#21interviews: Brands need to get brave

Bozoma Saint John, the chief marketing officer of Netflix, shares how brands need to be brave during this crisis.

Bozoma Saint John, the global chief marketing officer of Netflix, shares how brands need to be brave during this crisis. Labelled as one of the most effective marketers of any generation, Saint John has earned a formidable reputation as a trailblazing brand and marketing executive. Appointed as CMO of Netflix in 2020, she brings 20 years of experience that spans multiple industries. In an exclusive webinar in November 2020, hosted by the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council and Qualtrics, she urged all brands to be present in this moment, in order not to miss the magic happening right now; and be brave enough to take the right steps…

Vulnerability in the context of being brave

Nobody knows what the future holds. Bravery for me, is about being able to be vulnerable. Being brave enough to ask the question out aloud. Out aloud so other people can hear you. To get the opinions of other people, even if you have the conviction of your ideas. I have not been without fear. Please don’t mistake my confidence for a lack of fear. It is bravery, in that I am able to go to my vulnerable space and let people know that you don’t feel good about something… That is bravery to me. The courage to stop and be vulnerable.

I have found that a lot of times I look at things from a focus group of one. Most of the times the people we admire are the people we understand are human. I realised pretty early on to be a leader who had some vulnerabilities. I hope that the teams I have led or the spaces I’ve been in, have understood that I am constantly asking questions. And you can’t do that unless you have the vulnerability to be open. The confidence that I carry is because I have asked every possible question. Even the failure. I have contemplated the worst scenarios. There is a good chance that things will go wrong. That is why I am able to go forward without fear. Because I understand that there is a good chance that ‘this’ will fail; but I understand what it will take to make it right. So, I am not afraid of the pitfalls. What gives me my X-factor, is that I understand that fear.

A powerful understanding, I have come to, is that regardless of our backgrounds or how or where we grew up, we are connected in ways that are surprising. I do believe it is possible to connect with everyone. That is part of where this practice of bravery started from. My childhood is peppered with moments of that. My most poignant memory is when we moved to the US from Ghana when I was 12 years. I was really afraid of being different. Bravery for me then, meant I had to become even more curious about my surroundings. I accepted my vulnerability at that age. It served me well throughout my life.

Now is the time for organisations to be more brave

I ran across a post I did right before New Year’s about, “2020 being about clearer vision!” But isn’t that the case for all of us? We are all in this. And different people have been identified as being the brave ones: doctors and nurses and refuse collectors. Our perspective has changed, our vision is clearer now. So, when we look at our workspaces, we are looking at our situations in a different way. And that is an act of bravery. That has been the thing that has been so depressing to me – to being amazed at companies that were not pivoting. That is not bravery. That is people who are scared to death. It takes real bravery to stop and say, “I don’t know what the hell is going on… I have to stop and reassess my business… I have to reassess the way I talk to people – from customers to employees… I have to adjust my company values…” It is about that pure vulnerability about being open. About being able to sit back and say, “I don’t know. I am not sure.”

The companies that I have admired are those which didn’t have the answer. I saw an ad from Blue Cross Blue Shield. They weren’t providing any answers. But there was a communication happening which allowed me to connect with them. The bravery for companies right now is being human. It is not about being bricks and mortar. It is not about having all the answers. It is simply about being more human, asking the questions, and showing the vulnerability. Like, how can I help you? That way you will gain the loyalty and trust of the consumer to actually do the right thing.

The worst advice I ever received

It is not easy when someone tells you that in order to succeed, you mustn’t wear red lipstick. I realised those success measures did not apply to me. It was a real awakening. If that success they were talking about was not written for me, because they were talking about the way I look, does that mean I would never succeed? What happened in that instance was that gave me a lot of freedom. Authenticity means freedom. I am free from all preconceived ideas, and expectations. I am not bound by anybody’s expectations of what I should be. I realised that in doing that, that people were attracted to my authenticity.

The way businesses act most of the time is they think they have to parrot what their customers say or do. They just makes you a weirdo. Authenticity means that we can like two different things and we can respect each other. If companies are able to be authentic, true to themselves, true to the things they understand, the way they want to serve, their products and services, without trying to mimic what they think their consumers want; they will find their customers will be attracted to them because they have a point of view and are interesting.

Authenticity will drive brand attraction

What organisations can do from a practical way, is to create a culture where people feel brave enough to be authentic. We use the buzzwords so often, no one pays attention anymore. Diversity and inclusion is not just about numbers. If everyone thinks the same, then we need to shake things up. None of us can do really great work unless we are challenged. Unless there are different points of view in the room. Brands need to understand how the people in the world are going to use their products. The only way to do that is through diversity in the room.

How are you farming for more information? If all you are getting is agreement in the room, then you have a really big problem and you need to fix that. When we hire people, we should hire the person who will teach us something, who will challenge us; not the person we will necessarily get on with the best.

The biggest lesson

Alignment is the end of the good idea. Alignment is awful. It is exactly where you don’t want to be. You want some sharp edges. This is an odd time. You really have to be aware of your present in order to know the future. People don’t do that. They write strat plans for 18 months hoping to get to that place. The thing is, honestly, it is too far out. What happens is that you miss the magic that is right now, because you are too busy being a fortune teller. Just look around. Stop for a second. This year, more than any other, has forced us to do just that. Because nobody knows. There are a lot of guesses about what may happen next year. So, what a perfect opportunity to sit down and look at your present and at how people are behaving, and what they are expecting. There are probably three things we need to pay attention to:

  • Being human. Our humanity. People are noticing people more than before. Our humanity is at the forefront, so companies need to better understand their own humanity. Look inside, put yourself in the shoes of people, so you will be better able to engage with your consumers and your audiences.
  • We all want more care and trust. Care has become such a big part of our current environment, that every product and service has to find a way to insert that into their lexicon. People want comfort. They feel anxious. How are brands caring for people? If you can unlock that, you unlock loyalty.
  • Being transparent. Not just with values, or things the company stands for. The truth of the matter is that our customers and consumers and audiences want to know more about what we care about, what our value systems are. They don’t have to match. Companies need to be more transparent about who they are. People just simply want to know. It is not that your value systems are different, it is because they can’t trust you. That is why cancel culture is so scary to people – they don’t want to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. No no no! People just want to know what you think. You need to be clear; you need to show your vulnerability by asking for more information.

The bravery that is required to do all three of those things is what I believe will be the predictor of how our audiences and consumers interact with us in the future.


For more insights for retail and brand leaders in the #21interviews series publishing 1-21 December 2020, ahead of 2021:

#21interviews LAUNCH: 2021 comes with a disclaimer by Louise Burgers, Publisher & Editor, RetailingAfrica.com


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