Stacey Ross Cohen: “Make Yourself Perfectly Clear”

Investing time, money and resources into building a brand is not a luxury — it’s a requirement to thrive in today’s competitive environment. Branding is an art and science and when done correctly, it builds trust and credibility. Consumers make purchase decisions based on an emotional connection with a brand. In order for someone to engage or […]

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Investing time, money and resources into building a brand is not a luxury — it’s a requirement to thrive in today’s competitive environment. Branding is an art and science and when done correctly, it builds trust and credibility. Consumers make purchase decisions based on an emotional connection with a brand. In order for someone to engage or buy something — they need to know, like and trust the brand. It follows that to gain trust, companies need to build a relationship with the customer and demonstrate the brand’s benefit or value.

As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Stacey Ross Cohen.

Stacey is an award-winning brand professional who earned her marketing stripes on Madison Avenue and at major television networks before launching Co-Communications, a full-service PR/Marketing firm with offices in New York and Connecticut. Stacey is also co-founder of College Prime, a company that provides social media and personal branding training to high school students to succeed with college admissions, internships, and beyond. She is a Huffington Post and Thrive Global blogger, TEDx speaker, and has been featured in Entrepreneur, Forbes, Crain’s, Sales & Marketing and other leading national media. She holds a B.S. from Syracuse University, MBA from Fordham University and recently completed a certificate program in Media, Technology and Entertainment at NYU Leonard Stern School of Business.

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

After college, I worked at an ad agency in HR which closely aligned with my “then” career objectives and education. I became mesmerized with the ads adorning the office walls and would constantly ask the creatives and account execs for the “why” behind the concepts. I realized that this was my true calling — to bring words and images to life that tell a story. I moved on to take a position at CBS/FOX Video in the international marketing division and was lucky to have an amazing boss and mentor. Much of my day was spent gazing at spread sheets analyzing past performance and forecasting — which I found interesting but lonely. I’d somehow always find my way to the PR department to find out what exciting campaign they were working on — e.g. screening of a Mick Jagger video at a downtown hot spot. The PR department was eliminated and the woman who headed it up started her own agency, and upon chance meeting, she asked if I’d like to chat about a job opportunity. I was hired as a Senior Account Executive and CBS/FOX became my main client. PR was foreign to me and there were no You Tube videos or internet at the time. I just figured it out and quickly became the owner’s right-hand person. I saw the good, bad, and ugly of running an agency and this learning was priceless for starting my own agency. I started Co-Communications, a full-service PR/Marketing agency in 1997 in a spare bedroom of my house with no lofty goals — just to “do it better.” Our team of 15 incredibly talented individuals create high-impact communications program’s for diverse clients in real estate, education, healthcare, professional services, non-profit and hospitality.

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?

I was managing the press at a world premier video screening for the Boston Celtics at Boston Garden when I worked with CBS. When an attendee approached me, I assumed he was there to cover the event and directed him to the press “pit.” A sales rep from the company elbowed me and whispered Stacey, “That’s the Boston Celtics’ coach.” I turned 10 colors of red but the coach and I became quick friends. Lesson learned: Research the key players prior to covering events

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Make Yourself Perfectly Clear™ is more than a tagline — it’s our credo. We’re steadfast in our belief that clarity leads to better results, and we use that thinking to power campaigns that help clients improve their marketing impact. As an award-winning marketing, PR and design firm with offices in Connecticut and New York, we help clients across a diverse range of industries strengthen their brands, ramp up their marketing and grow their share of voice. In partnership with our clients, we build brands, promote thought leaders, and leverage marketing to generate leads. All of this starts with clarity. And we “walk the talk” with our brand — — from our transparent business cards to our website which highlights our unique value proposition: clearly strategic, clear results, and clearly creative.

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

Co-Communications recently started working with Vincent Aspromonti, Regional Franchise Director for Aerus, a US-based manufacturer of air purifiers. The company’s patented ActivePure® technology works 24/7 to rid circulating air and both hard and soft surfaces of most pathogens. ActivePure® works by circulating a dry form of hydrogen peroxide in the air so it is odorless, tasteless, all natural and completely safe. In university and laboratory tests, the ActivePure® system has been proven effective against both DNA and RNA viruses, such as H1N1 (swine flu), H5N8 (avian bird flu), and MS2 bacteriophage. This technology has been proven to destroy over 99.9% of RNA viruses.

In addition to following all of the CDC guidelines such as handwashing and disinfecting frequent touchpoints, this client’s offering is particularly timely as many homeowners and businesses — including restaurants, doctor’s offices, salons, nursing homes, and more — are looking for an added layer of continuous protection.

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?

Branding and advertising both fall under the marketing umbrella and work as a cohesive unit toward building the company’s image and driving revenues. Branding is the process that defines the identity or essence of the company and differentiates it from its competitors to carve out a unique market position. Branding goes much deeper than the company name, tagline, trademark or logo — and includes brand strategy, mission, core values, vision, identification of target audience(s), and key messaging. A brand is a promise of an experience and delivers a clear message, builds trust, and connects with customers on an emotional level. And establishing brand standards to ensure consistency through all touchpoints is the icing on the cake! Advertising is used to promote a brand’s products or services to a targeted audience through various channels to build awareness and ultimately influence and activate the consumer to make a purchase or do something. Ads are produced in many formats including print, digital, broadcast (commercial/ infomercial) and billboard. Advertising costs vary based on frequency, reach and specific channel — internet, television, newspapers, magazines, outdoor (e,g,, bus, sporting arena), and movie theatres, etc.

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?

Investing time, money and resources into building a brand is not a luxury — it’s a requirement to thrive in today’s competitive environment. Branding is an art and science and when done correctly, it builds trust and credibility. Consumers make purchase decisions based on an emotional connection with a brand. In order for someone to engage or buy something — they need to know, like and trust the brand. It follows that to gain trust, companies need to build a relationship with the customer and demonstrate the brand’s benefit or value.

Branding creates both customer and employee brand ambassadors. These advocates are priceless as they will share their love of your brand and positively influence their network (who already trusts them). This, in turn, introduces new people to your brand who can also plug your offerings. In the workplace, branding creates a strong culture and increases employee’s productivity — — with the added benefit of attracting and retaining talent. Brands need to make certain that their employees feel that they are an integral part of the company and fully understand the company’s mission and purpose. Branding is most effective when it is consistent and clear in delivering on the brand’s promise. You can’t just turn up the volume and walk away. You need to have a steady drumbeat with the right message to the right audience. It begins with trust and seamless customer experience. When done right, you can reap many benefits — rewarding partnerships, customer retention, new clients/business opportunities, and revenue growth.

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.

  1. Focus on building relationships over revenues. Consumer-centric brands which invest the time to understand their customer’s concerns and needs will profit in the long-term. This strategy is particularly important during the pandemic as shifts in consumer behavior are profound. Brands need to communicate with empathy, clarity and address changing needs in real time. They need to get inside their target audience’s mindset and ask “How can we help?” which will result in deeper customer engagement and connection post pandemic. At the end of the day, people often make decisions based on their trusted relationship with individuals, not a business entity. Nike is an example of a brand that puts a premium on customer experience which has been the driving force in growing its direct to consumer business. Nike prioritizes loyalty through their free NikePlus membership program (180 million members and growing) with enticing benefits (access to music, guided meditation, fitness classes, exclusive products, sporting events, etc.).
  2. Humanize your brand. It’s all about personality — showing your customers your authentic self, beliefs, passions and leaving corporate and robotic jargon on the sidelines. Humans don’t want to connect with a logo — they want to relate with other humans and experience that “personal touch.” Transparency (e.g. responding openly and timely to social media queries) also needs to be in the mix. By owning up to your mistakes, your customers will respect your honesty which enhances brand trust. Giving customers a glimpse of the people behind the business is a powerful way to humanize a brand. An example of a brand that exemplifies this is Zingerman’s, a family-run business based in Michigan which consists of eight businesses including a full-service restaurant, mail-order, bakehouse and more. The brand gives its employees a voice who in turn, want to work harder for customers. Their brand personality shows through at every touchpoint from the packaging to their social media posts to their service. I have personally ordered baked goods from Zingerman’s — and without fail — receive a hand-written thank you note with a specific mention of the purchased item — — “I hope you enjoyed the lemon poppy seed coffee cake.” It doesn’t get better than this!

3. Highlight social proof. What others say and think have a powerful influence on our purchase decisions. In fact, approximately 95% of customers read online reviews before making a purchase decision. The bottom-line is that positive online consumer reviews of a brand’s product/service activates sales. Social proof comes in various forms including testimonials, reviews, ratings, follower counts, influencer endorsements, subscribers, fans, etc. Brands leverage social proof on their website and social media channels to optimize “the love” and further influence customers. I can’t think of a better example of social proof than Amazon. Amazon provides product reviews and ratings (based on one to five stars). If you are researching a desired item and come across one that has 4.8 stars and 2,500 (mostly positive) reviews, it has an excellent chance of landing in your shopping cart!

4. Develop content that’s relevant (and platform-appropriate): Good is not enough — you need to create remarkable content to capture your audience. Whether you develop articles, blog posts or videos, the content needs to be shareable, engaging and actionable. Brands need to take the recipient’s mindset into account: “What’s in it for me?” Dove is a winning example of branded content done right. Dove’s campaigns challenge beauty stereotypes and feature women of all ages, shapes and sizes. Their content emphasizes that the real beauty of women is skin deep and revolves around projecting a positive body image and self-esteem. Their content is inspirational, empowering, and relatable to their main target — women. And their consumers are evangelists — frequently sharing their love for the brand.

5. Take action and “DO GOOD” “Doing good” needs to be in the DNA of every business now more than ever. Socially responsible companies are particularly important to Millennials and Gen Z purchasers who support companies that have a purpose that they admire. Brands that “do good” are perceived in a positive light and also attract and retain like-minded talent. The brand that first comes to mind is TOMS, a company that led the way in the social impact space with it’s one for one business model — — giving away a pair of shoes for every pair sold. And donating 100 million pairs of shoes since inception is only the beginning! TOMS giving model has recently evolved and expanded their giving portfolio to support organizations facing today’s most pressing issues.

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’m a huge fan of Southwest Airlines. Much of their brand success is due to their employee-first culture and CEO Gary Kelly, who has been instrumental in propelling Southwest’s growth. Gary believes that their people set the airline apart and in “hiring for attitude and training for skill” to perpetuate an already-strong culture. Employees are recruited/hired to match the company’s three core values: warrior spirit, servant’s hear and Fun-LUVing attitude. We can all agree that happy employees make for happy customers. And studies validate this — — employees with high job satisfaction are generally more productive, engaged, and loyal to their companies.

The CEO as a brand asset is more important than ever. Not too long ago, CEOs were sequestered in their ivory towers, far from the spotlight. But today, the CEO is the face of the company. They must be visible internally, externally, and virtually. When the individual at the helm has the right image and reputation, they impact everything from boosting the company brand to forging emotional connections with employees, investors, customers, and media.

And this is what Gary exemplifies. I had the opportunity to interview Gary a few years back. Gary sees part of his duty as rallying employees around an inclusive culture. Gary’s leadership style can best be described as collaborative — — he knows that he alone cannot be Southwest’s brand ambassador and believes in “The Power of We” and encouraging them to embrace the company’s mission: taking care of customers. This philosophy is built into everything from internal emails to advertising and social media. The encapsulation of the brand was succinctly shared by Gary: “When I describe service, I’m not talking about first class or frills and amenities. Our people serve our customers as if they were guests in their own home.” It doesn’t get better than this!

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?

Brand building campaigns require richer metrics than advertising. While both impact the bottom line, advertising does not move the needle without a brand building campaign. Branding is foundational work and needs to be in place before an advertising program is launched. Metrics used in branding campaigns include website traffic, social media followers/engagement, earned media, blog shares, search volume data, community reach, back links, video views, etc. Measuring brand awareness is both an art and science and can be complicated. It’s important to outline specific goals and benchmarks before launching a campaign in order to identifying key metrics. Based on the campaign results, brands can retrack the campaign to optimize for conversions and sales.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

Social media amplifies the brand’s voice and is an essential part of the marketing mix. It allows for a two-way dialogue for the brand and customer to interact directly — — creating real human connection. Having a strong social media presence allows a brand to develop loyal fans, business/influencer partnerships, generate leads, increase website traffic, gain customer insights, build thought leadership and more. Content should reinforce the brand and be relatable and relevant to the target audience.

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

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. 🙂

#cando — — be a problem solver, not a problem spotter and continually challenge yourself

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

Wayne Gretsky’s quote “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been” is my all-time favorite. The need to be one step ahead in business has never been more important. If you continually look in the rear view mirror, you’ll soon be obsolete. Marketing is an art and a science and requires us to anticipate trends and be nimble to change a campaign’s direction in real time. Our client’s appreciate and benefit from the constant flow of forward-thinking ideas and technology that we bring to the table. And the pandemic has certainly required flexibility and then some!

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. 🙂

Richard Branson. I saw him headline a session a few years ago at Forbes 30 under 30 conference in Boston and I could have listened to him for hours….maybe days! He is incredibly insightful, funny, inspirational and authentic.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Stacey Ross Cohen Socials:



Twitter: handle — @StaceyRossCohen

Instagram: handle — staceyrosscohen

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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