Top of His Class
CISCO’s Ron Ricci Stands Out

January 15, 2008

BY MICHAEL KRAUSS

Silicon Valley has its share of great marketing and communications thinkers. Regis McKenna is legendary for advising start-ups like Apple, Intel, Silicon Graphics and 3Com and putting the idea of Silicon Valley into our mass consciousness. Geoffrey Moore authored books like Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado that helped marketers everywhere apply the techniques of Silicon Valley.

McKenna and Moore are terrific but my vote for top Silicon Valley marketing and communications thinker goes to Ron Ricci, vice president of corporate positioning at San Jose based Cisco Systems Inc.

Most marketers struggle to get the attention of their CEO. Ricci sits at the right arm and reports to Cisco CEO, John Chambers. He’s one of Chambers’ “go to” guys. Many marketers strive with limited impact to apply communications techniques to transform their organizations. With Chambers’ support, Ricci uses communications as a cornerstone of Cisco’s transformation from “plumbers of the Internet” to “technology solution providers.”

Like McKenna and Moore before him, Ricci is a strategist, thinker and writer. He loves to talk about marketing theories, concepts, constructs and best practices. His book, Momentum: How Companies Become Unstoppable Market Forces, was published in 2002 by the Harvard Business School Press. Ricci isn’t satisfied simply driving Cisco to be the best. He shares his knowledge and ideas with those who want to learn and advance. His ideas are worth hearing.

“Cisco is transforming its culture,” says Ricci, who plays a big part in that effort. “We've helped build the infrastructure that makes networks and the Internet work. We want to move from being a plumber --- which is an honorable, wonderful profession --- to become more of the platform provider for our customers.”

Ricci sees Cisco playing a much bigger role helping customers solve their business problems with technology. Today’s decentralized, global organizations make old style command and control approaches to management outdated. In a Web 2.0 world, Ricci sees collaborative, empowered front line teams as critical to competitive success. He touts Cisco’s TelePresence meeting technology --- which takes virtual meetings to a new experience level --- as simply one way Cisco is migrating from plumber to solution provider.

Cisco is a $35 billion company with ambitions to grow at 15% annually by helping customers solve problems. “Our CEO believes you cannot solve problems in a large company if you don't operate off of a common vocabulary. My job is to provide the common vocabulary for this transition,” Ricci adds.

Ricci sits at the crossroads of business strategy, positioning and communications at Cisco. Consider Ricci’s strategic thinking about technology brands. “Traditional, analog brands, come with a guarantee of not being different from the past,” Ricci says. “Digital brands come with a guarantee of being different in the future. Digital brands are about the future, analog brands are about the past,” he says.

Ricci believes there is an implied “futures contract” in a digital brand. The digital brand is going to morph and evolve as the technology evolves, where traditional brands will remain static and reinforce the constancy of their quality and value.

Ricci believes you can’t rely on traditional branding methods to communicate with customers about the future of digital brands. “Images, attributes, tag lines, ads and brochures aren’t enough. I don’t think you can do that with the future,” Ricci says. “The only person who can convey that futures contract is the CEO, and that CEO has to have a thought leadership message, or else the brand is going to be behind the times.”

In the 1990’s, that strategic concept won Ricci the respect and confidence of Chambers. It is paying dividends as Cisco transforms today. It has earned Ricci a place at the table among senior management at Cisco, where he is responsible for how Cisco leverages communications to drive the vision, strategy, culture and process priorities of the company.

Chambers is fortunate to have Ricci on his team. Ricci is smart, articulate, analytical and a true team player. He sees where Chambers and Cisco must go and how communications can help the company get there. He’s both a brilliant strategist and a powerful tactician. He’s also a downright, level headed, candid, nice guy.

What’s it like working for one of the titans of Silicon Valley? “John Chambers is the real deal,” Ricci says. “I'm inspired by his vision and the quality of his intellect, but I’m motivated by the human being. If I needed help on anything, I know he would give me whatever help I needed,” Ricci adds.

Ricci is humble and wants to avoid comparisons with McKenna or Moore. “What they were trying to do was invent the next generation of thinking about how communication affects companies and helps companies succeed with customers. I'm self-actualizing their dream right here, right now at Cisco.”

Ricci has two pieces of advice for up and coming marketers. Pick the right product category, one that’s growing in influence; and, specialize and develop an area of personal expertise.

“Some categories are good, some are bad. Some have a lot of open, green field in front of them. Others are more constrained. Pick the right product category,” Ricci says.

“It may be counter intuitive, but I believe people in marketing and communications need to be specialists. In a company filled with talent, you have to be really, deeply, good at something to stand out. To stand out and truly make a difference you have to have a point of view with a differentiated perspective,” he adds.

Ricci is really, deeply good at marketing communications. Among Silicon Valley marketing thinkers, I say it’s McKenna, Moore and Ricci.

Michael Krauss is president of Market Strategy Group, based in Chicago, and can be reached at Michael.Krauss@Mkt-strat.com or news@ama.org.

 

 

 ©2008 Marion Consulting Partners