How the pandemic inspired a marketing campaign that embraces client resilience
Marketers targeting enterprise customers traditionally struggle with a long and complex sales process, dealing with buying committees of 10 or more that can deliberate for up to 18 months, putting them through seemingly endless hoops. When the pandemic struck, enterprise sales—with the exception of essential business-continuity services including security, communications and logistics—ground to a halt. This left the rest of the B2B world scrambling for traction.
Chandar Pattabhiram, chief marketing officer of Coupa, a business spend management platform, recognized the need for repositioning. During three weeks in March, Pattabhiram and his team revamped their messaging to place an emphasis on resilience—appealing to chief financial officers who would see the downturn as an opportunity to position their companies for future success. Since then, Coupa has been one of Silicon Valley’s high-flyers, with its stock more than doubling, a result at least partially fueled by its rapid repositioning.
What was your messaging before March 2020?
Early in the year, we had started a brand campaign focused on excellence: “Upend your Spend.” The idea there was that spend is not something transactional, but it's a transformational weapon that you can unleash. We were very excited. We were just starting to cut the ribbon across all physical channels, digital channels, as well as permeate that across all our different outlets for our events. Then early March came, and we had to hit the stop button, because it would be tone deaf for us to go in there and talk about excellence when the world was in a very different place. We had to take a pause and said, “That messaging doesn't work, so what do we pivot to and what we do different?”
How long did it take to change to your new message?
It took us about three weeks from concept to execution. [It] was an interesting process. We asked, “What are some of the themes that are relevant today that aren’t tone deaf and are aligned to our value proposition?” If excellence was the old message, we pivoted to a message of resilience: “Building Resilience with Coupa.” That took us a couple of weeks to conceptualize through a cross-functional effort.
We sourced the idea from a 2009 McKinsey article about the last downturn, in which they talked about how resilience today is about excellence tomorrow. They had studied about 2,000 companies that had been through the last economic downturn. They said that a few of the companies that did something different turned out to be better at the outset of the downturn relative to the others and discussed what they did differently.
What did the team that worked on this look like?
I had three leaders. One from our brand corporate marketing, one from our product and segment marketing—which is about sales messaging—and one from from demand gen and growth marketing. All the marketing leaders came together, and a few key sales executives were working on this every day in terms of customer interactions and feeling the pulse in the trenches. We had a small think tank of both marketing leadership and sales leadership for this ideation phase. But it was a maximum five to seven people in any interaction so that we didn’t get the diminishing return of people showing up and it being an education session rather than a true engagement session.
How did you figure out whether it would resonate?
We took that idea and then we created our own framework about what resilience means in a Coupa business spend management context. It’s about three things. First, it’s about visibility and control, which important for every CFO today. Second is supply chain risk and mitigating that. Third is agility to invest in the right areas and move when the economy turns. That is really how resilience today is excellence tomorrow. We harmonized the messaging, then got initial feedback from some of the executive board advisory members. We felt, relative to some of the other messages that we had concept-tested, this one got good external feedback. Then we started rolling it out. It didn’t happen on Day One, but we started rolling this out over time.
How did you harmonize your messaging?
The simple framework is to think of it as three blocks: your brand messaging; your demand gen and your sales messaging connected together; and your customer story messaging. Harmonizing is making sure that the theme is permeated in a very congruent way across all three levels. Our brand messaging has ads on building resilience that micro-target the CFO community, since that's the economic buyer for us.
Under the sales messaging, we made sure that the essentiality of what resilience means is there. No one is saying to change your sales messaging by 60 percent. Change it by 15-20 percent, bookended with this messaging, so that there is empathetic concern to what the customer is going through, while making yourself an essential technology for today. For demand gen, we made sure that every campaign we did with a webinar had this theme of resilience. Then, at the customer level, we launched this "Road to Resilience" series in which customers talk about how they are combating COVID today.
I know you’re a Geoffrey Moore fan. How did his thinking impact yours?
As marketers and sellers in B2B, we're all trained to be really good solution sellers, which is, “Let me listen to your existing pain. Then let me present my solution or how it is uniquely differentiated to solve this pain right now and provide a lot of value for you.” It's in our DNA whether we do "the challenger sale" or any other sales methodology. The point of view on Geoffrey Moore’s concept of provocation selling is: “In good times, you listen to a customer. In a downturn, you provoke your customer and say, ‘It's not the pain that you have today. Let me tell you the pain you're going to have if you don't use me and why I'm essential to solving that thing.’”
Now, provocation selling is done with deep empathy. In our case, we're saying, “Without having a business management solution, you're not going to get your visibility of your spend and your supply chain’s risk. What's most important to you in capital preservation and risk mitigation is that you're going to have pain unless you have some essential technology to solve it.”
What were your most important metrics for the new messaging?
All these messaging exercises are a continuous recalibration exercise. I think there are two ways to look at this. The quickest way to look at this is the bottom of the funnel. In this case, if you look at sales messaging, which deals are already in play? Do they feel that we can get them there faster, that we resonate with them? There’s more instant gratification when you work the bottom to top. Then, in conjunction with that, we look at our lead volumes. Are they decreasing or increasing? Is this resonating with our account development reps? Really being in the trenches with them and saying what’s working, what’s not, is starting from the bottom and then working all the way up, in the middle with the account development representatives and then to our website.