Using Culture + Design To Build a Disruptive Breakthrough Brand

Method, a scrappy, irreverent soap brand, offers financial marketers essential lessons in how to disrupt any stodgy, undifferentiated category — even banking. Here's what you can learn from founder Eric Ryan, the featured keynote speaker at The Financial Brand Forum 2017.

Before Eric Ryan founded Method, cleaning products were boring. Giants like Procter & Gamble, Clorox, Colgate-Palmolive and SC Johnson had effectively monopolized the industry since as far back as 1806. Each has massive infrastructures, thousands of employees, and billions in sales. Their products look pretty much similar to their competitors… and just about the same as they did 50 years ago. They don’t have much to compete on besides price.

To financial marketers, this should sound very familiar.

There are few industry’s more dull and uninspired than banking, which has been dominated by a handful of supersized players for decades — Bank of America, Chase, Citi and Wells Fargo. Much like cleaning products, banking is one of the most commoditized industries around — everyone basically says and sells the same things, so rates and fees become the sole point of differentiation when consumers choose providers.

And that’s why the message that Ryan has for financial marketers is so relevant.

Few people understand what it takes to stand out in an undifferentiated, price-sensitive category ruled by an oligopoly of titans better than Eric Ryan. By fusing his passion for style and design with the strategic principles of brand building and corporate culture, Ryan has created one of the world’s most admired and respected brands: Method, an irreverent, design-driven, environmentally-minded company that now boasts over 200 different cleaning products that are sold in dozens of countries on four continents.


When Ryan founded Method back in 2001, there was almost no differentiation among cleaning brands. One day, as Ryan browsed the cleaning aisle at a big box store, all he could see was a sea of sameness — what he calls “white noise.”

“There has to be a way to do it differently,” he thought. “How can I take this boring category and make it sexy?”

At the time, consumers had a dim view of cleaning products that claimed to be eco-friendly. There were few green alternatives on the market, and those that were available didn’t perform as well as their chemical-laden counterparts. And they were ugly.

“Green cleaners were just hideous looking, and the conventional wisdom was that green didn’t clean,” Ryan explains.

Ryan figured he could tackle both problems at once. He teamed up with childhood friend Adam Lowry, who has both a degree in chemical engineering and a background in environmental science, and the pair started cooking up recipes for dish soaps and all-purpose cleaners that would eventually become the nontoxic and biodegradable product line Method is known for today.

“I looked at cultural-shifts in consumer behavior where larger brands were not delivering and realized this was the right place to be,” Ryan recalls. “We asked ourselves, ‘What could we do differently?’ and saw tremendous opportunity in the industry.”


The Importance of Good Design

Ryan says the initial idea was to bring a “spa aesthetic” to a typically drab and lifeless category. While many consumers found the idea of environmentally-friendly cleaning products appealing, most just wanted something that didn’t smell like chemicals and would look nice sitting on their counter top — something they wouldn’t have to hide under the sink.

The direction was obvious to Ryan: killer product design must be a central cornerstone of Method’s brand strategy.

Ryan, who has an eye for design honed at previous stints with brand-savvy organizations like Gap and Saturn, set out to create something truly unique and distinctive to set Method apart — sleek, brightly colored bottles with pleasing scents would be his secret weapon.

Today, Method continues to put what’s known as “design thinking” into everything they sell. Intuitive product forms, minimal graphic clutter, and clean, modern lines have become the hallmark of Method’s product design philosophy. The company takes tremendous pride in their beautiful, translucent bottles that glow purple, green, orange and blue.

According to Lynn Dornblaser, an expert on product trends at Mintel, Method completely rocked the industry by getting consumers to rethink what a cleaning product looks like, and where you keep it. “For the first time, you want to leave a package for something as prosaic as dish soap out on the counter.”


Ryan’s obsession with great design — much like what Steve Jobs did at Apple — is a critical ingredient in any breakthrough brand. Before Ryan founded Method, cleaning products were hideously under-designed — just like computers prior to Jobs at Apple. Soap wasn’t sexy until Method made it so. Technology wasn’t sexy until Apple rolled out the iMac, then the iPod, followed by the iPhone and iPad.

The banking industry similarly suffers from a dismal disregard for design. In fact, banking is arguably one of the least sexy things on the planet. Now granted, banks don’t sell a product that sits on a shelf; they offer services. But the same principles of smart design still apply.

Remember, the “Four Ps” of marketing? One is “Packaging.” But obsessing over design isn’t just about aesthetics — e.g., having a pretty logo or a snazzy website. That’s why banks and credit unions must design their entire experience with deliberate intent. Think again of Jobs at Apple, who applied design thinking to everything… the form factor, the OS, the interface, the ads, the hardware, and even the box the hardware came in. It must be simple, beautiful and intuitive, or it would never get the nod from Jobs.


The Culture Component

Design thrives at the center of Method’s organizational thinking. Rapid prototyping, vast expanses of whiteboard space, and a culture that favors thinking out loud helps Method deliver a remarkable experience.

Such expressions sound like corporate clichés, but Method’s approach to culture building is anything but conventional. For starters, Method has no official receptionist staffing the welcome desk at their headquarters. Ryan believes that “the bigger Method gets, the smaller we need to act,” which is why everyone — even Ryan — must take turns as the company receptionist.

“It’s important to keep the humbleness of the place,” Ryan explains. “Nobody here is better than the receptionist.”

Method’s open workspace was designed for the sole purpose of its Monday huddles. They draw a name out of a hat to select who runs the company’s weekly meeting, where they give each other kudos, pitch ideas and ultimately, keep people excited about Method’s mission, culture and business.

Those who want to work at Method are given homework assignments by the company’s HR team, including this question: “How will you help keep Method weird?” Job applicants are required to give a presentation to Method’s staff explaining the weirdness they will bring to the table.

It might sound a bit silly, but the purpose is twofold. First, it helps determine if there is a cultural fit. When a candidate has to discuss the weirder side of their personality, it uncovers character traits that the typical battery of interview questions could never reveal. That’s what makes these presentations so fascinating.

“People talk about stuff you normally never talk about because they’d be too embarrassed,” says Ryan. “But when they are hired and show up for their first day, there is already an intimacy. They know us, and we know them.”

Weirdness at work also boosts creativity, because, experts say, employees feel free to express themselves, and that diverse perspectives are welcomed.

“The kind of quirky that arguably leads to creativity and change is often what makes us uncomfortable,” says Robert Sutton, a professor of management science at Stanford University.

A culture of creativity and innovation requires a level of vulnerability that inherently comes from weirdness.


Learn More From Eric Ryan

Learn more about Eric Ryan’s journey at The Financial Brand Forum, where he will explain why you need to put culture before process, and how to differentiate in a highly commoditized and ultra-competitive industry.

Ryan is one of the most intelligent and engaging keynote speakers you will ever see. He joins an all-star lineup that includes Ray Davis, the CEO and Chairman of Umpqua Bank, one of the most admired brands in the banking industry. The Forum 2017 agenda features three full days of interactive workshops and how-to strategy sessions from more than 70 world-class instructors.

Over 1,500+ of the best and brightest in banking will be at The Financial Brand Forum when it gets underway this May, making it the biggest conference anywhere in the world for senior-level marketing executives in the financial industry. Don’t wait, register now. You can’t afford to miss it!

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