Article

What should I look for in a brand consultant?

May 16, 2024
The picture depicts brand consultant as a wizard who performs magic to lift up the brand.

Building a brand that scales requires a breakthrough brand strategy and the discipline to develop and execute a systematic go-to-market (GTM) strategy. Brand and performance marketing skills are orthogonal to one another. Brand breakthroughs require big, actionable, differentiating insights that unlock untapped opportunities and reframe your value proposition. These insights often come from qualitative research and conceptual ideation, supported by quantitative research and analysis, whereas performance marketing relies, first and foremost, on analytical skills. The best brand consultants create brand breakthroughs that achieve the desired business results.

Knowing what to look for in a brand consultant can help you discover big brand unlocks that support your business strategy, inspire compelling creative execution and drive results. The right consultant can help you connect with and convert the right customers to build sustainable growth through high-performance marketing.

This article outlines some of the characteristics of a strategic brand consultant that can set you up for success. The best brand consultants are insightful, strategic, passionate, creative, and collaborative.

Insightful. 

Discovering brand breakthroughs can feel like random magic from a wizard’s wand you can’t control, an accidental lightning strike. Rather than relying on luck or a fickle creative muse, we’ve found some guiding principles that create ideal conditions for lightning to strike on demand. One of these conditions is to work with a brand strategist who has a proven practice for repeatedly discovering, synthesizing, and concisely communicating actionable insights.

Insights reveal a new and deeper understanding of what people want and why. A new and novel way of seeing the relationship between an unmet need and a way to satisfy it. Surfacing insights requires thoughtful questions that prompt revealing answers. They require perceptive observations and pattern recognition inspired by next-level curiosity. Insights are the source of giving a great birthday gift or even a great birthday card. The kind of card that makes the birthday girl smile, chuckle or well up because it shows her that the gift giver truly knows and appreciates them. If you’ve ever received such a thoughtful gift or card, you know the feeling of deep connection it creates between you and the giver. These are the kinds of resonant insights that build great brands.

For example, my father-in-law wears Orvis-brand polo shirts in an array of colors during the summer. I’ve never counted, but my guess is he has enough of these shirts to wear a different one every day of the week. Once, I asked him why he wore Orvis shirts, he explained that he loves to fly fishing, which was curious to me since I’d never seen or heard of him doing that. Turns out he didn’t have anyone to go with, so he’d fallen out of the habit even though he still has all the equipment.

Based on this insight, my wife and I and her siblings chipped in for a guided fly fishing experience up the Provo River as a Father’s gift for my father-in-law. A group of us joined him, and we shared a day to remember on a practically perfect June morning on the Provo River, which happens to be a blue-ribbon trout hatchery. Our guide promised that we would forget to count to 10 that day because we would lose track of how many fish we caught (and released). And he was right. I’ve never seen my father-in-law happier than he was on the river that day, and I have the picture to prove it. Imagine how much more the Orvis brand would mean to him if they had the insight to facilitate these kinds of memorable experiences for him.

Strategic. 

Paul Gustavson, an organization design expert, says strategy comes down to doing different things and doing things differently. A skilled brand strategy consultant intuitively sees the world through these lenses. They think in terms of being and doing different, not being better. People (customers) see contrasting differences more readily than degrees of good along the same lines. In-N-Out Burger has a supremely simple menu by design.

The essence of strategy is doing different things and doing things differently.

Paul Gustavson

Of course, you can order from their not-so-secret menu (animal style, protein style), but the core menu is very basic: burgers, fries, soda, and shakes. What could be more simple? Yet other fast-food restaurants take a decidedly different approach. Sonic, for example, has a complex menu that includes burgers, fries, tater tots, dozens of possible drink combinations, syrups and desserts. Both brands have built successful businesses using very different approaches.

Strategic brand consultants not only tease out and amplify the most meaningful differences between your brand and competitors, they also see how your differentiators can drive profitable growth for your business.

We worked with Rob Nelson, founder and CEO of Grow, the no-code full-stack business intelligence (BI) platform, at three different inflection points in his company’s growth and progression over six years. Our understanding of where to take the brand grew as Rob and his team continued to iteratively refine and mature Grow’s business model and product based on a deep understanding of their ideal customers, including who they are, what they want and what’s in their way. Informed and inspired by insights from Rob, his customers and the competitive landscape, we summarized the company’s business and brand strategy in a deceivingly simple brand promise: Empower everyone in your organization to make data-driven decisions.

Grow’s brand promise is differentiating in that it acknowledges that everyone in a company – not just C-suite “decision-makers” – makes decisions that would benefit from better data. This insightful statement is made all the more significant by the fact that Grow’s business model and pricing approach make it affordable for everyone in their customers’ organizations to access and use Grow’s business intelligence SaaS platform. This inclusive approach to data-driven decisions is in sharp contrast to competitors’ traditional seat-driven licensing agreements that make it too costly and challenging for anyone but the C-Suite and their direct reports to use their systems.

Passionate. 

You want to work with a brand consultant who cares about you and your business. Caring can manifest in many ways, but at its most fundamental expression, caring looks and sounds like a brand strategist who takes an interest in learning everything they can about you and your business. It sounds like someone who makes a compelling case for challenging the status quo, adopting a new way of thinking and executing a well-thought-out plan despite inevitable setbacks.

Backstory’s process is thorough by design because we know what we don’t know. As it turns out, not knowing is a big advantage when you take time to find out for yourself. When we worked with Havenpark Communities, the nationwide manufactured homes owner-operator, we assumed nothing went out into the field with an open mind, interviewing more than a dozen residents and community managers across seven different communities in four states.

The insights we gained from these in-person, in situ conversations gave us an appreciation for who our client’s customers are and how disrespected previous property owners had made them feel by not consistently upholding community standards. Lack of support from these owners had allowed the culture in these communities to deteriorate and reinforce preconceived notions of what a manufactured home community was and could be.

These insights inspired us to elevate Havenpark Communities' brand strategy from a focus on the product in the communities to the people who lived there. Our brand consultant won the company’s leadership in this direction and enrolled their entire team, using compelling stories and excerpts from our conversations with passionate customers, including verbatim quotes and video clips. These stories and first-hand experiences lit a fire in the company's founders to operationalize and live up to their brand promise through a strong and aligned company culture. Belong to a caring community became a living truth and ongoing commitment, not just words on a wall or website.

It took time and investment for Havenpark to level up and align its operations to live up to its promise, but it was worth the effort. Creating a caring culture for employees and customers has given Havenpark a sustainable competitive advantage in a commoditized category. As a result, the company has attracted top talent from other industry players and has welcomed new team members from outside the industry at a time when finding top talent and caring, capable employees was difficult.

Creative. 

Find a brand consultant who not only generates strategic and creative ideas but can also persuade others to buy into their vision. They need to help others understand and visualize how those ideas will translate in the real world. A brand strategist who can translate their ideas into well-crafted creative or design briefs can ensure nothing is lost in translation and inspires creative partners to take those ideas to the next level.

In working with Tanner Co, we not only had to find a way to differentiate an accounting and advisory firm in a very crowded market but also get 16 partners on board with the new brand strategy and vision.

From our brand discovery deep dive, we knew that Tanner Co had the unique ability to combine the sophistication and strategic advice of The Big Four, the world’s four largest accounting firms (Deloitte, Ernst & Young (EY), PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG)) with the autonomy of a local firm to authorize and sign audits and tax returns on behalf of clients—without having to defer to a senior partner in a larger market who is disconnected from local business leaders and relationships. At its essence, we realized Tanner has the wisdom to provide clients with the right answers right here in Tanner’s home market of Salt Lake City, serving the Intermountain West market.

Leaning into the “do things differently” definition of strategy we discussed earlier, our visual brand identity design partner, Bill Chiaravalle, founder and creative director at Brand Navigation, created an owl mascot logo for Tanner supported by the insight that owls represent wisdom.

Few, if any, accounting firms have a mascot in their logo. But Bill's masterful mascot approach was not only differentiating in context of Tanner’s competitive landscape, it also reflected Tanner’s expanded portfolio of services, which had grown beyond traditional tax and audit services to include business strategy, leadership development, cybersecurity and ERP implementation.

In presenting this novel design direction to Tanner’s partners, we referenced how the Greek goddess Athena is often portrayed as having an owl perched on her shoulder to help her see her blind spots and reveal the truths of the world to her. This creative strategy was consistent with threads of insight running through all our conversations with Tanner’s diverse partners, clients and team members. It was especially appropriate for Tanner’s emerging tech clients who grow up through the Silicon Slopes tech ecosystem and often find themselves experiencing “stage blindness” in that they don’t know what to expect when they and their businesses reach new levels of growth.

Sharing this rationale for the owl logo design helped to persuade Tanner’s cerebral partners to approve and embrace this unexpected concept. Since then, Tanner’s in-house marketing team has found fresh and appropriate ways to activate the owl logo and incorporate it into the firm’s brand marketing efforts on its website, outdoor advertising, proposals, leadership development retreats, event marketing, sponsorships, and on-campus recruiting. The result has been a breakthrough brand and business that commands a premium by setting Tanner apart in an industry where firms tend to compete on being better, not different.

Collaborative. 

The most successful companies realize that brand-building is a collaborative process. Their leaders enlist the help of their entire teams in the branding process. When we teamed up with Christian Hansen and his talented design team at HINT Creative to rebrand VitalSmarts, the company’s vice president of marketing, Mary McChesney, commented on how much she appreciated our ability to involve senior leaders, mid-level managers and front-line employees throughout the branding process.

Mary aimed to keep intact what was working well for the current VitalSmarts brand while breathing new life into it based on the company’s future trajectory. The process involved many key stakeholders with opposing opinions. Our task was to facilitate and manage the group dynamics to keep the process moving forward while helping everyone feel heard. It was important for Mary to bring a brand strategist on board who had a strong point of view that would be respected and heard so that internal thinking didn't take precedence over what was best.

We successfully facilitated this process for Mary and her team by taking time to learn the company’s origin story from talking directly with Joseph Grenny, a four-time New York Times bestselling author of “Crucial Conversations,” “Crucial Accountability,” “Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change,” and “Change Anything.” Developing a distinctive point of view was informed by in-depth interviews with the company’s next generation of internal executives and team members from different disciplines and external customers and partners—together with a thorough brand audit and competitive analysis.

We also considered the company’s innovative and evolving business model. The company had acquired exclusive rights to develop and deliver training programs based on best-selling books by authors from outside the company, including “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg and “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.

Through a series of collaborative working sessions with Mary and her team of stakeholders, we distilled VitalSmarts’ core competency as its ability to facilitate the acquisition and application of crucial skills for effective leadership, communication and performance. This central idea became the inspiration for renaming the company from VitalSmarts, a name that connoted vitamins and nutritional supplements, to Crucial Learning, which leverages the company’s history and heritage while opening the door to current and future collaborations with other thought leaders. The new name also reinforces the company’s ongoing commitment to applied learning and real impact.

Shepherding the VitalSmarts team through this process resulted in a brand strategy and, ultimately, a visual brand identity and creative execution from HINT that felt fresh, relevant, and differentiated. Mary appreciated Backstory’s and HINT’s collaborative role in helping her and her team break free from the sea of sameness in the learning and development industry.

Summary

We hope you find these guiding principles and examples helpful as you consider your options for choosing a brand consultant to help you build a scalable brand. Compatibility is another key component of building a successful branding relationship. Please get in touch to find out if we could be a fit for you and your team.

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