The Importance of B2B Brand Building

April 20, 2021

Colin Fleming and Peter Weinberg

Editor’s note: In the latest edition of the “Taking the Long View – Conversations with The B2B Institute at LinkedIn” series, B2B Institute’s Head of Development Peter Weinberg speaks with Colin Fleming, senior VP of Global Brands, Events and Customer Marketing at Salesforce. 

For five years, we here at The B2B Institute have been trying to make the case for brand building in B2B. We’ve conducted empirical research on the benefits of brand with leading experts like Les Binet and Peter Field. We have traveled to the ends of the earth (i.e., Australia) to share that research with our clients. But if you want to convince someone to do something, research will only get you so far what you really need are examples.

Luckily, the universe gave us Salesforce. Whenever I am asked “who is doing everything right” in B2B, my answer is always the same: Salesforce. As far as I’m concerned, Salesforce is the best B2B marketing organization in the world. For years our team has written gushing analyses of Salesforce’s unique approach to brand advertising and content marketing. So you can only imagine how exciting it was to finally interview the mastermind behind the operation: Colin Fleming, SVP of Global Brands, Events and Customer Marketing at Salesforce. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.   

Peter Weinberg: Why is Salesforce investing in brand building, from your perspective?

Colin Fleming: At Salesforce, there was a moment of reckoning when we realized that brands actually needed to be built, curated, nurtured, and, every once in a while, kicked in the pants and reset. We started out with a really strong point of view as a company – the first ad from Salesforce was “Die Software Die.” But then, like a lot of companies, we moved into the enterprise and started pitching to the largest companies in the world and that sort of sucked the life out of the brand. Five years ago, we realized we needed to reboot, get back to that strong point of view and return to our core values. We started to look at the brand from a customer’s perspective, and not from a marketing perspective.

Peter: And what did you see, when you looked at the brand from the customer’s perspective?

Colin: Well we discovered that even though Salesforce is one of the larger software companies in the world, very few people could fully articulate what we do. To put it more technically, there was a huge discrepancy between our aided and unaided awareness. Most people have heard of Salesforce. They see the big building in the sky, they see CRM on CNBC, they hear about Dreamforce. But they don’t know how we help businesses reach their goals and grow. We had over-indexed on certain aspects of our brand. We became known for the altruistic and philanthropic side of Salesforce, which is amazing, and many companies would kill for that, but it was almost overshadowing what we actually sold. 

Peter: This is one of biggest challenges in brand marketing: we often confuse “awareness” with “availability.” You don’t just want people to have heard of your brand (awareness). You want people to think of your brand in an actual buying situation (mental availability). Awareness is helpful, but what you really want is “situational awareness” or “salience.” Otherwise you’re going to struggle to turn that awareness into cash flows. So how did you overcome that challenge at Salesforce?  

Colin: Well, even when you have a compelling customer insight, and we did, you still need to connect that to the bottom line. We found a great study on B2B buying behavior showing that two-thirds of the time, when a business decision-maker purchases software, they already have a brand in mind. And 94% of the time, the buyer ends up sticking with that brand. So if you’re not part of the original consideration set, there’s no way you’re getting bought. And that’s how we tied this marketing problem around unaided awareness to a downstream business problem. That made everyone sit up and take notice. 

Peter: So is that how you convinced the CEO and CFO and CMO to invest in brand? Many B2B marketers want to invest more in brand, but just can’t convince internal stakeholders to fund the investment.

Colin: Data was one factor yes. We used data to show that increasing awareness or consideration by X points would increases sales by Y amount. That was really important. But we are also very fortunate to have a CEO and CMO and CFO who really care about the brand and understand its value. I cringe at some of my peers that work for CEOs who don't really understand or care about marketing. I think we're very fortunate to have that kind of instinctual understanding within our company. 

Peter: So now everyone is sold on brand? 

Colin: It’s an ongoing journey. Every year we need to determine where to put a demand generation dollar versus a brand awareness dollar. But we try to think about the bigger picture. So many companies live quarter-to-quarter, and Salesforce does too, but we carve out space in our brains and our hearts to think about the three-year and five-year time horizon and make long term decisions. 

Peter: The best organizations are able to balance long and short-term objectives, but it’s a real struggle for many companies. Now let’s switch gears and talk about creative, which is where the magic of Salesforce really becomes clear. In our 2030 B2B Trends Report, we discuss the principles of profitable creative. One of those principles is the importance of making big, concentrated bets vs. small, distributed bets. Salesforce bets big on creative, both at the top of the funnel with the Trailblazers campaign and at the middle of the funnel with your “State Of” Reports. Why does Salesforce do that? 

Colin: Everything inside Salesforce starts out as a small bet, and if it works, we bet big on it. And for every big successful bet, there’s 10 small bets that failed. That’s true of our “State Of” Reports, and we’re really proud of that work. It all started with a small bet on our “State Of The Connected Customer” Report. And once we saw that report really cut-through and succeed, we doubled down and started replicating the model for other lines of business, like sales, and customer service, and analytics. There’s a branding rationale for these reports, but there’s also a sales rationale. From a brand perspective, if we’re the market leader in customer relationship management, we better have a strong point of view and deep expertise on that topic. But there’s also a sales enablement side of the story. If you want to be considered the expert in the field, you need to come across as the expert in meetings and events. I see our sellers utilize our research and data in their presentations to customers around the world.

Peter: Consistency was our second creative best practice. You need to stick with an idea for a long time, and many marketers don’t have the patience for that. We prefer to chase “shiny-new-objects” and launch new campaigns every quarter, even though the strongest brands never really change. Salesforce, on the other hand, has consistently invested in these “State Of” Reports and in its Trailblazers campaign over many years. How do you avoid the temptation to throw out the old and do something new?  

Colin: Well we do see a lot of “random acts of content,” as we call it.  And you just have to be ok saying “no” to those. Our teams understand that these brand effects compound over time, and consistency is how you get those benefits. It’s much easier to secure investments if there is a historical precedent and you can prove that something has worked in the past. But you also need to have extremely high standards. We only invest in topics that are uniquely ownable for our brand, like customer management. And we don’t have different quality standards for different mediums – like “oh if it’s a TV ad it has to be really good, and if it’s a social post, it’s ok if it’s terrible.” It’s not necessarily about production values, it’s about making sure the creative aligns with our core values and objectives. But we do also leave room for experimentation. We’ve got “anchor franchises” that we always invest in but also more reactive newsroom-style content. We have a content performance scorecard, and if any new content performs above a certain benchmark, we consider turning it into an anchor franchise. It took a while to design that system, but that kind of operational accountability has really shifted the culture here.  

Peter: Now let’s talk about “distinctiveness,” a topic of growing interest and importance in the industry. One of the biggest sources of waste in marketing is that buyers often fail to link the creative with the brand that produced the creative. But I would bet that rarely happens to Salesforce, since you’ve built such a distinctive creative style, using branded assets like “Astro.” How and why did you do that?

Colin: First and foremost, it goes back to the DNA of the company. We started out with a very distinctive and differentiated style. In the “Die Software Die” ads, Salesforce was depicted as a jet fighter, shooting down the Oracle biplane. But to be honest, we lost that strong point of view for a while. And then with Astro and friends, we rediscovered our roots. 

Peter: So what exactly is Astro’s origin story? 

Colin: The character already existed in Trailhead, our online learning environment. We have a brilliant creative director, Dom Buxton, who we call the mother of Astro inside the company. Over time, we noticed how much the community loved the characters. You saw customers wearing Astro pins on their sweaters and backpacks, and it became pretty obvious there was an opportunity there. We needed to transform the brand, and these characters are a big part of that story. The characters serve a conceptual role and represent different aspects of our community. Codey the bear, for example, represents our developer community. Astro is a metaphor for CRM – like our products, Astro brings customers and companies together. The characters bring a bit of liveliness and differentiation to our brand. Astro and friends help us tell stories about our products and create an emotional connection with our customers. 

Peter: I am always begging our clients to invest in brand characters, but every B2B marketer seems to come up with some excuse for why it won’t work for their brand. You may be the only B2B marketing organization that has invested in characters, which is a very common tactic in B2C – the GEICO Gecko, Mr. Clean, etc. How did you convince internal stakeholders to invest in these characters?

Colin: It wasn't easy to roll out inside the company. There were certainly people who suggested that a company of our size and scale had no business showing furry characters frolicking in the forest. But I think the data has proven them incorrect. Like any major company, we measure our brand metrics, and since adopting our new look-and-feel and the characters, our numbers have nearly doubled. For a year or two I was shunned from any strategic sales conversation – I was the guy bringing Astro and Codey the bear into the conversation. The dynamic has changed now that we’ve seen the results in our brand metrics and our business performance. It’s a long journey, so you have to be patient and look for inspiration in the right places. Our brand isn’t inspired by Microsoft or SAP, we’re inspired by Disney.

Peter: It shows. Our team often says that Salesforce is the Disney of B2B. Which brings me to my final question. One thing Disney is famous for is its “total merchandising strategy.” Star Wars is a movie, a video game, an action figure, a lunch box, and so on. The same IP gets repurposed in infinite channels. Salesforce does this too. Astro is on TV, on LinkedIn, at Dreamforce. I don’t really know of any other B2B brand that is able to achieve that level of media integration. How do you do it?   

Colin: We could spend a whole hour on that topic. I’m proud of where we are today, because just a couple of years ago, we were nowhere. But I come back to the importance of principles, and in this case, our design principles. The characters must have an active role in the story. The creative needs to have a happy, optimistic tone of voice – we are a “1:00 PM brand.” Designers can and should innovate, but within a set of guidelines, and we have a wonderful creative community inside the company that is purpose-built to share best practices. You also need to make sure your design assets are readily available and accessible. And you need to give everyone context so that you’re not just ruling through fear.  In onboarding, we make sure creatives understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. 

Peter: I love the idea of a “design system.” Every B2B brand could benefit from that kind of system. Many thanks for your time Colin, and thanks to you and your team for showing the industry what effective B2B brand building looks like. May Astro live forever in the minds of your customers!

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