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June 21, 2019

Branding BS and How to Avoid It

Julie Ross Myers

Most small business branding consultants "clarify" what you think about yourself and your business.

The problem with the "gain clarity" approach is that it has nothing to do with market realities. It represents what you think, not what your potential buyers think. An owner's passion and vision are irrelevant without market demand.

42% of startups fail because there is no market need for their products or services.


Shit brand consultants, defined

Marketing professor Mark Ritson wrote a hilarious and widely shared seven-point rant on how to recognize a shit brand consultant. Here is a summary:

  1. First, any mention of millennials means you are dealing with a marketing moron...14 million British millennials fail every possible test of segmentation
  2. Second, look out for consultants that are happy to advise without any data or with just qualitative or quantitative data and not both... One of the signals of a bad consultant is a comfort with making big decisions with no data
  3. The crapper the brand consulting firm the more concepts they try and sell you...There is no one accepted term for what most call brand positioning. You can call it brand values, brand attributes, value proposition and so on. But a decent brand consultant will focus you on one concept to represent what you want to stand for in the market.
  4. Next, look out for certain trigger words... innovative, lifestyle, aspirational, integrity, trusted partner.... these words are meaningless to consumers and cannot create a strong brand
  5. If they reference Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a branded cow, or a reputation taking years to build...leave
  6. If your consulting firm has a trademark attached to their special branding methodology....exit
  7. Steve Jobs and Apple have nothing to do with your portable toilet business

Why is (so much) small business branding bullshit?

The big reason is, ironically, lack of market demand. Non-enterprise companies don't understand branding and therefore don't want to pay for it.

It takes 30 hours to properly research the market, customers, and competition of a smallish business. More time is required to analyze the data and come up with a strategy that fits the puzzle pieces. There may also be fees for access to relevant third-party research.

Bottom line, a small business brand consultant earning a modest $50 per hour would need to charge $2000 just to break even. A midsized company can expect to pay closer to $7,000.

Small business won't pay for decent branding.

  • They don't understand the value of a researched strategy
  • Graphic design firms say the logo etc. is branding

Small business owners will pay for hand-holding, though. The pain of being uncertain about one's brand and direction leaves these clients open to clarity coaching, boot camps, and off-the-cuff mentoring sessions that feel good but don't address the real issue.

A few hours on Google yielded a slew of small business brand strategists. Virtually all of them provide clarity of purpose not true brand research.

  1. Lara McCulloch is a brand consultant who offers a "virtual marketing VP" package for $4,000 a month with a minimum of 6 months.
  2. Karen Greenstreet offers business strategy sessions for $450 (90 minutes).
  3. UK brand consultant Suzanna Jackson, who deals a lot with naming.
  4. Amsterdam-based Beth Farris, who is part marketing and part branding consultant but does not clearly state whether she utilizes research
  5. Bragg Media, which offers a Brand Strategy session for $1500, which is included in the cost of a full Brand Bootcamp (creative execution), which can range from $6500 to $11,450. Very little market research is done.
  6. Pia Silva, whose firm WorstofAllDesign follows the same business model as Bragg Media but at 2X the price (they are in Brooklyn not South Carolina)
  7. Michelle Sassa "uncovers your brand's personality and determines your unique position in the marketplace." But no real mention of hard core research.
  8. Sarah Seaton, who bills herself as a brand strategist for ethical brands. Unique positioning. She does persona development and go-to market strategies but seems to be dip heavily toward the creative storytelling rather than analytical side.
  9. The Caffeine Partnership, a UK consultancy that helps create "purpose driven brands," and provides related services like pitch-building and creating sticky client relationships. Again, the information comes from the client not independent research.
  10. Naya, a "Brand Therapist" who focuses on helping wannabe entrepreneurs get off the ground.
  11. Melissa Bolton, another "Brand Therapist," who uses the Brand Archetypes quiz as a lead generator.
  12. Eman, the Scribesmith, the "launch copywriter" who creates human brand voices. Talented writer, but a specific niche.

Value of clarity

If you look at the websites of small business brand strategists, you will find that most of them base their services on helping business owners find clarity of purpose. Business owners, particularly entrepreneurs, operate with tremendous uncertainty. They are muddled by too much information. They are amuck with lack of focus.

Like other small business owners, I've struggled with finding my unique value. Without a clear sense of what I offer and why, it is impossible to create an unambiguous message for my website.

How much will a business owner pay for the feeling that she is on the right track? Remember, she is getting an opinion – not a researched strategy. So, the product is a perception.

Brand strategists make different promises, depending on their own branding. Some focus on "helping you uncover your vision." Others focus on "helping you attract more profitable customers."

Each of these promises taps into a pain point the small business owner already knows too well. The market is saturated. Customers can find more options than ever before. Someone is always selling the same widget at a cheaper price.

Brand strategists/therapists/writers give the business owner a sense of being on the right path. Relieving pain has perceived value. Instilling confidence has perceived value. Small business brand consultants provide both.

In the absence of research, clarity is the product of handholding. Clients feel better, even though their new brand is spun from whole cloth. I think these ad hoc brands border on unethical, but I get why they exist. Business owners want to feel more sure of themselves. However, there is a limit to what they will spend for that certainty.

For the average small business, $4000-$5000 seems to be the upper limit for a brand strategy. Almost always, this brand strategy is applied to the larger cost of the new logo, website, etcetera.

In the end, the brand strategy is really a sales gimmick.

Problems with shit branding

First, as I mentioned, a business owner's vision is irrelevant if the market does not support that vision. Or if a competitor is doing a better job of delivering it.

Second, brand strategists like Right Think say, "We will identify your Purpose, Positioning, Promise, and Personality in order to find a way to attract the right customers and make you stand out from the competition." Well, being different from the competition is not really what makes brands successful. Relevance and saliency are more important.

Going back to point one, the right customers do not depend on my vision. They depend on market forces. Look at New Coke, Maxwell House Brewed Coffee, and Google Glass, among others. All were built on a strong corporate vision and flopped. Bias may have stilted the results of research. But in any case, research is about reducing risk, not eliminating it.

Branding won't attract more profitable customers but it can align your message with the most profitable customer segments you already have. You have to slice and dice your customer data to find the segments that produce the bulk of your revenue. Then, look at their demographic and psychographic data. And, finally, tailor your message to their personas. A small business can do this by tracking CRM pipeline information. You also want to look at longevity and lifetime value. And at how much it costs to service various customer segments.

Finally, my passion of purpose cannot overcome a marketplace saturated with competition. It's not enough to stand out from the competition. My brand has to express why I am better than them. This requires doing a thorough analysis of the competition, their strengths and weaknesses, and their brand promises.

I hired a shit brand consultant

I hired a brand consultant who meets several of Ritson's shit criteria:

  1. She does not do research, because small businesses like me "already know their target customers" COMPLETELY UNTRUE, BTW.
  2. She does not use a brief or questionnaire, because being spontaneous provides "better responses"
  3. She has a catchy, trademarked name for her branding product

Why did I pay for shit?

You can't know something until you know it. Without paying for and experiencing a "clarity branding" process, I really cannot know whether or not it has value. Or how much value. Or what kind. So yeah, I was doing my research.

If nothing else, I gained insight into how someone can command a huge fee for an off-the-cuff branding strategy.

Second, paying her is a matter of karma.

I studied her business model and implemented some of her ideas. I copied the way she structured a CTA. I learned from how she markets herself. These things will help my business, so it is only fair that I pay her in return.

So yes, real branding costs more. But then, you get real results.

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