Expo keynoter points the way

In a world prone to distraction, targeted marketing is more important than ever.
0423 Editorialcontent Expo Preview

Getting consumer engagement in a fragmented digital landscape is a tough task for brands, but William Espey knows it’s possible to cut through the noise. Espey, who served as Chipotle Mexican Grill’s brand visionary for 19 years, will be the keynote speaker at the 2023 IB Expo and Conference on May 17, and he’ll explain how to engage with precision.

That’s what it takes to break through and compete with a stable of threats that now includes an internet that’s in everyone’s pocket, plus social media platforms, viral videos, and influencers who offer first-hand testimony. Espey has made a career of strategically targeting the right audiences with compelling — and entertaining — messages. That begins with understanding who you are as a brand and the true identity of your audience.

“The problem we have as brands is the tendency to be everything to everyone,” notes Espey, now vice president of brand voice for Ka’Chava, the plant-based meal shake. “When you get the point to where you’re just chasing business, you lose track of what you stand for as an organization.”

Online chaos

At that point, business organizations “fall into the chaos of being online,” Espey adds, and they actually wonder who they are competing against. That’s where it becomes imperative to pull back and understand how you’re presenting yourself. “It’s very much in line with individual human psychology of the character of the person as the character of the brand, and how you understand yourself and what you stand for as an organization, and what your values are as demonstrated by your actions, which is definitely something I’ll bring up as I’m speaking [at the Expo],” he explains. “Having that point of view helps you understand how you interact with the outside world and how your organization shows up in marketing and in branding.”

You need to understand who your product and value proposition resonates with as an audience, and then go find that audience — this demographic, age group, their consumer behavior patterns, and where they are in the universe. Only then can you start talking to them with a degree of precision. “You need to do that through this idea of self-awareness and audience awareness, and then you know you’re having the right conversation with the right people,” Espey says.

In his years at Chipotle (1999–2018), Espey learned much of what he knows about targeting the right customer audience with a message, and much of it was learned by accident. He had no background in marketing and acknowledged that he stumbled into the opportunity to work in marketing and branding. An acquaintance who knew of Espey’s creative capabilities had become Chipotle’s first marketing director and asked him to come on board. “We really approached this in a very naive way, and what we discovered is that the messaging we were creating was really focused on engaging with our audience in a fun and playful way,” he recalls. “We had the luxury of doing that because we knew if we could just get people to try the product three times, they were hooked.”

They were hooked to the point where Chipotle grew from about 12 restaurant locations in 1999 to about 2,500 by the time Espey left in 2018. Part of the advantage of the naive approach was there wasn’t the all-consuming compulsion to sell, which allowed the marketing team to live in a more playful space in terms of messaging. Espey had the freedom to write funny headlines and ad campaigns, and as a creative person, “it was a nirvanic experience,” he says. “I had no basis in comparison. I didn’t realize that I was in a very unusual and fortunate situation while I was there.

“What we found, by not selling to our customers but just engaging them in clever ways, is that we had built relationships with them,” he adds. “They were interacting with the company not as a company but as a persona. Fortunately for me, my personal attitude, being very irreverent, fell right in line with the established voice that was developing at Chipotle … People were interacting with a quote, unquote person. The brand became personified.”

For Espey, it was a fascinating lesson because he learned how people interacted on a completely different level. Through additional research, he later learned that people personify all brands. “We’re constantly personifying the brands we work with, and so it behooves the brand to make sure it has a very robust, well-developed personality because then you are going to better engage with the customer.”

One example of a funny — and effective — Chipotle campaign is connected with the trend of marijuana legalization in various U.S. states, and Espey can claim co-authorship (with an iconic counter-culture musical group) of an idea that came to him during a meeting where he was admittedly “bored as heck.” His idea was to create the headline “4:25” below a burrito, a take-off on the lexicon of marijuana afficionados that 4:20 p.m. is the universal time to enjoy their favorite form of recreation, followed in short order by the munchies. Just in case the connection is lost on some, underneath 4:25 is the Chipotle logo and the question “Got a jones?”

“So, 4:20 is the stoner lexicon, and 4:25 is in the ad,” Espey notes. “This came out of some roadies who worked for the Grateful Dead back in the day, and they used to meet in school and get high at 4:20, and it’s become a whole thing. So, people use 4:20 in conjunction with marijuana all the time. I’m not a stoner, but I thought that was really interesting.”

So did college students, readers of The Onion (print version), and other imbibers that Espey has encountered at campus speaking engagements. It was crystallized perfection in its messaging, even though Espey can’t take full credit for it. “That was one of those lines that communicates with a very specific audience because the kids who got it thought it was hilarious,” he notes. “I would do speaking engagements at universities and that slide would come up, and they would just start laughing hysterically, and the professor would stand there looking at it, completely oblivious to what the message was because he wasn’t [part of] the audience.”

Another example Espey cites is The Gap. When that clothing retailer is mentioned, consumers instantly have an image in their heads as to what The Gap is — a feeling for it — good, bad, or neutral. “And then if I say Banana Republic, that’s a completely different image, but it’s the same company,” Espey says. “They’ve done a great job of projecting a personality into the world to speak to certain audiences, and that’s what all brands do. Whether they like it or not, they are doing that. It’s important to then be conscious of what that personality is and curate it, and hopefully make sure it’s allied with the core values of the organization, as demonstrated by the actions of the organization.”

Spheres of influence

Some of the things that business operators compete with can also be deployed as allies, especially the influencer. An influencer’s role, however, goes beyond simple advocacy, and a brand must have a good deal of self-awareness before deploying one. Frequently, brands will latch on to whatever is popular, but it doesn’t connect with the brand’s value proposition.

“It’s just the convenience of, ‘Oh, they’ve got a lot of views or a big audience. Let’s go with them,’” Espey explains. “There is kind of a cheap, transactional aspect to that, as opposed to seeking out someone who feels more allied with what you’re doing, and then their audience is more likely to be tied into what you’re doing as well.”

As vice president of brand voice for Ka’Chava, Espey is still trying to find the right path, but in this case, it’s the right path to building what is already a success story. In his own words, the role blends his obsession with nutrition and fitness with his experience in brand development. He calls it a perfect match, made in a blender, and he has the company of a group of ex-Chipotle personnel — the chief marketing officer, the vice president of marketing, and other strategic people — who view this as a tremendous opportunity to take Ka’Chava to the next level.

“We’ve done a good job of developing this amazing product, but we haven’t been marketing it very strategically,” Espey says. “We’ve been putting it out there and doing very well. We’ve got fantastic year-over-year growth — doubling, 100% — but it’s been sort of unintentional.”

That’s the case even though the company’s mission is based on the idea of reconnecting people to the natural world through what they are eating. Ka’Chava has enjoyed tremendous sales even though it has yet to fully understand its own audience, and so management is in the middle of research to gain more insight into who the product is resonating with and the conversation it must have with them.

At Ka’Chava, much like Chipotle, marketers have the luxury of an economic motor that’s already working very well, but there is still work ahead in building a brand dialogue. “The people we seem to be resonating with are plant-based protein people — people who are looking for holistic health and holistic solutions,” Espey says. “We’re clearly allied with them and they naturally gravitated to us without us strategically looking at them. Here is the opportunity to say, ‘We understand who we’re talking to and we understand that it’s resonating,’ and now we can go out and look for like-minded people in other places in order to increase that audience and that engagement.”

Recession proofing

Making sure that you’re marshalling resources properly in the marketing and branding realm is relevant in any economic environment, but it’s especially important if the economy dips into a recession. Espey believes that it’s essential because when you create a more profound connection with your customers, they are less likely to jettison you when they have to make budget decisions in a recessionary environment. In other words, you don’t want to be seen as something extra, you want to be seen as something essential.