Panasonic’s VP of Marketing Brian Rowley on Pandemic-Era Pivots for B2B Marketers
Most are familiar with the consumer side of Panasonic’s business, but not necessarily its thriving B2B enterprise in the manufacturing, retail, entertainment and mobility sectors. Like so many others, the company was not immune to the challenges of keeping its business customers engaged during the pandemic.
But the marketing insights it gained are invaluable. Most critically, the brand has shifted from seeking to drive the conversation to letting customers take the wheel. “We had to step back and say, what are the conversations that are happening in the industry that we play in, and how do we fit into those conversations, versus us saying that this is the conversation we want to drive,” says Panasonic’s VP of Marketing, Brian Rowley.
We spoke with Rowley about lessons learned from these tumultuous times and how adopting a more customer-centric approach, engaging in thought leadership and launching a podcast series helped the brand remain relevant to B2B customers and play to its unique strengths.
Chief Marketer: How did Panasonic experience the past year and half, and how did your B2B business adapt?
Brian Rowley: It’s no surprise that the past year has been more challenging than ever for some companies, and Panasonic was not one that didn’t witness and experience some of those challenges. We’re more focused on meeting the customers where they are. More so than ever, we’ve seen the importance around this customer-centric approach to marketing.
When the pandemic broke, we were at the heels of one of the largest shows we have for our professional video business, which is NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters. We quickly had to pivot there and move our presence from that in-person [event] to virtual. So, how do we do that? We looked at it and said, here are pain points. Here are the things that each of these businesses are experiencing, and how do we add value to that? We shifted a lot from the conversation we want to talk about to what our customers are looking for and what they wanted to hear from us—not our agenda, but their agenda.
CM: What were some of the key learnings?
BR: When customers wanted to have a conversation—and quite honestly, in some cases where they wanted to terminate a relationship with us—that fell more in their hands than we’ve ever seen before. That’s one of the bigger shifts. For us, this was about being where our customers wanted us and having content available to them wherever they were and whenever they wanted to consume it. In the past, we were very focused around, what is our message that we want to talk to the market about? We had to step back and say, what are the conversations that are happening in the industry that we play in, and how do we fit into those conversations, versus us saying that this is the conversation we want to drive.
From a Panasonic perspective, we’ve always been very engaged in soliciting feedback from our customers around product development. I could talk to you about numerous products that we’ve had and pinpoint where a button is on a piece of hardware as a result of feedback from a customer. But this wasn’t just about feedback. This was about understanding what was important and doing the listening in the markets that we were in, and making sure that we designed these experiences based on that listening.
For example, we initially had intentions of opening a customer experience center in our offices in Buffalo Grove, IL, that was meant to have four primary areas of the business: our immersive experience center, food retail services, manufacturing, and we also wanted to cover the public safety sector with the solutions that we offer to the market. We very quickly realized that we wouldn’t be able to open that center. So, we ended up doing it from a virtual capacity, but we made it self-guided so that it didn’t require us to be a part of the conversation. We made it so that each section was self-explanatory… to allow customers to do that when they want it. We made sure that the topics of our webinars were important to people in the business. For example, the concept in the quick-serve restaurant market of maintaining social distancing and keeping people coming through their businesses. What does contactless look like? Those types of things.
CM: From a marketing perspective, what are some examples of what worked and what didn’t?
BR: We knew we had to be relevant. We also knew that we had to shift, potentially on a dime, with what we were talking about or how we were approaching it. Panasonic is a hundred-year-old company. So we had to be fearless. We had to be willing to try new things. We did about 200-plus trade shows a year. We ended up doing about 40 virtual events last year. From a marketing side, we had about a 40 percent attendance rate for those that registered. We’ve heard that a good turnout was 25 to 28 percent. The other thing that we saw was the quality of people. It was a lot more effective than some of the shows in the past that were face-to-face, where people who would walk through the booth didn’t have a lot of interest in speaking. These relationships are ones that you can actually nurture and pull into a real customer.
We went through and revisited materials that we had in every place that we talked to a customer to make sure that it made sense. Sometimes [companies] take a very broad stroke across a conversation or when marketing to specific industries. We’ve found that you really have to focus and not try to be everything to everybody. Know where your strengths are, stay in that space and deliver quality around that and the content that you’re providing.
We also saw the importance of thought leadership. We established a thought leadership program with nine of our key executives that helped educate people on some of the positives we saw and give an opportunity to share some of those stories. And the last thing was we introduced a podcast series called The Big Rethink. We bring in external experts who have conversations with us—myself and two other individuals on the team—and post the conversation. It gives people a chance to hear how others have been successful and are literally changing the way that work is being done.
We’ve launched over 50 episodes, with just shy of 11,000 downloads. We need to expand where we show up and allow people that opportunity, understanding that we’re supporting all different demographics, whether it’s a white paper or a video case study, whether it’s on our website or on social, whether it’s through podcasting.
CM: What skills do B2B marketers need today to be successful in today’s business landscape?
BR: There’s a stronger need for awareness than we’ve ever seen before. The days of being able to just go in and stay focused on the work that you’re responsible for are behind us. As a marketer, it’s about telling a story. But it’s also understanding the sub-stories that are developing underneath the bigger story. The other thing is, more than ever you need to push that comfort zone further. Doing traditional things that we’ve been doing for the past five, 10 years isn’t going to be enough. Podcasting wasn’t a part of the realm of what we do, but we got out there and we tried it and we’ve been successful. Getting yourself more in that space around video, and tackling some of the more challenging areas in regards to thought leadership is another one. Being fearless as a company, but also as a marketer and having that awareness, are two of the most important shifts.