This Entrepreneur Says He Spends as Much as $200K a Month on Building His Brand

Andrew Medal connects with Billy Gene in San Diego to talk all things digital marketing.


1 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Billy Gene is an online marketing influencer and educator. Through his online courses and Facebook live-streams, he teaches important entrepreneurial skills that schools often miss.

Gene says he spends up to $200,000 a month on his personal brand leveraging unique video content and ads on billboards, podcasts, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

Related: This Tattoo Artist Fell in Love With the Art When He Was 16. Here’s How He Made a Career Out of It.

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How to Start a Cannabis-Focused Branding and Design Business

Two industry experts give their tips for breaking into this green-hot industry.


4 min read


Don’t enter the world of cannabis branding unless you’re ready to give it everything you’ve got. “You have to dedicate your life to it, which I have,” says Cannabrand CEO Olivia Mannix, who founded the Denver-based marketing company right out of college in 2014, the same year recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado. “Running a business, in general, is a huge challenge. Top that off with the nascent cannabis industry, and you have a double whammy. It’s not for the faint of heart.” Most brands are ripe for a rebrand — trying to pivot consumer perceptions from party plant to professional product — so Cannabrand must ensure that everything from names to packaging embodies this aesthetic for their 157 clients. (Mindful, a dispensary chain with locations in Colorado and Illinois, tasked them with coming up with an entirely new brand identity, which resulted in a redesign of storefronts, uniforms and signage.)

Related: Whatever Business You’re In, You Can Pivot to the Cannabis Business

Jared Mirsky, founder and CEO of Seattle-based Wick & Mortar, agrees: “The most important lesson is to immerse yourself in the cannabis industry. You can’t be a branding expert and step into cannabis, and you can’t be a cannabis expert and step into branding. You have to have a passion for both spaces.” With a focus on strategy, package design and web design, Wick & Mortar helps clients like PayQwick — a cannabis-focused electronic payments hub — compete in a crowded marketplace with a sleek digital presence and enhanced typography and photography treatments.  

Related: Pay Attention to These 6 Cannabis Industry Trends

Both Cannabrand and Wick & Mortar got into the game on the ground floor. “We have watched as it grew from a black market flower in a ziplock bag with a cartoon sticker to the behemoth it is today,” muses Mirsky, who started his company in 2009, three full years before Washington became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. (The company originally focused on medical marijuana, which has been legal since 1998.)

Mannix recalls the pure hustle she needed when starting Cannabrand: “It was very difficult — nobody wanted to spend any money on marketing. Everyone thought, I sell weed; it’s going to sell itself.” To convince potential clients her services were needed, she would go to every event she possibly could, even creating some herself. “Fast-forward three, four years,” she says, “and the market space is very noisy, there’s a lot of competition, and you have to differentiate yourself.”

Related: 7 Statistics Entrepreneurs Need to Know About Legal Cannabis and CBD

While the world of cannabis marketing is no longer foreign to people, that doesn’t mean there’s a clear path for making a mark in the industry. “It’s still the Wild West,” says Mirsky. “While the black market days may have ended, this industry is still a relic of the past. You have a product that every single American has heard of — many in a negative connotation — and you have businesses that used to have to operate outside of legal realms. This is an industry with unprecedented demand, strict government oversight, harsh opposition, an incredible influx of investment capital, and no road map to follow.” Therein lies the opportunity for branding experts like Mirsky and Mannox; their insights, experience and vision give them the ability to draw that map, ensuring their clients are well-positioned for whatever the future of this volatile industry might hold.

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How Brands Can Work With Festival Sponsorship

Festivals and sponsors collaborate with each other to create events that help bring communities together.


7 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Sponsorship for music-related events totaled $1.4 billion in 2016, a number that surpassed sponsorship spending in any other industry. Festivals and sponsors collaborate with each other to create events that help bring communities together, spread awareness for important charities and causes and aid in building a loyal following for their brands.

However, what many people don’t notice is the amount of hard work, planning and effort that is put into the preparation of these events long-before they launch. So, what exactly goes on behind the scenes between sponsors and events?  How do promoters know which companies to pair with which acts? What sort of ROI should companies expect from sponsoring an event?

Related: 5 Tips for Using Corporate Sponsorship to Drive Brand Visibility

Benefits of sponsorships 

Sponsoring festivals offer numerous benefits other than serving as a means to display social responsibility. 

For one, sponsorship gives brands the ability to generate awareness about themselves, their products and services. A great example is noted by 7UP, who began a multiyear partnership with Ulta in 2014 — a world leader in music festival production. They used this partnership as a way to get themselves back into the public eye and in front of the millennial audiences they were interested in targeting. 

Participating in sponsorships can also help companies increase sales, either directly through selling their products at an event, or indirectly by generating quality leads from an event.

Companies interested in rebranding can also seek out events which are heavily attended by the target demographics they are interested in acquiring. 

Furthermore, sponsorship gives companies the opportunity to gain an edge over the competition. In the case of 7UP, they had been consistently outspent by their competitors for years and used sponsorship as a way to level the playing field.

Cupcake Winery has also found a niche in festival sponsorship that has differentiated them from their competitors. They are currently the only wine sponsor in the history of Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and are going on their fifth year as a sponsor. Their VP of Marketing, Eben Gillette recently discussed the benefits of sponsoring festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza.

“It allows us to share our wines with a large, diverse group of people, many of whom travel thousands of miles to the festivals. We’re glad that we can introduce Cupcake wines to these audiences and continue to play a positive part in these music lovers’ experience while inspiring them to keep choosing joy, both at the festivals and afterwards.”

MAC Cosmetics has also proved to be a pioneer in the field of festival sponsorship. According to Toni Lakis, Senior Vice President and Global Creative Director, the company recently created a limited-edition makeup kit that enabled consumers to achieve the ultimate festival look whether they were able to attend the festival or not.

“We have had experiential moments at music festivals, including SXSW and Coachella, and have partnered with Tomorrowland for several years,” said Lakis while extolling the benefits of festival sponsorship.

Related: The Number One Lesson You Can Learn from Fyre Festival: Preparation is Everything

Finding the perfect match. 

To find the perfect match, companies must perform due diligence in assessing whether sponsoring an event will be a viable method for achieving their strategic goals. Promoters on the other hand, have the responsibility of handling PR, preparing proposals, locating and pitching potential sponsors, as well as compiling relevant data to present companies in order to help them ensure their investment will be worthwhile.

Event promoters must prepare asset valuations, research demographics of past events that they’ve managed, as well come up with projections for the event they are currently preparing for. For example, if an event is heavily attended by young, college-aged individuals, the promoter is going to want to seek out companies who cater to this demographic. 

Data such as average attendance, age of attendees, gender makeup, income, education, distance traveled (important for sponsors such as hotels) and more are necessary to present to potential sponsors in order for them to be able to assess whether the event is worthwhile for them to consider.

During a recent interview, Deb Curtis, Vice President of Global Experiential Marketing and Partnerships at American Express,  discussed the importance of keeping the target demographic at the forefront of the mind during the decision process. “All great music partnerships and experiences for American Express begin and end with our Card Members, as we ensure everything we do is in service of how they live their lives. We bring them closer to the cultural moments and artists they love — while servicing their needs and enhancing their experience along the way.”

Related: For Millennial-Hungry Businesses, Food Festivals Aren’t Fluff

Finding the right partnerships is often a tough task, but is crucial to success. Sari Brecher, Director of PR & Entertainment Marketing at Diageo recently discussed their strategy for Buchanan’s Blended Scotch Whisky, a popular brand of theirs. “Partnerships are an important initiative for us, as they allow us to truly be creative and showcase the depth of our portfolio. When looking to establish partnerships with incredible people like J Balvin, we look for partners who share our goal to satisfy the customer, who are masters of their craft and who do things with creative flair.”

However, not every business looks for these characteristics in a partnership. Companies with alternative or edgier target demographics must seek out partnerships with events that can compliment the lifestyle, habits and interests of their consumers. On the other end of the spectrum, festival promoters and managers must learn to embrace the idiosyncratic aspects of their events that make them truly unique.

“Each festival is different. Las Rageous is two days of heavy metal, food and fun in downtown Las Vegas…We aren’t the most PC festival in the world because neither are our fans. We embraced the community and lifestyle of everyday metalheads and closet metalheads, making friends and lifelong fans along the way. That and we know how to put on a hell of a party and rage,” said Bud Pico, General Manager Las Vegas-based heavy metal music festival Las Rageous.

John L. Reese, CEO of Synergy Global entertainment goes on to say,  “We are in the immersive event business providing experiences for music fans to engage in the culture and lifestyle of the genre of music they love.  Music is truly the greatest emotional release we have as human beings and when you combine that with niched lifestyle attractions the attendees can have a fantasy day and forget about their daily problems. It’s an escape from their life reality for a time which I think everyone needs.”

Finding the right sponsor is simply a matter of rolling up your sleeves and hitting the pavement. I cannot stress enough the importance of going out to various events, big and small, and just talking. I don’t care if it’s the grocery store, the beauty salon, or a lavish party or charity event. Have your business cards ready and don’t sit there like a wallflower. Nothing will come to you if you don’t reach out to others.

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Is Your Marketing Plan Aligned With Your Branding Goals?

branding and marketing goals

When your marketing plan aligns with your branding goals, your company becomes memorable to the masses. Nearly every business owner has goals, but how you define and carry them out often makes the difference between success and failure.

Around 84.5 percent of American companies use some type of digital content marketing. Marketing and branding are two different elements of your business’s image, but they also work together toward building an overall picture of who you are as a company.

Make sure branding and marketing align by following the 11 steps below to sync your business branding goals with your actions.

Step 1: Create your branding goals

If you don’t yet have branding goals for your business, your first step is creating a solid plan. If you already have some goals, take a few minutes to re-evaluate them and make sure they still align with your company plan.

Branding goals are tricky because the brand is how others see you. You can control some aspects of this, but not everything. Goals should include things such as how often your brand is presented to consumers and ideas for how you’d like others to see your business.

If you’re doing digital marketing, you’ve probably already aligned your marketing goals with your company’s sales goals and forecast: in order to achieve X percent growth in sales, you’re using a number of different marketing and sales tactics to increase your revenue.

Branding goals are a little different—think more about the top of your sales funnel. You’re looking to increase potential customers’ awareness that you exist. You’re also looking to increase their positive associations with your business.

Then think about the other end of your sales funnel—retaining your customers. We often talk about that in terms of brand loyalty, or more directly, their lifetime value. What will you do to keep them coming back?

Step 2: Align marketing with branding

Once you’ve solidified your branding goals, it’s time to align them with your marketing plan.

First, write out your branding goals so they are near as you work on your marketing plan. Then, create a roadmap for each quarter of the year, making sure each marketing point correlates to branding.

For example, if your branding goal is reaching 100 new people and making sure they know what your business does, then a marketing goal might tap into ways of finding them, such as adding informational videos on social media, or embarking on a PR campaign, or putting together a targeted content marketing strategy, aimed at bringing people to your website through organic search or SEO. If a marketing tactic doesn’t match your overall branding or sales goal, put it on the back burner for another time.

View our Business Branding Guide today!

Step 3: Map out your customer base

If you’re a brick and mortar business, one way to approach identifying your target market—your key customers—is to map out a list of your competitors and their locations and then look at where it makes sense for you to market.

Are there any underserved areas? One technique is starting near your home base and then expanding until your business growth meets your goals. There is little point in marketing to an area that lacks your target audience. A map shows you where you should concentrate your efforts.

Another way to “map” your customers is to develop a user or buyer persona. This means looking at your ideal customer’s demographics—how old are they, where do they live, what’s their income, and so on. Use those demographics to put together a fictional—but very useful—persona. Thinking of your ideal customer as an individual person can help you target your branding voice, tone, and message, and also your marketing spend.

Step 4: Consider your mission

What does your brand stand for? What’s your business’s mission? If your branding and marketing goals don’t align with who you are as a brand, then customers won’t see you as authentic and trustworthy.

Take a step back and study the history of your company and your vision. Look back at the initial business plan you wrote before starting your business. You’ll find clues about why you started the company in the first place, which will point you to your purpose as a brand.

Once you know your purpose, such as helping single moms with childcare solutions, then you’ll understand how you want others to view your brand as well. You can then ensure your marketing and branding goals align with who you are at the core.

Step 5: Utilize current customers

One of the toughest parts of growing a successful business is building a strong customer base. However, once you have those first clients, you should utilize them for information and help. It’s market research.

Poll your current customers. What about your brand attracted them? What would they like to see improved? Take note of raving fans and ask for testimonials to use in your marketing efforts. Also, ask them to tell others who might be interested in your products or services.

Step 6: Measure return on investment (ROI)

As you begin to implement your marketing plans in service of your branding and sales goals, make sure you track metrics so you can measure the success of each campaign.

Conduct A/B testing to see if your efforts result in new customers or sales. The ROI isn’t always monetary—especially with branding goals. You might really be focusing on increasing awareness—a top of sales funnel goal. You might measure and track metrics associated with increased website visits, or video views, or social media engagement.

If your goal is gaining new leads (a middle of the sales funnel goal), then you’ll measure how many new contacts you gain from a campaign. If your goal is to increase your net promoter score, or the likelihood that a customer would recommend you to a friend (a bottom of the sales funnel goal) you might look at the number of referrals that resulted in a sale, or the number of positive reviews.

Branding, or positive association with your company and your product or service, doesn’t stop with the sale. Make sure you’re attributing sales successes to your branding efforts when it makes sense.

Figuring out what result you want and then tracking numbers shows you which efforts need to be repeated and which ones need to be replaced.

Step 7: Set longer-term goals

When you completed the first two steps of setting branding and marketing goals, you likely looked at the next 12 months. Take time to write out some long-term goals, such as where you’d like your brand to be in five years or even 10 years.

Knowing what kind of company you want to build, and what you want it to look like, well into the future can be really useful. If you don’t set a long term trajectory for your business, you’re leaving a lot to chance.

A useful framework for this type of planning is a Lean Plan—a shorter form version of a business plan. If you’ve heard of a business model canvas, a Lean Plan is a better alternative to that. It’s easy to update, and a great place to map your ideas for the long term. You can download a free Lean Plan template here to help you get started.

You must plan if you want to beat the odds, fixing weak areas along the way and adapting to rapid market shifts.

Step 8: Decide on tone

Your business, no matter what industry you’re in, has a unique personality, tone, and voice. If you sell something fun, your voice might be lighthearted and joyful. On the other hand, if you’re in education or financial services, your tone might be a bit more serious.

Choose a tone that aligns with your brand goals and use it in your marketing efforts across all platforms. Users should recognize your personality immediately, whether interacting on social media, reading an email from you, or talking to your team on the phone.

Step 9: Understand your unique value proposition (UVP)

Marketing is about the promise you make to your audience regarding what you’ll bring to the table. You must first figure out what unique advantage you offer that no one else does, and then communicate your UVP, or your unique value proposition.  through all your marketing efforts.

SnackNation is one company with a strong UVP with a highly targeted audience. The brand provides healthy snacks for homes and offices on a subscription-based service. Each week, SnackNation adds about 1,200 new leads segmented into a marketing list that specifically meets the needs of that particular audience.

When you land on the SnackNation website, you’re asked to choose if you want snacks for the home or office. You are then offered a free sampler box to pick one that’s right for your needs. This is just one example of how to use your UVP to help you build a more personalized customer experience.

Step 10: Evaluate the look of your online marketing

Spend time on each platform you market on and make sure the look matches the overall appearance of your brand’s image.

If your branding goal is to show you have higher-quality products than any other competitor, but your website or Facebook page looks cheap with photos that aren’t very good, you are missing an opportunity. Ideally, you’re continuously testing and optimizing your website and digital marketing campaigns.

Step 11: Improve communication on your team

As your business grows, one challenge you might face is keeping your branding and marketing standards consistent between different areas of your team. Who is in charge of your branding? Do you have a branding guide your whole company can refer to as needed?

As a leader, make sure you’re empowering everyone on your team to be a good, consistent steward of your brand and your sales, marketing, and branding goals. Doing something new? Running tests? Let your team know so they can help and support your efforts.  

Re-evaluate often

Over time, you’ll probably come up with fantastic new ideas for marketing your products, but they may not align with your branding or corporate goals.

Every three to six months, spend a little time looking at plans for branding and marketing and making sure everything still meshes together. Make any adjustments as needed and re-evaluate goals as your company grows.

With a little attention to detail and a lot of communication, your marketing and branding will work together and increase your customer base steadily.

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Lexi Lu
Lexi Lu

Lexie Lu is a designer and UX strategist. She enjoys covering topics related to UX design, web design, social media, and branding. Feel free to subscribe to her design blog, Design Roast, or follow her on Twitter @lexieludesigner.



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3 Lessons in Branding From a Black Hole

We recently got our first look at a black hole. Who knew it had so much to tell us about branding?


5 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


The first-ever photograph of a black hole and its bright halo was recently released, visually confirming a hundred years of scientific speculation. Though the photo itself slightly resembled a glazed donut, it represented unmistakable power and scale.

If you think about it, there are some striking similarities between black holes and brands themselves. The reason isn’t that brands are fathomless voids that obliterate existence (despite what some customers may say). It’s because both entities command our attention and change the universe just a little bit.

One of the many mysterious properties of black holes is their infinite density, which allows them to increase in volume endlessly without ever changing in size. A brand should similarly aspire to expand its customer base without fundamentally changing its character, either by drastically altering its values or nullifying its brand promises.

What can we learn about growth strategies from the black hole? If brands want to reach new consumers as effectively as black holes colonize new corners of the universe, they need to explore new digital marketing strategies. Let’s take Pinterest as an example. The social discovery platform has grown to 265 million users, with 51 million added just in the last year. Just as impressive, 90 percent of weekly Pinterest users rely on it to make purchasing decisions. Online attention and engagement are hot commodities, but Pinterest manages to draw users in like black holes trap light.

Related: How Pinterest, Starbucks and Lyft Grab More User Attention

According to Amy Vener, retail vertical strategy lead at Pinterest, knowing your customer is crucial: “We believe that the key to growth on Pinterest is understanding the full consumer journey, and measuring success through that lens.”

Use the following digital marketing strategies to turn your brand into the Pinterest sort of black hole — an object of attraction that thrills people with possibility.

1. Take a lifetime view of acquisition.

Continual growth is important. However, it’s also important to consider how long you can keep customers around. Ideally, you’ll keep customers for life: Nothing’s coming back from a black hole’s event horizon — don’t you wish your brand had that kind of gravity?

Drew Kossoff, CEO of digital media buying agency Rainmaker Ad Ventures, believes the best brands keep longevity in view. “They intimately understand the lifetime value of a new customer and build their customer acquisition formulas around long-term success, not day-one revenue,” he writes. “That means they’re thrilled to acquire a lead or customer at a small short-term loss in exchange for a big long-term gain.”

In practice, that entails upping your allowable cost per acquisition to put more resources into nurturing leads that add lifetime value. For example, are your email leads statistically stronger (i.e., do they offer more lifetime value) than webinar registration leads? Spend more money where you’ll get the biggest long-term gain.

Related: How to Increase Customer Lifetime Value And Boost Profits

2. Send signals regularly.

Contrary to popular opinion, black holes give and take. Even as they suck star matter toward themselves, they’re hurtling radio waves (in the form of tidal disruption flares) out into the cosmos for reasons we don’t yet understand. As black holes send electromagnetic pulses during the process of expansion, digital marketers should similarly use messaging in their growth strategies.

Mobile messaging is an organic way to integrate a constant communication strategy into your digital marketing efforts. A 2018 eMarketer survey found that, by 2022, more than 36 percent of the global population will communicate primarily through messaging apps like WhatsApp. According to Twilio’s “Bridging the Communication Divide” report, effective digital communications result in 2.6 times the likelihood of revenue growth greater than 15 percent, so it’s important to understand exactly how consumers exchange information.

Beauty brand Sephora was quick to capitalize on the value of mobile messaging. It simplified and personalized in-store makeover bookings using a conversational bot on Facebook Messenger. Bookings rose by 11 percent, precisely because the brand was communicating through the channel its target customers preferred.

3. Create new universes.

Scientists have recently discovered that black holes can generate new universes. Our own universe may even have originated in a black hole — a concept ripe for science fiction but also grounded in astrophysics. The point is that black holes are a force of creation, not just destruction.

Brands can also birth new worlds, if admittedly not on the same scale. Creating brand communities gives consumers a place to discuss products, offer recommendations, ask and answer questions and reciprocate enthusiasm. Brands build these spaces, but users direct them, creating an organic yet branded ecosystem. “In 2019, it will be the brands with the strongest communities that thrive,” writes Kathleen Booth, VP of marketing at digital marketing agency Impact.

Bumble, the dating and networking app, created the Queen Bee Ambassador Program to engage new users through grassroots community efforts. By relying on an eager and authentic community rather than conventional advertising, Bumble grew to 26 million users in three years. Brands will see growth when they give consumers a space to get excited about what they do.

Digital marketers and astrophysicists may have something in common, after all: an obsession with constant growth. The intriguing ways that black holes attract star matter can offer helpful strategy perspectives for marketers, from considering lifetime customer value to building brand communities. There’s your new marketing goal: to turn your brand into a supermassive black hole.

Related: Grow Brand Value While Accelerating Revenue Growth

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Turning Your Purpose Into Action

Doing good has become the ultimate competitive advantage for brands in the 21st century.


6 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


You can’t go a single day without hearing the phrase “brand purpose,” but what does it actually mean? In short, it’s a brand’s reason for existence beyond making money. Today, a growing number of companies are jumping at the chance to signal their social and environmental credentials. For good reason too — it’s what people want. Consumers are determining the fate of brands with their purchases. And when all things are equal, they will choose to buy from a brand that has a positive impact.

Doing good has become the ultimate competitive advantage — a golden ticket to future-proofing your business. Getting it right will earn you a place in popular culture, improve your reputation and increase your market share. Getting it wrong could spark public outrage, claims of insincerity and the possibility of a boycott. The stakes have never been higher, and success depends on converting brand purpose into action. After all, purpose without action is pointless. It’s like buying a book and never reading it.

Related: Young People Will Reward Brands That Take a Stand

Get the basics right.

The journey towards social impact starts with making sure that your brand is doing no harm. It can be easy to forget that business is a part of society. Thus, companies have a duty to make a positive contribution to people’s lives. For brands, this begins with paying tax: an agreed fee for doing business and making a profit. Yet, most brands view tax as a cost to be minimized, rather than an investment back into society. Corporation tax helps to fund essential healthcare, education and social services for the very customers and employees who buy and work for a business. In truth, there’s not much point in having a lofty brand mission if you’re not even holding up your end of the bargain.

Sadly, some of the world’s biggest brands are using tax loopholes to legally avoid paying its debt to society. In the U.K., Facebook only paid £15.8m in tax last year despite collecting a record £1.3bn in sales. Avoiding tax can cause long-term reputational damage, as seen in the past with Starbucks, Amazon, Google and others. In contrast, brands that pay their fair share will no doubt win public approval. A great example is Patagonia, who used $10 million in U.S. tax savings to combat climate change. So, when Patagonia says, “we’re in business to save our home planet,” people believe them. Fulfilling your responsibility as a business provides a foundation for brand activism. It begins with paying your taxes, looking after your employees and not destroying the environment.

Related: 10 Companies That Are Doing Good While Doing Well

Think long-term.

Building a meaningful brand is hard work. It requires changing the way things have always been done. If it were easy, everyone would do it. But it’s not. You need courage, conviction, vision and a champion at the very top. The scale and depth of transformation demand a long-term approach. A rare commodity, considering that the average CEO spends less than five years in the job. To make matters worse, most companies are under constant pressure to deliver short-term results for shareholders; often at the expense of building long-term value. This is despite overwhelming evidence indicating that long-term companies deliver superior financial performance.

The good news is that we’re reaching a tipping point, characterized by mass adoption of socially responsible and environmentally sustainable business practices. For example, renewable energy is set to become cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020. To quote Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Sørensen, “In the long term, social and environmental issues become financial issues.” In 2010, Unilever launched an ambitious plan to decouple business growth from environmental impact. Nine years later, Unilever’s sustainable brands are now delivering 70 percent of its growth. Such success is predicated on making society a stakeholder in your business. This can be achieved by aligning your business objectives with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: a set of 17 goals, agreed by 193 nations of the UN to end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change.

Embrace co-creation.

The complexity of global issues is far too great for anyone to tackle alone. Such problems require new thinking, innovative approaches and an unprecedented level of collaboration. To use a famous African proverb, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We can’t save the world in silos; doing so requires collective, collaborative action. To change things for the better, brands need to look beyond their own boundaries. This means collaborating with start-ups, individuals, civil society and so-called competitors to co-create a more equitable and sustainable future for all.

Co-creation represents a substantial growth opportunity for brands. It’s a chance to embed new thinking, practices and doing good into the core of their business. One of the best examples of co-creation is Lego which has teamed up with Sesame Workshop to help Rohingya and Syrian refugee children to learn and heal through play. Lego is realizing its brand purpose by investing $100 million into the program. This move will help Lego win the hearts and minds of a new generation of fans — 87 years on from the company’s inception. To reap the full benefits of co-creation, brands need to make sure their new project or partnership reflects their own offering as a business. Finding the right strategic partner will help turn a global mission into local, grassroots social and environmental activation.

Related: Innovation? It Needs to Be Woven Into Every Aspect of Your Company’s Culture

What it all means.

Doing good has become the ultimate competitive advantage for brands in the 21st century. In an increasingly overcrowded market, your brand’s contribution to society becomes the decisive point of difference for consumers. The first step in the process is making sure that you’re not doing any harm. Once that’s established, brands can then begin to do good by adopting a collaborative mindset and a long-term approach to problem-solving.

By in large, brand activism fueled by conscious consumerism is going to fundamentally change the nature of business. The scale and depth of change are comparable to the rise of digital technology in the 1990s and early 2000s. In a similar way, those who embrace this new reality will win the hearts and minds of a new generation of consumers. On the flipside, those who fail to adapt risk entering the annals of irrelevancy, which already includes a long list of extinct brands. In the end, like most things, the difference between the two scenarios will boil down to the level of talk versus action.

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How Spider-Man Can Help Your Brand Keep Its Edge

Want better branding? Stop thinking about web design, and start thinking about web slinging.


5 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Marketers seeking wellsprings of inspiration would do well to take inspiration from the recently announced nominations for the 2019 Academy Awards. In fact, marketing teams might want to ditch the ho-hum status meeting this week and head to the nearest cinema to check out Best Animated Feature nominee “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

It turns out the innovative animated reimagining of the Stan Lee comic offers a host of branding possibilities for creatives tired of boring, predictable storytelling formulas and looking for something new to help their brand maintain its competitive edge. One viewing of this novel twist on a classic Marvel Comics tale will surely produce more than an itsy-bitsy amount of original, unprocessed creativity to move your branding strategy in a new direction.

Related: Maintain Your Competitive Advantage by Focusing on Your Most Valuable Asset — You

Branding with fresh fangs.

Skeptical that a family-friendly, feature-length film studded with comic book design elements could clear the cobwebs from your marketing campaigns? Don’t be. Many of the film’s directorial, script and production choices can serve as jumping-off points for marketers seeking stronger consumer connections and an authentic brand voice.

1. Powerful visuals without the venom of mediocrity.

What makes this Spider-Man adaptation visually memorable? In addition to computerized 3D animation, the film’s creators sought opportunities to include nods to old-fashioned comic book drawing techniques and styles. From unexpected captions to lightning-fast inside jokes, the movie commands attention from both the eye and the ear.

This technique could be a smart decision for your brand messaging as well, especially as 65 percent of people learn best through visuals. Carl Reed, co-founder and chief creative officer at Lion Forge Labs, knows how meaningful, memorable and powerful animation can be. “Savvy marketers are turning to captivating media for driving their brands’ stories forward,” he notes. “Comics are an excellent choice for this. They are great for explaining abstract principles and are limited only by the imagination of the artists.”

Spidey sense suggestion: If your group has had trouble expressing a tough-to-describe concept, why not experiment with comic-style visuals? Consider the visual aspects of your corporate branding. Although cartooning may seem appropriate mainly in the realm of infographics, it can be effective elsewhere. Map out what story you want to tell, and take stock of your resources (i.e., creative talent capable of illustrating a comic). If you don’t have the resources you need on staff, you can always hire a freelancer or an agency to handle the comic creation.

Related: How to Create the Stunning Visuals Critical to Startup Success

2. Relatable characters woven into a well-considered story.

Spoiler alert: The film takes place in an alternate universe. In fact, many universes converge in this animated Oscar front-runner. Yet the story seems wholly believable because the characters are fleshed-out and genuine. Consider the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker. He makes his entrance not as a slim, fit guy ready to take on the baddies, but as a paunchy Gen Xer mired in a midlife crisis of sorts.

Peter may have mad spider skills, but he’s no different from the neighbor down the street. In other words, moviegoers see him not as unrelatable, but as a familiar persona. Brands must create identities with this type of relatability in mind, and they can do it by generating stories that connect with their preferred audiences. Buyers are drawn in by accessible brands that humanize the business behind the product or service.

Spidey sense suggestion: To become a relatable brand, craft a message that accurately represents your intended audience, meets your audience members where they are, and helps you earn consumer trust. For instance, Old Spice, once associated with a predominantly older demographic, began targeting a younger male audience with campaigns that included hosting interactive live streams. By using a platform that its target demographic prefers, the company was able to better relate to that audience.

3. A different perspective on an old standard.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” proves that no matter how well-worn a story is, it can always be viewed from a unique perspective. The creators of the film didn’t force another prequel or sequel on viewers, but infused the Spider-Man franchise with a fresh blend of characters and situations.

Legacy brands that think they can never shed their too-tight skin are ripe for this type of reinvention. Smart branding, like good storytelling, involves taking risks. Your company might not want to go the irreverent mile that the Spider-Verse sometimes does, but you can’t attract young consumers with dated imagery and concepts.

Related: 6 Ways to Modernize Your Brand While Staying True to Your Legacy

Spidey sense suggestion: Stay true to your core values while simultaneously giving prospects a new way to think about your brand. Take McDonald’s, which was fighting the image of being branded an unhealthy hamburger chain. The company rebranded to be more health-conscious, offering lighter meal options and revamping its locations to offer a cafe-like atmosphere. This new image is still in line with the fast-food giant’s brand mission to be its customers’ favorite place to eat and drink, and clearly, customers agree. The company’s stock has more than doubled since it started this rebranding shift about four years ago.

If you want to remain at the leading edge of modern branding strategies, look no further than today’s Oscar-nominated films for inspiration. With great marketing power comes great marketing responsibility.

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Exactly What You Can Do to Define What Makes Your Brand as Unique as … M&Ms


5 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


“Melts in your mouth, not in your hand,” the slogan for M&M’s candy, was trademarked as far back as 1954 and is one of the best-known ever. It’s cute. It’s memorable. And it’s helped make M&M’s brand the success it is today — and not just because the phrase is catchy.

Related: Shark Tank Star Daymond John Says This Is the Biggest Branding Mistake of All

In fact, the slogan, when introduced, actually helped set the company apart from all other companies slinging sweet treats. It made the brand different and was, and is, its unique selling proposition (USP).

Every company needs a USP in order to stand out from the crowd. But many business owners fail to come up with one that sets their brands apart. If you’re an accounting business, for instance, what could be different about you versus your peers?

Defining your brand’s uniqueness and USP, then, isn’t as simple as stating, “Our product is pink and the rest are blue.” It needs to be more meaningful and to originate from that sweet spot between what you do and what your customer needs. So, how do you find it? Here are some ways to do that.

Research your competitors.  

No business is completely and utterly unique. You’ll always have competitors who’ll be doing something similar to what you do. Most of these companies will have a unique selling proposition in order to attract consumers. This isn’t a disadvantage for you; it means there’s already a market for your business, a fact which can actually help you discover what makes your brand unique.

Take a good look at a number of your biggest competitors. Look at what they’re offering, whom they’re marketing to, what marketing messages they’re using and so on. By comparing what they’re offering with what you offer, you can find out what you’ve got that they don’t.

Related: Why ‘Make America Great Again’ Beat ‘Stronger Together’

This strategy might have been how Tattly discovered its uniqueness. Tattly makes temporary tattoos. But instead of being made for children as most other temporary tattoo are, Tattly’s product is marketed toward adults, making its brand more unique.

Image credit: Tattly 

You can easily discover a hidden edge to your company by looking at what else is out there already. You can’t beat ‘em if you’re the same, but you can come out on top if you’re doing things differently.

Look closely at your buyer personas.

Next, you’ll want to take a close look at your buyer personas. A “buyer persona” is a fictional character created to represent your ideal customer; and you need one. A detailed buyer persona can include basic demographics like age and gender, but it can also include the goals of your ideal customer, his or her motivations, occupation, personality traits, frustrations and more.

Looking at these factors can help you discover something really unique about your brand. For instance, if you’re making pizzas, and one of the frustrations listed in your buyer persona is “lack of gourmet ingredients,” you may have just found what makes your pizza unique.

If you haven’t created a buyer persona for your company yet, get started now. There are tons of free templates online to help you create a detailed buyer persona that will aid you in determining what makes your brand unique.

Pinpoint your differentiators.

In trying to find what makes your brand unique, you should pinpoint everything that makes your company different. So, make a list of those differentiators. This list can be anything big or small about your product/company and anything that’s tangible or represents a feeling or belief — it makes you you. Write that down; just remember to be specific.

If your biggest differentiators are the features of your products, don’t choose just a feature as your unique selling proposition. Your audience isn’t as impressed or swayed by features as you might think. They’re more attracted to how your business or product can change their lives.

So, define that feature as something meaningful to your audience. Successful products usually solve a specific need for consumers and that need is communicated to customers in their own words. For example, when the Apple iPod was introduced, ads didn’t talk to customers about the number of gigabytes; they said “10,000 songs in your pocket,” which was much more meaningful. 

Image credit: Swoop Agency 

Related: Why Weight Watchers’ Name Change Will Fail, But Dunkin’s Won’t

Over to you.

Don’t just define what makes your brand unique and leave it at that. Use your unique selling proposition in everything you do.Splash it across your marketing, sprinkle it throughout your website and incorporate it into your company culture; you’ve got to fully live it. Once you’ve defined what makes your company unique, you won’t just have a few casual customers, you’ll form better connections with them; and consumers will flock to your brand to become loyal customers.  

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5 Startup Branding Trends to Watch for in 2019

Illustrations, minimalism and millennials are among the trends you should be paying attention to for your branding strategy.


9 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


When it comes to starting a new business, all entrepreneurs want to be ahead of the game and up to date on the latest trends. Still, it can be hard to predict what is changing in the complex and intricate world of branding.

Related: 7 Branding Trends Every Business Owner Should Watch Out For

From naming techniques and brand campaigning, here are five trends for new and growing businesses to watch out for:  

1. Illustrating, for engagement

Brands are constantly searching for new ways to engage audiences, and many of them are discovering that art and illustration is a good way to go about this.

Jennifer Hom, an illustrator working for Airbnb, noted that brands are realizing the power of illustration. “Companies are starting to understand its value — that the images can inform and delight their audience,” Hom wrote in a recent case study.

More and more businesses are incorporating art and artists into their branding arcs. With Google incorporating art and illustration into its own onboarding processes and Facebook adding illustrations to its branding, companies are using art to connect to audiences, to become more personable, and easier to connect with. 

 

Google calendar uses these illustrations to help users achieve their goals.

Image credit: Google design on Medium

Facebook’s illustrations for security tips and tutorials

Image credit: Facebook

Whether it is the use of animation in marketing videos, partnerships with artists for new product lines or illustrations for websites, art has emerged as a popular way to engage audiences. In 2019, in fact, it’s a branding trend precisely because of its ability to humanize and differentiate brands while deepening consumers’ brand connections and maybe their brand loyalty, too.

Related: 6 Digital Marketing Trends That Will Explode Your Brand Awareness in 2018

2. Incorporating minimalism to the max  

Connected to the art trend is the minimalist trend; in fact, we’ve seen a sharp uptick in minimalist branding, and it seems likely to stay a while. With Marie Kondo’s hit books (and her Netflix show, Tidying Up), brands are going to start asking themselves, “Does it spark joy?” just the way Kondo counsels her clients to do before they throw something out, as they rid their homes of clutter.

Minimalism makes sense because it’s visually appealing. It may especially be helpful in the case of B2B companies simplifying processes through tools like Intercom and Salesforce.

Back-to-basics minimalism is also resonating with customer-facing businesses like Brandless, which focuses on being straightforward and essential.Minimalism is essentially a bare-bones, pared-down approach that applies clean colors, simple graphics and easy-to-understand processes and interfaces.

3. Reflecting millennials’ influence

Millennials are gaining buying power, and more decision-making power because, well, they’re now adults with jobs and incomes. Because of this, we are continually seeing branding trends shift to up their appeal to millennial tastes.

While proclamations are subsiding about “the latest industry the millennials have killed,” it is true that this age cohort holds sway over the future of many industries.

Another thing to remember about millennials is that they are known to be more politically driven than baby boomers, and that they shop with brands that appeal to their moral standards. As such, brands are catching on to this trend and marketing themselves towards young people’s changing perceptions.

In this light, we recently saw Gillette reap mixed responses from its user base for its ad critiquing toxic masculinity. While some customers balked at the ad and called it accusatory, others praised the shaving company for its bold, progressive stance.

Regardless of the various opinions the ad prompted, it did make Gillette relevant again, something the company direly needed, what with smaller competitors like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s positioning themselves to become industry pillars.

The Gillette ad was a good example of a brand trying to appeal to younger age groups. Gillette has faced millennial criticism for its pricing disparity between male- and female-use razors. So, the ad campaign apparently aimed to overwrite the bad rap Gillette had gotten.

On the other hand, Abercrombie & Fitch took a hit from millennials for not being inclusive enough back in 2013. Alleged discriminatory hiring and branding made the company fall out of ideological favor that year.

Planet Fitness, meanwhile, is a gym that appeals to millennial values by fronting affordability and its policy of being a judgment-free zone. As such, the franchise chain has seen rapid growth and success.

Many brands are similarly trying to make the shift from baby boomer-focused brands to millennial-forward ones. As the latter group continues to gain more and more buying power, its members are controlling more branding trends, leading to an increasingly political slant in brand campaigns (witness the “girl power” themes of this year’s Super Bowl ads).

All of this, of course, is also a run-up to Generation Z’s introduction as a moving force of consumer sway. In 2019, look to see more talk about Generation Z. Its young members are graduating and entering the workforce, meaning that their buying power is now going to hold more sway.  

Gen Z, in fact, is turning up the dial on millennial buying habits. Gen-Zers have an even shorter attention span and greater unrest when it comes to social issues.

Using social issues to connect to younger age cohorts has become a popular branding strategy; after all, brands should always try to resonate with their audiences.

4. Utilizing creativity in online domain names 

With more and more businesses taking up more online, it is increasingly difficult for new businesses to find a traditionally desirable exact match online. In this context “match” means a situation where the company URL exactly matches the company name. This is not always possible: For example, when Dropbox initially launched, its  website URL was “GetDropbox.com.” 

The extension .com is still king, but the scarcity of exact-match domains is forcing many businesses to get creative with their domain names and social media handles.

At the same time, establishing a strong domain name is an important investment; it’s how a business is found online, and so worth the effort. A budget of $2,000 can open up various creative domain options. However, finding a real English word with an exact match to the company’s name means setting aside a hefty premium domain budget.

Domain-name phrases offer a great way to get around premium domain price tags, which is preferable for startups and new businesses looking to save a few thousand dollars. Additionally, some exact match domains are already in use — domain phrases allow companies to use names in different industries.

Some of the most creative domain phrases we’ve found include Square’s SquareUp.com, Ruby Receptionist’s CallRuby.com and Trusted’s UseTrusted.com. Such phrase-based names offer a creative way for businesses to prompt an action or remain memorable to users.

Extensions and other TLDs –.co, .gg for games, .io for tech companies, and .ai for AI-driven software companies — are also part of the new domain strategies. Taco Bell, for instance, is using ta.co as a short, catchy domain name.

The same principle is being applied to social media handles, as well. We recently did a research study into the top 50 startups to determine how necessary an exact-match social media handle actually is. We found that only 20 percent of the most successful startups we studied were using exact-match social media handles.

5. Getting more personal, not corporate

“Personal” is hot: Having named over 20,000 companies, we have noticed a lot of first name businesses like Oscar and Edgar. This is a micro-trend meant to attract millennials and gen-Z-ers, who tend to distrust corporations. They like to engage with people they know and trust.

We see many brands using real people in their branding, but what if the company could be the person? That comes across as young, edgy and cool.

Still, you shouldn’t just jump on this just because it’s cool. A name can align your business with audience values the way Greenpeace does, or set you apart from the competition as a fresh, innovative company the way Apple did. So, choose your name carefully — it can set up a solid brand foundation and concretely boost your business.

Conclusion

Overall, brands are putting effort into connecting with audiences in a meaningful way. Each of these five trends is all about appealing to your target audience as a way to find success.

If you’re looking into some new marketing strategies for the new year, consider these approaches to branding. A great key to success is awareness of what is happening in the world so you can test it out for yourself.

At the same time, be judicious. There are always brands that don’t follow trends and still remain successful. Regardless of the rise and fall in those trends, the more authentic a brand is, the better it tends to do in today’s market.

Related: From Branding to Recruiting, Check Out the 10 Business Trends to Make Next Year a Success

Being true to yourself is still the way to go when it comes to branding. Be who your company is meant to be, and don’t try to jump on every trend. You will risk coming across as inauthentic. Be contrarian, be a trendsetter, be you to the max!

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5 Signs Your Employer Brand Is in Trouble

For every six employees, there is one doing what he or she can to tear your brand apart.


7 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


On Oct. 27, 2015, outdoor recreation specialty retailer REI sent a letter to its 5.5 million co-op members. It would be closing its stores on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. The company would also give all of its 12,000 employees a paid holiday so they could get outside and enjoy nature, something at the heart of the REI message. Later, as the national “shop ‘til you drop” fiesta grew closer, the company released a television ad about the shutdown featuring the Twitter hashtag #OptOutside. They launched a website, optoutside.rei.com, where users could find trail suggestions and other outdoor recreation ideas. 

It was a doubling down on their brands — both their consumer brand and their employer brand. Did the risk pay off? On the consumer brand side, it appears the answer is a resounding, “You bet your hiking boots!” Apart from garnering REI enormous press coverage, the Black Friday closure boosted the company’s online sales on Black Friday by 26 percent. More than 1,408,000 people joined the campaign on the company’s social media channels. 

More important, the decision was a full-throated shout of authenticity backing up the co-op’s stated brand and values — bold and trust-building support of REI’s promise to both its customers and employees. 

Related: The Ultimate Guide To Keep Momentum Up In Your Company

Jumping on the brandwagon.

Today’s businesses operate in an economy where brand is everything. A brand represents a set of promises made to the consumer. Companies are constantly working to build, enhance and defend their brands. But when the world began this decades-long love affair with the brand, we forgot that the brand’s promise affects employees, too.

Your brand promise or “employer brand contract” consists of everything your culture, marketing, reputation, media coverage and the behavior of your people does to create expectations in your employees. What makes this contract tricky to manage is that it can, and will, affect employee expectations before employees even become employees.

Before employees have their first interview, your brand has already made certain promises about culture, reputation in the community, working expectations and company values. These promises may or may not be explicit, meaning they don’t have to be written down and presented to candidates before they apply for the job. However, they have already formed an idea, gathered through your website, word of mouth, recommendations from other employees, social media, community involvement and even their own experience with your products or services. This brand contract makes certain promises about what the company will offer employees.

Your ability to recruit talent is either enhanced or damaged by your brand. Employers in all industries are reporting being ghosted by potential hires that no-show for interviews or their first day on the job. What is the word “out there” about your company? Does it attract talent, or run off any potential recruit before they even click on the job link? Your employer brand also plays a key role in whether employees will choose to engage in their roles once they climb aboard. 

Related: Here’s How to Stay One Big Step Ahead of Your Changing Talent Pool

Your brand is in trouble.

The problem is, some blame their ineffective recruiting and high employee turnover on the economy or other factors, rather than taking a good look at how the employer brand may be hurting or helping. 

So, how do you know when your employer brand is in trouble? The five signs below are sure indicators that your brand is suffering. 

  1. Recruiting difficulties. Sure, we’re operating in a time when there are more job openings than employees to fill them. But similar to a consumer brand, potential buyers — employees in the case of the employer brand — will flock to those with an appealing brand. When it starts being more and more difficult to recruit talent, even taking into account a difficult recruiting environment, your brand may not be attractive. If you are seeing a slowdown in the number of applicants for open positions, if job ghosting is a problem, if your quality of new-hires seems lower, or if your level of employee-employer “fit” seems to be declining, your employer brand may be in trouble.
  2. Decreased engagement. Every organization should be conducting periodic engagement surveys of its people, both formally and informally. If you do, and you see marked negative changes in engagement indicators from one survey to the next, that’s a red flag that you may have issues with your brand contract. True, it may also be a harbinger of other problems, but lower engagement scores should get you looking critically at what your brand is saying to employees. Research in the Customer Experience (CX) world parallels what we find in the Employee Experience (EX) world — both promoters and detractors spread the word. In the first half of 2018, employee engagement firm DecisionWise analyzed the survey results from more than 200 firms asked to evaluate the statement, “I would recommend this company to others as a great place to work.” The results showed that for every six promoters (those responding “strongly agree” or “agree”) there was an average of one detractor (those responding with a “strongly disagree”). That’s a 6:1 ratio, meaning that, on average, for every six ambassadors you have employed in your company, there is one employee doing what he or she can to tear your brand apart.
  3. Increased employee focus on pay, benefits and perks. It’s been proven time and again. When employees feel part of a larger purpose and believe that their employer shares their values, they care less about compensation, perks and other “hygiene factors.” That’s not to say those things aren’t important. They are. But if concern for those factors rises — if you see an increasing number of employees asking about raises or grousing that a competitor has a better benefits package, for example — that might be a sign that your brand is no longer communicating a purpose or set of values that resonates with them. They look to other factors (more pay, increased perks, etc.) to justify their employment. When that happens, you need to revisit your employer brand. 
  4. Cynicism. Cynicism is cancer to any organization. It starts small, spreads quickly, and can be deadly. Employees are cynical when they become convinced that the organization cannot be trusted to keep its promises, including the promises made in the brand contract. They doubt the future. For instance, you’ll hear them complaining that a new management initiative is “more of the same.” That’s an indicator of a brand contract emergency and needs to be addressed ASAP. 
  5. Fear of change. A consistent, strong brand and culture give employees a sense of safety that keeps them feeling confident, even when the organization is changing. Fear of change and risk hampers innovation and creativity. If your people are exhibiting a greater fear of change, or if innovation appears to be stalled, you have a problem with your employer brand.

Related: How to Build Your Employer Brand With Social Media

REI gets it. Your consumer brand can make or break your organization. So can your employer brand. The employer brand sets expectations around the employee experience. So, ask yourself the question, “What is my employer brand, and is it enhancing or detracting from our success?”

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