Years ago I consulted to an extremely successful specialty printer. I was engaged to assist in international expansion. In a lighter moment, over some libations, the CEO shared a personal observation and irritation. “Why does everyone want to go into marketing?” he brusquely asked. Before I could answer he continued on stating there were great careers to be had in production, distribution and new product development.
My response was marketing appears to many as ‘sexy’. It has the reputation as the fun aspect of business. It encompasses advertising with its alluring mystique and Don Draper cool factor. Marketing gets the high profile assignments. At least this is what people tend to think and it is what I subscribed to for a time.
I soon learned that marketing has very unsexy aspects. I personally loathe tradeshows. They do not get you much but you get punished if you do not show up. I continue to question the value of traditional public relations. Who reads press releases except other P.R. professionals and old school media? Maintaining databases seems very uncool but it is critical. Writing and defending copy is a daily event. The company holiday card takes six months to complete and is completely frustrating. Not all marketing is sexy, at least at face value.
At this point I must speak of my superior liberal arts education. Of course, I am joking but with a caveat. Let me explain, success in business is dependent upon skillsets that business schools do not and perhaps cannot teach holistically and in the aggregate. Corporate training also falls short in this regard. I am not claiming that a superficial background in philosophy, sociology, poetry, and Latin is an advantage. The point is, business and branding involves much, much more than what is found in schools, textbooks, business books and corporate education programs.
Here is where I get a bit provocative and you can challenge me on it. Let me use that old chestnut called the 80/20 rule. In this case, I contend that successful branding is 20% dependent on the practice of branding and 80% on psychology and change management. I have seen far too many great branding solutions watered down because both the brand owner and the agency assisting them could not make change happen.
Most brand practitioners get tied up in the fun bits of naming, logos, brand stories, social media, competitors, white space, and blue oceans. Granted, these are all important aspects of branding, however, these are so shiny that they blind us from recognizing that branding is a radical and jarring intervention in the life of a business. If a company or product or service discovers it needs branding, I equate that to a serious call for help.
What excites me about branding is its potential to galvanize an entire organization to be its best and to invite customers to participate in meaningful ways. Both of these goals are highly appealing and represent the pinnacle of branding. Yet, there is no way branding can come anywhere near to achieving these goals without doing a ton of work outside of branding’s generally accepted definition.
Having worked at Deloitte, Price Waterhouse, Interbrand and DDB, and consulted to over twenty consultancies and agencies, I have seen both the deficiencies and amazing capabilities within branding. I would like to frame the following using the construct of the ideal brand consultant. Suffice it to say that this ideal is impossible to find in one individual but can be found in an agency or consultancy of even modest size. The ideal brand consultant needs a mix of hard, soft and defining skills.
The Hard Skills
What schools and agencies do well are hard skills. These are the basic building blocks of a brand professional. These have to appear on your resume and within your agency in some combination but are not necessarily differentiators.
Project management: branding gigs have many moving parts and everyone regardless of seniority must know how to keep things on track. I dare someone to reference a successful and significant branding engagement that did not have exceptional project management.
Data gathering and analytics: there are varying levels of analytics but every consultant needs know how to take reams of data, convert it into information, form that into intelligence, and distill what remains into relevant and compelling insights. You can be trained to do this but the better practitioners have inherent abilities that make this happen.
Consumer needs and wants: marketing is all about needs and wants. Being able to discern a market’s growing or waning tastes is invaluable. Here I like to say, “we are all consumers”. So regardless of training you should be able to talk compellingly about the motivations and preferences of those customers your client wishes to engage. You should also be able to identify the most valuable sets of customers. This is where business schools are dropping the ball…segmentation is not being taught well at all.
Competitive intelligence: without a bead on where a competitor is going or how it is going to parry your client’s thrust then you may as well stay home and watch Shark’s Tank. The biggest buzz one gets in business is beating the competition by pleasing the customer in ways not previously imagined. It surprises me how little analysis is conducted on competitors by consultancies and agencies.
Teamwork and collaboration: these words sound so trite and sugar-sweet that I almost deleted them because of their overuse. Yet, they remain undervalued. These are integral to a smooth branding project. If there is true teamwork and collaboration, you will get a better result. To be clear, you need teamwork between agency and client and within the agency team.
The Soft Skills
We are all born with an innate set of skills. That is what makes our world interesting. If you happen to come equipped with a small subset of the following then you are doing well indeed. Arguably, most are developed through trial and experience. Nevertheless, possession will make you that much better a brand professional.
Interviewing and note taking: I strive to be better at this every day. It is more art than science. Each brand engagement has interviews. Each interviewee is just waiting to give you an insight. You need to catch and capture it. It is also an opportunity to bond that cannot be discounted.
Facilitation and mediation: branding is a process that requires guidance, nudging, prodding, and professional influence. One must be skilled at arbitrating and always moving the client forward. If you cannot yet guide a room of clients to a solution then find a mentor who does this well and emulate this skill.
Presentation and theater: the business does make for its Don Draper moments but it is participatory theater, it is never about the consultant. However, make damn sure you can engage, compel, converse and entertain. This means being incredibly intimate with the content and committed to a clear outcome that benefits the client.
Counseling and commiserating: Being a consultant is akin to putting a company on the couch but I am most gratified in talking and empathizing with my direct clients on everything that concerns and is affecting them. I benefit equally and honour a relationship that becomes so personal and meaningful.
Trust and confidentiality: related to the counseling soft skill is the expected and implied confidentiality in a client relationship. I am not only referring to never speaking of a client engagement publicly without consent, I am speaking about the myriad of confidences a consultant hears from among the client team. The number one reason consultants receive referrals is because they manage this so well.
The Defining Skills
Here is where a brand professional stands out and is memorable. These defining skills are essential to arriving at and implementing the brand solution. Clients will remember these and tell others.
Framing the problem: every one of my engagements is guided by the question, “what problem are we trying to solve?” You would be amazed how often what the client states it is after is different than what they actually want…or need. A solid consultant uncovers the real opportunity.
Organizational interpretation: there is the organizational chart and then there is how the organization actually works. Over time, a brand professional can cut to the chase and determine how the inner workings are holding back the brand. Every large brand engagement would benefit from an organizational design consultant so the brand professional must develop these skills and add it to their repertoire.
Design sensibility: so much of branding relies on great design. This does not mean one has to be a designer but it certainly requires having a commercial sensibility that can separate art from business. It is knowing what will connect with people and knowing what will never work.
When to push: brands are meant to stand out but the branding and rebranding process allows for too many opportunities to retreat. A strong brand professional will dig in their heels when too much is being compromised. This is not bull-headedness, it is a commitment to excellence.
Connecting the dots: clients are always impressed with a professional who is well read, well traveled, and completely knowledgeable on the latest trends. The skill then comes in making that knowledge relevant to the client’s brand. It is a way of connecting the dots that is always invaluable and awesome to a client.
Most branding and rebranding we see today is disappointingly superficial and all-too cosmetic. This “flavor of the month” and ‘me-too’ branding offends my sensibilities that are predicated on differentiation. Branding agencies and professionals need to tackle the issues and opportunities creatively and holistically. They need to demonstrate the hard, soft, and defining skills laid out here.
Unfortunately, most brand professionals are equipped with just a few of the hard skills and lack too many of the soft and defining skills. It is these skills that produce the best brand results. You cannot intervene in the life of an organization nor galvanize it to be its best without them.