Courage. Companies that fail to build a meaningful, trusted, loved brand with their target customer are afraid. They are afraid of making someone mad. They are afraid of losing out on a sale. They are afraid of taking a risk. And that fear for second stage companies is totally understandable. I’ve been there myself. You have people you need to keep employed. You have a reputation and a legacy you are trying to maintain. You have people watching you. But being afraid will never allow you to build something that lasts. All companies and brands need to evolve. And there are ways to do that that still keep your DNA intact. So find the team and expert support that addresses your concerns and helps you mitigate risk, and then make the bold moves you really want to.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Meghan Lynch, CEO of Six-Point Creative, a brand strategy agency with a focus on second-stage businesses who have hit a growth plateau. Meghan has made it her mission to help small, family-owned brands challenge their larger corporate competitors through the creation of Six-Point’s Solve for Y brand development program.
As a second-stage leader herself, Meghan quickly saw the patterns in the challenges that she and her peers were experiencing as they were trying to create growing, scalable, and sustainable companies. She noticed that the leadership teams of these companies would have the same brand strategy conversations over and over again, and realized that their fear of making a mistake was holding them back from growth and opportunity.
Meghan created the Solve for Y process to help these companies make smarter, faster, more transformational brand decisions. Since then, she and her team at Six-Point Creative have been applying this process with companies in all industries, from fast casual restaurants, to industrial manufacturing, to artisan cheese.
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 actually never wanted to own a business or even go into marketing. I have a master’s degree in English literature and thought I was on my way to get my PhD and become a college professor. While in graduate school, I realized that I was enjoying my day job at an advertising agency more than I was loving academia. So I switched paths, and now I like to say that I read businesses instead of books.
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?
When I first started out, I was a script writer for a TV advertising company. The first time I wrote scripts for a series of commercials, we were producing them in Toronto with Canadian talent, but for a U.S. market. When we were running through the scripts just before filming, I realized how many words with “out” sounds I had included in the scripts. The “outs” and “abouts” all sounded like “oots” and “aboots,” making the Canadian accents of the actors impossible to hide. I had to rewrite all of the scripts on the fly to replace those words before the cameras rolled. I think the lesson I took away from it was both to make sure that you always sweat the small details, and also the importance of authenticity. If you do things authentically from the get-go, you don’t have to worry about trying to cover things up.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our empathy for what leaders of second stage companies are feeling and the multiple competing priorities they are facing as they make major positioning decisions for their company is one of the most important differentiators for us. At the end of the day, these are people taking a huge leap of faith, and understanding the gravity of that is absolutely crucial to uncovering what kind of support is needed to make a brand strategy successful.
One example of this was a time when I was working with the second generation owner of a family business, and we were talking through a few potential directions to evolve the brand. All of the sudden she looked at me and asked, “How will I know when I find the right one? Will it be like finding a wedding dress?” And immediately I realized what she was feeling and expecting, and I knew I needed to reset her expectations. I countered with a different metaphor: “No, it will be like buying your pre-teen son a new suit that is a bit too big for him. It looks a little odd on him now, but you know in a few months he will shoot up and fill it out and it will be perfect.”
From that moment on, she stopped waiting for the magic moment of a perfect fit and started thinking about what would propel their company forward. And since then, I have used that metaphor with other CEOs, and it totally helps them get into a better decision-making headset.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are currently working with a new client, ALLPRO, that serves as a buying group for independent paint retailers. Small businesses become members of this group and it allows them to stay competitive with the big box stores and the chains like Sherwin Williams. Working with this one company will allow us to actually support 1,700 retail stores and their employees. It is a perfect fit for our mission to help the little guys challenge the goliaths. ALLPRO members are family businesses, community supporters, and important local employers. By helping ALLPRO with a more effective brand strategy, we are also helping their members build more competitive and sustainable businesses. The ripple effects of this project will be large, and that is exciting.
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 your reputation. You can influence it, but you can’t control it. In brand marketing, you are trying to exert that influence through clarity and consistency at every touch point with a customer or prospective customer. Product marketing is more about sales, not about reputation. It is about helping customers connect your product or service to a need that they have, and then moving them to action. Essentially, brand marketing makes product marketing easier and more effective.
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?
I think one of the biggest mistakes small companies make is assuming that branding is nice to have, but has no tangible effect on sales, profitability, or revenue. They often put off investing in brand awareness for far too long, and miss out on huge opportunities. In reality, studies have shown that if you split your marketing efforts into a 60/40 ratio of brand building to sales activation, you actually increase the effectiveness of your marketing budget. It can double revenue and profitability, and actually makes customers up to eleven times less sensitive to price. Branding is an emotional activity, and humans are emotional decision makers. So just because it is emotional and less concrete doesn’t mean that it won’t have a measurable impact on your business performance.
Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
- Focus. Most companies wait too long to narrow down their audience, especially smaller companies that need to compete against larger competitors with deeper pockets. They think that by casting a wider net and playing a numbers game, they will eventually be able to get a competitive advantage. In reality, the opposite is true. For example, our client, Hyde Tools, tried to compete in the big boxes for a while. But in the end, they kept getting squeezed on margin and were faced with needing to lower their product quality to make the sale. Instead, we helped them focus on the target market where they had the most loyalty with customers who wanted the quality of hand tools they were producing: the professional contractor, painter, and drywaller. They may have lost out on some top line revenue, but they were able to build a more profitable brand because they focused on the customer who would pay a price premium for their quality and innovation.
- Clarity. Often visionary CEOs can really struggle with communicating their vision in a way that connects with their customers and what they value. They are too close to the work and the company. It is like trying to read your own label from inside the bottle. For example, we had a client who wanted to move into the security market, but they were still trying to connect the work they did in other markets to security, which has a very different customer base that values very different things. We ended up needing to rename and rebrand their company in order to clearly signal that they belonged in security, that they understood the market, and that they could connect with the professionals in it. But as soon as we did, the market really responded to the brand and the value that they were offering. They were able to open doors that they never would have gotten through with their more muddled positioning.
- Consistency. Consistency is the simplest way to build a strong brand, but it is also one of the hardest for small, fast-growing companies. Often, they are trying to build a brand without ever laying out the basic messages and foundational visual elements for their team or their vendors in a brand guide. They are having multiple people create assets for them, with no guardrails to keep them consistent with one another, so there is zero opportunity for any brand equity to be built. Also, internal employees get bored with messages or images and want to change them before they have had a chance to make an impression. I always tell clients that they when they start to feel bored with a message or visual, that is when it is just starting to click with their customer.
- Listening. I cannot tell you how many CEOs will say to me “I think the customer values us because of X” (usually something vague like “customer service”). When I ask for proof, they will say that they know their customer. But they have never asked their customer. They are just assuming. That is such a waste of time and resources, when the reality is that customers love to give feedback to companies and be asked for their opinion. If you aren’t talking to your customers and market regularly and truly listening to them, there is no way you can build a relationship with them. Who would want to be in a relationship with someone who talks about themselves all the time but never listens to you?
- Courage. Companies that fail to build a meaningful, trusted, loved brand with their target customer are afraid. They are afraid of making someone mad. They are afraid of losing out on a sale. They are afraid of taking a risk. And that fear for second stage companies is totally understandable. I’ve been there myself. You have people you need to keep employed. You have a reputation and a legacy you are trying to maintain. You have people watching you. But being afraid will never allow you to build something that lasts. All companies and brands need to evolve. And there are ways to do that that still keep your DNA intact. So find the team and expert support that addresses your concerns and helps you mitigate risk, and then make the bold moves you really want to.
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?
I am a trail runner and hiker, so I love some of the brands in the outdoor space, particularly Patagonia. They are a brand that has no fear of losing sales in support of its values, and every time they take a risk, their customer base just gets more loyal. They ran that classic ad telling people not to buy new clothes but to repair what they have, and then they went one step further and created the Worn Wear RV that goes around the country repairing old gear for people. They even stopped selling their popular logo vests to Wall Street and Silicon Valley corporations who don’t align with their values. That is clarity and consistency at its finest. I know it is easier to lose sales when you are a huge corporation like Patagonia, but I also see smaller businesses do this too. They don’t work with a big box retailer because they aren’t treated in a way that allows them to make a profit, or they sacrifice some short-term profitability to invest in their employees. I think any brand can look to Patagonia as inspiration to remember that saying no to something or taking a courageous stand actually builds loyalty, profitability, and sales. It is standing for nothing that will hurt you in the long run because your brand will be forgettable.
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?
I would still measure the success of brand building by (profitable) sales. You just have to give it a longer horizon than a sales activation campaign. For brand building, you need to look 2–3 years out and play a long game. That is why you want to make sure that when you are running brand building campaigns, you are still running your sales activation or lead generation campaigns alongside them. Eventually, those lead gen programs will get more and more effective and lower in cost per acquisition. That will be another effect of the branding work taking hold. There are other ways to measure it (awareness or share of voice, for example), but those are often more difficult and expensive to measure than smaller brands can pay for. So there is definitely a leap of faith involved to see the full long-term effect.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
We often refer to the quote from Jeff Bezos, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you aren’t in the room.” Social media is a great place to influence and monitor that conversation. Different platforms and specific tactics are appropriate to different industries, but your target customers are having public conversations on social media, so if you aren’t a part of those conversations in a meaningful way, you are missing out on an opportunity. Also, just posting content is not being a part of a conversation. Great brands listen as much or more than they talk, and are also catalysts for their customers to have conversations with each other.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
I have found that peer groups are absolutely critical to me. Hearing from other CEOs, usually in very different industries from my own, pushes me to think more expansively and give me ideas to try in my own business, which keeps things fresh for me. It also feels good to share things I have learned through my experience and see someone else get value from that experience. Peer support is also really important when I am not at my best. When you are a business leader, you can’t break down in front of your people or your customers. I lean on other CEOs I have relationships with through the Women’s Presidents Organization, or the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business alumni network, or other marketing and branding agency owners I have gotten to know over the years. With them, I can be more vulnerable, and they can help to pick me up when I am down or getting burned out.
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. 🙂
Food insecurity and loss of small agriculture are two things that I care a lot about. I would love to see a movement that ties the two together, where small farmers were subsidized to provide fresh, local food to food insecure people in and around their community. There are so many people who lack access to healthy produce, and so many farmers who struggle to make a living sustainably growing and raising food, it seems like there should be a push to bring these two problems together.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Albert Einstein said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” I love that, and fundamentally believe that curiosity is the root of our human potential. It not only helps us to solve huge problems, but also to connect with one another in meaningful ways. “Be passionately curious” is one of our core values at Six-Point, and I am always pushing myself and my team to approach roadblocks and disagreements with curiosity and openness.
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 am usually not a fan of the “entrepreneurs as stars” movement, but I think I need to say Sara Blakely, the CEO of SPANX. I think she has done such a great job of building both the SPANX brand and her personal brand. Plus I think it would be a really fun lunch with a lot of laughter!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Personally, I am most active these days on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/melynch/) and you can follow our work at Six-Point on Instagram and Facebook (@sixpointcreative) and on Twitter (@6pointcreative). We also post our events and educational content on our website.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.