CMO of the Year 2019: Amit Shah,

Shah is leading into the digital future while strengthening the emotional bonds that consumers have with the iconic retail brand.

Photos by Steve Hockstein

Few marketers are in a better position than Amit Shah to exemplify that the more things change, the more they remain the same. “It is paradoxical that, in an increasingly digital world, we see many analog constructs having equal if not more relevancy,” he says.

Shah would know, having spent the last decade working his way up the ranks at to become chief marketing officer, where he’s now at the forefront of an ongoing transformation in the way that the iconic retail brand engages with its customers.

Over the past 18 months, Shah has led the company further down the path of digital innovation while strengthening the brand’s emotional bonds with consumers through personalized, one-to-one interactions at scale. His major accomplishments include a slew of new e-commerce partnerships and a revamped mobile website that features an improved overall customer experience and expanded mobile payment options. In early 2019, became one of the first retailers to operate on all five major voice and messaging platforms: Facebook Messenger, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Business Chat, and Samsung Bixby.

And yet, while the modes of communication may have changed, the brand’s focus on the tactile, evergreen nature of the gift-giving experience has remained intact throughout the digital evolution (along with the original toll-free-number in the company’s name, which Shah says is “sacrosanct” in the minds of consumers).

“The question we keep coming back to is, why can’t an emoji replace a happy birthday gift of flowers?” explains Shah. The answer has to do with relationships – both the relationships that the brand has with its customers and the ones that customers have with their friends and family members. “Let’s say your aunt took care of you as a child and now she’s in the hospital. Most people want a physical expression of that gratitude,” says Shah. “We deal with all sorts of occasions that carry a deeply emotional journey. Customers want and expect brands like ours to be responsible and thoughtful participants in that journey.”

About the Award

Since 2014, the CMO of the Year award has been awarded annually to the executive who has made the greatest demonstrable impact on his or her organization through the implementation and successful use of new marketing strategies, technologies and/or processes.

Each year, we solicit formal nominations from members of the Path to Purchase Institute community. Institute editors select no more than five finalists from among the qualified submissions to be considered in the official voting round, for which we enlist the experience and expertise of our Executive Council.

The previous winners were Marie Gulin-Merle of Calvin Klein, Peter McGuinness of Chobani, Antonio Sciuto of Nestle Waters, Bruce Fleming of Church & Dwight, and Clive Sirkin of Kimberly-Clark.

A Post-Digital Mindset

By now, the ability to leverage digital capabilities in order to facilitate a better customer experience is table stakes for most brands. Yet Shah sees signs that the broader culture is starting to tire of its obsession with technology, whether it’s the idea of retail stores taking digital “holidays” or consumers strictly monitoring their device usage. “We’re starting to move from a hyper-embrace of technology to a post-digital mindset in which there is a growing, underlying fear about how much of that interface is good for us,” he says. “Our customers are becoming a lot more thoughtful about the technologies that are being thrown at them.”

For those reasons, Shah says that it’s critical for product innovation to be truly outward looking and focused on the consumer, and for marketing to have a strong emotional underpinning. “Even for direct response companies and rigorous programmatic marketers, getting that emotional journey right for customers is really important for building relationships. So is making sure that the emotional constructs you’re building reflect what your customers want, not necessarily what your products or services were originally intended for.”

Among the things that loyal customers of want are convenience and flexibility, attributes that have driven a number of digital innovations during Shah’s tenure. One of those is SmartMessage, an augmented-reality messaging feature leveraging Apple’s ARKit that was introduced last Valentine’s Day. The technology lets iPhone and iPad users on the mobile app send customized AR photo and video messages to their sweethearts using a variety of filters. Another is SmartGift, a feature that allows the gift’s recipient to digitally “unwrap” the present for a preview, accept or exchange the item, then select a preferred delivery address and date.

 “We looked at a number of technologies and we felt SmartGift had a great approach to solving recipient preferences without knowing their physical address. It just relies on a cell phone or e-mail,” explains Shah. “SmartGift completely changes the traditional gifting flow and allows us to make more informed recommendations the next time that customer is shopping on the website.”

It also deepens the well of data and insights that can use for future marketing purposes in this highly competitive category. “Marketers often talk about an external feedback loop between branding and performance, but you can also have an internal feedback loop around how you collect and use data with customers,” says Shah. “Over time, it allows you to have a very deep advantage over competitors.”

Still, he says that “takes a very serious approach” to privacy. “When you collect or share data without customers’ knowledge or permission, it degrades the emotional connection you’re trying to build,” says Shah. “We are privileged because we get to know about a lot of personal life events, so we put a lot of thought into how to become better stewards of customer data. What we’ve learned is that, as long as you’re using it in a very thoughtful manner, customers want to give you their data because they’re thinking it will help cut down clutter and interruptions.”

Becoming a Well-Being Advisor

The business was founded in 1976. Parent company Inc. went public in 1999 and has a long history of growth and expansion in the U.S. The current portfolio comprises approximately one dozen other well-known gifting and retail brands, including Harry & David, an omnichannel retailer of gourmet foods and gift baskets based in Medford, Oregon, as well as Cheryl’s Cookies and The Popcorn Factory in the Midwest. At corporate headquarters in Long Island, New York, Shah oversees a marketing department of about 100 employees who work on a number of individual entities and brands.

As the company has evolved, has taken a larger role in promoting the well-being of its customers. In the sympathy category, for example, it offers advice dealing with grief while leveraging partnerships such as a relationship with TV personality and musician John Tesh, whose bylined articles are featured on the website. It also provides a number of resources through a content marketing arrangement with Modern Loss, a best-selling book about grief that expanded into a blogging site populated by experts who tackle sensitive subjects like condolence etiquette. “What used to be a transactional exchange [giving gifts] has evolved into something much more experiential,” notes Shah.

In a society with an aging Boomer population, it’s critical that has become more relevant not just for times of happiness and celebration, but also the “Get Well” occasions and somber periods of mourning, Shah says. While marketing normally shies away from having delicate conversations with customers, the messaging around comforting was a natural extension for the brand. “A couple of years ago, we made a decision to acknowledge the amount of loneliness in the world and that sympathy occasions were especially important, and we put out a series of campaigns that evoked the idea of sympathy and get well in a very thoughtful manner,” he says.

“Our modes of cultural expression today are both more diverse and increasing,” says Shah. “Let’s say you have an office colleague whose father passed away. You know the family is of the Jewish faith, and [you learn] it is appropriate to send a basket of fruit on the day of sitting Shiva. This is part of how we’re educating the customer in this emotional journey. We connect with customers, then increasingly use digital tools to engage with them on-the-go and deepen the relationship.”

Gaining the Global Perspective

Throughout his life, Shah has had a number of personal and professional experiences that influenced his thinking on an international scale. He has worked at both small local digital startups in the U.S. and expansive global organizations like McKinsey. Back in 1999-2000, he received a Global Research Fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, which allowed him to travel the globe to Nepal, Thailand, Northern Ireland, The Netherlands and Canada.

“Growing up in India gave me a broad perspective of humanity, and I am fortunate to have been educated in two systems,” says Shah. He appreciates the contrast of having lived in Calcutta and, later while receiving his undergraduate degree at Bowdoin College, in the small town of Brunswick, Maine. Shah is a major proponent of a liberal arts education (he has a Master’s degree in Liberal Arts from Harvard University), which he credits with honing his ability to think critically and to learn.

“That is probably the most important skill set for any marketer right now,” says Shah. “The only way to successfully co-exist with machine learning and AI is to make learning a very primal task. We used to hire mainly for IQ – who are the smartest guys in the room? Today, it’s a much more team-oriented workplace. A lot of interviews are about EQ (emotional quotient) and working well with others. In the last three or four years, I’ve started to hire more for ‘LQ.’ What’s your learning quotient? What is your ability to learn?”

Shah believes that a company’s ability to cultivate agile, cross-functional teams depends heavily on leaders who can nurture all of these skill sets. “I advise younger people in marketing and leadership on how to build teams that straddle the traditional and emerging worlds,” he says. “Your external aspirations have to be equally realized internally. If you want to grow as a company in a complex and pluralistic world with many emerging skill sets, you need to hire and nurture the same things internally – build up that level of leadership and ability to provoke LQ. Those things are highly correlated.”

The Holistic Approach

Shah’s holistic approach to marketing manifests itself in a number of ways. One is his view of the brand as evolving past its identity as a pure direct marketer. Generally speaking, he says, the traditional dichotomy of brand building and direct-response marketing is rapidly eroding. “Any modern marketer is actually a combination of the two,” Shah says. “We are brand builders but we are extremely thoughtful about how we do it efficiently.”

Toward that goal, advertising for is typically concentrated around the major holidays, when more than 50% of site traffic comes from mobile devices. The brand employs mobile display banners for prospecting and retargeting, as well as video advertising on multiple platforms. “We do both linear and addressable TV, but we do it in the times we think it makes the most sense,” Shah notes. “It’s important in a saturated digital environment to be targeted. That is our bias. You can achieve a lot of scale using [video ads on] YouTube, which brands may not think of for direct marketing campaigns but is actually mid-funnel in its media execution.”

Shah is also forward-thinking in the way he has structured the marketing department. Unlike traditional organizations, has established “a more modern growth stack” that spans major functions including brand marketing, product development and customer insights. In part, this is designed to address the desire for a continuous customer experience – from the time an ad is clicked to the time spent on a landing page, for example.

He’s given a lot of thought on how to strike a balance between data and creativity. Companies, he says, increasingly are automating the “orchestration” of marketing in order to free themselves up to be more creative. Still, he urges peers in the packaged goods industry to become more “analytically rigorous” in regard to data collection and ROI measurement. “A lot of the measurement and decision-making practices in advertising have become too familiar,” he explains, citing an example. “You need to rethink the best way to look at the response rate to display ads. You cannot produce better creative unless you understand some of the modern currency of measurement.”

Marketers should ask deeper questions of their agencies and challenge both internal and external stakeholders about how to achieve better outcomes, he suggests. For too long, he says, marketers have been complacent about staying within the realm of “what is believable” versus “what is measurable.”

“It doesn’t mean that only all that is measurable is what is effective. There are campaigns and ways of going to market that aren’t easily measured but are very effective and efficient. It comes down to your ability to out-learn your competitors. That is what differentiates you from others.”

That is a gift any marketer would willingly accept.

From left to right: Amanda Mihok, product development & marketing manager, growth brands; Nicole Wenke, senior product manager, growth brands; Saloni Goyal, director of product, mobile; Sumantro Das, senior director, product and growth brands general manager; Amit Shah, chief marketing officer; Connor Bjarnason, product manager, mobile; Joseph Russotto, assistant manager, growth marketing; Paige Melley, marketing coordinator, growth marketing; Katherine Braver, assistant manager, growth marketing; Amber Hegel, manager, growth marketing; Brianna Forgione, coordinator, growth brands.


The Finalists

Our runners-up include execs from three challenger brands and one very familiar name.

Kevin Joseph, Vice President of Marketing and Strategy, That’s How We Roll

Joseph has led the 2-year-old challenger company’s efforts to conceptualize, brand and launch two product lines: ParmCrisps and Thinsters, “simplified, better-for-you snacks” designed to fulfill the company’s mission of making the world “healthier, tastier, and a little more fun.” His strategic vision (shaped in part through stints working on Lay’s and Cheetos at PepsiCo and then at Kind LLC) helped the company fill a void within the snack food category with ParmCrisps, which targets consumers on the popular Keto diet who crave the crunch and salty flavor of chips. Joseph and his team created the brand and then championed the art behind its packaging, website and other marketing materials. Innovative marketing elsewhere has included a partnership between Thinsters and iconic rock ’n’ roll franchise The Grateful Dead.

John Mark Singleton, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Rudolph Foods

Over his 15 years with the family-owned company, Singleton has helped continue the Rudolph family’s legacy in the snack food category by producing the world’s “best tasting pork rinds,” expanding this traditionally Southern snack to consumers in other regions who were unfamiliar with it. By strategically positioning pork rinds as a high-protein, high-fat, low-carb alternative to other salty snacks, he effectively guided Rudolph’s Southern Recipe Small Batch brand toward sales and marketing tactics that have made them accessible for shoppers around the U.S. Using both traditional consumer broadcast media and geo-targeted digital marketing (as well as a fair share of encouraged word-of-mouth), Singleton has helped significantly expand the company’s consumer base, helping pork rinds to become among the fastest-growing segments of the salty snack aisle.

David VanderWaal, Senior Vice President, Marketing, LG Electronics USA

A 2015 inductee into the Path to Purchase Institute’s Hall of Fame, VanderWaal has been overseeing all advertising, consumer research, sponsorships, promotion, shopper insights and digital marketing initiatives for LG’s Home Entertainment, Home Appliance and Mobile Communications business units in the U.S. since May 2018. The company has effectively incorporated IoT-driven functionality into its home products, not only to improve performance but also to enhance their impact on owner lifestyles via services like installation oversight, automatic replenishment, problem troubleshooting, and “home entertaining” assistance. LG also works closely with key retailer partners to enhance the shopping experience by bringing its products to life in-store. Elsewhere, LG’s recent “Life’s Good: Experience Happiness” marketing initiative is designed to help teens cope with the stress they feel during the school year.

Dwan White, Vice President of Global Marketing & Product Development, House of Cheatham

White not only leads global marketing but also product development, where she has created nine of the company’s 13 brands sold internationally. The portfolio is highlighted by Aunt Jackie’s Curls & Coils, the fastest-growing brand in the U.S. multicultural textured-hair care segment, according to IRI. (It’s also become a top overall beauty brand in South Africa.) White conceptualized the brand, led the product development and creative teams, and developed and executed a consumer engagement strategy that resulted in steady year-over-year growth (65% over 2018). She also led expansion of the brand’s retail distribution to Target, Walmart, CVS, Family Dollar, H-E-B, Kroger, Albertsons and other national accounts. White has helped transform the company’s business model, moving away from an emphasis on manufacturing to embrace a marketing-focused culture stressing consumer-centricity.