Proof points required. Smaller companies don’t often have the mass hordes of purchasers behind them that indirectly tell new customers they’re okay. Communicating wins or showcasing customer testimonials is often necessary to make sure customers know “other customers are happy, so I’ll probably be happy too.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Brooke Niemiec. Brooke is a tenured marketing and strategy executive with deep-rooted curiosity about human behavior that translates insights into meaningful improvements to the customer and employee experiences. Working directly with senior executives at Fortune 500 companies including Southwest Airlines, Sephora, Disney, Boeing, and Neiman Marcus, Brooke creates business strategies that align customer and company goals. Her two-decade career in applied customer insight, CRM, and marketing spans the retail, beauty, travel and entertainment, technology, software, and healthcare industries. Brooke earned her MBA at the University of Southern California. An avid people watcher and question asker, Brooke has been published in Fast Company, CMO.com, Chief Marketer, Direct Marketing News, and CRM Magazine. She is a member of the Direct Marketing News Hall of Femme, and co-authored a book called Geek Nerd Suit that outlines how a successful partnership across technology, analytics, and strategy is required to transform customer experiences.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Asa student, I always enjoyed math, and I accepted a position in finance right out of college. Although I worked with good people on challenging problems, I found myself lacking true passion for what I was doing. One day, as I was eating lunch with a co-worker, he called me out for staring at everyone else in the restaurant. Something clicked for me then, as I realized that I had always been fascinated by people, their stories, and their motivations. I also began to understand how all of the data I was working with was a digital reflection of the decisions made by human beings. A few months later I got a call to apply for a market research position, and I never looked back. From there, I expanded my career to include the application of insight in the form of marketing strategy. While my love for numbers and analytics has remained a core part of who I am, it wasn’t until I got myself into a position where I could act upon what I was learning about customers that I found my ideal career.
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?
Early in my career, we were responsible for creating the entire marketing campaign for a technology product. We conducted market research to understand the reasons people used the product and designed a multi-faceted product launch campaign that included everything from online display ads to billboards. We also designed a “QuickStart Guide” instruction manual, which was a complete misnomer. We partnered with a bunch of engineers to make sure the guide contained the right information to cover any possible user scenario. We then put it through the creative team to make sure it aligned visually with the rest of our campaign branding. Although it looked nice, it unfolded into something larger than a comprehensive U.S. map. It didn’t take long for us to realize that, although it was thorough and accurate, it probably ended up alienating more customers than it helped.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
While there are many things that I believe make our company unique, I am perhaps proudest of our award-winning culture. We have been recognized by Inc. and Ad Age for unique practices that keep our entirely virtual team connected to one another, including an annual all-company offsite meeting and a suite of digital networking tools. Beyond that, one particularly unique practice is our non-mandatory yet highly attended “Office Hours” that are held after dinner during weeks where the team is traveling to the same location. Team members across all functions and projects take the time to cross-pollenate ideas and collaborate on problem solving. This has effectively expanded a social, relationship-building activity into something that makes our collective work better.
As an extension of this desire to approach problem-solving from multiple perspectives, we also actively look to hire hybrids. Our team benefits from being able to play a variety of roles, limiting boredom and feelings of stagnation, and our clients benefit from working with talented individuals who can solve multiple problems. This isn’t just about efficiency, it’s also about bringing a new perspective and asking new questions to develop a better POV overall.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of the most interesting things I’m working on now is understanding how the customer experience is influenced by the employee experience. We know how marketing can drive customer purchase behavior, yet not as much has been done to concretely demonstrate how happier employees lead to happier customers and increased revenue. In a way, all employees (particularly those who are customer-facing) are brand ambassadors. It naturally follows that if employees are unhappy with your company, you can expect that unhappiness to translate into a less-than-stellar customer experience.
One reason why companies don’t always make this connection is a technical one — the systems that contain customer data are generally completely disconnected from systems that contain employee data. However, getting data in order enables companies to more easily understand the entire journey a customer or employee takes, and model the drivers of that experience. By knowing what is contributing to or detracting from their engagement, companies are now equipped with the insight to tell them where to focus their efforts. The benefit of all of this lies in the action that follows the insight — anything that is aimed at understanding what contributes to someone’s experience should directly improve that experience.
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?
To me, the foundational difference between the two at a strategic level is that product marketing is trying to influence what people buy (advertising), whereas brand marketing is trying to influence who they buy it from (branding). Both are critical to the long-term success of a brand, and there are differences in how to execute each of these. At the brand marketing level, it is important to first get a clear and concise definition of who a company is and what they stand for. Once they have arrived at their core brand values, they can run any external communications and interactions against a brand filter — is this consistent with who we say we are? And here, consistency is key, as people tend to distrust brands who aren’t. Conversely, product marketing can benefit from variety and customization in the form of personalization. Companies sell multiple things to different types of customers for varying reasons, and advertising needs to take those differences into consideration. Messages, promotions, and marketing channels need to be thoughtfully coordinated to achieve maximum effect.
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?
Today, customers have more choices than ever, and the costs of switching to another brand or product are minimal. Low prices and promotions can easily be matched or copied, which leaves you with fewer ways to differentiate your company and create engaged customers. A meaningful brand can signal to customers more than general awareness — it should also communicate a story of what you stand for. Consumers today are increasingly choosy about the types of organizations they associate with and may feel better about purchasing from companies that reflect similar values to their own. In many cases, consumers will actually spend more to purchase a product that they feel does good (consider the success of the “buy one, give one” brands such as TOMS shoes), and often feel more loyalty toward those brands.
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.
- Highlight your quirks. Small brands can’t be everything to everyone. Find the one or two things that really make you stand out and embrace them. Caution — make sure you’re choosing unique qualities that a) you are actually hearing from your customers and b) are endearing, not irritating, in nature.
- Proof points required. Smaller companies don’t often have the mass hordes of purchasers behind them that indirectly tell new customers they’re okay. Communicating wins or showcasing customer testimonials is often necessary to make sure customers know “other customers are happy, so I’ll probably be happy too.”
- Your people are your brand. Or… Equip your employees to be brand ambassadors. Once you’ve convinced customers that what you offer is worth buying, you need to make sure that your people believe it and act it every day. Communicate your brand internally, perhaps even more than you communicate it externally. Customers can smell insincerity from miles away, so you need to ensure your team is bought-in.
- Customer satisfaction is your acquisition strategy. Small companies’ growth and long-term success are generally more greatly influenced by word of mouth — both positive and negative. How you deliver on your brand promise will determine whether existing customers come back, and whether they encourage new customers to give you a try.
- Not everything is a fire. In a small company, many employees have direct exposure to customers and visibility to challenges that may exist within the business. It’s easy to let this visibility turn into a constant series of fire drill exercises, but it carries a very real risk of burn-out. Leaders need to both assess situations appropriately and also train their teams to make good decisions about which situations are, indeed, worth addressing immediately.
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?
Patagonia has done a phenomenal job of knowing what it has stood for from the beginning and sticking to it over the years. The founder, Yvon Choinard, was a self-proclaimed “dirt bag” who wanted quality outdoor supplies for himself and his friends. He turned his own passion into a company that stands by its products and invests in its communities of customers and employees. People who work for Patagonia are not only bought-in to the products, but they also live the brand promise and perpetuate its culture. Customers who invest in what Patagonia has to offer are also typically in it for the long haul — spending more for something that they will have for years to come. It’s a really great example of how the entire ecosystem of values and products and customers and employees can work together to create a lasting brand.
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?
While everyone loves the idea of being able to tie everything to a single, revenue-generating metric, it’s fairly difficult to attribute a specific purchase to an overall brand campaign. Because of that, there isn’t a single universally-accepted metric for brand success. However, there are a number of options that, when used together, can paint a good picture of how a brand campaign is driving value.
While number of sales may be difficult to directly tie to anything beyond an advertising campaign, it is possible to model sales lift over time. A good model may be able to control for other factors (e.g., product launches, sales, promotions, marketing communications), allowing you to see if there is any additional revenue growth that may be a reflection of overall brand performance.
Beyond bottom line financial metrics, customer lifecycle metrics are another important measure of a brand’s success. Considering that the objective of most brand-building campaigns is to create long-term customer engagement, companies should be actively tracking customer retention and spend over time, as those can provide a good indication of a brand’s health.
Finally, there are other measures of brand success that are generally tracked through customer surveys. One metric, Net Promoter Score, estimates self-reported positive word of mouth and referrals and subtracts self-reported negative word of mouth. Other metrics include customer satisfaction, customer referral rates, or self-reported intent to repurchase.
In any case, the most important thing is to measure something, and ideally more than just one thing if you can make that happen. The most successful companies I’ve worked with look at performance from several angles and focus their energy on understanding those areas where metrics are in conflict with one other.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
For us, social media plays a few important roles. It is our primary vehicle for:
- Promoting our thought leadership: our team has opinions and we are not afraid to share them. In many cases, social media is used to gain additional exposure for the articles our team has published externally or on our blog.
- Highlighting our culture: our team feels strongly that this is a differentiator for us, and social media is a great way for us to share it with the outside world. While primarily a recruiting tactic, it also reinforces principles that we advocate to our clients — treat your employees well, and they will serve the customer well.
- Joining and facilitating industry conversations: as a naturally curious group, we are constantly scouring the internet to stay on top of trending topics. Social media has allowed us to both stay informed and to shape the dialogue about those issues that are important to us.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
- Mix it up: It takes a certain type of individual to stay happy doing the same thing, year after year. Project rotations, even if only temporary, usually inject a bit of energy into the work. In my experience, occasionally this leads to an accidental discovery of a better job fit than what you had hired for.
- Share the joy: call it what you want — delegation, teamwork, collaboration — teams are less likely to burn out if they feel like they have help. This means parsing out work, for sure, but it also means spreading out the fun stuff that comes with the job — make sure perks, in-demand projects, and praise are distributed too.
- Look for exceptions, not standards: it can be hard to sort through everything you’ve done to track the nuanced changes in the data and figure out what matters most. Set guardrails for exceptions (high, low) and spend your time figuring out why it worked (or didn’t). You’ll thank yourself later.
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. 🙂
One of my favorite quotes is “Work hard and be nice to people.” If I could inspire any movement, it would probably be something related to practicing kindness and being nice to one another. Whether it’s paying it forward or a “Daily Act of Kindness” challenge, I would love to promote something that inspires people to do something for others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My personal motto is “always be curious”. When I was a child, I apparently asked so many questions on a guided tour that at one point the guide looked at me and asked, “Shouldn’t you be in school?” That inquisitive nature is what led me to where I am today. I take great pride in always asking “why,” a personality trait that is appreciated by some but not all.
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. 🙂
Scott Brinker of Chiefmartec.com has long been tracking the evolution of the marketing technology landscape. While he’s approaching things from a more technical perspective, it would be fascinating to jointly reflect on how things will continue to evolve, particularly in a world where data privacy concerns are starting to take hold.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.