Greg Smith, Founder and Creative Director of Black Lake Studio, reveals how you can be that brand that knows what it’s about.
I had lunch with a couple of guys four times over the course of about six weeks so they could explain what they wanted to accomplish with a new brand and marketing campaign for their private jet business.
I didn’t mean to have four lunches; normally, I would only meet once or twice before giving them a proposal. But after two meetings I still didn’t understand their business model well enough to envision how we could help. We met a third time so I could ask some pointed follow-up questions about their business model, target audiences, and goals. Were they a fractional ownership co-op? No. Were they a charter service? No. Were they a concierge private airline? No. They explained again all the different ways they would make money off their initial fleet of four corporate jets, which involved some kind of subleasing scheme. Still, I couldn’t envision how we could build a compelling brand or campaign to sell it.
So I had a fourth lunch with the two aspiring entrepreneurs. I told them that before I gave them a proposal, I needed to hear them explain to me, one more time, what they wanted their business to be and be known for. They spent another thirty minutes telling me all the things their competitors did that they wouldn’t do. That’s when I had had enough.
“Gentlemen,” I said, “before I share my proposal, I have one last, simple question. Please answer it yes or no: ‘Do you give customers rides in airplanes for money?’”
They began waving their hands around again. “Well, it’s not that simple…”
“Gentlemen, we won’t be submitting a proposal for this project.”
They were shocked and wanted to know why. “Because over the last six weeks I’ve listened to you explain what you will and won’t do—mostly what you won’t—and I still don’t know the answer to that question. I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but if I can’t understand it after six hours of conversation, then there’s no way I can build a brand around it, much less sell it. If the market can’t understand who you are, what you do, and why anyone needs it, your brand is worthless.”
There is no shortage of ideas for businesses or nonprofit organizations. Good ideas are a bit more rare, but still pretty common. Great ideas are hard to find, and great ideas that are unique, actionable, and understandable by the customers that need to buy into them are quite rare indeed.
That’s where we come in. A brand isn’t a logo—it’s a reputation. It’s not the story an organization tells about itself; it’s the story that everyone else tells about that organization. That reputation or story can be shaped and facilitated with a solid brand strategy and marketing plan. But marketers can’t just slap lipstick on a pig and get the public to kiss it. The coolest logo and slickest ad campaign can’t bring success to a bad business model. If it could, then Pets.com would still be a thing. But as much as everyone loved the Sock Puppet during the Super Bowl, no one was going to make money selling 80 lb. bags of dog food through the mail.
For you to be that brand—the brand that makes enough sense to make its own success—it takes strategic thinking. Who are you? What is it that you’re really trying to sell? (This may not always be obvious. For example, is Shinola really selling a watch?) Who are the audiences that need to hear your brand message? You probably have multiple constituents and need each of them to perceive you from a slightly different angle. How will they engage with your brand? What has to happen each time they do, and how do you turn them from prospects to evangelists, spreading your story virally?
To answer these and other questions, Black Lake Studio leads clients through an extensive process of discovery. In part, that’s so we can discover what we need to know to build brand messaging and a visual identity. But in truth, our clients usually discover more about themselves than we do about them. Having to answer the questions we ask forces the client to take a hard look in the mirror and at their business plan. They come to realize that before anyone else can make sense out of what they’re doing, it has to make sense. Sometimes, clients are too close to their own brand to see that it isn’t as clear as they assumed.
There’s an Aha! moment when the components of a brand identity and strategy come together. All of a sudden, they become that brand, that company or organization that stands out from the crowd, challenging assumptions and breaking ground. When they become that brand, it becomes a lot easier to sell.