326: Direct to Customer, with Mitch Joel

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The bar has never been lower to start a business by going Direct to Customer, but that doesn’t change what the pillars of business are.

Direct to Customer brands leverage their true purpose, technology, data, content, and speed to market in astonishing ways. Now, you can too. Brace for impact. Mitch Joel, Founder of Six Pixels Group, is our guest this week. He is one of the amazing speakers at the Conquer Local 2020 Conference in beautiful Montreal. Big and small business need to take it next level by going Direct to the Customer. What do billion dollar companies like Kylie Cosmetics and Dollar Shave Club know that Starbucks and Walmart did not?  Mitch explains why these startups quickly disrupted industries that took their competitors decades to decode. This new breed of Direct to Consumer brands has changed the dynamics of business today,  What are these companies doing that is so disruptive? Mitch gives us the goods on what you need to know today about the power of direct to consumer brands, and how to build one and/or how to act like one (whether you are in B2C or B2B). Mitch believes that the fundamental traditional Four P’s of Marketing – Product, Price, Place, Promotion – are still relevant in today’s digital realm. Do you agree?

Mitch Joel is Founder of Six Pixels Group – an advisory, investing and content producing company that is focused on commerce and innovation (although he prefers the title, “Media Hacker”). Prior to Six Pixels Group, Mitch spent close to two decades building, running and (eventually) selling his business. He was President of Mirum – a global digital marketing agency operating in 25 countries with close to 3000 employees. Mirum is owned by WPP. Mitch has been named one of the top 100 online marketers in the world, and was awarded the highly prestigious Top 40 Under 40.

His first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his successful blog and podcast is a business and marketing bestseller. Mitch’s second book, CTRL ALT Delete, was named one of the best business books of 2013 by Amazon. Mitch is frequently called upon to be a subject matter expert for publications like Fast Company, Strategy, Forbes, The Globe & Mail and many others. He is a columnist and journalist for the Harvard Business Review, Inc. Magazine, The Huffington Post and many other magazines and newspapers.




George: Our latest edition of the Conquer Local podcast, special guests joining us, Mitch Joel from Montreal, Canada. He is the first confirmed speaker for the Conquer Local conference and we’re excited to have him on the show. You know, when you go to Mitch’s website, Mitchjoel.com, you learn about the Six Pixels of Separation podcast. He is a contributor to CHOM FM, in Montreal. He works on iHeartRADIO, he’s written two books, Six Pixels of Separation and CTRL ALT Delete. And he was recently awarded the highly prestigious, Top 40 under 40, he’s been called a visionary, a digital expert, and a community leader. In fact, when you look at some of the magazines that he has been published in, they are really a Who’s Who. Strategy Magazine, he’s been in Harvard Business Review, he’s spoke in Fast Company and written there. So, we’re looking forward to having Mitch Joel at Conquer Local, in June. But, we’re gonna have him here on the podcast first. Coming up next, Mitch Joel, on the Conquer Local podcast.

Colleen: We are counting down the days top Conquer Local 2020. It’s the must-attend conference for companies selling digital solutions to local businesses. This year we are driving growth two days before the start of the Canadian F-1 Grand Prix, in Montreal. Our keynote speaker, co-founder, and former CRO of HubSpot, Mark Roberge. At Conquer Local, you get to learn from an incredible lineup of industry thought leaders. Networked with our most successful partners, vendors, and Vendasta experts, and participate in hands-on workshops, and leave with concrete takeaways that you can implement in your business strategy. For our loyal podcast listeners, we want to give you $300 off your ticket with promo code, podcast300. Book your tickets today at Conquerlocal.com.

George: So, joining us on the Conquer Local podcast, the founder of Six Pixels of Separation, Mitch Joel. Welcome!

Mitch: Hey, thanks for having me.

George: You know our marketing team put forth a group of people that they would like to look at for speakers at the upcoming Conquer Local conference in Montreal and guess who is the first one that we’re announcing? Well, it’s easy to guess.

Mitch: I hope it’s me. I…

George: Yeah, it’s you.

Mitch: I was gonna say, I hope it’s me, otherwise it’s uh… I’m happy to be on the show, regardless. But, let’s hope it’s me.

George: Well, you know, Mitch, you have been running the Six Pixels of Separation podcast for quite some time. It’s a podcast that I follow and I was excited to see your name on the potential list of speakers. Because I’ve listened to some of the messaging that you are bringing forward. You’ve got two books, the Six Pixels of Separation and CRTL ALT Delete. And congratulations on that prestigious Top 40 under 40 award. And we’re excited to have you share some of your leadership and vision around being a digital expert. So, welcome to the podcast.

Mitch: Well thanks for having me. And I’m somewhat dismayed to say that, that Top 40 under 40 happened many years ago, But, thank you!

George: Well, it is none the less, something that you can talk about, so it’s great. I wanna get right into the meat and potatoes of the topic that we’re going to address here today. And this is this entire thing of direct to consumer. It really is one of the most dynamic things that’s happening in sales today. Can we talk a little bit about it at a high level?

Mitch: Yeah of course we can. The bar to start a business has not only lowered but it has completely hit the floor. Because of platforms like Shopify, being the main driver, anybody can basically, out of the gates, start selling to a global audience with literally no financial barrier. There’s obviously time, effort, and energy to do it exceedingly well, there’s obviously a cost investment to do it. But, if you wanted to sell your work prior to this movement, it was pretty hard. And what’s happened is, just through this, sort of, maturation of these platforms, through the development of social media, and just because of digital technology, and connectiveness in general, it’s enabled almost anybody to start a business, and scale it, in a pretty rapid and dramatic way.

George: So, when we think about brands that are direct to consumer that people might just go, “Oh, I know exactly what you are talking about.” Do you have any examples that identify this from the past few years, that have just blown up?

Mitch: Yeah. I mean, the one that everybody both loves and hates at the same time would probably be Kylie Cosmetics. Also, again, on the Shopify platform. One of the Kardashians came out with this cosmetic line very much driven by Kylie’s social presence, in particular Instagram and FaceBook, a little bit of YouTube, and a little bit of Twitter, and managed to build one of the quickest corporations ever in the history of business to head a billion dollar’s sales with a very young leader and a very skeleton crew. And that raised, obviously, a ton of eye brows to the point where Coty, which is one of the bigger brands, that holds a catalog of these brands in the beauty industry has put, I think, close to $800 million dollars as a percentage investment into Kylie Cosmetics. For me, that’s just, sort of, the one everyone talks about and everyone knows because there was a lot of contentiousness around the fact of whether or not Kylie is self made or not. I don’t know that that’s necessarily part of the conversation. I think she managed to scale a business to a billion dollars faster than any other business, including any other business that any other Kardashian or reality TV star, or take any star, for that matter, has been able to do. But, within that you’re seeing many, many brands both big and small take on a lot of the ideologies that we see in the direct to consumer movement and what that means. And my, sort of, platform for this, is that I don’t want that to be relegated only to direct to consumer brands. I think that there is tons of lessons and learnings of how these brands have scaled and hit these milestones that any business can take. Whether you’re small, medium, large, whether you’re B2B or B2C, and that’s, sort of, where my passion lies.

George: I wanted to touch on that because when you say direct to consumer, I’m thinking well, we’re selling makeup, we’re selling something like that. But, you in the content that I’ve been consuming of yours, you talk about B2B and that’s a big part of our audience, are salespeople that are dealing in B2B. And you’re right, the bar has never been lower for somebody to spin something up and have a brand.

Mitch: Yeah. I’m not being paid nor am I an evangelist for Shopify. But, Shopify would be a great example of that, right there, sort of, offering this B2B technology that enables people to have an E-Com platform and then access to all these, sort of, cloud based tools, technologies, communities, and they’re not alone. If you look at any of the major B2B players, in terms of software and infrastructure, a lot of them have this, sort of, DTC spirit within them. And so yeah, you’re seeing this across the board. I think it’s easy because we get sucked into this, sort of, more commercial or more retail based brands, like Kylie Cosmetics. But, you’re absolutely right that this, sort of, hits every single industry of every single size, and if it hasn’t yet, that smells like opportunity to me.


Are Brands Easier to Build Today?

George: Over the two decades you were building, running, that agency Mirum and you’ve worked across all of those countries with those, you know, 3000 employees, you were a global marketing agency, in all the businesses that you worked with, do you think that it’s easier today to build a brand from scratch than it has been? What about all the competition that’s out there?

Mitch: Yeah, I don’t think building a brand is easy, and I don’t think that digital has facilitated it, at all. I think what digital has done has simply lowered the bar and opened up the distribution platforms to a place where, as Seth Godin would say, the famed business author and speaker, that the gatekeepers are, sort of, gone. and so that’s the, sort of, facilitator. But, building a brand, in terms of however you define a brand, for me, it’s the ability to create something more than a company, more than a sale, it’s about creating something memorable, personable, something that people have muscle memory for, it’s the emotion, it’s how it makes them feel versus a competitor. I don’t think that’s ever been easy. I don’t think it’s easier than ever. I just think that the tools are more available and the distribution channels opened up more.

George: I’m reading into this, correct me if I’m wrong, the same strategy that’s been deployed over the years, to build up a brand, you still have to have a strategy. Even though the tools are easier to get you still need to have some business acumen to put together a business at the end of the day.

Mitch: Yeah for sure. Technology doesn’t change the fact that you need a strategy. Having a great culture doesn’t mean that you have to change strategy. You know as the famous saying that culture eats strategy for lunch and I think to a certain degree it’s true. But, ultimately you can have a great culture, if you don’t have a strategy, there’s nowhere for that culture to go. So, no, there is nothing that has taken away the pillars of business. I mean even when we talk about how rapidly things change, how much this has impacted consumer behavior, and their buying habits, which it has, at the fundamental core of what the business is doing, you think about the traditional marketing and the four P’s, product, price, promotion, place, they’re still important. A lot of people would like to say that that’s, sort of, dinosaur, now we don’t look at it this way. I’m challenged to find another way that better exemplifies what the real role is of business today. Can you tell stories? Can you express your brand in a myriad of ways you didn’t have the chance to before? Absolutely. Can you sell in this, sort of, direct to consumer world where you don’t need intermediaries anymore? Absolutely. Does that make those who were intermediaries, those who maybe sat at the retail level or those who, on the B2B side, might be value added resellers? It does. But, it also empowers them to think differently about how they, themselves, can be direct to consumer based businesses. And again it’s not about a sort of world that’s changing to only to that. I’ve been writing about this space since you eluded to and talked about the space for decades at this point and one of my earlier sayings, people come out and say, “Is blogging gonna kill journalism?” “Is online advertising gonna kill advertise?” And my theory always and to this day is that everything is with not instead of. I don’t think that one replaces another, I think you need to look at all the tools that are now accessible to you and figure out what mixture of those tools, or which tools lined up together create the best opportunity for that macro conversion, which is ultimately a sale.

George: So, when we think about one of the key tenants of running a successful business, we always focus on the customer. I hope that our listeners are thinking about the customer. So, you have access to platforms, you have to have that business acumen to put together a true business. But, with all of this opportunity for choice, would it be fair to say it’s never been more important to focus on the end customer?


Focusing on the End Customer

Mitch: Well, I don’t know what business has a business without customers. So, again I don’t think it’s a new prescriptive. I think what’s happened before is we lived in a world where people weren’t fundamentally thinking in an omnichannel way. I think, more often than not, I look at it more like pillars. The three pillars that I see are, what is the brand and the expression of it, what is the actual brand experience, and what’s the customer experience? And if you really sit back, as a business, and think about it pragmatically, how well defined is the brand and those who believe in it, including your internal team, and members, and partners. What is the actual brand experience? Like, what does it feel and look like when it’s deployed into the market? And then ultimately, what the customer experience is, what you do find, you can look at everything from the local corner store, you go into for your coffee, to one of the biggest business in the world, that you buy software from, and my guess is in between the cracks of the brand, the brand experience the customer experience, you’ll find some of those paper cuts. You don’t want to be in a position where that has 5000 paper cuts. And I think the brands that are really getting it today in terms of really harmonizing this idea of customer experience are the ones who understand their brands so well, understand what the brand experience is, and really have it as a real connection to the customer experience. More often than not, we buy things, and then we look at the brand online, or we see their ads, or their marketing, or communications, or their platforms and we think, that wasn’t my experience or that’s not what I feel. And right there, that’s a cause for alarm. So, I think that of course the customer experience and understand that customer needs are important. But, it’s hard if you’re not really aligned with your brand and your brand experience as well.

George: Now, when it comes to that brand and it comes to the experience with the customer and to the promise that we’re making to that customer group, it’s pretty easy to damage a brand nowadays. These business owners need to really be paying attention to that.

Mitch: I mean it’s always been really easy to mess things up. And I think that as human beings, it’s sometimes often hard to see beyond the tips of our own noses. But, you are right that the magnification of those errors, happened at a scale and speed that is somewhat new. And I say somewhat new only because we like to look at digital channels and go, it’s all so new, and I sort of look at things and go, we’re talking 20 years already, we really are. And I don’t mean that in terms of like, the day the internet was created, I mean like, past, beyond the days of early commercialization of the internet. I mean, I can look and see that I joined Twitter, you know, 12 years ago, or whatever it might’ve been. So, I’d like to think that we are now accustomed to the fact that we all live in real time, that we all live in that world where our expressions are very public and highly distributed. And as the world changes, I would actually argue that we’re seeing, maybe, a little bit less of it now. Because what happens in places like FaceBook or Twitter is that they’re actually throttling a lot of the content. So even people who are frustrated where the world could see it, now suddenly they’re only being seen by a small fraction of people who may in fact only be following them. Now, that has its own implicit and explicit challenges with it. But, the world’s actually changed in another way where it was so open and suddenly it’s a little bit more quieter now.



George: Well, if I go to your website, I see a great quote from Seth Godin and here it is, “In a world filled with broken promises, Mitch Joel is the real deal.  He lives the work he talks about, he does it with generosity and insight.” That’s the quote. And what I would like to find out for our listeners, that are thinking about coming to Montreal, in June, to see you speak, what sort of message can they expect from you and just a bit of a tease as to what your presentation might be about?

Mitch: Well, good news is I’m presently recording this from Montreal, it happens to be the city I live in and there’s a lot of snow here. So, the great news is, by the time you get here, it will be beautiful and there is no greater place in the world than Montreal in the summertime. It is probably the most European city that you will ever encounter, here in North America and it’s really easy to get to we have great airports and restaurants, it’s a very massive food culture. So, beyond all the facts that you should just come here ’cause there’s no better place to be than Montreal in the summer. I’m really excited to talk about the opportunities that come, not from thinking about whether you are a direct to consumer brand, but how to think like them. And again, to me, it’s all about understanding how much consumer behavior has changed, how much disruption has impacted our business, the opportunities for innovation that have come from that, and how to think a little bit differently about your business by taking a peek into my world, which is about 30 years of helping brands really digitize and move through this massive moment of transformation. And again, just be able to take notes, hang out, be highly entertained, enjoy the, sort of, physical-ness of my show and presentation. But, at the same time, really be inspired by things you can tangibly take away and really talk to your team about how to turn it into something more than just a keynote that you saw, that you enjoyed. But, rather have 4, 5, 10, 15 ideas from that and start implementing them, almost immediately.

George: So, we have the link to Mitch’s website Mitchjoel.com, as part of this podcast. And I’m looking at the content, your topics that are new and updated for 2020. When I look through these, what do you think the biggest challenge in this new very low bar, in this world that we live in today?

Mitch: For me it really shores up to one concept. It’s not about speed, it’s not about adoption, it’s not about the fact that there is technology and it’s more and more pervasive, it’s about the fact that these changes have fundamentally changed how our customers buy from us. And the minute you can open up that scope, and you’ll see that in my presentation, I think there are new business models, opportunities, and ways to communicate and connect with our customers that you may not have thought of before. That’s the key, that it has fundamentally changed how consumers buy.

George: Well, coming up at the upcoming Conquer Local conference, Mitch Joel will be one of our keynote speakers. Really looking forward to seeing your presentation. I’m just reading through some of these topics and every one of them is riveting because it speaks to the challenges that our partners, and our partners’ customers have on a day to day basis. We thank you for joining us and look forward to seeing you face to face in Montreal, in a few months.

Mitch: Thanks so much for your time. I look forward to it.

George: We could’ve went on for hours, didn’t want to steal the entire thunder of Mitch Joel speaking at Conquer Local 2020 in Montreal in June. So, make sure that you go to our website to learn more about that ever-expanding line of speakers. But, let’s just touch on a few of the takeaways. The bar has lowered, so much that it’s hit the floor. I’ve talked about this quite a bit. Back in the days when I was selling radio, if I wanted to start my own radio station, it’s expensive, and tough, and hard. So, in a day and age where we have a go-to consumer, whatever that consumer might be, whether it’s business to business or business to customer, they need to take it to the next level. Find some sort of a platform that enables you to have that omnichannel experience, that end to end platform where you can serve that customer from the very beginning of their consumer journey to the end where they now become a repeat customer and an advocate for the brand. Keep in mind the three P’s of marketing, is the old way of thinking. In order to focus on the end customer, organizations need brand expression, brand experience, and then that customer experience. And need to look deeply inside each three of those motions and keep iterating and improving so that you’re getting the results that you want for your clients. I’m really looking forward to seeing Mitch, when he presents at Conquer Local, in a couple months time and time is running out for you to get your tickets, and we also have a limited number of sponsorship opportunities. So, go to Conquerlocal.com to learn more about the 2020 edition of the Conquer Local conference. Thanks for joining us this week. My name is George Leith, I’ll see you when I see you.

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