In a dynamic, fluid environment, you’ve got to adapt and acknowledge the new normal. If you don’t, it’s a quick guarantee that a company will fall behind its competitors and become irrelevant.
As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger.
Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger are cofounders of Motto and authors of the brazen business book, Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different. Their clients include innovation labs within Google, Hershey’s, USA Today, and Twentieth Century Fox, as well as new brands that challenge and change the way we think, work, and live. Using brand thinking and unconventional principles from their book Rare Breed, Sunny and Ashleigh speak, write, consult, and build brands for companies that rebel against the ordinary, attract rare talent, and win obsessed customers.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger, co-founders of Motto, a leading branding company, and authors of Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different (HarperCollins). We’re also hosts of the popular YouTube series, Rare Breed.
We met in a snowball fight in Chicago during the screechy, dial-up modem “You’ve got mail” days. We went to college together, dropped out together, and started Motto with nothing but 250 dollars, some borrowed desks, and a dream. For the past fifteen years, we’ve been building our agency to be one of the most recognized agencies for rule breakers and game changers.
We’re most known for our unconventional approach to building standout brands and empowering ambitious leadership teams. We’re the anti-branding branding agency. While we do offer branding, it’s a far more holistic approach that focuses on aligning leadership, culture and brand, as one. We’ve built our reputation on being different.
Recently, we’ve been focused on helping clients pivot, adjust their strategies, adapt their brands for a ‘distanced’ world — and develop new brands that thrive in this new climate.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
If you’re anything like us, when you’re working on something, whether it’s an initiative for your company or a creative project that you hope will catapult you into a full-time career doing what you love, you’re head-down, up-to-your-eyebrows into it. You’re so focused on making the final product incandescent that you lose all track of time and all sight of the road ahead.
One of our earliest projects involved a client who came to us with an idea for an all-natural line of healthy snacks based on — wait for it — the diet of a chipmunk. The idea was interesting, but the project turned into an endless maze because the founders were determined to have a chipmunk logo on their packaging. Thus began our descent into utter design iterative madness.
We sketched out and mocked up hundreds of logo ideas based around chipmunks, and every one of them looked like it belonged on the packaging for rodent food. Unsatisfied, we iterated and iterated until our eyes burned. We started seeing chipmunks in our dreams. When the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie came out, it nearly sent us into a panic attack.
We finally hit on a brand identity that the client loved, but by then we were convinced that consumers wouldn’t buy it. We couldn’t stop designing, convinced that somewhere out there, floating in the ether, was the perfect chipmunk for this product, waiting for us to discover it.
Anybody in their right mind would have thrown in the towel. But we were too stubborn and obsessive to realize what we were doing to ourselves, and after months of work that probably convinced our poor clients that we were a few burgers short of a Happy Meal, we hit on the perfect brand identity. Now you can buy that line of healthy snacks, Munk Pack, in stores like Target, Whole Foods, Costco, with our chipmunk-and-arrow logo front and center. The product is incredibly successful and has a devout social media following. Everybody is happy. We’re very proud of it, which we should be, considering that little rodent nearly destroyed our sanity. What we learned is that obsession can and does pay off. For giggles, you can read the entire story of this and why obsession is a vice and a virtue in our book, Rare Breed, A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous and Different.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Sunny’s mom and dad had tremendous influence on us. Sunny’s dad was an entrepreneur. He was a coal-miner’s son, grew up dirt poor, started his construction company with 150 dollars, and was full of wisdom. We admired him deeply. Early on in our business, many people doubted us. To the point where we started to doubt ourselves. A few years into business, we were struggling to stay afloat. It’s not like we had 1M dollars in capital to float us — we were bootstrapped. We considered closing up shop when we had a pivotal conversation with Sunny’s dad who told us, “You two are a rare breed. Not everyone will get you, but the ones who do will never forget you.” That completely changed how we saw ourselves, and built our confidence. He gave us that phrase, Rare Breed, in 2007. And in 2019, we turned that metaphor into our book, Rare Breed.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Motto is more than our company name, it’s a symbol of who we are and what we stand for. Historically, mottos were war cries of sentiment, hope, and purpose. We believe every company needs a big idea worth rallying around, which is why we named our company Motto.
We’ve always imagined a world where every company and brand actually means something to people. Where no business exists just to exist. This need for meaning has become the centerpiece of our company and purpose-driven branding approach. We’re here to get leaders unstuck so they can realize their ambitions and make big, impactful dents. We do that by creating space for our clients to deeply explore the inside of themselves and their culture — who they are, what they believe in, and why they matter. A lot of our work focuses on clarify their own vision, purpose, and ethos. “Vision becomes clear only when we look into our own hearts. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes,” said Carl Jung.
At Motto, we wrestle vision forward for some of the coolest brands on earth and create bold ideas for our clients to rally around and lead their company forward. By doing so, the brands we work with have something to say, not just something to sell.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When COVID took every business by storm, our company was no exception. Not only did government prevent us from working from our office in Lower Manhattan due to COVID, but two of our biggest clients at the time hit pause. To put it in perspective, over 725k dollars worth of business went on hold. It forced us to adjust our team to work from home very quickly. Instead of getting paralyzed, we adapted. We ramped up our technology, systems and processes for the team and we began offering clients in industries hit hard with free advice. We took a leadership stance to help navigate our team through a murky landscape. Some of those same clients who hit pause have returned and restarted their projects. The grace, leadership, and support we gave our clients is why they came back and recognize us as a valuable asset.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
In fifteen years, we’ve had many times where we felt like giving up. Sunny’s dad used to remind us that, “If running a business was easy, everyone would do it.” The truth is that being an entrepreneur is a messy, confusing, grueling, and often lonely path. You’re surrounded, but you still feel alone. When everyone else goes home, you carry the business with you 24/7. When something fails, it’s on you. On the flip side, you have the ability to make an impact and realize your grandest visions. After more than a decade in the trenches, we’ve come to understand that while we are a branding agency, we’re not just a branding agency. Candidly, we’ve tossed around quite a few words. Leadership coaches? Brand innovators? Culture advocates? Therapists? We’re all of those things, according to what’s needed. The work we do with leaders and teams is truly transformational. We’re able to not only help them reshape and influence their mindset around brand, but we’re able to capture the spirit of who they are and reflect that back in the tightest, most concise, most compelling way.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Responsibility. In troubling times, leaders must define a vision clearly and have a goal structure suited for all levels of the organization. If the vision is significantly modified, then the goal for all levels of the organization must be modified to align people’s energy to achieve the vision.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
You have to remind your team what you’re all fighting for. Check in often to see how your team is feeling. Share and encourage each other. Ask, “How can we improve? What do you need? What’s important to you right now?” These seem like basic questions, and they are. However, they go a long way in making your team feel the circle of trust.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Your role as a leader is to be radically honest about what is achievable in the coming weeks and months as this disruption continues to ripple across the economy, and what your expectations of others are.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
We tell our clients to, “Start thinking in quarters.” Start thinking in 30, 60, 90 day increments rather than years. You’ll find that you’re able to effectively have the big picture as a goal, but also be nimble enough to adapt to shorter sprints. It’s an effective way to work.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Don’t play safe. Daring, irreverent minds love turbulence, because they relish the chance to violate norms, field test audacious ideas, and fail forward. Unbound by common sense and sometimes even good taste, they’re the people who will think up the innovations, business models, and brands best suited to weather the next decade and thrive beyond it.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- They panic or “go tharn.” The phrase “go tharn” was originally found in Richard Adams’s novel ‘Watership Down,’ and also adopted by Stephen King for use in his novel ‘The Stand.’ The phrase is the act of a person or animal being frozen or paralyzed by terror. The pandemic has affected every company, but it’s more effective to stay focused and moving, rather than get paralysis.
- They refuse change. They try to retrofit existing solutions to meet the new normal. This is a dangerous time to be addicted to conventional wisdom. Leaders who cling to outdated business models go belly-up. You can alchemize change into opportunity or become undone by it.
- Deny the new normal. In a dynamic, fluid environment, you’ve got to adapt and acknowledge the new normal. If you don’t, it’s a quick guarantee that a company will fall behind its competitors and become irrelevant.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We are currently selling a line of entrepreneur-focused workbooks and frameworks for startups and entrepreneurs to create the brand foundation on their own. We sell them now on our website here.
The exercises include:
- Articulating Your Core Values
- Defining Your Purpose, Mission, and Vision
- Discovering Your Brand Archetype
- Writing a Brand Manifesto
They are uniquely geared to help start up and emerging companies articulate their company purpose, vision, values, and brand archetype without investing tens of thousands of dollars or more. It’s based on years of our workshops and is extremely valuable. You can get the whole bundle for 199.00 dollars or just buy the workbooks individually.
It’s also very good to have potential prospects work through these exercises before they hire Motto. The more clear a client is on who they are, the better their brand outcome with us will be.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Banish the word “never” from the corporate vocabulary. We’re living in “never” land right now. Companies that swore they would never embrace remote work are now holding all-hands meetings with two thousand employees on Google Meet. “Never” kneecaps ideas that may well be possible. Get rid of it.
- Identify thorny problems and think in “what ifs.” For example, before long people are going to crave the experience of going to a movie theater to enjoy a new release, but they’ll want to do so safely. What if there was a way to redesign cinemas so fans can cheer on their favorite Avenger without creating a superspreader event? You’re welcome.
- Find creative ways to redeploy your existing solutions. As we speak, robots are being used to deliver packages and even care for seniors in high-risk nursing homes. It’s unlikely that was what their developers had in mind, but they pivoted to address the need. What’s next, robots as tutors for kids stuck attending school at home? Maybe. The point is, don’t be limited by current applications.
- Find an enemy. A great leader is their best when their backs are to the wall and they’re fighting for something. Find something to fight against. Get mad, and then get madder. Your most daring, impactful ideas will come when you’re looking for way to bring down a foe that represents everything you despise.
- Hire the “Rare Breed.” You probably already have them in your organization, and they’re an untapped resource. If you don’t have them, it’s your job to find and develop. Look for the difficult, restless spirits and encourage them to be who they are, in full color, nothing held back. Cultivate the mavericks and geniuses that everyone else dismisses. They are your secret weapon. If you don’t know how to leverage them, hire us.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Own who you are in a world that wants to own you. In other words, succeed because of who you are, not despite who you are.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!