Emerson’s chief marketing officer since 1999, Kathy Button Bell has overseen a massive rebranding effort that dropped the “electric” in the company’s name and brought 35 autonomous sub-brands under one overarching umbrella.
Consistently tapped as one of BtoB Magazine‘s top marketers, Button Bell has redesigned how the voice of the customer integrates with research and development, and cultivated a brand story that resonates with businesses around the world and infiltrates every niche within the company. I sat down with Button Bell to explore how she inspires change in a slow-moving organization.
Carla Johnson: Emerson is a $24 billion global manufacturing and technology company with 133,000 employees. Where do you begin trying to inspire and instill innovation on this size and scale?
Kathy Button Bell: The first obvious step was a much more aggressive approach to market research. Everything starts with research and development — what we call “Stage Gate Zero.” We took the voice of the customer (VOC) and backed it up to the beginning of everything we create and deliver.
The stickler with many B2B companies is they wait until stage five or six — when they’ve started producing a product — and then show it to customers to hear what they think. We wanted to instill VOC into the earliest stages of product development for a more innovative approach because many of the answers to our customers’ problems aren’t product-focused anymore. (They might want a single invoice for a complex bundle of products and solutions, or a way for us to deliver better service.) As customers get savvier, especially in B2B, they look for things like efficiency, productivity, and cost savings because financial demands are stringent. If you can make doing business easier for your customers, you’re golden.
Johnson: For many companies, marketing tells one story externally but the customer experience is completely different. How does brand storytelling fit into the Emerson picture?
Button Bell: Emerson’s story focuses on reducing complexity for customers… what we call “consider it solved.” Every story we tell and activity we do originates from the “consider-it-solved” ethos. For example, we looked at the innovation process for stage zero of product development and how we migrate forward. Most of our new product development wasn’t actually new; it was focused on product revisions. We wanted our R&D to be truly innovative and push our organization into new places. The only way we could do that was to talk to customers about what’s not being done. Our brand storytelling drives everything within our organization.
Johnson: Tell me about some of your content efforts at Emerson that are truly innovative. What makes you the most proud?
Button Bell: The Extra Mile, a blog written by our senior executive vice president, Charlie Peters. Charlie’s an expert on business, but he’s also a runner (and an expert on that too). Through his blog, he shares letters to his son in Afghanistan, life lessons from a different decade — it’s interesting and poignant… not the normal business topics. And Charlie’s efforts educate people internally. We’re able to show management and engineers how channels feed one another.
I don’t think other companies have someone on their top-five management team who’s willing to share themselves as holistically as Charlie does. He comes across as trustworthy because he’s so consistent, and no one else has that voice but him. Our audience knows it’s not a PR person doing it because you can’t fake that kind of honesty.
Johnson: How do you talk about the importance of content and engagement with those outside of marketing, such as your CEO, executive team, and engineers?
Button Bell: By looking at our online conversational footprint, we’ve shown teams where we need to be better brand storytellers. We talk about the conversation we want to be having in the marketplace. What words, ideas, and phrases do we want Emerson to be known for? We had an exercise where we took some of our online content and made a “wordle.” It was an immediate visual display of the huge gap between what we want to be talking about and what we’re actually talking about.
Johnson: You’ve been able to lead a significant amount of change throughout the entire Emerson organization — not just marketing. Is there anything else that you see on the inside that you want people to know on the outside?
Button Bell: I’m proudest watching the pendulum swing internally toward being more innovative in our communications. We’re “younging up” the way we present all of our messages, whether it’s to employees or customers. We have music from alternative bands in our ads. We create infographics and YouTube content. We’re also creating many more GoPro videos. Every day we keep getting more authentic and fun. Gen Y cares about clean, authentic, and real. The message and tone are just as important for employees we recruit as it is for sales… maybe even more so because our employees are the ones who make our brand story real for customers.