Ep. 22 The Preface from Ramping Your Brand

MAY 15, 2020

00:18 Welcome to episode 22 of Startup Confidential. This time, folks, I’m going to be doing the third reading from Ramping Your Brand, in which yes, I shall read from the shocking humiliating preface to my recently published book. It’s also a test recording for a new audiobook version I’m working on. The people have spoken and they’re going crazy because they actually want to listen to this voice for four to five hours, not the merciful eight to 10 minutes you’re being subjected to right now. I’ve actually set up a GoFundThem page if you’d like to support their therapy expenses. All right, here we go.

00:59 My first job in high school was a bizarre summer gig selling overpriced premium ice cream by the scoop from a standalone kiosk inside a Burger King parking lot in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was 1988. Although Ben and Jerry’s had retail shops all over New England by then, no one could foresee the incredible scale that premium ice cream brands would generate in the 1990s.

01:23 Fancy scoops were still a treat. A Burger King parking lot therefore was just about the dumbest possible location you could have picked to sell ice cream at premium prices. The results it was painfully dull, sitting there with a trickle of customers every night, listening to my colleagues drivel on and on and on about Aerosmith, Guns n’ Roses, and their myriad boy problems.

01:51 At that time in my life, I had no idea I would end up becoming a specialist in how to grow premium CPG brands in the United States. My brain was focused on academia. I just wanted to be a professor of something. I was a geek. I was socially awkward to a degree that still makes me wonder how I survived high school at all. I was medically underweight. I said stuff on a regular basis for which I should have gotten the shit kicked out of me. That probably hasn’t changed now that I think about it.

02:19 I began my adult working career as a cultural anthropologist specializing in the South Asia. Trust me, there’s a tiny thread of continuity here. Just hang on. Aside from almost getting killed three times by complete strangers living for nearly three entire years in South India was a positive life changing experience. Sadly, very few Americans commit to that kind of foreign cultural immersion, and I’ll never regret what it taught me. My focus in graduate school was on how caste stigmatized individuals manage the threat of being outed in urban Indian public life. Caste is largely an invisible social identity. It’s discovered through conversation, gossip, and observations about with whom you spend your time. The individuals in question where middle-class untouchables trying to blend in and not stick out. Easier said than done.

03:11 I didn’t go to India to study this topic. India shoved this topic in my face almost as aggressively as the day I was drugged with Quaaludes in a Muthathi restaurant, brought back to my nearby apartment robbed and left to pass out. That was my second day in India. I’m not a quitter.

03:33 So when I decided to drop out of the academic tenure track in 2002, I was admittedly lost, and blamed myself for abandoning a career that was basically sucking the life out of me. I had spent 14 years obsessing about being a professor of something. My research was fascinating to everybody I met, but I simply no longer enjoyed the field I was in. It had become embroiled in postmodern rants and adolescent infighting. Not to mention that tenure track jobs were almost impossible to find. I was staring at a multiyear process of stringing together one year, visiting professorships in highly undesirable U.S. locations, hoping someone elsewhere would retire or die.

04:17 And how exactly do you get married living like an academic hobo? For me, leaving academia was like a divorce in which the two parties literally never speak to one another again. After nine years, that’s a really bad outcome. It took a long time for me to realize that walking away from academia saved me from a fate much worse than I had imagined at that time. Initially, my future looked bleak. What the hell do you think do with a PhD in cultural anthropology outside of academia in Chicago in 2002? My options were limited. I’d met far too many clinically depressed anthropologists working inside ad agencies, doing the epitome of a loaded inquiry to please account planners, to pursue that career path. I realized that the calmer waters of market research would be a better home for my brain.

05:19 So I strategically circulated my resume in that direction and was recruited by a fast growing boutique market research firm, the Hartman group, based out of Bellevue, Washington, very close to Microsoft. They specialized in health and wellness trends affecting consumer packaged goods. They wanted anthropologists. Their real expertise however, was uncovering how and more importantly, why consumer shifted from mainstream to natural organic food consumption. We’re talking about major pantry level conversion. My first client was Whole Foods Market. Upon hearing that, I had a flashback to my first job selling overpriced ice cream. [inaudible 00:05:59] Did I actually get a PhD just to wind up back where I’d started in 1988? Are you kidding me? Is my life really a Mel Brooks routine? Well wait a minute. The pay was a lot better than that stupid kiosk gig, and my wrist wasn’t constantly sore from scooping artists and ice cream, which let me tell you, is much more viscous than the fake stuff.

06:22 After several years, immersing myself in the pantries of American consumers at varying stages of adopting premium CBG rans, I led the creation of the Hartman Group’s first ever consulting practice. What began as a side experiment morphed into advising some of the top food and beverage companies in the world on how to alter their portfolios by modernizing existing brands and by acquiring new trademarks with advantage growth potential. From 2011 to 2017, my team and I engaged in a series of projects in which we had the opportunity to dive deep into the best practices of some of the most successful premium food and beverage brands that have scaled since the Great Recession. These are essentially the wave two disruptors. We studied that commonly, if not universally shared strategic moves they made, intentionally or not. And this gave me a working knowledge of how to optimize growth for early stage premium CPG brands more broadly. The theme, as you might suspect, is that the brands who have pulled off exponential growth since 2008 have been laser focused on consumer-centric innovation and on ensuring that they listened and followed the consumer as they carefully grew.

07:31 This couldn’t be more different than Big Co’s approach to launching line extensions, a process that still focuses on trying to predict interest in tepid innovations and then launching them to maximal scale instantly. This early work and my ongoing work with new entrepreneurs have culminated in a set of principles and practices that enable the strategically optimal growth of CPG brands. I share those best practices in this book. The first of its kind tailored to the unique realities of building new to the world premium quality CPG brands. I believe this information should not be the exclusive purview of elite venture capitalists and wealthy public firms. It should be available to everyone who has the passion, integrity, and endurance to compete honestly. For the consumer’s money. I hope you find it valuable.