Welcome to the first of Jus Agency: Global Expert Interview Series. We’re excited to kick it off with an interview with Thomas Kolster, a leading expert in the field of sustainability and social impact.
Thomas is one of the most recognised global thought leaders where marketing, business and sustainability meet. He is an author of two books “Goodvertising” (2012) and “The Hero Trap” (2020), and a guest speaker at conferences including TEDx. Thomas is an experienced business advisor to Unilever, Adidas, Deloitte, Ikea, P&G, Danone, Carlsberg and many others, with a real passion for driving positive change. He is the founder of Goodvertising, a global Business Consultancy based in Copenhagen that helps brands communicate their purpose through marketing efforts.
In this interview, we will be discussing the role of businesses in driving sustainability and social impact. Thomas will share his insights and experiences working with some of the world’s leading brands, to help them adopt more sustainable and socially responsible practices.
Here at Jus Agency, we will continue to explore the intersection of growth marketing and brand building in our Global Expert Interview Series. Stay tuned to hear more from established global founders, industry leaders and investors.
Julia Ager, Founder, Jus Agency
Hello Thomas! Thank you for joining us. Tell us a little bit about you and what you’re most excited to be working on now.
My background is from the creative side of the business. I started out as a copywriter and seven years into my career I founded an agency, which at the time tried to break away from traditional media and advertising. I saw the changing landscape and wrote my first book, “Goodvertising“.
For the last 12 years, I’ve been focusing on three areas: education, inspiration and internal change. The consultancy part is where we work with big brands such as P&G, ABInBev, Meta and others. The last silo is its own company today, which is called ImpactBuddies (impactbuddies.com), which helps small startups scale with the use of marketing. Now, I’m passionate to use my network and web equity to help startups scale when they’re the most vulnerable.
Marketing plays a fundamental role in the success of a business but many startups forget this because they’re too product focused. They are always trying to get the product or service figured out, but forget how to bring it to market and create an exciting brand that inspires.
At an early stage, what is the best way for businesses to think about building a brand or to start doing this?
In the two books I wrote, “Goodvertising” and “The Hero Trap”, I have been on a journey, where I understand that the key part for brands is to figure out whether they’re big or small, or whether they’re leaders or not. It’s important to figure out what meaningful role you’re playing in people’s lives by asking these fundamental questions. Who can you help to become? How do you add value to their lives? I often ask startups to sit down with their customers, have a conversation with them, and figure out the real added value.
Oftentimes, if you ask people, they might not realise what they’re buying. For instance, I’ve worked with a company called District Vision that sells running glasses, sunglasses, etc., for people who love running. But what they really believe in is mindful training, people’s bodies and minds working in harmony, to become much better runners. That’s their message to the customers. First, ask who can help people become what they need or choose to be. As soon as you figure that out, you move the perspective away from you, the seller, to the value provided.
To understand how you can help people on their journey, what are some of the barriers, the aspirations that your customers are having? If you are a logistics software company, how can you make the logistics manager shine? See how you can bring people onboard your mission. This is crucial because as soon as you play a fundamental and meaningful role in people’s lives, at an early stage, they can work together with you.
What do you think about authenticity and ways SMEs can apply your key messaging around sustainability?
The authenticity challenge is bigger and more difficult for the large brands than the small, because if you started a smaller brand that doesn’t seem authentic, then you’re definitely doing something wrong from the outset . Where authenticity becomes a problem is when you say one thing and do something else. Small businesses should be honest about the challenge. If you are a startup in the fashion industry and you have issues with your packaging, i.e. that it’s not as sustainable as you want, then you should be honest about it. Don’t claim that you are fully sustainable, instead, focus on what you know or the things the big retailers can’t deliver, and see if those are the things you can invest in.
Take product marketing, for example, if you’re a local producer, who gets everything produced within the U.S. It’s very easy to go after the big businesses that fly things in from China or other places with unfavourable working conditions.
Where does one start with sustainability in the day to day, could you give us some more examples?
Business is either fueled by hate or love. You may love fashion, but you hate the footprint that it leaves. It’s important to keep that passion. You can’t create the most perfect product or service. Brainstorm where you can focus better in the beginning and then just be clear about it. Smaller brands have advanced in being conversational with the use of social media. Do a little video where you explain to people why you have done that product or service, show how you produce things, and show how you package the products before you send them off. If you’re a food startup, invite them into the kitchen.
What growth advice do you give to startups and businesses, generally speaking?
Everybody thinks that they are putting a unique product into the market, and 9% – 9.9% of the time, that’s not the case. People are buying the brand they build. They might be buying that your customer service is better or that you deliver faster. You need to figure out what they are buying and make sure that you build a brand that people want to engage with.
In the long term, that’s what’s going to differentiate you from others. Pay enough attention to the brand, and also think about distribution channels. Distribution is part of the marketing mix and that could be a unique selling point that helps you in building a community because how many of us want to go online to buy low-quality products such as a toothbrush? But that’s what we buy when we’re in the supermarket, airport or even when we are in a hurry. Have a specific target group in mind even when you don’t have your product yet. Have the conversations and engage with the community to know how you can serve them best. Figuring that out is fundamental for success when starting.
At what point should small businesses bring onboard experts to grow?
Everybody thinks that they have a cousin that knows something about marketing, social media and distribution. You might be lucky to have one of the most brilliant cousins in the world, but most people don’t. You should reach out to people, and ask them if there are people that are doing it right. You’re still a startup and people tend to offer free advice, if not, then it is worth paying because all of these areas are fundamental for your business, and mistakes become very expensive if you don’t get them right at the beginning. It’s like building a house and you need to start with the basement, if not, everything else will be unstable. Today, I still call a friend for good advice. That’s because you need others’ perspectives about things. None of us has all the answers. Ask people and don’t hire a cousin unless he’s the most talented one in the world.
What is some of the best advice that’s ever been given to you? Whether it’s by mentors or business leaders. What has stuck with you?
It’s to never give up. It’s a fundamental thing when you are a startup in any industry you are working in, it is to keep at it. You might not have figured it out with this first business, but maybe there’s a second iteration of what you’re doing that’s going to be successful. Most businesses fail because of the partners that you bring on board into the endeavour. The fundamental thing to do is to get your partners right.
The team aspect is super important. Do you have any insights around hiring, business partnerships and building culture?
It’s very difficult. It’s similar to dating because you have to talk about things. When you go on a date, you talk about your lifelong plan, visions, values and more. It’s not just the money, it’s about being very honest, not having secret agendas and not being greedy. People tend to become greedy in the long run. When bringing partners on board, it’s important to create a win-win situation. The culture also comes from having a strong value-driven brand, testing it and mapping out who your potential investors could be. What happens if you part ways? Is this the end of the company or do we already have a way of getting out of this? Trying to figure out some of those value-based questions is a good way of crash-testing the relationship before you go into it. I think of it as the merits and what you do to protect yourself in that circumstance. Scary enough as it would be, there’s a high chance of succeeding with a merit, and starting a business.
What are the skills you need in your organisation to succeed? In one, two or three year timelines, when would you have that full house in place? That should be the strategy, try and plan that team and then fill the critical positions out as you grow the team and as you get smarter. Your success lies in recognizing the weaknesses that you have.
When you are working with a startup or a smaller business if you were to recommend something for them to invest $1,000 in, what would you recommend for them to focus on and to put that money into?
Spend money on building your brand and building a community. It’s going to be worthwhile, your passion and drive in creating that business is the way you should be spending the money. Spend on building a foundation. People don’t necessarily buy a car, they buy the brand behind the car. It’s all those things that are part of what people are buying.
What about if the budget was $10,000 and $150,000?
It’s the early linear phase, figure out your positioning, brand and messaging with $10,000, get customers and with $150,000, look at getting the best talent on board because then you avoid the mistakes of crossing all those things you don’t know because you might be the best at product design, but you might not be the best at marketing.
What should businesses focus on after building a brand and what are some of the best customer acquisition techniques most people overlook?
A key challenge is people become too product-centric and too little purpose-centric. They forget the values, the purpose and the brand they are building. What can you help people become?
If, for instance, the District vision brand that sells running glasses, what do they get people excited about, when do they get people to show up in their hundreds? It’s when they have runners sharing their experiences of mindful running. If you are building your customer acquisition, those are the dialogues and the conversations you want to have. That’s also why when we do a podcast, it’s because we’re having a podcast about things that matter in your life. It’s talking about the more fundamental things that matter to your customers.
Unfortunately, a lot of people make the mistake of talking about their products. Instead, you should focus on the greater purpose and what it will provide. That’s what draws people in and makes them part of the mission. If you are a startup in the local food business or another industry, what are some of the things you can get the public excited about, the global ingredients from the local farm, maybe that’s what you need a new narrative around, or when you don’t ship food, or depend on food from Ukraine, what are some of the conversations you could be having that will pull people in?
Make your customers call because they love to be part of the journey and when they’re part of how things should be designed or how this could fit them better. Open up and take advice from them. If you can customise your product and give them options to choose from, they will love you for it. Opening up and making people decide more is essential.
In customer acquisition, we’ve done it with webinars. During Covid-19 we started selling webinars. At some point, the market was just flooded and it was difficult for us to charge for them. Then we launched the ‘pay as you want product’. We showcase to people what would happen if they paid $50 or $70. If they paid zero bucks, we’d go bankrupt, but of the people who didn’t pay any money, about 10 to 15% of them were either purchasing a book or buying something else. Hence, we ended up making more money by providing value up front.
Can you give us a transformative book recommendation?
Get a book to learn something new because we tend to get obsessed with thinking we know the tools that we need in our lives and sometimes it’s just good to read books that challenge us, inspire us and show us different perspectives. I say that because I have many clever colleagues around me, and I have many books that they’ve written on my bookshelf. I still haven’t gone through them all, unfortunately. I am reading Green Light by Matthew McConaughey. It’s a good book about success and not giving up.
You can contact Thomas Kolster via his website www.thomaskolster.com
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