CMO Insights: How to Handle the 1st 100 Days

an interview with
Emily Culp CMO, Keds

Passion will take you far in just about any job in any industry.  In marketing, passion for the customer, the product and your company will take you very far indeed.  You may recall my interview with John Yembrick, the head of social media for NASA and how his passion has yielded astronomical success for that organization’s social program.  In my book, The CMO’s Periodic Table, Sharing Passion is in the elemental category Inert Fundamentals along with elements like Showing Courage and Always Innovating.  Also in that category is Listening, which brings me to the subject at hand: Emily Culp.

Emily Culp, the new CMO of Keds, is bringing two powerful elements Passion and Listening to bear on a remarkably cool 100-year old brand. Her passion for Keds is contagious and her expressed desire to listen and really understand the Keds customer is more than just lip service — she used a recent promotional event to personally interview dozens and dozens of Keds fans from multiple generations. It is this kind of hands on ears open research that helped Emily get off to a running start at Keds and makes it easy to understand why The CMO Club recognized her as a Rising Star.  But don’t take my word for it, read on.

Drew: As the new CMO just coming into Keds, what were your goals for your first 100 days?

That’s a great question. I just hit the 90-day mark and some of the most important things that I have sought to accomplish are making sure that I’m clear on the strategy of the brand from a growth perspective, a heritage perspective and a product perspective and just really emerging myself those aspects of the business. Additionally, I am enjoying building relationships with my team and peers in product development, international, sales and strategy. To me, teamwork is one of the most critical aspects of business.

Drew: So, as I was looking at the Keds site I had the realization that, “oh my god, Keds are cool again!” When did that happen?

I would argue it’s been cool since it was founded in 1916.

Drew: Oh, stop! Come on, it was cool and then it wasn’t cool.

You know what? That’s the beauty of heritage products. They ebb and flow but there is a DNA of the product that is substantial and that’s the reason it’s been around for 100 years. Next year is our centennial and it’s because it’s a great product. To answer your question, when did it become cool again? I can’t really pinpoint that. But when you look at Yoko Ono to Lauren Hutton, to Audrey Hepburn, to Marilyn Monroe and then “Baby” in Dirty Dancing and then Taylor Swift, it’s a pretty amazing mix of women wearing our product. And that’s where you can see the cool factor thing cycle. I think it also is important to note that we created sneakers just for women to empower them to be free to pursue what they wanted to and this gives us an unbelievable credibility with women. So fashion cycles may change but there is something just beautiful about the simplicity of our product and you know, we always update it with different materials or collaborations such as Liberty of London and Kate Spade but we are true to our DNA.

Drew: You know it’s funny; it does very much look like a shoe I might have seen on kids in Newport Beach in 60s and 70s.

Exactly but it’s back. That’s what I love about fashion. For example, jumpsuits are back. Who knows when that happened, but it did happen.

Drew: It seems like you’ve done a lot to infuse fresh energy like the Keds/Kate Spade partnership or Taylor Swift designing her own pair of Keds.

That’s exactly it, it’s a multipronged approach and there is a lot more we’re going to do in this coming year around our centennial. We are excited to announce more specific details around it later this year.

Drew: So I’m curious, is there anything in particular that you’ve done at Keds in the time that you’ve been there that you would like to talk about?

I started at a great time which was right around when we were focusing on a women’s equality day initiative where we really were amplifying our Ladies First since 1916 platform. On August 26th, in NYC we did a popup activation in Washington Square Park where we gave out one thousand nine hundred and sixteen pairs of shoes to women so they could conquer the world. We also asked them to pause & think about “today is women’s equality day. What about tomorrow?” and we got some amazing responses. We were all so moved that we captured the responses and created a short video to inspire women everywhere.

It was a terrific way to start at Keds, because it meant that I could personally speak to the first 100 consumers in line and it was multi-generational and there were people who were telling me nicknames that they would call Keds since they were kids etc. So it was phenomenal experience and what was even more fascinating to me was the idea around what does women’s equality mean and what does it mean to each individual. In order to capture this content and really honor the innovation that women are driving forward we made sure that we had content on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Periscope. This approach meant that the event was not only a big success with people physically present in NYC but also around the US as they could participate in many of the elements remotely.

Drew: And how do you measure the success of a program like that?

It comes down to social engagement, impact on sales in retail doors, dotcom traffic and of course, PR exposure.

Drew: Is there a person in your career that’s been particularly helpful or acted as a mentor?

I’ve been so fortunate. I have a number of mentors and I think the question comes down to “what is a mentor” and I think a lot of people have this vision of someone who you’ve worked with for 20 years, who you see every week for an hour. Personally, I reach out to a wide range of friends and colleagues from all different walks of life whether it’s past bosses, to good friends in private equity, to people who are in theatre. I reach out to each of them for different types of advice. So I’ve been very lucky in that regards and I think having such diverse counsel has served me very well and frankly I try and pay it forward. I actively mentor people in Columbia where I went to business school and WIR (women in retail) etc.

Drew: Looking ahead for 2016 (besides your 100th anniversary) what’s the biggest challenge that you’d like to overcome?

As a marketer, for me one of the biggest challenges I always face is– how do you get into a woman’s psyche and become part of their DNA? So to me it’s all about driving brand heat and doing that in a meaningful and sustainable way. So that’s one of the largest challenges I would say I have but I’m beyond ecstatic about having that as a challenge and frankly, I’m honored to work on a brand that’s been around for a 100 years. When you actually look at the history of the shoe, it’s spectacular. Maybe it’s because I’m a mom–I have a daughter and a son but it’s the idea that these shoes were actually created to free women and empower them. That idea is very timely. So it’s how do we make sure that people understand what the brand stands for and also making sure that they think we’re a cool brand and want wear us.

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