How to strengthen customer relationships and maintain a strong brand through a pandemic – Kevin Walker – EP35

What you’ll learn:

What is your brand promise in wake of a pandemic? What is your brand relationship to your customers and the market in the time of a crisis? Brand is more important now than ever, which is why we cover brand strategies and communication tools and tactics businesses needed brand crisis solutions during these trying times.

About our guest:

As a teenager, Kevin Walker rebranded a small gift shop in Washington D.C. and doubled its revenues in one year. Since that time, he has been providing successful brand strategy solutions to some of the most demanding clients in the world. He is now the President of Boardwalk, Inc., an agency that “positions brands for enduring success in a world of rapid change”.

Key takeaways from this episode:

  • How Boardwalk, Inc. creates meaningful bonds between brands and their markets—1:50
  • Boardwalk, Inc. company stats (number of employees, etc.)—4:42
  • Shifting focus: ROI short term vs. ROI long-term approach—5:40
  • Sales process + how boutique agencies acquire new clients—6:45
  • ROI Forecast: how long does it take to see ROI from a new brand strategy—9:42
  • The importance of building a strong brand before a crisis—11:54
  • Rebrands: strategies, tactics, and timelines—13:28
  • Steps to staying connected to customers during a pandemic—14:55
  • What is a brand? What is a brand strategy? —17:40
  • The biggest challenge of executing brand strategy and how to solve it—21:08
  • Best channels to communicate with customers during a pandemic—25:00

Podcast Transcription

Speaker 1: Welcome to The Page 1 Podcast, a weekly podcast featuring a variety of guests and thought leaders on topics ranging from channel strategies, to tariffs, influencer marketing, best in class product launches, and all the details about how to accelerate your eCommerce sales with the big box retailers, or what we call, rCommerce. Now here’s your host, Luke Peters.

Luke Peters: Thanks for joining us on The Page 1 Podcast. I’m your host, Luke Peters of Newer Appliances and also CEO of Retail Band Digital Strategy Agency. And right now we’re in a coronavirus world, and I know that everyone’s mind is on that. So I’m going to adapt these interviews to ensure that you, the listeners are getting the most out of our podcast. And you can expect us to get right to the point, provide valuable insights with the focus on COVID-19 impacts. And I know everybody’s worried about COVID-19, so we’ll direct questions in that area, but also about our businesses and how we can continue to grow our businesses.

Luke Peters: And so let’s jump right into it. In this episode you’re going to learn from Kevin Walker about how to grow a strong brand in these challenging times. And as a teenager, Kevin rebranded a small gift shop in Washington D.C., doubled its revenues in one year. Since that time, he’s been providing successful brand strategy solutions to some of the most demanding clients in the world. So we’re going to focus on brand strategy, brand design and brand communication, but with the COVID-19 slant to it.

Luke Peters: So Kevin, go ahead and add anything you would like to that introduction and kind of in a more tangible terms, briefly describe what you do for the audience.

Kevin Walker: Oh sure, sure. Thank you very much for having me. Well, in a nutshell, what Boardwalk does is we build meaningful bonds between things that need to be marketed and their markets. And that bond is really the brand. We’ve been in business since 1990, we work with all types of businesses. And our services fall into three main buckets.

Kevin Walker: The first one would be brand strategy. And we make a business case for how a company product or service should be positioned to gain competitive advantage over its rivals. And we have a proprietary methodology for doing that, it involves qualitative research and analysis. We call that the deep dive.

Kevin Walker: And our aim is for our clients to really hear the voice of their market and see their brand through their customer’s eyes. We don’t write the brand strategy, but we facilitate our clients gaining the marketing clarity they need to write their own one that is authentic and theirs alone.

Kevin Walker: The second bucket is a brand design. Once our clients have that clarity, then we move forward by providing creative services needed to bring their brands to life and actually start working for them. So we create integrated customer experiences that support and advance our client’s brand strategy.

Kevin Walker: And that could include brand architecture, naming, positioning, tagline, slogans, key messaging, logos, visual identity systems, websites, trade shows, stationary collateral, anything that’s needed to bring the brand strategy to life.

Kevin Walker: And then the third thing we do, the third bucket, is something we call brand agency. We operationalize the brand strategy through marketing communication. So at our client’s request we could either work as an outsourced CMO as a contracted agency, or as a partner integrated into their existing marketing teams.

Kevin Walker: We create and execute and measure on brand marketing campaigns both online and in traditional media, and we design, implement all their advertising, social media, blogs, newsletters, trade shows, all that. We do everything to make sure that all the advertising messaging stays on brand.

Kevin Walker: And our experience has shown that this one, two, three approach leads to increased awareness, demand and revenue for our clients. In most market sectors, the ROI on that is usually about 15 to 20 years of year over year sales group. So, that’s us.

Luke Peters: Great and thanks for that and describing kind of your one, two, three strategy there. And Kevin, how many total employees, just so we can give the listeners a sense of the company size.

Kevin Walker: We’ve never been more than three employees. We put teams together to work on specific projects. If there’s a naming project that we’re working on, then I might have like three writers working on that with me. But once that’s done, they go back to their freelance life.

Luke Peters: Great and awesome. So you guys are boutique and you guys are really diving deep with your clients. And talk to us about companies are now focusing on the near term. And obviously branding is often a longterm ROI game. How has that kind of changed your business or changed with your clients? And also secondly, how would you speak to that line of thought when talking to clients?

Kevin Walker: Well, situations in flux right now, so we’re still kind of feeling that one out. But truth be told, most of our clients are always looking at this year’s sales and very seldom looking down the road. So it hasn’t changed much for us yet. Although, like I say, it’s a fluid situation. Who knows what tomorrow might bring.

Luke Peters: Yep.

Kevin Walker: But right now in terms of our operations, usually, when we do our qualitative research that involves a lot of one-on-one interviews, and we usually like to do those in person. But it looks like we’ll be doing them by Zoom for a foreseeable future, which is fine, that’s fine.

Kevin Walker: And then in terms of our sales, that did come to a screeching halt, because we work mostly with CEOs of small and middle market companies. And once the virus hit, they had a lot on their plate and they really couldn’t concentrate on what we do. But, so we stopped the sales calls for about a week, but we’re back at it now.

Luke Peters: Yeah. And how does your sales process look? And I asked that just because it’s really interesting to kind of understand how smaller creative agencies like yours might work, especially with limited resources. So is it more of an email driven sales process? Or is it a phone driven and really curious in kind of briefly how that works?

Kevin Walker: Well, for years it had been phone driven, but these days we start with email.

Luke Peters: Yep.

Kevin Walker: And we just have to make sure that our emails aren’t tone deaf to the situation.

Luke Peters: It’s tough when everybody’s watching the news every day. What type of email provider and how do you get the listing for those clients?

Kevin Walker: We go off Sales Navigator, LinkedIn Sales Navigator.

Luke Peters: Oh God. Okay. Wow. So you guys were having to do really specific work to identify a client off Navigator. And then drop them into an email campaign and kind of work through those different series of emails. And that’s kind of the start of your sales process?

Kevin Walker: And then the moment anybody shows any interest at all, then we get more personal.

Luke Peters: Yeah. Any automation on Sales Navigator, or does that have to be done by a human on that end?

Kevin Walker: We automate. Yep. We use an outfit called CoPilot AI, but we’ve only been with them for not even two months now. So, but so far, we’re pretty happy with the results.

Luke Peters: Yeah. And thanks for sharing that by the way. And it’s awesome to hear that. Because I’ve done some work through LinkedIn and it can be like hitting your head against a wall. And it’s also annoying for the folks that are on there. But it is the world of marketing and sales. And so having that automation I guess, it’s kind of like a breath of fresh air.

Kevin Walker: That’s another thing, in our line, we always do a good job for our clients. What that means, they get 15 to 20 years of … they won’t need us again for 15 or 20 years. So my challenge has always been to reach that CEO at the right moment in that cycle. So with automation, we can really up the numbers game and have more success. But like I say, we just started this campaign and then the virus hit.

Luke Peters: Now let’s talk about that. So CEO’s are turning their phones off. Listen, I’m in that camp too. We’re focused on the product now and making sure we’re making the right moves and cutting costs and everything. But so specific to COVID-19, what would you advise other businesses? And what I mean specifically is, you’re now selling these services and performing these services and CEOs are like, “Hey we got to cut costs.” How can you show or talk about more mid range returns? Because you had a good answer earlier where you said, look, all your clients are looking at returns this year and not five years into the future.

Kevin Walker: Right.

Luke Peters: So tell us more, because I think this is a really important thing for customers to think in the middle of COVID-19. And when they’re talking about branding, what really can they expect to see in a three to six or nine month timeframe? And specifically, why? Is that because there’s better Instagram account that’s built out and then they use and deploy that? Or, how do they get the results and why do they get the results?

Kevin Walker: Well, there’s a lot in that question.

Luke Peters: I bet.

Kevin Walker: In terms of giving your listeners tactical advice, I’m not sure that … each one of them is going to have their own situation in their own tactics that they’ll have to follow. But in general, I can tell you two things that I tell all my clients is one, communication now is more important than ever. If all your customers are gone and you need to find a way to let them know that the tribe is still intact and that you’re still in business. So regular communication of some sort, whether it’s a newsletter or a some kind of Zoom session, is really important to keep your customers close to you, keep them up to date on what’s going on with you; be as transparent as you can-

Luke Peters: But in talking about the timeframe, just to that, because I think that’d be valuable for the customer. Can you talk specifically to the timeframe of results? I think that’s on everybody’s mind when they make an investment right now.

Kevin Walker: For a mid sized company, it could take up to six months just to do the strategy part of it.

Luke Peters: Oh wow.

Kevin Walker: And then, the creative part that comes out to that, could easily be another six months. So if you hire me today, you’re probably a year away from launching with the new brand. And then you’ll see some impact right away. Sales usually has an almost immediate uptick and there’s a lot of reasons for that. But even if it’s a small uptick, that’s something that shows you that your brand is working, and you can grow that.

Kevin Walker: But for a new brand to really take effect and gain full strength, it could be three to four years. So it is a longterm process. But again, it really helps you. So it won’t help you through this crisis necessarily, but it’ll position you for the next one, and they come along every so often.

Kevin Walker: Right now, businesses that have strong brands are patting themselves on the back because it’s going to help see them through this crisis, however long it lasts.

Luke Peters: Oh, 100%. No, I’m a huge believer and proponent in brand, especially in this era of Amazon. Just so you know, a lot of the listeners here are going to be in the housewares industry or the home and hardware industry. And if you don’t have a brand, I mean, Amazon is going to displace you. And owning a brand and owning the customer and owning your own direct channel is just, it’s essential.

Luke Peters: So you know, what you do is absolutely essential. But also, it’s great to learn more about it, because I don’t have a lot of experience understanding that those timelines. And it sounds like you’re launching new brands, and that I can understand that taking longer. Do you ever relaunch current brands? What if-

Kevin Walker: Oh yeah.

Luke Peters: And let’s walk through that process. So maybe a company’s already got a decent brand. Of course, maybe they need more imagery or different imagery, but they haven’t actually done quote unquote branding. They’ve got a good brand, it’s out there already, they have great sales history, but they haven’t worked on branding. By the way, this is very common in our industry. And tell us about timeline specific timelines there, and also activities that you would do for those companies.

Kevin Walker: Well, yeah, I mean there’s a strong brand, like Coca Cola for instance, they’re always rebranding themselves. They’re updating the graphics, they’re trying to stay current. So yeah, we do that a lot. And like I say, a brand strategy should last you 15 to 20 years, unless you’re like in a trendy business like fashion or something.

Kevin Walker: So every 15 or 20 years a brand is going to seem kind of stale and you need to revitalize it. We often come in and do that, and that can be done fairly quickly, like within a couple of months. But again, every job is a custom job, so you can’t really make cookie cutter predictions.

Luke Peters: Yeah.

Kevin Walker: So yeah, we can come in, we can look at their brand strategy. Maybe they have outgrown it. For instance, we did the original brand for Staples Center.

Luke Peters: Oh wow.

Kevin Walker: And their brand, their promise, I’m sorry, their purpose statement at the time was we’re bringing nightlife back to downtown Los Angeles. Nothing about basketball or hockey, nothing about concerts, it’s just nightlife in general. And now 20 years later, you can see that they’ve lived up to that promise. I mean, downtown Los Angeles is booming now compared to what it was 20 years ago. But now they’ve kind of outgrown that promise, the purpose statement. So they need to start thinking about what they’re going to be for the next 20 years. And that’s where we would come in.

Luke Peters: And how can we keep close to our customers while closed for a pandemic? You spoke about communication. Any other thoughts on that, in relation to COVID-19? And luckily, just so you know … so for the listeners here, you’re going to have a lot of brands that are still open, because a lot of them are essential to the supply chain.

Kevin Walker: Right.

Luke Peters: Even products you wouldn’t think about, they’re still shipping. Where the huge disruption in this industry has been, is physical store closures. And that’s been really difficult. But I imagine there’s some other types of brands and companies and of course restaurants that are closed or only take out. And so, how do we keep close to our customers in that sense? We’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Kevin Walker: Well, I know of one retail chain, a national chain, I can’t say their name, because they’re not a client of mine. I know that they’re setting up newsletters, emailing customers, they have a good list. They were running promotions that they can, I guess they’re mailing them out or mail the product out.

Kevin Walker: So they’re still keeping their sales up that way. They’re keeping their online sales going, but they’ve had to close all their stores. And that means they sent all their employees home. And that’s the second part of the communication thing, is you’ve got to keep your staff. They’re laid off, they’re sitting at home alone, they’re wondering what their future is. This particular chain is guaranteeing. Everybody’s paid through April, but nobody knows what happens at the end of April.

Kevin Walker: But what they’re doing is they’re having Zoom sessions, where they get the staff of every particular store onto a Zoom session, so they don’t have to be alone through this. The chain can relate to the latest news, what’s going on, what they’re thinking about the futures is going to hold, that sort of thing. And then the employees get that camaraderie too, by seeing each other, talking to each other and laughing with each other. So that’s a great way to keep the staff engaged, and if you had to lay anybody off.

Luke Peters: Luckily in this industry, so there haven’t been, which we’re really blessed and fortunate, there haven’t been a lot of massive layoffs, because companies can work remote. But definitely to your point, communication is so important and companies have all had to adapt either Zoom or Teams or something like that.

Kevin Walker: Right.

Luke Peters: And yeah. And then getting back to the basics, because I know it’s an easy question to ask, but sometimes the definition isn’t what everybody expects. But from your eyes, what really is a brand and what is a brand strategy?

Kevin Walker: Good questions. A brand is basically the relationship between a marketable asset and its market. And the way it kind of works is, if the management of the brand knows what its brand promise is, and brand promise is that thing that’s unique about your product or your service. If it’s clear on what its brand promise is and then it makes that brand promise to the market through marketing communications, and then it keeps that brand promise, then the market will begin to reward the brand with brand loyalty.

Kevin Walker: And so you have this symbiotic relationship going, where the business knows its brand promise, makes its brand promise, keeps its brand promise, delivers on it, and then gets rewarded with brand loyalty. So the brand is really what grows in the covenant there. And the longer you can keep that cycle going, the stronger the brand gets and the more valuable it gets. That’s why I say three to four years for it to get up to full strength, because it just takes a while for that process to work itself out.

Kevin Walker: So that’s what, that’s what a brand is, at least from our point of view. And that’s another problem is that there are a million different definitions of brand. That’s the one we work on and that’s the one we’ve had success with.

Kevin Walker: A brand strategy is making a business case for why a product or service or business itself should be positioned in a particular way to gain competitive advantage over the rivals. So that’s when we go out and we do our research. We talk to customers, we talk to the employees, we talked to bankers, any group whose perception of the brand is important to its future. We want to hear from all of those and we look for common themes that go across constituencies. That’s how we figure out what really is unique about this business and where we should be putting our marketing emphasis. So that’s putting a strategy together.

Luke Peters: Yeah.

Kevin Walker: And then, I don’t know how far into how far into this you want to get, but we create what’s called brand platforms. And that’s like a political platform is based on planks, and those planks are like, here’s where we stand on foreign policy, here’s where we stand on a fiscal policy, et cetera, et cetera.

Kevin Walker: Well a brand’s platform is similar. It’s made up of planks, but the planks are statements like a purpose statement and mission statement, a positioning statement and a brand promise. And we write all that up for our clients, formalize it, codify it, and get everybody to sign off and we take it from there.

Luke Peters: It makes total sense to me. I think the hardest part, I don’t know if you share this, because you are on the other end of it, you’re creating it. But the hardest part is probably living the brand strategy all the way through. Because, okay, you’re putting some stakes in the ground and saying this is what we’re going to. And then your brand has all these promises. And it only works if you touch enough people, I guess that then give you that loyalty because they’ve received that positive interaction of your promise. But that can take a long time. And then through those times, there’s choppy waters and that’s probably a challenge every day for brands to maintain that course, I’m guessing. Do you see it the same way, or what are your thoughts on that?

Kevin Walker: Absolutely right. And that’s why we have what I mentioned before, we call brand agency, where we stick with our clients to make sure that everything stays on brand. Because every marketing communication has an advertising message and a branding message. And the advertising message might be … I can’t think of one now, because everything’s closed.

Kevin Walker: Let’s say you had a bar or something and you wanted to fill up Tuesday nights, which are for bars are traditionally not very profitable. So you decide to have ladies night, right? So that’s the message. That’s the advertising message: ladies night on Tuesdays. But the branding message is, well, what’s going to happen at this bar on Tuesday night? Are you going to play country music? Are you going to play R and B? So the way you dress up that message is going to keep that message on brand.

Kevin Walker: So you have your advertising message and you have your branding message. And what happens when people don’t keep us on for longterm or they don’t keep somebody on, or there’s nobody on staff who’s thinking about branding every day, they can forget about the branding message and just put out the advertising message, and then the brand weakens.

Kevin Walker: So yeah, it’s, you have to keep people on board and you have to keep vigilant as to what your brand is. And that’s why brands are all CEO driven, because the CEO is the only person who has the authority and the reach to get everybody on the team behind the brand. Remember I said that you have to know what your brand promise is. That requires you to put on this strategic thinking cap. You have to make your brand promise, that’s all your advertising, all your marketing.

Kevin Walker: But you have to deliver on your brand promise and that’s all your operations. That’s the things that businesses are doing every day already. So it takes a whole company to build a strong brand. It’s just not something that the marketing department does.

Luke Peters: That’s a great answer. And I’d specifically wrote down that they’re CEO driven. And I think for the audience, that’s a big takeaway and they’re hard to maintain and you have to maintain this within your marketing message and over a long period of time. So definitely interesting. I guess that’s the challenge and that’s why strong brands are so valuable, especially in this market that we’re in right now.

Luke Peters: And Kevin, I’d like to know more, I know we can’t dive into all the tactics, but what are you seeing from … So when you do the agency’s part of it, so sounds like you would be driving some of their marketing. I’m sure some is on social, and some is text, not text on the phone. It may be, but I mean, Google text ads and I’m just guessing.

Luke Peters: But what does that look like from a branding agency perspective? Is that encompass all of their digital marketing, or do you just simply take over a couple of channels? And then which channels have worked best for you more recently, just with a lot of changes that have happened in social, is that still where the strength is?

Kevin Walker: Well our clients, they’re all different and we try to adapt to what they need. If they need us to do everything, we do everything. Right now, I don’t think we have any clients like that. More like we come in from time to time to advise, help them get back on brand if they’re straying off, that sort of thing.

Kevin Walker: In terms of what’s working, I think, well, what’s going to work a lot better, I mean it’s already working well, is online. But with everybody staying home, I think online is going to be even stronger. So that could include social media, that include pay-per-click type ad campaigns, all those sorts of things. So that’s where I put my money in now.

Luke Peters: It makes total sense. I mean the whole world is going to change with this. So that’s why it’s, yeah. I mean even from products we source and everything.

Kevin Walker: I think we will get back to, I hate this expression, a new normal, but it’ll be a different normal. I mean, I think some things won’t ever go back to the way they were. I think there’s going to be a lot more working at home.

Luke Peters: Yep.

Kevin Walker: And when people go out, it’ll be going out for a specific purpose and not just to hang out at the mall or something.

Luke Peters: Yeah. Well listen, I really enjoyed this chat Kevin and learned a lot and took a good notes and a lot of good notes. And hopefully the listeners found this valuable, knowing that brands are CEO driven and we really have to hold on to that brand promise. And it’s that relationship between that asset and the market. I think those are a couple of the key things that I took out of this. And again, I want to thank you for joining me on The Page 1 Podcast and sharing your knowledge with our audience. And before I let you go, I know you’ve got an ebook, and also just wanted to give you the opportunity to mention how listeners can find you or get ahold of you.

Kevin Walker: Oh sure. Thank you. Yeah, the ebook is called A Brand is a Promise Kept, and it’s available on my website on the publications page. That would be boardwalkhq.com, Boardwalk like the Monopoly game, HQ, like headquarters.com/publications. And the ebook’s there along with a couple of white papers. And if you download the ebook, I’m in the middle of writing a second book, which hopefully will be out this year. But again, there’s a monkey wrench thrown in the works there too. But that one is called The New CEO’s Branding Handbook.

Kevin Walker: So if you download A Brand is a Promise Kept, you’ll also get the new CEO’s branding handbook, and it’s all free, by the way. There’s that, and you can always reach me on LinkedIn, Kevin J. Walker, Boardwalk on LinkedIn. Or at my website, boardwalkhq.com. Or you can reach me by email, kevin@boardwalkla.com. Yeah.

Luke Peters: Great. We’ll have that in the show notes for all the listeners. I know sometimes it’s a lot to write down during a podcast, so we’ll drop that in the bottom of the show notes. But I’m looking forward to the next ebook and definitely will look to download that and hope the audience does too and supports another small business, and that’s what we have to be thinking about in these times.

Luke Peters: And just want to thank everybody for listening to this episode of The Page 1 Podcast sponsored by Retail Band. And quick reminder, I’m offering a free evaluation of your online sales strategy. We can take a look at how you’re doing on Amazon, Home Depot, Wayfair, Walmart, other online retailers, which are more important now than ever. And we can take a look at your products and selling tools, and we’ll present our findings directly to you. And it’s all free for this free evaluation, and you can email me at luke@retailband.com.

Luke Peters: I hope you enjoyed the interview today. Truly appreciate all of your reviews on iTunes, and hope you join us for the next episode.

Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to The Page 1 Podcast with Luke Peters. If you like our show and want to know more, check out our other segments. Also, please help us out by leaving us a rating on iTunes. Want to learn more about our rCommerce, check out www.retailband.com to get more great tips and tricks on how to accelerate your eCommerce sales with the big box retailers.

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Episode ReferencesBoardwalk, Inc. + A Brand is a Promise Kept + The New CEO’s Branding Handbook

Contact Kevin Walker: kevin@boardwalkla.com + LinkedIn

Contact Luke: luke@retailband.comLinkedIn 

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