Branding Brilliants – Matti Vaininen

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Branding Brilliants – Matti Vaininen - Framme

'I’m striving for simplicity in many things. Striving for focus.' — Matti Vaininen, LeadDesk

Check out Branding Brilliants, our blog series where we talk to outstanding branding and marketing professionals. We talk about their work, brands and idealogy, how they got to where they are now, and what they learned along the way.

 There aren't too many Finns who have played (American) Football in one of the toughest places to compete as an athlete, the NCAA – the highest University level. Today we are talking to one of them.

Matti Vaininen is a well-educated marketer who has turned his American football scholarship and University studies into a kickass career in business. He has worked at Nike, and operated as a country manager at mobility company Bolt, before starting an influencer agency Hypement. From the influencer agency, he moved to one of the biggest creative agencies in Finland, hasan&partners as a Client Lead, and now he is pulling the strings as a CMO at LeadDesk.

Meanwhile, he’s been coaching small groups and PT sessions at a few wonderful Helsinki-based studios: Helsinki Core Trainers and now at Helsinki Athletic Lab. On top of that, if it wasn’t enough, he has a few more side hustles: one of the co-founders and owners of Nålla Kova Sooda, a novel Finnish hard seltzer company, and a co-founder, owner, advisor for growth & sales service company for marketing services called Woitto Oy, which is just getting rebranded. We believe he can warp time somehow and have more hours in the day than us.

Matti Vee, I’ve just checked your LinkedIn profile, and it’s impressive. I noticed that you’ve always had so many things going on at the same time. Could you tell me more about your career story?

“First of all, you send me a question before the interview “How do I plan my career?” Short answer, I don’t, or I haven't. At least for now. Now I'm probably one of those who has been thinking I should do it at some point. I’ve always liked sports, and my drive comes from there. I played a few competitive sports in Finland as a teenager, but lastly, American football was the one sport I ended up falling in love with, and it took me to study in the US and start my academic career too. That was the sport I was known for in Finland, and it was part of me and my personal brand for a long time.

When I graduated from Averett University in Virginia, I moved back to Helsinki and applied to the Nike Helsinki flagship brand store. I thought it was the easiest thing to do to combine sports and commercial jobs somehow.  I always played football wearing Nike, and  Nike has also been a sponsor and was close to my heart as a brand. I got promoted to assistant store manager and became the key contact in Finland for the European HQ of Nike organization in the store. I started running many activation campaigns in-store together with Nike Finland and got to know Jason Nikkinen at that time. Back then, Finnish ice hockey icons like Tuomo Ruutu and Valtteri Filppula were Nike-sponsored athletes, so we also did marketing with them for the home tournament of the ice hockey World Championships in 2012.

Then I decided to finalize my Master's Degree in Finland and got into Aalto University to study Information and Service Management. Back then at Aalto, the startup scene was very strong and booming with Startup Sauna and other incubators. So I ended up working for a startup called Sportsetter which kind of combined my two passions: business and sports. I guess if you get anything done in one startup, your reputation grows, and suddenly I was recruited by Taxify to scale the taxi business. That was kind of weird timing as we were racing against time; before Uber and Taxi Helsinki had their application ready. We knew that the legislation change was coming. But honestly, it was a bit challenging time as the market wasn’t ready.

So I continued with my studies, whilst working with Helsinki Core Trainers and Ville Rapeli to create brand awareness for the studio. One of the things I enjoyed over the years there, was creating and promoting the training groups with a Finnish music duo JVG together with Core Trainers. Initially, the collaboration with JVG and Core Trainers was actually one of my first designed and planned marketing campaigns for Sportsetter. And that ended up being now, an almost a decade-long partnership with JVG and further on their record label PME Records in the form of weekly training|workout group, content creation, and featured artists, athletes, or other well-known people whom I can call my good friends today. We created a lot of content and I guess, managed to do something right there.

Core Trainers become somewhat of a phenomenon – a place where people wanted to come to work out. We also created a concept called 10 Camp, which still exists and is very popular. The first 10Camp was for just a group of 10 guys, and the workout concept was designed by Ville Rapeli and Thomas Tallberg, but I believe I was already part of the next one and had my hands in taking the concept a little bit further. Not sure how many hundred people have gone through that training program at Core since 2015.

Is that how Hypement – the influencer agency – got started? Collaborating with well-known athletes and entertainers?

“Well, I was finalizing my Master’s Thesis, and we had been thinking we should bring something like this to Finland. What we wanted to do was to do influencer marketing, but also to keep the brand partnership and sponsorships, as well as sports again, and all that in the same mix. All of the founders shared backgrounds from different competitive professional sports.

The approach at the beginning was precisely that we didn't want to do only one thing but create a new kind of marketing agency that combines stuff we loved: marketing, active urban lifestyle, and branding. Ultimately, the goal was, that we could work with entertainment and sports. And that I could do this together with friends like Jani Isaksson and Max Kolu. So quite many things just clicked there.

We probably weren’t the first company who used started doing influencer marketing in Finland, but one of the very first. There weren’t any articles about it in Finnish. No one really knew what it was about. We checked all these benchmarks and materials from international markets. and suddenly, it spread like wildfire. Similarly, there weren’t any tools or platforms to measure or monetize influencer marketing.

"Many times our clients were asking us and the influencers just to do a couple of posts, but we still tried to push and sell the bigger concept. In American Football, in offence, there’s a saying “Take the yards that they give you!"

In six years, this changed quite rapidly. Although Hypement was a quite small agency, we became an established player in the market. We often collaborated with other agencies so we could do bigger projects. One of the key takeaways from the Hypement time is to "don’t do more than what is asked". Many times our clients were asking us and the influencers just to do a couple of posts, but we still tried to push and sell the bigger concept. In American Football, in offence, there’s a saying “Take the yards that they give you!” Meaning, don’t push the deep ball, a deep pass, and go for the touchdown right away for the risk of interception and giving the ball away. take the yards the defence gives you, and be consistent.

Well, look at Tom Brady and his style of play and offence with the quick-release short passing game. I think this applies to sales. One shouldn’t try to oversell. We often kept overthinking and trying to add these ideas to that campaign. Simplifying the offer and selling new ideas after that campaign, might have resulted in better outcomes. Find the value you are providing for the client, simply, and put the premium on that.

Personally, I had the drive to do these bigger projects and concepts more often, and when hasan&partners reached out to me probably for the third or fourth time, I felt it was time to leave Hypement and start working with them. At Hasan&Co., the brand is seen and considered holistically. See their offering as a group, Frankly Partners for consulting services, h&p design, creative side for marcomms, and  h&p Make for production. And we could do bigger projects.

Great. Let’s talk more about brands then. How do you define a brand?

 “I think someone said that brand is what people talk about your company or brand when you leave the room.

I think I've read somewhere that this quote was said by Amazon founder Jezz Bezos.

“Yeah, but let’s take a step backwards. I’ll explain this in the Helsinki Athletic Lab context. So there, we planned how Lab is perceived outside the doors of the studio, but also what the experience inside the classes was. The best thing was when new people came to us after they heard from their friends how great our service was.

A brand is something that is being talked about you. Obviously, in a larger context, we need to think about how the brand takes care of its employees, the quality of the service or product, and how it communicates with customers. What I’ve seen recently is that brands don’t necessarily talk that much about advertising, but more about the brand itself and how to do marketing communications. Or it could be my (news and social media) feeds have transformed into this, hahaha. Not sure.

One of the things for brands to consider is how to meet all these needs internally and externally. Many brands look great outward, but there might be something dodgy under the hood. One of the great examples is WeWork. I just watched this Apple TV series, WeCrashed, about them. Their brand was ridiculously strong, right? Not sure if their business model even worked or if it was successful, at least with current startup metrics - being profitable. What they did extremely well was the whole story and the branding. The vision. They just had the vision, basically nothing else at first. Not necessarily a traditional mission or purpose on top of that, just the vision. In the end, it was so strong that they could manipulate the VC markets. Everyone knows what happened after that."

I just read that the WeWork founder’s (Adam Neumann) new company Flow raised 350M$ even after failing with WeWork. Apparently, this new concept combines home, living in small apartments and remote working into one concept.

"It’s not too far off where he left off with WeWork. In the series, he kept saying this mantra “It’s not a place to do work, but a place for living.” I think that’s exactly why branding is so interesting, it adds a new dimension to how a company is perceived."

Let’s continue with branding. You’re one hell of a brand and influencer expert. Why is influencer marketing important for brands?

"First of all, big thanks for considering me as an expert. It keeps moving so fast, and when you’re not only concentrating on influencer marketing, you see that many other professionals do things extremely well. As I said earlier, I see that influencer marketing has been done since the Marlboro man ads. It’s about building credibility and loyalty for the brand when it comes through recommendations.

It’s hard to say where influencer marketing is going as algorithms keep changing, security & privacy become stricter, and regulations as well keep changing constantly. Plus, new players and platforms are appearing from left and right. Recently, even Walmart launched a creator platform. Amazon and Walmart have their own creator platform. Instagram has come up with different monetization tools for creators themselves. To these platforms, you can sign in as a content creator whilst on the other side brands have access to these creators through that platform directly, questioning the work of ”a middle-man”, like agencies. Although, it can be a good thing to push the management and influencer agencies to do a better job with their work or come up with new better ways to do their business." 

What are your thoughts on mega, nano, and micro-influencers? Earlier you mentioned that the influence comes from seeing other people using stuff and recommending brands. What do you think the split will be in the future between the big-name influencers and the dudes and dudettes who might have only a few thousand followers?

“I believe influencer marketing becomes more strategic: brands can have different uses and demands for these mega, nano, and micro-influencers based on their business goals. Think about normal funnel thinking or strategies in marketing and sales. I believe, there should be better strategies in place on how to utilize different influencers on different stages of the funnel or pipeline. For instance, mega-influencers and celebrities for the top part of the funnel, and more niche-level influencers like micro- or nano-influencers closer to the conversion or purchase to put in a simple example.

Dwayne ‘Rock’ Johnson’s collaboration with Under Armour, where influencer marketing has had a direct, measurable impact on the company’s share price.

However, I think influencer marketing today hasn’t reached its full potential. Many senior decision-makers and marketers are not familiar with influencer marketing and how to utilize influencers to drive business goals. I see this changing rapidly when the new generation of marketers joins the leadership teams and the tools improve.

There are already extreme cases, like Dwayne ‘Rock’ Johnson’s collaboration with Under Armour, where influencer marketing has had a direct, measurable impact on the company’s share price. Or one of the latest examples of Prime drinks with Logan Paul and Mr. Beast, which landed in Finland just now too, for instance. Think about the value there, paying 15 euros for one energy drink, and people are actually buying it, solely because of influencers. Another one, which I have to give kudos from the home market, I know you Jani will like it too, hence soccer, is the Gilla FC soccer club run by different influencers with a vision. Jason Nikkinen, by the way, is one of the backers of this project too.

Recently many brands have changed their influencer strategy in Finland. Instead of using big-name, familiar influencers, many brands started collaborating with micro-influencers to differentiate themselves and create differentiated marketing. Many companies also found that micro influencers’ follower engagement was higher and directly had a larger impact on conversions. One thing to keep in mind when working with micro-influencers is that you often need to have a bigger number of them to reach the targets of mega-influencers. I think this is a good direction. It may require more thorough work with the micro-influencers, but in many cases, it is worth it and actually is a good reason for using an agency. I think agencies can bring a lot of value when working with micro- or nano-influencers.

So not sure, if the split will get even between the well-known and micro-influencers, but I believe the strategic employment of influencers to meet business goals becomes even more relevant."

What are the influencer projects that you’re most proud of? Could you give us some examples?

 “Yeah, there are a couple of good cases. I’m very proud that with Hypement we won the Finnair account. It was the first brand (in Finland) that decided to take an influencer marketing agency as one of its agency partners to their agency partner mix. We planned the strategy and annual activities on many levels together with other agencies and got the same briefing being on the same level as the others. So we did many cool campaigns. Including the campaign with Finnair, JVG, and the Leijonat Women’s team (Finland’s Ice Hockey team).

Another thing I’m proud of is a campaign with Saarioinen when their microwave pizza, Roiskeläppä, turned 40 years. The funny thing to start with was that we had to ask the founders of Saarioinen permission to use the nickname Roiskeläppä (Mudguard) in the campaign. We also brought Bomfunk MC’s Freestyler song back to life with Jaakko Salovaara, the original producer, and did a new version where rappers IBE and Melo created new lyrics to the iconic song.

We aimed to influence two generations and target markets with the campaign – teenagers as well as almost forty-year-olds, as well as Saarioinen’s sellers and partners. The main insight we had was to bring both generations together through skateboarding and music. We created a new music video with the record label Skorpioni, and their Henrik Suhonen helped with the concept, produced and consulted with professional skateboarders to create a skate video as well.

These materials were used in all channels. We also hired former snowboarder, painter, and illustration artist Rasmus Tikkanen to design the packaging for the anniversary pizza tying up the skateboarding scene and mentality into the package design. The campaign was a success: pizzas were sold like never before and our other brand awareness metrics reached the set targets too. I was very hands-on with this project, negotiating deals and rights with the artists, and developing the concept.

Just checking these skateboards and packaging now online. So so cool. How did you sell this to Saarioinen? Did you have a clear concept in your head for this?

 “No not at all. We got this brief over the phone super quickly. There was no brief – debrief – counter brief – creative brief – back and forth messaging. We just need to get into the same bandwidth with the customer over the phone and then the concept kind of evolved from there. Share with them the feeling we had in mind. Tomi Toiminen, one of the co-founders at Hypement, was a pro-skateboarder before so we had been bouncing concepts like this before. We were so happy that the customer wanted to invest and do this campaign well.”

Craving a Roiskeläppä pizza now. Anyways, everyone knows the brand house hasan&partners in Finland. How do you ensure that the brand remains consistent after you've done your projects and the brand moves on?

“Yeah, that’s a good question hahaha. That's something that Hasan wanted to do more. This is not always feasible as customers might have other partners and in-house teams. The guys at hasan&partners have a Brand Services team, who helps customers to implement campaigns rapidly and consistently after the big strategy and guideline work has been done. We used to ask a lot of questions from the clients to uncover the key insights. Finding this insight is the most important thing.

"One thing I believe the agencies and brands could often do better is to collaborate when communicating and selling the new brand or campaign internally within the company."

How do the marketing and leadership teams tell the updated strategy or campaign insights to their employees? We did work for a shopping centre and instead of highlighting the new work and visuals to the shopping centre marketing team, we could have explained this to the tenants, the key stakeholders for the client’s business, who have their shops there.

Who’s doing branding well? Whose brand is consistent?

Nike does this still amazingly well. I know, a lame answer, Apple or Nike. Still, they have a clear purpose; ‘If you have a body, you’re an athlete.’ Everything from their stores to their HQ and campuses. It is consistent. They have unreal facilities where the employees can go to work out during the day. So they, the employees, are actually living the brand, and to its promise. Of course, there are other dimensions to this. Now they’ve been playing with their logo and brand visuals recently throughout collaborations. Stretching the brand boundaries. Their brand really lives, moves, and evolves. This is good, because change is constant, thus inevitable. 

Is that important for brands?

"It kind of depends on the brand. If I were working for a law firm in Esplanadi (Helsinki), I probably wouldn’t be too playful, but follow guidelines more orthodoxly as that brand needs to communicate trust, and follow the legacy. Nike however, thinks about sports in everything they do. When I was working there the store managers were called coaches and salespeople athletes internally. So even the brand stores had a brand concept for employees. So, the ‘If you have a body, you’re an athlete’ purpose goes through everything they do. I cannot think of a more thorough example off the top of my head, plus I’ve experienced it."

You lived in the US and have strong experience in that culture. What are the things the Nordic marketers could learn from the Americans?

"Hmmm. I would split up the Nordic brand builders – Finns and Swedes think about marketing quite differently."

Great! Let’s start with that then. What’s the difference between a Finnish and a Swedish marketer? Or actually, maybe we could use the classic joke format; What would happen if a Swedish, Finnish, and American brand builder would go to a sauna?

"To be honest, I see that there isn’t enough talent in Finland. We have great talent among creatives, but I’m talking about the talent of how to sell ideas further, especially internally in the organizations, in management teams, and board of directors. The role of brand and marketing is hugely undervalued in general.

There aren’t too many solely marketers operating in C-Level positions, as board members or in the senior leadership teams in our biggest companies in Finland. This is changing all the time, but now I wanted to point this out to our traditional companies. In the US, all these teams (board and leadership) are built based on skillsets and capabilities. Each one of them needs to have a marketer. A brand builder.

"One huge difference between the Nordics and Americans is the pitching and presentation skills. In Finland, this used to be almost non-existent. Thank goodness for Slush and younger generations, this is getting a lot better now. "

Sweden is an extreme example of this. Where Finns, and Germans too, are very engineer lead, Swedes think about brand and marketing first. Finnish engineers can build factories and create excels to hone the production lines before thinking about how to communicate that to the people and before the overall business plan including marketing or brand.

Swedes operate in a way that they have a pitch deck and brand, they have a high-level idea of the product and raise 100M€ funding, and then start to think; ”okay where and how we should produce these products.” Americans are somewhere in between. Starting from the business plan. Hahaha, and there’s no research or official sources for these insights, but just my gut feeling.

One huge difference between the Nordics and Americans is the pitching and presentation skills. In Finland, this used to be almost non-existent. Thank goodness for Slush and younger generations, this is getting a lot better now. I'm sure everyone has seen these movies where a coach in American University or Professional team (NHL, NBA, NFL, etc.) gives team speeches. I started wondering what school they’ve gone through to be able to give motivational talks like that. But when I went there and joined the locker room it happened daily. It didn’t matter if it was the coach or the players, everyone could give a great pep talk.

It started in school. When I did my leadership and management classes in college among the other 50 business students, all the materials were Harvard Business Review case studies that we had to discuss, debate, and present in every single class. Everyone had to present and discuss. No exceptions.

"American professional services and consumer goods ... are all about the first impression and call-to-action. It’s never unclear what the American brand is trying to tell and sell you."

One comparison between the Nordics and Americans is also in the mindset. The US is the promised land of consumer goods, especially FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods). The market is so big there and it’s product-led. If you compare Amazon (from the US) to Shopify (from Canada), you’ll see that Amazon is all about the product and sales, whilst Shopify’s focus has been more on the content and design part of the commerce.

Also, there are quite many professional services. I’ve been following this creative brand guru Chris Do. He runs a podcast as well as The Futur community for creatives. His motto and ultimate goal is to help one billion people with brand building and development. He’s done all kinds of creative and brand work before but is a designer by heart.

All this kind of reminded me how both American professional services and consumer goods, even their TV shop and product packaging, are all about the first impression and call-to-action. It’s never unclear what the (American) brand is trying to tell and sell you. In Finland, we are more subtle about this. I know there are cultural differences, hmmm, but if to summarise this somehow, I think the American brands are more sales leads, whilst in Finland we try to find some kind of insight to build the brand."

You’ve run many yards to your current CMO role at LeadDesk. What advice you'd give to young Matti who was starting his business studies at Averett University?

"Aaah. That’s a really good question. I started immediately thinking about the two roads I’d taken. If you consider the t-shaped professional, with broad knowledge of different areas, and then one expertise, I could say my top part of the T is wide. Everything I’ve done has formed me into a strong marketing generalist. I’ve done work with production, strategy, digitalization, growth hacking, and campaigns. When I started at hasan&partners, I realized that in many areas I also have a depth of knowledge in quite many areas. I think it would be great to have more in-depth knowledge on some areas whether it’s a skill or an industry.

When I started my studies in the US, it was sports that I was passionate about. Soon I realized that I also needed to focus on school. Leadership and marketing studies were quite broad topics and common fields to study there. When I moved back to Finland and started my master's degree I had a plan to focus more, but with Aalto's strong startup community, I started working on all kinds of things again haha. So I’m a bit torn between whether to focus on one thing or do all kinds of things, as when you work with many things you can experience and knowledge.

"I’m striving for simplicity in many things. Striving for focus...When keeping things simple, you get things done much faster too."

Part of me still questions, whether it would have been good to start your career with larger organizations – whether on the client side or as a consultant – so that you could ask and learn from more senior people. When I’ve been working with my own companies or for smaller teams, the learning curve has been quite steep as I needed to learn things myself. You need to find things out fast, but also build a network with more senior people elsewhere because there wasn’t anyone inside your company to spar with. That’s why I’ve been talking about marketing and decisions with people like Arif Samaletdin, Lasse Lindqvist, Janne Waltonen, you Jani, and Marko (Heino) as well as Panu Nordlund. With Panu, we’ve been discussing for quite some time – first as a friend then as a mentor – and then as a colleague and supervisor when I joined hasan&partners.

Hmmm. I knew this answer would take a turn or another. But one thing I’d recommend to younger Matti is to pause now and then to think about what you’d like to do in the next 12 months or three years. Or what’s your ideal day in 5 years? It’s fine that those goals can change but it would be good to ask ‘Why are you doing things you’re doing’ and ‘Where do you want to be in 5 years’. Now I’ve just moved naturally from one thing to another – not saying that things haven’t worked out, have been quite lucky there I think – but reflecting and planning would give me more structure and happiness.

One of my friends who works in construction engineering said that one of his mentors keeps asking simple, or simplifying questions all the time. Like all the time. He keeps interrupting meetings to ask if he doesn’t know what the business acronyms or jargon means, despite sitting on boards and leadership teams in many stock-listed companies. He can’t stand that it doesn’t know or that people come to show off their knowledge by listing acronyms or business jargon.

So this leads me to my last point here. During my final years at Hypement and then at hasan&partners, and now at LeadDesk, I’m striving for simplicity in many things. Striving for focus. With LeadDesk's extremely capable software product, even complex in the back, you need a simple and efficient message and communication in the front. When you do things in a simple way, most likely your brand communications will be more understandable and approachable, yet effective."

Is it about iterating the ideas and thoughts? Or getting feedback? How do you simplify things?

"It’s all about that. Now, I spend a lot of time delegating. So if you’re good at delegating you can and must simplify the message or brief, and the purpose of those tasks as well as the prioritization: What are the main things you need to get done? And in meetings, you don’t need to get solutions to ten things but focus only on that one key thing. If you solve that and have a solution, great, end the meeting earlier. When keeping things simple, you get things done much faster too."

Read more about LeadDesk here.

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