Brand DNA: The foundation for iconic brands
Iconic brands are those who have become household names and dominated the market for a long time. But reaching such a point and maintaining this status is easier said than done. Gabriel Cohen sits down with Ian Stewart, CMO of Wedge Brands and Xcel Wetsuits, to discuss how the biggest brands like Nike and Converse studied the latest trends and integrated them into their marketing decisions and overall business playbook. Gabriel explains how to identify and stay in touch with your core audience, as well as the most important factors to consider when building an influential brand DNA. He also discusses how iconic brands manage to keep up with the ever-changing market, the importance of lagging indicators, and the secrets behind managing well-rounded teams.
A lot of the episodes that we’ve done so far have been with the CMOs and leaders of what you might think of as not very sexy brands, financial services, and healthcare. We like to say that the leaders of those brands do heavy marketing because it’s not easy to market them. In this episode, we’re going to be talking to someone who is in the brand royalty stage when you think about the brands that this person has led.
We’re going to be talking about Converse which is super topical with the Air movie that came out. We’re going to be talking about TOMS and we’re going to be talking about those magic boots in UGGs as well. He’s the CMO of Xcel Wetsuits. He is living in Santa Barbara and living everyone’s best life. I’m delighted to welcome Ian Stewart to this episode. Ian, thank you so much for being on.
Thanks for having me. I’m very excited to be here.
Ian, it’s not your typical American accent. The first time I met someone from Boston, I thought they were Australian but you are Australian. How did you get from there to Santa Barbara?
You’re right. I am Australian. I’ve been out of Australia for 35 years and I can’t shake the accent. As we spoke about before, it’s also advantageous in the US to have an unusual accent. It gets you around in interesting ways. I was Australian. I went to university. I did undergrad business. I thought I’d get a couple of these experiences up in Asia to get ahead of some new markets and all the excitement that was Asia back in the ’90s. I haven’t been home since. I’ve been home for Christmas occasionally, but I haven’t moved back home, which is funny. I’ve never worked in my home country.
Shout out to Asia. I worked for a bunch of amazing brands in all sorts of incredible places from China and Vietnam in the early ’90s before that opened up to the Handover of Hong Kong and the changing face of Singapore. I was all around. I then got to the US many years ago with Nike. I started in Boston and New Hampshire in the freezing cold and then I got myself quickly as fast as I could to California with Deckers and UGG boots. Here I am in Santa Barbara very settled.
Tell us about getting into Nike, how all of that happened, and how you ended up on Converse.
I’ve had a career that pop by design or pop by fortune and network. I’ve managed to work for some incredible brands. Through that course of working at Coca-Cola when Coca-Cola came back to Asia in China, I did a lot of big stuff back then in the conference circuit. You have various different meetings and you meet different people. You get on radars. As it happened, along with the Coca-Cola career, MTV came to Asia for the first time and they were building a brand new team. They were looking for people who understood the youth market and I was the trend manager.
I was looking at long-range consumer trends at Coke. I was on radars for speaking about that type of stuff. I was tapped up by MTV into their strategy team. It was an interesting journey because for over ten years, we started with one channel in Asia that was all Western music knowing that the destination was not Western music. We then ended up with the channel with a hodgepodge of all sorts of different countries of Asian music, which also didn’t work because in Thailand, you want to listen to Thai music, and in Korea, you don’t want to listen to Thai music. You want to listen to Korean music.
The destination over time was thirteen channels, each in their local language. That got me on the radar and just network. I was there for a long time. At that time in the ’90s, if you remember, MTV was the coolest brand. It was setting youth culture and popular culture. That was how you discovered what was coming into music videos. Nike was then coming back into Asia in full force as well. They bought Converse. They were setting up a new team. I got hit up by the Nike folks to move myself from Singapore to Shanghai where everybody lived before with Coke. That got me there.
With Converse, I ran the region’s marketing for a number of years. I then moved to the headquarters of Converse in Boston. That was the key jump from brand to brand and just radar. It was pop by network and also pop by design. I think working in the early parts of my career for great brands, be it the famous iconic brands or whatever great brands with great infrastructure, foundation, training, learning, and playbooks has been great for me in the second half of my career.
That’s going to be a lot of the theme of what we’re going to be talking about, which is the notion of having a playbook, a strategy, and things that you can apply from brand to brand, whether you’re working on iconic brands or not. A lot of people tuning in to this aren’t going to be working for a brand that is iconic like the ones that you worked for. Maybe we can start by talking about the relationship and how you see it between culture and brand. Talk to us about in practice the kind of culture or trend work that you can do that then influences brand and marketing decisions as a part of that playbook.
There are positions and I was lucky at Coke to have a job that was called the trend manager. We were asked as a global team to look beyond the next couple of years to see if we could pick out clues for what was coming further down the pipe. In food and beverage, it would be things like changing attitudes towards health. Do people want to drink more or less sugar and more or less carbonation? Is fruit juice, tea, water, or sports drinks coming in? These are all the things that we were looking at, and then deciding as we report back, does the company buy brands, stop brands, or joint venture with brands?
Over my time at Coke, we did all of them. Again, I was the Trend Manager. When the company bought brands, the company created brands. We created a brand specifically in China for the Chinese tastes that we saw over time. We also joint ventured. That’s an example where you’re going out specifically to look for something and then feed that back with a purpose to do something with it. I think if you’re looking at more fashion-oriented brands like Converse or whatever, I think part of your arena as you’re designing new lines is to be looking out to see how fashion trends are coming in and out.
My mom gave me lots of great advice but one of the things she said is everything seasonal. It was great advice. One of the things behind that is working out what the seasonal ups and downs are within a year or over a couple of years. Some of the bigger trends can be over ten years, whole generations, or beyond. It was establishing that and deciding where you are on the curve, and then working out how long you can get away with what you’re doing now versus needing to change that.
That’s fundamental to any category that’s fast-moving and reliant on being up-to-date, particularly in the youth market where it’s cutthroat and it’s very difficult. In a lot of fashion footwear brands, you’re making products eighteen months out. How are you going to know what’s the color, the pattern, or the trend? There is a science behind that but that’s part of the reason you’re looking out. It is to then design stuff.
What was the situation when you arrived at Converse? Was it a turnaround situation or was it building from a position of strength?
It was interesting that Nike bought it as a brand that was coming up to its 100th anniversary. There are so many different eras of Converse. It goes back to the early days of the development of the first sneakers and rubber on the East Coast of the United States. It’s a fascinating history lesson if anybody has the time to get into it. There were times they were making military boots. There was a time when they were making sports equipment and footwear.
They got into basketball early, but they were also adopted by wrestling and weightlifting. In the basketball story, the Converse Chuck Taylor in Black was the official NBA sneaker for everybody for many years. The teams all had the same shoes. Over time, it didn’t innovate and develop to a point where other brands came into that space, but Converse for a very long time was the shoe of choice for basketball.
It then moved into different areas and different types of shoes and maybe even disappeared certainly from popular culture. It was a distributed brand. It was run by licenses that you’re ordering and making shoes. Nike saw something there, particularly from the sports heritage. They brought a group of people in to look at the brand.
We develop strategies around youth culture through the lens of sport, but also music, art, and more focused activities like skateboarding. They rode the trend of skinny jeans and rock and roll that were happening back in the middle of 2009 and 2010, and rode with some friend waves as well with that. It’s a fascinating journey with Converse.
It’s more of a popular culture-oriented question, but with so many people who work in marketing and love brands, I have seen the Air movie, which was all about the battle between Converse and Nike. When Nike acquired Converse, this was a few years afterward. What was the market dynamic then at the time when you think about Air Jordan and Converse? At that point, they essentially decided to go separate ways in terms of going after different audiences as opposed to being head-to-head competitors.
It was around 2008 and 2009 that this all happened. By then, Converse was not in performance basketball. It was the Chuck Taylor which is not a performance shoe. There were some performance shoes rattling around the marketplace, but Converse was not a dominant force in basketball. Nike could have bought Converse to make it another dominant force in basketball but that wasn’t the choice they were taking.
In fact, it was interesting that many of us came into Converse not from Nike. They were purposely recruiting people from other brands like Coke and MTV to inject some other ways to do it. We’re then asked to come up with a strategy for the brand. The strategy that was developed was youth culture and popular culture versus sports culture. We rode that for 7 to 8 years.
Many of us have left since then but there was some exploration by Nike around Converse’s sports heritage and reviving that as a complement to Nike which is after my time. I look at Converse now and it seems to be very fashion-centric which we want. We went fashion-centric and youth culture, which was music, art, and skateboarding. There are many ways to do and play it. I think Converse, regardless of the different phases that it has gone through culturally, is always an iconic sneaker without a doubt.
Talk us through the process of how you go from you’re going to be playing in the youth culture movement then for Converse. There are so many different places that you can go. There are so many artists or influencers that you can partner with. There are so many different events. How do you go through that process of deciding what lane you’re going to play and what that strategy is going to be in order to stay focused?
There are wrong answers, but there are many right answers. What’s interesting is picking some lanes and having the conviction that there are other ways to do it but this is the way that we’re going to do it. Our particular lens and lane was creative culture. The overarching idea was creative culture and spirits. The lanes and the cultural ideas that we had were specifically things like music, art, and skateboarding.
Within music, art, and skateboarding, there were specific nuances. It wasn’t all music. It was a type of music. It wasn’t all skateboarding. It was a type of skateboarding. It wasn’t all art. It was a type of art. Picking those is one thing. What I’ve learned is sticking to it versus experimenting, changing, tweaking, and modifying. The best strategies are those that are given a couple of years to breathe and get going because you’re picking up momentum and impressions. You are trying to land that idea.
When you think about the brands that you come in, especially later on where you were in charge of the brand overall, talk about how you go about analyzing and assessing what the DNA is. When you think about Converse against TOMS, you talk about the idea that every brand has a very distinct DNA. How do you go about discovering and uncovering what that DNA is?
DNA is the fundamental thing. Every and any brand and person has a DNA. It’s something that you do need to excavate and get to the bottom of. I think that the DNA is made up of functional attributes. A sneaker is a different shoe than a brown shoe, a flip-flop, or a winter boots. It’s defining what a sneaker is. We had a lot of fun at Converse understanding what a sneaker was emotionally and how that was different from other shoes.
Within the sneaker world, the Converse sneaker might be seen as different from other sneakers to try and get some differentiation versus a Vans, Dior, or something like that. You can’t make it up. It’s there. You’ve got to excavate and find it and ask the right questions to say, “What makes somebody pick up a Converse Chuck Taylor? What does that say about them? What are they looking for it to say about their style emotionally and functionally if that’s relevant?”
You can draw on the past if you want to. One of the things we did say at Converse was let’s honor the past but let’s start to create a history lesson for the brand. Young consumers are interested to an extent if the brands have some heritage, but it’s not what you’re saying now. That’s the interesting part of the cultural conversation. You can bend and change it, particularly through things like music.
Picking some music lanes and saying that this music is the way we’re going to express this brand and we’re going to go down this path. Over time, people are like, “This brand stands for this and not that.” You start to guide the culture as well, which I think we did, but there was an underlying idea around creativity. For example, the skateboarding that we were interested in was the more roar and gritty skateboarding. Nike used to say that we were the pirates to their Navy because their skateboard team were all competitive and ours were out in the back streets and alley.
There was an attitude around it as well. I come back to the fact that once we landed on these ideas and the nuance, we stuck at it. For all the years that I was there, we had the same style of execution. We tweaked and updated as the trend slightly changed and maybe the artists that we used were different or the events we lined up with were slightly different. However, the ideas we were presenting stayed the same.
Many brands you see either get impatient for results and quickly change or the leadership wants faster results and they’re forced to change or they see so many other ways to do it. I ended up as the head of brand marketing for Converse. In the early years, I was under a great CMO and he was right, “Let’s land it. Let’s stick to it. Let’s believe in our conviction, and let’s see over time how it comes to life,” and it did. We grew incredibly well because of it.
One of the interesting things that I think is a lesson to all marketers is if you look at the market size of skateboarders who wear skinny jeans and are on the back street, and try to extrapolate the sales based on even getting 100% share, it probably wouldn’t have hit the revenue targets. Often, brands get caught in this debate of saying, “We need to expand and extend what our core audience is in order to appeal to them.” Can you talk a bit about that? It’s something that stuck with me when we were talking about this last time.
This is another great fundamental of marketing. There are many fundamentals of marketing that we’ve forgotten. The last one of them is to develop a strategy and stick to it over time, be patient, defend it, and tweak the tactics. Things take time to land. They don’t land in a minute or a month or a year. I think that’s a critical one.
Defining your audiences in the layers that they exist in is absolutely critical, starting with what you call a user. You have to know who your users are. They are your absolute most loyal archetype or muse of a consumer. Obsess and celebrate them. Use them to inspire other people. Believe that if you get your call right, they will be inspiring to people who aren’t like them. This is the thing to your point. There may only be 100 people wearing skinny jeans, but if you believe that it’s inspiration at the time, they should be able to inspire tens of millions of people.
You don’t need to chase the tens of millions of people directly. I think one of the other mistakes of marketing is you try and market to every single possible person who buys you versus saying, “What’s the sharp edge of the spear here? Who’s that muse? Who’s the core?” and believe they’re going to inspire a wider audience.
We spoke before using the analogy that the very large majority of people who are buying Patagonia are not scaling mountains, but Patagonia does a fantastic job in their catalog and their marketing materials of showing you mountain climates and big wave surfers. Also, people who are doing quite extreme outdoor activities. That’s not who the bulk of their customer is. If they were to be literal, you’d see catalogs filled with people doing gardening and dropping kids at school.
Also, finance bros in New York.
That’s so inspiring. I think there’s a lot to be said for knowing who your core is, celebrating them, and using them to inspire a wider audience. That’s your core target. You got your marketing target. It’s who you’re speaking to. You have your commercial target who ultimately are all the people who wear you.
The core target of Converse might have been a skinny jean-wearing rock and roll or skateboarder in Brooklyn. The marketing target might have been all youth who are interested in creativity. The commercial target is anybody with feet. With Converse, you can wear them as an infant all the way up to 100 years old. It’s understanding that.
It’s a great way to think about it in terms of thinking about those three lenses. If there’s one lesson that’s most applicable to any industry and any market including B2B, you don’t see enough of this done in a lot of B2B marketing. I love the point about celebrating the core customer.
We’ll get to where I am right now. I’m very fortunate to be now deep inside the surf industry and I’m a lifelong surfer. It’s great to be back in a space where I love the subject matter. I can get involved with the storytelling and also see it as a business. The surf category is an interesting one because you’ve got professional athletes or surfers who are your muses or the ones that you use as the beacons. You carefully select them if you do it right to represent your brand’s ethos and values.
I’m doing this all the time. Right now, the surf industry is in flux. There are a lot of professional surfers on the open market. We could grab anybody but we’re not because we believe our brand has a particular attitude, DNA, and style. We want people that represent that. We say no to 100 and choose three carefully. That’s your core celebrating through the lens of the surfer, and then understanding who our absolute most loyal customers are.
They’ve had us for years or they just love us. They are advocates in the surf and getting them into different loyalty programs. Also, celebrating them and then using them as ambassadors. That’s the consumer lens. From a B2B point of view, if there are 500 surf shops in the US, we’re in over 100, but we have ten that we say are our pinnacle core critically important accounts. We celebrate those accounts.
We know them. We visit them. We hang out with them. We put them into our communication materials to show that we have some loyal customers that we love. I think all of that stuff exists in B2C. It exists in B2B. It exists in all the different industries. Know who you could call a buyer. Know who your core account is. Obsess, celebrate, and inspire.
Talk about TOMS because TOMS is a very different situation in which you walked into. That was a turnaround story.
They’ve all been different stories for different reasons. Coke and MTV were introducing American Western culture brands into Asia. They were doing them in a very locally appropriate and respectful way at times when that wave of Western culture was coming in, but the consumer wasn’t consuming those Western brands in a Western way. They wanted Coke brands, but they wanted it with the Chinese flavor. They wanted MTV entertainment, but they wanted local artists.
That was more an adaptation kind of learning particularly being an Australian living in China marketing to Chinese or wherever. You’re also at an arms-length, which makes you a curious marketer, but you’re ultimately not selling to yourself. That was all that stuff. Getting into Converse was a clean sheet of paper to do anything. We could have gone in any direction. We chose the direction and we stuck at it. The learning there is there are no right or wrong answers. There are degrees of right and wrong but it’s about having conviction.
Our boss taught us to be confident with that conviction and be patient and things will come more easily. UGG and TOMS were both iconic brands that were on the decline and needed to be audited. What made this brand successful before? What’s making this brand not successful now? What needs to be stripped away? What needs to be kept? What needs to be reached, retooled, or tuned? How do we get this brand back to growth?
The difference is that UGG was part of a public company. My boss and the team around us were given a lot of latitude by the leadership to set a strategy. We’re given the patience to see it over time until we can get out of the weeds. The UGG turnaround took years and the first couple were not pretty. We could have given up.
My boss was great. She said, “Do you believe in this?” “Yes.” “We’re going to stick at it.” She’s going to defend it internally and we’re going to be patient externally. Over time, it came to life because consistency is something that we miss in marketing as well. It’s the impressions and the consistency. They’re saying the same thing over and over again to what lands with the consumer. I was a great example of proving that it takes time.
Going to TOMS, this is coming to the pandemic and a brand that was being handed over from one owner to the other and losing the founder at the same time. It was going into the hands of a new private equity. The reason I bring that up versus a public company is that their timelines are way shorter. Their observation was, “You did this at UGG. It took three years. We want you to do it here. We want you to do it way shorter.”
I wanted the project so I’m like, “That sounds great. I can do that.” You get inside and then you say, “The reality is these things take time.” It takes time to reset a table back to impressions. We know it’s changing because we’re living it every day as a job, but the consumer doesn’t think about this brand all the time so they have at least ten impressions of your new message.
You hammer it to them all the time to show that this is what you mean. You’re not going to keep changing it, and so it sinks in. You are saying to the new owners, “It’s going to take time. It’s going to take a couple of years.” The pandemic hit and everything is out the window. We’re all resetting all sorts of other strategies, but it took time.
We wouldn’t draw parentheses here just because there’s a little career lesson that you put in there that I wanted to call out which is this notion of even though when you’re in an interview process, you knew that what they maybe were asking for was achievable. You are like, “I’m going to go with it to get the role and then go in and influence it.” I could imagine a lot of people, myself included, might have said at the interview, “If you want me to come, it’s going to take longer than four years. You need to change your outlook on the horizon.”
It was somewhere in the middle. I didn’t say. “We’re going to do it in six months,” but I didn’t say, “I’m only taking the job if you’ve got four years to wait,” because I also saw from the outside some differences. It was somewhat the same in terms of terminal DNA. It just wasn’t being the brand that it could be.
What do you mean by terminal DNA?
It had lost anything that it stood for, not to anyone’s fault. It’s just that the brand hadn’t been nurtured over the previous couple of years. Anything that the brand may have stood for in terms of beautiful products, materials, fashionability, and iconic status in footwear had not been polished and it was tarnished. It needed a shine. It wasn’t living up to its DNA.
Is that because of the marketing or actual product decisions or a combination of both?
Particularly in footwear fashion, trends come and go. Brands can often ride great waves to greatness and believe that’s going to happen forever. Particularly in footwear fashion, if you don’t iterate your product line to keep up with fashion versus saying, “This is who we are. This is what we make. You’re all going to buy it forever,” there are not that many fashion brands that we all keep buying them or whatever.
I was going to say Crocs is a great example right now for me. That fits in that world. If you looked at it and you didn’t know what the brand was similar to another, you might say, “How on Earth is that going to be able to be more than a fad or sustain itself?”
We’ve studied that brand for a very long time so I’m very happy to come back to it. I think Crocs fed the bonfire with so much celebrity and so much collaboration to get so much instant spotlight, heat, and sizzle. It’s almost like, “Here comes another one.” Massive adoption is so fast, but it is adopted quickly. It was already adopted by a lot of the influences before all of that happened, but it got adopted by the masses so quickly.
They accelerated the trend incredibly fast because they went every week with another collab and another collab. Some of them were amazing and some of them were shocking. In general, the spotlight remained on them constantly to mass adoption. No brand can survive mass adoption when the original influencers and opinion leaders who discovered that brand have run for the hills because now every mainstream person is wearing them.
We can talk about brands like Birkenstock that can be quite timeless because they don’t make too much noise. They are just always there, but Crocs is the opposite. They were very noisy and now everybody is wearing them. If you believe that trends come and go because the influencer has moved to the next thing. It’s like skinny jeans, wide jeans, short jeans, and long jeans and they’ve moved on from Crocs. You have to believe Crocs’ lifespan is shorter than that.
I don’t think it’s iconic because it doesn’t look classic. It doesn’t wear classic. It doesn’t speak classic heritage. It’s not constructed in a beautiful way or an interesting way for longevity. They are not environmental, to be honest. I see it’s a great case study for the opposite reason, which is how fast can you grow by spending all your marketing money on celebrities, but then be damned because I don’t think it can be sustained.
Whereas with UGG, I think there was some stuff behind over 40 or 50 years of a beautiful brand, which I know as an Australian. I’m very well aware of how UGGs were originally conceived. Underneath, it’s a luxurious product. It’s sheepskin. It is very warm and very comfortable and luxurious to wear. The basic ingredients of the brand were there to be rebuilt, which we did. We rebuilt the luxury feel of sheepskin away from the classic UGG boots that had maybe lost their shine into new product iterations. Everything from spring and summer sandals to apparel. We repolished the DNA in a contemporary way.
One of the classic marketing challenges that you had to deal with at TOMS that you see everywhere is this notion that you have an aging consumer profile. That dilemma of do you double down on the core or how you appeal to a new one while sustaining your core?
It starts with an important question which is, “What are we doing to nurture and celebrate that core?” A lady who’s been with us for fifteen years who buys a lot of shoes. She’s very loyal. She’s probably very influential in her group or wherever that may be in the United States. She’s valuable. Her lifetime value is high. You don’t want to walk away from that. That would be a bad decision. You also don’t want to age out with that person by only sticking to that consumer as they get older and older, and fifty years later, they may no longer serve.
You have to rejuvenate your brand. Where it becomes complicated in marketing is how you appeal to an aging core loyal person and rejuvenate to a younger demographic because again, in a form or fashion, everybody wants to be useful and fashion-forward. That tends to therefore be the younger consumer. Most fashion brand’s epicenter is younger, not older. How do you do that?
That was part of the challenge of TOMS. You add in aging core customers without any review for rejuvenation over many years. A footwear silhouette that was so out of style that it hadn’t kept up with any contemporary trends around chunky sneakers, big soles, and all the bigness of shoes that were happening in 2019 and 2020. That was the opposite of that. It was out of trend. There’s another layer of complexity.
Also, TOMS was famous for inventing giving. It’s a B2C consumer brand extremely generous with buy one and give one. That was the model that Blake Mycoskie invented. His idea was if you buy a TOMS shoe, we will give one to somebody who needs a shoe in another part of the world. It was revolutionary but that giving model may have evolved in the new ways to give. We had the opportunity to assess that giving model and decide if that was the best way to move forward.
We were a new team. New owners and a new team. The founder was out. We were able to do anything. The easy thing would be to keep doing what we’re doing. Modernize the shoe and keep selling to the core, and do minimal changes and make a minimal impact, but that wouldn’t have set the brand up for long-term success. We overhauled the targeting to go younger. We put some pieces into place to celebrate the core customers who already existed.
We had a major overhaul of the product portfolio to make it modern and relevant. The hardest thing we did was to change the giving model, which was to update that from giving one-for-one shoes to people in other parts of the world who didn’t have shoes to, for a number of reasons, changing the giving model to giving a third of the profits. It’s a more transparent way of saying, “The more we make, the more we give.”
Secondly, giving those profits to domestic charities. If you remember, this is the pandemic and all the social issues that came about in the United States from 2021 to 2022. One of the big issues that came to the forefront was mental health and equality, equity, and fairness. We shifted to giving profits transparently to domestic charities and nonprofits in spaces like mental health. It was a massive redirection. As we said internally as we launched it, it could be the worst thing we’ve ever done or the best thing we’ve ever done.
It was within the Zeitgeist culture. It was well-timed to be able to say, “We’re doing this because the world has changed with the pandemic, social injustice, and the need for better equity. We’re changing everything, the shoe, the targeting, the communication, and the marketing materials. It was a complete overhaul of the brand. It was a different brand. That is a very difficult exercise. Back to the interview questions, the owners wanted all that done as fast as possible. We did all of that in six months in a public company without a pandemic and pressure from owners.
You might have spent years tuning all that up like a brand refresh, product portfolio, giving model, refreshing targeting, and retail refresh, but we did it all in six months. It brought that back to my interview point. We’ve done everything on an escalated timeline because we came up with playbooks. We know how to do things faster because we’ve done this stuff before.
Now that we launched it into the consumer space, it’s going to take time. It doesn’t matter how amazing you make it unless you do a Crocs. That’s why we talked about Crocs because the owners were like, “Let’s do a Crocs.” We said, “Sure. We can do a collaboration and launch every week with a celebrity like Justin Bieber if you open the checkbook.” It costs money, but with what we have, it’s going to take a couple of years to land this new brand.
One of the things that we talked about as well is the notion that being able to appeal to different audiences is key. We were talking about Nike and how Nike has a singular brand. The way they execute across tennis, golf, or basketball may be a big point of contrast. It is very different, yet everything still led up to a single Nike brand. Take us to the behind-the-scenes because when we talk about brand, the corporate brand team is managing a corporate brand and they want it to be consistent, yet you want it to be able to be able to flex to different audiences. What’s the secret behind how Nike does that successfully?
It’s way more micro-marketing than a master brand, global brand, or parent brand marketing. Nike is an idea for anybody and they do have some language around, “Everyone is an athlete” and “Just do it.” It is ubiquitous in everything that they do. Everything they make is high-quality performance sports-related wear. That’s the master idea. I suppose you could market to that at a macro level and continue to talk about it as a large concept.
I think what Nike does well is they take that idea and then they market it into different communities. They execute that idea within the tennis community in a different way than they execute that idea in the golf, skateboard, basketball, or football community. If you’re a fan of all those sports, you might touch the brand in different ways because you turn up to a golf event and see Nike execute it this way with these athletes in this marketing style.
You go to a skateboard event and you’ll see Nike execute it differently. By and large, most people would see the micro execution in isolation and say, “This is the Nike I love because I love golf. This is the Nike I love because I love basketball.” It’s clever. They’ve done a great job of thinking at the most grassroots level. A lot of what we did at Converse by saying, “Our master idea is creativity,” the communities were going to unleash that to music, art, and skateboarding.
There is going to be some crossover because we believe the cultures do collide. You can have interesting collisions of music, skating, art, etc. By and large, having pure executions in those different communities means that your brand looks like it’s being built for that community. That’s the ultimate test of success like, “This is a skateboard brand.” Someone else around the corner is going, “This is a great art brand. This brand understands music.” I think that’s successful.
Talk about your plane analogy as well.
That’s an interesting one. Airlines are also masters at the craft of targeted marketing. You think about the way that British Airways, Qantas, or Singapore Airlines market their first class to the first class consumer who is spending a lot of money to be in Singapore “up the front of the plane” experience versus the business class experience, which focuses more on legroom and meals. Also, the economy which might be a little bit of legroom, a lot of entertainment to take your mind off it, and probably not the meals. There might be even a budget offering for the cheapest seats.
It’s the same airline. It’s the same brand. It’s Singapore Airlines and their master idea might be around the best service regardless, but the execution of that idea into the economy, business class, or first classes is handcrafted into that consumer, and they all get on the plane. It’s all the same trip to the other end, but they will have a different brand experience because of it.
Having worked across all these brands over many years and managed a lot of different teams, what has been key to you in terms of building great teams?
You get into a lot of, “That sounds clichés.” First of all, I believe that we’re all adults and we don’t need to be micromanaged. We all can work it out and we are all hopefully mature enough that if we can’t work it out, we’ll go and find the solution either by going to your manager or going to Google, “How do I do this?” We’re going to mentor your friend or whatever.
I believe in bringing the best set of people but leaving them alone and letting them work it out. I thrive best in that environment where I am happy to get on with it, and I’ll go and find help if I need to. That’s the first thing. The second thing which is funny enough is something I did learn specifically at Nike’s respecting people’s lanes. It’s very easy to have an opinion over every other department because it all seems like, “I’m sure the finance team would love to know a different way of doing reporting,” or “Let me just check it on the logistics team and see if I can get them some tips.”
I don’t do that because logistics and finance tend to be a little bit more specialty skills. You and I both know marketing, and everybody thinks they can do marketing. You need to defend your marketing turf particularly because everybody has an idea on, “Why don’t you make it black,” or “I think it would look better if the creative look this way,” or “Have you thought about that?” Respecting lanes makes up for the team.
To me, your question there is, “Give us some examples of how you’ve done that. What rebuttal or defense have you given?” If there’s one story that you hear that is most common, it’s that everyone has an opinion on marketing. What have been your most successful strategies and also, what didn’t work when it comes to getting people to stay away from that lane?
You can start getting into somebody’s business and when they get a little bit upset, you could certainly have a quiet conversation around it. As you can see, nobody likes other departments getting involved in your business. That’s a little bit passive-aggressive and hostile. You can have a quiet word with someone to say, “I know it feels like we’re looking for extra opinions and points of view, but we’re not. I think that I’ve got a job to do and hopefully, know how to do it. You’ve got a job to do and hopefully, you know how to do it.”
I often use what got spoken about quite a lot at Nike which is to start bowling. If we all bowl in our own lanes, we’re all going to have a great time. The minute I start throwing balls into your lane and you start throwing them into mine, it all goes south very quickly. If we all bowl in our own lane, it’s all for the better. It’s a problem particularly in marketing because everyone thinks it’s easy. Everyone thinks it’s about picking colors and talent, somehow producing it, and that it works.
It’s way more scientific and complicated than that. Keeping your lane is a big one. As you get more advanced in your marketing career, it’s critical to more consciously develop a playbook. We’ve all got playbooks because, over the years, you tend to do the same things multiple times. If you’re aware of that, you can start to work out what works and what doesn’t. I found in the last ten years of my career, it’s having, “What am I going to do? What’s my playbook?”
Coming into a new brand and saying in my first 30, 60, or 90 days or even more aggressively coming into TOMS, “Here are the 100 questions I need to have answered in the first week because I’m going to tackle all these things with the playbook.” In my current role, it’s coming straight and swinging knowing exactly how to audit the situation, know how to rectify things, and get things going as fast as possible.
Is it written down? Is it is it printed out? Is it is it just in your head? Give us a sense of when you talk about the playbook. Is it 400 pages? Is it 20 pages?
I did write it out. I was doing a project for some friends who have an incubator, Rob Dyrdek from MTV, and his partner Brian Atlas. They had me coming on a project to do an audit on one of their acquisitions, so I had to write it down. It is now written down. It starts at a very macro level like asking questions around, “Is the brand articulated? What would the DNA be and what are the functional benefits and emotional benefits of this brand? What might the brand’s purpose be? Who are the core, secondary, and tertiary customers might be? What’s the total size of that commercial opportunity?”
All those fundamentals, just to map them out. Who is your key competitor set? What’s your number one competitor that you want to get a share from? Some of those questions, you’d be surprised. I love this one, “Which one competitor are you trying to be?” When it’s Nike, it’s Adidas. When it’s Coke, it’s Pepsi. You often learn those things in those types of brands, but many people don’t think. We’re trying to grow the market, but who are you if you could take share? Many people can answer that.
They’re asking those types of questions. It lays the framework of how the brand operates. What is its hero product? How does it go to market? What does the seasonal calendar look like? That’s all framework stuff. I’ve got a whole series of pages around KPIs, particularly in the digital and eCommerce space. It encompasses your business. What’s the average traffic, the lifetime value, the conversion rate, or the AOV? When was it at its highest? Where is it now? How is it trending? What are we doing to increase the conversion rate in AOV and increase qualified traffic?
You get into some pretty nitty-gritty in the weed stuff, but that’s where the money is made. All that other stuff is to get an understanding of how formed the strategy and execution of the brand is when you get into the weeds of econ, for example, or key accounts for wholesale and all of those different things, then you’re starting to make money and that’s good.
When you think about some of these brands that are so trend-focused, what’s the importance of having leading indicators or lagging indicators as part of that? Sometimes by the time you get those KPIs, it’s too late.
Now, in digital, KPIs don’t lag at all. It’s the opposite in the digital space, which you can get overwhelmed with measuring conversion rate every hour or have your own measured every hour or when you’re measuring it twice a day and having to catch up because people are like, “It has gone down by 0.2%.” That then gets into a measured situation of having targets and that’s part of the playbook as well. You don’t need to chase forever. You just need to take a conversion rate in that industry or category. It should be 3%. It’s currently at 2.5%. Anything over 3% is successful. Let’s get it there. How do you get it up half a percentage point, and have a specific tactic and model around that?
That’s good business to make money, maximize, and optimize. The other KPIs that are softer end, using examples like UGG and TOMS, is how do you reverse negatives? How do you get more people to say, “This is a brand that suits my style?” You may not always need to raise awareness but certainly raise a positive attitude towards the brand. You need to be tracking those things over time to see if you’re bigger idea or the biggest strategy you’ve formed is landing or not.
I find that sometimes because often, we talk about the purchase funnel or the notion of consideration in that middle of the funnel, but it’s interesting hearing you say, “A brand that suits my style.” A lot of thought and strategy probably goes into the specific wording and what that question is to elicit the response that gives you that predictive or leading indicator to see if we’re heading in the right direction.
In 30 years of doing market research and looking at attitude statement questionnaires that have 30 or 40 attitude statements, “Do you agree, disagree, or five-point scales,” and all the analysis, clustering, segments, and all that sort of stuff, the one thing that popped out every single time and every single study forever in my experience is a brand that suits my style. How many people say yes? How many people say no?
You can focus on that and track that one, particularly in a lot of the spaces where style is important. It may be less important if you’re selling refrigerators, but it’s certainly very important if you’re selling cultural products and fashionable footwear. You don’t wear things that don’t suit your style and you don’t gravitate towards things that you don’t think suit your style. It’s a perfect intersection of articulating who you think you are and who you think the renders are.
Even if you’re buying a fridge or even if it’s a B2B, there’s probably some equivalent of that. We’re so obsessed with the NPS metric at the moment.
You’re right. I should rephrase that. It’s applicable in every category. You might think that it’s most applicable because the word style is in the statement, and that it most suits fashion products, which it does. You’re right because it’s a post-rationalizing statement as well. If you’ve bought the GE series of kitchen appliances, you want to believe that you’ve done that because it suits your style versus LG or Samsung.
It validates it, or if you’re in the purchase cycle and you say that Toyota suits your style as you go towards buying a car, you’re trying to match yourself up with that brand. Who do I think I am? Who do I think they are? This brand intersects with that conversation. This brand suits my style. I’ve seen forever that this is the most needle-moving statement. It’s also the most closely related to market share potential.
I am even wondering in B2B, the version of those questions would be, “You are a brand that fits with my company.”
We mentioned fit but with consultancies and banks, if a consultancy or a bank had a higher result for a brand that suits my style than their market share. They probably have a lot of opportunities to grow because let’s say McKinsey has a 65% brand that suits my style but a 5% market share. A lot of people want to work with that company for whatever reason. It’s understanding why there’s the delta. If a brand had a 5% that suits my style and a 50% market share, they could probably be looking towards a decline. That might be one of those icons who’ve lost their way.
Ian, you are one of those rare people who have followed their passion from a work standpoint. Your different schools of thought are often telling me it’s better to not mix your work and your passion in it because then it becomes work. What would you say to that?
I’ve always worked for great brands. If that’s part of what excites me, then I’ve succeeded so far in my career. I’ve worked in categories where I may be less personally excited about the product like TOMS as women’s shoes, and UGG is primarily women’s footwear. I don’t wear women’s footwear. It’s not as close to my personal passions, but I’m passionate about brands, culture, and storytelling as a big idea. I’m also excited about moving the dial with the numbers and the metrics down the bottom, especially in the digital space.
It has all been fantastic. MTV was awesome to work out. Music, why not? Converse is youth culture. Why not? Now, I found myself in a situation where I’ve joined a small private equity fund to buy surf and snow brands to build a portfolio where we can start to make the portfolio profitable by having integrated back offers or shared services, which take out for small brands that need to worry about finance, HR, and legal departments. We’ve got two warehouses and logistics are all shared. Frontend salesforces are shared as well.
The marketing playbook is taken from one brand to the other. That for me as a business concept is the combination of all my career. You could call that any category and I’d be excited because we’re taking all those five years into a business framework called portfolio. How do you make it profitable? How to use playbooks? How to use learning? How do you get synergy?
However, I have the added benefit of the other folks that I’m doing it with. It’s that we’re all passionate surfers or skiers who live in places like Santa Barbara or Aspen. We’re also getting to live categories that we love which makes acquisition surprising because if that’s all you’ve done all your life, it’s very hard to fake it with us if you’re a surf brand or a snow brand.
Don’t rub it in Santa Barbara and Aspen. What’s the most interesting thing about the surfing category or the industry right now that most people don’t know about?
Half the category has or is in the process of being sold to licensing companies. There’s a massive changing of the guard. If people are all up and I’m saying, “We’ve just lost the four biggest trends in surfing to licensing companies on the East Coast. The bottom of the categories sadly, some of them are running out of money because of post-pandemic over inventory and lack of consumer demand. We’re running out of cash.
There are some big upheavals in the category, but what’s interesting over the 5 or 6-decade arc of surfing, this happens all the time. This comes back to my mom. Everything is seasonal. If you haven’t watched or if you have watched the Patagonia movie about Jerry Lopez, a great surfer of the ’70s and the ’80s, that was an era with brands like Hang Ten which people in lightning bolt and whatnot. People thought, “This is it.”
Those friends aren’t around anymore because those brands went up and then they went down. They got replaced by other brands that went up and went down. Again, brands have gone up and are going down. We as a middle-sized well-funded iconic brand that’s keeping very focused and simple with our playbook are growing phenomenally because we’re capturing from the top and the bottom. There’s a big upheaval that we’re going through.
Ian, I have to ask you because you mentioned it twice now. You’ve got to give us some context around your mom’s quote that everything is seasonal. Was she a CMO? Where did that come from?
She is a sports doctor? It’s one of those things that she always used to say. It was from a motherly point of view that there are good times and bad times. Everything has its season, but it might have been in reference to what goes up and goes down. It might have been a reference to everything having its moment in time in the sun. It was a general statement that I’ve used.
It’s a lot deeper. It’s a lot more systemic.
There’s a lot there. I think it is the whole what goes up comes down, if you believe that, but what goes up can come down over hundreds of years or tens of years or months. I constantly come back to that because now whenever I look at something, I say, “Where is the thing on the arc? Where are we on the social justice arc? Where are we on the political arc? Where are we on the fashion arc? Where are we on the mental health arc? Where are we on climate change?” Everything is on an arc
I loved this early on in Coke. That would be a big takeaway. It is to constantly think about everything you’re looking at. Are we rising? Are we peaking? Are we declining? Can we stretch or change that decline or change its course? Can we can we slow it down? That has been a big takeaway from all of my career. Where are our friends on the journey, the up and the down?
How do you stay fresh and updated? Whether it’s related to the playbook or not, how do you stay fresh and up-to-date with everything?
I am very curious. I’m looking, studying, and interested in watching everything around me like brands and my friends in other brands. I am talking to lots of people in other brands, how they’re doing things, and what they are seeing, reading the trade press, and watching new things coming in and old things going out. I’m always looking for all the constant change influx, and also trying to be simple and focused down the middle. We’ve spoken about this. Having a simple, clear strategy, and sticking to it means you’ll ride through what is inevitably going to be a lot of chaos influx, and change.
As a final question, what’s your biggest advice if a young person comes and asks your advice? They’re entering into a career in business or marketing. What’s the main thing that you tell them?
I have a 24-year-old son who’s two years into his career, having gone to a great undergrad business school. I said to him in the early days that he should put in the hard work and do the learning. It’s not easy in the beginning. It can be easy if you don’t try it out, but it will be beneficial to your career if you work hard at the beginning and get a great boss, mentor, and manager, and work the long hours and learn the ropes, but work for great companies.
I say this to so many people. Work for great companies if you have a choice. Great companies don’t have to be famous companies. It’s great companies that are successful and big because that means they’ve got systems. Maybe they’ve been around for a long time. They’ve got the playbook of the learning. Cut your teeth in those ones and go to smaller ones. Apply that learning later on down the track. The other thing I say which is interesting is to be mobile, particularly in the first ten years of your career.
I’ve lived in eleven countries and have not always been offered the chance to move. I said, “I’m stoked about that.” There were some moves that I did that I didn’t want to do, but the opportunity was too good to not. I’m thankful for all the moves I made because one door opens up and ten more. If you stay stagnant and don’t move, particularly early in your career, then you are going to miss out. That doesn’t mean just moving to another town or another state but moving to another country if you’ve got the energy and the opportunity to do so.
Moving around makes you such a great marketer because you see it from so many different perspectives, the big brands, the small brands, the regional roles, and the global roles. Maybe sometimes you’re more focused on the wholesale channel. Sometimes you focus on the economy. Having all these perspectives ultimately down the other end of your career gives you that well-rounded experience.
Ian, it’s absolutely delightful to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining. It’s a brilliant conversation.
It’s good stuff.
About Ian Stewart
An Australian living in Santa Barbara, California, Ian spent the first 25 years of his career working in Asia for Coca-Cola, MTV and Nike (Converse) before moving to the US, where he headed marketing for Converse in Boston. Ian subsequently led turnarounds at UGG and TOMS Shoes, where he rebuilt the go-to-market process, streamlined brand & product marketing, reset the ecomm playbook, and kept things focused on the brand fundamentals. Ian heads up marketing, creative and ecommerce for the Wedge portfolio of surf brands.
I spent the first 13 years of my career in advertising, where I learned the ins and outs of successful creative development from industry greats like Pete Favat and Ron Lawner at Arnold Worldwide, where we created work for one of the most successful and awarded anti-smoking campaigns in history, “The Truth.”
I am a hands-on designer and strategist. I enjoy the view from the trenches but feel equally at home in the more rarefied air of executive boardrooms. I believe good design and good branding is effective are integral to the performance and growth of every organization, large or small.