As President of Kao USA, Karen Frank has overall responsibility for the Japanese consumer product giant’s operations in the Americas and Europe. An 11-year veteran of Kao, Karen previously filled dual roles as General Manager, US Sales and Marketing and Europe Innovation for the Mass Channel.

Paul Dyer, CEO at Lippe Taylor, spoke with Karen about what she’s learned throughout her career of consumer marketing and how she’s had to pivot in the midst of 2020. In the interview, Karen talks about why having a brand that really speaks to the consumer is more important than ever before. She also discusses what newly minted professional communicators can bring to the game, as well as the risk brands face when not taking a stand on important issues.

A few takeaways from this wider-ranging conversation are below. To hear the entire conversation, check it out on the Lippe Taylor DAMN GOOD BRANDS Podcast.

Launch a brand any time as long as it connects with the consumer.
Kao went against convention by launching the MyKirei line in the middle of the upheaval caused by COVID. MyKirei didn’t get buried as an irrelevant introduction because it combines performance with purpose. By incorporating environmental sustainability and a concern for the greater good, MyKirei managed to stand out even in a world consumed by a global health crisis and was a success, despite launching during covid. 

New college graduates have in-demand 21st Century communications DNA. If product marketers understandably are nervous about launching products during COVID, it’s understandable that graduates are feeling despondent about the future of communications. This doesn’t have to be the case because by virtue of their upbringing as the first truly digital-from-birth generation. Today’s grads have unmatched insight into the communications standards & platforms of the day as social/digital natives. By leveraging that, they can launch satisfying and successful careers despite the shaky economy. 

Balance respect for intuition with knowledge derived from data. Beyond a doubt, Big Data gets more headlines these days than insight derived from personal intuition. But that may be more due to the newness of data as a key tool for communicators rather than to any real weakness of intuition. In reality, hunches have a role to play in providing a backstop to the results of analyzing data. That is, if the data says something that should make you say “Wow!” and instead you say, “Meh,” the data may be worth ignoring.

Paul Dyer: Thank you for joining us, Karen.

Karen Frank: Sure. Happy to be here.

PD: There's a big topic of discussion right now in our business related to diversity and inclusion. And that obviously has had a big focus from a racial standpoint, but also from gender. And you are the first woman to hold this senior position at Kao, and Jesse Grissom is President of Operations of Kao, the first time someone who's an African American has held that senior level position. So, I'm curious, are these hires reflective of Kao's dedication to diversity and inclusion?

Karen Frank: Working for a Japanese company, I think it's extremely telling that they put a woman and a black man in charge of the organization right now. I'd been with the company for 11 years. And Jesse's been with the company a lot longer. I think it's going on 20 years. So, it isn't that they ran out and tried to check the boxes and hire people for these jobs that looked right. It really was the commitment to develop us. And it just is great that we've gotten to a point they feel comfortable having their leadership be as diverse as it is. I want to also mention that it's not just Jesse and I. We actually have a woman that heads up our R&D organization, and we have women that are the heads of HR both in the Americas and in Europe.

PD: That's wonderful. It's really exciting to hear. And you have been in the unenviable position of launching a new brand, MyKirei, in the middle of a pandemic. What was that like? And you guys were able to add some purpose elements to your launch plan. Would you like to share a little bit about that?

KF: The conventional wisdom was, don't launch brands during the pandemic. But I think if you launch brands that are really speaking to the consumer right now, it almost doesn't matter when you launch them. And we have, from the beginning, really wanted to launch on Amazon first, because we wanted to have space to tell our story. So, as you mentioned, it definitely is more of a purpose-driven brand, and definitely about ESG components. So, very environmentally friendly, clean formulas. The packaging starts out in this very, very, very thin foil. It's called an air bottle, and the waste has been very, very little. Compared to traditional bottles, it's 50% to 80% less plastic. And so, it's really cool on that front, but it's also different in that it incorporates a lot of elements from Japan.

Our formulas are made there. They are inspired with Japanese ingredients, and just the simplicity that Japan has as a society. We're not looking for this line to have 10 different shampoos, and 10 different body washes, but really either a few that really are what consumers need, and no more. It's a simple line. So, it's environmentally responsible, it's simple, and it's really cool because it has a lot of the Japanese elements as well.

PD: You've mentioned some innovations that have come out of Japan. You also have the 1819 Innovation Hub at the University of Cincinnati, where Kao's US headquarters are. Can you talk a little bit about that partnership and what you're hoping to do with that Innovation Hub?

KF: We made a commitment along with several other companies to support the UC 1819 Innovation Hub. What it gives you is amazing, cool collaboration space. It gives you the ability to interact with other companies in the space. It also gives you access to a lot of the university's assets, and probably most importantly, the faculty and the students. You can get the students to brainstorm different projects for you, and of course, you also get to meet these students, interact with them, and potentially find new talent for the future.

PD: So, one of the things that you just started touching on is that this is a time when a lot of people are graduating and their future plans have been disrupted. So, a lot of them are asking, "What should I be doing to make myself more marketable? Are there new skills that I should be investing in? Are there different opportunities I should be looking for, different ways I should be thinking about making myself a hirable person?" What are your thoughts on that? What advice would you give them?

KF: First of all, be able to pivot, be adaptable. Things just aren't going to look like maybe you thought they would when you started college, and that's okay. It's an exciting time. It's a challenging time, and there's so much potential space for growth still. Look at eCommerce, D2C, social commerce -- all these spaces that are just wildly growing right now. We need the young people that are digital natives, that know how to do this, and just consider it their way of life.  If you have all those skills, you're going to be super marketable. I know the market's tough right now, but we're still hiring. We're still looking for people, and we're looking for people with those kinds of capabilities that can help us. 

PD: As you think about staying on top of trends and the role that plays in innovation, how do you think about the balance between observing what's happening in the world, versus tried and true research studying the consumer data and analytics. How do you balance those two things?

KF: That's a great question. I feel like intuition has never been more important, and I think all the data in the world doesn't trump somebody who's got amazing intuition of the future. Data, of course, has its place and it's super important. But people can get lost in the data and the minutiae and not take the time to step out of it and see the bigger picture. We've had innovations that have been more successful because we repositioned and it was largely done on intuition.

Our most successful innovation of this year was largely done on intuition. So, for me, I just feel like there's obviously a balance -- you need both. That's so important because it's not just about following the consumer. It's also about creating inspiration. So, maybe you create your own trend, or you create your own need, or you reposition something differently, and all of a sudden it appeals to a group of consumers that maybe it didn't appeal to before. I think you need to look at trends and understand when to leverage them, when to jump in, when to create your own, and when to pivot a little bit off of the trend and do something different.

PD: That's great. And when you talk about your intuition, 11 years in now, and deep in the business, it's different when you have a level of expertise and experience behind the intuition. We're not going into politics here, but there's a lot being said about the Dunning Kruger effect, and how everybody becomes an expert based on their opinion. But your opinion really obviously is informed by more than just a passing fancy. So, I guess when you think about generations and marketing across generations, are we marketing to Millennials, or maybe Gen Z? Are we forgetting about the Boomers or Gen X? And then there's a whole line of thinking that says it's more about life stage, the generations aren't that different, or it's about being a connected consumer?

There are all kinds of different ways of thinking about it. But hearing you talk, I'm curious what the filters are that you put on these kinds of innovations. You're processing them through some sort of a way of thinking. So, what are the filters that you tend to gravitate towards?

KF: I've been in this industry for 30 years. So, yeah, I think you develop intuition. But I think for me, I see stuff, and it doesn't hit me immediately as a wow. I see so much packaging and I'll be like, "Yeah, that's good." And then something will come on the screen, I'm like, "Wow." I mean, is that really truly different? If you saw it on the shelf, would it catch your attention? Does it look like everything else in the category, or will it stand out? Can you shop it? So, there's a lot of those filters that I use, but I think for me, the very first filter is my own emotional reaction -- How am I reacting to this? 

And probably second is the team. You can tell when a team presents something to you if they're super excited about it, and if their consumers are super excited about it. They can't wait to present it to you. So, if it's something that maybe doesn't appeal directly to me, I'll still use my filters, but I'm also really listening to what the teams are saying, and what they've learned from their consumer. 

We believe the consumer is the boss. We believe we have to stay very close with her, whether that's virtually or in person, however we can do it. But she is our boss, and we have to do things that are going to delight her, surprise her, and hopefully make her fall in love with what we have to offer.

PD: The consumer is your boss. I love that.

KF: Don't tell my boss that.

PD: Every now and then, I would argue we all have more than one boss.

KF: I definitely do. Definitely. But ultimately, it's like, when the actresses say, "If I didn't have fans, I wouldn't be here." If we didn't have consumers that loved our products, we wouldn't be here. So, I have to have that filter on probably more than anything.

PD: In your position overseeing the larger business, you have marketing and communications underneath you. How do you think about the relationship between the two, and how do they either live on separate tracks, or complement each other? What is the role of marketing and communications in supporting your business?

KF: I think a lot of those lines are blurred. I don't know if you need to have such defined lines anymore. I think it used to be, "Well, PR is all about what you earn, and marketing is all about what you pay for." And it's just not true anymore. A lot of what we do from a public relations standpoint through influencers, some people would put that in PR, some people would put that in marketing. I think those lines are blurred.

It's all about how do you get the best information out to your consumers? And whether it's editors speaking for us, or influencers speaking for us, or us speaking for ourselves, it's all going to be resonating with the consumer and reaching her at a point, and through a credible voice she listens to and she wants to learn from.

PD: I’ve got to tell you, I'm feeling left out here with all this talk about she, the consumer.

KF: I know, 85% of purchases are done by women. I'm sorry.

PD: That's all right. Maureen Lippe founded our company on that very premise.

KF: Oh, okay.

PD: So, I have to agree with you. You've mentioned a couple of times now, things related to the core realities of shopper marketing, your big retailers, packaging, shelf presence. And yet, of course, here we are in this very disrupted world with a lot of people social distancing, working from home. So, how have your plans changed based on so many Americans and Europeans being at home? Will these changes be permanent?

KF: I think a lot of the changes will be permanent. I'm not saying that everybody who has changed how they shop will continue to shop that way, but I certainly think a lot of folks that maybe weren't doing eCommerce, or weren't doing click and collect, or weren't doing Instacart, tried and found it's really convenient -- there'll be a lot that do stick with it. Have we changed marketing? You still have to be disruptive, whether it's the virtual shelf or it's social communications or traditional communications. Your packaging still has to be a wow. It still says to grab their attention, whether they're on the screen or in the store.

So a lot of those principles still really do apply. And I do think this eCommerce thing has advanced us. People have been saying that it’s five years ahead of where we expected it to be, but I don't think it's slowing down. I think we've got to continue to adjust and continue to think of the virtual shelf, maybe even first, before we think of the brick and mortar shelf, or at least equal parts.

PD: What are your thoughts on brands taking a stand these days? Is it an expectation? Is it something that they're rewarded for?

KF: It's definitely expected. I think if you are silent, then you're saying a whole lot. So it is expected. Is it rewarded? Sometimes it's rewarded. Sometimes it's punished. I think it really depends on, whether it authentic. Are you really being true to either what that brand stands for, or what your consumers stand for? And honestly, even when you do take a stand and you feel like it's really the right stand and how could anybody argue with this, there are always going to be people that can argue with everything. So it's always a risk for a brand to take a stand. I think maybe in the past brands have shied away from it. I just don't think we have that luxury anymore.

PD: I would love to hear just your advice for people in terms of the capabilities, or the mindsets, or the approaches that you think brand marketers of the future will need to embrace in order to be successful?

KF: I grew up at P&G and I learned a ton there. I think you still need some of those core skills and those core experiences. But I really think also it’s adaptability and learning, continuous learning. I mean, I find myself reading more. I find myself just trying to keep up more than ever. And I think just wanting to be somebody that is always about learning and getting better will be so important, but also someone that can learn and then take action. I mean, we can't learn for theory, you have to learn for action, and really not be afraid of risk.

And in today's world, as I said, being silent says something, being slow says something. And if you're not willing to take some risk at the pace things are moving, you're just going to continue to get passed by. So, I do think it's going to have to be measured risks, but we still have to learn how to take more risks. So, that's what I've at least seen in the last year or so.

PD: You mentioned reading to stay current. Is there a great book you've read recently that you would recommend?

KF: I read a lot, but “Building Distinctive Assets” just happened to be the last one.

PD: That sounds very, very exciting. Karen, thank you for your time, and your insights, and your advice. We appreciate you being so generous with your time and thoughts.

KF: Thank you so much!

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