How Cisco used consumer-based marketing strategies to reach b-to-b clients

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Networking heavyweight Cisco Systems is definitely a household name, but its products—not so much.

Very few Americans outside the technology realm know what the company does, and even fewer know the names or categories of products it sells. “The equipment that we market is rarely seen,” said Doug Webster, director, strategic communications, worldwide service provider marketing. “[We sell] massive pieces of intelligent networking equipment that comprise the next generation of the Internet and enable providers [such as broadband providers, cellular carriers and telcos] to offer their services. Our previous marketing efforts tended to be very targeted at those key folks and took on more of a technology bent.”

With more nontechnical people making buying decisions, Cisco's marketing team realized that they needed to change the way they were promoting its brand and its products. That's why, two years ago, the company developed a new marketing strategy designed to make its offerings more fun and digestible using interactive games, videos and virtual events.

“We started looking at the notion of building a cult following for our products,” Webster said, “and had to take on marketing technology much more in line with consumer marketing than traditional service-provider marketing.”

One of the biggest changes was in the actual messaging. Instead of highlighting the technology, Cisco stressed the benefits end-users could attain by using its products. One example: In March, the company introduced its CRS-3 Carrier Routing System, which has more than 12 times the traffic capacity of its nearest competitor's product and three times the capacity of an earlier model, the CRS-1 Carrier Routing System. While these numbers within the industry, they are just numbers to a purchasing agent, Webster said. “We can't just say it provides 322 terabits per second of processing. What we need to say is that 322 terabits per second is enough to enable every man, woman and child in China to be on a video call at the same time,” he explained. “That's something that a purchasing manager at a [next-generation] service provider would understand; and consumers can understand as well and help us with our [branding] efforts.”

Cisco marketing executives also changed the way they were doing customer testimonials. While customer case studies are useful, they can be limiting, Webster said. “Everyone does them,” he said. “How do you get someone to listen to yours [over] someone else's?” The solution: Creating fanciful case studies with “uber-users” including Santa Claus, the Stork, Cupid, the Easter Bunny and a unicorn. Introduced in February 2008, the campaign quickly went viral, Webster said.

Product introductions also shifted from one-to-one launch—such as deploying press releases and holding in-person events—to an approach that also delivered a complementary one-to-many focus. Now Cisco takes a follow-the-sun virtual approach. Major launch announcements, which go out online with a broader social media focus, are made multiple times over a 24-hour period. Each country or geographic region gets its own link to highly produced video assets and has access to Q&As and individual dialogs via online chat events with local-language product experts.

So far, Cisco has seen good results, Webster said. The launch of the ASR9000 cost one-eighth of what it cost to launch the CRS-1. On the day the ASR9000 debuted, Cisco was able to reach 138 countries as opposed to only a dozen CRS-1 locations, Webster said. It also generated four times the total viewership and four times the amount of traditional media mentions.

Webster said he stresses the importance of storytelling in Cisco's marketing efforts: “Marketers first and foremost must be willing to take a risk,” he said.

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