From General Mills to MeUndies to Lyft, Matt Kerbel’s experience across traditional and DTC companies has provided the perfect footing for his latest endeavor—disrupting the automotive industry and redefining the future of mobility. As head of marketing and strategy at Canoo, the electric vehicle (EV) membership company set to launch in 2021, Matt and his team are building the brand from the ground up. Here, he shares meaningful career lessons and how the brand is game-ifying customer acquisition and thinking about “phygital” experiences.
Make sure to catch Matt in conversation at our Challenger Brands Summit, March 4-5 in New York!
Why did you choose to join Canoo?
Growing up, I received a great piece of advice from my father. He told me: "When you get there, try a few things early in your career. Like relationships, you’ll learn what you want (and don’t), diversify your experience, meet incredible people and find your place along the way." I can safely say that it was advice well taken.
I have spent the past fifteen years building brands at companies of varying sizes, maturities, business models and industries. In 2016, I was fortunate to join Lyft at a time of exceptional growth. Our small team, leading marketing for southern California, quickly grew Los Angeles to be the company’s No. 1 market. It was at Lyft where I gained a deep appreciation for what solving issues related to mobility could mean for today’s cities and the next generation.
What ah-ha moments did you gain from your previous roles that you're bringing with you to Canoo?
The first is to lean into research and brand. Early in my career at General Mills and Activision, I learned the value a deep consumer truth can bring to brand building. Today, our team is fortunate to have an opportunity to build a bold new brand the right way. To do so requires empathy and understanding of what the next generation of consumers are thinking about right now, which extends beyond merely how they get around. We’ve spent a lot of time with people across the country figuring out how we might fit into their lives rather than forcing them to fit into ours. The second is the inherent value of being intentionally different and taking calculated risks. At Canoo, everything from our vehicle to the business model, to brand, to even our job titles are distinctive—because that is the mentality and commitment it will take to succeed in the automotive space.
With a subscription-based model in its early stages, how are you thinking about customer acquisition?
Our primary goal is to connect with consumers on a human level. Nearly all car companies have branding that is driven (excuse the pun) by their automobiles. The industry is set in its ways and there remains a lack of storytelling, diversity, civic responsibility and organic community building that modern consumers are seeking out when deciding on a brand.
To acquire and retain prospective members, we’re focused on educating and intriguing consumers via unexpected content and experiences they would look forward to sharing with others. For instance, our recently launched waitlist (dubbed The First Wave) represents our approach to what otherwise might have been a boring waitlist meant to drive ongoing community participation. You can sign up in seconds, move up in line by referring others and providing product feedback, and earn limited-edition swag by achieving specific referral milestones. Thousands joined the waitlist within the first several hours and buzz continues to be significant. We're really pleased with the results and excited about the potential to evolve the industry.
What are you currently working on that’s unique or innovative?
I’m incredibly proud that within six months we have revealed our first EV globally, fielded a significant consumer research project, established our brand purpose and values, launched a robust new web experience and opened our free-to-join waitlist to the public.
From a product standpoint, we are asking consumers to sign up for a digital membership to access an electric vehicle that looks like nothing else on the road and is a nod to the future. This will require campaigns that educate and excite, as well as an ecosystem of strategic partners that can ensure logistics are seamless, consistent and pleasant at launch.
From a marketing standpoint, we are cultivating an EV brand that will behave in many ways more like Supreme than Tesla. This requires a modern playbook, grounded in something Marisa Thalberg says that I love: “Look within your industry for information, and outside of your industry for inspiration.” That’s precisely what we’re doing as we refine how to present our value proposition in compelling ways that scale.
What’s the most exciting thing happening in marketing right now and how is it shaping the future?
I’m bullish on the ‘phygital’ movement—that is, the blending of the physical and digital world. Retail powerhouses like Walmart and IKEA are investing in digitization, personalization and customization, while digitally-born brands like Glossier and Everlane have built memorable retail experiences that translate to both revenue and brand building. Beyond that, we see unique pop-ups from the likes of Bumble and Pantone, to museum-style experiences like that of Refinery29’s 29 Rooms. These efforts breakthrough and gain traction because today’s consumers want both remarkable personalized and remarkable shared experiences.
"...today’s consumers want both remarkable personalized and remarkable shared experiences."
I believe we will see this trend accelerate and evolve with the advent of immersive tech like XR, as well as the interaction between physical and digital in real-time. At Canoo, we are a digitally native offering. However, we recognize the fundamental importance of bringing together our community in real life, so you’ll see much of that from us as we march towards launch in 2021.
Which entrepreneurial skills or traits have helped you most in your career?
Focus and a bias for action. Challenger brands never lack for ideas, and one of the hardest and most important things we can do as leaders is to say no. Taking the structured training I received in the corporate world and applying it to the direct-to-consumer environment has helped me develop a filter through which my teams can evaluate each opportunity.
"One of the hardest and most important things we can do as leaders is to say ‘no.’"
This has a three-fold effect: 1) effort and action focused against the activities that matter most, 2) reduced time spent on one-off, less important decisions and 3) ensured consistency in messaging across channels.
What advice would you give to other marketing pioneers?
Be true to who you are and lean into your towering strengths. Success is so often a function of the environment we surround ourselves with, so seek to work with those who appreciate and value your unique talents, perspective, and passion. That’s where the magic happens.