Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with us, Peter. We concentrate on branding and in particular naming, so I can’t help but make the first question about your surname, it is very unique. Can you share its origins and what effect has it had on your life?
There are more Coffees in the world than you might think, especially if you include the Coffeys and the Caffeys: so far as I know, we all come from Ireland, and we’re all the result of immigration clerks phonetically spelling what they heard when someone said: “My last name is Capteigh” (which in Gaelic sounds like, you already know). The root word means “Sons of the victorious,” and it’s thought to have been originally an honorific from battle: the coat of arms has a Latin motto that one could paraphrase as “We don’t rely on luck. We rely on victory.”
Of course, I knew none of these things as a child, and the jokes were obvious and lasted well into adulthood: when the Java programming language became a thing in the late 1990s, and I was in the computer industry print media at the time, I wrote an article on Java security issues that was headlined “Real grounds for Java jitters — by Peter Coffee.” People wondered if it was just a pen name. I rarely get the chance to share that history, so thanks for asking.
What does a VP for Strategic Research at Salesforce do? What do you most enjoy about your job and is there anything you would rather not do if you had a choice?
I was hired in 2007 with the title of Head of Platform Research, when we were just about to start offering a “platform license” that gave people the foundation beneath our Web-delivered Customer Relationship Management tool — without the CRM, so that they could build and Web-deliver pretty much anything that they used to do on something like Windows or the Mac. Over the following years, the platform has become a major business, so having that word in my title became too limiting as people thought I only worked in that area — so with my promotion to VP came the change to “Strategic Research.” My team consists of myself and two other VPs, in various parts of the world: we all spend our time with our own account teams and our customers and our partners on developing their understanding of new business models and their enabling technologies. We were doing “digital transformation” before it had that name.
The best part of the job is when people say, “You met with us five years ago, and it changed us forever. Thank you.” I had a customer say something almost exactly like that on Twitter, just this past year, and there’s nothing better. The part of the job I would not do? I’d be fine if it did not involve the 180-plus days of travel and close to 200,000 air miles per year that it has for the past few years, and if telepresence could become a more accepted mode. It would be healthier for the planet, as well as for me, and I could double or triple the time I actually spend with customers and partners and our own teams if I were not constantly on airplanes. Of course, we’re in an enforced global experiment with that now, and it will be interesting to see if the behavior change persists.
Were you familiar with Salesforce before you started working in the company? Did the brand name and image play a role in how you felt about that opportunity?
I knew Salesforce as a CRM-as-a-service company before I began my work there, and I had been discussing the emergence of a platform-as-a-service opportunity and the technology that it would require with CEO and co-founder Marc Benioff for three years before that turned into a job offer. The image of the company, which was absolutely a reality, was that of a disruptive innovator — in the strict, Clayton Christensen sense of that phrase — and I definitely took the job because I saw that as the Salesforce DNA.
I had received offers to work with several companies as a result of my own personal visibility as a writer, with columns and product reviews and technical articles over a period of eighteen years, but I declined any offer that I could imagine someday requiring me to recommend a product in which I didn’t have a conviction of its innovation and excellence. I took the job with Salesforce because I could look myself in the eye, in the mirror, and tell myself that this was the real deal, the “sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic” as Clarke’s Third Law puts it.
You talk about creating and building Customer Companies. What is a Customer Company? What would you say is the importance of a good brand name in that process?
It’s the path of least resistance for a company to see itself, and to define itself to others, as the sum of the products it produces and the activities it performs, and the assets (physical and otherwise) that it owns. That path, though, leads to places from which one can be displaced by competitors from anywhere in the world, given the mobility of assets and the global reach of communications. Tom Peters talked about this in 1987 in his book Thriving on Chaos, which is one of a short list of books that have permanently changed my thinking.
What’s harder, and continually humbling, is for a company to define itself by the need that it meets, and to be open as a result to the idea that your engineers and salespeople don’t get to tell your customer that a product met specifications and therefore must be adequate. The moment of being served happens in the mind of the customer; the brand of a company, over time, must be grown and maintained as a credible promise that its customers’ evolving needs will reliably and respectfully be met.
Salesforce is known to own over 5000 domain names, some of those really top end names like Force.com, Work.com, Einstein.com, IQ.com amongst others. What is the reason behind that?
A company used to be able to buy brand-name familiarity with massive advertising budgets, concentrated through a small number of print and broadcast media channels. Today, customers don’t look you up by your familiar name in the white pages, or even by your product or service category in the yellow pages: they Google the problem they need solved, and you need to show up in the first page of hits. Domain names that describe the problem you solve are therefore important to your discoverability.
You have been working at Salesforce for over ten years now, how has the brand Salesforce developed since you started and how does that affect your work?
You can look at the evolution of our branding and see something quite visible and intentional. When I started there in 2007, the branding was red, black, and gray on white: the artwork was based on the theme, “No Software,” because it was novel to offer business users an IT capability that did not require them to own and operate their own software stack. The industry did not use the term “cloud” at that time: IBM called it “utility computing,” and we called it “on demand.”
When we introduced the platform license, the “CRM service without the CRM,” we introduced blue as a theme color for our platform offerings; the red/black/gray persisted for some time for our applications offerings. When “cloud” became an increasingly popular term, our logo became at first a literal cloud image and then evolved to a more abstract shape, and during that time the blue took over. Our branding went from what we were not, that is to say from the novelty of “No Software,” to the asset of what we were, that is to say the agility and power and economies of a broadly capable customer engagement platform in the cloud.
In your experience with projects you have worked with and/or observed, what is the importance of a good domain name? Has that changed over the years?
Having a domain name has evolved from being a rarity, to a branding statement, to an expectation over the past quarter-century. One used to see it mentioned in advertising as if it were special, then it became part of a company’s name: our own corporate name is still officially “salesforce.com inc.” with an intentionally lower-case “s,” and we struggled for years to get that rendered correctly in print media references to the company.
A few years ago, we bowed to reality and started using the simpler “Salesforce” brand, but of course, our customers expect that “salesforce.com” or our other domains like heroku.com or exacttarget.com (both based on names of acquired companies) will continue to work — as they do. I know that personally, I find it a real speed bump when I type [companyname].com into my browser and wind up somewhere different from what I expected because then I need to go Google the company and hope I can figure out where they are on the net. An obvious domain name is a well-lit and welcoming front door.
How do you think cloud computing has changed marketing over the past decade? Where do you see it going next?
Today, saying “cloud computing” is close to becoming quaint, like saying “cellular phone” or “digital camera.” Those are all now expectations, and people have to say (for example) “film camera” when they don’t mean the dominant type that only uses photons and bits. As a thought experiment, if someone says “cloud computing” I might reply “As opposed to what? The stuff you do when the Internet is down? What is that, anyway?” If your network connection is down, today, you’re not just out to lunch with a sign on the door saying “back in an hour.” You’re invisible, you’ve left the planet, the people who come looking for you will assume you’re out of business and go find another place to get what they need.
Where it goes next, is to take the trajectory that began with the iPhone in 2007 — just a few months after I started at Salesforce — and continue the unification of a customer’s experience, so that something I start doing on my phone can make a frictionless transition to my tablet or my laptop or my home theater or my infotainment system in my car. Today, people may often have to email themselves a screenshot from their phone as a bridge to continuing a retail experience, for example, on their home PC. What’s required is a process that designs the customer’s experience, then asks which aspects of that experience will most likely be demanded in different contexts and on different devices.
Salesforce offers a lot of customization and branding options, thus recognizing the importance of a brand’s image in any organization. Are there ways in which Salesforce can help businesses improve and develop their brand?
The new marketing designs the experience to solve the problem, with the product and associated services manifesting as wanted, rather than designing the product and then telling copywriters and media buyers to sell it.
We are in the midst of a very challenging period now, globally, with physical locations closed, people locked in their homes. The internet really couldn’t be more appreciated, being it is now almost the sole way to do business and to communicate socially. Do you think there will be a Before and After of how we act, work and communicate online once this is over?
For all the variety of my interactions with customers in many different sectors, I would say that the common crucial focus is not on what we can sell them, but on what their brand needs to become in a connected world: what promise it needs to make, what experience it needs to deliver.
That’s theirs, not ours, to define — and so, my favorite way to see a company using Salesforce is to make our brand a footnote to theirs. It’s a huge compliment when a company’s web site says “powered by Salesforce,” as a statement of their confidence and their belief in their customers’ confidence in our reliability and security and performance. Our customers can then build on that elevated foundation to differentiate on what they choose to do uniquely well.
The world that comprehends pandemic risk will behave differently, but only by degrees than the one we had before. Already, there were companies with no physical offices at all, where everyone worked from wherever they chose. Already, there were educational institutions that were predominantly on-line experiences.
What changes, almost certainly, is that things people said “can’t be done on line” will demonstrably be done that way. For example, the luxury wristwatch industry is going through a wrenching recognition that certain annual trade shows may be dispensable after all. They’ve been saying, company by company, for years, that they hated the expense and the competition for attention at these events, but no one wanted to take the risk of being the first to bail out and put its resources into own-brand and/or virtual alternatives.
Now, an entire global industry is getting a free pass to experiment this year with a different approach, and that industry may be going through a one-way door that leads to a new normal for brand engagement. They won’t be the only industry to see if they choose to see it, this opportunity to elevate and propel a brand into the decades of “new normal” to come.
I’m urging all of our account teams to ask our customers, “If this turned out to last for two more months, what would you wish on June 1 you had started to get underway on April 1?” Since we know, to near certainty, that this will last at least that long, this is not hypothetical, and I hope that all Salesforce customers will let us help them blaze that trail.
Peter Coffee, VP for Strategic Research at Salesforce, works with developers, transformation partners, CIOs & other stakeholders to build a vigorous and resilient global community of innovation, service and success. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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