How an IBM spinoff preserved culture and brand equity on the fly
When IBM sold its marketing software division to investment firm Centerbridge Partners in July 2019, the new owner essentially created a 1,000-person startup. It was given a new name, Acoustic, but lacked a culture, brand equity and a cohesive product offering. With only a few months to maximize the pedigree of IBM Watson Marketing, the clock was ticking.
This was the challenge for Norman Guadagno, Acoustic’s first chief marketing officer. Guadagno, facing a “build the plane while flying it” scenario, luckily started on the same day as the chief human resources officer—giving the pair the opportunity to craft a culture together. This partnership allowed marketing to impact the entire organization, helping Guadagno deliver on Acoustic’s new promise, “Marketing technology reimagined.”
What was your mandate?
First was create a brand. Obviously, nobody had heard of Acoustic and we needed to position it in the marketplace. Second was build a marketing organization. There were a handful that had come along … that were marketing people who had been part of IBM, but there was no marketing leader. They'd all been plucked from different parts of IBM Watson Marketing, which didn't mean that they'd ever actually worked together. The third thing was to really contribute, as an executive team member, to building a company, build a brand, build a marketing organization, build a company and there's probably 28 sub-bullets under all of that.
How did you start building a brand?
The day that I started was the same day that our new CHRO started. It turns out that we were both looking at this through the lens of "companies' cultures and brands are born with people." And if we don't figure out a pathway to not only help them understand the culture we want to build, to help them transition into that culture—and this was all before the pandemic, by the way—to help them become part of something, how could we ever go to market? How could we ever attract and hire?
Building a brand starts on day one with an employee. In fact, it starts before day one— the first time they find out about a company and they're recruited. Marketing needs to be actively engaged with the human resources function in terms of helping with messaging, recruiting, onboarding. We were engaged in defining the vision, mission, values for the company, figuring out how we establish a cadence of communication. Those were in place from the original team that were carved out, but they didn't have a marketing leader and HR leader. We partnered right from the start.
How did you establish an employee brand?
As we started to build out the vision, mission, values and how we were going to engage with people, we very quickly created an ambassador program with our employees. When you have a large organization with lots of different levels and traditional reporting structures and you're trying to meld it all together, you really need to have a set of employees at all levels that you can trust to be eyes and ears and a voice.
We had our own application process. We recruited these ambassadors so that they could become part of the process. At first, it was really to help transition employees because all those IBM employees would soon become Acoustic employees. For many of them, they'd been IBM employees for a long time and used to a certain way of doing things. We really wanted them to be focused on internal.
How did you bring your brand to market?
As marketers, we sometimes forget that we have to make sure our brand is as relevant to our existing customers as it is to our prospects. In this particular case, for all those customers, they've been IBM customers. You can imagine a good deal of concern on their part. "How do I trust this company I’ve never heard of? What are they going to do for me?"
A lot of the initial efforts were really creating a sense of comfort in the existing customer base. Acoustic is a real company, it's a real brand. We're going to support you. We're going to deliver new value to you. We're going to meet your needs. That's what I walked into, and there wasn't a lot of thought toward an external start to build brand awareness, brand perception in the broader market. That's where I picked up the baton when I came in.
How did you separate Acoustic’s brand from IBM?
We're going to have to find ways at a macro level to build that Acoustic brand. And then at a more micro level, with each individual customer, we have to engage with them and help them see the value of coming from IBM to here. Why is there value? We're rebuilding all the products, we re-platformed all the products, we've modernized them. We've created what we think is perhaps the most modern, cloud-based MarTech stack out there, but we had to help customers understand the value back to them. I began working with my team and with my agency partners to start to tell a story to the market about who Acoustic was.
What macro story did you tell?
Our story has been very high level first because I knew that I just had to start to get the name out there. We knew who our key competitors were, and we wanted to tell a story that was different. One of the things about Acoustic is we're 1,000 people just focused on this marketing technology, on campaign automation, on experience analytics, journey analytics, personalization, content management. We're not trying to do everything. We're trying to solve problems for the marketers from marketing, e-commerce folks; we're rethinking the whole problem of marketing technology.