Choosing a brand agency

By Michael Van Ausdeln

29 October 2020

What to know when choosing a brand agency

Choosing a brand agency for any effort seems complex. But it’s really simple. As long as you know a few things going in – and ask yourself a few questions.

It seems complex because there are many of us, and many sound the same. That’s the problem with many brand agencies. They all tell you that they create dynamic images and names. They also don’t understand brand. And they focus on unimportant matters.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s go through a kind of checklist to guide you through the process.

Ad agency or brand agency?

Don’t pick an advertising agency. Oh, they tell you they can do anything a brand agency can do. But don’t be fooled. They don’t have the focus. And, more importantly, they are committed to developing a relationship.

Why is that a problem? Because then they lose their objectivity. Unlike a brand agency like Stealing Share, they make their money by keeping you as a client as long as possible. For us, anyway, we remain objective because we are solely focused on the project at hand. In fact, in most cases, we develop the first round of creative then brief your ad agency going forward.

brand agencyWhy is objectivity important? Because bias muddles the waters. For any branding effort to succeed, you must be willing to get out of your own way. Look at things dispassionately so that truth emerges. Not an affirmation of what you already believe.

That’s important. Because the reason most branding efforts fail – even if you use a brand agency instead of an ad firm – is because they take an inside-out view. What’s important about what you offer? How you are different? What are your brand equities?

Look outside-in

While the answers to those questions must be considered, they are not nearly as important as the outside-in view. What’s important to the prospect? How are they emotionally different when they use you instead of someone else? Are any of your brand equities truly meaningful and different than those of your competition? (Narrator: Most aren’t.)

Those are the questions advertising agencies and many a brand agency never think about asking. Because they’ll believe you when you say brand equity or meaning or message represents the truth to your target audience.

Do they focus on corporate identity? This is one of the biggest red flags when choosing a brand agency. If they talk about your identity – logo, color scheme, etc. – as being your brand, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Corporate identity is not brand. It’s a reflection of your brand. The symbols that express the brand. But they are not the brand. The brand is what you do every day to fulfill a brand promise. And, more importantly, who the customer is when they use your brand.

That self-identification is the brand. A brand agency can develop all the fancy logos and symbols it wants. But they’re meaningless if they aren’t a reflection of who your target audience is when they use your brand.”

Brand is not about you

Let me explain. The term “brand” comes from managing cattle. A way to mark those you owned. Let me ask you, who wears the brand? The cowboy or the cow? Unless something goes terribly wrong, it’s the cow.

bulb head man Theme ImagesThat self-identification is the brand. A brand agency can develop all the fancy logos and symbols it wants. But they’re meaningless if they aren’t a reflection of who your target audience is when they use your brand. Brand is not about you.

What do they test in research?

Just about every brand agency tells you they conduct market research. That’s a good thing, of course. What’s often not good is what they test. Most simply test the usual usage and attitudes. Mostly to reflect the biases of both the agency and, well, you.

First, do they perform focus groups? If they do, eliminate them immediately. Focus groups aren’t research. Not even close to it. They are not projectable to the larger population for many reasons. One, the numbers are too small.

But most significantly, participants are rarely truthful. No matter the expertise of the moderator. People are influenced by those around them. That means some are more likely to agree with the group. While others will disagree just to make themselves stand out. One strong personality in the room affects everyone else. You learn false truths in focus groups. No brand agency worth its salt recommends them.

No focus groups

Let me give you an example. Qualitative research is only used to find those things to test in quantitative, projectable research. To see if they are true for the larger audience. When doing qualitative, one-on-one interviews are much better because they foster honesty.

We developed a brand for a national propane company, starting with one-on-one interviews with potential customers. To find values to test. One respondent, when asked why he refills his tank instead of exchanging it, said, “I know it sounds silly. But I feel I own the tank. That it’s mine.”

In a focus group, he would have been too embarrassed to bring that up.

But when we tested the idea of ownership in the quantitative research, sure enough. Those who refill felt they owned the tank. Based on that, the propane brand said customers own the tank. But the company just refurbishes it (exchange) and gives it back to you full of gas.

Market share exploded for that propane brand.

”These are the most important roadsigns to spot when conducting a brand agency search.”

Test for precepts

Speaking of research. Does the brand agency test precepts, the emotional beliefs that drive behavior? If not, then that brand agency is not for you. Precepts are where your brand lives.

We all make decisions based on our emotional beliefs. We just backfill those decisions with rational ones after the fact. Just testing usage and attitudes leave you where most of today’s bland marketing lives. Just the wants and needs are the rational reasons for the choice.

Lock Head man Theme ImagesThink about this. We worked for a luxury car brand looking to steal market share in that space. We conduct a brainstorming session, of a sort, called Behavior Modeling. Where we’re looking to uncover those precepts and test them in quantitative research.

The process starts by listing all the things you offer. Then, we ask ourselves what those offerings fulfill. For example, the offerings include spacious room, smooth steering, leather seats, and the like. The wants and needs they fulfill are feeling comfortable, looking good and having status.

Those values – comfort, status, etc. – are what all luxury car brands promote. And what another brand agency will build your brand on. But they aren’t emotional. What is? The precepts that drive those prospects to covet your offerings. Beliefs even that might be a bit uncomfortable, like “I believe rich people are better” for the luxury car brand.

When that and other precepts tested through the roof in the quantitative, that car manufacturer owned a brand. The brand promise – the reflection of the customer – didn’t say “Rich people are better.” But it aligned with it.

Be smart – and brave

These are the most important road signs to spot when conducting a brand agency search. Don’t use an advertising agency. Corporate identity is not brand. The self-reflection of your target audience is your brand. Do not pick an agency that conducts focus groups and only tests usage and attitudes.

Get out of your own way, and find the brand agency that looks at things dispassionately in its search for truth. If you’d like to learn more, drop us a note. You won’t be sorry.



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