All brands say they want to be different, but very few actually take that jump and do it – or at least do it successfully. So what does it take to ‘wow’ the masses and elevate your brand above others? Denise Blasevick, of S3 Agency, fills us in on what to steer clear of and how to inject excitement into a brand, all while still remaining authentic to the core values of the brand.
Rich: My guest today is the founder and CEO of the S3 Agency, a creative agency specializing in helping brands become more well-known and well-loved. She is a self-proclaimed ‘battler of boring branding’ and believes that every brand has a powerful and valuable differentiation hidden inside.
Her agency’s proprietary brand elevation process helps uncover that, so that companies can maximize their brand power. So let’s get creative with Denise Blasevick. Denise, welcome to the podcast.
Denise: Thank you so much. It is great to be here.
Rich: So what is boring branding, in your opinion?
Denise: Boring branding is when, look, every brand has a brand, right? Either they’ve defined it, or they haven’t and it’s a brand by default. And the brands by default tend to be pretty boring. There’s nothing special you can say about them. You might buy them because they happen to be cheaper than something else, but you’re not buying them specifically because something about the brand speaks to you. And that to me, it’s just such a lost opportunity to stand out, to connect, and bond with people. And it’s the lost financial opportunity because you’re a commodity at that point.
Rich: Why do we, as humans, choose a brand that’s more exciting or a brand that’s more in alignment with our values? Like, how often does that change our purchasing choices, do you think?
Denise: Well, I mean, I think, look, we are emotional creatures. We love to imagine that we’re logical, but we backfill with logic. So we make our decisions based on what we feel. And then we see if it’s correct for us, if it can pass the whatever the test, the brain test, after that. And sometimes it doesn’t even matter, right?
Maybe you spend $5 a day on a cup of tea at Starbucks, and I could make this at home, but there’s something about that, that appeals to you. It’s that’s not a logical decision. I love walking in and talking to the baristas, or I like holding the cup, or the logo says something about me. So we choose things because we feel that they appeal to us. And that can be, to what you were saying earlier, maybe it’s the social thing they stand for or what I believe they stand for. So it’s how that messaging is put out, how brands live into that and make people believe, or have people see through what’s going.
Rich: And then also how that brand makes me feel about myself and how I’m consistent in my beliefs. Like you said, whether or not that brand is real or not. I remember recently reading some research that talked about the fact that they had shown two groups of people, either the Apple logo or the IBM logo, in a video for a split second. Like so short that you couldn’t recognize it, that subliminal messaging. And people who saw the Apple logo had 25% more creative ideas than the group that saw the IBM logo. So whatever you think about this, at least on some level, it must be working.
Denise: And people identify with it. They do. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Rich: So what can a company do to avoid this fate of boring branding? Is it just that we need to create a new logo.
Denise: No. A logo isn’t a brand. I mean, look at Apple. Their brand is an apple. Could that possibly make people think that what came out as a computer years and years ago would be this worldwide domination force and lifestyle? No, it wasn’t because of the logo. It’s because of what the brand did and stood for and pushed themselves to be and lived into.
And I always go back to living into it. A lot of companies will say, okay, and they’ll do this whole study and do the exercise and determine what the brand’s going to stand for. And they’ll say they stand for, and maybe they’ll put some social media content out there, but they won’t change anything internally. They won’t actually make their brand different, they’ll just have different messaging going out. And that can get you some people trying your product, but it’s not going to keep people becoming kind of part of your little brand cult. It’s not going to, because they’ll go there and they’ll say, oh yeah, this is just something, that’s not as special as I thought maybe it was.
And why spend the money to do that? Why spend the money to get people in, try your product or service, and go, “Hmm. Yeah, not as special as they said it was” and leave. That’s the worst, because then they’re telling people don’t bother, because we love to tell people about things that aren’t worth it. We really do. We like to have that negative… look at all the social comments, so many more negative comments than positive comments. I mean, unless something’s over the top amazing. Then people are talking about it. But usually it’s the negative stuff we see.
So we’ve got to be very careful when we’re working with brands. If the brand isn’t going to live into something, maybe there’s an aspirational thing they want to be, but if they’re not going to live into that, don’t do that. Be real. Be something that’s very real.
My big thing when brands come to me and say, how can we differentiate our brand? I use AR, and it’s not augmented reality. It’s how can you come up with something that encapsulates who you authentically are, that’s the ‘a’. In a way that’s relevant, that’s the ‘r’, to your target audience. Because if it’s authentic to you, but not relevant to who you’re trying to sell to, it doesn’t matter. Maybe you need to find a different audience. Or maybe you need to find something else that’s authentic about you that is relevant to that audience.
Rich: All right. Awesome. So let’s talk a little bit about brand differentiation. How do you define it? And then how do we implement it?
Denise: Yeah. So brand differentiation. If you look around at others in your competitive set – and competitive set doesn’t just mean things that are exactly like me. I’ve had companies say to me, “Oh, well, nothing competes with me.” Very few companies is that true for. So if I’m a candy bar and there’s no candy bar like us, we’re candy bars made with spinach and nothing else competes with that. You go, well, maybe actual spinach competes with you, maybe apples compete with you. Maybe Cheetos compete with you. It could be anything. So you have to look around.
So determining what is the emotional and functional value that’s special about you. That’s what a brand is. What can you stand for? And it doesn’t have to be, you don’t have to create something that is completely different than the whole rest of the world. You just have to own a piece. And what we do a lot of times, and when we’re doing this exercise and we have to solve brand elevation process that we go through. But part of that is looking at quadrants, and we have the X-axis and the Y-axis. And you look at different things. On the X-axis you try to find polar opposites, maybe it’s premium and inexpensive. That might be one. And then maybe on the Y-axis, you take I don’t know easy to get hard to find. And you can use emotions, whatever they are, and you start plotting out a whole bunch of different ones of these, and you put the competitive set in there and you see where they fall. And then you start looking for the white space.
Now, sometimes there’s a reason nobody’s in that white space. So it’s not just because it’s white space. You should go there. Sometimes it’s a terrible idea to go there. But you try that with different areas that are again, relevant to your audience and find where you authentically can be, “Oh, this is different about us.” So that’s how you do it. You don’t go, we’re going to be different over here. You’re like, we are different over here, and going in on that.
Yes, there are going to be other functional values of your product or service. If you’re a cleaning company, you’re going to clean the place. We get that. But what’s special and different about you? And is it that you come dressed as animals because you like to go to places that are children’s hospitals and make them happy, and you walk around dressed like teddy bears. Well, that’s very differentiated because you’re making children happy, not just cleaning.
Rich: Right. Absolutely. And so then implementing this, might it just be that these are already things that we’re doing, or these things that once we identify who we are, that we should be doing? Or is it it could be either?
Denise: It can be either. I love it when it’s something we’re already doing when it’s just pushing more awareness. Like recognizing, oh, people love this about us. So let’s let more people know we do this, and make sure we do this all the time. And it may be something we only do sometimes and people think that’s really special.
There is a hotel in California. I’m in California right now. There’s a hotel out here that is very interesting. They have a rooftop pool and bar and there is a phone that you can pick up or button. I can’t remember which, but either way. And it’s the ice pop hotline. It’s a phone and you can pick it up and they ask you what color you want. Not even I want raspberry, or lime, or I want red. And then they come out and they have a silver plate, white glove, and you get one of those frozen red ice pops. It’s really good stuff, but that is quirky. We call it micro weirding, it’s quirky and it makes people remember it and they tell people about it, and they put it in reviews. And it’s not that the hotel is so differentiated, but there’s one little thing they’re going out on.
So brands who can think about something like that, that’s an easy thing to do as long as it’s going to be relevant and interesting to your audience.
Rich: Absolutely. Yeah, exactly. That also reminds me of whatever the chain is that does the cookies, DoubleTree. They were famous for the cookies for a while. So there may be something that, and again, it’s still got to be relevant to your audience. If you were passing out spinach pops, maybe this wouldn’t get such a big play except, you know, certain micro audiences.
Denise: So your point about DoubleTree, that is something, those cookies re really good. They had forever, I think they still have it, and what does that say? That idea. Yes, it’s a cookie, but it’s you go in that smell of being a place that it’s your home away from home. and that comfort is captured in the cookie, so that’s why that’s really special
Rich: Yeah. It aligns with it. There’s a reinforcement of what they’re trying to get across and hopefully what’s important to their audience as well.
So you’ve talked about digital discovery. And since every brand just about is online, how can we create an opportunity for the right people to find us online? How do everything you’re talking about with brand elevation align with our digital landscape today?
Denise: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, for a long time, everybody was saying content is king, content is king. That’s true. I mean, cash is king, content is king. But really now there’s so much content, clarity is king, right? Understanding that your content, what you’re putting out there, the way you’re reaching people, we’re all being bombarded with so many messages all over the place, it’s overload. That we need to have something. When we have a brand that is differentiated where their content is very clear around their differentiation. So people who are going online and searching for things, that we’re capturing what they’re searching for, and they’re finding us. And that the Google spiders are saying, yep, these people really are experts in this, so we’re going to put their ranks higher and higher. Because when people go to their website, because they’ve searched for this piece of information, they’re staying on there, they go, “Uh huh, that makes sense.”
So making sure that our websites are optimized with the right kind of content, that’s again, authentic about where our brand is. It’s bringing people in. So that’s blogs, videos, all the things that are the right kind of content. Our social needs to be around that. Email marketing, never been more important. People say, oh, people don’t read email. They do read email. When it’s relevant, when it’s important to them, they look at the subject line. So yeah, maybe they’re not opening it, but that’s pretty good. If someone sees a headline somewhere and then they know when it’s relevant and they open it and maybe they file it away. Very, very, very important.
PR, doing PR and making sure we’re connecting our brand with our digital media outlets who are then the ones that are putting kind of the third party endorsed stories about us out there. And that’s getting into the Facebook feeds, and people are searching and having this ongoing long-term ability to find information about us – that we’re not saying, that somebody else is saying. And then they go to our website and see that’s really true. All of those things are critical for digital discussion. And it all comes from the right place, right?
If you aren’t differentiated in a way that’s authentic to you and relevant to your audience, the PR audience. The outlets don’t care about you, because why not talk about a different brand that is. The content won’t be unique enough to capture the spider’s attention and be higher in the ranks. And the emails will basically just be triggers for if someone needs a commodity and you happen to be cheaper that day. And that’s really not a super winning model.
Rich: So I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there who have the idea that they want to be all things to all people. And so this kind of goes against it. What do you say when somebody is like, “Well, I really don’t want to push anybody away. I want to be available to all the left leaning people in the right week, but I want be open to environmentalist as well as people who want to put more roads down in America.” Whatever it is, what’s the response to that kind of approach?
Denise: I mean, unless you have all the money, you can’t be all things to all people, it’s just impossible. But even if you did have all the money, you can’t authentically be all things to all people. You certainly don’t have to take stances.
So if you’re a nonpolitical brand and you go look, politics, aren’t going to play a part in what we do. We’re going to be talking about this particular thing, that’s fine. But you can’t not narrow down your target market. You really can’t. You have to specify who you want to go to if you want to be differentiated. Because for all the reasons that we were talking about, you can’t have content that appeals to everybody, it’s just impossible. Or very, very unlikely anyway.
Rich: Along those same lines, there’s a lot of vanilla content out there. And so it makes me wonder, does the world really need another blog post? And is that going to help us stand out? And I see you shaking your head, obviously your audience can’t hear this, but so then what is the answer? How do we come up with a different flavor than vanilla, as good as vanilla may be?
Denise: Yeah. Well, you know, what’s unfortunate is that the people who first discovered the value of having content, of having blog posts, of the SEO and SEM, and all the world working together, they really got a lot of value out of it right before the game. Just like people who figured out influencers right away in the beginning. And then everyone starts watering it down. So all of a sudden you have all these blogs out there that aren’t providing value, that aren’t providing differentiated information. It’s, “three things you can do this summer”. Yeah, I know I can go to the beach. I get it. I can put sunblock on. You have to make that content meaningful.
So for me, when you’re thinking, and it comes down to, again, that whole differentiation strategy and how you’re going to support it. What are the keywords that are important to you? What are the messages that are, what supports that differentiation and getting that audience? What’s important to them? If you’re not important to them because you’re doing something special, or you can’t be important to them because you don’t have anything special to add, just flooding your own website with tons and tons of content isn’t going to help. It’s got to be special content.
So yes, we do not need just another blog post, but we do need the right blog posts. We do need the right content. And if it’s healthcare, we need the right white papers. We need the right infographics. We need the right information.
That’s why you’ll see sometimes, you know, there’s a brand you haven’t heard of, and all of a sudden there’s a post that they’ve done that everyone’s talking about. And that information is because they thought about something really special. I always like to say to clients, what are the ‘aha’ moments when your salespeople are talking to whoever it is that you directly sell to, what is it that makes them go, “Oh yeah. We’re interested in that.” Dig into those moments. Those are the things, because you can amplify the ‘aha’. That’s what your blog posts should be doing. Not just putting words for words. It’s the worst.
Rich: Right. So it’s not just about churning out content, but it is about identifying those things. And that sometimes comes from real life. But then putting it into your online branding is the critical piece right there.
Denise: Yeah, absolutely. And not straying from it. I think there’s too much kind of brand ADHD going on. I’ll try this. I’ll try that. I’ll try that. That’s a really rough place to stumble into greatness. That’s not how most brands are made.
Rich: So, you said something really important, I think, a few minutes ago, and I want to come back to it. Which is, you talked about the fact that the first people to discover SEO or the first people to discover influencer marketing, what have you, they got a lot out of it. But then all of a sudden, everybody knows it. It’s no longer a differentiator. So that’s an important thing in a way. Because there’s a certain level of novelty. And when that novelty wears off or when everybody becomes an expert in that field, suddenly there are no experts. There’s nothing to do. Do you recommend at that point that people start looking for, as they sometimes call it, a new blue ocean, like a different channel or a different message? Or if this is intrinsic, if this is our AR, we just continue to hone in on that message because we were here first?
Denise: I think that certain things become almost obligatory, right? You don’t have to have social media, but it’s probably a good idea. But it might not do for you what it did 10 years ago. And recognizing that. So the kind of effort that you’re putting into it, the kind of resource you know, we’re going to have stuff there, but that’s not going to be the different maker.
So yes, looking for what can be different, and sometimes it’s a completely new channel that no one’s thought of before that’s harder to find. But sometimes it’s just thinking, what do you do differently? I’m a big Yankees fan and sometimes it’s good, and I’m a big tea drinker. And many, many years ago I started seeing Joe Torre drinking Bigelow tea. And Bigelow still does that, but that was very different. What tea brand was going after basically guys? Which was, you know, the main audience. Very different from tea brands, which is all the rest of them going after women. It’s very smart. And they stuck with it. If they would have tried it, “Oh, we did it for three months. It didn’t work.” Well that’s not authentic to you now. You’re not saying that’s the audience we’re really going to stick with. And it’s not that women don’t drink Bigelow, women don’t watch sports, it’s not that at all. But it was a very different play for them.
Rich: So one thing that I know a lot of my clients are always interested in doing is being portrayed as the expert. So with all this vanilla content out there, and all this content that’s been created, how do we stand out online? How do we show our audience that we’re the experts?
Denise: Well thought leadership is the pinnacle. If you are truly a thought leader and are sought after by the media for your POV and commentary on things happening in your industry or in the news, that’s pretty magical. Because the content that can come around there is, people aren’t just looking for your brand, they’re looking for your point of view and your leadership. And that that’s incredibly special.
Not every brand is born a thought leader. You know, you have your thought leader brands like you know, Patagonia, right? They have always been who they are and always been differentiated in that space and they lead that conversation. But even if you aren’t leading it, you can be part of the narrative. And I think that’s important. The more and more we go on, there are a lot of consumers from both a B2B and B2C perspective and a D2C perspective, right. Really huge, the whole direct to consumer. They do a note your POV. They want to know. And it doesn’t have to, you know, as soon as I say that people like political – and I’m not saying politically – but they want to know what you stand for. It’s something that people are thinking about now that maybe they didn’t think about as much prior to this.
So if you’re a shoe company and you give back shoes to people that don’t have shoes, I can feel good about it. I can feel like, “Great. I’m not just buying one pair of shoes. I’m buying two, one for me and one for someone else.” And that taps into my need as a human being to feel good about myself and someone else is making that easier for me. And that’s very different differentiating.
Rich: Yeah. And even with the Patagonia example, I wouldn’t say they own that space, but certainly they’re well-known for some of their very creative approaches to environmentalism and recycling and everything like that. But you could still just kind of niche down and be like, I’m going to be the environmental leader in my state, or in my city, or in my industry, that we’re Patagonia isn’t. So it sounds like there’s still ways that we can narrow down and really stand out online by just continuing to, whether it’s niching down, going after a specific audience, a geography, what have you.
Denise: And I think the word that you use, I love the word ‘niche’. And you know, we say it all the time, like’ the riches are in the niches’. That rather than trying to own everything, own something, own it really well. And you will have results on that.
Rich: Right. And same thing with Bigelow tea and Joe Torre. It’s not that they were saying women can’t drink this. And certainly women can be huge baseball fans, as you’re a huge Yankees fan. But at the same time, they’re saying that we want to own the space for men, or at least we’re going to make tea – at least Bigelow tea – a more masculine brand that men feel okay drinking. It’s ridiculous to think that men wouldn’t feel okay drinking tea, but you know, such is the world we sometimes live in.
Denise: But it’s smart, too, bringing bout the health aspect of it. You know, making it okay. It’s kind of that permission, right? You don’t have to be drinking beer while you’re watching the game, you can be drinking tea. Or maybe you want to drink beer while you watch the game, but then later you want to drink tea. and just like bringing it into that conversation.
So I go back to the narrative, the conversation. Whether you’re the starter of it or part of it, you got to be in there. Otherwise you’re working extra hard to get people thinking of you versus hearing about you or talking about you when it’s already organically happening.
Rich: So a lot of marketers get super excited about customer acquisition. But we not always quite as excited about customer retention. I would argue is much more important. So with that idea, ongoing, how do we stay connected? We’ve established our brand. We’ve put out in the marketplace who we are, it’s authentic and it’s relatable or relevant to our client base. But then what happens? How do we stay in front of them? How do we stay connected? Especially if we’ve got a product or a service that might be a multiple time buy or a long-term relationship type purchase.
Denise: Again, as human beings, we’re excited by the shiny thing. Right. And so it is easy, even if you really I love this brand. Oh, well here’s a new thing. Let me try it. We have to, as marketers recognize that’s going to happen and we have to work really hard to keep the people who already know and love us. So we’ve got to make them feel special. We have to make sure that we’re going above and beyond, that we’re innovating in the space that we’re in, letting them know about it. You know, we can’t just assume that our loyal audience knows everything about us or that they remember. As brands, we know all this stuff about us and we’re like, oh, we see it all the time. But they don’t.
And maybe especially if it’s not a frequent purchase, if it’s just sometimes long cycle, it’s very easy if you haven’t been staying in touch, you haven’t been cultivating that relationship, to stray just like a relationship. You have to really make that relationship valuable.
Rich: Do you have a ratio of how much brand should be talking about what they stand for or what they’re in alignment with? Especially if it’s kind of away from what they sell versus what they sell. So I’m just thinking about conversations I started having with both my clients, as well as a general audience at the beginning of COVID, about leadership issues and taking care of your team and taking care of your customers, and then the whole black lives matter movement and all these kinds of things. Is there too much when we’re talking about what we stand for? Or is there a perfect ratio? Or is it just something that’s, be authentic?
Denise: It’s all about being authentic. You know, we have brands that the people working there are, “Oh, we really think we want to say something”, but what does the brand say? This isn’t your personal social media. How does the brand relate to this? What can you do about this?
Because a lot of brands got in trouble for just putting a post out. Which on the one hand, okay, solidarity. But what are you doing about it? You know, people are going, show me the receipts. How are you backing this movement? And there is value to saying we back this movement, but we need more than that for something that is so serious. You can, for something that is maybe less divisive as Earth Day. You can put out a post saying, “Hey, it’s Earth Day ,don’t forget to recycle!” Or you can take Earth Day really far and say, “Hey, this is Earth Day and we’re Patagonia. Please don’t buy new stuff, bring your stuff here and we’ll fix it.” And that kind of thing. But you have to really think about kind of the gradient of where your brand falls on something.
And then there’s also like maybe you’re founder feels something, but your company doesn’t feel something. It doesn’t stand for that. So again, when you differentiate your brand, you determine that DNA, you want to live into that DNA. If you have clarity around that and alignment, internal alignment, which is a huge issue. A lot of times brands like marketing has this, but the rest of the company, doesn’t. You have that internal alignment around what that brand differentiation is. Those decisions become much easier to make. And people are empowered to make them, they don’t have to go, should we do this? People just, they know what the right answer is.
Rich: Denise, this has been great. You’ve given us a lot to think about of how we should identify our brands, how we should stand out. If people want to learn more about you and the S3 Agency, where can we send them?
Denise: Please visit our website, which is S3.agency. Check me out on LinkedIn, Denise Blasevick, good luck spelling that, but I know it’ll be linked in your podcast. And Rich, thank you so much. It has been wonderful talking to you. Anytime you want to talk about battling boring branding, please give me a shout.
Rich: Sounds great. Thank you so much for your time today.
Denise Blasevick focuses on elevating brands to find more success and recognition by using all the data and information that marketers these days already have. Definitely head to her website for info on that 3-step process, and follow her on LinkedIn.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.