Blending Purpose and Marketing Strategy: Heather Hopkins Freeland ’01 (VP of Marketing, Lyft)

At the 2021 Future of Marketing Leadership conference, tech marketing executive Heather Hopkins Freeland ’01 (VP of Marketing, Lyft) joined Columbia MBA student Daniella Levitan ’23 in a fireside chat about brand purpose, leading during a crisis, and advice for future marketing leaders working in the tech industry.

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“I believe that you can’t look at growth and brand as two separate entities. They are one.”  

In a fireside chat with current Columbia MBA student Daniella Levitan ’23, Heather Hopkins Freeland ’01 (VP of Marketing, Lyft) described how her experience at digital-first companies like Digitas, MTV Networks Digital, Facebook—and most recently, Lyft—has shown her the importance of integrating the long game of brand strategy with rapid results-focused growth marketing efforts. 

“Every single impression you have with your customer is a moment to build your brand,” Freeland said to the hybrid in-person and online audience of students, marketing professionals, and academics in the final talk of the 2021 Future of Marketing Leadership Conference, a conference presented by the Center on Global Brand Leadership and the ANA Educational Foundation in partnership with the Marketing Association of Columbia. 

When Freeland arrived at Lyft to lead marketing, she saw the potential for a massive unlock if brand marketing and growth marketing were to become more integrated by stitching together campaigns into truly full funnel efforts. At the time, growth marketing sat under the product organization, not under marketing, and brand and growth marketing were treated very differently by the company in terms of budget and resource allocation.  

But Freeland saw an opportunity to build trust with product partners and shake up Lyft’s established ways of doing growth marketing and brand marketing fully separate. One thing that made things challenging at first is that the economics of rideshare relies heavily on growth marketing, making growth marketing more prioritized at Lyft when Freeland started. “We have a business where we are constantly fine-tuning our marketplace balance to get the right number of riders and drivers on the road at any given moment,” said Freeland, “which takes a lot of effort, incentives, et cetera, and that’s our kind of performance marketing arm.” 

But what the data showed, Freeland said, was that growth marketing’s short-term focus was leading Lyft to run engagement campaigns (such as for a driver to drive one more hour or to get one more rider on the road) that would change behavior instantly, but eventually would always revert back to the mean and did not have a sustained impact.  

So Freeland started to do things differently. “What we started to do was run tests that showed what happens if you look at this truly full funnel—brand all the way through,” Freeland said.  

The results spoke for themselves: “What we started to see was a curve that went up like this,” said Freeland, her finger tracing a curve in the air that, though it had regular peaks and troughs, trended upward. “And it didn’t just revert back to the mean, it sustained over time. So we were running and landing brand messages at the same time as we were running acquisition and engagement campaigns, and we were starting to see long-term sustained behavior.”  

In addition to driving sustained growth by integrating brand and growth marketing during her tenure as VP of Marketing at Lyft, Freeland has also worked on the long-term goal of strengthening Lyft’s brand by weaving social purpose into it. The societal events of the past several years, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased political polarization in American society, have proven to be both a challenge and an opportunity for Lyft to clarify its values and build purpose into its branding efforts. 

One example of Lyft doubling down on social purpose goes back to 2017. “We actually took a stand against the travel ban that then-President Trump put in place because it was going to have a materially negative impact on our drivers,” said Freeland. More recently, Lyft was one of the only brands to take a stand on SB 8, the Texas abortion bill.  

“That seems like a really dangerous territory for a brand to step into,” said Freeland, “but the reason we felt like we could and should was that in the legislation, it actually called out specifically that rideshare drivers could be liable and could be sued for driving someone to an abortion [and] our rideshare drivers have no business understanding why or where they’re taking their passenger.” 

The key to making these bold, potentially divisive values-driven stances work favorably for Lyft’s brand lies in how thoughtfully Lyft chooses which issues to get involved in. “We don’t want to weigh in on any topic,” said Freeland. “We want to weigh in on things that have meaningful impact on our rider or driver experience. We want to make sure that one, we have permission to play in this area—that it’s relevant to our customers—and two, that we are not just saying it, but that we’re taking real action around it.” 

For more of Freeland’s thoughts on brand building and leadership—including topics such as most important skills for marketers working in tech, the top quality she looks for in marketing talent, and what she wishes she did more of during her time as an MBA student—check out the video of her talk at the 2021 Future of Marketing Leadership Conference. 

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