Sunday, June 22, 2008

It's 10pm, Do You Know Where Your Brand Is?

I've been working on a new logo for my Mogulette Blog (coming soon!) which has led me to think a lot about my brand and what direction to take it. I get so confused by all the different aspects of my business and how they're changing and how (or if) to connect them to one another. So I checked in with my branding guru, the very talented Romana Mirza (who is founder of her own firm, Studio Pinpoint) to shine some light on these matters. Her recommendation for entrepreneurs that are still testing their product/service mix is to start out by making a list of words. Here's what she had to say:

There’s a 3-dimensional perspective that all visionary leaders need to have when building their brands. First you review the strengths of your competitors, then your own and finally those of brands outside of your industry.

1. Competitive landscape: Know what your competitors are offering. Not just the factual details like price, selection, service delivery, etc. but also the language they use - “fastest”, “best quality”, “luxury”, “softest”, “tastiest” – whatever it is. You will find that all your competitors speak the same way. Note these similar phrases and descriptive words. If you don’t have a competitor then fast forward to a time when you become really successful and try to figure out which companies will want to jump into your space and become your competitors, and summarize their language and common phrases.

2. Look inside: Define your character, your personality, what’s unique or quirky about you – how are you are different from the next person. This is hard to do and that’s where working with a brand strategist really helps. Ask your friends, your colleagues, your partners. Make sure to get them to tell you what is unique about you in all the different areas of your life: family, work, business partners, friends, acquaintances, etc. Note the differences, the unique attributes. I really liked Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath - it's a great way to get an objective view of your strengths.

3. Benchmark: Look for your favorite brands in industries outside of your business. For instance I was hired to do the brand repositioning for a very large office furniture manufacturer. This company appealed to the masses and offered nice design, so I looked for an established brand that had those same qualities to see how they went to market with their designs and how they targeted their customers. Kenneth Cole, which was in a totally different field, ended up being my benchmark. Study your favorite brands, whether it's a tennis racquet manufacturer, clothing designer, a soap company or a car company. Look at their websites, note the language they use to speak to customers, figure out what you like about how they present themselves to you and take note.

Once you complete noting the three dimensions, lay out what you found in front of you. This is where you'll see your brand coming together. Your business may be in flux, your distribution model may change or your financing methods may vary but one thing is certain - no matter how many structural or operational changes you make, your brand should always remain consistent. This is the most important part. The brand must reflect who you are, your core values, the core culture of the company you are building. In the early stages the three-dimensional perspective will give you that.

I then asked Romana for guidance in helping "slashers"
like myself (people with multiple slashes in their job titles) to create our brands. Specifically I wanted to know if it was better to tie in the different roles we play into one single brand, or create separate ones for each. Here's what she said:

Develop a brand strategy. This is where you create an “organizational chart” of your different areas of expertise. If in doing this exercise one emerges as the “parent skill” then your other slashes will become subsets of that. If they truly emerge as individual silos then your brand effort may also have to be individualized. Write your strategy - it will determine your “go to market” approach.
Romana says there millions of dollars spent on marketing and brand strategies that don’t work. "Most of the time campaigns are so out of touch from the intent and culture of their organization
they don’t even make it to market. Then a company has to invest even more money to try to get it right, but by that point they are so fatigued they just launch whatever comes next. We need to change that," she adds.

Here's her list of 4 branding pitfalls to watch out for:

1. Avoid “standard industry language”. If everyone is talking about luxury, quality and craftsmanship then you should use other words like elite or best-in-class, care, attention-to-detail, and skill.

2. Don’t be something you’re not. Some new companies take on a persona, a brand personality that is not a reflection of who they truly are. People will want to be seen as “worldly and exciting” when they are really “approachable and skilled”. Don’t get caught in the ad agency ‘fast talk’ and adopt an ad campaign or look that doesn’t reflect who you are.

3. Don’t go in blindly. It shocks me how little knowledge entrepreneurs have of their competitive marketplace. Everyone starts a business thinking they have the most unique product. If that is the case then study those companies that are going to come after your market share once they see how successful you’ve become.

4. Be strategic. Throwing an identity and company name together without understanding the strategic implications of how the business is going to grow and what it is going to look like when you get there feels like you are accomplishing a lot in the moment. But then once you get there - to your future state - you realize all the mistakes you made. I work with many, many entrepreneurs – all in their 50’s - who didn’t focus on long term strategy in their 20’s, 30’s or 40’s when they launched their businesses so now they have to do everything all over again.
Branding takes a lot of soul searching and self-analysis and may be the last thing you want to do when there's so many other pressing matters to take care of for your business, but all that precious time spent in careful thought and planning will definitely be worth it.

What are your favorite brands, and why? Please share!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Balancing Work with Fun is Not Always Easy

A big thanks to Lori Field, who just plugged my blog on her website, Real Beauty Is. Lori describes herself as a social entrepreneur and life coach, and her site is about empowering women to feel good about themselves. You would think that would be something that comes naturally but I know for myself I need constant reminders to do "feel-good" things like scheduling a massage at least once a month (once a week would be even better!), eating healthy foods and going to bed at a reasonable hour. If left to my own devices I'd spend all my time either working or trying to figure out the next steps for my business, which can lead to burn-out.

Checking in with friends and family helps me stay grounded, so I try to make at least 3 non-work-related calls a day. Planning social activities can feel like a job in itself but if I don't tear myself away I become grouchy and negative, which kills my creativity. Plus there's nothing like the exhilaration I feel when viewing a great art exhibit, or walking through a blooming flower patch in Central Park (which is where I took this picture). After these little breaks, my head feels as if someone had gone inside it with a vacuum cleaner and scooped up all the "busy-ness" and cleared some space. It's like taking a mini-vacation from, well, myself.

Last weekend I went to visit my family in Puerto Rico (I would show some pictures except that my niece dropped my Canon Powershot A530 and broke it and all my photos are now stuck inside. I've grown so accustomed to carrying my camera everywhere that I feel lost without it. Once I figure out how to fix/replace it I'll add photos, so check back!). I was only in San Juan for 4 days but I spent a lot of time feeling guilty for leaving my work behind. In my head there's a sort of time clock that's constantly telling me that I'm late, that I'm behind schedule, like that rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. The reality is that yes, I have deadlines, but things are unfolding in my life exactly as they should, which is not necessarily on my schedule. So I need to relax more, and to enjoy my life right now, exactly where it is, because that's all I've got. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow hasn't happened yet. The only thing I can change is the present moment, which will be over in a blink of an eye.

I had a wonderful time in the island. We celebrated my mother's 76th birthday (she looks better than ever!) by taking a trip to the mountains to eat local delicacies, like crispy roast pork, fried green plantains, meat and crab turnovers an lots of other finger-lickin' goodies. I taught my niece and nephews how to use my camera (which ended up costing me but it was worth it), took in the tropical scenery and filled my belly with my favorite foods. The rest of the weekend was just as enjoyable. When I got back I put together a killer presentation for the "D-I-Y Website" workshop I gave on Tuesday (more on that in upcoming posts). My business is alive and well and didn't go down the drain because I put it on hold for a few days. Live and learn!

How do you find work/life balance? Share your thoughts with us!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"New Directions" for Women Entrepreneurs

Last week I gave a "Blogging for Business" presentation (one of my favorite topics!) at the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement (WCECA), a nonprofit organization located in downtown Manhattan, and met a fabulous group of budding "fempreneurs" (pictured right).

Arlene wants to start a film production company to make video resumes for actors, Idalis is creating a line of makeup bags, Shevon is developing a line of vegan, gluten free foods, and Yanique makes eco-friendly home furnishings. Maresa and Leonette are both starting coaching practices to help women in transition, while Kim is in real estate management. These are just some of the businesses that are being "incubated" at the WCECA.

Established in 1970, the WCECA's main objective is to provide marketable skills to women of color who are in "marginable and tenous places in the paid labor force." To this end, they created a program called "New Directions" for low income women with the aspiration and commitment to start their own businesses. Participants meet twice a week for twelve weeks, and learn how to" build and run a successful business, create a sound business plan and prepare for the obstacles and rewards of entrepreneurship." Workshops include business plan writing, marketing, networking, legal issues, financial management and business strategy. High tech mediums like Internet blogging and online marketing are also covered. This valuable course, which is offered twice a year, is totally free of charge. Most of the women who participate find out about it through word of mouth, and the class size is usually 10-15.

Kathleen Vaughn (sitting front row, far right in the picture), who has been with the Center since Sept. of last year, is the program coordinator. "Ours is an organization founded by and for women, so we are very attuned to the challenges women face today," she explains.

Kathleen says that one of the biggest challenges women entrepreneurs face is putting together the (dreaded!) business plan, so three to four of the classes are focused solely that. They are taught by an instructor from American Express who keeps the ladies on track by assigning homework they have to send to her via email.

"We address the professional and personal needs of budding female entrepreneurs. In addition to tech skills we also provide guidance on goal setting, stress management, personal health and nutrition and planning for change," adds Kathleen, whose dedication to the women is evident. Before introducing me, she read an inspirational poem to get everyone in the right state of mind. And when she went away to Vermont for a week she hired one of the past participants, who has a pet sitting business, to take care of her kitty.

After the class was over I walked out with a warm feeling and a spring in my step, happy to have helped other mogulettes-in-the-making move a little bit closer to their dreams.