How National Instruments Became NI
A rebrand is not a campaign, it’s a new direction. That’s why NI (previously known as National Instruments) brought on their first-ever CMO, Carla Piñeyro Sublett—they wanted someone to guide them through the brand refresh process, to shake up their foundation and challenge their entire business strategy for the better.
Knowing that this would be a bold undertaking, Piñeyro Sublett and her team, with full C-Suite support, worked from the outside-in. Then, with the help of an outside marketing agency, a cross-functional internal team, six months of brand strategy planning, 800+ interviews, and a month of employee prep, NI initiated an electrifying process of discovery for the business—one whose identity is encapsulated in two powerful, purpose-packed words: “Engineer Ambitiously.”
This episode is a special one, as NI live-streamed the launch this week in a global celebration of their new brand. Tune in to hear about how they did it, and be sure to check out their logo transition video as well as some first-rate examples of marketing done ambitiously, below.
NI Logo Transition Video
NI’s Engineer Ambitiously Ads
Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with Carla Piñeyro Sublett
Drew Neisser: Hello Renegade Thinkers! With apologies to the bard… “To launch or not to launch? That is the question. Whether tis smarter for CMOs to risk the slings and arrows of tone-deaf mockery, or to go forth against the sea of competitors and through righteous courage crush them?” Now, faced with this question earlier this year, specifically whether or not to launch a new brand campaign right near the start of the COVID era, the CMO of National Instruments opted for a short delay.
Now as it turns out, that was a really shrewd decision. To find out why and learn the details of the new campaign, my guest today is Carla Piñeyro Sublett, CMO of the rebranded National Instruments, henceforth to be known as NI. Carla, welcome to the show.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Thank you so much, Drew. Thanks for having me.
Drew Neisser: You didn’t expect Shakespeare in this podcast, I’m imagining that.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: I think you’re the next best thing.
Drew Neisser: Thank you. Yes, yes. Well, you’re too kind. Now you’re sheltered in place in Austin, right?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: I am. I’m hunkered down here in Austin, Texas.
Drew Neisser: And how’s it going?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: It’s going okay. I’m an introvert, so at first, it was great. But now, not so much.
Drew Neisser: It’s funny you should say that because a lot of people assume that, for introverts, this is perfect for them. Then I read a report that said, “No, not so much.” Introverts like people too. They just like their own space with people.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: This is true, this is true.
Drew Neisser: All right, well, let’s get to the topic at hand. Rebranding is a really big decision and I know if you’ve never been through a rebranding, you don’t really appreciate how big it is. It’s a big decision and it’s a bigger expensive undertaking, especially for a 40-year-old public company with 1,000 or so employees operating in 40 countries.
What compelled you, what crazy compulsion compelled you, to take on this challenge? Or was it part of your mandate when you were hired in?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: That was part of my mandate. It was actually why I was recruited to the company. I’m the first CMO at National Instruments.
Drew Neisser: Wow.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Yeah. The board and incoming CEO came to the realization that it was time to potentially embark upon a rebrand. The problem at hand, Drew, was really that no one really knew who we were understood what we did. We had very little awareness, and then also the company hadn’t really embarked on anything like this in 40 years as you mentioned. That was the opportunity that truly attracted me to NI.
Drew Neisser: Let’s just set a framework from a time standpoint. From the day you were hired that this was the mandate to when you were ready for launch. How long did it take to go through the entire process?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Actually, they were already talking to agencies when I was hired, so the process was going. I actually paused that process so that I could ramp and get caught up. All in, Drew, it’s been about 11 months. I joke that I’ve been pregnant for about 11 months with this baby. It’s been a very lengthy process, but a very thorough one at that.
Drew Neisser: Well, that’s the point that I wanted to make. When you’re dealing with a company with a 40-year history and operating like this, this is not something where you can just say, “Hey, let’s get a new logo and put some paint on the building, change a color or two.” This is a really big substantive undertaking and I’m curious—knowing where you ended up, what would you say was one of the most important phases of the project?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: When I was asked to do the work, one of the things that I said to the CEO and to the board and to the president of the company was, “Are you prepared to look into the mirror? Because the research may reveal some questions that need to be answered that we haven’t answered yet strategically or may reveal some market opportunities.”
They dismissed me. They thought, “Yeah, that’s just big ego CMO speak.” And then there was a moment where after months of research and talking to customers and stakeholders and our founders, the agency came back to us and said, “Okay, you’ve got two options.” They call them outfits and to try on and they said, “One is very rooted in who you are and it feels safe and it’s comfortable and the other one is rooted in your heritage, but actually a big bold step into the future” and it challenged our strategy.
Our CEO said, “Wow. Holy smokes. This moment is here. Carla, you said it would come, and it’s here.” That, for me, was one of the biggest moments of the process because it really did inform the strategy of the company.
Drew Neisser: I love that story and I want to put just a punctuation point on it. In my opinion, it is not worth doing a rebrand unless you’re really ready to take a big step forward. When you say that, what we’re really saying is: this had an impact on business strategy.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
Drew Neisser: Again, folks think about marketing as a veneer, and this is really substantive because you were defining and helping define a lot of the business strategy of the company. Okay, I love the fact that you have been able to organize this thing on one page. You have why it matters, how we do it, what we do. Before we get to those things, let’s just talk quickly about the process that you went through to get to why it matters. Let’s start there.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: The first order of business was actually to build a team to do the work. I didn’t want this to just be a marketing exercise. And in fact, our head of R&D inspired it. He said to me, “Carla, what scares me the most is that you are going to commit to something or over-promise something that I cannot deliver.” And I said, “Well, then come do the work with me and hold me accountable.” That kicked off a process. Our Head of HR, our Head of R&D, our Head of Sales, the CEO of the company, along with the brand team worked with an outside agency to do this work. That was the first order of business.
The other was to take an outside-in approach. I mentioned the research, Drew. That was really critical. Really understanding the landscape of the market and what our customers needed and what was happening in the industry really informed the work as well.
Drew Neisser: I want to pause again. It’s all about the team to start with. It needs to be a cross-disciplined team. Your CEO needs to be involved. If the CEO just says, “Go off and do it. Come back,” you’re in trouble.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Super red flag.
Drew Neisser: It really is, and if that happens to you as a CMO just stop. Say, “You know what? Organizationally, we’re not ready. You have other priorities, you’re not committed. You can’t do it.” Because the CEO is the one ultimately who’s going to be carrying the flag for the company and has to believe these words and this idea coming out of their mouths, so that’s a big thing. I love the fact that HR was involved, that Sales was involved and so forth because now we’re thinking about internal audiences, external audiences, and they bring such different perspectives to the table.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Absolutely. And to your point in terms of not being a thin veneer, one of the things that I think was really powerful in the process—and I’ve been through a couple of these before— what was really different this time is Gretel, the agency that we worked with, had a very unique process where we did not touch or look at creative until the final mile. We spent a solid six months on brand strategy and messaging before we fell in love with a creative concept.
Drew Neisser: Wow. That’s a lot of work and I want to break some of those steps down. You use the term outside-in. Let’s talk about some of the steps that you went through besides building the team that occupied these six months of brand strategy.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: We did research, so we spoke to over 900 customers, partners, analysts, both on the investor side and on the industry side. We spoke to our founders. We spoke to stakeholders within the business at all levels, so not just executives. We spoke to new NI employees, long-tenured NI employees. We really wanted a cross-section of all of our stakeholders.
Drew Neisser: What’s great about that and what’s critical about that is that, again, ultimately, you’re grafting something new onto an organization. If the organization, if you will, isn’t prepared or doesn’t feel they’re part of the process, they might reject it. Boy, 800 interviews. That’s numbing.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Yeah. In terms of bringing people along in the process, not only did we do very extensive brand training on the messaging side with all functions that we cascaded through the company, but we’re actually pulling employees into being a part of the creative. We are publishing things out, voting them up and down, letting our employees do things like pick our sound, so really making them a part of it. In fact, one really interesting thing, Drew, is because of COVID we weren’t able to shoot everything that we wanted to shoot because we got locked down really quickly, but fortunately, we had done a lot of internal portraits and portraits of customers, so a lot of the stars of our campaign and our marketing are actual employees and customers.
Drew Neisser: Amazing. So, we do there six months of research we and this is where we’re boiling stuff down. You just talk about sifting through to get to simple. Talk about the culmination—before we see any creative, what was the language or the glue that made you say, “Okay, we’re onto something interesting here.”
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: The language was “engineer ambitiously.” Our technology enables some of the greatest innovations in the world, but at the time we were an extremely unsexy, dated company. There was a juxtaposition there that really didn’t make sense, so we realized going into this, “Wow. This isn’t just about modernizing a brand, this is about modernizing a company and how we operate.” As we got further along in the work we realized, “Oh, wow, it’s our category that needs modernization,” and that was really the moment that we realized that we were long overdue to catch up to our customers and what they were doing.
Drew Neisser: In this document that you shared, at the very top of it, it says why it matters and its purpose. Under purpose are two words: engineer ambitiously. I love that. First of all, I love its simplicity. If you can boil your purpose down to two words, let’s talk about those two words for a second because they start to really matter.
One thing that I hear when I hear “engineer ambitiously” is, this is a company of engineers for engineers. It’s about engineering. But if I’m not an engineer?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: This question came up actually. One of the things that we realized is, you could be a business leader. Especially thinking about the times that we’re in right now, everyone needs to be engineering and re-engineering their lives ambitiously. I even joked that I could say this to my children if they came to me with a problem: “Engineer ambitiously.’ We really want it to be a term that resonates and can be adopted regardless of whether or not you’re an engineer. At the core of this statement is ambitious problem-solving.
Drew Neisser: Exactly. So, “engineer,” but it’s a nice word that you can own and have a heritage as engineers for engineers. Then “ambitiously” is a really interesting word. It has that moment where you could say, “Were we doing that before? Are we doing it now?” It certainly is forward looking, and there’s no end in ambitiously, right? It’s ongoing, it’s like reaching for the stars. You just keep going.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Historically, we’ve had a very humble culture, so “ambitiously” made people a little bit uncomfortable initially and we had to test it in different cultures and different languages, too. What was super fascinating is it translated. It translated into different languages, so folks really latched on to the fact that, “Wow, this statement actually resonates whether you’re in China or you’re in Germany or you’re in the US.”
Drew Neisser: That must have been a moment oh “phew” because you know how it feels to you and you go, “This is it, we got it,” and then you’re going to send it out. You’re just praying that when it gets to Chinese, it doesn’t seem like “your grandfather’s coming back from the dead,” which is a famous Coke slogan that was misinterpreted as something bad.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: And along those lines, we got the feedback from our global peers to actually keep it in English, which I was super shocked by. They said, “It’s like, ‘just do it.’ It will resonate. We’re a global company and it will work.” And that was fascinating too.
Drew Neisser: That makes sense. All the way. You had mentioned in our prep call that they shared many lines. There was a list of maybe five options that they brought to you. Talk about that moment when you saw it, because a lot of times when you present these things, folks will sort of will sit back and say, “I don’t know,” but I think this was a little different.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Yeah, so they presented five. This was the second one. Drew, I don’t remember the other four—that’s how powerful it was. It was a moment that was electric. Everybody’s hair stood up on end, and there was this silence in the room. It was palpable, and one of our founders, his response to it in particular really moved me because I wanted to honor him and this work, so yeah, it was a real electric moment and everybody knew in that moment that that was it.
Drew Neisser: That’s unusual, amazing, and what a great career moment for you. Let’s take a break. We’ll be right back.
Drew Neisser: Now you have this wonderful language. I’m a big fan. We call them purpose-driven story statements because it’s the notion that a purpose and a tagline can come together into something really, really powerful. But you also are not just changing language. You decided to change the look and feel of the brand, you changed your name.
Let’s just talk about that. I mean, it’s one thing to come up with a new positioning for a company, but to change your name from National Instruments to NI? There must have been some big debate about that.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Interestingly enough, NI had a lot of equity. A lot of our customers refer to us as NI, so it’s not as tough as it would seem. But that being said, yeah, it’s a significant change. You don’t realize it until you start to look into all the details, the legal details, and the documentation and everything that has to change. But at the same time, we also realized that we’re a global company and the term National doesn’t really apply to us any longer, so NI was just a logical conclusion. At one point we were even considering changing the name altogether, but the agency really strongly discouraged us from doing that because there was so much equity in NI, in particular.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, I tell you, that’s a good point. Good for the agency for doing that because if you have equity, and it’s logical that people would refer to you by that abbreviated name—that’s how Federal Express became FedEx, people were already using it, so it wasn’t a big deal. But it is a big deal from an investment standpoint because you’ve got a change all your signage, everything that was ever printed.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Your products, everything.
Drew Neisser: There’s a company out there, I can never remember their name, that just specializes in costing out the conversion of a brand name and all the materials and make sure that you think about that. When you made this decision, how long do you think it took to get all of this stuff changed? That’s a lot of work too. You have a new logo, you’ve got a new name, I mean, there’s a huge amount of executional work.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: It probably took us about 60 to 90 days, Drew, cross-functionally, to assess everything. One of the really cool things—I mentioned modernizing the company—we pulled together a cross-functional group. It was about 70 people across manufacturing, IT, finance, legal, and so on, into a room and said, “Okay, this is the change that’s happening.” We read them into all of the creative and then we have them brainstorm in terms of all the different things that we had to consider to make the change. And then we began to do workstreams.
We also invited them in that moment to say, “Hey, here’s your chance to simplify. If there are things that we’re doing that don’t make sense and you’ve always wondered why we do them, now’s the time to change.” We started to do things like simplifying the number of vendors that we used for our boxes, we streamlined the packaging for some of our shipments. It was super fascinating and really fun because it empowered people to actually help modernize the company and make a difference. Not only did we leverage it as an opportunity to do the work, but we used it as an opportunity to be more efficient.
Drew Neisser: Also, in some ways, drinking your own champagne, you were “engineering ambitiously” in your whole brand remake. Now, rebranding is more than just coming up with a new logo, a new look, and new colors. Let’s talk about first just getting to a new logo.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: That and color were probably the two most controversial things in the process. It was very, very difficult. Our logo honors the engineer in that it was actually built off of graph paper and it’s both right angles and curves. In addition to that, there’s positive and negative space in it, so that was very thoughtful in its creation, but that was not an easy process, Drew, to bring everybody along.
Drew Neisser: Yeah, it’s not one of my favorites out there because there is, even though people who design logos are so good at explaining every little facet of what it means, it still becomes this “I like it or I don’t like it” for people who have no expertise in evaluating it. The hard part of that process for me is that you don’t think about logos until you’ve seen it 100 times, and then suddenly go, “Oh yeah I know that logo.” Repetition really matters in the process, but it’s very hard for people when they see a new logo for the first time. It’s really hard work for people who don’t get it, so I feel your pain in terms of that. Let’s talk about color.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Color was probably the most difficult and most controversial. If anything, I would say, of the 11-month process, we were slowed by about 45 days on the debate of color alone.
Drew Neisser: Okay. Talk about that. What was the debate?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Whether or not to change the color.
Drew Neisser: Change it at all.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Change it at all. It made folks very uncomfortable. And the funny thing is, when we set out to do the work, we did a wall test and what we learned in that wall test is that everybody in our space, with the exception of one, were blue. Everybody was the same color. There was no standout whatsoever, with the exception of one, so from the get-go, we knew that was something that we are going to have to change, but psychologically, it was very difficult to bridge.
Drew Neisser: You show them that you say, “We look like everybody else.” The whole purpose of rebranding is to help you stand apart, to cut through, and color is such a powerful thing. What color? You move from blue to…
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Green. A very vibrant green.
Drew Neisser: Okay. And how do we rationalize vibrant green in the context of your new brand?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Green means go. It means sustainability. It means health. To a lot of people, it means money. What was so fascinating about green is that, again, it translated over cultures. There was a lot of positivity around the color green in Asia and in Europe, as well as the US, so green felt like a very natural progression and very crisp and modern and fresh.
Drew Neisser: Okay, so you have this purpose statement, you’ve got a new logo, you’ve got a new color. Let’s say, February, you were pretty close to being able to launch. When was your original launch date?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Our original launch date was May 16th. A month prior to our actual launch date.
Drew Neisser: Okay. So, you had always planned to do it, and then when COVID struck—or as I like to say “the COVID curtain came down”—you all decided to delay that a little bit.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Yeah. Initially, the sales organization began to become vocal in terms they felt that it might be insensitive of us to launch and it might not be well received by customers, so we really took a pause. We spoke to our agency, we reconvened. Our agency happened to be based in New York and so they were in the midst of everything and particularly had a heightened sensitivity around it as well, but I think the other part of it was that we were going to launch at our biggest face-to-face conference of the year.
We were having to pivot. All of our face-to-face interactions were having to pivot to digital just like everybody else, so we were having to rework our entire marketing plan and our media plans. In a sense, not only did it make sense for us to delay 30 days because we wanted to make sure that we were being sensitive from a timeframe standpoint, and we didn’t really know where the numbers were headed and from a COVID perspective, the other aspect of it was we needed time to completely redo our marketing plans.
Drew Neisser: Right, so that was quite helpful. Obviously, you needed that. As I seem to recall, you were also able to use that time for additional employee prep and education, which is such an important part of this. We did a survey about a year ago of B2B CMOs and said, “How important is in employee education and engagement on a new campaign?” and like nine out of ten said that it’s really, really important.
Then, when we asked, “How long did you have?” it was like, a week. It’s like, wait a second—how do you launch a new campaign or a new positioning, purpose, meaningful program to an employee base in a week? You had more time. Talk about how you used that time to engage your employees with a new campaign, or should I say, program.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: We started doing message training in January and we’d been cascading that. We started with our corporate officers and then had them trainer our managers and leadership team. And then our leaders are now training our frontline employees.
I will say, Drew, I was actually skeptical initially because historically I’ve rolled out a brand training video and a module that everybody takes and we check that box. This was a lot more in-depth, and it was actually just messaging, and I was worried that it was going to land as fluffy. We did it as workshops, interactive workshops, and with COVID, the majority of them have been via Zoom or Teams meetings. I gotta tell you, I’ve been blown away. I am happy to say that I was wrong. The amount of engagement and input and buy-in has been spectacular. And many of them have not seen the creative yet. We’re just training them on messaging right now.
Drew Neisser: Right. What’s so interesting about that is there’s a certain amount of optimism in this idea of “engineer ambitiously” at a time where optimism is difficult. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but there’s a lot of certainty in that language and optimism in that language and I imagine that when everybody is feeling disconnected from their companies and their family and so forth, having a new way of talking about the business was actually helpful.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: It’s been inspiring, and it’s literal, Drew. We have customers that we’ve been helping reimagine manufacturing lines, pivoting from one industry to making ventilators as an example, in a matter of days. We’ve been helping address this crisis, so it’s not only inspiring to our employees, it’s actually literally what we’re doing.
Drew Neisser: Right, so you’re making that idea real in real-time, which is always a good thing. Again, I think that one of the issues that I have with a lot of rebranding is that it’s an old barn with a new coat of paint. It sounds like this is inherently true to the organization, but I’m wondering—as you start to roll out marketing and other activities, what else are you doing to make “engineer ambitiously” real?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: We changed our values, so we went from a list of five or six values which I’m embarrassed to say I can’t name and that our brand pointed out after a McKinsey study that we’re about 85% the same of every other company out there.
We changed them to “Be bold, Be kind, Be connectors.” Some of those values are really rooted in who we are—I’ve never worked in a nicer place—but we wanted to amp it up a little bit. It’s not just about being nice, it’s about being kind. Being bold felt a little uncomfortable because we were such a humble culture and that’s something that we’re actually trying to push forward. And then being connectors was also rooted not only in what our products literally do, but also in the culture that we have at NI.
Drew Neisser: Again, the simplification that you’ve been able to achieve with this is quite admirable and it’s really hard. The listeners know this. Value exercises are really hard. Again, they seem to be very personal but, as you said, “Be bold. Be kind. Be connectors.” I gotta believe that just about every employee can remember that, which is just so important. But they’re also very unique. I have to say, they don’t feel like values that I’ve seen at another organization. They feel very much like this is the new company that you’re describing.
So, we have new values. How do you make values—which are things that you do, not talk about—real? How did you communicate these values and then, again, live by them?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: They’re part of the messaging workshop and we are actually starting to talk about how we recognize these values. It’s becoming part of our recognition and rewards process, so we’ve implemented it not just in terms of the rollout from a training perspective, but in terms of how we actually operate as a company. I’ve even heard my peers challenge each other and start to use the language. If somebody is hesitant to do something, someone is saying, “Be bold!”
Drew Neisser: “Go for it!”
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Right, so it’s becoming part of our vernacular, which is super inspiring.
Drew Neisser: That’s just a slam dunk and I’ll tell you why. If an organization behaves based on how you reward and if the values are what I get rewarded for, then I’m going to follow those. Being bold—that’s something that you can see in an everyday action or in client engagements and so forth. Being kind—that’s pretty obvious. And being connectors.
Again, it’s nice to have a recognition program for that. It feels very easy to think about what awards could be. Compensating is a whole other story but I love it, and I wonder how you actually compensate or change. If you could, then you’ve really made sure that the values stick and everybody lives by them.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: That’s right. That’s the goal.
Drew Neisser: Okay, well, we’ll stay tuned for how you do that. Alright, this has been an amazing tour of an incredibly ambitious, I should say, ambitiously, rebrand with a new name, a new logo, a new color, a new purpose, new values. It’s like a brand-new company that’s 40 years old.
What would you say, if you were to look back on this for the CMOs in the audience, two do’s and one don’t that would help them get this right?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Do make it cross-functional work. Don’t go it alone. That’s a do and a don’t, I guess. Make this cross-functional work, bring in your peers, and do that at all levels of the organization. Then, do outside-in work. It’s really important to do the research and take the time to understand the market and what the opportunity is. Then the don’t is, just don’t be insular. Don’t make it a marketing-only effort.
Drew Neisser: You can’t emphasize that enough. A rebrand will not stick if marketing just does it. It will just be a veneer. And at that moment, it will be a campaign. I want to make it really, really clear—a rebrand is not a campaign, it’s a new direction. It’s a new strategic direction as we talked about at the very beginning of this. It is a big, bold undertaking. And one of the things that I think you can all take away from this is, it’s not worth doing unless you’re prepared to be bold. It really isn’t.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: That’s absolutely right.
Drew Neisser: I mean, otherwise, you could just live in the skin that you have. But if you do this right, you really change the way the employees think about the company, the way customers think about the company, and you give and bring some excitement. You can really revitalize the company. Anyway, I’m excited for you and what all this means. What would you say for this last part—when will you know this program is successful?
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Really this is all in service of growth. At the end of the day, we want to grow the business. Clearly there are leading indicators that we’re watching advance around awareness and the more tactical ones as it pertains to web traffic and pipeline, but at the end of the day, if the company begins to grow exponentially, we will know that we’ve been successful in this work.
Drew Neisser: Okay, there it is. Grow the business with a rebrand. Carla, thank you so much for spending time with us today and sharing your story.
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me.
Drew Neisser: And to all the listeners, thank you as always for going on this journey with us. I think the answer to the first question, whether to launch or not to launch, the answer is “launch.”
Carla Piñeyro Sublett: Go for it!
Drew Neisser: Go for it! Be bold! Engineer ambitiously! That’s what you need to do. Alright. Until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.