How to build an iconic brand around tasks the world thinks are boring - the Intuit way

By Ajitesh Shukla|3rd Jan 2018
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Over the festive season, I caught up with Lucas Watson, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing & Sales Officer at financial management software heavyweight Intuit. I was expecting a discussion on expansion plans, brand strategy, and how increasing financial compliance regulations are a challenge for small and medium-sized business owners.

What I got instead was an energizing discussion on how something like accounting, which many would call boring, actually helps small business owners across the world, the potential of India’s SMEs as the driver of our economy, and how Intuit has been helping crowd-funding for startups through its Backed by QuickBooks initiative. 

Here are excerpts from the conversation.

Shradha Sharma: Intuit operates out of different geographies and you oversee the global operations, including Australia, Canada, India, Brazil, UK, and France and ensure that all the markets are performing, growing and doing so consistently. How do you ensure, from a brand perspective, that there is a consistency and that the ethos of the company is maintained? And how do you ensure consistent performance and output? 

Lucas Watson: We think a lot about what we want to stand for or what our brand identity is. QuickBooks is here to serve small business owners and people who are self-employed. And within that (customer segment), we promise three benefits we think we can deliver from our brand and our product. 

First, we try to create more money for our customers, be it through helping them get all the taxes back or all the proper deductions with GST. A lot of times we’ll help people track invoices and get paid two times faster than they would otherwise get paid. A lot of our benefit areas are focused on how we help our customers create more money. 

The second area we focus on is how to reduce time (spent). And so, we think a lot about the fact that there are a lot of repeatable processes in accounting, bookkeeping, and finance. We try to think of how we can automate those with machines running Artificial Intelligence to reduce the amount of time, to reduce what I would call the “less fun” part of the work. This lets our partners and business owners spend time gathering insights and contemplating the strategic direction of our business. 

And then finally, we hope that both of those give our customers more confidence. In India in particular, a lot of what we’re focused on is helping small business owners gain more confidence so they understand how their business is working. Our product may show you things like reports, insights, cash flows, benchmarking how you’re doing related to similar businesses – that’s all designed to give the business owner confidence. 

We’re clear on who we want to target, what we want to promise from a benefit standpoint. We have what we call fixed, flexible and free models for how we go to market. So certain things are non-negotiable. Our brand is called QuickBooks...our main color is green. But do we sell directly to accountants or to small business owners? Do we focus on small self-employed people or on larger firms? Those are local market choices, so Nikhil (Rungta, MD and Country Manager, India) and the country managers get to make their choices on how to maximise the potential of the brand in their markets. 

So we’re pretty clear on what’s fixed, flexible and free. Then we have great local teams that often come from the markets and can design backward for what the market needs, to ensure that we have some success. 

SS: How do you ensure that people – entrepreneurs, business owners, CFOs and the accounting guys – know about these great products and their features? 

LW: So that’s the whole process of building a brand, right? And I say there are no boring brands; there are only tired brand managers. We actually think what we do is pretty meaningful. We are trying to harness

the power of many for the prosperity of one…and we try to do that through the power of data and technology. But at the end of the day, we hope to be a backbone that facilitates the engine of a small business economy. We absolutely need the CEOs and the founders of companies to be aware of what QuickBooks is, we need the CFOs to believe that we have value. Accountants, book keepers, and people who manage data day to day, they all have to know the brand.  

The good thing is it is a product and a category that you need, right? As a result, when people need it, they will go looking for it…With very little advertising for QuickBooks in India, we still have close to a million visitors a month that come to our website… either looking to log into our products or seeking to explore the product as a possible customer. 

We think a lot about trying to build the brand from the inside out. For those who come seeking us, we try to deliver on the promise because we know that we create a great brand experience. People who use our product will tell other people about it. Building from the inside out involves a great website experience, great online advertising, great social word of mouth; ultimately, we’ll add our large brand advertising. 

In the United States, during the tax season from January through April, we’re probably one of the 20 largest advertisers. So people do know who we are and what we stand for. 

We’re going to unveil a whole new advertising campaign for QuickBooks with a new agency after Christmas in the US. That will roll out globally ultimately and will be built around the idea that being an entrepreneur and starting your own business is hard, and people who have the courage to do so are actually the most resilient business leaders in the world, and QuickBooks will back those who don’t back down. That’s the essence of the idea. 

You’ll see that expand across geographies… It will first be in the US, then Canada, Australia, the UK, and then we’ll extend it to Brazil, France, and India. 

SSYou’ve been with P&G, Google, some of the most iconic brands. How do you see the branding space now because it's changing so much? 

LW: I think we’re seeing a barbell effect. There is an explosion of “super brands”. But the super brands of today might be different from what they were in the past. General Electric is not quite the brand today that it was 20-30 years ago. Apple and Google and Amazon, these technology brands have become incredibly powerful. So, on the top end there are fewer, bigger, more iconic brands then there have ever been, and they have more personal meaning and depth in people’s lives than maybe any brand ever had.  

On the flip side, thanks to e-commerce, thanks to direct-to-consumer, thanks to the power of technology, there’s been a reduction in the amount of cataloging required to start a business. A lot of tools like QuickBooks enable people to go into business for themselves. The infrastructure with technology is being laid down for the creation of millions of little brands. 

We obviously want to go towards being one of the most iconic brands in the world, but it’s also a great time to be in business for yourself and start your own small brand. The trap is when you subscale, are caught in the middle, don’t have enough depth and meaning, and are not big enough to scale like the largest ones. So you need to go either go big or small, you don’t want to be left in the middle. 

The second thing is (I don’t think this is like any massive “aha”, but) I think actions indeed matter more than words. So what we do matters more than what we say. One of the things we’ve started doing even before we start to talk about our new advertising campaign is through Kickstarter, which is a funding mechanism for small startups. But if you don’t raise enough money, your campaign ends, (and) you don’t get any of the money. So QuickBooks is helicoptering in at the last minute and putting down the last thousand, the last ten thousand dollars…We helped businesses that thought they weren’t gonna get their funding...their time was gonna run out. We’re showing up as the white knight in the last hour and putting them over the fund-raising goal.  

With the hashtag #BackingYou, the social and emotional resonance that it has is incredibly powerful. So before we even talk about what we do, we actually want to do it…having mission and purpose, and acting consistently with the values of your company and brand is probably more important than ever, both from attracting talent (point of view) and having authenticity with the customers you serve. 

Then the final factor is that I think people have as high an expectation as they ever had that their brands deliver on their promises. People don’t tolerate poor customer service, they don’t tolerate claims that are false, they don’t tolerate poor product experience and products that don’t work well. There’s such radical transparency today that customers are benefitting. Brands and products are better than they have ever been because the voice of the customer is stronger than it has ever been. So, I think those are some macro themes. What changed our brand building since we started…the fact that it’s a great time to be a brand builder, but it’s also probably the hardest job since then. 

SSSo you do find it a different reality with social media in the picture? Because today if I have any issue, I can raise it and if I have a great number of followers, it creates a nightmare for a brand. 

LW: Yeah...I think it's the best gift ever. One, I'd much rather know if I have unhappy customers. I can't delight something that I don't know. The second is...constant feedback; (it) keeps us innovating, keeps us fixing things that aren’t working so we can delight customers. So if you have something to hide or fundamentally don't run a strong business, then yes, social media would be a nightmare. If you have good values, good people, an organization that cares, work processes and structures that enable you to actually build operations at scale. 

Transparency is a gift, right? Because then the customer can read out greatness from average. I think it holds us to a higher bar. Who doesn't want to work on a team on a company that has good values and builds great products? 

SSYesterday I met a Stanford professor who’s writing a book on purpose. She's teaching purpose in the Stanford business MBA class (and) she says we're moving towards a purpose economy. (Everywhere) if you don't have a purpose, you're not going to last…How do you see that manifesting at Intuit?  

LW: We use the word mission more than purpose, but it’s the same intent. Our corporate mission is to power prosperity around the world. We work to serve consumers, small business owners and people who work for themselves. Our dream is to unlock their prosperity. I find it an incredibly inspiring mission and purpose to chase every day when I come to work. 

Prosperity is not just financial. Prosperity can manifest itself in just having the time to be able to take a vacation. Prosperity can manifest itself in the fact that your business is in control and you can sleep at night. Prosperity can be being able to be an employer that gives other people jobs. Prosperity can be the legacy that you hand a business down to a daughter or son. 

The definition of prosperity for our customers is more nuanced and holistic than just money. But that’s what makes it meaningful when we come to work every day and when we can translate it all the way down. So, for example, if you work for yourself, your time is your money, right? And so, if you spent or have to spend an hour categorising transactions of whether that was a business expense or a personal expense, that’s not only an hour, it’s mundane, it’s not very fulfilling, it's also an hour you didn't earn an income. So if I can make that hour go away…I can give you the opportunity to either go make $30 an hour (or whatever your rate is), or I've given you the gift of time, so you can work out, sleep, be with your family, have a meal, whatever it might be. For people who work for themselves, that's a gift. Just think of the Uber driver who has to drive for 12-14 hours a day to earn enough (of an) income to live. Imagine if you could give them an hour back. It’s actually pretty valuable. 

SS: And that’s the purpose? 

LW: That’s the purpose... 

SSWell, that’s amazing.

LW: You’re going to see us communicate that at the Intuit company level, for the first time in January. That’s what we’ve been working very hard to unlock, and you’ll see us manifest that for the first time in a big advertising campaign that will launch probably in the US and Canada and towards engineering talent in India. It shows why we come to work every day, what we stand for and what we mean. 

SS: When you reach the stage you are in, do you know how much of the thinking comes from your end and how much comes from the agencies you work with? 

LW: I think two things we’re clear on are what our strategy is, and what our objectives are. We also have to know who we are as a company and we have to be clear on who we are trying to serve in terms of our customers. So, our job is to have clarity of thought about what we are trying to achieve. If I can articulate who we serve, what’s the benefit we promise and why people should believe us, that is the essence of a good creative brief. The role of the agency is to create what we call creative transformation.  

Creative transformation is, very simply put, turning a boring benefit into a heart-and-mind-opening idea. So, if I said that QuickBooks, as an example, supports business owners who have the resilience to fight through tough times, you might fall asleep before I finish the sentence. But the second that I say QuickBooks backs those who don’t back down, it’s the exact same concept, but it is creatively articulated. And then you go, “Wow”! 

The creative transformation was the agency, the strategic intent was the brand. And done well, it’s truly a partnership. Each side knows their role, we respect the role that we each play, and it becomes a magical relationship. 

There are 50 million small business owners around the world that have some employees. At the end of the day, yes, there are business people that also happen to be just like you and me. They’re business people and they’re consumers. So, I don’t draw any line between B2B and B2C unless you’re suggesting that the marketing should be more boring or less effective. We’re all human beings and we want to be inspired, we want great creatives, we want a great promise. I don’t think B2B vs B2C. I just think of unlocking people’s desire to do business with our brand because we’ve created a meaningful promise. There are also 750 million people who work for themselves. Are they business people or are they consumers? An Uber driver is both; s/he has a business, s/he also happens to just be a person. 

Our job is to communicate effectively to them because whether they see themselves as a business person or a consumer, they are still the same human being, same heart, same brain. 

SS:  Amazing! And the last question. What is driving you here in your role? What’s the big thing and what is your one big stress…and you’ll have to be honest.

LW: Of course, I have plenty of stress, we all do.

SS: And what’s the one big amazing thing about being here?

LW: On the happy and positive, you know what’s so amazing about working the end of the day, we have clarity of our mission and purpose, we have an incredible, talented team, and we have a chance to actually create a meaningful impact with the customers we serve.  

I had a boss early on in my career say to me: “You might only get two or three chances in your career to do work that’s truly meaningful and impactful. It might go (on) for two, five or seven years, but when you get on one of those teams and you see that you have a chance to really make a difference, savour it because in the course of a 30- or 40-year career, you might just get two or three windows of time when that happens.” 

I feel like I have joined a team where that opportunity exists. We have the shift to the cloud, we have the rise of small business powering the world’s economy. We have the power of technology, AI, and Machine Learning. We’ve incredibly talented employees. We have a very profitable business that a lot of great Intuit employees have built before us, they have given us the freedom to be able to innovate and create the next great things for the world, and we live in the centres of some of the best technology places on the planet (Bangalore and Silicon Valley). We’ve been given a gift. And that makes it super fun to come to work every day. That’s what keeps me excited all the time. 

From a stress standpoint, we have 8,000 employees that want to do great work. As a senior leader in the company, the challenge is to try to create the conditions, organizational structures, roles and responsibilities, clarity of strategic intent, and the freedom to innovate that allows our teams to do the best work of their lives.

I wake up every morning going…is Nikhil excited to come to work today, did I set him up for success…We’re all on our own leadership journeys and we’re all learning. This is the biggest job that I’ve ever done and I am sure I don’t do it well every day. Some of the magic is that we all go through these learning journeys, but Brad, Sasan and the leaders of the company, they really do feel a tremendous responsibility and a passion to try to enable our teams to do the best work of their lives. So, it’s good, it’s fun.

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