Episode #37: The Collision of Social Movements and Marketing, with Katie Martell

We’re living in an age where buyers (both B2B and B2C) want a personal relationship with brands. And more than that, they expect those brands to share their values. Katie Martell, unapologetic marketing truth-teller, joins me today for Part 1 of a rollicking discussion about “woke washing.” It’s the collision of social movements and marketing in an era where brands are being looked to as stewards of societal values.

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Grad 
All right, welcome to the CXM Experience, where experience is the new brand. We love experience so much. We have it in our title twice. I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr and today I’ve got a special guest, Katie Martell. Katie and I actually did a really cool segment for Oracle about a month ago and we had so much fun together, we thought we would put the show back on the road and try it again. So we’ll see how this goes today.

Katie, some people have talked about you as being an unapologetic marketing truth teller. So I will make that your title for today. And just in case, you want to get a hold of Katie or follow her. You can follow her on Twitter @KatieMartell. Katie, welcome to the CXM Experience.

Katie Martell 
Thank you for having me.

Grad 
It’s so great having you on the show. It’s so much fun. I love that I did your show. And now you’re doing my show. And then you know, we’ll have to do someone else’s show together that will be sort of like the trifecta.

Katie Martell 
We’ll tag team, it’ll be great.

Grad 
So I’ve got like a million things to ask you. And you know, I’ve got like a whole bunch of things on my mind. I know you’re working on some pretty interesting stuff right now around what something you call woke washing. And I wanted to quickly introduce some of the things that I’m seeing happening in this era of civil unrest and awareness, and how marketers stay relevant in a time of change.

You’re probably aware of this, we do the Forbes top 50 most influential CMO report every year. Ao that report’s actually a partnership between Forbes and a data scientist named Alex Samuels, Sprinklr, and in LinkedIn. And so LinkedIn is like about a third of the data elements. And we provide the other two, which is a brand presence and CMO presence. And this year… we typically release it at the end of June at Cannes. With Cannes being cancelled this year, and all the other chaos going on, we decided to delay the report. And once we delayed it, we realized we had a bit more time to collect a bit more data. And so what we did is we took the data collection period to the end of June. Analyzed it of over the balance the summer, released it in September. And what we did is we actually used our normal elements of presence and brand presence in LinkedIn connections. But then we added an element around how CMOs responded to COVID-19. And how they responded to Black Lives Matter. And that actually had a change in the ratings and rankings. We saw some CMOs, very engaged, very out there, some very recessive, very quiet about it. Very different approaches. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong or I don’t know how to judge it. But we did look at how people had engaged and looked at engagement as a positive thing. So that’s where my head is on this stuff right now. And we’re seeing influential CMOs be voices for their companies. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. What do you think of that? And then, you know, give me your premise on woke washing and then let’s just jam on that for a few minutes.

Katie Martell 
Oh, I love it. I’d love to hear from you what the parameters were, as you’re looking at how CMOs… was it individuals responding to the Black Lives Matter movement, or was it their brands and the company at large?

Grad 
Both. So we looked at several billion data elements. It’s a massive, data driven study. And one thing people are sometimes surprised when we take them through it is that the top 50 most influential CMOs is based on a data model, not based on us sitting in a room and deciding who’s influential, right? It was actually the data would speak. And so it was how the brand responded and how the brand showed up, and what it generated from an engagement standpoint. And then how the CMO individually did that as well.

And there’s an operating theory in the top 50 influential CMO report that the CEO, their self is an important part of the brand. And I’ll actually get on my own hobbyhorse here for a second. So I am a big believer in this. Not everybody is but you know, I practice it. Because I have a strong point of view that we’re in this new era of marketing, where we have a very high level of understanding and detail about the people that we’re talking to as marketers, so our customers are highly profiled. And we’re in this weird stage where that’s relatively new, but it’s a deep imbalance. In the 20th century, we mostly had anonymous marketers talking to anonymous customers. Like my dad was a mad man on Madison Avenue. Worked at Y&R. He didn’t know who he was talking to in his TV ads, and they didn’t know who was making them. Right? So it was kind of like everyone didn’t know anybody. Now we’re in the stage where we kind of know a lot about them. This is the thing people call creep factor. And I think increasingly, people are like, Who’s talking to me? Like, who’s talking to me? Who’s the person there? And actually, just to support that, in my customer experience center where we do community engagement, I have all the community managers sign their posts. So I’m sure other people do… Toyota does this too. And I think it’s important for people to know who’s behind the company, and what kind of company it is and who the people are. And if that’s good for your brand, the brand you want to identify with great, and if not great. And I think people increasingly want to know that. So that’s a little bit of the operating theory behind it is the CMO’s presence has an impact on the company itself.

Katie Martell 
I agree. And I think that what you’re touching on is a larger shift, where I think buyers –and this is B2B — and consumers, they want to look at brands as a bit more of a personal relationship in the way that they look to brands to align with them on shared values. You know, like any good marriage, like I’ve been married for, like four years. And so I’m an expert now, right? Because we’ve not gotten divorced yet.

Grad 
Wow, four whole years.

Katie Martell 
What I’m told is that good marriages, just like any good relationship are founded on shared values. Do we see the world the same way and are our core principles kind of aligned and I think this is, you know… your dad at Y&R probably never had to get into this right? Where brands are being looked to as stewards in society of societal values, feminism, LGBTQ and pride, you know, the environment, Black Lives Matter. These are, you know, areas of the world that I think businesses have historically seen as risk averse things, things to avoid, right, because they’re mired in controversy. Now, it’s part of the charter, it’s actually part of the consideration set for buyers. And so I totally agree, I think knowing who the people are behind this big faceless brand, right? Logos and everything else we engage with, digitally, that’s becoming more important, because we want to know, do we align? Do we see the world the same way? It’s what we decide to either buy from or choose to boycott and even choose to cancel? So it goes in both directions?

Grad 
Yeah, it’s kind of tribe making, right? We’re always tribe making us humans. I mean, nothing a human likes more than a clique. Right? You know, it’s like we really do love to be able to sort of like: this is my group and that other group, I don’t like them very much. But I do think one of the reasons that businesses have avoided it is that you do have to make some pretty deliberate choices. Like, look at the most recent election. There’s a lot of people who have very different points of view from each other out there. And so if you decide I’m going to support this particular cause, and you do that really publicly, you’re also acknowledging that you’re potentially alienating in a very significant way a bunch of other people who could be your customers, I think a lot of businesses struggle with that they want, they want everybody to like them. Right?

Katie Martell 
Right. And I do think that when we talk about things like woke marketing, you know, which is just any marketing that touches on feminism and all these other social movements, politics ends up being grouped in with that, and I actually think that they are very separate things. I think when you look at social movements, we’re living in a time of the confluence of Black Lives Matter, pride, marketing, the women’s rights movement is still you know, going full hug… still need it. It’s kind of the strange, I don’t know, myths of civil rights. What we’re talking about are really human and civil rights. Not so much, which candidate do support and what’s your stance on, I don’t know, whatever candidate you chose. It’s more about these kind of, I would say, basic kind of civil liberties. And it becomes far less controversial to me, as a marketer, when you look at it in that way. When you don’t look at it as supporting one candidate over the other, which I firmly believe is inappropriate. There was a software company that emailed — did you hear about this? — all of their customers and their users, so about 10 million people got this email. It was right before the election that basically said you have to vote for… candidate here. I’m not even gonna tell you which candidate. Isn’t the reaction like Hold on. That’s, that’s not right.

Grad 
Yeah, so this is highly nuanced, though. So if you don’t mind, can we just wade into this a tiny bit. This is super nuanced. So just for full disclosure, I’m originally a Canadian. So you  can kind of guess what my politics are.

Katie Martell 
The maple syrup party.

Grad 
That’s a great idea. It would play well in Vermont. Anyway, so politics aside, though I am fascinated by the way certain issues can be talked about openly and not openly. For example, Hobby Lobby. Okay. So Hobby Lobby, what they’ve done is they’ve used this kind of weirdly interesting combination of dog whistles and other tools to signal what their beliefs are around, whatever you want to call it, human rights, people, whatever, right? And they’ve been able to communicate a very conservative stance. But they’ve done it without overtly saying so. And I think they’re, I don’t think they’re stupid, I think they know who they’re talking to. If you look at where Hobby Lobby’s tend to be located and you look at the kind of person that goes to Hobby Lobby, I think they know exactly what they’re doing. But they have to do it very subtly. Whereas other businesses can proudly proclaim, you know, I’m for whatever rights.

And I think that for me, the interesting conflict there… I think Chick-fil-A has kind of pulled this one off as well, which is nudge nudge, I’m on your side. But, shhh, let’s not make a big deal out of it. Whereas other ones are like, you know, we’re all for whatever. And I don’t know why that is. I’d love your point of view on it. Like, I think that Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays is just more than a nudge, perhaps. But it’s a very clear signal from them about what they believe in and what they think they’re all about. But it does seem to not massively alienate everybody. So it’s like they’re trying to pick their way through the forest in a way that they tightly identify with one group, but not completely turn off another group. And I think they’ve gone over the line a couple of times, they’re trying to keep it in the middle now. But how do you feel about that? Because I think you said, when you talk about woke wash, it can go both ways.

Katie Martell 
It really can. And I think this is where we’re gonna find ourselves, and we have found ourselves, in 2020. A lot of brands were caught off guard with these new expectations. I mean, a brand has to go with where public opinion is going. If they’re trying to reach the masses, they have to go where the energy and the groundswell is. So what’s in the public narrative what’s being talked about, right? But they’ve also got to go to who controls the purse strings. At the end of the day, it’s not in a business’s self interest to alienate the largest share of potential buyers, right. And so I do think that you’ve got principled businesses, there’s only a handful.

And I’m what I’m talking about are organizations like Patagonia, right, whose core values in this case around the environment and sustainability, are really woven deep into the practice of the business. How they source the materials, even the way that they… their famous ad, “don’t buy this jacket.” The famous full page newspaper ad advising that clients of theirs, customers, buy less, because they want it to last longer, because this is what they believe. You see a lot of brands like this who have their core ethos on display. You could argue a Hobby Lobby, you could argue a Chick-fil-A, are similar kind of top down, you know, C-level driven values. Here’s what the E team believes. And so therefore, the brand believes. And it can get controversial. You really can get into trouble as a brand. If you’re trying to stand up to something that doesn’t reflect what the organization’s about. It’s down to the ethos of the brand and what they’re about, what they’re for. I think where companies get in trouble is where they try to wade into areas that they don’t belong, and become known for something that is completely irrelevant to what the core business is. Whether or not it alienates others. It’s just not a good move. I’ve got a background in PR. And to me, it doesn’t make strategic sense.

Grad 
Where you’re going with this, which I agree with, by the way, is that people buy based on values. I don’t know if the values need to have anything to do with the product per se. I think the Patagonia example is a great one. But I think they’re more the exception. Let’s just let’s use another example. By the way, do you like the fact that I didn’t even know we’re going to talk about this, I got all these examples. So and I love this topic. It’s one of my favorite topics. So Volkswagen. Okay, this is super complicated one. So Volkswagen kind of got famous with their famous lemon ad and very irreverent advertising. Got known as a brand that would provide great value and low cost and German engineering, inexpensive price and all that kind of stuff. And I think Volkswagen created an ethos over many years, and all sorts of amazing Bill Bernbach ads and stuff like that, that just made it an icon, right. The Beetle’s a permanent icon, not just of the 20th century, but probably for cars forever. And what is amazing to me I’ve always thought this is an amazing part of the Volkswagen brand, is that the first car, the Beetle was actually sketched out by Hitler, for Ferdinand Porsche and he asked Porsche to make it for him. And somehow that turned into the symbol of the counterculture movement in the 60s in America. Which is like… I just find that I don’t know how to wrap my head around that, to be honest with you. It’s kind of amazing. But somehow they pulled that off, right. And then this whole diesel controversy happened a few years ago, where they were basically caught deceiving people very deliberately. I mean, I don’t know all the details beyond what I read in the business press. But certainly based on the filings or the court cases, and a lot of things have been admitted publicly, they were very deliberately playing with the results and being deceptive to the public about the pollution qualities of a diesel car, which I found amazing. But this is where you get a situation where the marketing and the actual behavior of the company are in conflict with each other. I think there’s risk here too, right? Because if you woke wash as you put it too much, you’ve got to make sure you walk that talk, because if you don’t, then I think the backlash can be pretty significant.

Katie Martell 
Not even just the backlash. I have a name by the way for this trend. It’s basically pandering, right? You’re saying something so that you can get the favor of whoever you’re trying to reach here. In this case, it was probably anyone interested in sustainability and all that. It’s “pandermonium,” right? It’s just it’s pandering… it was the original name of the documentary… shout out to my friend Kathy, who tweeted at me one day. But it’s happening in every single corner of this age of social movements. I love that example. And thank you for bringing it up. It’s perfect, because I think everyone can relate to and understand this idea that the marketing says one thing, the company does another. But we can all see why… everyone can see through the motivation of that marketing. It was trying again, to be part of this groundswell of sustainability, but you’ve got pandering to Black Lives Matter. You’ve got pandering to the pandemic, you’ve got pandering to the environmental movement, pandering to LGBT, it is pervasive. This is actually what got me interested in this topic in the first place. In 2016 I kept seeing all these ads, and I was just like, I was probably stoned on my couch watching TV. This is not like scientific research here. I was just seeing…

Grad 
You’re also just really married in 2016. So…

Katie Martell 
This was actually before I got married this…

Grad 
Oh, just before you got married. Okay, all right. So, just before you’re about to get married, and instead of being super excited about… you’re actually sitting there stoned on your couch, I get it. Okay, okay, I understand this.

Katie Martell 
Listen, wedding planning is so stressful, you just need advice. And I’m seeing all these ads on TV that have feminism in it. I remember the ad I saw was actually a KPMG ad, you know, one of the big four accounting firms. And it had Phil Mickelson and he’s golfing with some another professional female golfer. And he lets her tee off. He’s like, you go ahead. She tees off, the ball goes and all of a sudden it cuts to a boardroom. And it has the glass shield ceiling breaking. It’s now a court of law. The glass ceiling is breaking of some labs and science lab right? The metaphor being women are breaking glass ceilings all over and KPMG is all about… I think the end line is we support women in golf and everywhere else. And it’s like Whoo! I think it was promoting, by the way, sponsorship of some women’s golf tournament. But I’m looking at this ad and I’m like, alright, this is like cheesy, AF. And I remember the next day, I don’t know what got into me, I decided to Google KPMG. And I decided to look into a little bit of their practice. Now again, I am not an investigative journalist by any stretch… stoned on my couch. And I found an article from Accounting Today that showcased that KPMG was the subject of a $400 million class action lawsuit alleging a pattern of gender discrimination including, by the way, denying promotions to women — over 1000 women have spoken up — and penalizing them for taking maternity leave. And I wouldn’t have known that unless I Googled it, because the ad was very feminist. This is what got me into it. And I mean, Grad I could talk all day about brand A, brand B, brand C that do this. That spend tons of money, Superbowl ads, to put this stuff out there to showcase the world: These are our values we stand for something more. Try to differentiate, earn trust. But behind the scenes don’t live up to those values. It is rampant.

Grad 
Whoa boy. Well when they say that Katie Martell is an unapologetic marketing truth teller, they’re not kidding around. I’m having so much fun. I love talking about these topics. They’re tough topics sometimes, but they’re really important for us to understand. And I’m looking forward to finishing this conversation in our next part. But that’s all for today.

For the CXM Experience. I’m Grad Conn, CXO Sprinklr and I will see you soon.