Inside 3M’s quest to be both big and fast

Erin Craven is reinventing her marketing department, using centralization and automation to catch up to customers.
Craven Erin 1a

Erin Craven, 3M’s executive director of marketing and sales for Canada, describes her job humbly: “to help our marketers be better marketers and better sell in the digital world.” But her task is nothing short of modernizing a massive, century-old manufacturing company.

3M’s 55,000 products (from Post-It Notes to police equipment) are managed by 100 marketers in 27 business divisions serving both consumer and B2B markets. Craven says until recently, it was as siloed you’d expect a company that size to be, and finding success in digital was only sporadic.

“It wasn’t that we had too many cooks in the kitchen; we had too many kitchens,” she told strategy. “Everyone knew they needed to ‘be digital,’ but everyone was dabbling in it. We weren’t building subject matter expertise.”

She wants her company to move faster to better meet customer expectations. Her solution has been to create a digital marketing centre of excellence that those 100 marketers can leverage. This specialized team of about 30  staffed by a selection of internal team members and bolstered with external hiring to fill in the skill gaps — offers everything from SEO to digital content consultation.

It hasn’t solved every problem; 30 people can’t possibly serve a company operating at that scale on its own.

“Ruthless prioritization is how we eat, sleep and breathe,” she says. “When you have 55,000 products… it’s based on market opportunity and category performance. We look at it continuously and it changes as the market changes.” But centralizing knowledge has revealed a few pleasant surprises that have helped the business across all its many silos.

Solving problems overnight

One of the skill sets Craven had to hire in from outside was search optimization. And she’s glad she did, as it paid off incredibly quickly.

“In the hearing protection category, we manufacture ear plugs. With our 3M brand, we spell ‘earplugs’ without a space. And in the pre-digital world, all our marketing materials would have spelled it as such. However, when it comes to digital, people don’t type ‘earplugs’ into Google as one word. Our metadata was as we spelled it, so we needed that skill set in search know to make that change.

“We went from near last in search results to first, nearly overnight.”

Smart digital marketing means a smarter digital company

Automation is a key part to maintaining the “ruthless prioritization” the company needs to keep moving. Making decisions at speed is an ongoing concern, but now that AI has been employed help with 3Ms data operations, it’s benefiting other parts of the business as well.

“We have a group that handles syndication – requests from channel partners and customers for our data to help them with their e-commerce platforms. That demand continues to grow every year; last year we saw a 10x increase in demand.” However, machine-to-machine automation is taking people out of that process, allowing data to be requested and sent automatically and as-needed.

Digital breaks down the walls

“When you base your digital transformation on the customer journey, you start to realize that your customers and potential customers aren’t owned by one business group or unit, which had been our assumption.”

Smarter digital spending has allowed 3M to experiment with advertising and branded content “instead of placing big bets and just hoping.” Tracking consumers moving through this expanded content has broadened its knowledge of the experience funnel and allowed it to find cross selling opportunities it had previously missed.

She’s seen results in the industrial products businesses particularly, “the opportunity to sell safety products within the retail or healthcare markets [were] uncovered through customer responses to our content being served up digitally… In a company like ours, it’s very easy for division marketers to say ‘Oh, it’s totally different in my world, in my market.’ The unified digital team helps us realize that we’re a lot more the same than we are different.”