There probably is no greater time to be more creative and innovative than now. Businesses are fighting for their survival, and if they do not step up and adapt to the current COVID-19 situation, then they may not stand a chance. One of the crucial areas that businesses can look at is their branding, assessing whether or not it mirrors the concerns of the people now at large. Helping you grapple with this challenge, host, Melanie Parish, invites Jeremy Miller, the president of Sticky Branding and a globally recognized branding expert and bestselling author. Here, Jeremy shifts our focus into helpfulness, looking deeper into how you can be helpful and generous at a time where the world needs you more than ever. He lays down necessary questions that will open up opportunities for you to serve better and do something remarkable. Learn more about branding shifting and marketing during this trying time through this great conversation.
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I'd like to introduce Jeremy Miller. He's the President of Sticky Branding. He shows organizations of all sizes how to stand out, attract customers and grow remarkable brands. He's a globally recognized branding expert and the bestselling author of Sticky Branding and Brand New Name. His blend of humor, stories and actionable ideas will inspire you to innovate and grow your business and brand. We're talking with Jeremy about how businesses are grappling with COVID-19 and how they can shift their businesses into helpfulness and how to focus on the need in these trying times.
I want to welcome you to the show, Jeremy.
It is such a pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
I am excited about hearing how you are experimenting in your business and about what's happening for you during this time?
I feel more creative and innovative than I have in ages. That's saying a lot because I spent most of my time writing and releasing a book called Brand New Name. What COVID-19 has done to me is triggered in one sense a fight for survival because we're fighting for our health, but it's also this business fight. How do you avoid layoffs? How do you grow your business? How do you continue to move forward when the world is changing all underneath your feet and everything's unpredictable? I surprisingly feel energized and creative trying to experiment my way through all this.
Tell us a little bit about your business in normal times.
A good way to frame this is BC, AC like Before Christ, After Christ, but it's Before Coronavirus, After Coronavirus. Before the Coronavirus, Sticky Branding is a strategy consulting firm. We help companies grow sticky brands and we do that by working with the leadership teams to develop strategies and their capabilities to grow their business and brand to the next level. We work predominantly with mid-size, privately held companies. How do you grow from $10 million to $50 million, and $50 million to $100 million, and $100 million to $250 million, and doing that as more than just marketing? It's a combination of strategy, leadership and discipline of execution to grow a company like that. That was a BC mindset, Before Coronavirus. After Coronavirus has hit, our entire business has started to shift to how do you change your value proposition? How do you change your business strategy? How do you find and replace those customers' markets and revenue taken by COVID? It's the same methodologies and the same core sets of ideas, but they're being applied in a different lens because we're living in a very different time, which essentially everything got turned on its ear in the middle of March and we're all trying to regroup as a result.
You have some history of doing some brand shifting in your own company. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
By brand shifting, do you mean my history in relation to these recessions and that stuff?
I'm more curious about the shift that you made in your family business years ago to respond to those times. I'd love to hear a little more about that when you rebranded.
My origin story started when I joined a family business. My parents, Donna and Marcus, founded a recruiting agency, an IT staffing firm back in the late '80s. I joined the family business in 2004. I joined the company after the recession that had hit in the early 2000s that followed 9/11. We timed it to be after the recession but the problem was we didn't see the growth that everybody else was seeing at that moment in time. I had a difficult first year. I came on as the director of sales and marketing and my job was to help grow the business. I had left a big tech job working for CGI and I thought I was going to be the hotshot kid that helps show my parents 1 or 2 things. I ended up getting my ass handed to me to the point where I remember sitting down with my parents at the end of that first year and saying, "If this is what it's like to work in a family business, I can't do it. This is awful."
In that conversation, I probably got the best advice of my whole career. My dad said to me, "It's not about the business we've built. It's about the business we're building. What are we going to build next?" That gave me so much permission because it wasn't honoring what they had built and trying to keep that thing alive and going, it was, "We are entrepreneurs. We are going to continue to evolve and grow.” What I did after that when January comes around and we come back after Christmas break, I started looking at our customers, our market and our industry.
What I realized is that we were going through a disruption. The world had changed in the previous few years. Google was five years old. Facebook was a year old. LinkedIn was two years old and they had already changed the recruiting landscape. They were changing how people shopped and bought. In that, I realized we had a branding problem and people couldn't distinguish us from anyone else online. I rebranded my family's business in response to that. I had to learn all this. I wasn't a marketing branding guy at that point. This was the moment that I became passionate about it because I started to read all the books and everything I could get my hands on. I realized they were all written for big companies like Apple and Nike, but we were a small business. We were a family business with a marketing budget. It’s not a vast one. We couldn't do any of that stuff. It was that act of getting clarity and then experimenting and applying it and seeing the results and growing our company through that. It was an exciting period in my life.
How did you know that you had a branding problem? How did you know that's what you needed to work on?
It was simple. When we looked at our business from the customer's lens when you googled our company, the company at the time was called Miller & Associates. It looked like a law firm and an accounting firm. That was by design because when my dad founded the company in the '80s, recruiting had negative connotations to it. It was thought of as headhunters and things like that. He wanted to create professionalism in the way that it was set up. He designed the brand to look like a law firm.
In 2004, at the dawn of the web, looking like everybody else was a real problem. When somebody googled you, you weren't selling on your personal relationship. People were forming an opinion on you based on your website. When your website looks like everybody else, it makes it hard to sell from both a digital marketing perspective, but also a direct networking perspective because someone would meet you and then they'd look online and go, "What's this disconnect? I don't get it." It was that set of triggers that started to demonstrate that if we wanted to engage young career-seeking professionals that were at the top of their game, we had to present a different story.
Fast forward to now, where should organizations be experimenting with their marketing?
Now that we are in an after COVID market and everything is in a state of change, one of the things that I see that is critical is our ability to think with a startup mind. The interesting thing about what's going on is that this is a shared experience. Every person, every company from around the world is going through the same thing. Within that, we have all these restrictions and hopefully, over the coming year they’ll all get lifted. The lasting advice that sticks the same is in a moment like this, what we have to think through is how do we be helpful and generous that the world needs you and your company more so than ever before, but their paradigm has been shifted in many respects.
It's like we've taken Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and smashed everyone down into the Safety quadrant and they're fearful for their health, house, home, car, payments, job. They have this state of fear. How can you provide comfort? How can you be helpful? From a service perspective, certain sections of the economy are shut down. Where can you make an impact? It's in those questions of generosity and helpfulness and being ultra-proactive that leaders can find opportunities to not only find marketing and sales opportunities but also opportunities to serve their people and the people around them. There is a moment where we can all rise and do something remarkable.
I love the idea that it's with the helpfulness. That's important. I feel like everyone in the world is suffering. They're afraid and in pain of a variety of kinds. I love the idea of organizations looking for how they can help. That's a great way to think about brand, marketing, going forward, and even positioning as people pivot for the future.
This idea of pivoting is a mistake. Pivoting is focusing on yourself, whereas helpfulness is focusing on others. What's unique of this moment in time, if you compare the COVID crisis and the economic impact that it’s having, we are being pushed into a recession for sure. This recession is completely different from any previous one. It's not a market or economic recession. It is a health crisis. People who are pivoting have a chance of putting themselves at risk because they're trying to find opportunities. In that, you could come across as being opportunistic and icky. That is such a scary thing to do. We're already seeing the email and the companies are saying, "We're open. We have services." It's totally off message to the moment in time. What helpfulness does and focusing on need isn't, "How do you pivot so we can survive?” That's a self-eccentric mindset. By being helpful and focusing on the need, you're being very pragmatic to say, "Who needs our products and services the most? How can we put it and get it to them in a meaningful way? What are the tactics we're going to use to sell and market that?" If we can hold onto this mindset beyond the crisis, it is an effective sales and marketing approach.
What do leaders need to be doing and thinking for themselves? What should a leader be doing at this time?
The one thing is we are all in a state of duress. You can feel it physically. It's almost like Groundhog Day. Every day is the same but different. We're repeating it seven days a week and we have no disconnects from there. The pressure that I'm seeing on the leaders that I work with is immense. Everyone will tell you they're working triple time to keep up because when you're dealing with layoffs when you're making hard decisions, you're not slowing down. The one piece of advice that I have is to have a coach or have a mentor, have a sounding board where you can vocalize and communicate the things that you are dealing with. If you don't get it out, it starts to eat at you. Having an outlet is one of the most effective coping mechanisms. The other key message is not only for yourself but also for your team and the people you're working with is to be kind and lean on each other and that we're all going through the same thing. If you start thrashing and fighting it, it's going to make the whole situation a lot worse. How can you have a moment of grace and be kind to yourself, be kind to the situation, be kind to others and try to work in that collective?
What are your challenges or bottlenecks that you're experiencing in your own work?
It’s capacity, fundamentally. Surprisingly, my business and work have skyrocketed as a result of this. In some ways, I feel like I've been preparing my whole career for this moment in terms of my experiences, the type of work I've done and how I am responding to it. Sticky Branding as a business is in a growth mode. With that, it comes down to how do you try to do everything without blowing apart and burning out? I don't have clear answers for that other than we continue to evolve and build systems and infrastructure so that we can take on more and more.
You're not the only business that is growing. There are a variety of businesses that I've talked to that are growing. How do you grapple with staffing and bringing new people on or contract labor or what do you do to scale up at a time like this?
Wouldn't now be the most opportune time in the history of ever to be able to hire and get great talent? Some companies have laid off and released people too quickly. If you have the ability to hire, now is a beautiful time, not only to find great talent but also to get people who have a need. The companies that are cutting too much too soon, when the recovery happens, what are you going to grow with? Talent is something that is being under-discussed. In my case, specifically, when the crisis started, my number one fear and driver that motivated me to move quickly was that I didn't want to lay off my employees. I do value them. I want to create a secure work environment.
We had open conversations to speak to, “What’s our situation? What’s happening with our clients and how are we going to respond to it?” What I was blown away with having conversations was people say, "What matters most to me is not my salary. It's having a company and a job to come back with. Whatever we need to do, we will do it. If I need to take a pay cut, I'm okay with that.” I can't tell you as being a business owner how appreciative I was at that moment of time. My loyalty was already great but now it’s like, “We're all in it together fighting to the end.”
That idea that people are okay in the short-term and then they want something to come back for. It's a dream that we all share across continents. We want that thing to come back to and it's hard to believe that it will still be there.
Things will change. We have to accept that we are facing new markets, new needs and the company that you were before Coronavirus is probably not the company you will be next year. I'm okay with that. There's going to be definite losses in terms of social norms and things that we were used to that may not come back as quickly. This is a moment of change and this is a moment of opportunity. It was Winston Churchill who said, "Never waste a good crisis." My question for a leader is, what do you want your business and your team to look like at the end of this thing?
What's your biggest branding marketing tip for people who are trying to figure this out on their own?
I have two. The first one is a universal statement that is to choose your brand. The companies that grow the best brands are the ones that invest in it and choose to do that. What I mean by that is taking pride in your business, customers, in building infrastructure where there is real and true substance to your business. The misnomer is branding is marketing. It's not. Marketing is simply amplifying what makes your company great, focus on those elements of greatness and that is universal. Do that before, do that now and keep investing in it. The other thing in terms of branding through COVID is focusing again on that idea of helpfulness. You can do irreparable damage to your business if you are perceived as opportunistic and icky. How can you focus on need? In doing that, you're going to create short-term revenue and cash, which is essential. How are you going to sell things that are going to keep your business moving? More importantly by identifying and understanding the need, it is setting yourself up for what your business could become and could be like at the end of the crisis. That is going to pay dividends for years to come.
Jeremy, thank you so much. Where can people find you?
The easiest way to find me is google, Sticky Branding. I'm on all the social networks, @StickyBranding. The website is StickyBranding.com. My book is called Sticky Branding and Brand New Name. Those are both on Amazon.
Thank you so much for coming and talking with me. It's been a pleasure to have you. Thanks so much.
Melanie, I appreciate it. I love everything that you're doing as well. Thank you.
We've been talking with Jeremy Miller. I want to draw your attention to how Jeremy talked about helpfulness and focusing on need as businesses try to find their direction in this time of crisis. It's important as you experiment to be clear on your true North, your vision and your mission, and what you want to bring to the world. This deep concept of focusing on how your product can be helpful is powerful both for times of crisis and at all times. It allows you to ask yourself, "What's the customer's experience? What are they looking for?" It allows you to ask yourself, "How am I hoping to change the world?" That target condition allows your experiments to find the roots in something meaningful for your customers. This is Melanie Parish, go experiment.
Jeremy Miller is the president of Sticky Branding. He shows organizations of all sizes how to stand out, attract customers, and grow remarkable brands.
He is a globally recognized branding expert, and the bestselling author of Sticky Branding and Brand New Name. His blend of humor, stories, and actionable ideas will inspire you to innovate and grow your business and brand.
Jeremy’s path into branding wasn’t traditional. He fell into it out of necessity. After watching his family’s business nearly hit rock bottom, he was forced to take a hard look at the way the company was run and at their industry as a whole. Jeremy realized it wasn’t his sales people or marketing processes that were failing, it was the brand: their customers couldn’t distinguish them from anyone else. This insight caused him to rethink, reposition, and rebrand the business. The strategy worked, and within a year the company turned the corner and rocketed into growth mode. And in 2013 Jeremy sold his family’s business to focus exclusively on what he does today: build brands.
It was this experience that compelled Jeremy to embark on a decade-long study of how companies grow recognizable, memorable brands. He and the Sticky Branding team have profiled and interviewed hundreds of companies across dozens of industries to uncover how companies grow Sticky Brands.
A public speaker, consultant, workshop leader, author, and Master Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation, from whom she received the Prism Award, Melanie is an expert in problem-solving, constraints management, operations, strategic hiring, and brand development.