Curiouser and (In)Curiouser

Two Very Different Takes on the Evolving Definition of ‘Brand’

Photo: Getty Images/Print Collection

Sounds silly to say now, but somehow it didn’t really dawn on us until relatively recently that our entire business — and the entire definition of ‘brand’ — had changed. Radically and for the better.

Where once ‘brand’ lived in Marketing, now it lives all over the organization. Product owns a piece of it. Customer Success owns some. Even Sales has a stake. And so we’ve found ourselves working less and less with CMOs and directors of brand and more and more with CEOs and senior leadership across the org — often helping them reconnect with what their users (and potential users) might actually want and need. Instead of being sought out to help devise ingenious ways to attract customers (AKA: the old ask of traditional branding agencies), we are now consistently being invited to discover new means to keep them. And it happened so subtly that we barely even noticed.

Our old role had often been focused on helping translate strategy into execution (designing identities, crafting campaigns, building websites, etc.). Our new role is largely focused on identifying the areas of overlap between what our clients and their customers actually care about — so that they can craft the sort of experiences that will resonate lastingly. It’s less tangible, more ephemeral — more focused on ideas than artifacts. And that, for some clients who haven’t worked with us before, can feel alien. It can feel untethered. It can feel unpredictable.

So it came as a bit of a shock when we were invited the other day to bid on what seemed, at first glance, to be a pretty traditional soup-to-nuts (logo, website, guidelines, etc.) rebrand.

Can’t say much about the client. But they’re a Bay Area institution looking to engineer a massive shift in the way they’re perceived. Their identity (at least from our vantage point) didn’t seem all that broken. In fact, we kind of liked it as it is. But we’d picked up on their seeming rudderlessness from afar. It was hard to say concretely what they actually stood for. It was harder to say what made them stand out. Which is why we were stoked when we saw their RFP. It was awesome. Super on-point. Very detailed. All-in-all one of the better RFPs we’ve ever read. That’s why it didn’t dawn on us until about midway through our in-person pitch to them that this one might not go our way.

See, they actually did have all of the hallmark challenges of a company at a monumental inflection point. They had a strong internal mission that was well-understood internally, but wasn’t being clearly and consistently expressed to the outside world. If you asked people on the inside why they worked there, they definitely had an answer. But those answers were rarely aligned. Thus, different divisions were pulling in different directions. Decisions weren’t being made for the right reasons. Sales wasn’t hitting their numbers. Marketing was struggling to tell stories that sunk in. Their ad spend wasn’t moving the needle. Their target demographic had largely lost interest. The brand was struggling to stay relevant. And the RFP carefully detailed all of that. So, perfect Sequitur project, right?

Actually, not so much. Turns out, even though the RFP had all the right sentiments about wanting to evolve (and clarify) the vision of the institution — how they make strategic decisions, how they hire, how they’re organized, their go-to-market strategy, the stance they take out in the world — the immediate ask was much more tactical. As is often the case, the team was preoccupied with what they knew they wanted (a new logo, a new website, etc.), not what they didn’t know they needed (a more acute understanding of their audience and a more clear-eyed sense of purpose). They’d been focusing on deliverables, because that’s where they felt the most urgency. Plus, as we were soon to discover, it’s sometimes difficult to connect the dots and see how solving the more deep-seated structural issues first actually makes solving everything else way, way easier. Sometimes it’s hard to see value in getting to know your customers before you get busy creating a bunch of lovely, traditional artifacts of brand. But that’s not really something they wanted to hear. They seemed to think that the new logo would be a meaningful enough symbol of change. But they didn’t seem committed to explicitly examining themselves and engineering that change deliberately. Or at least that’s what our spider senses were telling us as we prepped our initial take on scope.

Funnily enough, at precisely the same moment, we were in the midst of wrapping up another (very different) project for another (very different) client. Can’t say much about them either, as the engagement is still coming to fruition. But, here’s the short version. They’re a young, groundbreaking unicorn start-up that had nailed one hairy but unglamorous problem for small to medium sized businesses brilliantly. And now, as their (satisfied) customers were growing, they needed to find new ways to grow with them — ideally by serving their increasingly nuanced needs with equal panache. But they had a sense that maybe they needed a gut check on what those needs might be.

The marketing team had initially hired us because they’d seen our work for OpenTable. And then we’d subsequently been asked by the product team to come in and help them re-connect with people outside their core audience (and outside the bubble) who were solidly representative of their expanding TAM. So, after having a whole host of conversations with senior leadership on the inside, we headed out to three states (Ohio, North Carolina, and Oklahoma) to interview 30+ business owners out in the wild. In the middle of winter.

Much to our (and the client’s) surprise, a lot of the assumptions they’d already made but were doubting — thinking maybe that they were just echo-chamber, inside the bubble, tech company canteen Kool-Aid-fueled wishful thinking — turned out to be pretty on the money. Interestingly, the people who were in their tribe (the ones who were the perfect customers to build for) saw the world almost exactly as our client did. They had an enlightened outlook on their role, the task at hand, and how to do it correctly. And the folks who didn’t, well maybe they weren’t the right people to build for in the first place.

After our initial findings share-out, we hosted a set of workshops with the product and marketing teams to align on a set of shared principles for promising and delivering real value to those potential users — and a prioritized roster of product/functionality ideas that were able to kickstart a roadmap that had been stalled previously. Before our engagement, every idea seemed equally-weighted, equally right. Decisions were being made based on rank, rhetoric, or gut feeling instead of reason. Thus, nothing of import was seeing the light of day. After our engagement, the short-, medium-, and long-term product objectives were clear. People knew what to build, why, and for whom. Literally. By first name.

In retrospect, these guys were operating like the quintessential Deep Brand. They’d gotten to know their customers deeply, so that they could build the right experience. They were curious enough to take the time to invite their (potential) customers to the table. And now they were able to make strategic decisions based on actual need. All so that they could deliver products that worked in a real-world context. Oh, and they were aligned around the principles and priorities necessary to operate as one. They’d begun the hard work necessary to ensure that their intent is clear and emanating demonstrably from the inside, out. Their actions were starting to feel automagically consistent, since they all shared a newly crisp understanding of their mission. They were unified on how to express it, and they had a firm grasp on who they were talking to and solving for.

Which, looking back, is maybe why not getting that other gig felt like such a bummer. As it happens, no matter how compelling our client case studies seem to be to us (and no matter how much we bring to the table), sometimes people just don’t see the value. Sometimes they don’t know that they want what we sell until they get it. And that’s totally fine. Sometimes a new logo is important. A new look can be a brilliant way to signal change. But sometimes that’s not really the thing that needs fixing. Sometimes you need to take the time go go a bit further afield first. But, truth be told, that can be kind of a hard sell internally.

And that’s probably why the in-person pitch meeting with these guys wasn’t all that awesome (and why we eventually didn’t win the work). Even though we’ve gotten pretty good at not blathering on and on about our approach in the abstract, light bulbs just weren’t going off like they normally do. It could have been because we didn’t show a bunch of logos. We barely even shared any design work. Instead, we talked them through a handful of case studies that were about engineering cultural shifts driven by customer insight. Projects like our OpenTable, Trulia, Dolby, and Clif Bar projects — all of which had a hardcore customer research component. And many of which ended in (fabulous) client quotes like the following:

“Sequitur helped us give voice to unstated, intrinsically felt values. That’s really hard. But from that foundation, we were able to align on ways to unexpectedly express our brand in everything we do. If you’re looking for that level of strategic alignment, then Sequitur is the right place to start.”
Wendy Nguyen, Head of Growth Marketing, Clover Heath

Long story short, I think we all realized about half way through our presentation that the worldview we were espousing just didn’t jibe with their ask. They didn’t know they needed us. And, honestly that’s okay. I guess. Where some more traditional branding agencies would prefer to muscle their way through — name the client’s category, create a bunch of personas, design a cavalcade of gorgeous stuff, and then force the world to conform to the client’s vision of the future (often via the power of a relentless, venture-backed media spend) — that’s just so not our way.


So, wait. What is our way?

  1. Dig in deep. Talk to a lot of people, in depth, in-person, one-on-one (not in focus groups) about their feelings. Because feeling is more important than thinking.
  2. Hash it out. Get different people with different ideas in one room, show them the truth, and encourage them to argue, invent, and ultimately agree.
  3. Condense. This is the hardest part. Take a lot of stuff and reduce it down to three things. Reducing means deciding, clarifying, and prioritizing.

And what’s the benefit?

  1. Deep Brands outlast the competition. Because they’re grounded — they have deep roots, and they can weather extreme conditions with ease.
  2. Deep Brands are reflective. They’re willing and able to look hard in the mirror and see themselves as they actually are. And they live their mission because it’s true.
  3. Deep Brands work as one. They are purposeful and aligned. Their intent emanates from the inside out, and their actions are automatically consistent.
  4. Deep Brands ‘get’ their customers. They treat them like users, not just buyers. They’re constantly curious. Always seeking feedback. Always looking to evolve with them.

Bottom line, the world has changed, but the idea of ‘brand’ hasn’t entirely kept pace. To be successful today, companies need to think more like Deep Brands than traditional brands. And that can be difficult. It requires a level of vulnerability, curiosity, and honesty that is sometimes hard for fast-moving, thing-breaking organizations to foster and protect. And while this shift tends to make it more and more difficult for us to describe what we do — and sometimes means we’ll miss out on projects we know we could nail — there’s a clear upside. It’s good for consumers (in that the brands they align themselves with are building with them specifically in-mind). And it’s good for brands (in that they’re more likely to win and keep consumers by purposefully out-innovating their competitors).

Added bonus: it just might mean we’ll survive the robot apocalypse relatively unscathed. As Anders Sandberg of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute recently put it: “If your job can be easily explained, it can be automated.”

Not so much in our case, I guess.