Keds’ CMO Culp Guides Heritage Brand Into Digital Age
“We’re in the process of evolving every piece of our marketing strategy,” said Emily Culp, whose approach comes down to three words: omnichannel, experimental, and unconventional.
Emily Culp’s marketing career has taken the form of a reverse marketing funnel. She started out in digital marketing more than 15 years ago. “That was back in the ’90s when people shook their heads when they heard about Amazon.com, saying the concept was never going to work,” she joked.
She worked at Digitas, learning about coding and marketing and helping to relaunch the L.L. Bean website. She spent time at Arnold and Ogilvy and Mather, where she complemented her digital prowess with an understanding of the traditional marketing channels, such as TV and direct marketing, and worked with clients including Best Buy and Kodak.
“I kept having these amazing experiences, but I realized I wanted to be accountable for driving results and the optimization of these strategies as well,” she said, in an interview with CMO.com. “I loved solving problems for clients, but now I actually wanted to do it.” She spent time at Clinique, Unilever, and designer Rebecca Minkoff, where she added such experiences as building a global marketing team from scratch and retail store design and launch.
Last July, Culp took her first CMO role at Keds, where she’s charged with bringing the century-old brand to the millennial consumer. While the title is clear, the role is fluid.
“I have never had a job description in my life,” Culp said, “and I plan to keep it that way. I find it hugely freeing.”
CMO.com talked to Culp about her entrepreneurial approach to marketing, the importance of listening to the consumer, striking the balance between advancing a brand’s image while honoring its heritage, how a celebrity spokesperson can be a trap, and why she wears Keds seven days a week.
CMO.com: You’ve really never had a job description?
Culp: I haven’t. It’s been great. You can be entrepreneurial and accomplish a lot more things. The downside was it took me a year to find the right client opportunity when I decided to leave the agency world. People want to put you into a box because things are much more specialized on the client side, and it was a challenge to find a company that recognized and valued my background.
I ended up at Clinique, which was very entrepreneurial but with strong venture capital backing. I got to start a whole new department from scratch and form a global team to begin omnichannel marketing for a brand with a strong heritage. Unilever created a role for me. Then I got to work for Uri Minkoff, who was extremely entrepreneurial and ridiculously smart and driven. He put me in charge of retail, which was the piece I was missing. It was an amazing opportunity to learn what it’s like to design a store from the ground up.
CMO.com: What brought you to Keds?
Culp: I got a call while I was at Rebecca Minkoff from a recruiter. I was really happy, and I wasn’t looking. But the relocation [to Massachusetts] appealed to me for personal reasons.
As importantly, Keds was a heritage brand. I’m so passionate about what I do. I only work with brands I fundamentally love. And I had this opportunity to honor this brand heritage and make it modern and relevant to today’s consumer. Additionally, Chris Lindner was the new president. He was driving the brand transformation, and part of this was building an entirely new leadership team.
CMO.com: The leadership team is new, but many of the employees have been with the company for years. Does that make change more difficult?
Culp: My boss is beyond innovative, and he has built a very open and entrepreneurial executive team, which is a huge asset. There are people who have worked here for decades—and that speaks volumes about the culture of the company. But now we have people here who didn’t grow up in the footwear world, who can bring in a totally different perspective. In the end, it is critical to have a mixture of both new and lifers to really drive growth.
CMO.com: What did you see as the biggest marketing challenge at Keds?
Culp: There is an amazing affinity for the brand. I get it. I grew up with Keds. I love Keds. Ask any women, and they’ll tell you they love Keds. They have a memory of Audrey Hepburn wearing them or an image of them in Dirty Dancing. But they don’t always still wear them. That’s the challenge. We don’t have to drive brand awareness, but we do have to change perceptions.
We’re in the process of evolving every piece of our marketing strategy, from our ads to our website to our retail store design, which we’re rolling out aggressively all over Asia. I believe in omnichannel marketing, but I’m very experimental and like to take unconventional approaches.
One of the most important things with a heritage brand is achieving that delicate balance between making it relevant without alienating the past. It’s extremely hard. I’m passionate about the brand. I wear Keds seven days a week. But what keeps me up at night is my desire to push the brand forward while honoring its history.
CMO.com: How do you do that?
Culp: I have a maniacal focus on listening to the consumer. Our customer is multifaceted. She’s less a demographic than a psychographic. A few things we know about her is she spends a lot of time in the digital world, she is passionate about female empowerment, and she has a certain moxie about her.
We can’t control our consumers. What we have to do is engage them. I want to make sure we know what our consumers are saying in social media. I read customer social media comments and ensure my team responds. I know retail sell-through rates because our customer votes with their wallets. We conduct focus groups.
Our consumer is in her mid-20s. Her life is changing. She’s starting out in her career or progressing. She has one look one day and one another. She wears Kate Spade with thrift store jeans and Topshop accessories. All of that is hugely exciting.
One of the fascinations of my career is the trading-up and trading-down phenomenon. What drives a woman to forgo paying rent for a certain status bag but also buy a white label pair of pants? There’s such an emotional aspect of the consumer relationship with a brand. I love figuring out why someone spends a lot of money on this and no money on that. When we conducted focus groups a month ago, I asked for head-to-toe-shots of the women. Then I can see where they’re trading up and trading down. I can look for patterns and think about how we want to style our photo shoots.
CMO.com: What are the biggest challenges in reaching that consumer?
Culp: When I think about the way a consumer experiences a brand, it’s not linear. So our focus is on creating microcontent that can stand on its own but also create a cumulative effect, essentially bringing the consumer deeper into the brand story. I’m looking for that amazing tension between microcontent that makes sense in isolation but when stitched together delivers a richer consumer experience.
I see our job as omnichannel marketers as delivering different chapters in a book. Each chapter has to make sense on its own. It may be an individual’s only interaction with that brand. The onus is on us to give her a chapter that’s compelling enough to make her turn the page.
CMO.com: How difficult is it to tie these new strategies to business results?
Culp: Every strategy I implement has KPIs. Some are harder to measure versus others, but you can always create a model to explain more complex dependencies. Between Net Promoter Score data, market share, and sell-through rates, we can correlate the data to the programs that we’re doing to create awareness and change perceptions.
CMO.com: Tell me about the idea behind the Keds Collective—a collection of a female celebrities, artists, and industry leaders who are representing the brand.
Culp: Any time a brand associates with one spokesperson, it becomes one-dimensional. Our consumer is multifaceted, so we wanted to create more of a collective of women that would reflect the aspects of our consumer. Hence we partnered with actress Allison Williams, award-winning singers Ciara and Tori Kelly, co-founder of Wearable ExperimentsBillie Whitehouse, model Cailin Russo, and K-pop star Krystal Jung.
The Keds brand has been authentically about female empowerment for more than a century, and we wanted to partner with collective members that believe in furthering other women. Specifically, I wanted people with a passion for the brand and what it stands for. So I spoke with each of them individually and asked what was most important in their career right now. I wanted to figure out what Keds could do for them to show that this would be a partnership.
CMO.com What’s most important in your career right now?
Culp: I’m focused on creating a strong team at Keds who will deliver impactful results. I also love to teach, and I still do that at Columbia and NYU. It’s important for me to teach the next generation of marketers. I’m concerned when I look at marketing programs, and I see so many young people being pressured to specialize in a specific discipline and put themselves into a box. Two of the most important skills students can hone are the ability to problem- solve and to be capable of seeing the bigger picture. So it’s important to me to balance delivering results to the company with finding the time to teach people both within my team and outside of it.