Your client’s brand identity sucks. What do you say?

You love your new client, but you hate their existing brand identity. Here’s how to approach it.

bad brand name

In the past week alone, 4 different people – designers, web developers, content writers – have all called me and said the same thing:  “I’ve got this great new client, who have this really interesting product, but their brand identity is terrible.  It’s so bad that I’m worried that whatever I do for them will end up being terrible too, and they’ll either be mad at me or I’ll be embarrassed to tell anyone I did it.  What do I do?”

This is what I say:

1. Is it really as bad as you think?

If you’re ‘in the business’, you probably have some very decided ideas about the way marketing materials should look and feel. I myself can’t stand inconsistent fonts and colour palettes – they stick out like sore thumbs to me, they make me think that everyone involved with the company is unprofessional and highly un-detail-oriented, and I want to give the people responsible a stern talking-to.  

But many times when I mention it to the client, it turns out that neither they, nor their stakeholders, have ever really noticed that there are 3 different fonts on their homepage.  Their business is percolating along, with no noticeable gap in sales, and they’ve got bigger fish to fry at the moment.  And so I have to step back and realize that I am not the target, I am more critical than the average person, and what I see as a ‘disaster’ isn’t, really.

2.  Is it actually having a negative impact on the client’s business?

I think this website is terrible.  The colours are totally 1990s, the site is loud and far too ‘sales-ish’, and I end up feeling that the guy behind it is far more interested in selling me stuff than in ‘helping’ me.  But here’s the thing:  This guy makes a lot of money (he famously retired at 35); lots of people love him; and I understand that his website does a fantastic job of sales conversion for him.  In other words, the site is working – so it doesn’t really matter if I don’t like it, or respond to the story he’s telling. 

The whole point of marketing is to drive the business goals. Unless you can demonstrate that your client’s brand identity is actively getting in the way of doing this, you may just have to accept that your client may in fact know what they’re doing.

3.  Is there a good story underpinning a bad look and feel?

For years I worked with a company called Head2Head, and everyone hated their logo, which looked like this:

head2head old logo

I inherited this logo – I didn’t create it.  In fact, it was created by the founder, who famously drew it on a napkin (and painted it) in the very early days of the company.  Initially, I hated it, too – but then I realized that (a) it had a nice backstory; and (b) it became a sort of interesting talking point.  

Plus, it’s relatively easy to contain a difficult logo with good design:

head2head timeline

See how nice and polished that looks?  In fact, we often got compliments on our materials, and it didn’t matter if those compliments were followed by “…but I still hate that logo.” 

(To celebrate their 10th anniversary, Head2Head renovated their brand identity, and it looks great – but now it has a different kind of backstory.)

4. What does the target audience think?

You may hate the look and feel of this website, for all kinds of reasons.  But they “manufacture and supply researchers in the biomedical fields with specialized complex organic small molecules”, and I’m pretty sure their target audience doesn’t really give two hoots about how sexy their brand identity is – their brand equity and credibility is going to reside largely in word of mouth via scientists and whoever else cares about complex organic small molecules.  

On the other hand, if you’re about to spend a huge amount of money on a custom-designed house, are you going to trust a guy whose sense of aesthetics resulted in this site?  Not so much.  

Before you start worrying about the brand identity, it’s important to remove yourself from the equation and insert the target market instead.

5. Is the current brand identity going to cause problems in the longer term?

One day last year, I got into a bit of a fracas with some woman on Twitter who took issue with my assertion that logos should never be black and white and brand identities should always include 4 colours in the official colour palette.  She seemed to think that black-and-white logos and single-colour brand identities were just fine. 

She was wrong, and here’s why:  Successful businesses will eventually need all kinds of materials, from websites to infosheets to business cards to product line extensions and patented processes.  All of these things require graphics, imagery, and a brand identity that retains consistency even when fresh ideas are added.  If you don’t plan ahead, you’ll run into trouble later on – it’s almost impossible to shoehorn a new colour into a black-and-deep-red brand identity, for example.  What’s more, without a broader palette and a couple of fonts, you run the risk of a monochromatic site that doesn’t give you anywhere to go, design-wise.


TOMORROW:  How to guide a client to a better brand identity, even when they like the one they’ve got.

Want your marketing to work? Answer these questions first.

You know you need some marketing.  But where do you start?

For small-but-fast-growing companies in the B2B space – which is mostly where I work these days – marketing is often a leap of faith. You know you need some kind of marketing, because you have to ‘get the word out there’ and your website looks like it was designed in 1992. But how can you prevent that smooth-talking marketing consultant from leaving you with a dysfunctional (but so sexy!) website, empty pockets, and zero incremental revenue?

Well, despite what the Big Data guys will tell you, it’s always going to be tough to draw a straight line from $1 spent on marketing to $1 earned in sales.

But the best way to get the most out of your marketing investment – and avoid costly marketing mistakes – is to know as much as you can about your business and where you want it to go in the next couple of years. Saying “We want to sell more stuff!” and then hoping for a marketing strategy that will magically make that happen won’t work.

Here are the 11 questions you should ask before you spend any money on marketing.

The 11 answers you need if you expect your marketing to work

1.  What are your top 3 business goals for the next 12 months?

All marketing initiatives need to be tied to specific business goals – with specific revenue numbers.  There’s no point in increasing retail sales if what you really need is to increase sales via sales brokers.  Answering this question will also help you arrive at a realistic marketing budget.

2.  Where do you see the business in 3-5 years?

While the answers to #1 should be highly specific (“Increase revenue on X product by X%”), the answers to this should be more ‘visioning’, like “We’d like to be the leading provider of X in X area”).  However, it’s important to keep this realistic:  If you’re currently the #10 player in a saturated market, know that 3 years probably isn’t long enough to get to the #1 spot.

3.  What are your top 3 most pressing business issues?

Are you suffering from a lack of awareness?  Not being considered in the competitive solution set?  Not being able to communicate with customers?  Operational delays?  Confused employees?  Marketing and communications can help with all of these – and sometimes it’s more effective to spend marketing dollars training and educating employees than to build a fancier website.

4.  Which of your products/services is currently making you the most money right now?

The product/service with the best margin may be the best place to start spending marketing dollars, because you’ll get more bang for your buck.  Once you’ve tested the market, you can invest in other products/services.

5.  What are your top 3 barriers to sale/sales objections right now?

Are your salespeople having trouble getting meetings?  Are they having trouble closing them?  Are potential clients having a hard time finding you, or are they worried about your credibility in the marketplace?  Do you have a great sales team but a confusing message?  Before you start undertaking television advertising, it might be best to focus on sales materials or a more coherent brand identity.

6.  What are your 3 most lucrative target markets?

Small businesses always want to sell to ‘everyone’, but a limited marketing budget just won’t let you reach 22-year-old urban dwellers and 60-year-old senior executives. Identify the 3 target groups that buy the most, and sell to them first.

7.  Do you have a ‘brand story’?

Do you know what you sell, why it’s different or better, and how it will make the lives of your customers and clients better?  In my experience, most small-but-growing businesses do have a compelling story – they wouldn’t have made it this far if they didn’t – but it’s not being clearly and consistently articulated.  Sometimes this is where an outside marketing consultant can help the most.

8.  What are your current communications assets (website, infosheets, social media, etc.)?

‘Marketing’ really includes everything that your business uses to communicate with stakeholders: This includes the big stuff like the website or online advertising, but it also includes stuff like infosheets and promo items, RFP templates and graphics, conference materials and even reports and email footers – all of these things have a role to play in building your brand and communicating who you are to clients, employees and other stakeholders, and they all count as part of your overall marketing mix.

9.  What are your customers/employees/other stakeholders saying about the way you’re communicating with them right now?

Employees who are on the front lines, talking to your customers and each other every day, probably have a more accurate picture of your customers than you realize. Ask them what they’re hearing – and don’t dismiss the answers.

10.  What does business success look like?

Business success can be reducing the sales cycle, attracting investors, recruiting better talent – there are plenty of factors that contribute to the bottom line that go beyond “sell more stuff”.

11.  What does marketing success look like?

Marketing can’t be successful if you don’t know exactly what you want it to do for you – and again, “sell more stuff” isn’t specific enough. Do you want reduced customer acquisition spend, increased customer retention, more brand awareness, more cross-selling opportunities…? Marketing can help you with all of these, but only if you know what you want when you start.

Write it down.

I know you think you have better things to do. But I promise, if you take a couple of hours to codify (i.e. articulate, then write down) the answers to these 11 questions, your marketing efforts will be exponentially more successful than if you don’t.


Reviews and business success: Quality or quantity?

StayAwake marketing

Reviews are important. Should you get obsessive about them?

The other day, a client called me up in a panic. “Someone left us a bad review on Google!” she cried. “We need to get that taken down right now! It’s going to ruin my business!”

When I took a look, I discovered that the situation wasn’t quite as dire as she had indicated: The ‘bad’ review was actually 3 stars, which is more ‘average’ than ‘terrible’; the comment was one of those vague “They didn’t make me feel special enough” whines that people feel entitled to make in these days of Customer Engagement; and it hadn’t triggered a tsunami of “Yeah, they suck!” reviews to follow.

More importantly, my client’s business already had 47 previous reviews, almost all of which were 4 and 5 stars. So the 3-star review didn’t really affect their average too much, and even the most casual skim-through the client’s review history was enough to convince anyone that the ‘bad’ review was an anomaly.


Online reviews are important. As the infographic below points out, 88% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations – and they really trust personal recommendations.

This is particularly true for B2C transactions with a large amount of emotional investment attached: People will be less put off by a negative review for, say, a mainstream brand of toothpaste than they will for something that means a great deal to them, like a wedding-related service. After all, buying one dud tube of toothpaste isn’t going to affect The Rest of Your Life the way an inedible wedding cake might.

So what did I tell my client?

First, not to worry too much about one ‘bad’ review. Second, to respond to the bad review by writing her own, addressing the specifics the reviewer had mentioned. At the very least, it makes it clear to other readers that she pays attention to, and cares about, what her customers think. I also told her to encourage satisfied customers to leave their own, positive reviews – thereby pushing down the bad one and making it even more insignificant than it already was.

And then I told her not to worry about it any more. It wasn’t really that bad, it doesn’t indicate a pattern of terrible customer service, and the truth is there will always be someone who goes away grumpy, no matter what you try to do for them.  And anyway, if you saw a business with nothing but stellar 5-star reviews, wouldn’t you think they’d just written them themselves?

Sarah Welstead online reviews


Are your ‘partners’ ruining your brand?

StayAwake marketing

Using a quasi-franchise, independent-owner model might be saving you money, but costing you brand equity.

Small business owners are kind of screwed when it comes to marketing: They need marketing/communications stuff, but they can’t afford a full-time marketing person, and they’re usually on a super-tight budget. So they shop around for (what seems like) the best price – but that leaves them with different suppliers for their website, business cards, collateral materials, content strategy, social media…

And then this happens:

Bad graphic for Learning RX

learning rx graphic

Example of bad branding from Learning RX

Marketing materials with all kinds of different visuals, fonts, colours, messages – even the logos aren’t consistent.

At best, you’re not getting any cumulative value from your marketing efforts, because none of this is working together to create a cohesive whole; at worst, you end up losing business because potential customers don’t really understand what you’re selling or they think you’re an unprofessional organization.

Why does this matter?

Because the first step to making a sale – and the key to generating repeated sales – is building a relationship with potential customers. ‘Branding’ is just a way to facilitate that relationship, by providing visual and textual cues that trigger feelings of recognition, familiarity and trust.  When your brand identity is all over the place, those cues misfire; you can’t build recognition and familiarity, let alone trust. Relationships take longer to create, if they happen at all – which means you end up spending more money on marketing just to stay in the same place.

In the case of LearningRX, above, this creates two problems:  LearningRX headquarters doesn’t get the cumulative benefit of their various branches’ advertising, because it all looks and feels so different, and individual franchise owners don’t get the cumulative benefit of all this LearningRX advertising because the audience isn’t connecting it all together.  So the audience never thinks “Wow, I keep seeing this LearningRX company everywhere – maybe I should check them out.”

How can you protect your brand, even if you’re not a marketing expert?

I tend to think that even small businesses are best served by engaging some kind of brand steward who can coordinate all marketing efforts and make sure it’s all working together. But I know this isn’t always possible, so in the meantime, here’s what you can do:

  • When you first get your logo done (or updated), make sure the designer provides you with source files. This should include high-res AI or PSD files including your logo and fonts
  • Make a note of your official colours (PMS/Pantone/HEX)
  • Make sure you know your official fonts (the ones in your logo, printed materials and website)
  • Tell anyone who touches your brand – web designers, print shops, event coordinators, etc. – that you expect them to use your official logo, iconography, colours and fonts exclusively. If your colour palette is purple and green, they shouldn’t be injecting red headlines into anything
  • Keep track of your images. If you have used a particular photo as the background to your homepage, that’s what should be on your printed materials, too
  • Make sure you get source files for all your marketing materials, every time. That way you don’t have to worry if your designer moves to Bali next year and won’t return your calls.

Keep your source files and notes on your fonts and colours in a safe place that you won’t forget about it.  The #1 cause of inconsistency, in my experience, is when a client can’t find their source files (or the person who did them in the first place) and subsequent suppliers are forced to recreate or approximate a design.

Remember:  If you’ve done your due diligence and provided the supplier with the source materials and documentation, and they come back with something that doesn’t look consistent with previous materials, it’s okay to say “Hey, this doesn’t match what we’ve done before.  Are you sure you’ve used the correct fonts/colours/images?” or even “Dude, what the heck?  Why did you stick a huge orange headline in there when you know our colours are purple and green?”

“Sell more stuff” isn’t a marketing strategy – and won’t get the results you want

Sarah Welstead on why goals are important in marketing

Marketing can’t deliver results if you don’t know what those results should be

The other day I had a conversation with a new client. He wants to grow his business aggressively (from $1.5 million to $5 million in revenue) in the next couple of years, and knows he needs marketing support to do it. But he hasn’t done a lot of marketing so far, and while he’s an expert in his field, he hasn’t had much experience in sales and marketing.

Here is part of our exchange:

ME: “Can you tell me a little more about your sales goals for the next 6-12 months?”

HIM: “I told you. I want to grow the business.”

ME: “Yes, but as we’ve discussed you’ve got a wide range of products and services. Which ones do you want to focus on?

HIM: “All of them. We need to sell more of everything.”

ME: “What does your business plan look like? Where do you see the bulk of your revenue coming from in the next 6-12 months?”

HIM: “We need to double our revenue by next year.”

ME: “Where do you see the incremental revenue coming from? What’s making you the most money right now?”

HIM: “Everything. We need to sell more of everything.”

ME: “But you said you didn’t want to spend more than $2500 a month, right?”

It’s hard to achieve goals if no one knows what they are

Many – maybe most – small businesses are afraid to get too specific with their sales and revenue goals: “If we concentrate too much on one area,” they fear, “we’ll miss opportunities in other areas.”

And it’s true that the nimbleness of small businesses – their ability to respond to changes in the marketplace and adapt their service offerings accordingly – can be a tremendous advantage.

However, when it comes to marketing, this strategy usually just results in chaos, overspending, and an inability to judge whether a particular marketing initiative has been effective.

Marketing isn’t like accounting. But you have to at least try to make the columns add up.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that marketing is often more art than science – and even the science bit is often alchemy. It’s tough to draw a straight line from $1 spent on marketing to $5 in revenue.

Big-data types can talk all they want about profiles and predictive modeling and one-to-one targeting, but until they figure out that I don’t actually live in Ottawa and that I am not interested in hiring a painting contractor in Virginia and that I am definitely not buying anything from Zulily, I am going to continue to believe that successful marketing consists of gathering all the information you can, then making some choices.

6 steps to setting marketing goals that are more likely to get results

1. Pull your actual sales data so you know exactly what you sold. Anecdotal sales stories about that one time you sold a whole bunch of random stuff to that healthcare center in Boston aren’t good enough. Most of the time, your sales data will tell you that, in fact, your best, easiest sales are of your top 3-4 product/services.

2. Figure out what’s driving customer acquisition. This is, in my experience, the biggest unknown for small businesses – and yet it can be the greatest source of information for marketing purposes. If 90% of your customers are referrals from other customers, then you should probably use marketing to encourage more referrals, instead of spending a zillion dollars on a fancy website that no one visits anyway.

3. Segment your customers. Again, stop relying on anecdotal information and look at the list of people/businesses who’ve actually bought stuff from you in the past 12-24 months. You’ll almost always discover that 85% (or more) of them fall into 2-3 easily identifiable categories (same industry, same function, same location, etc.).

4. Identify your high-margin products/services. It’s (usually) more profitable to sell $50k worth of stuff at a 50% margin than $200k of stuff at a 5% margin. So why focus marketing efforts on both?

5. Articulate the business goals – and be specific. Yeah, okay, you want to sell more stuff. But why? And what? Maybe you want to drive gross revenue because you’re looking at an exit strategy; maybe you want big profits because you want to give your employees a raise; maybe you want to push a monthly service because you want to stabilize cashflow; maybe you want to build the brand to attract investors. The more you know about your business goals, the better you’ll be able to determine what your marketing should focus on, how much to spend – and what marketing tactics will get you there.

6. Go after the low-hanging fruit first. Seems obvious, right?  Except, like I said, most small business owners fear that if they focus on the obvious, they’ll miss out on the mystical unicorns of untapped customers. But here’s the thing: I promise that if you spend 12 months focusing on the low-hanging fruit, the mystical unicorns will magically appear. Business is funny that way: The more successful you are selling your core products and services to your core target markets, the more likely it is that you’ll start selling to everyone else, too. Plus, you’ll be so profitable that you won’t have to go chasing unicorns any more!

I know, I know – all this talk of business analysis and goal setting means I’m taking all the fun out of marketing, which is supposed to be about Big Ideas and cool websites and getting a YouTube celebrity to endorse your product. It can be like that – as long as you’ve done your homework first.