Babbel’s Head of Product Marketing, Elliott Rayner, shares his fascinating journey starting his product marketing career at Adidas and eventually transitioning over to the digital arena at Babbel, explaining the vast differences in ‘a day in the life’ within those spheres, his key learnings as well as his opinions on the PM-PMM relationship, top three skills that have propelled his career, advice for aspiring PMMs and heaps more good stuff.

Full transcript:

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  0:03

I'm thrilled to be joined by Elliott Rayner, Head of Product Marketing at Babbel, a product marketer with a passion for innovation and storytelling. Before joining Babbel, Elliott spent seven years working at the Adidas global headquarters specializing in product marketing and innovation, during which time he developed innovative performance products for the 2010 Football World Cup and the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Elliott also spent three years in Amsterdam, leading the creation and development of ASICS global running apparel, and creating sustainable products for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. A huge welcome, Elliott, and thanks for joining me on Product Marketing Insider.

Elliott Rayner  1:01

Thanks, Lawrence, thanks for the intro. How are you doing?

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  1:03

I'm very well, thank you. How are you?

Elliott Rayner  1:05

Yes, very well, back in the UK now so enjoying some time away from where I usually am Berlin, which is where the headquarters for Babbel is. So yes, I'm enjoying my time here with family.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  1:15

Fantastic. So as I mentioned in the intro, you have a breadth of experience in the product marketing field, namely with digital and physical products. Could you give us an insight into your current role at Babbel and what that comprises, please

Elliott Rayner  1:29

Yes, so now I'm a Head of Product Marketing for Babbel, so for anyone who doesn't know, it's a language learning app, so completely on the digital side. It's really the same in terms of the product marketing point of view, the things we're trying to achieve. But obviously, with it being digital, it's very different.

So right now, really cleanly, what we're trying to do is find out exactly the ways to make it easier for people to learn using our app. So innovating new and exciting ways to make it easier to keep a learning ritual. And then as product marketing does, once that innovation is ready, finding exciting and authentic ways to deliver that message back so that people actually come in and use our great new innovations.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  2:10

Awesome. And what was it exactly that made you want to become a product marketer in the first place, Elliott?

Elliott Rayner  2:16

To be honest, when I first started my first product marketing job, I didn't know what product marketing was. I started as an intern at Adidas, it was called product marketing and really, I just wanted the opportunity to work in sports coming out of university. I thought it was so important to work in what you're passionate about, I was very passionate about sports, and just ended up there - that was the role that was available.

But I quickly learned how much I really enjoyed it, you never think at the time - we were creating football jerseys for all the different clubs and federation's around the world, and you never think about what the process is to do that, how do they come up with designs? How do they create the new technologies? And so as soon as I started that, I really kind of enjoyed it and think I've enjoyed, like a lot of people, working on a project basis, that every six months you're working on something slightly different, it helps, it's really nice.

And also to work in something a little bit creative as well was really appealing for me. So I think it was never the plan but as soon as I landed in that world, I really enjoyed it. So I was happy to stay within that world as my career progressed.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  3:24

That sounds amazing as a massive football fan, that sounds like my dream job, in many ways, just creating football shirts. On that note, what does that actual process look like? Because from an outsider looking in that sounds just so riveting, it sounds incredible.

Elliott Rayner  3:42

Yeah, I mean it's different for every job but for Adidas and in football, you start by going to the club, you sign a contract, you pay a lot of money to say, "Okay, we're going to be the kit sponsor", and you work with them and you build a timeline. And the timeline is quite long, whenever you see a new jersey being released, or worn on field for the first time, it was almost two years before that the first conversations would have happened.

Because that timeline takes a lot of development you need first to start as an idea, and then that idea goes to design, then that design goes to a prototype, then that prototype gets tested and worn on-field and all of that takes time. So yeah, it's really just a kind of traditional product management timeline. But as you can imagine, it's a little bit more sensitive in football because everyone's got an opinion on what makes a great football jersey, they're obviously very sensitive, they're culturally sensitive.

So it was really interesting to start within that world but I think that's the best thing to work in product marketing when the product you work on is something that people really love. People treasure football jerseys, they keep ones for ages, and then if a team wins a trophy wearing it that jersey then becomes iconic and maybe gets repeated 10 years later. So it's a lot of fun to work on a product that people really appreciate and really value.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  5:02

That sounds amazing. And can you talk us through your career path from then when you were working at Adidas to now?

Elliott Rayner  5:11

Yeah, of course, so I stayed at Adidas for quite a while, I worked my way up through football and then went into rugby. It was a really exciting opportunity because I wanted to work with the New Zealand All Blacks who are one of the teams Adidas sponsored. And when we're talking about products that people value, I don't know if you've ever been to New Zealand, but the All Blacks Jersey is as important as the national flag.

So to create something so iconic was really appealing to me. So really happy to work across rugby for a long time, including creating it for the World Cups in which the All Blacks won in 2011 and 2015. I then took a break from traditional product marketing to try and go into a smaller world. So I went into consultancy, tried to add some new things to learn outside my realm that I wouldn't have learned inside traditional product marketing, and then also took my time to do an MBA, which complemented that as well.

And then I returned to the sports industry, I had an opportunity to move to ASICS, the Japanese sports brand. And that was an exciting time as well because they had just won the contract for the Tokyo Olympics, which unfortunately now has been canceled and will be moved to next year. But the idea of once again creating a product that will be seen by billions of people around the world and worn by athletes and to work on a Japanese product, it was really exciting.

After that, I really wanted to jump into the digital world, it's something that during my career emerged, the first time I did my bachelor's in marketing, there wasn't digital marketing, there wasn't, I don't think I even had a class in E comm or anything like that. So I had missed that gap and that's the kind of thing I added during my MBA. And that sparked something in me of this idea of, "Wow, I can see this growing and I want to challenge myself to be able to build products in a different world".

I got this great opportunity from Babbel who were willing to take the risk on me to take my experience and allow me to learn how to do product in a completely different industry. It's an industry that really attracted me, the idea of education and online education, which as you know now, after lockdown and COVID, has only become more important, and I really see it as something so important for the future, something that's going to grow. And so it's really exciting to create products that can really make a difference in people's lives and something that's really growing.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  7:37

Yeah, absolutely, it's nice to see, certainly from your perspective, seeing the product that you poured so much blood, sweat, and tears into, being particularly relevant, particularly in the context that we live in today. So, when you're saying that you weren't always in digital, you very much came from a physical background. But now that you've worked with both physical and digital products, how do the go-to-market processes differ when you compare them, if at all?

Elliott Rayner  8:13

Yeah, I mean, really analyzing that part of it is completely different, with a physical product there are so many problems that can happen. If you're working on the fashion side, trying to get all of the stock delivered into all of the retailers for a release date or for a big event can be a lot of pressure. And there's a lot of calculations, development timelines, sourcing transport has to be considered.

Sport as well, as I say, if you're creating a product that's inevitably going to be worn for the World Cup, if it arrives two weeks later, you've lost your opportunity, it's gone. So the idea of time pressure when it comes to go-to-market and stock, making sure you create enough is huge. On the digital side, you don't have that problem.

We don't run out of apps to sell, once it's there, as many people can buy it as possible. And then also the idea of releasing it, we always have a deadline which we work back from, but realistically, that deadline could always be moved, which isn't great, because if you can move a deadline, it will be moved and that's sometimes why things move a little bit slower. But yeah, it's a completely different reality.

That's been my learning the last year is seeing which part of product marketing stay the same between physical and digital and which are completely different and challenging myself to learn and embrace and get better at those parts that are really different.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  9:39

Okay, and in terms of risk-taking, you get some people who just love embracing their inner maverick if you like, but how do physical and digital products lend themselves to pushing boundaries and taking risks? Is there more scope for product marketers to deviate from the norm in one area as opposed to another

Elliott Rayner  10:02

Yeah, I think in both worlds, you have to take risks, I think innovation isn't possible without risks, so that becomes a part of the job. However, risks I feel are a lot easier within digital than they are in physical for those seams reasons I mentioned. If you take such a risk to, let's say, create a football boot that is only 50 grams, so completely creating the lightest boot of all time, and then Leo Messi wears it on the pitch, and it gets ripped to shreds, and your logo is on the pitch, that's going to be a nightmare, it's going to be a complete failure, it's going to be the opposite of everything you were trying to achieve.

So there is a buffer of how far you can take a risk before you hit a limit where you're going into extremely difficult areas. Within digital, I don't think you have that limitation. Because if you release a new product, and it doesn't work, or it fails, you see it happens every day, whether you know it or not, you'll check your app and it looks a little bit different, or a feature that was there now isn't there or it's been updated. So you have the opportunity to test things constantly.

Because you've got that risk, I think it allows you to be a little bit riskier, a little bit different, and push the boundaries in innovation. And with that in mind, I think that's why when you look at the digital world, every year, it is moving like a rocket. And when you look at the sports world, realistically, the marketing says it's moving like a rocket but if you compare a football jersey now to 10 years ago, how much is it really different and different in an authentic way? Probably not that much.

I think it makes a massive difference and it's one of the things I'm enjoying being in digital is that idea of that complete blue sky when it comes to innovation of what we do next.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  11:43

Okay, brilliant. And in terms of then a standard day, if there is such a thing, in your role, what does this look like?

Elliott Rayner  11:52

Yeah, it's really different at Babbel where there is no standard day. I think, actually, I've got a very, for the first time in my career... So in physical, it was all about months, you'd have one month, which was the month that you'd go to the factory. So you'd literally fly to Asia, and you'd see the latest prototypes of what's coming, then sometimes they'd send the product back and you'd do testing, so it was very structured from a season, and normal season repeats, and you get used to that.

Within the digital world, or at least at Babbel, it's very much daily. So I have my one on ones with my team on certain days, we have our data reporting on a certain day. Everything moves a little bit quicker, and we have a lot more access to information and data to move quickly. In a digital world, we could make a decision on Monday, launch a product or an idea on Friday, or a campaign and do everything really quickly.

So it's really more responsive. And because of that, the nature of our working week is much more on a weekly kind of basis rather than a monthly or seasonal, which you usually have with fashion or in the sports industry.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  13:01

Okay, and in terms of navigating your weeks and your months and so on and so forth, can you tell us a little bit more about the direct team that you have in terms of numbers and roles that help you work your way through the weeks and navigate any challenges that you might have?

Elliott Rayner  13:20

I have seven product marketers, with me, within my team. We take a quite wide area of the business, which is like traditional product marketing, we have to be super involved in the product innovation side, but then we also have to be aware of the marketing and the campaign side. So that's why my team, they really have got fantastic talents and shared skills.

And that's why usually in product marketing, I think there are opportunities to move to every part of the business, which is really encouraging. We are set up very differently for a digital world within tribes. So you know, usually within the sports world, you might say, "Okay, I have a product marketer for the men's business or the women's business". Or you might say, "Okay, we have one for tennis or one for football". And you can separate much more cleanly like that.

When it comes to digital, it's much more common to be set in tribes based on your user experience. For us, that means how does our user encounter a product? So we have three different tribes, which are impressions, engagement, and learning, which is the pathway that a user takes through our product. And I split my team through those areas. We'll have one set of that team that shapes the product, they are working on insights and looking for ways to improve the product to reach our strategy. Another part of the team which communicates that product. So looking at what's coming next and making sure that our marketing colleagues are able to communicate what's coming so that we can bring people into the business.

It's very cyclical. We are, I think the thing is, even now this week, I'm already having ideas of how to set up for the future. We've had a very big year, the strategy is changing, we're growing. So that's the thing, although it's served us well in that formation, I think as a product marketer it's a very fluid part of the business. You constantly have to reevaluate, to see if the team is set up in the right way for the future and that's something we're going to be doing at the end of the year.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  15:10

Absolutely. You need to approach everything with fluidity, you can't stay still, you can't stay stagnant, you need to be proactive, as opposed to reactive. Absolutely. And so in terms of the teams outside of marketing, such as sales, product, operations, etc, which departments would you say you interact with the most? And what's your relationship with them like?

Elliott Rayner  15:33

Yes, so, within our product colleagues, for sure, we are the representation of product, we sit within marketing, but our point of contact is product, that's how we educate the rest of the marketing division on what's going on. And that's from the CPO down to the directors, so Director of Product Design, Director of User Experience, and then the director of each of those individual tribes.

That's really our biggest point of contact, to make sure that there's a connection, I think it's natural for these two worlds to drift away from each other, the marketing and the product department. That's part of our job as well is to make sure there's a clean line of communication going through them and we're working towards the same things. And that's one of the ways we achieve that is keeping a very close relationship to all those key contacts within product, and then bringing it back to our weekly and monthly meetings within marketing to make sure we're aligned.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  16:31

Okay. And as far as the role of physical and digital products within the current marketplace is concerned, how would you compare and contrast the two? Would you say that we're on the cusp of almost like a digital era as such? Some people would put that perspective or argument forward with the likes of Netflix and so on and so forth, almost taking over, if you like. Would you say that digital is more prominent now than physical? Or would you say that they almost play an equal role?

Elliott Rayner  17:11

Yeah, I think it's so exciting to be in digital now because it's just exploding, it has been exploding for a while, and it's become a part of all of our daily lives, and it's moving fast. You can see how it grabs so much attention in terms of innovation and digital, but, your example of Netflix is so much of a digital product, but it's impossible to enjoy it without a physical product.

So from a physical point of view, it's definitely not going anywhere, I think they've had a tough time in two areas. One, from the retail perspective, of course, it's been very difficult on the high street to boost sales. And the other part is sustainability. I think in a lot of areas, people are now very conscious of consumerism, and how much they buy, especially when it comes to my old world of fashion.

People want to know how the product is made and they're very wary of not buying fast fashion and using it for a while and even with technology of buying a phone or buying a laptop,I want to know, is this gonna last me six months, is it gonna last me three years? But the challenge is for the physical world to adapt to that. Patagonia is a fantastic example that I use where they did a campaign of 'you don't buy more than one of our jackets in our lifetime', which seems like suicide when it comes to retail and sales but they actually boosted their sales by 40% by saying that, because the challenge for the physical world is to create long-lasting, meaningful products that people will pay a lot more for.

People will pay more for a jacket that they love that they're going to wear for 30 years, then buying a new one for every six months. That's better for the people creating the product, better for the environment, it's better for the consumer. I think that's what we're seeing now. So it's not that the physical world is facing a downturn outside of COVID, it's more than they're facing a new challenge. But the challenge is really exciting and the physical creation world is going to be a lot better after this period.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  19:10

Okay. From your personal perspective, what would you suggest are the three top skills that have helped you to get to the point where you are today at Babbel

Elliott Rayner  19:33

They're probably a lot softer skills than people realize, they're not super specific technical things that you would go to university or do a training course for. For me, I always say marketing is really just common sense and understanding people. I think, empathy is something when I'm hiring I'm always looking for because, the basic skill of being able to understand how people feel, what they want, what their fears are, basic empathy, that is marketing.

So to be able to take yourself and go, "Okay, put myself in this user persona. What do they think and feel with this part of the digital journey? Or what are they looking for from the perfect football boot?", that all comes from empathy so that's a real soft skill I'm looking for.

I think strategy, basic strategy is a must. Because once you've come to all of those conclusions, you need to be able to build something out of it. You won't get far in product marketing, without a solid way of having a strategy.

I think the third one, which might seem unusual, it's definitely something I never considered myself, but creativeness or at least creative problem-solving. When I was growing up, I always thought of creativity as being able to paint or being able to do something like that. But I realized that problem solving is really a part of creativity. So many times my team and myself, you're faced with an unsolvable problem and it takes a lot of creativity to solve it. I think that's where product marketing comes in. Our role is to come and to solve those problems, come up with new ideas, drive, be entrepreneurial. I think that's something I always look for within my product marketing team as well.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  21:18

Okay, that sounds great. And in terms of changes that you think could be made to product marketing to make it even better than it is now, is there anything in particular that you'll look at and think, "Right, well, this area could be made even better? Area A, B, or C", what do you think could be changed to almost enhance product marketing, to bring it to a new pedestal?

Elliott Rayner  21:47

I think, a much closer relationship to brands and purpose and the higher strategy, because basically, all a product marketing team is going to do is have a look at the product vision and have a look at the marketing strategy and bring those worlds together. The closer that a product marketing head or a director, or some of the senior managers can be, not only to the final result, but maybe also in the creation of those things, it's going to make it a lot easier to achieve them.

Because and also, it allows product marketing to come in with some reality of what is and what isn't possible, and to bring those two worlds together. So, I think, a true understanding of why we're doing what we're doing and what is if we can only achieve one thing this year, what is it? By product marketing having a clear vision of what those two things are, it makes everything so much simpler. Product marketing is a great place to help any brand achieve that, once they have that clarity.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  22:48

Staying on the topic of relationships, in a perfect world, where does the relationship between a PM and a PMM begin and end in your view? Do you think that there should be a line in terms of those responsibilities?

Elliott Rayner  23:05

Yeah, that's an interesting one. Because I've also had jobs where I've been both the PMM and the PM. And in that world, it starts completely with you, because you're getting the insights, and then you're just switching roles and then creating them. I can see the benefit of that as well. I think it really just depends on what brand and what product you're creating.

I think as long as you have clear communication and a clear division of roles, it really doesn't matter. It can be fluid, once again, if got a PM, who almost has a really great understanding of insights and the things that you can bring, that allows a PMM to focus on the other side. So if PMM is taking the beginning and the end, so the insights and the campaign at the end, if your PM is super comfortable on one side, it allows you to just be comfortable on the other side and dedicate your focus there.

So I really don't think that is one rule, as long as you have a clearly defined understanding and communication between each other, it can work because as I said, the fact that one person in some company can do both roles, shows you that there is a lot of crossover possible.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  24:11

Okay. In terms of any golden nuggets of information that have perhaps even passed down from other product marketers during your journey, do you have any snippets that you would consider to be indispensable for product marketers working within either physical or digital that you would want to pass to them

Elliott Rayner  24:35

Yeah, I think the main one being the user itself. So I mean, that's everything that a product marketer is really - if you can define exactly who you're aiming the product for,  it's going to get you far. I think a lot of products, they might be fantastic, but they don't hit the target of what actually the user or the consumer wanted. And so you spend a lot of time creating something that was actually never needed.

So the more time you can invest in the beginning, collating insights, so you can really, really niche and finely define what are we trying to do? It's only going to benefit you further down. And that, in the consumer world, whether it's fashion is gathering qualitative insights from consumers, competitive research into what's fashionable, what's not. In the digital world it's user personas, looking at Babbel language learning, is the experience that a 59-year-old British woman learning Spanish the same as an 18-year-old Italian guy learning German, because he wants to start his first career job?

Do they want the same thing? Should they want the same experience? Are they going to understand the product? Enjoy the product? Engage with the product in the same way? Probably not. So you need to define, who is our core consumer? Who is the one that we want to focus on where it's gonna help us hit our targets? Yeah, number one thing define that clearly, and it's going to make everything you do in a product marketing job so much easier.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  26:03

Okay, so to round everything up Elliot, if you were to sit down with a new or aspiring product marketer right now, what would your advice to them be to almost get the most out of their product marketing journey? Casting your mind back to when you started as an intern at Adidas, what have you learned between then and now that you would want to tell them to make their experience as enjoyable as possible?

Elliott Rayner  26:35

Yeah, I would completely say just focus on learning. And that's in two different ways. When you join product marketing, there's nothing about product marketing that cannot be learned easily. Don't believe anyone who tries to make you think that it's so overly complicated like being a doctor. It's something that can be learned so just come into the job as someone who embraces learning, and enjoys learning and do that.

But then the second time, make sure you don't stay in a role too long, where you lose the opportunity to learn. The idea of product marketing, if you stay in the same industry or create the same product, the same time, my example of creating the All Blacks jersey, how many times could you do it? It's always going to be a black jersey. So how many times can you do it before actually you stop learning something new? You stop learning what the new user persona is because the persona of a rugby fan doesn't change over six months. So those are the kind of things that I would suggest is make sure that you are also challenging yourself to go into new industries.

Look at me, I went into an industry to appeal to a consumer that I was, I was what Adidas aims for, I was a sports fan, the right age range to do that. So I was basically marketing to myself, which is the easiest thing in the world. I know what a Newcastle fan wants so I can work on the Newcastle jersey, but to challenge yourself to go into an area of creating something that you would never buy, in an industry you would never work in, that's a real challenge.

That's when you start really using your marketing skills. So don't be intimidated to do that. Throw yourself into it and just keep make sure you're always in a role where you keep learning and I think your career will take care of itself after that.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  28:09

Okay, awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Elliott, that was a genuinely really interesting conversation. It was great hearing your journey from back in the early days at Adidas to where you are now at Babbel. It sounds like a great journey so thank you very much for joining us and I'm sure the product marketers tuning in will love that as well.

Elliott Rayner  28:33

Really enjoyed it, Lawrence. Enjoy the football this weekend.

Lawrence Chapman - PMA  28:37

Cheers, I'll try my best. Thanks very much. Thank you.