Welcome to another installment of our HERstory series, where we put the spotlight on dynamic women leading the charge in the marketing world. These inspiring women share their stories, wisdom, and insights, offering a fresh perspective on the complexities and rewards of the industry. Our latest feature is with Nicole Sumner, Brand Manager at Ollie, a pet food company that delivers fresh, human-grade food to dogs directly to their door.
Nicole’s career path has led her through both agency and in-house roles, giving her a comprehensive perspective on the marketing landscape. She’s also worked with a variety of brands, applying her expertise in building brand strategies that resonate with specific audiences. Her focus on understanding a brand’s unique problem-solving proposition and its impact on customers guides her decision-making process, be it crafting a creative brief or prioritizing projects.
Her advice for those starting in brand management? Recognize there’s no linear path to success. Relationships matter, and can often lead to career-defining moments. Stay curious, immerse yourself in marketing knowledge, and remember that inspiration is everywhere.
Lastly, she shares a piece of wisdom for all of us – don’t be afraid of slow progress or high-risk opportunities. Each day presents a chance to become the marketer you aspire to be, and often, the lessons learned from unsuccessful projects can prove more valuable than those from the safe ones.
Let’s dive in!
During your tenure at Backcountry.com, you made a significant transition from Social Media Strategist to Brand Manager. Can you describe a key turning point or decision in this transition?
When I joined Backcountry, I knew that I eventually wanted a marketing role that oversaw channels and content beyond social media, but with my most recent experience as a Social Media Strategist at an agency, this was the perfect opportunity for me to get in the door at a brand I’d admired for many years.
Since I was part of a new brand marketing team, there were many opportunities for me to wear different hats and demonstrate my content strategy and project management abilities beyond social, so I was able to successfully lead a number of integrated campaigns. I built trust among my marketing teammates as someone who could deliver projects beyond the scope of my role. When opportunities arose to lead more complex cross-functional projects, I raised my hand, and eventually, I was given the choice to decide between a more senior content and comms role and a brand management role. I knew this role was outside of my comfort zone but believed it would offer a better path to leading all of marketing for a brand someday, so I went for it.
You served as Co-Marketing Chair on the Council for Backcountry’s Women’s Leadership Coalition. How did this role influence your perspective on women’s leadership in the marketing industry?
This was one of my favorite experiences during my 6 years at Backcountry. Being part of the Women’s Leadership Coalition allowed me to have face time with senior leaders at Backcountry and plan programming and educational opportunities to connect and grow other women within the company.
It enabled me to build strong relationships with women across the organization and made me realize that we’re all facing similar challenges, and had similar insecurities. I gained a ton of confidence in my leadership and mentorship abilities and realized how easy it can be to support other women across the board by asking for their opinions, respecting their ideas, and advocating for them in group settings.
Having experienced both agency and in-house roles, what have you found to be the most striking differences and similarities? What advice would you give to marketers about choosing between these two career paths?
I really valued both experiences. I initially wanted to work at an agency to quickly gain experience across different brands in different industries. I found myself surrounded by incredibly talented people, who worked really hard to develop the most creative and innovative solutions for our clients’ marketing problems. It was fast-paced and exciting. I cared deeply, I worked hard, and I learned a ton.
What I didn’t love is that I felt two steps removed from the outcomes of my work—how did this campaign really impact the broader business? Yes, we achieved our specific objectives, but then what happened next? I wanted to be more invested in the day-to-day operations of a brand. Once I found myself client-side, sometimes the pace was too slow. There was less creative risk and opportunity to try new things. The first signals of soft performance resulted in a pullback and change of strategy. I started to feel a little bored by the cyclical nature of the annual ecommerce calendar of moments.
My advice is to think about what aspects of marketing light you up, there are pros and cons to agency and brand work and it’s important to know which environment you’re best suited to do your best work.
As someone who has worked with a wide variety of brands and clients, what factors do you consider most important when building a new brand strategy? Can you provide an example of how you’ve applied these considerations in your work?
The most important things for me to gain a deep understanding of: what problem is your brand solving, who specifically are you trying to help make their lives better, and why should they care? When you are not super clear on who you are trying to reach and why your brand or product is going to improve their lives, it makes it really difficult to build momentum and alignment around a brand strategy. We recently conducted some research at Ollie to better understand what drives purchase decisions and switching behaviors in the dog food category. I refer to the insights from this body of research nearly every day. I use it to write stronger creative briefs. I use it to make decisions around copy and photo direction. I use it to prioritize projects and new programs on my team’s roadmap.
Looking back on your career thus far, what advice would you give to someone looking to start a career in brand management?
There’s often no linear path to success. I strongly considered getting an MBA as the means to jump-start my career advancement, I even took a few months to study for the GMAT and applied to a handful of my target schools. It didn’t work out for me from a time or financial standpoint, so I found a different path. When you’re faced with a turning point, consider all options available to you. Even when an opportunity doesn’t look “perfect” on paper, it might be exactly what you need at that moment, and it can open doors for you later.
I would also say that every connection and colleague could also result in a future career inflection point, so take the time to build strong relationships. Helping your partners achieve their goals makes you an indispensable teammate, but it also pays off later when you need their support on a project, a recommendation, or an introduction down the road.
And my last piece of advice, there is so much information available at our fingertips—read books about branding and marketing, listen to podcasts, sign up for a few newsletters, and follow brands you admire on social media. Inspiration is everywhere. You never know where your next best idea will come from.
What’s one last bit of advice to share?
Sometimes progress feels painfully slow. Every day is an opportunity to become the marketer you aspire to be. Share your goals with others so they can help advocate for you. Raise your hand for opportunities that make you nervous and feel outside of your experience level. Ask questions of other people to get a different perspective on a problem you’re trying to solve. Don’t be afraid to try something, even if there’s a high chance you won’t succeed. Sometimes the experience you gain from something that doesn’t work is more valuable than the experience you gain from a safe yet successful project.