Brandon West of PHOS: “Here are 5 strategies that a small company should be using to build a trusted and believable brand”
Stop Using Stock Photography. Just don’t. Explain your brand to a local photographer and let them collect a moodboard full of photography that’s on-brand and use those consistently throughout your brand. People don’t trust brands bloated with stock photography. They feel corporate, disingenuous, and cheesy. They rarely include any level of storytelling and force cliche imagery into your brand. A picture of a middle-aged white person smiling with a hardhat on is a bad photo for your construction services page. Just don’t. If you must use stock photography, find the sites that have candid, inclusive photos that can give your brand personality, depth, and a unique image.
I had the pleasure to interview Brandon West, founder of PHOS. Brandon founded PHOS at the age of 26 out of his home office with the vision to be an anomaly inside of an over-promising and consistently underwhelming industry. With a strong commitment to culture and strategic planning, he’s led the team to become the highest rated marketing agency in North Central Florida and to receive the high honor of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Employer of the Year” in 2018. “What I’m most passionate about is inspiring people. It fuels me to be able to empower people and businesses to think different, lead different, and be different.” When Brandon’s not leading the team, networking with other business executives, or assisting in a strategic initiative with clients, you’ll find him out on a date with his wife, playing a game with his sons, jamming on his Taylor or Duesenberg, scuba diving in a spring, or leading a group at his church.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Brandon! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
One of the first companies we ever got to build a brand for was a start-up catering company that provided high-end boxed lunches. I remember the feeling I had when we finished the logo, shot all the photography, and launched her first website. Her brand launched with an industry-leading visual identity and user experience, even though she had literally just started her company. I remember the power I felt in that moment to be able to persuade the future of businesses through consulting, branding, and marketing.
Every time we work with a client, they give us “the keys to the kingdom” for their business. It is a humbling thing to realize that we have access to every digital asset our clients own and we can do whatever we want with those assets. The level of trust that comes with managing a company’s digital marketing is huge and the opportunity for influence is monstrous.
What drives me is using this power to help businesses see their unique vision realized and to see their personal and professional goals reached.
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?
People love and hate standard operating procedures. Typically these are born from mistakes. You mess up and think, “Hey, let’s never do this again! Here are four steps people should follow in the future to make sure this failure doesn’t ever happen again.”
As we’ve grown and the more Instagram accounts we began to manage, the more we realized the mobile-only, multiple-accounts-logged-into-the-same-device-setup wasn’t going to work for very long.
Once, when we were serving a middle-aged, local politician, I remember when a team member accidentally posted several Instagram stories to the politician’s account of a raging Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness concert. At least we were helping him reach Millenials!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’m grateful for the increasing number of businesses and agencies that have a powerful and intentional corporate culture, but we have something truly special at PHOS.
Organizations that have intentional cultures always have a set of established and documented core values. They typically print them on t-shirts, plaster them on the wall, and list them on their marketing collateral.
We’ve never done any of those things at PHOS.
Instead, we celebrate them together. Regularly. Picture this: you’re in a weekly team meeting and before you get into any of your to-dos or weekly reports, you verbally affirm each person on your team in meaningful and thoughtful ways about very specific things that have done the past week that demonstrate your company’s core values.
During every team meeting, this is a powerful moment (it takes 10–20 minutes) where I see our culture most on display and sense the real effect this has on creating a genuinely distinct organization.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We only work with companies we believe in, but we regularly get to work with companies that are doing something legitimately remarkable.
We recently kicked off an engagement with a company that is helping paraplegic, wheelchair-bound individuals, not only use their legs, but work out their muscles and build strength into parts of their body they cannot use. Wow.
I asked the client in a kickoff meeting, “If your brand was a single photo, what would it be?” He described an individual seated on their product, using the device, and their mom sitting behind them with a smile on their face and tears in their eyes as they looked upon their loved ones using their legs for the first time in twenty+ years.
Let’s just say the people in this imaginary photo weren’t the only ones with tears in their eyes as we spoke. These are true world-changers.
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 is storytelling with simplicity. It’s attractive, inspiring visual and verbal identities that capture a client’s head and heart.
Advertising is someone standing on the side of the road, waving a big colorful sign, and shouting, “Look at me! I’m really important!”
Branding is a long-term, people-centered growth strategy, a 401(k) growth plan that says, “If I’m faithful, I’ll have what I need later.”
Advertising is the short-term, lotto-style growth strategy that puts a dollar into the slot machine, pulls the handle, and hopes to win at least another dollar.
A good friend of mine, Jim Harrison, put it this way recently, “Marketing as we know it is in crisis, and all but the most sophisticated brands are blithely unaware that the money they’ve been budgeting for traditional MarCom activity needs to be reconsidered and mostly reallocated. Many leading experts and forecasters are already saying what the big brands started figuring out 3+ years ago: brand experiences are the new marketing. Organizations that are still prioritizing brute force marketing over building stronger brand experiences — or worse, those who don’t see a critical link between the two activities — are already behind the curve and are facing a long, hard struggle to grow their brands.”
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?
People don’t trust ads. That’s why Google changed the AdWords identifier on the search results page from a filled green rectangle (right next to each ad) to an unfilled green rectangle. It stood out too much. They didn’t want people to know it was an ad.
People are crazy suspicious, especially online. You don’t get to shake someone’s hand online. You don’t get to smile at someone as they walk in the door and ask them if they want to sample your hand-crafted lattes. You get a few seconds (usually less) to present a brand, a message, a value proposition, and a story that makes a person think, “this is different… in a good way.”
Building a brand is the essence of building trust with your clients. We don’t trust brand-less businesses. We think that robots, Russians, or rogue international computer hackers are probably behind this website, Facebook profile, or Instagram account that we’re looking at. A consistent, compelling brand identity built on people-focused, value-centered visuals and messaging is how we overcome buyer suspicion, develop trust, and generate success online.
Ads will help you force a message into someone’s hands and can help offset the amount of time it takes to develop organic growth, but the focus of every business should be on creating sustainable, long-term success built on significant brand-focused campaigns.
Can you share 5 strategies that a small company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
Be Sensitive About Information Asymmetry
Be careful of the assumptions you make about what your prospective clients know and understand about your product or service. Without third-party feedback that helps you see this gap, it can be really tempting to overestimate the amount of information you think your prospective clients will come to you with regarding what you do.
The longer you own a business or operate within a business, the more you can become jaded to the power of what you do. When we ask businesses, “What makes you unique?” We sometimes get shrugs or basic, obvious things that are not actually unique. But then we ask them to tell us their best client story.
That question can light up a room. That’s when passion comes out. That’s when key information and truly unique things surface in our discovery.
At that point, when we tell a client, “Yo, that’s awesome! People need to hear that!” We get a, “Well, we don’t need to say that, people already know that or expect that.”
No! Be sensitive to the fact that you know more than your customers do and that you may need to seek unbiased consultation to determine where those points of asymmetry need to be addressed in your brand messaging.
Complement Your Existing Customer Experience
If your brand is to be trusted online, your digital customer experience ought to mirror your brand’s non-digital tone, culture, processes, and sentiment.
We have worked with a local grocer in our city for many years. When we first onboarded with them, we identified a key brand challenge that our campaign was going to have to face. Though the brand has an incredible reputation, our visual brand system needed to realistically display the actual customer experience inside the store: small aisles, dim lighting, and an overall classic, older aesthetic.
We couldn’t make this company look like Publix, Whole Foods, or Fresh Market. If a customer expected that kind of experience and they walked into the store, they wouldn’t trust the brand. The difference between what the customer expects and what they receive will either drive brand loyalty or brand distrust.
Market your brand with integrity (i.e. who you actually are) and you’ll build raving fans.
Stop Using Stock Photography
Just don’t. Explain your brand to a local photographer and let them collect a moodboard full of photography that’s on-brand and use those consistently throughout your brand.
People don’t trust brands bloated with stock photography. They feel corporate, disingenuous, and cheesy. They rarely include any level of storytelling and force cliche imagery into your brand. A picture of a middle-aged white person smiling with a hardhat on is a bad photo for your construction services page. Just don’t.
If you must use stock photography, find the sites that have candid, inclusive photos that can give your brand personality, depth, and a unique image.
Wrap Content Around People
So much of inbound marketing is driven by content. At PHOS, we love to wrap the content we create around people, not just keywords.
Consider how your content calendar could be driven by your customers. We love to blog about our FAQs. If your customers ask you a question, write an article about that. Chances are, someone else you want to talk to is asking the exact same question and you’ll get to speak to them as well.
Your social strategy, your email strategy, your blogging strategy, and your ad strategy should all include content and verbiage that your clients use. Put their words back in front of them and people will feel like you’re reading their minds. This level of connection is powerful and can seriously increase conversion rates.
Surprise and Delight
I think brands usually try to start here and I think this is a big mistake. We try to be really creative with our branding so people will love us.
Honestly, if you do the four things above really well, you’ll be better than 80% of your competitors and surprise and delight just tends to be the icing on the cake.
At the same time, if you can come up with creative ways to surprise and delight your people, you’ll go from great to memorable and memorable brands are shared brands. They create moments that people enjoy telling others about.
We love having fun 404 pages on the sites we build (these are the pages a server throws if you go to a page that doesn’t exist). If you fail, you might as well fail well. Some examples:
A veterinary company with a picture of a screaming cat that says, “You’ve got to be kitten me.”
A pump repair company with a dripping well that says, “Looks like the well’s run dry!”
A lawn maintenance company with a picture of a lawnmower on fire.
Have a fun team page with rollover headshots that show off your brand’s personality.
If you have a huge site with a long loading time, have a loading animation that makes people laugh while they wait.
Create a funny unsubscribe page if someone unsubscribes from your newsletter.
Have interactive elements on your page for when people scroll or hover over elements (don’t be busy, just do something subtle and unexpected).
Illegitimate companies and phishing websites don’t do these kind of things. Being a believable brand is about showing you care and that you’re thoughtful. Surprise and delight proves that to prospective clients.
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?
For the past year and a half, I have been studying the Ritz Carlton. Sure, they have amazing facilities and over-the-top customer service, but their brand embodies being believable and beloved. Customers walk in with super high expectations because they believe that they will be well taken care of while they are there.
The leadership team at the Ritz Carlton wrote a book titled The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience by Joseph Michelli. In the book, they describe the process of trying to get to “the top” in the hospitality industry. The journey to get there wasn’t what stood out to me. What really impressed me was the struggle they faced to stay at the top once they got there.
That’s the thing about a great brand, in the words of Boromir from Lord of the Rings, “One does not simply become a great brand, you must continue to be a great brand.”
Whatever your plan is to become a believable and beloved brand, make sure your strategies don’t stop once you get there.
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?
There are a few things that fit into this category for us:
How does the public talk about your brand? Think about branding in terms of public relations. You can persuade public opinion through brand strategy.
I remember when we worked for a public utility with a poor reputation related primarily to utility rates. They were doing a ton of cool things for the community, but all those things were overshadowed by any data that was released about rates.
On a weekly basis we measured their public perception through social listening, evaluating any public mentions as either positive towards the brand, negative towards the brand, or neutral. You can push this PR needle with brand-building campaigns.
We shouldn’t overlook the obvious: a beloved and trusted brand will be more engaging. No one clicks on spammy looking ads or engages with ad copy that contains grammatical or spelling mistakes. It doesn’t deserve our trust or attention.
On the other hand, beloved and trusted brand attract more engagement. As you invest in building your brand, watch the metrics that show increased engagement from increased, positive brand perception.
As we’ve sought to build our brand at PHOS, it always amazes me to see how many people share our posts.
Recently, we put out a post about a position we were hiring for. After 24 hours, the number of people who shared the post really struck me. The community believes in what we are doing. They support our cause. They fight for our success. That doesn’t happen without a beloved and trusted brand.
Our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is to have such support within our community, that if we were on the verge of closing, people would show up, banging on our door, trying to make sure we didn’t close because what we do is too valuable to the world.
A trusted and beloved brand is supported by the communities it serves.
As I mentioned before, building a brand is a long-term strategy. So, whereas advertising can be measured in shorter-term sales (depending on your sales cycle), your brand building strategies will need to be measured in longer-term cycles.
Let’s say you start a new advertising campaign and decide that you’ll measure its initial success after three months. If you start a significant brand-building campaign, you’ll want to be looking for initial results after three times that amount of time.
How has our reputation changed?
What increased level of community support have we experienced?
How has customer feedback shifted?
Patrick Lencioni is one of my favorite business authors of all time. He wrote this in Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding the Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty, “What clients want more than anything is to know that we’re more interested in helping them than we are in maintaining our revenue source.”
Investing in your brand proves that you believe that statement and will, in the end, drive the sales you need, it’ll just take longer than throwing money at every advertising opportunity that comes your way.
Over the years, understanding how a brand can shape and define company culture and employee engagement has been a powerful journey for me. If you’ve never seen this before, it’ll be difficult for you to believe that this can actually happen (especially if you’re the CFO of your company and you’re a “Bottom line only!” kind of person).
But, after consulting with hundreds of clients, I can say confidently that investing in your brand is a parallel effort to investing in your people and investing in your people will drive sales.
Team members talk about brands they believe in.
Salespeople sell more aggressively what they stand behind.
Leaders labor for brands they think are worth fighting for.
Your culture is a part of your brand, so investing in your people is investing in your brand (and vice versa). As you do so, measure employee engagement to see how it is served by your campaigns.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
At PHOS, we see social media as the day-to-day brand platform.
Your website allows you to distribute long-form content, provide case studies of your most successful work, generate landing pages, outline your process, and unpack your value.
Your social platforms allow you to share the daily, fun, inspiring, short-story-type content that demonstrates a very discernable portion of your brand’s personality.
Similarly, we enjoy marketing a business’ culture through two areas: the company’s team page or career portal and social media. Depending on the industry, your prospective clients care about your culture and what it feels like to do business with you. And with the competitive landscape that we currently operate within for talent, part of your brand strategy needs to be marketing your culture to prospective team members. Social media is the fireplace to build those strategic fires.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
One, don’t say “yes” to every opportunity. You don’t need it, your people don’t need it, and it’s just not worth it.
Two, what do you want your life to look like 3–5 years from now? How do you want to be spending your time? What do you want your work/life balance and health to look like? Importantly, what is preventing you from doing that right this moment? Whatever that is, start changing it right now or you’ll never get to where you want to be. Get to wherever your supposed to be on purpose.
Third, retreat to advance. Just this year I started being disciplined about blocking out either a half-day or full-day once a month to work offsite, turn off my notifications, and work on the business. People told me for years it was important and I didn’t believe them. I decide to listen this year and it has changed my life, my career, and my business. The level of focus, efficiency, and clarity is unsurpassed and is probably the most important thing I’ve done this year to avoid burnout. Just try it. You’ll thank me later.
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. :-)
Two and a half years ago I was at a Matthew West concert in Ocala and right before the intermission, he shared about the vision of an organization called Compassion International, a child sponsorship organization dedicated to the long-term development of children living in poverty around the world.
What resonated with me that evening was his cynicism towards organizations like this. People tell us all the time, “Give money to my super important organization!” And all we hear is, “Give money to this big black hole, I promise something good will get spit out the other side,” and we have no idea where the money goes.
To help change Matthew’s mind, Compassion flew him out to a help center on the other side of the world. When he arrived in the village, children ran up and jumped in his arms. The Compassion representative who was with him pointed at the children one by one and said, “You’re helping this kid (Carlos), and this kid (Junito), and this kid (Isabel) with the money you give.”
That night at the concert, the vision for PHOS and our impact changed. Over the next few months, we adopted a global mission to have every person on our team sponsoring a child through Compassion International. We now have 11 children that we sponsor as an organization (four of which people on our team personally sponsor after being moved by Compassion’s impact and fiscal responsibility).
A deep joy in my leadership is helping our team, executive leaders, and organizations adopt a global mindset to help children and families escape poverty and sex trafficking around the world. Check out Compassion International at www.compassion.com.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“[Jesus] died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” 2 Corinthians 5:15
Eventually, we all ask, “What is the purpose of life?”
It took me too long to realize that the answer to these questions was not me.
Andy Stanley put it this way, “If you live for yourself, lead for yourself, in the end, you will have nothing to show for yourself but yourself.” For me, that’s a life wasted. I want to live my life for a much greater purpose.
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’ve already quoted him, but above all business leadership authors and speakers, there has consistently been one man that has had a gigantic influence on my leadership. He has helped me develop a people-minded vision for leadership, he has helped me deeply embrace PHOS’ why, and the things I’ve learned from him have translated as far down as my marriage, parenting, and ministry.
Andy Stanley, if you want to have lunch together, let me know and I’ll get it booked. I already have a list of questions on my phone prepared, just in case.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.