Finding Your Brand’s North Star
Sometimes, the big ideas sort of just happen. That said, some magical brand moment isn’t going to just appear without some planning or effort—but sometimes, some small bit of genuine authenticity can grow into a brand pearl. That’s part of what happened with White Ops, and on this episode, Dan Lowden, CMO, discusses how.
White Ops is fueled by their purpose-driven mission to disrupt the illicit economy built by cybercriminals; that mission has caught fire and stands as a sterling example of why purpose is a must. Tune in to hear about how they formed their mission, how they show it to the world, why they shun the hard sell, and how an overarching purpose came from a simple t-shirt that just read “human.”
Full Transcription: Drew Neisser in Conversation with Dan Lowden
Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers. We’re live here in Las Vegas, Nevada. My guest today is Dan Lowden, who is the CMO of White Ops, a company you will learn about in a moment. We’re in CES because, well, Dan and I have known each other for a while and we both happened to be here. So, first of all, Dan, welcome to the show.
Dan Lowden: Thanks for having me, Drew. Really appreciate you being here and taking the time with me.
Drew Neisser: I’m excited to hear the story. First of all, give us a sense, really quickly, as short as possible, what is White Ops?
Dan Lowden: White Ops is a cybersecurity company and we focus on protecting enterprises, brands from sophisticated bot attacks.
Drew Neisser: Bots. It’s about bots. Just curious, why are you here at CES?
Dan Lowden: Right now, these sophisticated bot attacks are becoming more and more severe. They’re attacking brands, they’re attacking advertising campaigns, they’re attacking websites, form fills in a way that is very secretive. We’re here to educate brands, CMOs, CSOs, and the like, that this is a problem that they think might be in 1% to 2% of the traffic that they see. In essence, it may maybe 10, 20, 30% of the traffic they see.
Drew Neisser: Uh oh, that’s a lot. So you’re here because everybody’s here. One hundred eighty thousand people are here and some of those are marketers and some of those might want to talk to you about what you do. That’s cool. I wanted to do one other thing, I always do this, Dan and I met through the CMO Club, we’re both members of the New York chapter, so, hey, Pete, shout out to the CMO Club. Anyway. All right, so, again, we’re in Vegas and we’re talking about bots, which is interesting because in the world of cybersecurity, we know there are a lot of companies, there are a lot of aspects of cybersecurity, and we know that the bad guys are pretty darn sophisticated. Talk a little bit more about the problem that you face in the sense that maybe your customers don’t even know they have the problem.
Dan Lowden: Sure. I’ll give you an example. There was a major takedown of a large botnet organization that White Ops led with the FBI, with Google and Facebook. This botnet group had taken over 1.8 million consumer machines, were sending 10 billion fake interactions per day, and collecting a substantial amount in the tens of millions of dollars on a monthly basis and nobody really knew about it. We worked with law enforcement and, as I mentioned, Google and Facebook. This group was out of the Ukraine and Russia, and within a very short period of time, those folks thought they were untouchable and went to the Far East on a surfing trip.
The FBI and local law enforcement were waiting for them at an airport and now they’re in jail in Brooklyn. Within hours, those 10 billion fake interactions that were happening through this group went to zero. All this was under the table. No one saw this happening. They look like consumers; they act like consumers. They were filling out forms, they were clicking on ads, they were going to websites, and we stopped them and put them in jail. So, from that standpoint, this is happening out there and we’re here to educate people about this problem.
Drew Neisser: The way they’re generating revenue is by pretending to be humans that are clicking on ads, essentially, and that’s the problem. As a result of that, it creates this currency and so the Googles, the Facebooks and all these advertise websites are actually paying out to criminals instead of getting real customers.
Dan Lowden: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s a $6 billion problem today and this is all through programmatic advertising. White Ops’ mission is to stop these folks, to recognize whether it’s a human or a bot and stop the bot activity so the payment doesn’t go to the bad guys. From that perspective, that’s just one use case, you know, advertising. They’re also going to websites and filling out forms, they’re buying inventory, they’re clicking on likes, they’re voting on their favorite music, even though it’s a bot. They’re influencing many things in e-commerce, many things on websites today that are impacting campaigns. And again, this is where you might think it might be 1% to 2%, but it’s substantially higher because these sophisticated bots look and act like humans.
Drew Neisser: Wow, okay so, from a business and marketing challenge, who’s your target and what are the challenges that you face in terms of engaging those folks?
Dan Lowden: We’re a cybersecurity company, so we work with a lot of the security teams, the CSOs and the like. But this is much bigger than a cybersecurity problem. This is a brand problem. This is impacting customer experience. This is impacting the data that marketers collect because it’s not clean data. It’s data that is filled with bot activity that you think is a human but is not, so it’s really become an enterprise and a brand problem.
So that’s, again, why we spend a lot of time with digital advertisers, with marketers, and a lot of security folks, to help protect them against these types of attacks. They are sending millions of bots towards websites and trying to take over accounts or fill out forms in any way possible that they can, and they go where the money is. We are trying to disrupt that, and by putting this group 3ve (pronounced “Eve”) in jail for 40-year sentences, it’s showing that we can have an impact. It’s not easy, because these guys are well-funded. They’re very smart and they’re spread out all over the world. They have two-week sprint cycles. They have executive teams and they’re the bad guys, so it’s really difficult for the brands to stop this themselves.
Drew Neisser: If you were to look at—and I’ve done this exercise—100 different cybersecurity company’s websites, what you would generally see is the FUD factor loud and clear. Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. There are bad guys out there, and we have to protect against them. And in fact, we just spent four minutes talking about bad guys, but I know that’s not where you ended up with your story, which we’ll get to. As the Head of Marketing, you say, “Okay, we understand the problem. It’s a big problem. We have a lot of education to do. We could really focus on the problem and scare the crap out of people or…”
Dan Lowden: We can keep it human. That’s been our focus. So many cybersecurity companies out there—there’s over 3000 of them—talk about their technology. They talk about AI and machine learning and things like that. We talk about keeping it human. There are all these sophisticated bot attacks. We want brands, we want enterprises, to engage with humans because that way they’re going to be more successful. So, we built this campaign around “keeping it human.”
If you go to our website, if you go to events, if you go to speaking roles, we’re all wearing “human” shirts. That’s every employee in the company. We’ve featured all employees in the company on our website and it’s turned into much more than that. All of our customers want to wear the “human” shirt because they want to be a part of this movement. Members of the press, the analysts, our partners, and the like. They really feel this “keeping it human” or this human aspect of what we do is really, really important. They want to join in the fight, they want to ensure that they are giving the best real user experience possible, so we have now today over 200 customers that have joined in on the fight. It’s exciting because it’s different. People feel passionate about it, feel passionate about the mission, and want to see an impact and are seeing an impact.
Drew Neisser: Part of the reason that I wanted to do this show is because the language is really interesting. “Keep it human.” On the surface it’s, “Yeah, well, of course, keep it human,” but it’s from you guys and the whole point is that if it’s a bot, it’s not a human. So it’s a positive way of talking about the problem, which is, the things that are causing all this fraud out there are bots. For “keep it human,” we’re solving the problem, so it’s really some very rich language and I’m going to pause there, because when Dan and I first talked about it, initially, it was T-shirts and it was a very clever line. What I love is that you’ve taken that line that was very clever and looked cool and T-shirts and really built it into a purpose. So stay with us. We’ll come right back.
Drew Neisser: All right, we’re back and I want to focus on “keep it human.” This is really interesting and I’m going to go on a little lecture moment. The difference between a tag line and a purpose-driven story statement: the tag line is a line that you put up there that you can’t use to motivate employees, it just sounds good. A tag line is something that describes your company in some way, and sometimes they are purpose-driven story statements, but you can tell the difference because when you can take the line and change an employee evaluation because of it or change your website and the way you present your employees, and even your customers want to participate, then you’re at something. You called it a “movement,” which I love. It’s really about a purpose and not just an attribute or a clever bit of words. It’s interesting to me in this case because you started with it as an interesting bit of words and then it’s evolved into a purpose. Talk about that.
Dan Lowden: Yeah, it really has. You know, the mission is a big mission. It’s to protect the integrity of the Internet by disrupting the economics of cybercrime. When we say that, people go, “Wow. Okay. Yeah. Give me an example of how you’ve actually done it.” Well, you know, we have. For the first time ever, the amount of ad tech fraud has actually decreased. It’s still a substantial number but it’s on the downturn. That’s a great thing to look at.
We did a report with the ANA called “The Bot Baseline,” where we work with a lot of different brands and we do the measurement, we put a tag on their site, and we’re able to measure the amount of ad fraud that’s going out there. We’re able to actually see that it’s starting to decrease because we’ve put a substantial number of our tags out there in the universe. Today, we determine the humanity of over one trillion interactions per week, soon to be one trillion interactions per day, where we’re determining whether it’s a human or a bot and less than five milliseconds. We work with all the large Internet providers and the like, so it’s really become a standard out there and a way for us to really recognize this activity.
Again, it started with a T-shirt around “keep it human” or “human,” but it’s become much more than that. It’s become ingrained in the culture. It’s not just White Ops people getting behind the mission. We have people all over the globe behind it. Drew, you saw it in the Halloween parade in New York City where we had a float with “keep it human” as a part of it. So we’re really having a fun time with it, but we really believe in it because we know we’re having an impact.
Drew Neisser: Repeat the actual mission for me. Just tell me that line again.
Dan Lowden: You bet. We are all about protecting the integrity of the Internet by disrupting the economics of cybercrime.
Drew Neisser: Now this is the thing that I have going with purpose-driven story statements. The beauty of “keep it human.” How many of you who are listening to this show remember that language and how many of you remember the language that Dan said twice on this show? I still can’t remember that line and this is why, at least in some of the work that we’ve been doing, we put less emphasis on it. In fact, you can have that sentence anywhere you want, but no one will remember it and it doesn’t come to life without magical words like “keeping it human.” I just think it’s important to pause on it because everybody gets very, very excited about when they crystallize their mission and they put it in these long words that sound great. Well, they don’t sound great, they sound logical. But when you turn it into emotion and make it memorable, suddenly you have something that you can actually use to market.
Dan Lowden: You’re absolutely right. The mission is on our website. The mission is internal to the company and we share it with our customers. But “keep it human?” People get it right away and they want to be a part of that. It’s funny, you walk down the street with a “keep it human” or a “human” shirt on, people go, “I love that shirt” or “I love what that says,” because, you know, that’s the experience especially that brands want. They want that human engagement with their customers, with their prospects, and to build a personal relationship with them. With all these sophisticated bot attacks, that really gets messy, so our mission about “keeping it human,” it’s very simple. People get it, they like it and they want to join in on the party.
Drew Neisser: I love that. That reminds me, before we started just focusing on B2B, we worked with a kombucha brand and it was one of his strategic exercises. This brand was developed by this surfer dude who also had a chemical engineering degree, and he developed it because he didn’t like the taste of any of the other kombuchas and he was in his 50s and running low on energy, so the line that we came up with for his kombucha, it was called The Bu, was, “I like your energy.”
All of the folks who sampled the product would wear this line, “I like your energy,” and I still have that T-shirt. This was probably about five or six years ago and every time I wear it, people go, “I like your energy, too.” And it’s just funny, when you put a positive statement on your shirt and you wear it around people will engage with you. So what have been some of the surprises that have happened as a result of executing this campaign and rolling it out?
Dan Lowden: Yeah. So one of the biggest things is about our CEO, Tamer Hassan. He’s a former Blackhawk helicopter pilot, search and rescue in Afghanistan, and he’s just a really, really amazing guy. He was the one who originally with our detection team, discovered this 3ve botnet that took over so many machines. Because of that work, because of “keeping it human,” because of our mission, it was recognized by Fast Company, and Fast Company named Tamer the most creative person in business out of anybody out there, even the person who discovered ice and water on Mars. Tamer was #1. It was pretty amazing that a 140-person company that’s working with the largest Internet service providers, determining the humanity over one trillion interactions per week, was recognized by Fast Company because of this movement, because of “keeping it human.”
We’ve been recognized more and more. The team is being asked to go present across the globe at different events and speaking opportunities. We’re being highlighted in ways, that from a marketer’s perspective, are really positive because people are recognizing this is a unique story, that we’re doing something unique out there in a very crowded space and we’re having an impact. We’re here in the cybersecurity space to win. In most cases in cybersecurity, you play defense. With White Ops, we’re out there playing offense because we want to win. We want to stop the bad guys. We want to disrupt this process that the bad guys continue to win. We’re there to try to stop them and we’re having an impact and to me, that story resonates. The customers that we work with see the value in that, too, because they’re having a hard time with this. The more we can tell our story, the more we can educate enterprises and brands, the more we can do to help solve this problem. And to me, that’s a marketer’s dream.
Drew Neisser: Amazing. Okay, so I’m going to pause for a second. As I mentioned, we’re here in Las Vegas and we’re in Dan’s suite. Right in the middle of the recording, and this is what happens when you’re on remote, the hall started to burst with the vacuum cleaner noise. Anyway, these are the exciting parts of being a podcaster and recording live segments wherever you can. Anyway, we were talking about keeping it human. And that was a “keep it human” moment. What’s interesting to me as I listen you talk is that you could have spent a lot of time on the technology. And I bet there are a lot of people in the organization, when they first heard this idea, there might have been some who were naysayers who said, “Wait, we should be talking about the tech.”
Dan Lowden: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. There are brilliant people that are a part of White Ops. I mean, technical ability, what the product is, and how they build it to scale and change hourly because you have to have it built that way so that you stay ahead of the bad guys. There are brilliant people all around me, which is, for me, a wonderful place to be, but, you know, it’s all about telling those stories and the reason why I joined White Ops is because nobody really knew those stories. Only a few sets of customers were getting the benefit from it or knew some of the stories that I shared today.
To me, as a marketer, I’m here to go and create this great content and tell the stories of how we’ve helped customers over and over again and to me, that’s really, really exciting. Then to actually ask those customers to participate with us and tell the story together, that’s an even better way. That’s the marketer’s dream, it’s, if I say things in a certain way and it resonates, wonderful. But if our customers say things about how we’re helping them solve this problem, that’s the best of all worlds. Have your customers be your best advocate.
Drew Neisser: No doubt about that. We’re going to take a break and when we come back, we’re going to talk about that, because cultivating customer advocacy is really an important part of anything that B2B marketers do. You can’t succeed without customers behind you. So we’ll be right back.
Drew Neisser: We’re back, and you were talking a little bit about customer stories. It occurred to me that, and we don’t talk about this enough in B2B marketing, likability is really important. One of the interesting things about “keeping it human” is it sort of instantly says, “Wait, they’re not slinging tech at me, they’re not slinging product at me. They’re selling into a purpose and an idea at me. Maybe I like these guys.” I’m just wondering if before, after, if there’s been any kind of change in terms of the likelihood of a customer engaging with you.
Dan Lowden: Yeah, I think, with the “keep it human” theme, we’re very approachable. In all the conversations and all the education that we do, we do not believe in a hard sell in any way, shape, or form, especially in cybersecurity and the marketing world, because, you know, people are too busy today and they don’t want to be sold to. But if they hear these stories from customer advocates or they hear it from their peers that, “Hey, I had this problem and this company solved it,” there’s no better way to be able to expand and tell that story. It’s through those advocates.
So that’s a part of what we do. We want to make heroes of the companies we work with, and because we solve this problem for them, they’re going to be more successful in business. Marketers are going to be able to be more effective in driving real human engagement in business. Cybersecurity professionals are going to be able to protect the company better. If we make them successful, then they’re happy to go talk about it and share it with their peers. And when that happens, those peers start to call us because they’re having similar problems. We don’t necessarily have to go out to them. They start to come to us and that’s the best world.
Drew Neisser: When I think about some folks listening the show, they’re going to say, “Okay, that’s a nice line. I love the T-shirts. It’s fun.” By the way, Dan gave me one. Maybe I’ll auction it off, maybe I won’t. Send me a text with your bid and we’ll see. It’s kind of a cool shirt. Pretty special. Anyway, how do you get from a nice line to this is transforming the business, which we’ve talked about, to revenue. I can hear it, there’s the CEO or CFO saying, “That’s nice. Show me the money.” How are you measuring the impact of this program? I recognize that there are a lot of dimensions but show me the money.
Dan Lowden: From a standpoint of how we are leveraging the marketing mix to go tell the story, we’re measuring and tracking everything. What type of conversion rates do we see? If we send campaigns out, what kind of response do we get? And then how many of those, in essence, turn into meetings for sales. We’re all about brand leadership and telling the story and leading the industry, but it’s also important for us to try to help our sales team get in front of all the right people to tell the story to help them. We measure and track along the entire pipeline to make sure we’re being as effective as possible, and we try all different types of things.
One great example, and I’ve been doing this for a long time, we do all the most cutting edge, all different types of marketing, but we also do direct mail. We are finding it harder and harder in some ways to get in front of people, whether it’s through email or calls or digital, so we send a FedEx box with a “human” shirt in it and say, “We’d love for you to be a part of this mission. We’d love to share the stories of how we’ve helped others like you.” And we’ve had a tremendous response to it by simply sending out a FedEx package with a “human” shirt in it. There is a customer right now that we’re working with that is going to be a substantial win for the company just because of that FedEx package.
We’ve also done things like music events where we bring in a great up and coming band. It’s the cool factor and we do it with other partners and again, it’s not a hard sell, it’s an introduction to the company that says, “Hey, these guys are cool. They’re personable. I like them. I want to do business with them.” You can never underestimate that relationship. Everybody has a great time, a great experience. They’ll want to work with you if you have the right product, it solves the problem, and they like you more than anybody else.
Drew Neisser: Ah, the likability factor. So underestimated in B2B, so underestimated. Now, before all of you start sending T-shirts to all your prospects, you need an idea. You can’t just send a T-shirt with your logo on it. You’ve heard two, one that says, “I like your energy” and another that just says “human.” It starts a conversation. It cuts through. You don’t have to tell the whole story. That’s the thing. You have to start the conversation in a direction that is interesting to your prospect that you can pay off. It’s not that hard, but it is hard because you probably had a zillion other options and you weren’t sure this was going to work either, but you tried it and it. All right. As you think about this campaign, what were some of the lessons that you’ve learned and you could impart to others as they go about trying to replicate the success that you’ve had with “keep it human?”
Dan Lowden: Yeah, I mean, a lot of you’ve heard some of these things before, but being authentic is incredibly important. People can see right through if you are talking too much tech, using too many buzzwords, trying to oversell or sell too hard. It’s all about having a real conversation with people that they can relate to, that you can get their attention by “keep it human” or whatever other tagline you come up with. But it’s really having a conversation with them that resonates with them and then sharing how you’ve helped customers that have had similar problems to what they have and having those customers speak on your behalf. And if you start developing that en masse and it starts growing, then you have something really, really special there. I would say if you can pull that together as a marketer, the chances of your success in really helping the company go up substantially.
Drew Neisser: I still think you need a good T-shirt, too.
Dan Lowden: I would agree.
Drew Neisser: All right. Well, I’m going to add more. I think definitely authentic, obviously, you have to be true to who you are as a brand, but also you need to be able to articulate that. And that’s why I come back to this language and why language is so important to it. Obviously design is important to it too, but just having this language gave you a North Star that was easy for everyone in the organization to understand. And when you send that T-shirt out to your prospects, it’s pretty easy for them to understand too. “Bots aren’t human. We’re human. We’re fighting the battle. Let’s get on with it. Let’s do this together. Here are some other people who’ve done it.”
I think there’s a lot there and I know that this is something that I preach a lot, but I truly not only believe in it, it’s amazing to see how it works. In this case, again, I’m in a circle back to something I said earlier, part of the reason that I love this example is that you didn’t go all in at first. You had to sort of see it work and you put it out there, I think you did put it out there at an event, and it sort of caught on and it took over, and I’ve seen that. One of the things in my 12 steps, the last one, is a culture of experimentation. If you have an idea like this and you can sneak it out there at an event and then it suddenly gains traction, you almost have proof right there. It’s like you market tested it.
Dan Lowden: That’s right. Yeah, exactly. The other thing we saw, and again, we had some really unique pictures on our website of employees wearing the shirt, is that they got excited about it. We brought in a photographer to take pictures of the leadership team wearing the shirts, and then everybody wanted to participate. And then the photographs that came out of that were fantastic. It really got the company, the team members of White Ops, behind it as well, and that’s when it really started to get exciting. We knew we had something.
Drew Neisser: Perfect. I’m going to wrap up this episode, but you probably will see in the picture we take after we stop recording, a picture of both Dan and myself in our “human” shirts. That will be how we kept it human on this show. Anyway, I want to thank you all for listening. I’m going to really ask, if you enjoyed this episode, stop right now what you’re doing and go to iTunes or your favorite podcast channel and give us a five-star rating because this is a five-star episode. Anyway. Until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.