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.

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