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NI CMO: Marketing should lead corporate social responsibility

As Gen Z holds brands accountable for corporate social responsibility values, Ana Villegas, CMO at NI (National Instruments), makes the case that marketing teams should handle CSR.

Corporate social responsibility isn't optional anymore; it has grown into a competitive differentiator. Many companies now chase business from Gen Z, which holds companies accountable to the values they profess in their CSR statements before they buy.

CSR began more a century ago, with the ideas of corporate philanthropy espoused by American oligarchs such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller: Set your values and honor them by supporting charities that align with those values. In recent decades, social -- with an emphasis on diversity -- and environmental values have also become CSR bedrock.

Flash forward to now: The formation, management and publicizing of CSR can make or break a company's ability to succeed in its market. Ana Villegas, CMO of NI (formerly National Instruments) argues in this Q&A that marketing teams should lead these initiatives -- and they should live them, too. NI, a manufacturer of lab-testing hardware and developer of software to support scientific testing of products and services based in Austin, Texas, has taken this approach.

What does environmental and social governance (ESG) and CSR mean in real life for your company?

Ana Villegas and her team at NI
NI drives its corporate social responsibility program through its marketing team, led by Ana Villegas (right).

Ana Villegas: It's a big priority for us. In 2020 we launched our corporate impact strategy with our 2030 goals. We have three very important pillars: One is around diversifying the faces of engineering -- our commitment as a company to make sure we have a diverse workforce -- from individual contributors to leaders to managers. We also support and invest in STEM education. We not only want to make sure we are hiring in a way that is diverse but also to help generate a workforce pipeline that is going to help the workforce of the future be diverse.

The second pillar is equity -- how we make sure we as a company are paying and aligning compensation across the company and taking a stand when it comes to things happening in society.

The third pillar is promoting a healthy planet through initiatives such as participating in the automotive industry's Vision Zero to prevent traffic fatalities and sustainable, circular design -- being more efficient in how we create our technology. So our customers can be more efficient and do more for the planet.

What kind of social issues has NI taken a stand on so far?

Villegas: It's around diversity of opinion, diversity of thinking, and making sure that when there are problems or there are issues, we have an opinion.

The latest one was around all these discussions about abortion. As part of taking a stand, we made sure that we actually had our health benefits support people who have to travel to do this. That's a very specific example that just happened. We have a corporate impact council that meets when we have to take a stand. We decide, based on our main areas of focus, if we need to say something and what are we saying.

How do you weigh risk versus the responsibility when taking a stand as a company?

Villegas: We have a framework that we use to look at to see if it's aligning to our strategy, aligned to our purpose. As we go through this framework, we decide if it is something that we as a company need to take a stand on. We don't just jump in and say, 'Oh, this is happening. Let's just say something.' We have a process to go through that.

Interesting. Well, why should chief marketing officers be involved in an ESG and CSR stuff?

Villegas: When you think about the brand and the reputation of the company, traditionally, a CMO will have been very focused on customers. You have targeted an audience, and what are they doing? But when you think about a brand holistically, it's really not only your customers but also your employees, your investors, your communities.

Sometimes when you're in B2B, you might forget about this because you think, 'Oh, I'm selling to this big corporation.' Well, they have people inside. These individuals are going to have an opinion on how they see your company.
Ana VillegasCMO, NI

So while not all corporate responsibility efforts may sit under the CMO, the CMO will sometimes lead without authority -- work cross-functionally -- because in the end, it's one brand. There is not a different brand that an employee's going to see versus what a customer's going to see. Sometimes when you're in B2B, you might forget about this because you think, 'Oh, I'm selling to this big corporation.' Well, they have people inside. These individuals are going to have an opinion on how they see your company.

What do you do to make customers aware of your CSR and especially sustainability initiatives?

Villegas: Two things are critical to your message and your content: One, understand how to speak to your audience. Research has been very important for us to understand when to talk about corporate responsibility, in what context, on what channels, how to talk to potential customers and investors and so on.

The second part is alignment, having one communications and one content roadmap. Where does corporate responsibility fit into everything we're talking about? If you're trying to talk to a single customer about the software, then about performance, and then corporate responsibility, he will be like, 'Oh my God, there's too much!' You have to align the message and incorporate it.

When we were launching the NI brand in 2020, we were also launching the corporate impact piece. So we created the "Next 100," which is 100 stories -- one per week -- talking about different topics that were relevant for our audience. We embedded corporate responsibility as part of this. For example, diversity in engineering was covered in an article about our partnerships to further STEM education and brought to life with the story of us and a customer working together. So you embed it in your story, and you create a narrative versus having a separate campaign.

Millennials and Generation Z hold their employers -- as well as companies they buy from -- accountable for things like environmental responsibility. Is this driving NI's CSR initiatives?

Villegas: Yes. They come to interview with us and they ask, 'What are you doing for the environment? What is specifically different at NI? What is your plan for five years from now?' -- things that didn't used to be asked. People were worrying about how much they were going to earn and how many vacation days they have.

The other area where I'm starting to see things happening is with customers. We have a couple of big customers that have come to us and said, 'We've heard you're doing corporate responsibility. We want to learn more because we are interested in expanding our relationship with vendors who believe in and are making efforts on these areas.' So it's starting to enter conversations with our B2B customers -- big, big companies. Our account managers are starting to say, 'Can somebody from CSR come to my meeting with the customers so we can talk more about what you guys are doing?' It's fascinating.

How do you prove to your customers that NI actually does what it says?

Villegas: It started with building the strategy and then building the goals we were going to hit by 2030. We published the first year of results last month. So we are showing our progress by goal. One example is how much waste our buildings have around the world. You can measure that -- carbon emissions and everything else. Another one is diversity: What percentage of your workforce is people of color overall, and especially at the manager level? What has been the change? Have we moved the needle? For us, talking to the board and investors, it's metrics and transparency -- this is where we are, no fluff.

Do you think about CSR when choosing vendors?

Villegas: Not all of them are there yet, to be very honest. I think that conversation needs to happen more. For me, one of the things that's very critical is diversity. I was in a meeting with my agency the other day, and they were all a bunch of white guys. All of them. I've been telling my team we need to ask more questions [of prospective vendors] and get to a point where we are making decisions based on [diversity of staff]. I think that companies and the vendors aren't there yet.

How is the role of CMO changing?

Villegas: It's always changing. Right now, I see that the partnership with the leaders of HR, R&D, and different parts of the organization is critical. We're not just talking about the marketing campaign anymore. We are talking about the company's reputation -- its influence -- with all of these pieces together. So it is a very different conversation.

That's why I love marketing, because you are constantly learning, and you have to be like a chameleon, making sure you are aligning to where the world is going.

This Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity.

Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget Editorial.

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