Why marketing is more than persuading people to buy things they don’t need: IBM chief marketer

Lucy Handley, special to CNBC
Caroline Taylor, chief marketing officer, IBM Global Markets

Marketing can be used as a force for good, and isn't simply about trying to sell more to people, says a senior global marketer.

IBM's chief marketing officer for IBM global markets, Caroline Taylor, says that it can be used to encourage people to have "enlightened self-interest," where people do things for the good of society as well as themselves.

"I think that marketing tapping into that concept of enlightened self-interest is a very powerful thing, and it's just as powerful as the 'Mad Men' days of persuading [people] you needed something when you absolutely didn't, but it actually has a much more pivotal role in society," she said, speaking to at a recent press event.

Caroline Taylor, chief marketing officer, IBM Global Markets

She cited consumer goods companies such as Unilever or Procter & Gamble for creating laundry detergents that wash clothes at lower temperatures, thus saving people money as well as being better for the environment.

Marketing can also be used more effectively if it also focuses on benefits, she says. And IBM – like other technology companies – is evolving its marketing to concentrate more on the outcome of its technology, rather than the details of how things are done.

"In the bad old days of business-to-business [or B2B marketing] versus business-to-consumer [marketing], in B2B you spend a lot of time talking about how you can do what you do – [and] in B2C [marketing] you spend a lot more energy on the outcome, the end state.

"There used to be a running joke in my world, that if you took a bunch of tech marketers to take over at Coca Cola, you'd end up marketing brown sugar water and you'd be talking about bubble velocity, and the good news is we've all really moved on," she said.

Changing IBM's culture meant better marketing

IBM's U.K. & Ireland chief marketing officer Lisa Gilbert ran a "new work of marketing" training program, with Taylor, to help people realize the potential of marketing to the business. They took it to 32 countries, and set up "diamond" teams, made up of people from different disciplines. They also ran an experiment in the U.K. to look at how "agile" principles could work in marketing.

Initiatives such as its partnership with blind marathon runner Simon Wheatcroft resulted, where an IBM app guided him through a race without the need for a human aide, while a pop-up shop in London featured a Watson machine dispensing sweet or sour candy depending on whether someone said something nice or mean to it.

This blind man is running 160 miles in the desert with an app
This blind man is running 160 miles in the desert with an app

IBM is also making the most of being featured in the Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures, which tells the true story of three African-American women working at NASA in the 1960s, overcoming racism and sexism to help send astronaut John Glenn into space.

An "IBM machine," a giant computer that helped the scientists compute the angle at which the spacecraft should travel, is a central part of the film – and it wasn't paid-for product placement. Yet it is the subject matter – women working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – which is closest to IBM's heart, says Taylor.

"We have been on this diversity thought for a very long time, and the power for betterment of society, life, the world, as a result of true inclusion and true diversity. That's been literally part of what we are forever. I hope that what this is going to do is inspire many more people to make, to come to that same realization," she said.

In 1953, the company's then president, Thomas Watson Jr. sent a memo to managers stating: "It is the policy of this organization to hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job, regardless of race, color or creed." He was ahead of his time, as the American Civil Rights Act didn't come into force until 1964.

Using Hidden Figures to attract talent

IBM has run PR events in the UK and other countries on the back of the film's release to highlight the importance of having women from diverse backgrounds work in STEM, and hopes to attract people to work for the company in the longer term.

Octavia Spencer stars as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures - seen here with an IBM computer
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation | Hopper Stone

"We are completely dependent on talent, and every single thing we do that gives us access to a wider pool of talent to encourage people to consider skills that they may not have even thought of ever honing improves our long term success, and I think that's a big piece of this," Taylor said.

The film is also a platform for IBM to talk about itself in a different way. As it no longer has a consumer-facing brand – it sold its ThinkPad PC business to Lenovo in 2005 for $1.75 billion – it sometimes needs to explain to clients and potential employees more about what it does.

"I think it helps me talk to my clients and my parents as to what we do at IBM," said Gilbert, speaking to at the event.

"I think storytelling like this does an amazing job of starting to establish ourselves out there, post selling our laptops to Lenovo. We are in a world now where we do these amazing things and we just need to continue to tell stories like this."

Taylor's contribution to marketing and diversity, as well as her work with human rights charity Stop the Traffik, earned her an OBE - or an Order of the British Empire - in 2017's New Year Honours list, the U.K.'s awards system for people who have made achievements in public life.

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