View from the C-Suite: Steve Ambeau defines success for Palliser and EQ3

Palliser Furniture Group's first CMO says its first step will be to align on the meaning of brand, ecommerce and digital transformation.

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Steve Ambeau has terminology on the brain.

Three months into his role as chief marketing officer for the family-owned, Winnipeg-based Palliser Furniture Group, Ambeau continues to dedicate much of his time aligning with company leadership on definitions – of brand, of ecommerce, of digital transformation.

More than most, the marketer – the company’s first CMO to work across both the Palliser and EQ3 lines of business – is willing to admit these and other terms get tossed around a little too liberally. So the first step in achieving the company’s priorities – which include strengthening the Palliser and EQ3 brands, growing the ecommerce business and pursuing digital transformation – is defining what they actually mean, he says.

In all three cases, Ambeau says he and the company share a vision of a holistic approach to branding and marketing that spans advertising and content through to customer service and insights. “Personally, I think of [brand] as a living and breathing thing – it’s the product, the service, the collective whole of the company. As we talked about it, that’s what resonated [with Palliser’s leadership].”

Ambeau has a wealth of marketing experience, particularly in automative. He was most recently CMO of Rapid RTC, a communications and CRM platform for the automotive industry, and he spent a decade in senior roles at BMW, both in Canada and abroad.

In his new position, he leads marketing and communications for Palliser and its family of chairs, couches and other upholstered furniture, as well as EQ3, which sells furniture, home decor and has a network of 19 retail stores in Canada and the U.S.

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As Palliser Furniture Group’s first CMO, do you see the possibility of doing more above-the-line marketing? 

It’s definitely a possibility. If you look at how we’re advertising today, there’s the content – but I’d rather talk about storytelling in terms of, ‘What are the stories we can tell?’ The best content in the world served to the wrong audience quickly becomes bad content.

And that’s been our focus, I think, in previous years: continuing to do product shoots and capture content. Over the last three months, I have heard, ‘We need more content; we need more content.’ What happens, inevitably, in many companies is that we market to ourselves. ‘I’m tired of seeing this content.’ Yes, but you are not our customer.

Tweaking that mindset in terms of what we’re creating, the type of stories we’re telling [is important], whether it’s above-the-line, below-the-line or through-the-line (which would be in the middle area) – where does digital live these days?

So, I would answer your question this way: we’ve been very focused on product centricity, and I think we need to shift to a customer-centric focus. Our overall storytelling shouldn’t mean you ignore one or the other. The best brands do both things very well.

What does that look like from a media perspective? 

PalliserIt’s a noisy market out there, regardless of industry, but home furnishings is extremely competitive, and there are some big players that do things really well. I wouldn’t say IKEA is a direct competitor. But, personally, as a marketer with an appreciation of good communications, I think they do a lot of things well.

My point in bringing that up is how do we cut through? Because we’re certainly not going to outspend some of these giants. That’s just naive to think.

We already talked about storytelling. But we need to be more creative in the sense of not only the channels that we advertise on in terms of our media mix, but where and when we [place] our media. Every industry has a certain calendar, a seasonal effect to it. Maybe it’s not bucking the trend, because the trend is the trend for a reason. But it could mean being in-market two weeks earlier or two weeks later than the others.

Generally, philosophically speaking, I don’t like the word campaign. By nature, a campaign has a beginning, middle and end. And if the campaign is actually working, why would you ever turn it off? Okay, dollars. But most creative marketers and companies today have an always-on strategy – you’re layering a good baseline and then you’re delivering above-the-line on top.

So, when everybody is shouting, maybe we’re not going to shout as loud. But when they rest a little bit, we will continue to have the conversation with our customers or prospective customers. All that to say, we can be creative in other, maybe non-traditional creative ways.

Do you intend to work with agencies or to manage most of your activities internally? 

One of our focus areas is the agency landscape. Most of what we have done in the past has attempted to be done in-house. Much of that has been done well.

But, it gets down to people and talent and can you attract and retain the right talent? The benefits of an agency and certainly creative agencies that have great ideation and strategy teams is they attract great talent, because that talent wants to be able to work on multiple brands.

We’re missing some of that. It’s not to say we haven’t worked with agencies, or don’t. We do now. But the best agencies I’ve worked with have become extensions of the team. And that’s something we do not have right now.

We think we can do it internally, first and foremost, which is very familiar to me from my BMW days. Maybe it’s a manufacturing thing. ‘We build things. Therefore, why can’t we build and make this?’ There are times you can, but I don’t think you can be great at everything.

Your CV includes seniors roles at BMW, including time as the global head of digital marketing on the Mini brand. What automotive lessons are you carrying with you into your new role?   

EQ3Palliser home furnishings are sold through independent retailer groups throughout Canada and the U.S. Most people would call that B2B business. While that’s true, the one thing I learned from automotive and even my early days at Zurich North America – I was on the asset management side, marketing mutual funds, which is not overly sexy – is that B2B is a sales funnel.

My challenge with that is that’s not marketing. Sales is a form of marketing, but in terms of communications, it’s really B2C2B. Not to get too philosophical about it, but when we communicate as Palliser, I think it’s critical that we are still communicating to the end consumer. Hence, from a marketing standpoint, it’s B2C to create pull on the business. That’s the marketing journey, which is different from the sales or supply chain.

So, that’s one [lesson] – how do we understand the sales and go-to-market strategy, and how do we tweak our communications strategy [in response]?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities.

Photos courtesy of Palliser Furniture Group/EQ3.