Building likable brands in unlikable categories: In conversation with Scott Kabat

Building likable brands in unlikable categories: In conversation with Scott Kabat

Scott Kabat is an entrepreneur with a track record of building consumer-friendly brands that compete in historically unfriendly categories. Most recently, Scott was the Chief Marketing Officer at One Medical, the venture-backed startup that’s rethinking primary care in America. Prior to that he was CMO of Prezi, the presentation software challenger to PowerPoint. He also led the brand marketing team that launched and grew Flip Video, the market-leading brand of pocket camcorders which in 2009 sold to Cisco for $590 million. Mark Barden sits down with Scott at his Marin County home to learn more about his approach to building challenger brands with mainstream appeal.

Looking at your resume, how much of this is a plan versus how much of this is just randomness acting on the life of Scott Kabat?

My repeatable act has always been about building a likable brand in an unlikable category. If you go back in time with Flip, that’s certainly what traditional camcorders were. With Prezi we were competing against software that has been around for thirty years, that everyone uses but nobody loves.

Then with One Medical, you certainly don’t get a lot of people screaming their love for the healthcare system. So I have meandered a little through that journey but all with this focus on challenger brands and very much with the intent of building up the online and offline experience.

Challengers have ambitions that exceed their resources and therefore you have to punch above your weight. What’s been your approach to doing that?

When you have got money to spend, there’s this reflexive reaction to just pay for awareness. But particularly when you are launching something new that brings a new experience to a category, it’s really incumbent upon you to look for ways to engage in a more authentic, immersive experience than shouting your name from the rooftops. Startups rarely have a large awareness-building budget set aside right at launch anyway, so they often have to use a scrappier approach by necessity anyhow. 

Surveys of people’s greatest fears showed that dying was only number seven, while presenting in front of an audience was number one.

I think more in terms of what the consumer need is and how you can define a tangible way to improve what people do day-to-day. So with Prezi, surveys of people’s greatest fears showed that dying was only number seven, while presenting in front of an audience was number one. As a result, we focused on helping people shine in those high-stress situations. Those actions were measurably beneficial in building awareness in a really authentic way.

Challenger brands are constantly having to break the habitual behaviors that are safe. How did you encourage an audience so familiar with using PowerPoint to use Prezi instead?

We leaned heavily on your work and the challenger narratives to help inform our thinking around how to position the brand. We had our mission, so there was an element of the missionary narrative. We also wanted to make it more accessible and easier for everyone to be a great presenter, so we were also the democratizer.

Our core insight was, that even as an experienced presenter, every time you have to give a high stakes presentation, you really run the full gamut of emotions. If it goes well you feel on top of the world. Conversely, there’s that awful feeling when it sucks, which frequently you know three minutes in, and you just want to curl up and die.

We produced content on presenting tips and established thought leadership around that.

That insight led to our positioning around being a solution to make you a great presenter. We produced content on presenting tips and established thought leadership around that. It wasn’t necessarily directly accretive to the brand, but it gave us an opportunity to be an authority on how to present, and people were looking for that.

So you’re very close to your customer in what you think they need, and you’re solving a pain problem for them. To what degree do you feel you need to have a challenger brand proposition? Whether you choose to explicitly talk about it in the marketing or not.

In Jim Stengel’s book Grow, he talked about how the brands that really distinguish themselves have a real passion for how they make people’s lives better. Internal agreement on how you do that has benefits beyond marketing alone. It also helps sharpe culture. It enables you to hire the right people and having that clarity makes a lot of the downstream things much clearer.

Now getting that alignment and clarity can be really tricky. You have got a lot of different stakeholders internally with a lot of competing views of what that needs to look like, but I do think when it strikes home, you really feel that. You need to figure out how to build that empathy in the organization.

You mentioned building that identity has to be a cross-functional process. Give us a glimpse into your best practices around that? How does that work?

Where I have seen it work poorly is when you have got a marketing team, an agency and then they develop a playbook and just tell everyone else, "here’s what it is, take it or leave it."

When it works well, there’s a very broad phase where you want to bring in lots of input and have everyone get it all out there and then there’s a narrowing phase because brand strategy by consensus just gets diluted.

It’s really important to bring to life examples of where it will be used outside of marketing.

Then once you get into the ballpark of where you want to land, it’s really important to bring to life examples of where it will be used outside of marketing. You need flagship examples that signal that this isn’t just for better advertising or messaging guidelines, but that it is actually aligned with company strategy.

Has the role of marketers has changed in the last few years, as the purpose conversation has heated up?

Yes, I think so. Companies are now more overt in declaring their mission and values. More millennials are in the workforce, and they are heavily motivated by that. It’s become a must-have versus a nice-to-have. Consumers are also consuming more information so they have got more savvy and better at smelling out inauthenticity.

Going back to the question about launching a brand without much of a budget, the beauty of that is when you find real authentic ways to get people to engage with the product, it builds a brand from the bottom up that feels very democratic.

Instead of seeing an advertisement and thinking that’s just a company that has deep pockets to shout their name at me, you think, this is hitting my radar because there’s something exciting in there. There’s a movement, an energy behind it, and it’s building its own natural momentum.

If you were to sum up three bits of advice for marketers working on a challenger brand, what would they be?

It all starts with finding the consumer insight and having a clear sense of how you solve that. Make sure that the way you are going about that is very consistent with the mission, values and culture of the company. You want to stand for something that everyone is going to be excited to get up each morning and solve.

Second would be to ensure the process of developing the brand direction is very participatory and isn't just a marketing process. You must have all the stakeholders involved and invested. 

The third would be to hold an impossibly high standard around operational discipline and execution. With Flip Video, there were times where we were under the gun to finalize creative but we didn’t quite love it yet. In those instances, we stopped the trains until we got things right, and in hindsight we were always glad we did that.

Mark is the eatbigfish partner based in San Francisco and co-author of A Beautiful Constraint. His interest and expertise lies in challenging ideas and making something out of nothing. Follow Mark @markcbarden