Using Customer Feedback to Improve Your Marketing

Episode 212

November 29, 2022

In this episode of The Kula Ring, Jeff and Carman talk with Tim Bay, Head of Digital Marketing at Fellowes Brands, about how manufacturers can use customer feedback to improve their marketing, approaches to introducing brand new products to the marketplace, and the benefits of working for a 100 year-old family-owned business.

Using Customer Feedback to Improve Your 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. My name is Jeff White, and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how are you doing, sir?

Carman Pirie: I am doing well, Jeff, but at the time of this recording, I think everybody on the east coast is wondering if we’re ever going to see the sun again in the spring. We come to you from sunless Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Jeff White: I don’t know. I can almost see some blue sky over the clouds.

Carman Pirie: Hope springs eternal. Nevertheless, I’m really excited for today’s episode. I think we’ve got just a really smart marketer on the line with a really interesting company, with a fascinating background, and I’m just wanting to dive into it.

Jeff White: Yeah. I think there’s some products that everybody has in their office, most likely.

Carman Pirie: Yes. Or maybe you’ve been the recipient of one of the products after a particularly negative meeting. But we’ll get into that in a moment. Without further ado, Jeff, introduce our guest.

Jeff White: Joining us today is Tim Bay. Tim is the Head of Digital Marketing at Fellowes Brands. Welcome to the Kula Ring, Tim.

Tim Bay: Thank you very much. Excited to be here and talking about gray skies, it’s been a tough spring in Chicago, so I empathize with you guys.

Carman Pirie: Man it’s, you know, belly-aching about the weather is a thing that almost unites everyone, you know? I remember complaining once, I was in Berlin, Germany and the person was talking about oh, you know, central European weather is, if you don’t like it, wait five minutes, it’ll change.

Jeff White: Wait, that’s our line.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, exactly. So I think we’re all in the same boat, Tim. Well good to be chatting with you Tim. I want to, first, why don’t you introduce us a little bit to you and your work at Fellowes.

Tim Bay: Absolutely. I oversee digital for Fellowes, and Fellowes has been around for 100 years. We just recently celebrated our 100th anniversary. We were founded back in 1917. Bankers Box was the first brand, so record storage and now moving supplies and over the years we’ve obviously evolved into office products, office productivity, things like shredders, laminators, binders, and then most recently workplace wellness. Those are things like sit/stand desks and active seating. We’re a fourth generation, family-owned company, so that is without a doubt a guiding force for the organization. I think throughout our history we’ve been very focused on how do we help people achieve their best, be at their best, achieve their potential. That’s sort of been that unifying mission from day one until a hundred and one years into our company history.

Carman Pirie: It is an interesting brand to get to know, because in some ways, if you’ve been around an office at all, you’ve seen the Fellowes logo, it’s funny. In our coffee room here at Kula Partners, we have, after I met with you in Chicago a number of weeks ago, I noticed as I’m sitting in there having an espresso, I look up and I see the boxes and of course it has your address on the end of these cool Bankers Boxes, right. It was just like we’re surrounded by you now, Tim. I guess that is the source of my previous comment, that if anybody’s ever had the misfortune, or fortune, of being fired, you may have been handed one of the Bankers Boxes.

Jeff White: It was even an in-joke at Kula for a while, where we had a Fellowes Bankers box emoji that was just bandied about on the internal group chat.

Tim Bay: It’s really interesting, one thing that some point to Fellowes, I’ve heard is when you watch TV, how ubiquitous those Bankers Boxes are. I was just watching an HBO show, not Game of Thrones, but another one, although, that would have been cool product placement-

Jeff White: You guys and the Starbucks cup, yeah.

Tim Bay: Yes, wish we got in there. Yeah, you just noticed how ubiquitous those Bankers Boxes are. I watched it, and in the episode, I saw three different times our boxes in the background. It’s pretty fun.

Carman Pirie: This is an interesting starting point, because of course this is your challenge. You are responsible for evolving a 100 year old brand. These products have some staying power, and the brand has grown, supported obviously by the growth in those products. It seems like the Fellowes of today is a very different company from Bankers Boxes.

Talk to me about the evolution of the brand, and this general shift, or pivot if you will, maybe that’s too strong a term, towards the workplace wellness side of things.

Tim Bay: I think you have to do a lot of things right to be around for 100-plus years. Again, I think what makes us very unique is the family-owned business, and it is, like I said, a definite guiding force. I think our dedication, continued dedication to our mission of helping people be at their best and helping them reach their potential. When we think about the evolution of a hundred year brand, that unifying thought and mission is driving everything that we do.

Over time, the products can change, the products can evolve, both in terms of new opportunities, like back in the day things like CD holders. That wasn’t something that was a vision back in 1917, of course, but I think for our current CEO, for John, for him it’s constantly looking at, “Where can we provide value to that consumer? Where can we do that in a way that helps them be at their best?”

I think that led us naturally into other product lines. Obviously, the trend around workplace wellness, and health in the workplace, and the focus that organizations have on knowing that that’s important to their employees—but also it’s just good business. It’s a natural fit for us. For us, it’s how do we leverage our core pillars and values of innovation and quality, and bring those into new product areas? In some ways, there’s no doubt, there’s challenges in how you can change and evolve as a hundred year old company, but I think, and I’ve seen this at past companies I’ve worked with, where we had similar challenges, is that if you really use that mission as your north star, you end up getting to where you want to get to.

Carman Pirie: Of course, the world of work continues to change. How people work changes, and it’s partly your job to stay ahead of that, anticipate where that’s going, and frankly it’s less paper-based now than it ever was in the last number of years. Therefore, paper-based products, or products based to hold them obviously, are not … or to shred them … may not be as much of a future as they used to be. I think it’s, of course, this all sounds fine and great and easy to say, “The world of work changes, and we’ve got to stay one step ahead of it,” it’s harder to do that. Beyond that, it seems like it actually pushes you to have to do business in different areas as well. As you’re moving into … with products like the Elea Chair, which can be purchased directly from Fellowes online, that takes you completely outside of what many would have thought is your traditional channel, selling it through, say, Staples or what have you.

Tim Bay: There’s a few things there, I think. We look at who we are, we are the leader, Bankers Boxes is the brand where we are the leader. The fact is those products still play a role. As much as we want to say that we’re a paperless society, the fact is we do very well in those products. We continue. People change, I think, more slowly than sometimes we realize, or want to think in the future. We realize that some of those things stay around for longer.

Carman Pirie: Opinions change faster than the people I think, is maybe it.

Tim Bay: Exactly. I think, for us, on the one hand, we don’t want to forget about those core products still. When you move houses, you need a box. When you store stuff, people still want to store in a box, and quality is very important. The same thing, you know shredders; privacy is very important now. While people are using paper less, privacy has maybe never been more important. Ironically, digital privacy is driving other types of that traditional sort of “Atom-based,” if you will, privacy.

There’s that one component, but I think again, if you look back in terms of the overall workplace wellness, it’s understanding that people spend a lot of time at work. How can we create the best environment for that? People like being organized, for example. They get satisfaction in terms of shredding things or binding things or laminating things, in terms of feeling this sense of order. Again, for us, it’s a natural evolution in terms of how do we as people evolve. These opportunities come up. Where can we be relevant and provide value in that?

I think the other thing, too, is what’s, again, unique about us is there’s not a lot of companies out there that have been around for 100 years. While people may have grown up with us in different form factors, then a sit-stand desk, for example, or a chair, the fact is that Fellowes name means something to them. It means quality. It means innovation. Again, for us, it’s how do we evolve that into different product forms?

I think, in terms of being in different places, that’s a good point too, is we have to evolve as a company. For us, it’s not an “or,” it’s not this channel or that channel, it’s an “and”. We’re looking at different ways to build product awareness and build brand awareness. That might start as direct to consumer, but that doesn’t exclude us continuing to get into these other channels. Elea is a good example.

We just, at the end of the day, it’s important, I think, from a digital perspective, that we all want to be in the place where consumers want to buy. We can’t force them to want to be in a certain channel. Whether it’s online, whether it’s at store, whether it’s at retailer X or retailer Y, we just want to make sure that we’re there, to make that process as easy as it is for the consumer to get what they need. Again, that’s part of our evolution, from a digital perspective.

Carman Pirie: I’ve got to say, I was about to take you to task on this. How were you going to connect workplace wellness to being organized-

Jeff White: You and I both worked in print shops, and know exactly that feeling of, “Ah, everything’s all organized-”

Carman Pirie: Thankfully this isn’t a video podcast, so people can’t see how messy my desk is typically. I should maybe feel that sense of order more often. Would be-

Tim Bay: It could be aspirational. Doesn’t necessarily mean we’re there, but more aspirational.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, no, I wasn’t convinced initially. You convinced me.

Jeff White: Came around? I think it’s interesting, too, Tim, that not only have you decided to enter more into that furniture space, and more of the workplace wellness side of things, but you’re doing it with products that aren’t necessarily—the Elea chairs is a good example, with the floating seat pan. It’s a pretty advanced and interesting way of tackling that ergonomics task.

How has that played into the marketing of the chair?

Tim Bay: One challenge is it’s never been done before. To try the category, that’s what would be described as active seating. Nobody says, “Hey, you know what I need? I need an active seating chair!”

I think as we look at telling the story, I think that’s what marketing is, is communicating a story, and the value proposition. It really is, in this case, showing people. You talk about that floating seat pan like, “What?”, and I can’t conceptualize it, because it’s not in the marketplace until we brought it to market. We spent a lot of time talking about how do we communicate the value of it. How do we show it? The best way to show it, of course, is actually video.

If you look at the website, if you look at even some of the social stuff that we’ve done, it’s very much featured up front, the fact that the seat pan floats. Then, a lot about what the experience is like, and there’s a lot of questions that we know that people have. “Can it support me? Does it provide a sturdiness?”, and all of those things. “What about the durability?”. Again, it’s very much of telling the story in a way that resonates with folks, and being able to address any sort of concerns they might have. In that sense, again, from a marketing perspective, it’s not that different than telling a story for lots of other products that are sort of new to the marketplace and people haven’t seen before, or a different take on something that’s very familiar, like a different take on a chair.

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Carman Pirie: I do think it says something about Fellowes, though, that your attempt to crack into this space initially has been something that’s, frankly, such a different product. It’s a really different approach, and what is probably the area of contract office furniture that is innovated on the most. Chairs probably receive more design attention than an awful lot of other aspects in office furniture. To actually be able to see a way clear to do something there is, I think, quite remarkable.

It seems to me, too, and maybe my perception is just out of date, but it’s surprising, at least a little bit, to me to see you guys selling this directly. It feels to me that the office furniture space overall is just ripe for some level of disruption. It’s plunky as all get out to buy office furniture, really, but one of the things that people would say about that is typically you need to try before you buy when it comes to a chair. How are you guys managing the logistics of that? Can I do a—will you send me the chair, I can send it back if I don’t like it—or how does that work?

Tim Bay: All great questions. Those are things that we had to address, because if you think about shoes Zappos created a business around something that traditionally you think, “Well, I’ve got to try this on,” right? Got to see how it feels. A mattress! Think about online mattresses. The same thing. You sleep in that bed every night, and you’re used to going to a mattress store, and it seems like there’s thousands of them, how do you create an online business? I think one is reducing those barriers. Things like 30-day free trial. Don’t like it, send it back to us no problem and we’ll refund your money. Understanding things like warranty. Customer reviews and testimonials.

All of those things are really important to be able to make the process easy for somebody, and to reduce that risk for them, saying, “Hey, I think that looks really cool! I think that looks like that could help me feel more comfortable when I’m doing whatever I’m doing. I’m going to give that a try, because I know if it doesn’t work for me I can trust that I can send it back to Fellowes no problem and I’ll get my money back.”

That’s a very important part of our story, because we know that’s something you have to experience. Quite honestly, it’s one of those things you don’t understand how good it is until you sit in it for a little bit.

Again, that’s a part of something we have to do to understand how to make it easy for the consumer. I think, in terms of disruption, for us it’s not just about direct to consumer but it’s getting the product out there and building a market for it. I think there will be folks that want to buy it through contract furniture, and they’re going to want to do that because that’s what works best for them. That’s an option for them. There are going to be people that want to buy it directly from us, and there are folks where going through contract furniture is not an option, and we want to make it easy for them as well. If one person wants to buy it because they work at home all day and want that comfort and that active motion, we want to make it easier for them. Again, I think it’s this notion that for us it’s about making it easy for folks no matter what path they want to take.

Carman Pirie: I think that’s a really interesting strategy, that the direct sale ecomm play as a brand building strategy prior to potentially other channels.

Tim Bay: I think, for us too, it’s also about learning. This is a new product, it’s new probably to the marketplace. There’s been a tremendous amount of information that we have learned as we put it out in the marketplace, and we got feedback from people. That allows us to continue to refine our message, and make sure that the things that are most important, most critical, the value proposition is getting out there. For us, it’s a little bit of seeding. We’re seeding this thing out there, so that way, as other channels make sense. Folks are ready to embrace that. We can say that with confidence, “we really feel like we know how to communicate this in a way that makes sense, and resonates with people”.

Again, that’s for us, it’s as much about that as it is about trying to generate a direct revenue.

I think, again, from a brand perspective, we’re always going to need folks outside of our ecosystem to support what we do. More people, the vast majority of brands, sell way more off their direct to consumer experience, off their websites than they do on their website. Except other than multi-billion dollar big huge brands. That’s always going to be important for us. It always has to be that “and,” not a direct consumer “or” something else, it’s always an “and” for us.

Jeff White: We have the Fellowes website up with the chair on it, and it’s been playing this video on loop for the last 15 minutes while we’ve been recording. I have to say, when the chair rolls backwards and it bangs into place, and you see the seat pan move, it’s kind of like an ASMR thing, where it’s just soothing watching it over and over again. The only active seating that I can recall using are those giant gym balls, and those are way less safe than this.

Jeff White: I’d be curious, Tim, you mentioned there’s a bit of a learning platform for Fellowes. To put you on the spot a bit, I guess. What’s surprised you the most thus far? What’s been the biggest learning, as it were?

Tim Bay: A few different answers. I think one is, even though people are focused on health and moving, understanding that sitting all day is bad for you. The comment is, we’ve heard this back from people, we know that sitting is the new smoking. It’s not good for you. What you can’t forget, and what’s a pin on importance is comfort. It has to be comfortable. That notion of not just comfortable for half an hour, but for all day. You talk about the balls, the balls that you sit on, and that’s about engaging the core and things like that, but the thing is, that’s a second chair for somebody. They can’t spend all day on that chair. They might spend 20 minutes, and that’s about it. I think, for us, while we focus on the help that it puts, and people certainly appreciate that, you can’t forget that it’s a chair. People sit in it all day. It needs to be comfortable, and it needs to be supportive.

I think the other thing is, there are some specifics about the product that people didn’t quite understand. Things with the floating seat pan, how much support that is, and what actually supports that, is it durable. That goes back to how we updated our messaging. We updated our assets to really focus to make sure that’s really very clear of the stability and the durability of it.

Again, at a macro level we learn things and even a micro level in terms of messaging, it’s a lot less to refine, to really make sure that we communicate the value and overcome concerns that people might have. Questions that they might have proactively.

Carman Pirie: I think that was interesting, what Jeff said, a comment around mentioning the stability ball, or what have you. That’s actually pretty key. You don’t want to get into a place where you’re competing with the stability ball.

You want to be the primary chair, you’re not asking them to buy this chair and set it in the corner and sit on it 20 minutes a day. It’s easy to see, obviously, on the site, how you’ve updated the assets to try to show the durability and strength of the floating seat pan. Because you’ve done such a good job aesthetically on the design of the chair, it makes it kind of surprising that it’s that durable and can look that sleek. I think that’s probably the thing-

Jeff White: The sweet spot of it.

Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s a fascinating, fascinating change, or at least continued evolution of direction for Fellowes.

Carman Pirie: Tim, I was wondering if you could, without letting too many cats out of the bag, give us a sense of what’s next?

Tim Bay: Well, I think that if we go by just talking about the chair for a second. That was 4 years in the making. It was started with trying to solve a consumer problem and deliver something that ultimately was of value. It wasn’t just about trying to create a beautiful looking chair, it was about providing value, and so I think as we look at opportunities, it is “Where can we help folks do their best, and where can we continue to help people reach their potential?”

We have, for a hundred year old company, we’ve been doing a lot of things right. One of the things that we focus on continually is how do we innovate. How do we continue to bring new things? That can be iterate, iterating an existing product, it’s bringing intelligence into things that haven’t had that, so we’ve got some interesting things coming up with shredders where we’re continuing to innovate in that. I think, again, what we’re doing, some ideas we’re working around are the sit-stand desks, and a continued evolution of workplace wellness. We’re just starting.

Again, I think for us, it’s not just in terms of the products, but how do we communicate that? How do we communicate the value? How do we make it easy for people to understand what the value is, and make it easy for them to make their decision?

I look at what we do from a digital perspective to be as important as, in tandem with what we’re doing from a product perspective, because we live very much in a digital world right now. That’s how we provide value from a product perspective, but also provide value from just an overall consumer experience perspective.

Jeff White: Using this as sort of an exploratory channel, and selling the chair directly, learning how people respond to it, and how you have to communicate the value of it—has that influenced at all any of your more traditional distributor-type relationships? Have they come calling and said, “When are we going to have an opportunity to sell this chair?”, or anything like that?

Tim Bay: Absolutely. Again, being a family owned business, John considers everybody that we work with, all of our partners, part of the family, so it’s very important to him that we’re transparent about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We’ve had a lot of great communication around that, proactive communication around that. Again, for us, it’s very much at the end of the day, we’re agnostic. The one thing about our direct to consumers is that we have an opportunity to communicate the value of the Fellowes brand in the best way that we can, and the value of our products to help people make those buying decisions.

The fact is, that will help all of our partners. Where they buy, again, is really up to the consumer. We want to work with our partners to, whether it’s contract furniture, whether it’s office products, no matter what it is, to help them leverage what we know about our consumers and how to communicate the value of products so that they can sell more of our products through their channels. That’s very much what we’re focused on.

Again, the fact that we’re a family business, that transparency in that partnership is extremely important to us.

Carman Pirie: I guess it’s always an interesting thing, I meet a lot of manufacturers and get into these conversations, and probably more so than any other broad business category it is still very much driven by a family owned enterprise. Very significant size manufacturer, privately held, family owned. Many like you in a fourth generation or so of evolution there. It always surprises me, in some ways, just how much that those values continue to be a driving force of business. Maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising, but it’s a consistent story.

Tim Bay: Well, you can talk about being a family business, you are a family business, and you can tout that. What I’ve seen, without a doubt at Fellowes, is it really does define who we are. Again, that ethos in the business, and one of the things that I’ve heard John talk about that his father spoke to him about at a very early age is the fact that they are there to serve the business and not vice-versa.

There’s definitely a feeling that you have. I think, also, too, again, this probably isn’t surprising, but it’s very real here at Fellowes is the fact that their name is on those products. That’s important to them. That means something to them. I think there’s a focus on quality and making sure that we do right by our consumers and our customers that is very personal to them, because their name is on the product. Again, I think it is a guiding principle for us, and it does really, I’ve seen that in the time I’ve been here, that does have a significant impact on how we operate in such a good way. I think it also, as businesses, we always want to talk about being consumer-focused. I think that family-owned, and the history of that, doing things the right way really helps us ensure that we’re thinking about that consumer first and that consumer experience.

Carman Pirie: Tim, I think that’s really great parting advice that you’re giving in just how you’ve addressed that topic. I think it is something that a lot of manufacturing marketers deal with. They work within family owned businesses, and some find it a struggle, or they choose to highlight the decision making that seems like it’s based-

Jeff White: Diametrically opposed.

Carman Pirie: Well, you know, who knows? They may just focus on the struggles that they have working as a marketer within that dynamic, and those can be real. I think what Tim has done here is really say, “Yeah, but the benefits of it are real.”

That’s where you really ought to choose, just the attention and the focus on that. The way he tells that story, I think, is instructive.

There’s, like you say, their name is on that product. That doesn’t come without something. It clearly drives a lot of the decision making. It’s very instructive, Tim.

Tim Bay: Absolutely.

Carman Pirie: Look, I think we’re at the point in the show where we should probably look at wrapping it up. Why don’t, I guess, Tim, to put you on the spot. Any parting advice for your fellow manufacturing marketers as we conclude our podcast?

Tim Bay: I think as marketers we have to recognize that, in today’s world, it’s that much more important that we think about the consumer, the value we provide, and why we can never control our brand, so to speak. We can influence it. Thinking about, as brands, what’s your north star, and how you continue to reinforce that everything you do. It can’t just be a marketing message. It has to be something that you have to live within the organization. I think it’s a challenge for us, sometimes, because the world is so transparent today and so real-time. Actually, I think, ultimately, that forces us to be that much better at what we do. I think that’s a good thing for brands, I think that’s ultimately a good thing for consumers. I think that people talk about how brands are less important in today’s world. I actually think just the opposite. I think brands that provide value and develop those connections are even more valuable today than they have ever been in the past.

Carman Pirie: Tim, thank you so much for joining us on the Kula Ring today. It’s been a pleasure.

Tim Bay: I really enjoyed it. Thanks, guys.

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Tim Bay

Former Head of Digital Marketing at Fellowes Brands

Tim Bay is the former Head of Digital Marketing at Fellowes Brands, based in Chicago. Driven by the challenge of delivering the right value proposition to customers, Tim has a proven track record of effectively developing and deploying digital marketing initiatives to achieve business goals and drive online revenue. This is a result of more than 15 years of personal experience in the field coupled with an ability to use data analytics to create strategic roadmaps.

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.

About Kula

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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