In this episode, we host Melissa Ben-Ishay and Seth Horowitz of Baked by Melissa. Melissa, co-founder and chief product officer, shares her story from losing her job to building a brand out of joy and authenticity. Seth details his journey from some of the biggest brands in the world to his new post as Baked by Melissa’s CEO. Together they discuss the role of brand and culture in building strong brands that grow. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Seth Horowitz: I thought, “Wow. Amazing brand. I think the brand is much bigger than the company. Maybe this thing has the potential to be exponentially bigger than it is.”
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 we are back with purpose and vengeance. We’re proud to bring, today, an interview that we conducted last week with Seth Horowitz, CEO, and Melissa Ben-Ishay, President, Co-Founder, and Chief Product Officer of Baked by Melissa.
Melissa’s name, of course, is on the door. She is the Melissa of Baked by Melissa. Seth is someone with an incredible track record of business growth stories in his background, including Everlast Worldwide and Modell’s Sporting Goods, etc. He’s been in the CEO chair for just a little while.
This is an incredibly interesting brand that not only has a great founding story, but is in the midst of authoring a really noticeable and inspiring growth story that’s predicated on culture, that’s predicated on creativity, predicated on joy, and the notion of making life sweeter in all the ways that that means, and all the ways that the company brings it to market.
Enjoy Seth Horowitz and Melissa Ben-Ishay.
Bill: We are here in Union Square at the super cool, except for the four flights up, home office, head office of Baked by Melissa here in Union Square. We’re here with Seth and Melissa. Melissa Ben-Ishay is the President and Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer. Her name’s on the door. Seth Horowitz is the CEO. Thank you both for your time.
Melissa Ben-Ishay: Thank you for coming.
Bill: Oh, it’s an absolute sweet pleasure for us to be here again.
Melissa: How many cupcakes have you eaten since you got here?
Bill: Those who know me or who can see me know that the answer is higher than that which one should, but one can’t resist this incredible assortment of flavors in front of us, so we encourage everyone in our audience to have this experience for themselves.
Having two folks is a fun and welcome change for us here, and so Melissa, why don’t you start us off by telling us a bit about your story and that of the company, and then Seth we’ll bring you in?
Melissa: Sure, so Baked by Melissa sells bite-sized treats. We have bite-sized stuffed cupcakes that come in a variety of flavors, and double stuffed bite-sized macaroons, and we exist to make life sweeter.
In June of 2008 I was working in advertising as an assistant media planner, and I wasn’t passionate about the work I was doing and it showed, because I was fired. On a Wednesday at 11:00am I was called to HR over the loudspeaker. I thought I was getting a promotion, but I was fired.
I went right to my brother’s office. He’s my best friend and an entrepreneur. We always wanted to go into business together, so when I sat down he said, “You know what? Go home, bake your cupcakes. We’ll start a business out of it.”
Instead of going home and feeling sorry for myself the night I lost my job, I went home and I baked cupcakes. Two hundred of them, four batches: cookie dough, peanut butter cup, S’mores and my signature tie-dye flavor.
I sent them into work with my best friend’s little sister, who was staying with me for the summer interning at a PR firm. The owner of the PR firm tried them and loved them and put me in touch with her caterer, who brought me in for a tasting, and I knew this would be a huge opportunity, so I ran back to my brother’s office and I said, “Holy crap. We got a tasting with Alison Brod’s caterer. We have to go in there like we have a business already and he could be a part of it.”
It was then and there that we came up with our name, Baked by Melissa, and our logo, the same exact logo we have today. I printed the logo out on paper and pasted it on pastry boxes that I got from the deli across the street from my apartment, went to the tasting with the caterer, and he loved them.
He said, “You know what? From a catering perspective, if they were just a bite, oh my God.” So I figured out how to do that. I baked for an event that he was hosting a week later, and for that event we created a website and business cards so when people saw the product and loved it, they could go purchase them on bakedbymelissa.com.
That’s how we started the business. The rest is history.
Bill: That’s amazing, and always a baker, someone who loved doing this for yourself and your friends and in your own time. To be able to do that professionally I’m sure is quite a joy.
Melissa: Oh, yeah. It’s a dream come true. I see baking as arts and crafts but you could eat your project, and the act of giving something that you create and then watching somebody enjoy it is why I’m here. It’s the best feeling in the world.
Bill: Amazing, and so this company now, I think what? 14 or 15 stores in and around metro New York, a vibrant eCommerce business, and what’s the newest thing that you want to tell us that’s super exciting that we have on the table near us, and I know we’ve seen a lot on social media here?
Melissa: There’s so much new and exciting stuff, especially in the past year or so since we brought on our amazing CEO, Seth, who’s sitting here next to me.
Bill: We’ll get to him, yeah, right.
Melissa: But I actually came out with my first book. It’s called Cakes by Melissa. It launched on October 3rd. In the book you get the full story of how we started Baked by Melissa, and my personal story as well.
I grew up with two parents who empowered me to do everything and anything I set my mind to, and that’s so much of a reason I think I was able to do what I’ve done with, of course, an amazing team of people surrounding me at all times in every step of the way.
The book takes you through my creative process. It’s laid out differently than any other cookbook. It starts with cakes. The first recipe is my base vanilla cake recipe, and by adding or subtracting one or two ingredients, the opportunity is endless to create hundreds of different flavors, and my goal for the book is to empower you to bake outside the lines and mix and match your favorite recipes to come up with flavor combinations that make the people around you or the people you love most happy.
Bill: That’s super cool and very interesting, and we’ll definitely get back to the book and the business, but Seth, let’s bring you in here. I know we go back a ways. What’re the highlights of your journey? It’s been an interesting career full of projects like this, brands that have excellent foundations, by your leadership helping clarify and strengthen and grow. Take us through a bit of your own career up to this point.
Seth: Thank you, Bill.
Seth: It’s great having you up here.
Bill: It’s a pleasure.
Seth: You know, my career started off at a company called Active Apparel Group, which was a licensee for Everlast, and we positioned women’s active wear in a way that women’s active wear hadn’t been positioned before. It was late 1990s and the big brands really weren’t supportive of that business.
Seth: We took on a license from Everlast and built a brand around empowerment. People laughed at us. They thought that Everlast was a boxing company and what did that have anything to do with sports bras and bike shorts?
We built a brand through the eyes of the customer, and connecting to that female consumer on an emotional level, and then providing great product was the magic recipe. That allowed us to become the biggest part of Everlast’s business. We were a public company. We found a way to buy the much larger private company, Everlast.
Bill: Right, right.
Seth: On October 24th of 2000, a date I will never forget.
Bill: Nice. Yeah, I’m sure.
Seth: We took a lot of the learnings that we had from building around this brand of empowerment throughout Everlast’s entire business in the United States and worldwide, and it was an amazing journey. I had such tremendous mentors along the way that I’m incredibly thankful for, and one thing that was consistent with everybody is looking at the business through the eyes of the customer and being brand first.
So that journey at Everlast was amazing. We took the company from $100 million to almost $700 million, and it was awesome. We took a business in hard goods, our boxing equipment business, from a $12 million business that was losing money to over $50 million with an 18% contribution margin. We expanded our licensing around the world, and franchising in different areas in Brazil and Chile, and it was just tremendous.
Bill: This was not a time, by the way, that boxing was growing too much on its own, either. This is an impressive achievement.
Seth: That’s exactly right. It was interesting and ironic that boxing as a business …
Bill: Don’t you think?
Seth: That boxing was becoming less and less popular during this time period, but that wasn’t what was driving our business. We were driving a business to unleash strength and dedication in every individual, which is a vision that I believe you helped us create.
Bill: Well, it was effortless. No. Indeed, and I think in that story, the notion of taking the brand out of the physicality of boxing into the emotion and spirit of boxing was seemingly a driving force behind all that was accomplished, not only on the women’s licensing side but the broadening of the base beyond just a boxing application, even though that was growing too it sounds like.
Seth: Exactly. The boxing business was growing, but the much bigger business was the lifestyle business which was all about individual empowerment. After that I went to Modell’s Sporting Goods, which was …
Bill: You’re selling yourself short. There was an exit of some significance, if I recall correctly.
Seth: Yes. Everlast was a public company, and thank God we did extremely well for our shareholders. We were trading for a long time in the single digits. The company was growing exponentially. We were up to about $16.50, not that I remember exactly.
Bill: No, not exactly. Right.
Seth: We filed for a secondary stock offering to raise some money for some online endeavors that we had, and instead we had several offers for the whole company, a bidding war ensued and we ended up selling the company for $33 a share.
Bill: Terrific, and so when you landed at Modell’s you had taken a well-deserved break, but not a very long one in between. Tell us about how Modell’s came calling and brought you back.
Seth: I think I was off for about three weeks in that long-deserved break. It’s just because you know, the engine is revving and there was so much excitement at Everlast. We really felt we were building the next Nike, and maybe we were, and I had read in an industry publication that the President of Modell’s Sporting Goods had retired, and I thought, “Amazing. I’ve sourced product all over the world. I’ve been in factories in India, and Pakistan, and China, and I’ve done licensing and franchising around the world and wholesale business in the US.” At Everlast we owned two factories and distribution centers in the US, but the one thing that I had never done was retail.
I really wanted that opportunity to learn and to grow, and to apply what I had learned in these other parts of the business to retail, and I took Mitchell Modell out for breakfast to ask him if I could be considered as the replacement for President, and Mitchell’s an amazing guy. He stood up, he’s a very loud individual, at this breakfast place, and said, “But you have no retail experience,” which was true.
We talked about the strengths and weaknesses of all the retailers that I had done business with, and I saw why the good ones succeeded and why the bad ones went out of business, and there were a series of best practices and most of them were consistent with what I had always learned, which was you have to look at the world through the eyes of the customer, and it’s brand first.
Sure enough I joined Modell’s and I would spend the next almost five years as President of Modell’s Sporting Goods.
Bill: Right. Even since, your career and your resume’s almost like a greatest hits album of growth. Here we are at Baked by Melissa, and we’ll go back to the story and we’ll pick up the thread, but Seth, when this opportunity came to you or you became aware of this, what was so compelling to you about joining this person and this team and this brand at this moment?
Seth: Most compelling was the brand. I had been a customer for years. My children loved it. I knew that we would bring the product to parties, and we were proud of that. I was always fascinated by the business just as a consumer and person in the industry and I thought, “Wow. Amazing brand. I think the brand is much bigger than the company. Maybe this thing has the potential to be exponentially bigger than it is.”
Then I met the team, first Melissa, and I knew right away that she was somebody very special. That not only was she great at product creation but incredibly smart, a sponge, and somebody who I could not only sit next to trying to figure out whether it should be coconut or peanut butter in the next cupcake, but somebody that I’d be proud to sit next to in a board meeting or in an IPO. And I thought, could this thing be 10 times the size that it is and here we are a year plus in and I’m confident I made the right decision.
Bill: Yeah. No doubt. Getting back a bit to the company, over this decade period, Melissa, that you described forces outside of what we’ve been doing here, had an impact. There was certainly a big trend in cupcakes that came and went. There’s been obviously a lot of ink wasted or pixels wasted, I guess, on … Not wasted, but spent, covering the way that consumer attitudes shift about indulgence, about health, about nutrition, yet here we are.
Baked by Melissa has persisted and is intensifying even, in strength. How and what would we define as the core of what makes this such an appealing company and brand beyond … Steve, our executive producer’s reaching over in the middle of that question to grab a cupcake, which may be part of the answer, but to what do you attribute, Melissa, to the longevity and the strength and the appeal of this place, and this thing?
Melissa: We took a classic dessert and made it better. We solved a problem, I think, by making it just a bite. You could have every flavor. I personally see our product as more of a vessel for flavor. I put my favorite desserts into these cupcakes and macaroons. You have S’mores, brownie batter, cookie dough, ice cream sundae, like crazy stuff. I don’t really see it, when I’m developing new products and flavors, I don’t think of it as cupcakes and I don’t think our consumer does either.
Everything is handcrafted in a variety of flavors. Every bite is perfectly fresh and delicious. It looks beautiful too, so I think we just hit it out of the park. We have an unbelievable product, and then we have an unbelievable team of hardworking, passionate, like-minded individuals who love what they do, and appreciate the opportunity to come to work every day.
Bill: Yeah. That’s palpable sitting here in the center of the office.
Melissa: Yeah, and I laughed when you said you, at Everlast, Seth, was like, “We unleash strength and dedication in every individual,” because that’s what he does at Baked by Melissa, too.
Bill: No one’s punching each other, at least not most days, but generally the spirit of it’s the same, right?
Bill: You talk about product. I know one of the things that’s really distinctive here, as opposed to other folks who maybe have a couple of product hits and they rest on them, is this assortment is ever-changing. What is the source and sort of the nature of the inspiration that drives … Some of these have kind of almost a retro feel ingredients and old favorites, as you say, but I mean, can you in a bullet point or two explain sort of the product development core principles here? I know some of it’s just inspiration, but how do you go about it?
Melissa: I think I’m like a free-spirited kid in a candy store a little bit, and so much of the inspiration is just thinking back to my unbelievable childhood and what made me happy as a kid.
I’m also inspired by everything that’s happening around me, and I know the importance of continuing to innovate, so it’s a combination of all of those things that … And loving what I do, and being so damn good at understanding what makes a delicious dessert, and like combining flavors.
It’s what I’m always thinking about. What I was thinking about when I was in high school is the same thing that I get to think about today and call work. It’s what I’m great at, combining flavors that make people happy and bring them back to their childhood.
Bill: Right, and so Seth, as a leader of the business here, when you have a talent of this nature and whose been a founder, obviously, and name’s on the door, everything else, what is … You talk about being proud to have her next to you in a board meeting as well as involved in all of these different key decisions that drive the business. How do you think about what it takes to kind of manage/empower/encourage someone of sort of Melissa’s capability and inspiration?
Seth: You know, it’s funny. At my first board meeting for Baked by Melissa, which was about 30 days into being here, one of my first bullet points, if it wasn’t the first, was to unleash Melissa. I mean, one of the beauties of this brand and this product is that it’s very authentic, and the authenticity comes from who Melissa is, and why she built the company the way that she did through this product.
You know, I don’t know if it’s really the challenge. It’s the opportunity to give Melissa and other leaders here, that have been here almost since day one, the opportunity to really stretch what they can do. I give them the guardrails and make sure that they don’t hurt themselves or the business along the way, but really let them go.
One of the first things we did here was set a very clear vision, mission and value proposition so all of our decisions could go through a lens, or a series of lenses. That sounds like a real marketing speech, but it’s extremely helpful and it has dictated many of the decisions we make every day.
So unleashing with guardrails is a beautiful thing. I believe in over-communication. I love the fact that our customer happiness team is familiar with our P&L, because I want everybody to know when we’re winning so we can celebrate together.
Bill: Sure. Within the employ of this company, the vast majority of folks seem to be customer facing in one way or another, and also very youthful and very passionate, and so to your point, the balance of freedom and responsibility is probably part of the secret ingredient list here, I think.
Seth: I would totally agree with that. I think it’s really important that we both have face time with all of our associates and we do. We make the time to make sure we’re in stores. All of the new hires that we make, whether it’s a cupcake keeper at retail or a leader of customer happiness in our office, they come up to the office, we all meet, and we spend time together. They hear directly from Melissa her story and why we’re here, to make people happy through our bite-sized treats. It’s a very special culture and the proper combination of empowerment and the ability to make a difference.
Bill: That’s terrific, and again, it comes through so unmistakably, things that may be small things but that service team being called “customer happiness” speaks volumes about what’s expected of them and how they ought to be spending their time, not following a set of rules or guardrails, but using their own judgment within reason.
Seth: Just a small example, if you don’t mind.
Bill: Yeah, please.
Seth: I mean, so we have a leader of customer happiness and we got together and decided that everything that we say no to, like that we can’t do, we came up with a plan to say yes to all of that. There were just phone calls of things that customers were asking us for that traditionally the answer was no because we couldn’t do it for X, Y and Z, so we came up with a yes list instead of a no list.
We figured out all those problems and seeing the excitement on the team that they can now say yes and help our customers, and of course, the customer experience is exponentially better, has been tremendously rewarding and even further empowered them to make better decisions.
Bill: One of the things about the company and the brand that is unmistakable, I think, is the willingness and desire to lead with values here, to put the business behind the values that are important to the brand and to all the people that embody it. One of the things that had a profound impact on me was a campaign … I don’t even know what the right word is for … That the company did called #SideWithLove, I guess this summer, late summer, early fall. Melissa, would you kind of take us through what that was? What an amazing thing.
Seth: Yeah, how’d that happen?
Melissa: What an amazing thing.
Seth: It was wild.
Melissa: It really was wild. I think it’s just a perfect example of why we’re so awesome. Really, though.
Seth: If we do say so, but no, it’s true. Yeah.
Melissa: We get shit done, and one night lying in bed, it’s like 9:00. I go to sleep very early, and my phone rings. It’s Seth, and it was the night after everything happened in Charlottesville, and he calls me and he’s like, “I’m angry.” He’s like, “I’m standing here on my balcony. I’m listening to what’s going on in the news and what Trump’s saying and I’m just angry and I want to do something. I want to fix it any way I can.”
Then I got to thinking, “What if we give away a million cupcakes to inspire people to do nice things for others?” I was like, “Oh my God. I love it.” I got so excited, so literally the two of us called like … You know, we merged our calls on our iPhones and we called each of our teammates at Baked by Melissa. This was like 10:00pm already. We’re like, “Hi.”
Bill: You asked your CFO maybe to weigh in on this?
Melissa: “Hi. What do you think if we give away a million cupcakes to inspire people to side with love?”
Bill: Ah. I’m sure everybody was fired up, super fired up. Yeah.
Melissa: No, but really, so what we did was we wound up calling a meeting for 7:00am the next morning and within 24 hours we got together all the content and messaging, the newsletter, the social posts. We got the website ready. I mean, there’s a lot that goes into something like this, and we wound up giving away 150,000 cupcakes. We had thousands and thousands of people waiting in the queue at bakedbymelissa.com to order 25 cupcakes to send to anyone that they wanted.
Seth: We didn’t charge for shipping. We didn’t charge for anything. It was free.
Seth: It was our way of doing a random act of kindness to promote others to do random acts of kindness.
Seth: Because there are two sides to the issue and one is to #SideWithLove, and that’s what we very firmly believe in, and the reaction was tremendous.
Bill: Yeah, it seemed like it.
Seth: I don’t believe it was just because it was free cupcakes. I think it was because it was something that people believe in and wanted to be more inspired by, and maybe the most amazing part was the fact that our whole team pulled it together and executed it within 48 hours. It was Tuesday night I think when we spoke on the phone and Thursday was the promotion.
It’s my belief that moments in time come and go, and if you don’t jump on it it’s gone. The team was amazing and inspired, and we were here until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning on Thursday finishing up orders, making sure that customers were as happy as they could be. Everybody was on the phones. I took a call from one customer who was giving them to her sister in another state. She had always heard about us, couldn’t believe what we were doing. She was so excited. She hoped her sister would send it back.
Seth: It was a little bit of what the country needed in the way that we could do it best.
Bill: Sure, and the way you know how, and as you said earlier, Melissa, you don’t think of these as cupcakes, but rather vessels for sharing and smiling, and togetherness and creativity, and all these different things, and the multiplier effect of that moment and the effect is probably impossible to calculate, but for all the folks who were touched by that.
Seth: Internally and externally.
Melissa: Yeah. We sent cupcakes to all 50 states and if each person who received them was inspired to do something nice for somebody else and they did then we made a huge difference in the world.
Bill: Yep. Super cool. This is a brand obviously, that has its start and its soul, and the heartbeat is here in New York City. With the launch of the eCommerce business and the fact that these cupcakes and other treats are being shipped far and wide, how does the multi-channel nature of what we’re doing and what we’ve gotten into impact the way we express the brand and how we think about the world at large, how we build the team, etc.?
Seth: The multi-channel aspect of the business is incredibly important for us. The fact that we can ship our product nationwide and have it delivered safe and fresh is something that we need to do a better job of communicating.
Our kind of 2.0 version of our stores, which we start rolling out the beginning of next year, we’ll have fully integrated multi-channel options. So we’d love for our customer to come in, enjoy our cupcakes and say, “Hey, I’d love to ship these to my daughter in Chicago,” and have that be seamless. I mean, when we look at our potential growth areas and prioritizing those, having a seamless multi-channel interaction for our customers is most important. We know who our customer is. We know what she wants, and making her life convenient and compelling is super important to her and us.
Bill: Okay. You began to get into this, but in terms of some of the things that might be next, store redesign, the 2.0, the integration of channels, within the realm of what your comfortable sharing at this point, because I know there’s always ideas bouncing off walls here. It’s part of the DNA of this place. Anything we can all get excited about in terms of what comes next for the company and the brand?
Seth: I’ll share a little something, and Melissa, you should jump in.
Bill: Listeners, they’re staring at each other, I think mentally communicating about what they shouldn’t say, so we’ll respect that process, but go ahead, Seth.
Seth: I mean, we are so thankful to be in a business that has so many opportunities, that prioritizing them so we can put the right people and resources behind them is probably the toughest part of my job. It is the toughest part of my job. As Melissa said, she recently launched the cookbook, which is awesome.
Bill: It is, yeah.
Seth: Along the way we launched bite-sized cupcakes made from recipes from the cookbook, which are exceptional. They’re called the Dream Team. They’re delicious. They’re like visually amazing, but we knew people would ask us if we made cakes, because the book’s called Cakes by Melissa.
Seth: Very quickly in such a beautiful entrepreneur way, we developed an amazing cake, so it’s not upcoming but it’s something we’ve just added to our offering, and we did it for the brand. We did it for our customers to experience the product that they can create on their own in the cookbook, and the reaction has been tremendous.
Bill: That’s great.
Seth: And has opened our eyes to some new things that might be coming in the future.
Bill: You had a really, at least it seemed, successful collaboration over the summer with ice cream, with, I think a creamery in Brooklyn, I guess.
Melissa: Ample Hills.
Bill: Ample Hills, that is well known and well regarded, and has, it seems a similar kind of value system and aesthetic here. Might there be partnerships like that down the road too, in terms of like-minded brands where there’s an ability to bring something to market that’s super cool?
Melissa: Absolutely. I think our goal is to continue to create new, delicious things and work with people who are passionate and hard-working on their own amazing product, and the partnership with Ample Hills, the Summer of Love ice cream. I mean, it was my dream to put our cupcakes in ice cream, and the only company I would do it with is Ample Hills, so I reached out to the owner, Brian, and got him to come into our office and told him what I wanted, and obviously Seth supported it 100%.
I actually told Seth one morning, like, “So, I reached out to the owner of Ample Hills because I really want to put our cupcakes in ice cream.” He was like, “Okay, great. Let’s do it.” That’s what makes it so fun.
Bill: That is fun. During that promotion, Seth’s Instagram feed, which typically is family and Phish, the band, was all about seemingly you going to different places and buying this ice cream again and again. There was picture after picture with here it is with a sunset. Here it is on the high line.
Melissa: He’s a very good food photographer.
Seth: I get very passionate about our product.
Bill: It was impressive.
Melissa: It’s very nice.
Bill: Right. To that end, Melissa, we’re talking about the Ample Hills collaboration, we’re talking about the book, and I don’t mean this question in a way that’s superficial, as some people talk about personal brands or whatever, but you are a brand.
You’re part of the Baked by Melissa corporate brand, but also there are elements of you that are obviously wrapped up in everything the company does, but that are a force for commerce and value creation in its own right, things that we’ve gotten to know about you. You know, you have kind of this hippy aesthetic. You’re super smart, you’re fun to be around, all these things.
Melissa: Oh, stop it.
Bill: Not to flatter, but I mean, how does it feel to be a brand in your own right, and does that … What is it to know that you’re looked at not only for leadership within a company that bears your name, but a taste maker and a lifestyle expert to whatever that phrase kind of means today, how does that feel? I don’t mean it as a therapist, but I mean, how does …
Bill: What does the personal branding element, what is the ingredient to that in the success of the company?
Melissa: Well, I think that it’s an extremely humbling position to be in first and foremost, and I find myself feeling extremely proud and appreciative of the position that I’m in. I would not be here without my amazing co-founders, and my amazing team, and I mean, I just feel so lucky every single day, and even on the hardest days I appreciate it all so much.
Melissa: To not only get to do what I love every day, but to give others the opportunity to do what they love every day, and work towards goals with unbelievable people, being the face of it all is wild.
Bill: Yeah, I’m sure. I mean, when you … I don’t know how to phrase this, so it’ll probably come off stupidly, but when I wake up in the morning and I decide what I’m going to wear, first of all I have to find something that fits, not super easy these days. Then you know, I want it to kind of match and want it to be appropriate for the level of what I might be doing that day, a meeting or an event, or something like that, but nobody’s going to see it except my family and people on the train and my colleagues and maybe some clients or whatever, but I mean, when you think about the various appearances that you do in the media, the sort of prolific social media work that you do …
Obviously it comes across as being very joyful and natural for you, but also it’s in the interest of the company. Are there moments where you’re like, “Holy crap, this is just like me and yet it’s a larger thing?” I’m not phrasing this well, but I mean, what … How do you think about seemingly mundane day in, day out tasks like what you’re going to wear or where you want to be that day or whatever, in light of the fact that brand Melissa is sort of always on? I don’t know if I’m phrasing it-
Melissa: I think it’s so cool that my job is to be authentically me.
Bill: Yeah. Right, right.
Melissa: I like to wear hooded sweatshirts and be comfortable because that … I do have a very set opinion on so many things, and I love having the chance to embody it and know that it’s my responsibility to do that. I should wear a hooded sweatshirt to work every day because that’s authentically me, and it’s my job to be me, so I can show our team what that is, I guess. I think perspective is also just a very interesting thing in general, and the way people perceive me is not the way I perceive myself.
Melissa: I think that divide is what keeps us going. I see it as an added responsibility, and it only makes me work harder every single day for the company, and also at home too, because the harder I work the more opportunities Baked by Melissa gets, and the more successful we could be as a company, and it’s just the coolest position to be in because my definition of success is working hard towards something you love.
Bill: Yeah, no doubt.
Melissa: How cool is that?
Bill: Speaking of family, you have … Anyone who follows you on social media knows there’s an adorable little daughter, Scottie, and your husband’s in the business, right? He’s part of the company. He’s in the bakery, right?
Bill: Where is the bakery?
Melissa: The bakery is in North Bergen, New Jersey. That’s where we create our handcrafted product and ship nationwide and send everything to the stores. I create and conceptualize all new product. Every single flavor is genuinely baked by Melissa and my husband brings it to production.
Melissa: There’s no one I trust more.
Bill: That’s great. It’s just like those old family bakeries in a slightly different, more amplified way. Awesome, so you all both separately and together have had amazing journeys professionally and personally. I’m sure that among the listenership here there’s going to be a lot of folks who are inspired by the path that you both have taken in your own right. One at a time or whoever’s moved to speak on the topic, are there any words of wisdom that you would want to share with people who are inspired by these stories? Any words to live by or lessons from the roads that you all have taken or not taken?
Melissa: I’ll start since I’m the younger one and I feel like …
Bill: It shows.
Melissa: You have more experience to impart, but one thing that Seth kind of reminded me of in the past year is that it’s really not rocket science, and there’s a certain attitude and outlook on life that is necessary in order to do what we do and also what I’ve done. Hard work, self-confidence, and persistence, I think, and passion for what you’re doing.
It’s seeing every challenge as an opportunity. When you find yourself frustrated, knowing that it’s an actual opportunity to solve a problem and learn and be better, going after things that actually take you out of your comfort zone. Like when Seth started, we had just really been in conversation with HarperCollins about the details of writing the book and what it meant, and I said to him like, “Shit, should I write a book?” He was like, “I don’t know,” and then I realized that I was scared to write a book and that’s how I knew I needed to write a book because doing things that make you feel scared and uncomfortable are actually the only way to learn and grow.
Melissa: Those are a lot of things.
Bill: You certainly come across in this life and in this world, and in this company, as being fully in … You know, aligned with yourself and your values and everything else. What about you, old man? What about you, Seth?
Melissa: He’s not an old man. He just has even more … He’s just wiser.
Bill: I know he’s not. He’s very … Yes, he’s grizzled, yeah.
Melissa: Yes. Seth has already done what we’re going to do together.
Bill: Absolutely. He’s going to do it again here. What about you? Any … You’ve shared already some great perspectives on brands and about consistency and about managing teams and forming teams, but a couple thoughts about … You know, from GW University all the way through where we are here, words to live by?
Seth: I think that the most important thing that I’ve learned over the years is that it all comes down to people and culture. If a company believes that it can do anything, it will, and if it doesn’t believe that it can do anything, then it won’t.
I’ve seen that everywhere I’ve been. Convincing and showing people that they are capable of much greater things is super important because it shows them that it’s not only that, but anything they can think of they can make happen, and that’s where there’s this incredible, serendipitous relationship between how Baked by Melissa was founded and kind of the core values that I’ve grown up with and found to be super important. That’s why what we’re doing here is so magical.
Bill: No doubt, and having known you for a bit of time here and then coming to see you in this new environment and seeing immediately how perfect it is for your skills, for your attitudes, for the things that matter, and the things that light you up as a business person. Seth, Melissa, thank you for your hospitality and your insight, and your friendship, and it was a real honor to be with you for this short amount of time today.
Melissa: Thanks for having us, Bill.
Seth: You had us, but great pleasure.
Bill: Many, many thanks for the hospitality and inspiration and insight and sweetness of those treats that we were able to enjoy during the course of this interview. Seth and Melissa are terrific people, inspiring business people, and this is certainly a brand to watch and follow and to engage with from a consumer perspective, because it’s absolutely delicious. When you bring it to an event, whether it’s family or colleagues or friends, eyes light up, conversations start, a lot of smiles around the table and around the room.
Three ways, as always, to support what we do here at Real-World Branding. Certainly if we deserve it, in the app store of your choice we’d love a rating, five stars, please. I’d love comments in there, as well as directly with us. That’s the second way, which is let’s keep this conversation going and engage on Twitter @BillGullan or @FinchBrands, or on Facebook, whatever the social media channel is of your choice. Finch Brands is there, I’m there. Really appreciate your input and your feedback. The skin is thick. Love ideas for future guests and topics, and we appreciate the dialog so very much, and then you know, the third way is to just make sure you don’t miss a one.
Again, I know we’ve been a bit intermittent in our recording schedule and we hope for that to become much more predictable this fall and into the winter, but subscribe. Click that button, so whenever something new comes from us, whether it’s one of these great interviews with brands and business builders or one of the one big ideas that we do in sort of intervening weeks where we talk about a specific topic, you’ll make sure you don’t miss it, since again we’ve been unpredictable so you never know when it’s going to drop. Clicking subscribe in the app store or podcast store of your choice will make sure that you don’t miss it. We’ll sign off. Have a great day from the Cradle of Liberty.
The post Baking Up Brands – Melissa Ben-Ishay and Seth Horowitz of Baked by Melissa appeared first on Finch Brands.
As the cultural divide continues to widen in the US, many brands are caught in the middle. Most notably, the NFL finds itself in between the two positions and things are starting to heat up for the brand. In this podcast, we take another look at the things impacting the NFL’s brand and that of others in the crosshairs. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, your host and the president of Finch Brands, a premiere boutique branding agency. This is on One Big Idea. This is where we lay out a little bit on one particular topic. Whether it be a part of the brand and business building tool kit or something from the realm of current events.
This week I wanted to check back in on something that we discussed a year or so ago and that was the National Football League brand and some of the challenges that the NFL was having. A year ago, there was a big ratings decline in the first few weeks of the season and there was a lot of hand ringing. In some ways, it felt like it was the first sign of any vulnerability really that the NFL had had in many years.
The NFL had asserted both financially and perceptually this hold on American life. This command of our Sundays and our Monday nights and now our Thursdays and everything else. The brand seemed unstoppable. And while it still is far and away the gold standard of live TV and its sub-brands like Monday Night Football continue to be strong and highly valued, the NFL is in some trouble here – at least perceptually.
About a year ago we talked about those early seasons rating drops and there had been a little bit of recovery, there had been a lot of factors that had been discussed back then for why that was. Some big-name players had gotten injured. Last fall the election and all the news surrounding it had sucked up all the oxygen and diverted a large number of eyeballs. There had been debates on the same nights as games. Things like that.
However, we couldn’t ignore then, and we certainly can’t ignore now the role that the NFL, or the position I guess that the NFL had gotten itself in and absolutely did not want to be in, which is in the cross hairs of this cultural and political divide that continues to roil America.
Back then, a year ago, how innocent we were. It seemed that this polarization was a threat to the NFL. It was because the cultural left and cultural right each had a case to prosecute that the NFL was sort of contrary to their own interests and sensibilities.
The left at that time was talking about these wealthy, out of touch white owners who were lining their pockets while the players were cast aside. It was inauthentic commitments to things like domestic violence. You know, they step up with pink one month out of the year to talk about breast cancer but their interest in social justice was very much in question. This continues with obviously be an unfolding conversation about CTE and the nature of the physical risk and the degree in which the league and its ownership covered that up.
We were talking a lot last year about racist team names some think. The Redskins and beyond. It wasn’t really a new critique. There were new elements to it, but the critique of the NFL from the cultural left was pretty well baked in.
Now last year, however, around this time there was the beginning of some distaste or anger from the cultural right. The Kaepernick protest had really just begun. Folks were still reeling from the halftime performance of the Super Bowl prior that Beyonce had given, being very political and activistic, if that’s a word.
You certainly saw some cultural conservatives begin to fall out with the NFL over items like this. And at the time I think we made the point that the NFL was in a bit of a difficult spot. The knives were out for the league from both sides, which is a new territory by the way. The NBA’s long balanced the empowerment and aesthetic and expression of its athletes with sensibilities of advertising, owners, season ticket holders, that might be a little bit more culturally mainstream or risk adverse. But the NFL has really occupied this special place in our culture that’s really never before seen in sports and entertainment and so here was the concern.
Now checking back in on that, good grief. It’s only been a year and looking at the ratings, they’ve declined even further. In fact, the ratings up to this point compared to last year down about 7.5% according to the Sporting News and down 18% over the first five weeks of the 2015 season. That’s a precipitous drop.
And again, there are all sorts of exculpatory reasons. There were hurricanes and increased competition from cable news. There were a lot of newsworthy events like the unfortunate situation in Las Vegas, etc. and then generally cord cutting just continues, and it’s an issue that everybody in entertainment is dealing with. But you can’t look beyond what has happened to make the cultural divide and conversation even more toxic related to the NFL.
With Colin Kaepernick remaining unsigned, with many more protests taking various forms, with the President then weighing in and the Vice President then weighing in, and the blow up that has occurred all around this issue of anthem protests and what it means and whether to tolerate it or not, etc., ad nauseum. I think normal sports fans, like me, are just kind of exhausted by the whole thing.
But here we are. The NFL does not want to be in this position. Commissioner Goodell had said that he wants all players to stand for the National Anthem. That said, that creates some backlash too.
You have a situation where the cultural right and the cultural left, again each have this case to make and the New York Times recently came out, very recently in the last week or so with an article that was based upon a study I think by Morning Consult that found that because of this the NFL is now one of the most divisive brands in the U.S.
It’s less divisive than Trump Hotels mind you but it’s more divisive than Huffington Post, which proclaims a leftward lean, Chick-Fil-A, which has very strong opinions that are controversial, Fox Business, Breitbart, these other in some cases very overtly partisan media sources are considered less divisive. They measure divisiveness by the degree to which there is a difference in favorability among Clinton voters and Trump voters.
And the NFL, at least right now we have a very strong lean actually to the left with Clinton voters viewing the NFL positively at plus 38 and with Trump viewers viewing the NFL negatively at minus 24. That’s a net difference of 62 points. Now caveats of course that outrage has a less long shelf life than it used to have in our society and who knows, the controversy may be gone. Kaepernick may get signed because Aaron Rodgers got hurt and everybody’s back to normal and happy and standing and who knows. Doubt it. Maybe the President moves onto other things. Who knows. But as of now, the NFL was in a bit of trouble a year ago and is in much more, at least in terms of overt and outward negativity from various sides of the cultural and political dialogue.
Again, there is some question as to what degree this hurts the bottom line. The NFL has a long way to go down still to decline in long term ways that threaten not only it’s survival, which seems absurd but it’s continued preeminence in the sports and entertainment landscape in the U.S.
Now while all this is happening, not a surprise in the data, I don’t think there’s the same level of data on it but ESPN has kind of stepped in it too. It’s funny how a year ago I could have done the same thing. Talking about the criticisms of ESPN on political and cultural grounds and back then they would have been coming primarily from the right. As we’ve heard, that has gotten louder. Giving awards to Caitlyn Jenner. Covering with real almost breaking news interests things like Michael Sam and Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest and whether he signed or not signed and what other athletes around the world and in different sports are doing or are not doing to protest.
ESPN has also been very outspoken in what they would say is a values level around things like Title 9. They have vertical, sub-brands, ESPNW to cover so called women’s issues related to sports. The Undefeated, which looks at culture and sports from a perspective of race. And those platforms perhaps, almost by definition come at issues of gender and race from a progressive perspective. Then you have situations like Curt Schilling and Jemele Hill and some believing that there was a double standard in the way that they were treated and sanctioned.
ESPN doesn’t want to be in the middle of this either. So Jemele Hill comes out and Tweets that the President is a white supremacist and is not punished and then Tweets something about an advertising boycott and is punished. Now you have the Reverend Sharpton and others promising a boycott of ESPN advertisers. These big preeminent, dominate brands in sports and culture are stuck in the middle of a debate and a dialogue, it’s not really dialogue, that would suggest that folks are talking to one another but a divide in our country.
Both who are run by very astute and savvy business people who have challenges that are outside of their own realm continue to step in it and make the natural challenges in terms of court cutting and other things even harder by alienating and seeming to go back and forth between alienating one side or the other rather than flying above or below the fray.
I guess if there is a lesson to take from this and when we work with clients on positioning and brand personality and down to the level of values, one needs to own who one is. Trying to be all things to all people means to be nothing to anybody. I’m sure that the NFL would rather not even be in the political conversation at all.
ESPN on the other hand may benefit from underlying and clarifying the fact that it maybe does have at least a cultural point of view. Now there could be arguments about whether that’s helpful or not helpful but trying to appease the fringes on both sides and again, alienating both is certainly not the place that ESPN wants to be as it relates to the growth and continued success of the business.
We’ll leave it there but suffice it to say that as we’ve always said here, commerce is downstream from culture and what happens in the culture represented by brands such as this and angry back and forth such as we’ve seen with ESPN and with the NFL, gather cultural momentum of their own and that certainly has an impact on those brands and others who play in their spaces.
You already see Fox Sports for example competing with and positioning against ESPN. You see smaller brands punching up like Clay Travis on Outkick the Coverage with things that Barstool Sports has done. This creates opportunity for other content providers to come at the world from their own unique angle and that’s a good thing. But I’m sure ESPN wouldn’t want to be caught in the middle and neither would the NFL.
We’ll leave it there and we’ll talk to you soon and sign off from the cradle of liberty.
The post One Big Idea: Kneel or Stand – What’s Happening to the NFL’s Brand? appeared first on Finch Brands.