Marketing and ad campaigns rely heavily on your target audience and brand architecture. You have to make your customers feel like guests and build on that relationship. Everything else is secondary. Join Evan Brandoff and his guest, Mark Mears, as they discuss all things brand marketing. Mark is the Chief Marketing Officer of WOWorks and is the Chief Growth Officer of L.E.A.F. Growth Ventures. Discover Mark’s incredible career from working with companies like Pizza Hut, Noodles and Co, and superstar athletes. Discover the importance of customer relations and how they can help grow your brand. Plus, learn more about his newest venture, L.E.A.F. Growth Ventures.
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The Importance Of Brand Architecture And Customer Relationships With Mark Mears
We welcome Mark Mears onto the show. Mark possesses a unique and diverse background and is building growth brands such as PepsiCo, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Frito-Lay, JCPenney, NBCUniversal, amongst others. Mark has also held executive leadership positions, including the SVP and CMO for The Cheesecake Factory, the EVP and CMO for Noodles and Company and President/Chief Concept Officer of Mimi’s Cafe. Mark has a ton of insights and exciting stories to share. Let’s get into it.
Mark, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for coming on.
My pleasure, Evan. I’m honored to have the opportunity to speak with you. I’m excited.
Mark, I know that you spent some time in Austin. I’m curious. Did you become a Longhorns fan while you were living in Austin?
There was no chance of that, nor would there be a chance of that. I am a born and bred Jayhawk from the University of Kansas. While I admire much about the Longhorns and the tradition of the University of Texas, a great school, I can’t do it.
I am a Longhorn. I will be rooting for them even though it’s been painful. I appreciate your allegiance.
I will not bring up the Oklahoma game. I promised.
That was painful. I don’t want to talk about that, but on the topic of sports, you have had incredible years at companies, including PepsiCo, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Frito-Lay and others. Sports have been a big part of the marketing campaigns that you’ve done. I want to get into some of those campaigns, but first, why historically have you associated the brands that you’ve worked with sports? What do you see as the power of sports?
Sports is the base of fans, short for fanatics, that when properly harnessed can create tremendous value and affinity for brands. I believe there’s this ability to tap into that passion and be able to associate it in a relevant way with your brand. As you probably will hear me say a few times, my CML Math at the University of Kansas is 1 plus 1 can equal 3 or even 5 if it’s done right. I believe sports have the ability in concert with a brand to take it to a new and higher level than maybe where it would be on its own.
Going off of that, can you tell us a couple of your favorite memories in working with sports entities in the past?
In marketing, start with who, not why. Who do you serve?
Evan, I know we don’t have a whole lot of time, but I will tell you, sports have been woven into my background. I’ve had the good fortune to work with brands such as PepsiCo, Pizza Hut that were partners with NCAA and also Little League of America, had a chance to work at Leo Burnett, heading up a big chunk of McDonald’s business where I was able to work with our creative people on the legendary Michael Jordan and Larry Bird’s Nothing but Net commercial and campaign. I also created the tie-in with NFL players and Looney Tunes cartoons to help get the NFL to skew a little bit younger to McDonald’s guests.
Looking at Frito-Lay when I was on the agency side at DDB, we brought together Howie Long and Terry Bradshaw when the NFL on Fox started and linked it to all the Frito-Lay brands and that was amazing. I had a chance to meet with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and did a cool social media promotion with him when I was a CMO at The Cheesecake Factory. I worked with NASCAR legends Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, worked with Orel Hershiser back when he won the MVP of The World Series in ‘88.
There’s a funny story that goes with that. Pizza Hut was based in Wichita, Kansas, for a long time since its founding in 1958 in the middle of the ’90s and moved to Dallas. We tied in with Orel Hershiser as part of a beverage promotion with a two-liter Coleman jug, if you will, that had relief in the outline area. We called it a relief pitcher, but it was tied in with Orel Hershiser. We shot a commercial with him down when the Dodgers used a spring train at Vero Beach.
It was late February before March spring training began. He was getting all his obligations for sponsorships and whatnot taken care of. We had a certain window of time that we had with him to shoot the commercial. We had these Little Leaguers. They were all dressed up in their uniforms and we thought, “This is going to be great to get out of Wichita in the middle of winter to go to Florida. Are you kidding me?”
Unfortunately, the day we were there, that night before, they’d had a frost and that doesn’t happen very often, as you know, in Florida. The next day was windy and cold. The clouds were blowing under the sun. We had a limited amount of time and so we were freaking out, going, “We’re going to have to shoot this commercial with Orel Hershiser and these Little League kids.” They’re all in the dugouts with blankets, huddling up.
When we saw the clouds break, we said, “Hurry. Get up. Get in the field. Let’s go. We’ve got to shoot this commercial.” I don’t know how many takes it took, but our agency DDB, out of New York, did a wonderful job. The commercial was called The Right Field, which won all sorts of awards. It was an amazing opportunity to see how those kids interacted with Orel Hershiser, MVP, The Great Hall of Fame Pitcher and yet, Pizza Hut was inextricably linked to that passion. That was a wonderful memory that I will never forget.
Doing a shoot with Howie Long and Terry Bradshaw and the way they banter back and forth. That was a real treat. I’ve had some great experiences and many more that we don’t have time to go through. To your point, understanding the power of sport and the power of linking in or tapping into the passion that people have towards their team, their players in their community and your brand wins by association.
When working with athletes or talent, what typically comes first, securing the athlete or the campaign idea?
You start with the campaign idea, but it all starts with your target audience and your brand architecture. The keyword is relevance. You don’t get someone because you can or because the CEO would love to play golf with them. You would do it because again, it’s that inextricable link between your target audience and your brand architecture. When I say brand architecture, it’s your vision, mission, shared values, but it’s also your value proposition and what makes you unique and distinctive in the marketplace. You might be launching a new product. You may be trying to get people to come in more often. You may be trying to get people to buy more such as, let’s say, a collector cup.
You want to see if there is star power in that relationship that can help you accomplish one of those objectives and yet, have the license from your guests to see that as a natural tie-in versus some one-off lark or ad hoc type of relationship. Those are the things we look at. Once we have secured the strategy behind it, then the difficult part usually is securing the athlete of the team to participate. That’s where negotiations come in. We’re trying to pitch them, but also, we’re having them pitch us. Usually, there’s no right athlete or team. Sometimes there are several options. We have the ability to add value to their persona, much like they have the ability to add value to ours.
I love that you speak to that it starts with the brand and what the initiatives are first. That is the basis of any campaign that you do. Going off of that, you have been an incredible part of building amazing growth companies, including, as we mentioned, PepsiCo, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Frito-Lay, JCPenney, WOWorks, Noodles and Company and Schlotzsky’s. The list goes on. When working with different brands, what are the core principles that stay constant regardless of what brand you’re working with and what areas do you need to evolve based on the brands that you are working with at that time?
Thank you. You made me feel old. I have had a remarkable career and it’s not over yet. I am blessed to have been asked to represent some of those world-class growth brands that you mentioned. For me, it comes down to whom do you serve? I love the whole Simon Sinek start with why. I’m going to be a little more provocative if you’ll allow me some leeway. For me, I start with who, not why.
Whom do you serve? When you think about that and you can picture yourself serving your ideal client or, in our case, guest, it’s more than that. We have four key stakeholders. Not only the restaurant world, but I think everybody and we may call them different things, but team members first, guests, second, business partners, third and communities fourth.
Instead of it being one through four in some linear fashion, think of it like a Venn diagram with four circles intertwined. The middle of it all revolves around your purposeful vision, mission and values. Those four key stakeholders are who helped you accomplish it. Team members, guests, business partners and communities.
It is so important and why that’s a Venn diagram with those circles intertwined is because they all have to inter-lap or overlap and interrelate with each other. Team members who are engaged can create remarkable guest experiences that provide profitability for our business partners that also help us give back to our communities.
It’s like a virtuous cycle that never ends. I call it revolutionary marketing because it revolves around our purposeful vision, mission and values and what we are trying to accomplish as a company. We try to impact our team members, guests, business partners and our communities to help fulfill that brand architecture, which is the purposeful vision, mission and values. Those are the things that I’ve found to be rock solid no matter which brand I’m honored to serve.
There’s something in particular that I love is that you call customers guests, which isn’t something you always hear. I feel as though that is one thing that you do to instill a culture of treating customers or guests with the utmost respect. When joining a new organization, what are the things that you do in order to instill that thought processing and culture?
I’m glad you brought that up because I believe words matter. Not only because I’m a major journalism undergrad but because I believe that words lead to intentions, intentions lead to actions and actions lead to feelings. It was the late great American poet laureate Maya Angelou who said, “I have learned that people will forget what you said. They’ll forget what you’ve done, but they’ll never forget how you’ve made them feel.”
At the end of the day, you’re trying to create these emotionally evocative feelings that, when paired with the rational, “I need a job to pay the bills and whatnot, but I now care so deeply about my company that I work for.” To me, that takes you from being good and it allows you to become great or unique and differentiated because so often, people accept mediocrity as a standard. We look past it, step over it, walk around it.
People will forget what you said or what you’ve done, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
It’s those rare companies that form a culture where people live out the values. They’re not a bunch of platitudes that are written up on a wall somewhere, but they’re how you live out your day-to-day. When I talk about purposeful vision, you start with purpose. What do you stand for? It’s what’s your reason for being. I think, again, you first start with whom you serve. You think about personas and so often, we hear about that and sales and we’ve created this persona.
When I was at JCPenney, in our boardroom, there were chairs, but there was one chair left open every meeting. We said, “That’s our time with the guest.” We knew who it was. We envisioned who she was. When we had questions, we’d say, “What would she say about this decision?” We envisioned in our mind who we served and that provided a guidepost for us along the way. As it relates to words mattering, we think about the term customer. It sounds a bit dismissive, like someone who buys something. A faceless, nameless transaction. Think about the word consumer. I hate that even more. That’s even more dismissive and it sounds like someone who consumed something.
In our business, we’re all about hospitality. It was a great operational leader, a guy named Phil Petrilli, who I had the good fortune to work with at Noodles and Company who said as he was firing up his troops. He said, “The act of hospitality, one human being serving another, is one of the most noble professions in the history of mankind.” Is that going to fire you up?
Yes. I like to say we looked at salary works as food as fuel to help stoke your passions and help you live your best life. You see how words matter instead of it being about salads, soups, sandwiches and whatnot. It was about helping you achieve an end that had this purposeful goal in your life. What is it that energizes you? What is it that you’re passionate about? What is it that gives you that extra pep in your step? How can we play a relevant role in you getting there?
Finally, when I was the Chief Marketing Officer at The Cheesecake Factory, which is easily the best culture. I’d say Pizza Hut, PepsiCo is right there, but David Overton, the founder, chairman and CEO, was maniacal about establishing a culture over the last several years. Imagine over 300 menu items, almost all made from scratch every single day. Do you know what was one of the items that were not made from scratch every day?
The cheesecakes. Ironically, you go to The Cheesecake Factory, you expect them to have some ovens in the back and they’re making. No. They’re made in a couple of facilities and shipped in. They have bakers and they make you look like that’s what they do. I thought that was a fun fact. They created a culture of excellence. The fact that words matter. You wouldn’t dare call a guest a customer in front of David Overton. You wouldn’t dare call something a coupon. It’s a gift. There were only words that were more in keeping with that culture. I’m a big believer in practice learning within the spirit of continuous improvement.
Nobody loved to learn more than David Overton. He looked around in the industry. He’s like, “We don’t have any competitors that we can learn from because no one does what we do.” He went and studied Ritz-Carlton because he said, “We may not get there, but I want us to have the same attitude, ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” When you go to The Cheesecake Factory, there is a reason why there’s an hour and a half, two-hour line. It’s an immersive over-the-top dining experience on purpose. He was a big visionary in terms of the environment and looked at all the ornate, stone, marble, woodwork. You name it.
These are immersive over-the-top environments, then the food comes out to you. It’s all plated so beautifully and there’s a good amount of it. It’s one of those things that many people have tried to emulate and no one has because that culture is rock solid. They believe so much in training and investing in their people. They became one of the top places to work over the last several years now because of that culture.
That resonates with me so much. Something we do subconsciously here at LeagueSide is when someone new joins the team, we text them. Part of what we say is not necessarily, “We’re so excited to work with you,” because some people have a negative connotation of work but instead, “We’re so excited to build with you,” because that’s what we’re doing every day at LeagueSide.
I know you’re still in your career in forming LeagueSide, which I love this idea. I wish it was around when we were doing the Little League promotion with Pizza Hut years ago. You guys are onto something big but continue to stay focused on culture. As the great marketing visionary, Peter Drucker was fond of saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
I’m glad you brought that Little League campaign back up. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
We tied in because, again, being relevant, we knew that and ironically, I’ve had the pleasure of working with both brands, Pizza Hut directly and McDonald’s at Leo Burnett on the agency side, but all of our research said that pizza is kids’ favorite year after year, but McDonald’s is their favorite place to go. Why do you think? The Happy Meal is such an important draw. We knew that to get kids to want to come to Pizza Hut with their families more often, we had to be relevant to them. We knew that Little League was relevant. We tied in with Little League of America.
We did local promotions with Little League teams in every one of our markets. We came up with a template and plan, but then we had our regional marketing directors working with the local Little League teams and organizations to create different programs. Everything from if you wear your uniform, you get a free personal pan pizza. Little things that allowed kids to feel comfortable linking Pizza Hut to Little League Baseball. Something they love.
Pizza was something they loved to do. Play baseball again. Allows 1 plus 1 equals 3 or 5 if we do it right. It was a wonderful campaign. We also did the relief pitchers. I mentioned with Orel Hershiser doing the commercial. We sold a ton of two-liter jugs of Pepsi that we made a good margin on. Wonderful tie-in that linked Little League Baseball to Pizza Hut and Pepsi beverages, which at the time is when PepsiCo owned us, to create this great value exchange. I always like to say, “There are so many definitions of marketing out there.” I don’t want to oversimplify it because it’s tough, but it’s not that complicated.
My definition of marketing is that it’s an exchange of value between buyer and seller for mutual benefit. The word in there is so important. It’s value for a brand. What value are you offering? Over and above, hopefully, tasty food at a good price and good service or hospitality, as I like to say it versus service. What else can you do because it’s such a competitive world out there? It’s made even more competitive now. As a result of the pandemic came the rise of third-party, so the Grubhub, Uber Eats, etc., but more than that, now have food kitchens, combo kitchens, food halls and grocery stores that have done a much better job with ready-made foodservice and including virtual grants.
For anybody to stand out in that competitive environment, I liken it to a sea of sameness. How do you break through? Oftentimes, you do that through sports, entertainment, alliance partnerships, community events, philanthropy, etc., but all of those have their passion points. I would argue that people are most passionate about sports. We all have our favorite players. We all have our favorite teams. We don’t even have to play it to be a fan. If we do play it, it’s even more of a deeper level of passion because in your way, on your own level, you can identify with those athletes.
Most of us are not going to go on to be college, scholarship athletes or professional athletes, for sure. If you remember playing Friday nights in football and you living when you did in Austin, Texas, there’s nothing bigger. It’s called Friday Night Lights for a reason because the whole town comes out and the passion is palpable.
Throughout the week leading up to the game, everybody in the coffee shops are talking about it. “What’s the coach going to do? Who’s going to start the quarter?” They’re all going through this for a high school football and these stadiums are huge. I lived in Plano, Texas, for a while, then Allen, Texas, right next door and both of them have huge stadiums. When I say huge, in Allen, the stadium has about 50,000 fans that could be.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker
Another suburb up the road in McKinney has another stadium that’s about the same size. The point is there’s such passion around sports in general from the littlest of leagues. I remember living in Dallas. I looked over at my little girls at the time. They were little waves running around the soccer field. There was this larger girl on the other team. I looked over to my right and there was Michael Irvin, the famous Dallas Cowboys Triplet and it was his daughter. He was cheering her on. They were playing against my daughter’s team. The passion of those parents, the passion of the kids. Imagine your brand in the middle of that. How cool would that be?
I’m a little bit biased, but I don’t think there’s anything cooler than being able to connect with those passionate fans, especially in the community. I loved the pizza campaign that the Little League campaign that you did. The big challenge historically has always been, how do you procure all of the right local community sports league sponsorships? How do you make sure that they’re being executed and how do you measure results? I’m curious, starting with procuring them, how were you able to go and message this campaign to all the community sports leagues that you did?
The Little League one was helpful in that in tying in with Little League of America. They had a list of all of the affiliated community leagues across the country. We were able to get that information and again, get it out to our local agencies and regional marketing folks that were on staff. We had a whole network and we created, again, a templated program, but they were the ones that had to get it done. One thing that I came away, and it was why it was the perfect fit for me because I’m a real competitive son of a gun, PepsiCo is the most competitive company I’ve ever been part of. At that time, they owned Pizza Hut before they divested the restaurant group. That first was Tricon then became Yum! Brands in the mid-’90s. Everybody’s trying to outdo everybody.
There was this culture. David Novak was our head of marketing. David then later became the cofounder of Yum! Brands and retired a few years back. He was easily the most competitive leader I’ve ever worked for. I thought I was intense, but it was in a good way. Anybody would run through a brick wall for that guy. When he says, “We got to make this work and I want to see who’s going to step up and show me something.” Everybody went off. They were like, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to add this to it, and then we’re going to do this to make it better. We’re going to find out what they’re doing and do it.” It was amazing.
It all comes down to results. We are a performance-driven company. When you’re a part of a publicly-traded entity, that’s what it is. Every quarter is a cycle. Wash, rinse and repeat. You’re always trying to outdo what you’ve done before. We take a beat-year ago mentality. Back in the day, it was what we would be one of our rallying cries. We had many.
You’d look at say, “What’s the metrics of performance?” We look at a number of people engaged, how many teams, how many players. We look at then the materials we gave them. We had some ad hoc things like if you come in in your uniform, you get XYZ, but we also did couponing to the teams. We would look at how many offers were redeemed.
We had the relief pitcher programs. We knew how many of those we sold and what our margins were and how much money did we make on that. Something you can’t measure is intangible. You can’t measure the passion of that promotional linkage. It’s one of those things that when the promotions are over, did we create lifelong guests as a result of that affinity? I believe so. Did we build on other efforts to help build relationships? We also did a great movie tie-in. We did great cause promotions. We did a lot of different things to build affinity with the guests, again, over and above, serving America’s favorite pizza. You don’t know which one triggered that lifelong affinity.
I remember growing up in Wichita. Friday night was Pizza Hut night for our family. It was a religion and it was something we looked forward to. We shared a meal around our favorite food. When I had the tremendous honor to represent Pizza Hut in marketing years later, I remembered that. I think that people have those memories. A good friend of mine, a former creative director in Dallas, had this, I believe he has a company called Mindhandle, but he would call these mind handles.
What do you latch onto in your mind ball when you’re thinking about a need for a product or service? What first brand comes to mind and what do you think about that based on all of your experiences, good, bad or indifferent? Grabbing onto that mind handle and saying, “What role does community engagement play?” Over and above, great quality food, hospitality and price. That, to me, is difficult to measure but it’s so important.
My favorite pizzeria is Mike’s Pizza. Do they have a delicious pepperoni slice? Yes, but the reason it’s my favorite pizzeria it’s because my favorite memories as a kid were going to Mike’s Pizza with my family and with my teammates because they always sponsor my baseball team and my soccer team. The fact that you are able to take an international brand like Pizza Hut and make them the equivalent of Mike’s Pizza, that same local feel and communities across the country, was incredible.
That’s a great memory that you have about Mike’s and so important to have those memories because brands that are any good aspire to live a long time. The only way you can do that is by building a relationship. For me, the goal of any brand is to build lasting, loving and mutually profitable relationships with its guests. What you have is this idea of advocacy where you’ve got a guest who becomes a brand ambassador and the most sincere and most effective form of marketing will always be word of mouth.
With the advent of social media and review sites, instead of it being one to one, it could be one too many. All of a sudden, now you have the ability to create a movement behind your brand if you do it right. You have authentic and transparent relationships with your guests. When you mess up, you fess up and you make it right, much like a piece of metal that has been broken apart.
A weld can make it stronger than where it started. I believe the same thing can happen with the appropriate guests’ recovery. It’s some stories for another day, but it’s all about building those lasting, loving, mutually, profitable and beneficial relationships with your guests. Having sports and community engagement as part of that where it feels like home, that’s powerful.
Shifting gears a little bit. In your venture, you’re now the Chief Growth Officer at LEAF Growth Ventures. What does LEAF stand for?
I started a consultancy a few years back. I’ve had good fortune. I have been hired by some great companies and put my philosophies based on many years to work for the benefit of others. What I did was put together a position for myself as a marketer. I put together my personal brand plan whose mission statement is, “I don’t want to make money and retire. I want to make a difference and inspire.” That means making a difference in the lives of others along their growth journey as well as inspiring them to want to do likewise. We create this virtuous cycle of reciprocity where we help everybody along their growth journey. LEAF is an acronym, but it starts off as a metaphor for growth.
I’m no botanist, but I’ve learned enough in my studies to understand that growth from a tree or a plant happens through its leaf. The photosynthesis, the right balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen with the rain, the sun, the soil, the photosynthesis, now creates that growth. There are little pumping mechanisms throughout the plant. That’s called xylem. I didn’t know this.
Apparently, they pump the water and minerals up from the root system to the leaf so that photosynthesis can occur. The cool thing is it can do it in an energy-neutral way. A little fun fact for you. LEAF is a metaphor for growth. If you think about a tree, the idea for me is that it also becomes an acronym. LEAF stands for purposeful leadership, purposeful engagement, purposeful accountability and purposeful fulfillment.
If you think about a tree, the root system provides the leadership. Think of an organization. It’s the clarity of your brand architecture, your vision, mission, shared values. It’s a connection to your business priorities. It’s communication up, down and sideways to evangelize the above. It’s a commitment of people to bring it to life. That represents the root system like any plant without a strong root system or in this case, without a strong culture of leadership. Your plant or your organization could wobble and fall. Engagement then represents the trunk, the branches and the system of nourishment. There’s a Spanish word called Savia, which means lifeblood.
Going back to that pumping mechanism, the xylem, think about everybody in your organization providing now a commitment of their heart, their head, their hands and their habits to help fulfill that brand architecture espoused during the leadership phase, then it leads to purposeful accountability. If you think about this Venn diagram and look at a four-leaf clover. You see that there is integration among all four leaves. The four-leaf clover is unique, rare, special and valuable. The same thing in an organization. When you get to accountability, it’s four different aspects. It’s the outcome. It measures what matters most. It’s obstacles.
Marketing is an exchange of value between buyer and seller for mutual benefit.
What happens when we get hit in the mouth? You think about the fall of 2019 and whenever people put their business plans together. They said, “2020 is going to be our best year ever. We’ve got a great plan unless some global pandemic happens.” It did. Everybody had to pivot in the spring of 2020 when COVID hit. Every one of our lives changed.
Once we’ve overcome obstacles, we look at outliers. I mentioned this idea of best practice, learning within a spirit of continuous improvement. Who may be in our organization is doing it great? We want to make sure that gets known. Who may be in our competitive set is doing something we admire or maybe, who in a different industry can we learn from?
A great example of that is Southwest Airlines. Living in Austin, Southwest, is huge. Not only now in Texas, but everywhere. When they were first a regional carrier, if you remember, Southwest was known for peanut fares. They were known for short-haul puddle jumps. If you wanted to get to LA from Dallas, you might have to go 3 or 4 stops to get there. When they were looking for best practices, there was no other airline doing what they were doing. Who did they study? Some of the executives went out to North Carolina and studied NASCAR because they wanted to learn how those pit crews got the cars in and out of the pit so quickly.
They thought that was going to be their competitive advantage. If we’re going to have all these short hauls, we’ve got to be efficient. When we’re on the ground, we got to make sure the planes are unloaded, gassed up, safe and ready to board for the next leg of the journey. The best practices or outliers can come from a variety of places and, finally, obsolescence.
If you look at the importance of innovation, where is Blockbuster Video now? Where is Circuit City now? I could go on. Kodak tried to make a comeback but never got into the digital game. They stayed in film for too long. Many people can’t innovate out of what made them successful. In doing so, they become obsolete. Finally, fulfillment is important. This is this idea of people, place, processes and performance.
It’s finding the right people. It’s giving a place where they can be themselves. There’s this notion I believe very strongly in. We all believe in diversity and the power of diversity, but I don’t think there’s one definition. I think there’s outward diversity. Maybe it’s more of what people think of it is. All the protected classes and what you appear to be on the outside.
I believe there’s inward diversity. The tour is important to create total diversity because who you are and where you come from can help inform how you think. Inward diversity is more about how you think. For us to create step function, change growth, not creeping incremental growth, we’ve got to have people that think differently.
When people talk about culture and say, “Are they a fit with our culture?” Don’t define that as people that look and sound like you and parrot everything back that the leadership team wants them to say. You want agitators who respectfully challenge the status quo or always ask, what if or why do we always do it that way? What if we tried this way?
That is important, but having that culture, that place where people can exercise who they are in a safe, comfortable environment and what they can contribute to the team, is so important. Process is important. You got to get the work done. How do you become efficient and productive with your processes to accomplish your goal? Finally, there’s this idea of performance. When are you at your peak performance? In sports, they would call it in the zone.
Think about your best day. If you could stack together a bunch of those best days, I look at the whole person. At least I do. I think of mind, body, spirit and soul. If you were to work every day to enrich your mind, your body, your spirit and your soul and become this whole person, you’re going to be more productive and you’re going to perform at a higher level. They’re going to be fulfilled in how you do it. Purposeful leadership, engagement, accountability and fulfillment is the model called LEAF.
That is all about growth. Helping individuals, helping teams and helping organizations find their purpose and achieve their full growth potential. In doing so, they are scattering their seeds to help make their communities and indeed the world a better place. That’s the epilogue. It’s this idea of scattering your seeds. Think about it. The plants that bear the most fruit have the opportunity to scatter the most seed.
If you think about accountability, the A in LEAF represents the LEAF structure and/or the fruit. If it’s an oak tree, it’s designed to be an oak tree. That’s its purpose. If it’s a maple tree, it’s designed to be a maple tree. That’s its purpose. The goal is to be the best at its purpose. When you do, you will bear the most fruit and you’ll have the ability to scatter the most seeds. By doing so, I’m imploring people or inspiring people, begging people to give a portion of their time, talents, treasures, and triumphs or travails or the experiences that they can help people either emulate or, many times in my case, avoid. In doing so, you’re creating this virtuous cycle of reciprocity.
That’s the concept behind LEAF and coming behind these organizations. Helping to teach them, train them on these principles to where not only can they personally their teams collectively in their organization from an enterprise perspective, be successful. They can squeeze it back out and help make their communities better as a result.
What’s more impressive than all of the knowledge that you have is how effective you are at succinctly articulating it. You have the perfect sound bites. What I’m trying to say is, I hope you write a book because I think it would be an incredible read and extremely insightful.
Thank you, Evan. Yes, I am writing a book. I do want to give you a little backstory and how it came about. You and I talked about this and I’m going to try to be succinct. I will tell you that’s probably the first time in my life I’ve been called succinct. Anybody reading this who knows me.
Strong frameworks, I should say.
I was in good fortune to be President and Chief Concept Officer at Mimi’s Cafe. We were based in Orange County, California. I lived up in Valencia. Anybody who knows LA knows that’s about a two-hour drive at the very quickest you could make it. I would go down there on Sunday night and stay at a hotel right across the street from our office, which was right next door to John Wayne Airport and come back Thursday night.
That way, I’d be home for my family on the weekends. I was traveling all over the country going to restaurants. We were owned by Bob Evans Farms Incorporated that was based in Columbus, Ohio. I also spent a lot of time there. A publicly-traded company. They had three brands. It was Bob Evans Restaurants, Bob Evans Food Products and Mimi’s Cafe.
I was President of the Mimi’s division and was brought in to help turn the brand around. We were double-digit negative in sales and also proved out a new concept that the board of Bob Evans could add more capital to support to grow because they weren’t seeing the Bob Evans restaurant brand growing at that time. They thought there was a much bigger opportunity for Mimi’s if we were to get the concept right. I left The Cheesecake Factory to do that and while it was easily one of the most gratifying stints of my life, it only lasted two years.
The worst thing is never the last thing. So don’t believe in “Bloom where you’re planted.”
The good news is, within the first year, we were able to turn the brand around and go from double-digit negative back to positive and put a new concept in the ground that I call Mimi’s Bakery Cafe and Bistro, which was able to use the whole facility without adding any additional footprint. Only used the existing facility and got more profit per square foot by bringing in a little kiosk French bakery and coffee. We were French-inspired at Mimi’s. Not a French restaurant. This allowed people to come in like a Starbucks or wherever the local coffee shop and grab a coffee or a croissant or something and go or they could dine in this little cafe area and hang out if they wanted or meet a friend.
They could dine in one of our many dining rooms if they wanted a full-on meal, so breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. I brought in full alcohol. Bakery, cafe, which is what it was always known as Mimi’s Café, and Bistro, so that it would have a dinner opportunity to grow. All of a sudden, I’m meeting with the CEO, who says, “The board’s decided to move in a different direction. We’re going to look for strategic alternatives.”
That usually means strike while the iron’s hot. Let’s see if we can sell the brand. We went through this whole process of courtship with private equity firms. There was this one strategic play. I won’t go through the name of it, but we thought it was a perfect fit. It’s a French company that had a US operation. They had a couple of different bakery facilities so that we could get food from them. We thought, “This is going to be great. They’re going to put the capital behind us and we’re going to grow and flourish the way we deserve to grow and flourish.”
The deal closed on a Friday. I was drinking champagne on the weekend, probably all weekend if I remember. Monday, I’m supposed to meet the CEO for the start of a week-long transition with execs from the apparent brand and my team. At 8:00, I get called into this conference room and there’s the CEO. I was thinking, “This is great. We’re going to start this whole week-long series of meetings,” but I looked to my right.
In the corner was the head of HR. I looked over at him. I’ll use a different name, Bob. Under different circumstances, I would be worried or should be worried. He said, “Mark, you better sit down.” Five minutes later, I’m out the door. It was only five minutes because I had four and a half minutes of questions. They decided to move in a different direction. I’m like, “Over the weekend?”
They knew it for a long time, but I was new to the pitfalls of Corporate America and maybe a little naive. I was out and shortly afterward, my whole team was out and they moved the headquarters from Orange County to another location and all of that. They said they weren’t going to do what they did. I’m driving home with my little box of whatever I could get out in five minutes. I’m calling my wife and going, “That happened,” and got home. I didn’t have good luck sleeping that night, as you could probably imagine.
We’re living again in Southern California. At that time, that’s about the time spring starts in Southern California. The winters aren’t very long there. I take the dog out in the morning and as the sun is coming up over the wall we had in our backyard, as God as my witness, this happened. We had a fig tree that was barren from the short winter, but as the sun was coming up over the hill, it showed right on this edge of a branch that had this little green sprig. It was at that moment that I got this epiphany on this whole LEAF concept.
I had been leading with this notion of a mantra of the rule of threes. Leadership, engagement, accountability. If we do these three things well and consistently, we’re going to turn this brand around. We’re going to put this new concept on the ground. It’s going to be the turnaround story for the ages. Every week, every communication, every best practice, I would link it to this idea of leadership, engagement and accountability.
I never called it anything like LEA. I only use those three words. It wasn’t until that fateful morning that happened to me when I looked back at my team and me and the fact that we were burning the candle on both ends. We were chasing this idea of a turnaround and this new concept and everybody was working hard, but they thought they were working for this big payoff.
I realized at that moment when I saw that little sprig that I felt it represented F, fulfillment. That leaf represented rebirth. I used this time. I took the dog back inside, went into my office and started banging out a treatment around this idea of LEAF and how it served as a metaphor for growth but also was an acronym and started writing. Years later, it will become a book and that story is in the prologue.
I want to share it with you and your audience. My pastor is fond of saying, “The worst thing is never the last thing.” You may be new in your career, have a culture that is not suitable for your growth. I don’t believe in bloom where you’re planted. I’ve been to many places and I’ve been blessed to represent some wonderful brands. I have had tremendous mentors walk alongside me.
My route or my journey is so different from my dad, who worked at the same company for years and others who are in locations for a lot longer. Good for you, but you find what works for you. You work through these challenges that happen, but like a tree standing out in a storm, you want to stand tall. You want to withstand the storm. Remember, the worst thing is never the last thing. You get to chance to wake up the next day and rebirth and start your story anew.
It says a lot about you too. In that moment, which was a difficult moment, allow yourself to be able to be so reflective and see a positive in what was going on in your life and for that to stick with you to now and continue to inspire you and enable you to inspire all of us. Thank you. I am so pumped that you were one of the inaugural guests on the show. I hope that you will come on again in the future when this show has thousands of fans, millions, let’s even say. Thank you so much for coming on, Mark. This has been incredible.
My pleasure, Evan. I’m a big fan of your organization and what you do and your heart. To me, you’ve got all of the ingredients necessary to be hugely successful. There will be a day when I’ll be saying, “I knew Evan Brandoff, this whole idea of LeagueSide and what it’s done and what it does for brands and kids and parents and bringing communities together.” I don’t think it’s an idea. I think you’re starting a movement. I’m honored that you would have me be one of your initial speakers and look forward to following your success as it continues.
Thank you so much. That means the world to hear you say that.
Thank you for reading the interview with Mark Mears. Some of the many things that we covered are the power behind aligning with sports and how important it is to connect with the communities that your brand serves. Before choosing the marketing talent or campaign idea, you first need to start by thinking about your target audience and words matter.
That’s why he uses terms like guests instead of customers. Finally, being fulfilled is a pivotal piece of whatever you choose to do. As Mark says, “I don’t want to make money and retire. I want to make a difference and inspire.” There’s so much that we could learn from Mark. I’m thrilled to have had him on the show. We will see you next time. Play on.
About Mark Mears
Visionary business leader with a significant track record of building shareholder value and driving innovation among world-class, high profile brands. Provides strategic thought leadership, insight-based planning and manages high performing teams in ways that differentiate brands to deliver superior results. An unquenchable passion for cultivating organic GROWTH among individuals, teams and organizations by leveraging the power of 4 ‘Revolutionary’ Purpose-based L.E.A.F. processes: L.eadership, E.ngagement, A.ccountability & F.ulfillment