Podcast: Lindsay Pedersen, Ironclad Brand Strategy, Part 1
Apologizes for the double send yesterday. It seems one of my drafts got sent along with the final briefing. In case you are worried you read the non-final version, here it is again.
My guest today is Lindsay Pederson, owner and chief strategist of Ironclad Brand Strategy. These podcasts are usually with a leading CMO, so this one is a little different. I have been very selective in having Lindsay on the show. I would love your feedback on whether you feel having people like Lindsay on from time to time is a good idea, or whether I should keep the focus 100% on CMOs. You can comment or just reply to this email.
As a subscriber-only podcast you will need to subscribe to the a private feed to get it in your podcast player. You only need to do this once. Simple instructions here.
Edward: Today's interview is a little different. Usually, these podcasts are with CMOs. My guest today, Lindsay Pedersen, is not a CMO. For the last 13 years, Lindsay has been the owner and chief strategist of her own branding agency. She's done incredible work with companies like Starbucks, IMDb, Avalara and Expedia. Today, we're going to cover Lindsay's career and her path to running her own agency, Georgetown, Advisory Board, Deloitte, Berkeley, Clorox and now Ironclad Brand strategy. We're lucky to have her here today.
Lindsay, my guests are usually CMOs and I start with how did you get your first CMO job, but let's talk instead about your choice to leave Clorox and start your own agency. Why did you do that?
Lindsay: Yeah. I was at Clorox as a brand manager or in the brand management world for six years, the six years after business school. At that point, we had my son who was then two years old, basically eating us alive, my husband and I, and we decided to move to Seattle because I had family in Seattle that can help us with this child. We moved to Seattle at Clarkson's in Oakland. I was not looking to become an independent consultant. I was looking at roles at Starbucks and a couple other CPG companies.
The way that it happened is that I was recruited for a director of marketing role at Starbucks and they had to do it on a contract basis initially while they waited for the hiring freeze to lift. I was technically a consultant as a head of marketing for this group and I loved it. I loved having an outsider perspective. I felt like I could be more candid than if I were an employee because I had a little bit of distance. It was sort of an aha, I would really like to do this for other companies; to be in charge of building the marketing vision for a group or the brand strategy for a group but on a consulting basis.
It was not this conscious, well-thought out, I'm going to go start my own consultancy. I kind of stumbled into it. Initially, I definitely wouldn’t have called it an agency. I would just say I am a brand strategist. I can build a brand strategy in the way that we do in the classic Procter and Gamble world. Seattle, being a tech town, was actually a pretty rare skill set. That ended up being pretty distinctive that would not have been that distinctive if I were in the Bay area but in Seattle, having the classically trained brand management from Clorox, it was something there's a lot of demand for.
Edward: Got it. You’d say that your skill set, at least at the time, was not particularly unique in the package goods world. What was unique is that you’re a package goods world person living in a tech town.
Lindsay: Exactly and I think it's funny because in hindsight I see that at the time I was really confused. I didn't realize that Seattle was such a tech town and I found it so confusing that every time I said I did brand, people thought I was a logo designer. I was like why did you think that I do logos? That’s the strangest response. I'm a brand person. I realize now that just the word brand is really confusing outside of consumer packaged goods. There's a different, more narrow definition of it. Absolutely, I was a dime-a-dozen in consumer packaged goods, but then in the tech world I could bring that discipline of CPG to a town that didn't have a lot of that. At least not in the same kind of schooling that I had.
Edward: How did you get your second client after Starbucks?
Lindsay: During that time when I was a consultant for Starbucks and I was realizing I really liked to do it on a consulting basis, I just reached out to my network and I knew my former boss from Clorox was running marketing at TMobile. I remember he was actually my second client but in addition to him, I was asking a lot of people like, would you need this? Is this something that you would want? When I got enough yeses to that question, I felt emboldened to leave Starbucks and have other clients so TMobile with my second client.
Edward: You wrote a book. When did the book come in?
Lindsay: Much later. This was 13 years ago that I made the shift from Clorox brand manager to brand strategy consultant and it has morphed quite a bit. Initially it was I am an independent consultant. I can do anything that a marketing director for hire would do. You probably want me if you want some classic, kind of rigorous look at your brand. I was a generalist, but what I realized as I became more seasoned, is that brand strategy was really unusual in the Seattle area. There was a really significant appetite for it. I started to sharpen down, to narrow more on brand strategy specifically, not brand management in general.
Years into it, I developed a methodology. Instead of creating a brand strategy from scratch every time, I developed a method. There was a point, probably four or five years ago, where I really wanted this method to be something that anybody can use, even if they weren't hiring me. I taught a course—LinkedIn Learning will hire authors to create a course for them. LinkedIn Learning hired me to create a course. I think it's called creative brand strategy. If you have a LinkedIn Learning subscription, you have unlimited access to all of their video courses. When I finished that, the producers at LinkedIn Learning said you really need to write a book. This is a book.
The idea of writing a book had been germinating for a while because I wanted this methodology not to just live in my head and there's something I had to get off my chest about brand, so I started writing a book. I published it a year-and-a-half ago. All of this took a long time. I didn’t go from Clorox, to brand strategist, to author in a year. This took, I guess, that would’ve been 12 years total.
Edward: When you're developing that strategy, it was almost organic because you spent time helping clients. You’d help one client, then another client and another client and sooner or later you started seeing commonalities around solving the problems, rather than solving the problem the same way every time. It's having to reinvent the wheel every time you could go and solve the problem effectively the same way every time.
Lindsay: That's right. That's exactly right and some of the framework, some of the steps of the methodology are really similar to things that we did at Clorox for any brand strategy. I was taking things that I had learned and I was weaving them into a more readily rip-and-reapply sequence of steps. I didn't say okay I’m going to develop a methodology and then I'm going to go out and I'm going to use that methodology. I just found over a course of years that I had a methodology. It was silly to pretend that I didn't, to pretend that I was starting from scratch every time.
The other thing that I got was market feedback. My clients felt a lot more comfortable knowing that there was a methodology behind this. To them, it felt like it would de-risk the project, that this is based on a tried and true process. It's not just based on a really creative person coming up with a cool ID. That was the other encouragement, the market was saying a methodology makes me feel better. Brands feel so squishy to people, and so that step by step methodology makes it feel less kind of shrouded in mystique. It actually also added value and made the brand strategy better because I can kind of circle the troops. There was more of an I'm going to bring in what I learned from across industries and across all of the types of clients that I worked with. It ensured that all of my learning was boiled into a process.
Edward: I'm a big believer in taking structure to qualitative areas. I spent a lot of years doing improv comedy and much of improv comedy has people talking about just getting in touch with your inner feelings. Instead, I tried to figure out what are the story elements you need to tell one by one by one in order to tell an effective story?
Lindsay: I did not know this about you, Ed. That's so cool. Some time, you're going to have to tell me more about that.
Edward: I feel like more and more soft areas are becoming this way. There are books about screenwriting. Screenwriting used to be very much a qualitative thing of what a good screenplay was, I think it's called Save The Cat! It became a very structured solution for here is how you write a screenplay. I feel like you've done something similar for here's how you build a brand.
Lindsay: That is so thought provoking. I think you're right. I think there's also the design thinking, the idea of taking design thinking and applying it to building a brand, that's also what this is. Design thinking, especially now, it's very widely used in product development and innovation. In a way, my methodology is a lot like design thinking for creating your brand, for defining who you want to be.
Edward: I want to go back along your path to getting there. I have this theory that the things people do when they're 12 to 14 years old affect their entire lives. What were you passionate about at that age?
Lindsay: When I was 12, 13, 14, I loved hanging out with my friends. I was a competitive tennis player. I do think that but I mean I goofed off like, hopefully, most 12 and 13 and 14 year olds are. I was a little bit of a serious kid in some ways. I remember during high school, I was the person that people would come to me to talk about their problems even if I wasn't friends with them. It was almost like I had this reputation for go talk to Lindsay. She can help you if you have problems or she'll listen to you. At least, this is the way that my brain is reconstructing it looking back, that was a long time ago. I do think that I gravitated toward like one-on-one listening and helping people get less confused, get less unmoored.
I think that's true. I feel self-conscious right now because I'm not positive that at age 12, 13, and 14 that that was true. I remember that in high school in general that was like part of my reputation.
Edward: You considered being a clinical psychologist.
Lindsay: I did. Throughout undergraduate, I was planning on becoming a clinical psychologist which requires a PhD. It was built on this idea that I'm, by nature, a helper and I had an affinity for listening. This might be hindsight, biased, but I also think there is an element of just really deeply curious about people. I love to get inside the head of a person and try to understand what their world is like. I loved the clinical psychology work that I did as an undergraduate, scholastic work that I did.
I went pretty far with it, but when it came right down to actually going to a program, it really means like giving up six years of your life to live in a random town in the Midwest during your early 20s. I just became disenchanted with the idea of giving up so much of my life for this. I also, at the same time became a bit disenchanted with academia. Just the ivory tower of a university was starting to get on my nerves. It was so impractical. I decided not to do that after all. I went into management consulting instead.
Edward: Is there a world where you did do it? How different would your personality or life have been for you to have pulled the trigger and going on that PhD?
Lindsay: Oh my god, that's like a mind blowing question. Number one, in a lot of ways what I do now is really taking what I liked about that and just applying it to a different context, applying it to markets instead of to one-on-one people. In a lot of ways, it doesn't feel that different. The nuts and bolts are really different. The lifestyle and the business model is really different, but it doesn't feel like, in spirit, there was that significant of a divergence, although, I'm a poor judge of this. I think somebody else might totally disagree with that and think that it was wildly different, I don't know.
Edward: Eventually you go back to business school and then you start at Clorox. Why start at Clorox? Why take that job at a business school?
Lindsay: My first week of business school and I went to business school, I was working for Deloitte as a management consultant and it was in one of those associate programs where after the analysts program and you have to go to business school in order to stay with the firm, so I kind didn't know what I wanted to do. I went to business school because I was expected to, and I didn't write that in my essay by the way. I think I had a very cogent direct explanation of what I was going to do with my MBA, but I really was confused at that point in my life. I knew I didn't love the life of the management consultant.
I just remember this so clearly, the first week of business school, might have even been orientation, talking to a second year. I was a first year and I was talking to a second year who had just done her summer internship at Clorox. I was like, Clorox like the bleach company? What did you do for them? She explained, well I developed their creative strategy for a new ad campaign and I led some market research to do focus groups to learn about what kind of innovation we should be exploring. I was like, what? You can do that? That's a job?
What I came to learn is that's what marketing is. I didn't really know what marketing was beyond the fact that—maybe I equated it with advertising which a lot of people still do. I thought marketing is advertising, but what I learned from this person who influenced me so much by telling me about Clorox was that it's actually kind of taking psychology and applying it into a business.
I loved my marketing courses in business school, just blew my mind, micro economics, and game theory in marketing, it was so juicy for me. I applied to have my summer internship at Clorox. I did my summer internship at Clorox and went back when I graduated from business school. It’s funny though because this was in 2001. If you can remember, in 2001 and in the Bay area, because Clorox's in Oakland and I went to Berkeley for business school. During 2000 and 2001, when I was in school, all of the dot-coms, all of these new internet companies were hiring people from business school and among my friends, I had kind of the silliest job. They're like, you're going to go work on liquid plumber or fresh step cat litter and they're going to do some sexy.com. When the bottom dropped out of that, I still had a job. It turned out that though not sexy, it was a really good move.
Edward: I had a professor of business school who told me that he always knew where the bubbles were because that's where all of the MBA students were rushing to get jobs.
Lindsay: Funny. That is so interesting, I love that hypothesis.
Edward: I graduated in 2005 and everyone wanted to go into real estate and he's like, no one was passionate about real estate five years ago. I don't know what's happened.
Lindsay: Wow, that would be so cool to chart that on a map, like a bubble—okay here's where the dot-com era happened and here's where the real estate boom happened.
Edward: Lindsay, what were the biggest failure points in your career? Where did things not go as expected?
Lindsay: I'll start with what I mentioned when I was a management consultant. I took this job with Deloitte because it was a generalist job. It's a great thing to do if you don't know what you're going to do but I was so miserable for that 2 year period. There were 50 weeks in a row that I traveled, usually for three nights, sometimes four nights, and I could barely problem solve. I was so miserable with it and that sucked. That really sucked.
At Clorox, we've talked about some of the contents of brand management, P&G style brand management at Clorox. I loved the content of it. I loved learning a systematic approach to marketing. It's kind of like the smartest marketers in the world. That was really cool. Intellectually, awesome, but the culture of Clorox was brutal for me. It was very old boys, very risk-averse.
If you think about Clorox bleach, it's kind of a utility so from a market perspective, they really wanted it to be very predictable and no big bumps, so no big bets were placed. That extreme risk-aversion super bummed me out. I knew that I didn't want to stay there forever just based on that. As an independent consultant, when I think about the hard times that I've had in my career, it is usually with some form of either getting a little bit too far away from what I really liked to do. Not being intentional enough and finding myself doing something that was on the tangents of something I really wanted to do.
It took me away from my kids too much. Having a job or having a role that would make me work weekends, that's when I kind of hated it. I just want to quit. I don't know if you call it a failure. I mean the thing about having a small business, as small as mine anyway, is you just keep on pivoting until you like it.
Edward: Lindsay, what are your productivity tricks? What do you do to be productive that most people don't do?
Lindsay: I am a pretty strict digital minimalist. I don't have email on my phone. I don't have social media on my phone. I really use my phone as a dumb phone. I've got maps, I've got a texting calendar, I've got the weather and like two or three other apps. I just keep my phone from being too interesting. That is huge for me because your phone is with you all the time. If I don't have my phone with me, I'm much less likely to expend energy trying to resist something that's on my phone and then I can spend that time on a more cognitively rewarding task, like working on a blog post or working on a project for one of my clients. I think that's the biggest one.
The next level of that is like actually just not doing social media at all. I haven't gotten there but I have put my main work computer—I have blocks so that I can't go to Twitter or FaceTime on this computer. It's kind of about creating boundaries. That's my big productivity trick, it’s to create a boundary—it’s the same reason that I don't keep Haagen Dazs ice cream in my freezer, I will eat it. I don't keep because I will eat it. I still will eat ice cream. I just don't make it quite so easy for myself.
Edward: This has been fantastic. We're going to pick it up with some branding work tomorrow. Thank you, Lindsay.
Lindsay: Awesome. Thanks for having me, Ed.