An interview with Omar Johnson.
As former VP of Marketing at Apple, VP of Marketing at Nike, and CMO of Beats by Dre, Omar Johnson is a marketing powerhouse, named “Brand Genius” by AdWeek in 2013. During his time at Nike and Beats by Dre, Johnson built the marketing practices behind the wildly successful Beats by Dre campaigns that launched the brand into massive popularity. He has also worked with Kraft Foods, Campbell Soup, and Coca-Cola, and is known for creating deep consumer connections and unforgettable brand experiences. Johnson sat down with Domo’s former CMO, Shane Atchison, to talk about groundbreaking brand campaigns, the importance of becoming a CEO of communication, and how diversity is one of the most powerful aspects of building a successful brand.
At Beats, you turned something that was previously a commodity into a world-class, groundbreaking experience. What would you tell someone looking to do something as impactful, but in a different industry?
You need to look at the information held in the category, and at its consumers—how people are using the product, and where the trends are pointing. You have to find other uses for the product and explore things that may not be empirically available—things like emotional needs. For example, I always try to find ways a product can do something that a consumer can’t. How does a product say something about you that you want to say about yourself? How does a product communicate your values, or say you’re smart, you’re cool, you’re connected? That you are “woke,” that you care about something specific? You have to look beyond the obvious utility of a product to see what else it can do.
For example, with Beats, I focused on highlighting benefits that no one was talking about. Companies like Bose and Sony had been around long before Beats, but when it came to sports, they were thinking about the coaches and helping the coaches communicate. Sure, that was smart—but what about the athletes who wanted to block out the opposing fans? We won the fight in sports by sheer volume, because there are so many more cool, aspirational athletes than there are cool coaches. Or, think about that woman on the train who just wants to get home without being pestered—and how her headphones make that possible.
There were so many needs that, frankly, had never been thought about, and more importantly, acted on. And when you give consumers choices that answer the things that people want but never say them out loud, those consumers easily choose your product. As a marketer, you have to think about a commodity product beyond its utility; what can it do emotionally and aesthetically. Sometimes you have to explore other genres of thought, versus the traditional way of approaching answers to the business that you are in.
And when you’re breaking into different use cases for a product, as you just described, how much of that is intuition versus data-driven?
It’s a combination. First, I look to find insights in data. Then, there’s the super old-school and low-tech way of getting information, which is simply just asking. All too often, as executives, we spend a lot of time talking and sharing—not too often do we spend time in deep-listening mode. I’m known for taking an iPad with an idea into a restaurant and asking the waitress what she thinks about it. Or when I’m around consumers, I find myself asking them what they think about a product. Here’s the big secret: I want to sell my product to everyone in the world, which means that I have a pretty gigantic sampling pool, and the more diverse, the better. I routinely ask people that would never consider my product about their reaction to my ideas. It takes thick skin—real genuine curiosity—and you can’t take your ideas that seriously. But when it works, you have access to a collective intelligence that will always beat your competition’s data set.
Let’s talk about CEOs. You’ve certainly worked for and with some world-class CEOs. What do you think CEOs need to know about brands as an investment today?
One of the biggest challenges for a CEO today is the ability to remain people-centric. It’s so easy to get mired in the business, the metrics, the bureaucracy, and the politics, all while forgetting about the people: your consumer and your employees.
This is a super critical factor, because everything that is seen by anyone who interacts with your business is your brand. And it’s the people in your brand that make the decisions on all of these things. Think of everything that touches the consumer, customer, or employee. Think about your product, your packaging: Is it recyclable? Is it over-packaged? Does it feel cheap? Does it feel expensive, smart, or thoughtful? What about things like your business card, your website, or the cups you serve your coffee in—whether it’s Starbucks, or your own cups—do the cups feel good in a visitor’s hand? Would you want to carry that cup from the office to the airport? Do you want that logo in your car, in your selfie? All of these and more are touchpoints, and what I’ve found is that, all too often, CEOs aren’t aware of the impact of these decisions beyond the financial aspect. These factors can have a huge impact on influencers and on consumers.
At Beats, we attempted to make every person in that company a brand ambassador. For example, if you met the person at our front desk, they bled the Beats brand as much as anybody on the marketing leadership team.
Or better, our head of sales only wore red, black, or white to big meetings—and those were our best-selling colors. Everyone in the company became important when it came to creating a brand, and we were relentless about weaponizing all of our people. Focusing on the people element can keep you focused on all of your brand touchpoints. It’s got to be one of the most important things that you do.
You’ve mentioned that CEOs may not focus on their people enough. Why is that gap there?
Let’s look at an example: millennials. They’re not settling for companies that don’t align with their values. They’re asking, “What are the CEO’s values?” And through social media and technology, they can see their leader’s value system in real time by what that executive participates in during his or her private time.
If you combine this with the emergence of the gig economy, where people can work as digital nomads as long as they have their laptops. They’re connected with technology, like Zoom and Facetime, and they have the ability to work in shared workspaces, like Ctrl Collective or Spring Place. We’re seeing a new class of talent that’s saying, “I’m not okay with you as a company if you don’t care about me and my values.”
I’m watching a lot of talent make decisions more along the lines of what they value and what they care about versus what they get paid, their title, or the prestige of the company. There is a fundamental shift happening, and the best talent is leaving after they get what the company can offer.
I watch a lot of male executives sit in rooms and complain about millennials, and personally, I think they’re actually complaining about people who don’t look, talk, or act like anyone they’ve traditionally seen or worked with before. There also happen to be more women and minorities in this ‘new’ group. Of course, more traditional executives don’t think like this new group of talent. I watch them use the word “millennials” as a safe word, but the real difference is that millennials tend to be more diverse, more collaborative, and more personal value-driven, versus company value-driven. The whole career construct of our parents—who just went to work to work their way to a pension and to retire—is dead.
I believe that this next generation of talent is going to hold CEOs accountable for creating great, happy environments, where people are engaged and celebrated. It’s coming fast, and I don’t think a lot of companies can move their cultures fast enough. And that’s going to create opportunities for people like me who are going to create new ways of working and platforms for younger talent to start their own companies that celebrate their values.
What categories of key performance indicators, or goals, should CMOs set for themselves?
I think about three things when I think about marketing: The first is people. I’ve been a part of some really big organizations, and I’ve been underutilized and left without a voice. Much of it was that I did not look or sound like the leaders in those companies. I wasn’t old enough, my communication style was a bit too aggressive, and I wasn’t always heard. I believe that CMOs should create organizations where people can be heard, and I always start with company culture. I’m always asking: are our values reflected in our staff? Are our staff reflecting our values? Are our staff acting as ambassadors for our brand, and most importantly, are they happy? This doesn’t mean they don’t work hard. This doesn’t mean we don’t face huge challenges, because for me, a huge part of being happy is being David and tackling Goliath. But healthy culture (and people) is my number one goal.
My number two goal: do we have a groundbreaking product story? Beats was a great headphone, but we didn’t have the most amazing technology. We had a great aesthetic, and we kept close to the best companies from a technology perspective, but the product design—and most importantly, Dr. Dre’s emotional tuning—allowed us to answer the emotional needs of consumers in a way that no other company could. So even though we did not have the most technologically-advanced product, our product and our insights allowed us to do some groundbreaking story telling.
My number three indicator or goal: Is my team going out and doing something that has never been done before? We called them NBDB (“never-been-done-befores”). What I wanted to know was: how were we pointing our teams at things that no one had figured out before, encouraging those teams, and investing in them to get those things done?
That is how I graded success.
“The collective intelligence of your business rises when you can create a room of people that looks more like the rest of the planet.”
How do you make the case for that third category of breaking new ground and innovating, especially in a conservative company culture?
Building big ideas has to be a part of it. Most people can gravitate and discover good ideas in a one-on-one meeting, but the trouble comes when they are trying to articulate those ideas to the boss in a compelling way. Data typically gives that person confidence to communicate the idea, but when something has never been done, the data will be light, which means that it will take guts on both sides of the table. Unfortunately, this also means that it’s easy for both parties to just not try if there is no data. I know that when I get up in front of a room and pitch something, I’m only as effective as the people in that room.
What data do you care about and look at on a daily basis?
I’m super curious. I watch a lot of peoples’ behavior, then I look at data for trends, and get comfortable in the trends that I see. I’m also always looking for the abnormalities, and for what new things are happening. Trends have this strange way of comforting you and making you feel secure. I try to find aberrations and find out what drives them. I also have a rule that I enforce with my team, which is to always ask why. And that doesn’t mean to settle for the first answer—I ask my team to ask me “why?” like a three-year-old would. I want them to ask and understand the why—not the what, not the how. And I’ve found some of my biggest ideas in these small aberrations and the whys. Then, I continue to incessantly ask “why, why, why, why, why?”
If a leader realizes they’re out of balance with gender, diversity, culture, what should they do? What advice do you have?
I’ve always believed that my power is based on my ability to be empathetic. For most executives, they get used to sitting in an office where their team comes to them for answers and direction, and the executive gives it. That is traditionally how the role has worked. To me, the role today is about how you catalyze a rich variety of great answers. Then, as the executive, you draw from all of your knowledge over the years to help pick the right one. I think the more that you develop a yearning for a variety of diverse answers, the more the diversity of your team will shine.
You don’t have to change how you work, but you do have to change how you think. We all throw out words like “diversity,” because it’s the right thing to say, and we are all communicators, right? But what happens when you’re in a room and you hit a wall or a challenge? Many executives typically like to only invite in the people who look and think and act like them, and close the door to others. I actually think that it’s quite human, but this is where executives need to get out of our own way. More diverse answers are just better answers.
Sure, it’s easy to say “diversity, diversity, diversity,” up on a stage. But it’s hard, when you’re in a room and you’re struggling, to invite that diversity into the room to help you. If you can manage to flip that switch and open the door to new thinking and a different style of communication, everything changes. The collective intelligence of your business rises when you can create a room of people that looks more like the rest of the planet.