In every campaign, the key thing Gill Zhou looks for is marketing effectiveness, and the latest technology is providing a whole new set of tools to achieve that goal.
“These days, data gives us the ability to understand customers better,” says the vice president and chief marketing officer for IBM Greater China Group. “We can use digital capability and different communication channels to check if a campaign is performing to the right targets and achieving the right effectiveness. If anything is wrong, we then have the opportunity to correct course and improve outcomes.”
That might involve adding more weight or content to spell out the value proposition and benefits. It may mean fine-tuning the message to target different sectors and industries. Or, if customer feedback is relatively lukewarm, it may be necessary to reduce or increase investment accordingly.
“Our job is to convince and compel,” Zhou says. “We have to transform ideas into initiatives that help to win new business and outperform the competition. And, in doing that, we are now data-driven, client-centric and not based on intuition.”
Each year, Zhou oversees numerous campaigns. Some focus on specific IBM products — mainframe, storage and cyber security — and building the brand. Others are to promote digital transition and integrated solutions around use of the cloud, AI (artificial intelligence), blockchain, and the new service options they create.
The campaigns must make an impact with B2B customers in everything from banking and finance to retail, manufacturing and telecoms, including around 95 per cent of the Fortune 500. Generally, the aim is to tell a tech story about how business capabilities are changing companies and what steps are needed to keep pace.
This is done through a mix of digital initiatives, third-party sponsorship and industry events. The latter often feature a subject matter expert, not necessarily an IBM employee, or a demonstration of new tech solutions for common business problems. It has proved to be an effective way of delivering the intended message for only limited outlay.
“My investment is very targeted, so we pick the right audience and understand their likely needs and buying behaviour,” Zhou says. “We explain from a business perspective how technology is changing individual roles and the way companies work. It is all about smarter business and positioning IBM to help customers to develop and transform.”
Sometimes, Zhou herself is one of the speakers at such industry forums or branding events. She is also regularly invited to talk about leadership, women entrepreneurs, public welfare, and working in a male-dominated sector.
It is a role she takes on quite easily, thanks in part to the experience gained in her first job, teaching English literature to first- and second-year undergraduates at a university in Luoyang.
“I liked doing that; I was a natural teacher,” she says. “I knew how to design courses and how to resolve the students’ issues and anxieties.”
Just possibly, there was something in the genes because her father was a university professor of classical Chinese and her mother taught in middle school. Growing up in Hangzhou, she was encouraged to follow in their footsteps, but at the age of 18, she found an alternative way of winning parental approval.
“It was always an honour for the family to have someone in uniform,” she says of her decision to be drafted as a cadet and attend the PLA Foreign Studies University in Luoyang. “It was a degree course, but you also do basic military training and are up at 6am every day for a run. It was a rigid schedule and very disciplined, but those four years of cadet life gave me the opportunity to discover skills and strengths I didn’t know I had.”
She took a BA in English literature, which included courses on linguistics, history and international politics. Graduating in the mid-1980s and assigned a teaching job, she stayed on until offered a place on a two-year master’s programme in English and American comparative literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University, where she also met her future husband.
“At that time, Shakespeare’s sonnets and dramas gave me a lot of motivation. I felt he was describing real situations, which helped me see what life could be if you were imaginative and innovative enough. He also gave me the dream to go around the world, especially to England to understand how this man of letters found his inspiration.”
Subsequently, after completing her contract in Luoyang, she returned to Beijing in 1991 to join a French-owned agency doing marketing and communications consultancy work. The firm had clients in multiple industries, which served as a good introduction to the broader business world and, a year in, led to a job offer from Motorola.
“I joined on the communications side, but was the only person there, so it was almost starting from scratch,” Zhou says.
However, she gradually built the team and was with them for eight years before going to IBM in 2001. There, she initially saw the company as very low-profile, even though it offered end-to-end services and was a major player in the IT industry. But she could see the potential for building the brand and was excited by the challenge.
Promoted to an executive role, she spent five months in New York learning about the company’s global reach before becoming Asia-Pacific vice-president, covering 17 countries in the region, first from Japan and then from Shanghai. In 2012, she took over Greater China marketing and has since continued to add responsibilities.
“In this company, you will never get bored,” she says, alluding to milestones like Lenovo’s acquisition of IBM’s PC division, the launch of a smarter cities initiative, and the transition to cloud and AI. “But I’m now starting the second chapter of my life and, one day, would love to go back to the campus and teach business.”