Brands must be handled with care. They are emotional, enduring, and convey everything a business stands for, so it behooves CMOs to ensure that their company’s brand purpose and the messaging around it are not tone-deaf, but accessible—so accessible that they become a rallying cry for employees and customers alike and speak to any challenge that may come your way.
Now, how can you achieve this? At Renegade, we suggest finding a common story and articulating it in six words or less, which is exactly what Altair did when the software engineering firm launched its “Only Forward” campaign. As CMO Amy Messano explains, they knew that their decision to rebrand during COVID was the right one; firstly, because they had previously put in nearly a year of hard work to find their brand story, and secondly, because their purpose gave employees hope in an otherwise unpredictable moment—the true acid test for a successful brand refresh.
In this week’s episode of Renegade Thinkers Unite, Amy shares the story behind Altair’s mid-COVID rebrand, including how she used her “engineering pocket translator” to discover their purpose-driven story statement, how they activated their employees with the new message, and how they’ve measured its success thus far.
Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Amy Messano
Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers. Way back in January 2020, and it does feel like a long time ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing Laura Linney in the one-woman show “My Name is Lucy Barton.” It was a tour de force for Linney as she reveals her character’s personal journey to becoming a writer. Now, along the way, Linney says a line a couple of times, “Everybody has one story and the writer’s challenge is to just find different ways to share that story.” Now, that line struck me like a nagging splinter. It felt so constraining and frankly, it still does. But I have to admit—since the pandemic began, one story has reappeared over and over again.
That story goes like this: A CMO takes a job in 2019. They realize that their brand is lacking a clear statement of purpose. It doesn’t have a rallying cry that pulls everybody together, so they begin a lengthy process to find the answer. They engage an agency. They do extensive research. They explore alternate personality archetypes. And then, right as our heroic CMO was about to introduce their new brand, that COVID-19 pandemic hits the planet like a meteor. In a New York minute, life changes, work changes, and we start hearing the Clash song again—should I stay, or should I go? It becomes this earworm as CEOs wrestle with what to do with their new campaign. That is the one story of this moment.
Is it go time or is it stay time? Or is it ditch time for something more immediate? For Julia Fitzgerald of the American Lung Association, it was go-time with some modifications, as we learned in episode 186. Which brings us to today’s guest, Amy Messano, who is the CMO of Altair, a software engineering firm you’ll learn a lot more about in a minute. Amy, welcome to the show. And not to give the way of the plot, but it’s go-time.
Amy Messano: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.
Drew Neisser: I want to talk about that moment where you had your new campaign and you had to make the decision—do we launch or do we not? What were some of the things that went through your mind and what was the process that you went through to decide to go for it?
Amy Messano: Right. We had spent probably a year getting ready and doing all the steps that people take when you do undertake this kind of a massive brand relaunch, so when COVID-19 hit and everybody went home and we were in the middle of this global health crisis, we had this very real question: do we proceed or do we halt or pivot? After careful consideration—we went through a list of things like we don’t want to appear tone-deaf, we don’t want to appear to be anything other than focused on helping keep our employees safe and productive and still provide this great level of service for our customers.
We talked with our C-Team and our CEO and we really came to the conclusion that, as a B2B software company not involved in the direct front lines, we really wanted to give our employees something to focus on. We really said, “Okay, we all believe that this is temporary. This, too, shall pass, so what can we do to keep our employees motivated, to give them something to be really excited about, to focus on for the future? A bright light at the end of the tunnel, and also to show our customers and our partners that we are continuing to invest in the business and drive the business forward even during this uncertain time.”
The employee part was really, really passionate to me, too, because they went home on a dime, have just been incredible through this whole thing. That, to me, has hit my heartstring, that I really wanted to help give employees that sense of hope and excitement for the future.
Drew Neisser: I love that. Listeners to the show know that I am a huge advocate of employee-first when it comes to rebranding and why, if an idea resonates with employees, it’s so powerful. It’s just so interesting that the COVID environment actually accentuated that importance and elevated it to the point where I think a lot of B2B brands are looking at it oppositely, saying, “Well, geez, our lead flow has declined dramatically, we need to focus on that.” In reality, it’s your employees first and foremost who are feeling this situation and the anxiety and all of those issues. That, certainly to me, is an enlightened perspective.
I appreciate the list there, that’s important too—was it tone deaf? I’ve actually talked to CMOs who felt that their new message was tone-deaf, so they had to back off on it. Did it say anything about the brand that would some way or other imply something that was wrong for the moment? Let’s just talk about then what the idea was, is, for a second, and then let’s talk about how it came to be in terms of launching it. First of all, was this about a week or two? How long did you give yourselves to decide to go forward or not?
Amy Messano: We took about two weeks. I would say a week to two weeks.
Drew Neisser: Let’s talk about the idea and then we’ll get to how you shared it.
Amy Messano: Sure. Just to give you an overview of who Altair is as a B2B software company 35 years and growing, our roots are very much in engineering software. We’ve helped people, our customers, build everything from spaceships to tennis shoes to tennis rackets, golf clubs, buildings, skyscrapers—anything that’s made, we can and have provided software globally to build things. But we have expanded over the years also into high-performance computing and cloud and data analytics. It was the time, as we were growing, for a brand refresh. It was time to do so.
We took the painstaking steps, like everyone else, to talk to 800 customers, every level employee, in-depth research, two-day workshops, all the things that people do. We had put in a ton of work because we really knew that this brand had to be worthy of the history of the company, of really smart, really passionate people who cared very, very deeply about what they created. It’s a very entrepreneurial company, a very acquisitive company. We’ve also acquired 30ish companies.
Drew Neisser: I’m going to pause on that moment. 30ish acquisitions creates a really interesting brand soup.
Amy Messano: Brand alphabet soup, yes.
Drew Neisser: Oh, my gosh. It really is. The fact that that you had all these acquisitions—it also makes it harder to provide a simple description of what you do because you have all these other divisions, so it does require this elevation of message. That also gets a little tricky because, in order to be the highest common denominator or lowest common denominator, depending on which way you look at it, it could almost be so vague as to be meaningless.
Amy Messano: Right. Exactly. We said we were going from a house of brands to a branded house, to elevate the Altair brand, above all. It was time, but we were also very respectful of all that had gone on historically to build this fantastic company of which the culture is paramount. People are uber-protective of the culture. It is a very, very sticky special culture that people don’t leave. They have an unprecedentedly low turnover rate, very high customer loyalty and satisfaction.
Mike, our CEO sort of joked and was like, “Don’t f it up.” I probably shouldn’t say that idea but, you know, “Don’t mess this up.” Anyways, we also knew it was a new dawn. We also had to come forward with the history and the future together. You had to do both. We had a responsibility to keep moving ahead and creating a path for the future. You know a brand is more than a logo—it’s the essence of who you are, the visual-verbal articulation of the DNA of a company.
For us, we came up with a mantra of “Only Forward.” For us, that’s the reaffirmation of our mission, which is helping people accelerate the pace of innovation and driving human progress. That really struck a chord in this particular juncture of time. It’s what people wanted to hear.
Drew Neisser: Let me pause you there for a second. I always like to do this. When I look at a line like “Only Forward,” I hear that that’s a direction. We’re all headed in a direction and it’s about the future. It is a statement, because you said “only,” right? I’m curious—what did that language, those specific words—because we spend a lot of time on words—what did those words really mean, or did you want them to mean?
Amy Messano: For us, we have a very visionary leader who has empowered people to take risks within the company—to create new programs, new innovations, new breakthroughs. When we did all this ethnographic research, it was very clear that Altair was a place where people wanted to work and also where customers wanted to get their technology. I have done this at other places, and we worked with a partner, Gyro in Detroit. Normally when you do all this research, you get reams and reams of answers. Normally, the who we are as a company sounds different from the CEO or C-Suite or the working-level engineer, or from the customer perspective. You usually get different variations of who you are as a company and what you stand for.
We found a very rare gift. I guess it’s not a gift because they’ve worked very hard for many years, but it was strikingly similar. From our own employees—we call them Altairians—we heard, “We were empowered to take risks. We were encouraged to innovate, purposeful, powerful technologies. And we had the freedom to integrate my work-family life.”
From customers, we heard things like “Game changing technologies, deep technical resources, technology that helped solve tough problems.” The answers, too, were all very that “find that tough problem and we’ll figure it out and something else along the way, too.” For us, it was really just a way to say, “We’re moving forward.”
Now, the interesting part was the one place where we did get a little pushback. It was exactly what you said. “Well, does that mean that the history is not important? Does that mean that all this work that we’ve done is not appreciated? Is it only what’s forward and we’re forgetting what’s in the past?” When we went through our whole story—we have a whole little story and brand narrative of who we are—then people would get it.
We were a little, quite honestly, like, “Okay, is this one particular thing not okay?” All the visuals are beautiful. I mean, we did animations and videos and the full menu of content, all beautiful. But this one little thing, we were a little bit worried. Then when we rolled it out, it was overwhelmingly positive from employees and customers and, because of the juncture, it became a rallying cry, not so much as a mantra.
I can’t tell you—every email people end it with, the social posts are way more than I thought they would be. People say it at the end of conference calls now. I mean, it’s really become a rallying cry, so that part was a very happy surprise. I thought people would like it, but it’s really far exceeded the expectations with just the embrace of that actual mantra.
Drew Neisser: Perfect. Now you get the idea. You know what’s going on. But we’re going to come back and we’re going to talk about some of the specifics of the launch program and how you brought this to life. Stay with us.
Drew Neisser: Okay, we’re back, and we’re “Only Forward” from this point on. We’re talking to Amy Messano, the CMO of Altair, and we’ve been talking about this new campaign which you launched in the middle of a pandemic. Talk us through the steps that you went through. Obviously, we mentioned early on that employees were first and foremost, so how did you introduce the idea to employees?
Amy Messano: We had a town hall meeting with our CEO and myself. Altair has about 3300 people globally. We had, I think, 1800 people attend the call, which exceeded my expectations, quite frankly, knowing time zones. Our employee base is basically split up pretty evenly around the super regions and it was close to 2,000 people, which is huge. We had a town hall and we had that great, great turnout.
Drew Neisser: What did you do with the town hall?
Amy Messano: My CEO, Jim Scapa, kicked it off. He was, I should say, super supportive of this. He knew that we needed to elevate the brand and brought me over about a year—a little over a year ago now, a year and a half I guess—to help usher this in. He’s very, very supportive. He’s unique in that he’s a right and left-brained kind of guy—super intelligent and very supportive of marketing and branding and PR and all the good things that you need to run a successful business, which is not always the case, but he is. He supported this and he was really hands-on in the process, along with some of our CTOs and folks like that. Really engaged in the process.
Drew Neisser: I just gotta put a punctuation point on that. There is no such thing as a successful CMO and a rebranding process that doesn’t have a CEO involved and committed. It just doesn’t happen, and I know that I’ve said that on this show many times, and sometimes the CMOs say, “Well, my CEO isn’t supportive.” Then I say, “Well, then don’t rebrand because you will not be successful.” Let’s just put that right on the table: You can’t do this alone. This is a team effort. So, you’re at the town hall, the CEO introduces it. You had a video. Anything else?
Amy Messano: We had a PowerPoint presentation that walked through everything. We had created a wonderful animation video. Then we had questions at the end and immediately followed that with an email with links to all the new assets—everything from template PowerPoint presentations to your LinkedIn profile background to your signature on your email because we have a very active employee base trying to sell right now from home, and also marketing folks around the world.
It was very orchestrated and very thought out as a trigger cascade of information. Here’s the big idea, then excitement. If we had been at the office, we were going to have parties, so on that day, everyone would have got a swag bag. We were gonna have cupcakes and confetti and whatever else. We were going to have parties in our offices around the world. Obviously, we couldn’t do that, so we had the town hall and we will celebrate. We are actually trying to get people swag bags and send them to them in their offices to pick up when it’s safe. Folks in Asia are starting to come back online in the office and things like that. We did the best we could with everybody being at home, so it worked out really well.
Drew Neisser: You went through that list pretty quickly. One thing that struck me—PowerPoint template, obviously, email signature—a lot of times people forget the LinkedIn profile aspect of this, and that’s doubly important. One, for the consistency of the brand, but two, to help the employees understand how they fit in. Three is that the company believes that employees should be building their personal brands too, with the company. In our pre-talk, you also mentioned that one of the things that delighted you, and I don’t know if it was surprising too, was that you got a lot of social media support from your employees as a result of this program. I’m curious if you can talk a bit about that. Did you feed that, or did that happen organically, or both?
Amy Messano: I think both. Employees are hands down your best brand ambassadors. Any way that you can make them feel a part of the process and part of the success—it can’t just be the marketing team, it really has to be something that people embrace and believe in, and that’s why we took the steps. We surveyed every single employee, we had lengthy hourlong calls with groups of employees. We had daylong workshops, two-day workshops. We took the time to encourage across every function, doesn’t matter where you worked, to really gather their feedback, so they felt like they were part of the process. It wasn’t something that was just being thrown at them. It was something that had been their time, and their thoughts were valued and appreciated and part of the process. So, we took the time to do that.
I also mentioned that we talked to 800 customers. They were part of the process in the beginning, and then when we rolled it out, we did provide them with the encouragement and the knowledge that they are an important part in making this successful. They are a very passionate, very smart group of people and they really latched onto it right away. It was delightful. I wasn’t totally surprised, but I was surprised by the immediacy, the speed, and the accuracy of just right away how they took that ball and ran.
Drew Neisser: Which is amazing. If this is the primary audience and the evidence of success is their willingness to use it, embrace it, put it on their personal profile, share it on their social media, you pretty much know that you’re on the right track. What other things would you point to? I know we’re just very early on, maybe a month in now into the launch. What are the signs that you point to and say, “The signs are this has been pretty successful” besides the employee engagement?
Amy Messano: Again, we are a mid-sized B2B software company with great aspirations to grow pretty rapidly. But I’m also realistic. We are not a name brand in most households, but we’ve got 85 media placements globally. We had pretty fantastic stats on LinkedIn, so the engagement rate for the organic posts was over 6.5%, and I think it’s usually 2% on LinkedIn. I think we had six times for the typical reports for organic for LinkedIn. For our video, we did an animation video that explained the metamorphosis and the transition and that, on LinkedIn itself, the last count was around 45,000. The Facebook engagement rate was 8% and I think the average Facebook engagement per post is 3.2%, so we were exceeding industry averages. For us, that was exciting.
Drew Neisser: Those are amazing numbers and they demonstrate that the idea was resonating with your immediate audience. I’m curious—one of the things that we push our clients to be thinking about is, even when you have a great promise like “Only Forward,” one of the challenges that every brand faces is how to make it real. A video is great to people get to understand it but, as you look forward at your marketing initiatives and things that you’re doing to help customers bring it to life and make it real, are there things in the plans or that you’ve already done that you would say, “This is a clear demonstration of this idea?”
Amy Messano: I think our reaction to COVID. Our marketing team out of the gate pivoted, especially the folks in APAC as they were the first impacted. They pivoted to online and virtual events faster than I can believe. Globally then it went through EMEA and the Americas. We’re about to launch some huge virtual events with thousands of people hopefully in attendance. One is called the Altair 2020 Global Experience. Another is a data analytics event, a D&A Summit.
Hannover Messe in Germany is a huge automotive event that happens in the springtime in Germany. We had webinars, we pivoted away, reached out to people, and had maybe even more success than we would have had in person. We’ve had Asia and APAC webinars with thousands of people in attendance. Over the past couple of months, we’ve had 20,000 people attend webinars, which is a huge deal for us. It was the ability of our teams—they are encouraged to be nimble, to respond very quickly—and they’ve done just an incredible job of pivoting super-fast and bring everything online.
Now, for us, it’s maybe easier because, like I said at the beginning, we are a technology company. We’ve had the ability to work from home since before. It was a perk. That’s just how they’ve always been an Altair. For us, we have a great IT department and that part was seamless. There was no “What do I do? How does this work?” That part was not a new thought for us so that probably helped and they pivoted super-fast, so we’ve had tremendous results from webinars and online events. That, I think, is a good manifestation of “This happened. We’re going forward. What do we do?” I don’t mean to make any lightness of the crazy situation, but our ability to be sensitive to it but also says, “Okay, there are people who are at home in front of their computer. How do we get some of that screen time?”
Drew Neisser: Right. As you look back at this program and the relaunch of a brand, and really moving from, as you said, a house of brands to a branded house, which is certainly a smart place to be in my mind—there are a lot of branded houses out there that do themselves a disservice because they simply don’t have the resources to support brand. What would you say are the biggest lessons learned from this whole experience thus far?
Amy Messano: I hate to sound so boring because everyone posits this as the same answer, but to include everybody in the process and also remember that brands are emotional. They are very emotional because they are not about products. They are about people. This was a good reminder for me to treat that gingerly. To be respectful of people’s work, of the history of a company, especially for someone who is new. I came in new; these people have been here for their whole careers and I have to be respectful of that. Treat that gingerly. Know that it is their lifeblood, their heart’s work.
You have to be respectful and remember that brands are emotional and to treat them kindly, smartly but kindly, and be very respectful of that. It is a huge deal when you’re taking someone’s livelihood. It’s humbling to say, “Okay, this is our future. This is a big deal.” I’m very humbled by that, that it’s a great responsibility to steward and shepherd the team and the process to be able to lead them into this future, but also be respectful of the past. Just the whole emotional component of it is very powerful and very important to remember.
Drew Neisser: I would imagine that you’re working at a firm with lots of engineers who focus on software, so having a conversation that says brand is emotional has got to have been like, “What are we talking about here? We’re designing this software for NASA. What’s emotional about that?” Also, the culture is this culture of really smart people. It’s about reason and solving incredibly challenging problems, then here you are as the marketer coming in and saying, “This is about emotion.”
Amy Messano: Yeah. You know, I am not an engineer. I’m never going to be smart enough to be an engineer, let’s be clear. But I have been working with engineers for a very long time now across different several different companies. I joke that I have an engineering pocket translator, so I look at my job as a way to translate engineer speak to mere mortals, to the rest of us, because they speak differently. They think differently. They are elevated thinkers and are very, like you said, linear and reasonable. These guys are mathematicians and can solve these massive problems in their head.
I just will never be able to understand computational fluid dynamics or things like that, but I can translate it. The emotional part, too, is just the way they talk about these incredible products that solve these incredibly huge, complicated problems that they just, you know, basically figured it out in their heads and made happen. That’s the emotional part. How do I take that and be respectful of that and translate that so the rest of the world can feel that passion and that super intellectual horsepower that these folks have?
Drew Neisser: I think one of the interesting parts of that is that there’s a sense of pride that they have in the accomplishments and the things that they enable. That is a feeling of emotion even if it took a lot of rational thinking to get there. I think that if you have the buy-in from your CEO to say that the first place the brand matters is with the employees. They choose to work here, not just because of the rational things like the paycheck. They choose to work here because of the things that we collectively accomplish and deliver. If you understand that as a CEO and as a CMO, then you can actually go forward with a pitch of “emotion matters.” We all want to have an emotional connection to the company that we work for unless it is transactional and it’s just a paycheck, in which case we’re all going to leave tomorrow.
I love the pocket translator and I think there’s also something that you do that’s so important in all of this: you take the complex and make it simple. That’s really hard, but that is one of the things that CMOs really have to be gifted at. If you accept complex and say it has to stay complex, then you’re doing everybody a disservice.
Amy Messano: It’s not just me, we have a fantastic team, but that is something that we have spent a ton of time on. Altair started out as an engineering company. Very technical. Of engineers, for engineers, by engineers—it was engineers everywhere. Now we are into high-performance computing, cloud, data analytics, and we’re talking to business decision-makers, not just technical decision-makers. Also, by the way, we became a publicly-traded company two years ago, so it’s a whole new world and a world of growth. You have to be able to talk to people outside of the engineering world.
I have my master’s in journalism, so it’s almost like putting back on that reporter hat and taking the time to interview people and ask the questions. It does take time, especially if you’re not an engineer. By the way, we have a lot of engineers on the marketing team who are great writers or who just enjoy that part of it, so we do have folks on our team who are engineers. Again, I’m not one of them, but it’s about taking the time to research and understand so that you’ll hear those little pearls of wisdom that come out to stay on and talk about then take the time to develop.
But it’s going back to reporter tricks and just asking questions, then writing it. We spent a lot of time writing our messaging and positioning and talking about it and just spitballing it. If your grandma can understand it, which I know is a cliché, but if my teenage kids can understand it or my six-year-old, like, that’s success. To understand what it does, what value, because there are fantastic stories. The problems that these guys have solved, the places that their innovations have ended up—on the moon, in spaceships, building skyscrapers, making car seats lighter and stronger and faster. I mean, everywhere. Not the bits and bytes, but what it does, how it makes the world better, how it makes people’s jobs easier. That’s what people care about and that’s what people want to hear about, so that’s what we spent a lot of time on, pulling out the value and asking, “What does it mean? What does it do? How does it make someone’s life better?” That’s the blue sky that we want to get to.
Drew Neisser: Amazing. What a great place for us to wrap up. When I started this conversation, I mentioned Laura Linney and the show “My Name is Lucy Barton.” This notion that still nags at me is that every writer has one story, but I do think that it is the CMOs job to find that one story and to articulate it in a way that everybody can understand it and then figure out all sorts of different ways to tell that story over and over and over again. Now, in this particular nuanced issue of do I stay or do I go, do I launch, or do I wait? I think you really boiled it down nicely. Is it tone deaf? Yes or no? If it isn’t, okay. Number two, does it rally the troops? Do the employees feel good about it? Again, you don’t get there if you haven’t already engaged the employees in the process. Amy, thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Amy Messano: Thank you so much. It’s fun to talk with you.
Drew Neisser: I enjoyed it a lot. And to the listeners, I’m curious what one story you’ve been telling over and over again. You know how to reach me, firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ve got my cell if you’re a regular listener. And until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.