CMO interview: How Schneider Electric’s global marketing chief is tackling industrial-scale transformation and IoT

In this in-depth interview, Schneider' chief marketing officer shares how she's digitally transforming the 180-year company to meet the industrial Internet of Things revolution
Chris Leong

Chris Leong

“I don’t think there are two CMOs that hold the same role across organisations, or even within the same company over a given period of time,” Schneider Electric global CMO, Chris Leong, tells CMO.

“Your company goes through different missions at any particular point in time. I believe I’m writing different chapters in my role. Even if I have a five-year transformation order, I would populate things differently and move the yard stick at different speeds.

“This is important because we don’t live in a Schneider bubble, we live in a world where we have competitors, investors, customers, partners, the media.”

Six years with Schneider Electric has certainly taught Leong the importance of constant evolution. An experienced marketer, Leong was recognised as one of Forbes’ most influential CMOs globally for her work transforming the B2B giant from energy management products vendor with poor brand visibility and a perspective of marketing to match, to a solutions provider that leads with customers and views marketing as a competitive advantage.

It’s a big ask. The 180-year old company, which has its roots in electrical distribution, launched an aggressive acquisition strategy about 10 years ago, purchasing several software companies in the cybersecurity and IT management space. This roughly doubled annual revenues to nearly US$25 billion over eight years and saw headcount rise to more than 143,000 employees.

“Our business is diverse, stretching from home plugs and sockets to airports, critical power supply in hospital – you can die if the power goes off while you’re having an operation – to powering Google, Amazon and Facebook and all the way to oil and gas mining and utility,” Leong notes. “And when you talk about cybersecurity and hacking, you’re talking about national security.”

Today, Schneider Electric is at the forefront of another game-changing technology: The industrial Internet of Things (IoT). This digital-led transformation and convergence of energy management with automation and connectivity is set to completely shake-up the industry.

“To date, the whole Internet buzz has largely been about the B2C side: Facebook, Google, search and so on. Now, in B2B, we’re seeing the rise of product-to-product, product-to-system, product-to-cloud and machine-to-machine connectability,” Leong says.

“Imagine if you own a Nespresso machine with the ability to connect directly to a retailer to buy a vanilla flavoured pod. The ERP can communicate back to the supply chain, and the factory changes the process automation and what flavour to make for the next batch. It changes the game on a global scale. That’s not to mention IoT’s application in energy management and solving the energy paradox.”

Read more: Why Ford is counting on the Internet of Things to drive customer engagement

How to leverage the Internet of Things to understand consumer intent

The combination of expanded industry footprint with technology revolution raises plenty of complexity for Schneider’s marketing chief. Firstly, energy projects are often specified by consulting engineers and specifiers, who aren’t buying products directly.

“We need to initially market to them about the latest and greatest, the impact of IOT,” Leong says. “In addition, a lot of our products, once installed, can last 30 years. IoT, however, is on our doorstep now.

“So a key focus for us is how we convince a lot of our influencers and end users and customers that when you engage with Schneider, you’re buying a future-proof product and connectable system. Even if you don’t connect it today, you’re buying a future-proof solution.”

Building a modern B2B marketing strategy

To achieve this, Leong is working to ensure the brand’s approach is holistic and end-to-end by introducing customer journeys to guide everything the business does.

“From markets where we need to increase our marketshare, all the way from discovery via search engine and optimisation, to where we are present, this is our approach,” she says.  

Of course, the job of marketing is still to articulate a relevant and compelling value proposition, Leong says. It’s this quest that saw her clarify Schneider’s brand positioning two-and-a-half years ago under the three-word phrase, ‘Life is on’.

“What’s marketing? Step one, it’s clarity of the brand through storytelling, and by bringing all these elements to the forefront,” she says. “We are the world’s biggest invisible brand. How do we come out to the playground?

“That’s when we came up with ‘life is on’. I didn’t invent that, it’s what the company already has. All marketing has done is bring it to the forefront and make it visible. We are here to ensure life is on for everyone, everywhere in every moment, whether you’re in work, at home, at play – you want it to seamlessly and intuitively integrate in your life.”   

Leong then coined the term ‘brand business campaign’ internally to articulate the way the brand story ties into the business proposition.

“There is no brand story we will tell without the credentials of the business,” she says. “And we should never tell of any credentials without the voice of the brand behind them. I coined the term ‘brand business campaign’ so my internal audience could understand that.” 

Uniting the Schneider brand to the promise of IoT is an extension of this value proposition. “When you’re in industrial automation, buildings, real estate, factories, data centres, mining and plants, IoT starts with great things, whether it’s a great breaker, power lines, or things that make other things flow,” Leong says.

“Our job is to now connect all of these so the whole ecosystem becomes a machine that churns data that, in turn, is actionable.”

From a marketing perspective, this means conveying a message of vertical and horizontal integration that allows customers to do their jobs more effectively, Leong says. Yet many end organisations have business and energy management still running in silos.

“So how do we tell that story when the market doesn’t even have it in place yet? We need to create a new category and say now, as an end user, you’re able to capitalise on that because we have a common platform that can do that for you,” Leong says.

It’s by putting customer stories front and centre that Schneider can achieve this, Leong believes. A key channel is its Web portal, which receives 100 million visits annually. In recent years, the team has worked to upgrade this owned channel to better meet customer needs, using Amazon as its best-in-class example.

“It needed to be a destination portal,” Leong says. “Our catalogue now comes with videos, as well as technical documents. You don’t have to go and look for things in different places. Historically, it was organised by industrial sector. Much like cookies are used on Amazon, now when you’re buying one product, we’ll recommend others you may be interested in to make your job as an electrician better.”

Helping inform these efforts are more than 4000 pieces of online customer feedback collected per month. Schneider has also implemented a brand tracking tool that crawls 250 million social accounts and media clippings daily to provide insight on how the brand is performing against competitors, its share of voice per country, Net Promoter Score, and customer sentiment.

“We have a brand strategy to provide safety, reliability, connectivity, efficiency and sustainability and we measure against those and whether we’re ahead or below on each one,” Leong explains. “We live in a real-time marketing environment now, so tracking should be real time.”

Up next: Why marketing internally is as important as external strategy and how Leong is ensuring the company follows her brand vision

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Marketing internally to market externally

External transformation doesn’t come without internal change management, however. For Leong, marketing to internal colleagues and educating them on what marketing does and the brand proposition is as important as marketing externally to customers. As transformation lead within the organisation, functions within her remit include brand and campaign management, marketing strategy, digital customer experience, sales operations and the product launch team.

“The first challenge of transformation is ensuring executive sponsorship all the way up from the CEO. Otherwise it ain’t going to happen,” Leong says. “Secondly, we at Schneider believe [transformation] it’s going to be a hybrid between taking the team on that journey as well as bringing in new competencies from the outside. It’s going to be a combination of both.”

For marketing specifically, transformation is about shifting from a product support function into a strategy leader, Leong says.

“We have elevated the conversation [with customers] to the next level to show the value of our brand to the market,” she says. “How are you going to command the margin and pricing saliency if you are just a sub-component provider? In fact, we have higher value to sell.”

Marketing has also had to learn the language of digital, adopt a test-and-learn mentality, and reposition itself as a business function.

To help, Leong restructured reporting lines so marketing leaders from each of its four core business units report directly into the CMO as well as the business. Marketing leaders running individual territories also report into Leong in this way, along with their regional president.

Another vital element of success has been measuring marketing’s influence on sales. Leong introduced the concept of ‘brand to order’ as a way of doing this.

“The core of marketing hasn’t changed – the clarity of the brand, a value proposition that resonates and is relevant. In our business it needs to be tangible, pay the bills,” she says.

In addition, change must translate into core processes, Leong says. “In our case, it’s about institutionalising a customer journey process in the company that identifies where the painpoints are in order for us to help improve those painpoints,” she adds. “Then we measure against them with data, diligently.”

Often, the CMO’s role is to help their CEO “put a stick in the ground first and dragging everybody else along to that level”, Leong says.

“If I can align the vision and help the CEO to drag the organisation forward and putting that stake further and further out, then I can help rally the businesses to that same mission because I have a team that works for those businesses in terms of deliverables,” she adds.

Education is vital to this ambition. Leong points to recent work building a learning curriculum around Schneider’s EcoStruxure Platform, the technology backbone behind its IoT innovation efforts. The site requires staff to sign in and take tests to progress through accreditation levels.

“What’s the point of me advertising and customers seeing the product, if the sales guy can’t answer their questions? I need to make sure the team is ready to catch the ball and close the sale,” Leong says.

“My internal comms leader has a dual reporting line to me and the chief resources officer. It’s about taking the people with us on all these trends and steps forward we’re taking. The learning academy is hosted by HR, but has a dotted line to my organisation for sales and marketing. The learning academy for supply chain is then dotted line to the supply chain organisation, and so on.”

Building agility is another priority for Leong. “Don’t serve the process or guideline, let the process or guideline serve you,” she warns. “Also, there’s no longer a linear customer journey. There is no more waterfall, it’s a complete zigzag. We again need to be extremely agile, and use data.

“But digital and data don’t replace common sense and intellect, it should inform and serve us.”  

Leong’s top four CMO attributes

Leong offer a list of four key attributes marketing leaders must sustain in order to succeed. The first is digital. “You have to understand digital in the broader sense,” she says.

The second is people. “If you don’t take your people with you on the journey, and inspire them as well as demand from them, you’ll lose out,” Leong says. “It’s my job to push boundaries. People need to feel pride, sense of achievement and breakthrough. I call is kick ass marketing. I don’t want to be a chief overhead officer, we’re chief investment officers.”

The third element is customer. “We cannot have one marketing strategy, we need to address different customer types,” Leong says. “Where they are in the lifecycle isn’t the same and we need to address that. We must surprise, delight and serve them well.”

And Leong’s final must is business. “If you are out of whack with the business, it’ll be hard to succeed. The brand and the business are one,” she concludes.

“If you have child labour problems with a supplier, that’s a problem with your brand. If you are serving your customers poorly, even on a call or in face-to-face, it’s a brand problem. If the product fails, it’s a brand problem. The sum of all that is the business. It’s brand business.”

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