Hummingbird Creative Group’s CEO, Wendy Coulter, and VP of Operations, Dan Gregory, recently interviewed Eric Masters, VP of Marketing regarding Relias Learning branding hurdles they faced and how they overcame them.
What is Branding?
Wendy: So we’re here today with Eric Masters, VP of marketing at Relias Learning. Thank you so much for coming over. We really appreciate you taking part in this branding hurdles project. So the first question that I have to ask you is “What does branding mean to you?”
Eric: Thanks. Well, it’s a pleasure to be here. I look forward to the conversation. For me branding is a very complex term and it, to me, comes from my experience both at Coca Cola in consumer goods as well as in B2B type environments, and essentially, to me, branding is “What do consumers or your clients feel about your product or your company and what does your name or what do your trademarks and those things mean to them?” So, it’s a very visceral emotional type of response about what your company or product means to people and how they feel about you, and one of the really interesting challenging things about that, and this is part of a class I teach at Relias, is when you realize and understand that you do not own your brand. No matter what you want to say about your brand, or what you want it to represent out in the marketplace, the fact is that your clients and the consumers out there are the ones that own the brand and they are the ones who determine what that brand is and what it stands for, regardless of what it is that you’re trying to say about it.
Dan: Would it be safe to say that your brand is evolving whether you like it or not?
Dan: So, tell me a little bit about—it would seem that if that’s the case and brand is owned by others’ perceptions that there’s got to be some kind of connection in order to stay relevant going forward. So how to you do that?
Eric: Well, the connection is really made up by the gestalt of all the experiences and interactions that the consumers have with your product or with your company, whether that is in consumption and usage, whether that is through media, whether that’s through client service or the like, but it’s those ongoing touch-points that continue the definition and build up the brand.
Background On Relias
Wendy: Ok. So, what I was going to ask you to do is, if you’re willing, is frame up for me the metrics of change from the day you walked in at Relias to today in terms of employees, sales, any metrics of growth over the time that you’ve been there.
Eric: So, I joined Relias in the summer of 2013, so it’s just over 3 years. In that time our revenues have more than tripled, so a lot of that has been organic growth, we’ve probably grown probably about an average of 25-30% a year as well as through acquisitions, and one of the things that having our brand idea and our structure and our framework in place has done is allow us to roll these acquisitions in properly and to integrate them into that process. Another area that we grew was obviously the staffing and so the marketing team when I came on board in ’13 was about 6 people on board. We now have over 20 in a variety of different roles, and the company as a whole has grown pretty dramatically we’re up to about 400 people working for Relias with plans to more than double that in the next coming years.
Relias Learning Branding Hurdle #1: Communicating The Concept Of Brand To The Larger Organization
Wendy: So what kind of hurdles or challenges have you faced with the branding at Relias?
Eric: Well, I think one of the biggest, and this is not unique to Relias, is that branding is too important to leave up to the marketing department, and it is not something that marketing owns in and of itself, and so as part of a class that I teach, which is part of the corporate bootcamp that everybody goes through, I explain that the interaction that somebody may have with a client-care representative, or some other interaction that they may have with a sales person or somebody from finance and accounts payable or the product itself, those interactions, whether it’s with the product or the people representing the company, have so much of a larger impact on what they feel about Relias and the brand than some of the traditional marketing materials and traditional things that the marketing department can do. So, the approach that we take is that it is up to the marketing department to help create the guideposts and create the strategy behind what we want people to feel about the Relias brand. Make sure that we communicate that to all the departments and that they understand that and enlist their help and support in putting together that gestalt and that entire experience of how our clients interact with and experience the Relias brand.
Wendy: So what is the hurdle there? Is it getting people to understand that? Or is it the communication between the departments to roll it out? What’s the most challenging?
Eric: So I think number one is communicating to the organization the concept of a brand idea and this is what we want people to feel about Relias and this is what we want Relias to represent in the marketplace. So there’s definitely internal training that goes on with that. Then secondly, if there’s not example or reinforcements or things over time, a lot of times its difficult for people to put that to work or really get a sense of how to do that in their day-to-day jobs.
Wendy: How do you get buy-in from the internal team into that kind of concept?
Eric: Well, I think you just have to kind of lay it out within a logic and a structure of how it ties into the product, how it ties into the Relias experience and what we’re trying to accomplish in the marketplace. I tell people there are lots of brands and tons of money in advertising and people don’t get it, because it doesn’t fundamentally tie into the product, the mission of the company, it’s just advertising, it’s just marketing saying here is our idea, right? So at Relias, we have a very deliberate, very thoughtful choice to figure out, well, how do we tie that brand idea into the mission of the company and into the product itself so that it is easily reinforceable hopefully by everybody in the organization and we understand why we are going out with that idea.
Dan: So, it sounds like your operationalizing the brand—where the organization as a whole is contributing to, delivering against and participating in the customer experience, the product delivery, all of those things and you’re this conductor with all these different instruments out there and you’re trying to get them to play the right notes at the right time.
Eric: Yeah. Within the marketing department, we obviously take the lead and we’re responsible for things like the visual identity, things like the communication strategy, the content that we’re developing, the website, the navigation and all those types of things, but once again, if you do that in isolation of the company and the rest of the departments and the interactions that they are having with folks, you’re just not going to get the impact that you want out in the market place.
Wendy: So, is the bootcamp a way to overcome this? Is that how that came about? Talk about that a little bit.
Eric: Yep. So, every now employee goes through a two-week corporate bootcamp when they start. They learn about the company’s culture, the company’s values, mission and the like. And they learn about all the different departments at the company. So for marketing, this is one of the things that we talk about with all the new employees, which there have been quite a few of if you follow the trajectory of Relias over the last few years.
Relias Learning Branding Hurdle #2: How Do Measure The Results Of Branding?
Wendy: So at Relias, is there a way to measure that or keep your finger on that pulse and how do you manage through that as things change over time?
Eric: So we had initially done a brand tracking study, which sometimes people will do and take a little bit of time and money to go out and study the marketplace and to really get some feedback, but beyond that we also on a very regular basis are getting feedback form our clients, from other stores, doing surveys, doing other things like that to get a sense of what they are experiencing and what they are feeling about Relias and about the brand.
Dan: Can you think of a change or something that you implemented as a result of your listening to the those, just as an example, in ways that you may have either changed the organization or changed the way that you’ve marketed so that you’re meeting that perception? Does that make sense?
Eric: Yeah, yeah. So, one of the things that we did at Relias was we took business by different verticals within healthcare, and when we did the brand survey and did our research we found the there were some different perceptions and also some differences in what was important to clients in the different health care verticals that influenced our communication strategy with where we are now.
Wendy: Good. Talk about the results of that. How has that made an impact on the organization?
Eric: It’s always challenging to track the results internally within a company, but I would say that there’s definitely a sense and a feel within the employee base of who Relias is. We take great, great pride in taking care of our clients, which again is not something that marketing can necessarily drive but we can just reinforce with the client-care teams and the like, and we also have been very fortunate to have very happy clients who have done lots of testimonials for us and a lot of things on the website and a lot of collateral pieces and the like, so all in all I think that we are doing a good job.
Dan: So, circling back to that, not a week if not a day or hour goes by that somebody’s not asking about ROI on brand. It’s a conversation and, you know, the first time I heard it, it was the deer-in-the-headlights look, and I’ve got some language in my head around it, but I’m just curious, an executive comes up to you and says, “Gosh. What’s the ROI on our brand?” You say…
Eric: So, in the same way that you would be hard pressed to manage or to track the ROI on the individual IT initiative within the company, like what is the ROI of operating the phone system? Or what is the ROI of some of these types of things that are just parts of marketing that you cannot parse out to that fine kind of detail, but certainly at the end of the day you can take a look at your total customer acquisition cost and your total marketing spend and your total sales spend, and you can take a look and say how are things going? What are things doing? There are certain types of initiatives that you can look at individually from a marketing perspective, if it happens to be a trade show or something
Men: At a tactical level, I had so many visitors, I had so many people come by the booth that translated into so many leads and deals, but when it’s a foundational or strategic type of initiative, you really are going to have to measure the entirety of the effort, and when you talk about branding, right, it should be impacting the marketing collaborative. It’s basically setting a foundation of who you want to be out in the market place. So…
Eric: And those conversations went well?
Eric: So, I think if you try to have those conversations grounded in a budget or a wide perspective, you’re going to struggle. Right? If you try to have those conversation within the contract of ‘How are we going to differentiate in the marketplace? How are we going to enable and empower our sales teams and our client-care teams to go excel at what they do?’ then you have the chance to have a substantive conversation.
Dan: Thank you.
Relias Learning Branding Hurdle #3: Repositioning
Wendy: What is an interesting branding initiative that the company will take on this year, or has already taken on this year?
Eric: Yeah, so Relias went through a pretty major repositioning initiative earlier this year where we focused on trying to take the value proposition on the company beyond just compliance training. So a lot of the training in health care is stuff where people have to check the box, “I took my hand washing”, “I took this”, “I took this” in order to maintain regulatory compliance, but we fundamentally feel, and we have the content to support from a training perspective that training can play a tremendous role in the client’s satisfaction, in clinical outcomes, in development of staff and the like, and so we went through a brand new initiative to start communicating that better and conveying that out to the marketplace. So it was a very comprehensive initiative that entailed everything from, you know, on the marketing side we’re doing websites, we’re doing collateral, we’re doing content, we’re doing types of customer testimonials that we did and the like, it involved bundling and repackaging of the courses themselves, which was like our product management team, and it involved retraining of the sales and the client-care organization to understand “here’s the value proposition that we’re trying to communicate out to the marketplace” and how the product is now being set up and how to go and deliver that, so it was a very big initiative.
Wendy: It’s rare for us to hear that there aren’t challenges at the top with branding, with convincing. You know, a lot of time there’s somebody saying, “Well maybe we don’t need to do this.” Talk about why that’s different at Relias.
Eric: So I think, I’ve been fortunate enough to have both Relias and Care Anywhere to lead some some pretty significant branding initiatives, branding type initiatives, and what may have helped me are the frameworks and the experiences that I was able to get on the consumer side of things from the Coca-Cola company, which obviously has a very disciplined and very strategic approach to how they build out their brand and how they build out a brand idea and the like, and a lot of, I’d say, the concepts have been taken over into, be it business to business, or software, or other things like that, and so in approaching things with management to say, “Guys, here is how management is typically built, the frameworks behind it, a process we can go through,” and the like, we have been able to gain alignment up front to start going down that path to take steps to update and refresh the brand.
Dan: It sounds, too, like there’s a bit of a cultural difference in that in—maybe I’m reading it wrong, but that Relias has kind of this culture of listening, responding…
Eric: Yeah. So the culture of Relias is something that is taken very, very seriously. Quite a bit of time and attention is put on it. It is built around—there’s a book by Patrick Lencioni called “The Advantage,” which basically talks about how the only sustainable competitive advantage is your culture. Technology changes, trends change, the market changes. Your culture needs to be adaptive and able to help you respond to that and that is something that every executive at Relias has read and gone through and it is discussed at executive meetings and most of the managers have also gone through it as well.
Dan: So it’s ingrained.
Dan: That’s awesome.
Connecting The Content Strategy To The Brand Through The Customers
Wendy: Can you talk about, in your experience, ways to connect the content strategy to the brand to come out of the gate with something different? I think it’s challenging for everyone. There’s so much, how do we write something that no one else has ever said before in our space? Can you talk about that a little bit?
Eric: Yeah, so you know there’s a couple of falsehood related to that question and the first is that it doesn’t always have to be something that hasn’t been said before. It can be just said better or said different and that can make big difference. Now, the questions of how do you get that content and how do you tie it into the brand and the like, that’s one of the frameworks that I brought with me from my days in consumer products in Coca-Cola, which is the process and framework of building up to a brand idea and brand idea that is built typically on a couple of communication frameworks, and once you understand what are those core pillars and those core foundational elements that you want to have people hearing about, understanding about your brand, it helps them drive their overarching feeling about your brand, that should help drive your content strategy to support that and be grounded in the product as well.
Wendy: I love that. I mean, that’s something that everybody needs to learn, right? And it’s not just something to learn from, but it’s something that even when you know you’ve been rambling, you get side tracked, really easily, but you know, get in a hurry, you’ve imposed deadlines that you’ve got to get content out on a certain date with a certain focus or whatever and the brand’s not coming through but you do it anyway. It just gets sidetracked over and over and over again, so… I think that’s just an ongoing conversation about brand and content. I personally am to a point where I say, take your time with content. Don’t try to drive content with timed deadlines because it needs to be relevant and it needs to be good and it needs to reflect the brand, and if you can’t do those three things by the deadline then you just didn’t need to try to make that happen. People are so, driven by daily posting online and so driven by this “We’ve got to turn out the content, turn out the content,” and I think, you know, losing sight of some of those really important pillars as they go forward, so I think that’s neat. That’s a neat thing to do.
Eric: Yeah I think it’s really, it’s important to take the time to do that. You know, there’s a great quote by Mark Twain that said, “If I had more time I would write a shorter letter.” The idea of being able to say more with less and the idea of simplicity is hard, but that’s something that marketing has to be able to take the time to do, because if marketing doesn’t do it nobody else will. So taking the time…
Wendy: But balance that with Google wanting 2,500 words to find how relevancy in your article, right? There’s some big challenges in that. Because the great ad writers of yesterday said more with less. That was the art of writing the headline, and now we’re in this content strategy where you’ve go to have more words and you’ve got… So, it’s interesting because there’s this new realty, it’s different rules, same game different rules, and I still believe that saying more with less is really important.
Eric: One of the ways that we found Relias was very successful in getting content and telling the story was to let our customers and clients tell it. They’re more believable than we are. They know the issues and the problems that they’re dealing with better and their stories are great stories. That’s one way to generate more content that also takes the pressure off the internal resources. To some extent you’re always still putting some time and effort in to work with the clients and making sure that the stories are coming out properly, but letting them tell their stories is definitely an opportunity for most folks.
Dan: So we’ve done some work with customer experience maps, journey maps, buying cycles, and content wise, and I was just curious, because you talked about all these listening posts and kind of how they match up the brands but do you go through some kind of journey?
Eric: Yeah, absolutely. We are definitely continuing to build up our content to map against the client journey.
Dan: A defined journey?
Eric: A defined journey. We do know with Relias, one of the things that’s very important but also challenging is we know that it’s a consensus buying framework, so on the client’s side there are typically up to 5 people involved in the buying decision.
Dan: Do you do personas?
Eric: We do. We do personas which are led by the product management team, and then from a marketing perspective we need to make sure that we are trying to provide the content that enables our primary influencer to navigate internally and to get the other people on board and we have to generally take through awareness, investigation, research, consideration, decision, and the like. You know, the various studies out there show that over, well, I don’t know, about over 60% business to business purchase decisions, the research is done before they ever talk to a sales person. So the idea in the time and day of just cold calling and hoping to get somebody on the phone and starting the process by explaining, “Here’s what my company does and here’s what we have to offer” that doesn’t happen much anymore. So that’s one of the things in B2B environment that’s really important for the marketing team to do— it’s to help provide the research for the prospects so that when they do get in touch with sales work or sales do get in touch with them, they are further down that buying cycle.
Dan: That’s awesome. So, I just want to make sure that I understand so I’m going to say it back to you. So, you’re mapping out the experience and then you’re developing content specific to where that person or where that group is in the cycle and that content is designed to give them what they need and information or something to give to the next phase of the buying cycle.
Eric: That’s correct.
Wendy: So what kind of branding trends do you see coming?
Eric: In 2017? I think it’s going to be a fascinating year on a kind of macro level for the United States. We’re obviously going through right now and winding down a very divisive and front-of-the-newspaper (maybe should be in the back of the newspaper) political campaign, and I thinks it’s really rubbed some raw emotions with the majority of the population on one side or the other. I think once the election is finalized and the calendar turns, people are going to b looking for a sense of normalcy, a sense of kind of returning to their comfort zones, a sense of returning to their lives and their understanding that as a person they can even be above and beyond all the messiness that went along in the elections and I think brands can help play a large role in that, in the messages that they send to their constituents and to their customers and clients and in communicating to the clients along the value bases that are relevant and important to them as individuals. So I think you’re going to see a lot of marketing that gets away from hyperbole. It’s back more towards values and core beliefs type of thing and helps people reground themselves in, “Hey, regardless of what goes on in Washington with the messiness and the craziness, my life that I have a round me with my family and friends and community is a good one.”
Dan: So in our last AMA branding SIG, we had some conversation around organizations focusing more on brand and getting back to some basics of brand, and, you know, over the years, technology and things, we as consumers are just inundated with messages. We get pounded on the way to work, we get pounded at work with just all this stuff. I mean, we’ve gotten really good at ignoring a lot. Do you think with this turn in history, this page turn and some of the things you mentioned with normalcy, do you think we’ll as marketers we’ll get back to some basic messaging that’s more connected that people will pay more attention to or do you think it’s… this whole idea of more and more and more and more messages just to get somebody to notice you because of all the noise, do you see that changing any at all?
Eric: No. I think… there’s always been—let me start over. No. I think that there has always been a challenge to get consumers’ attention. Once you made it past the 1970s and television stations and the like, you know, there was always a plethora or television stations, outdoor billboard, magazines, you name it. There are different way to communicate, and in today’s world consumers are consuming just more and more content and they are going to continue to consume more and more content, right? So, it’s just going to be incumbent upon companies to figure out “How do I put out content in a way shape and form that people want to consume to break through that clutter?” but I don’t think that the amount that gets published or gets put out there will be reduced and I don’t believe that the amount that consumers want to consume will be reduced either.