The CMO Mission: Producing Signature Moments

The CMO Mission: Producing Signature Moments

Breaking Through, With Help from Mark Hamill, Dana Carvey, and the Right Tune

Chapter 1 of a 12-chapter series

I am a strong believer that every Chief Marketing Officer should deliver iconic, memorable moments for their company. I like to call them signature moments. They are designed to create a breakthrough vibe for the business that rallies customers, partners and employees together behind a big, timely, new idea.  The reason for such moments could be a major product launch (think Steve Jobs’ “…and one more thing…”), an IPO, a new CEO’s arrival, a sales kickoff, a quarterly all hands meeting or the launch of a new brand campaign.

To be clear though, this isn’t just about launching a killer new campaign. Those run their course over time.  Think of this as a “lightning strike” moment .. could be a new campaign .. a keynote … or even a big product announcement .. bound together by a unique moment in time where you have your community together and paying attention … either physically or virtually.  A user conference that you own.  An industry conference where you carve out a moment across the attendees.  And of course, these days, virtual events that cut through the white noise of Zoom fatigue.

When I discuss this concept with my teams, I like to define three critical must haves that separate the typical from a true Signature moment:

  1. Rally Cry: There must be a “rally cry” headline that breaks through the conventional wisdom and narrative of the company.  It must hit on why customers want to be associated with you and how they feel when they do.  Resist the temptation (or inclination by others) to use this moment to declare what you do.  There’s plenty of time and content to accomplish just that. A rallying cry can double as a campaign theme, or be tied specifically to an event.  Either way, it must be designed for your audience to see your company in a different, breakthrough fashion. I’ll share examples below.
  2. Cultural Resonance: The experience, brought to life with spoken word, a brilliant anthem video, the perfect guest appearance, and best of all with all of the above, must have cultural relevance.  If your target demographic loves science fiction, explore how to connect Star Wars (or Star Trek… I love em both) into your experience. If you have an audience fatigued by the isolation of a pandemic, create a moment that conveys connection to loved ones. If your target audience grew up with iconic clothing, classic rock, a historical event, explore how you can tap into these touch points.
  3. Emotional Trigger: The moment must generate emotion!  And here’s the critical part .. the absolute, time-proven way to generate an emotional response is through music.  I’m a huge movie buff, and an avid soundtrack collector. And as any Hollywood director will tell you, a movie comes to life emotionally with the right music.  Steven Spielberg knew this all too well, starting with Jaws and John Williams.  And he told his good friend George Lucas that he had to work with Williams on the soundtrack for Star Wars.  Why? Case in point:

Now, with the magic of the right music:

All the difference in the world!

At this point, I know you’re thinking .. that’s nice, theoretical, and sounds pretty darned expensive.  Let’s get practical.  I’d like to share examples of exactly what I’m talking about here. Some produced by my teams.  Others I observed and took inspiration and copious notes.  All were Signature Moments that rose to the occasion for the company.

May the Moment be With You

I’ll start with an ultimate example of a Signature Moment.  In my opinion, no one does this better than Disney.  Back in 2015, Disney was firing up the marketing machine to build rabid anticipation for its new Star Wars (boy do I love Star Wars) reboot, “The Force Awakens”.  At the annual Star Wars Celebration convention, Disney created an incredible signature moment, where, after bringing out several actors for the past and present movies, they unveiled, for the first time, the new teaser trailer.

So here you have it: A massive “product launch”, with Disney/Star Wars’ most die hard fans all in one place, at one moment. The critical ingredients were there: 1. The rallying cry was essentially the title of the movie, representing a re-awakening of the franchise and fan base: “The Force Awakens”. Cultural resonance?  No doubt.  Everyone in the audience came armed with lightsabers and costumes. 3. Emotion? An amazing new trailer,designed to evoke massive emotions … from the swelling music by John Williams, old characters and new, and at the apex, the reappearance of Harrison Ford/Han Solo and Chewie.  The fans lose their minds.  Social media goes off.  The press coverage went through the rough.  Advance tickets went on sale.  THAT is a textbook signature moment … and it looked like this.

Ok, so that’s Hollywood marketing at its finest. What’s the application for a high tech, B2B company?  My next Signature Moment example is one I witnessed firsthand as a Cisco employee.   Back in 2007, Cisco was mounting a strategy to drive massive network infrastructure refreshes via new video conferencing solutions.  Cisco called it Telepresence.  It makes me laugh to think how novel this was last decade, constrained to today’s pandemic reality.  But back then, video collaboration was a clunky, niche application.

My Choice for Best Picture

A big challenge for Cisco was the prevailing narrative of the company: supplying the “plumbing” of the Internet. Essential infrastructure, but highly technical and as a marketing story, rather in the weeds, filled with terms like Ethernet, Internet Protocol (IP) routing, and Quality of Service (QoS) to handle high-priority voice and video traffic.  The company had a proud, decidedly geeky vibe that any network engineer would love. But how to breakthrough to a broader audience?  Not with that story! The opportunity was built on this foundation, with a new narrative that would punch through to business decision makers (and investors), and usher Cisco’s sales dialogues into C-suites.

Cisco CMO Sue Bostrom and head of Corporate Marketing Marilyn Mersereau came up with what I believe is one of the top technology company brand campaigns our industry has seen: “The Human Network”. This campaign told the story of how humans are brought together around the world through the power of the network, and the experience of collaboration solutions.  The signature piece of this campaign was a brilliant anthem video that wove this new narrative for Cisco.  But how to introduce and rally the company around it?

The answer was the Senior Leadership Offsite meeting in Monterey, California. This is where the company came together every year to set the vision, strategy and direction for the coming year. I’ve always believed, particularly in B2B, that your top weapon to amplify your brand is your employee base.  Particularly, I’d say your sales reps at each and every call.  Your support engineers fielding every customer inquiry. And every leader across the company spread the gospel. So when John Chambers delivered his keynote to us with his patented evangelical zeal, preaching his story for Cisco, you could feel the entire room of thousands start to swell with energy.

Then, Sue Bostrom took the stage to unveil the new Cisco narrative.   The rally cry? “Welcome to the Human Network.”  The cultural resonance? A campaign that painted a diverse, global picture of human experience and interaction.  The emotion?  A beautiful anthem video, scored to “The Who”, to perfectly score a trip around the world with the human network.  Whenever you are creating art, you are always aiming to create a chill up the back of your audience.  There were thousands of chills that day, and a team, armed with a new, breakthrough narrative and resolve, launched into the new year ready to take on the world.

Watching it back, this 2007 anthem reminds me how far we’ve come.  Your mobile phone is your ticket??  How novel! Tuning in to a wedding around the world via video? Really? I think this moment did a wonderful job capturing what experiences were right around the corner.

A Moment on Budget

Ever since this Human Network campaign unveiling, I’ve adopted the moment as a reference point for the remainder of my career. The challenge was how to replicate Signature Moments without the budget or scope of a $40B company.  One example I’d like to share is at F5 Networks. We were a $2B+ annual revenue company, with a strong position in the traditional, hardware-based Application Delivery Controller (ADC) market. The market was definitely shifting … away from applications being run predominately in on-premise data centers where F5 excelled, and into public cloud environments.  We were pivoting to apply our technology across multiple clouds, and going deeper on application security solutions.

We wanted to go into our annual sales kickoff with a new, simple, accessible way to articulate F5’s role in this changing landscape. The team cooked up a cool concept that brought together applications, security, cloud and performance.  It wasn’t just a campaign theme .. it was a rallying cry.  

“We Make Apps Go: Faster, Smarter, Safer”

Now we wanted to bring it to life like a preacher delivers a sermon in church.  Taking a page out of the Cisco Human Network playbook, I wanted an anthem video that would hopefully bring our sales reps to their feet.  Through audience testing, both outside and inside the company, we thought we had a winner with the rally cry.  We also knew that our reps’ constant complaint was that it was too difficult and complicated to tell new prospects, in a nutshell, what we have to offer. We were striking a nerve here with a dramatically different approach compared to the heavy tech-speak.

And we wanted to bring emotion. Alas, I didn’t have the budget to license music from “The Who”, “The Rolling Stones” (Start me Up?), or anyone big.  But here’s a cool tip: There are scores of super talented composers who you can commission, for VERY affordable rates, to compose unique music for your anthem video.  A tad more than licensing generic stock music, but WAY better quality and uniqueness.  We gave our guidance: compose a driving, upbeat song that played with the word “Go”. The team developed a video concept, here with stock footage to save money, to tell our story.  The team was excited with the final product, but the proving ground would be the audience reaction.

So up I went on stage in front of 2,000 of our sellers and partners.  I asked the room if they ever had a challenge describing what we do, whether it be a prospect, an investor, a partner, or a parent. 🙂  The answer was a resounding “yes!”  It was time to create a new moment, or completely bomb out (I remember a sales leader approaching me before my keynote, where he said “hey Ben … don’t screw it up.  Lots of expectations!”   Hilarious….

So I went through my setup, asking the room if they were ready to take things in a different direction.  “Yes!”  Ok then .. let’s go!

I’m not sharing this because it won any awards .. but it DID win this room.  Bigtime. As the video neared completion, I could feel the room start to buzz and rise.   When the F5 logo appeared with a “boom” at the end, standing ovation. The style, the tone and the simplicity of the piece, at a time the sales teams were begging for it, paid off. I looked over at my team and agency leads and smiled.  They were beaming ear-to-ear.  Signature Moment achieved!  We then drove this campaign into the market, and into our company narrative content.  It worked for the moment we were living as a company, and I was proud of the team for bringing it to life.

Surprise and Delight

At Nutanix, we take great pride in the simple, elegant, ease of use of the products.  The company pioneered Hyperconverged Infrastructure (HCI, which converges storage, network, complete and virtualization technologies into a dramatically simple experience to build and manage for IT pros.  The company takes great pride in this experience, which customers often call “surprise and delight.”

The goal in Nutanix marketing was to constantly innovate with “surprise and delight” experiences in how we launch, how we event, and how we execute demand generation.  We worked to create micro Signature Moments as a regular occurrence.  Creative rally cries, unique cultural resonance and emotion. We had several such signature wins over the years, that I’d like to share here for ideation.

One such Signature Moment was at our annual user conference, called .NEXT.  This event (in-person, and more recently virtual) is all about a user community, bonded by being pioneers in embracing and deploying HCI instead of the far more traditional, complex three-tier data center architectures.  The show is about education, professional certification, product launches, and a whole lot of fun.  Our Anaheim 2019 show was about Nutanix introducing new solutions that took our customers, who had already hyperconverged their on-premise data centers, forward into hyperconverging multiple cloud environments with the same “surprise and delight” simplicity.

Our rallying cry was “All Together Now” … a double entendre playing on bringing the entire community together, and hyperconverging clouds.  To amp up some nostalgic emotions we rolled out a fun anthem video that created characters out of each technology we were bringing together: infrastructure, apps and clouds.  And we scored it to The Turtles’ “Happy Together.”

What about cultural resonance?  This was the really cool part.  We wanted this show and launch to be truly memorable.  We considered the demographics of the room, and knew we would have a LOT of Star Wars fans in attendance.  So we went for an angle that triggered a good deal of fanboy/girl reaction:

Me with Mark Hamill. Definite bucket list item fulfilled.

Given what I said earlier, this was not only a bucket list moment for many of our customers who got to meet Mr. Hamill, but me as well. We talked about everything but technology. We discussed his Star Wars audition. Working with Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. Jumping into voice acting as The Joker in the Batman animated series. He was funny, endearing and in a nice final touch, his pet dog jumped off the lap of his daughter in the front row, and up onto his lap onstage.  Me and 7,000 others in the arena were completely into it. After the onstage interview, Mr. Hamill had a “meet and greet” backstage with our top community members. Some brought old, yellowed Star Wars posters from their childhood bedrooms for autographs. I saw more than one grown man in tears.

Signature Moment accomplished!

We’ve had others too. In the midst of the pandemic, the team launched “IT Unplugged”, an online live concert event series featuring a little bit of tech talk and a lot of unplugged performances by musicians such as Seal, Jewel, Darius Rucker (Hootie and the Blowfish) and John Resnik (Goo Goo Dolls). Again, a rallying cry (unplugging from the mundane Zoom meetings), cultural resonance (nostalgic performers) and emotion (music, and the chat commentary was through the roof). And best of all, the series delivered huge demand generation numbers.

We also launched a new campaign tied to our 2021 .NEXT User Conference. The rally cry, “Cloud on Your Terms”, doubled as the theme of the show. The cultural impact was tapping into the idea of spending more time with family. One of the most popular statements our customers make when they use Nutanix products is that we “gave them their weekends back.” We wanted to capture this spirit with working from home, and the increased importance of family time during the pandemic. The result was a new anthem video that played to the work culture of the moment, and the emotion of reconnecting with family … with a bit of cloud hyperconvergence in the mix. We scored it with an original composition that conveyed warmth and family.

It was all about surprise and delight at Nutanix. A unique rally cry, tied to culture, pulling on emotion was the ideal recipe for each big event or launch on the docket. Some worked better than others. Each represented wonderful, creative work by the team.

“Could Go Either Way”

My last example was the most important Signature Moment in my career. We had to pull it off, because the alternative would have been, literally, “losing the crowd.”  I’ll explain: In 2015, the Aruba team was preparing for our annual user conference, called Aruba Atmosphere. This annual conference brought together customers and partners who had bet on our company. Each had decided to shirk conventional wisdom of embracing the large networking incumbent (that would be Cisco) and instead go for the upstart challenger in Aruba.

As we approached our big event, we had another rather secret project in the works. We were in final negotiations to be acquired by Hewlett-Packard (before they rebranded as Hewlett-Packard Enterprise). As fate would have it, the acquisition announcement was set for the opening day of Aruba Atmosphere. The day 3,000 of our best customers converged on the Las Vegas Cosmopolitan Hotel … the very customers who WANTED to go with a challenger versus a large incumbent … would be greeted upon arrival by the news that their favorite upstart was being bought by big company HP.

It was terrifying. Were we walking into a cascade of boos? Would our community boycott? How to recapture the group? We did have good messaging and promises to work with here. The intent of the acquisition was to retain the strong Aruba brand, and actually to fold the existing HP networking portfolio into it. Dominic Orr and founder Keerti Melkote were staying to run this “company inside a company”. What made Aruba great would now be supported by the reach and resources of HP.

But of course, we had work to do to determine which way this moment would go. It definitely could have gone either way. The team executed flawlessly in crisi communications mode. A message under each hotel room door upon arrival. Welcome receptions for our customers with open Q&A with Aruba executives … also broadcast out to those not in attendance.  Domonic Orr’s keynote included a satellite feed to HP CEO Meg Whitman, to underscore the message of Aruba’s continued leadership and autonomy. Throughout the week, we could sense the mood going from shock, to trepidation, to consideration, to maybe a bit of open-minded hope.

But we didn’t have a Signature Moment yet. We had crisis management and messaging control. But we had one more thing up our sleeve, that turned everything into the moment we needed. We had … Dana Carvey.  What?! Dana Carvey from Saturday Night Live fame. The Church Lady. Perfect imitator of President George Bush (“Wouldn’t be prudent”). The original plan was for Mr. Carvey to put on a great show in advance of our customer appreciation party.  With our big news of the week, our corporate marketing lead Sylvia Hooks had a chat with him. She briefed him on the acquisition, and of the dynamic of the room.

Aruba Atmosphere 2015: Recapturing the Room

And here’s where having a stand-up comic on hand can be serendipitous. Dana Carvey went onstage and absolutely slayed it. He had the crowd rolling in laughter with his regular bit. But then, he started ad libbing. He made fun of Silicon Valley culture. He had a few friendly jabs about the “suits” standing in the back of the arena. “Security or HP monitors?” Then, he picked up his guitar, and proceeded to sing … an anthem … one he was making up as he went along.

We had our Signature Moment! On the fly, with a well-timed conversation and wildly talented comedian, we had it. The cultural resonance? Freedom and independence! The emotion? Laughter. The rally cry? “Aruba Forever .. Tonight.” Just as we had planned it…

There was a standing ovation for Dana Carvey. Several thousand made their way to the outdoor appreciation party. As I walked around, customers  were telling/yelling/declaring “we love Aruba!” “Aruba Forever!” And as it turned out, Aruba not only kept going, but thrived and grew. Today, Aruba, an HPE Company, stands atop the GartnerMagic Quadrant as a multi-billion dollar business. And the CMO of Aruba today? Sylvia Hooks, the conductor of that fateful night and moment.

So there you have it. Signature Moments for companies, set apart from typical ones by their breakthrough rally cries, their cultural resonance and Hollywood-inspired emotion. The right music, the right joke, the right personality wins the day and hearts. My examples here are my experiences, produced by amazing teams. I’d love to hear about your stories. Your Signature Moments, either that you produced, or witnessed. Like I said, I think every marketing leader should strive to deliver such for their company. It’s good for the business, and REALLY fun for you and your teams.

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