Can one question change your life? This certainly was the case for Gina McDuffie. In our podcast recording, Gina tells how when she was contemplating going to law school, her father asked her to give him three good reasons why. Turns out, she couldn’t come up with one and instead headed to Paris with $500 in her pocket and a willingness to try her hand at waitressing, bartending and even journalism. A year later, she returned from the “School of Hard Knocks,” with a thorough understanding of who she was and her personal passion — “I love to build.” This love of building drove her career choices, including her most recent move to VER, at which she presided over a major rebranding.
Brought in by new owners, Gina’s mission was to help transform marketing from a backstage afterthought to revenue-driving star. Easier said than done especially with 1600 employees all used to doing business in a way that had worked for them for 30 years. Recognizing the essential role employees play in any rebranding effort, Gina didn’t try to do the rebuilding alone and instead enlisted a core set of influencers. This choice and more makes the interview below well worth your time and will make it easy for you to understand why The CMO Club honored Gina with their Rising Star award late last year.
Drew: Tell me about VER.
Gina: We are the amazing company that you’ve never heard of, but you have experienced. We provide production equipment and solutions to primarily entertainment industry and events industries. So any event you go to or pretty much anything you see on TV from the Super Bowl halftime show to the Emmys, the Grammys, the Oscars, major events around the country, VER is a part of it. So pretty much any event you go to, we are behind the scenes either providing the production equipment, working the equipment or coming up with a creative solution to make things happen that have never happened before.
Drew: Does the name VER stands for something?
Gina: Before I arrived, it stood for Video Equipment Rentals. VER started out more than 30 years ago renting video equipment solely. And then it just grew and grew and grew to now we provide lighting, audio, video, camera, LED, rigging, media servers, really all the production equipment you can imagine to major projects on six continents and we have 34 offices with 1,600 employees. It really has grown since its beginning and it was part of my job when I came in was to do a major rebrand.
Drew: You arrived at VER relatively recently. Was it an opportunity for a builder?
Gina: It’s good that I’m Gina the Builder because the company was 30 years old when I came in and there had been no marketing. The previous owner focused on customer relationships which served the company well. He told everybody, ‘go out there and make friends and if they want something and we don’t have it, buy it.’ So that was the marketing of the company. When I arrived, it had been just purchased by a private equity firm and there was no marketing infrastructure, no CRM program, no technology, not even an employee email list or a press list. There was nothing.
Drew: Wow! So where did you start?
Gina: So my job as CMO, first and foremost, was to work with the CEO on understanding and crafting a strategy. This certainly wasn’t about a revised logo or just changing colors. This was really figuring out the nuts and bolts in the strategy of the company, who we are, what we stand for, what services we offer and even what product categories are we in. Then it was dealing with all the tactical things that had never been done before, whether it’s PR, creating a whole new website, creating a digital environment, internal communication, lead generation and events. Essentially everything you can think of and it was starting from scratch.
Drew: Talk to me about the rebranding process.
Gina: Well there was one very easy thing about the rebrand and one very difficult thing about the rebrand. The very easy thing was customer and employee research. Everybody had very similar feedback regarding the company’s amazing culture, and that VER people will do anything for their clients. They are known for going way above and beyond, doing crazy stuff to get that one little piece that needs to be at the event and making sure the event is spectacular. And we are talking huge. We just did the Coachella Music Festival with 260 or more enormous screens. We’ve got guys hanging from the back to make sure that not one thing is out of place! So it was easy for me to understand the essence of the brand and the culture.
Drew: Okay, what was the difficult part?
Gina: The difficult thing was that we had 1,600 employees who didn’t understand that the company needed to change. What makes VER so special is the extremely talented and passionate people there. Many were skeptical of me coming in off the street saying VER needed to change. It was a really difficult time for me personally and professionally because I was trying to effect massive change that nobody thought was needed, other than the CEO and the private equity company.
Drew: So what were some of the key things that you did that enabled employees to get onboard?
Gina: Communication! A lot of it was talking with a smaller group of people who identified as influencers about why the change was necessary and to assure them that it was going to be okay and then to ask them to spread the word. It couldn’t come from me because people didn’t know me. I didn’t have credibility. They didn’t trust me. So I needed to work with people in the company who were trusted to get them to spread the word and to build trust.
Drew: I suspect part of the conversation was finding the bridge between the old and the new, right?
Gina: Absolutely. It was saying we are not trying to change what’s good, and there’s a lot that’s good. We are keeping what’s good and making it even better. We want our clients to understand the full scope of what we do. It entails talking about how our employee ensure our clients’ success and they are very weary of that because we’ve been behind the scenes for so long. Our entire purpose is to help our clients create extraordinary. It’s their vision and we make it happen.
It really was about assuring employees that the culture is not going to change. We are not going to change anything that’s good and there is so much that’s good. We are just going to make it even better. We are pulling on to the heritage and that’s why we didn’t change the name completely. We thought about dropping VER altogether and just coming up with a new name, but we couldn’t. We needed to hold on to the heritage because that’s really rich and strong one. And that went a long way with employees too.
Drew: How long did it take to get employees, and I’m sure it’s an ongoing process to buy into the changes that you help them realize were important?
Gina: I learned so much in this process. First and foremost, the anticipation of change is so much scarier than the change itself. Leading up to the major reveal of the brand, everybody was having a hard time with it and but then as soon as we changed it, as soon as they saw it in action and understood the reasoning behind it, they embraced it. It made me so happy and so relieved that on day two, people were wearing the hats, wearing the shirts, changing their e-mail signature, really getting behind it. And that to me was my measurement of success — how well the employees adopted the new brand.
Drew: Such a great reminder that rebranding starts internally. They have to buy in, right?
Gina: You bet. They are the brand.
Drew: How have you spread the word about the new brand externally?
Gina: We’ve done lots even just with our new website that hasn’t been done before and that was a big change for our customers. But more than anything, a rebranding can’t just be how it looks. There has to be a new user experience. So that’s taken a while to make sure that we are not just introducing the brand, but we are introducing a way of working with our customers that again doesn’t take away from what they had before because that’s working really well.
Drew: I’m guessing this transformation went beyond digital?
Gina: Indeed. We included a number face-to-face experiences and events. These can be time-consuming, but it’s really paid off for us to invite people into all of our facilities to spend time with our team and the equipment and just connect because we really are such a person-to-person business. I can’t stand that whole B2B designation. It’s all P2P for me. And this business really is person to person. We couldn’t just introduce the brand by saying here is our new logo, here are our new colors, that’s just not what it is. We needed to remind them of our love for our customers and we are doing that in person as much as possible.
Drew: Were there substantive changes to the way you actually did business that went along with this new brand?
Gina: A little bit after I arrived, we also hired a new COO, who came from Amazon and FedEx and we have been working to add more technology to our business and improving a lot of the processes, but not removing the personal touch. It’s been a major change on how we do business, always keeping the customer in the middle. At one point I was horrified because I realized that we weren’t answering a large percentage of our calls over the weekends. So I said, ‘everybody stop what you’re doing and let’s figure this out.’ Because it doesn’t matter what we are doing brand wise if we are not picking up the phone.
Drew: Such a key insight–no amount of branding can make up for a bad customer experience.
Gina: Right. My advice to marketers is that we need to get out of ‘marketing land’ and realize that customer experience, even if it’s not traditionally in our area, needs to be addressed for marketing to be effective. The brand can’t stand if the customer experience falls apart.
Drew: How are you measuring success from a customer standpoint?
Gina: Like I said, we are building from scratch. I still don’t even have a real CRM system in place; that’s still being built. The biggest metric I look at is what my CEO looks at and that’s profitable growth. The company has grown significantly year over year and that to me is a good enough indicator that what we are doing is working.