There’s nothing more powerful than the truth. This is the principle Chuck Kent, director of brand content for Chicago-based B2B branding firm Avenue and contributing editor for Branding Magazine’s Branding Roundtable, has built his career on.
At the heart of effective marketing and branding is the ability to tell stories – and what better way to arrive at a company’s “simple brand truth,” as Chuck calls it, than through honest and meaningful discussion?
In an era where content is king, interviews are one of the most easily utilized tools marketers have to allow great brand stories to tell themselves.
A copywriter turned creative director at BBDO, now a brand strategist and industry journalist, Chuck understands this better than almost anyone. Whether he’s crafting compelling content for his clients, which include household names such as Motorola and Wrigley, or facilitating dynamic and informative conversations for the Branding Roundtable, Chuck relies on the tried-and-true technique of asking questions to solicit meaty, meaningful insights.
Here, Chuck explains why interviews are such a versatile tool for companies to generate practical content – and perhaps more importantly, gain an understanding of not only their consumers, but ultimately themselves.
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Vicky: Hey there! How are you?
Chuck: I’m doing very well Thank you. Just back from a nice spring break road trip with my youngest, so feeling refreshed and ready to get back to work. It’s nice to talk to you today!
Vicky: Oh, fantastic! Fantastic. So, you’re in the Chicago area. What part?
Chuck: Evanston, the first town north of Chicago. I’ve been in this area for years having moved here from starting my career in New York.
Vicky: Fantastic. I love, love Chicago.
Chuck: I do at this time of year.
Vicky: I would love to hear about you. I would love to hear about how you got started, the early stages of your career – just your cadence to where you are today with a strong valuable point of view about how you get to great brand conclusions and stories. How did it all begin?
Chuck: It began because I needed to have something to do that someone would pay me for. I was an old English major – or as I used to joke about it in college, my double major in English and unemployment. I loved to write. I knew I wanted to do something with writing so I actually sort of stumbled into advertising. I made my way from the Chicago area, where my parents were living at the time, and I couldn’t get arrested there job there when I got out of college.
So since someone had accused me of seeming like a New Yorker I said, “Fine. I’ll go to New York.” I got a job there in a small shop. And after a couple of years, managed to work my way to BBDO New York, which was a great place to be – the home of the big idea.
But also, for all of their emphasis on the work, the work, the work – if they have a theme line, that’s basically it – for all their emphasis on creative, they’ve always been a soundly strategic shop. That’s where I learned my love of strategy. I love writing. One of my favorite blog posts I’ve written in recent days is why brand strategists should start as copywriters, and to me the linkage is pretty simple. The strategy is really the idea. And a good copywriter is at heart an idea person – especially an advertising copywriter. Because you don’t’ have that much to write. You’ve got a lot to think up. You’re a concept person. You need to be a big idea person. And if you really think about it, the idea isn’t the TV spot or it isn’t the event. It is a strategy. What is the core truth here, the “aha” that people respond to in this product or service or relationship or all of the above?
So over the years – after working at BBDO New York and Chicago, and having my own shop, I have in recent years become an independent consultant helping clients find, I like to say, their simple brand truth. That is simply because I believe there is nothing more powerful than the truth. Because with the truth you don’t have to convince people, you have self-evidence. The truth explains itself if presented clearly, simply, and well. So, that’s sort of the short tour of the first few decades of my career.
Vicky: Fantastic. When did you first realize the power of interviews as a tool for telling brand stories – for creating brand stories?
Chuck: I think in terms of really employing for the creation of and substance of the campaign, for me it was about 15 years ago. I had a client, LPL Financial Services, and they are the largest independent broker dealer, which is the back office, if you will, for financial advisers. They were looking to recruit more advisers. So, our original recommendation when I was running this small agency that had them as a client, my original recommendation was of course to do this nicely disciplined research. You do some qualitative to decide what you might want to explore more quantitatively. Well, they didn’t have time for that. So, we backed up to plan B – which actually ended up being a very rich plan B.
It was a simple request. “Okay, give me at least two weeks and 12 of your best, or perhaps most loquacious, advisers that I can interview for an hour and see what their experience has been.” Because the task at hand was to recruit advisers, and so I wanted to go out and see how people had been recruited, why they switched, and what they personally tell other people who are thinking about that process.
And it was fascinating! These were very successful, often very wealthy people, and they could have taken kind of a static, high-horse approach of well “ It’s A, B, and C” – knowing all of the stuff that I would normally want to hear. But we very quickly got down to the fact that this had been one of the biggest decisions of their lives. And when people came to them, even though they were these high-powered, mostly guys – lots of testosterone running – they were still kind of scared about making this huge switch. They actually spoke about how it was as big of a decision as getting married, in their lives. So when you get down to that level of emotion and honesty, you’re really getting somewhere.
And so what we ended up doing – I recorded all of those interviews – and then I ended up not just using them as research, but using them as the ad campaign, which became very successful. We ran these spread ads with one whole page of copy of the edited highlights of the whole interview and within that we also offered – had a good strong offer – trying to be useful with not just the interview but with a follow-up piece. It was really their stories that carried the thing. That campaign ran for a couple of years helped them double their adviser rate.
So, that’s when I really got fond of using story as both the strategic and often the creative foundation of even advertising campaigns.
Vicky: Chuck points out that not only is the interview process a great way to uncover strategic insights for clients, but it also has the inherent value of building a foundation of trust. Another great thing aspect of these exchanges? They can be done on any budget – something Chuck outlines in his free e-book “3 Step Branding Process and Workshop.”
Vicky: The notion that interviews allow great brand stories to tell themselves sounds simple. What’s the secret sauce to an effective interview? What are some of the traps people and companies should avoid? Any advice you have on embracing interviews as a brand storytelling mechanism and how to start.
Chuck: Specifically, from a brand standpoint, to me, the first thing is to forget that you’re in marketing. Basically, drop your agenda at the door – just listen. So, it takes a certain leap of faith that the first step is not to push, it’s not to sell, it’s not to turn your interviewee into a shell. It’s just to encounter them as another human being who is attempting to create human-to-human communication.
Yes, we’re business people, but we’re human beings – believe it or not. Drop the marketing agenda and just listen. Listening has two components. A lot of people think it just means to shut up and let the other person talk, which is part of it. But it also means to intently follow what that person is saying so that you can help explore the subject with the person. You’re not jus asking them to regurgitate preconceived answers to your questions.
If you really want to have a great interview it’s a matter of discovery – together. So as a good listener who comes well-prepared to an interview, you can help them jump off into other meaningful areas that they may have missed themselves or have not thought about bringing up. So, that’s the other benefit to listening intently.
The second part – just as important, and I alluded to it – is to prepare. Don’t just ever wing it. Don’t just put the same six questions together you’ve heard everyone else ask about a topic. That’s one of the things I get tired about with content. Mark Schaefer talks about content shock and this overload of content and how is it ever going to break through? And I talk more about content schlock. There’s so much “me too” junk out there that scratches the surface in hopes of getting Google to pay attention. To me, that’s only part of the point of doing content and doing stories.
Vicky: Who is a more valuable interview subject: Is it someone you might have a relationship with or an understanding of, whose answers you possibly could anticipate? Or is it someone with limited exposure?
Chuck: It’s neither and both. To me it’s somebody who, in an ideal sense, you might have a shared point of passion with. I’ll give you an example. One of my favorite interviews, one of the first video interviews I did, was with the author Johnathan Salem Baskin, and he had just written the book “Tell the Truth: Honesty is Your Most Powerful Marketing Tool.”
And that is my favorite topic: that marketing doesn’t have to be dishonest. I understand that it often is. I also know that penchant for dishonesty among some really kills the business. It also is a very short-term kind of thing, it causes lots of distrust, but it also misses the point that, as Jonathan says in his title, honesty is your most powerful marketing tool. And as you can tell, I get excited about this sort of thing. I knew that I had this shared point of passion with him.
The other thing I discovered during the interview is that as little boys we both had thought that we might grow up and become pastors. I forget why he chickened out. I chickened out when I saw how hard it is to be a pastor. I have tremendous respect. I’m still involved in the church, but that’s really work.
In my work, I look for ways to serve the truth. I find that that is the best way to serve my clients. So connecting on that level – that shared point of passion – with my interviewee Jonathan really made a great interview.
Vicky: That’s fantastic. Love it. So, what advice would you give for creating compelling content for companies that maybe can’t quite get their handle on where to begin in order to build relevance, or a following, or utility with their customer base or their audience?
Chuck: Well, I think the place to begin is that understanding that stories are strategic. They’re a great strategic foundation. They’re perhaps your most important initial research. If you can invest people in that, even if you have the time and the money to do expensive, disciplined, expansive research, I would suggest that you would start by sitting down one on one with leadership and interviewing them because once they hear themselves talking to another human being, who they don’t usually talk, to about what they’re spending their whole lives on, it kind of forces them to get down to why it matters. Suddenly, as they’re hearing this conversation themselves, it’s very persuasive to them. Then I think they begin to understand, “Oh, this is how it could be persuasive to others.”
Another little tip there is – this is in the e-book the “3 Step Branding Process that describes how I do a workshop” – is to proceed from your individual interviews to getting the leadership team together for a half day, taking them through exercises, etc., to tell the story together, hear how each other may speak about it, and start building an even deeper mutual, collective understanding of the story and ownership of it.
So, that’s a great way use story not only to discover facts. You also obviously need to get out and one way or another talk to consumers as deeply and meaningfully as possible – get their stories, but also to really build this sense of investment and excitement among your leadership.
Vicky: Couldn’t agree more. Just bringing everyone along as many people as you can.
Chuck: I don’t know about you, but I also find that the other barrier is not only not knowing where to start, but I run into a lot of people that think, “Oh, that’s for other kinds of companies besides ours.” Particularly B2B clients that may think
“Oh, we’re just this very utilitarian, functional thing. Our widgets get used for purposes XY and Z, and people want them at the lowest price possible and that’s what we need to tell them.
They don’t realize that if you have a value to people, if you’re problem-solving with your product offering to people, then within your expertise, you have valuable information that you can share with them that will be meaningful and helpful to them. Either ahead of purchase, throughout the purchase cycle, or even just besides the purchase at all.
In Jay Behr’s book “Utility” he talks really about, to me, a slightly more radical approach of not worrying about exactly what the connectivity is between this effort of creating useful content and where it pops out at the cash register so much as taking a step to be kind of radically useful to people so that they will not only be attracted to you but learn to value and trust you. Any company can do that. That to me as I say is as big a barrier to most – believing and realizing that part – as it is to where to start with their stories, etc.
Vicky: The bottom line is that interviews are relevant to any industry – especially in terms of producing content. If you’re providing honest insight that speaks to a particular problem for your audience, the content is going to resonate.
Vicky: So, a little segue way here: Let’s talk about employer branding. For us it’s been – the employee/employer piece – a place that we’ve played in for probably 15 years. But it’s become very definitive in the last 3 years, which has been excellent. We would put together end-to-end branding proposals, and we’d have to really fight and defend and make the case for the importance of not leaving out the employee piece two years ago.
Now, we don’t need to do that anymore. Everyone is just chomping for a dynamic employer brand. And I think there’s a lot of dynamics at work here. There’s the millennial workforce that’s entered full on. But there’s also the era of Glassdoor – which kind of caught everyone with their pants down, if you will. In your opinion how can people use internal interviews as that great tool to develop employer brands based on truth. Any insights on conducting these successfully? Getting honest answers? Making sure the right pool of people are being surveyed? Any insights there.
Chuck: I would say this because I’m an outside consultant: I think you should use an outside consultant. People like to talk if they feel free to talk. An interviewer should be able to walk in sort of in the stance as interviewer as confessor, counselor, open, and unjudging ear that can really get people to talk. So, that’s one thing.
The other thing is an important factor in any sort of interview with any group of people is its ability to invest them in what you’re about. Whether it’s the process or the overall brand.
I get a little dubious. I get the split between HR and marketing, but I kind of had to go around and round about this. I did a Branding roundtable on employer/employee branding. And it was difficult for the respondents to come to an agreement about whether we’re talking about employee branding or employer branding. Is it different? Is one internally focused? Is one outward facing?
Because yes, it has an HR function and you want it to be able to help attract, retain, and nurture your talent. But you also want it to be the natural ongoing process of creating brand stewards out of all of your employees so you can deliver what the heck it is you’re promising for your brand. Employees need to understand they are a part of that, and they need to take pride in it. But they also need to get rewarded for it. That’s where most of that equation falls apart for me. I have heard of big companies spending hundreds of thousands of dollars periodically – every three or four years when they get a new CEO – so there’s going to be this new culture initiative. There’ll be big retreats or you know…
Vicky: New posters on the wall.
Chuck: Yeah, new posters on the wall. But you know, that’s what it comes down to: New posters on the wall that, you know, people can draw on or ignore – versus are you really listening to me? Are you really taking to heart what I have to say? Am I really becoming a part of this program? Am I seeing it in my paychecks?
I think one of the boldest, real long-term branding plays I’ve seen is the guy at Gravity, Gravity Credit Processing that announced that he’s taking a pay cut so that he can have a minimum employee pay of $70,000 a year. The guy took himself down to $70,000 a year from a million to pay for it. Now that is a really bold, striking statement that we are gonna do things different and we are all valued here. I’d love to interview him in a year and see how it’s gone because I just love that kind of long-term play.
I got to interview Don Peppers from Peppers and Rogers a while back and he likes to talk about short-termism as being one of the great diseases of American business. And I think that’s what a lot of employee/employer branding falls victim to. “Oh, okay. We’re repositioning the company we need to have as part of that some brochures, a couple meetings, some videos. We’ll do that for a couple months with the employees, and then we’ll get back to life as normal.”
If you’re really talking about meaningful employer branding, it’s investing in your employees.
Vicky: Yes. You have to walk the talk.
Chuck: Yeah. Then they not only want to deliver, but it’s their own personal purpose and mission.
Vicky: This is a time of unprecedented access to information, making transparency an essential component of successful companies. Employees and consumers alike crave the truth and to connect with the brands they support – which is why the ability for brands to hone in on and articulate what truly distinguishes them is key to business success in today’s marketing landscape.
Vicky: So, business goals are at the heart of all marketing strategy, and if you’re interviewing for the sake of content creation, how explicitly should you frame these goals? Is there a methodology?
Chuck: You should frame them to yourself very explicitly. You should know what you want to come out with, what you need to come out with. Even just down to the components that you need for whatever you want to create out of the interview. Or have an idea – since repurposing is a thing of beauty – how many different things could I get out of this interview if I do it right?
But you don’t need to spoil the interview by burdening your interviewee with all of that. You can know what you want to get. If you’ve prepared well, if you know your interviewee and you have a good list of starter questions – yeah, start there. But let the conversation go where it will. Be willing to be surprised.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the notion that, yes, structure is functional, but surprise is magical.
Be willing to go off topic, certainly off questionnaire. If you’re keeping track of things and listening intently, you can always circle back around and ask anything at the end that you think you’ve missed.
Vicky: I’d love your perspective on generosity in the branding industry. You know, when it comes to sharing secrets and insights – your perspective?
Chuck: I think there are a couple of things. I think from a purely brand and marketing standpoint, the people who really get it know that giving is getting.
Vicky: Yes. Yes
This gets back to one of my favorites, Jay Behr. Who, by the way, I gave an original song to launch his most recent book Utility. It was interesting. He offered to pay me for it. I love Jay. He’s not looking for something for nothing. But I was so excited about his prospect that I really wanted to kind of jump into that whole “utility” vibe myself with creating this musical content for him to help promote the book.
But I really like his perspective of giving away content snacks that are tasty, that are valuable, and good enough in and of themselves – like any snack is. But a snack usually makes you hungry for a whole meal, so that’s where you get the enlightened self interest out of it – you’re wetting your prospect’s appetite to come back and buy the whole meal.
I think that I myself get a little tired of too much snackable content because then it gets back into that sort of superficial, everyone’s doing the same thing. That’s part of the reason for instance jump into the branding roundtable because just in a regular article for Branding Magazine I felt I wasn’t able to explore a topics as deeply as I felt they needed. The roundtable ends up being anywhere from 15 and 20 pages, which is great. But from a brand content standpoint and brand storytelling standpoint, I think one of the real upsides to being generous is entering the sense of relief that we don’t just have to sell, sell, sell. As I like to say, it’s not brand story-selling, it’s brand storytelling.
You can let the story tell itself as it will. Let one story build upon another. Let them aggregate in your consumers’ and prospects’ minds, because if you’re telling them in an interesting and meaningful enough way, they’re coming back for more stories. They’re seeing a bigger picture. So, it’s not okay I’ve got to grab them in the 5 seconds I have to get their attention before they flip the page of better homes and gardens to see what I’m selling, selling, selling.
To me as a marketer that’s using story and content, there is that great relief that I can offer something, I don’t have to sell something. I can offer something.
Vicky: So, let’s talk about Branding Round Table. It’s just so well done. You’ve interviewed so many amazing minds in the industry through that platform. What’s been your biggest aha moment? Or your biggest insight you’ve gained from all those discussion?
Chuck: I’ll start with my biggest “oh wow” moment, which is just that “Oh, these people will actually talk to me!” That’s been the real charm.
Vicky: Yup, Yup.
Chuck: I mean seriously I can think of a number of things, but I have an immediate gut response as to the one comment that I have sparked to the most. It’s just three words long, and it came from Bob Domenz who’s the CEO of Avenue, which is a B2B brand strategy firm here in Chicago.
Vicky: You did a video piece on him.
Chuck: What he’s done, and I don’t know that necessarily these words are original with him, but he has such a clear cut to the chase grasp on them. He sums up their whole approach as “Be. Do. Say.”
If you want brand transformation – that’s a lot of what they do, rebranding, and B2B transformations and change management, that sort of thing – first of all, you have to really be something. You have to dig down to an essential truth, and then you have to commit to whatever it takes to living that out.
Which that gets you to the “do.” Don’t just talk about it, do it. Because the charm in doing is that it’s observable. What you’re claiming, you’re not claiming – you’re demonstrating. Claims are questionable. Demonstration is self-evident truth. It’s something you observe, and it’s something your prospects convince themselves of. Only once you’ve managed to be something meaningful – hopefully meaningfully different. Once you demonstrate the truth of that, then you can say things about it and people will believe you.
That tracks so well, my approach, so it must be right. And I love things that are that concise. “Be. Do Say.”
I’ve run into a lot of others. The others that come to mind quickly are some of the more recent ones like from the content brands edition. Chris Moody is the director of content and social at Oracle – a really interesting, funny guy. And basically, at one point in the round table, I’m asking them what the next big thing is, and he replies by slapping the whole content world upside the head. “Forget about the next big thing, just get good at what you’re doing now. Be meaningful, be useful, and be good at it.”
Vicky: Love it.
Chuck: I love it too.
And then we had the first live Branding Roundtable at BrandSmart 2015 a couple of weeks ago here in Chicago and had Scott Davis from Prophet there with Tim Simonds from Kellogg [School of Management], and Julie Springer from TransUnion.
I really appreciated Scott’s approach, and the topic was brand relevance. That’s become a bit of a buzzword like everything does. But just by adding one word to it he brought such new meaning to me. And that word was “relentless.” I think this is one Prophets’ current themes right now is relentless relevance and the notion that being relevant, staying relevant, leveraging relevance, isn’t a project, it’s an ongoing, forever intense process. So, I really appreciated that.
But it seems like every time I do a round table I certainly learn a lot.
Vicky: Love that. Be. Do. Say. Be great at what you’re doing today. Relentless relevance. That’s a great way to end our talk. Gosh, this has been so stimulating, Chuck. Really, really have enjoyed your time.
Chuck: I have certainly enjoyed it too, and I appreciate being asked.
Vicky: Next time I’m in Chicago we have to grab a cup of coffee and keep the conversation going.
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