Brand and Demand: Sheila Shekar Pollak on the Role of Creativity and Innovation in Marketing Today
The Chief Brand Experience Officer at Orvis shares insights about the challenges facing modern marketers including the importance of team dynamics, creative innovation and cross-functional collaboration.
Sheila Shekar Pollak is the Chief Brand Experience Officer at Orvis, a leading outdoor retailer.
Shekar Pollak brings over 20 years of experience growing and strengthening global, mission-driven brands. Previously, Pollak was with the Gap Inc. family of brands, including the CMO at Athleta where she drove double-digit revenue and earnings growth and launched the iconic ‘Power of She’ brand platform.
Scott: What are the primary concerns keeping you up at night as a leading marketer?
Sheila: Team burnout is my foremost concern. The relentless challenges our team faces, combined with the uncertain future, have led to exhaustion and stress. I worry about retaining our talented staff and keeping them motivated amidst these difficulties. We oversee all the marketing, creative and sales channels for our wholesale, retail, e-commerce and adventure business. It’s a lot and we have to find ways to celebrate small wins in this challenging environment. I try to be very intentional and focused on what I’m asking of my team. I am constantly thinking about how to motivate and keep people fired up. How do we stay focused and what can we let go of? For the past few years, it sometimes feels like we’re sprinting an Ironman, and it can be emotionally taxing. So, I’m really focused on the health and well-being of my team.
Separately, I think a lot about connecting with customers in a meaningful way amid economic uncertainties. For us, a specific challenge is the saturation of products in the market and how to tell a creative and compelling story that resonates with our customers.
Scott: How have your marketing priorities shifted in response to the current economic environment?
Sheila: Our focus has narrowed significantly. Coming out of Covid, we had the best years in our 167-year history. The outdoor boom led to unprecedented growth, but as we shifted back to a more typical business cycle, we had to rethink new ways to grow our business – both with current and new customers. We are relentlessly focused on emphasizing product excellence and refining our offerings to stand out in a competitive market.
Not only do we need to create great products, but we need to tell great stories. To do this, we’re really leaning into creativity and innovation. We’re putting a renewed focus on telling stories that speak to experiences that not only align with our purpose and values but also the nuts and bolts of the product. Our goal is to simplify everything down to making and selling truly great products.
We’ve always been customer-obsessed, and that continues to be a focal point for us. We’re very dialed into our customers and are constantly monitoring our retention and acquisition opportunities. We have strong customer loyalty but continue to look for new ways to drive customer acquisition. The top of the funnel hasn’t always been a core area of focus for us, and we’re reevaluating our strategy to find new ways to drive acquisition. I do think the current market conditions play a significant role as it’s harder to convince people to try new brands and to spend right now.
Scott: That’s an interesting point about not focusing as much on the top of the funnel, can you elaborate on why it wasn’t a focus in the past and how you’re shifting your strategy to emphasize the top of the funnel more?
Sheila: As I mentioned earlier, we saw incredible growth in 2020-2021, and I’d argue that was likely due in part to the natural tailwinds of the macro environment. To continue to drive growth, we’re taking a deep look at our business to make sure we have the foundational pieces in place to continue our forward momentum. We’d like to be the masters of our destiny, so to speak, instead of relying on the economic conditions. So that’s part of our focus on putting a renewed focus on product excellence. Marketing is partnering closely with our product team to create high-quality products that the market truly desires. We recently released a new dog bed that hit a nerve with customers, and we leaned into our storytelling and influencers to tell a story that people connected with. We’re looking for more moments like that to break through by using powerful creativity and storytelling.
Scott: Can you elaborate on your approach to balancing brand and demand in your marketing strategies?
Sheila: We’ve been heavily focused on demand, given the pressure to meet revenue goals. However, we also recognize the importance of brand awareness and storytelling. While demand strategies are necessary, creativity and innovation are crucial. I’m a big believer in the brand. We’ve started working with a PR firm and media influencers to share more stories about the conservation work we’re involved with. So, we’re exploring unconventional methods to capture attention and create genuine connections with our audience. It’s about finding the balance between driving sales and building a lasting brand image. Performance marketing alone can’t drive value. While demand will likely still play an outsized role in the near future, to drive real value, brand is a critical component of our marketing investment.
Scott: What role does AI play in your marketing efforts, and how do you envision its future in your strategies?
Sheila: We’re in the exploration phase with AI. While it offers real potential in customer targeting and optimizing experiences, I don’t think it’s a replacement for creativity and the human touch. Our brand is about creating experiences that connect people with nature and create lasting and memorable life experiences. I see a real opportunity with AI to enhance our strategies, especially in customer optimization and experience enhancement. However, I’m cautious about losing the genuine essence of our brand. That being said, we do recognize as a leadership team that AI is something we need to wrap our arms around pretty quickly.
Scott: And finally, how do you manage to break down internal silos within the organization to foster better collaboration across functions?
Sheila: It starts at the top. Getting leadership on board with the idea of cross-functional collaboration is crucial. Establishing a “first team” mentality, where everyone collaborates for collective success, has been transformative. Building strong relationships between functional leaders, based on transparency, empathy, and mutual benefit, has been instrumental in breaking down silos and achieving better outcomes. I’m lucky because our president is fully bought into this idea. And, with that support, I have been able to build an incredible relationship with our head of product. We’re constantly checking in with each other. It’s the best partnership I’ve ever had – and by adopting the “first team” approach, we’ve been able to accomplish much more, quickly, and with better outcomes. It’s an absolute game-changer when done right.
Sheila’s insights offer a valuable perspective on the challenges faced by modern marketers and the strategies needed to navigate the evolving landscape. By emphasizing the importance of team dynamics, creative innovation, and collaboration, Sheila provides a roadmap for marketers aiming to thrive in a rapidly changing world.
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