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Dr. M. Kim Saxton of Indiana University Kelley School of Business: “Do good with your brand”

The kinds of emotional connections you need to make with customers. The Coca-Cola company does extensive ad testing. They know what emotions each of their brands needs to hit on. They measure not just if people like their ads, but also which emotions that are invoked. Ads that do not meet a minimum standard for […]

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The kinds of emotional connections you need to make with customers. The Coca-Cola company does extensive ad testing. They know what emotions each of their brands needs to hit on. They measure not just if people like their ads, but also which emotions that are invoked. Ads that do not meet a minimum standard for emotional connection are not run. It’s this kind of discipline to be the brand you say you are that pays off.


As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing M. Kim Saxton, MBA, PhD

Kim is a Clinical Professor of Marketing at the Indiana University (IU) Kelley School of Business. Kim believes marketers should make data-driven decisions to improve their effectiveness. She came by her interest in data-driven decisions naturally, with a BS in Marketing from MIT, reinforced by an MBA and PhD in Marketing from Indiana University. Kim was recognized with a Women’s Leadership Award by IUPUI’s Office for Women in 2018.

Kim has more than 30 years’ experience helping companies make their data practical. Good marketers find a way to blend both art and science to be successful. She continues to hone her skills as a successful marketer by working with local startups to help launch and expand their businesses. Her book on startup success, The Titanic Effect: Successfully Navigating the Uncertainties that Sink Most Startups, was published in 2019. Kim started her career in consulting. Other roles have included VP at Walker Information, Global Market Research Manager at Eli Lilly and Company, Executive Director of Marketing at Xanodyne Pharmaceuticals, and Partner of her own Competitive Intelligence and Strategic Planning consulting firm. She has provided insights to the decision making of a variety of Fortune 500 firms. At Indiana University, Kim’s teaching has been recognized with the following teaching awards: Schuyler F. Otteson Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award for Full-Time Faculty, the MBA Teaching Excellence Award, the Lilly MBA Teaching Excellence Award, and the IU President’s Award for Teaching Excellence. In her spare time, she uses her approach to practical data to train for endurance athletic events, including Ironman triathlons.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/2a012e28935fa3164863bf0fd9ae4948


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Growing up, I was a so-called high achiever, taking all of the hardest math and science classes in high school. At the same time, I loved crafty things like sewing, knitting, basket weaving, and even cake decorating. My science skills took me to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the intent to study computer science. But then, I took a class in microeconomics and just loved the concept of understanding how people develop utilities for products. Utilities seemed to me to be inherently less rational than economic theory would predict. So I switched to a marketing degree at MIT’s Sloan School of Business where I studied business, brands, and the emotional connections of people with brands. And I helped install MIT’s first student art gallery.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

After college, I started working in consulting. Our projects involved identifying what factors affect purchase decisions and future market growth across a wide variety of industries. This experience led me to get my PhD, where I could learn how to more systematically understand factors that affect brand and company success. Since then, as a business school professor, I’ve explored how to blend art and science in developing products and brands that can create deep connections with their customers. I look at how different segments of customers respond to advertising and what promotional techniques can be used to build those deep customer connections. I have used these insights as a marketer at pharmaceutical firms and, as a startup advisor.

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?

This was a consulting project where we were trying to estimate capacity for producing a certain mineral in the U.S. The geographical location for production was along the U.S. and Canada border. It turned out that it was hard to identify which plants were in the U.S. and which were in Canada. So we double counted the volume. My lesson learned was to be precise when estimating production. Get out a map to see where facilities are located.

Another silly mistake was the first time I ran some pay-per-click advertising. I didn’t check with other groups in the organization to see what keywords they were using. We ended up with three different groups all paying for the same keywords. Basically, we were driving up each other’s costs as we competed for position on those words.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The first book I remember that made me think beyond the story to the implications in the real world was Atlas Shrugged. What struck me as how important it is to understand creativity and the role it plays in creating a happy society. It was the first time I understood how important it is to integrate science and art. These are not dichotomies. They are the two natural sides of phenomenon and situations.

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

Don’t overthink it before you try something new. I see a lot of people who look at new experiences and think about how many things can go wrong. Or they take lots and lots of time to plan everything out. When you are doing something new for the first time, you are likely going to get it wrong. So, don’t overthink it. Do it and then improve it.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, let’s define our terms. How do you define a Lifestyle Brand? How is a Lifestyle Brand different from a normal, typical brand?

In my experience, the best brands generally are lifestyle brands. Technically, a brand is the name used on a product or service. So the definition of a lifestyle brand is a brand that connects with customers on an emotional level because it addresses their ideals and aspirations. But we’ve recognized that brands are much more than a name. So most marketers view a brand as everything that customers think when they hear your brand name. It’s really the sum of experiences and intangibles associated with a name. And the best marketers think of brands like people. You have a relationship with people. How do you build that relationship? Through emotional connections. So the best brands have always emotionally connected with customers. How do you emotionally connect with customers? By understanding their ideals and aspirations, and enabling them to accomplish them. As a result, the best brands have tended to be lifestyle brands.

What are the benefits of creating a lifestyle brand?

The benefits of a lifestyle brand are that customers feel an emotional connection with your brand. Using your brand sparks a reward sequence in their minds. They feel good when they use the brand. As a result, they are more loyal, more resistant to competitors’ actions and are willing to pay more for your brand. They likely will develop a habit of using the brand. These habits can be hard for other brands to change.

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

There are so many brands that have done this. Maybe the oldest is Coca-Cola. Academic research shows that when people are told they are drinking Coca-Cola (even if it is actually another soda), blood flows to the reward centers in the brain. Since 1892, Coca-Cola has said that it refreshes people. People need to be refreshed every day. They want to feel refreshed.

Today, there are a number of brands that do a great job of enabling people’s lifestyles. Nike helps you excel. Starbucks gives you a chance to relax. Apple gives you smart technology to simplify your life. Rothy’s lets you save the environment while being comfortable and fashionable. Tom’s and Bombas let you help others while you clothe yourself. Gatorade helps you accomplish your athletic goals. There are dozens of great examples.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a lifestyle brand that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

The key is to understand what’s important to your customers. Gatorade is a great example. This sports drink was created by researchers at the University of Florida to help the Gator football team have greater stamina in the heat. At one point, it was owned by Stokely-Van Camp who was marketing it as an electrolyte replacement drink for kids. It was purchased by Quaker Oats ,and they undertook a major rebranding. They started by looking at the brand’s roots — what does Gatorade do? It helps athletes work out longer and perform stronger.

So they went to endurance athletes and asked them what they wanted. They wanted squirt bottle tops, which was new packaging. They wanted higher electrolyte content, which became two new products in Gatorade Endurance and Gator Lytes. They wanted to know more about the science of sweat, which became the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI). Believe it or not, GSSI offers a curriculum for teaching a course, Introduction to Sports Nutrition. Now they even offer a customizable hydration package called Gx so every athlete can get exactly what they need. And the list goes on.

Second, you need to find creative, emotion-laden ways to communicate what you do for customers. Gatorade started sponsoring Ironman races. They put up huge Gatorade bottles at swim practices. They gave NFL teams big coolers for drinks on the sidelines. They came up with a great tagline and ad campaign — “Is it in you?” featuring Michael Jordan. This tagline has evolved, and today is #WinFromWithin. And the slate of their sponsored athletes has changed to stay current with who is inspirational today.

Bottomline — you have to help customers “win” while using your products/services, however it is that they define a “win.”

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a lifestyle brand? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The most common mistake I see is being a “me too.” This means copying what a competitor is doing or copying a brand in another category. You have to understand what your customers want and what connects with them emotionally. You can’t just copy others.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a lifestyle brand that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

The first step is two kinds of research. First, you have to really get to know customers. That means more than asking them questions. It means understanding what’s going on in their world and how your product offering can fit. The second is competitor research. You have to go beyond the obvious to understand what competitors are giving customers. Because you also need to be different and better than the competition.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

#1 What your product does for customers above and beyond what competitors do. Related to this are the goals they want to accomplish with your product. This gives you a way to focus your messaging. I gave an example earlier with Gatorade where they went back to their roots to connect with athletes who want to train longer, get stronger, and beat their competitors.

#2 A great brand name. Finding a good brand name is hard. It has creative aspects. It has legal aspects. The first rule of brand names: At a minimum, it should be an empty vessel. Ideally, you would like the brand name to do some work for you. We can find plenty of brand name examples where the name itself tells us what the brand is about — WeWork (a co-working space), Lessonly (a training platform), and E*Trade (online stock buying). But there are many more examples where the meaning of the brand name was created by the company itself — Verizon, Starbucks, and Xerox all taught us what their names mean. What you want to avoid is the situation where the brand name is working against you. You can fill an empty vessel by creating your own associations. So find a unique name that can distinguish your product.

#3 A family of products that helps your customers accomplish their goals. Don’t think in terms of a single product or service, but rather a family of offerings. Once customers have a habit of buying from you, make it easy for them to accomplish more with your brand. A great example is Bombas. They started off by trying to fix bad fitting socks. They identified seven major improvements they could make in socks. Then after five years of offering just socks, they added t-shirts. Likewise, Rothy’s started with a ballet slipper-style professional shoe for women. Then they added sneakers, boots and sandals. In the 2020 pandemic, Rothy’s added masks and then bags. The key is to evolve your offering with your customers’ needs.

#4 Do good with your brand. All of these great brands try to have a positive impact on society. It could be Tom’s and Bombas one-for-one that helps others in need. It could be Rothy’s keeping plastic bottles out of landfills.

#5 The kinds of emotional connections you need to make with customers. The Coca-Cola company does extensive ad testing. They know what emotions each of their brands needs to hit on. They measure not just if people like their ads, but also which emotions that are invoked. Ads that do not meet a minimum standard for emotional connection are not run. It’s this kind of discipline to be the brand you say you are that pays off.

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. 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.

I would like to see people paid for the impact they have rather than for what activities they do. If we could define compensation in terms of contribution, we could eliminate a lot of pay inequality because gender, race and other demographics would not matter anymore.

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 in the US, 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.

Dolly Parton. First, she always knew the value of her songs and held onto the publishing rights even when that wasn’t the norm. She’s built an amazing brand by being true to herself and knowing what her audience wants. And, she’s done an amazing job of making the world better through her investments in education and a Coronavirus vaccine.

Photos — https://photos.app.goo.gl/B6y5BYnnsB2Ewvtv8

Video — https://youtu.be/1sVzszX70Sg

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.


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