Episode 3: Susan Hamilton – Brand Identity Strategist

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May 1, 2017

Susan Hamilton is a brand identity strategist and a member of Umbrex. She is an alum of Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group, and her firm, sh.BRAND, is based in New York City. We talk about what a brand identity is and how Susan helps firms define their brand identity.

To learn more about Susan, check out her website at http://sh-brand.com/


Will Bachman: Tell me about your background and how you got to where you are today. 

Susan Hamilton: I started out my career as a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group. It was my first job out of college and was a little bit of an unusual choice, both for me as an art history major and for BCG to hire an art history major. That was a very special experience. I went on to business school after that, then I returned to BCG and worked in a different set of industries and experiences. The internet was relatively new, and a lot of strategic work had to do with moving clients’ brands from the bricks and mortar space into the online space and what that would look like for them. That’s what got me interested in branding — that notion of what is it that consumers connect with? What is that essence of a brand that can transcend whether it’s a store environment or a virtual environment?  

Do you find that the visual ability and art history major background gives you differentiated insights? 

I call it is envisioning information. It’s a passion of mine, and nowadays it takes the format of how to really bring a message to life — not just in words, but also in pictures. I think that whatever work any of us does, if we can’t communicate it to other people, it’s not effective. Being able to communicate with another always involves a visual language of some kind. Even if it’s purely text there are choices made around typeface, for example. This is something that I think about every day in my work. 

How do you explain what brand is? 

Brand is really that essence that connects with the consumer in a compelling way. In my work as a brand strategist, I’m always working across that whole spectrum from what is the brand’s role in a strategic portfolio to what target market does it serve, to what unmet need does it address, through to what is that brand’s story, its narrative, personality, tone of voice, and then the visual element. When you talk about branding as a consulting discipline it includes all of those things: strategy, messaging, design.  

A brand project might create, for example, an email template so that it would always have the same look and feel. You would create a set of guidelines called a style guide that would be the brand bible for everybody to share that would have set out the brand’s values, maybe have a manifesto, have some descriptors of the tone of voice and personality and have very, very specific guidelines around the visual elements and identity so that things can be kept consistent across the brand. 

What drives the need for a new brand strategy? 

Often the catalyst is a new brand, a rebrand, or a company that’s reached a point where they have a good sense of what their brand is but they need to capture it, put it down on paper, and share it across the organization. They’ll typically come to me with a set of statements about what that brand stands for, what it offers in terms of benefits and how that addresses the needs of its customer base.  

 What are the different phases of a branding project? 

I’m working on a project where the customers are pharma marketers, folks who work in life sciences who represent various therapeutics. They’re looking to get their message out to doctors and other health care providers. We started out by reviewing their foundational work. What do you already know? What have you already done? We conducted about a dozen stakeholder interviews with people internal to the company. At the end we were able to do an assessment. Then we interview 10 or 12 of their customers to understand their perspective on the industry, why they’re working with services, agencies like this one and what it is that makes this offering special. 

We take all that information to land on a good metaphor for the brand. That’s the Holy Grail in a brand project. Can you create a phrase or a word even, an idea, that captures the role that this product or service has in the marketplace? We build the positioning around it to share internally and with agency partners to express what the brand is about in just a few pages. The end of the project is turning that into sales tools.  

How do you involve the clients in the process?  

It’s different in every project. Different clients have different appetites for how involved they are and in which portion of the work. Sometimes I do a workshop where you get everybody live in a room and we have a discussion and we do creative exercises. Sometimes it’s stakeholder interviews on the phone, one by one. Capturing insight, resident knowledge and perspective upfront is important. I also think it’s really important to identify a core team and to involve that team all the way along.  

How do you think about raising your own visibility?  

My business development strategy is pretty informal, probably because I have the luxury of not having to build a giant business. I’m able to do things on a very intimate and personal word-of-mouth scale. I do try to write frequently, things that I think are interesting that are going on out there that are sort of relevant to my industry or expertise space. I’ll also sometimes write up case studies of a particularly interesting project I’ve done. Then I share those out on LinkedIn. I have a MailChimp mailer. 

In terms of what sells my work, it’s very word-of-mouth. When I first started my own business, it was often friends I’d gone to school with who put me in touch with people who had a need for what I do. Now it’s almost always a former client either coming back to me or recommending me to another person who they think could use the same kind of work that I did for them. 

How do you keep in touch with previous and potential clients? 

 I wish I could tell you I’m organized about it, but I don’t do the “Hey, how are you? Let’s go have a coffee” kind of thing. I probably should, but I don’t. The way I think about it is really more in terms of being on LinkedIn with them and having them in my MailChimp mailer list, and those pieces of writing or case studies that I send out. My hope is that when you have time to read them, or if it’s a topic of interest to you, that in addition to being a note from me it’s also something that’s interesting or relevant or helpful that you might enjoy reading.  

How do you use the freedom of independent consulting to pursue some of your passions? 

Harvard Business School reached out about five years ago now and asked a group of us to write about what we did for work and to have a picture taken with a piece of paper that said, “I do it for the blank,” and fill in the blank with whatever it was. People had such different things that were their one-word motivator, and as it turned out, mine was freedom.  

I have a particularly large number of things I do outside of work. First of all, I’m a parent. I really wanted to be there for those dance recitals and field trips and to be involved at the same time that I’m a full-time working parent. That’s the first and probably biggest in terms of time commitment and in terms of emotion. But even before I had kids, I always had the side project parallel universe that was very important to me around creativity. I’ve always been a painter. I’ve also done writing. I make jewelry. The flavor of what I do, I guess you call it as a maker, changes over time as I develop different interests and let go of others, but that aspect of my life and of myself is very, very important to me. It’s something that I really try to hold space for. 

Any thoughts or advice to independent consultants about branding? 

The cobbler’s children have no shoes, my friend. I wish that I had great advice. I wish that I could tell you that I do all the things for myself that I do for my clients. In terms of advice, I would give a consultant the same advice that I would give any client. Know yourself. Know what your story is. Have some focus and be able to tell a story about that in a clear and concise way. Have a nice clean website with a limited number of words that tells that story. It has a little bit about you, a bio, a picture, just a place where people can sort of land, check in, see some of your client references, I think that’s important. I do try to do that for myself, but I think it’s harder to do for myself than it is to do for my clients. 

How would you distill the advice you provide on brand strategy into a message that every executive ought to see? 

I find myself using the phrase “share your story” a lot. What is it about you, your history, your product or service, yourself, that’s unique and interesting? And what’s the story behind what it is that you do? Then the share piece is to tell it. Think about the best ways to tell it, the most effective ways to tell it, the most interesting ways to tell it.  

The discipline of what we do in branding is supporting people who are busy doing other things, who have a really interesting story to tell and who need to get that story out there so they can continue to do what they do. It’s telling the story in terms that a user is going to understand and that’s meaningful to them and shifting the story from features to benefit.