Known as a biohacker and lifestyle guru, Dave Asprey has gained a notable reputation within the health and wellness space. With a bold claim of aiming to live until 180 years old and having published five books on his diet and lifestyle approaches, it was no surprise that Dave decided to launch his own line of nutrition products.
Under the brand Bulletproof, consumers can include coffee, proteins, and supplements that Dave personally uses into their routines. Despite Dave’s reputation, building a notable brand within the consumer packaged goods space takes a village and scaling it is no easy feat.
In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll hear from Karen Huh, the VP of Product Management and Strategy at Bulletproof. Karen left Starbucks for Bulletproof and grew her team of one direct report into three teams of five. Karen looks after everything from research and development to creatives and marketing.
If your brand is a celebrity, who would you pick?
Key lessons shared by Karen of Bulletproof:
- It’s important to expand outside of the founder’s interests to appeal to a wider audience. Howard Schultz of Starbucks only drank black coffee but the company needed to expand to include drinks with syrups and seasonal flavors to relate to a wider audience.
- Balance is essential between your commitment to your investors, brand, and customers. Karen uses the analogy of having triplets and making sure each “child” gets the same amount of care and attention and catering to each unique needs.
- Staying consistent across each customer interaction from the web to retail is key to having loyal customers. Having what Karen describes as surround sound branding where customers can easily know that they are getting the same expected product regardless of where they purchase from.
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Felix: Today, I’m joined by Karen Huh, Vice President for Brand and Product Strategy from Bulletproof. Bulletproof is a leading food, beverage, and content company widely known for the popular Bulletproof Coffee, Collagen Protein product line and more. It was started in 2012, and based out of Seattle, Washington. Welcome, Karen.
Felix: We mentioned that you’re the Vice President for, Brand and Product Strategy. When did you join Bulletproof?
Karen: I joined Bulletproof in November of 2015.
Felix: What was your reasoning for joining? What did you see about the company that made you want to hop on?
Karen: It was really serendipitous, actually. I actually had a former colleague that was at Bulletproof already who I had some overlap with at my previous employer at Starbucks Coffee Company. Really what attracted me to the company was its place in the health and wellness space, and how provocative it was and continues to be in thinking about how to approach one’s health in ways that at that time not many people were thinking about. From a personal perspective, I dabble in CrossFit, have tried to be Paleo, and so a lot of the concepts around Bulletproof weren’t foreign to me.
Karen: In fact, the first time I heard about Bulletproof Coffee, which I have a very distinct memory of thinking it was insane, all I had heard was it was butter and coffee, was at my CrossFit box. When I was contacted about the opportunity, it just seemed perfect. I would hesitate… I should also say that it was also perfect because relative to my professional expertise, I was really excited to get involved in the product strategy side of things.
Felix: Got it. You own the product strategy. What’s involved here? What is your role as the owner of the product strategy?
Karen: Really, my role is to take a look at the entire portfolio of the business, and then take a look at the future potential portfolio of the business relative to our consumer target. Really think about what makes sense for us to continue to care and feed, if you will, in terms of the existing business and then what ancillary or adjacencies that we want to go after. That role really entails… it’s like a sausage-making machine. It’s really everything from thinking about what that product could be, figuring out how we’d make it, commercializing it, and then marketing it and getting it on the shelf, whether it’s a virtual shelf or on a grocery shelf. It’s really an end-to-end strategy role, figuring out both commercialization aspects and go-to-market aspects.
Felix: Right. Bulletproof I would consider a much more established company than I think a lot of listeners out there that might be starting a business of their own, or just getting started for the first time. I think one thing that you have tons of experience with is this almost moving target of, again, aligning what exists today with the product line that you have, and where you want to go. Even before then, where does it start? If someone’s sitting down and trying to think about what is their brand, what should their brand be, who is their target audience, where do you recommend they start?
Karen: I would really start with, it really depends on the entrepreneur. It really starts with what their passion is, and what is the problem they’re looking to solve. Entrepreneurs fundamentally have an idea in their mind that they’re really excited about and what to share the world about. Where they have to take that next is understanding why they want to pursue that idea, and how to get the consumer to understand it. That’s a really big leap because one thing I’ve noticed a lot of entrepreneurs tend to do is think about a problem in a vacuum.
Karen: Or maybe not a problem, but an opportunity in a vacuum where they want to come up with a consumer product, or a piece of technology, and they’re solving for a certain paint point or a need. That’s something that they feel very palpably, but the leap they have to make is figuring out what other consumers feel, and understanding is this really a market opportunity. I think it’s bridging that gap between their passion, where the idea starts, with a true market opportunity, is where brands get built.
Felix: Right. I think that there is this kind of mantra about, do what you’re passionate about, and focus on that. I think that is only, like you’re saying, one half of it. The other half is, if you do want to build a business, there needs to be some kind of market out there, and you need to be responsible for bridging that gap. I think a lot of it begins with validating that there is this gap that you can bridge. What’s your recommendation here on how does an entrepreneur look at their passion and determine if there’s a market that is sustainable for a business that they might want to build?
Karen: Sure. One place I would start is understanding what that entrepreneur’s personal goals are. There are entrepreneurs of all types. There are entrepreneurs that want to open a mom and pop shop around the corner. There are entrepreneurs who want to figure out what the next Facebook is going to be. Those are very different aspirations. There are certain fundamentals that no matter what business you’re pursuing is absolutely the same, but figuring that out first and early helps. Granted, that could also change with an unexpected opportunity, but understanding what kind of investment you want to make is an important piece of the puzzle.
Karen: That then drives whether you want to raise outside money, or if you want to just raise friends and family, or if you want to bootstrap this and grow it organically. There’s actually no wrong answer in that regard, but it’s certainly a step in understanding really what the growth trajectory of the business would be, and what the goals are. Really it comes down to… I think entrepreneurship is a lot like the wild west, where a lot of things are not codified. Many things are probably not documented. I’m making gross generalizations, so I’m not trying to offend anyone, but it’s fly by the seat of your pants.
Karen: Ultimately, entrepreneurs do have to decide implicitly or explicitly what does going from point A to point B look like. To me, that is a big step. The reason why I think that’s particularly important is because, as we build brands or as entrepreneurs build brands, building a brand that has wide market appeal… The example I’d like to use, because I have some Starbucks heritage, if you will, is the lore when I started at Starbucks was that Howard Schultz, who I believe most people probably know on this podcast, was a black coffee drinker. He drank Americanos. He drank espressos, but he could not possibly fathom someone adulterating coffee with dairy, with flavored syrups.
Karen: How could we ever possibly offer the pumpkin spice latte, or the Frappuccino for that matter? What he also recognized along the way is that in order to capture a certain market opportunity and grow the business, not offering those things that frankly he’s probably not passionate about would be a mistake if his ultimate goal was to grow the business. I know that’s a much bigger, Starbucks is obviously a much bigger enterprise than what a lot of entrepreneurs are dealing with, but I think the principles are more or less the same.
Felix: Yeah, maybe just to add some context, because of your experience at Starbucks and at Bulletproof, to build a business like Bulletproof how would you describe that kind of profile of an entrepreneur? I guess how would you describe Dave Asprey in terms of the goals that you would need to set as an entrepreneur to reach a level like Bulletproof?
Karen: To clarify, it’s a question about like-
Felix: Yeah, I’ll ask the question again in a different way. I think to make sure people understand the advice that you’re giving, you mentioned that it depends on the entrepreneur, their goals. You would be trying to build a billion-dollar business, a billion-dollar brand, or maybe you’re just trying to build a lifestyle business. In terms of Bulletproof, what kind of entrepreneur would enter the game to try to build a brand like Bulletproof? Are they someone that’s coming in to try to build a billion-dollar brand, a lifestyle business, somewhere in the middle?
Karen: The question is really about what type of entrepreneur would succeed?
Felix: Yeah, what kind of entrepreneur would want to build a business like Bulletproof? I think what you’re getting at is that you have to look at your goals. Depending on your goal, you might not like to own a business like Bulletproof. Depending on your goals, a business like Bulletproof is exactly what you’d need. I guess it’s just based on that context of someone that would run a business like Bulletproof. What kind of goals would they have?
Karen: To run a business like Bulletproof, we have outside money. We have two primary investors. Really, the goal is to grow the business and capture, continue to grow it while being true to the brand, but increase the market opportunity of the business. By increase the market opportunity, I mean I think the market opportunity in health and wellness and CPG in general is massive. But it’s about what is the story, what resonates with the consumer, how can we capture more of those consumers who are interested in the products that we have to offer? We know that there’s a huge market, and we also know that by entering adjacent categories we can grow that market opportunity. It is an aggressive plan.
Karen: When you have outside investors, the reality is there are demands to grow the business to head theoretically to an attractive liquidity event. That is really when one steps back and thinks about the fundamentals… I feel like this might be stating the obvious for some people, but I often think in the course of day-to-day business, it’s forgotten. When you take outside investment, particularly venture capital or private equity dollars, their interest is for you to succeed and be worth a lot of money to them. They have an interest in paying out their investors’ high returns.
Karen: Really, when you’re in the Bulletproof game or in the game of growing a business to a scale that could qualify for a liquidity event, you are signing up for aggressive growth plans, board meetings, board conversations. Having a lot of outside input, building teams, big teams to align with those plans and to push those plans forward, and a growth trajectory which frankly would make a lot of people’s head spin. I think from the outside perspective, it could seem really attractive, or not. I may have made it less attractive in what I’ve just said. It is certainly not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.
Felix: Yeah. Speaking about the growth trajectory, I think most people listening are looking to grow. Some people might want to just maintain the size of their business, but I would assume most people are looking to grow their business. If you are taking outside money, you’re talking about again a growth trajectory that might not be even believable for a lot of people to get into this. If you do have this growth trajectory that is required because you took outside investors, what kind of opportunities do you need to pursue that maybe you don’t need to necessarily consider if you are bootstrapping?
Karen: If you’re bootstrapping, you’re really constrained by your cash flow, and you’re constrained by how much you can invest in your team. When you have outside money, you could take some what I would call short-term losses to invest in the brand for longer-term gains. I’m not sure if that answers your question. I think you have more license to be more aggressive about where you want to go to grow the business and take some risks. Now, when you take outside money, you are spending someone else’s money effectively, but they are doing it with the understanding that you’re taking risks and making decisions that drive opportunities.
Karen: When you’re bootstrapping, your risk profile radically goes down because you just don’t want to run out of money. It’s just fundamentally harder to invest. There are other benefits to bootstrapping, in that even though your growth trajectory might be slower, even though your marketing plans might be less aggressive, you have fundamentally more… And I’m not talking about financial control, although that’s true too. You have more control over your business because you have fewer outside parties involved in the day-to-day.
Felix: Yeah, let’s talk about that. I think you mentioned that continuing to grow the business while being true to the brand earlier. I think you’re hinting at the fact that there’s a lot of stakeholders that are now involved in a lot of definitely big decisions, but maybe also day-to-day ones, like you were mentioning just now. How do you balance between the stakeholders of the investors, the internal brand that you guys want to push, and then also what the customers want?
Karen: Very carefully, and it’s a little bit… The analogy I would like to use for that question is it’s a lot like, not that I have triplets, but I would imagine it’s a lot like parenting triplets. Triplets that have, that are obviously all the same age, and have different needs, don’t want to dress the same, don’t want to eat the same things, have different hobbies and interests. It’s a lot like that in the sense that every party has different interests. It’s really about finding where that common ground is in the Venn diagram, and also finding where that compromise is.
Felix: You mentioned that finding common ground is the approach. Could you also take an approach where sometimes someone has to make a sacrifice? If you’re parenting triplets, if you’re trying to make everyone happy, and then no one is happy. Is that a potential pitfall of constantly trying to find I guess consensus?
Karen: Yes, absolutely. That’s where I think compromise has to come in. Or a party may to say, “Listen, this is how we have to do business. What you’re asking me is compromising a certain aspect of that business.” But yeah, I think that’s absolutely true in the sense that, you beat me to it, but there are decisions I could see being made every single day that compromise the brand. In very small ways, and some big ways. It’s really all about chasing the opportunity. It’s so easy in the context of any business, whether you’re publicly traded, whether you’re just one person, to chase where the dollars are. In doing so, one can often forget what the heritage of your brand is all about.
Karen: Chasing dollars to no end could come at the cost of the integrity of your brand. A lot of these conversations with investors, and customers, and with the enterprise itself really often comes down to what does really make sense for the brand. What is driving certain decisions to make certain considerations mandatory? I think most people would agree, maybe customers it might be a slightly position, but most investors would agree that a short-term gain for a long-term hit is a bad idea. You have to really find yourself at a unique juncture to make those kinds of decisions.
Felix: Are there events or opportunities for you or the organization, that the team over at Bulletproof took a step and evaluate, have the compromises gone too far one way or the other? How do you make sure you take the time to pull back and evaluate whether we need to rebalance and reshuffle things?
Karen: That’s a great question. At Bulletproof, it happens in two different ways. We have leadership team meetings and sub-meetings with our marketing teams to discuss the division of labor around certain initiatives where it becomes very easy to see where things are evolving, or certain initiatives where the focus is evolving. I think those meetings become force functions when you’re doing things like OKRs, objectives and key results, or any kind of goal setting, metric driving measurement type meeting, where you’re going over where we’re going next, the next quarter or the next year. A lot of those issues get aired. I would also say those conversations happen organically and frequently.
Karen: Bulletproof is moving so fast, it really is, like a bullet train. It doesn’t take long for us to organically understand, “Wow, what are we doing? Does this really make sense? Hold up, time out. Let’s talk about this.” What I would say is that no one is more vocal about that than Dave Asprey himself. He, as the person who founded the brand, and continues to be very passionate not only about Bulletproof but what the brand stands for in the place of people’s health and wellness and wanting to help as many people as possible. He is particularly passionate of never departing from the core of the brand, and always finding that right balance. It doesn’t take a lot to observe and see, “Wait a second, are we departing from who we really are?”
Felix: In your role, the decisions that you make on a day-to-day basis, ideally how far ahead do you want those decisions to play out? Are you thinking a quarter ahead, a year ahead? How far out do you prefer to think out?
Karen: Well, my answer is different between my preference and reality.
Felix: Let’s hear both. I’d love to hear both.
Karen: My preference would be to be a year out, largely because I’m responsible for the product development process and the R&D that goes behind it. A lot of that process really requires at least a year. To make a widget from the idea from someone’s head and to have it arrive on shelf someplace in the United States, takes at least a year in many cases. I prefer to plan out a year. Also from the marketing perspective, it helps. More lead time is helpful. In reality, we are planning things sometimes a month ahead, two weeks ahead, six months ahead. It’s highly variable. The reason why it’s so variable is that our sales channels, we touch every sales channel. We are on Amazon, we have direct-to-consumer, we have expanded in Food/Drug/Mass.
Karen: Every channel has a different timeline associated with it. When it comes to digital channels, we have the luxury of moving relatively fast and quickly, and getting things up online very quickly. When you’re talking about traditional CPG channels, that’s a whole different game. There’s not a lot of us controlling that timeline. In fact, we have zero control. It’s really at the whim of the retailers’ selling windows and their shelf-set windows where we can get on shelves. There are the timelines that we can control internally, but there are also the timelines that are externally handled by other parties.
Felix: Let’s talk about the reality I guess answer then. The shorter-term decisions that you have to make, I think are the nature of the fast-growing business that you’re in. How do you try to actively shield yourself from these kinds of shorter-term decisions that you have to make so that you have the headspace to think a year out?
Karen: Asking a lot of questions. Really it’s about understanding why we’d make a short-term decision. For me in particular, I’m not sure how other VPs would answer this question, but for me, my north star is really all about the brand. What we stand for, and what our goals are that ladder up to staying true to that brand. When we make a short-term decision that feels not in alignment with those goals or the brand principles, it’s an immediate flag for me. There’s zero reaction time, really. I don’t know that there’s true insulation in the sense that my role is to argue that, actually. I think my role is more to insulate that from my team, and all those conversations, because I think they can be very distracting from the day-to-day objectives of the team.
Karen: My role is also to have those discussions and take them head-on so that we can understand really what the strategy of the business is. It’s really not unlike when you’re briefing in a new ad campaign. Actually, a better analogy is if you’re doing a renovation on a house. You’re just trying to redo your kitchen, and then you say, “Oh, well there’s a bathroom right there. Can you redo that too? But I want you to do it under the same timeline, and I want you to make it great.” There are all these curve balls that, when they’re short-term and short-sighted, and decisions made at the last minute, they’re often not made with the full understanding of how that’s going to impact timelines in other, what the ripple effect is in the business.
Felix: Does that mean that you would push back on time constraints on making decisions? Like, we have to make a decision today? Is that ever truly make or break for a business to be rushed to a decision?
Karen: I don’t think so. I think the feeling of it being make or break is confused for being make or break. I would say I’m pretty guilty of this. There are so many decisions being made every day that I am very aware is along the critical path of making progress the next day. In that regard, it feels make or break. I do think the perspective on really what the end goal is, and taking a step back when these short-term decisions or opportunities occur, and there is debate and discussion around what to do, taking a step back and really understanding the goals of the business is really the best filter. Now, if a company is in financial distress, I think that’s a whole nother matter, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m just talking about the daily distractions of opportunity that often come to businesses organically when they are becoming successful.
Felix: Yeah, I think that’s important. At first, nobody wants to talk to you, but then once you start getting success, everyone, you have a new problem which is that there all these new opportunities presented to you. What is the way that you have taught yourself or your team to filter out the noise of new opportunities?
Karen: It really comes down to… I would take a step back and say, it’s amazing the amount of cold calls, cold emails, LinkedIn requests that I’ve gotten over the three and a half plus years I’ve been at Bulletproof. It literally has gone from zero to sometimes almost 50 inquiries in a day. Not every day, but it has gotten that high before. I’m not the only one that experiences this. Many people experience this. I can’t even imagine what Dave Asprey experiences. In terms of helping my team understand how to filter, I always tell them to use their best judgment, number one. They have to learn. I can’t filter their email boxes for them or their phone calls.
Karen: There’s I think a learning curve from a development standpoint to figure out how to filter in terms of taking some of these phone calls or emails and seeing where they net out. Really, at the end of the day, it’s understanding how these opportunities line up with what their goals, and where the business is headed. If they have a good understanding of the key strategies of the business, and their own strategies of their sub-segments of the business, I have confidence that they can navigate the things that really matter from the things that don’t. If they can’t, they just can ask.
Karen: I will say that 90% of the time, it’s not a good use of time to pursue these opportunities. Really the best filter is someone filtered it already for you. For example, if someone from the board of Bulletproof says, “Hey, I had this really interesting conversation with this media partner.” I’m making it up. “Would you talk to them, hear they out? Maybe you can have them in your Rolodex when the opportunity strikes.” A qualified lead is a very different game than a cold lead.
Felix: Right. I think what you’re getting at is you might be able to just filter by the source of the opportunity to some degree.
Felix: Where you’re not just taking anything and everything from LinkedIn. You’re looking for, like you were saying, a qualified source giving you this. I want to put a pin on talking about onboarding new employees. I think that you might have a lot to say about it here. Before we get there, I think a lot of entrepreneurs, they start just by reacting, reacting, reacting. Then they can get some breathing space to think about a day out, a week out, a month out. I think this is a vital skill for any entrepreneur that wants to mature their business. How did you get better at extending I guess the timeline of your decisions?
Karen: I got better at it by, well I actually had to improve by joining Bulletproof is shortening my timeline actually. I got good at lengthening my timeline, or having a long timeline, by learning a certain set of fundamentals at Starbucks. How we launch products, how we think through marketing, how we want the brand to show up no matter where it shows up. At Bulletproof, I had to do the inverse, which is how I can do those same things, but in a fraction of that time? I think there’s obviously more infrastructure at a place like Starbucks. So I had both the luxury of having a longer timeline, but also a fair amount of guardrails around that were imposed from way above my pay grade as far as how late I could be, how early I could be.
Karen: Does it really matter in this fiscal year or that fiscal year? How does this drop to the bottom line? At Bulletproof, it’s so fast and immediate, and because we have a direct-to-consumer business, it’s always go, go, go. I had to orient myself around, well, what does it take and what do I have to believe to go as fast as possible? Why would I try to achieve this in six months or three months, or what is the rationale for doing it and pushing the team to go warp speed? To evolve the thinking for other entrepreneurs, it goes back to really goal setting and understanding the implications of, if I want to launch a product, it’s July now, by December, what does it take to get there?
Karen: If I miss it, what does that mean for me? Can I still have a business? Does this change my marketing plans? Does it change my relationship with my partners or my employees? Those I think are the considerations. I think entrepreneurs are driven by, and depending on what channel of business they’re in, a different timeline which is sometimes survival when they’re getting out of the gate. Sometimes, other external factors such as meeting shelf-set windows, or selling windows. Or trying to prove something to an investor, or trying to build a certain rigor around what the brand is about and the products that line up against it. Unfortunately, that’s not a super concrete answer, but it’s so specific to the actual business itself. But those are the fundamentals I would operate on.
Felix: That’s an interesting point about how, once you join a much faster-growing business, moving from Starbucks to more of a startup at that time with Bulletproof, you have to focus more on increasing your speed. Which means accomplishing more in a tighter timeframe than you might have been used to. You mentioned that the key here is to ask yourself, what do I need to believe to actually increase my speed? Where do you go to look to establish these beliefs so that you are able to commit to tighter timeframes to speed things up?
Karen: I look to my network, truly. It really comes down to finding the right experts who know the product categories that you’re operating in and looking in your network to understand what’s really possible and what’s not. The reality of my role is, and I think it’s very healthy chemistry, is that Dave Asprey and I are constantly debating the timelines and how long it takes to produce something. What it takes to get there, and how much rigor it requires. There are some things that we will never concede on, such as the clean ingredient profile or making sure our products are of the utmost quality. But understanding we will continue to have debates around how fast we can go.
Karen: For me to figure out how fast I can go, I ask myself based on what I know if I want to produce this XYZ thing in six months, I have to believe all these steps that I know to be true in my work experience has to go a lot faster. If I were to proportionally take an average timeline and shrink them down, I’d have to believe all these things are true. The next step from there is to figure out and find out those people in your network or my network and my team to say, “Can we do this? Is this actually possible?” There are just some aspects of the timeline that can’t be made shorter. There are aspects that can be made longer. I mean, the opposite. There are aspects that can’t be controlled, and there are aspects that can be controlled. The question is, are the controllable ones truly ones that move the needle on the timeline.
Felix: I got you. You look to determine what you need to believe, and then you look to your network to look for someone that’s walked that path, or that’s done it before. You consult them to see, “Hey, is this a realistic timeline?”
Karen: Right. That’s exactly right.
Felix: I want to talk about your role in building a team. How large is the team that you have today?
Karen: My brand management team is six people today. We have an R&D team that’s five people today. I’m also responsible for the creative team, which is another five people. When I joined Bulletproof, I inherited one person.
Felix: Got you. So lots of experience here hiring for this team. I guess what’s important for you to… Actually before we get there, what do you look around to determine what roles you need to fill on a team? How do you decide? Someone out there is starting to build a team of their own, what should they look to see, okay, I need someone in this spot.
Karen: Just to clarify, is your question like literally where they should look in terms of recruiters, or what qualities-
Felix: No, no, I mean like what kind of questions should they be asking themselves to determine what role they should hire for next?
Karen: When I step back and think about the way I thought about hiring for Bulletproof back in November of 2015, I thought about really where I was spending most of my time, and where I couldn’t keep up. I married that thinking with what I knew were the near-term, I’m saying maybe a year out, goals of the business were. At the time, I knew that we had certain aspirations to launch our ready-to-drink product. The team that we had in place certainly wasn’t going to be sufficient to do that. I set out to base my hiring plans around figuring out what subject matter expertise did I need. Where was I failing, because I certainly just didn’t have the bandwidth? Then have that line up with the goals around the business and a reasonable timeframe so that I knew that these roles could have longevity.
Felix: Got it, okay. I want to talk about your experience at Starbucks. Bulletproof already is one of the larger brands we’ve had on the show, but Starbucks is a behemoth a lot of people might not even think about comparing their business to. What are some of the biggest lessons that entrepreneurs can take from a big brand like Starbucks and apply to their maybe single employee, maybe small team business?
Karen: Yeah. I strongly believe that entrepreneurs should think about brands like people. Think about it as, when you go to a party, you’re going with some friends, your spouse or significant other. You meet a bunch of people, and you’re having a great time hopefully. You’re back in the car, and you’re driving home, and you’re talking about your experiences and your impressions of people. I think that’s probably a very relatable activity that most people experience. That conversation that happens in the car is how entrepreneurs should think about brands. Brands are personalities, and they’re personalities that are described when a person walks out of a room. It goes deeper than a personality.
Karen: It’s also the value set, what they look like. There are superficial things, and there are some deeper things. They really represent an external personality and a value set of that personality. That is the way brands should be considered, in my mind. I think they are often thought of as very static and 2D, and it’s a color, a logo, a message. It is those things, but really those things should be amplifying the value set or the personality of the brand, not the other way around. If a brand is getting off the ground, even if it’s super rudimentary it really comes down to… And I think it helps codify the goals or the strategy of the business.
Karen: It really comes down to why is your brand who it is, and who do you want it to be? How do you want your brand to be described if it were a person? Another way to do it is to say if your brand is a celebrity, who would you pick? That’s something I think that’s easier. Everyone has a relatable celebrity that they might like or not like, or someplace in the middle. Starting there can help drive the foundation of how that brand shows up in life. That’s I think the more, I think that’s a very image-oriented answer. If you don’t mind, I’ll keep going. I think the other part-
Felix: Real quick question about that. I think what you’re getting at too is that the entrepreneur has to really know their brand first. I feel like it’s almost an uncovering process where you’re digging to get more and more clarity around it. For you, what kind of recurring activities do you find helps you get the most clarity about the brand, about who you want the celebrity to be to represent your brand?
Karen: Really rigorous writing of briefs, which I know is painful. I have tortured people with this belief. Whenever someone is writing a document about, let’s say you’re working on package design and you’re getting a freelancer to help you with it. Or you’re working on your first ad campaign and you’re working with an agency or a consultant to help you think through that. Getting on paper who your consumer is, what your brand is about, how you want your brand to be perceived. Every single time you elicit support or start from the outside, or even on the inside kick off a project, is a meaningful process, even though it’s rigorous and sometimes painful.
Karen: It’s hard to get words on paper. But that’s why it’s hard, because it is a reminder of, oh, what is our brand about? I think if it were easy, it wouldn’t be a difficult problem to solve. That is my method to the madness of reminding people and creating that forcing function around what the brand personality is. At a certain point, you’re working on something that’s going to evoke that. To get people on the same page, and expect people to have an output that’s on the same page as you, that has to be put down in words.
Felix: Is this something that you can uncover as you go along and as you’re building your business, or do you recommend that people wait and establish this before they ever launch?
Karen: I think it’s both. There is no right answer, honestly. I would say if someone is unearthing or embarking on a journey that’s a brand new business, these are concepts that are great to have in the back of your mind. There are probably millions of case studies of brands reorienting their brand story over time. It’s not a zero-sum game where if you don’t nail it on day one, you’re screwed for the rest of the trajectory of your business. That’s most certainly not true.
Karen: I don’t want to give anyone that impression. But understanding that there is a certain rigor around what you want your brand to be and that in the very early stages in ways that are hard to predict and you can’t see, that those early stages are setting foundational concepts and precedents around how your brand shows up over time. I think awareness is step one. Step two is, as the brand grows, then getting it really on paper how it is that you want to show up.
Felix: Right. This idea of knowing who your celebrity is, I really love this. I think that it’s very visual. Once you have established this, you realize who would play your brand in a movie, where do you want your team to spend their time to have the biggest impact at making sure that the consumers also see and identify the same celebrity as you?
Karen: Marrying the consumer target with the messaging. This is where voice and messaging becomes truly important. I’m trying to think of a good example. If your brand’s mission is to be mainstream… I’m just making it up, this has nothing to do with Bulletproof. To be mainstream, speak to consumers and all the major retailers such as Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club, you name it. But your voice is, you need an IQ of 200 to understand what someone is saying, or be studying for the SAT or something like that. That’s not going to work.
Karen: I’m using a kind of an extreme tongue in cheek example, but it really comes down to if you’re trying to evoke a person and your only tools are the words on a page or on a package, logo, design. The objective really is to how do you make all those pieces work as hard as possible to evoke that person while speaking to your consumer at the same time? In theory, the celebrity, if we’re going down that track, should also have some resonance, should line up with who your consumer target is. It wouldn’t make any sense to have a truly esoteric celebrity be the celebrity you’re using to describe who you want to be, and then be super mainstream.
Felix: Makes sense. I think you mentioned in our interview about your exposure to surround sound marketing at Starbucks. Is this in line with that? What is surround sound marketing?
Karen: When I was at Starbucks, surround sound marketing was all about showing up with consistency in all places. I’m dating myself, but back in 2010 we had this, Starbucks would re-invigorate some of the principles around how we think through marketing. This whole idea of surround sound marketing was reincarnated, if you will, in the sense that we wanted to remind all the partners, which is what we call the employees at Starbucks, that Starbucks shows up in a multitude of places.
Karen: We show up in the grocery store, we show up in convenience stores, we show up at the cafes, we show up in airports, and we show up online. Understanding that that surround sound marketing has to be consistent. If we’re marketing and doing it well, and executing and leveraging all the surround sound, all the channels that Starbucks has to offer, we have absolute consistency in all those channels. There’s nothing that creatively looks different. The messaging doesn’t look different. The brand is what it is, and consumers can expect that they will get the same thing every time.
Felix: Yeah, I think you noted too to us about the importance of simplifying the core brand message. I think that that can only help with surround sound marketing if you simplify it. Are there other benefits here by simplifying the core brand message? I think that this is the part where a lot of entrepreneurs can kind of narrow of their focus by simplifying. What other benefits do you see coming out of a simpler brand message?
Karen: The primary benefit really is just having consumers understand who you are. I can’t tell you, and granted I’m maybe more critical than others given the field of work I’m in, but how often I go to the grocery store, I’m shopping for my family, I’m buying let’s say crackers and I’m looking at the box. There are a million different messages on the box. I don’t know if I’m supposed to take away, this is low sugar, this is gluten-free, is this healthy, is this fun, are my kids going to love it, is this is going to taste awful but it’s really good for me?
Karen: Simplifying the core message really creates laser focus on ultimately what do you want to tell the consumer that matters to you the most? If you could only say one thing, and this is shorter than an elevator pitch. If you have five seconds or less to tell consumers one thing, you want them to walk away, “Oh, Karen is X.” What is that X? That is what the role of the core message is. The core message should evoke what matters to you and would should matter to them.
Felix: Got it. You also mentioned here that one of the key focuses that you have is to make sure that you have a business that puts the consumer first. I think a lot of companies out there that might be listening or not also have this in mind that they want to focus on the consumer first. In your opinion, what is key to making sure that you are putting consumers first?
Karen: It goes back to understanding why an entrepreneur is pursuing a certain idea. What is the thing that made them come up with a concept? It’s not only about the concept of self but the journey that got them there. That journey basically encompasses why a consumer would care. Maybe if I took a different route, what I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs do is, and I think this is so natural, they have a passion, they start a business around it. That passion is completely centered around they experienced, whether it’s a physical good or not. Then they realize, oh, there are some consumers that have the same pain point or passion about the topic, and they care. That’s great.
Karen: Really the next question then becomes, well you’ve got a certain subset of consumers or a certain set of consumers that care about what you care about. What happens from here? Do you just go after those consumers and continue to make them happy and keep them interested, or do you go out and get more consumers? That I think is really the challenge for entrepreneurs, because I think that can feel like a compromise from where they started. I think it can be both very exciting and fraught with fear, because now you’re saying, “Okay, I want to go after more.”
Karen: What does that do to my original idea? To stay true to your consumer, it really goes back to, I’m pursuing this other idea, how does this idea appeal to my original consumer? If not, why would I pursue it? Does the trade-off of getting new consumers, is it worthwhile and would it alienate the old consumers? It’s very theoretical, that example I’m describing, but it really comes down to understanding the passion and the journey of the original idea, and the goals around how far you want to take that idea.
Felix: Makes sense. Bulletproof.com as a website, I leave this last question, what has been the biggest lesson you learned last year that you want to make sure you apply this year?
Karen: That new information may change your plans. If I’ve learned anything over my time at Bulletproof, is that I was brought to the company with a certain type of subject matter expertise. I have been pushed, and it’s actually been my favorite part of the job to learn so much more than I ever anticipated that I would. In doing so, what I learned is that with new information and a wider set of information, while sitting on the leadership team, means that what I thought to be true based on my expertise can actually be false.
Karen: What I am personally working on as my own personal development goal is to apply that humility to understand that what I thought to be true and things that I have been forthright about, I may have to take a step back and say, “Is that really true?” “How do we evolve, and what does that mean for the business?” I think in the context of day-to-day, it’s easy to want to be right. I am not immune. I like to be right a lot. What is better than being right is being successful. I think to be successful does take an ounce of humility to understand that being right doesn’t actually get you there.
Felix: Makes sense, a great lesson for all. Again, thank you so much for your time, Karen.
Karen: Thank you.
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