Talking B2B Tech: Ashling Kearns
The CMO EMEA for Salesforce on the chance to seize a moment for B2B marketing
05 Minute Read
- First joined Salesforce in 2011
- Appointed CMO EMEA in February 2020
- Currently lives in London after returning from Amsterdam four years ago where she led Marketing at Salesforce for the Benelux region
- Previously spent five years as Senior Product Manager at BT Global Services
- Experience includes Microsoft and digital and cloud services provider Avanade
- Former board member at the charity Angelman Syndrome Ireland
At the time of interview, Ashling was Salesforce’s CMO EMEA. Ashling is now SVP Global Field and Partner Marketing at Tableau, a Salesforce Company.
Ask CMO EMEA about how the business has built one of B2B tech’s powerhouse global brands, and she won’t talk at first about advertising campaigns or iconic brand mascots. To start with, she won’t even mention Dreamforce, the San Francisco event that’s been a benchmark for tech conferences for the last 17 years and welcomed over 170,000 attendees in 2019. Instead Ashling Kearns will talk to you about values and purpose – how the heart of her brand rests in founder Marc Benioff’s belief that business is the greatest platform for change. She’ll tell you proudly that the company’s four core values are the guiding lights that drive what all employees do every day. And then she’ll argue for why those values of Trust, Customer Success, Innovation and Equality are more important at the end of 2020 than they ever have been.
“Where we come from, brand doesn't equal advertising,” she says. “That's not the way we look at it. We look at it as how you balance the head and the heart – and sometimes the way that you do that isn't through traditional marketing at all. During Covid-19, our job has not been to market but to be helpful and relevant to our customers. When SMEs were hurting, we decided our support had to be really tangible, and so our activation became setting aside a pot of $1 million to help small businesses in the UK with the Salesforce Care Small Business Grants. It was really important to us as a marketing team to be doing that rather than traditional top-of-funnel activity.
We know that as businesses shift from crisis to recovery and adaptation, marketers have a unique opportunity to turn trusted customer relationships into business value. We're increasingly tracking metrics like customer satisfaction, digital engagement, and lifetime customer value to gain a holistic picture of what's working and what isn't across the customer journey. At the start of the crisis, we asked where would be most useful and relevant for us to be – and wherever that took us, we went. Our customers influence our path forward today.”
That willingness to rethink the marketing plan has led to entire new product offerings and content plans being rolled out in record time. It took just five weeks for Salesforce to launch Work.com, a new set of solutions and resources to help businesses and communities reopen and recover safely and responsibly. “Speed is the currency for marketing right now,” says Ashling. “What’s been really useful is the ability to move fast, work in sprints and develop things in the moment that are relevant to customers. Our value of innovation has really shown up this year – and we’ve been able to innovate like that because we’re listening to customers so deeply. This digital first, work-from-anywhere world is here to stay. Companies must digitise their relationship with the customer — scaling it, modernising it, and meeting them where they are, all with an empathetic approach to the person behind the screen, app, channel, or device.”
A strategy to target the head and the heart
Ashling’s vision of values-based B2B marketing isn’t just a tactic for difficult times, though. It’s a strategy that’s rooted in an understanding of how B2B buying decisions are made. And it’s a culture and way of working that’s designed to enable risk-taking.
“At the end of the day, B2B customers use both their head and their heart to make buying decisions,” says Ashling. “Our customers aren’t just looking for a technology platform but a strategic partner that they will go on a journey with. Our relationship with brands like PensionBee or the Co-op involves aligning around values that will enable them to do great things. That connection is how we operate.”
Innovation from co-creation
An emphasis on partnership flows through into how Ashling and her team approach content marketing – with a strong emphasis on co-creating stories with customers. It’s this kind of content strategy which drove the Dreamforce Trailblazer Experience, a four-day online learning and sharing event that the business pivoted to this year, in place of its traditional in-person conference. It’s also powered Leading through Change, a content platform where Salesforce customers share their experiences of navigating the pandemic, and which has become one of the brand’s biggest successes in terms of engagement.
“We feel a lot of freedom to innovate and create because so much of it is done in partnership with our customers,” says Ashling. “We’re freed from the shackles because we’re creating our marketing with the people it’s going to serve. If something doesn’t work out, then we know the intention has been pure – and we know our customers are learning with us. It gives us the freedom to take a test and learn approach.”
Aligning whole organisations – B2B marketing’s new role
This partnership approach and emphasis on listening to customers puts Ashling in a fascinating position. She’s a B2B marketer who’s also an enabler of B2B marketers – and she has a front row seat observing what she believes is a critical change in their role.
“I’ve never been prouder to be a B2B marketer and leader,” she says. “You’re seeing great B2B marketing leadership driving companies through this crisis. Senior leaders are looking to marketers for answers. Marketing has become the first point of call to tell them the tone and the messaging they need; to tell them how to lead not just through the pandemic but through the racial crisis, the climate crisis, and the crisis of the digital skills gap that the world’s been going through. Marketing organisations have been at the forefront of helping businesses navigate all of this.”
What will it mean for marketing to step up and take on this leadership role? According to Ashling, it means acting as the central point in the organisation that brings the voice of the customer – and co-ordinates different functions to help respond to it. “We are moving to a post-pandemic world and an explosion of customer data is available. Having a single source of truth — shared across the business — has never been more important. This helps marketers fully understand and empathise with their customers and deliver relevant experiences that build loyalty.”
“Aligning with sales is one component, but as B2B marketers our task should really be to align every department,” she says “We can play this beautiful role as an orchestrator bringing all parts of the organisation together around the common cause that is the customer.”
Going forward, it will also mean a new and more responsive approach to planning. “The idea of setting out a marketing plan for the next year, or the next two to three years… I don’t know that it’s fit for purpose anymore,” says Ashling. “The North Star and the vision can be there, but how you execute needs to be agile, with a flexibility to manoeuvre to where customers are going. I think that’s the big change that we’re going to see as a result of the last year.”
But above all, from Ashling’s perspective, it means having the courage to act as guardians of a business’ sense of purpose. Personalised, empathetic engagement has never been more important. Delivering messages and offers that resonate with an individual’s unique needs and expectations requires deep insights. “There’s a wonderful opportunity for B2B marketers and their companies to lean on their values at the moment,” she says. “Purpose wasn’t something B2B marketers wanted to be seen to be doing a decade or so ago – but that’s changed. We’re seeing more and more with the bravery to take a values-based approach.”
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