After 35 years of being known for producing great outdoor products for the traditional outdoorsman, Merrell Footwear & Apparel has made a concerted effort to reach a new breed of outdoor enthusiasts. Leading the charge on its new mission is CMO Linda Brunzell.
The brand’s new rallying cry, “Do What’s Natural,” speaks to the individual outdoor instinct in everyone, Brunzel said, with the hope to inspire young-at-heart adventurers to make their experiences their own.
Before coming aboard Merrell’s parent company, Wolverine Worldwide, in 2008, Brunzell held key positions at companies such as PepsiCo, McKinsey & Company, and the Bank of America. She took the role of CMO of Merrell in 2015.
She recently took time to sit down with CMO.com to discuss the great outdoors and Merrell’s evolving role in the growing industry.
CMO.com: Tell me a bit about how you became interested in marketing.
Brunzell: I started my career in finance and banking. After business school, I was in management consulting. I did two stints in the service industries. Through career coaching and self-discovery, I realized that in addition to wanting to run a business, I was a bit obsessed with what made people tick. I learned that marketing and brand management was a way for me to use my business background, combined with my level of understanding consumers, and create a career. I started my marketing career with PepsiCo after leaving management consulting, and moved to Michigan to work for Wolverine Worldwide.
CMO.com: What was it about Wolverine Worldwide and the Merrell brand that interested you?
Brunzell: I was living and working in Chicago and always loved the outdoors. I received a recruiter inquiry while I was at PepsiCo, and knew the brand, loved the brand, and was really amazed that I could marry my functional experience with something that was a personal passion.
CMO.com: What are the differences between your marketing work at PepsiCo and what you’re doing for Merrell?
Brunzell: When I was at PepsiCo, I was in charge of granola bars, and people’s relationship with the product is somewhat limited. Now I work for a lifestyle brand, so the amount of connection you have with consumers throughout their lives is so much more. A pair of shoes or a pair of boots can be someone’s best friend on a life’s journey, so it’s a much longer relationship.
CMO.com: What was the genesis of the “Do What’s Natural” campaign?
Brunzell: In February 2016, we launched the platform, based on a consumer-informed message that encourages our consumers to make the outdoors their own by doing what feels right to them or natural to them. It could be traditional outdoor activities like hiking or camping, but it also pertains to newer activities, like outdoor adventure racing and outdoor training. The gist is we want to invite our consumers to the outdoors and also hear what they’re doing, so we’re creating a two-way conversation.
CMO.com: What have the early results shown?
Brunzell: The global response has been amazing and exceeded our expectations. It really truly affects where the outdoor consumer is going and where the industry is going.
On Instagram, we use #MyNature to tell our story, and we’re encouraging our consumers and ambassadors to talk about their nature or how they’re encountering the outdoors. That’s been incredibly powerful, and we have around 30,000 posts based on that hashtag. In terms of the social content, it has opened up the lens of the outdoors for us. Whether it’s urban settings like parks, whether it’s walking your dog outside, or whether it’s your backyard or mountain peak, we’ve made our voice and what we’re trying to accomplish much louder.
CMO.com: Was the initial goal of the campaign to find a new audience or engage your existing customers?
Brunzell: It was a little of both. There’s a lot of urbanization going on in the world, and what we’re seeing is the way people think about the outdoors has evolved significantly. In the past, people who considered themselves “outdoors people” would pack up their cars and head out and go camping for the weekend. Now, a lot of people don’t have that opportunity due to time or location, and we saw that happening. What we see in Millennials, and even those outside of that segment, is that people want to explore, try new things, and try with a group of people. It isn’t all about that one solo person doing monumental things like scaling a mountain; it’s about getting some friends together and just enjoying the outdoors.
CMO.com: You mentioned Instagram earlier. How else do you leverage social media platforms?
Brunzell: Social media is incredibly important. People want to share what they’re doing, and a lot of that is outdoors. We talk a lot about empowering amazing outdoor lives, and for us, we want to enable people to live those lives. We also want to hear about them. We do that on social. It’s through establishing a community, exposing people to product, and exposing people to the adventures that are out there.
CMO.com: Can you cite a way in which social media has been used in a way that’s helped the brand grow?
Brunzell: We did a video around “Have yourself a Merrell little Christmas.” We had over 2 million views, which we consider quite a hit. What we’re finding is we take a wit-and-grit personality to Merrell. The grit is the performance and people knowing we have the product to get them going where they want to go, but the wit is having the ability to laugh and enjoy. I think we’re striking an interesting chord on social with a lot of the content we’ve been doing recently. We want to make sure we are viewed as a serious performance brand, but we also want to have fun with it.
CMO.com: Will the “Do What’s Natural” campaign continue in 2017?
Brunzell: Absolutely. We look at it as a platform, and it’s the serving dish that everything generates from. We’re absolutely committed to it, and what’s been amazing is globally we’ve gotten great response to it also. Globally, the outdoors is defined as many different things, and this has given people some leeway to try different things, which has been great.
CMO.com: What are the demographics of the Merrell customer?
Brunzell: It’s interesting because we have a loyal consumer among the Gen X and Boomer populations; however, we’ve undertaken some interesting studies with Millennials lately, and we found that for Millennials who are aware of us, we’re one of the most loved brands that they have. Our conversion is off the charts. Our challenge as a brand is to get people to know us. We just need to introduce ourselves to more people and continue the conversation with those who love us.
CMO.com: What’s the strategy for doing that? What’s on tap to reach that audience?
Brunzell: It’s supporting our key franchises in appropriate ways on the product marketing side and making sure people are aware of the innovation we have. Product is extremely important in our industry. It’s also working through social media, through our ambassador team, and also through our partnership with Tough Mudder, to make sure we are integrated in people’s lives.
CMO.com: What’s the work environment for how new ideas are passed around the marketing team?
Brunzell: We have a very flat organization in terms of anyone can walk in my office at any time, and I can walk and talk with anyone in theirs. In terms of how information is disseminated, I would say it’s a mix of formal and informal. We have a weekly marketing meeting where we share what’s happening, and I also have meetings with my direct reports so they are abreast at a different level of what’s going on. I’m sharing anything that’s happening across the senior level. I really try to air on the side of having in-person conversations with my team.
CMO.com: Analytics are obviously an important component of any marketing position. How do you use the data and metrics you collect to make choices that will help the company grow?
Brunzell: We lean heavily on digital metrics. When we do digital media spend and paid social, that’s important, and we want to make sure that spend is sufficient and targeting the right consumers. Additionally, we invest in marketing mix studies to understand ROI of our individual initiatives. That’s a great way for us to measure things that are difficult to measure on a surface level. We adjust when needed so we are doing the right things with the dollars that the company has entrusted us with.
CMO.com: How does Merrell rely on mobile to help spread the word of the brand?
Brunzell: Targeting mobile advertising has become increasingly important to us. Additionally, we know the outdoor consumer relies heavily on their mobile device. If you would have talked to someone in the outdoors eight years ago, it might have been frowned upon to have your cell phone in your hand on the trail, but now we know everyone does it--some to capture their outdoor adventures and some to rely on as a tool. We need to continue to think of ways to develop content that’s useful for them and speak to them when they are on the trail, and also encourage them to share what they’re doing.
CMO.com: Are there any out-of-the-box ideas you’ve tried in your marketing efforts that have left a lasting impression?
Brunzell: In 2010, when I was more junior on the marketing team, I got a voicemail from filmmaker Morgan Perloff of “Super Size Me” fame. Many people would have ignored or avoided that voicemail, but we were intrigued. The call led to the brand inclusion in a film that he directed called “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” He paid for the movie through brands, and the movie was about product placement. The great thing about it is we got great product placement, great media buzz, and we got to present a film at Sundance, which was pretty neat.
CMO.com: Tell me more about your sponsorship with Tough Mudder.
Brunzell: We’ve always had the traditional outdoors people, so the optical course racing is a different type of outdoors, and this was a great opportunity to work with a partner who was focused on teamwork and this avenue. Tough Mudder has a lot of great values; it was an intriguing partnership for us.
CMO.com: What’s the biggest challenge of your job?
Brunzell: As a leader, it is a challenge for my team to find the time to be creative and innovative in the midst of deadlines and getting things done. A lot of times, many organizations lean on marketing to continue to be innovative and creative, and we need to make sure that we have an environment where people feel they can do that.
CMO.com: How do you see the evolution of the CMO role in a 2017 world?
Brunzell: The role of a CMO is becoming much more integrated across the organization than it probably has been in the past. Many times in the past, CMOs were in charge of marketing, messaging, and the brand, but more recently, it’s that but also stretching into all other functional areas, whether that’s sales, products, e-com, direct-to-consumer ... and you have a much more leadership position at the table than you’ve had in the past. Because of that, marketers are well-served to have a great general business background in addition to a deep marketing understanding, whether folks are getting that from business schools or prior careers or figuring it out as they go. Identifying yourself as just a marketer is not the future.