In this episode, we speak to John Sheldon, the CMO of SmileDirectClub, a leading provider of dental alignment solutions.
SmileDirectClub was founded on one simple belief: everyone deserves a smile they love. We are the industry pioneer and the first direct-to-consumer medtech platform for transforming smiles. Through our cutting-edge teledentistry technology and vertically integrated model, we are revolutionizing the oral care industry. Our clear aligner treatment addresses the large and underserved global orthodontics market. An estimated 85% of people worldwide suffer from malocclusion, yet less than 1% receive treatment annually. Our goal is to improve penetration into this untapped market by democratizing access to a more affordable, convenient, and accessible solution for a straighter smile.
John Sheldon is the Chief Marketing Officer at SmileDirectClub. In this role, he focuses on delivering the best possible experience to customers in order to continue growing SmileDirectClub and reach more people searching for affordable access to a straighter and more confident smile. As the Chief Marketing Officer, John oversees all digital media, paid media, creative development, social media, communication tactics, and experiential initiatives for the brand. As a results-driven marketing leader, John continually builds a track-record of success and is a champion for creating strategic plans based on key insights.
John has a strong background in digital transformation and innovation across a range of industries. He previously served as Chief Revenue Officer of Fresh Direct, a food tech company and the Nolrtheast's leading online fresh food grocer. He was also the Senior Vice President of Innovation Portfolios for Mastercard driving innovation globally for the company, and the Head of Strategy at eBay Enterprises Marketing Solutions. He has launched and worked with dozens of digital-first brands and lead the strategy to bring many great brands into the digital ecosystem.
John earned a B.S. in Economics with a concentration in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
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Peter: [00:00:00] Hey, John. So great to have you on the next CMO podcast. I'm really excited for this conversation. And maybe we can set the table by having you tell our audience a little bit about you and a little bit about smile, direct club.
John: Sure Peter. Thank you. First of all, for having me on, on the podcast, I'm looking forward to the conversation. My name is John Sheldon. I'm the chief marketing officer today at smile direct club. Smile direct club sells aligners that straighten your teeth. And we also have oral care products such as whitening to help where you get the confidence that comes from a smile that you love.
I've been you know, in and around eCommerce and, and direct to consumer businesses for. Almost 25 years now since kind of the Dawn of the internet and you know, tried a bunch of different angles when I was young and getting in worked in technology, worked in through marketing, did some consulting work, but really marketing was the door that, that just fit for me.
And, you know, learned around, you know, how to market [00:01:00] in this, you know, digital age and worked with a lot of companies that were trying to do the digital transformation, try to say, you know, what part does digital have in. Our ecosystem. And along the way, I've worked in consultancies, I've worked at agencies and client side and you know, done that most recently for the last four years at at smile direct club, which has been a really fun and interesting ride.
Peter: Well, great. And for our audience who is hearing this in audio only, you should know that John has a great smile by the way. So it shouldn't be surprising. I assume you're a customer either that, or you've got amazing genetics, I can't quite figure out which one. But he does have a gleaming bright, straight smile.
So so you're, I'm sure you're a good advertisement for the brand. I, I did do a little bit of a huge try. Yeah. I did do a little bit of research to understand a little bit about the, the companies I've heard of it before. And. And of course know the category reasonably well because it's a, a fairly hot category these days.
I think, but just to, [00:02:00] to give our listeners a sense of the scale sounds like about $600 million in annual revenue, a public company growing pretty briskly about 20% ish or give or take year over year. So a meaningful company with with a, a very. Broad reach and sounds like some really great potential to continue the expansion of the business.
And I suspect that in this kind of a business, especially because it's a consumer facing business marketing has to play a really central role to in, in the company and driving growth overall. So tell me a little bit about how, how smile direct club thinks about marketing in its role, in the overall growth of the.
John: Yeah. So the whole company is, is only eight years old and that's eight years from, from, you know, Jordan, Kasman the founder sending an email to his partner and, and, and, and the current CEO, David Kaman saying, Hey, you think gonna do this? That was eight years [00:03:00] ago. And now we're here and really in earnest.
We've been we've been around for about five years with marketing you know, leading the way for growth. Right. And you know, and for us, because we were originally a kind of disruptor in this space, you know, coming direct to consumer, as opposed to selling through orthodontists, for example you know, we we really had to explain to people exactly how this works.
And so marketing played a huge role in that process, right? We, and we also have to communicate other key points of credibility, right? We have doctors that are, you know, behind your treatment plans, just the same. And, and, you know, we have outcomes that are, are, are equivalent, et cetera. And so marketing plays a really important role in educating consumers, in giving, giving them the confidence to, you know, put us in their hands.
If you. And, but also in, in terms of telling the stories of consumers, whenever you have a transformation product, right. And our products is a transformation product. It's the stories of consumers that portray the power of your brand the most. And so we use it. We use it for that [00:04:00] and, and, and whether it's putting somebody on in a TV spot or really just working through and showcasing some of the before and after photos that, that come through and people share with us you know, back with, with back with prospects, you know, prospective customers, you know, marketing is the one that's kind, you know, stitching that all together.
What's interesting. And you know, you won't hear a lot of CMOs say this, but actually we're becoming, we're going from marketing led organization. To an innovation led organization. And, and actually that transition's one I totally support. And I'm, I'm excited about because first of all, it makes the marketing all the easier cause we have more to say.
But also it, you know, it allows it allows us to, to point to improve customer experiences that we're adding to the mix that you know, will help us differentiate even further from, from competitors.
Peter: Well, it's, it's an amazing story on a lot of levels, John, and I, I want to come back to your. Innovation kind of background and approach because you're, you've got a really [00:05:00] fascinating background to me, but let's just pause a second and think about the fact that in eight years, and as you said, really five years, this company went from almost zero to 600 million run rate of, of revenue, a public company with with thousands of consumers.
I just looked at some of your stats.
John: 1.7 million.
Peter: 1.7 million smiles made since inception is the way you think about it. And, and clearly marketing is central. I, I looked at your Q1. 2022 financial results infographic, which is really nicely done by the way, I assume your team does it. And in one of the key highlights is that it's 60% aided brand awareness in the us.
Which is pretty incredible. And again, I think a lot of people know about this category of of, you know, dental alignment kind of products. But the interesting thing that you all have done is. Leaned into this whole telemedicine model which does a couple of things. [00:06:00] One, it really enables people to partake in this kind of dental care and in improvement in one, in, in an area where people aren't very comfortable these days, especially going into a medical office, if they don't need.
But two O the geographic reach has to be freakishly amazing because if you don't have a local dentist who has the capability to do this, you can do that through telemedicine, which is really exciting. And I, I imagine that has to be a big part of the growth. And of course the other part of the value proposition is that you, you, then it, it sounds like you're dramatically less expensive than sort of the in-office traditional kind of approach.
So it's a really disruptive idea. And, and as a marketer, John, which of those sort of elements of differentiation do you, or, or do you take all of them and sort of package them up into the way that you communicate the value prop to the consumer?
John: Yeah. So Peter, you, you hit on the big [00:07:00] three that we launched a company with, right. Access to care. And for people who never had access before 60% of the counties in the United States do not have an orthodontist. We can service all of those. Affordability you know, we are 60% less than braces in Invisalign.
And so we, we just opened the market up to a set of customers that never had access to key joining solutions before. And so, you know, really was about, you know, how you bring them into the marketplace and then the convenience of, of telehealth. And so when we launched the. Very clearly it was a, it was a more, more focused on that access and affordability conversation and, and really enabling a new set of consumers to come into the marketplace.
But along the way, building a, a business that will service them what we've come to under, you know, understand and come to believe is that. You know, we're, we're probably the right solution for 80, 90% of all customers looking to have their teeth straightened. And so really trying to open up the, the entire market.
And that's where the convenience part really plays a important [00:08:00] factor for higher household income for parents of teens. Right. Imagine your kid getting their teeth straightened, but you don't have to take 'em outta school every two weeks. Right? It's a, it's a really wonderful way. Of of of kind of going through the service and, and, and ending up with the very similar outcomes.
Peter: Great. Well that it it's really amazing. John, I mean, it sounds like it's it's an amazing value. Proposition's gotta be an exciting place to be. One thing to be helpful to understand is give me a sense of your overall marketing strategy. What's your, what's your top level approach when you think about the marketing strategy for smile direct.
John: Yeah. I mean, our business was born out of kind of a traditional Dr. Mentality direct to consumer mentality. And so the critical things we're trying to do is, is get people to allow us to explain the story to them, right. And that starts with, you know, creating a brand that they can feel comfortable with and familiar with getting.[00:09:00]
To the site where we can get the them as a lead and then using CRM, primarily as a way to kind of tell that story about how we can transform their lives, whether it's, you know, again, an access message, an affordability message or a convenience message. And so, you know, we you know, Almost every channel, right?
We're in TV, we're in, you know, you know, paid social, you know, we're, you know, heavy in, in our paid search environments you know, doing things like podcasts, all that, and all the opportunities to, to get in front of consumers, let them know there's a new and better way to straighten their teeth and then get them to, to, to learn more.
And, and once they raise their hand, our CRM is incredibly powerful at pulling people through pulling people through the process and ultimately. Getting them into, into, into aligners.
Peter: Well, it it's, it's interesting that I'm I'm, I'm glad you brought up the CRM, cuz I was gonna ask you a bit John, about your. Your approach and your overall sales cycle, because [00:10:00] obviously you've got a direct to consumer offer, but it's a highly considered thing, even though it's much less expensive than the competition, you're still spending maybe a couple thousand dollars for, for a service.
So that's something that I suspect has a, a longer consideration. It's not like you're, you're buying gum at the store. So tell me a little bit about. How you think about nurturing and sort of developing customer interest over time with your marketing strategy?
John: Yeah. So quick question, because, you know, we actually do see people who become a lead and convert almost immediately as a, as a part, a portion of our, of our customer base. But that just means they've been thinking about this, that we didn't, you know, and not, not with us, but thinking about this for.
Sometimes years before they, they show up at our doorstep and, and, you know, maybe we made something more affordable or, or maybe they just came across us. But, but you know, then after that, there are a, a, a lot of places [00:11:00] for a consumer to kind of get lost in the, in the process today, right. With, you know, there's insurance and, and, you know, they wanna find out, you know, where the doctor is and, you know, they have to look at reviews and talk to their friends and like 60% of people talk to their own.
All of these things are, are, are part of people's process. And obviously the, the ways that we can, you know, shorten up that, that that cycle, the, the better off that we, that we are, because we, we joke often that, that nobody wants to eat a cold, hot dog. And, and when they show up at the website, that hot dog is warm, but, you know, three weeks later it starts to cool off.
And so what we have to do is, is to make sure that we continue to reinforce the reason they were there in the first place. And actually we have. A smile assessment on our website that it's a kind of a quiz that, you know, lets us know whether or not you'd be a good candidate for, for for aligners.
And one of the questions that we ask is a, is a chief motivation and we actually tailor a lot of the messaging to that transformation [00:12:00] goal and that motivation, right? Oftentimes it's. A wedding or it's an event coming up or honestly, it's part of a broader transformation in that consumer's lives.
And so we're just trying to find, find the, you know, stay with the consumer for that reason why they were interested in straightening their teeth and make sure they remember that because we've primarily adults as customers. And that means that they've lived with these, you know, UN straight teeth again sometimes for years and years.
And so. It's there's an element of there's no necessary urgency per se. And so we have to, you know, look to find ways to create urgency for them, by letting them know, Hey, you know, by Christmas you can you can have that smile you love or for that big event or what have you. And so we you know, we spend a lot of our time in our marketing area, making sure that that we relate to the consumer based on what they've told us, their journey is, is.
Peter: So the it's fascinating, John and I, I was gonna ask a little bit about your approach to personalizing these [00:13:00] campaigns to the, to the customers and prospects based on based on, you know, their, their main reason for, for showing up. So I, I think that's a fascinating approach and and it's, it's a very sophisticated approach to doing this kind of marketing.
So do you. Break out your campaigns that way. Do you have campaigns that are, that, that are about where everything from messaging and creative and strategy is about? Someone trying to get a, a better smile for a big event as an example.
John: Yeah. So we, we do do that. We, we have some messaging specifically around around big events. Typically weddings is a. Big one for us, but, you know, but we also, you know, so if I was gonna break down our, our key messaging pillars, you know, one is just education, even though we've been at it for five years, there's still a lot of people who don't know that this is the better way to, to straighten your teeth.
And so just helping educate people about that is one group. The second is what I'll call urgency drivers, whether that's talking about events that are coming [00:14:00] or you know, connecting with them about about a promotion that we're doing to, to, to tr kind of pull them through. And then then credibility plays a huge role, right?
So that's where we put our doctors forward and they talk about why they like working with smile, direct club to help straighten P people's teeth. And then, and then, you know, lastly, you know, we, we, we hit on those testimonials and we hit 'em really hard and, and let people tell their own stories.
And so it allows prospective customers to, to find a, find a connection you know, to, to, to their own story.
Peter: No, that's, that's great, John and I, I love the idea of testimonial based marketing. I think it can be incredibly powerful and especially when you combine it with this idea of of really sophisticated personalization. So I assume then you can sort of map. These testimonials to the segment of your customer base.
If you're someone getting the new smile for the wedding or someone who's going through self-improvement can you map those testimonials and, and serve those [00:15:00] up to those specific people at the right time?
John: When we have the data we do that we, we, we map the stories together so that people you know, can see themselves in the, in these people. Who've already been through the process and, and it gives the motivation to move, to get to the other side of the transformation.
Peter: Oh, that, that, that's amazing. So it sounds like you've got a really great, very sophisticated marketing approach. I know that I, I wanted to talk a little bit about your background and I wanted to ask a little bit about how you structure marketing overall. I, I found your background really interesting because you early in your career, you know, you were sort of I.
I, I wrote in my notes from Oracle to Ogilvy, which is an interesting transition. Right? So early on in your career, you were more, it sounds like maybe a technical or solutions consultant or something like that. And then you made this transition to, to Ogilvy in the strategy area. So talk to me a little bit about that.
So how, how did you, how did you get your sort of your first break in, [00:16:00] into marketing? Was it when you went into the agency world and, and what motivated.
John: Yeah. So, so it was actually one the in between steps. So when I joined Oracle, I wanted to be involved in the kind of this, this internet thing that I didn't know what it was. And and I had been working actually as part of think, you know, go Fornet cetera. When I was in college on for the national center on adult literacy, which was at the university of Pennsylvania and.
And so it already kinda had some familiarity with the ability what hyperlink documents can can really do. And so you know, got excited about that. Learned a lot about it. And my wife was already at Oracle and she said, they're asking about that internet thing you can't stop talking about. You should see if they, you know, they're looking for people who know anything about it, you should come talk to my boss.
And so, you know, went in later that week and he said, tell me everything, you know, took me about four minutes. He said, OK. That's that's as much as we know we're hired. And, and, and we were off to the races and. That was a, that was a great start. And I primarily focused on the tech technical side and helping create technical solutions for people that leverage internet [00:17:00] technologies.
But you know, I, I went from there into a, kinda a product management role for a actually for a company that built eCommerce sites. And then from there moved into a consulting firm where I came in as kinda the eCommerce quote expert and, and they, you know, taught me CRMs. And I would say that's really where my knowledge accelerated incredibly during that time.
And. Actually founded a company with several the directors in, in Degos when, when the dot bomb thing hit. And that could be still in existence, up in Boston, great company called customer portfolios who help people with their customer data. And so that was kinda my, and, and we focused on you know, customer marketing and, and email marketing and, and so on.
And, and that's, they use kinda eCommerce and, and CRM combination to like to open the door in working. Big brands. So we're trying to figure out digital back when I went, went over to Alvie and and that's what, and that's what I, I, I got a chance to [00:18:00] do, and it was really, really fun to help those businesses to grow.
Peter: Yeah, well, it's, it's amazing. And I've seen this theme a lot, John, that a, a lot of really leading direct to consumer marketing executives have just a very deep technical background because of the analytical approach, the, the kind of systems thinking that you need to put into play to, to, to execute this kind of strategy.
And even what you were just talking about with the idea of a highly segmented. Kind of marketing approach requires not only a, an understanding of consumer marketing and segmentation, but also the technology side of it to figure out how to make all these pieces fit together. Talk to us a little bit about what your, what your overall tech stack looks like, John for a co a company like yours.
I, I know there's probably a lot to it. So just give, give us the high level view of sort of, what are the major components of your overall tech.[00:19:00]
John: Yeah. So, you know, if you start, if you start at the core, which is our site our site is. Is this stack that consists of a tool called Contentful, which is a, had this content management tool. And then, and then commerce tools, which is a headless eCommerce cart. And so those two things combined, you know, fit are, are really the core of our site and I, and we'll tone and tons and tons of tools on there.
But one of the ones that I should mention. That we use a lot is a test and learn tool called Optimizly. And so all part of that kind of D to C test and learn world we're, we're running dozens of experiments on our site at any given time. And, and so. Optimizly does that for us on the CRM side, really at the core is the Salesforce marketing cloud.
And I've been working with that stack for almost 20 years now when it was exact target and, and moved over to Salesforce, it's incredibly powerful. And we use it to its fullest extent. You know, and we use that for email. SMS in up messaging, you know, and and even, you know, starting [00:20:00] to do some chat messaging as well.
And so you know, lots of opportunities for us to continue to evolve and tweak that space, but it's you know, at this point it's a, it's a really important part of our stack and the content that we've built there. You know, we've, we've also kind of tested into over the last five years, very, very diligent. Elsewhere in, in, in, in the world, we've got, you know, reputation management tools we've got you know, we've got, you know, a lot of tools and then, and obviously we've got our ad stack, right. And so, you know, we're working with a number of different vendors on the on the, on the programmatic side as well.
Peter: And, and tell me a little bit about the, how you've organized your team, John. So obviously you probably have a strong technical foundation to your team, but how, how does a, what does a team look like? Give us the general scope and scale. I obviously nothing proprietary, but he helpful to understand, especially for some of our listeners who may not understand how, how you do this at this scale.
What, what does the team.
John: Yeah. [00:21:00] So really it fits into the team today fits into four key bucket. Number one, we an in-house creative team and I'll include brand strategy research, you know, you know, planning, integrated marketing and the creative teams kind of all sit in that, underneath that bucket. The second is a, is the coms team, right?
So doing PR cons, corporate coms, crisis coms you know influencer, social media, reputation management, all of that stack. The third bucket is our digital experience bucket. So that's the site, the app. And then the CRM, right. Really the core of how that customer interfaces with, with, with our brand.
And then lastly is the paid media team, you know, guys out spending the money, right. And all of these different channels you know, helping, helping, you know, drum up demand you know, for the business. And so kind of fits into those four buckets. The team's about a hundred people globally. We operate in six countries but we actually manage.
Primarily through [00:22:00] a centralized structure.
Peter: No, that's that? That's great. It's really helpful to understand for, for this kind of scale what, what kind of team you put together? And it sounds like they've been incredibly effective. I mean, if you look at the growth that you've achieved as as a company and in a very short period of time, it seems like you guys are doing a really great job.
B before we're, we're gonna have to wrap up in a couple of minutes, unfortunately, already, but I, I, I did wanna sort of pop up a couple of levels in, in sort of think about one concept with you is in again, if I go back to your financial results summary, one of the things that you talk about is the, the 60% plus aided brand awareness in the.
So when, when you talk about that, especially it's, this is in the context of your investor relations material. How do you think about attributing value to that kind of an, of, of awareness for smile direct, John.
John: Yeah. So Peter one example of how [00:23:00] that has value for our business is we can actually, even though we're so marketing dependent as a business, it allows us to do, you know, flighting and pulsing in ways that when we were. When we were younger and hadn't quite built that we needed to be always on. And so instead, now we can do a little bit more concentrating with some, some pulsing.
It allows us to save a little bit of money in our marketing. It allows us to, you know, remain top of mind even when we're not we're not screaming from the mountain tops. So you know, having a, a great brand awareness number, you know, really helps the business actually. This year, we're kind of changing the focus away from that aided number to the unaided number.
Right. And now I wanna get, I want people to think of us unprompted as, as players in this marketplace and there's really only one other Brandt straightening and that's Invisalign. And so, you know, my job is the turn, this whole thing into a two horse race. Right. Make people think, okay. There's there's Invisalign.
If I wanna spend more money and go to an orthodontist, or I can work with [00:24:00] small direct club, get an expert doctor working with me, but I can do that for, for 60% less. And, and you know, and for again, we think for 80, 90% of, of cases, you know, we've got the superior solution. You know, we've got 24 7.
Support, we've got a lifetime smile guarantee, which they can't do because they sell through channel. And, and again, one of the critical elements of our business model is the fact that we're full stack top to bottom. Right. We, you know, I can look at the data and know. What advertisement to introduce you to our brand all the way to who made your aligners and, you know, are you wearing your retainer at night?
And so the fact that we can see that top to bottom allows us to, you know, really customize and tailor that customer experience all the more fully.
Peter: Yeah, that's amazing, John. And it's funny. I was just thinking, as you were describing that structural benefit you have of not having a channel it's, it's, it's almost like you're the, the, the Tesla of, of this world, right. [00:25:00] Where they they've been able to really disrupt the way. Product gets to consumer and service can happen because they of course own the whole thing.
And, and it's very similar in your model, which is really fascinating. I, I was gonna ask though, so as you change your shift shift your focus here over the, the next period of time from and, and I, I love the concept of evolving Beyond the the aided awareness to the unaided awareness. Does that change your strategy at all?
As you think about your overall marketing strategy?
John: Doesn't change your strategy overall, although we'll lean in more heavily to some of the I'll call Theron sharp type Mentalities about being physically present and mentally present for your, for your customers on a consistent basis, your consistency of iconography and, you know, and brand colors voiced all of that.
And we've done so much of that over the last time period. We've built a character you [00:26:00] know, indeed in our spots that really represents, you know, one part of our story. We. You know, we've, you know, been really choiceful about leaning into how we use the purple color, you know, blue and purple color that we is our core brand color.
We built an audio mnemonic that we, you know, tag so much of our, our work with now. And then, you know, we've really worked on. You know, putting the right level of playfulness into our voice to make us accessible, but serious. And so all of that together and reinforcing that over and over again is what really helps you move from, from that unaided awareness number and, and get you, sorry, from the aided awareness number into that unaided awareness number that we're, that we're really looking for.
Peter: Yeah, you can really it's it's, it's great to hear because you can hear in the way that you describe your evolution here, John, the, the value of sort of the, the, the, the brand coherence, the the consistency. And I, I love that you're bringing the multimedia. Kind of approach to, to your brand.
It's, [00:27:00] it's more than just an icon and it's a color. It's, it's a sound, it's an experience. It's a spokesperson character, et cetera. So getting really aligned on all of that, I'm sure is a key part of how you can successfully get to this next point where you, you can really drive up that, that unaided awareness in the category.
And I'm excited to see what you do in, in the next year or two to, to drive that up. Well, believe it or not, John, we're actually at the end of our time. And that means I have one more quick question to ask you that we like to ask everyone. And it's what advice would you give to current or aspiring CMOs?
John: So Peter, I think the piece of advice I would give is in all the areas of marketing that you're responsible for. Work with your teams to build systems that you trust in technology. I mean, a system of making decisions, a system of operating the plane, if you will, right [00:28:00] systems that you trust, whether it's how you're gonna tweak and optimize your, your marketing spend or having a clear and consistent, you know, brand you know, book that you, that you stay with across your, across your marketing stack, you need to.
Systems that you can trust, lean into and fall back on when you, when, you know, when you're asking hard questions about the, about your business. And so it makes bringing on talent more E you know, easier. It makes retaining talent easier. It makes decisions cleaner because you, you have these things that you trust and can fall back.
Peter: Oh, makes a ton of sense. And we think about that a lot, John, in the area of sort of operational execution, making sure that there's just a well defined set of systems and processes to make sure that you can turn the crank as. Especially as you're growing and, and built a function at the scale that you have.
Well John Sheldon CMO of smile, direct club, this has been an [00:29:00] amazing discussion. I really appreciate your insights. You've been a fantastic guest and one of the thank you for being on the show. And thank you all for listening. If you have ideas about other guests, you'd like to hear on the show drop us an email or.
Follow us on social media and let us know what you think. And John, thanks for being part of the next CMO podcast. Appreciate it.
John: Thank you very much, Peter.