Brand Purpose Emily Culp

Ask The CMO: A Conversation With Keds CMO Emily Culp On Digital Transformation And Brand Purpose

There are many forces driving seismic paradigm shifts inside the marketing departments at leading organizations across the world. We are in a period of significant business change, catalyzed by the digital transformation that is upon us, which is requiring leading brands to deliver winning cross-channel experiences to consumers, where they live, work and play. With this in mind, I have decided to launch an “Ask the CMO” series where I talk to some of the top marketers in the world to uncover the leading issues and trends driving change in the marketplace.

For my inaugural piece in the series, I had the privilege of speaking with Emily Culp, digital pioneer, change agent and current CMO of Keds, to get her thoughts on the key strategies that marketers, regardless of size or industry, should be aware of to effectively compete in our challenging and complex environment. Below is a recap of our conversation:

Billee:  Right now I’m looking at two big things: one is the digital transformation of business and its impact on marketing and the other is the intersection of creativity + technology and the impact it is having on an organization’s go-forward strategy. So maybe we could start with what your thoughts are on digital transformation and its connection to marketing?

Emily: For me a core part of marketing is digital. In fact, over 21 years ago I started my career in digital/eCommerce and I did that because it appeared to be a unique way to engage with consumers. It was a completely new and unchartered revenue channel. Fast forward to today, I believe if you are a consumer centric company you have to embrace digital as part of your core business.

Billee: Wow. That’s amazing. A true digital native. Can you tell me a bit about your focus on using digital as a catalyst for change and meaningful transformation?

Emily: A key element of transformation for many companies is pivoting from a wholesale or manufacturing centric business approach to one that is fully focused on direct to the consumer. A critical component to rapidly achieve this pivot is to focus on where the consumer is – and that is the digital/mobile world.  I also inherently believe that by having digital as the backbone of my career it has enabled me to be extremely receptive to the unprecedented rate consumers change behaviors because of the rapidly evolving omni-channel world they live in.

Billee: Can you give me an example of keeping digital as the backbone of a consumer centric approach?

Emily: You actually put your consumer at the center of everything you’re doing and see what untapped potential exists. You have to understand the whole ecosystem where your consumer lives, works and plays. Simply put, what I do is I come in and I unite all channels to then unlock revenue growth.

Billee: Well you definitely have a unique perspective. Is there any way of crystalizing your point of view on the need to have digital as a centerpiece of business strategy as opposed to a single channel approach for our audience that might still be grappling with a comprehensive digital strategy?

Emily: Most businesses, especially B2C, are focused on consumer engagement. If you look at how your consumer lives their lives you’ll see that they are engaging with digital experiences across multiple channels. As you said, it’s not just about focusing on one channel. It’s understanding what people are actually doing in the digital space and how that space connects with all other channels.  I teach at both Columbia and Stern and I make this analogy.  No consumer says: “I’ll leave my phone in a black box for two hours, and experience the store purely as you want me to.” That’s just not how they live.

Billee: Love the analogy. So, simple, yet spot on. So, what’s the best strategy for marketers needing to instigate these kinds of shifts effectively?

Emily: Getting the organization to pivot is most important. A core aspect of change is understanding the “why” and “how” a new way of working will ensue. Hence omni-channel education is critical, as is a culture that embraces innovation, smart risk and speed.  It is hard to change but if people have a clear vision, knowledge about new skills needed and a strong culture—anything is possible.  Additionally, the fastest way to implement shifts is by changing the organizational structure and bonus program. These two elements can powerfully re-align talent to focus on the consumer, which in turn will unlock revenue. Part of the work is not just giving people new titles and goals, but it’s also finding the fastest way to change behavior within a company while shifting to meet the changing needs of the consumer.

Billee: Let’s shift gears for a moment to pivot to internal culture as you mention needing to change behavior to keep up with the current vision of the brand and consumer behavior. There has been much talk of brand voice meeting culture and CMOs needing to begin to shape employee experiences, less HR focused, more so very similarly to how they do so for consumers or customers. What are your thoughts?

Emily: Internal campaigns exist to drive different factors, but in my opinion there is a distinct reason why. Yes, I absolutely have branded #LadiesFirst water bottles and T-shirts which I know are very tactical elements, but my point is by creating a whole experience for our team, I’m finding I’m retaining talent and I don’t have to be distracted by the brutal activity of looking for new talent. Finding amazing talent is akin to finding a purple squirrel. I will hold out if need be for 9 months for the right fit for one director position. I know what it takes to get the right talent and ingrain them into not only the company culture, but also what your brand stands for; because in every interaction they have, whether it’s engaging with the founders, or with consumers, they need to live the brand. The DNA of your brand needs to become a part of your team and you must absolutely market internally to them. Everything we do is designed to build culture and establish what our brand stands for.  A solid grounding in understanding the day to day purpose of our brand frankly helps me motivate my team.  That work helps all of us do our jobs better and helps us stay passionate about our consumer.

Billee: I totally agree and think your point is spot on. So, you know a lot of what you just talked about goes to a sense of brand aspiration. A lot of people are talking about infusing purpose into brands, which I believe is a result of the chaos of the country and the society that we’re living in. But, taking a step back, you know people sometimes think that purpose is about sustainability or being green or doing this or that when in reality, I believe that it is just feeling a sense of aspiration that a brand, like Keds, is about female empowerment, as much it is about sneakers. Simply put, it’s as much about the who and the why as it is the what… how do you feel about that?

Emily: I fully agree with that. It’s about authenticity. Our brand was founded on the idea of empowering women through accessible, fashionable footwear back in 1916. This history makes the female empowerment movement a very sincere and authentic effort for the brand that we communicate both to our consumers and internally. Everybody’s very clear on that. We also have environmental initiatives such as the recycled shoe boxes we produce, but there’s a certain point I don’t think we need to amplify every purposeful angle. I think it’s important to own what really makes you different in the marketplace and what’s really authentically you . And that’s where I feel very fortunate about this brand because championing female empowerment is authentically what the brand has done for 101 years.

Billee: I’m noticing that it’s almost like brands are feeling a greater sense of contributing to the world. And I’m not talking about their environmental footprint. I mean contributing to the world in a meaningful way, almost kind of stepping in certain places where maybe the public sector has dropped the ball. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Emily: I do. I actually think there is an amazing thing that’s happening at a macro-level surrounding championing women and Keds’ authentic role in this conversation. For example, on International Women’s day we did a panel with an amazing group of women: Allison Williams, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Reshma Saujani and ShiShi Rose we were talking about how you can be bold for change. We live streamed this on Facebook and had half a million views around the world because of this powerful message. So, I think going back to your original point, there is a place for brands to bring information to consumers.  What they do with that information is up to them, but we give them the opportunity to then vote with their wallet, and that’s most important.

Billee: Last question…connecting to consumers voting with their wallet. How do you use AI to be additive and create winning experiences that elicit positive reactions like that as opposed to being polarizing? What is the right balance?

Emily: I think AI is one of the most misunderstood things right now. AI to me is truly fascinating. The best way I explain it to everybody is that its powering everything you already do! Guess what?  If you want to use real time translation or anything like that, you’ve been using AI.  By demystifying it, AI becomes less of a scary thing. In terms of how AI helping business, it goes back to business rules. The amount of consumer data we now have access to requires a team of purple squirrels to use this information efficiently and responsibly. Frankly, I think the most important part is the talent, with sound judgement to manage the AI. I believe that’s even more important than just the technology capability right now.

Note: This article was first published on Billee’s Forbes blog.