Microsoft’s Ana Maria Henao Talks Sharing Brand Custody With Consumers

Taylor Masket
Taylor Masket
Jul 11, 2023

In Ep. 87 of Earned, Conor sits down with the wonderful Ana Maria Henao, CMO and general manager of US Consumer Channel and Partnership Marketing at Microsoft! 


We start the show by diving into Ana Maria’s recent transition from 25 years in the CPG sector—with much of her career spent at Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo—into the tech industry, and how the recent AI boom has shaped her experience thus far. We then discuss Ana Maria’s leadership style, and break down the “Three C’s” that she applies every single day. Next, we explore how Microsoft works to cultivate brand love and community, balancing functional efficacy and emotional connection to its products. We then dive into Microsoft’s approach to influencer marketing, and Ana Maria emphasizes the importance of embracing creator content. To close the show, Ana Maria shares her process for self-reflection and active meditation.

We’ve included a couple of highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, or tune into the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts!

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The following interview has been lightly edited for concision. 

Compassion, Curiosity, and Courage: The Three C’s That Guide Ana Maria’s Leadership

Conor Begley: Something that I thought was really fascinating was your discussion around curiosity, compassion, and courage on the P&G Alumni podcast. Can you describe that philosophy for people?

Ana Maria Henao: Yes. So it's [come from] the journey that I have been on through all these years in my career. About five years ago, I started to reflect. People always ask you this question about leadership, what leadership means to you and how you’ve been able to lead successfully. So I started reflecting on what it really means, and what I have learned throughout the years as I've been through my professional journey. I landed on this concept of the three C’s. To be a successful leader today and in the future, there are three concepts that I try to apply every single day. 

So the first “C” is compassion. Compassion is all about empathy, but the definition of compassion is empathy plus action. I like that definition a lot because it's not only about understanding the other side—whether that’s the consumer, the customer, a coworker, someone that works for you—it's not just understanding, but it's what you do with that understanding, and how you turn that understanding into action. I love that concept because what I have seen is that you need to understand, and you need to have lots of empathy. For example, if we talk about consumers and you understand the consumer very well, you know what they want, you know what they need, but then if your decisions are not based on that understanding, but rather what is convenient for the company, then empathy becomes useless. So that's why I like compassion a lot, because it is lots of empathy, but it's turning that empathy into action, and it's championing that understanding so that your actions are honoring those things that you have learned. 

The second “C” is curiosity. The brain is a muscle that you have to keep training every day. So it's the conviction really that you're never a finished product. And what I have lived in the last 25 years, if I wouldn't have been curious, I wouldn't have been able to make it to where I am right now. And I don't think I would be able to make it to the next five years or even the next six months. Because if you think about AI, the fact that I joined [Microsoft] and the AI revolution hit two months later, you have to stay curious. You have to keep this open mind, you have to become a lifelong learner to really be successful, because if you believe that you're an end product, that you have learned it all, then you very quickly become obsolete. So I will say that curiosity is very important, and so is exercising your brain every single day. We're in constant evolution. Nothing is really constant in the world anymore. So we need to be curious and to remain curious all the time.

And then the last “C” is courage. The definition of courage that I use is that courage is not the absence of fear, but it's the conviction that action is more important. Every single time that you're making a decision, you need to be courageous to lean in and to say, okay, I'm going to do something here. And what I have seen is that sometimes in the absence of courage, if you are waiting for the 99.9% certainty of what is going to happen, of all the information that is available, then you stay in a lethargic mode, and the opportunities are just passing by. So you need to be informed, you need to be intelligent as to when to lean in, but at a certain point, you just need to lean in and face the consequences of your actions. And if it doesn't work, at least you’re learning, because fear is always going to be there. You will never get to a stage where you're 100% certain that the results are going to be 100% what you’re expecting. There is always risk. So for me, courage is to know when to pivot, to know when to say, “I know enough. There is risk, but this is sufficient.” And then I will lean in, and I will just assume the consequences of whatever happens. And I think as far as those consequences, you take it with a growth mindset so that it's constructive and if you fail, at least you're learning. There's always a gain, and way more than if you just stay in pause and do nothing.

“​​You have to understand that you’re sharing custody of the brand now”: Ana Maria on Why Brands Should Embrace Creator Content

Conor Begley: You mentioned that you used to have to create two or three pieces of content a year. Now you have to create two or three a week or more than that, even hundreds a month. And a lot of that content now is shifting to content you don't even create yourself, but are just reusing content from other people, whether it's a consumer or an influencer, et cetera. Have you guys started integrating a significant amount of that content into your other channels, whether it's your website or your ads or your emails? How do you think about that integration of content that you don't create yourself into your marketing channels, and how do you work with that when it's not always going to be perfectly on-brand, or perfectly on message?

Ana Maria Henao: That's actually a really good question, because when I started this journey 25 years ago, I was at Procter & Gamble, which was the best school for marketing at the time. And it was, I would say, easy compared to what we have to do today, because it was predictable. It was like baking: here are the ingredients, these are the amounts, and if you mix it right, you will get the cake. Today, the ingredients are changing, the amounts are different every day. So you have to be more flexible and try to react to what's happening and what's working. 

Back in the day, I only had one segmentation, and it was demographics and a little bit of psychographics and that was it. Today we have micro-segments. We're about to implement “back to school” and we're talking to the students and we're talking to the parents and seeing what is working for them. So it becomes way more complex, because we have more information and we can personalize it way more than what we could do 25 years ago. 

For me, the big impact of the digitization era has been the democratization of information. And what that means is that information is available to everyone. And now, as the brand guardians that we are, we share custody of the brand with the millions of users who use our products every day. That's a mindset shift that happened in the last 15 years that is very, very important. Because before we were in control. With TV, it was, we will serve you the content and you will take it and you have no option. We will interrupt what you’re watching and serve you my ad and you had no other choice but to watch it. It's very different today. 

So we're sharing the guardianship or the custody of the brand, and whether we like it or not, consumers are going to talk about our brands. And that's where you have to understand that you’re sharing custody. You have lost a lot of control of the content that is happening out there. So I think the best thing for you to do is one, recognize that, and two, celebrate the fact that there are millions of consumers who are willing to talk about your brand, consumers who care enough to write a review, whether it's good or bad, they care sufficiently to spend two minutes letting you know how it's going. I think the moment you embrace it, you start creating value for the brand. I think the moment you try to control it or ignore it, that’s when you get into trouble. 

I have had to deal many times with issues and crises that we had with consumers, and what I have learned through that is when you show you care, consumers will appreciate that. But when you disregard or ignore them, or say, “you are wrong, I'm right,” that's when things really go south very quickly. So we celebrate that. We have to celebrate the fact that people care. We have to celebrate the fact that people create content, of good quality or bad quality, but they're spending time with us. That's fantastic. That's what you want to have. 

We want to become part of the social conversation. You want people to wear a t-shirt that says “Microsoft” or “Xbox” or “Pepsi” in my previous life. When you see that on the street, you're like, wow, this is fantastic. The worst place you can be is in limbo, when no one cares, because then there is nothing there. When people care, there is passion. I think that's the best place. But for me, it’s how you embrace that, and how you channel that energy to co-create something with consumers that makes the brand stronger. I would say that's the underlying idea that I try to use for this.

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