Are brands dead due to the Internet and direct accessibility to companies?
Today, I’m talking to Bernie Schroeder about why you (especially millennials) should care about branding.
Bernie is a senior marketing and brand expert working at San Diego State University to help students start their own companies. Also, he is the author of Brands and Bullshit.
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Louis: Bonjour! Bonjour! Welcome to another episode of everyonehatesmarketers.com, the marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host, Louis Grenier.
We explored the topic of branding in a past episode with Jonathan Salem Baskin. He made the point that brands were dead because basically, we don’t need brands anymore since we can go right to the company, contact the right person inside this business thanks to internet, and that basically brands were dead. That was his main point. You can check out this episode just by searching ‘brands are dead everyone hates marketers’ on Google.
Today, we are going to talk about why you should care about branding and brands in general, and why millennials, in particular, should care about it in this digital world. My guest today is a senior marketing and brand expert. He is based in Silicon Valley. He worked for Apple. He created the $1 billion integrated marketing agency in Silicon Valley. He helped and launched marketing activities for Adobe, for McAfee, for Yahoo!, Amazon, and now he works for the San Diego State University helping students to start their own companies. Finally, he’s the author of Brands and BullS**t: Excel at the Former and Avoid the Latter. Bernie Schroeder, welcome aboard.
Bernie: Louis, thanks for having me.
Louis: Alright. Let’s get started right away. You’re making the point that millennials, in particular, don’t understand brand or the customer well enough, which leads to marketing being mindless chatter. You believe that millennial marketers, in particular, suffer from this problem. Can you tell us more about this? First, let’s define what millennial means.
Bernie: Millennial, for my definition, I’ll use the standard definition of people between the ages of 18 and 35. The reason they’re suffering from the problem is because they have not been classically trained in understanding marketing or understanding branding. With the rapid rise of digital marketing, it meant that you, Louis, in an apartment, could start a digital marketing company. You could be 20 years old, you could be 22 years old. You could completely ignore branding, you could ignore strategy, and you could say, “I know how to do Google AdWords. I know how to build a website,” and you could start consulting with clients.
What’s happened is an entire generation of marketers has missed the classical training that traditional marketing provided—either in agencies, or let’s say retail brands—and they skipped right to digital. It’s not that the millennials aren’t smart. They’re smart, they’re just not trained. I think that’s why they produced so much mindless chatter. I can create an AdWords campaign, so I will. What’s the strategy? Just make noise. Great.
Louis: Yeah, exactly. There’s one thing I want to clarify first before before we go on. I’ve heard this term ‘millennial’ so many times that it’s just giving me a hard time, and I know a few listeners are suffering from this exact problem. I’m going to try to ignore it every time you talk about it. No, I’m only trying to mess with your mind right now. I am a millennial, as per your definition. But I guess this group of people is so wide in terms of culture, in terms of influence, that I find it difficult sometimes to group them together. What do you think of that?
Bernie: I don’t disagree. I see the way it’s being used. I remember when people started using the phrase ‘baby boomers’ in the 80s, saying, “Oh, this is the biggest economic group that’s ever been assembled. They hold 90% of the world’s wealth.” For a while, I was like, “That’s just bullshit. How do you typify an entire generation?”
I think it just happened. This age we’re in, is an age of easy classification and the whole millennial thing was probably created by marketers. It became a term associated with some noise about marketing and it became easy. I see the people that rail against it and say, “Well, you should segment these groups, you should really look at them, you should understand them.”
I like this age group. I wish I was in this age group, not because of the age group but because of the crazy potential to do amazing work if you know what you’re doing.
Louis: Yep, I get that. Can you tell us again the age brackets of millennials?
Bernie: For me, I’m not even going to go 18-35. I’m going to say for the people that I know and the people I’m mentoring, I’d say it’s probably more 25-32.
Louis: Okay. From chatting to a lot of listeners recently and receiving emails, I can see that a lot of them are in this age group. But if you’re not, you don’t have to listen to this episode and think it’s not for you. We’re going to talk about branding, the definition of branding, why does it matter, and how to create a brand, a real brand so that you can get customers and leads, thanks to that. Even if you’re not a millennial per se, you will definitely get a lot of value from this episode.
You explained briefly the problem that this has, but let’s dig a little bit deeper into the problem. What other kind of symptoms that a lack of branding brings in your business, should it be a small business or even a medium-sized business or startup?
Bernie: I’ll give you a great example. There’s an agency that I helped start with a San Diego State student about seven years ago. He stole a client from his current agency and I stole a client from another agency for him. Overnight he was a $15,000 a month agency. This last year, they went over $10 million in revenue.
When I saw him last, he was telling me that they just landed a new client and that they picked up $150,000 of some content and some AdWords business. I said, “That’s great. I know that client.” He says, “Well, how did you know them?” I said, “I meet regularly with the CEO and talk about where we’re going in terms of strategy.” I said, “Did you meet with the VP of Marketing?” He said, “No.” I said, “Did you meet with the Director of Marketing?” He said, “No.” I said, “Who did you meet with?” He goes, “I met with the Manager of Digital Marketing.” I go, “Great. You’re having conversations with managers of digital marketing to do tactical work and I’m having dinner with the CEO to determine the strategy for the next five years. Do you see the difference?” And he just looked at me, he said, “I get it. I get it. I need to figure out how to move up to a more strategic level.”
This is what I see a lot of, younger digital shops. I don’t even know, Louis, if they’re aware of the fact that they’re engaged in tactical decisions and not with strategists at that company.
Louis: But why is it a problem is they’re making $10 million a year, then—
Bernie: Yeah, I agree. They’re making $10 million a year in what I call transaction revenue, and transaction revenue means that as soon as someone else in the marketplace can copy your transaction and do it at a better price, then it’s a law of diminishing returns. As more agencies grow and they start to compete for these dollars, they will look alike. What will separate them? What I’ve been advising the people that I’m mentoring is it’s the strategy and the brand-building capability that will differentiate you.
It’s a great time in the last five years, Louis. It might be a great time in the next three years. But after that, I think you’re going to see a shake-out amongst the agencies. The people that are just good at transactions, that will go to AI and automation, and the people that are strategists, they will grow.
Louis: Besides the agency world—even if a lot businesses are from this particular vertical, outside of that, for startups, small business, and even larger business—why is it a problem to not have branding or not focusing on strategy and just focusing on tactics?
Bernie: That’s great. I was on a phone call on Monday with a $400 million company in Dallas, Texas. It’s a tech company. They got the $400 million very, very quickly and now they’re stalled because they have a lot of competition. The current CEO asked the VP of Marketing, who is a tactical marketer, she’s never done brand strategy. The brand has been built by default.
With this competition and the pressure they’re facing, the CEO has turned to the VP of Marketing and said, “We need to do a better job of branding.” She doesn’t know what branding is, Louis. She’s grown up in a tech company that’s grown rapidly and all they did was tactical sales and marketing. Now she’s in an environment where their company is being attacked by two types of competitors: the larger IBMs and the smaller, nimbler companies that are coming behind them, and they never built a brand. Other customers don’t know why they should stay with them.
She’s now scrambling, calling me, saying, “Can you help us select a branding agency?” I said, “To do what?” She said, “Well, to build our brand.” I go, “Do you guys, from the CEO down, do you guys even know what that means?” There was a momentary pause and she said, “No.”
Louis: So what is a brand?
Bernie: I think a brand—at its simplest definition—is something that you have an intrinsic, emotional, or trusting feeling that that brand is better for whatever reason than an alternative in the marketplace.
Louis: And it’s a very emotional feeling, isn’t it? You’re talking about feeling, which I like because that’s what people feel. It’s true. When I think of it, sometimes I would go on a website, I would compare two competitors, like choose a solution between the two, and I have a feeling that one of them is better. I cannot pinpoint exactly why I trust this one better, but I do. I would then take this decision to choose them overall.
I’ve also realized something recently. When I was a young boy, I used to watch this particular TV show on this French channel and the weather forecast was always displayed before that. There was this sponsor on this weather channel called [Darty], which is a kind of a TV computer shop that just sponsored the weather channel, the weather forecast for so many years just before my TV show. For some weird reason, they just sponsored it. That’s the only thing they talked about was just the Darty and the fact that you should trust them because they are the best.
Years and years after, I naturally went to this shop without even thinking about others because I just was wired to think about it. It really came to me after that, I only realized that the only reason why I did that was because they managed to get my trust over years and years and their brand was top of mind for me.
Bernie: We only have room, Louis, for three brands in any category ladder in our mind. If I say jeans, you’re going to say three. If I say car rental, you’re going to say say three. If I say coffee, chocolate, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to say the top three that come into your mind. If you don’t understand that consumers have ladders for everything they purchase or consider in their mind, and there’s got to be a trusting or emotional preferences, then as a marketer, I don’t know what you’re doing.
Louis: Yup, exactly. In this episode, let’s go into a step-by-step process that people can use in order to either use the brand they already have and leverage the benefits better or at least trying to create a brand from when they’re starting up, like starting a new startup, or new products, starting to think about this feeling that you want people to have.
You get this example actually of this person reach out to you in a panic because she realized she needed a brand. For this type of company, how does it work? How do you go about making sure that there is a good brand behind all of that?
Bernie: Can I use the early days of Amazon to explain this to you?
Louis: Of course.
Bernie: When Jeff called us and asked us if we want to be an agency for consideration—I think it was late 1995—I didn’t even know what Amazon was. I was busy working on several other household name accounts. Long story short, we became their first agency. When we met with Jeff, I said, “In terms of the book business, how many book sellers are online?” At the time there was only about 40. Tiny ones. He said, “Well, don’t you think my competition is Barnes & Noble and Borders?” And I said, “We can’t go up against them because it would be a direct assault. So we have to find a ladder we can claim as our own and be a leader on that ladder.” So he said, “What do you think that ladder is?” I said, “The ladder is online book seller because Barnes & Noble and Borders do not have websites yet.”
We are not going to play with them on their playing field. They’re going to have to come to our playing field. We’re going to position ourselves very, very quickly as the world’s largest online bookseller. He had told me he was not going to offer the books for less, so we were not going to be competing on price. I said, “What the hell are we going to competing on?” He said, “I don’t know yet.” I said, “Okay, let me go study what customers will trust if you’re only going to be delivering products through the internet and they’re never going to meet you.”
For about two months, Louis, we struggled as an agency from a branding perspective to figure out how to brand them to be a leader—as a startup in an emerging space—against known competitors. We asked ourselves one day as we’re struggling, who delights us? If you order a book on Amazon and that actually arrives at your home, it kind of an amazing thing at that time period. It’s kind of a little delight. We were like, who the hell delights us?
After a little bit of brainstorming, we decided that concierges at small boutique hotels delight us. They remember us when we come back, they greet us, they get things for us, they make recommendations for restaurants. What we did is we created a sheet for Jeff of 19 things that we felt the Amazon site needed to do. It needed to remember people, it needed to make recommendations, it needed to allow reviews, it needed, it needed, it needed, it needed. We gave him all of that and we said, “Can you program this into the website?” He said, “Yes, I can.” I said, “Good.”
When it got programmed in the website and their capabilities were this trusting kind of service, then when we came out with advertising, we used humor to position ourselves at that large scale. Here’s an example. 681 books on golf, 912 on divorce. Amazon: Earth’s biggest bookstore. We ran those strip ads in all the financial sections of all the major newspapers initially in the United States. When I say a strip ad, I mean a 1” x 10” strip ad. It was very inexpensive. We used the entire breadth and width of all of the niche categories to demonstrate that if there was any arcane subject in the world on books, Amazon had it.
Very quickly we became number one in the online bookstore ladder and it started to explode from there with the feeling that Amazon knew what people wanted if they were looking for books. That’s how we started it.
Louis: This is a fantastic story and I can’t help but try to break down the steps that you use because this is what the listeners want. Let’s take a step back. Let’s forget about Amazon for now and think about another business that you would give advice to when it comes to the branding thing.
The very first thing you mentioned was this idea of a ladder and creating a category almost. Would you recommend that the very first step that any business or startup take when it comes to that is to pick the category, to pick the position?
Bernie: Not exactly. Let’s go back to this example in Dallas. The very first step is I would try to figure out how that current company is perceived in the marketplace by their customers. I would go seek out what I call customer truth, not the bullshit that the clients are going to tell me. I would ask for a list of their top 100 customers and then I would not tell them whom I’m going to talk to. I would go talk to some of them and then I would go visit competitors as well and not tell those people I’m working for that brand.
Within 30 days, I’m going to understand why people are buying from this company, so I’m going to understand the truth. Once I understand the truth—
Louis: Let me stop you right there because you’re saying so many interesting things that we need to break them down. You would select the top customers, top 100. You will also identify the competitors. Will you identify direct competitors or alternative type of competitors? How will you go you about this?
Bernie: I would start with their known direct competitors, and in my research, I would probably discover some edge competitors as well. But I want to understand who the players are in the marketplace. I’m also going to pull the trend report on what’s going on in the marketplace. Is cloud software going up? Is it going sideways? I don’t believe what customers tell me, Louis. I don’t mean that as a negative, but I don’t believe them. They’re so close to everything, I would go visit analysts as well.
I realize I’m spilling stuff out but you cannot believe what a client tells you. They’re too close to their own battlefield. You have to have somebody that can step back and almost have a five-year horizon. A one-year to five-year and say, “Look, you’re running here but the market’s shifting.” Getting at what’s going on in the marketplace and determining how customers are viewing them is the customer truth part.
Louis: You use the word customer and I think that’s what I’ve been confusing because you meant clients when you said you don’t trust what customers says. You mean like you don’t trust what companies—
Bernie: That’s correct.
Louis: Right. However, you do trust what their customers will tell you is you’re asking the right questions.
Bernie: I do and I don’t trust that they know everything. I have a saying in my book that customers are not always right, but they’re never wrong. In other words, a customer can’t tell you what the exact solution looks like that they want from your company potentially. But they can tell you what they don’t want.
Louis: And they can tell you the problem they suffer from very vividly and they can describe the situations they are in and where they live and all of that.
Let’s break it down. Talk to customers, you would also identify competitors. That’s step one, step two. Step three you would also look at trend reports and talk to analysts. Explain that to me like I’m five. What is a trend report and how can people easily get access to those type of resources?
Bernie: One, you can google your ass off. You can google anything on any industry and see if any analyst or any other researchers put data on trends. There’s also a great website called Trend Hunter where they assemble trend data. I also have set up about 30 Google Alerts for myself where I’m looking at specific keywords. Google sends me an email every week on any new information that’s arrived at the internet. I also read a lot. I use a confluence of information gathering all the time, so that I’m paying attention to the key trends that are shifting.
Louis: Why should you care about the trends that are shifting?
Bernie: Because if you’re not aware that a certain type of wireless security is moving across IoT devices and you’re counseling or advising people on what they should be doing in a LAN, in a line-type based scenario, they’re going to miss an entire market. I like to understand where trends are going to cross markets that’s people and industries at almost the same time. A classic example of that would be Uber.
Louis: I always make the point in this podcast that marketers suffer from a lot of information overload. This is why I tend not to read and care about trends too much because I believe that if you do your research well with customers, usually you can pick them up as well. What would you say to this comment?
Bernie: I wouldn’t agree with you on that comment. I meet with a lot of clients still. I still do consulting on the side and when I talk about three trends that are coming together at the same time in their industry or across their market, they might be aware of one of them, but they’re not looking. For example, if I’m meeting with a retail food company, they’re not paying attention perhaps to an IT or technology trend that’s actually changing how their product might be delivered. I like the confluence of trends.
Louis: Interesting. Steps one, two, and three we already talked about, and then you started to talk about you would go to talk to their customers. How would you go about it and what type of questions are you asking?
Bernie: I’m asking questions that are simple, Louis. I think most times we really complicate. I think people ask heavily-worded questions to show people how smart they are. I like to ask really simple questions, like, “What’s your biggest sales challenge? As a CEO of the company, what keeps you up at night? What are the two things that are occurring in your industry the could destroy you? What’s the one opportunity that could absolutely accelerate you?”
I ask simple questions, and I don’t ask a question like, “What software do you use? How do you rank the software?” I’m looking at what they’re trying to do strategically and eventually I’ll understand how this company’s software product helps them tactically, but I want to make the brand stand out at a strategic level, so I need to find out higher levels of pain.
Louis: Okay but that’s very B2B-oriented right and almost large businesses, but let’s say if I have a business that says to consumers, to customers, what types of questions or what things rather would you like to find out?
Bernie: One of the things I do when there’s an opportunity to engage with customers, I do a lot of observation labs and I do a lot of what I call mystery shopping. If you hired me and you have a retail store or you have a website, I would try to figure out how to watch what consumers do. I’d either be watching them on the website through path analysis or something else, or I’d go into a physical environment and I’d watch them. What did they do? How did they come in? Are they lost? Is he clear? Where did they go first? Where did they go second?
Eventually, I might intercept a few who appear to be wandering or buy directly and I say, “Why did you walk in and buy that exactly directly?” Or, “Why are you wandering? You’re not finding what you want?” I find that a lot of marketers do not do any type of observation lab at all. They try to gather quick bites of information, perhaps from online surveys or just what they think they know. Like when I meet young marketers today and they have a client—let’s say it’s a retail client—I say, “Have you ever talked to a customer of this brand?” And they go, “Live?” And I go, “Yeah.” They go, “No.” I’m like, “How do you do what you do then?” They go, “Oh, we have all these surveys, and this online shit, and this other stuff we buy, and...” And I go, “But you never actually talked to a customer who’s bought your client’s product?” “No.” I say, “Okay.”
Louis: It reminds me of basically doing research on the customer journey from a customer’s perspective.
Bernie: It’s a great way to put it, the customer journey.
Louis: I want to challenge you more on the questions you are asking. You said a lot of different types of questions that could be helpful but maybe can you summarize and identify the top five that are usually helpful that you find lead to the best answers?
Bernie: I don’t have a top five in that way, Louis. Every brand and every customer type is different. But I’ll tell you this: I rarely ask questions that are more than five words long. They’re very, very simple. They’re very thread-like. Why did you come into the store today? Which brand are you considering? Why are you considering that brand? What is the one thing that that product or brand fulfills? What’s your biggest pain point?
I ask simple, simple questions because if I ask questions that are too long, they’re leading. I don’t know where the thread’s going sometimes, so I find the simpler the question, the more I can go a little bit deeper, a little bit deeper, a little bit deeper, and I open up the customer slowly.
Louis: I like it very much. This is something we talked about in this podcast before. The need to ask open-ended questions, the need to act as if you’re a journalist not a salesperson. You’re not trying to sell anything when you do this. You’re trying to understand them deeply.
Why are you buying from us? What item is it are you considering? What made you purchase from us? What almost stopped you from purchasing from us? Those other questions that tend to be the best answers.
You would do this exercise, right? How do you make sense of all of the data you gathered?
Bernie: I have to simplify for the senior executives. Trust me. I have to simplify it down to a competitive landscape. I might do a marketplace grid, which is just a horizontal and vertical axis around the two most important things. One important thing on the vertical, one important thing on the horizontal for customers in that marketplace. Then I place the competitors and the brand that I’m working for on that grid. Then I tell them, “This is where you are. I don’t give a shit if you like it or don’t. This is where you are.
Now, here’s an open spot in the market if we move up and left. Your competitors see it. The market is growing. Income is growing for that particular customer. Do we want to stay where we are and solidify our position, or do we want to move slightly up and over the right quadrant? Because I believe there’s a $3 billion opportunity if we move toward that quadrant position before anyone else does. What do you want to do from a strategic point of view? Defend where you are? Or do you want to head a little bit toward the blue ocean where you can be more of a dominant leader in perhaps a niche category inside this market?” Those are the kind of conversations I start to have with senior management.
Louis: How do you identify the two axis? You said the two important things.
Bernie: From the customers.
Louis: Alright, so for Amazon, what were the two most important things?
Bernie: I think the two most important things ultimately were—if you think about the early days of the internet—one had to be trust and the other had to be just ease, ease of use. People were scared to buy stuff on the internet and for us at a very starting, we had to say ease of use. We have to have one click. They have to come back and not re-register themselves. Two, we need to get them to trust us on everything.
Louis: But yet in the ads example you mentioned, the sheer volume, the sheer quantity of different books, which is yet another value position, isn’t it?
Bernie: Yeah. We used the width and the breadth of the selection simply to make them stand out in the marketplace. I can’t ask you to trust me when you don’t even know who I am, so I have to make myself look like the world’s largest bookstore. Then when you buy from me, you go, “Wow! It was really easy. Wow! They delivered it. I trust these guys.”
Louis: This is an important thing. You cannot trust a company or someone if you don’t know this person or you don’t know this company and you’ve never experience anything from them before. Which is why I completely failed in my first business three or four years ago when I started. Nobody knew me, I had no credibility, nobody trusted me, and I tried to sell some high-end marketing consulting services to companies. This is why I ultimately failed. I have learned my lesson. But this is it. To build trust, you must raise awareness first and take your time, because it takes time, doesn’t it?
Bernie: Not to sound like I’m a male on this phone call, but it’s like dating. When I first meet you somewhere and I want to get to know you better, I’m not going to be super aggressive. You know nothing about me and so you move carefully, you move slowly, you build trust. Actually, honestly, Louis? In the same way but quite different, you’re building a relationship. And you can choose to say, “I don’t give a shit about building relationships with customers. I just want to sell them crap.” But if you take a relationship mentality, you won’t do shit marketing.
Louis: Yup. Agreed with you and this is what we’re trying to fight against. If you have a good product that does good, that is actually helping people, you will do good marketing. However, if you’re trying to sell them crap, then you going to turn into bad marketing. You’re going to do shitty marketing, shady marketing, aggressive marketing, and that’s not going to work in the long term.
Bernie: And it doesn’t even have to be crap, Louis. Let’s say the company makes really good product or they have a really good service, but you’re coming on so hard, so aggressive, it just looks like a sales play and from the long term perspective—that’s another thing I don’t see digital marketers do and they don’t take a long-term view—you and I, Louis, I think we know how quickly three to five years goes by. If you take the time and build an amazing brand, it is defensible when the market heats up. If you just go out and get sales, and someone else says, “Yeah, I like those guys. But oh, that’s on sale.” You’re not in a defensible position when the market heats up and competitors come.
Louis: We stopped at talking about the competitive landscape and identify the two most important thing in each axis and trying to get the decision whether you want to defend this position, whether you want to move up, or left, or right, and trying to basically be considered by customers as the leader of the category you’re in. What is the next step then to have this brand that we can be proud of?
Bernie: If senior management agrees on a strategy—actually at the highest level—yes we want to move or yes we want to defend, then we’d look at the current, all of the current communications. We do almost like a communications analysis and I would put everything on the floor that the company communicates. I would print out web pages, I would put business cards, everything the company uses to be visual, I would put it on the floor. I would say, “Okay, if we’ve agreed that this is where we’re going or what we’re going to do, is what you’ve been doing, does it communicate that in the leadership position, and does it position you in the right category? Based on that, it’s either yes or no, and if it’s no, then we say great. We’re starting over. We’re going to create a refresh of the brand. We’re going to recreate a stronger positioning. We’re going to recreate all the communication materials and it’s all going to sync up with exactly what our strategic goal is, and it just falls down like a waterfall from there.
Louis: Your strategy, the strategy you choose with leadership, fuels the rest. I had a few conversations with customer experience, especially as an expert, and they basically said the exact same thing than you, which is obviously a good thing. It seems like experience, branding, marketing, communications, strategy, all of that is basically the same thing. I would define it as just good marketing and you might disagree that branding and marketing are slightly not the exact same thing but good marketing starts with a good strategy that feeds into having a good brand that people can trust, that feeds the rest, that feeds the experience, that feeds everything else, right?
Louis: I think we have a good framework that people can use. Obviously, we can’t go that in-depth about every single type of businesses and sizes and marketplace, but I think you’ve given us a lot of resources and things to look up to. You definitely taught me a few things in this, step-by-step, especially around the trends and how to watch for that. That was quite interesting. Thanks for playing this game. I know it’s not easy to go step-by-step like this in a few minutes.
Bernie: It’s all good.
Louis: Let’s talk about you a bit more. You mentioned your experience as a marketer, as a branding expert as well, and how you helped Amazon to become who they are today. I’m curious to know why did you choose to make the move from this type of agency and very high level marketing strategy, very impactful marketing to moving on to San Diego State University and helping students start companies?
Bernie: When I found out I was good at marketing, I was in Detroit at the time. By the way, one thing I should tell anyone who’s listening, if they don’t have a great mentor when it comes to marketing and branding, they will never have the kind of career they can potentially have. I had three mentors that absolutely made my career. All I wanted to do, Louis, when I found out I was good at marketing, I just wanted to do great marketing. I did really good marketing in Detroit with Ford and Kellogg’s. I wanted to go to a bigger arena, so I went to New York and I did marketing for Mercedes and Nikon.
Then I started looking around and saying, “Is this my life? I’m seven years in, I’m really good. If I’m just going to do this for the rest of my life then I’m not going to do it for the people I work for. I’m going to do it for myself.”
I went to Silicon Valley, specifically looking for two or three other people that I could build and integrate an agency with. I did that, I thought we just going to build a fun little company, Louis, that we could just work at, have fun, make decent money and it’s a good life. No assholes for employees, no assholes for clients, we do great work, we go home, we play with our children.
How the hell was I supposed to know that that message, that positioning message of branding with integrated marketing attached, was going to grow into a $1 billion company in six years? I had no idea. So when that happened, I found out we actually—as a company—started doing shit work. We went through an IPO, we bought 30 other companies, we merged with a couple of idiots, and all of a sudden we were a $1.2 billion company and I was embarrassed by what I was seeing.
When you get to become really, really good at something, I think you have to challenge yourself and say, “How good are you?” I left the agency side and went to the client side. I’d never been to the client side. That’s what brought me to San Diego, Louis. I agreed to turn around a $300 million financial mutual fund type company down here. Money interested me, not from a personal point of view, but from a challenge of how do you separate people from their money and get them to give it to you. And that was very successful. I learned that I could step into a company by myself with no one else, and turn around a very, very large company.
I did it three more times, different companies. Then I woke up one day and I didn’t want to be anyone’s money bitch anymore. It had been a good experience, they’d all turned out well, but I thought I’m serving these masters just to fix broken companies and make money. There has to be something better.
I asked myself a simple question: “When was I the happiest in my career?” And I said, “Whenever I walked on a college campus.” I guest lectured at several colleges. So I walked in that morning from the company I had fixed and I resigned. Over the next week, I started meeting with deans from different colleges in San Diego, and that’s how I arrived at San Diego State. Helping kids start companies with my knowledge of entrepreneurship, branding, and marketing, is probably the funnest thing I’ve done in my life.
Louis: That’s quite a story. Are you happy now?
Bernie: I’m extremely happy but I’m still—it’s crazy, Louis, must be the way I’m wired—I’m still looking for challenges. I still do a little side consulting. It’s like I was a top chef, and every now and then I want to wander in the kitchen and see if I can still cook.
Louis: Yup, I get the feeling. I get the feeling. And you’ve written how many books already?
Bernie: Well, just this Brands and BullS**t is my third book and I’ll be honest. I never intended to write a book, but once you write the first one, you’ll actually discover that if you understand that if you write a book, you have to write it for your reader, not you. Then it’s relatively easy to write books. I never thought I’d be an author. It’s kind of funny.
Louis: You mentioned mentor and having a mentor is one of the key advice you’ll give to marketers and digital marketers. How would one find a mentor?
Bernie: The first thing you do is you look around in your local market and you say, “Who is a senior-level person in marketing and branding? Do I have a connection to them in LinkedIn? Do I have a connection then through a university we both went to?”
I would also be going to branding and senior marketing events and networking my ass off because finding a mentor, again, is like dating. You can’t just walk up to someone and go, “Will you be my mentor?” You have to craft some relationships.
Let’s say you find someone interesting. Let’s say I found you interesting, Louis. The way I would approach you is, I would reach out to you and say, “Can I buy you a cup of coffee? I’m a young marketer, I admire the career you’ve built, I want to buy you a cup of coffee, and I want to pick your brain about what you did right and wrong.”
Let’s say I do that 20 times with 20 senior-level marketers or branders in San Diego. I’m only looking to connect with one person ultimately. I date 20 times and on our date, Louis, you and I hit it off. We sense it. There’s a chemistry. You lean in and you go, “I like you Bernie. Where are you working?” “Oh, I’m working at this little digital shop.” “Well, we should touch base every now and then, because I see what you’re doing and I think you have potential to do other things.”
Then I make it a point to build my connection with you. I start sending you articles. I start sending you a trend report if I have it. Now it’s a glass of wine, maybe it’s dinner and we’re connecting.
Then one day when I feel we built our relationship, I lay it out there. I go, “You know, I’m struggling, Louis.” And then you go, “How so? You seem pretty sharp.” I go, “Argh! I got this situation...” Or, “I got this...” Then the mentorship begins.
Louis: That’s a good summary of what marketing is, isn’t it? It’s a summary of what building relationships and trust. Thanks for that. It’s a pretty practical way to look at it. There’s no hack, once again, to get a mentor or to do anything in marketing or in life. It’s all about building trust and taking your time.
Louis: What do you think marketers should learn today and people who are interested in marketing? What do you think they should learn today that will help them in the next 10 years or even 20 years?
Bernie: I think if they just understand that if they’re good at marketing, if they like marketing, they have to rise to a strategic level or they’ll never get the opportunities they want. They’ll be classified as a tactical niche marketer, “Oh that person’s just good at AdWords.” “That person is just good at Instagram.” “That person’s just good at ‘whatever’ content.”
You need to come upstream and be in the room when strategic conversations are taking place. My advice would be if you love marketing then ask yourself if you want to be a senior strategy marketer. If the answer is yes, then you have to put together a plan on how—over three to five years—you’re going to move upstream and become more strategic. Part of that is really understanding—at its core essence—what is branding.
Louis: Amazing. Based on that, what are the top three resources you would recommend listeners?
Bernie: It’s a classic book I still like and no digital marketers I found are reading it. (The art of) Positioning: (or) The Battle for Your Mind by Ries and Trout. It’s a classic. It’s so good. I like The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier. He does a great visual job or explaining how you build a brand.
This is going to be a crazy one. Because you’re always selling as a marketer, you’re selling your ideas, you’re selling yourself, you have to know exactly how to do that well. There is a guy who was a Xerox trainer. By the way, Xerox—at one point in the world—had the best sales training programs in the world. He wrote a book called SPIN Selling and his name is Neil Rackham. He explained how you sell air and how you gain trust.
When I read that book and went to a workshop, it changed my life. I treated my girlfriend differently, swear to God. All of a sudden I was completely a needs-based person, meaning I need to understand your needs. Before I read that book, I couldn’t give a shit. I was going to sell you something, whether you wanted it or not.
Louis: That’s a nice introspection right there, I have to say. But I think you forgot to mention one of a key resource about branding. It’s your book. Can you remind us of the title?
Bernie: Yeah, and I wrote the title on purpose. I don’t think an editor or publisher might of have let me use that title. It came after a very, very bad meeting with someone I was mentoring, who was running a digital agency. I was pissed. I wrote a long LinkedIn article and I got a ton of reads. Several people said, “You should write a book,” and I was like, “Yeah, I should write a book. These millennial marketers don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They’re pissing me off.”
I end what I called out in the LinkedIn article. Was like, “This is all just bullshit,” I’m tired of the bullshit.” And so, Brands and Bulls**t was born that day. It took me two years to get up the courage to actually finish it and write it. Brands and BullS**t: Excel at the Former and Avoid the Latter. A Branding Primer—and a primer, by classification, is a learning aide; this isn’t about me—A Branding Primer for Millennial Marketers in a Digital Age.
Louis: Bernie, you’ve been great. I really appreciate your honesty and authenticity in this podcast and you shared very interesting stories. I know listeners have enjoyed this talk as well. Where can they connect with you and learn more from you?
Bernie: I publish regularly on LinkedIn. They should follow me on LinkedIn. I put up a lot of videos. I put up a lot of really good content. Again, no bullshit. None of it is chest thumping. I make sure that I give a gift on everything I publish. There’s something insightful that you can take away on a video that you would watch that I would put up or an article that I’ve written.
Louis: Great. Well, that’s it for today. Thank you so much once again, Bernie, for your time.
Bernie: Louis, it’s been a pleasure.