Sunday, April 6, 2008

INTERVIEW: Mike McCloud of MMA

Home of BBQ Interview: Mike McCloud,

We are very pleased to present this interview with Mike McCloud. Mike is the owner of MMA Creative, the official marketing firm for the Kansas City BBQ Society. We were interested in seeing what the goals of MMA were and where they would like to see competitive BBQ in the future.

Q. Mike, thanks for taking the time to discuss MMA and its relationship with the KCBS. Before we get started, could you give us a little background on you and MMA?

We’re a full-service marketing firm based in Tennessee. We serve about 150 small and mid-size clients who are mostly located throughout the Southeast. We’ve got offices in Nashville and Cookeville, where we first opened for business about 20 years ago. We’re very fortunate to have about 25 professionals on staff who specialize in everything from PR to Web development.

Q. Way back when the possibility of working with the KCBS first presented itself, what did you find intriguing about that possibility?

My first impression was how passionate KCBS members were about BBQ competitions. I couldn’t believe how much time, effort and money were being spent by teams and individuals to compete or just enjoy the BBQ lifestyle. So that certainly got my attention.

The next thing that I realized was that outside of the industry, KCBS wasn’t really that well known or given its due respect. For example, my hometown has had a KCBS sanctioned event for as long as I can remember. But did I realize the significance of that? No, and neither did my neighbors or friends. Yet everyone I know loves to BBQ (or “grill out,” as I now realize the difference).

So to see the passion within the industry, and to see the disconnect outside of the industry….that was when I really got fired up about helping KCBS. There is huge growth opportunity if we can somehow bridge the gap and educate the public about what great BBQ really is, as well as why KCBS is the authority in this arena.

Q. Did you have an interest in BBQ prior to your association with the KCBS?

Only from the standpoint that I wanted to eat it every time I got the chance! I’m a terrible cook (ask my wife), so anytime I could eat great BBQ from someone like Tony Stone or George Sasser, I was first in line.

Q. What do you believe that MMA will bring to the KCBS that it didn’t have prior to your involvement?

First and foremost, professional marketing services to build and maintain public awareness. Through our national PR efforts and programs like The Great American BBQ Tour, I hope to make KCBS a household name so that everyone looks at the society as “America’s BBQ Experts.” In my opinion, that rising tide of awareness will lift a lot of boats: teams, cooks, events, vendors, consumers and KCBS members in general.

Q. BBQ’ing is a culture as much as an activity. What is MMA doing to ensure that they have an understanding of enthusiasts and their concerns?

Everything that we can, as fast as we can. First, we conducted a mini Info tour last year where we set up a KCBS tent at 5 contests to interact with the public, the teams and the organizers. We learned a LOT from that exercise. Second, I became a certified barbeque judge last year and I’ve already been a judge at 3 events. Third, we shut down our company for 2 days last year so that my entire staff could get integrated at the Jack event. It was phenomenal. Our associates interviewed every team, took a thousand pictures, helped out with the food turn in, and literally walked away exhausted, but totally immersed in BBQ for the first time. And finally, I had two of my PR writers attend cooking schools, one by Rod Gray and Johnny Trigg, and one by Mike Davis….just so our ability to write about the process would be spot on.

Regardless of all that, though, I really think this will be a lifelong learning process, one that we will always be able to improve on. And one day, when the hot potatoes of the marketing job are mostly handled, I hope to cook with a team at an event to see the whole soup to nuts process. But for now, I feel pretty good about our general understanding of KCBS, and we are busy at work on the many marketing elements we are responsible for.

Q. Were there specific goals that the KCBS wanted your assistance to reach, or did they want general assistance?

It was a little bit of both. Initially, the Board realized that KCBS was in a unique position but wasn’t getting the appropriate consumer or national awareness that it deserves. So strengthening the “brand” of KCBS was important, as well as bringing consistency to its promotional efforts.

Secondly, we were presented with a major PR goal, one to help break down the impression that KCBS is just a Kansas City thing. The truth about this society is that it has national appeal, with even international members! So we’ve got to help the society overcome its geographic “naming” limitations by promoting its participation throughout the entire country. Early on, there was a lot of discussion about changing the name of the society. But we advised against that because there was so much brand value established for KCBS. So now the questions we face are the standard ones like this:Why is KCBS in Birmingham? Why is KCBS in Rio Rancho? Our number one goal is to overcome that confusion and make it all understandable and welcomed by the public.

Beyond these big picture items, we’ve encountered numerous “specific” things that needed help. For starters, the web site needed to be updated and expanded. We’ve done that already, and we are continuing to expand it each month. We’ve upgraded and expanded the merchandise line. And now, we are dropping local PR into about 50 markets nationally to help promote the CBJ classes that KCBS offers….here again, breaking down the mystery of why KCBS is in town. There are literally dozens of things going on to promote and benefit KCBS through our efforts. I wish I had time to list them all, but it’s just not feasible in this one interview. We’ll share more as time permits via the KCBS web site and The Bullsheet.

Q. Once you were involved with the KCBS, were you able to bring to their attention any needs that you saw as an outsider that they were missing?

Kind of like I referred in the prior question, the big thing was the mystery of KCBS in a small American town. Our mini-tour was a huge eye opener about the disconnect for consumers at a BBQ event. So we’ve shared those sentiments, and that’s one of the fundamental opportunities that we hope to address with the Great American BBQ Tour.

Beyond that, I believe there is a lot of room for improvement in the communications to and among members of KCBS. I’ve been amazed at how many different factions there are within the society, and what a communications challenge that presents. On one hand, you’ve got event organizers and contest reps and board members. On the other, you’ve got judges, teams and just regular BBQ enthusiasts. What’s ironic is that they all love the BBQ industry, but they have different objectives and desired outcomes. And sometimes those objectives might even be in conflict! So that certainly presents a huge communications challenge that we need to find a way to help with. At the end of the day, we all need to support the mission of KCBS, even when we don’t see eye to eye on daily occurrences within the organization or the industry.

Q. From a strictly personal perspective, what would you like to see the impact of MMA be on the world of BBQ?

A rising tide of national awareness and publicity that supports all the different parties within the competitive industry. I want to see events get stronger with bigger crowds, teams to get more recognition and sponsors, and KCBS to do the same. If all that happens, we’ll see our tide rising like it did for NASCAR many decades ago, like it did for Texas Hold’em Poker just four or five years ago.

Q. Is there a one, five and ten year plan for MMA and the KCBS?

Our plans and active efforts are a lot more short term right now, simply because of the timing we faced on getting the contract approved by the Board. That happened about mid way through 07, and we were behind the 8 ball in getting everything rolling as fast as we could because BBQ season was in full swing. So to some degree, I feel like we’ve been focusing on the immediate concerns (new identity, new web site, a sponsored national tour). During the rest of 08, with the help of the Board, we hope to settle down and put long-term plans in place.

Q. Aside from the hotel discount, what benefits does the KCBS offer new members? Are there plans to extend those benefits in the future?

Don’t forget that there have always been benefits in place….like The Bullsheet, the camaraderie and support of a national network of BBQ enthusiasts. But to answer your specific question, yes, we have big plans on additional benefits. The hotel discount was just the first and fastest thing we could put in place. From there, we hope to bring other big companies into the fold with specific benefits to members. For example, we’re in talks with Costco right now for a discount offer, and we believe that a few sponsorship efforts are going to net some cool products for the entire membership base. But please understand this: we are still facing and trying to overcome the perceived geographic challenge of KCBS. Some national sponsors ask us, “why should I do something just for Kansas City?” As you can see, we have our work cut out for us.

Q. What would you like current members of the KCBS to know about MMA and your efforts?

Primarily, that we are not taking money away from KCBS, but that we’re bringing money to the table. That is happening in two ways. First, our offer to the Board – and the primary reason they chose us – was that we would provide professional marketing services (branding, PR, web, marketing) up front at NO CHARGE. Our proposition was to be paid on the back end, not the front end, which means MMA is financing all of these efforts on behalf of KCBS. This provided security to the Board so that they weren’t spending dues on our services, and the promise that we only got paid if our efforts helped to grow the society and its sponsorship program. What most folks don’t realize is that this is a HUGE risk for my company. We basically are rolling the dice and committing our services without a guarantee of payment. The contract is complicated as a result of that, but in no way does it hurt KCBS. The society is getting the benefit of a professional agency without the up front cost, and I dare say that’s something that no other agency in America would have provided to KCBS.

Secondly, our national sponsorship efforts will bring new revenue to KCBS. That means new benefits can be passed along to members, or that KCBS can invest in new initiatives like scholarship or education programs. Regardless of how the revenue is used, KCBS will become a stronger and more financially secure society thanks to our sponsorship efforts.

Hopefully, one day, even our critics will understand the risk we took to help grow and benefit KCBS, and they will welcome our involvement.

Q. What would you like non-members of the KCBS to know about the organization?

That when it comes to anything BBQ (contests, fundraising, expertise, recipes, etc…), KCBS is truly “American’s BBQ Experts.” And that if they love barbeque, they should join our society to promote our mission.

Q. What is the goal of the Great American BBQ Tour? Is the tour an attempt to support the current BBQ scene or is it to bring BBQ to a new audience? Will the tour be making stops at events that are on the Q’ing fringe, like New York, Boston, Seattle or Vancouver?

It’s definitely designed to bring KCBS and our mission to a new audience. It’s a consumer-driven tour, and it’s a sponsored tour. The important thing to keep in mind about those facts is this: we have an opportunity to promote KCBS on some one else’s nickel, and as a result, we have to incorporate sponsors’ messages as an integral part of the demonstrations.

So while this isn’t covering all aspects of BBQ (what kind of smokers exist, what it takes to create true BBQ, etc…), it’s still a terrific outreach program that will allow us to make the connection with consumers about what KCBS’s involvement is in that particular town (sanctioning the event, how we judge, how we determine what great BBQ is, why someone should join KCBS…etc.).

One day, I hope we can have an expanded, or additional tour, that focuses completely on the industry and what all is involved. But KCBS simply doesn’t have the resources to do that yet. (Perhaps some smoker companies will join us on that mission in the future by bringing the necessary funds to the table….and if they are interested, I’m all ears!)

And yes, we’re going to some events that aren’t even KCBS sanctioned. Do I think that’s a bad proposition? Absolutely not. It’s like taking our message to the “unchurched.” Everyone in our industry already knows about KCBS and what its significance is……so taking the message to new frontiers is in direct support of KCBS’s mission.

Will we hit the fringe markets? Probably not in 08, but if we achieve our goals in the future, I would say yes. With the right attitude, relationships and support, I believe we can accomplish a LOT of good, new initiatives for KCBS. And that’s why I will continue listening to all ideas and any potential sponsors so that we can charge that hill as fast as possible.


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