In this episode, our host Julie Slater talks about brand purpose with Laurent Janneau, Vice President of Brand & Communications at Zwift.
Zwift is a fitness platform that uses the fun of gaming and the power of communities to encourage everyone to turn their fitness goals into achievements.
Julie and Laurent speak about the foundational questions that face all brands — whether you are just building one or need to sustain one.
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Julie: Welcome to The Brand Moat, the podcast where each month we bring you inspirational stories from global brand leaders who share how to build your brand and future proof your business. I’m Julie Slater. I start every episode with big ideas and wrap up each show with key insights, so you can focus on taking action and in case you’re wondering, why do we call this show The Brand Moat?
Well, just like a castle. Your moat protects you from outsiders and the competition. When the idea is applied to your company, it helps you maintain your competitive advantage. Your Mo may be a feature, some tech magic, or marketing secret sauce, but we think your strongest moat is your brand.
This podcast is all about that. Laurent Jeanneau is vice president of brand and communications at Zwift. Zwift is a fitness company born from gaming. It’s the first company to use massive multiplayer gaming technology to bring the outdoor experience indoors, creating rich, 3D generated worlds. I’m going to ask Laurent how athletes are using Zwift and also formative questions about brands. Like, what is a brand? Why do you need one? And what does it take to make a brand last? Here’s my conversation with Laurent Janneau. Laurent, welcome to the show.
Laurent: Thank you very much. Very happy to be here.
Julie: if someone’s listening and they’re not exactly sure what Zwift is all about. Maybe give…
Laurent: [overlapping dialogue] It is something quite special as we have an app that is using MMO gaming technology. So a multi player, massive online gaming technology. And we have created a series of virtual worlds in which athletes, writers and runners connect to use their equipment at home. So their treadmill, their cycling trainers, their heart rate monitor, and that data is used to power and avatar in our virtual worlds.
And this is for cyclists and runners and triathletes use wifi to ride, run, train, compete from the comfort of their homes. We have more than 300 events per day. We have more than one thousand workouts that are used by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. And it gives you the ability to train whatever the weather, whatever the road conditions in an environment that is very immersive, very entertaining, and always surrounded by fellow runners and fellow riders.
Julie: A lot of people are aware of Peloton. What is the difference between your company and Peloton?
Laurent: Yeah, it’s a great question. And we’re asked that question quite regularly because we and Peloton are associated quite frequently in the press as a kind of very similar proposition. They are actually very different propositions.
Peloton is in the business of on demand, spinning classes, to make it simple. And we have a very different target audience and a very different product. Our target audience is far more competitive, and not just cyclists and triathletes and runners. And our proposition is about an immersive gaming experience that allows you to either do a social ride or a social run, or follow a training plan, or do a workout under your own terms. So the level of interaction, the level of gamification, the level of social component of our proposition is much higher than Peloton.
Julie: So we’re all about talking about brands and marketing. And you’ve worked with both the agencies I see in the client side for brands like huge brands like Netflix, Nike Adidas, Louis, Baton, Michelin, Nissan. What do you think has made those brands brands as in they have an identity that consumers actually want to get to know more about? Like, what do you think is drawing people to them?
Laurent: It’s a fascinating topic. If we were to identify a few common points, I think they probably down to two things. The first one is related to how they were founded. I think they were all founded with the objective to answer a very strong consumer problem at that time.
So in the story of their foundation, it all started by the identification of a very real and immediate problem that those company tried to solve. So immediately it made them extremely relevant.
If you, if you want to, you know, think about the different vans that you’ve just listed when, and bill Bowerman started Nike or in the first few years of what became the Nike story, they really wanted to create a life. Then fast in the versa died a running shoe.
That would be an alternative to the only shoe that we’ll choose that were available at that time, which were European proposition of Puma and Adidas. So there was a real strong problem. In the market that they were trying to address. When you think about , they were really trying to develop sophisticated, luxurious proposition of travel luggage for the elite.
When you think about Michelin, they were really trying to answer the problem of providing to the market. Reliable motorcycles and car tires when traveling on roads at that time was really quite dangerous venture. So all of those companies basically started because there was a very strong need. There was a very strong gap in the market.
There was a very strong problem that needed an answer. And, uh, they basically took that opportunity. So all of a sudden they became very desirable. So that’s the first point. I think the second point is about all they managed to stay relevant over the years.
I mean, you were talking about companies, some of them with more than a hundred years of history: there’s an art and a science to it, to stay extremely relevant and to stay at the forefront of popular culture.
You know, if you think about, uh, the Michelin man, this is a genius branding idea that really traveled through the, the years and through the centuries. If you think about the Nike strategy with the, the association to pro athletes, It is a genius strategy that allowed them to read these constantly surf the wave of popular culture.
And, and we can, we could keep going on and on like citing examples. So all those different brands managed to stay very fresh and yeah, it’s very new and even more relevant to their, to their audience years after years.
Julie: So the first thing you had mentioned was that a brand should really solve a problem. What would you say is Zwift is solving?
Laurent: The problem that Zwift is trying to solve is that indoor training for cycling and indoor training for running was probably the most boring thing that you could do. There’s a reason why runners call the treadmill a dread meal. And indoor training for cycling before Zwift was basically being on your bike in your garage, staring at a blank wall for hours and hours.
So that, that is the problem that Zwift is solving. And when Zwift was invented, and was offered to the public, all of a sudden it made indoor training for cyclists and runners and triathletes. Uh, no, not only entertaining, but also a very immersive experience and an almost addictive experience. We have a many, a gold medalist and many are preferred cyclist and professional runners that are training on Zwift every day.
And some of them are doing most of their training indoors. I mean, some of the triathletes on our platform are doing like 90% of their training indoors.
Julie: So you’re saying that with these big brands, like Nike, they’ve come up with these genius ideas to keep. The brand alive. How do you plan to do that was with how does any brand, you know, do you have any advice?
Laurent: Yeah, so far as with that, I’d love to have the answer right now. Uh, we’re we’re still a young brand where we’re five years old and we’re working very hard to make Zwift a long lasting brand.
We have a few things in our favor. We have a very clear product vision. We have a very. Clear idea of what our brand personality and what our brand identity is.
We have started to flex our muscle about stretching our proposition into new sports. You know, we started with cycling and now we’re in running and we’re thinking about other development, any other,
Julie: like, what other sports would you go into?
Laurent: I can’t say right now. Right? Uh, but hopefully you’ll know soon in the near future, but we are constantly thinking about, um, How we can expand our proposition and our, we can grow our business, but also how we can grow our audiences.
And there’s the, there’s a challenge there, which is how do you grow your audience without. Losing the core because also one of the big strengths of Zwift is we have a very passionate community of fans that is, uh, not only giving us, uh, energy, but also so keeping us in check to make sure that we stay true to what our corporate position is.
So future will tell. The pleasure of working for a brand like Zwift is that, uh, there is a lot of potential and it’s really for us to shape that destiny.
Julie: That seems like a big issue with any brand is if you start in a small way, which most brands would do, and now you have this really passionate group, but you want to expand the company.
So how do you keep in tune with that initial group? While also growing, like, what are the ways you stay in touch with the initial base?
Laurent: I’m not sure there’s one answer to this because it’s probably very different from, from one market, one industry to, um, to another certainly one of the answers to that question comes with, uh, what kind of brand architecture you put in place.
You know what I mean? If you, if you go back to some of the wonderful brands that you’ve mentioned at the beginning of the, um, of this discussions, um, all of them. I basically developed some kind of brand architecture that allows to have a very clear and specific proposition for one segment of the market and offers a different proposition, a different sub brand, a different sister brand to another part of their market to another part of the, of the audience. So, and so that’s probably one of the answers.
But staying in touch with the core community is definitely one of the big challenges of brands today.
How do you, how do you develop, how do you grow without losing that core? And I think that all the brands starting with a very small and strong community of core funds should have in mind, because it’s very easy to lose touch of your community.
Julie: What social media is working best for you and your company is at Zwift. Are you heavy on social media?
Laurent: Zwift is a very, uh, special proposition to that extent, because I don’t think we are in a traditional position where there is, um, a very organized and define. Place where you communicate with your audience and your community.
I mean, a big part of what keeps Zwift alive there’s waste platform alive is the community. A lot of the events that are happening on Zwift today rather than the group runs and group rides, a group workouts are organized by the community. You without almost any of our support. So. Zwift is a living and breathing world and that life and that breath is really brought to us by the community without really us intervening.
So, uh, we really want to make sure that stays that open place that is welcoming and safe for anyone who wants to ride anyone who wants to run or organize a ride with their friends or ride with them. Training mates. So I think community, the social aspect I was waived is present absolutely throughout our entire ecosystem from the game in itself to obviously our social media channel.
Julie: So I would think that you would say with a brand, if you provide. Something great to a community. The community will almost sell the brand. Yeah,
Laurent: For sure. I think you’re, you’re completely right. You were mentioning earlier most of the brands start with a small community. That is definitely the appeal of starting with a small community.
I see three big advantages to starting with a small community.
The first one is they help you shape your product, your proposition in a much more precise way than with a broader audience, because they have more precise and more defined consumer insights. They have more precise, more acute problems that, that you can answer for that.
It allows you to shape your product maybe quicker, but also in a, in a far more precise way. Then the second point is there also probably pushing you. This community is pushing you to make decisions that are. More radical, maybe polarizing from time to time. But at the end of the day, this is great, a bit polarizing decisions are very useful.
I mean, the, the edge is always more desirable and attractive than the mainstream. And then there’s third point is that when you start venturing into a broader audience, then the score. Community becomes your more passionate advocates. So that’s definitely, I think the advantages of starting with a small, passionate community of fans, rather than starting with a broader audience in mind.
Julie: How do you get your employees to have the passion for the product as you do
Laurent: Really about going back to what we just talked about, which is how do you share and how do you socialize? You know, internally what, what the brand is and, uh, because the brand is a very powerful external tool, but it’s also a very powerful internal tool.
So socializing and sharing those internal tools, uh, is, is, is paramount to, to basically be able to benefit from all the advantage that having a strong brand can, can bring you. There’s many different ways to do this. There’s many different tools to do this reflecting on my few, most recent experiences. I think the, uh, one of the most useful tool you can use to actually make people understand what the brand is and re we also use it as an internal tool to allow them to not only work better together, but also live better together and make like sound business decision is, is the notion of brand values. Brand values are very often, and I think wrongly seen as a HR tool and I think they are far more than an HR tool when connected. Strongly enough to what the brand is. They can become a guide for business decision and business development.
Julie: So are you saying with your brand values out to consumers, but you also want to bring that in to your own company?
Laurent: I mean, brand values, usually, you know, brand values are staying inside and in the past few years, they’ve, uh, they’ve gone outside. You know, they’ve really been, they have been used and not only as, as an internal management tool or internal HR tool, but also as, as a way, not only to attract good talent, but also to guide business decision.
And the example that I was about to, um, to mention is the Nike examples. They have what they call it 11 Maxims. And one of them is for example, first maxim is simplify and go. So if you think about simplifying go you’re, you can see immediately how strong of an internal mantra it can be, but also how much of a useful principle it can become when you’re in difficult business decision.
And you have to make a, find a simple answer at Zwift. We’ve gone through that exercise recently and, uh, I’ve formulated five brand values that are really related to our. Brand proposition, uh, make it fun. Elevate your teammates, always level up, cultivate your community. And once we fall and I’ve been fascinated to see how those brand values that, uh, initially start, uh, as an internal tool B become a very useful guiding decision.
And when you think about, uh, Uh, always leveled up. And when you think about the ones with, for all, it’s a very precise guide in what kind of proposition you make for the community and what kind of product you are going to develop when you have make it fun as a key element of interaction. It’s also guiding very clearly the product development.
Julie: You’ve mentioned Nike a few times. I would imagine you’re a big fan of that brand. Is there any brand we haven’t talked about that you’re a big fan of.
Laurent: I have — so many brands. It could be an all day discussion, honestly. Uh, yeah, I’m, I’m, I’m a, I’m a longtime fan of, and I don’t think you’ll be very surprised by this because they, the two brands that I’m going to mention are probably quite exemplary and related to everything we just talked about. Patagonia is one of them.
I think Patagonia is really a very good example of everything we talked about, starting with a very clear vision that is rooted in a problem, led by their customers at that time, a very strong philosophy that they carry through everything they do. From the way they design and print their catalog to the way they design and produce their product.
So that’s definitely a big, big, big, I have a huge of respect for Patagonia. And more recently, I think Airbnb has done an amazing job at really defining a very strong vision, very strong values and, and carrying them over everything they do. So those two brands are some of the ones that have done an amazing job in the past few years.
Julie: So you’re definitely blazing some new territory with Zwift and you’ve taken, you know, gaming and blending it with exercise. I’m wondering what was the easiest part of building the brand and what was the most challenging?
Laurent: The easiest part of building the brand was, um, that there was a very clear product vision. John Mayfield, who created the app, created the game. At a very strong product vision. Since the very beginning, you really wanted to change that dreadful experience of indoor training and making it like far more gamified using a lot of what makes it a great video game and a, so that product vision is, was extremely clear since the start and.
And it’s basically the thing that we come back to when, whenever we’re, we’re looking for ideas or whenever we’re not completely sure where we’re going. And that’s definitely the inspiration of a lot of the work we’ve done around the brand. So that definitely was the easiest part. And then the second, the second thing that made it easy is we talked about it already. It’s this amazing community of very passionate users, very loyal and passionate users.
Julie: It seems to make it a lot easier. Have a lot of passionate users …
Laurent: And you were asking about the challenging, were you asking about the challenging part?
Julie: The challenging? Yeah.
I mean the challenging part of building the brand is I think finding the right mix between rigor and creativity.
Because we’re a young brand. We have tons of ideas. We have, we have great entrepreneurial within our world with tons of initiatives and we always need to keep an eye on, is it going too far? Is it staying on brand? Are we right to develop visual identity or different personality for that side of the business? So finding that right mix is challenging.
Julie: Now did you tailor the brand to the audience or did you create a brand and then find an audience?
Laurent: We started with the audience in a bit of an, I think, I hope I’m not rewriting history, but in a bit of an conscious way, when John created the game, he was the audience.I mean, if you ask him, he will probably tell you that he, um, he created. Drift, it wasn’t called Zwift at that time, but he created that product because he wanted to answer a problem that he was leaving. And when Eric Min, our CEO, connected with John and asked him if the, if, if, if he wanted to do something with this product or make it a bigger adventure, uh, Eric mean was also a cyclist that was living the nightmare of training indoors in a European city during the, the winter. So it started with the audience because those two guys were the audience and they articulated and they developed the product. And in a way that found, you know, basically people that were experiencing the same product, then them very easily.
Julie: So the name of our podcast is The Brand Moat.And we talk about how a brand can be, you know, like a moat is around a castle and a brand is you kind of have to defend your brand. What is the best way for a brand to defend themselves against competitors?
Laurent: There’s um, I think the foundation of the brand moat is all the different components of. Of what we call brand identity.
Brand identity is not visual identity. Visual identity is basically a logo and, you know, your color palette and your font and the way you’re using this, but brand identity is composed by many other different things. So it’s visual identity, but also what is the kind of personality you want your brand to have? What is your tone of voice? What is your brand proposition?
No matter how you call or how you get to that brand proposition, whatever format you’re using, but all those different elements are either foundation that builds your brand modes because they’re the foundation and on which you build a relationship with your audience.
I mean, think about it as I’m going to a dinner party. And, uh, and you’re meeting someone and you’re having a great discussion with that person. And then you go home and then you start remembering what that person was like. And you are going to start to remember how the person was dressed and what was the tone of her voice or, and, uh, what was the unique point of view that that person brought to the discussion?
And it’s exactly the same thing with the brand. I mean, as you need to have all those different components in place to make sure that you lay the foundation, you do the groundwork to build that relationship. If you go home and you only remember that that person was wearing that kind of dress or that kind of suit, that will not be enough.
So it’s exactly the same thing for a brand. If you, um, be rigorous about developing those different aspects, those different components of your brand identity, and that becomes the foundation for your brand moat, the moat in itself is not so much the brand identity. The mode becomes the strength of the relationship that you’re building with your audience that is based on that brand identity, because at the end of the day, brands are really just behavioral contracts.
They’re basically just how you codify your relationship with your audience, how you define your premise and how you deliver on that promise consistently throughout every single touch point of your brand equity. And this is how you build trust.
Julie: So what would you say is the biggest mistake someone can make with building a brand?
Laurent: Thinking about the fact that a brand can be built only on great advertising or great visual identity.
Basically just on individual components at that brand identity, this is really completely missing the point that it is about that relationship. It is about that behavioral contract and that you have to prove yourself time and time again. So that’s probably the biggest mistake you can make.
Julie: Thank you so much for being on the show, Laurent.
Laurent: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
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Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Slater.