Building a B2B Brand That Customers Love

Episode 40

July 2, 2019

Greg Palese, VP Marketing at Klein Tools, proves that brand-building isn’t just for B2C. He shares his experiences marketing an iconic manufacturing brand—including how to nurture brand fans and how Klein Tools is shaping the conversation around the trades skills gap, resulting in over $38 million in earned media.

Building a B2B Brand That Customers Love Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you making out?

Carman Pirie: I am doing fantastic Jeff, and how are you?

Jeff White: I am doing very well. 

Carman Pirie: I think today’s episode is going to be a real fun one.

Jeff White: I think so too, a very different topic.

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think there is a lot of manufacturing marketers who, I think, sometimes they look at kind of brand marketing as almost being a B to C marketing luxury.

Jeff White: Exclusive.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, and something that they don’t get to engage in much. But today’s guest does not fall into that category. Probably a few reasons for that which we might be able to dive into, but I think it’s just going to shine an interesting light on the care and attention and the evolution of an iconic manufacturing brand.

Jeff White: Yeah. So, joining us today is Greg Palese who’s the Vice President of Marketing at Klein Tools. Welcome to the Kula Ring, Greg.

Greg Palese: Thanks, glad to be here.

Carman Pirie: Greg, it’s great to be chatting with you today and you know I guess, why don’t we just get started by introducing our listeners to your role at Klein. Perhaps how long you’ve been there would be helpful context and a little bit about Klein Tools for those who are less familiar.

Greg Palese: Sure. My name is Greg Palese, I’m the Vice President of Marketing at Klein Tools. I’ve been here about six years now and Klein Tools is a one hundred and sixty two year old manufacturer of hand tools. It is family owned and family run. We are currently on our sixth generation family leadership, leading the company today, and we manufacture the majority of our tools right here in America.

Greg Palese: We are the defacto standard for tools used by electricians and HVAC professionals and we have a ton of brand fans out there who absolutely love us.

Carman Pirie: I think for people who aren’t in the space, I think they probably find that a little surprising, but I think you were telling me you’ve got photos of people who have tattooed the Klein Tools logo on themselves.

Greg Palese: Yeah, you know, we get pictures every week. Great pictures from our brand fans, people who tattoo our logo on them. We have our iconic side cutting pliers and people will tattoo pictures of the pliers on their legs and arms. We get pictures of wedding cakes in the shape of our logo, people getting married. We get pictures of people you know, their first baby, nice portrait baby photos, of people in our tool bags and the list goes on and on. These great moments in peoples’ lives that they chose to share with Klein Tools and again they’re huge brand fans and we are fans of them as well.

Carman Pirie: Now. I’m sure a lot of listeners would love to know the secret sauce and recipe for getting that level of brand fan-ship as it were, but I guess we really know that’s a hundred and sixty two years in the making. But the care and concern and challenge that you’ve been given to grow that brand, and frankly steward that brand, is not insignificant. So, I guess as we look at Klein Tools and your work with them, I guess I am just trying to understand what … my impression is, is that it’s in some way, you focus a lot more on that brand building and brand nurturing aspect. Can you tell me about that a little bit more.

Greg Palese: Sure, yeah, I think we always like to say we are king of the mountain, and my job here is to defend what’s ours. We feel like we own the space for professional tradesmen and we have new competitors coming in everyday trying to knock us off. We have a lot of people coming in flooding the market with cheap tools. We have people going after our core markets, but again, we know the brand plays a really big part in our customers’ lives so we spend a lot of time, care and seeding of the brand and we know that people love our product but again, we know that people are always trying to copy our product and yeah, we spend all of our time just talking about, you know, we make a really good widget and it cuts more wires than the other guy or we strip more wires than the other guy.

Greg Palese: People can always sort of try and out market us and try and build a better widget than us, but we know if we take good care of the brand and we take good care of what it stands for and what it means in the eyes of our customers, we know that we will stay on top of the mountain.

Jeff White: And I know that you’ve done that in a variety of ways. I mean it’s obvious just even in looking at your site that you’ve invested more in terms of branded content than many, even the availability of branded merchandise and things of that sort.

Greg Palese: Yeah, I mean, it’s been a big part of my goal here was to push out branded content. Again you read a lot people and they say ‘ah geez, the last thing people want to hear about is content from a brand, they just want to know what you have to offer’, but we feel because of the relationship we have with our customers, we can push our content that is relevant to them in their lives and it’s proven that they’ll spend time with it.

Greg Palese: We do short form content, we do long form content, and again, it’s not just about the product, it’s really about sort of how the brand fits into their lives. We spent the better part of the year going around to major events here in the US and talking to people who put these events on, things like Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Friday Night Lights Football in Texas and talk to people who forms those events and they’ll tell you they can’t put those events on without Klein Tools, so again, there’s a lot of really strong brand content that we push out there that we feel is relevant, and our customers tell us that it is.

Jeff White: And you have a marketing team internally that is dedicated to their production of this content that would certainly make many manufacturing organizations jealous for sure, so that certainly aids in the production of this content I would imagine, yeah?

Greg Palese: Yeah, so we have a great team here and again it was one of the things that I brought into Klein was a team focused on developing content so we got video production here. We’ve got copywriters, art directors, story tellers. We’ve added facilities and space, we have our own studio out back where we can record videos. We have job site mockup stations out back so we try to show product in use or show somebody doing something. We have a realistic environment to show that and we spend a lot of money to put our team on the road and go out and find the stories, so having the right team in place is important to us, and I have been fortunate the family invested in it and supported my vision.

Carman Pirie: As you’ve done this, obviously there’s quite a bit of difference in the video that you create around The Sturgis Rally vs. perhaps something that’s a little harder working about how the tool functions on the job site in the studio. I guess, at least I am assuming that there’s some more kind of tactical, or hands on, or what somebody might view as practical video content than others that’s more culturally engaging, etc.

Carman Pirie: How have you seen the engagement in those different types of content. Does the engagement in one lift the other or, I guess, talk to me about that.

Greg Palese: Yeah, so again, the brand is strong but the brand is strong because we have great product. So when we launch new product people are genuinely interested in what we’ve launched. They want to see what it does and why it’s better and how we’re going to improve on a hundred and sixty two years of baseline experience. So, the product videos always do really well for us. Those are by far and away the most used, but as you mentioned, they do lift up the branded content, so we can hit people with new product, product, product every day, and what we found was when we keep hitting people with new product day after day after day and product benefits and features, there tends to be sort of a drop off in viewership. But once we sort of view product, product, branded content, product, branded content we interspersed branded content in there, it sort of lifts—’a rising tide lifts all boats’. All of it seems to do really well once we intersperse there because it’s something different that they’re watching, something new from Klein, and it’s not just sort of another video with features and benefits.

Carman Pirie: Very cool, very cool. I think that’s really interesting insight. It makes sense and almost kinda gives people a bit of a palate cleanse or something.

Jeff White: Something to latch on to.

Carman Pirie: Cause you guys do a huge amount of product launches in around a year if my memory serves.

Greg Palese: Yeah, Klein is a hundred and sixty two year old company. We do a great job of launching new products. We will launch probably about a hundred new products a year and then between product videos and branded content videos, we’ll push out over three hundred and some videos a year that we will push out from our muddy little team here.

Jeff White: One a day!

Greg Palese: Yes.

Jeff White: Yeah.

Greg Palese: Almost.

Carman Pirie: There’s no holidays allowed at Klein Tools.

Jeff White: No, it’s a very good brand but they’re kinda mean to work for.

Greg Palese: No, my video team would say the exact same thing, there are no holidays at Klein Tools so…

Jeff White: (laughing)

Carman Pirie: (Laughing)

Announcer: The Kula Ring is proud to be a media sponsor of the 2019 ManufacturED Summit conference being held September 16-18 in Chicago, Illinois. Carman and Jeff will be live on site recording interviews for future episodes of The Kula Ring. Save $200 now with the discount code KULAPARTNERS200 at That’s

Carman Pirie: So, I know that you’ve recently extended your thinking about Klein Tools brand and how to kind of extend its reach through an initiative called National Signing Day and I wanna talk about that, I want you to introduce that to our listeners and tell us what you’re trying to accomplish there.

Greg Palese: Sure. So, there’s a big issue going on amongst the skilled trades, you know there’s not enough skilled tradesmen, not enough people going into the trades. It’s been defined as the skills gap is the phrase that you’ll hear mentioned an awful lot.

Greg Palese: You know quite frankly a lot of people, electricians, HVAC guys, and plumbers, and all those skilled trades are fifty some years old and all getting towards retirement and there’s not enough young people going into the trades and it’s something that obviously being a brand that sells to the trades, it’s concerned us, and we’ve taken a look at it and said, “hey what can we do, how can we take a stand on this, how can we help promote the trade as a viable career for people to get into?” So we have done some infographics and some press releases and we sort of felt like that was not just us standing on the sidelines shouting and we needed to get some skin in the game and really help be at the forefront of this issue. So we are partnering with SkillsUSA, which is a career and technical student organization that serves almost four hundred thousand high school and college students here in the US, and we partner with them to launch National Signing Day.

Greg Palese: So, just a couple weeks ago on May 8th, we went out to about three hundred high schools across the country and acknowledged, honored, and celebrated about three thousand seniors across the country who had chosen to pursue careers in the skilled trades. And what this did for us was, it put us at the forefront of the skills gap issue.

Greg Palese: It raised our awareness, selfishly, it also raised our awareness amongst these featured tradesmen who are going into the trades, but ultimately what it did was, it sort of gave a new perspective to high school kids who are not sure what they’re gonna do and says, “Oh hey you know what, go ahead, skilled trades a pretty cool thing. They had that big signing day down at the gym where everyone got there and there were businesses and the mayor came out and the Councillor came out, you know what, maybe I’ll look into a career in the trades”.

Greg Palese: And so too often the high school running back or the high school quarterback or point guard gets their National Signing Day where they’re going to commit to a college. All the kids who are going to regular four year schools, they have a day where it’s decision day or commitment day, they get to come to school wearing their college sweatshirt and say, “hey, I’m going to this college or that college”, but the kids who are not going to college or not going to be a quarterback at a big school, those kids are forgotten, so we’ve now elevated and raised their profile and said “hey, you get your day too, National Signing Day’s for you, feel good about your choice, feel good about going to trades and Klein Tools is here to support you as you embark on your career”.

Carman Pirie: Man, that’s just so wonderful.

Jeff White: That’s crazy powerful.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, it’s a beautiful positioning in that, and I just think it’s to be commended. It really resonates with me this notion that the kids going to ivy league education or what have you or those getting drafted to play quarterback for this or that, their getting all the attention and man, I don’t know, people in the trades, especially as this scarcity continues; these are not low paid professions.

Carman Pirie: No.

Greg Palese: Not at all.

Carman Pirie: I would hate to think that there’s a stigma, but I think if we’re being honest you’d say yeah, you know what, some people look down their nose at folks who choose a trade and I really like what Klein is doing here.

Jeff White: Uh hmm, elevating everyone.

Greg Palese: Yeah, these are really well paying jobs. These kids will get out… I was out in one of the schools we were at in California, out in Silicon Valley and they were saying that within four years of graduating, their vo-tech school there, these kids going into electrician, electrical programs, were making six figures within four years. Compare that to the average high school kid who’s going to college and is going to graduate in four years with a hundred thousand dollars in debt or more. So you know these kids are going to make some money and hopefully these are the future business owners in America and we feel like we want to be there to support them.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, it’s an interesting point is that they’re future business owners—you’re quite right, I mean…

Jeff White: Yeah, certainly small businesses are based in trades.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, exactly. It’s a charming thing that you’re doing, and my guess is here, just a few weeks out from that, my guess is it’s probably been a decent success and now you got a tiger by the tail and I’m wondering how you’re gonna deal with the momentum? How accurate is that?

Greg Palese: Yeah, very accurate—spot on. You know it really did well. We had local businesses showing up at these schools, once they heard about it, to hire kids right there on the spot. So we had several hundred businesses across the country that were going to a National Signing Day. They were saying “hey, you going into the trades? I need a welder, I need an electrician, I need an HVAC guy,” so we had businesses showing up to hire kids on the spot, we had local political people showing up, councilmen, mayors, people of importance in the town showing up to support this.

Greg Palese: And we had tons of press coverage, local, national press all over the place and yeah, we have a tiger by the tail now, now we have to figure out how to scale it and include more trades. We had requests from people that said, “Hey, I got kids going to do welding, they want to be a part of this”. We had people, “Hey, what about the culinary arts? What about beauticians?” Think about all these trades these kids are studying and they all want to be included and we have to figure out how to bring everybody in. Make it a big tent.

Carman Pirie: That will be an interesting challenge to evolve this, especially when you get out to those more tangential to Klein trades. Have you done an initial earned media evaluation on this at all to see how it’s done?

Greg Palese: Yeah, it’s still trickling on in but earned media—our last number was over thirty-eight million dollars in earned media for National Signing Day.

Carman Pirie: Beautiful, beautiful. You know that’s just fantastic. Well it’s nice when a good idea meets the market with success, and it’s doing a good thing at the same time. I mean it’s just—I think a lot of marketers, if they can be a part of something like that in their career, those are good days.

Jeff White: For sure.

Greg Palese: Yeah no it was a great day and again everyone involved did a great job, and we were just absolutely thrilled to be apart of it, and again we have so many pictures of students from across the country, their parents there with them as they were signing their letter of intent to go into the skill trade and you just see the students and the parents beaming with pride or the choice that the kids made, so you’re right, it’s rare to get a chance to do something good and something that succeeds really well so we were thrilled that we did something right for a change.

Carman Pirie: Do you think… and I mean there’s probably a number of marketers out there working for manufacturing brands, not too dissimilar to Klein, but maybe don’t have the same brand awareness, the same brand appeal that Klein has; do you think this would have been possible without the cache that Klein Tools carries?

Greg Palese: That’s a really good question. Yeah, I think the issue is bigger than any brand, right. I mean, it’s something that we’re all focusing on and we’re all discussing this skills gap issue so, you know, if a brand decides to get involved and to help solve a problem and put themselves out there, I don’t think everybody has to be this hundred and sixty two year old iconic brand. It certainly helps but for us being such a niche brand focusing on professionals and electricians, we had a lot of coverage on main stream sites. Yahoo was out talking to us and the local news channel, so people who had no idea who the heck Klein Tools even was, were certainly getting onboard because a company had done this and the company had sponsored this and made this happen.

Greg Palese: So yeah, it helped that we have a great brand among trade professionals but, the fact that we were taking up an issue or a cause that was bigger than us really is what drove this.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, it’s the kinda idea that basically a number of other brands would have been in a fine position to do the same and now they can’t.

Jeff White: (laughs) Not for this one.

Carman Pirie: No exactly, but you know …

Jeff White: Is that a potential play though? Opening up National Signing Day to perhaps not your direct competitors but other people in the trade tool space?

Greg Palese: Yeah, we think in order to scale this, in order to, you know… SkillsUSA is a great organization, they have what they call sixteen different career clusters; so yeah we think that it’s an opportunity for us to partner with other brands to take this, make this bigger. Not too far from us, up the street, not too far from us you know, Snap-On does a great job in career and technical education even though they are a tool brand they are more automotive focused and those guys are trying to find people to go repair cars so maybe there’s a way for us to partner together. Again, another company not far from us, Harley-Davidson up in Milwaukee, they’re always looking for people to be able to go out and repair motorcycles. So we think there are complimentary brands that we can partner with to make this bigger. We’re just sort of now sketching at the back of the napkin, whiteboard stuff, figuring out how we bring everybody in, how we all play together nice in the sandbox.

Carman Pirie: Well, what a great challenge to have. It’s better than the alternative. So, not sitting back wondering why the thing we just tried failed. It’s better not to be doing that.

Greg Palese: Right.

Carman Pirie: Let’s change gears a little bit. I remember you mentioning to me that the brand actually has some uptake on… as a bit of a consumer goods, like literally canvas bags etc. So, do I understand that correctly, that you actually sell canvas bags on the site online but not to your target market at all.

Greg Palese: Correct. We do have some sort of direct to consumer stuff. We found some of our products have sort of crossed the threshold into mainstream. One of them is these canvas bags. You think about the old time plumbers that come on the job, and they have these old canvas bags that are filled with pipe wrenches and things of that nature, but we found a lot of people were buying canvas bags for “hey, it’s an overnight bag”—it was cool, it was hip, it was retro and all those things that sort of helped brands like ours sort of make the leap into mainstream. So we started selling canvas bags to people who wanted them, who weren’t necessarily trade professionals and who wanted to sort of have that sort of hip and cool, iconic item and we’ve been selling those online to consumers.

Carman Pirie: (laughs), there’s just not a lot of manufacturers that got to play in that kind of space.

Jeff White: No.

Carman Pirie: It’s interesting and kinda fun. I think it says something about Klein that you took advantage of that, saw that and made it more available and easier to buy online.

Greg Palese: It was one of those things where we got… we started getting pictures from people traveling around the globe, and we would see people in various locations, on subways in New York carrying our bag and we saw things and we were in Japan and they bought our bags and they were stenciling Hello Kitty on the side on their own to make it their own little thing so we just starting seeing this ground swell of people supporting it and we said “oh maybe there is something there” so, here we are.

Carman Pirie: So Greg, you’ve been at the firm for six years now, and I’ve gotta think this question has come up but maybe it hasn’t. There may nothing interesting here, but I’m going to take a wild swing at it because I just noticed the Klein Tools logo, as iconic as it is, is very much singular industry focused. And I know that you make tools for HVAC and others as well, but the logo shows a lineman. Has there ever been an internal argument about evolving or changing that logo?

Greg Palese: It comes up periodically, or we get a new person with a tattoo that sends in or was sent that logo, we say “you know what, we’re going to keep it” so, we have updated it over time. It’s been updated two or three times since the first lineman. You look back at the first lineman logo back in god, I don’t know how many hundreds of years ago, he had sort of this long trench coat and this old wide brimmed hat on. We’ve certainly updated it now to be more reflective of guys today, but it comes up periodically but the conversation doesn’t really go anywhere just because people are so in love with that logo that we’re not going to do anything about it.

Carman Pirie: It’s just marketing or design nerdery that I even asked the question I think, but I’m just looking at it thinking it’s –

Jeff White: You could have a gap level backlash if you changed that logo, you know it could be that bad, or it could be as bad as Tropicana.

Greg Palese: You’re right, every now and again we do target different industries, you mentioned we’re expanding into HVAC and ironworkers and marine and aviation. We have these certain times where you know, and every now and then I get an overzealous designer who will take our logo and will replace our lineman with an ironworker or something in there and I always say I’m not going to be the guy who replaces this hundred and sixty three year old iconic logo because—I don’t want that on my LinkedIn profile.

Carman Pirie: (laughs) That would be “let’s see if Greg can get himself fired project” basically, then you decide it’s time to test those waters.

Carman Pirie: Well Greg, this has been a fascinating chat. I’ve really enjoyed the overview and introduction into Klein Tools and the evolution of the brand and your work with them. It’s just been a tremendous insight. Thank you for sharing your experience with us today.

Greg Palese: Thanks for having me on.

Jeff White: Thanks a lot.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at ring, that’s K U L A Partners dot com slash the kula ring.

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Greg Palese

VP Marketing

Greg Palese joined Klein Tools in 2013 to manage the growing marketing needs of the North American and international markets which Klein Tools serves. Klein Tools is the preeminent hand tool for professionals in America and has been since 1857. Today, the company continues to grow by expanding to new channels, new products and new geographies. As Vice President of Marketing, Greg is responsible for the marketing strategy of Klein Tools while growing the brand globally in markets such as the United Kingdom, Brazil, Mexico and Australia. With more than 20 years of experience, Greg has a wealth of knowledge in the advertising and marketing disciplines. He comes to Klein Tools from Lowe’s Home Improvement where he managed the Kobalt Tools brand during its re-launch. Under his direction, Kobalt was named a “Brand to Watch” in Landor’s “Breakaway Brands” study for their significant upward momentum from 2008-2011. Prior to that, Greg held several brand management roles and worked for advertising agencies on many local, regional and national brands. Greg holds BSBA from Villanova University and an MBA from DePaul University.

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

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Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


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