Always be you. Given the choice between what a brand thinks their customers want to hear and what’s authentic, a trusted and believable brand will always choose authenticity. Small companies always have deficiencies as a result of their size. Being honest about what the firm does well, how it does business and the personality of its relationships attracts customers who share those values — and sets the stage for successful partnerships. When Woden works with founder-led and driven organizations, we always make an to weave the personality of that individual into the fabric of the organization, even if they personally become less dominant.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Ed Lynes. Ed is a founding partner at Woden, a strategic narrative agency based in Philadelphia, PA.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My partner, Dan, and I had always been frustrated by traditional marketing agencies in our previous businesses. At one company, in particular, we really struggled with how to best communicate our core story. We looked at a number of different marketing firms, all of whom viewed the strategic work of crafting our message as incidental to their core service (PR, digital marketing, etc.). Our sense was the discipline of knowing who you are and why you matter was valuable enough to build an organization devoted to it — and that’s where we’ve been ever since.
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?
We’d never worked in the marketing industry before, but it seemed as though companies advertising for marketing directors would be a good place to start building a client base. So, each morning I would get up and go through every Craigslist in America, just trolling every post for marketing help and sending off these copy/paste emails about the firm. Beyond the obvious mistake — that you can buy software for like 99 dollars that does what I spent endless hours chipping away at — it betrayed such a lack of knowledge about what we were doing. I got more replies from pyramid schemes and pay-for-performance affiliate marketers than you can imagine. It took a long time to get @wodenworks.com back to a solid domain reputation. I think the lesson there was pretty obvious: Focus on, and be good at, what you are. Oh, and that building a company off Craigslist postings probably won’t work. I’m sure someone at Amway headquarters had my IP listed as their top prospect nationwide.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Woden has always been a marriage of art and science. We’re exceptionally process-driven for a creative agency, and have honed an approach we follow with all clients. The manner in which we approach a project is rooted in fairly dry academic work around storytelling structures, anthropology, neuroscience and sociology. The real magic is blending a fairly rigorous process with the artistry and creativity that resides in each Wodenworker. Our team has a fairly diverse, non-traditional background, and the blending of those perspectives inside our process offer clients something that’s both objectively sound, and also authentic and resonant.
This comes through most clearly when a client is seeking a specific deliverable within the overall scope of their engagement. Last year, a group of substance abuse treatment clinics, Experience Wellness Centers, came to us, and requested (in addition to their core story) a new name — and really wanted that in place first. We were fairly insistent that to get to a name that actually had meaning, and didn’t just sound good, we needed to work through our process to establish the right framework. Not surprisingly, we uncovered some valuable insights in listening to their team and customers. In particular, the narrative we settled on evoked strong connotations of travel and direction. That opened up a shared ground and sense of position that wouldn’t have been clear otherwise. This helped us settle on Carina Medical Partners, named after a constellation meant to look like the keel of a ship, and relying on the directional connotations tied to celestial objects. It was a name we couldn’t have come to without first establishing the company’s core brand narrative — the foundation of their brand.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Each Woden project is exciting — it’s an opportunity to uncover the powerful, compelling narrative that sits at the core of our clients’ brand. In terms of projects with direct impact in people’s lives, two that come to mind are Voatz and Pawame.
Voatz provides election officials and citizens alike with a new mobile voting channel — one that expands the options for voters to receive, mark, verify, and submit their ballots without sacrificing security or convenience. Voatz’s incredible technology (already deployed in several states and municipalities) helps expand the franchise of voting for those who have difficulty reaching the polls. Our work has helped Voatz tell a compelling story to election officials so they feel comfortable making voting more convenient and more secure for every American.
Pawame provides a pay-as-you-go solar kit which becomes a platform financial empowerment, and a gateway to limitless opportunity, for the 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa without grid access. Pawame’s model helps customers form a credit history, which enables access to everything from smartphones to solar water pumps to education loans. Woden’s engagement has helped Pawame unite its diverse team, and more clearly articulate its model to customers, as it is utterly distinct from all other options in the crowded pay-as-you-go solar market.
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?
Brand is the foundation; it’s the promise you make to your customers, and the emotional connection that underpins all aspects of the relationship. Product marketing is why people should believe that promise: It empowers audiences with the tools and knowledge to invest in the relationship the brand has already established.
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?
Barriers to entry in just about every industry are lower than they have ever been. When competition is extreme and it’s easier than ever to for companies to mirror features and benefits, establishing an emotional connection to your audience is the only sustainable differentiator there is. The base of that connection is a clear, compelling brand story that conveys why you exist, and why people should care.
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.
- Begin with a simple “We believe…” statement. Everything in a brand hinges on its ability to clearly communicate why it matters, why it’s different, and why people should care. Craft a single sentence statement of purpose that all team members would be proudly back as the organization’s core. In the case of Pawame, for example, the firm initially described itself as a “pay-as-you-go solar provider,” a statement that not only failed to differentiate them, but massively undersold their promise. Instead, they re-framed their purpose: [We believe] “Affordable, modern energy is the surest foundation for financial empowerment, and the gateway to limitless opportunity.”
- Codify that statement into a story. Things carry more import when they’re written down. Convert purpose into a compelling story with a brand’s customer as its hero. A well-written story gives people a framework for the brand, and a memorable way to communicate purpose and to spur evangelism. It’s essential to do this when the company is small — as the brand grows, direct interactions with the founding team are rarer and rarer, and the story serves as guiding document for their vision. This is particularly effective for complex offerings: In the case of Woden client Redis Labs, we crafted a story about how dynamic businesses that want to run fastest, run on Redis. The story clearly described the ideal Redis customer, their pain point, and how Redis Labs empowered them with technology — without getting caught up in features and benefits.
- Keep the customer front and center — and treasure their opinion. The most important voice in the brand story is that of the customer. Every employee should know what customers love about the work that they do, where those customers see opportunities for improvement and, most importantly, why they love the brand, since that is the foundation for future growth. Many companies perceive their value differently than their customers do — and their brand goes awry when they tell a story that reflects their own perception instead of that of their audience. This is only truer the fewer customers a brand has; in a smaller company, each customer must be an evangelist for growth, which they will only do when they feel their voice is heard.
- Be product-agnostic. In a small company especially, it can be hard to separate the brand from the product. But, as the company grows and the product offerings diversify, success cannot depend on the product to shape the brand. Customers’ connection must be with the brand’s purpose, and see the product as an extension of that in their lives. When Woden began working with Swift Financial, the firm offered traditional working-capital loans for small businesses. As they worked to refine their story, they expanded into other offerings, including their acclaimed LoanBuilder product, because they had invested in a connection with customers based not on the service they offered, but the control they gave small business owners.
- Always be you. Given the choice between what a brand thinks their customers want to hear and what’s authentic, a trusted and believable brand will always choose authenticity. Small companies always have deficiencies as a result of their size. Being honest about what the firm does well, how it does business and the personality of its relationships attracts customers who share those values — and sets the stage for successful partnerships. When Woden works with founder-led and driven organizations, we always make an to weave the personality of that individual into the fabric of the organization, even if they personally become less dominant.
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?
Construction equipment Caterpillar has built a beloved and believable brand, especially in an industry that might not be thought of for branding successes. After a rough stretch in 80s and early 90s, Caterpillar has become quite beloved, largely due to the way that they’ve elevated dealers — who are usually looked at as people to push products, drive sales, and do little else — to partner-level status. Because dealers were the ones who really understood and interfaced with the buyers, they were given a hand in everything from product development to customer service. The result was not just better products that reflected customer needs, but a dealer network that really evangelized for the product, and helped that enthusiasm rub off on customers.
Replicating that doesn’t hinge on a global dealer network. It really comes down to listening clearly to your audience, and engaging them as a key stakeholder in the brand. When a brand trusts customers and partners to guide them, that trust is more often than not reciprocated with valuable feedback, evangelism and improved offerings. Caterpillar followed where their customers led them, and the result was incredible affinity in an industry where most companies are seen purely as utilitarian or product-driven.
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?
If a company is focused on measuring the direct success of a brand building campaign, don’t do it. Brand is the fiber that binds the relationship between a company and its audience. You can’t directly measure the value of connection in an interpersonal relationship, and the brand relationship needs to work the same way to be effective. A great brand is certainly a force multiplier; it makes sales conversations, customer retention, direct advertising and other areas much more effective. But trying to directly quantify the impact of a brand campaign is a distraction, despite what NPS would tell you. It’s all about emotion.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
It’s channel-specific. We ignore Facebook completely — it’s just not a place where we feel there’s a valuable conversation worth contributing to. On LinkedIn and Twitter, we’re focused on being a resource for people who want to move their brand forward, whether they’ll ever work with us or not. And on Instagram, it’s an opportunity to immerse people in what the brand is actually like… and to show off pictures of the office dog, Bailey. We don’t see social media as a core component of what makes our brand what it is — that’s always been our long-form content, which is more authentic to who we are as a brand.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Love, in equal parts: the work you do, who you do it for, and the people you do it with.
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. 🙂
Each person’s story is worth telling. A great movement for good would be the ability for everyone — regardless of where they came from, what they believe, and who they are — to feel comfortable telling their story, and to have that met with acceptance.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” — e.e. cummings
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.
I already get to share multiple meals a week with my favorite leaders in business: the team at Woden.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Keep up with all the great reads that the Woden team finds interesting and engaging on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/woden-works), on Twitter (@wodenworks), and on Instagram (@wodenwork). You can read my once-annual social media posts at @edwardtlynes.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.