This April thousands of people once again took to the streets of London to run in support of some of the world's worthiest causes. Despite vowing "never again" after tackling it in 2012, I ran the London Marathon again this year, raising money for the NSPCC, a cause close to my heart and also close to O2.
During the hours I've spent pounding the pavement to train - many hours in my case, owing to my slow pace - I have had ample time to reflect on just about everything from the existential to the tangible, from the embarrassing headlines emerging from my native US to the future of Europe, from how to organise our house move to what else O2 should be doing on behalf of our customers to win in the marketplace. And I realised that a strong analogy can be drawn between our own daily craft of marketing and what runners have to do to complete a marathon. My training regime has been built on technical insight and gadgetry.
My running gait was filmed to ensure I bought the right running shoes; I have the latest Jabra Bluetooth headphones to enable my Jabra fitness tracker to provide constant updates on my progress; I have a carefully constructed playlist that matches my target heart rate (yes, really); and a collection of gels and pre-/post-run hydration drinks. All this has surely helped me along the way but, ultimately, it is my focus on why I am running - for a great cause - and my emotional commitment that gets me through the infamous 'wall' and to the finish line.
As marketers, our finish line - in our bid to keep customers centre stage - is much less easy to spot than Buckingham Palace. And with technology developing at such a speed, it's easy to get distracted by the myriad possibilities open to us, rather than focus on what our customers want. To build brand advocacy, we have to focus less on our product or service and more on our customers' lives. We have to seek out the broader role we can play - our 'why' - and find brave new ways to be a visible and active participant in their journeys.
With just a smartphone, a dongle and the right means of support, we were able to help that customer cross a 7500-mile divide
This might seem counterintuitive, coming from the marketing director of a tech company, but to build a genuine relationship with the customer, we can't rely on digital interactions alone. We still need absolute focus, passion and emotional commitment to our customers. The human element is still important.
For us at O2, our 'Gurus' are emblematic of that commitment. A team of 400 in-store tech experts, they offer free and impartial advice to help customers get more out of technology. And we know they're valued. I recently heard about a Guru who had an appointment with a customer to help him top up his mobile dongle. What began as simple technical assistance culminated in the Guru helping the man make contact with his family in Zimbabwe.
The customer hadn't been able to get in touch with them for 18 years. With just a smartphone, a dongle and the right means of support, we were able to help that customer cross a 7500-mile divide that had been unsurmountable for almost two decades.
Another way in which we are trying to add value beyond our products and services is through our partnership with the NSPCC. We know that online safety and security is a key concern for parents, regardless of device or operator. We want to help build their digital confidence so that they feel fully comfortable navigating the online world and helping their children do the same.
With the NSPCC, last month we launched our 'Net Aware' guide, which gives parents the inside track on the most popular social-media sites, to help them have those crucial conversations with their children about keeping safe online. Ultimately, for brands to thrive, we have to put core customer needs at the heart of what we do and create an emotional connection by inserting ourselves into our customers' lives.
Going genuinely above and beyond requires fortitude, bravery and a willingness to embrace potential failure - qualities that characterise each of the tens of thousands of people who run the London Marathon. While runners always know their course, ours is much less predictable. But once our love for the customer takes its place at the centre of our business, we'll be able to go the distance.