Eric Toda discusses the importance of artificial intelligence in consumer-brand relationships
October 16, 2018
Joining us on the Marketing Mix Podcast with Jeff Ragovin is Eric Toda, Director of Gap’s new menswear brand Hill City. Eric has contributed to the success of some of the world’s leading platforms including Facebook, Snapchat and Airbnb. Taking a leap into the world of retail, his passion now lives in building brands from the bottom up. Tune in to hear how Hill City is using artificial intelligence to create a personalized communication experience with consumers.
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Jeff Ragovin: You have worked for Facebook, Nike, Snapchat, Airbnb and now Gap. How did you get to where you are today?
Eric Toda: It's been a wild ride, but if you asked me 10 years ago where I'd be I'd tell you I'd be an attorney. I have always treated my career as an adventure and an opportunity to learn. Facebook was an opportunity my wife told me to take. Before I started at Facebook I wasn't even sure if it was going to survive; Myspace was bigger at the time. Throughout my career, I became obsessed with storytelling and bringing people together, and that was Facebook’s mission. I then went over to Nike to oversee a lot of the digital brand efforts, but I wanted to get back into tech so I went over to Snapchat to be one of their first business hires and focused on launching things like Discover.
Jeff Ragovin: How did you start working at Airbnb?
Eric Toda: It happened when they started to mature their marketing organization. Their CMO started recruiting and wanted me to help build a community around their hosts and guests.
Jeff Ragovin: How did Airbnb become so globally present in such a short period of time?
Eric Toda: That’s just a pure network effect. When people find something special, they are going to tell people about it. That’s the beauty of products like Facebook, Snapchat and Airbnb - the only marketing you need is having an amazing product.
Jeff Ragovin: You have transitioned a lot from tech to retail. Why?
Eric Toda: I am obsessed with building, and that's one thing that really drives my career. Towards the end of my time at Airbnb, I was more focused on maintaining the heat that we built for the future, not so much on building. What Gap presented me with was an opportunity to build a brand new company and brand for this generation of men from the bottom up. Hill City represents the lifestyle of guys who go hiking but who also work in the city, but also for guys who don’t want to be placed into one category. Hill City represents a horizontal lifestyle.
Jeff Ragovin: Hill City launched an internal group called wear testers that gave consumers the opportunity to test and give feedback on the products. Is this where the future of micro influence is headed for Gap?
Eric Toda: I hope so. As a marketer, your job is to be the voice of the consumer. A lot of the time, marketers fail to do exactly this. They often will pray on your fears and say ‘this is what you don't have, this is what you're not’. We knew our product was going to be good, but we knew having consumer input would make the product line even better. We sent people who wanted to be a part of the wear tester project product for free, which allowed them to give us feedback so we could make the product better. In turn, they then became an influencer in their own right not because they have 3 million followers on Instagram but because they have a voice. I thought this was a really great way to not only bring transparency to the brand but to also allow our consumers to build the brand with us so when you wear Hill City you know it's your brand, not just our brand.
Jeff Ragovin: How are you using technologies to create Hill City?
Eric Toda: We have leveraged artificial intelligence layers on both Twitter direct message and Facebook Messenger to create a personalized chatbot experience. You can talk to Hill City and it will talk to you right back and walk you through how to become a wear tester. Doing this allows us to be personalized at a scale that you've never seen before. So far, personalized just means re-augmented a website for your preferences. I think that's archaic and not the right way to do it. I want you to be able to have a specifically tailored Hill City experience 24/7 and 365 days a year, and you can do that with text and messenger in a really rich way. Do I think it's perfect yet? No, but it is reshaping the relationship between brands and consumers.
Jeff Ragovin: What's the biggest challenge a marketer now faces?
Eric Toda: The fact that they're not just responsible for marketing and that they are now responsible for website development, working with HR and sales. Marketing traditionally has been about storytelling and advertising, and now that brands are represented by the voice of the consumer a lot of it is about bringing that voice to life and measuring it and I think that’s one of the hardest things to do right now.
Jeff Ragovin: What’s been your favorite marketing campaign?
Eric Toda: Airbnb’s We Accept campaign that we did for the Super Bowl. We really wanted to show that we stood for the community.
Jeff Ragovin: If you had to describe the color yellow to someone that is blind, how would you describe it?
Eric Toda: I would describe it as warmth. I would describe it as the feeling you get when the hairs stand up on your arms when you feel the warmth from the sun, a blanket or someone holding you. Yellow to me is very much warmth and energy exchanged onto your body.
Jeff Ragovin: If you weren't a marketer, what would your dream job in life be?
Eric Toda: I would be a teacher. My sister is a special needs teacher and she inspires my life a lot because of the strength, patience, courage and heart she has to do what she does everyday. So I would want to join her in helping the world and helping kids that want to learn.
Jeff Ragovin: Thank you for joining the Marketing Mix Podcast.
Please note, the above has been paraphrased for editorial purposes