Poppy Thorpe on Brand Strategy as an Operating Principle

Mixing Board member Poppy Thorpe serves on the Board of Directors of Snap and consults with founders and CEOs on how to build their brands. She was previously the Chief Marketing Officer at Sesame, a direct to patient healthcare company, and the Head of Brand Marketing and Strategy at Glossier. For Glossier, this meant leading brand marketing, brand strategy and all integrated go-to-market strategy and execution for product launches, campaigns, retail openings, and consumer initiatives.

Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Poppy and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. They talk about the importance of the long game and the value of having brand/comms professionals on a board of directors, how to enable focus and impact through brand work, but also why it’s important not to be too precious with the process.

SG: Tell us about your career arc working at agencies, then finding yourself in-house, and what you’re doing now.

PT: I spent a chunk of my career working in creative advertising agencies, leading a hybrid between brand strategy, comms strategy, and creative strategy — thinking about how to tell a brand’s story through advertising. I did that for a number of different clients including Beats by Dre, which was an amazing experience, thinking about how a brand, such a US brand, really expressed itself internationally, and how to distill what was really unique about the brand’s story into many different markets and make it culturally relevant there. That was a big part of my role.

I ended up leaving the agency world and going to a consultancy called FNDR, based in LA. I was a partner at FNDR in the very early days of its inception. We worked with founders at early to mid-stage companies helping them tell their intentional narrative, which is what we called it. I did projects there for many different founders, which was an amazing experience. Two of the founders that most notably helped take my career in a different direction was a project that we did with Emily Weiss of Glossier, and then we did some work with Evan Spiegel of Snapchat. Through that work I ended up transitioning my career into the client side, and I went and worked in-house at Glossier as their first head of brand, back in 2018.

SG: How big was the company then?

PT: It was under 100 people. It was Series B before they had the Series C raised, so it was an amazing point to join. Many people knew the brand story, but not at the stage that we needed to get to the next level of growth. And that’s what my role was, focused on how to take a brand, and the core narrative of what the brand is, and express that on a wider stage to many different people, but then also operationalize that. What was happening internally, especially at a company like Glossier, was that brand was part of everything people really thought about, whether it was on the customer service team, the product development team, or the marketing team. But there was not an operational backbone on how to create an organization rallied around an understanding of how to express the brand’s story. My role was really focused on the execution of the day-to-day brand marketing initiatives across social, product launches, store openings. But also how to operationalize that through different briefings and creating a marketing calendar.

It was a really interesting hybrid role that leaned into the strategic underpinning, but also making it massively operational. It was just a wild ride being there for those years of fundraising rounds, massive growth, global expansion, growing our community on a huge scale, and focusing a lot on brand awareness and bringing new customers in. Around the time I went to Glossier, after I left FNDR, I joined the board of Snapchat. That was in 2018, which was also an amazing experience, and still something I am so grateful for. That I get to be a part of that company and be in the world of the other board members who are some of the most well respected and established former CEOs or CFOs. It’s really, really great to be in their company, but also be one of the younger independent board members in the tech space.

SG: You’re thrown into this 100-person company that’s doing a million different things, and the classic brand strategist is like, “Okay, here’s the process. Here’s the discipline.” But in reality, when you get there, it’s just insanity. Things are happening everywhere around you, and you have to ask yourself, how do we allow this thing to naturally evolve and grow? But at the same time, inserting some levels of process to it. What did that feel like?

PT: It was a madhouse, but in the best way. My flavor of brand strategy was never very rigid, and part of working in the types of agencies on the types of clients that I did leading up to that allowed me to have a more fluid and dynamic approach to brand strategy. I wasn’t trying to get every single data point lined up in order to make this seven-page argument about why you needed to do something, that took six weeks to come up with. Great brand storytelling is centered around an insight that you need to test, you need to get out there, and you need to apply to different aspects of a company. That allowed me to go into Glossier better equipped to understand how to be effective.

The big opportunity is not to think of brand, or brand strategy, as a deliverable. It’s much more about an operating principle or a filter that can be applied to a lot of different things. That is such a big foundational cornerstone of how I think about the work I’m doing today. You fail if your brand strategy is in a document sitting on someone’s desktop that never gets opened. Brand isn’t one, two, or three people’s job, or a document that sits in the server. It’s actually a fundamental perspective on how you are different and what your company’s story is that’s filtered through everybody. To be successful in a job, either in-house or as a consultant, you need to understand how to create a story for the company centered around a brand that’s usable and that’s relatable to many different people.

SG: We’re intentional about having brand strategists in Mixing Board for a reason, one, because the discipline and the perspective is really useful, and it counterbalances people who come from a pure comms world. When you bring those two things together, I think it’s very powerful.

Some of the best comms people I’ve partnered with have been able to see the world that same way. That’s where the dynamic duo of a comms person and a brand person is really unstoppable. The comms person has a viewpoint of the brand from the outside in, and the brand person is the inside out. There’s a really interesting dynamic there which allows for a full view of brand perception and what’s going to be meaningful and resonant to both the internal team, but also external press or customers.

SG: What advice would you give to others that are in that hyper-growth mode of Series B — you have 100 people, you’re about to scale, you’re about to go international? How do you properly manage that flexibility and that dynamic nature that you need to have while you’re also hiring for all these different roles and bring in all these different people. Suddenly you have a social account in Europe, you have to figure out what people are saying there, and how people are reacting to specific issues. How do you advise companies going through it?

PT: People across an organization, especially new team members, want the filters to do their job. They want tools to think more robustly about how to communicate, how to develop programs or brand expressions. The more information you can give people, the better. One of the big things that we focused on Glossier, was a company-wide marketing calendar. It wasn’t a calendar that sat within the marketing team, everyone had access to it. And it really helped people understand the story we’re telling this quarter, here’s how it ladders up to bigger goals, and here’s resources that you can look for to have a deeper understanding of what we’re trying to communicate. Whether it was onboarding or prepping a launch in an international market, there was a foundation, a resource that people could use and leverage to create more meaning in the work that they were doing. It was definitely far from perfect, but in the best way because you can’t be too precious with these things.

What I love about telling brand stories in today’s world is that it can be iterative. There should be some elasticity in a brand because you can uncover dimensions through not being too rigid. You can discover things that you wouldn’t have seen any other way, other than getting something out there and seeing how your customers react.

SG: You can be super elastic, super responsive, very porous, and then you react to the day-to-day. You almost become this reaction machine. Then on the other side, you go deep, you channel it out, you think about this big program. But it takes six months to run, and by the time you do it, the audience is not there. You just completely missed the boat because that thing was six months ago. How do you manage that? The balance is hard.

PT: That’s the determining factor of what makes some brands successful and some brands not successful. Knowing how to toggle between and determine which things are malleable and which aren’t, and how to assess things that way. It goes back to developing a very fundamental core strategy, and then saying, “Okay. If things line up to this, everything else is malleable around that.” Something like brand tone, that’s something that can develop. The way in which you talk about your brand, the words that you use, the copy, et cetera. I would put all of that in the dynamic pile. But what your values are, your mission and vision, that shouldn’t change. That isn’t something that should be reassessed on a regular basis. That’s an example of being reactive and evolving, but then really tying things back to what’s fundamental.

SG: Tell me about your first conversations when working with a founder. What are you able to communicate to a founder who is so sure of their vision? Why would they want advice and ongoing perspective from an expert brand strategist?

PT: When I’m working with a founder, it’s helpful to figure out, do we see the world the same way? Do we have the same filters for what success looks like, how to operate a company, what’s meaningful, and what our values are? There’s a perspective that I have around the core consumer, around technology in today’s world, and how brand filters into all that. It’s something that a lot of companies, particularly in the tech space, don’t think about very early on.

SG: I’m fascinated by your participation on the Snap board. I’ve long believed that boards would greatly benefit from having a direct brand/comms perspective in their decision making process — as opposed to some down-the-line view. You typically have these former management types, former management consultants, another ex-CEO, a venture capitalist, and a CFO. Having someone with a brand/comms background there really balances out that view. Tell me about the dynamics of what you can bring to those conversations.

PT: I couldn’t agree more. So many boards are comprised of investors, And actually, investors are not independent. They don’t have the long game in mind. It’s such a big opportunity for companies and for founders as they’re thinking about building their board — it should be a group of advisors. Comms/marketing/brand strategy are really fundamental to thinking about your company in the long term, and that should be the objective of a real board of directors, in my opinion. Many comms or brand people have a deep understanding of just plain old marketing. Meaning, I acted at Glossier as a marketing executive and then became a CMO. It wasn’t always just brand strategy — it was also advertising and driving revenue.

There’s a lot of value that brand and comms people can add — the core narrative, the core story, how to bring that to more people, and to expand upon it. Also just fundamentally, how to think about a marketing organization, how to think about advertising, how to think about growth in a way that can add tremendous value to a board dynamic. Every board should have a marketer slash strategist on it because it’s such a missing piece of how companies need to grow in the long run. How to take a vision and make it executable in the day-to-day. That’s something that is going to hopefully naturally happen as part of many boards needing more diversity. Because it’s also about diversity of thought and perspective. People are realizing that creating an echo chamber on your board is not going to help you avoid pitfalls or avoid problems down the road.

SG: I’m sure there’s been moments where something’s discussed around the table and you’re thinking, am I the only one who’s hearing this? Maybe we shouldn’t do that, or maybe we can do that 10 times bigger.

PT: One piece of advice that I received before joining the board was to not only think of myself as a marketer. Don’t only have opinions based on marketing or brand strategy. That was amazing advice because when everything’s a story, or when you believe that brand is everything, that there’s always an opportunity to develop some initiative or some company element into marketing — you can have a perspective that’s really important across different functions and different aspects of what topics might come across the board’s purview.

SG: Tell me about how you’ve transitioned your in-house experience and this on-going board experience into consulting and working with different types of companies who are looking for a smart person to figure out their brand strategy. You mentioned earlier that there is this preciousness that goes into the process where it’s like, “We have to do this deep examination, this deep discovery process, then do the qualitative research, then you talk to these audiences.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, nothing that’s bad is going to come from that process. But when you’re dealing with companies and startups that are moving so fast and changing every three months, by the time you figure out your insight, the company’s changed three times over. What’s the right amount of perspective for early-stage companies who are saying, “We have a consumer brand, we’re trying to figure out how to build this out and connect to this audience what do we do?”

PT: Other approaches might lead more on validation and deep research, but my approach is much more around collaboration with the founder — insight and some substantiated intuition. How do you take a hypothesis, or an idea of what the brand’s story is, and begin to validate it through proof points that are less rigorous. There’s a lot of that, whether it’s company DNA, what’s happening in culture, or how to push against the category. There’s so much about insight and observation that can help validate a really strong brand story that doesn’t require IDIs and really deep, long-term, robust work that slows you down.

For many companies that I work with, the idea of translating a founder’s vision is half the battle of developing the brand. The rest is around making that really robust versus feeling like you have to add a data point to everything. The need for a data point is a bit archaic. The industry’s moving instead towards this idea of a narrative and a story or a brand’s operating principle. That is superseding some of the more traditional approaches.

SG: Once you get the founder’s vision, how do you make sure that people actually in the organization understand?

PT: That’s such a big part of the work that I’ve been doing. We get a lot of inbounds from people either on some other function within the exec team, or the founder themselves saying, “My company’s not understanding my vision. We’ve gotten bigger, and I need help articulating that.” Part of it is adding structure and perspective to the founder’s vision in a way that allows you to create an artifact for a founder to roadshow and help to get the company coalesced around what the brand’s story is and how that impacts their work.

SG: The natural next question usually is, “Okay, great. We’ve done this vision thing. What next? How do we bring it to life?”

PT: You start to do things and translate that vision into initiatives. That can be social impact initiatives, or you start to push your story out in PR, or you even change what you’re saying on Instagram. It can get very tactical very quickly because you have this meaningful springboard that allows you to begin to act. Shortening the distance between coalescing that story into action is the key.

SG: Every founder thinks they’re so unique and their vision is so unique, and obviously, that’s why they started a company. Yet they’re always looking over other people’s shoulders and saying, “Well, I saw everyone else get a story here,” or, “They did this whole YouTube campaign. Can we do that?” When it comes to the vision, they want it to be unique, but when it comes to the execution, it’s very copycat. People would always come to me and say, “We just want to get this cover story, and we really deserve this big feature around this thing.” And I’m like, I don’t even know if you need press. Maybe that’s not your thing. I don’t know until I dig in with you and figure out what you’re all about.

PT: That’s why it’s so important to think about the brand strategy as an operating framework. Because you can very quickly filter out things that don’t make sense for the story that you need to tell and the executions that are irrelevant. One of the elements that I have learned the hard way, being able to think about what you don’t do, is actually more important than what you end up doing. The process of elimination is where greatness is created. That is where you really get to build the brand muscle, cutting out and eliminating and staying really focused. That’s what amazing brand work should enable across an organization, is that focus and that isolation of what’s going to really make an impact.

SG: When do you know that you’ve got it right with an organization? When do you see organizations have that epiphany of, “Oh, this stuff is connecting together now.” To me, that’s always the best thing, when people actually see the before-and-after photo. What should that feel like inside of an organization? How do give people hope that if they go through this process, they will get to the other side?

PT: It’s momentum. It’s the feeling that you’re moving forward and that people are excited to take you there. When I was internally doing this work at different companies, it’s when you get the Slack message from the least obvious person in the organization with an idea about the brand that feels really right. You’re like, I’ve done my job because they have understood something that they may not have understood before about the story the company’s trying to tell. That’s my own personal example, but as a founder, it’s the feeling of a strong gravitational pull and this momentum that’s pushing your company forward that may have not been there before. There may have been more of a feeling of stagnation or even treading water.

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Previous Mixing Board Studio Sessions are here.

For more on Mixing Board and how the community can support organizations, see this recent post.

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