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Company Culture

Hitting the Trail with Salesforce’s CMO, Sarah Franklin

Growing up as the child of a single mother in Richmond, Virginia, Sarah Franklin learned to embrace a few simple philosophies: you have to go for things if you want them, and you can’t let fear guide your decisions. 

“That, and the idea that you can fix anything with a smile,” she said.

It’s that kind of optimism and enthusiasm that, at the start of 2020, compelled Franklin to set a significant goal: run 2,020 miles before the year was out.

“I wanted to prove that it couldn’t crush me,” she said. 

Every morning, Franklin put on her headphones, hit play on her favorite Beastie Boys album, and placed one foot in front of the other. It was here, on these daily runs set to songs like “It Takes Time to Build,” where Franklin found the clarity and peace of mind to power through a particularly difficult chapter — the COVID-19 pandemic.

By year’s end, Franklin tallied 2,162 miles. She crushed her goal, in fact, running the extra mile not once, but 162 times over. In the process, she ran a distance equivalent to a road trip from San Francisco to Chicago. 

Along the way, she discovered a reinvigorated sense of optimism to embrace the challenging year. And that helped pave the way for an important new role she would officially accept shortly after the year’s conclusion: President and Chief Marketing Officer at Salesforce.

Leaping forward into a new year, and a new role

Those first few days in the CMO position presented Franklin with plenty of challenges as a marketing leader: a changing digital landscape, uncertainty surrounding a vaccine rollout, and a new and growing global team working remotely, around the world. 

Just like her daily runs, Franklin took it all in stride. 

“It’s never been a more important time to be a marketer because every company is looking at their CMO and marketing team to understand exactly what their customers want and need from them. And there’s never been so much innovation taking place in marketing.” Franklin said.

It’s never been a more important time to be a marketer because every company is looking at their CMO and marketing team to understand exactly what their customers want and need from them.

Sarah Franklin, President and Chief Marketing Officer

At the end of the day, Franklin said, the role of the CMO is fun. And while the definition of “fun” for someone who runs a monthly half marathon may be different than most, Franklin explains the fun lies in the variety of questions marketers get to answer.

“Marketing is at the heart of everything a company does. As marketers, we build community by creating personal, authentic connections with our customers. But we’re not just asking how we can engage everyone externally, we’re also asking how we can help our employees, align our vision and values with our products and services, and ultimately get companies back to growth,” Franklin said, adding that, “marketing is first in line to answer all of these critical questions.”  

Sarah Franklin: CMO, Chief Community Builder

On one particular run late last summer, as Franklin weaved in and out of downtown Oakland through streets framed by boarded-up businesses and sprinkled in ash from California’s notorious wildfires, she found inspiration in a mural. Just outside of Jack London square, “Oakland Dreams” sparked a sense of hope during a time when everything seemed to be at its worst.

  • Oakland Dreams mural taken by Sarah Franklin
  • Oakland Dreams mural taken by Sarah Franklin
  • Oakland Dreams mural taken by Sarah Franklin
  • Oakland Dreams mural taken by Sarah Franklin

Photos taken along her run in Downtown Oakland

“It showed me that even despite the challenges we collectively face, there was hope — hope and resilience and pride from a diverse community where so many movements have started,” Franklin said.

This appreciation for community, more than any other, has defined Franklin’s career. It has fueled her ambitions over the course of her 13 years at Salesforce, and inspired her to ignite the Trailblazer movement by launching Trailhead, Salesforce’s gamified online learning platform, in a prior role.

In an effort to break down barriers and help communities succeed in the all-digital world, the program initially focused on how to train and reskill women and minorities for STEM careers, and quickly expanded from there. 

With topics that range from bots to machine learning to online engagement and more, Trailhead equips people with skills they need to be successful in their job. Today, the platform has over 2.4 million Trailblazers learning in a community made up of 200+ Salesforce MVPs — passionate product experts that Salesforce recognizes for their commitment to helping others learn in the community — and 1,300 global community groups.

“Community is one of the most important things we have in this world,” Franklin said. “Our Trailblazer community is made up of innovators, technology disruptors and global shapers who’ve built their careers with Salesforce. Their success is our success.”

Community is one of the most important things we have in this world.

Sarah Franklin, President and Chief Marketing Officer

Today’s Trailblazers continue to inspire Franklin, and she’s proud of the impact it has made for people from all backgrounds. 

“We welcome all, and we recognize our differences make us stronger,” Franklin continued through a big smile, adding that, “this community we’ve built — it’s a beautiful thing.” 

Letting trust, authenticity guide the way

Developing a deep connection with the community is a fundamental piece of Franklin’s marketing philosophy, and it informs her approach to building trust and authenticity between a brand and its customers. 

Marketing in a traditional — even modern sense — was no longer relevant or appropriate as the pandemic took hold. Live events, the core of Salesforce’s strategy, had to be entirely reimagined.

Sarah Franklin showcasing Salesforce customer, Louis Vuitton, custom bag at Dreamforce 2019 opening keynote

Her team used customer feedback to plan Dreamforce to You last year, creating a virtual experience with focused, personalized content for customers to address their unique needs. The event brought together more than 140 million viewers online with 1:1 programs, 30-minute sessions and digital watch parties.

“We were able to provide a great experience for attendees virtually and the pendulum will never fully go back,” Franklin said. “Now, with our virtual events you can go from a session to a 1:1 meeting with an expert on the topic much more quickly than if you were at the event physically.”

Virtual events helped Salesforce connect with its stakeholders throughout the pandemic, driving growth for the company despite a challenging landscape. Innovation, too, stayed critical and guided much of the Salesforce strategy. 

“Marketing is no longer just about billboards and ad spend, it’s about innovation. That is the heart of marketing,” said Franklin. “Every CEO is looking at their CMO and seeing their role as one responsible for finding innovative ways to connect with customers.”

Salesforce’s, for example, was built in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in response to the overnight transition to digital that global companies faced. Then and now, is a partnership with local government agencies, medical experts, partners and customers to help businesses and communities reopen and recover safely and responsibly.

“We’ve learned a lot by listening to our customers,” said Franklin. “Those insights coupled with our own product vision, drive our company’s direction.”

Reimagining the future in an all-digital, work-from-anywhere world

This advice comes as Franklin tests what “reimagining” looks like in 2021 — and in her new role.

“While there’s still some uncertainty this year, we have more control — we can plan and not be so reactive,” Franklin said recently. “Now is the time to find new ways to connect, to build community.”

One of Franklin’s early acts of community was to reimagine how events looked as vaccinations got underway and parts of the world reopened. 

The resulting Success Anywhere Tour features Salesforce execs and customers speaking about key topics at live, intimate outdoor events in unique locations, digitally-enabled so that millions can tune in from home — or anywhere else. They’ve also honed in on a unique tactic to differentiate from events of the past — surprise and anticipation versus prescribed schedules and locations.

“We’re defining marketing for the future. Everybody is looking at Salesforce right now, what we’re doing, because we’re having in-person events. We’re going around the world,” Franklin explained.

Recent events in Singapore, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles, have also continued to build trust by working closely with customers. Inviting customers into the discussions, gaining their feedback before and after the events, and ultimately, helping promote their success has stayed a critical part of the strategy.

“Customer relationships are our biggest competitive differentiator, and we’ve been able to strengthen our customer relationships at Salesforce through reimagined events,” she added. 

Customer relationships are our biggest competitive differentiator, and we’ve been able to strengthen our customer relationships through reimagined events.

Sarah Franklin, President and Chief Marketing Officer

And she’s only getting started 

With Salesforce Vaccine Cloud enabling vaccine deployment, and a return to normalcy in sight, Franklin is looking forward to returning to her desk in Salesforce Tower, meeting with her team in-person (and staying connected digitally), and finding new ways for the marketing team to help shape the future.

“The data we’re seeing shows incredible optimism for the second half of the year,” Franklin said, “and it’s a tremendous opportunity for marketing departments to take the lessons learned from the pandemic and apply them in the new normal.”

A big part of her team’s formula for success will be focused on that core Salesforce value Franklin espouses: building trust. 

“Ninety-five percent of customers are more loyal to a company they trust, 92 percent are more likely to purchase a product from trusted businesses — that’s huge — and that’s something we can help with as businesses rebuild,” Franklin said. 

When Franklin goes on her next daily run, she’ll likely be reflecting on her first 100 days as CMO. And like her favorite band sings, she will stay “cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce,” no matter the obstacles that arise in the next 100. Whether it’s rebuilding businesses in a post-pandemic world, or tackling the challenges of the future, Sarah Franklin will take it all in stride, one step at a time.  


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