Reboot and Reframe: Branding lesson for life #5: LEARN WHEN TO SAY NO

say_NODo you constantly say “yes” to all the wrong things, leaving you absolutely no time or energy when the right opportunities come along?

If you’re an entrepreneur and you can’t relate to this, I’d love to meet you.

We all worry about saying “no” to business, partnerships and even advertising opportunities. What if this is my one chance to attract a boatload of customers? What if this is the only client I get this quarter? That old adage, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is definitely a truism…..sometimes.

If you constantly accept clients who don’t fit your ideal profile or the type of work you want to be doing, how can you free yourself up to attract a better, more profitable client for the long run? Understanding your brand in clear detail will help you determine if someone is a good fit. It will help you say no to marketing opportunities that seem seductive at first (“Wow! This event attracts 5000 women!”) but in reality, turn out to be a waste of time and money (“Oh, those 5000 women will never be the ones who will buy from me!”)

As I learned to adapt to my new reality post-brain injury, I couldn’t say yes to as much as I would have in the past. I had to be selective in which clients I accepted and how I spent my time. This meant turning down some work that, while intriguing and interesting, was not going to be a good fit for me. And you can do this in an elegant and tactful way. You can explain that you don’t have bandwidth right now with your current client load, or you can recommend another resource that might be a better fit for their needs.  With partners, you can gently say the opportunity looks fabulous but you think you might be going after different target markets. With an advertising opportunity – well, this is business after all, and you can simply say, “We don’t see this as a valuable way to spend out money, but thank you for thinking of us.”

Remember, your clients and partners say something about your brand. They are your advertising.

By focusing on what you want, what you’re good at and what you can realistically deliver, people will appreciate your honesty more than they’ll appreciate you not having the time or mental energy to properly serve their needs.

View the juicy video for Lesson #5  here.

How do you determine which work to take on and which to pass up? Any tips or fun stories about times you have turned down opportunities?

BACKSTORY TO THE SEVEN LESSONS: What do recovering from a  brain aneurysm and branding have in common? Quite a bit, it turns out. Recently, I got the wonderful opportunity to share my dramatic story at a Women Business Owners luncheon and I promised I’d post the lessons here for everyone. This is a seven-post series.

Lesson #1: Focus (and backstory to the series)

Lesson #2: Be Authentic

Lesson #3: Count on Your Tribe

Lesson #4: Practice Patience

What you can learn from Virgin America

OK, I have a major brand crush on Virgin America. Huge. I swoon when I see their logo at the airport, thrill when I’m able to fly them on quick trips down to San Francisco, and dream about hanging with Richard Branson over cocktails sometime. I talk about them a lot in my new book, Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget.

There’s a lot you can learn about branding effectively from Virgin America (and Virgin in general for that matter.) And these are lessons you can apply to your own business, regardless of your size or budget. You may not be as big as they are, but you sure as heck can practice these principles to better connect with customers and stand out from the competition.

1) Keep your mission simple, concise and relevant: “Make flying fun again.” Boom. That says it all. And every decisions they make, big or small, is tested against this simple mantra. How inspiring is this for employees? How deliciously irresistible is this to frustrated and road-weary travelers? How different from the other airlines who tout generic, irrelevant platitudes like “best customer service” or “biggest value”? This mission has meaning and even just the wording tells you a little bit about their personality and the type of customer they want to attract. They are not just after those who can afford first-class or private jets who may not share the same flying frustrations as the rest of us. They are FOR the rest of us! Their mission is crisp, clean but still specific enough to their actual products and services. Is your mission something you can actually act on that will guide all of your decisions, or is it some lofty, esoteric statement that is not relevant to customers or employees?

2) Little things mean a lot: They extend their brand into everything from their color scheme that extends to the ticket counters and the airplane cabin to the cheeky wording of their standard airport signs (“While impressive, if your bag is bigger than 24” X 16” X 10”, it must be checked”) to their clever in-flight safety video. Rather than a stiff actor giving me the same instructions we’ve started to tune out on every other flight, Virgin America shows a stylized animated video with all sorts of crazy characters – even a bull calmly reading a magazine next to an anxious bullfighter. The company’s sassy, humorous tone carries over to the script as well: “For the 0.0001% of you who’ve never operated a seat belt before, here’s how it works.” These are simple things (and stuff they need to spend money on to produce anyway), but Virgin makes the most of every single solitary customer touchpoint in order to convey their brand and make their target customers fall in love with them. What opportunities are you wasting to really surprise and delight your target audience? Perhaps well-worded email opt-out policies (If you’d like to unsubscribe, we’d really miss you!) or a memorable voicemail message (We’re out helping our clients be superheroes today) or even a branded email signature can really make a difference. Such hidden delights will surprise and enchant and get people telling others about you, like I’m doing here. Just ensure that these flourishes match who you really are in your DNA and what your brand is all about. If your brand audience is more conservative and formal than playful and snarky, then don’t try to go there.

3) Deliver on your promise: Virgin America directs all its brand efforts on convincing me they will make flying fun again. But if I didn’t experience their confident and polished employees, rapid check-in kiosk process, glorious discount prices, or the private TV’s at every seat that also allow me to order food at any time with my credit card – not just when they decide I should eat – then we’d have a problem. They would not be delivering on their mission and would then suffer from a brand identity crisis. Are you living up to what you are promising to customers? If you say customer care is your number one priority, do I get rapid response to my support issues and easy access to a live person? If your colors and website are all slick, modern and progressive but you only offer the same-old, same-old, what am I to think? It’s worse to go out there and talk the talk if you can’t walk the walk – worse than not promising it in the first place. Don’t just slap a coat of brand paint on your business. Make a promise and ensure your operations, employees, and customer experiences are set up to deliver on it.

Does anyone really care about “brand?”

No matter how many heads I get nodding about the importance of brand or how many people “get it,” I still feel like brand strategy is the “nice-to-have” while people get on with the business of selling products and services. And really, how can I fault a company that is successful in spite of itself? Many companies know they need to sit down and map out their brand strategy, but few make it a priority. Donald Trump knows he has a bad haircut but he could care less – he’s still a bazillionaire.

When I wrote Branding Basics for Small Business, I tried to put in all my stories and experiences over the years of many of those battles and successes.  But at the end of the day, if a company blows out it’s sales number each and every quarter, does anyone really care if the company stands for something, has a clear message or a differentiated personality? Do the shareholders really mind that one person thinks the company does this, but another person thinks the company does something completely different? Do they care that the firm is touting one message, look and feel on their website but look like a completely different company when you see their ads? Do they mind that the firm touts customer service above all else, but the infrastructure and processes are not set up to deliver?

Do they care as long as the company keeps making money?

The analytical part of me says, “You can’t argue with success, so they must be doing something right. Their customers obviously want the product.” The brand strategist in me, though, says, “That has to be short-lived. Something outside of their control is causing the success and whenever it stops, they will not know what to do as they will not have a strong brand to fall back on.” I also think to myself that this is the reason there is such commercial clutter out there in the marketplace: companies that don’t care enough about their brand or messages are just throwing things out into the world to see what sticks. They figure, “As long as we hit the mark 10 times out of 100, that is okay with us because those 10 times will make our numbers for the year.”

That is the difference between quantity and quality. And I for one would rather live in a world full of quality. One where 2 messages are enough to get a target customer to act versus 5-7.  Think about that. If every company knew their brand and their target audience so well and could laser-focus their marketing efforts, what a more streamlined, quieter world this would be. How much more relevant to their particular target audience would they be? And how much less noise would the rest of us have to hear?

Enjoy the silence for a moment. At least in your own imagination.

Seth Godin wrote a post today about structuring your day around 5 hours of work instead of 8 or 10 and seeing how much more effective you could be. I love that idea. Sometimes more is just…well, more. Not better, not more relevant, not more productive. Just more.

View your brand from the outside in

How does this DaVinci quote relate to your brand?

“Every now and then go away and have a little relaxation. To remain constantly at work will diminish your judgment.Go some distance away because work will be in perspective and a lack of harmony is more readily seen.” (Leonardo DaVinci)

While I love this quote for its important lesson about balancing work and play (yes, talking to you, Mr. “Look how dedicated and important I am that I have not taken a vacation in 6 years” guy, which also translates to “I’m going to have a heart attack before I’m 50”), it’s directly related to your business and brand as well.

We are all so into our businesses. We know every little nook and cranny inside and out, and more importantly know our own intent and motivation within our own heads.  We often forget that customers or prospects interacting with us for the first time (or 2nd or 3rd…) don’t have all that “background reference.” We confuse them with meaningless acronyms and jargon that only we understand because we see it every day. We think we are explaining things well because WE know what we mean, but we’re not. Or we forget to communicate the basics because we take for granted that, “Everyone knows that.” Um, no, they don’t.

The Heath brothers, who wrote one of my fave books, Made to Stick, call this the “Curse of Knowledge.” This applies to brand because we forget to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes and view ourselves from the outside in. We have too much info about our own brand and business and it blinds us. Do my visual elements – logo, color, website design – communicate what I really want to be saying, or have we fiddled with it so much over the years that it is now meaningless and generic?  Does my description of what I do make sense to someone who has no inkling about this industry?

Sometimes, the best gift I can give clients is one of objectivity. The less I know about them when we work together initially, the better. Within those first few days, I can give an honest assessment of what it’s like to read their messaging and see their brand with fresh eyes. And I can point out what their brand is actually communicating, despite their best intentions.

I urge you to find objective eyes to audit your brand and messaging every once in awhile and make sure you are on track.  Only when you have some time away from something or distance from the source can you see the forest for the trees and find the holes in the story.

Ask the Expert: What’s your brand promise and what is it wearing?

Forget the hype of marketing alternatives swirling about you. It’s all about the fundamentals, regardless of which channel you use to broadcast your message. There is indeed a reason that Snuggies sell so well, as you will learn below.

One of my favorite people in the world, and the man who teaches me so much about branding and advertising, is Scott Montgomery. Scott is Principal and Executive Creative Director of Bradley and Montgomery,  which has made both traditional and very untraditional advertising, branding and communications for clients like JPMorgan Chase, VH1, MTV, Knoll, Microsoft and many others.Their recent work includes: a national TV and online campaign for Microsoft Windows, “The Mojave Experiment”; retail environmental rebranding work for JPMorgan Chase when they purchased Washington Mutual; launching a documentary and online campaign supporting Chase Bank and Project Homeowner, a massive effort to help homeowners avoid foreclosure through mortgage modifications at community events and crisis centers; the invention of EmotiClips – shared video snippets in support of MTV’s “The Hills” and other properties; and websites and virals for Microsoft Internet Explorer 8. 

He is also a founding partner of, a firm that tracks social media chatter for entertainment companies so they can tell if their movie or TV show will be a hit or a flop.

Scott’s work had been featured in many national creative pubs, won lots of awards and even rapped with Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

But blah blah blah. This guy is simply a student of humanity who, like me, loves watching how culture and messaging can change perceptions and mobilize people. Scott is that rare  innovative creative mind who, at the end of the day, fully understands that advertising must result in making cash registers ring. He balances artistic integrity with business necessity. And I dig that about him.

With that, I’m giving him 2 editions for Ask the Expert, because he has so much juicy stuff to share. So pay attention.

RS: What do you think makes a strong brand? The fundamentals?

SM: In a world where absolutely everything in media is changing, let me try to define “brand” in a way that won’t: A brand is exactly two things: It’s the promise your offering makes to people, and the clothes that promise is dressed in. The degree to which that combination generates the behavior you want from people is all that matters.

You don’t need to read yet another treatise on how gorgeously effective brands for Apple and Mercedes are. They are perfect promises for people who want beautiful things. They are the mirrors their buyers want to be reflected in. Articles like this one hold up brands like those as monuments to the power of branding, and they are. But you might also be led to think that elegance and branding are the same thing. I submit to you that they ain’t.

I was trained as a graphic designer, so sometimes it pains me to say this – many brands succeed because of the absolute appropriateness of their ugliness. That’s visual ugliness, ugliness in actions, or both. Here’s why I think the definition above holds:

Some really nasty-lookin’ brands have the power of a simple, appropriate promise. “Brands” that are products, like SlapChop, Snuggie and Sarah Palin are nightmares of “good design” but their antithetical relationships to “good taste” give them power in the marketplace. That’s because – as good brands – their promises are simple, their messages are consistent and their visual expressions are in sync with their value. Just like Apple, Mercedes and the others that usually top brand surveys. Same rules, different demographics.

The quality or “rightness” of the thing makes little difference, either. That’s worth noting.
We in the U.S. still consume a small ocean of bottled water that’s been judged to be no better than Manhattan’s tap water, one that’s shipped half way around the world by boat, plane, train and, ultimately automobile, not because of its uniqueness, but because of its Fijiness. It’s nuts, and particularly evil considering some residents of Fiji don’t have access to potable water themselves, and are living under a regime odious enough to get it kicked out of the Commonwealth of Nations back in September for suspending free elections.

But Fiji is a strong, simple brand promise dressed in attractive clothes. Well done. Branding can be powerful stuff in the right hands. Or the other ones.

So, you’d figure if an icky product can benefit mightily, then it should be even easier for the not-so-icky ones. Then why do a huge number of non-icky companies still get it wrong?

I think it’s because they try to promise wildly disparate things under a single name. They design their offerings for too many audiences, or none at all. They promise a promise that no one wants. Or they do nothing to generate customer behavior. Their promises aren’t compelling, they don’t get people talking – either around the office, at the game, on in their status updates. Say what you will about Snuggie as a product, but its footprint in free social media is huge.

This is where I’m supposed to say, as an agency principal, “an ad agency can sort this out for you.” But increasingly, a lot of them can’t. Wedded to a arguably ineffective interruptive model of creative promotion, a great many agency people are, frankly, clueless. It’s a world in which you may have encountered 4 kinds of screens that weren’t a TV today. And how on Earth will they make money if you aren’t watching TV?

The people who are getting it are finding ways to harness the interactions between consumers, and the myriad opportunities for meaningful engagements with products and their promises. Happily, brands are bigger than advertising, and good promises spread in ways we wouldn’t have imagined even 5 years ago – through social media, through entertainment, through fashion, through the recycling of imagery across the web, through celebrities and events, via phone screens and whatever Magical Tablet Media Procurer cum Location Based Social Appliance that Apple and Microsoft are racing to produce at this writing.

That’s why I believe that as much as things are changing, the fundamentals have become even more important. The clarity of the promise, and the appropriateness of its expression are what matters. Clarity of the promise is more important than ever. It’s a little like the old “telephone” whispering game: as opinion about a brand is passed along and repeated across a widening range of outlets and technologies, it has to be sturdy enough to survive the trip.


See Part 2 with Scott about social media innovations here.