Decoding Manufacturing Marketing for Non-Marketers

Episode 222

February 14, 2023

As marketers, the conversation invariably comes up: “what do you actually do?” Sometimes, that conversation leads to non-marketers putting in their two-cents on the process. Suzi McNicholas, Director of Marketing and Transformation at Johnson Controls, tells us that this is because everyone is a consumer of something and has been marketed to at some point. In this episode, Suzi helps explain what makes B2B marketing in a manufacturing context unique.

Decoding Manufacturing Marketing for Non-Marketers Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

 Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, sir?

Carman Pirie: I’m doing well. I’m doing well. And I’m excited for today’s show. I love the topic of the conversation today, the kind of diving into what it means to navigate change management in the marketing function in manufacturers, and it’s an honor to have somebody on the show that has such a depth of experience in it. 

Jeff White: Yeah. I was just gonna say, somebody who’s been with numerous manufacturers, all different kinds of sizes of teams, and brings a wealth of expertise to this, so we should just get on with it and get into the good stuff. So, joining us today is Suzi McNicholas. Suzi is the Director of Marketing and Transformation at Johnson Controls. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Suzi. 

Suzi McNicholas: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here. 

Carman Pirie: Suzi, it’s awesome to have you on the show. Yeah. 

Suzi McNicholas: Thanks. I’m excited for the conversation, as well. 

Carman Pirie: Look, let’s introduce our listeners to you a little bit more formally, and for the few that maybe don’t know who Johnson Controls is, we could tell them who that is, as well. 

Suzi McNicholas: Sure. So, I have a 25-year career strictly in B2B marketing in manufacturing environments, mostly manufacturing environments. I think I strayed into one or two other industries along the way, but currently I’m working for Johnson Controls. It is a very large manufacturer of equipment that you put in buildings to make it very basic. I like to tell people that if you’re building a hospital, or a school, or an office building, whatever facility that you might want to construct, we provide basically everything you need except for the bricks, and the lights, and the furniture. So, everything you would need to have a healthy, sustainable building, and as we know, sustainability is becoming more and more important practically by the minute, so big push there from a Johnson Controls side in helping other companies construct sustainable buildings. 

Carman Pirie: And as we were chatting in the lead up to today’s show, I think a lot of our… I think we reflected, we took advantage of your career a little bit, Suzi, in looking at just kind of the overall span of manufacturers that you’ve worked for, and you’ve really been in the position of having to navigate marketing change management in some way in all of them, haven’t you?

Suzi McNicholas: And this is the benefit, I guess, of having done this for 25 years. You know, when I started in marketing, marketing really was advertising. The internet was around, but it wasn’t being used nearly the way that it is now from a marketing standpoint. I think consumers were starting to explore it, but not in the ways that we’re doing it today as you can imagine, and we’ve all witnessed the change over the years. So, for those of us who are non-marketers and have been around as long as I have, they still think of marketing as advertising, because nobody… They haven’t had the chance to be educated, so there’s still a lot of education that goes on even today, and it’s been… I saw a meme once, a marketing meme, that said something like all marketing job descriptions should have a bullet point that says, “Must be willing to spend at least 50% of your time explaining to non-marketers what marketing is,” and I thought that that was pretty funny and true. 

So, yeah, throughout my entire career, always, always helping people understand the changes that have happened. Maybe more so in the marketing environment, especially B2B, than potentially any other professional position. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. That would be a… I don’t know how we would get that data or make that comparison in a quantitative way, but that would be cool to do that. 

Suzi McNicholas: It would be. And I may be… I’m definitely in a bubble here, so anybody in finance or-

Carman Pirie: Oh, we’re in the bubble with you, though. 

Suzi McNicholas: Engineering and anybody else might say, “Wait, wait, wait. That’s not entirely true.” But I think that when I look back on my career and the ways that we’ve worked, it was advertising, and then you build in PR, and again, looking back to print publications before everything moved online, just the function of getting something printed takes… It took weeks and months. And now fast forward to today, everything is digital, which makes it a lot easier to make changes and get things done very quickly and on the fly. So, helping people understand that, over time, and also helping people understand that marketing is both an art and a science. People don’t usually understand that. Again, because of the way that they see marketing. There’s data that… We can point to data, we can show results, and theoretically if I can spend $1,000 and give my company $10,000 in return, why would we not invest in that all day long?

But that’s easier said than done. Like I said, it’s a lot of conversations. It’s a lot of repetitive conversations, over and over, helping people understand what a truly digital, integrated marketing campaign is. 

Carman Pirie: Does part of you feel that we cared more about messaging when it took weeks or months to actually get the thing produced? Did we focus more energy and brain power on what we were actually saying back in those good old days, if you will?

Suzi McNicholas: Not from my perspective. I mean, I think that the core of what marketing is is creating… I mean, in a nutshell you want to create an emotional connection to the customer. That’s it really in a nutshell. And so, the messaging piece is probably the most important. I mean, creative figures into it, and colors, and brands, and things of that nature, but if you’re not saying the right words that are gonna meet your customer where they are, then it’s a miss. So, I don’t think so. 

Carman Pirie: I always love when I lead the witness with a question, and they completely disagree with me. But it’s just I guess to me, I just think that sometimes because we can change things fairly quickly, it seems like we don’t maybe place as much attention and energy on some of those pieces like we used to. But-

Jeff White: But this is just back to… Carman and I continually have this conversation. No, no, but we do often have this conversation about lamenting the days of the copywriter and designer working together as a pair. And kind of those old school days where the creative was what mattered. If you look at kind of what-

Carman Pirie: Well, that still exists, of course, but it’s just-

Jeff White: I know, but we have lamented a bit how that kind of… In digital, that doesn’t happen as often.

Suzi McNicholas: Well, let me just… Let me be the devil’s advocate here. What if your original message didn’t hit the nail on the head? You can’t change it. If you’re in print, you can’t go back and change that. But if it’s digital and let’s say you’re doing some A-B testing and one message seems to be hitting the mark better than the other, then you can quickly change the message on the other and suddenly you’re off to the races. 

So, that’s the other argument I would make-

Carman Pirie: Absolutely. 

Suzi McNicholas: … for messaging and paying attention to it. But again, in fact, I was just looking at some social media posts this morning that we’re gonna post in the next couple of weeks around an event that we’re doing, and I 100% was focused on the words. You know, and this set of words were much more impactful than this other set of words, and there’s a whole lot of reason behind that, but I think as a marketer if you’re not paying attention to the message, I mean, it’s probably the most critical piece. Although my graphic designer friends would disagree with me. But I think that the words are still very, very important, especially now that we get bombarded with so much all the time. 

Carman Pirie: I certainly won’t disagree there. You’re quite right on the fact that you can iterate quickly. You ought to take advantage of that. I mean, one of the benefits and curses for marketers in the past is we didn’t know if it was resonating until much later, I suppose, right?

Suzi McNicholas: Exactly. 

Carman Pirie: So, without that kind of more immediate feedback loop, you could live in a bubble for a long time. Why do you think it is that marketing needs to explain itself so much? What is it about the marketing function or the people that are co-workers that causes marketing to have to explain itself more than in reverse?

Suzi McNicholas: Well, I think that people have a perception of what they think marketing is because they are marketed to all the time. You know, it’s a little bit of a different animal because whether you’re sitting at home watching TV, or you’re scrolling through whatever feed your social media is, all of us, no matter who you are, we are all being marketed to on a regular basis. And so, there’s a perceived notion of what marketing is because of how we absorb it, and in a way that isn’t true with anything else. I don’t know how engineering works. I don’t know how finance works. Because those things aren’t hitting me on a personal level in the same way that marketing does. 

So, everybody has their own perception of what marketing is based on their own experience, and when you try to come into a professional environment to understand it, often it’s incorrect because B2B marketing is very different than consumer marketing. There are gray areas, don’t get me wrong, and the gray areas are starting to merge more and more every day, but it’s… I think that that’s the reason why everybody has an opinion about marketing and they have a general misunderstanding. Again, when it comes to the difference between consumer and B2B, and most people don’t make a distinction because they’re not marketers, right? They don’t understand what the difference is. They just know from their own experience how they’re marketed to and why aren’t we doing the same thing, you know? 

Jeff White: It’s frustrating, and I know you mentioned your graphic designer friends. We’ve had this inferiority complex for a very long time because as soon as desktop publishing came out, it was quite obvious that the time of graphic designers was not necessarily, as the expert, wasn’t necessarily what it used to be. And I think there’s a lot of associations that have tried to play up the professional credentials of design. But, I also think at the same time they end up shooting themselves in the foot a bit because they become a little too precious about it. But I do think it’s interesting from a marketing perspective because it’s almost like, “Well, I see stuff, therefore I understand it.” It is unique in this particular profession because like you say, you can’t just look at engineering and understand exactly what’s going on with that without being an engineer, potentially, or somebody who’s kind of come from that side of a background. But everybody thinks that because they see it, they understand it, and because they consume it, they know how it works, and I guess my question is why do you think people think this is easy? 

Suzi McNicholas: That’s a great question. So, again, I think that most people bring their own individual experience into most things, right? I mean, we all do that. We absorb the world around us, and we bring that with us in things that we do, and decisions that we make, and the work that we do. But I think that again, because people are being personally marketed to, they think that they know what works because this resonates with me, or that resonates with me, or I don’t like the color blue as much as I like the color red. Why don’t we go with the color red? 

And it’s just because they’re basing it on, and I tell people this a lot too, when people say things like that to me I say in a very polite way, “Basically, you’re not the audience. You’re not our target audience. Our target audience is this,” and then of course you know you go into explaining why it is that we do the things that we do. And it’s funny, I was in a marketing leadership meeting in Switzerland in October, and we had one of our HR executives who joined us, which was great, and she was in the room when we were talking about… Our brand team put up a messaging platform on the wall and we were looking at it, some very high level stuff, and we probably spent 45 minutes discussing a single word and how it impacted the overall statement, and how would this messaging platform apply to all of our different business units, et cetera. And we talked about this one word, and at the end of the meeting the HR professional said, “My God, I had no idea so much thought goes into so much of what you’re doing.” 

And it’s just because they’ve never been exposed to it. People outside of marketing have never been exposed to all of the detail work that goes into every single thing that we do. I mean, it’s from our color palette, to the words that we use, to the images that we use, icons we create, all of that. I think they think it’s easy because they just… What they know is what they’ve seen and what they’ve absorbed in their everyday lives, not in a complex manufacturing conglomerate with 12 different business units and 100,000 employees, right? And many, many tens of thousands of customers. 

So, just to boil it down to a single brand, or a single way of representing ourselves that will resonate across all of those audiences and categories, I think that people don’t put the thought into and really have an understanding of what that looks like. Because again, they see marketing as how they absorb it on an individual level, which is consumer. 

Carman Pirie: I was gonna ask, because of course as you articulated that, kind of described that conversation about so then you try to explain to them that they’re not the audience, and I can imagine there’s an awful lot of people listening right now that are saying, “Oh, I’ve had that conversation.” 

Suzi McNicholas: For sure. 

Carman Pirie: It didn’t go that well, but I had that conversation. And maybe they just weren’t as persuasive as you, Suzi. That could be one answer. The other is I was going to ask what has driven the breakthroughs, there? You kind of pre-answered a bit of the question, however, when you talked about bringing that HR person a bit more into the tent, you know? Showing them how it actually is working and showing them the complexity, but of course you can’t probably do that for everyone. Any tips, I guess, for our listeners that are having those conversations? To say, “You know what, this is what I’ve found when I’m trying to get through to somebody. This can kind of break through when other things aren’t,” to really kind of help them understand that there’s more under the hood to this marketing thing and it’s not just easy as Jeff said?

Suzi McNicholas: Yeah. It’s a great question. And actually, we didn’t… The HR representative just happened to be in the room while we were having this conversation, right? She was just a part-

Carman Pirie: A happy accident. 

Suzi McNicholas: Yes. Yes. But it was refreshing for everybody else in the room when she said that. Everybody kind of went, “Well, yeah. This is what we do. This is a big part of what we do.” You know, I have always said that when I’ve had the conversations, in my experience you gotta give people a voice. Let them have a voice. If somebody, and I had this same… This one example comes to mind. There was a salesperson at one of the companies I worked for and we were coming up with a new positioning statement, and he called me and said, “This doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t like it. This isn’t working for me.” 

And you know, I kind of said, “Okay. Well, tell me a little bit more about that.” And then tried to steer the conversation away from, “Well, this is really about our target audience, and this is the way that we view the target audience, and here’s why we think this will resonate with them,” so I didn’t come right out and say, “You’re not the audience. You’re not our target market.” But you can steer the conversation in that way but let them have a voice. I mean, it’s okay if people want to express their opinion, and again, I think that the reason why people want to express their opinions so much when it comes to marketing is because it’s very emotional. 

You know, the way that we’re marketed to, again, think about how anything… Think of anything. A car company, right? A beer company. The Super Bowl is coming up. I’m thinking about all the Super Bowl ads and how there might be a little kid involved, and it’s a touching moment, or it’s funny, but it’s all designed to resonate with us on an individual level. So, because marketing is so emotional for people, whether they realize it or not that’s the reason they come and express their opinions. You know, I would never go over to a professional in engineering or finance and say, “This isn’t working for me,” because I know that I’m not their stakeholder, necessarily. But because everybody is marketed to on a day-to-day basis in every… You know, every few seconds I think we’re targeted in some way by some kind of marketer, certainly at consumer brands, but because it’s emotional they want to express their opinion, because they think that their opinion and their idea will resonate emotionally with who we are trying to reach. Does that make sense? 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s almost like because it’s emotional, you have permission to react emotionally to it. 

Suzi McNicholas: Correct. Absolutely. Yeah. You just summed up what I said perfectly. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. That’s really interesting. I want to poke at that conversation with the salesperson a little bit, because I’ve failed at that conversation a time or two, and so this is what I find can sometimes happen there, is you’re kind of on the cusp of telling them that it’s for the target audience, which is in some way… There’s an underlying current, under current that suggests that you maybe know the audience better than they do. And this is a salesperson who is talking to that audience every day. Now, one very small slice of it, admittedly, with all of the bias that comes with that, but I guess, did you find yourself in that moment almost telling the salesperson that you know the customer better than they did? How did that… It just seems like there’s landmines here. I want to kind of know how you navigated it. 

Suzi McNicholas: Oh, I was really annoyed at the time. I’ll be honest with you. Really, really annoyed. Because you know what? Part of me was like, “Why does everybody think that they can tell me how to do my job?” Right? I mean, I think every marketer has probably had this experience. Why does everybody think that they can come and tell me? And I think I’ve used this term many times, like, “Everyone’s a marketer.” My team and I used to say something would happen and somebody would say, “Everyone’s a marketer.” 

So, it was really annoying at the time, and I think part of what they don’t understand, or the people that come up and just give… This salesperson in particular was very opinionated and had a very strong personality. And I tell you, I’ve gotten into some arguments with people in the past, but as the years have gone by I’ve learned, and that’s why I said just let them have a voice. Just listen to what they have to say. And then if you can, you can explain your position, but what most people don’t understand as well who are non-marketers, they don’t understand what personas are. They don’t understand what a customer-buyer’s journey looks like, and you bring that into play, there are so many specific tactical initiatives that go on behind the scenes. I think it’s important that people understand we’re not just… We don’t just get in a room and make this up. There’s research involved. There’s specific work that is done to make sure that we do understand the customer. And voice of customer, that is all run through marketing, as well. 

I understand that this salesperson is out hearing the voice of the customer every single day, but the intention of the voice of customer, what he does with that is different than the intention of what we as marketers do with that. So, that’s why I don’t think I position myself as saying, “I know the customer better than you do.” I know the customer in a different way than you do. And it’s with a specific marketing lens so that we can get through to that customer. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. 

Suzi McNicholas: You’re trying to sell a deal. Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: I love that, that you’re going into it with different intention, different motivation. You will hear different things as a result. You will listen differently. And it doesn’t mean that one’s better than the other. They just have different outcomes. 

Suzi McNicholas: Exactly. 

Carman Pirie: If I’m trying to sell something to somebody, I’m gonna listen to that person in a much different way than if I’m trying to understand their underlying motivations in a more kind of holistic way. 

Jeff White: Or influence somebody to consider something. 

Suzi McNicholas: Yeah. I mean, it’s about what do they care about. What do they care about, right? What worries them? What keeps them up at night? That’s a different way of approaching how you target an audience than a strictly sales relationship, where I’m trying to close the deal so I can get my commission. Different motivations. 

Carman Pirie: And the other thing that I find happens too is that as sales organizations, or sales organization members, team members age, often they will maintain accounts for a very long time, and those contacts have aged along with them. It’s still kind of the case in the manufacturing space that you have a lot of longevity on both sides of the table. And so, sometimes those maybe some of the more senior sales team members are sometimes even out of touch with the kind of today’s buyer. They know their buyer, but there could even be some interesting blind spots there for them. 

Suzi McNicholas: I think that that reminds me of another thing that happened when I was in that leadership meeting that I mentioned earlier, when we were in Switzerland. We were each given a part of the meeting, we were each given a task to go find what we think is a really, really cutting edge example of something that one of our competitors were doing in a marketing setting. And mine was I found a competitor who had put together something for TikTok, and in industrial, in manufacturing, in marketing, I bet that you won’t find too many of us on TikTok. We’re still… LinkedIn is primarily where we play. Some Facebook, some Twitter, but if you think about where… To your point, if they’re aging up together, I stood up in the room and said, “Okay, raise a hand. Who’s on TikTok?” And only one other person raised their hand besides me, and there were probably about 17 people in the room. And many of them were my age or older. 

And you know, there was a little bit of a sneer, like a giggle, and so I showed this competitive example on TikTok, and I explained to the room that there is a serious side of TikTok. It’s not just about cute dances and watching your kids’ funny videos. And I think that that just… Your point reminded me of that example because things are moving so fast, and we all know that TikTok is probably… It’s wildly popular. It’s one of the most popular social media platforms that’s out there at the moment. And we’re nowhere near it as industrial manufacturing marketers. We’re nowhere near it. By the time we do get near it, there’ll be some other really hot social media platform that has taken over, right? 

So, it’s keeping up with the trends and how things move. But you’re right. A lot of this is age driven. And the younger generations that come up are going to expect different types of marketing than the older generations. 

Carman Pirie: It’s interesting that you mentioned TikTok. We’re doing some research just a week or two ago and found a huge, huge audience of HVAC installers on TikTok. People don’t think about HVAC installers being on TikTok, but there you have it. 

Suzi McNicholas: Yeah. And podcasters, as well. In fact, we’ve got, like I mentioned, we’ve got an event, and we’ve got a number of… I think we’ve got four different subject matter experts speaking to four different HVAC-focused podcasts at this event that we’re going to next week. So, yeah, there’s an audience everywhere. Again, just because TikTok is known for its dance trends and more consumer type of fun things, there’s very much a serious side to that platform, and there is everywhere you go. It’s just that people think it’s not worth exploring because it’s too young, and trendy, and our target market isn’t sitting on TikTok, but they are, and they will be as Gen Z enters the workforce. They are. They absolutely are. 

Carman Pirie: And it doesn’t help me personally that I walk around thinking that I’m 30 years younger than I actually am, because then you don’t even… The blind spot completely… 

Jeff White: Yeah. I’ve always said that a lot of things that are new, and that maybe as older generations look at them and sneer, those things have a way of making it into corporate life in half a decade to a decade, though. I’m thinking of things like punk rock never would have ever shown up in traditional corporate life, but it certainly did when it became normalized in the ‘90s. And then certain design trends that may have been in things like skateboarding and other things like that start to move up the chain and just become normal looks that you would see in an industrial advertisement, you know? And it’s always just a half decade to decade behind before something becomes boring and the kids move onto something else, and then we take advantage of it and run it into the ground for a while. 

It’s a bit bleak, I realize, but it is kind of a thing I’ve noticed. 

Carman Pirie: That’s a dad of three kids talking right there. 

Suzi McNicholas: I’m with you. 

Carman Pirie: We’re ruining it for them. Suzi, this has been a… Look, I think we can kind of meander a lot of different ways in this conversation. I think it’s just been a fascinating kind of look at the world of trying to communicate and manage what we do as marketers inside of large industrial corporations, and I guess I’m curious. If you had to give a piece of advice to yourself maybe, you said 25 years in this profession, so let’s go with 25 years ago you’re giving yourself one piece of advice. What would it be?

Suzi McNicholas: Be patient. Be patient and pay attention. Pay attention. Mainly because I would never of at that been age been able, my early 20s, been able to predict, and you could probably say this for anybody my age, but I would never be able to predict the vast changes that would take place within the profession, and that is in how we reach our target audience like I said earlier. And everything that I’ve said today during this conversation kind of revolves around that. Marketing used to be advertising. Then it was advertising but with a mix of some online. And then Jeff Bezos decided to sell books online and now everybody has an eCommerce platform, right? 

And then, you know, Web 2.0, which is when social media really became so prevalent, and then everybody figured out how to make money off of social media. I remember when Facebook was just a place where people gathered before the ads, before he took it public, before all of that. Pay attention and keep up, because if you don’t pay attention and keep up, you’re gonna be irrelevant. 

Carman Pirie: That is some fantastic advice, I think. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and expertise with us today. It’s been fantastic. 

Suzi McNicholas: I’ve really enjoyed it. Very grateful and honored for the opportunity. Thank you so much. 

Jeff White: Thank you, Suzi. Great to chat with you. 

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at That’s

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Suzi McNicholas

Director of Marketing and Transformation

Suzi McNicholas is Director of Marketing and Transformation at Johnson Controls. She works in the Corporate Marketing function and drives transformation initiatives across the global enterprise. She has a 25+ year career in progressive B2B marketing roles including digital marketing campaigns, lead generation, branding, public relations, new product introductions, content creation, events, communications, and budget management. Prior to joining Johnson Controls, McNicholas built an integrated marketing team at Honeywell in the Industrial Safety Products division. McNicholas holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC and a Post-Graduate degree in English and American Literature from the University of Hull in England. She currently resides in Charlotte, NC.

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