John B. Johnson of ‘a small studio’: Five Things You Need To Build A Trusted And Beloved Brand

Fotis Georgiadis
Feb 28 · 10 min read

Culture creates authentic content consistently — Content, content, content. It is the only way to build a following and it is the only way to build a brand. Whether you are creating content for your clients or creating content to sell your product, the only way to create authentic content consistently is by building a strong culture around you. As a leader we hear things like surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, but if you surround yourself with people who are passionate about solving the same problem you are, you will create a powerful collective of voices and stories that can’t help but move mountains.

As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Johnson.

John Johnson is an Identity Architect — a term that comes from his experience as a student of architecture and the yearning to bridge the gap between people and the communities they belong. With the belief that everything starts with identity and understanding who you are, he created [a small studio], a brand identity and digital design agency. As an agency leader, John works with a collection of creatives to help impact-driven leaders understand their identity and translate them into powerful brands and digital products.

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

It all started when I received my Masters in Architecture and MBA. I always had a passion for creating spaces and designing experiences that caused people to interact with each other. After practicing architecture, I realized my passion was more specifically focused around community building rather than physical buildings. Immediately, I decided to leave architecture and built a tech startup that actually created more face-to-face interactions within the built environment. Although that startup ultimately failed, the one thing that I felt we did incredibly well was build a brand that people were able to get behind. This is when I realized that the brand we created wasn’t just a marketing tool, it was a reflection of who I was in the marketplace. This is when I realized that I was going to help others build brands and products that authentically represent who they are. My story comes full circle as I now call myself an Identity Architect.

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?

The first thing I learned building a small studio was when to say no because when you are starting, everything sounds fun to work on. A few years ago, I engaged a client to produce a marketing campaign for their co-working space. They came to me specifically and said, “We need you to help us be creative!” How could I say no to that?

My team and I came up with a campaign and they loved it. However, because we never did a project like this I had no idea what was in store. I made many mistakes but just to name a few; I underbid the project, I underestimated the project, and I did not staff appropriately. These mistakes led me to managing the project, writing the script, directing the production, acting in the videos, handling wardrobe and extras, and monitoring the campaign itself. I learned so much from the experience and have no regrets at all. In the words of the late Bob Ross, “We don’t make mistakes, we only have happy accidents.” See the end product here.

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

I believe there are several things that set us apart. One is our belief that everything great starts small and starts with identity. To realize your gifts and use them to bring peace to peoples’ lives — no matter if it’s a large organization or a solo entrepreneur — you have to understand who you are at your core and your deeper purpose. That’s the premise from which we begin our branding process. The other is, we believe the world of design — whether that’s product design, brand design, experience design — has the power to shape societal behaviors and norms, and as such, has a tremendous responsibility to do so ethically and thoughtfully. To achieve that, it has to become more accessible and that requires diversity in perspective. We are focused on trying to create a design community that is more accessible and diverse. Not just in terms of race or gender, but more importantly, diversity in experiences. We do this through our hiring practices and partnering with organizations that are on a mission to do the same.

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

While every project we take on is exciting and impact driven, one that has really imprinted on me was a project called Dose.

Following the shooting of George Floyd in June 2020, we assembled a team of design-thinking and psychology experts to brainstorm ideas to amplify the black experience. That’s when Dose, a concept that originated from psychology scholar Dr. Julia Garcia, was born. It has become a powerful platform for people to share their own experiences and learn from others about what it means to be black. From concept to design, Dose was launched in five days. The response was overwhelming, with people from every corner of society sharing their experiences and learning from each other. This project has become a demonstration of the power one seemingly small idea can have and the impact an impassioned group is capable of making when they’re driven by purpose.

In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

I think of brand as the foundation — the identity — of an organization, where products are the gifts it brings to the world. However, I believe these two can’t be decoupled. An organization’s products, marketing messages, approach to customer engagement and experience, are all extensions of the brand or the core essence of the organization. They shouldn’t be thought of as existing in silos or vacuums.

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?

Spending the time and energy to build a brand is foundational. It has the power to help guide an organization’s mission and vision, rally a team around a deeper purpose, and become the foundation for which products and services are developed. A good brand, or identity, can truly become an organization’s North Star. It’s also how stakeholders connect to brands.

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. Everything starts with identity — We all know it is not easy building a brand. It is even harder building a trusted and believable brand. Simply put this translates to an authentic brand. By first understanding your identity you create an authentic foundation to build on.

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?

There are so many brands that do this well, each in their own way. One that comes to mind is REI. They are a shining example of a brand that puts people first and stays true to their mission and vision even if it means taking a financial hit. For example, while most other retailers offer extended hours and deep discounts to attract shoppers on Black Friday, REI has made it a practice since 2015 to close their stores down on that day, instead urging people to get outdoors. They’re also one of the few that have chosen to operate as a member-owned co-operative. In their words, this allows them to “focus on shared values, not share values.” That’s powerful.

The biggest lesson to learn here and replicate is how REI used their business structure as a member-owned co-operative as a way to operate with integrity. The decisions we make early on in our careers can serve as an asset to our values or a hindrance. Make those early decisions wisely.

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?

We measure success by impact — how deeply a brand is able to positively impact the community it serves and engage its stakeholders. Those stakeholders are not just customers, but also their employees, partners, vendors, etc.

For us, it’s to what degree we’re using our gifts to bring peace to peoples’ lives.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

This always depends on the brand and if that channel is the most appropriate for their audience. For us, we see video as a powerful tool for connecting on a deeper level with our stakeholders.

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

Take time for creative endeavors. They’re soul-filling and enriching. This will look different for everyone. It could be cooking, reading, writing, painting, drawing, going to a museum, etc. As business leaders, we spend so much of our time in our logical left brains, stimulating the right brain can be a powerfully energizing activity.

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. :-)

My goal is to create a platform that empowers people to identify and use their unique gifts to bring peace to peoples’ lives. I believe we all have unique gifts that if unlocked can be used in powerful ways to positively impact the world. So many individuals struggle to understand their identity and therefore their gifts. I want to build the platform that helps them get to the root of their identity and take action on it.

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

One of my favorites is from Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”

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?

I have two. One is Lebron James, but not for the reason you think. I was born and raised in Cleveland, OH and I will be moving back soon to build a home, my family, my business, and integrate myself into the city. I know he would have a priceless perspective of the city and I would love to have his perspective as I attempt to impact my hometown positively.

The other is Duane Johnson. He is by far one of the most impressive people I have watched from afar since I was a child. From wrestling (when that was popular) to his unbelievable workout regimen to watching him in the movies. Yes, he is an entertainer but he is also the most lovable/popular guy in the world! You can learn a lot from someone like that when you are attempting to make the world a better place.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

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