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Erect A Brand Bridge

The "brand people" get the budget, the conferences, the glory, the press. The "people people" work in the background. How do we build a powerful connection between the two? Panelists answer the tough questions about brand + people, recorded LIVE during Symphony Talent's Transform with The Chad & Cheese - HR’s Most Dangerous Podcast and special guest, Co-founder and CEO of CULT Collective and Co-founder of Forbes rated "Must Attend" event The Gather of Cult Brands, Chris Kneeland.

Let Symphony Talent help activate your brand and keep relationships at the heart of your Talent Strategy. For more information, visit


Chad: Welcome to another edition of the Chad and Cheese Cult Brand series, which focuses on building a bridge between big brand, marketing and talent acquisition. In this episode, we ask how do brand people see the world? Luckily, friend of the show, Chris Kneeland, CEO and cofounder of Cult Collective joins the discussion. Chris has worked directly with cult brands like Zappos, Airbnb, and Harley Davidson, just to name a few. And he gives insights that TA and employment brand professionals really want. And the hard-straightforward discussion we really need. Big applause goes to Symphony Talent in pulling together an amazing transform event during a crisis plus, 30 minutes before Joel and I virtually stepped into the transform green room, a large chunk of the Midwest experienced an internet outage. No shit, COVID now this. Not to fear, because the Symphony team found a way to make this discussion happen. Needless to say the quality isn't amazing. But the conversation with Chris Kneeland is. Enjoy, while you hear the birds chirping from my sunny porch in Indiana.

Intro: 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 and Cheese Podcast.

Joel: That's right kids, raise those drinks baby, that's right. Okay. So before we get moving here, I want to check the pulse of the crowd. Let's go ahead and let's run a poll. Because everybody loves polls. Run a poll for me, let's go.

Chad: That's right. Do you like polls. Uh-huh(affirmative), you see where this is going, right kids? Three feets to the win, Blanton’s bourbon that SmashFly sent me.

Joel: Yeah. I've been up for about 30 minutes. And I've done about eight shots with the internet going down here in Indiana. So I'm ready to go. If you don't know who we are, I am Cheese, he is Chad, we are the Chad and Cheese Podcast. You can find us at or wherever you like to listen to your podcast. We cover the industry. We interview the thought leaders and the experts and the CEOs and we certainly like it. And they liked it enough to bring us on to Transform.

Chad: Yeah, just so, that sets the tone for the discussion kids. And let me set it up a little bit here. We were onstage back when we could actually travel to live events, earlier this year in Banff, Alberta, Canada, leading a discussion around marketing's blind spots. That's you by the way, talent acquisition, employer brand, HR, you are marketing's blind spot. We had Bill Neff,

VP of marketing from YETI, on the stage, we had Tyler Weeks, head of HR Data Science at Intel and saving the best for last, always Allyn Bailey, who is the talent acquisition transformation leader at Intel as well. We had the CMOs and the brand leaders from some of the biggest brands in the world, and we were talking about their blind spot. Their first blind spot, Joel did an incredible job talking about the application process. The gasps that were in the crowd from marketing execs were pretty loud.

Joel: Yeah. Sorry. I need to take a drink on you saying that I did a good job. That's such a rare compliment, but yeah. So what I did for the session is, I actually went out and I applied to a job at YETI. For those of you who know YETI, which is probably most of you, that their brand is, it's fun, it's adventurous, it's outgoing, it's a little bit brash and dangerous. Needless to say the apply process was none of those things.

Chad: Yeah. So overall they really gasped when they heard that Intel receives about 1,000,000 resumes a year and over 2,000,000 visits to their career site ending in this thing, we call in talent acquisition, the black hole, which is really for all intents and purposes, we're paying hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars to be able to pull a bunch of candidates into a database that we let atrophy. So, yeah, it was pretty amazing from that standpoint, because believe it or not, you know that marketing execs and people in marketing they've applied for a job once before Bill Neff even said that he did and they thought it's excruciating. But we had a special guest in the audience at that time, he is actually this cofounder of the gathering of cult brands, the Cult Collective and Communo. That is our friend Chris Kneeland.

Joel: Chris Kneeland. Can we bring him on the show, there he is. Look at that lovely head of hair. That's beautiful.

Chad: All right, Chris.

Joel: Hey Chris, I'm just curious, as a Canadian, do you feel like you live- Chris

Kneeland: Oh, is it a question?

Joel: ... in the apartment above a meth lab?

Chris Kneeland: First of all, I'm not Canadian. I'm a proud Texan that has found myself living in Canada for the past 10 years. And if you were to pick 10 years to go on a walk about another country, this has been a pretty good time to be away.

Chad: Yes, I would agree 100%. So we were talking about you being in the crowd during our presentation or our panel discussion in Banff. What were you thinking about as a brand leader, as we were starting to talk about the marketing blind spot that was happening? Was this something that was new to you or is this just something that pretty much CMOs and brand execs they really just don't worry about because they don't think it's important?

Chris Kneeland: Yeah. I don't think it's that they don't think it's important. I think it's a little bit out of sight out of mind. I think blind spot is a perfect metaphor for it. You don't really think about it until you almost crash into something. Lynn said something in that meeting that I still think about as I drift off to sleep, which was, "60% of applicants who have a negative experience, adjust their buying behavior or shopping behavior as a result of the way they were treated in the HR process." And I don't even know if 60% was the right number, but some large percentage of people were not only upset that they didn't get the job, it's they would stop buying from that company as a result. And if that is a true statistic, then that's something that should be run up the flag pole immediately within every organization.

Joel: How important Chris, do you believe it is for organizations to carry the message of what their [inaudible 00:06:50] product is into the application process?

Chris Kneeland: Well, we've charted offline guys about ... It is one brand, it's not a commercial brand and an employer brand. There is one way that people expect to interact with Nike or with Starbucks or with Ford Motor Company. And the more inconsistent those expectations are, if you're ... I remember when we were doing some work with Gatorade and they were trying to elevate the brand to become even more sports centric versus just being a colored flavorful drink for thirsty people. And it was all about the embracing of the athlete and even so much that they were not only looking for MBAs, they were looking for MBA students who played collegiate sport. And so the HR strategy was perfectly aligned with where the brand was trying to be elevated in the marketplace. And I think, unfortunately we have people that are diluting themselves, because HR doesn't know how to build an employer brand or should they and the marketing team is only focused on the external brand not the internal one.

Chad: So we're talking about some trauma that's happening here, right? I mean, we're brand trauma, whether we're losing customers or we're actually losing candidates who really could be amazing talent down the road that are never going to come back to visit your brand. What kind of trauma do you think a CMO sees that and how good talent acquisition work with marketing to try to alleviate that trauma?

Chris Kneeland: Yeah. I just don't see many CMOs having this conversation and I don't know, what's easier, training the CEO to ask the right questions or training the CMO to return the phone calls of the talent acquisition and HR people, who should be beating down their door saying that there's a gigantic missed opportunity here. I don't know that they think of it as trauma, I think at best, maybe they think of it as a missed opportunity. So whether we lead with opportunity or with fear, different strokes from different folks, but it's certainly, I think inappropriate for any business that's trying to live up to its full potential.

Chad: So you just said CMO and I heard CEO. And I think if a CEO knew that this kind of impact was happening to the brand and perspectively, negatively impacting the actual bottom

line, what kind of conversation do you think they would have with HR or marketing?

Chris Kneeland: Yeah, I think they would start by going to HR and asking for them to step up. Now a very good retort to that would be, well then give me more people and more money to do so. Because I don't think the HR departments are funded- Chad: Exactly.

Chris Kneeland: ... in a way to capitalize on the opportunity. But I think the other thing happening here to be sensitive to, is that CMOs are having their own little crisis, the whole craft of marketing has sort of devolved into what I call mark-downing. Marketing is overly prioritized advertising and sales. They've become communications experts more so than value creation experts. So it's not like everything is rosy in the CMO office and now we can add one more thing to their plate. So I think as a CEO, you have to decide if our people are going to become a core part of our competitive advantage and a core part of our brand delivery, who is the most qualified person in the company to do that? It might be elevating the role of the CMO. It might be elevating the role of the HR professional, or it might be the creation of a third role, sometimes known as a chief experience officer, where they're now thinking a little bit more holistically about all of the touch points, not just the advertising or in the case of HR, HR I think it's relegated a very administrative compliance sort of roles, not engagement marketing roles. So I think all of these disciplines and departments have an opportunity to step up and to think differently about their job description.

Joel: Getting on that vibe. Part of the reason that we got involved with the Cult Gathering, Chad and I, was to bring, be a bridge if you will, between marketing and recruiting. And one of my questions obviously is if you're talking to an HR person, a talent acquisition person, what sort of ammunition should they have to start a conversation with marketing? And part of this could be a timing issue where dealing with COVID-19, a lot of ads today talk about how we're treating our workers, how we're taking care of everyone. It seems like now would be a better time than any for talent acquisition and marketing to get together. What are your thoughts?

Chris Kneeland: Yeah, I totally agree. I hope one of the positive things coming out of the

COVID crisis is a complete re-imagining of the work environment, whether that's allowing remote workers, whether that's thinking differently about the office space, whether that's thinking differently about the blend between full-time versus contingent, and then certainly the opportunity to integrate HR and marketing more closely. You look at what's happened with Amazon right now, or Nike right now, as they're trying to align the external perceptions of their brand with some of the internal realities of whether it's diversity [inaudible 00:12:10], or labor practices, or just being a great place that people actually want to work. As a preface to this, I mean, the reason why we got into internal engagement and then talent acquisition, was with our work with Zappos. And to realize that one of the symptoms of their brand adoration was the volume of unsolicited resumes that they were receiving, which was 25,000 resumes for 200 positions. And then we looked at Airbnb, the same way, we looked at Converse the same thing. So we started finding some trends about brands that were truly beloved didn't just have customers that wanted to buy from them, they had talent that were begging to work for them. And so one of the symptoms that listeners of Transform can do, is just do a very simple, what is the application to job ratio? And if you're getting 10 or 20 applicants per job, your brand is not doing any of the heavy lifting that it should be doing that would inspire people to want to come to work with you. And then once you start getting hundreds or even thousands of applicants per job, then you can start looking at wages and start figuring out, I remember we're doing a project with Target and Target was actually paying 20% less than other retailers in the Minneapolis area, because of the aspiration that people had, they just wanted to work at or for Target. So there's a lot of other HR benefits that come from having a brand that people sort of salivate over.

Chad: And start that second poll. I'm going to talk through it. Chris, we spoke with Jay Anderson, who's the SVP of brand marketing over at, Cadillac Fairview, and his response to working very closely with HR and talent acquisition was, I quote, "The reality is that marketing's budget is bigger than an HR budget. So we in brand marketing are not going to let 10, 20 or $50,000 get in the way of a great idea." So, looking at that poll question, people, are we talking to marketing about support, are we getting that close or are we just trying to stay out of their way? Do we have a poll back yet?

Joel: All right. It's a real time poll. So this is exciting. So, are you freaking kidding me?, is at

40%. Wait, I can ask marketing for money, 36%. That's a tie right now. I'm hiding right now, is 14. And, are you kidding me? ... It keeps moving, but are you freaking kidding? tends to be at the top of the list, consistently.

Chad: Yeah. Which is amazing because again, when we talk to these enlightened brand leaders, again, like Jay Anderson, over at Cadillac Fairview, we talked to Douglas Atkins who was at Airbnb and built that brand up. This was something for them that just made sense. And they worked very closely with the people on the ground who were the people. Chris, why, I guess from the standpoint, don't we see more of this and this is not just a money conversation, right? There's their support that can be heard here.

Chris Kneeland: Yeah. And that last point first, I mean, asking the CMO for a check might not be the best place to start. You might ask for some talent, can you brief your agency on maybe polishing off our job descriptions? Can you give me your eCommerce crew to help build an online applicant portal? Can I work with some of your creative directors, ideally the first 90 days of an employee onboarding experience? So, marketing doesn't just have dollars. They have creative problem solvers, and digital talent, and writers, and designers. And sometimes some ... Maybe all the HR team needs is a better career fair booth that doesn't blend into the noise of everybody else’s [inaudible 00:16:02]. So I would start by asking for some help, by stroking

their ego, "Hey, your team or your agencies are amazing at making our brand sing, can you apply some of that magic juice over here to the things that I'm working on?" But the other thing to help your CMO understand, is he doesn't have a media budget. The CMO has a brand budget and he makes decisions, or she makes decisions about what to spend that budget on, that frequently includes things like media. And so they start to get very defensive about, "Well, I need all that money for these things." It's like, "No, no, you need that money to build the brand, you need that money to boost our profit, you need that money to attract more customers." If we've decided the best way to get more customers is to improve our salesforce, or our call center agents, or our frontline associates, then isn't that a better use of achieving the same end. So, I think the CMOs sometimes get a little bit distracted about what their job really is, it's not to spend all the media money on media. If you can spend less money on media or less money on markdowns instead of being 50% off, what if we're 40% off and we save that 10 percentage points and put it into an employee retention program. I think they can be far more open minded about what their real intentions of those dollars were for to begin with. Because it's all discretionary. And I haven't met a CEO yet who feels good about the amount of money they're spending on media and markdowns. They just don't think that there's any other alternative. So if the HR team can start providing a better alternative for that money, I'm pretty sure it would be happily redeployed.

Chad: We'll get back to the interview in a minute. Building a cult brand is not easy, which is why you need friends like Roopesh Nair, CEO of Symphony Talent, on your side.

Okay Roopesh, hiring companies, can't hire diverse candidates, if diverse candidates aren't applying for their jobs. What should hiring companies do differently to attract a more diverse candidate?

Roopesh Nair: So for diversity, specifically, companies should think about, why do they want diversity in their organization and ensure that they are bringing that into the conversations about hiring diverse candidates, because that's how they can be genuine about diversity, because just checking a box saying, "I want to be hiring diverse candidates," is not going to help. So the first thing is thinking about why do you want diversity? What are the different groups you're targeting as you think about diversity? And then bringing those messages, which basically is going to resonate to that particular group of diverse candidates into your engagement, whether it is kind of, as you reach out in the mass media and target specific diverse groups, as you basically nurture these diverse groups once they have connection with you, is very important. Because, to your point, you won't get a diverse candidate till you get in front of a candidate. And the only way you can do that is by figuring out what is the connection point between you and the diverse candidate. And it is very easy to kind of cast a net saying, "I want a diverse candidate," but the truth is there are many, many groups of that diverse candidate and you need to be really clear on who exactly are you targeting.

Chad: Let Symphony Talent help activate your brand and keep relationships at the heart of your talent strategy. For more information, visit

Joel: Hey, Chris, Douglas Atkins name was thrown out there by Chad, a guy that we love, we've interviewed a bunch of times. And I want to make my next question a little bit timely with the work from home movement. It seems like in an era when all the employees are working from their own little Island work, or home office, or wherever it is, that culture is going to be hard to come by. And Douglas talks a lot about getting employees together, rubbing them together and making them sticky, which creates an internal culture. We're talking about HR and marketing getting together in an office. How do we do it when they're at an at home office? How much more difficult is this going to be if everyone's at home now?

Chris Kneeland: I do think that there needs to be a level of trust and there needs to be an alignment of what we're trying do. We're not trying to build our [inaudible 00:20:28]. We're not trying to defend our turf. We're not trying to say, "My discipline is more important than your discipline." We're trying to say, "In order to get to the company's goal, in order to achieve our goals, advance our goals, we need to be more creative in our problem solving." One of the things that I would suggest that we're going to toy with Joel for our team, is that work from home, we're not going to take all of the money that we're now saving on office space and put it to the bottom line, we're going to take some of that money and put it into other internal engagement initiatives. For example, we do a week long trip every year to Mexico to do some third world country humanitarian work. You want to talk about building relationships of trust, you get people out in the heat, away from their families, serving people in need and you start to form more relationships. We're talking about getting together every Friday on a patio someplace, and they're doing a big team outing, and using some of the funds to make sure that there's a weekly meal and an ability to congregate. And is there more bonding that actually happens in the unstructured environment of a lunch versus the confines of a meeting with a set agenda. And we also are doing a little get togethers, doing socially distance walks. So one-on-ones, but not allowed to do it over Zoom, but go meet at a mutually convenient park and get out and get some exercise and have a conversation that's both personal and professional. So it just requires a whole new way to think about it. No, it's not about one is right, one is wrong, [Inaudible [00:21:56.21] all this muscle memory that thought that the way that we're going to get work done is having meetings in boardrooms and in conference rooms, and in reality is, just as if not more effective ways to build meaningful relationships with people.

Chad: Chris, I think it's interesting because it seems like the highest poll count was, are you freaking kidding me? Like HR, talent acquisition, employer brand, they don't want to even talk to marketing. When we talked to Bill Neff, who's the VP of brand marketing for YETI. He said, "Hey, I'm kind of scared to talk to those HR people." It's almost as if there's this barrier that we can't get beyond to be able to create this sync. The brand that you're talking about, this single brand has been splintered. How do we pull that together? I hear you go, "Go serve the community," those types of things, but where does it start? And how can somebody in talent acquisition or employer branding start this discussion with marketing, coming from a brand leader like yourself?

Chris Kneeland: Yeah, I think most of the brand leaders that we associate with would view HR sort of like the legal department. They're more focused on compliance. They're more prone to introduce barriers, they're more quick to say, "No" than to say, "Yes." They lack some of the creativity that I think the marketing team thrives off of. So there is an opportunity, I think to reposition, what is the role of the HR profession or the talent manager, and how are they not so task centric or all about risk mitigation, but they're about building something that's irresistible to customers and to staff? And if they start using each other's language, if they start to understand each other's working styles, and I think sometimes HR feels that way because they're overworked and underpaid, they're their burden, if they have to hire 10 new people this month, and there's just about checking the boxes and moving forward, they're not oftentimes raising their head up to realize that what they're investing in and what they're building are the people that are going to create the brand equity, that's going to manifest itself on the balance sheet and on the form of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. So, in addition to the revenue, there is a brand and that brand needs to be managed and both the CMO and the head of people need to really recognize their role in it. And maybe together partner up to help the rest of the C-suite. Because, I mean, if these guys haven't gotten it right, I guarantee you the CFO hasn't gotten it right. And sometimes the COO is a bit clueless. And unfortunately, oftentimes the CEO is a bit clueless about what the real potential is. So there might need to be a bit of a groundswell or a bit of a mutiny where HR and marketing work together to paint a picture of what's truly possible.

Chad: Well, I think the conversation right now is more shock therapy than it is anything else. We talked to, again, the brand leaders in Banff at the Gathering of Cult Brands, it was shock therapy. I feel like there's probably the same thing happening right now. This is not the end of the conversation. I believe this is purely the beginning. So, I think we're pretty much at that time. Is that what I'm hearing Joel, or do we have time for one more question?

Joel: We have two minutes. We can do a poll or I have one question, I guess I could throw out. So Chris, you're obviously familiar with the George Floyd incident here in the States, with the police officer killing a civilian. Part of that problem seems to me, is recruiting the right people to be policemen and women. If you had the marketing unlimited budget in the US to fix recruiting for police in this country, what would you do?

Chris Kneeland: Wow! What a doozy to hit me with-

Joel: In a minute and a half.

Chris Kneeland: ... with a minute, 30 left on the clock. I saw something recently from Bernay Brown that I really ... and she came to the gathering two years ago and I got to know her a little bit. I think I like not just what she says, but how she says it, has a certain tone and delivery that is intended to not be off putting so that people don't instantly put their guard up. But this idea of, it's not about the people, it's about the system. And we kind of reap what we sow here when we create systems that then become systemic, we can't get shocked when were simply reaping what we sowed. So I think, the police force issues are beyond just HR or marketing, I think it's about helping us understand the role of a 21st century police force and what's possible beyond just the enforcement and punishing. They're not the punishing arm of the United States, they should be an enabling arm that protects and serves. And sometimes we overemphasize the protect part and underemphasize the serve part. So I think that would be the project of a lifetime to work on, the rebranding of the police force. And it is a project that could be done. NASA comes to mind, is a brand that had to get rebranded and good things can happen when you sort of re-imagine from the top versus some of the micro-issues you focus on the macro.

Joel: Well, it looks like we're out of time. Chris, who wants to follow you and get more insight into marketing, where do you go?

Chris Kneeland: You could follow, @Chriskneeland on LinkedIn for a daily rant against the machine, or go to as our website to learn more about how we're trying to encourage brand leaders and C-suites to elevate the role of talent management in their organizations.

Joel: Awesome. And I will add to that if you- Chad: Beautiful.

Joel: ... don't have the cult gathering on your conference must go to list, it should be. I am Cheese, he is Chad, we are The Chad and Cheese Podcast. Find more out about us at Thank you Transformers, it's been a blast. Cheers.

Chad: We out.

Tim Sackett: Hey guys, before we take off, I've got a question that came in from the audience, and I'm going to throw it to Chris first, basically what they want to know is most marketing departments. When you go as a TA leader to ask for help, they have this overbalance of, well, we're going to do all of this stuff for customers. And then how do we stick in or how do we jam in a little bit of employment branding? What should be the right mix, if marketing and

TA are working together on the social channels? So you think of the LinkedIn’s and the

Twitter’s and there's IG and all this other stuff. How much should be customer based? How much should be employment branding based? Is it a 90 ,10, 80, 20? What does it look like?

Chris Kneeland: It's two situational. The talent person that needs to hire 10 people a year versus Intel that needed to hire a thousand people a year, I think would dictate the number of resources or the blend. But I think the short answer is, it should be substantially more weighted to HR than it is today, whether that's, 30, 40, 50% more. I think until you get the marketing leader to understand that he's not doing his TA or HR professional a favor, that this is foundational to the brand that he's, or she is trying to build. Therefore, it should be resourced and time allocated appropriately as a core initiative, not something that you do off the side of the desk, the way they might think about planning the holiday Christmas party as a favor they're doing for somebody. There's a completely two different paradigms and opportunities to add value.

Tim Sackett: All right, thanks. Thank you guys. Chad and Cheese, Chris Kneeland.

Outro: This has been The Chad and Cheese Podcast. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts, so you don't miss a single show. And be sure to check out our sponsors because they make it all possible. For more visit, Oh yeah, you're welcome.


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