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Standing Out in a Crowded Market: Make Your Brand Unforgettable

Headshot of Deborah Shapiro.

In this episode of Amplify, Elin Barton talks with Deborah Shapiro, the Vice President of Growth for Black Angus Steakhouse and Principal Partner at S&S Insights. 

In this episode, Elin and Deborah discuss solidifying your customer loyalty. They cover topics like, effective marketing strategies, the importance of your ideal customer, making your brand stand out, the power of video, believing in your product and more!

Deborah is an experienced Marketing, Merchandising and Operations Strategy executive with a focus on Brand Advertising, Product Merchandising, Creative Design, Digital Marketing and Loyalty Development. Her 15+ years of experience in the Retail, Publishing and Digital sales industries include advertising campaign design and management, long-term marketing and corporate strategy development and execution, promotional merchandising and loyalty program design and execution.

Time Stamps:

0:46 – Deborah’s Background

4:02 – Effective Marketing Strategies

8:06 – Breaking Through The Clutter

13:35 – Creatively Creating A Campaign

15:36 – Using Video As A Marketing Strategy

18:32 – Tips, Trends, And Advice

25:42 – Merchandising: The Core Of Marketing

27:54 – Seeing The Big Picture

Full Transcript:

Elin Barton  00:08

Welcome to Amplify, the video series where we interview thought leaders about best practices, trends, and their experiences in creating engaging campaigns. Today I’m speaking with Deborah Shapiro, the vice president of growth for Black Angus Steakhouse, and principal partner at S&S Insights. Deborah has years of knowledge and experience in areas such as marketing strategy, public relations, team development, and so much more. We can’t wait to get into today’s interview. Deborah, welcome to Amplify.

Deborah Shapiro  00:43

Thank you so much for having me, Elin, it’s great to be here.

Elin Barton  00:46

Deborah, there’s so much that you do. There’s so many areas that you’re very competent in. Would you categorize yourself as a marketing professional? Or are there other aspects of your career trajectory that you’d like to focus on when you explain what you do?

Deborah Shapiro  01:02

So actually, I like to focus on both marketing and merchandising. I actually spent 10 years of my life in grocery retail, doing both marketing and six years in procurement itself. And what I do at Black Angus is right now as the VP of growth, I head up both procurement and marketing. So I always put merchandising and marketing together, because half of it is about product selection, and the other part is the placement and promotion.

Elin Barton  01:32

That makes perfect sense. Thank you for clarifying that. And can you tell us a little bit about your background? And like, how did you get started early in your career, and what has held your interest in these fields all the way through to what you’re doing today?

Deborah Shapiro  01:47

So interestingly enough, I originally was starting out in the marketing focusing on design. I did my first postgraduate work was in editing and publishing. So I actually started out as a book editor and a book buyer for book clubs actually in Washington D.C. on Capitol Hill, working working on in that arena. And then when I went into grocery to work for Southeastern Grocers, I started in package design. And I started looking into the nuances of what went in to sell a product and to get it to jump off the shelf. I’m also a kosher consumer. And so as I was doing the package design, I started asking questions of, you know, does this have the proper kosher symbol on it, finding out that like, almost half of the products that were the private label were actually kosher certified, but it never made it onto the label. So I started this whole campaign and Southeastern Grocers at that time, which was Winn Dixie stores said, why don’t we move you to merchandising, and like you can help us with the product development, because you seem to know how to pick the right product to promote. So that began the six year stint in merchandising, which I have found invaluable. I’ve actually said to anybody who works in any type of a marketing field, to make sure that they have spent at least a couple of years on the other side learning about what you are marketing. Because that six years in merchandising, I was doing everything from actually being in the stores building the planograms and the sets. I remember once when my watch stopped working, because I was resetting a freezer, and I literally froze my watch. But you know, learning that hands-on experience really helped me like develop some marketing programs. When I later became the director of marketing for the brand, I developed some programs that make massive impact, a lot of the more personalized localized programs because I really understood what our customer wanted and not only that, but what our employees wanted in order to help push the product.

Elin Barton  04:02

That’s an incredible background. And it’s just such such a wealth of knowledge that I’m sure you’ve gained over the years. Regarding marketing, specifically, how have you seen effective marketing strategies kind of evolve and change over the years?

Deborah Shapiro  04:18

With marketing it, it’s always important to set your goal of where you want to be. But it’s also very important to listen throughout and be prepared to pivot. Probably one of the biggest mistakes that I’ve seen marketers make is instead of pivoting, they just slam on the brakes. I often say that, you know, when you’re marketing and you’re driving sales, it’s a literal drive and there’s going to be obstacles. There’s going to be other cars and the passengers in your car as well. Anything can make the job go off, but you never hit the brakes. You change lanes. You maybe swerve a little. You slow down a tiny bit and then you speed back up. But if you stop and try to start over, you inevitably get a negative reaction from your audience. One of the most exciting things that I did with my own company, with S&S Insights, is we would try to explain that a company needs to speak like a person. We came up with it our slogan, which is “Brands are people too,” which is, has sort of two meanings, which is one, a brand needs to talk like a person to relate to its audience on a personal level. But also, as a person, as yourself, you have your own brand. We would work with celebrity chefs on personal brands and celebrities in general. So we would also work with companies, you know, that are just trying to launch products, brand new startups to stuff like, let us personify your brand. And if you get start thinking of your brand, as a person driving the car, it’s actually easier to make decisions in strategy, and to make sure that you reach the goals faster.

Elin Barton  06:02

That’s such a unique approach. And I can attest to the fact that it’s very effective, because we’ve hired you to do it for us. And it was a very interesting process,

Deborah Shapiro  06:11

It was a lot of fun, it was so much fun doing the personification of your brand. Because we went through the process of giving it a personality, giving it a voice, giving it a person to think of and evoke when you’re trying to write. But it really helps, it helps people understand that their brand itself, there’s a brand soul, there’s a brand personality, there’s a brand voice. Brands grow up just like humans grow up. And so when you have a brand new brand, it’s almost like an infant. And that that has to get a little bit more comfortable. And you have to be okay, as a brand that grows, to change a little bit as you mature. So if you look at any successful brands, like if you take some of the big ones like our CPG brands like Coke and Pepsi, they in no way, shape, or form have the exact same logo that they did when they first started. But there’s essences there that are carried throughout. And you can see that in terms in the sense where they’re growing up in a more of a more mature brand. They’ve also learned how to diversify their outreach, you know, so they can talk to every all their different customers at different level. You don’t have to try to create one campaign that talks to everybody, especially today with digital media and digital marketing, you can just talk to the audience that you want to, but you still have to be careful. You can’t sort of be two faced, where like, I’m going to talk one way to someone, and then talk in different ways to another one. So we try to develop three different audience brand personalities or brand personas that work together, so and then how your voice and how your personality can speak to them with authenticity so that you’re not changing who you are, you’re just reaching people where they are.

Elin Barton  08:06

So I really like your approach of making the brand, a person speaking to your audience as if they’re a person, it creates kind of an intimacy and a connection. But I would like to hear your thoughts on breaking through the clutter. You know, there is just so much noise out there in the digital landscape, in social media, online. We get hit with messaging constantly. So how do you as someone, you know, leading the charge with a brand, how do you get noticed? How do you get seen? How do you make sure that you’re being heard by your ideal customers?

Deborah Shapiro  08:45

So I think you actually just hit it at the end when you said ideal customers. You have to find out who your ideal customers are, who your loyalists are, and in a sense, use them to your advantage in two ways. One, if you completely understand who your loyalists are, you can look for look-alikes of them, you know, so you know exactly where they hang out. Like for example, we found at Black Angus Steakhouse, the loyalists were the ones who are using this one specific type of coupon for our campfire feast that they were accessing via email. So we, first thing found that was most important is, you rank your platforms according to your loyalists. And email was top of the top. So we had to make sure that we maximize email going from when I joined the company, it was just one image and the email. We made it a dynamic email, we updated the CRM so that there was multiple places to interact. We talked about more than one initiative an email so that, and then we knew that that email that went out with the campfire feast coupon was the most opened so we would put other things that we would want them to see and buy in there. So knowing where that person is, and what is important to them, helps cut through the clutter. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is actually using your loyalists as advocates. I actually, I think it’s behind me, I have the what I call the loyalty loop, which is, you know, sales, which is you find your most loyalist turns into advocacy, which is the word of mouth, which is “Try this, I’ve tried this, I love this place.” You look at all the groups that are out there, nowadays, all all of the social groups, not just like, you know, social circles, such as church socials, or, you know, Mom groups and that kind of stuff. But the digital groups like there’s digital versions of, of mothers groups, and digital versions of all these different things. And the advocacy is growing, is is massive. And that breeds awareness, which then turns into more sales. You can always get more sales by referral. And one of the best ways to use digital media now now that it has changed is to capitalize on the referral. So find your loyalists, talk to them the way that they want to be talked to get them to talk about you, give them reasons to talk about you, and not just talking about saying things like “share this post.” Because in the world of the clutter, people ignore that, oh, you can tell that that person sharing it because they want to get like a you know, a free this or, or you know, that kind of stuff. You want to get to the point where you’re talking and like, it resonates so well with them that they are tagging a friend, or they are saying that this is amazing, we have to go here, or, you know, being happy enough to wear your brand. Interestingly enough, the best way to cut through the digital clutter is going back old school with merchandise. We have become so inundated with advertising, that it no longer phases people to wear branded apparel, branded or carry branded items. In the olden days, it would be seen like it was a sellout, you’re walking down the street with a branded shirt, or Oh, he got a free shirt, you know, sort of a thing. Now it’s sort of like, I mean, look at the Dunkin revolution, you know where they’re ever like, it’s some of the items that they produce are coveted that you want to have them and then you’ll take pictures of yourself wearing them. So it actually, people are no longer afraid to be associated with the brand. And because they are relating to brands as people, like we talked about, it’s almost like “I want to be associated with the cool brands. I want.” It’s almost like wearing a Prada bag only now it’s like you’re wearing a Dunkin shirt or a Black Angus shirt, you know, like you’re like, “I am associating myself with a brand that I am proud to be associated with.” And that isn’t even digital. That’s you’re seeing somebody walked down the street wearing the shirt, carrying the bag, at home in you know, in fuzzy blankets and slippers. And my daughter’s Google blanket is her favorite blanket that she has. She’s 12 years old. And everywhere she goes, she doesn’t say give me my blanket, she says give me my Google blanket. So like she is a walking advertisement for Google, just because the blanket is soft and fluffy. That is some of the ways that you can cut through the noise and really like connect with your core customers.

Elin Barton  13:35

That’s awesome. And you know, I think that answer is kind of an out of the box answer that I don’t think a lot of marketers would potentially give which segues beautifully into my next question. And that is, when like when you’re faced with launching a new campaign, creating a new campaign, and you’re at the stage, you have a blank piece of paper in front of you, a whiteboard with nothing on it, and you’re leading a team maybe through this process, how do you encourage creativity? How do you encourage people to think outside of the box in a way that’s going to bring something new and special to a campaign?

Deborah Shapiro  14:15

So interestingly enough, when you are creating a campaign, everybody comes to the table with an idea of what they think, not what they think, but what they know is going to launch the brand. You ended up with like six people like really like, it almost turns into a debate. “No, this is going to do it.” “No, this is going to do it.” “No, this is going to do it and this is what’s going to launch it.” And sometimes it’s so difficult to put those personal feelings aside and do what is best for the brand. Especially when you are working for the brand or it is your own brand and you’re an owner of the brand, you definitely have specific visions of where to go. So one of the things I always try do is I was like, “Okay, we have to get 25 things down.” So everybody has one, there’s six people in the room, we need 25. And it’s just one of those things, we just throw 25 things down on the whiteboard, and it has, you have to get all 25. So people just start reaching for random things just to get 25 things on the board. And what you end up having is every once in a while, this little nugget comes out that somebody might have been thinking in the back of their head but they were afraid to say, and put their guts behind, that everybody in the room resonates with, and you can build on it from there.

Elin Barton  15:36

So talking about all these marketing strategies is really fascinating. How important would you say video is to any marketing strategy?

Deborah Shapiro  15:45

Video is very important. It’s almost like putting a face with a name. I know that today with all the video conferences, it is hilarious to me how you’ll see people with like, Zoom or Teams and like they’re not turning their camera on. If you’ve ever done that, and then and then ask people to turn on their cameras, with proper notice, you know, because some people like they’re used to not having their camera, you get to make that eye to eye contact, you get to see body language, which is very, very, very important in understanding a person. A lot of times you don’t understand if you are not rubbing the person in the right way until you actually see like the bristle or something that they do, you know, that you can’t really hear in voice. And so it’s a completely different experience with with video. And then when you create videos in your marketing, it enables you to have sort of that eye to eye like “I trust you” content. Marketing is, you know, sort of like the, this is the mind control of the product world. People joke about the fact that marketing is you know, nothing more than like mind control or persuasiveness, or, you know, no different than, than politics or anything. You know, it’s not. It really is, what it is, is creating a level of understanding with who you’re going to reach. And video helps create that picture and sort of feels like that trust moment where it helps you just feel right, that you feel okay to connect. It also is key and selling physical products. You need to see it. Some people want to see it. Like it used to be, I need to be able to see it and touch it, you know, and feel it. And now some of the times you can’t touch it, everything is mail order. You definitely want to see it and hear it, even if you can’t touch it. Although I’m queen of like ordering something online, and it comes out too big or too small. And I didn’t, you know, look at my measurements right. So sometimes, like, there’s literally two welcome mats in front of my door because I bought one that was too small, because it looked big in the picture. So video can be deceiving. So you have to make sure that you verify but it is very important.

Elin Barton  18:06

That’s a good point. But I like what you said about, you know, creating a personal connection when you see people on video. And in marketing, it can really help to establish that know, like and trust factor in a way that no other medium can. You can’t get that, you know, I love to read but you can’t get the same connection if you’re reading ad copy as you can in a video.

Deborah Shapiro  18:31

Yeah, absolutely.

Elin Barton  18:32

So what are your tips? There’s so much change in our field, there’s so many new things coming out all the time. How do you suggest that people who are working in marketing or who want to work in marketing, stay on top of the new trends and, without getting overwhelmed, stay on top of the new trends without getting overwhelmed, and assess which ones they should be paying attention to? Because it can feel very, just it’s just a lot, it’s a lot to take in sometimes.

Deborah Shapiro  19:08

It is definitely a lot to take in. And you, the worst thing you could do is like turn it into like being schizophrenic where you’re looking everywhere, you know, and trying to try all the, all the different new platforms. You don’t want to get into a position where you’re jumping on to whatever is new, because you don’t know if what is new will actually work for you. That really goes back to knowing your audience and what resonates with them. If you jump on the new next big thing, you may alienate your core customer. If your core customer is really into the next big thing, then yes, not jumping on it will hurt you in sales. So there’s a few things that you need to do. Still I always go back to number one. Understand your core customer. Be willing to push the boundaries and the limits with them, but making sure it’s still within their limits. Like for example, we needed to refresh the Black Angus restaurants, they hadn’t had a remodel in a few decades. But we knew that we could not like completely change it, because that was done actually prior to me joining the company and half the customers decided not to come back because they took away the quintessential booths that were so much more important to go for the more popular, modern, open look. So what we did was we kept the same layout, but we did a whitewash around the walls, we painted them all white, but you could still see the wood through it, and the wood paneling, which made it that popular shiplap look. But we still stayed true to the fact that this was like a barn, you know, but now it was like one of the really cool Magnolia barns. And so we didn’t alienate our customer. Everyone’s been saying, “Wow, it’s great, but it’s still feels like home.” And we’re able to, to be fresh. So one is really understanding your customer and knowing where you can reach them and maximizing there. Two is look at your competition. So if you are afraid to diversify or change your product, there is a possibility that you will be left in the past. Everyone is like, “I want to be first to market, first to market.” No, it’s never first to market, it’s best to market. And we can give you like a ton of examples when the person who did it second or third ended up being on top. I mean, I mean, the most obvious is MySpace and Facebook, right? You know, they weren’t, Facebook wasn’t first to market. They just were best in understanding what people wanted out of the platform and how to use their advocacy to the best by using college students, you know. So, you know, you have to understand how you need to diversify your brand to stay relevant and not be afraid of that diversification as long as you’re staying within what your audience likes. So that’s sort of what you look for when you’re trying to see if you should jump onto it. And then, you know, it makes no sense to like, jump straight on Tik Tok if you have your customer base is like 50 and older. And eventually I do believe 50 and older will be on Tik Tok because eventually, they all will gravitate to the most popular platform, but like right at launch, it was not really that demographic. So why would you want to do a Tik Tok, you know. So you have to understand where your customers hold.

Elin Barton  22:34

Yeah, and be willing to embrace change in a smart way. So I love the way you explain that. What, and this is my final question. When you think about people who are getting into the field of marketing or company growth, do you have any advice for them at this time, this time in history?

Deborah Shapiro  22:55

Absolutely. You have to market what you love. If you do not believe in the product that you are marketing, it will show through in what you create. You really have to be the advocate for the brand as the marketer. So when you are looking for a field of marketing, like when you are looking for which company you want to start off your marketing career in, you have to make sure that your core values align with their core values. And don’t be afraid if they don’t have core values, because half of what marketers do is create core values for the company that they are a part of. But you can very easily understand like the brand soul just from an interview, you know. And also the person that you’re interviewing with, whether it be the CEO, or just the Director of Marketing there, do they believe in the product, because if they don’t believe it, and they’re just there as a job, then it’s going to be that much harder for you to market. Also, don’t be afraid, I mean, don’t be abrasive, but don’t be afraid to stand up to leadership to talk about what messages are going to resonate with the audience. Use data. Don’t ever stand up in front of like a CEO or anything and say, “I feel this is what is going to connect with this customer.” You stand up and you say, “75% of our customers are between the ages of 35 and 45. They frequent on these platforms, like to hang out in these markets, and wear these types of clothes. We need to do A, B, C, D, E, F, G, to be noticed by our core, our core group, and if we do that, our sales will increase by 15% within three months to give time for the marketing campaigns to be noticed and recognized.” And just state the facts. Stay honest. It’s kind of interesting, when you think about marketing, and people are like, “Oh, marketing is just lying and spinning.” I made a pact over 10 years ago that I would never tell a lie. And to this day, I still do not lie. And it is possible to market and be honest. And so you stay true to yourself, you stay true to your brand, and you stay true to the customer. And that’s going to give you the most success.

Elin Barton  25:26

Deborah, that was great advice. And it’s been wonderful talking to you, I always just feel like a sponge absorbing all the information you have to share. Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you want to talk about or, you know, just share today?

Deborah Shapiro  25:42

To be honest, when you’re talking about marketing, this goes back to what I said the beginning, you cannot forget about merchandising. I mean, if you think about, you know, the original core of what marketing is, placement is one of the items in understanding marketing. So making sure your product is in the right stores, even if it’s an online store, then it’s the placement of your online store in the path of your customer. So, product development and placement of that product is is also a large part of marketing. And so sometimes marketing is in product development, understanding your audience and their need. And you service this need right here already. And then this brand new product is within your scope and is a need for your audience. It just endears you more and you get more loyalists and sell more products. So just don’t forget that they should be hand in hand. And when I worked in grocery, the merchandising department was on one side of the building and the marketing department was on the other side of the building. Merchandising would get there at 7:30am and like leave around 4. Marketing would get there at like 9 and stay till like 8pm. Right? So there was just, just two different types of people. And we used to joke that we had to walk through accounting to get to each other because we literally had to walk through that accounting. But we wore that path down to the point where you actually could see in the carpet through accounting, like this was the marketing-merchandising path, because I made a big point of stating we had to be in sync. So those hours when we were all there together, we made the meetings, you know. And hey, especially if you if you meet with any meat merchandisers, man, they’re there at like, 6am, 5am. You know, and so marketers would get up at 6am to go meet with the meat department, but it was important to understand, you know, each other and be on the same page, and really, you know, be out there and work with the teams and understand your colleagues, as well as your customer.

Elin Barton  27:54

Yeah, that’s great, great insight. And, you know, that ability to zoom out and see the big picture and understand where everybody fits together, that’s a great skill. So thank you for bringing it into the conversation.

Deborah Shapiro  28:08

Have you seen any, like when your working with, you’ve worked with so many different companies. You have an example of like something where they completely just revived an old customer through the work that you’ve done?

Elin Barton  28:20

We work in marketing too and we have many examples of clients that we’ve worked with that have needed to take a step back and really look at themselves, look at their marketing, and reassess the way that their messaging so that they could reach an audience or reach a new audience or reconnect with their current audience. Because sometimes, you know, just like you use the personification of a brand, you know, sometimes people grow apart and sometimes a brand and their audience grows apart. And it’s time to reconnect. So, you know, that’s when we sometimes have to come in and see that big picture, understand the messaging, and bring in, we typically have video at the core of our message, and then build out from there. Not always, but typically.

Deborah Shapiro  29:18

There’s lots and lots of times where you, if you keep marketing the same way, eventually you grow apart from your customer. So that’s where the diversification and keeping it fresh and understanding their needs. Just because you surveyed them three years ago doesn’t mean you shouldn’t survey again, focus groups are very key in understanding. Focus groups amongst the employees, focus groups amongst the customers, focus groups amongst your competitors’ customers. Some of my favorite focus groups targeted none of my customers, because invariably I hear my name called. I worked with a domain service once and we were interviewing other domain service customers. But you hit the nail on the head, like you have to really always be in tune with your customer. And not to be afraid just to focus on one of them, like your most important one, and rate them and eventually you can start thinking of the others. Don’t fall into the trap of like, “Oh, now Gen X is the rage, I need to go and find all new Gen X people.” What if Gen X people are not your product? When I was first starting off, everybody was trying to get millennials, the millennials are right, you know, I was like trying to lead a team and everybody was telling me, “Hey, you need to get the millennials. They’re the new customer.” You know, I’m a Gen X er, and I’m like, “Okay, great. But are they really our customer?” “Well, they’re showing up on all of the different media points, like 20% of the people watching us are millennials.” And I’m like, “Well, great. Millennials are also the most digitally and like, like group in the entire United States at this time, they are on media all the time. So they’re naturally going to be 20%.” We had, within merchandising and grocery, we would say that you never look at a cart analysis with bananas and think of bananas as the number one item because everybody, whether you love you know ethnic foods, or whether you love just meat and potatoes or whether you are all fresh veg, you always buy bananas. Bananas are in everybody’s cart. So when you do a cart analysis, you take out bananas. Well, millennials are in everybody’s cart. But we would joke and say that the millennials were the banana of the internet, because they’re everywhere. So if you had 40% of your viewers being millennials, then yes, you have a millennial audience. But if 20% of your viewers were, 20% of everybody’s viewers are millennials, because they’re just on media more than any, at that point before Gen Z, they’re just on media more than anybody else. So you have to really know your customer to understand your data correctly. But you’re right, like, you know, don’t just go with the trends. Like help people connect.

Elin Barton  32:06

Context. That’s the word that’s coming to mind is context.

Deborah Shapiro  32:09

Context. That’ it. Context. 100%.

Elin Barton  32:12

I love that. Thank you. Deborah, this was awesome. Thank you so much for talking with us and being on Amplify.

Deborah Shapiro  32:19

Of course, you know, anytime.

Elin Barton  32:20

Well, you know, we may have to have you come back and do an encore.

Deborah Shapiro  32:24

Next time I’ll interview you.

Elin Barton  32:27

That would be fun. That would be fun. I would love that.

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