Keds, the iconic female shoe brand, recently reached its centennial and launched its first global campaign, “Ladies First Since 1916.” Responsible for driving the strategic development is Emily Culp, CMO of Keds, who focuses on retail development, omni-channel marketing, digital, PR, and content marketing. Her expertise on digital and mobile first experiences, as well as the seamless use of influencer marketing, recently landed her on Adweek’s 50. We caught up with Emily and talked about the trajectory of digital marketing, the role of social media, and the creation of successful partnerships with influencers.

Sidney Evans: Two of the biggest trends in digital marketing are the focus on customer-centric experiences and the response to behavior in real time. What is your strategy for capitalizing on both and where do you see digital marketing going in the coming years?

Emily Culp: In terms of the first [trend], which was around customer-centric experiences, to me the most important thing we can do as a brand, specifically Keds, is to think about building content. I like to call it “micro-content” because you’re building micro-moments of content that exist in every single channel, but how we start building our content is we think about mobile first. Everything our consumer does is in mobile and it originates there; so we build content for mobile and then we fan out to the other channels from there. I think a second piece that’s really important to me is just thinking about, again, our consumer and her lifestyle. And it is one that encompasses multiple different channels whether it’s retail, online, mobile, etc., so for us, as a brand such as Keds, our job is to come up with a seamless amazing experience for her across all of those different channels.

SE: I really like your focus on mobile first. With the plethora of cell phones … I mean mobile first really is where the trend is going.

EC: I think it makes a tremendous amount of sense when you think about consumer consumption behavior. Frankly, it is really hard. It is like turning the content engine in production on its head, but it’s absolutely worth it and the results, most importantly, benefit our consumer and, of course, hopefully drive to revenue from our perspective as well.

The second [trend] you asked me was around strategy or thoughts around responding to behavior in real time. I think the most important thing there, frankly, is that brands need to build non-siloed or flexible infrastructures so then we can quickly evolve and react to consumption behavior and have an engaging conversation.

SE: In a recent Adweek article on millennial engagement, you discussed how Keds’ campaigns reflect the “multi-faceted character” of its audience. Could you please elaborate on that?

EC: What I mean by “multi-faceted” is we recognize that our Keds lady doesn’t identify as just one person or one type of style. For example, she may be going into work one day channeling an Audrey Hepburn style look or dress if you will. The next day, she may decide to channel more of a Yoko Ono person, or I should say style. Where that’s interesting is that it shows how our consumer has so many different sides to her and as a brand we need to honor that, and one of the ways we’re doing that is by building a diverse collective — we call it the Keds Collective — of women who really represent and embrace the multifaceted nature of our consumer. Whether it’s Tori Kelly to Allison Williams to Krystal in Asia (who is a K-Pop superstar) to Ciara, we believe we built a wonderful collective of women who our consumer can identify at least with one, if not many of these amazing women.

SE: And how can brands effectively engage Millennials?

EC: It goes back to something I said earlier. I fundamentally believe in micro-content, and what I mean, again, about that is our consumer has such a short attention span, especially since much of her attention is focused on the tiny mobile screen. For us it’s really important to win in mobile and to engage her there. And again, thinking about this micro-content concept, it’s the idea that she may just see a Keds message on her Instagram feed for 2 seconds. She then may see maybe something from one of our retail partners or go to Keds.com on her phone. Each piece of micro-content on its own has an impact on her. And collectively, we create amazing power or adapt, almost like reading multiple chapters in a book.

SE: The centennial campaign, “Ladies First Since 1916,” is a brilliant homage to Keds’ iconic heritage. How big a role did social media play in the launching of this campaign? What do you think are the essential building blocks of an effective social media campaign?

EC: Social media played a massive role in the launch of “Ladies First Since 1916”,  specifically in how the collective announced the campaign through their social channels. This is really important because, when you think about the algorithms of Facebook and Instagram now, they really reward where the source of information is coming from — if it is coming from Ciara, Allison Williams, Tori Kelly — and the message got out that way, which was great. We then also amplified [the campaign] on our own channels via social media. And we also believe fundamentally our collective is not just the women you see in print ads, or online — it’s every woman that wears our shoes, so we also work a tremendous amount with influencers. They also did a phenomenal job broadcasting that message out on all of their social media channels.

I think when you take a step back and think about what Keds stands for and what our campaign means, which is “Ladies First Since 1916,” we fundamentally believe in female empowerment and frankly we have the heritage and the DNA in our brand to own such a positioning. What’s amazing is how many consumers, men and women, who really embrace that positioning and who have championed it, and pushed it through all of their social media, emails, blogs, etc., so that’s why it’s been phenomenally successful.

SE: Do you spend a lot of time researching the shift in algorithms just to make sure that you are on top of the social media world?

EC: One of the most amazing things about [my job] is everyday something shifts, so I spend a lot of time everyday, including nights and weekends, keeping abreast of what the different shifts are and how it can impact how we engage with our consumers. It can be everything from a new service or platform coming out, [such as] Snapchat that didn’t exist a few years ago, you know. It’s really important to stay plugged in, so whether it’s a new platform or a new product launch, whether it’s from Instagram or whomever, yes we stay very connected because again it all comes back to how we can add value to our consumers’ lives.

SE: Funny you mentioned Snapchat … I saw that Snapchat’s users are doubling in the next two or three years.

EC: That’s what I love. Innovation is what drives, in my mind, all of us and something that definitely makes you very excited to be where I am. Following up on what I think are the essential building blocks around social media campaigns, I would say engaging content. Another key point I fundamentally believe in is leveraging UGC, or user generated content, to really show that you’re tapped into and listening to your consumers, and if they’re participating in the conversation. A third piece is just being smart about all of this and harnessing the power of the content by using a unique hashtag. It really lets the brand carry an amazing story and gets people involved. And then the final pieces are, where possible, if you’re doing a social-first campaign it’s really important to think about how that can spread into other channels, meaning if you have stores, you might have digital displays in-store, and you can be streaming some of this amazing social content in your store.

So thinking about [social] in an omni-channel way, and then clearly anytime you’re doing a social campaign, it’s very important to have clear KPIs, very clear accountability, because inevitably one of the most amazing things around social is how quickly everything changes, and [how] consumers engage. You need to break down any internal silos and make sure that it’s very clear if anything arises both positive or anything else, that you know who is in charge and empowered to respond. And then you know, I also think it’s just really important to be transparent to your consumers.

SE: The new global campaign starring Taylor Swift, Ciara, Allison Williams, and Tori Kelly is all about female empowerment. How did you choose the right talent for that global rebrand, and what are the most important factors to consider when choosing the right talent to partner with your brand?

EC: The collective was chosen by first creating a lens and parameters, because that needs a filter because there’s so many amazing women globally right now, and our particular lens filter really is around the idea of creative entrepreneurs who are multi-faceted. There are three pillars [to choose from] where it was fashion, art, or technology, and the key part there is making sure that every collective member hits at least two, because that just means a rich and interesting life. Of course, it goes without saying, that they all fundamentally love our products, and it’s important that they just truly believe it’s part of their DNA and support the women’s empowerment movement, and it’s authentically a part of who they are.

And then of course, from a global brand perspective, it’s important to myself and the whole brand that these women have global influence, whether that be through social media, through other initiatives whether it’s a music tour or etc. Because as you know in this day and age, even though someone resides in X country, they can influence the world, and that’s something very powerful for us to tap into. And then finally, I think as you can see in the diversity, in terms of age, ethnicity, and interest, that was really important to me to have a collective that truly mirrored in many ways the women that buy Keds shoes, and are proud to wear them everyday.

“The most important thing in business is people, and how you’re going to win in business is having great people who can drive innovation.”

SE: Let’s close out with the last question:  What’s the next great challenge for brands moving forward?

EC: I think the next challenge for brands really is innovation. What I mean by that is, innovation is what’s going to propel all brands, or for that matter companies, forward, and deliver value whether it’s to shareholders, or internal investors, or what have you. And the key to innovation in my mind is just making sure that you have a very clear vision, a very clear resource plan, and frankly the most important out of all of this in innovation is people. I call them purple squirrels, and those are people. I’ll give you an example on my team, Alex who is in PR, where she can do not only her job in PR, but she also has a creative eye and can oscillate the photoshoots, but then can also oscillate the next day to budget reallocation. So purple squirrels are people who can do multiple different things, and move around fluidly, are very malleable, curious, and innovative, and thats what you need to drive innovation within your team.

Specially to Keds, the challenge I would say is something around the fact that truly it’s an honor and a privilege to work in a brand that’s celebrating it’s centennial, so it’s striking that balance where you are honoring the heritage of a hundred-year-old brand, but also pulling it forward in a modern way, and honoring the DNA of the brand.

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