Matt Blonder’s been in the retail game his entire life.
His career began at the humble Gap in San Francisco as a retail trainee around 20 years ago. Now he sits at the head of Reebok’s global marketing team on the other side of America.
It’s a role Blonder recently slid into following the sudden departure of Melanie Boulden, who left the brand after around 12 months to become president and general manager of The Coca-Cola Company’s Venturing & Emerging Brands division.
"The challenge ahead for Reebok is continuing the amazing work that’s being done and building upon the foundation," Blonder told Campaign US. "Someone in my position could easily come in and inject his or her ego and upend things. So I have to make sure that the organization understands that the goal and endeavor is to amplify as opposed to making sweeping, massive change."
Blonder’s elevation comes after nearly two years of work as head of global digital where he oversaw the U.S. ecommerce business and brand’s digital prowess around the world.
Between the launch of its new membership program, a creative agency shakeup in which it named Deutsch AOR, the release of daring new work and even some PR-tear-inducing headlines about Beyoncé, it’s been a busy year for Reebok (is the understatement of the day).
The brand has made tremendous strides in personifying its DNA through bold campaigns which -- as a bonus -- demonstrate true diversity in a really authentic way. This was Boulden’s vision, and is one Blonder intends on carrying.
"I think our positioning is spot on," he said. "Our approach of bold and daring and unexpected gives this unbelievable canvas and runway to do amazing and beautiful things that really resonate and connect with the consumer around the world.
"The integration of digital and the ability to know now and react quickly to the changing landscape only amplifies upon that foundation. For the team, it’s an incredibly exciting position to be in because we have the permission to experiment, play, push and do things that are truly game changing."
Blonder recently spent time with Reebok’s agency circle. He had them take him through the way they work, which is more important to him than the work itself. The marketer was ecstatic with what he found: "I really appreciated the way our circle of agencies work in a truly cross-functional and collaborative manner. I got a very strong sense of aligned purpose and connectivity to not only Reebok’s goals but to one another which was incredibly heartening."
So, no, agencies can rest assured that there is not going to be another shakeup any time soon.
Data will play a critical role in our success
But outside of creative, Blonder faces a challenge that plagues all modern marketers: data.
"If you ask any company where they are in their data journey, most will tell you they’re on the path to optimization," he explained. "But when you get under the covers and really understand the true nature of most company’s place, very few folks are thinking about optimizing based upon data -- most are just trying to understand the data available to them, and if they’re lucky, they’re aligning that data in order to begin to analyze it and create meaningful insights.
"For us, data will play a critical role in our success and we have an unbelievable amount of it available to us. We are relatively early in that journey, but have made amazing strides within the digital arm of our organization over the past few years."
Blonder’s used the first 30 days of his new role to meet, listen and learn from Reebok’s marketing team. The 30 days that follow will see the formation of an integration plan built by leadership.
"Some folks’ approach in a role like mine might be to lock themselves into a room, architect grand plans, open the door and share it with the masses, but that certainly is not my approach," he stressed.
All of that lays over the fact that Reebok still has a business to run. So, adjacent to the new plan is a very heavy focus on not letting it get in the way of the foundations which have been laid.
Having a strong DNA and powerful voice is one thing, but making sure it’s heard is another. A major challenge for the brand (like all) is ensuring its communication is as punchy and relevant as its creative.
"It’s a loud space," Blonder said of retail. "And it’s a space in which the democratization of communication platforms allows for anyone’s voice to be heard if they do things in an intelligent and nuanced and different way. So how do we break through is the question we ask ourselves and will continue to ask ourselves.
"I’m a huge believer in doing less to do more."
Part of Reebok’s communication strategy will continue to involve the use of influencers and celebrity spokespeople. Not Beyoncé, though -- and not because she took issue with an apparent lack of diversity during a pitch meeting, as erroneously reported by so many earlier this year.
"I can tell you unequivocally that the reports were completely unfounded and very untrue," said Blonder which a laugh that highlighted how ridiculous the rumors were. "We all have a journey that applies to diversity and inclusion and we’d be lying if we didn’t say we had work to do. But it was unfortunate that the story was so misrepresented and so factually incorrect because it couldn’t be further from the truth."
Marketing in a genderless world
The diversity, inclusion and equality space is an extreme passion for Blonder. Part of his mission for the past couple of years at Reebok has been to challenge his team to think about how to sell and position the brand in a genderless world.
It’s a difficult question to answer, due in large part to the technical limitations of the way the retail industry works. Unfortunately, things like the retail buying structure have pigeon-holed the industry into marketing to sexes.
Blonder (like many, including this journalist) doesn’t shop by men’s and women’s. He bought four pairs of shoes recently -- two of which were "women’s."
"The notion of gender as it applies to product is becoming relatively antiquated," he explained. "It’s amazing how rooted we are in this idea of male and female, and it’s going to take a herculean effort on the part of the industry to upend that.
"This is not the future of shopping, it’s not the future of self-identification and it needs to be solved. I think you begin to see a blurring of the lines and an eventual -- and relatively soon -- erasing of that line."
And he’s going to execute that by "pressing our agencies to be even more uncomfortable and to take the thoughtful risks that truly differentiate our brand from the sea of lookalikes."
(This article first appeared on CampaignLive.com)