Bozoma Saint John, Photo by Maya Darasaw, MAD Works Photography

 

Bozoma Saint John: How Marketing Can Spur Social Change

Convergence Keynote speaker explains why empathy is good for business

Bozoma Saint John thinks and talks about empathy quite a bit. For the marketing executive and SXSW 2019 Convergence Keynote speaker, this is integral to the work that she does currently as chief marketing officer for Endeavor, and it’s been an important feature of her previous work with companies such as PepsiCo, Apple and Uber. As she explains, empathy is what makes the difference in actually being able to establish impactful connections through storytelling and marketing.

“The thing about empathy is it’s not so much tolerating somebody, it’s understanding somebody,” Saint John says. “There’s a big difference because tolerating somebody means that you really are not invested in the outcome … If we were all more empathetic about what is happening with the person next to us, it would spur us to action.”

This is the mindset with which she approaches marketing, but it is based on an understanding that Saint John began to develop at a young age when change was constant. She was born in Connecticut to Ghanaian parents, then moved to Ghana when she was six months old. She moved to Washington, D.C. when she was five; then to Orange County, California; then to Nairobi, Kenya; and back to Ghana again before her family finally settled in Colorado when she was 12.

“By the time I got to Colorado Springs, I was already pretty used to moving around a bit,” Saint John understates. “I was used to having to create and re-create identity a lot.”

Break & Re-Make Your Brand with Uber, SXSW 2018. Photo by Kaylin Balderrama

Break & Re-Make Your Brand with Uber, SXSW 2018. Photo by Kaylin Balderrama

 

After studying African-American Studies and English at Wesleyan University back in Connecticut, Saint John pursued her interest in advertising, marketing and public relations, and moved to New York City. In 2000, she landed a temp position at Spike DDB, Spike Lee’s advertising agency, and was offered a permanent position within a few weeks.

While at Spike DDB, Saint John answered PepsiCo’s call for new musicians to partner with by pitching Beyoncé, who was just starting her solo career at the time. Inspired by Beyoncé’s performance in Carmen: A Hip Hopera, Saint John suggested Beyoncé to Lee, and eventually Beyoncé filmed a Carmen-inspired Pepsi commercial. When Saint John later went to work for PepsiCo, one of her last projects was Beyoncé’s Superbowl halftime performance in 2013.

“If we were all more empathetic about what is happening with the person next to us, it would spur us to action.”

Though she was known in marketing circles, Saint John’s 2016 keynote presentation at Apple Worldwide Developers Conference caused people outside of her industry to take notice of her. Her memorable presentation included inviting the audience to sing along to “Rapper’s Delight” with her, a calculated risk to use music and examples that resonated with her rather than focus on engineering jargon.

“Going into that presentation, knowing how big that stage was, knowing the history that was going to be made — I knew all those going in, but you can never predict how you’re going to do,” Saint John remembers.

“As soon as I got off that stage, Twitter was buzzing and Instagram was going, and articles were being written trying to describe what I did and who I was,” she recalls. “It was really overwhelming.”

Bozoma Saint John, Photo by Maya Darasaw, MAD Works Photography

Bozoma Saint John, Photo by Maya Darasaw, MAD Works Photography

 

In 2017, Saint John was hired by Uber to help rebrand the company’s image after a series of reports detailed racial and gender disparities and a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination at the company. At SXSW 2018, Saint John spoke about her work there during a session called “Break & Re-Make Your Brand with Uber,” in which she answered questions about how the company was working to rebuild trust while talking plainly about the reality of combatting systems of oppression within companies. It was during that session that she called on white men to “make the noise” to tackle issues of inequality, which is something she continues to do.

“If you talk about women and people of color in corporate environments — if there is no empathy for these people, then how can there be action?” Saint John asks. “The empathy needs to come from the majority — from white men.”

Last summer, she became CMO for Endeavor, a global leader in entertainment, sports and fashion that operates in more than 30 countries. “I feel that the opportunity and responsibility I have at Endeavor is yet another way for me to contribute along the lines of diversity and inclusion, as an executive with a seat at the table,” Saint John explains.

As she plans for her SXSW Keynote this year, Saint John is still thinking very much about empathy in storytelling and specifically about pop culture’s ability to disrupt narratives for the better. “There’s a real opportunity for all of us to utilize pop culture within our own spaces, whether it’s in our company, friends — to continue pushing a message of authenticity and human across culture,” Saint John concludes. “We’re able to change some of these narratives that will be better for us as a community.”

Bozoma Saint John was a Convergence Keynote Speaker on Wednesday, March 13. Watch it below:

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