Cover Story: Direct Marketer of the Year: Dawn Zier
Dawn Zier is thriving in the frenzied pace of an Internet-ruled world for at least two reasons: Seemingly impossible challenges intrigue her, and she's chosen to live by her parents' words to "be the best that you can be."
So far, that mentality is serving her and the company she heads well. Zier, the president and CEO of Fort Washington, Penn.-based weight loss meal plan provider Nutrisystem, is largely credited with turning the fortunes of her company around. Taking the position in November 2012, she inherited a company that had seen sales plummet 42 percent since 2008. Under her leadership, Nutrisystem added data-driven programs and is expecting soon to see "revenue growth for the first time in seven years," Zier says.
These are among the reasons Zier is Target Marketing's 2014 Direct Marketer of the Year. Editors chose Zier based on her accomplishments and her service to the direct marketing community. And Target Marketing isn't alone in honoring Zier this year—she's also accepting a 2014 Silver Apple Award from the Direct Marketing Club of New York, and a 2014 Brava! Award from Philadelphia Smart CEO.
Zier says leading Nutrisystem has been her biggest professional challenge during her 25-year marketing career, which includes her years at Reader's Digest.
"I'm loving it," she says. "It really is humbling to be a CEO … You're responsible not only for the company, but also for the people working at the company, and we're really working hard as a team to turn the company around, and we're having positive results. While it certainly hasn't been easy, it's been extremely rewarding, and just a great overall experience."
For the Love of Puzzles
"My engineering background is probably something I use regularly," Zier says, "which might surprise people, given that I am at a health care company, was in publishing for so long, and working in the marketing field. But I find that the problem-solving process—and not being too quick to accept a premise, to be able to challenge and debate different things and break down problems into modules or discrete components—has been very helpful. That definitely came from my training as an engineer."
Zier earned a bachelor's degree in computer science and electrical engineering from SUNY Stony Brook and a master's degree in electrical engineering from MIT. After graduating from MIT, she spent a year working for AT&T.
Then she went back to school to earn an MBA from MIT. She's remained in marketing now for 25 years—first in credit card marketing at Chase Manhattan Corporation, which became known as JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Zier's early career change is the reason she counsels the young professionals she mentors to be willing to adapt. But different paths aren't a waste. For Zier, a puzzle-solving background has helped her overcome some of her largest professional challenges and, in Zier's case, to embrace them as opportunities.
"In 2000, when I was vice president of circulation marketing at Reader's Digest … my team won the first ever Chairman's Award, for doing what we called 10 years of testing in 10 months and stabilizing circulation for the magazine," Zier says. "It's my best memory, because, one, it was a take-no-prisoners moment. We had to succeed or die. And when faced with those outcomes, it's amazing what a team can do. It's amazing how that motivates you to act outside of the box.
"Two," she continues, "the reason why it's one of my best memories is because the team won a five-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Necker Island, which is the island owned by Richard Branson, and is the most extravagant and amazing place that I've ever gone to."
That's when her boss, former President of Worldwide Circulation John Klingel, told the Reader's Digest CEO he'd found the next direct marketing genius.
"I told him that I had found another Jan Brandt," Klingel says.
Brandt, then the America Online CMO, was Target Marketing's 2001 Direct Marketer of the Year, whom Klingel had also trained in circulation marketing.
Evolve or Die
"All the easy jobs are gone, so being all-in and hungry is a must," Zier says.
That's a lesson she learned very well at Reader's Digest, when "troubled" often appeared in news articles describing the brand's financial health.
"The knowledge that I gleaned over my career at Reader's Digest was really invaluable and portable beyond publishing," Zier says.
Trained at the direct marketing and database "powerhouse," she'd found her calling. She used that knowledge immediately in November 2012.
"When I came to Nutrisystem," Zier says, "it felt as though the company had lost its way a bit with its marketing and its messaging. I'm a huge believer in customer segmentation, and addressing the segments differently. I believe that the decision to go on a diet is a very emotional one, and so do most people I know, so the messaging that we're moving towards reflects more of those emotional connections. I've worked with our team to infuse Nutrisystem's marketing and advertising with a tone that shows female consumers that the company is listening to them, and we're also refining our messages to the male audience, as well. And we don't talk to the two audiences the same."
So an important bit of data for the team is the fact that 70 percent of Nutrisystem's customers are female. That weighs into everything Nutrisystem does.
"We've also worked on our product pipeline to ensure that it speaks to our audience and reflects the needs of our audience," Zier says. "So products like NuMi, the Fast 5 kit, EnergiZING and Craving Crusher shakes, our Jump Start Weight Loss kits at Walmart are all examples of that."
First, though, Zier had to help Nutrisystem's staff create a better relationship with data.
Zier says her favorite aspect of direct marketing is data. That wasn't the case for Nutrisystem. So when she joined Nutrisystem, she helped share the love.
"You get insights from customers and the data constantly, so you can always refine your marketing message, and really reach customers very personally," she explains.
She now asks staffers to back up assertions with facts.
"When I came on board at Nutrisystem, we revisited everything," Zier says. "And direct marketing principles, pricing and product innovation were three of the areas that we really focused on.
"We overhauled our advertising, and focused on the benefits and emotional connectivity of our products, rather than price-cutting promotions," she continues. "We felt our products had become too discounted, and were able to successfully raise the price back towards what we were charging several years back, before the discounting marketing strategy took hold. We also moved away from a one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss. That just doesn't work with consumers anymore. We introduced new products, optimized pricing and expanded our distribution channels, and we're going to continue to do that.
"I also think that a lot of companies struggle with calibrating the degree of change needed," Zier adds. "And we were very deliberate, informed by data, informed by test results, and really resisted the urge to change things too abruptly, without information behind it. We were very disciplined about making adjustments, whether they were most needed to improve customer experience, conversion rates, retention, etc.
"I'm really pleased to say that we've begun to see a positive shift across 90 percent of our key metrics," Zier says of the results, "and have strategies in place to further this momentum, as well as move the remaining 10 percent forward."
'Moneyball' Has Nothing on Nutrisystem
"We're in the early innings of this turnaround, with the expectation of achieving revenue growth for the first time in seven years," Zier says. "I believe that there's a lot of opportunity ahead for the brand. So, while challenging, it's very exciting and very rewarding. And also knowing we're making profound differences in so many people's lives is humbling, as well. We're very focused on that."
Nutrisystem had to prove it was more important to people who were trying to lose weight than any available free online tools. Also, Nutrisystem had to harness the level of intimacy that occurs with customers during the three to four "very intense" months in order to try to create a decades-long relationship and ensure the weight loss is maintained.
"I think few things are more personal than weight loss," Zier says.
Considering weight loss is a life-long challenge for many, she thinks Nutrisystem can become a valuable support partner.
"There's a ton of opportunity there," Zier says, "and all indications are we have the brand license and credibility to be part of the overall journey spanning decades, not months."
Critics then tell Zier, "'You must want your customers never to go off the program.' That's not true. The best thing for me is when a customer has success, and goes off the program, and becomes a brand ambassador."
This is where segmentation hits a home run for Nutrisystem.
"There's a lot of different ways to look at segmentation—whether you're using psychographic or demographic attributes," Zier says. "At a broad level, at a really high level, we definitely segment based on male, female. We look at diabetic and several other things. Those are the three major ones we're doing.
"We also look at do-it-yourself dieters vs. dieters that want more structured programs," Zier elaborates. "We're getting more and more sophisticated in this as we go forward. We actually recently hired a data scientist, and we were working with several third parties to really enhance our data sophistication to take it to the type of company that I believe we need to be to succeed in the future."
As important as messaging those segments is to Nutrisystem, Zier is adding another direct marketing skill to ensure a safe slide into home.
Testing It Out
Moving from idea to idea without testing is a bit like moving from third to second base, with no clear path to home.
"I really worked hard to return the company to a testing and research culture, so [we were] no longer pivoting from one idea to another," Zier says. Now Nutrisystem is "making sure that ideas are well-tested before we roll them out."
Customers also provide valuable research opportunities.
"At Nutrisystem, we have our contact center right in the same building with the management team," Zier says. "So we have the opportunity to spend a lot of time listening to our customers when they call in, and we get tremendous insights from them. It really helps. Listening to them really is key to formulating our strategies as we go forward."
Zier says listening to her parents' advice provides the foundation for her success.
"'Be the best that you can be' is something that was instilled in me growing up, and something that I've instilled into my children," she says.
However, her family's support isn't all that's helped her rise to the top.
"My favorite words of wisdom are 'Don't let the tail wag the dog,' " Zier says. "That's a favorite quote from my long-time mentor, John Klingel. What it means is 'Don't let process get in the way of a good idea.' It staves off all those people who tell you, 'We tried this before. It can't be done.' The naysayers. And I find that quote to be very empowering."
When they worked together at Reader's Digest, Zier says Klingel was a direct marketing expert who was ahead of his time, because Klingel already had a customer-centric mindset.
"He trained me," Zier says. "He believed in me, and pushed me to exceed and excel."
Klingel says Zier's direct marketing performance always exceeded his expectations, so he kept adding on responsibility and challenges.
"In addition to working hard and achieving a lot, we had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs," he says. "For me, it was the end of my career, and I owe Dawn and her group a debt of gratitude for the experience of working with such a highly talented group of people. In terms of marketing creativity, I think they achieved more than any circulation group in the history of magazines."
Zier met another mentor at Reader's Digest—former CEO Eric Schrier.
"What Eric taught me was how to step outside of my comfort zone and embrace change," Zier says.
While it may seem difficult to imagine Zier and change not getting along, it appears Schrier thinks Zier did well adapting.
"Dawn is a tremendous talent and well-deserving of this award," Schrier says of Zier being Target Marketing's 2014 Direct Marketer of the Year.
Another marketing visionary who also happens to be in publishing is Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Zier believes Bezos "focuses relentlessly on the customer. … One of the things I read about … him was, at every meeting, he has the customer figuratively sitting at the table. So the customer is front-and-center of every conversation, which I think is critical."
In addition to having customers as advisors, Zier listens to Brad Thomas, CEO of The HR Impact Group. Another mentor from her Reader's Digest years, Thomas was the chief HR officer and has been her executive coach ever since.
"[He] is an expert on both strategy, as well as building culture in organizations for success," Zier says. "His advice and support, coupled with his willingness to challenge and push me—which by the way, not many people are willing to do—have truly been invaluable to me, both at Reader's Digest and Nutrisystem."
Thomas has equal admiration for Zier.
"What differentiates Dawn is her leadership skills," he says. "She sets bold standards and attracts people who want to achieve something special. Dawn is also incredibly persistent—if one path is blocked, she always seems to find another. It has been both a pleasure and an education working with her."
For Zier, the support is invaluable.
"I'm quite certain that I wouldn't be where I am today without these three people," Zier says. "I would highly advise anyone taking on major responsibility of any kind to make sure they have mentors. It's not about ego. It's about really surrounding yourself with the best people, who can help you take the best steps forward."
Surrounding Herself With Greatness
Zier listens to her team, too.
"When I came into Nutrisystem, the first thing I focused on was building a very strong team," Zier says. "And I work very closely with both my chief marketing officer, Keira Krausz, and my chief financial officer, Mike Monahan, along with the rest of my direct reports."
Zier mentored Stephen Mikulak, whom she originally hired in June 2000, straight out of Le Moyne College with a bachelor's degree in economics. Then a circulation associate at Reader's Digest, Nutrisystem hired Mikulak as VP of customer experience and engagement in July 2014.
"She expects the best out of her team and herself, and that is why she is a great leader," Mikulak says of Zier. "She wants to get better and wants her team and company to succeed. Dawn has the ability to look at marketing campaign results and come up with a hypothesis, conclusions, solutions or answers that no one else saw. [The] sky's the limit for Dawn and her career."
Pay It Forward
Mentors and others were willing to help her, so Zier figures it's her turn to pay it forward.
"Dawn has been an amazing mentor to me and really helped develop me in my career," says Jasmine Vogel, a GE corporate audit staff senior associate who graduated from Northeastern University in 2010.
Vogel says Zier became her mentor after the two met at a mutual friend's holiday party.
"What's great about Dawn is she's a clear thinker," Vogel says. "Dawn is able to quickly assess an ambiguous area by obtaining the pertinent information and putting the right plan in motion. Her leadership qualities and passion for her work, coupled with an ability to flex her interpersonal style, drives a positive environment and great results. From a career growth perspective, Dawn has helped mentor me on my career development and leadership growth. She's great about giving tactical advice and supporting it with examples from her own experiences."
However, giving back is hardly a new passion for Zier.
This year, Zier is DMA Board Secretary, and she has served on the board since 2008. As DMCNY notes, Zier was a board trustee for Marketing EDGE (formerly the Direct Marketing Educational Foundation), chairwoman of the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) Magazine Directors' Advisory Committee and an active member of the Association of Magazine Media's (MPA) Marketing Committee.
"I think it's tremendously important to give back in any profession you're in," Zier says. "And for me, that's the marketing profession. And more recently, given my leadership at a health care company, working also with the American Diabetes Association."
There, Zier is co-chairwoman of the association's 2014 Philadelphia Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes.
"I found that as I grew in my career, I wanted to get more involved and help others succeed," she says. "I've also found that the more you give, the more you get back. And the people I've met throughout my involvement in the Direct Marketing Association, for example, are truly leaders across many different industries. And those friendships and relationships are personally rewarding and, also, have a lot of professional value."
Like a true direct marketer, Zier even mentions the channels she uses to maintain her relationships: "I have several mentees outside of Nutrisystem, and touch base with them regularly in person, by phone and email."
A Data-Focused Future
Part of Zier's focus on data has to do with her vision for direct marketing's future.
"I think it will become more customized, and with more of an emphasis on lifetime value of a customer relationship," she says. "And I think the customers will increasingly have more control, and there will be a lot more happening through social media and social engagement. I think it's changing. One of the exciting things about marketing is that it changes at fairly rapid pace, which means it never gets boring."
She expects direct marketing to be more valued during bad economies.
"When the going gets tough, everybody looks for proof points," Zier says. "The digital evolution that now is everyday life for all of us dramatically changed the landscape, as has the proliferation of data. There [are] so many more data points available to marketers, and the trick is understanding which ones are relevant, which is where I think data scientists come into play.
"Also, respecting the consumer's information and privacy, and using that information in a forthright way is absolutely critical," she adds. "How I think direct marketers can adapt to these changing times [is] I think we need to leverage the relationship with our existing customers. Value or nurture them, so they can become brand ambassadors and develop expertise in social marketing."
Zier's most difficult prediction is where she will be in 10 years, despite Mikulak's belief that the sky is the limit for her.
"I'm hesitant to even wager a guess," Zier says. "But on the Nutrisystem front, I sincerely hope that I will have helped make a meaningful contribution to making Americans healthier, so they can lead more fulfilling lives. If someone comes up to me in 10 years and says, unsolicited, 'Hey, I thought you'd want to know I lost 40 pounds on Nutrisystem, and I can now run around with my kids.' That's very rewarding."