Be willing to be vulnerable. This is a tough one for so many brands, but the truth is you can best show someone that you can solve their pain point by letting them know that you actually understand it. I work with a lot of career coaches, and the most successful of the bunch — the ones who draw the most clients, who get media coverage and book deals — aren’t the ones who try to be a perfect role model. They’re the ones who share openly about their own personal struggles and how that’s shaped what they do.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Adrian Granzella Larssen. Adrian was the first employee and editor-in-chief of The Muse, where she built the company’s content strategy and editorial operations from scratch, guiding it to become the most beloved and trusted career publication on the web. Now, she is the founder of Sweet Spot Content, which helps world-class companies, publishers, and executives build inspiring brands through content. She’s also the author of Your Year Off, a forthcoming digital guide to traveling the world inspired by her experience traveling to 30 countries in 12 months.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Adrian! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always loved writing — even as a child, some of my happiest memories were writing stories or scribbling in my journal. What wasn’t so clear was what my career path would look like. I had the (erroneous) belief that all writers were starving artists; plus, as much as I loved being in a room by myself with my notebooks, I also loved working with other people.
So my professional life has taken lots of twists and turns, and I experimented with PR, marketing, internal communications, event planning, and editorial and content strategy work. Looking back, all of it makes perfect sense, and I use the skills I gained in every single one of those jobs in my career today.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of my first internships was at a fashion and beauty PR firm. This was before the days of LinkedIn or Twitter, and I was tasked with updating our press contact database. Wanting to get the job done quickly, I sent a mass email to everyone on the list — yes, all several hundred or so of these pretty important reporters were CCed on the email. Not surprisingly, very few people got back to me, and I got a stern talking-to from my boss.
It was a quick lesson that PR (and every line of business) is not just about getting information or keeping lists updated, and it’s not about what’s going to be fastest or easiest. It’s all about building real relationships and trust.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Several years ago, a client of mine hired a very respected, very expensive ghostwriter to collaborate on a book. Right before the draft went to the publisher, the client sent it to me for a final once-over. A few chapters in, I realized that huge swaths of the book were plagiarized.
This is obviously an extreme example, but similarly, I can’t tell you how many times I hear brands and people say, “I just need content, now.” There’s this idea that any content is better than no content — that a blog, or article, or book that checks the boxes is enough.
This is the antithesis of what we do at Sweet Spot Content. We’re not the shop that’s going to crank out a bunch of cheap blog posts quickly — we approach writing with thoughtfulness, care, and a reader-first mindset. We want to tell stories that people love and create content that people want to come back for again and again.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Last year, my husband and I took a year-long sabbatical, traveling to more than 30 countries and visiting places we’ve been dreaming about forever. It was the most life-altering year I’ve ever had, and it wasn’t as hard to plan or expensive as most people would imagine. Now, I’m working on a digital guide called Your Year Off to help people envision their own sabbatical and make it happen. (It doesn’t have to be a year — it can be a couple of months!)
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?
Imagine you’re 10 years old and you’ve set up a lemonade stand in your front yard.
You want to sell as many cups as possible, right? So, you might put up a sign saying, “Ice-cold lemonade: $1!” That’s product marketing: It’s describing the features of the product you’re selling in the hopes of attracting customers. And that works: If I was walking down your street on a hot day, that sign might tempt me to buy one.
But selling $1 lemonade isn’t all you’re about, is it? Maybe you’re trying to save for college or raise money for your friend who lost everything in a fire. Maybe you care about the health of the people in your neighborhood, so you’ve made lemonade that’s organic and naturally sweetened.
If I knew those things, maybe I wouldn’t just buy your lemonade — I might stay a while and learn more. Perhaps I’d tell my neighbor about you, and she’d come by and buy lemonade for the whole family. And when I see you in the winter selling hot cocoa, I’d probably stop by then, too.
Sharing these stories has nothing to do with getting me to spend $1 on lemonade, but it gets me invested in you and makes me more likely to distinguish your stand from the one run by the kid down the street. That’s brand marketing: Getting people genuinely interested in who you are, so that even if they don’t need what you’re selling now, you’re building awareness, trust, and a relationship.
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 love this question. If you’re only focused on advertising a product, and then the product changes, or you want to sell something else, you’re starting from scratch. You’re also at the mercy of being compared to similar products out there. On the other hand, if you invest in creating a thoughtful, distinct brand, your customers are more likely to have an emotional relationship with you and buy from you no matter what you’re selling.
There’s a great branding consulting company out there called Beloved Brands that puts it really nicely: “The beloved brand has the monopoly on emotions, making the consumer decisions less about the actual product and more about how the experience makes consumers feel.”
Can you share 5 strategies that a small company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
1. Talk about what your company cares about, at its core.
The best companies have a story behind what they do, outside of trading a product or service for dollars, and they incorporate it into their brand. I love to buy from Imperfect Produce, a grocery delivery company based out of San Francisco. You can buy your fruits and veggies anywhere, of course, but they’ve done a great job of sharing the broader meaning behind what they do — reducing food waste and reversing climate change — in a quirky, creative way.
2. Be honest about your inner workings.
Customers today are more and more discerning about the materials, labor practices, and sustainability of their purchases. It’s important to be upfront about what you’re committed to now, and what you’re still working on for the future. A single paragraph with some broad language about a company’s “commitment to sustainability” isn’t cutting it anymore. Mara Hoffman has a good example of detailed, straightforward policies.
3. Be willing to be vulnerable.
This is a tough one for so many brands, but the truth is you can best show someone that you can solve their pain point by letting them know that you actually understand it. I work with a lot of career coaches, and the most successful of the bunch — the ones who draw the most clients, who get media coverage and book deals — aren’t the ones who try to be a perfect role model. They’re the ones who share openly about their own personal struggles and how that’s shaped what they do.
4. Talk to your customers — and actually listen
Part of what made The Muse such a trusted and beloved brand in the beginning is that, when we were creating products or story ideas, it wasn’t all about digging into which SEO terms we should target or analyzing what our competitors were doing. We also got out from behind our laptops and talked to our friends and customers who were struggling with their careers and asked them what they wanted from the company.
5. Invest in great customer service and policies.
Especially for new brands starting out, you’ve got to give customers a reason to trust you. Clear, generous return policies can be a great place to start, and even better when that’s backed up by amazing customer service. I love seeing emails like this one from Andie Swimwear:
My name is Rachel and I’m the Director of Customer Love at Andie. I just wanted to introduce myself and check in, now that it’s been a few days since you’ve received your order. How is the fit is working for you? Do you have any questions about caring for your Andie? Is there anything else I can assist with? Just think of me as Andie411 for your inbox — hit reply and I’ll take care of you 🙂
Rachel, Director of Customer Love
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I’m continually impressed by Ellevest, Sallie Krawcheck’s online investing platform for women. First, they clearly spell out why they’re unique in a way that makes it not about the company, but about the audience: Money management needs to be different when women make less and live longer than men do.
They also create content that’s in the context of what people care about. What many financial institutions don’t always understand is that the best way to reach women is by meeting them where they are in life, not by talking about the ins and outs of which ETFs you should invest in. For example, the week after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ellevest’s “What the Elle” newsletter talked about how to know if you’re investing in gun manufacturers. Most women weren’t thinking about their money, they were thinking about the lives impacted and how they could help.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
When measuring a brand campaign, you can and should look at sales — as your brand awareness expands, sales likely will, too. But depending on what you’re selling, that can take some time. It’s also only part of the picture.
Larger companies often use agencies to conduct brand awareness studies to measure, say, how many potential customers know and have a favorable opinion of a brand compared to six months ago. But companies with smaller budgets can measure the success of their branding efforts through other metrics, like monitoring increases in social engagement, positive user feedback, referrals, site views, or media coverage.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
What role DOESN’T it play? Your social channels are one of the most significant and frequent ways people interact with your company, and everything you put out there needs to support and reinforce the brand you’re trying to build. I see a lot of early-stage companies delegating their social media to an intern and expecting things to just fall into place, but it really should be staffed like the strategic branding vehicle that it is.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Ask yourself: What would allow you to do your best and happiest work, and how can you create boundaries around that?
For example, I do my best thinking in the mornings, and I love to use Mondays as a planning day to ease in to the week, so I never set meetings during those times. When I let those time slots get gobbled up, I can get really resentful of my work, but I’m much happier and more effective when I protect my schedule and optimize it for what works best for me.
Also, hire amazing people. Even when you need someone in the door, like, yesterday, take your time to hire the person who will make your life easier, your work better, and your days more energizing and less draining.
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. 🙂
Dramatically changing the way we interact with our physical world. There are countless critically important issues we’re dealing with, but none of them will matter if we can’t inhabit the planet we live on.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was younger, trying on different college majors, career paths, boyfriends, the works, and getting frustrated when something I thought I wanted didn’t work out, my dad would tell me, “It’s just as important to figure out what you don’t want as it is to figure out what you do.” It was hard to hear as a teenager, but it’s been a useful mantra since. All of life is trying on different things, seeing what works, and moving on from what doesn’t. It’s all an important part of the process.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oprah Winfrey is one of the best people in the world at creating stories and movements that people care about. Any advice she’d have for me, I’d gladly take it!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.