Why You Should Never Dress Like a Teenager: How Authenticity Helps You Win at Marketing

August 29, 2016

Daniel Incandela’s career in digital marketing covers a lot of territory. He has applied his marketing skills and expertise to leadership positions at art museums, in IndyCar racing, and with household B2B brands including ExactTarget and Salesforce. Today, he serves as the Senior Vice President of Global Marketing at Return Path, a leading email data solutions provider that helps its clients build closer, safer, and smarter relationships with their customers.

Throughout his varied career, Incandela has always maintained the importance of being direct and authentic. From his approach to brand messaging to his management style to his strategic planning process, he comes to each challenge with a simple and pragmatic outlook that serves him – and, ultimately, his customers – well.

1. Honest Branding

Incandela joined Return Path in early 2015 when CMO, Scott Roth, was in the midst of a rebrand that involved refreshing the company messaging and positioning so it would be more relevant and innovative, and also help to highlight the company’s vibrant culture. One of Incandela’s first initiatives then as VP of Brand and Digital was to bring the new branding to life in the digital channel.

“When I was preparing to interview at Return Path, I visited their website, and it was not a good experience,” Incandela says, recalling his first impression of the company’s pre-rebrand online presence. “The messaging was so convoluted that it was difficult really understanding what the company did, so a big part of my focus was taking the new brand experience and creating a wholly new digital experience that would be accessible to all of our audiences — prospects, existing customers, analysts, press, and job seekers.”

Looking back on this project and other brand development work he’s done over the years, Incandela offers four tips that together provide a kind of framework for success in this area:

  • Tackle Messaging First: “Messaging is the first step in developing a content strategy,” he says. “In fact, it is one of the most important things you can do in software and in marketing.” It’s especially important for early stage companies to step back and spend some time on their brand development while they are establishing their initial presence in the market. How you define your messaging will create a foundation for everything else you do in marketing and sales.
  • Don’t be a Copycat: “Do not copy what other companies are doing,” Incandela warns. “This drives me nuts in this field because companies tend to use incredibly specific jargon that only makes sense to people in the software space. When companies mimic each other, it becomes this linguistically specialized language that only product marketers understand. Your prospects have no idea what you’re talking about.”
  • Be Authentic: “Be authentic, be truthful, and communicate in a really simple way,” says Incandela. “It’s that easy.” Of course, it’s not always actually easy; but vetting your branding ideas against the authentic-truthful-simple approach will give you an very real advantage against companies who have fallen into the industry lingo trap.
  • Get Feedback: “Messaging should reflect the company culture, the strength of your product, and the way you want to go into the marketplace,” Incandela says. “To accomplish this well, you have to talk with internal people across all departments.” He adds, however, that it’s not enough to tap internal resources for input and perspective, noting the importance of getting feedback from outside people who will be the audience for your brand messaging. “Ultimately, your messaging is going to appear in a press release, on your website, and in your event booth graphics,” he says. “You need to be sure to balance internal input with external relevance.”

In addition to soliciting feedback during the brand development process, Incandela also recommends ongoing measurement of how your messaging is being received in the market. While it’s difficult to isolate or quantify the performance of branding, there are steps you can take to monitor overall perceptions. In addition to measuring web traffic and advertising impressions, Incandela and his team run quarterly surveys that are specifically geared to measure brand awareness and sentiment. “Since the rebrand, the trend is up, and the comments we hear from existing customers have been very, very positive,” says Incandela. “And, our prospect audience has definitely had an injection of new energy about our brand.”

2. Direct Connections

While working on the rebrand, Incandela was also settling into the day-to-day marketing operations. Prior to Incandela’s hire, Roth had moved the previously outsourced business development team in house. While the initial decision to make this transition was driven primarily by a need to improve the group’s ROI, Incandela saw it as one element in a larger marketing initiative. “The decision coincided with Return Path’s leadership team recognizing that they needed to invest in marketing in order to improve the entire customer journey,” he explains. “The sales team needed better individual support — better opportunities to chase — and that’s only possible with a well-trained in-house business development team that knows the product inside and out, understands the marketing strategy, and can therefore talk to prospects in a way that is focused on helping them solve their problems.”

By bringing the business development team in house, Return Path made it possible for that team to build and nurture more direct and authentic relationships with the sales and marketing teams as well as with prospects. In addition, Return Path takes a direct approach to professional development within the sales staff, which contributes to a consistently positive trend in department-to-department turnover. “We have a very clear-cut path for sales professionals to move through the company,” Incandela says. “You start in sales development handling inbound, move to outbound, and then move into sales. We have an incredible pipeline of talent that’s progressing through the company and is focused on adding to our already impressive client list.”

Incandela attributes the alignment between Return Path’s sales and marketing teams to the same kind of direct communication. “Our sales and marketing relationship isn’t perfect, but it is really strong,” he says. “Part of what keeps the relationship healthy is that we can have very direct conversations, and because I view marketing as the main supporter of sales.”

Support is a big theme in the way Incandela approaches his marketing role, both in the larger picture of how marketing supports the organization, and also in how he supports his own team. “As a manager, I try to be direct and honest,” he says. “I learned early on that postponing or avoiding difficult conversations isn’t healthy for anyone, so I’m always direct and honest, but also very encouraging and supportive.”

Incandela acknowledges that his direct reports and extended team are the ones doing the work — not him —and considers it his primary responsibility to simply provide them with the resources they need to do their jobs. “My team members are the ones who make this company look good. I have to let them do their jobs,” he says. “This means that I need to be there to support them when they need support, and otherwise I just need to get out of their way.” Incandela focuses his efforts on helping his team remove obstacles, acquire budget, and move initiatives through the approval process with the executive team.

Ongoing team communication is another area in which Incandela employs a direct and consistent approach. “We have an open office format, so there’s a lot of conversation throughout the day,” he says, “we have a lot of fun.” In addition to the in-the-moment, in-person conversations, Incandela’s team stays in sync on daily work via agile methodology and platforms like Trello and Chatter. Incandela also runs weekly meetings with the larger group as well as individual one-on-ones with direct reports. In each of these meetings, Incandela focuses on how he can provide support to the team. “We’re only going to be successful if the team is allowed to do their job in an environment where they feel listened to, supported, and free to make decisions,” Incandela says. “When you create that kind of framework, you can create really special things. And, in marketing, that’s what it’s all about.”

3. Authentic Strategies

“We have one person who handles advertising, and I always tell her that I want her to try one piece of advertising that is completely off the wall, something we’ve never tried before,” Incandela says. “It’s like a free pass. Even if it completely bombs, no one’s going to lose their job.” This kind of support and encouragement is indicative of the way Incandela moves his team forward, inspiring them to experiment with new ideas and untried tactics. He’s careful, however, to integrate new technologies and creative concepts without overlooking the value of the tried-and-true tools. “It still surprises me that direct mail still works,” he says as an example. “99.9% of everything we do in marketing is digital, but then you do a direct mail piece, and it works. It’s amazing.”

While he pushes his team to the cutting edge of many marketing technologies, he never loses sight of what’s most important: being relevant to the customer. “Things like Snapchat, LINE, and Pokemon Go are probably not relevant for our audience or our brand,” he says. “Using those platforms would be the equivalent of me dressing like a teenager – it would come off a little weird.” He adds, however, that almost anything can work if you have the right content. “It all comes down to messaging,” he says. “We just need to be honest with ourselves and do what’s best for our customers and prospects. The focus is on creating a great experience, whether you’re talking about your website, your advertising, or an event.” Once again – be authentic, be truthful, and keep it simple. Pretty solid advice in any situation.