The Person Behind The Brand
The CMO Club recently sat down with Nicole Portwood, VP for Brand Marketing at Tito’s Handmade Vodka and past agency marketer for such well-known brands as Bacardi and Grey Goose. Nicole was born and raised in Houston, Texas. She has a degree in theater from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Nicole spent ten-plus years in New York City, at first pursuing a professional acting career, before getting her first taste of advertising at Michelle Stuhl & Company. She went on to stints at the Furman Roth Agency and Universal McCann before arriving at Tito’s Handmade. Nicole lives on ten acres in East Austin, Texas, with her husband, two children, and a ninety-plus pound Great Pyrenees mix named Cassia.
CMO Club – Wow, another CMO who came from unusual beginnings at the start of your career. Tell us how you transitioned from pursuing acting to becoming a professional marketer?
Nicole Portwood – Well, it was a little sideways. When I moved up to New York and started doing theater, I realized really very quickly that it just wasn’t for me. I’m very grateful that I recognized the handwriting on the wall so early on. I feel like I’m a creative person, and I will always want to do something that uses that muscle, but, in acting, there wasn’t as much of a direct connection between the hard work, being great at what you did, and real-world success. That was challenging for me. I have a lot of drive and need to see results from my actions. I didn’t feel that acting offered me that. I was waiting tables and bartending, the usual stuff. I started doing some Project Management work for a head-hunter, just kind of happened into that. It was there that I was exposed to these incredible designers with clients like Ralph Lauren and Starwood Hotels. I witnessed the process of matching designer skills to what the client needed and wanted, which is amazing. From there I worked media, selling at first, then planning and buying for a small agency with clients like Lee Miles Transmissions and Paragon Sports, local New York companies. Soon after, I started at Universal McCann. I had found the thing I loved.
CMO Club – Can you remember something specific that you learned from those first marketing experiences that you still carry with you today?
Nicole Portwood – Don’t get distracted from your purpose. Particularly nowadays, when there is so much that’s new and emerging on a daily basis, it’s very easy to be seduced by the shiny, new things. I think there is sometimes a temptation to find a way to shoe-horn something in because it’s exciting and new instead of looking at it from the perspective of whether it furthers your goals and fits the brand. That’s been a major lesson for me.
CMO Club – What are some of the challenges you face working for a brand like Tito’s Handmade?
Nicole Portwood – One of the major things that has been a big challenge and will always be a challenge is that we are a single-brand company in an industry of multi-national varied-portfolio competitors. We are the underdog, the little guy. There are no shareholders at TitoÛªs, no board of directors, just an owner. That means that we’ll always have far fewer resources to work with. It also means that we can be extraordinarily nimble and creative. That can be very liberating. Also, it’s challenging to figure out how to take that organic, word-of-mouth buzz, which is the heart and soul of this brand, and continue to scale it as we grow. That has been my number-one job since I darkened the doorway at Tito’s.
CMO Club – What’s the one takeaway from working for such an underdog company?
Nicole Portwood – In terms of risk-taking and striking out, I’m very much of the mind that you can try anything once, not being risk-averse when it comes to trying to figure things out. We are all people who are bringing our unique gifts and talents to bear. Sometimes that works well, and sometimes it doesn’t. I truly believe in a culture of failure acceptance. If you don’t allow people to fail, there’s not going to be any stepping outside of the status quo, and without that, you can’t grow.
CMO Club – With that in mind, what are some of the characteristics you value most in a new hire?
Nicole Portwood – As I’ve stated, we have limited resources, so the way I talk about this is if you think of what we can accomplish as a sphere floating in this huge mass, the work we can accomplish is all within that floating sphere. There’s a whole universe of stuff we cannot do in the white space around that sphere, so it’s up to the team and me to decide when we need to make that sphere just a little bigger, and in which direction we are going to do that. I try and find the person or people who can bring that to bear, who have the vision to help get us there. There’s no rule book for what happens here. It’s up to the team to help figure out how to get from A to B. If you’re the type of person that needs a playbook, a direct line from A to B, you won’t do well here.
CMO Club – If you could go back and give some advice to yourself when you were just starting your marketing career, what would that advice be?
Nicole Portwood – “Take a deep breath, honey.” (laughter) I’d tell her it will come. I’ve always been ambitious and driven, always looking ahead, and that’s given me some anxiety. I would tell myself that there is time to find your way there, just breathe. Be your own driver. Don’t let the world whisk you away.
CMO Club – Philanthropy seems to be an essential element at Tito’s Handmade. Can you tell us about one of those programs you are currently working on?
Nicole Portwood – That’s always been a big part of what we do as a company, that we give and support the community that supports us. Our “Vodka for Dog People” program is one of those funky, little things that grew organically out of something that happened at the distillery. Our distillery is in East Austin. In the beginning it was very rural out there. Tito was out there with his dog day and night, working on the distillery, and he kept a big bag of dog food at the building, and these stray dogs would wander up and find the dog food and at some point, Tito joined with a local dog rescue organization and would care for and find homes for a lot of these stray dogs. Fast forward to today, word has gotten out that this property is a safe-haven for dogs. People sometimes dump unwanted animals, and we try and find good homes for these dogs. To date, we have found permanent homes for over ninety of these animals. Many of the strays wind up living out there at the distillery and our great staff helps take care of them. We also work with Emancipet to help ensure shelters be no-kill shelters all across the country like they are here in Austin. Vodka for Dog People is a fundraising and philanthropic avenue for us, but it’s also is a lifestyle and content platform as well. It has its own Instagram page, and we put out a dog calendar every year. So, it’s not just about adoptions, but about pet ownership and community as well.
CMO Club – Anything surprise you recently?
Nicole Portwood – Probably the one thing that’s causing all the excitement is data. It’s such a big buzz-word now, BIG DATA, BIG DATA, what are we going to do with all this data? Because of our business structure, we don’t sell directly to consumers. We can’t, so data is a very interesting piece of the puzzle for us. My surprise comes from the industry-wide clamoring for more and more data without having any concrete plan about what to do with it. There’s this tremendous pressure from all sides just to get it. I’m one of those cautious people who ask why? Why are we getting it? For our particular world, it’s a little more complex than that. We have to figure out a responsible way to use that data, when it’s important and when it’s not. I sometimes think, as marketers, we tend to let the tail wag the dog a bit. We make decisions driven by an outcome that doesn’t necessarily have as great an impact on our business as we’d like it to.
CMO Club – Any brands you admire?
Nicole Portwood – Yes, there’s two. The first is Nike. They do such an amazing job of serving their fans on all levels. They’ve got the sneaker geeks, the everyday casual wearers, the sports enthusiasts, the rock stars, I mean, they do such an incredible job of finding authentic ways of connecting across such a broad band of fandom. I really admire that. The other brand would be Levi’s. I’ve watched that brand revitalize itself from where they were just a few years ago into this inclusive, broad-minded, culturally relevant global brand. That is inspiring to watch.
CMO Club – Any passions outside of work?
Nicole Portwood – I paint, acrylics mostly, abstract stuff. I paint with my fingers. I enjoy that so much. It makes me feel like a kid, really liberating. I encourage everyone to do that, just get some paint, slap it on, and see what happens. Mostly, though, I love spending time with my husband and my kids, just being together as a family.
CMO Club – Is there anything else that people don’t know about you?
Nicole Portwood – We owned a pizza shop. Aah, now that’s a story. My husband and I started it in a food truck back in 2009 as part of the early food truck scene here in Austin.
CMO Club – Wow. Did you actually sling pizza?
Nicole Portwood – We ran it together, and yes, I did indeed sling pizza, from right after work till the wee, wee hours (we were located in the parking lot of a bar.) Then I worked a full day and did it all over again. My last in-shop shift was in 2011 during SXSW when I was pregnant with our first child. We opened a brick and mortar shop after, in February of 2015, and it’s been very successful.
CMO Club – Do you still own it?
Nicole Portwood – The restaurant business is not for the faint of heart, and while we really enjoyed it, the time pressure and sheer volume of work that went into it were just not sustainable for our family. But the pizza is still as awesome as ever!
CMO Club – Can a CMO like yourself ever change the world for the better?
Nicole Portwood – Yes. The way we treat each other has a ripple effect on our whole world. I believe that business can be done with kindness and humanity, generosity and compassion. If you see the whole person and recognize the humanity in them, the end result will be a stronger business, consumers will be far better served, and there will be a happier population. I never ascribed to this notion that we have to be mean and cutting to each other in order to get things done. I aspire to set that example, that kindness is really the true path to success.
CMO Club – Any last thoughts?
Nicole Portwood – It’s absolutely vital to bringing your whole self to your job, to find ways to bring the passions and dreams of your personal life to your work and find the joy overlap there.