Sky Zone CMO Josh Cole Q&A

Josh Cole

As Chief Marketing Officer of Sky Zone, Josh Cole is considered a leader in experiential-entertainment marketing and is a contributor to marketing thought leadership. Having previously held several roles at Universal Studios, most recently VP Marketing and E-Commerce, and being with Sky Zone for over 6 years, he knows a thing or two about how to effectively market to audiences.

Josh is also an Adweek Executive Mentor, counseling up-and-coming marketing professionals and continuously bringing new ideas to the industry’s forefront.

EPR: These days there’s a lot of talk about brand vs. performance marketing. What’s your take on the relative importance of each? And do your skills lean toward one or the other?

Overall momentum in the industry is with performance. Especially at a time of challenged budgets, it’s easier to obtain funding for campaigns with directly measurable results. However, I feel the pendulum has swung too far toward performance. Brand marketing is a long-term investment; it’s crucial for getting more customers interested in one’s products and for maintaining brand relevance. Plus, a strong brand results in more effective performance ads.

That said, for much of my career I’ve shifted budget from brand to performance, mainly because I walked into programs that lacked digital investment and performance focus. However, I’ve always been responsible for both brand and performance objectives and understand the importance of each. In my current role at Sky Zone, I don’t have the budget for sizable traditional media buys. Most of our spend is digital with a call to action. However, we’ve been able to get high-impact brand exposure through stunts and programs that capture earned media attention, low-cost (even bartered) product placements in films and TV shows, and sponsored social influencer content. These initiatives have built considerable brand relevance and ultimately make our performance ads harder hitting.

EPR:  I read your recent Adweek piece on the marketing trends we expect to encounter in 2021 and was interested in your mentioning of a cookie-less marketing future. Would you please remind us what cookies are and what the implications are for brands and marketers when they’re removed?

Josh:  A cookie is a small bit of information that a website places on your computer. The big, looming issue is that Google announced that in early 2022 its Chrome browser is going to stop supporting third-party cookies the way it does today. Third-party cookies are those placed by an entity that isn’t the owner of the website you’re on. Killing third-party cookies means disrupting much of how digital advertising is currently implemented, from targeting to measurement.

Large players in the industry have competing initiatives underway to continue targeting customers without reliance on third-party cookies. Between these different solutions being pitched and the underlying complexity of digital advertising, many marketers are confused about what this all means…which is problematic since a sea-change is only one year away.

An important must-do for marketers today is to improve access to their own first-party data, to be as self-sufficient as possible. Marketers must also push their agencies for clear plans for placing and measuring campaigns once the change goes into effect.

EPR: Speaking of changes, 2020 was an unprecedented year. Can you tell us how you pivoted your marketing strategy to stay top of mind and connected with customers?

Josh:  It certainly was. As a location-based business, Sky Zone was greatly affected by the pandemic. We had to shut down our venues for months.

At the start of the shut-down we asked ourselves two important questions: how can we help our Guests in a moment of anxiety and need? And, how can we continue to connect with them, to stay a part of their lives when our parks are temporarily closed?

We rolled out two strategies as a result. First, we quickly introduced free virtual birthday parties via Zoom, led by our expert Party Pros. Second, we created useful digital content, such as at-home active play ideas for parents and kids. We aimed to make positive contributions to our Guests’ lives, knowing this would build long-term goodwill for our brand. The virtual parties generated an added benefit: considerable media attention. They were highlighted on outlets ranging from TechCrunch to NBC Nightly News.

In addition, we put in place programs that would help the company thrive post-COVID. A key focus area was gift cards, since they’re sold today but used in the future. We ran direct-to-consumer campaigns plus launched a retail program. Sky Zone gift cards are now sold in Target stores across the US. This wasn’t the case pre-pandemic.

Finally, we were able to maintain mindshare through brand marketing initiatives. Sky Zone was a location within the Robert De Niro family comedy, ‘The War With Grandpa,’ released in October. We partnered with the studio on social media campaigns. Similarly, Sky Zone is featured in ‘A Bad Moms Christmas’ which is new to Netflix for this holiday season.

EPR: How did you keep your team motivated and thinking creatively?

I’m fortunate to have a team of diligent and results-oriented people. Motivation wasn’t a problem. The real threats were burn-out, with so much change happening so quickly, and isolation.

I made it a point to encourage balance. I reminded my team again and again to make time to decompress. I stressed it was OK to disengage during the day as needed.

To help maintain connectedness, I initiated a peer-to-peer virtual learning series. I solicited volunteers from across the company to present topics of interest to them. This gave our whole team the chance to connect while learning from one another. We’ve had team members present on topics ranging from ‘Google Advertising’ to ‘The Culture of Kurdistan.’ It’s been a hugely successful series.

EPR: Are there any new marketing initiatives Sky Zone will be implementing in 2021?

Continuing the roll-out of the retail gift card program is a priority. We also have a new program in place with hand-selected park team members to generate content for TikTok. Another important initiative is expanding the use of a digital advertising platform that provides targeting without relying on third-party cookies. We tested this platform in 2020 and plan to launch on a wider scale in the months to come.

I’m extremely proud of my team for not only persevering through this past year, but putting in place new programs that position us for success in 2021.

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