KNOW THE CUSTOMER. It all starts with understanding the consumer need and the human behavior that drives their decisions. If audiences don’t connect with a brand, it doesn’t matter how successful the company or brand is. Social and behavioral science and economic theory allow us to understand how our targets think and make decisions, and facilitates how we can fit into their world.
I had the pleasure of interviewing John January, co-CEO of Signal Theory, a brand development, marketing and design firm, has helped establish its national reputation for strategic and creative excellence. Through a lens of effectiveness, the firm fuses social and behavioral science with data-driven insights and the intuitive creativity of human-centered design.
John is a sought-after speaker and industry thought leader, and helps his clients see not just what’s coming down the road but also what’s around the next corner. John’s creative work has been featured in all the creative trades, but more importantly, he is invited to guide clients like SONIC, Merck, Elanco, BOSE and John Deere. John is a champion of diversity and inclusion, and is a founding board member of Kansas City’s Brand Lab, which introduces students of every race and socioeconomic background to the potential of a career in marketing and advertising.
John grew up outside of a farm town, and his closest neighbors were miles away. When he got home from school, he had only his imagination and the great outdoors as playmates. This nurtured John’s creativity and imagination.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story of the “ah-ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Signal Theory’s first introduction to the foodways system was through our work with local restaurant chains, which eventually led to becoming Pizza Hut’s national print agency of record. That experience would change the trajectory of our company as it allowed us to realize new opportunities within the food industry. At a certain point, we realized that we were working with brands on the farm to raise healthy crops and animals, in processing and distribution, and finally, selling not just in the drive-thru lane, but also the grocery store aisles. This gives Signal Theory a unique holistic view of the entire foodways system and helps us make informed choices on behalf of our clients. Our approach in all cases is to be more than just advertising and branding focused — we are holistic partners helping our clients with everything from product development to business organization design and strategy to customer experience.
Through our strategic framework called Resonance Branding™ , our team combines cultural systems analysis with data science, methods and principles from the social and behavioral sciences, and the principles of human-centered design. Today, 30 years after our work began with Pizza Hut, Signal Theory works with brands at every level of the foodways system — farmers, animal health, processors, retail and restaurants.
A great example of an “ah-ha moment” comes from our work with Shatto Milk Company, a small family-operated dairy farm located just north of Kansas City. To most customers, milk is milk. But even 15 years ago, we knew customers were already beginning to ask, “Where does this food come from?” They had no advertising budget, so we utilized strategically designed packaging that educated customers on different parts of the brand’s story with single large words that played like billboards in the dairy case: Family. Fresh. Local. This was the simplest way to educate customers about this new brand and answer the question we knew they were asking. Through the years, we’ve helped them develop, test and launch new products, and turn their family farm into a genuine agritourism venue. Today, Shatto Milk Company has a true cult following in the region they serve with more than 73,000 fans on Facebook alone.
Prior to COVID, we helped them launch a local subscription service offering their milk and additional local products to consumers. Before COVID hit, Shatto Home Delivery had 1,828 deliveries/week. Now, they have 4,091 deliveries/week. That’s a 123% increase in less than a year. At first, the Shatto family counted cows as a KPI, and now it’s subscriptions. Our work with Shatto demonstrates how partnering with a brand in a holistic way — in this case, through brand expansion and the creation and testing of new products — can drive meaningful success.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I remember a meeting with a very powerful marketing person of what was then our largest client. This human was a rising star within a Fortune 100 multi-brand holding company. A real mover and shaker. I’d been a cub copywriter for maybe six months. We were going over concepts, and I’d been told to simply observe the proceedings and let the senior people deal with it. But then this person started picking something apart, and I just jumped in and started arguing our case.
In truth, I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I was arguing on pure passion vs. facts or logic. I guess I was getting death stares from our lead account person. I think about it now and how horrified I might be today in that same situation. In the end, I didn’t win the argument for us. And during the quiet car ride back to our office, I think I realized what I’d just done. But I guess it played out OK, because a year or so later that same marketing person asked that I be assigned to a special project.
I think it’s important not to be intimidated by title, status or experience. The fastest way to lose a client is to always give them exactly what they want. You’re there to provide value. So, provide it. Just, uh, maybe know what you’re actually talking about first.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Signal Theory has a unique view of the foodways system. Because we work with clients across the entire food spectrum, we have positioned ourselves to be in the center as subject matter experts. Combined with our experience in branding, research and more, we can see how components of the system interact and analyze the impact of events from a holistic perspective.
A common mistake new brands make is that they underestimate the business as a whole, they just look at what they think the brand should be. To think it’s really easy to create a “vision” for a product that you really believe in or think there’s a market for without considering the big picture is a common mistake. Food companies need to get comfortable in an ever-changing market. Brands need to think differently about what food production and retailing means based on shifting consumer demands and a highly fragmented and dynamic competitive space. Catching the right wave with the right product at the right time is the trick.
While thinking about a brand’s vision and purpose, it’s also important that a brand knows its customer journey and market. FoodThink, Signal Theory’s longitudinal research initiative that provides insights about America’s relationship with food, has helped many small and large brands over the years better understand what personas a brand could create within the larger market.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to bring to market. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
The pandemic has helped entrepreneurs think about their next steps. We have a colleague who has a deep understanding of branding, the industry and our research, and he is still reaching out for help with his new food line. His challenges include finding packaging companies for his subscription box start-up. He is right to think about a subscription model. Still, with inventory boxes for small companies not always available and customer purchasing practices changing, brands of all sizes need to adjust to this ever-changing climate.
If you’re an entrepreneur, then understanding who YOU really are is very important. We have met a lot of people with big dreams, but they really aren’t prepared or even interested in scaling. You’re not likely going to become the next secret hit just by treating this as a glorified hobby.
For example, know how much of your life you are willing to invest? Because if Walmart, Target or Amazon calls and wants your product, you’re suddenly going to be up to your eyeballs in work. When a buyer at a major retailer reached out to our client, Twist’d Q Spices, and outlined what she would like to see in her department, our client created a new Twist’d Q prototype for this buyer over the weekend. After presenting it to the buyer, Twist’d Q Spices got the green light to produce the product for hundreds of stores across the county. They hit the first goal — getting on the shelves. Then we had to help them with their second challenge — staying on the shelves — which we were able to do for them. Sales and distribution increased as did points on both the seasoning and rub categories. This was a small company that had the means and the desire to scale quickly. But it was also an intense time for them. And us.
The pandemic has accelerated a lot of trends that were already underway. So, food companies need to get comfortable in an ever-changing market with no probability of returning to what was considered “normal.” To thrive, food brands will need to test new ideas, quickly adjust and be masters of collecting and analyzing data. Thinking differently about what food production and retailing means, and collaborating with complementary industries to create the type of seamless experience that consumers want or require. As I alluded to above, a continuous, deep understanding of consumers’ journeys will be a part of any future as will identifying critical moments in which consumers and brands will engage or interact, allowing food producers and retailers to design experiences that build emotional trust.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
A founder’s dilemma is that they think they have to do it all themselves. It’s OK and important to ask for help and more important to have a solid plan. Many business owners are so eager to see themselves in retail that they use the plan in their head and don’t stop to look at the big picture. It’s OK to seek advice from people who have gotten their brand on the shelves. If you don’t know them, seek them out. And don’t be afraid to ask them for coffee — even virtually — and talk about this. I have yet to meet a business leader who will not stop to help someone starting out with a brand in their market category.
Perspective rapidly changes. Thankfully, our FoodThink survey continually provides insights into America’s relationship with food. Since COVID, we have released additional research and thought leadership pieces as we know brands need further information and perspective. I can’t tell you how many businesses tell us how grateful they are that FoodThink is offered for free.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
Signal Theory has found success nurturing brands that have clear business plans and secured capital. For those who are not yet ready for us, there are some very good free and fee-based resources available. It’s vital for a brand to have a developed business plan so that it is clear to the team who the brand is, where it wants to go and what is needed from an operations and infrastructure perspective. Questions such as do you strike out on your own or bring in additional resources to help and where do you as the founder want to end up are important questions. When the plan states that you can sell in the city limits, your plan will be very different than if you want to be a regional or national player.
It’s also critical to know your customer and to understand at a macro level what American customers are looking for. That is where studies like FoodThink and other resources are vital. The local food trend has a broad definition and means something different to different market segments.
The pandemic has shaken the American consumer. When consumers saw empty shelves or disrupted food production, they started to take notice as it disrupted the basic need of food security. Having access to local purveyors or foodsheds is now important and people are paying attention.
The pandemic also uncovered that consumers are looking for real comfort, whether it’s using childhood brands, styles of food or presentation. Shatto and Rumba Meats are great examples of consumers looking back to their childhood and heritage for comfort. If I were launching a brand right now, I would lean into the local foodshed and comfort food movements.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs. looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Bootstrapping means independence. Investment means partnership. Again, it goes back to knowing what you want and knowing where you want to be. It’s about being purposeful and knowing where you want to take it.
Bootstrapping can take you so far and then when you need capital, you’ll need to decide if you are willing to give somebody a little bit of control.
What are the five things you think are needed to create a successful brand and why?
1) TRUST IS VITAL: MAKE A PACT.
Consumer trust has been declining in the U.S. for two decades. Trust in food has been a casualty of this trend. Our latest FoodThink data reveals that just over one-half of consumers (52%) trust the food industry to do the right thing, and almost one-quarter (24%) actively distrust it. FoodThink uncovered four building blocks that drive consumer trust in a food brand. These building blocks of Purpose, Authenticity, Competency and Transparency (PACT) pave the way to a long-term, trusting relationship between consumer and brand.
The first, Purpose, signals a brand’s “why” — its reason for being, beyond making a profit. Food brands cannot afford to underestimate the level of importance consumers place on finding a brand that aligns with their values. Alignment with the brand’s purpose could be the final decision maker between your brand and the competition. The reason for this is rooted in social theory — a common goal is the foundation of what is known as emotional trust. Emotional trust is trust that goes beyond trust in basic competencies and yields a connection that runs a lot deeper and can withstand a lot more.
Next comes Authenticity. Living authentically means connecting your purpose to your thoughts, words and deeds. Having a purpose is a great start, but it must be lived authentically to resonate with consumers. Authenticity helps establish integrity, which is a key component of a trusting relationship. When there are inconsistencies between what a brand says and what it does, consumers may reject it in favor of a brand that is true to its word.
Competency lies at the root of all consumer trust. It is the foundation of functional trust — the basic trust in a brand’s capabilities. Consumers demand competency. When functional trust is missing — there is little room for anything else to grow.
The final and most important building block is Transparency. Almost three-quarters of consumers (73%) say “Being transparent and not trying to hide information” is extremely or very important in helping them know if a food brand is trustworthy. However, while consumers rate it the highest, transparency should by no means be the only thing brands focus on. Transparency will serve a brand well only if it shines a light on purpose, authenticity and competency. It is the combination of all four that moves consumers along the spectrum of trust from transaction-based functional trust to the coveted, relationship-based emotional trust.
All of our clients practice PACT but when we helped Rumba Meats, the first-ever Hispanic variety meats brand offered in mainstream retailers, we embraced traditional Latino culture and celebrated the deeply held traditions of food and family. They truly reinforced PACT. Mainstream retailers had long overlooked the Hispanic demographic. When Hispanic shoppers needed variety meats, they normally had to go to the carniceria, a specialty butcher shop. We had to show shoppers they could get traditional variety meats without an extra trip to the carniceria. Variety meats play a significant role in many time-honored culinary traditions — specifically, celebrations with the family. If Rumba Meats could tap into those memories of food and family, they could create something that would resonate. That love of unique food and family came to life across all media touchpoints with the line “Celebremos el sabor de la familia,” meaning “Celebrate the flavor of family.” To help Rumba Meats bring Celebremos el sabor de la familia to life even further, we helped Rumba Meats create the Recetas con Raíces cookbook. It featured 12 authentic recipes straight from the kitchens of influencer partners representing a diverse collection of Latin American countries. As part of a month-long Hispanic Heritage Month promotion, the cookbook helped Rumba Meats garner 7.6 million brand impressions, raise social media engagement by 400% and boost sales by more than 6%. We also worked to honor all other areas of the Hispanic culture, such as education and independence. The Rumba Meats USHLI Scholarship empowers the next generation of Hispanic leaders with resources and post-secondary academic scholarships to young Hispanics.
Today, Rumba continues to grow among Hispanic and non-Hispanic families. Since the rebranding, more consumers are seeking out Rumba Meats in their local groceries. And the engagement and response among Hispanic consumers have been overwhelmingly positive. 83% are “very satisfied” with Rumba Meats, and 87% have a positive impression of Rumba Meats.
To learn more about PACT and to hear what it sounds like in consumers’ own words, download the FoodThink white paper.
2) CREATE A BRAND STORY THAT WILL RESONATE.
At our agency, we look at the nuances of how signals are sent and interpreted between brands and their customers. When you create a brand that resonates, consumers will immerse themselves in the brand.
The growth of the local food movement has been driven by people wanting to know more about their food, but also an increased understanding of the role of nutrition in their overall health. Cargill comes to mind when I think about a brand story that resonates throughout all its brands. Cargill’s purpose is to nourish the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way.
Every day, Cargill connects farmers with markets, customers with ingredients and people and animals with the food they need to thrive. However, leaving home to spend the weekend on a farm or ranch isn’t always practical. By educating retailers with the tools they need to tell Cargill’s brand story, we knew the story would extend to the consumer. We knew consumers were hungry to know more about their beef, so we helped Cargill find simpler, more accessible ways to demonstrate their commitment to responsible food production and food preparation to both retailers and consumers with the use of immersive virtual reality.
Originally launched at the Annual Meat Conference, we scaled VR to new extremes with an 18-foot cylinder projection room, complete with fully spatial sound. Visitors walked right into a sustainable cattle ranch where they could also explore and learn about Cargill turkey barns, test kitchens and even a pilot plant — a complete look at Cargill’s supply chain. While virtual reality won’t fill your lungs with country air or put soft soil under your boots, it can deliver a highly impactful and immersive experience — an ideal way to give customers a true-to-life, transparent view of Cargill’s production facilities. To add mobility, we loaded the full 360-degree cylinder experience into a program that plays nicely with any VR-capable phone or headset.
When we were looking for an educational message that stood out at one of Canada’s largest events, the 10-day, 2018 Calgary Stampede with 1.2MM visitors from around the world, we strategically harnessed immersive tech to serve up the transparency people crave.
We started with a 150-inch interactive, touchscreen video display and immersive content that showed how beef makes its way from the farm to the table. We paired it with a fully functional meat case stocked with a wide variety of cuts and preparations. And to foster the conversation even further, we staffed the display with beef experts who answered a range of questions from visitors young and old. Over the course of the 10-day festival, our interactive video wall premiered in front of more than 750,000 Calgary Stampede visitors. We educated beef consumers of all ages about what it takes to get the products they love from our farms to their tables.
3) KNOW THE CUSTOMER.
It all starts with understanding the consumer need and the human behavior that drives their decisions. If audiences don’t connect with a brand, it doesn’t matter how successful the company or brand is. Social and behavioral science and economic theory allow us to understand how our targets think and make decisions, and facilitates how we can fit into their world.
With more and more restaurants joining the “quality wars,” SONIC Drive-In turned to target audience insights to create a passenger menu strategy that broke through the noise. For years, passenger menus had been used to highlight the quality of SONIC food and drink, just like every other QSR. Well, SONIC isn’t like every other QSR, and Signal Theory wanted to make sure to highlight those opportunities on-lot. To keep SONIC messaging from becoming white noise, we began considering new passenger menu strategies. We turned to the most important stakeholder, the SONIC guest, for inspiration. We helped to identify two fictional personas that represented the typical guest. These customers valued quality and convenience, and they chose SONIC for a moment of carefree indulgence amidst the daily grind. All of this information led to the insight, “SONIC sparks moments of delightful possibility.”
Armed with the target audience research, brand promise and idea of focusing on the experience of SONIC, the “That Moment When” concept came to life. Taking a cue from popular social media vernacular, each board started with “That moment when …” and was paid off with copy highlighting a delightful SONIC experience. By letting our target audience insights drive the menu strategy, the Fall 2019 Passenger Menus spoke with our guests rather than at them. Not to mention, we established the drive-in as a place with quality food and delightful experiences. With the pandemic, and SONIC’s lot as the perfect socially distant experience, we also saw their customers use social media and our AR filters to connect with the brand when in quarantine.
4.) KNOW YOURSELF.
Every entrepreneur needs to know what type of brand they want to become. This understanding guides what the brand will be known for and how the business will grow. The more you know about yourself, the better positioned you will be to lead your business.
Seaboard Foods comes to mind as a brand who knows who they are. They wanted to relaunch their Prairie Fresh Pork brand and, for the first time, make a significant effort to market the brand directly to consumers. Prairie Fresh was up against well-known and well-funded competitors such as Smithfield, Tyson and Hormel. We needed to find a way to help Prairie Fresh make a name for itself.
While the big names sourced pork from a variety of places, Signal Theory discovered that Seaboard owned all of its own farms and managed their entire process literally from genetics to distribution. Only Prairie Fresh could credibly tell this story. We prototyped and tested several messaging platforms with consumers and found the “connected” story was a winner. This was correlated by our own proprietary FoodThink data that stressed continuing consumer desire for transparency in food production. It’s interesting to note that when it comes to animal protein, consumers want to know that this transparency exists and is accessible, but often don’t wish to delve too deeply into the subject. The key was finding a way to deliver the story simply and concisely across every channel.
Our team launched a truly omnichannel campaign that included paid media on YouTube, connected TV, Google, Facebook, in-app messaging and native content in premium publishers and instore POP. We also incorporated influencers and a significant amount of social content on multiple platforms, an augmented reality promotion and a little cause marketing with Operation BBQ Relief. Our YouTube ads yielded a 27% higher completion rate than industry standard. The goal of the initial campaign was to build awareness and give Seaboard the firepower to gain additional distribution for the Prairie Fresh brand and we did.
5.) CULTURE MATTERS: ASSEMBLE THE RIGHT TEAM.
When building a team for a new brand, it’s vital to assemble a team that complements your skills — as you don’t want to try to do it all yourself — and motivate that team to invest in the brand. You need a team of experts — whether that’s business partners, employees, outside consultants or marketing firms. This team, along with data and insights, will help guide the brand. At Signal Theory, our team is composed of subject matter experts in the market (food and animal health), as well as in advertising, illustration, strategy, brand development, websites, AR & AI technology, public relations, etc.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are “crazy about”?
Again, it goes back to PACT. At Signal Theory, we work with clients to ensure they behave in ways that make consumers loyal to their brands and consumer products.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe you make the world a better place by investing in other people’s success. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing a client pleased and seeing their success and excitement.
Years ago, I had a sporting venue client tell me that to keep the business open they needed to have our campaign yield an average of 2,100 people entering through their doors every Saturday night. The local newspaper would print their attendance numbers. For weeks, every Saturday at 3 a.m., I would drive over to where the paper was published and check the numbers.
Investing in other people’s success makes the world a better place and brings the world great things. When I look at Shatto in particular, we help bring great products that deliver what they say and more, and I think that is good! We do that for all of our clients.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. 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.
The movement would be Giving Away Your Gift. If you have a gift, you can use it in two ways. You can use it to get stuff for yourself or use that gift to help others achieve their goals. When you help others, I think that turns around and pays you back in a better way and paves success for more than just you. When you don’t worry about you, and you see how you can help others, it really puts it out there on your behalf. Giving away your gift will circle back and lift you!
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or the U.S., with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Ryan Reynolds. He’s obviously done some interesting things with his own specialty brands including Aviation Gin. It’s fun and he has received a lot of great publicity and success. In August, it was announced that Diageo — which owns notable brands like Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff and Tanqueray — acquired Aviation Gin and Davos Brands. I’d like to see how he’s now measuring the success they’re having and his thoughts on what’s next.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.