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How Not To Choose A Brand Strategist

Sometimes, when I’m talking to a potential new client, I get a familiar request. I’m asked how much experience I’ve had working in their particular market niche. Not market sector, mind you, like healthcare or technology. Market niche, like scalpel design or cryptocurrency. Here’s what they don’t understand. It’s not like I’m going to seal myself into a hermitage for a couple of months and come back with a new brand for their company. Voila! No. Developing a brand strategy is a collaborative project and the client has to be a huge part of that collaboration. And if the client is a chiropractor (for instance), I wouldn’t ever have as much chiropractor experience as they do no matter how many chiropractors I may have branded before. It is the client’s responsibility to bring knowledge of their industry to the table. As a brand strategist, it is my responsibility to bring everything I know about branding. Working closely together, we get the best of both worlds and we’re bound to discover the most advantageous brand strategy for their business.

I once had the honor and pleasure of meeting Dick Huppertz, who was director of new business development for the great Saul Bass. Saul Bass & Associates was one of the most accomplished graphic design firms of the 50s-90s. He designed some of the most iconic logos of those years, many of which are still in use today. Bass was also a prolific designer of movie posters, title sequences and even storyboarded the famous shower sequence from Psycho. He’s the guy who convinced Hitchcock to film the scene in short, quick clips. If that wasn’t enough, Bass was also very much in demand for his packaging design. And it was a packaging project that Dick told me about.

In the early 80s, Bass had been invited to compete for a cereal packaging assignment. He and Dick were supremely confident going in, almost giddy. After all, they had designed many cereal packages in the past. In fact, they thought they probably had designed more cereal boxes than all the other competitors put together.

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In those days, portfolio reviews were done as slide shows. Saul and Dick flew to the client’s headquarters. They joined the client team in a darkened room. Slide after slide of cereal boxes were projected as Saul described the challenges and features of each one. But Dick began to feel uneasy. He noticed, even in the dark, that the client team was not responding positively.

There were no smiles and nods, which is what usually happened in a Saul Bass portfolio review. They were sitting there, grim-faced, a couple of them with arms folded.

When the presentation was over, the lights were brought back up. The leader of the client team spoke, “That was a very impressive presentation, Mr. Bass. But all those packages were for cold cereals. Our cereal is a hot cereal. Do you have any experience in packaging for hot cereals?” Dumbstruck, Saul and Dick had to admit they did not. They did not get the job.

But the real tragedy is that the cereal company did not get the benefit of one of the greatest designers of their generation. They really lost more than Saul and Dick did. Saul and Dick had no trouble staying busy.

The story Dick relayed is an important lesson in how not to choose a graphic designer. It’s not a good way to choose anybody. If you’re a basketball team that needs a center, but Michael Jordan is available in the draft, choose Michael Jordan. Some will object that Michael Jordan is not a center. Doesn’t matter. Choose the best basketball player in the world. Find a center in next year’s draft. If you have to, play Jordan at center for a year. Just get that guy on your team. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.

Excessive focus on niche experience is not the way to choose a branding strategist either. The wise CEO will look for a branding specialist with a wide array of experience. When you build teams, you want them to be diverse so you can benefit from cross-functional synergies. Likewise, you want the benefit of insights and skills that the branding expert may have picked up from other industries. That knowledge might prove to be game-changing when applied to your specific niche. Besides, when branding firms specialize in just one market niche, their work starts to look predictable and commoditized. You don’t want to look like just another in your field. You don’t even just want to be differentiated. You want to be distinctive. You want to stand out.

It’s important, too, to devote enough resources to do the job. That means money, of course, because your branding consultant will want to be paid. But it also means time. As CEO, you already have a million other things to do. But successful brand strategies are CEO-driven. You have to devote your time to the collaboration to make it successful. More to the point, you have to contribute your knowledge, your insights and your opinions. You have to take ownership of your brand.

A good branding consultant will not write a brand strategy for you. A good branding consultant will facilitate you writing your own brand strategy. When you collaborate with a brand strategist that has wide and varied experience, you get the best of your world and theirs. Success is practically guaranteed.


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