The Acquire Podcast Ep. 16: Farmers markets to SoFi and around the globe, Square’s brand is united
- Square’s CMO, Lauren Weinberg, joins us on The Acquire Podcast.
- With 13 years in market and exceptional brand awareness in the US, Square is expanding to Ireland, France, and Spain, while staying true to its core ethos.
Welcome to Acquire, Tearsheet’s Marketing Podcast. I’m your host, Tearsheet’s head of studio, Rebecca Cohen. Today’s episode is a special one – because it’s the 16th and last episode for this season of Acquire – and it’s going to be great.
While putting Acquire on hiatus, we’ll be rolling out an exciting project in collaboration with Publicis Sapient, called STEEZ – all about Gen Z in financial services. I’ve invited executives from companies serving Gen Z across the financial space, as well as Gen Zers themselves, to join me in a five-part conversation that will help our listeners understand what it means and what it takes to capture, delight, and retain the youngest consumer in financial services today.
In the coming days, we’ll be publishing the STEEZ Guide, laying the foundation for these conversations, where we ask and answer the important questions about the challenge and opportunity of standing up for Gen Z. Look out for the guide and first episode, which will both be coming out this month.
In case you missed it, we are less than two weeks away from our first in-person conference in a very long time, taking place September 15th in NYC: Tearsheet’s Power of Payments Conference. We’ll be speaking with and hearing from leaders in the payments space, including Goldman Sachs, Wise, Visa, Citi, Quavo, Marqeta, and Block AKA Square.
Speaking of Square – for the season finale of the Acquire Podcast, I’m speaking to the CMO of Square, Lauren Weinberg.
We’ll be talking about the thirteen-year evolution of Square’s growth, creating a unified brand ecosystem across totally different markets (from farmers market stands to all of SoFi stadium), exporting Square’s familiar at-home brand across oceans by going to market in new cultures and geographies like Spain and France, and how the different teams in the company work together to make it all happen.
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The following excerpts were edited for clarity.
We are all curious to know more about Square’s story – the brand has been around and seen the changing tides in the financial industry over the past 13 years, which were monumental for fintech at large and payments specifically.
Lauren, you've been with Square for over five years at this point, and I’m sure you have a ton of input on keeping up with the times. How has Square’s marketing adapted and grown both internally and externally to reach the audience that you have today?
There's been so much change at Square in my five-year history. To begin, let's talk about what's happening just inside the company.
We expanded our portfolio of offerings, so we can serve large enterprise businesses like SoFi stadium, but still have a great solution for smaller businesses as well. We've expanded the audience we're speaking to, which resulted in evolving our strategy and the ways that we go to market.
Another big area is global expansion. Square’s always been a global company, but in the last year and a half we've expanded into three new countries. Our approach for how we enter those markets was really different from how we entered the markets that we were in previously, including the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and Japan.
It's been a lot of scale evolution, and being responsive to both what's happening in those markets from an economic standpoint, and where Square is at. When we entered the US, for example, there were not very many companies in this space. We were predominantly speaking to that longtail micro merchant, and were providing a solution for those businesses that didn't exist before.
Fast forward to where we are now, thirteen years later, we're entering markets that have existing offerings for business owners, and we're speaking to businesses of all sizes – which is a different approach to how we're entering those new markets.
Let’s talk about some of those new markets. The past two years were turbulent worldwide; there haven’t been many conversations without mention of the pandemic’s effects, the current inflationary environment, and all the insecurities and uncertainties globally.
But the past two years were pretty optimistic and exciting for Square – you launched in Ireland and France last year, and earlier this year in Spain. What does entering new markets, in new languages and cultures, look like from where you’re sitting as Square’s CMO?
Our approach has been really nuanced for each market. Every country – Ireland, France, and Spain – is culturally unique, and all have different facets. We have to ask: What's happening there from an economic standpoint? What players already exist? What's the climate over there?
Our approach has been to enter each of these markets with a culturally appropriate message and tone. We're new in these places, so we've taken the approach of doing a humble hello in those markets, and in each one it has been really different. Ireland, France, and Spain are all really different from a cultural perspective, and so have our campaigns in those markets.
One of the changes we made going into this year is that we hired our first creative agency of record in Europe, 72andSunny, and they have people on the ground in all those markets. I'm really proud of the work that we've done there, because we're featuring real merchants in each of those markets. When we launched there, we saw that there's a lot of really positive social buzz from people in those countries that recognize that this isn't just like an American spot in Spanish language; they recognize the scenery and backgrounds as being part of their country.
Our approach is that it needs to feel like Square from a design standpoint, but should also feel designed specifically for that market.
Some of the more exciting American companies I speak to are branching out – whether to Europe or Latin America. They’re realizing that the world doesn’t start or end in America. It’s interesting to think of keeping the fundamentals and ethos the same, but framing the message differently. I'm wondering, what are those Square ethos, from a marketing and branding perspective, that stay the same across geographies?
We have a couple of different key principles.
One is to show, and not tell. We don't want our voice is not meant to drown out the voice of our customers. Even in the US, where we have the highest amount of awareness, we still subscribe to the philosophy that when a business owner is speaking about Square, or talking about the benefits of using our solutions, that's a lot more credible than Square being in your face about it.
We also want to come across as being confident and humble, which is a fine balance to strike. We want business owners to feel confident in our solutions. Choosing the right help is an extremely personal decision for business owners.
During the pandemic, a lot of businesses have taken the opportunity to push their business to be more tech forward. Initially, that was born out of a survival technique, because businesses were shut down, so they had to pivot to online, or curbside pickup and delivery. But as we've seen over the last two years, it's been one challenge after the next. There were supply chain issues, where business owners were contending with making sure they have the right inventory in stock. Then there were staffing challenges. It's been one thing after the next.
We strongly believe that technology can help businesses adapt, in all of the ways that they've been challenged in the past couple of years. If you think about a restaurant business, for example, and staffing challenges: having QR codes on the table is one way that you can still allow customers to come into your establishment and place orders, even if you are short staffed. If you have somebody in your back office that runs payroll for you, you can now automate that and have your payroll run directly through Square. So again, that's one less person that you need.
We balance the very sort of straightforward messaging about who we are and what we do. We also have a ton of content where we tell stories about our customers, and our social channels are dominated by stories about our sellers and what they're doing and really allowing them to speak on our behalf is one of our key principles.
Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool, and it sounds like your strategy is leveraging that by letting client testimonials speak for themselves.
What I like about Square is that your solution solves a simple problem, for a wildly diverse client base – restaurants, commerce, entertainment – and your brand ties together the messaging for all of these verticals all into one takeaway: do business with Square. Can you talk about how Square's marketing has evolved this way, and what serving a diverse client base looks like from behind the scenes?
It's in how we think about the channels that we use, and what we use them for. As our business has grown up in the market, we had to adopt our channel mix.
Not in every country, but certainly in the US, Square has a pretty high level of awareness. We did some research a couple of years ago, and one of the things we heard from large businesses was that there's a lot of brand love for Square, yet they didn't understand the ways that Square could be used for them. This is where we think about what channels are the best for reaching those enterprise businesses.
All the way at the top of these enterprises we target are your SoFi stadiums; for them, we want to be at events, trade shows, industry events; we rely very heavily on communications as a channel, so doing press releases and testimonials with some of these bigger clients. Our website highlights that we are in business with a bunch of really large brands and businesses, because the thing that we needed to establish for that upmarket base is that we have the solutions that meet the complexities of their business. Those large enterprises want to know who else is using Square, and how they’re using us.
The biggest misperception that we've been working towards overcoming is this idea that Square is only for really small businesses. That next level down – businesses with multiple millions of dollars in revenue, a few locations, a bunch of staff – is where we have really amped up our awareness marketing. We'll use channels like digital video, where we can target those business owners, and help them understand that we have a whole wide range of solutions that work well for them.
Lastly, we already have a good amount of awareness for that smaller seller population. So for them, population, it's just about leveraging our performance channels to capture the existing demand.
The message for Square remains the same and the brand is very consistent, but where and how we speak to our different audiences varies pretty significantly, depending on who we're talking to.
You’re building and marketing for different segments in the markets, as well as different verticals – and you’re doing it around the world.
I’m curious what that looks like internally. How does your marketing team collaborate with other teams at Square to each win at your respective benchmarks, while always working collectively on the same goal?
The dynamic of navigating the complexities has really increased significantly between Square when I got there to Square now. I'll talk about two different areas: how we work with product teams, and how we work within our teams. We strive to understand all the priorities from the product side, and we also want to make sure that the way we go to market across all of our channels in various areas feels integrated for our end customers.
On the product side, we have very close relationships with our product partners. It’s one of the areas I was focused on when I first got to Square – making sure that those relationships and partnerships are strong.
Square has opportunities in every direction, and one of the hardest parts about marketing is being principled about the things that we decide to work on. The way we typically work is that our product teams (definitely during annual planning as well as on a quarterly basis) come to marketing and say, ‘These are the products that we have coming out – these are key features, or product launches, or audiences that we want to serve, and these are our top priorities for the year’.
We get briefed by all of our product teams, and then we think, ‘Okay, for which of those things are there overlaps? If there are multiple products, and they all want to speak to restaurants, what are we going to say to restaurants next year? How do we bundle all of that together in a way that is differentiated and very compelling for that audience group?’
That’s the first thing we do: take all of those inputs, then come back with a recommendation on how we would stitch these narratives together, and what that would look like when we go to market. As you can imagine, there’s definitely a little bit of negotiation across teams.
Something we have worked hard at as an organization is being transparent and accountable about how we make decisions and what metrics we're looking at that help guide our decisions. We can't make everybody happy all the time, because there's just so much to do. But we’ve gotten to a healthy place where the product teams may not love all the decisions that we make, but they understand and respect them. From my perspective, you can't get any better than that.
That's the way we work with product teams: we lean on them to tell us who a product is for, and why it’s different and better than what already exists in the marketplace, then they lean on us to say how we prioritize these into overarching narratives, what channels will we use, the timing of things. Then we work with our creative team to make sure that the creative concept is going to come to life in a way that speaks to that audience.
The dynamic between product and marketing is key and can be challenging, but when there is a flow, the company and the customers win. How do you work within the marketing team itself to bring ideas to life?
Within the marketing team, we have a lot of different channel teams. When I first got to Square, our team was actually called channel marketing because every channel was working in a silo; they understood the goals and the priorities, but everybody was running towards meeting those goals and priorities within their specific channel.
We've been making a very concerted effort over the last couple years to make sure that we go to market in the most integrated way possible. In the example of speaking to restaurant owners, we kicked off a new campaign that coincided with the National Restaurant Association show, the biggest trade show of the year for that industry. We had a bunch of influencers, dinners, campaigns, a push with sales, a direct mail piece – and it was this idea of reaching those customers in an integrated way.
We try to work in a very coordinated way, so that as an end customer, you've had multiple touchpoints with our business and they all feel like they fit together and are coming from the same brand and the same message. And you're just leveraging the channels to reinforce the message in a different way.
It’s in all things, and definitely for every marketing leader that you talk to: a constant evolution of a work in progress. We get better every time we do this, but we are still continuing to learn and grow as an organization.
Square’s been doing a lot on all fronts, and you’re the captain of the ship that’s marketing it all. Lauren, you manage a huge team, with huge goals, and you’re also the co-author of Self Made Boss, a book offering advice and lessons for small businesses. Before we wrap up our conversation today, any chance you can tell us how you keep a work-life balance in all the madness?
It comes down to two things. The first is ruthless prioritization. This is something we talk about constantly as a team, and that I work on personally daily. I'm very organized, I always have a to do list, I look at all the things I have to do, then prioritize the most important things for me to do today.
Earlier in my career, I used to try to get through everything on my to do list every day. As my responsibilities have grown, that's become much more difficult. Now it's about the most important things, and that's been a notion we reinforce across our entire team.
We actually just developed a new tool for our team, a prioritization rubric, to empower everybody to understand how they choose the work they work on. If they're working on something that doesn't tie in to any of our priorities and won’t contribute to our KPIs in a meaningful way, it’s probably something that can wait for another time.
The second thing is thinking about what you want your boundaries to be with work. A couple of years ago, over the Christmas holiday vacation, I was thinking about how I wanted my work-life balance to look like in the next year. I wrote a little bit of a manifesto of how I want to work. It was meant to share with my assistant, but I sent it to the whole team and said, ‘Hey, I've had time over the holiday vacation to reflect on how I want to work, and here's how I'm changing my schedule moving forward.
In a hybrid workplace where people are working from home and have all different kinds of family commitments that take up their time, it's about thinking about what's the best way for you and then holding yourself accountable to staying true to the ways you want to work.
Working remotely, and through many different time zones with coworkers and clients, it’s definitely possible to end up working nonstop morning to night. I like the idea of your work-life balance manifesto – I’ve actually made one myself and I find that it especially helps if you revisit and update it every so often.
I relocated to the east coast, but most of my teams are on the west coast. So I had to figure out and communicate the days that I'm going to be available for evening west coast hours, or hours with Japan and Australia, because without saying that it ended up being every day. And I was like, ‘Well, I can't work until nine o'clock every night, that's just too late for my family’.
If something comes up on the days I’m with my family, maybe I'll take it but probably won't. I've learned to make sure I have a good delegate there, find out what's going on after the fact, and try to leave work behind as much as possible.
Many of us working at remote-first companies can agree that setting priorities, boundaries, and expectations is the most important way to ensure we’re bringing our best selves to work every day.
Thank you, Lauren, for taking the time to speak with us about Square’s branding, inside and out, over the past five years as Square’s CMO. This was episode 16 of Acquire, Tearsheet’s Marketing Podcast.
Acquire will be going on a short hiatus for the next quarter as Tearsheet rolls out STEEZ, a research project about what it takes to capture, delight, and retain the Gen Z financial consumer. Thank you for being part of the Acquire Podcast journey this far, and stay tuned for STEEZ.