As a part of my Marketing Strategy Series, I’m talking with my fellow marketing pros at the top of their game to give entrepreneurs and marketers an inside look at proven strategies you might also be able to leverage to grow your business. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Mary Horwath.
Marketing executive Mary Horwath’s notable achievements include helping freestyle skiing attain Olympic status and transforming a Rollerblade brand from a startup into a global sport with 30 million participants. She currently shares her talents with sports/fitness/wellness brands through her marketing consultancy, Mary Horwath Marketing and Branding.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting and what lesson you learned from that?
To launch Sled Dogs as a new winter snow sport, we planned a unique exhibition featuring a 20-foot real-snow indoor slope at the world’s largest mall, Mall of America. We wanted to bring the snow to people who ordinarily didn’t go to ski resorts, as we were targeting new snow, sport enthusiasts. Being able to generate snow for an indoor setting, usable for product demonstrations, was novel for the time (the mid-1990s), and we expected a major media draw.
We had partnered with the only company that had the snow-making technology, but two weeks before the promotion date, they advised us they couldn’t produce the structure. We convinced them to make the snow, but we were on our own as to how we were going to pull this off. We were too close to the Christmas holidays, so rescheduling was out of the question — the mall, or any mall, for that matter, was booked solid. Our scrappy Sled Dogs team was not deterred and found a local scaffolding company to construct the structure, and we engineered it ourselves.
The original technology featured insulation so the snow wouldn’t melt indoors, and that if it did, it wasn’t going to leak. Our MacGyvered slope didn’t have this luxury, and there was no time to test. We prayed throughout the weekend that it wouldn’t flood the marble floors of Mall of America. The snow did slowly melt, and we nervously kept bringing in fresh snow from the parking lot to keep the event going. Executives were aware of our dilemma and held their breath, ready to pull the plug at any moment. Luckily for all, we ultimately pulled it off and achieved the media hit we had hoped for.
We can all laugh about this now, but it wasn’t funny then! It was a great lesson on never giving up — and the power of what a team can do when they all pull together.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
The early days of Rollerblade provided me with the most crucial of all marketing lessons: how important positioning is to a brand.
When I arrived at Rollerblade in the late ’80s, the product line was limited to fast wheels and slow wheels, and these were considered hockey training tools. Our audience: hockey players looking for an off-season replacement for expensive ice time. It gradually spread to Nordic skiers who loved the slow, orange wheels of the early Zetra model.
Our official name was North American Training Company, and Rollerblade was a singular product. There are many directions this company could have taken at that time, but thankfully, it chose a path that seems obvious today. Instead of remaining focused on hockey alone, Rollerblade began a series of small shifts into skiing and fitness cross-training that proved promising.
What happened next was a master class in repositioning and put the wheels in motion for a much bigger opportunity: Simply put, it went from a tool to a new sport. It also steered clear of what it wasn’t: a roller skate. Rollerblade was a modern skate, with wheels inline (a term we coined to avoid genericizing the Rollerblade brand name) versus the quad skates used within indoor rinks that at the time were anything but cool.
From there, marketing efforts and imagery took on a lighter, fun persona and sport-building programs such as the International Inline Skating Association and Team Rollerblade were formed. Thanks to talented filmmaker Greg Stump, fearless and artistic skating moves by an eclectic Team Rollerblade, the image of Rollerblade, and the messaging surrounding the sport of inline skating, Rollerblade found just the right balance to begin its meteoric rise.
What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?
I’m a big believer in creating your own daily self-care practice. For me, it includes a 60-minute walk and a 20-minute meditation. Not only do these morning rituals help focus my mind and get me moving physically, but they also without fail to provide inspiration or clarity if I’m wrestling with a problem. Another tip would be to make a short daily action list of not more than five things you need to accomplish that day. They must be work-related tasks you can finish in a day. Completing a daily shortlist helps you feel accomplished and productive.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?
When I first joined Rollerblade, it was quite small and entrepreneurial. As we grew, however, if it had not been for John Sundet, then CEO, I don’t believe I would have been given the opportunity to attain a much larger role at the company. Starting as Director of PR and Promotion, I rose to become the company’s first VP of Marketing.
I recall having to really prove myself, especially as the marketing role expanded into product management. I didn’t have the conventional education or classic consumer packaged goods background that others might have required, yet John recognized my natural talent to lead, my strong work ethic, and my enthusiasm to take on more and more responsibilities. I had come from the U.S. Ski Association, so the concept of marketing a sport versus a product came naturally, and that passion really drove me.
In retrospect, an unconventional way of thinking was exactly what the company needed, but still, few CEOs would have taken that leap of faith. I’m extremely grateful that John gave me a shot.
Can you please tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you started?
I hope this doesn’t sound too clichéd, but here are five lessons I didn’t know starting out.
First, startups take much longer and require more funding than you anticipate. And sometimes the thing that looks the riskiest will be the one that succeeds! All my family and friends thought Rollerblade wasn’t a serious thing and that I should pass on the job offer. Of course, they couldn’t have been more wrong; I was at the right place at the right time and had the ride of a lifetime. Conversely, Sled Dogs was an early startup and many things appeared great on paper, so family and friends invested. Unfortunately, it was way before its time. I learned the hard way that most new categories have a gestation period for finding an audience and for gaining real market momentum. One should prepare for that reality.
Second, work for a person, not a company. Too often, people want to work for their favorite brand or sport. There’s nothing wrong with that, but be sure you also look at the people running the brand and those you will be working closely with. Surround yourself with people you can learn from and where you’ll be challenged to grow, think, and discover your own superpowers. You don’t know what you don’t know. Never stop learning.
Third, stay open — opportunities show up in the oddest places, and life has many detours. When I worked as an administrative assistant at a printing company, I never would have expected to find myself just a year later living in Park City, Utah, and traveling to some of the most fabulous ski resorts in the world. You never know what doors will open and how experiences can lead to amazing opportunities.
Fourth, trust your heart — even if it feels kind of scary. This is a big one. Too often, we tend to go the safe route and make all our decisions from our brain. What analytically seems right is the way we go. But don’t forget to check in with your heart: How does the decision feel? Crazy scary, or just somewhat uncomfortable? Push yourself to move into your un-comfort zone to experience real growth opportunities. My best decisions have always been validated by my heart.
And finally, believe in yourself. I used to test my answers before asking “my boss,” just to gauge my own decision-making abilities. This little exercise helped me build confidence and reinforced a belief in myself. I’ve learned that believing in yourself is one of the most empowering things in the world. No one but you can create the life of your dreams.
What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills?
Great business biographies are my preferred read of choice, including such classics as Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog and Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. I stay abreast of trends and insights through industry webinars/podcasts, including those from Ad Age and SFIA (Sports and Fitness International Association), to name a few. And I’m a consummate New York Times fan and read daily. I’m inspired by athlete stories, their trials, and tribulations, such as The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan; ESPN’s 30 for 30 “LANCE”; 100%: Julian Edelman; and Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season. These are amazing stories, and how they’re told and presented are as much about marketing as they are entertainment.
Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!