CMO interview: How this CMO is writing a new story for data management

Chief marketing officer for NetApp shares five steps she's taking to rewrite the brand narrative through purpose, data insight and executive influence

While explosive growth in data volumes presents a challenge for many marketers, for US-based data storage technology company, NetApp, servicing that storage need has helped it grow to US$5.5 billion in annual revenue.

But the company’s success has also come at a cost, serving to typecast and limit its visibility to all but the technologists who have traditionally been its customers. Enter the chief marketing officer tasked with solving the problem.

Since stepping in as NetApp’s CMO in July 2016, Jean English has made it her mission to reposition the company as much more than a technology hardware provider.

Jean English
Jean English


Decisions about buying storage hardware were historically the domain of IT managers. However, the accelerating growth of data creation has seen conversations evolve to encompass not just how you store that data, but how to best utilise it. And that means involving a much larger group of decision-makers than just the technology infrastructure team.

English is striving to ensure NetApp is a part of that new conversation.

“The original request from our CEO was to write a new story,” English says. “What I found about 30 days in was it was going to be more than writing a story. I needed to think about how to reposition the company in a very new way, and this repositioning was required because we had to go where decisions were moving and budgets were moving to.”

Step 1: Purpose

English took the task back to first principles, and began developing a new purpose statement for NetApp that would be relevant to its changing customer base, as well as better representing its capabilities.

“The biggest problem in the market is this explosion of data, and what are people going to do with data that is across so many environments, that is so diverse, and that is being constantly updated,” English says. “But if they want to transform, they’ve got to put data as the lifeblood of their business.”

That new purpose statement became ‘empowering our customers to change their world with data’. This stepped NetApp beyond the notion that all it sold was storage.

“The purpose was something that was true to our heritage over the last 25 years, but also helped us position for the future,” English says. “The purpose statement is also very much focused on our customers, in terms of how they use data to solve their challenges. It gets us into a data conversation, not a storage conversation.”

Step 2: Focus on data flexibility

The next step for English was developing a point-of-view for the company focused on how it could help customers increase flexibility and scalability for managing their data. This recognised customers were moving from needing to manage data, to needing data services for the business.

But taking messages to market also required a fundamental realignment of brand personality – one that English acknowledges was characterised as both ‘timid’ and ‘technical’. Her aspiration was to shift that personality to ‘bold’ and ‘strategic’, and that meant realigning culture from the top down.

Step 3: Cultural realignment

“Getting the senior leaders on-board really early was critical,” English says. “Then we wanted to bring that to life through our sales team. A story lives and dies through sales, and if we didn’t have them focused and able to communicate the story when they saw a client, it would be impossible for us to change the perception in the market.”

English used NetApp’s annual conference to retrain 3500 people on the new story. The company has also invested in an extensive above-the-line campaign.

Step 4: Bring on the right insight tools

Because customers are increasingly moving to a self-service relationship with NetApp, English has also invested in analytics tools to understand buyers as individuals and understand where they are in their journey.

“It’s this notion of ‘how do you strengthen the customer experience and their engagement?’, and take them through the buyer’s journey,” English says. “We are constantly looking at who those customers are, how we make it more personalised, how we you ensure we’ve got content that is relevant to every stage.

“And then through marketing automation tools we are pulling people through that journey and getting them primed for self-service, or having them ready to talk to our sales reps or channel partners, in the context not of a product conversation, but in terms of the business and their needs and the use cases.”

Step 5: Articulate the value

English believes the initial response to the transition has vindicated the work done.

“We’ve got a lot of strong, positive responses from analysts, from customers, and from our partners, in terms the story and our positioning,” English says. “People ask different questions of us now. We are being asked more for advice. And that really changes the context of the value that we add to our customers.”

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