Episode 7 – Interview with Kate Atwood

The Blog

Episode 7 – Interview with Kate Atwood


Adam: [00:00:01] Hi, I am joined today by Kate Atwood, Executive Director of Choose ATL and the founder of Kate’s Club. Kate, thanks for joining us.

Kate: [00:00:09] Thanks for having me Adam, I’m excited to get to chat.

Adam: [00:00:12] Is there anything else for that intro that you need to share with us?

Kate: [00:00:15] I think that pretty much covers it.

Adam: [00:00:18] All right. That’s good. Well, I’ll apologize to listeners that I’ve got a bit of a cold, but Kate’s going to make up for that, right? It’s going to be great. And we’re going to talk about some digital marketing. So tell me something that you’re excited about in the marketing space, with, like, Choose ATL, I know you’re doing a ton of really innovative stuff. What’s something that you’re excited about?

Kate: [00:00:38] Well, I think in this role, with Choose ATL — I mean, my background, I like to think of myself as both a brand builder and a community architect, and so all of my initiatives have always kind of been backed by building a brand that is aspirational for a community. And so when you think of it through that lens, I mean, being given a city to do that work, I’m not sure it gets any more exciting than this, right?
So I have been in this role for two years, and I’ve just been fascinated and excited every day really. I mean, it’s pretty interesting what’s going on in the world, just of economic development and how the paradigm shift from the industrial age to the digital age, layered on top of the millennial generation entering the workforce, layered on top of this idea of livability coming from city marketing. I think, overarchingly, the place-based marketing is so ripe for redefinition, and it makes my job every day both equally challenging as it is exciting. And by place-based marketing, I mean that your product is a place, and how do you get people to consume your products? So we’re looking at Atlanta through that lens.

Adam: [00:02:07] Nice.

Kate: [00:02:07] Right. And I think much like, even in consumer branding, where you’ve gone from the advertising age to kind of the product placement age, to now just the storytelling age: how do we kind of follow the same suit? Cities are kind of the last to understand that advertising, from a tourism lens, isn’t really what’s cutting it. Maybe for some Dollywood visitors, but anybody for the next gen, anybody’s marketing next-gen, there’s all this conversation amongst the cities on how you market livability. Because the golden cow, the target consumer in our world is talent, is that workforce. And so it’s just fascinating. I never picked this for my career. I never envisioned it I should say, that I never envisioned it. But it’s a really, really exciting place to be. And then, of course, I get Atlanta, so —

Adam: [00:03:13] Atlanta’s great. I’m a big fan.

Kate: [00:03:13] Yeah, I think we’re biased, but we’ve got one of the hottest cities in the world right now that is still a bit undefined. So again, just to be working in that sandbox is really fun.

Adam: [00:03:30] So as far as place marketing goes, you’re thinking on a very high level about marketing a city, right? Bringing people to a city, you’re not trying to move people to one space. Are there any lessons you learned from that too, that could be applied to a nonprofit that does, for example, have a building, so it’s a much smaller space that they’re marketing but it’s still kind of place marketing in a sense?

Kate: [00:03:50] Look, I mean, I’m applying so much of my nonprofit experience in building Kate’s Club, and then I was the executive director at the Arby’s Foundation. And the biggest thread that I’m carrying through is, again, place-based, or service, or whatever the nonprofit mission is — a nonprofit mission should be — I think the brand should be the aspiration of that nonprofit, it should be the aspiration of that community. That’s what Kate’s Club is. Kate’s Club works with children and teens who’ve lost a parent or a sibling.

Adam: [00:04:26] Right.

Kate: [00:04:26] And Kate’s Club is — so that’s children’s bereavement, right? That’s grief, that’s loss, that’s heavy stuff for anybody, especially for kids. Kate’s Club is the only organization that serves the mission around grief that is a living brand.

Adam: [00:04:44] Okay.

Kate: [00:04:44] So, what does that mean? That means all the other ones, really quickly, like Dougy’s place, [00:04:49] Bose house, [1.3] there’s like almost 300 of them around the country, they’re all named after the person who died. Kate’s Club is the only one that’s named after the person who lived: Kate. I lost my mom, Audrey, when I was 12, but Kate is a survivor. I think that has so built the power of the brand.

Adam: [00:05:08] It’s a different fundamental thing.

Kate: [00:05:08] Yeah. Because Kate is everybody that that brand represents.

Adam: [00:05:13] It’s the living person.

Kate: [00:05:13] It’s the living person. So, I think if you’re a nonprofit, I mean, traditional nonprofit marketing has been about, kind of like, this is the urgent call for why we need this service da da da da. And I try to look at it by flipping everything on its head. And what can that call to action be, in terms of an aspiration for our community?

Adam: [00:05:37] I love that.

Kate: [00:05:38] I did the same thing at Arby’s, really quickly, the brand of the Arby’s Foundation became the aspiration of the community of franchisees, employees, customers, and communities. So all built around what the industry that Arby’s was in, which was food service. So I’m now, with Choose ATL, trying to apply the same thing. But I think it’s the biggest challenge in my life.

Adam: [00:06:12] Right.

Kate: [00:06:12] Because it is a bit undefined. We’re still on a rise; we’re still figuring out who we are. And I think that the marketer in me knows that branding 101 and marketing 101 is: you can’t be all things to all people. Right? You dilute your message; you dilute your inertia to get people to pay attention and to consume your product. So, we’ve wrestled with that.

Adam: [00:06:37] Well it’s tough when you’re in a city. Because a city is all things to all people, right?

Kate: [00:06:43] Right. It is a big city, and now, I’ll add to that challenge that typically cities in the industrial age, the big major metros, and cities that grew in the industrial age, hung their hat on industry.

Adam: [00:07:00] Right.

Kate: [00:07:01] Think about Hollywood in L.A., think about Detroit and the automobile, think about New York and finance. And what’s hard is that application doesn’t work for the digital age.

Adam: [00:07:12] It’s too dispersed.

Kate: [00:07:12] Also because diversity in the industry is actually an advantage in the digital age. But in the industrial age, it’s like you wanted to center your gravitational force around one industry for the economy. That’s how you built your identity. Atlanta, we don’t necessarily win hanging our hat on one industry, we are a wonderful collaboration of industry. So what is it? It’s sentiment, it’s a type.

Adam: [00:07:46] A type of lifestyle.

Kate: [00:07:47] Yeah. So I guess that I’ll just say, I’m now in this position where I’m not sure I am the wizard of marketing. We’re having to solve a tough riddle.

Adam: [00:08:00] That’s a good thing. It’s a good problem solver.

Kate: [00:08:02] Yeah, yeah.

Adam: [00:08:03] So in solving that problem: I love to ask this, so is there something that you’ve done from a marketing perspective that has been very successful that you could share with us?

Kate: [00:08:17] Well, I think the most — I mean look, the biggest highlight, I think the biggest moment we’ve had is out at South by Southwest.

Adam: [00:08:26] You guys had an amazing set up at South by Southwest. I’d be a fool not to check that out next year. That was the exact words somebody told me; I forget who it was.

Kate: [00:08:35] Here’s what I think we’ve done really well, short of us being able to deliver some tagline, right? Which is like, initially what everybody was like, “Get into a room, what’s our ‘Keep Austin Weird.'” You know, what’s that tagline? I refused to go there, For a lot of reasons. I think, much like any brand or company digs deep into their origin story, or their people, or their customer and what drives them — I think that this brand, Choose ATL — I think that this should come from the people. And so we’ve tried to, rather than have kind of both the brand equity here and credibility here, so marketing efforts around Atlanta to get people on board, they are our biggest marketing asset. And then, what I’ve been really proud about is how we’ve — I have a big theory of marketing around: you’ve got to meet people where they’re at. So how do we bring Atlanta to people? Without a doubt, when you bring somebody to Atlanta, their mind is blown. The world has no idea.

Adam: [00:09:40] Right.

Kate: [00:09:40] And that’s a problem for us.

Adam: [00:09:42] It’s different than people expect.

Kate: [00:09:42] It’s totally — they just — and part of it is because we’re just growing so fast. And the second part of that is because we’re kind of a bit shy and humble in telling our stories, we’re not great self-promoters. And we’re trying to change all of that. So our first attempt at that was when we had this very ‘bring it to the world’ launch at South by Southwest. And we made sure that meeting that audience where they’re at, which was a mix of interactive film and music, of which, of emerging markets, no city can go toe to toe with us. You know? You wrap that up in culture that’s influencing the world, and I mean, it’s been like it’s going to drop. I mean, really, people are just blown away, and nobody’s expecting that from the city.

Adam: [00:10:31] Sure.

Kate: [00:10:32] So short of me being able to bring millions of people here, because they can’t afford that, and try to cover everybody through experiential marketing around the world, we’re now at the stage we’re trying to figure out how we scale that emotional transaction, which happens when somebody is learning or curious about Atlanta and they just go, “Who knew?”

Adam: [00:11:00] So taking that experience from South by Southwest and carrying that out in other spaces, and even digitally.

Kate: [00:11:05] Yeah.

Adam: [00:11:05] Which is a complex problem.

Kate: [00:11:06] I mean, you open your house with Ludacris and you have The Walking Dead EP team there. Frank Patterson is running the Pinewood, so you have the film, then you have the CIOs of all the major brands from Delta to Home Depot to First Data, then you end the night with Jermaine Dupri and Rich Homie Quan. It’s just like —

Adam: [00:11:37] That sounds pretty amazing!

Kate: [00:11:37] And I think that is the sentiment there, the underbelly there too is that people show up for Atlanta.

Adam: [00:11:44] Yeah. That’s amazing. I love that.

Kate: [00:11:47] And honestly, just because, as marketers, I know, especially nonprofit marketers, you’ve got to leverage your people, because we have done that for like a tenth of the price of what a major brand spins out there.

Adam: [00:12:01] Oh for sure.

Kate: [00:12:02] And yet, we’re bringing —

Adam: [00:12:03] Because they’re passionate about Atlanta too. They want to bring people to Atlanta.

Kate: [00:12:06] Exactly. So it’s like, I think people think we had this crazy budget, it’s like really, no!

Adam: [00:12:10] You just get these key individuals that love this city to get behind what you’re doing.

Kate: [00:12:15] And people want to be attached to place right now. In the digital world, there is one thing that’s true: people are finding their identity more actually by where they are placed.

Adam: [00:12:27] In a location, their neighborhoods.

Kate: [00:12:27] Because we’re so out there in social media and all of that stuff, that your identity around your neighborhood and your community and your city is of increased importance.

Adam: [00:12:38] It really is. I’m seeing that as well. I mean even talking to my team who live over in east Atlanta, and they’re talking about the local pub they all go to and all that sort of stuff. I’m in [00:12:47] Lawburn [0.4] and [00:12:48] Metro Lane [0.4] is kind of like that too. It’s your place; you want to stay in your place. And so when I’m looking for a restaurant, I’m trying to find places in my city because I don’t want to go somewhere else. And I think that’s a really fascinating observation.

Kate: [00:13:00] Yea. So it’s just how you bring it to the world, which I think that’s what every marketer wrestles with because you have so much noise out there. It’s all about differentiation. But with community, you don’t want to leave — you feel, I think a little bit more of a tug to not leave anybody out.

Adam: [00:13:18] Right. It’s great. So tougher question. I always like to ask this too. So is there something you’ve done from a marketing perspective that was not as successful as you would have liked, that our listeners could learn from?

Kate: [00:13:36] Certainly. I’m trying to think if there was something that actually made it to the market place or if it —

Adam: [00:13:43] If it got cut early?

Kate: [00:13:45] Yeah. If we didn’t move forward with it.

Adam: [00:13:47] Well maybe you could tell us that process of how things that come — ideas that come up that get cut. Like, how does that work and when do they get cut?

Kate: [00:13:55] Yeah. I mean, look, I think — and I do think non-profits face similar, a bit of a similar environment in marketing that –like a civic organization does. That is that there is a lower threshold to being provocative and taking risks and people, especially when you have a message. Because one word can be misinterpreted and the whole thing comes tumbling down. Now we’ve seen that a lot, unfortunately, with nonprofits. It goes the same at the risk of having a face that endorses for a nonprofit. That’s another big thing. I know that, even with kids, it’s like, do you want to line up with a celebrity or not line up a celebrity?

Adam: [00:14:39] Oh yea it’s tough, Polarizing.

Kate: [00:14:41] It is, and then you almost kind of put within that the risk within that person who really has no control of any of the operations of the program. So that, I think, is — I have both seen Kate’s Club who has not benefited from a celebrity endorsement and how that has impacted our growth. Kept it steady but we haven’t had some big kind of viral headline moment necessarily from it.

Adam: [00:15:10] Right.

Kate: [00:15:11] And then I see nonprofits who have been attached to celebrities, and they get in a total mode of crisis if something goes wrong with that celebrity. It’s a heavily weighed question, but — So for Choose ATL, I’ve been very calculated in how much I push that envelope. But also knowing that I have to, with this brand, I’m speaking to the next generation. With all due respect to the wonderful citizens of Atlanta that have been here for decades, my charge is to get the next generation to pay attention to it, and to move here and to build Atlanta. So I have to be relevant to them, which has created a bit of how — you know, what I push forward in terms of message and activations. South by Southwest was a big thing. I’m trying to think; there’s certainly been a lot that I have killed before I gotten — I’ve let it go to the market place.

Adam: [00:16:24] Right.

Kate: [00:16:25] We tried to do this whole social wraparound, all the string and music. So, we were trying to create our own music row last year. Because music row is a big thing in cities, like Nashville’s got music row, but it’s like the studios. And then New Orleans — you’ve got music row in Austin, but that’s the live. So I’m like, what is music row for us. Well, Atlanta has more music production at festivals and concerts than I think any other metro. We are like number two. Meaning there’s a lot of economic development when we look at the production of music. So we tried to create that music row. I mean you’ve got One Music Fest, Music Midtown, AC3, amongst a bunch of other smaller music festivals that have happened, from September, October. So we tried to create this string through it all, on social media, and kind of giving access and giving tickets and all that stuff. It didn’t really catch on. We didn’t do it again.

Adam: [00:17:31] So worth a shot.

Kate: [00:17:33] Yeah. Oh, I have one more.

Adam: [00:17:34] Yeah, good.

Kate: [00:17:36] I have one more, because this is actually something that I think is — this is actually I think helpful, for example. So when Choose ATL was launched, it was one of the first activations that it was launched with was a thing called Ultimate Job, right? And it was this idea that we should do a contest that invites young people here, they get to experience Atlanta, and they get to apply for a job. So it’s a bit of like the Apprentice meets American Idol, but you’re hired.

Adam: [00:18:04] OK. Gotcha.

Kate: [00:18:05] So we did it, we won, and we kept it quiet. It was like; there’s really some potential here. Like, maybe we should think about how we make this into a TV show or something digital media. And so we went bigger the next year. And we partnered with a local WSB, which is fantastic. And we came away with it, we aren’t doing it again, and I’ll tell you why: it wasn’t a total loss. I think the win was that it gave more credibility within what we were doing. But it did not catch on to the audience. And I think it didn’t catch on with the audience because it wasn’t differentiating them. You know what I’m saying? It was this broad net of like, the ultimate job and we’re already going out into the audience and into new audiences and campuses around the country, people not being familiar with Atlanta. The fact that it was such a generic call, in terms of it being a job, it just didn’t have that stickiness. And so the big lesson was: you have to — this generation is so crowded with information and noise, that if you’re trying to build a brand identity, even if it’s around one activation, make sure it’s aligned with your brand and make sure it is — within that is differentiating you from the rest of the pack.

Adam: [00:19:35] Right.

Kate: [00:19:36] So how we pivoted — so I’ll end this story with this note — how we pivoted was: we were like, okay we’re not going to do Ultimate Job, but we launched this initiative called Tracklanta. So Tracklanta is a nod to all of — and people have no idea the music that is produced here.

Adam: [00:19:53] Oh yeah. It’s a lot.

Kate: [00:19:54] I mean, you’ve got, from Beyonce to Zac Brown, they are coming to Atlanta to work with our producers and be in our studios. The world doesn’t know that, and that’s hard, because studio sessions and all that stuff is kept very secret. So we were like, how do we still get that message out that we are a place where the next gen, and where music is still the provenance of the creativity and the production is here? So we launched this thing called Tracklanta, where we made a call for submissions for two weeks where any artist within the metro Atlanta chamber — they had to be in the chamber — where any artist in the metro Atlanta area could upload their Sound Cloud on Choose ATL.com. And we partnered with Love Renaissance, which is a new music artist management company, they’re breaking all the new hip hop stars, they are constantly — I think they were just rated by number one in Billboard for influencing next-gen hip-hop. They’re amazing. We partnered with them, and they went through — I think we had like 160 submissions — and they went through them all and they picked one winner to come in, and that person got to mix, master and make a single.

Adam: [00:21:19] Wow. That’s a big deal.

Kate: [00:21:20] And then open for One Music Fest.

Adam: [00:21:22] That’s a really big deal.

Kate: [00:21:24] Do you see the shift there?

Adam: [00:21:25] Yeah.

Kate: [00:21:26] It was way less of a lift for us, number one —

Adam: [00:21:29] So specific.

Kate: [00:21:30] So specific, but then got a story out to the world without necessarily compromising that which is kind of sacred, right? And, we’re investing in the next generation, that’s the best of it all. You get the message out that we’re investing in the next generation. So, again, I think even when you feel like you’ve kind of failed or you’ve missed an opportunity, or you haven’t quite hit the mark, I’m never one to just totally dismiss an idea.

Adam: [00:22:02] You can learn and shift and iterate.

Kate: [00:22:04] Yea. I think anybody who is into the building stage of a brand has to adapt that thinking because you’re going to fall short, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s just, marketing right now is kind of this crazy wild wild west.

Adam: [00:22:19] I love that you said that, because I feel like sometimes nonprofits are overly cautious in their marketing and while you do have to be cautious with your brand, like you talked about, you also have to take some risks in terms of what you’re going to do and just see if it works. And it might not, and that’s okay. You just got to try it and then learn from it and then move to the next thing and try that.

Kate: [00:22:39] And again, it’s not saying take a risk that has to be borderline controversial.

Adam: [00:22:42] Right.

Kate: [00:22:42] Just take a risk, that is, again I think — I always look at — I would say this: I always look at partnerships and marketing ideas through the lens of: will this get its headline? Does it even have the possibility to get us a headline?

Adam: [00:23:00] That’s a great criteria.

Kate: [00:23:01] If you are doing something that other people are tapping as: this is different, then you know, you’re kind of —

Adam: [00:23:10] It’s headline-worthy then you’re in a good spot. I love that.

Kate: [00:23:14] Yea, and I think nonprofits are still kind of stuck in: let’s just put out a press release and do the same kind of thing. And I think you have to look at all your assets, whether it’s your fundraising event or your influencer program or your paid media strategy, and I think you’ve got to pull it all back and just say, “What are we doing that’s different? And what are we doing within those activations that has potential to be a headline moment?”

Adam: [00:23:40] And then emphasizing that. I love that. I think every nonprofit’s probably doing something that’s headline-worthy, or could tweak what they’re doing just slightly to be headline worthy if they really would put some effort and think through it. I think a lot of times what happens — I don’t know, what happens with the ones I’m involved with is you get so head down that you don’t step back to think holistically about it.

Kate: [00:24:02] Right.

Adam: [00:24:02] But if you can, you can really find out where to grow.

Kate: [00:24:05] Yeah, I think it’s hard. I mean, gosh, you’re in a shop where you’re constantly trying — again, it’s a bit of a wild wild west that changes so frequently. And non-profits, we’re about to do something really, really big with Choose ATL, and I’m really, really excited about it. I’ll come back and talk about it.

Adam: [00:24:30] I look forward to that. I’ll let you do that.

Kate: [00:24:35] But we’re doing it, and I think the critics are undoubtedly saying, “You’ll never be able to compete.” So we’re trying to do something on trend with brand, like what big storytelling brands are trying to do. And we’ll never have that budget that they have. And we’re not –, and we understand that, so we’re not even approaching our value proposition in that way, and how we market it will be totally different. But I think sometimes nonprofits, they just understand that, but they still challenge themselves to be on trend. The first nonprofit that’s on trend, without a doubt always gets the draft in the rub off of that. So all these study for-profit trends, I think that’s another thing too, even if they seem aspirational for your budget, like stay on top of enterprise brand, the strongest brands, stay on top of their trends and kind of be challenging you and your team on the application of that to your nonprofit.

Adam: [00:25:42] I love that. I think we’ll probably end on that avocation. I think that’s a really good place to stop it there. So, this was really great.

Kate: [00:25:51] Thankyou. I hope it’s helpful, always.

Adam: [00:25:53] I think it’s very helpful for me and inspiring for me and I think it’ll be inspiring to our listeners too. And I will hold you to that. I want you to come back, and we’ll hear about the big thing, when you tell me it’s okay.

Kate: [00:26:05] Okay. I will.

Adam: [00:26:05] Thanks so much Kate.

Kate: [00:26:06] Thanks, Adam.

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