The Person Behind The Brand
The CMO ClubåÊrecently sat down withåÊNicole Portwood, VP for Brand Marketing atåÊTitoÛªs HandmadeåÊVodka and past agency marketer for such well-known brands asåÊBacardiåÊandåÊGrey 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 atåÊMichelle Stuhl & Company.åÊShe went on to stints at theåÊFurman Roth AgencyåÊandåÊUniversal McCannåÊbefore arriving atåÊTitoÛªs Handmade.åÊNicole 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 ÛÓ 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 ÛÓ ÛÏWell, it was a little sideways. When I moved up to New York and started doing theater, I realized really very quickly that it just wasnÛªt for me. IÛªm very grateful that I recognized the handwriting on the wall so early on. I feel like IÛªm a creative person, and I will always want to do something that uses that muscle, but, in acting, there wasnÛªt 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 didnÛªt 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 likeåÊRalph LaurenåÊandåÊStarwood Hotels.åÊI 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 åÊLee Miles TransmissionsåÊandåÊParagon Sports, local New York companies. Soon after, I started atåÊUniversal McCann. I had found the thing I loved.Û
CMO Club ÛÓ Can you remember something specific that you learned from those first marketing experiences that you still carry with you today?
Nicole Portwood ÛÓ ÛÏDonÛªt get distracted from your purpose.åÊParticularly nowadays, when there is so much thatÛªs new and emerging on a daily basis, itÛªs 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 itÛªs exciting and new instead of looking at it from the perspective of whether it furthers your goals and fits the brand. ThatÛªs been a major lesson for me.Û
CMO Club ÛÒ What are some of the challenges you face working for a brand likeåÊTitoÛªs Handmade?
Nicole Portwood ÛÓ ÛÏOne 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 weÛªll 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, itÛªs 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 TitoÛªs.Û
CMO Club ÛÓWhatÛªs the one takeaway from working for such an underdog company?
Nicole Portwood ÛÓ ÛÏIn terms of risk-taking and striking out, IÛªm 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 doesnÛªt.åÊI truly believe in a culture of failure acceptance. If you donÛªt allow people to fail, thereÛªs not going to be any stepping outside of the status quo, and without that, you canÛªt grow.Û
CMO Club ÛÓ ÛÏWith that in mind, what are some of the characteristics you value most in a new hire?
Nicole Portwood ÛÓ ÛÏAs IÛªve 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. ThereÛªs a whole universe of stuff we cannot do in the white space around that sphere, so itÛªs 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.åÊI try and find the person or people who can bring that to bear, who have the vision to help get us there.åÊThereÛªs no rule book for what happens here. ItÛªs up to the team to help figure out how to get from A to B. If youÛªre the type of person that needs a playbook, a direct line from A to B, you wonÛªt do well here.åÊ
CMO Club ÛÓ 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 PortwoodÛÓ ÛÏTake a deep breath, honey.Û (laughter) ÛÏIÛªd tell her it will come. IÛªve always been ambitious and driven, always looking ahead, and thatÛªs given me some anxiety.åÊI would tell myself that there is time to find your way there, just breathe. Be your own driver. DonÛªt let the world whisk you away.Û
CMO Club ÛÓ ÛÏPhilanthropy seems to be an essential element atåÊTitoÛªs Handmade. Can you tell us about one of those programs you are currently working on?ÛªåÊ
Nicole Portwood ÛÓ ÛÏThatÛªs always been a big part of what we do as a company, that we give and support the community that supports us. OuråÊVodka for Dog PeopleåÊprogram 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 withåÊEmancipetåÊto help ensure shelters be no-kill shelters all across the country like they are here in Austin.åÊVodka for Dog PeopleåÊis a fundraising and philanthropic avenue for us, but itÛªs 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, itÛªs not just about adoptions, but about pet ownership and community as well.Û
CMO ClubÛÓ Anything surprise you recently?
Nicole PortwoodÛÓÛÏProbably the one thing thatÛªs causing all the excitement is data. ItÛªs 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 donÛªt sell directly to consumers. We canÛªt, 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. ThereÛªs this tremendous pressure from all sides just to get ÛÏit.Û IÛªm one of those cautious people who ask ÛÏwhy? Why are we getting it?Û åÊFor our particular world, itÛªs a little more complex than that.åÊWe have to figure out a responsible way to use that data, when itÛªs important and when itÛªs not.åÊI sometimes think, as marketers, we tend to let the tail wag the dog a bit. We make decisions driven by an outcome that doesnÛªt necessarily have as great an impact on our business as weÛªd like it to.Û
CMO Club ÛÓ Any brands you admire?åÊ
Nicole Portwood ÛÓ ÛÏYes, thereÛªs two. The first isåÊNike. They do such an amazing job of serving their fans on all levels. TheyÛªve 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 beåÊLeviÛªs. IÛªve 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.Û
CMO Club ÛÓ Any passions outside of work?
Nicole Portwood ÛÓ ÛÏI 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.Û
CMO Club ÛÓ Is there anything else that people donÛªt know about you?
åÊNicole Portwood ÛÓ ÛÏWe owned a pizza shop.åÊAah, now thatÛªs 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.Û
CMO Club-Wow. Did you actually sling pizza?
Nicole Portwood ÛÓ ÛÏWe 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 itÛªs been very successful.Û
CMO Club ÛÓ Do you still own it?
Nicole Portwood ÛÓ ÛÏThe 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!Û
CMO Club ÛÓ Can a CMO like yourself ever change the world for the better?
Nicole Portwood ÛÓ ÛÏYes. 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, thatåÊkindness is really the true path to success.Û
CMO Club ÛÓ Any last thoughts?åÊ
Nicole PortwoodÛÓÛÏItÛªs 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.Û