What makes a brand iconic? And how can brands at that level embrace their heritage while expanding innovation. Ana Kornegay, Brand Director of Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury, details what it takes to balance and grow a long-standing, iconic brand in an ever-changing market. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Ana Kornegay:: A lot of brands are really focused on experiential marketing. We really want to create wonderful experiences for people that connect them to our brand and leave them with a really positive, memorable experience.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Thank you for joining us, and a big treat today as we put forth an interview with Ana Kornegay. Ana is the Brand Director of Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury, a long-term member in different roles and progressive responsibility of the Brown-Forman team, a friend of mine, a client of ours, and just a tremendously insightful person when it comes to the world of spirits as well as the world of business and brand.
I think you’ll enjoy hearing her perspectives on trends that are shaping the spirits marketplace, but certainly well beyond, as well as how she balances her thoughts about a brand of such depth and history as Jack Daniel’s with some of the new directions in which she and others are taking it at Brown-Forman in Louisville. Enjoy Ana Kornegay.
Bill:Joining us on Real-World Branding today, we are honored and excited to have Ana Kornegay from Brown-Forman, whose current title, though she’s twirled through the organization in progressively important roles across the company, current title is Brand Director of Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury. Ana, thanks for being with us.
Ana: Thank you so much for having me.
Bill: It’s our pleasure. You and I go back a ways, and one of the things that makes this so much fun is that we do, but to bring our listeners into this, would you mind starting by giving us a quick tour of your career journey up to this point?
Ana: Absolutely. After college, I moved out to Jackson, Wyoming, and I had the pleasure of working for the ski resort there as a front desk reservations and front desk manager.
Bill: Poor thing, yeah.
Ana: I know. It was a tough place to work. The view was awful. I then moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and I worked for a sports media dotcom, is how I’d describe it, called TEAMtalk. Did a little work with them, and then was an event planner there for awhile, and I thought that might be a path I’d go down, but I decided to go back and get my MBA at Wake Forest. Then I was fortunate enough to be hired at Brown-Forman in 2005.
Bill: Right, and so you are from North Carolina, yes?
Ana: Yes, I am. I grew up in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina.
Bill: Nice, and so you did under-grad at Chapel Hill.
Ana: I did.
Bill: Your degree, you had an international focus academically, didn’t you, at least initially?
Ana: I did. I got my degree in International Studies with a specialty in Anthropology, which unbeknownst to me at the time would be very helpful in marketing.
Bill: Yeah, no doubt, although based on your major and everything else, it sounds like you should go hang out somewhere on the beach and watch people somewhere in the world. It’s awesome.
Bill: Cool. Despite the ACC rivalry, came through MBA at Wake, and then into the world you go. At Brown-Forman, could you take us through some of the different roles that you’ve occupied? I think you started in Insights, right?
Ana: I did. I started out in Consumer Insights, and I worked on the Southern Comfort brand. Then I moved into Global Marketing for Southern Comfort for close to a year. Then I moved out into the field, into field marketing in our Baltimore office, so had a very big territory. I covered New York all the way down to Florida, and then a couple of states out west. I did that for about seven years, and have recently, in the past year, become the Brand Director for Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury, so I actually look after the marketing and the business for Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Collection, and Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select.
Bill: Awesome, and so I guess you shuttle back and forth between, I believe you still make your home in the Baltimore area, but are in Louisville a lot of the week, yes?
Ana: That is correct. Both great cities.
Bill: Yes, indeed, indeed. Across these diverse experiences, working on different brands and different roles, in headquarters, out in the field, could you compare and contrast across insights, across the field, across the brand teams? What have been some similarities and differences within your Brown-Forman career?
Ana: Well, I would say that when I think about the Consumer Insights role, that was really all about the ‘why.’ It was my beginning at Brown-Forman, my beginning in a corporate environment, and I had a really great manager, who just kept asking me why every time I would share information or presentations with her, so I really learned, myself, to ask why – how to be a data detective. I learned how to put a lot of disparate pieces of information together to develop actionable insights, which is such an important part of business, and marketing in particular. That was a great learning experience over about a year and a half.
Then, when I moved into Global Marketing on Southern Comfort, I learned a lot about the ‘who.’ I learned a lot about collaborating with all of our stakeholders. When you work on a global marketing team, you really have to think about how a brand might be perceived or communicated about differently in different global markets, and a lot of that is driven by life cycle in that market. You have to think a lot about brand architecture, and that’s where I first started learning about creative development. I shot a really fun television spot down in Argentina. That was a fun experience.
Then in Field Marketing, I learned a lot about the ‘how’ for marketing our brand. When you sit in the corporate office, you do a lot of strategic thinking, you have access to a lot of great information, but it’s so important to understand where the rubber meets the road. You can really see how these marketing programs are brought to life at the point of purchase, and you also have to understand how some of the key communications change as it goes from a national brand plan down to a piece of point of sale at retailers. In our business we have what we call a three-tier system, so everything has to come from the supplier, to a distributor, to a retailer and then to the consumer, so there are a lot of different touch points where things might need to be tweaked, improved, or customized.
I would say that anyone who works in marketing, management, or strategy for a brand should absolutely spend as much time as possible out in the field working with salespeople, talking to consumers, in our case talking to bartenders and store managers, just to really understand what the trends are, what consumers are asking for, and how things happen in real time.
I’ve been in the Brand Director role for about ten months now, and I have the pleasure of managing two really fantastic Associate Brand Managers, so it’s been a great learning experience in terms of managing other people. You really have even more and even bigger pieces to put together, so you have to be very thoughtful and very mindful about how you build your plans and stick to schedules, and push things out that are really going to work.
Bill: Right. No question. Across this journey, correct me if I’m wrong, you certainly worked on some of the larger, more established, most recognized brands in the category with Jack, with Southern Comfort, etc., but you’ve also had some innovation and new brand experience on the insight side and beyond. How, if at all, is life a little bit different when it comes to the established versus the new in a place like Brown-Forman?
Ana: Well, I would say that I did work for close to a year in new brand development in Consumer Insights. I worked on projects from white space ideation all the way to life after launch. I would say that the biggest difference is when you’re creating a new brand, you have a lot of room to play. You’re not tied to anything necessarily. Hopefully you’re building a new brand or a new product based on an existing, identified consumer need or desire.
It really helps you to build your brand architecture from the ground up, and think a lot about what the actual functional benefits are, and what the actual emotional benefits are or might be, so it’s a blank slate, and that’s a lot of fun, because you get to be really creative in a different way than you do with a big brand or a brand that’s been around for awhile.
I’d say when we innovate on our existing brands at Brown-Forman, we really want to be authentic about how we are creating products and how we’re handling the process of making those products, and just make sure that everything we’re doing really stems from the core brand, or the parent brand.
Bill: Right. Right. Let’s go there. With Jack Daniel’s, obviously working on the craft and premium parts of the market, How does the strength of the Jack Daniel’s, I guess Old No. 7, but the brand as a whole, and the degree to which people feel like they know that brand inside and out, and by people, it’s certainly consumers, and certainly folks in the trade, from bartenders through to store managers and anyone else who may have a role in helping the public understand what this brand stands for. Strong, well-known, well-recognized brand in core Jack and Old No. 7. How does that challenge what you’re doing to drive incremental business in other parts of the category? Some of the brands that you mentioned, sub-brands that you are working on are new to the portfolio or newish. How do you balance that heritage with the need for incrementality and growth?
Ana: Well, I’ll speak to some of the challenges we face first. First of all, we’re in a very interesting time for the brand. The whiskey category is on fire. It’s been growing for probably about five years now in a way that we’ve not seen in over twenty years, so it’s a wonderful time to be making whiskey. It’s a wonderful time to be drinking whiskey. We are actually celebrating our 150th anniversary at the Jack Daniel’s distillery this year, so there’s a lot of rich history, and great stories to tell about the actual person, Jack Daniel, the actual place where the products are made.
Bill: ‘Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best that we can,’ right?
Ana: We absolutely do, yes. That’s great for us, and we love it, but the consumer interest right now, because the whiskey category has grown, and it’s become much more saturated and much more fragmented, there’s a lot of confusion. There’s a lot of confusion about which brands come from real places, about which brands are made a certain way, but the consumer interest and the trade interest is in novelty and discovery. With larger, more established brands, there’s a perception a lot of times that those brands are being mass-produced, or they’re mainstream, or not premium enough.
Bill: Right, right. That’s certainly one element. I think one of the things we uncovered together in an insights process, we were looking at bartenders. Bartenders, with a brand as established and high personality, and as outspoken as Jack has been, do you run into the marketplace typecasting the brand, as well as the customer and consumer a little bit, in a way that may create some challenge to the expression of newness?
Ana: We do. We hear sometimes from bartenders that they can tell what type of consumer might like Jack Daniel’s or not like Jack Daniel’s, or prefer a certain brand. I think we’ve benefited in some ways from being very present in pop culture, so we have a lot of connections with some wonderful musicians and actors and lifestyle groups, and sometimes people make assumptions based on what they see in pop culture. We have a lot of friends of Jack Daniel’s, and it ranges from bikers to bankers. A lot of people love the flavor of the product. A lot of people love the iconic label that they are so familiar with. A lot of people really appreciate that it’s one of the last American-made whiskeys or American-owned whiskeys out there, so yeah, there’s a wide spectrum of folks who really like the brand.
Bill: Right. Would you mind just talking a little bit about the brand extensions that you’ve been working on in premium and craft, and for those in our audience who may be interested in novelty and discovery, but haven’t yet gotten around to this, anything about what they can expect through these experiences compared to what they may be used to with Jack?
Ana: Absolutely. I’ll speak to Gentleman Jack first, and then I’ll talk a little bit about the Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Collection. Gentleman Jack was introduced in the late eighties. All the whiskey that’s made at Jack Daniel’s distillery is charcoal mellowed, most of it through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal. What that does is it really helps to smooth out the flavor of the whiskey, and it’s a very important step in the process, and it’s something that Jack Daniel did even though it cost more and took a longer time period. We charcoal mellow all the whiskey we make, but Gentleman Jack actually goes through a second charcoal mellowing, so it’s mellowed once before it goes into the barrel, and it’s mellowed again before it goes into the bottle.
It’s got a very light, approachable, crisp flavor profile. It’s also got a little bit of a lighter color. I recommend drinking it neat on the rocks or in a Whiskey Sling, which is simple syrup, lemon, and a little bit of bitters. That is a really, very accessible whiskey. It’s a great whiskey for people who are just starting to learn about whiskey or drink whiskey. It’s in a beautiful package that I wish I could take credit for.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Collection is … We were one of the first single barrel whiskeys out there, not the first, but it’s an area that our master distiller, Jeff Arnett, takes a lot of pride in. We have had Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select since the late nineties.
Those whiskeys come from the top shelf of the barrel house, where the barrels are exposed to more extreme temperature changes, so you can imagine sitting in the hills of Tennessee. You get some very hot summers and some very cold winters. Those barrels are the crème de la crème of the whiskey barrels, and it tends to have a darker color, and a richer, more robust flavor profile. It’s 94 proof, where Gentleman Jack is 80 proof. It’s ready when Jeff Arnett says it’s ready, and it goes into the bottle, and you might taste a little bit of difference from one barrel to the next. It’s like wine in that way, so it’s fun to try different bottles from different barrels and see what different bouquets and tasting notes you can pick up.
We introduced a new product in October, called Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, Barrel Proof. The whiskey comes right out of the barrel and into the bottle at whatever proof Jeff Arnett says it’s ready at. That’s one that’s just got a lot of range in flavor and it’s a beautiful product. I highly recommend trying it if you’re a little more adventurous.
Then last but not least, to round out the collection, we just launched our Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye in February. What’s interesting about that one is that most ryes are going to be a 51% rye or a 95% rye. We’re actually at 70%, so you get a nice balance in the flavor that’s a little bit different than many ryes out there.
Bill: As a long-term Sinatra guy, can’t wait to hear something about that.
Ana: Well, that is one of the most beautiful products in the line-up. It’s a partnership with the Frank Sinatra estate. As you may or may not know, Frank Sinatra was the original friend of Jack Daniel. He always had a bottle on stage with him, he flew with it. He was actually buried with a bottle of it, so we partnered up with the Frank Sinatra estate, and created this gorgeous package and this wonderful whiskey. The whiskey in the Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select is aged in grooved barrels, which is a little bit different. Most of the barrels that we age our whiskey in are not grooved, and what that allows for is the whiskey can seep a little bit deeper into the barrel, so it picks up more of the vanilla and caramel, and some of the flavors that come from the oak.
One thing that we take a lot of pride in is that we’re one of the only North American whiskey makers that owns our own cooperage, which is where we make the barrels. A lot of attention and detail goes into making sure that those are made perfectly every time and that they’re charred and toasted to the master distiller’s specifications every time.
Bill: Nice, and if I remember correctly, that cooperage is in the dry county of Lynchburg, Tennessee. Is that correct?
Ana: The distillery is, yes. The cooperage is actually in Alabama.
Bill: Right, but the county is dry, ironically.
Bill: Nice. We’ll take a trip to prove that point. That’s all cool, and it makes a lot of sense, obviously, with regard to the product descriptions that are so rich and the product experience, so diverse and wonderful. As you all have thought, and I’m not asking you to disclose anything that’s proprietary here, so do what you’re comfortable obviously, what is the market opportunity that you all have been identifying and seizing as the Jack Daniel’s line has extended? We know there’s Tennessee Honey there, we know there’s some other flavors, but can you talk a bit about the brand trajectory and the ways in which you all are seeking to introduce it to those who may not be as deeply familiar?
Ana: Well, I would say that our big emphasis on Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Collection in particular is through education. There are a lot of myths about whiskey out there, about who makes it and where it comes from, and how to enjoy it and how to compare it. We really want to make sure that we have an opportunity to talk with people, whether it be at a festival or at a bar, or at a whiskey dinner that we host, and tell them a little bit about the story about Jack the man and Lynchburg the place, and then walk them through a tasting of our whiskeys, starting with the lightest flavor profile all the way to the most robust, and give them an opportunity to learn a lot about what goes into making those whiskeys that make them a little bit different from each other.
I’d say education is our number one focus for the craft and luxury products. That’s very important, and I’d say that a lot of brands are really focused on experiential marketing. We really want to create wonderful experiences for people that connect them to our brand and leave them with a really positive, memorable experience.
Bill: Right. Having been friendly with you throughout much of your tenure at Brown-Forman, I’ve certainly heard some of the perks of the job, or as one gets accustomed to it, some of the, ‘Oh goodness, not again.’ It seems like there’s a lot of night life here, there are a lot of experiences, whether it’s things like the Derby that the company sponsors and are involved in. Could you speak a little bit about what it’s like to represent Brown-Forman off the clock, so to speak?
Ana: Well, I’d say that we’re always educating. It’s so much fun to run into someone, whether it be at a bar or a restaurant, or at a retail store or at a concert, and ask them what they’re drinking and why, and talk a little bit about whiskey and where our products come from and how we make them, and who makes them. You’re always educating and teaching, and evangelizing for your brand, because we have a lot of passion and a lot of pride for the Jack Daniel’s brand.
Bill: Right. Well, that definitely comes through. You’ve identified a couple of trends and spoken about just the heat and intensity around the whiskey market today. A couple of major, whether it’s experiential marketing or obviously so much strength in craft and authentic experiences, etc., a couple of trends that we ought to underline and watch for in the spirits realm in terms of how brands are built, extended, and marketed at this point?
Ana: I would say that there are a few out there. I think one key trend that’s a little bit more tactical in how spirits brands, not so much ours, but some others, are building brands, is to have a hyper local focus. When I say local I don’t mean made locally or sourced from local ingredients, but more around a lot of focus on certain cities or certain states where they really want to invest human resources and financial resources very heavily. I think the benefit of doing that is that you really show support to a community, and it feels much more personal, and people have a chance to interact with your brand ambassadors and your salespeople and create a personal relationship with both them and your brand.
That’s one trend. The other, I would say, is what I’m calling consumer up-marketing. Because of social media in particular, consumers are doing a lot to either spread the good word or the bad word about your brand in reviews and pictures, and every way. It’s really important that we understand, as spirits brands, how people are interacting with our brands and what they have to say about them, and build brand activities around what consumers what and need.
Then I’d say last but not least, and this is across the marketing world, it’s not just spirits brands, but the catchphrase right now is storytelling. Everybody’s focused on telling stories about their brand or about people involved with the brand, and that can be a wonderful thing or a bit of a trap.
It depends on how true your stories are. But the great thing about storytelling is, a. it’s a way to educate, and b. it gives people who are selling your brand or interacting with it every day, something to pass along and share. We know that a lot of times, people behind the bar, and people at retail stores, really want to share information with people and have some great sound bites about why you might want to try something or why it’s great in this drink. So the more factual information you have to share with people about your brand story, the more powerful it is.
Bill: Right. My friends and colleagues will attest that stories need not be true for me to tell them, but as long as it makes somebody smile and wonder. Are those, and I know you’re off the global marketing beat, but is it your sense that some of the trends that you’re identifying are US based, or are they really trends that are crossing the globe in the spirits world?
Ana: I think they’re probably crossing the globe. Social media’s definitely a global phenomenon, and I’m not sure if storytelling is quite as far down the path in global markets as it is in the US, but I would imagine that it is, and if not, it will catch up very quickly. Then I think local focus is happening in the spirits world in global markets as well.
Bill: Right. Well, especially a brand like Jack Daniel’s, that has been so associated with Americana. As you mentioned earlier, I think it probably cuts a couple of different ways when you’re outside of the US in terms of there’s certain markets and cultures that really crave authentic American experiences and others that may hold that a bit at arm’s length, and probably most are somewhere in between. But I’m sure that’s an interesting wrinkle as the brand continues to grow and diversify the portfolio as well as the overall experience.
Ana: That’s true, and another interesting thing that we’ve noticed in conversations with our global colleagues is that some markets are much more status and image oriented. Russia and some others come to mind. Then some markets are much more focused on authenticity and a little bit more of a rustic bent. Those two are relatively diametrically opposed, so you have to be very careful about your communications and your creative.
Bill: You’ve had such an amazing career up to this point, and certainly continuing into the future. Are there any words of wisdom that you’d share with those who may be early on and are inspired by the path that you’ve taken?
Ana: Absolutely. Let’s see. I’ll share one that’s the least exciting, but one of the most important, and that is the more work you do on the front end, in terms of communicating with the right people and planning, the less work you have to do on the back end. We try to hold ourselves, and I would recommend other people do the same, hold yourself accountable to committing to one key objective, and identify the performance indicators. How are you going to measure what you did? Too often we go into something because it sounds exciting or we have to be reactive, and we don’t necessarily think about how we’re going to measure the ROI on the back end, or make a decision about whether or not we’re going to do it again.
I think that’s a really important exercise as you embark on a new project or journey. I’d say packaging matters in every way, shape and form. Whether you’re packaging information or packaging yourself for an interview, it’s really important that you do the quality of the content justice by putting it in a way that looks good and makes sense, and can be easily consumed.
I would say last but not least that I would encourage people to always be curious and always challenge the status quo. Ask the question why. Too often, the business challenge or the opportunity that you are presented with is really just a symptom. Think about why and dig a little deeper to find a true insight, because you might not be treating the problem. You might just be treating the symptom.
Bill: That makes perfect sense. I know you’ve also been involved, in Maryland and in Kentucky and beyond, in a variety of activities related to service, a variety of different causes that are important to you as a person and as a professional. Would you mind speaking about some of the other things that occupy your time and your energy?
Ana: Sure. I serve on the board of Family and Children’s Services of Central Maryland, here in Baltimore. It’s been a really exciting time to be part of that organization. They do a variety of work around prevention and treatment for different issues. They started out with their primary focus being in child abuse prevention and treatment, and have branched out quite a bit to help lots of different people across the state. It’s been really rewarding. I’ve met wonderful people who really love what they do and really care, and from a professional perspective, it’s been really a good learning experience for me to apply marketing practices and knowledge to a different area.
If you’ve been in spirits marketing for ten years, there are a lot of things that are the same every day. There are a lot of things that change, but when you work with a non-profit group, then you’re really thinking about a different target audience and a different set of tools in your marketing toolbox, so that’s been a wonderful experience.
Bill: Right. When you think about the course that you’ve taken, it sounds like one of the things that links together the various ways you spend your time professionally as well as beyond, is you certainly have a passion for the subject matter. You really seem to be extremely curious about people and things. Are there certain itches that you’re able to scratch with all the different things that you’re involved in that are part of what make you the person you are? Sorry, I’m not your therapist here. Forgive me.
Ana: Can you word that one differently for me?
Bill: Yeah. I’ll try. Are there common denominators with things that really motivate you, whether it be professional activities or the types of things that you choose to spend your time on in your community or in Louisville?
Ana: I would say that the things that motivate me both personally and professionally are just always learning. When you meet new people you always learn new things. When you embark on a new project, something you haven’t done before, you’re always going to learn something along the way. I want to be challenged and I want to be learning, and I want to be giving back in some way. Whether that’s helping someone working on my team at Brown-Forman learn something new themselves, or help them through a project, or brainstorm new ideas together, that’s exciting, or whether it’s helping to give back to the community.
That’s also very exciting, and I’d say that I really thrive on opportunities to be creative. I think that’s a skill that we probably don’t give enough weight to a lot of times. It’s not something that you can necessarily teach. You can certainly prompt it or cultivate it, but it’s something that you really have to work at for most people. The creative process is definitely something that I thrive on as well.
Bill: Right. Last question. It’s personal but not too personal, and it happens to be based on … I’ve just been thinking a lot about it. I had a coffee this morning and a lot of times, and I’m sure this happens with you too, Ana, that you have somebody who’s early in their career and trying to get a foothold asked a question of me this morning, and I’d love your take as someone who took a path to business school. Can you speak to the MBA, and obviously you love Wake Forest, go Deacons. But, the rationale in terms of where you were in your career and just the decision to seek graduate education in business as either a catalyst to help expand your knowledge base, your skill base, as a curious person as noted, but also to progress in your career. Any reflections on the decision to seek and then obviously the outcomes on the back end of the MBA?
Ana: Sure. I think it was one of the best things I’ve ever done, trumped only by a semester at sea during my under-grad experience, but it was invaluable for a lot of reasons. I would say that to anyone who’s considering going to get a graduate degree, especially in business, a lot of it depends on where you are in your career, where you are in your life.
I learned a lot in my courses, naturally. I’d been in the hospitality industry in food and beverage and hotel, in event planning for quite some time, and so it was not a typical corporate environment. While you’re exposed to operations, and finance, and marketing, and strategy in different ways in the hospitality industry, it’s not necessarily in the same structured format that you might get in a business school program.
I think from a pure knowledge perspective, that’s really important. But I think that the other thing that was really valuable was learning from my classmates. Our class had, it was relatively small, but we had a lot of people that came from lots of different backgrounds and lots of different industries. That’s important, and then lastly I’d say learning how to work really effectively in a team, is something that most business school programs are going to really prioritize. That helps so much in a business environment. One piece of advice that was given to me when I did start business school was decide which industry you want to go in in your function before you start.
It really helps you focus in on learning through thinking about that industry, and networking with people in that industry, and getting your internship in that industry. First of all, it will help you over those two years, if you do a full-time program, to really figure out if that is indeed what you want to do, because a lot of industries can be glamorized, and the real day to day work isn’t quite as sexy as it might seem on television. But it also just really helps keep you focused and end up in a place where you will be fulfilled and successful.
Bill: Awesome. Speaking of glamor, Ana Kornegay, thank you so much for your time and insight. Brand Director at Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury, its been a pleasure being your friend, working with you, everything else, and it is certainly a pleasure to help the business by sampling these products, often in ill-advised quantities, although I don’t do as much of that as I used to. So grateful for your time. Anything that you want to close with that we should have asked but didn’t, or that is important to how you see the world and career journeys?
Ana: I think we’ve covered most of it. I just want to say thank you so much for the opportunity to be part of the conversation today.
Bill: Our pleasure. Thank you. Thank you to Ana for her time and for her insight. An amazing perspective, not only on the category that she’s in and the brands that she works on, but I think a lot of the comments that she shared with us are certainly extensible into other categories that are consumer facing globally and domestically. Storytelling really is the heart of effective brand building and brand development, never more than now. Obviously social media and the immediacy of that dialog has changed the fabric of how brands communicate. Maybe not as much how they’re built, but how they communicate and how they seek to nurture the connection that they have in their market with their audience.
Three ways as always to support us here at Real-World Branding if you like what you’re doing, and those three are quickly, I’m sick of reading the whole thing. I don’t even read it, but saying the whole thing, the three are find us on Twitter and give us your thoughts and ideas. Give us a rating if we deserve it, five stars, yay, in the app store of your choice, and then certainly click subscribe so that you do not miss an episode.
We do this every week in one form or another. In weeks where we do not have interviews, we do interviews bi-weekly, and in the off weeks we’ll do what we call One Big Idea, which is focused on one particular topic that seems to be of interest to our clients and colleagues in this world of brand and business building. We’re grateful for your time, excited about the emergence of Spring here in southeastern Pennsylvania. Now I’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
The post You Don’t Know Jack – Ana Kornegay, Brand Director of Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury, Brown-Forman appeared first on Finch Brands.
Many sales-driven organizations tend to overlook the supportive role the brand can play in assisting the sales force. In this week’s episode, Bill discusses the complementary role and value of brand marketing as a companion to selling efforts. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan: Greetings, one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency and this is One Big Idea. We’re calling this Selling the Brand, but the topic is really about the intersection of sales and the brand and brand marketing in particular. This comes up a lot for companies that may reach out to us, or otherwise, that are asking some form of the question, ‘I have a sales force. Why do I need to think about the brand?’
Before we get into that specifically though, let’s drill down into our own lives and I’ll try to make a point via a couple of analogies. If you look at resumes, the best ones, all of them really, folks will include where they went to school. Sometimes this was 10, 15, 20 years ago and often that educational experience has no relation to their level of aptitude in terms of what they’ve done in their career or how well they do the job that they might be applying for. So why we do keep including that and frankly, as Hiring Managers, why do we keep looking at it?
One, it does confirm a level of educational attainment, and maybe they had a really good GPA, maybe their major is kind of interesting, but I think the most important element of it is that it expresses something about the candidate. Maybe where they grew up or what their aesthetic is, what their interest level is. If you look at somebody who chose a liberal arts path versus something that is a little bit more pre-professional or you look at someone that is ivy covered, the fact of an institution, even though it was many years ago that that choice was made, is about going a little deeper into who that person is. I think this is roughly analogous to what a brand often provides as a frame for what to expect.
Another example from our lives is if you’re in a professional career, like I am, I get a ton of referrals or, ‘Could you talk to this person about their career?’ Or whatever it is. A lot of people who come through for networking or career purposes come over to me on email or voice mail or whatever it is. If you’re like me, you treat the ones who come from a source that you respect and that you trust more, you treat them differently. You go further for them; you try harder for them than the ones that come through randomly.
Part of that may reflect the closeness with one person versus another, but I think this is another example of how something related to what I guess we would call brand, which is referrer having good judgment. The referrer being an accomplished person, being a person with whom you have a strong personal relationship. It means something, it’s more than just quid pro quo. The fact that they bothered and their seal of approval exists on the resume or on the name of the person that they sent, it means something. That is sort of analogous to the role of brand and sales.
Third example, whenever you’re building a deck to sell something, there’s a reason why that typically starts with an overview of yourself and your company. The widget that you might be selling or service that you might be selling or desiring to sell through that presentation often has its own merits, it has it’s own features, specs, functionalities, pricing, and all the other things that people in a vacuum can use to make a decision this product versus that product. The reason why you start with the context, with the frame is because the brand matters. It’s trust, it’s reputation, it’s what to expect.
These are just examples that are fairly tactical and practical, but the point of them is that by analogy, selling is never an independent act that is completely disintermediated from the person doing the selling, the organization that he or she represents and all that that means. When people come to us and say, ‘Hey, we don’t need to focus on the brand because we have a sales force. We don’t have to market ourselves as a brand because we have a sales force.’ My answer typically is, ‘Au contraire, mon frere,’ because they’re wrong.
The power of the one-two punch of great selling and strong brands is indisputable and I could throw all sorts of data points, but I think it’s self-evidently true. The brand is a frame around the specific sale that you’re trying to make. When a new product, for example, comes from a trusted brand or a brand with whom you’ve done business in the past, you are far more likely to give it fair hearing or more than fair hearing.
There’s a reason why strong brands, the engine of strong brands, can extend into all of these different, new product categories. It is because of the fact they have earned the right to do that. The elasticity, so to speak, of their brands are far more significant than unknown players or unbranded entities.
If we represent organizations that have really a dominant sales culture where the sales force is expected to be sort of the overriding producer of new business as opposed to, ‘I distribute this through a supermarket and people buy my detergent or they don’t.’ If this is people driven and sales force driven, the brand is an incredible ally for members of the sales team.
A couple of practical ways for integrating brand marketing and brand thinking into selling efforts. These are, again, very practical and tactical. The first is, and I’ve eluded to it in one of our examples, is about presentation content. The storytelling around how and in what sequence one should present a product or a service is critically important, as we know. We often find with our clients and with others in the marketplace that it is very, very easy to lose the audience in a blizzard of features, attributes, specs, and claims that are really unemotional and product driven.
To really bring the power of brands into sales storytelling again, it really is about building a frame, so whether that is starting off a presentation with an overall description of you and of the company you represent and on what basis you have credibility to set forth that which you were seeking to sell. One way to integrate brand and sales is by making presentation content strongly and effectively balanced between company context and product, between rational and emotional, between personal and clinical.
The second way, and these are admittedly small ways to make a large point, bringing brand personality and brand heritage and history into day to day communications. Things like email signatures, for example, and again, this seems like the most tactical downstream thing in the world, but email signatures are an often overlooked way, in my personal opinion, of expressing something important, as well as driving consistency within a team – giving actual tangible voice to culture and to personality.
It doesn’t mean that your email signature should be, ‘Gonzo,’ by any means, but what it should do is effectively express the value, culture and personality of the organization that you represent. In small ways like that or things that salespeople use or should use, like thank you cards or other elements, there are ways to bring forth brand ideas and brand fact.
Thirdly, as one constructs the touch points in their sales process and manages and choreographs all of those different touch points, it is important to have an eye as you do it towards brand communications, brand expression, and brand personality.
It is very, very easy in a clinical, independent world to say, ‘I will send them this and then I will call them the week after and this is what I will say and then I will email them this case study and then I will seek to do a demo.’ Anyone can do that different stuff. What we encourage our sales force driven clients to do is to view that touch point map and cadence through the perspective of brand distinction and personality.
What that might mean is that, for example, if you are Finch Brands and you are a real-world branding agency, it makes sense rather than starting with an overview of the company, it makes sense to send a really, really strong quantitative and qualitative case study as an entrée. Rather than, ‘Hey, look at us,’ it’s, ‘Here’s how we help somebody a lot like you.’
As we think about brand personality and those elements that stand out about a company, it’s history, it’s engine, it’s culture, it’s attitude, it’s personality, but, we see this team of sales producers out there, who’ve relied on interpersonal charm and motor for years and years. There are ways to support their efforts by bringing to bear the power of brand expression within the framework of what they do.
From our perspective, companies that have strong brands, companies that are good marketers, and companies that are great sellers are those who succeed. You can’t over-rely on any one of those three to get it done if you’re in a category like this.
So, that’s One Big Idea: Selling the Brand. The underlying idea here is that sales processes and salespeople are strengthened, energized, and empowered by strong brands. Brands are a force multiplier when it comes to the ability to produce skilled and energetic sales teams. On that note, all the best to you as spring is springing. We’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
Matt Hoffman is the Founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures, maker of uniquely true-to-life plush figures of the greatest athletes and entertainment icons. In this episode, Matt details the twists and turns that have taken him from playing in a band to launching a successful brand. Learn how he channeled his passion into his business to realize the dream of seeing ‘Chase Utley as a Muppet’ and helping Pope Francis ‘find himself’. Ripe with insights and advice, Matt’s entrepreneur journey is exciting, educational, and entertaining. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Matt Hoffman: It was the second inning; I’ll never forget it. I was looking at Chase, and in my head, I said, ‘If Chase Utley was a Muppet, what would he look like?’
Bill Gullan: I’m sure tons of people simultaneously asking that question.
Matt: Probably, but that was the spark. That was the spark.
Bill: Greetings, one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and today I come to you with a mixture of excitement and guilt. Excitement because we’ve chosen to rebroadcast my interview with Matt Hoffman. Matt is the founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures, and we thought, with March Madness in full swing and spring training in full swing, and NHL and NBA rattling around towards the playoffs, that it would be a particularly fitting time to think about sports and highlight an entrepreneur from that world. He has a really great story and a lot of insight both from his previous career stops on the journey up to the idea and now the actual execution of the Bleacher Creatures business concept.
The reason for guilt is that I would imagine based upon our numbers that some of our listeners are newer listeners and haven’t gone back all the way through the catalog, so this is valuable stuff if you haven’t. But for those of you who have been with us from the beginning, I do feel a little bit guilty that we’ve been rebroadcasting some things recently. The reason for that is, unfortunately, I have a day job. This is part of it, but we’ve had a decent amount of travel, we’ve had some client situations with shorter time frames, we’ve had some team development time that we’ve been spending, too.
However, big promises for the future. There will be new interviews coming very soon. The One Big Ideas will continue. In fact, many of these things are already scheduled.
One of the other things that happened this week was we had a cancellation of somebody who we’re really excited to speak with and bring to all of you. We tend to only get a couple weeks ahead at Real-World Branding, in part because the world is always changing, and also in part because we got a lot stuff to do over here, as we know, you all do in your professional lives and your academic lives as well.
Everybody’s busy these days and probably wouldn’t want it any other way. Enjoy Matt Hoffman, great interview, great guy, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Bill: We are here with Matt Hoffman, founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures. A lot of bald, really attractive guys with cool glasses in this room right now. Matt, thanks for being with us.
Matt: Thanks. I don’t know how cool the glasses are. They’re bi-focals now.
Bill: Progressives, I just got these, there’s three in mine. They would be tri-focals the old way, but there’s a bottom part of the lens. This has just happened, newly.
Matt: It’s terrible. Mine are bi-focals, so up and down are two different things you have to get used to. Getting old is not fun.
Bill: No, no, no. They told me I was going to fall down the steps the first couple of days, but it was an easy transition. We pick up things quickly. Anyhow, we’ll talk that offline, but thank goodness this is audio today.
You came at Bleacher Creatures, and obviously with the Pope, with the start of the NBA season, the NHL season, the playoffs in baseball, and the holiday coming up as you say. This is a big time of year for a brand to shine that deserves it. Tell us a little bit about you and your journey to where we sit.
Matt: Sure. I’m from the Philadelphia area, and I don’t think I could have created this company anywhere else. I’m Philly in my heart. I’m inspired by the city and the people that are here, and I really think the road that took me to Bleacher Creatures is being a Philly guy, so if you don’t like Philly, too bad.
But that, at its root, is what I’m about. Went to Temple University, and I went to school for Communications. At the same time I played in a local Philadelphia band, and the reason I bring that up, ‘Oh, you played in a band,’ well we eventually got a record deal, the band. I would say it’s an entrepreneurial experience to be in a band.
Bill: Yeah, sure. You got to do everything.
Matt: It’s a business. That is really my first taste of a small business.
Bill: Is this like Hooters, Tommy Conwell, Young Rumblers level?
Matt: Little older than those guys, though, I had played on bills with Tommy before.
Matt: The band was called Liquid Gang. I think at one point we were written up as the loudest band in Philadelphia, which I took a lot of pride in.
Bill: There’s dignity in that.
Matt: It was definitely more of an alternative rock, like Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins style band.
Bill: Were you the singer or did you just play?
Matt: Sang a little bit, played guitar, helped song write, and I was lucky. I played with these amazing musicians. I was the worst guy in the band, which actually probably led to my personal downfall in the band. I think I had a vision. I had a good business head, knew what we wanted to do, but when you’re the worst in the band, and you’re leading the band, it leads to insecurities.
That’s the lesson from that band on how to deal with different personalities and how to manage, but we did great. We toured the country. We opened up for major bands. My last show with the band, we opened up at The Spectrum when The Spectrum was there.
It was a great experience, and again, as part of the journey to get to Bleacher Creatures, that was important, because the one thing that came out of it, that led to Bleacher Creatures, was merchandising.
We had to make money, and I said, ‘Well we should sell T-shirts and CDs and stickers, and those type of things,’ and we did. We started selling them at shows, and other bands were like, ‘Yo, how’d you do that?’ I’m like, ‘I could do it for you, too.’ It started a little merchandising business that I had, and that got me into product.
Born in Philadelphia, in the band for awhile. Meanwhile my mom said, ‘Listen, you have to get a day job and the band. I don’t care what you do.’ She was right. I worked for a Fortune 500 Company, started on the accounting side, but eventually got into purchasing, buying. With the band I’m doing merchandising with product. On the other side I’m actually purchasing product. I purchased the foam trays for supermarkets. It sounds really exciting, but I can tell you, each color tray is actually for a different kind of meat.
Bill: Interesting. That’s a sexy business.
Matt: That’s the big take-away on foam trays. At some point with the band, it ran its course. What I wanted to do and what the guys in the band wanted to do were two different things, and I think I took it as far as I could go. I have a philosophy. You never want to say, ‘What if?’ I never said, ‘Okay, what if I didn’t try it in the band?’ So I did.
At the exact same time, a friend of mine, who was working for NBC, had started in a company. This is the late ’90s. It was a catalog company called Genesis Direct, and they had just gotten the deals to run the catalogs for the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball. I had this buying background for this company, I did merchandising, and he was like, ‘You should interview up here.’ I still had a little music in my head, that oh, I could play in New York. That would be cool.
I interviewed up there and I got the job, so I moved to north Jersey. This is ’97. The reason that’s such a big deal, my second week there we had a meeting with the NBA. I’m a huge sports fan, so obviously, if you know about Bleacher Creatures, it started in sports. So my second week there we had a meeting with a guy at the NBA, and he said, this was in ’97, ‘We have a big initiative for David Stern. He is really focused on the Internet and this concept of e-commerce, where you can buy things off your computer.’
I think I was 26 years old. My brain just went boom! I just moved to New York from Philly, I’m a 6’ers fan, and you’re saying I could get an Iverson jersey ordered to my house from my computer. That’s a big concept. I was in.
Bill: I was about to say, your timing on entering the catalog business was… The catalog still exists, but in terms of…
Matt: Catalog’s actually still in print, but yeah, the timing was right. It was interesting. I left the meeting with a couple of executives from the company, and I’m new. This is my second week there, and I’m like, ‘What are we doing about the Internet?’ Because I could tell nobody was really into it, and they said, ‘We’re a catalog company. We’re not an Internet company.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m into it.’ They’re like, ‘Okay. Then you’re in charge of our online business.’ I took over the NBA online store, NHL online store, and Major League Baseball online store. This is my second week there.
Now, while I did that I had to work on the catalog business, and basically they gave me no resources. So I had a friend, Adam, who I worked with, and basically the two of us, begged, borrowed and stole to make that Internet business work. We were lucky. The guy from the NBA was a good adviser on, ‘Okay, here’s what you do.’ We were partnered with ESPN on the back end, but that was ’97, ’98. In ’98, the Bulls win the championship for the sixth time, the Red Wings finally win the Stanley Cup, and I remember that month of June in 1998, we did like $1.2 million between the two sites. It was a big number back then.
Bill: Sure. Well, big cities, passionate cities, big moments.
Matt: It was a big opportunity, and we were positioned for it, so I think in July I ran a sales report on what we did. I felt pretty good about it, put it on the VP of Marketing’s desk, and about three hours later I get a call from the board room, ‘Can you please come in?’ I walk in, every executive in the company’s in there, and they’re like, ‘How’d you do this? Tell us what you did.’
They became a dotcom company six months later, from ‘Hey, there’s no future in the Internet. We’re a catalog company.’
It was a great opportunity. I always tell people, part of it is if the opportunity comes you take advantage of it, so I was blessed with that opportunity. For a sports fan who was looking to figure out their career after being in a band, I was in the right place, right time, and it worked out great. But I also knew the writing on the wall was, ‘I don’t think these guys really have vision.’
Matt: Total coincidence, a guy from the NBA had called me, said, ‘I just took a new job with this guy named Michael Rubin in Philadelphia. Would you be interested to come back home?’ Meanwhile I was getting recruited across the country for e-commerce jobs, but I love Philly, like I said when I started this podcast, and I happened to be coming down to Philadelphia. This was in ’99. Am I rambling about my career?
Bill: No, this is fabulous.
Matt: I happened to be coming to a Lenny Kravitz, Black Crowes concert in Camden. See it all comes back to music. Was going with my friends from high school. One of the executives from, at the time it was called Global Sports, connected through the guy from the NBA, and he said, ‘Hey, you should come in for an interview,’ and I did, told them what we did.
The real concept for that part of the business is called the displaced fan. It’s exactly what I was up in New York. You’re a Philly fan that lives in LA, can’t really get Philly product in LA, catalog, e-commerce works. Michael Rubin is this amazing entrepreneur that had this deal to run online sporting good retailers like Sports Authority and Modell’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods. They weren’t really focused on sports licensing, so again, opportunity knocked. I wanted to come back home, and within two weeks I started working at GSI Commerce, which was Global Sports at the time.
Bill: Wow. Now an eBay company, yes?
Matt: They spun off GSI Commerce to eBay. From what I just heard, eBay is selling that piece off.
Bill: Are they? Yeah, I drove by it over the weekend.
Matt: It doesn’t say eBay anymore, does it?
Bill: I think it does, and my wife said, ‘Wow, eBay.’ I said, ‘No, honey, eBay’s not,’ but it was, I told her, a far less concise and accurate version of the story that you were telling.
Matt: Michael Rubin, again, I’ve been lucky also, I’ve worked for some great entrepreneurs. Even the company before that, that catalog company, a couple of really smart entrepreneurs. I just don’t think that business model worked for them. But Michael wound up selling it to eBay, but he spun off a couple divisions. One is Rue Lala, which is a shopping site, but another one was Fanatics.
Bill: Fanatics, absolutely.
Matt: Which was a sports license piece that I started for him. Then he wound up acquiring two competitors, and they are the beast of the industry, so they’re a customer of ours. They’re a great company. I loved working at Michael’s company. I still feel passionately for the people I worked with there. Great culture, entrepreneurial, startup, this really fast-moving, great guy to work for.
Bill: Yeah. He has that reputation, absolutely.
Matt: Yeah, so this was the type of dotcom place you heard about at the turn of the millennium where we had scooters and were riding across the hall and just making things happen. I was lucky. I had this sports license piece. They let me run with it. We had a lot of initiatives, and wound up becoming one of the biggest parts of the company, so I was pretty successful there, too.
I found my niche, but again, a lot of it was opportunity. I’m not saying I’m the sharpest bulb. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I ran with it. One of the things I learned, though, with licensing, is you are at the mercy of the licenses, the manufacturers. It’s a little concerning when you’re a buyer if you’re not getting great service or things change.
What I really wanted to figure out was, what’s the manufacturing side of this thing? I was at GSI Commerce, or Global Sports, for five years, and I had the opportunity to work for Majestic Athletic. So, Majestic Athletic at the time was a family owned business, official outfitter of Major League Baseball. I was able to go in as the Vice President of Merchandising and Brand Management, working with the leagues on licensing, working with our design team and factories on manufacturing what’s worn on field and new innovations.
Another awesome experience. I worked for some of the classiest people you could work for, great family. I worked for them for three and a half years. I was able to stay on as they sold the company to VF Corporation, which is the biggest apparel company in the world. They own brands like The North Face and 7 For All Mankind and Timberland, and Lee Jeans.
It was really interesting working for a family business. They were innovative as well, but also, it’s tight because you’re working for a family. When you work for a big Fortune 500 company, you get exposure to big people. I was in meetings with Kmart and Walmart and big retailers, and I got to be part of initiatives with the president of the company and the chairman of the company. I’ve been really blessed.
Getting up to Bleacher Creatures, I’ve worked for some great entrepreneurs, great, smart people, and got in front of great retailers, and that led me to Bleacher Creatures.
Bill: All of which comes in handy now, yeah.
Matt: Yeah. It all led up to that point, so I always tell the story for Bleacher Creatures, on the business side that led me there, but the inspiration and the influence were my three daughters.
I’m a father. That’s the most important thing to me, and I have three kids. I would go to ballparks for my job with Majestic, and I’d want to bring my kids back stuff. Once it got past a t-shirt or a jersey or a pair of socks or a poorly made mascot, there was nothing.
One of the sweet parts of Majestic is we had awesome Phillies tickets, front row. August 2010, I’m at a Phillies game with some friends, in those seats. My seats were right by first base, so Chase Utley, Ryan Howard. It was the second inning; I’ll never forget it. I was looking at Chase, and in my head I said, ‘If Chase Utley was a Muppet, what would he look like?’
Bill: I’m sure tons of people simultaneously asking that question.
Matt: Probably, but that was the spark. That was the spark, and a lot of people have always said, ‘Hey, you should go into business. You should start a business,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know what I would do.’
But within that game, I took out my Smartphone, I looked at the toy industry, looked at the plush industry, it was a multi-billion-dollar area. I looked at licensed product, which back then was a big part. Now it’s even bigger. I said, ‘These are iconic athletes, whether it’s LeBron James or Sidney Crosby, or Mike Trout, or Peyton Manning, that people are connected to.’ I knew there was something there. That’s really how I got led up to Bleacher Creatures.
Bill: What a story. The idea comes to you, you’re sitting in these seats. We’re recording this, by the way, on the morning of game three, Dodgers/Mets, so Utley is a name that isn’t as revered maybe as he was forty-eight hours ago, but we’ll see what happens from here.
Matt: Mets fans aren’t thinking of him as a Muppet right now.
Bill: No, nor as anything that’s cuddly. Tell us a bit about the process of building the company, from the idea. My own personal experience, and when I talk to folks who have either been or moved in an entrepreneurial direction, oftentimes an idea becomes implanted and you can’t stop thinking about it. So what happens? You still have responsibilities, obviously, at Majestic. Talk about the process from being a team member with all of a sudden an idea percolating to doing it, making it happen.
Matt: Well, I’m lucky. I had people who were supportive on the business side coaching me on how to do it. Faust Capobianco, who was the President of Majestic, I told him what was going on, and he was encouraging. A good adviser of mine, Greg Weinberg, who I worked with at GSI, so I had these people coaching me a little bit, because I’ve never done it before. I told my wife, I said, ‘Look, I’m going to be spending a lot of extra mornings and evenings at Starbucks working on this thing.’
I did. I tell people I should do a commercial for Starbucks, because every morning, every afternoon where I had free time I was working there. With three kids in the house it’s hard to do.
Bill: That is true.
Matt: The first thing I wanted to do was to make sure the market size and the business made sense. It’s a billion-dollar industry in the US alone. Everything pointed to it being an opportunity. I talked to some of my retail partners, ‘What do you think?’ They got it, so I knew I had something. I had to get designs. I had to find manufacturing. In 2010, while I was still at Majestic/VF, I was working with factories trying to figure out who could make this, who could be a partner. I worked with a designer I knew to design the first prototypes and it came out okay. They really did look like Chase Utley if he was a Muppet.
The other part was raising money, and that wasn’t fun. It’s never fun. You have investors and everybody loves the idea, but then you don’t hear from them for three weeks, and I had raised a bunch of money.
Then the other part is I had to get the licenses. Once I got prototypes, put the business plan together, I was lucky I had relationships with the sports leagues and the players’ associations. For Majestic, they do a really good job of focusing on players. When a player gets hot, they’re turning around jerseys or t-shirts and that business is big. Since I had those relationships with the leagues and the players’ associations, they knew I respected that and that was important to me as a core function.
End of 2010, beginning of 2011, it happened pretty fast. I got approval from all of the sports leagues. They wanted to partner with me. I had raised some money. I happened to have a meeting in New York with Major League Baseball, and that afternoon I was meeting with another licensee, so for people out there, another company that makes sports licensed product.
A friend of mine ran sales there, and I wanted to figure out what kind of salespeople were out there. They didn’t know that. They thought I was looking for a job, so the President of the company came in and thought I was looking for a job, and I told him what I was up to, and he said, ‘Well, let me see the product.’ I said, ‘I need you to sign a NDA, I happen to have one in my bag.’ He signed it, I showed it to him, he was like, ‘I want this.’ Basically over two weeks, he was saying, ‘Listen, I get the business. I’m going to be a good partner to you,’ which he’s been. ‘You’re better off partnering with me, instead of other people who don’t understand the business.’
It worked out, he did. We were incorporated and up and running by February, 2011. It happened fast, and I was lucky. There wasn’t a big gap in regards to doing this without having funding and moving forward. There was a couple months that you’re like, ‘I hope this comes together.’ But it did.
Bill: But for those in our audience who are thinking about balancing ideas for businesses with their day in, day out responsibilities, everyone’s obviously in a different position when it comes to their network, their knowledge level, certainly their financial capability if they wanted to bootstrap something, but what were the triggers for you to know that it was time to hang up the cleats, so to speak, at Majestic? You mentioned incorporating. Obviously you were raising funds. There’s a lot of moving parts here, the licensing, everything else, but when you were talking with your family or thinking about it yourself, what was the moment at which that balance was going to shift, and this was what you were going to be doing for a living?
Matt: I’m going to be honest with you. There was some ignorance on my part in regards to it. I told you my story. I was pretty lucky, right place, right time. The career moved pretty quickly. I was a young executive at VF and GSI, and I said, ‘I’ve had success everywhere. How hard could this be?’
I just thought it would be easy. If I knew what I knew now, I’m not sure I would have done it. Maybe that was good that I didn’t know, but I think people are more sophisticated now than they were four or five years ago, with the Shark Tanks of the world and everything, it’s a different environment. So I’m not sure those triggers were there.
I really confidently thought, ‘This will be easy because I’ve done it and I’ve been successful.’ It is and was much harder than I thought, so I’m glad I did it. It’s made me a better person. It’s made me grow up in some ways, but I don’t know if I’ve had the triggers that other entrepreneurs had, because maybe I wasn’t bright enough to know.
Bill: Well, it seems like a dose of ignorance has helped a lot of the great entrepreneurial stories, because as you say, especially at the point in your life with responsibilities at home, with a great job, around people towards whom you felt warmly and felt responsibility, maybe it’s good you didn’t know all the hurdles or else maybe we’d be here in a different capacity. But, so fast forward, here we are almost five years in for you.
Bleacher Creatures began in sports, obviously has a tremendous presence in sports, but hit the consciousness of the world recently for another reason, which was the papal visit. The Pope obviously came to the US, and spent time throughout the northeast, but the major meat of that stop was here in our fair city. One of the indelible pictures from that visit was, I guess he was on the tarmac either here or, I don’t even know.
Bill: JFK? Someone brought to him a Bleacher Creature of himself, of His Holiness. How wide his smile was holding this doll, this likeness of him, one of the images that I saw everywhere after this, and obviously the business, it’s a great hit. It’s a great moment. Could you tell us a little bit about the story of both the conceiving of, and then executing to this degree, the Pope doll?
Matt: Yeah. As part of our initiative as we grow, international is a big part of what we do. I would say within the next two years, international will be bigger than our US business, and it makes sense. There’s more people. When I talk to people who don’t look that way, you’re missing a huge market. There’s more people internationally than in the US. There’s a lot of disposable income out there. Even if 5% of the Chinese had the type of disposable income it’s big. The reason I’m bringing that up is we have European distributors, and one of them said to us we should do Pope Francis.
I was like, ‘Yeah. We like Pope Francis. He fits what we do, put your passion in play, and we love his message. We should do it.’ This was a year ago, and we sampled the Pope Francis Bleacher Creature and it sat on my desk. We were looking to figure out, especially in Europe, which has different intellectual property rules, what we could or can’t do. Meanwhile, I’m working hard and good opportunities are happening, they announced that Pope Francis was coming to the United States, and coming to Philadelphia.
Bill: Of all places, yeah.
Matt: My town. I was like, ‘Okay, this could be a cool opportunity. We’ll have to figure out how to make it work.’ Every year in February is the International Toy Fair in New York City. We had a meeting probably in December, figuring, ‘Okay, what’s our big story going to be at the toy fair?’ We had our PR people, my marketing people, partners, all on the phone, and we couldn’t really come up with a wow, because we wanted a wow. We got off the phone, but meanwhile, sitting on my desk, looking at me, is that Pope Francis Bleacher Creature.
Bill: Is the prototype, yeah. That’s great.
Matt: Maybe later in the day, it’s staring at me, I’m like, ‘That’s a story.’ I mailed everyone back. I said, ‘What if we say we’re really getting into historical and political and inspirational figures, and we announce that we’re launching Pope Francis?’ Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.’ Full disclosure, I’m Jewish. The press release went out, though, and the Toy Fair happened to be on Ash Wednesday, total accident.
Matt: The story got picked up by over 300 local news stations throughout the United States, so we knew we had something. It was interesting, because the trade show itself, people liked it, but nobody really was like, ‘Okay, I’ll buy it.’
Bill: Right, right.
Matt: Because when you live in a society now with buyers, everybody’s afraid to try something new and take a chance, so in a category like that they didn’t know. But that’s okay. We got a lot of press, and right after that, we spoke to the World Meeting of Families, that brought the Pope here, and they loved it. They showed it to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and they wanted us to carry it. They were finalizing who was going to sell it, so it happened to be another Philadelphia based company, Aramark, who we do a lot of business with, and I have a great relationship with.
Bill: Big company, yeah.
Matt: We lined it up with them, so on our website is where we first started selling the Pope. We knew it was going to be good, because even pre-selling it, it was one of our top sellers. People were into it, and then we were getting calls from Catholic gift shops at churches and religious schools, so we had a good feeling about it. Then our PR agency did a really good job seeding the product. It got picked up, all the local Philly papers, USA Today, Fortune Magazine, so the momentum was already happening.
That momentum built, that more people were buying it, it was selling online for World Meeting of Families, and then sure enough, there were different schools that were buying it. What happened was, the day that the Pope got to New York, this school teacher from Brooklyn, I actually spoke to her afterwards, they had a Pope Bleacher Creature that somebody gave them, and they were praying to it at their school.
Matt: Which is cool in itself, and she was going to the airport to see the Pope, brought it with her just in case, and sure enough he gets off the plane. I think about it historically. When I think of JFK, I think of the Beatles coming to New York and getting off the plane at JFK. Well, honestly, Pope Francis’s first visit to New York is pretty close.
Bill: He’s a rock star in a different way.
Matt: Yeah. He’s walking around, but I’m not watching it, so it’s the end of the day Thursday. We’re already handing all the demand for the Pope, getting product out, and then on my computer around 5: 30, I’m starting to get these emails. ‘Do you do a Pope Bleacher Creature?’ ‘Hey Dude, I think the Pope’s holding your Pope.’ I emailed a couple people like, I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ It’s like, ‘It’s all over the news.’ I go to CBS News.
We were on CBS This Morning, Sunday morning, that Sunday previously, so I had that link up. They have a live news broadcast that you can rewind, and I brought everybody in my office from the company. Sure enough, he’s walking around and the school teacher handed Pope Francis the Pope. But the way it went down, you see his reaction when he sees it in the crowd. He actually blesses it. Then he picks it up and the smile is amazing.
Then he holds it up and does a selfie for somebody with it, right? Of course, that was it. It got picked up by every news station. The next day it was on The Today Show, it was on The View, it was on Good Morning America, it was just everywhere. Then even the next week it was on Colbert, and that’s all great, and the sales are great, but honestly, at its core, we made a product that made Pope Francis generally smile. That’s what our product’s really about.
The idea, we tell buyers this when they buy, that our buyers for retailers, or people walking by, whether you sell one or not at first glance, you have product in your store that are going to make people smile.
Matt: That’s exactly what happened, so it was a great success for the brand. It was a great selling success. We’re still selling them, and everybody blew out of the product. They had the product on the parkway in Philadelphia and they sold out every piece.
Bill: I’ll bet.
Matt: But to see that we could give the Pope the same reaction we want from everybody else, and to generally make him happy, that was everything.
Bill: Yeah, well, it’s quite a story, and I remember, obviously, knowing you and seeing it, and being like, ‘Oh my goodness. That’s unbelievable.’ To your point, and you mentioned the line earlier, ‘put your passion in play.’ Obviously Bleacher Creatures deals in characters or athletes, or whomever, teams, around whom your customers are passionate, yet because it’s a doll and it’s a plush toy, it has to do with play. It works across the family, but with kids certainly.
When you think about brand development, and this is a branding podcast after all, obviously the intellectual property that you possess, that you leverage, that you license, all has their own brand appeal. They think of their business as brands, be it athletes, entertainers, characters, or whatever it is. Yet Bleacher Creatures has its own distinctive appeal. How do you balance these recognizable licenses with building your own brand for Bleacher Creatures? How do you think that through?
Matt: It’s a lot. Luckily with my licensing background, I thought a lot about intellectual property, because that’s a piece of it. We’ve been able to create some intellectual property around how we make the dolls, but also, it’s artwork. I do consider it an art, and that goes back to my band days, in regards to it’s art. We have copyrights on all our designs. The reality is we’re not the only people who can make a Pope Bleacher Creature or a LeBron James Bleacher Creature, but anybody else who makes it, it has to look distinctly different than what we’ve done.
There can’t be confusion in the marketplace. That’s part of it, and that’s part of it both ways. I don’t think I’d go to licensors and say, ‘Hey, listen, we jut want to make a plush of blank’ I get this all the time. Pokemon, or who was the other one that somebody came up to me the other day about? The Smurfs. People say, ‘Do you want to do Despicable Me?’ I’m like, ‘There are plenty of other people that could actually do that.’ We could do it, but that’s not really what Bleacher Creatures is about, because those guys are already built for plush or cartoons.
Bill: Yeah. Sure, sure.
Matt: But LeBron James is not built to be a plush doll. It’s a unique thing, so that’s part of it, is we have a unique look now. It’s not Muppety anymore. It’s how do you turn real people into what we call plush figures, and make them recognizable? That’s the first part. Then we have to understand our customer. We did a great survey with Finch Brands, which was very insightful. That told us that half our customers are kids, which is who the business was built for, but half our customers were adults, and what we knew of those adults, half owned at least three.
This was still early on in our development, which tells us adults like them, adults collect them, and it connects to their passion. The other fun part about our product is, we’re lucky this way, in the social media age, it’s a great product, because it’s great for photography, selfies. It’s easy to carry. There are people out there, there was a little Pope Francis Twitter page, there’s this lady who takes J.J. Watt everywhere she goes every week and posts where she is with J.J. Watt.
Bill: There’s an Utley one, too, right, I think locally, yeah, little Chase.
Matt: Little Chase Utley. He got traded, he’s still up there, and reporting to the Phillies. We love that. We love that there are these guerrilla, I don’t want to call them marketers, but fans, that have created these stories. Knowing all those things and what our brand is, we’ve really become more focused on how do we make these plush figures great that really hit the core? Then what licenses do we get? There are some situations where we’ll take a license that doesn’t necessarily fit into our core, like there’s a partner of ours that does subscription boxes called Horror Blocks, and we’ve done Freddy and Jason. We have some new ones coming up, and that fit their box, but I don’t know if I’d put that in our universe as well.
Bill: Right. Sure, yeah.
Matt: But what we try to do is pick licenses that the passion hits all ages. When you talk sports, kids love LeBron, adults love LeBron. When you talk comic books, kids love Batman, adults are passionate about Batman. Talk about the Pope, kids love the Pope, adults are passionate about the Pope. That’s really the core of what we do for the most part, and there are going to be exceptions, but we want to make sure we’re hitting the range and we’re maximizing it.
Bill: Right. Well, you mentioned the art and the artistry of this. Bleacher Creatures seems to be at its very best with individuals, be they athletes or otherwise, that have something about their look, whether it’s hair or some defining characteristic, and being able to replicate that in a way that can’t help but make one smile, but is also faithful to the thing that makes them them, as opposed to just, Smurfs are plush. Anybody can do Smurfs. But there seems like there is a Bleacher Creatures way to do this versus a just a nondescript plush way to do this. Yeah, it definitely comes through. You mentioned early in the process how important the prototyping and design phase was, and it makes a lot of sense.
Another thing that you mentioned that I kind of wanted to ask your take on, you’re an e-commerce guy from way back, accidentally, but from way back. Bleacher Creatures operates in a multi-channel environment, and you certainly have through the web, this incredible ability to connect directly through social media and other ways with people. They know where to come and to get these. That said, you talked about that smile factor when one is in a retail environment and sees this, and people just want to pick it up, and just want to look at it, and want to smile. When you think about, in your own career, but also here we are with Bleacher Creatures, the differences, as well as the cooperative nature of the direct and the retail, wholesale side of the business, how do you think about channels?
Matt: I think hard about channels. It’s a big deal. There is a lot of work and care and cost into what Bleacher Creatures does, so you have to get paid for it. Our retailers have to get paid for it. It’s interesting. I was just at another toy trade show last week, and getting feedback from retailers, and so much of what works for us, when it works well, is merchandising and displaying it, so a really good partner for us is Target. Target has beautiful stores.
Even though they’re considered a mass retailer, it’s beautiful, and why they’ve been successful and their sell-throughs are really good is we worked with them and discussed how are you going to display this product, and that is everything. There’s another major retailer, and I won’t name them on this podcast, that doesn’t have a dedicated section. They’re really not organized on how they put their product out, so when I go in their stores, they’re underneath a shelf, and they might be blocked, and the sell-throughs aren’t good.
Bill: Sure. I wonder why, right?
Matt: First of all, as I’m talking to retailers now, that is a conversation for us as we grow. How are we going to support this? We’re happy to support it with you. We’ll give you fixturing, we’ll give you signage, but what are you dedicating into the space to tell the story? Because that’s what it’s about, is the storytelling. Again, Target does a really good job of it.
The other part of it is there is a business out there for perception on plush. You could go to a crane machine in a Walmart, put a quarter in or a dollar in, and win a plush toy. It’s totally different quality than Bleacher Creatures. We have to educate people on the craftsmanship of what we do. We actually do have another product line, which is a different brand name, for lower price point plush, because there are retailers out there and business to be had. So very much like at Majestic, we segmented the business that Majestic was what we called upstairs. Then at the mass, they don’t sell Majestic Athletic to a Walmart. They have a different brand. We looked at the business the same way, and we’re really particular on who gets what.
Bill: When it comes to the relationships that you create with consumers directly through social media, or email, or whatever it is, through the direct channel, obviously the economics of wholesale selling and sell-through versus direct and fulfillment are different. Do you look at the customer journey when it comes to interacting with Bleacher Creatures as a linear thing, across channels? How do you think about making this, in addition to telling the story obviously in a way that really evokes and unleashes the passion of the consumer? How do you think about their journey as a marketer?
Matt: We’re still learning it, so our Director of Marketing was at Comic-Con this weekend. I didn’t get a chance to go, and what was encouraging for us is people were walking by – we were there with one of our customers who has a display there. People were walking by and saying, ‘Oh, check out the Bleacher Creatures.’ They actually said the name.
Bill: Wow, that’s cool.
Matt: That’s really new for us, because I think people are still learning the brand. A year ago at this time, I’d say we had about eight or ten thousand Facebook followers, maybe twelve thousand.
Bill: Yeah, something like that.
Matt: We’re up to close to eighty thousand now. It’s grown really quickly and there are brands we look at to see how we measure and brands that we have a lot of respect for. Funko is a huge brand now, and we’re at about a third of their Facebook followers. We interact with them every day, and it’s not so much about selling product, it’s the same concept, making them smile.
What we’ve learned from the social media part, which is really the big marketing push for us, is we’re connecting with people every day, telling our message, and that gives credibility to retailers out there saying, ‘How do I carry the product?’ Then we’re really careful in regards to how often we’re hitting our e-commerce base with emails. We don’t want to overburden it, so it’s pretty much once every other week, but what we see is the bump. It’s engaged, and I think because we’re not beating them over the head with it, and we’re not just saying, ‘Buy, buy, buy,’ but we’re telling a brand story. It converts better.
That’s really what we’re trying to do right now is tell our story. We’re in business, so we want to sell product, but we just want to tell people about this Bleacher Creature universe and what it’s about and how they can be a part of it.
Bill: Right. Yeah, and so on social media you’ll say, ‘Hey, there’s a Monday night game between the 9ers and the Giants,’ and you’ll have an example of this, and that’ll be it. It won’t be like, ‘Hey, you got to get your Eli Manning before the game starts.’ Seemingly it’s about being part of the overall conversation that people have about the things that they’re passionate about. I don’t know how many ‘abouts’ I can have in that sentence, but being part of that ongoing conversation about sports entertainment and other things is content driven rather than promotional.
Matt: Yeah, what I’m encouraged about over the last year is we’re becoming part of the culture. That’s really the job. We’re becoming part of the culture, even though we’re still small. But as people are picking up, there are enough people that are attracted to us, that we’re becoming part of their day and their culture, so the Pope was the big event. Even last week, TBS ran their commercial for the playoffs with Joe Maddon, and he voiced it, and it ends with them showing the Joe Maddon Bleacher Creature. That’s a commercial.
Now again, it’s not a selling point for us, but we’re now becoming authentic as part of the Cubs’ journey in the postseason, and we see that every week now, and the fact that people are taking their pictures every week with the product. Everywhere you go, whether you’re at the airport, you’re going to a sporting event, comic book store, you’re seeing our product. As we get that stickiness and people start learning more and more, we’re going to be more successful.
Bill: Right. Well, it definitely seems to be for certain athletes who are pictured with it, it’s a sign of their arrival. It’s a sign of you made it, because you don’t have everybody. We had Joanna Cline from Fathead on a few weeks ago. Fathead because its imagery has the ability to be super fast and to put anything on it that people want to buy, whereas you guys, the manufacturing journey here, and both in terms of timing, which I’m sure is a bit of a challenge in terms of timing the market right, but also making good choices about the assortment is a big deal. It means something when an athlete reaches the point that their likeness is available in plush.
Matt: They reach out to us, so I have two good stories on that. One just happened. I don’t know how to pronounce his last name, Dallas, the kid that pitched last night.
Bill: Yeah, Keuchel?
Matt: Keuchel. I thought so, too.
Bill: Cool beard on that guy.
Matt: He’s going to make a great Bleacher Creature.
Bill: Yeah, he is.
Matt: We were already working with the Astros for next season on doing it, but his girlfriend tweeted us the other day.
Bill: Oh, nice.
Matt: Where’s Dallas’ Bleacher Creature?
Bill: When’s it coming?
Matt: We actually reached out to the guy at the Astros, who responded and said, ‘Here’s the artwork. I think there’s a chance that we’ll be making it next year, like 100%.’ That’s what he sent. When we get those, and we get those regularly now, that athletes are reaching out that aren’t ones, and then we’re engaging with them.
The best story was two, two and a half years ago, an agent called us, and we get calls from agents from time to time, and he says, ‘My client plays for the Seahawks and he wants to be a Bleacher Creature.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s his name?’ He said, ‘Richard Sherman.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know him.’ This was before everything happened.
Matt: He was like, ‘No, trust me. People in Seattle really like him. He’s great.’ I said, ‘I’ll call the team.’ I called the team, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we like Richard.’ They were already doing Lynch and Wilson. ‘We’ll add Richard to it, why not?’ Sure enough, he became the biggest thing in the world, and not only that, he does a podcast, a videocast, and he had somebody with a Bleacher Creature on, and then it made Monday Night Football and we blew out of it. To me, why I feel really optimistic about our business is these things happen now on a weekly basis.
Matt: Those opportunities keep on happening. That means we’re doing something right, and there’s something core to what we do that’s getting to be part of this conversation.
Bill: No, absolutely. It just seems, you have the data, but from afar, just the collection of anecdotes and it seems the frequency and intensity with which you see them just as a consumer and as a fan, is increasing. We have some sirens outside the window.
Matt: At first it sounded like an alien invasion.
Bill: Yeah, coming to apprehend us.
Matt: I was excited about it, but now…
Bill: Maybe we should duck down. In the spirit of respecting your time and aiding your getaway here, your career path and the twists and turns, the choices, the good fortune, the strong ethic, all these different things, for someone who’s listening to this and finds some inspiration in what you’ve done, your entrepreneurial story and everything else, what are some advice that you’d share? You said earlier one of the maxims is you never got to ask ‘what if.’ Answer those questions for yourselves. Any other things that are an important part of Matt the guy, and Matt the businessperson as you look forward?
Matt: The ‘what if’ thing is important, and I would tell anybody if you really have a passion for something, at least if you don’t succeed, you’ve got to try, because you’ll kill yourself, kick yourself, if you don’t do it.
But I also think of Eminem, you get one chance. You get that one chance in life, so if you’re going to get the one chance, aim big. Aim big. Why aim small? See how big it gets and see where it gets you, because some of my major influences include Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, and I know a lot of people say that. But if you really look at both those stories, they both dreamed big, thought big, thought differently, and changed culture. I’m not saying Bleacher Creatures is going to be Apple or Disney, but those are good role models in regards to that piece of it.
Bill: No doubt. Forgive my ignorance. Do you have a Jobs Bleacher Creature?
Matt: Not yet.
Bill: A lot of momentum around it with movies and everything else.
Matt: I know. People have asked. Look, he’s, again, he’s an influence for me. I think historically he would fit in. I think we have to figure out where that goes. Whenever we create a Bleacher Creature, the conversation is where do we sell it? Who buys it? I hope Steve Jobs is on the radar down the road. It’s just everything has to line up properly.
Some of the other things is it is really tough to run your own business. It’s literally walking on a tightrope without the net. It’s important to surround yourself with good people, not just working for you, advisers, friends, people who have been through the journey, because if you don’t know the journey, you don’t have people telling you what’s going on, it can be scary, but if people tell you that scary is the norm, it makes it less scary.
I’ve been lucky, and I try to pass the same thing along. I talk to other business owners on the challenges, and it makes it much easier as you go through it in cycles of years, to say, ‘Okay, this is regular, and I understand it’s regular, and I can live and I can survive, and I can get better and stronger.’ It’s really important to base that network to do it.
The other part is you’re not going to be perfect. I heard somebody say the other day most people in life are not A’s and they’re not F’s. They’re generally B pluses to C minuses, somewhere in there. Now, you can achieve to be an A, and I’m trying to be an A. I want to be the best, but you’re not going to be perfect. Even the As aren’t perfect. Bill Belichick’s probably one of the best coaches of all times, but sometimes he makes a stupid mistake too, right?
You have to accept the flaws of what you’re doing to succeed, but at the same time, achieve how to get better every day. I always tell people who work for us, and I think this is true in business, attention to detail, sense of urgency, critical thinking. If you do those three things, those are recipes to succeed.
Bill: It often doesn’t take anything more. It’s an interesting thing. You talk about this transition to the entrepreneurial realm, and we’ll close with this. Thank you so much for your insight and your time.
Matt: Thanks for having me.
Bill: Our pleasure. The difference in mindset between a big job and an important job at an established company versus leadership in an entrepreneurial venture, you talked about some of the terror associated with that. You talked also about some of the blissful ignorance. Could you speak a little bit about just how it’s different to be the guy, and how that feels when it obviously extends across the entirety of your life, and it’s a big shot you’re taking. You’re going to try to make it count. How does it feel?
Matt: In some ways it’s the difference between being the quarterback and being the coach.
Matt: I would say the other part of it is, when I tell my career story, I think in some ways I was given opportunities that – it’s like being the athlete that has all the skills and playing against smaller players, right? Not that I’m the bigger athlete and I have all those skills. The opportunities were those bigger skills.
I’ve been humbled a lot over the last four years. It’s been humbling, and in some ways I wish I was humbled sooner. The difference is when you work for a big company there is a safety net, right? You can get lost in the shuffle in some cases, and unless you aim too big, you’re not going to go out of business. Things will move on.
Now the difference in that is when you work for a smaller company, you can innovate. If you work for a bigger company, it’s more iteration because of that. That’s why small companies can flourish. For us, in the fastest moving technological time ever, in a time where retail’s changing, production’s changing, marketing for sure is changing.
Bill: No question.
Matt: Not only are you walking without that net, but you have to be focused on changing all the time. There is no let up on evolving. It’s about adapting. It’s not about who’s the biggest. It’s not about who’s the strongest or the fastest. It’s the one who can adapt. That’s the biggest, I would say pressure, is that you have to adapt every day, and it’s tiring. It’s tiring for everybody out there, but that’s the society we’re in now.
Bill: Yeah, well, and it’s an interesting balance again between letting things work, because some things take a little while to materialize, demand takes a while to gather. You’re possessed of all kinds of different metrics. Every part of your business can be studied and can be analyzed, and I guess there’s wisdom in knowing when and what when it comes to taking action and you don’t have the opportunity, as you say, to be patient quarter after quarter simply because you believe something seems logical, and ultimately it’s going to click.
What a set of skills, you came into the Bleacher Creatures with the functional experiences, theoretically in place. You knew e-commerce, you had relationships with leagues and players’ associations. You knew the licensing piece; you knew the product piece. You knew wholesale distribution through retailers and then, but this incredible wave of learning, and thankfully achievement. What a story.
Matt: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I said the head coach analogy earlier. It’s the same thing when you start a business. I probably had some skill sets where maybe if you consider what I did offense, sales, product. Those things, and then a lot of times offensive coordinators will become head coaches, well maybe they don’t know defense or about the team’s conditioning. I think it’s the same thing. Now you’re taking all those on, and you’re in charge of every aspect. You might have had a background in the one aspect, but you’re learning other parts. I think that’s true when you start a business. You start taking on whether it’s finance, whether it’s operations. That’s defense, right? That’s special teams.
Bill: Sure, sure.
Matt: Yeah, it’s taken on a lot of different parts, but it is the truism. If you work hard – I’m not the first one to say this, the opportunities happen – good things happen when you work hard, and we see it. We’ve seen it at Bleacher Creatures, and that’s been the blessing.
Bill: Wow. Absolutely. We have maximum control over that, certainly. Matt Hoffman, five years into Bleacher Creatures, great story behind, certainly a great story ahead. We will be watching. Grateful for your time, your friendship, and your insight.
Matt: Thank you for having me. It’s good to see you.
Bill: Thank you, Matt. What an insightful perspective, both on the career journey as a whole and on what he’s been doing entrepreneurially with Bleacher Creatures. Very inspiring, I’m sure, for people who reach a level of leadership and success in a category that they’ve become very close to, and through very hard work, but still had that nagging entrepreneurial dream and have an idea that they feel fits it. Matt spoke very candidly about the steps required to do that, both emotionally and interpersonally, as well as financially and strategically.
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In this week’s episode, Bill examines the differences between a brand refresh and a fundamental rebranding, as well as the reasons why a rebrand may or may not be right for an organization. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan: Greetings, one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. This is One Big Idea. Today’s topic is rebranding. In fact we’ve titled it, ‘Time to Rebrand?’. No up talk there, it really is a question. It’s an important question that many companies face. Often, they come to us to help them assess the strengths and weaknesses of the moment for rebranding and whether or not it’s the right approach to take.
Obviously, if they do decide to take it, we’re often called in to manage the process. If they don’t decide to take it, we’re called in to manage other things within the framework of the existing brand. The reason I say that is because there is a fundamental difference between a brand refresh, which is primarily about either contemporizing, or in some way evolving the look and feel of a company, or of an institution and a full rebrand.
We’re going to focus primarily here on why not to rebrand even though you may have an itch to think about rebranding. The reason why we want to focus on the negatives and the reasons to think very, very seriously before doing this is because it’s much more than a brand refresh.
Companies that may come to us and just feel like they’re looking out of date, or they’re sick of it frankly, or any other reason, aesthetic, or otherwise, a brand refresh, which may even rise to the level of identity, name, logo, things like that, often is a way to bring a little bit of energy to the way that a company promotes itself.
A brand refresh is one thing, a rebranding process is fundamentally deeper and fundamentally different. It represents a meaningful enough shift in the company’s target, mindset, culture, product line, or method of going to market that needs to be addressed through nothing short of a full re-imagination of what a company’s called, how it’s organized, what it values, etc.
When folks come to us and the topic is should we rebrand, we really spend a lot more time talking about reasons not to. In fact – and this may be, in some ways, self-defeating, at least from a new business perspective – we really adopt a default position of, no, you shouldn’t until you’ve met a pretty significant threshold for a rebrand being the right path to take.
Five major reasons not to rebrand, or things to think about as you decide whether to rebrand or not. These five things are to be taken very, very seriously.
First, is that many brands have what we could call hidden brand equity. Whether that is a heritage of happy clients, whether that’s a logo or a name that’s pretty recognizable and pretty well-known.
Even if there’s some baggage, even if there is some concern that there’s a pretty significant level of negativity, or confusion in the marketplace, often even imperfect brand equity is preferable to starting out, or starting over.
The first reason to be very skeptical and cautious about rebranding is that there is likely some degree of hidden brand equity, if you’ve been doing this for a while, that you can’t easily port over and you do not want to sacrifice. In the case where such equity exists, maybe again a brand refresh is a better course than a full rebrand.
Secondly, rebranding is emotional and it’s hard. There are two ingredients from our perspective to a successful project. There’s content and there’s process. Content always needs to be great no matter what it is whether it is rebranding content, new name, logo, positioning, vision mission, whatever it is.
Process in the case of a rebrand is often just as important and rises to the level of importance. Because brands are built from the inside out as we’ve discussed in a previous episode of One Big Idea, a rebranding process has to start and has to, in many ways, be co-authored by a company, the entirety of an employee base, or at least a large segment of it.
You need to think long and hard about enrolling folks on the team into a process. A. because they have genuine insight from their functional responsibilities, being close to the customer in many cases and B. because the ‘small p’ politics of this is such that they’re really going to need to be on-boarded on the back end for the rebrand to be as successful as you want it to be.
That’s the hard multi-dimensional part of rebranding. The other thing in this second reason to be cautious about is that it’s emotional. It absolutely is. You’re dealing with properties that many folks have never not known. That’s all they’ve known; formed various attachments.
It can feel sometimes, when re-thinking a name, or a logo, or deeper fundamental beliefs that rebranding is turning away from the past, which it is in some ways. That process is very, very difficult particularly when you’re dealing with subjective elements. What are our values? How should our Vision / Mission be written? What should our name be? Etc.
If a culture cannot accommodate, or you think ever get past or through the emotional quality of this and the difficulty of galvanizing the entire team around it, it might be best not to approach a full scale rebranding.
The third is that often times, depending on what the company is facing, rebranding does not address the fundamental issue that is leading the company to a time of really deep introspection. Sometimes the reasons to rebrand have to do with very negative equity and the need to escape from that, or massive changes to the market, or whatever it is.
Sometimes there’s a product deficiency. Sometimes the company’s culture is not strong enough. Sometimes there may have been a mass migration, or attrition in the employee base. So, ‘Now’s as good a time as ever to think about that brand differently.’
That may be true, but if the issue with the company is a management issue, or is a cultural issue, or is something along those lines, there’s no guarantee that rebranding is going to solve that. In fact, the vast percentage of the time it doesn’t. Rebranding is about renewing the compact that you make and have with your team, with your employee base, and taking advantage of opportunities through product and through evolutions in the culture, whatever it is.
If your fundamental issue, when effectively diagnosed, isn’t really related to something that rebranding is intended to solve, you should focus on the issue and resolve that. Do not necessarily just launch yourself into a rebranding process because ‘new would be better,’ or it papers over whatever the other weaknesses are.
Fourth, and not surprisingly, rebranding can be very expensive. Not only in enlisting the help of incredible firms like ours, or whatever, but all of the things that need to be re-done. They don’t have to be done all at once, but over time. Often, clients step back from the abyss when they realize the impact on that year and the next year’s marketing budget.
The dollars that it takes to re-do every touch point, all the way to simple things like re-printing business cards, to sales brochures, whatever it is, these are things you don’t want to be out of date. It reflects the fact that the company may be operationally weak if it’s presenting this multi-faceted face to the market.
I would certainly, as one embarks upon a rebranding process, game out the financial impacts of this, particularly for larger organizations. For example, when we were doing the Liberty Property Trustrebrand, they are a big company, real estate company. Which meant tons of signage, tons of sales materials across the nation and the world.
To their credit, they thought through brand migration with a financial perspective and built a really concerted plan against how to execute that. It involved prioritizing different markets and different properties where priority 1 or the ‘A’ bucket was going to get rebranding materials first. It was going to be done over a multi-year period. It was very smart, the approach they took and that we helped them with. The expense of a rebrand is a reason to pull back, or at least to study and go in eyes wide open.
Lastly, fifth and final of what I’m sure are many more, but fifth and final that come to mind here is that there is more to rebranding than you think. This is related to some of the other points. There may be more process-wise than you think. There may be more financially than you think, but when you think of operational and IT stuff like domain name and what the ‘@suchandsuchcompany.com’ email structure, there’s a ton of stuff in the operational realm.
There’s also, as noted, a ton of stuff needed to align, and educate, and inspire the internal team in addition to their participation in the process. There is a huge need to think through, with a very clear eye, and a lot of energy, the strategy of communicating this to the customer base. Putting a little notice in a billing statement, or putting something up on social media does not suffice as a customer communication strategy around rebranding.
Often, as noted on our previous One Big Idea, where we talked about M&A Branding best practices, in terms of thinking through the brand, it sends a signal. Often times while the intended signal is progress, the future, and focus, there is a signal sent to the customer base of a company going through a rebranding. It indicates that there was something fundamentally broken. It indicates that the company’s going through a process of figuring itself out.
While all of these things, we all know, are healthy and important processes to go through from time to time, there’s no guarantee that all the customers are going to go with you. There’s no guarantee, particularly if you don’t build a strategy that is multi-faceted, that enables enough time and that the company can execute against.
Five reasons to say no. In a future episode, we’ll talk about reasons to say yes, or reasons why it might be the right time. Just to reiterate those five:
1. There may be hidden equity that you really can’t sacrifice in exchange for something that doesn’t exist. You don’t know how well it’s going to catch on.
2. It’s emotional and it’s hard.
3. It may not address fundamental issues that are constraining the performance of the company as well as everyone’s satisfaction within the culture.
4. It’s expensive, or it can be expensive and often has to be accomplished in pieces for that reason.
5. There’s often more operationally, as well as culturally, as well as in terms of market face and communications, more than you think.
That’s One Big Idea for this week as we spring forward on Sunday night. As someone who has small children, not looking forward to this, although walking home with light out is going to be nice too. All the best. Signing off from the Cradle of Liberty, a wonderful day to all.
Anthony Bucci is the Co-Founder and CEO of RevZilla, a leading e-commerce company specializing in motorsports and motorcycle accessories. In this episode, he shares with us his fascinating and inspiring journey from enthusiast to immensely successful business leader and brand builder. Anthony’s insight affirms many of the brand principles that we examine in prior episodes and is delivered in a very entertaining way. If you enjoy our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a review!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Thank you for joining us today. I have to confess, unfortunately as wonderful as this podcast is, it just isn’t a full-time job. We have other things to do, and for that reason, because of some travel out west and back east, we’re going to rebroadcast a fabulous interview, if I do say so myself, with Anthony Bucci, the co-founder and CEO of RevZilla. It is in no way an unfortunate thing because we believe the power of his thoughts and insight is worth, certainly, hearing if you haven’t already, and if you heard it way back when, hearing again.
We will back with new and fresh content next week, now that the travel schedule has come back to earth a little bit, but for now, enjoy all that Anthony has to offer.
Bill: Here we are at RevZilla world headquarters in the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, which, if anyone has a chance to get down here, is an incredible place with a showroom attached. Really feels as unique as this company is. We’re here with Anthony Bucci. Thanks for being with us, first of all, but give us the scoop on this. What’s happening at RevZilla?
Anthony Bucci: That’s a hell of an intro and I appreciate that. Everything is happening at RevZilla. We are in a place of still hyper growth at the seven-and-a-half-year mark, so just closing Q2 of 2015. Still on a hyper growth, north of 35% growth trajectory, big base of business. Right now, the story is talent and scale. That’s where we’re at.
Bill: Amazing. Your journey here, as with everyone who’s built businesses and brands, has twists and turns. Could you take us through the highlights of how Anthony became the Anthony that’s sitting with us today?
Anthony: Oh my gosh. Thankfully, it’s a work in progress. If we rewind all the way back to where my journey started, I’m actually an ex-developer. I’m still a tech guy, very much so at my core. We always think of this business as a technology company – these days it’s a technology and media company – focusing in the motorcycle vertical, with a lot of enthusiasm for moto and a lot of enthusiasts on board.
For me personally, my journey started – I was an interesting kid. I was a late bloomer. I confused the hell out of my parents at 13 when I said, ‘I really want VB 3.0.’ My father, who is an ex-professional athlete, looked at me and he said, ‘What’s a VB 3.0?’
Bill: You should get some dates, son. Stop worrying about that stuff.
Anthony: It wasn’t that bad, but it was more of, ‘You should really go outside and play.’ I really wanted to figure out what a four loop does. We buy VB 3.0, and in my mid teens I was a developer, rode the first wave of the internet, had a homepage on Prodigy, and then AOL, and went from there, and ran up the modem bill dialing overseas BBS’s when we figured out what that was.
I think the highlight of my developer career was, I did some web application stuff in the late ’90s for SAP while I was still in high school, and then I was on the agency side during the first dotcom at Drexel on a couple co-ops. I started as a developer, which ultimately led to some different interesting paths that arrived at RevZilla. But my background was hard-core tech, until I realized that guys like Matt and Nick, my co-founders, were way better than I would ever be, and that’s when I decided to blend my approach.
Bill: Right. As noted, you have some tenure in the agency world, and I know that at a certain point you were an e-commerce service provider, helping folks on that early first wave begin to transact online. How did the transition happen from being this service provider to a bunch of different companies to deciding that you want to be an operator, own a vertical, go deep as a dev guy, and the enthusiasm for moto? Tell us about that process in your life and career.
Anthony: The neat part was that I was a developer in 2001. I would say I was CompSci at Drexel, and by the time I was 22 I said, ‘I’ve done almost a decade of programming.’ For me looking back now, probably at a mediocre level, but it was leading edge there.
My career ended with .net. I said, ‘I’d really like to understand the people side of this. I understand the business side.’ I finished college as an Information Systems major, and when I was getting out of school I approached some of the work I’d done previously, some of the companies I had worked with, and I said, ‘I might go back to the agency side, but maybe it’s project management or sales.’
Lucky for me, I chose sales, because I think that that actually played better to my strong suits. I have learned over time that moving too fast and capturing the details seems to be an Achilles heel for me. What led me ultimately to RevZilla is I worked at a lot of blue chip brands. The dotcom bubbles burst in ’01, and by ’03, ’04, ’05, you had brands saying, ‘Well, we know we need to do this online thing,’ and the stigma around dotcom had subsided a little bit. The economy was coming back, and many key brands said, ‘We need to go direct.’
Then they started to go direct, and they said, ‘Wow, 70 point margins with channel conflict that people are just going to have to deal with is something that we’re willing to take on because it could dramatically drive our bottom line.’ You had businesses like Smashbox Cosmetics, Calvin Klein underwear, and Crayola that had already done it.
I was working in the agency world, and some of these were my accounts. Some accounts were house accounts that the agency was already working on. You got to see this blend of brand, this blend of experience and this blend of technology, which took brands to market for the first time, and ultimately it was a hell of an education for a guy in my seat, that was like, ‘I understand the tech of how it all works, but now let me hear from the brand experienced people about how it all goes together.’
That was my e-commerce education, and really it was. [At the time] I was getting ready to buy my first bike. Mom and Dad said, ‘No bikes, no tattoos until you’re ready to be on your own.’ That was the mantra in my house growing up. Mom and Dad don’t have tattoos, but Dad had a bike in college, and he said, ‘I don’t want to worry about you.’ When I was about 25-26, 3 years in agency life, I said, ‘I want a Ducati,’ and I started looking for a Ducati, and the Barneys of motorcycling didn’t exist.
That was like, well, I’m building all these great experiences for other brands, why isn’t there a great experience in this space? Even with fresh eyes as a new rider, it was, ‘Well, I know tech, I know experience, how much would it really take to launch something out of left field to change this industry?’ That was the original thesis.
Bill: You had, obviously, a strong grounding in the tech side of this. You had learned deeply about the delivery of brand experience within an e-commerce channel. You had a developing and long-term family passion for bikes. You saw a market opportunity, and that’s a lot of boxes to check, no question. I think the perhaps, stereotype of what this market was before the Internet, before RevZilla, it’s clubhouses, it’s local, it’s folks that are hanging around the shop.
Anthony: The word is ‘fragmented.’
Bill: Certainly fragmented, probably remains so to a degree, but what did you find when you … Yes, there maybe wasn’t a Barneys version of this online, but tell us about the market when you approached it among moto enthusiasts and riders.
Anthony: The market was at an interesting place, and if you really think about it, my favorite thing about motorcycling is no one needs it. I say that with love. It’s completely discretionary and an interesting risky life choice. I tell my wife when she’s like, ‘I want to get a bike,’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s very dangerous.’
Bill: One of us needs to be safe.
Anthony: Yes. We have a lot of kids. But when we found it, this industry is full of amazing people, and they’re people with passion and love for the sport, that have been in it for a long time.
On the business side of this industry, it’s full of … I always love when they call it ‘the old boys’ club’. I mean folks that grew up as racers, that then worked within the brands, that then are the heads, the CEOs of some of these brands that are global brands, they’re ex-riders and racers. Unlike many industries that are riding the digital transition, they’re definitely not digital.
The best in the industry, when we started, was a lot of folks that were amazing dealerships, amazing dealer networks. A lot of this is there’s 11,000 dealerships where you go buy a bike and buy accessories, nation-wide, that were all reeling from the economy. The market went from 1.1 million units sold in 2005 or ’06, to in 2007 or ’08 it was 500,000, so completely decimated.
Our timing was when everyone was reeling, and then everyone was trying to figure out, ‘What’s this next wave look like, and how does digital affect us?’ While we had a more high-end approach, we said, ‘We’re going to cater to ourselves,’ which is this high-touch, want to research, want to really dive in consumer online. The industry was in a place of, ‘We’re battening down the hatches, we’re tightening our belts. We just got punched in the stomach, and what the hell is the internet going to do,’ because to date, no one’s really gotten any major traction. It was a perfect storm for us.
Bill: Absolutely. Then, the image of guys with long beards, black t-shirt..
Anthony: They’re beardy-weirdies.
Anthony: A beard’s length is a denotion of knowledge and skill.
Bill: Yes, as it is in many tribes around the world. Clearly, given the volume of this, as well as what you have either created, as well as leveraged, which is increasing technological interest and sophistication, deep research, that exists in spades within this category, it seems, beyond whatever that veneer might be that people use to create clichés about this.
Anthony: Very sophisticated, actually. Keep going.
Bill: Absolutely. You have also become a YouTube sensation – you and the Gangnam Style guy are, among others. Tell me about the path to being out front and meeting the marketplace as a personality of your own in telling the story.
Anthony: Three things: One, his name is Psy. Two, you just said ‘sensation’ to describe me, which is a very interesting word; and three, the backstory on YouTube is a happy accident.
If you think about our business, and you think about an enthusiast vertical, where someone buys an $800 helmet, it’s very emotional; it’s ultimately a device developed in R&D to save your life; it has a look, it has a style. After someone buys a bike, just think about the helmet for a second. It is the most emotional piece that they’re going to buy. Heavily researched. The super-premium ones, think about it, in their local dealership, are you really going to see that selection? You had this vacuum of availability and knowledge around things that are really expensive, very emotional, that people lust after. They wait and save for six months, then they go buy.
We found that when we started, the thesis was, let’s be a tech company, an authority, experience-driven, and a specialty vertical, which is really a recipe for value creation. It’s not about price and selection, let’s completely change. Everybody else in this space wanted to be a Walmart of motorcyles, big, cheap, touching everyone, and that’s not it. When you are passionate about something, you don’t want to buy that way. We knew that. I don’t think the industry had realized that yet, online.
The bottom line is this, in the early days, video came from the fact that we used to get phenomenal feedback from consumers, even the first year, when Matt, Nick, and I answered every phone call and every e-mail, and if someone said, ‘Hey, my name’s Bill. I live in Seattle, I ride 200 days a year, I get rained on half of those days. I have $300-500 to spend on a helmet, and I have a round head shape. Can you tell me the five helmets that’ll fit the bill for me, for my bike-riding style, locale, and budget?’
To do that, that’s an hour and a half phone conversation. That’s the dealership experience when you happen to get the knowledgeable person that comes in and meets up with a sales associate that’s ridden their whole life and is going to say, ‘I can take you down that journey.’ That’s 90 minutes. That first year, we’ll do that 90 minutes with people, and they say, ‘Oh my god, RevZilla, I can’t believe you know so much. I love that you’re so sophisticated.’
Honestly, we were newer-ish riders, but we’re geeks, so we researched, and we’re product guys. My background’s in snowboarding and outdoor mountaineering. I’ve known what Gore-Tex was since I was 12. We get the product side. I ultimately took a step back at some point in year two or three and I said, ‘This works. This is our brand lemonade. People love this from us. We’re their Sherpa. How do you scale it? How do you scale it virtually?’ The video came from scaling it.
The original thesis is, can I get somebody 90% of the way there on all the information that that gentleman, Bill, just asked me for, and then, when they call up, they’re going to say, ‘Listen, I watched a bunch of video, and can you just tell me which one’s going to vent a little bit better, and I’ll pick that one, but I’ve narrowed it down to three.’ We were right. Ultimately, it started rough, we polished that, but that breadth and scale of knowledge as a resource really was huge.
The happy accident – and you guys get this, because you’re brand guys – the happy accident is that for the same reason that Priceline went out and hired William Shatner; you think about trust on the internet, or trust in brands, people say, ‘I want to develop a relationship with someone I know and trust.’ By accident, over time, it ended up being me, which, when we started, it was on a flip cam with shop lights.
People forgave the production value because the information was good. I’ll never forget, because we tried to think, should we hire somebody from QVC, should we? It’s local. Who can we get to do this? My background was business development and technology, and I’m a product geek, but, I said to Matt, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? It’s the internet. We’ll take it down. We’re move fast, break things guys.’ I said, ‘If people really rebel against ‘Why is the Jersey Shore guy with the faux-hawk and muscles telling me about motorcycle gear,’ I know what I look like. I’m a fast-talking guy from the northeast. I said, ‘We’ll just take it down.’ Over time, people have said, ‘Your information’s great, and you’re fun to listen to.’ Happy accident. I find myself in this very non-scalable place, completely attached to our brand, with an amazing community of followers.
Bill: Happy accident, probably, when you think about what the category was, that served, as you say, a role in closing the loop between the traditional experience and expertise, and personal connection that one needs to feel with what the brand new world of tech and scale could do for this category. To that end, and in that spirit, I know that, obviously, when it comes to demand generation building the business and the brand, there are things that e-commerce companies do, regardless of category, in terms of thinking through SEO, and paid search, and re-targeting. All the fun stuff in the funnel, but I also know that RevZilla, at least it seems, has a very active calendar of going where your customers are, Sturgis or wherever. Can you talk about the blend of new and old-school relationship development, and how that helps drive the brand and business?
Anthony: If you look at the investment we made in video as an early bet, and even before we could really monetize it, before we really understood what it was worth – at this point, I know what it’s worth. We can touch high level, but I won’t be diving specifically in those weeds. The side-benefit, really, we got way more soft ROI feedback on video early on than we did hard ROI, which, really, we had to develop as a company to even have the tools to be able to mine for that, and it was, ‘We love it, it’s great.’ People were subscribing, they were joining the community, and it was, okay, figure out what this costs, even though we believe it’s moving the needle positive, but at minimum it’s part of that ‘give something of value away for free to sell something related.’
If you think of this as a publisher or a media entity on the moto gear side, we’re going to monetize because someone will ultimately buy a piece of gear, but ultimately we’re putting this resource out there for people to find and digest. If you look at it right, traditional marketing I would believe, it depends on where things fall. Magazine ads, we’ve never done them. Localized events, we’ve tried, and it’s been really hard.
Bill: That is hard.
Anthony: It has been. We went to Sturgis last year. That was an interesting spectacle. Fastest-growing segment for RevZilla right now is Harley Davidson, but new school customer and old school customer. We went to Sturgis and we said, ‘What value can we create for these folks?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘I’m not sure they’re looking to party for this week.’ I said, ‘RevZilla could team up with Bud Light and sponsor something, but ultimately Harley’s here, the OEMs are here, but I don’t know where I play in that pool.’ When you think traditional, I would say that I skew, almost to a fault, at time, 95% new school, but it also comes from a startup founder.
We’re bootstraps, never taken outside capital, but the problem, almost what you develop over time, is ‘if I can’t measure it, I’m not going to do it.’ While video was easier because it was digital. With somebody, might sit down with a tremendous brand background, which, mine has been very much fundamentals learned over time, by trial and error. I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder what we’re leaving on the table, but, to answer your question more succinctly, we skew way new school versus any old school at all.
Bill: It’s interesting that when you look at it. It almost collapses the universe when you look at apps that are, by definition, new school.
Bill: Throwing up billboards in Times Square. It’s an amazing combination. The cycle with anything is that you correct and then you over-correct, and there’s a pendulum here, but it’s fascinating to see a brand like RevZilla that is most assuredly new school, that has the significant advantage of being conversant with these technologies, become so known for, at least on one level, and tentatively stepping a toe into content at the YouTube level. Absolutely new school technology, but being at Sturgis, thinking about personifying the business to bring, to understand the limitations of what the new school can be. It’s likely an unfolding story, I would think, as you think through how to best continue to build these connections beyond simply trust at the product level.
Anthony: We’ve done more of it. We’ve done different types of content that are a little bit more evergreen. If you ask me what our mission was as a company, it’s our outward facing mission or ‘why’ mission. In an enthusiast’s vertical, it becomes a little easier to hone in. You could easily say, ‘Our mission is to become the most dominant retailer.’ I think that was a very myopic view of it.
We’ve always said, ‘Our mission is to advance the experience of the motorcycle enthusiast,’ which I picked up along the way. It’s come through great conversations and the brainstorms of different folks, and we’ve always thought that way, but that’s how we’ve begun to crystallize it. If you think about that, it’s this value-creation play that you can make, but, to your point also is the changing landscape.
It’s funny. Today, I sit in the CEO seat. I’ve ultimately been the de facto CEO of RevZilla from go. I’m a brand geek before I’m a quant geek, so I’m a little bit more right-brained than I am left, but the landscape’s changing so fast for all of us in that marketing seat, and it’s actually been really hard, even when we think about talent, to try to navigate. I talked to a lot of folks on the marketing side, marketing talent, and they want to come in and just put a playbook to work that was a different playbook. Every year the tools, the tactics are changing, but even how consumers, if you look at our changing, 35-55 customer base versus what Millennials are expecting, I mean the rabbit hole I just opened up, it’s so deep, but it’s just so different. It is so different, and even from my seat people say, ‘You’re too in the weeds.’
I think I have to be close. I have to really understand how the forces are changing online, and where the venues are, and where people are going in the interaction points. Even to scale this business properly, you can’t disconnect from that, and that’s to your point on how quickly things are changing.
Bill: No question. You talk about scale, you talk about team members when you – I’m sure there’s a difference, function by function, as well as people by people – but I would imagine finding the blend of the professional skill set, knowing what the toolkit is, understanding which tools work and don’t work, but also having an appreciation for, as well as getting the enthusiasm that your customers have for what they’re doing. Is it hard to find people that check all these boxes, or when you think about HR and human resource strategy, what are the types of things you deal with and think about?
Anthony: Great question. It is tough. We all know this, in business, people are the edge. They are what creates the durability. They’re the driver in an e-commerce business. If our digital experience is our product, you have people that need to be able to move fast, iterate. We have a lot of fun. If you follow me on Instagram, you’re like, ‘That guy’s nuts, he has orange shoes,’ but we’re a performance culture.
You guys are here early today, and the lights stay off, but there’s a handful of people in the office that are just this digital athlete on SEAL Team Orange that’s trying to kill it. When you think about the blend between moto and, call it digital, everyone at RevZilla has to be natively digital. No Luddites. It doesn’t matter if your job is to be the Harley engine parts merchandiser, which is something so specific. You have to be extremely comfortable with new school technology, with Google Apps, to everything electronically.
My EA is our second oldest in life employee in the company, and she has youthful energy, she has 19 apps on her phone, doing different things productivity-wise. She’s an absolute killer when it comes to it. Again, it doesn’t matter, it’s just, are you natively digital. You asked about motorcycle versus digital. There are certain seats where you have to know way more, and have ridden way longer, and have done way more on two wheels than I ever have or ever will to be able to, to be the next wave of what we need in that seat, because, ultimately, I’ve ridden everything, from Colorado, to Alaska, to the Italian Alps, on every different bike you can imagine, which has been a blast, coming up in this space, but someone who’s been riding 30 years is definitely wiser than somebody who’s been riding ten years, like I have. That satisfies the motorcycle piece. Then, depending on the function they’re in, they still have to be digital.
The other side of the house is the e-commerce agency, where when you think through HR, and you think through specialists, I think one of the challenges this space had before RevZilla came along, or one of the reasons why we had a great opportunity to change things, was everybody was trying to be a motorcycle company trying to figure out e-commerce. I said, we’re going to be an e-commerce company that’s going to figure out all of the nuances of motorcycling, even the things we don’t know today. What I look for when I hire digital athletes to, call it digital marketing, paid, organic, any of the pieces that are going to be more of your new school marketing, what I’m looking for is, you don’t have to ride a bike, but you have to have hobbies in your life that are, call them discretionary or enthusiast hobbies.
I will take the PPC lead that is an ultra-marathon runner, or I will take the social marketer who doesn’t even like, who doesn’t necessarily ride a bike, but they are really into fishing, because as long as somebody understands what it means to fall in love with something you’re passionate about, that’s not work, I think they can translate that thought process of, ‘For me as a fisherman, what would I love Orvis to do next, or Cabela’s to do next?’
You start to think about those frameworks of how you tie that back and say, for RevZilla as a strategy, what we do and what we don’t do, and how we play in the space, and the things we create that people love. I think you can start to tie those fingerprints together, and that’s how I bridge the gap. It’s a long-winded answer, which I’m known for, I’ve done all day today, but that’s where I look at digitial versus moto-centric as native skill sets.
Bill: To your last point, there is an undercurrent of, almost an implicit respect for the customer, whether one is an enthusiast or not, by virtue of having something that is discretionary, that is lifestyle driven, that they care so deeply about that it consumes and helps to define them, whether that thing is riding or not. They can understand the way that riders feel.
Anthony: That passion.
Bill: Passion is the denominator. When it comes to knitting together this incredible culture here, is that part of what the common denominator is with everybody who touches this? Knowing that some folks are hardcore riders, some folks are hardcore digital folks, but everyone is native in digital. How is finding the connective tissue between people, on the way to the left and the way to the right when you look at the org chart?
Anthony: You’d be shocked that the moto heads, there is no versus. There is definitely one team, and a lot of times we’re teaming them up, so you’ll have a moto specialist working, creating the content, working with the content marketer who’s a native digital marketer thinking about how to get to market. They’re working in cross-functional teams all the time. It’s a great analogy, if you think about our culture, it’s a great analogy outwardly, to the outward consumer, as well as the inward consumer.
One of the things when we started the business was, the industry said, ‘You guys started in BMW, adventure space, for this guy that rides a $20,000 BMW motorcycle on-road, off-road, tours.’ It’s this 35-55 male. ‘You’ll never get young sports bike, and good luck with Harley. That guy will never talk.’
It’s the same premise how I approached that challenge as I did of how we approached how do motorcycle people and digital people that don’t ride at all live within the same eco-system. I think you have to create an umbrella of value, and that’s what RevZilla’s done. We’ve said our brand is RevZilla, so externally it’s the value we create with the consumer. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to tailor how we speak to you across segments, but we implicitly create our value proposition. We’re going to do things that allow you to enjoy the type of riding you do, and whether you’re a Harley or whether you’re a sport bike, which are the polar opposites, you’re still going to find the same value in ten minutes from RevZilla. We’re just going to speak to you a little bit differently. We’re going to segment you.
Internally, it’s actually a little bit easier, because as a management team we look at it and we say, ‘We’re going to be transparent; we’re going to treat our staff better than we treat our customers; we are going to do things that foster an amazing environment. We are going to have our core values that we live.’ I joke about this, it’s very hokey. It’s everybody, ‘Mission / Vision, guys.’
We’re actually really big on it. If you saw our Vision, it’s very flowery, and our core values are very flowery, as well. You look at them and they make you laugh, but number six is ‘No jerks allowed’. We’ve made it nearly 180 hires, net, so we’ve had 50 people come and go over the last eight years, but we’ve ended up at this larger company size, where people get along, it’s apolitical, we’re not spending time trying to navigate, we’re spending time trying to figure out how do we raise the bar, and that fun and cultural piece.
When businesses start, the founders set the tone for the culture, and define the commandments. We call these ‘Zillamandments,’ our nine core values. Then, really, it’s organic after that, and what we can do to execute is just try to continually say, ‘The bar is here on cultural hiring outside of skill hiring,’ and then it becomes big and organic, and people really find that there’s a pride in authorship. As a founder, as a CEO, the best I can do is nudge our culture. I can do this, lead by example, but ultimately, once the momentum and that inertia goes, it really takes a long time to change things if you feel like going awry, so you have to live it every day, but be consistent.
Bill: Absolutely. It’s amazing how many of these interviews we’ve done, where however it’s voiced, whether it’s ‘no jerks allowed,’ or ‘no drama,’ or ‘high-trust culture,’ that comes up again and again. We feel the same way at Finch. The degree to which, with a small, medium, or large organization, the less you have to worry about agendas, and it’s not easy, but it’s simple to be able to say, ‘Now we’ve just got to get it done.’
One other thing about the brand, and then we’ll move on to the future and everything else. This has been such an insightful time for us, we’re really grateful for it. You mentioned orange. I can tell our listeners you are wearing orange shoes at the moment and your laptop case. The color orange. When you talk about brand signifiers for RevZilla, obviously your personification in the digital realm, the other things that one can feel from an experience, talk about color as a brand signifier, and how that came to be, and how you think about building these assets around the company name to be recognizable, to be important, to be consistently and powerfully repeated.
Anthony: Orange is not an homage to Jeff Bezos, but …
Bill: Or Bernie Parent.
Anthony: Jeff Bezos is a brilliant devil. Amazing respect, but terrified. Moving on, when we think about orange, it’s our original color palette. If you think about action buttons on e-commerce sites, it really started out, it was e-commerce site first with minimum viable products. Meant to be strong, it’s motorcycling.
Its the same thing with RevZilla. We wanted to not be motorcyclecloseouts.com. It needed to be something that could be branded from start, and we worked with a great designer, who I’d worked with in my previous life, a gentleman, his name is Chris Vye. He’s actually spearheading Tonic, at this point. We worked together on the tactical side earlier in our careers; he’s a fellow CEO, now, but he came back to us, and we had this red-orange-yellow color palette for the first site, which was not segmented and really, for a first site, gosh, I think we paid him three or four thousand bucks, it was amazing.
Then, we looked at it and what happened over time is more and more orange, it popped out to us. Red’s too strong, it’s too aggressive. Orange was strong, but not as aggressive. We said, ‘We want the ‘add to cart’ to be orange.’ That’s where it started. I was like, ‘So some orange in this, and then there’s some orange in our e-mail blasts.’ Then, orange, at this point, has almost become ridiculous, and as a founding team we really, I’d say in the last two-three years, the interior of my car is orange, and it’s become, my wife’s like, ‘Oh dear God,’ and rolls her eyes.
Bill: She does not take you shopping for carpet.
Anthony: No, I haven’t. I even play golf, I have the Ricky Fowler outfit. It’s completely, you can find it on my Instagram, it’s completely out of control, but it’s become this hilarious thing. We say that Team Zilla bleeds orange. Eagles fans bleed green, we bleed orange, and it’s become this thing that people have just really embraced over time. It’s amazing how, when you think about a color, it’s every branded touchpoint. You think about this, the theme, the scent, the DNA, how do you at minimum, even if it’s not with the words, how do you tie something together and make it feel like ours? What’s the accent? It’s always an orange accent.
It’s really funny, too. I’ll give you a story how that even goes further. I’m actually debating adding a tenth core value right now. We have nine, and the tenth core value could very well end up being, and I’m ruminating on this right now, so I’m sure my whole staff’s going to listen to this and they’re going to be like, ‘Ah, that’s where this is headed. Grand plans.’
Bill: This was all a big plot to get this tenth thing done, so go ahead.
Anthony: ‘Ten percent orange.’ There have been many times where, even if you look at my early YouTube days, and some of the intros we do to videos, we’re non sequitur. I would say that the closest, and it’s really funny because his hair is orange, and this is not where it came from, I think we have a, my favorite brand of humor is a Conan O’Brien sense of humor. It’s silly, it’s witty, it’s a little non sequitur, stops you, but you say, ‘Well, that’s smart, but it’s totally bizarre.’ Our customers have gotten that. My favorite comment I ever get when we run into the customers is, ‘I feel like I’m part of your inside joke,’ because, at the end of the day, we create all this value and knowledge for motorcycle consumers, but it’s like, it’s motorcycling. We’re not saving the universe and it’s not heart surgery. It can be fun.
I have this ‘ten percent orange’ moniker that, as we’ve scaled, really, how do you bake it and make sure that there’s a brand box backstop in everything we do? I was just talking to this with my head of video and talent the other day, and I said, ‘We’re shooting these bike reviews, which, in my opinion, they’re changing the industry. They’re cinematic, they’re long-form, they’re giving more honesty than we’ve ever seen anybody do. People are loving them.’ I said, ‘Brad, it’s got to be ten percent orange.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I don’t care where it’s worked in, but orange is our culture, our humor, outside of just our knowledge.’
If you think about that, it can be fun in that moment, it can be our personality in that moment, it could be something, a cultural reference, it could be a meme, or a pop culture reference,’ which, really, is my sensibility and my sense of humor, but you have this ten percent orange, now, which is part of our brand umbrella, where if I don’t see one out of ten e-mails – I was talking to my e-mail marketer the other day – one out of ten e-mails that has a subject line that’s something that’s just off-kilter funny, makes you stop, isn’t ‘This brand, 10% off with these new products’. I’m going to say, ‘Where’s 10% orange in the plan?’
That’s where orange started. Orange took on a life of its own. I am wearing orange shoes; I will never have orange hair, but now, even as a backstop, it doesn’t matter what team you’re on. Even in our fulfillment center, where does ten percent orange come into play? These are the conversations we have all the time.
Bill: It’s super smart, and it is a good reminder to everyone here, again, as you get further away from every hire and every decision, seven years in, trying to, you got to. Having that guidepost for people to know that every single thing you do, you’ve got to do it the way RevZilla would do it is a powerful means of reminding people ‘This is not motorcyclecloseouts.com, this is something entirely different.’
Anthony: Which is actually an actual destination in our space, so I don’t mean to be disparaging.
Bill: They’re doing a great job.
Anthony: They’re doing a great job, it’s just we’re a little different. It’s a different approach.
Bill: How about 1-800-motorcyclecloseouts.org, or whatever.
Anthony: All of it.
Bill: As our time draws towards close, anything secret? I know businesses thrive and need to keep secrets, but without sharing anything you don’t feel comfortable sharing, any exciting things to expect from RevZilla, from Anthony in the near future? What should we watch for?
Anthony: We’re moving to Colorado to take on a new industry. No, I’m just kidding.
Bill: The lumber industry, right?
Anthony: Somebody’s going to do GreenZilla, God bless them. It’s not me, that’s not my cup of tea. It’s just bad jokes today. If you think about where we’re headed next, and I don’t think it’s a secret at all, but if we really look at what we do in our space, amazing brands and OEMs, manufacturers that make bikes, and we carry amazing products from lots and lots of brands that are R&D-based, that have long, storied histories that are worldwide.
If you look at us in the middle, we have this great commerce experience. We have great credibility built on trust, and the hard and old-fashioned way. If you think about how we go to market with our brand, the founder of FiveBelow, who was a friend, that I was privileged to call a friend a long time ago, said, ‘You’re not a gimmick: you sell great lemonade every day, and every day you get up and try to figure out how to make that lemonade better.’ That’s my favorite analogy for building a brand the hard way and the right way.
The thing about where we go next, it’s, I think we stand on the shoulders of the brand equity we have. In my opinion, trust and brand are the ultimate currency, especially with Millennials, at this point. How far and how fast can you take it? Can we touch other segments? Can we touch other regions? Can we touch other lookalike customers? Can we speak more broadly to our 90% male audience and create more things in their life that ultimately, seriously, we can monetize, but they’re going to love? I think the biggest misconception that the universe has about RevZilla is, ‘They’re those e-comm bikers down in the Navy Yard.’ We’re this technology platform company with brand and media that ultimately, right now, monetizes in e-commerce, that has a lot of other consumer and brand touchpoints that I could execute on.
If you look at us, I think that behind closed doors there are other secret rocket boosters we’re working on right now that are going to allow us to further extend. I just want to continue to make people shake their head, cross their arms, and cock their eye and look at us, and say, ‘What are those guys doing? Now they’re that? Hold on a second, aren’t they that? Wait, now they’re this?’
That’s the fun part when we have a great base to jump off of, and you can build your own technology. You can just move fast and concoct things, and then throw them against the wall, and if they don’t work you just move on; versus, we planned this for six months, and we launched it, and now cross our fingers it’s going to work. It’s never been that approach for us.
Bill: You build and continue to perfect a template for enthusiast-driven, deep vertical e-commerce and brand development that, I think, one can very easily see the potential leverage with that as the engine, that drives this thing. As we close your story, the Anthony story, is …
Anthony: That’s the best, ‘The Anthony Story.’ It’s really not that great.
Bill: Chapter two.
Anthony: Just one foot in front of the other, and don’t go to sleep.
Bill: Totally. That’s what we want to hear. I’m sure that there are folks who have been very inspired by what they’ve heard. I think a lot of our listeners are thinking through their own careers, making decisions. For those who’ve been inspired by this, any pieces of advice or core beliefs that have been central to your own thinking and development, that you would want to share with others who were reaching their own inflection points, or trying to find their own passion and their own way?
Anthony: I actually thought about this. I think about this a lot, and I send a lot of office e-mails. I think my two business partners, my co-founders, cringe sometimes because I like to tell stories, and I geek on the wisdom of the gray hair that I don’t have, or I’m earning right now. I think a lot about it. We call, I call them ‘orange juice’, and it’s like when I send a zinger in the morning. I’m like, ‘Hey, ruminate on this, think about it. Just tuck it away,’ framework. I’ll give you a couple things that I live by.
The first one is and this came from my dad, and my dad, very early in my life, said, ‘The answer’s always ‘no’ unless you ask.’ That doesn’t mean overstep, it doesn’t mean rely on other people. What it means is that it’s that old ‘you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take’, and it’s you never know, and if you are honest about it and are willing to put it out there, sometimes you can, you give yourself a chance to get lucky, and you have to. You have to do that. The answer’s always no, unless you ask, which is take chances and put it out there.
The other one is, I’ve seen a lot of folks that I believe are way more talented than I am, and have different building blocks, and I look at them like, ‘Wow, they’re just an amazing, amazing, smart human being,’ that had maybe missed opportunities, or have not had the ability to sprawl faster or capitalize on what they’re the best at, and it’s because they don’t play well with others.
One of my other core maxims is you can’t do it in a vacuum. It takes people, it takes outreach. We’re sitting here today because I know Dan Erlbaum, who’s a founder of Finch. I know Dan Erlbaum because, when was RevZilla was one year old, I was at an entrepreneur founder factory event here in Philadelphia, and there was a guy by the name of Steve Barsh who was there, the Entrepreneur in Residence at First Round Capital, who was on a panel for ten minutes, asked amazing questions, and had his backpack, was headed for the backdoor in a stairwell, and I literally sprinted when he came offstage. I grabbed him, I said, ‘Listen, I started this business. You asked the best questions today. Can I buy you lunch and pick your brain?’
Again, the answer is no unless you ask, but then it’s the ability to make a connection like that, and Steve connected me, over time, with Dan, who’s connected me with you, and I know different folks in the landscape, where they have helped me in a pinch to be able to reach out and say, ‘I’m not sure, and I respect your time, but do you have an opinion, and can you save me a couple steps.’ It’s amazing the things when you are willing to put it out there and make those connections, the things that sometimes just, not by luck, but by virtue of having a little bit of a great network come back to you.
Then, the other one is that old ‘who moved my cheese?’ What would you do if you weren’t afraid? There were moments where we’ve felt, in eight years, we’ve certainly felt over our skis on multiple times. People would say, ‘When was the last time you managed a company this big?’ ‘Yesterday.’ ‘What are you getting into tomorrow?’ ‘I’m figuring it out today.’
Sometimes, you have to just sit back and say, ‘What’s the worst that can happen, and what would I do in this moment if I wasn’t terrified of what could happen because there’s a lot of people, a lot of things riding on this.’ Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and shut your eyes and just go with your instincts. I guess that would be my big three. If you put those to work, they’re not rocket science. They’re things you’ve heard everybody talk about over time, but we really embrace them here.
Bill: It shows, and being here in this space, hearing your insight and a little bit of the backstory, for those who aren’t familiar with the brand, be they, be you, a motorsports person or not, a lot to learn, here, and an energy to enjoy, and an experience to find great value in, great learning in. Anthony, thank you so much for your time. All the best. Can’t wait to see what happens.
Anthony: I really appreciate it. This has been a lot of fun. I am going to shamelessly plug right now and say we are absolutely hiring digital.
Anthony: You can cut that out.
Anthony: We are digital, we are recruiting, we are hiring the best in moto and digital talent, and I know you are, too, sorry. Come join our digital orange projectile flying through the cosmos with its rocket boosters on high. That’s a blast today. Thanks for coming in, guys.
Bill: Thanks for having us.
Anthony: Any time.
Bill: What an amazing guy Anthony is. We’re so grateful for his time and insight, his friendship. All you have to do is Google RevZilla to see all of the exciting things that are happening with them, in terms of corporate development and growth, and expansion, and everything else, and for those who may be motorsports enthusiasts, or who are not, taking a look at their site, seeing how they merge this really compelling content with all that they’re doing on the transaction side of leading edge e-commerce, truly an inspiration. A great, wonderful symbol of what the Philadelphia region is trying to do, and well beyond in the entrepreneurial space.
Thank you, Anthony. Thank you, listeners. We look forward to being back in touch with you again next week with new content on Real-World Branding. Have a wonderful, wonderful day. Signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.
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