You have insurance for the hard assets, but what about your soft assets? Your employees, your loyal client base, your culture, your family, and most importantly your personal give-a-damn?
Protect your assets you will.
You may be asking: But how can investing in my brand protect all of these people? Before we get to that, let me tell you a story about NOT investing in your brand.
There once was a talented designer who owned a thriving studio. In the beginning, she hustled, a lot. Got the studio name out there, networked and advertised.
She became busy.
Her studio was fortunate to have a lot of repeat and referral business over the years and she had many clients that had been around for 10+ years.
Work was always there and she hadn’t had to hustle in years.
She and her team prided themselves on being a generalist firm that could handle just about anything. Corporate identity, trade show displays, vehicle wraps, specialty marketing pieces, billboards, direct mail campaigns, websites, email campaigns… and the list goes on.
Everything was fine. Not great, but not terrible.
Most clients were amazing, some were a challenge and a few were downright difficult, but that is the life of a business owner, right? You can’t be picky as an entrepreneur.
Things were fine.
Until John showed up.
He was a referral from a colleague. The colleague would be part of the team which sounded like a lot of fun, and this project was designing something that had been on her bucket list for a while and the budget was solid. Everything sounded great.
So she eagerly met with John and the colleague at a coffee shop to discuss the project.
Unbeknownst to her, John already had firm ideas on the packaging, positioning, messaging and rollout of the product – he just needed an executioner.
John laid out his plan, but it didn’t make much sense, it was aimed all wrong, and at her core, the designer was not just hands-for-hire. So she pitched some other ideas. The colleague jumped onboard and the ideas were flying – this was getting really exciting!
John just sat there. Then he got up, said, “thank you for meeting with us”, told the colleague that it was her decision and left.
“What just happened?”, the designer asked
“Wow… I’ve never seen him that angry”, the colleague said.
“Uh, what? How could you tell? Does he normally leave meetings like that?”
“Well, I think you pissed him off by going in another direction. You couldn’t see it, but his lips were pursed as we talked but I was hoping he would relax and see the merit of your ideas, which I thought were spot on. It is a better product/market fit and the launch will be much easier for this early-adopter crowd. I’ll work on him from my side. Good thing is – he still wants to hire you”
“Yeah, he said it was my decision. That was his passive way of saying ‘yes, hire her’”
“Ok, but that’s weird”
Perplexed but secretly feeling like a total badass. Not that she pissed off a client, but that despite that, he still wanted to work with her… so he must see the value she provides.
Things went downhill from there. She had never worked with a passive-aggressive client before and was grossly unprepared for the mind games to come.
The next in-person meeting was different: he was charming and appeared to be open to change. He liked her mockups and praised her ideas.
Email conversations were a different story though. He was critical and denied ever giving the approval to move to the next stage. It was as if the prior meeting didn’t even exist and she was completely delusional.
Totally perplexed, she doubled down. Normally her intuition was in-sync with clients, she was not used to being off-base like this and if felt bad. There was a total disconnect – or she was being punked.
She wanted to do a good job (sorry, her people-pleasing is showing) and wanted this project to be a success, no matter how long it took to make this work. It’s just a bit more time, right?
More meetings, more ups, and even more downs.
What she didn’t realize in her fog of people-pleasing is that she ignored hundreds of red flags screaming that John was not a good fit…
Thankfully for her someone could see it.
Yoda could see the issue clearly.
After a long weekend of revising revisions, the designer walked out of her home office and ran into her 8yr old son in the hallway.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
“I just got off the phone with John, he is driving me crazy!”
“I can’t. He owes me a lot of money, and I’m not finished with the project yet.”
“I don’t care. Fire him…. Give me your phone, I’ll do it!”
(… stunned silence …)
“Seriously Mom, get rid of him. I can tell when you are working on his stuff. You’re grumpy, sad, and tired. You aren’t your normal awesome you and I don’t like this. Where is your phone?”
She stood in the hallway gobsmacked.
Yes, this client is a royal PIA. But she didn’t realize how much working with John had affected her, AND everyone around her.
She gave her son a big hug and said, “I’ll take care of this, thank you.”
Smacked upside the head by an 8yr old Yoda!
She let his words sink in and realized… that working with John (and others like him) made a huge impact on her family and her interactions with other clients.
She thought that she was just internally frustrated and stressed… nope. Everyone could see it and feel it. Her team, kids, husband, and the poor client who’s meeting fell after one with John.
By ignoring the red flags, she allowed him into her studio. She allowed him to take her and her team’s creative energy and stomp on it. She allowed him to hijack way more time than he was paying for in hopes of pleasing the unpleasable. (Dammit!)
By taking on and keeping clients who were not a good fit, she lost her give-a-damn for her business and her team was ready to quit. (Double dammit!)
She flirted with closing everything down and getting a “real job”. (Gasp!)
She started daydreaming about that magical paycheck that drops in your bank account twice a month with paid time off, paid sick days and set hours. Life would be easier if she didn’t have to make a paycheck out of thin air.
She knew in her heart of hearts that after being an entrepreneur for 15 years she was way too feral to be someone else’s employee.
Deep down she loved her work, loved helping companies find their brand essence, and bring it to life.
So, what the hell happened? Can this be fixed?
What went wrong?
How did she and her team go from running a thriving studio to losing their give-a-damn and ready to quit?
- Weak and outdated brand foundation – Who they were as a company in 1998 and who they are today are miles apart. They had not taken the time to redefine their who, what and why, taking into account how they had evolved, what they stood for, who they were meant to serve and how they were different. They had not thought about (or actively projected) their company values, mission, why or purpose for years. So they became interchangeable in the minds of prospects, nothing stood out as different.
- Brand decay – They spent all their time servicing client needs and ignored their own branding and positioning. They become invisible, so any lead was a good lead.
- No specialty or niche – Even though they were great at strategy, branding and asset buildout, no one knew that. They were only seen as a generalist design firm and over time they became an accidental commodity.
- Stopped actively marketing – Things were “fine” and they were busy enough. Referrals and repeat business are great but not predictable or dependable. The studio lived in a feast or famine cycle.
- No prospect qualification system – Their criteria was, “a problem we can solve, a pulse and a checkbook”. Clients need to bring more than that to the table in order for you to do your best work. You don’t start a business to do just any old work, you want to do your best work and you need clients that will allow you to do that.
- Ignored red flags – No defined boundaries for what they were willing to put up with and what they would not tolerate. There are some people in this world you are meant to serve, and others, not so much. Know the difference or it will kill your culture!
- Fire the clients that need firing – Bad fits should not get past your qualification system, but if they do, you have to have serious boundaries in place in order to protect your team. Letting clients run rough shot over your team sends a clear message that you care about a short term client more than you care about your team.
- Not protecting the asset – They sold strategy and creativity. By letting the brand foundation weaken and letting non-ideal clients distract their energy, the assets (culture, creativity, and give-a-damn) were damaged.
In the beginning, she started to build a brand but then got swept away with running the business. Over time, what brand reputation she had built devolved into being invisible.
That realization was a punch in the face and a shame spiral catalyst.
Branding is what the studio did best. When she asked herself “what the hell?” she responded, to herself, “I’m just too busy working on client projects and helping them build their brand, to focus on me and the studio”.
That may sound selfless and noble on the surface, but it really is a bullshit avoidance statement.
➜ Mind trash can be dangerous.
➜ Resistance is real.
➜ Protect your assets.
➜ YOU are an asset.
“You don’t have time for this… Start next month… Everything is fine… This is going to be hard and scary… Working on your own branding is selfish when you have so many urgent things to do for clients…”
Let’s face it, working on your brand can be hard and sometimes confronting. It is so much easier to work on client projects. It’s nice and cozy staying under the radar in your comfort zone.
But doing so lead her… ok let’s stop the charade, it lead ME to make voodoo dolls of John, although fun and entertaining, not productive or healthy.
“The safest thing you can do is take a risk. The riskiest thing you can do is to remain comfortable” — Seth Godin
Don’t let “comfortable” or the fear of not knowing where to start get in your way. Don’t get to the point of losing your give-a-damn! Or your staff wanting to quit.
Don’t look back a year from now, stuck in the same place, and wish you had done the work to rebrand. Just do it.
- Protect your assets.
- Up your game.
- Support your team.
- Be the brand you’re meant to be.
- Have that well-packaged brand you’ve always wanted.
- Stand out and get noticed.
- Serve the people you are meant to serve.
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Tracy O’Shaughnessy Founder / Lead Brand Strategist of Branding & Beyond
Tracy and her team help B2B firms in the construction industry and professional services look and sound credible online and off.
She has been in the industry since the early '90s and is tired of great companies being treated as commodities and competing on price because they don't look and sound as credible as they really are.
You can find Tracy on Linkedin and here on this blog.