Strategy is only as good as it’s execution. All too often, we see brands taking a very heavy handed, overt approach to bringing a strategy to life. This week, we look at the recent Diet Coke expansion and how this strategy is directly linked to the brand’s initiative to reach millennials. 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, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Thank you for joining us. This is One Big Idea, and today we’re going to talk about big news out of Atlanta and everywhere else that sells Diet Coke, within the last couple of weeks.
Some changes to the lineup, and this comes on the heels of sort of a rebrand and, I guess, reformulation of a beverage I love called Coke Zero over the summer. It was beloved. They said, “We’re changing it, we’re discontinuing it, we’re changing it and relaunching it. It’s now called Coke Zero Sugar.” It tastes the same to me, which is wonderful, but in any case, it’s apparently different. But that was the, I guess, preparation for what seems to be even a bigger deal, which is major changes to Diet Coke.
Here’s a bit of the backstory, at least as it’s been reported. We all know that there are continual changes in tastes and preferences and beliefs around health and nutrition, and obviously when diet sodas became, over the several decades that they’ve risen to prominence, part of the message there is that sugar bad and artificial sweetener better. That, as well as perspectives about calories, as well as desires for authenticity, etc., etc., have sort of reshaped the way that at least some consumers, particularly younger consumers, think about what health is.
And so just to kind of fast forward to where we are here, Diet Coke, at least the data indicates that Diet Coke and the diet soda category in general is shrinking, not falling off a cliff but shrinking. In the last three months of 2017, research suggests that diet soda sales fell 2% in the US, and in that period Diet Coke fell by 4%, Diet Pepsi by 8, so presumably those who are gaining share or holding steady are not those two sort of behemoth brands but, as with many other categories, sort of craftier, smaller, sort of more authentic, quote-unquote, brands that are those that are keeping the category close to level.
But still, there’s a decline, and given the way the demographic splits break down, the larger concern in Atlanta, of course, would be that this decline is going to be bigger and maybe perhaps longer-lasting, given that it is younger consumers who are rejecting the notion of artificial sweeteners in Diet Coke and everything else. You can, I think, fairly easily see some of the areas where those sales and those beverage purchases are going.
National Beverage Corp., which makes La Croix, reported that sales were up 43% in the sparkling and still flavored water category. Anywhere you look in an urban area, you can see La Croix with its colorful cans. You can see private label versions of sort of seltzer and sparkling. There’s a ton of category momentum there, and the data indicates, as well as, I think, our naked eyes, that it is younger consumers, so-called millennial consumers, who are driving that.
And so here comes Diet Coke, and here’s what they decided to do, and it’s probably available now or pretty soon. In two weeks, at least data indicates it may be around two weeks from now, you will be able to find four new flavors of Diet Coke that are particularly focused on the millennial market. First of all, there’s a general brand makeover that makes Diet Coke a little sleeker, both in terms of packaging and in terms of look and feel, though the original Diet Coke will largely stay the same. However, it will joined by four new flavors: Diet Coke Ginger Lime, Diet Coke Feisty Cherry … I don’t know why it’s all pissed off … Diet Coke Zesty Blood Orange, and Diet Coke Twisted Mango.
The company is being very overt in expressing the target and the intent behind this new launch. In addition to these flavors, these new flavors will come in a can, the dimensions of which and the look and feel very similar to Red Bull. You know, the skinnier, taller, colorful can that maybe Red Bull pioneered but has become de rigueur, at least for energy drinks and for other drinks that are sort of youth-focused and youth-targeted.
North American Group Director for Diet Coke, Rafael Acevedo, says, “We’re modernizing what has made Diet Coke so special for a new generation. Millennials are now thirstier than ever for adventures and new experiences, and we want to be right by their side.” What a brand manager thing to say. I in some ways sort of respect that, but I think it gets to the point of our discussion here.
It’s obviously too early to pass judgment one way or the other on the strategy. I think it’s probably fairly clear that Diet Coke and sort of old line manufacturers and brands like that needed to do something. These trends, which appear to be more durable than just season-by-season, are upsetting and shaking up the balance.
Now, one could make the point about whether Coca-Cola Company can get there with Diet Coke, or whether it made sense to launch a diffusion concept, just as some beer manufacturers did with things like Shock Top and Blue Moon, that felt a little craftier but came from sort of macro-brew types of labels. But anyway, they decided to do it. There’s a limited option set, and they chose one that they think is best for them, and so good for them. T
hey also learned from the mistakes, I guess, of New Coke back then, and the original Diet Coke, the Diet Coke that many millions of consumers, even if the category’s declining, still love and rely on, isn’t changing in a material way, even if the overall brand has a bit of new energy and focus. So we can still get our squat silver can Diet Coke as we so desire.
I think the question, ultimately, that we’ll see the answer to as they go to market is, is this cool? Will their target embrace it? The overt way in which they’re proclaiming how they got there and what they’re doing really is what lends to us the title of this podcast episode. Long-lost friend and creative director emeritus at Finch Brands, Jordan Goldenberg, liked to say, “Ooh, careful. Your strategy’s showing.” And what he meant by that is, I think, a variation of a couple things. One, how brands are judged is how they act, not what they say, A.
And B, if you’ve gone through a process to identify a strategic direction that is promising, you need to deliver it in a way that is received and perceived by the target as authentic and real and sort of connected, and to basically say, “We did a bunch of research on millennials,” as if we’re studying them in the zoo, “we learned the flavors that they’re drinking, and so we replicated them, and then we’re using more or less cosmetic changes to the brand, in terms of the can and other things, and we’re going right after them. We want to be by their side as they seek out new adventures,” raises the question of whether or not Diet Coke’s strategy is showing just a little too much here.
I went to the social media pages for Diet Coke, and all of a sudden … maybe not all of a sudden, but it certainly seems palpable and prominent … that Twitter is using all millennial-speak now for Diet Coke. You know, “Who dis?” and other things that are sort of part of how younger people communicate on Twitter, and it’s just like you wonder whether or not this is real or whether or not it’s sort of cringy. And I guess ultimately that will be one of the determining factors in how successful this move is. You also wonder whether flavor-level changes and/or cosmetic changes to the brand and the packaging and everything else really addresses the concern that millennials have with Diet Coke.
I don’t know that it’s that Diet Coke’s brand image was uncool as much as it is that the sort of sweetening process and the overall ingredient profile and nutritional profile of diet soda in general does not align with the tastes and preferences and sort of emerging belief system of today’s millennial consumer. This relaunch or rebrand or brand extension or whatever you want to call it has nothing to address that. It’s possible that these flavors may, in how colorful they are rendered and how they taste, may win some fans, and that’s obviously what they’re hoping for in Atlanta, but I think the jury’s still out as to the degree to which … of course, it hasn’t even launched, but the jury’s out as to how effective this ultimately will be. I think, as noted, the concern about it is whether or not this is so transparent as to become a little bit cringy.
It’s like, you know, I have kids. I make dad jokes. Dad jokes are sort of recognized as a subsection of humor that’s not really all that funny, maybe a little bit endearing, I hope. But if you’re a brand that’s communicating at a level of sort of trying so hard to be millennial, that’s kind of anti-millennial in the first place. So we’ll see. It’s going to be worth watching. Definitely going to try these flavors. Feisty Cherry’s got to be awesome, and Twisted Mango, I’m not sure what’s twisted about it, but can’t wait. Can’t wait to try it. We’ll certainly be watching. It’s rare and interesting that a brand of this size and heft has made a zig or a zag that is this significant, and for that reason alone, super-interesting for our industry, and we wish them all the best.
Signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.
Pia Silva: Never be different just for the sake of being different. I think that people get confused with that, “Oh, I have to stand out, so let me do this thing,” and that’s why there’s so much inauthenticity milling about.
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 it’s not going to stop me, folks, having a cold here, which you may be able to hear a little bit of the vestiges of. I know that it is of deep concern to our listeners, but I am on the upswings. Been a pretty congested couple of days, but happy to say that things are better in that realm, as well as really excited about today’s guest. Pia Silva is a partner, co-founder, brand strategist, at Worstofall Design, which is a Brooklyn-based design and branding agency that focuses its business on sort of one to three-person services companies, and they do this through really intensive what they call brand-ups, which is a methodology for how to sort of build and plan around brands for companies like that. And it’s a little bit off the beaten path for us.
Pia’s written a book called, “Badass Your Brand”, which is a practical kind of how-to guide for companies like that, for how to think about their own brands and build them. She also writes for Forbes and in other places. She speaks widely for entrepreneurial organizations, and so she’s a visible leader who has a unique perspective on this and a particular focus, and whether you’re the type of business that Pia would traditionally service, the small services firm, or whether you’re not, there are definitely lessons to be drawn from her perspectives in the work that she does.
So enjoy Pia Silva. We are honored to have Pia Silva from Brooklyn join us today.
Pia, thank you so much for your time.
Pia: Thank you so much, Bill. Great to be here.
Bill: It’s our pleasure, and our listeners’ pleasure, too. And your journey and story is a fascinating one, as well as obviously some of the work that you do and beliefs sort of about branding and about this industry that you hold, and we’ll certainly get into that, but maybe a place to start would be a bit of your own story and sort of what has led you to the point where we’re speaking today.
Pia: Sure. Well, I’m born and raised New Yorker, and always just felt very entrepreneurial, I think just because I never wanted a boss. I think that was the thing that was very clear to me. Knew nothing about design or branding. I went to school for economics. And about six, a little over six years ago my then-fiance, now husband, and I were traveling around trying to figure out what the hell we were going to do in our lives, and was an amazing … he’s a very talented artist and painter, but he’s also an amazing graphic designer, and he was freelancing, and at a certain point I just said, “You know what? I’m going to just manage your business. Let me get the clients. You’re terrible with money, but you’re very, very talented. I can make a lot of money off of you.”
Bill: Keep you in your lane, right. Yeah.
Pia: Stay in your lane, yeah. So I said, “You just stick to creative. I’ll find the clients. I don’t know anything about this, but I’ll figure it out.” And that is where it all began.
Bill: Right. And there was a moment, just having read through the story, where all of the … “This has got to be easy, right?” Or “I can just work hard and it’ll happen.” Didn’t happen exactly the way we drew it up. And it sounds like there was a big moment of sort of discovery and pivot.
And take us through a little bit of the realization.
Pia: Yeah. Well, like I said, I didn’t know anything about this, so my first step was just to look for clients. I did it on Craigslist, I did it networking. That got me around a lot of little agencies. I saw what they were doing. I copied what they were doing, again, just trying to figure it out. And all of that led us to have a couple of employees, a studio in Brooklyn, going after bigger and bigger projects, that kind of seemed like what you were supposed to do.
Pia: That’s how you make money. You keep increasing prices and bigger, better clients. And all of that landed us in $40,000 of debt three years into our business. So I was just working so hard and I meant so well, but it just wasn’t working. So that was a terrible time in my past, but also probably one of the most amazing things that could have happened. The $40,000 of debt is so important to me, because at the time that was my credit limit.
Pia: So there was literally nowhere else to go.
Pia: We could not continue the way we did. So we were kind of forced into a corner to figure out … we’re going to do something different. I thought I was going to have to get a job. I was freaking out. And there were kind of a couple of light bulb moments, one of which was Steve telling me, “This is not a failed business, we just … maybe we can kind of do it differently, and maybe it doesn’t have to look the way you think it has to look.”
Pia: And so that was like, “pew, pew, pew,” light bulbs and fireworks going off, and I was like, “Oh, you’re right, it doesn’t have to look like that.” And we completely pivoted our business, redefined what we were looking for in life, what success meant to us, and we got rid of our employees, unfortunately, but it was the best decision for us, and we built the business that we have today, which is the complete opposite of that, an enjoyable and beautiful thing that gives me profit and happiness and freedom. Yeah.
Bill: What we can all strive for.
And this business, one of the things that’s interesting and our listeners know, I think what we do here at Finch and we talk a lot about, large organizations thinking through in some cases complex brand strategy and executional issues, but from my perspective, at least, currently, if I’m wrong, Worstofall Design really focuses on small service businesses and helps them, quote, as you would say, “Badass their brand.” In fact, you have a book called “Badass Your Brand”. And I know there’s a specific offer for our listeners, which we’ll detail later in terms of being able to access some of that content.
But how did you all hit upon that focus? Because as you say, the agency way is you go bigger and bigger and bigger and you fake it till you make it and you pitch forever larger projects and [inaudible 00:06:39]. But it seems like part of the transformation for you all was this level of focus, and how did that come?
Pia: Yeah, absolutely. And my hat’s off to you, Bill, because you’re working with bigger organizations and all of that is very complex stuff. I’ve done it in the past. It’s not an easy feat, and nor is wrangling organizations of people.
Pia: Many design by committees, one of the things that we hate, and we did it a lot back in the day, our focus really started from looking at how do we define success, what are we really looking for in this business, and I think that I was seeing all these agencies, and as you just said, “Oh, it’s supposed to look like that,” but then when I said, “Well, what are we really going for here?” … Steve and I just want time to ourselves. We want to do projects we love. We want to be great at what we do, and we realize that it is fake it till you make it, but we don’t have to fake it over there. I do know a lot of stuff. I know a lot of stuff about small businesses, and especially these kind of almost a micro business, solopreneurs. This is the world I live in, and I can bring a lot of value to those brands and those business owners in a way that I can’t to organizations personally, because I have never worked in a corporate environment.
So they all kind of aligned at once. “Okay, we’re looking for success and freedom and profit and freedom in our life, and we want to be really good at what we do, and we also want to work in this intensive model, because we’re not really fond of these long, drawn-out projects that kind of suck our energy and suck the creativity out of the work sometimes.
So they all kind of aligned into the same thing, which is what we do now, these one to three-day intensive branding projects, and those really work for the one to three-person service businesses that we specialize in. And I think we kind of excel in that space, because not only do we focus there so every time we do a client we get even better, but I’m simultaneously one of them, so I bring a lot of knowledge about business to the table. They hire us for branding, but half of what I do is business consulting.
Bill: Right, sure.
Pia: Because it’s necessary and they need it, and my job is really just to solve their problem in the end, so they might say, “Well, I need a logo,” but it’s like, “Well, what’s the problem? Let’s solve that.”
Bill: Right, sure. Well, one of the things that is appealing to us and to me is we’re talking about Badass brands, but the end of that is sort of without the BS. Our industry is noted as … certainly contributed many elements of jargon to the world and sometimes we over-complicate things. Sometimes we naval-gaze. Sometimes we confuse or prolong.
Talk to me about the second part of the sentence, the “without the BS.” Why is that important to you and how do you kind of check yourself, and what’s that all about?
Pia: Yeah. Well, I think that originated from feeling like when we were doing six-month projects there was a lot of BS in that project.
Pia: There was a lot of back and forth. There was a lot of tweaking of the hue of the blue and we were like, “What are we doing here? This is so irrelevant to what’s going on.” And so we built this process that eliminated all of that. Now, at the time, we pivoted from going after 30 to $50,000 projects to doing one-day brand-ups for $3,000. Now, that’s a big swing, but the … and it was for a different target, obviously, but part of it was this was more profitable, but it was also that we were cutting out the BS of many weeks of feedback and revisions and all of that, and clients were really coming into trust us and say, “We want what you have to give us, and we kind of trust that you know what that looks like.”
So cutting out the back and forth and the “Let my show my wife and my brother and my sister-and-law and see what they think,” all of that to me is such BS in these projects. And so but you get to get our work, which I think is very high level, at a lower price, although I don’t position us as low priced-
Bill: Yeah, of course.
Pia: … not low priced anymore. But you get it at a lower price because you’re willing to give up the BS to be in the project. So that’s a big part of it.
Bill: Definitely. I know that the answer for each individual company or client or entrepreneurs is different, but aren’t there common threads in how small business, service businesses, ought to think about branding that might help them frame the conversation in a way that’s sort of productive?
Pia: Frame the conversation for themselves?
Bill: Yeah, and just sort of think about-
Pia: Figure out their brand?
Bill: You make the point in some of your writings that branding is a word that’s kind of tossed around in so many different contexts as to maybe not have as much meaning as we would perhaps want it to. So for the types of clients that you target and where there’s sort of the greatest amount of value for your work, how should they think about branding?
Pia: I think that for the very small business, you are your biz. I mean, especially if you’re the only person in it or just a couple of people, you’re really the guiding light. So it should originate with what you’re best at, what you love to do, where you can deliver the most value. And I think when people think of brand, because it’s so widely used across so many industries and sizes of businesses, we have to water it down and say that it’s emotion and it’s the colors and whatever.
But when it comes to very small businesses, it also has a lot to do … well, it always has to do with your positioning, but it just has a lot to do with what that special little thing that you have to offer is and really pulling that out of you and throwing it on a billboard and owning it and being known for it and building this reputation that precedes you. And you can do that so much more easily when you’re a very small business, because you don’t need that many clients to make a lot of money and to be very profitable and to have a life of freedom.
So definitely my clients are more lifestyle business oriented, but the badass, really standing in your space and being okay to not be misunderstood, I say, “If you want to be loved, you need to be okay being misunderstood or even disliked by others.” That works for the small business in a way that I don’t necessarily think it applies to much larger companies when you’re trying to slice off a piece of the pie of the market share. It’s just a different strategy.
Bill: No, makes sense. And so in a minute I’ll ask you for a couple of examples of either clients of yours or folks who you think very really sort of done this well. One of the things in our business and in our industry, as you well know, that people are sort of craving and we’re trying to help people sort of drive towards is a sense of difference. In the sort of small business universe where there may be thousands of people doing in a rough proximate geography the same suite of services or at least offering, more or less the same answers, how do you think about difference or about distinctiveness, and how important is it to be differentiated versus communicating with some degree of personality? I mean, these things are all related, but could you speak about differentiation and its sort of role and the challenge of that perhaps in markets that are really saturated?
Pia: Yeah, absolutely. Well, first of all, never be different just for the sake of being different. I think that people get confused with that, “Oh, I have to stand out, so let me do this thing,” and that’s why there’s so much inauthenticity milling about. But I think that you want to find your difference through an authentic piece of your personality paired with some sort of positioning and space that you can own, and I think that the biggest mistake people make is having a fear of limiting themselves, not understanding that there’s such a beauty in being that expert.
And some people fear boredom, which I think is ridiculous, because success is not boring. Chasing after clients is boring, I think. But also that being specialized in something actually opens up a whole space for you to grow and I think actually find a lot of opportunity to do different things, because for me, every client is a new challenge and a new opportunity not just to do stuff for them, but also to build on my own process and become better.
So if you’re always striving for that kind of Mr. Miyagi, I call it, of your space, then really owning a smaller space is the key to that, especially in a saturated market. And since most people are scared of owning a space and owning their position in the world, it’s usually not that hard to rise above the sea of saneness.
Bill: Right. Do you have an example or two of folks who’ve sort of followed this approach, either with your help or without, and have kind of gotten it done? I mean, the work’s never done, of course, but that are kind of good examples of this line of thinking and work?
Pia: Yeah, absolutely. So one of my first clients with the brand-up actually said they’ve been active the longest, is a company is a company called Stash Wealth, and they’re a financial firm positioned for young professionals, millennials. And when they came to us, they said that they wanted to be for this younger generation because they were very anti the Merrill Lynch that they came from and how it’s just for wealthy people.
Pia: And that was a perfect example of they were doing that, but then everything that they put out there really looked like just a watered-down version of Merrill Lynch. It was a little sassy, but [inaudible 00:16:41] and boring and appropriate, and so I pushed them into this other direction, they had a different name and everything, but I pushed them into this other direction and now they say things like, their newsletter is, “Your financial Cliff Notes, get your financial shit together,” like all their articles are amazing and I highly recommend checking them out. Actually, they’re really great writers over there.
But they really own their voice and space, and when they first started this, it was so almost cute, because they were like, “We can’t say that.” Financial people are emailing us and telling us, “This is inappropriate” and all of that, and I said, “Exactly, ’cause you’re not them, and if you don’t understand that they’re not going to get it, you’re never going to be the differentiated brand that you can be and that you should be.”
And so their perfect example … because it took them a good six months to really embrace it, but once they did, I mean, their brand is killer. And they’re very well-known and people really love their brand and kind of fall in love with it. And that’s how they attract tons of clients because of it.
Bill: Yeah, that’s an interesting story, and I think it seems like there’s two … there’s many, but two sort of obvious takeaways for our world that we share about this. One is leaning into your sense of self rather than to your point, being hung up on what you can or can’t do. I mean, if you have a perspective and sort of an animating thought or purpose or direction, live into it and really make it happen rather than water it down, because then it isn’t as different or as compelling as it was intended to be. And then the second is the strength and importance of brand personality in expressing sort of unique ideas and build trust and everything else. What a great story.
Pia: Yeah. And they’ve done a really good job because it was really authentic to them.
Pia: My job was to pull it out of them and say, “No, actually write how you speak. You are very compelling people. You’re too scared to show that online.” So I mean, half my job is also helping people get over the fear of being themselves.
Bill: There’s a therapy quality to what you do.
Pia: Yeah. We call it a “brand shrink.”
Bill: Right, exactly.
In terms of your own sort of journey, I mean, as noted, you’ve taken us through part of the story at least in your work with Steve and your life with Steve to kind of reach the brink and then pivot, you have expanded this sort of Pia Silva empire into-
Pia: Thank you for calling it that.
Bill: Sure. It’s an empire.
Speaking and writing and being sort of an advocate for a particular line of thinking. How do you kind of see at mid-career yourself and your own sort of brand and your own endeavor, and what are the things that are kind of important to you beyond client work moving forward?
Pia: Yeah. Thanks for asking that. I mean, that really is where this is going. I just, I love people working for themselves doing what they love, and I hate how many people want to do that and are having a hard time with it. I just think … I won’t get into my big visions of how to change the world, but a lot of it has to do with kind of just everybody being able to invest a lot and being very potent in the world, and that doesn’t happen when you’re in scare city mode and it doesn’t happen when you’ve got day-to-day things that you’re struggling with, and so I just want to spread these ideas and kind of empower people to really own their space so they can move into the more abundant place where they’re really doing their thing. They’re really great at it, they attract the kind of clients they want to work with, they don’t have to work with clients who don’t appreciate them. And I think that that just kind of spawns this much more giving community of people who also have a lot of money to hire other people like them.
Pia: I give back to this community because I hire a lot of similar, like-minded people who are delivering really high value. And they charge a lot, but I’m willing to pay it, because I appreciate that value and I get a lot of value from that, because I value my time.
So I’m trying to feed this, I call it the “solopreneur economy.” I want to feed it with as many awesome people as possible, so I want to spread these messages through my book and my writing, and I have an online quote coaching course now that I’m training people to do this stuff, as well.
Bill: Well, one of the things that comes through is both in your own experience growing this business and some of the speaking and writing that you’ve done is this sort of networking isn’t necessarily the right and only answer for how to expand visibility and sort of become known within a community. In fact, there’s a “Screw Networking as Usual,” speaking-
Pia: Oh, I know.
Bill: … place that you’ve had and it’s sort of on your LinkedIn and everything else. When it comes to small services businesses who may think the best way to win clients is to sort of be everywhere and to be in every event and to carry that stack of business cards, I mean, what’s the message for them to get out of kind of the old way of doing this? What are alternatives and ways maybe to sort of more efficiently get this process done?
Pia: Sure. Well, okay, yeah. So I really hate on networking all the time, because I did-
Bill: Sure, sure.
Pia: … sucked my soul. But it is a great short-term strategy, and I do recommend it actually as a short-term strategy. I would say that it’s a great short-term strategy to build a group of people around you who really know and like and trust you and get what you do, and they become your unofficial marketing team. But this only has to be short term if you do the other stuff, which is badassing your brand so that you have something that’s very memorable, I say “noticeable, memorable and sharable.” Do people when they hear it they remember it and then they think about it later because something triggered it and they’re excited to tell them because you’re so clearly a good fit because you so clearly align with a certain kind of client? All of those things, if you do those very well, you don’t have to network for very long, because you’ll never be forgotten.
I haven’t networked in over four or five years at this point, and every once in a while I’ll go to an event that is a bunch of people there that I used to know. They’re all still networking on a consistent basis to get clients and they all remember me, ’cause my company’s Worstofall Design, I mean, it’s hard to forget, and they all know now that I do this intensive branding. Nobody else does that. So there’s kind of a couple of things there, and I don’t have to show my face all the time.
So it’s short term, and then long term is really the content creation, and continuing to build your value online and be visible in a way … by investing in things that live on past you being there. That’s why content creation is so important, because it continues … it has exponential value over time.
Bill: Right, right. Makes sense.
I don’t expect you to give away the book or the core of the work that you do-
Pia: That’s okay. I give it all away.
Bill: There you go. But I mean, other core principles of sort of badassing your brand from your perspective, what can you tell us, and again, feel free to hold something back, but about what that means and how to do that?
Pia: It means, well, first of all, really figuring out where your focus is going to be. It means really looking inside yourself and how you define success, as I mentioned earlier. It means really looking inside yourself and figuring out what you are and aren’t willing to own and kind of getting over yourself about worrying about what other people may or may not think.
Pia: One of the worst things you can do is have one person comment, “Oh, I don’t understand that,” or “I don’t get your website,” and then change it every time. I think a lot of people do that out of fear, and it’s actually more confusing and I think it waters it down.
And then the last chapter, I’ll give it away, the last chapter is all about, “Do you have the guts to say no? Do you have the guts to say no to bad clients, bad projects, projects that are outside your value, projects that you could do and make a little bit of money with but ultimately are not feeding your long-term value and your long-term brand in any way. It’s just, I call it “fast cash,” cash in hand for trading your time. You can do that if you’re desperate, but I would look at that as a desperate situation kind of thing, and you want to get out of that as quickly as possible. And then you want to grow the kahunas to say no in the future and realize there are better clients around the corner and look at that stuff as the opportunity cost of taking a bad client over right around the corner there’s a better client and I’ll be happier and more profitable because of it.
Bill: Right, okay.
You mentioned your own sort of curricular interests in economics, and this was at Wesleyan, yes?
Bill: Okay. So you and I are both liberal arts people. I was a Davidson College, maybe the southern version. Is there something about your academic path that prepares you or enhances your perspective or your efficacy in the sort of brand strategy/brand role here? We’ve been thinking a lot about it, and I think a fair percentage of our listeners are students who are sort of those starting out. What’s your take on the role of the liberal arts and sort of the full development of PI as a businessperson here?
Pia: Interesting. I think probably more outside the classroom than inside.
Bill: Right, right.
Pia: But I had a lot of really amazing friends and colleagues and mind-expanding experiences and conversations that I think really … I mean, days spent hypothesizing on utopia and how to create it and I think all of that has informed how I ultimately see a bigger vision here. What I’m going for here is really more about how do you reshape society or communities in a way that is more effective. And as an economics major, I’m always looking at exemptives and I’m always believing that you use incentives to make people go a certain direction or another, so I think the incentive part especially is a big thing for me, and so I’m always bringing that in to how I approach the strategy for the clients, but also my own strategy in business and what I’m trying to do, how do I incentivize people to do the things I think are best.
Bill: Right, right. Makes sense.
Thank you so much for your time and your insight. Your energy is palpable. I mean, we’re on Skype here, but it comes through.
You shared a few, but are there a couple sort of rules to live by or ideas to internalize as you think about your own career path? I mean, I think for those who are inspired by what you’ve done and the choices you’ve made and what you do, are there couple of key lessons that we ought to take from this that we can maybe apply to our own journeys?
Pia: Yeah. For me, the one that I keep learning every six months or year is always take a step back and reevaluate and look at what the next thing is. Steve and I make it a point of going away. We try to do it every year for at least one or two months. And getting that really far distance gives a huge perspective, and every time we do it we come back with a whole restructured idea of where we’re going next.
So this past summer we went to Europe for two months and we came back and decided that we were only going to work 1:00 to 6:00 five days a week, and we were just going to do whatever we needed to do to make that happen, because we can be really potent in those five hours. And so far it’s been pretty amazing. I get more done now than I did before went on this trip, and I don’t know if I would have been able to do that if I hadn’t been on that, always stepping back and looking, so that’s what I would say.
Bill: Cool. Definitely words to live by, and I guess by coming to a conclusion like that, it forces you to figure out how to do it, in a way, and to stick to it and to hold yourself accountable to it in a way that works for you and obviously helps deliver benefit to your clients.
Pia Silva of Worstofall Design, of piasilva.com, of badassyourbrain.com, the author of Badass Your Brain, thank you so much for your time and insight.
Pia: My pleasure, Bill. Thank you so much for having me.
Bill: Thank you, Pia, so much for your time and insight, your energy, the story. It’s all super interesting.
And as noted, this is not a type of company that Finch Brands works with that extensively and to be able bring on someone who really does focus on what are a unique set of issues and opportunities for small services businesses as they find their voice and really lean into what makes them distinctive and proceed with confidence and focus.
Pia has, and I mentioned it in the interview, very generously created an offer for listeners of the Real-World Branding Podcast. If you go to badassyourbrand … sorry for the kids in the audience, if you go to badassyourbrand.com/finchbrands, apparently you will be able to download the first chapter of the book and there will be other goodies for you to access there that sort of relate to the conversation that we’ve just had and heard.
And as always, if you’re eager to or open to supporting what we do here at Real-World Branding, there’s a couple different ways that you can do that. The first is let’s keep the dialogue going on Twitter. Probably the best way, you got to come at me directly @BillGullan, or @FinchBrands. Love to hear thoughts and criticism, too, the skin is thick, as well as ideas for future guests and topics.
And then two ways that I think will be helpful to making sure that others who would enjoy this content have the ability to find it is, one, to subscribe within the podcast store of your choice. If you click that subscribe button, you’ll make sure that you do not miss content from us. And our goal’s to do this weekly and we’ve been pretty loyal to that recently. We have interviews like the one with Pia every other week, and then in between we do what’s called “One Big Idea,” where we really focus on a specific topic and it’s either me or me and a colleague or two from Finch who have specific expertise.
So hopefully every week there’s some content from us, and if you click “subscribe,” you’ll make sure that you never miss one. And it also I think helps us become visible within those app stores or those podcast stores for those who may be looking for interesting content about branded business building.
And then the last thing which would also be helpful in that regard is to give us a rating, hopefully five stars if we’ve earned it. We are told, at least there’s obviously some mystery around this, that the number of subscribers and how many ratings you get indicates something about how the algorithms kind of pick you up in search rankings, and obviously our goal is to expand what we’re doing here and to continue what we’re doing here, so we’d be grateful for whatever support you are compelled to provide.
And on that note, we’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
The post Small Business Branding – Pia Silva, Partner at Worstofall Design appeared first on Finch Brands.
Almost every day or every week there’s a negative headline about a brand. In this week’s episode, we look back on brands that have been tarnished by some event or series of events and how and why some scandals will hurt brands more than others. 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, president of Finch Brands a premier boutique branding agency and this is One Big Idea. Today’s topic is scandal. Maybe not in such a fun and interesting way as some scandals, but we’re going to talk today about brands that have been either intermittently or permanently tarnished by some event or series of events.
We’ve all seen it and you see it now almost every day or every week there’s something ripped from the headlines about a brand. The news cycle makes the negativity seem unrelenting and after a couple of days one can’t even see how the brand could recover from that which is in the headlines and the beating that they’re taking on social media and well beyond.
Though, many brands do recover and recover relatively quickly. We’re going to talk today about some recent scandals or incidents or general narratives and we’re going to try to understand why few, several of them have recovered quickly and a couple of them haven’t or might not and try to figure out why that is.
There are in our media today and in our ability to communicate over social, endless opportunities to go viral for all the wrong reasons. A couple of examples from the last year, United. That happened in the spring and the shaky viral mobile phone video of the passenger being bloodied and then dragged off a flight sent the brand’s reputation metrics into free fall.
There was a lot of negative publicity this year about Uber which led to a management change. This is about workplace culture. This is about rider safety. This is about various tactics that the company has used to continue to disrupt the taxi industry and grow its service.
Another brand in the headlines for reasons that nobody’s happy about is Amtrak, dealing with a pretty significant crash situation within the last month and all that comes out of something like that. And then there’s other brands too that we’ll get to in a minute.
My thesis is though, that brand damage seems to be really closely tied to issues that hit at the heart of a brand’s appeal. A lot of the data that I’m going to cite comes from a media source called Morning Consult that tracks a lot of favorability ratings and buzz ratings for various brands and actually we find their daily emails and site to be very stimulating when it comes to content around the business world and about the brand world and consumer behavior.
It was interesting to note that shortly after the United scandal, so called scandal, happened they wrote an article that said some scandals matter, United, and some scandals don’t which was Uber. A lot was happening at the time of these scandals, but the data indicates that Uber, Amtrak, and United have all recovered quickly and meaningfully when it comes to net favorability.
Let’s look at United first. Different writers, but now Morning Consult has written an article called The United Scandal That Wasn’t. The company fell in favorability after this service scandal, immediately and deeply. But less than six months later they’re almost back to where they began. Morning Consult reports that their favorability dropped from 57% to 35% in one week but as the year ends, the stock market, stock price is generally unmoved, financial health of the company’s where it was and consumer purchasing consideration is where it was.
This was a scandal that on April 9th all this happened and even the President called it horrible. Everybody was the ripping the CEO, Oscar Muñoz. There were hearings and everything else. The company was testifying on the Hill etc. The response was botched. There were three apologies within a week.
The company however, data indicates, did not suffer in long term material ways. Favorability plummeted as noted, very quickly, the scandal was deeply covered. An incredible percentage of adults said that they’d heard that coverage and everybody was grumbling about it but then the buzz dissipated and here we are at this writing according to Morning Consult, United favorability has returned to levels almost matching the beginning of the year.
Roughly half of respondents in their rolling favorability poll, 48% view United favorably and that’s about where the year began. We’ve gone from a scandal that in April seemed maybe even to be the death of an airline brand to six, seven, eight months later a complete perceptual recovery.
Let’s look at Uber. Similar situation. The continued pull away of Travis Kalanick, I think that’s how you pronounce it, Kalanick, Kalanick sounds unpleasant. Kalanick. Was a big issue throughout the year. There were tons of meaningful scandals that were either momentary or reported in an ongoing way.
There was a toxic corporate culture for female employees, there was issues at the leadership level with Travis and others. There were class action lawsuits within the investor group. There was a major data breach. There are, every so often, a fight or a rape or something horrible happens somewhere in the world and an Uber driver is implicated. All of this happens and it hits the headlines and people roll their eyes and there’s symposia about Uber’s culture in the valley and Travis leaves etc.
But, here we are. Since Morning Consult began tracking the Uber brand among consumers in terms of favorability, the average favorability rating for Uber has been 45%. As of the last week, their average favorability’s at 47%. Whereas the main competitor Lyft, which is intended and portrays itself to be warmer and fuzzier is down at 34%.
One of the major things within the last year was that when a former Uber engineer published in February or March an expose of what she considered to be sexual harassment and gender bias within the company, at that time the favorability that Uber was experiencing was at 44% and before her post it was at 49 so pretty significant, quick drop.
Then, the resignation of Travis in June also was all over the headlines but had a limited impact on perception of the company. Since his resignation the favorability which was on June 20th, the favorability has been on average 42% and prior to that it was 47% and now it’s back up into 47% territory. Uber’s an example of withstanding the headlines.
The last one, Amtrak had this horrible jumping of the tracks in Washington state in the middle of December. Three people were killed, dozens injured. A survey that was conducted right on the heels of that showed that Amtrak had 51% favorability, ranked below other transportation companies like Southwest and Delta and American Airlines etc. Yet, among those Amtrak passengers, the rail service remained at a 70% favorability level. A majority, 59% said that the crash was a so called “isolated incident and it was not illustrative of a widespread and systemic problem.”
These are brands that have recovered reasonably quickly from, in some cases very quickly, from headlines or scandals or stories that seemingly placed really strong negative baggage and in the middle of these scandals seemed almost too big to recover from. At least in the moment. It certainly did for United. Again, one of the, my core hypothesis as to why this is is that airline travel sucks and airlines and employees can be heavy handed, we know that. But what happened on United is not attacking the very foundation of who United seeks to be. It maybe reveals them to be unsatisfactory but it doesn’t reveal them to be hypocritical.
Amtrak, same thing. Easy to chalk up and ultimately has been chalked up as an isolated incident. We all know the infrastructure in this, or all believe the infrastructure in this country’s crumbling. Sometimes there’s driver error. We’re quick to forgive in a case like that. Not to forget certainly and maybe not even to forgive but for the brand to recover.
The issues at Uber as noxious and concerning and negative as they are, Uber has never proclaimed itself to be in the business to be socially progressive or to be pioneers of positive workplace culture or anything else. They’re there to disrupt, in some cases using very aggressive tactics, that sleepy, non-innovative taxi market that has been screwing people over for years in major cities.
Uber’s damage, whatever damage they take from that does not hit the core of who they are. Nor does it reveal them to be hypocritical in any sort of meaningful way.
Then here’s two brands that we’ve talked about before in this space that are facing negativity right now and that’s CNN and the NFL. The concern about that baggage that either a general narrative among some in the US, CNN not being fair to the President and the President certainly pushing forth that narrative and then the NFL for the all the problems that we talked about. These are brands that risk a lot and stand to lose a lot in an enduring and durable way from these scandals and these negative narratives.
CNN, ‘the most trusted name in news.’ Their brand is predicated upon a widespread belief in their impartiality. The toll that this back and forth with the White House and with right leaning voters in general, this back and forth has taken a significant toll in terms of their degree of and sense of perception.
Morning Consult did this Buzziest Brands of 2017 story recently and they found that CNN was number 18 on that list with a total buzz of 51% and this is calculated by folks who’ve heard something about it within a reasonable amount of time. But within that buzz 25% of it is positive, 26% is negative. A toll is being taken from this dialogue and I would argue a toll that has a long-term negative impact on the brand because the debate is about the heart of who CNN is and seeks to be and what it wants to be known for.
Then you have the NFL. We’ve talked in a variety of ways at great length about the challenges they’ve had with ratings and other measures of brand health. The risk that the NFL faces here is again, that the heart of who they are and seek to be which is this patriotic pro-American, bringing people together, family focused owner of our Sundays and our Thursdays and our Mondays, all the concerns about player safety and all the concerns about the anthem back and forth and all of the debates about that have real impact because it chips away not only at people’s desire to watch and how one feels about watching but it chips away the identity of who the NFL is and what the brand stands for.
We’ll leave it there. Suffice it to say that in 2018 as we get going, there will be very likely, headline grabbing scandals and incidents and we’re looking at you H&M this week. However, I would argue that whether a brand can recover and if so how quickly, from this type of widespread either controversy or negativity, has to do with whether the content of that negativity is a shot across the broadside of fundamental brand attributes and personality or whether it is largely and easily, ultimately interpreted as being something apart from that.
The brands that recover [from scandal] are those whose fundamental value propositions, brand promises, and connections with the consumer are based on other characteristics. The brands that risk long-term damage are those where these incidents are really at the heart of who they are.
From the Cradle of Liberty, this Bill Gullan. We’ll sign off. Have a great day.
The post One Big Idea – Brand Damage and the Effects of Scandal appeared first on Finch Brands.
With significant differences from marketing to consumers, B2B branding is a unique and interesting challenge for organizations across the globe. Having served as a senior executive at three best-in-class multinational companies: Aramark, Tyco International and CHEP (Brambles Ltd), Jason Rabbino shares his insights on how to build strong brands in the B2B world. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Jason Rabbino: But on the B2B side, once you go beyond your home country the brand characteristics, the brand value, the brand message may resonate quite differently.
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 Happy New Year. 2018 is upon us. Hope everyone had a warm and bright holiday season and the right amount of laughter and rest and everything else, because we’re ready for a new year and we’re coming at it with a vengeance and a fervor, starting with today’s conversation with Jason Rabbino.
Jason has an incredible career as a senior executive across different organizations at different moments. His career began, as you will hear, with a distinguished period of service in the US Navy as a pilot and as a lieutenant, which extended into work with McKinsey and then into senior executive roles across a variety of global, primarily B2B focused institutions, including many that you’ve heard, Aramark, Tyco and others.
His perspective on branding in B2B, his perspective on managing and building brands across international markets, and his general perspective on leadership and team building is something that makes for a tremendous listen, so enjoy Jason Rabbino.
Bill: We are honored here at Finch Brands to welcome Jason Rabbino to our offices and to our show. Jason is the CEO of Saberhawk Growth Advisors and we’re grateful for your time.
Jason: It’s great to be here, and thank you guys very much for having me.
Bill: It’s a pleasure. Let’s start where we normally do. You have such an incredible career that hopefully you’ll at least give us the highlights of, so could you take us through your journey a little bit and what leads us here?
Jason: Yeah. Sure. I’ve had three stages in my career. My first ten years or so I was actually in the US Navy, and most of that was flying helicopters, so a pretty different portion of my career, pretty good global brand I guess you’d say, but not something I was actively promoting.
Bill: It’s a leader in its space.
Jason: Exactly. Number one in its sector for sure. Coming out of the Navy, I had gotten my MBA at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and joined McKinsey and Company. McKinsey certainly has a famous brand name unto itself, but for me it was an opportunity to work with leading companies across all sectors and understand what made great companies work, everything about people, about products and services and innovation, but also about brands and what made brands distinctive and made brands last and evolve over time.
I had a chance to work with great organizations there for about six years, and after doing that I decided at that point I really wanted to get more hands on personal ownership over organizations and really drive the change over a longer period of time. I had the opportunity to move up to Philadelphia and join Aramark.
Aramark is certainly a leader in its space and a great brand. At the time that I joined, Aramark was really on an early stage of a longer journey to reinvent itself. It had been known very long as a great outsource services provider, but in that timeframe, so this is about 2005, Aramark was moving more and more towards positioning itself as a business partner, going in and working with our clients to help them deliver their services to their customers better, and Aramark really being the engine that enabled them.
I joined the healthcare group and we provided food service, facility services and clinical engineering services to hospitals and healthcare systems. In 2005, it was a bit more who could offer the lowest price and who could do it the fastest or least costly. What we did over the first couple of years I was there though was we took our team and then ultimately our customers in the marketplace on a journey to link when you deliver our services better that delivers better healthcare outcomes.
The idea of the Aramark healthcare brand was not so much we do these services, it was we make the hospital or the healthcare environment better. That allows you to get better patient outcomes, better health outcomes. That leads to better doctor and nurse satisfaction, lower employee turnover, and so you combine a brand like Aramark but then link it to delivering patient health and delivering outcomes that the staff gets excited about, that’s a much more powerful value proposition. Over the years I was there it allowed Aramark initially in healthcare and then in other segments as well such as higher ed, business services and sports entertainment to really link its business and link the Aramark brand to better success for our client organizations.
Bill: Right. We’ll resume in a minute, but I think during the Aramark experience you had some role in pioneering online ordering, if I recall, which spun out independently from within the Aramark umbrella?
Jason: Yeah. Absolutely. One of the most fun things, and probably the most different things for Aramark at the time was in 2006 we acquired a relatively small company based primarily in New York called seamlessweb.com. Most people today are very familiar with what’s now called either Seamless or Grubhub, depending on what market you’re in, but at that time it was a pretty nascent B2B business model.
Initially we thought we’d integrate it into the broader Aramark brand and make it the e-commerce arm of that, but after about six months past the acquisition we realized that there was more and more opportunity for Seamless to drive its own growth. We worked initially with Jason Finger, the founder, and his team and then started bringing Aramark people up to New York to join the team there and really focus them in two ways.
One was to make them much more independent, so they were a part of Aramark we really let them grow their brand and what they’re doing as a distinctive brand identity, but secondly, we asked the team to start looking more at the consumer market, looking more at what B2C could look like. It was a very small portion of their business at the time we did the acquisition. If you look now, fast forward about a dozen years, B2C is by far the largest portion of the combined Grubhub network and they’re the global leader in the online food order space.
So the idea of working a large industrial type company like Aramark acquiring an early stage business like this with its own identity and its own core competencies and then understanding how to unleash that, how to give that team enough support from the corporation but enough latitude to go off and build the business they thought fit and guide them more towards the consumer channel, which became ultimately the biggest home run for the business, was a great thing to lead, and I was very fortunate to have great people on my team and the Seamless team to help drive that forward together.
Bill: So, you had a senior strategic role at Aramark for a period of time, and then next to Tyco, yes?
Jason: That’s right. I had a great experience at Aramark. I was there for a little bit over three years, but in 2008 I received a call from the team at Tyco, and Tyco at the time was led by Ed Breen. When I was at McKinsey, Ed was my first client back in McKinsey back in 1999. I had talked to Ed at that time, I said, “Listen, I loved working on this engagement with you. If there’s ever an opportunity to work for your company down the road please give me a call.”
Sure enough, almost nine years later Ed’s team gives me a call and I said when you ask people to reach out to you and they do reach out to you, you need to follow up and at least explore that. So, I went and had lunch with the team and just was really blown away by the opportunities for Tyco and what Ed and the team were doing there. Some people may know the Tyco story. Under the previous CEO Tyco had gone through a very difficult period of time, a lot of negative headlines-
Bill: Very public.
Jason: Exactly. A lot of challenges. It was at a time when other companies like WorldCom, Lehman Brothers and Enron were really getting some very negative publicity. Tyco had been caught up in that and Ed and the team he founded around him were brought in to really reinvent the company and bring it back from the brink.
They did a tremendous job and that resulted in 2007 in Tyco being broken up into three separate public companies. Originally one was a healthcare company, which became Covidien. One was an electronics component company, which is now called TE Connectivity, initially called Tyco Electronics, and then the core business, which is what I joined, was called Tyco International. That was a fire and security and valve or flow control focused business, about $20 billion in size.
I joined right after the breakup, and what the team was looking to do was really to recreate these businesses in a new structure and recreate the brand equity separate from the businesses that had been spun off, which meant a much leaner and a much more focused Tyco. That’s a great challenge to come in as part of a large established company that’s still trying to reinvent itself at the same time.
Bill: Right. That seems to be a persistent theme of your work at Aramark as well as at Tyco, which I think after a tenure there and very senior roles led to this role at Brambles as well?
Jason: Yeah. Another great experience for me with Ed and the team at Tyco, and then as a result of some very good success we had there, we realized that the best way to unlock shareholder value was to actually separate the company one more time. So, in 2012 we actually separated what was Tyco International into three separate standalone companies for a second time, something that no one else as far as I know has ever done.
As part of that, I was contacted by a company called Brambles Limited, which is an Australian listed company. They were looking for somebody who had been through a lot of corporate transformation really repositioning brands, rethinking about how the companies work and how they’re organized, and Brambles at that time had just done a number of acquisitions in adjacent spaces and wanted someone to come in who had managed a global portfolio of different kinds of business like I had done at Tyco and help them assess which were the business they had just bought into that were the real winners, that they should double down their investments, which ones were ones that they might want to monetize over some time but weren’t natural fits, but importantly, how these new businesses fit underneath the overarching umbrella of the Brambles brand and the sub-brands that worked underneath it.
Bill: Interesting. Interesting. That gave way … I think along the way you began to give back a bit of this knowledge, though I assume that you were all along that path of mentees and team members, but to formally weigh in. As a professor, an adjunct at Villanova, I know you’ve been involved on the investor and PE side and now you’re consulting as well. Take us into the present day with Jason.
Jason: Yeah. Sure. I had the opportunity earlier this year to step back and reassess from a career standpoint. Even going back to my military days, I spent almost my entire career flying around the world, living on planes, in helicopters when I was flying them, and in hotel rooms, and had worked for some great companies and some great teams, but I realized that I actually wanted to start working with a bit more smaller businesses.
Not necessarily just startups, but startups, middle market type companies, in some cases the kind of companies I acquired when I was working for the Aramarks and the Tycos and the Brambles of the world, and take what I had learned in these large corporate environments about what does and doesn’t work for smaller organization at whatever stage they’re at and help them to grow.
So, I brought some of that, as you said, to the MBA program at Villanova, where I absolute love teaching, and go Wildcats.
Bill: Yeah, it’s starting.
Jason: We do have very high hopes. The team’s looking great and Coach Jay is as terrific as always.
Bill: Well dressed.
Jason: Yeah. And for me it’s really allowed me to spend some time working with private equity firms in terms of looking at companies where brands or companies themselves may be undervalued and figuring how we could monetize that more effectively, and then along the way I’ve had some of my former colleagues, some of my students actually from Villanova, reach out to me and say, “Hey, I’m starting a business or I’ve got a business but it’s kind of early stage. We need your help to think about how we scale this business up, how we position ourselves in the market. Can you help us out?”
So, for me it’s a great time to step back, as you say take some of what I’ve learned over my career and apply it frankly a bit more locally to the greater Philadelphia/Mid-Atlantic market and help a number of companies and a number of organizations think about and help them execute doing different things.
Bill: So Saberhawk, which has a wonderfully military ring to it, perhaps is a vehicle for your own consulting and the interest that you’ve brought to your work over this period of time it sounds like?
Jason: Yeah, that’s right. It’s funny you picked up on that. Saberhawk was actually the name of the first squadron that I flew for when I was in the US Navy, the HSL47 Saberhawks. It was a great experience personally for me, but it also taught me that even in an environment such as naval aviation, where everyone is pretty distinctive, our squadron was the best of the best, so you realize that even among incredibly talented peers or among incredibly talented competitors in the business marketplace there’s always ways for organizations to stick out and distinguish themselves.
That’s the kind of mindset I’ve taken in my company career throughout my life, working with organizations to say listen, we’ve got great competitors, we’ve got great clients, but what do we do to make ourselves distinctive? So then when I decided to start up my own consulting business, I said let me take that mantra and that mindset forward, and I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been joined on a project-by-project basis with colleagues I’ve worked with throughout my career who want to work on those kind of issues with, again, companies ranging from early stages to middle market and larger companies.
Bill: That’s terrific, and living up to the name of our podcast, I know that you’ve both been a leader as well as certainly in the decision-making capacity related to many different brand development initiatives. A couple areas that I think are particularly of interest from my perspective, the B2B side of this, we across the history of this podcast have many consumer facing brands that are weighing in on what propels their growth or asserts their difference or whatever at all different stages, but whether it’s Aramark or even McKinsey or Tyco or everything since, what is your perspective on what’s the same and what’s different when it comes to high level B2B brand development as opposed to the normal consumer stuff that we always hear about or think about?
Jason: It’s a great question and I spent a lot of time not just thinking about it, but working on it, as we talked. Companies like Seamless have been very consumer focused, but a lot of my career has been focused on B2B branding. For me there’s really three things that I think stick out on the B2B side.
First of all, it’s much more complicated from the standpoint that your feedback loop is much longer and much more limited. For good or for bad, on the consumer side you can get often very real-time feedback and adapt your product to your service offering.
Bill: I don’t like the burger.
Jason: Exactly. I don’t like the burger. Let’s get 15 people in a room and do a panel discussion. B2B doesn’t have that luxury in most cases, so you need to spend more time getting the branding and the positioning right, because your ability to course correct is more limited.
The second thing is that it’s much more challenging to understand the buyer’s journey. If someone is looking for a burger or someone is looking for a consumer electronic, it’s pretty easy to identify how they’re going about searching for that. In B2B the ways that people connect with your company tend to be a bit more opaque, so it requires more knowledge of your customer on an individual level in some cases, particularly if you’re selling large projects or very expensive offerings. It requires the investment in helping those customers understand.
When I started working in the corporate world, for the most part the internet was not a major source of really anyone’s accessed information.
Bill: I think it might catch on.
Jason: Yeah, I think we’re starting to see some momentum around that. Now when I was at Brambles, we found that over 80% of our customers in the B2B space started their journey, their learning about products and services that might be of interest to them, online. So, the idea that really you need to adapt yourself is something which consumer brands tend to think about very regularly. B2B brands haven’t historically done so, and that’s where this second thing is, being more dynamic in what they do.
Then the third one is where are things going in terms of digital marketing? The internet is one data point, but how does social media play into this? How do you think about that? How do you think about consumer and lifetime retention of customers? When I was at ADT for example within the Tyco portfolio, ADT was very much literally a household name, but ADT was also a very big brand in the industrial space, doing security, access control and video for large buildings, installations, universities. How do you actually have a business brand and a consumer brand at the same time and how do you manage those two so one plus one equals more than two?
More and more companies today which may be known as a B2B company are seeing overlap of their products and services into the B2C space. How do you actually manage the dynamic of that going forward with much more of the product and service being delivered in digital fashion is a great challenge, one which we saw, as I said at ADT.
Brambles had a lot of that as we’d be moved from the back of the supply chain to more of the consumer floor, and I think any company which does B2B marketing today needs to consider that, as you say, the differences in business marketing, but also more and more how B2B market and B2C marketing are starting to converge and overlap with one another.
Bill: Right, no doubt, plus people are people and the internet is the internet, and you find yourself in different places. One of the perhaps oversimplifications that I think I’ve run into B2B versus B2C is this notion that consumers are emotional and irrational and are buying based on … I some cases very price driven, but the characteristics that come from all parts of their heart and everything else, and there’s notion of B2B buyers being purely rational actors, where it’s budget and it’s value.
I love to hear your take on it. My sense is that people are people and it’s always that balance of head and heart, but what is your experience as it relates to the difference … You talk about the feedback loop being different. You talk about there being it’s more complicated. Any sense or opinion related to how B2B buyers versus consumer buyers may different?
Jason: Sure. I think the first premise you offer there is an important one, which is on the B2C side there is a buyer. There is a consumer that you’re trying to reach out to and develop products and services for. B2B doesn’t usually work that way. There may be someone who in theory is your point of contact for example, but the buying process is much more complicated, because there’s usually a group of people behind that, what we generally refer to as the DMU, the decision-making unit.
The DMU often seems simple on paper. You might get for example an RFP, a request for information or a request for proposal. That may have a name associated with it. That often will be one of anywhere from three to 30 people who weigh in on the ultimate decision.
What you need to do is to quickly move beyond your point of contact name to understand who is involved in the decision process and what their needs are. To your point about people being irrational, people in the B2B space tend to be rational in their own sphere, in their own silo, but what you discover pretty quickly is that there may be four or five different spheres of influence or silos within the company.
When you start getting feedback at an aggregate level, it actually may come across as somewhat irrational. When you dig underneath and you look at those 30 people weighing in, you realize that those individual groups are all really trying to optimize what they’ve been asked to optimize for, so you as the marketer, you as the salesperson, you as the business leader, you need to position your plan such as the characteristics of your brand or your offering appeal in equal ways to people in some cases who have very different looks on what they’re trying to accomplish. That’s tough to do.
Bill: No question, and you may have procurement who exists as sort of process manager and a contract negotiator and you may have the finance stream who’s obviously thinking about budget, and so the total value. Then you have the buyer may not be the user, the end user. It is complicated.
Another thing that I think is interesting, throughout the experiences that you’ve had you mentioned Brambles being … I think it’s an Australian company. The challenges and the opportunities that brands have if they have truly global businesses, it’s easy in the US within reason to understand that there’s different consumers in different places and they have different cultural cues, different climates, different et cetera.
When we work for example in nutrition we know that the southern California consumer thinks about body image differently than … et cetera. That’s a little bit nuanced, but fairly direct. Global brand development as opposed to US based primarily domestic, what are the wrinkles that that adds to the way that business leaders think through how to build durable brands that stand out and succeed?
Jason: When you start thinking about branding and products and services globally, the complexity goes up obviously fairly dramatically. What you see is that it’s very difficult for many brands, particularly B2B brands, to break out of their home market and to achieve similar success in other places around the world.
You see more of that with consumer brands these days and the internet has made that a bit more ubiquitous on the consumer side. But on the B2B side, once you go beyond your home market, and to your comment sometimes your home market may be a region of the country, but once you go beyond your home country the brand characteristics, the brand value, the brand message might resonate quite differently.
As an example, in the ADT business, even on the commercial side, we had people in developed markets, so the US, western Europe, Australia, who really were looking for the absolute best, the gold standard. Over many years ADT and Tyco have been able to establish that, and so based upon brand alone, but then backed up by service, by innovation, by R&D, we were able to command in many cases a premium price.
When you try to extend the brands that have great value in developed markets to emerging markets it became fairly obvious to our teams that the consumer there, who is in much more of a developmental state in terms of thinking about things like fire and security were far more price sensitive and they wanted a brand that they might have seen or recognized somewhere else in the world, but they didn’t always want to pay more for it.
As the business leader, as the product leader, how do you develop a product and service offering for these markets that maybe meets a lower price point without diluting the value proposition you have in the more mature markets where you can command a premium? Balancing that out is incredibly challenging, and that’s where people in the marketing department for example really earn their stripes and make their money, is thinking about how do I juggle this portfolio of brands and products in a way that is really additive to the global plan as opposed to diluting?
Very few people really pull off that trick well, but the brands that do that are the ones that over time have grown to be very global brands and have really a distinctive nature about them that can make one plus one equal more than two.
Bill: Uh-huh (affirmative). No doubt. One of the things you mentioned that now in your work at Villanova you’re teaching, your role at Villanova, it’s an organized way obviously to share what you’ve learned and help nurture careers and the journey of discovery for students.
Along the way you’ve built teams, you’ve managed teams, you’ve … All the way back to obviously your days in the military. Are there a couple of things from a cultural or a team or a mentoring perspective that are important to you when it comes to building the types of organizations that can flourish and win on a global scale and across all the product groups that you’ve managed and brought forth?
Jason: Sure. There is definitely a couple of very specific things which I have developed over my career. I’ve been fortunate to work alongside and for great leaders, so I’ve had people show me the way to do things and occasionally I’d have people perhaps demonstrate the wrong way to do things. I think most people learn a lot from great success, but also learn from their mistakes and mistakes of others and I’ve tried to do that throughout my career.
For me, the first one is that there’s not one right way to lead. I think that great leaders have a range of leadership styles and approaches based upon the situation and can adapt themselves. They’re always true to their core and who they are, but they understand that some people may be motivated by different things and don’t just … People say when you have a hammer you go around looking for nails everywhere. When you do that you tend to be a very one-dimensional leader and those people tend to be successful in one circumstance but not others.
I think one of the reasons that I’ve enjoyed working and have been successful in different environments is I have flexibility in my style within certain guidelines that allows me to lead in different ways and to motivate people in different circumstances.
The second thing I’d really highlight is you want to build a team where people are truly complimentary. Sometimes that means that there is some degree of tension and friction with the team. As long as it’s kept to a manageable level and is really channeled in a productive way, that can be incredibly powerful. Abraham Lincoln got a lot of publicity recently through the book Team of Rivals. He created a Cabinet of people who didn’t agree all that often with one another and were pretty contentious at times, but ultimately the sum of those very different points of view and inputs wound up being some consensus and some compromise that really drove great success at the national level.
Likewise, in a business team you want to understand where people’s strengths and weaknesses are and bring in people who are going to complement one another, but also as part of that challenge one another. Building that kind of team is a very dynamic force and can be very effective.
Then the third one is most leaders struggle at times with giving very direct and very personalized feedback. Particularly from my time at McKinsey, my first corporate experience, McKinsey is world-class in many things and one of them is giving constant feedback. After every meeting, after every assignment, after every review your project manager or the partner would sit down with each member of the team and give them very specific pros of cons of what they did in that meeting or that phone call.
It takes a little getting used to for most people, but once you do that you realize that the power of that to help people adapt and understand where they can improve, how they might do things differently … And it was always positioned as here’s a suggestion, here’s a way of thinking about it, here’s something you might have done differently, so McKinsey lets you experiment with different approaches and different styles.
Going back to my first point, that allows you to find your leadership path, and as I built teams across different kinds of businesses, particularly in the areas of marketing and branding, challenging people to think and act differently and to innovate around themselves allows you to really create teams of people that can innovate for customers as well.
Bill: Awesome. We’re really grateful for your time, all that you’ve accomplished both in the service of our nation, thank you, and in the service of wonderful global brands and businesses, a tremendous wealth of lessons and learning for our listeners, and we’re grateful for your time.
Jason: Thanks, it’s been really enjoyable to talk to you guys. As I’ve talked about what I’m doing, I build organizations, I know that you guys do the same thing as well in your own way. I just love getting to meet organizations and companies who really have that passion from the team here and look forward to hopefully working with you going forward.
Bill: Thank you. That’s generous.
Many, many thanks to Jason for his time and insight. He’s a terrific person, a terrific leader, and his words to live by when it comes to building teams and growing careers I trust will be of great inspiration and support to those in our listener base, speaking of which there are three primary ways to support us here at Real World Branding if you’re so inclined.
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On that note, we’re all huddling up to keep warm and make 2018 all that it can be and we’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
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