Soul & Science
Soul & Science

Season 1, Episode · 4 months ago

S1 Episode 11: Carter's CMO Jeff Jenkins | Outlasting the Competition: How an Old Brand Stays Young


My guest on the pod this week, Jeff Jenkins, is CMO of Carter’s. He has one of those serendipitous career journeys that started when he was a 16-year-old tennis player coming home from a trip to Europe obsessed with this band, Ace of Base. As a young actor in New York, appearing on “Star Trek '' and in soap operas, he tempted in between at MTV and this sync with popular culture led to a stellar career at Taco Bell, where he learned to love the life of a 16-year-old audience to sell a lot of tacos. Wholly understanding the customer drives what he does at Carter’s, a brand that means everything to new parents, then fades away. Jeff keeps Carter’s present in an era of DTC and influencer brands, walking the tightrope between heritage and current culture.

In this episode you’ll learn:

• It's often the smarter decision to stay in your core demographic lane

• New parents are scrolling through TikTok at 3 a.m.

• Partnerships are a great way to keep a classic brand current

• Every retailer wants to feel special, so build a bespoke line extension

• The formula for career satisfaction: fun + learning + great people.

Brought to you by Mekanism

I always wondered if marketing lives in the heart or in the head. Should you trust your instinct or your integers? Often the answers both, but should you lead with one more than the other? So bring your heart and your head and join us in the conversation. Welcome to the PODCAST. Today I'm joined by Jeff Jenkins, Executive Vice President and global marketing at Carter's. Jeff joined carters in two thousand and nineteen as evp global marketing eating brand strategy, marketing, customer insights, business intelligence, creative visual merchandise, in communications, PR and customer experience. For carters, a multi billion dollar portfolio brands including carters, Oshkosh, Bagosh, little planet and skip hop. Prior to carters, Jeff was with c Ke Restaurant Holdings, the parent company of karls junior and hearty's fast food restaurant brands, serving as global chief digital officer and previously as chief marketing officer. Jeff also worked as VP digital marketing and channel activation at whole foods marketing, where he led the global digital marketing and prior to that he was the director of digital experience and new platforms at Taco Bell. Jeff thanks for joining us. We are excited to be here at chat with you. Jason. I'm super excited to be here and be part of this. Today's episode theme it's outlasting the competition, how an old brand stays young, and the reason why this is such a good theme for Jeff is he's working in a lot of different parts on a brand that is a hundred fifty seven years old and has really outlasted everyone in the industry. So I think the theme is going to be really interesting on how brands can kind of stay relevant and keep reinventing themselves over time, because a lot of brands might not last that long or they might be around but they might not be in the in the top seat. So before we get to that, we're going to start with the Jeff Jenkins origin story. How did you get into this, this line of work? I have a very weird background and it doesn't read on any resume and to your point, it's an origin stories makes me sound like a Marvel Superhero, which my kids are going to be, hey, very excited about. In your own head everyone's a marvel superhero exactly. So my marketing origin story started when I was about sixteen. I was a tennis player. I was playing in in Europe and I heard the song on the radio. That was super catchy and was playing in all the clubs and I'd never heard it before in the United States and I thought this is the cool song ever and I really thought this could be a big hit in the US. How does this? How does one get a song become a hit in the US? And so I came home started showing all my friends the song, passing around sort of doing what is now marketing right, really trying to inform people who the band was, getting building brand awareness the song. To show you my excellent musical taste. Was All that she wants, by a sub bass, is another baby. All this she wants is another baby, which is funny that I work at Carter's now. Was My origin story. So how does that work out? So you have to you have to use that song and some advertising and it will have to figure out how to license that one. But, as you'd imagine, eventually that song hit the US and I thought I was a genius. Now the real story behind why I hit in the US is because Clyde Davis was vacationing on a yacht in somewhere in Europe heard the song on the radio and made it a hit in the US. But I like to think I played some small part in that and that led me down this journey of like what is advertising? So that's like part one of the origin story, part two of the origin second ordin stories. I went to school UVA, did not plan on majoring in advertising, didn't major in advertising and through a series of unfortunate or fortunate events, I ended up in a play after college that went from Chicago to San Francisco back to New York. I was an actor through a series of things that happened... college. Ended up on some shows that were star track and seats show on the CW and and a soap opera, but I was essentially not really working and so I got a job because I couldn't just sit idle all day working for MTV, and during the day I was basically a hired gun at MTV. I was a temp worker and the person who hired me took a shine to me and started my marking career. And that gentleman's name was Fred Cyber, who was the original creative director of Mt who came up with the phrase I want my mtv back in the early, late, these early S, and he opened my eyes to what truly marketing is and watched me down the career path that I had today. It's amazing. I always thought it was George Lois that came up with I want my MTV. Now for Fred Fred is the original. He was like, I think, eighteen at the time when he was the career director in one thousand nine hundred and seventy nine. Almighty he was. He was just and he's gone on to run Hanna Barbera studios and do amazing things throughout his career. Wow, that's a great I love that story. And did you just love it right away? And did you say I don't want to be on Star Trek anymore and I'll just listen to a subase on my headphones? Did you, I? How did you make that? What made you drawn to it? Yeah, so I I went to work for MTV, the company, and at the time Mtd had bought a series of other channels like cmt and tnn and all these channels, and they were turning TNN, which was the Nash, the National Network at the time, into eventually what became the national network and what eventually became spike TV. So it was this small channel that was being ignored and so we were given sort of free rain to do and try different things and we literally were cutting cutting ads with man on the street interviews, and so it was like a free rain and as someone who was young and was willing to sort of go and jump in and play just a very small part in that journey, it was eye opening is to what you can do with creativity and how you can change the trajectory of the business. And I thought to myself like I sort of fell into the acting thing by total happenstance. It was never intend to be a career path long term and it just became one of those things. And eleven then hit. So I was the play that I was in was going to Broadway and sort of hundred and eleven hit nine and Broadway shut down and I moved out of New York and moved to Los Angeles. My journey has been all over the globe, from Sydney to Los Angeles to Austin, Texas, to Nashville, Tennessee, but I'm in Atlanta now. that a great, great origin story. How has your experience in the food industry impacted what you do now. And, as a note, you kind of went from fast food into healthy food in a way, right. You went from like carls junior hardy's to whole foods and then to carters. Yeah, so it's going to be funny to say this, but there's very big similarities between carters and working for a decade and fast food. And if you think about that, and I'll use Taco bell as the example, Taco Bell is a life stage business. So if you think about when you turn sixteen, you went to talk about your parents didn't necessarily take you to talk of Bell. They talked, took you to, you know, McDonald's or Burger King, the traditional fast food. Taco bell was the place you want with all your friends. It was cheap. You can point on. That's so true. I never thought about it and it's a fall of us and by twenty five you're sort of moving on your out of Taco Bell. Well, that's the same thing with carters. I've got to find our customer base. As soon as they get pregnant, decide they want to have children and then by the time they're there ten or eleven, we've sort of they move on to other brands. So they actual marketing skill necessary to sort of be relevant to that that next generation of parents or fast food users and then really be with them for ten years is really the same skill set. So while they're massively different industries, they're both extremely fast moving and they require you to be really adept about what the customers experiencing at that time and always grow with them. Because I have a ten year old child and my ten year old...

...child, when she was born, I wasn't scrolling through tick tock at three in the morning while I was doing a feeding so my wife can get rest. That's what's happening now. There was no iphone when my child was born. So the you have to be relevance that next generation of parents, just like I had to be relevant to that next generation of team that was going to be joining the Taco Bell clan. I think that's really interesting because I focus a lot on core audience, is really important in marketing. Some brands try to stretch to you know, you have different lines for different age groups and and you want to have a wider ten or bigger mass audience, and I think there's something in having that core that you're focused on that. You know, maybe that's one. One insider. One reason why carters has been successful for so long is not trying to be all things to everyone or try to capture as the audience gets older, their kids get older, trying to trying to be that, but really be focused. That focus might be one reason that that it's been successful. Yeah, I think there is. What we say internally is there's no one that understands what it means to be a parent more than carters. We've been doing it for a hundred fifty seven years of passing down tips and tricks, you know, doing innovations in the baby space, and no one knows what it's like to be a parent. I think that's our secret sauce and that's how we've got to continually to evolve of what's it mean to be a parent in today's world. I mean, I think the secret sauce that we talk about Internment carters is no one knows what it means to be a parent like we do. As you said, at top carters has been doing this for a hundred and fifty seven years, whether it's product innovation, understanding that role of the parent and how we can help our goal is simply how do we remain relevance that next generation parents and pass that knowledge down and really build that community of parents? That's awesome. Is there some formula of success that you take with you that whenever you approach a new project or a new industry, that that is consistent, that you take with you that you can share with give us some insight on you know, I think there is a recipe for how I approach the business and it all starts with understanding the consumer. I think being young brands for sort of a decade is understanding the consumer and and a really and really moving content at the speed of culture. Culture is at the center of everything that a community is built on. How people interact, what they're interested in, how they're talking to each other, and so how do you create content and experiences and moments for brands at the speed of culture? And I think that's some thing that Taco bell sort of instilled in me with as a brand, that it has to always be relevant to a sixteen year old. How do you stay at the tip of culture? We always say that social is the sharpest point of a spear. Right, it's got to be really pushing the boundaries every every time. So when I come into new role, it's understanding the audience, getting the insights. You know, parents are very different than teenagers, very different the grocery shoppers. But once you understand that audience, how do you then do things that blend current culture? And we've done amazing cultural things that no one expected at carters, like partnerships with kith that no one saw coming. And then how do you bring that in a way that connects with your audience? And so I think if I have a sort of method to the madness, it's all around understanding the consumer and matching that with current cultural trends and blending the two. That sort of the rest of the I bring two new roles, right as how do you understand the customer, gain the insights of the audience you're trying to reach and then pair that with things that are hitting in culture, really that the are the forefront of culture, and blending those two things together. You know, at carters and we own the oshkosh brand, right, everyone everyone has a memory of wearing the loshcush overalls. But one things we did was, you know, Kith. Kith is one of the most amazing sort of fashion brands out there. Doing a collaboration with them was completely unexpected but brought sort of newness to the brand that's been a hundred, twenty five years in the making with Oshkosh, and so it's those moments of really understanding the brand and pairing that with cultural things that are going to push the brand forward and connect with that consumer audience. I love that.

Remember the Ki Kith Ash Kosh. It's such an unexpected partnership and it kind of elevates both brands and I thought that was just so smart. Do you have any other examples of that type of convergence of the audience and culture that you've done either? You know, really at any brand, but do you have another example that stands out for you? Jason, we actually have a new partnership and I'm actually going to be getting up my title as Cmo of ours, and it's a very exciting way to give up your title because, as the chief marketing ots are going to be taken off the hat and passing into our chief mom officer, which is not just any man, but it is hilried up, who has been an icon to millennials and gines's who are now entering parenthood and really is going to help us continue to put propel the brand forward and main elevance of generations to come. It's awesome. This podcast is a lot about soul in science and when we talked about soul in science, we talked about the soul of the brand, which is really the reason for being, the purpose, why it exists in the world. And then science is using insights and data. And so when you're doing these partnerships and these collaborations, how much of it is with your head and how much of it is with your heart, like, is there research that you do to look at trends, or do they move so fast you sort of have to just make a make a call, or or how much? How much of it is is the science part in order to build the soul part? Yeah, I am a big believer and sort of equal parts soul in science. I don't think you can be successful without either or with. You tip the skills too much to either one. So you know from a understanding the sort of a headpiece and the analytics and this sort of insights. You have to have that base. But when you're building platforms and building campaigns, you have to work and understand where the heart is and understand where the heart of the consumer is. I'm sure like you, we put plenty of things into test with consumers who you know aren't interested in the product or or give it a loopwarm response. But in my heart I can tell that it's going to resonate once it gets out there. And suddenly you put it out it's massively more successful than you could even imagine it. But you also have those analytics that help you make the fine the fine tweaks and really give you the germ of the idea to start out with. Yeah, the Hilary Duff thing, I you know, I don't know anything about the stats or the Dato or the science part, but you kind of just know that that's that's right for the brand and super relevant. Seems like a really smart marketing move. You know, Hillary was sort of raised the generation of kids is lizzie McGuire as a kid and now she's on how I met your father, which is heading into season two. So she's relevant and living that sort of experience with parents today. So I think she is very exciting to join as a chief mom officer. So should be joining as chief mom officer. That also rolling out a collection, a clothing collections fall with us for kids, which will be very exciting. It's awesome. I love that. Going back into your career, one question I did want to ask you about in two thousand and nineteen, I believe you came. You came to carters. When you come on board you want to always put your stamp on something and bring your secret sauce, but also be a caretaker for what's come before you. Know, how do you think about that when you come on board, Jason, the word you used, caretaker, is the perfect word right. As a brand, it's been around for a hundred fifty seven years. Nic Sit being lucky enough to sit in this sheer leading marketing for such an respected organization. I'm only a caretaker. I'm not going to last a hundred fifty seven years and for the next one hundred fifty seven years. So I'm in the seat for some period of time and I'm lucky enough to have to sit here. I looked to the past and say what is this? This company done well, they have evolved multiple times over a hundred fifty seven years, which you have to do to survive. You know, from starting out in a business of wholesale and to opening outlets, to moving into malls, to moving into eat commers,... really changing their business model to having, we had exclusive brands at target, Walmart and Amazon and being in the wholesale channels and a unique way. You know, I think this company and what I did was look at what they have done and just build on you know, standing on the shoulders of giants, quite frankly, that have come before me and really just adding a little bit of my flavor, but really honoring what's come before. You've been there a bit. You've done a lot of really interesting same work. Why do you think the brand has outlasted and we talked about core audience moving into speed of culture. Is there something also in like the DNA of the brand that you that's kind of magical or clarity of the product, or is there is there some other elements that you see like you understand why it's done so well? So the brand is everywhere, which I think is a secret source of the brand through the years. I always say that we are as ubiquitous as Cocacola to parents. Everyone has one of our brands in their closet. Whether you are Kim Kardashian in your Oshcotsh Badash overalls, or whether you're a single dad trying to make ends meet, where you know on the wick at the grocery store and putting your kids in carters. There is we've touched everyone in the United States and beyond, all over the world with our brands, and so when a mom or dad enters the parenthood journey, the first thing you ask is advice from your peers, from your parents. How do I do this? Where I go, where I shop, and I think, being a hundred fifty seven years of being part of parents lives, there is that nature of parents passed down tips and trips around parenthood. That also passed down the wave of our brands and give those brands. So there's a big emphasis for us on really perpetuating that sort of role of being present in every parents live so that we can impact the next generation. I love that idea of of generation to generation, but you know, clothing doesn't necessarily stay the same generation to generation, and you know color palettes and styles and what's what's in. I mean some products do, of course, but do you always have to think about update, making sure like the visual merchandise is modern, the products different like. Are you constantly having to evolve the product, or is it more that it's quality and consistency that stands the test the time? No, we have to continue to evolve. Right, trends change, those things happen. We have an incredible design and merchandising team that is always staying on top of what's trending and baby. How are the fabrics changing? What are the features that we can add? How is the fashion evolving to baby right? I think that's been a biggest change in probably the last five years is the approach and the impact of social media on how you present your child in social media versus how you have to get through daytoday when they spit up all over themselves, versus the presentation of making sure the first birthday picture looks great on Instagram. So that's that's definitely something and I'm just lucky that work with great partners who are wizards at that part of the business and we help just help understand how to translate that to consumers. You mentioned doing exclusive for target and Walmart and Amazon, and so when you do that, in a way you're creating product just for those different companies. Does that still have like the same branding on it and and is it? Is it different product? Like how do you differentiate those products for those retailers? So all of the products at those retailers, the Amazons, the Turtan Walmart, are all branded with quarters. So we have simple joys by quods at Amazon. We have just one you by pods at target. So definitely still that clover's halo exist across all of the channels, I'm and has that impact. But we detailed the line and the design and the marketing to each of those different audiences, because each brand in each retailer has their own needs and has their own...

...audience. Everyone wants to be special right, they want to feel like they have something that's different from a competitor. That's a really great insight, I think, for building the business and because business is always, you know, US base businesses, we have to grow or die. You know, that's just like the way it is. That's the mentality in America is everything has to has to grow quarter to quarter and you know, big part of the CMO's job is to make sure that that growth is healthy for brand equity but also the numbers are working. And so that is one really great insight. That I'm assuming is part of your success, is that exclusive product idea. Yeah, I mean, I think that's one of the things is you really want your brand to be where the shopper is, and shopper shop all different places. It's a having a brand show up in different ways in each of these the spoke retailers is really important. And I think the other thing that you mentioned about the constant evolution of product is also a really great one, because no one wants to have their kid in the exact same thing that everyone else has. You know, it's the way like the Nike is always coming out with with new product and it's hard to get the product once it's sort of out and released and gone. And I think that idea of constant evolution of the product then doing exclusive products the names ubiquitous but the product is sort of differentiated, and I think that that that's another great insight that I got from this conversation. As well anything else that you think people would want to know or the way you think about how an old brand stays young, how how an old brands at which I love that sort of turn of phrase because of your target audience, but how anything else that you think we haven't covered about that. outlasted the competition and how an old brand stays young. Yeah, I think I think the one piece or the one element is a mantra that I live by. That also, I think, applies to the brands that I've worked on. And someone gave me this piece of advice. I'm not going to take take claim for the quote, but the quote is simply this. There's no traffic if you make your own lane. And if you think about that as a brand, it's been around for a hundred sixty five years. Or as you build your career, if you choose your online you don't get compared to others. And say, as I think about that, both as a leader and how it grown, I taken jobs that didn't exist before. I've asked for assignments that didn't exist and build my career doing things and in categories that people didn't think was possible. And then similarly, I think with brands, how we do things with brands that people aren't expecting. I love that. So I'm going to ask you a couple personal questions in a second, but I my last question on the kind of workfront is how much do you think what you do in marketing and in your career is solar sciences? It more one or the other? Is it, you know, eighty percent data, twenty percent how you're feeling or gut? How do you think about that? As as you head up these brands and and think about marketing? I probably would lean towards the heart more than the science and the soul more than the science, and I think it goes back to finding a Sabase when I was sixteen and just knowing instinctually that that was a hit and that I needed to get that to my friends. I think there's some things that you just can understand if you know an audience that you you gravitate towards and you build that sort of success rate of trusting your soul and understanding the soul the consumer and you go with that. So I'm probably sixty to seventy percent soul, thirty to forty percent science, if you do, if you were, look at that, just because I think science is a grounding and a platform to help you understand and help you measure, but some things in creativity, a focus groups never going to get US parse out for you.

That's great. Do you also have a personal quote? You know sometimes people say a word that they think about that sort of drives them. Do you have any anything like that that you're always keeping in the back of your mind, either personally or professionally? I wouldn't say it's a quote, but someone gave me this idea that I try and live by. It's a triangle. There's three points to your your life that you have to think about and the questions about your life, and it applies to career, which is there's three points the triangle. One is do I like the people around there my head? The second one is am I having fun, and the last one is am I learning? Learning and growing as a human being, and if those three are and sort of harmony, you're in the best place in your life. It's generally you're always getting sort of two out of the three and you know if you've only got one of the three, you got to change something in your own life. And so it's less a quote, but it is sort of like sort of work life personal baths that I like to keep between this three points, fun, learning and people exactly. I like that triangle. I'm going to think and I think that applies professionally and personally. Like you can take that for all aspects of your life one hundred percent. Do you have any people that have inspired you or role models in your life that you feel got you to where you are or were inspirational to you in some way? Yeah, I would say on a personal level, both my mom and dad or inspirations, you know, to me as how to be a good human how to be a good thought or how to be good husband, how to be, some of them, a good son. Try My best good way, but they really sort of set set the set the table for me and allow me to grow as a human being and I'll be forever grateful. On a business side, my mentor and sort of person I look up to in life as Greg creed, who was the CEO of young and retired recently, a couple of years ago, but he was the president of Taco Bell, the President of KFC Australia, and he sort of has this mantra of leading with the heart and everything he does is really focused on driving results, being unique, being creative, but also doing it with people at the forefront, and so he's really been how I've shaped my sort of leadership philosophy on how I am as a leader, how people are first and how we've got to go far together, and that sort of what has led me. I love that. You know, the theme was outlasting the competition, how an old brand stays young, and really I think what I got from the conversation was this idea of focusing on the I'm really understanding the consumer, moving at the speed of culture and and creating partnerships. Really I think there's something about this appeal of going from generation to generation. In a way, the Genera, the generation before, becomes part of your marketing for the next generation, which I think is a really great insight. The constant evolution of product as well and doing exclusives. And then, personally, I learned from you this idea of no traffic, if you make your own lane. I'm going to be thinking about that quite a bit. And the triangle of people around you constantly learning and I'm making sure you're having fun, which I think I need to add that fun one a little bit more into my work life. I think it is great insight. So, you know, this has been a great conversation. Thank you, Jeff, for enlightening US both from from a marketing standpoint and and personally as well. Thanks for coming on the PODCAST. It was a better thanks so much for listening to soul in science and we'll see you next week. So in sciences a mechanism podcast produced by the amazing Frank Risco, Ryan Tillotson, Tyler Nielsen, Ema Swanson and Sophie Marond, with theme music by Kyle Mary. I'm your host, Jason Harris,.

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