An Interview with Mike O'Toole on Today's Best Brands Creating Movements

Don’t Settle for Marketing: Start a Movement

Mike O'Toole, host of The Unconventionals podcast and President of PJA, spoke with me about his recent Forbes article on B2B branding. Mike discussed how to develop a brand role that is bigger—and ultimately more rewarding—than product-focused marketing alone. 

Graham: Mike, in your article you use Small Business Saturday from American Express as an example of a brand starting a movement. What did the brand have to gain from an effort like this?

Mike: They gained attention, first of all. Way more than they could have from an ad campaign. I think upwards of 70 percent of Americans know Small Business Saturday, which is amazing. American Express also gained loyalty. There are a lot of appreciative small retailers out there that have seen their business change for the better based on Small Business Saturday – and the related Shop Small movement.

They also reshaped people's perception from American Express being a company that wants something to a company that can solve people's problems. All of this adds up to a more durable, higher value relationship with customers over time. It isn't, by the way, about corporate social responsibility. That can be important, but is often seen as an adjunct to a business—something that happens in another department. This is what we mean when we talk about movements springing from what they sell.

For American Express, they are the largest issuers of credit cards to small businesses. Helping small businesses thrive is certainly very consistent with American Express' business interest. But that wasn’t the point—it was much more about making the small business sector healthier and AMEX knew that over time a healthier small business sector was good for them.

Graham: What do you see as the catalyst for other brands getting involved in a movement started by another company?

Mike: I think other companies that support Small Business Saturday are motivated by the same bigger goal: helping independent retailers thrive. The reason so many people from the beginning signed up to support Small Business Saturday is because it was non-partisan.  

American Express insisted that anyone who got involved couldn't sell or be overtly promotional about it. I think that created a level playing field.  

Graham: Would you define this as a positioning effort or perception-based effort by these brands?

Mike: It has to run deeper, it has to be a commitment on the part of the senior leaders of the company and all the way down. Consumers can tell the difference. We have lots of information at our disposal. I think we're very sophisticated. Millennials take the lead here. They can smell when somebody is being hypocritical. I would add if you do this right it does change perceptions. CVS is a great example. They decided to stop selling cigarettes because it runs counter to their mission as a brand promoting better health. I believe it cost them more than two billion dollars a year in revenue. People gave them a lot of credit for that. That changes perceptions of how CVS does business and what they stand for.

A traditional way for CVS to have responded to the smoking issue is to give a couple million dollars to cancer research. Removing cigarettes from their stores is really different. It says we're changing a core business practice of ours. It’s going to cost us but we believe it's consistent over time with the interest of our customers, in the interest of our business. That's what we're talking about when we are saying create a movement.

Graham: That's a bold move for a brand to take. Do you think consumers are gravitating more towards brands that are adapting to these new kinds of risk-taking models, using Warby Parker or Everlane as examples?

Mike: I do. I've seen it in my own behavior. I wear Warby Parker glasses partly because who doesn't want to spend $100 vs. $600 for a great pair of glasses? Truly that just makes me feel smart. I’m making a good decision, I'm in the know. I also feel really good about Warby Parker's back-story: they give away a pair of glasses for every one that they sell. I'm also, by the way, a huge champion. I tell people all the time about Warby Parker and how you should get your next pair of glasses from them.  

There’s a lot of research out there that says consumers are more likely to buy a product or affiliate with a company if they believe in its values. Look at the fashion industry—Everlane was a recent Unconventionals guest. People care about provenance, who's making my clothing. They care about how we treat employees.  

Take Shinola, an upcoming guest on The Unconventionals. They actually commissioned some research that said people are willing to pay more for a product made in Detroit. There's this moment for Detroit and people understand that the choice of product says something about them. People who own Shinola watches go out of their way to tell friends this is a company that's creating jobs in Detroit. People want to buy products that are consistent with their values, and they also start doing the work of spreading the message.

Graham: Warby Parker. Everlane. Shinola. There are definitely brands out there with strong advocates, –but you also use the term “crazies.”  Where is the value in a brand's crazies?

Mike: Well first of all, let’s talk about what we mean when we say “crazies.” Crazies are the most committed customers, or prospects, out in the world. They’re the ones who are closest to what you believe as a company. We've seen across markets that crazies represent about 30% of the buyers out there. There's always a white-hot center of that that is smaller —people who just love, love, love your product and are already out there selling it, talking to their friends about it. But we think the group of potential crazies is actually larger, it's about 30%.

Those are the people who either are already big fans of your product, or have values that are consistent with your product but may not know about you yet.  

A good example of crazies co-creating with crazies is Waze. I used Waze to get around Harvard Square commencement traffic and that saved me about an hour yesterday morning. There are millions of people like me and I'm a co-creator passively. When the app is running I am passively feeding data to Waze to make the maps better.

But there is a core of crazies that actually build the product. These are people that love maps, who actually drive around and update the maps manually, spending sometimes hundreds of hours a year to create better maps for Waze. They don't get paid a nickel for it, it's just they love cartography and they believe in the idea of having dynamic, crowd sourced, accurate maps that help make our commute a little easier. Waze is a pretty small company in terms of employees, but Google bought them for more than a billion dollars because they had figured out how to leverage and co-create with their crazies.

Graham: In the Rumi Spice episode, the Founder of the company shared a quote I love: “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” That seems to be a running theme with the brands you've mentioned: passion. How do you see passion being used to fuel not just these messages, but movements that these brands are making?

Mike: Life is too short to do something boring or just to create another standard business in your industry. Most of The Unconventionals are fueled by this distinctive vision that my market, my product can just be better. Customers deserve to be treated better. They shouldn't have to pay $600 for eyeglasses; they shouldn't have to eat candy that's filled with chemicals. These leaders have a personal vision for the market that's different and better, and it's connected to what makes them tick internally. Why not follow these passions as opposed to following the lead of the standard convention in the category?

I would extend that out to employees. Everyone feels better about working at a company when they can believe in what it stands for, like the people they are working with, and feel like the end product is making the world a better place.

And you can certainly extend it all the way out to customers. Take the musicians who get to play for free at Rubber Tracks Studios. They're the biggest advocates for Converse. They're out telling their friends and promoting the Converse brand for free. Brands like that don't have to spend a lot of money to advertise because we're doing that work for them. If you are able to create a brand that's based on your passion and enlists the passions of your employees and customers, you will find that some things are going to be easier. People are going to do a lot of that work for you because they feel good about your mission.

Graham: What advice would you give to a brand that's looking to leverage these trends and create a movement of their own?

Mike: I would ask three questions: One: “How can I be useful to my customers, how can I solve problems for them?” It's always good to start with your crazies — the ones who really value what you do.  For American Express that was small retailers. The second question is “What in my company is great that I can give away for free?” Waze gave away its maps to local TV traffic broadcasters. This made drive-time traffic reports better, but also gave Waze a huge visibility boost. 

The third question is “How can I get people to participate?" Not how can I plant a message on people's brains by putting enough money behind it, but how can I get people to participate?  It's about aiming for change in behavior, not just delivering a message. Brand roles are platforms for action and change. American Express launched the idea and then thousands of other retailers, Chambers of Commerce, other companies ran with it. American Express is still behind Small Business Saturday, but if they stopped participating tomorrow, Shop Small and Small Business Saturday would still be an enormous movement.