A manufacturer of bleach and household cleaners hardly comes to mind when thinking of technological innovation in marketing. Eric Reynolds faces that challenge, and the challenge of recruiting tech-savvy marketers in the San Francisco Bay area, competing with the likes of Google.
As CMO of Clorox Co., he’s charged with keeping fresh a 100-year-old brand and managing a stable of household names that includes Brita water filters and Burt’s Bees lip balm. A 20-year veteran of Clorox, Reynolds has led an overhaul that has launched social influencer campaigns and an expansion of e-commerce to meet the demand of an evolving consumer, along with many other technology- and data-driven innovations.
On the sidelines of the annual ANA Masters of Marketing conference, he spoke to Velocitize about the challenge of marketing household staples in the digital age.
“We start from the belief that Clorox has a timeless equity and we’ve got to make sure that we’re relevant for people today,” he said. “If we start marketing nostalgia, gosh, we feel like that’s the beginning of the end. So we’ve always tried to reinterpret for a modern time.”
Velocitize: Household cleaners seems like a strange sector for digital innovation. How do you balance the elephant in the room—Amazon—against your own efforts?
Eric Reynolds: Making our brands relevant for people today means we have to make them relevant wherever they want to buy them. We get that people have a lot of opinions on e-commerce, but we know that’s a better experience for people. People gravitate towards better experiences and that’s where they want to find and buy our products, so we have to be there.
If we’re going to be there let’s do that in the best possible way that we can. Amazon is both our competitor and an essential route to market for us.
We’ve competed against store brands for a very long time. Are they getting more sophisticated? Of course. Does Amazon have lots of data and they can make their own brands? Yeah and they’ll eventually get that right.
But we’ve consistently competed effectively against those store brands by being more creative, better innovation, and quite frankly just being more engaging. We’re not marketing today like we did ten years ago or even 20 years ago, because the bar has been raised. Private label or house brands have made us better and e-commerce is just a better route to market.
The reason we invest so much digital is because we just don’t talk to millions of people anymore. We’re trying to let them know once we get you, we want to be useful. Here we are. And the only way I knew how to do that is by data and technologies.
But you are by definition a mass-market brand. How can you not be talking to the masses?
You’re right. We’re actually talking to millions of people. The difference is we’re talking to them in a more personalized, customized contextually relevant way.
Our industry is built on broadcast television–one kind of consumer, one message, and we just hit it over and over. It has served us very well, but now, in order to talk to millions and millions of consumers—they don’t want to listen to us, they would prefer to ignore us—we have to find respectful ways of slipping into their experience when they’re open to hearing from us. The only way I know to talk to millions and millions of people in that fashion is going to be mostly in digital.
As a company, we’re over 60 percent digital in terms of our entire spend. Most of that is in video. We’re still telling great stories, but now we can get that right person at the right time. It’s really just changed how we talk to people.
We still do marketing, print, radio. The fundamentals are still there. It’s just to what degree and what balance.
But there’s some new stuff you’ve been doing online. What’s your social plan?
Our job is to find ways to engage people. And what we’ve found is our influencer programs across many of our brands have continued to grow, because having other people tell our brand story is a very effective way to engage people.
Now take a person like (basketball player) Steph Curry—a huge influencer. Steph Curry came to us because he didn’t want to do a sugary beverage contract.
Steph Curry could have gotten a huge contract and any of the major beverage companies, but he actually believes in less plastic and he believes that water is the best beverage. He came to us out of a personal mission to drive more responsible water consumption. He speaks to a huge portion of our audience population in a really dramatic, compelling way.
He’s been a great spokesperson for the (Brita) brand. He loves to tell the benefits of hydration and kids drinking water and it just it makes for influencer and social media gold.
You had to restructure your marketing organization. Can you explain your “studio approach”?
If you believe we have to create more stuff—call it content or whatever—and you have to do it more nimbly and do more of it, you have to find a way to get all the people who can make the best decisions together. What we found was we had a lot of specialists, but we needed a way to harness the power of the specialist, to put them together so they can work faster in real time. So we created a studio.
The idea was anybody involved in the decision—whether it’s consumer insights, analytic insights, brand management consumer engagement, content creation, social listening, whatever —would all sit together physically.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s made a huge difference. Bringing people together, they have a much more intimate understanding of the data and the market conditions; they’re social listening; they’re listening to all that stuff and they’re able to respond quickly. Because speed is really the key to unlocking relevance.
We still believe strongly and we have agencies of records on our brands. They play a big role to make sure that we’re laying down the big brand ideas that will kind of endure over time.But, quite frankly, the amount of content we have to produce now and the velocity we have to produce is really a challenge for an in-house agency. We’ve had one for over 20 years, but I’d say in the last few years we’ve really ramped it up to meet the needs, the demanding digital content needs we have for our brands.
I think what we’re seeing is: figuring out how to get the studio working together with an in-house agency and external agencies. We need all three of those things.
It’s a really big challenge, but getting that ecosystem to function well—that is probably one of our most significant challenges. But if we can unlock it, we think it’s a tremendous source of opportunity.
Being based on West Coast, how do you compete for marketing people, data scientists and technicians? Do you have to train them, recruit them or build your own talent?
Well, you’ve described it well. There is a war for talent in the Bay Area, and it’s intense and it’s expensive. We tend to hold our own in recruiting by finding people with the right skills, but usually people who say “I’m still in the learning mode in my career and I think there’s value to working in a place where I’m going to learn the fundamentals.”
Is retention an issue? Yes, of course. They do well and then they go off to Google or Facebook. But I’ll tell you this: I’d much rather have that problem than being in a part of the country where there is no talent.
Some CPG companies are in places where there isn’t an abundance of talent and they’re just struggling to find the right people, or they have to put in remote satellite offices in San Francisco or Boston or Los Angeles. I don’t have to do that. So it does raise a lot of headaches; people are most important asset, but if we do it right we can usually hold or own.
So what’s next?
We’re we’re just taking a breath and saying “We’ve brought in all this new technology. Now we’re more focused on making the stuff we have even better and work harder.”
We’re getting better on our data strategies, better on deploying technology. After a lot of hype talk, we’re going to see large scale brands like mine start to do a lot more personalized communication, one-on-one marketing in ways that we haven’t done truly before.
It might have been easy to say “I sell bleach, so I don’t need to be online.” You don’t want to be chasing shiny objects.
The shiny new object syndrome is pretty dangerous, because there’s a lot of people that want to sell me a lot of shiny things. We’re saying: “How do we put the core of our digital program against the core value creation?”
Sometimes the things get pressed, things on the margin; but our core program in digital and is really what’s delivering the goods today. But we still have to keep innovating and trying.