Stephen Quinn, Walmart CMO, keeps half an eye cocked toward a wide-screen social media listening dashboard on his office wall so he can constantly monitor his brand’s real-time messaging. But the flood of stats that move across the screen represents equal parts hands-on data intelligence and, well, window dressing. The fact is, while Quinn is a technology-savvy marketing chief, his job is so much more expansive than Twitter and Facebook that he, like any peer in such a role for a huge company, needs a tech/social version of himself—a digital doppelgänger, if you will—to shepherd the big-box retailer’s digital and social-based efforts. And for that, he leans on media and digital vp Wanda Young to keep Walmart at the forefront of digital—and, in particular, mobile.
“She has been critical to our organization, and to me personally, when it comes to leading in that new world,” Quinn says. “It’s one thing to conceptually—as the head of marketing—understand these things. But it’s quite another to have somebody who can actually translate [marketing goals] to our technology people.”
In this era of constant disruption—brought on in part by 24/7 communication—that digital/social executive is as essential as an arm or leg—or maybe a vital organ—to keep brands on message and out of trouble. Here’s a short list of five digital tandems who are winning the game of marketing innovation in their own distinct ways.
The Industrial Artiste
The Budget: $40 Million
Facebook was teething and Twitter wasn’t even born yet when General Electric—a 122-year-old grandfather of big American industry—was finally deemed worthy of sitting alongside the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In 2005, New York’s Museum of Modern Art featured a GE jet engine fan blade in an architecture and design exhibit—an experience the company has since propelled into a factory-chic brand style via social media.
GE has leveraged not only Facebook and Twitter but also Instagram, BuzzFeed, Tumblr and Vine to illustrate its often majestic engineering feats, such as wind turbines, shipping cranes and airplane hydraulics. To some it may be industrial porn, but other folks love it—2.7 million, to be exact, which is the number of GE’s social media followers. That’s the result of the efforts of global brand executive director Linda Boff, the managerial confidante of CMO Beth Comstock. Together they’ve turned social into a mother of invention that would make founder Thomas Edison proud.
“We have a lot of connectivity to, for instance, fans of rail and fans of aviation,” Comstock says. “You may be surprised, but those are some incredible communities of passion.”
Such b-to-b efforts also end up selling lightbulbs and air conditioners, the less sexy things GE makes. “Being a visual brand is important,” explains Boff. “We create essential technologies, but they’re sometimes a bit invisible. I mean, people don’t necessarily expect to see the beauty of big machines. And, yet, when they do, they’re absolutely delighted.”
The Millennial Magnet
The Budget: $98 Million
Taco Bell CMO Chris Brandt participates in a marketing-department-wide routine called Millennial Word of the Day. Does that help explain how the burrito slinger absolutely kills it in Gen Y branding? Totes (to put it in teen parlance), he says. “It really makes me seem like I’m in the know and hip when I use those terms around my two sons.”
Indeed, the daily exercise is but one tool Brandt and his team employ to lead the fast-food market in appealing to the young crowd. From Snapchat to Tumblr to Instagram, the brand plants its flag squarely where millennials live, which fosters a trust among kids who are otherwise wary of marketing efforts.
Of course, Taco Bell’s tastiest initiatives are often spawned by listening to its legion of 13 million social followers. “People on Twitter one day said, ‘Hey, when are you getting on Snapchat, Taco Bell?’” says Tressie Lieberman, the Irvine, Calif.-based company’s director of digital and social marketing. “We heard them.”
Brandt asserts that Lieberman “sends me three or four emails a day, saying, ‘Check this out. Check this out.’ And I tell people in recruiting, if candidates want to have a job where they can predict what they’re doing every day, this isn’t their company.”
Lieberman adds, “When the latest app comes out, I’m not relying on the team to play with it and then tell me about it. I’m playing with the app as well. A few years ago, we were on two social channels—now we’re on eight. And we’re creating content in real time.”
The Mobile Innovator
The Budget: $226 Million
Walmart’s new mobile feature, called Savings Catcher—currently in pilot program mode—will likely be the talk of the retail world when it rolls out in a few weeks.
What does Savings Catcher do? Before driving away from the store, customers can scan their paper receipts via Walmart’s phone app. If items purchased are costlier than what’s advertised in that week’s newspaper circular from any of Walmart's competitors, the difference is deposited in a gift card that can be used with the chain on an ongoing basis. For now, the tool is only good for groceries and snacks, but the retail giant plans to eventually include all merchandise.
It’s the latest brainchild from the company’s Silicon Valley-based @WalmartLabs—the tech operation helping fuel Quinn and Young’s marketing innovations. But the duo also engineered a data partnership with The Weather Channel that should inch them closer to the Holy Grail of one-to-one marketing. It will influence how the brand targets advertising on television, radio, Facebook, Twitter and, of course, mobile publishers—as smartphone-toting consumers decide where to buy snow tires, umbrellas and suntan lotion before heading home.
Be it Savings Catcher or weather data, Walmart needs to step up new forms of marketing as it fends off weak revenue returns and stiffer competition from the likes of Amazon. “We’re going to serve customers the right kind of information at the right time based on the way they feel in reacting to weather in their area,” Young says of The Weather Channel data. “It will trigger different types of ads for Walmart across mobile devices.”
The Programmatic Pit Bull
The Budget: $90 Million
Dell is making good use of the processing power in its computers—half of its digital advertising is bought via programmatic buying. The Round Rock, Texas, firm has gotten so good at programmatic, it could probably add the discipline to its b-to-b consulting services today, but is holding off until perfection comes closer into view.
Dell has made the real-time buying practice job No. 1 because CMO Karen Quintos and vp of global brand Monique Bonner are looking to elevate their game past essentially all competition. They want ads to address specific customers—and along the way blow up the notion that C-suite execs know little about tech.
“You see, there’s a big gap in the programmatic journey from [simply] media-buying automation to true, one-to-one, personalized communications,” says Bonner. “It’s going to be about taking your data-management platform and your specific audience creation and developing modular, customizable content that can be served through dynamic creative optimization, and then leveraging your demand-side platform to target individuals rather than audiences.”
While such jargon may cause traditional creatives to glaze over, many a digital lead understands Bonner is making progress in the quest for true one-to-one communication.
So does her boss. “We spend full-day sessions with our marketing leaders around the world in bringing them up to speed on digital goals,” Quintos says. “I’m constantly pushing information to [CEO] Michael Dell and his leadership team, my peers, with, ‘You need to read this—think about this.’”
The Social Evolver
The Budget: $19 Million
It may seem counterintuitive for a marketer to consider beefing up its website—especially when today’s headlines scream “The URL Is Dead!” and social and mobile innovations pop up almost daily. But Levi’s brass has its eye on using its Web presence to sell, sell, sell.
“We [now] … consider e-commerce first,” says Levi’s CMO Jennifer Sey. “In the past, it didn’t always happen on Levi.com—sometimes it happened more through social.”
Even though the retail/wholesale jeans maker has been a trendsetter with deep Facebook and Flipboard integrations in recent years, its tent pole 2014 campaign—dubbed “Live in Levi’s”—underscores how it’s taking a leadership position in homegrown e-commerce. “LiveinLevis.com will have user-generated content and lots of storytelling that leads to the products section,” says Lauren Uchrin, Levi’s head of global digital marketing. “So we’re trying to tie in that social storytelling and involve people’s [input] for a holistic experience.”
Uchrin and Sey’s larger aim is to make the brand’s social activity part of the sales funnel instead of just a collection of posts and tweets. Think ratings and reviews on steroids. And while driving traffic to its online destination has become a renewed mission, the brand is evolving how it uses other platforms (it has 23 million social followers). Working with agency AKQA, Levi’s run of digital ads next month will be the product of crowdsourcing, and there’s a “social film” premiering Aug. 4 in New York as part of the endeavor.
Sums up Sey: “People want to tell those stories whether we’re asking or not.”