Former Subway and Coca-Cola CMO Joe Tripodi Shares Views on Risk and Corporate Courage

Joe Tripodi, a six-time Chief Marketing Officer, joined Crummer students in Dr. Ginger Killian’s Marketing Management course.

There are few executives that have had as much of a visible impact on American marketing as Joe Tripodi.

Responsible for award-winning ad campaigns that have cemented themselves in the American zeitgeist, including the “Priceless” campaign at Mastercard and the “Share a Coke” campaign at Coca-Cola, Tripodi joined Crummer marketing students to share his insights on some of the most pertinent topics in the marketing industry.

“It was an honor to host Joe Tripodi in December. His examples of marketing strategy helped students to understand how marketing plays a pivotal role in helping the organization fulfill its mission. From examples about product development at Allstate to positioning the Coke brand in the context of current events, he brought marketing to life with examples students in which students could relate,” said Dr. Ginger Killian.


Speaking to the class via Zoom, the now-retired Tripodi shared with the class that he’s seen the “good, the bad, and the ugly” during his 40-year journey in corporate America, where he’s served as the chief marketing officer for Subway, Coca-Cola, Mastercard, Seagram’s, Bank of New York and Allstate.

While he has experience leading the marketing efforts for these all-American brands, Tripodi cut his teeth by working aboard early on his in career and gaining international exposure.

“Being outside of the U.S. gave me a much broader perspective on things and how the world operates, how people behave, and it gave me a great appreciation for the fact that all great ideas don’t emanate from the U.S,” he said.

Equipped with a worldview, Tripodi brought a transformative, innovative energy to the brands he led, including taking over Subway’s marketing efforts in the wake of the Jared Fogel scandal.

On Risk and Failure in Marketing

Nothing demonstrates Tripodi’s view on risk as clearly as his decision to join a reeling Subway after retiring from Coca-Cola.

“If you’re not prepared to fail, then you are not going to advance the enterprise,” said Tripodi.

Tripodi has long accepted, if not embraced, that failure is a part of the process to advancing a brand long-term.

“I saw people hunker down because they were afraid to make a mistake; that’s the worst thing; that’s the death spiral for a company in marketing,” said Tripodi.

However, he says there is a fine line between innovation failures and execution failures. The latter being a failure that cannot be allowed to happen.

He always institutionalized the concept that 9 out of 10 products fail, and that’s OK. If anything, innovation failures will advance your brand in the long-term, as they create a culture where innovation is celebrated, not persecuted.

The big issue in failure is when it is on an execution level.

“If you are failing at an execution level, where you know how to execute but you are not executing for whatever reason, that’s the bigger sin that needs to be corrected,” said Tripodi.

Dr. Killian echoed those sentiments.

“I believe Joe’s take on risk and failure highlighted the importance that failure is ok—not every idea has to be the next big idea. This message is so often overlooked, as organizations rarely highlight failures. However, a failure offers an opportunity to learn, re-tool, and refine thought processes to inform the next big idea,” said. Dr. Killian.

 On Corporate Courage

During 2020, the topic of social justice became a national conversation in our society. Many consumers looked to – and even expected — their favorite brands to respond and react to the nationwide cries for activism.

Throughout his career, Tripodi has never shied away from addressing topical social issues. For example, while at Coca-Cola, his marketing team produced the award-winning ‘Love Has No Labels’ video. The commercial was ultimately used by the Ad Council and is one of the Council’s most successful and memorable campaigns.”

The larger question at hand is should companies dive into social issues? And why?

Tripodi says yes, although it needs to be in areas that are relevant to your business.

“Companies have to find the intersection of what they believe in and what their corporate purpose is,” said Tripodi. “[Corporate purpose] is getting more and more defined over time. You will see more companies find that corporate courage and backbone in order to embrace controversial subject matter or causes.”

Tripodi says corporate purpose does not mean every brand should have a point of view on every social issue, either.

“I don’t think I need my deodorant manufacture preaching about social issues to me,” he laughed.

The sweet spot is finding a niche that makes sense for your brand and company, and focusing heavily on that particular area, he says.

“As social issues and movements become more prominent in the fabric of our society, the concept of corporate courage underscores the role of organizations in propelling a movement forward. Identifying relevant ways for the brand to engage in the conversation is a tremendous opportunity for organizations in the coming decade,” said Dr. Killian.

Into the Future

Retiring in early 2019, Tripodi missed navigating the COVID-19 pandemic as a CMO by just over a year.

However, he’s been watching closely and says that the change that was going to occur over the next decade is accelerating drastically.

“I think we will see that that there is simply too much of everything,” he said. “Too many streaming devices, too many channels, too many products, and too much private equity money chasing every idea.”

Aspects of the business enterprise that weren’t previously assessed, are going to be more heavily scrutinized.

“Where we are putting our offices, where our staff is located,” he said. “This is going to take a lot of waste and excess out of the system.

Students in Dr. Killian’s marketing management class shared their thoughts on the opportunity to learn from Tripodi.

“It was an unexpected and wonderful opportunity to connect with marketing leaders like Joe Tripodi in a personal classroom discussion,” said PMBA student Megan Soliday. “Hearing about his career journey and approach to business showed me that there are many different paths to success. What I most enjoyed was asking questions and getting his transparent and thoughtful response.”.

PMBA student Renne Fuganti says the opportunity was one that most MBA students don’t get.

“The contact with C-Suite level leaders on a personal basis is an amazing opportunity,” said Renne Fuganti. “The insight provided from leaders like Joe is extremely valuable and comes from knowledge and personal experience that a person cannot have unless they are a C-Suite leader.”