Transforming the role of brand in a commoditized category
Transforming the brand into a commoditized category requires strategic thinking, innovation, and a deep understanding of the market and consumer dynamics. To discuss this topic, Rich Kylberg, a former Arrow Electronics CMO, joins the podcast to explore some key insights and strategies that can help reshape the brand’s role. Rich emphasizes the value of empowering others to do something great. You can help empower others by getting them into their goal without imposing the presumption of your goal upon them. It is important to hear Rich’s insights on these strategies and learn about his experiences in transforming the role of a brand in a commoditized category, particularly within the context of Arrow Electronics.
I’m looking forward to this episode because one of the things that are most fun and interesting when you work on a brand is to look at brands and talk to people who have transformed categories. Those who have been able to elevate what was maybe previously a commoditized category where there wasn’t maybe a standout brand and create something that’s transcended. I think about Starbucks and coffee, you think about maybe the original one was Nike and tennis shoes and my favorite one is YETI and what they have done with the old cooler.
A lot of those examples are consumer related. In the B2B world, the examples are less common and that’s what I love about Rich Kylberg. Rich, it’s awesome to be catching up and talking to you and to relive and talk about the experience and the leadership that you have shown in the transformation that you did at Arrow. It’s great to have you.
Maybe start by telling us a little bit about your background and then maybe a bit about Arrow Electronics because even though it’s a Fortune 1,000 company, most people have never heard of It.
Thank you for having me. I grew up believing that the answer to the world’s problems came through communication, that people spoke to each other with empathy and kindness, and that you could make the world a better place. Conversely, if you speak to people in a negative way, you can mess some things up. I have always wanted to be a part of doing stuff that made things better for people.
I’m a communications and marketing professional, having produced some television shows and having gone to school for English and Communication coupling that with an MBA. There are some business principles in there and using my skillset hopefully to make things better for people. In the business context, oftentimes that’s making people’s jobs feel of value or making a company the company that, in terms of communicating its message, people say, “I’d like to work there,” or “I’d like to be a customer of that place,” and so on and so forth.
Being a part of the messaging that would attract people to that has been my life’s work from that perspective. Arrow Electronics, when I came to it, was a multi-billion-dollar global distributor of electronic parts. They used to say, “If it takes a charge like a battery or you plug it in, Arrow is there.” I have a hard time communicating that in a way that’s compelling or sexy. It’s pretty easy to conceive of that as being a commoditized low-price organization. I was tasked with building messaging around that enterprise and that’s what we did.
If you think about it, it’s the ultimate commodity business because you are not even selling your products. You are distributing other people. When it comes to how customers make decisions, it’s like, “Do you have it in stock and do you have the lowest price?” Therefore, the role that marketing plays a role that brand plays traditionally was very diminished. What sparked this? Who had the leadership envision saying, “No, there’s an opportunity to bring in someone like Rich Kylberg to come and do things differently?”
You are right. If five people have the same product and approximately the same price or the same price, how do you decide which one to purchase? If they are the same distance from you, all things being equal, how can you differentiate yourself in a world of basically flat-out equality? The way to do it is to say that there are five people, Roger, Sue, Nancy, and Gerald. Who are they? If it’s the same price and the same product, I’d like to buy from Gerald because he understands me. Whereas I think that Judy is, this is a transaction. Let’s make a buck thing. This person seems to care for me. How do you know that? The only way you can even get that sense is if a company communicates that way with some authenticity.
If you buy from us, we want you to be happy. If you buy from us, you are buying from people who do care about you and care about your success. We are not going to tell you what your success looks like. You tell us. Tell us what you want to accomplish. We are uniquely qualified to do business with you because we uniquely care about you. That’s how you can differentiate yourself because you can’t do it on the product. You can’t do it on the price. Our messaging centered around that.
To your question about who brought me in, I think that the company had been around for a long time, decades, and had gotten to a point where it was magnificent worldwide and so on and so forth. The CEO, the smart guy thought maybe we could do a little more and we can invest a lot of money in faster manufacturing and distribution.
We are putting no money into our messaging. What if we put some money into our messaging? Could that help? It won’t hurt. The company was too big for me to damage it. Most likely, I wouldn’t impact it at all. If you don’t try and you know nothing is going to happen. They were willing to try and take a chance on me. Would you communicate something about this company that represents what we stand for and so and so forth in the marketplace? We are not designed to do that. We are designed to get products to people at low cost, fast, and everything else. We have got the operations handled. How would you describe us? I got that chance.
When you walked in and you started Arrow, what was the context for the brand at the time? What did it look like? What did you have?
I came in and I said, “I got to work on the brand.” “We have already got that. We don’t need you.” “Good. Could I see it?” “Yeah. Here.” They gave me two pieces of paper that showed the logo and it showed the logo lockup. There was no tagline. It showed you the color scheme and they got Pantone, what colors it should be, and that was the brand.
It was the rules of how you used the logo. That was the brand. I said, “I’m not going to take over your job. I’m glad you do this. I’m going to do something different. This is helpful. Thank you for this, but I’m going to do something different.” I had a wide-open opportunity to do things that I considered to be brand that was different from brand standards and guidelines.
What was that from-to definition, then? If the brand was the logo and the standards, what was that too, and then what was the process of getting there?
It was from logo and marks to something more like Nike tennis shoes. From shoes to something more. What is that more? They don’t need me to help them sell their logos. The logo is in the Museum of Industrial Design. It’s a beautiful logo. I didn’t fix the logo. There’s nothing for me there. Can you show someone the logo like a Nike logo and have it mean more than a shoe? That was the journey we went on.
How do you do that with an electronics components distributor? How do you do that in such a commoditized category?
You start by putting yourself in the shoes of the stakeholders like the customers, and ask yourself, “Do they want this part at the lowest price? Is that what they want?” The answer is no. The answer is they want their business to be successful. They want their children to be proud of them. They want a lot of human things that transcend a part at a price. When we thought about that, a lot of customers and their businesses want to be successful. They don’t know this and this. We wanted to position ourselves as their trusted partner in ways that transcend the transaction.
They’d say, “If I can buy the part from this company for this price and I can buy it from you at the same price, but you are going to provide me with additional market information and additional services. Not because you do that and because you are going to charge for it because you want me to be successful. If I’m successful, I’m a continuing customer. You care about me. That’s weird. I want to do business with you.”
It’s finding something that transcends the existing business. When we started talking, you mentioned a couple of companies. You said, “I like the brands like YETI that start from something.” It’s because YETI isn’t talking about mugs and stuff. It’s a lifestyle. It’s not something you expected from the mug. If I’m going to buy a mug, I can buy a lot of mugs. I’m going to buy the YETI mug. Why is that? It’s because it’s bigger than a mug. It gets me and it understands me. You can do that in B2B. If you quiet and listen to your stakeholders and hear what they want and if all they want is price and that, then they don’t need me to give some nonsensical message. When you strip it back, it’s like they don’t care about price. They don’t care about any of it. They want to be successful.
If you have gone out and said, “We are your trusted partner,” that would essentially be pretty much the same words that most other B2B companies that took that next step in elevating their story would do. You went way beyond that.
You are right. It’s important to offer proof points and have integrity. Everybody’s going to say, “We are your trusted partner,” but then the sentence stops there. Nike gets Michael Jordan to sign on. If it’s good enough for Michael Jordan, is it good enough for you when you go play basketball? They offer up proof. They say a consistent message that transcends the product and then they offer examples to people supporting that make them think, “Maybe they are telling me the truth. I don’t know. Maybe it’s marketing. Maybe it’s all nonsense. The only way I’m going to find out is by buying from them. I got no reason not to buy from them. They are the same price anyway. They are offering a promise.”
“I will take them up on it. If they lied to me, I will discount it.” If you can deliver a little bit against what you are telling people and it transcends like a YETI mug, “I bought a YETI mug, but I have not yet had it transform my life in the way that they might tell me it might, but I still feel good about my YETI mug. This is a better mug than any other mug,” or a Nike shoe or whatever.
The YETI example, the difference is not the design aesthetic that they put into it and the experience that they create. There’s a flagship store, for example, with a bar inside of it. Where the lifestyle piece comes out is when you are going to the pool or on a boat or you are going camping and you are with other people, the fact that maybe you have got a YETI backpack with your drinks inside, what does that say about you? In relation to the fact that you are also maybe having an iPhone and an iWatch, you start to build these brands that you use as a form of self-expression. They have identified this notion, these social moments where a cooler comes to play when maybe people come to your house and you have got your cooler outside in the backyard as well.
YETI can say we are different until the cows come home. Everyone’s going to say that. There’s a store. There’s a YETI store with YETI mugs. Nobody’s going to the store with a mug. They must be telling the truth because I can see it. It’s right there. They are telling the truth. It is different. All of a sudden, it feeds on it. You are right. It’s saying something and offering a promise and then giving enough proof points that people say, “It’s true,” and then you take off as a marketing professional, I’m with you. It’s so much more fun to work on something like that than the mug company that’s doing the mugs and sending the mugs and so on and so forth. It’s so much more fun to do one that says, “Here’s a bad idea. Let’s open a store with a bar with coffee.”
A lot of people go, “That’s freaking inappropriate. That’s ridiculous.” When you work at a place that will allow that, you allow you to say, “No, watch what happens,” and then they try it and if it doesn’t work, they shut down the store. When it does work, the next thing you know, you are the dominant mug provider in the world. Why? Is it because your mug is all that great? Yeah, maybe. Probably not because word of mouth people are like, “You got to have a YETI.” That’s fine.
In your case, the words trusted partner never made it out to the market. You went way beyond that. What was your approach and process for going from that starting point where a lot of B2B brands maybe even stopped going to something that was much more transcendent?
We had a hunch that the employees didn’t want to work at a commodity place either. They are human beings, kids, and families. If you gave them a choice, they’d like to work at a place that meant something. If you are selling mugs, do you want to work at average mug thing or do you want to work for YETI? It’s all the same thing, basically, but you feel better. When we come into a situation where the brand is two pages and so on and so forth, there’s not a lot of thought going into having employees be proud of working there. When you think about it, employees would like for customers to be happy. They’d like to be seen as a partner. They’d like to be seen as wise and trying to be helpful.
When we put out a message that it’s what the employees want anyway, they grab onto it real fast like, “We are your partner. We are your buddy.” All the marketing and all the messaging in the world gets steamrolled by the employees buying into it and saying, “This is who we are.” Think about the Nike and YETI and all the employees saying, “It’s a special shoe. Just do it,” or the YETI, “It’s a special mug,” those folks working there. I have been down there. They are proud to work there in that thing.
The same thing with Arrow. Helping employees to be proud of where they work in a way that transcends the basic business model is incredibly powerful. Once you let that genie out of the bottle, employees will run with it. It won’t stop. You don’t have to spend on marketing and everything else because they are promoting a message that you didn’t come up with. They wanted it so bad and then you give it to them and they distribute it for you.
One of the interesting things that happens a lot in B2B as part of that we are your trusted partner-type stories, it’s all built around this idea and this archetype of being the hero. For you, did it start with trying to shift the mindset of how we think about the role that we play in our archetype?
I think when you say, “We want to be your trusted partner, and here’s what we are going to do,” that is not as powerful as “We are going to be your trusted partner and what would you like to accomplish?” The difference is saying, “We will listen to you. We will respect you. It’s your goal. It’s your objective. We will take our assets, machine, and company to reach your goal, but we can’t do it before you tell us what your goal is. If we do that, we are imposing our presumption of your goal upon you. We are here to help you and we know your business better than you do and we know your industry better than you do. Here’s what you need. You need this part at this price. There you go. We helped you.”
That’s one approach. The other approach is, “I want to help you. What can I help you with? What are your goals? What are your aspirations? Where are you going?” If you said, “I’d like to be a ballet dancer,” I say, “I might not be able to help you.” If you said, “I’d like to invent a new squeaky pig key chain battery and it squeaks,” “Arrow can help you with that. What would you think about this?” “Thank you.” It’s saying you are a trusted partner but not from a marketing perspective. From a genuine perspective of, “This is the way we would like to conduct business,” which is different from the way you will see business conducted by any of our competitors. You decide which one you want.
You are a big fan of the archetype model and framework. What did you decide was a better archetype framework to tell that story?
I think that if you are in a category, whether it’s shoes, mugs, or whatever and you want to make a change, one of the things is oftentimes products is one fit into the same archetype. They are all the same because if someone is successful and others copy it. If you want to transform something, almost by definition, you have to pick a new archetype.
In the distribution business commodity, aggressive, high volume, low margin business, there are a lot of hero brands. If you want to stand out from that, you got to do something else. We decided to go at visionary sage being wise. By virtue of communicating differently and being more about a wise sage partner as opposed to a hero, solve your thing, we stood out, and then as soon as you stand out, people look at you.
We could have been lover brands and sexy components. People would have noticed it. They go, “What’s that? They are doing sexy components. Nobody else is doing this.” You get to notice. If you get some brand archetype you can then prosecute, it’d be pretty hard to prosecute sexy components. You could do it. You could tell jokes about things. We thought the right thing is to be sage, your partner, your wise partner, and so on, and that you are different from people, off you go.
I have also found in companies, as soon as you want to be a different archetype, you freak out about the status quo because they have not seen it before by definition. They are like, “What have you done? What did you do to a company? You are turning this into advisory sage wise people.” “Yeah, because you have to.” If you guys want different results, you have to change this stuff. If you are not uncomfortable, then change it. You are asking a lot of the company when you do this thing, but that’s the path.
What was the brand manifestation of that archetype? What was that single-minded idea in the ethos that you built out that stemmed from it?
We were able to distill it down to the idea of guiding innovation forward. Guiding means a guide or partner helping you go to a destination. It’s your destination. We guide you. Tell us where you want to go. We guide innovation. We don’t guide parts in this. We guide innovation and we guide it forward into the future. Once we were able to distribute that and translate that into eighteen languages, the idea behind that stuck, employees could understand I guide innovation forward.
Everybody was on the same path and you saw less creation of content that was funny or sexy. It tended to wrap itself around this idea of guiding innovation forward. If you get that messaging right in the first place, then people can go create all kinds of creative and so on. It will all harken back to the same fundamental essential idea, which is tied to the archetype and this and that.
Most companies don’t have that, frankly. In the absence of that, what happens is people create whatever they think will work well-intentioned, but it’s inconsistent and it’s hard to get traction. Things are anonymous out there or nobody knows what it is. If you can hit on something that you can get a whole group of people to like and agree to, it takes off. You can’t stop it.
After getting to that core brand ethos, you then build out the whole concept and idea of five years out and the Innovators Club. I think it was when I saw those manifestations of the brand that it stood out as being differentiated and distinct in the category. Those three words themselves, it’s like that’s the strategy which is important, but it’s the execution in its depth and breadth that go beyond the marketing but also into culture and experience that I think then led to the transformation. Can you talk a bit about how you went from that single idea to all these different activations and why it worked?
I agree with you. If you get that messaging right, that’s big. If you execute it poorly and you do things that don’t hit, it won’t work. Once we had gotten to the messaging, then we sought out talented people to create messaging. What does guiding innovation forward look like in a video piece of 30 seconds or 60 seconds in length? Pretty quick to consumable, but it shows that in a way that if you watched it, you go, “I like it, I understand it.” We had agencies do that and they are good at it when they are allowed to do their stuff, not be told by us what to do but say, “Just express this.” It would come and it’s video. We can write this stuff or put it on billboards, but watching a video and feeling it moves the dials.
I spent a bunch of money on the early creation of content because I knew that if we didn’t have great content to start, we would never have any content to follow and I’d be looking for work. I put a lot of effort into making sure that the first messages out were powerful messages. Everything else would set a bar and a standard for communicating what we were doing. We’d always want to try to measure up to. That’s when we did ads, The Innovators Club, about the world’s greatest inventors, Benjamin Franklin, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, and Leonardo da Vinci. They are all in a club talking to each other.
We were respectful of them, not making fun of them and talking about all the things and then tying them into Arrow like, “I wish I had someone that could have helped me when I invented the airplane.” The Wright brothers. “I wish I’d had an Arrow Electronics when I was doing the airplane.” We tied ourselves into that and the employees were proud and they sent it out and showed it to people and this and that and the other thing. It took off because of the quality of the production tied to the integrity and ambition of the message.
How were you able to convince internally this notion going and doing was essentially mass market advertising for a very B2B orientated company? You can get to that brand idea in articulation, but going that step further, what was the rationale for that and how should you make that case internally?
I don’t have the skillset to convince anyone internally that this is a good idea. There’s no way I could do it. What I could do is get the thing produced. I didn’t ask people their opinion of it before it was done. I just did it. We had a spot. It’s 30 seconds. You hit play and you see it and people are like, “This is amazing.” They’d say, “What are you going to do with it?” I’d say, “That’s a good question. What do you think we should do with it?” I figured if you don’t like it, it isn’t going anywhere. If you do like it, the only option is executives can play it in their home theater, but nobody will see it. They are so proud of it. It’s so beautiful that they want people to see it. We need to have a budget to distribute it.
It was less about convincing people of something than it was showing them something that they were so moved by and proud of that they wanted it out. They said, “Here. You have money. Go do it. Go.” Can I give you a quick analogy? When I go into a fixer-upper home, I can’t see it. I just see a mess. My wife will go and say, “If we did this wall and this,” she sees something beautiful, I think, “This is crazy. I can’t see it.” Go do it and then tell you, “This is beautiful.” With marketing and branding, someone like you can see the beauty before it exists in this world, but we have to be respectful of people that don’t necessarily have that range.
What we have to do is we have to create it for them and then put it in front of them and then let them go. “I love this. What are you going to do with it?” The answer is, “What would you like me to do with it?” If you create that and they say, “Bury it,” then you are going to lose your job if you did something, you distributed it and you shot it out there. You don’t want to distribute it anyway if they don’t love it. If your fellow executives love your work, in my experience, they will find a way to get it distributed. You don’t have to ask for anything and they will distribute it to the level of their comfort. When they see the response from the market, the market likes it, “We will give you more money.”
Too often, we stop short. We don’t get to the vision because we try and sell it when it’s still conceptual with the words. It’s almost as if there’s a lesson that we can all learn from HGTV shows and imagining the reaction of the couple when they walk into their home and they see it for the first time. It wouldn’t have the same impact if you had Property Brothers, whoever they are, describing it to the couple. They have to walk in and see it.
If someone came to me with the idea and I don’t have the skillset to see it, what my natural inclination is going to be to kill it and say, “No darling, I’m sorry, we are not going to going to buy that house,” because I will kill beauty. Not because I’m dumb. I’m being asked. I’m not qualified. Better for me not to know what’s going on. I support you. Go do it. Come back. If it’s a disaster, we will live, learn, and move on.
Talk about where you went next because then you did something even bigger and bolder, which was the SAM car. Talk a bit about that.
It was unintended, but one of the consequences of doing things that people think they like is that they come back and say, “Can we have more of that?” Now we got to go. Now we got to keep going. I had a lot of success in the first piece in letting creative people do something amazing. We tried that again and we found another agency. This is going to shock you but Benjamin Franklin did not work with us, nor did the Wright Brothers. We were out there telling a fairytale, as it were. Now we got to find an actual story to inspire and so on and so forth where we did something. The criteria for us in that was it has to be special. It has to have never been done.
It has to live up to the brand promise of we are smart, special, and unique and we can help you. Whom did we help? We helped a quadriplegic race car driver by creating something that had never been done by using technology, by building a car that he could drive using his head only and turning that into a spot. It was less about the technology of the car and less about the Arrow thing and more about the positive impact on somebody’s life who had their dreams taken away from them. Through technology and our experience and our company, we were able to deliver on their dream.
What we were talking about earlier about, “What is your dream?” “As a quadriplegic, my dream is to race a car again.” “Arrow is your partner for that.” These other people get your parts fast, low cost and commoditized. We will help you realize your dream. This was the manifestation of the Arrow promise. A person with a dream, it seems impossible. It’s never been done before. The next thing you know, a race car driver who’s a quadriplegic is a race car driver again. That is telling a story that transcends the business but speaks to the soul.
That’s a beautiful, amazing story. That Sam story didn’t stop at that first ad. I think one of the great examples of your core brand idea is that it lived on for the seven years that you were there at Arrow and probably still lives on now, even beyond.
I think Michael Jordan lives on for Nike. That story lives on because it wasn’t about the company and it wasn’t about business and so on. It was about humanity. It showed up all over the world, on BBC, on NBC Nightly News. The media around it was staggering. Sunday Morning did a spot on it. The value of the distribution of the message was shocking. The expense of having created was de minimis compared to the outcome.
I think that happens when you create stuff that moves people on an emotional level. It has way more bang for the buck than if you be in transactional with your communications. He drove up Pikes Peak. He raced at the Indy 500. He raced Mario Andretti on and on. Of all those stories, the next one that was produced that mattered to people was Sam went to Las Vegas and he got his driver’s license in Nevada. A simple thing we all take for granted is we have a driver’s license. When we filmed him getting his driver’s license and then, for the first time since he was injured, taking his daughter for a drive, it will make you cry.
If we then shift internally, at what point did you know that the storytelling, what you were doing, was moving people internally as well? Whether it be salespeople, customer-facing people, or even feedback from customers, how did that start to connect?
In our department, you could tell because people from around the world, if they saw something they’d call in and say, “Can I get a copy of it? Where do I find this?” We weren’t sending it so much to folks as we would show it to them and then they would ask for copies. If we would show something and nobody asked for it, then we knew it wasn’t hitting at a level where they wanted to. They were so proud of it, they wanted to show it to somebody.
We could see those requests coming in from all over the world and knew this one was working. If we produced stuff that nobody ever wanted to see again, you let it go. I think that’s interesting. Allowing things to have their natural momentum, not producing something and putting so much money in it and effort and my self-esteem and ego into it that now we got to force it on everybody.
Just try your hardest to do something beautiful and then let it go. If people don’t like it, that’s okay. If I knew what people liked all the time, I would be the richest person in the world. I’d be right all the time. I’m wrong all the time. The only way for me to find out is by setting it out there and then watching the uptake internally. Let’s go put it on TV. Let’s run it internally first. If our employees respond to it, it will work externally, and then go on from that.
I love the idea of the momentum and the continuity. You even drove that into brand training as well. Talk about how you used even the notion of the SAM car and how you even connected that to internal brand training.
We would have ideas like a SAM car and then we’d say, “What could we do to make it more compelling for people?” We thought, “People seem to like video games. Can we turn it into a video game where you play a game?” We designed a video game and we put it in an arcade thing where you could drive a SAM car or where you could drive an Arrow delivery truck. You pick your car and then you dodge things along the way. You play a game and you get points and signs would come along and you’d stop in front of the sign and it would ask you a brand question like what is Arrow’s tagline? You go, “A, B, C, D, E, Just Do It, Five Years Out,” and then you keep driving. You come up to the next sign.
You are learning about the brand while you are scoring points and playing a game. Some people, not all people, like playing games. A lot of people like playing games. Can we gamify our brand message once we got the message right? Yeah, you can, and that’s one channel. Gamify it. It’s put it on their business cards. It’s run a spot and run it in their market or it’s put in all kinds of different ways to distribute. It’s always thinking of not so much the message because we had the message, it was how we could do it in a way that people are going to love this. They are going to laugh. They are going to talk about it and they are going to share it.
How did all of this translate into actual results and performance? How do you know that it was worth it?
I believe that this messaging has inherent value because everybody tries to do it and everybody wouldn’t try to do it if it was inherently a bad idea. Inherently, if you do it right, I think it’s got a positive impact. The first way we are having to measure it subjectively, which is to say, “All the employees are asking about it.” Frankly, the CEO is walking through his day and employees are saying, “I love that message. I love that.” He goes, “Okay.”
Now all of a sudden, he’s getting proof points that this is working. He’s not like, “We ran and sent a survey and we got an 82.4% on this.” There’s none of that. He’s getting this feedback from employees and you can see it happening. Ultimately, with brands, at the end of the day, and I think like even you guys do this in your firm, we will be able to measure the incremental brand improvement because they say, “Here’s what the company looked like without the brand and here’s what it’s valued,” at and nothing else has changed. The revenue and margin are the same. Keep the business metrics the same but all of a sudden, it’s doubled in value. They assign that to brand.
In my time at Arrow, we saw that incremental increase that you couldn’t explain operationally or in cashflow or something. We saw that increase by billions of dollars and that was sufficient to justify continuing to fund our business. If someone required you to nail it down to a number, we probably could, but it would be lying because I don’t think there’s a way to precisely measure brand value any more than there’s a way to measure the value of the son or the value of my love of my wife. I can’t put a number on that, but it’s there.
Just because something can’t be measured doesn’t mean it’s not important. That’s one of the challenges that we have these days in marketing with the rise of digital marketing because it’s easy to then follow the things that are easily measurable and then ignore the stuff that isn’t because it’s ambiguous.
You are right and that is where you introduce the potential for competitive advantage because if everybody wants to run off the math, then everyone is going to run off the math. If you say, “Let’s do basic math, but then let’s take it up a gear,” and that other gear is immeasurable, which is storytelling, I can’t measure the value of Moby Dick or the Iliad. However, once we insert that in, what’s it going to cost to do that? It’s going to cost a little bit to do that. It’s inserted in. Let’s see what happens.
If it’s done right, what happens is that competitive log jam gets broken and somebody breaks out and it’s always going to be the person that does this brand work that’s not measurable. That one is going to take off and the rest are going to be standing around going, “What just happened? Let’s copy it,” but copying doesn’t work. I love situations where everybody is measuring because, in those situations, there’s the opportunity for greatness.
Everything we have been talking about so far has all been the curve going that way. Let’s get real for a moment and talk a bit about what were some of the difficult moments in the journey that you had at Arrow or some of the mistakes that you made.
I think that I underestimated it. It’s hard to bring change to an organization even when it’s successful. Especially when you come into an organization where it’s already successful. It’s not failing. It’s incredibly successful. You are trying to take something that people are proud of and wonderful and make it even better by changing it. It’s stressful to do that because there are no guarantees. I could be wrong. I probably am. People are critical and skeptical.
When you are in that environment, for me, it’s hard. Just go along with what’s there. Visible and innocuous. The brand department, they got two pages. They tell us about the logo and lockup and this and that. They are innocuous. “Keep your job, you keep your paycheck,” but you are not changing anything. You are not doing anything. Your life is passing you by and you have managed to protect the logo lockup.
As soon as you get outside of that, it gets stressful and hard. I was there for over seven years. It builds up and it’s stressful. Whoever did the YETI brand stuff or whoever did all those other brands, I bet they are not with those companies anymore. They are talented. They did a great job, but I think it comes with a bit of a price, as does going to college or going to high school, learning math or learning a language, or learning how to play the guitar. It’s work. Corporate brand work carries with it the same stressors in my experience.
This is a nice segue into the wisdom round, as we call it. What are your core guiding principles when you think about leading and managing people?
I think they are my core values of integrity and decency and honesty and trying to improve life for people. Trying to improve life for the employees, the shareholders, the company, and its customers. Trying to do something good for others. By staying true to that, not trying to make an extra buck or trying to sell something that’s not as advertised. You are trying to get a quick outcome but genuinely trying to improve the working situation and the business environment for people.
Staying true to that always led me to positive outcomes. If we ever had to make a decision, we could measure it by that. That is what we are doing here. Are we doing this for our gratification or is this the thing that if we are successful at this? This is going to make the relationship with this company better for everyone involved. If it met that test, we’d go hard on it.
Some of the work that you have been able to get out of your agency part is amazing and creative, whether it’s big agencies or small agencies. What’s your secret in getting the most out of agency partners?
It’s understanding that I want to do something great. In order for me to do something great, I have to empower others to be able to do something great. In that case, what I would do is go to agencies and, before engaging with them, say, “Would you mind showing me some of your work?” They’d show me some of their work. You knew they were showing you the work they were most proud of and their best work. They didn’t show you the worst. They showed you the best thing they’d ever done.
It was always good. I’d say, “That’s good. Is that the best thing you are ever going to do in your life? Have you peaked?” They get mad at me and go, “No.” “If there’s something better than that, let’s do that together. Let’s do the greatest thing you have ever done. The way I will know that we accomplished it is the next time you have a new client meeting, you show them the work we did together rather than that beautiful thing you showed me.” I always want to supplant the greatest work an agency did with the work that we did together.
The final question before we get into what you are doing now is, imagine I’m your fairy brand mother. There’s something deeper that I need to deal with here. You could be working or in your career, you could have worked for any brand, what would that brand be?
On paper, that would be the Walt Disney Company because they strike me as people who understand the value of storytelling without having to have you explain why this is a good idea to have a superhero flying around in an Ironman suit or something. They get it inherently. That would take away a lot of the friction around trying to explain.
I wouldn’t want to explain the basics of what we do for a living to people. I’d like them to know that and then get together and produce that work. In a lot of companies, you end up finding yourself having to almost justify your existence. I wouldn’t want to do that going forward. I’d like to be accepted and understand that if you do this right, this is going to be great for everybody, so please go do it right and just do that.
Just know you will not have to walk in on any given day and explain some of the importance of storytelling.
That’s why I think when we have these conversations with brand people and so on, there’s a lot of, “How do you get buy-in?” The only reason you have to get buy-in is because you are working with people that haven’t already bought into the fundamental premise of what you are doing. When you say fairy god brand mother, I love that. I need a fairy brand mother.
I’m here for you, Rich.
I have already got it out there, an opening for a fairy brand mother. I’d like for my fairy brand mother to put me in a situation where I can focus on the work, the job at hand, and not the whole explanation, justification, being defensive about it, being accused of this and that, wasting company resources, whatever all that is that comes with this.
A lot of folks in our position say, “I don’t like those conversations, so I’m going to get buy-in in advance. Before I do anything, I’m going to get buy-in.” The problem is that, as we discussed earlier, if you go down that path, 9 times out of 10, you get shut down and then you come back and you go, “How do I get buy-in?” It’s like you can’t. They don’t understand.
Speaking of storytelling and nostalgia, nowadays, you work at Vinyl Me, Please, a company leading the renaissance of vinyl. Talk a bit about your experience at VMP and why vinyl has come back. What is the opportunity that VMP has spotted in the marketplace?
This is weird but right before this, I was downstairs and my mail came, and here’s my bills. I’m not thrilled about that. This box came. Lost Sounds Found. What is it? I open it up. What’s in here? Records. Music. What is it? Kris Kristofferson, Wilson Pickett, Earl Sweatshirt, and Kacey Musgraves. They are records and now I can’t hear them because it’s a pain in the neck. I got stuff all over here. They came with a sticker, like NASA. I’m exploring music. I was so excited to open it. I’m emotionally uplifted. Now I get these records. I know you want one and I will get you some vinyl because it’s cool.
I’m working in this small company where it’s smaller. They appreciate me. They appreciate what I do. They appreciate storytelling and they understand when I say what we are selling is not the record and the music because I can get that off Alexa or whatever. What we are selling is joy and an experience. To me, 1) The people I work with, 2) The industry I’m in, music and records. 3) The ultimate delivery to a consumer, which is not a product. It’s a feeling. It’s uplifting. It makes people’s day brighter. These things brighten people’s days. I find this to be the pinnacle of my professional life, to be able to marry all those things together and get paid for it. Can you believe that?
I’m getting paid for talking to you. Speaking of joy and experience, the time has flown. I loved our conversation. As always, so many wonderful insights. Thanks so much for being on.
You are wonderful and it’s such a great service you are providing to people to have these crazy things and so on. Thank you for all you do.
The check will be in the post for that last comment. Thanks, Rich Kylberg.
About Rich Kylberg
Rich Kylberg’s brand adventure began in 2010 when he became the senior-most corporate marketing and communications executive for Arrow Electronics. With world class messaging resonating from earned media to Super Bowl advertising, Rich’s small team brought this Fortune 150 global B2B distributor of components and computers from negative brand equity to global identity admiration and dominance within its industry in a few short years. The market capitalization value that they rapidly created has been measured at well over $1 billion.
Prior to joining Arrow, Rich worked in Public Television, marketing consulting, and he owned and operated radio stations around the United States. Rich graduated with two degrees from Stanford University and earned his MBA at Harvard Business School.
The corporate nightmares dissipated six months after departing Arrow in 2018 when Rich joined VMP, the world’s largest subscription service for vinyl records, and co-founded an audiophile grade record pressing plant in Denver, Colorado. Working with great people in the discretionary consumer goods music industry provides him with professional joy and satisfaction.
Rich has served on over a dozen not-for-profit community Boards of Directors and has advised an equal number of companies. He set foot on each of the world’s continents and dropped by the North Pole. He finished multiple off-road races in Baja, MX, accidentally appearing on the cover of Autoweek magazine. He completed five Ironman races, including Kona, and earned a spot on TeamUSA for long course triathlon. The Young President’s Organization gave him the rare Hickok Award for distinguished service. Throughout it all, hanging out on occasion with Gabe Cohen has been his great honor.
With a great passion for building long term brand purpose via consumer tensions and universal truths, he has helped numerous brands prosper from purpose that builds long range strategic growth.