Q&A: Erin Nelson, CMO, Dell

Erin Nelson was named CMO of Dell in January 2009. Prior to her promotion, she served as vp of marketing for Dell in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Prior to joining Dell in 1999, Nelson worked in corporate strategy for Frito-Lay. She recently sat down with Adweek digital media editor Brian Morrissey to discuss the challenges the brand faces, what lessons it learned from Enfatico and how social media is playing a larger role for the company.

Adweek: What’s the big challenge for the Dell brand?
Nelson: The last few months have been about discussing a lot of our strengths. The world has transformed a lot. Quite frankly I think we as brand have lost a lot of luster. We’ve been evaluating what for the last 25 years has made us great. Globally we have incredibly strong brand awareness. We’re known for value. In emerging economies like Brazil, China and Russia, we’re doing really well. But when we started looking at figuring where we need to go, we realized the brand needed to transform itself. We’re starting first from the inside. Our purpose is much broader than selling PCs. It’s about allowing people to unleash their potential. Our 95,000 employees need to understand our purpose first. It’s been primarily an internal marketing challenge. For us it was more important this not be just a campaign. It’s the transformation of the company.

Does Apple’s success make it harder to differentiate in the market with more than a value message?
We think so. I commend Apple for having beautiful products. They definitely focus on part of the audience that focuses on beautiful design at a price point that’s fairly high. What we’re looking at is consumers that want not just that but someone to enable all their connectivity. I think about what a mom would need or an entire business would need. They need someone who can help them succeed with all different sorts of applications, not just one, someone focused on mobile and desktop computing. We’re focused to make sure we’re bringing all those pieces together. It’s not about how beautiful the design is. A mom isn’t only putting the focus on how beautiful the design is, but also “how do I manage the money in my life, how do I help with the kids’ homework?” She wants someone to be her advocate and enable her to do what she wants to do.

What were the lessons learned from the Enfatico experiment?
We learned a lot. There are pieces of the relationship that we absolutely love. One specific point is while it no longer exists as this monolithic agency, Enfatico still exists as the production arm of WPP. We think the work it’s doing is fantastic. It’s a production engine we need for our businesses. Instead of saying we want to buy everything from one brand, let’s see what our needs are and let’s assess your stable of talent. Instead of building a new agency from top to bottom, let’s tap into the different agencies that already exist. We basically reconstructed within WPP this patchwork of agencies we work with. We still have a team-built structure. They’re all connected on their side. They’re Team Dell. We wanted full integration and full agency accountability. You don’t have to choose one holding company for everything, as long as your agencies can work well together, they operate as a loose confederation. We couldn’t get the depth of talent we needed and it was incredibly difficult for the leadership of Enfantico to figure out how to serve a client as large as Dell while building an agency from scratch.

How is digital and social becoming an important part of how you build the brand?
Customer connectivity and the ability to have conversations that drive our brand are the most important things. Digital and social are tools to allow that to happen. We’re investing a lot more in Dell.com. An important part of that is investing in our social capabilities. A lot of that is in social commerce. We’re building a lot more human capability in our organization to be able to reach out in the digital space. We’re launching a social media university within Dell. We’re trying to make sure it’s not a department. Whether you’re in customer relations, product development, it doesn’t matter where you come from, we want you to have the ability to provide outreach and conversation. It’s important to scale it. We’re focused on training 1,000 [employees] in the next six months. What we don’t want is to have a lot of people with really good intent out there in the marketplace engaging but with no purpose. It’s not like setting up people with a Twitter handle and letting them go.

Can social media scale and be measurable?
I think it can and has to. We have 2 billion conversations online a year. If I can’t scale to the requirements, I can’t continue to be a thriving business because that’s increasingly how customers are shopping and engaging. It’s not even an option not to scale, but it’s to figure out how to do it around the customer. We’re less focused right now on attributing ROI to everything we’re doing. We’re focused on “does it enhance the customer experience?” Does it look like revenue and profit are following? I’m less interested in measuring cost per contact. I know engagement with a fan on Facebook is a really good thing. I don’t measure if that shortens the sales cycles. The things I can measure I feel great about. Those I can’t I’m not losing sleep about.

What’s the biggest pain point?
Making sure everyone understands how they can add most value. It’s getting everyone focused on the customer and giving them the tools so they can engage. It seems easy, but when you talk about thousands of people, there’s a lot around curriculum development, governance approach and the principles we develop. You don’t want to say everyone go run loose. Building that structure is the biggest challenge. It would be easy to say everyone get a Twitter handle, go search for Dell. That could be a recipe for disaster.

Dell went through some social media tribulations with the “Dell Hell” episode. Looking back, was that a good thing?
It’s been a real blessing for us. It forced us to jump in with both feet. I see a lot of brands talking about experimentation. I think you’re either in or you’re not. When you’re in, you better dive in all the way. We weren’t overly analytical or conservative about how we engaged in the space. We said we have a brand problem and we need to fix it and make it better. We did what it took to do that. I think it was helpful. It would have been more studied and analytic. The only reason “Dell Hell” existed was because customers weren’t happy. Putting the customer at the center is what it taught us.