Brand building is a long-term sport with no finish line.
Today’s guest is David Lemley, founder of Retail Voodoo. He has worked with beloved brands, including Starbucks, REI, and KIND. David describes what steps to take to future-proof business and brands to thrive and survive for sustained success.
Ben: Hey, David. How's it going?
David: I'm doing well, Ben. How are you?
Ben: I'm doing fantastic. It's Friday, so I'm looking forward to the weekend.
David: Yeah, we've earned it.
Ben: Yeah, I would say so. Would you mind introducing yourself to our audience and explain what you do at Retail Voodoo?
David: Sure. My name is David Lemley. I am a brand strategist who came up through the system. I've been doing this for about 30 years back before branding had a capital B, which means that it used to be all about making marks and doing things similarly to scouring cattle. Now, it is much more about the promise you should make, the way you keep them, and have people feel about it.
At Retail Voodoo, we work in the food and beverage, wellness, and fitness spaces. We help brands with their unfair share of the market.
Ben: Would you mind mentioning a few of the brands you've worked with. I know from seeing the pitch that your team had sent over, there are a number of companies in that list that our audience might be familiar with.
David: Sure. The ones that come to mind are recent favorites are Essentia Water, which is one that may or may not be known. Another one that I'm really pleased with is the way LesserEvil healthy snacks have turned out. Of course, we've worked with KIND, Pepsi, Walmart, and Starbucks, and many many well-known ones, but the ones that are really exciting right now are the ones that are doing new things in food and beverage. They’re really pushing those ingredients.
Ben: For sure. You're deep in the branding world, and what we're really going to be diving into deep over the course of this conversation is how to future proof your brand. Just briefly, would you mind explaining (your way of thinking), why should brands and companies be concerned with the concept of future-proofing their brand?
David: It's a really good question. The pandemic is a great example of things that can happen in the world that you cannot expect. Having that future-proofing plan gives your brand a higher likelihood of not just surviving, but potentially thriving or increasing long term relevance through unforeseen circumstances.
Ben: Absolutely. What would you say are the potential consequences for neglecting this area or for just coasting on autopilot rather than putting appropriate investment into your branding?
David: The consequences are the loss of market share to hungrier competitors (first and foremost). I think that it also has an impact on your distribution relationship, your key ingredients supplier relationships, your OEMs, and all of those people. If you are on autopilot and other people or brands are connecting with consumers better in your space, then ultimately, you will lose the sale and do it significantly repeatedly.
Ben: Yeah, and I think what's interesting about that is it sounds as though branding really impacts every area of the business and every area of your relationships with all of your partners. Would you say that’s accurate?
David: Yeah, I think it is. I'm so glad you said it that way because that is something that a lot of people don't necessarily understand. It's that when you have a brand, and that is your North Star (if you will). It defines your value system. It decides what you will or what you will not make, who you will or will not do business with, and how you will or will not treat humans—your consumers. Those are things that brand, and graphic design, or marketing systems don't typically think about when [...] something unless they have those guard rails in place ahead of time.
Ben: Yeah. You work with lots of awesome brands. I'm assuming those are very often brands that—at least are the base level—understand the value of branding. Thus, they are making an investment. But if I'm a listener to this episode, let's say I'm in a company where conversations about branding are essentially just like marketing—trying to convince the CEO that branding is not just their logo. It's not just these surface-level elements.
What advice would you have for a marketer in that position to help them make a case for really investing and branding? Because if they can't get past that basic tumbling block, then everything else that we're going to talk about (I imagine) would be very difficult for them to duplicate.
David: Sure. The best advice you can give is to have them understand it's a long term conversation, and there is a business case for everything. What I do whenever I encounter that, which I have not for quite a number of years now. I don't frequently run into that C-suite that thinks that way, but we would come up frequently before. I would just bring in the heavy hitters. I would bring in David Maister, who wrote the book Managing The Professional Service Firm, who is a prof at Harvard, and who wrote a book that said the brand is the only sustainable business asset in the world.
I would pull from all of these experts and say, don't trust me, here's what the brightest minds in the world think about this. Bringing that data and research to the conversation will, over time, erode that wall of resistance to the idea that brand is an essential component in a business.
Ben: Absolutely. Let's say this hypothetical marketer. They’ve gotten past those initial hurdles. What would you say are some of the essential components of building a brand that is effectively future-proofed? Or maybe a better way of putting it is, how do you begin that process of future-proofing a brand?
David: It's complicated, and one could argue that because we don't know the future, there are so many facets that it's an ongoing process. But if you start with and maintain a commitment to understanding your core audience, understanding who they are, and what they need. Therefore, if you know who they are, you're going to be able to anticipate their changing preferences as consumers and their changing needs as people.
If you are journeying with them rather than trying to sell them stuff, you are going to maintain a dialogue, which will keep you relevant for the long term.
Ben: David's thoughts on bringing data and research in the conversations with executive stakeholders and their C-suite is spot on. And it's applicable in so many areas anytime you're trying to build a case for taking a certain course of action or making an investment in a particular area of marketing or your business.
Sometimes, decision-makers just really want to see some outside validation, that your ideas are data-backed. They are supported by research. They are championed by industry experts. And you're not just pulling something out of your imagination before they are willing to sign-off on a budget and the resources that you need to really get things done.
That opens a whole other discussion around trust. If executives didn’t trust you as a marketer, why did they hire you? That's a very valid frustration, but if you can look at things from their perspective and give them the things they want to see, they can feel confident in really throwing their full support behind your ideas and just really showing that you've done your homework that way.
You'll find that those conversations around increasing your investment and branding, increasing your investment in really anything. Those conversations are going to grow much more successfully. Now, back to David.
Let's say a company, let's say they have a strong brand right now. They feel pretty good about where their brand is at. But let's say that this concept of proactively trying to think long term, to think about it like it’s an ongoing conversation, or to really do those things to future proof the brand. What would you recommend they do? Say they’re advanced with branding, but maybe this is a new concept to them.
David: If they're strong and want to think about the future, understanding that people today are looking to brands to have morals and values the way that previous generations looked to schools, churches, and social clubs. They are now using brands as building blocks of their own personal identity, so they want you to have a value system that allows them to look good or be good by association.
We call that citizen brandhood. For brands that want future proof, deciding what kind of citizen you are, and going out, picking a fight, and tackling society’s enemies is a great way to maintain long-term relevance.
Ben: That's a super interesting point. The CMO—or whoever in the marketing department is responsible for making these kinds of decisions—really wants to become a more values-driven type brand (like what you're describing). How would you recommend that they begin identifying what their own values are authentically rather than just trying to latch onto whatever thing seems to be the issue of the day they need to attach themselves to, whether it makes sense or not?
David: The key thing is to have a cultural assessment of the organization and enroll all of the people who are going to have a stake in the decisions you are making. That might be the rest of the C-suite, it might be the entire marketing team, it might be the finance team and the procurement team. Everyone who can have an opinion needs to participate in that cultural assessment.
From there, there will be clues. Oh, we all care about this. We're all here this way. We care about children. We care about social justice. We care about equality. Or we care about making sure there's food for the next generation. Something will come up.
I'm using my food and beverage lens right now today (for whatever reason it's showing up), but it helps paint the picture. I think when we work with organizations who “don't have a value system in place,” we always promise them that it's there and our duty to help them unearth it and to do it in a way that is credible, authentic, and nobody is going to want to jump out a window.
Ben: Yeah. No jumping out the window. I'm just speaking anecdotally. This is something I feel like I see a lot. You can see a lot of brands on social media getting criticized when they do this wrong. Or if they try to attach themselves to a cause, to a value, or to an ethic that they just transparently don't embody beyond a tweet or an Instagram post here and there (or something like that).
What do you see are the consequences of not being thoughtful with the way that you try to convey or communicate your brand's values?
David: The consequences of trying to have values du jour—that is high risk because we live in a world where anything that can have ever said, thought, felt, or done can be weaponized through the web by people who want to prove that you're wrong. That is the risk. You will get a huge backlash.
The way to be mindful and not have that happen is to take your time and do not let social media or your social media team try and drive your brand. It is a tool and a tactic, and it's an amazing thing. However, if you don't know who you are, it's better to keep your mouth shut.
Ben: Right. Switching back a little bit toward what does this actually look like? Brand building and future-proofing, what does it actually look like in terms of the actual tasks or tactics that a marketer might carry out? How would you recommend our listeners start assessing or auditing their brand in order to make sure that they are keeping themselves forward-focused and looking towards the future?
David: You know, I read a book about this exact subject.
Ben: I thought it might come up.
David: It’s called Beloved and Dominant Brands. My copy is covered in sticky notes right now, but Beloved and Dominant Brands, which is an ecosystem to help organizations think this through as individuals and as management teams. What it does is it gives the entrepreneur, the executive team, the marketing team, and the investment team all on the same page. It gives them the common vocabulary and helps them benchmark their organization as a brand against a competitive set or a future set.
Ben: Very cool. I would say, for anybody listening, I would definitely recommend checking out that book to get some of that more tactical guidance in this area. The last question that I’ll throw your way is what tips you might share with our listeners to ensure that their entire company plays? Everyone in the company who has a stake in embodying the company's brand, how do you manage to help the entire organization do its part to keep that brand consistent for the long haul?
David: I'm a huge fan of having a playbook that is widely distributed, shared to, and co-authored by all. But that doesn't happen weekly. It happens in seasons. This is what we're doing now. We're going to collect and we're going to reimagine this in two years, in three years, or in five years. Doing it in that way is really important, but as they are thinking about tactics to employ, the one that I like to think about the most is getting organizations to start thinking about vectors.
Let's say you make a product, and right now, you are the only one who has that ingredient supply, but you know that in two years, yours is going to be gone, so the entire pricing model is going to change. You can take that vector and crosshatch it with changing consumer preferences. Maybe you can say, oh, it's going to become international. Then there are three vectors. You start to say, what would the world look like then? What do I need to price it as? What does it need to be called? Do I need a different ingredient or a different technology?
You can start going after that based on your value system as an organization. Then you have that as a fourth vector. Now you start to say the sandbox is [...] rather than the world is my oyster, and you stay relevant over the long term.
Ben: Cool. That's great advice. Like I said, that's the last question that I had. But before I let you go, is there anything about this topic that you feel is really important for our listeners to take away from this conversation that you haven't had the opportunity to touch on yet?
David: The thing that I would like listeners to know is brand building is a long term sport with no finish line.
Ben Sailer is the Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.