Jemma Whiten on why CMOs should be utterly obsessed with their brands

May 31st, 2023

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Elly Strang
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Jemma Whiten was one of two fantastic panel speakers at our building brands of the future event. Here’s some of the goodness she shared in conversation with Tracksuit and Helen Costello.

Jemma’s career track record is a marketer’s dream in terms of the brands she’s worked with and industries she’s tackled. This brand building weapon has held senior roles internationally with Unilever (Global Marketing Director) Emma Lewisham (Global Marketing, Sustainability and Customer Director), ecostore (Group Marketing Director), Goodman Fielder (Senior Brand Manager) and Kimberly Clark. Currently, she’s Chief Marketing Officer at solarZero, New Zealand’s leading solar energy company. 

Jemma has a dual passion for marketing and sustainability and says that her personal driver is helping businesses be a force for good by creating change at scale and at speed. 

At Building brands of the future, she shared that her core marketing philosophy she takes with her to each role includes two things: “Be absolutely and utterly obsessed about your customers, and be just as utterly obsessed about your brand”. 

She says a brand’s vision should be a position based on a universal customer insight. 

“It’s about grounding yourself back in your consumers. As James said, we need to create emotional connections with our customers and our consumers and we need to understand them.”

We’ve compiled some of the insights she shared from her epic career on the night below. 

What to do when you first join a new brand

When you first join a new business, you have a unique opportunity in the sense you are still somewhat of an insider seeing the brand with fresh eyes. Once you’re 6 to 12 months down the track and fully consumed in the world of that business, it’s harder to have a non-biased perspective. 

Jemma says she uses this opportunity to do some internal market research of people’s opinions of the brand.

 “One of the things I do when I start at a new business as a marketer is I’ll ask 8 to 10 people that have been there for ages across the business to sum up the brand, and also if it was a person what kind of personality it’d have,” Jemma says.  

“Without fail, I’ll get 100 words back on what the brand personality is, and I'll get 10 different lines on what the brand is. So it’s amazing how often we don’t genuinely know our brands inside our own business. And if we don’t, then our agencies definitely don’t. And if they don’t, then our customers don't either.”

Jemma says we can’t expect consumers to know or understand our brand if we don’t know it internally. 

“As marketers, we can almost feel our brand in a way,” Jemma says. “But it’s how you articulate that, right? How do you articulate that brand to business leaders and to your teams, and then how do you articulate that to your consumers? It’s about bringing those two things together.” 

Pros and cons of marketing small businesses versus big businesses  

Jemma’s career spans businesses of all sizes, from homegrown New Zealand brands like ecostore to global businesses like Unilever where she worked across 58 markets. 

“I loved the scale of working at Unilever. How exciting is that as a marketer, it’s like a kid in a candy store type stuff,” she says. “I get super excited about the different cultures, different customers and the scale you can affect.”

She says bigger businesses like Unilever have given her the opportunity to think long-term and be strategic on 7 to 10 year innovation projects, while smaller businesses have given her the ability to move quickly, be disruptive and do things differently. 

“It’s about how do you smash those two things together and bring together the positives of those two approaches? How do you bring long-term and strategic thinking to small business and a tiny bit of process that means we’re not running around in complete chaos. For bigger businesses, it’s how do you bring innovative thinking and do things faster?”

Short-termism after Covid-19 

Along the topic of building Future Demand for brands, Jemma shared that since Covid-19, she’s observed that businesses are often more focused on the short-term. When under immense pressure to pivot and pivot again, the here and now becomes the most urgent matter at hand.

But now that the business world is (somewhat) emerging from the impacts of the pandemic, Jemma says now is the time to “Look up and look out”. 

“If you don’t know where your business is going in five years, you make decisions that are suitable only for right now. And then in a year’s time, you realize that decision wasn’t fit for purpose,” she says.  

“If we know where we’re going in five year’s time and we know what we’re trying to achieve now, if we're trying to create and shape solutions to problems now, we need to say, ‘Does that actually get us closer to where we want to go in the future?’ Having an eye on both at the same time allows you to make the right decisions now to more efficiently build toward that goal.” 

When it comes to getting other stakeholders on board with this longer term view, Jemma said she gave James’ Future Demand book to the CFO and highlighted certain pages for him to read (genius move – should we all start a movement doing this?)  

The lesson here is similar to what James Hurman shares: it’s hard to get buy-in for marketing from non-marketing stakeholders, like your internal team.

“Marketers have not been the best at marketing marketing, but the beautiful thing about marketing is it’s not an art, nor a science, and that’s why we love it. But to make it more understandable to others in the business, you’ve got to talk their language, (i.e. facts and figures for finance) and tap into easy ways to take them on the journey as well.” 

Phenomenally put, Jem! ✨

A massive thanks to Jemma for sharing her smarts with us at Building brands of the future. If you want to connect with this legend, drop her a note on Linkedin.

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