LTS Podcast Ep. 3 - Product That Helped Shape Our Mission

In this episode Jonathan Jones and Aaron Heim discuss products that helped shape our Mission. This began with Willow Tree® and continues with our Giving Collection. This episode was recorded on February 21, 2023.

LTS Podcast Episode 3 - Products That Helped Shape Our Mission

Jonathan Jones: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to episode three of DEMDACO's Lift the Spirit Podcast. My name is Jonathan Jones, and I'm here with my co-host, Aaron Heim. Today's episode we want to talk about products that have helped shape our mission.

Aaron Heim: Yeah, Jonathan, I'm excited to talk about today's. With products that help define our mission.

I think for those who haven't maybe are new to the podcast, haven't tuned in quite yet, could you maybe just kind of take us back and review what is DEMDACO's mission and

Jonathan Jones: yeah, let's do it. Yeah, sure. That's, thanks for asking that. I'll, I'll start just briefly with our purpose, and again, to review your, your purpose as an organization, as a company is your why.

Why do you exist? DEMDACO's purpose is to pursue business the way it ought to be. We just feel that there's a, a way, a sense that all of us want to be treated, especially in the business context. That's our [00:01:00] why. Your mission is what you do, and we're a gift company. We have amazing products, home decor or fashion accessories, baby products, plush, which is the industry term for stuffed animals.

We have premium plush, but our mission, what we do isn't simply product. Our mission is to lift the spirit and the language that we give to it is that we strive to lift the spirit in consumers, which that's primarily product in each other. And that's the, the challenging part because we all have work to do and things we have to get done and tasks that have to be checked off.

And it's, it's a constant front of mind type of thing that we want to be doing that in the context of lifting each other's spirit. So we strive to lift spirit and consumers. In each other and in our communities and DEMDACO's commitment to the community here in Kansas City where our headquarters is, but also around the country with our amazing sales team from California all the way to Maine.

And we want to be [00:02:00] lifting the spirit in those communities as well. And we do that three ways through financial donations. Through product donations. And because we do have amazing product we are, not quite daily, but almost daily it seems, getting requests for product donations to silent auctions, to fundraising events and different things.

So it, it's great to, to be able to do that. And then the third way that we want to lift the spirit in our communities is through time. Each full-time colleague gets five paid days a year, which you can use by the hour to be at work in the community helping us to live on our mission. So that's, that's really the background to our, our purpose and mission.

And specifically there's been product that has helped shape that. And Aaron, you're again, new to DEMDACO. How many months in are you now?

Aaron Heim: Six months? No, seven months, three days, four hours? No. Yeah, it's, it was July I started. Yeah. And

Jonathan Jones: just for reference, this is [00:03:00] February 21st, 2023. Aaron was, has been a great addition to our team and.

I know because you've been involved with other companies that cross paths with DEMDACO over the years what were some products that you were familiar with before you came to DEMDACO? Oh, well,

Aaron Heim: I think every house in the United States has a Willow Tree product of some kind, which is a wonderful thing for a company to, to have.

I mean, when you talk to people, when I tell people I work at DEMDACO, usually the first thing I say is Willow Tree angels. Oh, I love those. I always get that kind of response from folks and said, that's one of our product lines. And that's really one of the ones that sort of helped with the company's growth in the beginning and still is a critically important part of our mission.

But when I was in other roles I was familiar with the Giving Collection. . Kitchen Boas. I was familiar with those. But I, I think the, the thing that really resonated with me was I would see I wouldn't even call 'em ads, I would call 'em sort of testimonials on [00:04:00] YouTube from our VP of product Development and Marketing. Peter Friedmann. Stephanie Hawn, who is a director in, in Gifts, talking about not only a partnership with Children's Mercy Hospital here in town, but also the Giving Collection itself. And it's just such a touching story and. You know, looking at that. Part of me is a emotional storyteller, thinks to myself.I want to go to there as, Tina Faye would say.

Jonathan Jones: And we're glad you did and, and we'll talk about this a little bit later in the episode, but you're primarily here because of one of our new products, Santa's Kindness Ornament. And you were originally a contractor helping write scripts for that, for the video content.

And then the way things worked out we asked you to join full-time, so we'll talk more about that because that's a new product that definitely Yep. Is right in line with our mission.

Aaron Heim: Yeah. I get to work with the real Santa Claus, which who gets to do that for, it's a pretty cool thing.

Jonathan Jones: I've, I've seen him and spoken with him.

You know, it's, it's interesting because, you know, from [00:05:00] day one, our mission was not Lift the Spirit, It emerged out of who we really wanted to be, and it, it became our mission. Fairly quickly. But going back to your mention of Willow Tree there's no question that that line, and Sue Lordi, who is the artist who lives here in Kansas City, is just a great friend of the company and it's just an amazing human and a kind, gracious and just really.that product helped define DEMDACO, really not only in in growth, but the kind of company that we wanted to be. Just the, the, the message of Willow Tree. And so there's no question when Willow Tree took off and Willow Tree was, was Sue's third attempt at a line. 

We're gonna have Sue on an episode later this summer, and so we'll save that story for then, but Willow Tree was Sue's third line, [00:06:00]and there was really some uncertainty on whether or not it was gonna take off. And it took off in ways that we could not have imagined and has been just a, a leading line in the gift industry since this inception over 20 years ago.

But after that, after the launch, we began to get letters and emails. And you have to remember, you know in the late nineties, Early two thousands, everyone was not using email for everything. And so we began to get emails where people in sometimes in vulnerable ways were bringing us into the story of why they gave that particular figure as a gift.

Or maybe they were the receiver of the gift. And, and let us sort of peer into the window [00:07:00] of their own experience in that, that moment. We, we call those moments here at DEMDACO meaningful moments and, and we wanna focus on the meaningful moments of comfort, love, and joy. And Willow Tree really began to bring that out and we soon realized that, and this was also the nature of Willow Tree and the type of product it is.

That we did not necessarily assign the meaning. And, you know, you mentioned that you were familiar with Willow Tree. You, you know, each figure comes with a, a little card that has the, the name of the figure and then some sentiment along with it. But we realized that while the sentiment is important, it didn't assign meaning to the gift and to the experience, and, and we realized that it was the giver and the receiver that chose the meaning

Aaron Heim: It's a pretty powerful thing. I mean, I've been working in gifts for a long time, and [00:08:00] I think the most successful, poignant items that people remember are the ones where they can look at it and they go, oh, they, they know my relationship.

They know me. They get me. This is exactly what, how I want to connect with that person. How did they know?

How did they know?

Jonathan Jones: Yeah. And, and, and that, I think that was, that was the, the power of Willow Tree and, and sort of the mystery of it that we began to realize through stories and emails and, and people, again, letting us in into that experience that the same figure could be given in a time of great celebration and also in a time of grief.

And we didn't have control of that. We were just sort of the partners in that moment. And, and so Willow Tree definitely not only really created the growth for DEMDACO as a company, but it really helped shape our place in the gift industry and really [00:09:00] our, our view, how we view business. Because we, we wanted to be a company in everything that we did again, in our language lifted people's spirits. They may describe it some other way, but that's where we want it to be.

Aaron Heim: Yeah. I think when it comes to gift in general, and especially things that people are going to give real estate to in their homes and their offices, if you try to prescribe too much into, you need to use this for this thing, you're, you're sort of doomed from the start.

And what I think one of the wonderful things about the DEMDACO story is, is that, You didn't launch DEMDACO and say, this is going to do this for these gifts. No, this is how you're supposed to use this. You give it in these situations. You sort of, we put, for lack of a better way to say it, sort of, not universal specifics, but things that they're done in such a way that everybody sees a piece of themselves in it when they walk past it.

One of those and,

Jonathan Jones: well, and I, [00:10:00] think even, you know, even working for the company and we have Willow Tree in our home and, and. Some of the pieces that we have and we have four children, they're all grown and we have grandkids. But I was in one of our now spare bedrooms the other day and there's some of the Willow Tree figures that, and I know exactly why we got those and what they were for, and what we were trying to communicate in the context of our family.

Aaron Heim: Right.

Jonathan Jones: And, and that, that's where I think people connected with that line.

Aaron Heim: Yeah. And it was a, you know, such a beautiful thing that, that, you know, you can't predict those things as much as places try to do that. But I think the thing that, that did the, the result of that really helped to fuel what would come next and really help align product development, ideators our business partners, everybody with, these are the things that are important. They're shaping who we are. [00:11:00] It's important to people. We want to be there. Comfort, love, and joy. I'm sure those three words weren't necessarily there on day one. Those are things that came out over time and

Jonathan Jones: And that's true.

And a lot of it I think was, it's not that we stumbled into it, but I think we found ourselves in it might be. That's a great say it where it's like, oh yes, this is, this resonates with who we want to be now as a company and it resonates with people who are looking for that one particular thing.

Aaron Heim: You know, one of the other actually one of the, one of the product lines that I was very familiar with before I got to DEMDACO and I spoke to having seen some of the testimonials on YouTube and being very touched by it was the Giving Collection in particular.

And I know there are several facets to the Giving Collection. Yeah. Talk to me a little bit about. Where that idea came from and how it's evolved since its sort of initial ideation.

Jonathan Jones: And again, I I, I [00:12:00] love it. You mentioned ideation, which is a big part of, of how I think, and I think DEMDACO's a a great place where people can have big ideas in this space of lift the spirit in the space of comfort, love, and joy.

And yes, we are a for-profit company. But it's not all about the financial bottom line for us. In earlier episode, I think of the first episode, we, you know, say that we want to view business first and foremost as a human endeavor, not just as a financial endeavor. And so we don't shy away from producing products that we feel fill a need in people's lives.

And that's the comfort, love, and joy. And so one of the, the ideas that began to come out of that was, how do we help en encourage just, just the whole concept of Giving. And obviously when you're giving someone a gift, that is the act of Giving. But how do we help [00:13:00] shape that in the context of those meaningful moments of comfort, love, and joy?

And so we launched what became the Giving Collection, but it started with a shawl, a throw, a wrap around the shoulders. They're called the Giving shawl, and it was something that you would give, and the, a lot of thought went into that. In, in the packaging, the, the, the box with the bow the boxes doesn't have a top on it.

You can see the product and there's this beautiful bow on it, and it's, it's ready to give. You can buy it from the store off the shelf and present it, and it, it's presentable and the Giving Shawl again began to give us a window into people's experience because they were willing to share those stories with us.

We called the Giving Shawl giftable hug that people wanted to connect and, and this was before Covid and work from home [00:14:00] and not traveling. So the Giving Shawl launched and in, in the packaging, in the box underneath the shawl is an in real life postcard. You know, people used to send postcards. And so postcards, and we just asked people to share their stories and people did.

And so we started receiving postcards about the Giving Shawl. Handwritten, people putting their own postage on it. And I read these often. They come in and they're sitting at the front desk. We have old photo albums that we started to fill. And it, it just began to really, in a deeper way, it, it took the stories and, and the experience of Willow Tree another layer deep.

And we really began to see how we were able [00:15:00] to participate in those meaningful moments. Often. This is not scientific research. I, I quickly realized that most of the stories that we got were from women who were either going through some type of illness. Chemotherapy seemed to come up often, and so they were cold in the clinic, and this shawl was warm.

And again, we wanted it to be a giftable hug, and we would hear stories that it reminded, you know, my friends gave me this shawl, or my husband gave me this shalt. And it just, I felt like I was being hugged when I was going through treatment. Or the, the second I think, predominant group were women who had lost a spouse.

And some of the stories are just heart-wrenching, you know? My spouse of 40 years, 50 years passed away and my friends gave me this, this shawl because they, they knew [00:16:00] I was grieving. They knew I needed to be comforted. They knew when, when Covid came along and, and we found ourselves isolated. People began to look.for ways to connect with their friends and family. And if they knew about DEMDACO, they knew DEMDACO had the type of products they were looking for. 

But we also found that when people went looking for the types of products that they wanted to use to connect with their friends and family, they found DEMDACO. And some of the stories that, that we received just a, again, our heart wrenching, but really began for me and, and my role here at the company to, you know, pay attention to our culture.

Just really reinforced that it really is possible to be a for-profit company, but have a mission like ours to lift the spirit and connect with people in those meaningful moments. 

One of the things that I did during Covid when we were working from home and, [00:17:00] and people were separated.

I'd stop by the office, I'd get these postcards, and there was no one here at the office. And I would take these, these postcards home, and I forget how many I did for quite a while. I would send a postcard a day to the company and say, here are the stories. Here's how we're connecting. You know, we're separated and isolated right now, but, but this is what we're about.

You know, after the, the Giving Shaw really began to connect with people, we, we expanded the line. We expanded a line to a, a weighted pillow called the Giving Heart. One of the stories from this was during Covid. We got a, one of the postcards from a, a woman who had had open heart surgery. Her sister was her only surviving relative.

Her sister was not able to visit her in the hospital for her surgery. Her sister gave her one of our Giving Hearts [00:18:00] and the, the woman that had the open heart surgery sent the postcard telling us this story. She had open heart surgery. Her sister wasn't able to be there with her. She was all alone with the surgery.

As overwhelming as that would be under any circumstance, much less being isolated in the uncertainty of of Covid. And her last line was because the pillow is weighted, she said, your pillow, Giving Heart is literally holding my heart in. And I remember when Peter shared that story, you know, to everyone in the company.

It's just, again, another reminder of of how we're connecting and how yes, we want to produce products that are in line with our purpose and mission. But what also ends up happening is our products help continue to shape and refine that, that mission. So I, I have here with me a couple of [00:19:00] these postcards,

Aaron Heim: if I can interject on the postcards.

I think the thing I love most about those is that there wasn't an incentive for anybody to send those in, offered other, other than there's no discount offered. Here's my story.

Jonathan Jones: There's nothing. It is, it is people, I, I, we'll talk about story in another episode but. We all have stories. We communicate through stories whether you realize it or not.

And when people have the opportunity to tell a story and there's other ways for people to participate in it, it really connects with people. And so, you're right, there's no, no one gets any discount on product

Aaron Heim: and that just, that speaks to the power of what, what this does.

Jonathan Jones: Yeah. So, so here's, here's a postcard.

This is someone who received one of our Giving Hearts. Since I lost my beloved husband of 67 years, a friend gave me this beautiful heart. It is such a comfort to me. Thank you. [00:20:00]

Here's another one, the Giving Bear, which The Giving Bear was part of the Giving Line. The Giving Bear has been such an amazing product.

The thought that went into it, this is probably one of the videos you saw of Stephanie Hawn on, on YouTube. The, the bear's designed specifically for kids who maybe have sensory issues. It has a, one of its ears is corduroy. It's called the Listening Ear. And, and just the way that we've refined and improved that bear we were able to do an amazing program with Children's Mercy you mentioned here in Kansas City to help raise funds for them through the, the sale of the Bear.

So this is a postcard about one of the bears. The Giving Bear was a gift I gave to us. My spouse and I have been married for 49 years this year. And if and when one of us is called home, the other will hug the Giving Bear to feel the love of the one missing. [00:21:00] So the Giving bear we found quickly is not just for children.

Aaron Heim: Yeah. I mean, that was not, that wasn't even in anybody's mind when the product is developed? No, no. That's just the beauty of it.

Jonathan Jones: It's, and again, it's, it's like, yes, we, we're constantly thinking through purpose and mission on, in the product design aspect of it, but there's no doubt that the products help guide and refine that.

So here's, here's a postcard that we got recently that was shared. This is another Giving Heart. This postcard is, is dated February 8th, 2023. There's no name. This is all it says. I received a heart transplant and presented this Giving Heart to the wife and family of my donor.

I was talking to Demi, one of our owners [00:22:00] just this week about this, this postcard.

And I said, this is probably the greatest example I've seen so far in my 16 and a half years at DEMDACO, where who we want to be as a company, our purpose and mission, the thought and creativity and hard work that goes into designing product and all of that aligning in a way where not only the giver and the receiver, it's a moment in their lives that's much bigger than any product.

Yeah. That for sure we're talking about someone's life here. And, and someone who chose to help give someone else life. And just the privilege of being able to participate [00:23:00] in that moment of these people who we don't know their names is just an incredible thing. And to be able to participate in that and that everyone in DEMDACO played a role in that.

Aaron Heim: Yeah, and to be a part of a story that you're always gonna be part of that story. That's always gonna be a piece of it for that person. We're never gonna meet that per, we probably never meet that person.

Jonathan Jones: And it wasn't just the designers, it was finance it, it was marketing. It was distribution. Distribution.

It was supply chain. Yep. That everyone played a role in that product being at the right place at the right time. So this person who received this heart. Can you imagine trying to find a gift to give the family of your donor hear?. I, I can't even imagine that. And that we got to participate in this is just an [00:24:00] amazing,amazing privilege.

Aaron Heim: And the other thing is we've gotten to participate in hundreds and thousands of stories we'll never know about. True. And that's the other, that's the other piece of it. You don't, those are the that's the icing, you know, on the, on the cake as to why we do this. When you get, you don't anticipate those letters.

You don't do this to get those postcards. And for the majority of people, they're not gonna, probably not gonna take the time to do that. But it's just such a touching

Jonathan Jones: Yeah.

Aaron Heim: Thing to be a part of a company that stands for what they stand for and their product allows those moments to happen for people.

Jonathan Jones: There are people who are grieving in some way and will continue to grieve and hopefully the small role that we played in these two family stories helps bring healing

Aaron Heim: Yeah.

Jonathan Jones: To them.

Aaron Heim: Yeah. I've seen, you know, whenever I need a, an emotional cleansing I call it, I'll go to YouTube and I'll watch videos of [00:25:00] soldiers coming home and surprising their kids.

Things like that. I'll never forget. One of 'em I saw one time was a heart her transplant recipient meeting the father of the daughter who had passed away. And brought a stethoscope so that the father could hear the heartbeat. I think I, do you think you see the? Yeah. And that's just, it's, it's, it's beyond, yeah.

You know, those are just such special moments.

Jonathan Jones: I know. And, and to get to participate in that, it's like, you know, everyone has mundane tasks that they have to do. And for me these postcards, there are other stories. or just the amazing colleagues that I get to work with here. It's just a constant reminder.

We have the privilege of, of being able to do some great work. Yep. And, and be involved in some great moments in people's lives.

So that's a, that's, that's a lot. It's kind of a heavy topic. It is some, but there's no question. We are serious about our purpose and mission. We want to lift people's spirits and we want [00:26:00] to design product that does that.

But it's always a great reminder that the product, again, helps shape and refine that.

Aaron Heim: Yeah, it's a pretty special thing to get to be a part of. And again, as we move forward, we'll talk about more products that, that I, I'm getting to work on now that I've been here for almost eight months. And it's just, you know, you, you as a creative person, you come into product development and I've been doing this for a long time.

You think about it just a little bit differently, it's what's, what is the point of view for this particular thing?

Jonathan Jones: There's a stewardship there.

Aaron Heim: There's a stewardship, and it's, if it doesn't help with moments of comfort, love, and joy, then those are things we don't pursue. That's not what our mission is.

Someone else can do those things, right? Here's what we're focused on. Here's how we take what we know to be the goodness that we wanna stand for and create new out of that.

Jonathan Jones: Yeah.

So Aaron, that's today's episode. I was looking forward to this one because we, we, we do produce [00:27:00] amazing products, but we do it in the context of our purpose and mission and our mission to lift the spirit.

And there's no question that our mission has shaped our products, but as we've talked about today, there's sometimes that the products help refine and, and reshape and sharpen our mission. So thanks again and thank you all for listening. We hope you join us for the next episode.