A couple months back we took our first big trip as a two-child family. We’d camped, we’d road tripped, but this was a week of hotel rooms in totally new place sandwiched by late-night flights and overnight layovers.
Our destination was Ohio where my parents were living. But when illness changed their plans a bit and meant they’d only be around for half of that week, we decided to put a few miles on the rental and visit some friends in central New York.
Syracuse, to be exact.
We met at Clark Reservation and had a wonderful hike with the kiddos quickly becoming friends and scrambling over rocks together.
We’d worked up quite the appetite.
After a quick conversation in and around our children’s eating habits, we decided on pizza and my friend Ryan knew just the place: Robbie’s.
Now, to be clear, Ryan doesn’t go “way back” with Robbie nor do their kids play on the same soccer team, but the way he described this pizzeria’s namesake made me think they were much closer than a typical customer-proprietor relationship should be.
But we ordered the pies, hopped in the car, and headed down the road to pick it up.
It took approximately 12 seconds after entering the restaurant to see figure things out. In a moment that’s much better told than written, here’s how it went.
Pizzas in hand, I walked out with a cheesy grin on my face and thoughts swirling in my head. When I got back in the car I turned to Kim and said,
“That was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had…”
And it genuinely was.
As I think back on it, three marketing/branding/experience lessons keep coming back to me.
#1) A Brand Isn’t a Campaign
I want you to read some of these reviews, comments, posts, etc. about Robbie T’s:
“Best pizza place I’ve ever been to. And I love pizza. The owner is always incredible and engages you in conversation.”
“First time to Robbie ‘s. Food was delicious. What really makes Robbie’s is Robbie himself. What a great guy. That’s how you run a business. Will be going back for sure.”
“Robbie T had pizza sent to my moms house when he heard my dad passed away. My story is not unique. He and people like him are what make me miss Jamesville. Thank you Robbie T”
“Just stopped in for the first time in almost 3 years (relocated to Texas). Robbie recognized me immediately and treated me like an old friend. Then he insisted on coming outside to the car to meet my family. The food here is great and the customer service is unrivaled. Robbie could write a book on how to treat people.”
“Now when I come home I make every effort to stop by for a Buffalo chicken sub or Calzone. He always recognizes me and my family. Love the place love the guy!”
“Seriously THE BEST customer service I’ve had in my entire life. We just walked in and feel like family. Thank you Robbie for being an inspiration to the rest of us in the industry! Keep being you and keep being awesome! Oh yeah and the food is GREAT!”
This list, quite literally, goes on and on and on.
This isn’t a campaign, this isn’t a show, this is Robbie.
#2 People Buy from People
This is one of the key elements of Marketing Exeriments’ creed and it’s definitely seen it in my own work, but it wasn’t until that moment I truly understood the depth of that concept.
Search for “pizza in syracuse” and you’ll find dozens and dozens of restaurants. But Robbie’s customers will drive past those dozens to visit him. Because given the choice between buying a pizza from a bored teenager at Domino’s or a getting a smile and wave and enthusiastic welcome from Robbie, it’s a no brainer when you’re a normally functioning human.
#3) Leadership + Culture
And it was in that moment I started to understand the importance of the leadership + culture combination. The people are the brand, the people are the product, the people are the drivers of the experience.
If leadership is doing it for money or fame or power or whatever, that will trickle down and influence the rest of the company. That leadership-mindset trickledown is the culture and, in turn, becomes the product. The longer that trickledown, the harder it is to control.
It’s one of the reason I feel small ski areas have, perhaps, the greatest marketing potential of any ski brand because they still have the opportunity to let their skiers buy from the people in charge.
It sounds so sappy to say this, but that pizza-buying experience was life-changing. To see someone so genuine creating a buying experience like Robbie did has completely changed my perspective on many aspects of marketing and branding.
If you’re ever in the Syracuse area, head south just outside the main city to Jamesville and experience it for yourself. You won’t regret it.
Oh, and the pizza was delicious too.
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