Jinal Shah of Feather on Brand Storytelling and Digital Strategy
Feather CMO Jinal Shah on marketing as non-performative behavioral change.
Jinal, you have diverse experience on both sides of the marketing table: working at top agencies, established brands, and startups. From that experience, it sounds like you learned how to deliver a “360 experience” for clients. Tell us how your background helped you to define a strategy for Feather (including its recent rebranding!).
Several intersections of my background helped inform Feather’s strategy. First, my personal experience. My grandparents were refugees in India and I grew up in the same house my father was born in. And I immigrated to America at 18. The idea of home has always been a significant part of my identity and was one of the main reasons I was attracted to Feather.
Second, my agency background. Once a strategist, always a strategist and JWT (at least during my time there) had the world’s smartest planners working there so I did learn from the best. We were able to crystallize our consumer insights and infuse the why in our brand.
And lastly, culture. It is no question that COVID has upended the idea of home for our entire cohort: young or old. It would have been irresponsible for us to ignore this massive emotional shift into the future of our work.
In terms of the process, I have an excellent internal creative team. I wanted to ensure we weren't married or blocked by our own biases and preferences so I invited a smart, super collaborative external team to inspire us and help us with the rebranding. This amalgamation was magical.
"We were able to crystallize our consumer insights and infuse the why in our brand."
You developed the “Startup Filter” – a set of principles that are the building blocks for any startup whether it’s developing a website, a new digital product, or even a short-term marketing campaign. How can these principles guide digital marketing strategies through the shifts we are experiencing in 2020?
The fundamentals of marketing or brand building haven’t changed as much – how that’s executed has evolved which is only natural. I’ve come to see the marketer’s role slightly differently in the last eight years. Today, I believe my job is to either reinforce existing behaviors but more often than not, it is to introduce new behaviors. The easiest way to introduce new behaviors is to find parallels within existing constructs so it is not a huge cognitive load for the consumer. Think about the number of pitches that start with, we are the Uber of ______.
One of the things I mentioned in this filter was baked-in marketing – there’s a word for it now. Ta-da – product marketing! Working in a DTC environment, marketing’s role is not merely to bring visitors to the site but to also convert them. This means marketing has to go beyond the campaign and the message.
"My job is to either reinforce existing behaviors but more often than not, it is to introduce new behaviors."
You’ve reflected on the change of pace of business leaders and their decisions due to the pandemic, on how decision-making is compressed: “decisions that would normally take months are now taking hours; major strategic pivots that would normally take years to actualize are now live within weeks.” What do you think this means for marketing teams? Are you seeing marketers embrace innovations in storytelling? How can we all take advantage of this new sense of flexibility and creativity?
Whether it was Oreo’s Dunk It moment or Samsung’s Oscar Selfie, the expectation from marketers to be storytellers first and foremost hasn’t changed and nor should it. I’m not sure if COVID necessarily offered a new advantage to marketers – if anything it demanded that marketers listen and not always be eager to act and show off their creativity or need to seek attention during a culturally relevant moment. We debated a lot internally if we should send out a letter from the CEO when all the brands were doing that. Ultimately, we decided it was only relevant for our employees and a small number of customers expecting deliveries during this time frame, so we chose to communicate only with them.
Sometimes, the act of listening and paying attention in itself is a good story. The same thing with BLM – there was a lot of performative bullshit going on during this time. And a lot of brands got called out about it too. If there is no substance and only shine, consumers are quick to catch on it. In this situation, it is imperative marketers act as leaders first and push their organizations to act with integrity before they can earn the right to share stories about it.
"It is imperative marketers act as leaders first and push their organizations to act with integrity before they can earn the right to share stories about it."
What do brands misunderstand about editorial/branded content? How do you think they can leverage their resources to better serve their communities, especially when people demand better representation of diverse backgrounds?
I think these are two separate questions so I’ll answer them that way.
Brands often look for immediate business value with editorial / branded content and forget that the cultural value IS the business value. Editorial and branded content is an underutilized way for the right type of brands to make the right cultural commentary. It is not right for every brand for sure but it does absolutely have a role in the marketing mix.
How do I think brands can leverage their resources to better serve their communities, especially when people demand better representation of diverse backgrounds?
Do the work. There isn’t a complex answer here. Find the right recruiting manager who will not close a role until there has been a diverse pool of candidates who have applied and who have been interviewed. Invest in bias and empathy training so that the less loud voices are also heard and those who have a seat at the table are treated like they have a seat at the table. It really is that simple – do the work.
"Editorial and branded content is an underutilized way for the right type of brands to make the right cultural commentary."
For you, what is one key learning of 2020? And why is it important?
Take solitary walks.
I am a better leader to my team and my colleagues, and I am a better wife and a friend to my husband if I have equilibrium, composure, and gratitude. I find all three of these on my walks, more so over the last few months. Walking helps me clear and quieten my mind, process my own thoughts and anxieties, and find grace and beauty.
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