Editor’s note: Jonathan La Greca is VP strategic growth at market research firm Hotspex, Toronto. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared under the title, “Insights from top CMOs @ the 2019 Gathering Conference.” 

I have attended the Gathering, a marketing conference in Banff, for four years in a row because of the insights that top CMOs and marketing leaders share.

Here are 10 insights from the conference that resonated the most with me:

1. If you do nothing else, find a way to make your brand relevant. 

One of the recurring themes from this year’s conference was the importance of making your brand more relevant in a world where we are all more distracted than ever before.

Bill Neff from Yeti suggested that marketers might be overly obsessed with measuring awareness. He explained how “awareness is a derivative of relevance” and that if you focus on being relevant to your consumers, awareness will eventually follow.

Yeti runs an event once every five days, not with the goal of “building awareness” but instead to connect with consumers on a personal level to understand how to be more relevant to them.

2. Start with brand purpose and create ways to help people feel connected. 

Have a purpose!Most of the brands celebrated at the conference have remained relevant by uncovering a powerful brand purpose.

People around the world are becoming more individualistic over time and by focusing on themselves rather than others, loneliness is pervasive. It is no surprise for a brand to have the purpose of helping people feel connected.  

Mindy Hamilton from Marvel Entertainment shared how her brand’s secret to success is “epic storytelling imbued with human spirit,” addressing the fact that we all want to be connected to something.

Doug Atkin, recently Airbnb’s head of community, explained the power of community and how people don’t join communities to create a new identity, but to finally be allowed to be themselves around others that accept them and make them feel connected.

3. If you thought discovering your brand purpose was hard, sticking to it might be harder.

Atkin shared several Airbnb stories to demonstrate how important it is to have brand purpose guiding your brand strategy and execution, which is consistent with many of the other brands that were celebrated at the Gathering.

He shared evidence from a Harvard Business Review article and Simon Sinek’s research to reinforce the idea that “why we work determines how well work.”

He also went on to suggest that while uncovering your brand purpose might be hard, executing it consistently might be even harder. This was illustrated through a powerful example where Airbnb made a tough decision to stand up to a very powerful entity, the New York attorney general, for something that was intrinsic to its purpose.

As this happened in the early years, the decision could have bankrupted the company, but they chose to allow their brand purpose to guide their decision.

In addition to business decisions, Airbnb also uses its brand purpose to hire and progress talent. Doug explained that how well aligned employees are to Airbnb’s brand purpose is just as an important as their skill levels.  

4. The magic of not knowing what you’ll get if you ask.

Brian Scudamore, CEO of O2E Brands, the parent company of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, reinforced the concept that if you want something, you usually have nothing to lose by asking.

He shared a powerful story of asking Nasdaq to re-run his out-of-home ad and take a picture of him in it, and sure enough, they did.

Scudamore shared several other stories that reflected this principle of not knowing what you'll get until you just ask.

5. Find what you love doing and find ways to do more of it.

This concept was brought to life by several of the speakers. Keynote speaker and professional skateboarder, Tony Hawk, shared his life story and journey into fame.

He demonstrated how he often prioritized his love for skateboarding above all else, even in making some difficult trade-offs, which put the business itself at risk. This was yet another example of how purpose overcame fear and influenced tough business decisions.

Jennifer Saenz, CMO of Frito-Lay North America, shared how even after her 13-year journey from intern to CMO, she loves where she works because of how much she continues to learn.

Chris Kneeland, co-founder of the Gathering, suggested the idea of “capabalisim,” which he described as the ability to thrive by exploiting your unique talents and ambitions.

6. Vaccinate against short-termism.

Kneeland shared several examples of brands that did a great job of fostering short-term conversion while also building powerful brands in the long term.

Scott Baker, Porsche Cars North America, talked about how measuring return is very different from measuring revenue. Revenue is immediate, whereas return has a more long-term focus.

Return builds and reinforces memory structures and associations build consistently over time and can therefore lead to purchases in the future.

Baker went on to explain how Porsche takes the long game of building those associations early in consumers’ lives to build aspirations that one day might lead to conversion years into the future.

7. To improve your advertising effectiveness, look beyond your core targets.

Moving beyond your core targetsNils Weigelt, global brand director of M&M’s, Mars Wrigley Confectionery, shared several insights on how to apply the laws of growth from How Brands Grow to your marketing.

One application of this had to do with advertising effectiveness. In many cases, brands speak to their core targets when testing advertising. In reality, to grow you need to focus on reach and penetration, which means that you need to think beyond your core target.

If your ad can work with the consumers that have less associations with your brand, it will likely be more successful at driving penetration. On the other hand, if you only test it with your core audience, there is a bias from the strong awareness and memory structures you have already built with those consumers. 

8. Use borrowed memory structures to be more relevant.

Distinctive brands build and reinforce memory structures, but Weigelt (Mars Wrigley) shared several examples of how brands can get closer to what’s most relevant to consumers. The key is to find ways to build associations between your brand and what is most relevant to consumers, in essence creating borrowed memory structures.

He shared how M&M’s has borrowed memory structures by creating an ad integration with Stars Wars and Darth Vader to link to what was relevant to a broad set of its consumers at the time of the ad.

Weigelt advised that you look for sweet spots where you can tie into existing behaviors. One example included how a new packaging format for gum leaned into the behavior of already placing your coffee in coffee cup holders in cars and made it easier for consumers to adopt the new behavior to start placing gum into their coffee holders.

9. Use a portfolio strategy to expand relevancy and drive penetration.

Mindy Hamilton, SVP of global partnerships and marketing at Marvel Entertainment, explained how Marvel has over 8,000 characters and each one has the ability to bring consumers into the Marvel franchise.

Weigelt pointed to the same idea, as M&M’s have several distinct personalities that can appeal to the differing needs and personality types of a broader audience.

Jennifer Saenz of Frito-Lay shared how the different brands within the company’s snacking portfolio have a complimentary set of consumer benefits and can thus use a portfolio approach to driving consumer relevancy and engagement.

10. The key to success in business and marketing is people.

This principle was reinforced by several speakers at this year’s Gathering. It seems like such an obvious insight but is something that is so easy to forget when we are in the thick of things.

Brian Scudamore (1-800-GOT-JUNK?) stated that brands are only as good as the people that run them. He explained that in his business, one of the most important elements is the people who take care of their customers, which ultimately leads their customers to take care of the brand.

Saenz shared the advice of getting to know each one of your team members on a personal level first before discussing business issues so that you have a better understanding of what matters to them. Not only will this improve your team’s dynamics, it will likely make everyone’s work more fulfilling.

Perhaps Tim Harris of the L.A. Lakers said it best: “We’re just in the business of people, played by people, sold by people and consumed by people, so be good to your people.”

He went on to share how he has gotten upset at employees for missing their kid’s little league games or dance recitals to do something for work that wasn’t a crisis, reminding us why we need to make sure we are looking after our people.

An open-minded environment

Each year that I attend the Gathering, I walk away with high-level insights, but I also come back with specific marketing ideas, such as the importance of relevance, personalization and borrowed memory structures, which are equally helpful to me in my work with insights and marketing leaders across different categories.

What’s most valuable is the open-minded environment that this conference creates and the new relationships that it fosters. I am very grateful to have had conversations with many of the marketing geniuses that were at this event and look forward to learning more from them in the months to come.