RENEGADE THINKING from the CEO of Renegade, the NYC-based "social inspired marketing" agency that helps besieged CMOs cut through.

NASA’s John Yembrick – Social Star


Putting aside TV’s Big Bang Theory, America is not exactly into science.  We celebrate sports stars over scientists, rock ‘n rollers over researchers and movie starts over mathematicians. It shouldn’t be a surprise therefore that our teenagers rank #36 in the world in their understanding of math and science. One could link this to a broader trend towards anti-intellectualism and the dumbing down of our great nation but I’ll leave that argument to the far more erudite pundits at Psychology Today.

So then how do you explain the phenomenal success of NASA on social media? The @NASA handle alone has a combined following of over 26 million of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with engagement rates that far exceed most celebrities. NASA also supports dozens of other social presences that engage with millions more day in and day out on specific topics. NASA has also found itself on the top ten trending topics list more than most “A” listers combined.



To find out exactly how all of this came into being, I reached out to John Yembrick, NASA’s social media director.  I was fortunate enough to have heard his truly inspiring keynote at the Social Media Shake-up in Atlanta.  John’s passion for all things NASA and social media are truly contagious and reminded me how essential this element is to the success of marketers, both as individuals and as brands.

Passion is transformative, as you will see in our interview below. Combined with talents like the ability to spot trends in the making and cleverly translate these into engaging content, passion has helped NASA become a true force in the social media landscape–and hopefully inspire a greater interest in science among the next generation.

Drew:  Your passion for space and astronomy is palpable.  Where did that come from?

John: I’ve always personally had a huge passion for space and I followed NASA closely before I ever worked for NASA. Honestly, I never understood why everyone doesn’t share my enthusiasm.  I’m not so naïve as to think that everyone will, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I feel like if you put content in front of people and show them why it is relevant to their lives and how cool it is, they will get excited.  Yesterday I was showing someone I just met this photo of Pluto, and their eyes lit up and they were excited to learn about something that humanity has never seen before. And that happens all of the time at NASA.

Drew: How does this passion impact your ability to do your job?

John: One of the reasons why I think that our content, especially on the flagship NASA account, plays so well on social media is because both my associate Jason Townsend and I are passionate about this content and we think it matters.  If you are working on a brand and don’t care about the product, it’s very difficult to really communicate it to the best of your ability.  Mine stems from childhood, just loving space, playing with toy spaceships and looking up at the stars.  I love them.  I am one of those people who looks up at the nighttime sky wondering what I’m seeing, wondering what’s out there.  And I love the fact that NASA is helping to answer those questions.

Drew: You mentioned in your speech that the press didn’t always tell the stories NASA wanted told in the pre-social media days.  Can you elaborate on that?

John: Sure.  In the pre-social days, the press was the filter. They might care about a spacewalk, but they didn’t care about 99 percent of the other things NASA was doing. Social media changed that, although back in 2008 I was a skeptic like everyone else.  But I had a “eureka” moment when there was some downtime during a spacewalk on a space shuttle mission.  I decided to look at Twitter and to my surprise, a robust conversation was happening around my recent tweet — and I wasn’t even participating in it.  People were saying, “Oh my gosh, I can’t leave my computer, I’m on the edge of my seat, this is a coolest thing I’ve ever seen and I don’t want to go back to work.”  It was in the middle of the workday and I realized no one was responding, so I did.

And that was the moment. I just didn’t care about anything else.  I thought this was the most important thing I should be doing even though I was only interacting with a few thousand people. It just hit me that these people cared and I wanted to engage with them.  I wanted to make them happy with the content I was putting out. I thought, ”Wow, you never get this kind of enthusiasm from the news media.” And that was a really life-changing moment for me.

Drew: Do you think your passion is contagious?


John: I am passionate about the brand.  I think this brand matters more than anything else in the world and in regard to advancing humanity forward.  But I’m certainly not alone here. During the government shutdown a couple of years back we were not allowed to post anything on social media. But the great NASA social community we had built posted things while we couldn’t. That is one of things I’m most proud of.  It just shows that we nurtured these ambassadors out there and they welcomed the opportunity to support our mission.

Drew: You go out on limb quite a lot to be part of the social conversation.  Can you give me a recent example?

John:  Sure. A couple of weeks ago, it was National Donut Day and that became a trending topic on Twitter. So we took an image of a galaxy with a black hole at the center that looked kind of like a doughnut and posted it with a Happy National Doughnut Day message.  That particular tweet came up at our staff meeting and the subtext was, “That’s just John and Jason being silly.” In truth, thousands of people engaged with the wonders of the galaxy that day instead of a glazed donut.  We were part of the conversation and that has power.

Drew: You all seem to be the masters of real-time marketing, particularly with big events like the Oscars.

John:  I would say our biggest success really was with the movie Gravity at the Oscars.  It was up for a bunch of Oscars that night and we were watching it.  Throughout the whole Oscar program and especially when Gravity would win something, we would post real images from space with various relevant hashtags. These beautiful images looked like photos from the fictional movie like a spacewalk or the international space station but ours were the real thing.  Our content ended up being one of the top trending topics during the Oscars – it was a hugely successful campaign.

Drew: Some of these real-time moments also help you fulfill another mission, which is to engage young people, particularly girls, and get them interested in science.  Can you talk a bit about this?

John:  The old image of NASA is of some white guys sitting behind a table telling about the latest discoveries. This probably wasn’t the best way to captivate the younger audience and get them excited about the engineering required for space exploration. Today we have a lot of great women astronomers, engineers and astronauts at NASA, and they are real role models. Celebrating those women on social media is one way to connect with young girls.  Another is by being in the moment on social media.  For example, our Twitter interaction with Justin Bieber about his desire to do a concert in space ended up getting thousands of retweets and more importantly made the idea of space travel very relevant to this key demographic for NASA’s future.  As it happens, we also got a big uptake in young followers.

Drew: When you look at your career trajectory, can you talk about the elements that have propelled your success?

John:  I’m a little humbled by what you call career success.  But I will tell you that throughout my career, I have always been willing to try new things, I’ve relocated several times and when opportunities arose, I embraced them.  Also, I have always been willing to take chances, whether working for a space operation or at a field center, and then I jumped headfirst into social media.

At every organization I’ve been in, I’ve always asked “What’s next? What can we do better?”  And that comes with consequences in your career. There are a lot of challenges when you try to enact change within an organization. That said, I think that this quest ultimately leads to career satisfaction even when you meet resistance.  If you are passionate about it, like I am about communications and the ability of social media to transform this organization’s communication strategy, you really push hard.  In the end, I’m really proud of the things we’ve done.

Giving Social a Healthy Pass



This is the last but not least of my interviews in preparation for our panel called Why CMOs Won’t Invest More in Social Media at The Social Media Shake-up.  This time, Bill Koleszar, CMO at American Family Care, gives me the prescription for overcoming his primary marketing challenges which currently exclude social media.  That’s not to say Bill doesn’t see social playing a more prominent role down the road, just give him a bit more time to settle in!

Drew: I know you just arrived at American Family Care — can you talk a little bit about your business and your role?

Sure, AFC is actually a pretty remarkable story. Our founder, Dr. Bruce Irwin, was born the son of a cobbler in rural Alabama. Nevertheless, his curious mind and a tireless work ethic landed him in medical school. After a stint as an ER physician, he opened his first urgent care clinic in 1982. Thirty-three years later, with more than 140 clinics and 500 in-network physicians caring for more than 2 million patients a year, American Family Care is the nation’s leading provider of urgent care and family care. My role in this effort is simply to tell our story – and help us become one of the most widely known and admired brands in healthcare.

Drew:  What are your top priorities as the CMO? (You talked about building and flying the brand at the same time!)

We have 3 broad marketing priorities. Drive patient volume to new and underperforming clinics. Invest in creating a national brand. And, lastly, solidify our Marketing infrastructure, primarily through implementing better processes and applying more marketing science to what we already do.

Drew:  You mentioned reputation management as a top priority.  Can talk about this a bit?  

Our company is totally dedicated to providing quality healthcare. It’s in our corporate DNA and it comes right from the top. Our goal is 100% patient satisfaction. As a result, our patient complaint rate is just 0.35 instances per 1,000 patients – amazing low for any business, but especially healthcare. Some of those complaints end up online or in other venues, which actually helps us by making us aware of dissatisfaction, but doesn’t tell the whole story of who we are and what we do. We simply need to do a better job of highlighting the stories of those we’ve helped – and in some cases lives we’ve literally saved.

Drew: What role then does social play for your business right now?

We certainly monitor it, but we have not taken full advantage of it.

Drew:  For organic social to become a top 3 marketing priority for you, what would need to change? For example, if social media could suddenly become a measurable source of clinic traffic, would that move it up the list?  

Social would need to become measurable, scalable, and cost-effective above and beyond other areas we invest human and financial capital. Having just 2 of those three would fall short relative to our goal of driving clinic traffic.

Drew: You mentioned wanting to have American Family Care on the list of most admired brands.  What role if any could social play to help you achieve this goal?  Can it help you engage with Millennials? 

Our goal is to land on Fortune’s list of most admired companies by 2023, and I am sure that social media will play a significant role in achieving that vision. However, the most important thing we can do is to simply focus on our mission – provide the best healthcare possible. If we continue to deliver quality, compassionate healthcare when we have 500 medical centers and are seeing 10 million patients a year – many of which will be millennials – I am confident that our efforts we will be recognized across social media channels.

Drew: Is there a social channel (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that works better than others for your brand.  If so, which one and why do you think that’s the case?

Facebook is clearly the channel that patients use most. I think the reason is that many people look to their Facebook friends for advice, even for their health-related issues. Of course, it’s also a venue for sharing positive and negative experiences across a broad spectrum. We certainly update our own presence regularly, but I also know we can do better – and we will.

Social Media Still Works Wonders for Media Brands


Scot Safon EVP, CNN-GM, HLNTalking to Scot Safon, the former CMO of The Weather Channel, about social media is like revisiting a day at Disneyworld with a nine-year-old. Bursting with enthusiasm, they can’t possibly tell you fast enough all of the things they enjoyed, rarely recollecting the negatives while maintaining an unabated commitment to revisit the newest attractions as soon as possible.  That said, Safon’s enthusiasm for social is anything but immature.  A veteran of the media world including long runs as marketing chief at CNN, Headline News and most recently The Weather Channel, Scot saw first hand the powerful role social media played in terms of driving site traffic and generating conversation about their programming.

In our discussion, what struck me the most is that for media companies, social networks are essentially broadcast channels that extend the reach of the mother ship.  Since they are already in the content creation business, developing “click bait” whether it be in the form of images or video or headlines is just not that challenging and perhaps more importantly, a negligible incremental cost. So yes as “talkers” media companies have a huge edge.  But what about the listening part of social? Are these brands really being social with a capital S? For that answer, you’ll have to read on…

Drew: You were at CNN in the pre-social media days and have watched social’s role evolve through your stints at CNN, HLN and The Weather Channel.  How has the role of social media evolved for TV networks? 

The “early days” of social were largely about Twitter and Facebook, and the objective was pretty much to just get mentioned and quoted. It was almost entirely organic (paid wasn’t really happening yet), and it was unpredictable and erratic.  It was still a new idea and it was concentrated among a few audience segments. Today, the “social landscape” includes Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Meerkat, Instagram, Pinterest, YikYak and hundreds of other platforms and destinations where people are generating the content and responding to it.  Every single one of these platforms has potential to generate interest in television content– and some of it has been particularly good for building excitement for live televised events. Sports, breaking news, award shows, competition shows have all benefited from the social media buzz that breaks out on some of these platforms while the shows are on.  And the overlay of paid social has allowed marketers to target audience segments with very specialized, very relevant social “firestarters”.

Drew: Can you talk about the role of social in the marketing mix at the Weather Channel? What were your primary objectives?

Social was always an important part of the mix when I was at The Weather Channel, especially since weather has always remained such a popular topic on social platforms. People love to share weather pictures and video, and much of that video is critical to weather news coverage, where The Weather Channel excels on every platform. In terms of audience driving, though, it seemed to help us drive people to severe storm coverage, long-form editorial content and storytelling. Local forecasts, which are a huge part of the company’s business, were– then, at least– less driven by social.

Drew: A lot of what TV networks do on social is sharing content (i.e. talking). What role if any did social listening play? 

Social “listening” is critical, but you have to listen carefully…and guardedly. If something generates only a few comments or shares or citations, it likely didn’t inspire any meaningful feedback and you shouldn’t probably look at specific comments too closely. If something generates numerous comments, that indicates you might have touched a nerve.  But it’s important not to weigh the most extreme comments too much– I’ve seen executives at many networks get very, very concerned about one or two very negative comments…or get too enthusiastic about a few very positive comments. It’s like when you attend focus groups– you can’t weigh the outliers too heavily or you’ll start making some bad decisions.  But there are many forms of “social listening”, and sometimes it’s good to listen in to get some early warnings that sentiment might be shifting, new relevant topics are emerging, and things you’ve overlooked might actually be important.

Drew: What were some of the more effective social campaigns you developed at CNN?  

The first time I saw social really emerge as a critical force in media was during Hurricane Katrina coverage in 2005, which many would describe as “pre-social”.  But we still saw people trying really hard to use any digital platform imaginable to try to connect with other people, and many were using CNN as the ‘connector’. We tried very hard to respond to that need for information, connection and help by creating all sorts of micro-sites, aggregators, and user-generated content gathering points. CNN iReport emerged from that. During the 2008 Election campaign social media started coming into its own, and we embraced it very enthusiastically, even bringing in YouTube as a Debate presenter and Facebook as our partner in presenting the live streaming of the Inauguration (at that point it was the largest live streaming event in history).     

Drew: Since they’re already in the content business (with writers, editors, etc) don’t media channels have a real leg up on social content development versus other types of companies? 

I think that media companies are probably more comfortable and more nimble with developing social media content– mainly because they are prepared to make quick adjustments and tweaks to whatever they put out there. These companies already have producers, writers, editors, graphics folks working on content and promotions all the time, so A/B testing two content approaches is not daunting….and revising something that isn’t working is also fairly simple.  If you are having to reach back out to an agency to get that done it’s sometimes cumbersome and sometimes expensive. But agencies and clients are getting increasingly tight with each other on these efforts, and more agencies are acting as virtual in-house departments. And there is more in-house staffing going on, too.

Drew: Social media has been great for other TV networks like ABC’s Thursday line up.  Why is that?  

ABC– and the brilliant Shonda Rhimes– have done an incredible job creating must-see-live-tv  shows like SCANDAL and HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.   They constructed the shows so that their core audience can have fun on social media throughout the show, and they’ve created a situation where half the fun is watching Twitter throughout ABC primetime.  The comments are funny and intriguing…and they drive you right back to the show. I know a lot of people time shift those shows, but lots are watching and loving them live.  And Fox is doing the same with EMPIRE.

Drew: You remain bullish on social media.  For marketers that are responsible for product sales and any dollar invested in social / content comes out of their working media budget, what advice would you give them? How do they get more out of their social programs?  Should they consider shifting dollars away from paid media?  

I am a huge believer in the power of all paid media– on television, on radio, in print, outdoor and online.  I think you need to use all of it.  But social media can be part of all of it, and it lets you target people precisely, and lets you get very relevant at the same time.  You get to speak in a new vernacular and lets you really let the content be the star.  When I started in advertising in the 1980s–before digital or social– the most cherished form of advertising was the one you just couldn’t buy: word of mouth. Well, social media IS word of mouth…emphasis on the words. It’s persuasive and emotional and funny and ingenious and urgent and very, very personal….all the stuff you want great advertising and promotion to be.

Cause Funding + Prepaid (+ Social?) = WeCareCard


Next week at the Social Media Shake-Up, I have the privilege of moderating a panel called Why CMOs Won’t Invest More in Social Media. Based on our pre-panel discussions, it should be a lively conversation featuring three terrific CMOs: Katharine Mobley of WeCareCard,  Scot Safon formerly of The Weather Channel and Bill Koleszar of American Family Care.

Why this panel?  From my conversations with various CMOs this year, it is clear to me that the bloom is off the social rose, at least when it comes to organic social.  The notion that a tiny investment in conversation-generating content will deliver consistently disproportionate results is no longer a predominant belief although all would be delighted if that happened. Instead, marketers have accepted organic social as a must have component of the mix, but for many brands it is not the channel they can rely on all by itself to drive leads and sales.  To dig into this a little deeper, I interviewed each of the panelists separately.

katharine mobley headshotFirst up is Katharine Mobley of WeCareCard.  In our conversation, you’ll get to know her top priorities, where social fits in and what would need to happen for her to radically increase spending on organic social. What’s particularly interesting here is the role social plays for the individuals seeking support for their WeCare campaigns. In this situation, person-to-person versus brand-to-person social communications are essential to success.  Which if you think about it is probably why the bloom fell off the social rose in the first place — brands keep forgetting to act socially (like humans) on their social channels!

Drew: First, can you talk a little bit about the WeCareCard?

Absolutely! WeCareCard is a modular B2B SaaS based portal enabling multiple people to donate to a single recipient via a prepaid Debit MasterCard®. In laymen’s terms think Cause Funding + Prepaid = WeCareCard (WCC) – basically GoFundMe meets MasterCard – really cool patent-pending technology!

Our platform can be co-branded or white labeled depending on the need of our clients, or it can be an extension of a retailer’s existing gift card or e-gift program.

The card product was launched live in November ’14 at @Money20/20 and were recognized by the industry as a payments innovator by winning Prepaid with a Heart by Paybefore Magazine in Jan ’15 – not bad for a #startup.

Drew: And what is your role as CMO? 

As CMO, it is my responsibly to make sure that any and all components of our marketing strategy and tactics are inline with our core values and brand ideals. All while maintaining a return on investment on marketing dollars, being held to accountable for our P&L & revenue goals, as well as keeping a high level of customer satisfaction. I wear many hats, some say personalities depending on the day!

As for myself, I am an innovator at heart and always had a thirst for learning new things. As a child I was always inquisitive so I asked A LOT of questions – Why? What? Where? When? How? You can also say I was born an old soul and many think I should have been an attorney (all those questions). When you think of it the role of the CMO is no different then that of an inquisitive child. You must challenge the board, be the voice of the customer/vendor and NEVER be happy or settle for less than you expect. And always be innovating – 24/7 I don’t sleep – my Misfit proves just how little sleep I get these days.

And in totally transparency, I reinvent myself on a regular basis – about every 7 years – I guess it is that 7-year itch that gets me, just ask my friends they will tell you – here she goes again!

Drew:  What are your top priorities right now as CMO?

  1. Channels – What channels do our customers (B2B and D2C) use to communicate stories? Being a cause funding organization this is very important, as we need to know what channels work best to communicate these stories for our consumers and B2B customers.
  2. Engagement – How do we make sure consumers and customers are engaged with our mission, goals, stories and value proposition? This is WAY more than do they follow us, RT, etc. it is more about how do they engage with their own audience and peers. Is it video, pictures, stories and what makes them engage with each other and WHY?
  3. Measurement – How do we measure engagement by each channel? Remember all those questions I asked as a child, well as you would expect I am a closet data geek and admitted social media addict! I LOVE to know how we are interacting with customers, what they are saying about us, what the industry thinks and I download about every new tool out there to make sure we are achieving the proper measurements. For a CMO – I like playing in the ‘weeds’ with data and measurement.
  4. ROI – Just like all businesses it comes down to the bottom line. What is our ROI with each channel and interaction? Let’s be honest, this isn’t like launching a company in 1999 during the last bubble, we didn’t even know how to measure anything other than national, regional, or local broadcast spend in those days. This is about every channel, every $ spent and how to maximize each interaction.

Drew: So, where does organic social media fit into this mix? What role(s) does social play?

Social plays an enormous role in our company; it is the very being of web based cause funding. In order to raise $$$ on the web you have to not only tell a story but you have to have an audience to tell it to and social media provides that platform.

Organic reach is decreasing rapidly and consumers, clients and customers see videos go viral and think they can achieve the same goals but it doesn’t happen without A LOT of leg work and a good network you can openly communicate your story to and one that is willing to not only SHARE it, but donate to it! This is the key that most consumers and companies forget – a share doesn’t = $ people must be compelled enough about your mission that there is a clear call to action to donate money to it.

Drew: I imagine there are some downsides in social, perhaps through social blackmail like when an unhappy customer threatens to complain on his/her social channels.  How do you all deal with these situations? 

Oh no, they don’t threaten in our industry they just do it, but we are lucky as our fraud protection helps ensure that campaigns are legitimate and there is a relationship between the recipient and the donor. Additionally, we have Care Coaches that help manage any social media that is negative. Our customer service platform is integrated into our social media channels so that we know customer sentiment and any issue can be escalated to the proper team member to address quickly. Due to the fact that we are a transaction mechanism we tend to put out fires as quickly as possible and to date have been able to resolve any issues and move forward in a positive manner.

Drew: On one hand you’re in the highly regulated financial services industry.  On the other, your product supports social causes, which are famed for enjoyed viral success (Ice Bucket challenge anyone?) on social channels.  Should social be able to play more profound role in your business and if so, what’s holding you back?  

You are correct, on one hand (prepaid) we are in a highly regulated industry on the other (cause funding) we are in an early stage high growth industry that hasn’t been clearly defined and it requires education as to how it works, it takes a village at this point. But like I stated earlier, everyone thinks they tell their story, share it and it will go viral and they will raise 100K. It doesn’t happen! We help provide a clear understanding of the role each person’s network plays in making sure a campaign is successful. And provide direction as to how they can make their campaign more impactful via our Sponsorship Toolkit and other resources.

Drew:  A few years back my agency worked on Magic by Magic Johnson, a prepaid card.  We enjoyed success on social channels by giving cardholders what they wanted — a chance to win money to put on their cards.  Have you considered any kind of social promotions like this and if so, how did they perform? 

We have run a few similar promotions and they have been successful, such as share a way to ‘give back’ and then giving away preloaded cards, etc. Currently, we have a few things in the works with our partners that in incent newly engaged couples to replace their ‘traditional’ registry with our reloadable prepaid card, which anyone from their wedding list can donate directly through IF they have a WeCareCard! So for this let’s just say #staytuned!

Drew:  For organic social to become a top 3 marketing priority for you, what would need to change? For example, if social media could suddenly become a measurable source of site traffic, would that move it up the list?  

Yes! I watch Google Analytics, all our social traffic etc. and the biggest gap we have is conversion and organic reach – but who doesn’t! I think we (marketers) as an industry are in a state of total flux and transition as we shift from our normal metrics of measurement/engagement and conversion and evolve with the ever-changing media ecosystem. And let’s be honest – organic reach is reducing daily and the world is becoming a ‘pay to play’ but we already know this and are looking at ways to work around it and make sure we stay relevant without breaking the bank. I think the greatest thing about the social media revolution is that it is making us be smarter marketers, stretch our dollars, prove our ROI and most importantly – Get to know our customers better! That is what we have needed to do for a LONG time – look at how much Market Research has grown in 20 years, when I graduated from UGA – that was where the ‘geeks’ ended up and now I am one of those geeks and love it! That shift is making us better marketers in the long run, what could prove better than that?

Drew: You mentioned wanting the WeCare Card to become a highly recognized and appreciated brand. What role if any could social play to help you achieve this goal?

WeCareCard is in growth mode, but I can assure you at it’s core is our founder, Jessica Weiss a nineteen year NICU nurse that saw first- hand the challenges and financial burden of medical bills, travel expenses and loss of income facing people during long hospital stays and surgeries with infants. Then, her own family was struck with a personal tragedy, and she found herself walking in the shoes of her patients – which is where, the idea of WeCareCard was born… a vehicle that meets the critical need of providing immediate financial assistance to people in distress.

Growing this company into a brand that not only can help those during a crisis (funerals, medical illness) but also a time of celebration (wedding, graduations, births) is why I am so passionate about making this company a well known, respected and ADMIRED brand. The best way for us to get to the most admired list isn’t by us telling you why we think we should be there but for those we have assisted telling you how we impacted them and sharing our impact by their stories in a social world. Take Haleigh Mann’s testimonial as an example, this is what our company is about at it’s core – helping others, “The sudden passing of my mother, left my sister and brother (ages 21 and 19) with no idea how to pay for her funeral expenses. She was young and we were unprepared, as she did not have life insurance or savings; imagine our shock when we were informed that we needed $2,000 before the funeral home would even pick up her body from the hospital. If it had not been for WeCareCard, I don’t know what we would have done. With their platform we were able to raise money within 72 hours and give my mother a proper funeral. In a world that is focused heavily on negative news – restored our faith that there are not only good people but great companies that can make a positive impact on others.’  (Tracy Driscoll’s funeral fund)

This story and countless others make the sleepless nights and long hours worth it in the end. Our goal is to have people connect, care and contribute to one another regardless of the situation.

IBMer + CMO Maria Winans on Personal Branding


Risk taking, as you will soon learn, is an important part of Maria Winans‘ personal brand.  And funny enough, it was risk taking that lead me to her.  Truth be told, I was one of two males who dared to attend the Women’s Luncheon at IBM’s Amplify Conference, thanks to the cajoling of the peripatetic Tamara McCleary.  Leading a vibrant panel discussion on personal branding, Winans struck me as a consummate executive who somehow hadn’t lost her individuality despite 25 years at one of the largest business organizations in the world.  Curious to learn more, I weaved my way through the 300 or so ladies in attendance and almost sheepishly asked for an interview after the panel.

New Maria WinansWinans, whose title is CMO, IBM Commerce, Mobile and Social is a fellow believer in the power of AND.  She describes herself as business executive AND a mother, a friend AND a trainer,  an artist AND a boxing student.  Raised in North Carolina, she is also a first generation American AND a Latina.  Her secrets to personal branding are anything but and she is delighted to share them, especially with young women whom she hopes to inspire to overcome obstacles and do great things.

When it comes to personal branding, Winans is all about substance.  Set goals, figure out the skills required and then march forward, learning every step of the way.  Reputation, as she points out, can not be purchased.  It must be earned.  The reputation that Winans sought for herself was that of a risk-taker and innovator, one who was willing to embrace new challenges and unconventional career paths.  As this approach has clearly paid off for her, Winans encourages if not dares other women, particularly the perfectionists among them, to chose the road less traveled, to take chances and not be afraid of failure given the lessons it can offer.  With that advice, Winans certainly enters my pantheon of truly “renegade” CMOs.

Drew: I’m curious, why at the women’s luncheon at Amplify 2015 was the focus was on personal branding?

We chose that because typically these panels are more on topics like work/life balance and I wanted to focus this year on more practical advice from the successful women on the panel. I really wanted them to talk about how they’ve managed their careers. It gave us an opportunity to think about their growth, where they started and how they progressed forward in their career.   Regardless of your age or career stage, whether you are a Millennial or a Generation X or Baby Boomer, this was a topic just about everyone in the audience could relate to.

Drew: Do you think women executives need to pay particular attention to personal branding?

I think that men and women both need to. I think it’s critical for everyone to really think about how they build, how they cultivate, how they evolve their personal brand. I’m a strong believer that it is your thumbprint, is what represents you, what you believe and I think that your work in itself is another proof point of your personal brand. It’s important that you stand tall, that you really represent yourself.

Drew: Talk to me about your personal brand.

I take great pride in what I do, how I lead a team and what I stand for. I grew up in an environment of tremendous respect for my parents, for actions they took in bringing us to the U.S., for personal growth for my siblings and myself. So I came from a very strong culture of achievement and that diversity is something that you should cherish as a gift, and you should cultivate it, you should embrace it. So my whole philosophy when it came to building my career at IBM very early on was that I wanted to establish goals, I wanted to be successful, I wanted to grow my career and I knew that there’s different stages of that growth path.

Drew: How did this play out early in your career?

I came into IBM with my eyes wide open. I didn’t know if I was going to head into marketing or sales or strategy or finance. And so very early on I said to myself, I need to skill myself, find my passions and learn as much as I can.   But I also had a vision and a goal. I wanted to establish myself as a professional, I wanted to lead from the front, I wanted to become an executive and by the time I turned 40, I want to become a vice president. I had very established goals, and with that I set forward on really understanding what was it going to take for me to continue to grow in my career.

Drew: So how did you differentiate yourself?

I looked for opportunities that were about new initiatives and were about creating new businesses. I started to develop a skillset as an innovator, somebody who took risks and looked for opportunities that were different and required finding new teams and developing new skills. I cultivated that, and with that, created an environment for people to see that through my actions, that collaboration was a top priority, bright ideas were welcomed, innovation was the priority, and no idea was a bad idea.

Drew: Did your personal brand evolve?

I think a personal brand is in the way that you carry yourself as an individual in every walk of life; in your business and in your personal life. And at the same time, I’m learning every day. I don’t think a personal brand is something that you create and then never changes. I think it evolves — if your career evolves, it evolves in the type of jobs. But I think the core of who you are, your character, stays true within that. I am avid believer in the need to never stop learning. And I think when you look at strongest leaders in business most are lifelong students. They remain curious, aren’t afraid to tackle new initiatives and seek new paths forward.

Drew: It was clear at the luncheon that many women seek your advice about personal branding. What’s the first thing you tell them?

In life you can buy anything except your reputation. Your reputation can’t be bought; it has to be earned. And so protect it, live it. For example, just because your title says CMO, just because you lead a very large team, you still need to earn your leadership every day. And this is what I reinforce to people that I mentor, especially in the business, your reputation something you earn, something you work hard for and you stay true to.

Drew: Okay, what’s number two on your advice list?

I always get asked about risk-taking because I’m a risk-taker. I love innovation, I love trying new things and putting projects with people and saying to the team, ‘let’s go try it–the worst thing that can happen if it fails, is that we learn from it and we move forward.’ My biggest fear is regret. I fear looking back and saying ‘if we only had taken that chance.’ A lot of people fear risk taking, especially women, [many are] afraid to take those chances and everything has to be perfect and everything has to be T’s and I’s crossed. My message is that risk taking actually makes work and careers even more exciting.

Drew: How does IBM benefit from having employees like you with strong personal brands?

I think it goes back to a very simple truth–the strongest element of the IBM brand is the IBMer. That’s why we’re called IBMers. We have known ourselves and identified ourselves an IBMer and we’re proud to be IBMers. And so it absolutely is encouraged to go out and share whether it’s from a woman leadership perspective or the business that you’re leading especially at the executive level. This is the strongest element of our engagement strategy to the market. We have over 400,000 employees as you know, and they all are brand advocates of IBM.

Drew: Do you think there’s a point when it comes to personal branding that an individual can go too far, and how do you avoid crossing that line?

There’s always that self-promotional risk that you’re talking about yourself too much. We’ve all seen people that are self-promoters-it’s all about them, you know, their photo on everything. But I think that sometimes, we as women hold ourselves back. Sometimes we’re afraid as women that maybe we’re too visible, maybe we’re too self-promoting, we’re talking too much, we’re showing too much aggressiveness. So I encourage women to be vocal, to be ambitious, to show what they know and who they are, to promote themselves through their work and with that their personal brands.

KIND CEO on Building Loyalty Through Sampling


Daniel_w_truckThis is part 2 of my interview with Daniel Lubetzky, founder and CEO of KIND Snacks and author of Do the KIND Thing, a book I’d recommend to anyone, especially those intrigued by the notion of doing well in business while doing good. In this post, we dive deeply into the evolution of KIND’s loyalty building activities.  Several items of importance will become clear as you read this:


  • It’s easy to give product away–it’s far harder to create a memorable experience that drives loyalty;
  • Loyalty programs are tricky to get right even if you have a great product;
  • It’s hard to get consumers to go from an offline sampling experience to an online program;
  • There is such a thing as being too clever when it comes to designing loyalty programs;
  • Never underestimate the power of kindness!

Drew: In your book, you mention that sampling was an important way of building loyalty. How did you approach this?

So in New York City, for example, you have men or women handing out stuff for people to try. And it’s such an unemotional experience. It just feels like a commodity. I just feel that there’s a way to elevate that experience. We’re giving people something for free, an expensive, premium product that we worked so hard to craft. We don’t want to just hand it out and push it into people’s face. The opportunity to give a KIND bar as a kind act and say you’ve been “kinded” helps people hopefully appreciate it more.

Drew: So how do you sample KIND?

We do a program today, where we give people two KIND bars and say, “one is for you to do a kind thing for your body and one is to do a kind thing for someone else.” It helps elevate the experience and it’s just a little bit warmer of an interaction. It’s just a warmer way to connect with people. But, it’s still authentic, also in that we’re authentically trying to inspire people to start chains of kindness.

Drew: You’ve tried a number of loyalty programs. Can you talk about the black card and why you don’t think it worked?

The original aspiration was that people got the mysterious black card that would not explain to them anything other than somebody would do a kind act to them and they would get this black card and then that person would disappear. And we hoped that people would be so curious that they would go online and find out that they’ve been KINDED and that now it’s their responsibility to pass that on. The truth is, people are so busy and so skeptical of strangers approaching them that when we just handed them the secret card a lot of people thought, “what is this?” They were just too busy and they just wouldn’t engage at a significant enough pace. It’s hard to get people to go from an offline encounter with a stranger to online so it didn’t work as well as I would have liked.

Drew: Then you moved on to another loyalty program which encouraged people to do everyday acts of kindness but that one didn’t work out quite as planned either, right?

Yes, it was a bit disappointing. Instead of elevating the standard for what kindness should be, they were lowering it, and in that sense I felt a little bit guilty that I was contributing to making what should be a magical moment a little dirty. A lot of young people would enter the acts like, “I opened the door for my sister or I closed the door for my sister!” These obviously didn’t capture the essence of what we wanted to do. But many others supported the causes that they cared about, and the causes were doing something important. One of them was helping reunite war veterans with their families so we sent them care packages. The good news was everybody was doing something good for others. None of them were doing something horrible.

Drew: So why do you think this one didn’t quite work as planned?

It’s our fault that the system didn’t work. And in retrospect we gave up on it too quickly because at that point we didn’t use Facebook for authentication. So anybody could just say whatever they wanted. There are a lot of lessons from that experience and we’re still learning. It’s always a give and take. It’s quality versus quantity. The higher the standard, the higher the quality of the kind act, the more meaningful it will be. But you’re going to have to sacrifice quantity. So you have to find the right ratios.

Drew: How are the #KindAwesome cards working?

At the quality level, I think they’re awesome. I think at least when I give them out. I always give them in moments where they’re deserved. I don’t just give them out to give them out. I usually give one a day, I sometimes give a few a day. But if a day goes by where nobody deserves one, then I don’t feel compelled to just give one out. I wait for a person that really has done a kind act. And I give it to them and it’s authentic and people feel good. It’s very nice. But currently, they are limited by the fact that only a small community (the KIND team and some of our partners) gives them out. So there’s you know, five hundred of us. We are in the process of researching and designing a platform that’s going to help us scale that. And hopefully maintain the authenticity.

Drew: Have there been any surprises with the #KINDawesome program?

I did not expect that people were going to cry when I gave them #KINDawesome cards. I actually can think of three moments where people shed tears from feeling really touched that I recognized their act of kindness. And they couldn’t care less about getting a couple KIND bars and a #KINDawesome card to pass on to others. What drives their fulfillment is that appreciation – that someone else had recognized and celebrated their kindness. Particularly when they were having a hard time and a long day, and they were not feeling appreciated.

Drew: Talk a bit about the power of kindness.

You know, all of us are complex human beings. People sometimes have a harder life than we acknowledge and realize. And they’re having really tough moments. And somebody, a fellow human being just stretches out their hand and it really can mean a lot. There are some people that are fragile and feeling completely isolated and then a stranger just shows some warmth and kindness to them. And it completely transforms their lives. And they have a reason to believe that life is worth living. Just imagine how powerful that is. I would not pretend to say that from getting a #KINDawesome card that has happened, I’m just saying the power of kindness really can help do so much good.

Drew: So, a little kindness can go a long way.


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