A Compass Conversation With Claire Elvers, a Brand Strategist with Starbucks, Amazon, and Wayfair
November 29, 2023
We sat down with Claire Elvers, a seasoned marketing executive with a rich background in advertising, CPG, retail, and tech. She specializes in guiding businesses toward growth by aligning brand purpose with strategic goals and customer needs. She has collaborated with global giants like Starbucks, Amazon, and Wayfair. Claire shares with us vital insights on brand and who should own it, what it was like to work at companies with larger-than-life founders, and important early tips for smaller brands ready to scale.
In today’s age, who should “own” brand?
I love this question! I’ve always thought of brand management as a team sport, and when successful, each team member, no matter their role, should feel ownership over the brand’s relationship with their stakeholders. Considering this, and 1) the many ways a customer interacts with brands today and 2) the role that brand plays as a culture-driver for organizations, I believe the CEO (or equivalent leader) really “owns” brand.
Brand is how a company is perceived by customers, partners, investors, media, and employees, based on the experiences they have with a business or product line. While intangible, it holds business value as a direct input into customer acquisition, loyalty, and financial outcomes. Given this, regardless of company scale, the CEO is ultimately accountable for creating and nurturing an enduring brand.
It’s worth acknowledging that brand is a loaded term often conflated with branding activities (brand marketing, brand identity development) and/or its assets (e.g., logo, name). A CMO is responsible for driving day-to-day brand development work streams as part of their larger marketing operational remit. However, a CEO plays a pivotal role in shaping, protecting, and growing the brand in 3 areas:
Brand Strategy: A company’s brand strategy consists of 1) the mission and values that underpin the brand and 2) a well-articulated positioning of your offering rooted in consumer and market understanding. To be effective, broadly understood, and actionable - that is, applied as a filter for business or product decisions - your brand strategy must be tethered to the company’s goals and business strategies. Also consider that a brand strategy, while intended to be a long-range north star, is still an artifact developed at a specific point in time.
As a business grows, evolves, or pivots as a result of external factors, it is important to reassess your brand’s position and relevance. This requires participation from the leader who both defines the company vision and has a broad commercial and operational view to surface the implications and tradeoffs of resetting a strategic direction.
Brand Operationalization: Brand operationalization (or brand management) involves translating the brand strategy into tangible actions and strategies across all aspects of an organization. With a clearly operationalized brand, companies can maintain consistency in their customer experience and communications, especially important across business lines and diverse geographic locations. Furthermore, a well-understood and adopted brand profoundly influences on organizational culture, setting the tone for how employees engage with one other by fostering a sense of purpose and shared values. It fuels culture, and contributes to talent acquisition and retention by: 1) attracting individuals who resonate with the brand’s mission and 2) clarifying the goal posts for the company’s success with customers and stakeholders.
CEO’s should demand as much operational rigor in brand management as they would from their tech, supply chain, or HR partners. A CEO’s visible ownership of the brand sets the internal standard for how the company aligns its operating procedures following the brand strategy. Ultimately, marketing will own the day-to-day work streams that ensure employees across the company can understand and apply brand standards in their day-to-day responsibilities.
Marketing is also accountable for setting the tracking mechanisms to monitor brand health. However, CEOs and C-suite leaders should be fluent and clear on how their functional inputs contribute to brand outcome goals.
Brand Ambassadorship: Ultimately, the CEO is the embodiment of the brand. Their words and actions should be consistent with the brand’s values and messaging. They must communicate the brand’s story and vision effectively, inspiring employees and stakeholders, and creating a culture where employees feel valued for their contributions in building the brand.
CEO's also send a strong signal through their internal and external actions, most notably by making strategic calls that reinforce the brand’s positioning in the marketplace, whether it’s entering new markets, expanding product lines, or entering into partnerships and collaborations that align with the brand’s image.
Smaller, earlier-stage company CEOs may take more of a hands-on role in brand building. This is especially the case in companies where marketing’s primary role is demand/lead generation or if the function does not have a broad enough view to effectively steer brand development. As companies scale, marketing is a natural function to drive brand activities given their direct proximity to the customer. However, companies must be mindful to avoid the misconception that brand is solely a marketing activity and instead signal active ownership from all functional leadership in order to build a successful and enduring brand.
You’ve worked at several large, successful companies (Amazon, Starbucks) with larger-than-life founders. Why was it so important for these brands to be operationalized?
I landed at both companies at similar leadership transition junctures-having seen both Howard Schultz and Jeff Bezos as active operating CEOs, through their retirement announcements, and ultimately in handing the reins to their respective successors. That said, I don't remember a significant cultural shift at either company as each leader stepped away, largely because their values and principles were so deeply embedded in their organizations.
While these founders had an outsized presence that shaped their respective brands, at the end of the day, our customers judged us on our offering and experience. Given this, it was critical that we all had a clear understanding of our brand and how to bring it to life for customers. I grew to appreciate this in my retail experiences, especially at Amazon and Starbucks – service-led businesses with frequent, but fragmented, interactions with customers through the discovery, buying, and purchasing process. Brand consistency was paramount so customers knew what to expect at each stage of the journey.
Clearly, as companies grow, founders and leaders must scale themselves - in the same way, they cannot be involved in every decision or see every customer-facing artifact before it ships, they also can't be expected to be the only barometer for the brand - this will stall speed to market and ultimately growth.
I joined these companies long after they had scaled, however, I had a clear understanding of their mission, purpose, and values through published artifacts. My leaders and teammates were also incredibly valuable in my brand indoctrination by adding context through stories, but more importantly through their actions and how they approached customer-facing decisions. As a result, we were able to extend these brands into adjacent business lines and categories (e.g., Amazon into fashion, digital health; Starbucks into tea, lunch). We used brand as a filter for strategic “where to play” and “how to win” questions, and to scrutinize our positioning and differentiation as we entered into existing, highly competitive categories.
Finally, I came to appreciate that brand is deeply intertwined with company culture. Both companies are demonstrable proof points of the impact of infusing the brand values and purpose within their cultural artifacts-notable examples from Amazon are their Leadership Principles and shareholder letters (one of my favorites from 2016 linked here). Starbucks’ rituals include references to its employees as “partners,” and in-meeting coffee tastings are reflective of its brand values of connectivity and a commitment to creating a culture of belonging, inclusion, and diversity. These imprint on employees (err - partners!) who can articulate - albeit in their own words - and identify with brand values. I found this to be incredibly powerful in building and cultivating high-trust teams at each of these companies.
Not every brand will be able to embrace this thinking from the onset. What are the first signs for smaller brands to consider codifying their brand? What are some easy first steps?
Yes - it's true that creating and evangelizing a brand platform can feel heavy, time-intensive, and primarily benefits companies who have reached a certain scale. However, I would argue that once you’ve hit product-market fit, there’s value in codifying your brand.
A well-defined brand is a useful filter for business and/or product decisions, identifying partners, and in hiring and building community with your employee base.
In some ways, smaller companies are better positioned to move expediently through brand platform development with a narrower set of stakeholders and organizational complexities to consider. That said, appreciating that many startup teams may not have the capacity to spin up a dedicated brand workstream, there are a few easy ways to get the ball rolling:
1. Leverage your origins as the foundation for your brand narrative: Your origin story is a useful tool in grounding your mission, values, and positioning. Reflect on the gaps you saw in the market and the problems you were looking to solve with their offering. Some of this may already exist in early business plans and fundraising documents-and dedicating a bit of time to shape it into a company narrative will go a long way in creating a strong foundation for your brand’s identity, connecting it to its roots and the values that inspired its creation.
2. Set aside time to sharpen your target audience and competitive frame of reference: This can happen as an exercise during quarterly business planning cycles with functional leads where you are already reviewing and reporting on key metrics. By adding an external lens-inspecting your company’s strengths and opportunities relative to consumer expectations, you have a start at framing your brand positioning.
3. Incorporate brand pulse checks as part of customer feedback loops: While it may be early for funnel metrics (e.g.,awareness, consideration), there is a benefit to getting regular feedback on how customers are perceiving your company/brand and its offering (product/service/features) among your primary customer segments, stakeholders, and relative to competitors. Measures such as brand favorability, NPS, CSAT, and attribute agreement questions are all useful data points in generating a trending picture of your brand’s health.
These steps might feel lower-fidelity but are foundational elements in setting a brand strategy. They will go a long way in establishing a baseline for your brand-building efforts while also setting the tone with your employees and partners around the importance of building a powerful, cohesive, and sustainable identity that permeates every facet of your organization’s operations.
Annette is skilled at identifying growth opportunities and successfully guiding products from concept to launch. At Compass, she advises leading brands and category disruptors in the health & wellness, personal care and digital health sectors.