Season 2, Ep. 23 – How can brands talk about themselves authentically?
“Be militant about the things you can control so that you can be frivolous elsewhere.” Sage advice from our Marketing Coordinator, Chris Johnson, and just one of the many great nuggets of advice he has about brand authenticity, and how people will always remember how you make them feel above all else.
We have a like nice collection of plants here that thankfully, Kristen keeps alive.
<Laugh>. I have one too. And it’s like woefully sideways, <laugh>. Like it’s just in a really dark corner of my office, and it grows. It’s actually like pretty impressive that it’s still standing. Monsteras are fun. Have you guys tried propagating them before?
No, but it’s like Jumanji over there, so we might have to.
Do it. It is the cheapest Christmas gift or any time of the year gift—if you’ve got like house warmings or birthdays. People love monsteras, and the plants grow so fast from cuttings. I think I have three or four full-size monsteras in the house that I grew from a cutting starting last year.
Yeah, it’s wild. We got at Costco for like nothing on a whim and it’s now like quadrupled in size. It’s great.
Yeah. Well, if you need someone to pawn the cuttings off on, I am always a happy customer of plants.
Teja may or may not be joining us. He just said this few things he needs to get done, actually—fuck it. So <laugh>, maybe we’ll see him pop in here in a minute. Chris, you’re back to back on the Frontier podcasts.
Yeah, episode one of Chris hasn’t dropped yet.
Oh, it’s coming. It’s actually secretly out on YouTube already, because I needed it for the Wayfarer on Friday. What’s up, Teja?
Yo, what’s up y’all?
How you doing?
Good. How you guys doing?
We’re good. Just kind of catching up.
You missed our talk on tropical plants as well, so you’ll have to catch up on that.
<Laugh>. Yeah, I’ll watch the—I mean, is it making it into the video?
We’ll see. Bill–note for Bill: Drop that in the episode. Teja, you strike me as somebody—I mean, this isn’t really a fair assumption, because the only time I’ve seen you care for plants is in the office, and the plants that we used to have upstairs are crispy, but it’s also ‘cause we don’t work in the office anymore, so that’s not your fault. But are you somebody who can keep plants alive? Yes or no?
Yeah. Like you have living plants in your house?
Yeah, I got a couple cacti, and then I have some snake plants. My mom gave me something from Whole Foods. I dunno what it is, but I have something.
Good. You’re getting some air cleaning action going on.
Yeah, totally. I love cacti. Very low maintenance. And actually, I have a cactus that’s the cactus that mescaline comes from. And so when it gets real big, you can actually like cut it and extract mescaline from it.
Sick. So I’m assuming you’re not there yet though, like you’ve yet to—ok. (Teja: No.)
Ok. So that’s like a company party like next year or something.
Or like a blog post. I feel like that would be fascinating.
<Laugh>. Totally. I have friends that are like—well, I have one friend and then I just made another who are like—
Like total? <laugh> (Teja:—one or two friends that do.) Ok.
I have two friends total <laugh>. But no, I have some friends who are into drugs, aka plant medicine. Like they call it plant—which is just like, come on dude, it’s fucking—like drugs <laugh>. And so, you know, they’re into growing their own, allegedly.
They’re doing it in the metaverse.
Yeah, totally. No, I mean, I like the notion of like being able to grow your own plants and like, I have a small herb garden and whatnot. It’s just, it’s good. You wanna eat what you grow.
That’s right. I’ve got a couple house plants that are now buried in the storage room. We didn’t realize that we were burying them, but now they’re just like totally inaccessible. So prayers up for my snake plant and my monstera.
<Laugh>. I like Gardens of Babylon over in Germantown.
Oh, it’s great. Have you been to Bates?
It’s like Gardens of Babylon, but with outdoor plants.
Dang. Okay. Yeah, I need to get some.
You know, Chris, unfortunately you’re gonna have to come to Nashville. And we’re just gonna have to go to all these plant stores.
Hey, I’m in. Have you seen Gardener’s World on BBC? It pretty much got us through the beginning of the pandemic. It’s like this guy, Monty Don and his dogs tending to his gardens in in the UK. It’s amazing.
Sick. I’ll put that on in the background while I do computer things this weekend.
There you go.
I don’t know how to like thoughtfully transition us into the topic of the podcast. So I’m just gonna go ahead and take a hard left here. So we brought Chris on today, because something people often mention about our brand is it feels like a person, it feels really authentic—and I think there’s a few other brands that come to mind that do that really well. But we figured it’d be worthwhile to just talk about like, how we think about authenticity, our best advice for folks when they’re, you know, creating their brand voice and wanting to kind of talk about themselves authentically. And Chris, you are the ideal person to talk about this, because you’re newer to the team. So it’s fresh in your mind how the brand struck you when you kind of first decided to pursue working here. You’re also from the restaurant scene—specifically in New York—which I think is like a masterclass in authenticity, if you wanna make it. And then obviously you’re on the marketing team, so this is something you think about every day. So we’re gonna touch on each of those today. And I guess to start, like, I’m very curious to hear about how the brand struck you when you were kind of looking at the business and considering applying to work here.
Yeah, so it’s actually kinda funny, because I knew Abbey for years, obviously the other you know, third of the marketing team. And the thing that really stood out to me through the whole process about the brand, but also like every interaction that we had, was that it wasn’t that typical like applicant tracking software, like submit your resume and then fill out all of your experience here. Like every step of the way was a conversation. And it was a conversation about not just like, what’s this job gonna be like, but it was like talking about running with Tyler and like weird, like Jadakiss references with Teja <laugh> and you know, it was like a real connection. And I think that really stands out through our branding and through what we do on a daily basis. The biggest thing to me—my favorite part of the interview—or interviews—sorry, Faith, but was when I was sitting in a like beach house in Maine talking to Teja and Tyler and like going through the whole like, ‘Yeah, I think I would be a really great fit for this, like, exciting opportunity because of like blah blah blah’ and Teja just kinda—and this is maybe the like jaded New Yorker in me, but just like came out with like, alright, let’s cut the bullshit. Like, why do you want this job? Like, let’s like actually talk about it now, <laugh>. And it just like struck chord with me, you know, like that’s what that like openness and like honesty I think is something that we embody across the brand is like, Hey, we’re here to like, help people get jobs and like, we’re pretty open about how we’re doing it. I just really like that vibe.
I feel like sometimes the brand is just like the brand version of Teja’s personality, in a good way. You know, <laugh>? I feel like the brand voice likes things that Teja likes and dislikes things that he dislikes. And I think that’s because like the foundation, the brand is built around you, right? Like the initial site copy and kind of the brand ethos.
I don’t know. I actually think this is a little bit like ancient history at this point, but like, you know, I started it with two other guys, right? JP and Rich. And Rich was a programmer, and we went to BU together, and then JP I met in China. And so the whole origin story is like, basically we sort of saw this opportunity and we were like, Hey, this seems interesting. And we had trouble finding devs to work on things, and Rich had trouble finding a job—but like, you know, I think personalities attract each other, you know what I mean? So like, I think the company is built, because we genuinely like everybody that works here. And so I don’t know if it’s as much me as it is like, the type of personalities that that people who are similar to me have, if that makes sense.
You know? ‘Cause all three of us on this call are pretty honest, straight shooters, don’t like a lot of varnish. And the people who like that tend to be similar. Like, I’m very similar to that. So yeah. I don’t know. I feel like it’s like too much to be like, it’s my personality, although I appreciate it. That does like satisfy like a vain part of me. But I think it’s more so like, you know, people who vibe with me, like you guys. And I vibe with you guys, it’s probably similar. Hmm. So that’s expressed in some of the language of the brand, the copy, how we speak, how we sell, stuff like that.
Yeah. It’s interesting how the way we interact with each other and talk to each other does become a cohesive brand voice externally, too. And something we’re gonna touch on later, but we might as well cover now is, as companies grow and there’s kind of more—there’s more hands on assets that are getting written, there’s more voices that are contributing to the brand, and also just a little bit more of a corporate kind of like caution around everything. Brand voice tends to just default to the least common denominator, right? And voice tends to disappear. And so I’m curious, I mean both of you, you know, how do we foresee maintaining that kind of authentic voice as we grow?
When I think about this question and like see us going forward, it comes down to a lot of us like kind of being humble and being able to just like develop an outline of like, you know, like realize where we want to go ultimately, but also to like, you know, ask our market, like where—what can we do to be helpful? What do you wanna see from us? And I think that’s super dependent on what platform that we’re on, you know, be it like Twitter or LinkedIn or like on our like paid ad or whatever and like use that long term approach to like craft our message. But to like really take into account what people are telling us. Like, I’ve always—in like restaurants, for sure—told people that like, we can do whatever we want to the menu, right? Like we can put whatever we want on the menu, but ultimately, our guests are gonna tell us what they want—and either they’re like straight up gonna tell us to our face, or they’re just gonna tell us by like what they order. I think if we’re like talking to our desks and talking to our clients, like they’re gonna tell us like what type of content they wanna see as we develop our communities. And like as we develop the product, what we can do to really like, help them and make the hiring process better.
It’s interesting, ‘cause like everybody says that they wanna hear it from their customer or their end user. And I think a lot of folks are working with a demographic that maybe isn’t quite as vocal as ours. So I think we’re really lucky, actually, that our market is developers, and developers notoriously will say if they like something or they don’t—well maybe not if they like something, but they’re gonna tell you if they don’t like it. So it’s like pretty easy for us to take cues from our market in that way.
I think our market’s really sophisticated. I mean, on both sides, right? Like technical leaders or non-technical leaders, even. And then people who are writing the software and like everybody in a tech company is actually pretty sophisticated compared to maybe like, you know, old school days when you sort of had more manufacturing-oriented companies. Sophisticated in the sense of just like business language. You know, a buddy of mine, he’s at a healthcare company and you know, I think part of their business involves like managing hospitals and managing like basically doctors and other care providers. And so, you know, the posture I think that we have is very similar in that it’s like servant leadership. It’s like listening to what people expect of us and really being there for them.
Especially with developers, I think it’s a pretty fine line of like, you know, if—they can sniff out pretty well if you are not adding anything to the community, and they’re not gonna tell you either way if they like you or not, if you’re not adding to the community. They’ll just ignore you. And the only way that you’re gonna get feedback is if you’re being additive in some way.
Yeah. I mean, it’s consistent across any profession that demands a lot of sacrifice to develop like a really strong skillset.
Chris, I actually think this every time I go to New York—like in most cities, I imagine opening a restaurant would be really fun, because you can do something that hasn’t been done before and maybe fill a gap in the community. And in New York, there’s pretty much nothing that isn’t already there, right? Like the saturation of restaurants is unbelievable. So you have a lot of experience in thinking about how to differentiate yourself from others. And a lot of that happens through brand, having an authentic brand. Obviously the culinary world is much different than what we do here with software developers, but I’m curious if you found any parallels there with brand authenticity.
I think there’s a few, right? Like there’s a couple different ways that you can go about it. And like, you know, if you’re gonna compare it to restaurants, like if we’re like speaking strictly about restaurants, like you can go the way of like, I’m gonna open like a mom and pop, like short order restaurant and just like grind it out, right? And to me, that’s kind of like going the individual recruiter route, and I’m gonna like pound pavement and make contacts and like, you know, this is gonna be hard, but I’m gonna do it. And then there’s the other way, and like the world that I kind of existed in, and I think it’s like a world of—there’s more art to it, and there’s more like slow and steady, long-term growth, which is like, is fine dining. And it’s like, I came up under under Danny Meyer, and his whole thing is this like 51-49% mentality of like emotional intelligence versus technical ability. And the way that I operated in that world was like, I looked at my job as like two different jobs, right? Like, I had—I was a maitre d for, you know, 6-8 hours a day and I was like a shrewd like businessman operator the other six hours of the day. What that meant—there was like, if we had guests that came in that like, loved our wine glasses, like sweet, like by the time they got home I had a case of those wine glasses, like with their doorman, you know, or like, Jenna Bush is coming in? Somebody’s running out and getting churros, because she loves churros and we don’t make them. Or like your little daughter loves—she loves to bake, like cool, you better believe she’s getting like a kitchen tour, and like we’re gonna give her a hat and she’s gonna get to like scoop around ice cream. Like, you know, something like that. And then the next morning it’s like, I’m changing my well vodka so I can save 5 cents an ounce . Or like, I’m like looking at three different distributors to try and save like a 10th of a cent per paper towel. Like something ridiculous—seemingly ridiculous like that, right? And this idea of being militant with what I can control so that I can be frivolous elsewhere. The idea that like, people aren’t gonna remember what you say, they’re not gonna remember what you do, but they’re gonna remember how you make them feel. And I think that’s what really ties in to what what we do. And I think where we’re at right now is we have this this institutional knowledge in the company that we’re doing a really good job of working to codify into like making, you know—whereas in restaurants it was like, How do we make a really amazing experience for everybody that comes in? And it doesn’t always have to be like, let’s make an amazing experience. It can also be like, How do we take this normally really shitty experience and make it less shitty, right? I don’t think people are gonna be like, oh my god, I can’t wait to look for my next job with Gun <laugh>. But like, I think people could be like, Well, Gun’s super helpful and I think I’m gonna like be better off or like looking for a job with them—like they’re gonna help me, or I’m gonna learn something, you know? And I see those two things as like one and the same.
That’s like absolutely fascinating, too. I’m still stuck on the kind of militant with what you can control so you can be frivolous with everything else. And I think the application of that to an authentic brand voice is really interesting, because the things we can control are—are we on point with grammar, punctuation? Like, does everything read? Like we’re very intelligent people, right? And then the—<laugh> Teja’s laughing at me—just stay with me for a minute. I promise I’m gonna take it home. I’m gonna take it home. But the things that get layered on top of that is like what we win by being militant with those things, right? Like we get some flexibility to have maybe a little bit more of a sarcastic or funny brand voice, because there’s that layer of like on-point that’s that kind of forms the foundation.
I like how you phrased it, Chris, like the split between building a good experience, but then being really like detail-oriented on things that probably like, don’t really add that much value, like paper towel quality and being really cost-focused on that. That resonates. We’re the fine dining of the developer recruiting world, right?
Right. <laugh> and the things that like build your brand are the things that Chris, that you called—you know, the way that you make people feel when they’re working with you or engaging with your brand and not necessarily what we think. I mean, what I spend most of my day thinking about, which is like the nuts and bolts of the business and how it’s operating
And you know, it’s not even that hard. It’s like think about other people at scale, and view that into the company’s DNA and like, you know, even easy stuff like buying an engineering team’s lunch—that’s the stuff that actually helps build the rapport and the like, that’s like living the brand, you know, which is arguably, I think more important than articulating the brand in, you know—
Mhm. A hundred percent. We’re kind of getting into the last question I have for you, Chris, which is for businesses like ours that you know, might be in a competitive space, you know, they’re playing in a competitive space and it’s critical that they set themselves apart with an authentic brand. What’s some advice we could share with them to help them do that?
I think this is something that I struggled with for a long time, and it comes back to like my kind of journey in finding my own creativity and finding my own voice. Like when I was like earlier, like younger in my twenties—I’m not in my twenties. When I was in my twenties, <laugh> I definitely was more like—I went to like University of Colorado, like I was a little will of the wisp, lived in the mountains for a while. I eventually got to this point that I realized just how important like having systems in my life and in work really was, and this idea of implementing as many, like just getting like straight up like Phil Jackson on like everything you do and like putting systems in place so that you can get all of your technical stuff done and you can focus on having your—you know—for me it was like developing creativity, but it’s also like focusing on developing your voice, developing your brand, like having that fun, right?
Like if you can get all of the things that need to be done out of the way, get that on autopilot, and like for us as a brand, like what I think that means is like, you know—and I think what we do and like our engineers do a really good job of is like they’re constantly creating systems so that anything that isn’t customer facing gets automated, right? Like gets just gets taken care of so that our people in like sales or like customer success are like spent talking to customers and are like developing, having that interaction and just making sure— kind of going back to that thought earlier of developing that like clear objective and having some—like making sure like all of your your marketing that goes out is at least somehow like tangentially like related to that objective.
T, got any thoughts?
He’s crushing it. I think the thing that I would layer on top of that is—so if you’re leading a company and it’s a priority for you to have an authentic brand and to be able to provide this level of service to folks, because that’s really what your brand is driven through—you have—it’s imperative that you make sure that your team has bandwidth to think about that. Because when I think of all the moments where we’ve been able to go above and beyond for somebody, it’s been because our people weren’t just like worked to death and like single track mind on, you know, the things that have to get done to keep the business afloat. So Chris, your advice around like let’s, you know, systematize everything, you can try to get everything on autopilot that isn’t customer facing in order to do that, I think it’s—you know, you have to make sure that folks have bandwidth to do it and the resources to support them. Like, we get to do that because leadership. Teja and Tyler are willing to give us budget to send customer gifts and you know, order a bunch of stickers for devs, ‘cause they love them and want handwritten postcards, you know? So I think that would be—that’s my core advice. Like your brand doesn’t come from your executive. It might be built based on your executive personality, but the people who disseminate that and kind of live out that brand are the folks who are talking to customers every day.
I think I kinda have an interesting take on like the questions that we should be asking ourselves from like a marketing perspective. And I think it’s—you know, obviously I still think of everything from like a hospitality point of view, because just that’s been like ingrained or like beaten into me over the years. Like whichever you wanna like look at it <laugh>. But like you know, like looking at like a simple marketing problem and what we do right is like—the most hospitable thing that we can do is to get jobs in front of people, right? Like get a—but get a specific job that is applicable to a person in front of them. And like in my role, that means that the most hospitable thing I can do is find the place that they are and craft an appropriate message to get in front of them.
But it also means to find whether or not, because it’s super inhospitable to be like blasting this message to people that don’t want to hear it. Right? and then like after that, asking like, What’s the best way that people want to get this message and like something that we often—I know I said earlier that like people will tell us what they want, but there’s also this like other part of me that like, you know, having been a like wine director for years, like people also don’t know what they want <laugh> and like having—if you want proof that people don’t know what they want, just shadow like a sommelier for like a night and you’ll realize that like, I don’t know how many times people have asked me for a dry white wine and like I pour em (inaudible), which is like a very dry white wine, and they’ve been like, This is disgusting.`
And they end up with a California chardonnay, which is not a very dry white wine. And like, this is amazing, being able to step back and like ask, okay, you know, people say they don’t want text messages, but what if like, instead of putting this ad on like Reddit, maybe it’s a like super targeted text message that we could send somebody, or like being able to like ask those questions. And I think being able to frame it within the frame of reference of being hospitable I think is really, really interesting when applied to like marketing and advertising, right? Because people don’t see marketing and advertising as being hospitable
In any way. No, <laugh> I think the general consensus is like, marketing is evil and, you know, trying to sell you shit you don’t need, which, you know, in some cases absolutely, and I’ve mentioned this before, but they get me every time. I’m a sucker for a marketing campaign. <Laugh>, no one has to be hospitable to me. Just insert yourself wherever and I’ll probably buy your shit <laugh>.
No, I think you’re really hitting on something super interesting and it’s like a real challenge I think for companies like how to move beyond somebody’s articulated wants and speak at the level of like maybe their subconscious needs, and it’s like you have to leverage like empathy in a way, but then also kind of like in some cases, maybe even ignore what they’re saying to like your assumption of what they need. It’s a really tricky balance, but it can be done well and it can be done, I think from a place of, as you said, hospitality.
I kinda like hospitability
<Laugh> Hospitability. Yeah.
We’re gonna be hospitable. That’s gonna be our objectives for marketing next quarter.
Yeah, definitely wanna intelligently say that.
<Laugh>. Yeah, it’s—I mean, it’s interesting. I’m excited to see how our brand voice changes, but also kind of stays true to our roots as we grow and as more people are responsible for kind of maintaining that across many different platforms. It’s a great talk, Chris. This is really helpful and I’m like sidetracked right now, because I’ve been taking notes on what you’re saying for like how we should be thinking about things. So I think that’s a sign that this is a really good episode, so I’m excited for people to hear it. Cool. That’s been super fun.
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