A Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste ... Even Chapter 11

CMO Spotlight: Morag Lucey, Avaya

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Morag Lucey, chief marketing officer at tech company Avaya, tells Drew Neisser that you can broadcast strength even amid a bankruptcy protection filing.
Morag Lucey, chief marketing officer at tech company Avaya, tells Drew Neisser that you can broadcast strength even amid a bankruptcy protection filing. Credit: Avaya

Imagine you're a chief marketing officer and your company is about to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Not an enviable position to be in, right? On the surface, maybe not. But if you approach it like Morag Lucey and her executive colleagues at Avaya, what could be an organization's death knell simply becomes a bump on the road to a brand transformation.

The privately held communications hardware (and now software) company filed for bankruptcy in January of this year, not because the business was failing, but because Avaya's debt load was simply too large to carry.

"Last year, we brought more innovation to market than we had ever done in the life of Avaya, and it was all software, application development and microservices," says Lucey, who came to the company from BAE Systems, Convergys and SAP, and recently won a prestigious Officers Award from The CMO Club. "The business model was robust, the innovation was robust -- the only issue was the debt."

In the face of this PR problem, communicating Avaya's sound future was a top priority. "Owning the narrative around that was really important," she says. "That made it much easier for us to come out publicly and get ahead of the story." In the same week as the Chapter 11 filing, Lucey and her team launched the "Avaya Strong" campaign, a storytelling effort that focused on customer successes that conveyed stability. "Being able to share daily those stories externally and internally really helped ensure that we were driving the momentum and the confidence that this was not an execution issue. This was just a debt issue."

However, shaping Avaya's image moving forward would require more than one campaign. For the company to completely transform from a communications hardware provider into a software and services powerhouse, Lucey and her team needed to devise a total brand transformation. Read on to learn how they did it.

Future focus

Anyone who's undertaken a brand revamp knows that means more than a new logo or mission statement. "It's a groundswell that has to happen," says Lucey. "It's not going to be a switch that is just flipped overnight." And while having a 100-year legacy like Avaya's might make for a compelling story for most brands, Lucey says that it can be detrimental in the tech sector, where an association with "old" is highly undesirable.

So Lucey and her team instead focused on how Avaya's software offerings anticipate not how humans communicate today, but how they'll connect tomorrow. "You have to tie your new brand, or your new narrative to what you're doing that is really more about the future," she says. One way to do this is by partnering with forward-thinking brands, much like how H&R Block recently adopted IBM's Watson AI. For Avaya, one of these brands is the New York Mets. "Focusing on the customers that are modern … and then talking about how you're actually delivering results for and with those companies -- I think that's really important," she says.

Executive-level evolution

The most important step in Avaya's transformation occurred within the company. "You have to change internally first," says Lucey. "It's the culture. It's the facilities in which we work. It's the experience people have when they walk through your door. We can't just change externally in the way we look if we haven't changed internally in the way we act, the way we interact, and the environment in which we work."

This transformation begins at the executive level, and is the most difficult step. "They have to be part of that journey," Lucey says of the C-suite. "You can't just come out one day and say, 'Voila! Look, we're new!' You have to change the entire organization, bring them along with you." As some will resist, partnering with and hiring change agents is a must. "You need people who think differently …You need those people who won't view the company from inside the company; they'll view it from how the company is perceived or wants to be perceived externally."

Customer compassion

Finally, to truly understand Avaya's transformation, Lucey's team became their own customer by using Avaya's solutions. Just as Lucey shapes Avaya's customer experience as a CMO, her customers are, in fact, CMOs who depend on Avaya for their own CX. "The influence back into our product house comes from the fact that we are our own target audience," she explains. "If we're not doing it ourselves, how can I go and sell to CMOs and tell them they should be using Avaya for their customer experience?"

Transformation is a process, of course. But Lucey is confident that the steps already taken will allow Avaya to weather the bankruptcy and emerge anew. She likens it to a building wave. "Over the next four months, we're building the wave, and then, when we exit Chapter 11, that wave will crash and be incredibly loud, because we've got 10,000 people within Avaya all aligned with how we will be serving our customers in the market."

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