CMO Of The Week

CMO Of The Week: Intuit’s Lara Hood Balazs

If there’s one common thread that many marketers have shared during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s how planning cycles that used to take 18 months or more to complete have rapidly shrunk to 18 days - if not less - to meet the urgent needs of consumers and businesses hardest hit by lockdown conditions and loss of employment.

If there’s one common thread that many marketers have shared during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s how planning cycles that used to take 18 months or more to complete have rapidly shrunk to 18 days - if not less - to meet the urgent needs of consumers and businesses hardest hit by lockdown conditions and loss of employment.

Such was the case for Lara Hood Balazs, Chief Marketing Officer and General Manager - Strategic Partner Group at Intuit, whose core product TurboTax saw its marketing plans upended when the IRS extended the tax deadline from April 15 to July 15 in late March. At the same time, small businesses suddenly found themselves in need of emergency funding from the government’s Payment Protection Program (PPP), many of whom were customers of Intuit’s QuickBooks product. In just three weeks, Balazs and her team were able to introduce and implement a QuickBooks PPP program that helped provide over 1.5 million customers with 25,000 loans valued at a total of $867 million.

“Working with the government to get that stood up, it's not an easy feat. And the teams worked rapidly to do it,” says Hood Balazs, whose communications and marketing teams oversaw Intuit’s co-founding of GoFundMe’s Small Business Relief Initiative in just seven days. “We have very much supported those who need it most, those who are underserved and in unfortunate positions.”

Hood Balazs joined Intuit after 15 years of senior roles at companies like Amazon, Gap Inc. and Visa, where she spent 11 years and was eventually elevated to SVP-Head of North America Marketing. Hood Balazs says if there’s one connective thread for each of her roles, “it’s the idea that we’re serving customers and solving their problems with messaging, marketing and brand building to support that.”

Brand Innovators caught up with Hood Balazs on the phone from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area to learn more about the detailed plan of action she took to shift her businesses with the tax deadline extension, Intuit’s landmark work in support of the Black and transgender communities, and how she’s transforming previously live events into always-on virtual platforms.

Brand Innovators: How did the shift of the tax deadline to July 15 impact your overall media plans and media mix for the first half of the year, and what pivot campaigns and initiatives did you introduce during those extra three months of messaging time? 

Lara Hood Balazs: Like everyone, COVID-19 really changed our plans and all of our teams pivoted in rapid time when it hit. We not only had to think about what happening with tax season and that being pushed up to July 15 with our TurboTax consumer group, but we also have a group with QuickBooks and Mint that handles small businesses, self-employed [and consumers] that were being hit by COVID-19. So we had to rethInk all of our go-to market plans from the top of the funnel all the way to the bottom of the funnel.  

With our consumer group, the first thing we did was we knew we had to think about getting funds into the people who needed them the most. Before we even thought about “how do we address the July 15 shift?” we said, “how do we think about getting those stimulus funds that the government had let out to consumers?” We worked to have stimulus available from the government through our TurboTax product line, and then we said “How are we going to think about supporting our customers with the shift in tax season?” And we did that through asking, “how do you want to be helped during this period?” So we pivoted our media to showcase a product called TurboTax Live that allows customers to have experts to help them with their taxes during the pandemic in a virtual setting from the peace and quiet of their living room. 

So if you switch gears with small businesses and QuickBooks, they too were suffering from many of them just had brick and mortar locations and they had to shut their doors, government had issues with the paycheck protection program and we were able through our unique offerings to work with the government and offered QuickBooks PPP loans and help facilitated those via our QuickBooks Payroll product.

Lastly, we also made sure we had offerings for non-consumers, people who don’t use us regularly, and that was through our Intuit Aid Assist tool, a free online offering to come in and enter information as we effectively use knowledge and machine learning to help people understand what they were qualified for. And that was a gift to people because the CARES Act, which was passed to support consumers in the U.S., was 300 pages of content. This allowed us to simplify that information and say to consumers, “Here’s what you’re qualified for,” and then have the tools to support them with QuickBooks and TurboTax or whatever was appropriate for their needs. That gives you a sense of the incredible innovation from a product perspective and the real-time shifting in our communications, our messaging, our media to support this.

Intuit’s CEO Sasan Goodarzi was one of the first corporate executives to speak out about the need to dismantle systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd.  What are some initiatives that you and Intuit's senior leadership have introduced to advance racial equity, and any accountability or progress metrics have you attached to them?

We’re very passionate as a company around diversity and inclusion. It has always been part of our values and what we stand for. We are a mission-based company, which is to provide prosperity around the world for those who need it most. And when there was this uprising after frankly what was too long of a period of time where we have not addressed this issue as a society, we quickly went out and were very vocal that at Intuit we deeply believe it is important to support the Black community. And so we came out with that messaging, then quickly assembled a team internally to look at how to best create systemic and durable change. 

And a community was formed within our African-American Ancestry group, who formed a team called REAL which stands for Racial Equity Advancement Leadership, to help us create durable change. We’ve taken our time to make sure we get this right. We did do donations for United Negro College Fund and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and matched donations for key Black programs 2- to-1, but our stance has been to have impact both in the short and long-term. 

We’ve also had what we call Prosperity Pop-ups, which are virtual events that we invite our employees to come and shop at our QuickBooks customers through a virtual setting. We hosted a pop-up with all black-owned small businesses, so we've had the ability uniquely to support in a virtual environment some of these Black-owned businesses, but that’s just a start. We have much more to do and will have  much more to talk about when we know it’s durable and sustaining. We’re going to be incredibly metric driven, so that we’re very intentional in how we can measure our progress. Part of what we’re doing is laying down the metrics to track all the things we’re doing to help partners in this space.

Intuit has also been very vocal in its support of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly with the introduction of transgender employee benefits in June. What are some ways you'll continue to amplify that messaging throughout the year beyond Pride Month?

We have been long-time supporters of the trans community. In February of 2020, we hosted a Trans Summit that brought many of our partners together including Gender Cool. We actually opened that summit up to other companies in Silicon Valley as well as to families who had children who were trans and invited them to come to Intuit and share their experiences so we could create allyship among what we call our Pride community, and it was fantastic. We got so much positive feedback given it had never been done. The amount of openness, transparency and the belief of how important it is to support this community and the fight for equality and justice really came through, and our employees were so incredibly energized by our commitment to that community. 

Along with that, weve supported the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), we have sponsored and signed the business statement for transgender equltiy, we have supported many intiatives and spoken out when the Supreme Court allowed Trump’s transgender military ban to go into effect. We’ve really gotten behind allyship and supporting in any way possible our Pride community.  

Going back to media mix shifts and changes in the world at large, how are you approaching live events for the foreseeable future?

We’re definitely watching what’s happening with live sports and staying close to what's happening there. As you well know, the landscape of what is available for viewership is decreased when you don’t have live viewing, and sports is one of those great options that exists.

We’re also thinking differently about our own live events. Each year we have always done this quite large event that attracts 5,000 customers and partners for a three days in Silicon Valley called QuickBooks Connect, and it is this fantastic hands-on gathering that allows you to hear from speakers telling you how to better drive your business through social media, and meet with different vendors and accountants who can help you drive your business. 

We are taking that event 100% virtual now, so that’s an example where we ourselves who have been a live event producer are now having a QuickBooks Connect event pivot to an always-on platform where we’re delivering content and experiences throughout the year vs. this one three-day period. And we’ve invested in technology to do that. Part of what we're doing as we think about what we can do vs. relying on outside experiences is taking our event and epixences digitally so we become a platform for small businesses to interact with year-round. 

You’ve been with Intuit for two years now, after previous roles at Amazon, Visa and Gap Inc. Is there a throughline to any of those roles, or any guiding principles that you as a marketer like to incorporate throughout your career?

The throughline has been the ability to work on and drive authentic brands that have a mission and are here to solve customer problems. If you're a marketer your best work is going to come from when you feel connected to a company mission, that would be number one, and then number two is working for companies and brands where you’re gonna feel challenged. It’s a mix of art and science, so you're appreciating the qualitative brand building side of connecting with consumers emotionally, but additionally you've got data that can help support you in making those decisions. 

One of the things when you become obsessed with customer problems and fall in love with customer problems - which is what we like to say at Intuit - and you know you're solving them through your products and your marketing, that makes you feel really good. So if I say anything about the time I’ve had at these great brands, it’s the idea that we’re serving customers and solving their problems with messaging, marketing and brand building to support that.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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