Ken Langone, icon and philanthropist, is best known for co-founding Home Depot and he joins us today for episode 100 of the Real-World Branding Podcast. Ken shares his insights on why relationships matter and why he sees his recent memoir, ‘I Love Capitalism,’ as particularly important now. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Tony Perlak, CEO, and Erin Hoskins, CMO, of Allied Health Media join us to share their backgrounds and the rebranding process that they went through at Allied Health Media. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Bruce Williamson, Global VP of Innovation & Chief Marketing Officer of Mars Drinks, joins us to share his incredible experiences and research into why some people leave a lasting legacy at work. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Jim Martin, Chief Strategy Officer of SIM International, joins us this week to share his experience on how SIM integrated acquisitions to build a greater whole. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Dan Hershberg, Co-Founder and CEO of Workhorse Brewing Company, joins us on the podcast this week to share his insights on developing a brewing company. Listen today to hear his entrepreneurial story and if you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Jon Kramer, Managing Director at JMK solutions, joins us this week to share his early objectives and eventual career arc that has led him to be an expert in the realm of shopper marketing. Listen as Jon reveals his best advice, including 4 crucial steps for success for newbies in the business world. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
In this week’s episode, we sit down with Tim DeGennaro and John Ferreira to discuss the shifts in the world of market research and methodologies that 60% of the worlds largest brands are using to better understand consumers and win when it matters most. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Chris Malone is the co-author of The Human Brand. Following three years of research, Chris explains how social psychology and the way we interact with humans mirrors how we interact with brands, products, and companies. Using the principles of warmth and competence, Chris demonstrates how brands can better connect with consumers. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Chris Malone:Never let a great crisis go unused, go to waste because it doesn’t come along very often. When things are going smoothly and everything’s going according to plan, it’s tough to stand out.
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. So we have taken a little bit of a hiatus from the pod for good reasons both client related and also the exciting news that we’ve moved offices. We were in a wonderful space in Old City Philadelphia which is for those who don’t know the region pretty much the historic district near the Liberty Bell and other interesting attractions. So many folks from all over the world would walk by every single day, school groups, etc.
But we were there from about 2003 or early 2004 until about a month ago. And now, I speak to you from our perch on the 21st floor of 123 South Broad Street. Again, those who don’t know the area, that’s sort of in the central business district in Philadelphia. Just a couple of blocks from City Hall. And also for you movie buffs and I’m dating myself, this is the building where Duke and Duke from Trading Places, the wonderful flick in early 80’s I guess was located. So folks will perhaps recognize that. It’s now a building that I think is Wells Fargo branded and has a branch in the lobby etc.
Anyway, happy to be here and really happy to bring you an interview that we conducted actually just before we moved with Chris Malone. Chris is the managing partner at Fidelum Partners. He has an incredible background as an executive in situations like the NBA and the NHL and then moving into sort of consumer-packaged goods with Leaf, the confectionery and then Coca-Cola of course as a brand manager both on the coke brand and other brands within the umbrella. All the way through Aramark at the CMO at Choice Hotels. An incredible track record of executive leadership in marketing and other areas.
And also a published author and you’ll hear from our conversation he’s a thought leader. He has really interesting theories that are both sort of practical as well as academically grounded about how to build strong brands. I won’t steal anymore thunder from our terrific guest, Chris Malone.
Coming to you live, not really live but from Finch Brands world headquarters, we’re here with Chris Malone who’s the managing partner at Fidelum Partners. Thanks for joining us and for coming down.
Chris:Great to be here, Bill.
Bill:It’s our pleasure. Let’s start as we customarily do with a little bit of a twirl through your background which is an incredible story of various responsibilities across this landscape and could take us through the main stops and kind of what’s led you to this point?
Chris:Sure, sure. I started my career as a field sales rep for Procter and Gamble and my territory was Queens in the Bronx, New York City which was quite an education for a kid from suburban Maryland. I really enjoyed the experience and learned a great deal from it. After a few years there moving up the ranks, came back to Philadelphia for grad school where I studied entrepreneurship at the Wharton School. And after grad school I unexpectedly ended up working at the National Basketball Association at NBA Properties in their licensing and sponsorship group. Got recruited away to do similar things for the National Hockey League Players Association in Toronto. So a few more years in professional sports. And eventually found my way down to Coca-Cola where I became a global brand manager on everything related to Coca-Cola and the Olympics.
Bill:We’ve heard of that.
Chris:Yeah. So it was a great opportunity for me because they were interested in my sports background and I was very interested in getting kind of classical brand management training.
Bill:That was right in the aftermath of the Atlanta Games?
Chris:It’s exactly right.
Bill:What a moment.
Bill:With Atlanta with coke and everything.
Chris:They had just put 500 million dollars into the Olympics around the world in 1996 and I came in in January of ’97 and they were kind of in this post-Olympic hangover, kind of asking, gosh, we spent all this money, we did all this stuff, but we’re not entirely sure what we got for it. And so it was an opportunity to kind of a deep dive post-mortem on the Olympics and try to figure out what they should do for the ’98 and 2000 games so that was a great experience for me.
Worked there for the next few years developing a strategy for the ’98 and 2000 Olympic games around the world and then actually left with the chief marketing officer from Coca-Cola, a guy named Sergio Zyman.
Bill:Very well known, legend.
Chris:Exactly. We started a consulting firm in Atlanta. There was about five of us and Sergio started the Zyman Marketing Group in Atlanta and we consulted to large Fortune 500 both consumer and business to business on how to apply consumer marketing principles to their business to grow it. We had great success with that. Grew the firm to about 150 employees before selling it to an ad holding company out of Toronto. And that was what really opened the doors for me to come back to Philadelphia again and become the senior V.P. of Marketing for Aramark Corporation back in 2002.
After five years at Aramark, I joined Choice Hotels as their chief marketing officer and then in 2010 decided I’d seen enough of the corporate marketing world and decided to start my own consulting firm here in the Philadelphia area and wrote a book called The Human Brand.
Bill:Yeah, which we’ll definitely get to and what a bunch of lessons you’ve learned along the way that you are now applying obviously in pursuit of your client’s objectives. Just track Philadelphia over and over just because we’re City champions or what leads you here to our fine city. A Maryland kid but couldn’t resist the lure of coming back.
Chris:Exactly. It’s a great town of course. From a family standpoint, there is a personal appeal of it. One is that I’m from DC but my wife is from New York. And so Philadelphia is some place I’m familiar with as well as it’s exactly halfway between, makes for lots of great day trips on holidays and birthdays and weddings and things like that and so it’s ideally suited, I managed to fulfill that promise I made to her parents that eventually I’d bring she and my offspring back within driving distance. Got that monkey off my back.
Bill:Perfect. Our tagline, I’m not sure that city marketers would like, we’re on the way somewhere but anyway such is life. So you talk about and we’ve been blown away learning more about this, the book’s called The Human Brand. I encourage all of our listeners to check it out. It’s based on a model that I know that you’ve sort of conceptualized I think, you can tell us about it with some folks in the academic realm. You want to tell us about the warmth and competence model and how you came to it and what it means in a little bit about what some of the practical applications of that might be?
Chris:Yeah, absolutely. It’s been a fascinating story and experience for me. Just to briefly describe what it is, the warmth and competence model is a model of human social perception that was developed by number of social psychologists around the world that in the last 10 years has been kind of accepted as the universal way that humans everywhere perceive, interact and form relationships with one another. And my co-author Dr. Susan Fiske at Princeton is probably the best known at kind of formalizing and kind of publishing her work on warmth and incompetence which has been shown to be highly predictive of stereotypes, bias, all kinds of social behavior.
And so it was in 2009 when I first stumbled across some writing about this. It was in Harvard Business Review. There was an article entitled Just Because I’m Nice Don’t Assume I’m Dumb, and it was written by one of doctor Fiske’s proteges Dr. Amy Cuddy who has since become very well known as well.
Bill:Power poses and all that.
Chris:Exactly. Amy Cuddy wrote this article in 2009 that talked about warmth and competence in the workplace and how we have these stereotypical perceptions of people that we may work with and that people who are more friendly and approachable and warm an affable, we may sometimes assume that they’re less competent. And similarly, there is kind of a stereotypical perception that people who are really cold and unapproachable and difficult to judge their intentions, we might assume that they’re more competent as a result of that, and how we should be thoughtful about this. And I said, wow, that’s really interesting. I never thought of it that way but it certainly makes a lot of sense.
One of the things that I had developed during my time in professional sports, I had the opportunity to market products as brands at Coca-Cola and Procter and Gamble but also athletes and people as brands and professional sports. I’d always had the belief that probably people were probably the first brands, faces were probably the first logos and all this branded trade and commerce that we engage in was probably some kind of adaptation of the way that we interact with one another. But I’d never really seen any research to that extent or seen a model that could prove this.
And so, when I stumbled across warmth and competence, gosh, the social psychologists say that this is driving 80% of human behavior and I’m thinking one, if that’s the case how come I’ve never heard of it. It turns out it wasn’t well known outside of academia. But then two, if that’s the case how could it not be impacting how we do business. And so, I had the belief that perhaps this model could be predictive of what we choose to buy and become loyal to. And so I reached out to Dr Fiske at Princeton University out of the blue with kind of a random email saying, “Hey, I’ve become a fan of your work and I have a theory that I’d like to share with you and I basically explained I think your model might be predictive of what we buy and become loyal to.”
And she said, “You know, I’m not really into marketing. I’ve got eight published textbooks, 250 published academic papers and so forth but I’ve got a fellowship student here with me that I’m looking to get involved in some other projects and if he’s interested maybe you can have us as a packaged deal.” And he was interested and that led to over three years of research and nearly 50 companies around the world studying how their customers perceive them on the basis of warmth and competence. And what we found is that over 50% of what we buy and become loyal to can be explained by these basic human perceptions, things that we never think or talk about in our marketing or positioning and that was a real eye opener for me.
Bill:Yeah. I can imagine in some ways predictive of what we’ve seen, certainly with the other consumers who really are looking to access values in a sense of what a company stands for which is one way to express warmth and …
Bill:This explains a lot of human behavior but also a lot of what’s happening in the commercial realm as well. When we were first introduced to this I think what really brought it home for me beyond the obvious sort of cogency and power of it was a little bit about how it works in practice. Is there a story or two that you think are effective in expressing that?
Chris:Yeah, absolutely. One of the most striking things that we learned from our research was how, a lot of what we are taught and trained in life is that all of our success in our careers comes from our competence and that the quality of our product and product features and all of that kind of stuff. It turns out that in social psychology, they’ve been able to show over and over again that yes, we have to have competence to get by but competence alone can only get us so far. I think it really set people apart and [in fact it 00:10:40] was the more predictive element in human survival was what people believe your intentions or your warmth is towards them.
And so what we’ve found through our research is that virtually every company we evaluated was falling short of customer expectations on warmth and was perceived to be much more competent than warm. It turns out that a lot of what we are taught and trained in business is actually fundamentally at odds with what it takes for us to trust one another. We need to get more as quick as we can-
Bill:Control the message.
Chris:Control the message, control the information, close the sale, get the price, change the policy, limit the cost. All of these things send these little subtle messages that perhaps the company or the brand isn’t perhaps looking out for our best interests. And so that really causes to think differently. Our first round of research we did in 2010 was during like when B.P. was gushing oil into the gulf, Tylenol was being taken off the shelf.
Bill:All financial services brands were …
Chris:Exactly. Toyota, speeding down California highway is out of control with the accelerator problem and all that. We looked at which of those brands were really harmed by that and which of those weren’t. One of the things that really jumped out at us is that one, most companies and brands are not perceived to have the customers’ best interests in mind but two, when you have one of those major crises, it’s really a moment of truth. It’s an opportunity that you don’t get very often right to change the way people think about you and it’s an opportunity to demonstrate that you do have the best interest of the customer in mind in a way that doesn’t come along very often.
So for instance, if B.P. had said, you know what, unilaterally we’re going to stop drilling around the world until we get to the bottom of this. We’re not sure what the cause of the fire and the explosion was but we’re going to get to the bottom of it. We’ll take whatever responsibility is ours because we really do care about the environment and really what we say in all of our marketing is true. How might that have unfolded differently if they would have perhaps been the most loved energy company to ever exist depending on how they’d handled it.
And it turns out that Tylenol as it turns out back in that recall actually did pretty well. They weren’t perhaps as good as the 1983 episode but they did well enough that actually they continue to have stronger purchase intent and loyalty than Advil despite that you could hardly find the product anywhere in the United States.
Bill:Right, interesting. We did podcast a couple of weeks ago looking at some of the big crises of 2017. Your Uniteds and your Ubers. It seemed to me without any research backing at all, certainly not three years of it, the brands that recovered quickly were also those were the sort of core of the crisis was not anchored to a core brand attribute. Uber is a disrupter, Uber is not supposed to be a warm and cozy fireman. United amazingly has recovered quickly too but there may be something to the messages that you were talking about earlier, how you deal with it. How many apologies did we have in that first week.
Bill:It was amazing.
Chris:I think there is something else that has been changing. What we’ve found is that this basic warmth and competence that we are wired with as humans hasn’t changed in human psychology or physiology for thousands of years. However, the environment that we have been living and working and doing business in has changed dramatically. And it seems like there was a bit of a tipping point around 2010 with the convergence of mobile devices, social networks, E-commerce, all of that, because frankly there is a kind of a dynamic of social accountability that has existed for thousands of years in small communities.
If you imagine a small town, the merchant does wrong by a customer, those are pretty interdependent relationships and if the merchant doesn’t make it right, pretty much everyone in town is going to know about by Sunday at church and he could come under pressure or be run out of town if he doesn’t kind of balance the scales and do the right thing.
Well, there was a period during the industrial revolution where lots of those kind of social accountabilities went away. Companies became very large, bad news and good news didn’t travel very far, very fast and the kind of social accountability that we were wired to hold each other’s feet to the fire to keep things in balance went away to a large extent.
Well, around 2010, that really flipped back and I really think of it as kind of a back to the future moment where the social accountability that we were a wire with by evolution is now back with a vengeance turbo charged by this digital technology. Because now if a company or a merchant does wrong by a customer, it’s not that everybody in town could know about it by the end of the week, it’s everybody in the country could know about it by the end of the day. The demands and the accountability and the transparency that is demanded of companies, whether it’s Uber, or United or what have you is really thrown us for a loop because our systems and our corporate communications and all of that stuff wasn’t, we haven’t had that level of accountability in a long time.
So, it just requires us to be that much more open and transparent and to basically say more often than not, you know what, here’s what our intentions were, we did make a mistake, here’s what we’re doing about it and try to turn all of those crises and problems into opportunities basically. Never let a great crisis go unused, go to waste because it doesn’t come along very often. When things are going smoothly and everything’s going according to plan, it’s tough to stand out. But when you do have one of those incidents you can either be the hero that basically says, you know, we really do care about you or you can be the goat basically that doesn’t care and doesn’t respond fairly or rapidly enough or what have you.
Bill:Yeah. Well it seems the more progressive voices recognize customer service as an opportunity.
Bill:As opposed to whatever the case may be. But you’re right, there was [inaudible 00:16:14] time obviously but between the industrial revolution and the internet revolution there was a disintermediation of brand from consumer often with a retail location in between often with three broadcast networks in between and the nature of the dialogue, well, it wasn’t a dialogue, it was more of a sort of a dictation of by this, not this and now wild and wooly. It definitely is.
It’s wonderful. First of all before we get to that, warmth in this definition is more about motivation and intention it sounds like as opposed to just congeniality or …
Chris:That’s exactly right. It’s an important distinction because there’s a couple of different flavors of it. To back up a step, you should think of warmth as a whole category of perceptions that have to do with what are the intentions of other people towards me. Are they warm, are they friendly-
Bill:Do we come in peace.
Chris:Do we come in peace. Do they have my best interests in mind or are they looking out for themselves? Are they honest, are they trustworthy, do we have anything in common? All of that list of stuff that you could have about someone’s intentions and they’re kind of two flavors of warmth if you will. There’s the kind of sociability part, warm, friendly, affable and there’s kind of the morality part, honest, trustworthy, integrity, character, all of that stuff. Those are two different pieces but they’re all in that kind of warm bucket.
And so we should not take the word warmth only to mean kind of warm cold, it’s intended to be kind of an umbrella term to refer to a whole bunch of stuff. Similar with competence. Competence as all those things having to do with abilities, whether it’s knowledge, resources, expertise, problem solving, creativity, all of that stuff related to competence. What we found in all of our research is that in most cases a lot of what we think of as product or service features or benefits fall into the competence bucket. We’re covering that bucket pretty well.
What we found is what we’ve been missing is recognizing that everything we may infer or know about the people behind the companies and brands we do business with is actually even more important than the product features because we view those at those products as an extension of the people.
So I’ll give you a great example related to Hershey Company. So Hershey many people in this part of the country know was founded by Milton Hershey and in 1909, he and his wife donated their entire fortune to create the Hershey Foundation and the Hershey School for Underprivileged Children.
Bill:Which has had some issues as I think you may be about to tell us.
Chris:Exactly. Most people don’t know this. In our research we found only 20% of the population know about the Hershey School and the Hershey Trust and all that. But if you tell people the story of Milton Hershey and what he did and then ask people afterwards again, before, what’s your purchase intent and perception and loyalty towards Hershey and then tell them the story of what he’s done that for over one hundred years, every purchase of a Hershey product benefits this trust and the school and then ask them again about purchase intent and loyalty, you see a 15% jump in purchase intent, loyalty and brand perception.
Nothing changed about the product. What you did was you told them something new about the people at that company and causes them to think they pay their farmers fairly for chocolate, they must treat their employees well, they must give back to their communities and all of that. And so it turns out that the information we get about the people behind these companies and brands has a huge impact and it’s actually the more dominant impact on our behavior. So that’s why when we hear one of these scandals and we find out that what they did or what they said or what they were prying to do can have such a big impact on our attitude, not only towards the product but towards the company, despite that the product itself may not have changed.
Bill:Fascinating. And actually, it ties a lot of things together. We were wondering, I was on a panel the other night about Super Bowl ads this year and there seemed to be a pullback from directly over political statements but a big move in the direction of sort of philanthropic expressions. Be it Budweiser, not trotting out Clydesdales and puppies but instead their role in disaster relief in terms of flipping the switch of that factory away from beer and into water which they then put in cans. We saw Verizon’s similar message, we saw Hyundai not promoting and you could second guess whether the Super Bowl actually promote the New Genesis line of vehicles or whether Hyundai’s sort of strangely expressed commitment to, I don’t even remember what the health cause was but there’s that.
The degree to which folks convey that there are caring good purposeful people, I think you’re saying if they can convince folks of that have really significant benefits.
Chris:Exactly. And you highlight two different kinds of things that were a shift this year from what might be considered in the past kind of the warm and fuzzy animals, jokes, humor, puppies, all of that stuff, which is more on the sociability side of warmth to a shift of more about philanthropy and doing the right thing and giving back to communities which is more on that morality character integrity side of things.
We have found certainly that both of them have an impact but the integrity morality part is the part that is more important to consumers. And so, it needs to be reflected in more than just your Super Bowl ad in order for people to believe it but that you’re seeing both of those two things going on, not totally in the absence of competence related stuff but kind of as the overshadowing of the competence related things. So I think it’s an interesting observation and I think what’s going on there is they’re trying to send the message, they’re trying to demonstrate that we as people we as a company or a brand care about more than just making a profit.
There’s nothing wrong with making a profit, customers don’t have a problem with that. They would only have a problem with if you’re making a profit at their expense or to their harm. If you’re helping them solve a problem, God bless you, have a profit. A lot of these small purpose-driven, cause-oriented companies that have grown very rapidly nibbling away market share from the Procter and Gambles, the Gillettes, the Lever Brothers-
Bill:Toms and your Warbys and your …
Chris:Exactly. I think part of what draws people to them not just as customers but also as employees is that you feel like you are attaching yourself to something that’s about more than just making a profit. It is a cause that demonstrates, I might not even care about people who don’t have shoes in the other part of the world but the guys at Toms, I know they care about making something more than just money and that may cause me to trust them more and be more willing to give them a try.
Bill:Absolutely. As a downstream permission slip or even as an upstream sort of decision tree I want to work with and invest in people that I believe in and care and that care about me and the world.
Fascinating stuff. How might marketers incorporate these insights into their day to day. There are some very obvious implications of this but if you wanted to kind of highlight a few in terms of folks who are, practitioners who are completely compelled by this idea and wondering what it means for them.
Chris:I think I could boil it down to three imperatives. If you really are interested in leveraging the insights of warmth and competence to build stronger customer loyalty, client loyalty, repurchase growth, those kinds of things, I could boil it down to three things. And the first is, we’ve been really getting blindsided. We have to become more self-aware of how our policies, practices and processes are coming across to customers.
Because it turns out a lot of what we have taken for granted as standard operating procedure for the last 20 or 30 years is actually no longer acceptable and not meeting the transparency expectations of customers. Whether it’s how often we take price increases, what level of customer service we offer, our return policy, our cancellation policies. All of these other little things that we do, the degree to which we push out one way messages that say no reply, we’re only interested in sending you communication, not hearing anything back from you. All send subtle little signals that we care more about us than we care about you.
And so the first step is gather feedback from your customers about how they perceive you on the basis of warmth and competence. What you often will find is as I said with all the companies that we evaluated, that we’re not meeting expectations on warmth. In many cases, we’re meeting or exceeding expectations on competence but as a result there isn’t a lot of trust. Lots of the choices are competent, no, I don’t really trust any of them and so as a result I’m willing to switch between brands for a small difference in price and you create this kind of very transactional environment without a lot of loyalty.
So step one is get the feedback from customers, find out what are the little things you are doing that may be rubbing customers the wrong way and pushing them away. That’s step number one.
The second step is that once you’ve gotten that feedback, you’re going to have to be willing to embrace the notion of significant change. That whether we like it or not the world is changing faster than before and the expectations of us are changing faster than ever before. And so, the stuff that got us here, those policies, practices, processes, the way we do business may not be good enough to keep our customers in the future. So, if we’re not meeting expectations on those things, we’re going to have to say, you know what, we always used to do it that way but maybe this isn’t good enough anymore and we’re going to have to try doing things differently in the future to better demonstrate warmth through what we do.
Some quick examples, Zappos and Amazon are great at demonstrating warmth to customers despite they never have any physical contact with them, right? Zappos has got that 800 number on every page of their website. They want you to call 24/7, 365 days a year. And if you call you’ll get a live human on the phone in the first 30 seconds. The reason is they know that if they get you on the phone and started talking to one of their live people, you’re going to like them, you’re going to come back. Those people, they don’t even call them the customer service department, they call it the customer loyalty department. And so despite they never have any contact with person to person directly, they’ve demonstrated warmth through these little things that they do and they have tremendous loyalty, 75% of their sales every day from repeat customers.
So that’s the kind of change that we have to be willing to embrace. Not a lot of people know this about Zappos but they didn’t really adopt that whole customer service focus until they were about to go out of business. Tony Hsieh invested his last million dollars into the company that he sold the company to Microsoft for 30 million bucks and was down to his last [nook 00:25:59] and said, we can’t lose a single customer, we’ve got to do whatever we can to keep the ones that we’ve got and that’s what led to the tremendous focus on customer service they have. That’s the second part, embrace that change.
Then the third part is we really got to take a hard look at what our priorities are. And so if our priority is that to maximize our profit, maximize our revenue growth at the expense of our customers or employees, the reality is we’re not going to be able to get away with that for very long anymore. There used to be a time where you could do little things and squeeze the grape if you will and more blood out of the stone for a while and kind of keep that ball in the air but word travels so far so fast anymore that customers and employees figure out pretty quickly when we’re profiting at their expense and it becomes unsustainable.
That’s why you see a lot of these ups and downs. A company squeezes the margin here or cuts costs there, reduces labor there and they get kind of a boost out of but they can’t keep it going because when you take that stuff from customers and employees, those are the ones you rely on for the service delivery, for the customer loyalty, for the customer referrals and things of that nature. And so what we really need to do is to rebalance those priorities. It’s not that growth or profit is bad, it’s that we just need to keep that in balance with the need to maximize our loyalty of customers and to maximize the engagement of our employees. If we can grow and generate profit that way, it’s much more sustainable.
As Sam Walton said when he founded Wal-Mart that if we take care of the employees they’ll take care of the customer. And the problem was that that philosophy did not outlive him and that Wal-Mart became known as the exact opposite, not taking care of employees who didn’t take care of customers. And so, it can be kind of a virtuous cycle. And so that’s why I think the short term focus of current business and public companies has really done us a disservice because we’ve tended to profit at the expense of customers and employees and it hasn’t been sustainable.
Bill:Right. Absolutely. You’re making a case and one that’s very compelling that these sort of contemporary discussions about finding purpose, about triple bottom lines, about these other things are not just ethical imperatives but they’re financial and performative imperatives as well.
Chris:Domino’s Pizza is another great example. The headline of the story is we actually generate better financial results by putting the interest of customers and employees first than if we put the shareholders first. So Domino’s Pizza back in 2008, the Great Recession hit and all that discretionary spending got cut back. Domino’s wasn’t known for great pizza at that point anyway. They were already not in great shape. And so they got hit really hard. They had the humility to say you know what, we’re going to have to go and talk to customers and figure out what we need to do differently.
They knew that their quality had not kept up with the frozen pizza you can get in the supermarket and so forth. They were not prepared for the level of vitriol that they heard from customers in focus groups. Your pizza tastes like cardboard, it’s totally devoid of flavor.
Bill:They turned that into a campaign.
Chris:Yeah, exactly. Even the people saying, what was even worse than that it’s clear that the people of Domino’s don’t care. And so they had been going about kind of developing this new pizza recipe, they worked on it for two years but they got to the point where say, gosh, based on what we heard, we can’t just come out and say we got new improved pizza. Who’s going to believe us, who’s going to give us a chance.
And so it was at that point that they got inspired to do something kind of unthinkable from a business an advertising standpoint but was totally natural from a human warmth and incompetence standpoint which is their C.E.O. as you recall went on national television during the NFL playoffs and said, I’m sorry. We lost our way. Our pizza wasn’t very good, our service wasn’t very good but we’ve not only had a change of recipe but we’ve had a change of heart too and we hope you’ll give us another chance.
I don’t know if you’ve seen what has happened to Domino’s stock since then. They were trading at about $10 in 2009 when this started. As of today, I believe despite today’s downturn, $210 a share. They’ve had double digit revenue growth for almost 10 consecutive years and far outpaced any other fast food brand. I think it’s just a great example of, what they realized is that wasn’t just a campaign for them. For them, that was a new way to operate. It was a level of transparency and focus on telling the truth and doing the right thing and putting the customer first that just changed their fortunes.
Bill:Yeah, total reset. Amazing. This has been wonderful. Thank you so much. As we tend to finish and particularly in this case with all that you’ve accomplished and the teams you’ve built and the businesses you’ve built, are there a couple of learnings for those inspired by your career path, a couple of sort of words to live by or important philosophies that you’ve sort of built and adopted over the years that sort of are central to who you are as a business person?
Chris:Yeah. Yeah, there are a couple of things that I would certainly say that I wish I knew about this early in my career.
Bill:That’s the category here that we want to talk about.
Chris:Yeah, exactly, right? Because I wish I knew this earlier. In all candor, I think there were times early in my career where I was kind of a competent jerk. I’ve never been accused of being stupid but I don’t think I understood at the time the importance of relationships and the importance of warmth. And that the reality is it doesn’t matter if you have a better idea, your answer is more thorough, you’re smarter or whatever if no one can stand you and wants to listen to you. I used to think at the time that my competence would carry the day. To some extent, I was fortunate to have some measure of success but I could have been much more effective if I had recognized that it doesn’t matter if my answer is right if you’re not hearing me because I’m kind of demonstrating coldness and indifference to you basically.
So that would be number one is to get this message to younger people in their careers and recognize that you can only get so far with your competence. Your warmth is actually going to be the dominant driver of success over the course of your career. So that would be number one.
I think the other would be, there is a simple rule of thumb in my book that can simplify this down to a single idea. We call it the principle of worthy intentions and it’s a surefire way to demonstrate warmth and confidence to others without having to kind of overthink the thing or what have you. And what we think describe it as is that it’s the notion that we’re going to put the best interest of others before our own in the short term. Doesn’t require us to recklessly disregard our own interests but rather by putting the best interests of others ahead of our own in the short term, we demonstrate loyalty towards them first and we demonstrate that our intentions are worthy of their loyalty in return.
The way that human psychology works with if someone goes out of the way to do you a favor, we feel an obligation to reciprocate, right? And so often I think in business we’re asking for customers to show loyalty to us before we’ve done that for them. And so the principle of worthy intentions has put the best interest of others first in the short term and in the medium and long term we will all get much more in return.
Bill:Makes sense. Words to live by, words to work by certainly. Steve here who we tend to make fun of gently because he doesn’t have a microphone and he can’t clap back has perfected the art of being congenial but incompetent but we’ve appreciated all that he does in producing this and Chris thank you so much for your time and insight over an incredible career that certainly continues day in and day out. It was a real pleasure having you on with us.
Bill:Wow, what a conversation. I could have gone hours with Chris. He’s such an interesting guy and his ideas are so powerful and he’s accomplished so much. So grateful for his time and insight. Chris Malone. Three ways to help us is always at Finch Brands on the Real-World Branding Podcast than they are to rate and review. Give us a rating in the App Store, leave a review. If you’re so inclined we are told that that helps make us visible to those who would enjoy this content with business and brand builders that we try to bring on a regular schedule, though, I know we’ve been a bit challenged recently. We promise we’ll get back to it.
And also let’s keep the conversation going, That’d be the third way. On Twitter @BillGulan or @FinchBrands, ideas comments, criticisms, this skin is thick. Interest level is high when it comes to the sort of dialogue that has sprung up around this show and so we’re so grateful for your time and your participation and what it is that we’re building here. And so in that spirit, we’ll sign off from the cradle of liberty.
Todd Rothenberger is SVP and CMO of Diamond Credit Union. Credit unions are interesting for a variety of reasons, but Todd and his team have been extremely effective at telling the Diamond story and conveying their difference to compel consumers to choose Diamond. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding, I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Thank you for joining us. Normally the cadence here at Real-World Branding, is that we have an interview with a brand and business builder every other week, and in between we do what’s called One Big Idea, which is normally me spouting off on a topic, either in the news, or that hopefully has some practical value in terms of being a practitioner in these areas.
But, Finch Brands is moving. After a decade plus in our current offices in Old City Philadelphia we are moving; for those of you who know the area, more towards what is called Center City, which is the central business district. Where we are Old City now, is primarily known for its historical attractions, and some office too. But we’re moving into Center City, moving on up to 123 South Broad Street, which actually currently is I think a Wells Fargo branded building, there’s a big branch in the lobby. But it’s a building of note, because it was featured in the moving Trading Places; which A, is dating me, but B, holds up extremely well even today. So you will hear us and me saying “Looking good Louis,” in the coming weeks.
So in the light of the move and all that’s required to make that happen, we’re going to give you a bonus interview, and do two interviews in a row, and then I’ll be back next week with One Big Idea. But this interview today, and this brand and business builder is special and close to our hearts here at Finch. It’s Todd Rothenberger. Todd’s role at Diamond Credit Union is Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Office.
Diamond is a community-based financial institution with an interesting history, as Todd will take you through, that I think is really found an effective mix today of sort of corporate level, or I guess institution level, brand communications, that are designed to both sort of educate and connect, as well as a strong community-based approach.
Credit unions are interesting for a variety of reasons. There’s a different glossary in terms of credit unions have members, not customers. Their structures are interesting, and in some cases foreign, and so one of the tasks that Todd and his team have to surmount here to be effective … and they’ve been extremely effective, is to A, explain to prospective members what a credit union is and what the benefits are, and then B, to compel them to choose Diamond as opposed to other options that they may have through work, or in the geography where they live.
So Todd will take you through all that, but really good guy, really effective marketing leader. Enjoy Todd Rothenberger.
Bill: We’re here at the Pottstown, PA headquarters of Diamond Credit Union, with Todd Rothenberger, who’s the Senior Vice President/Chief Marketing Officer here at Diamond. Thanks for having us.
Todd Rothenberger: It’s a pleasure, thanks Bill.
Bill: The pleasure is all ours, and we’re grateful for your time and insight, and let’s start as we normally do with a bit of a twirl through your own professional journey, and at what point you settled on a career direction, and kind of the choices you’ve made, and what’s led us to this point?
Todd: Well, I assume you want to pick up post-college, of graduating from-
Bill: I want to hear all about the parties and everything else.
Todd: …York College, go Spartans.
Todd: Shout out to all those alum-
Todd: Out there.
Came out of school and decided to take up marketing really, really by chance. Taking one of the tests in high school of what you should be in and marketing fell as number two, we won’t talk about what was number one, that’s a little odd.
So that’s why I chose marketing at that point, and coming out of York College I thought I wanted to go into sales more than a marketing career. And that’s what happened for me, I started at a place called Singer Equipment Company, which was regular throughout really the East coast. And I started out in the showroom and was enjoying it, and I said “I want to go out and explore being an outside sales person”.
Well I did that, they gave that to me, thankful for that because I learned a lot, and I learned I did not want to do that the rest of my life. I learnt it really quick, I say in the first couple weeks. Well in the advice “You don’t leave a job until you have a job”, I hung on there for a couple months, and then I found a position at a Savings and Loans in Bucks County as a marketing research analyst, and that’s what began my career in the financial industry of course.
And when I went in there it was a lot of … a lot of working in some research, but the best part of that position, I was in the early stages of target marketing-
Todd: And we thought it … We were the best being able to household rather than just by accounts, and to take … started to take a look at demographics and really targeting back when … Late 80s’ early 90s’. And that began my career of target marketing and understanding marketing a little bit more than I did from the book work that I did in college. As that transpired I spend about seven years there, Savings and Loans got purchased by a regional bank, and at that point I had to make a decision, either I was going to be traveling to another county, Lancaster County, or a position came available at a place called Diamond Federal Credit Union at the time, and I applied for the vice president of marketing, and that was over twenty-one years ago-
Todd: That that began, so … and I landed at Diamond, obviously it has worked out pretty well-
Todd: But the journey here at Diamond over twenty years has changed quite a bit too. When I came here it was specifically really focused only on marketing, and I think they did bring me on initially with that background of targeting, being able to have that background, but it’s expanded so much more than I ever could have imagined, from now overseeing the branch environment, to overseeing the financial advisory program that we have, to being able to get involved in the building process of new locations. It’s gone way beyond anything I could have imagined that I would be part of at a company.
Bill: Right, what a great story, and there’s so much to discuss in there, but I mean to your point about the marketing portfolio not just being now about the main generation or attraction or targeting, and more about the entirety of the journey is a significancy change that I think we’ve all experience in the marketer, we believe. It’s a progressive way of thinking. And it’s put into practice here at Diamond.
So at Diamond and it seems like much of your marketing career in the financial service, aside from S&N to Credit Union has been an alternative to the big sort of Wall Street Banks and … Take us a bit through Diamonds marketing approach, I mean what are the roles of educating people on what a credit union is and what their eligibility is. This is a company that’s always been very strong at community relations and … and then there’s obviously differentiation, why Diamond versus other options that people might be eligible for, so could you speak a little bit about the role of marketing within how Diamond operates?
Todd: We’re always proud of the structure of the credit union, and through some research it is important to try to get that out to the community, but when we have a new person walk into our location, we want to explain that difference, and that difference is really the structure of the credit union; that its own by members.
Todd: And that drives all our decisions, so rather than our main priority of shareholder value, it is what we can do for the membership. And that’s what drives every decision we make from the board level onto a teller, of … It’s the member first philosophy.
Todd: And I don’t know if that’s out to the community as much as I’m sure the credit union community will love to have it-
Bill: Sure, sure.
Todd: That consumers understand that I think it’s … Once you experience it, it is something that we know people want to help us spread that word; word of mouth is powerful for us.
So the credit union structure is important because it does drive the … how the business operates.
Todd: But it’s not always what people want to hear about, they want to hear so many times about other things; when am I going to pay? But we try our best to put that in front of somebody, especially when they’re sitting down with us.
Out to the community, we’ve done that … I think we’ve done that through community development in advance to show people that we are … This is the only area, the Montgomery area, the Berks County area and part of Chester, that’s all we can serve.
Todd: That’s it, that’s all the area we’re allowed to serve.
Bill: Yeah there’s a limited eligibility area.
Todd: Right. So if you live here, you work here, we’re your neighbor, we’re all contributing to the good of the community, and that I think we’ve done a pretty good job of getting that message out that that’s …. that’s what we work with. We are here to make this area better because we live here.
Todd: And anything … any … We’ll call it profit, yes, that gets generated and income comes back to the credit union to build it more, to provide better services to the membership.
So that’s generally some of the messaging, sometimes we need to do that on a one-on-one case, it’s not so much billboard messaging, but that’s message is very important for people to really grasp and understand, and then spread that to their friends and family.
Bill: Right, and one of the benefits obviously of the credit union structure … as a quantitative benefit has to do with interest rates and sort of product level preferences or advantages, and I … Just having gotten to know this a bit, there is a level of, to your point, brand and who are we? And why does that matter?, and that’s an emotional connection, but then it really does get paid off at the level of interest rates and other financial characteristics.
Todd: Well I mean, you see … I’ll turn a little bit to some of the timeline that Diamond’s been through of how we try to get ourselves out to the market that we do serve. Price of product of course is an easy thing to put out there-
Todd: To the market. And years ago we knew that’s not what we wanted to put out there, and we did a lot of internal test and we … Through focus groups we realized it was not working. We weren’t capturing the essence of who we were. We tried some messaging, it just wasn’t connecting enough with the market. And that’s when we decided as a … at a strategic level, to say “Do we need more research? Do we need the right partnership to come in and really identify what we want to put out to the market”
Bill: Right, right.
Todd: And, of course, we know what that became.
Bill: Yeah. We’ll let’s talk about it for a minute because when Finch met Diamond, which was probably a four years … probably more than four at this point. To your point, there was a moment in the life of the institution, while very successful in community … sort of engaged and connected, deeply rooted within the communities that you serve, there was a desire on the part of leadership to think through how at a sort of brand level but … The institution could connect and then express itself in a way that would attract new members and everything else. And you’re right the research data indicated, I suppose at that time that there was some concern or confusion about what a credit union was, and who was eligible and where it serve, but obviously there is a need to differentiate Diamond from other options that people will have, and that lead to a … what is now a multi-year campaign that is entitled Younity Y-O-U-N-I-T-Y, could you take through a bit about what led up to that and then your experience of building and executing that campaign.
Todd: Well sure, I think part of what lead to it was, quite honestly, failure-
Todd: That we did have, and we knew … we knew getting back to what wasn’t working. Because we did our own focus groups before we met Finch and it just wasn’t resonating. We realized that brand or name awareness … Not so much brand awareness or name awareness was gaining a little bit of traction, but not nearly enough that we wanted to do.
So the process of trying to find out who we are, what we do every day and take that to a market created the concept of “That’s Younity”, and it’s really tying in the factors of our structure, which we talked about … of the credit union structure. How we communicate with members, our membership every day and they’re members, not costumers. They’re members of ours.
Bill: Yeah, interesting.
Todd: Yeah it is, it’s confusing sometimes for some people, they want to say costumer all the time, but it is membership, and then tie that all together of trying to get out a message that seemed to resonate from people, as so many other things in the market were happening too.
Bill: Yeah, right.
Todd: Meaning mergers of banks and dissatisfaction among them.
Bill: It’s probably the right moment for something like this.
Todd: It was the right moment, not just for Diamond, but for the market and the industry. And to get people to actually move the financial relationship they have. They don’t wake up thinking “Yeah, today is the day I’m going to do that” lots of times, they go through before they decide to do it. But we did set ourselves up so well in the past few years … three or four years, when those mergers did occur that our membership growth hit record levels.
In fact, we were at capacity some months of bringing on new members. And the research did show part of that was the gain in brand awareness that we had out in the market. And overall it was not … it was not price, it was not product, it was selling who we are, “Come to us, sit down, we’ll talk to you, we’ll figure out your needs”. And that’s what became Younity, and what … what was … There was three parts of bringing this to everyone; and the first part was having employees buy into it.
Bill: No question.
Todd: And I’d never been part of an experience where that was so easy, and the reason it was so easy is because they created it. They didn’t know they created the words “That’s Younity” but talking to twenty five thirty individuals at our credit union throughout the process; they created the phrasing, and they bought into it from day one when we introduced it at a staff meeting, and you were part of that.
Bill: Yeah I remember. It was a big day.
Todd: The reaction to it immediately and the next day was just “Yeah that is us, that’s who we are” so that was step one. The next step then we take it to our membership really, before the market and … Well we did some surveying and people were putting down “What does Younity mean to you?” We were asking them-
Bill: I remember.
Todd: And they were just “Okay that’s perfect, you’re nailing it”. And now the third part of that of course is out to the consumers that don’t know Diamond, and we’re making great strides there, brand awareness increased incredibly over the first two years, stabilized a little bit the past year. But tremendous strides there, so we believe it connected and with our growth, but also the market research, which showed the same.
Bill: Yeah no doubt. And a cut … there were choices, I recall downstream in the creative process too, beyond Younity as a concept, which you know speaks to the sort of alignment of agendas between the credit union and its memberships and, as you said the structure and you know, Younity is about this relentless focus on the member and about how everyone’s interests are aligned here within the communities that people call home, or place of work. But then creatively there were choices that were made to highlight members as well as team members in everything from big billboards and live motion spots down to direct mail, right?
Todd: Well that’s true, and let me just back up for just a second on when we were deciding to go with “That’s Younity”, one of my favorite stories of that is … because everyone likes choices as we do and when we were going through analyzing “That’s Younity”, my question to the team was “I want to see other things”
Todd: “I want to see other options”, and I do recall asking “I want other options”, but what came back to me was “No, this is it”.
Todd: This is it, and that was actually right, and I needed to hear that, and we moved on from there. So yes, we then took it … It was commercials, and we went out to our membership and got some tremendous testimonials from our membership to use within the campaign. In our particular market, we did use billboards heavily because we don’t have any direct radio … limited radio and limited TV, but billboards, it was a big awareness part of it, and still is although it is lessening as time goes on, through digital channels now, but direct mail.
And now Younity you see when you walk into our locations, on our poster screens, TV screens that we have, and it’s integrated within everything we do. We have Younity days when we want to celebrate something that we’ve achieved together, or a community award, we’ll have Younity days where we’ll have … everyone will wear their Younity t-shirt, and it’s just a pride factor now among our staff. That does exist throughout our organization. And that’s just gone on to be much more than we ever thought.
Bill: Yeah, well it comes through, and it’s palpable and that brings us to another unmistakable characteristic of Diamond, which is this culture and sense of purpose and that manifests itself at a branch level in terms of service, but also through the incredible philanthropic efforts of Diamond. Could you speak for a minute about, sort of Diamonds culture and … as well as marketing’s role in building and nurturing that.
Todd: Well marketing’s role in nurturing that I would have to say we are … When I say we it’s a team of three other individuals along with myself … but I’d have to throw in many others into that team, but generally we’ll just focus on the team of three marketers that I have, is to be the protector, the keeper and the promoter of the brand. So nothing annoys me more than to see somebody at our organization try to put together a poster that doesn’t know how to put together a poster for all the great events we do, community events and now the logo stretch.
So we put a lot of commitment and effort and resources into saying appoint people to create that look that’s constant and we need them to go out. So they take a serious role in making sure that things look consistent, the brand is well defined in every piece that goes out, so that’s their role.
Todd: That’s their role, they have to be the eyes making sure that each piece is fitting the specs that we’re looking for. As far as the culture goes, that’s a … that’s from the top down from our president, and has been ingrained much into our HR department, which has expanded tremendously through the past three or four years. We didn’t even have a training department, now it’s a training department of three people who explain to anybody new coming in of what Younity does mean, and how that is part of our culture, and a part of our overall brand.
So, marketing can’t take credit for some of that, it’s permeated throughout our whole organization of the culture of how we want to take care of a member when they come in, and what that means as far as being able to nurture that relationship that we have, because that’s really what we have with our membership, is the relationship that we want to build.
Bill: Right, totally. We’ve alluded to it at a couple of times, but I mean one of the things that we’ve come to really respect and appreciate, among many things about Diamond is its philanthropic approach. Could you speak a little bit about, first of all what Diamond does and educate our listeners, but then the role of philanthropy in … in our sense of purpose, as well as you know, not to say that it’s insincere, because it is, but our way of spreading our own message and raising our awareness.
Todd: Well, sure. Well it really began quite a while ago, and a lot of our efforts are centered around the Relay for Life American Cancer Society, and it started with really two of our teammates battling their own fight, and it’s just grown since then of people throughout our organization taking leadership roles in running events, anywhere from people on our front line to back office, to collection managers, to IT people, running events for the good of the cause and putting it out to the community. So even as we speak today, we’ll have for our membership hot dog days and baked goods and-
Bill: We timed this well, I happened to see it out there and it just so happens.
Todd: So we have those events that others run and have taken ownership of, and it permeates through our membership. Membership will just say “Here’s twenty bucks for the cause” when they come in here, because they know what we’ll do with that money, and then roll it to all the good that The American Cancer Society does as a … in our community. But that’s one area and through our effort we’re going to be approaching a total donation over a million dollars real soon.
But that’s changing for us too, over time I believe Diamond has to … We’re looking into creating a foundation, which would help our territory in the region that we serve, to spread that around a little bit more. More needs that happen in our community, although we do that today through various other things of … Bowl for Kids’ Sake, and other events. We think there’s so much more that we can do for our community and we want to continue to build off of that.
We didn’t expect where we’d be today ten years ago, so another ten we think we can just do much more for the community as a larger … and then we think that’s the responsibility that we have, again going back to “This is what we … this is where we serve, this is who we serve and we should be part of that community”.
Bill: Well it certainly comes through and as we give you back the rest of your day, we’re about to overstay our welcome. What a journey both in your own career as well as all that’s been accomplished at Diamond certainly since you know, before and then since we’ve known one another. Any words of wisdom from your own career and the choices you made, I mean you have young members of the team, I’m sure there’s many of our listeners who were inspired by sort of the path you’ve taken, but any reflections or sort of words to live by that others might be able to take away from all that you’ve accomplished?
Todd: Well just the question alone I’m taken back by because, again I’ve … I never thought I’d be in a position like I am in when I began my career, so I’m a little taken back by even the question. But I just feel you … you have to give people … Yeah you have to have people who care about what you do, and that’s what we have, but you have to do a little bit more for me, you have to put goals out in front of, as a leader, because everybody wants to reach.
Bill: Sure, sure.
Todd: And if you … if you can’t put that goal out to people, I think they’ll … they’ll feel that and they won’t give as much as they feel that they can give and even more. That what was done for me, it’s put in challenges and put in things in front of me I never even thought about. And that’s what I hope to do too, not just my immediate team but the rest of the team here at Diamond is put things out there that you could have never imagined.
Bill: Yeah right, right.
Todd: And if you do that, well you may not hit it, but if you don’t hit it, you’re going to get pretty close and that’s some pretty good stuff too. So as a leader, which I’ve become, which again is pretty amazing, you have to always keep putting … putting those reaches out for people.
Bill: Yeah, well interesting, to them I think they, by this maybe a year ago. I mean I started for a very short time my career in sales, as did you and it may be that in the process of learning that that wasn’t what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives professionally, that there was some residue of learning about goals and about self-motivation and about ways to lead if and when we would reach sort of that moment, and here we are, so.
Todd: Well I think the experiences and sometimes failures that we have in life are much more important than reaching the pinnacle sometimes.
Todd: I know just recently there has been a Super Bowl champ that-
Bill: Yeah we heard something about that.
Todd: Without those failures they probably wouldn’t have reached the pinnacle they did, and I think that can happen in business as well.
Bill: No doubt, we’re recording this the day after the parade and everybody’s still smiling here in the Philadelphia area, it’s true. So Todd thank you so much for your time and insights-
Todd: Thank you Bill.
Bill: It’s been a pleasure to get to know you and the team and … Appreciate you being on our podcast.
Todd: It’s my pleasure, thank you.
Bill: Many thanks to Todd, both for his support and friendship, and certainly for his time and insight today. There’re three ways, as always to help us here at Real-Word Branding if you are compelled by this content, and we hope that you are; the first is to subscribe in the store of your choice, make sure that you do not miss an episode, and again we strive to do this weekly, and we’ve been pretty much living up to that so far this calendar year and our plan is certainly to continue since this provides a lot of joy for us and then hopefully for you as well.
So that’s one way to support us, another way is to give us a rating, we love five starts if we deserve it, we do read this, we appreciate the comments and it does help make it easier for those who are seeking interesting podcast content to find us, based upon number of people who’ve rated our content and hopefully the … how high …. Sky high we’ve earned in terms of a rating, and then the third is, as always let’s keep this dialogue going on … Twitter is probably the best place, @BillGullan or @FinchBrands we love comments and questions and ideas for future guests, future topics.
Really enjoying the back and forth with our listeners and we thank you, without you this would just be sort of a fun diversion, but it’s become more than that and we’re really grateful for your time, hopefully each and every week and we strive to live up to making it worthwhile, so we’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
Countless industries are ripe for disruption, and the dental market is no different. Dave Monahan and his team knew there was something to be done but needed clarity to build a successful model. Through a rigorous process of market research and beta testing, they’ve built a brand and platform at Kleer that cuts out the middle man and connects dentists directly with consumers to make dental care accessible and easy for all. If you enjoy our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!
Dave Monahan: And I didn’t know that market, it was a bit a whim to say, “There’s something here, but I’m not quite sure what it is, let’s go dig.”
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding, I’m Bill Gullan, president of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Big treat today, despite my obvious nasal condition here, and my apologies to our listeners, I seem to have a little bug every time we do this, but that will not diminish the enthusiasm for our guest, Dave Monahan, who’s the CEO of Kleer, which is K-L-E-E-R, and as he’ll tell you a disruptive force, soon to be and already beginning to be a disruptive force in the dental insurance market, and the dental market in general. Connecting dentists who want to think a little bit differently about services and how they’re bundled and delivered, and consumers who are in need or have a desire for a greater level of care, and consistency of care.
So, Dave’s backstory is fascinating in terms of starting on the engineering side of the world with a passion for software and technology, and as his responsibility grew, as he enhanced his education, moving into more general management roles, including a really strong tenure at Microsoft, among other places, and then now moving more into the early state realm with the last business he was part of, which was in the fitness channel, and now with Kleer.
Kleer itself has had an interesting development story, and he’ll take you through all that. Enjoy Dave Monahan.
We’re here in the Wayne PA offices of Kleer, which is K-L-E-E-R, with Dave Monahan, who’s the CEO, thank you for having us.
Dave: Oh, thanks for having me on it.
Bill: And such an interesting business story, not only your journey, but what you’re doing here at Kleer, and we’re going to try to touch on all of that.
To start, could you take us through some of the steps in just your own career journey that has led up to this point?
Dave: Sure, yeah, I’ll try to make it brief so I don’t bore you, but so when I came out of … I actually went to Penn State University.
Bill: Heard of it, they have a football team, I think, right?
Dave: They do, and they’re back.
Dave: I was just up there this weekend actually.
Dave: But so graduated in engineering, actually went to work for Northrop Grumman in advanced avionics and electronics and surveillance systems. And just a little claim to fame, we were working on the first surveillance systems for drones back in the early 90s.
Bill: Take credit for that, you invented the drone, nice.
Bill: Nice work, wow.
Dave: It was incredible. but back then you weren’t even allowed to talk about it. But anyway, so a lot of advanced avionics things. But at the same time, and I’m not sure if it still happens, but they paid full ride for MBA once you’re working, so I got my MBA at night from Loyola, and spent about five or six years at North Grumman then moved on and started working for a company called SkyTel, which their claim to fame was two-way paging back in the mid 90s.
Bill: I think I had one.
Dave: It was amazing, actually I was running their US marketing team. But what was amazing, when I look back on it, it was actually messaging and it was texting, but we didn’t realize it. We didn’t realize what we had, I don’t think. But they ended up consolidating, moving their offices down to Mississippi, I had no interest in going to Mississippi.
I moved into and worked for a small, private company called Phillips, who has done a number of things, but one of them was around nutrition. They were doing supplements, they were also doing some newsletters around nutrition and really, I got my … I learned a lot about finance and business analysis, and basically worked with their CFO to better understand their business and make some decisions from a business perspective and a strategic perspective, and got a really good grounding on the financial side when I was there.
So, if you think about it, first engineering, second job was marketing, third job was finances.
Bill: MBA in between, yeah, yeah.
Dave: Trying to round myself out.
Bill: General management direction. Yeah, sure.
Dave: Exactly. And I randomly … Microsoft came in and was interviewing … I was actually living down in DC at the time. And was interviewing so I said, “What the heck, I’ll go talk to them.”
Talked to them, next thing I know I’m out in Redmond doing some more in-depth interviews and land at Microsoft. And at Microsoft I actually started in the Toronto office, and I was lucky enough to be basically reporting to the VP who ran all of Canada, and the central part of the US.
So this is the Wild West of Microsoft, but that territory, you can’t get much bigger. But, very large business. Billions of dollars. And my job was to help that vice president better understand his business, and make strategic decisions about what they’re going to focus on, how they’re going to market, what’s the customer base, how do we partner, all that good stuff. So, I got exposed to pretty much everything in a company. My first week, actually, at Microsoft, I was in front of Steve Ballmer.
Dave: Presenting to him.
Bill: What was that like? He’s a pretty high intensity guy, right?
Dave: Really intense. So I’ll give you … let me paint the scenario. I’m a week in. I know nothing alright, about Microsoft. And my VP, his philosophy is throw people into the fire.
Bill: Yeah, that’s the way to do it.
Dave: So he put me in, we had a business review. Every year, every business needs to come into Redmond, present how they did the prior year, and then present what they’re going to do for the following year. So my job was to do the first 10 minutes of that all day presentation. Where I sum up everything that’s happened and where we’re going.
So, come back to Ballmer for a second, so I’m five feet … we’re across the table from each other and I’m presenting. It’s about 8:00 in the morning. And he already has pulled off his tie, he’s unbuttoned his shirt, and he’s thrown his shoes off. By the time I’m done with my presentation…
Bill: He’s pacing around the room, nice.
Dave: And basically, he tells me at the end he hated my presentation.
Bill: Excellent. Nice job on the first week, really outstanding.
Dave: So I figure I’m done. Right, that’s it.
Bill: Got to go up from there, right?
Dave: Yeah. But he gave me an amazing piece of advice, he basically said, “Never present any problem without a solution.” And I presented a number of problems without solutions. So, I will never do that again. But anyway, I spent about eight years at Microsoft, and I went from that business manager job, to running multiple businesses for Microsoft.
I ran their Washington DC office, we moved down to DC. I basically ran their … it was Virginia DC, Maryland and Delaware territory. And then moved up to Philadelphia. I actually grew up here, but left for a while, came back, and ran their Philadelphia office. So, when I was there, learned a ton, it’s by far the most influential company, for me from a career perspective.
Learned how to run a business, and a number of things. But from there, my real interest was health and tech. That’s really what I cared about most. A friend mine who was working at Microsoft, he left, joined a VC up in Boston. They were looking for a CEO of a health tech company. It was more fitness tech at that time. Called FitLinxx, and they came and asked if I’d like to do it. I accepted, and went up and started running a company called FitLinxx.
The net was, when I got there, they were basically putting electronic devices on fitness equipment. So, for gyms, they would go and wire up the whole facility. You could get data off the equipment when you came in, you’d get a report online, all that good stuff. You could track your exercise, but it was only for the gym. In about six months, I decided to change the strategy of the company, and focus on wearable devices.
This was back when nobody knew what wearables were. So, we ended up acquiring a company, it was actually a set of 10 engineers in a barn outside of Boston. I ran into the CEO of that company at a conference, we thought there was a good fit. We acquired them, brought them in, and then we started focusing on wearable devices.
One of our claims to fame was we built the Nike Plus products for Nike.
Bill: Very cool.
Dave: Yeah, and then we built a device, it was basically a device you could put on your chest that monitored your cardiovascular system. We ended up selling the company to a medical diagnostic company in April … or March of 2016.
Dave: And then we were looking for something to do.
Bill: Moved down here, yeah. Nice. And we’ll get to what that something is. Real quick question about Microsoft though, you were there, at least according to LinkedIn, from about ’99 to ’06 which seems like it would’ve coincided with the shift from PC to mobile, at least on the tail end of that. What was that like? And I know you needed a problem and a solution, but that was a big sea change, wasn’t it?
Dave: It was huge. It was absolutely a monstrous sea change. There was two sea changes that happened at Microsoft when I was there. One was that, and the other was the whole antitrust, DOJ thing, which was a major influence on what the company did. But, yeah, back in … it was probably 2002, or 2003, Microsoft actually came out with a handheld device that, if you remember, the little stylus.
Bill: Yeah, sure, sure.
Dave: They were well ahead of the curve of that market. But they didn’t go after it, and as everybody knows, they the lost the mobile war in the beginning. And it was a classic, I think, case of there was so much money to be made elsewhere that it was an incubator, it didn’t make a lot of money, it was a nice business, but it wasn’t something they focused on. There was just way too much money to be made in Windows and Office and all of the productivity suites, and-
Bill: And channel competition with hardware partners I would imagine.
Dave: It was very complicated. And also, the company at that point was not a hardware company. We were a software company. They were fooling around with some hardware, but the net was they weren’t really a hardware company. So, it was a nice little tangential business, it was a nice product, but just never focused on it, until they realized it was a big market. And then they reacted to all of that.
Bill: Sure. And then … yeah. Totally, and now they’ve resurged, at least in some ways. Interesting, what a story. I mean, the whole peaks and valleys in that company and it’s history.
So here we are. You’re somebody who has an engineering and technology mind and background, the general management disposition and skillset. And here we are in the offices of this business, Kleer. Tell us a little bit about what you all are up to, and not to give away the story, but what is it about the dental marketplace that is so ripe for disruptive thought, and new ideas?
Dave: So let me say from the beginning, if you asked me would I be in the dental market two years ago, I would’ve said no. I-
Bill: I mean, I brush, but-
Dave: Yeah, exactly. But so when after I sold the company FitLinxx, I was looking for what I wanted to do next, so I’d been networking a little bit, and I ran into somebody who owned six dental practices, and just started talking about the market. And what really struck me was about 50% of people in the US do not go to the dentist. Even though they know that it’s very important and it’s important for their health.
The other part that really surprised me was that dentists were struggling to make profit, and also increase revenue, given the control insurers had on the marketplace. And the insurers basically dictate what the dentists get paid.
So, we spent about six, seven months researching it and as you know, we used Finch Brands to do the market research.
Bill: It was a very interesting process.
Dave: And what came out of that, was for us, a major revelation. There was on one side, if you talked to the consumers, and you remember some of these discussions and interviews, yeah, which Bill was leading, the consumers wanted more dental care. They were avoiding it for really one reason, which was cost. But when we dug into it further, it wasn’t just cost, it was fear of cost.
What we realized in the research was that consumers had no idea how much dental services cost. So, there was a large group of consumers who wanted care but didn’t think they could afford it. You had dentists who most of their patients were coming through insurance, but they had trouble making money off the insurer programs. And what they were looking for … and by the way, it’s not just that the fees are low, that insurers force on the dentist, it’s also there’s a lot of hassle associated with insurers.
Bill: I can imagine.
Dave: Yeah, and paperwork, and denial of claims, and you got to pre-approvals, and you have caps and it’s insane, if you’ve ever looked at a dental insurance contract-
Bill: Well for a consumer, it works differently than we’re used to in terms of insurance. Dental insurance seems like it isn’t even really insurance at all, at least in the way we mean it health wise, yeah.
Dave: Absolutely, so dental insurance is not insurance. It isn’t. It’s basically prepaid cleanings and exams, with discounts on anything else.
So that was also an insight from that research was this really is a simply program, at the end of the day. It’s not complicated insurance. So from that research, what we saw, was the need to directly connect patients with dentists and get rid of the middle man. So think about all the industries where that’s occurred, right?
Bill: Right, sure.
Dave: Uber, whatever, you can pick 100 of them now. But what we decided to do was create a company called Kleer. K-L-E-E-R. And it’s a platform where dentists can come in and set up a dental care plan that they offer directly to their patients. So it looks very much like insurance. It’s not insurance, quote, unquote, but it’s basically they can put your two cleanings, your exams, your x-rays, package that up, plus discounts off all other treatment, like fillings and crowns, and so on and just charge a subscription for those services.
So typically, we see $25 to $30 a month is the subscription that they charge. You basically have a full dental care plan and then on the consumer side, so the platform enables to dentist to very easily set that up, and create that program they want to offer, with lots of different things they can customize and decide for their practice what makes sense.
On the other side, on the consumer side, we have a whole consumer facing side, with website, mobile app. Very easy to purchase the plan from your dentist and then you get the full range of … you get a membership card, you get plan documents, you have a website and a mobile app you can log on to see your benefits and manage payment, all that good stuff, just like any other consumer app.
Dave: So very simple.
Bill: Supply and demand side, I know that we were talking a little bit before we started about obviously efforts to equip the dentists who are in the program with all of the information the consumers would want when they walk up to the front, or whatever. But for consumers, and we know that there’s a high percentage who don’t have a dentist of record, I know that company’s endeavoring to find ways to reach them with a lower acquisition cost. Any thought on … but as we talk about long term, thoughts about the consumer channel versus the professional channel, and how you all are thinking about setting these up and making sure this can scale?
Dave: Yeah, so we went through a few iterations as we were building and learning. So initially, we were thinking a lot of our effort would be towards the consumer and marketing to the consumer, and bringing in new patients for the dentists. What we learned, pretty quickly, is about 30% of a patient base within a typical dentist office does not have insurance and they want something.
They want coverage. And by the way, the market research highlighted that. We just didn’t know how the dental practices would respond to that opportunity. So, within probably two months, a month, two months of launching the platform, the feedback from dentists was, “This is a great solution for my uninsured.”
And they had a number of groups of uninsured. So uninsured patients who came in all the time. Once or twice a year. They had what they call dormant patients, who don’t have insurance and stay away, and typically only come when they have a major issue. So that group is about 10% of their base.
And then another group was just retirees. So not a lot of people realize this, but as you retire, your dental benefits go away. Because there’s nothing under Medicare to cover dental. So you have to go out into the market and buy whatever’s out there.
Bill: And you would think that that coincides with the greatest need for care, as you get older and your teeth are-
Dave: Absolutely. Yeah. So, and I’ll get back to the question in a second, but so, and then actually one other group was just small employers. About 50% of small employers don’t offer dental benefits, and it’s the number three benefit that employees want. So it’s healthcare, 401k, and then dental and 50% of small businesses don’t offer it. And the reason they don’t offer it is because insurance is too expensive, it’s too complicated, and all that stuff.
So, what we realized was we did not have the emphasize the consumer market. We actually needed to emphasize marketing to the dental practices. Bringing them into the platform, teaching them how to sell and market to their patients, and giving them the tools to do that. So, we actually have a suite of tools they can use, all the way from sheets in the office that the patient can take, up to sophisticated digital marketing tools that they can customize on our platform and offer through Facebook, or Google ads or whatever.
Bill: All the ways they communicate.
Dave: Yeah, so what we’re focused on now is enabling the dental practices to market to their patients.
Bill: Yeah, and the value proposition to them seems rather clear, forgive the pun, as an acquisition tool, as a frequency tool, as a loyalty and lifetime value, and it makes a lot of sense.
Dave: So we’ve … I haven’t mentioned, but I’m a bit of a data nerd, we actually pooled data from the dental practices on our platform, and we analyzed patients who have insurance, patients who don’t have insurance, or a membership plan and then patients who have a membership plan. And we said, okay, what’s our pattern, right, of utilizing dental services and how much they typically purchase all that good stuff.
What is really interesting is, insurance plan patients and membership plan patients act exactly the same. They come in for their cleanings, they come in and when they’re in, they’re in the chair, if the dentist suggests treatment, they accept it, for the most part because they have a dental plan.
Bill: And they’re lying there with their open in a chair, right.
Dave: Exactly, everybody’s been through that experience and they accept treatment anywhere between two and three times at a higher rate than people who don’t have insurance and don’t have a membership plan. So you get about twice as much treatment acceptance from patients on a membership plan than people not on a membership plan, or not insured.
Bill: Makes sense.
Dave: But, the huge benefit of being on the membership plan for the dentist is there’s no middle man. You get paid directly. So, if you take a step back, the benefits to the dentist are multiple. One is they lock in a subscription. A profitable subscription that’s guaranteed on an annual basis, and they can count on that business. Versus, think about insurance for a second, if that patient does not come into the dentist, the dentist gets nothing.
Right, it’s only if they come in do they get paid. So, one is locking the subscription. Number two is that treatment acceptance rate is about 50% higher for people on a membership plan, than people who aren’t insured. So they have more treatment and complete more procedures. The third one, which is a real interesting one, is that by creating a subscription business and converting their practice more towards a subscription, they actually get a higher valuation on their practice.
So most dental practices, eventually, they want to sell their practice. Once they get to a certain age, and also they build up a certain patient base-
Bill: Yeah, succession’s an issue I would think that they don’t really know how to deal with, unless they have a son or daughter who wants to get in-
Dave: In often goes to, yeah, son or daughter. Or they bring in a transitional-
Bill: Younger, right.
Dave: Who helps them figure it out. But, what we’re seeing, and this is typical in any market, is if you have a subscription business, you’ll get about two times, three times the valuation on the subscription business, versus a non-subscription business.
Bill: Yeah, that makes sense.
Dave: So, if they can build up this base of membership plans, people paying subscriptions, the valuation of their business will go up.
Bill: Right. No, makes a lot of sense. While you were entering here, during a moment of great discovery, and figuring out what to do, I know the company existed, or was launched before and if I recall correctly, under a different name, the original priority or focus was about transparency. And I think you made the point that in the research, there were revelations that that is important, but it isn’t the full value proposition that Kleer now is embracing.
Can you think about, or comment on, just the path for this company to find its sweet spot, and its niche, and its brand approach, and its model that has put you in such a good position to really grow this thing?
Dave: Well, I think the first thing … and obviously Finch Brands helped us with this, is just understanding the market before you do anything. and I didn’t know that market. It was a bit of a whim, to say, “There’s something here. But I’m not quite sure what it is, let’s go dig.” And I was lucky enough to have an investor who wanted to dig as well and understand it.
So, I think we got the market, or whatever the model, the business model about 80% correct through the market research. Which was a huge, obviously, advantage, going into the market. That drove a lot of our decisions on product and how we did our brand, and how we market. And then, and I tell this to anybody, and then you’ve got to listen to the market, right.
There’s nothing you can do except listen, and wait, and understand, and then adjust. And between that process, it probably took us … we did what we called a pilot, or a beta program, from October of last year to December, and that was the idea, was to listen and understand and what we heard back from the market is one, the one item that I already talked about, which is the dentists themselves would like to sell to their uninsured.
We need to do direct consumer. We are going to still do some, but it was very obvious that they were very happy to sell to their existing patients. But, they didn’t have the tools to do it. So what we did is, we put a huge emphasis on account management. So we have an account management team and they have relationships, like this is not … we don’t do anything where it’s not connected to a person. Like you can talk to people, you can live chat with them, and things like that. But there’s a relationship between our account managers and dental practices.
And we’re emphasizing that as the major driver of a way to … a basic tool to help the dental practices to be able to sell, and market. I had not planned on that, going in. I thought we were going to have more of a very hands-off, typical technology company approach. You take it and use it. But we realized a huge value prop was having that account manager in there. So we’re investing heavily in account managers and constantly recruiting for that. So that was a big change.
The other thing was we came into it with … a little bit on the consumer side, more of from a branding perspective, and a position perspective. Like we want to be different than what’s out there. So I stayed away from the typical stock photos and the typical images that you see in healthcare. And we went more to a cartoonish look and feel, which people responded really well to.
Dave: We used bright colors and all that good stuff, but-
Bill: Contemporary, but not unfriendly.
Dave: Not unfriendly, yeah, it’s approachable. It’s different and all that good stuff, but we felt, once we got feedback from the market, we went a little too far. So, dentists are pretty serious people. It is healthcare. So, we’re actually, right now, in the process of tooling it a little more towards, it’s not going to be anywhere near what healthcare is typically, but it’s going to be a little bit more sophisticated.
Bill: To underline clinical …
Dave: A little bit.
Bill: Nobody wants to go to a chop shop dentist, right.
Dave: Exactly. So it’s going to have a cartoonish whatever, a fun feel, but it’s going to be a little bit more … whatever, refined.
Bill: Sophisticated cartoon, right.
Bill: Makes sense. What a story. It’s so stimulating and there have been innings and different eras in the life of this company, and obviously your own career. Given what you’ve accomplished, and the choices you’ve made, having an engineering soul, but then a finance capability, and a general management capability, big companies, smaller companies, public versus venture backed, versus private. Any words of wisdom, as you’ve assumed this path, and learned things about yourself and about the world, and the process of building businesses? And words of wisdom that have become important as you … the Steve Ballmer lesson is a great one. And it’s actually very similar to what Finch Brands has been going through, our own values development process, we have some new team members, and we always want to renew that every period of time, and that came through with us.
But any important maxims, or beliefs at this point, that might inspire others who are thinking their own path?
Dave: I’m not sure how inspirational I’ll be, but just here two things I think are, for me, were really important. And I think … one of them I know is important to everybody. But, finding somebody who can be your mentor.
Bill: Yeah, sure.
Dave: I can’t tell you how important it is. When I was Northrop Grumman, I didn’t have one. When I moved in SkyTel, I didn’t have one. And when I went into that small company prior to Microsoft, maybe a little bit one, but not where I wanted to go was somebody who was very smart, and could teach me things from a financial perspective, but not somebody who’s going to inspire me to go do great things. When I landed at Microsoft, the person I was reporting to up in Canada, his name was Frank Clegg, master of marketing, master of sales, incredibly smart guy.
He could run through any number and understand any number, and spreadsheet of equations, and break through it. He was the first person I ever ran into who could do everything. Like I would sit down with him and I’d be awed by how much he could do. And what was really great for me, was he and I spent every day together. And we would go out to Redmond to meet … we met with Bill Gates, we met with Steve Ballmer, and like all the high up level people at Microsoft. And I got to sat in a plane seat with him on a flight, about once a month from Toronto to Redmond, and what we’d do is we’d talk about business.
Bill: Yeah, he can’t run away at that point.
Bill: Stuck with you.
Dave: And he was one of those people who he understood I was going to be moving on at some point. He would introduce me to other great people, and was completely unselfish in sharing what he understood, and the people he had. So my first piece of feedback is find that person. If you’re in a job where you don’t have that person, they’re out there. Go find them somewhere else. I mean, I’m not saying leave your job, you might be able to find one through networking, but if push comes to shove, and you need to move away from a job, because eventually it will pay big dividends if you find somebody that … try to find that person is all I can say. It’ll pay big dividends.
And then the second piece is, the first step is the hardest. And somebody told me this to me once. So I was at Microsoft, doing really well, they wanted to me come out to Redmond and actually run Office marketing, marketing for all the Office product for the US.
Bill: Paperclip and everything. Yeah, right.
Dave: And it was a very, very nice offer. But my gut was I wanted to run a company. And I loved Microsoft, I loved the people there, but the net was that I had to take that step. And somebody from the outside told me before I did that, once you take that step, you’ll thank God you did it. And it won’t feel like a big thing on the other side. It’s taking it that’s the hard part.
And so if you’re in a job where you’ve learned a lot, and you’re ready to go, and you have this passion to go do something else, I just … I highly recommend just take the step.
Bill: No, makes sense. And Steve, our executive producer, is weeping in the corner, thinking about his own choices and path, but no, mentors, absolutely and you have left a variety of large, secure, successful enterprises to do either another one, or now, the most recent, to deal with some things that are early stage, and to make them amazing, and valuable, and everything else.
Dave Monahan, CEO of Kleer, a company that we will certainly be watching, a lot happening. You were talking about how the initial pilot was well beyond expectations in terms of learning as well as interest, and exciting road ahead, thanks for your time.
Dave: Yep. Thank you.
Bill: Many thanks to Dave for his time and insight. Not only is his career journey a really interesting one, but what he’s doing at Kleer is also really interesting, and it’s an idea or set of ideas whose time has come, and a market that’s ripe to be progressed, both on the supplier, dentist side, but also from a consumer perspective, so we’re grateful that he shared a bit of that with us today.
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