Human-Centric Marketing Road Trip

human-centric marketing road trip

Matteo Rinaldi


While teaching in several universities around the world, I found it very important to involve C-level marketers who can bring their experiences to the classroom.

Inviting these esteemed professionals to deliver lectures during my classes felt akin to embarking on an incredible journey. It resembled one of those epic road trips where you stop in key cities to reconnect with old friends and make new acquaintances along the way.

I draw the parallel with a road trip because such experiences are rarely solely about the destination. Instead, they are about the journey itself, the stories, the experiences, and the inspiring conversations with the individuals you meet. This is precisely what transpired when I decided to include some of the marketing field’s most admirable figures in my classes.

So, prepare yourself, as I narrate the tale of an adventurous human-centric marketing road trip.

If I were to envision the vehicle for this journey, I would likely choose a Harley-Davidson. Not for its performance, but for what it symbolizes. You may already be familiar with the story: when a journalist once asked John Russell, the former Vice President of Harley-Davidson, what Harley was selling, he could have given a straightforward answer: motorcycles.

However, he responded with something more profound: “What we sell is the ability for a 43-year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns, and have people be afraid of him.” Similarly, I envision this journey in the company of the most daring and innovative marketers I could find, whom I will introduce to you.

human-centric marketing road trip

First Companion – Tiago Santos

Key Advice: Broaden your category by understanding what you are truly offering.

human-centric marketing road trip

My first companion on this human-centric journey was my dear old friend, Tiago Santos, General Manager EDP & SN Belarus and Kazakhstan/Caucasus/Central Asia at Danone. When I asked him about the Harley-Davidson story, Tiago emphasized how it underscores the importance of transcending the boundaries of one’s product category.

He cited the example of Martini, a brand that doesn’t merely sell alcohol but also sells the “Dolce Vita” lifestyle. There are snacks that aren’t merely “chips” but also convey a sense of coolness. Patagonia, one of his favorite brands, doesn’t merely sell clothing but also weaves adventurous narratives. Like all these brands, success hinges not only on delivering an excellent product but also on creating a profound emotional experience.

What I found particularly compelling in his address was his advice to both small and large brands during challenging times: “Stay true to your core values and invest now.” The Chinese word for “crisis” embodies the concept of opportunity.

Brands with a clear identity and the trust of their customers will emerge stronger from crises. By investing wisely and conveying the right message, they can make their voices heard while others remain in “silent mode.”

My conversation with Tiago was truly motivating, and we enjoyed a splendid afternoon before I set my course for Parma to continue my human-centric journey.


Second Companion – Julia Schwoerer

Key Advice: Shift your perspective from consumers to people.

human-centric marketing road trip

Upon my arrival in Parma, I met Julia Schwoerer, President of Bakery Category Barilla. Our immediate connection stemmed from our shared devotion to human-centric marketing principles. Our immediate connection stemmed from our shared devotion to human-centric marketing principles.

She shared an inspiring perspective: “At Barilla, we avoid using the word ‘consumer.’ Instead, we prefer ‘people’ because people live experiences, and people embrace our brands. We believe that a brand’s power is derived from its ability to genuinely enrich people’s lives and touch their hearts.”

What resonated most with me was her insight that we should abandon the B2B or B2C mindset in favor of H2H (human-to-human) thinking.

It is only when we view customers as multifaceted individuals with complex lives that we can craft more engaging brands and communication strategies.

After my conversation with Julia, I journeyed to Milan, where I had another friend to meet: Dario Gargiulo.


Third Companion – Dario Gargiulo

Key Advice: Discover your WHY.

Dario, the CEO of Greater China Bottega Veneta, former CMO of Diesel, and Heineken Brands Director, hails, like me, from Naples. He authored a case study in my book and stands as one of the most brilliant marketers I’ve encountered in my career.

During our discussion, I shared insights from my journey, including the importance of broadening one’s category and avoiding the use of the term “consumers.” Dario nodded in agreement and added, “But don’t forget to find your WHY.” He continued, borrowing a phrase from Simon Sinek: “People don’t buy what you do, but WHY you do it.”

Dario aimed to underscore the paramount importance of a brand’s purpose. In this evolving landscape, consumers are concerned with more than just the products or services offered; they care about the impact brands have on the world. To elevate your brand, you must imbue it with a purpose that genuinely resonates with your audience.

Your brand’s purpose can significantly influence its perception in the market and, ultimately, drive its success. In my interpretation, Diesel, with its unconventional campaigns such as “Diesel – Go with the Fake” or “Diesel Go with the Flaw,” aims to inspire people to challenge the status quo and embrace their authentic selves.

Conversely, Heineken’s purpose revolves around building genuine human connections and breaking down barriers, as the brand believes that shared moments of experience are life’s most precious.

In today’s era, a brand without a clear purpose remains superficial and is unlikely to achieve true success. Suddenly, it dawned on me that this road trip also had its own purpose: to uncover the human aspect of marketing.


Fourth Companion – Stephane Duret

Key Advice: Embrace meaning, respect, and sustainability.

My fourth destination led me to Stephane Duret, another top manager with over two decades of experience leading luxury brands.

During our meeting, I drew a parallel between marketing and acting, one of my favorite pastimes. I often view brands as actors and the store as their stage. Elements like lighting, music, and fragrances contribute to crafting a unique shopping experience. Given Stephane’s expertise in digital marketing, I was intrigued to learn his perspective on the future of physical stores, especially in the wake of recent events.

His response proved fascinating. He emphasized the significance of in-store interactions on two fronts: H2H (human to human) and H2B (human to brand). In my understanding, the first level pertains to interactions between shoppers and store employees. Rather than mere salespeople, these individuals should be seen as consultants, guiding customers toward items that align with their lifestyle and values, thus helping them reach their full potential.

The second level relates to interactions between shoppers and the brand itself. In a physical store, customers can engage with the brand on multiple levels – they can touch, smell, try on, and fully immerse themselves in the brand experience. This depth of engagement is challenging to replicate online.

In truth, recent events have reminded us of the importance of slowing down and approaching things with greater wisdom and deliberation. This sentiment aligns perfectly with Giorgio Armani’s recent observations, and Stephane’s perspective resonates strongly with this sentiment. Before bidding adieu, he left me with a clear piece of advice: “Remember, Matteo, a brand should always be meaningful, respectful, and sustainable.”


Fifth Companion – Roberto Zepponi

Key Advice: Begin with human insight.

My final stop took me to Genoa, where my friend Roberto Zepponi resides. Roberto serves as the Marketing and Trade Marketing Director of Royal Unibrew for Italy and the Balkans. Conversing with Roberto has always been a source of inspiration. He shared the story of Ceres, one of the beer brands he manages, and how it became a favorite among Italians.

The brand’s success was underpinned by a remarkable digital strategy that commenced with a profound human insight:In an era where social media is often used to showcase the happiest moments or greatest achievements, often serving as a platform for self-promotion, people now value brands that exude authenticity and genuineness.”

Starting from this human insight, Ceres crafted its brand positioning: the beer of choice for those moments spent at the bar with friends when individuals can truly be themselves. It embodies authenticity, boldness, and carefree enjoyment. The brand’s unique tone of voice facilitated the creation of highly effective real-time marketing campaigns that went viral across the country.

My conversation with Roberto left me enriched, with a renewed sense of purpose as I prepared to return home and put into practice the invaluable human-centric marketing lessons gleaned from this extraordinary road trip.

In my classes, I continually strive to inspire my students to cultivate curiosity and absorb knowledge like sponges, drawing from the experiences of others. These remarkable professionals shared much more than what I’ve recounted here. Each session left me and my students with a profound sense of enthusiasm and motivation. I genuinely believe that their stories have made us better marketers, and for that, I will forever remain grateful.

Thank you for joining me on this remarkable journey!