Every company is an experiment. For that experiment to succeed, you need to have a hypothesis about a market opportunity, test it, measure the results and learn to evolve your strategy and execution accordingly. The speed with which a company can repeat this process and adapt to a new context is an indicator of its ability to innovate. Of course, COVID-19 has altered the context across landscapes, rendering branding innovation indispensable for all companies.

On Wednesday, September 9th, I spoke with five marketing leaders from venture-backed and digital-first companies to explore the interrelationships across brand building, innovation, growth and scaling. Our conversation traversed how each brand approached innovation, industries that unexpectedly benefited from the crisis and the advantages of being born in the digital world. However, at the heart of the panelists’ stories and perspectives was the remarkable power of brand and its unparalleled ability to differentiate.

In closing, I asked the panelists: Where do you see innovation in marketing, and what is your commitment to uniting innovation and growth? Here’s what they had to say.

We have a dedicated team within marketing and their entire job centers around marketing innovation. I have them scouring conferences, content, interacting with various suppliers in different spaces, and reaching out to other brands we admire that have done interesting things. That team then brings those innovations to the full marketing and communications team, share those innovations and then ideate how we can use this in marketing.

One example is that we are leaning into gamification. It’s such an important way that people learn. Nobody wants to seek out financial education; it’s more on the dry side. So, we’re doing exciting things. For instance, we wrote a children’s book, “Planet Zeee and the Money Tree,” aimed at elementary school children. The book talks about economic mobility and teaches them financial literacy. We’re bringing that to life as an entire franchise with everything from Bluetooth piggy banks with the characters to a series. We’re doing integrations with video games and platforms to integrate our brand. We’re also doing things with sponsorships like with Nascar. We went old school and built an 8-bit racing game. During this pandemic, people are looking for entertaining things to do, and it was a great way to engage with our consumers.

Innovation as a digital brand has to be a core tenet of everything that you do. The consumer expects it, and frankly, my team thrives on it. That notion of gamification has led to our personality as a disruptor in the marketing space.

I have a stated personal objective that I will have a very active learning agenda. Marketing changes constantly, and marketers’ ability to keep up with the pace of change is negated unless you have an active learning agenda. I try to allocate a third of my time to that active learning agenda, whether talking to other CMOs, visiting companies I admire, consuming content, taking classes or attending panels. I try to bring that back, and you have to lead by that example.

—Andrea Brimmer, Chief Marketing & PR Officer, Ally


When the pandemic hit, we knew that more Hulu users wanted to co-view, so we had a short but important debate around a feature that allows viewers to view together while distanced. While other players have this feature, we decided that it didn’t matter. What matters is whether our consumers want it. It’s not innovation for innovation’s sake. It’s innovation for the benefit of our consumers. We launched that, by our standards, reasonably quickly, and it has been adopted well.

Second, which is also consumer insights-driven, was we do well with the adult animation category.  We saw that category do very well, so we as marketers decided to celebrate that and launch the first HAHA Awards. We put zero media dollars behind it; it was all done through earned media. Those are things that are so crucial.

Regardless of tenure or title, I believe everyone is a leader. And as a leader, we have to treat them with respect, empowerment and accountability that comes with that title. The awards are a great example of that. Someone on the team had an idea and carried it through to success. It’s wonderful to have a group of marketers leaning into new ideas and not waiting for someone to tell them what to do. My commitment is to foster a culture where I am the one trying to catch up versus everyone else.

—Patrizio Spagnoletto, SVP and Chief of Marketing, Hulu


We just rebranded the marketing team, and we’re trying to get the team thinking about branding innovation and creativity as a part of what they do.

A great example is trying to illustrate the concept of artificial intelligence. People understand the result, and they know the problem, but what is the magic in between? We’re continually looking at illustrations like NY Times visualizations or recent videos describing AlphaGo. So, we’re taking that kind of creativity of an abstract concept but turning it into business values. Our Creative Brand Warrior is busy right now thinking about illustrations and innovations that help explain data science to businesspeople in a way that’s comprehendible and distinguishes us from our competition.

In terms of commitment, I want to be accountable for revenue. For a four-year-old company, innovation in a vacuum from what it generates for the bottom line and the top line is unacceptable. It goes back to the question of brand versus demand. If I cannot generate demand through the innovation that I do, then I am not doing my job. So, my commitment to the organization is to hold me as accountable as you do the Chief Revenue Officer.

—Gail Moody-Byrd, CMO, Noodle.ai


It’s interesting right now because our company, business and industry have been hit hard. People are staying still and are not moving, which is the premise of our business. Innovation is crucial to us right now, both for the business and understanding new customer segments emerging, new use cases emerging, and how we respond to them. We are trying to bring insights into every single thing we do. It is not just about our direct customers but about broader trends that can influence product in surprising and new ways.

One of the things that we’re trying to do is how the customer engages with brands, content and media. It’s entirely different than it was six months ago. Trends are changing in terms of expectations of brands. Consumers want action from brands. They want to see that they are doing something to take charge of this time moment in time when they don’t feel leadership coming from other places. For us, these evolving expectations have fueled the innovation and the brand strategy that we have right now. For me, staying on top of those trends is everything.

In terms of growth, we’re trying to draw a very direct connection between brand and growth. Even with our brand metrics, one of the key ways that I’ve tried to build credibility for brand and build a case for it internally is by creating proxy metrics that are directly connected to business impact for our brand campaigns. So, we’re helping educate people internally that brand can move the needle for the business.

You think about the proxy metric for consideration, which is typically seen as a brand metric. What does that look like in our product? In our product, it might be entering in a destination. Can we connect that very directly to our brand advertising? We’re doing a lot of really innovative testing and experiments to help us better understand the correlation between those two.

—Heather Freeland, Head of Marketing, Lyft


For us, a big part of how we benefit from innovation is bridging gaps between learners and product development teams internally and trying to show a direct correlation in monetary terms of what is the impact of listening to your customers and adapting to what they need. Universities don’t typically listen to what students want, let alone adapt to them. We are trying to make a direct link between understanding customer feedback and product development and how that impacts things like revenue and referrals. We are using both data and technology but also cultural understanding. That’s a massive part of how we try to adapt the brand in each market to the different cultures and use brand as the one constant across the world where our brand stands for the same thing across other markets. But how we communicate in each market may differ in order to achieve the same objective.

Marketing is the key driver for growth, whether it is direct marketing or indirect partnerships or channels. That is our primary driver of growth. As such, it has commanded a particular position internally because it’s the window to the outside world in terms of how the product is being perceived. Ultimately, marketing will drive acquisition but then how the brand is executed from a customer experience is what will drive referrals, satisfaction and retention. The two go hand in hand. As people understand that more, they tend to value marketing more highly.

—Fadl Al Tarzi, Founder & CEO, Nexford University


This is a biweekly series for brand-side senior marketers. To request an invitation, visit events.siegelgale.com