Episode 168: Jess Weiner, CEO and Founder of Talk To Jess

Jess Weiner isn’t just any expert, she’s a cultural expert. Throughout her 15 years in the business of consumer relations, Jess realized that having a strategic marketing and consumer engagement is quite different from actually engaging with the consumer and understanding their needs. To be successful in today’s business world, you need more than just a big name, you need to stand for something — and mean it!

This episode focuses on the need for change within the business world’s reactive plans in times of crisis and the corporate responsibility of businesses to engage in ongoing socio-economic conversations.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty® hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody, it's Jodi Katz, your host of Where Brains Meet Beauty® Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. This week's episode features Jess Weiner. She's the CEO and founder of Talk To Jess. If you missed last week's episode, it featured Pam Zapata. She's the CEO at Society Eighteen. Thanks for listening. Hey everybody, welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®. I am so happy to be sitting here virtually with Jess Weiner. She is the CEO and cultural expert at Talk To Jess. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®.
Jess WeinerThank you. I'm happy to be here with you.
Jodi KatzI'm so happy to know you. I just want to tell people how we got connected together. I think Aleni, our COO's sister went to Penn State and heard you at Penn State or at some sort of Penn State event, and then like adored you and word got back to us that we needed to talk with you.
Jess WeinerThat's like the best way to get connected, I think.
Jodi KatzYou just never know, right, where you're going to meet people which is so cool. I want to talk so much about your expertise and I think we could talk all day about it. It's so fascinating. Let's start with one of my favorite questions, which is when you're a little kid, what did you want to be when you grow up?
Jess WeinerOh, that's easy. I wanted to be three things when I grow up, I knew these by heart. I wanted to be a romance novelist. I wrote romance novels all the time as little kid, like eight, nine years old. I was always writing mostly stories about unrequited love, right? Like I like him, he doesn't like me. I loved those stories. I wanted to be a lizard trainer. I grew up in Miami and I really thought like somehow I would be the owner of a lizard circus one day. I loved playing with lizards.
Jodi KatzDid you say a lizard circus?
Jess WeinerYeah. I wanted to make a lizard circus. I still think it could be a thing. Yeah, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to make things. Then the third thing was like I didn't know the name of producer or I didn't know that title, but I knew like I made carnivals in my neighborhood. I made plays in my neighborhood. I was always generating and creating. Those were the three things that I thought about as a kid.
Jodi KatzDo you have any of your old stories?
Jess WeinerI have one booklet that I found that's like notebook paper stapled together on the side. I was nine years old. I wrote my name and my age. It was a love story. It was a love triangle actually between a girl who liked a boy and a boy who liked another girl. I mean, I also loved afterschool specials. I loved all the social issue stuff when I was a kid. I think I just emulated it in my writing.
Jodi KatzI love that. Well, let's talk about what you're doing today, because I'm sure there's lots of writing involved. What is Talk To Jess?
Jess WeinerTalk To Jess is a consultancy. I started out as a playwright and an educator and a speaker over 25 years ago. I've been always an entrepreneur, which is crazy. I didn't even plan to be an entrepreneur. I just was an artist with a lot of different ideas and somebody interested in making social change. I found a way to build that business for myself. I started to write and speak on social topics and then brands started to come to me and ask me to consult and to advise. Dove was one of my first clients over 16 years ago. We helped to launch the campaign for Real Beauty. I've built a lot of the curriculum that we used to do self-esteem education worldwide. From the success of Dove I kept getting approached from different brands to do similar things and sometimes different things.

I built a consultancy around the relationships that I was having as a cultural educator and expert for brands and building campaigns. Sort of an accidental entrepreneurial career honestly, but now it makes total sense to me because it's a hybrid of everything that I love to do all in one place now.
Jodi KatzBefore you had the consultancy and when you were writing about cultural issues, what was your expertise? Did you go to school for this? Tell me how that went about.
Jess WeinerNo, I didn't go to school for it. I went to school for three things that I think qualified me to make no money in life and I found a way to do it anyway. Right. I have degrees in women's studies and classics and in theater. I studied the areas that I'm interested in, but I think what made me an expert was if you think about Malcom Gladwell's 10,000 hours make you an expert in what you're doing. I spent a ton of time writing plays, traveling around the country, speaking to young people, collecting insights, collecting information for many, many years before I actually launched the consultancy. I spent almost 10 years of my life studying in real time these situations. I think what's interesting is that I built the expertise organically, not entirely sure that I was going to translate it into what I was doing now. I just was living it. The expertise came from lived experience and finding a way to creatively share back what people were sharing with me.
Jodi KatzThis is so amazing. I think the timing of this is, this conversation is so exciting for me because we've been having a lot of conversations for the past few years with clients about how the consumer buys according to her values, right? It's not just about how pretty the packaging is. It used to be all about how pretty the packaging is. It's not just about how effective the [goop 00:05:43] on the inside is, is it filling their needs? The customer wants to buy from a brand whose value she values. This is really, it seems so obvious to me, right, that this is what motivates people but it's been really hard for some clients to grasp. Maybe because it feels newer, right, for so long. For 20 something years we've been selling based on packaging. Tell me what the consumers' experience is today and tell me if I'm right or wrong.
Jess WeinerYeah, no, you're 100% on the mark. I think that for about, I don't know, the last seven, eight years in particular, we've been seeing an acute change in wanting to go, to your words, beyond the packaging, right? We're looking at an aligned social mission that's important for audiences. When I launched the Dove campaign for Real Beauty with the brand in 2004, five, six, this was an unheard of alignment of values, right? You were shopping product based on product ability and what it was able to do for you. Sometimes a legacy brand had a leg up with that. But I think now because the marketplace is pretty saturated with competitors, there's a way now to launch in e-commerce and online in a way that you don't have to have brick and mortar shelf space.

There's a plethora of opportunity to talk to audiences. Now it just can't be a beautiful package and a great piece of copywriting, it has to be what the whole mission is about. I also think that tends to track with where gen Z, millennials and beyond actually are really aligned with, which is I want to share a mission with you. I want to know that my dollar is going towards an equitable work environment, a board that's representative of the consumers you're trying to reach. I want to know that you're in it, not just to sell me something. I think our internet culture has created such consumer activists because they're able to search and research and look at the facade beyond the marketing. Companies have really been challenged to figure out who they are and what they stand for outside of the products that they offer.

The bigger brands sometimes weren't really prepared for that. That's a big shift, right, when you're a legacy brand with a hundred years of market, you don't have to do that sometimes. But now you do, because there are so many competitor brands that are built foundationally on value. I think you're 100% correct in that. Values for me is the biggest trend insight theme and I don't see it going anywhere. In fact, I think more consumers now are looking for brands to become brand activists themselves, not just to have corporate social responsibility but to really change and shape and impact systemic barriers and culture. They see them quite a bit as allies in some of the shared missions that they have.
Jodi KatzIn the decades previous to the time period we're in now, were customers, were they almost never shopping by their values in terms of a brand values matching a consumer value?
Jess WeinerI think they probably were subconsciously. But I also think that we didn't have so much media literacy, Jodi, around how brands were impacting the way that we received messages about ourselves. I mean, that's where I think the work we did with Dove was so important. We started a critical thinking conversation for a beauty brand around what are the messages around beauty that you're receiving? Who is sending them? What do you believe about yourself and what does the world at large tell you about beauty? That kind of critical thinking I think has been more accelerated because we've had more media literacy, more awareness, and we have more opportunity again with the internet to connect so broadly with messaging.

I think values were always important, but I think we shop by the values we were told were important versus this is the shift is no, you know what? I'm questioning the values you told me were important. Why does my hair have to be straight when it has texture to it? Why does my skin have to be lighter when it's a beautiful, darker shade? They're questioning some of those values and then therefore, now they have enough opportunity in market to go shop for brands who match their value and see the consumer for the complex multi-dimensional person that she is.
Jodi KatzRight. I mean, I don't want to call it a trend because I feel like it's not trendy. It just is. This would probably be scary for marketers who are really happy with the way things were working where they sold to supermarkets around the world and their shampoo or whatnot was purchased without a lot of thought beyond price and packaging.
Jess WeinerYeah. I think it's challenging for people who are, maybe haven't done some of the inner reckoning that I think has to happen when you start to talk about selling something to somebody in this current climate, right. Specifically now where we are, you know, especially now where we are really looking at safety, security, equity in a different way. Even though I know we might be talking about a hair product or I don't know, a lip gloss as an example, those are all instruments of expression for consumer. I think for somebody who might not have been trained to think this way, or maybe as comfortable thinking this way, what I find with my clients is that most of them are afraid to get it wrong. My advice to them is you can't get it right if you don't figure out how to get it wrong. You're going to have to be messy.

This work is a little bit messy. It's a little bit clumsy, especially if your organization hasn't been set up to really do some of that reckoning work. What I mean by reckoning work is asking yourself some of those tougher questions, right? You might have been in market getting an advantage because of your price point. That's important. How else can you talk to her in a way that acknowledges the fullness of her life? Not just what her bank account looks like or not just what she values as far as a deal, right? I think it's just expanding our minds to look at consumers, again, as full people and not just the market demographics that we've been so used to targeting them with.
Jodi KatzI'm picturing in my head brands and corporations, the years that I've met that are, call themselves driven companies and not marketing-driven companies. They really just thinking about number of doors, number of products on the shelf, number of product facings. I don't think that they taught themselves to think about the consumers like a human and regular person. They're just so sales-driven. You talk about this reckoning, that's a heavy lift for a company that wasn't thinking about the customer. The only customer they're thinking about is the food store or the drug store. They're not thinking about the end user, right? It's a big assignment.
Jess WeinerIt's an important business assignment though. That's how I would position it. It's why I do the work that I do because I think that to hire in or to work with somebody who can get you there, you don't have to do it. You can develop a set of skills that require you to stay connected to this work. You don't have to do it very often if you dare to do it, right? I mean, you do it and then it becomes part of the flex and habit of change of thinking. It's just like you would be changing and thinking against a market trend, right? You have to be flexible in business. This is the same ask right now is to be flexible in thinking about what is on the mind of this consumer and not just to match where she is now, but who is she tomorrow?

Who is she a couple of years from now? Who is her daughter? You know, who is her son? How are they looking at their relationship to consumer goods? I think that's an exciting conversation. I would encourage a company who says or leadership team who says, man, that's just a heavy lift. I don't know if that's where I want to prioritize. I would say, I don't know how you don't prioritize that. The toothpaste is out of the tube. You have to go with it and figure out where it makes most sense to you. It doesn't mean you have to be a social mission-driven company, if that's not what you choose to do, but it does mean that you have to have some idea of a purpose and fit into her life beyond the product. I do believe that that's more and more important and I don't see that going anywhere.
Jodi KatzFor those clients or potential clients who are not convinced, is there a way for you to pull market data that shows them if they don't participate, if they don't do this hard work, they're going to lose X, Y, Z market share?
Jess WeinerFor sure. I mean, we have case studies upon case studies. You can even see this in our current landscape. Some of the brands that were built on empowerment messaging, whether that's a way, whether that's the wing, even girl boss has had somewhat of a major shift and transformation. When you say that you stand for something and you can't live into it, not just in your product but in your team, in your executive leadership inside of your company culture, there are tons of case studies that show that's not sustainable. I mean, part of what we do for clients is show them a market analysis of where brands are gaining, not just market share, but long-term loyalty and equity. Which for this demographic and this marketplace especially gen Z super fickle around brand loyalty because they're shopping for that shared mission.

They'll switch if they don't find it. I think about Audi and the Super Bowl ad in 2017 when they made a beautiful ad about gender equity. Then, feminist Twitter and young Twitter online took to looking at whether or not Audi had women on their board as a basic example. You will be held accountable if what you market is not what you're living inside of the business. I think we've got plenty of examples of that.
Jodi KatzJess, this isn't a marketing decision? These things are not marketing strategies? This is the whole brand company health decision?
Jess WeinerCorrect. I think marketing has led these conversations, Jodi. I think people have done those ra ra empowerment campaigns thinking that they're matching what women want. I think what women and men and people who identify as women and men want is authenticity and transparency. They want to know if you say that you stand for equity and empowerment, that you actually live that principle in your business, in your supply chain, in your marketing, in your philanthropic efforts, right? They want to see a full picture because they know they've got the power of consuming. They know that now. I think consumers have a different kind of empowerment because they have engaged differently with brands in the last 20 years, but especially the last 10.

I think marketing is important because for me, marketing is how you're going to communicate that value. But if you don't actually generate it inside the core of your business, that's where the hollowness comes in. It's what I call it in my consulting, I call it SFSN, it sounds fabulous, it signifies nothing.
Jodi KatzI love that. I mean, this makes me think of lots of recent conversation and posting on social media around racial inequality and how the consumer voice has been so powerful and questioning motives and companies. I think what I saw happened with a lot of brands who are responding to the movement, they were leaning on their 23 year old community manager to make the decisions that should be from the board level, right? Brands thinking that racial inequality is a marketing conversation where it's not, of course. Is that what it looks like when a brand fails at this when they're not thinking about this holistically and they're not thinking about it beyond the marketing community manager?
Jess WeinerI think that this is an opportunity for us to look at what privilege actually looks like in a brand or business when a majority of your leadership team has been one race, one economic level, one particular maybe educational background. We know this from the leadership makeup, right? We know that women are an equitable in senior leadership or CEO positions, not even on boards. We know that there's been inequality in the workplace for quite some time. This is what it looks like when it shows up, when it's time to have a more relational conversation about race and you don't have the diversity or the equity built on your company to talk about it. I think in this current climate, a lot of brands were caught not knowing how to respond because they hadn't put it at the forefront of their thinking inside the business.

They were now reacting to a social moment when they needed to be thinking about it as an important evolutionary part of their business. I think I talked to my clients at this time around. There's a difference between a reaction and a response. Most brands reacted to black lives matter and the death of George Floyd by putting out a statement around how they feel about black lives matter. That's a reaction. It's an emotional knee-jerk reaction thinking you've got to signal what you stand for. A response on the other hand can be more thoughtful. It can take more time. It needs to be backed up by some specifics, some details. Brands were afraid of responding because if they took too long, then people don't think they're doing anything. But at the bottom line, you have to be doing something you can actually come through on. Right?

Because we don't want a bunch of black squares on Instagram. We don't want a bunch of empty statements about how black lives matter. We want to know that you're living this in the way that you can in your business. I think a lot of companies big and small got caught going, wow, I haven't been thinking about this. That's a great place to start. Why? Why haven't you been thinking about your consumer, your black consumers, your indigenous people of color? Why haven't they been on top of mind? Not to do it from a blame or shame space, but to do it from a real place of checking privilege and figuring out how you can become part of the solution.
Jodi KatzIn my heart I feel like for quite some time as consumers we've been shopping based on do our values meet the brand's values. Maybe it's more recent where we get to actually like, get a look behind the curtain to understand more about the brand's values beyond marketing. This takes me into this topic and I really don't know much about it. Maybe you can enlighten me on cancel culture, right? People who don't agree with the values of different companies and saying that they don't want to shop those companies. This isn't new, isn't this just the way we've always lived our lives? That like I shop where I want to shop based on the values that are important to me.
Jess WeinerI think that's been baseline true. I think where cancel culture has become a thing or a thing that people call, call it cancel culture, is that individuals and consumers now sit on media platforms sometimes with more followers than the brands themselves. You're looking at a power dynamic of a consumer who's not just telling her five girlfriends like, oh, I don't like this company. I read something weird about the CEO. You have a woman who might sit on 15,000, 50,000, five million people to say, I heard this is happening and I don't like it. Now there's pro and con to that. I think pro is that it holds brands accountable in a real time way, which they haven't been held before. You get feedback almost immediately when you're off on something, which can actually be very helpful. You get it in real time.

The con to it is that you could be playing whack-a-mole and trying to go after everybody who's disconnected from your value. That's why doing the inner work, Jodi, is so important for a company or a brand because you have to have a strategic framework in which you can answer questions based on that. Right? If somebody says they don't like something or they're doing a petition to stop something about you and you've already done the inner work, you can say, hey, is this a complaint that's worth listening to? Or, oh, have I been exposed for something we haven't looked at yet? If so, how am I going to address that? I think cancel culture is clickbait-y and it makes sense. I know people are very quick to throw out judgments and reactions, which is the internet, right?

That's been true for as long as we had this platform and it's scary. I understand it because people have been getting "canceled" and brands and whatnot. I just also believe that we have to have some period of grace and space for people to learn publicly. It's also quite hard to shift systemic racism, to shift white supremacy, and thinking about these things in the way you've grown up in culture overnight. I think, to me, it's an evolution and a revolution. It's not just like, boom, you're canceled. I mean, I do think there are companies who've done some pretty egregious things and maybe they have a history of those decisions. I would look at canceling based on history of unlearned issues versus a person or an organization who has made a misstep, which is a very natural, normal thing to do.

Then working in a real way to change it. That's obviously subjective. I mean, that's not a one size fits all solution. I think, again, part of doing business now in this world is you've got to also think about what's your temperature for discomfort around these issues. You as a team and you as a business, can you stand a little heat in order to grow?
Jodi KatzYou mentioned the word discomfort. It's exactly what I was thinking as you were explaining this to me, because I have a friend who runs a brand and I'm one of her partners in the brand. Just was not behaving in a way that respects the values of her, so they split. She didn't want to publicly share all the many lists of things that this particular person did that over time just became worse and worse and worse. She had to be uncomfortable, right? She chose to stand behind her values, but also be really uncomfortable because there's going to be the haters who are saying she's wrong, blah, blah, blah. All of them happens really probably on social media, right? She didn't want to air the dirty laundry. That wasn't part of how she wanted to handle it. It does make sense. Since she did her inner work, making the decision to say goodbye wasn't a hard decision. Then she had to accept the fact that this is going to be unpretty and uncomfortable for a while.
Jess WeinerAlso, nobody can really see the process of you doing work. I think brands struggle with that because as soon as they start to make changes, they want to go and broadcast it everywhere. Again, that's the SFSN. It might sound fabulous, it's signifies nothing. Work takes place over a period of time, give yourself some time. If you dip in, I know this is a scary proposition, but if you dip for a moment, but come back strong and clear and authentic and transparent, you will see that equity return. I do have case studies on that. I've seen that happen. I just think that's it, that's a muscle that most brands and businesses don't develop until it's a crisis. Then they're reacting versus responding.
Jodi KatzRight. To do all of this, do the inner work, to be willing to be uncomfortable, it has to be from the top down. It's not just a mechanism that two or three people in one department can do, because then it's chaos. Then they're going to get blamed. It doesn't work. Wait, repeat the SN-
Jess WeinerIt's SFSN. It sounds fabulous, it signifies nothing.
Jodi KatzOkay. Note to my team who will make all these fun quote templates from this conversation, that's what I want for quote template to be because that is so amazing. Okay. I think I feel more educated about cancel culture. I understand it's clickbait-y to say it. I just really wanted to understand what that means from the brand perspective. We understand that the consumer is powerful and she should be. Right?
Jess WeinerYeah. I mean, I think we also have to think about accountability. One of the things that I've worked with big brands in the past, when they've made a misstep, their apology never sounded human. It always sounded like somebody coined it in the corporate comms division and it's really like medicinal and just sterile. It doesn't feel like a person. The other thing I would ask brands to think about with cancel culture is rather than being afraid of being canceled, lean into the opportunity to be accountable and learn from it and share from that. Because I do think consumers really respect that. I think if they can see you being messy, they're more likely to stay engaged.

If they see you move away from the mess and try to pretend that it wasn't there, then I feel like consumers feel like they're gaslight-y a little bit, right? You're like, wait a minute, this is wrong. You're kind of giving me this really blanket statement. Talk to me like a person. You want me to give you my money, give you my time, give you my loyalty. What do I get out of it? That's also the exchange of a relationship now between brands. I think it's more, I would say, focused on the accountability and less of the fear of being canceled.
Jodi KatzRight, which is so interesting how you're talking. You're talking about the brand as if the brand is like another human, right. Is there any time in the history of selling goods between a business and an individual that the business needs to really be a human, right?
Jess WeinerI think that's a function of these times. It's new. I don't know that it's like a one or that the business is one person or one human. I think it's that it has human attributes. It has empathy. It has transparency, compassion, vulnerability. It allows, I call it a breath, honestly. I think a lot of the marketers that I work with and a lot of the brands that are my clients can breathe if they get to put some life into their brand where they don't have to be perfect, they don't have to be super corporate and kept away from people. I mean, I think one of the things most brands want and like and thrive on is connection. They'd like when they engage with their consumers. Guess what? You don't get the benefit of all the fun engagement if you don't also do the work for the tough engagement, you know? I would say think about it less as like you're a person and more that you have relational attributes that are going to relate to people.
Jodi KatzOkay. If I'm a brand that wants to hire Jess, what is the timeline? How much inner work? Is it a year from my first breath with you and so we have like policies and procedures and real things in place?
Jess WeinerNo, definitely not. I mean, I think some of it we customize our work based on what the goals of, from the people who are coming to us. Right? I usually work, I do work long-term. I'm definitely the kind of high touch partner. I don't run a huge consultancy. I don't farm out this work. I think a big part of what's made me successful with my client partners is I'm pretty high touch and involved for periods of time. I mean, Dove has been a client for 16 years. Mattel has been a client for 10 years. I've retained relationships because that's how I operate. We usually work a year at a time on an agreement but within that year, we certainly have things that need to get delivered.

I'm also pretty acutely aware of where business needs are. On the things that matter, if we don't have to rush it, we're just not to rush, because then you end up redoing that work over and over again. Then I think one of the things that I do that's unique I think to the way that we work is it is me as a high touch partner with the brand. But I love to bring in voices to the brand at particular times. Whether those are like inner strategic councils of experts that normally would never work with a brand because they don't want to be associated with the commercial nature of it, but we're coming together on an issue or I'm bringing them issues experts and leaders that could just, because I find that one of the services I provide for our clients that they need is they need that influx of information and inspiration and ideas.

Because if your head's down running a big business, you're heads down running a big business. You're not looking broadly at culture and I get that. I try to provide support and relief for their education and their support, because then I find that my leadership does a much better job leading when they're being fed with that info.
Jodi KatzI love it. I'm so fascinated by you, Jess. I'm so grateful that we got connected because I love this conversation.
Jess WeinerMe too.
Jodi KatzI want to keep it going. I want to thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with our listeners today. It's like, you're blowing my mind. I want to do everything with you. I want to follow you around, Jess. Thank you so much for sharing.
Jess WeinerI think we have good things to do together. I'm excited about that.
Jodi KatzFor our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Jess. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes. For updates about the show, follow us on Instagram @wherebrainsmeetbeautypodcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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