Salesforce CEO Benioff Tries Out Some New Material

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff carefully curates his company’s image., which makes software to help businesses hone their sales and marketing campaigns, is taking a red pen to its own corporate messaging. For the past couple of years, Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff has been pitching prospective customers on becoming “social enterprises,” capitalizing on the buzz around social networking.

In an interview, Benioff revealed his company’s new tagline: “customer companies.” After withdrawing a trademark application for the old brand last year, Benioff plans to formally introduce “customer companies” at a Feb. 26 event at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. The presentation, which he previewed during an interview at his home in San Francisco this month, will include a smattering of everything that’s hot in tech: Facebook, Twitter, iPads, “big data,” self-driving cars and the Nest thermostat.

After waiting upstairs in a dedicated holding room, where staff, business partners and reporters sit by a fireplace before being ushered downstairs, I met Benioff seated at a vast conference table. He proudly showed a prototype application for the iPhone meant to show how companies that run Salesforce’s software can better collaborate to reach their buyers.

“We are our customers’ customer platform,” Benioff said. “That’s not where Oracle or Microsoft or SAP have focused.”

Benioff, who founded Salesforce in 1999 and has built it into world’s fifth-most valuable software company, is known for trash-talking his opponents — especially those top three, worth a combined $498 billion.

Salesforce is the second-best performing company in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index by return and outlook, according to the Bloomberg Businessweek 50 ranking.

But the company’s long-touted “social enterprise” concept wasn’t winning many fans, Peter Goldmacher, an analyst at Cowen and Co., said in a Jan. 24 research note. It’s against the backdrop that Salesforce is making changes to how it sells the strategy.

The “social” component has been a big part of Salesforce’s pitch to businesses. Benioff said he’s spent about $1 billion acquiring software makers that help companies place ads and communicate with users of their products through social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. Yet the biggest such deal, for Buddy Media, hasn’t met Salesforce’s projections, said Brent Thill, an analyst at UBS. “They’ve been pretty up front that the Buddy deal didn’t work out,” he said.

Not so, said Benioff. “I feel good about the acquisition, and I feel good about the direction with marketing,” he said. “We want to build a strong marketing product line but mostly through acquisition. That’s different than how we built sales and service, which was organically. We can go faster by buying.”

And Salesforce plans to keep buying, Benioff said. “The most important thing for us is we continue to buy these No. 1 companies. Buddy was a No. 1 player. Radian 6 was a No. 1 player. We are building a $1 billion marketing business — that’s our No. 1 goal.”

Salesforce is also getting ready to ramp up its efforts in task management. A new app, which Benioff plans to show off at the company’s Dreamforce conference in November, incorporates functions from its service, Workday’s HR and financial applications, and expense-report tools from Concur Technologies, as well as to-do lists and file-sharing features. “All of that needs to be right in here,” Benioff said while showing a prototype of the app.

That night, Benioff flew to Palm Springs, California, to lay out the year’s plans to his top 600 managers. Despite a change to the company’s pitch, the rest of the strategy should be familiar, he said.

“This is not like some big strategic leap from where we were,” he said. “If you want to know where we’re going to be in five years, it’s going to be more of this. It’s not going to be something radically different.”

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