In this interview, Adrian Ho, CEO of Zeus Jones, talks about how his company collaborates with clients on the simultaneous development of products and their branding—specifically by integrating service and experience into product design, facilitating customer engagement with the client, and developing ways to make it easier for customers to do business with the brand. Food and health-care-related companies are key verticals for Zeus Jones.
What is a marketer to do when s/he stops believing in advertising and stops believing that advertising is the right way to build brands?
Four employees of Fallon, a “world class agency in the middle of the prairie,” spun off Fallon’s digital marketing department when it no longer “fit” with the larger agency. They founded Zeus Jones with the vision of creating an agency focused on building branding into products and services, rather than wrapping advertising around those offerings when the products were ready to hit the market. Adrian refers to the idiom, “Actions speak louder than words,” and notes, “If you can build remarkability into the products and brands, obviously you have to spend a lot less trying to create remarkability afterwards.”
Three services Zeus Jones provides are:
- Service and experience design – designing better ways for customers to engage with companies
- Marketing innovation – building the marketing into the products and services
- Brand and product innovation – working with product development and R&D to build branding and product at the same time.
Adrian presented “Bridging the Gap between Brand and Experience Design” at HubSpot’s Inbound 2018, where he discussed how brands could be defined by experience, and how to bring that about. He believes a “new kind of marketing” is emerging. Patterns of this are evident, but he feels it is not yet understood . . . nor has it been mastered.
Adrian can be reached through his company’s website at zeusjones.com or on Twitter @adrianho.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am your host, Rob Kischuk. I am joined today at HubSpot’s Inbound conference by Adrian Ho. He’s the CEO of Zeus Jones based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Welcome.
ADRIAN: Thank you.
ROB: Great to have you here. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Zeus Jones and what makes Zeus Jones great?
ADRIAN: Zeus Jones is an 11-year-old company. We’re based in Minneapolis, like you said. I think the thing to know about Zeus is we were founded by four people who stopped believing in advertising and stopped believing that advertising was the right way to build brands.
Really the founding idea of the company was that we started to believe that in this world, in the modern world, what brands do is more important than what brands say. So really the founding principle is that actions speak louder than words. The company was founded to try and figure out how to build marketing into the things that companies do, the products they make, the services they deliver rather than to create advertising that wrapped around the stuff that companies were doing.
ROB: If there is a typical client or typical client engagement, what does that look like for you?
ADRIAN: We work with a lot of big, recognizable clients. The typical ones, I would say—they tend to be problems where it’s clear that advertising is just not the solution. We have three main kinds of work that we do.
One is service and experience design (I’m giving a talk about that tomorrow). That’s really trying to help them design better ways for customers to engage with their company, customers to engage with certain aspects of their company, and just make it easier for people to do business with them.
The second area is what we call marketing innovation, but it tends to be helping the people inside the company who create the marketing think differently about what marketing means so that they actually build the marketing into the products and services.
The third area is brand and product innovation, and that’s really working with product development and R&D, largely in food and healthcare related companies, to build branding and product at the same time. So you can build products that in some ways have marketing and branding built into them. Therefore you have to spend less on traditional advertising and marketing after they’re launched.
ROB: So, making products that embody what the customer should feel rather than needing to tell somebody the product needs something that it doesn’t.
ADRIAN: Yeah, I think that’s a good way of summarizing it. Sure.
ROB: Obviously you can’t always talk about everything that you’ve done. Sometimes clients can be a little bit skittish about such things. But what’s some work that you’ve done that you can talk about that people might recognize?
ADRIAN: Probably, the thing that we’re the proudest of recently is a pizza brand that we helped create with Nestlé. It’s called Outsiders. Again, it was a case where we did branding and product development at the exact same time.
The brief there was our client had recognized that there was an opportunity in the market for a different kind of frozen pizza at the high end. We worked with them through a series of – actually, I think it was only about 9 months – to identify what that pizza could look like, what it could be called, what was the idea around it.
I didn’t work on this, so I can’t talk specifically about it, but I think there was a huge insight around the discovery of regional pizza blends that hadn’t been popularized and mainstreamed. So, the brand was really built around the celebration of pizza from places like Detroit, Milwaukee, and other things like that.
The branding Outsiders was created to really reflect that this was a brand new entry into the frozen pizza aisle. It’s going to be something very different from anything you’ve seen. It’s not just a different kind of Italian pizza.
I think that’s a good example. You’ve got an idea around the product. You’ve got a name around the product that is immediately different so that even just simply placing it on a shelf, or prior to that, having conversations with the customers and the supermarkets, the retailers themselves, you’re coming to them with something that has interest. That’s a good example to me of what we’re talking about.
ROB: This is not a round, one cheese pizza? [laughs]
ADRIAN: No. It’s actually “damn good pizza.” That is the tagline. It’s delicious pizza. It has cheese curds and all sorts of great stuff like that. I can see your face, you’ve had cheese curds before?
ROB: No, I haven’t done a lot of cheese curds, except I sort of associate it with Canada and poutine, maybe.
ADRIAN: Oh, cheese curds are a deeply Midwestern thing. I’m surprised as a Midwesterner you aren’t a big cheese curds person.
ROB: We didn’t do that in Indiana that I know of. I’m disappointed now. I feel like I lost my childhood.
ADRIAN: It’s our proximity to Wisconsin. But yeah, I think the idea is, if you can build remarkability into the products and brands, obviously you have to spend a lot less trying to create remarkability afterwards.
ROB: It’s interesting; that brand almost seems resonant with your own company and identity. Do you think that Nestlé – have you worked with them before?
ADRIAN: Yeah, they’re one of our larger clients.
ROB: Do you think they sometimes come to you looking for a perspective outside of – there are lots of branding firms in New York. There are lots of people who could help them with this. They have New York pizza on their brains. LA has salads on their pizzas. Do you think they’re looking for a different perspective when they come to you?
ADRIAN: That’s a good question. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Honestly, I think there were more tangible reasons. We’ve worked in food as one of our key verticals since Day 1, so we’ve got a lot of expertise in food. We’d also done a lot of product development prior to that.
I think it was the fact that we had obviously food expertise, and we had a process for product development that was very lean and very fast. I think it was those two things more than we simply represented an outside point of view.
In terms of the name Outsiders and the whole idea, one thing that did drive that was we looked culturally at what was going on and we saw – and we are seeing – that there is really a resurgence of pride in the American Midwest and the Heartland and people wanting to celebrate America and think about American ideas. That was a big part of what went into the thinking.
ROB: Were you actually testing different kinds of pizza within the firm? Do you have a test kitchen?
ADRIAN: We were testing lots and lots of different kinds of pizza. There was pizza in there for days, unfortunately. I’m not a huge pizza fan, ironically. I also find it sort of ironic that I’m talking about the love of the Midwest as well.
ROB: [laughs] Why is that?
ADRIAN: Just my accent, clearly. [laughs]
ROB: What was the best pizza that didn’t make the cut, and what was the weirdest thing?
ADRIAN: You would have to ask the people that worked on it.
ROB: That’s fair. [laughs]
ADRIAN: I will say, though, plugging Outsiders Pizza, it’s amazing. I’m not a pizza fan, and I actually really love it.
ROB: Any grocery store would have it on the back of Nestlé’s distribution?
ADRIAN: You can find it at many national chains. Target is one of the big places that you’d find it everywhere.
ROB: I’ll look for it. We’ll put it in the freezer and we’ll bake it up.
ADRIAN: You should. It’s very, very good.
ROB: My family will love it. You’re saying Detroit, so I’m picturing in my mind like Jet’s Pizza. Do you have Jet’s Pizza?
ADRIAN: No, we don’t.
ROB: Jet’s feels like the closest thing you can get to Detroit-ish from a local pizza chain in Atlanta, where we are. That’s a little weird.
You mentioned this Outsiders thing, you’re kind of outside of some of the hubs, but my understanding is that Minneapolis is a pretty happening place for marketing. Why do you think that is?
ADRIAN: That’s very true. I think some of it is just standard distribution of talent. It’s in the middle of nowhere; something had to form around it. It pulls from a lot of places like Iowa and so on and so forth. I think you’ve got a concentration there.
But I would say that in many ways this goes back to the place that the founders used to work at, which is an agency called Fallon. In the early ’80s, Fallon made it a mission to create a world-class agency in the middle of the prairie and succeeded for many, many years. If you’re in the traditional advertising world, it was one of the top five agencies in the world.
Because of the talent that it was able to bring and the kinds of clients it was able to bring and the kind of awareness that it was able to bring into Minnesota, all of that dispersed into the market and it’s created a concentration that’s sort of unusual for a city like that.
I think the other part of what drove Minneapolis was an equally powerful design culture. We’ve got some great design schools. We obviously have some great design agencies, including Duffy.
So, there was this huge combination of design and marketing, and then the third thing is we’re still fortunate enough to have a lot of Fortune 500 companies that are based in Minnesota.
ROB: A bunch of medical . . .
ADRIAN: Yeah. General Mills, Best Buy, Target, Cargill. There’s a bunch of big companies that just make it unusual for a city of its size.
ROB: Right. Both of my grandfathers worked for car companies, Ford and GM. Do you think there was a residual effect as Detroit declined a little bit? Did some of the brightest and best from Detroit wander over, do you think? Was that a dynamic as well?
ADRIAN: It’s hard to say. I can only speak anecdotally; we didn’t see much of that, honestly, no. Minnesota has always been a little unusual. There were large concentrations of wealth, starting with lumber barons and then Rochester, the Mayo Clinic. That whole thing was started in Minneapolis and then moved down to Rochester.
So, after the lumber barons there was a lot of money from the medical industry, and then after that there were the mills. There’s always been a concentration of money and power that is probably unusual for a city of its size.
ROB: Right. It seems, from what you’re saying, perhaps a little bit like St. Louis in that regard. There’s this money, but they’ve unfortunately lost a lot more of their larger companies. They had more acquired and kind of declined there.
ROB: You mentioned there were four partners at the start of Zeus Jones. Tell me a little bit about the origin story. How did Zeus Jones happen? What made the company form? Tell me about the journey along the way.
ADRIAN: We were all working together at Fallon. I was the Head of Strategy there. My other partners were two Interactive Creative Directors and then the President of Fallon. This was in 2003-2004.
We really started seeing the power of digital and social media and what could be done with it. I think it’s sort of obvious now, but the Web is not a communications medium; it’s an interactions medium. It’s two-way. It allows you to deliver experiences, not just words and pictures. Back at that point, everyone was thinking of it as just another communications medium.
We managed to convince some clients at that time to let us try different things. We’d worked with Microsoft and we’d done an experiment where, instead of running advertising, we’d created a fake band and created music. I was tangentially involved with a pretty remarkable experiment at that time called BMW Films, which was, again, a pretty revolutionary way of thinking about how to use the internet and what could be done. And my partners worked a lot on it.
So, we just saw that there was this tremendous opportunity to really think differently about marketing. We tried unsuccessfully to launch a division within Fallon to go after that kind of marketing. When it became clear that the models and the visions didn’t really align, we decided to start up on our own.
We didn’t necessarily believe that it was going to work, honestly.
ROB: [laughs] When did you realize it was going to work?
ADRIAN: We’re still not sure. But I think we’ve held onto the idea that there are no certain answers. The world is changing. Everything is evolving. The best you can do is keep on learning and keep on discovering.
I would say we still believe that firmly. We believe that a new kind of marketing is emerging. We’re able to see some patterns in what that new kind of marketing is. But I don’t think it’s useful or truthful to say that we fully understand it and we’ve got it nailed and we can deliver it over and over again.
ROB: That’s a pretty amazing journey. BMW Films was – it’s almost like Red Bull Media before Red Bull Media was even aware of anything in the world. Before they had guys flying in from space, BMW Films – I don’t even remember with certainty. In my mind I picture a Jason Statham movie. [laughs] Was he actually in those, or was it just like every one of his movies, with some of those car chases?
ADRIAN: It’s one of those really sad stories about missed opportunities. We worked on BMW Films. We launched two seasons of it. By the end of the second season, we had all of the major motion picture studios lining up to pay BMW money to create a feature film series out of it.
Because of the Byzantine way that marketing decisions get made within companies and because of the Byzantine funding priorities and the business priorities and so on and so forth, BMW just couldn’t or wouldn’t move forward with it. But literally, there were deals on the table where studios were offering tens of millions of dollars simply for the license for that property.
When BMW passed on it and after several years went by, that Transporter thing was the studio’s attempt to basically replicate exactly what that idea was about.
ROB: So that should be in the credits. The Transporter was inspired by BMW Films, basically.
ADRIAN: It really was, and everyone knows it.
ROB: I didn’t, but now I do, and it’s entirely believable.
I think one thing that’s interesting that you’re talking about is it sounds like you’re finding the edges of what could work that’s not marketing. How do you think about the process of discovering – someone comes to you and says, “We want to do this, but we don’t want to do advertising.” With pizza, you’re tapping into people may just want a type of pizza that they kind of didn’t know they wanted, and you’ve put it there for them.
How do you find these opportunities of what’s possible and could work, but probably isn’t guaranteed to work?
ADRIAN: I’d say there’s two big places. One of the big things that inspired us, again back in 2003-2004 and even earlier, was that the companies we really, really admired – the startups, the people that were really transforming their industries – did not use advertising. So, we looked very closely at the things that they were doing and the ways that they were working, and honestly we stole a lot of their tactics.
I think that in the most famous cases, they happened upon things that just made a ton of sense. They didn’t necessarily have formal marketing training, and that was probably good because they didn’t just rely upon traditional tried-and-trusted techniques. They went out there, they built communities, they made their products irresistible, they built viral loops and that whole thing.
So, I think there’s a lot to be learned, still, from people that are in that world and who are really hustling to try and grow their businesses. I think some of those processes are quite scalable and quite adaptable to larger companies.
The second area is that we have seen time and time again that cultural trends drive the creation of new products and brand opportunities, and they drive the growth of the brands and products within them. As CrossFit became a big thing, a whole legion of new brands and products and services emerged to fill it. You can look pretty much at the growth of a brand and product and the growth of a cultural trend as being completely correlated.
We look for cultural trends that are on the ascent, and we try to align the brands and products and services that we build towards those emerging trends.
ROB: Have you done some work adjacent to CrossFit, then?
ADRIAN: We do a lot of work in food. When we’re looking at food, we’re looking at any kind of lifestyle trends that drive food consumption, and CrossFit is a huge one, obviously. It’s spawned –
ROB: There are whole new brands of fitness equipment. There are Netflix shows, and that’s why I wondered – you could’ve made a Netflix movie.
ADRIAN: Not yet. [laughs]
ROB: No? [laughs] But they’ve been fairly smart in that. Have you seen these? I think every year now, they’re doing a Netflix documentary where they follow some people on their journey through to the CrossFit Games. You’re bored, you’re on Netflix, you have an hour and a half to burn, it’s a thing you might watch.
ADRIAN: Yeah. Again, I just used CrossFit as one example; this is the state of our culture. There are so many really interesting new movements that are going on that are creating markets underneath them. It’s just a ton of momentum. It makes sense to attach your brand or your product to it.
ROB: Yeah. It’s really true, though, too, what you said about not making marketing. Fundamentally, people want to watch car chases. Fundamentally, some people want a different pizza than whatever is in their aisle. CrossFit, there’s marketing behind it, but there are always fitness trends, and there is a foundation of truth there.
You are here with a talk. You’re talking tomorrow about “Bridging the Gap between Brand and Experience Design.” You are bringing this message to an audience of largely inbound marketers. What lessons do you have for this audience? What would you encourage people to think about?
ADRIAN: I was talking about that this morning with one of my partners – and I think I might have mentioned this to you before. We’re honestly not sure that any of what we have to say is going to be useful at all to these people here. So, let me just start there.
One of my philosophies in life has been that the stuff that’s super, super high level can be very, very useful because it allows you to arrive at a really comprehensive picture of a landscape. It’s like a map that allows you to see things much more clearly than you might have seen them before.
The stuff that is super, super tangible and practical is also very, very helpful because it’s like “this is how to do it; let’s just get it done.”
There’s an awful lot of noise in the marketing industry that operates in the middle. It’s not quite high level enough to be interesting and insightful, and it’s not low level enough to be useful, really.
So our goal, at least, is if you are interested in the idea that brands are brought to life through experiences and you want to understand that world a bit more, we’re going to give you both that very high level view of “here’s why brands are really being defined by experiences” and then “here’s how to do it.”
ROB: I think you’ve got a very valuable and aligned message for this audience. If you look out there, some people get way too many emails – you probably get way too many emails from people with marketing messages for you that are not well aligned. They’re asking you, “Hey, can I sell you some software engineers in India?” You probably get that and you’re like, “What would I do with them?”
There are many tools out there now where people can just spam a large list of people, but it takes a real mindset around the customer – people talk in this world a lot about the customer journey. You’re just a little bit upstream from where most people think about the customer journey, starting with the product itself.
ADRIAN: Yeah. I think that’s probably a good way of describing it.
I think one of the big differences, maybe, is that my sense of this world is that it operates on scale. “We don’t have to be super tight on the offering; we just have to push tens of millions of people through that funnel, and sooner or later we’ll find that person for whom software development in India matters.” Our services don’t really work that way. We can’t afford to throw tens of millions of pizzas at people, so we need to get pretty tight about who’s coming into the funnel in the first place.
I think that’s really the biggest part of where we differ in terms of philosophy. It’s really trying to identify, way upstream, what it is that’s going to drive the right person into your acquisition journey or your customer journey, whatever you want to call it.
ROB: Got it. Adrian, when people want to find you and Zeus Jones, how should they find you?
ADRIAN: Obviously zeusjones.com is a fantastic website. I would highly recommend it. Filled with great information about all of the subjects that we’ve talked about. I’m on Twitter @adrianho, and always curious to talk to new people and hear different perspectives.
ROB: Tell me about the origin of the name.
ADRIAN: We had a belief that actions speak louder than words, and this became a little inconvenient when we wanted to announce the formation of our company because the typical way that you would do that is send out a press release. We realized that would be a little hypocritical.
So we – not we, but one of my partners had a brilliant insight: in the old world, fame was 15 minutes in mass media, and in the new world, fame was participation in social media. So we wanted the name of an entity or a person who could participate in all of the different social media platforms at that time – and again, this was 2005-2006, so there were literally thousands of social platforms.
We got that far, and then we kind of argued about the name. Right before we launched, we had a party to celebrate – whisky tasting. (One of my partners is Scottish.) We got really, really drunk and started shouting out names, and we landed on Zeus Jones because it sounded like a porn star. It was hilarious.
Then when we tried to register a bunch of the other names that were actually the real contenders, we found out that they were either taken or we would have to pay for them. Staggeringly, no one had tried to register Zeus Jones before, so we just did it because we needed to get a name out there.
In fact, two of the partners were deeply uncertain about it for the first 6 months, at least. But it seems to have worked.
ROB: It’s pretty fantastic. It sounds a little bit like a sprinter to me. You have both the commonality of a name like Jones in the U.S. and the Greek god of Zeus. It’s fun.
ADRIAN: That was intentional. We wanted it to represent hard work, but brilliant insight as well. I can’t say it was one of those deeply strategic things, honestly.
ROB: [laughs] Well, this has been a pleasure, Adrian. Thank you for sharing with the audience. Best wishes in your talk tomorrow.
ADRIAN: Thanks a lot, Rob.
ROB: Thank you so much for recording with us.
ADRIAN: Thank you.
ROB: Take care.
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