Building a Speakeasy Brand with Animalz


What if you could generate more business by building a brand that fewer people were aware of, rather than more? This episode runs counter to our conventional wisdom as marketers in the most refreshing way. Tune in to learn more about powerhouse content creator, Animalz, and the story behind their success.

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Full Transcript

Jay Acunzo: Hey, it’s Jay, and I want to tell you why you should consider building a brand that almost nobody can find. Yeah, I know. I know, just hear me out.

For years, I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, outside of an area full of stuff to do and stuff to eat called Davis Square. People in Boston, who are listening right now, are screaming at me like, “Hey, Davis Square is actually in Somerville, not Cambridge,” but I lived on the border, ya zealot, chill out.

Down the street from my house was this bar called Saloon. Just saying the name probably brings to mind an image in your head, right? Saloon? We are, of course, talking about tons of exposed brick walls and a thick slab of oak for the bar with wrought iron stools running all around it. On the menu, of course, were various cuts of roasted meats and side dishes like Brussels sprouts roasted with all kinds of cheese, and oil, and maybe like buffalo sauce and bacon. Seriously, Brussels sprouts are delicious, because Brussels sprouts are vehicles for other delicious stuff.

On the drink menu, predictably, Saloon had an endless list of whiskeys with a bunch of carefully crafted cocktails described more like a grocery list than something you drink. There’s egg in this one drink, and nutmeg in another, and chartreuse in one, whatever the heck that is. Wait a second, something called a shrub in this one? Okay, we veered away from the grocery store and arrived at Home Depot.

But, I loved Saloon, shrubs and all. Loved it. But, not the first time. The first time I was invited there by a friend, I hated it. Not because of anything I experienced, because of what I didn’t. I didn’t experience the place. I couldn’t find it. At least, not at first. My Google Maps told me, it was right here, I swear, and, yet, it was nowhere to be found. I walked back and forth looking at my map like a human windshield wiper getting ever closer to the same spot where I started in the middle.

Someone finally went, “Saloon?” I was like, “Yeah.” They were like, “Oh, it’s that door.” There, sitting below a glowing white orb of a streetlight, was the entrance. No sign, no nothing. I looked up at the light again and squinted. In tiny script font, there it was, Saloon. From the day I stepped foot in that place until the day I moved to New York nine years later, if I was meeting someone for a whiskey, a steak, and a side of super fatty vegetables, we were meeting at Saloon.

Today on the show, building a speakeasy brand. We may not run a bar here in the B2B marketing world, but some of us would benefit by building our very own speakeasy. I’ll explain.

This is Exceptions, a show about why the world’s best B2B companies are currently betting so heavily on brand. After years of that stuff being derided and overlooked in B2B, brand has become the differentiating factor in a world of infinite choice, noise and commodities in B2B. This show is a partnership between me, Jay Acunzo, and Drift.

I am an author and a public speaker and drift is a company that believes in improving the experience between two businesses. Specifically, how one business buys from another. So, Drift his build out software like chat bots and other smart tools to help you connect on your website to people who visit right now. Not later, not by forcing them to fill out a form and get back to them in a couple of days, right now, because that’s when they want to hear from you.

In this episode of the show, I go inside Animalz. That’s Animalz with a Z. Animalz is an agency that provides content marketing services for some of the top B2B brands that we’ve explored in this very podcast. Their sweet spot seems to be SaaS companies, but they do have a broader portfolio of clients. I talked to Devin Bramhall, one of their executives, about why it was so hard to find, well, them.

This was what I suspected, and it was what I found, and I am still shocked, and I want to know more. The company, Animalz, operates in SaaS, which is a brand-centric, content-centric, very public type of B2B marketing and you provide content marketing services. The company has twitter handle, no Instagram, no Facebook page, Snapchat, no LinkedIn page that posts anything. The first post on the company blog was January 4, 2018 and it was something that I have seen probably 1,000 times before, which is content marketing personas, how to reach your target audience.

I guess my question is, Why?

Devin Bramhall: Yeah. This is actually one of my favorite stories, because I’m a brand girl. Every company that I’m at, I care a lot about the brand side of things. Coming from Help Scout, which was so good at brand and where I loved working on their brand, of building the brand, it’s so funny that I would be somewhere that’s almost like brand-agnostic. In fact, I will tell you, if you go in the way-backed machine, and I’m going to find this for you, the first version of our website was a single page and it was a Yoshi stuffed animal that was facing a laptop on a desk. It was literally nothing.

Okay, so here’s the way I think about Animalz brand right now. We are like a speakeasy. You have to know we exist and you have to be invited by a friend. What that translates into is we are almost 100% driven by word-of-mouth. That, to me, from a brand perspective, I should hate that, right? I should be like, “Okay, where is our Twitter handle?” P.S. We used to have a Twitter handle and I made us shut it down, because it was not perfect and we didn’t have a concept for it yet.

The reason I love our lack of brand and the fact that we are driven by word-of-mouth is that you don’t get recommended unless the quality of your work is good. Nobody would recommend us if we were doing a bad job and there are lots of agencies out there with shiny, beautiful webpages and lots of followers on Twitter, who don’t necessarily produce the best content.

I am okay with us being low-key on the brand side, for now, and that is definitely a sign of things to come. So, be prepared. For now, I’m okay with being sleepy, because we continue to get business and as long as we, as a business, are delivering on the promise of our brand, I can wait on the visual stuff.

Jay: It’s worth noting that they have started to publish more of their own thoughts. Most notably, on their blog and podcast. While the podcast continues to publish regular episodes, the blog hasn’t been updated since October 2018, at the time of this recording in late March 2019.

And, despite the ubiquity of Twitter among content marketers, Animalz still doesn’t have its own company handle. There very much still a speakeasy brand, so I asked Devin, is that a smart strategy?

Devin: If you were trying to build your company on word-of-mouth alone, I think it’s really hard and one of the reasons we were able to do that is because Walter, our CEO, he has a strong network. Not just of people he loosely knows, he has a strong network of friends. He founded a company before Animalz, so he really believes in the SaaS industry, he believes in startups, he believes in content marketing.

He had a strong network to begin with, so I don’t think that’s necessarily the way to go for any agency. That’s sort of my disclaimer. The reason we are not staying this way is I don’t think it’s healthy for a company to rely on a single stream of new business. I think it’s just smart, we want to always be looking ahead. We don’t know, is there going to be a recession soon? You just can’t rely on a single thing that’s successful, just like you can’t have one single customer that represents the majority of your company’s revenue. You want to diversify as much as possible, so this is just a matter of keeping our company healthy.

Jay: I understand that, but what I’m curious about is, when you make that shift, what are you worried about?

Devin: Getting too big, too fast. I know that sounds like, I think our shit doesn’t stink, or whatever, but one of the things that has been a big challenge for me, personally, working at my first agency is I’m used to a startup, where you have a limited number of people who can take on exponential number of customers, because you’ve got a SaaS product. With agency, it’s more one-to-one, so it’s like if I want to take on a customer, I’ve got a physical human being that can produce physical definite number of articles, for example, or a certain amount of work for them, so it’s harder to scale.

Again, because content, it’s harder to scale on high quality. I want our brand to be out there, I want people to want to work with us, but I don’t want it to have … I do want it to happen fast, I just want to be able to sustain it. That’s partially why we waited and didn’t really immediately try to 10x our lead gen, for example, because we’re trying to, at the same time, make sure we have the infrastructure to support it.

Jay, what keeps me up at night is, oh my God, say we get big. Say my dream comes true, and we are this huge agency, and suddenly we become that agency who everybody looks at as they all know the name, but they’re like, “Yeah, but their stuff really isn’t very good.” The brand is well-known, as a logo, but when people talk about us they’re like, “Yeah, but their stuff actually really isn’t good, and their people don’t know what they’re doing, blah-blah-blah,” because you know who those agencies are, you know what those companies are, and you’ve talked about them. We all have, and quietly, when no one is around. I am terrified of becoming that.

Jay: To better understand how a speakeasy brand like Animalz makes customers feel and how they develop fierce loyalty as a result, we first need to hear from the voice of an actual customer.

Margaret Kelsey leads Brand and Content Marketing at the software company Appcues. The Boston-based startup helps their customers create in-product experiences without writing any code. This includes stuff like user onboarding and feature announcements. For both the Appcues blog and a micro site they manage about UX, Appcues relied on Animalz to provide great content.

Devin actually brought up this idea that Animalz is a speakeasy brand. In other words, if you know it, you feel like you belong to it and you love it.

Margaret Kelsey: Yes.

Jay: But, there’s not a ton of air game and advertising. They’re not plastering their logo everywhere. Talk to me about does that phase resonate with you at all? What do you think the characteristics of a speakeasy brand would be if we are inventing this new category, because I don’t know? This is the first I’ve ever heard of this.
Margaret: First of all, I love that. I would hang out with the Devin in a speakeasy any day of the week, too. She seems like that resonates very well. I think that it’s something that’s whispered about. Something that’s the terms of a speakeasy brand, it’s low-key, trustworthy your friend that’s never going to stand you up. They’re always there and I feel like they have my back. As a brand, I feel like what other thing would you want out of a brand than knowing that they have your back, and knowing that they are always going to be there, and give you what you need in that moment?

But, Animalz, well, they didn’t always live up to this for Appcues. Despite the great relationship they started with and that they now have, there was this one major issue that they went through together that almost tore everything down.

Margaret: We had been assigned a new writer, who had a couple assignments in their queue already, and had worked on them, had delivered them pretty quickly. Had a great intro to this person, had agreed email thread going, very personable, felt very comfortable, and initially. We found out really quickly, and I give credit to Katrina, our Blog Editor for this one, she didn’t really know a lot about the topic herself, so she started to go in Google, and realized that a large part of, specifically, one of the articles had been lifted from one of the really top results on Google.

Jay: Said another way, plagiarism. The writer plagiarized another piece and then he sent it to Appcues as his own words. One that the brand should feel confident in publishing. After all, that’s why they hired him and the firm he worked for. That was the reliable list of whiskeys, the regular feel of the exposed brick and the wrought iron stools, the Brussels sprouts doused in some delicious bacon; except, this writer basically ordered some take-out from down the street and said, “Here, we made this for you in our very own kitchen.” Ugh.

Appcues reached out to the writer and said, “Hey, I’m not sure if you forgot to change your notes or something like that, but you submitted this entire thing as your own writing and it’s clearly not.” They gave him the benefit of the doubt and they wanted to see with this writer would do.

Margaret: He, I believe, self-reported into Animalz and said, “Hey, I had Appcues reach out to me,” and I don’t know if he really realized the gravity of the issue, but Devin handled it so quickly. We had a call with her, I believe, two days later, maybe even it was the next day after Katrina had sent that email, where she had taken internal process changes, she had, unfortunately, let the writer go, because it didn’t seem like there was an understanding of the gravity of the situation there.

Then, did everything in her power to make us feel comfortable. That was assigning us a new writer that had deep subject matter expertise, and she knew that person could be onboarded really quickly, and has been to some great success. Also, just took some time to check in with us personally and even sent, unnecessarily, but sent us a box of goodies as an apology gift. I think the steps she took afterwards, they were prompt, they were honest.

The call that we had, she was visibly shaken up about it, did not think that it was right, did not think that it was okay, did not take it lightly. Then, moved so swiftly, and quickly, and what I hope that I would have done exactly the same thing as she had done. That, itself, gave us the feeling that we could stay with the brand, and trust them, and continue to work with them.

Jay: She acknowledged the issue, she owned it, and swiftly responded; but, she also did something that most companies, and by companies I mean people, are simply unwilling to do. Devin showed her emotion. She conveyed just how angry she was at the situation and this person, who, naturally, no longer works for the firm. She was frustrated, embarrassed, stressed out and shocked. She let the client know, “Hey, I get it, I’m a person too. Think about how I feel. In fact, no need, I’m showing you right now, not so you feel bad for me, but so we have a real moment of actual connection around what could push us apart.”

Margaret: It’s humility. It’s human connection. It’s this moment that I think that knocks your mind out of this idea of we are two companies interacting and knocks you into this moment of like oh, yeah, we’re two human beings interacting. I think that the screen sometimes … I imagine, that a lot of the folks that are listening to your podcast are working on screens all day or working through screens and I think screens can make us forget that.

Whether or not even your communication is going from one to many, you’re still human beings connecting with human beings and I think that’s where people are trying to get at with that authenticity, is that it’s not a robot interacting with many. You might use robots to do that, but it’s really about the human connection and being able to see that there is a human on the other side of the screen. That can be really powerful.

Jay: Throughout this show, we’ve defined brand as the way others feel about the behavior of your people. That’s it. That’s all this is. Your people create the work, or higher agencies to do so, and that work provides the experience that others feel a certain way about. The way others feel about the behavior of your people. That’s all brand is.

There’s a certain word that we’re all used to using and hearing by now all around the marketing world to describe the way people at a company behaves. Or maybe the way we should behave if we’re going to build special brands. That word is also today’s big idea.

That word and today’s big idea: authenticity. Wait, wait, hold on. Before you roll your eyes or even tune out of this entirely because yet another marketer is screaming be authentic, hear me out, because I think we constantly say that word, but forget what it actually means. It means true to one’s own personality, spirit or character. Here’s the thing, if someone is having a terrible day, week or year, do you really want them being true to that on behalf of your company?

Negative energy and cynicism leaking out into your content? Or what if they are bored with the work and they show up to, I don’t know, deliver a speech that you hired them to give onstage, and they’ve given the same speech 20 times before, and they feel checked out? Do you want a glum-looking speaker, or do you want them to fake how they feel about it and try to deliver something great? They’re being inauthentic to how they truly feel on that day, but that’s probably what you want. No?

Or how about me, right now, on this microphone. This isn’t actually how I speak to people off-line. Not exactly. This is how I speak when narrating a podcast, when performing. The exact way I speak wouldn’t be as good on the microphone as a narrator. It’s not all that different from what you’re hearing right now, but it’s different enough that, say, my wife would go, “Yeah, okay, that’s not really Jay.” So, what do we mean when we say authentic?

Authenticity doesn’t mean good, it just means real. There are some real moments that we all face that we don’t want to have leak out to the public. There are also some real jerks in the world, so if they’re acting as a jerk in public in their marketing, well, they’re still being authentic. No, I think authenticity is overblown. It’s not a panacea, it’s not the path, it’s just one available path towards the destination we all seek. We want connection. Authenticity ostensibly builds connection; unless, like the examples I just gave, it’s the wrong time to show how you’re really feeling.

Connection means genuine relationships with one another and that includes between us and the customer, especially in B2B, where we just can’t transact the world. We shouldn’t. If we see connection, well, sometimes we have to reveal how we’re really feeling and, in those moments, be authentic. Devin was willing to do so, even in the moment where she felt vulnerable. It didn’t make sense for her to be inauthentic; in fact, she saw the emotion of Margaret and decided I’m going to reveal how I’m actually feeling, too.

In that moment, she chose to be authentic, but it’s just one available path at her disposal. Both parties involved were glad she took that path. If you’re going to win on word-of-mouth by being a speakeasy brand, well, you can’t be false. You have to be authentic. If it creates connection. Otherwise, others won’t recommend you. They’ll see what you’re trying to do, they’ll see past the actions. You’re trying to transact them and that is the issue.

When you so obviously want to sell somebody that you don’t care about connection and thus you feel inauthentic. So, sure, be authentic, but maybe, far better, just focus on customer connection.
Jay: I was checking out your Twitter lately and January 8, 2019, part of a Tweet you wrote, “As a marketer, I feel pretty cold and dead inside about most content.” Later that same day, you said something about, “My cold dead marketing heart is again delighted.” My question is, Devin, are you okay?

Devin: Absolutely. Honestly, I think that being cold and dead inside actually makes me a better marketer, because I look back to the early days when I first started marketing, I believed in it so hard. I thought content marketing was everything. I thought everything that I did was so cool and everything everyone else did was so cool. It’s like that’s not how you make discerning decisions. That’s not how you produce the highest quality.

It’s good to love it, but I think if you, something from the standpoint of a skeptic, what you produce is actually going to be 10 times better, because you’re going to know to question your own decisions and your own ideas to make sure you get the best possible product in the end.

Jay: Isn’t there a lot of room between everything is great, and awesome, and the best idea ever, and a skeptic?
Devin: Yeah, I guess you’re right. I think that’s true, but I don’t mind being somebody that you have to convince to like something. I’d rather be that person where the quality of what you produce has to be so good for me to like it than be that person that’s very easily amused. I think there is room for both and I think when I was earlier on in my career, I definitely was more easily amused.

Devin: The fact that it takes that much to amuse me means that I’ve seen a lot, which means that whatever it is, whether it’s strategy, or writing, or whatever, it’s coming from a place of seeing so much more, I guess. The likelihood that my ideas are going to be unique are perhaps higher. I don’t actually know if that’s true, honestly, but that’s the way I feel.

Jay: What you just described to me was a skeptic with taste. I think a pure skeptic is somebody who says, “That big idea, or small idea, or that new approach, or the even small dollop of idealism that somebody brings to the table is not going to work,” and you’re focused on mitigating the risk, rather than maximizing the upside. What you’re talking about is actually to maximize the upside, you have to go through the gauntlet of skepticism. You’re like, “I have taste to make sure that whatever pops out the other end that we do is actually good, is actually worthy of excitement.” No?

Devin: I 100% agree that, definitely.

Jay: How does that change how you interact with your team, I guess?

Devin: Well, when I interact, you know what it is? I feel like when I’m interacting with my team, I’m always trying to show them what’s possible. I know that sounds really broad, but I think when you’re early on in your career, and I hate always bringing it down to stage of your career, but I just keep thinking back to when I started. I had a limited data set of what was possible.

When, say, a customer comes to us with a marketing problem or we’re having trouble helping a customer win, the content that we’re producing is falling flat or something, we have to rethink what we’re doing. When I’m talking to new, fresh content marketers that are working here, it’s like I’m trying to help them see, push the boundaries back of what is possible to consider. If we want to write a post to rank for a keyword, even though we have to follow certain structures, the post doesn’t have to be boring. Here’s how we can make it different and interesting to the readers so it’s serving a business value, as well as, delighting the reader.

Jay: Jimmy Daly leads Marketing and Sales for Animalz.

Jimmy Daly: Yeah. The speakeasy brand started kind of by accident. As often happens with service businesses, the cobbler’s children have no shoes. We are doing content marketing and strategy for customers and there’s just no time for us to do it for ourselves. That was how it started, but then we noticed something that happened, which was that people would refer us. They would add their friends or colleagues to our little club and it was so exiting for them to be in-the-know that it seemed that it was better than making a huge effort to brand ourselves explicitly.

Jay: I asked Jimmy what you might’ve been thinking for a while here, don’t we want more reach, and more audience, and more awareness? Doesn’t that make our jobs easier?

Jimmy: The content marketer in me once the broadest possible exposure. The sales person inside of me knows that our secret society helps us close deals. It’s kind of being pulled in both directions a little bit. I do think, though, that part of the way we operate our own content marketing has been also kind of under the radar. I don’t spend a ton of time promoting our stuff, or link building, or any of the things that a good content marketer should do, because I don’t have time.

I really would like to get that stuff out to more people, whether they become customers or not is immaterial. I feel like we have learned so much from working with all of these great companies, I just want to be able to share that stuff. Really excited on that end.

Then, as we build out our new site, we’re going to be a little protective over how much we offer up about exactly who we are, and exactly what we do, and exactly who we work with, so that we can maintain a little bit of that speakeasy feel, too.

Devin: Our process around customer management, for example. We, for example, were not doing monthly customer reports, so we were producing all this content. We actually do a lot of strategy for our customers, too, but we weren’t reporting back to them on how the strategy that we set up and the content that we produced and published for them was performing. It seemed so obvious, but it took us a little while to realize that was important.

We’d be talking to some people and they would be questioning the value of what we delivered, which is normal. They’re paying us, they should question that. We realized, duh, we’re not doing our due diligence to show them what we are doing for them. It was like, okay, we’re going to implement monthly reports. Then the next question was, what are these monthly reports supposed to look like? What do we put in them?

Then it was like, okay, here’s a template for monthly reports. Then we started sending those monthly reports, and getting feedback, and seeing, okay, what do customers care about, what do they not care about, etc.? That’s a very small example. The other one is customer management, period. We didn’t have a way to manage all the onboarding tasks for a customer. P.S. We didn’t even actually have an onboarding process, now that I think about it.

Implement an onboarding process that customers get a beautiful, seamless experience right from the get-go, they’re seeing value right away, so we’re delivering stuff up front, in addition to the articles, and we’re super organized, so they don’t have to think about us. These are all things that we were doing ad hoc, but have zero process around. Okay, now we have a process for it, how do we make sure that process is documented and repeated?

Okay, now we need a [sauna 00:28:25], how do we set up a sauna? Then we need to add that to our employee onboarding. You start to think about what it takes to look good, and deliver for a customer, and, on the backend, there’s a lot of little steps along the way that are kind of messy to get there.
Jimmy: As a lot of marketing blogs grow up, they actually get bigger and they get worse, so I would like to get bigger and, hopefully, better, too.

Jay: How do you make sure that your marketing is actually aligned with the speakeasy level service?

Devin: I think it’s a little bit of trial and error. You know this, and I know this; sometimes, you just have to put something out there and see how it works before you can really figure out what the final end product should be. I think when it comes to our [inaudible] and our company marketing product, it’s going to be, honestly, a little messier than, say, what we’re delivering to our customers.
Devin: We are probably going to be trying things that are more complicated, more risky, because we’ve made that decision to take risk with our own brand to try it. Whereas, with customers, we are going to be trying to deliver things that are more of a guarantee. We want to deliver them things that we know will work, so we can show them results faster and let them decide to take risks. Or, maybe, occasionally, approach them and say, “This is a risk, do you want to try it with us?”

Jimmy: We’re small, we don’t need a ton of volume to be successful right now. The thing that would unlock a lot of opportunities for us is the opportunity to be really choosy about who we work with. If we were able to double or triple the number of qualified leads we get in a month, it would force us to think really carefully about who we are working with and never feel like we have to say yes, because we need the business.

Devin: I think it only takes a couple of customers. If you win a couple of good, well-known brands that are known for their high quality content in the beginning, that’s all it takes. I think that’s why we were so successful early on.

Jay: We all obsess over all these things, tons of stuff, everything under the sun, as marketers today; but very few of us spend actual, proactive, strategic time thinking about word-of-mouth. What creates it, what’s being said, what benefits it holds for our business? A speakeasy survives solely on word-of-mouth. I’m not saying that’s what we all have to do, but taking a page from them can be profoundly useful for our companies. Both the literal type of speakeasy and the metaphorical ones, too.

Care about word-of-mouth, care about quality and care about the customer. You can wrap all of that stuff together by caring about one overarching idea: brand. In this world of yet another commodity company or product, ask yourself, what makes your brand an exception?

Thanks to Drift for making this show possible. If you haven’t yet, check out Seeking Wisdom. Seeking Wisdom is their flagship Drift podcast. They have a whole network of podcasts called Seeking Wisdom Originals, that’s what Exceptions is, but Seeking Wisdom started it all, and it’s hosted by Drift CEO and co-Founder David Cancel and VP of Marketing Dave Gerhardt, and they talk all about getting better every day. So, checkout Seeking Wisdom in your podcast player of choice.

Also, if you like this show, you might like my personal podcast Unthinkable, where I tell stories about people who break from conventional thinking at work to think for themself.

As always, I’m your host, Jay Acunzo, and I can’t thank you enough for listening to the show. Every listener, every download, and, most especially, every comment we get on social media really does give us the confidence we need to continue growing. Thank you, again, for your support and I’ll talk to you on the next episode of Exceptions. See ya.