Q&A: Christina Smedley, PayPal

As Paypal’s vice-president of global brand and communications, Christina Smedley is putting customer experience at the centre of its positioning. This included an above-the-line campaign earlier this year running on tv and outdoor, with straplines such as ‘less paying, more playing’.

Marketing Week (MW): The payments market is becoming increasingly crowded, with Amazon launching a mobile card reader, and Barclays extending its Pingit app in recent weeks to include international payments. How will PayPal compete?

Christina Smedley (CS): We have a healthy regard for everybody in the industry but we are centred on what we can do. When you compare us to other payment operators, for example Stripe, quite a lot of these organisations are very country specific but we have the global scale and reach to move fast.

Payment is at a fascinating point because it is so rife with change and dynamism. Money can be a huge pain or it can be incredibly simple and people always want simple so that is what we are aiming for.

MW:What are PayPal’s priorities for driving growth through marketing?

CS: We have organised ourselves slightly differently from other more established businesses. We look at growth as tiny changes that can be made to a product that will drive incremental engagement and revenue. It could be a word, a pixel or a location and the combination of growth and brand together has enabled us to really test how we present ourselves to existing or new customers in a meaningful way.

When I joined the organisation in 2012 we had some core fundamentals that needed to evolve, such as social media. We were not responding to people on social when they had a problem and there is nothing more galling than that. We now have a dedicated customer service team that deals with social.

This time last year we would have been different in every market, which meant we didn’t have the same campaign, imagery or strapline. So my responsibility has been to bring all of these disparate pieces and great marketers together to come up with one clear story.

I’m also responsible for the website and we reformatted that in January, so the last six months have been focusing on changing the website and the logo, and launching a new brand campaign. It was all built on the foundation that we had of customer service and the new product roadmap.

MW: What was the strategy behind the brand campaign and how does this translate to the user experience?

CS: What we wanted to do with the campaign was begin to stand for something and put people at the centre of everything we did.

What we’re trying to do in omnichannel – by which I mean [shopping] out-of-home – is for someone to be able to go into a retail outlet and for PayPal to recognise them, for their face to pop up on a point of sale system and for them to be able to skip the line. That’s happening in the UK, in places like Greggs and Carluccio’s.

We have 13,000 employees and half of them are in customer service. We’re trying to use it as a rallying cry to change the way the company thinks about the people it serves.

CS: Wearable technology is one of the reasons. On a wearable such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear watch, if you shrunk our old logo it wasn’t robust or vibrant enough to appear in small scale.

We are also faced with the challenge that we are going into the ‘real’ world faster and faster so we have to make sure that the logo will work in larger formats. Those were the two parameters.

PayPal watch
Although people know the name, PayPal faces the challenge of getting people to understand what the brand does

MW: How important is mobile to PayPal’s business?

CS: As an organisation we are mobile-first. We have built capabilities in the past couple of years in verticals that didn’t exist before, such as Uber [which enables taxi passengers to pay through its app with PayPal]. The magic of it is the ease of use, and we are hearing anecdotally that people are having social interactions with the drivers which they didn’t before, so it becomes a great experience too.

That is at the heart of what we are trying to do now at PayPal – to make sure we take that ‘friction’ away, build it on mobile and then it enables people to do more with their time.

With our app we have relationships with partners such as [US food ordering app] Eat24. You can buy anything in an Eat24 restaurant using PayPal, so quite regularly I’ll order the food and my kids will go and get it even though I’m on the west coast and my kids are in Atlanta.

MW: How have you seen the retail industry change during your career? 

CS: My career – including at Amazon – has been about how retail is changing. I really like the Houzz app, which [shows the interiors of] beautiful houses but also includes contextual shopping, so you are able to click on something to buy. Contextual shopping is going to happen faster than we think and things like this are driving a new way of consumer thinking.

Amazon was an amazing environment to be part of. I worked in communications but looked at customer relationship management, media and advertising, so there was an ability to cross all the different channels that touch consumers. The discipline of putting the customer first has been something that I have carried through.

We have to be very cognisant of what people want to do and help them get there. To do that you have to take the time to test and learn what is going to be important to consumers.

Grocery stores are a great indicator of what a country is about so I always spend time in them. I’m really disciplined about this and whenever I travel, I will go to a grocery store, and sit and watch people and really try and learn from them.

MW: In April, activist investor Carl Icahn dropped his public campaign for PayPal to be spun off from owner eBay. Do you think the businesses could split?

CS: We were very clear about our position during Carl Icahn’s campaign. The company and the business has never felt more tightly aligned and closer. PayPal had an exceptional quarter but we’re very centred on what can we do to make it better, always. It’s quite a start up culture within both organisations. We are one company.

MW: How would you describe the company culture? 

CS: We have the motto GSD, which stands for ‘get stuff done’ or ‘get shit done’. We try and behave like many of the start-ups in Silicon Valley so we have ‘all hands’ meetings that are informal, they are very relaxed and people are able to ask questions [of the senior team] in a straightforward way. We are transparent and there is not much hierarchy.

Everyone at PayPal spends time in our customer service centres and that’s been the place where I have taken most learnings and applied what we are doing in the brand team.

A career in marketing

Christina Smedley heads up PayPal’s marketing and communications worldwide. Working with its vice-president of growth and global strategy Stan Chudnovsky, her division has recently launched a global ‘$100m plus’ marketing campaign aiming to explain what PayPal can do for its 150 million customers across 203 countries.

She says: “The essence behind this new campaign puts people, not institutions, first. Our goal was to give a contemporary, human and populist voice to a brand that does amazing things for everyday people.”

Success will be measured on a range of scores, including comprehension of the brand and its products across particular audiences and it will run until the end of the year. The business helped parent company eBay to a 13 per cent rise in second quarter revenue to $4.37bn (£2.55bn).

Smedley has more than 20 years’ experience in marketing, joining Amazon in 1999. Part of her role was to manage the profile of founder Jeff Bezos outside the US, as well as helping it “craft a narrative” to help it work out what it stood for.

After stints at PR consultancy Edelman she joined PayPal in 2012 as vice-president of global communications, adding brand to her role last year.

PayPal’s Big Challenges

1. Getting people to understand the brand

“Our role is about trust and security and ease of use,“ says vice-president of global brand Christina Smedley.

“People don’t know quite what PayPal can do but they know the brand. So we had comprehension issues that we needed to  tackle [through a brand campaign].”

2. Being on the front foot with technology

“I want to bring some of the new technology we have to life for people in a way that’s meaningful for them,” says Smedley.

Last year PayPal completed the $800m (£475m) acquisition of Braintree, an ‘invisible’ payments platform that processes fees for brands including Uber and Airbnb, and its subsidiary Venmo, which enables users to split bills with friends.

It is also working with Samsung to enable ‘fingerprint’ payments via the Galaxy S5 smartphone and testing beacons that let retailers recognise shoppers via their mobiles, sending them discounts when they go in store.

3. Leadership

PayPal president David Marcus left at the end of June to run mobile messaging at Facebook, stating in a post on the social network: “I decided now is the right time for me to move on to something that is closer to what I love to do every day,” referring to his entrepreneurial spirit.

Yet Smedley says the leadership team “hasn’t skipped a beat” since his departure, and that eBay chief executive John Donahoe “is going to take time to make the right decision” about a replacement.

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