Gina McDuffie is what we call a builder. She always has been. On the eve of law school, she was challenged by her father to give three good reasons she should attend -- and she couldn't name one. So she packed her bags and $500 life savings for Paris, where for a year she worked her way up from wait staff to journalist. "It was the School of Hard Knocks," she says, "but it's the most amazing school I could go to. I learned how to be resourceful and build myself, and it really established the builder in me."
Fast-forward through successful stints growing the nascent Arizona Diamondbacks and the beginnings of DirecTV, and Ms. McDuffie finds herself in building mode once again as the CMO of VER. "We are the amazing company that you've never heard of, but you have experienced," she says. If you've ever watched the Super Bowl halftime show or the Emmys, or have been to Coachella or a Taylor Swift show, or any other major event, chances are you've encountered the production magic of VER, either "providing the equipment, working the equipment or coming up with a creative solution to make things happen that have never happened before."
As a builder, Ms. McDuffie faced the task of rebranding her 30 year-old company. In fact, a "rebrand" would be putting it lightly. VER already enjoyed a favorable reputation, outstanding customer care and internal culture, but its newly enormous scope of services was mostly unknown to clients. "When I arrived, it had been just purchased by a private equity firm and there was no marketing infrastructure," says Ms. McDuffie. "No CRM program, no technology, not even an employee email list or a press list. There was nothing." By building the brand from scratch, Ms. McDuffie earned herself a Rising Star Award from The CMO Club, plus several key lessons that any marketing leader will appreciate.
1) Put employees first
"The difficult thing was that we had 1,600 employees who didn't understand that the company needed to change," says Ms. McDuffie. VER's passionate staff had carried the brand, so it's no surprise that they bridled at her proposal. "It was a really difficult time for me personally and professionally," she says, "because I was really trying to effect massive change that nobody thought was needed, other than the CEO and the private equity company."
Their road to mutual understanding was one well traveled: communication. Ms. McDuffie engaged internal influencers from all levels within the company and assured them that changing the brand meant making a great company even better, not overhauling VER, whose new name was an abbreviation of the old one, Video Equipment Rental. Knowing that the rest of the staff trusted these employees, Ms. McDuffie asked them to spread the word. "It couldn't come from me because people didn't know me. I didn't have credibility," she says.
Once the rebrand kicked in, Ms. McDuffie says that the whole team embraced it. "On day two, people were wearing the hats, wearing the shirts, changing the e-mail signature, really getting behind it. And that to me was my measurement of success -- how well the employees, who are the heart of this company, adopted the new brand," she says. "It really was the anticipation of change that was so much scarier than the change itself."
2) Focus on the customer experience
Aside from internal buy-in and creative tweaks, Ms. McDuffie says that a rebrand demands a re-look at the customer experience. "We can't just introduce the brand by saying 'Here is our new logo, here are our new colors,'" she says. This was especially true for VER, whose reputation relies on superior customer care. For example, during the process, Ms. McDuffie discovered that a large portion of VER's weekend calls were going unanswered. "I said, 'let's stop what we're doing, and figure this out.' Because it doesn't matter what we have on the website or what we are doing brand-wise if we are not picking up the phone." In sum, no amount of branding can compensate for a suboptimal customer experience.
3) Embrace the unknown
While Ms. McDuffie is naturally open to accepting risks (see Paris story), she acknowledges that it's not always easy -- especially with the weight of a brand on one's shoulders. But what she has learned through her prior work and experience with VER is the importance of embracing the unknown. "Get comfortable with ambiguity, get comfortable with change," she advises her fellow marketers. "We can put our best plans in place, but there is going to be something that will come in and completely change up our plans," she says. There are often upsides to unexpected change, after all. "That's where our most creative solutions come from. Those times when we have to think differently, be resourceful and move away from our initial plan."