Making your customer choose you first with Jeremy Miller

Working in his family business in 2004 Jeremy Miller found himself faced with a problem: Declining revenue despite increased sales activity. As a sales person his natural reaction was to pick up the phone and start dialling. When that didn’t work he turned to marketing and branding.

Just 9 years later he was able to sell the business and embarked on a 10 year study of what makes a ‘Sticky Brand’. I talked to Jeremy about how some companies he profiled managed to overcome challenging markets and how execution was tied in.

His new book ‘Sticky Branding: 12.5 Principles to Stand Out, Attract Customers, and Grow an Incredible Brand’ is available now on Amazon (Paperback & Kindle). If you’re in a business that feels like it’s being choked by the competition you should also check out the books website


Audio only

Jeremy Miller

After rebranding his family’s business, Jeremy embarked on a decade long study of how small- and mid-sized companies create incredible brands. Since 2005 he has interviewed thousands of CEOs and business owners and profiled hundreds of companies across dozens of sectors. He now works works with companies to make them stand out, challenge the giants of their industry, and grow incredible brands.



Duncan: Welcome to the TightShip podcast where are in the pursuit of operational excellence. My name is Duncan Malcolm.

Do you think that your organisation is growing fast enough? Do you look at your competition and wonder why your prospects are choosing to work with them instead of you?

Our guest today is Jeremy Miller and he is the author of a new book called ‘Sticky Branding’

Jeremy found himself trying to drive sales in his family recruitment business and after a year of declining sales at a family meeting decided that something had to change.

After reviewing their business they completely changed everything, their target market, their branding and their approach to sales. Just 9 months later their business was taking off again and in 2013 they sold the business.

Over the past 10 or so years he has profiled thousands of companies and interviewed over 150 CEOs of companies just like yours to see how and why their customers choose them first.

In our interview when Jeremy explains how a normal business can stand out.

Just towards the end of the interview he reveals a story that wasn’t in his book about developing culture that confirms what

Duncan: Jeremy, thank you very much for taking time to talk to us today. Your book, Sticky Branding is coming out soon. Could you give a little bit of an introduction about you and your background, because you’ve worked in a lot of different organizations and come out also sort of different organizations with different approaches.

Jeremy: Sure. I actually came in to branding through what I’d say is the back door, I was a sales guy who lost his competitive advantage and in 2004, I’d left a lucrative software sales job to join my family’s business which was an IT staffing firm. At the time the business was suffering from the recession of the early 2000s following 9/11 and the tech wreck after the dotcom bubble burst, and so what happened was I came as a director of business development and what I found was a sales organization that was struggling.

What used to take our sales guys a week to achieve was taking them a month. And a result, more and more of our time was spent on cold calling, direct marketing and advertising. I found myself in the trenches dialing for dollars just to keep the funnel going. And I got to say I hate cold calling so that was awful for me and it was a really tough period, and I remember getting to the end of 2004 and sitting down with my parents at our family counsel and saying, “I don’t think I can do another year of this. That was hell.” And we put our heads together and we put our strategy together and we started studying the business, and what we realized is, it wasn’t our sales guys or sales process that was failing us, it was our brand.

From our customers’ point of view, they couldn’t differentiate us from many of the other options in the market place, and so that’s what really triggered the whole interest in branding and what do small and medium-sized businesses do to stand out and attract customers and grow that remarkable brand. My case, we re-positioned and re-branded the entire business, so we took it out of IT and put it into another niche. We changed the company name, colors, everything, but also we changed all the operations in order to service that new niche.

Within nine months of that re-brand, the business took off and it grew considerably over 10 years to the point where we were able to sell the company in 2013. But along the way that triggered the interest in branding so I got into a decade-long study of how do small and medium-sized business challenge the giants of the industry and grow a sticky brand. And so I’ve had the opportunity to profile and study thousands of companies over the last 10 years to be able to understand what are their criteria of success for companies not like Apple or Starbucks, but how do companies like yours and mine grow remarkable brands.

Duncan: How do you fight David and Goliath? I think that’s always that sort of thing I remember. The first business I was involved with it was a hosting company and with like two guys in a front bedroom against rack spaces. Like how do you go from there?

Jeremy: You’ve got to be creative.

Duncan: One of the things we talked about before was branding is often seen as this thing which is a marketing department’s job and it’s all about the brochures and the logo and the color scheme and the words that you use on the website. I think you make a really good point that it goes a lot deeper than that.

Jeremy: What I like to say is, ask yourself a question, “Do your customers choose you first?” To me that question is the essence of branding. Branding is not about logos and colors and taglines, those things are aspects of your brand, but they’re tactics. Realistically that relationship you have with your customers, do they choose you first, do they think of you first? When you think of any incredible brand, no matter what industry it is, they have this place in their customer’s minds where people think of them first, they choose them first, they come to them first and that’s what your really want to strive for. It’s not about the logo, or how well you name your company, it’s how you connect with your customers in a meaningful way, where they choose you first, and when you have that first-choice advantage, you’ve got a really powerful marketing and sales position, because now people are beating a path to your door, and that’s really what we want to have.

Duncan: That makes sense and by choosing first, it does more than just a brand there, it’s about the full experience. And there are some really great case studies. I think the one that I like the most, I think, out of all of them has to be the car group.

Jeremy: Jim Gilbert’s Wheels and Deals.

Duncan: Wheels and Deals, there we go and that’s a really amazing where an organization gets pushed through external factors to change how they work, but they’re so in a way that means that they actually end up pretty fiercely competitive compared to the rest of the market.

Jeremy: Right, and so that’s story is just fearless, there’s this… Wheels and Deals is the largest used cars dealership in Eastern Canada, and they’ve been around for 34 years, and like many small businesses, they just ran a business for the first 14 years of their life, and in 1999 or 98, a very large competitor entered their market place which came in with a lot of money, a big inventory and upset the whole apple cart. What that meant for Wheels and Deals was they had to really be purposeful to re-think how they were going to grow their business,

Many small businesses come to branding later on in life and in Wheels and Deals case, they focused on what they could do better than anyone else, create and sell better quality used cars. And what the issue is for many people as they buy used cars and then they have to replace the tires six months later, the breaks, or some other mechanic issue, some of these car dealership didn’t do anything wrong, they just sold it to the industry standards.

Wheels and Deals realized that people don’t want to have to come in six months later so they’re servicing their cars to 250% of the standard and that garnered customer loyalty. So today, now they’re the largest players, they set the market conditions but they just started with a very simple decision in 2000 to grow a brand based on better quality used cars.

Duncan: Let’s talk about it because they didn’t do… it wasn’t a case they just bought some better cars, they actually went wholesale into that into the area. How much do you hear from them in terms of how they made that transition?

Jeremy: Well, they started very small. Before the competitor came and they had a standard business where they sold 10 to 15 cars a month and that was what all the competitors in their industry did, they were all small used cars lots. And the competitor came in with a lot of money to be able to have an inventory of a hundred cars, and sell a hundred cars. Every month they were moving a hundred cars and so they had a ton of choice and so people are gravitating to this large lot because that’s where all the cars were. But the sales experience was poor, so they had that classic used cars salesmen that was pushy and aggressive, and they also didn’t care what kind of car they sold, as long as they were moving the inventory.

Wheels and Deals knew they couldn’t compete on price, they couldn’t compete on choice or they couldn’t buy that many cars, but what they could do is in their control. So they could invest between $800 to $1200 in every car in maintenance, so they could maintain the car even better and by doing so, people became to know this is the place to get better quality cars and they were also aggressively telling people that they were selling better quality used cars. That combination of operational excellence of being able to deliver a better product, coupled with blowing their own horn, is really how the starting point of their branding exercise.

Duncan: That makes total sense, so they moved from… they just really focused on keeping the customers they have really, really happy. And the thing they kept going beyond that as well, they did not send out greeting cards to every single one of their customers, they’re sending out gifts to all their customers. They really made that word of mouth go as far as it could possibly go.

Jeremy: Exactly. So this is the other part of growing your brand is that operational excellence is only part of it. You need a great product or a great service in order to stand out. But the next part of it is how do you create that first choice of advantage? Well, you have to break through the clutter that’s going on in this market place. There’s so many people and so many resources competing for attention, social media, Email, advertising, you name it. So Wheels and Deals really focuses in on that relationship and it started out small, it’s a birthday gift program that they run annually and this is just one of many marketing activities they do. But every year they send out a custom gift.

This year they were dog leashes. The year before they were a box of custom-made playing cards, books, little knickknacks. But it’s simply the act of sending something out without any pre-conceived expectations, and what that does is keeps the brand top of mind through small acts of generosity.

They will get these cards and these letters of people saying, “Nobody else acknowledge my birthday but you. Thank you so much. And I find that amazing but it just hits the heartstrings.

Duncan: And you talked about this in the book around the Pyramid of Need, where the people are at the top of the pyramid and making sure that people down towards the bottom of the pyramid are actually still engaged. You need to pay attention not just the people who want to buy stuff today but the people who want to buy stuff tomorrow.

Jeremy: Exactly. I call that the 3% role which says at any given time 3% of your market is buying, the rest are not. There’s two molds of marketing, there’s what we talked about as inbound marketing, which is people who have a need right now that are typing in the Google, looking for products and services, and your goal to come is to be in the path of search. But that’s a very competitive market place where everybody’s competing for those active buyers. What Wheels and Deals is doing is engaging the people that don’t have a need right now and probably won’t need them for three, four, or five years away. And so by building relationship in the non-buying audience by being generous, by sharing good quality content like podcast today is a great example for Tightship, it’s by being generous and sharing your expertise in building relationships, that creates the seeds of a relationship and that help propels your customers to come to you and choose you first when they have a need.

Duncan: Yeah, that totally makes sense I think. I see so many companies, you talk about a lost middle. There are so many organizations that are in that lost middle and I’ve worked with them, I’ve worked for them, and it’s something that happens a lot and often by accident. I think company is a really good case study who we’re talking about. I’ll find their name, it’s down my list here somewhere, that they’re… who every three years went through we re-did, re-looked at their operation, how they sat in the market and re-evaluated where they’re offering fits because what is real need service right now today, in three years time could be totally different and then you can slide out of relevancy quite quickly and easily.

Jeremy: Icebreaker.

Duncan: Icebreaker. Yeah, there we go.

Jeremy: Icebreaker is grown into a global brand over twenty years, they were found in 1994 by Jeremy Moon in New Zealand, they make Merino wool, long underwear and outdoor clothing, and if you ever tried their products are amazing, they feel great on your skin, they’re soft . . .

Duncan: I actually found one earlier today [inaudible 00:12:34]

Jeremy: For skiing and snowboarding, the long underwear is unreal, it’s warm, it’s soft, it’s insulating, it’s really quite nice compared to traditional fibers. When they started out in 94, Merino wool which is… Merino is a breed of sheep which grows in southern Alps of New Zealand. Merino was only used in high-end suits like Armani and long underwear was polyester fiber, but they saw the potential of this thing and they grew it, and it comes through a series of incremental steps to grow global a brand. Today their products are sold in 4,000 stores across 44 countries, they have 200 million in sales, 400 employees, they’re a fairly big company when you think about it, but they’ve grown up purposely and they call the process of re-invention shedding the skin.

So every three years they ask themselves three really big questions. Where are we today, where do we need to move towards? What’s working and what isn’t working? And who here is part of the team moving forward and who here has stopped growing and can’t keep up? By asking themselves those deep questions they can take a look internally to see what they need to fix, but then they can go look on to the horizon of where they need to be, and make the changes both within their marketing but also within their operations to grow to that the next level, and it’s that process of re-invention of how companies really grow from being a small business to a not-so small business to a medium and a large business, it’s that evolution from one million from five, ten, twenty five, fifty, a hundred, etcetera.

Duncan: It’s quite a difficult process, reading that case that I was thinking for a lot of people. I think a lot of people start businesses for different reasons and you state quite clear, people who’s trying to really drive this sticky brands are of a certain character type. But it’s quite difficult to take those decisions every… and make those… and there’s quite a lot of hard decisions in there. There’s some good decisions and some fun decisions, some of the difficult and tough ones. I think about the first business that I set up, it’s still being run by my cousin today. It hasn’t evolved in a huge amount in the last seven years, but they’ve grown steadily, they haven’t really done any extreme shifts but I think, if I look and I went back to them, I said I think what we need to do is you need to get rid of this, going to hire a couple of these guys and you need to totally change how you look from the outside and inwards. I’m not sure he’ll be comfortable making those decisions and how do you get people over that chasm of making those difficult decisions, because it’s quite tough.

Jeremy: I don’t think we actually have to make them do that. Your part of business or your cousin, is he happy? Does he like his company?

Duncan: I have to say, yeah.

Jeremy: If someone’s happy, if you think about it, growing a business is a lot of work, it takes a lot of risk and challenge and so a lot of people will grow to a certain size and hit that comfort zone where it fits their lifestyle, they can make the income they want, they can have the size of employees they want, they can have the dynamics that fit their needs. And so you see a lot of people today that will be freelancers that can earn a great living and not have any employees and it gives them a ton of freedom. I think that’s incredible on tone.

And then there’s other people that are driven to grow very large businesses. It’s all personal. So what do you want to do? Growing your business through the plateaus is your decision, but I think whatever you decide to be, you can decide to have excellence, you can decide that your customers will chose you first. Now you may choose that you’re a niche player and can serve a small segment of your market place, just do it brilliantly. You don’t have to serve everybody.

Duncan: That totally makes sense. And so running into your book, it covers really in depth, as I was saying before. It’s actually really well-researched, there’s a lot of valuable information. There’s two kinds of books that I come across, one which give one person’s opinion and one which bring together a large audience of opinions and yours is the latter in terms of bringing together lots of different opinions and you’ve got it in a very really format of…

Jeremy: Thank you.

Duncan: … twelve and a half things to pull together. Again there’s quite a lot of stuff. How long do you think it will take someone or an organization to work through that, to actually get to the point, or to get on the track, get on the road for, how much effort do think they have to put in?

Jeremy: It’s on-going, it doesn’t stop, so branding is a process not an event. A lot of people look at branding and the symptom of my brand is out of date right now, an out-of-date website. When you look at your website and say you haven’t updated it in three years, and you go, “Wow, this looks terrible. It’s not responsive, the font is off, colors are off.” That’s a sign that not only your visual identity is out of date, but most likely, your story, your positioning, everything is out of date. Today the trigger event, that you’re in time for a brand cleanup is an out-of-date website.

What I’m finding though is branding today is very much a process, it’s like total quality management for operations but it’s on the holistic view of your business because you can’t stop your competitor from innovating, you can’t stop what’s happening in the internet and social media everything’s changing so quickly. So the companies that are really purposeful of their making goals and working to improve their business every single year, every six months they’re working on something new to get better. Those are the ones that really do grow sticky brands, it’s not the one that says, hey we’re going to do a push for 18, 24, 36 months and we’ve made it. That doesn’t happen that way, you look at the Icebreaker story, it’s 20-year evolution to grow to what they’ve gone, and they’ve had their heartaches, and they’ve had their issues a long the way, but it is everyday you’ve got to show up and what are going to do next?

Duncan: Is it a lot of- I’ve heard various people this and certainly more of the older, more senior people who say, I came up with a single message and I spent the following five years repeating it until I get everyone else in the business and it’s the same, it’s not developing that culture internally where people will understand where things are going and that everyone is working towards the same goal ultimately.

Jeremy: That’s a very interesting point, and so if this is in the book, but it came out of the interview with wheels and deals is Jim Gilbert getting close to retirement his kids are in the business and they’re going through the succession and process to the next Generation, but he said a big part of his time is communicating to every one every single week, what it is the brand is about, what it is the reason why they serve their customers, how they serve their customers and repeating the message every single week, and the thing is people are easily will fall back into their old habits. They’ll go to what’s comfortable, they’ll go with what’s easy, and so it does take strong leadership to beat that drum and share, because people don’t remember what they’re supposed to do past Friday. Every Monday it’s a re-start the message.

Duncan: Yeah, that totally makes sense, I Think it, and it’s sure one of those getting culture especially in businesses who to have them focused on before how the whole message works. But it’s in tough things that need to happen there and communicating with people who maybe are just very happy with powers before, it’s always challenges in those situations.

Jeremy: To answer your question on how to start, I think the way the book’s designed the column it’s got the tabs, so each of the 12 1/2 principles that are designed so that you can go through the book and focus on the section that’s top of mind so, if you’re positioning or you’re co-messaging offer right now and you’re not comfortable with it, we can focus on a simple clarity principle which is a first one. If you are trying to improve your visual identity, well there’s principle five around making your brand visibly different, so you can go, the way the book’s been designed is what found with my Ipad makes me ADD. I have a hard time reading a book cover to cover in one sitting, what I wanted to create was a book where you could go to the section that you needed at that moment and time, at self contained.

So, you can read the book cover to cover in the whole together, but if you want to get into that one thing that you’re working on, that’s really, go to the principle that you need at that moment and time.

Interviewer: And then you’ve got it split up into four different divisions, four different parts. You’ve got part one which is talking about how to stand out from the crowd, you’ve got part two which goes to, I can’t remember them all by heart.

Jeremy: Authentic differentiation, how to create the experience and the visual experience in the stories, part three is around how you punch it outside your weight class, how do you market and blow your own horn, and the fourth part is really about branding from the inside out, those culture and goals and internal questions of how does the company create that excellent operations in order to grow their brand, because I really do believe, you can put lipstick on pig and call that your brand it’s rub off quickly.

It is the culture the most dynamic having the right people in your organization, having everyone committed and passionate about your brand having the systems and resources and capabilities to service your customers, is the companies that are brilliant at the basics that are actually growing the best brands.

Duncan: That totally makes sense, towards the end there and there’s about the last section in terms of practice and the big goals and actions people to make those steps into the large organizations they have to really think about where they need to be, when it’s sort of classic thing if you want to get to here you have to lay a map here, and that all makes sense. Well Jeremy thanks very much for your time it’s been very interesting.

Jeremy: My pleasure

Duncan: Look forward to asking your book on sale, 10th of January from.

Jeremy: January 10th worldwide, I’ll be available on all bookstores are sold.

Duncan: We’ll make sure we’ll put a link down here.

Jeremy: Awesome.

Duncan: Thanks.

Jeremy: Thanks Duncan.

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