Richelle Parham could have spent last Tuesday evening with actor Brad Pitt. Instead, the chief marketing officer for eBay North America was discussing brand strategy with Berkeley MBA students over dinner and seemed delighted to be doing so.
Parham kicked off the first session in this year’s Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Insight Series, a Berkeley MBA course in which top marketing executives from companies including Wells Fargo, Jamba Juice, Salesforce, and Genentech will share wisdom with students in the classroom and in a more intimate setting over dinner.
Parham’s missed opportunity to rub shoulders with Pitt was during an eBay online charity auction experience brought to life in a physical and interactive gallery hosted by eBay and Make It Right, an organization Pitt founded to help rebuild New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. She fit in her Haas engagement between serving as a panelist at a White House Urban Economic Forum and as keynote speaker at the Dare 2B Digital conference on tech careers for young women.
In class, Parham discussed the company’s auctions aimed at raising funds for charity, sharing examples from Buffet, Bieber, and Beatrice (Warren, Justin, and Princess). Each auctioned off something of value (lunch with, lock of hair, famous pink party hat) to raise funds—together more than $2.9 million in this case—for worthy causes.
However, eBay is now about much more than auctions, as Parham pointed out while sharing insights on repositioning “the world’s largest online marketplace.” Parham, who previously served as head of global marketing innovations and initiatives for Visa, launched the class with one of eBay’s new TV spots. “Good, you laughed!” she said at the end. “I’ll say more later about why that was important.”
Parham said that while eBay enjoys 99.9 percent to 100 percent brand recognition, the company still has legacy perceptions to battle. “A lot of people still think of eBay as the place for auctions and used merchandise, but, in fact, 90 percent of eBay items today are fixed price and more than 50 percent of our merchandise is brand new,” she said. Much of her work since joining eBay in fall 2010 has been to align consumer perceptions with eBay’s new reality.
Whimsy is part of the approach, hence Parham’s appreciation of the laughs that followed her TV spot about parental attention deficit at a child’s school play. The new campaign pokes gentle fun at everything from “mom jeans” to gossiping about celebrities during a mani/pedi and features eBay’s new messaging: When it’s on your mind it’s on eBay. Buy it new. Buy it now.
The spots also feature shoppers making purchases via mobile devices. “Mobile is where the online and offline worlds meet,” said Parham. In 2011, eBay’s mobile application was downloaded 70 million times.
Over dinner, the group of five students had fewer than 70 million questions, but still quite a lot. For a relaxed two hours, they asked anything they wanted of eBay’s CMO—and in the course of the semester, each student has dinner with one speaker.
They wanted to know how Parham had charted her career, how eBay’s product organization is structured, how budgeting happens, how she achieves work/life balance, and what she looks for in hiring, to which she responded, “Know my business. Ask me questions that make me think. Don’t be afraid to break some glass.” Parham also shared thoughts on the importance of drawing youth, and girls in particular, to technology and about beloved collections (Barbie in her case, 80’s action figures for participating student Andrew Wisnewski, MBA 13).
As the evening wound down, Parham asked the group what they wanted to get out of the course and what they felt they got from her presentation. “For me this is a guide for how people who do marketing think about their customers, since I don’t have that background,” said Meredith Benedict, MBA 13. “It’s like getting all the lessons of a marketing class, but from real people.”