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Denise Kaigler of MDK Brand Management: “Be Seen”

Be Seen. Increase your company’s visibility by showcasing its unique offerings and experience. If you only build it, they won’t come. It’s about promoting it, talking about it, highlighting it. This will help evolve and elevate your business’s brand in the eyes of current and potential clients, customers, donors and other key individuals. As part […]

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Be Seen. Increase your company’s visibility by showcasing its unique offerings and experience. If you only build it, they won’t come. It’s about promoting it, talking about it, highlighting it. This will help evolve and elevate your business’s brand in the eyes of current and potential clients, customers, donors and other key individuals.


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

Denise Kaigler is an award-winning communications, marketing and brand strategist, and the founder and principal of MDK Brand Management. Denise has nearly 25 years of corporate experience at multi-billion-dollar brands including Reebok, adidas Group, Nintendo and Boston Scientific, where her responsibilities included corporate communications, media and public relations, corporate branding and brand management.

Named twice as the “Most Influential Black Women in Corporate America” by Savoy magazine, Denise is the author of Forty Dollars and a Brand: How to Overcome Challenges, Defy the Odds and Live Your Awesomeness.


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?

Growing up in Washington, D.C. with my single mother and two sisters, I was very shy and introverted. It was so bad that when teachers called on me to answer questions, I would be scared to tears in front of the entire class. That made me the target of bullies. More times than I care to remember, I was beaten up and robbed of the 50 cents my mother gave me for the snack truck. I knew that I could not go through life being scared to talk in front of people and advocate for myself. I wanted something different and much more. I put myself through Emerson College in Boston, searching for and finding the funds to pay for my education, and eventually launched my career. During my nearly 25 years working in corporate, traveling around the world, speaking at events, and volunteering my time to support nonprofit causes, I met many young people who were encountering obstacles and wanted more for their lives. So, in 2015, I took the leap and began living my passion. I started my company, MDK Brand Management, a firm dedicated to helping individuals and organizations define their brand, craft their story, and achieve their career or business goals.

To broaden my reach and positively impact more people, I wrote with my book, Forty Dollars and a Brand: How to Overcome Challenges, Defy the Odds and Live Your Awesomeness. It was published in 2016 and is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

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?

Oh, goodness, there are so many! I tripped and fell in front of actor Blair Underwood in Boston. In front of a live national television audience during the BET Awards in LA, I was blatantly ignored by actor Will Smith when I very clearly extended my hand to shake his as he walked toward the stage to accept his best-actor award. But the one story I’ll elaborate on happened back in October of 2004, when I was the Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer at Reebok. I led the marketing and public relations campaign for the launch of Reebok’s new Rbk store in Los Angeles. We were gearing up for our big celebrity launch event, hosted by then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Reebok Chairman and CEO Paul Fireman. My PR agency was working the phones and landed one of the entertainment television programs. I can’t remember which one — maybe Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood. The reporter came to the store the morning of the event and interviewed me. I was so excited and couldn’t wait to watch the piece. But when I finally saw it, I was devastated and embarrassed. During the one and only clip of my interview, I had my eyes closed the entire time I was talking! I couldn’t believe it. I looked ridiculous! My brand was definitely damaged. I can now look back at the experience and laugh. But back then, I was horrified. In the end, I did learn a critical and, in hindsight, obvious lesson. I was clearly thinking about what I wanted to say and so I unconsciously closed my eyes while I was processing my thoughts. The problem was that I was speaking while I was processing! I should have not said anything until my head was clear and knew how I would answer the question, and then I should have made sure my eyes were open and I was completely focused on the reporter. Lesson learned!

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?

The best thing to happen to my career was the biggest disappointment of my career. I was a director and eager to be promoted to Vice President. My team and I had been working non-stop and scoring numerous wins. When it was time for promotions to be announced, I was 1000% sure that my boss was going to confirm mine. The day of our meeting, I walked in his office as a Director and was convinced I would walk out a Vice President. I did not. During the meeting, my boss told me that my promotion to VP was not approved by the CEO, who was signing off on all VP and above promotions. The reason: I was not visible enough. The CEO and other executives acknowledged the great results my team was generating, but they were not sure of my direct involvement in those results. I was known for regularly highlighting the success of my individual team members, giving them kudos in emails to senior executives and the entire company, but I was not in the face of senior executives enough and acknowledging my own role in my team’s wins. The news was devastating, but also served as the tipping point of my career. When I walked out of my boss’s office, I made the decision that it wasn’t a matter of my working harder. It was about working smarter. My brand was forever changed from that moment on. I increased my visibility throughout the company. I was in the face of leadership more. While I continued to congratulate my team on jobs well done, I also made sure executive leadership knew the direct role I played. During the next round of promotions, my promotion to Vice President was approved. At that moment, I realized the undeniable connection between personal branding and professional growth.

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

Yes! MDK Brand Management has several brand management and career coaching projects that have either recently launched or will soon launch.

In the area of career coaching, I recently launched Mainstream to Top Tier, a 10-week career advancement program to help mid-level professionals and business owners break through the mainstream and reach the top of their career. This is a virtual program that includes 5 modules and 5 live career coaching sessions with me. It’s based on the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career. I poured everything into this program. I have a session underway now. The next 10-week session begins on Tuesday, March 9.

For early careerists, my company has a 4-week virtual career coaching program called Before the Break. This career development program resets the first Monday of each month. This unique program compels participants to take a hard look at their personal brand and the impact that brand has on others. Self-awareness is a critical and often overlooked tool that can help individuals reach their career goals.

In March, my company will introduce Millennial Launchpad, a 4-week virtual program to help millennials who are facing career challenges due to the pandemic and its economic impact. (This group has been hit the hardest by the pandemic.) What makes this program unique is that it is built on the foundation of teamwork. A millennial is paired with their parent. They work together to create and begin executing a career plan for the millennial. I’m very excited about this program because it was the brainchild of my own millennial daughter, whose career has been Impacted. She and I worked together to create her career plan and it’s been an enjoyable experience. She believes it will help other millennials, which led to the program being created. Note that this is not a “helicopter” parent program. The millennial leads the process, with the parent providing the appropriate amount of insight, encouragement, and support along the way. Stay tuned to mdkbrandmanagement.com (eCoaching) for more information.

Also, on my website is the link to my free guide, How to Get Personal and Business Brand Post-Pandemic READY. The guide includes tips to not only make sure individuals and businesses are prepared to thrive after the pandemic but are finding ways to move forward during the pandemic.

Finally, on Friday, January 29, at noon, I will be facilitating a free online workshop, “How to Impact and Impress in Minutes.” With so many individuals being laid-off and furloughed due to the pandemic, it’s critical they have the necessary tools to move on and land their next job. This will be a highly interactive 90-minute session via Zoom. It’s free but registration is required. I’ve done a ton of free virtual workshops, but I am really excited about this one given the environment and the focus. I hope people will sign up and attend. If you come, be ready to work! My workshops are intense, and results driven. They are meant to provide individuals with real-world tools that can be used immediately and often.

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

I’m going to give advice that I wish I had followed earlier in my career. Take care of yourself first. Go on a real vacation or staycation. The point is to UNPLUG. Give your brain and body time to reset and recharge, even if you believe no one can do what you do, and at the level you do it. Our bodies have a way of forcing us to take breaks when we are burning out. Don’t wait for those warning signs because we don’t know how that will manifest. This is especially important for women. Your body may force a shut down if you don’t do it voluntarily. Depending on your job, you may not be able to completely unplug for days at a time. However, you can delegate certain responsibilities, put an automated “Out of Office” on your email, leave a specific outgoing voicemail message, and perhaps check your devices once a day instead of multiple times a day. And by doing this yourself, you are sending an important message to your staff. This will enhance your reputation as a manager who cares about your team members personally, not just about their ability to the job.

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?

In a nutshell, brand marketing is the holistic process of promoting and educating the public on the essence of the entire company. Why the business exists and why consumers should care. While successfully marketing an individual product can introduce a consumer to your business and possibly compel them to buy that advertised product or retain that service, it’s the marketing of your company’s brand that will keep that consumer coming back, generating long-term, sustainable revenue. Products come and go. Brands are long-term. Investing in your brand marketing has the potential to create long-term consumer loyalty.

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?

My answer to that question is simple: If your company does not invest in building and managing its brand, it will very difficult — if not impossible — to connect to its consumer base in a real and sustainable way. To quote one of my favorite authors and business experts, Simon Sinek: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

A company’s “Why” is the foundation of their brand. Consumers are primarily motivated by a company’s mission and vision, not by its products and services. They may buy from your company once but being engaged in ways that convert them to repeat customers is all about your company’s brand: Who it is, what it is and, most importantly, why it is. Your company’s mission, vision, logo, tagline, key messages are the cornerstones of its brand. Focusing solely on general marketing and advertising may not enable your business to rise above the noise and the clutter. It may lack an authentic voice, a defined personality, and an emotional differentiation. It might be viewed as simply another company. If you want your business to stand out and break through (and who doesn’t want that for their business), it should have a strong and defined brand. You can stay in mainstream, or you can define and build your brand, and help grow it to the top tier.

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

There are several reasons a company would consider rebranding. The most recent examples are related to racially insensitive names and/or images and the subsequent consumer boycotts or backlash (i.e., Aunt Jemima, Washington Redskins). Other reasons for a rebrand include changing consumer habits (i.e., Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC) criminal activity associated with the company or its management team (i.e., The Weinstein Company to Lantern Entertainment), a damaged reputation (i.e., Uber), updating to more modern look (i.e., Burger King), a broadened product portfolio (i.e., Anderson Consulting to Accenture), or a merger or acquisition (i.e., adidas Group). There are several rebranding initiatives that don’t involve changing the name of the company or its products but rather its marketing and/or growth strategy (i.e., Lego and Old Spice).

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

Yes, there are downsides to rebranding. Before a company makes a decision to rebrand, it’s important that it go through a comprehensive process of research and consideration, and be able to succinctly answer some basic questions, such as: Why a rebrand? How will a rebrand help save or grow the business? Who will the rebrand benefit, support, help or satisfy? If these questions are not asked and answered, it may be difficult to determine whether a rebranding is necessary. Last year, during the racially charged demonstrations and marches in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, we witnessed the rebranding of numerous products whose name and image were viewed as racist or racially insensitive. In each of those scenarios, there were clear answers to the aforementioned questions. With respect to brands that should not undergo a makeover, I don’t think there is a company where you would say never, ever. It depends on unforeseen circumstances. Even a brand that is worth billions or trillions of dollars today could have encountered rough waters in the past that led to a rebrand (i.e., Google). A rebrand that is done without very careful consideration and research could be rebuffed by the company’s core audience, causing both its sales and value to decline or plummet.

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.

My tips are founded on one of my favorite words, BRAVO. Growth is driven and brands are energized when surrounded by encouraging words, supportive people, and empowering experiences:

B: Be Seen. Increase your company’s visibility by showcasing its unique offerings and experience. If you only build it, they won’t come. It’s about promoting it, talking about it, highlighting it. This will help evolve and elevate your business’s brand in the eyes of current and potential clients, customers, donors and other key individuals.

R: Re-evaluate. Don’t assume that what worked before will work forever. I re-evaluated my company’s business model nearly two years ago. I realized back in early 2019 that my company’s revenue flow depended too heavily on in-person workshops and experiences. I made the decision to pivot to online programming. Because of this re-evaluation taking place when it did, I have been able to generate revenue during the pandemic from two new online programs, with a third set to launch in March of 2021. And my existing clients have remained with me as I transitioned some existing in-person personal branding workshops to online formats.

A: Activate networks. We all have networks. Regardless of their sizes, networks can be helpful and play a role in re-energizing or rebranding your business. Showcase your company’s expertise and carve out a thought leadership platform. Post on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms and encourage followers and connections to share and retweet. And don’t forget to pull out your camera and take to live platforms, including Facebook!

V: Verbalize the goal. Say it out loud. “I Can. I Will.” There is strength in hearing your own voice make a declaration. There is also an empowering sense of accountability when you make the goals of your business known. Once you say it out loud, you are less likely to deny that the goal was ever real. Saying your goals out loud — and writing them down — mitigates the chances that you’ll claim it was never said or was never an actual commitment. So, write down your goals. Say them out loud. And hold yourself accountable to doing it.

O: Open up to learning. Success in life and in business is about learning more about yourself and learning new skills. There is no better time to learn and evolve than now. I recently completed a digital marketing course and have already enrolled in another one beginning in late January. Because digital marketing is an area that is constantly evolving, I have to be on top of those changes so I can provide the best support as possible to my clients. Being introduced to new tools and learning how to use and apply them to my business has been a ton of fun!

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?

Without question, my vote is for Netflix. The brand has almost become a verb. Streaming movies at home, of course, means you’re Netflixing. The Netflix rebranding began long before COVID-19, but the pandemic has created a home-entertainment lifestyle that has further cemented the brand into our hearts and minds and, yes, our wallets. It’s a terrific rebranding story. If you remember back in the day, Netflix was all about mailing DVD movies to subscribers’ homes. But Netflix soon realized that streaming was the future. I am impressed by the brand’s ability to not only foresee the extinction of DVDs and the shift to streaming, but to pivot towards that trend. It didn’t wait and risk being boxed out. That’s a lesson for all brands. We must take risks and pivot towards trends. Some trends don’t hold up long-term. But some do. If the pivot doesn’t work the first time, regroup, re-strategize, and come back stronger. Stay informed by consumer trends, habits, needs and desires without alienating the base. What will consumers accept and tolerate, and what will turn them off? Social media makes keeping track of that information much easier.

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. 🙂

My primary passion is helping individuals understand that they have more power than they believe they do. They have more control over their careers and their futures than they think they do. For years prior to the pandemic, I was facilitating personal branding workshops for men and women incarcerated in correctional facilities throughout Massachusetts. Time and time again, I encountered inmates who simply followed, listened, and acquiesced their decision-making power to someone else or gave in to an illegal temptation. They got hooked up with the wrong people, or became mesmerized by the wrong experiences. This led to horrible decisions being made, which resulted in their incarceration. I want us to each believe in ourselves. To believe that we deserve to be happy. That we deserve what we are committed to working hard for. I want each of us to believe deep down through our soul that we are beautiful, that we are worthy, that we are valued. That we can and we will. Unfortunately, too many individuals are not surrounded by love, by people who support them, who care about them, who value them and, most importantly, who believe in them and their abilities. I wish I had the power to give these individuals a hug and tell them I care about them, and that they are beautiful. They are special. And they are worthy. If I had the money, I would create thousands of beautiful t-shirts with these powerful words and distribute them to homeless shelters, prisons, jails, street corners, hospitals, rehab centers, schools, colleges, and other locations. Maybe the t-shirts would include a 1–800 number to call and the caller would listen to a series of voicemail messages repeating these messages of encouragement. There wouldn’t be a live person on the other end since they would not be licensed therapists. But often times, we just need to hear the words, “I love you,” or “You got this,” or “Don’t give up, I believe in you.” I would call it “A Movement of Encouragement & Inspiration.” Sometimes, it does have to be only about “me and I.” We have to focus on ourselves before we can be of good to anyone else.

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

My favorite quote is from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

My career is now dedicated to helping individuals and organizations decide how they want to make others feel, and then helping these individuals and organizations reach that goal. We impact others with our personal or business brand. But too many of us don’t understand the level or intensity of that impact. How are we or our businesses making others feel? And how is this helping or hindering our ability to achieve our career or business goals? It’s important to find out.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: @mdkbrandmanage

Facebook: MDK Brand Management

Instagram: @mdk_brand_management

LinkedIn: Denise Kaigler and MDK Brand Management

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