This issue: Summer 2021

Business Beyond the Bottom Line

MBA and marketing alumnus Joe Ahn’s encounter with the Be Known promise more than a decade ago still informs his work today, halfway around the world

By Sean Patterson

Joe Ahn had it all: A high-profile job in San Francisco at a company with a $700 million marketing budget. He was launching Super Bowl campaigns and rubbing shoulders with the global powers of the advertising world – Facebook, Twitter, Google and LinkedIn among them – at a time social media was just emerging as a marketing phenomenon.

Soon after, it was on to the MRY creative agency to help launch a Super Bowl campaign with Drake as part of the T-Mobile account. 

But something didn’t sit right. It was then Ahn asked himself a question: “How can I use what I’ve learned and my experiences to impact positive change?”

His life hasn’t been the same since.

“I just did a complete 180,” Ahn says of his career shift. “I felt a pull to do something else with my life.”

Initially, that meant a shift to the healthcare field, first as director of social and content marketing for Sutter Health and later as vice president of marketing for Tivity Health. Then, last winter, his desire to promote sustainability and cultivate community in business led to yet another opportunity – this time halfway around the world.

Today, Ahn is global director of marketing for the ECCO footwear company, based at the company’s headquarters in Tønder, Denmark, an outpost about a three hours’ drive from Copenhagen and 20 minutes north of the German border. It is here Ahn has rediscovered why he fell in love with marketing in the first place.

The privately owned ECCO is globally known, with more than 2,500 retail stores in over 100 countries, but unlike the publicly traded behemoths he worked for in the U.S., it’s an enterprise that takes pride in being environmentally friendly while truly getting to know its customers – and one another.

“That was a big appeal for me, having worked in public companies driven by the urgency of meeting the next quarterly earnings goal, rather than focus on long-term sustainability,” says Ahn, a 2010 graduate of George Fox’s full-time MBA program and a 2009 undergraduate marketing alumnus. “My responsibility here is to cultivate community and drive new ways of engaging consumers. Thinking back to [George Fox’s] Be Known promise, there are interesting parallels, as one of our key corporate strategies is to ‘increase our knowns’ – how many consumers we know.”

At a corporate level, that means deepening an understanding of customers’ behaviors, interests and passions, allowing for a more personalized experience when marketing to them. “I was brought here to help answer the questions, ‘What does it mean to be part of a shoe brand community?’ and “What is the consumer benefit we want to create?’ Whether you go into a retail store or navigate online or on social media, we can speak to you as if we know you,” Ahn says.

Beyond its emphasis on consumers, ECCO values relationships both in house and with the up-and-coming generation. “This is a third-generation, family-owned business, and some employees have been here 20 or 30 years,” Ahn says. “The company invests in its people and has created programs to bring in Next Gens from all over the world as part of an intense three-year internship program.”

Ahn was also sold on the company’s commitment to sustainability, as, unlike many other big-name footwear companies, it owns its entire value chain, allowing ECCO to closely monitor its environmental impact at the manufacturing level.

The biggest selling point, however, is the fact Ahn truly has the opportunity to develop relationships that both propel the business and create a supportive community – values he first encountered as an MBA student more than a decade ago.

“The [MBA program’s] emphasis on transformational and servant leadership has always stuck with me as I’ve progressed in my career, and as a people leader it’s something I deeply value,” he says. “The MBA also did a good job of involving us in local community businesses as consultants working through real-life challenges. It took theory and applied it in practical ways that, if a business liked our work, they would implement it and ask for continued support.”

Ahn values his relationships formed at George Fox – he still keeps in touch with classmates, basketball teammates, and a former professor who attended Ahn’s wedding to wife Jillian – and credits his undergraduate and MBA experiences with helping him develop into the businessman he is today.

“I’m grateful for my experience at George Fox,” he says. “It grounded me in my faith and values as a person, and that guides me in how I approach my work. It definitely breathed life into my career and personal development that I may not have received at another university. [Fox] really is all about reinforcing this idea that you can be known and be yourself.”

His advice to young professionals? “Channel your curiosity. For me, the people who stand out are those who express their curiosity and take those proactive steps to understand more about where they hope to work. Take the time to research, have a point of view, and ask questions.”

 “And also, stay humble, hungry, and your authentic self. Because the last thing you want is to be like everyone else.”

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