CMO profile: Marley Spoon’s Kate Whitney on recalibrating her thinking to be the right kind of CMO

We deep dive with the mealkit provider's marketing chief to understand how she's adjusted to her role to drive brand growth and navigate the COVID crisis

Marley Spoon chief growth and marketing officer, Kate Whitney, is the first to admit the past year didn’t go as she expected it to.

The experienced agency and client-side marketer, who built an enviable career locally across brands such as Optus, David Jones, American Express, Foxtel and Pernod Ricard Winemakers before relocating to New York with Pernod Ricard, took up the Marley Spoon role just before COVID-19 struck.

As she puts it, the three prior years she spent in the US as Pernod’s director of digital were “the most ridiculous, wonderful three years working on spirits brands”. “There was so much budget, crazy amounts of projects, initiatives and innovation,” Whitney tells CMO.

Milestones included joining the Absolut Vodka team to help turnaround the declining brand through a sophisticated brand rejuvenation plan. “We had to build that [Absolut] brand relevance back up, so all my brand building skills, tricks and tactics in our media toolkit came to the fore,” Whitney recalls.

Kate WhitneyCredit: Marley Spoon
Kate Whitney

“I think we built one of the best media plans we have ever built and comms plans, in partnership with Sweden, to make the brand relevant again.”

At the same time, Whitney learned a lot about hierarchy in companies and decision making. And it’s these very different lessons have proved vital for Whitney as she’s navigated through the past 12 months at Marley Spoon.

Having made the decision to return the family to Australia, Whitney took up CMO mantle last February with the mealkit business with expectations of kickstarting brand building efforts and elevating the performance of her marketing team.

“It couldn’t have been more different year to the one any of us was expecting,” she admits.

The plan – and recognising the reality

Whitney’s remit upon joining Marley Spoon centred around three priorities. The first was to build its brands – the flagship Marley Spoon brand, plus the value-oriented Dinnerly product.

“The brands didn’t have a differentiated positioning or streams of communications in market that made them distinctive,” she says. “There was daylight between us and Hello Fresh, which was the market leader in many countries including Australia. To close this gap, we needed to bolster the way we did marketing.”

The second task was polishing Marley Spoon’s marketing approach locally. This meant bringing in more systems, processes, briefs, design standards, creative elevation and touchpoint planning, as well as ensuring the team was fit for purpose.

“When a business grows that fast in six years, there will usually be growing pains, stretch marks and areas we really needed skills and help, such as content production, social media, brand, packaging and innovation,” Whitney says.  

The third priority was Marley Spoon’s relationship with key investor and retail partner, Woolworths, which invested $30 million into the digital business. Just six months old when Whitney joined, promised synergies from this partnership had not been realised.

“The relationship was pretty new and there was no consistent dialogue between various levels and stakeholders,” Whitney says. “The purpose of the partnership was not well understood.”

Having played an instrumental role fostering the partnership between David Jones and American Express, Whitney knew bringing distinct cultures together was about relationship building, understanding each other and having a shared agenda.

“I asked questions, listened and really got to understand where we could find synergies, deliberately and purposefully,” Whitney says.

“So I kicked those three things off pretty well. But then, of course, we all got sideswiped by COVID.”

Recognising the role you need to play

Like most Australian businesses, the global pandemic was disruptive for the Marley Spoon team, in terms of marketing and communications programs, as well as organisational priorities. But as she readjusted her three priorities, the biggest lessons for Whitney proved personal and leadership ones.

“I learnt a lot about the business and myself as a marketer during that time,” she says. “There was a moment where I had to learn the hard lesson of letting go of things I thought I was good at and learning to pivot to areas I wasn’t as comfortable in but were much more valuable to the business at the time.”

On the one hand, building Marley Spoon’s partnership with Woolworths escalated in importance during lockdown. “Those Woolworths synergies became more obvious when we were both endeavouring to feed Australians,” Whitney says.

“We had some wonderful conversations about helping each other with everything from canned tomatoes to grocery deliveries and giving Australians what they need.”  

But Whitney’s other two focus areas had to be completely rethought. For example, the brand project she tried to kick off meandered. “Essentially it turned and twisted and by end of 2020 this has morphed into our 2021 marketing campaign,” she says.

“I kept thinking I was failing against my primary goal because I was supposed to build brand equity, yet we weren’t. We were very much heads down, bum up, getting the job done, getting comms out and media bought so we could continue to provide the right sort of growth for the business.”

Whitney says she had to recalibrate her own beliefs on the right way to build brand in-market as a result.

“I had built a philosophy of a two-speed marketing budget. The idea is you have that heartbeat level of brand spend to build awareness and consideration in consumers’ minds, then up to 90 per cent of budget dedicated to retail acquisition and direct response advertising. I thought there would be visibility to clear define these two things of marketing and media play,” she says.

“But 2020 was not the year for us to start a new way of marketing. It was still a year of doing what we know, use the winning formula and don’t break the model, keep the CPA where it needs to be and manage the channels we know and love.  

“Unpredictability when you’re still not profitable – which we weren’t until Q3 – meant 2020 was not the time to try new things. The model is very sensitive and we had to demonstrate persistent profit, EBITDA, margin and our CPA story,” she says.

On top of this,Marley Spoon’s communications execution globally is undertaken by its Berlin team, and while Whitney had a small role to play in communications execution, it isn’t a primary focus of her role.

“When you feel like communications is your sweet spot, and the strength and values you have can add to differentiate the business in the market, that’s a hard thing to adjust to,” Whitney continues. 

“However, that centralisation of marketing was smart, efficient and clever, and now I ultimately respect the way we do things. But it did take me a couple of months of not really understanding that. I look back and think I was trying to add value where I was not necessarily best placed.”  

Having just six weeks to build relationships with the teams before lockdown didn’t help either.

“The business skyrocketed, and the pressure built on teams overnight. But we still didn’t know each other well, and I didn’t know the Berlin team who execute all CRM, design, analytics, and the customer care team at all,” Whitney says. “The absence of personal interactions, something I thought was very important in building relationships, meant we had to investigate other ways of finding these connections.

“We had to learn to adapt our interpersonal styles, ways of executing and I had to adapt my leadership style.”

Whitney admits these lessons have been tough ones overall, but were the right ones given the climate Marley Spoon was facing in 2020.

“It is funny toggling between what your self-expectations are, and what the company expectations are of you. Those two things had been divided and it took maturity, reflection and kicking myself in the bottom a few times to get over myself and recognise it’s not the year,” she says.

Up next: What Whitney's role looks like this year; Marley Spoon's key brand priorities and the acceleration of ecommerce and food ordering

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