The AdPulp Interview: Katherine Stone

Katherine Stone of Engage, Inc. and the Decent Marketing blog, is former Director of Experiential Marketing at The Coca-Cola Company. Having led one of the only Experiential Marketing departments at the Fortune 500 level, she has a unique perspective on how to surmount the challenges that companies face internally, and with their customers as they attempt to create and execute experiential concepts. Stone is also eight-months pregnant with her second child, so we extend an extra thank you to her for complying with our line of questioning.
Q. How is experiential marketing different from relationship marketing, event marketing and all the other wonderful sub-categories we’ve managed to dream up?
A. I’m not sure that it is anymore, believe it or not. We have created so many sub-specialties of marketing that all cross over each other that it’s very confusing. I think they’re all similar in some ways. The difference for me was always that I was working with an external human goal in mind (create a situation that makes people feel xxx) rather than an internal objective (increase share by this much, sell this many, etc.) I think when you really focus on people and doing what’s right and interesting for them, the other things follow.
Q. What was your proudest moment at Coca-Cola?
A. Hmmmm. Good question. I think when they created the department and I was promoted to head it up, because I feel that I really worked hard to convince senior management that we needed to try more non-traditional methods of reaching consumers. I felt I really had a hand in convincing them to create the group and I was very proud of that.
Q. How did you get into this bleeding edge field? Was it something you planned, or did it occur organically?
A. I was definitely organic. I think we all have gut feelings about how we think things should be done, and we try to find ways to satisfy that. I always felt so uncomfortable marketing to people through aggressive, in-your-face tactics or meaningless messages. I really wanted to create delight for people and I felt most marketing didn’t do that. I’m left-handed, and I was really looking for the right-brained way to connect to people if that makes sense. I didn’t think spreadsheets and CRM software programs made any sense, because that’s not how we create relationships with people in the real world. Then I read the book “The Experience Economy” by Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore, and I said “Aha!” They were definitely talking to me.
Q. Does experiential marketing have the respect it deserves inside the Coca-Cola organization, or is TV still king of the mountain?
A. I’m not sure what the king of the mountain is at this point, but experiential marketing does not have the respect it deserves. When the CMO who created the experiential marketing department left, the department was thrown out with the trash so to speak. We had really just gotten started so it was a big disappointment. I think it’s now outsourced to agencies, but I haven’t seen much come out of them that I’ve been impressed by. Coca-Cola talks a lot about being non-traditional, and there are pockets of local Coca-Cola marketers around the world who are very creative and do a GREAT job creating experiences, but the corporate system itself has a hard time sticking with such things for the long-term. It always goes back to money and short-term results and shareholder value. At least it did when I was there, which was a real bummer – I understood the need for short-term results, but I was hoping we could dual-track and have another group working hard on building long-term equity. Hopefully the new CEO Neville Isdell will fix the problems Coke has been having. He took over after I left and I really hope for the best. I was there for seven years, and I will always love the Coca-Cola brand and the great potential it has, which as of late has not been met in my opinion. It really is a wonderful, magical brand if you know its history and the impact it has had around the world. Besides which, there’s nothing better than an ice cold Coca-Cola classic in 8-ounce glass. (And that’s true word-of-mouth. I am definitely an evangelist.)
Q. What are you up to with Engage, Inc.? Is it ultimately more rewarding to work for yourself?
A. What’s rewarding is not having to work long hours and travel a lot. I have a four-year-old son, and am nearly 8 months pregnant with child number two. I have a brain and skills that I want to use, but I’m not willing to spend my life working 60 hour weeks. I did that, and it didn’t get me any of the happiness I thought it would. Money, yes. Some recognition, yes. But not the really good stuff. I am significantly happier now, and I only work with people who want to do marketing a different way.
At Engage, I focus most of my time on speaking and writing, since that’s what I really enjoy. I’ve done a lot of speeches on experiential marketing around the country and I always have such a great time sharing thoughts with the audience. I always half expect people to start snoring or walk out when I talk, since I talk about less tangible things like emotions and feelings. Believe it or not, the CMO of Coca-Cola once called me a flake after he saw me speak. (Yes, this was the same guy who promoted me.) I guess I’m not surprised since it is often hard for businesspeople to relate to the truth of relationships – we’d all rather believe, to steal Staples’ idea, that there is an easy button or a 10-step plan to marketing. I don’t think that’s true. Every new product and new brand and new consumer can only lead to a solution totally specific to that situation, just like every new person we meet and every new relationship we try to build requires behavior and understanding specific to it. Anyway, the audiences have been truly welcoming and supportive of the subject of my speeches and that has been a wonderful surprise.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.