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Cisco Broadens Its Brand Position

Over a period of 28 years, Cisco built one of the most powerful and valuable global brands selling networking gear to very specific buyers — the chief information officer down to the network manager. But as the traditional IT budget began to fragment, and Cisco’s portfolio of products and services began to grow, the company sensed an opportunity to expand its business by focusing on new buying centers. That sparked a new brand conversation two years ago, in support of a shift in Cisco’s corporate strategy to target additional enterprise executives and line-of-business leaders.

“We have a lot of equity in our networking business, and we have brought that into our new brand conversation,” says Blair Christie, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Cisco, which turned 30 this year. “But at the same time, we have painted a picture of the future that would be relevant to a new set of buyers. Because we’re selling solutions to broader segments of a business, we have broadened our position.”



Christie, a featured speaker at the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference, Oct. 15-18 in Orlando, Fla., discusses the transformation at Cisco, the challenges that have come with it, how the company is engaging customers, and more.

Q. What insight prompted the change in Cisco’s corporate strategy, and how has it benefitted the brand and your customers?

A. Cisco, as a whole, has been on a constant journey. We’ve always pushed into what we call “tornado markets” — markets that move fast. These markets have at least one foot in the networking space, but over the past few years, it’s not just the technology markets that have shifted; we also saw a shift in business models and how our customers would consume what we offer. For years, if you wanted routing capabilities, or collaboration capabilities, you bought hardware or equipment that would sit on your site. But then we started to see value in providing those services to customers from the cloud.

We could deliver networking capabilities through software, as opposed to something that needed to be on a piece of hardware. That’s a consumption change for our customers, and it has huge ramifications on their operating expenses, on their capital budgets, and so forth. This shift also had huge implications on how we develop and go to market at Cisco. We decided to move away from the consumer markets we participated in, even though that was an important piece of our brand strategy at the time.

We refocused on enterprise customers, ensuring that we understood their business needs and new consumption models. As a result, we are bringing new value to them through innovation. We needed to make sure that our brand reflected where the company was going. 

We’re seeing our wallet share grow, even with our largest customers. That is definitely reflective of the fact that we’re selling into new areas, with new buyers, and offering new solutions. We’re also seeing great results in our brand metrics, which specifically show that our customers view us as a strategic partner, not simply as a networking vendor, and have confidence in our ability to uniquely deliver on the promise of the “Internet of Everything.” Most importantly, we’re seeing the highest growth come from new areas of our business — data center, new software, applications, specific infrastructure, and our consulting services.

Q. Are there challenges that come with a lofty brand reputation such as Cisco’s?

A. There are always challenges when you have a great story to tell, such as actually delivering on the promise of that story. We based our brand conversation, or brand platform, completely on our corporate strategy. We thought it would take at least a full year to see movement in the repositioning of Cisco and to get new buyers to understand what the Internet of Everything would mean to the very specific solutions, software, and technologies we were creating.

Well, it only took about six months. We quickly realized that we were in danger of not being able to deliver on our storyline and vision, and we didn’t want to lose our thought leadership position as others moved into the market. We accelerated some of our work and used research and new messaging to create a tighter link to our portfolio. Also, the strong brand recognition we had in networking and hardware was a hurdle we had to overcome. In the technology industry, value increases as you go up the technology stack. We had to show that we could deliver up the stack, beyond networking.

And finally, while brand transformation is critical, tying the brand value and promise all the way down to your offers and demand generation work is really the Holy Grail for marketers. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not always easy. That’s something we’ve been working on and is a core design principle this year for our team.

Q. What are the key attributes of a truly great brand?

A. Being authentic is definitely at the top. Successful brands take the equity they’ve built and use it as a springboard. They don’t isolate it, leave it behind, or abandon it — they take it with them. An authentic brand is powerful because it has sustainability. Great brands also have to be truly global. We’ve had moments in time when the brand was extremely powerful in one region, but missed the mark in another. Becoming a truly global company, not just an American company operating overseas, is a constant journey. It takes quite a bit of forethought. Lastly, a great brand has to reflect the culture of the business. It’s not just what you do, but how your company operates. It’s important for your culture to come through in your brand platform.

Q. How has the confluence of new technologies, big data, and new media changed the way you market to customers? 

A. Certainly, the value we are getting from our digital strategy has increased. We know that customers today get about two-thirds of the way through their buying process before they ever talk to a sales team. We’re trying to leverage our digital strategy to engage customers in a way that we had not done before. Our new brand campaign is designed with a digital-first mindset. We’re using different vehicles, such as social listening, to create opportunities for social selling.

We are also using other social networking tools that can be laser focused on a specific customer, like LinkedIn because it effectively targets the business leader — our sweet spot. We’re doing a lot more around inbound marketing too, trying to drive engagement on Cisco.com and our partners’ sites. While that might not be an “aha” for some companies, we have very much been an outbound marketing organization over the past several decades. We’ve put a lot of energy into inbound marketing the past two years in an effort to create a more effective engagement strategy with our customers and drive more qualified leads to the sales team.

Q. As head of your marketing organization, how do you create a culture of growth?

A. I always remind my teams that they’re business leaders first and subject matter experts second. I believe that’s how you instill a focus on growth within an organization. We do a lot of work to ensure everyone, at every level, understands where Cisco’s business is today, what’s happening in our markets, and how we’re doing functionally in terms of our financial and operational health. With that foundation, we can focus on the areas that the marketing and communications organization can contribute to the business in the best, most impactful way.

Whether our budgets are growing or decreasing, we can grow our team and have greater results by fostering creativity and innovation through experimenting with pilots, using scrum methods, and prioritizing around shared goals. One area that I feel we still have much work to do is developing new capabilities and skill sets for our people. As marketing transforms, there is so much to learn and develop — it’s hard to keep up. We have some great programs in place, but I’m hoping to offer a much more robust curriculum for our marketing and communications professionals.

More than ever, marketing is integral to the understanding and advocacy of our customers. And, therefore, it’s more critical to the growth of our companies. So, when you talk growth, the success of the organization and its results is really all about the ability to grow the people inside.

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