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CULT BRAND: What Happens in Vegas...

When you think of iconic brands, names like Nike, Budweiser and Apple come to mind. However, cities can become cult brands, just like products. And perhaps the most well-known city in the U.S., with the most well-known brand, is Las Vegas. Say, "What happens in Vegas ..." to anyone, and they'll likely be able to finish your sentence.

In this episode, the boys bring on Cathy Tull, former CMO of Las Vegas' Convention and Visitors Authority, who oversaw this positioning and lived to tell the tale ... and she's telling it to The Chad & Cheese Podcast.

Enjoy this Smashfly exclusive.


Chris Kneeland: Hey everybody, this is Chris Kneeland, the CEO of Cult Collective and cofounder of the Gathering of Cult brands. Excited this week to introduce you to Cathy Tull.

Chris Kneeland: I'm excited to introduce you to Cathy, because my relationship with her began all the way back in year one of the Gathering when she came to accept the recognition for all of the wonderful things that the City of Las Vegas had done through their What Happens Here Stays Here campaign. She has been instrumental in not only encouraging us to turn the Gathering into an annual event, but also in helping all of us think about destinations as Cult-like brands.

Chris Kneeland: We've since gone on to look at the city of Austin, the Island of Manhattan, the country of Iceland, all these other wonderful destinations have gotten onto our radar because she helped us think differently about how destinations have to market themselves. Excited to hear what Cathy has to say.

Announcer: Hide your kids, lock the doors. You're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts, complete with breaking news, brash opinion, and loads of snark. Buckle up, boys and girls. It's time for the Chad & Cheese Podcast.

Joel: Oh, yeah, it's a Monday. Our guest is so laid back I feel like I should turn it down a couple of notches. It's like we're turning into NPR.

Chad: She's out of Vegas, too, so we shouldn't be all laid back.

Joel: Yeah, maybe because it's Monday. Maybe if we talk to her on a Friday, she'd be all cray cray. Cathy, welcome to the show.

Cathy: Thank you. Good morning.

Chad: Cathy Tull, today.

Joel: Not related to Jethro, as far as we know.

Chad: Exactly. Cathy, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Cathy: I was formally the chief marketing officer for Las Vegas, and I joined Cult just a couple of months ago. I really believe in this whole idea of creating Cult-like movements, and I'm excited to be a part of a new team.

Chad: That's awesome. First question right out of the gate. You've got to tell me. You were the CMO ... You were with Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority for 14 years, but 10 of those years, you are the chief marketing officer when What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas was going on. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Because that is a campaign that I think everybody across the world knows.

Cathy: Yeah. The campaign was started by my former boss, Rossi Ralenkotter and R&R Partners, who is an agency here in Las Vegas. They created What Happens Here Stays Here, and then luckily for me, Rossi hired me. I was able to really take that and then help shepherd the brand and shepherd the growth, and use that whole campaign, What Happens Here Stays Here, to attract four generations of travelers. Las Vegas gets 43 million visitors a year. It's an amazing product that continues to change all the time. To be part of that is really something that you can't repeat, I don't think ever again, in my career.

Chad: Before What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas, there was this duality of Las Vegas where they weren't sure what they wanted to be. Did they want to be Sin City, or did they want your kids to come into the casino with you? Can you tell us a little bit about how it all came to be that you found your way?

Cathy: I think, as Las Vegas grew, there was product being built that was oriented to families, but really the destination itself represented adult freedom. The agency and the LVCVA did a number of research projects around, "What does a visitor want? What do they expect when they come to Las Vegas?" What they really wanted was this chance to be who they are.

Cathy: There's very few destinations and very few places you can go in the world where you feel like you're not being judged. Las Vegas is one of those, really a judgment-free zone. What Happens Here Stays Here was really meant to embrace this idea of adult freedom, and say, "You can come to Vegas, and if you want to sleep all day and stay up all night, you can. If you want to sleep all night, and go to the spa, and play golf, and go shopping, and dine, you can do that."

Cathy: What happened was the city built product to service those consumers who love Las Vegas. When you think about Las Vegas, you either love it or hate it. There's not a whole lot of people that are in the middle. It's something that we have something for everyone. Creating What Happens Here Stays Here was about those moments that people have where they can really feel like they're free.

Joel: I have a quick question. I'm trying to envision the office space for your organization. Were there roulette wheels in the lobby? Did you have a daiquiri machine in the coffee room? Or was it a cubicle farm? What was your workspace like?

Cathy: What's interesting is the LVCVA is a government organization. The organization itself is pretty buttoned up, but the agency is a free for all. When you're looking for crazy things happening, that would happen at the agency where I spent a good amount of time. Then the office itself was pretty buttoned up. What's interesting is that the resort partners in Las Vegas actually make less money off gaming and more money off everything else, shopping, dining, spas, than they do gaming itself, which is a myth. Everyone thinks that all the money comes from gaming, and that's really not true.

Joel: You had the best of both worlds, if "buttoned up" could be one of the worlds you want to be in.

Cathy: You know what? It's a great opportunity to have a dual personality where you can do one thing in the office, then go to the agency, and it's a whole feel.

Joel: My real question. I'm glad that you mentioned global ... Like people from around the world come in to to see Vegas. What was the ad campaign from a global perspective? Did you target certain countries? Why did you target certain countries? What was the messaging? To, maybe, the difference between England ads, or French, or German, or Australia? Talk about the global campaign. Because Chad and I, and most of our listeners, we're aware of the ads that we saw here in America, but what was the flavor like globally?

Cathy: Canada, Mexico, and the UK are the top three international markets for Las Vegas. When you look at what works, the What Happens Here Stays Here campaign works in Canada, it works in Mexico. It's different in the UK. The British humor is different, and therefore the campaign had to be different.

Cathy: The campaign did not necessarily translate globally as far as Europe went. In Europe it was really more about what you could do here, how people could come, the ease of travel to Las Vegas, and then the variety of things we have to do.

Cathy: Then, if you looked at places like Australia, Las Vegas is part of a larger itinerary. Consumers from farther away would come and they would make the West Coast tour, and Las Vegas would be part of that stop. Making sure that we were within that itinerary and people could see that they could come and have three or four days in Vegas and really have a great time, and then continue on with the national park tour, or wherever else they were going to go ... We're situated in a place that allows them to do that. Depending on where you're sitting in the world, you're going to get a different message.

Cathy: However, in the last couple of years, if you think about how social media has really come to pass, at the end of the day, it's people encouraging one another. People are going to listen to a trusted friend or colleague before they're going to listen to a brand. Making sure that, all social media across the world, we were personable, we had a personality, was really important for the brand.

Joel: Did you target China and Russia?

Cathy: We targeted China, so there's nonstop service from Hainan, on to Beijing, to Las Vegas. That was a market that we were in. We did not target Russia. It would be really hard to get here. You'd have to go through one of the major ports, LA or New York.

Chad: Did you develop personas for all these different areas? Because it seems like you have different brands for the different geographies that you're trying to hit.

Cathy: We developed personas for visitors. We looked and we said, "Okay, who are the visitors?" For example, one time we did an exercise that said, "If you're coming from South America, what does that visitor look like?"

Cathy: What we found through the research was that visitors literally would come here with an empty suitcase, because their plan was to shop and to fill that suitcase up. That's what made them happy. They wanted to go out, they wanted to party, they wanted to have a good time, and they wanted to go shopping. Talking about those opportunities is what made that market go, "Oh, yeah, okay, Vegas is the place I'm going to go." Knowing who your visitor is, regardless of where they sit in the world, is the key.

Chad: What about purpose, though? Because we know that Cult brands, really, the foundation is heavy in purpose. What purpose were you guys really focusing on to be able to, not just for your employees, and for your organization, and for Las Vegas, but what was the purpose you were trying to push out to the individuals all over the world?

Cathy: Cult brands absolutely have to have a purpose. They have to stand for something. What Las Vegas stood for was adult freedom. If you think about it, Las Vegas has been criticized for that, but it is a place that is celebrated because of it. That's what we pushed, this idea that you could come here, and you could. If you wanted to shave your head and walk around for a week, you could. If you wanted to come here and stay up all night, you could. If you wanted to just come and relax, you could.

Cathy: It's one of these places where, and if you've ever been to Las Vegas, you've seen this, you can go to dinner and you can see everything. You can go into a show and you'll see people dressed in all kinds of clothes, and it's acceptable. That is what people want. They crave to be accepted. that's what Vegas stands for.

Chad: We'll get back to the interview in a minute. Building a brand isn't easy, which is why you need people like Thom Kenney, CEO of SmashFly, on your side.

Chad: All right, Tom. Engagement is key to becoming and maintaining Cult brand status. How are your clients actually focusing on that today?

Thom Kenney: First we need to think about engagement in general. You can engage a bunch of people a bunch of different ways. The first thing is recognizing what's a positive engagement and what's a negative engagement. You really got to be able to focus on the value proposition of what it is you're trying to communicate.

Thom Kenney: The second part of that, after you understand what's really the positive engagement, it's maximizing the brand value. It's just like if you're out and you're shopping for a car, and what you're really, really interested in is how that car feels when you drive it. You sit behind the wheel, and you're smelling that new car smell, and you feel comfortable. You ease back into that seat, and, just, you feel the power behind the wheel. That's a positive engagement. But, you don't get to the dealership unless you're really promoting the idea of what that car feels like.

Thom Kenney: In many ways, employer brands need to be thinking that way. When you're talking about scenarios where it's really, really hard to hire people, you can't create an engagement strategy that says, "Hey, we have jobs," and, "Hey, you should come work for us because we have health benefits." It's crap. It's not going to get you anywhere. You've got to create some sort of a mode of response that, when you're communicating in that level of engagement, it's a positive response that gets people excited. It gets them to want to sit in that chair behind the desk like they want to sit in a Porsche seat.

Chad: To find out more, go to

Joel: Cathy, a lot of our listeners are in the employment space, HR talent acquisition. Branding is a relatively new term for a lot of them. If you were to give them advice on the basic things they should look for in building an employment brand, or an overall Cult brand to attract talent, what are some of the things that you would give them as starting blocks?

Cathy: I think what's really important is you have to remember that you have to inspire from within. Your team has to believe what it is that you're trying to sell, and you have to create that from the inside out. Your internal audience is so important, and I think sometimes gets pushed aside for the external message. But, if the internal audience doesn't believe it, then it's never going to ring true to the external audience.

Cathy: I think that idea of culture is really important. I think this idea of being remarkable and creating spontaneous conversation is really important, not only with your external fans, but with your internal audience. Because if your employees don't believe in whatever it is that you're trying to sell or service, that's going to come across.

Chad: What you're saying is, I'm going to say it again because I don't think employers, and we're really focusing on the employer side right now, really focus hard enough on this. Is that, culture does kick strategy's ass every single day. Because if you don't have a culture, then everything else falls apart. Is that what I'm hearing?

Cathy: That's exactly what you're hearing. If you don't have a culture that can support the strategy, then the strategy will never be what it could be, regardless of how good the strategy is.

Chad: Yeah. Vegas, pretty much, is not for everybody, right? But you guys, in being able to be pervasive, to be able to really embrace that Cult brand ... Did you have casinos, and did you have, pretty much, businesses coming to you saying, "Wait, you're killing my business. We want to be more general. We don't want to be so locked down in this 'adult' sector"? Did you have any of that? Because you were serving, pretty much, many masters at that point, weren't you?

Cathy: Yeah. In the very beginning of the campaign, there was really a big effort put in by my boss and by the head of the agency at the time to go around to every one of the partners and talk about what was happening and why. Because, until then, advertising very much had been around showing product. The idea of What Happens Here Stays Here was not about showing product, it was about emotion. Convincing people that it was a good idea and was going to work was a heavy lift.

Cathy: Then I think what happened over my tenure was making sure that we continued to test it. It continued to work. We continued to refresh it so that it stayed up with the times and was still relevant. You can't just sit back on your laurels and go, "Okay, that's great, and we're just going to float off that forever." We spent a lot of time making sure that we were changing up the campaign and talking about visiting Las Vegas in ways that were most appropriate throughout my tenure.

Chad: Zappos comes to mind as one of the most prominent, probably, Las-Vegas-based companies that really sold almost a connection to the Vegas mentality with how they looked at employment. People who don't know Zappos, or have seen ... I've done a tour of the company. Very lively, personalized. It's a very fun workplace.

Chad: Did you see more companies than Zappos embrace the Vegas lifestyle? I can think, for example, healthcare is a big thing to get people to come to Vegas and work in healthcare, because there are shortages there. Did some hospitals embrace the Vegas lifestyle, and, "Come here, and have a good time"? "Work hard, play hard"? Were there any companies that came to you and said, "Hey, can you help us guide our brand in terms of attracting talent," in that way? Or did you guys yourselves attract talent by using the whole message of What Happens Here Stays Here?

Cathy: I think what we saw for the most part is this idea of working with economic development, city economic development and regional economic development, and making sure that they had the materials they needed to talk about what the city had to offer. Vegas was considered a place that people visited and didn't really live. There are 2 million people that live here. I think you saw that most front face forward after the events of October 1st, but prior to that, it was all about making sure people understood what we had to offer.

Chad: That all led back to economic development, right? Because you had to do more than just come up with catchy brands. You had to focus also on the economic development piece, as well. There was a lot of moving parts. First and foremost, the customers. How are they involved in this whole Cult branding? Second, how did that affect your economic development?

Cathy: We talk to our customers all the time. When I was working for the bureau, we made sure that we were always in touch with what our customers wanted, what they expected, what they were receiving, so that we could be sure that we were talking to them in a way that they wanted to be talked to in places where they were going to be listening and engaged. Because you can't buy their loyalty. You have to earn their loyalty.

Cathy: The only way you're going to earn their loyalty is to have a two-way conversation. Making sure that we were in that conversation, and listening to what people really wanted, and then relaying that back out to the local community was really important. That was one way that that happened.

Cathy: Then what we also saw was that we needed air service. When you look at Las Vegas as a location, you can either drive here or fly here. There was no train. We made sure that we were involved in airline development, and making sure that we are talking to airlines about how they could fill both the front and the back of their plane. Las Vegas is one of the number one location cities for trade shows, the trade show 200. The largest trade shows in America come to Las Vegas. We would have business conversations around the idea of, "All of these business meetings are happening. Trade shows are happening. People are buying business-class seats, so we should have more air service."

Cathy: Because we know we're a leisure destination, we know we can fill the back of the plane. But, we had to make sure that we were making the business case that we could also fill the front of the plane.

Chad: This is so in depth. Because most big brands, they don't have

to think about all these different moving parts, not in this manner. Plus you have the workforce development side, so you're looking to get the engines of economic development moving and growing. You're looking to make sure that, obviously, airlines are getting the people that are there to be able to consume what Vegas is putting out.

Chad: But what about workers? Did you focus on workforce development, as well? How did that work within the actual scheme to ensure that economic development might be booming, but you have to have the people to be able to do the work?

Cathy: Yeah, making sure that we were talking to our internal audiences about what we were doing and why was really important. We spent a good amount of time and marketing resources in rapping walls within the building, and having a message internally to employees about, "We are Vegas." We that live here are Vegas.

We're responsible for help creating this Vegas experience. Making people feel like they're empowered and they're part of something bigger is really important.

Cathy: We spend marketing resources, time, effort and energy creating those with internal audiences. What did we need, how could we do it, and how could we support it? Often marketing and everything else that happens in culture is separated in companies. When you can bridge some of those gaps, admit it, marketing is usually where the budget is, and everything else is not where the budget is. Bringing those two things together is what makes it successful.

Joel: So true. Vegas is an ever-changing animal. Certainly the Vegas I first visited 20 years ago is not the same Vegas as it is today. You have online gaming impacting the business. You have concert and personalities and celebrities taking root for months at a time doing shows. You now have professional sports teams moving into the city.

Joel: How important is establishing a brand that can stand the test of different things that go on? Companies that have to deal with ever-changing landscapes are very similar, a similar animal. What are the tips that you would give to make sure that you have a solid foundation for an ever-changing world when you look at building your brand?

Cathy: I think the number one thing is to be flexible and to not fall in love with your own idea. What's interesting is that we work so hard in marketing, and creating and bringing to life this idea that we think is going to motivate people. The downside of that is you begin to love your idea so much that you forget there's other ideas out there. There is a danger in that.

Cathy: Remaining flexible, being open to feedback, making sure that you're willing and ready to change if you need to be willing and ready to change is key, I think, to success because the world is ever changing. It doesn't matter what you're selling or what you're servicing, something in that is going to change. You have to be prepared for that. The only way you can be prepared for that is to be open to change.

Chad: We'll get back to the interview in a minute, but first a quick question for Chris Kneeland about the gathering of Cult brands.

Joel: Chris, one of the things that really blew me away when I attended the conference was, just, the lineup. It's a who's who of marketing celebrities, if you will.

Chad: Crazy.

Joel: I'm curious. When you started, how in the hell did you get these people to come? More importantly, how do you keep them coming, and how do you one up yourself from this year?

Chris Kneeland: Yeah, it's certainly easier to get them to come in year seven than it was in year one. People frequently ask, "Are we going to run out of Cult brands?" I think maybe I wondered about that, too. How can I get 10 years, 20 years out of this conference?

Chris Kneeland: Then we started doing things like destinations. We started doing nonprofits. Last year we did our first celebrity, which was Tony Hawk. We could go into politicians. There's lots of different places that actually have Cult-like followers. I think it's got a nice, long, healthy runway of Cult brand honorees.

Chris Kneeland: We get them to come for two reasons. One, I think there's a lot of substance. We do about nine months of vetting. We've partnered with IBM, and we use Watson technology to help us cull through tremendous amounts of data. We do phone screening interviews, we do onsite visits. I think there's a lot of rigor that goes into making sure that these brands are as awesome as they appear to be on the outside.

Chris Kneeland: Then, secondly, I think part of the secret sauce is that we're giving them a product, an offering. We don't even call it a conference. That's why we called it the Gathering. We didn't want to call it a conference, because we think most conferences suck. We said we had to build a place that these types of people would actually want to go to. The whole format and the whole location and everything was chemically engineered from the ground up to be highly desirable.

Chad: Register now at

Joel: Speaking of external influences, one of the things that our audience from an employment side have to deal with on a regular basis are employee reviews. You may be familiar with sites like Glassdoor, Indeed reviews, Twitter, et cetera.

Joel: How involved were you guys, you mentioned social media, from external comments about Vegas, and what people were doing, and whatnot? Did you get involved? Did you have an account that would talk to people on social, or did you just let the exterior commentary run without any influence on it?

Cathy: No, I think community engagement and community management is really important. Making sure that you know what people are saying, because there are some things you can respond to and help provide clarity. There's other times you just have to let people say what they want to say. What's interesting is that sometimes people see the audience being engaged, and check one another. The brand doesn't have to even do that, but it's important to know.

Cathy: It's important to know what people are saying about you. It's important to know when you need to have a voice. Again, I would go back to, after the events of October 1st when the shooting happened here, it was really important that the brand have a voice. We spent some time making sure that we had the right voice.

Cathy: What we ended up using was user-generated content, for the most part. We took what people were saying about Las Vegas, and just put that back out again, because that was the most important message that we could send. Making sure you're engaged with your audiences is really critical.

Joel: Tactically, how did you do that? Did you have a separate account for Vegas? Was it the tourism account? Tactically, how did that happen?

Cathy: It's the Las Vegas account. It's monitoring the Las Vegas account and making sure that we had people that were responding, that were pulling content. We had people that were watching the Instagram account, and the YouTube account, and the Facebook account, and pulling quotes that people were saying.

Cathy: That happens all the time on a regular basis, But making sure that we know what people are saying. Like I mentioned earlier, hearing from a friend or a colleague has more weight than hearing from the brand. Being able to echo back those statements was really important.

Chad: Joel and I were actually at the Gathering last February, and we had a wonderful time. One of the things that we noticed from every single Cult brand that was out there was exactly what you had said. Where everything starts from within, and ensuring that your employees not only buy in, but they understand the purpose, and they're a part of the purpose that you're trying to push.

Chad: We talked with Douglas Atkin from Airbnb, and he said that they started out there, but every now and again they would have to do some checks to make sure that things weren't going, his words, "getting wobbly". What did you do, what did the organization do, to ensure that everything that was from a purpose standpoint, being pressed out and pushed out from a marketing standpoint, and whatnot, was still being embraced by employees six months, 12 months, 18 months down the road? They still felt like they were a part of the brand?

Cathy: I think creating rites and rituals internally is important. It's an opportunity to help people that are insiders feel like insiders. That's how they really embrace this idea of what's happening, and why it's happening, and how they play a role in that.

Cathy: We had regular conversations internally about what we were doing and we were planning on doing, from an external perspective, and why. People could understand, they could feel like they had a heads up. We would make sure that when we cut new commercials, for example, we would show them internally. People would get a sneak peek about, "This is what's coming."

Cathy: They had a sense of ownership before it was pushed out to the external world. I think that is one of the keys, is making sure you're talking to your internal audience, and giving them a heads up, and letting them feel like they have the inside track. They will be much better salespeople for you than they would ever be if they felt like they were chasing what was happening.

Joel: Have you met the guys from The Hangover, and which one would you most want to party with?

Cathy: I have not met the guys who are in The Hangover, and I think they scare me.

Joel: Which one would you most want to party with?

Cathy: Yeah, I don't think I can do it. I'm too old.

Chad: That's exactly what Joel would say.

Joel: Zach Galifianakis, if it's an age thing, I guess.

Cathy: Can't do it.

Chad: "I can't do it." Can't do it, not going to do it, get over it, Joel.

Cathy: Not going to do it.

Joel: She's learned what not to touch and what to touch, being in her position there in Vegas.

Chad: Last question, Cathy. When it comes to brand and it comes to to to messaging, what was the hardest thing to do? Of all the steps, of getting it out there, making it polished, all that, all of it, what was the hardest thing to do? What's the biggest obstacle you believe most companies are going to face when they try to actually be true to themselves and focus on purpose?

Cathy: Coming to consensus I think is the hardest thing to do. Because we would have a lot of really great ideas, and a lot of things that we thought would work. Being brave and saying, "Sometimes deciding to go with something ... "

Cathy: Think about it. There is an idea that it's safe, and there's an idea that may be considered not quite as safe. Making sure that you're leaning in and you're saying, "Well, the idea of that ... Maybe not quite as safe, really. Could have more legs," and getting consensus to do that, I think is one of the hardest things, because it's human nature to say, "Well, I can do this, and everybody's going to be safe, and nobody's going to get fired today." Leaning in and making sure that you're being brave both internally and externally is really important.

Chad: The being brave part, what did you have to do to be brave? Were you challenging everybody else to be brave with you?

Cathy: Yeah, you have to build a consensus. You have to make sure that you have your key audience is aligned. Not everybody may agree, and you have to be okay with not everybody agreeing. But, at the end of the day, somebody has to make a decision. That's important. Somebody has to decide they're okay being in that role.

Chad: Yeah. We're in HR and talent acquisition, which is one of the most risk-averse areas in any organization whatsoever. It's important that they hear that. "Be brave," and actually take those steps, because people do matter. They're the ones who build, not only your company or your widgets, but they are your brand.

Cathy: That's exactly right.

Joel: Cathy, thank you for being brave enough to come on our show today. For our listeners who want to know more about you or your organization, where should they go?

Cathy: They can go to

Joel: Outstanding. Chad?

Chad: Excellent. We out.

Joel: We out.

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