Thumbs-Up to Disruptive Brands and Authentic Narratives

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Pandora CMO Simon Fleming-Wood acts on the believe that "the product is the marketing."

How does that compare to your marketing strategy at Pandora?

A lot of that thinking has transferred well to Pandora. Pandora is also a brand that people fell in love with. It's a product that consumers evangelized without being asked. I saw a lot here that allowed me to continue on that journey that began at Flip.

Another idea I took from Flip that applies here is this notion that the product is the marketing. Unless you get the product right, the marketing doesn't matter. You need to look for ways to build the marketing into the product so that it markets itself. That's more easily done in the consumer packaged goods world, where marketing teams typically have a lot of say in new product development. In the technology realm it's more difficult, so one of the core ingredients marketers need to focus on is simplicity. A lot of marketers in the consumer technology world make the mistake of thinking that technology allows people to do more stuff, when, actually, the focus should be on technology being used to do one thing incredibly effectively and effortlessly.

What one thing does Pandora do incredibly effectively and effortlessly?

Pandora's purpose is to connect musicians and their art to listeners. Tim [Westergren, Pandora cofounder] was a struggling musician who grew frustrated that he and his band would travel 1,200 miles and play for eight people, so he created the Music Genome Project that ultimately became Pandora. He was clear about how Pandora benefits musicians and listeners right from the start. That narrative has been a strong part of the company since the beginning.

What's your role in shaping the narrative?

I joined the company two and a half years ago as its first CMO. Last year we set about trying to turn a lot of raw ingredients into a cohesive brand story. That brand story was ultimately delivered as a succinct articulation in a traditional brand strategy document, but the story was also conveyed more creatively through a video. The title of the video, which you can see on YouTube, is “Let There Be Music.” We invested months interviewing employees, listeners, the founders, and everybody else we could think of about what makes Pandora special. We developed a story from that research. It boils down to the notion that Pandora's impact on the world is to essentially let the music flow freely from the creators to the audiences who love it. Our goal is to make that happen effortlessly for both sides. Our role in marketing is to share that authentic story. Doing so inspires employees by reinforcing why they joined the company; and it inspires listeners and advertisers who also want to join the brand.

How do you sustain the brand narrative?

There's what I would call housekeeping work to be done around the brand. For example, we changed the logo; we made it more cohesive without changing the soul of Pandora. Change for change's sake is rarely effective, and I would certainly hope I could find a better use of my people's time than to change things I didn't think were meaningful. We took the brand strategy and created Pandora's first-ever brand campaign, “Now Playing You.” It consists of audio, display, and video ads on Pandora's platform.

How do you know when your marketing narratives are succeeding?

If the process we went through didn't yield something that felt authentic for Pandora, the company would have digested it and spit it out. That's the real challenge, and I don't think that can be overlooked as part of the process. Marketing only really works if the company completely embraces it. When we unveiled the “Let There Be Music” video at a company-wide meeting, three of the people on the founding team had tears in their eyes. That was the moment I felt like we succeeded, because the people who actually created the brand felt like we captured something.

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How to Market a Disruptive Brand

1. Let the product do the marketing: Marketers should be involved in product design whenever possible. Marketers also should identify what the product does “incredibly effectively and effortlessly,” and build the brand narrative based on that unique capability.

2. Put on your pith helmet: Pandora CMO Simon Fleming-Wood and his team conducted extensive interviews—an endeavor he describes as cultural anthropology—with listeners, employees, the company's founders, and other stakeholders to ensure that they understood what makes Pandora special.

3. Be inspired: Throughout his career Fleming-Wood has monitored, and learned from, other “category-of-one” brands that disrupt the status quo, such as Google's Nest thermostat, Nintendo's Wii, and Apple's iPod.

4. Hire for humility: Fleming-Wood looks to add “really smart and humble people” to his team. “We're not about building our own individual brands,” he adds. “We're co-passengers on the same flight.”

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