Can you name a company that was named by its customers? We can… it’s Big Ass Fans. We had heard of the folklore around the company name, and we were curious to know if it was true. We’d also seen the Big Ass Fans marketing team in action at trade shows and wanted to learn more. We are thrilled to talk with the folks from Big Ass Fans in this edition of our “There is a Difference” series.
Hi Alex, Thanks for joining today. Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m Alex Risen, the marketing director over at Big Ass Fans. We’re headquartered globally in Lexington, Kentucky with our global HQ campus, so that’s our main office building. That’s where I’m at right now. Then, we have a 45,000 square foot LEED Gold RD facility that’s a stone’s throw away, and then our global manufacturing operations is across the street. So, just a small little Kentucky operation that started back in 1999, and now here we are today with close to 700 global employees with sub offices in Canada, Australia, and Singapore, in addition to our US operations. We continue to go pretty fast. There’s obviously a big demand for comfort, and excited to talk to you today.
Big Ass Fans is certainly a different name for a brand. What is the backstory there?
Sure, so we started in 1999 as the HVLS Fan Company, and so most people of course had no idea what that means. Even today, we try to talk about it, and to some degree the branded search, which we can, I’m sure, deep dive a little bit more into that, but people search for Big Ass Fans. They don’t search for HVLS Fans. The founder, Carey Smith, was really trying to get this HVLS mentality, high volume, low speed, right? I can move a high volume of air at a low speed and replace the work of 50 to 70 smaller fans overhead.
So, it really was more applicable, especially being in Lexington, Kentucky with a lot of the agricultural applications. Think of a dairy barn, right? A cooler cow can produce more milk, and how do we do that really efficiently? And we could do that a lot more efficiently than the classic Lasko box fans or something that’s small, and having a bunch of those spread throughout a warehouse or a big barn space. We can cool down any creature of comfort, whether it’s cows or people, by using a bigger fan, so that was kind of the initial concept was, “Here’s this product that we have, and we know the application for it, but it’s not very memorable.”
In Lexington, again, central Kentucky, a lot of the phone calls that would come in once we did a few installations would be you’d pick up the phone, and they’d give you the “Hey, my buddy just installed one of those Big Ass Fans. He said to call you guys.” And so once you start doing that for a while, you’re like, “Wait a minute. Maybe we should do a little marketing A/B test here and put out the same collateral.” The only thing that was different was the brand name. On one hand, we had the HVLS Fan Company collateral. On the other hand, we had the Big Ass Fans collateral.
That was still back in the days where direct mail was still really prevalent and that kind of thing, so the phone number that rang more was for Big Ass Fans; not just that it rained more, but it actually brought in better quality leads and a quicker conversion time as well, so not just the interest from people saying, “Hey, your name is Big Ass Fans. That’s kind of neat, your core. What do you guys do?” But it actually drove sales growth, so that’s kind of the quick version of how it went. Obviously, here we are today and still Big Ass Fans, and just continued to add new product lines to that as well.
People react emotionally to your company name. Why are you embracing and having fun with the negative comments in your promotions?
Sure. When you go back to the original name change, from HVLS Fan Company to Big Ass Fans, and you start kind of peeling back some of the layers of that story, there was actually a councilman from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County government, which is the local right government here in Lexington, Fayette County in Kentucky. He kind of made it his mission that he was going to get Big Ass Fans painted over, because we had it as a mural on a sign that was on a very public road. In his opinion, that was vulgarity, so that’s going to have to be painted over. He lost that battle. Again, here we are today, right?
I think it’s been a little bit of that mentality of a lot of startups and that entrepreneurial spirit of, “This is mine. I’m going to do it the way I’m going to do it. I’m going to be successful, and you can’t really tell me otherwise,” but you also can’t have a name like Big Ass Fans without backing it up. If it was just a funny name, and we didn’t have quality products, and we didn’t have great customer service with higher net promoter scores than the likes of Apple, Tesla, Google, then you don’t survive, right? You’re a flash in the pan. You’re the novelty. “Oh, that’s a funny name. I’ll get it as almost like a gimmick-gift type thing, a T-shirt, or something with the logo on it.”
But that’s not what we’re doing, right? We’ve backed it up for more than 20 years, and I think that now Big Ass Fans, while it still to somebody who’s new and hasn’t heard that, it’s, “Oh. That’s interesting,” and “That’s a funny name.” It gets the foot in the door, but then when you start looking more at, “What do you guys really do?”, and I think that’s what starts to peel back again, that mentality of, “Oh. You make really good products.” Our tagline right now, “Exceptionally engineered,” again, you can’t say something like “exceptionally engineered” unless you can back it up. We do take pride in a premium quality product that’s going to outlast anything else on the market, and when you look at something like a fan, right?
I mean, nobody thinks about this highly commoditized market that most people haven’t touched for more than 100 years. It’s the same stuff that’s been out there with very little innovation, no pioneering spirit, and now you have somebody to come in there and disrupt that market and say, “Yeah. It seems so simple. It’s just a couple of blades on a motor, and you spin it around, right? You move there.” But when you kind of rethink about all of the problems that our customers face, I think it’s really been more of a, we can have fun with the very few people now who still don’t like the name, because there’s so many advocates and ambassadors for the brand out there now that champion it.
If you look at social media for us, they almost come to the defense. We still post some hate mail stuff every so often, but most of that’s old. We still do some direct mail, and we send stuff out, but we don’t get that response anymore, right? We don’t necessarily get it at the same level that we used to, but there’s always a few people on social media that still chime in and say, “What a ridiculous name. I’d never buy from you.” Well, the reality is they probably weren’t our customer anyway, right? If you’re willing to jeopardize the right solution for your employees or for your customers because you didn’t like the name, plenty of schools and churches have called us up, and they have our products.
We also offer a Big Fans package. Externally, we call it the Big Fans Package. Internally, we call it the Assless Package, right? We still have fun. You can’t work at a company with Big Ass Fans as the name and not have a little fun with it, but it’s just a donkey shield, right? We don’t necessarily put it on there. One of our biggest customers is Walmart. Walmart, I remember back in the day when you were wanting to go get a CD. For people who don’t know what that is, compact disc, right? Abby and I, I think, understand, but maybe somebody listening doesn’t know what a CD is.
They didn’t do the parental advisory CDs at Walmart. For their business and their mindset of what they do, they don’t want to have a fan that says Big Ass Fans on it, and so everything that we send them is just the donkey shield. All of our communications and installation guides and manuals, right? It’s a quick find and replace, right? It’s just a Big Fans, and so I think that’s really kind of also spoken to. It’s the dedication to putting the customer first, understanding, again, what their needs are, and we’re not going to let the name be a barrier to getting the right products and solutions for anybody who needs those services.
Your blog is dedicated to educating consumers, potential and existing customers, and curious minds about all things indoor air quality, air circulation, HVAC airflow, and more. What are you hoping to accomplish through that blog?
Yeah. When we’ve really got into that content marketing strategy, how can we continue to develop what our customers tell us their problems are? What do they Google? What are they searching for? Being able to come up in those instances is going to help them in those searches, right? Instead of taking it somewhere else that obviously may not necessarily have the same type of solution and really be able to solve the problem, we need to make sure that we’re always out there and in front of those customers. Our bread and butter today, even though we got to start in agriculture, the industrial market. When you think about anything from manufacturing, we are manufacturers, so we certainly understand the importance of having good air circulation, of having better indoor air quality.
The labor market right now, especially from a blue-collar standpoint, National Association of Manufacturers, we’re a member of that. More than two million labor jobs are going to go unfilled by the year 2030, and so when you say that out loud, you talk about unemployment and you talk about some of these things, it’s just the reality that a lot of people don’t necessarily want to work in really bad industrial environments, right? Obviously COVID, the pandemic has kind of magnified that, maybe sped that along a little bit, and so we certainly realize that there’s an importance and an impact that can be made by not just drawing attention to the fact that, again, as a manufacturer ourselves, how do we have a welcoming environment that employees want to work in?
From a turnover perspective, we have a significantly lower turnover. It’s in the single digits, as opposed to the high and mid 30s that you’re going to see from a manufacturing employer nationwide, and that’s because we care about the environment. We want it to look right. We want it to feel right. We want it to be, again, inviting and welcoming, just like anybody else. When you or I go to work in an office setting. And so that’s on the industrial side, but even on the commercial side, in an office building, right? ASHRAE is the American Society of Heating and Refrigeration Engineers. They’re kind of the preeminent. Again, a lot of folks may not have known about ASHRAE before the pandemic. If you do enough Googling quickly, you can find a lot of stories that start talking about that organization.
They have an office building, and they use almost 100 Big Ass Fans, not necessarily the Big Ass ones, but the smaller version. But it’s more of a traditional fan, but it ties into building automation, and by tying into building automation, you can do things like night flushing, bringing in more fresh air overnight, so that when you start in the morning, it’s a lot cooler than it would’ve been. And then you can also tie in things like radiant ceiling tile panels or running your HVAC less, and getting that offset for your thermostat. Even a degree or two is going to save you six, seven percent annually on an energy bill. When you talk about being able to provide a few degrees of cooling comfort from a ceiling fan as opposed to just piping in more conditioned air, there’s just a dramatic difference.
Getting that out on the blog and letting people know that we have those solutions is just incredibly important, because they don’t necessarily know, “How do I solve this problem that I have? Energy, just like everything else, is increasing in price, so how do I try to combat that? Can I use less energy?” It’s that thought, right? How do we achieve those goals? And I think it has definitely shown the light here the past few years on just more sustainability initiatives, more resiliency in building, in construction, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint. Those are real things and tangible things that a lot of the Fortune 500 companies and a lot of just other smaller businesses are starting to focus on.
Please tell us about the squeezable Big Ass donkey and how people are responding to it.
Yeah. We love Fannie at Big Ass Fans. The mascot’s name is Fannie, so I think you’re talking about the foam stress donkey. If I was good, you would think I would’ve brought one with me, but I didn’t, but we do have a foam stress donkey. I bet yours is like a tan or brownish color?
Or is it the yellow? Oh, so you got it fairly recently. That’s good. Branding, right? We used to have kind of just the, I would call it more of an actual donkey-colored color to that foam stress donkey, and now it’s the yellow. Fannie, she’s great. We love her, and we do some stuff from time to time with our fan club. If you go to the Facebook page, there’s a fan club page that you can be a part of. We’ll do some different contests and stuff to get even some of the people who aren’t necessarily customers but benefit from our products.
Again, on the industrial side, there’s so many people that benefit from a Big Ass Fan in one of their warehouses or manufacturing facilities, but they’re not necessarily the decision maker that puts it in, right? They’re not holding the operations’ money bag and gets to make the decision, but they love it once we’re in, and so we’ll send the donkeys. We’ll send some shirts, Koozies, and that kind of stuff.
Obviously, those people love it, and they just love telling people, “Hey, we just got Big Ass Fans at my place,” or “Hey, did you get them over at your place?” And so it is kind of the marketing verbiage, I guess. The tribal mentality of you’re a part of that club, and it’s not just, “Oh, great. My placement, it’s the cheap ones again,” right? Or whatever, like they’re just trying to play cadence, right? We went and got the real thing, and we’re actually getting the benefits we need, and so they love the foam stress donkeys. We have them at trade shows, right? We throw them at people.
If you’ve ever been to a trade show, sometimes it’s like people are walking around. They’re doing this on the phone, right? And they’re not paying attention when they walk by Big Ass Fans, and so we’ll give them a little something to kind of hit them in the back or something and let them know we’re there. They turn around. They’re like, “What in the world? Big Ass Fans. You guys are crazy, and you don’t mind being out there.” And so that’s one of the ways, again, that we can get the name and the brand out there. People leave them on the desk, right? Like you said, it’s tchotchke. It’s a great starting conversation. I’ve seen a lot of different foam stress things, right? The earth. Just the classic ball, a shape, or something. How do you plus that up and make it, again, a really lasting part of your brand?
We’ve had foam donkeys now for almost 20 years, and so it is one of those things where you can see people that, even on TV, there was something on Food Network. I think it was David Bromstad. It was a show they were doing of Candy Land, and so they went back to see how the sets and stuff were being made. Of course, as a Big Ass Fans’ employee, you can recognize Fannie pretty quickly. They go back, and he’s showing him an AutoCAD drawing on his computer, and he has Fannie sitting right on top of the laptop, almost like a camera blocker for the people that, I guess, felt like to have the cameras on. It’s just neat to always see that, and people do share it on the fan club, enter those contests, and kind of take it around like a, not Where’s Waldo? but almost like the Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?
I guess, right? And kind of serialize it and take it with them, and it is neat to see just how far your brand can go. Customers do, again in Australia, Canada, Singapore, and you think about the Middle East. People share pictures. Some of our distributors, when a client or a customer says, “This fan’s great. I love it. What else can I get? Just let me be a part of the brand. I want that experience and mentality,” and so they’ll give them a couple, the tchotchkes, a hat, and something. They just love the fact that they have this very external piece in addition to the fan that’s installed or in place. I can’t always show everybody that, but I can wear the hat. I can wear the shirt. I can take around a little foam donkey and go, “Isn’t this neat?” And so it’s definitely helped from a marketing perspective to really generate that brand awareness.
How does your team work together to make a difference in industrial, commercial, and residential spaces, and what sets you aside, obviously apart from the memorable name?
We really focus on, again, the holistic solution. The traditional mindset or method was, “I’m hot. What can cool me down?” Again, fans have existed since the late 1800s, and so when you’re looking at the concept of people being familiar with the fan, whether at a theme park, an industrial spot, the patio on your favorite restaurant or bar, “I’m hot. I want to stay here and enjoy time with my friends,” or “I have to stay here, and I have to keep working.” Whatever that situation is, as people, we have to be comfortable or we’re not going to perform our best, or we just don’t want to be there, right? When you think about on the commercial side, hospitality or public space, if I’m not comfortable, I’m not going to spend money.
And so, it’s really important to make sure that we’re out in front of those people, but how do we communicate actually getting a true solution, because it’s not a one size fits all? Buildings are very different from one another, and so when you think about a non-conditioned industrial space versus, as you mentioned earlier, a conditioned office, there are a lot of different aspects of that. On the industrial side, a non-conditioned space, or an outdoor patio, our software that we have, it’s called SPEC lab. It’s basically, the real scientific fan nerd version of this would be it’s a computational fluid dynamics analysis. What that means for most people, if you’re not familiar with a running CFD airflow analysis, is it just shows you where you need to put fans.
We also sell heaters, right? We’ve expanded that portfolio, so it shows you maybe in the winter where you need to put a heater instead of just placing them kind of ad hoc around and say, “Well, now this person’s too cold. They need to be hotter over here too,” right? And all of those things, even something like the R value of a window. Again, very, very technical things, but when you’re next to a window in the winter, you’re typically cooler because you’re having thermal loss through that window. Just understanding those elements and understanding what each person’s space looks like, we basically create that space in this digital format, this piece of software.
Then, we show them exactly the benefits that they’re going to get before they even purchase. Obviously, that’s a tremendous help to somebody who’s, when you’re speaking to new construction, construction costs are up, labor costs are up, all of those things, so how can I mitigate some of that? On the retrofit side, it’s the same thing though. I’m losing money, because my employees aren’t as productive because they’re sweating through their clothes, or my customers don’t want to stay on the patio and get that extra drink, because they just want to leave and go somewhere that’s more comfortable. And so how do we, again, help combat and mitigate some of those things?
That SPEC lab software really does give someone a true blueprint basically to the solution that they need, and it slices even the airflow that you’re going to get at the seated position, at a standing position, above the standing position. And so for somebody like a school, it’s, “I don’t want the papers to rustle around on a desk for little Tommy, but I want little Tommy to be cool.” I also don’t want to freeze out any teachers or teacher aids that are in the room too, so how do we get an actual solution that’s going to make it more comfortable, statistically speaking, for the most number of people in that room? And so you’re able to show those decision makers those elements, and it really is impactful.
Orangetheory Fitness was one of the most recent customers, and that was part of their reason of purchasing. It was, this pocket over here, right? When they’re on the rower, it’s too hot, but we’ve got fans. They didn’t understand. “Well, actually it’s placement, and also your down tube is too short, so you’re starving your fan. It’s not getting enough air and volume above it to actually mix and provide the benefits. It’s too tight to the ceiling. You have to have a certain amount of air above it for it to work,” and so just some of those elements, it really does show, “We get it. You guys are the fan nerds, so go do what you do, and just tell us the solution,” and most customers really appreciate that we’re there to do that, and they don’t have to worry about it.
We do a lot of work with Cal Berkeley. They have a thing called the Center for the Built Environment out there. You piece together everything from “CLO”, which is your clothing, to your metabolic rate, right? If I’m in a factory doing heavy machinery and all that stuff, you have to provide them more feet per minute to evaporate the sweat from your skin faster, versus if I’m just sitting in an office, right? You’re typically a lot cooler, even if you just turn the fan on really low.
That is another thing too. Our fans have variable speeds, and traditionally the ones in my house, it was on or off or low, medium, high, right? You didn’t have all of these. You literally dial into the exact percentage that you need for a certain situation. You’re not wasting any additional energy. Again, it’s all these small things that just add up, and I never thought about it before I started here. It was kind of neat, and I think if you like all of the buzzwords and where we’re pushing things from a sustainability standpoint, you’re kind of looking back going, “Man, this is really cool,” and it just never crossed your mind. Never thought about it.
This has been great. Thank you, Alex.
Big Ass Fans is a great example of embracing what it is that they do differently and using it to their advantage. We appreciate the leadership and commitment to make what is different about their brand and culture.
If you want to watch the interview with Alex, check it out on our YouTube channel by clicking HERE.
Our “There is a Difference” series is all about showcasing and embracing something that is unique and noteworthy enough to make a difference. Please let us know if you have a story you’d like to share, by sending an email to Shawn@DraperDNA.com.