‘We want to become a marketing company’: meet the new Cisco

Mark Phibbs, vice president of marketing and communications for APAC and Japan at Cisco. Photo: Cisco.

Mention Cisco and its renowned reputation as a sales and engineering company immediately comes to mind. However, in this digital day and age, the American networking hardware giant is eager to establish itself as a marketing company.

This is because the company has realised that in today’s digital world, it is all about the customer first, as opposed to the technology, according to Mark Phibbs, vice president of marketing and communications for APAC and Japan at Cisco, in a conversation with The Drum.

Phibbs, who joined Cisco in October 2017, reveals that in his brief time with the company, he found that one of his main challenges is telling technology stories about Cisco through the language and the eyes of a customer. “We have big push to do more customer advocacy, customer case studies, short videos etc, to show how our technology allows them to achieve their business objectives,” he says.

“We have traditionally sold our products through our partners and often we did not know a great deal about the end customer because the partners would do that. So, we are looking at setting up a marketplace so that Cisco can be doing more of the recommending to small-medium businesses,” he adds.

According to Phibbs, Cisco’s partners will still be involved, but the company will start advising SMBs on what their Wi-Fi strategy should be, what their security strategy should be and what their communication strategy should be, as the company starts to think more strategically about which is the right go-to market strategy for its business.

“Our customers love our technology and many of them know it very well. For example, in APJ, we have a 160,000 people a year who are trained as Cisco networking engineers. I was asking the other day in a meeting, what's our engagement strategy with all those people and it is not very strong. I think we just take it for granted,” he says.

“I am so excited as the newcomer here because, my gosh, we have a 160,000 people who are taking our course and why aren't we engaging them to become advocates for the brand? I see many opportunities like that and there's all these jewels within this company, but because we have not been that strong from a marketing point of view, they have been left dormant. But I think we can expose those and, suddenly, we can start telling really interesting stories.”

The focus on telling interesting technology stories has seen Cisco produce an advertisement in 2017 for its ‘intent-based network’ solutions that featured Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage, wandering through the streets of London describing how simple the new network is, as he contemplates the hyper-connected world around him.

It is a change from the ads that Cisco is used to producing, as according to Phibbs, in technology, the branding ‘can be a little boring’ sometimes. “That ad had a real cut through and it excited our core target audience like network buyers and the chief information officers. Our latest products have a whole lot of innovation, in terms of technology, but how do you get that message across? If you go into all the details of the technology and not thinking aspirationally, you won't succeed,” he explains.

“(Dinkalage) was the perfect person for the ad because people do not typically think about a classically-trained actor doing a tech ad, so it really extended the Cisco brand to a sort of more, aspirational place, to say 'Ok, networking and security is not just about technology, it is about allowing governments and businesses to provide incredible experiences for their customers in a secure and timely way,’ “adds Phibbs.

The former Adobe executive also reveals that Cisco will continue to produce similar ads as it attempts to connect its technology to what its customers are trying to do. “All our customers around the world are being digitally disrupted, so it is about how they optimise the customer experience for their own customers. Cisco's technology is the infrastructure that allows that to happen and if you think about it from a government's point of view, it's about smart cities, hospitals and stadiums,” he says.

Cisco is also starting to make use of modern advertising technologies, like programmatic targeting. It has built a technology called 'Connected Intelligence', where it can determine how a bank's customers interact on Cisco.com and as a result of that intelligence, it can then market to them in a appropriate way. For example, if they are searching on security, Cisco may retarget them in terms of security messaging or produce an email campaign.

This approach was taken as today’s marketing needs to be data-driven, says Phibbs, and in order to provide that personalised experience, Cisco needs to be following its customers. “One of the things that I have been doing since I came onboard, is that I do not talk about digital marketing, I talk about marketing in a digital world because everyone is a digital marketer,” he adds.

Phibbs reveals that Cisco spends 20% of its marketing budget in APJ on digital and in 2018, that figure will double to 40%. He stresses that he needs to do that because while Cisco has an incredible tech stack from a marketing point of view, it needs to train its people and adapt its processes so that it can give our customers that incredible experience.

“Even B2B customers are all individuals, they are all sons, mothers, fathers and daughters, they all live an individual life beyond being a CIO or a network buyer,” he explains. “They are using Uber and Deliveroo etc, so that's their expectation of service and experience, and if you are a B2B company and if you are not providing that level, they are going to be disappointed.”

“Their expectation levels are way higher than it used to be, which is why I think that there are a lot of learnings B2B companies can learn from the B2C space,” he adds.

While he attempts to change the ways Cisco tell its brand’s stories and how the company markets itself, Phibbs understands that there needs to be a culture of innovation within the company if the plan is going to be successful. So, to encourage his fellow colleagues to innovate, Phibbs set up a marketing book club in 2017, which aims to encourage storytelling through data and marketing leadership.

“Everyone will read the book, the author will then come and present to the teams, and answer questions over several hours in multiple sessions,” he explains. “I think that is very good because there is a lot of fear amongst marketers, particularly those who are not all that familiar with digital, that they will put out of a job because they do not know the new world. So I think you have to take people along and help them with it.”

“We have also just released a data visualisation tool, which we are using to unlock the insight from all our data. We are also launching an innovative technology every quarter now and we are training our staff on how to use that,” he adds.

Future plans include introducing a programme call ‘seeds of innovation’, where the marketing deparment in Cisco come up with ideas once or twice a year and whoever wins the idea around the world, gets funded to a tune of US $50,0000, like a start-up within the company. The ideas stand a chance of becoming products as well.

These kinds of programmes unlocks the enthusiasm people have within marketing to make an impact beyond their immediate job, according to Phibbs, as it is important to help teams develop, from a marketing technology and strategy point of view.

“It is too easy for marketers to just be reactive to what the business wants to do, but marketing should have an opinion, strategy and decide what they are going to do and not going to do because there are tough decisions to be made,” he says. “If you are truly going to go digital, you have to take a look at all the events you do and all the partner marketing, because typically in tech, the standard of marketing is events and partner marketing.”

Being relevant will also be a key cornerstone of Cisco’s storytelling going forward, as it seeks to address critical issues like cybersecurity. It produced an ad with a storyline that is eerily familiar in today’s climate in 2016, to raise awareness of effective ransomware attacks and explain why enterprises require effective security.

Phibbs explains that videos like this will help brands understand cybersecurity as part of its strategy is educating and raising awareness for B2B companies and SMBs with short, interesting, somewhat amusing and impactful videos.

“You will see more of that from us because people love videos and interact with them more than anything else,” says the Australian. “You have to make it dramatic, entertaining and not too tech because we are trying to take this brand from a tech company that has been around quite awhile, to a more hip, relevant tech brand. That is why videos like that are very important.

As cybersecurity becomes a prominent issue with Russia’s involvement with the United States elections and data breaches like the Uber’s hack, Cisco’s work with cybersecurity organisations and governments around the world is becoming more crucial to removing this threat to business and people's way of life. That is why there is no better time for the company to use its new storytelling strategies to push the message out around security.

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