Q&A: New Corporate VP Aims to Help Make MSN More than the Sum of its Services

Jane Boulware, Corporate Vice President, MSN Global Marketing

REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 27, 2004 — Brands may well be the consumer shorthand of the 21st century. Once embraced by consumers, today’s most recognizable brands convey an experience that people know, trust and can relate to before they open the packaging, install the batteries or click on the Web site. Trusted brands provide consumers the confidence to throw a product in their cart without scrutinizing the fine print on the back of the box — or to try new products with little trepidation as long as they share the same brand.

Few people understand the power of brands as well as Jane Boulware, the newly appointed Microsoft corporate vice president for MSN Global Marketing. Boulware is widely recognized as a thought leader in consumer branding and marketing, with almost two decades of experience in award-winning brand building and management for some of the world’s most trusted and recognizable global brands, including Huggies, Scott and Kleenex.

Before joining Microsoft earlier this month, she worked for 17 years for Kimberly-Clark Corp. Most recently, as vice president of marketing services, Boulware headed Kimberly-Clark’s marketing research, advertising, promotion, interactive, packaging and design departments. She also led development of the company’s Brand Equity Management initiative, pioneering a comprehensive, consumer-centric approach to building brands that spanned the company and its products. This included the creation of Brand Builder, the first marketing technology system to integrate sales, finance, the supply chain and other functions influenced or led by marketing.

In addition to brand stewardship, Boulware will oversee MSN global marketing, advertising, public relations campaigns and consumer research. She also will lead the development of Microsoft’s overarching marketing strategy for Internet services in collaboration with marketing leaders in its Office, Windows and other groups.

PressPass met with Boulware to find out why brands have become increasingly important in today’s consumer world, how companies build trusted brands and how the strategies that have built strong brands for traditional products can be transferred to online services.

PressPass: Why has branding become such an important factor in the consumer success of products and services today?

Boulware: As a marketer, you must touch both the head and the heart of consumers. Branding allows businesses to do this — to connect with consumers who are increasingly busy and don’t have the time or inclination to embrace new brands every time they go to the store or make a purchase decision.

As a result, a product’s brand has become its most valuable asset. If consumers know, trust and believe in a brand — and a business makes it easy to choose the brand — consumers will pay a premium for it. They will know what they are getting and trust they’re getting a quality product before they even open the package.

PressPass: Critics might say brand building is more about image than substance. What role does brand building play in improving a company or its products?

Boulware: Brand building plays a huge role in improving a company and its products. It requires both creating a brand promise and then delivering with products that fulfill that promise for consumers. Companies need to deliver on that promise consistently and with excellence for all products that share that brand. If they do, they will win with consumers and their profit-and-loss statements will benefit. In fact, one recent study found that brands that are truly differentiated from those of competitors provide almost double the return on sales.

PressPass: Is branding more of a factor today than it was in the past?

Boulware: There has long been recognition of the value of branding. But in the 1980s and 1990s, cost cutting and consolidation were viewed as the fast routes to growth and profitability. Not surprisingly, these two business strategies only reinforced the importance of brands. These lessons from the past have taught us that companies can’t cost-cut their way to posterity. Most now realize that their growth — as well as their ability to extend their company into new product or service areas — is driven by the power of their brands.

PressPass: When should companies begin to consult consumers when building brands and creating new products?

Boulware: It starts and ends with consumers — the deep and meaningful insights you garner from consumers. What are their hopes, wants and fears and how can you translate that into a high ground, emotional benefit?

Then you need to translate consumer needs into product features, attributes and a value proposition that delivers. From a development perspective, you probably could go in a myriad of directions. But your brand promise provides a true north that helps you understand what features and benefits will most appeal to your target audience.

PressPass: You have built your reputation developing extremely recognizable brands. What was the attraction of moving to Microsoft to work on the MSN brand?

Boulware: I’m excited to join Microsoft and MSN because the online industry is dynamic, evolving and changing the way we live, work and connect with others. The fundamentals of marketing apply well to online services.

Microsoft already has incredible cachet in the marketplace. MSN can build on this cachet to create a strong brand that people recognize and trust to best meet their needs. A brand can simplify the purchase decision, and is all the more important in the online market, which, quite frankly, can be intimidating and challenging for many people.

PressPass: How is brand building different for online services as opposed to some of the products you’ve worked on?

Boulware: I’m most familiar with marketing things that are very tangible — things that people must vote on with their pocketbook every week. In the online environment, people are voting every day with their time, which is infinitely more valuable. As a result, the needs of the customers and how you meet those needs have to adapt and change.

But, at the end of the day, you are still asking customers to choose your offering over that of the competition. Your brand must help capture their heart and mind every time they make a buying decision — make them realize that what you have to offer is more valuable than similar offerings from competitors.

PressPass: How do large companies get to know their customers and their customers’ needs?

Boulware: There are all kinds of marketing research approaches and methodologies that can help businesses connect with customers. But the most important prerequisite is a willingness to ask.

It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t want to tell you what their hopes, wants and dreams are. The real challenge for many companies — especially very successful ones — is to stop thinking they already know what customers want. They need to listen and not inject their perspective into what they are hearing. If a company listens simply to validate its own points of view, it won’t break through.

It takes discipline to ask and be open to answers — whatever they might be. You have to be open to learning something you did not know. You need to be willing to be surprised.

PressPass: What are your impressions, as a newcomer to the online industry, of how well online companies embrace branding today? And how would you characterize the MSN brand?

Boulware: Any company that doesn’t want its product to become strictly a commodity — just another brand of white bread — needs to come up with a unique position in the marketplace. Their brand needs to define the experience the product offers. Too many online businesses focus on the delivery of features and products, not on the promise of the overall brand. They tend to emphasize the rational and not the emotional. Consumers are still very hungry for an online services brand that they understand and can relate to. We hope to be that brand.

When I think of MSN, I think of the power and convenience of its individual brands — Hotmail, Messenger and the other services. We want to take the value of these individual brands and combine them to create a larger, overarching value statement — to create a brand that is larger than the sum of its parts.

PressPass: Let’s jump ahead five years. What do you expect the average consumer’s image of MSN to be?

Boulware: I can’t tell you what MSN’s positioning will be. We need to listen to our target audience and then translate that into products and features.

But five years from now — or, hopefully, sooner — I hope our target audience has a razor sharp sense of what MSN stands for and delivers — not only in terms of its individual services — but as a larger brand. And, just as importantly, I hope our target audience identifies with and embraces the experience this brand delivers.

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