Joel Clark: “Helping People Connect & Belong”

Invest heavily in an authentic and dedicate consumer response team. We gain trust and loyalty with our tribe by interacting with them directly. There have been countless times when we get consumers to say, “I love Kodiak Cakes even more now because of how you handled this.” Treating all your consumers with respect is very […]

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Invest heavily in an authentic and dedicate consumer response team. We gain trust and loyalty with our tribe by interacting with them directly. There have been countless times when we get consumers to say, “I love Kodiak Cakes even more now because of how you handled this.” Treating all your consumers with respect is very important for brand loyalty.

As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Joel Clark.

Joel Clark is the Co-Founder and CEO of Kodiak Cakes, crafting 100% whole grain, protein-packed, non-GMO products. He built the natural foods company around his family’s flapjack recipe and grew it to become the fastest-growing pancake brand in America. He is committed to inspiring healthier eating and active living, and never stops thinking about how to continue evolving the grocery store’s center aisles. Clark holds a BA in Economics from the University of Utah and an MBA from Oxford University.

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

I guess you could say pancakes were always part of my destiny. When I was 8 years old, my mom packed my red wagon with brown paper sacks filled with her homemade, whole wheat, pancake mix. Growing up the whole family had always loved her recipe and I was confident my friends and neighbors would as well. I went house to house and door to door selling the mix. In almost no time I had sold every single bag and even managed to get a few reorders. It was a fun little venture, but as the years went on, I left the wagon behind, growing up and moving on. However; years later in 1995 the wagon was reborn in a sense, my older brother Jon decided to start a business centered around our mom’s beloved recipe and thus Kodiak Cakes began. He asked that same 8-year-old boy who had successfully pedaled pancake mix to join him, and we began selling the mix in ski towns like Park City, UT, Sun Valley, ID, and Jackson, WY. By December of 1997 he had put the business in a good place but was looking to move on, he asked if I would be willing to take the reins and without hesitation I accepted. So, there I was, a college student, who’s a little door to door business was now beginning to grow by the day — and we haven’t stopped since.

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?

I could write a pretty long list of “cringe-worthy” marketing mistakes I have made over the years. One that specifically comes to mind however, was when Cameron Smith, our co-founder and President, and I decided we needed to get into the YouTube space. To do so, we crafted what we thought was a brilliant video series tastefully named “Mixing it up with Kodiak Cakes.” The ill-fated concept was that in each episode, Cameron and I would take a random food and mix it into pancake batter, cook the pancakes and try them. Simple as that. We mixed all kinds of weird stuff into the batter — like apple pie (admittedly, pretty good) pizza (not as good), spam, and even a whole thanksgiving dinner one time. I specifically look back on this not-so-grand idea and can’t help but roll my eyes. It wasn’t something original, and even more so, it was kind of pointless? We had no clue who we were trying to reach with it, what the end goal was, or how it would relate to promoting Kodiak Cakes…really it was just us eating some bad pancakes.

I will defend it a bit though and say that as entrepreneurs, I’ll give us credit because you can’t be afraid to try stuff. Even if you don’t know what the outcome or return will be — and that’s what we did. Being a successful entrepreneur is a cycle of taking risks and trying things, then hoping something works. Another take away is that we admitted we needed help in the marketing department. We took steps to bring on awesome people who specialized in the space and could create solid marketing efforts and tools that resonate with consumers all while maintaining our brand and identity.

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

Kodiak Cakes stands out from the rest of the pack by always striving to be different. We want to be unmatched, incomparable, and on a level of our own. It’s part of our DNA and has been from the beginning. From the colors on our packaging to the types of ingredients we use and products we make — we pride ourselves in standing out. When you’re a small consumer brand trying to compete with big brands, being different can be life or death. It’s dramatic but true. You have to establish, and maintain, a unique position in the market and to do so this mindset becomes ingrained in everything you do.

For example — years ago, Cameron and I realized we needed a new booth for Expo West, but we also knew we didn’t just want a card table and an 8×8 tent. So, we took it upon ourselves to custom build one by hand in the back of our office. It was a massive undertaking and at one point even my parents came and helped out, but we were dedicated. The goal was to create a wooden, cabin-style structure and as we went along we slowly became attached to the idea of having a fog machine pump smoke out of a chimney in the back. It was essentially non-negotiable for us and we were confident it would be unlike anything else at the expo. So, we arrived, set it up, and were pumping out thick fog all day the first day. Unsurprisingly, the folks at the booth behind us weren’t fans and complained several times. Honestly, it didn’t faze us and we kept the machine at full blast — one because it looked awesome in our opinion, but also because it was catching the eye of just about everyone who passed by. The next morning during set up we turned on the fog machine and smoke went all over the place, we quickly realized the smokestack was clogged. Upon opening it up we saw that someone had attempted to sabotage our chimney by jamming a huge rag into it. If I am being totally honest, the childish attempt to shut us down only motivated us more, we pulled out the obstruction and pumped out even more fog for the rest of the show. I wish I still had that rag, I’d frame it on the wall, as a reminder that Kodiak Cakes strives to always stands out no matter the obstacles we face.

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

I’m proud to say that as we head into 2020 our product pipeline might the best it’s ever been. We will be launching several items next year and couldn’t be more excited. There will be a wide variety of items including, a thicker and fluffier frozen waffle, a line of protein-infused, nut butter syrups, graham and cheddar crackers, plus a line of crunchy granola bars. There’s a non-stop train of innovation and results coming out of our test kitchen as we continue to grow — but even with all these launches on deck, it feels like the Kodiak Cakes brand is just getting started.

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?

I’m proud to say that as we head into 2020 our product pipeline might the best it’s ever been. We will be launching several items next year and couldn’t be more excited. There will be a wide variety of items including, a thicker and fluffier frozen waffle, a line of protein-infused, nut butter syrups, graham and cheddar crackers, plus a line of crunchy granola bars. There’s a non-stop train of innovation and results coming out of our test kitchen as we continue to grow — but even with all these launches on deck, it feels like the Kodiak Cakes brand is just getting started.

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?

In a digital age with increased competition, it is becoming more important to invest in building a brand. Investing in a brand helps you transform your products from commodities to meaningful symbols. When consumers see your product as a symbol they attach meaning and significance to purchasing and using your product. We have already run into countless copy-cat products from both large and small brands and thus far, they cannot seem to steal from our success.

They have not only tried to duplicate our products but also our brand identity. Sometimes, the products have lacked in quality, but even with good product quality, they lacked their own authentic brand identity. Our consumers see right through that and we are blessed and grateful to have such a loyal fanbase behind us. Our vision at Kodiak Cakes is to become the most desirable household staple brand. You can’t do that without a passionate fanbase and building a passionate fanbase requires investing in brand marketing.

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

  1. Linking Thinking & Feeling

Everything we do is driven by our core mission or purpose — inspiring healthier eating and active living with nourishment or today’s frontier. As a mountain-town brand based in Park City, Utah, real food fuels our adventures daily. We strive to provide not only real staple foods but inspiration and information that empowers people in pursuing their passions. Because our core values align with this mission, our internal culture and external following feel like they belong to a group of healthy, active people who care about the food they eat.

2. Invest heavily in an authentic and dedicate consumer response team

We gain trust and loyalty with our tribe by interacting with them directly. There have been countless times when we get consumers to say, “I love Kodiak Cakes even more now because of how you handled this.” Treating all your consumers with respect is very important for brand loyalty.

3. Offering Value Beyond our Products

We are currently working with three individuals on their journey to eat better and live better®. We’ve hired each individual a registered dietitian and personal trainer. At the end of this program, we will be sharing these plans with our entire consumer following through our website. Our goal is to inspire as many people as we can to Eat Better and Live Better. We also offer over 100 delicious recipes on our website.

4. Differentiate

We believe in not only being different but making a difference through our Kodiak Cakes program and our conservation efforts. Every year we work with local food banks and school districts to make sure people in need get a hot meal.

Our conservation efforts are tied to the original inspiration of our brand — Kodiak Alaska. We work with Vital Grounds to conserve grizzly bear habitats around the country. Grizzly bears are a keystone species and their presence in an ecosystem means it’s in balance. This reflects our belief that Kodiak Cakes in a household pantry represents a balanced diet in your home.

5. Helping People Connect & Belong

We love to tell, listen to, and share stories. Our brand story started with 8-year-old Joel Clark, our current CEO, selling whole grain flapjack mixes out of his little red wagon. He and his family’s journey as real food pioneers inspire us daily to be entrepreneurial and change-oriented.

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?

Personally, I love Traeger Grills. As a brand, they took a simple, functional, lifestyle product and turned it into a highly emotional and aspirational brand. All while maintaining a consistent and high-quality product. It’s important because the brand became more than just a name, it evolved into an idea that consumers fell in love with, the idea that a product, this product, could allow them to become part of a community. It built a specific group of folks that enjoy the challenges and rewards of creating amazing, gourmet meals on wood-burning grills. Over the years they’ve created some amazing content, including recipes, featurettes of the many people and places who use Traeger products, and a following that grows by the day. They have built an identity that conveys not only an air of upscale self-reliance in the food world but they’ve balanced it with an approachable, every-man, achievability. I have an emotional draw to their brand when I go on their website or social media, and when I use the product, it has more depth than if it were simply a functional product.

I think to replicate this, companies need to dig deeper into their brands and find the ideas or concepts that are truly ownable, or, identify what their existing brand is missing and create it. Once they begin building content and shaping their products around this school of thought growth becomes organic. Most brands choose not to focus on the emotional draw of their product, and so consumers are less likely to really connect with or build loyalty to the brand. At the end of the day, yes, it takes a lot of effort but in the end, it pays off because consumers willing to build a relationship with your brand it those are a habit that you can build off of.

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?

The dollar amount is always tied to success, but there is so much more to branding than driving the immediate dollar. The goal of driving immediate dollars gets you just that…immediate dollars. The goal of driving brand loyalty pays you dividends for years to come. Achieving brand loyalty is not easy and a lot goes into its success. You need every piece of content, social media interaction, retailer conversation, and really every single aspect of the brand from employees to advertising to give consumers a desired gut feeling about your product, service, and company. How do you measure that? Sales…yes, but also raving consumer reviews, increased repeat purchase rates, lifetime value of a consumer, and our own gut feeling we get when our team interacts with our own content, brand, and fellow employees.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

We look at Social Media as a community. A lot of brands take social media and solely think of it as another sales and marketing tool. Truthfully, consumers are losing interest in brands that are treating their social media as an online billboard. We drive our social media team here to create relationships with our community and add value to their lives. Whether that is solving an issue they had with one of our products, making them laugh, or giving them an idea of a recipe to make with their kids, we are always focused on listening to them and engaging with them. Part of the gut feeling our consumers have about Kodiak Cakes has to be one of trust and care.

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

This is a bit of loaded question, and certainly a challenge I have personally faced several times. I’ve hit the wall before or woke up feeling burned out, but luckily there are a few things I have found really work for me when it comes to pushing forward or recharging. The easy answer, of course, is to make time for yourself and schedule time off. As cliché as it is, it’s really important. Every time I unplug and step away, I feel recharged — honestly, some of my best ideas and solutions come to me out of the office. I can remove myself from the day to day and have more time to think about new products or strategies at my own pace. I think those are the moments when I love this business the most, when I’m thinking about the fun, high-level initiatives that we can or should be doing. If I could give one final tip: buy a hot tub. All jokes aside, I love mine. I’m in there pretty much every night in the colder months and there’s no better way to relax and recharge.

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. 🙂

I have always been passionate about healthier eating and active living. To me, those are two foundations for a great life. Food has undeniably changed in the last decade. The general public expects items to be healthier and less processed than in the past — but there’s still a long way to go. A great example of this is flour. White refined flour still dominates most of the grain-based grocery categories, Kodiak Cakes is working hard to change that and prove that whole grains can own an equal if a not greater share of the market.

I have no hesitation in saying that considering we are now the number two pancake brand in the country currently behind a company twice our size with products that are exclusively made with white refined flour. So, there’s clearly a change taking place but still a long way to go as most people are still eating unhealthy pancakes. It doesn’t slow us down though, Kodiak Cakes’ mission is to inspire healthier eating and active lifestyles with nourishment for today’s frontier — and we are dedicated to that. We will continue to make big strides with this mission and the bigger we get, the bigger impact we will have on how people eat and live.

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

I like to say “Information is Motivation.” I first heard this concept when I took a food and nutrition class in my freshman year of college. As the class progressed and I continued to read more and more about nutrition, I noticed that I began to become more motivated to change my own dietary habits. After I took the class, I continued reading about dietary changes and healthy eating habits. I started to see a correlation between my motivation to change and the exposure I had to new information. I’ve put this quote into action throughout both my personal and spiritual development, as well as in my approach toward parenting and my role as CEO. If I need motivation or want to better myself in some way, I seek out materials that will inform me of options, strategies, or even new schools of thought. I’m not the type of person who can just set a goal and hope I get better at something. I have to commit to it, study it, and set a course of action — the act of gathering information really helps me start to understand the why of it all, and that motivates me to action.

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 lunch or breakfast? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, fitness icon, wrestling champion, leading man but most of all pancake fanatic.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

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


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