Reeling from struggling earnings and loss of market share, GNC announced a “One New GNC” rebranding initiative, will it be enough to pull the brand out of its slump? If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, your host an President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. We were very happy to have you, and this is a fun time of year in our industry. There’s a lot happening in terms of new initiatives that clients and others are launching in advance of what they hope is a great year, and also one of the major rituals that brings about a lot of focus on brands and on marketing is the Super Bowl.
Word came down a couple weeks ago, I think, and actually the meat of this was happening between the Christmas and New Year holidays, was GNC, the major, I think they have 9000 stores worldwide or something big like that, maybe 4000 in the US, was going through and really put together an initiative geared toward a rebirth, bringing that chain out of the graveyard, and that may be an overstatement, a little bit reductive, but they’d had some trouble.
GNC’s been in financial trouble, perceptual trouble, and everything else for really 18 months or more, so it was long overdue for management and others to think about what GNC means in today’s commercial landscape, and how the company and the brand can regain some of the momentum that it had for many years before. So, they launched this new initiative. I think it was called “One New GNC” and it included a major store redesign. In fact, I think the entire, at least US store base, closed for a 24 hour period at the end of December to change over from old look to new look.
It also included a revamped loyalty program, and thankfully, an end to the practice of having different prices online and in store. A lot of changes and we know that these will be heralded, we hear at least, through a Super Bowl ad, the first in the company’s history that will design to bring to that huge audience word of the fact that their GNC experience is new and that folks ought to come back and give it a shot. I remember when Domino’s did that a couple of years ago. That’s worked, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but here we are with GNC and there’s a couple of questions that this raises from my perspective.
First of all, every couple years, it seems like a major brand – and Domino’s was one example, J.C. Penney is another example – goes through a spurt of big thinking that is designed to really transform a company in a category. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but the questions I have related to what GNC is doing is first of all, are they focusing on the right things?
There’s no question that the areas that GNC is addressing are areas in which it has fallen behind. The loyalty program previously was this weird thing – you get triple points on this day and double points on this day, and there were different levels. It was very hard to understand, particularly for a consumer that has been educated to expect, at least at mass interest retail, you get a loyalty card, you get a discount on certain products, you amass points that you can then spend or whatever the case may be.
GNC’s was very complicated. They’re focusing on bringing more technology to the store experience, so that’s good. They want to win back consumers that the company lost to other channels, but the question is does the world need a 9000 unit specialty vitamin supplement store? Its highest interest categories are widely available – they faced and one of the factors most seem to credit to their decline is tremendous competition – online and off, across food, drug and mass, including Amazon, of the basic categories, the vitamins and other things, whey protein that GNC made its name on.
I mean, GNC does have a vibrant private label program with I think it’s Mega Man and other brands that you can only get there, but the sense of their proprietary product excellence, I think it waned considerably. The fact that you could get good or better deals on what the marketplace thinks are very similar items in a variety of different channels. So, the question really is are they focusing on the right things and are they doing enough here that’ll really reverse the marketplace’s … I don’t think there’s hatred for GNC in the marketplace, but there’s a, ‘Meh, this brand isn’t current, relevant, necessary,’ and I’m not sure whether at least these first initiatives are really enough to address the downward trajectory that the brand has been on.
Secondly, and J. C. Penney certainly brings this up is will there be unintended consequences? We remember a few years back when Ron Johnson I think, the new CEO that came from Apple, at J. C. Penney, had a major initiative to really reinvigorate the retailer, and there were a lot of really interesting things. It was going to move more into a bazaar, a store within a store concept. It was going to be really interesting on the store design perspective, etc. But one of the things that led to this really flaming out quickly and the board having to respond, and to what the plan was, was that the company changed without much warning to its couponing structure. The company at J. C. Penney at least had really convinced and educated their marketplace to respond to a particular promotional approach.
While the vitamin/supplement category is large and mature, GNC’s position is volatile given this competitive dynamic, so the previous loyalty program was a strange concoction. It was, as noted, based on discounts, certain days, etc. The new iteration is much simpler, it makes much more sense, but there are some consumers, their core market, who are still big GNC customers who have been educated by GNC to shop a certain way, and now that’s changing, and how are they going to react when their patience or discipline or just basically the rituals that they’ve created around that loyalty program, when those are gone or rewarded differently?
J. C. Penney’s coupon clippers rebelled several years ago and it led to overthrow of the CEO and the company basically in a scared way saying, ‘Okay, okay, okay, we’re going to back to where we were.’ I’m not sure whether these unintended consequences will also befall GNC. I think there’s a strong likelihood that they will, because this is a struggling brand, but a big brand nonetheless and there’s millions of people who’ve been educated to shop a certain way and now they’re being told to shop differently, and we’ll see whether that takes hold.
Thirdly, just the fundamental question, is GNC a brand for this moment in our culture and in our commercial life? We noted that the category that they serve is large and mature. They may not be growing very fast, but there’s billions of dollars of business to be won and to be expanded upon in vitamins and supplements, but GNC is facing competitive pressures like never before, so in addition to the food, drug, and mass, there’s a ton of direct businesses that have proprietary approaches and really unique, or at least marketed as unique kind of product offerings.
The company, GNC, has stood for engineered nutrition, yet the data suggests that many consumers are heavily scrutinizing ingredient panels. They’re very skeptical of synthetic processes. So, in short, GNC’s still selling the power of science while the consumer culture seems to be all about the simplicity of nature. There’s a real question as to whether or not those eccentric rhythms of what consumers define as healthy accommodate GNC’s historic brand definition of what it means. Now, a ton of vitamins and supplements are always going to be bought, so it isn’t about the industry or the category going away. It’s about whether or not GNC can grow within it.
My three questions here, and they’re critical questions, is one, is GNC focusing on the right things? Is it a big enough change to right the ship? Two, are there unintended consequences that will compromise their efforts? Then three is, is GNC really just a brand for now? 9000 stores worldwide, 4000 in the US, and is that the right size of a business here that is facing crosswinds both of their making and not of their making? As noted, every so often this major company shifts direction. Sometimes the changes are too big, too fast, like J. C. Penney. Sometimes they get it right.
We mentioned at the beginning that Domino’s offered a multifaceted initiative that touched the product, it touched the promotion, and it touched the marketing, and Domino’s has had a tremendous resurgence. Sometimes the changes aren’t big or deep enough, and Sears and their many false starts is an example of this.
My fear is that GNC might at least at present, and it’s very early, my fear is that they may be falling into that category of changes that are welcome but not fundamental enough to reorient the trajectory of the brand and the business. As always, it’s very easy for me to sit here and sound off without either the dataset to illuminate these opinions, nor the responsibility to execute.
The management team in Pittsburgh is there, they’ve had their heads down, studying the business, talking to consumers, and so they deserve a chance to see what happens here. Yet, my sense is that GNC plan is more cosmetic and the issues are more fundamental. The CEO of GNC admits that the model is ‘badly broken.’ I’m not sure this ultimately is a big enough fix for a retailer with fundamental problems.
So, we’ll leave it right there. That’s One Big Idea for this week. We’re so glad that you’re with us, and we’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
In this week’s episode, Bill examines the factors that are critical to deciding whether or not a tagline is appropriate for a brand. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and this is One Big Idea. We’ve heard a lot recently in our own work and just, scanning the inter webs and other media sources, about taglines, for whatever reason. A question we get a lot, and it’s a good one, is do we need a tagline during a re-branding process or, just in general, when folks are approaching their marketing efforts and their identity?
There’s a couple of different dimensions to this. First of all, I think the general, overarching principle is that taglines do seem to be less important today. A lot of the famous best taglines that you hear are, frankly, old. These existed in the times when brands communicated in print or via major TV spot moments where they was a lot of copy and a lot of script, and really, a tagline was used to encapsulate the whole idea. Some of the famous taglines of old came to life that way.
Many of the taglines that today are regarded as among the best and in some ways it’s because of their longevity. They’ve become inseparable from the brands to which they’re attached. There aren’t that many of those. There’s a lot of ones that when you read top hundred list or whatever it’s the same ones over and over again.
A couple other reasons I think that taglines seem to be less important. One is that, as noted, as we’ve moved away from these big anthem level brand campaigns being the center of folk’s marketing budget, we’re dealing with small screens.
You’re dealing with a hundred and forty character limits. You’re dealing with different methods of delivering messages, social media, etc, that maybe aren’t as conducive or don’t require the delivery of a tagline alongside the core messages of an idea. In some cases, if it’s a banner ad for example, it’s just too crowded. You don’t need to stick another line of copy on there. The name’s enough. People are able to experience it in context.
The second piece is that, often, brand communications are found in a commercial context that encapsulates what a company does and is trying to communicate. If you are searching on Google for x, y or z, it is the algorithm that will get you there, not some fancy tagline that is designed to express clearly what the name of the company and what the brand of the company is trying to accomplish. The addition of context particularly in the digital realm and particularly on mobile, provides a release valve where you may not need a tagline to get your message across.
The third thing that we see is reducing the necessity or the frequency of tagline development is, brands today are about values, about personalities, maybe more than product differences and core feature identifiers. Some of the greatest taglines in history, and we’ll go through them in a minute, where really built upon one feature based point of interest. ‘Great taste, less filling.’ ‘Where’s the beef.’ These are classic taglines that were really used as positioning ladders to get across a core differentiable element. The fact that brands are communicating at a level more of values and lifestyle, larger thematic approaches makes at least that type of tagline a little bit less appropriate and related.
Lastly, and before we move into answering that question of should we or should we not, brand has gotten more flexible. Consistency still matters a lot obviously when it comes to message and color and personality and tone, but there’s also a strong emphasis on brands not trying too hard, not delivering an imperative to their audience, not top down.
The fact that social media and other elements have made the brand conversations more of a dialogue than a dictation or an imperative has made it so that taglines often come across as being a little bit too eager. You don’t see fashion brands that are designed to have this mystique, ever really taglines. It’s fashion brand x, ‘providing the best shirts,’ you don’t see that. it just doesn’t work.
The brand nature of the dialogue today and the way strong brands are built and constructed are with flexibility as well as with authenticity. Taglines, may to a degree, rob that, if not well executed.
These are reasons why taglines seem to be less important, but now to the fundamental question and the topic and the title of this One Big Idea, which is do we need a tagline? The answer of course is situational and it depends. I think there are four primary reasons to think about. In terms of a checklist, if the answer to these questions or one of them is yes, then maybe you should consider developing and using a tagline as part of your identity – either locked up with it or in a prominent place alongside of it.
The first is does the name of the brand require some degree of modification in context that advances a position? One example, and there’s a ton of them, that’s close to home here is Finch Brands. We have a tagline that’s ‘Building brands for the real world.’
What we wanted to do and accomplish through that and the reason we developed a tagline was that the name Finch Brands doesn’t necessarily say exactly what we do nor does it define, by itself, what is distinctive and memorable about us, what makes us different. The use of a tagline is that next level of positioning detail alongside a name that isn’t as directly descriptive, was an important and is an important part of our brand expression at Finch.
I think you can think of a lot of different companies. Some have proper names. Others may have names that are more general, where a tagline is used to deliver a more specific and descriptive message, while also advancing a core argument of the brand. If the name needs additional description and modification and it exists in a context that doesn’t automatically have that built in, a tagline is worthy of consideration.
The second thing to think about are taglines that evoke a feeling. One of the most famous is ‘Just Do It.’ Nike is the Greek goddess of victory. The name in and of itself didn’t mean anything. Then again, Nike starting in track and with marathon runners, did have a context surrounding what it was doing, but Nike wanted to advance a system of belief and a feeling, a personality and Just Do It was a way of expressing that.
One category that does this, I think, very well actually is the insurance category. Some of the best known and best regarded taglines come from insurance. ‘Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is There.’ ‘You’re in Good Hands with Allstate.’ ‘Nationwide is on Your Side.’ These are enduring taglines that, yeah, they lean into the category of service or product that’s being offered but they’re designed to evoke a feeling that is central to brand differentiation and identification. The second reason to consider a tagline is if you really find it to be competitively relevant to evoke a distinctive feeling or personality. A tagline may be a good way to do that.
Third, and I think very importantly, is a tagline has the ability to herald a shift in brand strategy. Two examples from our recent past. Fathead, known for vinyl wall graphics of various types, started originally, at least was the core of their advertising approach was, life-sized NFL wall decals. When we were working with the brand it became clear both from our research as well as what they were doing, that Fathead was a lot more than life-sized NFL wall decals.
First of all it wasn’t just NFL. It was across the sports world, across the entertainment continuum with a fully integrated custom offering so you could have your daughter’s soccer team or anything else. Certainly the licenses were extending into Disney princesses and other characters. The brand was a lot more than the context in which consumers held it, that was largely of Fathead’s own making.
Their original tagline was, ‘Real Big.’ When we began to work with them and as a brand strategy and communication strategy shifted more in the direction of promoting the full diversity of the line of offerings that fathead could bring to market, in addition to just different characters and different images, Fathead had a ton of different sizes. The Real Big product was the one with which it was most intimately associated, but Fathead was a lot more than that.
In fact to drive the business forward it was important that the marketplace understand that Fathead was more than about life-size wall graphics, because how many places can you really put one in a house? Maybe you have a so called man cave where you can put three or four that’s dedicated to watching sports or whatever but most people don’t have that. It was important that the marketplace understood that Fathead wasn’t just about this, really high intensity but exclusive product application.
The tagline had been Real Big, as noted, but then as the brand strategy shifted, and as we helped Fathead shift the brand strategy, the tagline shifted into ‘For Real.’ It was Fathead, For Real. The idea there being not about size but about the vivid nature of the graphics and how they were represented and delivered across entertainment and athletic franchises and across product sizes and formulations.
A small shift in tagline from Real Big to For Real, heralded a shift in brand strategy and in communications emphasis. It was a very good use not only of a tagline but an example of how a tagline can help shift brand strategy. The company name wasn’t changing, the brand equity was a tremendous asset for Fathead, but they just needed to contemporize it and shape it in a way that helped the business grow. A tagline was indispensable to that.
Another example, is, we’ve talking about it on this podcast before, ThinkGeek, ecommerce purveyor of licensed and home grown merchandise for the geek in all of us, was really undergoing a major shift at the brand strategy level. Again, not changing name but at the brand strategy level it was shifting from this out of date perspective of a geek as a pejorative term of a socially awkward, inwardly focused person living in a parent’s basement and communicating with a small group of folks over a game of dungeons and dragons.
That was the old version of geek. The new version of geek was embracing this moment of sharing and community and Comic-Con and all these things that had made ‘geeking out’ the verb of choice to describe going deep with your passions regardless of whether they were traditionally geeky or not. In addition to the rebranding at the visual identity level and everything that came along with it, we shifted the tagline.
The original tagline had been ‘Stuff for Smart Masses.’ Emphasizing that old school version of geek as being smarter than everybody else and snarky. It was a play on smart asses, smart masses, but the new tagline which was designed to really usher in this era of geek as a verb, geek as a high social currency, very active community driven reality, became ‘Join in. Geek out.’
It was a subversive nod to Timothy Leary for those who got it, although I’m sure most in the target market didn’t, but Join in. Geek Out. was welcoming. It was about sharing. It was about geeking out and going deep with the things that you love. That was another example from Finch’s recent past of using a tagline to cement a meaningful shift in brand strategy.
Then the last checklist item of should we have a tagline or not, is do you have a core benefit that you need to underline that is essential and fundamental to what the brand stands for and the basis on which folks in the marketplace may want to choose it over its competition?
Some examples from history of this, although some still exist, is ‘Burger King, Have it Your Way.’ Customization of the whopper and the entire menu at Burger King was a major competitive benefit, worthy of underlining and representative of differentiation. ‘McDonald’s, Billions and Billions Served.’ The same old thing, Burger King, Have it Your Way, was a tagline that was helpful not only to again underline something fundamental about the brand choice but also as a way to send vibes about the personality and the welcoming nature of what the brand sought to embody.
Another one again, at the product level is ‘Bounty, It’s the Quicker Picker Upper.’ It does it faster, a core benefit within the product proposition was solidified, extended, and made ever more memorable and accessible through the use of a tagline.
Another one, interesting historically, that also maybe heralded a brand shift was Verizon. ‘Can you Hear Me Now,’ ultimately became the tagline for Verizon mobile and if you recall, Verizon was formed out of the merger in I guess, the mid probably late nineties of GTE and Bell Atlantic. These were two old line phone hardline long distance phone companies dealing primarily with long distance calls from landline phones within houses. The markets were changing. The companies merged. They took the bold step of creating a new brand, Verizon, to identify this new organization, in part because the marketplace was moving in a direction of mobile and they saw that, and neither of those brands really stood effectively for mobile. Or for technology for that matter.
They were basically public utilities was the way the marketplace perceived them and once Verizon was rebranded as such and it became clear that mobile was a dominant present and future nature of what the company was seeking to accomplish, Can You Hear Me Now became of way of underlining the strength and supremacy of their mobile network.
Can You Hear Me Now, was taken directly from many of the early and continued frustrating conversations that one would have with their mobile device as they reach the level of roaming or when the tower was a little bit too far away. As a memorable and potent and functionally important tagline, Verizon Wireless’s Can You Hear Me Now, of course backed up by a lot of dollars and a campaign and everything else, was a really effective way to underline a core benefit of their offering. We’ll leave it there.
Suffice it to say as noted that taglines may be less in favor and in fashion in our industry than they used to be for a variety of valid reasons but at the same time brands can benefit extensively and meaningfully from the adoption alongside their identity of a very effective tagline and again, those four things to think about are:
1. Do you need a tagline to modify and describe what your company does for a name that maybe doesn’t do that alone?
2. Do you need your tagline to evoke a feeling or a strong brand personality as in the case of just do it or State Farm is there or you’re in good hands with Allstate, etc?
3. Can a tagline be a helpful part of the arsenal to herald a shift in band strategy? Like Fathead going from Real Big to For Real or ThinkGeek going to Join In. Geek Out?
4. Or is there still a core benefit that really animates the brand and crystallizes the choice that you want to emphasize? Can You Hear Me Now, the Quicker Picker Upper, Have It Your Way, etc?
With that, thinking around taglines we’d love to hear your feedback as always on this and everything that we do. We’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
In this week’s episode, we host Mitchell Reichgut, Founder and CEO of Jun Group. With over two decades of applied experience, Mitchell explains how advancements in mobile and digital media are transforming the way brands communicate with consumers. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Mitchell Reichgut: In all the years that I’ve worked in digital media, I have never seen anything like the rapid and complete change that mobile has brought.
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 this week’s interview with Mitchell Reichgut, who’s the CEO of Jun Group, a New York based but with offices all around, a real pioneer of ad tech with an advertising platform to help brands get their messages across in the new world.
Mitchell’s going to take you through his own career, but, interestingly, began on the art direction and creative side in a traditional advertising environment at Grey, obviously, a well-known and cherished name in the American advertising landscape, but quickly gave way to a fascination with digital, as he was there in the early days of designing the first websites that brands like the Wall Street Journal and Reuters and others put into the marketplace in the mid-90’s.
From there, shortly thereafter, he was at Bates, which was also a well-known ad name, running really the digital and what they called the interactive side of the house there. For the last almost 15 years, starting in his house, founding Jun Group, and he’ll take you through the growth of the brand. Mitchell Reichgut, CEO and founder of Jun Group.
Here we are through the wonders of Skype with Mitchell Reichgut, who’s the CEO of Jun Group in New York and wherever he happens to be any given day. Thank you for joining us, Mitchell.
Mitchell: It’s a pleasure. Glad to be here.
Bill: Good. We’re grateful for your time and for your insight. Perhaps a good place to start would be a bit of discussion about your own career journey, which has been a fascinating set of positions that you’ve had. We’d love to hear a bit more about some of the milestones, if you don’t mind.
Mitchell: Not at all. Happy to talk about it. I started my career as a creative guy. I was an art director in advertising. I was fortunate enough to be able to create print ads, television commercials, and outdoor ads for some big brands early on in my career. Quite by accident I fell into this thing called, ‘Internet web development,’ in 1993.
Bill: That’s early.
Mitchell: It is. I built the very first website, not by myself, but with a great team, the very first website for the Wall Street Journal, for Reuters, for Rodale Press, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, and a number of other brands back then. It was really fun.
I did a bit of a tour of Silicon Valley as it was all just starting. It was a thrilling time, really just halcyon days of change, and wound up running the interactive group within the United States for a global ad agency then called Bates Worldwide.
I was in my late 20’s by then, and it was a dream job. I stayed there for four years. It was wonderful. Toward the end of it, it got to be a lot of New York advertising stuff, where it was a lot of pressure. I had a wife and two kids by then and a house and a mortgage, and I decided it would be a good idea just to leave.
Bill: Right. Very responsible decision-making; right.
Mitchell: Exactly. My wife was great about it, really supportive. I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career at that time. It was a bit of a crisis for me, because I had achieved what I wanted to achieve. I didn’t want to go back to advertising.
It’s hard to believe, but internet experience at that point was almost like a black mark on your resume. This is post 9/11 now, right after the Web 1.0 crashed, so I started Jun Group out of my house. I did so as a way to earn a living while I wanted to figure out what to do next.
I had never had any dreams of being an entrepreneur, no ambition to start my own company, and yet when I did it, I found that I really liked it, and I just kept doing it. I learned some important lessons, that fear and pain are wonderful motivational tools, gets you right out of bed in the morning.
I’ve just been doing Jun Group ever since, and that’s really it.
Bill: What a story. I think sometimes the accidental entrepreneur is the most compelling story, as opposed to today, people coming out of business school knowing that that’s what they want to do and looking at white spaces on a board and all this data. What a great story. Here we are. ‘Jun’ means ‘Truth.’ Tell us a little bit about the development of the company into what you all are doing and focusing on today.
Mitchell: Sure. Early on, as I said, I was just trying to make a living, so I did the stuff I knew how to do. I did advertising. I did brand development and brand strategy. Anyone who’s worked in branding knows that it’s all about finding that kernel of truth within the organization that you’re working for.
I’d studied Kung Fu for most of my adult life. I once met a guy, a Chinese guy, who said his name was Jun, and it was spelled J-U-N, and I asked him what it meant. He said, ‘Truth.’ I never saw him again, but eight or nine months later when I started the company, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a great name for a company that is going to do brand strategy,’ and I’ve just kept it all this time.
Over time, as I decided to become serious about running the company and really growing it, I didn’t want to just be an advertising agency. Back then they used to call it, ‘Integrated advertising.’ I met my now partner, Corey, who was at Sony, and he started telling me about peer-to-peer, which at the time Napster, LimeWire, Kazaa was 60% of the internet’s bandwidth, and that was our first distribution platform. Then we, together, had this vision of taking a file and getting millions of people to see it, and that was the birth of the modern company.
Bill: Obviously, when it comes to creating value in the enterprise, the ad agency business or the brand consulting or agency business that we’re in, is services-driven. You have growth. You throw people at it, and it’s a growth challenge. In terms of the platform work that you’ve been doing, how has that evolved, and how do brands today fit you into their roster of key relationships?
Mitchell: It’s funny, because the technology’s changed about a dozen times since we started, but our mission hasn’t really changed all that much. Our promise to our clients is that we will get millions of people, the right people, to engage with your content.
We’ve been doing it over social media. We’ve been doing it over mobile for a number of years and across channels. The technology is less important than the delivery of the goods.
When our clients use us, they know that it’s simple to understand. They know that we’re honest people and that we’re going to put their best interests at heart and really deliver for them. As much as the landscape keeps changing and the technology keeps changing, and all this stuff is dizzying, really the core tenets of the business have remained the same all these years. We say everything about our business changes except our values.
Bill: Right. Right. That’s helpful. Speaking more generically, beyond obviously the experience that you’ve had, being part of the tip of the spear as the web was forming, as a commercial enterprise beyond just information and CompuServe disks in the mail and whatnot, AOL disks, how has the shift from what at the time was overwhelmingly traditional, then broadly digital or integrated, to use the word that we’ve heard a lot and that you mentioned earlier, and now obviously mobile has changed things yet again. How has all of this shaped the way that brands communicate and engage with those they seek to attract?
Mitchell: In all these years that I’ve been working in digital media I have never seen anything like the rapid and complete change that mobile has brought. It has absolutely fundamentally changed the internet. It has changed culture in general. It’s changed the way we communicate. It’s changed the way we interact with one another and interact with computers. It’s actually staggering.
I think the results of what’s happened over the past 24 months are only now really starting to become appreciated by brands and advertisers. If you think of a mobile phone, that is for most people now the first screen, and it functions completely differently than any other computer that’s ever come before it, so I’ve never seen anything so dramatic.
Bill: At the same time, you also spoke about the primacy and eternal nature of values. I would imagine when it comes to great brand communications, regardless of the platform, that there are some common denominators, regardless of the form of media. Is that still true, or are all the rules different than they used to be?
Mitchell: I can answer that in two ways. One, absolutely, it’s the same as it ever has been. Number two, there really is a big shift. It’s the shift that, I think the promise of digital is that we can finally leave the Wanamaker story behind us.
Just for those who don’t know that, famously, a man named Wanamaker said, ‘Half my advertising dollars are wasted. I just don’t know which half.’
Bill: John Wanamaker, by the way, a Philadelphia-based department store magnate, so we’ll take some regional pride in that quote, but continue. Sorry.
Mitchell: That’s right. You guys are in the Wanamaker Building, aren’t you?
Bill: We’re close. We’re actually seven or eight blocks from the Wanamaker building, which is now a Macy’s. We’ll see how much longer.
Mitchell: Yeah. There you go. The internet’s changing that too. In that way, I think what we’re slowly starting to see is brands demanding business outcomes instead of media outcomes. In other words, I give you half a million dollars. Okay, great. You can show me this number of impressions, this many views. They want to see how did it affect my sales. We’re just beginning to be able to deliver on that, which is really exciting.
Bill: No, absolutely. It used to be, to the point about Wanamaker, things like 800 numbers and coupon redemptions, were the traditional way for folks to try to tie in some degree of accountability, but reach and frequency only goes so far. Ad equivalency, on the PR side, only goes so far, and to have all of these tactics that have built-in metrics, all the way up to clicked and transacted, is a powerful answer for those of us in the marketing realm who have often over our careers faced that question of ROI.
Mitchell: I tell you what, it’s the promise, and the actual delivery can be somewhat different, because it’s worth noting that right now Google reports 46% of online video is not seen by a human being. The AMA (American Marketing Association) says that ad fraud will cost the industry 7.2 billion dollars this year, so it’s not all sunshine and daisies.
Everybody in black jeans and a blazer in ad tech says that they’re going to deliver X, Y and Z to the right person at the right time, etc., etc., but there is a lot of shakeout that still needs to happen in this industry to really fully realize the promise that, I think, is what we all want to capture.
Bill: No, absolutely. You look at YouTube. You look at pre-roll in general. We talk about the connection between new media, so to speak … not really new anymore … and traditional media. You see oftentimes if you look in your pre-roll, it’s a TV campaign that’s been re-purposed. It’s a cheap way, you’ve produced it already, etc.
With the explosion of mobile and digital, what’s your outlook on traditional? I know, a bit outside the lane, but where you started, traditional media and the role of new, and what we would call old media, in terms of getting across key messages and overall brand values?
Mitchell: It’s funny. I think all this ad fraud has been great for television. Television CPMs are going up. Advertisers can’t put enough money into TV, because they know what to expect there.
I think the ad tech community has let them down to the extent where they really don’t trust it, and they shouldn’t with numbers like the ones that we quoted earlier, and there are several others. Everyone always says TV is dead or whatever. Personally, AM radio is something that I listen to all the time, and I think it’s still a really powerful, viable medium. I think traditional media is going to be A-OK.
Bill: No doubt. When it comes to content, and you mentioned ad fraud. You mentioned other threats to this value proposition that either come from inside or outside the mobile and the digital marketing realm. What are some things that are working really well? You talk about video in some cases not working, but the biggest trends you’re seeing in terms of best practices on the content side of the types of content that’s breaking through in this new alignment of publishers and sources that consumers can access from anywhere.
Mitchell: It’s interesting, because somebody at our company framed 2016 this way, and I think it’s really adept. It’s a battle between opt-in and auto-play. If you look at what Facebook is doing, it’s auto-play; right? You see all those ads that appear in the stream of someone’s social profile as you breeze by on your mobile device, and that’s been enormously successful. They’ve captured a ton of market share using that tool.
Yet there’s a whole school of thought, of which our company is a part, by the way, that doesn’t believe in that. I don’t like interrupting people. I think that if you look at younger consumers, they demand not to be interrupted. We can talk about ad blocking [for hours].
Opt-in, how do you present ads to somebody in a way that’s non-interruptive? We’re big believers in what’s called value exchange, where you get something in return for your time. We’ve seen results of that for years. I think you’re seeing the great battle between those two schools of thought this year.
Bill: Right. It used to be, with the history of this thing and the golden age of television, all these shows were brought to you by … and that was the implicit, A, it was obviously fresh and new, but it was implicit that this is what kept the medium free was because advertisers, and then you see moves in the direction of product placement. Now as technology is, there’s all sorts of new-fangled issues related to opt-in and everything else. When it comes to pioneering new forms of unobtrusive, yet effective, media approaches for brands, what are some of the core principles that you counsel your clients to embrace as they think about content?
Mitchell: The first thing I tell them is to fish where the fish are. What I mean by that is, I mentioned this dramatic change. One of the things that’s changed so much is the customer journey, the consumer journey. Not too long ago, in 2014, it started with a Google search that led you to an HTML page. You hyper-linked to another one and another one and then back to Google. That really is a small percentage of what happens now.
Ninety percent of what goes on in a mobile device happens in an app. That journey is completely different. In-app advertising is critical to success. Apps are not editorial-style websites. They’re just totally different. To understand the moors and the culture around apps is to understand your user and to have a much better way of contacting that person.
Bill: You talk about obtrusive versus unobtrusive and opt-in versus auto-play. Just in my own traipsing about through the apps that I value, the games that I play or whatever, there seems to be, it’s certainly clear that people haven’t figured this out, or that some have but many have not. You see folks who have the advertising approach for an app, for example, where it pops up and it takes you right to the app store. All the technologies that have been created, as you say, around ad blocking, etc. have been positioned as allies of the consumer who does not want to be interrupted.
When we look at the future, we’ve talked about the incredible changes that mobile has wrought, obviously going back earlier in your career and mine, the changes of just basically the commercial internet, that those were created, and none of us can perfectly see the future. What’s next? Is it another era, or is it individual changes as we all catch up to this?
When you and your futurist colleagues of Jun Group are helping counsel brands for how to get ahead of these things and to get ready for what’s next, what are some beliefs that you have about what’s going to happen and how the future will unfold for all of us in this industry?
Mitchell: I think you can look really clearly around right now and see the future taking root in the present and these dramatic changes still continuing to happen. If you said the word, ‘Television’ to a guy like me even five years ago, it was a physical thing that lived in my living room with a little cable box under it. You say that to my kids, they have no idea why I have that thing hanging there.
Television is a style of content for them that they can enjoy over any device they wish whenever they want to. If you just look at that one facet of what’s going on right now, you see the television transforming into the internet. That is an enormous massive change. You look at the way people communicate with one another, especially … I have two teenage boys, and you watch ten of them in a room, all of them on their devices, talking to one another over their devices. It’s absolutely amazing.
Bill: Right. Yes.
Mitchell: It’s just phenomenal. The cultural changes, the way we interact with each other, the way we interact with brands, it’s changing before our eyes. If you take these things that you see in the present and you project them just a little forward, it makes for a future that’s really exciting in some ways and a little sad in other ways and still hard to predict. I can’t tell you the next Snapchat that’s going to pop up. I don’t even understand that fricking thing.
Bill: You’re not alone. Not alone.
Mitchell: There was a wonderful article, if anybody’s interested, in BuzzFeed about that several months ago, where a 30-year-old was tutored about how to use Snapchat by his younger sister who is a teen. I watch my kids on Snapchat, and it’s a whole different thing.
That kind of stuff is unpredictable, and yet the larger media trends and social trends, I think, don’t happen as quickly as everyone thinks they do. Apps didn’t just happen. It took three or four years.
Bill: Bringing that into the workplace, yours and mine, you built a company here. As you think about creating workplace culture and team alignment, there are, as we experience too and our clients do also, there are generational forces that shape what the workplace is like, that shape how folks expect their professional careers to unfold, and what they need to feel actualized in the workplace with the company that they may have chosen.
As a Gen-X-er like me, looking at those teen boys sitting around the sectional, looking at how they’re interacting … You didn’t say it, but I will. I’m completely befuddled and in many ways scared for the future when you look at something like that, until I can talk myself off the ledge. Key principles that you’ve employed as you built your team and your culture that may have to do with the multi-generational workforce and changes in expectations that that brings?
Mitchell: It is a real challenge. The latest generation of people to enter the workforce right now, they are wired left and right, up and down. They bring a skillset that is unbelievable. They are often rather entitled, I think, in general. They have a high expectation set that we’ve not seen in the workforce before.
What you have to do is find the work ethic and the passion, because the skills and the talent are almost baked in. You find people that are passionate about what they do, and you can really hit a home run. We’re so proud of the team we’ve built here. We work really, really hard to make sure they get the support they need and the understanding they need and the tools they need. Then we just sit back and learn from them, honestly.
Bill: Natives in the technology, no doubt. Do you think, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot … I don’t know what the answer really means or if it even matters, but as an intellectual exercise, when folks … We’ve always thought young people are knuckleheads, whether it’s millennials today or back then when we were the knuckleheads, and the generation above us thought we were knuckleheads. Will folks today, understanding the different realities of how they communicate and all that that means in terms of social styles and work-styles, when they reach that next phase in their career, in their life, and they begin to mature and see the future a little bit more, will they become a digital version of what we became, or is there something fundamentally different about younger generations today given what they’ve grown up with and what comes naturally to them and the expectation that that creates?
Mitchell: That’s a great question. I think there’s something fundamentally different. I think that when you look at people that have grown up with cell phones and grown up with digital media in a way that you and I did not, they function in a different way, and they have capabilities that are just beyond the stuff that you and I have.
Snapchat is perhaps the best example of that. If you watch a teenager use Snapchat, it’s actually scary. In a space of three to five seconds, they can answer eight or nine snaps. That is a skillset and an understanding and a state of being that I’m never going to accomplish and probably you won’t either.
I think that our job is to harness that as much as we can, and that’s what we do here, is learn from these guys as much as we can and direct that energy and that passion that they have and that expertise in ways that are beneficial. The stuff that you and I can teach them is, ‘Hey, if you send a paper thank-you note to someone, they’ll actually remember you.’
Bill: Right. Right. I get a lot of eye-rolls around here. My kids are three and five, so they haven’t quite figured out how to roll their eyes, but they’re going to get ready for Dad talking about the good old days. In that spirit of the path that you followed, that you took us through and from being on that, the vanguard of website creation for various entities that were figuring it out, and you were figuring it out too, coming from a design background, all the way through to what you’ve built it at Jun Group. Any words of wisdom that you’d like to share with those who’ve been inspired by the path you’ve taken, beliefs that have served you well that are core to who you are as a business person as well as a leader?
Mitchell: Oh, yeah. It’s funny, because, and you referenced this earlier, starting a company now is a hip and cool thing to do. I will tell you a quote from AC/DC, ‘Folks, it’s harder than it looks.’
Bill: The philosophers of our modern age; right?
Mitchell: Exactly. I forget who it was, one of my early bosses, said, ‘You have to give advertising everything that you’ve got, and if you don’t give it, advertising will take it anyway.’ If you want to start a company, it’s quite simple. Just don’t stop. Just give it everything you have. The temptation to quit, to feel sorry for yourself, to just wilt, is overpowering at times. It’s a simple principle. Just keep going.
Maybe the corollary to that is, you head off in a direction that’s almost always incorrect. There are very few people that see the future of their company and get to the right place. Even Zuckerberg famously made some big changes. People that are successful do those two things. They just keep going, and then they make the changes that need to be made at the time that they need to make them. Neither of those two things is easy, and running a company is not easy. If you’re looking for an easy life, don’t start your own ad tech firm or any kind of firm.
Bill: No doubt. Thank you so much, Mitchell, for your time and your insight. We’ll close with this, unless I lie and something else comes up, given how you answer it, but when you think about how you’ve evolved as a leader, and you’re at a point and your company’s at a point where clients are coming to you often, I think, with palms up, likely expecting and seeking expertise and counsel in areas that they may not have a great deal of comfort, and I would imagine those in your workforce, that may be a new experience for them, or one that the date on their birth certificate may not indicate that they would have this level of expertise and be sought after the way that they are.
One of the challenges, I think, at Finch … ‘Challenge’ isn’t the right word, but one of the things that people who join our team need to get their arms around pretty quickly, even though they may not feel like experts, they’re being consulted for their expertise, and often the product becomes us. It’s different for somebody who may have started their career in retail or as a brand manager at a CPG company or whatever, they weren’t the product.
This is a long, rambling way to ask the question, are there particular leadership lessons or team development lessons for folks who on your team are in a client interaction situation, who are really being relied on to be both client satisfiers but also experts and trailblazers and ideators and creatives when it comes to helping clients supercharge what they’re seeking?
Mitchell: Yeah. Over the past several years I’ve come to value the idea of clarity. I think that when you can provide clarity for anyone, whether they realize it or not, they’re so grateful. Clarity does not come easily. It takes a lot of thought. There’s a particular thrill that comes with solving a problem, whether it’s an internal company problem or a client’s problem.
Yeah, the folks that we have here who really run our business every day on the account services side, on the sales side, on the operations side, they’re making big decisions. These are young people, frequently that millions of dollars ride on their expertise and their decision-making. Part of the reason that they chose to come here is because we entrust them with that, and there’s nobody more capable.
Alongside that comes some pressure, and that’s not always easy to deal with. You just made a mistake that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s not an easy thing to have on your head. Yet, that’s how you get better, by facing those demons. I think as I’ve grown as a manager, that’s one of the things that I’ve learned is important, is helping people cope with the pressure that comes along with success. Success looks great on a television show. In real life it’s not always easy.
Bill: To your point, there are probably moments … You said just keep going. I think another thing is don’t look down. When you’re up at the top of the cliff, they always tell the climbers not to look down. When you’re in a situation like this where you’re being called upon to direct, whether it’s a lot of money or manage a key relationship or whatever, there are moments when the gravity of that rises up, wells up within you, and you are either fueled by that, or you’re petrified by that.
Either way, both of them are natural. Yeah, to your point, in those moments of awareness and those moments of having to rise to meet the moment or the situation, it probably helps to hear what you like to share with folks at those important times.
Mitchell: Yeah. You have to show them how to do it. That’s not something you can tell someone. When a client is really upset, when something’s gone wrong, when you’re having a problem, how are you as a leader going to react? Are you going to be calm? ‘Okay, let’s think this through,’ or are you going to lash out at someone or blame someone? I think that it is the key lesson I have learned is coping with that fear, that pain, that thing that we all wish we could avoid, and yet it’s so integral to our success and our health really, is coping with that kind of stress. You have to embrace it. When you do, it makes you feel better.
Bill: No doubt. Perfect place to stop. Mitchell Reichgut, CEO of Jun Group. Founder, entrepreneur, digital pioneer and visionary, thank you so much for your time and insight, both about your own career and the things that have helped you grow, and also just about the industry that everybody watches and is in, either as consumers or, in your case, certainly in our case, to a degree, as practitioners, so much change, so many fascinating ideas, some of which amount to nothing, others of which absolutely change everything. Thank you for your time and being with us.
Mitchell: Gosh, it was such a pleasure. Any time. Thank you for having me.
Bill: Thank you, Mitchell, for your time and insight. The work we’re doing here at Finch is, I guess we would call upstream often. We’re focused on the strategic and creative elements of how a brand connects with its audience and how it defines who its audience is and how it puts forth what it values and how it seeks to be perceived. For our clients and brands across the world, the downstream conversation includes how to get these messages across, both in terms of selecting the right platforms and putting forth the right content.
The digital world has changed just in my own career, first of all, it was created, and it’s changed so much and within one-, two-, three-, four-year increments, everything we thought we knew is different. There are parts of the toolkit that remain standard for winning brand communications no matter the media that’s selected, but there are other things that are equally vital that, again, change with every new innovation. Mitchell’s perspective and insight on that, I think, is tremendously helpful, as our listeners think about how their own brands and careers can take shape in and around digital and particularly mobile. We really appreciate your time.
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Lastly, we so value the dialogue here. Our skin is thick. We appreciate feedback, good, bad and other. We certainly appreciate ideas for future topics, future guests, questions to ask those guests, topics that are important that we may not have covered adequately here. We really appreciate our listeners providing their own input to make sure that the greatest amount of value is derived from the time you spend with us, hopefully, weekly.
In that spirit, as, hopefully, the heat wave cools to something manageable, we will sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
The post The Truth About Digital: Mitchell Reichgut, CEO of Jun Group appeared first on Finch Brands.
In this week’s episode, Eric Sugalski speaks about the recent rebranding process that took his company from Boston Device Development to Smithwise. We examine the nuances of rebranding in practice and discuss best practices. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
The post Rebranding in the Real World: Eric Sugalski, Founder and President of Smithwise appeared first on Finch Brands.
In this Bonus episode, Bill reflects on the life and legacy of the late Muhammad Ali through a brand and marketing lens. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, Real-Word Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. This is One Bonus Idea. We do typically one specific topic in the branding world and the art of business building in every off week between the interviews that we do with brand and business builders. However, I think today and in general we want to get into the habit of opining on topics or referencing topics almost like a blog would, as they arise.
Of course, the world is talking about the passing of Muhammad Ali, the icon, the legendary heavyweight champion – this world figure, humanitarian figure, who passed this weekend. I think we wanted to do a couple minutes of recollection of how Ali may have crossed our path. Think a little bit about his legacy and maybe there’s a takeaway in there for marketers. I know there definitely is.
The most fundamental way in which Ali crossed Finch Brands’ path was when we were doing the rebranding process with Everlast. When we began our work with Everlast, it was not a ‘rebranding’ and these are the specific deliverables that we need to have. It was more a case of ‘what do we do now?’ There were various conditions in the business that made that an appropriate time to give some thought to it. One of the things that was a challenge that has so largely been surmounted, or at least was in the intervening years, was this transition from a brand that had 80% market share in boxing, but boxing was not growing fast. But 80% market share.
How do you transition into a fully articulated athletic lifestyle brand while at the same time maintaining that core strength and credibility in boxing? The brand had been around for over a century. It was called The Choice of Champions. The reason that Ali was so fundamental to that was I spent probably a day scouring his quotations and reading the various things that he’d written or had been written about him. We were thinking in some ways who could be best symbolic for Everlast of that transition from being a very narrow boxing brand to something that was larger and more significant beyond just that one application.
Ali is archetypical of that. He was somebody who was a champion, obviously, and has identified with his sport of boxing but became larger, deeper; he was more broadly defined and more broadly understood. As we were thinking about ways to express the ideas that we were building into the Everlast brand, we discovered that it isn’t just about the specific physicality of boxing but it’s more about the spirit.
The data that we were receiving from global research was that while most people weren’t ever going to do anything related to boxing specifically in their training or their athletic life. There had been some momentum around cardio kickboxing, there had been some momentum around principles of boxing, but this brand really needed to understand and stand for what consumers identified as the spirit – what we began to call the ‘Everlast ethos.’
What boxing was all about was not just about hitting somebody, but it was about individuality. It was about authenticity. It was about a set of attributes that Ali really embodied. When we rebuild the vision and mission to make it more broadly applicable to whether it was somebody who was interested in boxing, but also what about that person running their first 5K? In many ways, we sought to lay claim to the training space, long before Reebok ever did it, on behalf of the Everlast brand.
The emergent vision and mission was to unleash strength and determination in every individual. Again, about fighting perhaps, but fighting is not narrowly defined through a specific physicality. Then as we went to develop the tagline there was – I don’t believe this phrase was actually Ali’s, but obviously you’ll recognize the echoes of it in him – the tagline became ‘Greatness is Within.’ Obviously, Ali spoke a lot about being the greatest and a lot about what greatness meant. We were very inspired to connect that idea of greatness to an inward sense of self and developing level of energy and accomplishment and aggression.
Really reacquainting oneself with Ali, not only his major fights, but also what he meant during that process was fascinating and really rich for me. Ali’s legacy, however, is complicated in some ways. Obviously in the aftermath of a death, especially someone as beloved and well known as Ali, there are these tributes. It would be bad form to be negative, and I don’t certainly seek to be negative here at all, but he has a complicated legacy. Ali was a deeply polarizing figure all the way back to his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War, his strong association and outwards expression of black nationalism and the Nation of Islam, and everything else.
Ali had a very unstable family life in addition. And as a Philadelphian, a lot of us, I think, can’t get by, at least not fully by, the way that he treated Joe Frazier. Particularly in the run up to their first fight, but across the trilogy. Joe was not in any way up to the verbal sparring and consequently, Ali just rained down epithets on Frazier. He was an ‘Uncle Tom’; he was a ‘gorilla’; he was a ‘tool of white America.’
Ali was ever the hype man. It was positioning, probably largely positioning that fight as a match between Ali who was a reflection of the so-called ‘angry black man’ and was really rallied around by the counter culture at the time, both in the African American community and beyond. Naturally, the positioning of that fight had to make Frazier the ‘tool of the establishment.’ That led to a lot of adjectives that we wouldn’t tolerate today, frankly. I think it embittered, at least I’ve read, embittered Frazier for the rest of his life.
Anyway, incredibly complicated legacy. But today and this week, what you’re hearing appropriately is a tremendous amount of praise, both for Ali the man and the athlete, but also his historical and cultural significance. That led me to think a little bit about why, given how polarizing he was across his life, has he become almost universally revered at this point. It wasn’t just being positive from when someone’s passed away that has led to this out pouring. It’s deeply felt, and it is authentic.
In recent years, there was no backlash against Ali. Ali was an enduring, central, iconic, world-wide figure who was really, really beloved. Couple reasons that I think at least, just one guy talking, about why this went from polarity to near universal acclaim and love.
One is that in our culture, cool is king. By that, I mean that the experience of Ali, the way he dressed, the way he looked, the way he spoke, overwhelms whatever inconvenient truths may exist in terms of whether he was as nice as he always could be, whether he was a great family man, whatever. We didn’t care. We embraced him as historical and even a present day figure, because he was just a bad ass. He was awesome. He had an edge. He was so cool to listen to and to watch.
When We Were Kings, when you watch the documentary, you could just see the richness of Ali, the cultural meaningfulness of Ali. It’s like in some ways we watched Madmen because we love just the aesthetic of that time, even if the characters were horrible in terms of the things they did. I’m not comparing Ali to that in any way, but the Ali aesthetic was just so meaningful. In some ways, you see the bravado and the style, modern day hip hop is an expression of that, one mainstream through the culture. Ali was, I don’t know this much about a style of music, but Ali’s aesthetic was just so rich. That’s one thing.
Secondly, just practically speaking, so called subversives or counter culture folks are really now in charge of a lot of institutions in America, from academia to the media, etc. When people came of age during a time like that, and they were of a very similar mind to Ali at the time, these people are now almost dominant communicators in our culture.
The folly or tragedy of the Vietnam War is generally accepted in a way that it certainly wasn’t when Ali was refusing to be drafted. Ali’s views on race at the time were radical and threatening. They’ve been largely mainstreamed now. At least, many of them have been. We see his actions throughout his life, from the draft and well beyond, as acts of immense courage rather than subversion. They were clearly acts of courage at the time. They were deeply felt. He gave up a ton in his time for standing up for what he believed in.
But when we look at them in the rear view mirror and we look at them when what he was railing against or protesting against has fallen very, very deeply out of favor in the US, and has been, as Reagan said about the Soviets, ‘in the ash bin of history,’ what the domino theory and Robert McNamara and pro Vietnam perspectives. That is not to say there aren’t folks who still considered Ali to be very polarizing, but the balance of power has shifted. What seemed to be very subversive at the time is largely accepted to be true today. Ali was somebody who was respected for being early to many of those topics and fights.
I think lastly his illness and all that it sapped from him made him a sympathetic figure in recent years, being limited as he was, having borne a terrible physical price for what he did so well to entertain us and his boxing career, etc. His illness and his bearing as he did with great dignity, by the way, with his illness, sanded down some of his rough edges. It removed from his persona some of the anger that had been there. It invited sympathy, either visually or actually. Ali seemed mellower. You couldn’t help but be, when you’re as under the control of an illness in the way that Ali was.
But it was clear the spark was still in his eye. He interacted so touchingly with children and with others. I think there’s very little doubt that that was the real man, but at the same time the sight of this man, afflicted as he was, yet still finding the ability to frown his face and take that fighting stance with kids or with others, was just heartbreaking and affirming to watch.
There are a couple reasons why I think the reference for Ali has become almost universal. The best rule for branding here is that, like Ali, and I’m not speaking in a personal branding, endorsed products type of way, but taking inspiration from the texture that Ali was and expressed. The best brands are truly 3 dimensional, and they are deep, rich, and authentic. They have shape and form; they have emotion in addition to reason.
To truly become a brand versus just being a product or a collection of products, one needs to or can benefit from understanding how Ali became not just a boxer but an icon. He wore his values on his sleeve. There were all kinds of content about him that was beyond just, ‘Here’s how you throw a left hook,’ or, ‘Here’s how you rope a dope.’ He certainly had excellence, almost transcendent excellence in his core, which was that of being a warrior.
We find brands that succeed obviously need to be excellent in their core. They need to have content that surrounds them beyond just what they sell and the specifics of those products. They need to have their values outwared for all to see and understand, and they need to consistently live up to those values. Ali did all of those things.
Those are key lessons we’ve been talking about on this podcast for a year. They’re perhaps the most important Ali related takeaway for marketers, is how you transcend what you make into being known for what you are, which includes what you make but transcends what you make. Farewell, Muhammad Ali, pugilist, humanitarian, warrior in and out of the ring, larger than life personality. May he rest in peace. He will certainly always be remembered. We’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
In this week’s episode, we host Sarah Van Aken, President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios. She shares her experience across industries such as fashion, real estate, and most recently at Kathy Davis Studios, to explain how companies move beyond the product to become a lifestyle brand. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Sarah Van Aken: A brand is not one product, a brand is not one person. It’s every single touch point. It’s how it’s communicated, it’s the story around it, it’s the value behind it and it’s the customers’ reaction to it that all create it. It’s not one thing, it’s a giant puzzle.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premiere boutique branding agency. Thank you for joining us for today’s interview with Sarah Van Aken, the President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios which as you will hear is a leading greeting card designer in the American Greetings family, 125,000 cards a day. Probably one of the brands that many of us have, perhaps without knowing much about them, interacted with and found value in over time.
Sarah’s story of her own career, which includes time in hospitality, real estate, and her own passion for the fashion business, is a fascinating tale with a lot of interesting lessons. Where she is now at Kathy Davis, the transition that they’re seeking to make into a fully expressed lifestyle brand is an interesting one and a journey many brands take. Her perspectives and insights are fascinating when we think about a path like that. Enjoy.
We are here with Sarah Van Aken, the President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios, an award-winning social entrepreneur, designer, speaker, what a career Sarah’s had. Thank you for being with us.
Sarah: Hey, thanks for having me.
Bill: It’s our pleasure and speaking of that career why don’t we start, if you wouldn’t mind taking us a bit through what has been an amazing journey for you in different industries and different experiences. Where did this start and how is this story unfolding?
Sarah: Gosh, where did it start? I had a Degree in Fine Art which really started with an approach to a Degree in Veterinary Medicine.
Bill: That’s close, I can see.
Sarah: It obviously makes a lot of sense. I begged for my first job in New York City working at an apparel company to make $26,000 a year. It was awesome. No, it was a great experience though, but I literally did have to beg to work there. They were hiring folks mostly that had done internship programs through partnerships that they had with universities. I had, other than knowing how to sew, no fashion experience, but got a job doing production and sourcing for a denim bottoms company called World Wide Apparel. Me and my boss sourced about $10 million of denim bottoms every season in about 10 or 15 countries around the world; Bangladesh, India …
Sarah: … Nepal. Denim jeans with embroidery and iridescent denim.
Bill: Excellent, nice.
Sarah: It was the late ‘90s and early 2000. It was great.
Bill: Put a flannel shirt on that, it’ll look perfect, yeah.
Sarah: When toggles first came onto cargo pants and Target and Walmart started doing all of their garment testing requirements and then the end of quotas and it was a very interesting experience for sure.
Bill: I could imagine.
Sarah: From there I decided that I really wanted to be an artist. I moved back to Philadelphia. I was working briefly for Galbraith & Paul Printing and briefly for Urban Outfitters and the art career was short-lived. I realized I had to get a job, I had bills to pay, so I started as an assistant manager at the Marathon Grills here in Philadelphia. I think at the time they had five restaurants.
A month later or two months later I was their general manager and a couple of months after that I was managing a couple of stores and a couple of months after that I was doing their corporate buying. All of a sudden at, I don’t know, I was 26, I had a couple of hundred employees and was their director of operations and working a bazillion hours a week making not enough money for working a couple of hundred hours a week.
Bill: Tough business, hospitality’s always on.
Sarah: Yeah, it was a really tough business front of the house and back of the house. An incredible experience of what I didn’t want to do or who I didn’t want to be in life.
I helped them open restaurants and got a lot of experience under my belt and then went now what? What do I do when I have a fashion background and a restaurant background? Naturally I started working for a real estate firm and really was just doing part-time admin and bartending. I had a life changing event, my best friend died suddenly. It made me realize life was too short to mess around and the real estate developer I was working for knew I wasn’t going to stay there and do admin work for him, so he’s like what do you want to do? I said I want to open a fashion business. He looked at me like I was nuts and said how about you get your real estate license. I said, okay, that can support me.
I started selling houses to first-time homebuyers doing a little bit of commercials, I started a residential brokerage division for him. He was doing mostly managing his own properties and doing a little bit of commercial brokerage, but I started doing brokerage for him, hired another agent. It was easy to sell houses then and everyone could get loans. Everyone my age was buying houses and I just became really good at understanding how to walk first-time homebuyers through a stressful process.
I did that as I developed my business plan for my fashion business. When I was ready to launch he became my first investor. He gave me the seed money that I needed to get my first brand Van Aken Custom Shirts off the ground and let me use our real estate office for both businesses as long as I would keep selling real estate.
That was in 2005 or ’06. I had some pretty quick success with that brand with national publications and because Philadelphia is a real small town it’s pretty easy to get clients, you just hang out or if you’re bartending or out with friends.
Bill: ‘Hey, I make shirts, too.’
Sarah: Yeah, ‘I make shirts too,’ and always knew I wanted to use that as the foundation to grow a bigger brand, but the premise was really that I wanted to have a U.S. made bespoke mens shirt for the same price as a Ralph Lauren ready to wear shirt. Inspired by my former New York investment banker boyfriend who was buying these crappy custom shirts made in Hong Kong. I was like we can do better than that.
It worked. It was great, it was a great little business and then I was at a cocktail party in the beginning of 2006, I think when Amada opened and met Alfred Portale from Gotham Bar and Grill in New York who asked me to design uniforms for his restaurant which I immediately said yes to. I think it was a $50,000 order which was for me at the time was oh, my gosh. I was making them, it was really tough at the time when they were still manufacturing in the U.S. to get anything made in small run production.
I had a guy that used to work for me in the accounting office at Marathon Grill who was the brother-in-law of a guy that I used to produce denim with at the denim company who owned a denim factory in Bangladesh. He offered to go back and get my samples made and open a garment factory. I gave him a little bit of money and gave him instructions and sent him on his way and ended up opening a garment factory in Bangladesh. Our first order was the uniform order for Gotham Bar and Grill. I shipped in fabric from Italy. I didn’t even have a bond license. It was a disaster, but it turned out that they were really great.
Then a restaurant in Boca Raton sold uniforms and asked me to make them and Aureole in New York and so on and so forth. Then had a custom uniform business called Van Aken Signature. Eventually after many trials and errors finally opened SA VA, a women’s ready to wear brand, all sustainable, locally made in Philly in 2009. I worked for the City of Philadelphia and PIDC to finance opening a garment factory and a retail store here in the city, so we sold women’s ready to wear lifestyle products, all responsibly made here and in about 100 other stores around the country.
Did that until the end of 2013 when it was time to raise money again for the third time. Had some really challenging investor issues and a lead investor who backed out at the last minute and cleared my equity table. I had the option to either go raise more money or go do something else. I chose to go do something else because what I was going to be really left with was not worth what I wanted to do. It was an incredible experience. I don’t think that there’s anything like it. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. It was absolutely amazing, but I’m glad I don’t do it anymore.
I left there knowing that I had pushed a freight train up a hill for five years. I was ready to go to the train station with my bags packed and get on the right train moving in the right direction. I was hoping that would be at least six months to a year away. It turned out to be two months when I got a call from someone who said you need to meet Kathy Davis. She’s got this really great business. Her core business is greeting cards and they want to grow into a lifestyle brand and they’re looking for a brand director.
It was really just an immediate fit in terms of me understanding her aesthetic. I really understood where the business was that they had. It was well-capitalized, they had a great strong business, but didn’t have a brand. It was a licensed business model. They had a lot of fractioned licensing partners and just really understood that I could be added value there. I’ve been there for about two years. I’m now the President and COO and that’s maybe the long version that you’ll probably edit out.
Bill: No, no, we would never. What a story of triumph and tragedy and serendipity and hard work.
Sarah: There’s a lot more in there. I tried to keep it as condensed as possible.
Bill: I appreciate you keeping it clean as well. We’ll get into Kathy Davis and the greeting card business and more in a minute. Someone who had a really strong interest in fashion and then got from a variety of perspectives to work in that business, own equity and brands in that business, what are lessons from that world if any that you’ve taken with you to every stop from here on out? What are some of the things that arrive from that?
Sarah: There’s a million lessons both successes and failures. I think the biggest one is that failure’s really just a change of plans. You’ve just got to get over it. If you’re not failing enough you’re not doing enough. I really created something out of nothing in that business, but the fundamentals of the apparel industry have changed tremendously.
No matter what industry you go to and I learned this from our former chairman who used to be the CEO of my company that there’s your core products, your bread and butter, there’s your core plus and your fashion. And that really applies to almost everything. Really understanding why you do what you do is the key to any successful business and making all of your business decisions from that place versus chasing opportunities versus trying to be all things to all people.
You really need authenticity from why you do what you do in every aspect of your business whether it’s how you make decisions about how to pay people or how to treat your customers or what to design or to make or what partnerships to have. It all resonates from why you do what you do.
Bill: Right, and to your point about having a sense of your core in terms of both values as an organization, but also an aesthetic or different lines. You obviously see people in the cross categories of businesses who may be chasing trends, who may hit it once or twice. If you don’t or even if you do, what is there to fall back on that sustains you?
What a story, so here we are with Kathy Davis, you mentioned immediately getting it. It was the right time in your career, it was a really strong connection. The Kathy Davis brand, tell us a little bit about that and you mentioned greeting cards and social expression. What makes her or anyone great at that? I think a lot of us who have been consumers and we’ve seen in different movies or TV shows that being a greeting card writer or whatever. What’s the scoop from the real world on that industry and that brand?
Sarah: If you asked me even five years ago if I was going to be working for a greeting card business I’d be like what? I’m not nice enough for that. Kathy has an amazing story. She started the business 26 years ago from the corner of her bedroom. She was really a newly divorced mom of two and everyone was like you should go back to teaching art. She wanted to follow her dream of becoming an artist and creating a life she could love and as we say that was over 400 million greeting cards ago.
Sarah: The company sells over 125,000 greeting cards a day. It’s all licensed business, so our lead licensee is American Greetings, so we’re in over 60,000 doors. We’re both in their assortment everywhere from Rite Aid and CVS, to Target and Walmart, but we also have it branded for 4-foot section in about 10,000 doors around the country.
It’s really pretty amazing and I think in part because American Greetings is such an incredible partner that we know so much about how we do what we do, but also what made Kathy really unique is her expressive hand painted art. Primarily watercolor in combination with inspirational messaging. A lot of greeting card designers or brands are good at one or the other. It’s also all of our messages are hand lettered, so they really have this handmade feel and our customers tell us that it’s the words that they wanted to say, but didn’t know how to say themselves. The underpinning infrastructure of that, is this giant thing that is American Greetings that has incredible distribution and understanding of their point of sale results that is incredibly valuable to us in getting feedback on exactly how to hone in on what we’re best at.
Bill: Right, and in our limited exposure to the brand and putting it in front of consumers and what not and as you say the volume of greeting cards that have been sold, the size of this business versus what we’re doing, we’ll get it into a minute, where the brand goes from here is interesting. The artistry that is represented by Kathy’s own experience, but the sentiment, it seems, again testing this with consumers, putting it in front of them the degree to which these connected on various levels was so fascinating. When you all sit and think day in and day out about what are we going to do this season or whatever it is, how just in simple terms does something like this get made?
Sarah: It’s a combination of Kathy creates a vision of what we are fundamentally known for. Most of what we do is nature inspired. We certainly take trend into consideration. We seasonally build out collections of art that both serve for our greeting card business and editorial that serve our greeting card business as well as our other products. That’s the secret sauce in terms of us being who we are, but keeping it fresh every season and filling needs. Certainly greeting cards have specific needs in terms of icons like birthday cakes and cupcakes. Things like that, and hearts for Valentine’s Day that make it a little more specific.
It also is a great challenge to be you and reinvent yourself seasonally and keeping it fresh without being somebody else. We’ve gone through a whole lot of changes really to get out in front of it even within our greeting card business, so that we’re really driving it from a place of authentic creation and delivering things to American Greetings in advance of when they need them and trying to keep it as consistent but fresh and innovative as possible.
Bill: It really is the blend of inspiration and process given the volumes that we’re talking about here.
Sarah: Always, yes.
Bill: Amazing, so the brand has begun to extend its aesthetic and its values into different categories. Really in some ways the brand seems to be on the way to becoming this fully articulated lifestyle brand that’s based on a core philosophy. It’s based on an aesthetic, it’s based on a story. What can we expect moving forward as you chart the path forward for the Kathy Davis brand? What are some of the main things that are, without giving away secrets, but things that are on your mind and that the market ought to look for?
Sarah: I think the key for us is that Kathy started this business because she wanted to create a life that she could love and our mission is to inspire other people to do that. The way that we feel we do that both in our core business and can do that otherwise is by creating tools that help people create a life they love that are really authentic ways that add value to people’s lives, that help them celebrate life and share joy and nurture relationships and find value in their life. That can look like a lot of different things as long as those things are really helpful to people in their lives.
Bill: Sure, sure. Compared to other brands that have licensed heavily across categories, some that come from the fashion realm, your Tommy’s and your Ralph’s and others, some that have come from your Martha’s and your Kathy Ireland’s and your Kate Spade’s. They seem to have a signature look in a lot of ways that they then deliver across adjacent and then non-adjacent categories. Where this brand seems in many ways to be built upon a philosophy rather than, of course, there’s an aesthetic, but it’s such a rich way of looking at life. How does one manage the translation of some of these beliefs into product development and other downstream processes?
Sarah: That’s a very good question.
Bill: Thank you, that’s why we’re here.
Sarah: That’s why we’re here. We know what that formula is in greeting cards because we’ve done it for so long. We understand that it’s this combination of this expressive art, this inspirational message that fosters connection between people, that’s all hand lettered and it comes in the vehicle of a greeting card. For us it’s really about applying those same things that we know to other vehicles in a way that’s really authentic. It’s not cookie-cutter. I think what some of the brands that you mentioned have, as you would say, even earned the right to be able to slap their art on whatever product.
Inevitably regardless of how financially successful they are somewhere down the line the value of what the core brand is gets a little lost or diffused or detached when it gets spread out so much whereas we’re really trying to keep it tight and keep the sentiment there. We think that one of our key advantages is this ability to foster connection and provide value and ensuring that we’re really doing that at every level versus just getting out there and putting our art and message on whatever product is available.
Bill: We’ve seen some of the early results of this process such as the holiday bedding line that we were looking at that really creatively uses sentiment. To your point you can’t just all of a sudden put a greeting card on a pillow. It doesn’t quite work. You can’t all of a sudden just write all over everything even though sentiment is an important part of what Kathy is.
Sarah: Which is everywhere on Pinterest.
Bill: Yeah, right, exactly.
Sarah: I think that’s the key. Also, a brand is not one product, a brand is not one person. It’s every single touch point. It’s how it’s communicated, it’s the story around it, it’s the value behind it and it’s the customers’ reaction to it that all create it. It’s not one thing, it’s a giant puzzle.
Bill: Compared to some of these other brands that we mentioned who may have greater built in awareness from starting in fashion or having 30, 40 years of history or whatever. Kathy Davis, the volume speaks for itself. Millions of people have probably bought the brand without knowing it or without it necessarily logging in the way that an automotive brand or a fashion brand might. I would imagine part of it is the awakening of folks to maybe things that they’ve bought for years without knowing, but the reasons why people fall in love with Kathy Davis.
Sarah: Sure, we touch 90 million consumers every year if you think about the cards bought and then given to someone. Always when you say oh, this is what it is. They’re like oh, of course, I’ve gotten millions of these cards or they look in their card box, they’re like look at all these Kathy Davis cards I have.
Bill: No, it’s fascinating.
Sarah: It’s pretty crazy.
Bill: With regard to creating a life you love and the pillars that underlie that philosophy, as you look at different categories and evaluate different partners is there a level of accountability that everyone has to have to the idea, to know that the right decisions are being made when it comes to categories or when it comes to people to work with?
Sarah: I think 100%. Licensing in general is a really challenging model because you can’t just, when you have X amount of money to invest in new business development you can’t just rely on a manufacturer to do the job of building your brand for you. Anybody who touches a brand has to really understand and have an authentic connection to what it means. If they don’t it’s never going to work because they’ll never be able to sell it.
It’s also why I wind up traveling all over the place to sell it because I really believe in it and I know how to talk about it. When I do people respond or when we do ambassador campaigns and talk about creating a life you love there’s not one person who doesn’t say I want to create a life I love. It resonates across a wide group of consumers or almost everyone in humanity really.
Bill: Right, right. We talk about these other brands that in some ways are using licensing to spend brand equity that they’ve created elsewhere as opposed to Kathy Davis who’s using licensing it sounds like to build a fuller picture of how this philosophy gets expressed across the lifestyle which really is, ultimately, in some ways about building rather than spending great equity. It’s a fascinating trajectory.
Sarah: A tricky proposition.
Bill: Yeah, no question, and a lot for our listeners to look out for when it comes to a brand that is on the rise, a brand that has a really unique sense of self and story to tell. We got into it a little bit, but let’s close here. You’ve been so generous with your time and your insight. When you think about the road you’ve taken, choices you’ve made, choices you probably have chosen not to make, any words of wisdom for those who’ve been inspired by the SVA career path? I think we have a certain core of our listener base that may be starting out or starting over in their own careers and thinking about themselves and where they go. What would you tell someone like that?
Sarah: I’m a diehard entrepreneur even though I’m currently in-house. They hired me because I’m growing the business. It’s the path less chosen. There is no roadmap. You have to be confident. Even when you’re not confident you have to be confident.
Bill: Power poses! Right.
Sarah: You really have to trust your gut and your intuition to guide you and you have to be passionate about what you do, or at least I do. I cannot do something that I don’t fully believe in. It just does not work for me.
I also believe anything’s possible. I started a fashion business even though every single person said to me you can’t start a fashion business. You don’t know anything about fashion. I don’t care, this is what I’m doing. I believe anything is possible as long as you’re passionate about it and you’re willing to work for it.
Bill: To the point of passion is we’ve gotten to know you, we’ve gotten to know not only the passion you bring to work every day and a lot of cases every night, but your interest in yoga and how far you’ve gone with that. Perhaps somewhat challenging, but hopefully ultimately a rewarding process of restoring a house, a lot of the things that …
Sarah: All at once.
Bill: … all at once that are a part of your life seem to have as a common denominator, a level of passion. Is that how you think about the things that matter to you in life?
Sarah: Yeah, I think so. I don’t think that anything that’s worth doing you do half-assed, pardon my French.
Bill: That’s appalling on the Real-World Branding, unbelievable.
Sarah: I know, I’m not allowed to say that.
Bill: It’s such a high brow show.
Sarah: I’m definitely nothing if not authentic and transparent about things that I go through or do and I live full out all the time, painful moments, happy moments, whatever they are. It keeps it interesting that way for sure.
Bill: No doubt and that’s a great way to underline, bold and italicize and also to finish, so thank you so much for your time and your insight. This is a brand worth watching, certainly a business leader worth watching with so much in her history and so much still to come. Thanks for being with us.
Sarah: Thanks for having me.
Bill: Many, many thanks to Sarah for her insight and her interesting perspectives on, not only her own career journey, but what lies ahead at Kathy Davis Studios. Three ways as always to support us at Real-World Branding. One is to give us a rating in the app store of your choice if you believe we’ve earned it, hopefully, a positive rating. We very much appreciate the dialogue that we’ve had with our listeners on Twitter and on Facebook and beyond. The best way probably is Twitter @BillGullan or @FinchBrands. I’m certainly interested in feedback with thick skin, certainly interested in ideas for future guests and future topics.
Then lastly, to make sure you do not miss an episode and we do this weekly. Make sure you subscribe in the app store of your choice, so that each time, normally Wednesday or Thursday, depending on schedule something will flow in, something new from us. That’s it from here, home of the first place Phillies until last night’s games, but close to first place, very surprising. Philadelphia Phillies, signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.
The post The Path to a Lifestyle Brand: Sarah Van Aken, President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios appeared first on Finch Brands.
Business leaders come from all backgrounds and departments — with many having experience in a sales role. In this week’s episode, Bill discusses the benefit of having a sales background in one’s career as preparation for our industry and beyond. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Rhode Island’s recent branding campaign has caused an uproar on social media and beyond. In this episode, Bill discusses brand strategy’s role in informing creative expression — and the perils of separating the two. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premiere boutique branding agency. Thank you for joining this week’s One Big Idea. We’ve entitled it Cooler and Warmer this week because our One Big Idea topic is a controversy that has erupted around a new branding campaign for the state of Rhode Island, focused on attracting tourists and businesses to this state that uses the tagline ‘Cooler and Warmer,’ and it has a logo to match and everything else, as well as some pretty significant budgets for expressing it and amplifying it across the world.
This happened and there has been a great deal of discussion on social media and in the media punctuated by a story in today’s New York Times about the entire situation and some of the implications of it. First thing I want to say is that it is not our habit or practice here to critique the work of others in our industry. We have tremendous respect for our peers and colleagues in this world and we don’t exist in any of our touch points to just tear people down. Our focus here will not be critiquing the specific elements of the campaign. You can find a lot of that on social media, on blogs, and in association with the Times piece, but let’s talk a little bit about a point that this leans into in a very larger and more prolonged way and it has been a frequent topic for us here.
First of all, the situation. The idea was a simple one. Rhode Island was seeking a fresh new logo and slogan for tourism and business attraction. They went through the process, hired a partner. The designer of this is the same gentleman who designed the iconic ‘I love New York,’ but is an outsider, an out of towner I think, which has fueled the criticism to some degree. There were other missteps related to the launch of this, one of the overview video pieces (seen below) used stock footage of a skateboarder from Iceland rather than anywhere in Rhode Island, and then the designer has pushed the frustration back a little bit on the way that it was released as opposed to the work itself.
It’s gotten a little bit nasty. But the overall idea was a new brand presentation or expression for the state of Rhode Island. Where they settled is ‘Cooler and Warmer,’ which immediately set off this firestorm on social media and beyond, of people who didn’t get it, of people who mocked it. There’s a little bit of that all the time, but there’ve been other dominos to fall here. The CMO of the state resigned . The governor, apparently who’s in her first term, has had to answer for this and hasn’t been all that adept at doing so. Then some of the local agencies in Rhode Island on the PR and on the production side were called on the carpet publicly, and I think they’re going to have to refund some of the fees associated with this.
A lot of missteps here, a lot of unforced errors, certainly using stock video from Iceland, someone in Reykjavík probably, rather than something that was shot [in Rhode Island]. This was probably to save cost on the ground and in the marketplace in Rhode Island. Hiring an outsider for something that is focused on civic pride and tourism is always a little bit dangerous, particularly if it doesn’t go well and the net effect is casting about for reasons why or people to blame.
The bottom line and I think the biggest lesson of this in terms of topics that we’re generally dealing with here is the absolute criticality of strategy and creative expression meshing and working effectively together. It has been a frequent and recurring theme on this podcast that the word ‘strategy’ has been used so errantly and so irresponsibly as to lose its actual meaning. Many people use the word strategy to indicate, ‘Well, I thought about it before I did it.’ Strategy does not imply, and being a strategic thinker does not just mean, that you’re bright or that you’re introspective.
Strategy, particularly in this realm, brand strategy, is a disciplined process that is designed to, through research as well as intuition, identify the key elements of a brand proposition that can connect with the audience. In this case one of the concerns looking at the process again from the outside is that this seems to have been a creatively driven exercise.
Yes, there was market research, but you can read the quotes from the designer and others who just came up with a bunch of different ideas. They probably spent some time in Rhode Island, it’s a wonderful state, very diverse seaside, city, and small towns, a lot of things going on. There’s video content to surround the campaign that I think effectively underlines a lot of this. Then they tested the different ideas and everyone says, ‘Well, it tested well,’ etc., but there does not appear in evidence to have been a bona fide strategic process that was designed to really understand and underline the ways in which Rhode Island is distinctive and the ways in which these disparate assets roll up into a core concentrated brand idea.
In the absence of strategy creative expression is unmoored. Creative expression begins and is akin to fumbling for your keys in the dark. Throw some more clichés on here: if you don’t know where you’re going any road will lead you there. This is true when you get into the creative process.
Apparently the designer in this case developed 10 different kinds of slogan and logo combinations, then they tested them and they picked the one that was highest or nearly the highest. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but the challenge ultimately is that without the benefit of strategy for real and having this well-defined core idea to communicate creatively, how do you know when you’ve done it, and more importantly, how do you know when you have it.
One key lesson here is that creative expression, particularly of such a complicated, aggregated series of ideas as to represent an entire state, cannot be disintermediated from a true, honest, authentic expression and process of brand strategy. Often times people say, ‘Well, we’re strategic, you know, we thought about it.’ Well, they thought about it here, and I’m sure they’re smart accomplished people, but it does seem to be that the process that ought to precede and inform a creative process was missing or at the very least was light in this case.
Related to that, you need to value the input and the outputs in a campaign like this. The output obviously is this tagline and logo and it exists for all to critique. Listen, we’ve been on the other end of this where we’ve done some highly visible work. Folks feel a sense of ownership with that and want to critique it, and that’s their right. We really kind of enjoy that dialogue. But in this case the output is only as good as the quality of what the team was working with to develop it.
What the team ought to be working with is not just intermittent thunderbolts of inspiration and trying to find something that has a good acoustic. They ought to be communicating, from an input perspective, the core brand idea of the state of Rhode Island.
Yes, the designer makes an interesting point about the dichotomy of cool and warm, and there’s a lot of cool things going on, and folks in Rhode Island are warm people compared to that frosty perception of New England. I get it, I get where it’s going and actually personally like it, but the inputs into a process like that have to drive the outputs or else you’re going to wind up with something like this, or if you don’t it’s going to be a result of luck rather than the process the way that it ought to be managed.
Then lastly, and I think the designer has a point, again, I’m not sitting there in Providence or anywhere else in Rhode Island, I’m just following this through the media and through social, but the nature of a release of something like this and telling the story of why it ended up where it ended up is always better than expecting it to land with a bang and instead it lands with a thud.
We have learned, the easy way and the hard way, over the years that, particularly in a case like this, where you’re likely to engender strong opinions, whatever you sacrifice in terms of the wow factor of just releasing this, you sacrifice a little bit of that if you bring the public along, but I’m willing to make that small sacrifice in exchange for something that is thoroughly validated through various stakeholder groups. Including the folks who are going to be responsible for really getting behind this and helping. The marketing whiz kids are only part of how a brand is expressed.
Key business and academic and civic leaders in Rhode Island are going to need to put their arms around this and say, ‘Yeah, this represents us and I feel good shouting this from the rooftops.’ That obviously didn’t happen here. Thus when something comes out and the public unleashes slings and arrows at it, you don’t have that goodwill or that process with great integrity to fall back on justifying and explaining why you ended up where you did. You may sacrifice a little bit by being inclusive along the way, but it is far better than winding up in the situation where they are in.
I will leave it to others to debate the actual merit and approach. I’m a sucker for big brand ideas. I personally like the cadence here. I understand why some people in social media are comparing it to Dumb and Dumber. I understand why some people don’t get it. I personally like it, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what those in the design community think or feel about this. What matters is their ability to bring others along.
What seems to have occurred in Rhode Island is a prime example of a process breakdown and it is a prime example of creative being left out there to its own devices Yeah, a little bit of testing on the backend, but to its own devices and not using authentic brand strategy processes to validate the work every step of the way.
That is a battle we’ve been waging here at Finch, a banner I’ve been waving over and over on this podcast. So forgive the repeat, but I think this is something that bears underlining, and when a perfect example of it comes up as it did in the Times today it is far better than me blathering on about the philosophy of this. It’s great example of why it all matters and why any process of the sort that this one was designed to support and the artifacts that were designed to come from it, any process really needs to be enlightened particularly in terms of the role of strategy and the role of message development beyond simply the highly subjective hit or miss standalone creative process.
As we’ve built our business at Finch and built our engagements this is yet another cautionary tale of why it’s important to think through process in an inclusive way, to hold up strategy as in many ways the process of creating a map to the final destination, and then to hold everyone accountable with data as well as with irrepressible creativity in marching towards a result that effectively represents the state and galvanizes all the constituencies that are going to have to buy into this, love it, live it for this brand to take home.
That’s One Big Idea. Unseasonably cool today but we’re hardy folks so we’ll push through it. Have a wonderful, wonderful day, signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.
What makes a brand iconic? And how can brands at that level embrace their heritage while expanding innovation. Ana Kornegay, Brand Director of Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury, details what it takes to balance and grow a long-standing, iconic brand in an ever-changing market. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Ana Kornegay:: A lot of brands are really focused on experiential marketing. We really want to create wonderful experiences for people that connect them to our brand and leave them with a really positive, memorable experience.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Thank you for joining us, and a big treat today as we put forth an interview with Ana Kornegay. Ana is the Brand Director of Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury, a long-term member in different roles and progressive responsibility of the Brown-Forman team, a friend of mine, a client of ours, and just a tremendously insightful person when it comes to the world of spirits as well as the world of business and brand.
I think you’ll enjoy hearing her perspectives on trends that are shaping the spirits marketplace, but certainly well beyond, as well as how she balances her thoughts about a brand of such depth and history as Jack Daniel’s with some of the new directions in which she and others are taking it at Brown-Forman in Louisville. Enjoy Ana Kornegay.
Bill:Joining us on Real-World Branding today, we are honored and excited to have Ana Kornegay from Brown-Forman, whose current title, though she’s twirled through the organization in progressively important roles across the company, current title is Brand Director of Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury. Ana, thanks for being with us.
Ana: Thank you so much for having me.
Bill: It’s our pleasure. You and I go back a ways, and one of the things that makes this so much fun is that we do, but to bring our listeners into this, would you mind starting by giving us a quick tour of your career journey up to this point?
Ana: Absolutely. After college, I moved out to Jackson, Wyoming, and I had the pleasure of working for the ski resort there as a front desk reservations and front desk manager.
Bill: Poor thing, yeah.
Ana: I know. It was a tough place to work. The view was awful. I then moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and I worked for a sports media dotcom, is how I’d describe it, called TEAMtalk. Did a little work with them, and then was an event planner there for awhile, and I thought that might be a path I’d go down, but I decided to go back and get my MBA at Wake Forest. Then I was fortunate enough to be hired at Brown-Forman in 2005.
Bill: Right, and so you are from North Carolina, yes?
Ana: Yes, I am. I grew up in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina.
Bill: Nice, and so you did under-grad at Chapel Hill.
Ana: I did.
Bill: Your degree, you had an international focus academically, didn’t you, at least initially?
Ana: I did. I got my degree in International Studies with a specialty in Anthropology, which unbeknownst to me at the time would be very helpful in marketing.
Bill: Yeah, no doubt, although based on your major and everything else, it sounds like you should go hang out somewhere on the beach and watch people somewhere in the world. It’s awesome.
Bill: Cool. Despite the ACC rivalry, came through MBA at Wake, and then into the world you go. At Brown-Forman, could you take us through some of the different roles that you’ve occupied? I think you started in Insights, right?
Ana: I did. I started out in Consumer Insights, and I worked on the Southern Comfort brand. Then I moved into Global Marketing for Southern Comfort for close to a year. Then I moved out into the field, into field marketing in our Baltimore office, so had a very big territory. I covered New York all the way down to Florida, and then a couple of states out west. I did that for about seven years, and have recently, in the past year, become the Brand Director for Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury, so I actually look after the marketing and the business for Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Collection, and Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select.
Bill: Awesome, and so I guess you shuttle back and forth between, I believe you still make your home in the Baltimore area, but are in Louisville a lot of the week, yes?
Ana: That is correct. Both great cities.
Bill: Yes, indeed, indeed. Across these diverse experiences, working on different brands and different roles, in headquarters, out in the field, could you compare and contrast across insights, across the field, across the brand teams? What have been some similarities and differences within your Brown-Forman career?
Ana: Well, I would say that when I think about the Consumer Insights role, that was really all about the ‘why.’ It was my beginning at Brown-Forman, my beginning in a corporate environment, and I had a really great manager, who just kept asking me why every time I would share information or presentations with her, so I really learned, myself, to ask why – how to be a data detective. I learned how to put a lot of disparate pieces of information together to develop actionable insights, which is such an important part of business, and marketing in particular. That was a great learning experience over about a year and a half.
Then, when I moved into Global Marketing on Southern Comfort, I learned a lot about the ‘who.’ I learned a lot about collaborating with all of our stakeholders. When you work on a global marketing team, you really have to think about how a brand might be perceived or communicated about differently in different global markets, and a lot of that is driven by life cycle in that market. You have to think a lot about brand architecture, and that’s where I first started learning about creative development. I shot a really fun television spot down in Argentina. That was a fun experience.
Then in Field Marketing, I learned a lot about the ‘how’ for marketing our brand. When you sit in the corporate office, you do a lot of strategic thinking, you have access to a lot of great information, but it’s so important to understand where the rubber meets the road. You can really see how these marketing programs are brought to life at the point of purchase, and you also have to understand how some of the key communications change as it goes from a national brand plan down to a piece of point of sale at retailers. In our business we have what we call a three-tier system, so everything has to come from the supplier, to a distributor, to a retailer and then to the consumer, so there are a lot of different touch points where things might need to be tweaked, improved, or customized.
I would say that anyone who works in marketing, management, or strategy for a brand should absolutely spend as much time as possible out in the field working with salespeople, talking to consumers, in our case talking to bartenders and store managers, just to really understand what the trends are, what consumers are asking for, and how things happen in real time.
I’ve been in the Brand Director role for about ten months now, and I have the pleasure of managing two really fantastic Associate Brand Managers, so it’s been a great learning experience in terms of managing other people. You really have even more and even bigger pieces to put together, so you have to be very thoughtful and very mindful about how you build your plans and stick to schedules, and push things out that are really going to work.
Bill: Right. No question. Across this journey, correct me if I’m wrong, you certainly worked on some of the larger, more established, most recognized brands in the category with Jack, with Southern Comfort, etc., but you’ve also had some innovation and new brand experience on the insight side and beyond. How, if at all, is life a little bit different when it comes to the established versus the new in a place like Brown-Forman?
Ana: Well, I would say that I did work for close to a year in new brand development in Consumer Insights. I worked on projects from white space ideation all the way to life after launch. I would say that the biggest difference is when you’re creating a new brand, you have a lot of room to play. You’re not tied to anything necessarily. Hopefully you’re building a new brand or a new product based on an existing, identified consumer need or desire.
It really helps you to build your brand architecture from the ground up, and think a lot about what the actual functional benefits are, and what the actual emotional benefits are or might be, so it’s a blank slate, and that’s a lot of fun, because you get to be really creative in a different way than you do with a big brand or a brand that’s been around for awhile.
I’d say when we innovate on our existing brands at Brown-Forman, we really want to be authentic about how we are creating products and how we’re handling the process of making those products, and just make sure that everything we’re doing really stems from the core brand, or the parent brand.
Bill: Right. Right. Let’s go there. With Jack Daniel’s, obviously working on the craft and premium parts of the market, How does the strength of the Jack Daniel’s, I guess Old No. 7, but the brand as a whole, and the degree to which people feel like they know that brand inside and out, and by people, it’s certainly consumers, and certainly folks in the trade, from bartenders through to store managers and anyone else who may have a role in helping the public understand what this brand stands for. Strong, well-known, well-recognized brand in core Jack and Old No. 7. How does that challenge what you’re doing to drive incremental business in other parts of the category? Some of the brands that you mentioned, sub-brands that you are working on are new to the portfolio or newish. How do you balance that heritage with the need for incrementality and growth?
Ana: Well, I’ll speak to some of the challenges we face first. First of all, we’re in a very interesting time for the brand. The whiskey category is on fire. It’s been growing for probably about five years now in a way that we’ve not seen in over twenty years, so it’s a wonderful time to be making whiskey. It’s a wonderful time to be drinking whiskey. We are actually celebrating our 150th anniversary at the Jack Daniel’s distillery this year, so there’s a lot of rich history, and great stories to tell about the actual person, Jack Daniel, the actual place where the products are made.
Bill: ‘Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best that we can,’ right?
Ana: We absolutely do, yes. That’s great for us, and we love it, but the consumer interest right now, because the whiskey category has grown, and it’s become much more saturated and much more fragmented, there’s a lot of confusion. There’s a lot of confusion about which brands come from real places, about which brands are made a certain way, but the consumer interest and the trade interest is in novelty and discovery. With larger, more established brands, there’s a perception a lot of times that those brands are being mass-produced, or they’re mainstream, or not premium enough.
Bill: Right, right. That’s certainly one element. I think one of the things we uncovered together in an insights process, we were looking at bartenders. Bartenders, with a brand as established and high personality, and as outspoken as Jack has been, do you run into the marketplace typecasting the brand, as well as the customer and consumer a little bit, in a way that may create some challenge to the expression of newness?
Ana: We do. We hear sometimes from bartenders that they can tell what type of consumer might like Jack Daniel’s or not like Jack Daniel’s, or prefer a certain brand. I think we’ve benefited in some ways from being very present in pop culture, so we have a lot of connections with some wonderful musicians and actors and lifestyle groups, and sometimes people make assumptions based on what they see in pop culture. We have a lot of friends of Jack Daniel’s, and it ranges from bikers to bankers. A lot of people love the flavor of the product. A lot of people love the iconic label that they are so familiar with. A lot of people really appreciate that it’s one of the last American-made whiskeys or American-owned whiskeys out there, so yeah, there’s a wide spectrum of folks who really like the brand.
Bill: Right. Would you mind just talking a little bit about the brand extensions that you’ve been working on in premium and craft, and for those in our audience who may be interested in novelty and discovery, but haven’t yet gotten around to this, anything about what they can expect through these experiences compared to what they may be used to with Jack?
Ana: Absolutely. I’ll speak to Gentleman Jack first, and then I’ll talk a little bit about the Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Collection. Gentleman Jack was introduced in the late eighties. All the whiskey that’s made at Jack Daniel’s distillery is charcoal mellowed, most of it through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal. What that does is it really helps to smooth out the flavor of the whiskey, and it’s a very important step in the process, and it’s something that Jack Daniel did even though it cost more and took a longer time period. We charcoal mellow all the whiskey we make, but Gentleman Jack actually goes through a second charcoal mellowing, so it’s mellowed once before it goes into the barrel, and it’s mellowed again before it goes into the bottle.
It’s got a very light, approachable, crisp flavor profile. It’s also got a little bit of a lighter color. I recommend drinking it neat on the rocks or in a Whiskey Sling, which is simple syrup, lemon, and a little bit of bitters. That is a really, very accessible whiskey. It’s a great whiskey for people who are just starting to learn about whiskey or drink whiskey. It’s in a beautiful package that I wish I could take credit for.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Collection is … We were one of the first single barrel whiskeys out there, not the first, but it’s an area that our master distiller, Jeff Arnett, takes a lot of pride in. We have had Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select since the late nineties.
Those whiskeys come from the top shelf of the barrel house, where the barrels are exposed to more extreme temperature changes, so you can imagine sitting in the hills of Tennessee. You get some very hot summers and some very cold winters. Those barrels are the crème de la crème of the whiskey barrels, and it tends to have a darker color, and a richer, more robust flavor profile. It’s 94 proof, where Gentleman Jack is 80 proof. It’s ready when Jeff Arnett says it’s ready, and it goes into the bottle, and you might taste a little bit of difference from one barrel to the next. It’s like wine in that way, so it’s fun to try different bottles from different barrels and see what different bouquets and tasting notes you can pick up.
We introduced a new product in October, called Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, Barrel Proof. The whiskey comes right out of the barrel and into the bottle at whatever proof Jeff Arnett says it’s ready at. That’s one that’s just got a lot of range in flavor and it’s a beautiful product. I highly recommend trying it if you’re a little more adventurous.
Then last but not least, to round out the collection, we just launched our Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye in February. What’s interesting about that one is that most ryes are going to be a 51% rye or a 95% rye. We’re actually at 70%, so you get a nice balance in the flavor that’s a little bit different than many ryes out there.
Bill: As a long-term Sinatra guy, can’t wait to hear something about that.
Ana: Well, that is one of the most beautiful products in the line-up. It’s a partnership with the Frank Sinatra estate. As you may or may not know, Frank Sinatra was the original friend of Jack Daniel. He always had a bottle on stage with him, he flew with it. He was actually buried with a bottle of it, so we partnered up with the Frank Sinatra estate, and created this gorgeous package and this wonderful whiskey. The whiskey in the Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select is aged in grooved barrels, which is a little bit different. Most of the barrels that we age our whiskey in are not grooved, and what that allows for is the whiskey can seep a little bit deeper into the barrel, so it picks up more of the vanilla and caramel, and some of the flavors that come from the oak.
One thing that we take a lot of pride in is that we’re one of the only North American whiskey makers that owns our own cooperage, which is where we make the barrels. A lot of attention and detail goes into making sure that those are made perfectly every time and that they’re charred and toasted to the master distiller’s specifications every time.
Bill: Nice, and if I remember correctly, that cooperage is in the dry county of Lynchburg, Tennessee. Is that correct?
Ana: The distillery is, yes. The cooperage is actually in Alabama.
Bill: Right, but the county is dry, ironically.
Bill: Nice. We’ll take a trip to prove that point. That’s all cool, and it makes a lot of sense, obviously, with regard to the product descriptions that are so rich and the product experience, so diverse and wonderful. As you all have thought, and I’m not asking you to disclose anything that’s proprietary here, so do what you’re comfortable obviously, what is the market opportunity that you all have been identifying and seizing as the Jack Daniel’s line has extended? We know there’s Tennessee Honey there, we know there’s some other flavors, but can you talk a bit about the brand trajectory and the ways in which you all are seeking to introduce it to those who may not be as deeply familiar?
Ana: Well, I would say that our big emphasis on Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Collection in particular is through education. There are a lot of myths about whiskey out there, about who makes it and where it comes from, and how to enjoy it and how to compare it. We really want to make sure that we have an opportunity to talk with people, whether it be at a festival or at a bar, or at a whiskey dinner that we host, and tell them a little bit about the story about Jack the man and Lynchburg the place, and then walk them through a tasting of our whiskeys, starting with the lightest flavor profile all the way to the most robust, and give them an opportunity to learn a lot about what goes into making those whiskeys that make them a little bit different from each other.
I’d say education is our number one focus for the craft and luxury products. That’s very important, and I’d say that a lot of brands are really focused on experiential marketing. We really want to create wonderful experiences for people that connect them to our brand and leave them with a really positive, memorable experience.
Bill: Right. Having been friendly with you throughout much of your tenure at Brown-Forman, I’ve certainly heard some of the perks of the job, or as one gets accustomed to it, some of the, ‘Oh goodness, not again.’ It seems like there’s a lot of night life here, there are a lot of experiences, whether it’s things like the Derby that the company sponsors and are involved in. Could you speak a little bit about what it’s like to represent Brown-Forman off the clock, so to speak?
Ana: Well, I’d say that we’re always educating. It’s so much fun to run into someone, whether it be at a bar or a restaurant, or at a retail store or at a concert, and ask them what they’re drinking and why, and talk a little bit about whiskey and where our products come from and how we make them, and who makes them. You’re always educating and teaching, and evangelizing for your brand, because we have a lot of passion and a lot of pride for the Jack Daniel’s brand.
Bill: Right. Well, that definitely comes through. You’ve identified a couple of trends and spoken about just the heat and intensity around the whiskey market today. A couple of major, whether it’s experiential marketing or obviously so much strength in craft and authentic experiences, etc., a couple of trends that we ought to underline and watch for in the spirits realm in terms of how brands are built, extended, and marketed at this point?
Ana: I would say that there are a few out there. I think one key trend that’s a little bit more tactical in how spirits brands, not so much ours, but some others, are building brands, is to have a hyper local focus. When I say local I don’t mean made locally or sourced from local ingredients, but more around a lot of focus on certain cities or certain states where they really want to invest human resources and financial resources very heavily. I think the benefit of doing that is that you really show support to a community, and it feels much more personal, and people have a chance to interact with your brand ambassadors and your salespeople and create a personal relationship with both them and your brand.
That’s one trend. The other, I would say, is what I’m calling consumer up-marketing. Because of social media in particular, consumers are doing a lot to either spread the good word or the bad word about your brand in reviews and pictures, and every way. It’s really important that we understand, as spirits brands, how people are interacting with our brands and what they have to say about them, and build brand activities around what consumers what and need.
Then I’d say last but not least, and this is across the marketing world, it’s not just spirits brands, but the catchphrase right now is storytelling. Everybody’s focused on telling stories about their brand or about people involved with the brand, and that can be a wonderful thing or a bit of a trap.
It depends on how true your stories are. But the great thing about storytelling is, a. it’s a way to educate, and b. it gives people who are selling your brand or interacting with it every day, something to pass along and share. We know that a lot of times, people behind the bar, and people at retail stores, really want to share information with people and have some great sound bites about why you might want to try something or why it’s great in this drink. So the more factual information you have to share with people about your brand story, the more powerful it is.
Bill: Right. My friends and colleagues will attest that stories need not be true for me to tell them, but as long as it makes somebody smile and wonder. Are those, and I know you’re off the global marketing beat, but is it your sense that some of the trends that you’re identifying are US based, or are they really trends that are crossing the globe in the spirits world?
Ana: I think they’re probably crossing the globe. Social media’s definitely a global phenomenon, and I’m not sure if storytelling is quite as far down the path in global markets as it is in the US, but I would imagine that it is, and if not, it will catch up very quickly. Then I think local focus is happening in the spirits world in global markets as well.
Bill: Right. Well, especially a brand like Jack Daniel’s, that has been so associated with Americana. As you mentioned earlier, I think it probably cuts a couple of different ways when you’re outside of the US in terms of there’s certain markets and cultures that really crave authentic American experiences and others that may hold that a bit at arm’s length, and probably most are somewhere in between. But I’m sure that’s an interesting wrinkle as the brand continues to grow and diversify the portfolio as well as the overall experience.
Ana: That’s true, and another interesting thing that we’ve noticed in conversations with our global colleagues is that some markets are much more status and image oriented. Russia and some others come to mind. Then some markets are much more focused on authenticity and a little bit more of a rustic bent. Those two are relatively diametrically opposed, so you have to be very careful about your communications and your creative.
Bill: You’ve had such an amazing career up to this point, and certainly continuing into the future. Are there any words of wisdom that you’d share with those who may be early on and are inspired by the path that you’ve taken?
Ana: Absolutely. Let’s see. I’ll share one that’s the least exciting, but one of the most important, and that is the more work you do on the front end, in terms of communicating with the right people and planning, the less work you have to do on the back end. We try to hold ourselves, and I would recommend other people do the same, hold yourself accountable to committing to one key objective, and identify the performance indicators. How are you going to measure what you did? Too often we go into something because it sounds exciting or we have to be reactive, and we don’t necessarily think about how we’re going to measure the ROI on the back end, or make a decision about whether or not we’re going to do it again.
I think that’s a really important exercise as you embark on a new project or journey. I’d say packaging matters in every way, shape and form. Whether you’re packaging information or packaging yourself for an interview, it’s really important that you do the quality of the content justice by putting it in a way that looks good and makes sense, and can be easily consumed.
I would say last but not least that I would encourage people to always be curious and always challenge the status quo. Ask the question why. Too often, the business challenge or the opportunity that you are presented with is really just a symptom. Think about why and dig a little deeper to find a true insight, because you might not be treating the problem. You might just be treating the symptom.
Bill: That makes perfect sense. I know you’ve also been involved, in Maryland and in Kentucky and beyond, in a variety of activities related to service, a variety of different causes that are important to you as a person and as a professional. Would you mind speaking about some of the other things that occupy your time and your energy?
Ana: Sure. I serve on the board of Family and Children’s Services of Central Maryland, here in Baltimore. It’s been a really exciting time to be part of that organization. They do a variety of work around prevention and treatment for different issues. They started out with their primary focus being in child abuse prevention and treatment, and have branched out quite a bit to help lots of different people across the state. It’s been really rewarding. I’ve met wonderful people who really love what they do and really care, and from a professional perspective, it’s been really a good learning experience for me to apply marketing practices and knowledge to a different area.
If you’ve been in spirits marketing for ten years, there are a lot of things that are the same every day. There are a lot of things that change, but when you work with a non-profit group, then you’re really thinking about a different target audience and a different set of tools in your marketing toolbox, so that’s been a wonderful experience.
Bill: Right. When you think about the course that you’ve taken, it sounds like one of the things that links together the various ways you spend your time professionally as well as beyond, is you certainly have a passion for the subject matter. You really seem to be extremely curious about people and things. Are there certain itches that you’re able to scratch with all the different things that you’re involved in that are part of what make you the person you are? Sorry, I’m not your therapist here. Forgive me.
Ana: Can you word that one differently for me?
Bill: Yeah. I’ll try. Are there common denominators with things that really motivate you, whether it be professional activities or the types of things that you choose to spend your time on in your community or in Louisville?
Ana: I would say that the things that motivate me both personally and professionally are just always learning. When you meet new people you always learn new things. When you embark on a new project, something you haven’t done before, you’re always going to learn something along the way. I want to be challenged and I want to be learning, and I want to be giving back in some way. Whether that’s helping someone working on my team at Brown-Forman learn something new themselves, or help them through a project, or brainstorm new ideas together, that’s exciting, or whether it’s helping to give back to the community.
That’s also very exciting, and I’d say that I really thrive on opportunities to be creative. I think that’s a skill that we probably don’t give enough weight to a lot of times. It’s not something that you can necessarily teach. You can certainly prompt it or cultivate it, but it’s something that you really have to work at for most people. The creative process is definitely something that I thrive on as well.
Bill: Right. Last question. It’s personal but not too personal, and it happens to be based on … I’ve just been thinking a lot about it. I had a coffee this morning and a lot of times, and I’m sure this happens with you too, Ana, that you have somebody who’s early in their career and trying to get a foothold asked a question of me this morning, and I’d love your take as someone who took a path to business school. Can you speak to the MBA, and obviously you love Wake Forest, go Deacons. But, the rationale in terms of where you were in your career and just the decision to seek graduate education in business as either a catalyst to help expand your knowledge base, your skill base, as a curious person as noted, but also to progress in your career. Any reflections on the decision to seek and then obviously the outcomes on the back end of the MBA?
Ana: Sure. I think it was one of the best things I’ve ever done, trumped only by a semester at sea during my under-grad experience, but it was invaluable for a lot of reasons. I would say that to anyone who’s considering going to get a graduate degree, especially in business, a lot of it depends on where you are in your career, where you are in your life.
I learned a lot in my courses, naturally. I’d been in the hospitality industry in food and beverage and hotel, in event planning for quite some time, and so it was not a typical corporate environment. While you’re exposed to operations, and finance, and marketing, and strategy in different ways in the hospitality industry, it’s not necessarily in the same structured format that you might get in a business school program.
I think from a pure knowledge perspective, that’s really important. But I think that the other thing that was really valuable was learning from my classmates. Our class had, it was relatively small, but we had a lot of people that came from lots of different backgrounds and lots of different industries. That’s important, and then lastly I’d say learning how to work really effectively in a team, is something that most business school programs are going to really prioritize. That helps so much in a business environment. One piece of advice that was given to me when I did start business school was decide which industry you want to go in in your function before you start.
It really helps you focus in on learning through thinking about that industry, and networking with people in that industry, and getting your internship in that industry. First of all, it will help you over those two years, if you do a full-time program, to really figure out if that is indeed what you want to do, because a lot of industries can be glamorized, and the real day to day work isn’t quite as sexy as it might seem on television. But it also just really helps keep you focused and end up in a place where you will be fulfilled and successful.
Bill: Awesome. Speaking of glamor, Ana Kornegay, thank you so much for your time and insight. Brand Director at Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury, its been a pleasure being your friend, working with you, everything else, and it is certainly a pleasure to help the business by sampling these products, often in ill-advised quantities, although I don’t do as much of that as I used to. So grateful for your time. Anything that you want to close with that we should have asked but didn’t, or that is important to how you see the world and career journeys?
Ana: I think we’ve covered most of it. I just want to say thank you so much for the opportunity to be part of the conversation today.
Bill: Our pleasure. Thank you. Thank you to Ana for her time and for her insight. An amazing perspective, not only on the category that she’s in and the brands that she works on, but I think a lot of the comments that she shared with us are certainly extensible into other categories that are consumer facing globally and domestically. Storytelling really is the heart of effective brand building and brand development, never more than now. Obviously social media and the immediacy of that dialog has changed the fabric of how brands communicate. Maybe not as much how they’re built, but how they communicate and how they seek to nurture the connection that they have in their market with their audience.
Three ways as always to support us here at Real-World Branding if you like what you’re doing, and those three are quickly, I’m sick of reading the whole thing. I don’t even read it, but saying the whole thing, the three are find us on Twitter and give us your thoughts and ideas. Give us a rating if we deserve it, five stars, yay, in the app store of your choice, and then certainly click subscribe so that you do not miss an episode.
We do this every week in one form or another. In weeks where we do not have interviews, we do interviews bi-weekly, and in the off weeks we’ll do what we call One Big Idea, which is focused on one particular topic that seems to be of interest to our clients and colleagues in this world of brand and business building. We’re grateful for your time, excited about the emergence of Spring here in southeastern Pennsylvania. Now I’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
The post You Don’t Know Jack – Ana Kornegay, Brand Director of Jack Daniel’s Craft and Luxury, Brown-Forman appeared first on Finch Brands.
Matt Hoffman is the Founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures, maker of uniquely true-to-life plush figures of the greatest athletes and entertainment icons. In this episode, Matt details the twists and turns that have taken him from playing in a band to launching a successful brand. Learn how he channeled his passion into his business to realize the dream of seeing ‘Chase Utley as a Muppet’ and helping Pope Francis ‘find himself’. Ripe with insights and advice, Matt’s entrepreneur journey is exciting, educational, and entertaining. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Matt Hoffman: It was the second inning; I’ll never forget it. I was looking at Chase, and in my head, I said, ‘If Chase Utley was a Muppet, what would he look like?’
Bill Gullan: I’m sure tons of people simultaneously asking that question.
Matt: Probably, but that was the spark. That was the spark.
Bill: Greetings, one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and today I come to you with a mixture of excitement and guilt. Excitement because we’ve chosen to rebroadcast my interview with Matt Hoffman. Matt is the founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures, and we thought, with March Madness in full swing and spring training in full swing, and NHL and NBA rattling around towards the playoffs, that it would be a particularly fitting time to think about sports and highlight an entrepreneur from that world. He has a really great story and a lot of insight both from his previous career stops on the journey up to the idea and now the actual execution of the Bleacher Creatures business concept.
The reason for guilt is that I would imagine based upon our numbers that some of our listeners are newer listeners and haven’t gone back all the way through the catalog, so this is valuable stuff if you haven’t. But for those of you who have been with us from the beginning, I do feel a little bit guilty that we’ve been rebroadcasting some things recently. The reason for that is, unfortunately, I have a day job. This is part of it, but we’ve had a decent amount of travel, we’ve had some client situations with shorter time frames, we’ve had some team development time that we’ve been spending, too.
However, big promises for the future. There will be new interviews coming very soon. The One Big Ideas will continue. In fact, many of these things are already scheduled.
One of the other things that happened this week was we had a cancellation of somebody who we’re really excited to speak with and bring to all of you. We tend to only get a couple weeks ahead at Real-World Branding, in part because the world is always changing, and also in part because we got a lot stuff to do over here, as we know, you all do in your professional lives and your academic lives as well.
Everybody’s busy these days and probably wouldn’t want it any other way. Enjoy Matt Hoffman, great interview, great guy, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Bill: We are here with Matt Hoffman, founder and CEO of Bleacher Creatures. A lot of bald, really attractive guys with cool glasses in this room right now. Matt, thanks for being with us.
Matt: Thanks. I don’t know how cool the glasses are. They’re bi-focals now.
Bill: Progressives, I just got these, there’s three in mine. They would be tri-focals the old way, but there’s a bottom part of the lens. This has just happened, newly.
Matt: It’s terrible. Mine are bi-focals, so up and down are two different things you have to get used to. Getting old is not fun.
Bill: No, no, no. They told me I was going to fall down the steps the first couple of days, but it was an easy transition. We pick up things quickly. Anyhow, we’ll talk that offline, but thank goodness this is audio today.
You came at Bleacher Creatures, and obviously with the Pope, with the start of the NBA season, the NHL season, the playoffs in baseball, and the holiday coming up as you say. This is a big time of year for a brand to shine that deserves it. Tell us a little bit about you and your journey to where we sit.
Matt: Sure. I’m from the Philadelphia area, and I don’t think I could have created this company anywhere else. I’m Philly in my heart. I’m inspired by the city and the people that are here, and I really think the road that took me to Bleacher Creatures is being a Philly guy, so if you don’t like Philly, too bad.
But that, at its root, is what I’m about. Went to Temple University, and I went to school for Communications. At the same time I played in a local Philadelphia band, and the reason I bring that up, ‘Oh, you played in a band,’ well we eventually got a record deal, the band. I would say it’s an entrepreneurial experience to be in a band.
Bill: Yeah, sure. You got to do everything.
Matt: It’s a business. That is really my first taste of a small business.
Bill: Is this like Hooters, Tommy Conwell, Young Rumblers level?
Matt: Little older than those guys, though, I had played on bills with Tommy before.
Matt: The band was called Liquid Gang. I think at one point we were written up as the loudest band in Philadelphia, which I took a lot of pride in.
Bill: There’s dignity in that.
Matt: It was definitely more of an alternative rock, like Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins style band.
Bill: Were you the singer or did you just play?
Matt: Sang a little bit, played guitar, helped song write, and I was lucky. I played with these amazing musicians. I was the worst guy in the band, which actually probably led to my personal downfall in the band. I think I had a vision. I had a good business head, knew what we wanted to do, but when you’re the worst in the band, and you’re leading the band, it leads to insecurities.
That’s the lesson from that band on how to deal with different personalities and how to manage, but we did great. We toured the country. We opened up for major bands. My last show with the band, we opened up at The Spectrum when The Spectrum was there.
It was a great experience, and again, as part of the journey to get to Bleacher Creatures, that was important, because the one thing that came out of it, that led to Bleacher Creatures, was merchandising.
We had to make money, and I said, ‘Well we should sell T-shirts and CDs and stickers, and those type of things,’ and we did. We started selling them at shows, and other bands were like, ‘Yo, how’d you do that?’ I’m like, ‘I could do it for you, too.’ It started a little merchandising business that I had, and that got me into product.
Born in Philadelphia, in the band for awhile. Meanwhile my mom said, ‘Listen, you have to get a day job and the band. I don’t care what you do.’ She was right. I worked for a Fortune 500 Company, started on the accounting side, but eventually got into purchasing, buying. With the band I’m doing merchandising with product. On the other side I’m actually purchasing product. I purchased the foam trays for supermarkets. It sounds really exciting, but I can tell you, each color tray is actually for a different kind of meat.
Bill: Interesting. That’s a sexy business.
Matt: That’s the big take-away on foam trays. At some point with the band, it ran its course. What I wanted to do and what the guys in the band wanted to do were two different things, and I think I took it as far as I could go. I have a philosophy. You never want to say, ‘What if?’ I never said, ‘Okay, what if I didn’t try it in the band?’ So I did.
At the exact same time, a friend of mine, who was working for NBC, had started in a company. This is the late ’90s. It was a catalog company called Genesis Direct, and they had just gotten the deals to run the catalogs for the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball. I had this buying background for this company, I did merchandising, and he was like, ‘You should interview up here.’ I still had a little music in my head, that oh, I could play in New York. That would be cool.
I interviewed up there and I got the job, so I moved to north Jersey. This is ’97. The reason that’s such a big deal, my second week there we had a meeting with the NBA. I’m a huge sports fan, so obviously, if you know about Bleacher Creatures, it started in sports. So my second week there we had a meeting with a guy at the NBA, and he said, this was in ’97, ‘We have a big initiative for David Stern. He is really focused on the Internet and this concept of e-commerce, where you can buy things off your computer.’
I think I was 26 years old. My brain just went boom! I just moved to New York from Philly, I’m a 6’ers fan, and you’re saying I could get an Iverson jersey ordered to my house from my computer. That’s a big concept. I was in.
Bill: I was about to say, your timing on entering the catalog business was… The catalog still exists, but in terms of…
Matt: Catalog’s actually still in print, but yeah, the timing was right. It was interesting. I left the meeting with a couple of executives from the company, and I’m new. This is my second week there, and I’m like, ‘What are we doing about the Internet?’ Because I could tell nobody was really into it, and they said, ‘We’re a catalog company. We’re not an Internet company.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m into it.’ They’re like, ‘Okay. Then you’re in charge of our online business.’ I took over the NBA online store, NHL online store, and Major League Baseball online store. This is my second week there.
Now, while I did that I had to work on the catalog business, and basically they gave me no resources. So I had a friend, Adam, who I worked with, and basically the two of us, begged, borrowed and stole to make that Internet business work. We were lucky. The guy from the NBA was a good adviser on, ‘Okay, here’s what you do.’ We were partnered with ESPN on the back end, but that was ’97, ’98. In ’98, the Bulls win the championship for the sixth time, the Red Wings finally win the Stanley Cup, and I remember that month of June in 1998, we did like $1.2 million between the two sites. It was a big number back then.
Bill: Sure. Well, big cities, passionate cities, big moments.
Matt: It was a big opportunity, and we were positioned for it, so I think in July I ran a sales report on what we did. I felt pretty good about it, put it on the VP of Marketing’s desk, and about three hours later I get a call from the board room, ‘Can you please come in?’ I walk in, every executive in the company’s in there, and they’re like, ‘How’d you do this? Tell us what you did.’
They became a dotcom company six months later, from ‘Hey, there’s no future in the Internet. We’re a catalog company.’
It was a great opportunity. I always tell people, part of it is if the opportunity comes you take advantage of it, so I was blessed with that opportunity. For a sports fan who was looking to figure out their career after being in a band, I was in the right place, right time, and it worked out great. But I also knew the writing on the wall was, ‘I don’t think these guys really have vision.’
Matt: Total coincidence, a guy from the NBA had called me, said, ‘I just took a new job with this guy named Michael Rubin in Philadelphia. Would you be interested to come back home?’ Meanwhile I was getting recruited across the country for e-commerce jobs, but I love Philly, like I said when I started this podcast, and I happened to be coming down to Philadelphia. This was in ’99. Am I rambling about my career?
Bill: No, this is fabulous.
Matt: I happened to be coming to a Lenny Kravitz, Black Crowes concert in Camden. See it all comes back to music. Was going with my friends from high school. One of the executives from, at the time it was called Global Sports, connected through the guy from the NBA, and he said, ‘Hey, you should come in for an interview,’ and I did, told them what we did.
The real concept for that part of the business is called the displaced fan. It’s exactly what I was up in New York. You’re a Philly fan that lives in LA, can’t really get Philly product in LA, catalog, e-commerce works. Michael Rubin is this amazing entrepreneur that had this deal to run online sporting good retailers like Sports Authority and Modell’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods. They weren’t really focused on sports licensing, so again, opportunity knocked. I wanted to come back home, and within two weeks I started working at GSI Commerce, which was Global Sports at the time.
Bill: Wow. Now an eBay company, yes?
Matt: They spun off GSI Commerce to eBay. From what I just heard, eBay is selling that piece off.
Bill: Are they? Yeah, I drove by it over the weekend.
Matt: It doesn’t say eBay anymore, does it?
Bill: I think it does, and my wife said, ‘Wow, eBay.’ I said, ‘No, honey, eBay’s not,’ but it was, I told her, a far less concise and accurate version of the story that you were telling.
Matt: Michael Rubin, again, I’ve been lucky also, I’ve worked for some great entrepreneurs. Even the company before that, that catalog company, a couple of really smart entrepreneurs. I just don’t think that business model worked for them. But Michael wound up selling it to eBay, but he spun off a couple divisions. One is Rue Lala, which is a shopping site, but another one was Fanatics.
Bill: Fanatics, absolutely.
Matt: Which was a sports license piece that I started for him. Then he wound up acquiring two competitors, and they are the beast of the industry, so they’re a customer of ours. They’re a great company. I loved working at Michael’s company. I still feel passionately for the people I worked with there. Great culture, entrepreneurial, startup, this really fast-moving, great guy to work for.
Bill: Yeah. He has that reputation, absolutely.
Matt: Yeah, so this was the type of dotcom place you heard about at the turn of the millennium where we had scooters and were riding across the hall and just making things happen. I was lucky. I had this sports license piece. They let me run with it. We had a lot of initiatives, and wound up becoming one of the biggest parts of the company, so I was pretty successful there, too.
I found my niche, but again, a lot of it was opportunity. I’m not saying I’m the sharpest bulb. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I ran with it. One of the things I learned, though, with licensing, is you are at the mercy of the licenses, the manufacturers. It’s a little concerning when you’re a buyer if you’re not getting great service or things change.
What I really wanted to figure out was, what’s the manufacturing side of this thing? I was at GSI Commerce, or Global Sports, for five years, and I had the opportunity to work for Majestic Athletic. So, Majestic Athletic at the time was a family owned business, official outfitter of Major League Baseball. I was able to go in as the Vice President of Merchandising and Brand Management, working with the leagues on licensing, working with our design team and factories on manufacturing what’s worn on field and new innovations.
Another awesome experience. I worked for some of the classiest people you could work for, great family. I worked for them for three and a half years. I was able to stay on as they sold the company to VF Corporation, which is the biggest apparel company in the world. They own brands like The North Face and 7 For All Mankind and Timberland, and Lee Jeans.
It was really interesting working for a family business. They were innovative as well, but also, it’s tight because you’re working for a family. When you work for a big Fortune 500 company, you get exposure to big people. I was in meetings with Kmart and Walmart and big retailers, and I got to be part of initiatives with the president of the company and the chairman of the company. I’ve been really blessed.
Getting up to Bleacher Creatures, I’ve worked for some great entrepreneurs, great, smart people, and got in front of great retailers, and that led me to Bleacher Creatures.
Bill: All of which comes in handy now, yeah.
Matt: Yeah. It all led up to that point, so I always tell the story for Bleacher Creatures, on the business side that led me there, but the inspiration and the influence were my three daughters.
I’m a father. That’s the most important thing to me, and I have three kids. I would go to ballparks for my job with Majestic, and I’d want to bring my kids back stuff. Once it got past a t-shirt or a jersey or a pair of socks or a poorly made mascot, there was nothing.
One of the sweet parts of Majestic is we had awesome Phillies tickets, front row. August 2010, I’m at a Phillies game with some friends, in those seats. My seats were right by first base, so Chase Utley, Ryan Howard. It was the second inning; I’ll never forget it. I was looking at Chase, and in my head I said, ‘If Chase Utley was a Muppet, what would he look like?’
Bill: I’m sure tons of people simultaneously asking that question.
Matt: Probably, but that was the spark. That was the spark, and a lot of people have always said, ‘Hey, you should go into business. You should start a business,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know what I would do.’
But within that game, I took out my Smartphone, I looked at the toy industry, looked at the plush industry, it was a multi-billion-dollar area. I looked at licensed product, which back then was a big part. Now it’s even bigger. I said, ‘These are iconic athletes, whether it’s LeBron James or Sidney Crosby, or Mike Trout, or Peyton Manning, that people are connected to.’ I knew there was something there. That’s really how I got led up to Bleacher Creatures.
Bill: What a story. The idea comes to you, you’re sitting in these seats. We’re recording this, by the way, on the morning of game three, Dodgers/Mets, so Utley is a name that isn’t as revered maybe as he was forty-eight hours ago, but we’ll see what happens from here.
Matt: Mets fans aren’t thinking of him as a Muppet right now.
Bill: No, nor as anything that’s cuddly. Tell us a bit about the process of building the company, from the idea. My own personal experience, and when I talk to folks who have either been or moved in an entrepreneurial direction, oftentimes an idea becomes implanted and you can’t stop thinking about it. So what happens? You still have responsibilities, obviously, at Majestic. Talk about the process from being a team member with all of a sudden an idea percolating to doing it, making it happen.
Matt: Well, I’m lucky. I had people who were supportive on the business side coaching me on how to do it. Faust Capobianco, who was the President of Majestic, I told him what was going on, and he was encouraging. A good adviser of mine, Greg Weinberg, who I worked with at GSI, so I had these people coaching me a little bit, because I’ve never done it before. I told my wife, I said, ‘Look, I’m going to be spending a lot of extra mornings and evenings at Starbucks working on this thing.’
I did. I tell people I should do a commercial for Starbucks, because every morning, every afternoon where I had free time I was working there. With three kids in the house it’s hard to do.
Bill: That is true.
Matt: The first thing I wanted to do was to make sure the market size and the business made sense. It’s a billion-dollar industry in the US alone. Everything pointed to it being an opportunity. I talked to some of my retail partners, ‘What do you think?’ They got it, so I knew I had something. I had to get designs. I had to find manufacturing. In 2010, while I was still at Majestic/VF, I was working with factories trying to figure out who could make this, who could be a partner. I worked with a designer I knew to design the first prototypes and it came out okay. They really did look like Chase Utley if he was a Muppet.
The other part was raising money, and that wasn’t fun. It’s never fun. You have investors and everybody loves the idea, but then you don’t hear from them for three weeks, and I had raised a bunch of money.
Then the other part is I had to get the licenses. Once I got prototypes, put the business plan together, I was lucky I had relationships with the sports leagues and the players’ associations. For Majestic, they do a really good job of focusing on players. When a player gets hot, they’re turning around jerseys or t-shirts and that business is big. Since I had those relationships with the leagues and the players’ associations, they knew I respected that and that was important to me as a core function.
End of 2010, beginning of 2011, it happened pretty fast. I got approval from all of the sports leagues. They wanted to partner with me. I had raised some money. I happened to have a meeting in New York with Major League Baseball, and that afternoon I was meeting with another licensee, so for people out there, another company that makes sports licensed product.
A friend of mine ran sales there, and I wanted to figure out what kind of salespeople were out there. They didn’t know that. They thought I was looking for a job, so the President of the company came in and thought I was looking for a job, and I told him what I was up to, and he said, ‘Well, let me see the product.’ I said, ‘I need you to sign a NDA, I happen to have one in my bag.’ He signed it, I showed it to him, he was like, ‘I want this.’ Basically over two weeks, he was saying, ‘Listen, I get the business. I’m going to be a good partner to you,’ which he’s been. ‘You’re better off partnering with me, instead of other people who don’t understand the business.’
It worked out, he did. We were incorporated and up and running by February, 2011. It happened fast, and I was lucky. There wasn’t a big gap in regards to doing this without having funding and moving forward. There was a couple months that you’re like, ‘I hope this comes together.’ But it did.
Bill: But for those in our audience who are thinking about balancing ideas for businesses with their day in, day out responsibilities, everyone’s obviously in a different position when it comes to their network, their knowledge level, certainly their financial capability if they wanted to bootstrap something, but what were the triggers for you to know that it was time to hang up the cleats, so to speak, at Majestic? You mentioned incorporating. Obviously you were raising funds. There’s a lot of moving parts here, the licensing, everything else, but when you were talking with your family or thinking about it yourself, what was the moment at which that balance was going to shift, and this was what you were going to be doing for a living?
Matt: I’m going to be honest with you. There was some ignorance on my part in regards to it. I told you my story. I was pretty lucky, right place, right time. The career moved pretty quickly. I was a young executive at VF and GSI, and I said, ‘I’ve had success everywhere. How hard could this be?’
I just thought it would be easy. If I knew what I knew now, I’m not sure I would have done it. Maybe that was good that I didn’t know, but I think people are more sophisticated now than they were four or five years ago, with the Shark Tanks of the world and everything, it’s a different environment. So I’m not sure those triggers were there.
I really confidently thought, ‘This will be easy because I’ve done it and I’ve been successful.’ It is and was much harder than I thought, so I’m glad I did it. It’s made me a better person. It’s made me grow up in some ways, but I don’t know if I’ve had the triggers that other entrepreneurs had, because maybe I wasn’t bright enough to know.
Bill: Well, it seems like a dose of ignorance has helped a lot of the great entrepreneurial stories, because as you say, especially at the point in your life with responsibilities at home, with a great job, around people towards whom you felt warmly and felt responsibility, maybe it’s good you didn’t know all the hurdles or else maybe we’d be here in a different capacity. But, so fast forward, here we are almost five years in for you.
Bleacher Creatures began in sports, obviously has a tremendous presence in sports, but hit the consciousness of the world recently for another reason, which was the papal visit. The Pope obviously came to the US, and spent time throughout the northeast, but the major meat of that stop was here in our fair city. One of the indelible pictures from that visit was, I guess he was on the tarmac either here or, I don’t even know.
Bill: JFK? Someone brought to him a Bleacher Creature of himself, of His Holiness. How wide his smile was holding this doll, this likeness of him, one of the images that I saw everywhere after this, and obviously the business, it’s a great hit. It’s a great moment. Could you tell us a little bit about the story of both the conceiving of, and then executing to this degree, the Pope doll?
Matt: Yeah. As part of our initiative as we grow, international is a big part of what we do. I would say within the next two years, international will be bigger than our US business, and it makes sense. There’s more people. When I talk to people who don’t look that way, you’re missing a huge market. There’s more people internationally than in the US. There’s a lot of disposable income out there. Even if 5% of the Chinese had the type of disposable income it’s big. The reason I’m bringing that up is we have European distributors, and one of them said to us we should do Pope Francis.
I was like, ‘Yeah. We like Pope Francis. He fits what we do, put your passion in play, and we love his message. We should do it.’ This was a year ago, and we sampled the Pope Francis Bleacher Creature and it sat on my desk. We were looking to figure out, especially in Europe, which has different intellectual property rules, what we could or can’t do. Meanwhile, I’m working hard and good opportunities are happening, they announced that Pope Francis was coming to the United States, and coming to Philadelphia.
Bill: Of all places, yeah.
Matt: My town. I was like, ‘Okay, this could be a cool opportunity. We’ll have to figure out how to make it work.’ Every year in February is the International Toy Fair in New York City. We had a meeting probably in December, figuring, ‘Okay, what’s our big story going to be at the toy fair?’ We had our PR people, my marketing people, partners, all on the phone, and we couldn’t really come up with a wow, because we wanted a wow. We got off the phone, but meanwhile, sitting on my desk, looking at me, is that Pope Francis Bleacher Creature.
Bill: Is the prototype, yeah. That’s great.
Matt: Maybe later in the day, it’s staring at me, I’m like, ‘That’s a story.’ I mailed everyone back. I said, ‘What if we say we’re really getting into historical and political and inspirational figures, and we announce that we’re launching Pope Francis?’ Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.’ Full disclosure, I’m Jewish. The press release went out, though, and the Toy Fair happened to be on Ash Wednesday, total accident.
Matt: The story got picked up by over 300 local news stations throughout the United States, so we knew we had something. It was interesting, because the trade show itself, people liked it, but nobody really was like, ‘Okay, I’ll buy it.’
Bill: Right, right.
Matt: Because when you live in a society now with buyers, everybody’s afraid to try something new and take a chance, so in a category like that they didn’t know. But that’s okay. We got a lot of press, and right after that, we spoke to the World Meeting of Families, that brought the Pope here, and they loved it. They showed it to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and they wanted us to carry it. They were finalizing who was going to sell it, so it happened to be another Philadelphia based company, Aramark, who we do a lot of business with, and I have a great relationship with.
Bill: Big company, yeah.
Matt: We lined it up with them, so on our website is where we first started selling the Pope. We knew it was going to be good, because even pre-selling it, it was one of our top sellers. People were into it, and then we were getting calls from Catholic gift shops at churches and religious schools, so we had a good feeling about it. Then our PR agency did a really good job seeding the product. It got picked up, all the local Philly papers, USA Today, Fortune Magazine, so the momentum was already happening.
That momentum built, that more people were buying it, it was selling online for World Meeting of Families, and then sure enough, there were different schools that were buying it. What happened was, the day that the Pope got to New York, this school teacher from Brooklyn, I actually spoke to her afterwards, they had a Pope Bleacher Creature that somebody gave them, and they were praying to it at their school.
Matt: Which is cool in itself, and she was going to the airport to see the Pope, brought it with her just in case, and sure enough he gets off the plane. I think about it historically. When I think of JFK, I think of the Beatles coming to New York and getting off the plane at JFK. Well, honestly, Pope Francis’s first visit to New York is pretty close.
Bill: He’s a rock star in a different way.
Matt: Yeah. He’s walking around, but I’m not watching it, so it’s the end of the day Thursday. We’re already handing all the demand for the Pope, getting product out, and then on my computer around 5: 30, I’m starting to get these emails. ‘Do you do a Pope Bleacher Creature?’ ‘Hey Dude, I think the Pope’s holding your Pope.’ I emailed a couple people like, I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ It’s like, ‘It’s all over the news.’ I go to CBS News.
We were on CBS This Morning, Sunday morning, that Sunday previously, so I had that link up. They have a live news broadcast that you can rewind, and I brought everybody in my office from the company. Sure enough, he’s walking around and the school teacher handed Pope Francis the Pope. But the way it went down, you see his reaction when he sees it in the crowd. He actually blesses it. Then he picks it up and the smile is amazing.
Then he holds it up and does a selfie for somebody with it, right? Of course, that was it. It got picked up by every news station. The next day it was on The Today Show, it was on The View, it was on Good Morning America, it was just everywhere. Then even the next week it was on Colbert, and that’s all great, and the sales are great, but honestly, at its core, we made a product that made Pope Francis generally smile. That’s what our product’s really about.
The idea, we tell buyers this when they buy, that our buyers for retailers, or people walking by, whether you sell one or not at first glance, you have product in your store that are going to make people smile.
Matt: That’s exactly what happened, so it was a great success for the brand. It was a great selling success. We’re still selling them, and everybody blew out of the product. They had the product on the parkway in Philadelphia and they sold out every piece.
Bill: I’ll bet.
Matt: But to see that we could give the Pope the same reaction we want from everybody else, and to generally make him happy, that was everything.
Bill: Yeah, well, it’s quite a story, and I remember, obviously, knowing you and seeing it, and being like, ‘Oh my goodness. That’s unbelievable.’ To your point, and you mentioned the line earlier, ‘put your passion in play.’ Obviously Bleacher Creatures deals in characters or athletes, or whomever, teams, around whom your customers are passionate, yet because it’s a doll and it’s a plush toy, it has to do with play. It works across the family, but with kids certainly.
When you think about brand development, and this is a branding podcast after all, obviously the intellectual property that you possess, that you leverage, that you license, all has their own brand appeal. They think of their business as brands, be it athletes, entertainers, characters, or whatever it is. Yet Bleacher Creatures has its own distinctive appeal. How do you balance these recognizable licenses with building your own brand for Bleacher Creatures? How do you think that through?
Matt: It’s a lot. Luckily with my licensing background, I thought a lot about intellectual property, because that’s a piece of it. We’ve been able to create some intellectual property around how we make the dolls, but also, it’s artwork. I do consider it an art, and that goes back to my band days, in regards to it’s art. We have copyrights on all our designs. The reality is we’re not the only people who can make a Pope Bleacher Creature or a LeBron James Bleacher Creature, but anybody else who makes it, it has to look distinctly different than what we’ve done.
There can’t be confusion in the marketplace. That’s part of it, and that’s part of it both ways. I don’t think I’d go to licensors and say, ‘Hey, listen, we jut want to make a plush of blank’ I get this all the time. Pokemon, or who was the other one that somebody came up to me the other day about? The Smurfs. People say, ‘Do you want to do Despicable Me?’ I’m like, ‘There are plenty of other people that could actually do that.’ We could do it, but that’s not really what Bleacher Creatures is about, because those guys are already built for plush or cartoons.
Bill: Yeah. Sure, sure.
Matt: But LeBron James is not built to be a plush doll. It’s a unique thing, so that’s part of it, is we have a unique look now. It’s not Muppety anymore. It’s how do you turn real people into what we call plush figures, and make them recognizable? That’s the first part. Then we have to understand our customer. We did a great survey with Finch Brands, which was very insightful. That told us that half our customers are kids, which is who the business was built for, but half our customers were adults, and what we knew of those adults, half owned at least three.
This was still early on in our development, which tells us adults like them, adults collect them, and it connects to their passion. The other fun part about our product is, we’re lucky this way, in the social media age, it’s a great product, because it’s great for photography, selfies. It’s easy to carry. There are people out there, there was a little Pope Francis Twitter page, there’s this lady who takes J.J. Watt everywhere she goes every week and posts where she is with J.J. Watt.
Bill: There’s an Utley one, too, right, I think locally, yeah, little Chase.
Matt: Little Chase Utley. He got traded, he’s still up there, and reporting to the Phillies. We love that. We love that there are these guerrilla, I don’t want to call them marketers, but fans, that have created these stories. Knowing all those things and what our brand is, we’ve really become more focused on how do we make these plush figures great that really hit the core? Then what licenses do we get? There are some situations where we’ll take a license that doesn’t necessarily fit into our core, like there’s a partner of ours that does subscription boxes called Horror Blocks, and we’ve done Freddy and Jason. We have some new ones coming up, and that fit their box, but I don’t know if I’d put that in our universe as well.
Bill: Right. Sure, yeah.
Matt: But what we try to do is pick licenses that the passion hits all ages. When you talk sports, kids love LeBron, adults love LeBron. When you talk comic books, kids love Batman, adults are passionate about Batman. Talk about the Pope, kids love the Pope, adults are passionate about the Pope. That’s really the core of what we do for the most part, and there are going to be exceptions, but we want to make sure we’re hitting the range and we’re maximizing it.
Bill: Right. Well, you mentioned the art and the artistry of this. Bleacher Creatures seems to be at its very best with individuals, be they athletes or otherwise, that have something about their look, whether it’s hair or some defining characteristic, and being able to replicate that in a way that can’t help but make one smile, but is also faithful to the thing that makes them them, as opposed to just, Smurfs are plush. Anybody can do Smurfs. But there seems like there is a Bleacher Creatures way to do this versus a just a nondescript plush way to do this. Yeah, it definitely comes through. You mentioned early in the process how important the prototyping and design phase was, and it makes a lot of sense.
Another thing that you mentioned that I kind of wanted to ask your take on, you’re an e-commerce guy from way back, accidentally, but from way back. Bleacher Creatures operates in a multi-channel environment, and you certainly have through the web, this incredible ability to connect directly through social media and other ways with people. They know where to come and to get these. That said, you talked about that smile factor when one is in a retail environment and sees this, and people just want to pick it up, and just want to look at it, and want to smile. When you think about, in your own career, but also here we are with Bleacher Creatures, the differences, as well as the cooperative nature of the direct and the retail, wholesale side of the business, how do you think about channels?
Matt: I think hard about channels. It’s a big deal. There is a lot of work and care and cost into what Bleacher Creatures does, so you have to get paid for it. Our retailers have to get paid for it. It’s interesting. I was just at another toy trade show last week, and getting feedback from retailers, and so much of what works for us, when it works well, is merchandising and displaying it, so a really good partner for us is Target. Target has beautiful stores.
Even though they’re considered a mass retailer, it’s beautiful, and why they’ve been successful and their sell-throughs are really good is we worked with them and discussed how are you going to display this product, and that is everything. There’s another major retailer, and I won’t name them on this podcast, that doesn’t have a dedicated section. They’re really not organized on how they put their product out, so when I go in their stores, they’re underneath a shelf, and they might be blocked, and the sell-throughs aren’t good.
Bill: Sure. I wonder why, right?
Matt: First of all, as I’m talking to retailers now, that is a conversation for us as we grow. How are we going to support this? We’re happy to support it with you. We’ll give you fixturing, we’ll give you signage, but what are you dedicating into the space to tell the story? Because that’s what it’s about, is the storytelling. Again, Target does a really good job of it.
The other part of it is there is a business out there for perception on plush. You could go to a crane machine in a Walmart, put a quarter in or a dollar in, and win a plush toy. It’s totally different quality than Bleacher Creatures. We have to educate people on the craftsmanship of what we do. We actually do have another product line, which is a different brand name, for lower price point plush, because there are retailers out there and business to be had. So very much like at Majestic, we segmented the business that Majestic was what we called upstairs. Then at the mass, they don’t sell Majestic Athletic to a Walmart. They have a different brand. We looked at the business the same way, and we’re really particular on who gets what.
Bill: When it comes to the relationships that you create with consumers directly through social media, or email, or whatever it is, through the direct channel, obviously the economics of wholesale selling and sell-through versus direct and fulfillment are different. Do you look at the customer journey when it comes to interacting with Bleacher Creatures as a linear thing, across channels? How do you think about making this, in addition to telling the story obviously in a way that really evokes and unleashes the passion of the consumer? How do you think about their journey as a marketer?
Matt: We’re still learning it, so our Director of Marketing was at Comic-Con this weekend. I didn’t get a chance to go, and what was encouraging for us is people were walking by – we were there with one of our customers who has a display there. People were walking by and saying, ‘Oh, check out the Bleacher Creatures.’ They actually said the name.
Bill: Wow, that’s cool.
Matt: That’s really new for us, because I think people are still learning the brand. A year ago at this time, I’d say we had about eight or ten thousand Facebook followers, maybe twelve thousand.
Bill: Yeah, something like that.
Matt: We’re up to close to eighty thousand now. It’s grown really quickly and there are brands we look at to see how we measure and brands that we have a lot of respect for. Funko is a huge brand now, and we’re at about a third of their Facebook followers. We interact with them every day, and it’s not so much about selling product, it’s the same concept, making them smile.
What we’ve learned from the social media part, which is really the big marketing push for us, is we’re connecting with people every day, telling our message, and that gives credibility to retailers out there saying, ‘How do I carry the product?’ Then we’re really careful in regards to how often we’re hitting our e-commerce base with emails. We don’t want to overburden it, so it’s pretty much once every other week, but what we see is the bump. It’s engaged, and I think because we’re not beating them over the head with it, and we’re not just saying, ‘Buy, buy, buy,’ but we’re telling a brand story. It converts better.
That’s really what we’re trying to do right now is tell our story. We’re in business, so we want to sell product, but we just want to tell people about this Bleacher Creature universe and what it’s about and how they can be a part of it.
Bill: Right. Yeah, and so on social media you’ll say, ‘Hey, there’s a Monday night game between the 9ers and the Giants,’ and you’ll have an example of this, and that’ll be it. It won’t be like, ‘Hey, you got to get your Eli Manning before the game starts.’ Seemingly it’s about being part of the overall conversation that people have about the things that they’re passionate about. I don’t know how many ‘abouts’ I can have in that sentence, but being part of that ongoing conversation about sports entertainment and other things is content driven rather than promotional.
Matt: Yeah, what I’m encouraged about over the last year is we’re becoming part of the culture. That’s really the job. We’re becoming part of the culture, even though we’re still small. But as people are picking up, there are enough people that are attracted to us, that we’re becoming part of their day and their culture, so the Pope was the big event. Even last week, TBS ran their commercial for the playoffs with Joe Maddon, and he voiced it, and it ends with them showing the Joe Maddon Bleacher Creature. That’s a commercial.
Now again, it’s not a selling point for us, but we’re now becoming authentic as part of the Cubs’ journey in the postseason, and we see that every week now, and the fact that people are taking their pictures every week with the product. Everywhere you go, whether you’re at the airport, you’re going to a sporting event, comic book store, you’re seeing our product. As we get that stickiness and people start learning more and more, we’re going to be more successful.
Bill: Right. Well, it definitely seems to be for certain athletes who are pictured with it, it’s a sign of their arrival. It’s a sign of you made it, because you don’t have everybody. We had Joanna Cline from Fathead on a few weeks ago. Fathead because its imagery has the ability to be super fast and to put anything on it that people want to buy, whereas you guys, the manufacturing journey here, and both in terms of timing, which I’m sure is a bit of a challenge in terms of timing the market right, but also making good choices about the assortment is a big deal. It means something when an athlete reaches the point that their likeness is available in plush.
Matt: They reach out to us, so I have two good stories on that. One just happened. I don’t know how to pronounce his last name, Dallas, the kid that pitched last night.
Bill: Yeah, Keuchel?
Matt: Keuchel. I thought so, too.
Bill: Cool beard on that guy.
Matt: He’s going to make a great Bleacher Creature.
Bill: Yeah, he is.
Matt: We were already working with the Astros for next season on doing it, but his girlfriend tweeted us the other day.
Bill: Oh, nice.
Matt: Where’s Dallas’ Bleacher Creature?
Bill: When’s it coming?
Matt: We actually reached out to the guy at the Astros, who responded and said, ‘Here’s the artwork. I think there’s a chance that we’ll be making it next year, like 100%.’ That’s what he sent. When we get those, and we get those regularly now, that athletes are reaching out that aren’t ones, and then we’re engaging with them.
The best story was two, two and a half years ago, an agent called us, and we get calls from agents from time to time, and he says, ‘My client plays for the Seahawks and he wants to be a Bleacher Creature.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s his name?’ He said, ‘Richard Sherman.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know him.’ This was before everything happened.
Matt: He was like, ‘No, trust me. People in Seattle really like him. He’s great.’ I said, ‘I’ll call the team.’ I called the team, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we like Richard.’ They were already doing Lynch and Wilson. ‘We’ll add Richard to it, why not?’ Sure enough, he became the biggest thing in the world, and not only that, he does a podcast, a videocast, and he had somebody with a Bleacher Creature on, and then it made Monday Night Football and we blew out of it. To me, why I feel really optimistic about our business is these things happen now on a weekly basis.
Matt: Those opportunities keep on happening. That means we’re doing something right, and there’s something core to what we do that’s getting to be part of this conversation.
Bill: No, absolutely. It just seems, you have the data, but from afar, just the collection of anecdotes and it seems the frequency and intensity with which you see them just as a consumer and as a fan, is increasing. We have some sirens outside the window.
Matt: At first it sounded like an alien invasion.
Bill: Yeah, coming to apprehend us.
Matt: I was excited about it, but now…
Bill: Maybe we should duck down. In the spirit of respecting your time and aiding your getaway here, your career path and the twists and turns, the choices, the good fortune, the strong ethic, all these different things, for someone who’s listening to this and finds some inspiration in what you’ve done, your entrepreneurial story and everything else, what are some advice that you’d share? You said earlier one of the maxims is you never got to ask ‘what if.’ Answer those questions for yourselves. Any other things that are an important part of Matt the guy, and Matt the businessperson as you look forward?
Matt: The ‘what if’ thing is important, and I would tell anybody if you really have a passion for something, at least if you don’t succeed, you’ve got to try, because you’ll kill yourself, kick yourself, if you don’t do it.
But I also think of Eminem, you get one chance. You get that one chance in life, so if you’re going to get the one chance, aim big. Aim big. Why aim small? See how big it gets and see where it gets you, because some of my major influences include Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, and I know a lot of people say that. But if you really look at both those stories, they both dreamed big, thought big, thought differently, and changed culture. I’m not saying Bleacher Creatures is going to be Apple or Disney, but those are good role models in regards to that piece of it.
Bill: No doubt. Forgive my ignorance. Do you have a Jobs Bleacher Creature?
Matt: Not yet.
Bill: A lot of momentum around it with movies and everything else.
Matt: I know. People have asked. Look, he’s, again, he’s an influence for me. I think historically he would fit in. I think we have to figure out where that goes. Whenever we create a Bleacher Creature, the conversation is where do we sell it? Who buys it? I hope Steve Jobs is on the radar down the road. It’s just everything has to line up properly.
Some of the other things is it is really tough to run your own business. It’s literally walking on a tightrope without the net. It’s important to surround yourself with good people, not just working for you, advisers, friends, people who have been through the journey, because if you don’t know the journey, you don’t have people telling you what’s going on, it can be scary, but if people tell you that scary is the norm, it makes it less scary.
I’ve been lucky, and I try to pass the same thing along. I talk to other business owners on the challenges, and it makes it much easier as you go through it in cycles of years, to say, ‘Okay, this is regular, and I understand it’s regular, and I can live and I can survive, and I can get better and stronger.’ It’s really important to base that network to do it.
The other part is you’re not going to be perfect. I heard somebody say the other day most people in life are not A’s and they’re not F’s. They’re generally B pluses to C minuses, somewhere in there. Now, you can achieve to be an A, and I’m trying to be an A. I want to be the best, but you’re not going to be perfect. Even the As aren’t perfect. Bill Belichick’s probably one of the best coaches of all times, but sometimes he makes a stupid mistake too, right?
You have to accept the flaws of what you’re doing to succeed, but at the same time, achieve how to get better every day. I always tell people who work for us, and I think this is true in business, attention to detail, sense of urgency, critical thinking. If you do those three things, those are recipes to succeed.
Bill: It often doesn’t take anything more. It’s an interesting thing. You talk about this transition to the entrepreneurial realm, and we’ll close with this. Thank you so much for your insight and your time.
Matt: Thanks for having me.
Bill: Our pleasure. The difference in mindset between a big job and an important job at an established company versus leadership in an entrepreneurial venture, you talked about some of the terror associated with that. You talked also about some of the blissful ignorance. Could you speak a little bit about just how it’s different to be the guy, and how that feels when it obviously extends across the entirety of your life, and it’s a big shot you’re taking. You’re going to try to make it count. How does it feel?
Matt: In some ways it’s the difference between being the quarterback and being the coach.
Matt: I would say the other part of it is, when I tell my career story, I think in some ways I was given opportunities that – it’s like being the athlete that has all the skills and playing against smaller players, right? Not that I’m the bigger athlete and I have all those skills. The opportunities were those bigger skills.
I’ve been humbled a lot over the last four years. It’s been humbling, and in some ways I wish I was humbled sooner. The difference is when you work for a big company there is a safety net, right? You can get lost in the shuffle in some cases, and unless you aim too big, you’re not going to go out of business. Things will move on.
Now the difference in that is when you work for a smaller company, you can innovate. If you work for a bigger company, it’s more iteration because of that. That’s why small companies can flourish. For us, in the fastest moving technological time ever, in a time where retail’s changing, production’s changing, marketing for sure is changing.
Bill: No question.
Matt: Not only are you walking without that net, but you have to be focused on changing all the time. There is no let up on evolving. It’s about adapting. It’s not about who’s the biggest. It’s not about who’s the strongest or the fastest. It’s the one who can adapt. That’s the biggest, I would say pressure, is that you have to adapt every day, and it’s tiring. It’s tiring for everybody out there, but that’s the society we’re in now.
Bill: Yeah, well, and it’s an interesting balance again between letting things work, because some things take a little while to materialize, demand takes a while to gather. You’re possessed of all kinds of different metrics. Every part of your business can be studied and can be analyzed, and I guess there’s wisdom in knowing when and what when it comes to taking action and you don’t have the opportunity, as you say, to be patient quarter after quarter simply because you believe something seems logical, and ultimately it’s going to click.
What a set of skills, you came into the Bleacher Creatures with the functional experiences, theoretically in place. You knew e-commerce, you had relationships with leagues and players’ associations. You knew the licensing piece; you knew the product piece. You knew wholesale distribution through retailers and then, but this incredible wave of learning, and thankfully achievement. What a story.
Matt: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I said the head coach analogy earlier. It’s the same thing when you start a business. I probably had some skill sets where maybe if you consider what I did offense, sales, product. Those things, and then a lot of times offensive coordinators will become head coaches, well maybe they don’t know defense or about the team’s conditioning. I think it’s the same thing. Now you’re taking all those on, and you’re in charge of every aspect. You might have had a background in the one aspect, but you’re learning other parts. I think that’s true when you start a business. You start taking on whether it’s finance, whether it’s operations. That’s defense, right? That’s special teams.
Bill: Sure, sure.
Matt: Yeah, it’s taken on a lot of different parts, but it is the truism. If you work hard – I’m not the first one to say this, the opportunities happen – good things happen when you work hard, and we see it. We’ve seen it at Bleacher Creatures, and that’s been the blessing.
Bill: Wow. Absolutely. We have maximum control over that, certainly. Matt Hoffman, five years into Bleacher Creatures, great story behind, certainly a great story ahead. We will be watching. Grateful for your time, your friendship, and your insight.
Matt: Thank you for having me. It’s good to see you.
Bill: Thank you, Matt. What an insightful perspective, both on the career journey as a whole and on what he’s been doing entrepreneurially with Bleacher Creatures. Very inspiring, I’m sure, for people who reach a level of leadership and success in a category that they’ve become very close to, and through very hard work, but still had that nagging entrepreneurial dream and have an idea that they feel fits it. Matt spoke very candidly about the steps required to do that, both emotionally and interpersonally, as well as financially and strategically.
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