Nov 082014

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

There are advantages in bringing in an expert on branding – particularly when that person is a good listener, has a creative mind and, when they speak, has something useful to say. Consultants who meet all three of these criteria are rare indeed. Ones that don’t are never worth their fees.

Over the years I have developed an approach to the question of branding which you may find useful. I never consider bringing in consultants until I have spent time talking to the most important, insightful and collaborative group available. That group is, of course, my clients.

Two years ago I launched a new business. I had a general idea to base it on and laid out a value proposition that wrapped around that core. I then set upon the journey of pulling together a team and building a revenue base. Unlike many, I didn’t spend a great deal of time developing and vetting a business plan. The long and short of it is that I don’t believe that they add much value during the very early stages of a company’s life. There’s just too much uncertainty.

Well, to get to the point of this article, two months back I began those conversations with our clients. I wanted to understand what it was we were delivering which was most valuable to them. I also wanted to understand what it was that we were offering, or appear to be offering, that didn’t attract their attention. As is always the case, the results were enlightening.

One of the basic problems I have with branding consultants is they tend to be both linear and micro-focused. By that I mean that they see the process as essentially one step after another and that they tend to miss the broader picture by focusing on a limited number of issues and possible solutions. Clients don’t tend to suffer from the same limitations. They have a holistic experience which leads them to a holistic perspective of your value proposition. And they have another advantage. They are inside the process rather than outside of it. Clients decide that what you are offering is actually worth paying for. Consultants spend time trying to convince you that what they have is worth your paying for.

As I conducted my interviews with the CEOs of our clients, an interesting pattern began to emerge. I began to see the proverbial three-legged stool image coming into focus. Our clients consistently mentioned three areas that were important to them. The first, of course, focused on the services which we were offering. Here are clients tended to disregard the high sounding language that we had put on our website and focused instead on the actual work that we were doing with them. As a result, my conception of the core value proposition changed significantly.

The second leg on the stool surprised me. One CEO put it this way, “You guys have massively impacted the culture of my company. During our initial interviews you told me that, after spending 18 years in Manhattan, you tended to set a fast pace. I remember grinning and saying “bring it on”. The truth is that I had no idea what you meant until we kicked off the engagement. You constantly pushed us to up our game. When we pushed back, you pushed harder. Sure there were some uncomfortable times and more than once I came close to telling you to go take a hike. But the truth is, as much as you have contributed to helping us prepare for growth and to drive growth, I see more value in the change in my team and our sensitivity to clients needs. We are a different team because of you. We are different company with a far better future.”

I remember that sometime during my late teens I made a comment to friends. I said, “I don’t remember getting taller. It has always seemed the same distance to the ground.” There is something in that. It is true that the time I spent in Manhattan effected in fundamental ways my approach to getting things done. It is also true that I came to understand the difference between “great” and what most people think of as great. What our clients were telling me was that our impact on their team and corporate culture was just as important as the impact we were having on revenue growth.

Then there was the third leg on the stool. One CEO put it this way, “Our association with you and your team has helped us develop a different vision of ourselves and the company. We were like a football player, fresh out of college, attending the first training camp. There we met the seasoned veterans. The guys who had been there before. The guys who had met and mastered the challenges that we were currently facing – and the challenges that we were going to face. Over the years, I’ve hired lots of consultants but they were always junior to me and my team. Nobody on my team is senior in any way to any of the people on yours. You provided the seasoned veterans that helped us.”

It wasn’t until I had had the conversation with our clients that I turned to interviewing branding consultants. Now, with the insight that our clients provided, I have a clearer idea of why they hire us and why they are so loyal. I can communicate that clearly and then listen to the consultants I am interviewing to see if they are capable of understanding the complex ideas. So do you see complex idea around the question of setting the pace?

Well, it’s really very simple. For a person who pushes clients constantly to pick up the pace, my strategy in thinking about the branding of the company is to slow the pace down. Part of the wisdom which comes with extended experience is that you have to know when to move quickly and when to take your time. As they say in the world of cuisine, some dishes are best cooked in a few seconds while others take a very long time. Wisdom is knowing which when.


© Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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