Welcome to our first of many interviews with innovators, mavericks and leaders across the globe who are challenging convention and changing the CX status quo!
To kick off the series, our Partner Robert Wallace who leads Tallwave’s strategic market and growth opportunities interviewed Kelli MacDonald, Chief Marketing Officer of the world’s first clean medicine company Genexa. Founded in 2014 by two dads who were concerned about the ingredients in their family’s medicine bottles, Genexa has one simple mission: To put people over everything. They believe in expanding health education and improving accessibility to clean medicines for all. And in 2021, they’ve got some pretty big goals – some backed by data, and others inspired by their ‘StoryDoing’ ethos.
Learn how Genexa plans to evolve from start-up to household name, Washington D.C. lobbyist, and the brand that changed the over-the-counter (OTC) industry for good.
Q&A with Kelli Lane MacDonald, Genexa CMO
Robert Wallace: To start, I think it would be worthwhile for you to give us a brief overview of your background and an introduction to Genexa.
Kelli Lane MacDonald: Sure! I [started my career cutting] my teeth at various different advertising agencies up and down Madison Avenue, if you will, in New York City. I went back to school while working at one of those agencies to really dig into customer experience, human centered design – to expand my knowledge.
Through that process, I landed at a brand strategy firm that really focused on putting the person at the center of the experience. [They] hung their philosophy on this idea of ‘StoryDoing’… [it’s] the concept that you [not only] need a really powerful story and mission – you need to do that story in the world. The best brands in the world – [the ones that] are most famous, impactful and giving back to society – are the ones that follow that kind of philosophy. So, through that work – through my previous agency where I was the Managing Director – we started working with Genexa to help them finalize their brand and really take them to the next level with the launch into stores – 40,000 different retailers like Target and RiteAid, Walgreen, Whole Foods and many others. So, I bring a lot of experience with marketing, communications and consumer insights – how to speak with, touch and provide value to consumers everyday.
What really drives me every morning to wake up and [makes me] excited to do this job with Genexa is what they’ve built. The founders of Genexa, David Johnson and Matt Spielberg, are two dads. About five years ago, they looked at what was in their children’s medicine and couldn’t believe the artificial dyes, colors and ingredients – literally the poisonous ingredients in substances like Antifreeze – that are being used in micro-doses in our medicines and we ingest to make us feel better. They felt there had to be another way and so they embarked on a journey to really create alternatives that are just as effective and have the same active ingredients, which is the reason you take a medicine – acetaminophen, diphenhydramine… the reason you take Tylenol or Mucinex or Benadryl – but take out all of the dirty, inactive ingredients and replace them with organic, non-GMO alternatives. Our whole company is built around this philosophy ‘People over everything…’ That everyone deserves access to cleaner, better for you medicines. And you know, we’re thankful to all of our retail partners who are helping us bring that to everybody.
RW: Thank you for that. It’s a really interesting concept. When you looked or are looking at building out Genexa, do you take into consideration any specific touchpoints in the over-the-counter buying journey? What user experience components do you believe to be most critical to customer conversions and loyalty?
KLM: That’s a great question. There’s really two kinds of OTC drug shoppers and all of us are those two personas depending on the situation that we’re in. There’s the emergency situation: Your child has a 103 degree fever. It’s 11pm at night. You need to go get relief for them to bring that fever down. Or you are not in a moment of crisis and are thinking about how to improve your health, be prepared and clean up your medicine cabinet or find alternative options.
As consumers, there’s been a clean revolution in all kinds of industries – food, beverage, beauty – to me, it’s actually the most counterintuitive thought in the world that the medicine we put into our bodies to make us feel better would be the products that are still dirty and have dirty ingredients.
As we think about those two personas – the emergency shopping persona versus the non-crisis but trying to prepare [persona] – there are different needs, right? If you’re in an emergency situation, [you’re] not ordering something online and waiting two days for it to [arrive]. It’s not useful, at that point. Where as.. If you’re thinking about how to live a less stressful life or help with sleep at night because of the changing of time zones, you’re more in that reactive mode. Because of that, we made a really conscious decision to be the only pharmaceutical company that sells omnichannel. We, obviously, have an in-store presence with retailers. We have a .com, we have Amazon, we’re selling through instacart. [We’ve made] a conscious decision that we never want to force a consumer to shop in a way that is not natural or useful for them, and, therefore, we had to build out sales and marketing strategies that supported that.
RW: How did you come to those realizations that it needed to be a 360 customer experience or to understand that those were the two primary personas that you were looking at? Did you do audience research?
KLM: Yes, we did quite a bit back in [quarter one] of last year. To give my counterparts that run sales internally at Genexa credit – they started having retailer conversations long before the marketing team did tons of audience research and segmentation and said this was the right decision: To go have those conversations. I think, originally, like any entrepreneurial culture, there’s probably a little bit of gut feeling, a lot of talking to people in aisles. Everybody on our executive team walks into retail aisles and just talks to customers – well before COVID. We don’t do that currently. And so, it starts by understanding the customer – we used research to validate that – and also find additional insights to understand how to reach them, how to add value and [to uncover] what their need states were.
Also read: What Is CX & Why Does It Matter
RW: How did you identify or evaluate which channels to go after first? You have DTC, big and small retailers, instacart – how did you prioritize those or even think of those when crafting omnichannel funnels? What was most important to you and your strategy?
KLM: It’s chicken and egg, honestly, because from my perspective, depending on who you are as a brand – that’s where I think you need to really start: Do some soul searching, figure out what is authentically you. Then use that to inform how you think about your business and where to build, invest time, money and effort first. But I think the egg side of that is – especially with more entrepreneurial startup environment – you have to get your product into people’s hands. So, really organically, our sales team went to the Erewhons and the Sprouts in LA [where it was founded] with backpacks of product… and just asked for some time with the decision-makers of those stores.
But I also think, coming back to the brand point, part of what makes Genexa so different is that we call ourselves the only human funnel. We are pharma with a face. Our founders phone numbers are on every single product on the box. We have Founder Fridays where our two founders actually call customers. Our customer service team are people, they’re not robots or offshore. They sit in the office with the rest of the teams. It was really important to us to make sure that, when we’re thinking about where we’re going to show up, we do that in a way that ladders back to the brand and that humanity.
RW: Is that a good example of ‘StoryDoing?’
KLM: Yes! My team gets tired of me saying this, but I constantly say, ‘Living out our purpose is not the job of just the marketing team.’
In order for a company to be successful – [for] a brand to be built and have long-term loyalty and really impact change in a society – every single person in the company, whether in quality or compliance or legal or sales, they need to understand what mission we’re on and they need to shape and drive their actions accordingly.
RW: I agree. You think about brands people truly love – truly covet – and have an emotional connection to. Those people that have that kind of affinity, they don’t talk about it in terms of a product thing or a customer service thing or a marketing thing. It’s a brand thing and that means every touchpoint has to be right in line. You’re making a promise as a brand – you have to question if everything else is fulfilling that promise.
KLM: Right, [you have to consider] every interaction [a person has] with the brand: Opening the package of a medicine bottle, where [they shop for that, calling customer service or, obviously, the social impact work that we do. All of [those are] our brand touchpoints. [They’re all] opportunities for consumers to create a relationship, good or bad, with the brand. The companies that are doing it poorly are only thinking about advertising – they’re talking, they’re not walking. It’s those that are on the flipside of that – that understand that purpose has to be embedded into everything you do as a business – that are most successful.
RW: It’s that idea of authentic awareness. It’s not just about doing a mass market campaign, but doing something authentically that actually speaks to people in a way they care about. It’s not just driving eyeballs, that’s only part of it. So, you have the authentic awareness part of things, you have the culture storytelling… you obviously have a product that’s cleaner, better and healthier for people. Those are departures from other OTC brands out there, but is there anything else you’re doing that’s different from other legacy brands you’re competing against? Not that those two alone aren’t enough.
KLM: Yes. We’ve been working on a [longer term] impact strategy, so we’re going to have a couple of pretty significant initiatives kick off this year that are in service of driving change at a systemic level. So, with the FDA – I don’t know if you know this but Europe actually has the European standard, which is the equivalent of the FDA in Europe, and the standards that they put out are incredibly more strict than they are in the U.S. All of the ingredients that are on Genexa’s ‘X List’ – which is our growing list of ingredients that we vow never to put in our products and are in our competitor’s products – 98% of those are banned in Europe. So, it’s not even a question for European products. That really gets you thinking. How come European citizens have access to carte blanche better products than there are in the U.S? It doesn’t seem sensible. So, Genexa is really leading the charge. I don’t want to give too much away, but we’re going to be partnering with some other brands that you know and love to really drive that change at a systemic level in Washington D.C. [and with the FDA.
We’re also really looking at – I said the word access earlier – [increasing] knowledge. First and foremost, people don’t know that these ingredients are in their medicines. Then, [it’s about getting people] access to the actual product. We’re standing up an initiative that will help bring education and actual products to communities that otherwise don’t have access, have been forgotten about or are often overlooked because – especially with clean products – I think marketers realized a couple decades ago that they could mark those products up to be premium pricing. Genexa does not believe in [in that]. Our products are more expensive to source because they are better-for-you products – they’re not synthetically made in a lab – and so what we’ve done is kept those price points as competitive as possible. They’re never more than 15% of the leading skew. That’s really driven by this idea of ‘People over everything’. Everybody deserves knowledge and access to better products.
RW: How do you measure ‘People over everything’? You have this idea of people – it feels qualitative… super important but qualitative – but then you have to measure that somehow. How are you measuring your impact or how are you using data to measure whether you’re on the right track or not?
KLM: There are some really incredible brand impact partners that have built out tools to help do that. I think there’s probably a more formal way to do that, which we’re working on standing up.
I think informally, we do donate quite a bit of product to different organizations – new moms that don’t have health insurance… Baby2Baby does a lot of really good work with new moms. We don’t shout it off of the rooftops. We feel we’re privileged enough to be in a position where we can give the product to people [who] need it. And that’s our duty, we are fortunate to be in that position. Two years back, we actually built a clean water well in Central America because access to clean water is really the fundamental starting point for good health, or better health.So, we’ve really acted out quite a few initiatives over the past few years that we can more informally measure.
But to answer your question, there are tools that – when you design your brand impact strategy – you look at societal and cultural health and there are all these different metrics that you can measure the impact your brand is having over time to help move that needle. One of our goals over the next few years is to start getting the FDA to cross out previously approved ingredients in all medicines, [so] Genexa [is not] the only [brand] that has better ingredients. That’s a tangible measurement. If we can get five of those products removed – or however many ingredients removed – across the U.S., that’s longterm going to incrementally have an incredible impact on people’s health.
RW: If you’re successful in what you’re setting out to do, that will disrupt the OTC market quite a lot. Do you feel that disruption is a prerequisite of innovation or do you think that you can innovate and do cool things that aren’t necessarily disruptive but still effective?
KLM: The latter. If you go back to the famous Henry Ford quote of 1920-something, when he said ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’ He wasn’t necessarily looking to disrupt horse and buggy [businesses], he was identifying an opportunity to create a better product, a better experience. [He was identifying] a need state for people. So, I think disruption is one way, but I also think consumer insight – understanding where people are and what they need most – [can be disruptive].
I love the Swiffer example, too. They went in people’s houses and looked at how women, primarily, homemakers were cleaning floors. One woman wet a paper towel and mopped up the coffee grounds off the floor. Again, not setting out to disrupt vacuums, but trying to define a better option. In-between the vacuum happens to be a Swiffer.
RW: I love that example. The spinbrush is another one. So, this has been a big year for everyone, obviously: 2020. But Genexa went through a rebranding, released a new line of products, launched some campaigns and even established a partnership with Nintendo. That’s a big year. What do you see as your mandate as CMO for 2021?
KLM: To make 2020 feel like it was just a step on the journey. This year is all about growth. Last year was about foundation and reinforcing foundational elements and starting to put the pieces in place for serious growth. Obviously, getting a presence in 40,000 doors is growth, but it was really just starting to reinforce that foundation. This year is about taking us to the next level. Ultimately, I want Genexa to be a household name. I want everybody to understand that they don’t have to settle for less than acceptable ingredients in their medicines. Then we can start thinking beyond just OTC… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
RW: We’re marketing people. It’s what we do. Thank you so much, Kelli! I love what Genexa is doing. I love your passion for it and I love the idea of really being authentic in how you’re doing your business and at scale. Genexa looks like it’s well on its way.
KLM: Thank you, Robert!