Masters of Marketing Interview: Vivek Saran – CMO at Belle Tire

Clock Tower Insight’s exclusive Masters of Marketing Interview Series continues with Belle Tire’s Vivek Saran. He’s been with Belle Tire a total of four years now, first as a consultant and now as their Chief Marketing Officer (CMO).

Belle Tire has been a family-run company for over 90 years. They’re headquartered in Michigan with locations throughout Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. From a marketing perspective, they’re a growing company. “They’re solid, but there’s still a lot of opportunity in things we can do to leverage the past 90 years and help to grow even stronger,” Saran relays. He notes it’s great to work for a company everyone respects and recognizes.

It’s All About the Data

A CMO essentially has two jobs: to drive traffic today, and preparing for the unknown coming down the road in five years. “We got the ownership and board to agree to what was a five year audacious goal. If we have 10 million customers, we want to have 10 million marketing plans running simultaneously, learning from each other, adjusting on the fly. We won’t be the first, or the last, but we’ll be the best.”

Understanding the data, the consumer, the vehicle, and being able to leverage that is the interesting part of the category Belle Tire is in. “We know there’ll be a competitive disruptor. We don’t know who that will be, so our best defense mechanism, regardless of how the industry changes or what competitor comes in, is the data. If we fundamentally leverage and understand the data, we’ll be in a good place.”

Tires and car repairs are, admittedly, a grudge purchase. You could probably think of at least 1,000 different things you could be doing rather than spend $800 to buy tires or fix your vehicle. Belle takes an interesting stance. “We embrace the grudge. We notice it and know people aren’t having the best day. We have the opportunity during their visit to the store to make their day better. We can get them back on the road fast and affordably.”

More often than not, they’ll communicate ways the consumer can avoid having to come back to see them again in the future. They want to be transparent and make sure they’re educating people. “You would think our goal would be to be the number one in size. It’s actually to become the number one trusted partner for vehicle maintenance and repair. The trust comes back around.” They even go so far as to not call it a marketing department. They call it the ‘Go-To Department.’

“We believe in the simple philosophy that customers don’t buy products or services; they’re hiring them to do a job.” Belle Tire has the exact same round rubber tires as their competitors (only with different names). Everybody fixes brakes the same way. “The difference is in our people and in our commitment to our people that we serve. We know our job; from the 18-year-old tire technician to the CEO of the company, we know we want to give our neighbors peace of mind and trust in us to get them back on the road affordably.” Everything they do is about reinforcing that idea. “We provide peace of mind and trust. We’re a part of the community. We’re neighbors. This is what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Keeping Things in Perspective

Saran believes that the number one mistake that most CMOs make is that they believe their own story. “You have to stay humble and listen.” Most CMOs will admit to listening to the consumer, but that’s only part of it. “Are you listening to the people in the field? Bosses? Most importantly, are you listening to your team?” If not, you could be missing out on opportunities. “There’s almost a marketing hubris that takes over marketers. I had to learn if I really wanted to succeed, I needed to make sure to remain humble and listen instead of doing all the talking.”

Instead, it’s about people development. “A company our size, we’re not going to attract the same level of talent as Google is. We’ve got to take that talent, grow them, and inspire them. I want them to be excited. There’s no reason Belle Tire can’t be as innovative and exciting to work for as Google.” Saran believes that can be accomplished when you train people and work on their professional development beyond the day-to-day tasks and create an entrepreneurial spirit where people can thrive. “That’s the opportunity I’ve been given at Belle Tire, and it’s enabled the company to survive and thrive for nearly 100 years.”

Lessons From a Successful Marketer

Saran likens his growth as a marketer to becoming a parent later in life. “That’s been my greatest lesson,” he says. “That’s the most humbling experience because you realize you’re not in control. The more you try to control a situation, the less control you have and the more frustrated you’ll be. It literally reminds you that there are people management skills that you have to rely on. You’ve got to leverage and master those because you don’t control things, neither the marketplace or people.

He advises that anyone interested in moving into a career in marketing should actually consider studying anything other than marketing. “I think the key is to understand the human psyche. You have to understand the data and analytics. You have to understand the technical. I think that’s a mistake a lot of people make.” The best go-to-marketing team strategist has a diversity of background and thought. In the modern era, it’s more about the human psyche, data, and technology (coming from cognitive computing, AI, and marketing automation). “You don’t have to be an expert in how to implement, but if you don’t understand the fundamental core, then you’ll be taken advantage of and make a lot of missteps. It requires a fundamental understanding of data, statistics, and analytics. That’s the key. Focus on those three fundamentals. The craft of marketing is easy to teach, but the core background required is hard to obtain sometimes.”