As Twitter’s first ever Chief Marketing Officer, Leslie Berland began her tenure in 2016 with an unconventional strategy, enlisting employees from across the organization to provide input into the company’s new brand identity. Never mind that many of them didn’t even think the company needed a brand identity at all. But Berland was determined to focus on employee input before launching any public facing marketing strategies. The approach paid off. Six years later, Berland still believes Twitter employees are the company’s north star.
I spoke to Berland about this as well as Twitter’s efforts to combat harassment on the platform, how they’re elevating marginalized voices and of course, the enormous responsibility the platform takes on during world events.
Amy Shoenthal: Tell me about your career path, going from a pretty high profile role at American Express to being the first CMO of Twitter.
Leslie Berland: I was at American Express for ten years. During those last few years I was focused on finding ways for American Express to innovate with younger companies.
When Twitter called to recruit me, it felt very much like a once in a lifetime opportunity. There hadn’t been a seated CMO at the company yet. It was 2016 and the world thought Twitter was dying. We were struggling to define who we were and where we were going.
Shoenthal: That sounds like a risky jump, going from a very established company where you had been for ten years to what perhaps seemed like a floundering tech company at the time. Berland: It definitely felt like a fork in the road decision. I don’t think those types of choices come by very often where you’re looking at two amazing but extremely different paths.So I made the jump. I loved the people. I deeply respected Jack. I loved the challenge. And I thought the potential impact was extraordinary.
I was very much drawn to the ability to help shape and turn around a company with a group of employees who were committed to building for the future. The importance of the platform adds a weight to working here still, as you can see with everything going on in the world today. I am and have always been extremely confident in the staying power and the growing power of Twitter, even in the moments where everyone thought we were taking a different turn. I think it’s existential, necessary, critical and magical. Every day I’m grateful to be here. It has been every bit the ride I thought it was going to be with some extra twists and turns.
Shoenthal: Tell me about those extra twists and turns. How did you work through them?
Berland: There was so much happening at the company when I joined. Jack had just come back as CEO and the leadership team had changed quite significantly. There were amazingly talented people working in marketing but without a CMO, the marketing teams were siloed throughout the organization. It needed building and focus and organization early on. But you can’t come into an opportunity like that and boil the ocean. I couldn’t fix everything and build at the same time.
The biggest challenge was the perception. People define Twitter in so many different ways. But it was very clear that the confusion over those different definitions was holding us back. So I pulled a small team together to do some brand identity work. We did most of that work completely in house.
We eventually centered on this simple statement: “Twitter is what’s happening.” It wasn’t a splashy brand campaign. It was a way to center and anchor how we saw and understood ourselves.
The feedback from the industry at that time was, wow, Twitter finally knows what it is. It shows the power of prioritizing what’s important, trusting your people, not over layering with process. Once we set and established that foundation everything else came together naturally.
When you are at companies like ours, the employees are critical. The employees are the biggest supporters but also the biggest critics. We need the feedback from our people. Sometimes I see companies fall into the trap of doing all these external campaigns but they haven’t taken the time to allow the employees to absorb what it means. When we do anything externally, the first filter is the people. They are the litmus test of what we do and how we do it.
Jack and others recognized that I was so focused on our employees in the brand identity work we were doing, they actually suggested I expand my role to be the Head of People. That role is intense and meaningful. It was an enormous learning experience for me as somebody who cares deeply about the culture of this company.
Shoenthal: I want to talk about Jack a little bit since you mentioned how close you were. Jack Dorsey just left Twitter, what does that mean for you and for the company?
Berland: I am extremely grateful for the years Jack and I worked together. Parag, our new CEO, worked very closely with Jack. I have been absolutely inspired by his leadership throughout this change. The way he has shown up, his focus, his decisiveness, his authenticity, his openness is exactly what we need in the next chapter. I love working with him and I have full confidence in where he’ll take us.
Shoenthal: Twitter’s social media has always been great but you’ve really been on fire lately with “Hello, literally everyone” when Facebook and Instagram were down, and “We’re sorry, or you’re welcome” when announcing it was retiring the Fleets product feature. Can you let us in on any of the social marketing team’s secret sauce and how they’re able to quickly post such sharp and witty reactions to real-time events?
Berland: It’s funny because we haven’t always been so amazing at this. Our Twitter presence used to read like a marketing handle. Our purpose was serving public conversation but we weren’t actually being conversational. We spent so much time going back and forth debating what our tone was, and then one day we said we’re just going to start talking.
The first tweet that shifted to this was when we tweeted, “you up?” The amount of texts that came in asking if we were hacked was hilarious, and the amount of responses we got on the platform was astounding. It was such an important moment.
We are fortunate that we are able to see all the conversations on Twitter as they unfold. The team is just so incredible in knowing the pulse of what’s happening every day. They’re incredible with their writing, but also with just having fun.
A lot of companies worry that every tweet has to be well designed and perfect and make it a piece of marketing collateral. As a company we are weird, messy and silly but raw and authentic. Once we moved into that, it became our voice. Unshackle the teams and let them do what they do best. And of course make sure social media teams are diverse so you have lots of different perspectives so we’re not talking to ourselves. That’s critical.
Shoenthal: Speaking of diverse teams, how are you working to advance inclusion in an industry that’s taken so much heat for its lack of it?
Berland: I give all the credit to my colleagues and every single person at the company that pushes this culture forward. It is not a one person job. Dalana Brand is our Chief Human Resources Officer and she’s amazing. This is something that has always been very ingrained at Twitter but over the years we’ve become much more intentional and goal-oriented about it. Now we have put the resources, people and time behind it.
God-is Rivera runs culture and community. She is all about elevating diverse voices on Twitter through events, experiences and conversations. We try to be very present and engaged so we can learn and truly serve those customers better – we’re always improving. It’s hard to build that trust, especially at a company like ours where people come onto the platform every day and interact with something different.
During the Black Lives Matter resurgence last June, we put tweets on billboards. It was a series of simple tweets but the concept speaks to what we’re trying to do, which is elevate voices. Our teams have become so much more diverse over the past few years with our goal setting and our amazing I&D team and the leaders working to keep people engaged. For us it’s not a ‘nice to do,’ it’s a must-do. We must look like all the communities we serve around the world.
Shoenthal: Twitter hasn’t always been a pinnacle of inclusion though. It’s been criticized for allowing harassment and bullying, specifically directed towards women. I know the company has recently taken more steps to combat this, can you comment on the actions that have been taken and what, if any, additional plans are in the works to help deal with this issue?
Berland: This was a huge problem when I started in 2016. To look back at the progress we’ve made is extraordinary and powerful. But this is always-on work that doesn’t end. I do give massive credit to engineering, product, trust & safety and all the teams who do very important, very draining work.
Every employee at Twitter cares about this. People need to come to Twitter and feel safe. Everything from the controls we’ve created to who can engage with your tweets, to the more automated work tracking what’s said on the platform, addressing abuse and harassment, all the way to the time it takes people to respond when you report a tweet. This is something that touches everybody at the company in all of our work and will always be ongoing as the world continues to evolve and change. We learn and we grow and we evolve as well.
Shoenthal: Speaking of how the world is evolving and changing, it’s been a dramatic few days. Quite often, Twitter is the first place people turn to watch world events unfold in real-time. I noticed the Twitter safety thread about considerations when tweeting in conflict zones that was posted immediately when the attacks began in Ukraine. Can you share anything in terms of the role Twitter is playing during world events like the one we’re experiencing right now?
Berland: During times like these, we feel the weight of our work. Across the company, we feel that responsibility, that care and that empathy every single day. We have teams working on exactly what you’re referencing in regards to safety. We’re thinking through things like how do we ensure that we educate people and keep them safe while allowing these critical conversations to continue? How do we ensure that only credible information is surfaced, and people get access to the information they need? We need to make sure the foundation of Twitter is running so these critical conversations can happen. We take this seriously because we understand how much is at stake.
By Amy Shoenthal, Forbes Staff