DES MOINES, Iowa — Ariel Rubin's official title at Kum & Go, the Iowa-based convenience store, is Director of Communications.
But his most well-known work is logged behind the @kumandgo Twitter account, which boasts over 29,000 followers and is a constant source of ... let's call it humor.
And again, to be clear, it is not an intern running the account.
Born in Canada, Rubin grew up in North Carolina and went to college in New York before living abroad. He has worked in communications and digital content for both the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross.
And now, he's the man behind what may be the most famous Iowa brand in social media.
Rubin spoke with Local 5 about his journey to Iowa and why humor plays a big role in the digital storytelling for Kum & Go.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Local 5 News: You were pretty steeped in humanitarian efforts, aid, a little bit of government. What prompted you to pursue that, first of all, and then how did you then transition to what's probably the polar opposite?
Ariel Rubin: I was always really passionate about human rights and development, kind of seeing other parts of the world and seeing and learning what's going on there. And so ... journalism was my first calling. I love the idea of like learning stories and telling other stories and I kind of did journalism through the UN lens for a long time. Mostly because I failed as a journalist to be frank. So that was sort of a nice way to try to do a bit of journalist storytelling.
And really the through line actually at Kum and Go is not that different. I mean, what drew me to Kum and Go was this idea of here's a company that does, you know, really have these sort of, I think, more progressive values and has a real emphasis on, you know, giving back to community and [corporate social responsibility]. And they really wanted to talk about how do we tell that story in a more compelling way. And so for me, what was interesting was coming from a place like the Red Cross to Kum & Go is like, how can we tell a similar story in a lot of ways ... with similar themes that we're trying to pull out? And how can we get a way that's compelling to the to the audience. That was sort of the challenge that I was interested in. I was just kind of, personally, I was kind of burned out on working in humanitarian sphere for like, a decade. It was a lot. I have a young child, we wanted to move back to the US. So [it sort of] dovetailed nicely with this role.
I really felt fortunate to get this job. And I thought, you know, to me, what was interesting with this role was like, 'How do you do storytelling for a convenience store in the Midwest'? How do you make that interesting, compelling, real, authentic, funny? It's got it's got to be funny and personable, too. But how do you also tell real stories? How do you tell the stories of the good work you're doing interspersed with that? So it's like, how do you create that? That's sort of an interesting challenge.
Local 5: What do you think stood out to you most from those previous work experiences that has stayed with you?
Rubin: I mean, there's so many. It was an amazing opportunity, you know, to be able to write radio scripts in Darfur for former soldiers to try to get them to kind of come back to the table to give up their arms. I did a piece in Iraq where we brought disposable cameras and gave cameras to kids—digital cameras and did a training with them with Magnum photographers to in Ramadi, Iraq to get them to learn how to take their own photos. Young school kids. Super powerful stuff. Shot some great videos. Did some [augmented reality]. It was a really incredible experience ... loved it, but I was, you know, ready to do something else.
Local 5: So the something else was then moving to Iowa. Doing something different. It's a gas station. It's social media. It's a lot more. It's a different mindset and it's Iowa.
Tell me about what the conversations were as you came into the role [a year ago]. What were the expectations coming in? What were they hoping you could do? What were the big areas of focus just coming into this new position?
Rubin: I think the thing that really drew me to the role, a kind of interesting conversation I had with my hiring manager and with [President] Tanner Krause was again, we're a company that really wants to do a better job of telling that story of who we are and who we are in the community. They just moved, like into the Gateway Center in downtown Des Moines. It was a company that's been around for 60 years, right? Like, it's not they're not a new kid on the block. It's just like, how can we really rethink about the way we're doing communications in a way that's, you know, relevant and interesting to a broader swath of people. So to me, I thought there's a lot of potential at Kum & Go.
Actually, it's funny that social media isn't really technically I think, necessarily part of my job. We have a social media person who also runs a lot of our channels. But I love social media. I have a real personal affinity for the tool, and I kind of was like 'I want to do Twitter'. I love Twitter. I mean, it also drives me insane. But I think Twitter is such a fascinating way to kind of understand culture and media culture and be part of culture. It's impossible for me to imagine doing any communications without Twitter. And we've now been reached out to Tik Tok ... but yeah I think that stuff is really interesting to me.
So I was really excited about the opportunity to again tell the story about the Krause Group, the Krause family and the Kum & Go story. Yes, they're a convenience store that sells Red Bull, but they're also doing a lot of really interesting and cool things I think that that deserve an audience.
Local 5: How much of the social media are you actually involved in? Are all the tweets yours?
Rubin: I do all the tweets. I love it. It's like, I'm a tweet micromanager. I do all the tweets because I love it, and like, I insisted on 'I really wanted' to do it when I came. So I I just always want to tweet, like no matter what.
Honestly, props to the Krause [family] for letting me do it, because they trust me to do it and I'm very grateful. Twitter is risky, right? It's inherently a risky endeavor to really try and hone that voice in a complicated media ecosystem. Not every tweet is great, but I really love doing it.
It is at this point of the interview that Local 5 asks Rubin to compose and post a tweet from the verified, official @kumandgo Twitter account.
Local 5: You said that you personally obsess about this little bit of the job. This is a company, it's a verified brand. Do the conversations come up in terms of 'Hey, you know, we want to leverage this to you know [drive] sales' or is this strictly a, 'Hey, we just want people to kind of know about what we are and have a familiarity with the brand'?
What goes into, you know, the voice and the strategy behind it?
Rubin: There's absolutely a strategy behind the whole platform like. I mean, I don't usually just tweet 'kum & go'. The point for me of this whole thing is: We have 400 stores, we have hundreds of thousands of customers every day. And we need to have a Twitter following in my opinion, a social media following, that reflects the breadth and the diversity of that audience.
So it's important to me that we can show, you know, that we can speak in our stores to people but we can also speak to people online. I want to make sure that our Twitter is fun and engaging and exciting ... we did a thing other day about 'I'll give you your Kum & Go name'.
That was like 10 hours. It was endless. I would reply to almost every person. We do that stuff to get that kind of engagement so that when we do have a message that says, 'Hey, we're doing this, we're upping the pay of our associates, here's why', we get a similar level of engagement.
We can bring people there with us and they can read about and learn about what we're doing. It's hard to reach an audience, right? People have a lot to do and they're on their phones constantly. They're scrolling really fast. I want to make sure they're gonna stop and give them a reason to stop for the extra five seconds and look at my tweets: 'That's cool. That's funny. I love that. That's so Iowa. That's so Kum & Go' and and hopefully endear them a little bit to the brand so that when I also do have maybe some messaging ... that they'll also pay attention. I want people to like us so that they want to hear what we have to say.
Local 5: Let's say nobody of your Twitter following ever spends a single dollar at Kum & Go, but they see your tweets, they know what you're about, and they know what you stand for. That's considered a win in your book.
Rubin: That's a huge win. To me, it's a huge win. I mean, you're a journalist. You know, not everyone in the world is on Twitter, but every journalist in the world is on Twitter. And so if I want to communicate a story to somebody and I want the media to talk about that story, I'll have much more luck doing that doing by Twitter than I will necessarily maybe by doing a press release or emailing it. My connection with you can so easily happen on Twitter, we can have a conversation because I know you're gonna be there. So I know we can do that. To me, that kind of access with journalists, with influencers, with media is extraordinary. Again, it's such a unique Twitter thing, you know, that kind of engagement.
Local 5: When you balance it between 'Hey, we've got something you know more serious' with the bulk of it maybe being the quirky the super-Iowa niche ... is that exciting for you to use this as a tool ... to connect with others?
Rubin: Yeah, I mean, it's really exciting. And like I said, you know, I'm the communications director, but we have a social media specialist woman named Nadia, who runs Instagram and Facebook. And she's brilliant. And you know, she has a she has her own pretty big following of her own on Instagram. She's kind of like re-conceptualized how we do Instagram and really built our following by a lot over the last seven months since she started. So she's been amazing.
I want to make sure that the right person is on the platform. You know, there's a there's a demographic issue ... Instagram, it skews younger, she's in her early-20s. She's of the Instagram generation. I'm in my 30s, I'm more of like a Twitter ... that's just how I think. For Tik Tok, we hired an intern. They're 19 years old. We found them through Iowa Safe Schools. They have 160,000 followers on Tik Tok. Their name is Evelyn Meyer. They're hilarious. And I was like, 'Hey ... we have an internship' and I was like 'Do you want to be our Tik Tok? Just Tik Tok. All I want you to do is Tik Tok.. And they run our Tik Tok. We have meetings about it, we talk about it, but I want it to be authentic to their voice and how they can talk about who we are as a brand. I want it to be fun and quirky. This culture around convenience stores on social media in the Midwest is really heavy, it's pervasive. It's in Iowa with you know, Casey's and us and QuikTrip. In Oklahoma and Wisconsin, there's Quick Star and Kwik Trip with a 'K'. There's Wawa and Sheetz in Pennsylvania. There's this really fascinating culture that inspires a lot of opinions, right? A lot of love, a lot of rivalries. There's a fun way to play with that. I just wanted to make sure that we had the right team for that. So between myself, Nadia and Evelyn, I feel like we have really fun and engaged people who are just genuinely good at good at it in their personal lives and can bring that energy to it for the corporate side.
Local 5: How many times have you gotten a call or a text from someone in the Krause family needing to explain the context or just what the heck is going on with something on a social media channel?
Rubin: [Chairman & CEO] Kyle Krause and [President] Tanner Krause have total faith in it ... they have total faith in it ... are extraordinarily patient with it. You know, sometimes I'll send a tweet and I'm like 'Are they gonna hate this one?', but they've been extremely passionate defenders of our social media. So I'm very grateful.
Certainly I don't think one can do social media effectively if you don't have the trust under your leadership, you know what I mean? If we had to go through a million different barriers and green-lighting and this and that and tweaking it, I think that is when social media gets tough because it kind of loses its original voice and its fun. It has to kind of be fun and ephemeral. Honestly ... no, I was almost never. There was one tweet we did, I don't know if you remember this, like a year ago. It was a college football tweet.
Local 5: The falling off the stairs one?
NOTE: The referenced tweet has been deleted
Rubin: That was tough ... I was new to Iowa. On social media you should never piss someone off about about religion or politics, but I would say in Iowa, football is definitely both of those things. So steer clear of that.
That was a bad, bad mistake on my part. But again, we have to learn from these things. And I think you want to take some risks. You want to be careful. You don't want to alienate your audience, obviously. you want them to come with you. That's always the goal.
Local 5: Are there any other ones you thought twice about before you hit tweet?
Rubin: I think social media, when done well, you always are thinking a little bit ... like, you don't want to alienate people and you don't want to be politicizing or politicize. We're in 11 states, we have hundreds of thousands of customers, like I said. I don't want to frustrate or alienate any of them and I don't want to alienate our associates. This voice should also represent the 5,000 people we have working in our stores, and I wanna make sure they're proud of that too. So we try to really encapsulate that. We speak for a lot of people with this kind of voice. I want to make sure that I pay respect to them. So I'm always a little nervous, because I think that's how you know it's good. But generally, we try to play it okay.
Local 5: A lot of how things have changed lately—working from home, social d distancing—and now, Kum & Go and others are going to this full-service style where it's almost like throwing back to when it used to be [commonplace].
How would you gauge the company's response and what do you think the next steps are for a company like Kum & Go in order to make sure that their associates and [customers] since this is something new to a lot of us?
Rubin: I mean, it's new for all of us. In my last role I worked on the Ebola crisis in eastern Africa, so it's weird. I came here thinking that that kind of part of my life was over ... but I'm actually back doing similar kinds of conversations and communications and thinking about safety. We're part of a group, a very committed group of risk management people that kind of think every day and have meetings on this. I'm part of that group, actually, where we talk about how this process is going on and say that it's unprecedented for everyone.
There's no recent historical thing we can compare this to. What I think Kum & Go is doing is trying to stay ahead of this and trying to make sure that our policies, number one, prioritize the health and safety of our associates and the people that walk into our stores. One of the great things about working at Kum & Go is it's a family-run company where they can make changes quickly. We aren't beholden to anyone but a small group of people, and really the family. So that's a nice way to be able to say, you know what, we're going to make the shift, we're going to up the pay for all of our associates on the front line of this thing and we're going to make sure that we're taking care of them. We were one of the first companies to bring in paid quarantine leave for folks who need to self-quarantine and stuff like that for part-time sales associates in stores.
Stuff like that is really powerful and for me, an affirmation of why I joined the company. And I don't know what the future holds, because I don't think anyone does ... but I think we're gonna [hopefully] stay on the on the right side of history by doing the right thing by our associates.
Local 5: Let me ask you a few rapid fire questions before I let you go.
Other than Kum & Go, what's the best brand on Twitter?
Rubin: I think Steak-ummm is doing a fabulous job on Twitter. I think everyone knows Steak-ummm is kind of a, you know, really up there. Kwik Trip with a 'K' is really funny on Twitter. They're good.
What else? I like ... Bush's Beans is very funny. I love Bush's Beans.
Local 5: Do you have Wendy's in that upper tier?
Rubin: Wendy's is great, but I will say this because everyone is always like 'Oh, you're trying to be like Wendy's'.
Wendy's started I think this kind of interesting Twitter voice, but I don't think [they're] still necessarily like the ones leading that. I tweeted this joke that Wendy's walked so Kum & Go could run or something ... yes, I think that Wendy's is brilliant and changed the game of how we think on Twitter. But I look at Steak-ummm today and I'm just like: wow ... incredible, incredible work.
Local 5: If you had to describe the job you have now to yourself 10 years ago, how would you explain it?
Rubin: I'm the communications director for a convenience store chain in Iowa. I don't know how else to... it is what it is, but it's way more fun and rewarding and exciting, I would tell myself, than you would probably imagine it would be. And really, one of the most interesting jobs I've ever had
Local 5: if there is a celebrity that you wanted to run the Kum & Go account, who would it be? You can define celebrity however you want...
Rubin: The guy that runs Bush's Beans, it's a kid, Harrison. Have you seen AltBeans ... his other one? This is very Twitter nerd, but I think he's one of the funniest people on Twitter.
I would also throw in Kanye West. I'd like Kanye West.
Local 5: What's been the weirdest encounter you've ever had with someone that you can disclose in this interview?
Rubin: Here's the thing people, people send a lot of inappropriate DMs to a company called Kum & Go. So I will leave it at that.
I get a lot of DMs that I don't want to get and that I'd rather not get ... part of the game when your name is Kum & Go.
Local 5: If there was a piece of advice you had for maybe another brand or company that wants to do Twitter well, what would you tell them?
Rubin: There's this trope about like social media intern, right? Who's that intern running the Twitter? Who's the intern running Instagram? And to me, I think social media is the most powerful way we can tell our story because it's really the place you get the most eyeballs on anything. Across platforms—from Facebook, Instagram, to Twitter, to Tik Tok—it's such a powerful tool.
For any company thinking about how to do it, find really great people who are already doing it really well and empower them and give them the voice to go and run with it. It's such a powerful tool and I think the more you try to mediate it, or mute it, or change it, or tweak it ... I think that's where you run into trouble. I think the brands that do it really well ... really, you can tell. They kind of run with it and they really find that unique voice and that's what makes Twitter and social media a really special place.
Local 5: You walk into a Kum & Go ... what are your go-to snacks or beverages?
Rubin: I am a huge fan of our coffee, the bean-to-cup. I drank a cup of iced coffee when I was in the office every day. Obviously, I don't do that right now. Definitely the bean-to-cup coffee, iced coffee and the ampersand donut.
I love the donuts, and ... a donut shaped like an ampersand is the funniest and cutest thing. I wold say my go-to is the ampersand donut and the bean-to-cup [coffee].
Local 5: Finally: Do you think there's a gas station rivalry in Iowa?
Rubin: I don't think I could answer that. I don't know.
Local 5: Do you ever hear from these other other gas stations like 'Hey, man, we're just trying to play nice ... what are you doing'?
Rubin: I can't ... no comment. I have a lot of fun with the brands. We're Iowa Nice. We want to be nice. We don't want to offend anybody. And I'd say .. you know what? We're all part of the convenience family here in Iowa and I can't comment any further.
Local 5: And you mentioned that you came in a kind of a new time [for Kum & Go]. Why do you think [the new headquarters] represents such a huge growth opportunity? Why does it matter to do that?
Rubin: I flew here from from Geneva, Switzerland and I had my interview in that building, and I walked in and I can tell you what it meant for me.
I was like 'This is an incredible place to be and I want to work here.' That was the certainly not the only reason. It's an incredible space and incredible convener. It's part of the gateway ... part of the regeneration, I think of downtown Des Moines. Kyle Krause and Tanner Krause and the Krause family have a huge passion for Iowa and for Des Moines in particular. So I think there's a lot love for that and trying to create a space that kind of ties it all together, right there across from the [Pappajohn] Sculpture Park is an amazing space to be.
But again, speaking personally, I knew I wanted to work there when I walked in that building. It was incredible. And it still is.