published on the HBR Blog Network: http://bit.ly/12WgF5h
The marketing head of an ambitious technology firm recently
shared with me a vexing problem: Apple was one of their customers. But the
executive and her team could essentially tell no one. The restrictions that
Apple placed on them were that airtight.
It's one of the sweetest moments a business can have:
landing a marquee-brand customer like Apple or Coca-Cola, Walmart or Boeing.
The value goes beyond the revenue and profit such a customer can potentially
generate — it's the awareness and credibility such a customer brings, along
with enough new business to keep things humming for the foreseeable future.
Dreams arise of having the marquee customer interviewed by industry
publications, speaking about your great offerings at conferences, featured in
case studies and success stories, providing references that close multiple
deals, participating in your customer communities.
Then reality strikes. Your new customer's legal and PR
departments place so many restrictions on you that this great source of value
and proof of your credibility is known only to you.
This is one of the most frustrating problems that ambitious
businesses, deserving wider recognition in their industry, can run into. But it
is not insoluble. Here are some tips and approaches — gleaned from veteran
customer marketing professionals I've worked with over the years — that you can
use to navigate the inevitable PR and legal barriers thrown down by their
What does "marquee" mean to your buyers?
First, don't get too fixated on (or distracted by) big names
like those mentioned above. Just because a salesman says he needs a reference
from Boeing to close a deal doesn't mean that he really does, or that some
lesser known brand might not furnish a more powerful proof point. As Michael
Stephenson, a key leader in global customer programs at Oracle puts it, his
firm has various business units that focus on specific industries. "Often,
the key customers in these areas aren't the everyday brand names. However, they
are well-known and their brand carries cache in their respective niches."
And they can be much more accessible and open to advocating than the
Coca-Cola's of the world.
Indeed, it's a good idea to get clarity and agreement within
your firm on who your marquee-customer targets really are, which can force such
useful thinking on the subject.
Make sure you know the marquee customer's brand positioning
You'll get further by aligning any proposed advocacy or
co-marketing efforts with those of the marquee customer. Intel, for example,
has enjoyed great success by initially approaching marquee customers, not by
asking them to endorse their chips but rather, to collaborate on a cause or
philanthropic affiliation important to both firms. These might include such
issues as education or sustainability. When "going green" came to the
forefront of corporate missions and branding strategies some years ago, Intel
was able to collaborate with a number of marquee firms on the issue, which
initiated a relationship and eventually led to advocacy.
These can lead to long term relationships in which advocacy
naturally flows. "We'll develop joint multi-year marketing programs with
the 'big brand' customer that might include references, joint marketing,
philanthropic events, etc," says Rhett Livengood, director of worldwide
sales development at Intel. "The key for the customer is to see a clear
win in working with you as a benefit to them."
Avoid people whose job is to say no (e.g., legal or PR).
Cultivate "yes" people at your marquee customer's
firm — starting with the buyer who said "yes" to doing business with
you. After she's achieved some success with your product or service, instead of
asking for a reference or testimonial, suggest collaborating on a case study or
ROI report that's about her success (using your product or service) rather than
all about how great your firm is. Once you've made her look good to her peers
and colleagues at work, she'll be open to further efforts that can begin to
include advocacy. Indeed, such customers can provide a great advantage as you
work to overcome a marquee customer's legal or PR bias against advocating.
Marquee brand executives are people, too.
If you position advocacy efforts skillfully — so that it's
about your customer's success rather than you — this can go a long way in
cultivating your internal allies, particularly among what I call potential
"rock star" advocates within the marquee-brand customer. These are
customers who are achieving success with the help of your solutions, and who
are (or could be) prominent figures within their industry, who enjoy sharing
useful information with and gaining recognition from their peers.
For example, all sorts of relevant trade journals and
entities have awards programs. So you can identify appropriate ones for your
industry and begin submitting applications featuring your marquee customers
(with their prior approval of course). You can also create awards that come
from your company, and award the winners in front of their peers at your annual
Marquee is good, a perfect match is better.
As Michael Stephenson points out, "Sales reps come to
us all the time saying things like, 'I want General Motors to come talk to this
prospective customer.'" So he probes, asking what GM is doing that's
relevant to the prospect, and what in particular they might talk about. Very
often, it turns out that the prospect and GM have very little in common, and
that another, lower-key customer would be far more persuasive to the prospect.
Such an approach is better for your relationship with your
marquee customer. "By showing your marquee-brand customer that you use
them only in highly appropriate scenarios, you'll earn their respect and
trust," says Michael.
Pitch "private" opportunities to customers from
firms that disallow public advocacy.
For example, smaller, moderated sessions at your customer
conferences, with no video or other record. If you have the right audience at
such events — especially decision-makers or powerful influencers at prospective
customer-firms — this can be every bit as powerful as a public display of
Let's say you're trying to recruit the CIO of a very large
brand. You go to their LinkedIn page and notice that they're linked to
executives at your own company, either as friends or as business partners. Then
you contact your executive colleague to pave the way to a "warm"
contact from you. Not only is warm more comfortable than cold, it's more
effective, as well.
After the thrill of acquiring marquee customers subsides,
persuading them to let you tell the world about their relationship with you can
be a daunting challenge. But it's not impossible — as these proven approaches show.