As an English major at Stanford, Rich Kylberg challenged himself to read the sacred scriptures of over 90% of the world’s population—including the Bhagavad Gita, the Torah, the Quran, Dhammapada, Tao and the Gospels. In addition to gaining an “empathy and understanding for others,” he believes these foundational texts are a prerequisite for becoming a good brand storyteller.
Now in his seventh year as VP of Corporate Communications at Arrow Electronics, Kylberg is still a believer in the power of storytelling, having overseen one of the more epic stories in business to business marketing. In our conversation, he breaks down the essential steps such as conducting employee research, defining your beliefs not your products, translating an internal rallying cry to an external promise, finding an empathetic hero outside the company and perhaps most importantly, building something that demonstrates your brand promise. It’s quite a story.
What was the situation like when you arrived at Arrow?
When I joined about seven years ago, Arrow was a great company with about $14 billion in revenue worldwide. But it faced challenges. Some of those challenges came from the fact that it had acquired over 130 companies and really hadn’t asked those companies to fall in line with a common brand framework. Arrow was kind of an anonymous, successful company. The decision was made that the company would do better if it had a common identity. And that was pretty hard because the breadth of activity that Arrow did was so wide—it wasn’t like you could say, “Hey, we make shoes” or “We’re a pizza parlor.” There was all this different activity and we needed to find a common language, a rallying cry for the employees.
So how did you find your rallying cry?
We reached out to employees via a survey that wasn’t easy to fill out. It was little boxes that asked “How do you describe this company to your spouse? How do you describe Arrow to your kids?” 25% of the company replied, which is a big number in terms of responses, because they wanted to be a part of the solution. When we read through those 3,000 responses that came to us, in six languages, we started to hear the same words repeated by people that worked here. You heard “we help, we work with, we partner with.” It was always about trying to make a brighter future and from that we were able to distill this idea of “guiding innovation forward”. We took our values to market rather than our products or in our services. This idea resonated with our employees and it didn’t matter whether you were from China, Argentina, Europe or Texas. These words resonated, and the entire company was able to come together around a few sets of words that didn’t say what we did. They didn’t say what we sold, they said what we believed in.
You elected not to use those words externally. Why?
One of the challenges we had was that “guiding innovation forward” resonated so well with people that they wanted to make those words external. We had to say, “No, there’s a difference between a marketing message and an internal values message.” So, we had to translate. I think some companies go forward and they create external messaging in the marketplace before they actually concern themselves with what the employees will tolerate or be inspired by. And those messages tend not to succeed.
So, where did you end up with your external message?
When we looked for our external message, we took this idea of guiding innovation forward and we really looked at what the company does. We realized that with 100,000 customers and suppliers worldwide, we really had one of the world’s largest knowledge bases of technology usage, so we could tell people what the next coffee maker or tablet would look like.
We were able to get wisdom from that, and that wisdom manifested itself in something we call “Five Years Out.” People would ask us, “What on earth is Five Years Out?” Which for us was great, because we didn’t want something so clear. We wanted an invitation to talk about our company and we would say: “We believe we are five years out because we have the ability to see out on the horizon of technology. Today, we’re working on things that you’ll be seeing in 2023 and if that’s of interest to your company give us a call.”
How did you bring “Five Years Out” to life?
A big problem for us was sharing specific proof points, because a lot of our relationships are with government entities or military or people that are in competitive situations. We can’t share insights that would disrupt a certain marketplace for a partner, because that will violate all sorts of confidentiality requirements. So, we decided to just go build something ourselves. Let’s build something that demonstrates our heart, our belief system, and our technological prowess.
How did you decide what to build?
We found a young guy whose father was in a race car in Mexico and crashed, becoming a paraplegic. This little boy watched his father become a paraplegic but became a very successful racecar driver. Then, the son also crashes. He’s hospitalized for six or nine months. He comes out of the hospital. He gets back in his Indy car for the first time and he’s down at the Disney World Track in Orlando, and he hits the wall. This little boy who saw his father paralyzed is now a quadriplegic. His racing days are done. He goes on in life, becomes a successful business person and goes on to own his own racing team. His name is Sam Schmidt. Arrow set out to build a car that Sam Schmidt could drive as a quadriplegic: the S.A.M. car. S.A.M. stands for “semi-autonomous motorcar.”
How did you let the world know about Sam and the S.A.M car?
Sam drives this race car around the track at Indy, he drove that car on the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, he got it up to 190 miles per hour, went head-to-head in a race against Mario Andretti. But last year he accomplished the most amazing thing in this entire endeavor. Sam Schmidt got his driver’s license and took his kids for a Sunday drive. The kind of thing we take for granted every single day. Now this initiative has been featured on “Jay Leno’s Garage,” ESPN and “NBC Nightly News.” We’ve had over 2 billion earned media impressions on this. We guide innovation forward. We’re five years out, and we work on technology to benefit humanity.
Was there doubt or pushback when you wanted to get this campaign going?
Yup! The only thing that’s guaranteed is that you’re going to come across naysayers. There are just so many intangibles to it. It gets back to risk. You have to say, “Is this a reasonable risk?” With all that risk in mind, you know what’s worse than not succeeding? Not trying. If you don’t try, nothing will happen and as a marketer, you’ve got to make things happen. I think the bigger risk is to not do anything. That’s just a ticking time bomb for the end of any marketer’s life.