Data-led creativity has reached an inflection point. As a result, the era of art and commerce is giving way to a new age of art and science. We are amidst a data transformation revolution and the customer topography has never been more complex. Finding the right mix of algorithm and humanity is the Holy Grail or ultimate brand hack, no matter who you are, what you’re marketing, or who you are selling to.
Brand Alchemy: A Conversation With Artist Of Science Owlet’s Marketing Chief Kady SrinivasanBillee Howard
A palpable need to formulate best-in-class “brand alchemy” is the new strategic imperative. This is the reason the past generation of “artists of business” I hailed in my book WE-Commerce, is quickly giving way to a new breed of executive that I am calling “artists of science”.
Consequently, I’ve decided to launch a new Brand Alchemy Q+A series in parallel with my Ask the CMO column. I’ve done this to get into the minds of this new species of leadership, as I believe they will ultimately emerge as the creative Darwinists defining the future of both business and brand. For my most recent column, I sat down with Kady Srinivasan CMO of Owlet Baby Care and a true artist of science having held senior positions at the intersection of data and creative at leading companies such as Dropbox and Electronic Arts. She’s also a former amateur Bollywood dancer, so a true scientist deeply in touch with her creative side! Following is a recap of our conversation:
Billee Howard: Why don’t we start with the class you teach at Stanford on the evolution of marketing. Tell me about what that looks like and feels like from your point of view.
Kady Srinivasan: I co-teach with Steve Anderson, who’s an associate professor of marketing. We really dive into the solutions that have most enhanced overall performance marketing. When you realize that about a decade or fifteen years ago, the idea of performance and growth marketing didn’t exist, it’s quite amazing. Then the iPhone came into existence and all of a sudden everything changed. Things like lead generation and click throughs became what all marketing methods started to be based on. Everything was based on attribution and performance. Everybody was about how much am I getting out of the spend that I’m doing? How are we tracking this? How are we optimizing this and where can we drive down cost? I would say fifteen years ago, the guys who were leading growth marketing were actually investment bankers.
Today, it’s not enough to track every lead and click anymore. There’s so much more behind it, particularly for startups. If your plan is creating something or disrupting a market, you’ve got to be first. You want the first mover advantage. You want to plant your flag before other competitors do. To do this, you’ve got to establish your brand, as the halo effect of the brand is going to push you forward a long time before competitors catch up to you. As a result of all this, companies have started to hire more brand professionals to lead the marketing function. However, the marketing pendulum will continue to swing. I don’t think it’s going to rest in the brand arena for a long while. It’s going to go back and forth. If you want to be successful, you have to learn to have a holistic approach that allows you to work whichever muscle that’s needed at any given moment in time.
Howard: I love that. One of my favorite things that you told me was about how you defined yourself as a “reluctant marketer” until you had an aha moment around the notion of “empirical creativity.” Talk to me a little about that journey and more importantly, some of the key points that other people can learn from your experience.
Srinivasan: Yes, absolutely. So, even though I started my career as an engineer, I did not like the tunnel vision type of work that I was doing. I am analytical by nature, but it was just a little too much. It pushed me toward business school and to thinking about how I could make a real difference. I chose strategy as an area of concentration because I really like breaking down complex problems and figuring out how to solve them. The one thing I knew I didn’t want to do was marketing because it was too subjective, too vague, too abstract. So I said, no, thank you. This is not for me.
Then I started doing strategic consulting and I loved it. I started to work on a go-to-market plan for Jaclyn Smith, who was introducing merchandise online and for the first time in my business career, I actually got a deeper understanding of what it was to drive a go-to-market strategy and how effective it could be to the bottom line. That is when I became a true convert, but I was still in the camp of anything I will do in marketing must have data attached to it. I started to learn to be more creative naturally. When you’re working with CPG companies, they run on one to two percent month margins and gross margins, so you have to be deeply creative when it comes to the question of how am I going to extract more value out of this? How do I position this in a way that consumers see the value and index that?
I think I learned to be creative and resourceful in that kind of a resource constrained environment. Then, when I took it to the Bay Area and I started working for entertainment companies and gaming companies, it just became more and more clear that data just was one part of it. At the end of the day, if you don’t create the right kind of aspiration in consumers’ minds about why they need to come engage with your product, you’re never going to have a leading product in the market. The bottom line is, I am a scientist who is a marketer, and one of my main jobs is bringing all of the different functions and disciplines together to generate the best result.
Howard: Thanks for sharing that story. I think it speaks directly to what the marketing function demands today. As a result of that long and beautiful journey, how are you approaching data-led creativity at Owlet?
Srinivasan: I love the idea of data-led creativity. It strikes such a chord with me. It just defines how I approach problems and I love the moniker. I’ll give you two examples that I like. At Owlet, we have two primary products, the Smart Sock and the Cam. The Smart Sock has been in market for two years. It’s a flagship product and it’s doing great. The Cam was introduced last year and it wasn’t generating as much revenue as the Sock. Last year, we had the bright idea of let’s put the two in a box and send it out to people. I looked at the data and overwhelmingly it showed that people loved to buy the camera when they got to buy it with the sock. So essentially, they were buying the two together. I went through all the reviews and they said, “I love how these two products work together.” I told my team, I think we could do more here. I think we should rebrand this as a bundle and call it the Owlet Monitor Duo because it is a complete monitoring system and because it works together. That is data-led creativity in action. When you have that type of data and use it in that way, you can break assumptions and go create something new.
Secondly, we just launched a completely new Smart Sock 3 – the third of its kind. Since the launch of our very first sock in 2013, Owlet has helped parents keep more than half a million babies safe, and they’ve credited Owlet with providing them with timely information that’s allowed them to take action and save their baby’s life. However, we’ve also received feedback from hundreds of parents on ways Smart Sock could improve – especially when it comes to accuracy and fit for smaller babies. Based on this feedback and data-led insight, we new exactly what needed to be done to help every new parent keep their baby safe.
Now, our Smart Sock 3 fits tiny babies as small as 5lbs and up to 30lbs, typically up to 18 months and has siginicantly improved accuracy ratings compared to previous versions. The Smart Sock 3 monitors what really matters – your baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels, providing parents with real time information letting them know when their baby really needs them. This product is really incredible – I’ve truly never seen anything like this.
Howard: Fascinating examples. I totally agree. One of the things that my team is working on are conjoint analyses around product features through the lens of emotion, to be able to do exactly what you just said. Thank you for sharing that. Let’s jump over to talking about improving brand eQ and what that looks like from a brand utility and brand purpose POV.
Srinivasan: On the brand side, when I started with Owlet last year, the marketing persona was a highly anxious parent, whose primary need was a product that could alleviate fear. I immediately thought there was a customer segment we were missing. I tapped into building a persona whose desire was to enjoy their parenting journey and give them a tool to help empower them. The message shifted towards encouragement and positive thoughts about finding the joy in pregnancy, because when parents take time for themselves, they become better at taking care of their little one. That type of messaging, which combines brand utility and brand purpose together, has resonated extremely well in all ways, particularly emotionally. If you look at just our online revenues, they’ve gone up 3x from September to March. We’ll be soon doing 3x of daily revenues that we were doing back in September and that’s in the middle of a recession!
Howard: Amazing! So, as we wrap up, I’m going to come full circle to where we began our chat, which is the whole reason that I thought you would be so perfect for this particular column. I see you as a true artist of science, which is so rare. You were originally on the science side of things and you’ve learned to use that expertise in service of creativity, not in place of it. Can you talk about how you think of yourself in this way and share any relevant best practices?
Srinivasan: I would love to do that. I love this artists of science idea. I think you should write a book on this, by the way. (laughs)
Howard: I am and we should discuss it further! (laughs)
Srinivasan: We must! I used to do Bollywood dancing on an amateur level before my son was born. The thing with Bollywood dancing is it’s not a form of dance in itself. It actually is a style that is made up of pieces from different types of dance, from belly dancing to pop to jazz to Indian folk. It’s kind of an amalgamation of a variety of things. Bollywood dancing is about recognizing the beat and how to best respond to it. You can put together whatever response you want and it becomes a unique and innovative creation of your own.
I think of science and business in the same way. You can’t know the fundamentals of science and ignore the fundamentals of the business and the inverse is also so. As a business, if you want to succeed, you have to drive people through the funnel as quickly as possible. That’s a lasting truth. You know that as a business, if you want to be successful, you have to drive people to talk about your product and they have to be generally positive. I think once you know the fundamentals of those things, and then how to mix and match and put all of the different building blocks together, you can come up with really amazing and creative solutions. That’s how I see myself and why I relate to the artist of science concept so well, as it describes me to a tee.
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