Plantronics CMO, Marilyn Mersereau, discusses how utilizing consumer insight and creating a harmonious team can have a positive impact on the business
Marilyn Mersereau, Chief Marketing Officer at Plantronics, says that it is always important to keep the customer at the forefront. Plantronics specializes in audio technology, having pioneered the lightweight headset, the mobile headset, noise-cancelling technology, and the personal speakerphone. They were also responsible for the first headset that went to the moon with Neil Armstrong in 1969. But it was earlier in Mersereau’s career, while she was at Coca-Cola, that the magnitude of the customer was made particularly clear to her. Mersereau, who is Canadian, says of the Canadian company: “You were able to get your arms around the whole business because it wasn’t the entire global business of Coca-Cola. You were able to learn the principles of marketing, branding, and distribution, but on a smaller scale, so you could understand how it all worked together.” This is where she learned traditional packaged goods marketing.
However, the launch of New Coke, which was not an initial commercial success, ultimately reminded her to revisit the viewpoint of the customer, which they called point of sale back “planning.” Much of the research that led to the launch of New Coke was based on blind taste tests which is not typically how she and her team would have approached a project. “We would have asked, ‘What kind of personas buy our product? What are the occasions, the places, and the incentives that cause them to buy?’ And so we would plan to interrupt them in exactly those times, those places, or those occasions where they could best buy.” A blind taste test takes away the context in which a person might drink Coke, thus removing the brand entirely. “By not having it branded, you’re saying that marketing really doesn’t matter,” says Mersereau. However, while many saw New Coke as a failure, Mersereau concedes, “It certainly refocused people’s attention on the cola segment, and the consumer demanded to have their Coca-Cola brought back, so we responded with Coca-Cola Classic. The combined sales of New Coke and Coke Classic over time inverted that sales loss, that share loss, and Coke started to grow share, but it was the voice of the consumer that said ‘bring me back my Coke.’”
In 1994, Mersereau joined IBM, a company that Fortune Magazine called a “big, blue dinosaur” that year. Mersereau had her doubts, but ultimately, the positive won out. “If you can be part of a turnaround for a company that is in danger of being split up into smaller parts, that would be really interesting. If it doesn’t work, they’re not going to blame the failure of IBM on you, but if it does work you could be part of a much bigger, more compelling story.” Mersereau joined as Vice President of Marketing for IBM Canada under IBM’s new CMO, Abby Kohnstamm, who brought in top marketers from eight top countries and made them her brand board. Mersereau says Kohnstamm’s vision was “to co-create a campaign for all these countries together” and that she wanted Mersereau to help her create it for everyone to use. “She was very inclusive in the process, so we all wanted to be part of something bigger than the business in our own countries,” Mersereau explains. At the time, dot-com businesses were booming in Silicon Valley, and while they were making a lot of money based on venture capital investment, they were not necessarily making real revenue and profit for their shareholders. Mersereau remembers the questions they asked themselves at IBM, such as, “How do we take internet technologies and help real companies with real revenue and real profit make their businesses better? How can we find a role on the internet?” While answering those questions, they coined the word e-business, an industry term still used today. “We trademarked the term not because we wanted to own it exclusively, but because we wanted to be most associated with it,” she explains. This campaign, which ran from the late ‘90s to the early 2000s, “showed problems that people had in business, and then did not explain exactly what IBM’s solution was, but intimated that we knew how to solve this problem for you.” Mersereau says it really repositioned IBM, so much so that the 1999 Fortune Magazine article called IBM an “e-business animal.” Much preferred to a “big, blue dinosaur.”
Mersereau joined Plantronics in 2012 and has gone about bringing a global focus to marketing. Her goal was to influence the other regions, not suddenly pronounce a new way of operating. Coming from Canada, she has always been sensitive to people from different regions. Instead of instituting new practices, she wanted to bring the global teams together and “make them masters of their own destinies.” The culture at Plantronics focuses on collaboration so her premise behind globalization was not about centralization, allowing the people in each region to create their own new practices. She explains that much of it is still new, but people have embraced the change. “Everybody likes to participate, and if they feel like they’ve been part of something’s creation, they’re more apt to actually use it in their marketplace.” They called this Project Harmonization. “The people from Europe came up with the name because they wanted to see harmony in the work that they did. And if they chose the name, they’d be more apt to show up for the meeting.”
When it comes to developing people on her team, Mersereau looks for people with a core skill set that they can apply and adapt to a new area. One such person is George Gutierrez, who comes from a rich media background. While at Cisco, Mersereau gave him the opportunity to grow the then-new Small Business offerings. She references media’s shift toward digital and away from basic television and radio campaigns, and highlights Gutierrez’s excellent adaptation of Cisco’s platform to appeal to small businesses and market to them online. Now at Plantronics, he has reinvented himself in web content and communications as the Director of Global Communications and Content Strategy.
”The name of the game in communications is not so much media buying anymore; it’s really about content strategy, having the right content in the right place when the customer is looking.” Mersereau explains that consumers now get through almost 80% of their buying process before encountering a salesperson, including Plantronics customers. “The same principles hold true for the media buying and selling of long ago, but you could say you now have to be a bit more of a thinker. You have to think of the customer journey, the messaging and positioning that’s going to be relevant to the person, and you have to figure out where to apply it.”
Mersereau has had impactful managers as well, particularly Maureen Maguire at IBM, who set very high standards–but never so high that they were out of reach. “She pushed people to do their best work. And she made it all about the work, not about your attitude or your behavior; it was more about allowing for and creating the climate for the best work that we could do,” says Mersereau. She tries to model this as a leader herself. They have many interns at Plantronics and she finds their self-confidence inspiring. “I’ve given some of the interns really tough projects to work on, and they’ve come up with some incredibly clever answers and approaches; they’re so creative it just blows me away!” she exclaims. One particularly impressive project solved by the interns was noise distractions in Plantronics’ open setting workplace. They have low cubicles and no offices, so this dense setting often produced what Mersereau calls “the library effect”: it would be so quiet that when somebody made a phone call everyone else couldn’t help but listen and be distracted. What the interns discovered was a combination of water and sound masking. “Now at our office you’ll see waterfalls sprinkled through the area and you hear the sound of the water even on the other side of the building; we took the waterfall sound and pumped it through speakers across the entire company,” she explains. The sound and visual of the waterfalls block out the work noises that used to be distractions to others. “I think when people bring in interns and treat them like assistants, get them to do grunt work, or just kind of augment their workforce, it’s not the smart thing to do. You’re really trying to set your company up for the future and bring in new, smart talent that’s going to grow with you over time.” ♦
The Case for Learning Mandarin
Mersereau has a son and a daughter, both of whom are 13, and she sends them to a Mandarin Immersion School.
“We originally took them to the French School in San Francisco because I speak English and French since I’m Canadian. But then I thought ‘when was the last time I actually used French?’ Unless I talk to family members back home, how many times have I really used my French in work settings? Is speaking French what I want for my kids?”
“Right next door to the French School was the Chinese Immersion School. I It’s called CAIS, Chinese American Institute. And I thought, ‘My gosh, every business I’ve been in, whether it’s IBM, Coca-Cola, Cisco, or Plantronics, the big growth markets are in China. Big production and manufacturing happens in China, chip sets are being produced in China, and yet everybody who goes over to China doesn’t know how to speak the language. And yet we expect Chinese people to speak English; it’s kind of arrogant really. Imagine if you were able to speak Mandarin as an American; how powerful would that be?”
“Half the curriculum is in Mandarin, so they’re learning math in Chinese, mathematical principles in the language of Mandarin, so it’s super hard. And they also have this aspect of performance arts. They do a lot of their presentations and their music performances in English and in Mandarin. They’ve gone from age four to age 13 studying Chinese, so they are completely fluent in reading, writing, and speaking Chinese, and they can teach the language, which I think is amazing.”
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