Chad Thompson, CMO – Lifestyle Communities
Chad invited us to meet him at The Goat, a chic restaurant and bar in the LC RiverSouth community. He walked us through his leadership style, marketing mentality and how he uncovers creative inspiration.
What's your background? How'd you get into marketing?
I was born and raised here in Columbus. I went to undergrad and got a technology degree in management information systems. I went to school in 1995, and technology was booming,“Y2K” was coming. I never did programming or anything like that in Computer Science, but I always wanted to understand how people could collect data about customers and organize it. I knew that technology was always going to play a bigger role in business, specifically marketing, and if I could understand it, it would make me that much better at really understanding what customers wanted. So I did that, then went into a company here in town that's out of Switzerland and worked there for a little while and managed some of the IT departments at their manufacturing plants. About five years in, I wanted to do something different, I wanted to get closer to the customer. I really wanted to deal more directly with customers making a decision. I went to grad school with a focus on management consulting and marketing and fell more in love with marketing.
Was there an aspect about marketing that made you fall in love with it?
It was still early— social media wasn't what it is today— but you could just see a shift. I laugh when I look back at the courses I used to take; like brand management. In the case studies and WSJ articles we would read, we could tell the companies were no longer “managing” their brands. You couldn't just create an ad and say that's what we're going to be and assume consumers would accept it at face value. People were starting to play a bigger role in the brands they consumed; I was seeing that shift from grad school in 2002-2004. I really liked that, and from a business side, I couldn't stand being a commodity. And that’s been my crusade at the companies I’ve worked for, many of which compete in commoditized industries. I wanted each of these companies to do more … to truly understand what could make them different, and not just some pie in the sky concept — I had to make sure we could deliver. Ultimately, I wanted to help these companies firmly state, “this is what we stand for,” and then help organize the entire business system around delivering that.
What do you think your leadership style is and how do you motivate your team?
My leadership style is probably best described as player-coach. I like to think that I roll up my sleeves and help the team out as much as I can, but I'm not a micromanager by any means. I have an extensive corporate strategy background, and there I learned a ton about structuring problems into solvable pieces. The leader who I reported to in Corporate Strategy employed an “apprentice” model. It’s very similar to player-coach. He and I would sit down and work through structuring the problem. Generating hypotheses and then conducting analysis to identify potential solutions. It was real time, in the moment feedback and I learned a tremendous amount from him. As I grew in the role, so too did the opportunities. All of a sudden, I was not just going to the big meetings, I was running them. As I began leading teams, I’ve done my best to translate that approach into my own personal style. I oversee a handful of different groups and disciplines, some of which I am not the “expert” in. For instance, I oversee our product design team. I don't have any interiors background, but when it comes to problem solving and breaking down what they're charged to do and how they position their work in the company for success; that’s where I can help them, and that’s how I leverage the apprentice / player-coach model today.
That's great. I love the player-coach mentality. The other day I learned the etymology of the word coach and it comes from stagecoach transporting people from one place to another, so a coach is trying to get their players from point A to point B.
We do our best to hire really talented people. I think we're always developing them up as we grow and as we scale we're always looking to make them that much more impactful. I've witnessed a lot of that at LC. A leader may not have the technical skills and expertise of everyone on their team — how could you — but in terms of making them more effective, I think that's where that player-coach approach is very impactful.
The other thing about player-coaches is you're still a player, so you're still learning. I get to learn from my team all the time. They all have their own lifestyles, backgrounds, and disciplines that I get to see. As we stitch all that together, it gets really magical for us.
What aspect of being a CMO do you really love or find to be the most rewarding?
Getting to be in a place like [The Goat] today— out in our environments, in the neighborhoods and cities that we call home. I think the greatest thing that any CMO can have is the curiosity bug. You have to always be inquisitive about why things are what they are. The world evolves so quickly, and if you're not curious about why and how people are behaving these days, by the time you figure it out it's really difficult to catch up from a branding perspective. My favorite part [of being a CMO] is coming out and observing people going about their day to day.
LC is a lifestyle brand. We are not just another product in your home — we are your home. There's a lot of opportunity for me to see how people are actually living and socializing with each other … and from that, means by which we can do a better job serving their need. It's my favorite part, and it’s a simple thing.
Marketing is often cited as “the voice of the customer." I think that’s short sighted, but no matter what, we must get out of our offices and engage. For me, it’s always been more natural to be in that habitat than it is to be sitting in an office. That’s one lesson I gave my team when I took over a few years ago. We were about six months in. I asked them, “When was the last time any of you were in the field, out at our communities?” No one raised their hand. That was a significant problem. Yes, we’re here to help express what our company stands for and promises customers, but that’s not it. We must also understand how those who are choosing us truly interact with us. You have to get up out of your seat, you can’t sit here and just produce collateral. You can be brilliant at Google Ads searches and you can read white papers and see what everybody else is doing…(and don’t get me wrong, you should), but none of them know what we stand for and none of them know what our customers are looking to us for and how different that is from the guy across the street. The only way for you to get that is to get out there and not be shy about it and see what happens. Now the level of creativity we have, the ideas we have are so substantially different than they were 3 years ago. It's really exciting to see. That's when you're proud as a leader to see how they embraced the change and resultant of it, became better at their individual craft. To push them into something that they weren't doing before and they're seeing how they're better.
What advice would you give an aspiring CMO who wants to be in your shoes?
A handful of things. Don't allow people to accept marketing as just advertising and promotion. As much as it's grown and as different as it is from 5-10 years ago, there are still misconceptions about the value that marketing brings and what it actually does. Yes, we oversee our social media content. We create beautiful videos and oversee thoughtful photo shoots. And much of that is the outward expression of our brand promise, but there's so much more that we get into as we seek to understand the consumer needs but also the company's capabilities. We don't want to come up with a promise where we're going to fall flat on our face, that’s never what we want to do.
There is still a lot of learning underway in many industries today as it pertains to marketing and the role it plays. As the marketing expert, you have to educate along the way, you can't just get upset about things when people challenge what you do or propose. You have to coach people along that journey, and when you do that, the doors open wide because you are bringing the customer to so many who rarely, if ever, get to truly engage with those who ultimately “pay” the bills.
No matter what your role is in marketing, you have to spend the time to understand what it is your business does. Go vertical, go deep. If you only know what you’re doing and you don't understand the grander scheme, all the different capabilities within the organization, you're going to miss opportunities. So you need to understand the company’s operations. You need to understand its financials. And you need to understand its past and the market dynamics it faces today. Combine that with your marketing savvy, and you will help the organization identify even more opportunities and even more importantly, gain from them.
For the CMO track, if you want to have influence based on meritocracy, you have to understand the capabilities of the organization, the operational challenges and opportunities within it. You have to be able to respect the chairs of the different people in that room who are CFO, COO, strategy officer, whatever they may be. See it from their angle too. That’s what we're always trying to do, see it from the angle of the customer. In a way, they're customers too. If you look at it that way, where the CFO wants me to be successful and so does the COO, try to understand what his or her needs are, that’s when it gets really exciting. When you get a CFO up on stage talking about why you exist, it speaks volumes in terms of the company and that they get it and are bought into it. They're carrying that message forward and that comes through building trust with someone. You know what you're doing, but you also understand what they're doing.
What are some things you wish you would've known when you started out or maybe some things you've learned the hard way?
I think I’ve always assumed others outside of the disciplines I’ve been in — whether it be product marketing, corporate strategy, or marketing — knew exactly what I was charged to do. That has rarely been the case, especially in substantially large organizations.
I wish I would've known that. Also, I’ve learned that most taglines are crutches for organizations who don't know what they stand for. They roll off the tongue and people can repeat them, but if you really push and ask a few more questions, what do they really mean? What does it mean for the consumer, and what role do you play? You'll realize very quickly that you don't necessarily know. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll learn that they want to know because they want to deliver.
What are some challenges that you're facing in the housing development industry?
It's a super competitive market right now. Multi-family [developments] are seeing a run like they haven't in a long time, so the competition continues to get better and better, which is a great thing to see. Competition makes us all that much better.
In the marketing space, there are a bunch of aggregators out there. They’re selling people on clicks and impressions. When we really understood their play, we felt that we weren't doing our brand right if we were heavily relying on them. That being said, they are large entities, so they have purchasing power relative to a developer like LC. They’re doing Super Bowl ads and outbidding us on Google Ads. They've got 20 data scientists tearing apart Google every day to try to figure out how to out maneuver us. It’s all good though as it just makes us get scrappier and find means to be a little smarter. They may have certain strengths relative to us, but we can still get to know neighborhoods better than any national aggregators. When we truly integrate into the fabric of a neighborhood we join, we fortify ourselves relative to them.
Is there something that Lifestyle Communities is doing that you're really proud of or something that you think you're doing really well?
I think we've done a very good job of being really expressive about what we want to deliver to you. It’s been a 3 year journey that started with really understanding why our company was founded. I have the great honor of working with our entire company to be more expressive of why we exist. We boiled it down to a handful of words for all of our team members to understand. So if you're in construction or accounting or serving a drink in a restaurant, you understand what we stand for and the role that you play in that. As we did that, we started to convince people why we weren't going to be on aggregators like we once were. We take pride in what we stand for and we should be able to stand on our own and do that.
It's why we got into content strategy that we didn't have or use before and why we talk about all the other great restaurants that are within a half mile of [The Goat]. That was a big mind shift. People asked, why are you talking about the bar down the street? Because that helps people understand what it’ll be like to be a part of the neighborhood. It's celebrating the neighborhood and the businesses that are around us who make it what it is, and if we act like they don’t exist, we aren’t really going to be true to what we say we stand for.
Lastly, I also think we are doing a better job in the development of our people. Over the past couple of years, we’ve really focused on that opportunity, and we’re making great strides. There’s always more to do, but I’m quite proud of the progress we’ve achieved as an organization.
When you're building out a marketing initiative, how do your values play into that?
It probably took me a year to really understand why our founder — who is a visionary leader — started the company. It seems rather simple as we sit here today in a restaurant that's designed to be our community’s social hub, directly across from a new wellness studio that will build connections, too.
We went through that journey together and when we felt like we had crystallized why we exist, the identity that we had, the language, voice, tone, imagery…it didn’t match up. We had to change it. But before we started any identity work, we revisited our values. In our office our values have been sketched into the concrete floors outside of our training room. We walk over them every day and while I hate how that sounds, its interesting to think about. They’re sketched in concrete, a material that is substantial, strong, and sturdy. So, it’s interesting to think that’s where we put our values because after all we are builders.
They’re not etched in gold and framed on the wall. They’re ingrained in a material we use each and every day at our job sites. We studied those five words and we looked at how they were described on our intranet site and employee handbooks, asking, “Are they still right for us? Are they still relevant to what it is we're doing, and will they help us get where we're trying to go?” The answer was yes, so we then wondered, “do we think everybody understands what we mean by them?” Our recent rebranding (earlier this year) was a very inclusive effort. We interviewed team members from across the company, home office and in each local community. We asked them about our values. We had them help select the look and feel of LC, from colors to fabrics….everything, we brought in hundreds of people to participate. They were all creating their own visual boards and expressing themselves and their perception of LC, because I wanted them to believe in what we're ultimately expressing to the world. We made sure that they understood the values where they might not have before. We kept the words, but tweaked the language to make it more approachable for all who work at LC.
We say five values steer everything, it all starts there. Those five are quality, communication, teamwork, performance and leadership. They all exist because of the consumers we serve inside of our apartments and inside the fitness studio and restaurant. It all comes back to that values-based organization. We just wanted to make sure that they're still relevant and that people really understood. Four years ago, we didn't have that kind of framework for any of the brands. Today, each has a distinctive brand position that ladders to why we exists…and they all start with our five values as the core foundational component.
Is there a brand that you really admire or are inspired by from a content standpoint?
I'm really inspired by Ace Hotel. They just know who they are and they do a really good job communicating it to others. Each one of their properties are very unique, and they celebrate the cities in a beautiful and intriguing way that makes you want to go. When you get into an Ace, you know it's an Ace. When I think of what [LC’s] trying to do, I want to celebrate and understand what's great about Columbus, Nashville, Raleigh-Durham, Charleston, Austin and Denver. But, once you get inside of LC, I also want you to know what we stand for and rest assured, that’s what you’re going to receive. If you're visiting us from Nashville and live in our community here in Columbus, you know that you're going to get treated a certain way when you walk inside The Goat or inside the LC community.
Their social content is quite good, too. Similar to ACE, we don't advertise on our content channels. We never speak about leasing specials or anything of that nature. We’re talking about what's great about us, but also what's great about what's going on in the community we’re part of…and that's been really powerful, especially as we go into new markets.
We just opened up our latest restaurant in Nashville, just north of downtown in a neighborhood called Germantown. We spent the last year building relationships with all the restaurants and boutiques around that neighborhood so that when we finally opened our doors, we understood exactly what we were joining. That ensured we were going to be respectful of what the neighborhood stands for, but we're also going to put our thumbprint on it. That goes back to us really trying to integrate into the neighborhoods that we join, while also bringing what we’re proud of that is distinctively LC.
What are you listening to, watching, reading?
It's funny, I've been a Flipboard junkie for a very long time. It beautifully curates what I like. I keep a steady eye on fashion, marketing, new urbanism, food and drink, and interior design.
But I always try to get outside of what I do everyday. You can get so boxed in when all you think about are restaurants and apartments and architecture; so I also have a feed for technology and another for science. That was advice that I got a long time ago at Nationwide [Insurance]. This executive read Scientific American and I asked “Why are you reading that magazine?”. His answer was simple and profound —"If all we do is pay attention to what we do, it's not going to go very well for us. There are ideas in here that I would never think about. Maybe there's some parallel in our space.” There’s that curiosity bug.
What inspires you on a creative level? Either personally or in marketing?
I get out and about regularly. I get to travel a lot to different cities. I love trying to explore where I should go next to just set down a path. Cities really do inspire me from that standpoint. I really get inspired from seeing how different groups are trying to re-build communities.
I’ve got three little kids, 10, 8 and 5. Honestly, I can't draw (at all), so I'm not the artistic one in the household. Looking back, I wish I would have been pushed a little bit more into that arena. But we learn, and so I love doing that now with my kids. I work for an entrepreneurial company. We're constantly thinking of new ideas, and I sit down with the kids and I will tell them, “here’s the challenge dad got today, what would you do?” And they'll jot out things. One of the logos we created for a side business of ours, Oliver & James, was done between my two boys and me sketching one night. They showed me some things which sparked my imagination and ultimately that led to what we selected, which is just really cool. I have that sketch on my desk at work and all the different ones that didn't work. It’s so gratifying to see it everyday. For me, it was fun because I got to see it from a kid's perspective and hear how they think about things. I mean they are already thinking about brands that matter to them and what stands out. I get a lot from them. And lastly, I do get a ton of [inspiration] from my wife. She really knows who she is. It's weird to sit back and think about it, but she's always been distinctively Maya. We all know her style. Her look. Her principles. She's this powerhouse brand that I've realized is unapologetically true to herself. So in retrospect, I think I've learned a lot from just being with her for the last 20 years.