Courtney Malengo of Spark + Buzz Communications: “Develop a narrative and messaging matrix”

Develop a narrative and messaging matrix. An amazing story is only amazing if it is told well and others know about it. That means you must be intentional about developing a narrative everyone internally can ascribe to and repeat, and then strategically embed that into every tactic and initiative, internally and externally, that the company […]

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Develop a narrative and messaging matrix. An amazing story is only amazing if it is told well and others know about it. That means you must be intentional about developing a narrative everyone internally can ascribe to and repeat, and then strategically embed that into every tactic and initiative, internally and externally, that the company undertakes. Develop a message matrix tool that serves as a guideline, highlighting key themes, words and phrases the brand should use.

As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Courtney Malengo. Courtney is the founder of Spark + Buzz Communications, a strategic communications consultancy that helps brands tell their story to inspire audiences and galvanize growth. A passionate communicator with 17 years’ experience, she holds an accreditation in public relations and a master’s in communication and organizational leadership.

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?

From a very early age I knew I wanted to be a writer and that drove my pursuits through college, while also dabbling in graphic design and photography. I love sussing out a good story — my first gig as a reporter really helped me hone that ability. As I began writing full-time in the workplace and experiencing broader marketing and communications jobs, I realized that I could take my storytelling skills and apply that in a totally different and rewarding way. The entrepreneurial bug also bit at a young age, manifesting in a childhood lemonade stand (where my only customer was the mailman) and selling friendship bracelets in elementary school, to starting an online cupcakery and a bespoke stationery business. Each of these endeavors taught me several lessons that prepared me to launch Spark + Buzz Communications.

Ultimately, this creative track led me to a career of 17 years leading a variety of marketing, branding, public relations and communications initiatives for several organizations. In almost every organization I worked for, my role was a newly created position. I loved that because the job description didn’t define me, rather I could define the job description. It gave me the opportunity to be a trailblazer and create the foundation for the future of what that role would become. Looking back at my career, I see how that appealed to my entrepreneurial nature and helped me create in-house communications agencies at several different jobs. Along the way I earned my Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) certification from the Public Relations Society of America, in addition to a master’s in communication and organizational leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

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?

I have made my fair share of mistakes, but I have also been fortunate that most of those were not public, or at the expense of anyone but myself. At the very beginning of my career, the emphasis was more on the creativity and less on the strategy. As my roles evolved, I learned how to harness strategy so that any creative piece could be translated into business objectives. This notion is crucial for success in the business world. However, I was not so great at personally following a strategy-first approach when I decided to launch my online-only cupcakery, Cheeky Cupcake.

This cupcakery was born out of a stressful job, my love of baking and thinking ‘if others can do this, why can’t I?’ So, I poured myself into testing recipes, gathering customer feedback and months later launched my brand. My business plan, or lack thereof, was basically launch the website, do grassroots marketing and see how it goes. If all went well, I could look at phasing into a mobile cupcakery. From a timing perspective, this was before the market became flooded with cupcake-only bakeries. I really fancied the idea of it all and loved the process of creating a brand from scratch, quite literally, but I was working full-time and doing this as a side hustle.

After committing to creating 150+ cupcakes for a friend’s wedding, complete with fondant cherry blossoms and decorations, I realized a cupcakery was not for me. I was baking in batches out of my home kitchen at the time and had to enlist the help of my husband and best friend just so I could meet my deadline. It was really stressful and not sustainable. I loved the idea of Cheeky Cupcake, but not so much the actual operational side of it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? I learned so many great lessons about myself and I’m proud of the delicious cupcakes I made. Now when I bake, it is purely for fun, or to bring goodies to my Spark + Buzz clients.

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?

I’m not sure that I would pinpoint any one specific thing, but rather years of building, creating, refining and making mistakes. It’s the culmination of all of those efforts and experiences that have allowed me to be where I am today. And, I also don’t believe the notion that you’ve ‘arrived’ — there is always room to continue learning, growing and tackling new challenges.

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

I just wrapped up a brand identity project for an executive performance coach. It is really invigorating to create a brand from scratch, while taking a client’s vision and making it a reality. In this particular instance, it was a unique process because the brand is the coach and the coach is the brand.

I’ve also been working with several senior living clients to help strategically change their story in the media. As you know, COVID-19 has impacted everyone, but the most common media narrative about senior living and skilled nursing organizations is that these companies have not done enough to protect our most vulnerable population. In the majority of cases, that couldn’t be further from the truth. As guidance changed daily and even hourly, it created the perfect storm for this pandemic to fester inside congregate living. Most people working in senior living genuinely care about the older adults that they are charged with protecting — these individuals become like family members to staff. I can attest to this personally as I spent a decade of my career in senior living marketing and communications, advocating for older adults and challenging the stereotypes that are all-too pervasive.

So while the world focused on the heroes at hospitals, very little mind was paid to caregivers in these organizations — heroes in their own right who were sacrificing their own health and wellbeing to show up for work each day to battle this silent predator. Fortunately, their stories are starting to be told and Spark + Buzz has been able to help by amplifying their voices and partnering with the media to illuminate a unique angle on the coronavirus narrative. One media outlet just conducted virtual interviews with one of my clients, speaking with several seniors over 90 who contracted COVID-19 and beat the virus. It gives hope to many, as your age and living arrangements do not have to be an automatic death sentence.

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

That’s a great question and I’m certainly no expert, as this is a lesson I am constantly learning. Less is more and unless you prioritize your own health and wellbeing you will never be able to bring your best to your professional or personal life. I also advocate doing work you are passionate about, so it doesn’t have the same drudgery and stigma as “work.”

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 know some view branding as a logo, tagline or packaging, but those are really just components of a brand — specific to the brand’s visual identity and expression. I view branding as a cumulative experience that is really the essence or ethos of your company. Ultimately, your brand is a culmination of touchpoints someone has with your product or organization, both internally and externally. It’s about having a strategic story that filters across all of those touchpoints, whether you are selling a product, service or lifestyle. With that overarching story in mind, the product marketing or advertising is simply one channel that tells that story. That could be through digital advertising or traditional print advertising, etc. The best brands know how to curate experiences for their customers and employees alike. The latter is often forgotten in the branding/marketing mix, but it is just as important. The only way you can build passionate brand ambassadors from within is involving your team at the outset, rather than after the fact.

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?

When I look at a brand through the lens of an experience and telling a unique and cohesive story as a differentiating factor, the specific tactics become secondary to that strategy. Your brand becomes the reason why a customer chooses you or chooses your competition, especially if you are selling the same thing. That differentiation leads with your organization’s unique story and filters across experiences and channels. Customers want to intuitively connect with brands on multiple levels and that has been highlighted even more during coronavirus. Ultimately, I believe that the story is what becomes the market differentiator, and how well you tell that story shows up in the various marketing and advertising tactics you undertake.

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

This is a timely question — many companies have faced pressure from various movements to rebrand. Just look at Aunt Jemima or the Washington Redskins. Both of these brands have experienced scrutiny before, but timing and momentum created a groundswell of action that led to change. With that said, there are lots of other reasons a company would consider rebranding. Perhaps it was involved in a scandal or misconduct — rebranding, along with new leadership, may be the right choice. In other instances, a company is significantly changing their offerings or evolving into a new service. Or, it is a longstanding company with a rich history, but needs to modernize for today — and in many cases like that, it is really a brand refresh, rather than a full rebrand.

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

If you rebrand for the wrong reasons or without any market research and feedback from your customer base, it can be detrimental. There are cost implications to rebranding and those costs can be voluminous depending on the size and nature of your business. If it relates to merchandise and retail products, think about all of the items you have to pull, update with the new image/look, along with things like signage, website, company apparel, business cards, stationery, tchotchkes, internal documents and more.

Likewise, brands can make huge missteps in plenty of other areas too. Sometimes executives grow tired of a logo or slogan and think they need to ditch everything to start fresh. If that decision is made in a vacuum, just based on an executive’s preference, it is the wrong decision. They may have an inkling something needs to change, but that should be validated by extensive customer engagement and research. With that being said, there are lots of ways brands can elevate what they have with a simple refresh or telling their story better. It may be keeping the same logo, but modernizing the typeface that was used, or altering the color palette. It also may incorporate a focus on the details and extra touches that make the customer service experience special and unique. Ultimately, it comes back to the strategy and business goals and whether a rebrand or refresh supports the goals at that time. If your brand has strong market recognition and resonance, that can actually make it harder to rebrand. Think of companies like Gap, who years ago attempted to refresh the brand with a new logo and consumers forced them to revert that decision (never mind all of the money and time lost in that process). The infamous Tropicana debacle in 2009 with their rebranded packaging caused them to lose more than 50 million dollars and ultimately revert to the original packaging. Customers no longer recognized the new packaging was Tropicana because everything had been overhauled, which I believe contributed to the consumer confusion. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, but these are examples to consider when embarking upon a branding decision.

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.

  • Step back and evaluate. Ask yourself why? No person or company should embark upon a brand refresh or overhaul on a whim. Ask yourself how this will advance the company’s strategic goals and opportunities for revenue. Ask yourself, why now? The answers to these questions are important to determine the right timing and next steps.
  • Storytelling as strategy. What’s your story? Your story can be the ultimate marketplace differentiator and serve as a strategic avenue to connect with your customers or clients. The key is, your story and messaging must be authentic to who you are. If you think of that story as the heart of your brand, it is what will attract the right customers.
  • Develop a narrative and messaging matrix. An amazing story is only amazing if it is told well and others know about it. That means you must be intentional about developing a narrative everyone internally can ascribe to and repeat, and then strategically embed that into every tactic and initiative, internally and externally, that the company undertakes. Develop a message matrix tool that serves as a guideline, highlighting key themes, words and phrases the brand should use.
  • Align internal and external. As I have shared before, a brand is more than a logo or tagline. If you believe and view your brand as a series of touchpoints with customers and employees, you will quickly realize that your story must flow through all parts of the organization, both internally and externally. It becomes about nuancing your unique story to the various audiences and understanding what makes them engage with your brand.This is also important from an operational perspective because your brand will never truly embody its purpose if your internal teams do not believe your external messaging. It requires coordination and collaboration across all departments, which means no kingdoms and silos. Everything should be structured in the best interest of your customer and how you cater to them.
  • Explore visual identity and details. Once you’ve gone through the processes above and determined whether you are pursuing a brand refresh or a brand overhaul (rebrand), then you can begin exploring the visual identity and how that needs to be represented moving forward. The little things and details really do matter when it comes to elevating the brand experience.

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?

Earlier this year, Dry Soda Company became Dry Botanical Bubbly to more fully represent their vision of culinary-inspired, zero-proof celebratory libations. I stumbled upon the brand a few years ago and instantly fell in love with their lavender soda. At the time, the brand was more of a craft soda that was seen as a healthier soda alternative and something fun for teetotalers, but the latter message was a bit lost. In their 2020 rebrand, the booze-free, or “dry” lifestyle has taken center stage and been matched with more vibrant packaging, new celebratory-size bottles (comparable to champagne bottles) and cheeky sayings across packaging and marketing efforts — “Here’s to zero-proof partying.”

Frankly, it also came at a good time as more products and bars are offering non-alcoholic experiences, packaged in ways that rival the booziest of bottles. While this rebrand is rather new and it remains to be seen how it will alter sales, I do think this more fully expresses their original vision and story in a way today’s consumer can relate to. I never recommend people replicate what another brand does, as that may not be a good fit. But great lessons from this instance are market timing, listening to customers and returning to your roots. Sometimes companies can lose their way and when you bring back the authenticity that you first began with, it really reawakens and reimagines your story in new ways.

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. 🙂

It would be a movement of teaching others to truly communicate with one another, listen and express empathy. Right now, everyone is talking over and shouting at the other. Language and words have become so politicized and our squabbling with one another only furthers our divides. We pigeonhole people in boxes and proudly assert that if you don’t believe the same thing I do, then you are now my enemy. We have truly missed the mark on what it means to be tolerant. Tolerance, as defined in the dictionary, means that you have a “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.” Note that tolerance does not mean you have to accept another person’s viewpoints or beliefs. We have lost the ability to pursue constructive criticism or differing conversations while still respecting the other person, yet now is the time that should be happening the most. We must learn how to respectfully disagree with a person’s beliefs or opinions, and still care about that individual. We are all a beautiful mix of conundrums and contradictions and must become comfortable with that to truly understand one another.

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

Picking just one is difficult, but I love Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous quote about enthusiasm. The last part of his quote is what most people know, but the entire quote is quite powerful. I’ve always believed that your passion and enthusiasm will show through in all that you do. No one wants to do business with a dud!

“Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic, be enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn at and Instagram @sparkandbuzz

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

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