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."



Pandora CMO Simon Fleming-Wood's personal mission is to apply technology and branding in innovative ways; in essence, to reinvent product categories. That's not surprising given that he was one of the founders of the groundbreaking Flip Video Camera (for which he shares in nine patents). At Pandora, Fleming-Wood has honored the founding team's original brand narrative by acting on his belief that “the product is the marketing.”

What gets you up in the morning as a marketing executive?

My passion in marketing comes from working on disruptive brands and products that reinvent categories. Pandora is a reinventor of radio. Earlier in my career I was one of the creators of the Flip Video Camera, which absolutely reinvented a category and made people fall in love with video again. There are common themes in both of these stories. One theme involves applying technology and branding thoughtfully to reinvent categories—that's really my passion.

When did you discover this desire?

I was working at a startup called Creative Wonders that made educational software, CD-ROMs. We had the licenses to some well-known television brands, including Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock. At the beginning we had a publishing mentality: We'd put out a title, forget about it after a week, and go to work on the next title. I convinced my company to take more of a brand approach by developing systems of products that addressed consumer needs. Rather than publishing standalone titles, we geared groups of titles toward grade levels. We earned $3 million in revenue the year I joined, and we grew that to $40 million after my first year there. I thought, “Oh my God, I can do this.” Our company was acquired by The Learning Company, and I stayed on while running early learning marketing until The Learning Company was acquired by Mattel.


Non-paying Pandora listeners who give a song a thumbs-up—an icon on the platform's digital interface that allows listeners to express how they feel about a song within a “station” mix—are 12% more likely to return to the platform the following month. The figure stimulated the marketing team to begin segmenting listeners based on their degree of loyalty. The team then created the “Now Playing You” campaign that appears to non-paying listeners; it educates them about the benefits of “thumbing” individual songs (more relevant music mixes), which helps to increase return listeners.

Tell me about another formative career experience.

I began my career in packaged goods as a marketer for Clorox. It was an amazing place for a marketer to learn the essential brand-management toolkit. But from a brand innovation perspective, the guardrails were pretty narrow. You can innovate in laundry or you can innovate in salad dressing, which is great and the world needs it, but, ultimately, it wasn't that inspiring to me.

So you headed to Silicon Valley?

After The Learning Company, I joined an Internet company that was purchased by Sega. And then some friends and I started Pure Digital, the company that created Flip. That was a long journey that culminated at Cisco after it acquired our company for $600 million in 2009. We took Flip from nothing to the largest camcorder-maker in the world in a three-year period while displacing Sony, JVC, and other brands that people thought could never be displaced. The way that we did it was by turning upside down what people thought a camcorder should be, not only from the product perspective, but also from the brand perspective.

How did you accomplish that?

We knew that there was this fundamental dissatisfaction with video cameras. Every parent had the same story: They bought a camcorder when they had their first child, they used it a lot, and then they never watched the videos and then the battery died. Now, the camcorder is sitting in the closet with all the tapes that they never watched, and they have no video footage of their second child. Once we understood that, we didn't need to do any more focus groups. We had this theory that if we could greatly simplify the video process and make it effortless, then there was room for a disruptive product there. We deliberately said not only are we going to reinvent this product, but we're also going to reinvent the way a brand talks about being a video camera—right down to the name of Flip, which couldn't have been more different than something like the “Sony XT4/102.” It was all about building a brand that inspired fun and joining a movement.

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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