Justin Foster is driven by the belief that when you show someone their soul, you set them free. This belief has informed and shaped his journey from growing up on a large cattle ranch in eastern Oregon to becoming an entrepreneur, author, poet, speaker and mentor. Based in Austin, TX, Justin is the co-founder of the intrinsic branding firm, Root + River.
Full transcript below:
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Jennifer Mulchandani,
Heather Myklegard: [00:00:02] and I’m Heather Myklegard.
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:00:04] Welcome to The M Word where we have uncensored conversations on all things marketing.
Heather Myklegard: [00:00:10] Due to COVID. We are not recording in the studio and apologize for any poor audio or technical. As soon as it is safe, we will have our guests with us in the studio until then stay healthy and wear a mask.
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:00:27] Hello and welcome to The M Word. My name is Jennifer
Heather Myklegard: [00:00:30] and I’m Heather
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:00:31] and today we are talking to Justin Foster with Root + River. Justin is driven by the belief that when you show someone their soul, you set them free. This belief has informed and shaped his journey from growing up on a large cattle ranch in Eastern Oregon to becoming an entrepreneur, author, poet, speaker, and mentor based in Austin, Texas. Justin is the co-founder of the intrinsic branding firm, Root + River. Justin, thank you for joining us today.
Justin Foster: [00:01:01] Thanks Jennifer. Thank you, Heather.
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:01:02] Why don’t you just set the stage for us a little bit, introduce yourself and your business and how it relates to marketing?
Justin Foster: [00:01:09] Thank you. Yeah. I’m Justin, we know that part. I have been an entrepreneur for about 20 years, primarily in brand strategy. I’ve done the gamut of being a co-founder of a tech startup that we took to exit and contract or fractional CMO and all those pieces, but all of it around branding and marketing. Seven and a half years ago, I met my now business partner, Emily Sikorsky, at a conference in Phoenix. She was the head of corporate communications for behavioral research and we just bonded over all kinds of things. A year later, we were business partners and we launched Root + River around a couple of different motivations.
One motivation is that branding is a contemplative practice. It requires leaders to go inward. You have to know who you are. Branding does not fix a identity crisis, it makes it worse. If you don’t know who you are. So that was one of the principles that we built written river on. The second principle is. For many years branding and marketing had frequently been used to do harm in the world either to get people to buy shit they didn’t need, or, propagandize countries, things like that.
And we thought: who’s out there saying let’s use branding for a tool of good, so that was our second motivation. Then the third one is there’s just so much bad advice that entrepreneurs and founders and CEOs get about marketing, that we wanted to bring some art and science and rational thought and original thinking to marketing, which has in many ways become quite stale and quite commoditized and formulaic.
Heather Myklegard: [00:02:44] I love that, Justin. One of our motivators for this podcast was to put the kibosh about all marketing is bad. There are good marketers out there. You said that you appreciate marketing. What is it that you appreciate about marketing?
Justin Foster: [00:03:01] I think marketing in the right hands, it moves from the necessary evil, which is a lot of how a lot of people see marketing to storytelling, to art creation, to soul-stirring stuff. If you look at like the original copy of the ads for like Red Wing Boots, or Stetson cowboy hats, or Nike’s first ad that they did. Or you get into more modern brands: the way Southwest brands and markets themselves, REI, Filson and all these brands that are using marketing to introduce the world to who they are… I think that’s the line. If you’re using marketing to introduce to the world who you truly are, then that’s an invitation.
If you’re doing it to promote just purely for promotional purposes, or it’s that churn and burn. You see this during the political season with all the ad buys that happens. What we call blunt force trauma marketing, where you’re constantly just hammering your audience with whatever. To me that’s not marketing anymore, at best it’s promotion. But mostly it’s somebody making money off of you creating a lot of extra noise. It’s ineffective, too.
In order for it to be marketing, to even be called marketing, to me, it needs to have a storytelling component. It needs to be true, and it needs to be connected. You start to reverse engineer back out of that. If it’s not true, if it’s not a story, if it’s not consistent, it’s not marketing.
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:04:28] I love that and I agree with that. you talk about how you work with your clients to uncover their truth and their story. How do you unwind what they might already be doing? So if you get a client and they’re doing that ongoing marketing, they’re changing it up or they’re trying all sorts of things… all that blunt force marketing that you’ve mentioned. How do you actually uncover their truth? If you can go into the process a little bit, sounds fascinating.
Justin Foster: [00:04:56] Branding, which is to me, marketing is a part of the branding experience. We like to say that branding is knowing what conversation you want to have and marketing is having the conversation. Branding is that overarching philosophy. At least what we do, which we call intrinsic branding is this idea. That’s an ancient principle that: you already know who you are underneath all of what you were told. Now that’s true at a personal level related to, union psychology and some spirituality, but it’s also true at a business level, which is that we’re often told by others that we have to be a certain way in order for our business model to work or to appeal or whatnot.
The first thing that we do is we strip away all the stuff that they were taught that wasn’t really who they are. When you get that down, it’s a little bit like finding a piece of furniture that’s been painted over and you take the paint thinner to it and you get it down to its raw, like mahogany or teak or something beautiful. That’s something beautiful, that rawness underneath all of the paint, coats of paint is the mission of the people in the organization, the belief system, the standards, which is how they treat each other. That’s the root system of the brand.
Number two is we look at where they’re going. We think of the ancient nautical device or navigation device, the Sexton, which is, it takes a point from the north star to the horizon. The north star is your mission. The horizon is your vision. Branding is how you live your mission so that you reach your vision. So we look at that and we say, okay, what tactics, behaviors, outcomes are not serving the mission or the vision and we stopped doing them. We get all the wishful thinking out of the equation.
Then the third thing that we do is we shift people away from thinking about marketing as a pitch to a demographic and more of, as we talked about earlier, telling your story to a psychographic profile, what we call an ideal client using archetyping models to do that. Using a somewhat religious word deconstruction. You deconstruct what they think their brand is and what they were told to be, gives you the raw truth, and then you build it back up so that it matches where they’re going and it feels right.
One of the things we say a lot is: trust the energy. So if you don’t want to do something, if you don’t feel like doing LinkedIn posts well, , don’t do it. You can hire somebody else to do it if you want; but, the thing you do have energy for honor that by doing it. And it’s hard to honor the energy when you’re doing a bunch of stuff and you’re not sure works or don’t, you don’t even want to do.
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:07:30] That’s so true and there’s so many tactics and tools to accomplish one’s goals, right? It’s to try to do anything that doesn’t feel good. We call that the cringe-worthiness of watching people market. You feel it on the receiving end too, when someone’s not feeling it themselves, but you mentioned like helping your clients identify what are those tactics or approaches that aren’t serving their brand or their mission? What’s an example that would be appropriate for some and not for others?
Justin Foster: [00:08:02] Yeah, we actually start with language before we get into tactics, because tactics is just a amplification or broadcasting of language and we do a game almost with our clients called bullshit BINGO. We go through we look at their web copy, we look at their social posts, their proposals, whatever, their business model is and we get rid of all the bullshit. We get rid of all this stuff that is jargony, cliched, colloquialisms, borrowed phrases that are overused, Like the Einstein quote, that’s been ironically overused around, like repeating the same thing over and over again is a definition of insanity.
Our view of that marketing: is repeating the same tire quotes over and over again as insanity, the bullshit bingo is a big portion of that.
The second thing is a very practical look at what is resonating now. We’re looking at data: open rates as an example, most-liked stuff on social media, and we start to look for commonalities there. We’re agnostic because we’re not an agency. Whatever the data shows, we’re not trying to sell any particular solution to that… we’re in the recommendation business, not the implementation business.
Then, I think another area that we dig into when it comes to this is where are the opportunities to create word of mouth? It’s funny because we often ask them where’s most of your leads come from or most of your new traffic? It’s mostly word of mouth and we’re like, good. Let’s organize around word of mouth. Cause it’s the most organic… there’s nothing better than word of mouth, frankly. And so why not organize around it? So if you don’t have word of mouth, you don’t really have a branding problem. You have an everyone-knows-you-suck. If you do have word of mouth, you can amplify it. You can create other opportunities for sharing and promotion and create your own echo chamber as long as it’s done ethically. That’s the final component of what we have them do or think about instead of what they were doing.
Heather Myklegard: [00:09:47] Justin, I love the strategy and this very unique way of thinking and it’s almost too simple, yet, makes so much sense. How has this evolved? When did you figure this out and when did you implement it, walk me through that.
Justin Foster: [00:10:01] I do a lot of these shows and I’ve never been asked that, so thank you. That’s it. I like it. I like a good original question. I found it, I think Emily arrived and she could tell her own story if you have her on, she’s an amazing person, too. We arrived at the same point in very different ways, I’ll tell my side of that, which is I am an accidental brander. I was living in Idaho. I lived in Idaho for 20 years and I started an agency with some other guys. We found out that one of those guys was stealing from us, so we fired him. He was our main strategist. No one else knew how to do that. We had a new client. And I said, I’ll do it.
It reminds me of the time I got to meet Andy Roddick and I asked Andy Roddick, when did you know you were going to be a tennis player? He goes, when my dad put a tennis racket in my hand in Nebraska when I was four years old and it was like a tennis racket moment. It was like, ah, this is what I was born to do. I’m good at this. It blended my strategic intuition with my natural ability to connect with people and my love of language and all that.
A lot of my thinking comes from the fact that as far as I know, I have two things about me that makes me different than everybody else in this business of branding and marketing. Number one is: I grew up on a ranch. I understand agriculture, a lot of Root + River in the name and everything is indicative of this agrarian view of the world, the cycle of life, reap what you sow, what you plant, you grow… that type of stuff. And ironically, the term branding comes from cattle ranching, so my silly dad joke is I’ve been in branding my whole life.
The second part of that is that I spent the first 10 years of my career in corporate sales. I was not a marketer, and most people in our industry either come from client side or agency side in some form. I came out of the sales team, highly skeptical of marketers and agency people and their storyboards and their black turtlenecks and just very Mad Men feel to it. I’ve grown to love and respect the work that they all do. Cause I have a little bit different context, but what being in B2B sales, especially in the nineties, did, is it taught you how to listen.
It taught you how to diagnose. It taught you how to differentiate. So all of these things that were fairly new back in 2001 and two, pre-social media and all that, suddenly I became the only guy at the picnic with a can opener. I knew how to do this stuff because I had done it in the trenches and in B2B sales then it just took off from there and meeting Emily. Really was the, like the rocket booster to take us to where we’re at today because of her passion for what she does and her enormous intellect that she brings to and care for others that she brings to the equation. That intellectual heft, from an educational background in particular, she’s got a master’s degree and all that… I didn’t have that. I didn’t have a lot of empathy or compassion back then and I do now, but I didn’t then. I was just survival mode, I was just good at it; but, she brought a much more humanistic view to this thing that we now call intrinsic branding.
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:12:56] I love that story, cause there’s always the did you wake up one day and have an epiphany, but it sounds like this was a journey for you and self-discovery around your skills and also the meaning that it could have for other brands. You used the word earlier “ethical”, and in all of your own marketing on your website, you talk about who’s a good fit, who’s not a good fit, and ethics seems to be a core value for how you approach your work. Can you share examples of what would be an unethical brand that you would not want to support or work with or an ethical situation that would have you pause?
Justin Foster: [00:13:30] Yeah. We got this idea originally from Oprah when she has these three principles and one of them is don’t add more darkness to the world. We started looking, this is years ago when we first met, and we started talking about Emily and I started talking about these ideas. When we start thinking about unethical branding and marketing. There’s a couple of markers. There’s a couple of indicators:
One is if you’re using branding and marketing or PR to hold up a false image, especially a false image that is full of corruption. It’s like a Harvey Weinstein type situation that is unethical. It’s unethical if you are the head of marketing for a company, or you’re the owner of an agency and it’s all bullshit, that’s unethical.
The second one, and these are very related is we don’t help assholes get more famous. It’s that direct! There’s plenty of people that will, and that’s fine, but we’re trying to help the people that maybe are uncomfortable with branding and marketing are uncomfortable being themselves because they are conscious people and they care and they’re ethical. That’s who we want to support.
Then the third marker is really simple as it is their product or service contributing to humanity. Here’s a great example of that, in the financial sector, which we actually do have quite a few clients in the financial sector, but one of them is based in Houston and they’re an investment management company. They give 50% of their profits to a foundation whose only purpose is to eradicate genocide in the world. That’s a great example, to us, of not just a social good component, not just a corporate social responsibility platform or a DEI platform, which are great. Those are fine, but a where the mission and the business model are tightly integrated.
Now, if you don’t have that kind of mission is it unethical? No, it’s not, but it would be in the sense of our case to take on a client that is doing something that isn’t contributing in our opinion to humanity would feel icky for lack of a better word.
Heather Myklegard: [00:15:21] Justin, how does Root + River market themselves, you’ve talked a lot about what you offer for clients, but how do you find your clients?
Justin Foster: [00:15:29] Heather, our top source are our clients and influencers, our friends and which, it seems like all of our clients become friends. Some of our friends become clients, And so by far, that’s where we get most of our referrals and new business. Number two is speaking and podcast appearances is probably the second one. And the third is our book. We have a book on Amazon called Rooting Up, it’s 44 essays on modern branding, and we get a decent amount of traffic and inquiries from that book as well. Cause it’s quite heretical. The way that we talk about branding and marketing Especially if you’re a CEO or founder and you’re not in charge of marketing, but you want to know what marketing is. And that’s who we normally get. We don’t get occasionally, let’s say three out of 10, we get a head of marketing. Most of the time we get the CEO that reaches out to us, they heard the podcast, they read something we wrote on LinkedIn or whatever, a lot of different ways to find us. And they’re like, yeah, this is what I’ve been looking for.
When a CEO asks about the ROI of something, that means somebody didn’t do their job to make sure that marketing wasn’t a cost center, that marketing should be a revenue positive center, stuff like that is very appealing to CEOs. The other weird little thing that we get a lot of inquiries from people in the HR side. and I think this is partially because we very openly say that the head of HR and the HR team, or just for the people team, they have far more influence on the brand than the marketing department, because your culture is your brand.
It’s an interesting door to go through. Can you think about we’re going to come in and talk about the brand, but we’re talking to the chief people officer first.
Heather Myklegard: [00:16:58] Is there anything that you haven’t tried, but you would like to, and maybe it’s because it’s been out of your comfort zone or just haven’t had the time any new tactics?
Justin Foster: [00:17:08] We launched a course early last year, pre-pandemic, which was somewhat good foresight. We kicked around and talked to some digital agencies of doing the Facebook ads, a real Facebook campaign, an Instagram campaign, not just dabbling, I am not opposed to that. It just goes back to my own roots as a CMO and entrepreneur, which is: it’s got to work, I’m not going to pay for an experiment for very long.
The other thing that we have considered doing is hiring a publicist, someone that can primarily get Emily on stage. I mean I love speaking, but there’s a lot of middle-aged white guys with opinions. I’m very willing to just take a step back and let someone else have the front of the stage and so we’ve kicked around that idea. I think once we, the pandemic is over then, that’s something that we would re-explore. Everything else, though Heather we’ve done under the sun, everything from, webinars… and, oh, here’s one we won’t ever do click funnels. We’ll never do that click funnel where it’s the 50 pages of copy and it’s saturation, you get an email every day. They say never say never… I’m saying we will never do it that way.
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:18:09] It’s interesting because you talk about the inbound potential clients that you hear from, it sounds like they already know that something’s not working in their brand. They’re coming to you because there’s a misalignment, but are you ever having a conversation with somebody who doesn’t see it, they may not know what it is, but where you’re having to help them understand that there is something wrong with their brand?
Justin Foster: [00:18:32] Wow! That’s very astute, Jennifer. You’re spot on in that. What we have noticed is that they have a sense of something being off. They have a sense of it and they it’s more strategic intuition. It’s more like a chef, the flavor isn’t right. Yet and they often misdiagnosed. The Western mind, especially if it’s gen X or boomer dudes, they think it’s a tactical problem They think we need a new website or we need PR or whatever. They have a sense that something’s off, but they misdiagnosed it as a tactical problem. It’s almost always a strategic problem.
It’s almost always related to one of three things:
Language: the language we’re using differentiation and audience profile. If you, if it’s, so sometimes they get that, eat the people, that get it the most are the ones that it’s not their first rodeo. They’ve been, this is like their third or fourth startup, or they’ve been, in the marketing world for awhile and they start to have some pattern recognition and they’re more quickly able to say, like I was talking to the CMO of one of the largest software companies in the world the other day.
And he’s and he was like, our message is too corporate and it’s boring and no one likes it. I was like that’s a refreshing thing for CMOs to be aware of. also yay because that’s our best of the world to fix that. But that’s a rare thing where somebody knows exactly what the issue is and is then looking for that specialist to come in and, tweak it for them to make it run.
Justin before the show, you said that you consider failure to be a great lesson. What has failure taught you? I think I fail every day, first of all. And this is this is a topic that we could talk about all by itself for a good long while, but failure is the only thing that’s taught me.
Winning or success hasn’t taught me anything. It has, but it’s bad habits, assumptions, expectations, a little arrogance, a little overinflation of self and things like that. And because, failure is ultimately about learning humility and it’s learning that I don’t know what the percentage is, but let’s say it’s at least half of life is completely unpredicted.
And this is why I talk a lot about what I call mystical leadership, which is you have to, as a modern leader, especially if you’re an entrepreneur, you have to come to terms with the abyss of the unknown, because it is the assumption that things will be a certain way that will kick you right in the ass.
And we’ve seen that in the last 18 months. One of my personal sayings is nature kills people. And so nature killed pretense in a lot of different ways, kill brands, and killed the pretense that we need to go into an office or sit in traffic or a bunch of killed the pretense that we knew what we were doing as a country.
So at least with the, the response to the pandemic, and there’s a version of that in with failure in your, in someone’s life is that time or events will kill pretense. And in, and to me, that’s all learning. So there’s this beginner’s mind mindset, I guess I have adopted, but it’s been very painful to be honest with you.
It’s been. Sub, especially the last seven years, a stripping away of what I thought was true. And UN coming to terms with some of my own inner, shrieking jackals related to anxiety or, childhood trauma and things like that. And this moment where I’m like, ah, failure is, it’s not optional, so why are we fighting it?
It’s like fearing death. It’s going to happen. I’d rather fear not being I’d rather if you’re not living. And so I am completely okay. Most of the time with the fact that sometimes I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I remember a conversation. My son’s now we’re older. They’re Logan’s 28 and Caden’s 20, almost 23 when Caden was about 14 and he was a pain in the ass.
And he would say that too. He said, I told him, I said, I think you think I know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m doing, and I feel that way a lot, whether it’s entrepreneur-ism or a relationship or self-care, all of that is I don’t really know what I’m doing, but what I will keep doing Heather as I will.
I will keep experimenting. I will keep risking. I will keep figuring out what the next bold move is, because I’ve learned that I can do the next bold move and I’ll fail at something. I’ll learn if I don’t do that next bold move and I don’t fail, I don’t learn shit. And then pretty soon I’m, irrelevant and I don’t want that.
So where do you get your inspiration for all the various things you want to try? Yeah, good question. Friends, I have friends, I have a, an amazing life partner who is extremely intellectual. And she’s an activist. She literally is an activist. She grew up in Nicaragua. And so she’s an inspiration to me.
And Emily is definitely an inspiration. My former partner, my son. Mom is a great inspiration to me. She’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. And then I read a lot. I do a lot of journaling. I do a lot of meditating. Of course listen to podcasts and that kind of comes and goes. So it’ll move around.
Sometimes I’ll be on a Jordan Peterson kick and listen to six episodes of his stuff for Bernay brown, or we’ll go way out into something I’m not used to. Especially after George Floyd’s murder and this awareness of I need to be more educated about this issue.
So we’ll go on down that kind of library of knowledge as well, I find it all inspiring. And it’s not that I’m some pollyannish, super optimistic. I’m not really, I’m a realist. But it’s all inspiring when you understand that everything that is here to teach you something.
And it’s here to awaken something that you already have that’s the art of living. And if you can approach life like that, inspiration is you don’t have an inspiration. You have plenty of inspiration and your issue becomes I don’t have enough time and I’d rather have that problem than the other one have no inspiration.
Justin. I want to go back to your very first day on the job at rutin river, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself? I’ll be more positive. Every year Emily and I go on a partner retreat somewhere, sometimes Phoenix, where she lives sometimes Austin. And we ask ourselves the same two questions every year.
Seven years, which is, do you want to keep doing this? And number two is what can I do to be a better partner? And about four years ago I asked that question and she said, you could be a lot less negative. And so I’m wired for threat and conditioned by trauma. That’s my background. I kinda my, my childhood, and then just genetic disposition for threat assessment.
So I can be quite negative. And I would go back and tell myself, you don’t need to be positive all the time, but just don’t be negative. I would say that I would tell myself you’re on the right path, the trust, your intuition, that this thing that you want to share with the world about intrinsic branding and Defiers, and they’re all great brands or spiritual experiences that inspire leaders to go inward.
All of the language that we use. Is, I would just tell myself you’re right. You got it. Keep going. And the third thing I would say is I would’ve told myself to have more fun, a lot sooner. I’ve always been very serious and studious and survival mindset I would have taught myself to have, I would have told myself to have a lot more fun.
I still have the shirt. Emily got me like six years ago. That just says not fun. And that was her way of saying you need to learn how to have some fun. I proudly say that I don’t know how to have some fun now, but I would’ve told myself to have some fun seven years ago.
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:26:23] That’s great. So now you’re having fun, I take it.
Justin Foster: [00:26:26] I mean, most days. We’re adults, so it’s not always fun.
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:26:28] Right.
Justin Foster: [00:26:30] Yeah. There’s something fun in every day I’ll put it that way.
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:26:33] That’s awesome. Justin, if our listeners want more of what you have to say and think, where can they find you?
Justin Foster: [00:26:41] Thank you. Yeah, the best place to go to is our website Root + River.com. A couple of things I’ll point out we have an awesome new community we’ve launched called Being Marketers, or we call it BeMa, which is a community for high-conscious marketers, ethical high-conscious marketers, very specific to the human side of marketing, not who you’re marketing to, but who’s doing the human side of the marketing department or the CMO or the entrepreneur, you can read about our book there, and then there’s a huge archive of blog posts, other podcast appearances we’ve been on all of that will give you access to our library and a philosophy around branding.
You can follow me, personally, on social at @FosterThinking on Instagram, where I post a lot of my poetry and find me on LinkedIn, Justin Foster, or Facebook, I’ll be friends with anybody as long as they’re not crazy.
Jennifer Mulchandani: [00:27:26] You gotta have standards. Thank you again for spending, spending this time with us. We’ve been listening to Justin Foster with Root + River, and this is The M Word. We’ll see you next time.
Justin Foster: [00:27:37] Thank you both.
Heather Myklegard: [00:27:44] Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll come back. Subscribe to The M Word, wherever you listen to podcasts. And for more uncensored conversations, visit The M Word Page at ArlingtonStrategy.com.
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