Brand Makeovers: Michael Crooks of Solaray On The 5 Things You Should Do To Upgrade and Re-Energize Your Brand and Image
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Learn the terrain. First things first: get to know your brand inside and out. What is the back story? How did things start? How far is too far of a stretch? This seems obvious, but countless rebrands fail because they skipped this foundational step and instead operated only on their preconceived notions of what the brand should be. Humility is important here — because what you find out may change your plans.
As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Michael Crooks.
Michael Crooks is Vice President of Marketing for HFS Brands at The Better Being Co., headquartered in the United States and sold globally. His portfolio oversight includes Solaray, founded in 1973 and known as one of the original pioneers in multivitamin health & wellness. Crooks is a proven brand builder with experience across luxury apparel & footwear, travel, and health & wellness. He leverages an unconventional range of applied experience across the creative-analytical and digital-physical spectrums to generate growth in volatile markets. Drawing on a prior background in cognitive-based psychology & biochemistry research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, Crooks employs a new multidisciplinary approach embedded in cultural relevance, psychographic storytelling, and brand-first methodology, balanced across quantitative & qualitative components.
Several of Crooks’ initiatives have been shortlisted as finalists for the Glossy Awards including: 2020 Best Product Launch (winner); 2020 Best Brand Collaboration; 2019 Best E-Commerce Experience; 2018 Best In-Store Tech. He also conceptualized and led Stuart Weitzman’s first-ever sneaker collaboration and global launch, which became the company’s #1 best-seller worldwide and won the 2020 Glossy Award for Best Product Launch.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Initially I was dead set on pursuing a career in experimental psychology. While at the University of Pennsylvania I had the privilege of conducting research under acclaimed psychiatrist Dr. Aaron T. Beck, known as the founder of Cognitive Therapy, and what I learned from him still shapes my marketing approach today. When it came time to commit to graduate school, I had this lingering curiosity about how psychology could apply to the business world — so I switched gears.
Later that spring at a Wharton job fair, a recruiter from Lord & Taylor oddly gave me an interview because he liked my outfit — and thus began my career working in the fashion, luxury, and travel sectors. To gain hands-on expertise in a variety of specialties, I worked in positions focusing on analytics, creative, and everything in between. I quickly learned that this space would be an ideal intersection to blend my interests in brands and psychology, since the customer’s ideas and feelings about the brand and its products are what dictate behavior — and a staggering array of factors go into helping shape those ideas and feelings. At the end of the day, my passion now is still the same as it was when I worked in research: to understand people. And my non-traditional background in terms of coming from a separate field of study has helped me tremendously in helping me see things a little differently and approach scenarios from a new angle.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early in my career at a large national department store we had spent a good deal of money on a rebrand, working with one of the most noteworthy ad agencies in NYC on creatives meant to appeal to a younger demographic vs. their core customer at that time. It was a comprehensive rebrand effort and helmed by some titans of the industry. Ultimately, the creative missed the mark because the way it was shot inadvertently devalued their core base — and some of the most valued clients were not shy in speaking up to voice their displeasure.
However obvious this point seems now, it certainly was not then — and truth be told, we all missed it within the organization. From this experience I learned that anyone, regardless of how seasoned they are, can make mistakes like this if they take their eyes off the road, and that it is important to remember that. Stay humble and always be open to the possibility that your idea needs adjustment.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?
A tipping point in my career happened when I started operationalizing cognitive principles from my psychology days directly into marketing campaigns. Leveraging a combination of optimizing creative design around segmentation, it amounted to early-stage psychographic messaging that produced significant gains over control groups in engagement and conversion. This showed me for the first time that considerable value existed in layering different approaches on top of one another to create a better aggregate result or outcome. This basic framework has proved indispensable to me to this day, just applied to different arenas.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am currently at the helm of the Solaray global rebrand and first-ever marketing campaign, Live Brighter. Solaray has been a longtime leader in the vitamin & supplement space, having pioneered several industry firsts, but since its inception in 1973 has never engaged in much formal marketing or advertising. With the growing demand for reliable and environmentally conscious wellness products, now felt like the right time to amplify Solaray and its core values of quality, service, and innovation to a wider audience.
The Live Brighter campaign is all about highlighting life’s most precious moments and underlining that we can best protect those moments by being the healthiest versions of ourselves. Solaray tapped into the power, passion, and quality behind the 900+ products that our customers know and love — and at the same time, leveraging some of the best creative teams from my previous worlds of luxury, fashion, and travel to create a beautiful campaign shot in film that really stands out in the health & wellness industry. Most importantly, with the support of exceptional teams behind this, we were able to create a campaign that brings the same level of precision and detail to creating the Solaray visual universe that the brand has applied to formulating efficacious supplements for nearly 50 years.
What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?
Put all your creative, strategic, and analytical marketing power behind a brand and product you honestly believe in and, as cliché as it might sounds, fall in love with the process. Not everyone has the luxury of finding work that they love, so if you are fortunate enough to do so, make the very most of it. That extra level of care for a greater mission and value proposition to the public can propel you through those late nights. That is something I have been fortunate to find with a few brands along the way, but none more so than Solaray. The pandemic has shifted society’s focus to health and wellness in a way that is permanent. So, bringing a brand like Solaray to the forefront is an endeavor that in some ways is greater than just my career or even just the company.
Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
Brand marketing is putting a visual and emotional narrative to the world that your product sits in, the values they stand for, and matching that to different lifestyles across the board — it is all about giving context to what you are selling. So, in the case of Solaray, we created Live Brighter to give customers the context that Solaray products can be an efficacious tool in helping to live life to the fullest through achieving our healthiest selves, and thereby embracing those moments that matter most.
Product marketing is directly projecting the product qualities and characteristics of what you are selling. There is considerable and necessary overlap — you create the world it sits in, and then you can give context to sell that product. In addition, your corporate values matter — now more than ever — in portraying this world. Customers today care about what you stand for — not just about the product you want to sell them.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
Short answer — it is the only way to really connect brand and product marketing at the visceral, emotional level. Longer answer — this goes back to something fundamental I learned in my early days from Dr. Beck: it is not just about the thing itself, but about the meaning people apply to that thing. And this applies directly to brands and their products, regardless of category. People are looking for context that they identify with on several levels, so brands that build that compellingly will connect more deeply with customers. And long gone are the days of consumers blindly picking a product off a shelf without considering where their money is going and who their money is supporting. This is something I welcome with open arms.
But the caveat is marketers need to make sure they are building a brand that consumers are willing to get behind. An example of Solaray investing the resources on this front is an extension of the new Live Brighter campaign, The Light House, where we will host health and wellness change makers for a personalized dining event at a one-time, customized pop-up restaurant, providing an exclusive experience based on their current health goals and interests. Our goal with The Light House is to highlight how and why consumers need to invest in their supplement routine, how a trusted brand like Solaray has the expertise and the products to do just that, and how this is sits in the context of relevant events and discussions on a wider scale.
Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?
Nuances aside and using overly broad strokes, it comes down to two reasons — either to boost sales, to become more relevant — or both. And once in a blue moon, the timing, environment, and brand DNA is perfectly aligned such that it would not make sense not to.
As for Solaray, we leveraged a rebrand simply to meet consumers where they are now and to support the growing demand and needs of today’s consumer for trusted wellness products. Solaray found so much success over the last 48 years flying under the radar and building this community of health of wellness gurus but after a certain point, if a brand is creating a product that is helpful to consumers, why let it remain an industry “secret” of sorts? This rebrand is not about rewriting the history of Solaray, bur about fleshing out what has always been there from the start and communicating it on a larger scale.
Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?
As a marketer, you need to ask yourself if the rebrand feels right. As overused as the word “authentic” is, that is really the key — does it feel authentic to the brand story, or does it feel forced? If you stretch the narrative too far then it comes across as inauthentic and consumers can feel that instantly, especially today. When designing this rebrand for Solaray, we knew immediately that all we had to do was tap into the brand’s existing roots because of the rich legacy that was already present but just not really being talked about. We tapped into the retro, classic DNA of the brand and by doing so we have created a campaign that feels singularly authentic to the Solaray people have known and loved for nearly 50 years.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.
- Learn the terrain. First things first: get to know your brand inside and out. What is the back story? How did things start? How far is too far of a stretch? This seems obvious, but countless rebrands fail because they skipped this foundational step and instead operated only on their preconceived notions of what the brand should be. Humility is important here — because what you find out may change your plans. In approaching Solaray’s rebrand, I did not necessarily have an agenda coming in that indicated the brand should go retro. As a nearly 50-year-old brand, I knew I had some things to learn before the strategy fully materialized. That said, after talking to the right people (some of whom have been with the brand longer than I have been in the workforce), the strategy became clear: they all shared the same facts about a brand with humble beginnings in the heart of Utah, founded in 1973 starting from 40 homemade herbs that grew into the global health & wellness presence it is today. The legacy was solid — that is what made the path clear — and the strategy in its simplest form is just to share with a wider audience what has already been there since the start. Those who had been with the brand far longer helped me get there the quickest.
- Talk to your customers — and have vision to see into the beyond. Your customers are your heartbeat. They also cannot tell you everything. Another obvious point, but healthy balance is necessary if you want to move your brand forward. Listen to your customers to help attune your compass and key you into the things that matter most to them — incorporate their direction into your strategies and have vision to be able to deliver something new to them that they have not even conceptualized yet or do not know how quite to articulate. In this regard, it is your duty as the steward of the brand to be able to see around the next corner. Maybe it’s the right collaboration with another brand that brings more incremental value to the customer. Maybe it’s a new product born straight out of the innovation lab. In either case, listen to the customer data, and have the fortitude to see into the beyond to flesh out what customers want but may not yet know how to verbalize. After all, it took some foresight to deliver a device to the public that was a telephone, a music player, and an internet browser all in one device — maybe we did not know we needed it at the time, but now most of us feel like we cannot live without it.
- Invest in the dream. The product quality must be solid, no doubt about that. But without the context of the brand universe to connect that product to deeper brand values, there is no emotional anchor. Customers regularly spend more on branded products despite generic versions being the same in composition or formulation. Why? Behaviorally speaking, this is the definition of irrationality. But if the brand has taken sufficient root in the psyche of the customer, they will keep returning. The best brands in the world understand that this type of loyalty is directly proportionate to how much and how thoughtfully they invest in growing it over time and across channels, and how closely they tangibly align customer and brand values in the same arena.
- Invest in the team — and have conviction. Cheating a little here, since this is technically two, but they are closely related. And this is a tough one coming from a data nerd. Having started my marketing career in CRM, I am obsessed with segmentation, response rates, control groups, and statistical significance. And in today’s world, there’s so much data available at our fingertips that it is easy for the modern marketer to become paralyzed and drown in a sea of spreadsheets. Data is essential — but in the specific arena of brand building, once you have done your due diligence it is even more essential to have creative conviction about the direction, you are taking the brand in terms of how it looks, feels, and sounds. In addition to analytical and technical knowledge, this requires a command of cultural nuance and aesthetic relevance — which is extremely difficult to find in a single person. So, invest in the team, and bring in the best of the best — because it cannot be done alone. Leverage data to fine-tune decisions but have a strong creative point of view after you have thoroughly done your homework and looked at all the numbers. The Solaray head-to-toe rebrand has taken a village — both of internal/external teams from the regional and global perspective, and the conviction to tap into its roots has only been furthered by these key partners that can help scale the vision.
- Be consistent — even (*especially*) when it hurts. Rebrands take time — and it does not happen overnight. There will be times when it is painful, when the numbers might lag, and when changing direction feels like the best course of action. If you are trying to build a brand, lack of consistency is the single leading cause of failure. It sends mixed signals to the customer which then leads to ambivalence about the brand work done up until that point. I have been part of companies both public and private that were not aligned at the leadership level in terms of brand building, and when push came to shove later in the quarter, this lack of alignment leading to inconsistency and course reversal amounted to one step forward, two steps back, never fully taking root with the customer. Resist the temptation to reverse course when things get tough — often, that is exactly the moment to keep pushing through, assuming you have done your due diligence properly. If you have, and it resonates with the customer, the sales will come. The best in the brand building business are singularly committed from the jump — and they set proper expectations internally and with shareholders regarding how long it may take to get there. Much easier said than done, but so is building a brand that stands the test of time.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I had the privilege to work at Gucci at the time when Marco Bizzarri became CEO and Alessandro Michele became Creative Director. Together, they turned Gucci around comprehensively, from their creative aesthetic to their flagging sales, to return to form as the leading luxury brand of the era. And they did it through knowing the terrain, communicating effectively with the teams and with customers while having the vision to see around corners, investing comprehensively in the dream, investing in the team, displaying conviction, and by not wavering in their consistency. And to do so on a global scale with such a large machine of an organization was nothing short of remarkable — business schools will be writing case studies about it for decades to come.
And I might be biased, but I think what Solaray has pulled off through Live Brighter is meaningful for the health & wellness industry overall, as more brands in the space move towards a more lifestyle approach — it stands out as a career accomplishment because it is in service of a nearly 50-year-old brand with the historic following and rich legacy to back up the idea of our campaign approach in general. Solaray continues to set itself apart through some of the most stringent in-house testing protocols, meticulous dedication to quality, commitment to pioneering innovation, and dedication to wide-scale global sustainability initiatives that give back to the environment and the communities within.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If people can begin to have a deeper understanding of their health and wellness needs and become more educated on the power and benefit of Solaray products, even that level of preliminary education is worth all the work put in thus far. I think back to my roots in psychology and mental health, and from a holistic perspective, working with Solaray does feel full circle.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life is a game of inches” — that Al Pacino quote from Any Given Sunday. It is ubiquitous at this point, but no less true — any success I have experienced has not been so much from magic silver bullets, but from the cumulative effect of putting in the unglamorous workday in and day out, in the context of great teams like all the people behind Solaray. But over time, those inches do really start to add up. This is the best descriptor of my approach.
How can our readers follow you online?
Website — https://solaray.com/
Instagram — @solarayvitamins
Twitter — @solarayvitamins
Facebook — @Solaray
Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work!
Brand Makeovers: Michael Crooks of Solaray On The 5 Things You Should Do To Upgrade and Re-Energize… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.