Let's Get SaaSy

Maria Jose Rodriguez

The four pillars to build a strong brand that you need to know

Annalisa Camarillo is a marketing leader with over 15 years of success in brand, content, and digital marketing. She’s currently the Chief Marketing Officer for Avo Automation, and has helped companies like NetApp and Sun Microsystems successfully share their brand stories. In this interview she talks about:

  • How living in Silicon Valley led her to a career in tech and SaaS
  • Why your goals should help you determine your KPIs.
  • The four pillars of a strong brand.
  • The two assets you need to communicate your product/services successfully.
  • Why companies need to embrace diversity.

This interview has been edited for length and context.


Maria Jose: Thank you for being with us here today, Annalisa. Let’s get started by talking about how you became the professional you are today, and how you ended up working in marketing in the tech industry.

Annalisa:  I want to start off by saying thank you. To give you an early warning, my journey throughout my career in marketing was not a straight line.

My goal in life was to be able to help people heal in whatever way I could. Over time, I realized that one of the ways I could do that is by learning the study of psychology, which is really just looking at human behavior, understanding how human behavior works, being able to influence it.                               

As it turns out, I live in Silicon Valley, and it's really hard to avoid working in technology or even to understand technology because it finds you. It found me as I was getting ready to graduate from college, I had an opportunity to work at a startup. I was recruited to work at a startup that was offering networking services outside of the US–in Central America.

I ended up in an engineering department, of all places. And at that time, I didn't really understand the significance of the type of work that they were doing. I didn't understand the significance of working in an engineering department, because again, my degree was in psychology, so a lot of what I was learning in undergrad was almost on a different planet compared to the world of technology.

Over time, I became curious about what engineering is, what they do within this company, and what all the other teams and departments did. Because it was a tiny company, there were only 200 people altogether, and it wasn't overwhelming to learn what was in a data center, what was meant by networking, and what types of services we offered. 

That started me down the path of more curiosity and I ventured into how to build databases. I learned how to manage the data center. I learned how to build a computer from scratch. And I started getting more and more intrigued by what it involved, and what it meant, and how it helped people.

I ended up leaving that company. I graduated from college. And then I got the opportunity to work at a big company called Sun Micro. After that, I moved to the automation sector, where I am now, and I realized that psychology actually applies to anything you do―understanding people, how to work with them, how to influence them, how to help them, how to inspire them, how to direct them, lead them, it’s a requirement for anyone in any company.

I realized that the skills and some of the basic fundamentals that I learned in psychology, I was also using in tech, and very quickly realized that I was going to be able to do both. 

So throughout my career, I've picked tech companies that contribute to world growth, that really help humans and the world we live in, all creatures of nature, grow safely. I’ve worked with companies that are socially responsible, and that contribute products that enable that type of healthy growth and prosperity for everyone. It's the nirvana state that you get to do what you love for profit. The common thread there is helping humanity.

Maria Jose: You mentioned that part of your success is linked to those insights that you learned from your major in psychology. In digital marketing, you need to balance the strategic and creative aspects with the performance and data-driven side of a brand. How do you decide which one of these to focus on, and which one do you focus on first when working with a brand? 

Annalisa: I would answer it in one word, goals. The goals are the compass. They help me determine, "Am I going to spend 80% of my time on creative projects that could deal with generating brand awareness, or am I going to spend 80% of my time on more revenue-driven activities?"

It's fun to spend more of our time being creative, developing content, identifying the next big event that we're going to be at, and so on. But we know that in order for us to be able to do all of those fun things, we need to make a profit. And so ultimately, it comes back to goals. The conversation that we start at the new fiscal year is, “What are we trying to achieve?” In that process of determining what those goals are, we always put one thing at the center all the time. And that's the customer.

Maria Jose: You've managed a number of teams, can you tell us what types of people and roles you think are important in marketing teams?

Annalisa: I have kept an eye on four things as it pertains to marketing: brand, content, connectivity, and data. To set up your team, you have to make sure that you've got those core disciplines covered. 

You've got experts that are going to be able to help you with brand awareness. They find out who you are to your customers and if you are recognized for the right reasons.

Content-wise, it’s how do you communicate in every form, from the smallest bit of communication all the way up to the most sophisticated version of communication, whether that be video, on stage, television, or broadcast.

And then Connectivity, in uppercase C-- Connectivity is all your digital forms of connection through your website, through social media, and enabling that connectivity to be as seamless as possible. You must cover all the routes to market for the modern customer. And this modern customer wants to be enabled by mobility and wants to be able to reach you instantaneously.

And the last one, which is probably the most profound, is data. We know now that we cannot ignore the importance of understanding data. Being able to make the observations from all the information that you're getting from connectivity, and decipher what is your next move. What are you learning from the patterns of behavior of your consumer on your website? How do you synthesize that with the behavior you are seeing on your social channels? How do you synthesize that with what your customers are saying about you and how they interact with your products?

 There are tools that will collect this information easily. The hard part is making observations from it and knowing how to direct the next activity based on that information, which then influences the rest― the content, the brand, and then even your choices for the digital channels.

Maria Jose: Can you tell us about the KPIs that you measure quarterly or yearly?

Annalisa: It depends. There is no playbook that you're going to find that's going to give you the set metrics you should be looking for at any company because it's always going to depend. If your business goal is to aggressively grow revenue and be cash-positive, then you're not going to spend time measuring brand equity. In that case, there are really two things you need to do really well―lead generation and understanding your funnel.  And you need your funnel to do everything it needs to do for you in an automated way. The other important part is your website. It is the virtual front door to your business. And so nowadays, every company has a virtual front door.

If you're not monitoring the activity of the customers coming in and out, whatever that may be, you will be in trouble. And then synthesizing that front door with all the transactions you're making, that's your funnel. The funnel, that touches every aspect of what you do. It is the net outcome of everything you do through that capital C, Connectivity. It is fueling that funnel.

Over time, once you are able to fund the rest of the activities, you want to do more branding, and then you can start to look at general engagement. Is your brand healthy? Is it perceived according to what your story is? Is it resonating with you as a brand? That should be the next thing you start to measure once you do the first two things right.

Maria Jose: Why is visual branding so important to help establish strong SaaS brands? 

Annalisa: I think it's because the tech space is so cerebral. It becomes a brainy engagement where you need to understand what technology is going to do behind the scenes. It's not going to be appealing if it's a box that manages data, or if it’s software that you never really see. Consider a bot in the automation space. These things don't have a whole lot of character or identity, and for that reason, you have to give them character and identity.

The importance of giving things character and identities goes back to psychology. We are living breathing humans with a heart, a mind, body, and soul. Studies have proven that the brands that do the best job and that are the most enduring brands are the ones that know how to engage all of the faculties of a human being.

So how do you do that? You do that by, first, understanding your customer. What are the things that compel them to buy? What are the things that compel them to engage mentally, spiritually and physically, if it's a product that you can actually walk over to a store and buy? You want to make sure that you have those three things in balance, and that you're consistently using them in a smart way to engage your customer.

To sum it up, there are 4 building blocks that I’ve found critical to building a strong brand: 

  1. Healthy, practiced company values that center on being a model company that’s socially responsible and cares about its citizens: customers, partners, and employees
  2. An enduring and relevant story that resonates with the hearts and minds of your constituents.
  3. Relentless authenticity, that brings about originality in all forms of your brand expression.
  4. Audience-driven affirmation that strengthens and proves the first 3 building blocks. You can do this through peer reviews, testimonials, interviews and so much more.

Maria Jose: From a tactical perspective what do SaaS companies need to do to communicate their brands successfully? What are the steps?

Annalisa: Number one, you have to have your one-page solution brief, the document that helps people understand what you do. I think that brochure is critical, it can be in the form of a PowerPoint, a customer presentation, anything. 

Five years ago I always had a pillar asset. This was a big, heavy white paper that explains the industry, that tells the whole story. I challenged that and said, "No, I think it should be the customer presentation." So instead of writing theoretically about the industry in a white paper, use the document. The customer presentation is the hardest document because it is going to be used with a customer. It needs a narrator. 

Next, I would say you need lots of videos. Video is hard to do but it is the thing that really connects your customers to you, because you, again, have to deliver the message. It's an actual person who's delivering the message that creates that connection or that relationship with people from your brand. Your brand now has a voice.

Every company needs to have assets in those two areas.

Maria Jose: You're a very strong advocate for diversity, especially when it comes to women and STEM careers. Why is it so important that tech and B2B companies embrace diversity?

Annalisa: My first thought is that I feel the outlook is great with everything that has happened around the Me Too movement, around Black Lives Matter. There are so many different powerful movements that have brought a light on the importance of embracing humans for all of their faculties, and creating a world where people can bring their whole self, no matter the gender, location, the demographics. You bring your whole self to the table, and people are ready and willing to learn from you, I think it’s exciting.

My second thought is, I can't wait to go through those experiences that are much more pro-diversity. I want to go to those amusement parks that are pro-diversity. I want to work at those places that are pro-diversity. I want to have parties with people who are pro-diversity because I just know the positive types of things that are going to happen at those places.

When I worked at Automation Anywhere, talk about diversity, there were people working for the company in 50 countries. I mean all over the world! I would be on the phone with somebody from Israel, India, Australia, and wherever else. We'd all be on this phone at the same time with different accents, and different points of view. I will be honest that at first, it seemed overwhelming. I thought, "Oh, my goodness, we have to understand each other first before we can actually work together.”

Once you understand that and can work with people anywhere, oh my goodness, it is just so much more fulfilling and enriching. It's an opportunity to hear a point of view from somebody in India, who has had an experience of a work-life so different from mine.

Of course, it is so much easier said than done and it takes actively working to know what it means to embrace diversity and to ensure that you're acting on it. You're really capitalizing on the fact that you have a workforce that is from all over the world. How do you glean the benefits of that? How do you tap into that intelligence and put it to work for the company?

It has really opened my eyes to the point where I make it a goal to seek out more diversity than to just be comfortable in my status quo.

Those are all the attributes of what many thought leaders call complacency, the complacency that many thought leaders say is what kills companies. It's hard to work with people in different time zones, but once you realize the benefit of it, that is when you really start to take advantage of what diversity offers.

Maria Jose: Right now much of the world’s workforce is working remotely or working from home. What tips do you have for making the best from the WFH era and thriving with global teams?

Annalisa: There are two things that I think sets leaders apart; empathy and compassion. Being able to effectively work in a diverse environment, requires strong soft skills. 

You need to be able to communicate. You need to be able to lead. You need to be able to understand what is wrong and make sense of it. That is actually what humans are best at.       

If you're in human resources, you understand the importance of cultural differences but why shouldn't everybody in the company understands that, no matter your department or requirement? Because we as humans are going to interface with people from all over the world. If you embrace it, I think that's only going to make our experience that much more rewarding as we go through life.

Maria Jose: One final question, what are some books or podcasts that you recommend for fellow marketers out there?

Annalisa: Oh, gosh! I love to read so I have a couple. The first is a book that I'm currently reading called "Create the Future" by Jeremy Gutsche. The reason I recommend him, in particular, is because he is the owner of a company called Trend Hunter. And Trend Hunter does some really cool things.

When I discovered that company, I was like, "Gee, where have they been all my life?" And they put out a festival called the Future Festival in Canada. Canada is known as being one of the most eclectic, future-focused places, they really push the edge in every area―fashion, tech, etc. I went to the event a while back and I learned a lot about design principles and how to crack the consumer code, and what's to come in the future that marketers should be preparing for now. And this book outlines it, and gives you the guideline for it, and shows you workshops that you can do with your own teams to put it into practice. It's such a cool book.

The second one, I would say, from a marketing perspective in particular, is Seth Godin, especially the last book that he did call "This is Marketing". In it, he actually dispels a lot of myths that marketing is not some plan or playbook that you write out. It's actually a lot more fluid.

There are a ton of other books that I could recommend but those are my top two.


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