Jerri DeVard: Trust and Adaptability

January 3, 2008

Some of the most challenging work in marketing today involves building brands for products and services that are rapidly evolving. Jerri DeVard, who served as senior vice president of marketing and brand management at Verizon Communications until early this year, is a master of the trade. She cut her teeth as a brand manager with Pillsbury, Harrah's Entertainment, and Revlon, and then took on the challenge of helping Citigroup establish a global brand soon after its formation in 1998.

Citigroup was itself a novel business concept - the first U.S.- based universal bank to emerge since the 1930s. And Verizon was a true creation of the 21st century, a U.S. telecommunications bellwether, establishing national positions in proliferating new technologies. DeVard joined the company as senior vice president in 2003 and quickly helped further establish Verizon as a major new brand.

The basic skill set required for good marketing has not changed, she maintains, but customers (and their needs) have changed enormously - and they continue changing almost daily. In such protean industries as financial services and telecommunications, the "single company message broadcast consistently to every audience" approach will no longer suffice. Instead, DeVard argues, companies must develop deep insights about a broadening array of customer segments and learn to communicate with each customer group meaningfully - and on the group's terms.

Jerri DeVard earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Spelman College and a master of business administration degree in marketing from the Clark Atlanta University Graduate School of Business Administration. Her keen observations about brand building have important implications for corporations, agencies, and media everywhere.

Strategy+Business (S+B): In just six years, Verizon grew from an eastern U.S. telephone company to a national communications and entertainment brand. How did marketing help drive that growth?
Devard: In telecommunications, I question whether you can plan beyond a year. You have to be proactive about some things and reactive about others. Verizon moved from reliance on traditional voice telephone service through deregulation and pricing competition to competing with cable companies through fiber-optic technology to offer digital phone, video, and high-speed Internet services at lower cost. The company had to evolve as its customers evolved, and it continued investing in new technologies to drive new features and benefits - some of which consumers can't yet imagine that they're going to need. The company does phone; it does Internet; it does wireless; it does video through a partnership with DirecTV, and now directly through fiber optics. During my time there, what Verizon was really after was the whole house.

S+B: But with each new business, Verizon stretched its brand definition.
Devard: Good point. Before we entered a new space, we had to know whether we had the customer's permission and the credibility to go there. We were pleasantly surprised by what the research told us. People thought that Verizon could do things better than the established players who had been in the category well before we entered.

The Verizon brand is very strong, so the company was able to walk into new business territories it could own, and enter them with the customers' permission and acceptance. Verizon promises reliability and dependability plus network and service quality. Verizon is a trusted provider. That differentiates the company from a lot of competitors. For the most part, it may not be the cheapest alternative, but it's also not the most expensive. The things Verizon stands for now - reliability, quality, and trustworthiness - will always be important, but they'll become the table stakes. Telecom companies need to be hip, edgy, and relevant as well. And being relevant comes from being where customers need them to be.

S+B: How did you design a message for such a broad demographic spectrum?
Devard: Marketing people have always talked about the importance of single-minded focus - the single message that you waterfall against every channel and every customer. Well, this idea of communicating one message to everyone is just not going to work. Instead of spreading one message to the masses, you've got to send focused messages to many different groups - groups that have their own needs and interests. And that's also where Verizon had to carve out its revenue potential: against a base of customers who come to it for many different reasons.

As for messages, marketing has to start with consumer insight - with understanding our relevance to each customer and which products and services each customer wants. The model changes as we move [away] from traditional media channels and focus more on connecting with consumers online. The new media allow us to tailor our messages. We know who you are, based on how you're coming to us. We know if we are talking to a video gamer or to someone whose passion is music, so we can tailor the right messages and deliver them through gaming sites, music sites, or whatever.

In other words, the transformation from traditional phone company to broadband and entertainment provider was about understanding the fit with each customer. It was about showing people how they can lead richer, deeper lives through broadband.

S+B: For big brands such as Citigroup and Verizon, is there a problem keeping up with smaller, more nimble competitors?
Devard: The most successful service brands break things down with some sort of regional structure that allows the company to think nationally and act locally.

When I left Verizon, there were nine regional general managers, each with responsibility for local marketing. If someone wanted Verizon to sponsor a local rodeo, for instance, the GM could have decided if it was worthwhile. With this structure, Verizon could do door-hangers, backyard barbecues, community center events, and, yes, even be at the rodeo. And it's all based on an expense structure that helped the company select marketing activities that would accomplish the numbers we needed.

S+B: The degree of consumer engagement with various media changed enormously during your career. Do you have any preferred media for marketing?
Devard: The amount of time my kids spend watching TV is zilch. They don't care about it, and that's what media companies are struggling with: How do you put a 30-second spot on the air to a dwindling audience? When you look at how kids are consuming information, you can understand why Google spent US$1.65 billion to buy YouTube; you can understand why eBay bought Skype.

But I am [marketing] channel agnostic. I want to engage with people wherever they are. If they are Internet-dependent, I want to be there. If they want to pick up the phone and call us, I want to give them that opportunity. If they prefer to read and digest things, I'll send them direct mail at home. But I always want to make sure I don't overspend in some places to the detriment of others.

But you always run the risk of overlooking something. Before I left Verizon, I spoke with two internal groups - people with disabilities and the GLOBE group, which addressed the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender segment. They were concerned because they don't see themselves depicted in Verizon's advertising or on different sites. I said, "Good point!" We can't be all things to all people, but we have to try. And we can always do more.

S+B: It's hard to think of an industry that's undergone more fundamental change than telecommunications. What role has marketing played in driving that change?
Devard: Marketing was integral to everything at Verizon because, when results didn't materialize, everyone came to the marketing department to find out why. "What's happening with sales?" "What's happening with our Internet clicks?" "What's happening with average revenue per user?" These are questions that marketing had to answer because it was our job to understand the customer.

On a larger scale, marketing entails getting ahead of challenging issues before they become chronic problems, and keeping an eye on what the competition is doing. We sometimes saw competitors cutting prices in one business or another and decided to chase them for a while. We played that game because we wanted our customers back, and we knew they were leaving us because someone was enticing them with what they perceived to be a commodity product - even though the quality of service these competitors were offering was inferior.

S+B: How would you describe your marketing style?
Devard: It starts with the consumer insight. It comes from understanding your relevancy points with the customer and then under standing which products and services you need to offer them.

At Verizon, we picked up insights from the African-American customer, from the Hispanic customer, from the Asian customer. We got insights from the small-business customer, from the single family customer, the home-based-business customer, and the customer with no children. And we carved up what we learned about these segments and asked ourselves if we were reaching them with the right messages. And we also asked ourselves about the tone we used to speak with them. Was it too formal? Were we too stilted? We looked at every customer touch point where our brand had the ability to wield influence.

Here's an example: One insight we gained from the African-American community is that many have one job that's 9-to-5 and another that's 5-to-9. They have that entrepreneurial spirit. So with respect to that 5-to-9 job, we asked how Verizon could participate - and the answer, of course, was through broadband. We found a woman who offered translation services, a graphic artist who could send out revisions very quickly, and a photographer who offered stock photography. We built a targeted campaign called "Realize" specifically for the African-American market - because it was about using broadband to realize their ambitions and dreams. We used real people with real ambitions.

S+B: Are the traditional advertising agencies keeping up with all these changes?
Devard: They're evolving too slowly. They are holding on to the past and trying to rationalize it. They need to partner more with the interactive agencies and come up with total solutions - but that's also true for most of their clients. Often, the above-the-line agency comes in with a new campaign. At the very end of the presentation it says, "Okay, here's what's left for us to do online." That campaign probably could be 100 percent online, but most major agencies quash the idea because it's not where their revenues come from. They act as gatekeepers, and they want the interactive agency to play nice. I'd like to see interactive agencies flex their muscles more and get stronger in discussing brand positioning and messaging - instead of sticking to how they can put a campaign online.

S+B: How can a CMO determine if interactive techniques are working?
Devard: The metrics on interactive are astounding. I love them.

You can get a quick response on what the campaign was doing, who was doing it, and why. At Verizon, we were able to measure not only how many people came to our various micro-sites and tabs but where they went when they left our sites.

Also, interactive media are probably the best places for us to be creative, to test, to take risks, and to do things that haven't been done before. You can do a lot of personalization, for instance, with streaming data. I used to worry if that exchange was too much like Big Brother, but people wanted personalization. It really came down to one-on-one marketing, which is what you can deliver online.

S+B: What vital signs does a chief marketing officer need to look at these days?
Devard: Whatever metrics the CEO looks at, because marketing has to demonstrate that it's having an impact. It doesn't make sense to worry about Ad-Brand Tracker if your CEO doesn't care about it. I mean, pay attention to it, but if the CEO says, "This is the revenue and net income we need, and here's a breakout of the units we need to sell," then you have to show how you are driving that.

At Verizon, we moved away from paying for Web site clicks; we paid our online service providers based on actual sales. But we also looked at the number of phone calls generated and the conversion rate. We looked at whether our advertising conveyed enough information so that the telephone rep didn't have to explain 100 things that could have been explained through advertising. And we looked at whether the people calling us were the right customers. We were always looking for our campaigns' cause and effect, their return on investment.

We also applied hard metrics to our sponsorships. People came to us and said, "There are going to be a million people at this event, and you can hang your sign over there." We made them tell us how we were going to generate sales, and we looked for an ROI of about four to one - because we're all living in a world of aggressive goals and limited dollars.

At the same time, as we encountered new technologies and new audience segments, we couldn't always wait for the metrics to tell us what to do. That's why judgment and right-brain skills are back in style. We had to be a little patient and spend enough to test out new channels and mediums.

S+B: You mentioned that marketers have to prove their value and be accountable for what they spend. Does that make for an adversarial relationship with the finance group?
Devard: My marketing teams look at finance people as our brothers and sisters. We give them as much information as we can because we want to show them that the work we're doing has value and that we were being prudent with the dollars we spent. When something isn't working, we want to demonstrate that we're going to fix it, and we try to educate finance about our stress points. Ideally, when someone challenges a line item in my budget, I want them to say, "We already know what that's about."

S+B: Your career has taken you from strongly branded consumer products companies (like Pillsbury and Revlon) to younger service brands (like Citigroup and Verizon). What lessons did you carry with you?
Devard: Every company on this planet has a desire to create demand for its product. And that's what marketers do. And, oh, by the way, every company has at least 100 competitors offering the same things, so you have to figure out how to differentiate yourself and make money at it.

I spent 11 years at Pillsbury learning the discipline of marketing - the hard-core fundamentals of consumer product brand management - but the variables change. We used to talk a lot about the lifetime value of a customer, but no one has that luxury anymore. It's presumptuous to think you're going to have a customer for life. My guiding principle has always been keeping the customer central to what I do. That hasn't changed, but I'm more willing to try different things now, more willing to take risks. Maybe it's age rather than experience, but I've learned to tell people that I don't have all the answers. I'm always pushing people to speak up about their ideas, to bring them to the table and challenge us because I've learned that sometimes people are self-editing. I tell them, "Bring me something that we should have done, and then let's ask ourselves why we didn't do it!" As a result, I get more ideas that can be pushed further.

S+B: You've talked a great deal about the changing environment for marketers. What qualities and new skill sets do you look for in young professionals?
Devard: I wanted to watch the news one evening, and my son said, "Why don't you just TiVo it or go online?" And I'll never forget this: He told me that he doesn't e-mail anymore. He IMs everyone instead; e-mail is like snail-mail to him. Young people see the world differently, so the marketing skills that are different now involve understanding how people consume information and how they are influenced. But the fundamental skills in marketing are still the same. You have to be quantitative. You can't be just a creative, idea a-minute person with no ability to make numbers speak. You still need the ability to sort through 100 different things and find five that will make a difference. And you still need that insatiable appetite for understanding what customers want.

S+B: Is that appetite something people are born with?
Devard: It's really about listening, and you can be trained to do it. A consultant recently told me one of the most profound things I'd ever heard: The clues to the future are here today, but you have to decipher them. Years ago, if you'd thought about someone walking around with a boom box on his shoulder, you might have seen there was a need for an iPod. I try to give younger people a critical eye with which to decipher the future using clues that are here today.

S+B: During your tenure at Verizon, the company built brands for goods and services that were not only new, but still in the process of being born. Many CMOs are likely to face that challenge in the future. What advice would you give them?
Devard: First, if a brand is new to the company, then the CMO is set up to be a hero. There are all sorts of tools and techniques that will allow the marketing department to connect the dots between a strong brand and strong performance. The thing CMOs need to understand is what their brand stands for. They need the metrics to understand what the brand should be and what will take it there.

And, very importantly, they need to keep asking whether the brand is about them or about their customers. Whenever I see creative advertising work that's about us, I say, "We're breathing our own exhaust here. This should be about our customers!" Finally, I'd suggest that marketers use their role to get as close to the customer as possible, so that they learn to marry their customers' insights with their companies' capabilities to provide integrated solutions.


"Jerri DeVard: Trust and Adaptability." Jay Kumar; Reginald Van Lee; and Barbara Bacci Mirque. In "CMO Thought Leaders: The Rise of the Strategic Marketer. A Strategy + Business Reader." Edited by Geoffrey Precourt. Booz Allen Hamilton, 2007.