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Magic Leap’s new marketing boss has a tough challenge: Trying to sell an amazing product you can’t see

Lots of money, hype and questions are swirling around the startup. Brenda Freeman wants to tell a new story.

Magic Leap
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

How do you market a company that says it has a mind-blowing, world-changing product — that it can’t show you?

That’s the challenge facing Brenda Freeman, the chief marketing officer for Magic Leap, the much-hyped “mixed reality” startup that has raised $1.4 billion from Google, Alibaba and other investors.

Freeman started at Magic Leap this fall, replacing Samsung veteran Brian Wallace, who the company says was “terminated without cause” in September; Wallace is now working at a startup run by former Android boss Andy Rubin.

Since then other members of the Magic Leap marketing and comms team have departed: PR boss Andy Fouche left earlier this month and is now working with Wallace; this week, Tannen Campbell, Magic Leap’s VP of strategic marketing, and Melissa McNutt, its head of brand experience, both left.

In the midst of the shuffle, a widely read story from The Information reported that Magic Leap was struggling to turn its technology — which lets users import animated characters into their field of vision — into a consumer product, in the form of glasses or goggles. That report has heightened industry skepticism that Magic Leap can deliver on sky-high claims and ambitions.

Freeman’s job is to turn that story around. The marketing veteran comes to Magic Leap from National Geographic Channel and has a long history working for media companies like Turner, Viacom and ABC.

Magic Leap

I talked to her this week about the challenges she’s facing. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

Peter Kafka: It seems like being a chief marketing officer at a company that has a lot of attention focused on it, but doesn’t have a product it can show off or really talk about in much detail, is a real challenge.

Brenda Freeman: I don’t think it’s a challenge as much as it forces the marketing strategy to perhaps pivot, until you actually have a product to experience. There’s marketing to the promise of what it is, and the fact that those who actually have experienced it, basically are amazed by it. But what we do in terms of creating early awareness and interest and intrigue is based on the promise of what it can do.

So the efforts in the beginning are more about educating that audience that we think is going to be actually interested in buying the product.

You mentioned a pivot. What are you pivoting from? It seems like you’re talking about what Magic Leap has been doing for more than a year: Showing a relatively small group of people the product who say that’s it’s amazing, but can’t go into details because they’ve signed NDAs.

I’d say the team has got a great start. The first thing you have to do is establish the brand. And I think the team did a really great job of creating a brand voice that’s unique in the marketplace. [We need to] make sure that we’re talking to the right audience, with a tone that’s befitting of the brand.

And as you know, at Magic Leap, we’re very much about the fact that it’s not hardware-first, it’s about using technology and what it can do for your life. So I think the idea of having a very humanistic approach to the overall marketing message has been actually very good.

What’s the most concise way to explain what Magic Leap is, to someone who hasn’t seen it?

It’s technology that is basically going to allow you to enhance your life. What we’re trying to do is — we’re on a mission. We want to create the best mixed-reality light field experience for the world. That’s how I would describe it.

When are consumers going to be able to touch this stuff?

As you can imagine, we feel really good about the fact that we’re on track. Our investors are very happy about the timelines that we’re working against. We feel really proud of that. We can’t actually say, exactly — we can’t share that yet publicly, but just know that we’re very much on time, and we’re on track.

But is it a year out? Two years out? Five years out?

We are racing toward launch. That’s why I was brought on board. My background is very much in the entertainment and content space and being able to drive marketing in an eventful sort of way — that’s why I was brought onto the team. We are racing toward launch. And we’re very much on track.

Is it frustrating that because this company has raised so much money, and because the initial descriptions of the product are so evocative, that it’s difficult for you to do your job, because you can’t let people see the product? It seems like you’re setting yourself up, because there could be a gap between what people are actually going to use and the expectations around that. How do you manage that?

I don’t believe that to be the case at all. I’ve actually experienced the product. That’s one of the reasons I decided to join. Because it’s all about amazing technology, but it’s also about the amazing content that’s going to be brought to life with this great technology.

I’m a left-brain, right-brain type of marketer. I was actually a chemical engineer; I actually designed rocket motors in my early career [at Atlantic Research Corp.] before I went into marketing. That’s why this is an amazing place to work, because it’s basically the best of both worlds.

The Information’s story talked about the gap between what you’re talking about and what you’re actually developing. I’ve heard similar things. Is that a fair description of where you guys are at?

I’m so glad that you asked question. We feel like that narrative that’s been created is just completely untrue. I think there’s been a lot of conversation about a video that was created. [Magic Leap’s] technology is optimized for the eye-brain system. And so it took a little bit of time to capture the right technique to capture what you experience through the system — to make that translate to video. So we released a concept video, which is very representative of what we can do. It’s nothing less than what all of our competition does as well.

But there’s also a sense the company’s ability to make a consumer product isn’t as far along as it needs to be. I talked to one of Magic Leap’s investors recently, and they said that [CEO Rony Abovitz] “has no focus.” They described a company that has really cool technology and is struggling to productize it.

I would say that’s completely untrue. The good news is we have a founder who’s a visionary, and he’s a creator. But he also is a left-brain, right-brain brilliant person. And he’s got the technical chops, and he hires the best of the best, in terms of building our hardware and our software systems.

So we are absolutely on track, our investors who come down on a regular basis have experienced our product, we’ve walked them through the timeline. Our timelines have not changed one iota. We are racing toward launch and we’re meeting our goals.

You’re replacing Brian Wallace. What are you doing differently than he did?

Absolutely. My point of view, in terms of how I market, is probably very different than Brian’s. I’m not a hardware-first type of marketer. I’m very much an emotive type of storyteller. It’s using the technology, and [explaining] how the technology is going to enhance my life. So it’s about bringing it to life in a very interesting, never-been-done-before type of way.

So it’s a very high bar. Never been done before.

Anything else we should know?

No, other than the fact that it’s an amazing team. And, quite frankly, sometimes there’s changes that have to be made. You may have heard about the fact that there were some changes on the team quite recently. And with new leadership, change is inevitable. But we’re very much about strengthening our team, and making sure that we have a culture of those that are entrepreneurial and scrappy.

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