Kirsten Hamilton, CMO – Gerber LLC
We visited Kirsten in the Gerber LLC office in Columbus, OH to discuss everything
from her experiences in marketing
to the phenomenon of Instagram influencers.
What’s your background? How did you get into marketing and decide that’s the field you wanted to go into?
Marketing in general has always been in my wheelhouse, but content development is really my sweet spot. I love storytelling, and really just building out content in general, across all platforms. I went to school focused on journalism, my initial path being magazine journalism. But at that time the print path was discouraged because “print is going to die and if you focus on print media you are going to graduate with no job prospects.” So from there I was talked out of it, and changed my path to online journalism, which at the time (around 2010) was new and exciting because no one knew the virtual formula just yet.
I discovered that I wasn’t passionate about one specific piece of the marketing world; I liked the PR piece, I enjoyed communications, I appreciated social media, but I didn’t go out looking for social media coordinator or another super specialized role.
Then I stumbled upon the opportunity with Gerber that encompassed all aspects of marketing. Prior to my role at the company they only had one part-time marketing person, so when I came onboard they weren’t sure where to go they simply wanted to have an online presence and go from there. The blank slate was amazing because we got to build, strategize and really figure out what marketing meant for Gerber.
Through that experience it’s been building the brand from a one person marketing team, which was just me for about four years, to now a team of three! And within a company that consists of fourteen people that’s a really big commitment — which is amazing. We’ve joined forces with our business development team, so now we’re really a cohesive unit trying to figure out from prospecting to the on-boarding of a client what that relationship should look like, and how the two departments work together. So yeah, it’s been a journey.
What’s it been like growing Gerber’s marketing team out from one to three?
It’s definitely been a learning experience. For me personally, I had not been in a leadership seat before this— that all happened when our company implemented the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS). A lot of small business will invest in EOS which is a dedicated process to identify the business’ key leadership seats (from CMO to CFO and everything in between. That process really forces the business owner to go into what’s called a visionary seat where they’re a little more elevated, less involved in the day to day operations, and they’re allowing their leadership team to manage the organization. From there it was conversations around what makes themes sense for our business, and that meant elevating me into the CMO seat.
The decision was aligning our company structure with our goals— because if we’re really thinking about elevating our business, it can’t just be a one woman marketing team anymore —it’s simply too much to manage. From there we hired someone internally to focus specifically on PR for the firm. After working with outsourced PR in the past, we realized that because our niche is so specific, the breadth of knowledge you need to build out our content is so advanced— it comes out of the experiences that you have within the organization and with our clients. It’s really hard to outsource those types of things, so it’s most effective for us to bring that role in-house.
It’s been a crazy learning experience understanding how to divide and conquer tasks. It’s been amazing. As a small business I feel that I am able to be much more creative and innovative than in a traditional agency simply because the process isn’t established yet and you’re trying to figure everything out. Having the flexibility and using our team’s strengths to get there has been great.
What types of marketing initiatives do you use the most act Gerber? Since it’s financial, and a little less in the creative field, what challenges do you face?
We do have some restrictions, but part of why I’m so passionate about Gerber is because our conversations are never about the financial piece. We work exclusively with first-generation entrepreneurs, so our conversations and our services are catered to your experience as a business owner. We want to make life easier for you, we want to help you grow your business. That simple differentiator allows us to not get lost in the noise of traditional advising, of saving for retirement. We’re talking about taking your company from a few thousand dollars to a few million dollars and that really changes the life of a business owner. We’re talking about how to communicate with your spouse, how to build and even compensate your leadership team and what that means for your business. So we’re really catering our marketing efforts to educate business owners and flipping the switch on that conversation.
We’re this hybrid-type between business consulting and financial advising. We do still have the compliance regulations we have to follow, because we have a broker-dealer relationship with Raymond James Financial Services. With that we can’t do simple advertising / marketing tactics such as client testimonials, which would help us out so much.
We have to get creative in our efforts because something as simple as a printed ad doesn’t necessarily make sense for us. We need to establish trust and build a relationship with our client in order for it to be meaningful for them. So historically, all of our business has come from referrals. In building out our marketing efforts and our marketing team, we’ve really adjusted our lens to focus on events where we can bring business owners together and deliver applicable content that the business owner can apply to their business this week to help them grow.
It is a little difficult, but we see what’s working and pivot from there. Instead of putting dollars towards a large social media advertising campaign, we’re maybe putting dollars towards a suite at a Columbus Blue Jackets game for the season. There we can build real relationships instead of being put into this pocket of a sleazy car salesman —which I feel like we often get thrown into— so the goals is to switch the lens from salesperson to partner.
If you didn’t have compliance regulations and other imitations like that, what would be a really effective marketing strategy for Gerber?
We’ve seen such success with referrals. That’s why Facebook recommendations are so big; if your friend or neighbor or colleague suggest something that they’ve tried and really liked or has changed their life, then that referral really changes the conversation. So definitely having that warm introduction changes the game for us. I think it would be something around… maybe not a flat out testimonial because those can get cheesy sometimes, but I think that we would build something around the brands that we work with— highlighting these inspirational local businesses that we’re working with, and simply seeing where that business started and the growth that they’ve achieved from their relationship with us.
Do you have any advice you’d give to other CMOs or other people getting into the marketing game that want to advance?
First would be identifying your passion as an individual. Knowing what your mission is, what your purpose is, and what you’re passionate about, and identifying with a business/brand that you can relate to. It makes you so much more effective if you really stand behind a business’ purpose. It makes everything on the marketing front so much easier if you can really relay that the company is doing all these amazing things and people need to hear about it.
I would also say surrounding yourself with hardworking people. You need an amazing team to do amazing things. And while a lot of small businesses only have the budget or capacity for one marketing person and they’re doing amazing things. As the business grows, if you can build your marketing department with amazingly passionate people who are driven by the company’s purpose at the same time, it just changes everything.
And I think the last piece of advice would be putting yourself in the consumer’s shows. A lot of the time, as marketers, we’re either focused on sole brand recognition or simply closing a client tomorrow. The trick is finding the balance between those extremes and really understanding the people piece. If you were the consumer, what would encourage you to buy and what would encourage you to talk to that brand? Why would you comment on that post or why would you read that article?
How do you think marketing, media, and content have all changed over the past five years or so?
Five years ago every brand was still focused on the need to be online, on every single social media platform, and simply have a voice anywhere and everywhere because that’s what their competitors were doing. They wanted to be there too — they wanted to be part of the cool kids club.
So fast forward to today, and businesses are being so much more strategic around where they are and what they’re saying. They’re being a lot more authentic with their brands and upfront about their mission and their values, which consumers are so much more attracted to and passionate about. Look at big brands like Wells Fargo, Uber and Facebook— even if they screw up, they’re coming back to say “we know that we screwed up, we’re sorry, and this is how we’re going to make it up to you.” That transparency is so important now.
It’s no longer getting a celebrity endorsement and having LeBron James in your commercial, it’s the influencer piece instead. When it’s an influencer who’s wearing your mascara, you’re humanizing your product and I, as a consumer, can relate to that real person. So I think that has been a huge shift. I mean, influencers five years ago were definitely not a thing... and now you hear young girls and boys saying they want to be an influencer when they grow up. I don’t know if that’s a career path, but I support you!
I also think there’s a transition in experience that brands are trying to do. Instead of doing everything online, brands are trying to take it offline and form in-person relationships playing with the experimental marketing piece. Car companies are bringing their cars to the consumer and having people sit in them, and creating an experience around that. It’s really the relationship building offline that I think everyone is passionate about and for good reason, it makes your business stand out more.
Speaking of brands and influencers, what brands do you think are doing a really good job right now with marketing and reaching out to their consumers?
I’m really attracted to brands who are simply authentic in their mission and are unapologetic about it. I love brands like Wendy’s— they know who they re and they cater their messaging to their specific audience and they’re not afraid to experiment. Also companies like Dollar Shave Club who are just silly and out there and doing something different. Even local brands like Mikey’s Late Night Slice; they have such a brand presence that their consumers are passionate about. Their customers are eager to talk to them online and offline, they want to go to their store, they want to take pictures at their space and interact with the brand as much as they can. If you can really build that with your audience I think that’s amazing.
What are you reading, watching, listening to outside of your work at Gerber? What brands do you enjoy personally?
Like many, I love visually appealing profiles on Instagram. So, I love local flower shops and in following them, seeing how they include their team and their personality into their brand presence. I love local businesses like treetree, for example. I think they have an amazing presence and they really get you excited about what they’re doing.
There are so many inspiring small businesses online that I’m captivated by. There’s a lettering subscription box called Rad and Happy; she’s a one woman show doing amazing things and is just so inspiring. I love seeing entrepreneurs do different things and build their businesses how they want. Even small time photographers focusing on their niche and building a business from that is so inspiring to me.
What I’m reading right now… so we actually just started a book club at Gerber. I’ve been reading a lot of business, leadership, inspirational type pieces. We just read Emotional Intelligence and Crucial Conversations both of which were super helpful for me as a new leader. Understanding how I operate and how to talk to other people has been inspiring. The next book is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k which I’m excited to pick up.
Watching, so when I wake up each morning and I’m getting ready I’m either listening to a podcast or watching YouTube videos. I’m a YouTube junkie, so I’m either watching blogs or makeup/hair tutorial type stuff. The influencer thing, it’s getting me. Beyond that, my guilty pleasure is The Great British Bake-Off on Netflix. I don’t know why or where that came from, but I can’t stop watching.
And then podcasts I’m really all over the place. I love the local podcast Conquering Columbus focused on local business, but also enjoy profiles like Kevin Kruse who focuses on productivity podcasts. I listen to business-oriented podcasts on the drive home to wind down from the day. I also love murder-mystery type podcasts so when I need a little break from business that’s what I’m listening to.