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Nicole Portwood: “Listen to your fans”

Listen to your fans. As I mentioned before, after making our mistake with mislabeling the “Upper Peninsula,” our fans were the first ones to call us out while also having our back at the same time! We listened, made no excuses, and worked hard to make it up to them. Your fans will tell you […]

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Listen to your fans. As I mentioned before, after making our mistake with mislabeling the “Upper Peninsula,” our fans were the first ones to call us out while also having our back at the same time! We listened, made no excuses, and worked hard to make it up to them. Your fans will tell you when you’re getting it right, and when you’re letting them down.


As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Nicole Portwood.

Nicole Portwood joined PepsiCo in September 2018 as vice president of marketing, Mountain Dew, leading 360° brand marketing strategy across the trademark. In this role, she continues to further hone the fan-centric marketing model developed over years of experience and put to the test in the spirits category. Nicole joined PepsiCo from Tito’s Handmade Vodka, where she led brand marketing as CMO for 9 years based in Austin, TX. Nicole was recognized as AdAge’s Marketer of the Year 2017. Prior to her role at Tito’s, she lived in New York and worked on the agency side for brands such as Jack Daniels, Grey Goose, and Bombay Sapphire. She is a recovering restaurant owner, having created and then sold Spartan Pizza, a thriving shop on Austin’s 6th Street. Nicole studied theatre and philosophy at Southern Methodist University. She and her husband have two children and live in the beautiful River Towns area of Westchester, NY.


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

First, I’ll tell you I had no idea this career path existed before I realized I was on it. I grew up creative and driven, balancing a love for the arts with a fierce need for intellectual stimulation. I went on to study Theatre and Philosophy in college and moved to New York to “make it” on Broadway, but realized after a relatively short period of time that a career in the arts just wasn’t for me. I started voicing radio commercials, then selling them, then writing full-blown marketing plans for small, family-owned businesses. That’s when I got hooked. I absolutely fell in love with the consumer perspective and leveraging fundamental human motivation to solve business problems. I worked on the agency side for iconic spirits brands, then helped to develop the ground-up marketing function for a small, Texas-based vodka brand that has grown into an international icon in its own right. In that time, I continued my love affair with the consumer, or fan as I like to call them, and realized the incredible power brand love has to drive business. That focus is what led me to Mtn Dew. There is no brand like it, no fandom so fierce, a truly entrenched cult brand, and in it I saw an opportunity to continue to focus on the people that make a brand what it is in culture.

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?

Hmm, I don’t think I have any that are “funny”…

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

In 2019, MTN DEW released the DEWnited States collection — a limited-edition bottle series representing all of the things that make the 50 states so great. Out of sheer human error, we posted an image of the U.S. with a region of northern Michigan mislabeled as Wisconsin. The @UpperPeninsula Twitter account quickly responded, calling out our mistake. Numerous media outlets caught wind of the error — spurring coverage on a national scale.

We jumped into action, making it our mission make it up to residents by launching a custom “Upper Peninsula” label — highlighting the things residents love most about the area. To unveil the new bottle, MTN DEW took things a step further by hosting a few special events right in the U.P. area — giving us a chance to build relationships with locals.

I love to tell this story because it’s an example of our commitment to our fans, with the agility and resources to see it through!

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

We are working on a few new and interactive projects to specifically engage with fans online that I can give you some insight into:

  • Dew Nation HQ: We wanted to reward our fans with a two-way conversation, a place for them to share their fandom with others, so we created the DEW Nation HQ®, which is a free membership platform for our diehard DEW® fans to connect with the rest of DEW Nation, share their passion for DEW®, and stay in the know with all the latest and greatest that DEW® has to offer.
  • Dew eStore: Our fans are so passionate about the product that we created an official store — the one-stop-shop for DEW® gear you can’t find anywhere else. All the Dew gear you never knew you needed with exclusive collaborations and limited flavor exclusives.

Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Brand marketing is relationship-building. This is where you tell stories and drive emotional connection with people. This is the narrative that makes people feel something when they interact with your brand and what sets it apart amongst a sea of competitors.

Product marketing is about driving the immediate need, the sale. This is where you appeal to the rational, attribute-based decision making that connects a product to its occasion and competitive set.

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?

Long term value. Brand is what creates an emotional connection with people. In the moment of choice, brand relationships evoke feelings that drive purchase preference. Those relationships also give you pricing power because of the trust and consistency you deliver time and time again. Over the long run, it’s how a brand makes you feel that ultimately delivers total value.

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.

  1. Listen to your fans. As I mentioned before, after making our mistake with mislabeling the “Upper Peninsula,” our fans were the first ones to call us out while also having our back at the same time! We listened, made no excuses, and worked hard to make it up to them. Your fans will tell you when you’re getting it right, and when you’re letting them down.
  2. Prioritize internal rigor. Don’t outsource your brand identity to agencies. They are invaluable partners, but your internal teams need to have a visceral understanding of what a brand is, what it needs, and how to grow. Those informed positions are what feed our briefs, our campaign ideas, and ultimately what aggregate to become a brand as it lives in people’s minds
  3. Stay true to your core / don’t try to be all things to all people. Innovate vertically rather than trying to stretch the brand too far. Don’t get me wrong — push boundaries, yes. But always do it from the center, from the validated truth of the brand DNA.
  4. Consistency, consistency, consistency. One of the challenges with shifting leadership of brands, which is a basic truth in today’s workforce, is that every person wants to put their stamp on the business. And that’s awesome — it leads to breakthroughs across innovation, communication styles, and cultural impact. But we all must be mindful of how swings in positioning impact people’s perception of a brand. When you stand for everything, you stand for nothing. So again, push boundaries and blaze new trails, but beat the same drum on your march, even when the internal teams have gotten sick of it and long for something fresh. Otherwise, the message has no time to land with the wider world. Let your fans guide you in that endeavor — their love is based in large part on a clear understanding of what your brand means in their lives.
  5. Test but trust. I am a believer in testing, but also believe it needs to be one of many inputs in decision-making. Marketers have the jobs we have so that we can leverage our experience, our insight, and our understanding of the nuance of our business and the marketplace to move things forward. Our fans cannot always articulate what they want, but they provide real clues if you listen and fill in the blanks. I am often reminded of that questionably attributed quote of Henry Ford’s, “If I’d asked the people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.” There is truth and folly in taking that at face value. On the surface, it makes it sound like you should not listen to consumers when you are trying to innovate over the horizon. Yes, it’s true that the populous in that day would not likely have asked explicitly for motor vehicles, never having experienced that possibility. But it’s also true that there existed a ton of consumer-driven clues about how business and innovation could solve problems, even if they could not point to it specifically. So, the point here is, test, but trust your instincts, read between the lines, listen to that voice in your head that is pointing to the unseen solution that is just over the next rise, ready to delight.

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?

Brand-building is the long game. Ultimately, the end goal is the same — to drive sales and value for the organization. But these are very different levers with different horizons for impact and I think it’s that second goal that is more dependent on the success of brand building. Value comes in the form of revenue, yes. But it also comes to life across many other aspects of business that have a more broad-reaching effect. Things like pricing power, advantaged negotiating position, competitive advantage, positive perception, partnership opportunities, agency relationships, talent acquisition and retention, and so many others.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

Ultimately, social is what allows us to have two-way conversations with people at scale. We are able to interact with our fans and customers on a more personal level than ever before. I believe we are perceived as the brand we are because of our social interactions. There’s a human aspect to it that’s inescapable, and I think fans really love that. They know there is a person on the other end of the keyboard, engaging, personifying the brand and speaking through that lens.

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

Be the master of your own time. This is so hard to do, especially in a large organization where so much depends on interconnectivity between functions and the aligning of multiple agendas. A few things to remember:

  • Set a routine and stick to it
  • Time for family is sacred
  • Set a good example, especially for the more junior people on your team

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. 🙂

I’m passionate about the idea around step changing recycling capability in communities around the country. In my role, I have a seat at the table to influence decisions that can have an impact in developing robust, single-stream waste management systems with sophisticated sorting and cleaning abilities. Current recycling systems in the US rely on consumer participation and can be confusing and not widely available enough to ensure full participation. We have to take that on at a macro level and create the infrastructure that shoulders the burden, rather than asking consumers to be recycling wizards when they have so many other concerns in their daily lives. PepsiCo is also working to drive towards a circular economy pledging 65 million dollars globally in partnership initiatives to boost recycling rates and waste collection between 2018 and early 2020. I truly believe this type of collaboration is the only way for us to get to a true closed cycle of use with our resources. And the added benefit of job growth in a sector focused on sustainability would be a boon to communities as well.

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

“Follow your joy. But not in a ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ kind of way.” This sentiment is pretty ubiquitous these days, but it came to me from my mom, a trailblazer in the world of data architecture. The advice was all about how you should move through a career, and I’ve lived by that mantra throughout mine. So often, in the early days of our career, we chart a course to get to some ultimate goal that, from where we sit at the time, looks like the best thing ever. But as we gain new experiences, we explore the depth and breadth of a discipline, and we take on new challenges that open our eyes to a broader range of possibilities. It’s so important that we continue our inner dialogue to really understand what drives joy and fulfillment in our own lives. The answers are sometimes in conflict with our original planned path. But when you follow your joy and your curiosity, you will ultimately live a more fulfilled life. Your work will be better, your relationships will be stronger, and your impact will be greater.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: https://twitter.com/nicoleaportwood

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicole-portwood-915bb013a/

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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