New York-based Grace Ouma-Cabezas has worked as a digital professional across a range of disruptive and innovative consumer brands. She’s also a founding executive at Poppy Seed Health, building a holistic growth strategy for a category-defining telehealth solution. We’ve pulled together the best bits from her chat with Juliet Mann in the latest episode of A Week In My Flexible Working Life; if you’d like to listen to the full episode click here:
Grace describes herself as a creative, trend-savvy, and data-obsessed business grower. Focused on delivering customers and audiences to your business through performance-driven, brand-enhancing marketing. A believer in harnessing the power of storytelling and human connection, she is passionate about leading great teams to create great brands people love.
What three words sum up the future of work for you?
- Flexibility – employees are pushing back, with workers at Amazon unionizing and The Great Resignation occuring. There’s an onus on businesses to catch up and become more flexible to the reality of peoples’ lives.
- Accessibility – diversity isn’t possible without accessibility and inclusion. If the workplace isn’t conducive to accessibility, then you won’t retain the workers. Grace mentions how the pandemic has shed a light on accommodations that could have been made for disabled and disadvantaged people in the past, but weren’t.
- Inclusion – part and parcel of accessibility.
How can we take inclusivity forward, so we’re not just ticking that diversity box?
Diversity is the outcome of being flexible, accessible and inclusive. If the makeup of your staff and organization are homogenous, “that’s your report card,” Grace says. “New York City is a majority minority city; if you’re in a racially homogenous, predominantly white company in NY, then you need to think ‘why aren’t the residents of this city working here?’” Companies need a diverse workforce in order to sustain and stay relevant in the market.
Juliet makes the point of companies diversifying within departments, for example, employing linguists in the economic department. Grace agrees, using her own experiences as an example: “being in marketing, charismatic people, who present well and who are charming can be really successful… but there’s a lot of really fantastic introverted people that are incredible contributors, and I feel like in marketing, those folks’ talents can be overlooked simply because they didn’t dazzle everyone.” She continues that “to dazzle” isn’t a core competency but some introverts are quietly incredible at what they do, whether that be content creation, SEO or retention; and these are the skills Grace looks out for as a hiring manager. So, it’s also diversity in working-style and thinking-style that can enrich a team.
Our lives are increasingly being lived online, both work and play. When you talk about growth, how do you define it?
You have to ask the question, what does growth mean to you? Does it mean you made more revenue than you did yesterday? Is it growing your audience? Are you concerned about how you’re monetizing your business? Are you still trying to find product-market fit?
“What is the most important thing for your business? Because you can’t invest in everything all at once.” Grace says focus is everything, which she acknowledges is difficult, especially for start-ups. She asks her clients “what do you want this company to look like in the future?”, then she works on tempering the immediate next steps. “You can have fantastic growth that isn’t profitable and that’s fine in year 1 or year 2, but in year 5, that might start to be a problem.” Growth is bespoke.
Are you finding that clients and investors are looking longer term? Do you think the dynamic is changing?
“I do think the dynamic is changing especially for D2C (direct to consumer) brands.” There are so many components not at our disposal anymore, for example, Apple ISO 14.5 allowed users to opt out of tracking. “This had been the bread and butter for a lot of peoples’ growth plans,” therefore, completely disrupted the market. Changes in material dynamics, consumer expectations and market saturation has made people look at their growth plans more critically. If your business is scaling up but you go through countless staff members to achieve those results, that’s not sustainable.
How important is influencer marketing?
Influencers before social media consisted of celebrities in magazines, it’s been part of consumer culture for a long time. It was only until the 2010s that it blew up, with Instagram influencers dominating the marketplace, especially for lifestyle. “These folks are fully fledged content platforms,” she says, pointing out that while their prices are justified, there has been friction over performances as they compete with traditional advertisements.
Juliet Mann suggests that users of these platforms, especially with the rise of TikTok, desire “rough and ready” content and that if the outcome is too polished it can often fall flat. “TikTok have been such an amazing disruptor,” while Instagram has plateaued, Grace responds. “I have had a lot of success working with content creators on TikTok. You can find people that are really passionate about the brand and have a connection to it, maybe because the platform is newer. It just feels fresh and new, it’s a little bit less jaded than IG (Instagram).”
Are we looking at more of a virtual world, and if so, how do you keep that all-important human connection?
TikTok is a platform where the communication is bilateral, you can respond to a comment with a video, so it becomes more conversational; “I think that’s where the real world experience is coming in a little bit, because you can actually have a little bit more of a deeper connection to content creators on that platform.” Post-pandemic, the world is going to be opening up again with more live events, but people will always use these platforms as a way to connect with others, especially with the explosion of the metaverse. She identifies gaming as a metaverse category that is “on the cutting edge,” with virtual currency being a strong hook for users. “Whatever category you’re in,” Grace says, “you should be paying attention to gaming.” Are there other categories that can create worlds like that, where something of value can be traded? She suggests that there’s opportunity there for lifestyle brands and content creators to build ownable spaces linked to their social media. For example, she contemplates whether tried and tested shopping retailers will create a shopping experience which could prove popular with consumers.
Many people believe the future is all about data, but not all of it we know what to do with. How could businesses build a marketing plan off the back of that data?
Grace asks a recurring question in her rhetoric: “What does growth mean to them?” There will be an “ultimate metric” for every business, that could be revenue or audience, “and then there’s usually a step-way.” However, there’s also a multitude of distracting metrics within your platform. Grace likes to focus her clients on the stepping points, “what leads to that conversion?” What steps do you have to take in order to influence your “ultimate metric”? There will always be an element of test and track. You may hypothesize consumer behavior leading to growth but after a 2-week period of tracking that, you might learn that it’s actually a different set of behaviors that lead to that conversion, “and then just hyper-focus on those because that’s where you’ll find success.” But it’s also about knowing what that data really means.
The CEO of Levi is saying that globalization is dead. Do you think marketing is going to evolve and become more localized?
“Yes… and I think that the definition of location will continue to change,” especially with the rise of the metaverse. Location could mean a platform, geographical point or virtual experience. There’s ties between people, even before the metaverse, based on common interests, “and those are very much communities.” These communities are real places (or locations) that people exist in, “and brands will have to continue to tap into that, if they’re not creating and cultivating their own communities across these spaces.” This is how they will stay relevant in these worlds.
We’re hearing a lot about marketing becoming more personalized, though that’s expensive keeping all that data secure. How will smaller companies compete?
It doesn’t always have to be complicated and expensive, it could just be that you ask for someone’s name in an onboarding email and continue to personalize that user’s experience. You can ask more about people with an onboarding quiz or web-based survey which is fun and will help consumers specify what they want out of your relationship. A fun quiz that makes sense of the product is an inexpensive way to get that first party data and start to personalize. “There has to be trust and some level of value exchange, to make it work.”
How has marketing outside of digital been changing, perhaps as a result of all the working from home?
Right before the pandemic, Grace was busy planning a “substantial out-of-home, localized campaign” for an event that got canceled in 2020. She is confident that out-of-home will pick up, having already seen people doing more activation work in NY. “I think that it will always be in the mix… when you’re off of the web, it gives you a unique opportunity to contextualize your brand against physical spaces.” The investment in offline and out of home campaigns has continued to rise and their performance is tangible; “targeting and cookie-ing are going away, so those types of investments are making a lot more sense.”
Who is giving a good performance, now and in the future? Or who is performing badly?
Grace laughs, “I like to stick to the positives.” Prose is a personalized beauty/wellness brand; they have good wrap-around messaging, investing in non-linear TV, leveraging content creators on TikTok, and creating a good flywheel (small business wins that snowball into a self-sustaining business model) across the board. They monitor how people are contributing to messaging and content, and then repurpose that information. These types of wellness brands have a bit more trust-building to do because they are asking more of the consumer, “if you’re trying to explore a personalized skincare routine, you’re going to have to share information about yourself for that payoff for hopefully getting a formulation that’s best for you.”
What are the lessons that big companies can learn from start-ups around new marketing strategies for the future?
One of the advantages of start-ups is the amount and velocity of testing. Grace worked for someone who reminded her that where she worked was “a startup because it is an experiment”, and until they turned a profit they didn’t know whether the product-market fit was where it needed to be. This is a beneficial mindset to have for companies, “you’re always trying to not just optimize on a channel basis… you’re trying to optimize the experience.” Grace does market research through customer outreach because “everything is always on the table with a startup”, and that’s how you’ll find out what’s not working.
Can you share a secret with us about marketing?
“Founders hate hearing this: that there’s really no magic bean.” Growth-hacking is not a thing, you have to think about what in your business you’re trying to grow, “and just remember that it’s hard for everyone.” You can’t project a business’s successful campaign onto your own, thinking it will be easy, not knowing what goes on behind the scenes. “You can always keep perfecting the mix, there’s no shortcut.”