CMO of the Week: Kendra Scott's Michelle Peterson

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When Michelle Peterson wakes up in the morning and heads to work as chief marketing officer of Kendra Scott, she is excited about many things. 

When Michelle Peterson wakes up in the morning and heads to work as chief marketing officer of Kendra Scott, she is excited about many things. 

“First is the just emotional tie consumers have to this category,” she says. “I spent a lot of time in food and some other categories, but this one has such an emotional connection. When we talk to consumers, immediately they go to the confidence that jewelry gives them. That's how they choose what to put on. I want to feel more dressed up. I want to feel put together. I want to feel elevated. It's fantastic to be running a brand that does that.” 

Founded by the namesake fashion designer in 2002, Kendra Scott began selling her jewelry around Austin, TX in local boutiques. In 2010, she opened her first store in Austin. Today the brand has more than 100 stores nationwide and is carried in high end retailers including Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Selfridge’s in London and is valued at more than $1 billion.

The company is 96% women and is focused on three pillars –fashion and philanthropy and family. “Our consumers know that Kendra created this business to do good in the world. It isn't just something that she says, it really is infused into everything that we do,” explains Peterson. “We've given $50 million since 2010. And every marketing initiative and every company initiative we do has a philanthropic element to it.”

Prior to joining Kendra Scott, Peterson held senior marketing roles at Pressed, InterContinental Hotels Group, Life Time and General Mills. Brand Innovators caught up with Peterson from her office in Atlanta to talk about building emotional connections with consumers, the brand’s recent Barbie collaboration and the importance of giving back. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

What is the brand's mission and how does that show up in your marketing?

Our mission or purpose is to create good in the world and Kendra talks about how she saw an opening for really accessible or just colorful jewelry. But really what motivated her was to be able to use her talents to give back and that is really our mission today to create good in the world. We have these three pillars – fashion, philanthropy and family– and every marketing initiative we do hits on each of those pieces and tells that full story. 

Our Barbie collaboration is a perfect example. Barbie was obviously an amazing phenomenon. But the way we looked at it was doing a collaboration with Barbie and having our two icons come together was obviously amazing for the consumer and such a fashion element. And for those to come together, a portion of a few of our gift back skews gave back to Girls Inc, which is an amazing charity involved in the party along with Mattel, as well. Then the family piece, our stylists were Barbie. We have all these incredible events at the corporate office at our stores. The whole team is engaged in this launch. 

Can you talk about marketing initiatives that you're currently working on?

Kendra started the business because her goal was to personally connect with people and that's still the center of our marketing today. We scale our marketing but it always starts with what our activation or personal connection is going to be. Gen Z is a big target for us and we have a lot of initiatives behind the Gen Z consumer. We recently did a multi-college tour and we started talking about how we are going to connect with the Gen Z consumer. We don't think about it in terms of whether we should do this TV ad or we should connect with them on radio or social media, we think about what is the way that they're personally connected with the brand and how we meet them where they are and then we scale the idea. 

We said there are tons of Gen Zs wearing our products on college campuses, so let's create this activation on college campuses to meet them where they are. We came up with personality tests that's inspired by that color. We’ll have this great activation where they can connect with their friends and take selfies for TikTok and really have it be this joyful moment. Then of course, we put it on social. We had millions of views of our videos and content. We always start with that connection. It's the same with our millennial consumer who's also a very key consumer target for us. We recently have done a lot of novelty jewelry marketing. We have a pumpkin and football that consumers are going crazy over. We think about what that insight is and why they're connected to each of those products. We do events and connect with them in that way. 

The marketing initiatives we're working on are really behind our consumer segments – Gen Z and millennials – and then we're reaching out to new growth segments all the time. Holiday is the big thing we're working on right now because that's so critical to our business.

It sounds like insight is really helping drive where you focus your energy and marketing?

Because we're a retail business, we've always been so close to the consumer. Our retail employees are connected with our consumers on a daily basis. We have since infused that into ecommerce. We get a lot of feedback from our consumers through customer care and through our website. All of that builds our insights on the positioning of the product, what they're interested in, what needs we serve and then what other things they're looking for from us.

What is your approach to storytelling?

We think about the consumer as the center of our stories. We always think about what is the consumer interested in, what's important in culture and then how we can touch consumers' lives. We always tell our stories behind our three pillars because that's so critical to our brand. Collaboration has been a really important story for us. We do very different collaborations. We did Barbie. We did a collaboration with an influencer called Champagne & Chanel. 

We recently launched a collaboration with an influencer whose name is Nazarene for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She took a very different look at the product. She wanted to tell a story about her mother and the influence her mother has had on her life. She wanted to tell stories of love and hope and family and we partnered with her to create products that really brought that to life, and of course, how to give back moments. So there was fashion and philanthropy and family all in her story. And that really connected with our consumer. When we're partnering with people that tell stories, we always tell it and with those multiple pieces.

How are you thinking about customer experience?

From the beginning of this business, Kendra has said connection before transaction. She tells how when she first started selling her jewelry, she was thinking about how to get people to know about her and she decided, if she connects with them, the transaction will come. It may not come at that time, it might come next time, or they might tell a friend, but it's all about connection. So she donated jewelry to local charities and little by little she built that connection, and of course, built the business. 

We think about that in all of our journeys today. If you walk into our stores, they are an event space. Typically, there's sips and sweets happening in the store. There's a lot of energy. There might be a birthday party. There might be a charity event. We want it to have a lot of energy. We connect with the consumer the same online. If you go online and you want a really simple and quick experience we have that. If you want to engage in the brand, virtually try on the product and learn about the story, we have that experience too. It's customer led and it's always about connection.

How are you thinking about innovation?

Innovation is really in the DNA of this company. For us it is always about disrupting. We don't enter a category if we can't do it better or if we can't disrupt the category. When she moved into jewelry, she wanted the story to feel like her living room. She didn't want things behind glass cases. She wanted people to be able to touch and try. You can try on the necklace, try on the earring. She wanted people to engage and that completely disrupted the category. 

We just launched a brand called Yellow Rose which is off Kendra's western lifestyle. She said, no brand is actually delivering for the modern cowgirl. There's a lot behind the cowboy, but nothing behind the cowgirl and she wants to fulfill her needs of jewelry, boots, hats and customize it and the way that she wants. Innovation for us whether it's every campaign and every product launch is better than the one before or whether we're disrupting. That's always the focus for us. We never do things the same. We never do it like we did it last time. We're always innovating and changing.

How have your past roles have helped prepare you for this role?

I spent most of my career at General Mills. In CPG, I really learned the foundation of marketing and brand building. I have that intuition that we always start with the consumer to get those insights. The second thing my career helped me learn is just how to build brand stories, the fundamentals of engaging culture, and building on those consumer insights and doing those things together. People sit down to dinner and have a moment over food on Sunday night. Food plays a very important role in their lives and being part of that, as well as telling your brand's story is very much what I learned there. 

Thirdly, as I've moved into more founder-led companies, I really learned to honor the history and the story of those companies and understand the magic of what's made them so amazing. The Kendra Scott marketing theory to start locally and then scale, frankly, is not the most resource-efficient way to do it. If I didn't know from my other experiences to honor that magic, I wouldn't be saying we should do it that way. I would be saying we should get an insight and a benefit and just scale from there. But I was able to step back and say there's such magic and how this marketing model is very different and I can capture that magic and build it and fuel and scale it rather than change it, which if I hadn't had those experiences, I might be tempted to do.

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