INTERVIEW

ALLISON JOHNSON

Former CMO
PayPal

Allison Johnson, former CMO of PayPal, global marketing executive at Apple and Hewlett-Packard and a startup founder, was watching a video of an 11-year-old Florida girl reading a letter addressed to the president about her deported mom.

“Mr. President, my mom is the wife of a proud American Marine, and a mother of two American children,” said the girl during the Democratic National Convention.

“We are American families. We need a president who will bring people together, not tear them apart.”

Johnson was filled with hope.

The young girl’s clarity, courage, and conviction speaking truth to power resonated with Johnson, who recently lost her own mom to cancer. She began to reflect on her career as a marketing leader in Silicon Valley and the role marketing and technology should play in people’s lives.

“Are we showing up in the market with the same level of clarity, conviction, and courage as that young girl? Are we solving really important problems? Do we truly understand the implications of the technology we are putting in people’s lives? Do we ask the right questions? Are we contributing in a way that is beneficial for all stakeholders,” Johnson asks.

“It’s time we think hard about the impact of technology on society,” she says. “Too often we get enamored with innovation for innovation’s sake and lose sight of the humanity.”

So far, customer sentiment is on Johnson’s side. The devastating global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the nation have driven marketers to become more considered and empathetic in their messaging. As our shared social and cultural context has changed, companies have been forced to reconsider almost everything they do including marketing.

“This is obviously a transformational moment,” Johnson says. “The struggles we are going through today will present opportunities to connect with people in new ways — new products, new audiences, new voices, new stories, new reasons to convene and build community. Our creativity should be on overdrive.”

During moments of cultural and social change, marketing should become a focal point on the corporate agenda. Unfortunately, marketing spend is often the first thing cut during uncertain times. “But that’s precisely the wrong instinct,” Johnson says. “Now is the time to invest. Trust, which should be the goal of marketing, is fragile in the best of times. But in moments like this, any gaps between what a company says and does are magnified tenfold.”

Johnson’s biggest worry is that the art of marketing has taken a back seat to the science. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says, “Performance marketing gives us a seat at the leadership table, it is table stakes, but we can and must do more.”

In this case, Johnson turns back to her six-year stint at Apple as vice president of worldwide marketing communications for inspiration. Marketing at Apple was never about selling or dressing up a brand; it was about helping people get the most out of their products. If Apple’s market cap is any indication, that philosophy has worked out pretty well.

“Marketers have a sacred duty to represent and serve customers,” Johnson says. “When your product becomes indispensable, when your brand occupies a permanent place in people’s hearts, when the work you put in the world makes people smile, marketing is doing its job. The science part of the job gets much easier when you master the art of it. Done right, marketing has the power to elevate and expand our collective humanity. That’s not a job, it’s a calling!”