Few lifelong marketers have had the chance to work with industry revolutionaries such as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.
Not only has Dimitrios Papadogonas worked with both of them, but his talents brought him to director level position at pivotal moments for both companies, including the launch of both Virgin American Airlines, and Apple Retail Stores. He has also worked at Chargepoint and Gap in Brand Marketing and Product Marketing roles.
In mid-2016, Dimitrios became the CMO of iCracked, the world’s largest on-demand repair network for mobile devices.
Here are some of the topics discussed in this episode.
Finding Your Authentic X-Factor
While many founders and marketers might think their product is unique, creating a brand that articulates that unique value proposition is not easy. It requires a very serious and honest look at your product and your company as a whole.
I think the hardest part of marketing is not necessarily the external facing stuff that you do with customers, but it’s the internal facing work that you have to do to sell the company and everyone in the company on the brand.
Fortunately, if you are being honest and craft a genuine value proposition that highlights the unique authentic value of your brand, presenting your x-factor to your customer and employees becomes much easier.
You have to understand what your product is, what you’re offering to consumers, and you have to come from a very authentic place. Then you have to be able to talk to consumers in a very authentic way. If you can do that, you’re going to have something that resonates.
Frequently, this relies on a compelling narrative and ethos that extends beyond design, colors, and fonts.
You need to create an ethos and a story. If you can do that, you’re going to get a core base of customers and when those customers come to you, they stick to you and then they tell others. And then you get really good, sticky, organic growth.
Identifying and communicating your x-factor requires a culture that gets your customers and employees excited to spend time with the brand.
Your Brand is Everything You Do
From your digital advertisements, to the experience customers have with you on the phone, to even what your janitor is wears to the office five days a week, your brand is literally everything you do, or don’t do.
Most brands aren’t great because they die slowly by a thousand cuts. They do a little thing wrong here, a little thing wrong there, and before you know it, you look back and it’s just a trail of nicks and cuts that ran counter to who you are and what the brand was supposed to be. That’s what keeps you from being a great brand.
It’s not just about creating a brand that your customers can relate to. The brand must also be reflected by your employees, and more importantly, your employees.
You have to create the inspiration. You have to create a brand that is inspiring and fun and resonates with people so that it’s natural and intuitive for them to want to align to it...It’s just got to feel right and intuitive. If you do it right, it just falls out naturally and then the authenticity of it really comes across to the customer.
Uber, Postmates, and other companies that operate within the gig economy have the additional challenge of making sure their independent contractors continue to reflect appropriate branding. Dimitrios has experienced this challenge first hand with the independent technicians that service broken mobile devices under the iCracked brand.
The Effect of Social Media on Branding
Social media has dramatically changed the ability for a brand to control the experience that current and prospective customers, as well as the general public, have with a product and brand.
It used to be, not that long ago, that for thousands of people to consume information on your brand at any given time, only you, the maker of the product, had that power through paid media. We now share that power with every consumer out there which puts a lot of pressure on a brand to be more real, more authentic, and stick to the promise.
Putting the power of a brands perception in the hands of the masses is forcing brands more than ever to be authentic and true to their unique value proposition. It’s far more difficult to get away with a brand that doesn’t genuinely line up with the value does, or does not, provide.
Note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ander: As we continue on through this series of Advertising Influencers and talk to many of the best and brightest minds from Silicon Valley and beyond, we’re meeting a lot of very interesting and talented marketers out there. Dimitrios Papadogonas is certainly one of those. Thank you so much for coming to our office, Dimitrios. It’s a pleasure to have you here.
Dimitrios: It’s good to be here, Ander.
Ander: Right now Dimitrios, you work at iCracked. You’re the CMO there.
Dimitrios: That’s right.
Ander: What exactly is iCracked?
Dimitrios: iCracked is a venture-backed Silicon Valley startup that operates the world’s largest network of technicians who can come to you as a consumer, whenever you want, wherever you are, and fix your broken smartphone.
Ander: A problem that we’ve all had many times.
Dimitrios: Millions and millions of people have had that problem and we service many of those people. It’s a growing business and it’s a real exciting business because there’s a lot of change happening in the marketplace.
Ander: Yeah, I would say there’s change happening pretty much everywhere you look that is anything digital. Or not digital, for that matter.
Ander: And one of the reasons that I’m so excited to be talking to you right now is that over the past fifteen years, even twenty years, a lot of these changes have occurred especially with the companies that you’ve worked for. Many of these brands are fairly household names, including Apple, Gap, and Virgin America, among others.
There are so many different angles that we could take with this conversation. So, I think the best way to do this, is just to start towards the very beginning. Let’s hear about Apple and how you got involved with the marketing organization there.
Dimitrios: Sure. I joined Apple at a really interesting time. I think for a lot of the listeners now we think of Apple as what they are now: maybe the coolest and hippest company in the world, the most profitable company in the world, and the largest tech company in the world.
But in 2000 when I joined Apple, it was none of those things. Steve Jobs had just come back and Apple was reinventing itself. I joined not exactly knowing where the company was going. The company had just launched their candy-colored iMacs. That was sort of the first product under Steve. I started as a product marketer and within two months on the job I got pulled into what was then called ‘Project Nexus’, a top-secret project which turned out to be Apple’s retail stores.
Ander: Interesting. Ok.
Dimitrios: Yeah. My whole time at Apple was actually working on the retail stores, both the launch and then post-launch and then continuing on helping monetize the value proposition for the Mac Genius bar in the store. That’s what I was particularly focused on.
Ander: Very, very cool. Do you remember what fueled the decision to actually give a brand, a computer brand, its own store? I remember back then when I got a laptop for my birthday, however old I was, normally it would be purchased at Best Buy or maybe Circuit City or one of those other stores.
What was some of the thinking behind actually creating this retail branded experience for Apple?
Dimitrios: That’s a good question, Ander. I’ve had the experience of working for both Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, and these are visionary leaders who have the courage and the vision to zig when everyone else is zagging. My first experience with that directly was with Steve Jobs at Apple.
This was a time when Gateway, who was making computers back in the day, was closing their retail stores.
Ander: I forgot about that company, to be honest.
Dimitrios: Haha. Well, many of us have, sadly.
Dimitrios: They are no longer around. And then here comes Apple saying not only are we going to build retail stores but we’re going to put them in really expensive real estate locations. Not only are we going to do that, we’re going to load them up with product.
At that time, Dell was the hero of the space and it was all about the super-efficient delivery system and just-in-time inventory. Steve was like, ‘No, we’re going to load up our stores with product,’ because he had a vision.
When people are excited and they see the product and they’re right there, they want to walk out of the store with the product and go home and start using it – not wait ten days to get it delivered to you. They want to carry it out of the store like it’s Christmas.
That was the vision Steve had for the retail stores. To have total control of that customer experience and then deliver that awesome ‘wow’ to the customer, right there, right there in the store.
Ander: Perhaps this is still going on now. In fact, I’m sure it is. How long do you think it took for the risk that Steve Jobs took then to be validated in pursuing this new channel of retail branded stores for the Apple experience?
Dimitrios: Well, the planning for the store took some time, at least a couple of years. The validation from the market once the stores opened and as I recall, if my memory serves, May 1st of 2001…
Ander: Very good! I think that’s pretty close.
Dimitrios: Two stores opened simultaneously – one in Glendale and one in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, a suburb of DC. There were long lines for the stores and the dollar per square foot of the stores was off the charts. I think for many years after that, I think, Apple still enjoyed the highest dollars per square foot of any retail store. So the success was immediate once the doors opened and Steve had once again proved all the naysayers wrong.
Ander: And you worked primarily on the Genius Bar?
Dimitrios: I did. Before the launch, I was focused on helping hire the geniuses, helping determine what the Genius Bar would look like, what the scope of support would be at the Genius Bar, and things like that.
Once the stores opened, I focused primarily on two things: how do we continually monetize the Genius Bar then also I took on the AppleCare Protection Plan and driving sales of AppleCare Protection Plan at the retail stores.
Ander: The Genius Bar is this somewhat of a prolific thing. Every Mac user, which is most of the people that I know personally, we’ve all been to the Genius Bar and we’ve all interacted with the geniuses. In many cases they’ve saved a lot of my work.
The concept of a support desk or going and getting your computer fixed is nothing new and nothing that is revolutionary. What do you think it was about the Genius Bar that crossed into this new territory or helped the Apple retail stores do exactly that?
Dimitrios: I think what was revolutionary about the Genius Bar was that help desk support or IT support always was, like, the single worst experience anyone has. We all know what it’s like when you call and you go through the tree that they tell you to push one if you’re this, push two if you’re that. And then you get someone reading a script and it’s terribly inhuman. It’s not authentic. And Apple, again, wanted to reinvent how things are done and they wanted that person to be right there in front of you. They wanted that person to be there at the time of purchase right in the retail environment so you could see them. They wanted you to feel a sense of community. That’s why they’re there in the store, so you can keep coming back to the stores and hang out. They really wanted to make whatever you needed from a Mac genius to have a sense of sort of community and be a really good experience for you.
And, that’s why they did it. That’s why originally we put these great fridges there with free water bottles and we were trying to drive a sense of community. We wanted people to spend time there and enjoy being in our store. Spending time with a Mac genius was actually a really good thing – you were learning things and you were doing things. They didn’t just fix things. They showed you things. We showed you how to make cool movies. They did all kinds of value added things for consumers. We went well beyond what typical support would be.
Ander: And after Apple, you did spend some time a GAP but if it’s ok with you, I’d love to jump ahead to the time you spent at Virgin where it seems to me that there was a similar sort of thing going on.
You have an industry that most people use. In this case it was airlines and travel. A lot of things about that industry were very stale. A lot of things about that industry are stuffy, I guess you could say.
You started at Virgin in 2007, is that correct?
Dimitrios: That’s correct, yes.
Ander: If I remember correctly, that’s more or less the time that their planes started flying. That was more or less the time that they started taking those planes off the ground.
Dimitrios: Yeah. I was really thrown into the fire. I joined Virgin in June of 2007 and we launched on August 8th of 2007. So I was there for about seven weeks before we launched with just enough time to re-do the advertising, get new creative into market, and push out an ad campaign to support the launch of the airline. It was a crazy, fun, frenetic time but it was one of the best experiences of my life.
Ander: And I imagine it was some of the busiest months of your life as well.
Dimitrios: Yeah, absolutely. We were rolling out new markets and putting huge advertising dollars behind rolling out new markets. And, Virgin does things in a really cool experiential way with big events and parties, so we did a lot of those in the beginning.
There were times where I could go two days with no sleep, but you were so high on adrenalin and so pumped that you didn’t realize it. But boy, when that event ended, the crash came and you’d sleep for a day! Haha.
Ander: I can only begin to imagine that. It’s one thing to launch a tech product. It’s one thing to launch a mobile app that doesn’t have the same kind of infrastructure behind it that something like an airline does.
But putting a bunch of Boeing planes into the air in the way that Virgin does with the whole experience around it, is something that is a totally different kind of work.
When I think of Virgin, to be completely honest, I think of the safety video. I think of the Glee-style safety video that I get stuck in my head every single time I fly on that airline. So, it obviously works.
I believe that you left Virgin after that video was actually pushed live but that video to me represents the thinking behind how Virgin wanted to distinguish itself from all of the other stuffy alternatives. Can you elaborate on that?
Dimitrios: Yeah, absolutely. Shout out to Jesse, my boy Jesse, who actually produced that music video – or safety video. See I’m thinking of it as a music video. But that’s how good it is, right?
Ander: I mean, it more or less is a music video
Dimitrios: Yeah, exactly. But yeah, that’s a good question, Ander. What the safety video did was provide a great example of the ethos of what Virgin America was. Virgin America was about reinventing the way people fly.
Much like Apple zigged when everyone else zagged, so did Virgin. When Virgin America came into being, the US domestic airline industry was really deconstructed. All the value was sort of stripped out of it and it was basically down to network efficiency, flying planes for the lowest possible cost, and optimizing routes and networks. It was about everything except people being in a steel tube for an hour to six hours at 600 miles an hour and about their comfort.
Virgin America, being a new airline, couldn’t compete on schedules and routes, because we only launched with, you know, ten planes. We didn’t have 600 planes like American Airlines did. But we focused on what’s our one advantage? What’s the thing that we have that no one else has and maybe can’t replicate? For us, it was the in-cabin experience and so that’s what we focused on and we put all our energy into having this amazing flight experience layered in with the Virgin personality.
Our differentiators were the technology we had on board as demonstrated by in-flight wi-fi and seat back television, differentiated by food that you could actually order versus waiting around for someone to roll a cart around, the beautiful esthetic of the cabin, to name a few. So we leveraged those differentiators.
Outside of the airplane, we did partnerships and deals and all kinds of things that spoke to those things – spoke to design, entertainment, technology, and that’s how we told the story of what it’s like to fly inside of one of our planes. And that became a great success for us. We did something very different than the industry and we focused on the experience and we set the trend. And now years later you can see how all the airlines have come back to really focusing on the in-flight experience and have invested millions and millions of dollars in in-flight wi-fi and changing the seats and changing the lighting to follow the lead of little old us.
Ander: Everybody wants that X factor. Everybody wants that differentiator for their product and frankly for themselves, I mean, as individuals we want that as well. How as a brand, how as a marketer, do you identify what differentiator is?
Dimitrios: Well, I think you have to vector in a few things. First and foremost, you have to understand what your product is, what you’re offering to consumers, and you have to come from a very authentic place. Then you have to be able to talk to consumers in a very authentic way. If you can do that, you’re going to have something that resonates.
What you can’t do, and I’ve seen this at some of the companies I’ve worked for which I won’t mention, is, stretch to be things that you’re not. Or try so hard that you feel inauthentic. You have to be really comfortable being who you are and weaving that into a narrative and a story – not a sales pitch, not a marketing campaign. You need to create an ethos and a story. If you can do that, you’re going to get a core base of customers and when those customers come to you, they stick to you and then they tell others. And then you get really good, sticky, organic growth.
Ander: I feel like I see a lot of products that try to attach this value proposition to who they are in their messaging, in their advertising, wherever else you might see anything related to the product, and it’s almost like they’re relying on some sort of echo chamber to make it true.
Are you saying that these things actually do have to be true to have that differentiator or that x-factor effect that happened with Virgin and with Apple?
Dimitrios: I think there are businesses that can put out a poster with a message and there’s nothing behind the poster, but that poster can get you a certain distance. It doesn’t make for leading business, it doesn’t make for an inspiring brand, but it can be decent business.
But I think if you want to create a brand and create something that’s lasting and that grows, and be a brand that is admired and respected, you have to be authentic. You have to have meaning behind it. And this is one of the great struggles for all marketers. I think the hardest part of marketing is not necessarily the external facing stuff that you do with customers, but it’s the internal facing work that you have to do to sell the company and everyone in the company on the brand. Everyone loves the idea of what the brand is when you say it’s cool and inspiring. That’s what I mean when I say the poster.
Great brands don’t just stick the poster in their window. Every single person in that company from the janitor to the CEO and every decision goes through a brand filter to make the decisions. When everyone can do that, that’s when a brand really becomes authentic. And it sticks. That’s what separates the very few great brands there are from all the other brands that are out there.
Ander: That’s how you break through the noise, so to speak?
Ander: You mentioned the janitor. That is a good example. That’s not someone that I think of necessarily in terms of reflecting the Instapage brand here. That’s not something that would come top of mind. What else do you find is, generally speaking, overlooked and still is important in terms of maintaining that brand consistency?
Dimitrios: You know, that’s a really good question and I don’t know if there is an easy answer because brand is everything. Brand isn’t just your advertising. It isn’t just your website. It isn’t just some of the messaging you have on collateral. It isn’t just some of your people. Brand is everything.
You mentioned Instapage. If Instapage, hypothetically stood for professionalism and style, and then I walked in here and I saw your janitor being unprofessional and unstylish – fairly or not – it creates an impression that runs counter to what your poster told me.
There’s a break. Most brands don’t die from what I would call like a massive head trauma. They do one spectacularly bad thing. Most brands aren’t great because they die slowly by a thousand cuts. They do a little thing wrong here, a little thing wrong there, and before you know it, you look back and it’s just a trail of nicks and cuts that ran counter to who you are and what the brand was supposed to be. That’s what keeps you from being a great brand.
It’s consistency on everything, so every single thing needs to look the part. If your brand stands for, again, professionalism and style and you walk into the bathroom… a lot of people might not think that matters but I’m here, I’m experiencing it, this is not part of your brand, there’s a disconnect, and there’s a break. Small breaks over time equal one big break.
Ander: Yeah, certainly. Earlier you were talking about the zig versus the zag, so to speak.
When everyone else is doing the zig, you have to do the zag, in the same way that Steve Jobs did with Apple and the same way that Richard Branson did with Virgin America. A big part of doing that and having brand consistency throughout an organization is obviously getting people to be on board with you.
When you are proposing something that is against best practices, that might be counter-intuitive, that is that zig against that zag, how do you get people on board with you? How do you get the rest of your organization to embrace this unconventional idea?
Dimitrios: It may be unconventional in that it may not have been done before, it may feel counter-intuitive, but hopefully you can demonstrate that it aligns to the brand. The thing about having a brand is it’s a blueprint or a framework. It is truly, as I said earlier, a lens that you look through that helps inform you on decisions to make. If you have a clear brand with clear values and clear principles, if it’s counter-intuitive, I should be able to clearly outline how it fits what our brand is. It checks this, this, this, and this box.
If it does that, then you have to say no matter how weird or uncomfortable it feels, it aligns; we should do it. And you have to do it. And that’s where courage comes in, right? And that’s why, again, you know, most people would rather fail conventionally than succeed unconventionally. And that’s one of the things that I always try and embrace: you have to be able to take risks – calculated, smart, aligned to an objective, but take the risk.
Ander: You have to take risks to do something extraordinary. That’s almost a fact, you could say.
We’re talking about brand consistency and making sure that there are no cracks across your organization, that everything your organization does. Everything that a brand says, is part of that brand.
How do you do that in the gig economy, which is what iCracked is part of right now? You have all of these independent technicians who are part of your platform but they’re not necessarily your employees. What is the methodology to making sure that that is actually maintained throughout the business?
Dimitrios: Yeah, that’s a really big challenge. The gig economy simply just refers to companies that have independent contractors. An Uber driver, for instance, or the delivery person for Instacart. These are people who don’t work for the company but they represent the company, they look like they work for the company, and they represent the brand.
That’s the same thing we have at iCracked with five thousand technicians, the largest network for on-demand repair of smart devices in the world, and yet they don’t work for us. They’re not employees of ours. It’s a complex problem. How do you maintain a brand which is all about consistency with thousands of people spread out all over the place who don’t actually work for you?
The key there is a couple of things. For one, you have to be very, very clear about what the brand is and it needs to be something simple and clear that can be related to a lot of people so that they can embrace and understand it. It needs to be easy to live it. You certainly have to find ways to monitor and be able to evaluate performance of people so that they’re aligning to those brand values.
But most importantly, you have to create the inspiration. You have to create a brand that is inspiring and fun and resonates with people so that it’s natural and intuitive for them to want to align to it. That it’s not this task or chore that make them think, ‘I’ve got to go through this checklist. I must do this, this, and this.’
It’s just got to feel right and intuitive. If you do it right, it just falls out naturally and then the authenticity of it really comes across to the customer.
Ander: And, I think that if it is something that I as a member of the gig economy, if I was one of your technicians, can relate to and easily reflect, it’s going to be easy just by default.
Dimitrios: Brand is always about simplicity, clarity, and the ability for it to resonate authentically with people. It’s very, very hard to do that because the temptation is always to want to do more and make it complicated because it’s just natural. One of my favorite sayings is – I think Mark Twain said it once – is ‘Sorry for such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a short one.’
That’s what brand is. You can get a brand to a certain point. To just crunch it down another 50% is an enormous amount of work and critical thinking. But boy, when you get it to that point, it’s beautiful and it’s simple.
Again, that’s why there’s so few brands that are able to do it. But brands like Nike, Apple, and others, have figured it out.
Ander: I’m not sure if it’s going to get easier to figure it out or more difficult to figure it out as we move forward. We operate in this very, very rapidly changing world. We’re both in technology but whatever industry you’re in, everything is happening very, very quickly. There’s also the argument that every company is now a tech company.
How would you say that this is going to change? What are some of the challenges that we as marketers can anticipate in the coming future with breaking through the noise, getting our message out to the right audience, and really cultivating that brand that really works for us and our products?
Dimitrios: That’s a good question, Ander. You know, it’s harder and harder to build a brand because in today’s world the consumer has much more power than they used to have. Social media allows anybody anywhere to talk to hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people instantly at once. You can imagine the problems that can entail from that for a brand. If two or three customers have an issue and they go on social media, it can grow exponentially and take on a life of its own, even though what they’re saying may or may not even be true. But that will stick. That’s on your brand and you had no control over the messaging.
It used to be, not that long ago, that for thousands of people to consume information on your brand at any given time, only you, the maker of the product, had that power through paid media. We now share that power with every consumer out there which puts a lot of pressure on a brand to be more real, more authentic, and stick to the promise. Now, everyone is a gatekeeper that gets to sound an alarm bell and tell a whole bunch of people about. It’s really good for consumers because it forces brands to be much more true to what they say they’re going to do. I think that’s a good thing. It makes it much harder for brands because they’ve lost their control.
The other thing that’s interesting too is that there’s a real change in the marketplace where, again, not that long ago, consumption was almost a virtue. The badge value of things was a virtue. You know, consuming premium things was seen as a virtue or a sign of status.
Now, not only are they not really seen as that, but they’re almost looked down upon and now it’s the cultural relevance of a product that carries the weight. Cultural capital far exceeds brand capital or badge capital now. These are things that allow so many great small companies catch fire. They come from an authentic place, they’re making really good products, whether it’s any one of the products out there that’s making better milk for you from chickpeas, or different products in getting the dairy out. Or, products that are sourcing responsibly to make a better, more comfortable t-shirt, responsibly made. All of these types of things are now what people are seeking and what people want. And it puts more pressure on brands to do that for them too.
Ander: Dimitrios, this has been an absolutely fascinating conversation. I wish we could sit here for hours and talk about this longer, but I have a lot to do today and I’m sure you do as well. Haha.
What is the best way as a marketer, or as someone who is listening to this, to check out what you’re doing in your current organization? To see what is going on at iCracked?
Dimitrios: Well, if you’ve ever dropped your phone, please go to iCracked.com to download our app and we’re happy to send someone out to you wherever you are and whenever you want to fix your phone. You can see what a great experience it is. You can visit us at iCracked.com. That really is the best way right now.
You kind of caught us in the middle ground, Ander, because having just recently joined the company, we are in the process of doing some significant brand work and we’re going to have a very different look and feel. We’ll kind of be a whole new company in the new year so I need to come back and tell you all about that and then tell people where to go.
Ander: What’s especially cool about that, especially because there are so many marketers that are part of this world wide listening audience, is that everything that you’re saying, everything that we’ve talked about over the course of the past thirty minutes or so, we’ll get to see put into action with the re-branding iCracked is doing.
Dimitrios: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Ander: Once again, thank you so much for coming to our office. It’s been a pleasure.
Dimitrios: Thanks a lot, Ander. Appreciate it.