I am a woman on a mission

Brand Purpose: Discovering Yours and Owning It

Alicia Tillman of SAP and Shelley Zalis of The Female Quotient in the FQ Lounge @ ANA Masters of Marketing

In recent years, consumers have become interested in more than just the products and services that brands offer— they want brands to stand for something bigger than what they sell. Defining a reason for existing beyond making money is critical for the long-term success of any company in today’s climate. We spoke with Alicia Tillman of SAP in the FQ Lounge @ ANA Masters of Marketing to find out why brand purpose is here to stay, how you can discover your own, and much more. 

 Chatting with Alicia Tillman, CMO of SAP


Shelley:  We’re co-founders of #SeeHer, if you can see her, you can be her. Let’s start by discussing who you are and what you do. What does brand purpose mean to you?


Alicia: I’m Alicia Tillman, Chief Marketing Officer for SAP,  the largest enterprise software company in the world. We have 480,000 customers, we’re in 180 countries and currently employ over one hundred thousand people. I feel quite honored to be able to lead the marketing strategy for a company that is evolving every day. 

The beauty of working here and why I’m so drawn to it is because this is a company that was founded with a purpose 47 years ago: To help the world run better and improve people’s lives. When I first came into this role just over two years ago, I realized that our purpose is our greatest differentiator. Sure, we’ve got hundreds of products and drive value for our customers. But the value that we’re driving each day opens up more possibilities for our customers to change the world. When we can unlock that purpose for them, that’s when passion comes to life and they achieve their visions.

The brands that are the most valuable today have mastered the use of technology to deliver the best, most personalized customer experience. As humans, we experience 27 different types of emotions. Today’s consumers are relying on feeling more than ever before to determine purchasing decisions. They aren’t just interested in simply buying products—it’s the experience that keeps them coming back. While 80% of CEOs today believe their brands deliver an exceptional experience, only 8% of customers agree. This is creating an experience gap. In fact, 91% of consumers would switch brands if a different one was purpose-driven. We have a responsibility as brands to be authentically purpose-driven. If we understand the feelings of our buyers, we’ll become much more relevant. 


Shelley: It starts with your people and your employees. With such an enormous organization like SAP, how do you communicate and promote these values on a global scale within your organization?


Alicia: It’s less about us communicating company values and more about communicating the fact that we respect the values, feelings, and beliefs of everyone within our company. We’re committed to creating a safe space for employees to bring their full selves to the table every day while they’re building products for our customers. So, it’s more of a bottom-up than top-down approach in terms of how we build and nurture our company culture.

We spend a lot of time helping our people understand that this is our company— it’s not just our eight board members. We need to be making decisions together. We need to be listening to the voices of our customers together. And, we need to be together delivering products and services that improve the lives of our customers so that they can go on to make the world a better place. We’re growing and driving great success quarter over quarter because of this culture that our employees live and breathe. 


Shelley: You’re also continuously evolving as a company. When your company was founded, the idea of “brands for good” and “purpose-driven growth” wasn’t something everyone talked about.  In the last year, you’ve also been evolving the brand narrative. What have you learned from interviewing your employees and internal research?  


Alicia: The first thing that I did when I took my current role was to look backward, which is the opposite of what most new leaders do. Instead of looking ahead at all the latest and greatest stuff that new leaders typically spend their time focusing on right away, I actually looked back at the past 47 years and the five founders of SAP. I spent a lot of time listening and reading about the purpose behind the founding of SAP. While our founders certainly talked about creating a new product to revolutionize how companies operate, they always came back to this desire to make the world become a better place. And, they believed that technology would enable that vision.

While we would often speak about our vision statement, I felt like we could do much better as a company. When I thought about the output and the value of our products—which is how companies best market today— it needed to lead back to the mission that our founders were so passionate about.

So, we spent a few months writing the first real brand narrative. We set up design-thinking workshops all over the world. It was amazing how many people showed up to participate. We also had discussion boards on our internet sites. The comments that we saw were incredible, especially from highly tenured employees and newbies who can sometimes be your most cynical. I had people say to me, “You know, it’s been 30 years since I joined the company and this is why I’m proud to work here.” We scripted a narrative together that aligned with our people’s values. It was also authentically us because it connected to the vision of our founders. So, that’s how our modern vision statement came about.


Shelley: You talked about your key purpose, which is to make the world a better place, and SAP is truly doing that with your activation of the 17 Global Sustainable Development Goals. Our focus at the FQ is Sustainable Development Goal #5: To advance gender equality. We’re truly helping to activate them in partnership with SAP.


Alicia: First of all, we’re thankful for the goals being in existence. The greatest way to measure progress is when you start from a foundation. It creates unification and a place that you can constantly return to as a reference point. But, we’re not the only ones measuring success— there’s a huge collective of organizations, together with the UN, who are measuring progress and impact towards the SDGs. It truly is the only way to gain success in today’s marketplace. It’s less about individuals or a single company focused on committing to change and more about coming together to leverage the power of your entire ecosystem. Getting more people involved enables you to drive greater success and greater impact. 


Shelly: What are some of the key issues that you think are the most important for closing the wage gap? 


Alicia: We often talk about the fact that this needs to be a collective effort but we still see men dominating today as it relates to pay or leadership roles. We need to continue to have both men and women openly discussing challenges, but also solutions.

When I look back on my career so far, my greatest sponsors have been men. They’ve believed in me while recognizing that I’ve needed help. Based on the way the balance functions in companies today, we need those voices. Men have to continue to be part of the dialogue, always. Even when we achieve equality, there will still be a need to keep it in check. 

We also need to build more communities like the FQ. These communities inspire, motivate, and instill confidence. We need to amplify voices driving progress towards the change that we want to see. So much of that is about the confidence you have in your voice, using that voice in the right communities, and backing it up with enough influence. 


Shelley: I always say that gender equality is not a female issue; it’s a social and economic issue. But, above all, it’s a leadership issue. We all need to be in this together—there is no doubt about it. I’m so proud that, with partners like you, we’re building communities on college campuses and cultivating the leaders of tomorrow. We’re activating solutions for change, but I also believe that this next generation will be our closers. These women will close the gap faster than the projected 202 years. 


This interview has been condensed for space. For more, watch the full discussion here.


To learn more about how brands can link purpose and profit, check out: 

How Brands Can Leverage the Power of Purpose to Grow

Why Believing in Women Is a Slam Dunk

What Happened in The FQ Lounge @ Advertising Week: Day 1