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Winning the Elusive Marquee-Brand Customer Advocate

Posted by Bill Lee on July 9, 2013 at 03:01 PM

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 marquee customers. 

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 and strategy.

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 customer conference. 

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 affection.

Use LinkedIn.

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.

 

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