Author: Jonathan La Greca
VP Strategic Growth, Hotspex


For those of you that haven’t been to the Gathering marketing conference, add it to your bucket list. It’s the Coachella of the marketing world and brings together some of the bravest and most inspiring CMOs from leadership brands in the purely magical settings of the mountains of Banff, Alberta.

In addition to hearing an incredible keynote by Brené Brown, I had the pleasure of meeting some incredible CMOs and senior leaders from successful brands including Keurig, Jack Daniels, Gatorade, Vans, Beats By Dre, Snickers, and PlayStation!

Here are some of the lessons I would like to share back with you…

Top 10 Lessons from Top CMOs – The Gathering (Banff 2018):

1.   Beats by Dre – Brand Purpose is more important than ever: Brand Purpose is an absolute starting point for all as it explains to your employees and consumers “why” of you exist. It should guide all your internal and external decisions, behaviours, and communications. While many of the marketers shared how brand purpose guided new product launches or brand revitalization, Jason White from Beats by Dre reminded us that people are moving product not brands and that to remain relevant, your brand must be cognizant of its impact and relation to the diversity of culture.

2.   Jack Daniels – Brands need to be Coherent and Consistent: Several CMOs talked about the importance of brand coherency – the ability to be consistent yet flexible across a variety of omnichannel touchpoints, but one brand really stood out when it came to demonstrate this principle. For a moment, just think about how consistent the Jack Daniels bottle shape and black and white label has been for the last 150 years. Phil Epps shared several examples of how disciplined the marketers have been to build such a distinctive brand including one tactic of sending celebrities witty cease and desist letters for wearing counterfeit Jack Daniels clothing. The letters, aligned to the brand’s tone, eventually received significant publicity and reinforced the brand’s distinctive identity.

3.   Keurig – Find your focus: Perhaps one of the most inspiring brand renovation stories came from Keurig. Scott Moffit explained some of the setbacks that came from the Keurig 2.0 launch and then described the incredible journey the marketing team took to revitalize the brand. The lesson that resonated most from his talk was that when you need to turn around a brand, you need to focus your limited attention and resources on the most important strategic levers your business has. Keurig outlined what its primary and secondary focus areas were, but equally important, identified what not to focus on. Once they aligned the team on the strategy, they delivered a repeatable marketing model and applied important changes to the design of their brewers and packaging to build and reinforce the associations that were ownable and distinctive to the Keurig brand in a way that was relevant to its consumers.

4.   Snickers – Broadening your consumer target can drive substantial growth: Most global brand leadership teams have subscribed to the fact growing penetration is the key to long-term growth. The question is, how do you do this successfully? Blas Maquivar from Mars explained that as marketers we often go very deep and vertical in our consumer understanding, but rarely apply that understanding with breadth horizontally across more consumers. He believed that the key to growing penetration is to uncover a universal human truth that applies to many consumers. Perhaps one of the greatest campaigns of all time, “You’re not you when you’re hungry” was based on a universal insight that could apply to any consumer and it was so successful that marketers from all regions came to the lead market asking to adopt it.

5.   Gatorade -Exercise cautious when uncovering new consumer targets: In the ongoing search to grow penetration, marketers need to uncover new incremental innovation opportunities, while consistently growing their base business. One way to grow the base is to find new consumer targets, but marketers need to exercise considerable caution when doing so. Michael Smith from Gatorade shared an incredible story about how Gatorade broadened its core target from athletes to anyone that is thirsty in search for new avenues of growth, but in doing so diluted its brand. The marketing team was clever enough to learn from this very quickly and found a way to return to its core target, recognizing that this was still broad and inclusive enough for all consumers from an aspirational perspective. Not only did this return them to a favorable position, it inspired future avenues of growth as we’ll see in the next two insights.

6.   Your Category Reference Point drives your focus: Marketers often get trapped in their own constructs, including how we classify categories. This is not always how consumers perceive the world. Gatorade shared a great example of how it has been able to drive growth by expanding beyond the simple classification of being a refreshing beverage to build mental availability as being a sports fuel company. To reinforce this, they benchmarked the brand’s share of mind against Nike and Under Armour. By shifting internal perceptions and then communicating this shift to its consumers, the Gatorade marketing team reinvented its category reference, which then allowed them to expand beyond just beverages and fuel long-term growth.

7.   Keep your communication strategy simple: One of the biggest opportunities marketers have is to remember that they spend 10 hours a day focused entirely on their brands, whereas depending on the level of involvement, consumers may spend as little as 10 milliseconds making a decision about that brand, and most of that may happen non-consciously. The implication of this is that we need to be very savvy in ensuring that our communication strategy is simple and succinct. Gatorade exemplified this when they created their “In > On” campaign that declared that what athletes put in their bodies, is just as important as what they put on. Imagine being the advertising agency given that brief and how much easier it would be for you to bring that to life for consumers in a way that is relevant and reinforces the memory structures of the brand.

8.   Vans – Make it about your consumers and less about your product: Again, as marketers, we focus in on our brands and products substantially in our roles and it is easy to lose sight of our consumers in doing so. Vans demonstrated that successful brands live by the principle that you need to focus on your consumers first, then your products. Nick Street explained that they consider their consumers and retail partners to be family and reinforce this message with their actions. From building community skate parks to ensuring that products are developed and customized for specific retailers, they are consistently putting their consumers and retail partners first. The impact of this is an incredibly successful growing that is a relevant voice in pop culture and have one of the highest engagement rates when it comes to store associates.

9.   PlayStation – It’s not what you buy, it’s what you buy into: PlayStation also reinforced the previous insight by explaining that they were able to recover from losing ground to competitors Xbox and Nintendo by focusing more on gamers and less on product features. Sharing the quote “it’s not what you buy, it’s what you buy into”, Mary Yee expressed that their brand reinvention success came from digging deep to understand what beliefs were at the foundation of the brand’s internal and external activities. Once they uncovered that, they told rich stories to project their beliefs and let their fans in on this journey just in time for the PS4 launch which led the brand’s amazing turnaround.

10. Celebrity Endorsers and Influencers are powerful, but heed caution: There was a stat that suggested that 7 out of 10 celebrities today are influencers which demonstrates that the landscape of endorsements is quickly evolving. Marketers must evaluate who they invest in to endorse their brands to ensure that they align with the values of the company, while also building and reinforcing the right memory structures that will make your brand distinctive. Vans shared an excellent example of how they partnered with Disney and Peanuts on collaborations because there was an alignment of values and mental associations.

Final Thoughts with BONUS Insights from Brené Brown’s Keynote

Brené Brown, famous for her TED Talk “The power of vulnerability”, which has had over 33 millions views, delivered a powerful keynote that serves as a great close to the insights from the 2018 Gathering conference. She shared her own personal story of leaning into vulnerability and how she got hurt, but as a result grew into the incredibly successful person she is today.

Her journey made her realize that most of us have been raised to be “brave” and to avoid vulnerability and while this may feel like the safe route, it prevents us from growing. She encouraged marketers to lean into vulnerability by removing their armour and show up “in the arena” being true to who they truly are.

Brené made it very clear that in being vulnerable it is inevitable to face uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, and experience some pain. In return for that, she suggests you will be rewarded by being able to be your true self, fight for what you believe in, and create meaningful connection with others.

How this applies to one’s personal life is obvious, but if you look deeper at the message, you might notice it can also apply to brand building…

Find your brand’s purpose, be true to it, and ultimately, you’ll connect with consumers in much more meaningful ways. Isn’t that what several of these brand journeys seem to suggest?

In the closing words of Brené’s keynote, you need to ask yourself whether your brand should seek comfort or courage. Unfortunately, we can’t have both.