An interview with:

Michael Williams
Chief Marketing Officer
The Grand Prix of America, Formula 1

Interviewed by Sam Narisi

Michael Williams has had the chance to work for several of the most admired brands in the world, including Disney, the National Football League, the National Hockey League as well as with the global advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, where he managed a $50M annual portfolio for Ford Motor Company. In his current role as Chief Marketing Officer for The Grand Prix of America, Michael is responsible for running general business operations including all sales and marketing matters, event programming, and customer experience and engagement, as well as establishing the brand position and strategic business model that will guarantee long term growth for the Grand Prix and Formula 1 in North America and throughout the world, a job he says allows him to use all the skills and experience he has gained throughout his career.

Williams is joining us at this year’s 15th Anniversary MARKETING WORLD 2014: AFrost & Sullivan Executive MindXchange, this week in Boston, to share his expertise and insight around the future of marketing. We caught up with Michael to talk about some of the ways the role of marketers is changing and what CMOs and others must do to stay ahead.

As marketing’s role changes, what are some of the key skills marketers need to stay relevant?

I think those skills are always changing. Successful marketers are the ones who are able to realize how the landscape is evolving and apply their skills to what is needed at the time. For instance, the challenges we’re going to face with Formula 1 in the first year are going to be vastly different from the challenges we’ll face in years two through fifteen. In year one, it’s mostly about awareness building and creating a platform to deliver this race, while in years two through fifteen, it’ll be about customer engagement, the value proposition, renewal and retention of consumers, and ultimately creating a clear, effective, and engaging communication channel to interact with people on a continual basis.

Nowadays, marketing isn’t just about creating a single interaction with a consumer. It’s about relationships. For instance, when you use social media now, it’s not a one-way conversation. We’re talking with customers, rather than to them. I think that’s one of the biggest evolutions within marketing. It’s not just blindly throwing blanket statements out there and hoping it resonates with people. You need to create relevant, topical, and engaging content, deliver it in a strategic manner, and make sure that once you have that engagement, you never do anything to discourage it or break up the relationship. You have to nurture the relationship and deliver on what you promise and what your brand represents. More so than ever before, you have the ability to do that in a very clear and concise manner.

As organizations continue figuring out the best ways to use social media, what do you think marketers should be doing to change their approach?

The role of a CMO is changing from just a traditional marketer to someone with the skill set of a marketer, but also with the ability to be a good listener. You have to listen to your consumers and what the market is telling you, and then you have to be nimble enough to go back and change your strategy and how you’re delivering your messages to people, if necessary.

Never before has the power been so strongly in the hands of the consumer. The speed with which things are done now forces you to be concerned with listening and engaging the consumer. But it also forces you to do the traditional work of recognizing a problem, devising a solution, and then figuring out the best way to communicate that solution.

What other trends within social media and technology do you think will impact marketers moving forward?

I think consumer-developed content is going to make up a larger portion of how companies communicate the positive attributes of their brand. Before, marketers used to think they were the ones managing and dictating what was happening with the brand, but now you need to realize that there are conversations about your company that are happening constantly, whether you’re involved or not.

A lot of times, depending on what your product is, if you’ve gotten people emotionally invested in your brand, then they’re going to voice their own stories. You’re going to see a big shift where brands will embrace those stories and give customers a platform to speak on behalf of the brand, which is different from what has happened before.

How can companies create that emotional investment?

You need to recognize the difference between creating a brand and marketing a commodity. Those both might be the same product or service, but the difference is in how you go about doing it.

Take a company marketing bottled water. In one case, it may be a commodity where the company sells it on price and that’s how they compete, and in another you could find a company that creates a story – for example, a charity water, where a portion of the revenue goes back to deliver clean water to someone else. In doing so, you’ve created an emotional connection where people may be willing to spend more to do something because of the story and what the brand represents. You’re actually selling the product based on the brand attributes and the core value, rather than the tangible product itself. Tat makes you different from everybody else.

What are some of the challenges around these areas you’re facing with Grand Prix of America and how are you overcoming them?

One factor with Formula 1 is that it’s not well known in the U.S., so there is going to be an educational and awareness-building component. But bringing a race to the New York and New Jersey market offers a tremendous amount of opportunity that you may not have elsewhere. There’s a large percentage of the population that reside throughout the northeast that are either from another country, have some kind of international influence, or do international business of some kind and already know the value of F1 and have an enormous passion for it.

Ernest Hemingway said that “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” The Grand Prix of America has the unique opportunity to do something truly spectacular. We will deliver an exceptional race experience that is grounded in creativity, innovation, safety and the highest standards found in live event production around the globe. The genesis of our brand may have been born from racing, but the DNA of who we are and what our brand represents is so much more.

It’s our responsibility to deliver a compelling story alongside an incredible product. After all, we are creating moments that will forever change the way that people look at Formula 1.