Lifestyle brand – an inescapable buzzword that it seems everyone from apparel brands to consumables are seeking to become – but what does it really mean? In this week’s episode, Bill examines the two critical components of what it takes to be a true lifestyle brand and looks at classic examples of lifestyle brands across categories. 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. A little bit hoarse, a little bit nasal this week, but with a three and five-year-old in the household it is inevitable that there’s a little bit of illness when the seasons change, but anyway here we are.
Reflecting on our interview with Sarah Van Aken of Kathy Davis Studios last week and the conversation about the path they are taking from a leading social expression brand rooted in greeting cards into what we were talking of as a lifestyle brand. We realized with a bit of feedback, and some additional thought, that maybe we ought to define lifestyle brand a little bit more deeply for those of you who were wondering. Also I found that the phrase, at least in our industry is thrown around a bit loosely, so let’s try to build some guardrails through, what we’re calling, Lifestyle Brands 101 today.
What is a lifestyle brand and what is it not? Again, you hear the term a lot. Here’s the Gullan definition of lifestyle brand. The life style brand needs to fulfill both of the following criteria to be fairly described as such. First, it must have a broad enough product or service assortment to satisfy a consumer across various functional needs or desires. Many lifestyle brands that you hear about are brands that started in fashion or something that was aesthetically driven and then they expanded into a bunch of adjacent categories. It is fair to say that a lifestyle brand, or a brand that truly wishes to reach that level, does need to have some degree of categorical breadth just to be relevant across the different ways in which people live their lives, so that has to be there.
That alone is not enough. A true lifestyle brand also needs to fulfill the second criteria which is that it must embody in some way the ideals, aspirations, or aesthetic of a specific group or culture. There are many so-called lifestyle brands I think that certainly qualify when it comes to categorical breadth or product breadth, but may not quite reach the level of that second identifier.
Some brands who do, and examples of maybe some who do not; Patagonia is a quintessential lifestyle brand, because not only does it have an ever expanding approach to what it sells from a product perspective, it also has a core identifiable aesthetic, so it’s outdoorsy, but the environmental values that Patagonia embodies and really wears on their sleeve, pardon the pun, makes it a lifestyle brand in the way that others in its category, like Columbia, for example, or EMS, or The North Face are not. One can make the case that North Face is a lifestyle brand. You certainly see it in a lot of places. People do believe that it says a little something about them, at least stylistically, but Patagonia really defines not only a look, but a set of values across a bunch of different product categories.
Others who are lifestyle brands are identified with subcultures. You look at what brands like Burton and Vans have done in extreme sports categories. You look at what Hollister, and Pacsun, and others did in surf. These are brands that are waving flags to represent a subculture. That in some ways is a pretty central lifestyle brand method. When you really become identified with a strong ideological or deeply felt subculture, that is a path to becoming a lifestyle brand.
Other brands, though that didn’t start in apparel or footwear, a brand like IKEA certainly has all sorts of different products for your lifestyle. It does integrate into your home or in your office, so really across a lot of different things that you might want. IKEA has values above that; simplicity in design, and some do-it-yourself mentality, a clean sense of Scandinavian design, but also accompanied by a degree of a warmth, a little bit of whimsy. These are characteristics of the brand that for those who are devotees of the brand you feel like you might know a little bit about them and who they are and what they value.
Certainly Whole Foods is very values driven when it comes to not only the breadth of the product assortment, but the beliefs that are reflected by everything from what they choose to sell and the brands that make it there, but even beyond that into the internal culture and the way in which employees are screened and trained, so Whole Foods is another example.
In the fitness category; Equinox, very, very strongly, SoulCycle and others come to fit that description. Even if their product or service utility may be fairly narrow, you feel like if you know somebody that goes to Equinox or goes to SoulCycle that you might know a little bit about them and what they value and who they are.
A lifestyle brand from a surprising place, and I’m not sure the degree in which they think of themselves, is NPR. Certainly many, many different streams of content, but there’s a certain NPR-ness about everything they do, and I think about the people who value them very deeply and strongly, you could certainly draw some conclusions in terms of ideology when it comes to politics. You can certainly draw some conclusions about maybe the car they drive, or where they live, or the things that are important to them.
Those are some examples of brands that, probably largely intentionally or perhaps inadvertently, have reached this level, this lifestyle brand. Again, they have to have these two things; they have to offer a lot from a product or service perspective, but simultaneously they have to embody and express something about the people rally to them.
Why does this ultimately matter, and I think in some ways why does it matter even more today than it did historically beyond the financial opportunity of being this deeply felt? The old adage that I think comes from the 60s era feminism, which was ‘the personal is political,’ is true like never before. I would make substitute in the case of commerce the word ‘political’ and say something along the lines of ‘the personal is expressive.’ So any choices that we are making today have, and are construed by others as being so determinative of the kind of person we are, the kind of values that we express. Certainly as brands begin to wear their values on their sleeve the choice, or the act of choosing them, or not choosing them says something about the consumer.
The personal is political; the choices we make define us. If that is increasingly the case, and I think it is, lifestyle brands have a really important role to play in, again, being definitional. Consumers, especially millennials, are expecting a window into the value systems of the brands that they trust and choose again and again and seek to sort of represent them in terms of it also fulfilling whatever needs they may have functionally.
A couple of things to think about if you are working on, or aspiring to work on, or aspiring to build a brand in the direction of being a fully expressive, fully articulated lifestyle brand, three things to remember or to think about as you embark or proceed further down that path. One is that lifestyle brands bear the accountability for really needing to know their customer very deeply. Not only what they need in terms of product, whitespace, price point, or features and functionality, but how they think and what they value. I would go even further to say that where possible the best lifestyle brands come from and are from the cultures that they seek to represent and express.
A great example from our client roster is ThinkGeek. We talked on this podcast about ThinkGeek and a bit about their re-branding story that culminated in such a tremendous financial event, in terms of being acquired by GameStop. ThinkGeek was not going to be taken seriously by their core customer unless there was an authentic, that’s another the key word to this, representation of Geek culture in the way that they communicated the products they chose, the products they developed, etc. and really at every touch point.
In this case, given how many strongly held beliefs are held within individual fandoms of Geek culture, you almost needed to be a geek, however one wants to define it, to understand how geeks live, what they value, what they want. ThinkGeek and their team consisted of folks who were of, by, and for the culture that they were seeking to sell and represent. That helped a lot, but that can’t always be the case.
We worked a lot with World Wrestling Entertainment, for example. There’s a distinctive culture among their fans. There’s buzzwords, there’s customs, there’s rituals, there’s traditions, there’s self-referential qualities to closely held, deeply felt fandoms like that where it helps to get it. You have to. It’s not a precondition to be effective in those environments, but it certainly helps if you have a ton of respect for the subject matter so it comes naturally within one’s own life. That’s the first; really a deep understanding, respect for, and getting the value system of the customer base.
The second is to really be in touch with the cultural moment. Lifestyle brands are, if they’re not of the moment, then they may seek to aspire, again, to that levels of lifestyle relevance and expression, but they’d rather have the ability to build a level of follower-ship that helps them break through if that which they are representing is not distinctly of the moment.
Interestingly, we find some examples of effective lifestyle brands that are almost counter-cultural. If commerce is downstream from culture, which we’ve said before on this podcast, meaning basically that what’s happening in the culture drives towards what happens in the commercial realm. What we mean by that, if that is the case, there is an opportunity to be sort of representative of the zeitgeist, so to speak culturally in a commercial realm and with brands. There’s also an opportunity to really represent and lead a backlash to something that may be culturally of the moment.
Examples of this; our culture in many ways is moving away from … We’re very conscious of wealth and equality. We’re, in some ways, dismissive of the kind of country club, 50’s establishment mode of dressing and acting, yet you see brands such as Vineyard Vines, who represents really tight strong way the Martha’s Vineyard, prep, resort, aesthetic. You see brands like Lilly Pulitzer, it’s Palm Beach direct with florals.
Of course, the fashion trends come and go. You see brands that in many ways are counter cultural. Maybe not really subversive in this case, Vineyard Vines, Lilly Pulitzer, J. Crew to a degree, but these brands have a lifestyle following, because of what they say about folks. Some of these folks have a degree of pride of not being a slave to trends and cultural momentum. Anyway, the second is to be in touch with the cultural moment and understand both the forward stroke, and I guess the backlash, and the backward stroke and to lay claim to something meaningful there.
The third thing, it may be obvious, but live up to it. We were talking in the office with a colleague earlier in preparation for this about the brands that she values. We were talking about some brands that have been strongly associated with ideologies and belief systems. She was talking about things she read on blogs, or elsewhere, in social media about how a certain brand that stands for something doesn’t really live up to it. They make their goods in sweatshops, etc. The cost for a lifestyle brand that is very outward facing about values and about beliefs, about ideology, etc., of failing to live up to it is not just failure, it is betrayal.
There are very few sins in our world; certainly this extends to our world at Finch, that are more unforgivable and notable than the sin of hypocrisy. You see this across the world. For brands that stake a really, really strong claim to a distinctive way of thinking, living, and representing beliefs, if they fail to live up to them in their own business practices, the consequences of that can be absolutely catastrophic.
When you fail, when you’re the source of that publicity, no matter what you’re doing, that can have a negative effect, but it rises to a level even higher, even more significant and more serious when it comes to lifestyle brands. We’ve seen some examples of that in terms of big criticism and focus on the policies and production processes of brands like Apple, Nike, and others. For brands that stake themselves out as being representative of a positive and progressive movement in the world, to be dogged by allegations along those lines it can be very, very difficult.
A brand that failed for a variety of reasons; American Apparel. I think one of the reasons was the soft underbelly that was revealed through media reports and other things of what was happening within a culture that seemed to capture the urban progressive perspective, yet had rampant sexual harassment within the company’s walls. What the company had always been proud of, which was the vertically integrated manufacturing in LA and providing jobs for immigrants as well as Americans, which is an important part of what American Apparel was. There were a lot of issues with documentation and eligibility within the workforce. All kinds of issues that came crashing down for that company. I would argue that it would be a part of why they fell away was all of the things that you learned about them that were contra to what we all thought that they stood for.
I’ll stop there. In summary, there’s two things you got to have to be a true lifestyle brand. One you’ve got be broad enough from a product perspective to be relevant in a number of different ways and venues, but also you must embody ideals, aspirations, aesthetics, values, belief systems of a specific group or culture to rise to this level.
Then three things to think about as you’re building and nurturing lifestyle brands. One, you need to know the customer very, very deeply. Not only what they need product wise, but how they think and what they value. You need to be in touch with the cultural moment, whether it is to represent it or in some ways to push against it. Either way commerce is downstream from culture again and again. We can’t say that enough here. Then, ultimately, living up to the promises that you make and delivering against the value system that you put front and center and in a way that drives your brand’s appeal.
That’s One Big Idea for this week. Signing off from The Cradle of Liberty.
In this week’s episode, we host Sarah Van Aken, President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios. She shares her experience across industries such as fashion, real estate, and most recently at Kathy Davis Studios, to explain how companies move beyond the product to become a lifestyle brand. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Sarah Van Aken: A brand is not one product, a brand is not one person. It’s every single touch point. It’s how it’s communicated, it’s the story around it, it’s the value behind it and it’s the customers’ reaction to it that all create it. It’s not one thing, it’s a giant puzzle.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premiere boutique branding agency. Thank you for joining us for today’s interview with Sarah Van Aken, the President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios which as you will hear is a leading greeting card designer in the American Greetings family, 125,000 cards a day. Probably one of the brands that many of us have, perhaps without knowing much about them, interacted with and found value in over time.
Sarah’s story of her own career, which includes time in hospitality, real estate, and her own passion for the fashion business, is a fascinating tale with a lot of interesting lessons. Where she is now at Kathy Davis, the transition that they’re seeking to make into a fully expressed lifestyle brand is an interesting one and a journey many brands take. Her perspectives and insights are fascinating when we think about a path like that. Enjoy.
We are here with Sarah Van Aken, the President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios, an award-winning social entrepreneur, designer, speaker, what a career Sarah’s had. Thank you for being with us.
Sarah: Hey, thanks for having me.
Bill: It’s our pleasure and speaking of that career why don’t we start, if you wouldn’t mind taking us a bit through what has been an amazing journey for you in different industries and different experiences. Where did this start and how is this story unfolding?
Sarah: Gosh, where did it start? I had a Degree in Fine Art which really started with an approach to a Degree in Veterinary Medicine.
Bill: That’s close, I can see.
Sarah: It obviously makes a lot of sense. I begged for my first job in New York City working at an apparel company to make $26,000 a year. It was awesome. No, it was a great experience though, but I literally did have to beg to work there. They were hiring folks mostly that had done internship programs through partnerships that they had with universities. I had, other than knowing how to sew, no fashion experience, but got a job doing production and sourcing for a denim bottoms company called World Wide Apparel. Me and my boss sourced about $10 million of denim bottoms every season in about 10 or 15 countries around the world; Bangladesh, India …
Sarah: … Nepal. Denim jeans with embroidery and iridescent denim.
Bill: Excellent, nice.
Sarah: It was the late ‘90s and early 2000. It was great.
Bill: Put a flannel shirt on that, it’ll look perfect, yeah.
Sarah: When toggles first came onto cargo pants and Target and Walmart started doing all of their garment testing requirements and then the end of quotas and it was a very interesting experience for sure.
Bill: I could imagine.
Sarah: From there I decided that I really wanted to be an artist. I moved back to Philadelphia. I was working briefly for Galbraith & Paul Printing and briefly for Urban Outfitters and the art career was short-lived. I realized I had to get a job, I had bills to pay, so I started as an assistant manager at the Marathon Grills here in Philadelphia. I think at the time they had five restaurants.
A month later or two months later I was their general manager and a couple of months after that I was managing a couple of stores and a couple of months after that I was doing their corporate buying. All of a sudden at, I don’t know, I was 26, I had a couple of hundred employees and was their director of operations and working a bazillion hours a week making not enough money for working a couple of hundred hours a week.
Bill: Tough business, hospitality’s always on.
Sarah: Yeah, it was a really tough business front of the house and back of the house. An incredible experience of what I didn’t want to do or who I didn’t want to be in life.
I helped them open restaurants and got a lot of experience under my belt and then went now what? What do I do when I have a fashion background and a restaurant background? Naturally I started working for a real estate firm and really was just doing part-time admin and bartending. I had a life changing event, my best friend died suddenly. It made me realize life was too short to mess around and the real estate developer I was working for knew I wasn’t going to stay there and do admin work for him, so he’s like what do you want to do? I said I want to open a fashion business. He looked at me like I was nuts and said how about you get your real estate license. I said, okay, that can support me.
I started selling houses to first-time homebuyers doing a little bit of commercials, I started a residential brokerage division for him. He was doing mostly managing his own properties and doing a little bit of commercial brokerage, but I started doing brokerage for him, hired another agent. It was easy to sell houses then and everyone could get loans. Everyone my age was buying houses and I just became really good at understanding how to walk first-time homebuyers through a stressful process.
I did that as I developed my business plan for my fashion business. When I was ready to launch he became my first investor. He gave me the seed money that I needed to get my first brand Van Aken Custom Shirts off the ground and let me use our real estate office for both businesses as long as I would keep selling real estate.
That was in 2005 or ’06. I had some pretty quick success with that brand with national publications and because Philadelphia is a real small town it’s pretty easy to get clients, you just hang out or if you’re bartending or out with friends.
Bill: ‘Hey, I make shirts, too.’
Sarah: Yeah, ‘I make shirts too,’ and always knew I wanted to use that as the foundation to grow a bigger brand, but the premise was really that I wanted to have a U.S. made bespoke mens shirt for the same price as a Ralph Lauren ready to wear shirt. Inspired by my former New York investment banker boyfriend who was buying these crappy custom shirts made in Hong Kong. I was like we can do better than that.
It worked. It was great, it was a great little business and then I was at a cocktail party in the beginning of 2006, I think when Amada opened and met Alfred Portale from Gotham Bar and Grill in New York who asked me to design uniforms for his restaurant which I immediately said yes to. I think it was a $50,000 order which was for me at the time was oh, my gosh. I was making them, it was really tough at the time when they were still manufacturing in the U.S. to get anything made in small run production.
I had a guy that used to work for me in the accounting office at Marathon Grill who was the brother-in-law of a guy that I used to produce denim with at the denim company who owned a denim factory in Bangladesh. He offered to go back and get my samples made and open a garment factory. I gave him a little bit of money and gave him instructions and sent him on his way and ended up opening a garment factory in Bangladesh. Our first order was the uniform order for Gotham Bar and Grill. I shipped in fabric from Italy. I didn’t even have a bond license. It was a disaster, but it turned out that they were really great.
Then a restaurant in Boca Raton sold uniforms and asked me to make them and Aureole in New York and so on and so forth. Then had a custom uniform business called Van Aken Signature. Eventually after many trials and errors finally opened SA VA, a women’s ready to wear brand, all sustainable, locally made in Philly in 2009. I worked for the City of Philadelphia and PIDC to finance opening a garment factory and a retail store here in the city, so we sold women’s ready to wear lifestyle products, all responsibly made here and in about 100 other stores around the country.
Did that until the end of 2013 when it was time to raise money again for the third time. Had some really challenging investor issues and a lead investor who backed out at the last minute and cleared my equity table. I had the option to either go raise more money or go do something else. I chose to go do something else because what I was going to be really left with was not worth what I wanted to do. It was an incredible experience. I don’t think that there’s anything like it. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. It was absolutely amazing, but I’m glad I don’t do it anymore.
I left there knowing that I had pushed a freight train up a hill for five years. I was ready to go to the train station with my bags packed and get on the right train moving in the right direction. I was hoping that would be at least six months to a year away. It turned out to be two months when I got a call from someone who said you need to meet Kathy Davis. She’s got this really great business. Her core business is greeting cards and they want to grow into a lifestyle brand and they’re looking for a brand director.
It was really just an immediate fit in terms of me understanding her aesthetic. I really understood where the business was that they had. It was well-capitalized, they had a great strong business, but didn’t have a brand. It was a licensed business model. They had a lot of fractioned licensing partners and just really understood that I could be added value there. I’ve been there for about two years. I’m now the President and COO and that’s maybe the long version that you’ll probably edit out.
Bill: No, no, we would never. What a story of triumph and tragedy and serendipity and hard work.
Sarah: There’s a lot more in there. I tried to keep it as condensed as possible.
Bill: I appreciate you keeping it clean as well. We’ll get into Kathy Davis and the greeting card business and more in a minute. Someone who had a really strong interest in fashion and then got from a variety of perspectives to work in that business, own equity and brands in that business, what are lessons from that world if any that you’ve taken with you to every stop from here on out? What are some of the things that arrive from that?
Sarah: There’s a million lessons both successes and failures. I think the biggest one is that failure’s really just a change of plans. You’ve just got to get over it. If you’re not failing enough you’re not doing enough. I really created something out of nothing in that business, but the fundamentals of the apparel industry have changed tremendously.
No matter what industry you go to and I learned this from our former chairman who used to be the CEO of my company that there’s your core products, your bread and butter, there’s your core plus and your fashion. And that really applies to almost everything. Really understanding why you do what you do is the key to any successful business and making all of your business decisions from that place versus chasing opportunities versus trying to be all things to all people.
You really need authenticity from why you do what you do in every aspect of your business whether it’s how you make decisions about how to pay people or how to treat your customers or what to design or to make or what partnerships to have. It all resonates from why you do what you do.
Bill: Right, and to your point about having a sense of your core in terms of both values as an organization, but also an aesthetic or different lines. You obviously see people in the cross categories of businesses who may be chasing trends, who may hit it once or twice. If you don’t or even if you do, what is there to fall back on that sustains you?
What a story, so here we are with Kathy Davis, you mentioned immediately getting it. It was the right time in your career, it was a really strong connection. The Kathy Davis brand, tell us a little bit about that and you mentioned greeting cards and social expression. What makes her or anyone great at that? I think a lot of us who have been consumers and we’ve seen in different movies or TV shows that being a greeting card writer or whatever. What’s the scoop from the real world on that industry and that brand?
Sarah: If you asked me even five years ago if I was going to be working for a greeting card business I’d be like what? I’m not nice enough for that. Kathy has an amazing story. She started the business 26 years ago from the corner of her bedroom. She was really a newly divorced mom of two and everyone was like you should go back to teaching art. She wanted to follow her dream of becoming an artist and creating a life she could love and as we say that was over 400 million greeting cards ago.
Sarah: The company sells over 125,000 greeting cards a day. It’s all licensed business, so our lead licensee is American Greetings, so we’re in over 60,000 doors. We’re both in their assortment everywhere from Rite Aid and CVS, to Target and Walmart, but we also have it branded for 4-foot section in about 10,000 doors around the country.
It’s really pretty amazing and I think in part because American Greetings is such an incredible partner that we know so much about how we do what we do, but also what made Kathy really unique is her expressive hand painted art. Primarily watercolor in combination with inspirational messaging. A lot of greeting card designers or brands are good at one or the other. It’s also all of our messages are hand lettered, so they really have this handmade feel and our customers tell us that it’s the words that they wanted to say, but didn’t know how to say themselves. The underpinning infrastructure of that, is this giant thing that is American Greetings that has incredible distribution and understanding of their point of sale results that is incredibly valuable to us in getting feedback on exactly how to hone in on what we’re best at.
Bill: Right, and in our limited exposure to the brand and putting it in front of consumers and what not and as you say the volume of greeting cards that have been sold, the size of this business versus what we’re doing, we’ll get it into a minute, where the brand goes from here is interesting. The artistry that is represented by Kathy’s own experience, but the sentiment, it seems, again testing this with consumers, putting it in front of them the degree to which these connected on various levels was so fascinating. When you all sit and think day in and day out about what are we going to do this season or whatever it is, how just in simple terms does something like this get made?
Sarah: It’s a combination of Kathy creates a vision of what we are fundamentally known for. Most of what we do is nature inspired. We certainly take trend into consideration. We seasonally build out collections of art that both serve for our greeting card business and editorial that serve our greeting card business as well as our other products. That’s the secret sauce in terms of us being who we are, but keeping it fresh every season and filling needs. Certainly greeting cards have specific needs in terms of icons like birthday cakes and cupcakes. Things like that, and hearts for Valentine’s Day that make it a little more specific.
It also is a great challenge to be you and reinvent yourself seasonally and keeping it fresh without being somebody else. We’ve gone through a whole lot of changes really to get out in front of it even within our greeting card business, so that we’re really driving it from a place of authentic creation and delivering things to American Greetings in advance of when they need them and trying to keep it as consistent but fresh and innovative as possible.
Bill: It really is the blend of inspiration and process given the volumes that we’re talking about here.
Sarah: Always, yes.
Bill: Amazing, so the brand has begun to extend its aesthetic and its values into different categories. Really in some ways the brand seems to be on the way to becoming this fully articulated lifestyle brand that’s based on a core philosophy. It’s based on an aesthetic, it’s based on a story. What can we expect moving forward as you chart the path forward for the Kathy Davis brand? What are some of the main things that are, without giving away secrets, but things that are on your mind and that the market ought to look for?
Sarah: I think the key for us is that Kathy started this business because she wanted to create a life that she could love and our mission is to inspire other people to do that. The way that we feel we do that both in our core business and can do that otherwise is by creating tools that help people create a life they love that are really authentic ways that add value to people’s lives, that help them celebrate life and share joy and nurture relationships and find value in their life. That can look like a lot of different things as long as those things are really helpful to people in their lives.
Bill: Sure, sure. Compared to other brands that have licensed heavily across categories, some that come from the fashion realm, your Tommy’s and your Ralph’s and others, some that have come from your Martha’s and your Kathy Ireland’s and your Kate Spade’s. They seem to have a signature look in a lot of ways that they then deliver across adjacent and then non-adjacent categories. Where this brand seems in many ways to be built upon a philosophy rather than, of course, there’s an aesthetic, but it’s such a rich way of looking at life. How does one manage the translation of some of these beliefs into product development and other downstream processes?
Sarah: That’s a very good question.
Bill: Thank you, that’s why we’re here.
Sarah: That’s why we’re here. We know what that formula is in greeting cards because we’ve done it for so long. We understand that it’s this combination of this expressive art, this inspirational message that fosters connection between people, that’s all hand lettered and it comes in the vehicle of a greeting card. For us it’s really about applying those same things that we know to other vehicles in a way that’s really authentic. It’s not cookie-cutter. I think what some of the brands that you mentioned have, as you would say, even earned the right to be able to slap their art on whatever product.
Inevitably regardless of how financially successful they are somewhere down the line the value of what the core brand is gets a little lost or diffused or detached when it gets spread out so much whereas we’re really trying to keep it tight and keep the sentiment there. We think that one of our key advantages is this ability to foster connection and provide value and ensuring that we’re really doing that at every level versus just getting out there and putting our art and message on whatever product is available.
Bill: We’ve seen some of the early results of this process such as the holiday bedding line that we were looking at that really creatively uses sentiment. To your point you can’t just all of a sudden put a greeting card on a pillow. It doesn’t quite work. You can’t all of a sudden just write all over everything even though sentiment is an important part of what Kathy is.
Sarah: Which is everywhere on Pinterest.
Bill: Yeah, right, exactly.
Sarah: I think that’s the key. Also, a brand is not one product, a brand is not one person. It’s every single touch point. It’s how it’s communicated, it’s the story around it, it’s the value behind it and it’s the customers’ reaction to it that all create it. It’s not one thing, it’s a giant puzzle.
Bill: Compared to some of these other brands that we mentioned who may have greater built in awareness from starting in fashion or having 30, 40 years of history or whatever. Kathy Davis, the volume speaks for itself. Millions of people have probably bought the brand without knowing it or without it necessarily logging in the way that an automotive brand or a fashion brand might. I would imagine part of it is the awakening of folks to maybe things that they’ve bought for years without knowing, but the reasons why people fall in love with Kathy Davis.
Sarah: Sure, we touch 90 million consumers every year if you think about the cards bought and then given to someone. Always when you say oh, this is what it is. They’re like oh, of course, I’ve gotten millions of these cards or they look in their card box, they’re like look at all these Kathy Davis cards I have.
Bill: No, it’s fascinating.
Sarah: It’s pretty crazy.
Bill: With regard to creating a life you love and the pillars that underlie that philosophy, as you look at different categories and evaluate different partners is there a level of accountability that everyone has to have to the idea, to know that the right decisions are being made when it comes to categories or when it comes to people to work with?
Sarah: I think 100%. Licensing in general is a really challenging model because you can’t just, when you have X amount of money to invest in new business development you can’t just rely on a manufacturer to do the job of building your brand for you. Anybody who touches a brand has to really understand and have an authentic connection to what it means. If they don’t it’s never going to work because they’ll never be able to sell it.
It’s also why I wind up traveling all over the place to sell it because I really believe in it and I know how to talk about it. When I do people respond or when we do ambassador campaigns and talk about creating a life you love there’s not one person who doesn’t say I want to create a life I love. It resonates across a wide group of consumers or almost everyone in humanity really.
Bill: Right, right. We talk about these other brands that in some ways are using licensing to spend brand equity that they’ve created elsewhere as opposed to Kathy Davis who’s using licensing it sounds like to build a fuller picture of how this philosophy gets expressed across the lifestyle which really is, ultimately, in some ways about building rather than spending great equity. It’s a fascinating trajectory.
Sarah: A tricky proposition.
Bill: Yeah, no question, and a lot for our listeners to look out for when it comes to a brand that is on the rise, a brand that has a really unique sense of self and story to tell. We got into it a little bit, but let’s close here. You’ve been so generous with your time and your insight. When you think about the road you’ve taken, choices you’ve made, choices you probably have chosen not to make, any words of wisdom for those who’ve been inspired by the SVA career path? I think we have a certain core of our listener base that may be starting out or starting over in their own careers and thinking about themselves and where they go. What would you tell someone like that?
Sarah: I’m a diehard entrepreneur even though I’m currently in-house. They hired me because I’m growing the business. It’s the path less chosen. There is no roadmap. You have to be confident. Even when you’re not confident you have to be confident.
Bill: Power poses! Right.
Sarah: You really have to trust your gut and your intuition to guide you and you have to be passionate about what you do, or at least I do. I cannot do something that I don’t fully believe in. It just does not work for me.
I also believe anything’s possible. I started a fashion business even though every single person said to me you can’t start a fashion business. You don’t know anything about fashion. I don’t care, this is what I’m doing. I believe anything is possible as long as you’re passionate about it and you’re willing to work for it.
Bill: To the point of passion is we’ve gotten to know you, we’ve gotten to know not only the passion you bring to work every day and a lot of cases every night, but your interest in yoga and how far you’ve gone with that. Perhaps somewhat challenging, but hopefully ultimately a rewarding process of restoring a house, a lot of the things that …
Sarah: All at once.
Bill: … all at once that are a part of your life seem to have as a common denominator, a level of passion. Is that how you think about the things that matter to you in life?
Sarah: Yeah, I think so. I don’t think that anything that’s worth doing you do half-assed, pardon my French.
Bill: That’s appalling on the Real-World Branding, unbelievable.
Sarah: I know, I’m not allowed to say that.
Bill: It’s such a high brow show.
Sarah: I’m definitely nothing if not authentic and transparent about things that I go through or do and I live full out all the time, painful moments, happy moments, whatever they are. It keeps it interesting that way for sure.
Bill: No doubt and that’s a great way to underline, bold and italicize and also to finish, so thank you so much for your time and your insight. This is a brand worth watching, certainly a business leader worth watching with so much in her history and so much still to come. Thanks for being with us.
Sarah: Thanks for having me.
Bill: Many, many thanks to Sarah for her insight and her interesting perspectives on, not only her own career journey, but what lies ahead at Kathy Davis Studios. Three ways as always to support us at Real-World Branding. One is to give us a rating in the app store of your choice if you believe we’ve earned it, hopefully, a positive rating. We very much appreciate the dialogue that we’ve had with our listeners on Twitter and on Facebook and beyond. The best way probably is Twitter @BillGullan or @FinchBrands. I’m certainly interested in feedback with thick skin, certainly interested in ideas for future guests and future topics.
Then lastly, to make sure you do not miss an episode and we do this weekly. Make sure you subscribe in the app store of your choice, so that each time, normally Wednesday or Thursday, depending on schedule something will flow in, something new from us. That’s it from here, home of the first place Phillies until last night’s games, but close to first place, very surprising. Philadelphia Phillies, signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.
The post The Path to a Lifestyle Brand: Sarah Van Aken, President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios appeared first on Finch Brands.
Business leaders come from all backgrounds and departments — with many having experience in a sales role. In this week’s episode, Bill discusses the benefit of having a sales background in one’s career as preparation for our industry and beyond. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
In this week’s episode, we turn the tables and interview the man behind the microphone at Real-World Branding. Bill details his professional background, explains the key trends he sees shaping the branding world, and provides insight into what it means to be a real-world branding agency. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan:What drew me to branding, what caused me to fall in love with it, and what we keeps me fired up about it every day, is these big ideas and big moments that help businesses and brands progress.
Bill Gullan: Who’s this joker?
Steve: This week we’ve decided to turn the tables, and we’re going to interview Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands and the usual host of Real-World Branding. So while my voice may be unfamiliar, you will get a lot more of Bill than you may have ever wanted. Here he is, and Bill, thanks for being here.
Bill: My pleasure, and we can blame the several people who asked for this. I bear no responsibility for what comes next. It’s all on them.
Steve: No, this is going to be very informative, and it took us over a year to even jump into this. You’ve been interviewing people on this show for 47, 48 episodes now, and no one really knows too much about you, so this week we’re turning the tables, and why don’t you walk us through your career journey.
Bill: Sure. Thanks, Steve. I’m glad to be here. My career is not perhaps as linear as some others with whom we’ve had the pleasure of going deeper. I was born and raised in Philly, Philadelphia, Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, and I went south for college to Davidson in North Carolina, classic liberal arts, college town USA. I was a political science major. I didn’t know anything about what I wanted to do and in the liberal arts tradition, this was very much not pre-professional. We were taking this core curriculum of art and history, math and science, and some of which I did okay in, some of which I didn’t.
But as a political science major, the time came to move on with life, and I think among my classmates, probably half of them knew what they wanted to do and they set about doing it right after graduation. For the rest of us, it was going to be a process of figuring things out, so I settled in Charlotte because a lot of my friends were there and it was sort of a halfway house for Davidson graduates, of which Steph Curry and I are, maybe not the two most notable, but he certainly is. There we were in Charlotte, and the first career move, and the first stop for me, the New York Life office in Charlotte had strong connections to Davidson, and I went in and went through the process of their agent training program – selling life insurance, mutual funds, all these other things. I learned a lot on the journey.
The model there, unfortunately, wasn’t well suited for me. You were supposed to sell to your friends and family, and then you get referrals and you fan out from there. Of course, my friends were 22 and penniless, my family was up here, so I vividly remember the evening cold call-a-thons when someone from the office would go down to the courthouse and get all the new mortgage registrations. The thinking was that if you had that mountain of debt all of a sudden you had a greater life insurance need. They’d come back with these things, and we’d call down the list over dinner and hope that people were nice, and hoped that we could leverage that into an appointment. That’s tough.
It was not the Glengarry Glen Ross from a standpoint of being so negative and so awful, but in fact it was a lot of fun. You certainly learn a lot and you develop a thick skin, even back then before the telemarketing thing became so intrusive. A lot of rejection, but it was a great learning experience.
I think along the way I also had a chance to get my first exposure to marketing, even while I was doing the training program, and trying to build my own business. I was working with a senior agent who had been doing this awhile, and then I was focused on marketing throughout the Carolinas and helping him widen his acquaintance and communicate with his policy holders, etc.
From there, I realized it wasn’t for me. Again, learned a ton not only about financial products and about insurance, but also what it takes to self-start, overcome some degree of discomfort and find your voice, your confidence. But alas, it wasn’t for me, and I did it about 9 months. Then I did something that Steve, people of your generation probably would think is so quaint and silly, which is I answered a job ad in the newspaper. There used to be things called newspapers.
Steve: In the what? The newspaper?
Bill: Right. The newspaper, it got all over your fingers… Anyway, there was a section in there where they would post available jobs. We didn’t have all these job boards where you just click or touch your screen and all of a sudden there you are. For whatever reason, Charlotte at that time had a couple of really well regarded firms that focused on naming. It was primarily naming and identity and brand consulting, and things like that. Of all places, Charlotte had a few, and the job that I answered was with a couple of guys who had been successful in one of the larger firms and thought they could do this themselves, and they went out and they put a shingle on the building. The job they were posting for was really, I think the third member of the team, and it was the first sort of full-time sales guy. I figured, ‘I can do that.’
I show up day one, and on my desk is not a computer with email, because we didn’t really have that, at least not everybody did in ’96, ’97. I show up and there I am, and on my desk is a stack of annual reports. They said, ‘If you look in the back of these reports, you will see the names of the officers of these large companies, like Coke.’ It was really kind of almost the Fortune 200 were there on my desk, and the plan was young Bill’s going to make 150 calls a day and he’s going to smile, and he’s going to charm as best he can, and he’s not going to get down when no one answers, or when he’s rejected, and over time, he’s going to widen the acquaintance of this firm, and create opportunities with large companies to do naming of new products and new services, occasionally some corporate or divisional re-branding.
That was the plan right out of the gate, and I quickly realized a couple of things. One, this wasn’t so bad. I actually had a good time calling and talking to people about the weather and about sports, and learning all the area codes, and trying to charm executive assistants and referring me into different places so I could create a book of contacts and a network of contacts with which to sell these services. The other thing I realized is that if you’re making that many calls in a day, every now and then someone will answer, and you better darn well be prepared and intelligent about the subject matter that you’re selling, and know a little bit about branding and identity, and these different things.
I plowed myself, in part to prepare for these exposures, into reading about this industry. There’s Trout, and Ries, and all the old classics that lay out the intellectual frameworks for branding and positioning and all of these other things. I really started there, and over the course of my time at that company, and it turned into probably 3.5, 4 years, we grew from 3 people to 30, up to $5 million plus in revenue. It was a really great experience.
Their model was if you close something, you got to manage it. You sort of eat what you kill, so you close it. There I was, because I had perhaps a little bit of talent, certainly persistence, when it came to building relationships and ultimately creating engagements for this firm, I’m out there in Redmond with the Microsoft brand team. I’m in Auburn Hills with the Volkswagen brand team, with GM, with IBM, with American Express, all these big companies.
I was 20-whatever, didn’t know much, and so the feeling of this was on one hand, I guess it was terrifying because I didn’t know much, and they were looking to me, but on the other hand it was very liberating and exciting. I guess you sort of fake it until you make it, but this exposure to high level, big ticket branding issues, that I had earned for myself through all of that dancing on the dial of my finger as I was trying to sell these things, awakened in me a love for branding as a discipline and an interest.
I realized, I think many years later, that, again, my academic career had been really, political science was my major, and what had always drawn me to that was not comparative systems of government – how do they do it in Guatemala versus somewhere else, or how a bill becomes a law. It wasn’t the nutsy-boltsy kind of civic stuff, but political philosophy was really my thing, and it had been for a very long time.
This was answering fundamental questions of humanity and justice, and all these big ideas that sort of guide civilizations and countries and everything else. That’s what I was fascinated by and what I really chose to study, and I realized many years later, I think that what led to me really embracing and falling in love with branding as a discipline, was that some of the itches that it and political philosophy scratch are common.
Political philosophy is about systems of belief. It’s about how societies should be organized. It’s about how ideas and people connect. It’s about human nature and choice. Branding is about all those things, too. It may not always be as glorious or large, at least in terms of the intellectual element of it, but it’s the same thing. For brands, even today, 18, 19 years into my career, we’re counseling clients on how and on what basis to advance their values in a way that connects with consumers that galvanizes and motivates members of teams.
I think I realized that my love for branding came in part from my academic direction, but in any case, I was with that firm 3.5, 4 years, did what many others did in the late ’90s. With a couple of friends, we raised I think about a million dollars in institutional investment, as well as some angels, to launch an Internet startup concept, and it was called Shy Genius. It was the world’s first online creative exchange. It was designed to connect companies that were seeking innovation with individuals who are creatively minded and enjoy generating ideas. There was a lot to that, and when you look however many years later at all the user-generated content, whether it’s product ideas or marketing ideas, or whatever it is, we didn’t have the benefit of every consumer having basically a camera in their pocket or a microphone or whatever.
Boy, what we could have done if our consumers back then had the technological ability that’s become commonplace today, but in any case. It may have been 10 years early, but it was a fascinating experience. I think the Internet bubble burst in Charlotte perhaps a year after it burst for everyone else. But by the time we went back to re-raise capital, we had accomplished a lot, but were still finding our footing. When we went back to re-raise, it was too late. The market had dried up.
So here I was, a one and only child from the Philadelphia area, thinking it might be time to get back up to the northeast. I extended that interest to my network, really from Boston to DC, and had a bunch of meetings and interviews and different things, and it turns out the job that was the right fit was for a cheeky, South Street Philadelphia ad agency, big personalities, super creative, but what they were looking for at that time was a layer of business insight and a bit of brand strategy that would round out the creative offerings.
In some ways, I think I was hired to be the adult in the room. I’m not sure that I was that at 26, 27, but in any case, up I came. The agency was called Fab Gorgon, and their office was at Fourth and South. Jordan Goldenberg and Jesse Kramer had built this agency from having done a lot of nightclub and hospitality work, really succeeding because of how clever and damn good they were intuitively, and they were looking to make that next jump into corporate accounts to advance the business.
From ’01 really to ’03, I was focused on that. I was doing some new business. I was certainly managing accounts, and whenever we had a client that really wanted to think through messaging and really take a strategic approach to how they communicated, I was the guy that would manage processes like that, learning by doing. Along the way in brand consulting, I learned a bit about research, and certainly about positioning and other things.
There we were, and the next milestone was, there was a merger. Fab Gorgon, this agency, had come to know a small, yet super high-powered consulting firm called Kanter International, and these organizations had worked together a bit, and had begun to co-pitch. Oftentimes the consulting work left off when there was a creative need, and oftentimes the creative certainly would benefit from the strong strategic and business insight of this consultancy. Kanter International and Fab Gorgon merged on I guess Jan 1, 2003, and really the seeds of what Finch Brands is today date back to that very point, both in terms of people and certainly in terms of philosophies.
Over the course of really 2003 to 2012, I was focused on building and then ultimately managing the strategy workflow at Finch Brands, which was about research-based business and brand strategy. Along the way I’d acquired some confidence when it came to focus group moderation, when it came to various forms of qual and quant research, and so we built that platform here at Finch Brands. Then I moved into more of a general management role and the title that I have now, the job that I occupy now, in 2012.
Since then I’ve been really, really enjoying being involved in engagements, continuing to be involved in engagements that match the skills that I’ve developed, the experiences that I’ve had, while also working with my colleagues to chart a bit in terms of our future, and in terms of how Finch Brands can continue to innovate in terms of how we do what we do as well as what we do for clients, and really focus on our growth.
Steve: Well, thanks for that, Bill. I know it’s a pretty fascinating back story of really not coming from a marketing discipline, and then putting your nose to the grindstone and learning by doing. Very interesting, and definitely a good example of how a lot in this industry have progressed. You mentioned that Kanter International was the seeds of Finch Brands, the Finch Brands that is, today. Can you tell a little bit about how Kanter became Finch Brands, and really the background of Finch Brands in general?
Bill: Sure. No, be glad to. Listen, I could write a book about this. I’m not sure many people would want to read it, but it’s a fascinating business history. I guess a lot of companies have these kind of innings and eras, and whatnot. Kanter International had been founded by two gentlemen, both of whom had been very sort of high-ranking, highly successful, what we would call client-side executives, Daniel Erlbaum, who remains our CEO here at Finch Brands, and is well-known and well-regarded across a variety of the things that he does. David’s Bridal had been his family business, and when he came out of the University of Michigan in the mid-’90s … He’s much older than I am and it shows. He came out and he went to work for David’s Bridal across the executive ranks doing different posts across the various facets of the business. They wound up going public and then selling David’s Bridal to the, well I guess the May Company which then became Federated May and God knows what it is today.
His partner at the time, was Steen Kanter. Steen had been the president of IKEA in North America. He had built the brand in 5 countries. He had been with IKEA, he’s Danish by birth, for 20-some years. He went on to be CEO of The Body Shop Cosmetics, and some other things, and he was ready to put all those lessons into practice on behalf of entrepreneurs and brands in a consulting way. Those guys met, joined forces in, I guess it was ’97, ’98, and that consultancy was born.
Later on, as noted, there was a merger. Kanter International stayed on the door all the way up until I think it was the end of ’07. Steen’s consulting model had always been fly to a different city every night and ask CEOs tough questions, the answers to which would enable them to really reflect on what they were doing or not doing in advance of driving the brand and business strategy forward. It was sort of a pure play, CEO-coaching, classical consulting model, very successful, because Steen’s amazing and interesting and experienced.
By ’07, ’08, I think he really wanted to go back to that. He didn’t want the responsibility for growing the firm and the infrastructure that was around him. He really wanted just to go back to solo consulting with one or two folks who he knew that he could plug in. The terms of the deal were we would be so generous as to give him back his name, and I think we had a few months to get this done.
We launched into our own re-branding process, we took our own medicine. We did it the way we do it for clients. I think what we realized is that we had been using a metaphor of evolution for a while to describe what we did. It was helping business and brands respond to the ever-changing nature of the world around them and to evolve, survive, and thrive.
As we were, on the creative side, thinking through nomenclature, we were looking at Darwin and his life, and he had done much of the research that led to the theory of natural selection in the Galapagos Islands, on the beaks of Finches. The name is a reference to Darwin and to what, at the time, was our tagline. It was ‘Business and Brand Evolution,’ to that metaphor that we had been using for so long.
Now, we knew the name, for those who had access to that story, it would click for them and hopefully they would smile and like it. For those who didn’t, it was a pleasant name that was easy to remember, that may suggest that there were a Mr. and Mrs. Finch sitting behind this thing, and it was a strong business that was based on great people. Now, there is no Mr. and Mrs. Finch, at least not involved in Finch Brands, so that’s the real story in terms of the Darwin connection.
I think a lot of times when we think about brand development, and the Finch Brands story is an example of this, Jordan Goldenberg, a colleague, used to call this the ‘bridgeable gap,’ which is often, for those who hear the story, when it connects, there is some satisfaction in getting it and understanding it. For those who don’t, it works just as well.
Steve: Great. Now that we have the background on Finch Brands, what does the future hold for Finch Brands? What are we looking at?
Bill: Well, our vision, mission is sort of separate from our business objective, but our business objective is: ‘To become the best known, best regarded boutique branding agency in the country. To really be that high touch, high impact answer to the big branding or re-branding shops.’
Some days that feels like a journey, a long road admittedly, but that we’re galloping down. Other days it feels like we’re standing on the side of the road looking at a map and scratching our ass, no offense to my colleagues. But, it is a long journey, and objectives like this are intended to be grand and intended to be long. We all can unify to march down that path together, and that’s the ultimate goal. Now, there are a couple of things in terms of how we operate day to day, the things that we value, our own philosophies that are central to making this growth real.
We call ourselves a real-world branding agency, which is also the name of this podcast, and is inspired by that, for a couple of reasons. One of them is that our team development and hiring philosophy has been to bring in brand managers, innovations people, insights people, creatives, and marketers, from what this industry calls client-side experience, experience holding client-side jobs. Many of my colleagues, their careers were forged in the crucible of brand-first organizations, operating, growing, and managing brands, at Campbell Soup, at Toys”R”Us, at Anheuser-Busch, at Amazon, at Target, at Urban Outfitters, all these different places.
We really do believe that the best agency people were once clients themselves, because they understand. Those experiences help one understand the unique rhythms on the operating side, and also give people the ability to hone their intuition, the ability to deal with really big decisions.
Honestly, I think some agencies, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about when it comes to what it actually takes to build and grow a brand and business. One of our philosophies has always been to place a really high premium on what we call real-world experience, client-side experience, brand development experience, not just bouncing around and serving clients from agency to agency. That’s important to us, and I think what real-world branding means is not just the bios and backgrounds of our core team, but also a laser focused accountability for the results of what we do.
Branding can be squishy, but the greatest hits that we have in terms of the financial output of clients like Everlast, or ThinkGeek, or Conair, we’re so proud of that. In reality, our only scorecard, the only one that matters, is our clients’ performance. Not awards, not being clever and making other clever people know that you’re clever at cocktail parties, or whatever the case may be. That’s really all we care about.
The real-world branding piece, both in terms of the team as well as just the general orientation, is the leverage point that will get us to achieve that objective. Along the way, we’ve built a variety of frameworks around topics that recur in the lives of our clients. Obviously every project is different. The content is completely different, and the situation, based on what the client needs and the environment in which they’re dealing, but we’ve been able to build proprietary, intellectual and development frameworks around things like helping clients with vision, mission, values; helping clients and their teams understand and choreograph the entirety of the customer journey; helping companies that have been involved in mergers and acquisitions, or private equity situations, make choices about the right brand architecture and brand strategy.
We have been building, over time, through experience, these frameworks that we put to the test for clients. We take very seriously our responsibility, not only to be on the leading edge in our category and contribute to the overall knowledge base, but to bring tried and true best practices into our work for clients.
Last thing I’ll mention that we’ve been spending a lot of time on, and that is really important to our present and our future, is what we’re calling a Consumer Insights Community. We do a ton of market research here, and primary research, qual, quant, online, offline, traditional, non-traditional, moving into new territories through technology, things like eye tracking and biometrics. Then your good old-fashioned ethnography, observation, talking to people, and everything in between.
We have a variety of clients who come to us as needed, or for research processes, and we thought, and there’s been some movement in the market in this direction, wouldn’t it be great if instead of having to come back and strike up the band every time, and all the time that that takes, the dollars that takes, if we could provide our clients a continuous flow of input and feedback around key strategic, but also short-term tactical issues.
On the strategic side it could be, who’s our customer and how is life changing for him or her? On the tactical side it could be, should we do this packaging design or this one? This home page or this one, and everything in between. We’ve built these Consumer Insights Communities for clients that are really focused on that continuous flow.
They save time, they save budget for clients. Over time they get ever more effective as you continue to use these panels and the organization becomes acclimated to including the voice of the marketplace into decisions that previously it wasn’t either financially possible or in terms of timing. There’s a lot of benefits for clients. I think the benefit for us is a greater line of sight to, and predictability around our own work flow, in terms of always having the bandwidth and desire, and energy to support clients, depending on what happens to be in-house at any given time.
We’re spending a lot of time on product development, in particular the Consumer Insights Communities, is one that we’re really proud of and excited about, so to your question of what comes next at Finch Brands, I think in some ways it’s more of the same. We’re really proud of what we’ve done, but as we grow to be that branding agency that really represents our business objective, really, really strong grounding and foundational philosophies around the type of people who succeed here, the type of people who are best geared to serving our clients in the ways that they deserve, as well as the content of the work and the work flow itself.
Steve: Thanks for that. It’s very exciting, and now that we know Finch Brands, we know you a little bit better, are there any key trends that are shaping the work that we’re doing here at Finch Brands, or in the marketplace in general?
Bill: Yeah, there’s a lot of them, and by the way, Steve, you’re part of this unfolding story, so you don’t get off the hook here. Steve’s become a really important team member. In addition to being the executive producer of the Real-World Branding podcast, and guest host, Steve is a really valued member of the team across a variety of different functions, so don’t get a big head.
Steve: I appreciate you saying that, and the head’s already big, so it doesn’t matter.
Bill: That’s true, but that’s more of a genetic, just sort of visual thing. But we can get over that. Key trends. A lot of them are well-documented. Everyone talks about millennials and social media, obviously, but I guess there’s 4 things that I’ve noticed that really have an impact on how I’m looking at things, and maybe how we are by extension.
One is it is amazing the degree of skepticism that consumers have about big institutions today. Certainly that extends to media. It extends to Congress. It extends to the White House, it extends to Big Corporate, Big Bank, Big Soda, Big Tobacco, Big whatever. Consumers are very, very skeptical today.
There’s hysteria around nutrition. There’s hysteria around conspiracy theories, and I don’t say hysteria dismissively, a lot of this is helpful in terms of progressing the way that companies do things. The top-down marketing history of companies communicate and consumers buy, that just doesn’t exist anymore. We’ve done, and I’ve probably moderated 500 focus groups in my career along the way, and I love to do it. I’m greedy about doing it, in part because it helps me hear what’s happening. It helps me connect dots, and certainly, if we’re responsible for answering questions, I damn well want to be the one that asks them, because we can make sure that those conversations deal with what they need to. But focus groups across wine and spirits, across pro wrestling, across technology, all these different categories that seem to not have much in common, but one of the common themes is this skepticism.
We find that consumers in many ways are more likely today to trust the 24th page of Amazon reviews, or what someone they’ve never met says on social media, than they are JD Power and other sources, Good Housekeeping, Consumer Reports, their seal of approval used to mean something.
I think in part it reflects our time, and in part it also reflects the fact that there’s a low threshold when it comes to those who can be publishers, whether it’s an individual just through their own social media feeds or through tweets, or whether it’s bloggers. There’s really no barrier, and it’s a good thing, and ultimately it is a democratizing thing, that many different voices can be heard, but I think the net effect of this is that everyone proclaims to be an expert.
I think in some ways, we, and by that I mean corporate marketing, has overplayed our hand historically, and we bear some of the consequences for this loss of trust. The antidote, I guess, is brand humility, brand transparency, communications that are real and honest, and aren’t likely to trigger these eye rolls that are just so readily occurring across categories.
Another trend, John Kasman, who was a recent guest here, from PGAV Destinations, spoke about brands entering the realm of experiences. We see that all the time. Now, obviously in the extreme case, the types of things John works on, experiences, brands that may be wine and spirits brands, now they have a pub. It’s about bringing these things sort of to the ground level. But, even short of that, the thinking around brand connection is less transaction and more experience.
It’s something that we’re seeing all the time, and that’s why, in a very progressive way, thinking about and choreographing that customer journey has become so important for brands. It isn’t just about buying the product at a price that we all agree to, and hopefully liking it. It’s about making people feel something all along the way. Experiential branding from very tactical uses like pop-up shops and other things on one hand, but all the way to the philosophy on how brands are built is another trend that’s really important in this marketplace.
Thirdly, I think brands, winning brands today, are leading with values. Now, there’s obvious examples of folks for whom corporate social responsibility is baked in to the business model. But I think even brands for whom that piece isn’t as prominent, have an opportunity to convey what matters to them. Beyond just, ‘Hey, this is what our detergent does,’ into that benefit ladder from functional up to emotional.
Brands that convey that their value systems are real and that they are important to what they do, and have the ability to connect with the consumers on that basis. I think in a lot of ways this is in response to the fact that the personal seems sort of small ‘p’ political today. What you do, every decision that you make – whether you go to a chain restaurant or a local one, whether you buy Apple or Samsung – what you do, all these decisions you make today ultimately express to the world who you are and what’s important to you.
Brands, we’ve always said, and this podcast has covered the fact that we see commerce as being downstream from culture, and what that means is that the forces that are shaping the culture are ultimately the forces that are shaping winners and losers in the business and brand world. The degree to which brands can, again, without being too treacly or too maudlin, or too creepy, express a value system in a way that enables consumers to connect, is an important element of winning today.
Then, I guess the last one is the people. I think our industry has a lot to answer for, honestly, the agency world does when it comes to respecting and understanding, and taking the time to understand what motivates consumers across a variety of different categories and aesthetics, and income levels and ethnicities, etc.
This world that we occupy, tending to be clustered around cosmopolitan big cities, tending to consist of highly creative folks, well-educated folks, for whom snark is the currency of the day. I don’t know how many back rooms I’ve been in for focus groups, none of our clients thankfully, or how many agency folks I’ve interacted with, fortunately none on our team, who are really dismissive, if not sort of almost ridiculing the manners and morays of the clients to whom they’re supposed to sell product.
At Finch Brands, working with Ashley Furniture, mainstream furniture, all the way to Frederick Wildman Wines that have been imported and tend to be on the value end of the marketplace, to WWE, pro wrestling, the aesthetics here for these brands and many, many others, Nutrisystem weight loss, may not be what we would choose as consumers, although I’m a huge pro wrestling fan and I certainly could lose weight. But these may not be exactly what we would choose, but you have to enter an experience like that, either strategically or creatively, with a belief in the inherent dignity of the consumer, and the agency of their choice, the power of what they value and believe in.
When you’re not doing that, I don’t see how you can possibly be an effective advocate for those brands in the marketplace. I think one of the trends that concerns me, and as the world becomes ever more vulcanized and polarized, is that our industry only consists of, or is moving in the direction of only consisting of people who are oh so precious, oh so urban, and oh so clever. I really think that diminishes our ability to be effective, so I’m very concerned about that generally, and we manage against it very, very closely when it comes to Finch Brands and what we do.
Steve: Great, and thank you for that. Now, as we always do on this podcast, there may be some out there who have been inspired by your career path.
Bill: Poor things.
Steve: You know, your work ethic, figuring this out as you go, working and by doing and eventually coming to this place of expertise. What would you share with those listeners who have been inspired in such a way?
Bill: Well, first of all, we will blame this entirely again, upon the people who suggested that I be a guest on my own podcast, so take it for what it’s worth, but just a couple points, some of which we lightly covered.
One, not to get melancholy about this, but you have got to make it count. We get one shot at this. I’m 42. I have a great life. I have a great family, great kids, great wife, great company that we’re building here. But I’m very keenly aware of the fact that I’m 42, and hopefully I defy the actuarial tables and that means I’m 1/3 or 1/4 of the way through life, but more likely, and hopefully I at least get to the point where I’m halfway through.
You never want to look back on decisions that seemed at the time to be more convenient or easier, or whatever, and regret them. I would, if I were ever to get a tattoo, and no, honey, I won’t, I promise. I would look ridiculous with it, but if I were ever to get a tattoo, it would be something along the lines of ‘make it count,’ to remind myself day in and day out that you get one shot and you’ve got to make it count.
The second one is reflecting a bit of my educational past, I think whatever I sacrificed in terms of clarity of future, in being a liberal arts guy, I’d like to think that I’ve gained many times over in terms of the benefit of that sort of broad-based and multi-disciplinarian education. It doesn’t stop when the cap and gowns are on. Afterwards, and when you get out into the world, to embrace cultural literacy, and to be multi-disciplinarian, to understand that there’s a lot of things that are happening that people totally value and geek out on and are into, they may not be the things that you’re into, but the deeper you go, the more A. you can connect dots that you can apply to your work in this industry, and B. the more that you can build connections with different types of people, whether they’re clients or colleagues.
Something that’s new and that’s happening, I may think might be the most ridiculous, stupid thing in the world, but it is on me to understand major, both historical as well as contemporary influences in the worlds of art and theology, history, journalism, writing of all kinds, politics, and just ideas and influences, the degree to which, the more culturally literate you are, I truly believe, the further you will travel. That may make sense just in terms of the ability to meet up and connect with people on their own terms, but I think it keeps the brain firing.
That doesn’t mean that everything I see, I process with wonder and joy. There’s a lot of music that I think sucks, but someone loves it. Understanding what’s new and what’s happening, as well as what have been these foundational experiences that have driven our culture, puts you in really good stead, I think, as a business person, as well as as a fully formed human.
Next, I would think is say yes early in your career. We have sort of moved, in some ways, out of the generation where the paying of dues is widely expected as something that you do. I’m not going to be one of these ‘get off my lawn’ types of people, but I think Brock Weatherup, who was a guest a few months back, spoke about this. At his first job or second job, he was moving in a bunch of different directions that may have moved him onto a project that maybe wasn’t as interesting, or in a division that was away from the one that he wanted to be in. What he did is he made the best of it. He said yes. He saw the opportunity in learning new things. He saw the opportunity in building new relationships and creating additional enthusiasts in his network, and it doesn’t mean you say yes without thinking.
It doesn’t mean you say yes automatically, but the orientation, certainly earlier in your career, should be in the direction of yes, or if you have to say no, you say, ‘No, but.’ I think the more that folks take advantage of these early years where you may not have as many mouths to feed, or may be more mobile geographically, may still have and should have an open mind about what life’s going to be like for you. The more you say yes, the more you experience, and again, from someone who came from a situation where I had no idea what I was going to do, the fact that I was saying yes to all these things I think has really helped me.
Then lastly, I think the respect for people that I talked about in terms of trends is super important in terms of individuals. Obviously we talk about people not getting along, and everyone’s yelling at each other about politics, about religion, about all these different things. This isn’t just a simple admonition to just be nice, although that perhaps bears repeating too, but in this industry and in marketing, this is behavioral economics. My wife’s a psychologist. This is about psychology. You can’t ultimately be good at this unless you have endeavored to absolutely understand, not embrace, but understand where people are coming from, whether it’s clients, whether it’s colleagues, whether it’s consumers.
Having that level of respect for the marketplace, and for the task that’s in front of you, for the brand that’s hiring you, for the colleague that’s asking for help, whatever it is, is a hugely important part, I think, of being a good teammate, of being a fast growth, high velocity professional. Also being a citizen, being a dad, being a spouse, all the things that you may want somewhere down the path in life.
The road here, just to kind of sum up, Steve, at Finch Brands, is fun and fascinating. It’s a wild ride always. It’s the relationships with clients, with colleagues, that we’re ultimately going to remember when all is said and done. Those are the things that, like shards of light in late afternoon through the trees, kind of shine through when you think over the years and the innings that we’ve been through doing this together.
I think what makes this super fun still, almost 20 years in, not quite, but almost 20 years in, is the big ideas. There was one project that made a big impact on me, and just sort of thinking about people, and how they make decisions, we were talking about culture. This was a project, I can’t name the client, but where we were really studying the intricacies of social groups among high school kids.
This was a few years back, so it’s certainly evolved since then, but at its most simplistic, I think the data told us there were really 4 groups. I don’t remember the names, but it was like there were the cool kid, jock/cheerleader type, who were setting the pace and setting the tune socially. There were, I guess what we would call sort of the nerds. I don’t mean that disparagingly, but they were very academically inclined. This was a fashion brand, so we were focused primarily on style and the nerds weren’t really interested in that. That wasn’t really their game. They were about playing in band or doing great in school, and they didn’t really care.
Then there were the good boys, the good girls, whose sense of style was sort of influenced by the trendsetters within their group, and they weren’t risk-takers. They weren’t likely to put themselves out there, but they would embrace certain trends when they got watered down and came downstream. Then the 4th group, I guess we would lump loosely, loose confederation of sort of freaks, whether it was punks, goths, skaters, surfers, or hip-hop back then. These were sort of fandoms, I guess, or small marginal groups that had really distinctive and deep cultures, but they weren’t large. They ultimately weren’t terribly influential in terms of how the high school operated, in terms of the social circle.
What was interesting to find out was that when, you would think in some ways, the All-American boy and girl, the jock, the cheerleader, would be the ones who were setting the trends, but what we found was that, no. It was the freaks. It was the skaters, the punks, who had very outspoken trends that they were finding their own style, and then manufacturers would take those trends, water them down in a mainstream way, and then deliver them through Abercrombie.
You look at graphic tees, for example, for 35 bucks, these were all based on the surf lifestyle, or a lot of them were. The entire Hollister brand was based on that, and so in some ways, when you were looking for where the culture was going and when you were looking for where the next trends were, you were not looking at the popular kids or the mean girls. You were looking at these sort of adjacent sub-cultures that sprung up around the landscape, and that was super interesting. That was one example.
When we were re-branding ThinkGeek, this notion of turning a geek from a noun that was pejorative into a verb that was about celebrating your interests. Or with Conair and Scünci, tying hair accessories to this notion of feminine confidence. These are big ideas, and what is so much fun at the end of the day, and back to where we started, Steve, at the beginning of this, what drew me to branding, what caused me to fall in love with it, and what we keeps me fired up about it every day, is these big ideas and big moments that help businesses and brands progress. I’ve blathered, but I hope that answers the question.
Steve: Absolutely. Wise words from a wise man. I know I’ve enjoyed getting to know you in my time here at Finch Brands, and I hope our listeners have found a lot of value out of getting to know who they’ve been listening to day in, day out on this podcast. Hopefully, knowing the man who sits behind the microphone and interviews all the other brand and business builders that we meet with on a bi-weekly basis, has definitely opened their eyes, I hope, and given them some perspective. Three ways as always to help us here at Finch Brands.
Bill: Got get them, tiger. I hope I have a job on this podcast next week. You’re nailing it. Three ways.
Steve: Three ways, and that is to subscribe in the app store of your choice, so that you don’t miss an episode. Every week we do one of these episodes, whether it’s an interview with a brand and business builder, or a One Big Idea, more of a monologue. If you subscribe to us, you will not miss an episode, and you will get little nuggets of information every week.
The other way is to leave us a rating in the app store, 5 stars if we’ve earned it. That helps us be found by others who might be interested in this content, as well as gives us feedback on how we’re doing.
Finally, let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter, @FinchBrands or @BillGullan. You guys speak to us, we’ll respond back, and any ideas you have for future guests, questions you want answered, we’ll be happy to respond, and we love to keep that conversation going.
One other way to help us, sorry, this is a shameless plug, but we do have some internship openings, so if anyone is interested or has been inspired by these journeys, please apply now. Thank you. Thank you again, Bill, for being with us today.
Bill: My pleasure.
Steve: We’ll be back next week with a One Big Idea. For now, signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.
Bill: Way to go, Steve.
The post Turning the Tables: Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands appeared first on Finch Brands.