Intel CMO Steve Fund on drones, in-house agencies and evolving a brand with a legendary 'bong'

"If we think we can do it better, cheaper or faster internally, we will."

When CMO Steve Fund arrived at Intel three years ago, the company was still best associated with its signature chime and decades-old tag line, "Intel Inside."

But as the company has sought to redefine itself as more than a chipmaker, its marketing has evolved as well. Under Fund’s leadership, Intel has become known for spectacular displays of technology, like the drones mimicking a fireworks display behind Lady Gaga at the 2016 Super Bowl. It has built a respectable roster of spokespeople, including Jim Parsons, Michael Phelps, Tom Brady, Lebron James, Kesha and fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff.

In 2014, Intel farmed out 95 percent of its creative to agencies like Venables Bell & Partners. Today, it has moved the bulk of that work in-house with the creation of its 90-person team Agency Inside.

The motive for all of this, of course, is to sell more products—and it’s working. Intel just reported its best quarter in company history with $16.4 billion in revenue, and it’s pivoted from the PC to focus on the cloud.

The advertising industry has taken note of its marketing efforts, too, awarding Intel multiple Cannes Lions, including a Gold for superimposing David Bowie on Lady Gaga’s face during the 2016 Grammys.

Today, Intel taps its newest brand ambassador, tennis star Serena Williams, who made headlines for announcing her pregnancy last week. Campaign US talked to Fund about working with the world’s highest-paid female athlete and why it’s important to keep Intel’s trophy case well stocked.

What’s the message you’re trying to convey with the Serena Williams ad?We wanted to draw the analogy between Serena trying to play tennis with an old, outdated racket and you trying to be your best using an old, outdated computer. The call to action was very clear that when she split her racket, she knew she needed to upgrade her equipment, and for the consumer, that means if you’re using an old computer, you need to upgrade your computer as well.

How do you define good creative?
In advertising, there are two things that matter: the ability to break through and the ability to drive persuasion. So, will it be recognized and attributed to Intel? Having someone like Jim Parsons, we get a very significant lift in terms of the recognizability and the breakthrough, because consumers identify him with Intel.

The second thing is its ability to drive persuasion. So, can it get the viewer to do something? In this case, there’s a very clear call-to-action, which is upgrade your equipment. So we look for those two dimensions. That’s how we assess the effectiveness of the advertising.

About 70 percent of Intel’s creative is done in-house. How do you decide what gets assigned to Agency Inside and what gets farmed out?
We have a basic criteria. If we think we can do it better, cheaper or faster internally, we will. If we think one of our agency partners can do it better, cheaper or faster, we’ll partner with them on that. We have some very clear skills that are unique to our agency, and we try to leverage those to every extent possible, and our agencies have very unique skills that we don’t have and we leverage those as well. It depends on the project, but that’s the criteria that we use.

Agency Inside has access to Intel that an outside agency can’t match. What are some of the executions that have proven fruitful from having that access?
There’s a ton of things. The Super Bowl drone show that we did in partnership with Pepsi—that was all done internally. We just did a public service campaign called "Hack Harassment" where we partner with Gabby Douglas of the Olympics and Kesha, the musician. That was all done internally. We have a video series that’s called "Meet the Makers," which is online, that was all done internally. We have a very cool VR idea that we’re going to do with Serena, which is literally you receiving a serve from Serena. Do you think you can return Serena’s serve? Do you have any idea how fast it is? That was done internally. The Lady Gaga initiative with the Grammy’s—that was done internally as well.

Intel has invested in some pretty elaborate marketing pieces in recent years. Why is it important for Intel to operate on this scale?

We’re a Fortune 50 company, so we’re very big and what we do is very high visibility. People look to us as a leader company. Because of this, I want to put our technologies on display on the biggest, most-watched events that are out there.

And I really wanted to insert ourselves in pop culture. We wanted to reignite our relationship with the youth market, and inserting our brand in pop culture around their passion points of music, sports, entertainment and gaming, showing up when and where the millennials are receptive to our messaging has really strengthened our relationship with them and put Intel in a whole new light with the younger generation.

The chime and tagline have become iconic for Intel. Do you think that’s a blessing or a curse when you’re trying to evolve the brand?
I think it’s a real strength. The bong is one of the world’s most recognizable sounds. We like to say it’s the second most recognizable sound next to a baby crying. There’s such equity in that. As soon as you hear that bong, it immediately conveys Intel. The word "inside," I won’t say tagline per se, but the word "inside" is synonymous with Intel as well. 

When we really started out repositioning the brand, we obviously had a choice. You can completely distance yourself from everything that you stood for and the assets that you had, or you can use those to help pivot the brand toward the future. We went for the latter.

As an example, with the bong, our first execution with mcgarrybowen, we created a mashup with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the bong, which was unusual, but it worked incredibly well.

Our new tagline is "Experience what’s inside," so we use the word "inside," but we use it in a very forward-thinking way. Our whole brand promise is "Intel makes amazing experiences possible," and we wanted to help bring that core idea to life, so that’s why we’re doing all this experiential marketing. Whether it’s in sports, gaming, entertainment, music or fashion, we want to bring to life that whole idea of Intel’s technology inside creates these amazing experiences outside.

Do you think you’ve been successful in evolving the brand?
I’m super proud of where we are. When I came in, we had this amazing brand that hadn’t been nurtured and developed to its fullest.

And over the past three years, we’ve seen a very sharp turnaround in a positive way across all metrics, both internal and external. We’ve seen Intel’s business strength rebound pretty significantly. The PC business, which everyone wrote off as dead, grew revenue for the first time in a couple of years.

And we’ve been getting recognized for it in the industry, and not just, "Oh, you’re a technology brand." We’ve gotten a host of awards and accolades, so we’ve kind of been on a roll. We honestly believe that we’re doing the best work out there right now.

What do industry awards mean to you?
One is it’s a good morale booster for my team to see that their work be recognized by others. It also helps us attract the best talent. If you’re being put up there as "Marketer of the Year," "Best Brand Builder" and "Top Creative," and winning all these awards, it attracts the best to us.

It builds support for the brand and for marketing in a technology company. A lot of my history has been working for companies where marketing was the hub of the wheel. At a technology company, the company revolves around technology. Marketing is important, but it’s not the most important function. So just the fact that we’ve raised the visibility and gotten all the accolades and recognition about what we’re doing creates true believers internally.

What role are the drones going to play in Intel’s marketing? Have you reached your pinnacle after the Super Bowl?
Oh God no. I think it’s just the starting point for drones. We’ve used them in partnership with Disney. Typically they have a fireworks show, so we used drones in place of fireworks around holiday. We’ve broken the world record with 500 drones. We’ve obviously did the big thing with drones at the Super Bowl. If you watched the NBA All-Star Game and the Slam Dunk competition, we used drones in a very unique way with Aaron Gordon. We used drones at Coachella. We think it’s just the starting point. Lots of companies, sports properties, etc. are calling us to do amazing things with drones. It’s pretty exciting, the potential. 

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