people want to avoid getting blamed for buying the wrong thing. In B2C if you buy a can of Coke instead of Pepsi or vice versa, if you don't like it, you just stop buying it and you buy something else. If you're buying a workflow optimization solution and it's the wrong thing - who knows what's going to happen to your career, who knows what's going to happen to your business. And what I love about this work is you see that big CEO getting a hug, meaning people love him for having made that decision which is literally the opposite emotion of "I'm worried about getting blamed for this." And so, you're really tackling that kind of underlying emotion head on which I think is extremely smart.

Alan: I think you've touched on another aspect of this emotional part of the equation, which is trust. Because in the B2B world, a customer is making a big bet and often it's a multi-million-dollar, multi-year bet. Unlike, to your point, buying a beverage or buying any kind of consumer product. And so, that part of the campaign, and part of the emotional strategy of the campaign, is to make sure we are seen and that ServiceNow is seen as a trusted partner. We understand what you're trying to do, that we have a shared purpose, we have a shared vision. We’re building a deep relationship with you that's emotionally-based, in addition to the technology and business relationship.

Jann: Your next commercial I loved is called Celebration. Lots of confetti, again very funny, again some of the similar characters. Obviously picking a specific character and sticking with the theme of humor are both very powerful things. But how did you end up there and what kind of convincing did it take of the organization that this is the right way to go?

Alan: Well again, it goes back to our purpose, very much human-centered, focused on people. It also speaks to the cultural values of ServiceNow. From the beginning, one of the values of ServiceNow, and a deep part of the culture, is being hungry and humble. So again, being very human, being very conversational. When I first joined ServiceNow I was just asking people, "Tell me about the culture." They talked about having a blue-collar culture where people, everybody just gets in and rolls up their sleeves, focuses on the customer and gets the job done. And so, we very much try to bring that conversational style to it. With BBDO as we're developing this, we often talked about that kitchen table conversation. Are we a company you want to sit down and have a beer with and really hang out with? We’ve had a lot of fun with it to convey that sense of humor and that sense of warm, personal human connection and trust that comes with our customer relationship that we try to build between ServiceNow and our customers who we're serving.

Jann: I have to ask because another part of our think tank’s research is confirming that this notion of creative fatigue – ads wearing out – is kind of a myth, and what you really need is like creative wear-in. Because brands are small things, people don't remember them. Workflow software is not something people lie awake dreaming about, hopefully. The bar is pretty high for people to even recognize who you are and remember you. I'm really encouraged by the fact that you stuck with the same characters and they're trying to build these brand assets – build a tone of voice, a recognizable language, and brand codes that are ownable and that help you build that mental availability. Was there any discussion internally before this round where you had to defend the fact that it's essentially the same people coming by doing something different, or do people understand the importance of that from the start?

Alan: I think we certainly got that question. It was a conversation, but in October of last year, John Donahoe left ServiceNow to become CEO of Nike and Bill McDermott came on board as our new CEO. Bill just loved the campaign and he loved that character. I had CEO air cover so to speak when people said, "Well, should we use the same guy? Shouldn't we do something different?" and he was like, "No, no, I love that guy. Let's bring him on." Bill loved the hug and loved that CEO character. So that helped calm everybody down and give people confidence that it was the right thing to do.

Jann: I think there's quite a few people reading this who might think, "this is really great work - I wish my company would try and push the envelope on creative." What lessons do you have? Obviously, you are fortunate having had a new CEO coming in who had the maturity to stick with a winning brand concept rather than impose a new one. What else can you do to build that relationship with the C-suite and with the CFO to say, "You know what? It's worth investing in the long-term, it's worth making these big bets and sticking with them."

Alan: It's a great question and certainly I feel very fortunate to have worked with both John and Bill, two CEOs who understand brand and understand the power of brand. But aside from that, I think a couple of things. We started with a deep understanding of strategy and the management team understood. They weren't necessarily seeing that brand was the way to get there, but they understood that if the company was going to succeed long-term, we needed to drive strategic C-suite engagement. We needed to drive greater awareness of the company. Management understood that if we were going to hire 3000 people a year, we needed a strong talent brand.

So it started with clarity of strategy and then the discussion became, "Well, what role can brand play in that?" And then that was the importance of purpose. I was also fortunate to have the founder of the company, Fred Luddy, saying, "We really do need to be clear on who we are." Fred described it to me as the barbecue test when I first met with him. He said, "Before I die, I want to be at a barbecue and when people say, 'What do you do?' And I say, 'Oh, I founded ServiceNow,' they'll understand what ServiceNow is." And so that kind of clarity – of we need the BBQ test – was critical because there was confusion in the company of the way we had grown up. You ask five people in the company, "What does ServiceNow do? What do we stand for?" You'd get 10 different answers.

Strategic clarity was helpful and the sense that we needed to do something, we needed to evolve, we needed to do more than what we were doing. That's where the CEO mandate, the CEO buy-in, certainly helped. But I had resistance. I remember many conversations early on with our CFO at the time, and we've got a new CFO today, but he was highly skeptical that spending money on a TV campaign was money well spent. And what happened when we launched Warm Embrace in January of 2019 was the CFO popped in my office about a month later and he said, "I was talking to one of our biggest investors today and he said to me, 'I absolutely love your campaign. It's about time you guys did that. It's really going to help you drive growth." And that was the breakthrough with the CFO.

I give you that anecdote because ultimately, it took courage and risk to do it, and not to do things the way they typically had been done. Ultimately, customer and stakeholder feedback drives management buy-in. Nothing fuels success and buy-in more than customer feedback and stakeholder feedback, and that's ultimately what got the flywheel going. Once we put that initial campaign out in the market, our management team started seeing the reaction to it, and the anecdotes started coming back from our sales team about how customers were responding to it — that was it.

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