The latest Pipeline podcast features Jeremy Korst, president of GBH Insights and former leader at Avalara and Microsoft. Jeremy discusses the important blend of science and marketing when figuring out your brand’s singular, unique position in the market. Jeremy and Joe talk about the need to understand the “why” behind your brand and how the right brand alignment drives everything else in your business.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter at @KorstJ and connect with him on LinkedIn.


Read the full interview transcript below:

The Art and Science of Marketing

Joe: Welcome to the Banzai Pipeline Podcast. Today we are here with Jeremy Korst. Jeremy was the CMO at Avalera, ran marketing for Windows at Microsoft, is a startup investor, board member. Just general marketing bad ass gets shit done guy. Thanks for being here with us today.

Jeremy: I get bored easy so lot’s going on.

Joe: You’ve done a lot of really cool things in your career. Before all of that stuff, rewinding, what was the formative thing that got you interested in marketing?

Jeremy: Yeah it was more happenstance versus planned. I had a desire early in my career to be in business leadership, more of a general manager mindset. I was really interested in product management coming out of my business school experience. So, I ended up in product management. I wanted to be close to the customer. Close to revenue. And it just so happened that the organizations I became part of and had the pleasure to work with, those rules tended to be in marketing. I went from actually trying to steer away from marketing classes during my business school experience to eventually becoming a CMO and really finding the place that I loved within a dynamic technology organization.

Joe: How do you think that marketing has changed over the past 10 15 years.

Jeremy: Let’s look at technology because I think that some of what technology is evolving into are things that were more common in CPG world for a while. And that’s the strategic importance and brand and for marketing. I think that a quick generic history of west coast technology companies is that you’ve had these very strong technical founders in many cases who come up with a great product solution, sometimes niche really fits an existing customer need and is successful. Eventually those companies grew to the point where they’re going to use venture funding other type of input from the outside and said hey maybe you guys should get some of those marketers over here.

Joe: It was more like a like an afterthought.

Jeremy: It was an afterthought. For those of us who’ve been in technology the number of times you’ve heard just the feeling that often marketing, and sales is often thought of as almost a necessary evil. What if our products could just sell themselves. That is a valiant, great goal.

Joe: A lot of people aren’t broken their spear on that shield.

Jeremy: We should continue to evolve. I think marketing plays a huge role in helping that to happen, like the Atlassian model which I’m familiar with. Generally, these companies looked at the go to market function as almost a necessary evil in many cases. You fast forward to today, the cost and barriers of entry and technology have come down so significantly. The number of great ideas out there, that are competing for mindshare both in the B2C world and the B2B world. It takes a lot of effort to be able to differentiate. To be able to find that place in your customers hearts and minds to be able to convince them to choose and continue to choose your product or service as a marketing play is a hugely strategic role in that. Analytically looking at it, the need for focus and segmentation and strategy and really getting crisp on differentiation are all key pieces that have been pieces of the marketing function for decades, but just increasingly important in today’s world. The tools that are available to us in analytics and research and outside in approach are being applied across the entire marketing lifecycle all the way from product innovation and bringing an outside in view into product innovation and the very get go all the way to targeted, segmented go to market strategy for demand gen and other.

Joe: What do you do you see it being like in the next 10 years? What do you see as being the major trends that marketing teams should be thinking about today?

Jeremy: I recently joined with the chairperson of the marketing department at Wharton. Someone I’ve gotten to know after school more, in a marking strategy and analytics firm. I’m really excited about this area. The trends that we see and what got me excited to join GBH Insights is that we see a proliferation of data and there’s more data than anyone can possibly leverage even at scale with artificial intelligence and machine learning although those are starting to come. But what is still lacking in many cases is good data. I mean really looking for separating the wheat from the chaff and being able to use the right type of analytics to effectively leverage the data to drive real business insight that leads to a strategy which leads to results.

Joe: Not just numbers on the chart but actual insights that you can turn into actions.

Jeremy: That’s right and it comes down the art and science combined. It’s exciting where we’re at today and will continue be the forefront is how do we analyze, capture or analyze, understand, drive insights from data whether it’s internal data around usage and behavior. Whether it’s external data from survey mechanisms or observation and drive those insights that we can then drive back into the organization overall to tell a story and narrative about our target customer and drive empathy for the target. Understand the competitive and dynamic environment. And of course, take all of that to market through hyper targeted and personalized messages, content, and promotion is where we’re going. I think the other trend that’s related to that is around marketing technology. You guys have probably talked about the podcast before. A huge proliferation in point solution marketing techstack.

Joe: You’ve seen the marketing tech universe chart that gets published every year and the first year is maybe 500 companies and this past year was more like 8000 or something, it’s an insane number.

Jeremy:  My aging eyes are having trouble finding the logos of companies I even know exist. I think that there will be a trend in consolidation there. And part of that is more and more CMOs and colleagues I’m talking about are concerned about fragmentation both of their technology stack and just the sheer maintenance of that and the challenges of managing that type of stack. But then also the fragmented customer experience that really is a fragmented strategy. I think we’ll be using data analytics and art to better define what is the brand and go to market strategy for those organizations and then fit a more refined consolidated tech stack to that, versus right now I think we all have friends, and I’ve been part of organizations where every vendor comes in with, “Hey I can get you 50 more leads a month” but it’s very transactional, and I think there is an opportunity next five to 10 years to take a more strategic view of that customer journey, how it relates to the brand overall and sell a more platform like solution to that marketing organization.

Joe: When you’re thinking about in a larger organization or even in a growing organization, not necessarily a huge global team like Microsoft, even a smaller company. What process do you go through to set that strategy and to keep everybody aligned? The people resources, the money resources, the time resources, all aligned on that strategy?

Jeremy: I come from a strategy perspective. For marketing and marketers that strategy is based on brand. What is your singular unique position and meaning in the market? What is that aspiration? Chances are you’re not there yet. Chances are it’s a way away but what is that aspiration? What do you want to mean to whom against other alternatives? That is such to me, a powerful way of driving an organization and it takes a lot of work and thinking to get that right. When I look at an organization, whether it’s medium sized or large is, have we done the work to really have that refined point of view. I mean the number of times I’ve had conversations either with my teams or with some of those companies I advise or am on the board of asking, “Who is your target customer?” and I hear something along the lines of everyone, I know we’ve got a problem and it’s all too common an answer. To me it’s all based on that. And once you get that refined, unique point of view, have empathy and understanding for the customer you want to over serve compared to anybody else, that drives all kinds of decisions. All the way from product strategy and roadmap to the way you care and support a customer. Most definitely how you communicate your position and propositions through which channels. But to me once you’ve got that piece, that brand strategy and position the rest becomes simpler. Not easy but simpler to go out then and define and execute.

Joe: There’s a great quote. I don’t know if there’s a secret to success but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone.

Jeremy: That’s exactly right. That is so right. We were talking before the podcast here about some of the success that Microsoft has had recently. Even with Windows one of the old brands I got to steward. I remember when I entered my role of leading Windows Marketing at the time. One of the documents I was going over and consuming trying to quickly come up to speed was this research report. And this was right after the launch of Windows 8 when we were gearing up to turn Windows around and launch what is now Windows 10. This report said to the extent, I’m summarizing, Windows is like a longtime spouse. Everyone knows all its weaknesses, and everybody knows all its strengths, but chances are the spouse is dating and Android or Apple on the side because it has lost spice in the relationship. And this is a research company that is coming in and saying this. What had happened is that Windows, and looking over its 30-year history, had tried to be everything to everyone. And by trying to be everything to everyone you’re nothing you have no meaning. We could talk about the way our brain makes decisions, the neurology behind it, psychology and marketing, all these things combined. But basically, if you don’t have a specific meaning it’s really difficult for consumers to make choices. That was a big a whole other story about how we changed that to make sure that we had meaning and brand. Windows built a product that delivered upon that meaning and is finally having some good success in the marketplace.

Joe: They have been able to move up into a premium category as a result of that.

Jeremy: That’s right and one of the insights we had early on, and I had a great team is one of the biggest pleasures my life working on that Windows 10 project. We had some super smart marketers and strategists. But an insight that we had is both over the history of Windows and the opportunity we saw with the target customer that we were looking at, at the time, is that Windows had meaning around doing. Like hey, when you wanted to use a device and an experience where you had to do something whether it was a build a company or write that first term paper or whatnot, that lean in experience, Windows often won from that experience. What it lost on was some of the more casual experiences. I used my smartphone or my tablet to play casual games or whatnot.

Joe:  Listening to music. Maybe this is why Mac early on really resonated with a lot of artists, creatives right. It owned that. Before anything else.

Jeremy: That’s right. Instead I think there was a period the Windows brand and product that we tried to be like, well hey we don’t want to lose that we want to be that too. And instead I think brand and marketing and product strategy is about making choices and prioritizations. I know you’ve got a strong background on product management so that’s probably core to your experience as well and we said, hey we want to have a great music experience don’t get me wrong. We want to have great casual gaming on the platform too but that’s not going to be our priority. Our priority is to make sure that more productive, more lean in doing and creating experiences, we want to have the best platform and devices out there to do that.

Joe: Yeah. Success in product management is about being willing to kill the things you love.

Jeremy: That’s right. Being able to say no. If you are not saying no a lot, you probably don’t have a targeted enough strategy.

Joe: When you’re thinking about that global brand building, figuring out how to pick values to resonate with something like that. How would you go about that process if you were the CMO of a startup that was trying to figure out who they resonate with who they want to own?

Jeremy: I think it is a different course from a large global brand that’s in 190 countries like brand Windows to large company like T-Mobile in the United States which I also worked for many years. To an Avalara to a smaller startup. So, there is a question of scale.

Joe:  Maybe you can talk about the difference between.

Jeremy: I think one is in the larger, more established companies, you have legacy and legacy can be a hindrance. But more often, if used appropriately, legacy can be very powerful. Part of that is trying understand that and the key across all of these companies of any size is that it needs to be an outside-in approach. I don’t care if you’re going to spend money on a quantitative research study of some type or whether you’re going to go out and talk to some potential customers. You’ve got to get outside and understand if you’re a larger company, really understand where you sit in people’s minds today. Or if you’re a new company trying to become that large company someday is out there really understanding and trying to put yourself in that customer’s shoes to understand the choices they’ve got to make including do nothing which is always an option.

Joe: I mean that’s the number one thing that every company competes with. People always ask you, especially if you’re a startup, when you’re pitching, investors will always ask, well who are your competitors? My biggest competitor is no one.

Jeremy: Momentum is a very strong thing and consumer behavior generally changes very small. The changes are small and take a long period of time. They are tectonic mostly. If you’ve observed that consumer behavior and find ways that your solution whether it’s product, service, or otherwise takes advantage of the momentum that’s already happening. Like some of Apple’s insights around the consumption of music and some of these other applications and figure out a way. I mean there’s a lot of other success factors they had in going in and disrupting that market that was established with the iPhone. It’s about really having strong insights around existing consumer behavior and trying to take advantage of that and make it simpler for customers to do some of things they are already doing and some of things they aspire to do.

Joe: So once somebody has identified that thing to focus on, what are the tactical steps you would take to actually roll it out?

Jeremy: Well to me it’s one of the factors is just hyper focus. One of the biggest challenges when I went from larger tech behemoth to very small technology companies was just there are so many opportunities. Whether it’s a different customer asking you for specific things. Whether it’s different channels or partnerships or feature functionality. We were talking earlier you got to iterate, you’ve got to learn, you’ve got to be able to be dynamic. But leadership has got to have a long-term view on where the brand and company is going.  We can at least keep it in guardrails and make sure that we are making progress with the limited resources we have. Whether that’s three people in a small room like this or whether it grows to a 50-person company or a thousand person company because it’s so costly internally and externally to make a lot of mistakes. I mean mistakes are going to happen. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not driving fast enough and hard enough. Try to be intentional, prioritized, and focused on that long-term brand aspiration is what’s key.

Joe: And it’s a lot better to make a mistake in the right direction.

Jeremy: That’s exactly right.

Joe: Then to execute the wrong direction perfectly.

Jeremy: That’s right. Even if we look internally to that insight is that we’re all super smart, intention driven people. I mean there’s a whole spectrum. But in the technology world but outside of technology world I mean low level education and experience that we’re dealing with our peer set there’s a spectrum of course. But because of those types of folks that are in marketing and product management and are leading companies like that there’s also a need to understand why we’re doing it. In companies I’ve seen companies zigzag on strategy or make nonstrategic decisions that turn out to be failures. And that was costly but moreover it causes confusion within the organization. Right. I mean one of my things keep me up late at night at any organization I’ve been a part of is whether I thought my team truly understood the direction we’re going. And you can ask them folks to work with me. I had to when I get most troubled when I can sense because I see action or I’m getting questions that make it clear to me that I have not done a good job. My leadership team and I have not done a good job of making those privatizations driving that understanding in that communication so that people can do their daily jobs. I want every person, and this is definitely the case in a global organization. You want to think that every one of those employees are using all of that every ounce of the time they’re putting to their work appeared to be making smart decisions on their own to be able to go out and go drive the brand aspiration. And every time they have to go ask for permission or they’re asking a strategy question because leadership hasn’t made it clear, it’s not their problem, because we as leadership have not made it clear. It’s just friction in the system and it’s wasted.

Joe: We talk about here about avoiding that fire drill mentality. I mean it sounds like that’s exactly what you’re saying. How do you do that especially as you’re in a growing organization you know where people are. You had to have so much on their plate are pulled in so many directions.  How do you maintain that clarity of communication?

Jeremy: A couple of things that I think about along that regard is one is the fire drills are going to happen. And it’s as if you have to you have to plan for fire drills. I’m not sure what the drills are going to be but I know based on the way I’ve looked at the business over the course of whatever periods every business is different that we’re going to have to plan so much capacity the organization to take advantage to overcome these fire drills. But how am I making sure as a leader in a leadership team to make sure that I’m increasingly spending the organization’s time on a more planned strategic drive of our brand aspiration. And that’s got to bit get better over time period time where I think leadership teams got to reflect on hey how do we do this month. How do we do this quarter. How well did we do this year such that we’re spending more and more of our time on this longer mid-term to long term road that we’re going to and we’re not just getting caught on fire drills.

Joe: That’s staying above staying above the fray a little bit at the leadership level.

Jeremy: One thing I’ve also observed about myself and other leaders is because we tend to be accomplishment driven. Sometimes we get caught up in fire drills because it feels good to actually be solving something right. And sometimes those many times often those big questions distracting privatization are tough.  A lot of time a lot of focus time and energy.  I’ve caught myself doing this is like well man it sure feels good if I go down and go fix some of those fire drills today because I’ve done something. I think the organization’s got to turn its tack. And be got to be focused on that and like that increasingly amount of time focused on that longer-term aspiration. I also understand like I said initially is that urgent. The fire is going to happen to every single organization I’ve ever been a part of make sure that those are contained and as much as possible. You can plan that. It’s going to happen. Wow if we see our time we figured out for the team and a certain company say that 20 percent of our time is going be focused on those that we know they’re going to happen. It’s going to happen more as your customer base grows and things come up. Those types of things but wow. We self-assess and we’ve gotten to that 30 percent or 50 percent of our time something’s wrong. Chances are what’s wrong is we haven’t clearly articulated where we’re going.

Joe: Tell me a little bit about your new thing that you’re working on. You said you partnered with a person from Wharton?

Jeremy: Yeah. I’m still involved in a lot of startups as an advisor board member and investor. I love that work. But over the last few years I’ve gotten acquainted with and spent more time with Eric Bradlow who’s the Chairman of the marketing department at Wharton. Really impressed at his own academic research and some of the things he’s done around strong business applications for deep analytical thinking. He was partnered with another classmate of mine several years ago to start this firm which is a marketing strategy and analytical insights team and they’ve been doing quite well. Early in the year I agreed to join as a strategic advisor for the company and the more I learned about it and the work we’re doing and the opportunity to do a lot of what we’re talking about today is how do you work with global brands to help them leverage analytics inside and an outside-in approach to best position their brand, build products, understand how to acquire and retain customers and do it in a scientific way that is balanced with real experience and a practical approach, something that I and others of the firm can bring. Got me excited and ultimately joined formally here just a little while ago. It’s a fun time. Just even in the last few weeks some of the challenges that we’re being asked to work with some of these brands on are just fascinating. There’s really tough challenges and really exciting challenges to drive growth, retain customers, and do it in pretty leading-edge way. Each of these problems, because of the size and nature of what we’re dealing with, are very unique and take a specific set of tools to go figure them out.

Joe:  Yeah. If people want to get more information about that how can they find you.?

Jeremy: The name of the firm is GBH Insights so GBHinsights.com. You can also follow me on social or look me up on LinkedIn and be able to find us through that too. We’ll be sharing for the ongoing future some of this thought leadership. One of the things the firm has not done because it has been so focused on just growing right now, is that it has this trove of academic and practical thought leadership that when I look at it from a marketing practitioners’ perspective is like, “Oh my goodness I wish I could have seen that. ”

Joe: Like a treasure chest of stuff.

Jeremy: We’re a boutique firms we’re just going to focus on a handful of customers over the coming years. But what we are going to do is try to get more of that thought leaders disseminated out so that people can just use it and take advantage of it. Looking forward to doing that.

Joe: Check out Jeremy on LinkedIn Twitter @korstj

Jeremy: KorstJ was what was available when I signed up

Joe: And watch over this cool stuff that you’re going to be publishing.

Jeremy: Yeah sounds good.

Joe: Cool. Thank you again so much for doing this.

Jeremy: It’s a pleasure. If it’s been fun getting to know you over the last year or so and watching this company and what you’re doing. I’m excited to keep watching.