Emerson Electric‘s CMO Kathy Button Bell got one of her best ideas from seeing paint dripping down the side of a building.
Well, to be more accurate. It wasn’t actual paint. She was in SoHo, New York one day in 2009 looking at a massive ad for the iPod nano- the one where the brightly-colored MP3 players are literally dripping with vibrant, metallic color.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “It just made me think, ‘We have to be more like that.’ I needed that delight that it made you feel.”
In 2009, delight was an elusive feeling, especially in business, as the recession was in full swing. Emerson wanted to be the optimistic face of business, but who was optimistic?
“It’s awful to be on CNBC in the middle of a recession. It’s not exactly the cheeriest place to be running your commercials,” she said.
Emerson’s R&D philosophy at the time was moving money toward what they called “New to Business, New to the World.” Button Bell asked them to marry that idea with the simplicity and fresh feeling of the Apple advertisement, thinking that no one had much patience for long stories or lots of copy. She said great marketing makes people feel something.
What that marriage produced was the It’s Never Been Done Before campaign, a campaign that featured images like orange peels and kangaroos with copy like: “Help join a continent of nearly 7.7 million rugged square kilometers with a single broadband connection. It’s never been done before. Consider it solved.”
The campaign is still in use five years later.
Before it had ‘Never Been Done Before’
Button Bell’s father was a prominent marketing executive in Chicago. After she graduated from Princeton, she decided to start her career in a place very different from marketing- commodities trading at a boutique business.
“It was just one of those jobs that you got to do everything,” she said. “And it was like getting a PhD in world economics at the same time because I traded everything from soybeans to gold and financial currencies around the world.”
Her responsibilities also included advertising, sales, and even creating a newsletter and database of customers. After that, she plunged into marketing full on with stops at Wilson Sporting Goods and Converse, to mention a few. She started her own company called Button Brand Development, and eventually wound up at Emerson Electric, which had become her biggest client.
Emerson is huge. It’s a $25 billion company grown from the purchase of many other companies, with roughly 132,000 employees worldwide. Button Bell said she spends time every day trying to simplify the company, whether it’s working on sunsetting brands – brands they don’t need quite as much anymore, or prioritizing other brands within a group.
She also spends a lot of time on corporate communications, whether it’s gearing up for the annual report, or planning for the 125th anniversary of Emerson, happening next year.
“I think I try to keep the biggest picture as my priority,” she said.
One of the ways Emerson keeps that big picture is by getting the most sophisticated market research they can and incorporating it into everything they do.
“I think the 1950s drove a mentality towards better market research in consumer goods and I think it’s been a slower movement for some of the B2B companies and industrial companies to get there,” she said. Emerson is growing its research department and currently has teams in China and the Philippines.
“You need really good people,” she said. “You need just as good people as in consumer goods, but you don’t have the numbers of the data, so you have to work off of smaller numbers in a lot of cases to get to it. That takes people who are good at interpreting it and knowing what to do next.”
Furthering the idea of seeking insight where possible, outside of Emerson, Button Bell sits on two public boards.
“I think there’s a great value of sitting on the other side of a table of a public company that makes you look at a company differently,” she said. An investor sees things differently from an employee, who sees things differently from a customer. The exposure to different perspectives — always a solid experience for a marketer — continues to influence Button Bell.
“You can’t say they’re stupid and they don’t know what the deal is. You have to be extremely respectful of trying to help them understand what you’re doing, so I think it’s made me very respectful of the other view,” she said.
In her own words…
How do you unplug?
“My favorite thing is to ski. Downhill skiing. But it’s summertime and I can’t do that. I either bike or play golf, or run. I will play anything. If there’s a ball involved, I’ll chase it. I actually just got a personal trainer, which I’ve never had before so I’ve been doing weights twice a week which I’m absolutely amazed that I really like to do.”
I read you played a lot of sports in high school and college, what did the experience teach you?
“Everything, probably, but probably sportsmanship would be one of the biggest things. It’s like sportsmanship at work, or how you take care of your team members, and that just doesn’t mean your team members in your department or something, it’s a bigger picture of how you utilize an entire corporation to get things done, and being somewhere between respectful, probably and energetically proactive. Emerson is a really big place. It’s a lot of men and you’ve got to know how to behave in that environment and you have to play correctly. You don’t mess people up, you keep people well informed, and I think it’s no different than sportsmanship.”
If you could try another profession, what would it be?
“I would be a surgeon. I would love to have been a doctor. I was a physiological psych major in college, even as a senior. I wrote my junior thesis on brain laterality in left-handed people, so I was way, way into that. I didn’t really want to go to medical school. I just loved biology and science. I’m the first one if someone’s cut open or bleeding or had something wrong, I climb right in there.”