This AMA is an abridged recap of a session from our private community.
Tessa Khoo is the Marketing Director, Asia @ Xero. Xero is a cloud-based accounting software platform for small and medium-sized businesses. Xero is listed on the Australian Securities Exchange with a market cap of $12B at the time of publication.
Here's what you'll learn from this AMA:
- How channel-led marketing strategies differ in APAC
- How (and why) to grow brand awareness in less mature markets
- Examples of adapting marketing programs across different countries
You've been at Xero for 5 years, can you give us an overview of how marketing has changed during that time?
Our marketing playbook and strategy has largely stayed the same over the years, and I think that makes sense when growing markets.
Nonetheless, it's still important we keep an ear to the ground, stay agile and execute fast. We can do bigger and bolder things now, but the principles are steadfast: digital-first, continuously test, learn and optimise, and always find opportunities to try something new.
Our marketing playbook in summary:
- Grow the brand. We're now investing in big omnichannel brand plays, after establishing awareness through digital channels first. Being present & active in relevant communities is key.
- Grow the channel. SMBs, accountants and bookkeepers are major drivers of our business.
- Love our community. We do what we can to increase advocacy and strive to keep NPS high.
Xero engages in things like Youtube pre-roll advertising, OOH advertising and other “Above The Line” activities. How do these fit into your strategy and how do you measure them?
As I like to put simply, if no one knows you (OR thinks you're Xerox - which thankfully we're hearing less and less of these days), no one will buy you!
So brand awareness is critical especially as an earlier stage market (as compared to our mature markets AU/NZ).
At the start, we had the added challenge too that the category was very unestablished -- no one knew what online accounting was either.
So we had to do a category AND a brand job (fun!).
We're very fortunate to have worked with the global marketing team at Xero to define consistent brand objectives and metrics globally, and the activity you mention feeds into our brand awareness goals in Singapore.
We measure progress as part of always-on brand tracking and a quant/qual study to measure the effectiveness of the campaign on awareness.
Most importantly, we have a global methodology that defines how brand growth feeds into revenue. This all means we can align our stakeholders to these brand goals, how it contributes to sales, and how we measure these activities.
In summary, these ads have the objective of driving Xero's brand awareness growth in SG, which are a key factor in achieving our revenue growth targets.
Xero's branding, look & feel, and design feel head and shoulders above most B2B SaaS apps. How does that come together internally? Is there an internal brand team that approves everything before they are released?
Thank you! It's a constant work in progress - the job is never done and we don't get it perfect every time! The game changer for me is how Xero has a very tangible set of values.
These values define who we are as a business, what we stand for, how we love and respect our customers, partners and each other, and how we show up each day as Xeros.
The arsenal in our kit is also our in-house creative team who operate globally - they live and breathe the brand and bring it to life (through a brand playbook that stays dynamic).
We brief them on marketing projects like you would an agency, and because they're connected into all the creative work that goes on across Xero, we have a fair level of consistency. While we do have an internal brand team, the beauty in how they support marketing teams is that we're aligned as to how they contribute, and where regions have the autonomy to execute.
It's been a lot of work to get to this point, but it all comes down to trust and mutual respect. Which - goes back to our Xero values 😊
As a lean marketing team, what is your agency strategy? Are most campaigns run closely with agencies? Does the global marketing team do some of the heavy lifting?
Our little regional team is lifted up on the shoulders of many other teams within Xero, so some of the heavy lifting (digital media, creative) is done in-house. It makes sense in these areas as the digital learnings can be centralized and certain creative aspects kept consistent.
It's been a lot of work (and continues to be a WIP) to ensure the global & regional interlock is balanced, so we retain our autonomy where it makes sense. For traditional/local digital media, events and creative production, we use agencies.
The best advice I can give when choosing an agency partner is ensuring they are 'of the same mind' as you, and they intimately understand the DNA of your brand. It's half the job done.
Can you give us an example of a campaign or marketing program that worked in one SEA country, yet flopped when you tried the same program in another?
We're a lean regional marketing team growing multiple markets at the same time, so efficiency is the name of the game. Which means we try to identify common marketing needs across our main markets and develop programs that answer to these, with certain tweaks catered for market nuances.
The reality is you can't be bespoke at this stage, and you need to learn and respond as you go.
Thankfully, we don't have any major flops that stand out, but every bump in the road is an opportunity to learn more about a market and its audience.
We've run creative campaigns that ranked highly in SG, but had a lukewarm response in HK - over time, we've learnt that the HK audience prefer more functional, straightforward messaging, while the SG audience can tolerate a bit more creativity on this front. Humour, when done right, is enjoyed across all.
We tried a referral program in HK that did much better than its SG counterpart - and so we learnt that our HK audience was more willing to put in the extra effort to refer multiple contacts for an incentive vs SG.
I've read that Xero is a very channel-led business. What do you think is different about growing the channel business in ANZ vs SEA?
The state of business technology adoption in SEA is a little behind that of ANZ - it's interesting that in SEA, there is a huge disparity between the adoption of personal tech and business tech.
As I mentioned previously, just a few years back, there wasn't much knowledge about what online accounting was!
From a channel perspective, this means we often have to spark the catalyst for change - and that means creating conversations with SMBs and accounting & bookkeeping firms about how technology can make their business lives easier and more efficient.
This influences the work we do with SMB communities across the region, and with accounting bodies that need a technology partner to speak to firms operating in very traditional (and inefficient) ways.
Particularly in SG, with the government's digitisation push (and hopefully how Xero has contributed to this), we have seen this start to change.
I have heard anecdotally that marketing leaders in Asia at a company from the West usually get the least attention because the Asian market is so different from the domestic market. Can you relate to this?
Yes I completely relate to this (solidarity)!
Asia is so diverse, so varied and so complex compared to other markets that may be quite homogenous. Oftentimes, it stems from a lack of understanding and knowledge.
Every situation is a means to educate.
Having a clear voice back into the business is key, constantly educating and speaking loudly and proudly about the region's opportunity.
Find key people in the business that are interested in your work, and make them your supporters - soon your story will tell itself. And be bold - when we have wins, we always use it as an opportunity to ask for more.
What's the most successful program or campaign you've run?
We have a few we're very proud of! Our team created a reactivation email nurture campaign that was first picked up by other regions, and is now a globally-run program at Xero.
Our last creative campaign (Do Yourself a Favour) was a leap of faith as it was quite a different style from what we've ever done before (and also in our other established markets).
But we stuck to our guns and it has paid off - it's still one of the highest scoring campaigns globally, and it's shown in our brand awareness scores too. The cherry on top was hearing about the campaign from our customers and partners (I even had a partner in HK relay the ad to me in startling detail).
Another one of our babies is our annual Roadshows where we bring our community of accounting & bookkeeping partners together for an all-day event of great content and fun. We try to amp up the experience each year and this reflects in the event's NPS scores. It'll be a ball turning this into a virtual one.
Your Xerocon event was probably a big part of your strategy, how do you see that going virtual? Does it have the same impact?
I'd answer this broadly re: events as a whole - I think the current environment has given the industry a great opportunity to innovate and push the boundaries of brand experiences.
For instance, it wasn't too long ago (pre-Covid) that we were trying to run a series of webinars with minimal interest, and look where we are today (webinar fatigue!).
However, in the hierarchy of event experiences, there are some (like sales events) that adapt easily into a virtual one, and some that are much harder to recreate the intended experience and effect online.
Most especially in Asia, personal interactions and building relationships one-on-one is key, so this is one of the elements you can't truly recreate virtually.
Ultimately, I think we'll see a hybrid execution of events (virtual, virtual/in-person, in-person), and that's pretty exciting as event technology platforms advance. Will virtual events have the same impact as in-person ones? I doubt - but it'll have a different impact (and just as meaningful) for sure.
What are the best non-marketing books you've read?
For leaders, I'd recommend Patrick Lencioni's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Because I read to escape, that's the only business book rec I have.
For the fiction enthusiasts out there, The Silence of the Girls and The Glass Hotel are some recent reads I've enjoyed. I am also a lifelong enthusiast of the Sherlock Holmes books.
Tessa Khoo is Marketing Director, Asia @ Xero.
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