The following is a recent interview between the founder of method, OLLY + Welly, Eric Ryan and Barkley.
Eric Ryan: And I think we live in a world so much where strategy drives creative and I'm a huge believer that creative can drive strategy.
Barkley: Hi everybody and welcome to The Whole Brand Briefing. My name is Tim Galles and I'm the director of The Whole Brand Project. In a few seconds, we're going to hear from Eric Ryan. Eric has started four different brands from scratch beginning with the groundbreaking method. And what I love about Eric's thinking is the value he places on creativity. Creativity at the highest level. And I think that's what you're going to see when you hear his ideas for building whole brands. So let's get going.
Thank you Eric for being a part of The Whole Brand Project. We are really excited to hear your thoughts about building great brands, especially for the future.
Eric Ryan: Great to be here. Thanks for having me, Tim.
Barkley: I don't know if you remember, but we worked together on a Microsoft commercial about, I think it's been about 12 years. And at that point, you had only started, you had only created one brand, which was method, but you were actually part of a really robust global campaign + you were the first brand we reached out to and we actually did a good old-fashioned 60-second commercial with you, animated. Do you remember that at all?
Eric Ryan: "Keep it weird as our wing for, keep it human, keep it real, keep it different. We don't build rockets over here. We make soap."
I do. It was when I got to finally join the actors guild and receive little checks in the mail every week. So it was a lot of fun + what a time when marketing was so much simpler when you could actually run a campaign like that.
Barkley: One thing that I really always remember because you said it loud and clear in the interview that we did then was your philosophy was to keep it weird. And so all these years later, I'm wondering does keeping it weird still figure into your belief system?
Eric Ryan: Yeah, I mean it definitely does. The way I always thought about it is we are competing against these master goliaths that had a 150-year head start and these really well-entrenched categories. So our only probability for success was to bring extreme differentiation to the category. And I look at everything from branding from the inside out + from a cultural perspective, what I wanted was for people to really push for differentiation.
So if you ask people to go out too weird, they're going to meet you somewhere in the middle. And it was my idea to just create a lot of space for people to think very differently about the way we brought our brand and product and even our culture to life.
Barkley: I love that idea of going further out than you think you'll actually get, but getting people to meet you in the middle, I love that idea. It feels like you've done that with the brands that I've seen how do you practice that with the brands that you've created?
Eric Ryan: As a leader and as an entrepreneur it's so important to really walk the walk of what you want out of the organization and you've got to do it yourself. And I always try to do that again, create that space where the expectation is to innovate, to push ourselves really hard to be different. Ultimately weird people change the world, but then at the same time give them a soft landing, the ability to execute well + be successful. And I think that one of the hardest art of building a startup is pushing for that innovation differentiation but in a way that allows for predictable success.
Barkley: Can you give us that starting point? I think it's always refreshing to hear how you started method + what got you into that category.
Eric Ryan: Yeah, so I came out of advertising originally and I think I'm pretty unique. I knew in the third grade what I wanted to do, which was to be an entrepreneur. So I was that kid who was always working on some crazy startup idea or sending to those inventor submission campaigns on TV or trying to sell my neighbors something. So it was just always ingrained in me that that's what I wanted to do.
And I started my career in advertising in London and fell just by luck into an agency as an intern that had a really great planning department and planning at the time, starting in Great Britain was replacing the research function, which research was always used to either de-risk something + kind of really leveraging consumers as a rear-view mirror and to look backward. And so the whole idea of planning was how do you take a consumer insight + use it as a springboard to drive great creativity and unlock great creativity.
So I really learned to straddle that world between insight and creative execution. And in my late twenties, I felt like I had enough of a career under my belt that I could take the leap to be an entrepreneur, knowing the probability of success was so small that I would have a career to fall back on once it failed + learn from mistakes and hopefully try again. And so I'd kind of used that as my magic trick in all of my startups, which is I don't start with ideas, I start with categories.
So I look for these really big categories. I try to figure out what is the cultural shift that that category is missing, which is the insight, + then really recruit the best creative talent to take that insight and bring it to life. And method was the first one and the insight there was pretty simple, which is life styling at the home. You now, look at a dish soap more than you actually use it. And this idea of sustainability that you were asked to pollute when you clean or use poison to make your home healthier. So we brought together those two insights of high desire for deep sustainability to reframe the experience of home care with the method brand.
Barkley: When you left advertising, did you think about building a bigger company and brand? Was there something different than building a brand and being an entrepreneur and knowing all the things that go into it, the culture, I'm sure lots of people to deal with, lots of challenges, but was it more about the legacy of creating that organization or was it just your itch to be an entrepreneur?
Eric Ryan: Definitely driven by my itch to be an entrepreneur, that was always my intent. But I saw in, the years I was in advertising, I started at this agency that was the first integrated agency in London, it had a really strong design department and they took a whole brand approach to it. And then I landed at Fallon in Minneapolis, which had Duffy Design as part of it. And this was during Fallon's heyday in the mid-nineties. And they too, with a strong planning department took a very holistic approach to brand building. And I ended up working on several projects with Duffy Design alongside Fallon. And I was so impressed again by taking this very holistic approach to it + how you think about iconography and all the ways you build a very effective brand that has a deep emotional connection. And then I went to Hal Riney in San Francisco and hell was one of the original Mad Men + it was an agency that was a little bit more traditional in its approach.
And since in my career had been in these very highly integrated design-led agencies, I was working on Saturn and I was really unsatisfied with how everything was focused on creating an ad. And at the time they were, Saturn was starting to have a problem, which was they had a brand that resonated with baby boomers, but they had a car that fit the needs of a Gen Xer and it was a long pipeline before they were going to have more product that was going to satisfy the needs of their core consumer. And so the insights I was doing, I can't remember how it happened, but I got invited to the GM Tech Center and then I started getting regularly invited to come back + we had these giant gator boards and insights and the designers of the car were finding the insights just as helpful as the agency was around creating great ads.
But Hal Riney as an agency was not incentivized in any way to be able to monetize what I was doing. And I was pulled aside by the account director + he's like "Eric, we don't make money helping them create great cars. We create money by helping them create great ads." My argument was like, "Well if we help them create a better car, would that lead to better ads?" I didn't last much longer after that and I realized how much I fell in love with the product + how the product was the most important expression of a brand. And then when you get the product right, you ultimately lead to marketing just getting much easier. And that sense evolves with me as an entrepreneur where my ethos is very much of everything starts with culture. Products are a souvenir near the culture, you get the culture right, you get the products right, and sales, marketing, finance, + everything else just gets inherently much easier.
Barkley: When you started recruiting people? When you started really growing, how did you start thinking about the organization? Was that new to you? Did that feel very natural?
Eric Ryan: No, it was so in method we joked that we had the secret sauce for our culture, but nobody had the recipe. And in the beginning, it was not something we thought about. It was something we just naturally did. And coming out of advertising where I recognized so much of, your assets go down the elevator shaft + leave the building every day, that really your people are your most important assets. And I saw good cultures + bad cultures I saw Fallon put so much effort into their culture + the way they treated people, the office design, it was a place you wanted to be.
And then I was at Hal Riney where you'd sit next to Hal on a pitch and he would barely talk to you. And it was very different, there were amazing people there, but it was not a place that nurtured culture. But still, there was a recognition that your people are your assets.
So I kind of took that Fallon culture with me when I went to go start method + even when you walk in, it looked like it was more of an advertising agency than it was a soap company. So it was something that I think just naturally happened. And businesses for better or worse tend to reflect the personalities of the founders because you end up hiring people that you connect with and that you have great chemistry. But as we started scaling up, we saw some mis-hires and I overheard somebody say, because we were so busy and so stretched, they were like "You know what, I just need a warm body." And that scared the crap out of me. And so we created what was called the homework assignment as a way to start prototyping to make sure that we were hiring for the right cultural fit + building a company that really reflects the brand from the inside out.
Barkley: When you were inside and building the organization, were there things that had kind of come from your past, your creativity, + the work you had done in strategy? Did you start applying, did you notice that you were applying your sensibilities to everything? Did it feel like there were any barriers to where creativity could live or not live?
Eric Ryan: No, and I probably, very early in this, but I obsessed over office design even at a stage where the company arguably can't afford great office design. And again, I think a lot of this was one, I love design and aesthetics + I'm somebody who needs to be an environment to be inspired by. But I also recognized from advertising the way you build your offices, both as a place where people want to spend time when they're working long hours, but also a place where clients want to come to. And I also recognized how really great office design helped people be brave to sell ideas.
And with method we designed it so you walk in, you feel very much when you walk into the lobby, you're walking into the brand. The people you meet, and the way it's designed. I love Winston Churchill's quote of, "We shape our buildings and then they shape us."
And I think the same is true, which is ironic since we're all working from home now is true very much for the role of office design, of setting the intent of the brand, the culture. And in my case, I wanted to show design matters everywhere. And then the real value I saw of it is when major retailer Target would come to visit us. When they're In our environment, they were braver when we were pitching on innovation + ideas that were further out there because it just felt very, very at home. And then all of a sudden there's a place, I think great office design too for your culture. It's a show that you really care about your people and that you create a space that they want to be in.
Barkley: Yeah, I love that. I love the idea of creating a space you want to be in, but a space where you feel more brave + more creative, really great learning experience.
Eric Ryan: (When you'd) tour at method and they'd be like, "Oh what's that? Is that the design department?" I'm like, "No, it's the finance department." But they look like they're in a design studio + OLLY and we tried to brand everything. So method, when we built our plant, it was called the Soapbox. OLLY, we put in the Presidio. So we were based in a national park because it was all about an active lifestyle + we branded at Camp OLLY, Welly is Welly World, Cast is the Castle. So I really try to give real intent and purpose + this idea that the office is part, and the culture is this whole idea of we're part of this unified experience.
Barkley: Now you've started four brands, what are the things that you kind of feel confident about, I guess is the way I would ask you.
Eric Ryan: Yeah.
Barkley: That you feel like are mandatory?
Eric Ryan: So I think if there's kind of five principles that I go back on. The first one is to nail it before you scale it. And you see this over and over of companies that go into scale mode without a profitable business model that works. And so I constantly de-risk along the way in a lot of different lot approaches, even the way we rule out products, we often focus on a retailer, and prove it there before we take it to other retailers. We use consumer insight, the right way to de-risk. So nail it before you scale it. And just breaking things into bite-size steps I think is a key principle.
Second would be this belief that everything starts with culture and your products are a souvenir of your culture. So really focusing, it's never too early to make sure you get that team, that culture, right? Because at the end of the day, ideas are easy, execution is hard, and great execution is going to be delivered by great teams. And so really putting your ego aside, hiring people greater than yourselves, empowering them, giving them space. And then as an entrepreneur, I just obsess over products. So if I can get the culture right, products right, as I said earlier, generally the boats can be pointed in the right direction for success.
The third principle is I'm a huge believer in bringing together artisan operators. So I think if you look at companies when they were at their best like Apple, when you had Tim Cook and Steve Jobs, right? Artisan operator or Gap. When Gap was Gap, you had Mickey Drexler who is not the founder but very much the artist, + then Don Fisher who was the founder and very much the operator. And so I try to build that within our teams both at the top where I love a good dynamic duo of artists and operators, I'll often bring in a great COO as my operating foil. But then populating that inside the company and bringing the creative director to sit as a peer to the CFO + then bringing as much in-house as possible of the people that create that really front of the house.
Four would be design matters. I think design is the most impactful way to build a brand. Seeing is believing, right? You can immediately change perceptions instantly through great design + creative presentation. We live in a visual medium world now driven by online where everything is designed and I think great design amplifies everything. So if you've really, overspend on the packaging, we really get it right, but then that gets amplified. Everything from PR where journalists want to give features to pretty little objects, to retailers that are willing to give tremendous space because your product visually merchandises better than others. So I think at the end of the day too, you get the product right, and the product becomes the ad in everything you do. And I think that that is super essential.
God, there are so many I could go for.
For a fifth principle, for me, it's really the importance of setting rhythm in a business and predictability and it goes back a little bit of artisan operator, but I want to create companies that have incredible creativity and innovation but can run a predictable business. And as my career's evolved, I hated the process at method in the early years I've really evolved to love it, but in the right way because I'm a big believer that if there's enough discipline in place, it creates more freedom for more innovation. And if you think about it, there are so few companies in the world that are incredibly creative + innovative, but they run a really predictable business.
And so I set really clear rhythms in our business using an OKR system kind of as the operating benchmarks. We map out the entire year using everything from our board meetings, which are these tent pole moments, how that backs into our leadership team meetings, our product meetings, and offsite. But everything is built around these OKR operating plan plans and then we execute it with a very clear rhythm throughout the year. But it's that balance of creativity and discipline that I really try to instill in everything we do.
Barkley: So you think of it as the rhythm of the business, the rhythm of the year, do you think in year chunks?
Eric Ryan: Yeah, we always have a three-year plan. We update that every year. So every year we're publishing here our operating plan, and we start working on it six months out. I can get really geeky on this stuff and it took me a while to like, "Okay." But in essence, what I'm trying to do is make sure that everybody in the company sees the same movie. And it goes back to ideas, our easy execution's hard.
And so by the end of the year, everybody in the company has this really very robust operating plan, full transparency of what we're going to go execute in that next year. And then everything from the way we do our company meetings, our scorecard and constantly measuring ourselves against those OKRs and then everybody's OKRs from the board through everybody in the company translates up to the companies. And what it is, a lot of founders, I think out of ego or just sloppiness, only they can see the movie + they leave everybody else kind of guessing in reactionary mode. So for me, I want to empower everybody so we know what the movie is and we can all go create a beautiful film together every year.
Barkley: If I said, what makes a whole brand to you, if you were to deem it whole, what makes a whole brand to you?
Eric Ryan: A whole brand is a consistent experience for the consumer through every touchpoint.
Barkley: What would you say is the state of whole brands right now? Where are we across how many brands are doing that well, and how many are doing it at all?
Eric Ryan: I think very few do it well. And part of it is I think because they forget to think about how you create a unified experience through product, sales, marketing, and culture all the way. Today we live in a world that's much more porous for consumers + brand relationships. You used to be able to, as we were joking before, used to be able to just run a 30-second spot + some PR, and that was really outside the product. And that really drove 99% of the perception of someone's brand.
Today with social media, there's no longer this public face + private face for a company. That's why you have to be authentic from the inside out. And I think why companies are struggling with it is because you've gone from a couple of key touch points to thousands of key touch points. So to do that well, you have to bring the creators in-house. You can't outsource that anymore, that's a hard soul to outsource. And so building, putting creative in a leadership position + the people who are ultimately building that experience, giving them leadership in a company, most are not structured well to do that still today.
Barkley: Is there anything, when we think of whole brands or messages that you would love to send startups, but also brands that just, you would love to give a nudge, is there anything that you wish I would've asked or anything that you would love to impart on the world that I didn't ask?
Eric Ryan: No, I think so much of creating a whole brand to me is the fact that you have this consistent expression that the brand shows up. And everything is theater, right? So the brand is manifested through every touchpoint, both internal + external. I think I learned a lot of this from Innocent Juice, even they would try to train their team members to write their emails in the Innocent voice + really obsessed over the way the brand was presented.
And my argument is to do that, well, you need to have creativity in a leadership position. And I think we live in a world so much where strategy drives creative, + I'm a huge believer that creative can drive strategy. So probably the biggest part of my secret sauce, which is just design thinking and just bringing design thinking into the organization and really putting creativity in a leadership position that's at the heart of so much of the success in brands that have such a holistic whole brand approach to them.
Barkley: It's just kind of fun. I wish just to listen to your stories + the ways that you structure things and how thoughtful you are. I really love the rhythm idea, love the artist, and the operator. The artist and the operator is something that you had to learn or did you because I love that model, that complementary model. Is that something that you came up with or is it just something that you were taught? How did you get to that?
Eric Ryan: I think it started more from a place of offsetting my weaknesses and surrounding myself and always the belief that you should surround yourself with people whose people's strengths are your weakness. And then Jim Stengel was the one who coined it. I loved it in his book Grow this idea of artists + operators. And then I started thinking more about where that showed up. And then I just continued to try to formalize that as a concept that I would bring very vocally into these companies and something I would preach internally of we are a team of artists and operators.
And it doesn't mean, "Hey, you're an artist + you're an operator." It's the belief that an artist can be the person doing fragrance or flavor or packaging design or engineering, anything that, and even sales, anything that the consumer is going to experience. But you want those people thinking like operators and being very empathetic to real artist ship as Steve Jobs would say, but then people who would be more of classic operators running supply chain or finance, you want them to think artists + really understand the importance of putting out this level of differentiation and experience in everything we do. And so it's something I really try to wrap the culture around of we're a team of artists and operators.
Barkley: Eric, thank you so much for your time. I love hearing your ideas for how you've built four amazing brands, so many great ideas, and such a great blueprint for building whole brands. We really can't wait to see what you do next. Thank you.
Eric Ryan: Awesome, Tim. All right, enjoy the rest of your day. Great talk.
Eric Ryan: Appreciate it.
Barkley: Thank you, Eric.
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