Our Conversation with Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Sandy Ono

More than ever before, marketing needs to aggressively move from being seen as a function or cost center, to a true enabler of unique customer understanding that can be directly correlated to growth. The path to doing this is riddled with challenges, particularly for those who have been weathering the rampant pace of transformation these last few years, while being forced to put together the pieces of the plane while flying it.

Sandy Ono's Picture

Sandy Ono sat down with BRANDthrō co-founder Billee Howard for her ‘A Conversation With’ column, originally published on Forbes.com.

Many of these challenges have a lot to do with moving from data to insights at accelerated speeds and pivoting from transactional relationships to service-oriented ones. For these reasons I wanted to speak to someone who has ridden the wave of recent change to help pilot the proverbial plane within known geographies, while also helping her brand soar into unchartered territories. Sandy Ono is VP of Growth Marketing at of HPE. She is a marketing strategist with years of experience at leading brands such as Deloitte, Disney and Ford, figuring out how to operationalize insights in ways that drive measurable growth. Following is a recap of our conversation:

Billee Howard: Great to hear your voice Sandy. We talked about the changing landscape when we last caught up and you mentioned that marketing now needs to be bifurcated. What does that look like and mean exactly?

Sandy Ono: A lot of organizations are going through a transition of their business models. In our case, at HPE, we’re going from being a traditional hardware company, to a services company. The rate of digital transformation has magnified the need to shift, so most of the time we are all incubating something new, while optimizing the old. Marketing is often the steward of the customer experience that manifests itself in the perception of the company’s brand.  So in a bifurcated model, we are constantly balancing for where we are now and allocating our resources to that, while at the same time also being able to tackle sometimes very different customer personas, or segments in different ways, for building something new. That takes a lot of marketing muscle. You’re retooling your marketing organizations at the same time you’re trying to achieve really fast growth. That often introduces lots of interesting challenges, whether it’s infrastructure that you need, automation that you require, or just building new skill sets and talent.

Howard: With that all in mind, what I’m really interested in talking with people like yourself right now, is best practices for making the pivot from a product centric or transactional marketing model, to more of a relationship based aaS model. I don’t think B2C and B2B really look that different in that regard. I’d love to hear your thoughts on things people should keep in mind when making that happen.

Ono: If you think about the relationship between sales and multiple product groups in the way you go-to-market, marketing now often has an opportunity to lead the pivot being in the middle of that value chain. What I mean by that is marketers represent the customer’s voice. Your sellers are already selling and focused on what they can push off the truck and your product teams are developing the things to be sold. However, marketing is the one that actually is the relationship builder with the customers. The question then quickly becomes how do we evolve marketing from transactional to more relationship based? What that boils down to is the interesting dynamic of not just understanding buyers and personas, but drilling down into buyer centers. Buyer centers have been talked about for a long time, it’s certainly not a new concept. There has however clearly been an explosion in this area recently. Five years ago, the ratio was the famous 1:4, one account, four people you’ve got to influence to win a deal. I think the latest figures we are seeing is 1:17. I think that magnitude of the number of people you have to engage and influence to sell today really forces a different dynamic on marketing.

It all comes down to scalability. You start thinking about, wow, do I have enough resources and how do we get that exponential power of digital? How do you actually get to the masses, but then be specific enough that you’re not overly generic? I think we all aspire to do personalized marketing. That’s been talked about a lot, but the usage of data and insights to scale precision marketing in the way we drive relevancy is key to building herd momentum and account level relationships.  The challenge that many larger enterprises face is automation and execution of marketing by account/topic/persona across multiple countries/languages … all within the growing privacy and data compliance standard that governs today.

Beyond the foundation, it is really is about mindset. What does it mean to market in a way that’s more relationship building oriented? If you’re more of a traditional transactional type of business and you’re moving to a relationship business, your teams need to understand that every interaction isn’t a chance to close the deal, it’s an opportunity to continue the dialogue.

Howard: I couldn’t agree more and that leads to the next thing I wanted to talk about. At a high level, data is very much synonymous with personalization. To me, insights are much more akin to where personalization needs to evolve, which is 1:1 commercial intimacy, or individual relationship building. With that in mind, a lot of people conflate the terms of data and insights when they’re obviously relational, yet entirely different. Can you tell me your thoughts on how leadership should think about insights differently to drive growth and how they can be used to empower action?

Ono: I think people conflate data and insights because often we’re thinking about the data foundations that need to be in place for the insights to even mean anything. The famous notion of “garbage in, garbage out” is a dilemma we all run into. Within the explosion of data, how do we actually focus on fewer metrics that matter?  It’s interesting. The growth of digital data actually is forcing marketers to move past marketing performance data in how we express the value of marketing, to just a handful of “needles to move” in the context of driving business growth, efficiency, market position, and readiness.  The truth is that most people outside of marketing don’t understand all the data around the demand funnel, visitors vs. engagement, and the nuances of influence in a multiple-attribution world.  Yet, what they are thirsty for is the customer insights we can bring back on how people engage with our products and services through digital signals.

If marketers aspire to that challenge, then we have to push our thinking on the application of insights beyond informing product development to reimagining how customers engage with you as a brand. How do we quantify, qualify, and draw insights around people’s emotions and people’s reactions to things that are a little bit fuzzy? How do we marry machine judgment with human judgement to rapidly synthesize and be more powerful in the way we can use insights to trigger the next-action? Again, data is data, insights are insights. Until you do something about it, it’s a nice-to-have.  In today’s times where we are always feeling the pressure to move faster, our ability to be very comfortable with the 80/20 rule, with directional, with extrapolation is key.  The cost of inaction actually outweighs the risk as we think about data and insights.

Howard: When we spoke last, I remember you riffing on the following: The new currency of marketing has to be…. I’d love you to share some of your insights on that statement.

Ono: The new currency of marketing has to be about business growth. Often in many organizations, marketing gets looked at as a function, and if you’re a function, you’re forever a cost center and under the pressures of cost reduction. Until you can really demonstrate that marketing is a driver of growth, the currency isn’t as valuable to the company as it could be. It’s aspirational in some ways, but really understanding your customers has become so much more intricate and important than ever before. Marketing has always been about that, but if the currency that you bring to the table isn’t recent, then that salesperson, the product person, everybody has their opinion, because everybody knows the customer. I think marketers have to challenge themselves to say, what is it that we can bring as a unique perspective of the customer? At what frequency and at what level are we demonstrating marketing as actually driving growth? Doing that in itself really becomes a new language and the way in which we can evolve marketing to have a true seat at the table.

To learn more about how to create your own Insights OS to best navigate these trends,  sign up for a free demo of our flagship product, the Emotional Profile Report (ePR).

Billee Howard, BRANDthrō Co-Founder & CEO, instigates conversations with the world’s top brand leaders to uncover the latest trends driving the intersection of insights and data-enabled decision-making in her 'A Conversation With' column for Forbes.com.

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