Your Brand is My Problem: The Life of a Branding Consultant


Your brand is my problem.

I don’t see this as a negative. As someone who has built a career on the pseudo-science of brand strategy, I take the identity of the companies I work with very seriously. It is my responsibility, and even privilege, to do the work that I do. As rewarding as it may be, it can also be tough. For one, it requires a special combination of inspiration in which the creative and analytical parts of the brain are working together. On top of that, the work itself lives in a grey zone: brand strategy isn’t exact, and depending on your client, much is still left up to interpretation.

A lot, then, depends on the client and agency relationship.

In my work at Puccini Group, I’ve had the good fortune of working with excellent clients – so many of whom we are lucky to work with again and again, which is somewhat rare regardless of industry, but especially in hospitality where brands and owners have portfolios that span the globe.

Whether working a signature restaurant identity for a luxury resort in the Maldives, or developing a new brand for a lifestyle hotel in our own backyard of San Francisco, client trust is paramount. From this variety of work across so many markets, I’ve realized how valuable breadth of experience within an industry is, and it’s perhaps what separates Puccini Group’s branding and marketing efforts from those we often compete with for business: while we’re hospitality-specialized, we aren’t limited by geography or time zones. In fact, portability is built into our business model. We bring fresh, unbiased eyes to the property and trade area, and research the mindsets and motivations of both the locals and travelers.

After we have a clear understanding of the most viable prospective guest, we build recommendations that help our client market most effectively and directly. This variety in landscape helps us to deliver inspired, totally unique solutions to our clients that fit their specific market, rather than a product that is pinned to the dominant aesthetic in a specific market — for example L.A. or NYC, where the same trends are recycled across hotels and restaurants in that area. While the work can be both exciting and creative, I’d recommend anyone seeking a career in branding or marketing to also consider whether they are interested in the analytical and occasionally emotional aspects of the field: it’s not all flashes of inspiration and unbounded creativity. It’s also a lot of careful communication and interpretation of your client’s wishes.

Navigating Emotional Responses

A good brand story is designed to evoke an emotional response — see some of the most notable logo controversies in recent history: Airbnb, Starbucks, Hillary 2016, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. As such, developing a brand story and identity can often defy reason, regardless of whether that emotional response is positive or negative. As a result, creative agencies often grapple with client feedback like “I just don’t like it.” This form of emotionally-charged feedback is particularly dangerous, because it isn’t actionable. There’s no why to address. On the agency side, you hear creatives complaining all the time about how the client doesn’t “get it,” that they lack taste or that they aren’t aware of trends. While sometimes this may honestly be the case, it’s not the client’s fault for having a reaction to the material. After all, that is exactly the job that people like me — the brand strategist, copywriter, or graphic designer — are hired to do.

Photos courtesy of The Puccini Group

Always Overcommunicate

A client is not required to love the first idea or image that the agency sends, but it is important that they understand why those elements were chosen and know how to articulate what can be done better the second time.

It is the responsibility of the creative agency to provide their clients with a foundation of knowledge that can better aid in the communication process.

Nothing irks me more than to see a round of logos go out without explanation or context, and I take special care to make sure that I never leave a client in the dark. It’s a form of negligence contributing toward a very fragile relationship between client and creative.

Create a Roadmap

In my role at Puccini Group, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the most notable international brands in the hospitality industry and with the talented individuals who lead that space. Despite that extensive experience, my team and I are always careful to assume nothing about a client’s familiarity with the process and principles of branding. Instead, we set out to establish a strong foundation for the client-creative relationship – a clear roadmap of the goals and checkpoints ahead. Equally important is instituting a lexicon of terms for client and creative team to share, so that everyone is clear on association and meaning, particularly if any technical language is involved in either the deliverable or the feedback.

To those on the creative services side who don’t already embrace this foundational work as part of your process, I recommend trying it.

We’ve found it’s well worth the upfront investment of time and effort.

To those on the client side, I’ll say this: push yourself to identify the why and to go beyond personal bias. Collect feedback broadly from your target customers, not just your colleagues. It’s also important to remember that even with the best laid plans, the process is rarely smooth. It’s oddly emotional, fraught with associations, and you have a lot of people involved who really care about the outcome.

The payoff is that when you nail the combination of caring and communicating so that both client and agency are in perfect sync, with a clear understanding of desired outcome, the work tends to be amazing, and well worth the emotional rollercoaster.

3 Min Read

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.