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Q&A with SAP’s Global Chief Marketing Officer Alicia Tillman

30-second summary:

  • Delivering a more purposeful brand narrative and consolidating all the communication behind that was one Alicia’s biggest challenges at SAP, so far.  
  • Technology is the backbone that enables brands to run at scale. But there needs to be a solid process around it, that really works to define your objectives and how you are going to measure success.
  • Companies need to work a lot harder to get closer to the customer and better understand their wants and expectations. Based on that they can shape an operation that will attract the customers, and keep them for life.
  • The biggest trend is going to be around customer experience and how marketers can lead the development of an exceptional experience, that they are offering to their customers.
  • Marketers need to see their role in bringing value to the company. If they see that and embrace it, and lead with it to drive increased value, then they will always win.

2019 saw SAP being named as one of the most influential brands in the world by BrandZ.

Under the stewardship of Global Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Alicia Tillman, the multinational software corporation has focused on communicating a more purposeful brand narrative, and looked to provide their customers an experience that they truly want to engage with.

We spoke to Alicia about her SAP journey so far, and what we can expect from them in 2020:

Q) Tell us about your background and how you became CMO of one of the most influential global brands today?

“Prior to joining SAP, I spent 11-years at American Express, where I was responsible for marketing and communication for their travel services brand.

“Following that I was initially brought into SAP in 2015 to help transform one of their brands — SAP Ariba — which was incorporated into their portfolio about three years prior to my joining.

“It was a great opportunity for me to work with their new President to supercharge their innovation engine and really see how we could financially grow the business, which we managed to do by double digits for eight consecutive quarters!

“Based on that success, I was asked by the then CEO Bill McDermott, to become the global CMO of SAP and I have held that position for over two years now. So a very exciting journey for me, so far!”

Q) As you mentioned, you have now been the global CMO of SAP for two years, what have been the two biggest challenges so far, and how did you deal with them?

“The first real thing that I wanted to do was to ensure that we had a very clear understanding of SAP’s purpose, and the value we deliver to our customers. I realized that while we had many campaign messages, they weren’t anchored under a singular brand narrative. This was important for me to fix. 

“SAP is a company that was founded 47-years-ago with the purpose of helping the world run better and improve people’s lives. That’s such a beautiful and authentic purpose, that really resonates so much today, based on how buyers choose the brands they want to partner with. I really wanted this to be at the core of how we tell our story. 

“So in mid-2018 we wrote and released our first brand narrative, which has served as a wonderful rallying cry for our employees, and also brought a real sense of clarity around the purpose of SAP and the collective value that we deliver to serve our customers.

“My second challenge was to then deliver this new narrative in style, that would really resonate with many people. In the B2B space we spend a lot of time messaging and marketing to decision makers. But there’s so much influence in the buying process today and, because of that, our message has to be relevant to a variety of audiences. 

“So I  worked hard with my team to humanize the story we were telling, ensuring that it was resonating at an emotional level, and that when we told our story, we were showing up in new spaces and offering exciting experiences. We wanted something fun and unusual and the result drew a very emotional connection with many of our buyers and influencers that we wanted to reach. 

“That was a pretty significant change in direction that I led for the business. So I would say those were two of the new opportunities that I really led since I’ve come into the role here at SAP.”

Q) How has marketing technology aided you in your role so far?

“Technology is, in so many ways, the backbone that enables us to run at scale. I will be quick to say that if you want tech to be successful in your operations, then you need a solid process around it, that works to define your objectives and how you are going to measure success. 

“This will then give you an idea about how people need to operate alongside the technology and how it can help to enable your success.

“For example, this year we embraced the ‘experience management platform’ at SAP, and so we acquired a company called Qualtrics, who is in the experience management space. 

“Essentially what it does is, it helps companies gain access to a new form of data that really help them to get closer to the customer. It does this by understanding the customer’s feedback, wants and needs, and then consolidating that into a system of action, which helps the companies to serve them better and give their customers what they truly want from them as a company.”

Q) Can you give us a brief insight into your process behind implementing the tech?

“Sure, to give you an example, as part of SAP’s value proposition we offer technology to marketers and, at the beginning of this year, we launched a new marketing automation technology in all the markets that we operate in. 

“Our deployment and implementation team then worked closely with the field marketers to  manage through and build a process around, how the day-to-day campaign management will work, and how is it going to change by market, as there is no ‘one size fits all’ in terms of the process. 

“This collaborative mission helped us put in place a system that educated and assisted the marketers who engaged with our tech. By building that understanding, the users knew what was going to change and, then, what would be the process in terms of roles and responsibilities of who managed what relative to the campaign management and how we were measuring success. So it was not only technology, implementation, but also it was process, development and change management that went hand in hand alongside.”

Q) People and purpose were obviously core to everything SAP did in 2019. Are you happy with what you have achieved this year? What was your favorite highlight?

“Very happy, yes. We positioned SAP’s story around experience management this year. Oftentimes companies are chosen based on the quality of the experience they provide. We’re in the business of helping our customers win in this experience economy, and we focused our marketing efforts this year, on showcasing what this means. I think we’ve done a really nice job in capturing the ‘share of voice’ around experience management and how we help our customers win. 

“To give you an example, we recently ran a campaign from September through to November. We wanted to base it around an experience that really mattered to people, and so we picked the ‘daily commute’. So we hit the streets in Manhattan and San Francisco to conduct research and found that: 78% of the people wanted to see more greenery in their commute; 73% wanted a change of scenery; and 88% wanted a more comfortable commute.

“Based on all that data we set up pop-up activations in New York and San Francisco and offered a few things like an urban flower garden, where we had SAP brand ambassadors hand out flowers to commuters as they pass by. We also created a scenic and fun photo backdrop, where commuters could take selfies. And we created a commuter lounge, which had comfortable chairs, a massage therapist and a violinist, among other amenities.

“All this was done to have an emotional, personal and authentic connection with our customers. And it worked. We had over a million impressions from all of the social assets that we had of the activations. Thousands of people visited the activations in both cities, as well. So we were really happy about doing something different, showing up in a meaningful way, and doing it all around this idea of understanding what people want and then creating an experience based on that.”

Q) Looking forward can you tell us your vision for SAP in 2020? 

“There are a few things that I’d really like to focus on going forward. The first is, continue to enable our customers to share their feedback more deeply with the brands they choose to interact with, and then see how to harness that information and action it into something meaningful across our operations. 

“We  believe that things like customer experience, customer service, creating memorable experiences around your brand are going to remain a priority for companies, and so that’s the first thing that I would say you can look forward to with SAP, as we move into 2020. 

“Secondly, we are going to continue to demonstrate the authentic purpose of SAP across every touch point of our marketing journey. This is important because 91% of customers today say that they would switch brands if they found a different one, which was more purpose driven. 

“So consumers absolutely are choosing brands that are focused on giving back and doing good. I think this is a reflection, not only of our current workforce, but it’s certainly a reflection of the workforce that is continuing to come into our marketplace as well, and we have to pay attention to that. 

“And, finally, I would like to keep an eye on modern technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning and the increased use of data around the experience — and see how these can help us provide better, and more relevant value to our customers, and how that in turn will help shape the company’s operations.”

Q) Obviously customer trust is at a low point at the moment, and people are holding brands to the highest standards when it comes to their data. With that in mind how do you win back the consumer’s trust?

“There is a tremendous trust deficit right now. Gartner’s recent report showed that 80% of CEOs believe that they’re delivering an exceptional customer experience whereas only 8% of consumers agree with that statement.

“There is a massive disconnect there and that has happened due to a number of reasons. The first being misuse of customer data. There needs to be continued transparency. When it comes to data collection, most customers are willing to share their info, as long as they are aware of it and that data is used to provide them with a better experience. But the reality is that there’s been a lot of misuse of data over the recent years and so companies have a lot to recover from that. 

“The second factor is the increase in competition. There is so much choice in the marketplace today. People are leaving brands a lot faster if their experience isn’t living up to expectations. So, companies need to work a lot harder to get closer to the customer and better understand their wants and expectations. Based on that we can shape an operation that will attract them, and keep them for life. 

“So, those are the two biggest things that I would say are the issues that we’re faced with. But equally, there are very clear opportunities for us to think about how to overcome them, so that we can win trust and we can keep customers for life.”

Q) Can you give us your key trends, both in the digital marketing and martech sectors, for 2020?

“The biggest trend is going to be around customer experience (CX) and how marketers can lead the development of an exceptional experience, that they are offering to their customers.

“I think marketers gaining access to experience and experiential data — and using it to drive a solid operation which in turn drives an exceptional experience — that is going to be the biggest focus of marketers.

“It is a marketers’ market right now to really help drive increased value to the benefit of the customer, because we live in this experience economy and I think that marketers have the ability to really help shape that CX in the companies that they work for.”

Q) With all that said, how do you see the role of CMO changing and what advice would you have for those just starting their marketing leader journey?

“I think as competition evolves, as trust erodes, and as companies look towards growth — there is always going to be pressure on the CMO to rise up and help chart the course in these environments. That is always going to be the case. 

“Oftentimes, the scrutiny that you find on the marketing role is more of a call for increased value and leadership during periods where there’s high competition in the marketplace, and that’s what I think we need to remember. 

“I don’t think that the role of the marketer, frankly, is, nor ever should be, questioned. What we should be questioning is the evolving nature of the value that a marketer brings to a company. Because I do think that evolves and shifts, based on a number of factors. Marketers need to see their role in that. And if they see it, and embrace it, and lead with it to drive increased value, then marketers will always win!”

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