Building brands that promote advocacy

Nothing is more powerful (or cost-effective) than word-of-mouth brand promotion. When customers love your product, service or company, they will tell anyone who will listen about the wonderful experience they have had–in essence becoming an advocate for your brand. One need only look at the type of relationships that Apple, Nordstroms, and even Starbucks have created with their customers, who are loyal fans who are, well, fanatical about each of those brands. But how do you create this type of relationship with your customers?

 

While it’s true that the examples above are more consumer-oriented, it is possible to create strong brands around business-to-business products or services that will generate the same type of “buzz” and excitement. To accomplish this goal, build a brand experience that accentuates the core values of the organization and fulfills the promise of your product or service. In other words, practice what you preach. For example, does your product or service deliver on the promises it makes by meeting the needs of the customer in a user-friendly and compelling manner? Is it perceived to be of a fair value for the time and money spent? Companies that do what they say and deliver on what they promise are able to create loyal customers who will become advocates for their brand.

 

Not only will the quality of service or products build an experience, every aspect of the sales process can also support and enhance a brand image and garner customer advocacy. Throughout every contact and touch-point is an opportunity to build a relationship with the customer, and their perception of the experience of your brand. This includes PowerPoint presentations, leave-behind sales sheets, brochures, sales and media kits, as well as a highly customized proposal. It is important that all of these materials have a consistent message and professional look and feel. Simply having a compelling business model with a great web presence is not enough to drive sales and increase profits—support collateral (in some form or another) is necessary to enhance any online initiative.

 

Building a positive perception for a brand that will in turn create brand advocates sometimes requires good public relations and community involvement. Simply placing Yellow Pages ad will not do–besides being incredibly expensive (sometimes costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars annually), they are often highly ineffective at creating awareness of the company, its products or services. Contributing to charities or creating a philanthropic event around a noble cause, as well as sponsoring other local events helps build positive perception about the organization within the community. There is a reason why companies pay millions of dollars for naming rights to entertainment and sports arenas and stadiums: positive experiences in those settings, as well as support of the local team will always translate into greater customer affinity for a brand.

 

Although a challenging task, creating excitement and fondness for a brand does not require lots of money. By providing an essential product or service, doing the best job possible, and making sure that the needs of the customer are met on time and within budget, even business-to-business brands can leverage word-of-mouth promotion by harnessing the power of brand advocates who won’t hesitate to refer them to their friends, relatives and neighbors.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy

So you’ve built a brand. Now what?

Building effective and valuable brands involves more than just creating a logo, business cards, and a web site or brochure. There is a common misconception that a well-designed logo, “new and improved” packaging, or a sleek new customer experience on the web will magically increase sales and there will be an immediate impact to the company’s bottom line. The truth of the matter is that while these elements will help a business reach their sales and revenue goals over time, strong brands must be continually promoted in order to stay relevant in the eyes of customers. To effectively leverage your brand, it is important to keep in mind the 4 M’s of brand promotion:Market, Message, Method, and Measurement.

 

First, know your market.

Many companies struggle to define their target audience beyond typical demographics. Even worse, some think that everyone is within their target market (after all, who wouldn’t love their product or service?). Instead of a shotgun approach to promoting your brand, focus on your organization’s core competencies by determining what resonates with and excites the customer about the brand. Be sensitive to their needs, their desires and their buying behaviors.

 

Second, make sure your message is relevant and consistent.

Once the target market has been identified, communicate a message that stays true to the brand’s promise and positioning. “Practicing what you preach” is an old adage that is very appropriate to brand promotion—nothing will make your product or service less authentic than saying one thing and doing another. As an organization grows and expands its promotional efforts across a variety of media and channels, this can become a challenge for even the savviest of marketers.

 

Next, choose the appropriate method of promotion.

Many think that promoting a brand involves only advertising or marketing, or a combination of the two. In actuality, there are many, more effective ways to communicate messages to your audience–besides traditional media such as print, radio and television; Public Relations, Internet and Event marketing, as well as Social Media are some examples of cost-effective tactics for improving audience perception of an organization’s product or services. Carefully consider the customer’s psychographics and preferences for receiving information when selecting methods of promoting the brand—if they are younger and technophiles, an Internet campaign might be most appropriate. If they are older, more mature, then more traditional ad placement might work best. The important thing is to remember to stay on message and portray a positive image of the company’s products or services while overcoming any misconceptions that people might have of the brand.

 

Finally, measure how you are promoting your brand’s image.

It is impossible to know if something is working without having some way of monitoring the outcome—and measuring the effectiveness of a promotional campaign does not have to be very elaborate or complicated. Simply having a “call to action” on a printed piece of collateral allows for track-ability, whether it is a phone number to call or a web site to visit. Creating a PURL (personalized web address) for recipients of a direct mail piece allows for unique visitors to that web page be tracked using Google® Analytics. And e-mail distribution programs such as MailerMailer, Exact Target or Constant Contact will automatically track the open and click-through rates of an email newsletter or campaign. Each of these unique methods are straightforward ways of measuring brand promotion, allowing companies to determine what message is resonating with the market, and to develop new ways to creating more highly targeted campaigns to the most profitable customers.

 

In closing, brands must continually be nurtured through promotional efforts in order to remain at the top of customers’ minds. By looking through the lenses of the target market, the messages that will be most relevant to them, the methods of delivery of that message, and the ability to measure its effectiveness, organizations will create truly valuable brands that will help them realize their sales and revenue goals.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy

Family Leisure (a.k.a. Watson’s)

Family Leisure Logo

 

This past February, Watson’s, the largest leisure product retailer in the United States (according to the company’s web site) launched a re-brand to reflect the changing focus of their products and service by becoming the Family Leisure brand—“Where fun and family come together!” Since the company sells more than pools, spas and tanning beds, (including pool tables, game tables, bar stools, bars, and patio furniture), the new name is meant to suggest an expanding line of leisure products. However, not only is the new name overly generic and uninspiring, it seems entirely unnecessary.

 

Over the last 15 years, Watson’s had built valuable brand equity through its distinct, albeit annoying, television commercials. Featuring Jennifer “the Watson’s Girl” Foley and her step-father as spokespeople for the brand, the immediately recognizable and highly memorable spots always closed with the tagline “That’s Watson’s!” The old Watson’s brand was simple, unique and memorable, consisting of a hand-rendered script set beside a “W” within a red circle. The new brand, “Family Leisure” is set in Cooper Black type, a font that was over-used on packaged goods in the late 1970s and 80s, and immediately dates the mark. It is neither forward-thinking or nostalgic in execution.

 

Consistency is lacking in the launch of the new brand, and the messages that are being communicated are contradictory: in explaining the name change, the website touts that the products it sells are for a “family-focused leisure lifestyle,” yet a few paragraphs later describes the company as “a toy store for adults.” When I think of an adult toy store, I think of something entirely different than a wholesome family environment. Additionally, not all Watson’s stores have transitioned to the new brand, and there are still two web domains users can go to online, Watsons.com and FamilyLeisure.com. Both utilize the same cold and impersonal look and feel. In some cases, the red “W” mark is used with the new store name (as seen in this 4th of July promotion).

 

So what should Watson’s have done to help communicate the shifting focus of their product line? What was needed was more of an evolution of their existing brand, not a complete revolution and name change. Most retail brands change their look every couple of years in order to stay relevant in the minds of consumers. Perhaps a simple change in Watson’s tagline or a revitalized positioning statement would have been a better course of action. Even “Watson’s Family Leisure” would have been a better change to make.

 

Only time will tell if the new Family Leisure will be a successful brand, or if it will fade into obscurity. Watson’s was at least memorable and unique. This name change has essentially forced the 40 year-old company to start over in terms of brand equity and customer perception.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/creative director

The inward value of a brand

When most people think of branding, they instinctively focus on the outward “package” of the brand: the logo, the web site, the marketing collateral (or lack thereof), and the value they provide and impact they make on the target market. In doing so, organizations try to determine the true needs and desires of the customer, perceptions of the brand, and what message is going to resonate.

 

There is, however, another key stakeholder of a brand that is equally important yet often ignored— the employee. After all, the salesperson, the cashier, the delivery driver, and the executive of a company all must interact with customers, and therefore all must know the story of the brand if they are to communicate its core values and a consistent message to the outside world. As such, brands are valuable to the internal stakeholders of an organization for the following reasons: they reinforce the company’s purpose, ignite passion in workers, and are a source of pride and overall job satisfaction.

 

Brands instill in employees a sense of purpose.

 

Organizations will spend countless hours, hold dozens of “brainstorming sessions” and spend thousands of dollars developing “Mission-” or “Vision Statements” that ultimately can become verbal representations of a brand’s essence. Naturally, because of the time and money invested, these companies will plaster these statements anywhere they can, from the home page of the company web site to the back of business cards, and everywhere in between. Unfortunately, they are not meant for external audiences or customers to see; they are relevant in helping to establish a purpose behind the brand by giving employees a reason to care about their work, their employer, and most importantly, the customer.

 

Brands ignite passion in employees.

 

Everyone wants to feel good about what they do in life, both personally and professionally, and that in some way they are “making a difference” within the world. This is the reason why many people today are flocking to not-for-profits in search of work that is meaningful to them. While most businesses are in business to make money, ultimately a company is trying to fill a market need of some sort, whether that is through a product or service. If implemented correctly, brands have the ability to communicate to employees that their goal is not only to make money, but to make a difference—helping employees get enthusiastic about their organizations and believe in the value they provide. The more they believe in the brand, the more likely they will go above and beyond expectations to help customers, thus furthering a positive perception of the organization within the marketplace.

 

Brands are a source of pride for employees.

 

Brands that consistently deliver on their promises are remembered and adored. They draw not only more customers to the company (increasing sales and profitability), they also have the ability to attract (and retain) the best and brightest talent to work for and be a part of that organization. On the other hand, employees are embarrassed to admit that they work for a brand or organization that they don’t believe in, such as those that don’t fulfill their obligations, do not value their customers or employees, or are solely focused on “efficiencies” and the bottom line over customer satisfaction. In this case, the best logo, most creative print collateral, or highly functional web site will not be able to save the brand.

 

There are many stakeholders to consider when developing your organization’s brand. While it is true that shareholders (i.e. the “bean counters”) demand a return on their investment in the form of increasing revenue and profits, it is important that the organization considers not only the customer’s needs and desires, but those of employees as well. By giving them a sense of purpose, getting them excited about what they do, and keeping them proud of the organization, it is possible to realize the inner value of your brand. After all, happy employees are loyal ones who will champion your brand in front of the consumer.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy

Tagged For Revision

Best Buy Old and New

 

Last August, Best Buy opened a new 45,000 square foot store in the Mall of America. Along with the introduction of the store to the largest mall in North America, and a rockin’ performance by NKOTB (that’s New Kids on the Block for those of you who came of age in the mid-80’s), Best Buy unveiled a more modern and upscale logo. Crisp, clean, and refreshing, the new logo is sure to become as immediately recognizable as its predecessor. This is not to say that it is without flaws, but overall, this is a very nice re-brand for such an iconic store.

 

The old logo, in use since 1989, consisted of a giant yellow tag, like those found on clearance, sale, or bargain-priced items. This suggested to shoppers that they were going to get the lowest price and best possible deal on their electronics purchase, and became an icon of the brand itself…it is used to show pricing information throughout the store, as a repeating pattern and texture in print ads and commercials, and is instantly recognizable among all other competing electronics superstores.

 

Set in Futura Extra Bold typeface is the company name, nicely contained inside the shape of the yellow tag. Because the logo is a compact unit, it is highly versatile in applications: on buildings it is enlarged to gargantuan proportions over entrances and can be placed on just about any background color or image (although it almost always appears on blue backgrounds—a nice visual tie-in with employee uniforms, which are blue polo shirts and khakis). The only limiting factor to the old Best Buy logo is how small it can be reduced—if shrunk to business card size or smaller, the bold letterforms would fill in (particularly on the newsprint circulars found in Sunday morning newspapers).

 

The new logo alleviates some of these reproducibility issues with a slimmer, more modern typeface that now resides to the left of the tag. While removing some of the weight from the logotype was a good thing, too much bulkiness was removed from the yellow tag…it is now too dainty and gets lost as an outline. This is particularly evident when appearing on a white background— simply making the tag all yellow would draw a more immediate connection with the old identity, without diluting the almost twenty years of brand equity that has been established.

 

While the new logo does address certain reproducibility issues, it creates new problems as well. For example, the new identity is very horizontal. While this may work in most instances and applications, what happens if a more vertical or square format is required? The tag mark does tuck nicely under the “y”, but how does that translate to a stacked version?

 

Overall, the new Best Buy brand is an improvement over the old. The heavy Futura typeface always bothered me, all too similar to and reminiscent of Bed, Bath and Beyond. By separating the logotype from the mark, both elements can be used apart from each other, opening up more graphic possibilities. This is one brand update that I can get attached to.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/creative director

To know thyself, first know the customer

In order to know thyself, first know the customer. When developing a brand, it is important to know who your customers are—not just in a general sense, as in their demographics, but more intimately, such as in terms of their aspirations, motivations, and actual behaviors (psychographics). Without this insight, it is impossible to properly position your product or service, or to develop the brand promises that will resonate with the intended audience.

 

Knowing your customers seems intuitive and easy enough, but in actuality, knowing what makes them tick (their true desires) is often elusive for a lot of brands. Part of the problem is that companies are so outwardly focused on driving new sales that they neglect cultivating the relationships they currently have, often ignoring or taking for granted the most important stakeholder of the brand, the customer. It is easier for them to find new clients than it is to keep their existing ones happy. Unfortunately, unhappy customers will tell as many people who will listen about their negative experience with your company. Not only will this have a negative impact on the target audience, it will affect the perception of the organization as a whole.

 

To discover why customers connect with their brand and how to continue to address their needs and desires, companies should attempt to uncover their most loyal (and thus, most profitable) customers. A common misconception is that organizations should engage in focus groups to answer these questions. The problem with focus groups, according to Robert Brunner and Stewart Emery in their new book, Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company (FT Press, 2009), is that companies “will be basing [their] entire business strategy on the fact that 7 people out of a group of 12 expressed a ‘like’ in a certain direction…Mediocrity is what you end up with if you try to make something everybody likes.”

 

To find out what those customers really want, it is best to observe them in their natural environment, either using or purchasing your product or service. This is relatively simple if your brand is a retail product sitting on store shelves, but how do you gauge the buying habits, needs and desires of those purchasing a service? In this instance, it is possible to gain valuable insight into your customer’s needs by speaking with them directly, and asking important questions, such as why they chose your company over a competitor, and what the differentiating factors were. Equally important, although sometimes more difficult, is to ask prospective clients or customers that you did not win or lost business to. Why did they choose to work with someone else? Sometimes the answers might surprise you.

 

These types of soul-searching questions allow you to better understand the customer’s point of view, affording an opportunity to adjust your brand to be more effective at communicating a more relevant message. Properly positioning your product or service in the mind of your target audience forms an emotional connection with customers that build brand loyalty, reduce marketing costs, and improve profitability. The more you know your customer, the more valuable and measurable your branding efforts become.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy

Branding strategies for economic recession

Cost effective branding strategies for an economic recession. It’s official—as of December 2007 the country has slipped into a recession, and along with it another melancholy mood has descended upon business and consumers. “Belt-tightening” and “budgeting” have been a constant discussion among the media and households as people try to figure out what to do about plunging stock prices, decreased home values, and the prospects of mass-layoffs. The real problem, I would argue, is that the more we hear and talk about a bad economy, the more frightened of it consumers become and the less they will spend on the goods and services that they normally would buy, thus perpetuating the downturn.

 

For businesses that are impacted by consumer and business spending (or lack thereof during periods of a recession); or that depend on the free flow of credit, the first instinct they have is to conserve cash by stopping the spending across the board—on hiring, on equipment, on required services or maintenance, and especially on building their brand (through marketing). This is not to say that watching spending within an organization is a bad thing…often tough economic times allow for businesses to re-evaluate their business model and innovate new ways of reducing costs, while providing greater value for their customers.

 

Often times, however, the marketing budget is the first to be cut. This can be counter-productive, as it creates a Catch-22 for increasing revenues for a business. Without marketing to create awareness of your brand or promote your products or services, how will consumers know what you offer? Or, if you are not constantly reinforcing your brand’s position with the target audience, it will be easy for the competition to leap-frog you within the marketplace. Companies that continue to market, even during downturns, will be the first to recover once economic conditions improve—doing the opposite will only lead to a decrease in revenue and sales for your organization in the long term.

 

Organizations should not stop spending money on marketing during a recession, but instead find cost-effective ways to continue to enhance their brand. One of the most effective (and least expensive) methods is to continue establishing an online presence for the organization, and its products or services. In a previous Re:marks article, we discussed the importance of a web site, so we won’t address that here—the problem is that once a new site has launched, there is very little effort to keep it updated and current, and consequently, visitors stop coming because there is no compelling reason to do so.

 

Without visitors or new content being constantly added (at least once per quarter), a web site will fall into obscurity in the minds of consumers and slip in the search engine rankings. There has been much written about the importance of search engine optimization (SEO), but very little in terms of explanation. To put it simply, SEO involves the use of key words (or words that customers might type into a search engine to find information about your product or service) placed strategically within your site; from the homepage description of the organization to the naming of images and pages, SEO is a simple and inexpensive way to increase the likelihood that your site will be found. The more good key words used within a site, the higher it will appear in Google and other search engine rankings.

 

Additional Internet marketing strategies can be employed to ensure that traffic will flow freely to your web site. These include: sending out monthly eNewsletters with content that will be relevant to customers (and links them to your web site for more information); promoting events or giveaways through animated “videos” that contain flash animation, music and the ability to forward to a friend (and collect those email addresses into a database of additional prospects); and “pay-for-click” advertising using strategically selected keywords (to increase the chances of customers finding your web site at the top of a search page).

 

All of the Internet marketing tactics mentioned above are cost-effective, efficient at increasing awareness of a brand, and help ensure increasing revenue even during tough financial times. For more information on how to realize the full potential of your online marketing, call the branding professionals at Indicia Design.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy

How Brands Add Value, Part II

In the last installment of “How Brands Add Value,” we discussed the importance of branding, and how it has the potential to create increasing value for a product, service or organization. By telling a compelling story about the quality of a product or service; inspiring customer loyalty through consistent and satisfying offerings; or promoting a certain lifestyle; brands have the ability to create and add real value to an organization. It is important to realize, however, that no matter how relevant these promises are to the target audience, there is another important consideration—how companies position, or “package,” their products or services can also greatly influence the value of a brand.

 

There is an ongoing and sometimes intense debate among professionals about how to position their offerings. One school of thought is that if a company provides services, they should try to package them as “products,” as that allows for efficiencies in terms of production and economies of scale. The problem with this approach is that while it is possible to cost-effectively reproduce an organization’s core competencies, it also can “cheapen” the perception of what is provided…products can become perceived as commodities, which ultimately leads to a devaluation of the brand (and more importantly, the price that customers are willing to pay for them).
Product-Service-Experience

 

In the example above, adapted from Joseph Pine and James Gilmore’s The Experience Economy (Harvard Business School Press, 1999), the price customers are willing to pay for a product or service directly correlates to the perception that they have of it. Commodities, such as coffee beans, are generic and considered to be a “dime a dozen.” Maxwell House is similar in smell and taste to many other brands of coffee, and therefore must compete based on price. McCafé is a service found in McDonald’s restaurants that provides gourmet coffee, while the European-style coffee house experience provided by Starbucks allows them to charge US$3 or more for a cup of coffee.

 

Instead of trying to position services as products where they would compete on the basis of price, we should package them as memorable experiences—customized transactions in which each customer receives the highest level of service and satisfaction. Developing a brand identity that takes into consideration every interaction that the target audience will have with the brand—from its logomark and packaging; to marketing collateral and advertising; to web site functionality; to the retail/physical environment that it resides in; to the actual usability of the product or service; are all important factors that make up a Brand Experience.

Brand_Experience

 

Organizations that take this holistic approach to branding, by taking into account all of the ways in which customers interact with a product or service, and are able to create a unique, memorable experience through consistent and relevant brand promises, will achieve ultimate differentiation in the marketplace. In turn, the company will retain a valuable position at the forefront of customers’ minds, commanding a premium perception and price, and allowing for greater profitability. What’s more, the organization will have created a true competitive advantage that will be difficult, if not impossible, for the competition to replicate.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy

How Brands Add Value, Part I

When approaching the sometimes overwhelming and perplexing task of “branding,” most companies are cautiously optimistic and therefore very hesitant to pull the trigger on major initiatives such as a launch or re-brand. After all, branding is a major investment of both time and resources for what might seem like an intangible product or service. How does the client know that they are really getting a return on their investment? Do brands really add value to the organization?

 

Advertising agencies, brand consultants, marketers, or graphic designers will sometimes give differing opinions and definitions of what a “brand” is, and how it helps build audience perception, and therefore value, about a product, service, or organization. The problem for a prospective client is that depending on whom you ask, each response might be skewed in favor of increasing the chances of that particular creative firm winning the work.

 

The truth of the matter is that brands are more than simply intriguing or eye-catching advertisements, a great logo and package, or highly targeted and consistent messaging. This is not to say that these things are unimportant or irrelevant—when used on their own, each of these tactics can help enhance a brand’s image. However, the key to effectively building and maintaining a brand is to tell a compelling story about the company, its products, or services. In doing so, brands promise to provide customers with an experience that increases their perception of quality, increases their loyalty to the brand, and promotes a particular lifestyle.

 

An effective brand that communicates the essence of quality will give customers the perception that the product or service is better than that of the competition.

Since it is perceived to be of higher quality, these brands will command higher prices, adding more revenue to the bottom line. For example, there really is not a lot of difference between a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and Starbucks’ regular blend. Both are made of the highest quality coffee beans, are grown in roughly the same geographic area, and according to taste tests, have the same flavor. Then why is it that a cup of Starbucks coffee costs a dollar or so more than the cup from Dunkin’ Donuts? In this case, the quality conveyed by the Starbucks name and logo on the cup has added real monetary value to the company in terms of higher profits per cup of java.

 

Brands that perform consistently in delivering on their promise of quality increase customer loyalty.

A satisfied customer will tell three of their friends about their experience with the brand, while an unhappy one will tell as many people that will listen. While it is true that it is easy to go out and find new customers, an organization will see a higher return on their investment by consistently meeting or exceeding customer’s expectations, thus reinforcing brand loyalty and keeping the customers they already have.

 

Loyal customers buy brands because they promote a certain lifestyle or image.

No matter how individualistic or different a person tries to be, it is only human nature to desire to be part of a group, to “belong” to something. Brands convey to others that a person has achieved a certain amount of success, or more often than not, that he or she desires to attain that lifestyle. Products or services that deliver on this particular promise connote a higher level of quality or are perceived to be luxurious—as a result, organizations may charge more for those brands. When it comes to automobiles, BMW, Mercedes and Volvo are perceived as luxury vehicles and command a premium price.

 

Brand promises must be relevant to and address the needs and desires of the target audience or customer.

By promising quality, consistency, and image, branding has the power to add increased value and profits to companies. It is important, however, that organizations deliver on the promises that they make, and in every interaction with the customer. Failure to do so dilutes the value of a product or service, as we will discuss in the next installment.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy

Who to trust with your brand?

Who to trust with your brand: an agency of record or a creative partner? Building an engaging brand experience is sometimes a Herculean task, one that takes months, even years, to complete. Even after a brand has been established, it must continually evolve to stay relevant with its target audience. Therefore, it is vital that a company selects and works with a creative organization that truly understands (or desires to understand) their product or service, and that will provide continuity in terms of overall quality and level of service. Graphic designers, marketing and public relations firms, and advertising agencies all claim to be experts in “branding.” While true that these different types of creative organizations are capable of handling a brand project, what clients really need is a creative partner.

 

The word “agency,” often used to describe some advertising or PR firms, brings to mind comparisons with law firms or accountants—not only are these service providers treated like commodities, they are notorious for fee-based work in which the primary motivation is that “time is money.” They charge for every minute they speak to or perform work on behalf of a client; call an attorney to ask a simple question, get a bill for fifteen minutes of their time. Some advertising agencies, those with large overhead and payroll liabilities, find themselves operating this way out of necessity.

 

Creative firms should focus on building relationships, not billable time.

There is a difference between creative companies that bill hourly and those that bill per project. In fee-based agencies, where becoming the “Agency of Record” for a client is the ultimate goal, the primary focus is on winning new business, getting a signed contract over a specific amount of time (a “retainer agreement”), and then moving on to the next prospect. The client commits to paying an up-front fee for a certain number of hours per month (regardless of whether or not all hours are expended); projects are assigned to junior staff members (senior staff is focused on acquiring new clients); and projects tend to progress more slowly (since there are only a certain number of billable hours available each month). Ultimately, this can be a one-way relationship in which the client is left under-served and unsatisfied.

 

Firms that focus on becoming a “Creative Partner,” however, are not out for short-term gain, but rather to develop a long-term relationship with the client. Branding is a process that takes time to implement, and it is important to have a consistent team—by collaborating with a company’s sales or marketing team, the creative partner begins to understand their needs, target markets, and ensures that a creative strategy is built around the client’s business goals or marketing strategy. Any billable time is built into a project rate that is agreed to up front, and adhered to. In lieu of a monthly retainer (that might become open-ended), the Creative Partner will propose a clearly defined, phased approach to the branding problem, establishing a schedule of projects to be billed as they are completed. If and when a dispute between the partners arises, they work to resolve it quickly and fairly, and use that knowledge to further the relationship. In this manner, a mutually beneficial relationship is established.

 

Whatever type of project the client needs, a creative firm should not have a mentality revolving around the billable hour, which in effect nickel-and-dimes the client. True creative partners must be willing to do whatever it takes (within reason, of course) to make sure that the client is taken care of and satisfied with the quality of service and work that they receive. Now that’s a good brand experience.

 

—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy