Marketing with purpose at Smartsheet: Lessons learned from the Sponsor X initiative
Purpose-driven marketing is an exciting idea. We’d all like to feel there’s a greater meaning to our work. At the same time, as marketers, we’re responsible for driving revenue and brand awareness. Through leading a major purpose-driven initiative at Smartsheet, I learned a number of valuable lessons about what makes this approach work, what to measure, and where to focus your efforts.
Smartsheet runs on the belief that we can empower anyone to drive meaningful change. The initiative we call Sponsor X is about using the platform we’ve built to do that in an even bigger way. It came to life at the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, and continued last weekend at the United States Grand Prix in Austin.
The Sponsor X initiative was partly the result of a conversation with other marketing leaders about the need to do bold things. As a company, we had decided to become a technology partner of McLaren Racing. There are many other brand names on McLaren’s car, and nine other teams on the track with their own sponsors. During the signing process, the CEO of McLaren Racing encouraged our team to be bold and push the limits of the sponsorship–and we took it to heart. Given our sponsorship was a big investment in a fast-growing, prestigious, global sport, we set out to do something innovative from the start.
A new kind of sponsorship
We decided to reimagine what a sponsorship can do in the name of what Smartsheet believes in: work that matters. We asked ourselves, What can a logo on a car really accomplish? In a first-of-its-kind initiative in Formula 1 history, we extended the benefits of our sponsorship deal to put a worthy cause front and center. We replaced our logo on the McLaren F1 cars with that of DeadlyScience, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide STEM resources and mentorship to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth. They were the first indigenous organization to be featured in an F1 race–groundbreaking in so many ways.
We’re most proud of how this helped DeadlyScience. They saw a massive increase in their social engagement and presence, and grew donations by 400%. They’ve gained new partnerships and resources to help them further their work and reach across 220 schools. That’s what it’s all about.
This initiative also turned out to be a great example of doing good being good for business. We achieved extensive earned media coverage, including high-quality placements ranging from local Australian news outlets and TV stations to Formula 1 sites to global outlets like The Guardian and the BBC. Seeing a logo is one thing, but reading an in-depth article about our values and solutions is a deeper level of engagement of even greater value. The best part? All of that coverage was a lift for DeadlyScience too.
This past weekend, we teamed up again with McLaren to give up our spot for another nonprofit at the United States Grand Prix in Austin, The Hidden Genius Project, who are working to solve the blind spot in tech. The Hidden Genius Project trains and mentors Black male youth in technology creation, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills to transform their lives and communities. Founded by five Black male entrepreneurs and technologists who saw a drastic gap between the high unemployment of Black male youth and career opportunities within the local technology sector, the program has equipped over 8,000 young Black males with the skills, mentors, and experiences that they need to become high-performing entrepreneurs and technologists in a 21st century, global economy.
We’re just starting to see some of the exciting impact from the second round of Sponsor X, and I can’t wait to share more in the weeks to come.
Driving engagement inside and out
Some of the most important benefits were the ones we didn’t plan for. For one thing, the initiative had a huge impact on internal engagement. Throughout the planning and execution of Sponsor X, we felt palpable excitement inside Smartsheet. Helping DeadlyScience and The Hidden Genius Project get greater visibility and funding has been highly motivating for our teams.
Making this huge project happen required intense collaboration and focus–and true integrated marketing coordination as our content, studio, social, communications, web and brand teams all came together to produce incredible work. The fact that we were doing good in the world gave us all an extra incentive to push through the challenges. And, we ended up with a huge win that the whole team could celebrate. One employee told us that she’d never felt more connected to the company or her work.
The ripple effect
This natural energy rippled throughout the company. We saw dramatically more engagement with the initiative internally than ever before. People were proud and excited to tell their friends, family, and contacts about the initiative. In the B2B tech world, we often don’t have enough opportunities to share what we do and how it’s changing the world outside our little industry bubbles. Purpose-driven marketing can give us a chance to do that.
It also had a big impact on recruiting. Marketing professionals in our hiring cycle were suddenly very interested in working with us. We got positive reactions from potential employees of all kinds. Our partner channel also responded favorably. It made them feel like Smartsheet was a brand they wanted to be associated with.
Finally, there was the impact on our reputation in the marketing community. My personal efforts to connect with other CMOs and make Smartsheet known as a marketing influencer suddenly became easier. I gained many opportunities to speak to other leaders that I would not have had otherwise. Part of that story is how we executed using our own tools, which is helping to position us as a leading solution for other marketers.
Maximizing the opportunity with creativity and grit
Doing something different that’s aligned with your company’s purpose can be so much more impactful than a standard brand campaign on so many levels. How you execute purpose-driven marketing is critically important to success.
"It’s about doing the work behind the scenes to benefit a worthy cause, and stepping out of the spotlight to let others shine."
– Andrew Bennett, Chief Marketing Officer
Key to Sponsor X was our desire to make the most of the opportunities associated with the sponsorship. In McLaren, we had a partner who was totally aligned with our desire to innovate and engage. We chose to use corollary benefits of our sponsorship — such as time with the drivers — to produce high-impact assets and videos that drove even greater awareness for DeadlyScience and for The Hidden Genius Project.
The Smartsheet team met an incredibly high bar for creative quality. I knew it was going to get a lot of eyeballs, and every second would count. We spent a lot of time making sure everything was top notch and on message. We sought to balance the excitement and sounds and colors of F1 with the emotions and experiences that arise from the good work our nonprofit partners are doing. I wanted viewers to experience the same level of passion that we felt inside Smartsheet about helping the kids in Australia and young Black men in the United States.
To market with a purpose, know your own
We have a SaaS subscription model, so a lot of our business is oriented toward analytics, optimization, and volume. And we absolutely need to do those things well. I ran demand generation at Smartsheet for eight years before becoming Chief Marketing Officer, so I believe in measurement—as long as you’re measuring the right things. We made it clear from the outset that Sponsor X is a brand initiative, building awareness at the top of the funnel. The marketplace for project and program management software is crowded, so we need to stand out from the noise with a bold approach that will make an impact.
At the end of the day, I think what matters in purpose-driven marketing—and marketing in general—is being clear about what your values are. When you act consistently based on those values, everything else is easy. With a shared mission, you don’t have to micromanage every detail or script every conversation. At Smartsheet, we want to empower anyone to drive meaningful change, and I truly believe that Sponsor X is a manifestation of that mission.
Andrew Bennett, Chief Marketing Officer at Smartsheet - Speaking at Tech Slam with The Hidden Genius Project.
You can learn more about the Sponsor X initiative here.