Episode 102 – Use merchandise to create fans of the brand.

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Episode 102 – Use merchandise to create fans of the brand.


Our guest today is Brandon Felton. Brandon runs marketing and e-commerce at the American Civil Liberties Union, an almost hundred-year-old organization that has worked to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the constitution.

Adam: [00:09] Hi, and welcome to the Good People, Good Marketing Podcast, a podcast about digital marketing and how to make it better so the good people and good organizations can have good marketing as well. I’m your host, Adam Walker, co-founder of Sideways8, a digital marketing agency and 48in48, a nonprofit dedicated to hosting events that build forty-eight websites for forty-eight nonprofits in forty-eight hours.

[00:29] My guest on the show today is Brandon Felton. Brandon runs marketing and e-commerce at the American Civil Liberties Union, an almost hundred-year-old organization that has worked to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the constitution. The ACLU has been on the front lines, expanding beyond its legal focus into advocacy, finding modern ways to influence various audiences to impact and preserve civil rights and liberties. Brandon, welcome to the show.

Brandon: [00:56] Thanks for having me, Adam.

Adam: [00:57] Yeah, man. I’m excited to chat with you. It sounds like you’re doing a lot of good stuff. Got a great background. I was stalking your LinkedIn profile a little bit and loved the work you’ve been doing. Let’s dig into it here. So question number one: related to digital marketing, can you tell us something that has worked well for you?

Brandon: [01:14] Worked well in digital marketing. It’s an organization that has grown by leaps and bounds, particularly in the last presidential election, and as a result, the organization has various ways to elevate the brand, some include engaging with entertainers and celebrities and high profile folks that have a social media presence but not in an influencer sense, more so related to kind of the peer group of our supporters. It’s SNL, (inaudible 01:49), the comedian, folks that can actually really galvanize their own audience around a cause. That’s one.

[01:58] Two, we’ve done a lot of on-the-ground work in building and organizing arm of the ACLU. Those folks are engaged in actually doing the on-the-ground campaign with Get out the Vote campaign where we matched low voter turnout zip codes to folks who actually want people to vote. We created this whole campaign where people would sign up and receive postcards along with all the kinds of merch. They do these campaigns, letter writing, parties, and then we (unclear 02:30) send it out (inaudible 02:31) go out to the low voter turnout, and then there was a whole social campaign around that.

[02:29] We’ve been pretty gangbusters on social media, on the digital side. We’ve also done merchandise and I think a lot of nonprofits are starting to realize now, such as the kind of the independent fashion world, that merchandising is a way that you can get the brand and you kind of look at ourselves as like the band and we have fans. The fans always love to wear the brand of the band. Now we have shirts and hoodies and all that kind of thing that we show up for. At protests we have supporters, we have all kinds of people that want to actually identify with what it is that we do and what we stand for. All of these many ways, you’re able to hit various demos, lead people where they are. They’re more in real life people. If they are people that are strictly on the phones or they’re people that actually are in front of the court steps, we have supporters in all facets and we want to make sure that they know that they are standing with us.

Adam: [03:42] Right.

Brandon: [03:43] Part of that, too, was us actually doing the brand (unclear 03:47), we kind of re-energized the brand, got a new identity and new tag, and a new way of speaking to our audience. Whereas before, people looked at us as subject matter experts in the courts and kind of legal battle and we’re We The People. We’re rooted in the constitution so it’s an easy snag of We The People and we dare to create a more perfect (unclear 04:11). We’ve taken that as part of our messaging and people are more involved in the work that we’re doing. And it’s been great.

Adam: [04:23] Wow. I think I’m getting close to a hundred interviews for this podcast and you are the first person that has mentioned merchandise as a methodology for marketing. Honestly, it’s brilliant. I mean really, you said that and I thought. “Of course. Why would all nonprofits have their own merch?” Like you said, “You’re the band, they’re the fans. Let them get your gear.” That’s great.

Brandon: [04:51] You’re giving me chills.

Adam: [04:54] I mean, that’s so good!

Brandon: [04:57] Let me tell you, we’ve been an underdog in trying to push that. Here’s some of the other ones that have merch. HRC has merch. Planned Parenthood has merch. But when we decided to really invest in it and create an online store, as well as be nimble enough to turn around designs and provide merch at actual protests and functions and events, next thing you know, we’re showing up with our well-designed (unclear 05:30) in the media and press and the New York Times. You can’t buy those kinds of impressions to know that people are sitting there and we’re on the front line.

[05:42] Merchandise does a good job at doing that. It’s not only just the who kind of wanted it style and what’s cool at the moment, which ACLU have fortunately been able to be in some of cool spaces. The people who had been putting their money where their mouth is with us for ten, twenty, thirty years and they want more than a freaking pen.

Adam: [06:05] Yeah. They want something real, something that’s got style.

Brandon: [06:11] They want something they can wear and they want something that people can be like, “Oh, ACLU. I support them, too” and it becomes a conversation piece. Next thing you know, you’re building connections just by signaling.

Adam: [06:24] Yeah, that’s right. It’s almost like a guerrilla marketing way to get your word out, right? People are wearing your billboard everywhere they go. It’s fantastic.

Brandon: [06:32] Totally. Walking billboard, absolutely.

Adam: [06:35] Man, that’s great. Okay. I don’t want to get stuck there because I can talk about that a lot longer, but man, that is so good.

Brandon: [06:41] Right? Any time you want to do a part two on merchandise, I got you.

Adam: [06:45] Man, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have a part two conversation on merchandise alone. That will be so epic. I’m going to hold you to that hands down. No doubt. Question number two, related to digital marketing. Can you tell us something that has not worked well that we can learn from?

Brandon: [07:02] What has not worked well? That’s a good question. I would say since you’re segwaying from merch, not all good is good merch and there’s an upfront cost to investing to that. I think what marketing, where marketing has evolved to now is that you can actually track your spending since there’s a digital means of click throughs and impressions. You have to be more responsible than you were before and you have to test and you have to gain qualitative insights.

[07:43] Find out from a very basic level: Is it working? Are people liking what they see? Any feedback? People love to get feedback if you talk to them. Having a presence, someone in the ground, where you add your ear to the people that you’re supporting and they’re supporting you, that engage with. Listening is very important because the organization is so big and we’ve done so much.

[08:08] The output when it comes to every kind of tactic we’ve done, we’ve done a million times over. The things that have not worked, we really don’t have time to focus on that because it’s just so much that has to be done.

Adam: [08:23] Right.

Brandon: [08:25] Let’s see. We’ve done a lot of things and things have stuck. People look to us to be, the ACLU, as a subject matter expert in the field. I think of other things now that I’m talking to this is being able to stay consistent in your tone of voice when you’re messaging on social. It has to be one voice that the user, that the customer hears. You can’t all of a sudden be giving background on why something is not right and then post a cat photo.

[09:05] We’ve always really adhered to being on brand but being on brand isn’t just visual; it’s really your tone of voice. What we’ve done at the organization is evolved where we have these strategic meetings over tone of voice. What we look at is the messaging that’s worked and what was not falling on deaf ears, we’ve had the highest engagement, or the things that have not had high engagement but they’re true to our brand, and we’ve broken those out into the types of framing, and that can be urgent, that could be newsworthy, that could be educational. It could also be something that’s uplifting. It could be something that’s inspirational or it could be something like red button, “We need you to do this now.” We’ve kind of parsed all these out, filtered them out and we know kind of what works. In that way, we can monitor throughout the year what kind of things are we not doing enough of so that we can stay one solid, well-rounded voice of the ACLU.

[10:15] It can get kind of granular but it’s very effective so that we are always staying true to who we are and that we’re not, as some people say, cloud-chasing and doing things that are outside of what people will come to expect from us as a brand.

Adam: [10:28] Right. Wow. That’s great. It was a lot good advice in there. I think my favorite thing you said there is you can’t say something serious and then post a cat photo. That’s humorously good advice there that I think maybe too many nonprofits are not aware of.

Brandon: [10:48] They think posting cat photos gives you likes, so why not?

Adam: [10:52] It gets engagement but it waters down the whole idea, right?

Brandon: [10:58] It’s really quality over quantity and it’s like talking to a person that you have a lot of respect for and if they start posting cat photos, you’re going to wonder if they’re okay.

Adam: [11:11] Right.

Brandon: [11:12] Are you going to listen to the— I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with cat photos

Adam: [11:15] No, there’s not.

Brandon: [11:16] If (inaudible 11:16) traditionally posting cat photos and you’ve been giving some really sound advice or some insight into something that’s serious, it can be a little jarring to hear that kind of message from somebody that you’ve come to grow and trust. And brands, they are a person but they are dynamic, but you have to really be conscious of who’s listening to you and what they feel about you and what they get from you and from how you message.

Adam: [11:46] Yeah, that’s right. That’s right on. I love that. I love the way you’re approaching your brand and thinking through that. Last question. I love this one. Related to digital marketing, can you tell me something you are excited about?

Brandon: [12:02] On the digital side… It’s a dark time. I’m excited about the fight because Facebook now, they’re facing all kinds of questions about their trustworthiness. To be honest, the organization has used Facebook quite efficiently, but (inaudible 12:24) not to the level of some of these other organizations where we’re getting a lot of personal data because that actually violates our privacy policy. Using these platforms to continue to meet people where they are is always exciting, but you never know what’s coming at you with the next wave is or what people will gravitate towards. I think kind of like what Instagram Stories has been able to do in capturing moments in a really real way. It went from things like Vine and recorded videos to now people taking videos and adding effects to (inaudible 13:00) moments in their lives. It’s not just a static photo anymore; it’s now long-term, long-form video. (inaudible 13:08) you also have this short pieces of copy. You have long-form pieces of copy. Similar to the New York Times, they can release daily of what’s going on. For those who want to do long-form, they have that option where you can look at investigative journalism. I think we now provides just an option to meet all kinds of people where they are. It’s our duty to find out who’s really listening to us, who’s paying attention, and to make sure that we’re offering something of value to them so that they can stay with us because it’s a lot of noise out here and everybody’s vying for the attention of your ear. I’m exhausted. I can only put up with so much during the week, but if you’re staying true to providing value and you never waver in what you’re providing your supporter, then you’ve built your fan base and your fan base sticks with you. Whether you release an album right now or you wait two or three years to release an album. I always relate it back to music because it’s the very natural form of being connected to something that you believe in.

Adam: [14:15] Right. Man, I love that. I love your take on what were some of the social platforms we’re going at. I share some of your concerns there, to say the least. That’s great. Well, Brandon, let me see if I can recap a bit of what we talked about give some good takeaways for our listeners and then you can give me any final thoughts you’ve got. Related to what’s working well, you mentioned you’re elevating brand is working well. Engaging with higher level celebrities that have high level peer groups that can galvanize people around a cause. You also mentioned kind of actually just kind of old school campaigns about people hitting the streets and enabling them to go out in the neighborhoods, and knock on doors, and get out there in the community. Then also, just re-energizing the brand, refreshing your way of speaking has really helped a lot. You’re trying to be more authentic towards your mission with your tone of voice, I think is kind of where you’re going with that. You also mentioned that merchandise is working well, which I’m kind of blown away and excited about. I really love that idea. Why not create amazing merchandise that people can wear and show off your brand and show their support and be a supporter and know that they’re making an impact, right?

[15:28] For what’s not working well, you mentioned that not all merch is good merch, and that’s true. There is an upfront cost and investment. We have to be aware of that. You also mentioned that we have to be responsible with our marketing efforts. We have to test and iterate and learn and we have to get feedback from the people that we are working with and marketing to so that we can be better at what we do. In particular, you’ve mentioned we’ve got to stay consistent with our tone of voice. Like I mentioned a minute ago, the quote that you said is, “We can’t say something serious and then post a cat photo.” We’ve got to be who we are all the time. Whatever our personality of our brand is, that’s who we need to be at all times so that people can trust and rely on that individual, that entity that we’ve created for ourselves.

[16:11] For what you’re excited about, you mentioned using new platforms to meet people where they are. You mentioned that you liked the direction that Instagram is going with Stories, with short format content and just the ability to sort of connect with people in a little more of an informal way. Did I miss anything from that recap for our conversation?

Brandon: [16:31] No. That was me talking?

Adam: [16:34] Yeah, that was you. That’s all you, man. Every bit of it.

Brandon: [16:36] Okay, alright.

Adam: [16:36] I don’t think I contributed anything there, other than saying I love your merchandise. That was great.

Brandon: [16:44] One more thing about the merchandise in case we don’t get to (unclear 16:48) of it. When people jump into merchandise, particularly non-profits, you have to be careful not to just make what we call “job fair gear”. It’s the stuff that people like to give away with their candy and that kind of thing. That stuff, it becomes junk. What we’ve done is made sure that we designed for things that you would actually enjoy and material that you would actually— And we’re not talking about going to Italy, but there are some source materials here, there are some labels that actually provide— Even some great made-in-America products that you can get (unclear 17:24) on and if you got a good designer or design team, they’d be excited to kind of mold something that people would enjoy—not just staff but people out in the world. And you’d be surprised how many people would be willing to do it, even carry a mug that has your organization on it that’s a little different, that’s a little higher quality that (unclear 17:49)

Adam: [17:50] I think people like things with quality and style. If you can put your brand as a part of that experience, with quality and style, it catches people’s eye and they love it. My digital agency, we put Einstein phrases on some of our T-shirts which, which by the way is, is public domain, so I’m safe.

Brandon: [18:14] Okay. I was going to ask–

Adam: [18:16] I doubled checked before we did it. Some of these quotes are sort of mildly attributable to Einstein too; I’m not entirely sure they’re really Einstein, but they’re quote unquote Einstein quotes, right? But what’s interesting is that people love it, but it’s just a funny little thing that we can do and people love it. I’ve seen other friends do other kinds of interesting things with their companies.

Brandon: [18:37] And how are you picking your quote?

Adam: [18:40] It’s usually quotes that are actually related to creativity. He actually shared a lot of thoughts publicly on creativity. One of the more famous ones is: creativity is intelligence having fun. Since we’re a digital agency, we’re a creative agency, that’s kind of perfect, right? That’s kind of what we’re about.

Brandon: [19:00] So you went with creativity because it aligns with your brand.

Adam: [19:03] Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Brandon: [19:05] There you go. Pick a (unclear 19:06) quote. You just gave one. Pick (unclear 19:08) quotes that are out there in public domain that align with your brand is a great way to get started in merchandise.

Adam: [19:16] Exactly.

Brandon: [19:16] Way to go, Adam! Okay.

Adam: [19:17] Yeah. People love quotes. I love quotes. I’m all about quotes.

Brandon: [19:21] That’s a great tip.

Adam: [19:22] I’ve got quotes on my walls.

Brandon: [19:24] I think what you just said there too, if you do it with quality and style (unclear 19:29) you previous said is authenticity, and you take those two things serious, not just in designing physical merchandise, but in how you message, I think you got some people that’ll be your fans for the long haul. When everyone else is making noise and they’re flipping through their phones and they get tired, all of a sudden they get an email or message or a text or however you communicate with your constituents from your organization, they’re more inclined to listen because they’ve come to expect (unclear 20:00) quality and authenticity.

Adam: [20:04] That’s right. That’s what it’s about. That’s what it’s about. That’s great. Well Brandon, this has been so good. I will hold you to it. We need to have another conversation on merchandise alone, which will be amazing—

Brandon: [20:12] I’m looking forward to it. I got a lot of speakers to review.

Adam: [20:16] Oh, man. That’s even better. All right, we’re going to get you on the books then. This is going to be great. Thanks for coming to the show, man. I really appreciate it.

Brandon: [20:21] All right, Adam. Thank you.

Adam: [20:25] Thanks for listening to the Good People, Good Marketing Podcast. To get more resources about digital marketing, make sure to go to goodpeoplegoodmarketing.com where you can find more podcasts, blogs, and other fun resources. Also, if you want to find me, your host, you can find me on Twitter @ajwalker, and on my blog at adamjwalker.com where I blog about leadership, productivity, habit building, and the craziness of having five kids. Thanks, and tune in next time.

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