Cars.com launched as an industry disruptor 20 years ago, long before the term became lingua franca in tech funding pitches. With that came the opportunity to define a new industry. It also came with the challenge of consistently evolving and staying relevant in a digital world that looks entirely different than it did 20 years ago.
Brooke Skinner Ricketts is CMO at Cars.com. With her strong background in digital, performance, and brand marketing, which includes a former role as Head of Brand Strategy at Twitter, she’s helped the automotive marketplace pivot within a changing landscape, while helping evolve the company’s culture.
Brooke talks to us about what it means to redefine a brand, and how to know whether or not it is moving in the right direction.
As an industry disruptor, what comes with the territory?
For a little healthy perspective, Cars.com launched in 1998, three months before Google. We like to call them our little brother (laughs). In internet company time, 20 years is a really long time, and we’re proud of our longevity. Most pure online companies that started when Cars.com and Google started aren’t around today. It can also be an Achilles heel. But to the contrary, handled the right way, it can be one of our greatest strengths.
It means that we have the deepest data, the broadest editorial content, the longest standing relationships with our partners, which are all the byproducts of being our category’s pioneer, of succeeding over the long haul and of learning tons along the way.
Yet we fully realize that longevity can also be a big weakness. When you’ve been around for 20 years you develop a way of doing things and the risk is having content that, pardon the pun, idles in neutral and doing things the same ways you’ve always done them.
I joined Cars.com to work with the accomplished and talented people who were coming on board the leadership team, led by CEO Alex Vetter. Alex was a founding employee, and he comes to work every day energized like it’s his first day, and not at all bound by the past for the past’s sake. He has encyclopedic knowledge of our company and category, but challenges himself and his team every day to innovate.
So there is that, plus the fact that we went public last summer, which made us feel young again, and excited to be in control of our destiny—kind of like the 1.0 of a 2.0 internet company. With that has come a lot of constructive disruption, a lot of healthy change. It’s exciting, there is something new every day.
When we started it was a novel idea to put car ads online, so that was our first big disruption. Think about that! Now we’ve become a full-fledged platform for automotive intelligence and decision making for the category’s three audiences: consumers, dealers and manufacturers. They challenge us every day to deliver more, and we now have competitors that no one could ever have dreamed about two decades ago, including that little brother of ours I mentioned before (laughs). I am so energized by these challenges, and playing 3-D chess with the very intelligent people posing them. If that doesn’t get your motor running, I’m not sure what will.
We have zero need to disrupt for disruption’s sake. Our job as a company is to create value every day for all of our stakeholders. As a marketer, it’s about communicating our value proposition in ways that inspire action, and of course that proposition is different for consumers, auto dealers and car makers. The difference is that the rate at which the components of those value props evolve, and the speed at which they must, and can, be communicated, has increased exponentially since Cars.com launched.
As mature as we are, our headroom is tremendous, and the value we deliver to each of our constituents is formidable. The numbers tell the story. Ninety-five percent of active car shoppers come to Cars.com undecided about where they want to buy, yet at the same time, ninety-seven percent of those same consumers want to connect with a salesperson before they buy.
Seventy percent of active cars shoppers come to Cars.com without their mind made up on what car to buy, and car shoppers define themselves as they explore our site and app, which creates invaluable opportunities to create really meaningful connections between buyers and sellers.
To develop our platform and these products and features that encourage meaningful connections, our technology and product teams follow a Lean-Agile methodology—and in order to create true alignment between product and marketing, we’ve adopted Lean-Agile in marketing, too.
That’s another theme of disruption. It’s not something you do and look back and say, “well that was a cool disruption!” It’s a constant flow and steady stream, and that’s why Lean-Agile works so well, because you’re constantly planning for the next thing. You’re planning for newness, you’re planning for freshness, you’re planning for innovation. You can call that disruption, or you can call it working in today’s tech economy.
From a cultural standpoint is thinking and behaving differently something that’s already ingrained at Cars.com? Or is this something the exec team is trying to change?
This company has changed quite a lot since we brought in new members of our leadership team. There are people who have been here for ten-plus years, so we want to keep what’s always been good and positive about our culture. People come here and stay here because they like it here. You can’t put a price on that kind of loyalty, especially today.
From a cultural change perspective, we are asking people to use new muscles, we’re asking people to push themselves in ways some may have never pushed before, and at the same time we’re attracting new talent that embraces and enforces change. Along the way, we’re trying to make it as personally fulfilling for people as possible.
From where we sit in marketing, we are partnering with product, partnering with finance, and partnering with sales in entirely new and exciting ways. We just revamped our core values. My favorite is “Challenge and Collaborate,” which has become our story every day.
As an exec team did you go through a formal process to change your core values?
I think it’s been more iterative than formal. It was certainly intentional to refresh the executive team, and that was led by our CEO. When you bring new people into leadership, they bring new ideas about what can and should be important at the core of a company, and that process has played out naturally. Plus, making the big decision to go public requires a total review of everything you do. There was a fair degree of soul searching in all of that, and we are better for it.
People need a supportive culture the most when lots of change is taking place, and they need to know exactly what that culture is all about. What do we stand for, what do we mean when we refer to Cars.com’s culture? At the same time, there is the reality of intense competitive pressure that never subsides, which makes you take a close look at yourself.
All of these factors conspired to change our reality, and with it, our culture, keeping what has always been best about us while evolving to strengthen us for a new era. The opportunity to help forge change in this way was one of the things that brought me here. It’s a new era, an era of transformation, and a new kind of challenge. Challenge is what wakes me up in the morning.
How do you ensure marketing analyses result in insights?
Marketing of course needs to support and drive growth. With the wealth of data available to us, the questions become, which data matters most, and how to best use it to measure growth and marketing’s contributions?
It starts with putting the right analytical model in place, which we spend quite a bit of time on. It takes a sound hypothesis, healthy experimentation and lots of iteration. We’re measuring better than we did a year ago, and getting sharper every day.
Then the other piece of analysis, which is most relevant for digital businesses, is how we measure engagement. How do we think about the product experience through a brand lens, and through both sides of our two-sided digital marketplace, keeping in mind the different needs and interests of consumers, dealers, and manufacturers?
Getting down to brass tacks, our brand strategy centers on product experience. When our product updates are successful, our brand will follow in kind when we communicate the benefits effectively and when we engage our audiences the right way.
What’s your philosophy on brand measurement?
That’s the $64,000 question now and during my whole career. I think it’s different for every company and every brand. When I was growing up in this business it was about brand trackers, it was about usage and awareness and the like. We’ve learned that those things are part of the picture, but not the whole picture.
It’s interesting because we’re going through the process of evolving our brand. We’re looking to relaunch this year and KPIs have been a critical piece of conversation because this is a digital company, this is a data-driven company, and the data strategy group reports to me. So, whether it’s site analytics, marketing analytics or customer analytics, all of those people are part of the marketing organization.
As to how we measure the impact of our brand, we’re looking at a couple of different metrics. For us it’s not just total traffic, it’s unique visitors, visits per visitor, it’s direct traffic, and then we’re also looking at the perceptual attributes that we’ve prioritized. And we are looking at awareness, although for a category where the ownership cycle is 5–7 years, broad awareness is considerably less important than awareness for in-market shoppers; so it’s staying on people’s list.
Boiling it all down, I think the best thing to do when thinking about your brand, and how to measure its health and relevance, is starting with an honest conversation about what you’re trying to accomplish, and be willing to shed its skin to support the business’s changing objectives and competitive realities when need be.
That’s where it all needs to start, with the conversation, and then the metrics will follow. Like with any good research, start with the objective, and think about what a strong brand means and what it can do for your company. Then tailor the marketing and the measurement to assess how effectively that objective is being met.
Once you’ve decided on the goals for your brand, how do you measure that? How do you decide whether you’re moving toward your goal or not?
We look at a weekly dashboard that shows how well our business is doing on key metrics, and that includes brand health metrics. Performance of media spend is part of it.
User satisfaction is a big part of brand health, especially in a purely digital business, for both sides of our marketplace. So that needs to be a part of the everyday conversation about the brand and how it is measured.
In my eyes, the big challenge and opportunity for our brand is to transcend marketing, and become ingrained in the business in every possible aspect.
I like to think of our brand as an operating system. Done correctly, the Cars.com brand is something that everybody here owns and is accountable for. And it should not just support our corporate strategy, but help us define it.
Brand direction can no longer be just about marketers establishing and delivering a message. This is the era where customer experience reigns supreme. You have to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Examples of failing to do that, not just in tech companies but any company, are piling up every day.
So, it’s about making marketing a part of the everyday conversation and making sure it’s at the table from a revenue perspective, from a key metric perspective, so that everybody understands that this is something that’s a business driver. It’s not just some pretty advertisement or a nice-looking logo. It is central and fundamental to strategy and operations.
Have you been in a situation where your brand messaging was off? How do you see it coming? And how do you steer around it?
Well that’s the best thing about the internet, knowing immediately whether something is or isn’t working. When I worked at FCB (ad agency) and my client was SC Johnson, we would pre-test every piece of film that went on air. We had to score on persuasion and recall. It was a pretty refined way of testing, but it took forever.
From concept to copy and from copy to air, it was a six-month cycle. Here we’re producing things and A/B testing different headlines in real-time, swapping in different visuals, and getting lots of little reads that add up to a big read.
Then, when we go on air with something, we usually go on with more than one execution, and it becomes really clear really quickly which of the two, or if both of the two, or if neither of the two, are accomplishing what we need them to accomplish. The traffic, or lack thereof, is there for us to measure.
One of the things that I love is that no matter how smart we get from a quantitative performance perspective, there’s still the creativity, the art of nailing the idea that makes people lean in. We are not robots, we still have hearts and we’re human beings and we still want to connect with brands. What I relish most about the measurement piece is how it gets us to bigger, bolder, and more transformative ideas.
Tell me about your experience with segmentation either in your current role or in the past. And what was the process that you went through?
I’ve dealt with segmentation over my entire career. We are actually pursuing a patent on one of our segmentation techniques here, which is so exciting. When it comes to segmenting audiences today, think of it as having a usable typing tool at your disposal. Where in the past we looked at segmentation as a way to inform thinking about things, now we can look at segmentation as a way to create intelligence in real-time—literally, as people tap away on their phones, tablets and laptops.
Our analytics group is focused on getting it down to five questions that help us understand where you’re coming from, what motivates you, and what kind of messages are going to motivate you.
We know that these five things are leading indicators in locating someone in a segment that is pretty refined from an analytics perspective. That enables us to provide even more valuable data to our advertiser partners. The data is based on actual, and very current, behaviors of people who visit our site and use our app.
We’re both a buyer and seller of advertising. As a seller of advertising, this is all extremely valuable in how it gives us more intelligence on the audience, or audience segment, that we are selling. As a buyer of advertising, we can truly understand, in real-time, what kinds of people are responding to what stimuli. We take segments of our users and type them accordingly.
Ultimately it all leads to a more individualized experience that we as consumers want, and it is rapidly becoming the gold standard.
Is there a process where you refine segments over time based on the market moving? Or based on the responses you’re getting?
Yes, and the ultimate goal is to make it always-on machine learning. That’s what the future looks like. We have these segments that are defined by deep and rigorous analysis. The segments get more refined over time because we’re observing the different behaviors and different shifts in the market based on the way people are moving through the website and the app.
Right now, that kind of infinite feedback loop is my dream. I truly believe we will get there.
How do you think about segmentation as far as the competitive landscape and how that influences it?
It’s interesting for two reasons. First, we were the first brand in our category. Second, we are a mass market brand. So back to the Achilles heel thing, we’ve been around forever, we have most of the industry players as customers, and we have a URL that’s synonymous with the category.
So, the reality is that our brand was originally built like a mass market brand, where segmenting wasn’t necessarily prioritized. There is sound reasoning behind that approach. That said, the more you try to be everything to everyone the more you’re not anything to anyone.
So yes, segmentation is becoming more central. When we think about how we’re going to beat our competition, we look at where and with whom we’re strong, and where they’re weak, and vice-versa, and we are peeling off different strategies accordingly.
We’re in an interesting category because we have a lot of close-knit competitors who are also going to call themselves mass market brands, and would also say that their target is in-market car shoppers. The truth is, an in-market car shopper can look like anyone, from a credit-challenged individual looking at what car they can afford to someone buying a brand-new luxury car. Those are really, really different people with very different realities, and we need to effectively speak to each of them on their terms.