Failure Is An Option

Highlights from The Gathering 2020

This was my second year attending The Gathering conference and it was quite different than last year as I was now learning through the lens of not only a marketer but also an entrepreneur.  This time I left thinking more about the kind of Brand Leader I want to be and less about the kind of Brand I want to lead. Of the sessions I attended I found the speakers were noticeably transparent and eager to share not only where they had success, but also some of their biggest failures.

Here are some of my highlights:

  1. Skittles spoke about winning and losing – from the first Skittles Ad in 1974 to their most recent work during Pride celebrations, where they gave up their rainbow in solidarity of the Pride movement. Jane Hwang, the VP Brand Director spoke candidly about the top 3 times she thought she’d be fired from Skittles, most notably for being at the helm of a Mother’s Day Ad that was deemed in poor taste – picture Skittles via an umbilical cord, ya – not great. She wasn’t fired and what Jane did next was to pull EVERY piece of marketing and take a deep look into what was happening when Skittles was on top of their game and what was happening when the brand was not performing as well.  Out of this exercise came a relatively simple brand voice framework.  This framework allowed the team to stay true to their unpredictable execution and let the brand breathe while reining in anything deemed “out of bounds”.

Take away: Defining what the brand is NOT, is just as important as defining what the brand IS.

  1. Alex Bodman, VP Global Executive Creative Director for Spotify, told his professional journey and personal mantra of “stumbling together.” I interpreted this as calculated risk, taking enough chances and risk that you’re sure to stumble but not destined to fall.  Many brands and brand leaders today talk about putting your customers first and having them as the hero of your story, but Spotify really took this to the next level. When many companies are using personalization and data to sell more or sell more often… Spotify chose not to use data to tell their story, but to tell their customers stories.  I love that they are a digital platform but use their data to create both traditional and digital executions – bridging the analog and online worlds.  They use their customer usage data to tell stories about groups and individuals and make people feel a part of a worldwide borderless community of music lovers. When they found 10 billboards worked, they increased the campaign to 7000 billboards.

Take away: Test small, then take some risks… if it’s working, go big or go home.

  1. Over the years, one thing I’ve discovered is that the key to many large successful seemingly complex brands, is in fact – simplicity. Paul Meehan of NUTRUL Vodka agreed sharing that NUTRUL has simplified their focus to: people, product, and purpose.

In a more intimate “Inner Sanctum” session, 30 people sat moulded into bean bag chairs to chat with YETI VP of Consumer Marketing, Bill Neff. Bill shared the term ‘bull simple’… which is a phrase one of the YETI founders in known for using around the office. Bill internalized it to, “everything we make is easy to use, and easy to fix. Our product design and function need to stand up to what the brand represents.” On failures, it seems YETI (founded 2006) hasn’t had many, however, Bill noted partnerships that look good on paper but lack authenticity in the execution will fall flat. Partnerships are not just an exchange of logos. Other failures along the way were growing into segments too quickly. YETI started as a fishing and then hunting brand and has become mainstream across many markets. That growth has been slow and purposeful. Bill reinforced several times that building a brand and creating a movement is great but your product HAS to deliver.

Take away: Grow slow. Double down on product innovation.

  1. Chip Wilson of Lululemon talked at length about the importance of product innovation, continual adaptation, and quality. Chip shared the importance of the sales staff being seen as store educators as it was important to the growth strategy that the value of the technical features was spread through word of mouth. Even in the early days, the apparel was sold in yoga stores because it was important to represent the strengths and passion of that target market. Although a lot of Lululemon’s success can be attributed to organic growth, Chip never thought of it as a small business. He was always willing to take risks and fill the gaps he saw in the market. The Gathering gifted Chips book, Little Black Stretchy Pants, and one passage that really resonated was the ability to fail, to expect to fail and not to let is set you back. Consider failure a data point then regroup and pivot. Intrigued by Chip’s story, I recently listened to his NPR: How I Built This podcast interview that highlights his entrepreneurial journey and talks candidly about some of the biggest personal and professional failures that made him successful.

Take away: Never stop paying attention – to your customers, to your product, and to your staff. The path to innovation is not linear, don’t be afraid to go down the rabbit hole.

  1. We hear it a lot, big successful brands talking about the importance of being purpose-driven and focusing on community… but how can you attain that?! Carlos Gil, author of The End of Marketing gave some more tactical insights. He boils down to you having to do the work. If you only have finite resources, focus more on engaging with audiences than producing content or selling. People don’t follow “brands”, they follow brand personalities.  According to him, it’s the “Wild West” out there so be creative and have some fun. Community is king, not solely content, so focus on being a part of one instead of creating one.

So, how can a brand make it all about the customer and not themselves?  Doritos attempted to do this by running a brandless campaign. Rachel Ferdinando, SVP of Core Brands for Doritos explained that they wanted to create experiences in music and gaming that allowed their Gen Z target audience to fulfill the brand purpose of “Igniting Bold Self Expression”. They did this by showing up at events like Twitch Con and by becoming a part of the culture and not by sponsoring their way in.

Take away: To be an icon, act like one.

It’s hard to summarize everything you learn at an event like The Gathering, but this year I was much more interested in the stories and characteristics of fearless brand leaders vs. what the brands had achieved. More and more, I realize that successful brands and brand leaders are not created overnight, and the path is never straight. True success is a product of knowing how to take chances and navigate failures along the way. Absent from the conference (but potentially a great speaker for the future – hint, hint) was Adam Savage, former Myth Buster star and self-proclaimed “Maker”. One of my favourite quotes from Adam is, “Failure is ALWAYS an option.”  IF there will be failures along the way, what kinds of innovative ideas and risks can I take that will lead to those failures. Because failure and success are not mutually exclusive, they may be a requirement of one another. How exciting is that?

About the Author:

Jenelle Peterson, BComm, MBA is Co-Founder and President of The Wild | Life Outdoor Adventures, a Marketing Consultant, and a board member with the Calgary Marketing Association. Jenelle’s passion for technology, design, and innovation has given her opportunities to work both within Business’ and as a Marketing Consultant in a variety of industries; Oil & Gas, IT, Education, Health Care, and Consumer Goods. She loves the outdoors, making bad art, and all things Sci-Fi. Tweet her @petersonjenelle