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It's What's Inside that Counts - Daniel Ruble, VP Marketing at CubeSmart

February 01,2018

Daniel Ruble is Vice President of Marketing at CubeSmart, a leading self storage service provider. In this episode, Daniel lends his insight into how the brand is used to balance the functional and emotional factors that drive consumer decision-making in an interesting, yet low-frequency category. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Daniel Ruble: So often it's not about building that unaided recall, that brand awareness, that top of mind awareness. It's about building and establishing a brand expectation that's a bit of an undercurrent.

Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I'm Bill Gullan, president of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Thank you for joining us for an interesting conversation today with Daniel Ruble, who's the vice president of marketing at CubeSmart.

CubeSmart is a leader in self storage. Depending on where you're listening to this, you may have one very near you. They have a very broad real estate portfolio. Daniel in some ways is an accidental marketer. As he'll walk you through his description of how he got there makes perfect sense, and why marketing appeals to him. But Daniel started his career really more on the finance side and real estate side.

He did his undergrad at Tennessee, Knoxville. His BS is in business administration and finance. He then, through some of his early career experiences, wound up here in the Philadelphia area at the Wharton School at Penn where he got his MBA in finance and real estate. From there, as he'll tell you, a couple different roles at CubeSmart culminating in his occupying the VP of marketing chair right now.

So he has a really interesting prospective on not only his own career journey but what marketing and brand needs to do in a category like self storage and why for someone who maybe comes from a finance background, the principles that drive successful marketing are so appealing and so natural. So enjoy Daniel Ruble.

Bill: Coming to you live from what is affectionately known as hCube in Malvern PA is the vice president of marketing at CubeSmart, Daniel Ruble. Daniel, thank you for joining us.

Daniel: It's a pleasure to be here, Bill.

Bill: It's our pleasure and I mean that sincerely. This is such a fun place to be and it's a cool contemporary office in a company that we've gotten to know. Long way from Rocky Top to Malvern here. So why don't we start as we normally do with a little bit about your background and what's led you to this point personally or in terms of your career journey.

Daniel: Yeah. Happy to discuss. You mentioned Rocky Top. I'm a hillbilly from the hills of east Tennessee. But yeah, my path to where I sit today in marketing has been an interesting one. I've got two finance degrees. I'm a CFA charter holder. 10 years ago, if you had told me that I would be working in a marketing function or marketing capacity for a self storage company, I would've laughed at you.

I started my career in investment consulting in Atlanta. From there really pursued a career in investment management. I moved up this way to the Philadelphia area about 10 years ago from graduate school. Got my MBA from the Wharton School. I was interested in buy side equity analysis. Really fascinated by equity analysis, getting into businesses to create value, identifying, quantifying that value, looking for opportunities.

But as luck or bad luck may have it, I was graduating in 2009 with my MBA in the depths of the credit crisis. A lot of us had to pivot and be pretty open minded with the kinds of opportunities we were exploring. So low and behold, a self storage real estate investment trust at the time, we were then called U-Store-It, was looking to hire some people to join a project team to source capital for the company in the depths of the credit crisis.

I did that as a short-term opportunity to get some experience, build my resume, and serve as a launch pad for other things. But from that I was able to work with our CEO at the time pretty closely, and at the end of that project he gave me an opportunity to stick around and work for the company.

It was intended to be a short-term arrangement. He was going to help me find an opportunity, give me a great recommendation, but I never looked. Part of it was just I was enamored by what an incredible business, and this is going to sound ridiculous ... But what an incredible business self storage is. Then being able to work with people who have continued to give me different opportunities.

I started out sourcing capital. Spent some time after that working as an operations analyst for the CEO. Spent some time on the investment team after that. Spent a couple of years as vice president of finance supporting our CFO with capital markets activities, leading investor relations. Then made the natural transition to marketing.

Bill: Yeah. It's perfect.

Daniel: Exactly.

Bill: That's the way everybody does it, right? Yeah right.

Daniel: So, my path has been unconventional but I think a lot of it just whenever there's opportunity opening the door and being open minded.

Bill: Right.

Daniel: But yeah.

Bill: What a path, and for those who primary think of self storage as consumers storing their stuff. You mentioned the investor side. You mentioned the not into the third-party management side. The business model at CubeSmart and perhaps in other places is a blend. Is it not of managing of other people's property, acquiring property, corporate owned and launched. Can you comment a little bit on what lies beneath?

Daniel: Yeah. It's a fascinating business because it's a really hybrid business in many ways. We are a real estate and investment trust. Most of our revenue comes in the form of rent payments that we collect from our customers who are renting space from us in a real estate transaction, or signing a lease. But it's a ... Unlike an office building or a retail strip center, our customers primarily are consumers.

This is largely a B2C business and a pretty fragmented one at that. I mean, we unlike other REITs, we have a very deep, robust operational infrastructure. We've got 2,500 teammates around the country, 1,000 locations. You have relatively short lengths of stay. So, the customers are always moving in and out, so you need a very robust customer capture and operational infrastructure to support the business.

You get a lot of really interesting business decision dynamics that come into play and make our business surprisingly complex and interesting from an operations perspective but also from a marketing perspective. Little things like because we're a real estate business, we have a finite amount of space to rent. If I'm generating more demand for widgets, I can't just make more widgets to sell.

Bill: Add another floor.

Daniel: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, I got to maximize or we have to maximize the economic efficiency of the limited space that we have to offer. So it creates a lot of very interesting and complex data challenges and opportunities for what we're trying to accomplish.

Bill: I can imagine. So, your path has taken you here into this VP of marketing role. You've been on this side of the house for I think three or four years at this point. For someone who comes at this from a finance and a real estate background, what is it about marketing leadership and about whether its situational characteristics of this business or just the general demand stack and everything else that ... How's this connecting for you? What causes you to embrace this and thrive in it? How does it work with how your mind works?

Daniel: Yeah. That's a great question. I have to ask myself the same thing. Yeah. So I mentioned a moment ago when talking about my own progression, I used to be so focused on a career in investment management because I was really intrigued by value. How businesses create value, what types of businesses create more value, how to value those businesses, understanding the value drivers, dissect them, develop an investment thesis.

What I've discovered by pursuing different opportunities along the way is that I really enjoy much more than evaluation a company or valuing a business. I much prefer to create value and communicate value. So the great thing about what I'm doing here, what we're doing as a company, this is a real business. We have real customers with real stories.

People need storage when they're going through a very difficult life transition. They're getting married, they're getting divorced, they're having children, they're getting a new job, and we provide a valuable service to these people at a pivotal moment in their lives. So to be able to contribute to those customer journeys and to create value for them and then to ultimately create value for our shareholders and continue to refine our mousetrap and deepen our competitive advantages that help grow the company.

I get a lot of energy from all of that. Now that I reflect upon my path it's funny because I'm shocked that this wasn't my initial interest to begin with.

Bill: From the beginning.

Daniel: Yeah.

Bill: Funny. You mentioned some of the category dynamics here and obviously there's a box that has little boxes and you rent them and try to fill them and revenue maximization points and other things. This is podcast called Real-World Branding. We're here to talk about branding in part. So, what's the role of the brand in a category that one might, at first blush, consider to be overwhelmingly functional or promotional?

You see everywhere, "First month free" offer. There's a lot of offers here. There's a lot of almost direct response communications. What's the role of the brand?

Daniel: Yeah. It's funny. I think your description of function is actually kind. At the end of the day, it's a pretty plain, simple product. I mean, we are selling, or renting in our case, three corrugated metal walls, concrete floor, a roll up door, and a light bulb. That's what we're selling at the end of the day. So it's not a terribly ... It's not an exciting product for people. Self storage is not something that people want.

Bill: Right.

Daniel: It's not an aspirational purchase. It's something that they need. I mentioned they need it when they're going through a life transition. Oftentimes, it's a very difficult time. We think about the customers journey almost like scaling a mountain. It is not pleasant. It's tough. You have to push yourself. The payoff is really at the end when you've scaled the mountain and you're at the summit.

For us, brand is really important in helping soften the inevitable perception of the product and the service as a difficult thing that they have to go through as part of another logistical challenge or disruption that's happening in their life. You have to take the day off or get your friends to help you over the weekend. There are a lot of hurdles and it's not always pleasant.

We want to soften that experience and the perception of the experience and help focus on the end, getting to that summit, having a more organized space at home, being in your new space, opening a new door, turning a new chapter on your life. Brand helps us convey that.

Then practically from a customer, capture perspective it is tough because brand equity in our business, and I'll admit it's fairly illusive. It's a low ... It's need based, but it's a low transaction frequency business. This is not something that people think about that often. Half of our customers have never used self storage before.

Bill: Probably won't again.

Daniel: That's right. Those who have used it may have been five or 10 years. So the reality is if you ask someone on the street to name a handful of self storage companies, they can't do it.

Bill: Right.

Daniel: For the most part.

So often it's not about building that unaided recall, that brand awareness, that top of mind awareness. It's about building and establishing a brand expectation that's a bit of an undercurrent. So when someone's deeper in the funnel, they're looking for storage, and they're looking on say the search engine results page. They see the CubeSmart link. It clicks. It's like, "Oh yeah. I've seen that beautiful location on the corner," or, "I've seen that YouTube ad. I've seen that billboard or the signage." That's often where the brand comes in to play. The aided recall.

Once we're in the conversation with the customer, quickly establishing and conveying our value proposition and competitive difference. The brand is really the vehicle through which we do that.

Bill: Right. Right. To that end, this is a brand that has had its own innings as the game has unfolded. Could you speak to us a bit about that and walk us through the brand platform and brand promise? I think there's been newly released internally ... We'll talk about culture in a minute, which is so palpable and strong here. But in to the marketplace under the creative platform of ‘it’s what's inside that counts’ as a line. But could you walk us through the recent history of the brand platform and the process to getting to where we are today in terms of what's out there now?

Daniel: Yeah. It's a great question. It's an interesting path too. I kind of reflect on it. We rebranded from U-Store-It to CubeSmart seven years ago. That was a big decision. It was very different in our space. When you look across the self storage sector, there are a lot of very utilitarian terms associated with a product that make their way into the brand. So secure, safe, space.

Bill: Store.

Daniel: Store. Even our old brand U-Store-It. I mean, there were hundreds ... I wouldn't say hundreds, but dozens of derivations of U-Store-It the different companies were using. There was a practical business challenge and that we did not have control over or protection over that brand.

So as we were growing and scaling the business, we needed a brand that we owned. As we were building equity in the brand and putting resources behind making ourselves known, those efforts weren't for not or weren't being expropriated by other businesses who were basically using the same name down the street.

Bill: Sure.

Daniel: But also U-Store-It was a very ... Something straight out of the '70s. It was very utilitarian, stale, and boring. But it was also diametrically opposed to our budding service model at the time. U-Store-It really puts the onus on the customer. U-Store-It, you do it. Here's the key. You take care of your things. That's really not the tone or the message that we wanted to convey.

So we rebranded to CubeSmart. I won't walk through that entire rebrand process, but with really an eye toward being a break out brand in the space and creating a broader umbrella under which we could communicate more value and more active value creation and service for our customers.

Fast forward. The past couple of years or over the past several years since we've rebranded, we have struggled to really find a common voice and to balance the functional with the emotional. So we've had various campaigns and creative efforts. Every time we go to write a creative brief it's been challenging to really articulate what exactly is it that makes CubeSmart different? What is the CubeSmart difference? What's at the heart of our value proposition?

So, we really took a step back and had a very large concerted effort internally and externally with Finch Brands, our partner, to really articulate, define, conduct the necessary research and build a proper brand foundation that would allow us to streamline our creative efforts and really provide a more cohesive shared understanding of what CubeSmart stood for internally and externally.

So I'm happy to walk through that process if you like.

Bill: Or just talk a little bit about maybe where we all landed and what's significant about it from your perspective.

Daniel: Yeah. So the tagline, ‘It’s what's inside that counts,’ is something that came from we started with a lot of internal research and focus groups, interviewing stakeholders, interviewing our customers, focus groups of our customers, surveys. What it kept coming back to is what the customer is going through when they need self storage. Then what they're using it for, right?

We may be, like I said, renting three metal walls, concrete floor, and a roll up door, but at the end of the day, it's what's inside that counts. For the customer an extension of their home. They're putting things that matter dearly, oftentimes, to them in the space. It's what's behind the door, the customer's story, that really matters and is ultimately driving their decision to choose CubeSmart.

So keeping that as a focus for us, making the customer aware of our commitment and our genuine care and understanding and empathy for everything that they're going through. That's where the double entendre really comes into play. It's ultimately what's inside our teammates that makes the difference.

When we boil this down and we think about a brand structure, the core idea is really more heart. CubeSmart difference is that we've got more heart at CubeSmart.

Bill: It rhymes!

Daniel: It does rhyme, thank you, Finch Brands. We care enough about the things that matter to the customer to take the actions to offer a differentiated service that addresses those needs.

So our customers, as I've mentioned, they're going through a lot. It's a stressful time. Sometimes a warm smile is enough to make the difference. So we care about that in store experience, the customer service. We have more than caretakers in our stores. They're active customer service agents who are helping our customers. So customer service is a core pillar that we focus on because it matters.

Cleanliness. Again, this is an extension of someone's home. They're keeping things that are near and dear to them in the space, and they need to be as comfortable using their space as they would be walking into their own living room and keeping it as clean. So we have very detailed inspection checklist that we work through when we're preparing a space for a customer to move into.

Then ultimately, security. People are emotionally tied to their things, and they're walking away from them. They're leaving their things in their storage space and they need to be confident and have the peace of mind that they've made the right decision leaving their things with the right company.

So at the end of the day, yeah, we have more heart at CubeSmart. We care about the things that matter to the customer. Ultimately, service, cleanliness, security. That effectively is the brand structure.

Bill: Yeah. ‘It's what's inside that counts’ also eludes, and you made the point, let's go there now about the unique and distinctive, which I guess is redundant, qualities of this company and this team. Your colleagues, be they in corporate roles or out in our individual locations are called teammates. That means something beyond just a designation.

Daniel: Right.

Bill: We were struck. I remember the first day we came. You walk in here and you're like, "Wow. They had a good architect. They had a good designer. This is a pretty neat place." Then the deeper you go, the more people you meet, there's a real feeling here. There's a real depth of feeling about culture and about what's inside.

So if you could maybe, first of all, take us through some of the cultural touchstones here. The also speak to the role of teammate engagement in the full realization of the brand strategy, both as a place to work and a place to share, but also as a vehicle to serving our customers as best as we possibly can.

Daniel: Yeah. That's a great question.

Bill: I'm full of great questions today.

Daniel: Yeah. Exactly.

Bill: Thank you.

Daniel: It is. It's true. One of the reasons that I've been here so long ...

Bill: Yeah. You thought you were going to be here a couple months.

Daniel: I never submitted a resume or a job application to another place despite the fact the arrangement was that it would be a short-term gig. My CEO would actively help me look for something else. But this is a special place. Yeah. I mean, we have a strong strategy house internally that establishes a clear vision for the company. The vision that we have with our relationships and each other. Values that support that. A strong central mission. But it's deeper than that. It's the people.

We have bright, smart, genuinely good people here, and that's really been at the heart of everything we've done. We extend that genuine care, and it's articulated clearly in our mission statement. But that genuine care is the central theme.

We've extended that to our customer service efforts. Many years ago or several years ago we introduced an internal wow function. That was a very strong rallying cry for the company surprising and delighting our customers, leaving customers with a wow impression. So walking to a storage facility and having carpet under your feet and bright colors and a store teammate who actually stands up and walks around the counter and shakes your hand. It's just not what you'd expect from a self storage experience.

We've taken a lot of pride in that. But we've still struggled to ... Historically, we had struggled to balance that customer service pride and focus that was so entrenched and ingrained in everything we did with a clear articulation of value proposition. The brand work, I would say, helped bring all of that together.

So when we rolled, ‘It's what's inside that counts,' out to our store teammates and our teammates at hCube, the response was tremendously positive. I think it really galvanized that common sense of purpose across the company, and further reinforced what we've all known was inside of us culturally. But this more clearly articulates and expresses it both internally and externally.

The power and importance of that not only in our working relationships with each other because we do think of each other as customers, internal customers whom we're serving. But ultimately, it strengthens our ability to support and serve our customers across the country. So the way we think about our teammates, and the way they think about themselves is that we're all brand advocates. The truest expression of the CubeSmart brand is the in-store experience that the customer has.

Bill: Right.

Daniel: That warm smile, that greeting, that interaction they have with the manager, that's what CubeSmart's all about. So to the extent that we as a marketing function can help articulate what CubeSmart means centrally and help amplify that throughout the company and reinforce it, it's ultimately in support of that in-store experience where the rubber really hits the road.

Bill: Yeah. Roll of the brand, just as we think about it in the B2B side of the house, third-party management, the ability to acquire, to manage properties from folks who may have one of these in random towns. Is the brand play into that endeavor as well?

Daniel: It does. Yeah, it does. So in a few different ways. So you mentioned third-party management, and it's true. We own a little more than half of our properties. The other half we're managing on behalf of third-party owners.

I mean, that could be an institutional investor that owns a portfolio of a hundred self storage facilities or it could be a small, a local doctor who has an investment in a storage property. His cousin's been or her cousin's been managing the facility and now it's time to look for professional management. I think one of the big benefits of the brand is conveying value to that owner so that they understand what it means to be a CubeSmart ... What it means for their location to be a CubeSmart store.

Bill: Right.

Daniel: Right. What does that mean for their customers and how we're positioning their store in the marketplace and how we're treating their customers. There's a lot of benefit in that message. But then also when you roll it up and you think about the communication of our value proposition on the third part management side to our perspective partners.

The brand that we position for consumers has a lot of reach and extends to the B2B side of the business as well. ‘It's what's inside that counts,’ speaks to the fact that we genuinely care about the interest of our partners. We take a partnership approach to third party management, and every one of them has unique business circumstances and needs. So we take less of a cookie cutter approach, I would say, to third-party management than others in the space may. I believe that our brand really conveys that.

Bill: We've stayed longer than we promised we would. This has been wonderful. As we break, you talked about your journey and your path. Are there any words of wisdom that you'd want to share with those who are inspired by what you've come through and the chooses that you've made along the way? Are there any words to live by that are important to who you are as a person and a professional that you want to leave us with?

Daniel: Yeah. I think I use the word inspire. I think it's really about finding that inspiration. I mention for me it was about finding that I loved creating value, communicating value, but the inspiration for all of that comes down to our customers. So just to come back to the brand work and something we've done here is really bring our customers to life. So we've actually interviewed many of our customers and have documented their stories. We've converted some of those to videos.

For me personally, as well as teammates around the company, what that does, just seeing what a customer is going through and why they use us. For me to feel and see the impact of my day to day efforts, impact the real life of a customer, is incredibly inspirational and motivating. So my advice is to not lose sight of the end goal and the ultimate impact that your efforts are having. That will guide you whether it be professionally or in terms of pursuing a specific project or business outcome.

Bill: Yeah. If you ever get the late night Sunday, "God. Do I have to do this again?" I mean, if you think about the people whose lives you're touching and the impact that your work makes. To your point, folks coming to through transitions, some of which are happy but all of which are different. You could certainly do worse than focuses on the impact, the positive impact, that a company like this has. So Daniel Ruble, VP of marketing at CubeSmart. Thank you for welcoming us in here and for sharing your insight and your experiences.

Daniel: Thank you, Bill. It's been a pleasure.

Bill: Thank you to Daniel Ruble for his time and his insight. I encourage ... I guess they don't want people to just drop in, but I do encourage, if you have the opportunity to get a little bit closer to what CubeSmart does from a cultural perspective and to study the company a little bit. I encourage you to do it. It's a really special group of people in a category that, again, may come off as being primarily transactional or promotional. They've built a really distinctive culture and a brand, certainly, and we're privileged to know them in the way that we do.

Three ways as always to help us here at Real-World Branding and all have to do with easy things to do on your end. Hopefully if you are so inclined. One is to click subscribe in the podcast store of your choice. Make sure you don't miss a one. We try to deliver content weekly. Various forms. If you subscribe, you'll make sure that you don't miss that next great interview or hopefully some though provoking ideas from me on off weeks. So we'd love that.

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Lastly, let's go with this dialogue. Let's keep it going on Twitter probably is the best way. @BillGullan or @FinchBrands. Love ideas for future guests or future topics. Love feedback on shows that we've completed. Generally, just like to get to know the folks who spend a little bit of time with us each week.

So in that spirit, with hopes high for Super Bowl 52, I'll sign off from the cradle of liberty.

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