CMO to CEO: Brewing up global business growth

T2’s Nicole Sparshott is infusing marketing know-how into her CEO approach at the retail brand, one that’s recognised for delivering a ‘tea revival’ in Australia and now has hefty global ambitions.

T2 CEO, Nicole Sparshott, is on a big mission: To take a 22-year-old Australian business centred around the humble tea leaf and all its trappings, and infuse it into the mindset of a new generation of customers and the rest of the world.

As leader of the Australian brand, the CMO-turned CEO says she wants to create a T2 generation on every continent. It’s a move that’s both global in nature and local in flavour.

“We’re taking this gorgeous icon, this Australian luxury tea brand, and creating a global luxury brand,” says Sparshott, who admits to having “tea running through her veins” and likes a good exotic tea mash-up. 

“My focus is on bringing the Australian brand to the global campus and global stage. We are diversifying the way we present ourselves to customers, leveraging our DNA in bricks-and-mortar retail, but also creating amazing experiences for customers in other channels, such as online and wholesale partnerships, in order to divest our channel mix.”

The vision wasn’t always so grand. T2 started in 1996 from humble beginnings in a small Melbourne tea shop in Fitzroy, which donned pink ceilings, towering displays of tea and teawares, and covered its walls with Chinese newspaper. The group was co-founded by Maryanne Shearer and Jan O’Connor, who originally registered a homewares company, Contents Homeware. They changed the focus after identifying a gap in the tea market, and selected the name, Tea Two, to denote two co-founders.

The business has since been recognised as paving the way for a tea revival, reshaping the tea industry in Australia by educating consumers and celebrating different flavours and types of tea. The company was purchased by Unilever in 2013.

Today, T2 employs 1050 people worldwide and operates in six global markets – Australia, New Zealand, UK, US, China, and most recently, Singapore.

“The key thing for us in taking this lovely Australian brand has been to recognise what has made T2 great, but also be prepared to nuance it market-by-market to really be successful,” Sparshott continues. 

“And that transcends everything from the brand proposition, to the range we take into a market and the product development that comes with that. It’s about tapping into the trends really relevant market-by-market, but equally, to the business model.” 

Late last year, the company planted its first seeds in the Chinese market with its inaugural e-commerce-first approach. “Up until that point, we’d always invested in physical retail and created our brand experience through our stores before going into a pending channel. But we’re really flexing that business model, market-by-market, so we can be successful,” Sparshott says. 

“We’re trying to build a global brand, serving local customers. It’s about constantly being able to find the economies of scale in building a global brand and the beautiful benefit that comes with it. But at the same time, it’s about deeply recognising where those make a material difference to success or failure as you go into new markets.”  

Game of chess

While her cup of responsibilities is noticeably full, Sparshott says her background in marketing stands her in good stead as a CEO that’s customer obsessed. Her career has extended across a number of local, regional and global marketing and commercial roles and industries over the past 23 years including Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola and Unilever.

As VP Southeast Asia and Australasia, Sparshott oversaw a portfolio of ice cream and beverage brands worth more than $1 billion, and almost doubled the business during her tenure.

“I’m proud of the fact there is real diversity there… whether that be FMCG, retail or the e-commerce space. But I’ve also worked in different categories including beverages, skincare and healthcare,” she says. “What has been central to all the choices I’ve made over my career are roles that are very customer-centric. That has been the magic sauce in terms of success.”

In making the shift from CMO to CEO, Sparshott says she now has to consider the bigger picture, constantly think ahead and weigh up all consequences.

“It’s a bit like a game of chess: If the moves I make now are good moves for now, but also give me options later, then should new information become available, I can pivot. Just always staying a little bit ahead of the curve is important,” she explains.

 In her role as CEO, Sparshott leads an interconnected and unpredictable landscape that transcends all functions, which means she must put an “ecosystem lens” on every decision she makes. 

“As a marketer, you become incredibly passionate about the brand and the way you serve customers better than any other brand,” she says. “As a CEO, it is taking the same focus, then recognising a broader group of stakeholders, a wider network of functions, and making sure you are making the best decisions. Quite often, you’re making decisions without all the information you need to make them.”   

Data reading

One of Sparshott’s big focus areas is bolstering T2’s data-led technology play to get up-close-and-personal with customers. The group wants to continue to serve traditional customers, which include many walks of life and the “silver-haired generation”, while creating the next generation of tea drinkers. To do this, it has a hefty emphasis on millennials who are finding a lot of energy in what T2 brings to the market.

“It’s about having the right supply chain infrastructure and most importantly, having the right people and culture to bring the right mindset to the business to be able to realise our ambitions,” she says.

It’s also about having the right enablers in place, including a data-enabled ecosystem. “Data is critical. I would love if we could have a one-on-one relationship with every single person that comes through our doors. We have over 18 million people going through our T2 stores on an annual basis, and hopefully many more this year. But that comes with having a very well-considered data strategy,” Sparshott says.  

T2 has done a lot of work on data over the last two years, focusing on the “data that matters” and removing noise and distraction which comes from data that doesn’t. For Sparshott, success boils down to extracting value from the data then translating it into true insights that fuel strategic direction.

“This will be a continued work in progress for us in making sure we can collect great data on our customers, so we can customise what we offer in a way that really adds value to their lives, as individuals,” she says. “Precision marketing is absolutely at the heart of that.” 

T2 has invested in customisation and personalisation tests over the last 12 months, and rolled out personalisation pop-up retail concepts just before Christmas last year.

“There’s a lot of appetite for people to be able to take a brand they love, but then infuse their own bit of personality onto it. The more we can do this – and that will come from technology as well as getting the back end supply chain right – the better we will be able to differentiate ourselves from other players in the market,” Sparshott says.

 At the same time, she’s on a mission to “enthuse an innovation ethos” through every part of the organisation. “In Australia, where we have a 22-year-history, we have incredibly strong equity, but we can’t be complacent,” she comments.

“We’re looking at how we innovate our own retail store experience to heighten the sense of discovery and curiosity people have when they walk through the stores. That includes melding, or merging together, the online and offline experience, more than we’ve ever done before, and leveraging really interesting technologies. So watch this space. We might bring artificial intelligence into our stores. There are some really interesting technologies to help us tell stories better than we’ve ever told them.” 

Additionally, T2 is looking to branch out into the realm of services, and has already dipped its toe in the water by offering master classes, events where people join for two or three hours and immerse themselves in a world of tea discovery, as well as sessions about how tea can be used for entertainment, or enrich health and wellness.

“We would like to invite people into our T2 world more than ever before,” Sparshott adds. 

In looking to diversify and broaden its scope, one thing is clear: The customer needs to be at the centre of everything for T2. Sparshott says CEOs, like her, need to look to the world of marketing for important lessons learned, particularly when it comes to customers.

“Everything is hyper-fragmented, there are competitive media channels, and even the way we talk to customers is different,” she says.

“The one thing that remains true is people who understand their customers deeply are the ones who will be able to withstand all the change and create really enduring brands. Marketers understand they need to put customers at the core.

“Marketers are also curious by nature. They have an interest in the world around them, in finding patterns in data, in leveraging trends and infusing business decisions with real creative solutions. Today, the creativity of lateral thinking and solutions is really important.”

And make sure you rally your entire organisation to serve the customer to focus on providing utility, service and value. “Then you can feel certain the customer will serve your business well, and it will create a very positive cycle,” Sparshott says.  

Unlearn to learn

However, for many CMOs-turned CEOs like Sparshott – or even CEOs who came up the ranks from other disciplines – it’s time for a wake-up call. She urges leaders to “unlearn to learn”.

“One thing is certain: History and tenure, and even expertise you bring to the table that has made you successful in a formal role, might need to be unlearned to be successful for today,” she says. “I think constantly challenging yourself, and constantly learning, even on the job – despite the number of years or decades of years of experience you have – is really key.

“It is about bringing a beginner’s mindset to everything you do, just an absolute recognition that what got you here, might not get you to where you need to go next.”

Sparshott’s advice to those wanting to crack CEO is also to become a “great storyteller”. “We are dealing with multiple stakeholders through the organisation, internally and externally,” she says. It’s critical both marketers and executives can take complex data and insights and simplify it into a story that’s compelling.

“As you become more senior in any organisation, your ability to simplify the story you’re telling and share it with the people who are going to make that happen in an authentic and inspiring way is really key.”

Asked what she’s looking for in today’s CMOs, Sparshott advises being more curious around people and the markets they’re in. Marketers also need to be able to commercialise and digitise what the business does effectively and efficiently.

“Marketing remains as important as ever, if not more so. The expectations I have of marketers in the business are they are much more commercially savvy in the way they make decisions, they are much more technology conversant,” she says. “And while I don’t need them to be IT specialists, I need them to be able to understand the questions to ask to make sure we are collecting the right data, customising it the right way, and we’re commercialising in a way that adds value to the business, but also to the people we serve.”

Perhaps Sparshott’s biggest lesson comes from a sound piece of counsel delivered to her by her mum.

“My mother’s advice is you have two ears and one mouth, so it is wise to use them in that ratio,” she says. “Coming into the CEO role a few years ago, it actually proved to be quite good advice.

“Really listen to different people and different functions within the organisation, but also externally, and make sure the decisions you make are really well considered. There’s definitely a bit of an art to it, and you need to master it.”  

This article originally appeared in CMO’s print magazine, Issue 1, 2018. To purchase your copy of our print magazine, please email: