Why listening is the key to discovering your brand’s soul - in conversation with a brand strategist
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
I like to feature other professionals when I can, and I wanted to talk to a brand strategist about what they do so I could help small businesses understand it better. Here is my conversation with Vanessa Louis from STAND.
What is the thing that companies most commonly misunderstand about brand strategy?
They often miss the importance of brand strategy in terms of it truly being a foundational element of the organization. A brand isn’t just the logo or just the visual aspect of your business – it’s the soul and personality of your company. If you don’t have clarity and cohesion around that across the organization, it results in really inconsistent outcomes, experiences, and efforts. And that’s just not the way anyone wants to do business or representative of a company that other people want to do business with.
Brand has a direct link to success in all parts of the business, doesn’t it?
It really does, because it has a direct connection to the choices you make and the actions you take. I like to give the example of a company that sells children’s toys. If you think about it, you don’t want your team putting out serious marketing materials, do you? You don’t want to use language that’s technical and sophisticated. Equally, you don’t want someone in customer service that’s very serious and stoic. You don’t want to partner with manufacturers that allow child labor. It doesn’t give the right impression, but more importantly, it doesn’t align what you say with what you do. That’s a dealbreaker for most people. If toys are the product, the overall brand promise and experience should be a larger part of the fun that the product is meant to provide. Every aspect of your business needs to uphold that fun spirit and energy that the product was designed to create. In this way, the brand isn’t just about the product, it’s about everything that surrounds the product as well.
If the company’s brand impacts all parts of an organization, what implications does that have for communicating the brand among employees?
It means that rolling out a brand strategy to everyone in an organization is critical. Anyone can work for a company and not care about the work. However, I would imagine that a lot of business owners want employees on their team who truly believe in their work, rather than those that just clock in and out. But if employees don’t understand why the company exists; why everyone is doing what they’re doing; and why this must be reflected in how the company shows up in the world, then it’s very hard for employees to bring that to life.
Once a brand has been defined, it has to be rolled out in a meaningful way to the whole company. Otherwise, the brand just becomes a set of slogans that you put on the wall that nobody pays attention to the day after it goes up. And then it gets lost and everyone is just doing their own thing. It’s vital that there is cohesion in the words and the actions, and everyone needs to be bought into it in order to breathe life into it. But you have to lead the horse to water and continue leading by example; leaders at every level can’t expect their teams to pick it up, understand it, and believe in it in a vacuum – they have to be the example and lead the charge so that this promise – this way of operating – can become second nature to everyone involved.
What would you say is the most important part of your work?
For me, the most important part of my work is just listening. It’s not my job to tell anyone who they should be. If I do that, then the danger is that the client doesn’t truly feel like they own the finished result and can truly breathe life into it. And if my assumptions of who they should be are wrong, then I’m certainly not adding any value, I’m just taking their money. And that’s no way to do business or build trust in partnerships.
It’s really important to me to listen and hear what’s being said and what’s not being said so that I can help those stakeholders begin to define and articulate what their brand soul is. I’m there to pull the pieces together, but the pieces are theirs – I’m not creating anything out of thin air, I'm not doing a magic show, everything that I do is based on the inputs from my clients. So it’s vital that I do the work to gather meaningful inputs so I can help yield the kind of outputs that actually matter.
In terms of what’s most important for my clients, I think it’s the alignment within the organization that results from everyone understanding why they’re there. I see a lot of companies with multiple groups or divisions and each one thinks they’re unique and can’t possibly have the same brand as the others. While the details in the content of what they're sharing might be different, the overarching theme and the overarching story are the same. It has to be the same. Whether one group is making gadgets, and another group is making doodads, they're both there to create something that solves a problem for their clients. That's the reason they're there and that's the brand story that all must align with.
I often see clients in discovery sessions and strategy presentations realize that even though they’re from different departments, they’re one team and have one dream. And that’s rewarding because that alignment creates more cohesion between employees when teams realize that they’re fighting the same fight.
Vanessa is one of my favorite people to work with, to find out about some of my other people, check out my team page.
Who is your ideal client to work with?
My ideal client is someone who is sophisticated enough to understand the value of a solid brand foundation and has the resources to dedicate to those efforts. And by resources, I mean that they have a team that can contribute to the conversation and has the time to implement the brand strategy that comes out of it.
Where it doesn’t work so well is in the case of small businesses that get it but don’t have the time or the team to make it work. It isn’t something you go into lightly. You have to be all in and you need buy-in across the board. So, it won’t succeed if the CEO doesn’t believe in the work, and it can’t be just the CEO that believes in the work either, for example.
What should companies look for in a brand strategist?
Your brand strategist should be someone you feel a connection with and can be comfortable with. Developing a brand strategy is hard work and the process requires vulnerability and some uncomfortable conversations, talking about things in a way you maybe haven’t before.
Also, you want someone whose goal is to listen and draw out the information, rather than tell you what your business is about. You want someone whose goal is to hear and help, not to dictate and disappear. You want someone who's going to take a bespoke approach to their time with you and help you find your identity rather than follow a cookie-cutter style of work and leave you with the same brand story as everyone else because of it.
That listening piece is really what I consider to be my special sauce. I work hard to hear what you're saying and what you're not saying. And while I'm not going to come in and tell you who you are, I will come in and push you. Because sometimes clients will be very opinionated about what they think they should be, and as they should because it's their business. But I'm going to challenge you on some assumptions and beliefs and long-held approaches. I’m not going to push you outside of your comfort zone because if it's not comfortable to you, it's not sustainable, and you're not going to believe in it and buy into it and keep doing it. Rather, I am going to push you to be really honest with yourself and your team for the betterment of the business and the brand. I try to give clients the space to be brave and maybe challenge the status quo, maybe challenge each other, maybe challenge the way that you've done things since the business started. It’s in this digging deep under the surface where the magic lives. I’m here to help people find that.
Vanessa is an infinitely curious strategist and relentlessly creative problem solver with fifteen years of experience in brand planning and activation strategy.
She prides herself in being a collaborative communicator skilled at connecting people, products, and places to build brands that truly inspire (and drive revenue because let’s be honest, that’s important, too).
She loves helping brands not only find their “Why” but tell their stories in a way that highlights their unique authenticity while also helping people see them in a new light.