A clear brand narrative is essential to your bottom line…
But how do you craft a narrative that appeals to consumers?
And how do you keep this brand consistent across channels?
Karen Schmidt is here to give you an inside look at building a successful brand narrative and share how her company, Schmidt Brothers Cutlery, uses a narrative to stand out from the competition.
Mentioned in this episode:
Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.
Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. The topic for today’s episode is own your narratives. Here to speak with me is Karen Schmidt, who is the CMO of Schmidt Brothers Cutlery. Karen is a passionate executive with extensive experience spanning across financial services, retail media and tech. She has a track record in leading global teams to deliver P&L growth for b2b and b2c marketing, change management, and sales enablement. Karen, welcome to the show.
Karen Schmidt: Thank you so much for having me Steffen. I’m excited to be here and talk with you today.
Steffen: Now, Karen, before we started talking about how to own your narrative, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get started in your career? And how did you end up where you are now?
Karen: Great question. So I have been in marketing leadership roles for the past decade, although my career really didn’t actually set out with the eye of being a marketer. So I started in management consulting focused on business process engineering, IT management and change management programs. And I think I’m just naturally wired to look at businesses, think about all of the different ways that people interact with its products or services, how they fit together, and ultimately, what experience is created for a customer, whether that’s a b2b or b2c customer.
Now, I transitioned from consulting to American Express, where I then spent about 10 years focused on acquiring and growing business customers, spanning from the smallest growth stage businesses all the way up to enterprise clients. And it was during those years that I had the opportunity to touch a lot of different interaction points, or channels. Our sales and account teams, our marketing channels, and our digital servicing platforms. And during that time, I really realized and came to appreciate how important it is to drive consistency in the messaging and the experience across all of the touch points that a customer may interact with, when they’re dealing with an organization.
And the way that the AMEX brand, or any brands for that matter, comes to life through its advertising, and its marketing channels. Through its employees, its products. And in Amex’s case, the 1000s of humans that sit on the sales account management and servicing side of the business. It’s so carefully curated. And my experience in seeing all of these customer interactions and leading these teams really pulled me towards marketing as a discipline that I wanted to stay focused on.
Because ultimately, that’s the foundation of what a strong marketing strategy, an organization is grounded in. It’s grounded in defining the brand, developing these experiences and interactions for customers that come to life across these channels. And of course, driving the business forward to be able to achieve the results that the organization is seeking out to deliver. So I switched gears for a bit to lead the b2b marketing team at Verizon Media and immerse myself in the ad tech side of the ecosystem.
And since that time, I’ve switched back to the brand side where I think, I think I’m gonna say for a bit, but I now consult with Fortune 100 companies and also serve as the CMO, as you said, for Schmidt Brothers Cutlery. So Schmidt brothers just to give you a little bit of context, we our business was founded in 2010. And after designing for other brands behind the scenes, the team saw an opportunity to bring premium german stainless steel knives that are beautiful and design forward to an approachable price point in the market. And while the team are absolutely knife enthusiasts, as you would imagine any brand and product designer is regardless of what category you sit in.
What makes us different is that we’re obsessed with pushing the limits on innovation, technology, and modern designs for what can otherwise be a pretty traditional category. And so we’ve applied that same innovation lens to a couple of different categories from knives to storage to barbecue. And we now have, you know, a couple of core product categories and over 20 different series. So it’s um, you know, having a clear brand, having a clear voice, and positioning has really helped us drive the business outcomes that we care about.
Steffen: Interesting. Now, how can clear brand positioning and a narrative drive that business outcome? Where do you start? I mean, there’s always a starting point. You mentioned you started off with wanting to offer affordable knives, right. But when I go to your website, now you do much more than just knives. At some point, you’re like, look, we can do knives great, but here are other products that basically fit very nicely in our service offer.
Karen: Totally. Great question. So let’s start with where does marketing and narrative sit as you think about business outcomes. And I am a very firm believer that the marketing efforts, the narrative, the positioning of a brand are fundamental to the profitability and success of an organization. And whether you’re a heritage brand, like Amex or Booz Allen, where I started my career or a growth brand like Schmidt Brothers, you have to have a clear voice on who you are, who you’re serving, what makes you different, and why someone would want to interact with you.
And whether you have a $10,000 marketing budget or a billion-dollar marketing budget, the fundamentals are the same. And a great product is absolutely important. There’s no question. But in order to really differentiate yourself in a crowded market, and get your customers’ attention, you have to do the work to audit where are you? Where do you sit relative to the industry or the marketplace in which you’re operating? Who are you going after?
Is it one customer? Is it a variety of audience segments that you need to think about selling your products to and establishing positioning and messaging guidelines that can span across channels. And as we think about channels, of course, you have your obvious marketing channels, the ones that can create the biggest impact. But I also think that beyond the external ones, some of the internal channels that you have, can be the really transformative channels to bring that voice to life. Those are your employees, those are your salespeople, those are your customer service people.
Because those are the humans that ultimately are identifying with the brand, they have their own voice. And so how you leverage every single story across all of those various constituents, to be able to empower them to be stewards of a brand, and combine that with your marketing efforts and the narrative that you really want there in the market. That’s when the magic happens. And that’s when the results and the business outcomes come to life.
Steffen: Yeah, before we jumped on the on the podcast recording, we talked about how all these different groups within an organization or that touch an organization, are important to look at and to pay attention to in order to not harm their brand at the end of the day, right? We talked about the Allbird example. I think in one of the last podcast, I talked about where on LinkedIn, I read an article someone’s dog had chewed up their new Allbirds and Allbird sent him a new pair of shoes, right. So that’s kind of from a customer service perspective, you know, they were taken care of.
But the same applies to employees from an employee perspective, right? The way how your employees carry themselves as an employee of your company will reflect on your brand too. If you build a shiny castle and the way how they behave, or representative now, talk about Kanye West, for example, right? And the Adidas issues will reflect back on you. If you handle things poorly, like Adidas, is for example. Yeah, that has an impact on your bottom line at the end of the day, right?
Karen: Absolutely. There’s no question about it. And, you know, you think about the employees as humans who you want to be engaged in the place of employment. You think about them as having authentic conversations with their social circles with their friends with their families, who are not looking at them as marketing the company that they’re working for. They’re looking at them as, you know, a companion or as a contemporary who’s sharing their perspective. And so ultimately, everyone has their story to tell about the organization. And to the point earlier, where if you can leverage that to be empowering for your narrative, what that means is, they understand what you stand for.
They have the tools and the resources, regardless of what role they’re in, to be able to communicate that to customers, to peers, to colleagues, etc. And to be empowered to go out there and talk about that both in their own career, as well as in what the company is doing and pushing out there. It’s such an honest reflection of who the company organically is and authentically is. And you take that Adidas example. You know, there was an employee this week who posted on LinkedIn her perspective around their debate whether or not to terminate the relationship with Kanye, which ultimately they did.
But her post was prior to that, and actually being quite critical of the brand that she’s employed by, in their handling of the situation. And what that shows me in the followership and engagement, that that post received, was incredibly powerful. Because what it showed is employees of companies are humans. We all have our own perspective. And sometimes it follows brand guidelines. And sometimes it doesn’t. But the openness in the LinkedIn community’s reaction to that post was really powerful.
Number one, because it open dialogue about what should the brand be doing right now. And two is it gave her a platform to just, you know, share her perspective, which ultimately ended up in you know, their decision to terminate. So point being just understanding all of the different avenues that you have to get your narrative and story out there. And recognizing them, leveraging them, inspiring them, is such an important element in this whole world we call brand building.
Steffen: Yeah. Now we talked about consistency from a narrative perspective across channels. So how can organizations achieve that? I mean, it’s one thing to kind of say, you gotta have that. But where do you start? How do you achieve exactly that?
Karen: Well, I think consistency, and relevancy are two different things, but they go hand in hand. So if I think about Schmidt Brothers, for the sake of example. We distribute products through both online direct channels, as well as through retailer channels. So as I think about how my product is coming to life, and this is very similar for any other brand that operates in retail channels, I need to create this omni channel user experience. What does that mean? That means that my brand from the products that I have on store shelves, to the knowledge that a retail employee may have on my products and brand, to the product, pages on that ecom site, to my own site, to our social footprints, to our PR.
All of them need to work in harmony. Now, omni channel is not a new concept. So I’m not sitting here diving into those details. But what is important, as I think about the relevancy component is that the language that I use across each of those is going to be different, right? The pithy tone that I can put in a tweet or in a social post is going to be very different than I do in my email campaigns, or even in the product packaging. And, you know, we entered the market in 2010. We were a disrupter brand, in the sense that knifemaking is, was not the sexiest of categories. It was a very traditional, you know, I have a home, I have a kitchen, I need a knife type of category, unless you’re a knife enthusiast, and then you geek out on it.
And what we’ve really thought about is, how do we carry that disruptor brand perspective and status all the way through our voice? And so what does it look like? It looks like us having some tongue and cheek copy on my packaging that makes fun of in a you know, in a relevant way makes fun of the fact that a bread knife is a bread knife. And if I have to tell you what a bread knife is used for, you probably shouldn’t be holding a sharp object in the first place. And so that’s my brand’s coming to life through packaging, and through instructional materials.
Now, if I’m a consumer who’s standing in a store, I care much more about the rational benefits. The value, I’m getting the technical elements. And so I will adjust how my story and how my voice comes to life depending on the channel in which I’m operating in. But ultimately, they all feed off of each other. And so whether I think about that, from a retail perspective, credit cards are very similar in that my salespeople are not pitching the copy that you’ll have on a credit card application form. If they did, that would be weird. And it’s not normal, it’s not human speak.
And so ultimately, taking that brand narrative and that story that you want in the market, and tailoring it to the channel that you’re sitting here distributing through is so important. And so as long as you think about, what are my primary distribution channels, how are customers engaging with my product through all of those, and where humans are involved? How are they practically going to say the words rather than reading, marketing copy and sounding either bizarre or like robots? That’s ultimately how you create that consistent experience a narrative
Steffen: Yeah. How do you rally an organization behind the Northstar? How do you get them all aligned, or to agree on, on this vision?
Karen: So I’m smiling and thinking about the first time that I was part of a sales organization. And my sales leaders that I was working with, heard the term Northstar. And there was a moment where that wasn’t their language. That wasn’t sales language, it’s marketing language. And so thinking about how you build that Northstar, and think about the outcome you’re trying to drive internally, before you even think about going externally, it’s such a crucial fundamental point.
And we all know that bringing a brand or a new campaign or new platform to life is not quick, easy, cheap, and it doesn’t happen or should not happen overnight. And so I’m a really big believer that doing the work upfront to identify who are the right stakeholders that need to be informed as part of the process, and who need to take an active role in defining it, is a really critical step to its success. And while marketing may be responsible for ultimately defining the voice and creative elements, your partners across whether it’s product or public policy, or risk or legal or compliance, they’re all going to have a strong opinion around the elements that you want to drive and the ease of implementation.
And so getting input early on, on what’s the most important component of the project to each partner, having them be part of the process, and driving their alignment throughout the development. Not only drives by in, but it drives engagement and adoption early on. And then when I think about the rallying and the rollout, I like to think about it in a couple of different phases. The first is the education. That’s your rational element. What are we changing? Why are we changing it? What is the implication to everyone who I’m speaking with?
The second phase is the engagement piece. It’s what am I giving my team and team can be as narrow or broad as it needs to be given the scope of rallying this organization. But, what am I giving my team to have them really engaged with this new vision? What are the tools? What are the resources? What are the pieces of collateral? What are the tips and tricks that can make it easy for them to engage? And then the third piece is inspiration. We all want to be inspired, we all want to feel excited by something that our organization is doing. I think that’s a human fundamental like perspective and feeling. We all want to be connected to something.
And so being inspired by how others are using the positioning to drive the business, showcasing wins, getting people giving people the platform to be able to share what’s working well. And also what’s challenging, and what roadblocks they’re coming into, is incredibly powerful. Because what it says is this is a living and breathing reflection of our organization. And we want you to understand how well it’s working in some pockets. And also, if there’s room to iterate, we should do that too. And so I think, as long as you take that lens of it can’t be marketing driven in isolation, because when it is, you either end up in a couple of situations.
You would land with a positioning or a platform that doesn’t actually resonate with your customers and stakeholders, whether those be internal or external, because you didn’t listen to what the most valuable opinions are. And those are of leaders and your customers. And just to clarify that point, the customer lens is so important, because leaders may all say the same thing. That may be incredibly off from what your external market and customers are saying.
So having both of those views is really critical. And then two is just, you know, making sure that they’re bought in. Everyone’s busy everyone has their own agenda, and their own goals and metrics. And so helping people really prioritize the rollout takes time and takes resource. And so driving that alignment on how we’re going to do it together can ultimately lead to that outcome that you’re trying to drive.
Steffen: And I think that is so important for companies that work on their brand. Whether you are just starting out or whether you do a rebranding, you know, you’re adjusting your brand. Because everyone who comes in touch with your brand internal and externally, I mean, especially internally, they need to be able to, to, as you said, they need to buy in, if they don’t buy into it, if they don’t live the brand, if they don’t live what you, the marketing department want the brand to be, then you have, you’re going to have a lot of noise in the system, right?
I mean, if the sales organization doesn’t buy in, then they’re not going to sell and communicate the message the way how you want to communicate. Which means you might not be able to differentiate yourself from the competitors that are out there, right. And I think that’s what, from my perspective, why brand really is important. It’s like, for you guys, for Schmidt Brothers, there are other companies out there that provide knives. So it’s a substitutable product, right? Someone could go into a store, buy somewhere else. What makes it special is obviously quality, design and things like that.
But is that there’s actually said there are those special messages that you have in the packaging, right. Which people will kind of remember. Or the way how you communicate, also, maybe you’re funny, maybe you have a certain way of communicating, those are the things that your customer will remember. And when they need, I don’t know, they bought their kitchen set of knives, right. And now they need some additional stuff. And they know you guys offer that. That’s when they remember, hey, you know what.
These guys have other things that we need. So let’s go there instead of just buying someone generic, right? So that’s what sets you apart. That’s in the end what makes you maybe not subs, I don’t even know if the word exists, substitutable. But, you know, that’s why it is important, from my perspective, to take care of your brand and to build a brand that stands for something.
Karen: Absolutely. And the research has been done to that point of the brand standing for something. And it’s not enough to have great product. Great product matters. There’s no question. But what the brand stands for, and the transparency around that is I think it weighs in somewhere between 10 and 20% of how a consumer is making their buying decisions. Because they really want to understand who are the people behind the company. And it’s this great copy with a service experience that will fall short. And you mentioned that great Allbirds example previously.
Products sometimes don’t meet up to the expectations that the customer has or that the brand has for itself. And the way in which you deliver upon that and make it right can be an everlasting experience. And that’s ultimately where you drive your loyalists. And when I think about you know, our category, or just overall the past few years that you know of the pandemic, have certainly informed people’s interests, what they care about, what they invest in, especially with economic fluctuation. And so having your brand be something that people can remember, and can have a positive experience around is really important.
And so when I go back to our, you know, our roots, and those roots are only 12 years old, but we were the disruptors who said knife making is cool, right. And when we think about what that looks like, having the reality check that everyone in the past few years became a chef. Right? Everyone was cooking at home, everyone decided to invest in, not ever decided to invest in housewares. But they realized that cooking at home is a necessity. And so there’s a renewed energy and excitement around just the category overall. And so we thought about what is the role that we should be taking in this, in this transformation.
Beyond let’s get product on shelves and into customers’ hands as quickly as we can. It was normalizing that you don’t have to be a chef in order to enjoy cooking. Now, most people have not taken a knife skills class, yet, they need to know how to safely use a knife. And so we had to think about how do we provide that content to folks at a time at which they needed it. And so, our Instagram or TikTok content is funnier, in the retail space, it’s still much more informative.
But ultimately, you know, we wanted to be a brand that met customers in what they needed at that moment. And to the point around, you know, having being a brand that stands for something and what role that plays as part of your narrative. We joined forces with over 100 other brands early in the pandemic, for as part of this organization called brands for better. And it was all centered around the notion of like-minded brands, like-minded people who all were experiencing the world at a very tumultuous time.
And how can we give back to our customers by way of discounts at a time that they needed it most when people were home and out of work. And how do we get back to our community by way of donating sales, you know, portions of sales to charities involved in COVID relief. And that was truly a moment of saying, what do we care about? It is about the fact that food is a foundational element of people’s lives. And it has nothing to do with making knives. It’s just a foundational element to live.
And so if we can help folks get food on their tables, then we feel good about ourselves. And so as we think about more and more opportunities to do things like that, and to be able to showcase the family business isn’t just a nice marketing message. It’s because we believe that food is the foundation of family. And if we can be part of your family and providing your meals, then we feel good about that and the products look good, too.
Steffen: Now, and we already talked about messaging in this entire last segment. But how do you create messaging in an appropriate form for each channel?
Karen: I think it goes into how much time does someone have? What are they expecting from the channel? And how do I tailor my messaging appropriately? So if someone is standing on a shelf, the messaging that they care about is who are you? What’s included? What are the technical details? What is the value? If I’m standing and looking at several products side by side? Why am I choosing you? Brand plays a function in that, but how brain comes to life in that moment, is, to me a bit of explanation on the rational benefits.
It’s a bit of the perspective of the creative emotional experience that you get when you see some of the copy. When you under, when you have QR codes to drive an easy access to get more information, if that’s what you seek. It’s opening that packaging when you get home and having a really incredible experience. That to me is appropriate from a retail channel. From a digital channel, I have less space, I have a lot more congestion in the physical real estate of the screen, whether that’s a you know, a desktop or a phone.
And so my messaging needs to be shorter, it needs to be punchier, it needs to be a lot more deliberate in driving to an action. But at the end of the day, I’m still in the business of selling a product. And so thinking about right sizing, that relevant copy down to that very pithy real estate space, is how I take that narrative to that appropriate ad unit or to that appropriate social post.
Steffen: Because in the end, you still have to have the same message, whether you’re in retail, or I mean, like the core part of the message, whether in retail, on an e-commerce side, because it’s the same brand, right? You cannot have two different core messages, because that would confuse people. They wouldn’t find you out there in the retail world.
Karen: Absolutely not. If my messages on my ads, were talking about my German steel and my wood specifics, and which forest they were harvested from, it would it just wouldn’t work. So while all that information is available on my website, and on the product packaging, where I have longer form, that’s not going to pull someone in because that’s not what’s what they’re looking for. And so ultimately, it’s, you know, the right message, the right channel, the right time in order to pull someone through the funnel, and ultimately help them connect with you. And so, you know, when I think about, I’ll use two examples.
When I think about Amex, from an employee perspective, if you go to LinkedIn, and you type in the hashtag team Amex, you will be flooded with 1000s of posts the proud employees are sharing discrete moments that make them proud to be a part of that company. That’s a very tangible example of how the brand comes to life through its employees’ constituents. And it goes across channels. Another example is if I think about, if I think about, I’ll use Schmidt Brothers, right. And if I think about our presence on retail pages. If I can’t explain how I’m different, if I can’t explain who I am, I lose my customer.
I don’t give them that same longing experience. And so when I think about social and how crowded that market is, you know, we like to share the posts that people tag us in. Not every brand does this, and you know, there’s a lot of risk and sharing a lot of UGC and is it on brand voice and is it on tone and is it you know, the right angle of the photo of the knife that I want shot? And the answer is most often but not, But core to who we are is the fact that like I said earlier, we believe that food is the foundation of family.
And so if I can bring our customers’ stories and photos to life, in their own beautiful ways, that’s the essence of what we’re all about. That’s where life takes place. And so it’s a really exciting moment for our team to see all of the moments where they’re, where our customers are using our products and serving the food or preparing the meal or, you know, doing whatever they’re doing, because it’s authentic. And if I can use that to be part of my story, that’s really core to who our, to what our merit is.
Steffen: Karen, thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast and sharing your thoughts on how to own your narrative. Now, if people want to find out more about you and Schmidt Brothers, how can they get in touch?
Karen: Thank you for asking. So I am on LinkedIn at Karen Schmidt. And for Schmidt Brothers they can we have our website, schmidtbrotherscom. Our social handles are at Schmidt Bros. Because again, we have to be tongue and cheeky and we’re lightly on LinkedIn as well. So, thank you so much.
Steffen: No problem. All the information as usual will be in the show notes. Thanks, everyone for listening. If you liked the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to follow us you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.
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