CMO Of The Week

CMO of the Week: SimpleTire's Phuong Petersen

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As a veteran marketer for household names like Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Liberty Mutual, Phuong Petersen knows firsthand the importance of brand recognition as part of an overall strategy.

As a veteran marketer for household names like Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Liberty Mutual, Phuong Petersen knows firsthand the importance of brand recognition as part of an overall strategy. So when she was first approached to become chief marketing officer of Philadelphia-based SimpleTire, a fast-growing challenger brand known more for its performance-based approach to customer acquisition, she wanted to make sure there was a role for her brand expertise, too.

“I really love the idea of a holistic CMO,” Petersen says. “Sometimes a lot of companies split brand and performance marketing out, and sometimes you miss the combination of the two to really make it work very well. For me, having that holistic CMO role is where you get to own brand and performance marketing to make sure they fit nicely together.”

Petersen joined the company in August 2020 when a refresh of its brand identity was already underway. In September, a redesigned SimpleTire website (from global digital agency Work & Co) was introduced to create a data-driven shopping experience, which led to a 61% boost in organic traffic and 13% increase in channel conversion after eight weeks post-launch. In March 2021, SimpleTire introduced SimpleSnap, which enables customers to measure their current tires and find a local installation partner with one click of their phone’s camera. “There's little things you can do to help people think about adopting certain behaviors that they might not have expected to,” Petersen says.

Those new innovations and other initiatives are designed to help further accelerate the 10-year-old company’s growth following a recent streak of milestones. SimpleTire ranked on Inc.’s list of 5,000 fastest-growing companies from 2017 to 2019, most recently as the highest-ranked automotive company with a three-year growth rate of 1,200.9%. The company’s employee base has since expanded by more than 200% since early 2020, and in 2021 SimpleTire recorded its highest sales month in company history.

Brand Innovators caught up with Petersen to learn more about her holistic marketing approach, the future of SimpleTire’s media mix and the role of first-party data in building a better cookie. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: How did the COVID-19 pandemic initially impact your business last year, and what are some pivots or innovations you put in place to adapt?

Phuong Petersen: There’s a lot of short-term and long-term things to think about from when COVID first entered everyone’s lives. From a short-term perspective, knowing that SimpleTire is an ecommerce platform with a virtual network of tires, being able to service through an ecommerce platform when the pandemic hit actually gave us an opportunity to gain customers who might not have thought about buying tires online — particularly when brick and mortar stores had to close. For us, it was really about shifting our model to make sure we were able to meet demand. That could be anything from advertising and our spend, to supply chain and making sure logistically we were able to meet supply from a tire point of view. We also thought about the competitive landscape and just making sure we were keeping apace as things were changing. That continues to happen today as we move out of COVID to think about how that’s shifting people's perceptions and behaviors.  

From a long-term point of view, I think the question is how your organization is able to continue to adapt as people have built new habits and behaviors over the past year. Use and convenience is definitely one of them – people are more used to expecting convenience from things being shipped at home, or being able to purchase products remotely. I don’t think that’s going away at all, it's probably accelerated due to COVID a little bit. The question is then, how do you help customers adapt to these potentially new behaviors when buying items, particularly for tires? I'm sure when a lot of people had to figure out they couldn't go to their local place, they had to take some time to figure out how to solve this problem. So for us, it’s about what innovations we can put in place to make someone make that purchase online. And now that we’re potentially shifting with things opening back up, the question is: how do we continue to partner with our installation partners and figure out how to fulfill their needs in terms of tire supply?

You joined SimpleTire last August, mid-pandemic. What appealed to you about the opportunity, and what were some of your first priorities once you settled into the role?

A couple pieces. One was I just think the company is really interesting. The founders Andy [Chalofsky], Josh [Chalofsky] and Kenny [Pratt] built a virtual network of tires 10 years ago. This whole business model of being able to provide the accessibility of any tire you want at the right price, or a price that will work for you, and being able to partner and have that service pre-paid for the installation — they built that to provide ease and convenience, selection and price which has been pretty incredible over the last 10 years. The business to me was a really interesting one, as well as the company and the culture they’ve built. 

The second piece for me was the marketing approach. It was really important when I talked to them they understood that marketing was an important part of the function, to be able to help grow the business. It was really great to see that every person at the company saw marketing as an integral part of shaping the vision, the strategy and how we would go to market. That to me was really important, knowing that marketing has a seat at the table—  especially when you're doing that even from working with the CFO, the CTO. Everyone sees the value of marketing, which I think is really important. 

You consider yourself a “holistic CMO” who likes to have all functions of marketing under one role. How much of SimpleTire’s marketing is performance-based, and how much is brand-building driven? Why is that balance so important to you?

The brand piece was in a state when I joined where the team understood its value propositions, providing a selection of tires that I could offer to the customer, and what the customer value in terms of the convenience of being shipped to you or an installer, as well as the flexible price point. So that had the fundamentals of what made the business model work and what the brand could be, but how it's communicated? We just started that journey, particularly with the website redesign. That was a big step before I came that took the brand to a very different spot and differentiated us from our competitors. That was an exciting moment for me, and now we’re at that point where we’re really trying to understand our customer a little bit better, particularly with COVID and potentially having new types of customers open to the tire buying experience from multiple segments.

And the performance marketing is at a state where you have to think about brand building and performance marketing together, based on what the company goals are. We think about performance marketing as very ROI driven, which it is, but it can also be very brand building. Especially when you think about the lower funnel touchpoints. It also helps by meeting the customer where they are. When someone's putting in a keyword, they’re already in the mindset, so you can have stronger recall and appeal that way because they’re actually looking for tires. 

Given your history with big-budget packaged goods and retail brands, do you see big TV spots or even Super Bowl campaigns as a part of SimpleTire’s media mix at some point?

Maybe, because the question is what the mindset of the person at that point in time. And then it goes back to the company goals and what the business goals are. If the company goals are unaided awareness as the most important KPI, then yes a TV commercial or some kind of Super Bowl spot would be the idea. That kind of objective has to be at the right point in time. 

Over time, we’ll have the opportunity to think about traditional types of brand awareness tactics. Even though you might have the flexibility to have the right format and storytelling, there’s a balance when you think about brand building.  You can still do a lot of brand building in the lower funnel channels.

Given the importance of performance-based marketing to SimpleTire’s marketing, what are some efforts you’re undertaking to build a better cookie to improve consumer privacy?

I see all the recent announcements around alternatives to third-party cookies as an innovation and evolution, and it will be interesting to see how the advertising space plays out in that. It’s great that it demands companies to be better and do better and spurs innovations. Disruption spurs innovation and creates new ways and new methods, whether it’s leveraging your own first-party cookie data to do better personalization, or think about a different marketing mix model to reach the customer or tell a customer story differently. 

We’re still looking at how everything will play out, but I would say we’re probably at the stage all other companies are at, understanding our first-party data more, leveraging that and thinking about partnerships where we might want to play in the future. People are already finding solutions and getting traction, it’ll be exciting to see what happens.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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