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Melissa Core-Caballo of Dead Horse Branding: “Learn from your staff”

Learn from your staff. Pay attention to what they say, what slows them down, what tools they need and how they’re feeling with the types of clients and the environment that they’re working in. Your staff are your biggest asset so you want them to be happy and you want them to love the job […]

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Learn from your staff. Pay attention to what they say, what slows them down, what tools they need and how they’re feeling with the types of clients and the environment that they’re working in. Your staff are your biggest asset so you want them to be happy and you want them to love the job that they are in. Of course everything has its limitations within reason. Sometimes just listening and paying attention is what’s needed.


As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Core-Caballo.

Melissa Core started out modeling for internationally acclaimed brands such as Harley Davidson, Ujena Swimwear, Toyota and Speedy Wheels. Her responsibilities as a brand ambassador helped her understand the importance of a well-structured brand message.

Core’s passion for entrepreneurship mixed with her branding expertise led her to launch Dead Horse Branding in 2013. She took a startup company from dollars and in under 5 years to managing over 100 million dollars of brand revenue a year. Through Dead Horse Branding, Melissa is responsible for managing all of the brand’s requirements from social media management, marketing, publicity, licensing opportunities, through to overall management.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

We originally started by building a fashion brand called Corello Rock Fashion. The co-founder of that fashion label, Rick Caballo, is an incredible designer, artist and overall creative innovator and the brand was really based around his skill set, his design and vibe. I influenced a little bit of the bohemian aspect and that’s where the boho and rock intersections met. We launched into wholesale and e-commerce and the brand took off quite quickly. We got in over 100 stores in under 18 months and many people would comment on the brand itself, from photography, PR, product development, social media, and graphic design. People would ask us who is doing all these different facets and our response was always the same: we are. However we had also hired a PR firm at the time to give us a little lift: PLA Media with Pam Lewis and Mark Logsdon. Mark thought it would be great to pair Jep and Jessica Robertson from Duck Dynasty with Corello for no shave November and have them turn a little rock ’n’ roll for that month. We agreed to the idea and caused a nice racket on the scene.

From that, Jep and Jessica were interested in having us create them a label as it was always a big dream for them. They are really awesome people and we accepted the partnership. So with a combination of all of that, people started coming to us, wanting their brands designed, built, promoted and strategised. Thus, Dead Horse Branding was built. One thing we realised during the fashion building process was there were many missing components to agencies that aimed at helping startup brands actually start up properly. As I started looking further into it and expanding this research through the music business, I noticed the same thing. We developed the concept that Dead Horse would be a design, consulting, strategic planning, image building, marketing and publicity firm all in-house. You have one brand manager to one brand and a flawless and smooth strategy building concept. Allocate services are still optional but we are in the business of advising you what steps and stages need to be attacked first rather than just implementing a stage because the customer feels they need it. We have been named one of the top marketing and publicity firms in Nashville and we are super excited to be able to claim that. We are even more excited to know that our system and methods work.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

One of the hardest times for me was trying to find the right team members that understood our method, the Australian mentality in the way we work (which is just a little more laid-back, relaxed, straight to the point, very direct), and people that understand all aspects of branding. A great press piece is only a great press piece if the brand is flawless and it does its job. If the brand has cracks and it’s on an unsteady foundation all the promotion in the world won’t make it successful.

I went through a point where I just took on everything myself because I wasn’t being very successful at finding the right candidate. We had about 10 clients and I just bunkered down 15 hours a day and worked all of them for a good 6 months straight. I prove to myself and to the clients that the concept worked and we were making strides, but I was just exhausted. It was just me and Rick was heading up all of the design and visual branding components but that didn’t really cross over onto my management, brand management, PR, and marketing social media side. I was dead but the fact that I knew my contact was working kept pushing me to find the right people and gave me the energy and strength to keep moving forward. I eventually found my people and the word branding became more and more used in everyday language. I was seeing it come on the TV and in movies and people were using it a lot more and referring to it a lot more. This helps open up the branding space. I am also a little hardheaded and I don’t like to give up unless I want to give up. I don’t like outside forces making me make a decision that I don’t really want to. Some days it literally was do-or-die.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I think the whole way we started out was quite hilarious. Neither myself nor my business partner, now husband, ever dreamed of owning a fashion line. We had no idea what we were doing, no idea how to make product, no idea how to manufacture it, no idea how to run a manufacturing team, and no idea how to get it in stores. I was from the side of fashion involving modeling and was part of the creative marketing component but nothing even close to manufacturing and dealing with wholesale e-commerce. Then, to top it off, we had no idea that we would turn into such a powerful brand agency and that both halves of my and Rick’s skill sets would align so perfectly to be able to create such a unique company.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think what makes Dead Horse Branding stand out is that we are an all in-house branding agency. What that means, in a nutshell, is we do all formulas of branding under one roof within one team. It is very unique to be able to have a versatile set of staff that can multitask and wear several different hats on a day-to-day basis, spreading across various industries. Not only do we design and build the product or person, but we also promote, sell and market it fearlessly.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

This is a great question because in my industry you can burn out very very quickly. It’s important to have smart management software and it’s essential to have time off. That means if you’re not working on a weekend, don’t check your emails, don’t think about finishing a press release; that can wait till Monday. Put your phone in the drawer, hang out with friends and family and completely switch off. You need to rejuvenate and you need to relax. It’s completely normal. What is not normal is going 24/7.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Our Business Manager and mentor Llew Hayden. He really came to the cliff and rescued us when we were spiraling out of control. He locked us up for 12 days and made us do a strategic plan: work the numbers, work the business plan, work everything to the bone to make sure we had our targets set and our goals realistic and achievable — and when we thought we had, he would knock it down, explain why and make us re-do it. We were lucky enough to have two amazing people in our corner. Bill Cakmis would be the other one — he is a life coach and an incredible overall personnel entertainment guru. In our initial 12 months of living in Nashville and trying to knock down several walls, we had decided to leave Nashville. I was off to Miami and Rick off to LA. Miami had a more vibrant culture and LA had more rock music for Rick. Not only was this move going to affect our business choices, but it could have meant the end of the personal relationship between Rick and me (my now husband and business partner). We had only known Bill for a short time when he heard we were leaving Nashville. He came over to our apartment, cooked us dinner — sat us down together and individually, and VOOIILLAAAAA — CORELLO ROCK FASHION and DEAD HORSE BRANDING was born. Who knows where we would be without those two incredible people and chosen family members today.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

A good company really is not memorable, but a GREAT company is. I would take APPLE for example from a branding perspective — they are SLEEK, high-end, modern, cutting edge. It’s their way or the highway — you are either IN the club or OUT of it. They are dominating the tech and music world and killing it. Do I hate that everytime I buy an Apple product I am locked into it and need a new charger for every new device? Yes. Do I keep buying it? Yes, because it’s GREAT!

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

1- Learn from your staff. Pay attention to what they say, what slows them down, what tools they need and how they’re feeling with the types of clients and the environment that they’re working in. Your staff are your biggest asset so you want them to be happy and you want them to love the job that they are in. Of course everything has its limitations within reason. Sometimes just listening and paying attention is what’s needed.

2- You can’t do it all to perfection so choose your strengths and weaknesses and add team members to the mix that compliment each other, not just within their skill set but also personality-wise.

3- Manage manage manage. Just because you have great staff doesn’t mean you should turn your head and disappear for weeks and months. You need to be there guiding your staff, leading by example and making sure that the top down is representative of the whole company and your clients

4- Hustle. Sometimes you need to work 24/7 for three months straight so you can set the stage for your company over the next two years

5- Rinse and repeat!

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

When you have a purpose driven business, product, or strategy, it is much easier to fall into the hands of the exact consumer you want more rapidly. If you’ve got an idea but you spend your time sampling different methods, giving it a shot going left, going right, going up, going down it’s gonna be 15 years before you actually figure out what you’re trying to do isn’t even really needed in the marketplace. Of course IDs are based off market gaps but that doesn’t always mean that there’s a market for it so, getting back to a purpose driven business, I feel like we need to break down that word purpose:

1. what is your purpose

2. How does it differ in the marketplace today

3. Who are the people that are going to seriously buy into what you’re selling and how long will that last?

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

If you have reached a standstill as a business or entity then you need to stop looking upward and start looking outward. Think of yourself as a tree: some trees only get to a certain height but their branches will continue to span horizontally and they have several branches there, not just one trunk all the way up. You would do this in the form of finding other businesses that complement what you’re doing, tapping into their resources and utilising their fan base and in return they would get yours. If you’re an artist or an influencer you would do this by looking at licensing opportunities and creating your own lines, whether it be apparel, fashion, musical instruments, or classes on how to learn your craft because you’re so successful at it.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

I think you need to run a business lean for a rainy day so I’ve always run our business very lean: we don’t have a lot of fat. I’m very proud to say that during a global pandemic and through having my first baby girl we didn’t have to fire anybody, we didn’t let anybody go, or have to cut salaries. We kept strong and we kept trying on track and I really think that’s a testament to the way we run our business and to our reputation in the industry. Your reputation is bigger than your bank balance. On top of that, we are lucky enough to be such a versatile company that can work in many different industries, so when we need to switch gears we can and we can do it very quickly. That would be a good piece of advice to learn, to change gears quickly if you have to. The transitioning process is the hardest so if you can learn to transition and and move in directions that aren’t usually the norm for you, it’ll help your business be more flexible and you’ll be able to stay afloat for longer.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Oh, I feel like 1,000 different areas are underestimated but since we’ve all gone through COVID-19, I’ll touch on finances as it’s hit everyone. So many people think that in their head they are a great publicist and can get their clients great media placements so they think that they can start their own business and be successful at it. Sadly, they can be very mistaken. Running a business really means one main thing: bringing in the money every month. Making sure your employees, staff, and yourself are being paid is a full-time job in itself. Managing clients and making sure the money is rolling in is a super stressful part of running any business, so you need to make sure that you have the people skills, the customer service skills, and the level of aggression needed to bring in the money for the business.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates? Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

You will always hear me say that PR is the best form of converting a window shopper into a loyal shopper, however, that doesn’t mean that the PR piece will convert directly into a sale. What I mean by that is you need fantastic credibility which comes in the form of great PR for your brand. You have to have the right position and the right eyes on you before you can engage in marketing and advertising for those sales to take over. Don’t get me wrong, PR can create sales, of course, but it’s more about creating a conversation with the customer, getting into their psyche, aligning your value,s and then engaging in marketing advertising to sell to them. You also need to look at what your analytics look like: what states, countries, types of people are engaging with your brand and use that to help you convert more sales.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Honestly, just care. Caring is so obsolete in customer service today and it’s really become a joke. The US is so much better at customer service than Australia. I find overall the main ingredient to great customer service is to just care. Even if you can’t do anything to help the customer, if the company policy goes against what they want or what they need, the second you show empathy and you show that you care and you try and you make them a priority, all is generally forgiven. If your staff member or your company corporation has made a mistake, make up for it. If an item broke you’ll get a refund, of course, but what about the time and energy the customer had to come back. They had to drop everything, get the kids minded, just so they can bring back that computer screen or TV they bought a week ago. You need to give them something extra for their time and energy spent buying into your company, Where you put that back in your manufacturer, I don’t care, but you have to do something whether it’s in the form of a gift voucher or sending them a lunch off Uber eats. You have to go over and above if you want to keep that custom there AND blow their mind.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Reputational risk is interesting to me and we deal with it ALOT. The way I see social media for brands and people alike is you’re either a good person or a bad person, a good brand or a bad brand, your values are really good or they’re bad. It really comes down to the brand factor: what does your brand stand for, what are you willing to put out there, and how much are you willing to expose. I think if you’re a brand with a certain message and voice, you need to go all the way. I don’t believe in putting Cotton Wool around your message by any means but you need to understand that there are going to be people that don’t align with a message. It’s just human nature that there are certain people that gravitate to you and there are certain people that can’t stand you. We’re all scared of a negative brand reputation because that would stop all of us from doing what we truly want to do, so if that’s inevitable unless you don’t promote your voice authentically, don’t use social media. However, there are clever little tools on social media. We can turn off commenting so you don’t see anybody talking about your brand in general, but I also don’t think that’s the best idea. you need the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. You need everything out there to really determine where your brand sits and you need those real analytics. If you are getting slated in the media and you’ve done something to create a real heavy uproar then you would need to move into critical PR urgently and fix your brand message. It seems like there’s a bigger issue at the helm of your company message if that’s going to happen.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I’d like to concentrate on the ‘founders’ part of this question. It’s something I see time and time again. I found people get super excited about an idea or concept, they wrangle the team, they do all the legal paperwork and they pretty much launch into sales. They don’t concentrate on brand building or steps in between product development and promotion, they just hit the green button and go straight to the promotion. I always say if you don’t spend enough time building your brand and your brand message, then you shouldn’t even promote it. You can avoid this by going through the steps of branding in the right sequence and give your brand the time it needs to develop before launching into sales.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

Honestly, lend a helping hand. I can’t tell you that every helping hand is gonna benefit you but it’s not about that. It’s about benefiting the other person. Sure, I’ve lent many helping hands that have made me take a couple of steps backward sometimes, but then I take 10 steps forward when I hear how much I helped another person. If we all just lend a helping hand and didn’t require anything back we would find ourselves much more united and stronger together. Subconsciously, we are creating safety nets for ourselves that we all actually really want and need.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Follow me on Instagram @deadhorsebranding and check out our website www.deadhorsebranding.com

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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