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JinJa Birkenbeuel of Birk Creative: “Survey your customers”

Survey your customers. Ask them how they feel about your brand or products. What has been their experience? Would they like to see something change? Know that your customers are usually right and check your ego when you get feedback. If a customer is willing to talk, be grateful that they are taking precious time […]

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Survey your customers. Ask them how they feel about your brand or products. What has been their experience? Would they like to see something change? Know that your customers are usually right and check your ego when you get feedback. If a customer is willing to talk, be grateful that they are taking precious time to engage with you at all.


As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview JinJa Birkenbeuel, CEO of Birk Creative, a brand agency, designs visual identities and multichannel strategies to scale brands and assist with their adaptability inh the market. With more than 20 years of experience, Birkenbeuel and her team work with established brands including Facebook, Advocate Health Care and Google.

Birkenbeuel is also a digital coach and partner for the world’s largest tech companies. She is the founder of The Honest Field Guide™ podcast, where she hosts discussions dedicated to winning in business with Grammy Award winners, successful entrepreneurs, sports team owners, Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, and inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2007, she founded Birkdigital, a book publishing company. Utah Carol, a country band Birkenbeuel formed with her husband in 1997, has released three albums, including one that was featured in an award-winning Sundance Festival film.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I developed an interest in graphic design when I was a student at Whitney Young High School. I took an art class and chose lettering as my final project. I re-created the logo on a perfume bottle and understood that someone would have had to design the packaging. I went on to college, stumbled into the university’s art building, and felt at home. It was magnificent. I was the university’s first graduating Black art student, and I’m saddened to think of all the individual opportunities previously lost and Black student promises unfulfilled. I’ll be happy when we are finallypast this first racial era in America’s history. It’s been forever since Jackie Robinson broke the color line.

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 was working at a museum in Chicago and created a visual identity for one of its dinosaur exhibits. I found the cutest clip art image from a vintage art book to help represent the dinosaur and even designed a semi-custom type font to accompany the graphic. When I made my presentation, the department head humiliated me in front of the group by explaining that my artwork showed an anatomically incorrect rendition of the dinosaur. She asked me where I got the image and told me to make sure I did my research the next time because the museum’s paleontologist had rejected my work. I will always remember that episode because, even though I was professionally humiliated, I learned a lesson about conducting prior research, especially as it relates to science, that I subscribe to in my agency work today. The irony is that the identity I eventually created was approved by the museum director and became the brand standard for the museum and all of its subsequent creative applications that still run today.

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?

In 2013, I was asked to conduct a creative audit for a new female leader of a retail organization. Some aspects of my implementation ideas for her company were new to me, yet I realized it was an amazing learning opportunity to discover innovative communication solutions. I was confident my recommendations would be effective, but I had to figure out how to execute them. I had hedged my bet because I knew I could remarket my firm’s services and build a new business vertical on the results of the assignment. The lesson for me was to say “yes,” to learn as I go, to invest money in learning, to overdeliver a winning solution even if at a loss, and to work at the highest level of integrity even as I bleed money in the process. Easy, right? My investment and my bet paid off. The next year, I landed a significant contract with Google. It was the beginning of a business pivot for my agency.

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

Yes, my launch of Journey of Gratitude Books at http://www.journeyofgratitude.org.

It’s my pro bono project where I source a woman-owned creative business, become the business’s “design agency of record,” and produce a beautifully designed and printed marketing book that fully represents women’s creative products and ideas. My agency, Birk Creative, subsidizes the experience. Everyone is in so much pain right now, and small businesses are dying due to owners’ fear and loss of revenue. I had to do something! I had to help. I realized that the best thing I can do, the most important thing outside of volunteering at a food bank, is to dedicate my thought leadership and expertise to help other fellow business owners.

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

Wow, I’m wondering the same thing myself. These times are abnormal for business owners, especially those like me — mothers with school-aged children and no in-person schooling. I’m trying to just hang on for now and slow down in decision making, purchase only for vital or physical comfort needs, trying yoga, and listening to music. I’m saying “no” to business inquiries without an adequate budget or a commitment to online technologies. If I can spare a moment alone, I take longer showers, light candles, and read at least one page a night of a book on printed paper. I’m not going to exaggerate when I say these are times of infinite struggle if you have any type of business.

In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Think about how you feel when you see a brand you like. Do you feel a sense of comfort when you’re in front of the brand on an Instagram profile or in the news? Does it relax or energize you? Does it make you smile? What imagery comes to mind? For this exercise, you have to take notice of how your body is reacting, to stop and think, because the brand experience normally happens in a second. It’s better understood as a brand sensation than a conscious perception. That’s branding. Products help build a brand’s feeling. Consider that most famous brand Nike. Nike sells a multitude of expensive products and has a strong aspirational brand; Nike’s products and brand strengthen each other in a circular process. As with Nike, a successful brand generally informs successful product marketing.

Can you explain to our readers why it’s important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to general marketing and advertising efforts?

Your audience, whether direct customers or visitors, has to be engaged. Humanizing your brand with attractive characteristics encourages your audience to pay attention. Using your voice, sharing your ideas, placing your face (or your employees or influencers) in front of the buyer is how you will build credibility and trust. Customers of successful brands like to have “conversations” with their preferred brands. They like to exchange their ideas and their money — spending is part of the conversation. Small business owners often have difficulty being the face of their brand. They’re so busy in the business that they don’t look up. But the most successful businesses are led by confident people who want to share what they know and can find the path to a personal conversation with their customers.

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

A few examples are when a company adds new product lines, changes strategy, pivots to a new business model, scales, or shrinks. Adding new service lines might cause you to refine your brand. Also, consider that a brand doesn’t have to be forever; it can evolve. Unless you’re a legacy brand — McDonald’s, General Motors, Coca-Cola — you can reframe your visual identity, which is part of branding. If you’re moving your business from brick-and-mortar to online, your visual identity probably should be updated to be most effective. Convening a meeting or study group to understand if your brand is still alive and delivering on its promise to its customers can lead to changes.

Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies you would advise to not have a brand “makeover”? Why?

If the rebranding is not based on strategy and purpose, or the owner of the brand feels bored with the business, don’t do it. It will fail. If you don’t have enough budget or time to dedicate yourself and your team to a brand audit to discover what worked and what didn’t, or what is worth saving and what isn’t, don’t do it. It will fail. You might be surprised to discover how committed some of your customers are to your brand. Making them part of the process can insulate your brand from an adverse reaction. If rebranding is your intention, be sure to survey your customers to determine the nature of their brand allegiance and help them participate in the process. If your customers have a stake in your brand and you change it without warning, it can feel to them like a personal attack.

OK, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share five strategies a company can use to upgrade and re-energize its brand and image? Please tell us a story or give an example for each.

1) Conduct a Google search for your company name and see what you find. Does it align with your vision of who you are as a company? If it does not, create content at scale and populate it on as many online platforms as possible.

2) Survey your customers. Ask them how they feel about your brand or products. What has been their experience? Would they like to see something change? Know that your customers are usually right and check your ego when you get feedback. If a customer is willing to talk, be grateful that they are taking precious time to engage with you at all.

3) Survey your employees or consultants. Do they understand what you stand for and what services you deliver to customers? How are they representing your brand on their own social media? Are they proud to share the work they are doing? Can they repeat your brand promise to a potential customer if you aren’t there?

4) Audit all social media channels. Is there a consistent look, feel and vibe for your brand across all channels? If not, consider hiring a social media content or brand strategist to boost your content.

5) Write articles. Start writing an article a week about a relevant topic to your business. Insightful articles show your industry expertise and passion for your work.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job with a brand “makeover”? What specifically impresses you? What can another brand do to replicate that?

Microsoft. It used to be invisible, a backend solution. Now, the company has activated its top visionary leaders to create an incredible amount of content and place it all over social media. Microsoft used to be a faceless “we have no choice” technology company. It has, over the last few years, perhaps since its acquisition of LinkedIn, effectively humanized the Microsoft brand by activating Melinda Gates and other top leaders to speak, write, share anecdotes, write books and more. Learn that lesson.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I want American working women to join together, all ethnicities, and decide that they are going to help each other find jobs, launch businesses, get capital, land deals, and ensure equal pay across all industries. I want women to have financial independence. If I could inspire a movement, it would be to get women to work together in an intentional way at scale. Think underground railroad, but for all women. We need to free ourselves.

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

“Seize the day.” My mother used to tell me if I overanalyzed things, wonderful opportunities would pass me up. This is one of my guiding principles: to consider relevant opportunities momentarily, but to say yes, and go. There have been times when I’ve taken too long to answer, and I’ve lost my shot. Most of the time I tap into my energy and run with things. I really hope my energy lasts over the long haul of this pandemic!

How can our readers follow you online? I love Instagram as a primary marketing tool because it presents my agency brands and visual aesthetic. @birkcreative and @honestfieldguide. Thank you so much.

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