When most people think of Staples, visions of pens, printers, and paper pop into their heads. But the company recently underwent a massive transformation, unveiling an updated logo and five independent brands, including NXT Technologies, CoastWide Professional, Union & Scale, and Perk.
And then there’s TRU RED, a new line of office essentials—one that Brian Rodkey feels lucky to have been a part of. As a senior brand manager of TRU RED, he leads both the business strategy and the brand marketing. In this role, he says, “I’m responsible for partnering with team members to better understand our consumers and their pain points.”
What attracted him to branding in the first place? “I think it’s really interesting to understand why people make the decisions they do and buy different products,” Rodkey says.
Here, the self-professed lover of pens shares how Staples nurtures talent, the skills necessary for a career in branding, and how job applicants can stand out from the crowd.
Tell us about your career journey, and what led you to your job at Staples.
I’ve always been really interested in consumer products and why people pick or gravitate towards different brands. I started working in consumer products at The Nielsen Company, a marketing analytics company that helps brands, manufacturers, and retailers better understand consumer behavior. Although many people think of brand marketing and management as highly creative—like TV campaigns—it’s actually 50% marketing and 50% business strategy, so building an analytics base at Nielsen working on personal care and beverage categories gave me a great advantage. From there, I worked in brand management at The Coca-Cola Company and then landed my job at Staples, leading brand management for the TRU RED Business Essentials brand.
What attracted you to work at Staples?
Having grown up in the Boston area, I was always familiar with Staples, but didn’t know much about it besides the retail business. I have fond memories of picking out new school supplies each year as a kid and appreciated that Staples always had the best selection of pens.
But what got me excited about working at Staples was the transformation the company was undergoing and the entrepreneurial vibe of the Product Brands group. It has been awesome working at companies with well-established brands, but I was intrigued by the opportunity to be entrepreneurial and build a brand from scratch. When the new brands were launched in April, there was a lot of energy and excitement.
What do you like best about the company culture?
The openness to new ideas. When a company goes through a transformation, it can sometimes be difficult to adapt, but there is a strong feeling of openness to learn, improve, and change that I really appreciate.
What are you responsible for as a senior brand manager at Staples?
At the highest level, I’m responsible for making sure the brand comes to life in a consistent and impactful way to add value to our consumers. After all, a brand is only a brand based on how consumers perceive it, so it’s a unique challenge looking at all the ways you can shape that perception—whether it be through product design and functionality, packaging, marketing campaigns, and other tools in the brand marketing toolbox.
What does a normal day in your job look like?
I get to touch a lot of function areas and work with a wide variety of people, so every day is different. It can involve looking at packaging for a new TRU RED product, working with the cross-functional team on preparing for a new innovation, or meeting with an agency partner in creating marketing communications.
What do you love most about your job?
That I get to research and analyze how and why today’s modern worker uses office supplies—as well as work on building products, solutions, and marketing campaigns that solve pain points for the modern worker. What I do is centered around what makes humans tick, how they feel, and why they act the way they do in different situations.
I also love getting to work with other curious colleagues who are interested in building a brand like TRU RED. There is a camaraderie that is really exciting when you’re working on creating something new that has never been done before.
What is the hardest part about your job?
The startup atmosphere of TRU RED can be challenging, and since consumer brand building at Staples is new territory for the company, it isn’t always easy. Sometimes I’ll look for information that I’m used to having that just isn’t available here, and it stretches me to think in new ways.
What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?
I’m excited about the work we are doing to evolve the marketing campaign to build an emotional connection with consumers. This campaign evolution is fulfilling because it involves looking at why consumers use and buy TRU RED products, and how we can communicate the benefits of the brand beyond the exact product features. We may sell pens, notebooks, and printer paper, but it’s so much more than that. These are all tools that help the modern worker communicate and that’s so much more special than talking about product features. We’ll have a new marketing campaign launching next year that will lean heavily into building an emotional connection with consumers.
What other challenges did you face while building TRU RED?
The biggest challenge I faced is the high number of products in the TRU RED brand. I’m used to working on a brand with a hundred or so SKUs, so the shift to working on a brand with thousands of SKUs was challenging given the complexity and how TRU RED spans across many categories with different purchase dynamics. Some of the biggest wins are taking the great work that had been done and building upon it by authoring a brand business plan that is a map of how we’ll win and grow TRU RED over the next three years.
How does Staples help nurture talent?
If you are eager to learn and develop, there is a strong support system of people ready to help you build out those skills or follow your interests. There are some specific learning and development programs, but I find the most valuable experiences are the discussions or informal coffee meetings I have with colleagues in different departments. By having a culture where it’s okay to ask questions, dig into what other departments do, and be a team player, Staples has helped me grow in my role.
What advice do you have for people pursuing a career in branding?
Be curious and try to stay up to date on interesting things that other brands are doing. I can’t walk through a supermarket or a retail store without things jumping out at me—including how other companies are using packaging or advertising to communicate their product. I’d also recommend working on exercising both creative and analytic muscles since both are important for a career in brand management.
What skills are necessary to have a successful career in branding?
In addition to curiosity, the most important skills are empathy and storytelling. Empathy is important because you’ll need to empathize with your target consumers and try to understand how they think about the world and experience your product category. It’s not about if you personally like the packaging or product, but how the group you’re building the brand for feels about it. Storytelling is also a critical skill, whether you think about it as a TV commercial or even internal storytelling by looking at many different data sources and coming up with a perspective or insight about a particular business issue.
How can applicants for branding jobs stand out from the pack?
I recommend doing as much research as you can online and in-store about a potential brand you’re interested in. It’s amazing how much information you can get from walking through a store or online research, and it’s valuable to integrate observations into your interview or cover letters. This skill will also be valuable after you land a position since it’s the same type of research you’ll use on the job.