B2B Branding - Jason Rabbino, CEO of Saberhawk Growth Advisors

January 03,2018

With significant differences from marketing to consumers, B2B branding is a unique and interesting challenge for organizations across the globe. Having served as a senior executive at three best-in-class multinational companies: Aramark, Tyco International and CHEP (Brambles Ltd), Jason Rabbino shares his insights on how to build strong brands in the B2B world. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Jason Rabbino: But on the B2B side, once you go beyond your home country the brand characteristics, the brand value, the brand message may resonate quite differently.

Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I'm Bill Gullan, president of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency, and Happy New Year. 2018 is upon us. Hope everyone had a warm and bright holiday season and the right amount of laughter and rest and everything else, because we're ready for a new year and we're coming at it with a vengeance and a fervor, starting with today's conversation with Jason Rabbino.

Jason has an incredible career as a senior executive across different organizations at different moments. His career began, as you will hear, with a distinguished period of service in the US Navy as a pilot and as a lieutenant, which extended into work with McKinsey and then into senior executive roles across a variety of global, primarily B2B focused institutions, including many that you've heard, Aramark, Tyco and others.

His perspective on branding in B2B, his perspective on managing and building brands across international markets, and his general perspective on leadership and team building is something that makes for a tremendous listen, so enjoy Jason Rabbino.

Bill: We are honored here at Finch Brands to welcome Jason Rabbino to our offices and to our show. Jason is the CEO of Saberhawk Growth Advisors and we're grateful for your time.

Jason: It's great to be here, and thank you guys very much for having me.

Bill: It's a pleasure. Let's start where we normally do. You have such an incredible career that hopefully you'll at least give us the highlights of, so could you take us through your journey a little bit and what leads us here?

Jason: Yeah. Sure. I've had three stages in my career. My first ten years or so I was actually in the US Navy, and most of that was flying helicopters, so a pretty different portion of my career, pretty good global brand I guess you'd say, but not something I was actively promoting.

Bill: It's a leader in its space.

Jason: Exactly. Number one in its sector for sure. Coming out of the Navy, I had gotten my MBA at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and joined McKinsey and Company. McKinsey certainly has a famous brand name unto itself, but for me it was an opportunity to work with leading companies across all sectors and understand what made great companies work, everything about people, about products and services and innovation, but also about brands and what made brands distinctive and made brands last and evolve over time.

I had a chance to work with great organizations there for about six years, and after doing that I decided at that point I really wanted to get more hands on personal ownership over organizations and really drive the change over a longer period of time. I had the opportunity to move up to Philadelphia and join Aramark.

Aramark is certainly a leader in its space and a great brand. At the time that I joined, Aramark was really on an early stage of a longer journey to reinvent itself. It had been known very long as a great outsource services provider, but in that timeframe, so this is about 2005, Aramark was moving more and more towards positioning itself as a business partner, going in and working with our clients to help them deliver their services to their customers better, and Aramark really being the engine that enabled them.

I joined the healthcare group and we provided food service, facility services and clinical engineering services to hospitals and healthcare systems. In 2005, it was a bit more who could offer the lowest price and who could do it the fastest or least costly. What we did over the first couple of years I was there though was we took our team and then ultimately our customers in the marketplace on a journey to link when you deliver our services better that delivers better healthcare outcomes.

The idea of the Aramark healthcare brand was not so much we do these services, it was we make the hospital or the healthcare environment better. That allows you to get better patient outcomes, better health outcomes. That leads to better doctor and nurse satisfaction, lower employee turnover, and so you combine a brand like Aramark but then link it to delivering patient health and delivering outcomes that the staff gets excited about, that's a much more powerful value proposition. Over the years I was there it allowed Aramark initially in healthcare and then in other segments as well such as higher ed, business services and sports entertainment to really link its business and link the Aramark brand to better success for our client organizations.

Bill: Right. We'll resume in a minute, but I think during the Aramark experience you had some role in pioneering online ordering, if I recall, which spun out independently from within the Aramark umbrella?

Jason: Yeah. Absolutely. One of the most fun things, and probably the most different things for Aramark at the time was in 2006 we acquired a relatively small company based primarily in New York called seamlessweb.com. Most people today are very familiar with what's now called either Seamless or Grubhub, depending on what market you're in, but at that time it was a pretty nascent B2B business model.

Initially we thought we'd integrate it into the broader Aramark brand and make it the e-commerce arm of that, but after about six months past the acquisition we realized that there was more and more opportunity for Seamless to drive its own growth. We worked initially with Jason Finger, the founder, and his team and then started bringing Aramark people up to New York to join the team there and really focus them in two ways.

One was to make them much more independent, so they were a part of Aramark we really let them grow their brand and what they're doing as a distinctive brand identity, but secondly, we asked the team to start looking more at the consumer market, looking more at what B2C could look like. It was a very small portion of their business at the time we did the acquisition. If you look now, fast forward about a dozen years, B2C is by far the largest portion of the combined Grubhub network and they're the global leader in the online food order space.

So the idea of working a large industrial type company like Aramark acquiring an early stage business like this with its own identity and its own core competencies and then understanding how to unleash that, how to give that team enough support from the corporation but enough latitude to go off and build the business they thought fit and guide them more towards the consumer channel, which became ultimately the biggest home run for the business, was a great thing to lead, and I was very fortunate to have great people on my team and the Seamless team to help drive that forward together.

Bill: So, you had a senior strategic role at Aramark for a period of time, and then next to Tyco, yes?

Jason: That's right. I had a great experience at Aramark. I was there for a little bit over three years, but in 2008 I received a call from the team at Tyco, and Tyco at the time was led by Ed Breen. When I was at McKinsey, Ed was my first client back in McKinsey back in 1999. I had talked to Ed at that time, I said, "Listen, I loved working on this engagement with you. If there's ever an opportunity to work for your company down the road please give me a call."

Sure enough, almost nine years later Ed's team gives me a call and I said when you ask people to reach out to you and they do reach out to you, you need to follow up and at least explore that. So, I went and had lunch with the team and just was really blown away by the opportunities for Tyco and what Ed and the team were doing there. Some people may know the Tyco story. Under the previous CEO Tyco had gone through a very difficult period of time, a lot of negative headlines-

Bill: Very public.

Jason: Exactly. A lot of challenges. It was at a time when other companies like WorldCom, Lehman Brothers and Enron were really getting some very negative publicity. Tyco had been caught up in that and Ed and the team he founded around him were brought in to really reinvent the company and bring it back from the brink.

They did a tremendous job and that resulted in 2007 in Tyco being broken up into three separate public companies. Originally one was a healthcare company, which became Covidien. One was an electronics component company, which is now called TE Connectivity, initially called Tyco Electronics, and then the core business, which is what I joined, was called Tyco International. That was a fire and security and valve or flow control focused business, about $20 billion in size.

I joined right after the breakup, and what the team was looking to do was really to recreate these businesses in a new structure and recreate the brand equity separate from the businesses that had been spun off, which meant a much leaner and a much more focused Tyco. That's a great challenge to come in as part of a large established company that's still trying to reinvent itself at the same time.

Bill: Right. That seems to be a persistent theme of your work at Aramark as well as at Tyco, which I think after a tenure there and very senior roles led to this role at Brambles as well?

Jason: Yeah. Another great experience for me with Ed and the team at Tyco, and then as a result of some very good success we had there, we realized that the best way to unlock shareholder value was to actually separate the company one more time. So, in 2012 we actually separated what was Tyco International into three separate standalone companies for a second time, something that no one else as far as I know has ever done.

As part of that, I was contacted by a company called Brambles Limited, which is an Australian listed company. They were looking for somebody who had been through a lot of corporate transformation really repositioning brands, rethinking about how the companies work and how they're organized, and Brambles at that time had just done a number of acquisitions in adjacent spaces and wanted someone to come in who had managed a global portfolio of different kinds of business like I had done at Tyco and help them assess which were the business they had just bought into that were the real winners, that they should double down their investments, which ones were ones that they might want to monetize over some time but weren't natural fits, but importantly, how these new businesses fit underneath the overarching umbrella of the Brambles brand and the sub-brands that worked underneath it.

Bill: Interesting. Interesting. That gave way ... I think along the way you began to give back a bit of this knowledge, though I assume that you were all along that path of mentees and team members, but to formally weigh in. As a professor, an adjunct at Villanova, I know you've been involved on the investor and PE side and now you're consulting as well. Take us into the present day with Jason.

Jason: Yeah. Sure. I had the opportunity earlier this year to step back and reassess from a career standpoint. Even going back to my military days, I spent almost my entire career flying around the world, living on planes, in helicopters when I was flying them, and in hotel rooms, and had worked for some great companies and some great teams, but I realized that I actually wanted to start working with a bit more smaller businesses.

Not necessarily just startups, but startups, middle market type companies, in some cases the kind of companies I acquired when I was working for the Aramarks and the Tycos and the Brambles of the world, and take what I had learned in these large corporate environments about what does and doesn't work for smaller organization at whatever stage they're at and help them to grow.

So, I brought some of that, as you said, to the MBA program at Villanova, where I absolute love teaching, and go Wildcats.

Bill: Yeah, it's starting.

Jason: We do have very high hopes. The team's looking great and Coach Jay is as terrific as always.

Bill: Well dressed.

Jason: Yeah. And for me it's really allowed me to spend some time working with private equity firms in terms of looking at companies where brands or companies themselves may be undervalued and figuring how we could monetize that more effectively, and then along the way I've had some of my former colleagues, some of my students actually from Villanova, reach out to me and say, "Hey, I'm starting a business or I've got a business but it's kind of early stage. We need your help to think about how we scale this business up, how we position ourselves in the market. Can you help us out?"

So, for me it's a great time to step back, as you say take some of what I've learned over my career and apply it frankly a bit more locally to the greater Philadelphia/Mid-Atlantic market and help a number of companies and a number of organizations think about and help them execute doing different things.

Bill: So Saberhawk, which has a wonderfully military ring to it, perhaps is a vehicle for your own consulting and the interest that you've brought to your work over this period of time it sounds like?

Jason: Yeah, that's right. It's funny you picked up on that. Saberhawk was actually the name of the first squadron that I flew for when I was in the US Navy, the HSL47 Saberhawks. It was a great experience personally for me, but it also taught me that even in an environment such as naval aviation, where everyone is pretty distinctive, our squadron was the best of the best, so you realize that even among incredibly talented peers or among incredibly talented competitors in the business marketplace there's always ways for organizations to stick out and distinguish themselves.

That's the kind of mindset I've taken in my company career throughout my life, working with organizations to say listen, we've got great competitors, we've got great clients, but what do we do to make ourselves distinctive? So then when I decided to start up my own consulting business, I said let me take that mantra and that mindset forward, and I've been fortunate that I've been joined on a project-by-project basis with colleagues I've worked with throughout my career who want to work on those kind of issues with, again, companies ranging from early stages to middle market and larger companies.

Bill: That's terrific, and living up to the name of our podcast, I know that you've both been a leader as well as certainly in the decision-making capacity related to many different brand development initiatives. A couple areas that I think are particularly of interest from my perspective, the B2B side of this, we across the history of this podcast have many consumer facing brands that are weighing in on what propels their growth or asserts their difference or whatever at all different stages, but whether it's Aramark or even McKinsey or Tyco or everything since, what is your perspective on what's the same and what's different when it comes to high level B2B brand development as opposed to the normal consumer stuff that we always hear about or think about?

Jason: It's a great question and I spent a lot of time not just thinking about it, but working on it, as we talked. Companies like Seamless have been very consumer focused, but a lot of my career has been focused on B2B branding. For me there's really three things that I think stick out on the B2B side.

First of all, it's much more complicated from the standpoint that your feedback loop is much longer and much more limited. For good or for bad, on the consumer side you can get often very real-time feedback and adapt your product to your service offering.

Bill: I don't like the burger.

Jason: Exactly. I don't like the burger. Let's get 15 people in a room and do a panel discussion. B2B doesn't have that luxury in most cases, so you need to spend more time getting the branding and the positioning right, because your ability to course correct is more limited.

The second thing is that it's much more challenging to understand the buyer's journey. If someone is looking for a burger or someone is looking for a consumer electronic, it's pretty easy to identify how they're going about searching for that. In B2B the ways that people connect with your company tend to be a bit more opaque, so it requires more knowledge of your customer on an individual level in some cases, particularly if you're selling large projects or very expensive offerings. It requires the investment in helping those customers understand.

When I started working in the corporate world, for the most part the internet was not a major source of really anyone's accessed information.

Bill: I think it might catch on.

Jason: Yeah, I think we're starting to see some momentum around that. Now when I was at Brambles, we found that over 80% of our customers in the B2B space started their journey, their learning about products and services that might be of interest to them, online. So, the idea that really you need to adapt yourself is something which consumer brands tend to think about very regularly. B2B brands haven't historically done so, and that's where this second thing is, being more dynamic in what they do.

Then the third one is where are things going in terms of digital marketing? The internet is one data point, but how does social media play into this? How do you think about that? How do you think about consumer and lifetime retention of customers? When I was at ADT for example within the Tyco portfolio, ADT was very much literally a household name, but ADT was also a very big brand in the industrial space, doing security, access control and video for large buildings, installations, universities. How do you actually have a business brand and a consumer brand at the same time and how do you manage those two so one plus one equals more than two?

More and more companies today which may be known as a B2B company are seeing overlap of their products and services into the B2C space. How do you actually manage the dynamic of that going forward with much more of the product and service being delivered in digital fashion is a great challenge, one which we saw, as I said at ADT.

Brambles had a lot of that as we'd be moved from the back of the supply chain to more of the consumer floor, and I think any company which does B2B marketing today needs to consider that, as you say, the differences in business marketing, but also more and more how B2B market and B2C marketing are starting to converge and overlap with one another.

Bill: Right, no doubt, plus people are people and the internet is the internet, and you find yourself in different places. One of the perhaps oversimplifications that I think I've run into B2B versus B2C is this notion that consumers are emotional and irrational and are buying based on ... I some cases very price driven, but the characteristics that come from all parts of their heart and everything else, and there's notion of B2B buyers being purely rational actors, where it's budget and it's value.

I love to hear your take on it. My sense is that people are people and it's always that balance of head and heart, but what is your experience as it relates to the difference ... You talk about the feedback loop being different. You talk about there being it's more complicated. Any sense or opinion related to how B2B buyers versus consumer buyers may different?

Jason: Sure. I think the first premise you offer there is an important one, which is on the B2C side there is a buyer. There is a consumer that you're trying to reach out to and develop products and services for. B2B doesn't usually work that way. There may be someone who in theory is your point of contact for example, but the buying process is much more complicated, because there's usually a group of people behind that, what we generally refer to as the DMU, the decision-making unit.

The DMU often seems simple on paper. You might get for example an RFP, a request for information or a request for proposal. That may have a name associated with it. That often will be one of anywhere from three to 30 people who weigh in on the ultimate decision.

What you need to do is to quickly move beyond your point of contact name to understand who is involved in the decision process and what their needs are. To your point about people being irrational, people in the B2B space tend to be rational in their own sphere, in their own silo, but what you discover pretty quickly is that there may be four or five different spheres of influence or silos within the company.

When you start getting feedback at an aggregate level, it actually may come across as somewhat irrational. When you dig underneath and you look at those 30 people weighing in, you realize that those individual groups are all really trying to optimize what they've been asked to optimize for, so you as the marketer, you as the salesperson, you as the business leader, you need to position your plan such as the characteristics of your brand or your offering appeal in equal ways to people in some cases who have very different looks on what they're trying to accomplish. That's tough to do.

Bill: No question, and you may have procurement who exists as sort of process manager and a contract negotiator and you may have the finance stream who's obviously thinking about budget, and so the total value. Then you have the buyer may not be the user, the end user. It is complicated.

Another thing that I think is interesting, throughout the experiences that you've had you mentioned Brambles being ... I think it's an Australian company. The challenges and the opportunities that brands have if they have truly global businesses, it's easy in the US within reason to understand that there's different consumers in different places and they have different cultural cues, different climates, different et cetera.

When we work for example in nutrition we know that the southern California consumer thinks about body image differently than ... et cetera. That's a little bit nuanced, but fairly direct. Global brand development as opposed to US based primarily domestic, what are the wrinkles that that adds to the way that business leaders think through how to build durable brands that stand out and succeed?

Jason: When you start thinking about branding and products and services globally, the complexity goes up obviously fairly dramatically. What you see is that it's very difficult for many brands, particularly B2B brands, to break out of their home market and to achieve similar success in other places around the world.

You see more of that with consumer brands these days and the internet has made that a bit more ubiquitous on the consumer side. But on the B2B side, once you go beyond your home market, and to your comment sometimes your home market may be a region of the country, but once you go beyond your home country the brand characteristics, the brand value, the brand message might resonate quite differently.

As an example, in the ADT business, even on the commercial side, we had people in developed markets, so the US, western Europe, Australia, who really were looking for the absolute best, the gold standard. Over many years ADT and Tyco have been able to establish that, and so based upon brand alone, but then backed up by service, by innovation, by R&D, we were able to command in many cases a premium price.

When you try to extend the brands that have great value in developed markets to emerging markets it became fairly obvious to our teams that the consumer there, who is in much more of a developmental state in terms of thinking about things like fire and security were far more price sensitive and they wanted a brand that they might have seen or recognized somewhere else in the world, but they didn't always want to pay more for it.

As the business leader, as the product leader, how do you develop a product and service offering for these markets that maybe meets a lower price point without diluting the value proposition you have in the more mature markets where you can command a premium? Balancing that out is incredibly challenging, and that's where people in the marketing department for example really earn their stripes and make their money, is thinking about how do I juggle this portfolio of brands and products in a way that is really additive to the global plan as opposed to diluting?

Very few people really pull off that trick well, but the brands that do that are the ones that over time have grown to be very global brands and have really a distinctive nature about them that can make one plus one equal more than two.

Bill: Uh-huh (affirmative). No doubt. One of the things you mentioned that now in your work at Villanova you're teaching, your role at Villanova, it's an organized way obviously to share what you've learned and help nurture careers and the journey of discovery for students.

Along the way you've built teams, you've managed teams, you've ... All the way back to obviously your days in the military. Are there a couple of things from a cultural or a team or a mentoring perspective that are important to you when it comes to building the types of organizations that can flourish and win on a global scale and across all the product groups that you've managed and brought forth?

Jason: Sure. There is definitely a couple of very specific things which I have developed over my career. I've been fortunate to work alongside and for great leaders, so I've had people show me the way to do things and occasionally I'd have people perhaps demonstrate the wrong way to do things. I think most people learn a lot from great success, but also learn from their mistakes and mistakes of others and I've tried to do that throughout my career.

For me, the first one is that there's not one right way to lead. I think that great leaders have a range of leadership styles and approaches based upon the situation and can adapt themselves. They're always true to their core and who they are, but they understand that some people may be motivated by different things and don't just ... People say when you have a hammer you go around looking for nails everywhere. When you do that you tend to be a very one-dimensional leader and those people tend to be successful in one circumstance but not others.

I think one of the reasons that I've enjoyed working and have been successful in different environments is I have flexibility in my style within certain guidelines that allows me to lead in different ways and to motivate people in different circumstances.

The second thing I'd really highlight is you want to build a team where people are truly complimentary. Sometimes that means that there is some degree of tension and friction with the team. As long as it's kept to a manageable level and is really channeled in a productive way, that can be incredibly powerful. Abraham Lincoln got a lot of publicity recently through the book Team of Rivals. He created a Cabinet of people who didn't agree all that often with one another and were pretty contentious at times, but ultimately the sum of those very different points of view and inputs wound up being some consensus and some compromise that really drove great success at the national level.

Likewise, in a business team you want to understand where people's strengths and weaknesses are and bring in people who are going to complement one another, but also as part of that challenge one another. Building that kind of team is a very dynamic force and can be very effective.

Then the third one is most leaders struggle at times with giving very direct and very personalized feedback. Particularly from my time at McKinsey, my first corporate experience, McKinsey is world-class in many things and one of them is giving constant feedback. After every meeting, after every assignment, after every review your project manager or the partner would sit down with each member of the team and give them very specific pros of cons of what they did in that meeting or that phone call.

It takes a little getting used to for most people, but once you do that you realize that the power of that to help people adapt and understand where they can improve, how they might do things differently ... And it was always positioned as here's a suggestion, here's a way of thinking about it, here's something you might have done differently, so McKinsey lets you experiment with different approaches and different styles.

Going back to my first point, that allows you to find your leadership path, and as I built teams across different kinds of businesses, particularly in the areas of marketing and branding, challenging people to think and act differently and to innovate around themselves allows you to really create teams of people that can innovate for customers as well.

Bill: Awesome. We're really grateful for your time, all that you've accomplished both in the service of our nation, thank you, and in the service of wonderful global brands and businesses, a tremendous wealth of lessons and learning for our listeners, and we're grateful for your time.

Jason: Thanks, it's been really enjoyable to talk to you guys. As I've talked about what I'm doing, I build organizations, I know that you guys do the same thing as well in your own way. I just love getting to meet organizations and companies who really have that passion from the team here and look forward to hopefully working with you going forward.

Bill: Thank you. That's generous.

Many, many thanks to Jason for his time and insight. He's a terrific person, a terrific leader, and his words to live by when it comes to building teams and growing careers I trust will be of great inspiration and support to those in our listener base, speaking of which there are three primary ways to support us here at Real World Branding if you're so inclined.

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On that note, we're all huddling up to keep warm and make 2018 all that it can be and we'll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.