Part 1: Alicia Thompson on food brands, crisis and women leaders

Part 1 of our interview with Alicia Thompson, President of Signature Leadership and experienced PR and ad leader discusses how brands like Wendy’s are reinventing themselves, crisis management and great women leaders.



Rudy:               Hey, this is Rudy Fernandez from Creative Outhouse. Coming up on this episode of Marketing Upheaval is a great discussion with Alicia Thompson. Alicia has such brilliant insights, and maybe it’s because she’s worked in PR and advertising. She’s been on client and agency sides, and she’s worked for big companies, she’s worked for small companies. In fact, she had so much fantastic insight, we had to make this two episodes.

Rudy:               In this first episode, we talk about how some old brands are reinventing themselves. We talk about the new world for crisis managers, and women leadership in the industry, and what it takes to be a great leader. Welcome to Marketing Upheaval.

Earcon:             You’re listening to Marketing Upheaval from Creative Outhouse.

Rudy:               This is Rudy Fernandez from Creative Outhouse, and my guest this episode on Marketing Upheaval is Alicia Thompson. She’s been in leadership roles at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, the Coca-Cola company, Edible Arrangements, and also for Edelman, Porter Novelli. If anyone has a complete view of marketing spectrum, it’s Alicia. So thank you for being on the podcast.

Alicia:               Thanks for having me.

Rudy:               So what do you think are the biggest changes going on here in the last five or 10 years from your point of view?

Alicia:               There are a couple I think. First of all, I think it’s the blurring of discipline lines. Like when I started in this so many years ago, PR was PR, and advertising was advertising, and digital was a blip in somebody’s dream world. Then there was the creative side. What we found in the last few years is the lines between all of those disciplines has even blurred more than they had started to maybe 15 years ago. It’s just marketing communications now, and there are no specific lanes to swim in. Everybody that works in this area has to be somewhat knowledgeable about all things, and it’s interesting.

Rudy:               We work with ad agencies who are PR agencies, but I’ve seen where there are ad agencies doing PR activations, there are PR firms doing videos.

Alicia:               They have to to stay competitive.

Rudy:               Yeah. So where does that go? At what point does it become just one marketing agency?

Alicia:               I think it has already started to do that. When I was at Edelman we had a very robust and were investing a lot of money in our creative shop, and hiring talent, and going after creative led business, and then buttoning on PR and other communications functions. We had a digital team, we have full robust digital team, we have social team. That was all completely separate from PR which is where Edelman has its roots.

Alicia:               So I think agencies and in house teams actually, the lines are becoming more blurred. I think other things that are changing or have changed in the space is innovation because we have to constantly innovate in listening tools and how we measure. Clients want to make sure that their investments have an ROI, and I think technology, the technology and the resources and the tools that this industry can use to prove its value has just grown exponentially as well.

Rudy:               It’s constant.

Alicia:               It is constant.

Rudy:               Everything’s being automated now.

Alicia:               Absolutely.

Rudy:               This podcast will be automated.

Alicia:               Yeah.

Rudy:               So you’ve worked with a lot of consumer brands and their, of course, audience fragmentation is probably the reason everything is changing. Where we get our information, our entertainment, news, it’s all the changes by the nanosecond. How do you engage brands? How do they engage with consumers now?

Alicia:               I think consumer brands are doing a much better job and continue to evolve the customer experience, the consumer experience, that they create, and the engagement sources. So before it was just having a really cool website, and then when social and digital got hot, then it was around content, but not content just to push out. Its content that engages a conversation with the consumer. So I think it’s extremely important, and you’ll see a lot of good consumer companies that do this, they have truly embraced the idea of the consumer owns the brand and they are allowing consumers to help them define what the brand means to them, how they want to interact with it, and how to engage with them.

Rudy:               It’s interesting you say that. Are you familiar with Wendy’s and what they’re doing on Twitter?

Alicia:               Yes.

Rudy:               So my question, I was having this conversation yesterday. Wendy’s is a very wholesome brand. You think of Dave Thomas, and it’s a very wholesome brand, and then you go to their Twitter account and it’s very funny, but they trash McDonald’s, and other brands actually go onto the site just so Wendy’s could trash them. How do you have those two different personalities? That’s working for them, do you think?

Alicia:               It is working for them. You see their engagement numbers on Twitter and how people truly, truly want to be a part of that dialogue. I think what Wendy’s has done, this is my humble opinion, is they’ve taken that wholesome, good Americana kind of persona and they’ve embraced it in their food. They still talk about their hamburgers are made fresh every day in store and things like that, but their consumer base has shifted as well too.

Alicia:               Dave Thomas was 40 years ago, right? The consumer that’s coming to Wendy’s now and the consumer that they’re trying to attract is millennial and younger. They’re competing with the Arby’s which is all about meats. They took a turn too. Arby’s was very traditional and now they’re all edgy and meat based So I think there is a place for consumer brands to live in two worlds as long as it is authentic to who they are at their core, and I would think that Wendy’s brand essence would be something that’s wholesome but reverent. You could put those two words together. We know who we are, we know what we stand for, we embrace our history and our heritage, but we also can be fun and irreverent and joke about the brand.

Rudy:               So they’re doing it right. And so who do you think, what are some mistakes you see out there? Common mistakes.

Alicia:               Oh boy. So I have a real challenge with IHOP, IHOB, and then whatever the next iteration they’ve been teasing that they’re going to come out with. It’s the international house of pancakes. That’s what we’ve all known it as, and though they got lots of buzz and coverage when they went to IHOB, it wasn’t sustainable.

Alicia:               It was like a flash in the pan, and then they did go back to IHOP, and now they’re teasing another brand transition, but if you’re going to do something like that, it’s gotta be something that’s sustainable and not really a flash in the pan, and it’s gotta be something, to your point about Wendy’s, that’s consistent with who you are and what your heritage is.

Rudy:               I have to say that when they did announce the IHOB, Wendy’s had a wonderful response. This is what they said: “Can’t wait to taste the burger from somebody who thought pancakes were too complicated.”

Alicia:               Absolutely. Yeah, so I think it’s interesting that consumer brands will see someone else do something and think it’s very clever and try to replicate it, but if it’s not authentic to who you are, that replication doesn’t really fly.

Rudy:               A lot of your career has been a crisis communication I think. What is going right on that? It’s funny. Here’s why I ask. We’re in a situation in marketing, and really our world, that is in constant upheaval. How do you define a crisis now, because given the political climate, given that crisis sort of people go, “Eh,” like that, I think? What’s, what’s an actual crisis now look like?

Alicia:               So a few things have changed in the crisis world over the tenure of my career. 24 hour news cycle, we didn’t have that way back, and we didn’t have social media where things can live forever, and we didn’t have user generated content with everybody that has a cell phone that can record video and photos. So from a crisis perspective, I think the reason people, “Eh, whatever,” is because it’s become so rote. Everybody has a picture, everybody has a video of something that someone did wrong, and they put it up, and then it lives for the 24 hour news cycle, and then it goes away.

Alicia:               The problem is, for corporations especially, that moment lives forever and can be refound and rediscovered and regurgitated time and time again whenever an issue arises. A dear friend of mine is a corporate communications person so I hate to say this, but American Airlines is one that just finds themselves in this cycle. Every time an incident happens on a flight, “Eh,” the last 20 incidents are brought back up and their response is compared to the response and the last one and the response of the last one.

Alicia:               So crisis communications today still has the same formula for how you manage it, but the problem is a company’s reputation can be destroyed in a 32nd clip now, whereas years ago it took a lot longer for it to be destroyed, and it takes a lot longer now to rebuild it. So those people that are specifically in the crisis comms world, their job is much, much tougher.

Rudy:               To what, Preventative you think?

Alicia:               I think crisis communications has evolved a bit to manage it better, but I don’t know if it’s reached the levels that it needs to be to really manage those types of situations. You also have celebrity CEOs now, whereas you didn’t have that before. Their life, their personal lives, are as exposed as the things that are going on with their companies.

Alicia:               I just think with the proliferation of people with cell phones and and whistle blowers and things like that, just the amount of content around bad behavior that is out there now that was never seen before makes the job of crisis managers that much more difficult and for leadership teams to get on board because most leadership teams are a little slower to react sometimes because they’re weighing the pros, the cons, the shtick, the impact to the shareholders, the impact to the stakeholders, which they should be doing, but sometimes in this day and age, the response needs to be a little quicker.

Rudy:               Yeah. I’m surprised at what we consider bad behavior now. So now I see like maybe a company will be under investigation by the Justice Department and their stock doesn’t change a bit, may even go up, but you do something that is more personal like American Airlines, mistreat a customer, or if there’s a Starbucks, the the whole racist thing that happened, then that’s a lot more important to people than violating some sec rules.

Alicia:               Yeah. Porter Novelli just did a report, actually just got a copy of it, I haven’t looked at it thoroughly yet, about how important values are to the marketplace, to consumers, and across all stakeholder groups, it is like one of the most important things that they look for in companies. So to your point, how you treat a consumer and the guest experience speaks to your values, and that’s really important to people so it has an impact.

Rudy:               So I want to talk to you about women communications. Now I’ve been in marketing, advertising, and some NPR, and it’s mostly women. Mostly women, however not in leadership roles. It’s mostly women in sort of middle. Is it changing?

Alicia:               There’s been a concerted effort, especially on the agency side. Most of the big agencies had initiatives to have at 50% of their leadership as women by X date, but I think other than maybe a Barby Siegel and a couple of others, you don’t see a lot of women running large major agencies. Have a lot of mid size agencies that women are running, and I think, I would guess that a lot of women went out and started their own agencies because they saw a glass ceiling for themselves in the larger agencies.

Alicia:               I think we’ve made strides, but still if you walk into any PR or in a lot of advertising classes at any university, the majority of the students are women. So we can see that that trend is going to continue, and I just think as long as the concerted effort is continued to be a focus, we can continue to make strides, but I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement.

Rudy:               I know you’ve mentioned that you learned a lot from Cheryl-

Alicia:               Batchelder?

Rudy:               Batchelder who was the CEO of Popeye’s, and you saw how she managed to lead in a male dominated world. Can you talk a little about that? What’d you learn from her?

Alicia:               Yeah, Cheryl’s an amazing leader. She came into a system as the first female CEO, and the guys were like, “We don’t want a girl CEO. How’s she going to know the business,” but she, super smart, and she taught me a few lessons. One always knew your data points. Always know your information. It’s just hard for somebody to argue with you being a woman if you know what you’re talking about.

Alicia:               Care about your team, because if they don’t see that you care about them, they won’t give you 100% of themselves, and she lived honesty and integrity. If she made a mistake, she owned it, If we made a mistake, she held us accountable for it, and she was just one of those leaders that you would go into the fire for because you knew she’d go in the fire with you. So she was an amazing leader. She’s still a big mentor in my life. I still text her and email her. She’s the interim CEO at Pier One right now, but most of the people, I would say pretty much the majority of the people, that have had the opportunity to work with her, still follow her, still stay connected to her, still seek out her advice and her wisdom.

Rudy:               So your newest endeavor is Signature Leadership?

Alicia:               Yes.

Rudy:               Well, I’m gonna go back to Cheryl. I’m going to ask you, because you’ve learned a lot from her, tell me about that and then some things you employ from maybe that you’ve learned from her.

Alicia:               Yeah, so Signature Leadership is something that I’ve kind of always had in my hip pocket that I wanted to do. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with some amazing senior level executives, but what I’ve always wondered and struggled with and watched was those folks at the director level about to be vice presidents are those newly minted vice presidents that are trying to figure out what kind of leader they are or want to be and nobody ever helps them.

Alicia:               So they struggle and they figure it out, or they read leadership books and they have their little checklist, “Okay, if I do these 10 things, I’m a leader,” and I was like, “God, if somebody would just step in, if they had a resource that could help them to figure out what their authentic leadership is, what feels right to them, but it shows that they are good leaders, that would be fantastic.” So my tagline is Your Leadership As Unique As Your Signature, because it should be all about who you are and what makes you tick, but that doesn’t keep you from being a good leader.

Rudy:               Yeah, no, I learned that over many, many, many, many years the hard way. I became a creative director when I was a, I think 27 or 28 years old because I think everybody else had quit, and I was the only one who could still walk and chew gum at the same time, and they said, “Do you want to be the creative director?” I was like, “No, those are the people we make fun of.”

Alicia:               Yeah.

Rudy:               The money was much better, so I said, “Okay.”

Alicia:               Okay.

Rudy:               Boy I was terrible, and then I took over time, I called every creative director I knew and asked him for my help. I’ll tell you, a friend of mine named Matt, who was a creative director, he just left me a message when I left him a message, he just said “Welcome to my hell,” and he laughed and he hung up. So now I’m more comfortable with it because it’s been many, many years, but yeah, I would have loved something like this because they just said, “Hey, guess what? You’re in charge.” Okay.

Alicia:               Yeah, and it’s when you get that first group of people that you actually manage. Nobody ever teaches people how to manage people. So that was something that always resonated with me was to be able to do that, and Cheryl’s leadership was important in helping me frame all of that in my head.

Rudy:               So what are some tactics and what are some leadership tactics, I don’t want to give away your stuff for free, but what are some good leadership tactics that you, you could share?

Alicia:               I think one of the most important ones that I have gleaned over the years is truly listening. Keep your mouth shut sometimes. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. Lord knows you probably shouldn’t be the smartest person in the room, but listen, because good leaders can take the ideas of five different people and help them bring them to that one salient idea that is the solution that you were looking for, but if everybody’s too busy trying to get in their word and nobody is sitting back listening and synthesizing it all, you may miss a really great idea that’s the combination of all of them, so listening is really important.

Alicia:               Second of all I think is really, really being in the moment when you’re with people. Cheryl was the CEO of a very large company with 1200 franchisees, and when you sat in her office and talk to her, she was in do not disturb mode. Her assistant knew, don’t knock on the door unless it’s a crisis and the building’s burning down. She never had her cell phone. She had a pen and a paper, and she was listening to you, and she was capturing notes, and she could feed back what she heard. That makes the person that you’re with feel that what they have to say is important. So really being engaged in the moment.

Alicia:               I think finally just being someone that has integrity and can be trusted. If you tell your team as the leader, “I got your back, we’re in this together,” don’t throw them under the bus the first chance you get or when things get heated and say, “Well, I told So-and-so to do X.” So I think those are like three really important things, and when you’re coming up, those early years, your an independent contributor. It’s all about what you say, what you do, how you perform. So you’re all about me, me, me, me, me.

Alicia:               To make that transition to leader, it has to be about other people, and Cheryl used to have a really good line, she said, “I have to know you to grow you,” because importance for her was that she actually developed leaders. I have another great quote that says, “You’re not a leader until you’ve created someone else that’s a leader who’s created someone else who’s a leader and so on.

Rudy:               That’s wonderful.

Alicia:               So I think it’s really important that we be focused on, not necessarily on ourselves, but on our team collectively, because all boats rise.

Rudy:               That’s fantastic. You know, it’s funny you say that about being present. I’ve heard that over and over again from people who say, “Well, I admire this leader because when you’re with that person, you just feel…” and I’m trying to figure out what that is and trying to learn that myself.

Alicia:               It’s hard. It’s hard when you’ve got 15 people pulling at you to carve out an hour to be focused solely on that one person, but the return on that hour invested in that person’s concerns, their high fives, the ROI on it is amazing.

Rudy:               So that’s the thing right now, because everybody, we’re all torn in a million directions. You get emails and your Slack, and your texts, and your phone, and everybody’s always worried about the very next thing that happens to you.

Alicia:               Yes. We don’t live in the moment. We live 15 minutes ahead.

Rudy:               Eight seconds.

Alicia:               Eight seconds. Not even 15 minutes. It’s a data point?

Rudy:               Eight seconds is the attention span of the average American.

Alicia:               Yeah, you’re probably right.

Rudy:               So you’ve got to get them an eight seconds. That’s crazy, but I also know that that’s probably long if you’re thinking about me, so I just wonder how does that aspect change what we do in terms of how we reach people?

Alicia:               Yeah. The attention span of the people that we’re trying to communicate to and talk to and engage and get them to buy our products and services, like fast forward, and skip through commercials, and two seconds on a Facebook ad. It drives this intensity for marketers to constantly come up with that two to three second “Gotcha,” and it puts a lot of pressure on creatives because they’re the ones that are having to do that. It’s like how do you get into the psyche unless you’re really narrow in your audience.

Alicia:               You’re trying to grab the attention of five different demographics in those first three seconds. How you talk to a 17 year old male and a 45 year old mom of three is completely different. The mom of three has got the same distractions because she’s got three kids pulling on her skirt as a 17 year old boy who’s just trying to get to his next video game play. It makes it extremely challenging to be a marketer in this day and age and I don’t see it getting any easier.

Rudy:               No, and you have to, you have to play off things that already exist.

Alicia:               Absolutely.

Rudy:               The problem with that is it’s hard to introduce something brand new because everybody’s looking for something that appeals to them specifically. So, “Back in the old days,” back in the old days, reading a magazine, or watching television, or listening to a radio show, and a commercial would come on for something you knew nothing about. It might be something you’re interested in, maybe not, but now it has to be something that I already like.

Alicia:               Yeah, and another thought to that is this whole use of influencers, influencing marketing. You pick the right influencer, they have a lifespan of about 30 days or so, and then everybody’s moved on to the next influencer in their life, but if you pick a bad one your word of mouth can go from a hundred to two overnight if one bad thing happens to your influencer. So influencer marketing is another big game changer for what we do, and there are all kinds of challenges that go along with that too.

Rudy:               If you think of it, an influencer is just someone who filters all the content. So you try to find someone who maybe lines up with your opinions about whatever, so you read that person other than reading everything in the universe about that subject.

Alicia:               Absolutely.

Rudy:               So they’re sort of aggregators and filterers and I finally realized why they’re so popular I guess.

Rudy:               Hey, thanks for listening to Marketing Upheaval from Creative Outhouse. If you’d like to learn more about how to train the next generation of leaders at your company, contact Alicia Thompson. Her email is athompson@signatureleadershipllc.com. For show notes, previous episodes, and previous to upcoming episodes, visit us at creative outhouse.com/podcast, and if you liked this podcast, please give us five stars, subscribe, and share it with others.

Rudy:               That’s it for this episode of Marketing Upheaval. Remember, if the current state of marketing has got you confused, don’t worry. It’ll all change. See you.


Listen to Part 2 of our interview with Alicia here: https://www.buzzsprout.com/380554/1398724-3-part-2-alicia-thompson-on-self-reinvention-after-a-job-loss-and-bad-pr




Transcript by www.Rev.com.