Susan Sheehan took on one of the tech world's toughest assignments when she was named global communications head at Nokia last year.

The former Waggener Edstrom executive joined Nokia in 2010, after working with CEO Stephen Elop during the latter's tenure at Microsoft. Her Nokia career has coincided neatly with the Finnish company's attempts to revive its fortunes, after losing market leader status to smartphone players such as Apple and Samsung in recent years.

Within 12 months of taking on the top comms job Sheehan had unpicked Nokia's global PR agency alignment with Next 15, opting for a Cohn & Wolfe relationship that aims to position the company as more of a consumer and lifestyle brand. That approach is part of a broader effort to reshape the 150-year-old company into a challenger brand, rather than a fading leader. 

In an interview with the Holmes Report, Sheehan explains why an underdog mentality will help Nokia's revival, and talks through the external and internal communications challenges the company is addressing in tandem with its new agency.

Why have you decided to pursue a challenger brand positioning?

I think it goes beyond just the marketing. It’s an entire mindset that the organisation needed to take on. Whether it’s our approach in dealing with operators, how we build a product, or our communication and marketing. That’s one of the pivotal changes. We’re trying to make everything consistent in how we operate. Marketing cannot be different from communication or how we approach our products.

We had been a dominant force for years - some of what got us there put us in a position where we weren’t listening to consumers or operators. That was part of the struggle that Nokia was facing and was reflected in the sales and consumer response. When we launch a product now, we talk about what is new, different and innovative. Why do people want this? Not, 'why does Nokia think this is best?'

So, with that in mind, why would people want a Nokia Lumia versus an Apple or Samsung phone?

We are having to educate people on that. The last product we had was the Nokia Lumia 1020 which has a 41MP camera. It really cut through something that people hadn’t seen previously. We shifted the communications - instead of pounding our chest, we took the approach of ‘what can people now do?’. Our CEO went out and took photos. We tried to make the entire environment, where journalists were, very friendly. It’s not an arrogant approach, but a very humble, welcoming and warm approach.

Do you feel the tone of Nokia’s communication needed to change?

Absolutely. We’re using more metrics than we ever had before. Before it was, 'here’s a new product, get it out.' We’re taking a very deliberate approach, we need to be talking less about the company in the corporate news and more about the product. The focus of our coverage needs to swing from corporate to product, from business to consumer press. From giving our teams these strong metrics, we’ve been able to shift that.

In social media, we’ve invested heavily in our Nokia Conversations blog. We launch products from there, we get developers on there. We’re taking a very friendly approach to that as well. We’re listening as much we’re doing.

How difficult is the shift to a challenger mindset in terms of changing Nokia’s internal culture, given the company’s lengthy status as the market leader?

We have probably done more internal communication than we have external communication. We started on a mission around our vision and values. Our CMO and myself looked at what Nokia’s values were over the last 150 years. We went through a pretty deep archaelogical dig through our history and our values. At the same time we spoke to professors and futurists to see where the industry is going, what are the big themes. And we looked at what are we good at today, why are people coming to work?

We started asking these questions - why does the world need Nokia? Nokia used to always look inside for the answers so we looked outside as well. To help people embrace the new vision and values, we started on a roadshow to 15 of our key sites. We took some risks and showed employees our product portfoloio for the next year so they could see how the vision and values were coming to life. We said, 'this is our general story, now let us help you put it into your own words.' The results are that people are able to talk about Nokia in a genuine way, and it’s their own story.

Nokia has seen a lot of restructuring and strategy shifts in the past five years. Isn’t there a risk that there’s a certain level of message fatigue towards the latest strategy, both internally and externally?

I don’t know if I’ve seen message fatigue. We’re still in a point where we need to demonstrate that we can and we are executing. We’ve seen improvement in Lumia sales, so we know we’re delivering there. It’s continuing to build the credibility that we’re doing what we said we’re going to do and here are the results. If we were to change our strategy too much, you never accomplish anything.

Why did you review the global PR account after 18 months? Was it in order to gain a stronger consumer and lifestyle edge?

It was the number one reason we wanted to change agencies. The sweet spot between marketing and communications is Cohn & Wolfe’s sweet spot. We’ve been working very closely with the business and tech press and we wanted to round that out with their consumer expertise.

The existing relationship - [Next 15] came on during a time of a lot of transition for Nokia. Were we engaging them at the right level as well? They did a fine job under the circumstances in which we were operating. One of the things we were looking for is an agency that could scale with us around the world. If we’re developing something at the corporate level, how can the WPP family help us roll that out in China or Brazil or other markets around the world?

Are you expecting to move other local markets to Cohn & Wolfe as well?

We’re looking at that. Right now we have the focus on the UK, US, Sweden and Finland.

A lot of people might not find it easy to see Nokia as a challenger brand. They might be more familiar with a 150-year old company that has had declining sales in recent years. How do you get people to see you differently?

The products that we’re building. We introduced colour in a way that nobody used colour, and we used that in the communication. We introduced new apps in imaging that people have never seen before. We introduced new advances in augmented reality. Everyone is going bigger, and we took the challenge and went smaller with the 501. So we’re trying to be unconventional and innovative.

That spirit of being unconventional, how do you implement it beyond just product and communication, so it actually applies to company processes, for example, how a product is made?

As part of the internal communication, we talked about three challenger behaviours. The first one was empathy. For example, how do we listen to consumers through our social media channels? How are we empathetic towards reporters? The second one was urgency. We’re not going to put off making a decision if we can make it now. 

The last one is accountability. Across the organisation, everyone is given a responsibility. We don’t have boards that make big group decisions. Our CMO is responsible for the brand. If something goes wrong with a press conference, I’m responsible. If something is wrong with the press coverage, it comes to me. So there’s clear accountability as well. It’s also in our performance reviews — empathy, urgency and accountability — you’re literally held accountable for embracing that behaviour.

How will you measure the success of your efforts to become a successful challenger brand?

In the communications, we look at traditional metrics like message pull through and tone. Have we had that shift between corporate coverage and product news? That’s an unusual metric. Across the organisation, we’ve got different internal metrics. Sales are clearly are a strong metric. For consumer response, we use net promoter score.