Insights | Insights

The Disruptive Decision Maker: James Sandora of Kohler

August 12, 2019
Kohler headshot

Welcome back to our new Disruptive Decision Maker series! We recently kicked off this series by giving you a behind-the-scenes look at Walgreen’s and the innovative shift in their marketing activities and overall marketing organization. Core to Bowery Capital’s thesis is the changing of the guard going on in marketing and IT departments at the F1000 and with this series we continue to highlight those digital natives that are having significant impact in today’s environment.

Today, we bring to you James Sandora, Director of Global Digital Strategy & Innovation at Kohler. Most don’t know it, but Kohler is one of the more forward thinking brands around content, community, and overall digital strategy. We sat down with James recently to talk to him about innovation at Kohler and how he’s really changing the game for the 140+ year old company.

(1) Give us some perspective. Where was the Kohler organization before you and/or your group came in, how did that change when you joined, and where are you guys today?

A lot of people don’t know that Kohler is a diversified company with 4 distinct business units: Kitchen & bathroom fixtures & faucets, power systems, furniture & decorative products, and hospitality & golf. We make world-renowned faucets, sinks, and showers, but we also own some of the best golf courses in the world. In fact, in 2015 we are hosting the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, one of our courses in Wisconsin.

In its entirety, Kohler Co is 26 core brandsaround the world stretched across those 4 business units. My team, Kohler Communications, basically operates as an agency, with these 26 brands as clients. Prior to my joining the organization we did great digital work, yet most of it happened in silos, so its impact was limited.

My focus has been to break down those silos and roll the smart people doing this work into one Communications team. We continually work to evolve how the digital organization creates value for our brands, whether by providing strategic platforms or educational devices. We see adding value as a spectrum that includes both bottom line impact as well as something as simple as helping executives use the right words to describe our social business strategies.

The future is looking really bright for us. We are growing the team and have been seeing a lot of success in fully integrating digital strategy in to the company’s operations – as well as the various marketing organizations within it.

(2) You did a wonderful thing recently on the content front that if folks haven’t read they should immediately check out. Talk to us about your content initiatives and how this expanded the minds of you and your team? I ask this with the lens of the fact that you don’t sell directly to consumers, so maybe to follow that up talk to us about how you think of this component of your growth and how it plays into the broader mission?

Thanks a lot. Honestly, the most difficult part of this was getting stakeholders to trust the creative direction of our partner, Elle (who was wonderful to work with by the way). Like so many other brands we also feel a bit of anxiety regarding the handing off of creative control to a partner, even more so when it involves a new tactic and an entirely different format.

What relieved some of that friction was a system we created that helps inform when these types of initiatives add value. That framework is going to be a really important part of how we build integrated campaigns in the future; it even begins to help identify gaps that can be filled with compelling content.

The same system is at play on our Tumblr, which has also been creating a lot of value for us. Though this involves a different type of content than the YouTube collaboration you mentioned, the system we created is informing it just the same, between the identification of cultural and style trends, the iteration of those trends through the lens of product insights, then the creation of a story to make it relevant.

What makes this system so compelling for us is that it enables a flexible framework on which we can hang our content. We are constantly experimenting with new content types and architectures, and we are continually investigating syndication opportunities.

In the future, we are going to integrate this system even more, particularly with our content strategy, product, and physical locations. Ultimately, we want to create content that our most passionate customers want to consume – not just when they are trying to replace a faucet, but more so to interact with our interesting, compelling stories about design, home, and its culture. That on-going relationship is critical.

(3) What are some next generation products or services that you guys are using to accomplish your goals?

We are planning some exciting things in the next year across all of the business units at Kohler Co. I won’t go in to specifics, but the themes fit well in to our continual pursuit of redefining and innovating our place in the market. We know that in our largest categories the game is changing quite significantly. Ecommerce is becoming a more important channel, and companies like Houzz, Porch, and Pinterest are changing the consumer / designer / installer / manufacturer dynamic. We are keeping a close eye on that and building some very interesting plans around how we participate in that landscape.

In many ways the industries that Kohler Co operates in are only at the beginning of the disruption that so many other industries experienced years ago. For me, that presents some exciting opportunities to stay ahead of the curve. So while we are looking at a few compelling partnerships in the short term, we are equally focused on making sure that we are building the digital organization in such a way we can support longer term product and service innovations. We don’t want anything in our way.

(4) I’m sure you get pitched by a lot of vendors. What are some specific things you look for when assessing both the old and new guard of IT vendors and what advice would you give someone looking to sell to Kohler?

The most important thing any sales organization can do is listen. Listen to what I am trying to accomplish, listen when I communicate opportunities and ideas to collaborate on, listen when I tell you I’m not interested in taking the conversation further at the moment.

Too often our sales partners forget that we are always interested in new, interesting, compelling ways to solve problems and make our lives easier, but we aren’t going to create a problem for them to solve. I have to be really choosy about the meetings I take, as I have so much going on day to day. Just getting in the door means I already have an idea of how the partnership can look. Take the time and work through that ideation with me, get to know my business and timelines, stay patient with my ability to engage, and I can promise it will happen. Stop listening and start selling irrelevant things, not paying attention to my timing or organizational limits, and the opportunity can go stale very quickly.

(5) What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the CMO landscape over the past 5 years and where do you ultimately think we are heading as it relates to your role and the role of a CMO?

I’m fascinated with the convergence of the CIO and CMO. I believe that this convergence is less about one of these roles taking on the responsibilities of the other, and more about the two offices collaborating in a really fluid and evolving way. CRM is a great example of this: Both organizations create touch points that feed data in to (what should be) a single database. The actionability and quality of that data is then the responsibility of both organizations, making it crucial that the IT and Marketing organizations collaborate in ways they have not historically needed to.

These offices then need to respect the needs of one another and consider factors that were not historically endemic to their respective organizations. IT organizations need to act much more nimbly; marketing organizations need to begin considering long-term, tangible factors like the security, quality, and performance of brand assets.

The next few years will be really interesting as these organizations begin to figure out how to do that in the most productive way.