PATRICK CHARRON: Well we’re here with Courtney Gray from Cerar & Malcolm, a brand development agency. Why don’t you tell us how you got started?
Courtney Gray: I got started in brand development pretty much by accident, just a regular weekend and I’m out walking around my neighborhood. I run into this hat store that caught my eye. I go in there, started looking around and prior to this visit I hadn’t even purchased a hat. I also had maybe a baseball cap.
I saw this hat that I had to have so, I took it to the counter. Sure enough, at the register were the two owners who happened to make the hat and soon to find out they made all the hats in there. We started talking about the process of making the hat. Then we got more into it then my juices started flowing and I started thinking about how I could help them further their cause of getting people more interested in hats. Also, just helping them grow as a business.
At the time, I was doing corporate merchandising so I had a professional background in it. Then we started just getting it to possibilities. I started creating a picture for who they could be and where they could go. A few minutes later, they hired me and that was my first client. I was working as their brand representative.
PATRICK CHARRON: Something you just said there where you started to make a picture for them to create that picture, I think that’s important in branding is to have that vision, that idea of what can my company look like if I apply all these ideas, if I see that vision, what does that vision look like. Would you agree with that?
COURTNEY GRAY: I would and to contrast that so I’ve been doing this for about 10 years. That was almost a typical way of me getting a client by accident, seeing what they were doing and then just being able to really communicate what I saw in the product and what I thought I could do with it. Really, it all came down to me just talking but as I’ve grown as an agency and as a person, now, I take almost an opposite approach and that’s more of listening.
Now what I do is if I meet somebody, I start the conversation. I just listen intently into how they see their product and what they want to do. Then I’m able to just absorb that energy and that information and look at my past experiences as an entrepreneur, as a brand consultant and be able to help them just crystallize and bring to life what they have in their minds. It’s a completely different way of doing it and I found that in the long term to be more effective.
PATRICK CHARRON: It makes a lot of sense so my next question was in fact, who’s your ideal client today? We started with the hat store but if we go on your website we see that you work with a lot of startups, with a lot of entrepreneurs and I think what you were touching on is that. Is to allow them to paint their own picture and to just listen to what they have to say and then guide them in the right way. Does that make sense?
COURTNEY GRAY: Right. Right.
PATRICK CHARRON: Yeah.
Courtney Gray: I would say our ideal clients or are entrepreneurs for a couple of reasons. First and foremost they tend to have a very strong belief in themselves, in their ability to produce productive and profitable outcomes and they also tend to have a strong belief in the work that they’re doing. That makes all the difference no matter whether you’re doing a design based project, coming up with some kind of strategy, developing a web experience, if the person or persons or organizations that you’re working with have a really strong core belief in themselves and what they’re doing, it makes just a big difference because they’re able to put more into it. You’re able to get more out of them and consequently deliver a better product for them.
PATRICK CHARRON: I guess is that what you would say is maybe what makes you different? What differentiates you from your competition is the fact that you’re really putting the emphasis on them? The word you came up with before was empathy and understanding what the startup person goes through, what the entrepreneur goes through and being able to what they have to say and really giving them a chance to explore their own brand and to help guide them through the process. Does that make sense?
COURTNEY GRAY: Absolutely and I would definitely say that’s what makes us different. I mean most companies and organizations have their own or unique way of doing something whether it’s the way they deliver their product or the actual process of putting that product together but for us our difference is definitely empathy. Having been a serial entrepreneur myself, and also having the benefit of all the people that I’ve worked with in my remote team, all of them having some entrepreneurial experience, we understand just from emotional standpoint what people go through. That’s really a big part of it.
When you’re dealing with entrepreneurs and they’re doing startups and they’re small, the emotion plays a big part into it. We’re able to really understand where they’re coming from and help them address those common roadblocks to stop them from getting in their own way often times.
PATRICK CHARRON: Yeah and I think in marketing now we’re seeing this trend toward storytelling. We’re seeing this trend through to reality marketing in a way and I think what you’re talking about, using that word emotion is we want to see the emotion behind an idea. We want to see where those ideas came from. We want to know that the people that we’re dealing with, they’re human beings and they have ups and they have downs. By sharing those stories and making that a part of their brand, it’s going to maybe help us make the decision between choosing one brand or another.
COURTNEY GRAY: Absolutely and I think a lot of it comes down to just differentiation. Right now, I don’t care what size your company is, what stage you are in your business life cycle, differentiation is extremely important. All of us run a risk are or challenging or dealing with on a daily basis just the commoditization of everything. Everything is starting to look more and more the same. It’s so easy between technology and so forth for somebody to duplicate what you’re doing. It’s almost impossible nowadays for you to differentiate yourself by quality or pricing or often times even with the way you deliver your product. Again, it’s just easy to duplicate it now.
I feel just through experience as a brand consultant and as a consumer, the only true way to differentiate yourself is to lead with the things that you believe in. No app can duplicate that. That will never get old or tired. No competitor can duplicate that. If you can just really understand and capture what you believe in and what your core values are and what we’re really good at is helping people make that something tangible and create a narrative that you can control. That’ll completely differentiate you from your competition.
PATRICK CHARRON: Let’s say, I am a startup. I’m an entrepreneur and I come to you for a branding strategy. What would you say is one of the first exercises? What are the first things I should be focusing on because there’s so many different directions I can go into? What would you say is one of those first important steps when you’re starting to develop your brand strategy?
COURTNEY GRAY: Ideally if you can just work on a positioning and that goes again into the things that you believe in and for us brand positioning, we define that with three core components: developing a brand narrative, value proposition and a brand story. It doesn’t have to be done in any particular sequence but we do suggest and through our experience just doing it at the same time. If we can get those three things together, you can use those as an anchor for your strategy moving forward and it allows you to just stay grounded no matter what’s going on and to not get off track. It also gives you ability, if you’re really strong on your story, your value proposition and your narrative, it allows you to actually pivot and be able to address the issue of the day or that specific thing that this interesting client wants you to do or customer.
PATRICK CHARRON: Yeah so it’s also something I think that if you do get off track, it’s something that will bring you back.
COURTNEY GRAY: Exactly and that’s why I describe it almost like an anchor.
PATRICK CHARRON: Yeah, absolutely.
COURTNEY GRAY: Again, you can just pivot, move around but you’re still you. You’re still yourself.
PATRICK CHARRON: Yeah and I think a lot of companies lose track of that.
COURTNEY GRAY: Absolutely.
PATRICK CHARRON: You forget sometimes why they started in the first place and then you’re too far in another direction and then sometimes if you go too far, it’s hard to come back.
COURTNEY GRAY: It’s really hard because we’re in a time where it’s all about, it’s a very customer-centric time we’re in right now. Everybody talks about customer experience and all these things. What’s extraordinarily important but what happens unfortunately we get so focused on what the customer wants, we’re not focused on who we are and what our goals are in terms of me promoting that cause or whatever it is. We lose track of ourselves and then we’re just chasing after whatever that customer is looking for that day or whatever the trend it for that year and we get lost. Short term, you might be able to get some really great gains and some revenue but that’s not a good strategy for long term success and growth. That’s where we’re focused on.
PATRICK CHARRON: The next question was, “What is a common mistake that companies make when it comes to branding?” I think that’s probably what you started to explain is if you don’t have that foundation, if you don’t have that anchor and you start just tackling the problem of the day, it’s really easy to get lost and not have a specific direction to focus on. Does that make sense?
COURTNEY GRAY: Absolutely. Absolutely and another way to look at is compartmentalizing. Again, it’s just if you’re looking at a particular task or a project or things separately and you’re not doing it concurrently with everything else or relating it to your core, your core offering, your core strategy, or your main goal, you get lost and you lose opportunities for synergy.
PATRICK CHARRON: Yeah, another word you came up with before was scaling and how important it is to stay focused on that.
COURTNEY GRAY: I think scaling is really important. Often times when we think of scaling, we’re thinking about developing a system to make us to be able to take on and increase demand and get bigger but, scaling is two-way street. Also, particularly for larger organizations, you have to be able to scale down, too.
People are looking for customization. They want what they want, when they want it and how they want it. Maybe if you just have a very specific, general way of doing something and you’re dealing with someone that needs something that’s customized, you need to be able to scale down your process and deal with them on your level.
PATRICK CHARRON: Do you have any examples of that? Do you have any examples of maybe a company who you felt was maybe trying to get too big too fast or one of your clients where you had to adjust?
COURTNEY GRAY: We were working with a company and it was a consumer product company. It had this great idea, great product, a lot of passion and was able and willing to put all the resources in to build a brand in that correct traditional way. We started with the brand positioning. We did the brand identity. We came with this fabulous growth strategy and then we got into developing the experience. We got so into the weeds of the process and to trying to scale everything properly that by the time we took the product to the market, we lost a lot of momentum that he had. He had gathered a lot of interest for the product and there was a lot of energy behind it. Again, by the time it went to product, a lot of that was lost. That’s an example where you can overdo it with scaling and get so caught up into your head and you’re not executing.
PATRICK CHARRON: Yeah, and I think a lot of entrepreneurs make that mistake when it comes to product development.
COURTNEY GRAY: Yes.
PATRICK CHARRON: That’s the key. It’s the product. The product in the end is your business.
COURTNEY GRAY: Right.
PATRICK CHARRON: You can do all the stuff around it but if you lose sight of the product then you’re going to have problems down the line. Does that make sense?
COURTNEY GRAY: Right.
PATRICK CHARRON: Yeah.
COURTNEY GRAY: Right. Absolutely so, that was a really great learning experience for the client and as well for me as a brand consultant.
PATRICK CHARRON: What do you have coming up? New year? Ideas, strategies, anything exciting in the pipeline that you want to share about you, your company, but also your clients?
COURTNEY GRAY: I would say for the big opportunity in 2019 for my clients and for us as an agency is definitely brand experience. I mean we’re in a time and I don’t think it’s going to change where everything is centered on that customer experience. Everybody wants what they want, when they want it, how they want it and brand experience is the way to get to that.
For us, brand experience is driven by three things. It’s about really developing your core. It’s about constantly refreshing and coming up with the look and image for yourself that’s clean and memorable. Last and more importantly, is that constant thing of just making sure that you have a very sharp mindset, that you’re able and ready to take on any other challenges that come up.
If you focus on those three things, you are guaranteed to constantly reinvent yourself and your experience as a brand and as a whole. That extends to everything from your process, to the way you interact with your clients, your employees, and ultimately your product as well. It’s all just one experience.
PATRICK CHARRON: That’s awesome. I think that’s really amazing advice. Also, finally, what’s your favorite book?
COURTNEY GRAY: I like books as much as anyone else. I would say for me though, I’m a huge, huge consumer of news and also research studies. That enables us to do the two most critical things in our business. That’s to stay credible and relevant. That’s our job as a branding agency to be credible and relevant and ultimately that’s our job and that’s the result that we promise to all of our clients.
On a daily basis, I’m always going through periodicals often times reading about the same story or the same trend from multiple sources. I’m able to get as much information that I can and there’s a lot of great information out there that’s already curated. I can take that information whether that’s raw data or it’s really well analyzed information and be able to come up with my own point of view.
At the same time, I love to dig into research studies. There’s so many fabulous, huge, global, consulting and innovation firms that spend millions of dollars and years, five sometimes 10 years in doing this research for you and it’s all out there. Decide to take a look at it and see what’s going on. They’re really good at talking about what happened in the past, what’s going on right now and what’s up for the future. Then I’m able to just get into that on a personal level, in a professional level and be able to share that with my clients so when they come in with some idea, I’m able to relate that to something that’s going on now and help them realize in the most productive way in the future.