Yandex: Changing the Narrative One Story at a Time
How to use positioning and communication to raise awareness of a global technology company as an Artificial Intelligence leader and overcome a perception that the organization was little more than a search engine.
Yandex, one of Europe’s largest internet companies, first approached Cunningham Collective a few years ago for help in aligning its corporate messaging and disseminating that message consistently out into the market. With 7,000 employees and 17 offices around the world, “Yandex tends to operate as a collection of business units,” said Preston Carey, senior vice president of international development of the global technology company, referring to its products and services, all of which operate under the parent company’s umbrella. “At one point we found a dozen different boilerplates that people were using.”
Honing positioning and messaging were key to Yandex’s ultimate goal of expanding awareness of the company’s technology capabilities on the global stage. Although well known throughout Russia, in North America—particularly Silicon Valley—and other parts of the world, Yandex’s name recognition and its artificial intelligence capabilities (AI) were spotty in the international business and technology press. The AI research community knew of Yandex and its AI expertise, but many consumers and businesses outside of those circles weren’t sure what the company offered. If the company was known, it was predominantly for its search engine; in fact, Yandex was known as “the Google of Russia,” a phrase that showed up frequently in the business press. Although Yandex (which is also popular in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Turkey) does indeed operate as Russia's most popular search engine and is its most visited website, the phrase “the Google of Russia” is limiting, and doesn’t begin to cover the role the company plays in improving the daily lives of millions of consumers.” Yandex’s advances in on-demand transportation services, navigation products, streaming music, open-source technology, and other products and services are proof of its technology prowess, a prowess the company wanted to make clear to the wider market.
In fact, despite Yandex’s reputation outside its geographic region as “just" a search engine, the company’s capabilities in machine learning suggest a more apt appellation is “the Silicon Valley of Russia.” “One of the big goals we had was to have our own identity, to be seen as a machine learning company—a leader in AI and less so just a search company,” said Melissa McDonald, international communication director for Yandex. To that end, the company, which is listed on the NASDAQ, sought to position itself as a global technology leader on the same level as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Baidu.
At its core, our work with Yandex called for clarifying the narrative around the company’s technology expertise and making it relevant to a larger audience.
We began with the firm’s unique positioning methodology, a corporate DNA-based framework that helps companies determine their precise role and relevance in the marketing landscape. Following a detailed market analysis, interviews with key stakeholders, and facilitation of an in-person workshop with the Yandex management team, the positioning exercise revealed Yandex to be a Segmentation Mother, a genetic type focused on winning by serving a specific section (or sections) of the market. In Yandex’s case, that meant taking care of its predominantly Russian-speaking users’ individual needs via a wide range of products and services—everything from maps to music to ride-sharing.
Creating a narrative focused on Yandex’s cutting-edge technology
In fact, as noted above by McDonald, it was Yandex’s machine learning expertise that the company wished to promote in particular. The company has a long history of developing machine learning technologies to improve the way people solve a variety of problems both online and off, but it hadn’t positioned itself in a way that articulated its user focus and its deep machine learning expertise. It became clear that the best course Yandex could take was to differentiate itself on the basis of its state-of-the-art technology—beginning with a machine learning library called Catboost—which can be applied to a wider range of problems than other popular deep learning frameworks.
We thus worked closely with Yandex to develop the following positioning and elevator story:
Yandex is a technology company that builds intelligent products and services powered by machine learning. Our goal is to help consumers and businesses better navigate the online and offline world. Since 1997, we have delivered world-class, locally relevant search and information services. Additionally, we have developed market-leading on-demand transportation services, navigation products, and other mobile applications for millions of consumers across the globe. Yandex, which has 17 offices worldwide, has been listed on the NASDAQ since 2011.
“When it came to positioning Yandex, Cunningham Collective did really good job of understanding exactly what we were doing and how we wanted to be seen,” said McDonald. “It was a matter of understanding exactly how we were going to find that unique message among all the other technology and machine learning companies out there.”
Deploying the narrative via targeted communication
With the Yandex executive team aligned on positioning and the new narrative infused throughout Yandex’s internal ecosystem, our next step was to activate that positioning and narrative by dispersing it out into the market—a message virus that we would disseminate regularly and consistently via all forms of communication. Because the advent of the web and social media has so drastically changed how companies position and present themselves and their services, in order to ensure consistency, all marketing communication needed to reflect the message architecture we had created with the Yandex team. We would use owned media (press releases, blogs, and social media) and earned media (PR and media relations efforts) to coordinate messaging for Yandex. Put another way, every press release, award application, blog post, and Tweet would be used to exploit the positioning narrative and build a digital footprint with the story we wanted to tell.
The need for uniform messaging became increasingly evident in the spring and summer of 2017 when the company found itself a frequent news subject. For example, in July, Yandex announced an agreement to form a new, stand-alone company with Uber. The merger between Uber and Yandex’s ridesharing business Yandex.Taxi created a $3.4 billion ride-hailing venture that will operate in nearly 130 cities in Russia as well as in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. As part of the deal, Yandex holds a two-thirds majority stake in the company.
When it came to the Yandex narrative, however, the international press stuck to what it knew about the company (generally very little), preferring to fall back on “the Google of Russia” trope. Further, when reporting news of the ride-sharing merger, journalists tended to devote their energy and ink to Uber, a company widely known and thus easy to write about. As a result, Yandex had to be proactive in shaping the media’s narrative.
Yandex’s multiple newsworthy announcements in 2017 offered a way to accelerate our push toward building a better global understanding of who Yandex is and what it offers. We’ve found that if you deliver a compelling message directly, most people are willing to expand their narrative. To that end, in addition to the other work we were doing in owned and earned media channels, we reached out to business and technology journalists to offer specifics on what we ultimately wanted to see in the news (i.e., Yandex is a company worth watching, these are its different business units, here is the technology that powers their products and services, etc.)
Our work with Yandex to promote the company as a global leader in artificial intelligence is paying off. Perception isn’t something that changes overnight, but a look at recent articles shows the narrative is moving in the right direction. A story that appeared in ZDNet, for example, pulled from the corporate message architecture we created with the Yandex team when it wrote that “Catboost, the open source framework Yandex just released, aims to expand the range of what is possible in AI and what Yandex can do.”
Other examples include:
- “Today, the Russian search giant—which, like its US counterpart Google, has extended into a myriad of other business lines, from mobile to maps and more—announced the launch of CatBoost, an open source machine learning library based on gradient boosting.” [TechCrunch]
“Uber is merging its business in Russia with Yandex, a dominant player in the Internet business in that nation and Eastern Europe. [Ars Technica]"
“The Moscow-based tech giant Yandex launched a Russian-speaking personal assistant called Alice this October … And unlike Siri or Alexa, the program relies less on scripted responses than on what it’s learned by consuming conversational data mined from the Web, news articles, and even a little Russian literature." [MIT Technology Review]
Our direct outreach efforts are showing results as well. For example, after we contacted a VentureBeat reporter whose article on the Yandex/Uber ride-sharing merger struck us one-sided in its focus on Uber at the expense of Yandex, he responded the same day with a follow-up story: How merging with Uber expands Yandex’s global presence.
Messaging in action!