The transitional age of early Industry 4.0, when it was safe for companies to stick to an analog model for business, is swiftly receding. This is especially true as COVID-19 spurs a global reality of remote work and unprecedented data collection. The marketing industry, in particular, faces pressure to remain agile for customer satisfaction and productivity.
But what are marketers to do when they find themselves in companies clinging to the old ways?
Nanae Obara, chief marketing officer at AXA General Insurance Co., Ltd. and winner of this year’s GLOBIS Alumni Award, has witnessed the growing need for digital tools to remain competitive and satisfy customers. Several years ago, she set her mind to transforming her company for digital marketing, UX, and CRM, as well as leading her team toward diversity and gender equality.
GLOBIS Insights interviewed her about her mission to digitalize and lead as a woman in management.
Let’s start with the basics. How did you get into a career in marketing?
I’ve been fascinated with the work of marketers since my university days. While working part time at a research firm, I got to observe how consumer insights transformed into product development. These were some national brands we were working with, and it was very exciting to learn that I could reach out to a wide public audience through products and services.
After graduating, I started my career as a marketing assistant in a cosmetics company, then became brand manager of Bufferin, one of the best-selling painkillers on the market. The experience launching new products inspired me to change my career to direct marketing in the insurance industry. There were many more attractive challenges in advertising, CRM, and digital marketing because there was so much more personal data at our fingertips.
How did you become interested in the digital aspect of business?
I started bumping into things—aspects of customer insights and the customer journey—that I wanted to quantify to enhance marketing efficiency. For example, how many times did our audience watch our TV commercials before coming to our website? Some customers gave our site a low satisfaction score—why? Was it possible to find these answers using digital analytics? The tools weren’t necessarily designed to address these questions, but I started to wonder if we could apply or combine them creatively.
As an example, an ad agency proposed we use a demand-side platform, or DSP, to expose online users to banners when they watch our TV commercials. DSPs are designed to increase exposure, connecting TV and digital. Building on that, I came up with an idea to quantify how many times viewers watched our commercial to trigger website visits. We then discovered that the competitive landscape affected certain regions differently. Thanks to this data, we could enhance our TV media buying, region by region.
After all, digital tools are just tools. It is up to marketers to determine how well to use them.
What were the biggest challenges convincing your colleagues or management to make this change?
My company relies almost entirely on a direct business model—most transactions are done by phone, postal mail, and (now) digital tools. There was little challenge shifting to digital on principle, but it can be difficult to justify ROI when replacing any existing system. Digital tools for analytics, especially, are difficult to quantify in terms of benefit against cost.
When I went to introduce special analytics tools for our website, I approached it from an HR perspective. There was a shortage of talent for website production at the time, so our website enhancement wasn’t agile enough to meet customer expectations. When I negotiated with my boss, I explained that we could solve this issue by investing in a new tool, as well as outsourcing some tasks to keep the burden off of our team. We tend to think of expense budgets and human resource budgets as separate, but it occurred to me that we could draw our own lines to classify company resources. And that investment turned out to be one of the reasons we achieved strong sales growth last year.
Now, I sometimes help other teams solve issues with digital tools. There are many good (and reasonably priced) options out there which are actually pretty easy to get approval for. Our customer support team had trouble interpreting customer complaints because they didn’t have online feedback in place. As you might expect, only very dissatisfied customers bother to complain by phone or email. But more common customer complains provide very important data. My team introduced a digital survey tool on the website for better flexibility gathering that data. Now the customer support team can embed survey questions, etc. right into their website.
Once digital tools prove helpful for problem solving with concrete data, penetration goes very smoothly.
Did you start out with a digital skillset, or did you have to train yourself along the way?
I had no skills in digital marketing at all until the middle of my career! But it was actually pretty easy to teach myself because there are so many good books, affordable training programs, and seminars. Digital marketing is not only for big enterprises, so there’s a real market for training.
Rather than acquiring the know-how, my challenges were at workplace. Specifically, how to communicate (especially with IT teams) in the same language. Logical thinking helped me understand and connect the dots.
You’ve also been involved in transforming your workplace for better diversity. Do you think diversity is mainly valuable for internal morale, or does it contribute to overall company success?
It is extremely difficult to acquire talent without diversity. Especially for such a complex and specialized industry, and for foreign firms in particular, we need to be bilingual. Regardless of gender, location, or nationality, there needs to be equal opportunity for promotion simply to sustain competence as a company. Embodying this approach, of course, also helps morale. Everyone understands that evaluations are fair.
A great company for women is also a great company for men. I’m proactive about encouraging the men on my team to take childcare leave. Many other companies look down on decisions like this for male employees, but that is not the case in my company. We understand that, in order to remain agile, those with strong knowledge and experience are too precious to let go over something as trivial as temporary leave. Some men on my team had to adjust to this, but once they understood that they really were free to make the choice, they relaxed and began to view work-life balance as a necessity for productivity.
How did your GLOBIS MBA impact your career?
One of the best things I gained through my MBA was practice in decision making. Not just different theoretical approaches for better decisions, but simulations to face my fears and make a choice. I got so much better at making decisions and averting risk thanks to the chance to try something and recover if things didn’t work out. In the real world of business, we often don’t get that chance.
I also used to think that issues in my workplace were unique to my company. But once I went through some of the case studies at GLOBIS, I saw that there are many common issues generated from the external environment, industry characteristics, or company growth stage. Meaning, there is great deal of general wisdom that can be applied to any company’s situation, no matter how unique that situation may seem from the inside. Learning this gave me confidence that the issues around me could be solved.