A peek behind the process: Living In Your Brand House
Advertising agencies love to hide huge fees behind their mysterious brand strategy process. But we’re not an ad agency, we just spent our careers slaving away at them. So we’re going to give you a transparent peek behind the process at MGC Solutions to show you how we form marketing strategies for startups and small businesses of all types.
One thing we will copy agencies on is the perfectly logical practice of protecting our clients’ privacy. No actual clients were harmed in the writing of this article. We’ll be using generic examples and occasional real-life anecdotes without naming names. If done right, your brand house is something your internal team and marketing partners should see – not the public and certainly not your competitors.
Why a brand house?
Your brand house not only gives your company a strong mission statement, but it’s supported by the pillars that are your core values. Every single piece of communications in your advertising, marketing, sales, customer service, employee relations, investor outreach should filter through your brand house. When you have a great strategy that’s articulated in a brand house, the copy can almost write itself. (Thankfully it doesn’t quite, otherwise all our assignments would end here.)
The overarching brand mission
Your overarching brand mission should be the highest possible calling you can think of for your company. For example, Nike’s mission statement is “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.” The legendary University of Oregon track and field coach, and Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman said, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” By both having a lofty goal for athletes and very broadly defining what an athlete actually was, the brand was able to create inspirational work for a whole generation.
Obviously your overarching brand statement is not something that can be taken lightly and it may evolve over time. Coming up with a great one takes time, and lots and lots of money paid to your marketing partner. Just kidding. But all joking aside, having an outside perspective, whether it’s an agency or consultant who has helped brands create dozens of these will certainly make the process more efficient.
There’s also a lot of research to do into both your consumer and the competition to understand how you might want to position yourself to meet customer needs while differentiating yourself. If everyone has the same mission statement, then you’re still at zero sum.
In highly competitive markets, your overarching brand statement is what will set you apart from the crowd and have you well on your way to having a true brand people can get behind.
MGC's overarching brand mission
When writing your overarching brand mission, don’t just think in terms of what your customers want to hear – what is it about working on your business that makes you get up in the morning? Why are you passionate about your company being the best? What is it you enjoy most about working on your business?
I started MGC Solutions out of two frustrations: One was generally how inefficient advertising agencies were and how their business model was infrequently aligned with the best interests of their clients. The other was that I loved working on new, innovative and exciting brands, but often companies like this were “shooting stars.” They’d start tiny, below an agency’s radar and become a multimillion dollar brand in a blink – often through investor funding, but sometimes on their own.
I was always involved in entrepreneurial scenes, but the agencies I worked with would always reject these potential clients as “too small” to feed their inefficient behemoths. I’d watch in frustration as these startups not only grew up to become real clients, but as our agency was not considered because we didn’t engage them early on, when they really could have used our help.
In stripping away a lot of the costs of an agency in founding MGC: Expensive offices, full time staff, redundant people and systems – I was able to create a company that was able to engage small clients with potential before they blew up.
In the process of working with a few dozen companies since we’ve started, we realized our value came when the founder was stuck (hence our slogan “Unstick Your Marketing.) Often, founders already had mapped out a logical route to customer acquisition. But perhaps their ideas might not scale, are too narrowly or widely focused, or are missing some element that would get them to the next level. Possibly they created a marketing team and realized you can’t throw a bunch of parts on the floor and call it an engine. Whatever it was, we were the ones to come in and sort everything out, and in doing so we were unlocking their true potential.
We also wanted to work with true innovators – companies that not only disrupted tired old industries, but cared about the future they were architecting.
Our overarching brand mission to “Unlock the potential of the next generation of great brands” comes from the very core of why we were founded. And it shows up everywhere in our company:
New business: While every company needs to be revenue focused and bring in projects to keep the Keurig K-cups coming in, our ideal customer profile is centered around attracting clients who support our mission. Having a focus on who you’re for or not makes avoiding painful clients and getting ones that inspire you so much easier.
Content and social media strategy: If we’re going to write something, what should it be about? As a marketing strategy agency, we wanted to always stay “high level” – feeling that there’s enough “top 10 ways to improve your SEO” articles out there on other agency blogs cluttering the content marketing space. Now we can focus just on how to unlock a brand’s potential, which includes all the various ways brands can get stuck.
Recruiting: Having world-class talent is the lifeblood of our company — especially people who can task-switch quickly between multiple roles like they would in a startup vs. a bunch of highly-specialized agency staff. Having a global, distributed team who understands what we’re about and why we do what we do is how we build culture in a place where there’s no water cooler for everyone to stand around.
Working with clients: Every action we take on behalf of a client is critical: we’re using their time and resources – so we must measure our actions against whether or not we’re delivering our promise at all times.
The brand statement
If your overarching brand mission is way up in the clouds, your brand statement forms the roof of your brand house. It’s the integrity-driven statement which protects your brand from question of its mission. The brand statement is more down-to-earth and tangible – giving people a reason to believe that your company is the one uniquely suited to its mission.
MGC's brand statement
Going back to some of the key elements of the overarching brand mission, we had to ask ourselves:
- What are we doing that’s different?
- What’s the result of what we do for our customer?
- How are we different?
We create scalable marketing programs. It’s important to keep all these statements as short as possible – so scalable marketing programs is the most succinct way to describe what we’re doing that’s different. The alternate choices for a customer from MGC is either an agency, internal team or a mess of freelancers that have to be managed. The biggest issue for our clients is these solutions often stagnate through a combination of inefficiency and apathy, and these are both adjectives you rarely hear when it comes to blowing up big and having scale.
What’s the result of what we do for our customers ? When a company has a well-architected strategy driven by a value-driven mission statement, they have a sense of purpose in everything they do. And when that happens right, the best word to describe it is “energized.” Everyone from the CEO to the employees to the customers knows what the company stands for, and better yet, what’s the next great thing to accomplish.
How are we different?
At my last agency I was approached by a young, extremely reclusive Russian colleague who was a software developer. We became friendly being the two worst ping pong players in the company and one day she came over to my desk and said in her demanding tone “Marc, you will come to me to Agile Development Meetup Group. You will protect me from anyone who wants to talk to me.”
Now, as a person with a creative and strategy background, listening to a bunch of programmers talk about coding wasn’t really at the top of my list. But she’s my friend and I figure at least maybe she’ll let me win a few games of ping pong.
While I had known what Agile Development was, to hear it described in such detail was eye opening. The leaders of the group described things like the difficulty of being a developer in a company not led by one, where what they did was not valued. How in order to appease their boss’ need for deadlines, they’d create “cowboy code” which were essentially short term fixes that would eventually create “debts” that needed to be paid later when they inevitably led to bugs, sometimes impossible to track down months later. Often it meant having to spend thousands or millions of dollars rebuilding an entire system when having a true plan that was flexible would have led to proper guardrails being put in place.
“My gosh,” I thought. “This sounds like all the problems we have in marketing.” Clients have myopic, short term goals. They forget to build their brand long term, and one day all the short term fixes plateau and the long term work like branding and SEO haven’t been done and the whole thing collapses.
Startups use Agile Development to build their Minimum Viable Product and get it to market as quickly as possible. But marketing is still stuck in a “it’s a magical, wondrous closed-door proprietary process that’s expensive and time consuming.”
Top that off with the fact that many startups fail because of not having a market fit, or a proper marketing plan, I realized that we needed to figure out how to build Minimum Viable Marketing – at the speed of startups.
Therefore, “We create scalable marketing programs to energize growing companies at the speed of a startup” supports everything we do on a more tangible level underneath our overarching brand mission.
The brand pillars
Your brand pillars are the support structure of your brand house. If you could boil down the structural integrity of your company to three words, what would they be? We help brands lead exercises that helps them come up with these words – often with the help of key stakeholders and employees. Again, what you decide your brand pillars are will be a huge influence on all of the communications your company creates.
MGC's brand pillars
Small clients don’t have time to mess around with pedestrian creative and tired old tactics. Creating breakthrough ideas can be somewhat of a cliche, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to achieve such a lofty goal in everything we do. Personally, I’ve been working in marketing for two decades – if I’m not trying to do breakthrough work, I’m going to bored. And if I’m bored, then I’m not going to want to get up in the morning. Again, the brand house isn’t just about your customers, it’s about driving your own motivation and success.
This is the second time I’ve created a brand house for an agency and the first time for my own. The last time I created one, “Courage” was our first word. Why? Because before we could do a breakthrough idea, we had to give the client the courage to move forward with one. This is a symptom of working for a big corporation, where fear is embedded in the DNA.
When I founded MGC, I decided I most certainly did not want to attract clients who needed me to provide them courage. If they were going to be hard to convince to do something that made them or their customers uncomfortable to do the most we can with the smallest amount of resources, then they were not for us. Again, in identifying an ideal customer profile, the most painful clients we’ve had is when they did not meet this ideal.
One of the biggest mistakes in version 1.0 of MGC was focusing too much of our marketing strategy positioning ourselves against how inefficient agencies were. While hiring an inefficient agency was certainly on our client’s radar for the coming months, they had not yet had the terrible experience of being burned by one. Rather, their pain point was either trying to do it all themselves or cobbling together teams and trying to manage increasing chaos with limited resources.
Therefore, our second pillar of “efficient” is about keeping the costs at a minimum for a growing company. We have no incentive to propose things that don’t work and waste budget because we’re often already getting the maximum our client can possibly afford. We just try to do the most with what we have, whatever that takes
Finally our third pillar is “flexible.” Going back to my story about agile software development, we start with a plan but we know we’re going to change it. If a client uses an agency, there’s often a very rigid plan, with monthly or quarterly reporting and small shifts. If they use their own team, they may slog through a bunch of random tasks that seem to be moving things forward, without really connecting them all together. For us, flexibility means we’re looking at results hourly and daily and adjusting on the fly.
The brand personality
Your brand personality is the foundation of your brand house, but also possibly the most flexible. It’s how you show up in your communications in terms of tone, look and feel. These personality traits should align with those of your key demographics and what they seek. It’s the common ground you’ll both share. For example, Harley Davidson is known for rebelliousness and promises revolution. They position themselves outside of the mainstream, and may value “shocking” content.
MGC's brand personality
We’re irreverent. If you’re going to be responsible for doing breakthrough work for your clients, you’d better have an irreverent personality. I used this as the core to my own personal brand, for example, when I wrote a column for the Austin-based business publication The American Genius in being not just snarky, but contrary to a lot of widely-held marketing beliefs.
We’re in charge: Everyone talks about leadership, but that’s more of a high level attribute. Being in charge means not just leading but taking control when no one else will or can. For example, instead of an approval process, we have a “permission process” where our clients let us release ads and communications on their behalf without a lot of involvement from them. Because the risks are minimal and the cost of inaction too great. So with everything, we detest inaction more than anything.
We’re transparent: This post is a perfect example of it. We wanted to write original content and they only way to do it is to give you a peek behind the scenes like no other agency can. For example, because we don’t have a large core team, we use freelancers and small companies to fulfill our work. Most big ad agencies do too, but under strict confidentiality white label agreements with their partners. As a consultant, I personally have email addresses and titles at half a dozen agencies, pretending to work for just their company. What you’re paying for with us is the high level thinking, the plan and the implementation of it. There’s no reason to hide behind expensive offices, full time salaries and use smoke and mirrors to pretend we’re something that we’re not. With this transparancy, we hopefully build the trust that leads to thinks like permission processes and irreverent work, because in the end, we’re all part of the same team if you know who everyone on the team actually is.
Building the brand house of your dreams
Hopefully taking you through the what a brand house is, its importance and how we came up with our own has inspired you to think about your own. As a marketing strategy firm, we specialize in helping brands just like yours go through this process every day.
Start thinking about what gets you up in the morning to work on your company – and what are those words that might form the pillars. And if you want help with the blueprints and construction, we’ll be happy to help.