CMO interview: Building a more human brand at Carsales

Chief marketing officer of online automotive website talks about the customer-led transformation she's helping to drive in the organisation

Kellie Cordner
Kellie Cordner

There’s a transformation going on at Carsales, and CMO, Kellie Cordner, is playing an instrumental role in ensuring it’s a customer-led one.

Over recent months, the online media site has embarked on a significant segmentation study to better understand the needs of end consumers using attitudinal and behavioural insights. For Cordner, building out these six broad segments will help the organisation line itself up to not only run marketing activities more effectively and improve content output, but to also design and build products that better serve customers.

“There is no end of great ideas, but which ones do we chase down and which are material to removing those pain points along the journey? That has come from marketing driving our segmentation studies,” she tells CMO.

The segments are due to launch in the New Year internally and will be supported by what Cordner is calling a “consumer academy” training program for all staff.

“When you’re in a digital business, you don’t see your customers and there’s no face-to-face,” she comments. “So how do you make a cultural change when you don’t see how people are using your site that often? Part of this immersion we’re working on is this piece of training and induction that helps team to keep building that richness of engagement.”

The segmentation effort is part a wider ambition to “humanise” the Carsales brand. “Our brand is our biggest asset, our sustainable advantage, so we have to drive that human connection,” Cordner says. “We get that the process of buying and selling your car will include moments of frailty, and times when as consumers, you’re not sure what’s going on or if you know everything you need to know.

“We’re getting together a group of innovators, and working closely with the product and technology teams, to think about what it is the everyday consumer goes through.”

While the brand has been very successful, it’s also very rational and factual, proof point-based and lacked an element of warmth, Cordner says.

“It’s well loved and respected, but was missing that layer of personality,” she says. “Our transformation from the inside is about getting as close we can to our customers – understanding their wants, needs, and what it is they feel as they go through this journey.”

Thanks to the segmentation work, Cordner says the team knows certain parts of its offering, such as tools, tips and services, mean different things to different people depending on their level of confidence. Off the back of this, the team has designed a range of data-driven campaigns and videos that it now can dial up or down based on where consumers sit in terms of behaviour and segment.

“For example, we have a segment that’s predominantly male that are very confident, not only price sensitive and it’s about having the latest and greatest and wanting it now,” she explains. “Without that data and insight a few years back, we couldn’t see that message was going to work for them or not. For example, a price assistance tool isn’t going to be valuable to that segment, yet for other segments it will be critically important. We’re using those insights that come from our segmentation to target more effectively.”

On top of this, Cordner says there’s been a pivot in and around the content on the site to be more universally appealing.

“We had quite a masculine tone, yet most females drive a car, and Carsales has the biggest female audience of any automotive website,” she says. “We’re opening that up, as it needs to be unisex. We also need to find way to talk to consumers outside of that 3-5 years cycle of buying and selling cars. The focus is on how to have a legitimate conversation that keeps the warmth in the brand, and so it’s a purpose, not a passion.

“As a brand, you often become very obsessed with your product and immersed in it. There’s no doubt that in Carsales, there is a real obsession and love, but by using the insights and who we are writing for, we’re changing the tone and how we go about our content.”

Bringing the retail experience to Carsales

Cordner has a brand marketing background and defines herself as a commercial marketer. In the early part of her career, she spent eight years in product management and strategy, working in classifieds with Sensis. She then spent the next five years in retail with Priceline, Myer and several smaller brands, working to pivot traditional businesses to omni-channel experience providers.

She says she was attracted to Carsales because of its heritage as a classifieds website, as well as the opportunity to apply the principles of retailing to the digital offering.

“Bringing that retail experience and serving the customer is a big part of the remit and how I’ll judge my success,” Cordner says.

In line with the customer focus, one of the big changes Cordner has made to the function far has been introducing a chief customer officer role, also siting at executive level. “This is about showing how committed we are to getting this transformational change to occur, insuring we are obsessed with our customers, and getting data all lined up,” she says. “I’m then leading the broader strategy across marketing, digital and communications.”

Another reshuffle earlier this year was to make digital a universal component of every marketer’s job description across the Carsales business.

“We had traditional marketing skillsets such as brand specialists or SEM, and digital was sometimes considered the black marketing,” she says. “While we have an amazing group of digital specialists, I was conscious we needed to drop the word ‘digital’ because it’s all marketing now. We made a conscious decision about that, and it was a bit uncomfortable for some, but then we’ve backed it with training and immersion.

“We all need to know how Facebook works, and what all the options are. The more you immerse, the more likely you are to embrace and trial things. That’s how you keep pushing the marketing function forward. And getting those skillsets around analytics and commercial capability across the team and nurturing that from junior roles to senior is an important part of our development planning. They’re the conversations you have around the board table.”

Selling marketing's worth

At Carsales, marketing is wholly and solely accountable for visits to the websites, and Cordner says it’s moving away from pure visitation to focus on the customer lifetime value.

“The team knows they’re not the ones spending the money, they’re the ones making the money. We bring the party to the door,” she says. “That has been a real shift – it’s less about money we spent and ROI, and more about visitation, conversions, and getting whole marketing group looking and talking about these numbers.

“In retail, you trade your store – you know the foot traffic, what’s gone through the till, and you know the basket size. It’s playing that same piece over here, which has driven a very different conversation around the table about marketing.”

For Cordner, being the CMO is also increasingly about being an organisation’s chief collaboration officer. As an example, she notes the co-operative relationship that exists between marketing and editorial teams.

“I have that inherent passion around the customer and things we could do for them. The editorial team sit in another part of the business, and we work collaboratively,” she says. “They need the support to drive and connect insights to the strategy, or play that out to different segments on social that we are always thinking about.”

Going into 2017, Cordner’s priorities include assisting and optimising Carsales’ marketing capability as it expands globally. This includes looking at what elements of the brand should be introduced in those markets to drive consistency.

Content marketing is another priority. “As a marketing group we haven’t done it before so it will take us a while to bed that down,” Cordner says. “Years ago, we would have handed this to an agency, but we’re doing that in-house with support of smaller agencies, and with an editorial team. It’s now about how we find our operating rhythm.”

When it comes to what it takes to be a CMO, Cordner says one attribute that’s never changed is confidence and resilience. “It needs to be at your core as a marketer,” she says.

“You often hear everyone’s a marketer, so you have to have confidence in your skills and that marketing is a skill and science.”

Cordner’s second top skill is being accountable. “We have to tie what we do back to numbers. I’m very comfortable I know exactly what my team and I contribute to the organisation and how that’s quantified,” she says.

“And you also have to have real energy to foster collaboration. That’s about having a real internal drive to get others excited about the change you are trying to bring in. CMOs are increasingly the change makers in their organisations.”

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