Unconventionals Podcast | Season 6 Episode 2

The Crazies: How GE, Waze, and Big Ass Fans Enlist an Army of Advocates

B2B is always about change—reframing how people buy, introducing an innovation, or getting people to think about your company in new ways.

You can increase your chances of success by getting change agents on board—the subset of your market who are the most likely to share and drive your agenda. Finding your crazies makes your market smaller—and means you can stop wasting money reaching audiences who don’t care. We’re not talking about traditional influencer marketing, which too often means renting other people’s audience and cachet. Crazies are the people whose professional success or personal passion aligns closely with yours—whether they know it or not. For most companies, these key audiences are sitting on the sideline, but with the right approach they can help you succeed. In this episode, we revisit how brands such as GE, Waze, Organovo, Big Ass Fans, and Evernote were able to capture this crucial portion of their audience in order to grow.

Video Highlights


Jafia Lahey:
Next on PJA Radio's The Unconventionals.

Dave Engberg:
We found out real early through support channels that we were popular among clergy, and we did not build a liturgical data management application. We built something that you put stuff in and clip stuff from the web.

Mike O'Toole:
I'm sure somebody would've funded you to do that, though.

Dave Engberg:
Yeah, yeah.


Mike O'Toole:

So that's Dave Engberg, then chief operating officer of Evernote talking about the company's early days. Evernote was a pioneer in note-taking apps, which are ubiquitous today. I mean, Evernote itself has more than 100 million users, but things were really different in 2008 when the company launched. Back then, social networks were the new thing. I mean, Facebook was only four years old then. So the idea of creating an app that was more about utility than fun was novel. And it wasn't easy to attract funders or attention. Evernote was introducing something new, something that would change how people remember and organize thinking. So here's what's important about the clergy example. Evernote gained traction early on with a few niche audiences, who used the app, found that it helped them do their jobs better and spread the word with their colleagues. Some of this was deliberate, some an accident. But I don't think it overstates it to say that the most important factor for Evernote's early success was who they connected with, not what the platform was about.


This, it turns out, is a critical trait of The Unconventionals. The companies we've met -- think Waze or Warby Parker, GE, Converse -- have done an extraordinarily good job at enlisting people who are not their employees, sometimes not even their customers, to support their agenda. These are the crazies. So why do I call them crazies? It's because people I've interviewed use words like this. They use fanatical, or obsessive or addicted. Crazies, in a word. And that's what we're talking about today. Over the course of 35 Unconventionals interviews, I became very interested in the question of why do people behave this way? And could marketers learn anything that they could apply to their own companies?

The idea for crazies emerged from our very first show. Long-term listeners will remember that we launched with Big Ass Fans, the Lexington, Kentucky, maker of, well, really big industrial fans. Now, a founder who calls his company Big Ass Fans is maybe a little crazy himself. And Carey Smith had lots of marketing experts over the years who would come in and say, "You have to lose that name."

Carey Smith:
Inevitably, the people would come in and they'd say, "You know, Carey, the first thing you've got to do, you've got to lose that name. That's just ... You're not going to go anyplace with it." And uh ...

Mike O'Toole:
Those are short conversations, I imagine.

Carey Smith:
Well, they sort of were. And at first you think about it. You go, "Man, I don't know." But every single time somebody tells us that, and we ignore it because we had to, we're good. And now, what's interesting about it, we get more people saying ... Well, all of the fans have a little name on them. Like, the residential fan is called Haiku. When we just put Haiku, we get all sorts of ... I mean, people call us, "What's the matter? What's going on? Are you guys trying to run away from your name? I mean, what's this? I don't get it. Something wrong?" Just recently, I mean within the last couple of months, we had to recast everything because we had sort of played down the Big Ass Fan and played up the Haiku. Well now, it's the other way around. You can find the name Haiku someplace there. But it's a big Big Ass Fans.

Mike O'Toole:
Here's what's going on here. Crazy is another word for passion, and passion is magnetic. Designers and architects hold the key to the high-end residential market. For them, the Big Ass Fans name signals a deeper commitment to independence and audaciousness. And that shows up in product design, not just the name. In fact, the Haiku fans are beautiful. They won a ton of design awards. So what does this story tell us? When it comes to what makes us different or great, don't water it down, double down. Finding your crazies is about finding common cause -- in this case, bringing great design and great performance into homes.

Big Ass Fans illustrates one way to attract and enlist crazies. You find a partner and help them succeed. Call this business stakes. Big Ass Fans is doing something very valuable for a key ecosystem partner. They help designers do their jobs better and keep clients happy. There are a million fans that designers can spec. Big Ass Fans stands out from a crowd that looks and sounds the same when it sticks to its roots and sticks to its name. There's a second motivation or stake that is equally powerful. And that is a mission that gets people excited.

How about outsmarting traffic? That's a mission that 360,000 map editors volunteer for at Waze. Many spend dozens of hours a week fixing bugs, updating road and traffic conditions, generally improving commutes for all of us. We asked Julie Mossler, head of marketing, why they do it.

Julie Mossler:
Well, you could ask the same thing about Wikipedia or a lot of these other crowd source models, but these are incredibly passionate, intelligent people who look at this as a hobby. You know, a lot of our editors have full-time jobs during the day, come home, tuck in their kids and then get on the computer until 3 in the morning. And it's not really different than someone who maintains a blog or someone who practices basketball. I mean, it's something that exercises their brain, and you can actually make a measurable impact.

Mike O'Toole:
Do you reward them in any way? Do you thank them? Do you ... Is there any ...?

Julie Mossler:
We thank them copiously. We love them so much. You know, there is ... there's sort of a little bit of a reward to your ego because you can work your way up through the chain and become what we call a champ or a regional editor. And there's seven or eight levels you can work your way through. So there's a little bit of prestige that comes with that. And I think that it feels good to know that you've impacted the community and other people look up to you and look to you for strategy or advice. We concentrate more on building the community than on delivering financial returns.

Mike O'Toole:
Yeah. It's not just the map editors who are working for free to support this bigger mission. Waze partners with more than 100 cities and countries around the world through the Connected Citizens Program. The Waze and government planners in Brazil partnered to reduce traffic during the Rio Olympics. The city of Boston uses Waze data to find and fix potholes. Now we can't all be Waze, but we can all leverage the passions of some of our audience who believe in the same mission we do. This can be a personal passion, like the map editor's love of cartography, or a bigger societal issue like improving urban mobility.

One important note here. I do get questions about why. Like, why should I activate crazies? What's in it for me? What's it going to do for my business? Well, for Waze, when they activate a partnership, they often see a huge spike in app downloads and usage. So this is not why they run programs like Connected Citizens, but it is an important business outcome.
(Music) So I said earlier that attracting crazies is about finding common cause. And common cause is almost never defined as "make my company more successful." Let's be honest. Few people who are not on the payroll will sign up for that kind of change. It is far easier to attract the crazies if you're trying to do something new or different, something that meets needs in a new way or solves a bigger problem. But innovation like that, it doesn't guarantee anything. Marketing a product that outstrips what buyers are ready for isn't easy. And it doesn't matter how useful or important the innovation is. In fact, the bigger the breakthrough, the harder it can be to get traction.

Take Organovo, a San Diego life sciences company that prints 3-D human tissue that lives outside the body. This is a big deal, a feat of science and engineering that is truly disruptive, sci fi kind of stuff. And innovation aside, it has serious value for a range of applications, drug safety for one. Now, proven value or not, for companies like Organovo, there is still the painstaking work of building demand for something new -- creating awareness, proving it works, showing how it fits into an existing workflow. And doing this with skeptical buyers who have a thousand things competing for their attention. As a marketer, you don't want to convince the entire audience at first. You want to find the subset who are more aligned because of their professional role, or they happen to be more of a risk taker. These subsets are the crazies. And helping these people succeed professionally is another way, another vector for reaching and enlisting crazies.

Organovo CEO:

Yeah, I think there's people who are maybe 20 to 30 percent of any market, and in our case, that's very much true, where they're more alive to new possibilities, they want to explore, they want to do the best work for their company and they're trying to think through how they can use something new even before it's well-proven. Those are the people that we thought we could get when we launched. We found that to be true. As we've added more data over time, we find that we're penetrating with more and more people.

Mike O'Toole:

How do you reach those 20 to 30 percent differently? I mean, you don't have as much data.

Organovo CEO:

Mike O'Toole:
Is it making the mission, the broader mission a little bit more front and center with them? Is it ... What is it?

Organovo CEO:


I think part of the argument is just asking them to see the totality of the data set and kind of say, "I can get my head around where this is headed before it's completely proven." And so the data we presented at the time when we first launched was showing these tissues live for six weeks, they have all the normal functions, they respond appropriately to some early molecules like acetaminophen, which are well-known to have some toxic liver impact. When you see the totality of that evidence, most people would say analytically, "Okay, it's really adding up like this reproducing biological function." A lot of scientists say, "Looks good, but let me see more." But these early adopters kind of say, "Oh, I see where this is heading and I want to do a couple ..."


Mike O'Toole:


(Music) Welcome back to The Unconventionals. We are talking about crazies, the people who share stakes or mission with you but are currently standing on the sidelines. I'm not, by the way, talking about your current brand advocates. Those are the very small minority, usually just a few percent, of your overall market. These are folks who are already passionate about you. They're already waving the flag for you. The crazies are a larger group, in our experience, as much as 20 to 30 percent of the market. One of my favorite conversations about crazies was with Linda Boff, a chief marketing officer of GE. What she helped me realize is that crazies are not a fixed group. If you can be valuable or useful to them -- think Big Ass Fans with designers -- or connect with them on a mission -- Waze and its mapmakers -- you can grow your audience. For GE, it's people who love science and technology. As the company refashions itself around its industrial and innovation core, much of their marketing is designed to speak to that latent geek in all of us.

Linda Boff:
I would say we have found them by putting out the kind of content that they will consume and love and share in places that they're likely to find it. So you know, our crazies, I think, are ... love to geek out. They love science. They love how stuff works. They love shows like "Mythbusters" and "Brain Games," right? I'm not trying to typify them but I think that's right. They go to Comic-Con.

The second thing that I will say because even though I love the crazies and I'm stealing it, is I believe that everyone loves science. They just don't know it. And you have to see something like "The Martian," I believe, to kind of get that concept, that you can watch Matt Damon -- I guess we can all watch Matt Damon as much as possible -- but you can watch him growing crops on Mars and learn about botany and have no idea you're learning about botany. So I think that there are absolutely the people who are ... Somebody who I used to work with called them "the nut nuts." Right? Like the people who are just so obsessed. And god, I hope they all find us. But I also think that there's a way to talk about science that makes a lot of people fall in love with it who wouldn't say that they are the crazies or the nut nuts.


Mike O'Toole:
Not everyone's a crazy. Many of us are risk averse and we're just not going to take a chance on something new and unproven, no matter how alluring the promise. I really love how the CEO of Organovo talks about people who are open to new possibilities, the people who don't need to see all the data but can make a decision based on early patterns or promise. I'm going to finish up our walk through the crazies with Rethink Robotics. Jim Lawton sizes up the traditionalists, and these are people are used to industrial robots doing a certain thing and behaving a certain way. And then contrast them with his crazies, who are looking for something new and different.

Jim Lawton:
We've had feedback from some customers that have said, "You should paint your robots gray." Why is that? Well, because everything else in the factory is gray and it should look gray too, because it doesn't look like what you would normally find in a factory. And so there's always this certain amount of ... wasn't it the quote of Henry Ford, "If we'd asked the customer what they want, they would've said, 'Faster horses.'" So you have to be very careful and balance this line between, if we don't provide real value, then we're not going to sell robots and we're not going to be able to advance the technology. On the other hand, if we do precisely what people say, we're going to build robots that aren't particularly useful.

Mike O'Toole:
Now listen to how Jim finds his crazies, people who feel like robots as currently conceived are failing them. They're looking for something more.


Jim Lawton:

I think it's a combination. So we've gone to ... So, many of them have come to us and said, "Look, you know, as an industry, robot makers are letting us down. We're not getting from you what we need to get from you, and if we're going to continue to compete on a global stage, we need different forms of technology, we need different forms of robotics. So there's definitely people that are doing that kind of outreach. And then we've gone directly to manufacturers and have said to them, "What are the challenges that you're struggling with, and what are the things that we could do with technology that would help you?" And then we take the responsibility of figuring out how to bridge that gap. And say, "What if we had a robot that operated like this?"

Mike O'Toole:
Thanks for listening. If you want to attract your crazies, aim for bigger change. I'll leave you with a note from another great, unconventional change agent: Kimberly Jung, cofounder of Rumi Spice. She shared a question from a great Mary Oliver poem that's inspired her in her company.

Jafil Lahey:
The Unconventionals is written and produced by Mike O'Toole and Reid Mangan with Graham Spector. Production and technical direction by Reid Mangan. Additional media by [Anthony Gentles 00:16:35] and [Ryan Dove 00:16:35]. Our executive producer is Phil Johnson with PJA Advertising and Marketing. I'm [Jafia Lahey 00:16:41]. To listen to more episodes of The Unconventionals, visit


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