With more than two decades of marketing experience at the helm of one of Britain’s most loved brands, British Airways, there isn’t much that Abigail Comber doesn’t know when it comes to building a brand that connects with customers.
The key to getting cut-through for the brand and the boardroom? Speak the language of the CFO with the voice of the customer, says Comber.
The marketing department has to stand for sitting in front of the customer and having a human conversation, she says. “When was the last time you saw the white’s of a customer’s eyes? Because if you haven’t you don’t know the customer.”
Data and analytics is very powerful for the marketing team, but it has to be used in the broader context to understand the real customer that sits behind your brand, explains Comber.
“I fear that some of the data that is costing you money — and the business information analytics teams sitting underneath it – is wasted, because it is just flowing down the wrong channels,” she says.
“Understand the difference between analytics, research or data on one side, and insights on the other. Insight is something that has real gut instinct behind it to tell you what things really mean.”
Tune in to this episode of Get Simple to learn how Comber brought data and good old conversation together to put the customer at the centre of the British Airways brand. Hear stories from her time at the helm of a globally renowned brand.
Read the full transcript
This episode of Get Simple is brought to you by Simple – the intelligent marketing platform.
MC Mark Choueke
AC Abigail Comber
Hello and welcome to Get Simple, a podcast that aims to help marketers claw back the cost of complexity.
Each episode we hear stories from the marketing and tech leaders reshaping the way we do marketing – as the battle for time, money and resources increases.
I’m your host, Mark Choueke, founder of Rebeltech and former editor of Marketing Week.
In today’s episode I’m joined by Abigail Comber, who recently departed British Airways after a 24 year career that saw her join the brand as advertising manager and leave with global responsibility for brand, marketing and customer…
AC I think what I didn’t see were the days of sex, drugs and rock ‘n Roll, so I feel like I have missed out a little. However, I started my career in marketing after that when there was none of the above, and it was all about ROI. I think the change has just got faster and faster. I think one of the observations that I would have is, as everything, it’s always cyclical, and I started my career at BA as the advertising manager for the UK market.
There was a manager for everything, there was a manager for every region, and we had seven different campaigns globally for Club World at the time, which was simply offering the same promise to everybody, but we felt the need to have seven different campaigns around the world, and then we had the cost of the team and the agency and the production and the media for all of that.
I think that was probably my first eye opener. We centralised marketing, we decentralised marketing, we re-centralised marketing for the company. We had digital as a specialist side arm, then it was bought in. Now we have data as a separate side arm, and then that’s part of marketing. So, I think everything comes as a specialist area that then becomes the norm, and then a new specialism comes up and then it becomes the norm.
I would say that the biggest challenge, and something that has come back to me very closely, having now gone to a much smaller turnaround organisation is, of any colleague in marketing, when was the last time they saw the whites of a customer’s eyes, because if they haven’t, they don’t know their customer.
MC Enterprise marketers probably use 90 different MarTech tools and apps that generate 90 costs on the budget, 90 lines, right, but also generate 90 sets of overlapping data that’s insight yet, it’s still data, because somebody has to crunch it. At what point does it start becoming, for marketers anyway, we’re running a department that’s so reliant on numbers and measurability and accountability just to report internally, that the marketing has lost its functional identity as creative and strategic.
AC I think data and analytics is incredibly skilled. I think it has to be used in a broader context of your brand, the purpose of your brand, and understanding the real customer that sits behind it, and it is in support of that.
I also think that you need to be really clear as a company, as a brand, what is your strategy, and what are the tools that are going to allow you to understand what you need to support, delivering not that strategy, because otherwise you just go to the next cool funky thing that is out there.
You have got to be able to sort the wood from the trees to be able to see clearly what will deliver what you ultimately need to do to grow your business profitably, without just adding more data and analytics to your team.
AC It’s good to have the backup of data because for me, one thing I learnt through my career was you have to speak the language of the CFO, but with the voice of the customer.
MC So, how did you do that at British Airways?
AC How do we do that? I’m a big advocate of creativity, and what’s the DNA of the brand.
MC There’s not a lot of MarTech tools out there for creativity, right?
AC Exactly, which is why I feel very strongly that you have to support creativity with data and MarTech solutions. I think one of the things that we did was, worked really hard on, our Executive Club, because those are people who we knew were without a doubt our customers. You don’t get to be a member of the Executive Club without getting those people on your planes.
Whilst we had all sorts of solutions by plugging in analytics and data to find out when we were – excuse the pun – going through turbulent times with some customers, what we weren’t understanding from that were the reasons why.
So, what we did, I believe successfully, was we paired that with face to face meetings where we invited very, very busy individuals, in to meet members of the executive team face to face to just discuss what the brand was doing, and how things were going and how valuable the Executive Club was to them, and then asking them about their experiences.
One of the great things that came out of that, was that we saw people coming out of the Executive Club and kind of bouncing down through the grades, and then when we sat down and had a lunch without 30 members, we came up with status points for life, because what we realised was these people were being told you’re not loyal anymore and we don’t want you anymore, when their own circumstances may have been they had a domestic role for a year and they bounced from gold to silver to blue, and then they had to work their way all the way back up again, as opposed to having lifetime tier points, that remembered their loyalty, and then when they were ready, re-engage because their life had changed again, it could do that.
But that came through a conversation, whereas the data of people leaving the loyalty program would have come through analysis, and you’d have never got to the solution of lifetime tier points, because you wouldn’t have understood the reason why, or quite how personal it was to those individual customers.
AC Another example would be, and this has been played out to me by three different customers in the past. When they had to change their booking, and they had to get back for a personal emergency, a funeral, a very sick child, how, as soon as we understood exactly what it was that they were travelling for, they were like hot knife through butter.
You know, we got them home, and they never ever forgot that. But if all we ever see that as is I need to change my booking, and they are on a restricted ticket, the terms and conditions will just kick in, and that’s about making it about real life. I think sometimes we use, we turn everything into data and digits, and I challenge anybody to say that we’re not selling a product or a service to a real human being, and I think as Maya Angelou says, you will never, people will never forget the way you made them feel.
MC I bought a Hoover recently.
AC Did you buy a Hoover or did you buy a vacuum cleaner?
MC I bought a vacuum cleaner.
AC Power of a brand.
MC Yes, it is the power of the brand, and somewhere inside the vacuum cleaner company, they decided they knew me because of what I’d bought. Now, what they didn’t know is that I am a fairly well-rounded individual, I think, with a ton of different interests. I am interested in so much. At one point or another, I was interested in cleaning our floor, and our vacuum cleaner was broken, so I went online and bought one, and now they think they know me and they seem to feel like I’m just really, really deeply interested in vacuum cleaners. So I’m getting sold parts, I’m getting advertised new handles and new heads, new brushes. They think I love cleaning.
AC Or they don’t trust their product, because they’re trying to sell you things you need when it breaks.
MC Yes, right? So they don’t know me at all. They don’t know I’m interested in my children and football, and you know. How well can you really know your customer without that conversation, because that’s the challenge we face. We are now all, everybody is now able to sell globally, everybody is now able to find data and opportunities to a much greater audience.
What can we do to make sure that we are driving the creativity, the human connection? How can marketing keep adding value as the voice of the customer in the boardroom, because the challenge is we’re going to lose that, we lose anything that made us different and important and strategic to the business.
AC I think the two things I learnt that were really critically important was understand the difference between analysis and insights, or data and insights, or research and insight. Insight is something that is instinctive and is gleaned from a connection of lots of different data inputs, and insight is something that can have real gut instinct behind it to tell you what things really, really mean.
AC Marketing has to stand for sitting in front of the customer, face to face, and having a human conversation with them, and then challenging the data to give it context, because if it has no context, I fear that a good proportion of that data that is costing you money and business information analytics teams sitting underneath it, is wasted, because it is just flowing down the wrong channels.
The other thing is, and I learnt this probably the hard way, was get the voice, kind of get the mind of your audience by understanding how they think and what’s important to them. So, I had a boss who said yes, it’s all really great, Abby, but the last slide needs to be the first slide, because the last slide was how many customers it was going to bring in, and I’d built it up and built it up and built it up, and I’d gone, and this is going to deliver this many customers, and all I did in the next presentation was start with the numbers, this many people are going to buy this product, and this is how much it’s going to cost to invest in getting this kind of return on investment, so now let me tell you how I’m going to do it.
I think as a marketer, that points I made before about making sure you have the customer’s voice, but the language of the CFO, is really, really important. So personally, I went out and sought the CFO to be my mentor inside the business. It was really, really important for me to do that, and I learnt an awful lot by getting inside his head.
What a lot of it was, was that he had no idea what I was talking about, so he wasn’t engaged at all in the first 10 slides of the 11, and then all he saw on the end was the price, and then he just went, I’m sure you can do it for half the price, because I hadn’t engaged him at all.
So, trust that you can bring the insight to the table, challenge your analysis and your research and insight team to bring the insight off the back of the data, and make sure that you have engaged your Board or your big decision makers, and the key player in that, as a marketer, that I believe you have to be able to influence, is your CFO.
MC So, one of the questions I was going to ask, I think we have already gone there, but it was how do we stop external influences, like the Board the CFO, simply seeing marketing as the numbers, because that’s the language of the boardroom, right? You have to have, is it increasing profitability, driving productivity, reducing costs, but do they, can you get them to the point where they will also understand in the context of a campaign or an activity or a rebrand in the wider strategic sense?
AC I think it depends on the culture of your organisation, and if their KPIs are incredibly short-term, so say to the end of this financial year, whereas building a brand or re-building a brand can take many, many years, so you have to make investment now for things that won’t come to fruition maybe three years down the line, it’s building the understanding of what it is that you are trying to do. You have to build trust in order to gain permission, and unless they trust you as a marketer to be doing the right thing, you won’t get the answers out of that.
So at the same time, if you can show that you are influencing people to think great things about the brand with what you do, I think you have to prove it, and I think you have to prove it with the real people, as well as the numbers. It’s very, very difficult to show an ROI on anything that is building a brand. You can show them lots of pyramids and lots of different models about things. I’m sure we’ve all done it and we’re all very proud, and you can also cut data to tell exactly the right story for that particular presentation, and a totally different story for another presentation. So, you have to build trust to build permission.
MC So, you left British Airways. Did you think you were going to be a one-employer career, and what were the last two years like? How did you find the impetus to leave? What was marketing looking like at the time that you left, because you were head of brand customer experience?
AC I think when it comes to the crux of it, I didn’t feel like I was learning anything new, and I thought that I wanted another personal challenge. I had some amazing times. I grew my career there. I learnt a lot there. It enabled me to have amazing personal experiences through professional engagements with things like the Olympics and amazing photo shoots in Rio at sunset and all sorts of lovely things like that.
I grew amazing team members out of it. I’m incredibly proud of the people who worked with me and what they have gone on to achieve in their own careers. That is something that I think actually is probably one of the biggest rewards that I had.
So initially I thought I want to go and learn a different industry, so I assumed that my path would take me to another huge corporate organisation, big teams, big budgets and the things I knew very well.
Then I very nearly did that, and when the situation changed and I reflected on the fact that I was just about to leap into it, I realised that I was probably going to go from the frying pan into the fire, and it was going to be very similar, just a different product. Then the opportunity came up to join a British boat builder. Our yachts start at £1.6 million to about £20 million.
MC In case anyone is in the market.
AC They are made by British craftspeople, and the company was bought by a passionate yachtsman in February, out of liquidation. I got the call to say he wants to line up his exec with people who have come from big brands, big businesses with a lot of experience, to not only turn the company round, but build the brand into something extraordinary for the future, and it just spoke to me. Why wouldn’t you want to do that? Why wouldn’t you want to learn something new, and it scared me.
MC Is it learning new, or is it a returning to what you wanted to do, which is building a brand?
AC I think it’s returning to what I wanted to do. I think a lot of it for me is shaking it up and going back to basics, and reminding me why I have had a career in marketing, because I’ve got a very narrow and deep career. I’ve not done the general management thing where I have jumped all over the place. I’ve been in marketing through and through and for one company.
I went out to one of the regattas that we run in order to see an awful lot of the product and an awful lot of the customers, and I came away thinking this is a marketer’s nightmare. These people are all incredibly unique, of a niche within a niche within a niche, and you know, in MarTech and digital and data, you can pretty much get a bit of a cookie cutter of what your customer group needs to look like, and you can target them and then you can get the bounce on that, know that you hit 80% of them and you’ve got a really good ROI.
It’s really important for me now to know something about that person. Why, why have they bought a multi-million Pound British crafted yacht? Some of them have bought it to sail around the world, because they’ve sold their own business, and they really deserve it because they’ve worked incredibly hard. Others do it to have time away and be incredibly private with their family because their lives are intruded by digital, and their lifestyle all the time,
So, I have to get to know the people, which is why for me it feels incredibly rewarding to go to a company where putting the customer right at the heart of it and following the customer and hoping then that the business growth follows that, is truly where we need to be.
MC Are you ready for a different world where, even though it’s extended recently, the CMO tenure is still the shortest tenure in the C-suite in terms of how long people tend to stay in jobs for whatever reason. Are you ready for whatever it is beyond? Does this feel like a long term gig? Does it feel like a, I mean, I’m probing now, but does this feel like the next stage of your career?
AC So for me, you know everybody thought I was a lifer at BA and asked me if I would be, and I said whilst ever it keeps me interested and wants me to get out of bed in the morning, I always say I don’t think there is such a thing as work life balance. I just think there’s life, and you just need to enjoy it all, because you only get one.
I really, really enjoyed my job, and then when I started to not enjoy it, I have now thrown myself into something I enjoy, and if it’s challenging and I’m learning, and I enjoy my life, then I will remain there for as long as it continues to do that. It’s fascinating, it’s early days. I’m not quite sure where we keep the staples, but I will figure it out, and I realise that I’ve got to do that myself right now.
MC Well, congratulations. Very best of luck. Abigail Comber, thank you.
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