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Tinder years: Making the right move

George Felix (MBA ’09) had no intention of swiping right to explore a new career at Tinder and leave his marketing role with Yum! Brands, but he was attracted by the intriguing opportunities and possibilities of leading the dating app’s marketing team.

“I wasn’t looking to make a change,” says Felix, who took over as Tinder’s chief marketing officer in April 2021. “It’s in the tech space and I hadn’t had direct tech experience before, but it is something I’ve always been interested in. Tinder is a globally iconic brand that plays a unique role in people’s lives. It’s an exciting proposition for a marketer.”

He’s found it to be an interesting brand to learn about and to work on.

Tinder needed a clear definition of its brand positioning, “our north star,” says Felix. “For as iconic and successful and ubiquitous as the app is, I don’t know that Tinder ever knew what it wanted to stand for. After months of work talking to stakeholders both inside and outside of the company as well as spending time with our members, we defined Tinder’s mission ‘to keep the magic of human connection alive.’ For a marketer, to be able to shape this now but also have this be a north star for the brand well into the future is what makes this opportunity unique and exciting.”

The idea of making his mark clearly intrigued Felix, who jokingly admits he’s not in Tinder’s target demographic by age or marital status. He has been married to his wife, Mary, for 16 years and they have two children.

“While some may look at this as a disadvantage, I like to look at it the other way. Having not been a user of dating apps, I have to spend more time speaking to our members and the people in the category to make sure I understand what they’re looking for and to better position Tinder to win with them.”

The company’s culture also attracted him. “At Tinder, we believe that everyone deserves to find a meaningful connection with someone new and that belief is so strong across the Tinder employee base. People come to work every day because they want to create an inclusive place where everyone feels safe and can meet new people. It is a powerful thing to see and something I wanted to be a part of.”

Looking back at this discovery and developmental process, he says, “It’s been a fascinating first year between the role technology plays in our day to day lives, the way Gen Z wants to make new connections and figuring out where Tinder fits in.”

The brand positioning helped the company as it expanded its offerings with a major product change, adding a feature to the app called “Explore.” It offers new experiences and opportunities to make fresh connections based on interests ranging from “looking to go out tonight” to “thrill seekers” to “common social causes.”

Tinder is focused on reaching Gen Z – 18- to 24-year-olds – as its core audience. Felix says it’s important to listen to this target audience to become the app of choice in a competitive marketplace

“The profile of the average 18-year-old in 2022 is very different than it was in 2012 when Tinder first launched, and it’s imperative for us to understand what’s changing,” he says. “The Gen Z members I talk to say they don’t always use the app just for dating. A lot of them are looking for a safe place to make new connections.”

COVID effect

Marketing an app designed to bring people together during a pandemic has offered plenty of challenges as well as opportunities.

“With COVID front and center, we’ve all made shifts in our behaviors,” says Felix. “The acceleration of tech adoption has been massive – across the board for apps for food and grocery delivery, to Facetime, Zoom and other video communication. If you’re trying to meet new people and you’re limited to where you can go, we saw spikes in activity and the way people were using the app: video chatting or using passport (a feature that allows you to not just be limited to people in your vicinity and exposed to people in other countries).”

As people adapt during the pandemic, tech plays an important role, he says. “We take it very seriously; we are a place that prioritizes safety, and we want to innovate and take pressure and anxiety out of meeting new people. The role we play is an important one.”

Prepared for the journey

George Felix receives AdAge’s Brand Marketer of the Year award in 2018.

Felix’s career has taken him from packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble where he helped revive the Old Spice brand, to fast food behemoth YUM! Brands leading the rejuvenation of KFC and Pizza Hut, and now to Tinder, to chart the next chapter of growth for the world’s largest dating app.

The marketing maven fondly recalls his time at UNC Kenan-Flagler and says the School prepared him well for his journey.

“It’s two of the best years ever between the people I met, the friends I made and the things I learned,” he says. “From a career standpoint, my best advice is to be really clear and honest with yourself about what motivates you and what you are looking to accomplish.

There’s no right or wrong answer, he says. “For me, it’s more about the type of work I can do and the people I get to work with, and less about the title. You need to understand where work fits in with your family life and the more clarity you have, the easier it’ll be to make those career decisions we all have to make.”

Clearly, quality colleagues and a collaborative culture are important for Felix, and that became clear while still in Chapel Hill.

“UNC Kenan-Flagler has a unique culture from a business school standpoint: a collegial, collaborative atmosphere,” he says. “There’s a strong emphasis on collaboration, working with others and how you work together in teams. That has served me well throughout my career in adjusting to new situations and being effective working with others.”

The people he met and professors he studied with have made a big difference and lasting impact.

“UNC Kenan-Flagler is a low ego kind of place. It attracts a group of people looking to make an impact in what they do, and they are good people to work with,” he says. “Something I value as a leader and that I hold important to me is that it’s not just about getting the job done, but how you get it done. The people I went to school with at UNC Kenan-Flagler are great people and you don’t see that humility everywhere.”

The marketing courses teach core fundamentals of brand management and what that means, he says. “And courses that didn’t look like they had a strong correlation to day-to-day jobs helped me think differently and were super helpful. Making a career switch, you need those foundations and fundamentals, and the professors make you think differently and get you out of your comfort zone.”

Business students planning their careers should not get hung up working on the big brands. In fact, he suggests that graduates keep an open mind to all opportunities.

“When I was in business school, I daydreamed about the cool, sexy brands I would want to work on – Nike, Apple. Instead, I have spent my career marketing body wash, deodorant, fried chicken, pizza and now the world’s largest dating app,” he says. “If you told me that back in 2009 when I graduated, that probably wouldn’t have sounded like the dream career path, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunities that I’ve had.”

It’s not just about the brand, he says. “It’s a combination of the people you work with and getting to make great work. Sometimes it’s the brands and opportunities that don’t look like the obvious choices that give you the biggest opportunities and chances for learning and growth.”