Netskope Corporate Marketing VP Scott Hogrefe on the Importance of Culture and Values In and Out of a Pandemic

Editor’s note: This interview is part of Mission North’s “Marketing Risks Worth Taking” series, an ongoing forum with marketing leaders who are sharing their perspectives about adapting to a new reality. 

Scott Hogrefe has an eye for design. He went to the Academy of Art University and wanted to be a graphic designer but ended up in marketing instead in the fast-growing tech industry at companies like Citrix Systems, Zenprise and Brocade. Today, he’s vice president of corporate marketing and communications at cloud, data, and network security company Netskope. His background in brand design helps make him a skilled storyteller, able to turn complex technical information into messages that anyone can understand.

As a lifelong San Francisco Giants fan and a person with a quick wit and a generous nature, Scott also has a passion for cultivating strong culture and values at the workplace. We caught up with Scott recently and learned how Netskope maintained strong connections to employees and customers during the pandemic and got his thoughts on why culture and values are more important than ever now. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

How have the events of 2020 shaped your thinking on brand for Netskope?

In many respects, 2020 further solidified the connectedness between Netskope and our customers, partners, and employees. It forced an “all in this together” thinking that wasn’t as tangible before, and as the year went on it became more and more apparent that our point of view mattered a whole lot to these different constituencies. This humanizing of the brand and the need to speak honestly and humbly about world events actually led to some decisions about how we engage with customers in the market as well.

Another takeaway from 2020 is the recognition that culture is what sustains us, and my sense is that if you didn’t have a strong sense of company culture heading into the pandemic, it would have been terribly difficult to create one during it. Thankfully, Netskope has always been strong in this regard.

What, if any, of the major changes you made last year in the way Netskope communicates with your key stakeholders do you expect to continue?

So many! From a communications perspective we’ve learned (and are still learning!) to be more succinct and plainspoken with key stakeholders. We’ve learned to anticipate questions more and how loud silence is when it comes to certain subjects. I think all of these things will have a lasting impact on how we communicate going forward.

To go a little further, if we take a step back and think about the monumental impact that 2020 has had on jobs, it’s important that we communicate with empathy. Beyond the obviously impacted jobs in hospitality, travel, and teaching (I’m married to a teacher and wow, that’s a tough job in a pandemic!) we talk with a lot of network architects who are seeing a massive shift in where people work. They’ve been absolutely crushed by the changes over the past year and it’s important to remember this whenever you’re thinking of how you want to connect with people. That applies universally. 

Employees have become one of the most important stakeholders for technology brands as we’ve seen industry leaders like Google, Coinbase and others experience. How do Netskope’s people factor into your corporate brand strategy?

We all know that culture is a cornerstone of any successful company and people make the culture. That makes our people a key constituent in our brand strategy. We think about our people a ton. Last October, Netskope celebrated its eighth birthday and we decided one of the best ways to celebrate was to call for a global day off. We also sent every employee a “Netskope Home Team” shirt. The sentiment really rang true for a lot of folks that even during the events of 2020 that we are all part of the same “home team.” The double-meaning of working from home made this gift extra special.

“I think we spend more time now than ever before thinking about how something is going to feel to our employees.”

I think we spend more time now than ever before thinking about how something is going to feel to our employees and that ranges from how we promote the product to how we talk about the company with customers, partners, and investors. It’s interesting, but on more than one occasion I’ve talked to fellow employees who’ve come from dysfunctional workplaces and they say “Let’s not wreck this!” The brand strategy is a big part of that—we can’t ever violate the spirit of the employee base and what they value in a work environment.

2020 marked a tipping point for corporations speaking up for social justice following George Floyd’s murder and right now we’re seeing a backlash against Basecamp over its ban on “societal and political discussions” at work. How is Netskope communicating about societal issues at work and externally?

Within 48 hours we’d opened a dialogue about these events externally and re-examined our own practices for hiring, the language we use, and any areas where there might be unconscious bias at the company. It was truly a moment for everyone to stop and think and really internalize the part that everyone plays in addressing these challenges.

I feel a sense of obligation has taken hold in many folks within the company and in our surrounding community and that people recognize that all too often there’s been a lot of lip service without true and lasting action. An example here is in finding and eliminating language used in the security industry with racial bias. We used our own data inspection technology to look for words like “whitelist” or “blacklist” in our own code and materials so that we could change them into their intended meaning of “allow” or “deny.” It’s a simple example, but if you’re a Netskope administrator, we don’t think you should have to look at or use words that are offensive. Netskope’s resolve to be real, humble, and outspoken has grown stronger through these events. 

What other B2B companies do you admire most for how they managed their brand last year?

Okta and CrowdStrike are standouts for me. CrowdStrike’s early point of view on COVID-19 and Okta’s early decision to pivot its Oktane conference to a virtual event were two examples of leadership that the industry needed. They’ve also been outspoken about social justice issues and we need more voices like theirs in the industry.

You joined Netskope when the company employed 25 people and it has grown to more than 1,000. What are the big shifts a B2B brand has to make when transitioning from a startup into a category leader?

Indeed—what a journey so far! There are a lot of phases we could talk about but I’m not going to bore you with all of them. When you’re just starting out, you can do almost anything you want and you can move very quickly. Try out a new tagline today and a new one next week! Experiment with tone, look and feel? Sure! You’re just trying to get noticed and hopefully catch some buzz.

As you move into the more serious stages of being a category leader, the stakes go up significantly and as a category leader you’re constantly dancing with the notion of remaining agile while becoming more consistent from a brand perspective. I think we’ve benefited by learning this dance and recognizing the value of both sides.

“As a category leader you’re constantly dancing with the notion of remaining agile while becoming more consistent from a brand perspective.”

What advice do you have for other B2B marketers aspiring to build a multi-billion-dollar brand and business like Netskope?

Your brand is inextricably linked to your culture and values. If you try to create a brand that goes against these two elements, it is a recipe for failure. At times people along the way will say “Why can’t we do something like that?” If that keeps with your culture and values, go for it! But if that violates one or the other, it’s not going to work. It will fail or fall flat, and ultimately this ends up violating an unspoken trust that you’ve built over time with customers, partners, and your employees.