February 2, 2023

Surprising Routes Around Economic Turbulence

“After employees, customers are the target of 2023.” 

With unrelenting pressure on B2B marketers to build pipeline, Drew Neisser’s above advice may sound unhelpful. But the reality is that you can’t have more pipeline without a strong brand embraced by employees and customers alike, especially when the CFO becomes the CFNO. 

Tune into the 330th episode of Renegade Marketers Unite, where Drew shares strategic wisdom when it comes to 2023 growth. Our special host this episode is Joe Cohen, Chief Marketing and Communication Officer at AXIS, who led the conversation for the benefit of his marketing team and generously shared it with us to air for all. 

What You’ll Learn  

  • How to mine customer relationships in 2023 
  • Why brand purpose is so important 
  • Why employees should be your #1 target in a recession 

Renegade Marketers Unite, Episode 330 on YouTube 

Resources Mentioned 


  • [3:23] B2B marketing trends in 2023  
  • [5:35] Driving forces behind B2B complexity  
  • [7:30] Drew’s favorite examples of B2B marketing   
  • [12:09] Mining customer relationships  
  • [16:38] Brand purpose matters  
  • [22:12] Invest in employee experience  
  • [25:04] 3 ways to navigate turbulent economic conditions

Highlighted Quotes 

“Existing customers are everything. The question that you have to ask is not what can you sell, but how can you help them.” —@DrewNeisser Share on X “If you state a purpose, you’ve got to live by it, and it has got to permeate everything that you do. Otherwise, don’t bother.” —@DrewNeisser Share on X “Support your employees and show them that you care, and then they’ll outperform everybody else.” —@DrewNeisser Share on X

Full Transcript: Drew Neisser in conversation with the AXIS Team


Drew Neisser: Hey, it’s Drew. And I’m guessing that as a podcast listener, you will also enjoy audiobooks. Well in that case, did you know the audio version of Renegade Marketing: 12 Steps to Building Unbeatable B2B Brands, was recently ranked the number one new B2B audio book by Book Authority. Kind of cool, right? Anyway, you can find my book on Audible or your favorite audio book platform.

And speaking of audio before we get into today’s show, I do want to do a shout out to the professionals that Share Your Genius. We started working with them several months ago to make this show even better, and have been blown away by their strategic and executional prowess. If you’re thinking about starting a podcast or want to turbocharge your current show, be sure to talk to Rachel Downey at shareyourgenius.com and tell her Drew sent you.

Okay, let’s get on with today’s episode.

Narrator: Welcome to Renegade Marketers Unite, possibly the best weekly podcast for CMOs and everyone else looking for innovative ways to transform their brand, drive demand, and just plain cut through. Proving that B2B does not mean boring to business. Here’s your host and Chief Marketing Renegade Drew Neisser.

Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Marketers! Welcome to Renegade Marketers Unite the top rated podcast for B2B CMOs and other marketing obsessed individuals. This show is a bit different. Of course, we try to make ALL of them different. But this one really is because instead of me interviewing a CMO, it’s a CMO interviewing me. And not just any CMO, it’s Joe Cohen, who is the CMO of AXIS, and international specialty insurer and reinsurer. The reason for this is that Joe invited me to come and speak to his team about how to navigate turbulent marketing conditions. I think you’re going to enjoy the show. I certainly had a lot of fun making it. Let’s go to it, shall we?

Joe Cohen: So to kick things off, I’m going to talk a little bit about Drew who’s going to discuss navigating turbulent marketing conditions with us. So for Drew, Drew is the founder of Renegade and CMO Huddles. Drew’s helped dozens of CMOs unleash their inner renegade via multiple award winning campaigns. He’s told the stories of over 500 marketers via his podcast, Renegade, Marketers Unite, and that includes us. I’ve been a guest on his podcast. He’s also told those stories in his Ad Age column and 2 books. His second book, Renegade Marketing 12 Steps to Building Unbeatable B2B Brands was named the B2B audiobook of 2022. Drew’s ranked among the top 15 marketing voices on LinkedIn. He has been a featured marketing expert on ABC, CNBC, dozens of podcasts, and the New York Times. Says Best Selling Author Jay Baer, “Drew is among the strongest B2B marketing thinkers in the world.” So Drew’s the real deal, we’re very excited to have him here. And he also happens to sit on the Duke alumni board with one of our colleagues, Max Perkins. Someone who continually sings Drew’s praises, and Drew does the same for Max, of course. So, Drew, thanks for joining us today.

Drew Neisser: Hey, it’s my pleasure. Thanks and I’m excited to be with you all.

Joe Cohen: All right, so we’re gonna dive right in. So our first question. So Drew, you speak to dozens of CMOs every day, what are some of the big trends that you’re seeing as we head into 2023?

Drew Neisser: So I think the biggest difference between the beginning of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 is the general fear of a recession. And this is impacting everything that marketers are looking at. In huddles, you know, we have about 100+ B2B CMOs, and I would say 3 out of 4, are looking at flat to significant cuts in their overall budget. Some are looking at staff cuts, some are looking at program cuts, all are looking at Tech cuts. So you’ve got slimmer budgets, but you don’t have a slimmer goal for most of them. And this is the crazy part. Let’s say the average is 15-20% cuts one way or another, they still have 10 to 15 to 20% growth goals. So marketers are under a special little pressure of being magicians this year.

So that’s one. And then how do they handle that pressure of generating more demand with less budget? So that’s a big deal. And then, within all of this, you have to keep in mind there’s a bunch of CFOs out there who at the beginning of the recession, I call them CFNo’s, and that’s what’s happened again. So if you are trying to sell something, anything, there’s a CFO at the end of this rainbow, if you will, who was saying, “You know what, I don’t want to buy it unless you can demonstarte that the ROI will be really fast.” You’ll either save money or make money and you’ll do it in what we’ll call, “Speed to value” is short. Because otherwise they’ll just push it off. And so what we saw in the last 6 months, and this is almost universal, I’d say 9 out of 10 of the CMOs, are seeing deals slow down. They thought they were going to close them in Q4. And most of them are saying, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe how many deals got pushed to Q1 2023.” So if you think about it, and this is universal, everybody’s looking at all of their costs, and saying, “Do I need this?” Sorry to be so bleak…

Joe Cohen: No, no, you’re being real, Drew. You’re being real. So in the last 5 to 10 years, B2B marketing has become much more complicated, but not necessarily more effective. What are some of the driving forces behind this complexity and its effectiveness?

Drew Neisser: The good news is that B2B marketers really invested in technology. The average tech stack is anywhere from 15 to 25 different tools that they’re using. The challenge has been that there’s so much more data, and you need more people to manage that data. And then there are more personas as people try to get their targets really well defined. And then they’re more channels. So if you have more data, more personas, and more channels, you have more complexity. And so that complexity has led to a sense of, I’m going to call it micro campaigns, where marketing has gotten small and big ideas have disappeared. And so the opportunity to communicate one-on-one feels really good. But the problem has been that there ends up being a disconnect.

And let me explain this really quickly. So most companies have a buying committee. They don’t just have one person making the decision on whatever product or service you’re selling. So if you present yourself to the CFO as the most cost effective brand. But you for the business unit, you say, “Oh, we’re going to help you sell more.” And to the person who’s actually using it, you’re going to say, “Oh, we’re the easiest.” Well, suddenly, they have 3 different views of 3 different products. And when they come together to make the buying decision, they say no, because they have different views. And so once again, all this data has led to a lack of a big coherent idea that threads through all the marketing into these micro campaigns that have been less effective. So that’s sort of the story of the last 10 years of more complication, but not more effectiveness.

Joe Cohen: So what are some of the B2B companies that you believe are delivering very progressive and exciting work?

Drew Neisser: To me one good ad does not make, you know, a great campaign. It’s not an example of progressive work. So when I think about B2B marketing, at its best, I think about something like Small Business Saturday, which is a commitment that American Express made 13 years ago. They saw Black Friday, they saw Cyber Monday, and they saw that small businesses were left out. And small businesses are important to American Express. So they created something called Small Business Saturday from scratch with remarkably little American Express branding, and basically created a toolkit that small businesses could use, they supported it by providing cash on the card. “Hey, shop at a small business and we’ll give you $25.” And sometimes it was even more. So they enabled the shopping, they enabled the small businesses, and they essentially started a movement. And it’s amazing how this movement has grown. And I think it’s now after the 13th years, something like you know, 30/$40 billions worth of products sold on a single day over the course of the last 13 years. So if you break that one down, you’d say, “Wow, they empowered their customers, they gave them something they could use that would help them grow their businesses, they didn’t try to take ownership of it in the way that like American Express is front and center and everything. They started a movement.” And that’s a remarkable thing. Very few brands do it.

Another example that I would share, and I talked about this a fair amount in my book is this paper company called Case Paper. And this is a company that, you know, it’s like the office. I mean, literally they sell paper, and there’s nothing that dramatic about that. But what they noticed, one is they differentiate by service. Again, which is not something that necessarily you would say, “Oh, well, you know, lots of people could have good service.” First of all, they have something called a purpose driven story statement. And that purpose driven story statement is on the case, and that’s representative of their commitment to help serve their customers in a remarkable way. So on the case, which is a pun, sort of sets up their sense of humor. And this is a brand that has a sense of humor. They’re the only ones in the paper world that have a sense of humor. And if you look at it, very few businesses have a sense of humor. And so everything that happens with case paper has sort of  dad humor built into it. If you look at their social feed there’s silly stuff going on. Even on their website, there’s some copy that flows through, there’s a brightness and a colorfulness to the brand. And the idea of “On the Case” permeates everything they do. They started with employees and they have On the Case Awards, which are based on are you reliable, responsive, and resourceful? It’s not just answer the phone and answer the mail. It’s do you answer the mail in a way that’s advances the cause of the customer? So “On the Case” really became the expression of the values of the organization of being reliable, resourceful and responsible.

Okay. Small business added a big program started a movement, Case Paper sense of humor, and permeate starts with employees went on to customers, and then ultimately to their prospects. One ad doesn’t close the deal. Think about in B2B, Forster, who recently noted in one of our huddles that after a prospect becomes a lead,  on average there’s 27 touches before they close. So that could be an email, that could be a demo, that could be just back and forth, it could be negotiation with a bunch of different people. So the ad just gets the conversation started, right? But that was the bit of humor that said, “Oh, I like you! I want to hang out with you guys. You guys are fun!” And then it’s gone. So there’s this complete disconnect, you got my attention, Yay! And then you had 26 other contexts that did not reflect that big brand idea. And so that’s, to me, again, why we talk about this gap between effective and efficient. And this is where it’s falling apart. You can find occasional good ads, but it’s very hard to find B2B ideas that permeate.

Joe Cohen: So, Drew, something that we talk about often as a marketing and communications team at AXIS is the importance of mining customer relationships, so that we were able to provide great insights to the brand and to the business. So can you talk a little bit about the importance of that?

Drew Neisser: So this is really interesting. And a couple of things. I’m gonna go long on this one, Joe, because it’s really critical right now. I will argue that after employees, customers are the target of 2023. Your success maintaining and upselling, your customers in ’23 will really determine the year that you have, let’s assume it’s going to be very hard to get new customers. But existing customers are everything, because you know, they’ve got one of your lines of insurance, but maybe they’ll buy some more of it. And so the question that you have to ask is not what can you sell, but how can you help them?

So what was so interesting at the beginning of the pandemic, we started huddles April 1, 2020. And we were meeting every week. And one of the CMOs—or several of the CMOs—they got on the phone and they called all their customers at the very beginning of the pandemic, and they said, “How you doing? How’s it going? What are your challenges? How can I help?” And one CMO said, “The more we gave, the more we just tried to help in any way we could, the more we got.” So while we’re not at the crisis, that we were at the beginning of the pandemic, you can kind of look at it that way right now. And so if you ask this question, “Not what can we sell you, but how can we help you?” And you find an insight or a problem. And it could be, “You know what, I can’t find a babysitter, I’m really having a problem. Everyone in my office is sick.” I don’t know, whatever it is, if you don’t help them with that problem, you probably won’t be able to sell what you’re trying to do. Because they’re obsessed with that. And I know that’s counterintuitive. You’re selling insurance, you want to focus on selling insurance. No, no, you’re helping your customers in their challenges. And that’s what’s gonna take to succeed in 2023.

Next part of that is, can you anticipate what are their issues going to be? Think through what it means to have your budgets cut? Think through what it means to have another year of COVID and now flu and thing? And what’s that going to mean to employees and their concerns? What does hybrid mean? All of these bigger macro issues you could probably think through and say, “Oh, okay, well, those are the challenges they’re facing. So how can we be helpful?” And, you know, get to that mindset of selling through service.

So back it up a bit and say, “Let’s listen better.” It’s not just listening, but listening better. And that means getting better at asking the right questions. And this is actually something that some organizations offer training on. There are ways to listen better, to ask questions, and be more empathetic. Not ones that are so obviously leading, but ones that are relationship building. In the beginning of the pandemic, it was funny, some CMOs sort of said, “Oh, my God, I have to be empathetic.” And it was funny because they were sort of used in this command and control. Just do it and get it done. And suddenly they realize, “Oh, wait… I gotta change my game.” Now, you would say that’s pretty obvious. But for some it was news. But empathy is going to be the word that is going to allow you to listen better, and understand how to use empathy, to figure out how you can help your customers. And then you can sell, it’s what in the book I call, sell through service.

Joe Cohen: Yeah, well, that that strikes a chord. And it’s directly relevant to the work that we do. And something that we’ve been having conversations about as a team is, as we look to 2023. And as our customers and partners, our broker partners, and customers and partners in distribution looks the year ahead, they’re looking for insurance solutions, and the amount of uncertainty and challenge that they face from a risk standpoint is overwhelming. You’ve got political, social, economic, all different forms of risk, where the environment is changing. So part of how we’re looking at this is as a specialty insurance and reinsurance company, how can we help create specialized customized insurance and risk management solutions to help our customers. So that also draws back to our brand purpose, which is really grounded in that specialty space.

And that tees up something else that that I know that we want to discuss as part of this conversation, is the importance of brand purpose. And there’s some debate in the B2B space, does purpose matter? So I know you have a strong view on that, I’d love for you to share that with the team.

Drew Neisser: A couple of things. In the book, I write about big P purpose and little P purpose. I mean, not every business can save the world. And not every business needs to save the world. I mean, Snickers bars are not going to save the world. But they have a purpose. They provide a snack between lunch and dinner, right? And it’s yummy. The purpose, if defined right, is one of the few ways that brands can really differentiate. And again, big P Yes, you can try to save the world. Or you can just really define why you exist as a company.

And I’ll give you an example of a company in your category. There’s company called it Assurance out of Chicago that got bought, I’m going to say 2 or 3 years ago. And I interviewed the CMO of that company, Steven Handmaker, and their whole platform, everything they did from a marketing standpoint—actually, from a company standpoint—was happy employees, happy customers. And it was equal, there was actually an equal sign happy employees = happy customers. And you think about that and you go, “Okay…” So at the time, if you went to their website, all you would see would be these videos of employees doing the things that they do in their off hours for fun. And you would say, “Wait… What? What does that have to do with insurance? How can that even matter?” Well, it turned out that Assurance was one of those companies that always was a best place to work in Chicago, they were on the list year after year after year. And because the employees were happy working there, the conversations that they had with their customers were often human conversations. And oh, by the way, let’s talk about insurance. So this ability to be likable, because the employees were happy, and they were eccentric, and they sort of emphasize the eccentricities, customers felt comfortable that these were real people, not just people trying to sell them insurance. And it’s fascinating. So is that a noble brand purpose to have happy employees? Kinda. But it’s not save the world. It’s just very focused on that. But because they went all in on that, and that was their platform, it really did help them grow the business, differentiate the business. And the reality is that a lot of companies pay lip service to purpose, like they have a purpose to protect companies, to protect households or something like that. But when you dig in deep, what you really find out is their purpose is to make a lot of money and return to stockholders. And there are many people who believe that’s fine too. But the whole pointof this long winded conversation is if you state a purpose, you got to live by it, and it’s got to permeate everything that you do. Otherwise, don’t bother. Just get back to, “We’re here to make money and that’s what we’re gonna do.” And again, that’s fine, because it’s clear. And the part of this that really matters is employees need to understand, “Why am I working here?” And the number one goal of a leader is to provide clarity. And brand purpose can do that.

So, you know you have a brand purpose that’s meaningful when your CEO talks about the purpose. When it permeates the way you go to market, the way you manage your employees. And I’ll give you a quick story. I talk about this in the book. Years ago, and this was 20+ years ago, I probably wrote the best tagline that I ever wrote, it was for Family Circle Magazine. And Family Circle had asked us to develop a sort of guerilla marketing campaign for them to target advertisers and people who read the magazine. So looking at the various things, I wrote 4 words for them. And the 4 words were, “Where Family Comes First.” And the idea was, well, gosh, family does come first in the name, that’s pretty obvious. But there was a lot more to what we presented, which is, you know, you could be the only of the 7 sister magazines, you could be the only one that puts family first. You could have a family leave policy that is unlike anybody else’s. You could do a symposium on family, you could do research that sort of looks at the changing definitions of family. Well, they weren’t looking for that. And I don’t blame them. They just wanted a tagline. The tagline sat on the spine of the magazine for 19 years, which is incredible. It’s really amazing. But that’s the difference between a tagline and a purpose driven story statement. If they had made it real, if it had permeated—by the way, the last little story on that is they had a chapter in each magazine called “Family”. And we say, well, you should put that first. Because that’s what the promise says, “Where Family Comes First.” They didn’t do that either. So we we just couldn’t quite get this. And by the way, that was way before Simon Sinek. And start with why. And again, they used it as they had requested it. I don’t blame them for that. But it’s just a great example of nice words and the opportunity to make something real.

Joe Cohen: Drew, that’s a great story. And earlier, I want to take us back to when you spoke about employer branding. And if 2 of the big trends in 2022, 2021, and 2nd half of 2020 were employer branding and the employee experience. And we had everything going on with the pandemic, we had the great resignation. But now as we look to 2023, one could argue that UX and employer branding has come out of focus. And as you acknowledged earlier, there’s a lot of talk about the looming recession, if it hasn’t arrived already, and belt tightening. So in your view, is it a miss to not be thinking about employer branding and to be investing in the employee experience? Is this something that marketers should continue to focus on and in fact, to lobby for in their organizations?

Drew Neisser: Absolutely. And here’s the thing that’s so interesting. So in, if the hole in renegade marketing, there were several things that I would say, are truly Renegade. And one of them is, I put employees as the number one target. Period. For all marketers. Full stop. Doesn’t change whether we’re in a recession or not. Let’s consider this fact for a moment. So yeah, there are layoffs. And even if there haven’t been layoffs at your company, you’re reading the ones at Meta, Google, and in tech. 150,000 jobs in Tech have been lost, that has a ripple effect. And so people are looking around and saying, “Are we going to have a layoff? Are we going to get cut? And if it’s not now, is it going to be later?” So employees are nervous. And if the organization doesn’t express commitment, and honesty, to how the business is doing, people are going to leave if they get a chance. So one retaining employees is still a top priority. And part of this is the recession will end and you may have to hire again. And so a lot of companies are looking at this and saying, I’m gonna, you know, I can cut back on Tech, I can cut back on programs, but it was so hard to hire employees during the last 2 years. Hang on to the good ones and create an environment and support them and show them that you care. And then they’ll outperform everybody else. And the bottom line is, again, I go back to Assurance, happy employees = happy customers.

So yes, the answer is this long winded story which is employees are still number one, and customers are number two. And I would stop there. Because I think you could be successful marketers in 2023 with just those 2 targets.

Joe Cohen: Absolutely. And I mean, we could even have a whole talk just on employees as brand advocates and brand ambassadors. And that recession on recession that’s that’s critical. Hold out many brands and the ability to tell your story, which of course you’re touching on

As we wrap up, I’m going to steal something that you do when you interview podcast guests. And you know, I’ve been on the other end of it. So the tables have turned. Drew, can you please share 3 tips on how marketers to can naviagte turbulent economic conditions?

Drew Neisser: Sure. Number one, focus. One of the things that we see is just trying to do too much and too many things and they’re all too small. So the advantage of having a purpose and a purpose driven story statement is that it gives you one big idea to execute against. And then you just figure out how many different ways can we make that idea real. So focus is really important. And so for example, when I do a fair amount of brand consulting, and often I’ll ask this question, “How many personas are you currently targeting?” And they’ll go, “Oh, 9.” And I’ll say, “So you’re creating 9 different campaigns against 9 different personas. And basically trying to present your company differently to each of those. It’s a real problem. I get the idea of personas, I want people to understand who their customers are, but overuse of them leads again to less effective.

Okay, so one tip is focus. And I’ve really already talked about Tip number two, which is engage employees first. And getting into employees. I think right now is probably the most cost effective marketing channel, you have. I mean, everybody’s looking for ways to make their marketing more cost effective. Well, employees are right there, you already have them. And there ought to be a way that they can advocate on your behalf. And want to do it because they feel so good about what the company is trying to do and the purpose of the organization.

And then tip number three is cultivate customer champions. And we didn’t really go into this and how you can sort of listen better to customers and engage better to customers. And I had sort of prepared a few things that I just want you to think about when it comes to customers. Listening to customers means just listening with empathy. But it also means, one, recognize them. Think about how do you—what kind of awards program can you do for your customers? Can you support them and help them build community even if it’s just a Slack channel just to support them on a daily basis? Do you as individuals spend time in customer service center, I encourage every marketer to spend a day in the in the call center or in customer service. So they’re hearing what the real issues are. I think that’s it. Focus, employees, and then customers. How’s that, Joe?

Joe Cohen: That’s great. Drew, thank you so much for making time to speak with our team today. On behalf of the AXIS marketing & communications team, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. And I’m sure we’ll be talking again soon.


For more interviews with innovative marketers visit renegade.com/podcasts and hit that subscribe button.

Show Credits

Renegade Marketers Unite is written and directed by Drew Neisser. Hey, that’s me! This show is produced by Melissa Caffrey, Laura Parkyn, and our B2B podcast partners Share Your Genius. The music is by the amazing Burns Twins and the intro Voice Over is Linda Cornelius. To find the transcripts of all episodes, suggest future guests, or learn more about B2B branding, CMO Huddles, or my CMO coaching service, check out renegade.com. I’m your host, Drew Neisser. And until next time, keep those Renegade thinking caps on and strong!