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Creating A Disruptive Brand Strategy with Sue Kirchner
My guest is Sue Kirchner. She is a branding strategist that helps companies, large and small, figure out how to disrupt their market by a unique and powerful brand strategy. She started off working with Motorola by selling all kinds of cool things in the Latin American market. She is fluent in Spanish and through the years has developed a number of companies to help bring unique products to market and get customers to show up and buy them. Welcome, Sue.
Thank you so much, Mark. I’m thrilled to be here.
It’s going to be a great conversation. Let’s talk about the idea of a disruptive brand strategy. How do we do this?
How you do it is, first and foremost, you need to look inward. You need to look at your organization and say, “What do we stand for? What are we good at?” Trying to figure out the foundation of what is our mission? What is our purpose? What is our vision? Where are we going with the organization? What is the promise that we make to each of our customers as well as employees? To understand this is the place that we hold, the position we hold in the market and why we offer such unique value to our target markets.
You described a culture state. That’s the starting point is your culture.
You need to look internally and say, “What do we do well? Why do we do that well?” A lot of organizations can come in and say, “I wish we were the low-cost provider. I wish we were amazing at customer service.” Once you do the brand research and investigate, what are you good at? There’s maybe a reason why you’re not good at customer service or there’s a reason why you’re not the lowest cost provider. You need to get at the DNA of the organization to understand this is what we excel at. Whether it was through innovation, whether it was through a history of who our customers ended up being, how our products or services morphed, who we hired. All of that adds to the identity of what your organization delivers and promises to deliver to all of its customers and employees.
Probably the most important one for us to consider is this concept of identity. Our customers always buy based on their identity or the identity they wish to assume.
How does your identity help further their identity as well?
They cannot buy unless they can see this purchase being part of their identity or moving their identity. Understanding your corporate identity to begin with is absolutely critical to being successful in marketing. I’m glad that we started with this. To me, this is one of the most important concepts for business is you have got to nail your identity. I want to rewind back to culture. It’s not only what we stand for, but it’s also what we won’t stand for.
A lot of times when I deal with organizations, we’re trying to figure out what their brand is, what their DNA is, a lot of times we do the opposite and we say, “What don’t we stand for? Maybe that can get us closer and closer to those core characteristics that do define what the brand is.” We are not the type of organization that does this. We are not going to hire these kinds of people. By going almost reverse engineering it, you can get it, we couldn’t articulate what you did stand for but by articulating what you don’t stand for, we still got to the same place.
The reality is there’s a whole group of people psychologically that are better directed by doors closing than doors opening. We’ve got to do both.
Any way you can get to that information is great. Figuring out what you don’t do to get you to what you do do, it definitely makes a big difference in trying to fill that out. As CEOs and as the executive team, they are the stewards of the brand for the organization. They absolutely need to know that information because if they can’t articulate it and if they can’t walk the talk of what the brand is for the organization, how do they expect their employees to be able to do the same thing? It’s impossible and especially for a service business. I love working with service businesses.
I don’t know if you read that book, Selling the Invisible, by Harry Beckwith. I love that whole idea of something that’s intangible. If a customer is going to hire someone for a service, they cannot touch it. They cannot feel it. They can’t kick the tires. They have to buy based on trust. To me, the best way that you can get that trust across is through all of your branding initiatives, by making that strong promise and then always delivering on it. If you’re speaking to a new client, having some previous clients give you testimonials saying, “Yes, they promised they would do this. They deliver on it every time. The brand is strong, feel free to work with them because they definitely are going to deliver.”
That’s one of my seven Ps of risk reduction and number one is proof. You have to prove that you can do this. I want to get back and focus. I want to shine the spotlight on the lead here because to me, it’s the most important thing for executives to understand is that without a solid culture statement, your marketing will not work. We have got to get that absolutely nailed down. In my business model, the one that I share with my clients, the CEO is responsible for curating the culture. You said that the top officers have to maintain that. In my opinion, it’s the CEO’s job. They have to curate that and then they have to make sure that is inculcated in the rest of the executive team. Otherwise, we hire the wrong people, we have the wrong training, we hire the wrong vendors.
To me, a brand offers benefits not only to the organization to be able to sell to customers, but it offers a tremendous amount of value internally. To me, the biggest value of a strong brand for a CEO or the executive team is that it acts as almost like a strategic lens that you can make decisions for the entire organization based on does it help or does it hurt what our brand stands for? It makes it so much easier to decide, “Are we going to acquire this organization? Are we going to expand into this new market? Should we hire these kinds of people?” By looking at it through the brand lens and saying, “Are we helping to strengthen what we stand for or are we being distracted by shiny objects and getting away from what our brand stands for?” It’s an incredible tool to have the clarity and the focus around what your brand stands for in order to make those tough strategic decisions sometimes.
To sum that up, executives when you’re stuck, pull out your brand statement. It will give you a lot of clarity in which way to go.
I worked for a client organization a number of years ago and one of the best tools that we created for them to help figure out what their brand was and to communicate that internally was we created a little card. It was almost like an index card. On one side of it, it had their core values. On the other side, it had the brand promise. The CEO loved this because when he would walk into strategic meetings, he would throw the card in the middle of the table. They would always use it after every decision and say, “Are we sticking with our core values, flip the card over? Are we enhancing our brand?” It was tremendous. It was easy for people then to say, “It’s not helping, so let’s table this idea or let’s completely discard it.”
If you can take this one ideal way, this can help you disrupt your market probably more than anything else you’re going to hear. A critical concept is staying true to your brand and your core concept. It’s easy to pull off the line and pull off the base and that’s killer to your marketing. It’s killer to your customer base. I love it. This is a great conversation. What’s the next step?
The next step is if you don’t have a strong handle on what that brand is, you need to do the work to figure that out. I run into clients where maybe they’re ten years into building their organization and the company has changed. What they started trying to provide to customers may have shifted a little bit. I’ve interviewed a CEO once about branding for an article I wrote. He gave me a great piece of advice and he said, “Five years into our organization, we were order takers, meaning that anything that came in, we took it because we had to do that to survive and cashflow is king. Five years after that though, we became order-makers where we understood where we added value and what type of customers we wanted to work with. We were able to shift focus and say no to certain opportunities and pursue others.”
To me, what’s important is maybe five or ten years have gone by, maybe it’s even twenty years but taking a look at your marketing messaging and what your brand stands for and is perceived more importantly in the marketplace is important to do every now and then. It’s to take a gut check and say, “Are we saying the right thing? Are we targeting the right people? Are all of our messages consistent?” There are four essential steps to figuring out what your brand is and identifying that. One of the key components to that is maybe building a brand team. If you’re the CEO or even if you’re a smaller organization and you’ve only got three people on the executive team, it’s still important to put together a brand task force. These are the people who are going to sit down and make the decisions on what does our brand stand for and how do we move forward?
I start with a lot of my clients by saying, “Let’s get the executive team together. What do you think your brand is? Let’s put a baseline foundation together. What is the brand? What do you think you deliver on your best day ever? What can you deliver to your customers? How do you delight them?” We come up with a variety of ideas that we think we try and get a consensus amongst the executive team to say, “Yes, this is what we think we stand for.” What we want to do, which is more important, is to validate that. We need to do a little research. An important next step is to then say, “Let’s go out and let’s talk to all of our stakeholders and validate and see if this is what they perceive our brand to be.” Your brand, it resides in the mind of the audience that’s interacting with your organization. You need to get it.
It’s often unconscious and you need to distill that. You need to pull that out of their head. As human beings, when we meet someone or we are thinking about buying a product, we have this need to slot people in our brain for recall. A lot of times if an organization doesn’t define themselves, somebody else will. Namely, the person who’s interacting with you may say, “I don’t know. I met this salesperson and I don’t remember what they told me they did, but they were this.” That’s unfortunately then what sticks in their mind as the perception of what your brand is. You need to be strong. You need to define what it is that you stand for, be consistent in all of your communications as well as every experience the customer has with you.
It’s important to understand what’s out there as the perception. Talking to customers is absolutely key. If we can talk to employees as well, especially customer facing employees because they are the ones that are talking day-to-day to the clients and customers finding out what are the questions? How do you think they feel they’re being treated by the organization? What do you think they value the most? Trying to get at that. For some larger organizations, you may want to talk to suppliers. You may want to talk to industry influencers, the board. It depends on how wide you want to cast the net to understand what the brand stands for.
Coming back with all of this research information is in my mind, absolutely invaluable for most organizations. Nine times out of ten, the CEO and the executive team that I’ve worked with have said, “This is why our customers love us. It’s right here. It’s reason number X or reason letter X.” When we come back with the research and we find out that the customers say, “That’s nice, but that’s not why we love you. That’s not why we do business with you and are loyal and stay. It’s this reason.” Being able to show that gap to a CEO and executive team and say, “They liked this but that’s not the primary reason. What do we need to do to either enhance the marketing messaging so that we attract similar types of customers to help your business grow? Is there something internally within your customer or product experience that we need to enhance or change so that we can build up that characteristic that you want them to be perceiving?” It’s just not strong enough now. It’s not what people are saying that they love you for.
That’s such an important concept for executives to understand is you think you have a handle on it and you don’t. Part of it is confirmation bias. We are assuming that what we’re doing is a good job. We assumed because we’ve heard a couple of people say this that that’s the reason why they buy, and it can be something completely different. I’d like to point out to you, Sue, that you did not make a mistake earlier in that last statement. Number X does work if you’re a Roman. I have a smart audience and they probably were thinking that I have to call it out. My job is to say what my audience is thinking right now. I’m sure that every one of our audience is saying, “It’s absolutely true.” Will Rogers said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” We have to make sure that our brand is nailed, otherwise we burn our list. Many companies burn their list with cold calling and that’s how people view that company and it burns the list.
It’s absolutely essential, especially if you’re entering into a new market. Let’s say you’re an organization as a growth strategy. You’re trying to move into an adjacent market. This is your chance to get the message absolutely perfect right out of the gate because you’re entering this new market. Maybe your existing customer base knows you from ten years ago when you did something else, but now you’re entering this new market and you have a chance to tell them exactly why you are the best option for them to work with. Here’s the brand promise that we make every time you’re going to interact with us. It’s important to get those messages down the path for when you’re trying to grow the organization because you need to explain what it is that you do. I like to view branding as well as you need to figure out your ideal customer. It still surprises me how many organizations still feel I don’t want to narrow that down. I don’t want to pick one type of a customer. We want to sell to anybody who’s interested in us.
The reality is that is a rookie attitude and my bet is that virtually our audience know that’s not the case. If you are welcome to reality, when everybody is your customer, nobody is your customer. Marketing 101 is polarize your market. Either make them love you or hate you. You don’t want anybody in the middle.
Especially when it comes to branding, if you know who is the type of customer that absolutely loves what you offer, then it makes it so much easier to go out and find them and to tell your story.
Then to build stuff that they love.
We were in the four steps to your brand strategy that we talked about. It’s building the brand, taskforce, do your research. It comes into distilling down the insights from everything you’ve learned. Sitting down and saying, “Look at all this research that we’ve gotten from our customers, our employee. What was repeated over and over again?” That must be core to what our brand stands for and something that we need to build on or something that we need to enhance or if it’s maybe not what you necessarily want the perception to be. Is there a way to strategically add to the organization in some way, shape or form to change that?
Distilling the insights and then taking action, which is now that you know what your brand is and you know who your ideal target market is, how do you go to market and get that story out there? Whether that’s, “Do we need to update our website? Do we need a new sales presentation? Do we need to train our salespeople internal, external?” If you have an indirect distribution channel, “How do we get that message out there so that it’s consistent and it’s definitely what the organization wants the perception to be out in the marketplace?”
That training is so important. Remember the training is not an event. It’s a process. There’s a difference between product training and sales training. Product training is what you talk about in sales training is how you talk about it. That’s the connection between sales and marketing. You have to have that flow through from the brand promise and the story into the sales conversation because that’s what creates that unification between our first contact with the customer through a marketing. Ultimately with the relationship that’s developed through the sales team.
It’s important, especially like we talked about service businesses, your people are your product in a service business. If they are your brand ambassadors, if they’re the ones who are delivering on the brand promise, it is absolutely essential that you’re training them internally on what perception do we want? How are we delivering on this brand promise? If a client or a customer calls in, how do we handle that type of a call in a way that enhances our brand messaging? The more you spend time talking about the brand internally, the better that message gets communicated externally as well.
It is a continuous process. It cannot stop. It’s part of your Monday morning meetings. It’s part of the beginning of every paper. It’s like saying the Pledge of Allegiance before a ballgame or singing the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s part of how you keep the culture in place.
Another thing I like to talk to clients about too is differentiation or standing out in the marketplace.
That is where I want to go next. That is, “How do we be disruptive?” Disruptive comes from desirable difference.
That’s another thing to take a look at with clients and sit down and say, “Now that we know what your brand is, is there a way that we can enhance it and make it stronger?” It’s not just through marketing messaging, it’s through the entire operation, the delivery of the product, the experience they have, whether it’s pre-purchase, during the purchase or post-purchase. How do you deliver on this promise? What I like to do with clients is we sit down and we map out the customer journey. We look at, “How many touch points do we have with a potential client or customer prior to them even spending money with us?” We look at what is the process, whether it’s service or they’re buying a product, “What happens when they’re exchanging the money and creating this relationship of working together?” Post-purchase, “What are the touch points? Where are the places that we could potentially enhance or break our brand?”
Looking at that and saying, “Are there ways or places in this entire journey where we could differentiate even further from our competitors by doing something a little different?” I love the example of differentiating based on place, where or how you buy. The example I was looking at was a number of years ago, I was in Whole Foods and I saw that they were selling Toms shoes. I was like, “Why would you ever want to buy shoes when you’re at the grocery store looking at food and things like that?” When I thought about it I was like, “This is genius in terms of building awareness for Toms shoes because their exact target market was at Whole Foods.” These are people who care about giving back. They care about the environment. They care about eating healthy, making the world a better place, leaving no trace on the planet. The characteristics and who they were targeting was exactly the same. I was like, “This is an incredible disruption and an incredible differentiator for them in that you can find their product not in a traditional shoe store necessarily, but someplace where their target market is going to be.”
The whole point is that you go fishing where your people are hanging out. It doesn’t matter any longer what the brand category is, it’s more the audience that we’re trying to reach, the customers that we’re trying to reach. Disruption can happen extraordinarily because all we have to do is get them to purchase from us one time and then level them up and then we can have them for life. That’s where we create that disruption is you have to think completely beyond what everybody else is doing to have something different in every way. I love the idea of, “Where are the touchpoints where we can differentiate?” That’s been an idea that has been around for a very long time yet so few people do it.
I’ve seen small businesses and I’ve seen large businesses do interesting ways to differentiate. A number of years ago, there was an online music organization called CD Baby. They had an incredible brand from the standpoint of they infused a lot of fun into their marketing and into their customer touchpoints. When you purchased a CD from them, you’ve got an email that was very tongue-in-cheek and very funny about, “We’re so excited you purchased from us. We are jumping up and down with joy. We sent our packing people into the back warehouse to grab your CD. We’re getting it out to you as soon as we can.” All of the communication that came from this company was so fun that you absolutely wanted to go back and buy things from them afterward. All it was an email saying, “We’ve got your order.”
Indeed, Derek Sivers, who is the Founder of CD Baby, that was his personality. He was a joker. If you go online and take a look at pictures of him, he’s always this impish look on his face. He’s ready to play.
It was a perfect melding of the brand personality of who he was, but then also taking a look at one of the customer touchpoints, which was an order confirmation email. That’s it. They infused some creativity into it and turned it into an experience for the buyer. It was a wonderful way to disrupt the messaging that is out there.
People remembered that for CD versus the boring stuff we got from a Columbia House Records back in those days. It’s important for us to stop and bring out the point that the personality of the company has to reflect the personality of our customer. That goes back to our original conversation around identity. I’m a person who likes to have fun. I like to hang out with fun companies. If a company’s not fun, I have to charge more.
The personality is important because it helps energize you as the CEO, anyone who works within the organization. It energizes you to be true to your existing personality. A lot of times as organizations grow over time, they do take on the personality of the founder. It’s one of those founders who are good at recognizing their personality and how it has affected the organization. Trying to take that and infuse it throughout the whole organization. That is extremely important because there will come a time if you’re growth-minded where the CEO will not be there any longer, but you want those characteristics and those traits to live on. How do you make sure that you infuse that to train people?
The reality is you can’t get to that size unless you have personalities.
That’s part of the whole brand process too to figure out who your target market is because you attract. People want to work with people that are like them or people that they trust and relate to. If your organization has this type of strong personality, it will attract the people who are attracted to that personality.
Millennials choose culture over a career. Creating this brand statement is such a critical aspect of attracting the right employees and enough of them.
It’s worth taking the time to sit down and say, “What is that personality? What is that brand identity that we’re trying to not only attract people with but also deliver every time we interact with our client base?”
That reminds me Jan Carlzon’s book, Moments of Truth, back from the ‘80s. It’s such a great book and still absolutely germane 30 years later. He talked about the fact that every time that we have an interaction with a customer, every time we have a touch point, we either bring truth to our promise or we make our promise go away. I love that concept. One of Jan’s shining examples is we’re not about doing any one thing 1000% better. We’re about doing 1,000 things 1% better. In that, we create a disruptive organization that our competitors can never figure out. What a powerful concept. That to me summarizes a lot of what we’ve been talking about and you’ve broken it down very nicely for our audience.
To our audience, you cannot do this branding work on your own. You need to bring in a professional. You need to bring an expert. It’s completely worth it. You have too many blind spots. You’ve got to bring in somebody who can spot your blind spots. As you pointed out, nine out of ten executives were surprised by why their customers bought. The reality is that if you have that blind spot, you are underperforming in the marketplace and you have fooled yourself. How can our audience get ahold of you to perhaps have something like this brought into their organization?
You can find me online at BrandStrongMarketing.com. I do have an eBook that you can download on my website. It’s the 10 Questions to Ask Your Customers to Identify Your Unique Brand. The reason that I made that eBook available is a lot of times clients are like, “I don’t know what you’re going to ask my clients. I’m not sure what you’re going to say or what’s going to come out of that. I don’t want this to be a very negative conversation.” I made the eBook available to show what those ten questions are because it’s all positive. We’re not trying to point out what do you do poorly. What we’re trying to point out is what you do incredibly well so that we can help you identify that and then replicate it a lot more in the future to grow and expand the business.
Every time people say, “I don’t want to have a negative conversation,” I laughed and I said, “What else don’t you want to know about your business?” While our job as a coach is to make people strong, not wrong, we still need to understand if there are some issues that our target customers find friction. I’m not talking about people that we don’t want as customers. There are people that bad mouth me all day long that will never spend a nickel with me. Go find somebody else to bother. That’s not what we’re talking about. What we’re all about is trying to figure out those people who quite frankly were an answer to their prayer. We’ve got to reach out to them and make sure that we are the one that’s helping them get there.
When I work with clients and we get ready to start doing customer interviews, they’re like, “Which names should we give you?” I always sit down and I say, “I don’t want to talk to the people who absorb 80% of your time for very little profit. I want to talk to the people who are an absolute joy to work with.” They value what you offer. They’re easy for your customer service people to interact with. They come back consistently to repurchase from you. Those are the types of customers that we want to focus on for the branding because you need more of them in order to grow your business. Let’s figure out who are they and what do they absolutely love about you, so we can go find their identical twins out there in the marketplace.
That sounds like the perfect disruptive brand strategy. Thank you, Sue, for being with us on the show.
Thank you for having me.
- Sue Kirchner
- Selling the Invisible
- CD Baby
- Moments of Truth
- 10 Questions to Ask Your Customers to Identify Your Unique Brand
About Sue KirchnerWith 25 years of experience in helping companies of all sizes and industries tell their story and attract customers, I’ve seen what works and how to achieve results. When it comes to branding and marketing I’ve been lucky enough to do it all – qualitative research, focus group facilitation, insight analysis, competitive mystery shopping, launching and killing brands, reinventing and refocusing brands to be stronger, creating key messages, storytelling, visual branding, content creation, thought leadership branding, social media marketing, video marketing, and even international branding. Whew!
I get equally excited by learning and teaching. I get pumped up learning about a new business and its challenges, then digging in and looking for patterns and insights to help the business owner or leadership team see their unique value and a clear path for growth. I also get passionate about teaching others to take control of their business and tell their story. I’ve been told that in my workshops and trainings, I am knowledgeable, energetic, approachable, motivating and fun. That makes me feel awesome! I work hard to break down and translate vague and intimidating branding concepts so they are easy for business owners to understand.
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