Employees a Critical Link to Brand Innovation

Round Table: Top Execs Discuss Hot-Button Issues Central to CMO Viability

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- On a Monday evening in late April, the night before the Association of National Advertisers' first Brand Innovation Forum, four marketing executives gathered for a private dinner at Django, a French-Mediterranean restaurant in the shadow of Grand Central Terminal in New York. Their hosts for the evening: ANA President-CEO Bob Liodice and Advertising Age Editor Jonah Bloom and CMO Strategy Editor Jennifer Rooney. What drew Clorox VP-Marketing, Laundry and Home Care Tarang Amin, Wells Fargo Senior VP-Brand Strategy Katy Frohling, JetBlue VP-Sales and Marketing Andrea Spiegel and Home Depot Senior VP-CMO Roger Adams to the restaurant was less -- we'd like to think -- the lure of aged New York strip, beet salad and stuffed squid and more the invitation to engage in a spirited discussion about brand innovation.

For nearly an hour, the executives hit upon a range of hot-button issues central to CMO viability: how to keep both old and new brands relevant; the hand that CMOs, as well as customers, have in corporate innovation; the extent to which agencies should be compensated for their ideas; whether it's possible to crack the link between marketing and brand equity; and why authenticity in brand messaging is absolutely vital. But particularly revealing was how quickly the broader talk about brand innovation focused on the role employees play in that pursuit: All four executives said their employees are a critical link to consumer understanding and, in turn, successful innovation. What follows is an excerpt of the discussion, edited for length and clarity; it begins with Mr. Tarang's articulating what brand innovation means for Clorox.

Tarang Amin: One of our great benefits is having a brand that goes back to 1913. But at the same time, the main reason you don't have that many brands that are 94 years old is because somewhere along the line, someone decides this brand is only this. And when you actually decide the brand can't live and breathe a change, that is when the brand dies. What's been a key to not only keeping Clorox going for this many years but actually [growing] is really deciding, "Where do women want to see us, and what do we need to be?"

Bob Liodice: You've heard that these brands are around a long time. And the reason why they are around a long time and will continue to be around a long time is because they are consistently reinventing themselves. Marketers have to be thinking about reinventing the way they generate revenue, manage costs, manage their time and manage their people. And in order to be able to do that, they have to consistently look at themselves in a fresh way. And the whole reason innovation is so important to branding is because it's essentially responsible for driving brand equity and driving revenue.
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Andrea Spiegel, VP-sales and marketing, JetBlue


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Jonah Bloom: Five years ago, the bottom line was, CMOs were in charge of communication. Can the marketing chief be in charge of, or at least have a serious hand in, corporate innovation?

Mr. Amin: It's absolutely essential, because really what innovation's based on is, "What does a brand stand for?" And usually, the marketer in a company is responsible for, "What does this brand stand for in the consumer's mind? What is this equity?" [That] really defines everything else the company will do.

Mr. Bloom: I want to challenge the other three marketers at the table here; I think I'd expect a P&G or a Clorox to expect their customers to almost start to contribute a line-extension. Do you think that your CEO would expect you to genuinely contribute a Clorox [pen] -- your equivalent thereof?

Andrea Spiegel: In the case of JetBlue, absolutely. We are a seven-year-old [company] -- we might be the youngest brand in the room -- but forward-thinkingness and innovation is an expectation of the JetBlue brand. Our customers expect us to be forward-thinking and innovative. So, absolutely: The pressure's on myself and the marketing team, but we talked earlier about [innovation] being in everyone's hands. Most important, probably, for JetBlue is the marketing team, but also all crew members -- we call our employees crew members -- and we absolutely have our finger on the pulse of everything that they're saying. I actually think [innovation is] an expectation of the keepers of the brand, and the marketing team, as well as our crew members, and our customers, too. We really do have a constant dialogue going on with our customers, and a lot of what they tell us is what we decide to prioritize.
Katy Frohling
Katy Frohling, senior VP-brand strategy, Wells Fargo


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Katy Frohling: At Wells Fargo our employees are called team members, and we regularly survey not only our customers but our team members on a monthly basis, because we get some amazing ideas -- what we call the "lighting ideas" -- from our front line. They know that the best way to make a sale is to help that customer with what they came in for that day, and they really take it upon themselves to make sure that they connect with that customer and find out what they really need. If you want loyalty from your customers, you need to show them loyalty, you need to thank them, you need to look them in the eye and say, "Thank you for coming today; how can I help you?" They want to be recognized, and then they're willing to pay a premium, because they feel that they get more.

Roger Adams: It's interesting: We all have names for our employees. Just an aside, we call ours associates and everyone, including myself, is an associate of the customers. (To Ms. Spiegel)Yours are crew members, (to Ms. Frohling) yours are team members; (to Mr. Amin) do you have a name for your employees?

Mr. Amin: We call ours associates, as well.

Mr. Adams: It's just part of the culture, and I think we all tap into that now and view our employee base as part of our customer base. They're closer to the customer than we are in management and we rely on that input, much more so [in the last three or four years] than I've ever done in my career.

Ms. Frohling: I would agree. An engaged team member leads to a more engaged customer who's more willing to place more of their assets with you and actually recommend you. I mean that's the highest degree of loyalty.

Mr. Bloom: Do you feel employee communications is a big enough part of the marketing mix? It sounds like your guys are respecting it, and I know JetBlue does. I've come in and met some of your guys at Home Depot who operate in that field, but it's still -- it's always been one of my personal biases -- but it's like, these are your guys, these are your people in the field, and it kind of feels still underserved.

Mr. Adams: Yes, that's an important part of our culture, but I would have to say that we don't use it nearly enough. But the other side of that, I would say we're using it more than I've ever used it in my career, so I just think there's so much upside here, that we're really onto something and I just thought it was an interesting observation that we all are using our employee base to be closer to the customer. But I think there's just so much more upside there than we give it credit for.

Mr. Bloom: It's really interesting when you talk to Best Buy guys. They've probably seen more uptick region by region based on employee training, than they have on any ad program they've put there, so I just wonder how much that's part of the innovation cycle, [part of the marketing that's at stake for the CMO].
Roger Adams
Roger Adams, senior VP-chief marketing officer, Home Depot


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Jennifer Rooney: Before that even, [isn't it important to] bring on the right people and seek out the kind of employees that you need to sort of further this vision from the get-go?

Ms. Spiegel: At JetBlue our company was founded on five values: We're based on safety, integrity, caring, passion and fun. Prior to [establishing JetBlue at different] sites, we literally screen our hiring on those sites, and we use those as a filter for business decisions that we make. So it's very entrenched in our culture, and how we hire, so that's incredibly important. The other thing that we do at orientation is really stress how our crew members are literally physical representations of our brand, and in our case through the touch points, especially -- we call them the big five -- whether it's the reservation agents, who spend so much time on the phone, or, obviously, the in-flight crew, which spends a ton of time with a very captive audience, or the people who work at the airports. We talk to them about the importance of their uniform and the importance of eye contact and personalization and all of those things and why it's because they are the most important kind of physical representation of what JetBlue stands for. That's something that we drive home as much as possible, but to your point, it's not nearly enough. There's so much more that we can do in that area, and that's something that we are continually trying to dig deeper and deeper into.

Mr. Bloom: How do you play authenticity in that area, because one of the things I like about Jet Blue is when you chat to one of your guys, it doesn't feel like you're talking to an automaton. If you're Home Depot or Jet Blue, how much do you have to try and let people be themselves? And how big a risk is that, when, frankly, they may be themselves and may say completely the wrong thing?

Ms. Spiegel: At JetBlue, as part of this whole training, it's so much about empowerment and it's so much about celebrating individuality, so what we try to do is give tools and guidelines, but never scripts. So it's not the kind of "Hello, one, two, three, how are you?" It's really about "OK, here's the angle. We want to make the customer happy; here are some basic guidelines for you to work within, but we really want to empower you to resolve this situation in the best way that you can, and we want your personality to come through." So it is a risk at times, but more times than not, an empowered crew member and a passionate crew member is going to do right by the customer, if they're given the right tools, so that's our approach to it, and it's definitely worked. The trick is continuing to find crew members who can work within those parameters.

Mr. Adams: At Home Depot, there's been a big shift, with our new chairman coming on board, and the shift is going back to our roots, by which we're really serving the customer. In the past couple of years, there's been a lot [of talk] about metrics. Everybody had a score card and you had to deliver this kind of productivity on a daily basis, and people performed to that because they get paid based on that. Our new chairman is all about doing the right thing for the customer and tearing up the metrics and saying, "We're going to take care of the customer, and everything else will take care of itself." That's kind of a whole new philosophy for us, so we're in a relatively new phase of that development, but it's meant to put more control back in our front-line associates' hands and make sure they do, first and foremost, whatever the customer wants, and then everything else will follow that. [For example], we have a big store, and if people want to know where something is, we counsel the associates to never point to anything; [we tell them to] take a customer where they want to go, because there will be something else you can engage them with. We're in this new discovery period of trying to get back to the individuality of our associates.

Tarang Amin
Tarang Amin, VP-marketing, laundry and home care, Clorox


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Ms. Frohling: The customer experience is everything that we do, and that's what we all believe and that's how we act, and I would say we have amazing training. In fact, it is such amazing training that a lot of our competitors have tried to hire away our team members. If the orientation is around doing what the customer needs at that moment in time, that's what our team members are focused on, and we do not overwhelm them with scripts. We want them to be individuals, we want their personalities to come through, because again, we are in 23 different communities and so they are actually part of the community. It's because they're a neighbor that people connect with them, so we don't want [our employees] to have the feeling that they work for a San Francisco-based company. Wells Fargo is in all the communities, and they're a part of that community, and that comes through in their approach to other customers.

Mr. Amin: Back to this whole premise that insights come from everywhere, we're also opening up to the understanding that we don't have a lock on innovation. And if our competitors actually discover an insight, and consumers are reacting to it, well, there's no pride in saying, "We're going to give our consumers a reason to switch away." So I think we're open to basically looking anyway and asking, "What are people reacting to?" It would be great if we were the ones who actually innovated and came up with something first, but we also have a healthy degree of respect and understanding, and we look at our customers as well -- what are they seeing, what are their insights? And so this openness of insight, I think, leads to a lot of different [resources] in terms of innovation; the key is to try it.

Mr. Adams: A common theme that I'm hearing is just how important innovation is to just stay even in your current position. The other interesting insight I've heard tonight is just the importance of the employee base and how we're using them and perhaps have an opportunity to use them more.

Mr. Bloom: That's what's changing with innovation, and I think it's fantastic to see people involved in saying, "This is what our consumers want, therefore, we've got to change things to reflect what our consumers want and then we'll communicate that back to them." That's the natural cycle, to me.

Mr. Adams: If you take an old brand like Clorox and you look at what's happened to them over time and how they've been able to get more relevant with the consumers; and for Wells Fargo, Katy, as you said, it's all about relevance; and JetBlue really came in with an idea that got people's attention that was more relevant than the mainstream products... in many ways we've got all aspects of this issue sitting at the table tonight.

Katy Frohling
Senior VP-brand strategy, Wells Fargo


At Wells Fargo, Ms. Frohling, who joined the company two years ago, is responsible for brand strategy and corporate identity. During the previous 20 years she served as VP-director of advertising at Chase and gained experience on the agency side: She held account management positions at several advertising agencies, including Della Femina McNamee and Lowe.

Andrea Spiegel
VP-sales and marketing, JetBlue


Ms. Spiegel joined JetBlue in 2005. She oversees branding, product development, research, sales and distribution, advertising, promotions, interactive marketing and marketing-partnership programs. Prior to joining the airline, she ran her own travel and luxury good marketing firm. Clients included American Express, Virgin Atlantic Airways, for which she once served as director of marketing, and Cunard Line, for which she once served as VP-marketing.

Roger Adams
Senior VP-chief marketing officer, Home Depot


Having joined Home Depot in 2005, Mr. Adams is responsible for marketing, advertising, brand management, consumer insights and event marketing. He joined Home Depot from General Motors Corp., where he served most recently as exec director-corporate advertising, marketing and customer-relationship management at General Motors Corp. Previously, he was VP-marketing, research and development at Keebler Co. He also worked in marketing at H.J. Heinz, RJR Nabisco and PepsiCo.

Tarang Amin
VP-marketing, laundry and home care, Clorox


In addition to overseeing all laundry and home-care marketing, Mr. Amin is responsible for leading the $1.4 billion Clorox franchise and for the company's health-and-wellness platform. He joined in 2003 as VP-marketing, Home Care; he became responsible for laundry marketing a year later. A Procter & Gamble veteran, Mr. Amin spent 12 years at the company, holding marketing-director positions for the Pantene and Bounty brands.



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