Deep Brand

Our Approach to Helping Companies Be Their Better Selves

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So, we’ve been exploring the idea of writing a book for about a year now. Literally a year. What kind of book? Well, a slim, clever, unexpected little book about how we arrived at (almost entirely by accident) what we think is actually a pretty awesome, relatively new-school approach to thinking about ‘brand’. Not the sort of ‘What’s our color palette? What’s our tone of voice? Isn’t this a lovely typeface? What should the tagline be?’ sort of brand. No, we mean mean big-B Brand. The sort of thing that helps upstarts out-innovate incumbents. The sort of thing that forges fierce allegiance (from new hires and customers alike). The sort of thing that teams on the inside can get behind, act on, and express to the world with confidence—not just a bunch of nice sounding values that are plastered all over the lobby but aren’t really ever put into practice.

See, despite what many people say, conventional branding is almost always a work of fiction. Companies construct a story that they want consumers to believe and then they burn through a boatload of cash to bring it to life. Not that that’s always bad. Sometimes you need a little razzle dazzle. Still though, you can’t repaint a barn and call it a palace. To build a brand that stands the test of time, you have to get your team aligned on who and what you want to be and what you want to deliver, not just on what you want to say or look like. Unless you do the necessary heavy lifting up front, you’re just selling a bunch of illusory, pie-in-the-sky magical thinking.

But it wasn’t always that way (for us or our clients or our peers in the industry). It took us a good long while to figure out how to align leaders, employees, and customers around a shared set of clear-eyed beliefs. And that approach — that constantly evolving methodology that we’ve started calling Deep Brand — was what the book was supposed to be about.

But for some reason, the whole thing kept slipping by the wayside. Blame it on the pressures of keeping the business going—of winning and keeping the next project and the project after that. Blame it on our general fear and loathing of the already overcrowded business section of every airport bookstore that we tended to linger over between delayed flights. Blame it on our inherent unwillingness to strut around like cocky experts in any given field. But the truth is, the more we outlined it (and the deeper we got into drafting it) the more we realized how simple the idea actually is. Having to over-elaborate on it (and kill a bunch of trees in the process) just seemed, well, unconscionable. So, thank you Medium. Thank you LinkedIn. Without you, we’d still be arguing over who should illustrate the cover art.

Instead, here’s our relatively terse, entirely ink-free guide to branding from the inside, out:

It all started about seven years ago — nearly eight years into our mildly successful run as a boutique agency. We’d been invited to help a young, swiftly growing sustainable energy company completely evolve their point of view and, eventually, rebrand. They’d started out solely focused on wind, building some of the country’s largest and most sophisticated turbine farms (mostly in deeply red states not normally associated with anything green). Obama was in office. Coal was increasingly on the outs. And communities across the country were getting more and more comfortable with leasing out larger and larger tracts of farmland for bigger and bigger installations — even with the Koch brothers throwing a bunch of money at hilarious misinformation campaigns. Awesome project. Or so we thought.

After a series of in-person meetings with the leadership team at their offices back east, things were feeling great. Everyone seemed oddly on the same page — uncannily unified around the audacious mission of saving the planet one solar array, wave power buoy, or biomass plant at a time. And that mission was personal. Everyone in the C-suite felt it. It was, literally, why they came to work every day. Their evangelical fervor (tampered as it was by an almost comical ‘too many PhDs with MBAs in the room’ sort of seriousness) was evident, believable, and true. They were ready to act on it — but the story they were telling currently felt tepid, half-hearted, and underwhelmingly apologetic. They weren’t taking a stand. And they knew it.

So, after our first few confabs (only with management, not with the rank-and-file — bad idea it turns out, but more on that in a second) we headed back to SF and began hammering out an evolved set of principles for showing up in the world with greater oomph. It was a blast. Finally a client whose purpose (slowing global warming) was worth shouting about. Finally a client who could actually make good on such a daring pledge — and back it up with hard data, real science.

But, a couple weeks later, about midway through our initial presentation back to them, something seemed immediately off. We weren’t in-person (too much bi-coastal travel isn’t so hot for the planet). So, at first we chalked it up to bad audio, bad video. But as the meeting went on — and as we shared one provocative direction after another, it felt like the oxygen was getting sucked out of both rooms. What was wrong? Why were they so…nervous…all of a sudden? About 45 minutes in, the CEO calmly put both hands on the table and half-stood.

“Guys, guys,” he said. “I’m gonna stop you right there.” I paused, not at all sure what was coming next. “I see where you’re going here. And I get it. I get it. But, I’m sorry. There’s literally no way we could say that. Any of it. Zero. Zip. No way. No how.”

“But it’s the truth,” I said, timidly searching his eyes on screen. “You asked for bold. This is bold. Plus, it’s who you guys are. It’s how you feel. All of you. Now, you just need to…own it.”

Needless to say, that didn’t go over well. Turns out, everyone from the boss man on down was afraid to play offense — afraid to take on the fossil fuel industry head-on, afraid to embrace the elephant in the room and fight for the things they actually believed in. They were afraid to swagger. Afraid to confront. Afraid to push back. Of course, they didn’t want to seem like a bunch of deranged tree-huggers. They were still going to have to partner with traditional producers and utilities in some parts of the country. And we totally got that. But still, their immediate unease came as a huge, huge shock. Either they’d been lying to us or lying to themselves (or both) about their missionary zeal. Clearly, they were only aligned in the abstract—and highly unlikely to execute in fidelity with their supposed purpose.

“Sleep on it,” we said, hoping to buy some time (and crossing our fingers that, with time, they’d come to their senses). But the next morning, as we arrived at the office and powered up, it happened. For the first time in eight years, we’d been stone cold, ‘It’s not us it’s you’ fired. Via email.

And that’s the kernel of Deep Brand.

In the coming days and weeks, we did a ton of soul searching. What went wrong? How had we so profoundly misread the situation? How did we end up with so little ammunition to make a compelling counter-argument? Why couldn’t we sell the ideas we felt so strongly about? In the end, four critical things emerged — four somewhat embarrassing revelations that forced us to completely revamp our thinking about what we do and how we do it.

01. We realized we should start talking to customers more.

Lots of customers. Because theirs is the ultimate reality, the ultimate truth. If you don’t understand them — their freaky quirks, their often irrational needs, their emotional makeup and the way they see the world — you’ll never be able to build a story that resonates deeply enough to move the needle. Us not taking the time to talk to our client’s more conservative customers was a huge, huge mistake. It was a blindspot that blindsided us.

02. We realized that employees were pretty wise, too.

Turns out, just talking to the suits kinda doomed our project. Why? Because, if there’s any place that wishful thinking tends to thrive, it’s in cushy corner offices. Great ideas from management aren’t ever going to go anywhere if they don’t match the reality that employees see everyday. If we’d talked to more people who were closer to where the rubber meets the road — closer to customers, closer to what works and what doesn’t in product — we would have had a much firmer grasp on what would have actually landed.

03. We realized how critical business strategy actually is.

We should have started with this. If the strategy was to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing and sneak clean energy into dirty, then we would have gone about things in a completely different way. But when the strategy isn’t clear — if it’s half-baked, murmured about, or hidden under a bushel (in a boardroom) — the company and its agency are going to work at cross purposes. You can’t build a brand that lasts around an incoherent strategy — not even if the product doesn’t suck and the creative is brilliant. You just can’t. Doesn’t work. People ultimately sniff that stuff out. And if the story you tell isn’t clearly in the service of your actual game plan, things come crashing down like a house of cards. Eventually.

04. We realized we needed to stay humble.

Before we got fired, we’d generally gotten hired to be the experts. Clients tended to trust us to show them the answers. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that the questions are where the real gold lies. When we found ourselves compelled to be the smartest guys in the room — when we started to think we were smarter than we are — that’s when we started to be less curious. And make mistakes of assumption. When we thought we owned the deliverable instead of sharing ownership with the team, we made it too easy for anyone to reject what we’d created rather than making it an object of pride for the team. Because, in the end, this isn’t about us and our great ideas. It’s about our clients and their great ideas — and how they’re going to act on them after we’re gone.

By sitting with those four hard-learned truths, we began to rejigger our whole offering, our whole business model. Instead of coming in, making nice, teasing apart the brief, talking to leadership, and decamping to our offices to explore, explore, explore, now we started out every project by interviewing as many people across the organization as we could (from the kids at the front desk to the saints in the call center). By doing proper internal discovery (politically fraught as it sometimes is), we were suddenly able to get up-to-speed on the real truths (and myths) that glued a culture together (or tore it apart). Which allowed us to ask the right questions when we eventually went out to talk to real people in the real world.

And that — interviewing customers and prospective customers (often in their homes, at their places of work, at their favorite diners) — became an increasingly important, increasingly valuable part of every project. By meeting the people our clients wanted to win over and keep — by getting to know their real motivations, their rational and emotional worldviews — we were almost immediately better-equipped to advocate on their behalf. By bringing their voices into the room—by bringing their faces into our clients’ offices — we were able to ensure that their needs were ones our clients were solving for. By helping our clients see their customers as people, not personas, we (and they) were better able to find meaningful signal in the cacophonous din of their data.

And with those qual + quant insights in-hand, creating alignment within an organization became a relative snap. By socializing the things we heard (often in the context of off-site workshops with the all of the folks we talked to up-front), we were way better at creating consensus around everything from audience segmentation to new product ideas to brand positioning. Often, all it took was a moment away from HQ (and an honest appraisal of how the world actually is) to spark a bunch of meaningful conversations about what to build, who to build it for, how to talk about it, and how to bring it to market.

Because, that’s what makes a Deep Brand deep. They act consistently across departments. They find better product/market fit. They stand out among their competitors. They survive disruption. And they navigate and profit from change with ease. Their marketing rings true because it is true. And their story resonates with customers and employees alike because it‘s the natural by-product of actual alignment. People on the inside have bought into a core set of ideas and are able to execute faithfully. And people on the outside feel heard—feel known—and are willing to pledge their affection (both on Facebook and with their pocketbook).

So, what’s the secret?

They’re reflective. They’re willing to stare down the hard truths and see themselves as they actually are. They’re not about wishful-thinking. They’re able to live their mission because it’s real. And their honesty allows them to course-correct in a million large and small ways.

They’re purposeful and aligned. Their intent emanates from the inside, out. And their actions are automagically consistent — because they do the hard work of prioritizing (and agreeing to) actionable principles that are directly derived from their strategy.

They ‘get’ their audience. They’re curious. They take the time to invite customers to the table. And they make strategic decisions based on actual human need. By treating customers like users, not buyers, they’re able to deliver products that merit fanatical devotion.

Basically, Deep Brands thrive year after year because they walk the walk, they execute as a team, and they empathize with their audience.

Fast-forward to 2019. Thankfully, we haven’t been fired again since. Yet. And while our approach is, for some clients, not an entirely great fit (really, if you just want to fire and forget on a Super Bowl ad we’re so obviously not the right choice) it’s been yielding serious results for some pretty killer brands. By digging in deep, hashing things out (elbow-to-elbow with our clients), and doing our darndest to simplify, simplify, simplify, we’ve been able to help all manner of companies make bold promises they can actually deliver on — across every touchpoint and often by the end of next quarter. And that’s what Deep Brand is all about: listening, learning, and making things that matter on the double.

See, we told you it was deep.

Helping brands be their better selves.

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