NI is about as B2B as B2B gets. For 40 years it has made equipment that tests other manufacturing equipment -- equipment that itself sometimes makes other technology and products. Yeah, we are deep within the supply chain here.
Visitors to its web site, however, might mistake NI for another fashionable D2C startup that aims to save the world through better hemp-based sneakers or something. A slick, text-light, minimalist interface features smiley happy people touting aspirational values. Not a lot of semiconductors and jargon here.
In June, the former National Instruments launched a radical rebrand as NI that follows CMO Carla Piñeyro Sublett’s mantra: there is no B2B vs. B2C marketing. NI is selling to people, not just other companies, she tells Brand Insider.
That simple insight, about who NI’s own people are and whom they sell to, went deeper than a name and logo change. Along the way, Sublett also came to see that that the lines between personal and professional lives and values are fading just as surely as they are between B2B and B2C.
In fact, this project punctuated for this veteran of Rackspace and Dell marketing teams a more personal journey that took her and her family around the world and to a new appreciation of human connection. Rebranding a company, it turns out, is not unlike rebranding yourself. You can listen to the entire podcast here.
Interview has been lightly edited.
MediaPost: A rebrand obviously is more than just a name change. What was the broader identity and relationship with partners that you were aiming for here?
Sublett: One was to modernize and to really set ourselves up for the next era of the company. We are over 40 years old. We had a new CEO coming in. We disrupted the industry 40 years ago when we brought software into field test and measurement. And the industry had seen very little change since then.
When we did our research and talking to customers, [we saw] an opportunity to disrupt this field. Things like cloud machine learning have had not been brought to this space. And we recognized, we can not only modernize this company, we can modernize a whole field.
MP: How do B2B companies need to think and market more like B2Cs?
Sublett: There are a couple assertions that I have. One is that there is no B2B [vs] B2C. We're marketing to people. The other is that our consumer lives have informed our expectations in our business lives in the way we expect to engage with brands.
And then also I have a very strong belief that B2B marketing, in particular in tech, is dead. Everybody's running the same plays, which involves stalking our customers, peppering them with banner ads, filling their inboxes with email. And a lot of marketers in general since the advent of martech, on the consumer side as well, have really forgotten that at the end of the day, the goal is to build a relationship with and add value to the customer. And that's really what informed this perspective of mine.
MP: Are there consumer brands that you look to as North stars, as great examples of the kind of branding you would like to see B2B emulate?
Sublett: More than anything else, I'm looking to pull the best from the best. For example, one of the brands that really inspired us in terms of how to lay out our website, was Glossier. They do these short form videos where it's a problem-fix, problem-fix, in terms of how they showcase their products.
And we realize that that model could be really effective for our products as well, because a lot of engineers are trying to solve for a specific type of test. So, really, instead of looking to one brand as kind of a North Star, we're looking for who's doing the best merchandising, who's doing the best digital video, who's doing the best branding communications -- and really pulling from each of those.
MP: A name change is one thing, but in this rebranding, what specifically do you implement culturally?
Sublett: It actually started how we approach the work. We built a cross-functional working team, which included our incoming CEO, our head of sales, or head of R&D, our head of HR, a software guru within our ranks, and the head of Brand on my team.
So this wasn't a marketing effort. It was a cross-functional effort to begin with. As part of this work, we also looked at our corporate values and we brought our employees into that work. And HR did have a work stream just around our values to make sure that we had buy-in and understanding from our employees.
In fact, we leveraged our values to not just represent who we are in an authentic way, but to actually push us into who we aspired to be.
And what's been so fascinating to me is how quickly this company has pivoted since the launch. It is not the same company I walked into 18 months ago. I've been inspired how people have really latched on to the values, the messaging, the brand -- and really made it their own.
MP: What has changed? What does this more human-to-human marketing actually look like?
Sublett: Well, there's two ways. In terms of how it looks like, I'll answer that question first. When we canvas the landscape from a from a competition standpoint and did a virtual wall test, what we found was there was absolutely no mention of people. No images of people. It was all speeds and feeds, all just the products, all just the technology. And this was not just with us, it was across the entire field. [But] there are amazing stories. These engineers are building life-saving, life-altering solutions for our world and no one knows it. And then in terms of how we've decided to bring it to life, we've decided to bring it to life quite differently and taking a page out of consumer brands and building content that is inspiring to our employees and to our customers, and that will go viral. For example, we've started to build a series of video episodes that tell the story of engineers that are solving some of the most interesting problems in our world. And we're telling it through the lens of kind of a chef's table-like format. It would be something that would be interesting even to a non-engineer. And that is by design.
MP: Brands are aspiring to be purpose-driven or aligned with some larger societal or personal value. How does that work in the B2B space and with NI in particular? What are these broader values?
Sublett: When I started at NI, one of the things that was remarkable to me was how nice everybody was. It's one of the nicest environments I've ever been a part of. And we came out with three values - be bold, be kind, be connectors. And “be kind” was really born out of the fact that one of our founders said that we actually would hire for kindness. We would look for kindness in the interview process. And instead of saying “nice,” we said “kind” intentionally because kindness goes a step further than niceness. Kindness is about honesty and intent, the intent to be kind. “Be bold” was probably the value that was the most questionable because we had a bit of a timid culture. But we aspired to be bold. And like I mentioned, we had disrupted our field over 40 years ago. We were setting it out to do it again. And we would call ourselves prior to the rebrand the humble apprentice of our customers. But our customers were really asking us for something different. They were asking us for solutions and answers. So that's where “Be Bold” was born out of, to really have a point of view and really go for it. And then “Be Connectors” - there is the physical aspect of this, which is our products actually connect data to insights and actually have physical connections and test from analog to digital. But there's also the figurative aspect of this, which is at NI we have a culture of folks that connect the dots, that help customers connect the dots and also help build connections. We're constantly introducing customers to other customers that are solving similar problems across industries. And it's something that we take a great deal of pride in.
MP: How does this get communicated throughout the organization so that everyone is an ambassador of those values?
Sublett: So we actually did brand training. And this is interesting, Steve, because I've done brand training before via just a video and digitally, and we would roll out modules and people would take the training. Our head of people really pushed us to basically do in-person via Zoom because it was during Covid. To do the brand training, actually live with people and to train the trainers and have our executives train the entire company on the brand messaging, hierarchy and values. And I pushed back on it because I didn't think it was that scalable, I didn't think it'd be fast enough, I didn't think it would be received well and boy, was I wrong. It was probably the best thing we could have done. Because people really got it and they were able to have conversations about it and they were able to role-play and now we see people use it in their vernacular. We hear our employees challenge themselves, each other and even customers by saying, “Hey, let's be bold here”, or “Actually, I'm making this connection”. And it's just really wild to see how it's even made its way into our vernacular.
MP: Before coming to NI you spent more than a year on a sojourn around the world with your husband, son and daughter. How did that experience inform your thinking about marketing?
Sublett: I set out to do that at a period in my life where I felt very disconnected from the things that mattered most to me. And it's ironic because I grew up during the connected era in tech as we were coming online and as devices were tethering us to our work. But somehow I felt like I'd lost a meaningful connection and relationship to my children and to my husband. And if I didn't do something drastic, that it might be permanent. And so that drastic move involved plucking them out of school and life as we knew it, and setting out on a journey to places that were off the beaten path and really setting out to connect with each other. What I did not anticipate was the connections that we would make with the people along the way and watching my children and my husband connect with people from completely different parts of the planet and completely different backgrounds and ages was super fulfilling. And during that time, a criteria started to emerge for me and in picking my next job. And one of those things was that I cared about who I worked with and for more than the actual work itself. And that's where this notion of connection and meaning really started to inform my work. I will also say that I had a professional persona and a personal persona that emerged over the course of that period of time. I started to realize, I am one person. I'm not at work, Carla and at home, Carla. And that merging and fluidity of kind of work life made me realize that we needed to think about our customers in that way and we needed to start to meet them, how they lived, not necessarily how they work alone, and think of them as people and not just in terms of their professional values, but their personal values too.