Noora Raj Brown on the Hard Conversations Worth Having

Mixing Board Studio Session

Mixing Board
15 min readMar 28, 2023

Noora Raj Brown is the EVP of Brand at goop. She oversees brand and integrated marketing, corporate positioning, executive communications, social media, press and influencer strategies around all goop initiatives. Prior to goop, Raj Brown worked in a number of creative industries, including Time Inc, where she led communications for their fashion and style brands, including InStyle, People StyleWatch, XoJane and Wallpaper.

In this Studio Session, Noora and Mixing Board Founder Sean Garrett talk about the lessons learned from shifting from reactive to proactive comms, how to control the moment — not just the narrative, and why sometimes the most valuable thing you can do is to do nothing.

SG: It was 2016 and you were working in fashion media at a handful of different publications. How did you get connected to goop? And what did goop look like at the time?

NRB: I was a writing major in college and had these grand dreams of writing longform journalism for the New Yorker — all the things you think you’re going to be able to do in college. I moved to New York and started at Conde Nast. And when you start actually working in publishing, you realize you’re going to spend a lot of time writing captions — which is an art form in itself.

My last role prior to goop was at Time Inc., and while there were a lot of really exciting things about it, I knew almost instantly that I got there 10 years too late. The golden era had ended. I originally started working at InStyle, and ended up doing all of the luxury and lifestyle space, but there was just so much uncertainty. We would literally walk into our office and I would get a call from WWD being like, “I heard you guys are getting sold today.” I was on the brand side, not in corporate, and would tell them, “Honestly, you know more than I do.” The writing was on the wall, and I had to start thinking about what was next. I’ve now worked at a number of defunct publications, which is probably not the best framing for a career story about me.

InStyle was a shopping driven magazine, which was always our big claim to fame. We drove people to purchase and the reader trusted us to distill fashion down for her. But it always drove me crazy that you had such a separation, that you had conflicting KPIs, in that you were driving the reader to go offsite to buy something and then you’d lose them. And with traditional advertising becoming an increasingly tepid market, and the revenue stream from driving purchase at a meager 10%, give or take, of affiliate revenue… it felt like there had to be a more cohesive way of combining editorial and commerce.

I first discovered goop because the brand was on the forefront of culture, and I saw the way the content spoke to the whole woman, instead of just one facet of her. You used to see that with men’s magazines — there was an allowance for deeper ruminations, but also stories on what shoes to buy, and they made the mix work without feeling forced. Even though I loved reading them, many women’s magazines were one note to me. There’s exceptions of course, and The Cut is an example of a female-centric publication who’s done it really well.

I loved the idea of a publication that could talk about navigating toxic relationships, how to read an ingredient label on a beauty product to make sure it’s efficacious and non-toxic, and show you a gorgeous, Italian made blazer, all under the umbrella of making additive, expanding choices, of stepping into your power as a woman and consumer.

From a business proposition, I was attracted to the contextual commerce side of goop, which now of course has become mainstream. Every commerce platform has content. But goop started differently in that it really was content first, and commerce was folded into it in an organic way so it truly felt like service to the reader.

When I joined in 2016, it was still pretty small, maybe 25–30 people. I had a colleague at InStyle and a colleague at a marketing agency that I’d worked at before InStyle, who’d both gone to goop. They were two of the 10 people who worked in the New York office. For a good year, they both kept saying, “You have to come over here. We don’t have an in-house comms person and you’re perfect for this.” And then it happened really quickly. I went in for an interview and two weeks later I had the job. It was a whole other world when I got there because, if you’ve ever been the first in-house comms person at a start-up, well, there’s a lot to do.

SG: Especially when it’s never been done before. What was your original remit? What did you want to build and fix first?

NRB: When I started, there was an understanding that they needed a comms strategy and a comms leader, but I don’t think anyone truly understood what that meant. We didn’t have in-house legal or HR at the time. The most valuable thing that I did was — I actually did nothing. I sat and listened for three months, read every article that had ever been written about goop, did all the easy stuff that needed to be fixed, set up processes and I spent time thinking about what our actual issues were and what would move this company forward.

We were a small, scrappy team, and we were doing something that no one had ever done before — contextual commerce. When you write about things that you sell, there’s a whole different swath of rules that you need to adhere to. Even if it’s something that feels editorial and was written by a veteran editor, it has to be looked at in a completely different way.

That was honestly the most valuable thing that I did: sit back and think about the big picture. And it probably took two to three years before I felt like we’d made true, meaningful progress. It’s a long haul when you’re trying to change positioning.

SG: Was it hard to get on a proactive footing because you were just faced with a lot of reactive stuff for your first couple years? I always find that to be one of the most interesting shifts a leader can make, to shift that balance between reactive and proactive. And then learn from how they did it.

NRB: When we first met, that was exactly the situation we were in. We were dealing with a lot of reactive headlines. When you’re building a startup on a public stage, you’re not allowed to fail privately. When you have a Founder/CEO with a massive existing public profile, people are looking for things to pick apart and amplify. Ultimately we decided we couldn’t change that cycle until we did something that would reset it.

We knew this was a huge business. People thought we were a blog or side hustle, but we had a $250 million valuation at the time. We said, “How do we create a moment where people realize we deserve to be taken seriously?” We had this prodigiously engaged reader and shopper who believed in our mission and coveted our taste. I didn’t want to just put out a press release that said, “this is our valuation,” because that wouldn’t make any real waves.

So we took a big risk and did a huge story, a cover profile in New York Times Magazine with Taffy Brodesser-Akner. In the long run it worked out, but it was incredibly nerve-wracking at the time. We gave her a lot of access. But it was on the cover of New York Times Magazine that goop was worth $250 million. The story had enough intriguing controversy for it to go viral — in some ways good and in some ways bad. But we were able to take control of the narrative by putting ourselves out there on our terms. It was a bit of a denouement for us.

SG: You actually did it in a more subtly interesting way than just “controlling the narrative.” You controlled the moment. Because I remember reading that piece and wondering, is this good or bad? And then I realized, “No, this is definitely good.” But there was enough friction in it. At the time there had been a lot of little controversies popping up around goop, and there were lots of haters on Twitter. There were a lot of people calling you out every time they said or heard the word goop — it was a polarizing brand in small corners of the internet. That piece leaned into that. It leaned into the controversy, leaned into conflict. Which is obviously what made it a New York Times Magazine cover story, it created the validity for it to be there. But you guys did something really interesting, you almost let go of the narrative in some ways. You didn’t fight against that dynamic, you worked with it. You used the energy of that force and the hate to your advantage to tell that bigger story.

NRB: That’s a really apt way of putting it. It was more about controlling the moment than the narrative. We decided we were finally going to maneuver how we wanted this to play out. But we also did a lot of work leading up to that. We had implemented a whole science and research department that we never had before. Every wellness story got a real fact check. And sure, I think people blew a lot of things out of proportion previously, but we also had to look at that and say — whether or not we think it’s fair, this is what’s happening. And we need to create the gold standard. We need to acknowledge when something is emerging and make it really clear when something is experimental.

The interesting thing is that our audience always understood what we were trying to do. Our audience was begging us to share cool, interesting things that might feel like edge cases — they were asking for that because they were so let down by the medical establishment. But those were the exact things that the other side of the media would blow up. We had to find that balance of how to still talk about things that are new, different, and emerging, but also be very clear about what’s supported by science and what isn’t. We introduced tags at the top of pages to help indicate that.

SG: That’s a really interesting point about your community that you raised — your core customers, which were curated over lots of years before goop was made an official company — they got it, they understood it. They didn’t need to be told and they understood the nuances of what you were providing. But then obviously there’s a world out there, outside of your core community, that did not get it, and for whatever reasons they had some objections to it. As you evolved and as you got on your front foot after The New York Times piece, how did you focus your energies on your community, relative to this broader world out here that maybe didn’t understand things? How did you modulate between those two worlds?

NRB: It was a balance for a long time. Even when our first Netflix show came out — we had an episode on Wim Hof, who is this eccentric guy that champions cold plunge therapy, and has been in The New York Times and other storied publications. When we wrote about him and featured him on the show, there was this whole explosion again of, “Oh my God, we can’t believe you’re doing that.” But we stay true to who we are as a brand. From a content perspective, we’ve always been very tight on that. Our unofficial tagline is, we’re an irreplaceable provocateur for good.

I will say that we’re very, very careful about only being provocative when there’s a real message behind it. For example, with the Netflix show, that was about having autonomy over your own health. That doesn’t mean that you’re not relying on western medicine — it’s actually the opposite. It’s about ensuring you’re looking at every single aspect of what goes into physical, emotional and mental health. It’s interesting because if you look now at where the climate’s gone, now everybody is talking about those things. I read a CNN poll last year that suggested 90% of Americans think the country is experiencing a mental health crisis. If you’re the trailblazer, you get the thorns. But we’re comfortable being in that place because of the impact it has on people’s lives.

SG: As you evolve and grow, and you’ve been lucky to be around for a while, your community obviously evolves, too. How do you connect to new generations and new members of your community?

NRB: If you think about the comms landscape, the way that we now operate is so different. Traditional media is still important, but it’s not always the cornerstone of our strategy anymore. I spend as much time looking at TikTok trends now as I do at what’s in The New York Times. Sometimes that can be frustrating (have you tried understanding the trending sounds on TikTok?) but each spoke has to be activated to foster real longevity to a story.

SG: You and your principal have always said, “The world’s going to catch up to us.” The beautiful thing about goop and what you guys have done, is that you’ve proven that to be true. It is a brand that has stayed very true to its principles and its beliefs. You knew that some groups of the world were already caught up, but that more would catch up as time went on. Mental health is a great example. That was a term in 2016 that had very different implications than it does today. And that wasn’t that long ago, really.

Obviously you’ve been the daily guardian of this brand and you’ve evolved from a “communications role” to more of a brand leadership role. What lessons have you learned about how companies can bolster themselves? Because I’m sure there were a lot of not fun days, but you did always stay true to who you are. What allowed you to stand for something when it wasn’t popular? Even when you knew you were going to get punched in the mouth?

NRB: We have this incredible community of readers and shoppers who we hear from every day that something on goop changed their lives. It could be something as seemingly inconsequential as a beautiful blazer that they gave to their mother. Or perhaps they tried our skincare products and now they’re able to feel confident without makeup for the first time. When you get the constant reminder that you’re actually making a difference in people’s lives, it’s easier to tone out the haters.

We are laser focused on what we’re trying to do, which is to create a place where people can go to optimize every facet of their life through content and products that give them agency, depth and promise.

SG: What are some of the pros and cons of having a celebrity CEO/Founder? Obviously, it’s pretty easy for you to get attention when you need it, but it also comes with some inherent preconceptions and also probably some inherent sexism.

NRB: It can be a celebrity or it can be a high-profile CEO, but when you’re starting a company on a public stage, you are more open to criticism than you would be otherwise. We have a Founder/CEO who has never been afraid to speak her mind. People say authenticity all the time now, it’s become a buzzword. But when we started the brand, that wasn’t something that was in everyone’s brand marketing playbook.

And that’s good and bad. The good thing is that there’s a reason why people resonate with us so much, because she’s so true to herself, and that’s the essence of the brand. The hard thing is that you have a founder who isn’t going to speak in platitudes and talking points, which makes our jobs more complicated sometimes. But that isn’t who she is. And that’s also not the brand. At our core, goop is about optimizing our lives. Emotional evolution means hard conversations, most often with yourself. We always say the hard conversations are the ones worth having.

Consciously uncoupling is a great example of that. In 2014, she wrote this essay on the goop site about divorce. She was asking — is there a better way to divorce where your kids don’t end up in the middle and you don’t end up hating your spouse? At the time it went viral and she was incredibly vilified for it. People were asking, “Who do you think you are, that you can come up with a better way to divorce?” Fast forward to now, almost ten years later, there’s a scripted show on Netflix called Uncoupled that’s centered on learning to be friends with your ex.

It’s incredible to see those concepts become a part of the lexicon, even if it takes longer than we’d like sometimes. That’s the ultimate pro: you have something authentic that you’re able to turn into a real cultural shift. The con is that to get there, sometimes that means you have to sit through a storm or two first.

SG: There have been a lot of women CEOs who have been taken down by the media. What is it about women CEOs that make others feel like they need to tear them down? Why is this something that happens to most, if not all of them? Is there anything that you’ve seen that seems consistent across the board?

NRB: If you look at that swath of women CEOs that got taken down about two, three years ago, one consistent thing between many — not all — of them is that they were trying to build a better system, in their eyes. In each case, it was a woman who tried to create a utopian fantasy of what a business or brand should look like. And we held them to higher standards. For example, The Wing, who was trying to create a whole different model of coworking, connection, and feminism. They definitely made mistakes but as an outsider, it also felt like they were expected to stand for all of feminism. And that’s impossible.

A friend of mine, Julia Boorstein, wrote this book that everyone should read called “When Women Lead.” And in it, she talks about the disparity of VC money going mostly to men, a stat I’m sure we all know. The fascinating thing is that when women have a business with a mission-driven cause at its core, studies show people are more likely to give them money because they fit in a feminine trope: the nurturer box. We demand that women CEOs deliver higher returns than their male counterparts (which, by the way, they do), but we also want them to do it in a cloak of perfection.

It’s a very different situation for men. Men pave the way for other men, they make allowances for them, they open the door for them. They say, “I’m going to tee you up for success.” I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of women in my life who have done that, but that’s not always the norm. If someone is operating from a place of scarcity, from the feeling that there’s only a place for one of you, then they aren’t going to pave the way for others. It’s changed a lot in the last decade, and I’m thrilled with that sea change. It was overdue.

SG: Tell me about the evolution of your title, going from being the first comms person to having an EVP of Brand role. What is your philosophy on the differences between comms and brand? Is it all the same thing? Did you just merge it all together? Do we need multiple titles?

NRB: A lot of times when people ask me what “brand” means, I tell them the role of brand is to be the chief storyteller of the organization.

If you’re a fantastic comms person, you’re constantly looking at all of the messages, from creative to copy to influencer marketing, and you’re evaluating the tenets of the business that contribute to those messages.

We all know that if you’re a company in crisis, it can’t be fixed solely on the comms side. You can mitigate it, subvert it and try to control the fall out, but you have to get to the root of the crisis, and that usually means deep brand work with the executive team and key stakeholders.

SG: If you were giving advice to a young person who’s like, “Oh god, goop is the paragon of a cool job.” What advice would you give them on how to navigate their way to something like that in the future?

NRB: The best advice that I got, but didn’t take when I was younger, is to study every part of a business. You have to understand how engineering and product works. You have to sit in on the planning meetings and learn how they’re doing their buys and forecasting. It’s only when you understand the full scope of the business that you can be irreplaceable.

I studied writing and Italian literature. You can’t get less practical than that. My parents were obviously thrilled, by the way, with that choice. My father worked in tech in Silicon Valley and my mom worked at Stanford. And for a long time I rebelled against those things.

But eventually I had to understand, what does it actually mean if I want to turn on IG shopping? What does that actually look like from a tech, prioritization and resources perspective and how is that going to affect us cross functionally? Only then can you actually make a real recommendation.

My advice would be to develop a basic understanding of all the “boring” things, all the things that you’re not interested in, because that is one of the most valuable things you can do.


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