CMO of the Week: Samsung's Sarah Larsen - Brand Innovators

CMO of the Week: Samsung’s Sarah Larsen

What Sarah Larsen, chief marketing officer, Home Entertainment, at Samsung Electronics America, loves about her job is that no day is the same.

“Every day requires different uses of my brain in creative ways, whether it’s looking at actual creative or it’s creative problem solving or what’s a creative way we can connect with consumers,” explains Larsen. “We were in a brainstorm today talking about a challenge that we have and just spitballing around the room, all the different ways we could approach something in a way that’s totally different than anything we’ve ever done. That is absolutely the type of stuff that not just gets me excited in the morning, but keeps me going all day.”

Samsung makes smart products for every room and its SmartThings app allows consumers to connect their products throughout the house linking TVs and speakers to the washing machine or refrigerator or an external system such as Ring, Nest and Philips Hue. 

“At Samsung, we’re really big on innovating for consumers’ needs before they realize it’s a need,” says Larsen. “For me, it’s that my TV tells me when my washer is ready to move from the wash to the dryer. Just those little things make every day better.”

Prior to joining Samsung, Larsen held senior marketing roles at Creata, Edelman, Dentsu, Ogilvy and Weber Shandwick. Brand Innovators caught up with Larsen from her office in New York to talk innovation, telling stories & showing up in culture. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How are you thinking about innovation?

We are digging deep into the data and insights. We always have our finger on the pulse of what our consumers are saying. We also do a ton of trend spotting and start looking at where we think consumer behavior is going and what’s resonating with people as commonality or a big problem that they all have. We innovate for that so that we’re providing solutions before people even know it’s a problem.

I get much more excited about the fact that people will say, “Oh, that’s so smart. I totally do need that in my life,” whether it’s our Samsung SmartThings or its connectivity. 

What is your approach to storytelling?

I love storytelling. From the earliest of ages, I was making up imaginary stories. As a parent, I was telling stories to my children, long elaborate ones that we’d build on each night. I just love the idea of captivating an audience. That’s essentially why I got into marketing. I love telling the story and the reason why we’re doing something. The essence of storytelling that people gravitate towards is when it connects with them, there’s some resonance.

People are naturally pretty curious, so they want to know the why around something. I love storytelling with our products and talking about why Samsung did what we did, why this product makes your life better. Storytelling is so crucial to getting consumers on board with why they need this in their lives. 

Can you talk about who your target audiences are and how you’re reaching them? 

Obviously, we’re looking for people that are shopping for our products. We do a lot of data mining into past behavior with our products and interactions, as well as why people didn’t purchase or what were their reasons and their barriers for not doing something that we wanted them to do. 

Once we go through all that, we really look critically at who our audience is and we constantly course correct. The worst thing we can do is just assume that we know who our audience is and the audience isn’t changing, when in fact, just like all of us, just like the world post-COVID, change is constant. We’re constantly reevaluating who our audience is. 

We have a community that we’re talking to to make sure that we’re seeing what trends are bubbling up. What are some commonalities that we might have missed before? What are passion areas that might be new passion areas as opposed to where we thought people were spending their time? When it comes to the audience, the key for us is that we’re constantly connecting with and really listening and not just assuming that we know them. 

How is the brand showing up in culture? 

Culture is key. You have to be hiding under a rock to not know about Taylor Swift. She personifies what culture can do when it comes to moving marketing. It’s absolutely inherent that we tie into culture to give consumers a reason why to pay attention and to really stand out. The worst thing that we could do is only talk about ourselves because we’d lose our consumer in the process. We basically can’t be drinking our own Kool-Aid. We have to make sure that as a brand, Samsung’s really connecting with culture, whether we’re connecting in existing culture that we’re seeing or we’re setting or creating culture. Either way, we have taken a very customer-centric approach that’s insights driven, which leads to more cultural moments than if we followed a traditional playbook for marketing. 

Can you talk about the role that data and technology play in your marketing strategy? 

When it comes to data and technology at Samsung, it’s more than just what it is in the traditional sense. It’s more than just data that we have. It’s more than just technology that we make. It’s how we use it. We’re very driven to insights and understanding consumer behavior and really having a good sense of what consumers want, what they don’t want, what are some of the problems that they have, what are they trending towards and making sure we’re using that as the basis for our marketing decisions. The research, not the me-search. Data is super important.

When it comes to technology, not just the technology we’re creating in the traditional sense, but it’s how technology can empower our marketing. Whether it’s looking at AI and how that can be a benefit to us, whether it’s looking at the other different platforms that are emerging, whether it’s social shopping, there’s just so many new technologies out there from a marketing perspective. How we can use technology to empower that human contact is what gets me most excited.

Can you talk about your career path and how your past positions have helped you with your perspective in your current role? 

Everything that you do shapes you in some way, shape or form. That’s why I personally live with a no-regrets mentality, because everything that I did –whether it was a success or a failure, a win or a loss– it’s gotten me to this point. The times I failed, I learned so much more from that than when everything went swimmingly. 

My past has really shaped where I am today and my perspective on things. Having such an agency strong background has really helped me a lot in this job because I have both a servant leadership mindset –that you’re naturally ingrained in when you work on the agency side– plus I can multitask like nobody’s business.

And you really need to be an excellent juggler when you’re in any marketing role because so much of marketing stretches into so many different areas. I could be having a meeting one minute about CRM and what we’re doing with an email and two seconds later talking about a strategic partnership and what makes sense for us. That mindset is very well enabled when you come from an agency background and you’re looking at a lot of different clients and getting up to speed really fast on a lot of different subject matters.

Do you have any predictions for this year for marketers? 

We’re going to see a lot more blurring of the lines. The traditional silos that have always existed –you’re a digital marketer, you are a consumer marketer– there’s going to be such a blurring of all of it. Within my team, I’ve done a lot more melding where people, not that they’re wearing different hats, but that we’re reshaping the hats to be a little bit different. For example, people who are traditionally PR, they’re getting more involved in social, because there’s such a connection between PR and social and that earn-centric mentality. People that have been traditionally more CRM-centric, they’re getting more involved in the insight side because our CRM is based on what consumer behavior is and we’re trying to drive certain behaviors. 

If you stay in the mindset that everything needs to be in its perfect little box, you won’t have that connectivity that really makes marketing sing. A great marketing program is when you’re firing on all cylinders and you can only do that if you’re holding hands across all of your different channels.