Chris Kneeland is the co-founder of one of North America's leading marketing engagement agencies. He and his team have dissected hundreds of cult brands, such as Marvel, Porsche, The Home Depot, Lululemon, and Red Bull to discover how to create brands that people love to work at, and consumers love to buy from. Chris now helps business leaders clone the success of the world’s most beloved brands in their own businesses.
What is up everybody, Josh Tapp here again and welcome back to The Lucky Titan and today we are here with Chris Kneeland and guys, this is one of the conversations I've been looking forward to for some time because this guy really knows what he's talking about when it comes to creating a cult fat following and in fact, his company is called Cult CULT not COLT Okay, so this guy knows what what it takes to really create a brand that is something like like Coke, or Barbie or something, you know, a really iconic brands that we all know what they are and take those and apply those to kind of the more non sexy brands, like yours or mine, where we're kind of the b2b agency types, we tend to run into the problem of not having a really strong brand or a cult following of people. So Chris, I'm excited to have you here today. Can you say what's up to everybody, we'll hop in.
Chris: What's up, everybody? Great, Josh, it's great to meet you and really appreciate the chance to dive into a topic near and dear to my heart.
Josh: Yeah, I love it. Well, Chris, I do want to start this one off, you know, kind of getting to know your story, right, that's part of part of the show for us is helping people understand where you came from, where do you where do you grassroots, you know, we don't need some big long monologue, right but just give us kind of that epiphany moment when you realize that A you are good at branding but when you realize that your company had legs,
Chris: I think I had maybe three pivot points that are worth mentioning. So I always grew up with an affinity for sort of marketing and advertising, my dad did it and I enjoyed sort of the blend of art and science and creativity but I always thought I was going to be like a VP of Marketing at some big company. In fact, my goal coming out of graduate school was to work for the biggest, baddest brand I could get my hands on and that ended up being John Deere and at the time, I graduated in 1999 and so there was lots of discussion letter retrospection, about the brands of the century kind of thing and John Deere was one of those top 10 brands of the century and so that put them on my short list and, and it was, it was everything I hoped it would be in terms of getting a master class and how brands like that are built but then the second epiphany came, when I realized I actually didn't love being client side, what I love the most is the ideation and the challenging that maybe an agency or consultancy can do. When you when you kind of get stuck client side, you're dealing more with budgeting and politics and, and getting the resources that you need to do things and, and frankly, you're always solving the same problem every year, like you're at a company for a few years. It's like Have we done this before, didn't we figure out Christmas or back to school or Mother's Day Like, so I got I got bored with it pretty quickly. So my second pivot was, I say, selling my soul but I went and joined an agency out of Dallas, Texas, and I loved everything about that culturally but then what I didn't love, frankly, was when you work at an agency, you tend to see I say you're a hammer looking for a nail, you see every problem through the lens of whatever your discipline is TV commercials, websites, social media, PR, right and the reality is, rarely is the solution, just one of those things and so my third epiphany came when I realized that maybe the answer is not better creative but the answer is asking different questions about what about our product, about our customer experience about our pricing and I didn't find that when I wore the communications hat, I wasn't really being asked the right questions, we were just being asked to make things look pretty or sound funny or be cool, or get viewed or go viral, versus we need to fix the business or we need to grow sales and rarely were the communications solutions the right answer so we had to stop being a communications agency and become a different species of consultant a different sort of practitioner so that's the journey we've been on for the past decade.
Josh: And that's, that's awesome, because you've experienced really all that marketing has to offer, right all of the different realms and you really landed now building your own agency that's, you know, built around helping people grow following which, ultimately, like you said, right there at the end is a lot of us think that means going viral and things like that but a lot of times it doesn't require that so I do want to ask you, what's kind of your methodology and your process for taking somebody from zero to hero when it comes to branding?
Chris: You know, so the important thing is, is that all we really did was discover something we didn't have to invent it, we looked at you know, through our careers, you could take a John Deere as an example you could take a Harley Davidson you could take a Lulu Lemon as we would either work for or compete against a certain caliber of competitor, we were we would marvel at their fans or their customers loyalty and adoration and we would realize, Wow, they're playing a different game, they're using a different playbook. Like, why is it so hard for us to steal share from certain types of businesses so in an effort to try to understand them, so we could compete with them, we discovered that they just have a different paradigm, they have a different belief structure, different behavior set that was so fascinating to us, we almost felt like you know, anthropology Anthro anthropologists or explorers, you know, I mentioned I was just a Disneyland earlier because your Star Lord mass, but you know, that Indiana Jones moment of look what we can discover here and so now we almost just feel like missionaries, like, let me just show you what I saw. Let me tell you what I just found over here and it doesn't require a lot of budget, it just requires a different ambition, what are you actually trying to accomplish because just trying to grow your business is not enough, we like to say every business can have a customer but cult brands do something different, these great brand leaders are trying to get cult like followers and if you're trying to get a cult like follower, you're going to do things differently than if you're just trying to get somebody to transact.
Josh: but and I do have to interrupt you here because the part that's so interesting to me about that, right is in theory, that can be done through social media and all these different places, butbut what you're talking about is really something a lot deeper, right? It's like, and I like to look at it as I mean, you look at network marketing companies, I think there's some of the greatest at building a cult like following whether you believe in the model or not, it's really interesting that people will just sell their lives, their their soul everything to these companies, because of a dream or a hope but I'd like to see what your take is on actually making that happen because that's I mean, that's probably what most of the people listening are concerned are considering in their own mind saying, is this something I could apply to a b2b business?
Chris: more businesses qualify than you'd expect, we spend more time I think helping businesses realize they actually have more coal brand potential than they give themselves credit for, then we do have somebody saying, I really want to quote brand, and we say, sorry, you don't have the ingredients to do so and even if you don't achieve this sort of iconic cult like status that Tesla, Nike has, it doesn't mean that you can't get you still can't reap the benefits of a super engaged customer base and a super engaged employee base and right there as one of your tips, Josh is this is not just a marketing job to get external audiences to fall in love with you, some of the biggest beneficiaries of cult like status are people that have hyper engaged employees and that's a massive problem right now, the guy have more clients asking me to help with a retention and acquisition of staff, given the great resignation and all the issues going on with with HR right now than I do even ask him to help him get more customers into the door but yeah, a lot of it is you know, we always have to use cult, like follower, you can't just say follower because social media is bastardized that term, I could care less how many social media followers you have a quote like follower is more, the best word for it really is an advocate, somebody who's willing to advocate on your behalf and it's not in a lame Net Promoter Score kind of way, which is really a customer satisfaction metric and some, you know, verbal indicator, sometimes if you're like me, I feel harassed by the salesperson to make sure I give them a 10 on their score, because their Commission's are tied to it and their job security, right, I think net promoter score was an interesting idea that is that's failed to deliver on most of its promises but there is something about people who advocate on behalf of your business that if done, well, you look at somebody like a Costco, Costco has over $100 billion, and they do not advertise and that becomes a symptom that we get very interested in is how do you achieve that level of success, without a disproportionate spend in paid media are worth discounting, you start looking at a bunch of brands that are heavily discounting and I started seeing those as cries for help, those are those are brands that have they've run out of all their good ideas, and now they're just a bribing come in, and I'll pay it or I'll discount it so that they can just try me, please pick me and that's a horrible place to be in.
Josh: Oh, I completely agree. And I want to kind of go back to the word advocate that you said earlier, because I really feel like you're bringing back to light. It's been a principle it's been around since you know, marketing existed as..
Chris: I like to say ever since Eve said to Adam, hey, you should try this apple, word of mouth marketing has been around from the beginning.
Josh: See, that is that's beautiful. I'm totally gonna quote you on that. So, what I love about that about the word advocate, though, like you said is that in today's marketing world, we're so I feel like we're so promoted to to have a great SEO strategy to have a podcast, to have a YouTube channel to have all of your social media channels taken care of write a book, do all these different things to get your branding, brand exposure but they're missing that that key element, right? The first day of class for me in my marketing class in my master's program, that was what we talked about, is how do you take them from not knowing you to an advocate where they're actively going out and promoting you to other people and I think for me, the reason my mind goes to Network Marketing is that's immediately what they do, is once they sell you their product, they're like, Okay, no, go sell it right and it creates this advocacy, where they're just they're involved with you and I love that your company is really building that like you said, for companies. I mean, like Costco, for example, right? Where they're, they're not doing any sort of ad spend, but they're $100 billion company, that's crazy so from a b2b perspective, though, because most of the people listening to this are b2b. How does how does that fit right because one of the problems I run into right is when somebody talks to me about branding or creating a cult following, it's always tied to creating another product, where for us, we're like, we just want to stick to our lane. So So walk me through what is what's that differentiation of, do you need to have a lot of different products in order to create this or is it more of or of how you bring people in your world?
Chris: No, I think no, you use the word exposure and that's such an interesting word because I agree that most people have gotten distracted, thinking that if they just get more exposure, life is going to somehow be better and what I like to do is to take these discretionary marketing dollars, where you have the finite choices, we have to decide what you're going to do, and focus not on exposure, but on experience and if you can enhance the customer experience, you do not need as much exposure because the people who have experienced it are going to go and talk on your behalf, you know, again, go back, I just have Disney on the mind a disease one of the world's most remarkable coal brands so his Star Wars, Star Wars is a remarkable Colt brand and we did that rise of the Yeti down the rise. If you've done one of the rise of resistance rides at Disneyland,
Josh: I haven't No.
Chris: but you've heard about this thing.
Josh: Oh, yeah.
Chris: there's a new ride there, that it just you can't help but talk about it afterwards. It is so novel it is so over the top exceptional that it creates, you know, millions of Instagram feeds are taking you know, Tesla, my buddy just bought a Tesla and it has this ridiculous little feature, we could put a digital whoopee cushion in each of the different seats so that when somebody sits down the car will make a virtual fart noise, it's like somebody's thinking it's a way that's why Tesla's spend $0 on paid media is that they said why don't we just do something with the car or Disney with this ride or if you're in the b2b thing with the procurement process, the sales pitch, the post meeting follow up, let's give them something to talk about, it's actually one of it's the very first cult brand principle of being remarkable and people think that when they hear being remarkable, that means to do something exceptional, doesn't have to be exceptional, it has to be worthy of remarking about the root of remarking bowl is remark, like get people talking. This best synonym is buzzworthy or noteworthy and we're just so boring, we're so ordinary, we're so expected and everything that we do, and b2b in particular, I just, they lack the courage and the creativity to break the mold, they're so worried about will procurement so buttoned up, and we have to do everything by their, you know, way and think no, you don't, that's not a law, some person who has a personality has a wife and a kid and a Morgan has to make decisions, wants to be inspired, wants to go home and have something to talk about, give them something to talk about and use some of the money that would have gone into Google Pay, you know, advertising search words, and put it into that experience.
Josh: Yeah, brilliant. See, and what I love about your methodology with that, right is the experience creates exposure.
Josh: like that chicken and egg situation but in all reality, you've solved that dilemma.
Chris: Because the best person to tell somebody about you is not you, best person to tell somebody about you is somebody else who is unbiased, unbiased and has a you know, no ulterior motive and so you have to create that conversational capital.
Josh: So what's what's your what's your take on referral fees and affiliates and things like that? Like, does that kind of corrupt the advocacy when somebody is getting financial reunit remuneration for it or is it do?
Chris: you know we've got we've done some tests on it, um, I would not use the word corrupt, I think it's a hack and sometimes hacks are good and sometimes hacks are excuses, you're not doing the real thing so you do the easy thing, if done well, you know, I'm not on Disney. I'm not getting anything to promote Rise of the resistance for Disney right now. Right? I'm doing it because I had such a positive experience, I want people I care about to benefit from that so I mean, the short answer is I'm not anti some sort of a monetary incentive or referral, I prefer non-monetary incentives that have high perceived value and lower actual costs, things like access, I'll give you I'll give you an example, Josh we did a case study years ago for Geek Squad. This is before actually this was right after Best Buy bought Geek Squad, but they were still a very small sort of tech support company and they don't do any of these, they're also they got to several million dollars without spending any money on advertising. You can think about their experience, their uniforms, their fleet, it was almost like Disney, they kind of got into character and they became this sort of, you know, secret police that was running around fixing computers, their founder had this wonderful quote that advertising is a tax that brands pay for being unremarkable. So if do you want to pay the tax or do you just want to pay it and to make the experience memorable, but we did a thing where if I got a Geek Squad service, the agent would leave me a, a secret 800 Number, I'm doing air quotes here for your audio listeners, like the end it was and it was kind of done under this guise of okay, you're now you're now one of us, you're in the queue. If you ever have a problem, you can use this sort of bat phone number that gets you right to the front of the line but please, don't give it to anybody, this is just something special for you. Wink wink right now the whole point was to get that 800 number out into the world because now when my dad calls me and says, Hey, my computer's crashed, or I can't get my streaming service or the Hey, Dad, let me do you a favor, I know a guy, I got this special number, it's gonna jump you to the front of the queue of the line and I feel good, helping my dad was some perk that I got and it doesn't cost geeks, quite any money, it's not like they're giving my dad 10% off or anything like that, it was just this idea that you're never getting access, but not the everyday person gets if you just picked up the old pages and call Geek Squad so that actually performed better than a monetary incentive, we did a thing with John Deere back in the day as well, where we could offer people a John Deere hat, or like a $50 gift card so the hat cost us four bucks retailed for $20 and the number of people that went freakish for the hat, like if I could get anyway, that hat that's not available at the store but by helping us pass this thing along, in this case, it was an email Forward program, you would get a hat and people went gangbusters for it so if you can find something, and that's great as well, because now we get basically branded billboards on top of everybody's head, you know, walking around town, so I think they just, again, the key words are courage and creativity, think about something differently, and have the guts to do something that not everybody else is doing.
Josh: Yeah, I love that. Where should people pull from from to get that creativity because I know somebody like me, I, I am a creative person but I'm creative within my own little box and a lot of times I run into that creativity barrier of how do we make our brand, you know, remarkable, especially to more on mass instead of, you know, just to a tiny group of people.
Chris: Well, I mean, that's actually what. So when we stopped being an ad agency, one of the problems with an ad agency is they give away a lot of the thinking for free, in hopes of getting paid to do the work to build the website to do the Superbowl commercial, whatever it might be, that the money was really in the production, we said, maybe people just need a little dose of inspiration, right, it's like we do one day, one week, one month engagements where somebody can come in and just give us just enough information to be dangerous, like, we don't have to know everything, we're never going to learn your business as well as you do but maybe it just needs some outside, you know, enthusiasm and some objectivity and some creative firepower that doesn't have to result in a long term, multi-year, multi-million dollar sort of agency of record relationship, I think that's it's asking for a pretty big commitment and maybe you just need a little push to get over the edge.
Josh: I love that you're seeing that happen more to as a lot of people are kind of creating these hybrid models where they're selling, like you said, more of that tactical strategy, creativity, and then the production just kind of part of it and we recently hired an agency where, you know, I'm usually sold when somebody when we hire an agency, I'm sold as hey, you should pass us monthly retainer, right that's how we even work as a company as a monthly retainer. But then, they were just a one time fee, but I had to use their software in order to to use their methodology. So I paid them the money they had results, and we still pay them their software, which is like, I don't know, maybe less than $100 a month, but they're at like $40 million in sales because of that, you know, it's pretty crazy to see that where they're literally doing something that every other person is doing right now, you know, generating leads and they're doing that for us for a one time fee but they've, they're, they're winning. It's quite quite interesting to see that happen. So, I have so many more questions for you but we have limited time here so I do want to ask you this about events, because most people look at events as if it's like a lead generation activity and I'm kind of curious how you use events, even for your own company to actually generate buzz and create more of that advocacy for your for your company.
Chris: Yeah, I My advice would be events are really pour Lead Gen, and whether that's you hosting an event, whether that's you paying for a tradeshow booth, I don't have any clients that feel good about the money they spend for their 10 by 10 foot booth on some showroom floor in Vegas, right? They're just like these necessary, they're perceived as these necessary evils. I just, I don't believe in the whole thing, I do believe that, you know, so we have an event. Our event is called the gathering, you could find it a cultgathering.com, but it's not designed for lead generation. It is first and foremost designed to create conversation again, remarkable around even the idea of a cult brand culture provocative things. Most people don't think of them with any sort of positive affinity let people die and bad things happen with cults, right and here we are saying no, no, when used properly, the same principles that result in 1000 people flying to you know, some South American village can be applied to your business so use those powers for good, not for evil and let me show you what that looks like and here's Airbnb or here's Harley Davidson, here's the Dallas Cowboys, right so I think an event is a wonderful way to expose people to an ideology or a framework and then secondly, it allows us to keep our tools sharp every year, we have to look at hundreds of businesses and evaluate their potential and find are there things that we met overlooked other things that we didn't know about yet and so if we're going to be experts, nobody needs to know, the inner workings of a coal brand better than my team and the event allows us that format to be able to do that and then with that expertise, we can go on and create products, services or marketing that will generate leads so we actually have a very strict non solicitation policy of the people that we honor at the gathering because we don't want to cross that line and turn it into something or you know, devolve it into something, that's just what how many business cards were collected at the at the forum.
Josh: Right it's not just a pitching conference. That's what I love because I mean, so I mean, there's multiple types of events, I love going to you know, I'd like the Click Funnels Funnel Hacking live, right, it's a fantastic event that they use kind of like yours, right where it's more of a, a, a way to generate that buzz and get people excited about funnels, for example but then there's like the Grant Cardone conference where if you've ever been to a TEDx event, you know, it's it's 100% of pitching contests, really and it's fantastic, if you like being sold to like me, it's a great place to go but a lot of people go with this expectation that's one thing, but it's not it's I love that you guys have created an event around those, like, let's generate buzz around, creativity really is what it comes down to so where can people get access to that event again?
Chris: cultgathering.com We just announced the honor brands we have TikTok, McDonald's Chobani, Uno, which has become the number one selling game in the world to the pandemic, which I think is quite fun, there'll be dozen well and then there'll be Peloton, Netflix brands that are just they're talking about ways that they're fostering community and catering to rabid fans versus just being overly fixated on awareness.
Josh: Yeah, love that. Well, and where is it where you guys doing your event?
Chris: We do it in Banff, Alberta. We're at 150 year old castle that sort of nestled in the Canadian Rockies, wildly inconvenient to get to by design, we want there to be a pilgrimage of those that are the most committed to seeking out sort of this light and knowledge and so we were sort of inspired in our space, Cannes’ line, the Cannes film festival that happens in the south of France every years sort of the Academy Awards of advertising and we wanted to create something that could challenge that and so we had to make ours sort of equally desirable and inconvenient.
Josh: I love that too. And I you know it's I hope people are noticing this because even just in what you're doing for your event is proving how good you are at what you do because that whole thought process free for most people like oh Do it in Vegas, it's very accessible or Miami or whatever, I can't tell you if I if somebody tells me I have to go to Miami one more time to go to an event, I might shoot myself, I can't handle going I hate Miami but it's boy you're talking about like, they have to like probably even take a private plane to a certain place to get to where they're at and I think that's so cool because it creates that exclusivity just in the fact of going to the events, it's going to lock it more in their brain so brilliant, I love it so everybody, make sure you go check that out. So it's the gathering is the events, make sure you guys go and get your tickets to that I'm sure you guys are keeping it pretty exclusive so make sure you guys hop in and grab your tickets there and then Chris, can I ask you one final question?
Josh: If you could give an agency one final parting piece of guidance, would that be?
Chris: an agency like an ad agency?
Josh: like an ad agency?
Chris: Well, you know, I would say that the craft of marketing has devolved, most marketing departments, I know our mark downing departments, and most ad agencies I know are trying to create better stories, I'm not against an occasional sale and I'm not against this story but rarely is that what is plaguing a business and I think we need to get back to the substantive issues at hand about the product, the service, the customer experience, it could be something as unsexy as the return policy, there are other things that are inhibiting businesses or customers from falling in love with their businesses and having a fun 32nd spot at the commercial at the Super Bowl is not the answer, that is I think, an abuse of power and a reckless overspend of millions of dollars that could have been put into something with a lot more substantive effect and so I'm not anti-advertising, but I think that we need to think much more holistically about what we're asking our clients to spend their time and money.