Sep 15, 2023
45 min
Episode 42

TOP CMO: Dana Marineau, Rakuten - 'Leading With Optimism'

Dana Marineau  00:00

Hey, you’ve made a mistake? No big deal. Don't let it plague you. Don't let it hold you back. Try again. It is okay to make a mistake. It is okay to have a failure. It is okay for something to not go as well.

Ben Kaplan  00:12

This is the podcast where we go around the globe to interview marketing leaders from the world's biggest brands, fastest-growing companies, and most disruptive startups. This is TOP CMO with me, Ben Kaplan. 

Today I'm chatting with Dana Marineau, CMO of Rakuten, the largest e-commerce company in Japan. Rakuten’s diverse portfolio spans e-commerce and more, including a fast-growing US division focused on its unique cashback for shopping program.

Rakuten Ad  00:53

We get cash back at over 3,500 stores. Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching. I even get cha-ching when I sing.

Ben Kaplan  01:03

Rakuten has more than 28,000 employees worldwide, operates in 30 countries, and its annual revenue north of $14 billion dollars. Dana has held senior marketing positions at Credit Karma, Trilogy software, and, notably, 15 years at software company Electronic Arts. Under her leadership at Rakuten, Dana has created the company's first and second Super Bowl campaigns, high-profile influencer and celebrity partnerships, and a revitalization of the brand's personality and tone. But how does Dana think about tentpole, ownable moments for the brand? And how does she balance Rakuten’s established Japanese legacy with a new approach custom-tailored to a US audience? Let's find out with Dana Marineau. 

Dana, it's an interesting challenge that you had three and a half years ago. You come into the company and it's a sizable Japanese company, well known, 25,000 people, but brand awareness is really, really low outside of Japan, and especially in the US. So how did you first wrap your head around that, where you're creating something that's new, but you're trying to pay homage to a heritage –it has to match the legacy– yet you have kind of a blank canvas to work with?

Dana Marineau  02:22

Ben, thank you for having me. And actually, it's as if you worked here, because you painted exactly the picture I walked into. The one thing you forgot is it's May of 2020, so it's COVID. So I get here and all theSE things you've outlined, you know, heritage to a very large Japanese company, very low brand awareness in the US –almost zero–, and trying to figure out how to bring this amazing idea to the US, because it is a very sizable Japanese company, as you said. And here in the US, no one's ever heard of Rakuten. 

So yes, started May of 2020, a lot of things happening in the world that are strange and foreign and unknown, like everyone working from home. And I immediately decided what was best for this moment in time –which is not always true, because I've worked with some incredible ad agencies in my career–, but I decided that it was important for this moment in time at Rakuten, when truly it was an unknown brand, that we had and built an in-house team. And that is both the brand and the creative side and the growth and performance and analytics side. So trying to build that team over Zoom is a question for another time. But the thing we had to figure out is, what is the soul of this brand. 

And to be honest, because Rakuten was unknown in the US –and by the way, it is unknown because Rakuten had acquired a company you've probably heard of called Ebates, and so the original basis of our members was with Ebates, and we had many millions of members who quite loved that Ebates brand. But once you rebrand to Rakuten, no one's ever heard of it before. 

So what do you need to do? You need to define the soul of this brand. And that is everything from copywriting, voice and personality, identity, identity design, logo design, I mean, everything you can think of that goes into building the foundation of the brand because no one's ever heard of this. And so we spent, you know, again, over COVID over Zoom, for at least a year –the first I'd say a year and a half– building the foundation, redesigning the app and the website, redesigning the identity, the color palette, defining a voice and tone and personality with a little bit of a wink, I'd say some sense of humor like redefining who is Rakuten in the US, because it had never existed before. So we spent quite a long time doing that.

Ben Kaplan  04:34

I think it's challenging in any environment. Certainly challenging because your team is operating over Zoom, but it's also challenging because you need to take the essence of this Japanese brand and –I don't know or you can tell me what you did, if you'd like go over to Japan, talk to a lot of people, listen, see it in market, sort of experience it, maybe pull out insights from that, maybe they've had already built up brand books, you know, guidelines, guard rails, all of that. But when I hear you talking about color palettes and, I mean, it sounds like you had really an open playbook. Was that just from the higher-ups at Global saying go create and reimagine? Or was it something in this area of COVID? Or was it such a new market that they said, “You have room to play?” Like, how did that work, with that transition from Japan to the US, or other parts of the world?

Dana Marineau  05:19

Okay, amazing question. And I'd say that best answer is a little bit of both. So it is very important to us and to our global mothership in Japan that we hold on to that heritage, and we pay homage to that heritage. So there are things that we do certainly in our company, that pay honor to our Japanese roots. So, minor things, you know, we wear our badge over our hearts, as you can see I'm wearing and that is part of the Japanese custom. We have a weekly Monday morning meeting –it is called Asakai– every single Monday. So there are things that we do in our company that are very much of the tradition of our Japanese brand. 

Now, your question is about our market. And I would say to you that they did give us some leeway –as it relates to what is right in the US market, as opposed to what is right in Tokyo, or what is right in other parts of the world– to, I would say, play with and expand upon what is true of the brand in Japan. So you're right, the brand color palette in Japan and Asia is a red, a crimson red. And they did allow us –by the way, not an easy conversation–, but they did allow us to bring a different color as our, let's call it, master color into our palette, which is a purple color that we felt would work better in the US specifically. But there are all kinds of things like we don't touch the logo, the word mark: that is very specific to Japan. Can we change this color? Yes. Can we animate it? Sometimes. But there's things that we just don't touch and we know very clearly, within the brand guidelines that you're asking about, there are things that we can play with and expand upon and things that we just don't touch. 

So they were very open to “Here is what is happening in the US market, here's what we think is going to work best.” And they were open to those discussions. Every time. Some of the things we were able to do, some of the things we were not, but we definitely pay honor to our Japanese heritage. And part of that, by the way, Rakuten means optimism. So one of the things you'll hear me talk about a lot throughout our marketing is you will feel that optimism, that joyfulness in all of our marketing. Why? Because that is the soul of our brand, whether you're in Japan, or in Barcelona, or in California, that is the soul of who we are.

Ben Kaplan  07:29

That makes sense. Another challenge that was happening in 2020 –so we were trying to make sense of what was going on, we didn't realize how sort of serious a pandemic we ended up being in– but it was also accelerating a lot of digital business, digital commerce, open rates on emails were increasing, people were attending webinars before there's a little fatigue of all this. So all this was going– You're trying to build this, but you relate to commerce and shopping as Rakuten does, you're kind of in a wave of increasing but you don't have presence. So how much of your time was spent riding the wave and just like, “We'll figure it out later. If we screw up something now that's okay, we can go back and correct it because we start to see this kind of metrics taking off”? Versus how much of it was, “No, let's do this in the proper order. We define –if we do a branding exercise together, right?–, this time, the central unified idea of our brand, and we do stakeholder interviews, and we define that, and from that we get the brand manifesto. And from that we start–”

Dana Marineau  08:20

Oh, I know.

Ben Kaplan  08:23

Like, were you doing it in the sort of proper methodical order, or you were doing it more like let's do as needed because there's no rules here, we don't know what's going on?

Dana Marineau  08:31

Okay, so here's the genius to our answer –and yes, you could not be more right–: luckily for us, we were building both sides of that equation, both the proper brand strategy that you are referring to, in every possible way, doing it the right way, and, as I said, we were also building a growth team, a performance team, an analytics team. So we actually had the luxury of being able to do both those things at the same time. We had the Growth Hacking Team, like, messing around with social and with email, with push notifications, like testing and testing and testing and learning and learning, at the same time as we were also trying to build and refresh this brand. 

So absolutely, I do feel quite lucky that we were able to build the airplane and fly the airplane at the same time. We were able to do both of those. Because you're right: 2020 was extraordinary when it came to e-commerce and shopping, and people were shopping online more than they ever had before, newer than they had before, discovering stores that they never had before. And the beauty of Rakuten Is every single purchase you get cashback, every time. Whether you're buying a pair of jeans, whether you're buying a house plant, whether you're buying sunglasses, or some running shoes. Whatever you're buying, you get cashback, every single time you buy. And so people were discovering new stores on Rakuten and discovering that they could get cashback on the athleisure they were wearing and some new towels wherever they were going. 

So I do feel like we had the advantage of really doing proper brand style, brand guidelines work to define the soul of the brand to find the personality of the brand. And, because so much shopping and e-commerce was happening more than ever before, we were able to learn and test and understand like listening to the data and figuring out, “Oh, okay athleisure really is a thing. Put Nike and Athleta and Under Armour front forward as we merchandise this”, as opposed to maybe some of the luxury items. Those stores weren't doing as well, for all the reasons we know, during the pandemic. And then, by the way, a year and a half later, people are ready to go out again, we can use the data of how our members are shopping to see that.

Ben Kaplan  10:35

In Japanese, the word Rakuten means “optimism”. And in a B2C business, communicating optimism, even in a recessionary or inflationary environment, can have huge benefits for your business. But how do you stay optimistic in your messaging, even when times are tough? 

The key is that you have to view your brand from the consumers' point of view. How does your brand give consumers a reason to be positive, even when facing significant headwinds? How does your brand enable consumers to save more, do more, and be more, even when facing external pressures? How does your brand help consumers be less fearful and afraid when you're the trustee partner by their side? The essence of optimism isn't blind positivity. It's truly understanding the consumer’s situation and how they feel about it so you can help them chart a positive path forward. 

You pay a lot of special attention now to young millennials and young millennial women, that is part of your core audience. Was that the target then as you entered the market? Or did that evolve from that, progressing in 2020?

Dana Marineau  11:45


So when I arrived in 2020, the core target was, I would just say, women. Women are, you know, you've heard that term, the CEO of the household: doing a lot of the buying, doing a lot of shopping. That did not change with COVID. So women, probably a slightly older woman –I'm in that zone, you know–, I would say sort of the 35 to 50, was and still today I would call our core buying shoppers, right? 

Young millennial women came about a pretty significant research study that we did around up-and-coming shoppers, and what is our growth audience, and where do we see shopping going in the next let's call three to five years. And millennial women that was the growth target for us. And I would also say, to another conversation, Gen Z is a growth target for us, right? 

But women is the core target, has been, always has been, we just evolved into sort of more targeted strategies related to millennial women as to where they shop, how they shop, how they get inspired, which is what caused us to spend more time, and understanding, and money even in influencers and in social media and in Tik Tok, as opposed to some of the more traditional methods –which, of course, by the way, we still do, whether it's linear television or connected television and email–. But we have a pretty serious media mix model that we do our, you know, media buying and media investments on, and the growth audience is one important segment to our overall audience.

Ben Kaplan  13:09

You're skating to where the puck is going, but you have to kind of skate to where the puck is. You're doing it at the same time. But obviously, growth is important. You have a core audience. So you have a marketing mix that reflects that. Some of that marketing is targeted, like where that puck is now, where you want it to go. What's the split of that? 60% growth orientation, 40% your existing core? Or is it further? 70% growth, 30% existing core? How do you split that up?

Dana Marineau  13:35

Well, I love this question. 

I want to say to you that it's 50/50, I think so. You know, of course, I'm gonna go ask our VP of Growth, and then she'll tell me exactly, you know, what it is. And, also, it depends on the time of year, right? So it depends on what's happening in the environment. Obviously, right now, we are working through a recessionary environment and inflation, and how that changes what we say in our messaging and what people are worried about. 

And so depending on the audience, depending on the medium, the channel, the platform, I think that percentage changes. I mean, there’s an older generation that is watching linear television, right? And a younger generation that is watching connected television and watching television on YouTube and watching videos on TikTok. 

So I think I would– To answer your question, I want to say it's a 50/50 but it really depends on where we are, what channel we're in, what platform we're in, and what messaging we're using, and what mechanism are we using. Influencer? Are we using a broadcast moment like the Super Bowl? You know, I think it depends, but I want to say to you mentally it feels 50/50.

Ben Kaplan  14:35

And then maybe in terms of focus, it feels 50/50, right? Just mental bandwidth of where your attention is. And of course, anytime you're dealing with shopping, commerce, e-commerce, you're gonna have seasonal swings. Q4 is going to be big, there's gonna be a lot there. And, then, you mentioned the Super Bowl, because in terms of building awareness if you can afford the Super Bowl–

Dana Marineau  14:56

Doesn't get better than that. 

Ben Kaplan  14:59

Yeah, a lot of great people, you know, aspire to do it, like, the Super Bowl ad, but also it's a big and expensive hammer, but if you can do it, very few channels you can get, like, that many eyeballs at once, that much awareness at once. So you put a lot of thought, I know, into a Superbowl campaign, that kind of pulled based on this insight around 90s nostalgia. Talk about that, how that grows from this in your recent Super Bowl spot.

Dana Marineau  15:22

One of the things I love that you just said is that you didn't say Super Bowl spot, you said Super Bowl campaign. And I appreciate that about you, because that is what we aim to do. From the beginning, I always said to our executives –and, you know, Rakuten had never done this before, right? So when you approach that topic, and you talk about it, they think, “Oh, the 30-second spot in the broadcast of the Super Bowl”. That's what they go to. And my whole thing was, “Nope, nope. That is one piece of it.” 

And I know you've talked a lot about the concept between Paid and Owned and Earned, and the Super Bowl is that big Paid thing, right? It is not cheap and you're spending a lot of money on the actual media of it, and the production on it. Right? So that's a big paid thing. But when you do the Super Bowl well, it's the Owned and Earned that really shine. 

And I would say to you what I am most proud of, of course, the spot itself –that was, by the way, our second Super Bowl– the spot itself, I think was absolutely genius in every way, related to the nostalgia of the 90s that was very prevalent last fall, specifically around the 90s returning, and what is true about Rakuten and our growth audience, young millennial women, which is they are inspired and motivated and shop around influencers. That's how they get their information. That is how they’re inspired on what to shop. And if you ask yourself, “Who is the original, the OG shopping influencer?” It's Cher Horowitz from Clueless.

Ben Kaplan  16:46

So the Clueless movie. We're talking about Alicia Silverstone, there's a lot of movie lines, one-liners that kind of went to the cultural lexicon from this movie. This movie made Alicia Silverstone a star, but also she embodied the influencer around shopping before influencers was a thing, really.

Dana Marineau  17:02

Exactly right. So you tap into that. 90s is already coming back. Clueless is already one of the number-one movies on Netflix, as a note. And you tap into that shopping influencer piece and you ask yourself, “If Cher Horowitz (that character, Alicia’s character) was around in 2023, of course, she would get cash back on every purchase. Of course she would. Right?” So that was the premise of the idea. 

And again, back to my point, it's not just about that 30-second spot –it was amazing. I think so–. But the press coverage, the PR, the YouTube views –we hit 25 million views of the spot on YouTube before it hit air–. Right? So that's just you. It sort of flips on this concept around Paid and Owned and Earned and how does that work. And what's the daylight on that thing? And yeah, of course, the Paid very important. Obviously, we wouldn't have had this other piece of work without one Paid piece. But the Owned and that Earned, the views on YouTube, the views on Tiktok, the press coverage alone –we got 600 pieces of coverage for the Superbowl–. That just kind of says to you, “Okay, we hit it, we hit that zeitgeist with the Super Bowl.”

Ben Kaplan  18:08

And as you were selling this through internally, when you said this was a campaign, what was the strategy involved in the other related pieces whether it's channels or timing or other things? How did you sell that through as a plan?

Dana Marineau  18:20

So of course, the CFO and the CEO and anyone you have to sell this to is going to be, “What's the ROI?” Right? That's the first question. Well, how do we know it's going to work? Okay. So you have to have that conversation about building brand awareness –to our previous conversation–, and what the metrics look like the day of, right? That week, the day of the Super Bowl. And then the premise we sold was long-term.

And I will say to you, and the reason we were able to do a second Super Bowl (that Clueless idea was our second Super Bowl) is we were able to report back one full year later, right, let's call it February to February, what metrics moved. We were able to move over the year some pretty amazing metrics. 

So not only from like, just the top of the funnel, were we able to improve our brand awareness index by five points– And someone like you, you're like, “Whoa, that’s a lot in one year, five points”, like, that's pretty amazing, right? So that's just the brand awareness metric. And then we had a 10% lift in buyers between the Super Bowl and our next big shopping event, which was the following May. And we had a 20% lift over the year in what is “reactivated buyers”, which is people who used to shop at Rakuten but haven't come back in a year. 

So I can point to those long-term metrics and say, “That's why you do the Super Bowl.” Now, the day of, of course, search volume was up, of course, sign-ins and signups were up, of course, app downloads were up. Like, all those day-one metrics. But it's nothing compared to what it does for your brand over the year.

Ben Kaplan  19:50

How do you, then, extend on that and look at other seasons? Like, how do you think about the time between– You know, you got your Super Bowl and kind of early part of the year, you have your holiday shopping season. You have a lot of time in between that. I mean, you want steadiness, predictability, but you also want moments and spikes, and other things. How do you think about other holidays or even like, you know, Amazon has Amazon Prime Day, which I just think of as Christmas in July?

Dana Marineau  20:17

That's how they brand it, and they've done a good job because that's how they brand it, yes! 

Ben Kaplan  20:21

Well, it's also counter-cyclical, right? “Let's give ourselves a wave of sales that's opposite to when we typically get it.” And, of course, that's really based on Singles Day in China, which is on November 11. So how do you sort of think about seasonal marketing without dry periods, counter-cyclical dry periods? How does that enter your thinking?

Dana Marineau  20:42

Okay, I love this question. So yes, we have every quarter what we will call a tentpole moment. So you've named two of them, right? So the Super Bowl in our Q1 is a big tentpole moment. The next one is in May, I just described to you, we have this big shopping week, we call it the Big Give Week, which is eight straight days of 15 to 20% cashback on every store, right? Hundreds and thousands of stores. So we go from one tentpole moment to another. 

Q3 is our sort of back-to-school zone. And then Q4, of course, is Black Friday and Cyber Monday. So in between those times, though, you're right, we can't just have people shop four times a year. So we do create, to your point, we do a big campaign around Amazon Prime Day. By the way, not everyone loves Amazon. People need to shop, people need to buy things, but maybe people want an alternative. And on those four days surrounding Amazon Prime Day, Rakuten, like Walmart, like Target, like many other brands, also has a big sale. Which also has big discounts and big deals, and we put many hundreds of our stores on 15% Cash Back around Prime Day. 

We also have maybe a little bit of like making a mountain out of a molehill. Like, people shop on Presidents Day, people shop on Veterans Day, we call it Singles Day. Also, we have other moments that we create to make sure, to your point, that we have a steady business throughout the year, not just hoping and wanting people to shop only four times a year. They need new cleats for their son and need a new pair of sunglasses because they’ve broken. People need to shop, people need to buy dog food, whatever it is. And we want to create the most joyful possible shopping experience for them, which is you buy something and you instantly get rewarded. 

So you are right. We have big moments across the year. But we also try to make some of those small moments rewarding so that people choose Rakuten over some of those others you may have mentioned.

Ben Kaplan  23:13

We think of it in terms of, like, booms, sparks, and beats. So booms are those tentpole moments, those really big things we're doing. Sparks are pretty big, right, like not quite as big as those booms, but they're also filling in. And then beats, we just want that heartbeat of things that are just constantly relevant and timely and responsive. And sometimes it's things we can't predict right? Something happens, something trends. We think about that in terms of our clients. 

So since you sort of have your finger on the pulse of shopping and commerce, are there underrated moments in the season that other marketers should think more about that are just like non-obvious ones? Probably a lot of people are listening like “Yeah, Mother's Day, we do quite a bit.” Are there others that you think are going to grow or are underutilized? You know, Black Friday and Cyber Monday weren't always a thing, you know? So what should we be looking at?

Dana Marineau  24:00

So it actually evolves, right? So the way people shopped during COVID-19 when they were home is different than how and where and how often they're shopping now in this recessionary environment. So, to your point, beats are much harder today. People are saving money, needing to save money, worried about money. And so the beats are a lot harder today than they were even two years ago when –we sort of call it– that post-COVID period, drunk on shopping. Okay, right? It kind of felt that way. 

And so I would have said to you, then, maybe a year and a half ago, you know, maybe two years ago, those moments that you just mentioned, whether it's Mother's Day or Valentine's Day or Columbus Day or Memorial Day, like, those beats were sort of sparks then, right? Because people shopped, so I actually think it's related to what's happening in culture. Is it an election year? Is it not? Is it recessionary? How’s the consumer spending index? I think the beats and the sparks kind of evolve about what's going on.

I think, to your point, the booms, the tentpoles, those are there. Like they're established now and, you know, every brand has like a little bit of a different version of that, of course, like we created one in May, which is a huge boom for us, the Big Give Week. But I think brands can sort of create those own tentpole moments. The beats and the sparks evolve in my opinion. It's not that I can just point to like, “Oh, everybody buys during Mother's Day.” I think it depends on what's going on in the environment, because we found those to be different over the last three years.

Ben Kaplan  25:31

And I'll give you an example of one that surprised people. So TOP is a global marketing agency, we have that, but we have a digital media division, we own a number of website properties. One of them is called National Today, it's It has 10 million visitors who celebrate holidays. So it's like a list of all the holidays that are out there, you know, over 10,000+ holidays. And some of those people get surprised by this. 

At the time, you know, thinking about money, saving money. What kind of holidays are related to that? Well, National Transfer Money to Your Daughter Day, they're like, “Oh, do I need to either tag my mom or tag my daughter and say, “Ha, ha.” So we had a million shares of that day, that post. It's a little day, but there's something about “Hey, we're kind of in this uncertain environment around money and Transfer Money to Your Daughter Day... Hey, Mom, are you celebrating this year?” And so those kinds of moments capture this mood. I'll give you some other ones that have certain kind of funny names: National Respect to Your Cat Day.

Dana Marineau  26:27

I love that. Anything pet-related does well.

Ben Kaplan  26:30

Yeah, respect to your cat. And I'll give you one for 90s nostalgia. We create a lot of holidays for brands and a lot of PR agencies hire us. We created Mean Girls Day.

Dana Marineau  26:40

I need to know more about this.

Ben Kaplan  26:41

Okay, this is on October 3, because there's a famous line in the movie about October 3, and we did this years ago. And it still is a thing every year, the power of you know, classic Lindsay Lohan

Dana Marineau  26:52

It's so hot right now, right?

Ben Kaplan  26:55

So my only point to this is that there are these moments, there are big ones we know, but then there are sometimes these little ones that strike the right chord, if it's the right mood, if it sort of fits the culture. You can create them and that's really like any type of business that wants more seasonal relevance. I think you can, like– Traditional advertising marketing workflows, right? Like, right person, right message, right time. We call it calendar-based marketing, which is the opposite. Right time, right message for the time, and then right person, right? Huge, unbelievable.

Dana Marineau  27:25

Look at Barbie right now. Barbie right now has created a huge marketing moment. I mean, the number of headlines I’ve seen like, “The MVP of the year is Barbie’s marketing team here”. Like, right, yes! But so many brands –by the way, including Rakuten– did a big sort of pink-related or Barbie-related promotion because of this huge movie. And everyone wanted to be a part of this cultural phenomenon, every brand wanted to associate if they could. 

In our case, of course, on our platform, we have thousands of stores, and people were buying a lot of pink and pink costuming, either to go see the movie or they just they wanted to be a part of something. So all these brands wanted to pick up on it and that's exactly right. That's not something, necessarily, you would have planned in your brand strategy calendar for the year, right? You just want to pick up on that cultural moment and be a part of it.

Ben Kaplan  28:13

I think one of the interesting things –and I don't know, we could talk about the culture you've built at Rakuten as a good segway into that– some of those emerging cultural trends, moments, rapid response, whatever you want to call it, just taking advantage of it, one of the things that's easier to say than do is, “You have to have a culture”. Usually, if you're going to be fast and quick, that encourages experimentation, that says, “It's okay to make mistakes”, and that says, “We're gonna go fast, and we're gonna learn.” But obviously, within maybe, you know, the bigger a brand you are, the more there are guidelines, guardrails, compliance lawyers, all of this, they're like, “Yeah, we don't want to be sued by Barbie’s people, she has people, don't get sued by her.” Right? 

So how do you think about that? Because if you want to be fast and quick, you've got to be by nature kind of experimental or willing to, you know, try some things and learn and get better and better. At some point, you got to start. How do you think about things in your team and encouraging that culture?

Dana Marineau  29:11

So, speaking of culture, there is a very famous theme in Ted Lasso, which is of course a cultural moment.

Ben Kaplan  29:19

Okay. Yeah. Show on Apple+, if you don't know. Watch it, inspirational. American coach doesn't know anything about soccer or football. Inspiring thing about how he motivates people.

Dana Marineau  29:28

Exactly. Yeah. So in the very first episode of Ted Lasso, he is speaking to a football player who's made a mistake and he says, “Be a goldfish”. And all that means is goldfish have a short memory and he says to him, “Hey, you made a mistake, no big deal. Don't let it plague you. Don't let it hold you back. Try again.” That idea, that mantra is something we talk about all the time at Rakuten, and, specifically, in our marketing department, which is, “It is okay to make a mistake. It is okay to have a failure. It is okay for something to not go as well. Be a goldfish.” 

And I, by the way, have a monthly marketing meeting, where we get our entire team together, and I require that every single marketing meeting, someone gets up and talks about something that didn't go so well. It's called a Goldfish Presentation, and they get up in front of the entire division and talk about something that didn't test well, something that didn't go well, something they thought was going to be amazing that wasn't, or something that was amazing but there was some kind of snap-through. They get up there and embrace the mistake, or embrace that it didn't go as well, and say, “And here's what I learned from it. And here's what I'm gonna teach all of you about from my learning.” 

And you're right, you have to ingrain that in the culture because we need people to act fast. We need our growth hackers and our growth marketers to go quickly test something on the iPhone, test something with email, test something with headlines in our email. There's so many things that we can learn from and you have to be ready for it not going okay. And often it doesn't go okay. You have to be able to, you know, not hide that. You don't want to sweep it under the rug, you want to say, “Oh man, this thing was really messy, but listen to what we learned and how when we took that learning. It meant this thing amazing unlocked.” TikTok, for example, right? 

So you have to be able to have a culture of learning and testing and failing and messing up so that that is the way you unlock the new thing. In our case, we've unlocked all kinds of things by just trying and trying and learning and testing and messing up and saying so and being a culture of people who say, “It's okay to make a mistake.”

Ben Kaplan  31:26

Fostering an environment where team members feel safe to express their ideas, take risks, and learn from failures is essential. This environment is exactly the kind of culture where innovation and creativity can flourish. But trust is not just given. It's cultivated through consistent positive reinforcement, constructive criticism, and a genuine commitment to personal and professional growth. By embracing a culture where feedback is seen as a tool for development, rather than a source of fear, we can create teams that are engaged, resilient, and aligned with our vision and values.

And besides this, I guess, goldfish moment in your monthly meeting, what other mainstays of your sort of culture or team-building efforts are, do you think, important or influential in what you've created at Rakuten?

Dana Marineau  32:18

I think it's really important to celebrate wins. I know some companies and some leaders are better at this than others. I think it's really important to stop for a moment and recognize a win. So our all-marketing meeting is often, you know, many presentations of, “Look at the new design we've done for this new feature, look at the new campaign we're about to run for holiday,” you know, we'll get our brand strategy team up there and go, “here are the learnings that we have uncovered about young millennial women, or Gen Z as related to how they buy luxury,” for example. Like, we do a lot of win celebrations and a lot of learning like, “Hey, Apple has a new privacy policy. Let's hear about that.”

So we do a lot of learning, we do a lot of sharing wins. As I've said, we have a Goldfish Presentation to share something that didn't go so well. I also am a person who really believes in feedback, right? So I try to ask for and give a ton of feedback, as related to this big company meaning or any sort of daily meeting I'm in. We talk about feedback, we talk about character, we talk about integrity, we talk about taking chances and taking risks. As part of our monthly meetings, we do part of that as well, which is, “What's on our mind right now? What are we worried about? Oh, our members are really worried about money? Let's talk about that.” So we try to do that kind of stuff in the meeting as well. It's about a 90-minute meeting. We try to cover some wins, a goldfish, something we've learned, and something we're feeling.

Ben Kaplan  33:47

What is the nature of feedback? It's an old adage marketing story where the young up-and-coming marketer goes into the CMO’s office and presents the campaign, and the CMO says, “Is that the best you can do?” So the markers like, “Oh, okay, shoot, okay. They didn't really take that too well.” And so they go back, they go back, they work on a campaign, they come back in office, and they show, “Hey, look, what I've done now!” CMO says, “Is that the best you can do?” So they go back, work hard, optimize this, optimize that, come back, show the presentation again. And the CMO says, “Is that the best you can do?” And the person finally says, “Yes, yes, that is the best I can do!” And the CMO says, “Thank you. I just wanted to make sure we were doing our best.” And that's the story. 

So I don't know what that says about feedback, but what is the nature of feedback? Are we talking like micro little morsels and lots of things overall? Is this like, you know, some people like radical candor? Is this performance reviews? We're just gonna, like, lean into that. What is the nature of feedback?

Dana Marineau  34:40

I'm glad you brought up radical candor because that is a philosophy I believe in, that amazing book by Kim Scott. And the concept of radical candor is simply building trust. And I do think teams and cultures are based on authenticity and trust. And so for me –and this is the way I choose to lead–, I am constantly giving feedback, all the things you just mentioned. Whether it's someone presenting in a meeting, someone saying something really smart in a meeting, someone helping out another person and not taking credit, or whatever it is. 

I am constantly giving positive, affirmative feedback throughout the day, every day, every meeting, right? “You did great,” “I love that”, you know, for example, because when you have a piece of feedback that is perhaps more critical in nature, or perhaps more constructive in nature, you have got to build trust with that person first. So they know you are an advocate, you were there to support them, and you always have their best interest in mind. And that kind of more critical feedback doesn't land as well if you haven't built that trust over time. 

So I am constantly giving all kinds of feedback about how things are going, how presentations are going, how emails are sent, and whatever it is so that people feel great, people feel good. Because there's going to be a moment when I say, “Hey, Can we talk about that?” And that lands a lot better when you've built that authenticity and trust over time. So that is my personal philosophy. And it is embedded within the culture of this team.

Ben Kaplan  36:08

And I think it also helps to hire people that respond well to feedback, right? Doesn't mean you have to be defensive about it, doesn't mean you have to, like, stand up to it, right? 

The other thing I think there's a little bit underrated as a skill is –I'm not the creator of this term, I've heard it many times before– being a positive gossip. What I mean by that is, “Oh, did you hear that Dana did a–,” “You know, that was really interesting insight about this campaign and–.”

Dana Marineau  36:36

I've never heard that. I love that.

Ben Kaplan  36:38

Right? Like, do the opposite. Not the negative but the positive. “Did you hear that my producer Tom is amazing at making podcasts and doing this. And did you hear what he did, this new thing he did on the top CEO podcast? That was amazing.” Right? Whatever it is, be a positive gossip, spread good things.

Dana Marineau  36:56

I'm taking that, I'm taking that Ben, thank you for that. I'll trademark it. I love that concept.

Ben Kaplan  37:01

I’m not the creator of it! I've heard it somewhere, I don't know where. But yes. And so it's so interesting, those little things. But I think your broader point was just you kind of build up this, like, trust balance in your bank account. You build it up, you build it up, and it's in your bank account, and then you can make a withdrawal when you need it. And it's built up. Exactly. And I think that's important to remember

Dana Marineau  37:22

I love that. I'm gonna use that one. I love that.

Ben Kaplan  37:25

We love what each other is doing. That's good. Take me through –to wrap up– where is all of this headed for us in marketing? You've talked about experimenting, you've talked about being relevant, you've talked about, “Hey, 90s Nostalgia is trending, call up Alicia Silverstone.” All of that. Where are we headed in the next three to five years? What are you looking at now? Do you care about ChatGPT and generative AI? Do you not? I'm throwing those things out there. But what are you thinking about what's coming?

Dana Marineau  37:55

We are always thinking about where our women are shopping. How they are shopping. What is inspiring them to shop. So to your point, that is constantly evolving. And yes, we have started to do different types of things on TikTok, of course. We've started to explore –pretty new– live shopping. So to us, it's where and how and what is the message to inspire our growing audiences, whether it's millennials or Gen Z and how they shop. And we are doing sort of the big research and the sort of micro research on what's happening with that generation, how are they shopping, what are they buying, why are they buying, what is inspiring them, who was inspiring them to understand. And that, for me, is the “What's new?” 

So, sure, yes, we too have been using AI related to our subject line testing, like, yes, of course we're doing that. But what I am constantly thinking about and what keeps me up at night is related to what's going to be the thing that motivates our growth audience. What is the thing that we say? Where do we say it? How do we say it? And that's what we are always experimenting with. And again, with that learning mentality, we allow ourselves to try, right? We try the Superbowl, we try Fashion Week, we try TikTok, we try special influencers, we try special music. Whatever it is, we are constantly thinking about what inspires and motivates a young woman to shop.

Ben Kaplan  39:18

How would you say you're thinking about recessionary times now –or it's even unclear if we're in a recession–? Obviously, that affects the shopping impulse a lot. How are you adjusting your investments? Are you doubling down in places? Are you pulling back in places? How are you thinking about it overall, right now?

Dana Marineau  39:36

I'd say the thing we've spent the most amount of time on is the messaging, the idea of savings. The idea of how to save. The idea of being a smarter, savvier shopper is what we have been really focused on because people are still needing to buy things. And I would say to you, “You need to buy something, whether it's cleats for your son, a pair of sunglasses, a jean jacket, your Uber, whatever it is, why wouldn't you during this time in our lives, save money while you're doing nothing?” Right? 

So that's the most important piece for us: the messaging and how we say that. A rich channel, of course, is something we pay attention to, but it's less about investment up, investment down. It's more about, “Where are we speaking to our members and to our newer members or our hopeful members, and what are we saying that's going to get them to want to try Rakuten and start their shopping with Rakuten? ‘Cause I would say to you, very few people would turn around and say to you, “No, I don't want to save money.” We know that people want to save money, especially at this moment. So what we've really been focused on is, how and where and what we say to inspire them to try Rakuten, or to do more of their shopping on Rakuten.

Ben Kaplan  40:53

Final question. What, in the next two-three years, are you working on personally as a CMO? Is there anything that you'd like to get better at? Is there a new superpower you'd like to add to the mix? Is there something else that you're trying to develop? A certain knowledge or skill? Where are you headed personally, and what are you working on now?

Dana Marineau  41:13

I am a marketer that is born of brand, born of creative, born of storytelling. And you know, I was at Electronic Arts for 15 years and really honed that brand and creative storytelling skill. Now I went to a startup called Credit Karma in 2016, to learn the performance side, to learn the growth marketing side, to learn –and I never use the terms art and science brand and performance–, I only use this term, meaningful and measuring. And it is the balance of the meaningful and the measurable where you really have the marketing magic.

So answering your question, I want to be as good as I possibly can, on both sides of that. I grew up in the brand and creative and storytelling side, and I'm always refining and learning. And mostly because the growth side, the performance side is always evolving. It's always changing. So keeping up with those changes, keeping up with data analytics, and marketing mix models, and keeping up with AI changing the landscape, like, I have to keep up with the ever-evolving in a way that isn't true as much on the brand and creative side that’s it's in my DNA. So I am always trying to learn and learn and learn. 

And I have you know, very purposely, I have people who are so much smarter than I am on our leadership team to teach me. I learn from them every day, both on the brand and creative side and on the marketing analytics side so that I can be as smart as I possibly can on both sides, because I think you need to have both meaningful and measurable to be a great CMO.

Ben Kaplan  42:48

According to Dana Marineau, the key to successful marketing lies in the harmonious blend of meaningful storytelling with measurable results. It's not just about numbers or flashy campaigns, although that can help at times. It's about building trust, authenticity, and a culture that thrives on both creativity and analytics. As Dana says, the M in marketing stands for meaningful storytelling, combined with measurable results. This philosophy has not only shaped Rakuten's brand reinvention in the US, but it's also become a guiding principle for her leadership style. 

Like Dana, many CMOs and senior marketers can find inspiration in the idea of optimism, a concept that's at the core of Rakuten's identity. It's about believing in the future without ignoring the realities of the present. Plus, a sense that what we do today matters. Embracing feedback, celebrating wins, taking risks, and maintaining a balance between the art and science of marketing can lead to extraordinary results. So be trendy without chasing trends, be data-driven, without getting lost in the numbers. In the end, regardless of the strategy or tactic, marketing is about connecting with people, truly understanding their needs, and inspiring them through a unified vision. 

For TOP CMO, I'm Ben Kaplan.

This was brought to you by Top Thought Leader. Find out more at

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