The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.
Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.
The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.
How do you inform customers what makes your company special in a way that they will actually care about? In this episode of The Kula Ring, David Gerson, Director of Marketing for TK Elevator, talks about how storytelling in manufacturing can create content that connects with customers, and shows them why your solution personally makes sense for them compared to the competition.
The Power of Storytelling in Manufacturing Marketing 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, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White. Joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, sir?
Carman Pirie: I am out of practice, Jeff. That’s how I’m doing. I feel like it’s been a while. What maybe people listening to this don’t know is we sometimes record sessions in batches a bit, and there’s sometimes where we’re busy doing other things, and it’s kind of fun to be back at it.
Jeff White: Yeah. No, I enjoy these times, for sure.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. And with any luck at all our listeners should also know that Jeff has construction going on near his home and has taken the extreme measure of stuffing pillows into all the windows surrounding the side that has construction, so I too await with keen anticipation as to whether or not we can get through this without construction debris coming through the window.
Jeff White: I’m hoping it doesn’t, or the noise associated therein, for sure.
Carman Pirie: Exactly.
Jeff White: I think they’re getting a heat pump installed. I don’t know.
Carman Pirie: Ah. We could do a plug for our heat pump client now.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: This segment is brought to you by Daikin.
Jeff White: I don’t think we’ve ever done that, but you know…
Carman Pirie: Look, it’d be as good a time as any to sell out.
Jeff White: 130-odd episodes in? Yeah. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Exactly. Let’s get on with it. Today’s guest has me excited.
Jeff White: Yeah. No, and we often reconnect about what we’re gonna talk about ahead of the show. Ahead of this one, we actually spent 15 minutes just going over all the people we knew in common and the marketing that really interested us, and the stories that were told there, and I think that’s what’s gonna be really interesting about today.
Carman Pirie: Well, with any luck at all.
Jeff White: So, joining us today is David Gerson. Gerson is the Director of Marketing at TK Elevator. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Gerson.
David Gerson: Thank you so much for having me, guys.
Carman Pirie: It is a pleasure to have you on the show, and Gerson, I guess as we kind of dive into this, I guess a bit of a spoiler alert for our folks, we’re probably not gonna talk a lot about TK Elevator today. I think you’re recently new to TK, is that correct?
David Gerson: I am. I’m right at about my three months spot right now.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. We’re in the honeymoon phase, for sure.
David Gerson: That’s right. I could still claim I don’t know anything. It’s wonderful.
Carman Pirie: Exactly.
Jeff White: Know where the washrooms are, that’s about it. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: So, I guess what really interested me when we first talked is you really do have an interesting and I think somewhat unique sensibility around the power of story in marketing, and my God, storytelling in marketing, it can be an incredibly overused term. It can feel like something that a lot of people talk about, and nobody really has any meat to the bone. That’s what I really liked about chatting with you about the power of storytelling in marketing, because I think it comes from a really interesting place. I guess maybe introduce our listeners a bit to you and maybe tell us a little bit about your current role, but how you got there.
David Gerson: Yeah. Happy to. I’ve always been attracted to story. Maybe I can give credit to my mother for getting me involved in theater at a very young age. But connecting with an audience, transferring and emoting energy, making people feel something is something I’ve been doing intuitively for my entire life, even working at an animal shelter for five years in high school and college and convincing people to adopt an adult dog as opposed to a puppy and appealing to the sensibilities, and really making that connection. That’s what I’m passionate about. When someone asks me what I do, I tell them I’m a commercial storyteller. And I’ve had the real joy and luxury of being able to tell some phenomenal stories.
For about 15 years of my career, I worked for a company that many people have heard of that have no business hearing of, a commercial flooring provider called Interface. It does business all around the world, but most people don’t purchase commercial flooring unless you’re an architect or an interior designer and you’ve specified into flooring before. But this was a company that had a phenomenal story. The founder and chairman for many years of the company actually receives what he describes of a spear in the chest moment where 20 years into the founding of his company that was a take, make, waste, classic industrial manufacturing operation, saw the light and awoke to the damage his company was doing to the environment, and made a decision to march that company towards sustainability.
And not just conjecture or some, “Hey, we’re gonna do something sustainable. Let’s plant some trees.” He was an engineer and he worked with his team and convinced his company, by the way, which was a publicly-traded corporation, to map out a road to sustainability in terms of the energy they use, the materials they use, moving everything to bio-based or recycled content, completely changing material flows, transportation systems, emissions, and now, 20 years after he made that kind of statement or put that stake in the ground, that company is actually on the verge of becoming carbon negative. For the entire business. Literally, taking more carbon out of the atmosphere than they actually emit.
And so, this is really radical, but I had the pleasure and the joy of telling that story and helping to not only take this thing that’s really wonderful from a sustainability perspective, but weave it into how it affected how we design product. How we thought about product, how we created high-performance products, because a lot of people don’t want to pay more for sustainability, and they don’t want to make any compromises, especially in commercial space. They want it to be beautiful. They want it to last a long time. And by the way, the competitor is selling it for five cents less, so I don’t want to pay five cents more. So, it was really telling a comprehensive story from the heart that moved people, and that kind of shaped me as a marketer, and it kind of guides the types of opportunities I seek out even today.
And so, now I’m 20 years into my career. I’ve done everything from product development, running quality, engineering, sales training, you name it, but my passion continues to be around telling wonderful stories. Discovering those stories, finding those kind of like those moments of truth and those things that maybe others haven’t seen or haven’t seen with fresh eyes, and bringing them to light and telling them in a compelling way.
Carman Pirie: Given the fact that you’re new in your role with TK Elevator, it’s like I just imagine that your job description in your mind at this point is simply discovering the stories that need to be told.
Jeff White: And the people in the organization who can help you tell them.
David Gerson: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, TK Elevator, it’s an $8 billion global company. It’s $3.5 billion just in North America. And again, most people have never heard of it. Now, for a couple reasons. Number one, they just went through a rebrand. It was just purchased by a major private equity group, the largest private equity group in Europe in a decade, private equity deal in a decade, so it’s a massive acquisition. They’re going through a rebrand, so it went from Thyssenkrupp Elevator to TK, so many people don’t know TK. But still, it’s a commercial brand that really focused on quality engineering and service, having great relationships with their customers, and as a brand, it really does not have the name recognition that you would normally associate with a company of that size.
And that’s kind of something that’s exciting for me. Working for Interface, you know, that was a company that had 75% unaided brand awareness within its core market, to their core customers. And now TK Elevator, it’s starting brand new. It’s a brand that some people may not know. They might not necessarily understand what makes it special and what makes it different. And it has tons of phenomenal stories. All of this great technology that people may not know or associate it with that brand, so it’s fun to come in with fresh eyes and rediscover it again and get excited about finding something that they didn’t even know was exciting. I mean, they do it because they do it, and I come in and I get to hear it from one of the engineers, or at data science in some office, someplace, and be like, “Oh my gosh, how are we not telling everyone about that? That’s so cool.”
So, it’s fun to come in, discover, and then tell those stories again.
Carman Pirie: I’m curious, because Interface is a very unique situation with a very powerful, charismatic founder. That’s not to say anything of the TK leadership. I’m sure they’re wonderful, but it’s a different dynamic, and the stories that emerge are of course different. I wonder, as a marketer, do you see your… I guess how much do you see your job as shaping those stories versus simply shining a light on what’s already there? Did that make sense? How much manipulation do you feel there is in your role as a marketer?
David Gerson: It’s a great question. Again, you don’t become an $8 billion company if you’re not doing some things right, so I could just say yes, it has a wonderful history of phenomenal product development and an unbelievably committed and capable and intelligent service, customer service, engineering, technical organization that I feel really has kind of been the pillars that this company has been founded upon. But in this day and age, where 70% of the B2B buyer journey is happening on the website, online, getting their information from some digital source before they are even contacting a salesperson, so much more of the burden of telling those stories and making sure people are aware, it falls to marketing.
And so, for me coming into the organization, it’s looking at all of these great assets they have, this wonderful history they have, but packaging in a way that it can be easily consumed. It’s the website, the thought leadership, the blogs, the social media, all of that content that is presented in a way that’s easily consumable, that it’s ever-present depending on how that potential customer is going to be searching for content online. That’s what kind of my role is, is to make it comprehensive, but also make it very, very easy to consume.
I don’t know if it’s necessarily… You used the word manipulate and I know you meant it in the nice way, where you’re kind of pushing things together, but I do think as marketers, part of our job is to tell a story that’s gonna connect with someone emotionally, that’s gonna make them feel something. Why should I care about this? Why does this matter to me? How does it matter to me? How is it gonna make my life better? Why do I even need that? I mean, I think that’s something that isn’t done a lot in the B2B space or could be done a lot more. I think sometimes people feel like if we just tell them what we have, they’ll want it. I’m like, “No. You have to explain why does this matter in the world today. Why does it matter to that person personally? Why does it matter to them? And then you can start talking about the solutions you have that would make sense to them.”
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Carman Pirie: Your characterization of TK in terms of their scale, and size, and technical competence, I can’t help but think there’s a lot of them out there. An awful lot of multibillion-dollar global manufacturers that have built an amazing business on the foundation of incredible technical competence, and there’s this whole other thing out there that they haven’t touched yet. You know, they’ve gotten to that scale and there’s this whole other source of competitive advantage that somebody like Interface actually helps show the way to, you know?
David Gerson: Yeah. It’s wonderful. I’m coming into a scenario with a group of people that are outrageously talented. I mean, throughout the entire business, whether it’s in finance, or engineering, they have a great company culture. Phenomenal. Phenomenal. And they have great stories and some really cool assets. Honestly, it’s a phenomenal opportunity for a marketer to come in and try and help shape that and take these stories and apply them to different mediums, apply them in some different ways that just make it compelling in a digital framework, in a digital sense.
Jeff White: What are some of the… I mean, obviously you’re just getting started there and you’re beginning to learn about the company, and the culture, and begin to formulate how you’re going to tell those stories. Can you give us an example how you helped shape that at Interface or any of your other previous jobs and just give us a sense of how you kind of brought that to life in a way that… Because as you mentioned, you had a very charismatic founder and he certainly helped drive a lot of that. How much of that were you kind of helping to bring to life and shape the strategy of how the stories were gonna go out there?
David Gerson: It’s a great question and I can… To just kind of shape with Ray at Interface again, he didn’t create the marketing, per se. He didn’t launch the products. He was a charismatic founder and leader. In the early days of the company, certainly he was involved lower in the organization, but in the later stages of his life, in 2006 to 2012 when he passed away, he was really more of a figurehead and a leader of the business emotionally. As it related to the products and the product development and the compelling campaigns that… whether it was at Interface, whether it was at Inscape, another company I worked at in between Interface and TK Elevator, it really starts with the customer.
I began my career coming out of college, I was an anthropology major in college, which is the study of culture, really understanding how cultures evolve, and work, and structure, but then coming out of college, hard to get a degree as an anthropologist, and I started my career in cold-call sales. I was actually a headhunter, an executive search consultant, and so I’ve been on the front lines trying to smile and dial, tell stories, connect with people, so I’m very sensitive to the role of the salesperson who’s trying to sell to a customer, but also the customer and what it takes to tell a story, and make a connection, and actually get a sale.
For me, all good marketing really begins with the customer. Understanding who they are, doing the work, the quantitative research and analysis, the qualitative research and analysis, the getting on the front lines with the salesperson or being set up by the salesperson with a customer to hear in their own words what drives them on a daily basis. What do they struggle with? What is the most important things in their world? Not necessarily about your product, but about them, their reality, their world, their challenges. How do they like to consume information? How do they like to have information presented to them? And that’s really where it begins.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re selling flooring, if you’re selling furniture, if you’re selling architectural walls, or you’re selling elevators, and escalators, and moving walkways that I am right now. It always begins with the human that you’re trying to connect with. What is their reality? What is their pain? What is most important to them? That’s number one. Number two, look inside your organization and find out what makes them special. What makes them unique? What are they passionate about? What do they believe? Where do they stand in relation to the competition? There are gonna be some areas where you’re better than the competition, some areas where you’re not gonna be as good as the competition. That’s okay. The goal is not to do business with everyone. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe. There are plenty of them out there.
Sometimes, you have to convince people to believe what you believe. I get that. But generally speaking, there is a large market out there to connect with. So, if you can really map out and have a good, firm understanding of your internal customer, your external customer, that is a great place to start. Then you start working into the organization you work for. Understand what makes them special. Again, we talked about looking for those unique stories, looking for those little moments of truth, those insights, those things that just… ‘Gosh, with a fresh set of eyes, man, that’s really cool. Let’s talk about that.’ And then you start putting those things together and that’s where you get really compelling content.
I mean, content, when you’re developing it, has to be focused on that customer. It has to speak to them in the language that they speak. You have to be leading them to solutions that are unique to your organization, that differentiate your product, that are that unique value proposition. And that’s how you get the opportunity to participate in a bid process to potentially lock down business.
But that’s how the flow works. Again, you will fail if all you do is show up and throw up, and you throw up all the stuff that you think is cool, and all the stuff that you’ve done, and you talk about in your language. You will fail. Start with the customer. Start with why. And then you’ll have the opportunity to participate and potentially win the business.
Carman Pirie: I really, a couple of points I wanted to kind of drive into here, but this notion of almost the internal, as you dive into the company more and understand the stories that are there to be told, and in some ways you uncover what the company believes, and then in some way you get it comfortable with saying what it believes externally, and then as it is comfortable talking about what it believes externally, it finds that there’s some other people out there that believe it, too. I think that’s what you said, anyway, kind of. And Interface, as I think of it, it’s like… Man, like okay, so did you all just happen to find people that also cared about the planet? Because it seemed like some of it was more missionary work, right? It seemed like you were having to make people care or understand why it was important.
David Gerson: It’s interesting. And I will tell you for every company these days, we’re all struggling. Everyone struggles with telling the sustainability story. You know, what was corporate social responsibility, but back in the day, 20 years ago, when Interface really kind of led this charge with people like a Patagonia, or a Whole Foods, or a Seventh Generation, or some of these other companies that really were kind of at the front of the parade when there was no one walking behind them, they were really, really, really, really far out in front. And you know, I think in every market, you’re gonna have 10% of people who are out there, who are really very, very progressive, and they are the people who are willing to try something first.
But I will tell you, the majority of the market are always happy to be second to be first. They don’t want to be on the leading edge. They’re not necessarily comfortable with purchasing a product that may have recycled content in it, because maybe they’re worried it’s not gonna perform as well. They’re not gonna spend a penny more for something that might be high recycled content or a much more sustainable product. So, the challenge, and I think this is really important for every organization, is not necessarily speaking only to those people that are on that cutting edge but speaking to the people that are in that kind of that middle 80%, and that’s something that Interface really struggled with.
You know, we had a founder and leader who was so far out there. I mean, not talking about reducing energy usage, a little bit of wind power. I mean eliminating the company’s carbon footprint and that had some very serious impacts in the business and the products we made. We eliminated like entire product manufacturing lines because it did not conform with our vision for sustainability. It cost us business. And I would tell you something that Interface has struggled with for years is that other competitors didn’t go as far as fast, and they developed really pretty marketing programs that were really simple, very easy for customers to understand, and they were rewarded by the marketplace because they met them where they were.
I think that’s something that everyone has to appreciate and understand. You can’t always be so focused into your own world and what you want to do. You have to really understand where the market is, try and meet them where they are, and bring them little by little to where you want to go.
Jeff White: That is absolutely fascinating. I mean, it… This idea that it’s actually in some cases better or easier to be second or third in the marketplace than it is to try and be the absolute leader of not just creating a sales and marketing engine that works, but to be the first person that stands up and dances at the concert when no one else is doing it. You know, you need to be a little bit crazy and a little bit… You know, expect that people will follow and that that’s going to have a benefit to you, but you don’t know. You know, and I think that’s where your points about really understanding that internal and external customer allows you to perhaps not make some mistakes that could cost you. You know, because some companies wouldn’t be able to sustain what… the kinds of losses that the purebred environmental focus probably brought with it.
David Gerson: Yeah. Well, you know, Apple did not invent the mobile phone, but we don’t talk much about BlackBerry or Nokia anymore, but let me tell you, they get the customer. They understand who we are, and what we like, and how we want to interact with a device, and there are many, many, many examples out there that that has happened. You know, sometimes being… Yes, it’s wonderful being first to the party and sometimes there is some recognition and some reward out there I think in the consumer marketplace. I think in B2B that can be there too, but you’ve gotta really appreciate the entire market and how you’re going to consider them in your plans and how you’re gonna communicate with those people that are at different places.
Carman Pirie: I’m kind of two minds here. I mean, on the one hand, it could be a bit of a prescription for being a bit more conservative and you just used the Apple example as a great way of describing that. Also led by a visionary leader for a very long time, but maybe some of it as a marketer, because I mean if you find yourself heading up marketing for Interface, being part of that organization, you could try to throttle Ray. You could try to decrease his vision. My guess is you’d probably be escorted to the door quite quickly. And so, maybe the wisdom here as the marketer is actually based upon this experience is to understand if you’re gonna be out there and you’re gonna be making the market, you’re at that level where you’re really pushing, then you need to just kind of almost come to terms with the fact that you’re gonna leave some people behind and you’re gonna leave behind some market opportunity, and you’re doing that probably in service of a payout that’s further down the road.
David Gerson: Yeah. And just to clarify here, certainly, number one on the Ray comment, yes. If you were not on board with the sustainability and the vision and the mission at Interface to change the world, lead the world to a sustainable future, you definitely had no business being there. And that was pretty clear and that led to some people leaving the organization, and honestly, good riddance. I’d rather have the right people on the bus than necessarily the person with the right degree, or the right background, or the experience. There’s nothing that good, passionate people who all are working together can’t do. That’s wonderful.
I would just say number one, you want to be provocative when you’re creating your marketing and your story. It can’t be vanilla. So, having bold vision that is really kind of leading the market in the direction that you think your customers are trying to go, or that you want to take customers going, absolutely critical. You’re never gonna see me advocate for vanilla conservative marketing. I’m always gonna be like you want something that’s gonna make someone take a double-take, that’s going to giggle, that’s going to be like, “Hm, that’s deep. That’s cool.” But just an appreciation below that, that not everyone is willing to jump off that ledge with you right now, and really making sure that the content that you have behind that ad, or that thing that brings them in, speaks in their language. You know, again, just one example I’ll give with Interface is for a very, very long time, we at Interface resisted a market-leading sustainability certification because there were issues with it. You know, it did not meet the level and standard that we felt it needed to meet and we did that for a number of different certifications. But many, many, many other companies and organizations around the world adopted those certifications and they were a simple way for customers to look at a box, or a binder, or a sample, and say, “Oh, they’re doing something good. That’s more sustainable than this because they have it.” And they check that box.
And we resisted it forever. And that didn’t help. That’s not good. I mean, we were far beyond superior to those certifications. Just get the darn label, man. Just participate. If that’s what your customers want, fine. Give it to them and keep pushing beyond. Show them what else it can be but don’t turn your nose up at that. And I think that’s something that marketers have to appreciate, is map the market. Understand where they are, what they care about, and sometimes you do have to make some sacrifices along the way. It’s okay. I mean, I tell you, that’s one thing that led to these competitors gaining a lot of street cred for work that they didn’t do, just because they were willing to adopt a standard that customers wanted to adopt.
Carman Pirie: That’s a really fantastic story about getting out of your own way. It’s nice to leave the storytelling podcast on the note of a good story, so Gerson, I’m going to leave it there. It’s been an absolute delight to have you on the show. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. This has been great.
David Gerson: It’s my pleasure, guys. Hopefully, you guys had value in it. I certainly enjoyed it and if there’s any way I can help in the future, let me know.
Jeff White: Awesome. Thank you so much.
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