The Marketing Musings of Donna Karan


When you think of Donna Karan, you think of fashion, right? Right, but Karan, known most for her Donna Karan, DKNY and Urban Zen brands, should also be known for something else:  Marketing savvy.

Donna Karan: CMO Marketing Advice

At a recent M50 CMO Summit I attended, Donna Karan talked at length about her business philosophy and passions. And, while she wasn’t talking directly about Marketing, she had some important things to say about it.

Marketing Musings — Donna Karan

1.  Work Where the Consumer Is – Donna started her talk by stating that she spent her formative working years working in a clothing store. There, she could observe consumers firsthand in all clothing dimensions:  looking at clothes, trying them on, walking in them, doing mirror evaluations, etc.

She literally lived with her consumers day in and day out — and developed an instinct for consumers and what they wanted. Here’s how she responded to the final question in the Q&A session:

What one piece of advice would you give CMO’s ? She replied: “Understand your consumer.”

Understanding Consumer Behavior: Critical to Marketing ROI

2.  Celebrate Artistry & Creativity – Of course artistry and creativity are central to the fashion business and Donna Karan’s success. But what about Marketing? Marketing is moving toward greater measurement rigor and increasing use of ROI metrics, as discussed in “The Genetic Markers of High Advertising ROI Brands” — so her advice is timely and important.

Artistry and creativity are also central to Marketing success; artistry and creativity are the wellspring and driving force for the transformation of mundane Marketing strategies into engaging and exciting Marketing — and terrific ROI results. CMO’s would be smart to remember this when they’re reviewing their metrics and dashboards.

3.  Look for the “Void” – What’s the “void?” The void for Donna Karan is the big unmet consumer need. She described it in almost mystical bright white light terms; the void was something she could see, focus, and lock onto, with laser like intensity. No focus groups or 1:1 interviews, no satisfaction studies, no product testing, no consumer research of any kind.

Sometimes you need to trust your gut instinct about what you need or want that’s missing in the market (for more on marketing innovation, see my post ““Leading Your Brand Beyond Marketing.”). If you’ve lived and breathed a business for some time, your gut instincts are often right on target–so trust them. Donna Karan trusted hers, and built a great brand from doing so.

Innovative Thinking Leads to Robust Marketing Plans

4.  Use World Cultures as Inspiration – World cultures are the inspiration for many of Donna Karan’s designs–particularly in her Urban Zen Foundation work. Donna talked about her interest and love of Balinese culture, along with the aborigines in Australia.

There’s an important learning for CMO’s here. It’s the power of sourcing your Marketing ideas from everywhere. Search and reapplication, best practices, whatever you call it, identifying great marketing ideas–wherever they’re created–and exporting them around the world is one of the smartest, cheapest ways for CMO’s to build the business.

Global Thinking Expands Marketing Capabilities

5. Make a Difference on the Outside and the Inside – With Urban Zen, Donna Karan focused increasingly on meeting both the external needs of consumers, but also their internal needs. She believes consumers want to be “conscious consumers” and engage with brands that make a difference socially.

As the world becomes more open and transparent, consumers are more networked and up to date than ever before. They often know the good and bad things about your brand before you do–and they increasingly know your company’s position on a range of economic, social and environmental issues.

In this environment, it’s increasingly important for brands to stand not just for an important functional benefit, but to also stand for being a brand that consumers can believe in–whether that’s being environmentally friendly, etc.  CMO’s need to define not just the functional benefits for their corporate brands–but important emotional ones as well.

Success = Understanding and Practicing Marketing Fundamentals

What struck me most about Donna Karan was that she really “gets” Marketing, even though she’s not a trained Marketer by profession. And this just confirms for me what I’ve always believed: most successful people inherently understand and practice the fundamentals of great Marketing.

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