Brands, whether big or small, don't just pop into existence, fully formed. The story of your brand and how you tell it is essential. But brands can't just be big faceless monoliths anymore, they have to be built around people. Our guest, Erin McLean, CMO at eSentire, is here to share why and how you should put people at the heart of your brand story.


Erin's background and role as a CMO

It's a great subject we're going to be speaking about today. It's all about brand stories, particularly the people behind brand stories. Because when a lot of people think about brands, they think about the logo, they think about a tagline. But really, it's about people as well. It's an important part of it.

But before we get into that, let's talk about you for a second, Erin, let's get into your background and what your role as a CMO is like at the moment.

Yeah, definitely, I come from an interesting background, my background's in team sport, I grew up playing softball competitively, was always part of a team environment. And when it came time to pursue a career, I chose business and marketing in particular.

But I did pursue a specialization in human resources as well. I wanted to keep that people side really prominent. And I think as we chat today, we'll probably talk a lot about people so it'll make sense.

And when I pursued my career, I started out in telecommunications, always in an industry that was evolving and changing and tech-focused. I kind of ran the gamut of marketing roles within the telecom space. I'm based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and worked for one of the largest carriers here, Bell Canada.

The typical things you do as a marketing coordinator, I was an install the base marketing specialist, sending text messages and emails, promoted add on features, tried to grow our average revenue per user, and had a unique chance to work on some really great brand properties as part of the Bell Media portfolio.

Eventually transitioned to working in sport, my background as an athlete drew me back into the sports world, and I had the opportunity to work with the Canadian Olympic Committee for just under two years, while we prepared for the Vancouver Olympic Games, back in 2010, which was really exciting.

And then I got back into tech, I joined Herjavec Group, which is a global managed security services firm, and led their marketing efforts over the course of about seven years, evolving our brand as we went from being a Canadian only MSSP company to a global presence, and scaling our services along with that.

And there was a really unique brand story to tell there, because our founder and CEO Robert Herjavec, had such a personality and presence, from being a dynamic entrepreneur, and being known for being on television with Shark Tank.

Just recently, about five months ago, I transitioned over to eSentire, we are a global managed detection and response provider, supporting 1000 organizations across 70 countries worldwide. And a key reason why I joined eSentire was because of the opportunity to tell that brand story.

We have such a strong reputation in the space for disrupting threats, preventing our customers from being impacted from zero-day attacks, just really doing good technical work. But the brand story was lacking. And so as we chat today, I know it's going to come up but really showcasing the people behind the service and the why is incredibly important.

As a CMO that's what gets me excited, you want to try and sink your teeth into some meaty projects and get involved and really make a difference in a business. And that's what drew me to this opportunity here at eSentire.

The importance of brand stories

So let's go right to the basics, shall we? Why are brand stories so important? Why is it important to have a story behind a brand and not just have a really cool logo and a really cool product, you've got to have a story now?

Well, it's funny, there was always a reason. And I'll say the reason prior to the new world that we all live in would have been connection.

Understanding, connection, awareness, engagement, and all those key buzzwords that help you move through a funnel, and make you understand that you are resonating with your target audience, that you have perspective, and that you are helping move through a funnel of conversion, or I should say evaluation, conversion, and then ideally a repeat purchase of whatever that looks like.

In order to do that, you have to build some affinity, you have to build stickiness, you have to build reputation and credibility. And that's all part of your brand. It's not just a logo, as you mentioned right off the top.

But there are so many components of an aesthetic and an overall brand development that support those metrics, those stickinesses, all that goodness if I can say that. And so I would say that is incredibly important and you do it a number of different ways.

But now even more so when so many of us are still working from home, when we are not connected in the same office with our peers and our colleagues, having something that you can unite your entire team around, a mission, a vision, and having your brand be a reflection of that out into the market but also internally has never been more important.

And so this is at the center, we kind of had a rally cry, we were going "We need to get everyone on the same page, truly understanding who we are, what we do, and why we're so great".

Because it was also an element of wanting to make sure that our customers felt validated in their choice of choosing us as their trusted partner. It was an effort of making sure that our team members could really understand why they were still here.

Why are they working here? What are they getting out of it? And why are they proud to do that? I think a brand should be able to do that on both sides of the house, on the customer side and internally, for your existing employees.

It's interesting you talk about both the internal and the external benefits of it because when we think about the brand, we do think of it as being this external projecting thing, but it works internally as well. Your brand messaging and  positioning can have a big effect on how your employees act and behave and respond day to day to challenges.

Completely. And I think it can run the negative gamut of detracting from good work if it's not exciting, it's not engaging.

But I fundamentally believe that your team is your greatest brand ambassadors, they have to be proud, they have to be out in the market positioning, whether it's on social media, whether it's the clothes they wear, whether it's just in their interactions with customers. And it's your role as a Chief Marketing Officer to make sure that people understand the messages and the why.

And we've gone through a transition at eSentire where we are really trying to be more proud, more bold, more aggressive in terms of our positioning to really reconfirm for the market and for our customers why us. It's funny, being Canadian, I can make this joke, I always say, "We are almost apologetically Canadian".

It's kind of like we don't want to be so strong in who we are and what we do but we have to be. We are in such a competitive space in cybersecurity, and our technology, our platform, our technical experts are too good that we would be doing them a disservice if we didn't stake that.

And so as we've evolved and looked at our messaging and looked at our differentiators, we came up very bold, talking about being the authority in managed detection and response. It's a small word, but that word held a lot of weight internally, when people started to hear it, you could just see their shoulders go back on Zoom, not in person but on zoom. You could see them puff up a little bit like, "You know what, yeah, we really are".

And that is refreshing, and a brand I feel should be able to lift you up, and it should make you proud. That's important from an internal perspective, when you're trying to build ambassadorship and trying to amplify what you do, you have to have your own team buy-in.

Having that buy-in from the team, having that team being part of telling the brand story also means that... you see a lot of companies now building their branding around the employees, making the employees an integral part of it, rather than it just being the brand story of 'the founders did something back in the 19th century'.

Now, it's a real living story that involves people who are actually part of the company now, is that something you're trying to do?

We're actually trying to do a little bit of both. And it's a tricky balance because we're a 20-year-old business, which in managed detection response kind of makes you a dinosaur.

And I don't say that to say that we're dinosaurs, we're certainly on the cutting edge of what we do but we've been doing iterations of this for a long time. And that's great because it means that we have a storied history and a proven track record of success and we continue to evolve and innovate.

But there's a balance of telling an origin story and being really proud of your truthfully humble and entrepreneurial beginnings, balancing that with we have a phenomenal industry-leading platform, we are private equity-backed, we are scaling on a global scale. And how you balance those two, almost personas, is important.

Because you want to give that nod always to your roots and in our case, our origins in financial services and the hedge fund space and in private equity space. But you want to say we're operating globally, we've built an incredible business that is capable of supporting 1000s of customers and making a real difference each and every day. So you've kind of got to dance that line a little bit honestly.

And one of the things that are so important as you really look at the why from a service perspective, is it's very easy to just have a bunch of bullets and a bunch of statements being like "Our platform's the best, we do this, we ingest this many signals every day, we disrupt attackers all the time". It's true.

But having individuals on the team showcasing their abilities, telling their stories, and really giving a face to what we do every day is so so important. So a huge focus of ours is elevating our internal team, talking about their promotions, their certifications, talking about the successes that they've had on behalf of our customers.

And then on the flip side, getting our customers to talk about us. It's a delicate balance, we're in a space where information is extremely confidential, as it should be, cyber-attacks are not something you want to be prominently known for, certainly.

But I think that there is that really delicate balance about partnership, about creating a sense of proactive defense, and about being proud of who you're partnered with and working with.

And so we try to bring people into it from an internal perspective to tell their own success stories but also on the customer side, to get them to also share their experiences with us. That's something we're just starting. It's important as we grow our brand that that becomes a kind of a pillar for us to tell those personal stories.

The importance of human connection in branding

You mentioned putting a face on what you do, it's something that we're seeing more and more, people wanting more of a personal connection with brands, whether it's a B2C or B2B. People need that personal connection.

What's caused that? Why do people need that personal connection with brands now? Is there a moment that caused it or is it just something that's naturally progressed into it?

That's such a good question. I honestly think it's just a little bit about what we expect as an overall society today. Like if you think of how we engage on Twitter, where we have the opportunity to "I'll just be part of a global conversation".

At any moment of the day, you can engage, you can find out what people's perspective is, and you can take part in that and share yours if you choose to. Brands are now kind of intermingling, the B2C/B2C space and we expect more of companies, we expect a level of perspective, we expect a level of just basic human kindness, and we're not as willing to accept indifference.

I'll say it like this, we also expect our brands to opt-in, I think we expect companies that we want to engage with as a consumer base, even if it's in a B2B space, you need a little more, you need to know what's behind it, the why.

Because I'll speak from a cyber perspective, it's such a busy market, there's so much business happening, there's so much M&A activity happening, and there are so many options that it truly is a privilege when a customer chooses you. And so you really need to explain who, what, where, why, how. And it fundamentally, at the end of the day, there's a lot of trust that is coming into a service provider relationship.

And so the people are critical to that because you need to know who is behind protecting your business if we're acting as a true extension of your team. And it's funny because that I would say, comes in a little bit closer at the end of the funnel. Because you're actually engaged and you're talking to a customer, that's a hard message to get necessarily at the top.

But you want to create a certain level of those people's stories as well when you're in the awareness phase. And that typically comes from thought leadership, sharing perspectives, making sure that you're informing the greater industry, and showing collaboration. I think that's really, really important.

And what we're talking about here is interesting because it's something we talk about internally, there's a balance of how much do you just need to get the service right and be excellent at what you do?

Versus how much do you need to tell your story? Where are you going to spend your dollars? Where are you going to prioritize your people's time? Where are you going to elevate yourself in the market? And that's a tricky balance but I think every brand comes to a point where they need to showcase how good they are or their why.

It's a spectrum. It can't just be about one or the other. And that's where you're noticing eSentire's kind of made that pivot a little bit. We focused so so much, rightfully so on developing service, developing technology and now we're saying let's be proud of it, and talk about who we are, what we do, and how great our people are.

How did you go about deciding that's what needs to be done? Was it an internal meeting? Was that something that you did an assessment of?

It happens over time. I will say at eSentire we're really focused on getting customer feedback and on continuously improving. So we have a customer advisory board that meets on a quarterly basis and one of the key points of feedback from that board was to make it easier for me to sell eSentire internally.

Showcase yourselves, get on the right list, help my board or my CEO understand why I chose you and why I made a good decision. And so hearing that from some of our top customers I think made everyone internally realize we've got to pivot our focus a little bit to make sure that who we are, and what we do is simple, that it's digestible. And that's also key.

We've had an incredible marketing organization and product marketing organization for a really, really long time. But it was providing really technical content. And so sometimes for the executive-level audience that needed to just understand the crux of who we are and what we do, again, it was going over their heads a little bit.

And so we have to balance that and make sure that we're providing really digestible information and owning our place on what are some of those key industry themes and topics that we can be a part of, without making a hard sell?

How can we contribute to what's going on in the cybersecurity landscape, and provide insight, provide information, provide original research, and not necessarily go "now come buy MDR from us". That's not what this is all about from a pure ram perspective. And we've done that in a few different ways.

Coming back to stories, we have a Threat Response Unit, we call the TRU team and they are doing original research, they're building content for our customers every day, they are doing proactive threat hunts. And this is a team that we are working closely with from a marketing perspective.

So you take your most creative people, and you take your most technical people, you marry them together, and you're able to get incredible research, original reports, and sound bites from a media perspective that are so so valuable because we can share with the press what we're seeing, and the kinds of attacks that we're seeing, the ransomware gangs that were stopping, and give true insight to what's really going on on the dark web.

That's incredible and it also showcases the power of our team, it showcases the type of work we do on behalf of customers and it's a huge differentiator for eSentire overall. So to be able to tell that story is a way that we can bring the service, the technology, and a unique brand position to the market that gets our customers excited.

Because when you're featured on CNN talking about cybersecurity and ransomware when you're featured in The Wall Street Journal, that's an easy thing for a customer to go to their boss and say, "See, I told you these guys were good". And you want to give them those opportunities as much as you can.

Finding that balance is going to be tricky, though. A few CMOs from tech companies have spoken to us on CMO Convo. And one of the things they find, especially when they're coming into a new role at a tech company, is how feature-driven a lot of the marketing is, how much the devs want to see their features and boast about them.

Not to throw anyone under the bus or anything like that, but was there any resistance internally when you were talking about this new approach when you were trying to find that new balance?

No, you know what, and I think because at eSentire we're a very feature-rich company, I share that and I love that about the business, I would say one of the key priorities and areas that marketing could support in is communicating those features and explaining the value adds that were coming out of all of the service enhancements and platform enhancements.

So there's certainly a role to play in showcasing the why. And I think that's always whenever you get so deep into product, it needs to pivot from what are we proud of, to why should a customer care? And what's in it for the customer?

That was an area of huge focus for us to be able to communicate very, very clearly to customers "This is what's coming, this is why you chose us, this is why you're going to stay with us, and this is what you need to do next as part of how we're continuing to protect your environment".

And so I think marketing has a huge role to play in that and that is not diminishing at all the brand presence and the brand messaging, it's an add on, it's something you have to do in addition,

Having that meaning behind it and that sort of value-added proposition, it's a lot easier to sell when there are people involved. If you're just some big monolith there, some big logo saying "We can help you" it doesn't come across as genuine unless there's an actual person involved, a person that you can connect with, a person you can actually form an emotional connection with.

How have you been trying to drive that message within your marketing?

Yeah, in a few different means. You have to give people an opportunity to connect and understand the people behind those messages. So we do a lot of webinar activity, we do a lot of blog posting, we do LinkedIn lives, and we're creating more and more video content. And in today's landscape, we're doing a lot of this on-demand so people have the opportunity to go back and watch and consume that content in their own time.

We're also trying to create experiences where we can answer customer questions. So doing things very transparently like having two roadmap sessions a year where we show, "Here's what's been completed, here's where we're headed as an organization, here are the services you need to know about". And that trails into a really robust customer success model.

So we have prioritized as a business, a new model that involves what we call a Cyber Risk Advisor. Yes, that can be a very marketing-oriented brand proposition, cyber risk advisor, it sounds great, it is clearly intuitive in terms of it's an individual who's there to reduce your risk.

But fundamentally, that's our job as your managed detection and response provider, we have to disrupt threats in your environment, make you safer, let you know what's going on, and reduce your risk. We have to show some kind of ROI to you in terms of your investment in your security posture. And so it's one example of how a marketing message can make its way all the way into the customer success model.

Because now our model is focused on reducing risk, it involves quarterly service reviews, it involves infrastructure reviews, it involves a risk score that we actively produce a report for customers on and help them navigate through how to reduce that risk score and improve their overall security.

It has to be consistent, it has to translate all the way down, it's one thing to hear the message at the top of that funnel, and then if it stops when you have engagement with our people, it's no longer effective.

Making sure that everyone that the customers do get the opportunity to engage with whether it's in a marketing event, a piece of collateral, or a video or whatever, or the actual day-to-day interaction - has to have a level of consistency. And that's been what was really easy to adopt, actually, from an eSentire perspective, because we were already doing so much of it, it was just about bringing those pieces together.

Was there a master document created to tell everyone how they're supposed to communicate with everything? Does everyone have a script telling them how to stay on message? Or is it about changing attitudes?

Well, one, it's never done and it's never easy. You do a lot of roadshows and a lot of presentations and a lot of team meeting involvement, you drop in and you talk to people and you make sure you're reiterating the same thing over and over again. We absolutely created a kind of master brand copy document and then each team works from that and looks at it and goes, how can I influence my scripting from a sales development perspective?

Or from a customer success perspective? What do we need to change? And trust me, it's never fun being the team that inherits a new CMO and goes, "Oh, great, now everything's going to be different, she's going to change the colors and the logo is going to be new".

You have so many things to evolve and change and there's a period of mess where half of the assets are done and the other half aren't. And it's in that moment you need people to stick with you. You need them to understand that the message and the direction and the overall positioning is going to be worth it.

We've been very fortunate, I think the team has really again rallied behind the position and the look and feel, they're excited about it. And we're seeing it resonate in the market with customers, which helps everybody. Our creative team is going "Oh gosh, there are more assets".

Are creative ever happy with the amount of work they have to do?

But they are loving the aesthetic, which is good. Here's the one thing I'll say, you can never overemphasize a brand message to your team. You need to hear it 10 times over and then you need to hear it on repeat. So it's consistent, it's about saying it over and over and over again. And realizing it's going to ebb and flow.

As much as you're saying it you've got to listen, you've got to hear what the team comes up with. And all of the propositions that we introduced as we started this new brand launch, being the authority in managed detection and response, showcasing that we do so much more than the market’s capability in response.

That definition came out of a brainstorm across our product marketing team and our chief evangelist Mark Sangster and we were chatting about we only are in response, we do that much more in terms of taking an incident to resolution, how can we showcase that? The R is more than just MDR, its response, its remediation.

I am not going to claim that so I'll say somebody else said but at the end of the day, it's about providing results. And we kind of went, that's what it is, it's MDR cubed, we do more than MDR, we deliver MDR cubed; response, remediation, and results.

And so telling the team that story and getting them involved and getting them excited that there's a tangible output from a brand message, you can see it, people use it because they actually believe in it. And so making sure those stories live on in the business is really important.

Encouraging your employees to become storytellers

Definitely, it's one of the overlooked parts of being a CMO: having a happy team, having a team that's happy to be creative, to be involved in the story, to tell the story. What steps can CMOs take to really encourage that amongst their workers, to get them happy to be telling the story? What were the big steps that you took?

I think first and foremost is continuously keeping people engaged, having them understand where it's coming from, and having them give feedback and iterate on the process. I also think that you don't know everything, especially if you're new, you don't know the history, you don't know what's been tried.

You really need to listen and you need to be open to different perspectives. For example, I had in one of my very first creative reviews with the team, where they were kind of introducing some of the concepts for the color palette, they had this super bright magenta, my gut reaction was no, what are you doing? We're cybersecurity, we are red, black, gray, dark blue, we are not magenta. It is not something that you would typically see in our space.

I kind of voiced a little bit, and then I stepped back and was like, give me the why, help me understand what this is going to do for you and what it opens up to you creatively. I was blown away at the perspective that the team had, what they were really hungry for.

The talent is there and I think the biggest thing you need to realize as CMO is it's not only up to you, you've got to build a team that complements you, you've got to build a team that is collaborative and creative.

But you've got to let them do their jobs and listen to them. Because I've been blessed with a super incredible group of people and we've made some great hires too. But the talent that was here was awesome and it's a credit to them that we've already been able to make as many strides as we have.

Because, as you said, having people engaged with the brand story gets you through the tough times. It's been a tough time for businesses everywhere, if people don't care about the brand story of the company they've worked for in the last year it would have been absolutely awful for them.

Especially working from home, being stuck away from co-workers who might have been helped them out through certain tough times. Without having that engagement, it's got to be really tough.

Yeah, and it's that element of we're talking about: the brand story, but it's also how you live the brand every day. What are the elements that are true to your culture, that are true to the business that you can replicate in the environment where you're not seeing each other every day? Did you have a weekly lunch?

Did you used to send packages to your team on their anniversaries? Whatever those fun surprise and delight moments are, this has been a long haul and you've had to find ways to engage with your team and with your customers really genuinely.

I think that those that have shown the capability of adapting are going to be the most successful in retaining their talent and continuing to grow overall.

And that's one of our key focuses is just making sure everybody's on the same page, they're understanding the direction, they're clearly communicated to, we've tried to be very, very transparent in results and performance wins and all that kind of stuff. At the end of the day, that has to be part of the brand.

And it's not just going to be a flash in the pandemic. It's going to continue, isn't it?

More and more people are going to be working from home, will be working remotely so having this driving brand story is going to be even more important moving forward, it's not just going to be something we've had to deal with in 2020. But it's going to be something that we're gonna have to continuously evolve and continuously reengage with.

Well, that's just it. We've all accepted a new way of doing business, a new way of interacting, a new way of connecting and I think it goes back to we also have different expectations of what is convenient, what is productive, and what do we expect from the brands we engage with?

There is still a difference in I would say B2B and B2C engagement from brands, I think that we do have different expectations of a service provider in the cybersecurity space than we do of where we buy our coffee every day, there's a difference, you expect different things.

But I think fundamentally, that's why even if a brand isn't going so far as to jump into a complete global ecosystem of conversation, they have a job to do for their employees. And they have a job to do internally for the people that work there, that support the business and we have to prioritize brand ambassadorship internally, no matter the environment.

Where to start building a brand story

One final thing, Erin, to wrap everything up, let's say a CMO is stepping into a completely new position. They never worked for the company before, they're not familiar with the brand. What are the best resources to start building a brand story around? Where should they go? Who should they speak to?

There's a couple of things I would recommend in that case, and I had some great advice from a leader I worked with at Bell who gave me a great book about the first 90 days of a new executive role. It has served me well many times.

It is about really understanding the strategic pillars of your role and keeping them in the back of your mind as you go in to start this new position. Because you're going to get overwhelmed, you're going to have two weeks of conversation, of meetings, of people telling you what they need from you. And that's all accurate, and you have to absorb that and you have to listen first.

But in the back of your mind, you've got to keep your pillars in your program. You were hired for a reason, you have the expertise, don't get lost in all of the craziness off the bat. But I will say starting with a sense of from a marketing perspective, starting with sales, understanding how they are going to market, what the customer is looking for, what the leadership team is needing, lacking, hungry for, or loving, is important.

I say that because there are things that you don't want to break, there are things that are working well that you can compliment, that you can continue to elevate. So don't just bust it all up. Sales is key, leadership from an executive perspective, whether it's a CEO, COO, Founder, whatever that role is - understanding the true vision.

And then I would say talking to customers, get yourself in front of a handful of customers, understand why they love the business, why they are a customer, what they're looking for, what avenue did they come into the business in? Was it online? Was it through a channel partner? Why?

If you start there, and then, of course, meet with your team, meet with some members of the greater leadership team, you'll get a very good sense of where the secret sauce is in the business, where those diamonds in the rough are, and where you have some challenges that you've got to address.

Once you're able to assess that situation and you can map it to some of your, ideally, marketing ops metrics and get a sense of what's really happening from a marketing performance standpoint, you'll be able to put a more robust plan together.

But those first two weeks should be conversation, sales, customers, executive leadership, and then your own team. A lot of listening.