Brand amplification with Brendan McGuire, Ex Brand Amplification Leader at IBM

Brand amplification is how the world knows what your B2B company does, who your company is and what your company stands for. B2B marketers in tech know that brand building is crucial to marketing success, but how do you make brand resonate with an audience? Particularly in a fast-paced industry that is constantly changing?

On this episode of the FINITE Podcast for B2B marketers, Alex sits down with Brendan McGuire, who at the time of recording was Brand Amplification Leader at IBM. Brendan talks us through what brand amplification is and how he boosted the brand of IBM by telling stories.

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And check out more of the FINITE B2B marketing podcast here

Full Transcript

FINITE (00:07):

Hello everyone, and welcome back to another episode of the FINITE Podcast. Today, I'm talking with Brendan McGuire. Brendan is brand amplification lead for the UK and Ireland at IBM. 

Brendan has a really interesting role working to tell the story of some of IBM's most interesting work and initiatives. And so we dive into what the brand amplification role consists of and how Brendan approaches managing and amplifying the brand of one of the world's largest technology businesses. I hope you enjoy this one.

FINITE (00:33):

The FINITE community and podcasts are kindly supported by 93x, the digital marketing agency working exclusively with ambitious fast growth B2B technology companies. Visit 93x.agency to find out how they partner with marketing teams in B2B technology companies to drive growth.

Alex (00:53):

Hi Brendan, thanks for joining me today.

Brendan (00:55):

You're welcome, Alex. Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

Alex (00:58):

I'm looking forward to talking. I think I said to you before when we had a bit of a chat through this episode that we haven't focused enough on all things brand on the podcast series. And I felt like it's a blind spot, which I need to acknowledge in myself, but also in the podcast we're producing. 

So I think it needs to be a big goal for us next year, but I'm really looking forward to having a very brand focussed discussion with you, because I think you're obviously in a very interesting role doing interesting things. But before we dive into the topic, I will let you begin just by telling us a little bit about what you do and your background and experience, and then we can dive into all things brand.

Brendan’s background in marketing at IBM 

Brendan (01:29):

Sure, thank you. So, I've been at IBM for over 20 years now and I've worked in lots of different roles, lots of different businesses within IBM, different marketing roles. I've been on assignment in the US I've had European roles and UK roles. So currently I'm the brand amplification lead for the UK and Ireland, which is a fairly new title within IBM.

Alex (01:54):

Cool. And I guess it's always interesting, I think with a role like this, because I think it's the first time I've probably come across brand amplification lead as a specific job title. But I guess just to set the scene for everybody else, let's talk about the role first and actually what it means and how it fits into the wider kind of marketing landscape and the brand amplification role specifically and what it entails.

What the role of brand amplification leader is 

Brendan (02:17):

Sure. Yeah, it's probably an old adage that people never get fired for buying IBM and unfortunately now that's not an adage anymore and people don't really understand what we do. We're not a consumer brand any longer. We used to have, obviously PCs and we used to have retail point of sales stuff. And I suppose when I joined IBM, that was the case. CIOs and CTOs particularly were pretty safe with IBM, but it's changed. The scene's changed. We've got different marketplace, different competitors.

So the role was deemed a necessity so that we can start to tell people a bit more about what we do. If we regularly have people come to our events or come to some of the trade shows and say quite explicitly, I don't know why IBM does anymore. So part of my role is to try and make that less of an issue and try and get people to understand a bit more about what we do.

Alex (03:20):

Of all the other marketing roles you've done at IBM. Do they all have a brand focus or have you moved around?

Brendan (03:28):

It's funny because without thinking about it it has, and when I think back now looking at all the roles, the brand has really been at the heart of what I've been doing. When I started at IBM I worked in the service business, and that was a new business. We had recently formed that business. 

When I joined IBM, it was touted to me as a $45 billion startup because it had been hived off and created from the previous business. So a lot of that was around building the brand from scratch for that particular part of the business. But I think it's also fitted really importantly, into those general brand tendencies to try and make sure that everybody is consistent. Everybody knows what the brand message is and knows how to behave as a brand. 

So for things like the services business, and other parts of IBM, clever intellectual thinking or innovation, creativity has always been a key part of the brand. So we need to make sure from a marketing perspective that that comes through in what we're talking about and some of the messaging we're doing. So it's always been there.

Why is brand building fundamental to a business? 

Alex (04:39):

Interesting. And so I think we can't go deep into the conversation without kind of acknowledging first that brand, I think in all marketing, is where things begin and it has to come first. And I think we live in a world now where it's often the thing that's very quickly overlooked and we're in a very data-driven world. And we're in a world where unfortunately, marketers I think are strapped down by spreadsheets. 

And sometimes that can cause some short term thinking rather than long-term brand building thinking, you know? Yeah, you can do both, I guess at the same time, it's not necessarily one or the other, but it would be great to get your thoughts on why you think brand is so fundamental and why it does have to come first.

Brendan (05:18):

Well, someone once said to me, and I can see this sometimes in what we do, the brand pieces from a marketing perspective, we go on a date and the first date we say, will you marry me? So from a marketing point of view, that's the killer analogy, we forget the courtship almost. 

So laying down the foundation for the brand and what they are. And I always talk about creating an emotional relationship with our audience, I think that's really important. Before you get followed up the sales pipeline and get to actually selling something, you've got to build a relationship with your audience. And if you just go straight out with a buy this, you're not going to get very far. 

So it's trying to build that relationship so that even sometimes when people have a wide choice, you're foremost in their thoughts when they're making a buying decision. And you can't do that just by doing telesales or going straight to the product or the solution to say, you should buy this. 

I think there's a real gap there that you need to make sure that you fill and again, you need to make sure that you're consistent in that and that everyone understands what the brand promises. You have to set the scene for that.

Where to focus brand amplification efforts 

Alex (06:30):

Are there things which are channels or tactics that you really focus on more than others? Or is brand amplification all encompassing and something that, because IBM's a global business with lots of different solutions and services across the globe. Are you in a role that jumps around a lot and moves between lots of different teams and sits above and around everything? Or are there particular things that you're more focused on?

Brendan (06:54):

It jumps around and it is fairly all encompassing. There are some things that are more within my control than others. So for example, advertising falls under a remit to some degree, but I don't have any decision over the creative for advertising, that's all done at world wide level, but I can take that and use that in local amplification efforts. And again, goodbye to that point around consistency and people understanding the brand promise. 

There's a whole lot of internal communications that need to be done. So that internally our salespeople are our subject matter experts, and our developers all have the same background, the same understanding of what the brand does and what the organisation's message is.

So that's one aspect, but there's a host of other things internally that we either tap into just a little or not at all. So one of the things I started doing in this role is I found out that we had a university relations team who had done fantastic work with universities. We put expertise into universities and we have students work on projects, real world projects, real customer projects. It's not just theoretical. So everyone wins out of that. And they were sitting there saying, we're doing this great work, but we've got no one to tell our story. 

So I came across lots of groups like that. A research and development team as well, busy churning out fantastic conventions over the years and working directly with clients, but we just didn't tell that story particularly well. So there's lots of things that's happened that we can use in terms of amplification that again, go back to that relationship, building that bond.

How to do brand marketing for such a large organisation 

Alex (08:36):

Yeah. It's really interesting. And it sounds like you can take a top level view and dive into lots of different things. But I guess the answer to this question might be, being at IBM for 20 years makes that easier. But I imagine trying to get sight of from an outside perspective, thinking about how big IBM is and all the different things happening. If you plonk me in the role, I wouldn't know where to start. Is it hard to get sight of everything in such a large business?

Brendan (09:00):

Working in a large organisation, and I'm sure if any of your audiences would say that large organizations are very similar in that respect. It's all about network, and that's been my career at IBM. I've built a really good network. And if I don't know who to go to directly, I know who to go to to ask. And as an organisation we're very good at helping each other out in that respect. 

So if I go and ask someone saying I need some help with this, I don't think I've ever been turned down or let down at IBM. They'll always find me someone, it may not be the right person initially, but there's always someone out there that is willing to put their hand up and say, absolutely. And I think I reciprocate in that respect, if someone comes to me and asks me, can I help them or do something for them? I always try and oblige if it's possible. 

So building your network in a big organisation is really, really key. And it's interesting, you turn up some absolutely fascinating people as well. People that you would never be with in everyday walk of life. I remember talking to a colleague and trying to explain that marketing wasn't rocket science. And she said to me, well actually I'm a rocket scientist, so you never know who you're going to meet.

Alex (10:18):

Yeah, yeah. I can imagine I'm interested in understanding how much of what you do is amplifying a brand which already exists, versus actually changing the perception of a brand to some extent. And it might be an obvious answer given that the title is brand amplification, but I imagine any brand is to some extent, always undergoing some degree of progression or shift, be that big or small. Is there a shift in brand perception happening at IBM? Tell us a bit more about that side of things.

Is there a shift in brand perception at IBM? 

Brendan (10:52):

If we're ever doing anything in IBM, it's changing. So we are over a hundred years old. I think it's kind of 108 or something, but we started as weighing machines, building weighing machines and time clocks and things like that. Moved into that computing area, tabulation machines and punch cards was probably the precursor and then into mainframes and PCs. So we've changed dramatically over the years. 

And you know, probably even in the last 10 years, and even now we're changing fairly dramatically, we acquired Redhat last year. So the company is always evolving, always changing. And that's been part of the issue that we're now in a position where people don't understand what we do because of that change, because we've changed fairly dramatically in all that time. But I think that's been one of the big reasons for our success over the years, that ability to adapt and change all the time. So it's almost like you're always refreshing the brand. You're always telling people different aspects of the brand and different sides of the story.

Taking existing customers through a change in brand

Alex (12:05):

With a ship the size of IBM trying to steer that ship in a new direction. I imagine it's like an oil tanker rather than a small speed boat. So I imagine that change can only happen so quickly and there's a lot of moving parts and there's both internal and external customers and internal stakeholders that have to come on that journey. 

Would you say that's a big part of what you do from a customer perspective? Do you feel like trying to take customers on that journey is important because obviously you've got lots of big enterprise clients already? There are plenty of customers that know who you are, but there's also other people that have no idea what you do. 

And I actually did an episode earlier this week with a VP of acquisition marketing and a head of customer marketing from the same business, talking about different messages that have to go out from an acquisition angle and from a retention, an existing customer angle. So is that part of the thinking that you have to go through?

Brendan (12:58):

I think like any good marketer you would segment your audience, so you would make sure that you're delivering the right message to the right audience or someone who's very familiar with IBM and could probably tell some people in IBM a bit about what we do because they're experiencing it firsthand. You're talking to the experts and they're walking through the issues directly. 

So they often know more than I do about what we can do so that there's always a wide spectrum. But again, segmentation is one of the key principles of marketing. So you would apply that in some cases to a segment, maybe one or two. In terms of account based marketing you would be looking at being very targeted and have very specific messages, whether it be around the industry or around the technology or our own business acumen. 

And I think we're relatively good at doing that. I think we know our audience pretty well. And we know that we need to talk to them in a different way and make sure that we relate to them. Again coming back to that relationship because we make sure that we relate to them in a language that they understand and is helpful to them.

Alex (14:12):

Is there ever a concern that things might move too quickly or that things can be a bit jarring or are you conscious of being subtle in how you communicate certain changes? Cause I imagine that someone listening working in a 20 person startup can rebrand overnight, and to be honest, a lot of people might not even notice. Whereas there's a bit more on the line, I guess with IBM.

Brendan (14:33):

It does take longer. I sometimes use the analogy of IBM is like a large city. So in a lot of cities and you'll have lots of people, you'll have lots of process, because in a city without the processes, nothing gets done, the bins don't get emptied and the roads don't get repaired and you get politics. So there's all of those within any large organisation when you've got 300, 400,000 people. So you have to plan for that a little bit. 

So you have to plan when looking at trying to secure budget for a project. How long is that going to take me? Who do I need to go to? Who do I need to work with? Who can really help champion this and drive it? Do I need to get an executive and board to say yes? How do I build the business case? So there's lots of aspects to building that platform to get something to happen. And that does take much longer than, as you say in your 20 person business. 

But you do kind of get used to it, and when the occasion arises, we can be really quick. I often hear people who've left IBM to go to a 20 person business say I left IBM because the processes were driving me mad. And now I can't get anything done because there are no processes.

Alex (15:53):

I was going to say I think a lot of people listening can relate to or can take away a lot from what you've just said in terms of, although there's less formality of process, I think actually taking some of that formality of building a business case and thinking who your sponsor is going to be. And even though they're probably not needed in that side of the business, I think they can really make things even more powerful and even more effective if you do steal a few bits of those much bigger corporate processes and bring them into a smaller business. 

I think that can really shine a light on things and earn the respect of the right people quite quickly and get things done. So, I've heard similar stories before of a lack of process being just as frustrating as too much process. But there we go. We've talked a little bit about the colleagues side of things already. 

You mentioned the importance of building your internal network, which for me having been in and around much smaller businesses, thinking about having to network internally is an alien concept. But it makes perfect sense when you describe it that way. 

I guess you want to avoid a situation where you knock on someone's door and they go, Brendon's here again asking for something. Which I imagine in a role where you dive in and out of certain teams and certain things you can appear as quickly as you've disappeared and vice versa. What else do you think about in terms of taking people on that journey? Making sure you've got their support, their buy-in, they understand why everything's happening?

Brendan (17:14):

Well there's always got to be something in it for them. So it's not just one way traffic. So you're not knocking on someone's door saying I need your help, give me something. You're almost invariably saying, we can come to some kind of partnership here. I will get X from it, but you will get Y. 

And that example I mentioned earlier about the universities, I was hungry for their content and their expertise and the stories that they were talking about. They needed someone who could get that story to a wider audience. So it was a mutually beneficial situation so that you don't go knock on someone's door and certainly you don't demand, but it's much easier if you can offer them something in return.

Alex (18:01):

Yeah, good tip. And I guess with a lot of what you do, there's some quite obvious things in terms of press coverage and things, which people like seeing their brand, their name, their work out in public and amplified. You've got some nice things which you can offer people in that respect.

Using case studies to amplify brand 

Brendan (18:18):

I mean, a great example of that at the moment we're working on a project called Mayflower. So Mayflower is going to be the first fully autonomous ships and this company called Promare have built this. And IBM has most of the computing and processing technology involved and onboard. And they're just fantastic to work with. You know, they've got a great story to tell. 

They've got loads of expertise from IBM feeding into the project, and this is a great story. It's going to cross the Atlantic, hopefully in April next year. It should have gotten this year, but COVID like many things, put paid to that. But this ship will have no crew, it's all technology. And the captain is called the AI Captain, which will make decisions on the spot. It's not a remote control thing at all. It's absolutely decision-making on board. 

So we get projects like that come along with third-party client-come-partners, and they're delighted to work with us and help us tell that story. And it's really powerful when you get that kind of relationship.

Alex (19:30):

Yeah. It's a very cool project. I saw that in the press. Has it done like a test run? Or I can't remember what I saw, but it was very cool.

Brendan (19:36):

We launched the ship about a month or so ago. And then we took it out of the water again and they were doing fittings. It went back in the water last week and they were doing remote control testing and all the trials seemed to go very well. So they're already working on the AI aspect of it, so they have to train it so that it recognises a buoy or a ship or an iceberg and understands how to navigate around that. So that's next in the process.

Alex (20:09):

And with something like that as a relevant case study, what does success look like from your perspective or in your role when you're working with that as a topic, as a case study. Is it building coverage, and we can come on to talk a little bit more about how you measure brand more generally, but is this something where eventually somewhere, someone on a commercial role in a sales team is pointing back to this case study and saying to a big potential client that this is what we've been working on. And is it used to paint a picture or is it much more top of funnel, brand awareness building?

Brendan (20:39):

It's a bit of both. It's absolutely top of funnel, brand awareness, and one of those emotional stories that people can become engaged, then they can see that without understanding any of the technology. It's just, this is unusual, this is different, I didn't expect to see that kind of thing from IBM. Where in fact it's the kind of thing we've been doing for years, just not quite so prominently. 

But it's also something that the salespeople can relate to. They can take that as a case study, they can talk to clients about it. It's a great way to engage client initially, if we don't have a relationship with them. It's a great way to engage clients if we do have a relationship with them, if you want to take them in a different direction. So if you want to talk about the AI solutions and the AI solutions for the Mayflower are not things that have just been created for the Mayflower, they're existing Watson solutions that we use.

So we've taken them from another application and developed it for the ship. So it's terrific for the sales team to take that and begin that conversation, it's great from a marketing perspective because we can talk about it and use it in so many different aspects. We can bring it into events and webinars, we can publish copy about it, we can write stories about it. This particular case, they've created a docu series and a podcast series. 

So there's lots of different content uses from a marketing and a sales perspective. And ultimately I think even at the basic level, if we are talking about the brand and there's not somewhere along the line, a link back into sales, we're really not doing the job properly. We've got to be able to promote goods and services on the back of something.

How to measure brand amplification 

Alex (22:19):

Let's talk more widely about measuring brands. I think this is a really interesting area that I guess you'd have to be a brand or business of a certain size for brand measurement and all these different things, brand share of voice, and all the different metrics that can be even possible to look at. Are these things you look at? Are there particular frameworks, tools that you use IBM generally to measure brand whether that's sentiment or share voice or whatever it might be?

Brendan (22:44):

Yeah. Measurement is huge for us. We measure everything in IBM and I would argue as well, it's not just a big organisation thing. I'm involved in a charity that we've done within IBM called Marketing Matters where we teach small charities how to do marketing. And even at that stage, these are one man bands often. 

And in fact, in all of the cases that we work with, they have no marketing expertise. And we say to them, you should try and measure whatever you can, because then you've got no idea whether what you're doing is any use or not. And so you really need to try and try, and if you're putting budget behind something, you want to know that your budget's being put to good use. 

I think it's quite difficult from a marketing point of view, we always try to track it back to sales opportunities in IBM, but from a brand point of view, in some of the stuff that I'm working on, that's really quite difficult. But we do try what we call brand health. 

We've got a tracking system to see where we rate and how we compare to our competitors. We track things like social and of course the really straightforward metrics around web traffic and engagement on the web is really important to us as well. So I think for different parts of that marketing funnel, there are different measurements that you can use. But yeah, whatever you can try and measure it.

Environmentalism in B2B brand building 

Alex (24:13):

I want to talk a bit about sustainability, environmental focus of brands. I think this is something that we're seeing more and more obviously for very good reason in terms of how brands position themselves as more environmentally conscious and sustainability which plays a bigger role within a brand. 

How are you seeing brands going about that? Is that something you're looking at at IBM? And I guess a sub question is how do you do that in a way that carries things through or really demonstrates that there's more to it than just a statement or a brand? If that makes sense in itself. I think that's the big thing with consumers and any buyer looking at these activities is, is this just a press release and a nice green photo? Or is there substance behind that? And I think there's often some skepticism in the enterprise space. 

Brendan (25:01):

So sustainability is a really interesting thing. So not only do I think it's important that companies take a position on sustainability, we are seeing that it's absolutely vital our clients now in proposals are seeing our position around the environment. And it gets quite detailed, particularly if you're working with governments, organisations, government organisations, they want to know, not only if we take out this contract with you, what would be the carbon efficiency? And if you have to apply technology to something. 

So they're looking for some very specific detail around your sustainability. So I think it's absolutely vital. Fortunately, we've got a really good history around sustainability, but again, not something that we've particularly promoted very well. And I think we've still got somewhere to go, but I like the position that we've taken around sustainability and that we're not going to greenwash. 

So we're not going to use things like an offset to try and reduce our carbon footprint. We've taking definite obvious steps to reduce that footprint, reducing the power usage or the cooling usage in data centres. For example, what we do when salespeople have to travel and fly, we're taking a very serious approach to that. 

I think we're on the right track. We've still got some work to do, but I think anyone who doesn't take a strong position around sustainability very quickly are going to find themselves isolated.

Alex (26:45):

Yep. No, that sounds great. And I hadn't really thought about the offset type approach that way, but I guess you're saying that just doing some offset work is to some extent the easy answer, and it's much better if you can to take more decisive action.

Brendan (26:59):

It's the easy answer. And what you're really doing is delegating the responsibilities to someone else. You're saying this is someone else's problem. I'm not absolutely familiar with how offsetting works, but it sounds like someone else should go and plant trees so that you can continue to burn fossil fuels. 

So we've long had a policy of even things like water sustenance, we've gathered water from the rest of the buildings for years and things like that we've published. I think I saw fairly recently, it will be 20 years maybe longer than that, an annual sustainability statement, saying what we've done in the past year and with targets looking ahead. So I think we've got good credibility, but I'm delighted that we have taken that approach. 

We realise it's not easy, that you can't just suddenly switch something off. And we have clients who can't suddenly switch something off. But working with those clients to try and help them change and change how we approach that client. I think that's the right way to go.

Impact of Covid on IBM marketing and working behaviours 

Alex (28:03):

Yeah, definitely. Lastly, you just touched on the pivot point around salesmen or women flying around the world to meetings. With everything that's been happening in the last year or so, I think I've actually avoided talking about COVID too much on recent episodes. I think we have room to have a bit of a COVID chat on this one. 

We're recording this just before Christmas, mid December 2020. People will probably be listening to it mainly in the kind of start of 2021. But up until now, how has COVID shifted priorities? Any impact on your working practices?

Brendan (28:40):

Yes. I think one of the good things, being a big technology company means that when everything's switched to digital, it was an easy transition for us. We didn't have to worry about video conferencing or VPNs or security or stuff like that, we had all that stuff. Most people in IBM worked from home, at least some of the team. So seldom was there people in the office every day of the week, every hour of the day. 

So it became easy for us to work from home then. From a technology point of view, I think one of the things that we have been really conscious of is the mental health aspects to make sure that people just don't go crazy. So there's been noticeably much more outreach from management and executives to try and keep the workforce engaged, which has been quite good. Lots of stuff that you would never do. 

We did a Christmas party by video conference the other day. And there was a sing along and no alcohol, which was really bizarre. So I think from that point of view, it's probably accelerated some awareness on mental health issues. And again, we were always pretty good at that. I'm trained in mental health first aid, which is a great position to have along with my traditional first aid competency.

So there was a good awareness, but I think that really emphasised that. And there was a public acknowledgement for everyone to make sure that we reached out to our colleagues to make sure that they were okay. And again, a piece of advice on that. You may notice some signs that they're struggling a little bit in some respects and you say to them, are you okay? Their first response will be, yes I'm fine. Ask again, say no, but I mean, really? Are you genuinely okay? Do you need to tell someone? Because that will be the reflex reaction and if you don't ask again, it's gone, the moment's gone. So always ask twice.

Alex (31:04):

Good tip. I think there's lots there that, whether you're a marketer in a business big or small, there's some really interesting points you've shared there. And I think some valuable bits people can take away and actually think about in terms of how they approach brand. So I'm really grateful for you sharing all of your experiences with our audience. But we'll wrap up then so thank you again.

Brendan (31:27):

Thanks very much, I've really enjoyed that. I hope it's some useful content.

FINITE (31:32):

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