I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
—Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
GNC CMO and head of e-commerce Jeffrey Hennion wasn’t always a marketer. In fact, he spent the first 11 years of his career in the finance department of various organizations before his path diverged.
Hennion was at Dick’s Sporting Goods at the time, where he was VP of finance before being promoted to CMO in 2004. According to Hennion, having held both positions has given him “the ability to see what’s going on in the organization from multiple perspectives.”
“Even things as simple as doing a budget—when I was at Dick’s in finance, I was concerned with where the CMO was spending money,” he said. “Fast forward a few years later, and I was sitting on the other side, trying to justify the spend.”
In this exclusive interview with CMO.com, Hennion talks more about his career, how marketing at GNC is changing as a discipline, and his top strategic marketing priority for the next 12 months.
CMO.com: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your career in marketing.
Hennion: It’s probably described as schizophrenic at times. I spent the first 11 years of my career at Alcoa in finance. We were a $20 billion company, and I was the assistant treasurer running global banking and trading. From there, I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods as treasurer and then became VP of finance and SVP of strategic planning. About four years into my tenure there, I became CMO, which was my first marketing job. I spent six years as CMO and then added head of e-commerce. Then I went to GNC with the same role, [then] left to go spend two years as president of Branding Brand. Two years ago, I came back to GNC.
CMO.com: How the heck did you go from being head of finance to chief marketing officer at Dick’s?
Hennion: Well, it was 2004, and we knew that marketing was becoming so much more quantitative, with the advent of CRM and the variety of data metrics. We knew then that it was going to become really important for CMOs, and marketers in general, to be able to measure data and look at the quantitative side. Having run investor relations at a couple of big places just means I went from marketing the company to Wall Street to marketing the company to consumers.
CMO.com: What is the biggest challenge that GNC faces from a marketing perspective?
Hennion: Our biggest challenge is that we have 82% brand awareness in the U.S., but so much of that awareness is wrong and outdated. We spent the last two years talking to thousands of customers and doing an incredible amount of data analysis. What our customers are telling us is that we were too high-priced, or at least too complicated in pricing, that we weren’t rewarding them for their loyalty, and we had slowed on product innovation.
On Dec. 28, we closed all of our stores so that we could retrain all employees. On Dec. 29, we rolled out the new GNC, both in our physical locations and online. We’re now offering lower prices, much simpler pricing, and launching a new free cash-back loyalty program, so we’ll now reward people for shopping repeatedly with us. We’ve got a whole slate of new product innovations for 2017.
CMO.com: How will your marketing be different?
Hennion: Because of the awareness issue, it’s going to be critical, first and foremost, for us to get out there and tell people as quickly as possible and as broadly as possible how we’re different. So starting Christmas week, we launched the biggest marketing campaign in our company’s history, and it covers all kinds of channels, from social to digital to traditional media, like national radio and newspaper ads. On New Year’s Eve, Twitter’s promoted trend was a GNC New Resolution trend.
CMO.com: Would you say GNC is effective at drawing insights from all the heaps of data that’s out there and that you guys are collecting?
Hennion: I think so. I think we’ll see. This launch of the new GNC is driven completely off of two years of gathering insights and analyzing data and customer trends to get a sense of where we are. Our customers are passionate, they are loyal, and we think we’ve done a really good job of understanding those insights. Time will tell as we turn all of these insights into an entirely new branding platform.
CMO.com: What is your top strategic marketing priority for 2017?
Hennion: The biggest priority is to increase consideration of GNC. We don’t have an awareness issue, obviously, because so many people know us. But our challenge is, in an industry today that is strong and growing, how can we shift people’s perceptions of GNC so that we drive people either in the store for the first time or back into the store?
CMO.com: What consumer trends are you paying close attention to?
Hennion: For us, the biggest trend is how people continue every day to be focused on incorporating health and wellness into their lifestyle, or improving their athletic performance. Whether you’re about to run your first 5K, competing in your fifth Iron Man triathlon, or trying to lose weight, we have products to help you perform better and, across the board, live a healthier lifestyle.
CMO.com: Same question, but in regard to emerging media.
Hennion: For us, part of launching the new GNC is we’re launching a new app that’s on both on iOS and Android. Given the fact that we have over 4,400 stores in the U.S. alone, and over 9,900 stores globally in over 50 countries, customers are rarely very far from a GNC. So the ability to geotarget people with messaging, we think, has great potential.
CMO.com: What else are you doing from a mobile perspective?
Hennion: Most people who go to GNC.com go there on a mobile device of some kind, which is consistent with a lot of retail. Because the impact of mobile in retail now is that just about every single person who goes into a store carries a research device in their pocket or their purse, the ability for transparency of pricing, the ability to understand that your customer could be price-shopping or exploring alternatives in-store, has impacted every retailer in a very different way.
CMO.com: Looking back at 2016, what’s your proudest marketing achievement?
Hennion: Our proudest achievement is gathering the customer insight to launch the brand in a completely new way, with a new business model. That’s been a huge consumption of time. The second big accomplishment is that in order to do this, it takes a tremendous team, and we are extremely proud of the team we’ve built throughout GNC, who will allow us to take everything to the next level.
CMO.com: What’s your approach to content marketing?
Hennion: Content is critical. We have a lot of customers who visit GNC.com to do their research, and it’s critical for us that we constantly adapt and increase the content that’s available. Whether that’s on GNC.com or in third-party content pieces, we’re committed to satisfying our customers’ need to learn and understand how to live a better life. That could mean articles around key products. It could be a dictionary of health. We have doctors who we work with who write articles, and tools that help customers pick the right products for them.
CMO.com: Generally speaking, what’s the biggest mistake you see marketers making in the digital space today?
Hennion: The biggest mistake, at least in my opinion, is going off of what feels right or gut feel versus what the data is telling you. And it’s why there is such a critical need for strong measurements and metrics around what we do and how to make decisions. Ultimately, the customer is going to tell you in numbers and data what they think, or how they act, and gut feel is not the way to do it.
CMO.com: That’s interesting because many marketers say it should be a mix of both. So you’re saying that data reigns supreme?
Hennion: I think, to me, data reigns supreme, but not 100%. You’ve got to factor in everything that’s out there. But I do believe that, especially in the digital space or channels like social, if you can’t measure it, it’s a challenge. Platforms like Snapchat, for example, where you can’t really measure your reach or effectiveness, in some places it feels good, and we are on the platform. But it’s also a challenge to be able to justify significant investment when you really have no idea what your true reach is and then what the impact is.
CMO.com: Do you have any advice for marketers?
Hennion: Try and approach every problem from very different perspectives. Evaluate everything from every possible perspective, guided by the data insights.
CMO.com: What should CMOs invest in most in 2017?
Hennion: Building great teams. All of this comes down to the people, regardless of what your budget is, what you’re doing. Nothing trumps building great people and surrounding yourself with people who do tremendous work.