I had a brilliant conversation with Rah Mahtani, Head of Buyer Marketing for North America, Alibaba.com, in episode #67 of the How I Made It In Marketing podcast.
Listen now to hear Mahtani discuss creative brand positioning, data-informed marketing strategy, corporate social responsibility, and human-centric messaging.
The How I Made It In Marketing podcast is underwritten by MECLABS Institute, the parent organization of MarketingSherpa. Join us for an AI Guild session Wednesdays at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. Learn more at MECLABS.com/AI-Briefing
I use one word all smooshed together to describe the time I spend on the job – worklife.
I’m not talking about balance. I’m simply saying, ‘Yes we have a homelife. But we have a worklife, too.’ Every hour, every minute you spend working rolls up into that grand big, mysterious number of time you have on this planet.
Which means what we do at work matters. The decisions we make are part of who we are. And it’s why I love a lesson in the guest application for my this episode’s guest, “Find ways to live your company's values in everything you do.”
Rah Mahtani, Head of Buyer Marketing for North America, Alibaba.com, joined me to share the story behind that lesson, along with many more lesson-filled stories.
Alibaba.com serves buyers and suppliers from 190 countries and regions around the world.
Mahtani has managed marketing budgets ranging from ~ $8m to as high as $110m. He currently manages a team of six.
Listen to our conversation using this embedded player or click through to your preferred audio streaming service using the links below it.
Some lessons from Mahtani that emerged in our discussion:
With many established brands that have a long, well-defined history, there's a perception both internally and externally about how that brand should be portrayed. However, every once in a while, it's okay to stray from the beaten path. In late 2018, while working for MINI, Mahtani’s team faced a challenge. MINI was portrayed as this fun, smashmouth, visceral brand, but it lacked the luxury positioning its price tag suggested.
They set out to create a campaign where they took the MINI Countryman to the city with the worst traffic, Los Angeles. Instead of creating a high-energy, colorful spot, they flipped the script. They portrayed the Countryman as a sanctuary – erasing the traffic, the noise, the frustration of driving in LA, and presenting a quiet epic.
The icing on the cake was that this starred Labrinth, a brilliant musician who agreed to re-record the cowboy classic "Don't Fence Me In" to highlight the fact that the Countryman gave you freedom from a mundane routine. The campaign won a Clio award, a feature in Vanity Fair and drove a spike for the brand during a quiet time of the year.
We all love data, but at the end of the day it comes down to knowing what to do with it because data itself doesn't tell you what to do. The winning formula is to be a champion for great ideas based on your well-rounded knowledge of the audience, brand, and goals. When Mahtani worked for Jack in the Box, his team knew who their audience was, what their habits were, and they had data that indicated the audience were supporters of No Kid Hungry.
Rationally, the mind goes to encouraging guests to donate to the cause while making an impactful donation from the brand. As a brand, anyone can do that, and they wanted to find a more impactful way to drive donations that would use our platform to capture attention. So, they said WWJD (What Would Jack Do?), and ended up with something called Project Moonhat. They announced on social media that they were trying to raise $66 trillion to put Jack's iconic hat on the moon.
They encouraged their followers to donate by clicking a link. The catch? It led users to donate to No Kid Hungry. The reaction was great and their true fans helped take it to the next level. They received more positive feedback from people that clicked the link than negative feedback from those who didn’t click and therefore didn’t fully appreciate the campaign. They used the data to inform the campaign, not dictate it.
One thing that drew Mahtani to his current role with Alibaba.com is that the company mission is focused on helping small business owners and entrepreneurs have access to a set of tools that can genuinely help their business thrive. They're just now wrapping up a project near to his heart called the Manifest Grants Program in which they offered grants to 50 small business owners who applied to the program.
They know it's hard out there as an entrepreneur, and they wanted to support those who really hustle and work to achieve their dreams.
In addition, they know both anecdotally and statistically that it's even harder as a minority or female business owner to get access to funding, so they built a series of partnerships to help reach businesses that could use these grants the most. Mahtani has always really lived by this mantra "Give expecting nothing thereof," but when they surprised the 50 winners on video telling them they had won, it was magical seeing the outpouring of gratitude, emotion and appreciation.
Alibaba.com believed in them and it supported their sense of purpose, drive and desire to succeed that much more. It all ties back to our founder's original vision: "We aspire to be a good company that will last for 102 years."
Mahtani also shared lessons he learned from the people he collaborated with.
via Dean Shaw, VP Communications Americas Region, Volvo US
One of the most powerful lessons in people-first messaging was something Mahtani learned early on in his career. He remembers sitting in Shaw's office chatting about the brand. At the time Mahtani was developing online content at Volvo. They spent a while talking about safety and how to make it enticing for consumers to embrace. He said, “If you're driving to work and something happens on the road that irritates you, what do you do?"
Mahtani’s response was something along the lines of "I get frustrated about how terrible drivers are." Shaw followed up by explaining that yes, we do that because we never want to acknowledge that we’re the ones that are the cause of a problem on the road. Safety should be treated the same way, when we pitch safety to our customers, we first think of them as people and explain the benefits of safety products through that human truth.
Ultimately, safety is to protect us from dangers on the road and that's how customers will receive it best.
via Liz Wang, Global CMO, Alibaba.com
Mahtani was having a conversation with his current boss, Wang, about the Chinese New Year. As she enlightened him about how her family celebrates the Lunar New Year, she told him that 2023 is the year of the rabbit and next year will be the year of the dragon. He said "Ah, everyone wants to be the dragon..." before she added "But everyone should respect the power of the rabbit."
In a casual moment, so much understanding of the underdog came from that statement, which led them to develop content focused on the underdog story.
via Steve Ambeau, Chief Strategy Officer, Richmond Day
Ambeau taught Mahtani a lot, but the lesson that still sits with him came from Ambeau’s grandfather, who owned a farm. He said, “manure is just a pile of s#*t unless you know what to do with it, but if you do, it's the world's best fertilizer.” The same can be said of data. You can have piles and piles of data, but unless you know how to use the data correctly, it won’t get you very far.
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Daniel Burstein: I use one word all smushed together to describe the time I spend on the job. Work life. I'm not talking about balance here. I'm simply saying, yes, we have a home life, but we have a work life, too. Every hour, every minute you spend working rolls up into that grand, big, mysterious number of time you have on this planet.
Which means. Which means what we do at work matters. The decisions we make are part of who we are, the fiber of our being and it's why I love a lesson in the guest application for my next guest. Find ways to live your company's values in everything you do. So true. Joining us now to share the story behind that lesson, along with many more lesson filled stories is Rama Tani, head of buyer marketing for North America at Alibaba.com. Thanks for joining us, Rah.
Rah Mahtani: All right. Thank you for having me, Daniel. You know, I've been listening to the podcast as a fan for so long, it feels great to look at you and hear your voice in person.
Daniel Burstein: Well, that's great to hear, and I'm excited to hear and learn a lot from your stories because you had a really interesting application. But first, let's tell the audience who they're listening to. Just cherry picking from your background a bit, you were a Social Media Manager at Volvo Manager of Digital Communications, a Jack in the Box, mini marketing communications lead at BMW.
And now, as we mentioned, you're the head of buyer marketing for North America at Alibaba.com. Alibaba.com serves buyers and suppliers from 190 countries and regions around the world. And RHA has managed marketing budgets ranging from $8 million to as high as $110 million. It currently manages a team of six. So what is your day like as head of buyer marketing for North America at Alibaba.com?
Rah Mahtani: Yeah, Daniel, it ranges so wildly, but I think, you know, as I look at my day, I try and do a few things to set myself up for success because to me, mood, the way you approach your team and the energy that you bring to your workplace is so important. So my, my hacks, right? I start the night before where I set myself up with with just the must do's.
What's my list that I need to attack the day? And then when I wake up in the morning, family and sunlight. Sunlight is my secret pack. So if it's not sunny out and I can't be outside for 10 minutes with my son, I'll be sitting at my desk with one of those sun lamps kind of shining on me.
So I start the day. All are radiant and excited, but, you know, the day it ranges so widely. My favorite part of the day is spending time with our buyers, and we have over 40 million buyers on our platform. But hearing from them, hearing their stories, how they built their brands and what makes them successful, and the struggles that kind of underpin that, that's what gets me excited. And I can build all of our plans around.
Daniel Burstein: You know, I'm glad you say that because we get so focused on data analytics and metrics and all these dashboards we have that we forget that sometimes maybe we could just talk to the people that purchase our products, the people that we're meant to serve. I love that. Well, let's jump into some stories from the things you made in marketing.
That's a great thing that we get to do as marketers. Like I've said, I've never been like a podiatrist or an actuary or something, but I don't feel like they leave work having built stuff. We actually make stuff that we could point out made that. So your first lesson is it's okay to flip the script some time. So what do you mean by that? How do you learn that?
Rah Mahtani: Yeah. You know, we often think of brands in in almost boxes. And yes, as marketers, sometimes it's our responsibility to break through that box. But when I say it's okay to flip the script sometimes, you know, I worked on Mini and I was the head of brand communications for many, and while we were there, many was positioned as this visceral kind of smash mouth exciting disruptor in that automotive space and in all the advertising and communications really, truly lived up to that.
But we faced a bit of an issue, right? The consumer marketplace saw us at a certain price point, and they didn't necessarily connect the dots between why is this small kind of smash mouth exciting car priced at this point. So we decided, hey, let's look at some of the data around how people use our cars. And a lot of what customers told us was as they're behind the wheel, it felt like their escape from their daily routine.
And we took that and we kind of amplified it a few notches. But we partnered with this amazing musician called Labrinth. And Labrinth makes obviously incredible music, but we took this old cowboy classic song called Don't Fence Me In, and we had him rerecord that while he's sitting inside of a mini, and we put him in the streets of Los Angeles.
But we erased all the traffic, all the chaos and noise and all the headache of driving through Los Angeles to make that mini feel like an escape. So again, coming back to Flip in the script, right, we took the script of what it meant to be mini, but we flipped it into an escape rather than this visceral, kind of outwardly noisy machine.
Daniel Burstein: I love that. I wonder if you have any tips or is there something specific you do to for empathy, get empathy to the customers? You mentioned talking to buyers, but I wonder if there's anything else you do, and I'll give you a quick example. I worked on a free thought tool that we've created and it's basically a series of questions and worksheets, and it forces you to be empathetic with the customer, right?
Because it asks questions like understanding what context they view their messaging. This is one great example, like when I like when you work on that TV commercial, like when I would work on videos or TV commercials, I would be in a studio, right, with high def Audio with this beautiful screen, right with catered lunch and leather sofas and you know what I mean?
With the customer, they're like, maybe look at it on their phone or they are watching it on TV. But it's a commercial break And no, no, their kid spilled something. And so, you know, that context is such a great thing for empathy. So I wonder for you talking to your customers, one great example. Is there anything else you do for that empathy to help really understand your customers and where they're coming from?
Rah Mahtani: Yeah. I adore this question, Daniel. Look, I think as we as we as marketers think about customers, it's important to put ourselves in their shoes. And quite frankly, that's kind of an easy thing to say, right? Putting it into practice is the hard part. So what I really like to do is sit down and get face to face time with those customers.
I want to understand not just how they interact or use our product, but what's going on in their life. Who are they? What are they about? Because that tells me more than the data, the demographic backgrounds, some of their psychographic details. I just want to understand you, and I think that helps me position myself to to create content or build campaigns that are hyper relevant to their situation, what's going on in their life, and understand the culture that they're associating themselves with.
Daniel Burstein: So we talk about Alibaba, North America. I would think there is such a diversity of buyers you have and so I know I wonder how you organize that for yourself or your team or your head. I know, you know, we talk about things like personas. You know, we talk about those types of things and maybe they work, maybe they don't.
I don't know. But for you so you're talking to people, you're getting that three dimensional view. I love that because sometimes we're busy and we take that shortcut and it's only about like what has to do with our product, right? But I would imagine then you're talking to people. Yes, there's themes, but there's such a diversity there. So how do you then take that, manage that and use that for yourself and your team and internally with your company to actually inform your decisions?
Rah Mahtani: Yeah, it's it's quite difficult to do transparently, but but the reality is we like to break our buyers down to the level that they're at in their business rather than looking at them as kind of data points on a spreadsheet. Now the data points are important to us and can inform our strategy, but where the buyer is at in their journey is often more important and telling to how we approach them.
So, you know, in the last two and a half years alone in the US, more small businesses than in our entire history as a company have been formed. And we've got 32 million plus small businesses out in the world. But knowing that stat right, that tells us that there's so many that are new to this journey, they're learning how to build a business.
They're learning what it means to craft a product and how to make that product relevant to people. We can approach our messaging completely differently just knowing that that simple statistic and breaking those buyers down into that category.
Daniel Burstein: Yeah, understanding the journey of where I love to communicate with the customers and if anyone I like literature. I'm a writer, you know, you're familiar with the hero's journey. It's a very famous thing that takes people through a story. That's a great thing to look at, too, to think about. Like, okay, my customers are here. Where are they in this journey and what do they need to understand at that point?
But you mentioned data, too. And data obviously is important. You say let data inform, don't let it dictate. And you learned this while working at Jack in the Box. How did you learn this lesson?
Rah Mahtani: Yes. You know, I don't want to I don't want to use this phrase. Right. Let data inform. Don't let it dictate to undermine the importance of data. I think we all know as marketers, we hear it all the time. We have basically encyclopedia stacks of data. What's important to me is that we're using that data to kind of slightly steer our mindset towards what we're building, right?
It's not the final decision maker. We still need that human touch in marketing. And what we all do as marketers is bring that that point of view, the perspective, the gut feeling into that and at Jack in the Box, we had a data point that said the large majority of our customer supported no kid Hungry, a great, great charity.
Now your mind would typically go straight to right. Let's find ways at restaurant level or or beyond to get customers to donate to that charity. And yes, the data told us that it's the simplest approach. However, now we have to put on our our brand marketing hat. And when you wear in that hat right at Jack in the Box, we ask ourselves the question, what would Jack do?
And Jack would have fun with his audience. And the fun way we approach that was we we built this project called Project Moon Hat. And Project Moon Hat required a $66 trillion investment to put Jack's iconic yellow hat on the moon and we put this out on our social channels, and a lot of people, when they click the link, were really surprised to find that this wasn't a silly marketing campaign to put a hat on the moon.
In fact, it was to get people to come play with us and donate to No Kid Hungry. And we also found that, you know, people that saw the campaign and tried to take away from the message by saying, why are you doing something so silly? Our audience would come to the rescue and say, Hey, click the link, go see what it's all about.
So in that instance, we just use that data to say, Yeah, we want to donate to no kid hungry, but it's not going to dictate how we approach the campaign. We need to use that gut feeling that the marketer's instinct to come up with the right way in.
Daniel Burstein: And so that right way. So just to be clear, you want to explain it was Project Moon hat. You got to explain what that was.
Rah Mahtani: Yeah, Project Moon Hat was it was a microsite that we created. Project Moon Hat. NBC.com doesn't exist today anymore since it was a few years ago, but essentially it was we were fundraising $66 trillion to take Jack's hat and try and place it on the moon as a marketing stunt.
Daniel Burstein: I love that. And so I wonder, like, where do you go for your inspiration for creative ideas? Because something you said made me think of where I go. So I love stand up comedy where I not just did. I like stand up comedy, but I love listening to podcaster do interviews and understanding how comedians work their craft because I think their craft is pretty similar to art, right?
They ultimately they've got a value proposition out there. They're trying to get a conversion, which the laugh one thing is I hear from a lot of comedians is you don't go with the first idea, right? You have that first idea. It's clever, it works, you like it, but you've got to work it, you've got to work it. And you get to the second or third or fourth level.
And that's where the goal does. And for Jack in the Box, it sounds like that's what you did. That first level idea was no kid hungry. But then when you worked it and got deeper and said, How would our brand do this and how would Jack do this, that idea of what we're trying to put Jack on the moon, you know, it's very, very clever way versus what everyone else would do, but a lot of other brands would do is like, Oh, some altruism.
We're such a great brand. Look at this 1% of sales go to whatever. So like I said, for me, it's standup comedy for you. Is there something, you know, in your creative role as a marketer, in your role as a leader that you go to and other industry or in entertainment to to help you get ideas?
Rah Mahtani: Yes, stand up comedy, Daniel, is such a good example, right? Because they find human truths in everything and make it just hyper relatable. And that's the gut punch. Like, I totally get it. I relate to it and I like that example a lot. Sometimes I will turn to things like stand up comedy, but there are also other layers or levers that I would pull to spark the creative juices.
One is on Reddit. Reddit has a very funny way of doing things right. They they are a delightfully helpful community, but also they'll always come in with really cheeky responses and replies to things, but often. Right, that a lot of truth is said in jest. Phrase Reddit nails that a lot of the time, so I'll find inspiration there.
And then last but not least, there's a lot of character driven kind of craziness happening in my head. Meaning, you know, a Jack in the Box, Jack could inspire. What is this character? Would he actually do this or not? Does it fit the script of who that person is? You know, for for a brand like that, you could even use a celebrity as a framework.
Would Harrison Ford, for example, say that he has a tongue in cheek approach to things which may be relatable to an audience? So you can use that for inspiration, too. But I try and search far and wide, but using those human truths as as the real center of it all.
Daniel Burstein: Yeah, human truths. I love that you mentioned Reddit. I interviewed the CMO of Mint Mobile on how I made it marketing. And one thing that he mentioned is after a campaign launches, he's on Reddit and he is looking and he's seeing in real time people's reactions and he's interacting with them as a CMO of Mint mobile. And it's such that's, you know, something we have access to today.
Such a great opportunity to see our water cooler conversation that, you know, we're neighbors used to talk to each other in action through social media, through forums, you know, kind of really getting in there and seeing what our what our audience is doing. So this is something I mentioned in the opening. I really love that you say find ways to live your company's values in everything you do. And you mentioned you feel like you're really doing that now at Alibaba.com. So how are you doing that?
Rah Mahtani: Yeah, you know, as I think about that, right, find ways to live your company's values and everything. One thing that just directly drew me to Alibaba.com was that the the entire company was formed around the belief that we are built to help small, small and medium business owners connect directly with the largest network of global suppliers. And we still live that today, but we are a companion.
We are kind of a copilot in that business journey. So one thing that we did this past year at Alibaba.com was we built a program called the Manifest Grants Program. And what that was, was effectively a fund program where we could help small and medium business owners develop the right fundraising to build their business to the next level.
And there was an entire application process within that. But we were what we were looking for was the story. What have you gone through on that back end of building your business? Because we know the human truth within being an entrepreneur is that it's not always easy. The sunshine and rainbows that you see in the front ends of their stores do not always line up with those.
The struggle and everything that they went through on the back end. So we wanted that story to understand what is your journey? What are you trying to build towards and how can a grant like this really help you achieve and unlock that? So we did all that. We collected a list of thousands and thousands of applications, and as we sifted through them, these incredible stories really rose to the top and we ended up doing a ton of content creation around them.
And today we maintain relationships with those folks were truly living the values of our brand, right? We bring them to speak at conferences and help other business owners do what we help them do. So we try and keep it 360 all the time.
Daniel Burstein: So you have that application out there. I wonder if there is a question or two or some way you worded it or something you put in there that really helped you get the stories out. Because, you know, when I talk to marketers, we all want that UGC user generated content, but sometimes they struggle on how to get it right.
So I wonder if there was any anything that was specifically about the application process, how you promoted it, what you asked in there. They got you kind of the most value in understanding their stories and then being able to tell them.
Rah Mahtani: Yeah, we we were quite direct, Daniel, in the question asking of course the ones that the standard tell us about your business and things like that but we asked them about tell us one time where you felt like you weren't going to make it. And that question gave us a lot of insights. And look, when you're doing research, you don't want to be that direct in pointing them.
But in this case, we wanted to point them towards something and we heard a lot of beautiful stories, not just struggle, but a lot of like, here's why I started my business, because I wanted to help my parents stop doing a job that required physical labor are amazing. That is such a great reason for you to build a business. We want to help you.
Daniel Burstein: That's great. So in the first half of the episode, talking about building a business, we talked about things that Rob learned from the things he built in marketing. In the second half of the podcast, we talk about lessons we learn from the people we collaborated with because that's a great part of marketing. We get to build things, we get to build them with people.
But before we get there, let me just let everyone know that the How I made It a marketing podcast is underwritten by MECLABS Institute, the parent organization of Marketing Sherpa. You can join us for an AI Guild session Wednesdays at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. Learn more at meclabs.com/AI-Briefing. meclabs.com/AI-Briefing to join a free AI Guild session.
All right. With that, let's talk about now. Like I said, the lessons you learn from people you collaborated with. First, you mentioned Dean Shaw, the VP of Communications for the Americas region at Volvo U.S. and you said from Dean, you learn dig into human behavior to create people first messaging. So how did you learn that from Dean?
Rah Mahtani: Dean, still a mentor of mine to this day, but, you know, when he first joined the Americas region at Volvo, we spent a lot of time sitting down and chatting, and he taught me a lot of early lessons in my career about leadership, empathy and compassion and speaking to people that work with you, work for you and your peers.
But one of the most important lessons he taught me was about people first messaging, right? And we talk a lot as marketers about customer first messaging. But Dean flipped that a little bit and inspired me by saying it's really people first messaging. And it comes back to a point, Daniel, that you made early on. How do we find that empathy in what we're doing and Dean approach it that way?
What we were talking about that day was safety. Now safety is kind of a mundane and boring topic, but Volvo made safety very, very important and is a core reason for people buying those vehicles. And one thing that Dean put in place as he was doing that was thinking directly about how a consumer thinks, feels and experiences these things related to safety.
And he said to me something very simple How do you react when you're driving to work one day and somebody does something like cut you off on the road or does something that irritates you on the road, how do you react? And I thought to myself, you know, well, I'm going to be ticked off. I'm not going to love that somebody did something to me on the road.
How could you do that to me on the road? And he said, Well, that's simply your experience. Right. And the way you react to that, we must position safety in a very similar vein. Safety is never about something that you, the customer, did wrong. Safety is about everything wrong that could happen around you. The things you have to watch out for in your blind spots.
Well, we got you covered with blind spot indicators, with backup sensors, with crash prevention sensors. It's not because you were distracted and took too long to brake, it's because the person in front of you braked too hard. And those were, you know, really powerful words to me because it allowed me to just reposition the way I looked at almost everything, not just safety, but everything going forward was influenced by that simple conversation.
Daniel Burstein: Well, I think that's a great example of the human truth we were talking about, like standup comedy, those things. Because when you say that, the thing I think of is that classic line of, you know, everybody that drives slower than me is a slowpoke, and everyone that drives faster than me is a maniac, you know, is that that US centric view of the world that we have to take.
I want to ask you about this, maybe a nuance, but you said people first and not customer first. I want to ask you about that because of this. So we did a study. We were trying to find the right words. We called it Customer First marketing. And it's hard to find the right words, but we're trying to communicate an idea.
We did some research and basically we surveyed 2400 American customers and half of them we asked, Tell us about a company that you had a bad experience with. And half of them we asked, Tell us about a company had a good experience and then we asked them a series of questions. But the biggest differentiation that was really interesting, it was whether the customer thought that that company was acting in their best interest, so the company could do a whole slew of things, good or bad, or marketing could do all these things when they felt that it was customer first.
When that marketing was customer first, they were way more forgiving. They're way more likely to purchase again. We're more likely to, you know, recommend the company. And so it comes back to kind of that intention that we communicate through our brand, through our value proposition, to our marketing that yes, we are acting in their best interest or we are not.
So that's why I want to follow up and ask, okay, is there a difference between people first and customer first? What do you see? The difference is in either way, you're talking about how to kind of intuit that. Either way, How does that affect those very difficult decisions? Sometimes you have to make those 5050 decisions on what the brand should do, either in product rollouts or either in the campaigns.
Rah Mahtani: Yeah.
Daniel Burstein: It's out there a lot. Yeah, let's unpack it there.
Rah Mahtani: There is, But but it's definitely a nuance, right? And at the end of the day, they can be effectively thought of as kind of the same thing. The reason I like to separate them in my mind is we think of customers as people that are actively buying from us or shopping our services or products. When I say people first, I'm really just thinking about how can we do something, say something, or build something that is centered around, again, that human truth which we kind of keep coming back to.
But the reality is people in their daily lives have lots of things that happen to them and that they experience that are not connected to what we are building as products. And if we can connect to them on that level, truly understanding them who they are, what they believe in, what they're experiencing. It's a little bit different to me than trying to connect with them as a product. Speaking to you as a customer?
Daniel Burstein: No, I really like that. It reminds me of the saying that only technology companies and drug dealers use the word users, and sometimes that internal language we use can affect how we think of the customer. But I also want to ask when it comes to people first, like what that actually means as a brand, as a company like you, we get into those decisions.
Sometimes some decisions we make are fairly easy, but there's those kind of 5050 jump ball decisions that we have to make that are difficult, that it comes down to either, look, the company has got to take a hit on cost, you know, we've got to take hit our marketing or something, got to know marketing or we really do have to put the people first and the customer first.
And I'll give you one example for me I'd love to hear your example is where I found it really helps is having a clearly stated value proposition. Like when you have that value proposition, I'll an answer to a question. If I'm your ideal customer, why should I buy from you and any of your competitors? That really helps. And when you get into those meetings as the marketer in the room and you're able to say, Wait a minute, does this do we live up to our value proposition?
Because sometimes when other parts of the business are making decisions, they forget how it affects the customer. And a quick example, in my personal life, I bought from Home Depot, I bought like a dryer. I think it was a dryer washing machine and this was back before I worked at home. I'm at home simply to receive this and I live on a cul de sac and I am waiting for them.
They should be there soon. And I see a truck drive by. It was like a van or a pickup truck or something with a trailer that had, you know, some stuff behind it and you know, like, Oh, well, that's not them, you know? And then they swing back around and it's them. And it shocked me. I'm like, Wait a minute, I bought from Home Depot.
I thought a nice Home Depot truck would pull up. You know, people would show up in crisp Home Depot uniforms and they would come up and deliver. And obviously there was someone in logistics and say, hey, we can save 10% on each delivery if we outsources to independent contractors. And the marketer wasn't in the room or wasn't able to say, hey, here's Home Depot's value proposition, and that is a customer touchpoint and a thing of value.
And that's how putting the customer first, it's not putting people first. We need to take a little bit of a hit on logistics. So for you, you know, you don't have to name names or anything of that, but have you been in that room and have you had to, as you said, this is making these hard decisions, had to make a decision or advocated for the people, you know, And how do you do that? Like I think any tips on doing that or how you do that?
Rah Mahtani: Yeah, 100%. I think, you know that that was a really great illustration too, of the simple things that can get decided and call it a boardroom or on a Zoom meeting that, you know, we as marketers might not even think of as we think about the downstream effect it has on that end person. Now, I think the most important thing in this process is transparency.
People just want you to be real with them. Now, I take a I take a bus to work every single day, and the bus is from a company called Boxcar. And this company started as kind of a boutique service to get people that have slightly limited access to major public transportation, access to New York City. I live close to New York City, and this bus really used that on three of its morning routes.
It was losing money because there weren't enough people getting on the bus and they started sending emails, weekly updates to all of us as customers that said, hey, here's our reality. We're starting to lose money on these routes. And they told us specifically we're losing $2,286 on this route. What we really need is more people to a sign up for memberships or you to tell your friends about us.
If you do that, we can bring these routes back. If not, this is our reality. And I loved that because I appreciated that company more after reading that because they told me the truth, they didn't just erase a route that made my life harder. And I think at the end of the day, they can rest easier knowing that they they were transparent.
They weren't trying to pull the wool over my face or anything like that. It was just their reality. And I think if we can just be real with end consumers, treat them like people. Keep coming back to that. I just want to be talked to and treated like a person. The winning strategy is right there.
Daniel Burstein: That is great. I mean, I've also heard that called co-creation of value. When we think of co-creation of value, it's normally like a make your own T-shirt type of thing or stuff like that. Right? That's a great example of that. Bringing the customer in on that journey and saying, Hey, we're providing this good or service to you, help us keep providing it.
And if we can't, here's why it makes a lot of sense. Here's your next lesson Respect the power of the rabbit. This is from Liz Wang, the global CMO of Alibaba.com. So, okay, Rah, what can we learn from the rabbit? How did you learn this in your discussion with Liz?
Rah Mahtani: Yes, when I was when I was new at Alibaba dot com, I was sitting down with Liz, who's our Global CMO, and we were talking about the Chinese New Year. And you know, one thing that's amazing about Alibaba.com is we all deeply connect with each other as people. And I am fascinated as a person by other cultures. What are you doing to celebrate and things like that?
And Liz started to educate me a little bit about Chinese New Year and she said, This year is the Year of the Rabbit and next year is the year of the Dragon. Then I stopped and I said, Everybody wants to be the dragon. And she paused and she said, But everybody needs to respect the power of the rabbit.
And to me that was just a deeply insightful kind of flip of the conversation to say, Yeah, the underdog needs to be respected. And what we did after that was we kind of went on a tangent, right? The the conversation inspired something related to work, something related to our customers and to entrepreneurs. And we built a series of concern about the underdog story kind of framed around that narrative, right? That the rabbit should be respected.
Daniel Burstein: Well, you know, that gets me thinking of brand positioning and of working with what you have and how you work against your competitors. And I wonder if you have any examples of working against your competitors. Again, you don't have to mention names, but I'll give you example. You know, marketers often complain to me about wherever they are, right?
There are small company, they're going against bigger competition. But what they don't realize is the people in the big companies complain to me, to them, like, Oh, so difficult to change anything here, right? And so I think it's often easy to just look at that competition and say, oh, man, they've got it made versus what do we have?
We have this what's our value proposition? What are our assets? How do we position ourself if we're a small company? Well, we can position ourselves as more nimble, more able to give, you know, 1 to 1 service to the client, all of these things, right? If we're that big company, we can position ourselves as like, oh, this extensive network of products, offerings, trust, solidity, these types of things.
But sometimes as marketers, we just kind of get stuck in looking at, you know, the grass is always greener over there and it's better for the dragon, right? So I wonder for you, like how how is that kind of viewpoint? You give us examples how you build a campaign there for the underdogs, but you've ever taken that viewpoint against some of your competitors and saying like, okay, let's not look at them with jealousy, let's look at what they have, but how can we kind of position ourselves against it with what we do have?
Rah Mahtani: Yeah, it's a it's a really, really interesting question, right? Because the easy thing to do is to say to ourselves what you just mentioned, the grass is always greener or I wish I had what they had. And I think the mistake that we make and I have to retrain my mind on this at all times is not to look at what we don't have.
It's to just completely lean into what makes you strong and what your tactical advantage is. Even in research. I think a really good example is research. We tend to gravitate towards asking customers, Why don't you use this product to why did you defect from this product? But that just creates like a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity, right? We put the customer's mindset into, Oh yeah, I need to think of ideas about why I didn't do this.
Instead, the customer is just picking something because they appreciated the strength and what that product had, right? It's more often than not, not due to something you were lacking. It's due to something somebody else did better. They leaned into their strengths. So you know, this narrative about leaning into the power of respecting the power of the rabbit can always come back to The rabbit has speed, it has agility.
It's leaning into its strength to, you know, call it gain more respect than the dragon. And that's what we should do, no matter who we are. A giant company, a medium size company, a really small underdog in the industry. Just lean into what you do really, really well. Put your kind of blinders on and focus on that. And don't worry about how you could be losing to somebody else. I think that's the really, really positive approach to take to it.
Daniel Burstein: Yeah, that's a brings up a question about customer research and I wonder how you learn about your customers. You mention a few things. I wonder if you engage in any AB testing or any type of looking at their behavior because you're talking about that survey data that can be great and really insightful and qualitative. But as you mentioned, we can also prime them, especially prime if we say what's what's negative about this thing.
The other challenge, sometimes it's very good to talk to customers, get close to them, understand them. But the gap can be that they don't understand these things themselves. Right? I've heard it talked about before that we make decisions based on emotion and back forth with logic, even in business, even in B2B. So I wonder if to kind of narrow that gap.
It sounds like you're engage in a lot of face to face, lot of survey. That's good. You ever engage in a, B, testing or anything else where you're actually measuring behavior, measuring just performance and seeing what customers are doing?
Rah Mahtani: Yeah. You know, truthfully, recently we've we've gone away from doing too much AB testing. And look, frankly, it's really easy with a B testing to get lost in the minutia of I want to test this, you know, CTA versus the CTA and how much are we really learning on a macro scale in that situation? What I found to be the most effective thing is to understand directly from the customer, from the person, what is meaningful to them and hear from it on on a scale.
Right. You're not you're not just saying one person is going to dictate everything about my product, but just when you hear something repeated several times by very groups of people, I think ultimately it allows you to build something that's going to be meaningful and solve whatever issue that they're having. I think to us that's become the approach rather than any sort of scaled AB testing that still is happening on some of those smaller levels. But it's not the bigger business lessons that we're learning from A B testing.
Daniel Burstein: All right. So direct customer interaction and pattern pattern recognition, I've heard we've been called one of the most important things of intelligence, right. All right. And lastly, as when we talk about data, you said here's one of your lessons. You can have piles and piles of data, but unless you know how to use a data correctly, it won't get you very fast. It ties in to what you just said. You said you learned this from Steve Ambeau, the Chief Strategy Officer of Richmond Day, and so how did you learn this from Steve?
Rah Mahtani: Steve was a prolific storyteller and you know, when he told the stories, he painted these vivid pictures with words. But one day he sat me down and he was telling me a story about his grandfather's farm. And he said his grandfather on his farm would get giant piles of manure delivered all the time. And Steve used that to illustrate a lesson about, you know, if you had a farm and you got these piles of manure delivered every day and you just sat there and wondered, what the heck is somebody delivering poop to me for, you know, you would never realize that this this manure is the most powerful fertilizer in the world.
And what we learned from that is, yeah, we can have these piles of data like our references, encyclopedia stacks worth of data. But unless we know what to do with it, unless we know how to put that into action and make it powerful for us, it's useless. It's as useless as a pile of poop.
Daniel Burstein: I love I love that example. Let me ask you about technologies. I think technology is kind of the same thing, so maybe technology would be the opposite. It seems like this shiny, golden, perfect thing that we can use, but if we don't use it the right way, it's not going to work anyway. So, you know, right now I boy, everyone's talking about that.
There's all sorts of other technologies. I wonder if you have any viewpoint on how you talk about learning from the customer there. So how to use technology to ensure you're actually serving the customer based on what they tell you versus, you know, what can happen a lot, just shiny object syndrome. So we've got this new golden thing. Let's throw it in there and say, Well, why do we throw that on top of there? Didn't really help the customer.
Rah Mahtani: Yeah, I think the balance really comes from trying to decide orreally trying to feel out, do I want to leverage this technology to be buzzworthy and to be a first mover, or am I actually going to use this technology to better my product or better that customer experience and what we at Alibaba.com and even many of my previous roles, what we centered ourselves around is simply, will this make the customer's experience any better or is this just that shiny object syndrome?
So I would always, always frame my mindset around and have to tell myself, this is not to win a Clio, this is not to win an RFP, this is to actually benefit the consumer. And you know, that always guides me back to center. The center is let's help the customer first. Let's do what's right for the business. Let's not let's not do what's right for us.
Daniel Burstein: Perfect. Go right. We've talked about so many different things about what it means to be a marketer in your stories. If you had to break it down, what are the key qualities of an effective marketer? What are you trying to be? What do you look for when you hire?
Rah Mahtani: Yeah, typically I look for kind of three core things. Of course, there's a lot in character and personality, but the three kind of soft skills if you want that I look for are one a point of view that's really driven by curiosity. I want to know what you think of other work that's happening out there. What's your perspective on threads?
Is a new thing. What's the relevance to us as a brand? What's the relevance to our consumer that I need that point of view. I think it just benefits creative and strategy tremendously. That's one. You know, the next would be Are you a doer at any level? That means as the CEO, as CMO, or, you know, down to an associate that we just recently hired or to an intern, are you the person that's willing to roll up your sleeves, get in the mix of things and get things done?
My philosophy is I'll never ask someone on my team or someone someone that's a leader to me to do something that I'm not going to do myself. And that's important to me. Are you a doer? Can you get things done? But can you roll up your sleeves to at any level? And then last but not least, something we talked about before is incredibly important to me.
Empathy, right? We don't want any jerks or rude people on our team. But not only that, like can you directly associate with the customer and and people, can you put your strategies together, what they're going through in their life, not just using numbers or click through rates or anything like that to inform your decision that super, super important empathy has to be there.
Daniel Burstein: Well, thank you so much for this conversation. I learned so much from you and I saw you act out the things we talked about, your stories as well. So I see you living what you look for as well. That's great. So thank so much, Rob.
Rah Mahtani: Thank you, Daniel. My pleasure to meet you. Thank you, Judy.
Daniel Burstein: And thanks to everyone for listening.
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