A Conversation With Lenovo’s Quinn O’Brien On AaS Marketing Best Practices + The Future Of Insight

The pandemic has accelerated transformation at light speed over the past year and one of the biggest shifts coming out of all that change has been the migration of product-driven brands to as-a-Service organizations. Today, whether you are selling a car, cloud services, or a hamburger, you ultimately must not only get someone to transact with your brand, but subscribe to it. To do this, be it in a B2B or B2C context, you’ve got to do two things really well: know your customer in ways that foster 1:1 commercial intimacy and demonstrate value to them that makes them want you to be a part of their daily lives. 

For all these reasons, I wanted to speak to someone with direct experience with this type of transformation to begin to understand the type of marketing toolkit required in today’s environment. For my latest column, I had the privilege of sitting down with Quinn O’Brien, Vice President, Global Marketing at Lenovo to discuss everything from the latest trends around insourcing, to the evolution of insights, to best practices for building a marketing organization designed to keep in lockstep with as-a-Service transformation. Following is a recap of our discussion: 

Billee Howard: Great to hear your voice Quinn! The pandemic has accelerated the insourcing of marketing capabilities. You and I talked about that when we first met, actually before the pandemic. But now the pendulum is swinging back to a balance between in-house and external. You’re one of the first people who brought that pendulum swing to my attention, and I’d love to hear about what you’re seeing now and what you’ve learned. 

Quinn O’Brien: Happy to be speaking with you Billee. From my perspective, I think the pendulum was swinging heavy and hard towards the insourcing model prior to the pandemic. We’d started out probably a couple of years before that; thinking about bringing work in-house, starting to bring in strategy, some of the creative, some of the pre-production, and had over time started to execute on that model. The pandemic really accelerated that process and within the course of about a month, we just really transitioned completely. The team worked incredibly hard to figure it out and we were successful overall. 

That said, while we got a lot out of insourcing, it also really gave us a deep appreciation about how important outside agencies are and how it’s impossible to replicate some of what they offer. From my perspective, that swung the pendulum back a decent amount. For example, it got me to the point where I  was thinking in certain areas, like digital marketing, I was going to hire some really smart people in-house, and then quickly realized we would have been better served by an agency partner. What we noticed in the 14 months of the pandemic was that the digital media landscape changes so quickly. It’s so nuanced and the value that an agency brings to the digital space is really their ability to engage the thought leaders in all of those areas, to train those people, to make sure that they’re continually hiring the latest and greatest talent in those spots. That’s one example where I went from a pretty simple solution, like just hiring a bunch of really smart people, to no, it’s actually significantly more complicated. It really started to just open my eyes to the fact that I was being overly simplistic about it. While we’ve had some success in many inhouse capabilities, like insights, this type of example brought reality crashing back in. 

Howard: That makes perfect sense. One area where the pendulum has not recalibrated that you just mentioned is insights. Last time we chatted we talked about maturing the capability internally and even creating a more centralized way to use insights that go beyond marketing, to GTM. Can you talk about how you’re thinking about that? 

O’Brien: Yeah, it’s really interesting because it’s kind of the opposite of what we were just talking about.  With the agency model we always knew we needed to change from a purely outsourced model and it was just a question of how much change to drive.  With insights, I think we were pretty satisfied, thinking we had a really robust, world-class insights function.  When you look at insights through a purely rational lens, we absolutely did. We are really good at gathering a ton of data to help us make pretty binary decisions: which markets to invest in, which features to put in a product, which offers to include in an ad.  We’d generate literally tens of thousands of data points across the customer journey, all of which helped show us what to do.  

Yet anytime we probed on the bigger, more emotive human-level questions that guide branding, we never had the data we needed to form an insight.  As marketers we want to know more than what to do, we want to know the why.  We want to know why people choose brands, why they pay more for brands, and why they stay loyal to brands. But despite the tens of thousands of ‘insight’ data points we had, we could never come close to answering those questions. 

So now, we are shaping an internal capability to massively up-level that approach and find a strategic way of putting real human insights into large scale action. Our exercise has been to merge three capabilities: some advanced technology – basically AI plus a relatively sophisticated listening engine, merged with some relatively traditional trends research, merged with some really smart and analytical people who know our brand and our business.  This has let us raise out of the what and into the why and helped us to start to shape the brand more solidly around real principles of human decision making. 

We’re just starting the journey, but you can already see when you look at our top marketers, our top product people, our top storytellers, people suddenly start to get it. It’s no longer about banging through a 180 page slide deck with all the data.  Instead it’s about getting it to that super sharp and simple point where there’s an ‘a ha’ moment and people say, “Got it, that’s really interesting.”  We are in the very early stages of starting to see that type of change happen, but I think we’re on the right path. 

Howard: That’s really exciting to hear. So many companies are moving to become as-a-Service companies. In fact, I don’t know any of clients at the moment that aren’t in the midst of transforming to do that in some way shape or form.  Can you share any marketing best practices that should be kept in mind to drive that transformation from a marketing point of view? 

O’Brien: I think it’s a completely different marketing strategy and a completely different set of muscle memory you need if you’re going to market a service versus a product.  I look at it very simplistically, because in our world, what we’re essentially doing is expanding from being seen as a product company that makes phones and laptops, to being seen as a solutions company. Our customers today who buy these solutions, are buying them as a service. The big change is that the tried-and-true method for product marketing was essentially just a beautiful, incredibly appealing image of the product with the exact right set of specs and the people who are in the market for that product will buy it. It’s an oversimplification for sure, but it’s relatively a lot of time and energy spent around crafting the image and crafting the specs. It was a one hit thing. Now you introduce a service-based model and it becomes much more complicated.  You need to walk people through multiple steps; particularly with some segments where it’s a brand new concept. 

This is where you have to really get those insights right. You have to really understand where people’s heads are in terms of the solutions you’re selling and what are those cues that are going to start to get them over each of the different hurdles. You can no longer say I’m going to show a brilliant shot of this laptop and I’m going to say it’s the fastest thing on the market and people are going to flock to it. You’ve got to actually go in and establish the reason why someone should even consider a different way of doing things. You’ve then got to tee up what it is that’s different and then you’ve got to differentiate yourself as the company that they should choose for that different way of doing things. It’s at least three steps that you’ve got to think through. This is what is forcing us to go back to a lot of what we learned in school. It’s the fundamentals of how you do marketing properly. We’ve got to dig much more deeply into the consumer mindset, really understand where they are in their decision journey, and then go in and make sure we’re putting the exact triggers in front of them. You’ve really got to be starting much earlier in the customer’s mindset. To do so this, requires a lot more rigor, and a lot more thought around the briefs that you put together and how you evaluate the work. 

Howard: That’s so well said and terrific advice for how marketers need to stop and rethink things. As a follow up to what you just said, I want to ask you something related that I’ve been debating recently with other marketers. Do you see as-a-Service as analogous to subscription, or do you see those as two separate things? 

O’Brien: I think the subscription is one element of it, it’s a great shorthand for as-a-Service. I think if you say that you can buy your PC as-a-Service, it takes a bit for someone to really think through what that means. If you say you can buy your PC with a subscription model, people are more likely to quickly get what you’re talking about.  That said, the subscription model – the way you pay for it – is only one part.  There’s a whole services component to it and then a value-add component like security and things like that that are much more robust than if you just bought the PC and brought it home. I always think of subscriptions as the thing that gets someone interested, it’s the easiest door to come through as a marketer.  But, then the as-a-Service story and experience is the bigger thing that keeps them hooked.

Howard: Perfect. Thank you for that. That was helpful. You and I talked about a specific example you shared around the importance of managing change and transformation internally first and why that’s so important. I’d love to hear you talk about how you have approached change by joining forces across several functions and if you want to get into that amazing training that you mentioned that came out of that, that would be great. 

O’Brien: Definitely. Like I said earlier, were are undergoing a huge transformation as a company from being seen as a device company to a solutions company. It sounds very simple, but the types of solutions we offer, how we’re bringing them together internally, and why we’re different from our competition has a lot of complexity that ultimately, we need our customers to understand. To do that, we first need the employees to understand. We’ve got to get every employee to really understand when we say we’re becoming a solutions company, what does that mean? We realized there were four core parties who were critical to this: one was strategy. We have a very strong corporate strategy team and the thing they do really well is understand complex topics in depth. They are the source of knowledge for what we mean when we say ‘solutions. They can tell you every type of solution, in every industry and vertical and how they come together in every market. They possess all the nuance in their knowledge. 

The other group that was elemental was marketing because the thing we do really well is take complex information and present it in a very simple, approachable, compelling and understandable way. So we worked really closely with strategy and had some really interesting back and forth where they wanted everyone to understand the 100-page deck, and our tendency is to boil it down into a tagline. Their reality is that it has to live in the middle so they can’t boil 100 pages down to the tagline. It’s really about giving an average employee the ability to go home and tell their husband what we’re doing in real colloquial language that is understandable. 

We also worked really closely with H.R. because we have a strong H.R. department that has their finger on the pulse of all the individual employees. Their teams are embedded within each of the groups across the organization. So, I have this wonderful network and ability to both read the pulse of the organization, but also disseminate information out to them. We also worked with a fourth group that was really key, as they are the team that does the training for our products. They build all the demos that teach our customers how to use everything ranging from a phone up to a supercomputer. So we pulled them in for the training design and essentially marshaled those four forces to create a set of training modules, push them out, cascade them around the company, and then really push people to engage with them. We got fabulous feedback from the employees, a lot of variation on, “Wow, I finally understand what we’re doing”, which is the ultimate compliment. Employees telling us “I now know what to do with this. I now understand. I design laptops which are devices and I now understand how we are moving to a solutions company, I now get how I fit into that future.” It was a really, really good experience and a terrific example of the value of an inside-out approach when it comes to many things, change among them.

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