Can This Digital Whiz Make Marketing 'Authentic'?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we all need to figure out how to survive and thrive in the brave new world of instant communication.
By Steven Butler
Hate your body? Cindy Gustafson’s got something for you. During the Oscars last year, on a day when intimidatingly beautiful women were all over TV and social media, Gustafson, managing director at marketer Mindshare’s Invention Studio, organized her troops to fight back against the wave of negative expressions and self-doubt that proliferate on social media about body image … for a well-paying client, naturally.
When a woman named Rhian tweeted out “Really hate my body shape” on the morning of the awards, it took just four minutes for a computer algorithm to suss out that a woman — somewhere in the world — was complaining about how she looked, and for a real human to send a return tweet: “Try to say something nice about yourself today.” The message continued: “You are beautiful, Rhian. #SpeakBeautiful & it can sink in.” Although an actual person crafted those words, it was signed by Dove, the beauty and grooming products brand, as part of its #SpeakBeautiful campaign. And whether you think it’s creepy or cool that a for-profit company is playing Twitter shrink while trying to sell stuff, the impact of the campaign was notable: “We have seen a significant impact in the conversation about beauty online,” says Jennifer Bremner, Dove’s director of marketing. By Dove’s measure, negative body and beauty conversations online fell by almost 63 percent at the 2016 Oscars, compared to 2015.
That’s the kind of stuff that has Gustafson, a marketing industry veteran at 36, pulling in industry awards that you’ve probably never heard of — Cynopsis Top Women in Digital, American Advertising Association’s Hall of Achievement (she’s an inductee) and Adweek Media All Star. Her ultimate quest? To turn “real-time insights into real-time actions,” she says. “The speed at which culture moves waits for no brand, no person.”
She figures that much of cultural life can be reduced to familiar themes.… And because these moments can pass quickly — in hours or days — they need to be anticipated.
She’s a bundle of fast-talking energy. I met her at Mindshare’s Midtown Manhattan office. She’s tall (taller than my 5′9″ anyway) with long, wavy blond hair. She wore snug black leather pants and a black and purple blouse, with plenty of gold jewelry. She has a kind of raw athleticism about her and, indeed, she traces her business acumen to lessons learned on the playing field in junior and senior high school days in upstate New York, including varsity basketball, soccer and softball. “The industry has so many dynamics that are a reflection of sports and teamwork and competition and different forces coming together for the greater good,” she says. She runs, six to eight miles through the streets of Hoboken, across the Hudson River, in the early morning and plays golf. She won’t tell me her handicap. “Not braggable enough,” she says, laughing.
She’s a lifer in the industry (even married to an ad man). After majoring in advertising at Ithaca College, she was driven by an interest in pop culture, intrigued by “the notion of seeing how things and brands come to live and be born in our world.” And yet, the advertising and branding world that drew her in initially hardly exists today. She talks about the iconic successful brands she studied in college only 15 years ago — Nike, Gatorade, Absolut Vodka — built on TV, print and billboard ads. Her senior-year “campaign” was judged by how impressive a print spread she could design.
That seems almost quaint these days. Today, advertisers are coping with a proliferation of what she calls “touchpoints,” where they can potentially reach consumers. And nothing stands still. Remember Myspace? It was huge — until Facebook buried it and other new channels started reaching millennials. Which is why Gustafson talks about moving at the speed of culture. When she describes her operation, it reminds me of a newsroom, where everyone is incredibly busy but ready to shift gears on a moment’s notice. She’s even got a swat team (though she’s so far been spared any brand disasters, like Volkswagen fessing up to manipulating emissions, or Chipotle coping with E. coli outbreaks).
She figures that much of cultural life can be reduced to familiar themes, like the Cinderella story in sports, the business shakeup or the mating game. And because these moments can pass quickly — in hours or days — they need to be anticipated. One of her clients is Degree deodorant, endorsed by NBA superstar Steph Curry of the nearly unstoppable Golden State Warriors. Just maybe, they figured, he’d win last year’s league MVP award, and when he did, they were ready to launch.
Still, you have to be careful. “You can quickly alienate the person you want most by being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” she says, or just hitting the consumer too often — maybe even with direct tweets. Nearly every big brand these days is under assault from culturally resonant upstarts, like the proliferation of craft vodkas that have upstaged Absolut (even if the brand remains a big one). “Marketing is war,” she says. “If you sit back, somebody else will be coming to take your place.” And the key to it all, she believes, is that elusive sense called authenticity — of brands staying true to themselves while establishing cultural relevancy at the same time.