Simplifiers Interview: Amanda Tolleson, CMO at Birchbox

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Behind every brand delivering simpler experiences for customers is a leader who recognizes the inherent value in keeping things simple. Here I interview leaders, often CMOs or CEOs, that we deem simplifiers. In this Simplifiers interview I speak with Amanda Tolleson, CMO at Birchbox.

What does Birchbox stand for and how does it deliver on that promise every day? Birchbox is an e-commerce company focused on disrupting the beauty industry. Most brands are focused on serving the beauty enthusiast—women for whom beauty is a passion. Birchbox, on the other hand, serves the casual beauty consumer who approaches beauty with purpose rather than passion.

What role does simplicity play in delivering on that promise?

The beauty industry can be incredibly overwhelming with all the brands, products and information out there. The personalization Birchbox delivers speaks to our simplicity—we cut through the clutter so each customer can discover and explore beauty products in a way that’s relevant to her particular needs.

How does Birchbox strive to create simple experiences?

A great example of a simple Birchbox experiences is our beauty box. When designing it, we kept the casual beauty consumer top of mind, especially when strategizing about the amount of products someone could comfortably explore in a month or when designing the product information card that includes just enough information to help the consumer without overwhelming her.

Another simple experience we’ve created is Birchbox’s flagship store. The casual beauty consumer is usually looking to fill a need and enters the store with the purpose of buying a particular product. For this reason, we organized the store by makeup product category, rather than brand. If you enter our store and are looking for eyeliner, you go to the eyeliner section. This is different from most beauty stores that are organized by beauty brand and typically designed for a knowledgeable beauty enthusiast to take a wandering perusal.

How do you strive to conquer complexity within Birchbox?

We ensure that we’re clear on what our annual priorities are, and who owns each one. We have no more than four annual priorities that get most of our attention, and deliver updates on these priorities throughout the year.

How do you stick to your priorities without getting distracted?

It’s hard, especially as a startup, but sticking to our priorities is crucial to our success. We stay focused by empowering our employees to understand the long-term vision of the company.

In order to have simplicity as a strategy, you must have a realistic sense of your team’s bandwidth, so you don’t pile up initiatives and end up spread too thin. Simplifying requires constantly checking in to see where the creep is happening. What’s hard is that the creep usually doesn’t consist of initiatives that are bad ideas or things you shouldn’t do. Sometimes you need to say, that’s a great idea, but it doesn’t trump the initiatives we’re working on, so let’s put it on the backburner for now.

It’s important to note that simplicity doesn’t mean a lack of flexibility—it requires reprioritization when something comes up that everyone agrees is a more important opportunity than what’s being pursued now.

What benefits have you achieved from simplifying?

The primary benefit we’ve achieved from simplicity is excitement and clarity around what we’re trying to build and where we’re going. The fact that everyone is on the same page means we’re all moving in the same direction.

How do you lead as a simplifier?

By being transparent. At Birchbox, we have a weekly dashboard meeting where we share updates and background on decision-making processes. Simplicity requires showcasing to your team how you’re making decisions.

What’s the most recent simple customer experience you’ve had?

I love the Chobani store in SoHo. It’s a wonderful example of taking something that’s not typically consumed in-store and bringing it to life in a simple and delightful way. In the store, there are people walking around with iPads so you can order while sitting down or at the counter. You can get in and out incredibly fast and have a delightful experience, or linger and also have a delightful experience. All the brand touchpoints express the brand. It’s ideal.

What do you think is the biggest mistake brands make when trying to simplify?

I think the biggest mistake brands make is thinking that simplicity is easy or a one-time thing. Simplicity is incredibly difficult to create, and it only works if you embed it in your culture and the way you work. This requires education and showcasing when it’s been done correctly. Simplicity has to be a consistent part of how you do business.

Simplicity is incredibly difficult to create, and it only works if you embed it in your culture and the way you work.

What metrics indicate that simplicity is helping to drive your business?

Customer feedback. Since delivering a simple experience is inherent in our value proposition, and we target the casual beauty consumer who seeks simplicity, our customers often tell us directly how thankful they are that we’ve made it simple for them to discover beauty products.

What does being a simplifier mean to you?

Simplicity requires clarity and focus; not just in business, but in your whole life. In order to simplify, you must know what’s important to you and be ruthless about saying no to what isn’t aligned with your goals. This requires not indulging in the fear of missing out (FOMO). Today’s culture is designed to induce FOMO, especially with social media. In order to pursue your goal, you’re going to have to say no to some great opportunities. Simplifiers know how to direct their focus and prioritize what’s important to them. They know what they’re trying to achieve and have confidence in their vision.

What’s the top piece of advice you’d give to other brands trying to simplify?

Know why you exist as a brand, have confidence in your vision and mission and be ruthless about operating in a way that will achieve your goals. You can’t simplify unless you have certainty about what you’re trying to build and for whom.

How do brands pursue their vision and mission while remaining agile enough to pivot when necessary?

When executing your vision, you won’t be operating within certainty, but you still have to make decisions and move forward with confidence. If things aren’t going as planned, then you pivot and have just as much confidence when moving in that new direction. Be confident about where you’re going, but also self-aware enough to take signals that you might need to change your plan.

What’s a time that you made a hard decision for the sake of simplicity?

Birchbox used to have, as an add on to our beauty box subscription, the option to pay more to get extra beauty products. We found that we were attracting a more beauty-obsessed customer to this product experience. While this feature was good for business, we ultimately decided to terminate it because it wasn’t aligned with our vision of what we’re trying to build for our target customer.

This is an ongoing Simplifiers series. See interviews with CMO at Lenovo, David Roman; CMO at SAP, Alicia Tillman; EVP – Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise Henry Gomez; CMO at Twitter, Leslie Berland; CMO at Blue Apron, Jared Cluff; SVP, Global Brand Management at American Express, Clayton Ruebensaal; EVP and Group President at Verizon Wireless, Ronan Dunne, Director of Strategy and Innovation at Cofra Holding Ltd, former CEO of C&A China, Lawrence Brenninkmeyer; CMO at The Recording Academy, Evan Greene; CMO at Mary Kay, Sheryl Adkins-GreenHead of Marketing at Home Centre, Rohit Singh BhatiaSVP, CMO of Aflac, Gail GaluppoSVP and CMO at Cambia Health Solutions, Carol KruseManaging Director of The Nature Conservancy, Geof Rochester, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of Motorola Solutions, Eduardo Conrado, EVP; SVP, Chief Marketing & External Affairs Officer at Abbott, Elaine Leavenworth, GE CMO, Linda Boff; McLaren Automotive Head of Brand Marketing, Stephen Lambert; Ascension Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Nick Ragone; Hertz CMO, Matt Jauchius; Direct Line Group Marketing Director, Mark Evans; McDonald’s CMO, Deborah Wahl; Jet.com President, Liza Landsman and VP Marketing, Sumaiya Balbale; Target CMO, Jeff Jones; Spotify CMO, Seth Farbman; Ally Financial CMO, Andrea Riley; Gannett CMO, Andy Yost; CVS Health CMO, Norman De Greve; Dunkin’ Brands CMO, John Costello; Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh; Southwest Airlines CMO, Kevin Krone; and Google CMO, Lorraine Twohill.

Know a simplifier or would like to be included in the series? Please recommend an executive for my next interview: mmolloy@siegelgale.com

Margaret Molloy is global CMO and head of business development at Siegel+Gale. Follow her on Twitter: @MargaretMolloy and Instagram:@MargaretMMolloy

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