Q&A: Shopify’s CMO on Trying to Make the Ecommerce Platform a 100-Year-Old Company

Jeff Weiser became CMO in February 2018

Headshot of Shopify CMO Jeff Weiser for a Q&A.
Weiser said Shopify's brand campaign is a test-and-learn strategy.
Shopify

Despite existing for about 15 years, it was only earlier this year that Shopify debuted its first brand campaign. Working with both its in-house creative team and R/GA, Shopify rolled out a campaign targeting people who want to become entrepreneurs.

The campaign is part of an overall brand strategy that Shopify’s pushing, as the company has 85 years remaining before hitting its lofty goal of becoming a 100-year company. Adweek sat down with the company’s CMO, Jeff Weiser, to chat about the campaign, Shopify’s marketing strategy and the role of a CMO today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: What was the thinking behind making Shopify stand out in its brand campaign, considering there’s no branding on Shopify products like the retail kit?
Weiser: We have a stated intention to be a 100-year-old company, and to do so, we need to become a household name. What we’re starting to do is move up the marketing funnel from being a performance marketing operation first to additionally creating new awareness for Shopify.

As you think about moving up a funnel, first you’re converting intention through performance marketing. North of that, you’re creating company and brand consideration. And then above that, you might be trying to lift through the whole category, which is the role of [Shopify Studios]. We’re trying to round out a marketing funnel to be much wider and longer in the service of building out the 100-year company. Shopify’s never done a big brand campaign. Like most things, we’re a company that’s a test-and-learn mentality, so we’re trying it.

What challenges have you faced in trying to market Shopify compared to other tech companies?
You think about being the CMO of one of our merchants who sell sneakers or apparel or jewelry—it’s a different kind of role than being a SaaS CMO. But there are different techniques that you use, and Shopify is also really interesting because it plays on the fine line between B2B and B2C. One of the trends we’ve highlighted is, sure, we’ve got Kylie Cosmetics and Allbirds and companies like that, but we’re also starting to see big CPG companies like Johnson & Johnson or Procter & Gamble saying, “We want to do it the way the disruptors are doing so we don’t get disrupted again.” … We’re starting to see them come to Shopify Plus.

But that’s still ultimately true B2B enterprise marketing. If you start to go into our core audience and look at the smaller end of it, you’re talking about individuals who are trying their hand at starting a business for the first time. Yes, it’s true you’re offering them business software, but you’re marketing to them as an individual, [and] a lot of the B2C tactics will still work.

When you’re talking to the enterprise-level companies, what are the challenges in convincing them to move their entire stack to Shopify?
What you sometimes get are internal politics. CTOs have big engineering teams to protect [and] don’t want CMOs to be adopting Shopify, because with Shopify you don’t need a million engineers. It’s a simple tool to use that gets you powerful results. That’s the innovation, that’s why we’ve succeeded. But, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people who are entrenched in certain positions and corporations want that to be the case.

What was the thinking behind Shopify’s first brand campaign?
The first [thing] we did…was to make sure we were really crisp on what our brand position is and what it stands for. It’s a very purpose-driven organization. We exist to make commerce better for everyone and we think that unlike other businesses, there’s really no externalities of that succeeding.

That’s always been something we cared for internally, so the question is: how do you distill that into an external facing message? We landed on the insight that 21st-century commerce is caught in an economic trap. The popular narrative is that we’re at a time of unprecedented opportunity. Industries are being replaced and disrupted, we have new communication tools, we’re more connected than ever. But if you dig into the data, that doesn’t really hold true for most people.

Shopify exists to be a partner to those that want to break out of the economic trap. Where you have monopolies, we see entrepreneurs reaching new markets with different kinds of products for different kinds of communities. Where you have income inequality, starting your own business at least puts you in the control of your own earnings. It doesn’t mean you always succeed, but you’re in control. Where you have education and skills gaps, being an entrepreneur gives you a crash-course MBA that you could never get in a classroom. The idea is that we’re sorta the offset to this economic trap.

The way we distilled our brand purpose is to unlock the power of commerce for those seeking independence: the people who want to break out of these corporate machines, these unfulfilling jobs, these economic traps by starting their own business.

Do you think CMOs are gaining more power and becoming more valuable to companies than other C-suite executives?
We certainly don’t think about power dynamics that way. The executive team is a really good working group of peers, so that’s not really a dynamic here. I think the sense in which CMOs are “above” CTOs is with respect to technology spend. There’s a little bit of the sense that in some kinds of companies, CMOs are a little more in the driver’s seat because defining user experience and acquiring and retaining customers is thought to be paramount.