Episode 03 - How a Big Heritage Brand like Wilson Doesn't Get Stuck in the Past w/ Kyle Schlegel



Episode 3 - How a Big Heritage Brand like Wilson Doesn't Get Stuck in the Past w/ Kyle Schlegel


Kyle Schlegel:                     I would say in six and a half years since, I've not worked a day. It's been a lot of fun to call your passion your profession.

Dave Knox:                         I'm your host Dave Knox and this is Predicting the Turn, a show that helps business leaders meet their industries inevitable disruption head on.

                                                Welcome to the latest edition of Predicting the Turn. Today I'm joined with a good friend of mine, Kyle Schlegel. Kyle and I know each other going way back to Miami University, Proctor & Gamble. I've been wowed with his career that he's had since then.

                                                Kyle, thank you for coming.

Kyle Schlegel:                     Dave, thank you very much. I'm always blown away by everything that you're doing, and adding a podcast to the mix seems like the natural next step as well.

Dave Knox:                         I'm a glutton for punishment, what can I say? It makes it fun that way. I want to start off talking about your story. You have one of those careers and those stories that I think is an inspiration to anybody that wants to follow their heart.

                                                Can you tell us, how did you go from Proctor & Gamble brand manager to working for some of the most iconic sports brands in the world?

Kyle Schlegel:                     Sure. I've always been a sports fan, I've always been an athlete my whole life. If I think back to my childhood, the memories that stand out the most somehow involve a bat and a ball, the driveway and a hoop. It was always about, the minute I left the office, sports was a big part of that.

                                                Then I think over time, the more I worked at P&G, the more I realized that I was creating passion, I was passionate about the brands that I worked on, but it wasn't my passion. It became more and more about, "How do I marry sports, and this love that I have for sports, with the things that I learned at P&G and my career."

                                                Faith is another big part of my life, and there's no other description other than this was a God thing. I kept trying to schedule a meeting with a mentor, and it kept getting rescheduled for all the P&G scheduling reasons that happen.

                                                We finally got it on the calendar, and the first question he asked me at lunch was, "What do you want to do?" He said, "I can tell based on the way you scheduled it, you're thinking about leaving P&G. What is it you want to do?" I said, "Man, the sports world and this work world, how do I bring it together?"

                                                He had literally gotten a phone call that morning about a job at Louisville Slugger, leading and creating the marketing department at Louisville Slugger. He wasn't interested, asked if I was. My resume was on the desk of the president by the end of the day.

                                                It was certainly fate I would say and a little bit of faith that brought those two worlds together. I would say in six and a half years since, I've not worked a day. It's been a lot of fun to call your passion your profession.

Dave Knox:                         That's wonderful. What took you from Slugger to now Wilson?

Kyle Schlegel:                     That one's a little simpler. Louisville Slugger was acquired by Wilson Sporting Goods. I had the opportunity to be on the deal team at Slugger, so it was a lot of fun to meet all the potential suitors for the brand. Ultimately, Wilson just seemed like the perfect fit.

                                                It fit the equity of the brand, it fit the family nature of what Louisville Slugger was and is. It was a natural next step. I was in that limbo for a little while of, "Do you go with Wilson? Do you go do your own thing?" They I guess afforded me the opportunity to lead marketing for the biggest business, which is racket sports at Wilson, and also the most global, which has always been a passion of mine.

                                                I jumped at the opportunity and our family moved to Chicago with the role.

Dave Knox:                         Perfect. Let's dive into that world of sports. Sports are probably the oldest industry out there, going back centuries to the earliest cave drawings. When you look at that, every industry has been impacted by technology though. Sports is no exception.

                                                What have you seen in terms of how technology has changed the world that you have been in over the last few years?

Kyle Schlegel:                     We actually had global meetings in Greece earlier this year and I had the opportunity to go to the original Olympics stadium. As you were saying that I was like, "The stadiums don't look that different really."

                                                I would say it's changed a lot lately. I would say the biggest driver of change that we see is literally on the commerce side of how do consumers engage in literally the purchasing of a product and what's expected in that moment.

                                                The days of going to the local pro shop at your club, those still certainly exist and there needs to be that one to one connection, but just the sheer size of the assortment and the availability of services in the nature of products, we're finding that that's shifting very quickly to the eCommerce side of things.

                                                I would say that's one major change, and then the way we engage with consumers. They have an expectation of both a physical and a digital relationship with the brand. Social media is I would say the most obvious version of that, but we're also trying to build in communities where we can engage with fans and consumers of the brand well beyond the one hour demo event they might come to with us on court.

                                                We're also looking at packaging and manufacturing, which sounds weird coming from a marketer. There's a lot of time that was spent talking about that and meeting with potential partners that can help us really explore new ways in that space to connect with consumers.

Dave Knox:                         Very cool. When you look at changes, the other thing that goes in with sporting goods as a whole is this heavy reliance on celebrity endorsers; Wilson and Roger, you can't separate it. Jordan and Nike, it's hard to even separate those brands from those people.

                                                How has that changed over the last few years as celebrities become not necessarily a controlled image, but one that's shared on social media and is 24/7?

Kyle Schlegel:                     We love it because I think the fans, and the media for that matter, are now seeing the authentic version of who the athlete is. We go to shoots every year with Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Grigor Dimitrov; names that roll of the tongue certainly for tennis fans, but sports fans in general.

                                                The person that we see at the shoot when the camera's not running, the person that we see in the green room that we're hanging out with before an event, is the person that the fan now sees. If you go back a generation to the Sampras' and the Couriers of the world, I don't necessarily know that the public ever got to see the real version of who that person was.

                                                Technology has certainly enabled that, where through social media, they truly project who they are. Federer, half of his tweets are a collection of emojis with no words. He certainly feels comfortable being himself in that medium, which bleeds over to when he's at a press conference.

                                                These athletes are now in front of the media, there's already a public version of themselves out there that's truly them, which empowers them to be that same person when they're in front of the press, that same person when they're at an event.

                                                I think it's amazing for fans today, especially younger fans who are looking for authenticity from their heroes. I think they truly get to know the hero now versus there was always this distant relationship. I get asked every time I meet somebody and I explain what I do, the first question they ask is, "What's Roger like when the camera's not on?" He's exactly like when the camera is on, which I think is really powerful.

Dave Knox:                         That's awesome. We're here at the Brandemonium Conference in Cincinnati. You're going to be taking the stage later to talk about partnerships and talk about what you've learned working with Roger and everything else that Wilson does.

                                                Today in business, partnerships have become much broader than just that. It's partnering with technology companies, with startups, with retailers, and others. What lessons have you learned from working with celebrities and doing the partnerships in sports that can be reapplied into the world of other partnerships for marketers?

Kyle Schlegel:                     I would say mutual interest is something that comes to mind. From our Proctor & Gamble days, I think back to the relationships we had which were powerful from an external standpoint. I would say we had a relationship with a lot of those partners. It was a monetary relationship, whether it was with an agency, or a brand ambassador, or a collaborator, it was monetarily driven.

                                                As I've moved to the sports field, it's so relationship driven; a deep relationship with the athletes and our partners is so critical to the success. Is there cash involved? Yes, of course. We found that we're much more successful when we know each other's last names and first names, and we know each other, whether we have children or not, and whether our children are into sports.

                                                It's that next layer that I think makes a big difference today versus before, and in finding that mutual interest. If again we go back to our P&G days, it was about what the brand needed. It wasn't always necessarily finding that middle ground between what the brand and the partner needed.

                                                We've spent a lot of time, even in the last year, doing collaborations. We just did a whole apparel line with Forever 21, which you wouldn't necessarily think of Wilson and Forever 21 working together. There was a mutual consumer, there a mutual interest, a mutual touchstone from a lifestyle standpoint that we found together.

                                                There was a lot of success that came out of that. I think that would have been very different had it been driven by one party's agenda rather than both.

                                                Even to the technology side, as we look to find partners it's about exactly to your point, finding those startups. It's about, a lot of times they're looking for proof of concept and credibility for what they're doing. Wilson can provide that. The skill that they bring or the widget, or whatever they've developed, is a big help to Wilson as well.

                                                It's about finding those mutual relationships.

Dave Knox:                         You talked about retail and commerce being such a change that's happened because of technology. You've seen that in the sporting good industry with Sports Authority and other major partners disappear overnight.

                                                How are you thinking about shifting that role of relying on the pro shops, relying on your traditional retail, but then going direct to consumer and new ways to connect with the people that ultimately using your products?

Kyle Schlegel:                     The last two or three years have been pretty eye-opening at Wilson in that regard. In 2017 alone, Wilson Sporting Goods collectively lost over 15 points of distribution in the US alone.

Dave Knox:                         Wow.

Kyle Schlegel:                     A big part of that was Sports Authority, but there were many others as well. Direct to consumer is a given, we have to do that really, really well. It's not just about having the product for sale, there's a huge service component that goes with that.

                                                When a consumer buys a tennis racket online, they're expecting that it's going to be strong as they want it to be strong. They're expecting to receive it in 48 hours. They're expecting to be able to talk to a knowledgeable person on the other end, whether it's a chat room online or on the phone, that can help them through that process.

                                                We're not an item merchant, it's a true service. I would say a year or two ago when we ran an ad somewhere and it said, "Buy now", immediately I had retailers calling me livid that Wilson was going direct to consumer. The number of conversations we had to have to, "Calm down, calm down. We're not trying to steal your cheese. We're trying to provide a service to the athletes and the consumers that are out there."

                                                I think we found a middle ground on how we can work together. We now co-invest with some of our online partners in our marketing campaigns. We truly have the same goal, we want to get the right piece of Wilson equipment in this case into the right hands of the consumer and have that journey be a productive one for the consumer. We're combining forces on a lot of those things now.

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Dave Knox:                         How do you have to change you as a marketer when you do that? Because the world we grew up with in P&G, as long as we got them to Walmart, or to Target, or to the retailer, we knew the conversion was done, they'd take care of the rest. You're talking about customer service, and sales, and shipping, and everything else. How do you deal with that?

Kyle Schlegel:                     Slowly. I would love to say we have the magic bullet right now. Admittedly, we don't. We learn every single day in that process. We don't sell commodities maybe outside of tennis balls, a $250 or $300 racket purchase is not taken lightly.

                                                In the P&G days it was certainly about the full purchase journey. I would say I spend more time on the consideration and conversion steps then I ever thought I would coming from the experience at Proctor & Gamble.

                                                It was very much about the top of the funnel there, "How do we make people aware of this product?" I'm blessed to have worked for Louisville Slugger and Wilson now, where awareness isn't necessarily the challenge. We've got a long standing, both 100 year brands. It's more about that consideration and conversion step.

                                                For us, that literally means boots on grounds. It means you've got your tennis shoes on and you're standing on the tennis court and you're engaging one to one with a consumer. I don't say that as hyperbole, we literally do that every single day.

                                                For me, I think that's been the major change. Technology enables us to stay in touch with that consumer over time, but technology doesn't replace the face to face I'm handing the racket and putting it in your hand.

                                                We have a new innovation coming out in February which is I would say is the most innovative racket introduction in more than a decade in the industry. We know that we could spend all day long and every dollar we have creating awareness for that, but if the racket doesn't ultimately end up in somebody's hand, it would have been for naught.

                                                I would say almost everything we're doing for that launch is about that moment. It's not about shop now, buy now; it's about try now. It's about getting them onto a tennis court somewhere where we can create an environment that we can control, but also be open to their reaction to the product.

                                                I would say that's a major shift versus what I was doing six, seven years ago.

Dave Knox:                         Yes, without a doubt. One of the other things technology brings is new competition, emergent brands. I know you dealt with that quite a bit in the world of Slugger, how do you think about emerging brands and the opportunities they see in the market? How do you respond to those?

Kyle Schlegel:                     I would say this is our biggest challenge right now. Each time my general manager and I get together, one of the questions that we bounce around the room is, "If we were just stating a racket brand today, what would that look like? Without the preconceived notions, or barrier, or constructs that exist for our brand and our distribution channels today, what would that look like? How do we evolve to that? How do we introduce pieces of that?"

                                                It's not going to be student body and we suddenly act as the new entrant, but how can we borrow some of those concepts? I know this is obviously near and dear to your heart and the idea of disruption, we've actually spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley and with our partners lately.

                                                We took our entire leadership team last year to Silicon Valley and we've done something similar this year in Chicago, where we exposed ourselves to a curated list of startups that are disrupting other industries. How do we learn from those?

                                                I know this is potentially trite but it's red ocean, blue ocean conversations, it's, "Who moved my cheese?" At a leadership offsite, recently we took an hour break and everybody read the book Who Moved My Cheese? and really thought about which character are we in this book right now as a brand, as an individual, as a leader.

                                                I would say that we're not to the final answer yet. We know that to be a little bit better than Babolat, or a little bit better than Head or Prince at what the industry demands today, will not mean that we're around five years from now, ten years from now.

                                                A lot of it is about this back-to-back question of, "If we were just starting, what would this company look like? What would distribution look like? What would the organization structure look like?"

Dave Knox:                         I love that. Related to that, in your time at Wilson and Slugger, you've been fortunate enough to work with some of the most historical brands literally in sports, if not the world.

                                                How do you take that heritage and respect the past, but also use it to build upon the future and not let it be an anchor that ties you down?

Kyle Schlegel:                     I would say this is a really fun challenge for us right now. We're going through a purpose journey at Wilson for tennis specifically right now, and trying to identify what is that balance.

                                                When I got to Louisville Slugger, there's tons of history there and it's incredible. I think we were probably relying a little too much on the history being the benefit; the reason for buying the product was because Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron, and Ken Griffey Jr used it over time. That's not necessarily who the 18 year old consumer is influenced by today.

                                                It is a delicate balance. Ironically, Wilson's been around 104 years and it's the youngest company I've worked for, the youngest brand I've worked on. A lot of what we're looking back at right now is: what got us to today and how do we take those things that got us to today and celebrate those things without using them as a crutch, without using them as the reason for buying the product?

                                                We made a series of decisions over 104 years, a series of innovations and launches, a culture that we've built up over time. How do we celebrate those things and acknowledge those things, but use it as a way to communicate the credibility of what we're doing today?

Dave Knox:                         Makes sense. Shifting gears a little bit to you as a CMO, a marketing leader; we have to evolve ourselves as we think about our careers and what we're doing. How do you approach that personal development and making sure that you're staying on top of things so you can teach the people that work for you what they should be doing and where they should be going?

Kyle Schlegel:                     Podcasts obviously.

Dave Knox:                         And great books.

Kyle Schlegel:                     And great books obviously. There was a moment for me as I left P&G and I got to Louisville Slugger that was definitely an a-ha. I would say that I got, admitting it out loud stuff, but I would say I got lazy.

                                                I got complacent because in a company like Proctor & Gamble, there's groups that their entire role is to curate what's going on outside and put that into packaged forms for the marketers to go do. There was quarterly training and it was, "Here's what's happening in digital today. Here's how to apply it to your brand."

                                                I lost some of that curiosity of going out and learning those things on my own. When I got to Louisville Slugger, I called you and I called some other mentors and said, "Where do I need to go? Who do I need to be talking to? What conferences do I need to go to?"

                                                I've built that over time to, "What is that set of things?" For me, there's three or four podcasts that I listen to multiple days a week that give me that little push to explore something new. It's coming to conferences like this at Brandemonium and being genuinely curious about what's happening.

                                                I've probably went to conferences in the past and it was about being present and, "Great, I get to speak", or whatever it might be. I'm looking at the agenda for this and there's butterflies in my stomach because I'm excited about some of the things that I see being discussed. Thinking already, even before I go, based on the headline alone of that talk, "What can that mean for Wilson? How can I apply that?"

                                                I would say I have an energy now that maybe I didn't have in my last few years at P&G on just the curiosity of learning. It's changing so fast. The brand framework is the same, largely the path to purchase is the same, but what happens at each step is so different.

                                                A lot of it is also listening to the younger generation in the office. There was an Ad Age article that I think the headline initially offended me when I saw it a few years ago, which was our generation, it referred to us as digital posers. You read the headline, and you get a little offended by that. I went, "Oh wait", as I dug a little deeper.

                                                It was talking about there's obviously digital natives that are younger than me and there are parents of digital natives that are older than me. I'm in that middle ground where I didn't grow up in a digital world. My daughter is seven years old, so she's not necessarily driving my digital world yet.

                                                That was an a-ha for me as well of I can't fake my way through this, I can't use the headlines and the buzzwords. To have that work, I need to go roll up my sleeves and go learn on my own. Then teach those on my team, but also make sure that I'm allowing my team to teach me.

Dave Knox:                         Curiosity was a really interesting point that you brought up there. You talked about your team going off to Silicon Valley. Wilson also just moved to downtown Chicago, which is this great startup community going on with the Merch Mart and the rise of venture capital funds there.

                                                How are you thinking about using your own backyard to your own advantage as you think about that learning for the company?

Kyle Schlegel:                     I think the perfect example is what we did in '17 versus '18. '17 was about working with a partner that was based in Silicon Valley that took our business challenges and put a list together of who we needed to meet while we were out there.

                                                We did that and it was great. There's a couple people that we're working with now based on that trip. It was automatically assumed that in 2018 we were going to go back out there, we were going to re-meet with some folks that we had already met with and a list of new folks.

                                                I think all of us sat around a table and just said, "Wait a second, this is happening right here in Chicago. We don't need to board a plane, we don't need to pay for somebody to curate that. We could do this right here in our own backyard."

                                                We've started to do that. Some of it is through the natural relationships that exist between our leadership team members and those in the community. You naturally come across startups or new businesses in that way.

                                                I would say we're now trying to see, not to institutionalize it necessarily, but how do we create that in an ongoing basis. That maybe nobody in the room knows what's happening in a certain sector right now, how do we find those things? I would say that's the next step of what we're doing.

                                                Exactly your question, it was assumed a year ago that we would go to Silicon Valley for a week every summer and that would be part of our leadership team's strategy development. We don't need to do that, there's great stuff happening in our backyard.

Dave Knox:                         What gave you the confidence of that? That's the one thing I see some of the Fortune 500s sometimes fall down on is, "Well, I know Silicon Valley has it going on. Do I know enough to know that Cincinnati, or Chicago, or Minneapolis, is it the high enough quality there?"

                                                What gave you guys the confidence to do that?

Kyle Schlegel:                     I would say credit to you as well on the Brandery here in Cincinnati. Through our relationship I've gotten to be exposed to Brand Fusion and some of the other things that you've done at the Brandery when I lived here and shortly after leaving. What you've developed and what has been developed here in Cincinnati was part of what gave me great confidence in really no matter where you are, that's happening in our backyard.

                                                As long as it's being nurtured in the right way and being directed in the right way, which it is here in Cincinnati, it is in Chicago, and obviously it is in Silicon Valley; I think experiencing those things first hand here in Cincinnati gave me the confidence in Chicago that the same thing is happening.

                                                A couple of ex-Proctor friends of mine were in that world in Chicago as well, so there's a trust factor that comes with that. I know they're super smart people and they're doing really interesting things. They're choosing to do it in Chicago, which gave me confidence as well.

Dave Knox:                         Great, thank you for the compliments on that. Final question for you; what do you see as the biggest opportunities for the next five years as you think about yourself as a leader, your business, and just the business community as a whole? What's getting you excited?

Kyle Schlegel:                     The first keynote today was about the age of disruption being changed to the age of bravery. I would say, "Am I brave enough?" That's one of the things that I want to challenge myself with I would say on and off the court certainly, but in the office especially.

                                                We know that this industry is changing. We know that we need to change because the industry is changing. Are we willing to do those things? There's every reason in the world not to change how we distribute product, how we use influencers.

                                                The age old, "Federer and Serena are amazing." They're not going to play forever. As much as we'd like to believe it, there's probably not a Federer and Serena coming right behind them. They're one of a kind.

                                                Are we brave enough to change the way we think about the tour, and the role of tour, and our athletes? Are we brave enough to think differently about how we engage with our markets around the world and it not be a western model that we apply everywhere else?

                                                The word brave triggered certainly this morning, but it keeps coming back to me in my mind of we know we need to change. Are we brave enough to make the change?

Dave Knox:                         Thank you Kyle, that's a great point to end on. I know you've inspired this audience in the same way you always inspired me. Thank you for taking the time.

Kyle Schlegel:                     My pleasure Dave, any time.

Dave Knox:                         Awesome.

Kyle Schlegel:                     Thank you.

Dave Knox:                         Thanks so much for listening. If you like this show, hit that rating and make sure to subscribe so you don't miss a single episode. For more resources, head over to predictingtheturn.com.