Julie Channing is Turning the Science of Sustainability into Marketing Art at Allbirds
It all started a few years ago when some friends started showing up everywhere in these sneakers that looked like foot sweaters with soles and laces (but in an attractive, I-think-I-might-also-need-sweater-sneakers way). Each of these friends had multiple pairs in multiple colors and would immediately begin rattling off facts about their Allbirds shoes every time I complimented them. “They’re made from recycled plastic bottles and castor bean oil!”; “Happy sheep from New Zealand made my sweater-shoes!”; “Honestly Mariah, they’re the most comfortable thing I’ve ever put on my feet. Here, try mine.”
It was obvious to me that Allbirds, with their strong commitment to the “science of sustainability”, renewable materials, and a fashionable point of view was already onto something big. Four years after their founding, their passionate following continues to grow, along with their company - Leonardo DiCaprio is just one of their high profile investors. They opened their first flagship brick and mortar store in New York’s SoHo earlier this month with plans to open eight more.
From the beginning, Allbirds has let their strong brand purpose drive their marketing, thanks in large part to the leadership of their VP of Marketing, Julie Channing. Under Julie’s guidance, Allbirds has developed a minimalist, gorgeous aesthetic with a strong emphasis on telling the story behind each product. Ask Julie and she’ll tell you that she has the best job in the world working for a company she believes in and marketing a product she truly loves. “Seek out a brand or product you are truly passionate about and it will never feel like a job.”
Read on to hear more about Julie’s story and the amazing work she’s doing at Allbirds.
The Innovator: Julie Channing, VP of Marketing at Allbirds
Innovation Superpower: Letting brand purpose and customer passion for the brand drive marketing.
You probably didn’t know that Julie credits her leadership skills to being part of competitive soccer as a kid.
Tell us about your current role and responsibilities. Why did you choose to join your current company?
I’m responsible for all of our brand marketing efforts, and lead a talented team of storytellers in sharing our brand mission and product innovations with the world. I was brought on by the co-founders of Allbirds a few months before our official launch to help craft the brand experience, which was essentially a blank sheet of paper at the time.
Joining such an early stage start-up and leading the charge in developing a brand from scratch pushed me far outside my comfort zone, but from my first meeting with Tim and Joey (co-founders) it was apparent to me that Allbirds had all the makings of a beloved world-class brand and it was a career opportunity of a lifetime to help it realize that potential. Nearly three years later, I still feel so lucky to come to this job every day.
What current developments in marketing are most inspiring to you? How will they affect the future of marketing?
I’m excited to see such a significant shift towards authentic, purpose-driven marketing. Corporate social responsibility programs have always existed, but were often treated as one-off marketing initiatives designed to drive goodwill for a specific period of time. I love that today’s consumers hold brands to a higher standard, and want to support companies who are committed to balancing profits and principles 365 days a year.
The implication as a marketer is that we have the chance to tell deeper and more meaningful stories that inherently create a greater sense of community and loyalty among fans than ever before. We also have an obligation to be more transparent and human in our communications, and take advantage of vehicles like social media and experiential marketing to facilitate that type of dialogue between brands and people.
What are you working on now that you think is innovative?
At its core, Allbirds is a material innovation company rooted in stylish comfort. There is so much science that goes into making shoes out of premium natural and sustainable materials such as wool, eucalyptus trees and sugarcane. Our job as brand marketers is to turn that science into art, and share our sustainability narrative in a way that both educates and inspires people – all while making the topic of sustainability more approachable than it historically has been. I think our recent material videos are a great example of this at work: From Wool To Shoe, From Tree To Shoe, From Sugar To Shoe, Why SweetFoam™
Another example is our continuous experimentation with Instagram. We have a very active community who have helped spread the Allbirds word far and wide, and they’ve come to know us as a brand who’s always listening intently and looking for opportunities to delight them. To commemorate our second birthday in March, we launched a limited edition confetti collection exclusively for our social fans - the only way to access the link to buy was through our Instagram bio, which sold out in record time. More recently, we’ve been hosting live Q&A sessions via Instagram Stories to help answer questions that are on the minds of our fans in a visually engaging and transparent way.
The common theme here is that we don’t define marketing innovation as being about using the latest and greatest technology to connect with people. For us, it’s about finding the simplest way to tell complicated stories that encourage people to continue sharing what makes Allbirds so innovative on our behalf.
Tell us about your career path and how you ended up where you are right now: What big learning moments have you had in your journey? Did you have any notable mentors?
I’m one of those people who knew what I wanted to do for a living since as long as I can remember. I was always fascinated by commercials as a kid, and grew even more intrigued by advertising as a result of watching Melrose Place as a teenager!
After studying Communications and Italian at UC Santa Barbara, I joined the workforce in San Francisco during the dotcom boom of the late 90s. My first job was at a digital agency called Lot21, and our clients were many of the leading tech brands of that era – Pets.com, Hotwire, Palm Pilot, Adobe. Everyone worked really hard and had so much fun in the process, and it taught me early on in my career the importance of investing in, and contributing to, company culture.
I spent the first 12 years of my career on the ad agency side in Account Services, the bulk of which was at AKQA – a global agency revered for its digitally led thinking and creative capabilities. We worked with many of the most beloved brands in the world, many of whom were category leaders. I was fortunate enough to work on a number of accounts that included both media and creative responsibilities, which helped me develop my skills as an integrated brand marketer and learn just how creative media can be when approached in a fresh way.
From there I made the leap client side to Levi’s, a brand that I’d long admired and someday hoped to work for, being a Bay Area native. I was responsible for our global and US digital brand marketing, and learned so much during those three and a half years – the importance of being a values-driven brand, balancing heritage and modernity in storytelling, fostering a ‘one team one dream’ mentality that transcends geographic borders, and staying nimble in an environment of routine change. Following Levi’s, I went to Nest to lead global consumer marketing right around the time it was acquired by Google. It was an incredible opportunity to help the brand grow beyond an early adopter tech product to a tech lifestyle brand dedicated to creating a more thoughtful home. I think my time at Nest primed me for the fast pace and scrappy mentality required to be successful in a start-up environment like Allbirds.
I’ve been very fortunate to have a number of influential mentors throughout my career, most of whom I’m still in regular contact with. They’ve each encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone when I didn’t think I was up to the challenge, and never shied away from sharing honest feedback about what I’m doing well and where I’m getting in my own way. It’s rewarding to see how proud they all are of what I’ve helped build at Allbirds, and I’m grateful they’re still just a phone call away whenever I’m feeling out of my element and need a trusted sounding board.
Tell us about your teams. How do you pick and develop the talent on your team? How do you ensure there is collaboration?
I never imagined how much my playing competitive soccer as a kid would shape who I’d become professionally, but I think I’m a better team leader today because of that experience. I’m a big believer in building high performing teams comprised of people who are incredible in their positions and bring something unique to the table, but who are also motivated to do whatever it takes to win as a team. With that in mind, I tend to hire people who have a high bar for excellence and are very self-motivated, but who also thoroughly enjoy collaborating with their peers in order to create the best possible experience for our fans. The most important thing I can do as a leader is to create an environment of trust so everyone feels like the rest of the team has their back and it’s easier to take risks as a result.
What one thing do you need from your CMO to help you be successful?
The best thing a CMO can do to set their team up for success is to lead by example. It’s so much easier said than done, but when CMOs routinely demonstrate their ability to think big and act small, present like they’re right and listen like they’re wrong, creatively problem-solve and laugh throughout the day, everyone else is motivated to bring their A-game as well.
What advice would you give to marketers who are just starting their careers?
Seek out a brand or product you are truly passionate about and it will never feel like a job.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully still leading the marketing charge at Allbirds, which is recognized as one of the most trusted and inspiring brands in the world by then. I’d also love to be mentoring new working moms as they navigate how to balance having a fulfilling career they love with being the best mom they can be. As a mother of a 5 and 8 year old, I know all too well how self-critical working moms can be – so I’d like to help the next generation of working moms feel more confident than ever that they really can have it all.
Favorite place to vacation? Anywhere with a clean beach and warm water.
If you were a superhero, what would your special skill be? Being in two places at once.
Name something that most people don't know about you. My favorite holiday is Halloween.
If you weren’t a marketer, what would you be? A study abroad trip organizer, specializing in Italy.
What's the best thing you've read/listened to/watched recently? Abby Wambach’s Barnard College commencement speech.