Taj Alavi joined Spotify as its top marketer in June last year with a mission to “reconnect” consumers with the “emotional side” of the brand, using creativity at a higher frequency to tap into and create cultural moments and trends.
That ambition led to a reorganisation of the audio streaming service’s marketing function, streamlining multiple “mini organisations” into one cross-functional team and enabling a 5x increase in creative output.
“My end objective is more creative work out there. As a cultural brand, I feel like it’s our responsibility to drive creativity forward,” she tells Marketing Week.
Now Spotify’s vice-president and global head of marketing, Alavi’s career has featured senior marketing roles at tech companies including Uber, Instagram, US fintech company Chime and business software firm Intuit. But Spotify offered her the “biggest leadership opportunity yet”, she says.
“Oftentimes people come into a new company because there’s a turnaround. That’s not the situation here,” she explains.
“It’s about how we sharpen the pencil. How do we draw a new picture? What’s that next level? How do we recharge a team that just went through two years of a pandemic and working from their homes, and fuel their creativity again for a whole new perspective on what we can do together? That’s really exciting.”
For Alavi, Spotify’s annual Wrapped campaign is the perfect example of what the brand is capable of, and how it can become its own cultural moment. At the end of each year Spotify users can download a summary of their listening habits over the previous 365 days, accompanied by a large scale ad campaign. Wrapped has been a viral sensation since its first iteration in 2015.
I really believe in shifting away from traditional brand affinity development scores as a measure of how things are going.
Taj Alavi, Spotify
Alavi wants Spotify to create and be a part of cultural moments as a “regular drum beat” all year long – and that starts with the right team structure and an environment of “flexibility, mental space and psychological safety”, she says.
“We have an incredible tenured team of marketing leaders,” she says. “When I joined, having a history of seeing marketing leaders come into different companies and revamp, I actually thought: ‘Let’s invest in the talent we have and just structure them so they can do the work’.”
The team was restructured in February as a blend of traditional, vertical lines, and new horizontal “cells” against brand issues and insights. Captains were appointed among the team’s marketing leaders to enable cross-collaboration.
“We made some shifts on the team to try a whole new way of cross-functional collaboration, creating cells of teams that go after consumer insights and passion points,” Alavi explains.
“What I wanted to get to was nimble, faster creativity. I did that using tenured Spotify people who know the work, and then I brought in talent from outside.”
The team has transitioned from being almost five “mini organisations” into one team that “works for the best of each other”, she says.
“Now we have this really solid organisation which is nimble enough to work across teams.”
The reorganisation also involved the creation of a new product marketing team, created in collaboration with Spotify’s vice-president of product and growth Babar Zafar. In consumer tech, “your product is your brand”, Alavi says, so Zafar is one of her “closest colleagues”.Snap’s first CMO on transforming marketing in a product-led business
The team, named mProduct, is made up of creatives, brand strategists and dedicated product developers. Together they ideate a roadmap of features and functionalities, which build on the “more heavy lifts” developed by the product team.
According to Alavi, the creation of the team has enabled Spotify to begin executing new product marketing ideas within three months. “It’s never been done before, and it’s really exciting,” she says.
Since the restructure took place, Spotify has been able to take on a role as a “contributor and shaper of youth culture” on a “more regular beat”, Alavi says, rolling out almost weekly initiatives across its 10 key markets around the world.
Many of those initiatives are now focused around taking Spotify and audio into “fandoms”, with key interest areas including gaming, K-pop, football and sport, and pop culture.
“We looked at the world and all the different audience segments and said: ‘Let’s go after critical markets. Let’s focus on youth culture. Let’s focus on what they care about most and make sure they see that Spotify connects with them and is relevant to them in a very playful way,” Alavi explains.
In March this year, Spotify kicked off a long-term partnership with FC Barcelona. Claiming to be the “biggest partnership ever” between music and sport, Spotify is now the club’s main partner and official audio streaming partner. Its brand appears on the front of both men’s and women’s team shirts and training shirts.
Two months later, Spotify Island launched on online game platform Roblox, a major project for the brand and an initiative born in the new product marketing team. According to Spotify, the island is a place where artists and fans can gather virtually to play interactive quests, unlock exclusive content and buy artist merchandise. Later in May, the island expanded with virtual K-pop world ‘K-park’.
Another key initiative to have come through the product marketing team is the Supergrouper feature, launched in June, which allows users to create their “dream band” of real artists. A personalised playlist featuring music from those artists is created for them, alongside a custom card featuring their band name to share on social media.
These product features and big marketing moments are just “layers of the cake” for Spotify, which also invests hard in advertising and marketing initiatives behind the studios and artists it features on its platform. But the streaming service also has a role to play in supporting diverse talent and listeners, Alavi adds.
“I want to continue supporting stories that bring the message of groups that are underrepresented in the world and spotlighting them with frequency. So we balance this top tier celebrity world with what is emerging and needs to be seen,” she says.
Effectiveness and the long-term goal
The proof of creativity’s success doesn’t come through in the level of output, however. Measuring creative effectiveness and adapting tactics against it is crucial for any brand.
For Alavi, creative effectiveness is the balance between the “magic” and the “mechanics”. While she looks at both short-term and long-term metrics to establish the effectiveness of work, she places a particular focus on measuring cultural impact, over and above traditional brand tracking.
“I really believe in shifting away from traditional brand affinity development scores as a measure of how things are going,” she says.
“I believe as a culture brand we have a responsibility to act daily, and no long term effort is going to help inform my actions today.”
Instead, Alavi is focused on measuring what she calls “chatter” or “talk-ability”, a measure of how people feel and what they express across channels in response to Spotify’s creative work, as well as watching the line of conversation that follows.
“Culture is reflected in how people express themselves on other channels, so tracking that is one big metric,” she says.How Spotify’s Wrapped campaign found the joy in 2020
Her other key focus is one familiar to every marketer: ROI.
“When you add all of this up, are all your dollars really driving that breakthrough? Nirvana for marketers is when every dollar contributes to the bigger picture, from your growth marketing to your product platform work, to your above the line media. When it’s so coordinated that each dollar makes the next dollar bigger,” she explains.
In the short term, Alavi’s main goal is for Spotify to continue delivering “nimble” work, as she continues to turn the marketing function into a “well performing machine that allows for more creativity”.
The biggest opportunity for Spotify in the immediate future is “making sure our story is felt, it’s heard, and people are reminded of it”, she adds.
Longer term, she hopes to move Spotify from a one-way experience as a platform to a two-way experience, where users are both “connecting and expressing” on the platform by connecting with the artists and creators they care about in a way they can’t elsewhere, and then expressing themselves by creating an “audio experience” that goes beyond “just listening”.
“A lot of the strategy encourages that two-way experience, and landing it in a way that’s purely fun, playful, interactive, helps creators connect to their fans and helps fans to know that when they’re on Spotify, they’re part of a community,” she says.
“I want to be the preferred platform for youth culture to experience all things audio. You go to Spotify and that relevancy is so fresh that wherever you are in your life stage, there is something that is clearly for you. That’s our job, to make sure you see it.”