Countless industries are ripe for disruption, and the dental market is no different. Dave Monahan and his team knew there was something to be done but needed clarity to build a successful model. Through a rigorous process of market research and beta testing, they’ve built a brand and platform at Kleer that cuts out the middle man and connects dentists directly with consumers to make dental care accessible and easy for all. If you enjoy our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Dave Monahan: And I didn’t know that market, it was a bit a whim to say, “There’s something here, but I’m not quite sure what it is, let’s go dig.”
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding, I’m Bill Gullan, president of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Big treat today, despite my obvious nasal condition here, and my apologies to our listeners, I seem to have a little bug every time we do this, but that will not diminish the enthusiasm for our guest, Dave Monahan, who’s the CEO of Kleer, which is K-L-E-E-R, and as he’ll tell you a disruptive force, soon to be and already beginning to be a disruptive force in the dental insurance market, and the dental market in general. Connecting dentists who want to think a little bit differently about services and how they’re bundled and delivered, and consumers who are in need or have a desire for a greater level of care, and consistency of care.
So, Dave’s backstory is fascinating in terms of starting on the engineering side of the world with a passion for software and technology, and as his responsibility grew, as he enhanced his education, moving into more general management roles, including a really strong tenure at Microsoft, among other places, and then now moving more into the early state realm with the last business he was part of, which was in the fitness channel, and now with Kleer.
Kleer itself has had an interesting development story, and he’ll take you through all that. Enjoy Dave Monahan.
We’re here in the Wayne PA offices of Kleer, which is K-L-E-E-R, with Dave Monahan, who’s the CEO, thank you for having us.
Dave: Oh, thanks for having me on it.
Bill: And such an interesting business story, not only your journey, but what you’re doing here at Kleer, and we’re going to try to touch on all of that.
To start, could you take us through some of the steps in just your own career journey that has led up to this point?
Dave: Sure, yeah, I’ll try to make it brief so I don’t bore you, but so when I came out of … I actually went to Penn State University.
Bill: Heard of it, they have a football team, I think, right?
Dave: They do, and they’re back.
Dave: I was just up there this weekend actually.
Dave: But so graduated in engineering, actually went to work for Northrop Grumman in advanced avionics and electronics and surveillance systems. And just a little claim to fame, we were working on the first surveillance systems for drones back in the early 90s.
Bill: Take credit for that, you invented the drone, nice.
Bill: Nice work, wow.
Dave: It was incredible. but back then you weren’t even allowed to talk about it. But anyway, so a lot of advanced avionics things. But at the same time, and I’m not sure if it still happens, but they paid full ride for MBA once you’re working, so I got my MBA at night from Loyola, and spent about five or six years at North Grumman then moved on and started working for a company called SkyTel, which their claim to fame was two-way paging back in the mid 90s.
Bill: I think I had one.
Dave: It was amazing, actually I was running their US marketing team. But what was amazing, when I look back on it, it was actually messaging and it was texting, but we didn’t realize it. We didn’t realize what we had, I don’t think. But they ended up consolidating, moving their offices down to Mississippi, I had no interest in going to Mississippi.
I moved into and worked for a small, private company called Phillips, who has done a number of things, but one of them was around nutrition. They were doing supplements, they were also doing some newsletters around nutrition and really, I got my … I learned a lot about finance and business analysis, and basically worked with their CFO to better understand their business and make some decisions from a business perspective and a strategic perspective, and got a really good grounding on the financial side when I was there.
So, if you think about it, first engineering, second job was marketing, third job was finances.
Bill: MBA in between, yeah, yeah.
Dave: Trying to round myself out.
Bill: General management direction. Yeah, sure.
Dave: Exactly. And I randomly … Microsoft came in and was interviewing … I was actually living down in DC at the time. And was interviewing so I said, “What the heck, I’ll go talk to them.”
Talked to them, next thing I know I’m out in Redmond doing some more in-depth interviews and land at Microsoft. And at Microsoft I actually started in the Toronto office, and I was lucky enough to be basically reporting to the VP who ran all of Canada, and the central part of the US.
So this is the Wild West of Microsoft, but that territory, you can’t get much bigger. But, very large business. Billions of dollars. And my job was to help that vice president better understand his business, and make strategic decisions about what they’re going to focus on, how they’re going to market, what’s the customer base, how do we partner, all that good stuff. So, I got exposed to pretty much everything in a company. My first week, actually, at Microsoft, I was in front of Steve Ballmer.
Dave: Presenting to him.
Bill: What was that like? He’s a pretty high intensity guy, right?
Dave: Really intense. So I’ll give you … let me paint the scenario. I’m a week in. I know nothing alright, about Microsoft. And my VP, his philosophy is throw people into the fire.
Bill: Yeah, that’s the way to do it.
Dave: So he put me in, we had a business review. Every year, every business needs to come into Redmond, present how they did the prior year, and then present what they’re going to do for the following year. So my job was to do the first 10 minutes of that all day presentation. Where I sum up everything that’s happened and where we’re going.
So, come back to Ballmer for a second, so I’m five feet … we’re across the table from each other and I’m presenting. It’s about 8:00 in the morning. And he already has pulled off his tie, he’s unbuttoned his shirt, and he’s thrown his shoes off. By the time I’m done with my presentation…
Bill: He’s pacing around the room, nice.
Dave: And basically, he tells me at the end he hated my presentation.
Bill: Excellent. Nice job on the first week, really outstanding.
Dave: So I figure I’m done. Right, that’s it.
Bill: Got to go up from there, right?
Dave: Yeah. But he gave me an amazing piece of advice, he basically said, “Never present any problem without a solution.” And I presented a number of problems without solutions. So, I will never do that again. But anyway, I spent about eight years at Microsoft, and I went from that business manager job, to running multiple businesses for Microsoft.
I ran their Washington DC office, we moved down to DC. I basically ran their … it was Virginia DC, Maryland and Delaware territory. And then moved up to Philadelphia. I actually grew up here, but left for a while, came back, and ran their Philadelphia office. So, when I was there, learned a ton, it’s by far the most influential company, for me from a career perspective.
Learned how to run a business, and a number of things. But from there, my real interest was health and tech. That’s really what I cared about most. A friend mine who was working at Microsoft, he left, joined a VC up in Boston. They were looking for a CEO of a health tech company. It was more fitness tech at that time. Called FitLinxx, and they came and asked if I’d like to do it. I accepted, and went up and started running a company called FitLinxx.
The net was, when I got there, they were basically putting electronic devices on fitness equipment. So, for gyms, they would go and wire up the whole facility. You could get data off the equipment when you came in, you’d get a report online, all that good stuff. You could track your exercise, but it was only for the gym. In about six months, I decided to change the strategy of the company, and focus on wearable devices.
This was back when nobody knew what wearables were. So, we ended up acquiring a company, it was actually a set of 10 engineers in a barn outside of Boston. I ran into the CEO of that company at a conference, we thought there was a good fit. We acquired them, brought them in, and then we started focusing on wearable devices.
One of our claims to fame was we built the Nike Plus products for Nike.
Bill: Very cool.
Dave: Yeah, and then we built a device, it was basically a device you could put on your chest that monitored your cardiovascular system. We ended up selling the company to a medical diagnostic company in April … or March of 2016.
Dave: And then we were looking for something to do.
Bill: Moved down here, yeah. Nice. And we’ll get to what that something is. Real quick question about Microsoft though, you were there, at least according to LinkedIn, from about ’99 to ’06 which seems like it would’ve coincided with the shift from PC to mobile, at least on the tail end of that. What was that like? And I know you needed a problem and a solution, but that was a big sea change, wasn’t it?
Dave: It was huge. It was absolutely a monstrous sea change. There was two sea changes that happened at Microsoft when I was there. One was that, and the other was the whole antitrust, DOJ thing, which was a major influence on what the company did. But, yeah, back in … it was probably 2002, or 2003, Microsoft actually came out with a handheld device that, if you remember, the little stylus.
Bill: Yeah, sure, sure.
Dave: They were well ahead of the curve of that market. But they didn’t go after it, and as everybody knows, they the lost the mobile war in the beginning. And it was a classic, I think, case of there was so much money to be made elsewhere that it was an incubator, it didn’t make a lot of money, it was a nice business, but it wasn’t something they focused on. There was just way too much money to be made in Windows and Office and all of the productivity suites, and-
Bill: And channel competition with hardware partners I would imagine.
Dave: It was very complicated. And also, the company at that point was not a hardware company. We were a software company. They were fooling around with some hardware, but the net was they weren’t really a hardware company. So, it was a nice little tangential business, it was a nice product, but just never focused on it, until they realized it was a big market. And then they reacted to all of that.
Bill: Sure. And then … yeah. Totally, and now they’ve resurged, at least in some ways. Interesting, what a story. I mean, the whole peaks and valleys in that company and it’s history.
So here we are. You’re somebody who has an engineering and technology mind and background, the general management disposition and skillset. And here we are in the offices of this business, Kleer. Tell us a little bit about what you all are up to, and not to give away the story, but what is it about the dental marketplace that is so ripe for disruptive thought, and new ideas?
Dave: So let me say from the beginning, if you asked me would I be in the dental market two years ago, I would’ve said no. I-
Bill: I mean, I brush, but-
Dave: Yeah, exactly. But so when after I sold the company FitLinxx, I was looking for what I wanted to do next, so I’d been networking a little bit, and I ran into somebody who owned six dental practices, and just started talking about the market. And what really struck me was about 50% of people in the US do not go to the dentist. Even though they know that it’s very important and it’s important for their health.
The other part that really surprised me was that dentists were struggling to make profit, and also increase revenue, given the control insurers had on the marketplace. And the insurers basically dictate what the dentists get paid.
So, we spent about six, seven months researching it and as you know, we used Finch Brands to do the market research.
Bill: It was a very interesting process.
Dave: And what came out of that, was for us, a major revelation. There was on one side, if you talked to the consumers, and you remember some of these discussions and interviews, yeah, which Bill was leading, the consumers wanted more dental care. They were avoiding it for really one reason, which was cost. But when we dug into it further, it wasn’t just cost, it was fear of cost.
What we realized in the research was that consumers had no idea how much dental services cost. So, there was a large group of consumers who wanted care but didn’t think they could afford it. You had dentists who most of their patients were coming through insurance, but they had trouble making money off the insurer programs. And what they were looking for … and by the way, it’s not just that the fees are low, that insurers force on the dentist, it’s also there’s a lot of hassle associated with insurers.
Bill: I can imagine.
Dave: Yeah, and paperwork, and denial of claims, and you got to pre-approvals, and you have caps and it’s insane, if you’ve ever looked at a dental insurance contract-
Bill: Well for a consumer, it works differently than we’re used to in terms of insurance. Dental insurance seems like it isn’t even really insurance at all, at least in the way we mean it health wise, yeah.
Dave: Absolutely, so dental insurance is not insurance. It isn’t. It’s basically prepaid cleanings and exams, with discounts on anything else.
So that was also an insight from that research was this really is a simply program, at the end of the day. It’s not complicated insurance. So from that research, what we saw, was the need to directly connect patients with dentists and get rid of the middle man. So think about all the industries where that’s occurred, right?
Bill: Right, sure.
Dave: Uber, whatever, you can pick 100 of them now. But what we decided to do was create a company called Kleer. K-L-E-E-R. And it’s a platform where dentists can come in and set up a dental care plan that they offer directly to their patients. So it looks very much like insurance. It’s not insurance, quote, unquote, but it’s basically they can put your two cleanings, your exams, your x-rays, package that up, plus discounts off all other treatment, like fillings and crowns, and so on and just charge a subscription for those services.
So typically, we see $25 to $30 a month is the subscription that they charge. You basically have a full dental care plan and then on the consumer side, so the platform enables to dentist to very easily set that up, and create that program they want to offer, with lots of different things they can customize and decide for their practice what makes sense.
On the other side, on the consumer side, we have a whole consumer facing side, with website, mobile app. Very easy to purchase the plan from your dentist and then you get the full range of … you get a membership card, you get plan documents, you have a website and a mobile app you can log on to see your benefits and manage payment, all that good stuff, just like any other consumer app.
Dave: So very simple.
Bill: Supply and demand side, I know that we were talking a little bit before we started about obviously efforts to equip the dentists who are in the program with all of the information the consumers would want when they walk up to the front, or whatever. But for consumers, and we know that there’s a high percentage who don’t have a dentist of record, I know that company’s endeavoring to find ways to reach them with a lower acquisition cost. Any thought on … but as we talk about long term, thoughts about the consumer channel versus the professional channel, and how you all are thinking about setting these up and making sure this can scale?
Dave: Yeah, so we went through a few iterations as we were building and learning. So initially, we were thinking a lot of our effort would be towards the consumer and marketing to the consumer, and bringing in new patients for the dentists. What we learned, pretty quickly, is about 30% of a patient base within a typical dentist office does not have insurance and they want something.
They want coverage. And by the way, the market research highlighted that. We just didn’t know how the dental practices would respond to that opportunity. So, within probably two months, a month, two months of launching the platform, the feedback from dentists was, “This is a great solution for my uninsured.”
And they had a number of groups of uninsured. So uninsured patients who came in all the time. Once or twice a year. They had what they call dormant patients, who don’t have insurance and stay away, and typically only come when they have a major issue. So that group is about 10% of their base.
And then another group was just retirees. So not a lot of people realize this, but as you retire, your dental benefits go away. Because there’s nothing under Medicare to cover dental. So you have to go out into the market and buy whatever’s out there.
Bill: And you would think that that coincides with the greatest need for care, as you get older and your teeth are-
Dave: Absolutely. Yeah. So, and I’ll get back to the question in a second, but so, and then actually one other group was just small employers. About 50% of small employers don’t offer dental benefits, and it’s the number three benefit that employees want. So it’s healthcare, 401k, and then dental and 50% of small businesses don’t offer it. And the reason they don’t offer it is because insurance is too expensive, it’s too complicated, and all that stuff.
So, what we realized was we did not have the emphasize the consumer market. We actually needed to emphasize marketing to the dental practices. Bringing them into the platform, teaching them how to sell and market to their patients, and giving them the tools to do that. So, we actually have a suite of tools they can use, all the way from sheets in the office that the patient can take, up to sophisticated digital marketing tools that they can customize on our platform and offer through Facebook, or Google ads or whatever.
Bill: All the ways they communicate.
Dave: Yeah, so what we’re focused on now is enabling the dental practices to market to their patients.
Bill: Yeah, and the value proposition to them seems rather clear, forgive the pun, as an acquisition tool, as a frequency tool, as a loyalty and lifetime value, and it makes a lot of sense.
Dave: So we’ve … I haven’t mentioned, but I’m a bit of a data nerd, we actually pooled data from the dental practices on our platform, and we analyzed patients who have insurance, patients who don’t have insurance, or a membership plan and then patients who have a membership plan. And we said, okay, what’s our pattern, right, of utilizing dental services and how much they typically purchase all that good stuff.
What is really interesting is, insurance plan patients and membership plan patients act exactly the same. They come in for their cleanings, they come in and when they’re in, they’re in the chair, if the dentist suggests treatment, they accept it, for the most part because they have a dental plan.
Bill: And they’re lying there with their open in a chair, right.
Dave: Exactly, everybody’s been through that experience and they accept treatment anywhere between two and three times at a higher rate than people who don’t have insurance and don’t have a membership plan. So you get about twice as much treatment acceptance from patients on a membership plan than people not on a membership plan, or not insured.
Bill: Makes sense.
Dave: But, the huge benefit of being on the membership plan for the dentist is there’s no middle man. You get paid directly. So, if you take a step back, the benefits to the dentist are multiple. One is they lock in a subscription. A profitable subscription that’s guaranteed on an annual basis, and they can count on that business. Versus, think about insurance for a second, if that patient does not come into the dentist, the dentist gets nothing.
Right, it’s only if they come in do they get paid. So, one is locking the subscription. Number two is that treatment acceptance rate is about 50% higher for people on a membership plan, than people who aren’t insured. So they have more treatment and complete more procedures. The third one, which is a real interesting one, is that by creating a subscription business and converting their practice more towards a subscription, they actually get a higher valuation on their practice.
So most dental practices, eventually, they want to sell their practice. Once they get to a certain age, and also they build up a certain patient base-
Bill: Yeah, succession’s an issue I would think that they don’t really know how to deal with, unless they have a son or daughter who wants to get in-
Dave: In often goes to, yeah, son or daughter. Or they bring in a transitional-
Bill: Younger, right.
Dave: Who helps them figure it out. But, what we’re seeing, and this is typical in any market, is if you have a subscription business, you’ll get about two times, three times the valuation on the subscription business, versus a non-subscription business.
Bill: Yeah, that makes sense.
Dave: So, if they can build up this base of membership plans, people paying subscriptions, the valuation of their business will go up.
Bill: Right. No, makes a lot of sense. While you were entering here, during a moment of great discovery, and figuring out what to do, I know the company existed, or was launched before and if I recall correctly, under a different name, the original priority or focus was about transparency. And I think you made the point that in the research, there were revelations that that is important, but it isn’t the full value proposition that Kleer now is embracing.
Can you think about, or comment on, just the path for this company to find its sweet spot, and its niche, and its brand approach, and its model that has put you in such a good position to really grow this thing?
Dave: Well, I think the first thing … and obviously Finch Brands helped us with this, is just understanding the market before you do anything. and I didn’t know that market. It was a bit of a whim, to say, “There’s something here. But I’m not quite sure what it is, let’s go dig.” And I was lucky enough to have an investor who wanted to dig as well and understand it.
So, I think we got the market, or whatever the model, the business model about 80% correct through the market research. Which was a huge, obviously, advantage, going into the market. That drove a lot of our decisions on product and how we did our brand, and how we market. And then, and I tell this to anybody, and then you’ve got to listen to the market, right.
There’s nothing you can do except listen, and wait, and understand, and then adjust. And between that process, it probably took us … we did what we called a pilot, or a beta program, from October of last year to December, and that was the idea, was to listen and understand and what we heard back from the market is one, the one item that I already talked about, which is the dentists themselves would like to sell to their uninsured.
We need to do direct consumer. We are going to still do some, but it was very obvious that they were very happy to sell to their existing patients. But, they didn’t have the tools to do it. So what we did is, we put a huge emphasis on account management. So we have an account management team and they have relationships, like this is not … we don’t do anything where it’s not connected to a person. Like you can talk to people, you can live chat with them, and things like that. But there’s a relationship between our account managers and dental practices.
And we’re emphasizing that as the major driver of a way to … a basic tool to help the dental practices to be able to sell, and market. I had not planned on that, going in. I thought we were going to have more of a very hands-off, typical technology company approach. You take it and use it. But we realized a huge value prop was having that account manager in there. So we’re investing heavily in account managers and constantly recruiting for that. So that was a big change.
The other thing was we came into it with … a little bit on the consumer side, more of from a branding perspective, and a position perspective. Like we want to be different than what’s out there. So I stayed away from the typical stock photos and the typical images that you see in healthcare. And we went more to a cartoonish look and feel, which people responded really well to.
Dave: We used bright colors and all that good stuff, but-
Bill: Contemporary, but not unfriendly.
Dave: Not unfriendly, yeah, it’s approachable. It’s different and all that good stuff, but we felt, once we got feedback from the market, we went a little too far. So, dentists are pretty serious people. It is healthcare. So, we’re actually, right now, in the process of tooling it a little more towards, it’s not going to be anywhere near what healthcare is typically, but it’s going to be a little bit more sophisticated.
Bill: To underline clinical …
Dave: A little bit.
Bill: Nobody wants to go to a chop shop dentist, right.
Dave: Exactly. So it’s going to have a cartoonish whatever, a fun feel, but it’s going to be a little bit more … whatever, refined.
Bill: Sophisticated cartoon, right.
Bill: Makes sense. What a story. It’s so stimulating and there have been innings and different eras in the life of this company, and obviously your own career. Given what you’ve accomplished, and the choices you’ve made, having an engineering soul, but then a finance capability, and a general management capability, big companies, smaller companies, public versus venture backed, versus private. Any words of wisdom, as you’ve assumed this path, and learned things about yourself and about the world, and the process of building businesses? And words of wisdom that have become important as you … the Steve Ballmer lesson is a great one. And it’s actually very similar to what Finch Brands has been going through, our own values development process, we have some new team members, and we always want to renew that every period of time, and that came through with us.
But any important maxims, or beliefs at this point, that might inspire others who are thinking their own path?
Dave: I’m not sure how inspirational I’ll be, but just here two things I think are, for me, were really important. And I think … one of them I know is important to everybody. But, finding somebody who can be your mentor.
Bill: Yeah, sure.
Dave: I can’t tell you how important it is. When I was Northrop Grumman, I didn’t have one. When I moved in SkyTel, I didn’t have one. And when I went into that small company prior to Microsoft, maybe a little bit one, but not where I wanted to go was somebody who was very smart, and could teach me things from a financial perspective, but not somebody who’s going to inspire me to go do great things. When I landed at Microsoft, the person I was reporting to up in Canada, his name was Frank Clegg, master of marketing, master of sales, incredibly smart guy.
He could run through any number and understand any number, and spreadsheet of equations, and break through it. He was the first person I ever ran into who could do everything. Like I would sit down with him and I’d be awed by how much he could do. And what was really great for me, was he and I spent every day together. And we would go out to Redmond to meet … we met with Bill Gates, we met with Steve Ballmer, and like all the high up level people at Microsoft. And I got to sat in a plane seat with him on a flight, about once a month from Toronto to Redmond, and what we’d do is we’d talk about business.
Bill: Yeah, he can’t run away at that point.
Bill: Stuck with you.
Dave: And he was one of those people who he understood I was going to be moving on at some point. He would introduce me to other great people, and was completely unselfish in sharing what he understood, and the people he had. So my first piece of feedback is find that person. If you’re in a job where you don’t have that person, they’re out there. Go find them somewhere else. I mean, I’m not saying leave your job, you might be able to find one through networking, but if push comes to shove, and you need to move away from a job, because eventually it will pay big dividends if you find somebody that … try to find that person is all I can say. It’ll pay big dividends.
And then the second piece is, the first step is the hardest. And somebody told me this to me once. So I was at Microsoft, doing really well, they wanted to me come out to Redmond and actually run Office marketing, marketing for all the Office product for the US.
Bill: Paperclip and everything. Yeah, right.
Dave: And it was a very, very nice offer. But my gut was I wanted to run a company. And I loved Microsoft, I loved the people there, but the net was that I had to take that step. And somebody from the outside told me before I did that, once you take that step, you’ll thank God you did it. And it won’t feel like a big thing on the other side. It’s taking it that’s the hard part.
And so if you’re in a job where you’ve learned a lot, and you’re ready to go, and you have this passion to go do something else, I just … I highly recommend just take the step.
Bill: No, makes sense. And Steve, our executive producer, is weeping in the corner, thinking about his own choices and path, but no, mentors, absolutely and you have left a variety of large, secure, successful enterprises to do either another one, or now, the most recent, to deal with some things that are early stage, and to make them amazing, and valuable, and everything else.
Dave Monahan, CEO of Kleer, a company that we will certainly be watching, a lot happening. You were talking about how the initial pilot was well beyond expectations in terms of learning as well as interest, and exciting road ahead, thanks for your time.
Dave: Yep. Thank you.
Bill: Many thanks to Dave for his time and insight. Not only is his career journey a really interesting one, but what he’s doing at Kleer is also really interesting, and it’s an idea or set of ideas whose time has come, and a market that’s ripe to be progressed, both on the supplier, dentist side, but also from a consumer perspective, so we’re grateful that he shared a bit of that with us today.
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So, on that note, we’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
The post Getting Kleer Direction – Dave Monahan, CEO of Kleer appeared first on Finch Brands.
Following the final whistle, there is a clear winner and loser on the field. While Eagles fans everywhere rejoice, we take some time to look at the winners and losers off the field as it relates to the Super Bowl advertisers. In this episode, we provide a couple of comments on this year’s commercials — both trends and overall themes, as well as specific ads that worked or didn’t work. If you enjoy our podcast, pleas 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 premiere boutique branding agency. This is One Big Idea, and here we are basking in the reflective glory of the Eagles Super Bowl triumph. Yes, the city is still standing, and our hearts are aflutter, and all of that.
This was an atypical year for those who are used to watching the Super Bowl, either for the ads, or for hoping that your cousin in New England or in Carolina, or wherever else, is happy at the end. We had a different way of engaging with this year’s game, I think, many of us who are certainly are Eagle fans. This time through, I actually didn’t really notice the ads, because I was largely in the fetal position and I was largely feeling such an intense emotional reaction to what was happening, that I had to go back, and almost didn’t even remember them when the game was over.
Fortunately, on Wednesday night there was a terrific, I thought, great panel of experts, who were talking about the ads that they liked, and that they didn’t. But even more than that, what they felt the strategy might have been behind each of them – who the target was, and how well it did or did not register. It was an event put on by the American Marketing Association of Philadelphia, and there were terrific panelists.
If you go online onto LinkedIn, or wherever else, I think you’ll probably be able to access, hopefully, a recording of this. I was honored and fortunate enough to be the moderator in whatever meager way that I could contribute, in least of terms of teeing up topics for the panel and the audience.
It was a thrill to do so, but in doing so, I was brought back to the ads themselves, and had to prepare for this by watching them through another two or three times and to really think about them with a marketer’s hat on, not just an Eagles hat, hoping and worrying about the next series once they got off the air.
So, with that, a couple of comments on this year’s commercials – both trends and overall themes, as well as specific ads that, in my own humble opinion, worked or didn’t work.
A couple of themes that were really interesting from a marketer’s perspective. One was, and we talk about this one on various podcast episodes here, about purpose and about the role of philanthropy. There was a really strong trend in the direction of highlighting and underlining a company’s philanthropic efforts.
It was not nearly as overtly political as last year was in the early days of the Trump administration, which was only a few months in when last year’s big game happened, but these were warmer and fuzzier, and more optimistic.
You had brands such as Verizon, such as Budweiser, such as Stella Artois. In some cases, big Super Bowl advertisers who were not speaking about new products, or about individual attributes, or just trying to make you laugh, or bringing in puppies, or other heart-warming scenes or celebrities just for the sake of the a-ha. They were talking about very specific philanthropic efforts.
The Budweiser one is memorable. I’ve heard some folks in the aftermath on social media questioning whether or not this is true, but this notion of Bud factories kind of switching from beer production into water production, to come up in a natural disaster situation, and provide the water that’s needed, was a really powerful image.
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And speaking of corporate responsibility, and the overall desire of the marketplace to lean into values, and work with companies that are likable, was a really strong and powerful emotion that was very much expressed in this year’s ads, and Budweiser’s one example of that. Stella, Verizon, etc. There is one, however, ad that I think was following this strategy roughly, and ran into a little bit of trouble, and that was Ram Trucks.
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Ram Trucks put forth a beautifully produced ad, that was full of various images of Ram doing tough and important work, with an overarching soundtrack of Doctor King giving an amazing sermon or speech about greatness, and about service. Then, at the end of the ad, what popped up on the screen, and those who were listening and just vibing the whole thing and experiencing it, I think were surprised. At least if the data on social media is correct, very much let down at the end of this amazing peroration, all of a sudden, the Ram logo and the tagline, “Built to serve” lands there.
I certainly saw a lot of heat on Ram as to whether or not they really deserved to claim the mantle or to deliver in that way. So we’ll see. It’s certainly gotten conversation started, which is an important element of what large form advertising is supposed to do, but they were taking some blows online, and at this panel on Wednesday night. They were a very overwhelmingly jeered. Not for the production of it, because it was beautiful, but for what they seem to be trying to connect their brand to, in ways that people thought they might not have earned the right to do that.
There were a couple of other trends that were notable, more for the brand strategy geek in me. I can’t remember too many times when major brands whose brand strategy tends to be more of a house of brands, like Procter & Gamble. Like Pepsi Co. Typically the strategy out of P&G would be to keep these brands separate, and not intermingle them. And yet, we’ll talk about it in a minute in other ways, but the Tide campaign that in many ways I think many people think was one of the winners of the night.
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Not only was a winner of the night, but it brought in a whole arsenal or stable of P&G brands that many consumers don’t know are co-owned, and the strategy in fact is for them not to know. You have Old Spice, you have Mr. Clean, you have these other brands appearing in an on-going Tide campaign.
The benefits of that, in addition to potentially brand managers sharing budgets, is you are able, within a larger Tide narrative, to be able to just call back and call out brands like Old Spice, and then Mr. Clean in particular. Campaigns of the past that were effective for those, and these are brands that the marketplace knows and understands, and for them to appear even in a supporting role, is a nice way of not compromising your larger message in Tide’s case, to underlie it, but to also bring in other brands, and have them be noticed on that large Super Bowl stage.
So trends in philanthropy, trends in brand management. So P&G’s one example. Pepsi Co. did it in a very direct way with Doritos and with Mountain Dew, two brands as far flung as you can be within that stable, but with ads that were mirror images of one another, with hot and with cool, of course, with the requisite celebrity connotations and executions.
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For Pepsi Co. and the brand management infrastructure there, to find a way to integrate new product offerings from each of those brands that heretofore have occupied, again, different ends of the same stable, is not only a marketing efficiency, but also I think we’ve seen at least in our panel discussion on Wednesday, as a big win for both.
They play off each other. There were certainly ways and areas to criticize each of those, whether they were portraying them as they ought to be bought together, or not. Were they obscured one by the other? There’s a lot of arguments, perhaps, to be had about the efficacy of that, but it was notable.
So those are a couple over-arching trends.
A couple of the spots that for me really landed effectively, beyond just the realm of triggering a laugh, or bringing a surprising celebrity back. I’ll tell you maybe three, that for me were particularly effective.
The first, let’s talk about Tide. The Tide ad, whatever on Wednesday night the only criticism, really, that seemed to register, was that you didn’t quite get ‘Tide ad.’ It’s an awkward phrase to voice. And so the diction of that maybe didn’t land the first time, but as an on-going structure throughout the game, and as a platform throughout the game, across very direct Tide advertisements, and into those that are a little bit surprising, this notion and association of Tide with clean clothes. Almost hijacking every ad.
Some people were reporting on social media that they couldn’t see another ad afterwards, because everyone of course is clean in these ads, mostly. And it was, it had an amazing impact that people were thinking about it, and laughing about it, and it had a good use of a very much of the moment celebrity.
It had the, again, the invocation of old favorites like Old Spice, and old favorite brands like Mr. Clean and there was a very interesting tie-in with halftime. Tide really was one of the winners of the night. Particularly when you hold it up against the only competitor in the detergent category which was Persil, that had an advertisement.
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Persil is certainly a brand that doesn’t have as strong of a U.S. based reputation, and didn’t register, I think, in the way that Tide did. So that was probably one of my favorites.
Another one that was a favorite of mine was the Alexa losing her voice, for a couple reasons. Obviously, there was an incredible array of celebrity cameos in there that, in of themselves, were breathtaking. The ad itself was 90 seconds long, and you really touch all the parts of the consumer target when you have Gordon Ramsey, Cardi B, Rebel Wilson, and Sir Anthony Hopkins, and all of these folks doing their thing in one ad platform.
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You also had Jeff Bezos, which I thought was interesting, and it was a, I guess, in some ways a very atypical role for him, as someone who’s not typically a front man for Amazon. He was portrayed in a way that was in some ways humanizing, because you saw him being concerned that Alexa lost her voice at the beginning, but also this executive hard-nosed profile of, “What are we going to do about it?” It was an interesting celebrity turn for Bezos.
The thing that for me enabled this brand to register in addition to just having it be inventive and long form, was that as opposed to other ads that are really just kind of about, “Hey, look at me and chuckle. And maybe associate me with something fun and happy.” What this ad did was, was anchor in, I think, in subtle ways, to core Alexa brand attributes.
They portrayed her as a ‘her,’ a helpful human, not just this disembodied voice out of a piece of technology. By showing how little things were functioning after she lost her voice, they really made the point of how much she does, and is capable to do.
For fans of Alexa who deploy her in a household, or a corporate environment, and have used her for a bunch of different things, this is a validation of her as an overall part of that alignment and what can happen, and what the peril is when for whatever reason she clicks off.
Now some at the panel discussion on Wednesday didn’t like, and I think they were quibbling around the edges, because we wanted to have a dialogue, but they didn’t like the fact that it indicated that maybe Alexa could go down. It also indicated that maybe Alexa was a little bit intrusive in one’s life, and she’s always sitting there listening.
I guess that’s true, and there are some concerns about security and privacy, and everything else, but I think the overall effectiveness, and the audience Wednesday night I think agreed, was a home run. Both to convey the impact of Alexa, her ubiquity, and to do it in a way that was humorous, and redounded to the positive of the parent company Amazon, that is such a factor in everyone’s life.
Let me see, some other ones. Another one that was really well-regarded, and I think was probably number three on my list of best of the night, was this NFL touchdown celebrations to come, that had a “Dirty Dancing” playback with Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr.
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Of course ,as an Eagles fan, it’s always fun to say at least the Giants had something to do on Super Bowl Sunday this year. After week three, we knew they were done, so it certainly appeals to the mocker in me, of Giants fans. But this was a really funny send up of the Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, “Dirty Dancing” dance scene, that is iconic for folks of a certain age. Ahem.
With Odell Beckham and Eli Manning hamming it up, and going through Bill Medley’s “Time of Your Life”, in a way that was really funny. Offensive linemen getting in the act, which we know is always funny. We saw that yesterday in Philadelphia with Jason Kelce. You always want offensive linemen to be seen, and maybe heard just a little bit. But a really effective ad. But for me what makes it effective is not just that there was a chuckle, and that you know, “Ha ha, look at these guys are dancing.”
The underlying reality, we’ve talked about it a lot on this podcast of where the NFL brand is, I think informs how they chose to execute creatively. And if it didn’t, it was a happy accident. The NFL is taking shots from the cultural right and the cultural left, in a way that is unprecedented in the history of this league, that has been hegemonic when it comes to Sundays and other days. A clear leader. Having your Ole Miss grad, deep south republican Manning family, connect in this way with your brash young African American superstar, in some ways is about bridging a divide that has opened up within the culture of the game.
Also emphasizing the fact that the NFL sees itself as fun. They’re allowing celebrations. This is about having fun with the game. And I think for many fans, whether they’re cord cutters or objectors, for whatever other reason. One of the reasons, be it CTE or concussions, be it the anthem protest, for or against, the NFL didn’t seem fun to as many people as it had anymore.
So not only portraying the league as fun, but also bringing together various sides, to the degree that you can in a Super Bowl ad spot, of the cultural divide, addresses some of the vulnerabilities that have opened up, in terms of the way the NFL is perceived.
Now, there are challenges, obviously, that the league faces, that are well beyond what something like this can solve, but this definitely seemed to have not only creative but strategic inspiration underlying it. I think for that reason, it fit and hit, and landed well, within the arsenal of other ads that were deployed.
One that I did not like, beyond the M&Ms Danny Devito one, which they weren’t really sure how to end that, I didn’t think. Actually two I think that I didn’t like as much. Not even so much for the ad creative, but just for the business strategy, that was underlying.
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We spoke on this podcast a couple weeks ago about what was happening at Diet Coke. Diet Coke’s made a decision because of the decline in the diet soda marketplace, which is, I think, high single digits. And for Diet Pepsi it’s like 8%, for Diet Coke it’s like 4%. But either way, very very clear that where they’re losing is to the millennial audience.
Almost all of those loses can be seen as gains for La Croix, and other flavored seltzer or sparkling waters. I mean, there’s a really obvious category challenge. And as noted, Diet Coke is doing something about it, to their credit.
However, what they’re doing about it, is a new packaging play that looks a little bit more like Red Bull and a couple new flavors that are designed to appeal to millennials. Then an overall communications vibe, and aesthetic, that is classically millennial. Now, whether it is perceived as being authentic, or the work of some 45-year-old brand manager trying to speak millennial, I guess that remains to be seen.
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I think the challenge with the ad, and its execution today, was again in the words of our ex-Creative Director here, our old friend Jordan Goldenberg. “Whoa, your strategy is showing.”
I mean, the execution of this. I think, I don’t know her name, but she’s YouTuber, I think, drinking the twisted mango flavor of Diet Coke, and dancing, and talking in a way that was so quintessentially millennial Twitter snark. Comes across, and again, I’m not the target, but it just didn’t land, or with anyone on Wednesday night. Land in a way that felt like, “Oh, I’m interested in trying this, this speaks to me. This is made for me.”
From my perspective, expressed a couple weeks ago, the issue with Diet Coke is not an issue of lack of flavor among millennials. Nor is it an issue with the brand not being youthful entirely, it’s an issue with the fact that the ingredient profile, and the health profile and all the nutritional trends are moving away from what diet soda is, from a sweetening perspective, and everything else on that label.
So the way to achieve some level of win back with millennials is not novelty flavors, or changes to can, it is something deeper and more significant, and substantial. At least that’s my two cents.
The other one that I thought the ad fine, was Michelob Ultra. But the concern about strategy is I’ve never really understood why that brand exists, and that sounds a little bit harsh, but I’m sure there was an insight when it was launched, about carbs. I’m sure there was an insight about an audience that would love to drink beer, and does love to drink beer, but avoids it, or avoids drinking more of it, for issues of waistline and health, and fitness.
That’s true, and I can’t debate the authenticity of that insight. I think the challenge, though, is that Michelob Ultra has always tried to straddle a line that is really hard to straddle. I mean, beers need to have credibility. You will need to be able to, in a bar, hold that logo and label, and bottle, and carry it around with pride.
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Beers say something about the person who’s carrying them. And Michelob Ultra, I’m not sure what it says. It doesn’t have a great… Would you go up to the bartender, the cool bartender, and say, “I’d like a Michelob Ultra, please.” I don’t know if that’s the kind of bar call that really works.
Then you have the fact that I’m not sure that super fit people are really focused on drinking beer, or if they are, they’re fit enough that they can deal with an occasional beer and they’re going to want to have full flavor.
So this notion, it’s just like we’ve done so much studying about indulgent treats, and people don’t want watered down indulgent treats that aren’t bad for you. When they’re going to have an indulgent treat, they want to indulge in a treat.
So I understand the insight that led to the launch of Michelob Ultra, but again, they are repackaging the brand around this, they want it to be the choice of the super fit, yet fun-loving work hard, play hard, work out hard, audience. I just don’t think it lands and there may be data to the contrary, and I haven’t necessarily done my homework on this, but it’s been a brand that I’ve never understood.
Rather than blathering about the other 20 or 25 Super Bowl ads, let’s leave it here. As always, we’d love dialogue on this, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter @BillGullan or @FinchBrands. Certainly if we’ve deserved it, we’d appreciate you subscribing to this, or giving us a rating in the app store of your choice. But we’ll leave it there, and we’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
Daniel Ruble is Vice President of Marketing at CubeSmart, a leading self storage service provider. In this episode, Daniel lends his insight into how the brand is used to balance the functional and emotional factors that drive consumer decision-making in an interesting, yet low-frequency category. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Daniel Ruble: So often it’s not about building that unaided recall, that brand awareness, that top of mind awareness. It’s about building and establishing a brand expectation that’s a bit of an undercurrent.
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 for an interesting conversation today with Daniel Ruble, who’s the vice president of marketing at CubeSmart.
CubeSmart is a leader in self storage. Depending on where you’re listening to this, you may have one very near you. They have a very broad real estate portfolio. Daniel in some ways is an accidental marketer. As he’ll walk you through his description of how he got there makes perfect sense, and why marketing appeals to him. But Daniel started his career really more on the finance side and real estate side.
He did his undergrad at Tennessee, Knoxville. His BS is in business administration and finance. He then, through some of his early career experiences, wound up here in the Philadelphia area at the Wharton School at Penn where he got his MBA in finance and real estate. From there, as he’ll tell you, a couple different roles at CubeSmart culminating in his occupying the VP of marketing chair right now.
So he has a really interesting prospective on not only his own career journey but what marketing and brand needs to do in a category like self storage and why for someone who maybe comes from a finance background, the principles that drive successful marketing are so appealing and so natural. So enjoy Daniel Ruble.
Bill: Coming to you live from what is affectionately known as hCube in Malvern PA is the vice president of marketing at CubeSmart, Daniel Ruble. Daniel, thank you for joining us.
Daniel: It’s a pleasure to be here, Bill.
Bill: It’s our pleasure and I mean that sincerely. This is such a fun place to be and it’s a cool contemporary office in a company that we’ve gotten to know. Long way from Rocky Top to Malvern here. So why don’t we start as we normally do with a little bit about your background and what’s led you to this point personally or in terms of your career journey.
Daniel: Yeah. Happy to discuss. You mentioned Rocky Top. I’m a hillbilly from the hills of east Tennessee. But yeah, my path to where I sit today in marketing has been an interesting one. I’ve got two finance degrees. I’m a CFA charter holder. 10 years ago, if you had told me that I would be working in a marketing function or marketing capacity for a self storage company, I would’ve laughed at you.
I started my career in investment consulting in Atlanta. From there really pursued a career in investment management. I moved up this way to the Philadelphia area about 10 years ago from graduate school. Got my MBA from the Wharton School. I was interested in buy side equity analysis. Really fascinated by equity analysis, getting into businesses to create value, identifying, quantifying that value, looking for opportunities.
But as luck or bad luck may have it, I was graduating in 2009 with my MBA in the depths of the credit crisis. A lot of us had to pivot and be pretty open minded with the kinds of opportunities we were exploring. So low and behold, a self storage real estate investment trust at the time, we were then called U-Store-It, was looking to hire some people to join a project team to source capital for the company in the depths of the credit crisis.
I did that as a short-term opportunity to get some experience, build my resume, and serve as a launch pad for other things. But from that I was able to work with our CEO at the time pretty closely, and at the end of that project he gave me an opportunity to stick around and work for the company.
It was intended to be a short-term arrangement. He was going to help me find an opportunity, give me a great recommendation, but I never looked. Part of it was just I was enamored by what an incredible business, and this is going to sound ridiculous … But what an incredible business self storage is. Then being able to work with people who have continued to give me different opportunities.
I started out sourcing capital. Spent some time after that working as an operations analyst for the CEO. Spent some time on the investment team after that. Spent a couple of years as vice president of finance supporting our CFO with capital markets activities, leading investor relations. Then made the natural transition to marketing.
Bill: Yeah. It’s perfect.
Bill: That’s the way everybody does it, right? Yeah right.
Daniel: So, my path has been unconventional but I think a lot of it just whenever there’s opportunity opening the door and being open minded.
Daniel: But yeah.
Bill: What a path, and for those who primary think of self storage as consumers storing their stuff. You mentioned the investor side. You mentioned the not into the third-party management side. The business model at CubeSmart and perhaps in other places is a blend. Is it not of managing of other people’s property, acquiring property, corporate owned and launched. Can you comment a little bit on what lies beneath?
Daniel: Yeah. It’s a fascinating business because it’s a really hybrid business in many ways. We are a real estate and investment trust. Most of our revenue comes in the form of rent payments that we collect from our customers who are renting space from us in a real estate transaction, or signing a lease. But it’s a … Unlike an office building or a retail strip center, our customers primarily are consumers.
This is largely a B2C business and a pretty fragmented one at that. I mean, we unlike other REITs, we have a very deep, robust operational infrastructure. We’ve got 2,500 teammates around the country, 1,000 locations. You have relatively short lengths of stay. So, the customers are always moving in and out, so you need a very robust customer capture and operational infrastructure to support the business.
You get a lot of really interesting business decision dynamics that come into play and make our business surprisingly complex and interesting from an operations perspective but also from a marketing perspective. Little things like because we’re a real estate business, we have a finite amount of space to rent. If I’m generating more demand for widgets, I can’t just make more widgets to sell.
Bill: Add another floor.
Daniel: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, I got to maximize or we have to maximize the economic efficiency of the limited space that we have to offer. So it creates a lot of very interesting and complex data challenges and opportunities for what we’re trying to accomplish.
Bill: I can imagine. So, your path has taken you here into this VP of marketing role. You’ve been on this side of the house for I think three or four years at this point. For someone who comes at this from a finance and a real estate background, what is it about marketing leadership and about whether its situational characteristics of this business or just the general demand stack and everything else that … How’s this connecting for you? What causes you to embrace this and thrive in it? How does it work with how your mind works?
Daniel: Yeah. That’s a great question. I have to ask myself the same thing. Yeah. So I mentioned a moment ago when talking about my own progression, I used to be so focused on a career in investment management because I was really intrigued by value. How businesses create value, what types of businesses create more value, how to value those businesses, understanding the value drivers, dissect them, develop an investment thesis.
What I’ve discovered by pursuing different opportunities along the way is that I really enjoy much more than evaluation a company or valuing a business. I much prefer to create value and communicate value. So the great thing about what I’m doing here, what we’re doing as a company, this is a real business. We have real customers with real stories.
People need storage when they’re going through a very difficult life transition. They’re getting married, they’re getting divorced, they’re having children, they’re getting a new job, and we provide a valuable service to these people at a pivotal moment in their lives. So to be able to contribute to those customer journeys and to create value for them and then to ultimately create value for our shareholders and continue to refine our mousetrap and deepen our competitive advantages that help grow the company.
I get a lot of energy from all of that. Now that I reflect upon my path it’s funny because I’m shocked that this wasn’t my initial interest to begin with.
Bill: From the beginning.
Bill: Funny. You mentioned some of the category dynamics here and obviously there’s a box that has little boxes and you rent them and try to fill them and revenue maximization points and other things. This is podcast called Real-World Branding. We’re here to talk about branding in part. So, what’s the role of the brand in a category that one might, at first blush, consider to be overwhelmingly functional or promotional?
You see everywhere, “First month free” offer. There’s a lot of offers here. There’s a lot of almost direct response communications. What’s the role of the brand?
Daniel: Yeah. It’s funny. I think your description of function is actually kind. At the end of the day, it’s a pretty plain, simple product. I mean, we are selling, or renting in our case, three corrugated metal walls, concrete floor, a roll up door, and a light bulb. That’s what we’re selling at the end of the day. So it’s not a terribly … It’s not an exciting product for people. Self storage is not something that people want.
Daniel: It’s not an aspirational purchase. It’s something that they need. I mentioned they need it when they’re going through a life transition. Oftentimes, it’s a very difficult time. We think about the customers journey almost like scaling a mountain. It is not pleasant. It’s tough. You have to push yourself. The payoff is really at the end when you’ve scaled the mountain and you’re at the summit.
For us, brand is really important in helping soften the inevitable perception of the product and the service as a difficult thing that they have to go through as part of another logistical challenge or disruption that’s happening in their life. You have to take the day off or get your friends to help you over the weekend. There are a lot of hurdles and it’s not always pleasant.
We want to soften that experience and the perception of the experience and help focus on the end, getting to that summit, having a more organized space at home, being in your new space, opening a new door, turning a new chapter on your life. Brand helps us convey that.
Then practically from a customer, capture perspective it is tough because brand equity in our business, and I’ll admit it’s fairly illusive. It’s a low … It’s need based, but it’s a low transaction frequency business. This is not something that people think about that often. Half of our customers have never used self storage before.
Bill: Probably won’t again.
Daniel: That’s right. Those who have used it may have been five or 10 years. So the reality is if you ask someone on the street to name a handful of self storage companies, they can’t do it.
Daniel: For the most part.
So often it’s not about building that unaided recall, that brand awareness, that top of mind awareness. It’s about building and establishing a brand expectation that’s a bit of an undercurrent. So when someone’s deeper in the funnel, they’re looking for storage, and they’re looking on say the search engine results page. They see the CubeSmart link. It clicks. It’s like, “Oh yeah. I’ve seen that beautiful location on the corner,” or, “I’ve seen that YouTube ad. I’ve seen that billboard or the signage.” That’s often where the brand comes in to play. The aided recall.
Once we’re in the conversation with the customer, quickly establishing and conveying our value proposition and competitive difference. The brand is really the vehicle through which we do that.
Bill: Right. Right. To that end, this is a brand that has had its own innings as the game has unfolded. Could you speak to us a bit about that and walk us through the brand platform and brand promise? I think there’s been newly released internally … We’ll talk about culture in a minute, which is so palpable and strong here. But in to the marketplace under the creative platform of ‘it’s what’s inside that counts’ as a line. But could you walk us through the recent history of the brand platform and the process to getting to where we are today in terms of what’s out there now?
Daniel: Yeah. It’s a great question. It’s an interesting path too. I kind of reflect on it. We rebranded from U-Store-It to CubeSmart seven years ago. That was a big decision. It was very different in our space. When you look across the self storage sector, there are a lot of very utilitarian terms associated with a product that make their way into the brand. So secure, safe, space.
Daniel: Store. Even our old brand U-Store-It. I mean, there were hundreds … I wouldn’t say hundreds, but dozens of derivations of U-Store-It the different companies were using. There was a practical business challenge and that we did not have control over or protection over that brand.
So as we were growing and scaling the business, we needed a brand that we owned. As we were building equity in the brand and putting resources behind making ourselves known, those efforts weren’t for not or weren’t being expropriated by other businesses who were basically using the same name down the street.
Daniel: But also U-Store-It was a very … Something straight out of the ’70s. It was very utilitarian, stale, and boring. But it was also diametrically opposed to our budding service model at the time. U-Store-It really puts the onus on the customer. U-Store-It, you do it. Here’s the key. You take care of your things. That’s really not the tone or the message that we wanted to convey.
So we rebranded to CubeSmart. I won’t walk through that entire rebrand process, but with really an eye toward being a break out brand in the space and creating a broader umbrella under which we could communicate more value and more active value creation and service for our customers.
Fast forward. The past couple of years or over the past several years since we’ve rebranded, we have struggled to really find a common voice and to balance the functional with the emotional. So we’ve had various campaigns and creative efforts. Every time we go to write a creative brief it’s been challenging to really articulate what exactly is it that makes CubeSmart different? What is the CubeSmart difference? What’s at the heart of our value proposition?
So, we really took a step back and had a very large concerted effort internally and externally with Finch Brands, our partner, to really articulate, define, conduct the necessary research and build a proper brand foundation that would allow us to streamline our creative efforts and really provide a more cohesive shared understanding of what CubeSmart stood for internally and externally.
So I’m happy to walk through that process if you like.
Bill: Or just talk a little bit about maybe where we all landed and what’s significant about it from your perspective.
Daniel: Yeah. So the tagline, ‘It’s what’s inside that counts,’ is something that came from we started with a lot of internal research and focus groups, interviewing stakeholders, interviewing our customers, focus groups of our customers, surveys. What it kept coming back to is what the customer is going through when they need self storage. Then what they’re using it for, right?
We may be, like I said, renting three metal walls, concrete floor, and a roll up door, but at the end of the day, it’s what’s inside that counts. For the customer an extension of their home. They’re putting things that matter dearly, oftentimes, to them in the space. It’s what’s behind the door, the customer’s story, that really matters and is ultimately driving their decision to choose CubeSmart.
So keeping that as a focus for us, making the customer aware of our commitment and our genuine care and understanding and empathy for everything that they’re going through. That’s where the double entendre really comes into play. It’s ultimately what’s inside our teammates that makes the difference.
When we boil this down and we think about a brand structure, the core idea is really more heart. CubeSmart difference is that we’ve got more heart at CubeSmart.
Bill: It rhymes!
Daniel: It does rhyme, thank you, Finch Brands. We care enough about the things that matter to the customer to take the actions to offer a differentiated service that addresses those needs.
So our customers, as I’ve mentioned, they’re going through a lot. It’s a stressful time. Sometimes a warm smile is enough to make the difference. So we care about that in store experience, the customer service. We have more than caretakers in our stores. They’re active customer service agents who are helping our customers. So customer service is a core pillar that we focus on because it matters.
Cleanliness. Again, this is an extension of someone’s home. They’re keeping things that are near and dear to them in the space, and they need to be as comfortable using their space as they would be walking into their own living room and keeping it as clean. So we have very detailed inspection checklist that we work through when we’re preparing a space for a customer to move into.
Then ultimately, security. People are emotionally tied to their things, and they’re walking away from them. They’re leaving their things in their storage space and they need to be confident and have the peace of mind that they’ve made the right decision leaving their things with the right company.
So at the end of the day, yeah, we have more heart at CubeSmart. We care about the things that matter to the customer. Ultimately, service, cleanliness, security. That effectively is the brand structure.
Bill: Yeah. ‘It’s what’s inside that counts’ also eludes, and you made the point, let’s go there now about the unique and distinctive, which I guess is redundant, qualities of this company and this team. Your colleagues, be they in corporate roles or out in our individual locations are called teammates. That means something beyond just a designation.
Bill: We were struck. I remember the first day we came. You walk in here and you’re like, “Wow. They had a good architect. They had a good designer. This is a pretty neat place.” Then the deeper you go, the more people you meet, there’s a real feeling here. There’s a real depth of feeling about culture and about what’s inside.
So if you could maybe, first of all, take us through some of the cultural touchstones here. The also speak to the role of teammate engagement in the full realization of the brand strategy, both as a place to work and a place to share, but also as a vehicle to serving our customers as best as we possibly can.
Daniel: Yeah. That’s a great question.
Bill: I’m full of great questions today.
Daniel: Yeah. Exactly.
Bill: Thank you.
Daniel: It is. It’s true. One of the reasons that I’ve been here so long …
Bill: Yeah. You thought you were going to be here a couple months.
Daniel: I never submitted a resume or a job application to another place despite the fact the arrangement was that it would be a short-term gig. My CEO would actively help me look for something else. But this is a special place. Yeah. I mean, we have a strong strategy house internally that establishes a clear vision for the company. The vision that we have with our relationships and each other. Values that support that. A strong central mission. But it’s deeper than that. It’s the people.
We have bright, smart, genuinely good people here, and that’s really been at the heart of everything we’ve done. We extend that genuine care, and it’s articulated clearly in our mission statement. But that genuine care is the central theme.
We’ve extended that to our customer service efforts. Many years ago or several years ago we introduced an internal wow function. That was a very strong rallying cry for the company surprising and delighting our customers, leaving customers with a wow impression. So walking to a storage facility and having carpet under your feet and bright colors and a store teammate who actually stands up and walks around the counter and shakes your hand. It’s just not what you’d expect from a self storage experience.
We’ve taken a lot of pride in that. But we’ve still struggled to … Historically, we had struggled to balance that customer service pride and focus that was so entrenched and ingrained in everything we did with a clear articulation of value proposition. The brand work, I would say, helped bring all of that together.
So when we rolled, ‘It’s what’s inside that counts,’ out to our store teammates and our teammates at hCube, the response was tremendously positive. I think it really galvanized that common sense of purpose across the company, and further reinforced what we’ve all known was inside of us culturally. But this more clearly articulates and expresses it both internally and externally.
The power and importance of that not only in our working relationships with each other because we do think of each other as customers, internal customers whom we’re serving. But ultimately, it strengthens our ability to support and serve our customers across the country. So the way we think about our teammates, and the way they think about themselves is that we’re all brand advocates. The truest expression of the CubeSmart brand is the in-store experience that the customer has.
Daniel: That warm smile, that greeting, that interaction they have with the manager, that’s what CubeSmart’s all about. So to the extent that we as a marketing function can help articulate what CubeSmart means centrally and help amplify that throughout the company and reinforce it, it’s ultimately in support of that in-store experience where the rubber really hits the road.
Bill: Yeah. Roll of the brand, just as we think about it in the B2B side of the house, third-party management, the ability to acquire, to manage properties from folks who may have one of these in random towns. Is the brand play into that endeavor as well?
Daniel: It does. Yeah, it does. So in a few different ways. So you mentioned third-party management, and it’s true. We own a little more than half of our properties. The other half we’re managing on behalf of third-party owners.
I mean, that could be an institutional investor that owns a portfolio of a hundred self storage facilities or it could be a small, a local doctor who has an investment in a storage property. His cousin’s been or her cousin’s been managing the facility and now it’s time to look for professional management. I think one of the big benefits of the brand is conveying value to that owner so that they understand what it means to be a CubeSmart … What it means for their location to be a CubeSmart store.
Daniel: Right. What does that mean for their customers and how we’re positioning their store in the marketplace and how we’re treating their customers. There’s a lot of benefit in that message. But then also when you roll it up and you think about the communication of our value proposition on the third part management side to our perspective partners.
The brand that we position for consumers has a lot of reach and extends to the B2B side of the business as well. ‘It’s what’s inside that counts,’ speaks to the fact that we genuinely care about the interest of our partners. We take a partnership approach to third party management, and every one of them has unique business circumstances and needs. So we take less of a cookie cutter approach, I would say, to third-party management than others in the space may. I believe that our brand really conveys that.
Bill: We’ve stayed longer than we promised we would. This has been wonderful. As we break, you talked about your journey and your path. Are there any words of wisdom that you’d want to share with those who are inspired by what you’ve come through and the chooses that you’ve made along the way? Are there any words to live by that are important to who you are as a person and a professional that you want to leave us with?
Daniel: Yeah. I think I use the word inspire. I think it’s really about finding that inspiration. I mention for me it was about finding that I loved creating value, communicating value, but the inspiration for all of that comes down to our customers. So just to come back to the brand work and something we’ve done here is really bring our customers to life. So we’ve actually interviewed many of our customers and have documented their stories. We’ve converted some of those to videos. For me personally, as well as teammates around the company, what that does, just seeing what a customer is going through and why they use us. For me to feel and see the impact of my day to day efforts, impact the real life of a customer, is incredibly inspirational and motivating. So my advice is to not lose sight of the end goal and the ultimate impact that your efforts are having. That will guide you whether it be professionally or in terms of pursuing a specific project or business outcome.
Bill: Yeah. If you ever get the late night Sunday, “God. Do I have to do this again?” I mean, if you think about the people whose lives you’re touching and the impact that your work makes. To your point, folks coming to through transitions, some of which are happy but all of which are different. You could certainly do worse than focuses on the impact, the positive impact, that a company like this has. So Daniel Ruble, VP of marketing at CubeSmart. Thank you for welcoming us in here and for sharing your insight and your experiences.
Daniel: Thank you, Bill. It’s been a pleasure.
Bill: Thank you to Daniel Ruble for his time and his insight. I encourage … I guess they don’t want people to just drop in, but I do encourage, if you have the opportunity to get a little bit closer to what CubeSmart does from a cultural perspective and to study the company a little bit. I encourage you to do it. It’s a really special group of people in a category that, again, may come off as being primarily transactional or promotional. They’ve built a really distinctive culture and a brand, certainly, and we’re privileged to know them in the way that we do.
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