Podcast

Reimagining How To Engage Consumers And Employees—With Chris Kneeland

By , April 12, 2021

Chris Kneeland joins Meny Hoffman in a conversation that highlights the importance of internal engagement over external engagement in building cult-like brands.

One of the things that differentiate cult brands from mediocre ones is the understanding that internal engagement contributes to the development of the brand as much as, if not more than external engagement does. When you look at companies like Zappos, Costco, or Lululemon, you might be surprised why such brands could succeed without spending much on traditional advertising. The secret is in making impressions, not buying impressions. Chris Kneeland explains this concept further in this conversation with Meny Hoffman. As the CEO of Cult Collective, one of North America’s premier engagement marketing firms, Chris has worked with some of the most iconic cult-like brands on the planet, allowing him to curate proven marketing principles that make all the difference. Join in as he shares a few of these principles that anyone can start to apply in their own business.

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Reimagining How To Engage Consumers And Employees—With Chris Kneeland

Our guest is Chris Kneeland. Chris is the CEO of Cult Collective, one of North America’s premier engagement marketing firms. His passion is to help brands accelerate growth by reimagining how they engage consumers and employees. Chris is committed to helping courageous brand leaders embrace proven marketing principles he discovered while working with the most iconic cult-like brands on the planet. To name a few, The Home Depot, Harley-Davidson, Zappos, Best Buy, Carter’s, Keurig and so many others, I love this episode because at Ptex, this is exactly what we do when we help growing businesses flourish. We teach you and create a system for your branding that is from the inside out, making sure that you have positioned yourself in a way that people stay loyal and love buying from you.

In our interview, we discussed what it means to be cult-like brands and what is the secret of some of those brands and how they’re able to blossom even if they have so much competition. We also discussed that there’s no difference between a service brand and a product brand, the advantage of an eCommerce brand. Also, we discussed in our interview how the proven tracks of you, as a business owner, what you could do in order to make sure your brand is set up as a cult-like brand. Without further ado, here is my interview.

Chris, thank you so much for joining me on the show.

It’s my pleasure.

I’ve got to admit, the first time I saw your name and I heard about you and I started reading up about what you have achieved working for a lot of successful brands and now as the CEO of Cult Collective, I said, “This perfectly fits into what I’m trying to teach and explain and educate my audience. This is a perfect fit for the show.” We’re going to have a blast.

LTB 76 | Internal Engagement
Internal Engagement: The best brands have the marketing department spending a disproportionate amount of time on internal audiences, as opposed to external ones.

 

I’m looking forward to it.

For the audience, a little bit about your background, you have a passion towards what you’re doing now. It’s not just a project or a business that you fell into. Give us a little bit of the highlights of your professional life as far as what you have achieved working with different brands, and then ultimately, what Cult Collective is all about.

Thank you. I consider my career in its third chapter. The first chapter was pursuing what I always thought was my dream, which was to be an executive at a Fortune 100 company. I left graduate school out of Northwestern. I went to go work for the biggest brand that would hire me, which was John Deere. I left that a few years later to go work at The Home Depot. In climbing those corporate ladders, I realized that wasn’t my passion. Working with the agencies that serviced those businesses, I thought that might be a better fit for me. I sold my soul and joined the ad agency world and moved to Texas. I liked that better. That was a better fit for me than the corporate side, but I also didn’t enjoy working for large holding company-type agencies.

I thought of maybe something smaller, more independent, somebody that was interested in growing their client’s business more than their shareholder’s business. I left and the third chapter became this entrepreneurial pursuit where I decided to create my own thing. Along that journey, I gained some opinions about what marketing is or what it could be versus what it had devolved into. I also tell people I grew a conscience and got tired of taking people’s money, pretending like what they were paying us to do was going to fix their problems. We abandoned the idea of being an ad agency and became more of an advisory firm and have been on a journey for the past several years. We are trying to have some additional data that could inform a different type of opinion that could hopefully help business owners think differently about what their objective is with their marketing and what their tactics should be.

The more businesses invest in culture, the more external success they're going to see. Click To Tweet

Before we get into the data and the research that you have done and how you operate on the Cult Collective, I want to ask you a broad blanket question for the audience to set the tone. In your own words, when you hear the word brand, how do you describe it?

I don’t have a problem with the traditional definition of brand. Brand is a promise. It’s the reputation that exists in the minds of the marketplace. It’s holistic in regards to it affects everything that interacts with the customer. My fight isn’t so much with the naive or sophisticated interpretation of brand is not a logo, brand is not a package, brand is not an ad. If people have a proper understanding of brand, the more interesting question is what’s the best way to create it and who should be creating it. That’s where I feel the brand has been abandoned in some regards in our pursuit of storytelling and of communications. In many cases, brands are not as strong as they should be because the people who think they’re managing the brand are managing the words and the media that the brands use.

One of the lines that I’ve seen in your content is the world’s best brands are built from the inside out. That will be a great way of segmenting and getting into understanding your philosophy and how you feel brands are being built and should be built.

LTB 76 | Internal Engagement
Internal Engagement: There are more businesses going out of business than ever before because people have overdosed on the wrong prescriptions for their brand.

 

That’s a big one. It’s probably one of the biggest deltas of where marketers are missing the boat nowadays. There are eight core principles that we’ve uncovered in studying the cult brands and realizing what they do that’s different than what mediocre brands do. Several years ago, around the turn of the century into the new millennia here, the best marketing bedfellow was the IT department. Marketing and IT got chummy as they built big data warehouses to handle big data. They upgraded eCommerce platforms and CRM systems to do more one-to-one marketing, so marketing and IT became close. Now, going into the 2020s, the marketing’s best bedfellow was going to be HR. We’re going to figure out that marketing has a responsibility to attract great talent.

They have a responsibility to not just onboard them, but to continue to groom them to convert employees into evangelists. It’s one of the things that we didn’t know going into this journey that the correlation that we would discover between the businesses that are frequently ranked the best places to work are also highly scored in terms of external levels of engagement. The more businesses can invest in culture, the more external success they’re going to see. The problem is the HR department doesn’t know how to invest in culture. The HR department has devolved into one degree better than the legal department, and they’re worried about risk and mitigation and compliance and administration of compensation and benefits. That’s not how you lather people up and get them excited about your brands. The marketing department has the skillsets and the tools and the discretionary budgets that know how to properly change people’s opinions and get people excited about what the brand’s purpose is and what they’re doing. The best brands have the marketing department spending a disproportionate amount of time on internal audiences, as opposed to external ones.

“Advertising is a tax that brands pay for being unremarkable.” – Robert Stephens Click To Tweet

One of the things that come to mind, I know I saw it, one of the names that you mentioned as a brand that you’ve worked with is Zappos. The misconception out there is that building a brand is expensive because we need to spend a ton of money on advertising and marketing. When you look at companies like Zappos, yes, they have spent money on HR, finding the right people to represent the brand and ultimately have those clients be the brand ambassadors. They bring their friends, family to accelerate that brand growth. What’s your opinion about that?

We’ve had the privilege of working with Zappos for several years. The saddest thing for me is that the Zappos case study on prioritizing internal engagement is several years old, and yet we’re still talking about them as the poster child for what good looks like. In reality, thousands of businesses should have copied that playbook because Zappos spent no money on traditional paid media. They do Google Keywords. They do some earned media, but they’re in the business of making impressions, not buying impressions. They’re not alone. Lululemon is wildly successful and spends little on advertising. Costco was crazy successful. They’ve spent little on advertising. That’s one of the symptoms we look for, is who’s pretending to be awesome because of a disproportionately high paid media budget versus who doesn’t need to spend that money because they’re doing things that justify their success.

We worked with Geek Squad back in the day. Their CEO said that advertising is a tax that brands pay for being unremarkable. What Zappos has said is, “I don’t want to pay that tax. Let’s do something remarkable.” In their case, it was delivering wow service. They’re hiring a couple of hundred call center representatives for a pretty average call center job. They get tens of thousands of applications. They have people that don’t just send in resumes, they send in like American Idol audition tapes. They make up songs, they perform musicals, they do magic tricks. People are freaks about the opportunity to go work at Zappos, not because they’re the highest paying job, but because they were the best company to work for. When you have that embarrassment of riches where you can cherry-pick the top talent who are coming to work for you and appreciate how privileged they are for working there every day, it translates over the phone and the customers interact with them, they can feel the difference. Even though Zappos products aren’t on sale, even though Zappos products can be bought just about anywhere else, they pay a premium to do it through Zappos because of that brand promise and brand experience.

I always share when I speak about Zappos on different speaking engagements and I say in this day and age, you go on Zappos site, you could check out with your Amazon login information in which Amazon sells the same product. You’re still willing to go to Zappos because you love that level of service. Let me ask you some practical tips. First of all, when Zappos was built, it was built from the ground up with that mindset. Tony is not with us anymore. Tragically, he passed away. That was his mindset going into this. Have you seen companies or brands transform themselves, maybe they’ve been around, and they’ve not had that level of cult relationship and ultimately transformed? What will be those steps for a brand to do in order to get where they need to be?

There’s a three-step process. Most businesses, not all, the least likely are tech businesses, there are too many tech companies that are started by computer science people that build stuff because they can, not because the world needs it. Let’s say most businesses are started with a noble brand ideal and noble purpose and they’re genuinely going to make the world a better place in whatever way, shape or form they can. They start to go astray because the founders have these unholy addictions to, “I want to get big enough so that I can get a Super Bowl commercial. I want to get big enough so that I can get into Walmart for distribution,” or they want to get big enough so that they can chase some external metric of what in their mind and their ego thinks is success.

Sometimes they can go astray because they lose sight of the consumer and let the natural and organic growth and they start trying to fuel and create artificial demand because maybe their investors are Wall Street, or a lot of times, the owner gets a little wacky. The second phase is they start to demise. Maybe the CEO took a liquidating event and left. Maybe the business reached its natural height and then they tried to merge with somebody else, or they did something substantively different that affected in a negative way, their culture. I call that the broken phase. They took something that was pure and special and awesome and then they broke it. It gets to the third phase of what you are going to do about it.

LTB 76 | Internal Engagement
Internal Engagement: When you’re courageous, you’re rarely comfortable, but you’re making the decisions that are going to give you relevance for a longer period of time.

 

Most businesses don’t properly course-correct fast enough. That’s why the lifespan of even Fortune 500 companies has gone from 75 years to 15 years. There are more businesses going out of business than ever before because people have overdosed on the wrong prescriptions for their brand, or they course-correct. There’s a proper intervention. We sometimes call them a brand rehabilitation where they say enough is enough. I’ll give you an example of this trajectory of this three-step cycle. Gatorade started as a remarkable product. It was a superior way to replace electrolytes in athletes. Everybody knows the origin story of Florida Gators and working out in the hot, humid Florida weather. Some mad scientist invented a way to a better solution than water. Gatorade exploded. Through the athletic craze of the ‘80s and ‘90s and the proliferation of professional athletes and the Michael Jordan era, Gatorade became Gatorade.

Unfortunately, due to their success, everybody got greedy and wanted more and more success. Everybody that was part of that company left. A bunch of investment bankers and accountant types took over. Gatorade lost their way. This is according to their CMO, not me. For a few years, they started becoming known as colored, flavored water for thirsty people. Their competitors started to eat their lunch. Even though sales were increasing year over year, there was a cancer that was growing inside that company. One day they woke up and the dream died. Their sales fell off a cliff. They lost massive distribution rights. Competitive products were just as good. To Gatorade’s great credit, they called an emergency meeting and said, “What are we going to do about this?” The answer was, “Let’s mark it down by two, get the third free.” It was not, “Let’s take another $100 million to do more advertising.” It was, “Let’s get rid of the cancer.”

They ended up flying to Nike, which was a brand that did not lose its way. They did a lot of benchmarking. Nike is one of the ultimate cult brands. They realized that Nike’s playbook was in fact different. They realized that the Gatorade executives were making some boneheaded decisions, so they corrected it. They changed their culture. They changed their hiring practices. They started hiring not just MBAs but MBAs who also played collegiate sport. They expanded the product portfolio, so they don’t sell colored water anymore. They get into gels and nutritional and powders. Their wonderful mantra was if Nike makes you great because of what’s on you, their apparel and shoes, Gatorade is going to make you great because of what’s in you. They’re going to be much more niche. They’re going to go much more after high performance. They’re going to get back to their origin of catering to the extreme athlete.

Not enough businesses are customer-obsessed. Most are product-obsessed. Click To Tweet

By focusing on what makes them great, they get this wonderful halo effect of everybody else that aspires to be that. They stopped marketing to who bought their product, me, the 47-year-old has been, in the same way that Harley-Davidson or Nike. Nobody is Michael Jordan, but everybody buys their shoes to pretend like they are. That’s what Gatorade had to get back to doing. It was terrifying, but in their case, necessity was the mother of invention. They didn’t have a choice because the business was nosediving. It would be better for businesses to try to realize what they could have done differently before suffering that pain and having to let their bottom line take a beating for a few years before they got their act together.

How would you advise if somebody that’s starting off a brand, maybe they’ve been developing a product line and they’re passionate about that category, you mentioned the eight principles? Maybe we don’t have the time to go into all of the eight, but what would be those steps that a brand owner should take to make sure that they’re setting themselves up for success?

The single biggest flaw is that not enough businesses are customer-obsessed. Most businesses are product-obsessed. They’re focused on what they can build. Some products are process-obsessed. They’re focused on the supply chain or the distribution, or the getting things from point A to point B and finding operational efficiency. Not enough businesses are customer-obsessed. I would always go into a business. First, what do you truly know about your target audience? Most of the time, their target audience is too broad. Most of the time, their target audience is defined by demographics, which is the worst possible way to define your audience. Demographics has one purpose, that’s to buy media because media is sold by demographics. I would argue why you are even buying media. You’re under these false assumptions that you need big media spends in order to boost awareness. That’s a bit delusional.

I don’t think that you need blunt and naive understandings of your audience. You need to know your customer intimately. Yeti is one of my favorite cult brands of the past several years. Their marketing proficiency is based on the investment they make in truly understanding the people whom they serve. They spend 2 or 3 years sometimes observing, like an anthropologist, the rodeo market, the snowboarding market, the surfing market, before they would even pretend to start making a product or try to create something that’s relevant for that industry. First, become customer-obsessed and truly understand meaningful insights about what they’re thinking, feeling and doing and where the deficiencies are with what the competitive alternatives are doing, and then create your product and allow marketers into that conversation.Most marketing departments that we’re aware of are communications departments and that’s a shame because marketing used to be about product, price, place, and promotion. Now, it’s about promotion, storytelling, media and messages. Marketers should be informing how it’s built, what its features are, what it’s priced at, where it’s sold at. You need to start focusing on baking into your experience, word of mouth amplifiers. You don’t just hope that people will talk about it. You engineer it so they can’t help themselves but talk about it. That is the playbook of the most successful cult brand of the past several years, which is Tesla. Tesla, who also does no paid advertising, built so many little things into their product that create viral videos and customer delight and, “You’ve got to come over here and see this thing.” It didn’t cost them any extra money to make a human. It doesn’t cost them money to change their turbo to ludicrous speed and to ask when you push the button, “Do you want to call your mommy and do these little fun, playful things that evoke a smile and get people to fall in love with the brand?” It requires thoughtfulness and a marketing team that understands what their job is.

Does it make a difference building a brand which sells products versus a service brand?

No. In fact, we’ve never found any category that’s ineligible. The more commoditized your category, the more you should lean into cult brand principles, because the more commoditized, the more likely you’re going to devolve to either convenience or price be the cheapest. If you’re trying to avoid that, then you need to find a third way to compete that’s not based on convenience or price. Sometimes we’ll see utilities as an example, or pedestrian types of B2B services like lead generation services or production things like copiers or things that nobody’s ever going to get excited about it. You need electricity so you plug your nose, and you buy an electric company, or you pay your electric bill. Those companies have the hardest hill to climb, but goods or services are cult capable. Where we’re most disappointed is in the B2B sector. We don’t think B2B executives dream big enough. They’re so pragmatic about catering to the whims of procurement officers that they don’t understand that all decisions, whether they’re B2B or B2C, are still based on emotion, first, and justified or rationalized by reason, second. The work that we’ve done skews heavily towards B2C, probably 80% or more of our examples in cases are B2C. It’s not because B2B is less likely. It’s just that there are fewer good examples defined because we don’t think that the owners are as courageous or as creative as they should be than what you see on the B2C side.

Let me ask you a question about brand engagement. This is a little bit more practical. We live in a world that there’s CRM automation marketing, automation one-to-one emails that are going out. What is a perfect life cycle of a client and what type of best practices have you seen that brands do phenomenally well when it comes to post-purchase type of brand engagement?

We think that post-purchase is the single biggest deficiency with most businesses that they’re way over-indexed on pre-purchase. There was some research done by Harvard and McKinsey in partnership back in 2010 where they had a hypothesis. What element of the purchase funnel that was introduced in the 1920s was still relevant now? The purchase funnel I learned about it in marketing is still being taught in school. It’s interesting that it ends with purchase. Post-purchase doesn’t even exist on the original purchase funnel model. The purchase funnel has trained generations of marketers to overemphasize awareness and acquisition and pre-purchase activity. Some of the most sophisticated and beloved brands, there’s no better example than Harley-Davidson. Harley-Davidson has been 85% of their marketing budget on consumers who have already bought a bike.

Think about how your world would change if your audience spent 85% of your money on your existing customers, not on trying to get new customers. Most people would shutter at that. There’s no way we could do that. Why do you put Harley on a pedestal and say how for 100 years is that brand been associated with awesomeness, and yet you’re unwilling to do what they do? We’re following the wrong role models in the marketing world. Post-purchase is where so much of the magic can happen. We like to say our job isn’t to get people to buy. Our job is to get people to buy-in. When they buy-in, they not only buy more product more often at a higher margin, but they also go and get their friends to buy for you, so they become this non-commissioned sales force.

The idea of getting people to buy more product, that’s a basket size or average purchase transaction. We don’t spend enough energy thinking about, “They bought one. What if they bought two?” Getting them to buy more often as a frequency play. Is there some way that we can increase consumption or motivate them to come back or steal more shares? We see that a lot with hamburger joints. Someone’s going to eat five hamburgers a month, but maybe they’re only visiting your establishment once that time. You can get them to become more often, give me 2 or 3 of your monthly consumption visits. I’m not asking to eat more hamburgers. I’m asking you to come to my place more often. The other one that people missed the boat on is a higher margin. If you’re bribing people to shop you in the form of consistently rich discounts, getting somebody to come in that pays full price versus somebody that comes in and pays 40% off is a 40% boost to your profitability.

We’ve got to think differently than our job is to bribe people in the form of discounts perpetually. If most of your sales are on sale, you have to ask yourself, “Where are we broken? What are we failing at that’s causing people to not pay full price?” I see marketers pride themselves on the administration of sales promotions as opposed to kick themselves for saying, “Why are we having to do this again this month? What are we sucking at that’s causing us to have to put so much stimulation into the marketplace that would make people not pay full price for what we’re doing?” Even a premium, think about some of the best cult brands in the world, Porsche comes to mind. Even Starbucks versus Dunkin’ Donuts, they’re premium price points. Apple versus Samsung. Marketers should be in the business of getting people to pay more for their product, not in the business of finding ways to get people to buy it on sale.

This is such a valuable piece of information that our readers pay attention which is we discussed post-purchase. One of the things that I always try to see, when I have those marketing conversations with clients, the first question I’ll ask them, “How much do you want to spend?” He says, “I don’t have a budget.” I always say, “I could do whatever we want if you don’t have a budget.” The follow-up question to that is always, “What is the LTV of each client?” They say, “What?” That’s the first place where I try to gauge with a professional brand builder or CMO. Do they even report on the metrics of lifetime value of a client?Sometimes, it’s mind-boggling how much I’m so focused on getting more clients and not even knowing what the lifetime value and how I could get a client that buys once shall buy again. What is my strategy? Building out that funnel and being able to bring up that lifetime value is important because they already know, like and trust you. It’s so much easier and so much less expensive to do the right things and get them to buy again. Let me ask you a follow-up question. There is a notion out there, especially when we speak about brands, Apple comes to mind, or Starbucks comes to mind, different brands come to mind. Building a brand and putting in the proper work in order to build that cult around your brand is not necessarily you need to be a premium brand. Is building a brand only pertaining to a luxury brand or a lifestyle brand that has that opportunity? What if I have a value brand?

It’s not correlated to luxury in any way, shape or form. It’s easier to give examples of a luxury brand. I don’t know that I’d call Starbucks luxury. That’s different than Tiffany’s or Virgin Atlantic Airlines or Mercedes. Those are more luxury. At the end of the day, Target is not that different than Walmart, and yet Target has a cult-like adoration and Walmart doesn’t. People go to Walmart because it feels fiscally irresponsible not to because their prices are so cheap, but few people get excited about shopping at Walmart. They’re doing it because it’s affordable versus Target has this sense of discovery and exploration and their alignment with more of fashion-forward and design-centric products. Target, they jokingly call it Tarjay and they become a little bit more of an experience. Similarly, you take something like JetBlue or Southwest Airlines, they’re the low-cost carrier in their respective industries but they’re still cultish in terms of how people feel about that brand and they root for that brand’s success. There’s a different emotional attachment to Southwest Airlines than there is Delta. One is focusing more on trying to be special but not necessarily expensive and not making the in-flight experience any better. It’s just being more empathetic and recognizing what they’re going to be great at.

We’re slowly but surely creeping out of this terrible pandemic that hit the whole world so badly. What have you seen in the marketplace of successful brands pivoting or doing certain amazing stuff during the pandemic that you would be able to share?

One of the things I love about this pandemic is the adage that never let a good crisis go to waste. There were a lot of brands that either we were consulting with or that we were aware of that were moving too timidly. They were too cautious and dipping their toes in improvements as opposed to jumping headfirst. When the pandemic hit, all hell broke loose, they threw caution to the wind and they said, “Let’s go for it.” I’ll give you an example that I’m quite fond of as we were doing some work with Chili’s Bar and Grill, a popular, mid-level, fast-casual dining experience. Chili’s problem was its legacy. They’re a big monolithic machine with thousands of restaurants. There’s a certain way that they’ve done things for decades. Even though their category was imploding around them and that mid-tier dining chain was seeing fatalities every month, some major restaurant chain was announcing it was going out of business. I don’t feel like Chili’s was bold enough and blowing up their marketing strategies and then figuring out new ways to engage their consumer, refining their customer intelligence and going after a specific audience versus doing a little bit for everybody. The pandemic hits, their stock went from $47 down to $5 or $6. You’d think that the world was over, what it was, was they said, “Let’s go to the drawer where all the crazy ideas were that we never had the guts to try before.” They did it. They launched a couple of new brands. They do this thing called Ghost Kitchens now. They way amplified their delivery business, their curbside pickup business. They worried less about this legacy, “We have to have servers, hostesses and busboys, and people have to come in for an hour.” They were worried less about the square footage that had to be monetized. Now their stock is close to $50 again. In terms of a huge dip and then a huge recovery, within six months, they’re stronger than they were before. I saw something similar in 2009, when the housing bubble happened, with Starbucks. The CMO stands up and threw the marketing binder, these big three-ring binders that were their annual marketing plan. He throws it against the wall in dramatic fashion and the papers come flying out. They said, “Let’s assume nothing that we’ve ever done to date is going to work and start over.” It was amazing. There’s a lot that’s been written about. They brought Howard Schultz back. They, like Gatorade, lost their way a little bit and they had to be reminded. They had the courage to make the hard choices to have the open-heart surgery, to get the cancer out. It’s not comfortable. Too many brands are seeking to be comfortable. What you need to be is be courageous. When you’re courageous, you’re rarely comfortable, but you’re making the decisions that are going to give you relevance for a lot longer period of time.

From what you’re doing at Cult, what can you share as far as some of the data points you have been able to see in research which is maybe contradicting to the myth out there for CMOs or brand builders in general?

LTB 76 | Internal Engagement
Internal Engagement: It’s rare to find a cult brand that isn’t wildly successful. It’s easy to find successful brands who don’t have cult-like followings and quickly falter and fall.

 

A couple of things come to mind. The first is since the advent of television, 1950s and on, marketers and their ad agencies prioritized how well they can talk. The classic art director, copywriter team, the big campaign, the big reveal of the clever idea, the sexy 30-second spot. An entire cottage industry that spends over $200 billion a year on messaging and media was about, “Let’s find people that can tell our story well.” What cult brands have learned is not to talk well but to listen well and to shut up and to start thinking differently about what our real skillset is going to be. One of the examples I like to use with that is the smells like a man campaign from Old Spice.

Old Spice was a dying brand. It was your grandfather’s deodorant. Some ad agency had a clever idea about trying to make it hip, copying a page from Axe body sprays, something that’s going to be more irreverent. It fell flat. They put a bunch of stuff on a cinema trailer. They carpet-bombed the US with coupons. It wasn’t working well. They have an emergency meeting. In an attempt to try to breathe new life into it, somebody had the idea of, “Let’s take this actor and put them on YouTube and let’s have him talking with the social fans and responding.” The legend is, within over a weekend, they produced over 100 pieces of content. Instead of these highly produced hundreds of thousands of dollars television commercials, they had this crack team of writers and comedians and this actor standing in front of a site saying, “Chris Kneeland in Calgary, I had this question. Here’s your answer.” He would say something smart-alecky. It was hilarious. The world exploded. People were like, “This guy is listening. Old Spice is talking back to us.” It was that turning point that made people realize that this has got legs. It went on to become one of the best campaigns. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign is similar where they started receiving information about how women truly felt about the fake Cosmo thing. It was a viral video. It wasn’t a television commercial that launched that campaign. They started using real women with their cellulite and their stretch marks and all their flaws in all of their ads. They started saying, “We’ve got to be better at understanding, listening, reflecting and responding as opposed to sitting in our boardrooms and thinking of creative teams are going to ideate some big idea that’s going to change our world.”

Is building a successful or a cult brand those days harder or easier, based on what’s happening around us with digital media and everything else?

I don’t think it’s harder at all. It’s both less expensive and far more rewarding. It just requires you to have different goals. It’s rare to find a cult brand that isn’t wildly successful. It’s easy to find successful brands who don’t have cult-like followings who quickly falter and fall. Last several years, they’ve called it the retail apocalypse. Tens of thousands of retail stores are closing and going out of business. Part of why I do things like this show is I’m trying to let people know that we’ve been sold a bag of beans. The advertising industrial complex is not the savior of the business world that people think it is, or maybe even that it used to be. I’ll give them their credit.

Back in the day when 40 million people tuned in to watch Friends, getting a commercial on Friends probably was a fantastic CPM and a great way to make an impact. Since the early 2000s when people can use Google to find whatever they want, when they have a mobile device in their pocket to do real-time research and they can access strangers on the internet to get ratings and reviews, it’s like, “What are we doing? Why aren’t we thinking differently about how brands are catered to and built?” I’ve looked under the hood of hundreds of cult brands and I see awesomeness. I’ve looked under the hood of thousands of mediocre brands and I’m like, “You don’t seem as happy. You don’t seem as successful. You don’t seem as fulfilled. Why are you continuing to take the bad pill?” Sometimes they don’t know, they’re addicted, they’re legacies or they’re scared. It gets into almost an exercise of psychology. It’s almost like why are most people walking around overweight and obese? Why is there an epidemic in America around people being fat? It’s not that they don’t know how to exercise and to eat less, it’s just hard. That’s how Cult brands stuff. We like to say it’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy because it doesn’t require you to think differently.

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We see now a lot of eCommerce brands only, they’re only found in Amazon or other marketplaces in which automatically they’re losing that one-on-one direct connection. They’re not selling directly to the consumer on their own website or in big-box retailers. Is there anything there for our readers that they should take note on?

You have a huge advantage. I would look at Fanatics, a great cult brand that sells sporting apparel. Zappos, Dollar Shave Club, which was bought by Gillette for a huge multiple. If you’re only selling direct to consumer, you own the entirety of the customer experience. Sometimes it’s difficult. When Apple starts selling its products through Best Buy, that’s a big risk for them because Best Buy doesn’t have the same experience that a dedicated Apple store would. When Nike sells through Foot Locker, it’s a different experience than when Nike sells on Nike.com. You have a huge advantage when you control the entirety of the consumer experience, you have 100% of the data. You know who’s transacted, how often they’ve transacted and what they’ve looked at. I know many of bricks and mortar retailer was jealous of the types of things that PurePlay.com companies were able to do.

Thank you so much. This was valuable. Let’s close with the four rapid-fire questions. Number one, what’s a book that changed your life?

Seth Godin’s Purple Cow.

One of my originals, still on my top ten book list. Number two, what’s a piece of advice you got that you never forget?No amount of success will compensate for failure in the home. Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a great life.

Number three, anything you wish you could go back and do differently?

There are lots of things. I don’t understand people who say they don’t have any regrets. I made mistakes all the time and wish that didn’t happen.

It’s so funny, when I ask this question, probably 50% of people will answer as you said, and then 50% of the people will immediately say, “No. Nothing.” Everything is a learning experience.

Sometimes there are easier ways to learn lessons than having to make. I always like to say, “When someone makes a mistake, all is not lost. You can always be used as a bad example.” I feel like I should have done a better job of watching other people’s mistakes as opposed to trying to make more myself.

Final question, what’s still on your bucket list to achieve?

I want to give a TED Talk. I want to be invited to go to the big stage there and share the findings of our cult brand principles to that audience.

Chris, thank you so much for joining us. I know your time is valuable. That is why, in the name of our readers, we will forever be grateful for sharing some of your time with us.

It’s my pleasure. I appreciate the time to get to know you and to enjoy the conversation.

Thank you.  

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About Chris Kneeland

LTB 76 | Internal EngagementChris Kneeland is the CEO of Cult Collective, one of North America’s premier engagement marketing firms. His overriding professional passion is helping brands accelerate growth by reimagining how they engage consumers and employees. He’s committed to helping courageous brand leaders embrace proven marketing principles he’s discovered while working with the most iconic, “cult-like” brands on the planet.

Chris held marketing roles at the world headquarters of John Deere and The Home Depot. He was also formerly the Head of Retail Marketing at RAPP, Omnicom’s preeminent relationship marketing agency. He co-founded Cult in 2010 and has consulted with Harley Davidson, Canadian Tire, Mark’s, Zappos, Best Buy, HEB Grocery Stores, Carter’s, Keurig, United Way and dozens of other brands.

Throughout his career, he has lobbied for customer advocacy over acquisition, and brand engagement over entertainment. He helps clients by getting customers to buy more by buying in.

Meny Hoffman

Meny Hoffman

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