Jessica Klodnicki: “Here Are 5 Things You Should Do To Build a Trusted and Believable Brand”
Really, really strive to understand your consumer. If you don’t understand what your consumer wants or needs from you as a brand, it is easy to lose their trust. After working in passion categories for years, I realized you have to be very careful not to assume you know the consumer. Do your homework (formally or informally) to make sure you continue to learn about your consumer as their needs change and evolve. And don’t stop there — continue to be curious.
I had the pleasure to interview Jessica Klodnicki. Jessica served as Chief Marketing Officer of Skullcandy since October 2017. Prior to joining Skullcandy, Jessica spent over five years with Vista Outdoor, a publicly traded portfolio of outdoor products brands. She served as the EVP/General Manager of the cycling portfolio including Bell helmets and several other cycling accessory brands. She was responsible for relaunching the Bell bike and motorcycle helmet brand by returning to their roots in action sports. Jessica was involved in the sale of the business from private equity firm Fenway Partners to Vista Outdoor in April of 2016. Post-sale, she was asked to lead the newly formed Outdoor Recreation division including Camelbak, Camp Chef outdoor cooking and Jimmy Styks stand up paddle boards, where she was responsible for acquisition integration and general management of the three businesses. Prior to Vista Outdoor, Jessica was the Senior Vice President of Brand Marketing & Management at Mizuno USA, a $230 million+ subsidiary of the Japanese sporting goods company, where she led brand strategy and marketing for all categories — running, golf and team sports. Prior to that, Jessica spent seven years leading product and marketing for Newell Brands in the US and abroad across three different categories in their portfolio. Jessica’s final role with Newell was in Paris as Global Vice President of Marketing and Product Development for its fine writing business. Jessica started her career at Kids II, a baby toy and accessory company. She began on the product management team and worked her way through the ranks to eventually become the Vice President of Marketing and Product Development. She has been recognized with the “50 Influential Women” from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News in 2013 and the “Pioneering Woman Award” by the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition in 2015.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I majored in Communications (Advertising & Public Relations) and had two internships during college that shaped my future career choices. I interned with a telecommunications company where I got exposed to strategic, product marketing. Then I interned with the U.S. Olympic Committee for the Bobsled & Skeleton team — inspiring my love for sports marketing. I immediately fell in love with the common thread of storytelling to the consumer. I’ve tried to marry my personal passions with my professional life — working in the outdoor industry for many years. Skullcandy is very special, because although we are a consumer electronics company, our culture and our passion align more with the action sports industry.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t really have any funny mistakes to share. I’ve worked across so many categories and brands across diverse consumers. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is to be humble in getting to know your consumer. Never assume you know what the consumer wants and strive to truly understand how to serve them from both a product and a marketing standpoint. I think the worst mistakes can happen if you don’t really understand what makes your consumer tick.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Skullcandy was literally born on a chairlift in Park City, Utah by Rick Alden, a passionate snowboarder. At the time, he invented a unique product for the audio industry but he wanted to position the company more like a snowboard brand. The company has stayed true to those roots ever since — aligning at the intersection of both music and board sports (surf, skate and snow). This has shaped a brand and culture that is very unique to the audio industry and appeals to our youthful and adventurous audience. It inspires our employees every day and has even inspired purpose-built products that cross over for use specifically for outdoor adventures.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We believe music has the power to influence mood, so we’ve created a special program that illustrates that connection. Our 12 Moods program illustrates a color associated with a different mood every single month. Then, we release exclusive themed content with emerging musicians and our partner board sports athletes, and drop a limited edition product. It has allowed us to connect with our youthful and adventurous audience across the things that they love — music, culture and sport. We’ve illustrated some really diverse moods — bold, elevated, fresh, empowered, independent, rad and deep — and we’ve got six more to go.
Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
It’s the difference between the heart and the mind. Today’s consumer wants to know the brands they are engaging with on a deeper level. They can see past overt advertising messages. Building a brand is building a relationship. Product marketing is giving fans a more rational reason why to buy our products.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
First, we must engage their hearts before they are willing to open their wallets. For the heart, this is why Skullcandy has created really engaging and entertaining content with our 12 Moods program, illustrating the connection between mood and music. We have created rich content that includes exclusive videos and mini documentaries about emerging artists and amazing athletes. Its purpose is to engage and entertain so that the consumer gets to know our brand first. You must earn “permission” to then communicate in a more commercial way. Once we’ve addressed the heart and built a relationship, then we tackle the mind. We then take the opportunity to serve up advertising to educate consumers on our new products. Without first building the relationship with our brand, the harder working advertising messages may never break through to our potential consumers.
Can you share 5 strategies that a large company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
Often new or small companies have the benefit of natural authenticity. The challenge for larger companies is to retain that authenticity as they experience growth. To me, it almost always gets back to the fundamentals! It may seem simple, but I’ve seen companies lose their way or lose their authenticity when they stray from the fundamentals.
- Before all else, brands must have a purpose or what I call a “north star.” For Skullcandy, that north star is “Music You Can Feel.” If you have one common understanding within your organization, it provides the guiding light for decision making and helps you stay true to your brand. At Skullcandy, we use this as the lens for decision making to ensure we don’t stray too far from our center.
- It doesn’t stop there. In order to be trusted and believable, companies must have a solid brand foundation including a clear articulation of mission, vision, values, design pillars and more. If this foundation is strong, it shines through in everything you do as a brand to ensure the company behaves with consistent and authentic actions.
- Really, really strive to understand your consumer. If you don’t understand what your consumer wants or needs from you as a brand, it is easy to lose their trust. After working in passion categories for years, I realized you have to be very careful not to assume you know the consumer. Do your homework (formally or informally) to make sure you continue to learn about your consumer as their needs change and evolve. And don’t stop there — continue to be curious.
- Give up some control to your consumers, partners and ambassadors so they can express what your brand means to them. As we’ve started to work more with ambassadors and influencers, we’ve realized the most authentic content we create is when we cede some of the creative control to others. For Skullcandy, this was best expressed when we started working with influencers as part of our 12 Moods program. We gave them a mood and a color inspiration, but then released them to interpret and create content that felt authentic to them. Releasing control can feel risky for a brand, but this actually resulted in much more meaningful content for our brand.
- Your product must live up to the brand messaging you are relaying. Much of my career has also been spent on product design and development. Marketing & product teams MUST be in sync with each other so that the messaging we are sharing with the consumer expresses a true reflection of the product experience.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I think Vans is a great example of a large brand that has been able to retain its authenticity by staying true to its origins in California surf and skate culture. Though most of their consumers now aren’t likely skateboarders or surfers, they have still retained their connection to that culture. It can be tempting for companies to be scared off by staying so centered on such a specific culture for fear of alienating the larger audience they are trying to attract. Yet, if they were to stray from that “center” I believe they’d lose that very special ingredient that has attracted fans to them in the first place.
There was a period in Skullcandy’s history when it started to stretch beyond its core and over-extend itself. Getting back to our roots at the center of music and action sports and staying true to our brand foundation are now resulting in our highest levels of consumer engagement and record growth for our company this year.
The worst thing a brand can do is try to be all things to all people. That often leads to being nothing to no one. Think about the origin of your brand. What made your brand special? And stay true to that!
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
If your team is passionate about the work and the creative that you are doing, even hard work and long days can be energizing. When we committed to the 12 Moods program, we committed to 365 days of unique content. It was pretty daunting to the team at first. However, the beauty of it was we had a very clear mission, a detailed plan of attack and daily content calendars stretching 60–90 days out. It is a lot of work for the team, but everyone knows the plan and yet there is still plenty of room for creativity within the campaign from month to month.
We also have a value that we call “First Chair, Last Call” which is meant to reflect the idea of work hard, play hard. Since we live at 6,500 of elevation in a ski area — we are masters of working hard and playing hard at Skullcandy. We try to over-index on soft benefits for our employees so that they can work hard, but recharge their batteries on a regular basis.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
A lot of current research is showing that despite how connected they are, Millennials and Gen Z are more anxious, depressed and lonely than ever. Since Skullcandy is all about how music makes you feel, I’d love to see how music can positively influence people’s mood and mental health. Music can be such a powerful tool for lifting people’s spirits.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes by John Muir, the famous naturalist, is “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” I have this hanging in my house. This serves as a double meaning for me as an avid mountain biker, but also in business. This expresses to me the opportunity to take the unbeaten path, to not be afraid of a bumpy road and to try alternative routes rather than the easy path that was paved before you.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I’d want to meet Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube. I’d want to hear about her growth as a powerhouse female leader in Silicon Valley and her perspective on the future of music and content on one of the most important platforms for our young consumers.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jessicaklodnicki/
And follow the Skullcandy 12 Moods program on Twitter @skullcandy