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Michele Morelli of Toluna: “Create nimbleness when speaking to your customers”

…I would want to focus on social justice. Each individual person should feel empowered to ask questions of their HR team and their management around diversity and inclusion. Don’t be afraid to walk into HR and ask about the maternity and paternity policy. Brands have the power to change the world. Literally. And some brands […]

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…I would want to focus on social justice. Each individual person should feel empowered to ask questions of their HR team and their management around diversity and inclusion. Don’t be afraid to walk into HR and ask about the maternity and paternity policy. Brands have the power to change the world. Literally. And some brands need a nudge in the right direction. Asking HR and your executives in town halls, in emails, in meetings without ambushing them!– helps hold brands accountable. People want to do the right thing — but sometimes it takes a push. The change may not happen quickly, but it will happen eventually if enough people keep asking questions.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Michele Morelli .

Michele Morelli is Senior Vice President of Marketing Strategy at Toluna. She currently leads all marketing initiatives for the group internationally, owning, developing and spearheading the global marketing strategy as well as identifying opportunities to grow Toluna’s client base across all brands. She recently oversaw the company’s rebranding efforts and harmonized its brand structure. Previously, Michele served as Vice President of Direct Customer Engagement for Prudential’s Customer Office where she was responsible for transforming the way Prudential builds relationships with prospects, focusing on customer acquisition methodologies, including new partnerships. An alumna of Villanova University, Michele holds a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and Sociology.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Michele! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I knew I wanted to do something within marketing but I wasn’t sure exactly what. My first job post- college was working in ad sales for CNN, which was such an important role for me for two important reasons. First, it introduced me to how media was then purchased. Second, it showed me how brands were thinking about their customers and reach. I knew I didn’t want to be linear in my career — I wanted to experience as many marketing functions as possible rather than concentrate in one area. So, my career has been equal parts business marketing and consumer marketing, and a healthy mix of leading pure acquisition strategy and building some of the world’s largest brands such as AOL. I was certain that I wanted “end client” experience mixed in with platform/technology side, and that has proven a great asset throughout my career. For example, my experience running monetization strategy at Yahoo made me a much savvier acquisition marketer at Citibank.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I don’t have a mistake per se, but I can share an incident that has impacted my work life. When I first started working at Citibank, I was introduced to our relatively new agency team. Never one to shy away from providing my opinion, I was fully engaged in the meeting. I was making suggestions, providing critiques and offering moments of support. I was killing it. The room was engaged; heads were nodding, there were smiles all around and lots of eye contact. I felt great. When the meeting ended, a few people were waiting to introduce themselves to me personally. As I began talking about my background, I noticed a few quizzical looks. A new colleague stepped in when she saw the confusion. “This is Michele Morelli” she said. Apparently, I had been confused for Michelle Peluso, the new(ish) CMO of Citibank — who they had yet to meet. In an instant, the room cleared. The smiles disappeared and apparently my groundbreaking ideas were not as interesting. Going from a captivating storyteller to just ‘the new person’ in record time was one of the more amusing moments in my career.

The experience taught me the importance of appreciating your position in the room. If I am a manager, people’s reactions to me may be influenced by the perceived power I hold. Power over them, over budget or over resources. My opinion may weigh more and a half -baked critique may have a very large ripple effect. It also reinforced my firm belief in being transparent and truthful with my own managers. We often wonder how bad decisions get made or approved. Most managers don’t want you to “yes” them — they want bold work that creates interest and results. If something is great, say it. If something is mediocre, say it. There was a saying at AOL: Leave it in the room. There were multiple layers to this but the crux was: No matter who you were addressing, you had to do it with honesty and commitment to the overall company mission. We didn’t agree in person and then lament the decision in smaller groups after the meeting ended.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There are multiple features that make Toluna an exciting and dynamic place to work. Our culture, the leadership, the products. The most important element is that we put the customer at the center. The customer is quite literally at the core of what we do as a market research company. Customer centricity is impossible to achieve without engaging with your customers. We enable businesses to connect with over 30 million consumers across the world who want to provide their opinions on products, packaging and/or messaging. We’re able to be customer centric because of our technology. And from a business standpoint, we’ve structured our business to be truly flexible to client needs — the very definition of being customer centric. If you want to do all the research yourself, great! You can use our SaaS model. If you need help creating a survey, we can help there. Or if you want us to conduct a full project, we can do that too. And because we’re so focused on flexibility, we don’t require a subscription or contract. At other companies, customer centricity is a motto. At Toluna, it’s our core strategy.

Our customer centricity helped us launch our new brand strategy. We reduced the number of brands we had in market to help our clients access the most effective solution faster. We formerly had ITWP as a parent brand for Toluna, Harris Interactive and KuRunData. What we found was that the ITWP brand didn’t hold as much value to our clients as Toluna did. So we sunset ITWP and made Toluna the parent brand. Customer centricity is what sparked the whole company rebrand — and also resulted in us adding simplicity to our company values.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

From a brand perspective, it’s is a very exciting time right now. We currently have four brands in market: ITWP (parent company), Toluna, Harris Interactive and KuRunData. We are simplifying that structure to make it easier for brands to work with us by sunsetting ITWP and elevating Toluna as the parent brand. This shift will make it easier for clients to know that whether they want a pure SaaS technology provider or a full consultancy, they can come to Toluna for all those needs. Reimagining Toluna as the parent has allowed us to evolve the brand. Prior to my arrival, the brand was not fully fleshed out and most of the company associated brand with visuals. We’ve now given Toluna a proper identity and a mission that will really resonate with our employees and clients. Identity and mission are so core to a company — and as a result, to revenue. Who are we? What do we stand for? Why do we do what we do? Our CEO (and myself) spent a great deal of time on the manifesto, honing and crafting and revising until it was a perfect reflection of the company. I encourage you to read it on our site! It’s all about moving forward, and the tie into our new logo is perfect.

Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Brands need to ask themselves two key questions. The first is the type of relationship they want to have with consumers. If they are only looking for a transactional or executional relationship — perhaps brand is not important. But if they are looking to build loyalty or have a relationship in the true sense of the word, they will need to focus on brand — especially if they are in a category where there is little perceived difference in offerings or service. Brands want people to make decisions based on an emotional level rather than a purely tactical level (such as price or offer). Because once you’re in that transactional level, it’s a race to the bottom with your competitors. The lowest price, the highest rewards value wins.

Brand is a critically important part of any general marketing strategy. I would submit it’s more important to the acquisition strategy than most people give it credit. Because brand can be notoriously difficult to tie to performance on a tactical and execution level — organizations can easily write it off. But time and time again, we see that brand ultimately drives loyalty, performance and revenue. Brand is how you acquire advocates, important word of mouth and recommendations. From my experience, media campaigns (acquisitions) have a lower CPA after consumers have been exposed to brand advertising. And brand leads to more highly qualified consumers seeking you out. It’s more expensive to acquire a customer than keep a customer — this is where brand is key.

It’s important to note that people are shopping all the time. The days of the traditional purchase funnel are long gone. Today people move from awareness to purchase in a matter of steps. They shop for entertainment and they readily consume native or sponsored content if it’s educational or entertaining. This is where brand is so powerful. In an environment where people watch a YouTube video and are compelled to purchase, brand is key. Building your brand through experiences or content, especially digitally will increase funnel velocity in a nonlinear funnel. And when a consumer is faced with a choice between you and a competitor for a similar product at a similar offer, what makes them choose you? Brand.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

I’ve had the honor to help build several large global brands and at the core of any effective branding is trust. There are several important factors to consider when looking at any brand:

  1. Know who you are. Authenticity may be an overused phrase, but if you know who you are as a brand, operate that way. Branding is not just the creative and it doesn’t stop once the brand guidelines are completed. Brand and authenticity need to thread through your customer service, your products, your offerings. When you think about building trust with a consumer, it’s about telling them who you are — and then proving and upholding it.
  2. Bombas is a great example of authenticity. As a mission-driven brand, they donate one pair of socks to homeless shelters for each pair bought. Even when you visit their office, you get a pair of socks plus one to donate.
  3. An extension of number one — you have to be consistent. It’s key to building trust with consumers. Once you know who you are as a brand (once you’ve identified your purpose, your mission, your values), you must stay true to those elements over and over again. Where some brands go wrong is separating new customers from existing customers. New customers are sometimes treated better by brands as a way to entice them to become customers — but once they become a customer, the customer service changes and the offers change. This is damaging to the brand and immediately breaks trust. Amazon is a good example of who does it right. Their mission is to be Earth’s most customer-centric company. And their policies, customer service and product offerings reflect that. The brand starts with the customer and ends with the customer.
  4. Create nimbleness when speaking to your customers. When a situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic arises, it’s imperative that all of your messaging shifts to match consumer sentiment. Consumers do not care that you have CRM messaging automated months in advance or have employed trigger-based marketing. If the world has suddenly stopped, consumers expect you to react. You have to create a nimble marketing strategy that can change as the market changes. Digital media has made it much easier to create this nimbleness from an advertising perspective, but it’s important to have the same kind of agility in all areas of your marketing, from market research to media buying.
  5. Nimbleness is also important when addressing customer issues. How fast you address and resolve customer questions is key to building customer trust.
  6. Understand your customers in real-time and adjust accordingly. Customer sentiment today is changing rapidly, especially as the pandemic impact varies by country (and by state in the US). Our COVID-10 Barometer has been measuring this impact and we have seen brands act accordingly, from changing their messaging to pausing advertising. A believable brand is one that addresses consumer needs in an authentic way. The work we’ve done around COVID has demonstrated that consumers expect brands to show (and message) support for their employees as well as their consumers. When it comes to building trust and being “believable” — your messaging is core.
  7. Transparency in values. Today’s consumer expects brands to be values-driven. This is a fundamental change from 20 years ago when a large portion of consumers didn’t want brands to comment on social issues. Expectations shifted as Millennials became more of a revenue generator. At AOL, we were a values-driven brand, specifically around gender diversity. Our internal work- around areas like pay equity, women’s advancement — matched what we did externally: we produced award winning documentaries about women’s equality, we championed to have a woman on US tender. On the business side, we invested in gender diverse start-ups and did small things like ensure every speaker panel was diverse. This transparency about who we were was thread through our products and services; it helped keep the brand in competition with Facebook and Google.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Any brand that is authentic and consistent always wins my heart. There are so many! My favorite is the often touted and loved Coca-Cola. Their key attributes — community, happiness, youthful interaction and sharing — are visible in all of its advertising. There is not one ad they place in market or one sponsorship that doesn’t ladder up to these attributes. Coca-Cola knows who it is and ensures all its consumer touch points reflect that identity.

The best has to be Glossier, the unicorn and much beloved makeup brand. They are completely authentic to themselves. They know who they are and who their customer is — and they hold true to both. Glossier made a few critical decisions to build their beloved brand, starting with customer centricity. The brand itself grew from understanding their customer. The founder Emily Weiss started a blog called Into the Gloss and paid close attention to what her readers were saying. This engagement allowed her to see where traditional beauty brands were missing the mark with consumers. As I understand it, this type of customer listening is key to the brand today.

Glossier also test ideas within their consumer base. Many people falsely think that brand is all logos and visual identity. In reality, strong branding is something that threads through everything within a company — especially the products. Co-creating and ideation by engaging their consumer base has led to their core products.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

I have two schools of thought.

  1. Measuring brand can and should be performed the traditional way — brand tracking, assessing brand health, measuring advocacy, and understanding where you stand against the competition. This is obviously different than direct sales, but vital when thinking about brand. And particularly in times of change, it’s important to measure your brand on a monthly (and even more frequent) basis.
  2. At its core, brand is the key to increasing path to purchase velocity and driving sales. However, the lead time is longer and it’s messier to measure. Organic traffic to your sites, whether someone clicks on an ad or word-of-mouth; there are reasons these happen — and it’s all brand related. Why do people pay a hundred dollars for a white T-shirt instead of twenty? Softer KPIs that are associated with brand ultimately all tie back to sales. You must set realistic expectations and understand you may not see increased sales the moment a sponsorship or experiential campaign kicks off. The reason consumers choose your product over another comes down to brand and the type of relationship you want to have with your customer. Especially if you are in a commodity business where product and price are on par, your brand is driving that sale.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

It’s impossible to separate social media from any digital efforts. Regardless if a brand is focused on it (and I don’t know of a single brand that is ignoring it!) social is where conversations are happening about your brand. From recommendations to customer service inquiries, social is now at the forefront of branding. Social is the place where authenticity and consistency play out in real time.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Set boundaries. During my time at Yahoo, I was overworked. I slept with my BlackBerry (yes, BlackBerry) under my pillow and was answering emails at 2:00 a.m. I was on flights to the West Coast once a month (even once on Christmas Eve). To add some balance, I started carrying two devices and only one had my work email on it. This looked ridiculous, but when I needed time away, I could physically stop myself from answering that blinking red light by not carrying my work phone.

I don’t work Saturdays (unless event related). And I tell my team the same — which gives them permission to not work Saturdays. If something is urgent, my team knows they can text me, but usually that makes people evaluate what is really urgent. My work phone goes away Friday night and comes back on Sunday.

Give your team (and yourself) time to do something creative. At AOL I budgeted for the team to take off one day a quarter and do a non-work related activity together. We were in different countries, so each country could do something creative and fun. It ranged from museum day trips to painting classes. It’s important to make time for yourself and jump start the creative process.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

This is difficult to answer, but I would want to focus on social justice. Each individual person should feel empowered to ask questions of their HR team and their management around diversity and inclusion. Don’t be afraid to walk into HR and ask about the maternity and paternity policy. Brands have the power to change the world. Literally. And some brands need a nudge in the right direction. Asking HR and your executives — in townhalls, in emails, in meetings without ambushing them!– helps hold brands accountable. People want to do the right thing — but sometimes it takes a push. The change may not happen quickly, but it will happen eventually if enough people keep asking questions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I don’t have a quote, but a philosophy change. I’ve always been good at scoping my role and my team’s role. Marketing is a department where odd end responsibilities can find their way on to your and your team’s plates. It’s very easy for other departments to view the Events team as the people who should be scheduling lunch for a sales team. Or the marketing team as the people who should update a presentation deck. So, I became very good at defining my team’s role. But I had a change in philosophy midway through my career that started at Citi and really picked up at AOL. When asked if I could do something such as take on extra responsibility, my response would be, “Yes, and…” It’s a shift where I no longer said no to things. Now I take on more — — and the “and” part could be where I ask for more resources, time or to arrange priorities. Or it could be “yes — and I want more responsibility.” It’s what’s led me to such an interesting career. Not many people I know have launched brands and lead acquisition efforts or have deep experience in B2B and have led a direct-to-consumer initiative for a major financial institution. I secured these opportunities because I changed my mindset from “that’s not my job” to “Yes, I would love to — and here’s what else I would like to do.”

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this.

I’m going to cheat a bit and ask for a few people. I am quarantined right now, so I would love to see anyone face-to-face! I would love to have lunch with my former managers from AOL, Erika Nardini (now CEO at Barstool Sports) and Allie Kline (now founding principal at LEO DIX). I love these women. Smart, powerful and hugely influential on my career.

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