SAP CMO Alicia Tillman Reflects on the Past and Future of Purpose

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Looking back on 2018, SAP Chief Marketing Officer Alicia Tillman reflects on the revamped brand narrative.

Not long after starting her job as chief marketing officer of SAP last year, Alicia Tillman realized something was missing. While there were many marketing campaigns around the world promoting the company’s many products, none of them, it seemed to her, were rooted in something deeper — a single unifying message of what SAP stands for.

It was a significant realization. Without a narrative that’s representative of who you are as a company, crafted around the elements binding both customers and employees, it’s hard to consistently tell a story in a way that resonates authentically.

The realization led to a number of conversations with members of the wider SAP community. From CEO Bill McDermott to customer success teams to software engineers, Tillman was determined to craft a narrative built upon SAP’s 46-year-old mission of making the world run better and improving people’s lives.

She understood that in order to win customers in today’s highly competitive environment, SAP needed to have a strong story, based on purpose, that was also reflective of the experiences of those who bring that mission to life if it had any chance of succeeding. Those conversations led eventually to the relaunch of SAP’s purpose-led brand narrative and Best Run campaign, which has formed the backdrop for everything SAP has done this year.

As it nears its first anniversary, it seemed a good time to check in with Tillman on the revamped brand narrative. I wanted to better understand how it’s been received, and how it will evolve this year and beyond.

Q: I wonder if you can walk me through at a high level what the rationale and thinking behind the purpose campaign was at the beginning?

A: Ever since I joined SAP, I’ve been inspired by what an amazing story we have as a brand. We’re a company that has always measured success through what our customers can achieve, how they’re able to innovate and tackle societal, economic, and environmental problems. It’s been ingrained in our DNA from the beginning.

When I took on the role of CMO of SAP, I saw an opportunity to bring that mission back into the spotlight and use it as the basis for how we craft our message on a global scale. I don’t like thinking about it in terms of “creating something out of nothing” – that simply isn’t the case. This is who we have always been, which is why I think it has resonated so well with our customers and employees. They’re able to connect with it so easily because they see themselves and their own experiences within that message, regardless of where within the organization it may come from.

A year later, how far do you think we’ve come as a company with purpose and what do you think it says about where we’re going?

As I mentioned, the relationship between SAP and purpose isn’t anything new. If it was, the rollout might have felt inauthentic or disingenuous. But I’m immensely proud of the reaction it has earned from our community of employees, customers, and partners. Part of what makes SAP special is the buy-in our employees have in innovating for our customers. They have a direct hand in bringing to life real and meaningful change in our world, and for us as a brand to put that front and center is a validation of their efforts and the efforts of our customers.

That mindset of customer centricity is a really important guide for us as we start to think about the future. The Best Run campaign of this year was built around customer showcases – they’re the stars, and always will be. I think you’ll continue to see a deep commitment across all of SAP to continue to highlight the actionable ways that customers are making a difference.

Do you have a favorite?

I really like the example of Hakusan Corp. It’s a company based in Tokyo that is using SAP S/4HANA to monitor the integrity of buildings in earthquake zones. Tokyo experiences about 1,500 earthquakes per year, which is hard to believe because we only see news coverage of the big ones. And there’s a need not only to protect the structural integrity of buildings, which is obviously a big factor in saving lives, but also address the breakdown of the infrastructure. The technology is embedded inside a building and monitors how well it withstands each earthquake and delivers data on whether emergency authorities should be alerted, while tracking the wear-and-tear.

What do you say to that observation that purpose is certainly nice to have, but it doesn’t necessarily help SAP sell software?

I appreciate that feedback and yes, I’ve heard that as well. Are you familiar with our ‘ERP’ story? In this case, referring to Elephants, Rhinos and People. Sure, many people say that it’s nice we can help save elephants and rhinos around the world, but that doesn’t directly help our lines of business. But we live in a world where, increasingly, people make buying decisions based on how companies use their platforms to affect real change. At the point-of-sale, if you have a choice between buying something from a company that gives back to the world in some way versus one that doesn’t, the likelihood is significantly higher that potential customers will look to invest with those companies that are giving back.

That brings us to 2019. Where does this campaign go in the coming year and beyond?

If you think about 2018 at SAP, there were two major initiatives that drove our conversation. One, of course, was our purpose-led brand narrative.  Then, a few months later, came our focus on the Intelligent Enterprise. Almost immediately I was fielding questions about the difference between the two. Had we given up on purpose already? Where was the intersection?

Good news: They aren’t mutually exclusive! In fact, the two complement each other very well. The brand narrative works so well because it’s based on the foundation of who we are as a company, and that will simply never change. We will always be committed to our role in helping to make a world a better place.

That said, the needs of our customers are always evolving. The story of the Intelligent Enterprise reflects the very real challenges and opportunities that brands face today. We, as a company, deliver the best applications with the most modern technology across the most dynamic data platforms – a true partner to businesses navigating the intelligent era. The former informs the latter, so we can create best-run companies that can help enable the change the world needs. That is the story of SAP, through 2019 and the years to come.

The above conversation was edited for brevity.

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