Live the Brand with Todd Smith

September 22, 2022

(highlights from Episode #11 of the Gutsiest Brands podcast)

Check out the latest lessons from our Gutsiest Brands podcast as GutCheck’s Chief Revenue Officer, Jess Gaedeke, sits down with Todd Smith, CMO of Traeger Grills. They talk about building and changing the brand experience through empathy, why being opportunistic can get you ahead, and the importance of living the brand when it comes to successful marketing.

Todd remembers when he was nine years old, and Nike first launched Air Jordans. He says, “I remember where I was when that ad came outI remember going to my Michael Jordan basketball camp in Chicago and wearing my Air Jordans with every other kid there. That connection was real and it’s something that probably started it all for me and probably sent me into the career that I’m in today.” That personal connection to a brand and experiencing it with a community is something Todd feels is integral to cultivating a successful brand experience and marketing strategy. From vitaminwater and Lebron James, to Powerade and Talladega Nights, Todd has pretty much experienced it all in his marketing career. Here’s a taste of what he shared with us…  

Takeaway #1 Fighter Brands Need to Take Advantage of All Resources

Back in the early 2000s, Todd landed an internship with Coca-Cola and ended up working on the Powerade brand. “It was a fighter brand at the time. It had less than 10% of the sports drink category. My project was, all right, we’re a fighter brand; how do you think differently? The great thing about a fighter brand is that you can move quicker, take bigger risks.” For Coke, this meant revamping and rethinking their distribution strategy to partner with McDonald’s to include Powerade as a fountain drink option. “The real opportunity was to take advantage of other resources that maybe were a strength for you that your competitor didn’t have. Todd says it’s important to look for those advantages and use them. 

Takeaway #2 Empathy Comes from Knowing Your Audience

When Todd started at Traeger, he realized their audience was different. “It’s a passionate group of consumers these are consumers that get Traeger tattoos and name their kids Traeger.In order for them to continue disrupting the outdoor appliance category and introduce a new and different approach to weekend grilling, it was imperative that Traeger continue to get to know the audience. It’s really looking at consumers, the consumer journey, understanding how people cook. What the opportunities are, really having empathy for them and designing products that are centered around that consumer experience.” By making this the focus of their strategy, Traeger has seen the success firsthand. “We see extremely high Net Promoter scores. We see, 80% of our consumers refer six or more people to the brand, and I think a lot of that starts with the consumer creating disruptive, engaging products that really create a better experience for them.” Differentiating the way consumers experience your brand engages your community and makes them want to share the experience with friends. 

Takeaway #3 Garden Your Community

Todd views the existing brand community as a garden to cultivate. “The community is kind of off on its own. There’s a lot going on, a lot of conversation about what people are cooking, discussions about products, different points of view and debate around different styles of cooking.” Instead of trying to dictate or change the narrative, Traeger leans into what’s already there. “What we look at is we want to be part of the conversation. We don’t want to drive it because we feel like the community does an amazing job of that, but we try to think of different things we can do to spark the community.” He says they think of it as catnip for the community. For example, the Traeger team decided to host an annual Traeger Day where owners come together and cook for family and friends, then share in the community channels. “It comes back to our larger mission, which is bringing people together to create a more flavorful world.” 

Takeaway #4 – Live the Brand

When looking for good employees to help take the marketing team to the next level, Todd says it’s all about finding “people that live the brand. You have to be passionate about the brands that you work for.” He looks for people who want to build things, create new experiences for people, and truly live the product’s mission, so that they naturally understand what their audience wants and needs. “Our team have been able to pivot so quickly in all these opportunities because they’re part of the community, too. They’re a consumer, and they live that brand.” From there, Todd says every team needs to celebrate both wins and failures along the way. “It is important to really think about people [who] are willing to take those risks. One thing we really try to do is celebrate being bold, taking chances. The term ‘fail forward’ is something that I think is important. 

Takeaway #5 Being Opportunistic Pays Off

When asked what puts companies ahead, Todd says, “I think it’s being flexible and being opportunistic. I’ve worked on some brands that had very large budgets and other brands that had no budget. I think the key is being opportunistic.” He gives the example of Powerade launching the Mystic Mountain Blueberry flavor as a limited-edition drink after it was made up in the movie Talladega Nights. “I think some folks might have said, ‘oh gosh, we can’t do that; it’s going to take too long, or people aren’t going to want it.’ But we saw an opportunity there.” At Traeger, their team saw an opportunity in March 2019 when their in-person, experiential cooking classes were no longer an option. “We worked across the country with different pitmasters and other chefs to bring cameras into their home, into their backyard kitchen, to create these live cooking experiences we called Traeger Kitchen Lives that ended up having 150,000 people watching per week. We could have just shut down these classes altogether, but our team was opportunistic, was able to pivot – this was something that used to be paid for, became something that was free, and also kind of paid off our mission of bringing people together.” 

Todd‘s Best Advice?

“Go into the market. Don’t sit in the office. Speak to consumers, listen to customers, and obsess over the customer experience. The way I try to do that is consumer research. Make sure that you’re always speaking with consumers, listening to customer service calls, looking at feedback that comes in… We go up in the market regularly to meet with some of our best customers [to] understand what people are asking at the ground level. It’s really at the street level where your brand comes to life with a physical product. You need to really understand what’s going on and how an idea you have actually translates to how a consumer interacts with it. [It’s about] really understanding that consumer journey, those pain points and where your brand is relevant, where your brand is differentiated, and how do you best communicate at those key points to bring people into your brand.” 

Keep Learning 

Catch up on Jess and Todd’s full interview by listening to the Gutsiest Brands podcast. If you are interested in how your brand can uncover the deep customer insights that can enable you to lead with empathy, pioneer new paths, stand behind bold ideas, and lean into ‘the power of AND’, we’d love to help. Drop us a note!

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