L.A. Brand Stars: 15 Flourishing West Coast Marketers in Culture-Defining Categories

From fast fashion to Japanese cars

Los Angeles is a creative wellspring, new tech hub and startup incubator. Getty Images
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

It’s easy to think that geography defines and limits Los Angeles. The metro area, after all, borders the Pacific Ocean and butts up against several mountain ranges at its sprawling suburban edges.

The nearly 4 million residents plan their lives around traffic patterns (avoid the 405 and no, your friend will not drive you to LAX) if they have any hope of getting from point A to point B, especially if the former is the San Fernando Valley and the latter is Santa Ana.

But L.A., as a creative wellspring, new tech hub and startup incubator, is a wide-open, carmageddon-free landscape, say Adweek’s first L.A. Brand Stars, who are thriving in sweet treats, fast fashion, skate gear, meal replacements, Japanese cars, theme parks, live concerts and other culture-defining categories.

Not pinned in by the tangled mess of highways and conventional (East Coast) practices, marketers have “the freedom to try and experiment,” which Honda’s Susie Rossick calls “infectious.”

Kia’s Saad Chehab, a few months into his first L.A. gig, is inspired by the wealth of artists, musicians, YouTubers, directors and creators. “I’m surrounded by all these people that I’ve always wanted to be closer to,” he says.

He sums up the environment for himself and his fellow Brand Stars like this: “We’re in the right place at the right moment.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Linda Chang, co-founder, Riley Rose/head of marketing, Forever 21

Bustle has called it “a candy-colored beauty dreamland” and publications from Teen Vogue to Racked are salivating over Riley Rose, a new lifestyle retailer spun off from Forever 21 that’s purpose-built for selfies and Instagram. Chang, who launched the Barbie-pink chain with her sister, Esther, calls it “an homage to the millennial generation.” She’s overseeing its growth, from its initial store in Glendale, Calif., to the dozen more sites and ecommerce planned this year. Chang, the Ivy League-educated daughter of Forever 21’s founders, has handled marketing as the fast-fashion giant became a $4 billion global brand, telling Fashionista the most valuable business lesson she’s learned from her parents has been “listening to the consumer.”

Ryan Immegart, evp, global marketing, Volcom

It’s not hyperbole for Immegart to say he has Volcom in his blood. He was the brand’s first sponsored snowboarder at 14 years old, later starting its in-house record label and heading its entertainment division, meeting his wife there and graduating to a C-suite job where he launched the recent “This First” campaign targeting the young demo’s “irrational pursuit of passion.” (Video views: 12.5 million.) He means to take Volcom from cult favorite to global player, “engaging more people outside our endemic world,” he says, like Georgia May Jagger, daughter of rock royalty who’s now a brand ambassador with her own fashion line that Immegart thinks will “help us expand our reach.”

Adam Grablick, CMO, Soylent

Grablick already knew how to market “polarizing” brands when he arrived at Soylent last summer, he says, having worked on Velveeta, Tang and Kool-Aid. His mantra: “Embrace the loyalists—they’ll have your back.” For the meal-in-a-bottle product, that’s been gamers and tech bros, who Grablick has reached via esports, an AI spokesbot and dark web offers, the latter two from recently hired agency Wieden + Kennedy. But the fast-growing brand (which is not people nor astronaut food) is going broader, with distribution in 125 7-Eleven stores, college campuses and groceries. Continued expansion, beyond its subscription service and Amazon sales, is a major 2018 priority.

Michael Dubin, co-founder, CEO, Dollar Shave Club

What’s your second act if your first included a $1 billion sale to Unilever, the biggest startup acquisition in Los Angeles County history? Dubin is creating more men’s grooming products and building on Dollar Shave Club’s skin-care, hair-care and shower lines, aiming to become more than a subscription service for low-priced razors. “If it goes down the drain in the bathroom,” he says, “it’s something that we want to be a part of.” The improv comedy-trained entrepreneur, who stars in the brand’s quirky ads, is eyeing international expansion next year and a deeper dive into content like its Mel Magazine, keeping the renegade sensibility intact, he says, since the company’s “freedom to create remains as limitless as ever.”

Lori Pantel, svp, global gm, Girls’ Brands, Mattel

Young girls and their millennial parents aren’t snapping up Barbie like previous generations, increasingly gravitating to action figures based on DC Comics’ female superheroes (named the Toy Industry Association’s Toy of the Year), fashion dolls modeled after WWE’s women superstars and minimonster versions of Lady Gaga. Pantel, a 15-year Mattel veteran, says the groundbreaking lines she oversees speak to today’s inclusive, fempowerment-minded consumer. “Girls are multidimensional,” she says, “and we have a responsibility to give them a wide range of product.” Today’s digital-first crowd also spawned Enchantimals, the brand’s part-animal, part-human creations, inspired by Snapchat filters and launched with original YouTube and influencer content. “What girls like hasn’t changed,” Pantel says, “but the bar is higher on what they’ll engage with.”

Marisa Thalberg, CMO, Taco Bell

If a fast-food chain opens a speakeasy in New York City to introduce a new product, conducts weddings at its tricked-out Las Vegas store or creates a trendy fashion line with Forever 21, it’s going for “big, talk-worthy moments,” says Thalberg, who markets Taco Bell as a lifestyle brand as much as a burrito seller. A recent pilot program with Lyft paired late-night rides with trips to Taco Bell’s drive-through, and an MLB World Series partnership doled out free tacos for stolen bases. “We’re the fast fashion of food,” Thalberg says of the company’s nimble response to pop culture happenings. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we are sincere.”

Jamie Reilly, vp, global creative, Vans

Vans is a family business at heart, and it acts “like an awesome dad who is super-stoked on whatever the kids are into,” says Reilly, pointing to its branded skate parks, House of Vans music and art venues, Warped Tour concert series, and surfing and BMX tournaments. A self-professed skate punk and veteran of Chiat\Day and 72andSunny, Reilly launched the popular global digital campaign, “This Is Off the Wall,” this year with diverse brand ambassadors like Tony Alva and Jayne Min. Now owned by VF Corp., Vans has grown to $2 billion from $320 million in revenue in the last decade while retaining “what makes the company special.”

Jill Estorino, evp, global marketing and sales, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts

Estorino, a globe-trotting, 25-year company veteran who “understands the magic” of the experience, according to parks chairman Bob Chapek, leads theme park marketing around the world. Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., has kicked off a $1 billion, 14-acre expansion, planning immersive attractions based on the Star Wars franchise (up close with the Millennium Falcon), while neighboring California Adventure will lean heavily into Pixar’s animated characters and Marvel’s superheroes. Continuing to stoke demand for Disney’s branded vacations business, Estorino will also tout the Star Wars resort coming to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and The Art of Marvel hotel headed to Disneyland Paris with décor that will reportedly make Tony Stark proud.

Jon Ikeda, vp, gm, Acura

You have about five seconds to capture a consumer’s attention, says Ikeda, a Pasadena, Calif., native and car designer turned executive. That’s why he’s relaunched Acura with a keen eye on immersive technology and experiential marketing, taking “calculated risks” but eschewing ideas “just because they’re trendy.” Ikeda, who helped create the Acura Design Studio, developed the first-ever live AR car race and the first ads shot specifically for mobile (they’re vertical). Ikeda led the brand to its season-long partnership with AMC’s Better Call Saul, including faux commercials for fictional restaurant Los Pollos Hermanos, chalking up another pop culture touchstone, which he says is vital to breakthrough storytelling. “It’s just like car design—if you’re not captivated by the silhouette, you’re going to walk right on by,” says Ikeda.

Lisa Licht, CMO, Live Nation

Steeping herself in concerts by Bruno Mars, The National or Drake gives Licht “a great respite from the crazy” of the day and reinforces her mantra that “live only happens once.” It’s that fan perspective that drove Licht to create the Festival Passport this summer that gave consumers entrée to music festivals around the world for a onetime fee (1,000 passes sold out in less than one minute) and to continue the Kickoff to Summer that sold 1 million tickets for $20 each. Personalizing Live Nation’s approach, the Yahoo and Fox vet launched a Facebook Messenger chatbot that helps fans find shows and coordinate outings with friends so “we’re using tech to communicate, and consumers know we’re speaking directly to them.”

Susie Rossick, assistant vp, Honda Automotive Marketing

Don’t rest on your laurels, says the new commercial from RPA for the top-selling Accord, and to Rossick that’s not just a piece of ad creative—it’s a guiding principle to “always reach for more.” The exec, who started marketing Honda motorcycles in the ’80s, helped propel the brand to its third consecutive year of record sales in 2016, with an all-time annual sales mark in sight for 2017. Her forte: mixing traditional and social media for breakthrough campaigns like the celebrity-heavy “Yearbooks,” where A-listers Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Magic Johnson and others “took our message and extended it” beyond the Super Bowl, making “connections we wouldn’t normally get.”

Saad Chehab, vp, marketing communications, Kia Motors America

With a track record that includes Chrysler’s iconic Super Bowl commercials “Born of Fire” starring Eminem and “It’s Halftime in America” with Clint Eastwood, Chehab landed recently at Kia, attracted to its youthful, upstart personality. “I’m always interested in a challenger story,” says the Orange County transplant who’s quickly launched two new models that he dubbed “bookends for the brand.” The entry-level Rio got a music-centric YouTube campaign with influencer Julian Smith, and the upscale Stinger had a consumer racing and drifting ride-along and pulled a New York Fashion Week stunt with Candice Swanepoel, Joan Smalls and Alex Rodriguez that Chehab says allowed him to “show some bravado” and “propagate the truth.”

Cory Bayers, vp, marketing, Patagonia

The holidays are do-or-die time for retailers, apparel and gear makers, and Patagonia, whose 2011 ad “Don’t Buy This Jacket” famously upended Black Friday, marked last year’s day after Thanksgiving by donating 100 percent of sales ($10 million) to environmental groups. Bayers, who has promised to double down on the brand’s activism, launched Patagonia’s first-ever TV ads in August, urging federal officials to protect public lands. The brand also created a business that’s “growing by leaps and bounds,” he notes, called Worn Wear, which repairs its products for discount resale and reduces environmental impact. This holiday, Bayers says he hopes “people will shop with the planet in mind and be mindful of the social and environmental consequences of their purchases.”

Sabina Weber, head of brand marketing, American Apparel

Out of bankruptcy and free from its infamous founder, Dov Charney, American Apparel this fall reopened its ecommerce site and kicked off its first new print and outdoor campaign, trying to shed baggage while returning “to the great qualities upon which the brand DNA was originally built,” says Weber, a Universal Music veteran whose team has relaunched the label in a stunning four months. Unretouched ads, shot in-house, are sexy but with “a direct, empowered gaze” from its body-diverse, real-people stars. Part of Gildan Activewear now, the sweatshop-free company is paring its line of beloved wardrobe basics and reconnecting with its devoted fans by “keeping the imagery authentic and instantly recognizable as American Apparel,” says Weber.

Justin Woolverton, founder and CEO, Halo Top Creamery

Halo Top has become the country’s best-selling pint of ice cream with help from its quirky digital commercials by agency Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners and beloved Instagram feed that show the company’s “just a little offbeat,” Woolverton says. The lawyer turned entrepreneur hacked the low-calorie, high-protein recipe in his kitchen as a fix for his sweet tooth (sans sugar overload). In 2016, the brand sold 28.8 million pints in supermarkets worth $132.4 million, a 2,500 percent spike from the previous year, states IRI. Not only is the brand growing rapidly, but in September, it had a viral hit with a spot by Mike Diva reminiscent of Black Mirror. Next up, Woolverton says, is marketing that will “take risks that the bigger players can’t.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 13, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.