Vincent Lee of ‘Can You Brand Me’: “How do you act every day?”

A makeover requires investment of money, time, and energy to ensure a rebrand is done right. If you don’t have enough resources or are unwilling to reallocate resources, the attempt will do more harm than good. As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Vincent Lee. Straddling between two countries […]

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A makeover requires investment of money, time, and energy to ensure a rebrand is done right. If you don’t have enough resources or are unwilling to reallocate resources, the attempt will do more harm than good.

As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Vincent Lee.

Straddling between two countries he calls home for the last twenty years, Vincent’s residential status as an Oklahoman and his citizenship as a Singaporean have earned him an unofficial title; Okieporean. He is a self-taught graphic designer who found his passion in brand strategy during his career as an in-house marketing professional and later, as a solopreneur; a career move driven by a desire to spend more time in Singapore with his aging parents. Having worked with clients in Africa, North and South America, Vincent enjoys working with small business owners in crafting memorable brands and currently working towards expanding his reach as a brand evangelist.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you for the opportunity to connect with you and your readers!

I call two countries home and my story starts in the land of the “Crazy Rich Asians”.

Going to a graphic design school in the 80s was cost prohibitive for a working class family in Singapore. Instead, I channeled those artistic energies into community art competitions and art projects in primary & secondary schools. I even bought an Apple computer with money made waiting tables to learn the tools of the trade.

With a full-time job as a twenty-something, I decided to pursue a Mass Communications degree from Oklahoma City University while in Singapore. It was during those evening classes when I began to see the possibility of applying my passion in graphic design into various industries like advertising, broadcasting, and journalism.

In 2000, I moved to Oklahoma to complete my senior year as a full-time student on campus. That marked the beginning of my full-time career as a creative professional in the U.S.

While my career path has not been “glamorous” with big budget campaigns and high profile clients, working in-house as a graphic design guy and marketing assistant have sharpened me as a brand designer and fueled me as a brand strategist.

I have grown to appreciate the depth of a truly powerful brand; one that goes beyond the visible and tangible like a logo, a website, or a product. I like to tell potential clients, “I can make you look pretty but let’s make you matter first.”

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Three to four years into my first job as an immigrant in the U.S., I got a chance to form an in-house design team within the structure of my employer.

The goal was to establish some in-house capabilities and provide graphic design and marketing services to the many businesses my employer has across various industries.

I decided to name our team DS9HSE. Well, as you can tell, it’s not a name that you know how to pronounce immediately. The six-character acronym is supposed to look like what you would see on a vanity license plate representing a longer word or phrase.

It stands for Design House (DS9 = design and HSE = house) simply because we, two college interns and I, are in-house resource providing design solutions that “drive” the business goals of our various subsidiaries.

The name works for an in-house entity because we see and talk to the people we serve internally on a regular basis and we can easily explain the spirit and purpose for our existence.

When the global financial crisis of 2007–08 shut down my employer’s operations, I moved on to another job while keeping DS9HSE alive as a side-hustle. That’s when promoting myself as a freelance graphic designer got more challenging. Spelling DS9HSE (often in International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabets) and explaining to people what it stands for got old pretty quick.

My takeaway? Don’t get too creative with your brand name if you don’t have a plan to properly educate people about it.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

As a self-taught graphic designer, the approach early in my career has been perusing printed materials and online content for inspiration when designing a logo, brochure, or website. As such, my design solutions were mostly an imitation with a touch of personal aesthetic.

Designers can be egoistic. And since I don’t have a proper design education, I have something more to prove. I wanted to make sure every completed project was reflective of my style and my arrogance robbed me of the joy I used to have.

It was a brand design project for Endiro Coffee, an Ugandan business, that triggered a change in my approach. As I got to know the founder; insight into her dream, purpose, and culture for the business became the inspiration to my brand development process.

While I want to offer my clients timeless design aesthetic, it became more important to fuel my process with relational intentionality. Brand design became a much more collaborative and immersive process as I learned to ask more questions.

I want my solution to be a reflection of my client as a person and human organization. A design element is no longer just an aesthetic expression or preference, but a strategy for my client to make the desired impression on their target audience.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Branding is an expensive process. As such, many start-ups and small-to-medium sized businesses are not investing the needed time and finances to do it right from the get-go.

And I am not even talking about paying for professionally designed logos, websites, product packaging, and many other visible elements people tend to associate with branding. In fact, I would advise against spending money on the tangibles until one has a good understanding of the brand from within.

Branding is a complex process. I want to empower business owners and leaders, especially startups, with an easy-to-remember system to do branding right. I have an upcoming a book titled “One Game Changer to Boost Your Business. Using the B.R.A.N.D. System to Go Deeper so you Can Go Further.”

I will also be incorporating the B.R.A.N.D. System into two workshops at the OIC Business Academy. This is part of a 12-week program by OIC of Oklahoma County for adults wanting to start a business.

After interviewing its Executive Director, DesJean Jones for a webinar in 2020, I was moved by her passion. This non-profit organization seeks to elevate people both in spirit and in academia, and I am excited for the opportunity to invest in the work and people of OIC.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Avoiding burnout is an on-going effort for me and so, I will take this as an opportunity to preach to myself.

I can get hyper-focused on a project and lose track of time. What might appear to be a productive day ends up depleting my mental and emotional capacity to genuinely connect with people.

Carve out time regularly to nurture healthy relationships with family and friends. We are relational beings and so, this is critical.

Self-care in the form of exercise is also a non-negotiable for me. Unless I am sick and bed-ridden, I will try to hit the gym. It’s an opportunity to unplug or listen to a podcast while getting a workout.

Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

I am glad that you are asking this question because branding and advertising are often misunderstood.

A brand is what people remember about a person or a business. That can include a cause, a value or a belief system. And people remember your brand if it resonates and means something to them. For example, TOMS Shoes is remembered for their one-for-one business model, which reflects their belief in improving lives.

Branding or brand marketing is therefore the strategy to achieve a desired impression for a particular brand. That impression or reputation is built over time. TOMS Shoes built that reputation since 2006, from giving a pair of shoes to the needy for every pair sold, to giving a dollar towards a grant for every 3 dollars made.

Product marketing or advertising, on the other hand is the strategy of promoting a tangible product and its functions and benefits to potential consumers. It is driven by measurable results, like the number of sales, the growth to an email list, or the number of inquiries.

TOMS Shoes wanted to reward her customers for shopping by launching their Passport Reward Program. The success of this effort is measured by the desired number of signups, the volume of purchase by members, and the amount of rewards redeemed.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

I like to start by asking this question; “What are you in the business of selling if you own a mattress company?”

Selling mattresses is the obvious answer that comes to mind. And as a mattress company, advertising the product and how it meets a functional need (eg. from sizes to functionalities) make sense.

However, if you focus on just the product, differentiating yourself by price and/or features, consumers will always be able to find a cheaper and better mattress somewhere else.

Let’s say you are in the business of selling a good night’s sleep. That will change the way you conduct business. First and foremost, you are no longer limited to selling mattresses. You have a whole array of products or services that promote a better sleep.

More importantly, you are saying that you value a good night’s sleep because it improves productivity, energy level, physical and mental wellness, and the list goes on. You are now meeting an emotional need (ie. the higher levels of need in Maslow’s hierarchy) of consumers.

These are values that your company can invite consumers to embrace and promote together, like providing a good night’s sleep to the homeless population in your community, the region, and the world.

This is building a brand that consumers can be inspired to stand by and support for life. And when they purchase your product, they know they are involved in something greater than themselves.

Product marketing or advertising alone only brings consumers to you for a day. Brand marketing or branding nurtures and secures advocates for you for life.

Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?

A company should consider rebranding if there is not a clearly defined brand that unifies everyone in the company beyond selling a product or service. If meeting sales targets is the only “gospel” you preach, it will disillusion your team at some point. Defining a brand that’s rooted in a greater purpose will cultivate devoted employees who are motivated by more than a paycheck or bonus.

A more established company may find a formerly defined brand to no longer be differentiating them in the marketplace. Any business should regularly evaluate its operation against its ultimate purpose and core values. Unless the existing brand purpose is no longer practical or values have changed, the rebranding effort will be more about finding ways to better amplify its cause and mobilize people towards it.

Needs of consumers are constantly evolving and a new product or service may meet that need. However, if the new offering does not immediately make sense to the existing brand, a rebranding may be needed. The benefits of that product/service must be evaluated against the existing purpose and values of the company. If they aligned, rebranding will revolve around introducing the offering while reminding consumers of how it fits the company’s purpose. If they don’t align, the offering must not be released under the brand. Rather, a different company may be formed to capture that new market.

The next possible reason for rebranding can be triggered by a merger and/or acquisition, which usually caused a change in leadership. New leadership needs to get on the same page about where and how they want to lead the company, and communicate it in a timely manner to both internal and external publics.

Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?

There are really no downsides to rebranding if (and this is an important “if”) the reason for doing so is sound.

A makeover requires investment of money, time, and energy to ensure a rebrand is done right. If you don’t have enough resources or are unwilling to reallocate resources, the attempt will do more harm than good.

A company should not attempt a brand makeover if the only reason is you (ie. leadership and shareholders) are getting tired of the look of an existing logo, packaging, website, storefront, etc.

If the goal is to update and make a logo more versatile across different media, it is really just a visual brand refresh. For that matter, you must still be aware of all the necessary touch points (online, onsite, and on print) that the old logo must be replaced.

Any changes, be it a makeover or refresh, must also be communicated clearly and in a timely manner. A lack of a communication plan will lead to confusion amongst staff and consumers.

A company should also avoid a brand makeover just to cover up a public relation crisis. Overcoming a tarnished reputation is an opportunity to evaluate the company’s purpose and values, take ownership of the mistakes, make right with consumers, and reorganize for a stronger team. That is a true brand makeover. A makeover without due diligence is thus a cover-up attempt.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.

When embarking on a brand makeover, I like to think of a brand as a tree with visible and invisible components. In order for a tree to produce desirable shade and delicious fruits, it has to have a healthy root system planted in fertile soil.

Similarly, in order to upgrade and re-energize a brand, I like to break down the strategies into five questions to examine two invisible and three visible aspects of the company seeking a makeover.

  1. What are you in the business of selling? The rebranding effort must start from within where you re-examine the ultimate purpose of the company. This is about the seed sown at the beginning of your business and the soil in which you are rooting yourself in. The result of this question should lead to a recommitment to or renewal of your company’s vision and mission. When I was first approached by Endiro Coffee back in 2011, the founder simply wanted to help children in Uganda affected by AIDS and/or abandoned by parents, through her business. The company’s vision soon grew to embrace a global perspective while staying true to the founder’s original goal. Endiro is in the business of ending child vulnerability. They just so happened to be selling coffee.
  2. What drives you to excel? This is more than sales volume and profit margins. This is about knowing your true north; core values that will keep your eyes affixed on a purpose-driven trajectory. One that keeps you going despite challenges like lack of sales, conflict amongst employees, and inefficient & costly workflow. This is the root system and it must be healthy. The founder of Endiro did not originally understand much about coffee, much less operating a cafe. However, her passion to use the business as a vehicle to mentor youths hired to work at the cafe kept her going. I visited Endiro in Uganda in 2015 and caught a glimpse of that passion. An employee was found to be dishonest in her job but the founder did not immediately fire that person. She chose to continue loving her staff and encourage her managers to do the same.
  3. Who are you trying to reach? People will only care about your brand if you are able to continue solving a problem they care about. If you are trying to recapture the market, it is not just about evaluating the functional value of your product and/or service. Consider how you can better resonate with people on an emotional level (ie. what’s the “good night’s sleep”). The other often neglected target audience is your employees. Consider how you are motivating them beyond a regular paycheck and a year-end bonus. They are your best advocates and will be instrumental in helping to steer and communicate the rebrand. For most coffee drinkers, they reach for a mug of joe for a caffeine fix. Endiro peels away the layers of a coffee cherry and invites people to be part of a greater story. Both employees and customers are made aware of the processes and the people responsible for a cup of brew. They are also encouraged to join the company in helping organizations serve vulnerable children in the community. Endiro resonates with people who care about ending child vulnerability. The people just so happened to enjoy coffee too.
  4. What is your niche in the market? Original ideas are few and far between. While you may have dominated a segment of the market in the beginning, losing market share to competition is inevitable if your “niche” is simply price- and feature-driven. Understanding the shade and fruits you are offering is a given. Innovating to make the shade and fruits more desirable is a given. Denise Lee Yohn, author of Fusion said this, “Better is unsustainable, unique is unstoppable”. Your niche should be found in the natural talent, industry expertise, and a unique culture of people within your company. Endiro understands that they are entering a fairly saturated market when planning their first cafe in the U.S.. With their vision and mission in clear sight, Endiro recognizes that child vulnerability exists everywhere. They continue to mentor their employees and train them to realize their potential. They identify local organizations helping vulnerable children in order to partner with the community for greater impact. They continue to educate their customers and open their eyes to see the good they can do through their purchase and participation. Connecting people through quality coffee to serve a greater purpose is Endiro’s niche, no matter where they operate.
  5. How do you act every day? People experience your company through one or more touch points; online (eg. website, social media, email), on print (eg. brochure, packaging, print advertisement), and on-site (eg. store front, office, in-person interaction). This question prompts you to re-evaluate all the ways you interact with people you hope to reach. From words to images, from sight to sound, and from smell to touch, are your day-to-day action telling a consistent, memorable, and powerful story? Endiro always aims to tell a story. Visual cohesiveness (eg. logo, color, and imagery) is essential across all media to help set the stage for story telling. More importantly, Endiro recognizes that their employees, farmers, and customers each have a different story. The beauty and power of a memorable brand is how these unique stories weaved together organically through a shared purpose of ending child vulnerability.

To make this strategy easy to remember and apply in for branding or rebranding, the questions have five keywords that spell out the word ‘BRAND’:

  • What are you in the BUSINESS of selling?
  • Who are you trying to REACH?
  • How do you ACT every day?
  • What is your NICHE in the market?
  • What DRIVES you to excel?

Check out this video for a quick summary.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Netflix was like David when they entered the movie rental space in 1997 ruled by Blockbuster (aka Goliath). Their rental by mail concept was the offering that made them stand out against the competitions.

Along with their iconic red envelopes and logo, their website helped finding and renting a movie so much more efficient than going to a brick-&-mortar.

In 1999, Netflix launched a subscription based rental service. This was a significant makeover in terms of how it will affect the behavior of their customers. Netflix kept their visual element consistent while highlighting what is important to their customers — unlimited rental with no due dates or late fees.

Streaming service was introduced in 2007 allowing instant entertainment 24/7 via the internet. This is a game changer for Netflix as they understood and adapted to the consumption habit of their customers. Their signature red and logo remain unchanged.

Netflix’s goal of making entertainment easily accessible has not changed, which guided various aspects of their makeover over the years.

This is one key takeaway when considering a brand makeover; staying true to your vision while making adjustments to your niche and offering.

The other lesson is to always put your customers’ wants first. They are not going to care about how “pretty” or “modern” your revamped logo or website looks if you are not meeting their needs.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The word “influence” has taken a troubling twist. Having influence is often seen as having a large number of “followers” with countless “likes and comments” within one’s social media posts. The irony is that followers can be purchased and the authenticity of the engagement is questionable sometimes.

I would like to encourage people to consider having influence as walking alongside someone with intentionality. Asking “How are you?” and truly hearing what they say. Being always ready and present to bear each other’s burden at any time.

We should also embrace our own imperfection, even if we are of great influence and consider being influenced as an opportunity to stand up for a good cause for the good of people. Asking “How can I fight alongside you?” and truly be present to fight.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Happiness is only real when shared.”

This quote came from Christopher McCandless’s diary when he was found dead in the backcountry near Denali in 1992.

Christopher abandoned all his possessions, burned the cash he had on him, hitchhiked across America, and found momentary contentment with isolation and living off the land.

He kept a diary of his thoughts as he survived for more than 110 days on rice, edible plants, and any wild animals he could hunt. Christopher took two years to reach that revelation but did not get to live out the happiness he sought for.

We are all looking for happiness but often in the wrong places; from buying and accumulating material things, to seeking acceptance from people with our accolades and accomplishments. And in Christopher’s case, seeking happiness through isolation and self-sufficiency. I am guilty of all of that.

As I continue to learn about branding, I came(have come)to a conclusion that uncovering one’s brand is all about discovering one’s unique path to happiness. And that path or journey towards happiness is to be filled with people because we are relational beings.

We will continue to uncover our own brand for as long as we live and it will not be possible or complete without relationships. Happiness for me is about shedding a tear with people as much as sharing a laugh with them.

How can our readers follow you online?

My author page on Facebook will put a face to my name and this website will put a story to my game.

Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.

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