We spoke with Gitti Crowley, a seasoned Consumer and Healthcare marketing leader, with a broad range of experience creating ground-breaking new categories and new brands. She's worked in the largest Fortune 500 companies on iconic brands and led marketing for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations with limited budgets. Gitti shares some practical advice for marketers taking on these big challenges.

As you look across the health and wellness consumer landscape, what excites you the most?

I continue to be really excited about digital health and all the possibilities it offers consumers to help them reach the health outcomes they seek. There are numerous new devices, apps and digital therapies across large, growing categories like sleep, weight management, mental health, women’s health, hearing, and athletic performance to name a few. Technologies like advanced new sensors, AI, and software help consumers track health stats, modify behavior, and create personalized health plans to manage their conditions or achieve peak performance, while intuitive, user friendly apps and devices (rings, watches) make it all instantly accessible right on your cell phone. Consumers have more control than ever to live a healthy life.

Photo courtesy of News-medical.net
Creating a new category is something you’ve done a few times in your career. What is your advice to marketers trying to create disruptive categories?

Creating a new category is a big undertaking so there is a lot to share! I’ll boil it down to some key practices I have learned over the years.

• Have a Beginner Mindset: Get really curious about your customer and the category like you would a new friend, learning everything you can about them. Dig deep to understand their emotional and physical needs, their journey, pain points, motivators, barriers, and the pros and cons of the current options so you can create a superior offering. Established companies have their own best practices so there will be a natural inclination to do what has worked in the past, but a new category often requires a different approach and mindset. It is the marketer’s job to understand how to best serve this new customer and then educate the company on what is necessary to win.

• Learn Fast From Experts: Learning from experts who have already succeeded in a similar situation will accelerate your learning curve and reduce risk. To create a new, disruptive DTC category, I modeled successful DTC disruptors that faced similar category challenges to create a playbook. I also brought in a new agency that had DTC disruptor experience with some of these brands, which brought critical new thinking and skills to our team.

• Create a “Builder” Team: Building new categories requires curiosity, creativity, a builder mentality, and comfort with ambiguity. Some people are really energized by that type of opportunity and do their best work in those situations, so lobby to get those innovators on your category. I was lucky at Bose to have a number of super-talented colleagues in Marketing, Creative, Product and Engineering with these traits and it made all the difference. I would also recommend identifying other critical skills/experiences necessary to win, and if you don’t have them in your company, bring them in via agencies, employees or contractors.

• Create a Test and Learn Roadmap: No matter how much you research and prepare for a new category launch, it will rarely play out exactly as you have planned. Having a learning mindset and patience is critical. Create a pre and post launch learning plan. Use Pre-launch learning to optimize your offering and go-to-market strategy. Then learn fast with in-market testing programs to evaluate things like your target, messaging, creative, marketing mix, cost per acquisition and ROA. The learnings will help you shape your strategies and investments moving forward.

• Use Digital as an Accelerator: Digital has empowered marketers to create a stronger relationship with their customer and get the feedback on their products, messaging and marketing tactics faster and more efficiently than ever. And newer, better tools are becoming available all the time. Having a “Digital First” consumer journey approach will ensure you make all the information your customer needs at each stage “always-on” and easily accessible – across your site, search, or social to name a few - and give you rapid feedback and data to optimize your approach. The other tactics are still important and play their role, but having digital as a core competency and focus will accelerate your progress.

Partner With Your Finance and Analytics Team: The only thing I know about a new products forecast is that it will be wrong. When I worked on Oreo years ago, we agonized over the new products forecast and roll-out so our operations team could successfully hit the demand numbers. All that modeling and we still stocked out at the grocery shelf! Forecasting is especially challenging when creating a brand new category since there are limited category benchmarks. Hence, having savvy finance and analytics partners and building a strong relationship with them is critical. They will define the category potential, investments required, scaling, scenario planning and be your partner in reporting and making sense of all that you are learning.

Conduct Frequent Check-ins With Leadership: While this is obvious, I couldn’t finish this list without mentioning it. Launching a new category requires significant investment and is often the “growth engine” that the company is relying on. So, having frequent Senior Leadership check-ins to discuss strategy, share progress and challenges, and get their input, guidance and support for your programs is a must.

Photo courtesy of hearsoundly.com
These are great tips. What advice would you give marketers who are working in small organizations with more limited budgets?

Most of these principles apply but you need to prioritize what is most essential to win with a resourceful and innovative mindset. When I was VP of Marketing and R&D at Decas Farms, I had a very small budget to build out the capabilities for both functions. I prioritized the most critical marketing capabilities for my category:

• branding/packaging to create the story and imagery,

• digital/e-commerce to communicate it and show where to buy,

• and media relations to drive awareness

Through my network and research, I found several very talented, small agencies that fit my budget. There are lots of excellent boutique agencies started by talent from big ones looking to build their business and reputation that are much more affordable. There are also solopreneurs in areas like market research, graphic design etc. that bring affordable expertise and resources to your team. Another thing I did was lean into universities. For example, I used top food science universities like Penn State to conduct my sensory tests at a fraction of the cost of a public firm, and worked a culinary program to help create affordable recipes that we could scale to add capability to the R&D team.

What has been the biggest challenge in working on brand strategy and innovation in different organizations such as pharmaceutical company and CPG firms?

I think the biggest challenge is right-sizing the business expectations, properly identifying the investment requirement and glide-path, and managing expectations for a new category. New categories require investment, and are harder to value and predict than your core business. And they usually take time to develop. There is often this chicken and egg phenomenon where if the opportunity doesn’t meet a threshold, it won’t get greenlighted, but if it is valued too high, and investments are made, there will be a strong push to realize the return quickly. Properly managing the financial side of the house is one of the reasons I put the “Partnering with Your Finance and Analytics Team” on my list.

In closing, while risky, new products and categories are critical to growth, especially in the technology and health categories. Many of the companies we admire like Apple have generated their on-going success and valuation by effectively creating new categories, while those that did not are the ones that we have long forgotten.

Lynda Ferrari

Lynda is a consumer marketing expert with a track record of successful U.S. and global product launches. She has created new product innovations across consumer wellness, from personal care to digital health. She is a founding partner of Compass Marketing.

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