Episode 226 | Posted on

Build a Brand that’ll Stand the Test of Time with Bernt Ullmann

When we think of celebrities, we think of fame and fortune, and the lion’s share of that celebrities fortune can come from monetizing their fame and notoriety. Jennifer Lopez, for example, made 3.5 billion dollars partnering with Kohl’s. Kylie Jenner went from teenage reality star to billionaire makeup mogul. My guest for this episode number 226, Bernt Ullmann is the genius behind these sorts of celebrity mega deals. 

Bernt is CEO and founder of Celebrity Lifestyle Brands. He leverages celebrity star power and turns those into branding and licensing deals. You’re in store for a fascinating conversation about the world of celebrity branding. And if you personally loathe the limelight, don’t worry, you don’t have to be the celebrity. You just partner with one. 

As Bernt says, “celebrities give you eyeballs and trust.” That could be millions in intellectual property value and licensing potential for you. Bernt shares how his start at the Donna Karan fashion brand led him to partnering with Tommy Hilfiger and an entrance into celebrity branding. He talks about deals with Russell Simmons, Adam Levine and Real Housewives of New York star, Bethenny Frankel

We discussed how this domino effect helped him become “The Man Behind the Brands.” But this episode is not just about celebrities. Bernt talks about his book, The Billion Dollar Branding Blueprint and shares vital advice to building your brand and raising your brand’s equity. This is a conversation not to be missed. And now, on with the show.


Bernt, it’s so wonderful and I’m just honored to have you on the show today. 

Stephan, thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here. 

First of all, I want to know how did you get such celebrity clients such as Jennifer Lopez and Adam Levine? That’s pretty impressive.

That’s a good question. It doesn’t just happen like that. If you will indulge me, I’ll take you on a little bit of a journey. When I started out, it was not like I could pick up the phone, call Jennifer Lopez, and do a deal. In essence, I’ve always been in consumer goods. I’ve always been in the branding space.

Back in the 90s, I worked for Donna Karan. I was a Corporate Vice-President of the Donna Karan company. I got in at a great time. I was lucky because I got some good results. I opened 85 flagship stores all over the world for her. My division group was from around $40 million when I started around, $250 million when I left. 

I left and I went to join Daymond John. The people shark on Shark Tank. He had founded FUBU, together with his three partners, and I became president of FUBU International. That was the first true exposure to a celebrity because that brand caught fire. Ultimately, it was worn by every single music talent out there.

This was back in the day when MTV was actually playing music videos and we would be in every single music video. Daymond has been gracious enough to credit me with being part of taking the company from less than $100 million to a $400 million wholesale. We had LL Cool J as a brand ambassador. That gave me a taste of the power of having a celebrity attached to a brand. 

I left and I joined a company called Kellwood when they were looking at the potential acquisition and we finished that acquisition, that was of Phat Fashions. That was Russell SimmonsPhat Farm and Baby Phat which was led by his wife, Kimora Lee Simmons. That would be P-H-A-T for pretty, hot, and tempting. That was back in the day, Phat. The brand caught on fire and I was part of really taking that brand from probably $85 million to $850 million retail, so very sizable growth. Again, Russel Simmons’ absolutely a celebrity. Kimora had her own television show. That again led to this power of celebrity and divisibility.

I formed the company called Star Branding in partnership with Tommy Hilfiger, his brother Andy, and one other guy. Star Branding said stars can be brands. This is where we did all of those big transactions. We launched our brand in 2009 and we said, “Stars can be brands.” Ultimately, what happens is when you have Tommy Hilfiger as a partner, you have to think big. We partnered with Li & Fung, the largest apparel manufacturer in the world. We did a deal with Kohl’s, one of the largest department stores and they had 1200 stores.

It was that kind of stew that we brought to Jennifer and said, “There is a tremendous opportunity, low hanging fruit to create a brand and go into every single Kohl’s stores in all available categories.” Overnight, we built a global lifestyle brand for Jennifer and Marc Anthony, the husband at the time. Quite frankly, that deal is built as the largest celebrity deal ever done.

We had $3½ billion with the B in purchasing guarantees from Kohl’s. Now, everything becomes a lot easier because when you do the largest celebrity ever done, guess what? Every other self-respecting celebrity thinks he or she deserves a $3½ billion deal. We ended up with a massive deal pipeline.

After we did that, we did the deal with The Rolling Stones, we did something with Steven Tyler, we did American Idol, we did a deal with the Universal Music Group, the largest music company in the world. That’s when Eddie Lampert came and he was then Chairman and CEO of Sears and Kmart. I ended up becoming acting CEO of a new division for them and that’s when we launched Nicki Minaj and Adam Levine into 500 fully-featured shopping shops in Kmart. Those businesses jumped out to $200 million. It was a long process and it builds on itself. 

Successful people have one thing in common, and that is having a tremendous drive. They don't sit around a lot on the beach. They do the work and make things happen. Click To Tweet

Wow. I’m honored to even have an hour of your time here to talk about branding and marketing when you could be sitting on a beach somewhere sipping piña coladas with all the success that you’ve had and the homerun. It’s pretty impressive. 

You’re being kind, but I thought for a second when you said sitting on a beach with some of the celebrities. What I find is that all the successful ones have one thing in common and that is a tremendous drive. I do not think they sit around a lot on the beach. There are no accidents. It’s like every overnight success that was 10 years in the making, that’s definitely true. These guys have been grinding it out, working hard, having a vision, staying true to their vision, and then executing, executing, executing. They all have that in common, I have to tell you.

You look at the success of somebody like Kylie Jenner. How she, at 21 years old or whatever it was, became a billionaire. She’s crazy, to think that she doesn’t even have her own manufacturing operations or anything. It’s just her celebrity brand and her following. She was able to monetize out by having just a set of really great partners. 

Absolutely. That is the true power of celebrity because what does celebrity bring you? I would say two things. They bring you eyeballs and trust. She has that in space.

How does somebody listening or watching right now take their brand and either make it a celebrity brand—maybe it’s their company, maybe it’s their personal brand—or how do they affiliate with a celebrity so that they can leapfrog and pass all their competition?

The Billion Dollar Branding Blueprint by Bernt Ullmann and A J Adams

That’s a good question and I will take the opportunity to just bring out my book because that is a very lengthy question that you asked and I like to think that I am providing detailed answers in my recently launched book called The Billion Dollar Branding Blueprint. Be that as it may after this shameless plug.

That’s a great plug. I’m excited to read the book.

Thank you. There is, of course, no 1-800-celebrity. Maybe one time in the future, there will be that. It’s a little more involved. I would say if you are building your own brand (the brand can be a superstar as well), if you look at brands like Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger, while they may have had certain collabs, the brand in its own right is an essence to the superstar. You can certainly build up the brand in and of itself and that has value.

To try to answer your question, I think there are a number of steps and they all have to do with consistency and messaging, whether it is your personal brand or you have a brand. By the way, let’s take one step further back and say, “Why a brand?” I think a lot of people are listening and they’re saying, “That’s all well and good, but why do I need to bother with a brand? I’m doing business, I’m transacting, I’m selling, I have an online store, I have this service, or I have a product.”

Let’s say that they’re selling products on Amazon and they’re just a commodity. They could be very successful right now on Amazon, but they get replaced by some other competitor and whoever has the Buy Box or whoever is currently being favored as the Amazon pick. It’s like a house of cards, really.

You’re answering the question, why brand? That is why. A brand is just some type of whether it is the sign or any type of distinguishing factor that sets you apart from the competition and the mind of the consumer. That’s a brand, that’s branding, something that sets you apart. 

If you don’t have that to your point, what are you really left to compete on? If there’s nothing that sets you apart from the competition, you’re really forced to compete on price. I often said that’s not necessarily such a great outcome or outlook.

They race to the bottom, right?

Exactly, it’s exactly what I said. I like to add to that to make it more dramatic. It’s a death spiral right to the bottom. At the end of the day, there’s always someone, a little more desperate or a little more miserable willing to work on little prices. It’s really tough.

The power of brand, just I’ve said that and why I am such a big advocate, from my vantage point, the brand actually equals wealth ultimately. In addition to being able to do better transactions, if you have a brand, you now have the luxury of actually charging a little more because the brand is trusted.

Instead of competing on price, you’re competing on the value proposition that’s inherent in the brand and the brand has a lot to do with how you make the consumer feel. You can charge more, you’re doing better business, and in addition, you’re building what we call brand equity, which is the value of your brand and its own right. You’re doing better business and you’re building an asset for yourself, the name of the brand, the brand equity, the intellectual property.

Right. This item called goodwill is actually sitting in your balance sheet and a lot of that has to do with your brand equity.

That’s exactly right. I said earlier, I was part of that acquisition of Phat Fashions, Russel Simmons and Kimora Lee Simmons’ company. When Russell sold, he didn’t actually sell his company. The headline was, “Russell Simmons sells his company for $140 million.” No, he didn’t sell his company. He sold no inventory, no machinery, there were no employees. He simply sold the intellectual property rights. The goodwill that Kellwood had on the balance sheets, $140 million. That was the value, just of the IP itself. That’s pretty powerful. 

The notion of millionaires lounging on the beach drinking pina coladas isn’t necessarily true. Successful people create a vision, work their way to it, and stick to their goals.

Another quick example, just very quickly. I have recently been also working with Bethenny Frankel, who is one of the Real Housewives of New York. You may or may not be familiar with Bethenny, but most people know her brand. She created the brand while being on the show and it’s called Skinnygirl. Skinnygirl Cocktails, Skinnygirl Margaritas. Even though in American pop culture is familiar with the Skinnygirl brand, it was her brainchild while on a show. She ended up selling, not the company, not all of the rights to the IP, just the intellectual property rights to alcoholic beverages. She sold it for $100 million to be inventory. That’s the power of brand. 

That’s amazing.

So cool, right?

You must be working on creating your own brand like this. I don’t know if you’ve got a reality show in the works or anything, but with all your know-how, you should be able to make for yourself a big fat $500 million check, right?

That’s such an interesting question. I’m often referred to as “The Man Behind the Brands.” I have rarely thought of the creation of my own brand. I would say the book is the first step in saying, “You know what? There are just enough information and enough in my background that I probably could be a brand.” I haven’t really put my efforts into that because I still get a huge kick out of building businesses where I leverage on others’ fame. In essence, create new revenue streams for them. I open new product verticals and I like to think that I have seen quite a bit of success doing it and I’m continuing to do it.

I’ve actually come full circle and now, coming at you from Daymond John’s office. I have a full circle, back working with Daymond, I’m working on his shark deals. He has a partnership with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Hollywood royalty, married to Michael Douglas. She has her own brand called Zeta-Jones and I’m helping with that. It’s a lot of fun. I actually really enjoy it.

That’s amazing. I love her, too. She’s such a great actress.

Honestly, she’s phenomenal. As I said, none of them are accidents and she drives on that point. She’s such a terrific, not only as an actress but a person. 

If somebody is listening to this and they’re thinking, “That’s all fine for you, Bernt. I don’t have the connections. I’m not hanging out on the red carpet or anything. Is there some way, resource, matchmaker something, or a clearing house or something that I could use to connect up with some of these celebrities?” I’ve heard about Brand Affinity Technologies, for example, I’ve heard of Thuzio, I’ve heard of Famebit. Famebit for hiring YouTube stars to feature products, Brand Affinity Technologies and Thuzio for celebrities like professional ballplayers, minor actors, and stuff like that. What are your thoughts on those resources?

You’re exactly right. There’s a lot of them coming and I’ve been in conversations with a number of them. I don’t necessarily want to call in any other ones that I’m talking throughout right here, but there are definitely services like that that you can reach out to. For the purposes of our conversation, if someone wants to have help with actually reaching out and attaching a celebrity to what product, their company, or their brand, I can probably just do a one-on-one for whoever that pertains to and helping steering that’s the right way as opposed to just sending them to a random clearing house, to be honest. I would be happy to do that.

It depends on the size because as I said earlier, we started Star Branding in 2009, which was with Tommy Hilfiger. If you look at, for instance, the Tommy Hilfiger brand, it’s a brand that’s been around for a long time. It’s still incredibly relevant today. Driving revenue of $7½ billion annually. How is that possible?

One of the reasons why that’s possible is that Tommy is honestly such a great reader of current pop culture. He has his fingers on the pulse. He has this uncanny ability to understand what’s happening in the market. It’s a man’s brand first, it launched as a man’s brand first and foremost because Tommy Hilfiger is a guy and we’re now years and years later.

Of course, it wasn’t the trendiest or hottest brand when it came to a young or female audience, so what did he do? He forged a partnership with Gigi Hadid back when she was probably just 20. It ended up becoming so powerful. They launched the Gigi and Tommy collab collection, which ran for multiple seasons, was renewed several times, and ended up costing the company an arm and a leg if you can imagine. It was a great deal for Gigi, but it was also a great deal for Tommy.

As Tommy was saying, it was the best money they ever spent because it put the company on steroids in an extremely important demographic: young females who’re really spending and very into fashion. Honestly, it added credibility and legitimacy that the brand may not have had before when it came to that audience. These collaborations are really powerful.

Somebody like Tommy Hilfiger, that brand, has such stain power. It reminds me of some of these musicians or bands that have been able to survive and thrive over the decades. Massive changes in the scene and yet they stayed relevant and they changed their music. Like Madonna‘s music, for example, sounds totally different from what she sounded like in the 80s because she’s morphed herself to stay current.

I even saw a documentary about Duran Duran recently. They had a hit just this decade because they have partnered with somebody who was an up-and-comer just like what you described with Tommy. It’s genius and it’s very forward-thinking. You set your pride aside and you say, “You know what? I need to evolve or die.”

Branding is something that sets you apart. If you don't have that to your advantage, what are you really left to compete on? Click To Tweet

Exactly. It’s always that. Evolve or die, innovate or die, that’s what it’s all about. I think great brands, great performers, they have this in common. Uncanny ability to read the market and move with the market and they all have this vision. They have an eye on the prize. It’s never about what’s right in front of them. It’s a longer-term vision, but each and every piece and every step is always taken with an end goal in mind. That’s how you get these everlasting brands.

When you started, you started with Donna Karan. That was your big in to build upon. You can apply that same strategy (I would call it the domino effect) to anything related to marketing or just business like for example, with my podcast. With this show, Marketing Speak, I had in my first 10 guests, Jay Abraham. Once I had Jay Abraham as a guest, it was like dominos. Whoever I wanted, I said, “By the way, I’ve had Jay Abraham as one of my guests.” It’s like, “If he is willing to be a guest, I guess I can.”

You don’t want to get in that conversation of how many downloads do you have, what’s your reach, that’s not a powerful conversation. That’s not a place where you’re going to really come out ahead. That is a game-changer. Similarly, if you want that celebrity attachment but it’s with the brand, that’s not a person celebrity but like a company.

You mentioned Kohl’s, you mentioned Universal Music Group, which by the way, both of those were clients of mine back in the day. One of the first things that put me on the map as an SEO expert for our previous company, the one that I sold, Netconcepts, was to do a free SEO audit for Target.

target.com was a huge brand that everyone was looking up to. They were very innovative with their online presence. This was 2000-2001 timeframe, early days. We approached them, offered them a comprehensive SEO audit for free in exchange for using their logo in a testimonial. Assuming that they were happy with the deliverable. They were ecstatic about it. They were just overjoyed with the quality of it, happy to give us just the glowing testimonial, put that up on our website and then, all of the big names, new clients just started pouring in. 

That’s exactly right. That’s no different than our Jennifer Lopez, the largest celebrity deal ever done. Your example with Jay Abraham is just as powerful because once you have interacted with a large name, a lot of the concerns that future partners may have are immediately dispelled. I really like the approach where you, in essence, offered services for free because I believe very firmly in that where you come at it from the approach of, how can I help? What can I do for you? What problem may I be able to solve for you?

The reality is, the world does not need one more of anything. It doesn’t need one more of you or I, the world doesn’t need another product. There has to be an emotional connection and you have to solve the problem for someone. Otherwise, there’s really no particular reason for being. 

The secret here on how I’ve gotten some of my big-name guests, if it wasn’t enough just name-dropping, sometimes I’ll just offer to do some free SEO analysis or some consulting. A minimal amount of work on my part, just show up on a call and go through with them and their team some low hanging fruit that I see with their website from an SEO perspective. I’d say, “If you got six or seven figures of value from that, which I’m confident you will, then say yes to spending an hour on an interview with me.” 

Dave Asprey, when I got him, he’s very selective about who he gets interviewed by. When I had him on Get Yourself Optimized, my other podcast, years ago, I gave them an hour of consulting and saved them. They dodged the bullet because of me. They were going to start a whole new domain and start from zero with no linked equity. That was a terrible idea. They didn’t understand the SEO implications of this and once I explained that to them, they abandoned that whole strategy, thankfully and moved all their blog content to bulletproof.com instead of creating brand new bulletproofblog.com or something like that.

They were very happy and the hour of time that Dave spent with me getting interviewed was a very small price to pay but I gave first. Your modus operandi in life is to just give first and let the universe compensate you. Business is a spiritual game. 

It really is. I firmly believe that. I agree wholeheartedly.

Very cool. Let’s talk about, from a branding perspective, where do you see things heading? We’re getting into full immersion, experiences with virtual reality, and augmented reality is getting to the point where you can just wear regular glasses and it’s not even some big bulky thing on your face. You can get all this additional data on people that you’re walking up to on the streets or businesses that you’re about to enter, get special discounts. It’s a crazy, brave new world that we’re entering. What is branding, celebrity attachment, and all these look like in that kind of a world? Maybe like a minority report even kind of a world. 

Using a power user to boost a brand is an effective way to get your name out there.

I don’t know that I have the answer of what it looks like, but I do know that I am seeing more and more focus on branding, the importance of being branded, and the importance of standing for something because we are literally getting bombarded with information. There is so much information now, so much more than it was. We have it on our phones and just as you alluded to, it’s coming at us from all directions.

If you don’t have something that distinguishes you from everybody else, something that sets you apart, your brand, whether it’s your personal brand or a brand that you’re using as the face of whatever efforts whether it’s products or services, if you don’t have that, I think you’re simply going to get lost. The noise is so staggering and I would say, it used to be I feel like when I was dealing with entrepreneurs.

A lot of people were like, “We are too busy. Branding is not something that’s on our radar. We are too busy to focus on that right now.” I feel that that has actually changed. There’s also used to be this misnomer that branding is having a pretty logo or what color I should use on my logo, what font. They’re like, “That’s not where I’m at. I’m doing business.” 

I’ll create your brand for $200. I’m a fiverr.com vendor. Your logo, your fonts, your brand colors, I’ve got a template. I’ll just hit the button, and here you go!

That’s just not brand. I am so pleasantly surprised how the market seems to be evolving into so much deeper understanding of the value of having the ability to set yourself apart. The added benefit or the added value that we already covered in actually building your brand equity and understanding that you’re actually creating an asset. I don’t feel that was there before. There’s still a lot of entrepreneurs who are just very busy fulfilling orders, and God bless, that’s wonderful.

At the end of the day, going back to the example you gave earlier, if you don’t have a brand, you don’t have anything that sets you apart, someone might change an algorithm from the one they do today. They’re not going to call you. You may wake up and your direct-to-consumer business primarily fueled by Facebook ads might not be there any longer. If you don’t have a brand, people don’t even know where to go and find you. You have to reinvent your business from the beginning. People are starting to realize that.

The way I would frame it is, for a lot of folks, it’s about information asymmetry. They have an unfair advantage and understanding how, let’s say, the Amazon algorithm works, how to source products from China, or how to leverage SEO. They’ve got this current information asymmetry that they’re leveraging and monetization but it’s like a house of cards because somebody else can swoop in and take that information asymmetry away.

It’s like trying to win it at the stock market and you don’t know what you’re also playing against AIs that are super fast like quantum computing type fast. You’re currently winning but tomorrow could be, the whole rug can be pulled from under you.

If you have a brand like Kylie Jenner that just has the best in class partners that are doing the fulfillments, that are doing the manufacturing, you could be dropshipping and just not even doing any of the heavy liftings, so to speak. It’s not just Kylie Jenner. There’s a lot of folks who are doing it, as you gave some examples, too.

If somebody is listening to this and thinking, “All right. Maybe I need to do X, Y, and Z to build up a brand that can sell like the IP license rights or that goodwill on the balance sheets, there will be worth so much more than my inventory and my accounts receivable and all that.” That’s a really valuable outcome for somebody listening to say, “I’m going to do X, Y, and Z.” What are those 3–5 different things they need to focus on doing? Maybe it’s actually just your blueprint. 

Instead of competing on price, compete on the value proposition that's inherent in the brand. How you make your customers feel is what sets you apart. Click To Tweet

The blueprint, obviously, helps a lot. The singular, probably most powerful word when it comes to building brand is consistency. When I say consistency, it is the consumer experience. In order to build this successful brand, you have to control the consumer experience across every single consumer touchpoint. It is everything from how someone is dealt with on the phone to how physically, if this is a store or a showroom, and digitally. It has to be the same experience absolutely all the way through. That is the cornerstone to building a brand, because otherwise, if the brand is not a message, it’s very difficult to build anything.

Basically, the way we start the process is we start by defining what we call as a brand DNA. Brand DNA is what uniquely sets your brand, your business, your service, or you apart from the competition and you try to distill it down to its core components. Those are the components that you replicate and you roll forward for every single consumer touchpoint and every single product vertical. The blueprint goes in a lot more detail but that’s where you start. What’s your brand DNA and you start at the very basics. What problems do you solve to what end? Why are you here? What is it that is unique about the product? What is the brand DNA?

You harvest that and you bring that brand consistency throughout everything you do which is what leads to brand equity and start building brand equity which is the real value of your brand.

We talked about the exits. We talked about how Russell sold for $140 million or Bethenny Frankel, the housewife of New York, she sold just alcoholic beverages for $100 million. That’s great but no one says you have to sell.

Another vehicle that’s incredibly powerful is licensing. I love licensing. I picked up when you used the term best in class partners. I used that all the time because that is the power of licensing. I reject the notion that anyone can be best at everything. I learned that many years ago. Back in the day, I went to Donna Karan company in the 90s. When I was there, originally, we didn’t do licensing. We did everything in the house because we knew better, we knew the vision, we were executing on everything.

I watched when we decided to go into the fragrance business. We spent one year and around $20 million. Donna had one of the men’s fragrances that replicated the smell of her husband’s neck. I watched people sitting around, sniffing him, for a year. $20 million later, it’s like, “You know what? We may just not be the best people to do this well.” That was the very first license that we ever signed for the brand. I am a firm believer in licensing. When you have that brand and you have that brand equity, just over at Phat Fashions where I said, “The business grew a lot.”

Phat Farm is a young men’s sportswear brand. By the time we were done, we said, “Okay, we have young men’s sportswear doing really well but we would like to expand our brand universe. We would like to grow our business but we no longer want to tie up any more capital, infrastructure, and inventory.” A great risk mitigator is licensing. We found the best in class operators. We found the best in class operator on footwear, best in class operator in bags. We did jewelry. We did, of course, the fragrance, beauty products, swimwear, intimate apparel underwear, outdoor wear. It ran the gamut. By the time we were done, we probably had over 30 licensees just driving royalty income between $40 and $50 million annually.

Quite frankly, when that acquisition took place, the company was not really heavily engaged in licensing. It was losing $2-$3 million on their wholesale operations. After we converted to a full-on licensing model, we went to losing a couple of million dollars a year to net operating earnings well north of $30 million annually. That’s the power of licensing. 

That’s awesome. What you were saying about the best in class situation, where you need to partner with different folks in different industries (depending on who’s really the best in that vertical) reminds me of the issue that I have with most agencies. They taught themselves as being full service and best in class. They can’t be both. It’s an oxymoron, best in class agency. By definition, an agency is a jack of all trades, a master of none.

Exactly right. I completely agree. I am a very firm believer in aligning yourself with strong partners also because it shifts the burden of bringing the brand to market as well. The reality is, in this day and age, you need to commit a lot of time and effort to properly position and market your brand. While all the licensing deals I do, the licensor, the brand owner, the person stays in the firm control, we retain full creative control.

Work on becoming a trusted establishment by delivering nothing but the best value in terms of quality and customer service to my customers.

You can still build your brand—this is going to sound a little terrible—on the back of your partners. I mean it in a good way. You get all these additional engines that help in lifting the brand, putting it in front of the right retailer if you’re still going brick and mortar, more so direct-to-consumer, but you get this much bigger cohesive message that ultimately will resonate with the consumer, that sees the brand now in a lot of different user situations. It was like, “This must be a very powerful and important brand.” Ultimately, that’s how you transact when you have some type of emotional connection with the consumer. 

I just recently found out that a brand I knew of and heard of years ago was only just a shell of IP licensing, like Stetson. They license with a hat company, a boot company, a clothing company, a fragrance company, all these different companies and Stetson itself is nothing but just an office in New York City, I believe, and a bunch of IPs. That’s it.

I know the guys, I know the office. They’re very good at what they do.

That’s amazing. I was really surprised when I heard it, but it made sense.

Exactly. That’s the power of strong IP. That’s the power of branding. You don’t have to be an operator to create a strong brand. You don’t have to risk your capital. Once you have the brand and you have the brand equity, there are a lot of different ways to monetize.

One thing that I did early on back in 2003 was to create a brand within a brand. Netconcepts was the brand of the agency, but there are so many agencies out there, SEO agencies specifically, that it just wasn’t a differentiator enough to just do quality work and have a brand like Target. It was helpful for sure, but we wanted to further differentiate. I invented a technology platform and gave it a brand name of GravityStream.

I was just trying and spending hours and hours brainstorming and searching the whois databases for a .com was actually available and I finally one. I thought, “I like this one, GravityStream.” That became the brand within the brand for a pay per performance SEO technology platform, Software as a Service or SaaS. We were charging on a cost per click basis for SEO. That was unheard of at the time, 15¢ a click.

In comparison with what you’re probably spending on paid search, it was a bargain. It just seemed like a no brainer to a lot of these bigger brands. We had Zappos as a client, Nordstrom as a client, and just a lot of retailers in particular because they saw the value and going with the pay per performance technology. That was how we were able to sell for what we were able to sell for which is all confidential, of course.

The Art of SEO by Eric Enge, Stephan Spencer, & Jessie Stricchiola

We were able to sell for much more than we would have if we were just an agency. That was the Trojan Horse really. It was, “Hey, we’re an agency that specializes in SEO led by Stephan Spencer, co-author of the Art of SEO.” Let’s get a consulting bid or let’s get an agency bid, whatever. By the way, we have this technology that you probably don’t even know existed that we’ll do an end-around around all of your internal technology roadblocks with regards to your CMS or your e-commerce platform. That sounds great. Let’s do that.

If we’d only been a technology company, Software as a Service, people wouldn’t come to us saying, “We need SEO consulting. We need an agency.” If we were just an agency, we wouldn’t have that additional solution that ended up being the majority of the company’s revenue, was GravityStream click revenue. 

I’m really surprised. That’s really clever, I have to say. You’re very clever but why not? I’m not all that common in essence, engage on one level and you ultimately transact to another. We do that a lot, a little differently with Hero products. 

If you talk about the fashion pyramid, if we take something as basic as you walking by a storefront and you’re looking at the product in the window, the product in the window might be what makes you stop. It’s actually meant to be what makes you step inside and say, “Hey, this looks interesting. I would like to figure out what else they do.” Once your inside, that may not and more often enough is not what you end up transacting on. The transaction is different. 

To build a successful brand, you have to control the consumer experience across every single consumer touchpoint. Click To Tweet

It’s like going to a grocery store, hungry, right?

That’s smart. I like it a lot, well done. 

Thank you. One last question. Do you have time for one last question?

One last question, of course. I’m having a really good time. I’m in overtime, you’re in overtime but yes, I’ll let you one last question.

Why should somebody who has a great company brand or one that’s really got some traction, invest in a personal brand as well?

That’s a really good question. One of the reasons is that with the access to information that we have today, we care a lot more about who we transact with than we used to. I think almost every one of the bigger, successful brands that we know, more often than not, we know the founder, leader, or CEO as well and they become part of the story. And you’re buying into that story as well. I don’t really care whether it’s Apple by Steve Jobs or we talked about Amazon, everyone knows about Jeff Bezos, but the Tommy Hilfiger brand is Tommy, Ralph Lauren was Ralph, Donna was Donna. 

Nike, Phil Knight.

You can go on and on, exactly. Even take McDonald’s was founded by Ray Kroc. I think a lot of people know that story and that is a long time but we care. It does two things. It underscores the power and the value of the brand because you have a compelling story and you get to follow it. Also, it makes the person an authority within its field. Now, this is, all of a sudden, a trusted voice.

Two things: (1) You’re going to be more likely to transact with the brand if you like the leader, and you have a relationship with the founder. (2) You can actually listen to the founder. The founder, the persona, the leader now has a platform to either just drive traffic to the brand and/or do something else from the platform that is bringing value to the constituents. At the end of the day, trust and eyeballs. That’s where we find ourselves. 

Plus, too, when you sell your company (which hopefully you will), you get to keep your personal brand but that company brand goes with the acquisition. I kind of neglected my personal brands and focused on Netconcepts. When I sold, I had to do some double-time to get caught back up with my Stephan Spencer brand.

Also, that storytelling element is so important because people want to associate with or work with somebody that they know, like, and trust and they want to hear that story of struggle. If your About page is just a wall of text and it’s not engaging, it doesn’t do the great storytelling. You go to my stephenspencer.com About page, you’ll see some great storytelling with a timeline and everything.

I think every About page should do that timeline approach. I got that idea from Studio1 Design from Greg Merrilees. It’s such a great idea because people want to see how you’ve evolved. If you’re Phil Knight from Nike or you’re just a little guy who’s trying to compete against the big Goliath in the industry, they want to hear about that. They want to be able to see those milestones and root for you.

100% and just adding on to that, Phil Knight was that little guy once upon a time. Back in 1964, that’s when Nike was founded. He was a student-athlete and he founded the company in partnership with his coach. He was still going to school when he founded the company. I actually don’t think it was founded as Nike. I think it was founded as Blue Ribbon Sports or something like that. 

People are more likely to transact with a brand if they know its roots, its founder, and their origin story. Click To Tweet

A few years later, they changed it to Nike. That’s what’s so great about those big names and those big personas that we know today. They all started out. Some go way back and there’s a beginning and they were no different than anyone else that’s listening or watching right now.

That’s awesome. I hope that we’ve inspired our listeners to really get off their butts and do something major in terms of building a brand presence for their company and for themselves. What would be the best place for them to go to read the Billion Dollar Branding Blueprint, to potentially work with you if they could afford you, and maybe learn from you from your very social channels, email newsletters, that sort of stuff.

The easiest place is probably berntullmann.com. I’m originally Norweigian. I know, I’m supposed to be tall and blonde with blue eyes. I see you have blue eyes over there. I’m not sure what happened but berntullmann.com and you will see the book and you will also see how you can interact with me. I also have a company called Celebrity Lifestyle Brands. You can also find everything you need at celebritylifestylebrands.com.

Awesome. Thank you so much, Bernt. This was fabulous. Not just information, but inspiring. Thank you again.

Likewise. I truly enjoyed it so thank you. 

Me too, perfect. Listeners, get out there and do something amazing. Check out the show notes, the transcript, checklist, all that good stuff on marketingspeak.com for this episode. We’ll catch you on the next episode of Marketing Speak.

That was a great episode right? Now Brent isn’t the only expert on branding who’s been on the show. A couple other great branding episodes I highly recommend you check out include Brian Richards, episode #69 and Re Perez, episode #175.

Important Links

Your Checklist of Actions to Take

☑ Ignite my drive to succeed. The notion of millionaires lounging at the beach drinking pina coladas is not necessarily true. Successful people create a vision, work their way to it, and stick to their goals. 
☑ Leverage the authority and celebrity in my industry. Using a power user to boost my brand is an effective way to get my company’s name out there.
☑ Stay constant with my message so more people can grasp and understand what I’m offering them.
☑ Work on becoming a trusted business. Build my social capital and brand by delivering nothing but the best value in terms of quality and customer service. 
☑ I don’t have to do all the work. Seek PR agencies who can help me improve my celebrity connections to help promote my brand.
☑ Develop the ability to predict trends before they happen. Anticipating change can help tremendously in a business’s success.
☑ Choose an advocacy I’d like to focus on. Make sure that its vision relates to my personal beliefs. 
☑ Don’t just sell a product, sell an experience. Thoroughly think through the customer’s journey and how I can be of service to them every step of the way.
☑ Consider licensing my brand to ensure my company’s protection against the other competitors.
☑ Grab a copy of Bernt Ullmann’s book, The Billion Dollar Branding Blueprint: 7 Steps to Building A Brand and Creating Wealth Through Brand Equity.

About Bernt Ullmann

Often referred to as “The Man Behind the Brands”, Mr. Ullmann has been the trusted business acceleration expert by top fashion moguls and CEOs such as Daymond John, Eddie Lampert, and Tommy Hilfiger.

Mr. Ullmann is arguably the world’s leading expert in celebrity brand development, brand management, licensing and distribution, and monetization having contributed to the successful launches of brands for clients including Jennifer Lopez, Adam Levine, Nicki Minaj, and many others. The brands he has worked with have generated over $6 billion dollars in global sales.



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