Episode 17: Kathy Seegebrecht, CMO of UL (Underwriters Laboratories) on brand legacy

How does a 125-year-old brand stay cutting edge? Kathy talks about UL’s purpose and structure to keep up in dozens of vertical B2B markets.

Hey everyone, this is Rudy Fernandez from Creative Outhouse. I had a great conversation with Kathy Seegebrecht, the Chief Marketing Officer of UL or what used to be known as Underwriters Laboratories. It’s the largest independent testing laboratory in the world. They test for safety, security and sustainability. And the thing that amazes me is that every day you, me, everyone, we all use products and services they test. Yet it’s not as if they’re top of mind. So I wanted to hear from Kathy about that. I also wanted to know how you market a 125 year old company in new areas without sounding outdated. What’s the secret to staying on top for 125 years? Spoiler alert, it’s all about living the company’s purpose. Check it out. Welcome to Marketing Upheaval.


Rudy Fernandez  0:56

Welcome to Marketing Upheaval. My guest is Kathy Seegebrecht, Chief Marketing Officer of UL, which used to be known as Underwriters Laboratories. UL is the largest independent testing laboratory in the world. And chances are, you use products and services they test for safety, security and sustainability. In her four years at UL, Kathy has expanded and evolved the role of marketing there, and we’re going to talk about that. So thank you for joining me, Kathy.

Kathy Seegebrecht  1:21

Great. Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it. I’m excited to talk about UL, one of my favorite topics.

Rudy Fernandez  1:26

Well, I am too. UL the certification approval – it’s ubiquitous, and we all use products and services that you’ve touched somehow, just really top level: automotive, lighting, mobility, technology, building materials, healthcare, energy, utilities, financial transactions, it’s everywhere, all sorts of consumer products. But here’s my first question is: Given all that, as a CMO, who is your customer?

Kathy Seegebrecht  1:51

We certainly have a very broad customer base. We service clients who buy products and wants to know if it’s safe, secure or sustainably sourced. We have clients that sell products, who want to know if it meets regulations, where they want to sell it. And then we have clients who make products, who want to know all of those things. So our customers include brand owners, retailers, manufacturers and banking institutions. And that really just names some of the bigger client categories. We’re firmly a B2B company. However, consumers are also really interested in what we do, and they benefit from our work, so thus you can see I’ve got the challenge as marketing all of those services, all of those various customer bases.

Rudy Fernandez  2:26

That’s really what I wanted to get into. That seems overwhelming. How do you reach your customers or engage with them?

Kathy Seegebrecht  2:35

It’s interesting because our customer base actually gets even more complex when you get down to the persona level. So we work with a variety, wide variety of customers whose titles range from quality assurance, regulatory compliance, workplace health and safety. And how we reach out to those customers is actually equally as diverse. So it is complicated, but like most companies, we use traditional sales and marketing channels to reach customers. And then we have an additional, really significant team of individuals who are on the ground, around the world, doing inspections and visiting customer sites and we call them field engineers. But from a marketing perspective, I think of our digital channels really as a way to relay information to all stakeholders. That includes clients, but also government stakeholders or associations. So we think of the digital channels as more information as opposed to communicating. So we engage through our customers through sales teams, like everybody else, our field engineers, but you know, from a marketing perspective, we do webinars, we do customer events, we, of course, have marketing automation efforts. And we also have a significant role in some sponsorships. And they play a really key role in client engagement, awareness and education for us.

Rudy Fernandez  3:40

Given the there’s so many verticals, how do you approach marketing within each one of those in terms of relationships? And you mentioned the different personas, I can’t imagine how many you have, how do you keep all that straight? And how do you go about with the messaging and the relationships and the buyers journey for each one of them?

Kathy Seegebrecht  3:58

Yeah, I think keeping it straight is – governance plays a really important role in that, in our CRM and marketing automation systems. So that’s kind of our base. And we do have a really good set of governance and processes in place. So we’ve got corporate marketers, and then we’ve got business marketers. At the corporate marketing level, we feed the top of the funnel, as you would expect, which is those really broad categories like retailers and manufacturers, as we move prospects down the funnel, and the vertical and personas get narrower. That’s when the business marketers take over. Their responsibilities are divided up by business line. And by nature, then it’s more narrowly focused. So that allows them to have appropriate tailored messaging. They then own the continuation of that journey, until they turn it over to sales as a marketing qualified lead the funnel bifurcates quite a bit as it moves down.

Rudy Fernandez  4:44

There are categories that UL has been around for a long time, let’s say fire safety. And then there are new emerging categories like let’s say the Internet of Things or cyber security, how does it differ and how you approach that so you’re more established markets as opposed to your newer areas?

Kathy Seegebrecht  5:04

Well, so for one, the core message is essentially the same and traditional services and new services. And that’s really all about trust, you’ll find that in all of our marketing materials. So being able to trust that a product is safe, that it was sustainably sourced or that it’s secure, based on a third party framework. The corporate marketing provides the businesses with the tools, frameworks and governance. And then really, we turn it over to the marketers to tailor that message and target prospects. And that’s where you get more narrowly into fire safety or connected vehicles or connected homes, or any of those other topics that we started at the top with that that core messaging and trust, and then allow the businesses to really narrow that down towards much more meaningful on a service-level basis for a customer.

Rudy Fernandez  5:42

Is that in some way, similar to let’s say, franchise sort of structure where you have like the main sort of messaging, and then you leave it to the local markets to take that message and localize it to the specific areas. Is it similar to that?

Kathy Seegebrecht  5:59

Sure, in a few ways. I mean, certainly we’re the same company. And our regions operate the same way. So we have some high level content and messaging. And then they’ll not only translate that, but actually change it to be relevant for the local market. And I think the benefits – you’ve got somebody putting that high level message out. You get certain customers who might not otherwise be interested at actually the buying level, and they might pass that along to somebody else in their organization, if they I think you might be interested in they might not have seen it. So they do they add additional content, they contextualize it. For a particular industry, whether it’s automotive, whether it’s retailing, whether it’s manufacturing, I had never equated it to franchise. So I think that’s something interesting to think about.

Rudy Fernandez  6:41

What are some of the new areas that you will be entering into? What are the sustainability services?

Kathy Seegebrecht  6:46

So quite a few of them so we have some certification marks, we’ve got a GreenGuard mark, which means that a product has been tested, considering all the things that it’s made of and it does not emit a dangerous level of volatile organic chemicals. So you’ll see that on some paint cans in stores. You’ll see it on furniture. Companies that are committed to same stainability and trying to appeal to sustainable customers who fit that persona. They love to see that green mark on products.

Rudy Fernandez  7:15

So you joined in 2015. Since then, there have been a lot of changes, they brought you in to restructure the way marketing works at UL. Tell me some of the changes you brought to the organization.

Kathy Seegebrecht  7:29

Oh, sure. So, I mean, I think they brought me in really to kind of plug a hole. They hadn’t had a head of marketing for a period of time and so brought me in as a Vice President of Corporate Marketing. So we were really fortunate to be able to quickly make some changes and bring in a great team, which allowed us to elevate the function and then create a Chief Marketing Officer position which I rolled into in 2018. But in terms of what we did, the third thing I think, you know, when I came in was to create in-house digital capability, and when I joined, we are outsourcing literally all of our digital marketing and our social media work to an agency. And we were definitely not seeing the results we needed. Knowing that there’s going to be a continued expansion of digital marketing, it was really a critical first steps, so that we could really become a great B2B marketing organization. We also hadn’t done any significant brand research in years. So we brought in some really good brand talent and launched several really critical research products over a three year period, one with a comprehensive brand valuation study. One was a brand architecture study. And then we also did most recently a brand equity study. And they’re really the combination of those have become a critical base for our brand framework and our go to market strategy. Think the other big thing I’ve mentioned is we created our own in-house agency and brought in customer advocacy and corporate sustainability. So a couple other key parts that really helped us round out and have that center of excellence and capability in-house.

Rudy Fernandez  8:54

What lead to these changes? What made UL switch to not having a head of marketing to bringing you in and say, okay, we need to change. What sparked the change you think?

Kathy Seegebrecht  9:04

You know, I think that they clearly saw a gap in what they needed, whether that was…We had a really pretty solid communications team. And we had some brand representation. But, you know, business marketers specifically needed more help around social media marketing automation around CRM, and that martech stack management. I think the business leader saw a proliferation of these tools, and they were all paying for them individually by division. And it became apparent really quickly that we needed to centralize the tools, right and have governance of what’s added. I mean, you know, our websites is a perfect example of proliferation. When we launched our new website last year before that we had something like 268 websites that we’re maintaining, because they didn’t have the support they needed from a corporate center, so everybody would spin up their own website. That’s not good for the UL brand. We’re sending, you know, 60% of our services were on websites, other than UL.com up until we launched our new website in May of this year. Now, I think it was pretty obvious that there was a lot of opportunity for improvement and just needed somebody to kind of wrangle the cats and make it happen.

Rudy Fernandez  10:04

How did you do that? I have to ask because that’s, that seems like an enormous task. What is the first thing you did? And how did you go about saying, okay, 268 websites? We’ve gotta…

Kathy Seegebrecht  10:18

Yeah, you know, we had a marketing council that was already in place. And it consisted of regional marketing leaders, business marketing leaders, and then corporate marketing leaders. And I think that was one of the first things I saw as an opportunity. If I could really get that group aligned and moving in the same direction, and they were not, because they were all had, you know, they were responsible for making their businesses happy and doing things singularly. So, you know, to get them wrangled was, I think the first thing and we spent a lot of time as a group, you know, my people that supported me on team, my team as well as me. But to me, how did I do that it was about building trust, because they didn’t trust corporate marketing. There had been a few people here that were in the organization that had left that had set up some things that disappointed the business and didn’t deliver the results that they wanted. And so, but everybody wanted change, they really did. So if they if I demonstrated that they could trust me, and that I had their best interests at heart. And so we took on a few things. One, definitely transparency, sharing the budget, they’ve never seen the entire market budget. So here it is line item by line item. Tell me what you know, you want me to continue doing as a marketing function and what you would like us to stop doing because you don’t see value in it. And we did, we made some real changes that benefited them. And that made them happy. And it felt like we were listening and changing. And the other thing is we change to this culture of find a path to “Yes”. So corporate marketing at being the brand police and you know, the digital police had said no to a lot of things that businesses wanted to do. And there are good reasons for that. And like I said, you’ve got to have some sort of governance and you’ve got to represent the brand appropriately. But we just decided we need to be able to compromise, to build that trust and be completely transparent and take smaller steps. Even though we would have liked to take in some bigger ones to begin with. So we took like two steps forward one step back two steps forward, one step back, but we were making clear progression. And the more you did that, the more we got traction as a function and I mean marketing as a whole. Business marketers as well, that they just, I think gave us more autonomy and more authority. And we could then begin to demonstrate the difference that we could make if we could put some of these changes in place.


Rudy Fernandez  12:23

Yeah, you’re the second CMO I’ve heard say something similar, where marketing was viewed more in the past as “we’re doing our thing, you don’t pay attention to us” and almost isolating themselves from the rest of the company. That doesn’t work anymore.


Kathy Seegebrecht  12:39

No, it does not work.


Rudy Fernandez  12:41

And I’ve heard you say that UL is a humble brand, and that you rely on your customers to tell your story. Now, as marketers, our instinct is always to shout things to the rooftops and let me know what you’re doing every moment that so how do you balance those two? The traditional, humble company with the need to want to tell everybody everything that you do?


Kathy Seegebrecht  13:03

Yeah, it’s definitely a balancing act. You know, the culture at UL has really kept us flying somewhat under the radar screen. And that really starts with the very top of the organization from our previous CEO, Keith Williams. And because we’re a nonprofit organization and mission based company, our values focus on integrity and collaboration. So that’s that balancing act, right? How do we go about humbly doing our business and we know we’re doing good things, and not being able to necessarily shout that great story from the rooftops. But I will say it’s really so much more powerful when your customers or your stakeholders tell your story. And that’s where we benefit of being this really valued third party partner that more often than not, our customers will tell the story and then we don’t have to.


Rudy Fernandez  13:45

Yeah, I find it amazing, again, most people in their everyday lives, UL touches their lives in some way. And yet they don’t know it. But your B2B customers. They certainly do and It’s almost like a B2B secret. What are some challenges that you face in that regard of the humble versus the “look at what we just did”?


Kathy Seegebrecht  14:10

Yeah. Well, I mean, I think the challenges that we have overall is people continue to see us as the safety science company that we have been really focused on safety. And from a marketing perspective, we’re really trying to be relevant and credible and new areas. And again, you have to kind of shout about that to be known. We really, the businesses rely heavily on marketing to pave the way. And to do that we focus on thought leadership content, and credible messaging, and really being present. And that’s another thing our CEO, Keith Williams always said is, you know, “you have to show up to be part of the conversation and be part of the story”.


Rudy Fernandez  14:43

What does he mean by that – you have to show up?


Kathy Seegebrecht  14:45

Being there so we’re we participate in so many associations and organizations and government conversations on behalf of the industry. So on behalf of manufacturers where we advocate for certification, the need to have some sort of new minimal requirements for product safety. So showing up at organizations, being participating in those, you know, convening the standards, technical panels that we do, that can mean a variety of things, but being present where it matters,


Rudy Fernandez  15:13

And you reference the former CEO a few times, and I think it’s a good time to say that UL has named its first female CEO. So that’s, that’s exciting.


Kathy Seegebrecht  15:25

Yeah, it’s really exciting. We’re thrilled that, you know, especially as a woman, thrilled to have a female at the leadership and at the helm of UL, but I think what’s even more exciting, is Jenny’s background. Jennifer Scanlon is our new CEO and what what she brings, not only was she CEO of a, you know, important Chicago company and a public company, but even prior to that she was CIO. So she values data, she values science, and she has some real thought leadership in that area, which is exactly what we need for the next 125 years that we’re in the marketplace.


Rudy Fernandez  15:58

Yes, you’ve been around for 125 years. And here’s the thing that appeals to me. It was founded on the mission of working for a safer world. There’s so much talk now of purpose and companies finding their purpose statement. And 125 years ago, UL had a purpose statement. They were purpose before purpose was cool, I guess, how much of us longevity and success, do you think comes from just that one simple idea?


Kathy Seegebrecht  16:23

Oh, I think we can attribute a lot of our success and our longevity to that singular focus on delivering on our mission of working for a safer world. We’ve adhere to that. And that I think that’s important. And at the same time, we’ve advanced that definition of safety, you know, different needs that clients have, like I mentioned earlier around security or sustainability. Those are just different nuances to safety.


Rudy Fernandez  16:44

Do you have any advice for companies? Because I think they’re most of them are trying to find their purpose statement. Do you have any advice to create a purpose statement that is as lasting and as powerful as working for a safer world?


Kathy Seegebrecht  16:58

Yeah, I mean, and hindsight is so easy, right? So my advice would be take that time to devise and articulate a singular purpose and stick to it. Safety is our foundation. And we’ve continued to build on that, without wavering from it. I guess I’d also add that being a great independent partner, to a variety of stakeholders, including government associations, as well as clients has been really another important reason for our success and longevity. And so that’s back to that point of view, you have to show up, you have to be there where it matters.


Rudy Fernandez  17:27

And that’s part of the DNA then is maintaining those relationships, I imagine. It’s part of who you are.


Kathy Seegebrecht  17:33

Oh, yeah, yeah. And it you know, it takes a lot of work from a lot of people, but that’s part of being the mission-based company. And the reason that they join UL, they love our mission. And those things come naturally and they enjoy being part of those conversations because they know it makes difference.


Rudy Fernandez  17:47

You’re in an industry, we’re by its very nature, you have to stay ahead of the curve. In any new thing that’s developed. Let’s say cyber security, Internet of Things, those sorts of things. What are some challenges in entering some of the new areas?


Kathy Seegebrecht  18:01

Yeah. So I think that the balancing act for us is is kind of between our touting our history and the recognition and credibility we get with trying to be more modern and innovative new messaging. And so I really think that’s where marketing comes in, we have to find that right balance. Promoting history helps us have credibility. But in some channels, or with some audiences that can make your brand be perceived as old. We look at each opportunity individually. And, and the other thing I think that helps is the tone of voice that your brand uses. I think that’s critical, and it has to be consistent. And you set that tone. And it’s kind of you know, that is really your beachhead for messaging. And as I mentioned, that brand work we’ve done earlier. That was really our opportunity to modernize our brand framework. We created a new tagline called “empowering trust”. We set it beside messaging that while it talks about our history and doesn’t let that go behind it, it helps us be more futuristic and innovative.


Rudy Fernandez  18:52

So how do you do that? How do you balance this iconic brand when entering a new area, without being perceived as an old brand, what are some of the tactics you use? Or messaging that you use?


Kathy Seegebrecht  19:05

Yeah, I won’t say we have all the answers. But I mean, you know, some of the things we do that’s kind of fun or even in visuals, will use a lot of throwback, laboratory images and social media and then talk about those things. And then at the same time, we’ll use some really modern digital images, and then you know, headlines to do that. And we think a lot about our, what we share on social media from other resources. And that helps us have credibility in new areas. So for following automotive or for following the democratization of data. Those then are topics that people start to, you know, think about you well with, because we’re talking about it online or participating in those conversations. So social media is a really important part of that. And then those assets that you use, whether they’re visual or content, or taglines or lead in messaging, it’s kind of how we’re tackling it.


Rudy Fernandez  19:52

Given that it is such an established company, is recruiting people a challenge? Recruiting millennials or I guess at some point, Gen Z’s to recruit to a brand that’s been around for 125 years?


Kathy Seegebrecht  20:06

Yeah, generally we’re really fortunate to have a good talent based in most of our office locations, our headquarters for examples just outside Chicago. So we have access to amazing talent. And then I think what really helps bring people in is that mission base that we’ve got. So mission based company, so in a really good culture, so it definitely helps us attract top talent. So bringing them in isn’t always an issue. But that’s also our challenge that we get really good people. And I think that we train them well, we have a great environment, but they’re also in-demand. And so they occasionally get lured away by another company. We take that as a compliment, but of course, it creates a hole in the team and ramp up takes time.


Rudy Fernandez  20:42

And are you responsible for the staffing globally for marketing?


Kathy Seegebrecht  20:46

Nope, nope. I’m responsible for corporate marketing. We’ve got just under 100 people in corporate marketing, but you know, we’re certainly responsible for setting the strategy, setting the frameworks and the governance the brand strategy and the overall marketing strategy and make sure that we work with, closely with the businesses and the regional marketers so that we’re we’re presenting that one URL face to the world and to our clients.


Rudy Fernandez  21:08

You mentioned that you’ve created and I guess are expanding your internal marketing agencies.


Kathy Seegebrecht  21:15

Yeah, we’ve got an in-house creative agency, I don’t know that we’re expanding them. I think we’re actually at a pretty good number.


Rudy Fernandez  21:20

What are some what are some of the talent you had to bring in?


Kathy Seegebrecht  21:24

So really the full gamut. So we’ve got lots of graphic design talent, which is great so that we can create things in-house quickly and I think less expensive than going out to an agency. And that and the real benefit as always on brand because they’re very familiar with our brand guidelines. Yeah. We also have video capability in-house, you know photography capability in-house, digital animation capability in house. We can master that in house. We do partner with a great agency out of New York, Stein IAS, and they do some of the more complicated, you know, digital and video pieces for us and then really help us with our marketing strategy.


Rudy Fernandez  21:59

How much is it, now on balance is done by outside agencies?


Kathy Seegebrecht  22:03

Graphic Design, for the most part, fully stays in-house. We do use external PR agencies and some external digital agencies to help us with development of our platform and our website. Sad enough, I had a percentage, I’d say we probably do about 60% in house and 40% out of house


Rudy Fernandez  22:22

You said the next hundred 25 years? That’s a good goal. Yeah. And I hope you’re there for all of them, by the way.


Kathy Seegebrecht  22:30

Thank you very much.


Rudy Fernandez  22:31

What are some of the big changes you see on the horizon for UL and the industries it serves other than the new areas?


Kathy Seegebrecht  22:38

Yeah, and I don’t think UL is any different than anybody else. And what our marketing challenges are, I think it you know, you can sum it up in two words, it’s digitalization and data. So the way we go to market as a business and as a marketing group is increasingly digital. We need to have better and more use of AI and natural language processing wherever we can to make our marketing more efficient and effective. And our clients expect us to interact with them in more digital way, so marketing needs to support that in any way that we can.


Rudy Fernandez  23:03

If you looked on the horizon in terms of how UL will market itself in the future, what excites you the most what concerns you the most for all the changes going on?


Kathy Seegebrecht  23:14

What excites me the most is the opportunity to continue to transform the UL brand and have relevance in new and innovative areas. It was an amazing opportunity to come in and have this iconic brand, and help support the company as we try and modernize it. I feel like we’ve built great capability within our marketing function at UL, and I’m excited about the additional value we now poised to deliver to the organization as we continue to mature and build more modern capabilities. As for what concerns me the most, I guess it’s the pace of change and really keeping up with that change. Like most functions in B2B companies marketing budget is relatively flat year over year. And as we require new marketing automation, CRM, social and digital capabilities, we’ve got to find efficiencies elsewhere so we can fund the needed technology and capability. And so that changes happening pretty fast.


Rudy Fernandez  24:03

Do you think there will ever be a need for UL to market to a broader audience? And more than just B2B, more BBC?


Kathy Seegebrecht  24:12

Yes, I do. I really do. What we do is exceedingly important for consumers as well. We just flat out don’t have that kind of budget to market to consumers. But I think it’s really important to inform consumers what they should be looking for when they buy products. I think it’s great to inform consumers about the cool things that we do at UL. It could be a really fun campaign, showing them all the different tests that we do. But I think most importantly, especially if you think about Europe, where they’re not required to have certification, they can self-certify, and they put a CE mark on their product. And it did not have to be tested by an independent third party. And I think it’s really important for consumers to know the difference between that type of governance and then what you have any United States where it requires products that are involved in electrical and safety to actually be certified to certain standards. So there’s definitely an opportunity. We talked about it a lot. We’re working on formalizing at least a social media strategy for consumers. But until we get some bigger budget, it would be a difficult thing for us to broach.


Rudy Fernandez  25:12

Yeah. Especially given all the areas that you’re in.


Kathy Seegebrecht  25:16

Right? Yeah, exactly.


Rudy Fernandez  25:18

How do you communicate that change? We do a lot of purpose work. And we do a lot of work for companies to try to improve the lives of the people they serve. So it always makes it more exciting to talk. I’m guessing when you talk to family or whoever that it’s, it’s by a nice conversation that you get to feel good about what you do.


Kathy Seegebrecht  25:36

Yeah, for sure. I mean, you’ll never hear us talk about how many services we sold, we really talk about the value that we add to clients, and where we think we can add more value, especially as we get into these new areas that we’ve talked quite a lot about cyber security and sustainability, where some of our traditional customer base doesn’t know us as well. And so we want to you know, get into those conversations and help them understand how we can meet needs a new and different areas.


Rudy Fernandez  25:59

Well this has been really great.


Kathy Seegebrecht  26:01

I really appreciate the opportunity.


Rudy Fernandez  26:03

I really do appreciate it. Hey, thanks for listening to Marketing Upheaval from Creative Outhouse. If you want to learn more about UL and the great work they’re doing to keep us all safe, visit ul.com. For show notes, previous episodes and previews to upcoming episodes, visit CreativeOuthouse.com/podcast. If you liked this podcast, give us five stars. Subscribe, share it with your friends. Our producer is Susan Cooper. Special thanks to Gopal Swami and Acoustech Music for creating our earcon and Jason Shablik for his audio advice. And to Dagmar Ebaugh and Michelle Press for helping get Kathy on the show. Well, that’s it for this episode of Marketing Upheaval. And remember, if the current state of marketing has got you confused. Don’t worry. It’s all going to change. See ya.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Podcast credits:

Host: Rudy Fernandez

Producer and Cover Art: Susan Cooper

Earcon sound design: Gopal Swamy

Audio Consultant: Jason Shablik

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Transcripts by: https://otter.ai