Blog | Mike O'Toole 01.23.19

How Xerox Leveraged 14 Creative Artists to Tell Its Modern Brand Story - Project: 'Set the Page Free.'

“My opening line in any presentation is the question, "When I say Xerox, what are you thinking?" And most people think of that big aged box that sits on the floor and spits out paper.”

This is from Barbara Basney, VP of Global Brand at Xerox. She’s talking about the “double-edged sword” of the company’s legacy. Xerox is one of the most famous brands in the world, the rare brand that has achieved “verb” status. Most marketers would kill for this awareness, but few would relish the challenge of updating perceptions that have been building since Chester Carlson invented xerography in 1947. Creating awareness isn’t easy, but changing minds may the hardest thing to do in marketing.

As you can imagine, Xerox products do a lot more than spit out paper these days. Basney described a modern use case: “Let’s say you have a document you need to send to someone, but you need to get it translated first. Through our device, you press a button, and it will translate the document into over 100 languages, send it to the Cloud, let people work on it, and put it into a collaborative software environment.”

The important question is how does Xerox earn our attention so that we’ll listen to this new story?

The answer is “Set The Page Free,” a remarkable initiative featuring 14 A-list writers and musicians—contributors include Lee Child, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jonathan Safran Foer—creating “the story of the modern workplace.” Launched last year, the story unfolded in 20 countries, aided by Web sites translated into three languages. There were live events, podcasts, and docu-style videos. The capstone is Speaking of Work, a book of original essays, poems, and fiction by program participants.

In other words, the program is about the changing nature of work, not Xerox products. Xerox plays a supporting role, but the stars are the creative professionals themselves. Set the Page Free has turned a lot of heads. The program has generated 150 million impressions, most of them earned. There has been a ton of press coverage, including a New York Times story with this headline: “With Literary Support, Xerox Asserts Its Modern Relevance.” Hard to imagine Xerox saying it better themselves.

I’ll describe the initiative more below, but here are five things we can all learn as we seek to change the fortune of our brands.  

If you want to change perceptions, start by changing something bigger. When I asked Basney to identify the biggest assumption among buyers she’d like to change, her first priority was to shift perceptions away from Xerox as the big box on the floor. No surprise there. But the inspiration behind Set the Page Free was to aim higher. As she said, “when you have something new, it can be very flat-footed just teeing it up, ‘let me tell you what I want you to know about me.’ That isn't very sticky.”

What is sticky is starting with something that already has your audience’s attention. In markets driven by change, buyers are looking for help. If you lead with a problem they’re trying to solve, or connect to a passion they have, you’re more likely to win the right to tell your story. As a marketer, you can drive change at several levels: disrupt the buying process, reframe dominant market conversations, or shape category culture. According to Basney, with Set the Page Free, Xerox addresses a big cultural shift:

“The cultural issue is how work is changing. We're really happy that we sit at the intersection of physical and digital. We're doing different things that make it easier to work the way we want to work today. Because we wanted to showcase how we're changing the way people work, we didn’t want people sitting in an office. The artists have a natural stickiness and interest, but also showcase how Xerox software, apps, and solutions are impacting how they're working."

Find—and mine—the brand strengths that will help you change. Xerox is more than a well-known brand name. The company’s annual brand research reveals equities in several areas, most notably around innovation. This goes back to the founding of Xerox, but is also embodied by Xerox PARC, credited with inventing the Graphical User Interface (GUI), a commercial version of the mouse, and closer to home for Xerox, the laser printer. Set the Page Free recalls—and modernizes—this heritage of innovation.

Aim for big and bold; or your marketing should be as innovative as your technology. A reputation for innovation shouldn’t be limited to technology. It can also inspire disruptive, never-been-done-before marketing programs like Set the Page Free. And while an innovation heritage gives you permission for disruptive marketing, you still have to take that leap. Basney gives a lot of credit to her agency team at Y&R New York, who conceived of the program. But it was up to Xerox to say yes:

“I won't underestimate the amount of selling that you have to do. This is the kind of program that was really hard to even describe. We were going to let the authors tell the story, but trust that they would find ways to weave in Xerox. You have to make the connection to senior leaders that are worried about selling stuff. You need strong leadership, and I had my boss, CMO Toni Clayton-Hine. She and I did a lot of selling, explaining, and educating. We helped people understand this was a great program, how it benefitted us, and how it moves the KPIs that we want to move. You've got to have the wherewithal for that.”

Don’t go it alone. When you aim for a bigger change or connect to a bigger mission, you’re more likely to find people to help you drive it. According to Basney, Set the Page Free might have never got off the ground if not for the 92nd Street Y, the Manhattan-based non-profit that has built a national reputation for programs supporting the arts and culture. Their participation was key to getting the artists to say yes.  As she said, “If I called Lee Child from Xerox, I would still be waiting for him to return my phone call. But the artists were willing to participate in the program…to write a chapter or provide the artwork for the cover, to let us interview them on camera, do a podcast, take pictures of their work environment. They agreed to all of that because we made a donation to the 92nd Street Y.”

Make sure you find ways to connect it to your business. As much as Set The Page Free aimed high, it had to be grounded in Xerox’s efforts to change brand perceptions and drive revenue. Beyond the headlines and media impressions, the program drove sales-related measures as well. Xerox saw a 20% attribution lift for its website and eCommerce channels, and increased form submissions to more than three times the benchmark. According to Basney, the program also began to open people’s eyes to a different Xerox. “We're trying to change the perception of the brand to be more modern, more relevant, more progressive. I also wanted our business decision maker audience to be more interested in doing business with us in the future; and being more receptive to a proposal from us. We drove double digit increases against all of those measures.”