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Philip Smolin of 100co: Five Things You Need To Build A Trusted And Beloved Brand

Transparency: Don’t be opaque. Let consumers know who you are and WHY you are. It’s not always easy to execute, but when successful the result is consumers trust your brand. Not convinced? Think about the major U.S. airlines. Do you consider them to be transparent? Do they treat you with respect? And most importantly — do you trust them? Now consider Southwest Airlines. Did your opinion just shift a bit? Southwest nails providing transparency into their mission of, “friendly, reliable and low-cost air travel”, and they’re frequently ranked the most trusted airline in the U.S. for it.

I had the pleasure to interview Philip Smolin. Philip Smolin is a seasoned Silicon Valley technology executive, and Chief Platform Officer at 100.co, the Artificial Intelligence-powered consumer brand group disrupting the Consumer-Packaged Goods market.

Prior to joining 100.co, Smolin served as Chief Strategy and Revenue Officer for advertising giant, Amobee. Before that he spent more than a decade as the head of strategy and product for TURN, where he led the creation of the programmatic advertising and measurement platforms which define the global advertising industry today. A recognized industry leader in marketing analytics and consumer data privacy, he’s a frequent speaker for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), Future of TV Advertising (FOTV), and the industry trade press. Smolin has an MBA from Columbia Business School and U.C. Berkeley’s Walter A. Haas School of Business.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Back in 2010 I was supporting the marketing team for a major consumer packaged goods (CPG) company in the food sector. The mandate was to promote a recipe website and increase engagement with Millennials, as brand engagement with this audience segment was super low.

We tried to reach this audience with increasingly aggressive ad targeting tactics but the traffic to the recipe content remained low. So, we stepped back and took a closer look at Millennials and what type of cooking content they were engaging with online. We quickly learned that Millennials were looking for video content that provided instructions on HOW to prepare the recipes vs. looking up the recipes themselves — point being…a lot of Millennials didn’t know how to cook!

This simple insight, which was kind of obvious in hindsight, completely changed the brand’s marketing strategy. The solution wasn’t more hyper-targeted ads, it actually needed a completely different content strategy. And once the website was updated with short, fun videos on how to prepare the recipes, engagement with Millennials skyrocketed.

Here are some lessons we learned:

  1. Be data-driven: It took focused effort to rethink what we were asking. But once we looked at the results and pinpointed the right questions to ask, we were able to get to the right answers. We learned it’s really an operational and even cultural approach to being data-driven. Let the data take you where it will, and sometimes those will be very unexpected places!
  2. Focus on what matters: It’s easy for teams to focus on what is most easily measured, and in this example, it was easy to measure advertising exposure to Millennials. The KPI was telling us to do more targeting, which was directionally wrong. Rather, we needed to understand WHY our content was not resonating with the audience.
  3. Rethink assumptions: The brand had put a lot of time and effort into both its content strategy for the recipe website, as well as the ad campaign. It took an open mind to say it was wrong and discard all the work completed previously… but if you’re willing to course correct, no matter what’s already been invested, you can turn a losing situation into a winning one.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think 100.co’s technology helps us understand audiences better than any other CPG company out there, and because of this we can bring authentic, purpose-driven brands to market in months vs years. Leveraging insights from the intersection of social media, e-commerce, and consumer-direct relationships, 100.co is reinventing the product development process that legacy CPG brands have relied on for decades.

Traditional CPGs frequently rely on outdated market research, advertising, and retail techniques, which creates real challenges for connecting with younger, digital-first audiences. In contrast 100.co is using artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data to predict product needs, market fit and custom tailor our retail strategies. Being able to predict what will succeed for specific audience segments before a product even hits the shelves is very powerful, and we combine these insights with influential partnerships to accelerate social media awareness and our market penetration. This is far more effective and cost-efficient than producing a “one-size fits all” product like traditional CPG methods.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

100.co is a fundamentally new way to create products consumers will love. We’ve built some incredibly unique and powerful technology to help us understand product-market fit, and even to identify the right co-founders to partner with! The great part is that we’re doing it all with publicly available data vs. trying to monitor consumer behavior without their consent. It’s about using great technology to do a much better job of listening to what consumers are already saying in the market.

Our technology is helping us find under-served market segments ripe for disruption. We’re developing great products from day-one that are a better fit for those markets, while understanding how to launch and promote them via social media in ways that are 100 percent authentic and transparent. We have already seen great results with our technology and can’t wait to showcase our new brands and co-founders!

Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

In a nutshell? Easy: brand marketing is about influencing how you feel, where product marketing is about influencing what you want to buy. They are two sides of the same coin, of course. Do you want to buy products from a brand you hate? Probably not! But are you willing to buy a slightly more expensive version of a product if it’s from a brand you love? Probably yes!

Here’s a great example: do you remember Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World campaign? That was phenomenal brand marketing!

They could have told you about Dos Equis’ flavor, or its calorie count — that would be product marketing — -but instead they gave consumers a colorful character and charming vignettes, which created an incredibly positive association to a brand a lot of consumers didn’t know well. Just think of the Most Interesting Man’s tagline: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.” Drop the mic and walk away — that’s some of the best brand marketing you’ll ever see. As a result, Dos Equis’ beer sales skyrocketed without it ever marketing the actual product.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Today, consumers expect personalized and authentic products; and every product will need to be marketed digitally, socially, and very often with influencers. At the same time, brick and mortar retail will not go away, so products need to be available online and offline to maximize success.

If traditional CPG companies do not invest in technology and platforms like social media to better understand and communicate with their customers, they will continue to lose market share. This year for example, many CPGs will look at price increases due to increasing costs for ingredients, packaging, and transportation, which will likely lower profitability by the end of quarter. We can probably anticipate an increase in paid advertising spend to keep product sales up. But would a social media campaign around topics like ethically sourced ingredients, paying living wages, or keeping employees safe during COVID perhaps yield better results? I offer that purely as a thought experiment, but the point is traditional product marketing and paid advertising often don’t connect for Millennials and Gen-Z the way it used to for previous generations. So, you really need to rethink what it means to use data to both better understand what your audiences want AND how to speak authentically to them.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

  1. Transparency: Don’t be opaque. Let consumers know who you are and WHY you are. It’s not always easy to execute, but when successful the result is consumers trust your brand. Not convinced? Think about the major U.S. airlines. Do you consider them to be transparent? Do they treat you with respect? And most importantly — do you trust them? Now consider Southwest Airlines. Did your opinion just shift a bit? Southwest nails providing transparency into their mission of, “friendly, reliable and low-cost air travel”, and they’re frequently ranked the most trusted airline in the U.S. for it.
  2. Authenticity: Live your values, don’t just give them lip service. It doesn’t mean you’ll be a fit for every consumer, but your target market will probably love you for it. I think Honest Company crushes this. Everything they do across their marketing, products, formulation, and even social give-back programs is consistent and purposeful. When you buy from Honest you know what you’re getting and why.
  3. Approachability: Be human. Every brand is a team of people, and people make mistakes. And when you make mistakes — which are inevitable — admit them, fix them, and LEARN from them. Remember a few years back when KFC ran out of chicken? They quickly ran an ad campaign featuring an empty bucket with the label “FCK”. Pure genius! Now who could stay mad at KFC after that?
  4. Accessibility: Don’t just push messages to your customers and consumers, engage in a conversation with them. Not sure what that’s like? Just check out some of the tweets and replies on Nike’s Service Twitter. Despite Nike’s huge global presence, they still managed to make customer service accessible and approachable. Any time Nike’s twitter handle gets mentioned the service team is quick to check it out and respond directly to their customers. Maybe they can’t solve every customer’s problem, but just the act of engaging is a great way to build brand loyalty.
  5. Give: As in give back, don’t just take. Yes, corporations exist to make money, but they can also make the world, or at least a community, a better place at the same time. And, ultimately, doing good is also good for business. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of executives who view giving back as a marketing tactic, which totally misses the point. Want an easy way to figure out if you’re doing it right? Just ask your employees! Whenever we surveyed employees or asked in a town hall, we would get both great recommendations on worthy programs to support (for example, Black Girls Code), but also a desire from people to participate directly. So, we’ve created ways to donate employee time in addition to assisting with cash. In the final calculation you’ve done some good in the world and helped create happier and more motivated employees in the process. How great is that!

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

A company that has done a fantastic job at building its brand is Honest Company. Its core value is so important, it’s the Company name! That’s a massive statement to make.

Jessica Alba is a great founder who is thinking outside the box and catering to today’s parents who are eco-conscious, aspirational, and more affluent. Alba founded Honest Co. in 2011, seeing whitespace in the market for baby products that were free of harsh chemicals. Today, the Company is valued at almost $2.5 billion — that’s significantly more than its $860 million implied valuation in a 2017 funding round!

Most CPGs like to believe they are data-driven and authentic, but product innovation for them is typically a manual process. “Market research” is frequently based on leadership opinions, modest focus groups or having interns put together summaries of social trends. Honest Co. looks at its modern audience and puts their values on a pedestal by listening to what they really want.

100.co’s AI platform further accelerates this process, analyzing thousands of data points to suggest market viability, product attributes and creative decisions even before a product investment is made. However, 100.co is not just using AI to identify products and speed time to market, we are using it to drive authenticity. By using AI to listen to the market, we can develop authentic and relevant products to specific areas of the market. We believe that better listening to customers, enabled via technology, will ultimately foster trust and loyalty.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

It’s different because you’re attempting to measure shifts in consumer sentiment. These will likely be leading indicators of which way sales will be headed, but the time delay can be significant so the branding KPIs must be robust enough to stand alone.

Social media activity is a good metric to measure, for example. Brand managers are likely already tracking your followers, their scale, and growth. But this should be combined with analyses of what they’re saying about the brand, and is the sentiment positive or negative? Tracking how customer sentiment is trending over time is a great leading indicator of sales.

Another form of measuring success is asking people! There’s a robust ecosystem for running brand lift surveys, you can do them quickly and cost-effectively. Don’t guess what consumers are thinking, ask them, and measure the change over time.

Lastly, look at Net Promoter Scores for your company and services. This is more than just branding but rather an indicator of whether you have reached and satisfied customers successfully, and how.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

Social media is central to 100.co’s brands but getting influencer endorsements is not just about creating great products — it’s about people aligning with our values, and identifying with any personalities behind the brand. This is what leads to authenticity and brand loyalty.

Our approach is very different from other companies, as we are focused on using AI to better listen to and understand what consumers are saying publicly about products and their attributes. They already make their preferences known on a daily basis via ratings and comments on brand’s social pages. So, the opportunity is not just to drive likes for a product endorsement, but rather to do a better job of listening to what consumers are already telling us!

Lasty, our model is to work with high-profile influencers who are actually co-founders of the brands, and we partner with them to create, develop, and launch products that are aligned with their core values and purpose. This ensures we remain consistent in our values and amplify the brand with an army of satisfied customers who in turn become micro-influencers.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Life is way too short to work on projects you don’t love or aren’t intrinsically motivated by. The great thing is that when you DO love your work it basically becomes impossible to feel burned out. If you truly love what you do, then doing more of it will typically give you more energy!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Truth 2.0: The rise of deep fake technology and the virality of social media means that in the near future you will never be able to believe anything you see or hear. Almost any video or audio could be manipulated or forged in real time.

So, I would like to spark a movement to inspire critical thinking in every situation, especially when it’s something you see or hear online. Just stop and think! We all instantly react to everything we see and hear. But next time you read a post or see a video, pause for a moment, and ask yourself:

  1. Does this make sense?
  2. Is it possible this is not real?
  3. If it’s real, do I understand not just what happened, but why it happened?
  4. And should I be so quick to condemn or vilify someone based on what I’ve seen?
  5. Perhaps it’s not even real, or if it is, are there two sides to the story?

This is a hard problem to solve, but it’s absolutely solvable — and not just by detecting what is fake content days later after millions of people have formed an opinion. Part of the solution I think is to teach children Critical Thinking skills much earlier in life, but also to pair it with new technologies that can detect forgeries in real time. Tough to solve no doubt…but an absolute imperative if we want society and government to work properly in the future.

Media platforms that distribute video and audio will need mechanisms to identify fakes, or at least detect the absence of verification in real time and overlay disclaimers accordingly.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Maya Angelou: “Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.”

I think humans are hard-wired to overestimate risk, and this frequently limits what people will accomplish. Take Elon Musk — do you think he’s been held back by fear of everything that can go wrong? From what I can tell he lives by this quote every day. He shoots for the impossible and no matter what happens, it seems like Musk finds a way to navigate through every situation and usually achieves his goal.

This quote inspires me to take a chance on any new idea or project. I’ve had both success and failures, and the failures were always really good lessons in disguise. If you get knocked down, just get back up, brush yourself off, and try again. As long as you learn WHY you failed, you’ll be smarter and a lot more effective at it.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Elon Musk. His ability to redefine what people consider possible is truly inspiring.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market

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