Teresa Caro, the senior vice president of marketing at Atlanticus, a financial services company marketing under the Fortiva family of brands, has spent her career helping brands connect with their customers, often in new ways. She worked for social media agencies in the early days of those platforms and helped brands like Chick-Fil-A, UPS, Wells Fargo, and Coca-Cola with their marketing strategies. We had a chance to talk recently about the need to unpack assumptions and her insights provide guidance to marketers and business leaders seeking to align marketing and sales and to put the customer in the center of their business.
Assumptions Can Hide Misalignment and Breakthroughs
“My biggest learning throughout my career is to never assume,” said Caro. Even fundamental things like the company’s financial goals might not be obvious. “Every company seeks to be profitable, yet, depending on the company goal, profitability may not need to happen until a later date.” She recommends digging deeper into the business goals to understand how marketing affects future results. “Will the company be sold in five years and so scale is the priority and profitability is less important (at least right now)? Is the company a public company and so profitable growth are the priorities? Are we operating in a highly commoditized space so more focus needs to placed on brand awareness, perception or differentiation?” The answers to these questions lead to very different plans. “I have even worked with brand manager clients who want to be perceived as more ‘innovative’ compared to their other brand managers, so we did less around the ‘tried and true’ and pushed more into sparkly objects,” Caro recalls from her agency days. In any case, understanding the underlying motivations can lead to real breakthroughs and uncover areas of misalignment. “Once that long term goal has been identified and translated into short term plans, next it is important to layer in the target audience.” Caro said it is important to consider all the stakeholders, “not just customer or consumer target audiences, but also internal, external, investor, board-type audiences.” Consider how your business plans, product positioning, or even messaging will resonate with all the stakeholders.
Measurement Requires Management
“Regardless of industry, the biggest assumptions are typically around measurement,” Caro observed. “What needs to be measured, is it being measured, is it being measured the right way, is it being reported on correctly, is it being analyzed appropriately, and is it being tested and optimized” are the questions that she advised asking. “Furthermore, do the right people have access to this data and do they understand how they can make an impact on these numbers.” If data isn’t understood or actionable, it isn’t useful. “In other words, people who are really good at creating reports, may not be good at analyzing them. People who are good at analyzing them, may not have the domain knowledge needed to make recommendations to different departments,” she said. “The most fascinating discovery I have made is the number of marketing organizations that don’t have an analytics person on their team or that they have to share them with finance and accounting,” she noted. This is likely to change in the coming years with a growing emphasis on data and analytics, but it is a gap in many small and mid-size marketing groups today and impacts the ability to make smart, data-driven decisions.
How organizations make decisions and use data to drive marketing plans can vary widely. “Many brands assume TV commercials always work, largely because it is the tradition in the company to always include TV commercials in their brand plans,” she said. “Content marketing has become another ‘you-just-have-to-do-it’ tactic in marketing plans.” Whether or not it is the right choice for the business, product, or sales approach. “For the record, there are ways to prove TV commercials work, as well as content marketing,” Caro summarized. “It goes back to the assumptions around measuring the right way, with the right tools.” And making sure those measurements tie back to the business strategy overall.
She warned against acting on data without first validating. For instance, Caro warned that a company shouldn’t use lookalike modeling, in which new prospects are pursued that match attributes from current customers, without validating that those current customers are the most valuable or profitable. They risk filling the pipeline with prospects that will not drive the business goals. Similarly, “rolling out social media and other forms of communication without validating other departments, such as customer service, can support the ramifications” is a recipe for brand damage. Metrics are exceptional tools, but they are only tools to be used by management to make smart decisions, even if that means rethinking traditional approaches or revisiting what has worked in the past. “Debunking of assumptions requires a business case and a leadership team willing to take a risk,” she added.
Brands Are Themselves Assumptions
It has been said that your brand is what your customers think and say about you without your involvement. In a sense, they are themselves a set of assumptions. Assumptions about how the product might perform, how the price compares to the competition, where the product can be purchased, and what the customer experience will entail. “When someone asks me to ‘brand position’ a company, I have found a lot of work goes into helping them understand all that goes into a brand,” recalled Caro. This includes not only “advertising, but PR to customer experience and everything in between.” It extends beyond marketing functions to sales. It extends beyond customer-facing roles to those who support the experience in factories, development teams, or billing departments. Good marketers “help their executive leadership or clients understand that what he or she decides to do as it relates to brand, impacts all aspects of the organization,” Caro said. “And, with a limited budget, not everything can be done.” Before your customers can make the right assumptions about you as a brand and a company, the organization has an opportunity to decide “what they want to be known for and how they want to reinforce this message.” And to give that priority across their entire business strategy.
This article was originally posted on Forbes.com.