Tony Ambroza of RealTruck: 5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand
A passionate and committed team. I’ve either been a member of powerhouse teams or the builder of them. Teams make it all possible. I’ve worked with amazing leaders, creative thinkers, and industry experts during my years. I’m incredibly impressed by the teams of people I get to work with at RealTruck. They’re experts who love and live the truck, Jeep, and off-road lifestyle. Their energy is contagious.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Ambroza.
Tony Ambroza is chief growth officer of the online retailer RealTruck.com. Prior to his time at RealTruck Ambroza was Chief Brand Officer of Carhartt where he led the brand marketing and direct-to-consumer teams who scaled the Carhartt brand to historic levels across all segments and markets. His background also includes leadership positions at Under Armour and Nike.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up as a small-town kid from Northwest Ohio during the ’70s and ’80s. My parents are both teachers and, therefore, they encouraged a learning mindset and adventurous approach to life beyond the confines of my hometown. After graduating from high school, I was able to travel and see most of the United States by living in places like Manhattan, Chicago, Orlando, Portland, Baltimore, and now Ann Arbor, where I’ve resided with my family since 2010.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
I truly love brand building and the ability to have a positive impact on an organization’s culture and people. I’ve always worked with lifestyle brands that people are passionate about and with that comes wonderful relationships forged with customers who use your products to pursue and live their lives. Brand building requires a ton of learning, continuous improvement, and a willingness to find new ways to develop meaning and relevance. Most of all, I appreciate the teams I’ve been able to work with and the creative minds unleashed to identify and create lasting value for companies.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was working at Planet Hollywood, and we were running a national promotion and sweepstakes. Less than a week before launching (after all materials were created and delivered to our restaurants) we learned that we didn’t have “all” the rights to some of the items people could win. My heart just about stopped when I received this news. It forced us to update everything, change the sweepstakes rules, and delay the entire program. This was a lesson learned for me, that sweepstakes are complex, and you should hire experts to run them. Movie and music rights are even more complex. Work with legal experts to make sure you have all approvals and full rights to use them. Lastly, and most important, own the mistake, ask for help if you need it, communicate it quickly, and always provide options and/or solutions when you share the bad news.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek. Sinek’s book could be the story of my childhood in some ways. I was always encouraged to ask “why,” and I know I drove a good number of my teachers crazy with my persistence. I bought this book the moment it was available, and I still refer to it today. I believe starting with “why” is the key to brand and business building success at all levels of planning and execution. It pulls out the root cause and provides opportunity for better understanding between teams, especially when faced with a challenge to overcome or an opportunity to pursue.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have one main quote. It is by the Dalai Lama. “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
I refer to this quote a great deal when navigating challenging situations and balancing all the demands we face today as leaders, parents, and adults. When you’re building and guiding a brand in today’s world, there’s far more outside of your control than in your control. Coming to terms with this reality and putting your focus into the things you can control will always make a lasting difference.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, let’s define our terms. How do you define a Lifestyle Brand? How is a Lifestyle Brand different from a normal, typical brand?
Simple: a lifestyle brand is part of people’s lives in ways that help define their identities. It helps make a way of life possible through its products and actions. A lifestyle brand is committed to protecting, promoting, and building a way of life. It is a brand people are passionate about and a place where people love to work because they love and live the brand’s lifestyle. The difference between a lifestyle brand and a “typical brand” comes down to one simple thing, and that is a typical brand is only focused on what it makes and not why it makes it. It does not focus on all that is possible as a result of its products.
What are the benefits of creating a lifestyle brand?
Marketing buzzwords people like to use are advocacy, engagement, lifetime, and value. Authentic meaning and the ability to build real relationships that extend far beyond a single transaction. If your products and actions remain true to your mission, you create opportunities to make lifelong friends and advocates.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved Lifestyle Brand? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
Too many to count, but I, like so many others, have a ton of respect for the team over at Yeti and all they’ve done to turn an entire category on its head and create a brand and product that symbolizes an adventurous outdoor lifestyle. I also sit on the board of directors of another company that is doing the same thing (on a smaller scale at this point in time) in the men’s grooming products category — Duke Cannon Supply Company. They’ve created a strong, positive, and capable identity for hardworking men across all walks of life.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a lifestyle brand that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Start by focusing on something people care about or will care about (no one really cared about coolers a great deal before Yeti). If you’re already there, you can move to the next step. Everything you do needs to be seen through the lens of the people your company is designed to serve. Put them at the center of your decision making, in partnership with your associates. Build an active culture that loves to listen, learn, and lead or champion a lifestyle that matches the people you serve. Honesty, authenticity, and commitment every step along the way. In the end, the lifestyle business is all about building trust with people inside and outside your company with consistency, competence and caring.
What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a lifestyle brand? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Three typical mistakes:
- Chasing trends versus building upon them. Trends come and go. Great brands do not. Lean into trends that help you introduce the brand to more people, but don’t chase them.
- Expanding distribution to chase sales. Distribution should be designed and developed to best reach and serve the people you care about on their terms, not your terms. Distribution is where value is realized. I’ve learned it takes a ton of coordination, dedication, and commitment to keep this part of the equation balanced. The key is to keep your consumer at the center of your distribution decisions and balance those decisions with a model that allows retail partners to deliver your full value proposition versus discounting it to “win.”
- Inauthentic actions trying to chase new consumers like changing your values and what you stand for to reach more/new consumers. I think about brands in terms of chapters in a book. Every brand has a story, and it should evolve over time. You just need to build and tell your story one chapter at a time. When you skip too many chapters to appeal to a new audience, you lose the people who built your brand and typically fail to attract new people because you come across as phony.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- A passionate and committed team. I’ve either been a member of powerhouse teams or the builder of them. Teams make it all possible. I’ve worked with amazing leaders, creative thinkers, and industry experts during my years. I’m incredibly impressed by the teams of people I get to work with at RealTruck. They’re experts who love and live the truck, Jeep, and off-road lifestyle. Their energy is contagious.
- An authentic brand story/reason for being, proposition, purpose, mission and values. Carhartt had these ingredients for years, but they were unspoken. How did Carhartt “suddenly” become so popular after more than 130 years? We brought the story to life by defining it, celebrating it, and letting people in on the century-old secret. It’s hard to build a business if no one knows your brand story or why they should care about the products your company creates.
- A direct connection to the lifestyle and the people who live it. The early days at Under Armour were filled with people who lived and loved team sports. It seemed like every single person you met played a team sport at a very high level in their life. We even played a Thanksgiving-morning football game together. The connection was clear, and it fueled the company for most of its earlier years.
- Creativity. Tons of it and a true passion for empowering and unleashing it. Throughout my career, Nike is still the greatest creative experience I’ve ever had. The respect and commitment to creativity in all forms was amazing. It fueled everything. Working in service to ideas and building powerhouse stories was a way of life when I was there.
- An inquisitive growth mindset dedicated to listening and learning how to better serve, inspire and champion the lifestyle. One of the greatest leaders and creators I’ve been fortunate to know and seek counsel from along the way is Hap Klopp — the founder and builder of The North Face (TNF). His stories of success and failure are filled with lessons related to listening and learning all along the way from TNF’s entry into ski apparel to the geodesic tent to the reason TNF put their logo on the back of clothing. Every single time I connect with him I walk away with another reminder to remain curious and dedicated to serving the lifestyle RealTruck is dedicated to supporting.
Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are an inspiration to a great many people. 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.
Common Bonds and Connections. We’re all so focused on our differences that we no longer recognize our commonalities. Later in life, I hope to work with groups and organizations who bring people together. During my career, I’ve been fortunate to see people who are labeled two very opposing things come together, break bread, and forge bonds of friendship by recognizing and appreciating what they have in common rather than what they do not.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to meet a wide range of business leaders, athletes, and celebrities over the years. One person I’d really like to meet is Warren Buffett. It would be an amazing learning experience. I’ve always appreciated his approachable style, lessons on leadership, and ability to simplify incredibly complex topics. I’d love to gain Warren’s 1x1 perspective and outlook on the world ahead and what it means for leaders, businesses, and our country.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.