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Published June 20th 2016

Interview: Actioning Insights at the World’s Largest Uniform Company

We took some time to discuss how the world's largest uniform company, Cintas, innovates in this exclusive interview.

Cintas might just be the biggest brand you’ve never heard of. It’s a B2B service provider, but you’ll probably know it another way.It’s the world’s largest uniform company.

When you enter a Ritz-Carlton, and the bellman opens the door for you, that’s a Cintas uniform.

When you go to Starbucks, that green apron. That’s a Cintas product.

When you get something delivered by a UPS driver, that brown uniform. That’s a Cintas product.

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Troy Pfeffer is the firm’s intelligence director, and spoke with Brandwatch about the fascinating things he’s trying to do at Cintas.

“My role is essentially that I look at what’s happening outside of the company, find out what’s happening there and then bring it inside the company.

Those who are tasked with managing the company can see the insights I’ve uncovered, and then they can use that information relative to what they’re trying to do.”

Putting intelligence to work

For many B2B brands, marketing means little more than reactively managing the communication when things go wrong.

Troy reveals that until recently, Cintas didn’t place too much importance on its brand.

“Historically, we have never done true branding – whether advertising, marketing, anything. We’ve never done that because we’ve always felt that the focus should be on the customer. It’s about the customer’s needs.”

That has all changed this year, as Cintas is beginning to take marketing more seriously.

“Just a couple of months ago we launched our very first national brand campaign. We’ve done some pretty slick ads.

For the first time ever we’re doing national TV, radio, print, digital; everything – and we’re going to run this for at least three years. So it’s a big deal at Cintas. We’re finally calling out our brand, and what our brand can be in the marketplace.”

For a brand to be taking its first major steps into a nationwide initiative, it’s undoubtedly a big investment that will take some adjusting to.

Like so many other brands spending lots on marketing, Cintas is keen to make sure the investment is worth it. Troy explains that there are two key returns that his employer wants to see off the back of the campaign.

“One is just simple awareness. When you ask somebody about Cintas, they just don’t know who we are because our products are not the first thing that somebody might think of.

But if you say that UPS brown uniform, or that Starbucks green apron, then people start to realize who we are. So I’d say success with our new campaign is general awareness for Cintas. And then number two, we’d like to see something as it relates to a sales increase.”


Critical to measuring this kind of success is a comprehension of just how well the campaigns are driving awareness.

Social listening presents Cintas with the chance to track this over time, and in particular how it fares against key competitors.

“We set up various topics and subjects, and of course make sure we look at competitors.

So what we’re doing is we’re monitoring the public voice as it relates to this new brand launch that we’ve done. We want to see what the public in general is saying on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, you name it.

We not only want to know what people are saying about the campaign, but also if the perception towards the brand is changing in general as a result.”

For Troy, the best results so far seem to be coming from research that couples traditional qualitative techniques with analysis of online conversation.

“We want to see what the customer base is saying about the competition to see what mistakes they might be making, using social and primary research. This is then allowing us to learn from those mistakes. “

With campaign tracking, there’s always a temptation to focus on the monthly data, and the flavour of the day.

Most people working in digital will typically have an outlook of maybe 3-12 months in advance, and the same is true for those working with Troy. However, he’s quick to warn against short-term thinking.

“Our company has always been an operations based company. So as a result, our time horizon is usually quarter to quarter to quarter, right?

We make our numbers this quarter, then next quarter, then the following quarter. Well, senior leadership, by using our intelligence function, is getting the right people to start looking further out as it pertains to strategic planning, product development, new offerings in our portfolio.

So a challenge for me is how can we get Cintas to look further out into the horizon, and to stay innovative? Because when you think about what we do, it’s not really that fancy. It’s shirts and pants.

But there’s going to be disruption there, just like in every other industry. There’s going to be new business services that we can offer our customer base before someone else does. So that’s kind of the focus that I worry about.”


Preparing for the future certainly sounds wise, but how can a business like Cintas truly know what to expect in the coming months and years?

Regardless of data source, Troy insists that trend monitoring is central to working out how the company should be planning for what comes next.

“We are starting a new idea within intelligence, and it’s all wrapped around that concept of getting leadership to look further out into the future.

So the idea is mega trend monitoring. There are a lot of companies out there that will identify mega trends, and there are only going to be a few of them at a time that are readily acceptable or relevant to Cintas.

So the question now is how do we take those mega trends, and apply it to our roadmap? That’s the step that we’re taking now.”

Maturing an intelligence function

Troy was the brainchild behind Cintas’ intelligence operation almost a decade ago now.

Over such a timeframe, he has been able to build a structure that supports multiple datasets and systems, with sophisticated linkages to allow for seamless analysis.

Troy suggests that tackling this is only half of the problem, and that working out how to extract value from that is a battle still not totally won.

“All of the pieces are starting to come together, and everything should be able to talk to one another so to speak, but now the question is: okay, what do we do with it all? How do we properly leverage it? How can we get something out of all the work that we’re doing?

So, for example, I wanted to make sure that our social listening technology would communicate with the intelligence portal that we use, with our CRM that we use, with the various other databases we use.

It’s really a small group of about three to four people that actively work together with these new systems, and softwares, and technologies but I think keeping the team small actually makes this easier.”

A collaborative, multi-disciplinary team for intelligence technologies makes sense on paper, but how that works in practice can still be a gnarly issue for many firms.

Another insight revealed by Troy is that there’s no point starting with technology. Instead, he rightly states, the conversation should begin with the problem.

“We’ll recognize a need. We’ll look for solutions. We’ll make sure those solutions can work together. We will then go to senior leadership, and say here’s what we need to do as an organization.


We’ll get senior leadership to buy in, and they’ll push it out to the organization.”

Convincing leadership to invest in analytics can be problematic itself, as any analyst will tell you after a long sigh.

Troy believes it’s a mindset that many working in intelligence naturally have, and has advice for anyone attempting to expand the analytics functions inside a business.

“When you first get into intelligence, the natural tendency is to focus on that long term horizon. You think: I’m in intelligence, I’m going to help my company plan for the future.

So inevitably somebody’s going to come to you, and say hey, what are you working on? I once got some great feedback that you can’t do that starting out.

Whatever kind of intelligence work you do has to have a short term payback, at least in the early days. You have to show that you’re providing value on a very frequent basis.

That helps build a foundation for intelligence to grow within the company.”

As is common in these kinds of topics, eventually everything does return to that same old ROI chestnut.

In terms of that value he initially referred to, Troy continues to explain that essentially intelligence teams have to get close to some kind of monetary value on the work they do. For Cintas, it began with sales.

“At Cintas, it was all about our sales. And within sales, it was all about how can we beat three competitors? How do we beat competitor A, B, and C?

They all operate differently: they operate differently relative to Cintas, and relative to each other. So one of the first things that I did in this new intelligence function was to figure out how they operate, how it pertains to Cintas, and then how we can react in response to increase sales, and fortunately we were able to do that.”

Actually using the insights

Another regular theme we’ve witnessed in Brandwatch’s interviews with leaders in the space is ensuring that insights are truly actionable.

This is a topic Troy has bundles of experience with.

“I think Cintas, at this point in its intelligence development, is we’re past the point of trying to sell the function itself. Everyone understands that intelligence is good. What we’re doing now is we’re getting it to a more actionable stage, and away from pretty looking reports.”

A move away from regular, well-presented reporting might sound like anathema to most intelligence analysts. Troy tries to elaborate.

“So what we’re doing now is we’re getting away from I call it formal report production. We’re not doing that anymore. If we see something that has the potential for something, we’ll analyze it right there, we’ll pull in the right people right then and there.

We’ll get that collaborative discussion happening, and we’ll do the intelligence work and the activity almost in real time.”

It probably sounds like a dream workplace to some of our readers, who are sadly used to producing insightful, well-researched reports that end up as unopened attachments in other people’s inboxes.

Troy admits it has been a difficult journey, but has discovered a few ways of working to make sure his work gets used effectively.

“If I want to make sure that action will occur on something that I produce, I will involve the person who I believe will act on it. I’ll involve them in the creation of it.

I’ll share an example: if I see something happening in a business division, we see some new developments that are happening, say with product development.

What I’ll do is I’ll do some preliminary research and get some information around the topic. Then I’ll take that, and simply start having conversations with the right people in product development.

You know, I’ll give them my opinion. I’ll tell them ‘here’s why I think we need to look at this, here’s what I think it means. What do you think it means?’

Then from that stems a collaborative discussion that ultimately results in collaborative intelligence that will then be acted upon. And because the individual who acts on it was involved in the creation of it, there’s a higher likelihood of it being acted on.”

A big thanks to Troy for speaking with us. This interview is one in a series with industry experts – you can expect more every week.

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