CMO Club ClubHouse Conversations with Carol Kruse

The CMO Club chats with Carol Kruse, Advisory Board Member, on growing up in a Football town, taking on risk, choosing team members, and what’s most important.

Carol Kruse is currently the Board Director of Valvoline, Inc., and an Investor/Advisor at Oregon Venture Fund. She is the former CMO at both ESPN and Cambia Health, and was the Head of Global Digital Marketing for The Coca-Cola Company. Carol’s first marketing job was at Clorox, working on laundry and home cleaning brands. She is currently a speaker, consultant, mentor, and cherished Advisory Board Member here at The CMO Club.

CMO Club — Welcome. Tell us a little something about yourself. Where did you grow up?

Carol Kruse — “I grew up in State College, PA, right in the middle of nowhere, if it weren’t for Penn State Football, that is. Most of the year, there were about 35,000 townies and the same amount of students until a home PSU football game when the town seemed to double in size. Growing up, State College was a town where five-year-old girls really know football because the truth is, there isn’t much else going on there beyond the University. Life pretty much revolved around football season. I didn’t realize it until I was much older, but it was also really an idyllic place to grow up, a little boring but safe, and easy to be a carefree kid. No one locked their doors. We’d go off on our bikes all day and come home for supper. Later, we’d play kick-the-can or capture-the-flag until the streetlights came on, and it was time to go home for the evening. Everyone I knew had similar values, and it was more diverse than you would think, being a big college town.”

CMO Club — What were your parents like?

Carol Kruse — “My Dad was a professor of history for 30 plus years and the author of five books. Mom stopped working full-time when she had us, but always had a few part-time jobs, working for an interior design company, and as an editor for a book publishing firm. Once the kids moved out, Mom kicked off her career again, first as a corporate travel agent, and then as an education specialist for the US Army.

CMO Club — Anything Dad or Mom instilled in you that you carry to this day?

Carol Kruse — “Absolutely. I grew up with very principled parents. My Dad… we were always taught to do the right thing, plain and simple.” (long pause) “Sorry, I’m a little emotional talking about him…that surprises me…it’s been seven years…He was so principled that it could get a little boring because you never got the fun and frivolous and impromptu side. Dad was more about the German sense of honor and duty. You show up at the airport two hours early, you arrive at someone’s house exactly on time, you stand by your word, being in service to God, country, your community, your work, and your family. (long pause) A story I love about my Dad is I grew up in a kind of a Mayberry town, right? Lots of kids would have lemonade stands in the summer, sell Girl Scout cookies, etc. My Dad would stop at every single lemonade stand and buy cookies from everyone who knocked on our door – that’s just what he did. He taught us by his actions to really watch out for other people, to always do what you’ve committed to, and to always support and help others. That’s the priority. That’s what you do. And yes, I always stop at lemonade stands too!  I remember seeing a photo of my Dad going off to WWII at 18 years old in his uniform, looking more like a 14-year-old Boy Scout. It’s always fascinated me how kids this age must’ve felt going off to war…mind boggling really. And as a parent I cannot even imagine. I have a profound respect for anyone who has served in our Armed Forces as well as for their families who worry and sacrifice so much.”

“My Mom’s very different than my Dad. She grew up in Boston, so she had that more sophisticated, straight forward and tough Boston attitude. She was also all about being impromptu, let’s go exploring, try new things, all that. She cooked food from all around the world even though we lived in rural central Pennsylvania. She taught me that you don’t have to plan everything. You can just figure it out as you go along. Yes, you have to work hard, but enjoy your life and have fun. Take risks. She’s the one who instilled the understanding that as a woman, I could do anything I wanted to do, be anything I wanted to be, and I sure as hell better be able to support myself and be independent.  I am truly a product of both parents, and their influence is a big part of who I am, even in my career. I took risks, I left the safe jobs, went in different directions than people ‘expected’. I was a digital pioneer. I did three Silicon Valley start-ups. Coca-Cola ended up buying the company I co-founded, and I created their first digital team. We started digital for all the Coca-Cola Company Brands: their first websites, first online promotions, first online advertising, first mobile, first social. That side of my Mom, the risk-taking, try new things is combined with the commitment to service from Dad and is how I became who I am.”

CMO Club — What kind of kid were you?

Carol Kruse — “When I was little, I was always the nice, smart kid who drew within the lines. I had a lot of friends, played sports, middle of the road kind of kid. I didn’t know that until I got to middle school that I was also the dorky, not very sophisticated kid. I went to a preppy, prestigious boarding school in Connecticut for high school. Who I was when I entered ninth grade was not who I was when I left in twelfth grade. It was a profound change. Let’s just say I was no longer the country bumpkin (laughter). I discovered my leadership skills there. Actually, my teachers and headmaster saw them in me and put me in leadership roles. That was game-changing for me.”

CMO Club — Do you remember what you dreamed of becoming when you were nine?

Carol Kruse — “I think I wanted to be a nurse back then.”

CMO Club —Well, that’s a big change to where you ultimately wound up. How did you become a marketer?

Carol Kruse — “Both my parents were at one point or always, educators. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the business world.  Most of the people I knew, the friends of Mom and Dad and the parents of my friends, were professors and teachers. My focus in high school was definitely on academics and sports, and I loved learning new things. I took a Chinese history class in 11th grade.  I went to Pomona College as they have a great International Relations department, and I was really interested in other cultures, world history, diplomacy, foreign affairs. While at Pomona, I decided I wanted to work for the State Department, so I planned on sitting for the Foreign Service exam. Until a fateful summer between my junior and senior years. I got a job at a software company. It was the first job I ever had in a real “business company,” as opposed to working retail or serving frozen yogurt at the Mall. I loved it. I liked everything about it, and I was good at it. I worked my way through the sales and marketing department during that summer and wound up not sitting for the Foreign Service exam. Instead, I went to work at a bank starting in a bank training program, became a Commercial Lender, and worked in the garment industry, learning about manufacturing, importing, and exporting. I realized how interesting the entire business process is; I was fascinated by my customers, how they decided what products consumers would buy, which retailers would sell their products, and especially being in Finance – how they made money. It was a great education.”

“I also realized as I watched my bosses and their bosses, that it seemed in Finance that my job wouldn’t really change a lot.  I had a creative side to me that I wasn’t using as a commercial lender. I decided to go back and get my MBA, with an eye toward marketing and consulting.”

CMO Club — What was your first true marketing job?

Carol Kruse — “Clorox. I went to USC, studying marketing and consumer behavior, and was recruited into Clorox as a Brand Assistant. I met my future husband at USC. Dave was a year ahead of me in the MBA program, had been an engineering undergrad, and wanted to move up to Silicon Valley after he graduated. We got engaged after just eight months together. So he moved up to Silicon Valley while I finished my MBA, and then I started work up there at Clorox.”

CMO Club — And the rest is history…

Carol Kruse — “It’s funny. So many seemingly unconnected things happen in your life, and as you get older, you’re able to connect the dots and see the connective thread of how these experiences (good and bad) all pull together. But when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t often have that perspective.  Life sometimes takes you in different directions than what you thought it would. While most people in classic brand marketing stay in that consumer packaged goods world, I left Clorox after three years to join a really techy Silicon Valley B2B start-up, which went out of business after a year…take the risk, go explore, try something new. Being an entrepreneur and wound up working for three start-ups in a row, getting comfortable with technology and data along the way, which served me well for the rest of my career. This is the period when I really started being on that leading-edge entrepreneurship journey, seeing trends, using data, leveraging technology to make marketing and business more effective, improving customer experiences, and taking risks to move a company forward.

So on to start-up #2. “Do you remember when we all paid a fortune for those yellow boxes of Kodak film and getting your photos developed, and the big challenge was deciding whether you wanted 3×5 or 4×6, matte or glossy, single or double prints? Making those decisions and paying before you even knew if any of the pics were good. And after you had them, you carried them around in a paper envelope to show your friends, then stuck them all in ashoebox feeling guilty because you didn’t put them in nice albums. That was a terrible consumer experience! Well, I worked for a company that was bringing digital imaging to consumers: first getting those photos out of the shoebox and into their computers byscanning photos to convert to digital files.  My job was to teach people why you would want your photos on your computer and what the heck to do with them once they were there. We used an “Imagine the Possibilities” campaign. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but at the time, it was a breakthrough change to the entire photography/personal memories experience. And that company went public.

I next co-founded a company named RocketCash with my former VP of Engineering colleague. Ecommerce was really taking off. This was in 1999. At that time, teenagers were not able to shop online with their own money as they had no credit card. So unlike shopping at the Mall, they had to call Mom or Dad over and ask to use their credit card. RocketCash allowed people to open and fund an online account and shop at the top100 e-tailers at that time, without a credit card or the scrutiny of Mom or Dad questioning their purchases. We could also turn a unique code into RocketCash, which is how we started working with the Sprite brand, and five Nestle candy and confection brands. Fast forward 18 months and Coca-Cola ended up buying RocketCash. That’s how I came to start digital for The Coca-Cola Company. Take risks, go explore, try new things….

CMO Club — Wow. Such diverse industries, all those start-ups, all on the cusp of exploding. How did you navigate all that?

Carol Kruse — “Well, the press has called me a “Transformation CMO.” I help transform companies, all-around digital, mobile, and data – and improving the consumer experience.  The other thread that weaves itself through my career is that I’ve been able to see around corners, really observing consumer behavior through technology, business, and societal changes, and how that impacts consumers. I’ve been able to anticipate what those needs are going to be and how a company might design products and services to meet those needs.”

CMO Club —That’s so interesting, that cutting-edge ability to anticipate those changes. Was that something that was thought about or planned and studied, or was that an organic ability you bring to the table, a curiosity you have?

Carol Kruse — “I have not planned anything in my career, aside from getting on a public company Board. I’ve enjoyed my journey and, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’m always curious. I don’t much seek it out on purpose, as much as
I’m interested in all of this stuff, and really passionate about what motivates people to do what they do. Those folks who can anticipate needs when everyone else is still saying that’s ridiculous, I love that. It’s what I love to do, and it turns out I’m pretty good at it.”

CMO Club —What has changed about the CMOs overall role today?

Carol Kruse — “When I was at Coca Cola, I was the head of digital. I worked with the brand folks, and with the heads of advertising, sports marketing, cause marketing, the data scientists, research, etc. We all worked together to grow our brands and for the greater good of the company. The CMO role has become much broader, with so much in your toolbox to use, with expectations to excel with the more traditional media and advertising plus all the digital, mobile, social, experiential, plus add on expectations that everything is data-driven for real-time relevance. I’m fortunate because I love the marriage of art and science. I love bringing together data and technology, along with the creative storytelling side of things. I was never only a traditional storyteller or a full-on data and technology person. And I had the finance background to focus on driving financial results. I think that early blending for me gave me a valuable advantage. It’s what CMOs need to be right now. But it is a lot. I see why big companies are adding the roles of Chief Growth Officer and Chief Experience Officer.”

CMO Club — Is there a dark side to all that extra opportunity for CMOs?

Carol Kruse — “As a CMO, you’re only as good as your team. The only way you can thrive in such a broad arena is to have incredibly strong leaders on your team. As a CMO, your job is never to dive too deeply into things unless there’s a big problem. Your job, plain and simple, is to understand what the company’s business objectives are, and how to drive value. You’re relying on your team to know the how-to on a daily basis, short and long-term. Your job is to lead in making sure your team knows what the goals and objectives are, and how to ruthlessly prioritize to achieve those goals and objectives through strong strategic planning and excellent execution, always with an eye on the end-user experience. As the Marketing leader, you need to be the buffer to prevent a lot of corporate politics, re-budgeting, and turf war BS from getting too much in the way. Your vision allows your team to do their job well.Hire well: water rises, all boats float.”

CMO Club — You spoke about a great team. What are you most looking for in a team member?

Carol Kruse — “Smart, interested, curiosity in learning and trying new things, willing to speak up, especially when they disagree or don’t understand, a great people person who can recognize, manage, and grow talent, honesty, and ethics, as well as someone who likes to have fun. Those are the things I look for.”

CMO Club — Fun?

Carol Kruse — “I like to have fun. People perform better, are more loyal, and have a much stronger sense of team when we realize we are human beings, and we all like to have fun and celebrate life, as well as to be there supporting each other in the tough times.”

CMO Club — So, looking back, what advice do you think you’d give your twenty-something-year-old self?

Carol Kruse — “The advice I give most twenty-somethings is don’t sweat having a hard-core, this is my 10-20 year plan. It’s fine to have an end goal, but the truth is, that plan rarely ever holds firm, and people get disappointed because it’s not working out to your self-imposed timeline. Let it go. Be more confident in allowing the freedom to discover as you go.”

CMO Club — Do you think companies share a social responsibility for a better world?

Carol Kruse — “Younger generations are making buying decisions on the principals of companies. It’s right, not only for our world, but it’s smart business as well.”

CMO Club — You were CMO of Cambia Health Solutions, and in our research, we came upon an article you wrote about healthcare leaders needing to be open to changes in how they see consumers. Can you elaborate on that?

Carol Kruse — “It’s funny about Healthcare. When you’re in the hospital and need medical attention, those nurses and doctors are incredible, sharing their medical expertise and their caring. With that said, those same hospital systems and companies running insurance, Pharma, “the industry” as a whole, it’s a business that is in it for profit in most cases. They are not well focused on holistic end-to-end consumer experiences. Healthcare has been slower than most to change, whether it’s adopting technology to make things easier for consumers, looking at the consumer journey and how you can improve it, and certainly transparency. When you go to the doctor or hospital, you have no idea how much it’s going to cost. Where else does that happen?”

CMO Club — What needs to change?

Carol Kruse — “I honestly think it’s historically been a paternalistic industry, the doctors know all, he/she tells you what to do, what medicine to take, and you never questioned it. You might get a second opinion, you might talk to a friend who’s a nurse or a doctor, but in general, you just did what you were told. Very passive. Now, thank goodness for the Internet. People question more. They research treatments, prescription drug options, and alternate forms of medicine. There are a lot more options, and people are way more empowered than before. I do see some positive changes in hospitals and doctors, not so much in cost escalation with big Pharma. We have some great new drugs, but we also have $650inhalers.”

CMO Club — “Let’s change tack. How long have you been involved with the CMO Club, and what does it mean to you?

Carol Kruse — “I’ve been involved since 2011. It’s always been about community for me. It’s always been about learning from other smart CMOs, and feeling like you’re a part of a tribe where you can talk openly without pressure or selling. That’s what I love about it and why I’ve been so heavily involved, first as a member, then becoming New York City Chapter President, starting the Portland Chapter when I moved here, and now sitting on the Advisory Board.  Back when I was with big brands like ESPN and Coca-Cola, I’d go to conferences and summits, and people would literally follow me to the restroom, selling to me. No one was very transparent on stage because the Press was there. With the CMO Club, I’ve learned so much more from other marketing leaders, as we’re in a safe space where people are open and honest. It’s really been great.”

CMO Club — Tell us something not many people know about you?

Carol Kruse — “As I’ve been saying, I like to take (smart) risks, there is power in getting out of your comfort range, and you learn a lot about trusting yourself and building confidence.  As such, I got my skydiving certification a year after I had told a skydiving friend, ‘I will never do that’:  I did about fifteen to twenty jumps, but of course, I stopped when I got pregnant; I didn’tresume as my entire family hated me doing it. I’ve driven both Indy car and NASCAR, and Itried bungee jumping two years ago in Auckland and immediately jumped again, and I can’t wait to go again. I guess I have a bit of that thrill-seeker-need-for-speed-risk-taker adrenaline thing going on.” (laughter.)

CMO Club — Wow, that’s amazing.

Carol Kruse — “I think, looking back, it’s all related to how I’ve been my whole professional life. Not staying in the same job, in the same industry, moving our family around the country, taking risks, and bringing new things into the companies I work for. I do always feel like I’m a little morealive when I’m a little bit over the tips of my skis. But never irresponsible – as I always have my Dad talking in my ear.

CMO Club — What makes you angry?

Carol Kruse — “Mean people and bullies. People who don’t honor and support our military and first responders and their families.”

CMO Club — What, then, bring the most joy?

Carol Kruse — “Helping other people. I’ve been mentoring/coaching a lot. And being out in nature – hiking, biking, skiing, paddling…”

CMO Club — Any thoughts on where we find ourselves as a country right now?

Carol Kruse — “Well, there is a lot of anger, and I do feel it’s going to get worse before it gets any better. We’re so divided right now. The Press isn’t helping. Even the Press I like, I see the sensational words they use and the bias. It’s disheartening. On the flip side, I see goodness every day. There are people doing amazing things and pulling together and helping one another. I still have a ton of hope. I know most people are good and are trying to do the right thing. My friends tease me about being ‘Pollyanna’ and an eternal optimist. I say I choose Happy.”

CMO Club — What’s the one thing you want people to remember you for when all is said and done?

Carol Kruse — “That I was a really good Mom, wife, sister, daughter, friend, human – who helped people learn, grow, and live a good life, added a lot of fun and laughter and supported them at any time of need.