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Robert Wilkins of SoClean: “Hire talented people”

Base your marketing strategy on your customers’ experience. Create ads that situate your product in their daily lives, and they will respond by buying the product. For example, customer testimonials go a long way toward helping people believe in our brand. As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, […]

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Base your marketing strategy on your customers’ experience. Create ads that situate your product in their daily lives, and they will respond by buying the product. For example, customer testimonials go a long way toward helping people believe in our brand.


As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Wilkins, CEO of SoClean. Bob is an executive entrepreneur with a passion for people and emerging technology — and more than 29 years of experience marketing and selling products to businesses and consumers. Before launching Ziftr and myVBO, Bob spent 11 years as President and Executive Vice President with PC Connection, a Fortune 1000 reseller of high-tech equipment. Over the years, he has founded more than nine companies in the technology, computer reseller and gaming industries. Two of his companies, Zones Inc. and Mac’s Place, grew to be significant players in the PC direct marketing industry before being sold.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In my early 20s, I had a friend who worked for an Apple distributor. He had an original Lisa computer with a dot-matrix printer set on top of it. After the Lisa, he replaced it with a Mac before anyone knew what a Mac was — and his printer didn’t fit on top anymore, or even the table next to it. After some brainstorming, we designed a workstation that could hold both the Mac and the printer. That’s how the Mac Station was born. My friend was the CEO of our new company, and I was president. We promoted it on the inside front cover of Macworld Magazine and sold it for 99 dollars  — people thought it was an Apple product. Through this experience, I learned a great deal about raising capital and securing backing.

I went on to have a successful Tech mail-order career and worked as CEO and President of Zones, MacPlace’s and PC Connection. I was approached to be on the board of VenMill Industries, SoClean’s predecessor. VenMill was making a machine that cleaned the scratches out of CDs and DVDs and I liked the model, but they were struggling. About three or four years into it, I saw that streaming video was being introduced to the market. I sat down with the board, president & employees to discuss alternate ideas for the business before we became obsolete.

VenMill Industries was the perfect incubator: They had pick, pack, ship; they had customer service; they had sales; they had engineers; they had 3D printers; and they had warehouses.

Every couple of weeks I would review the ideas, but the market was always too big, too small, too crowded or too much money to get into. Then one day someone pitched the idea of a CPAP machine cleaner. I had no clue what a CPAP was, so they educated me, and I realized there was a real opportunity we could capitalize on.

My first four years at SoClean were just board-level support and a bit of business management support. But when we brought a private equity group in and they wanted more of a commitment, I left my CEO position at AirTank and came in as SoClean’s CEO full time.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The first marketing mistake was with the original SoClean itself. It was made of wood and looked like a jewelry box, so we changed the color to black. This black box opened up to a timer, which made it look like a bomb — I can’t imagine anyone trying to transport it through an airport. We sold a few of these, but our first mistake was that the device didn’t look its part. Luckily, we had the wherewithal to transform it to the design it has today.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Back in the black box days, we only sold around 10,000 units, and the board was getting ready to kill the idea. During the meeting, the president dumped hundreds and hundreds of letters onto the table — roughly 15 percent of the people who had purchased a unit had written us a letter about how the SoClean had changed their lives. Those letters showed the board that we were making a real impact on people’s lives, and we just had to find those people who didn’t know we were out there. We still receive grateful letters from customers all the time, and it’s humbling to read about the impact our devices have on our customers.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We went almost nine years with just one product, but that doesn’t mean we were resting on our laurels all that time. We’ve taken the SoClean’s technology and filed for patents on many other products that focus on disinfection.

One is the SoClean Device Disinfector, which launched in July this year. Since the COVID pandemic hit, we all have become hyper-aware of everything we touch — phone, watch, keys, glasses, so many things. We looked at this and thought activated oxygen was the best way to deal with it. Within minutes, the Device Disinfector kills 99.9% of viruses and bacteria. Other similar devices use UV light, but that requires a direct angle to avoid shadowed areas. Shadows mean places where the light can’t hit and where it does hit, the light must be on it for quite some time. We’re really proud of how the Device Disinfector is designed and uses Activated Oxygen, or ozone, to reach every surface and quickly.

We also introduced the SoClean Air Purifier to the market. We looked at this market about a year ago, and there were a lot of air purifiers out there already that could provide 99.9% purification. With COVID, however, there is a big difference between 99.9% and 99.99999% — which means now is the perfect time to launch it. This device creates cleanroom quality air. It’s small, quiet, light-weight, portable and able to sit right on your desk.

Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Product marketing is trying to get a sale on a product. It’s to invoke a response that gets someone to look up a web page or make a phone call. The product is the “what does it do, how does it work, why do you need it?” Brand marketing, by contrast, is to get imagery into people’s minds of what it is you’re trying to convey about the company, the people behind it, what it stands for. We hope at the end of the day when people think about the SoClean brand, not only are we the number one product in the category, but we’re trusted, we’ll take care of the customer, and we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure we have the best of the best. That’s building a brand.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

The brand is the umbrella that makes anything you launch more successful. It doesn’t happen overnight. In the beginning, we had to focus more on selling products than building a brand — our early ads simply showed the device and what it does. But because we sold a top-quality product, that was the basis of establishing our brand. Today you get more messaging around quality and trustworthiness.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

  1. Make the product the hero. Make a quality product, and then create advertising and packaging that appeals to your target market. For example, SoClean’s packaging portrays images of how its target market wants to look and feel, rather than how they actually look and feel.
  2. Control how the market sees your brand. Consistent messaging across all customer touchpoints will ensure how customers view your brand. For example, we use William Shatner as a celebrity spokesperson to deliver the brand’s positioning.
  3. Truth in advertising. The public can discern good products from bad ones. Stick to the truth in all marketing. For example, any claims SoClean makes about our products are substantiated by third-party testing.
  4. Base your marketing strategy on your customers’ experience. Create ads that situate your product in their daily lives, and they will respond by buying the product. For example, customer testimonials go a long way toward helping people believe in our brand.
  5. Hire talented people. A company is only as good as its people. Pay more and hire talented people, both internally and externally. For example, SoClean uses a variety of external resources to complement a small but talented group of experienced marketers. Those resources play a vital role in our success.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Apple. They have stayed true to their roots from day one. With Apple, you know it works, you know it’s top-quality, you know you’re being taken care of. They provide complicated devices that are easy to use.

I also think Sony is an interesting case. Sony was a top TV brand back in the 1980s and into the 1990s before losing the race in flat panels to companies like LG and Samsung. Sony managed to hit a home run with the PlayStation, the quality stood, and now their cameras have overtaken Nikon and Cannon. To me, that shows that they have a long-term plan that’s been able to withstand a lot.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

This is where something like the Net Promoter Score comes in. It’s how well customers know you, and whether they know you for what you want them to know you for. Is it quality and top products? Right now, we are at the beginning of our brand establishment and how we want people to remember our brand. The way I would measure this is by how a person reacts when you mention a company’s name. Do they just know what product the company makes, or do they remember what the company’s expertise is?

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

I don’t think social media builds your brand. I don’t think you can go out to a bunch of people and tell them you’re good; they have to experience it for themselves.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Even though we’re working remotely because of COVID, make an effort to talk to people as if you were meeting them walking down the hall, which might mean impromptu calls or a quick video conference just to check in. Over the first few months of the pandemic, I had meetings every 30 minutes, and they were all business. Now we’ve started to make sure that even scheduled meetings start with a bit of banter. We try to have some time where we just talk. This started about two months ago, and I think it’s lowering our stress levels.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We need to listen more and make compromises on the larger issues that face us. Too often critical things required to move this country forward are not getting accomplished because one side is more interested in seeing the other side lose than in getting something done. This does not happen in successful companies. In good management, there may be opposing views, but that debate occurs in an environment that requires an outcome to move forward. I would inspire a movement for all to come together and push for a change to the political system that mandates success and progress for all. A first step could be to lengthen terms to six to eight years. It takes at least four years to turn something around and another two to four years to manage the success of the effort. However, there should not be a second term for any office. This way all the focus of the elected official is on making things better and not about the compromises that are made to get reelected.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m not a good-quotes guy. I’ve had a lot of different people influence me over the years.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

It would have to be Bill Gates. He was so tenacious in his beliefs about what he wanted his company to be, and he made it happen. He did not have the best operating system or software, but he was able to take down many other programs along the way, and in some ways, he is a marketing genius. I would love to have an opportunity to sit with him and have a long conversation about building Microsoft and what he’s up to now. I think the question to ask him, too, is why is he walking around with books all the time instead of using his own tablet? He’s actually made me start buying hardcovers again.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn is the best place to follow me.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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