CMO interview: How Dell EMC's marketers coped with ‘biggest tech merger in history’

Blending together two separate marketing teams, in a short period of time, required amped up communication and a hefty emphasis on culture, says this A/NZ marketing leader

As head of marketing during one of the biggest tech mergers in the history of IT, Dell EMC’s Helen Dean has had a pretty big and intense year.  And while it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, she describes it as a surprisingly smooth transition thanks to a strategic approach to communication and culture.

“There was a lot at stake and there was a lot we had to do, hard and fast,” she tells CMO.

“We had to launch very quickly the new brand and the combined value proposition - what the new company meant to staff, customers and partners. We had to educate analysts and press so that it was clear what we were doing and why, and what value it would deliver for all stakeholders. At the same time, our competitors were going out and saying, as you would expect, that the merger was doomed to fail.”

Communication became “absolutely critical”, Dean says. The process initially kicked off with staff events and culminated in customer roadshows and educational sessions among industry stakeholders.

“We launched a whole new partner program, and we took that out via a roadshow across A/NZ, we took our message out to customers, via our big flagship event, Forum, held every year in Sydney,” she says. “We then rolled that out to other parts of the country. We went very hard and fast.”

The marketing team conducted roadshows, industry sponsorships, customer stories, videos, and digital campaigns in order to further deliver the message to market quickly. As the company started to see successes, Dean says it became important to communicate those messages back internally and externally.

“It was important to communicate those successes to provide those proof points around the merger, in terms of why it made sense, and how it was succeeding,” she says.  

Different rhythms

What also became apparent was the need to wholeheartedly focus on blending together people from the two separate marketing teams. “It was quite a leap of faith given it was two different companies with two different ways of doing things,” Dean says.

“Unless we got that right, and came together as a team, then none of the other things were going to work. If we could get that right, then all the other elements would come together.”

Helen Dean
Helen Dean

The challenge was two different operating rhythms. Dell’s matched that of a volume-based organisation, while EMC was about volume, and more about larger deals with longer sales cycles. Getting them to gel therefore, had to be about the people.

Given the team had so much to do in such a short period of time, the spirit of goodwill was alive and well among the staff, Dean says.  

“It was a great way of bonding and having a shared goal that we were all trying to work towards and make happen,” she says. “It’s that old adage, ‘teamwork makes for dream work’, which was definitely the case in the last 12 months for us.”

Changes put in place last year mainly involved ensuring consistency across programs and fine-tuning strategy. “We tried to take the best of both organisations. There were some areas where one side was doing a really great job, and was more developed in data insights and analytics. So we tried to take the best practices there and applied that where it makes sense across the board,” Dean continues.

“In other areas, we had some really great ways in approaching content, and making things very engaging for customers, so we tried to get that consistency across the board, regardless of which product or solution that we were taking out.”  

Asked about overlap and redundancy in terms of the two marketing teams, Dean says there was very little movement in terms of staff cuts.

“Both organisations were operating pretty lean to begin with, so it was more a case of most people’s jobs had to be restructured to some degree. They were largely similar to what they were doing, but they were serving different people now,” she says. “Again, the way they were doing it needed to change and in many ways it was like watching a startup, but just a very big one.

“We had to let go of how we had done things in the past, and what we used to look like, and just embrace that things were different now. That happened to pretty much everyone, to varying degrees, and everybody just had the right mindset and embraced that this was new and this is different and this is what's required in order to make it work. We got through that pretty quickly.

“We jumped in, new boots and all, and opened our minds to new ways of doing things.”

Encouraging risk taking

Dean is working now to “build on the foundation” of last year, and is sussing out where the company can take a few risks and continue to do things differently.

“With digital transformation, the way we interact with customers, and the huge amounts of data and insights that we can provide, it’s about getting a grip around how to best use that in the new organisation, and how to use those insights to engage people in meaningful ways and provide a better experience for our actual customers” she says.

A particular aim to drive innovation around how things are done, Dean says. “Marketing at the moment is changing so rapidly, which makes it a very exciting place to work, but it is key to keep on top of all of these new developments and all of the new options we have out there,” she says.  

To help, Dean is encouraging staff to come to the table with great ideas and take a risk, do something different, and think outside of the square. For example, it could be about applying a marketing idea first seen on fast-moving consumer brands or alcoholic drinks.

“This might highlight a great example of a compelling business or marketing strategy and maybe even one with a powerful human element to marketing,” she says.  

Indeed, Dean is all about the human aspect in marketing. “When you go hard and fast, you still need to mindful of creating time to go back and look at ways you can put the human element into what you do. While we’re in a business-to-business environment, we’re still marketing to humans and we need to look for ways to build that human connection in, whether it’s emotion or with humour.

“Where we have built the human element into things we’ve done - with videos and things with customers - that really engages people. I’m looking for opportunities to build that into the everyday things that we do.”

To support these efforts, Dean plans on investing heavily in marketing technology globally, particularly data analytics.

“With the two companies coming together, we’ve done a lot of work around our IP to bring that information together. There are projects going ahead all year making sure we’re developing and utilising all of that information we now have and finding new platforms to bring that out and make that more expressible, and more available, and built into the everyday work we do,” she says.  

Longer term, Dean is eyeing virtual reality, augmented reality, machine learning and artificial intelligence and their potential application to the joint Dell EMC business.

“They are certainly things our technology is providing so customers can use those technologies to develop those initiatives in their own organisations,” she says.  

Corporate social responsibility

A hot trend in marketing is the area of corporate social responsibility, and it’s on Dean’s radar. “Our customers actually want to know what we’re doing in relation to our sustainability. What are we doing with our products to make them more sustainable, to have transparency in our supply chain.”

As an example, Dell EMC has initiatives around ocean plastic recycling and percentage targets in terms of recycled plastic in its products.

“We are people before we are employees, so having that is going to be a lot more prominent in marketing that all companies do, and communicating what we are all doing is part of that,” Dean says.

“Having a purpose higher than just the financial goals of the company - which of course are very important – about being good citizens in the broader community is something I think we’ll see a lot more of.”

Diversity and inclusion are other important focus areas, and Dean’s team is weaving these messages into its traditional marketing and digital marketing efforts.

“These things are topical society issues and people are keen to see what companies are doing,” she explains.  

Additionally, Dean is passionate about encouraging women to choose a career in technology. “IT has been more of a male domain and, as an industry, we’ve got more to do to encourage women to work in technology,” she comments.

“Women should consider the ‘greater meaning’ - how IT can and is changing people’s lives for the better - before dismissing a role in IT.

“If you look at how technology is used, rather than just the speeds and the feeds, there are exciting and quite inspiring things.”

Dean points to the CSIRO, which is using Dell EMC technology to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) system that’s empowering a bionic vision solution. Another example is Swinburne University using Dell EMC technology to research gravitational waves and black holes.

“These are things actually helping people in their daily lives. . .and making the industry an appealing place to work,” she says. “There’s a higher purpose than just the profit aspects and contributing to society is a compelling way.”  

Art and science

Asked whether she always wanted to be in marketing, Dean says she fell into it more than anything.  

“I fell into the IT industry because when I was young it was a relatively new industry very rapidly evolving and I think it was very open to all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds,” she says. “I quickly discovered an area where there was a lot of opportunity and moved within organisation.”

Dean had many different roles within a range of companies before eventually hitting onto the marketing beat, where she’s been involved in database marketing, event marketing and general marketing, always in IT.

“Marketing is a wonderful mix of art and science. You get the opportunity to do some really creative, exciting stuff, while leveraging the more science part of things, where you’re looking at the data in greater detail and trends and insights into how you can better take your offerings out to customers,” she concludes.  

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