Marketing trends are always changing, and it's so important to stay relevant. What are the latest trends, and how does one stay abreast of them? Is it better to be an early adopter or to see which trends stick? To address these questions, we’re asking experienced CMOs and marketing executives to share their “Top 5 Marketing Trends That Leaders Need To Know.” As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christina Kozloff.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! To start, can you tell us what brought you to this specific career path?
Of course! Marketing is actually my second career. Previously, I worked in business development and educational exchange programs with the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which is a mouthful. International relations was my passion. I went to grad school to study international business but soon became disenchanted with the corruption and chaos that was growing within Russia—the area I was focusing on—so I started to explore other avenues.
I fell in love with marketing when I took an advertising class at the end of my first year of grad school. It seemed to be the best of all worlds—a mix of art and science, creativity, and psychology. After that I added a concentration in marketing to my studies and never looked back.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a mistake you made when you were first starting?
I completely agree with that statement and encourage my teams to never be afraid of making mistakes. It’s how we learn. One particularly funny situation happened early in my career at Expedia. I was working with my agency on a digital campaign. We found that travel ads worked best if you could see people enjoying the experience without seeing their faces. You had to give a nod to someone experiencing the joy of the location but with enough distance that the viewer could picture themselves there, rather than focusing on the experience of the person in the ad.
So we had a lot of creative that included views of people from the back, side, or some other subtle indication that the location was being experienced by someone—like a foot in frame. One particular piece of creative showed a woman sitting in a lounge chair on a beach from the back. You could really only see her feet clearly. And they looked odd to me, like they had been photoshopped. They did not look like they belonged to her. In fact, they looked like a man’s feet. It had been a long day and I just couldn’t shake the visual that these were a man’s feet and not those of the woman in the shot.
The agency account director, who had become a good friend of mine by that point, finally just said “you need to step away from the monitor.” And she was right. I was fixating on something that really wasn’t a major issue. It taught me to remember to look at the big picture and not obsess over the minutia, to open the lens a bit more to gain a more holistic view of the work. To this day, that former account director (who is now one of my best friends) still will say “man feet” and I know exactly what she means.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for?
There is one person who I credit with teaching me everything I know about marketing—and then I was able to learn a bit more: Sarah Makar. I reported to her for a few years at Expedia when I was working in advertising. I worked with her again years later at Zillow where she was the SVP of Marketing. I loved my job at Expedia and she was incredibly patient with me as I asked a gazillion questions. She taught me the intricacies of the creative process, the science of effective media planning, the art of collaborating with your agency partners, the importance of great customer research, and how to always challenge assumptions.
And then she did something amazing. She entrusted me with large swaths of the business. At first, she gave me the freedom and autonomy to run with some tests and pet projects, like our first infomercial to understand if that could be an effective way of selling travel in the US (it wasn’t). And later she handed me the reins of our digital marketing program. She essentially helped me build my foundational understanding of marketing such that I could start adding more layers with ease. I still consider her a great friend and mentor.
Are you able to identify a 'tipping point' in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different?
It was the moment when I realized that I didn’t just have opinions, but actual expertise. When I joined Rosetta Stone, I completely understood the challenge before them. They were an outdated brand still associated with a yellow box of CDs sold in airport kiosks, even though they had been an online subscription business (that no longer sold CDs) for over a decade. They were the category leader in terms of awareness, but not in terms of usage or perception.
I started on a consulting basis there, trying to help them map out a solution to this perception challenge. Along the way, I noticed several areas that could be better—PR, target audience definition, attribution model, monetization, CRM, and much more. I was constantly a bug in the president’s ear, making suggestions about how other areas of the business could work better. After a few months, I’m sure I had become completely annoying so he offered me a full time role to take over the marketing team.
It was the first time that everything I had learned all clicked together and I could see how to connect all the dots. I was able to identify the opportunities and take the needed steps to make them a reality. After about a year of remediation work, we were able to turn the business around and have our most successful year ever—growing revenue by over 50% year over year.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
On Plenty of Fish, you will find a more laid-back approach to dating, one where you can get to know the heart of someone and foster deeper connections, beyond the surface level. Our users are not interested in an overly curated, picture-perfect experience. They want to meet real people in an authentic way.
Our mission is to connect the most singles by building low-pressure experiences where the right people take notice. Unlike many dating offerings today, Plenty of Fish prioritizes creating an authentic, welcoming environment that allows real singles to discover what they're looking for—and simply date better. Plenty of Fish was the first dating app to ban “face filters” in all profile pics and the first Match Group dating app to introduce live streaming. We’re very tuned into how singles are using our platform and evaluating and implementing new features and updates to enhance the user experience.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? Tell us about it!
We’re gearing up for the next phase of our provocative campaign about respectful dating behavior. Late last year, we successfully launched the first phase with a digital photo gallery of “dick pics” featuring fully clothed, charming photographs of guys named Richard, Richie, or Dick, i.e., “Dicks”—of all shapes and sizes. Sending unsolicited nudes is offensive and unacceptable, so with this campaign, we’re promoting healthier dating behaviors. The next phase will launch this spring and will bring the gallery to life offline.
As a CMO, you’re at the forefront of the marketing space and leading diverse teams. What resources or tools do you use to stay abreast of the ever-changing landscape?
The ever-changing landscape of marketing is honestly a very small part of my focus. I am not interested in trends. I’m interested in understanding exactly what we’re trying to accomplish as a business and then how marketing can help us achieve that goal.
It’s true that there’s an ever growing list of tools at marketers’ disposal, but they are only valuable if they are applied appropriately and not just for the sake of using the latest hot new thing. But to answer your question more directly, the greatest resource I have is simply my network. I am incredibly fortunate to have an incredible group of friends and former colleagues in a wide range of disciplines whom I can call upon to learn about new technologies and approaches that might be applicable to the problems we are trying to solve.
In your experience, is it possible to forecast upcoming trends? How does this process work?
Absolutely. As a marketer, there’s an abundance of tools and resources available to forecast and analyze trends. What’s become trickier in recent years is the longevity and spontaneity of trends are increasingly shorter.
These challenges are exacerbated by platforms like TikTok where new trends pop up daily, sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, and the shelf life of these trends can be fleeting. If you aren’t scrappy, vigilant and nimble, social trends can be impossible to capitalize on. That said, I’m not particularly interested in trends. I’m interested in longevity. Too many marketers try to capitalize on every little new thing to no avail. What’s more important is applying the right tactics to address the specific needs of your brand.
One “trend” that was easy to adopt for me, was related to attribution. With first party cookies going away and the imperfection of last touch attribution, exploring new attribution models sooner rather than later was more than a trend—it was a necessity.
In marketing, would you say it’s better to be an early adopter of trends or wait to see if they stick before allocating resources?
There are pros and cons for both and ultimately, in my experience, the approach is dependent on a few factors including your company's risk appetite, budget, and long-term strategy. It's essential to carefully evaluate each trend and determine the best course of action based on your specific situation.
Some pros for early adoption include gaining competitive advantage, generating buzz and thought leadership. Early adoption can demonstrate that your company is innovative and creative, which can enhance your brand image. On the other hand, adopting a trend too early can be risky, as it may not have been fully tested or may not be adopted by the broader market.
When you wait things out, there are fewer risks—a big one being not exhausting resources and budget on something untested. However with that route, you can miss opportunities to excite and disrupt. Again, it really comes down to are you trying out the trend for the sake of trying it or is this really the right approach to promote your business? Not all trends make sense for all brands.
What are some of the past trends that you embraced, and what results did you see?
Again, I am really not a fan of “trends”. But one that has been impossible to ignore is all things social media related. Sure there’s TikTok and Instagram, but the truly important social media trend to me is that marketers now have to define their brand along with their consumers. As a result of social media channels, your users will always play a significant role in defining your brand. Marketers need to work with that and not be afraid to lean into and own how consumers view the brand.
Can you share a time when a strategy didn’t deliver the results you expected and what you learned from the experience?
Absolutely. In the early days of Expedia when we first started advertising, we thought that the problem we were trying to solve was a lack of awareness of the brand. So we engaged in a strategy that was geared toward making the brand name more memorable. And it didn’t work. We sifted through the data, trying to understand how we went wrong with the creative or the media strategy. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t the creative or the media that was the problem. It was the strategy itself.
As we explored the qualitative and quantitative feedback, we realized that we had misidentified the problem we were trying to solve. It wasn’t a lack of brand awareness that was the problem, it was a lack of awareness and comfort of the category as a whole. Most people didn’t know about online travel and if they did, they weren’t particularly keen to try it. It was a brand new way to think about travel and consumers had not gotten comfortable with that yet. So we had to go back to the drawing board to not only try to carve out an ownable and unique value proposition for Expedia, but help educate consumers on the category of online travel.
What factors should leaders consider before jumping on a trend?
Several factors should be considered before jumping on a trend, the first and perhaps most important is ensuring that the trend aligns with your brand strategy. The trend should be consistent with your brand's values, voice, and mission, and not detract from the core message. Second, is the trend’s relevance to your target audience. Will it resonate with them or alienate them? Third, is evaluating any potential risks, such as reputational damage or financial losses. It's important to evaluate the potential risks associated with a trend and have a plan in place to mitigate them.
Based on your experience and success, what are the top five marketing trends leaders should know about in 2023?
1. Deep segmentation: For me, this is mission-critical and I cannot emphasize it enough. In a crowded marketplace, marketing leaders now more than ever need to invest in research to understand their core target audience—what makes them tick, what their hopes and dreams are, what they do in their free time and how they consume media.
Understand what sets them apart from other potential customers and what’s most important to them. And then understand what percentage of potential revenue they represent so you have more clarity on the business opportunity. Only once you have an in-depth understanding of your key target audience, can you start to develop the right creative, buy the right media, and create meaningful campaigns that will resonate with them.
A lot of companies get this step wrong. They look at the customers who are coming to them organically and simply try to find more who are similar. But how do you know those are the right customers for your brand? Often those are not the people who represent the greatest value to the business and the greatest customer potential. This should be a foundational step.
2. Brand? Performance? It’s just marketing. Gone are the days—with few exceptions—of brands that can afford to have brand-building budgets evaluated solely by positive movement in brand health metrics. Now all marketing needs to demonstrate value to the bottom line.
Marketers need to think about the levers collectively and holistically as just marketing since they all need to work in tandem. Brand and performance siloes are outdated. They need to work together to drive business and brand metrics. Thankfully there are some incredible attribution models out there that enable marketers to understand the value of marketing throughout the funnel - not just at the bottom. For that reason, I don’t view marketing as a world of performance and brand—it’s just marketing.
3. Owning your sh*t: As brands evolve, sometimes brand perception and reality do not align. Often a brand will want to take steps to meaningfully shift perception as a result. That in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. With the pervasiveness of social media, however, customers not only may have their own perceptions, but they also have a forum for promoting those beliefs to a wider audience.
Audiences have begun to play a role in defining what a brand stands for and means—sometimes to the chagrin of marketers. When brands try to fight that tide, they often get into trouble. Often, it’s a better course of action to own some of the stereotypes rather than trying to turn the Titanic on a dime. You can still massage the message, soften the sharp edges, and work with micro-influencers to help drive it home and build trust, but you cannot abandon your DNA. So you might as well embrace it in some form.
4. AI and Machine Learning: No, I do not believe robots will replace marketers. But I do believe we can leverage AI and machine learning to evolve our messaging and visuals more quickly, particularly within digital media placements. By leveraging these tools, marketers can personalize, optimize, and tailor marketing messages to specific audience segments, leading to higher engagement and conversion rates—as well as deeper brand affinity because you can reach only the most relevant people for your business with the most relevant messages and imagery.
5. Wonder Twin Powers Activate: However, all of the above will not help you reach your goals unless the product and marketing teams are aligned. Traditionally these two teams have been pitted against each other either because of misaligned goals or because of environments that encourage siloes. I have found that marketing can do its best work when the team collaborates and partners closely with product teams to develop a shared understanding of the target audience, the user, and how the product can surprise, delight, or simply address common pain points. If that level of partnership doesn’t exist between marketing and product, customers won’t have a cohesive experience and the business won’t thrive.