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The 3 Identities of Every Brand (Even Yours) – Mike Kim
The Agents of Change

The 3 Identities of Every Brand (Even Yours) – Mike Kim

Every good brand needs three good, strong legs to stand on; verbal identity, visual identity and value identity. When one of these legs isn’t aligned with the others, it can throw off the entire balance of the brand. Mike Kim has been working with top brands to help them find that balance within their marketing.

Everything from the copywriting, to the design elements, to the blog posts & emails, and even the titles to your podcast episodes, all of these things need to speak one unified voice that consumers recognize as your brand so it’s positioned exactly where you want it to be in their minds.



Rich: My guest today is a real world marketing pro and host of the top rated Brand You podcast. After working a few years as the CMO of a multi-million dollar New York City company, he stepped into consulting and business coaching, and has been hired by top thought leader brands like John Maxwell, Donald Miller, Suzanne Evans, and Catalyst Leadership.

If you’re ready to learn how to market your business effectively without doing stuff that would embarrass your mother, than subscribe to his show, The Brand You Podcast. And for a small sample of his brilliance, I’m happy to welcome to the show today, Mike Kim.

Mike: Heck yeah, Rich!  What’s up? Everybody tuning in, I’m glad to be with you guys, and we’re going to talk about stuff that would not embarrass your mom.

Rich: Which is too bad, but maybe for another show we’ll do things that would embarrass your mom.

Mike: I’ve done many of those things, but just not in marketing.  That’s a good thing everywhere else in life.

Rich: So what drew you to brands? You’ve got the podcast and you’re helping other people with their branding. Why is that so interesting and fascinating to you?

Mike: You know, when I started out in marketing – and marketing today as you know is a really broad thing – and there’s all these other subsets within marketing and all these other subsets within marketing, all different types of industries that you can market. What I found was really the reason I went into the personal branding space and branding as a whole, was hat’s what people were asking me.

I had a background as a copywriter, I knew I could write well. But if people didn’t understand how the writing fit into the overall identity of a company as its brand, then I just saw that things were starting to fall flat.

So I know we have a lot of folks who are tuning in today who are from brick and mortar businesses, small businesses, a few entrepreneurs are probably listening as well. But these principles I found really helped my clients – and the company I worked for in New York – understand how everything we were doing fit into the overall identity of the brand.

It’s just like a person, no person is just one dimensional. We have multiple facets to our personality. And so when it comes to a brand. I help people, I help business leaders understand all the little things that you do in marketing. All the disparate things that are seeming separate, weave together to form a brand identity.

Rich: Ok. Now you talk about three identities to every brand. Can you kind of quickly go through those for us?

Mike: Yeah, sure. So these three things are like legs on a tripod. If one of them is off, you’re not going to have balance. And it doesn’t mean that one is more important than the other. What I am saying is all three are important.

So, I’m an alliteration guy so they’re all going to start with the letter “V”.  So you’ve got the verbal identity of a brand, you’ve got the visual identity to a brand, and the value identity of a brand.

So the verbal identity of a brand is how it talks. What kind of words it uses, what kind of pacing they use in the words. It’s like if you go into the Apple store – I know that’s a very generic example – but we know their slogans, they’re short, they’re punchy, 1-3 words at the most; “think different”. That’s how they talk versus a website like Thug Kitchen (this is not a safe work website). Have you ever heard of that?

Rich: I’ve seen a couple of their videos.

Mike: So it’s a cooking website. They just use thug language and a lot of profanity about, like, cooking spaghetti. It’s hilarious. But that’s their identity, they have a very distinct verbal identity.

Of course you’ve got the visual identity to your brand. What kind of photos it uses, what the design is like, what their logos are like. We can identify brands very quickly by their logo; Target, Nike, you name it, we notice what they look like.

And of course the value identity is the positioning of the brand. When people ask about position I say it’s really simple. Positioning is all about where you stand relative to your competition. So if I could visualize for you guys tuning in right now, this really high-end fashion bag, let’s say Louis Vuitton. There’s this really nice bag, it’s a little gaudy and overpriced. And then we slap on to this ad a little bit of copy that says, “big discounts” in comic sans font. There’s a misalignment there. “Big discount” does not match Louis Vuitton’s verbal identity, the font comic sans does not match their visual identity at all. No one should ever use comic sans, if you do you should be shot. And it cheapens the value identity of that brand.

And so in reality, “big discount” is Wal-Mart language. You’ll see that everywhere at Wal-Mart, and it’s not that Wal-Mart is less valuable than Louis Vuitton, it’s just they make their money very different ways. So when you have all these 3 lined up, you have a cohesive brand identity. When you have all 3 like seemingly different parts of the value ladder and they’re not lined up, you get that weird feeling as if you were looking at a Louis Vuitton ad with Wal-Mart text on it.

Rich: Mike, do you have any suggestions for companies that may have multiple employees that are writing and blogging and sending out emails, how can you have multiple people still be staying in concert with the verbal branding of a company?

Mike: Yeah, sure, that’s a great question. So the verbal identity of a brand is determined by the copywriting. I came from a copywriting background. To me copywriting dictates a lot of the decisions that are made in the marketing.

So Rich, you know how most designers and most creative companies will have brand guidelines, right? Like Amazon will say you can only use this kind of orange and it’s only this kind of font and that shade of blue. So we have visual brand guideline. All you do is create verbal brand guidelines. So within a company usually you have to train your team that certain terminology is to be used and not to be used.

I’m just going to think of an example off the top of my head. I did some work for a company recently and they have what you and I everyday would call “sales reps”, they have a sales team. Well they don’t call people on their sales team “sales reps”, they call them “program coordinators”. And so any time one of their writers wrote something, they were not allowed to use the terms “sales team” or “sales rep”, they had to use the term “program coordinators”. And that just became part of the verbal guidelines for the brand. 

Others will maybe say, we write blog posts, but in actuality to the public they call them “articles”. If you and I went on the New York Times media outlet and they said, “We have blog posts”, you’d think that was a little weird. But they call them articles and so we feel a little more at ease because it’s a newspaper. So all you really do is create verbal guidelines the same way that you would with design elements.

Rich: Ok. Talk to me a little bit about how copywriting fits into the overall identity of a brand?

Mike: This is really 1/3 of those three things. So the verbal identity of a brand is determined by the copywriting. One of the litmus tests that I often take businesses through – even some of the solopreneurs that I coach who are content creators – even with this podcast, Rich. I looked through your podcast titles before I came on the show. If I were to take a screenshot of your podcast titles and ask a complete stranger to glance at this screenshot by reading the most recent headlines on your podcast, they would be able to tell what the podcast is about just by reading your headlines.

This is what we all have to understand, marketing isn’t about closing a sale, it’s about opening a relationship. And when we can word things and message things in a way that makes it really easy for people to understand, then we’ve started to allow marketing to do its job, which is to open a relationship.

Conversely, when I looked at a couple of other podcasts – and this is just one I found online – I’m going to run a few of their headlines and you’re not going to have any idea what this show is about, I promise you. Like, here is one headline, “No Stress, No Growth with David Allen”. I mean, that’s literally the headline of the podcast. The next episode, “The Real Meaning of Beauty with Leah Darrow”. This is the same show. The third episode, “Dr. Ryan Gray is Starving the Doubts”. The fourth episode, “Cult Cabana”, I don’t even know who that is.

Rich: I’m not even sure it’s a person.

Mike: No, you don’t even know. I think it’s a professional wrestler. The fifth headline, “Career Cred with Ryan Rhoten”. And the sixth headline, “Allison Jeffcoat Armstrong Shares her Story”. Who is Allison Jeffcoat Armstrong?

So you look at those headlines and you can have the most beautifully designed podcast cover, you can have people who are on this show that are some of the world’s top business people or marketers or coaches, but without the verbal identity dialed in you have no idea what it is.

Rich: It’s interesting because I actually saw that slide from your slide deck that you gave at Social Media Marketing World, and I thought those were – without any context – I thought those were 7 different podcasts that you were talking about whether or not I could identify. Not realizing they were just different episodes of the same podcast.

Mike: Our mutual friend Amy Porterfield, she’s got a podcast and just like yours, you scan the headlines and literally can tell what the show is about. “Demystifying the Facebook Pixel”, “New Rules of Facebook Marketing”, “Behind the Scenes of My Website Redesign”, those are 3 out of hundreds of episodes and you can absolutely tell just by reading those headlines what the show – and the bigger picture – what the business is about. That’s marketing.

Rich: So when I think about copywriting I don’t necessarily think about the podcast titles. But I totally see how that fits in right now. Are there specific places that we should focus our attention on our copy right off the bat that maybe has the biggest impact in telling your brand story? Or I sit literally just everything you put out into the world needs to have that voice?

Mike: Ultimately everything that you put out needs to have that voice. It’s just like what Jony Ive – a designer for Apple – used to say, “Everything has got to look as if it as shaped by the same invisible hand.” I love that concept. And it’s the same thing with copy. Especially if you are in a business that is built on words.

My business as a consultant is built on words. I was a blogger first, then I went into podcasting, and then I started launching courses and stuff like that. When I start working with thought leadership brands, these are brands that are built off of the expertise of one or two people – they’re usually authors, speakers, teachers, coaches – I’m working in the thought leadership space so it makes sense that I’d have to have a strong copywriting background.

One of the companies I used to work for in New York, they were actually an educational company. And so what they did was they provided after-school classes from grades 3 all the way up to grade 12, tutoring in math, science, English, you name it. Once the kids got into high school they were an academy that helped kids score really high on the SAT or ACT to get into college. So to me that is a brand that is built on writing, so the copywriting was even more important than the design for that brand.

Now if I was working with a fashion brand or one of these Instagram fashion influencer where they’re just really taking good looking photos, the copywriting is important, but I would have to learn how to say a lot in very few words for that kind of a brand. Because they’re very visual, they’re less verbal. The verbal still has to line up for it.

You have a really nice picture for a travel blog or something of a beautiful sunset out in the sea in Thailand or something, it’s a very different caption and it’s a very different feel if I put on the caption, “This sunset is blazing” with 3 fire emojis, versus the same picture with a caption that will say “Sometimes the dun dawns but in the morning the sun always rises”, or something really poetic like that. But that changes the tone, so even a very visual brand needs to have the copy dialed in. So it’s got to be everywhere, to be honest.

Rich: Right. It’s interesting because I used to blog all the time, and the last couple years I’ve notices that my blogging has plummeted. And recently my favorite copywriter whose refused to write for me for the longest time –she’ll write for all my clients, she won’t write for me – and she says it’s because my voice is so distinct. I finally convinced her to come and write with me and what we ended up doing is she sat there and interviewed me for an hour. And what we agreed to is she would interview me, clean up my language, make it persuasive and flow well, and then she’d give it back to me and I promised her that I would add at least 3 sarcastic comments into the copy so it would sound more like me.

Mike: Right. You know what, I can totally identify with why she said that and why she was a little reluctant.

Rich: And she’s a better writer than me, I don’t think she would argue that point. But she was just so concerned that she wouldn’t be able to emulate my voice.

Mike: Right. So that’s one thing that I did when I was taking copywriting projects. For one project I was helping someone write their book, it was a really well-known thought leader, and I wasn’t familiar with this person’s work. They had published a few books before that so I went out and bought a couple of his books and I started reading them just to hear his voice. And Rich I’m telling you, this guy never met a comma that he liked. It was so funny.

That’s how I learned to write in people’s voices. I would start to study their writing elsewhere. And this guy didn’t like commas, he didn’t like semicolons, he didn’t like dashes, he had a rhythm and a cadence to his sentences. Some sentences would be 7 words long and then the next sentence would be a word. And then the third sentence would be like 4 or 5 sentences long.

And I’ve gotten really nerded out on that kind of stuff. It’s very creatively draining, as you can tell, I mean that’s a lot of work. But we’re talking about a brand having a voice, this person was a brand, you’re a brand. The way that you write is distinctive. So for someone to emulate that or try to write in your voice, they’ve got to do more than just swipe some copywrited files form the internet and slap your name on it. That’s the worst. That’s what I hate about that.

So there are some brands that I’ve written with or that I’ve worked with and have coached their copywriters. I’m like, guys you can’t put all caps. You can’t put any words in all caps in your emails. The second thing is ellipsis, those three dots. You guys are overusing those. You’re a very professional, scholarly brand, you can’t use those. So those are little things that we did just to hone in their voice when it comes to their writing.

Rich: So you brought up email and I wanted to talk about it, because these days it always feels like the big battle is in getting people to open our emails. How do you craft an opening line to an email that gets people to open that email?

Mike: Ok, this is a lot of fun.

Rich: And if there’s a difference in your mind between “opening line” and the “subject line”, because I realize now they can be taken two different ways, please feel free to explain that as well.

Mike: So both are super important because the subject line is the headline of the email. If the subject line is good then no one is even going to read the email at all.

So I’ll run you guys through just a few of my favorite kind of lines here. Some are a little bit counterintuitive, but let me start with a strong open line to an email, and then I’ll walk through some subject headlines.

If you’re like me, if you’re like anyone else out there that writes for a living or has any semblance of writing skill, you’re inevitably going to come across that blank page and that cursor and wonder how to get started. And the way I write emails is a little bit awkward, but this may help.

The first thing I write when writing an email for a marketing piece, is I write the last thing, I write the ending. So I put my name, I put the salutation or the farewell, I write the PS, and if there’s a link that I want them to click on I write the call to action. So I write the call to action at the end of the email first.

Now what I have found Rich, is that gives me a point on the horizon to get to. It kind of directs my energy. Because I know anything that is coming before that thing that I’m looking at on my page right now, the point is to get them there. So I can get them there real quick and write a short punchy, email. Or I can try to be funny and entertaining and get them to that email. It all depends, But the bottom line is, they’ve got to get to that email, that call to action in the email. And so that gives me a point on the horizon to write towards, and I have found that to be really helpful.

Now the second most important thing is the opening line. I took this from a writer named Brian Schwartz – actually Brian’s partner, Sue, used to be my virtual assistant – so they’ve been together for years and have babies and she quit working with me because they had babies, so I I asked him for a copy tip and I actually got this from him. And he told me this and its freaking brilliant. What you do is you start with this phrase, “I never though it was possible but …” And the whole idea here is to get your creative juices flowing.

So let’s say that you’re writing an email about email marketing and you’re trying to think of a metaphor or something creative to pull people in. Just think about something that you just could not ever believe. I remember a real email I wrote and I used this tactic and I said, “I never thought it was possible but…most email marketing is weaker than Shaquille O’Neill’s free-throw game.

And if any of you know who Shaquille O’Neill is, he’s a now retired Hall of Fame basketball player but one of the worst free-throw shooters in the history of basketball. I mean, just atrocious. And the guy could dominate until the game was close I the late fourth quarter and all the other teams did was literally foul him because they knew he couldn’t make a free-throw. And so I wrote this opening line, “I never thought it was possible, but most email marketing was weaker than Shaquille O’Neill’s free-throw game”, and then all you do is you cross out the “I never thought this was possible but…”, and now you have an opening line that says, “Most email marketing is weaker than Shaquille O’Neill’s free-throw game.” That’s a very authoritative line, right?

I wrote that to my list and I had hundreds of people literally write me back and say that was hilarious. And that’s what you want in your marketing, you want an emotional response. You want to provoke emotion whether it’s humor, curiosity, urgency. You don’t really want to scare people, but that can work. And that’s way better than, “Hey, do you want to up level your email marketing 10x, 100x, 1,000,000x?”, the same cliché stuff. And so over the years I’ve used this tactic to really write stronger opening lines.

One of the brands I did some work for a couple of years ago, they were helping non-profits raise money, and they were trying to contact these non-profits to buy into their program. So I wrote this line, “Most fundraising tactics are older than my first cellphone”, and all these people thought it was hilarious and then they read the rest of my email. So hopefully that helps, if it makes any sense. That’s one way to write a stronger opening line.

Rich: Alright, that’s definitely a good crutch. “Crutch” may be the wrong word, but crutch to get started at least to come up with something that will certainly grab attention.

There’s always this balance that we’re always trying to find between writing something that’s going to really persuade people to take an action, and coming across as being too salesy. Can you give our listeners some tips on how to work their copy in such a way that it does get results but it doesn’t feel too salesy?

Mike: Yeah, totally. And this is a big thing, people don’t want to come across – and if you are a used car salesman, please forgive me – but they don’t want to come across as a bad, pushy, sleazy used car salesman. We all want to market, we all want to do it in an ethical way, we all want to learn how to persuade because all marketing is persuasion. But what do we say to persuade people, what do we say to compel people to take certain actions that we want?

Let me give you a few phrases that I’ve used throughout the years that really worked in a lot of different context. One of the most popular ones that I advocate for is the subject line that simply says, “Not sure if this is for you but…”, and that’s in your subject line.

Just to give you a little bit of story behind this, I had a client once several years ago and he was a big time relationship expert, he was on Oprah, and BET, and NBC News, and all these other media outlets. And he was like, “Hey man, I’ve got this email list of like 50,000 people and I want to do a special presentation online, like a broadcast or a webinar on, “Secrets to Having a Happier Marriage”. But I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people on my list who are not married and I don’t want to offend them”, because there’s no worse thing you can do to single people than remind them they’re not married. So we had this subject line, “Not sure if this is for you but…”, and then in the body of the email he wrote a nice opening line and basically said, “Not sure if this is for you but, next week I’m holding a one hour webinar on 5 Secrets to Having a Great Marriage”. If you’re married I’d love for you to join us. If you’re not, you might know someone who is, so would you mind passing on this email to them? Thanks!” And boom, right there that subject line buffers you from the wrath of the email recipient because you’re admitting you might be wrong in sending this, but just admitting that kind of softens the blow.

So if you have a list that’s not segmented and you’re worried you’re going to be spamming people because what you’re offering might only be for a certain segment, then use this subject line and you will be surprised that people will appreciate your thoughtfulness in that. So that’s a great place to start. 

One of the other subject lines or slogan, there was a subheading I actually wrote for a brand who served a wide range of people when it came to age. So they were a leadership training company and of course they had a lot of folks who were in the corporate leadership and a little bit more advanced in their careers, and a little more advanced in age and stage in life. But they also wanted to target the younger demographic. So I wrote this line, “You’re never too young to be a great leader, you’re never too old to be a better one”. And you can put anything you want into that blank where I write the word “leader”; “You’re never too young to be a great communicator, you’re never too old to be a better one”, that might be for speaker training. “You’re never too young to be a great writer, you’re never too old to be a better one”.  On and on and on it goes.

And so you can fit anything you want there and the context of the rest of your brand will give that piece of content that sticking power. So, “You’re never too young to be a great ____, you’re never too old to be a better one”, and that kind of hits two birds with one stone, you’re getting everybody age-wise pulled into your message. Does that help, was that good?

Rich: It definitely does. And I guess one follow up question I have is, I don’t know how long that email was to the potential married people, but do you have recommendations on length? Like I’m thinking about some of the emails that I’m crafting now for the Agents of Change Conference, and I’m always like, how much information should I be giving them. Really what I want them to do is be going to the website and buy a ticket. Do I do this through long form content where I list every single speaker, every single agenda, everything that’s going to happen during the day, the meal choices? Or do I just say, “Go here, buy a ticket”? There’s got to be a decision made at some point.

Mike: Yeah, that’s a great question. What I do is I always try and wrap it in some sort of story, I always try to wrap it in some sort of story, something that will compel them to stay engaged with the content. So one of the recent emails that I wrote to my list was for an event that I’m speaking at, and I’ll probably do this for Agents of Change that’s coming up and is going to be a lot of fun, I’m thankful that you’re going to have me out.

Rich: Dude, I’m so excited. We hadn’t officially mentioned this, but yes, Mike is going to be speaking there at Agents of Change this year.

Mike: Let the cat out of the bag, there you go. But here’s an example of an email I wrote recently for an event that I was speaking at. It simply said, “Mike Kim thought of the day: Think small. Why? Because we tend to overlook the simple things that can have a big impact.” And this was a small event that I was going to speak at, maybe less than 50 people there.

 But I wrote all these things about small things having a big impact; “a tiny pebble in your shoe”, “a hornet flying around the inside of your car while you’re driving”, “Ant Man from The Avengers”. And the fourth was where I was trying to hook them; “duct tape on a door that led to the only resignation of the President of the United States (more on that below because I know you’re intrigued)”, and then #5 is, “small conference”. And I wrote something along the lines of, “Let me start with #5 because that is the most relative to my personal and professional growth. I love small events, I really love getting to meet people.” And I talked about why small events sometimes are more fruitful than a large event, and it was that whole motif.

And by the end of the email, I wrote like 200 more words telling this story about duct tape and how it led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. And now you’re probably wanting me to tell you that story. Like if I just stop, you’ll be like, “Dude, what’s your problem?”

Rich: I’ll have to Google it, yeah.

Mike: But the long and short of it was that back in 1972 there was this security guard at the Watergate complex and he noticed that there was duct tape covering the latches on the doors in the offices of the complex. So he removed this duct tape an then he did another round of security walking through the building, and he came back to one of the doors that he had ripped the tape off, and there was new tape on it. And so he got freaked out and he called the cops and they arrested those 5 guys inside the Watergate building. Like literally that happened because of a small thing like duct tape.

And so right there I posted that on Facebook, I shared it with my email list, and people wrote me back. And even though I was trying to push them to sign up for this conference that I was going to speak at, they felt they learned something. The email had some value to it, it had some meat to it. You could extrapolate that Mike just taught me sometimes small things have big impact. That was a nice reminder and I learned something about history here.

So it didn’t matter, Rich, that the email was really long. In the campaign I was doing to push this event. That was one of the early emails because I wanted my list to know that as an associate of this event that I was promoting with value. And so in that sense it was long. But as I got closer and closer to the event I was just like, “Yo, buy a ticket. You’ve heard all about this event for the last two weeks.” So that’s how I do that.

Rich: Very cool. Hey Mike, this has been great. I know I’m going to sign up for your email newsletter just so I can see your copywriting skills on display. But where can people find out more about you online?

Mike: If you’re listening to a podcast, the best place I would go to is just go to my podcast, called the Brand You Podcast. I cover a lot, it’s more geared towards personal brands but there’s a lot of stuff like copywriting and branding and all this stuff that I talk about there. And you can just tune in there to the latest podcast episode and you’re bound to come across some episodes that are going to help you. And you know what? You’re going to be able to tell whether they’re going to help you or not because hopefully I did a good job writing the headline.

Rich: Absolutely. Mike, this has been great. Thank you so much for stopping by and looking forward to seeing you in September here in Portland, Maine.

Mike: I am excited to be there. We’ll chew out some lobsters and look at the beautiful Maine coast. I’m excited, man.   

Rich: Sounds good. Alright, thanks man.

Mike: Thanks for having me. 

Show Notes:

Mike Kim knows the value of good copy and how it can impact a business and keep it aligned with its brand identity. Find out more lessons and tips from Mike on his podcast, or check him out in Portland, Maine in September when he speaks at the Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference.

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