When the Future is Now: How a Market-Led Approach Lets Brand-Driven CEOs Harness the Growing Wave of Social Activism

David Kincaid, Level5 Strategy founder and author of The Brand-Driven CEO: Embedding Brand into Business Strategy, talks to Customer First Thinking Podcaster Stephen Shaw about the ways brands can benefit from consumer empowerment and the global call for social change.

David met with Stephen Shaw recently to discuss what pushing boundaries at Labatt can teach today’s brand leaders and why they shouldn’t be afraid of data-powered consumers.

Read Part 3 of the interview’s condensed highlights below.


Steven: Someone has to be the voice of the customer in the boardroom or the C-suite. Can you redefine the mandate of marketing to say that a marketing leader is a brand custodian and go-to-market strategist? What’s the route towards cultivating a more empowered CMO? How do you take the voice of the customer into the boardroom?

David: I hope that marketing departments and CMO leaders begin to assume that role. I didn’t wait to be asked (to assume it). I had my wrist slapped a whole bunch of times when I was managing the marketing at Labatt for pushing outside the boundaries. But you know what? First-in wins. And I’d rather be 75% right and first in competitive marketplaces.

Steven: I remember you from Labatt because, at the time, I was a database marketer, if I can use that label. You were doing something really cool then with Labatt in that area. You were a harbinger of the content marketing phenomenon that was crested later by deploying that exact technique. The lifestyle magazine that you created at the time was unique and cool.

David: That was well before the technology allowed for a broader application. What gave me the courage to start that type of thing was my time at American Express. Back in the early 1980s they were leveraging content. It was mainly through direct mail, but it was content nonetheless.

Steven: They were advanced.

David: They used databases to create more customized content and I saw the power of that. So, here I am, in the beer industry that was still a bit trapped in the old-fashioned ways. When I brought the idea forward everybody within Labatt said something like, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about. If the liquor board will approve it, sure, I guess, go ahead.” And the liquor boards were looking at me like, “He’s never asked us about the ability to do that.” I had my wings clipped and I ruffled some feathers. But look where it got us. Right? And sometimes you have to wait 20 years to be able to say that. CMOs shouldn’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder by the CEO. Come forward with an informed point of view about where the market is headed. Then connect it to the purpose that the CEO has outlined and new avenues that the brands could be extended to. That’s the job of the CMO. It’s strategic.


CMOs shouldn’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder by the CEO. Come forward with an informed point of view about where the market is headed. Then connect it to the purpose that the CEO has outlined and new avenues that the brands could be extended to. That’s the job of the CMO. It’s strategic.


Steven: Advertising and marketing theorist Scott Galloway, who’s a bit of a contrarian, loves to poke the hornet’s nest. And one of the things he said recently on The CMO Podcast with Jim Stengel was this: “We’re in a post-brand era.” What are your thoughts on the state of branding being in jeopardy?

David: I agree with half of Scott’s comments because all he’s doing is pointing out what’s changed. As for the consumer, we all know that the consumer has access to more information. As soon as you have a smarter consumer, you’ve got more discretion and you need more discipline. It’s easy for consumers to turn around and do their fact-checking before they’ve even gone to your website. They already have an idea what you’re all about. Great brands play to consumers’ ability to fact-check them. They use that capability. They don’t agonize and say, “Oh, my God, the consumer is now in control. What do we do? We were always in control in the past.” Brands with this approach won’t be around for long.

Look at brands that go in and challenge the norm, like mattress manufacturer Casper. They basically came in and said, “People want personalized comfort. And they don’t want to have to do anything to get it.” Consumers don’t want to have to go to a store and have some pushy salesman talk to them about a mattress. At the end of the pitch, they don’t even understand half of what the salesperson is saying. Then they’re told, “Why don’t you lie down on it?” Come on. What bed isn’t comfortable when you lie on it for a few seconds? This case illustrates an old model that no longer works for consumers who are better informed. The new consumer goes, “I don’t need all of that uncomfortable customer experience. I will tell you what I’m looking for. I don’t need to lie on the bed.” They plug that information online and boom – they get it shipped to them directly in a box. It’s a totally new customer experience.

Steven: That’s the reason behind the explosive growth of Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) brands, isn’t it? Brands have identified a gap in the market that’s not well-served and rushed in to own it. They’re now stealing share away from the name brands that continue to stick by the old model. This is a disruption factor that we’re seeing with brands today. I’d like your opinion on how DTC brands are puncturing a bunch of myths around how brands get built today.

David: Disruptive brands have built their assets and the business system that accompanies it, but not for the purpose of being disruptive. They simply said, “The consumers moved on. They’re a different animal. We’re going to understand that unmet need and what they’re looking for in a much more informed way than anybody ever has.” That’s not disruptive. It’s good brand management.


Disruptive brands have built their assets and the business system that accompanies it, but not for the purpose of being disruptive. They simply said, “The consumers moved on. They’re a different animal. We’re going to understand that unmet need and what they’re looking for in a much more informed way than anybody ever has.” That’s not disruptive. It’s good brand management.


Steven: I want to ask you about the concept of the customer experience versus the brand experience. What’s the connection between those two things?

David: I’ll try to simplify it with a model that I call product-fed. I make a product and think it addresses customer needs based on my research. I make it and put it out there and wait for somebody to buy it. This product-fed approach runs contrary to a market-led approach where my starting point has nothing to do with what I make or sell. Market-led approach – versus a product-fed approach – has to do with understanding how different the customer is. What’s changed? It means asking fundamentally different questions because you’re talking to customers about them, not them as a consumer of a certain product.

Steven: Once a brand is absorbed into a large corporation alongside other brands with other markets, a range of potential brand experiences begins to appear. But at the centre of it, there needs to be an agreement about a core set of principles that customers can expect from the company regardless of which brand they’re consuming. Right?

David: All retail brands are facing tough times now. They need to be able to look into their database and see the lifetime and current net present value of their consumers. Segmentation is a common marketing and business principle that helps companies achieve that. We’re now living in a world of only one market segment, especially in light of the pandemic. Every consumer has unique needs and considerations. Once brands understand their customers, they should be able to do everything within their means to retain their loyalty and keep them engaged. As a result, they’ll be able to keep their brand strong and healthy. It’s a segment of one. But can one brand experience deliver multiple customer experiences? You bet.


Market-led approach – versus a product-fed approach – has to do with understanding how different the customer is. What’s changed? It means asking fundamentally different questions because you’re talking to customers about them, not them as a consumer of a certain product.


Steven: In your book, you point out that if you communicate strongly enough and people believe in your idea, you will create a great employee experience that leads to a great customer experience. In other words, people will believe in what they’re doing and want to get up in the morning to go to work if there’s a purpose to it.

David: Or if they’re inspired by it.

Steven: I want to talk about brand purpose. We’ve seen brands get engaged in social activism and try to be a voice of social justice. Many brands are stepping up and taking a stance. In the past, brands were afraid of that kind of boldness. What’s your perspective on social activism as a branding vehicle going forward? How is change impacting the role of brands while they try to lead society and make a contribution to the world at large?

David: Brand activism is going to become a cost of doing business, if it hasn’t already. That’s not because brand owners woke up one morning with a brilliant idea to change the world. It’s because brand leaders are market-led. The consumer is expecting this higher-order purpose. I teach an MBA class at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. My students who are in their late 20s, early 30s, are so well informed and they truly care about things compared to our generation. I don’t want to make it sound as if we were irresponsible. It’s just that we didn’t know some of this stuff existed. The impact of a manufacturing process on fair trade practices, on diversity, on the environment, on carbon footprint, etc.

Business owners and leaders understand that their market has shifted.


Brand activism is going to become a cost of doing business, if it hasn’t already. That’s not because brand owners woke up one morning with a brilliant idea to change the world. It’s because brand leaders are market-led. The consumer is expecting this higher-order purpose.


Steven: You’ve had a long and very successful career. You’ve been recognized every which way as one of the best marketers, brand marketers – marketers period. What’s the one thing that, despite all the change we’re experiencing today, is the one irrefutable truth about branding and brand marketing?

David: It’s your market. Your consumer. It sounds so nose on your face, but I’ve worked with clients who fundamentally struggled with that concept. I don’t know whether it’s because they don’t want to change, or whether they can’t. They’re just not equipped. But even when I started, the consumer ran the show. I put myself through school playing in a band. I was the business manager of the band, but I was also the drummer. My job was to watch the audience and if we needed to change the song list during the set, then that was my call.

I learned a valuable lesson early on in our band days when this crusty old bar manager came to me and said, “All right. Let’s get this straight. If you don’t play the right songs, people don’t get up and dance. If they don’t get up and dance, they don’t get hot and sweaty. If they don’t get hot and sweaty, they don’t buy my beer. If they don’t buy my beer, this is the last time you’re playing in this bar.” And I never forgot that. If the audience didn’t like the song man, change the goddamn song, or else we ain’t getting paid.

Steven: That’s the greatest marketing story I think I’ve ever heard.

David: The customer calls the shots and always has. The beauty of it in today’s world is that there are so many new opportunities to listen to customers. There’s a great lyric from a song, “Can you listen as well as you hear?” We have so much data now. Am I listening to it? Am I looking to connect the dots? That’s the opportunity.


The customer calls the shots and always has. The beauty of it in today’s world is that there are so many new opportunities to listen to customers.


The Brand-Driven CEO: Embedding Brand into Business Strategy reveals why most business leaders misunderstand, overlook and under-utilize the value of their brands. Find out more here.

 

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