Podcast Episode 4: Brand Marketing with Greg Donnelly

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In this episode you'll learn: 

  • What brand marketing is [01:45]
  • Tangible vs intangible brand marketing [02:20]
  • Importance of brand for early stage companies [03:31]
  • Why you should invest in branding [04:40]
  • Importance of brand design [10:15]
  • What to consider first when branding [11:29]
  • How to evolve a single product into a brand [13:44]
  • How to research for branding [15:08]
  • Importance of market fit [16:36]
  • The right time to invest in branding [25:29]
  • Why startups should consider hiring an interim CMO or brand marketer first [30:11]
  • Benefits of freelancing [40:26]

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Links mentioned in this episode:


Greg: Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind. Right? So this idea that if brands are ideas, like what does that mean? More tangibly. And I generally think about it in kind of two ways. You have your functional and your emotional. So generally people go towards the functional first.

[00:00:14] It's the tangible, distinct assets, like your colors, your typeface, your logo, packaging, maybe have a jingle, but I think more importantly, it's often those intangibles, right? It's the emotional attachment you have with something. And whether that's, you know, kind of the perception, you have the memories you have with the brand, the people, you know, who use that, and all of those things really persuade kind of how you feel about them. And a brand also means a lot of emotional things like trust and safety and status.

[00:00:42] Max:  What's up, everybody. Welcome to the Growth Collective podcast. I'm your host Max Ade. And today we have Greg Donnelly on the show. He is a freelance brand marketer.

[00:00:55] He spent some time at Google and Airbnb. And today he helps brands of all shapes and sizes with their branding challenges. And you might think brand is just for the big guys. The Coca-Colas the Nikes of the world, but today we're going to talk about why brand is important for everybody even early stage startups, I think you're really gonna like this.

[00:01:20] Greg, welcome to the show.

[00:01:22] Greg: Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.

[00:01:25] Max: The first time we spoke, we didn't even have brand marketers in our network yet because I personally had no idea what brand marketing was all about.

[00:01:37] So I just wanted to kind of start there. What is brand, and how should companies be thinking about it?

[00:01:45] Greg: Yeah, that's a great question. And I feel like the answer can kind of depend a lot depending on the context, but the simplest answer for me is always brands are ideas, right? Like they are ideas in people's heads. And one of my favorite quotes, came from a brand strategist called Walter Landor, who started Landor Associates, which is a really iconic brand design firm.

[00:02:04] They've done brands like Coca Cola and Levi's and FritoLay. And he said that products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind. So this idea that if brands are ideas, like what does that mean more tangibly? And I generally think about it in kind of two ways. You have your functional and your emotional.

[00:02:20] So generally people go towards the functional first, it's the tangible, distinct assets, like your colors, your typeface, your logo packaging, maybe on the jingle. But I think more importantly, it's often those intangibles, right? It's the emotional attachment you have with something. And whether that's, you know, kind of the perception, you have the memories you have with the brand, the people, you know, who use that?

[00:02:41]I mean all of those things really persuade kind of how you feel about them. And a brand also means a lot of emotional things like trust and safety and status. So, I think brand again, can be a lot of different things, but I generally try to balance it with both those functional and emotional.

[00:02:55] Max: Yeah. It's super interesting because it's, it's, it's, it's like hard to grasp, right? Like this idea of brand and as a result, it, for whatever reason as marketers, I feel like we associate brand brand efforts or brand specific efforts to later stage companies. Like we think about Coca-Cola for example, and we think, oh, well one day when we get big, then we'll figure out brand. How do you see it as a brand marketer?

[00:03:31] Greg: You know, it's a great question. And I think, a lot of the times when you think about branding and how important it is, and maybe like the origin or the start of the company, it might have to do with the founders. Right? If the founders come from marketing background, it might be something they prioritize.

[00:03:43] It also can depend a lot on the category, right? If you're launching a consumer packaged good, you're launching a new snack brand. Branding is probably actually really important because the amount of options is incredible and they're all basically the same. So brand in that circumstance really can be a differentiator.

[00:04:00] Unlike maybe some individual product features. But when you think about more of the technology space, often it is the, the product that is the differentiator or the technology, the AI, whatever it is. So I think it really does depend on kind of the type of company you're, you're launching with regards to how you think about brand when it starts.

[00:04:17] Generally when people think about branding, they definitely go to the icons first. And I think part of that might be a question of just like understanding brand as a business value or the business value it brings. We talked a lot about kind of those intangibles and I think, in an ideal world, if we look at branding from more of like a business lens, an enduring brand really does create operating performance over the long term.

[00:04:40] So whether that's like earning higher returns on your capital, or it helps you charge a premium price point over a generic product, or it allows you to extend into new markets, find new customers. Like all of those things offer a ton of business value. And I think brand is often underappreciated as an investment, and kind of how that pays back dividends later on.

[00:05:01] And I think what a lot of brands are starting out. Branding is also credibility right before you have a customer before you have money before any of those things. And no one's ever heard of you, a great brand can help bring, you know, again, that credibility, and validity, when you're just starting out.

[00:05:16] Max: Yeah. I think entrepreneurs do some of these things early on. They just don't think of it as branding or brand marketing. Right. I mean, you're coming up with your story and you're telling that across different channels, you're creating a logo. You're creating your brand aesthetic and your brand guide for your website.

[00:05:38] And there's this there's sort of this, early stage version of branding. And then as you get later and you're maybe you've run out of options in pure performance marketing. Then you start to, to consider investing in these branding initiatives. And it's, it's just interesting that really those two, those two things are, are really one in the same.

[00:06:05] And for me, I think back to my time on the Google ads team, where brand advertising was always an upsale. So like people would max out their performance channels and then the Google team would come in and say, Hey, have you thought about YouTube? Like, let's do a large branding campaign on YouTube to try and get your brand recognition numbers up, that sort of thing.

[00:06:33] And I think for a lot of, performance marketers like myself, that's, that's become, my mindset is like, oh, well brand marketing is something that you do later.

[00:06:41] Greg: Yeah. I think there are two really interesting bits that you kind of brought up there that all, all piece apart. And the first one is thinking about kind of we're doing branding and marketing naturally, even if we're not calling it that. So if we think about in the Valley, the terminology of like product market fit, right? A lot, a lot of that is thinking about value propositions, it's thinking about customer segmentation. It's thinking about the channels you might be using business model to, you know, acquire users.

[00:07:06] How are you going to make money? A lot of them is marketing and branding. And as a brand strategist, developing things like value props is a lot of what I do. So I think there is sometimes just like a lack of shared terminology or depending on what industry you're coming from. We can all be doing the same thing, but calling it slightly different.

[00:07:22] When you think about branding initiatives or branding and like the advertising space. So I think of branding in two ways you have branding like the identity and the brand and what it means. And then more of the communication side. I definitely agree that branding a brand marketing or advertising tends to get slotted and the kind of like upper funnel awareness.

[00:07:40] Right. And, I think that's generally where it's easiest to measure and, where kind of those higher value assets sit at the top of funnel makes a lot of sense. But it is, branding can also be an aspect of your customer experience. It can affect things like churn rate. It can kind of fill throughout the entire funnel, but it's often slotted as this kind of like lofty, upper funnel, harder to measure. And some of those things are true, but I think. As marketing has progressed overall, you can start to find more ways to get concrete data on brand measurement.

[00:08:13] Max: You know, from my personal experience, I've had times where I've redesigned a website to look and feel better. And from a pure conversion rate standpoint, it goes down, but sort of it to me, It always felt like longterm versus short term thinking, like yes our funnel doesn't look like a click funnel anymore. And we lost some conversions along the way, but, in the sh in the longterm, we now have all of this brand equity, potentially, maybe our loyalty goes up and,  kind of to what you, you alluded to earlier, it maybe becomes a defensibility as well.

[00:09:04] Greg: Totally. I mean, great branding can make you harder to copy, which I think in the technology world and the startup space is incredibly incredibly valuable. And I think when it comes to branding, especially in a startup context, I think a lot about kind of this idea. And this is not something that I coined, but like minimal viable branding, right? Again, using terminology that comes from potentially, you know, the, the tech startup space and putting it in brand context. So to me, kind of what would be the minimum I would want to think about if I was starting a company. The first is kind of like one thinking about your, your longer term strategy.

[00:09:39] What are you aspiring to do? Which hopefully gives a level of clarity for decision making. You want to think about your minimal viable messaging, which is kind of like. What do I need to be persuasive? Like how can I convince that first customer to kind of sign up with us? And the third thing is thinking about design and to your point around your website, like are the things that I'm doing consistent.

[00:09:59] Cause the last thing you would want is your marketing website looks different from your social ads, which looks different from your product. And that is when you can run into problems. And I think really prioritizing consistency from a branding perspective, when you're just getting started, it was a super important.

[00:10:15] Max: Yeah, I'm glad you brought up design. You know, I worked at a startup studio for a number of years and we were very mechanical with how we created brands and, you know, we would basically we'd come up with a logical domain name. We'd create something that looked aesthetically pretty good. And then we'd run with that, whether it was a logo or the actual website.

[00:10:44] And I I've learned now through Growth Collective that, there's a better way to go about it, where like your aesthetics, match the foundational elements of your story. Right. And so you look at like the Growth Collective site, aesthetically it highlights the freelancers in the network. It just has a lot more meaning behind it then than sort of checking the box of, Hey, this is visually appealing.

[00:11:13] Greg: Yeah. I think it's pretty common kind of again, that mechanical approach. I think it's a great way to put it. It's common. A lot of people do it. And I think the mistake that kind of leads people to that, to that outcome is often just doing things in the wrong order.

[00:11:29] Or trying to find the like quick work around to getting to something. So, you know, if the first thing you think about a brand is a domain or a logo, you're kind of going at it at the wrong way. Right? First you want to think about kind of why your company exists, who your ideal customer is. What's the aspiration for the category you wanted to find like there's so many steps that help you get to that final answer and like name and logo come after several other things.

[00:11:55] So. More often than not. I feel like people just try to kind of skip some steps and I, I understand that. And for building something like a prototype, that might actually be okay. But if you want to like, kind of launch and grow your company, I would always push people kind of in that origin, you know, beginning stages to think through all of that more fundamental and foundational marketing.

[00:12:18] Max: Yeah. See, this is so interesting to me because, well, first of all, I did that, I definitely started with domain name availability, name availability, and then worked into some of the other things along along that line. And I think a lot of startup founders do that. It's the, it seems like the obvious thing, and that's why there's so many websites out there we can check domain name availability because it's usually the first place people start or like name generators, because now you've got to mash a bunch of words together to get a .com. So what do you think? I mean, what's the biggest, is that the biggest mistake that you just mentioned? I mean, what, what, what should start up founders be doing instead. Is there, is there like a process that they should be following in the early days?

[00:13:08] Greg: Yeah, I do. I do definitely think kind of like of all the mistakes that would probably be the most common or the one that might lead to the most problems later on, you know, there, there are other challenges that I see, I feel like one trend I'm seeing right now is start up for launching with an individual product and really not thinking about brand when that comes into it.

[00:13:29] You might also see these products launch on Kickstarter, like a really great product idea. And then they do that and they sell a million of them and they go now, what do we do next? Like they didn't necessarily think through, or didn't maybe even expect that it might take off how it did. So I think one doing things in the wrong order.

[00:13:44] I think a second one is trying to figure out how to evolve a single product into a brand or not considering brand when you come up with that first product, an example of that might be like Away. I think they have built a pretty successful business overall, they're still trying to figure out how do they leave or pivot or grow from just luggage and kind of how their brand is equated with that individual product versus maybe some more, conceptual or bigger or more emotional ideas.

[00:14:11] And I think that's one of the challenges and they're not the only one they just come to mind. So with regards to process, I think it depends a lot on kind of how much time and how much money you have. Right. And that's kind of the, the two things that can control a lot of this. It can take as much time as you want it to take.

[00:14:29] But generally I feel like research is something that is undervalued or something when I'm working with a client or on a project is often the thing that I'm trying to push really hard for. And often, you know, clients might have existing research, but I really try to push for new primary research focus on the very specific problem that we're looking at.

[00:14:48] Max: And, and just talking about research there for a second. So what are you, what are you researching? Is this a competitive analysis? Are you trying to figure out what key terms should be a part of the, describe the brand? I mean, how, how are you going about the research component?

[00:15:04] Greg: Yep. So I think. I'll give you an example.

[00:15:08] When we think about research. So I was helping a company recently launch a new clothing brand, and it was actually a genderless or gender neutral brand. And one of the kind of core aspects of that research was understanding like who are the potential customers? And I think there are some really obvious ones.

[00:15:26] And then there are some non-obvious ones, and helping them think about kind of, how do you even define the total addressable market of who that, who might be buying that product? Another question we talked a lot about was how do we actually define what we do? Is it genderless? Is it gender neutral?

[00:15:40] Is it non-gender, there's a lot of different terminology people might use and trying to figure out one: how does the user describe themselves, two: what are the words they're using to find these products? Three: what are the competitors already doing it in the category? And for kind of, genderless clothing that is, I would say a little bit of a newer category in general.

[00:15:58] So I think it's also defining, you know, there are things that our competitors or the competitors are already doing, but knowing that the category is still so young, how much of those do we want to follow? Because they make sense. And how much of it do you want to do differently? So, research often breaks down into consumer research, category research, as well as cultural research.

[00:16:16] And I think at the end of the day, I'm often trying to help brands connect to people through culture. And a lot of the category research is trying to figure out like, how do we fit in with the competitive options? So of all of the things you could pick.

[00:16:29] Max: It really is, you know, what you're describing really is this hunt for product market fit.

[00:16:36] It feels like, right. I mean, It's focused on the, on the brand, but it's focused on the product in the market. This is it's, it's really interesting because I think a lot of founders do this stuff, do some of this stuff, but maybe it doesn't always get connected as well as it could to the tactical, elements of the aesthetics, the, the copy, you know, and everything else.

[00:17:06] Greg: Yeah, I agree. and more often than not, again, there's a lot of overlap, but maybe a lack of common language. And to your point, when you get into really tactical things like website copy, or you get into tactical things like, you know, maybe the color palette you're gonna use for your brand. It's really, I feel like a lot of those things get glossed over mostly because it's time, right or money or resources, and they might feel less important.

[00:17:31] Which in some cases they might be slightly less important, when we think about design, there's  you know brand design there's product design. There's like your website design. And all three of those are really important. But, if you don't have a product, people can buy or try maybe you want to prioritize that first before you get into branding.

[00:17:48] But I don't think you can avoid doing any of those three. And there's a lot of overlap between those as well.

[00:17:54] Max: I want to go, go back to something that you touched on a few minutes ago. When you were talking about the brand Away. And I think this is a fascinating case study because Away is luggage, right?

[00:18:07] I mean, there's tons of luggage brands and don't get me wrong it's nice luggage. But to me it feels like the brand aspect of Away has become their moat and their differentiator or a huge part of it at least. And I'm curious to get your thoughts on this, but it almost feels like. The more commoditized, your product is, like a bag of chips.

[00:18:35] You know, maybe a new gluten-free snack you're selling on Amazon, whatever it is, the more important it becomes to have a strong brand and a differentiated brand.

[00:18:46] Greg: Absolutely. If you're working in a commoditized space brand is going to be more important than kind of other categories. I think with Away.

[00:18:56] They have established a brand that people recognize. I do think it has emotional meaning. I think one of the challenges they might be running into is that category is becoming commoditized more quickly than maybe they expected. So I think I've probably seen ads for three or four different competitors that are very, very similar that are looking at very similar price points with very similar differentiators.

[00:19:18] And this to your point is where. You will see if their brand is standing out or will people start to go with things like Chester or will they go to Muji and buy a fairly similar luggage at a 25% decrease, Brainless, even launched one as well. So I think if the branding is working, we'll allow them to continue to grow and charge that premium price point and people will be willing to pay it.

[00:19:42] Secondarily, I think it's going to also give them a runway to start thinking about new products and they've extended into luggage and smaller bags as well, but like, does it ever get beyond that and do they come a point where we become a bad company? And I think they're probably still thinking through some of those logistics.

[00:19:58] Max: Yeah. It's interesting when you think about Casper and how quickly that market got flooded with competitors and Casper's brand is really strong. I mean, that, that was Red Antler that did their branding and helped them launch that. And, I've always really liked their, their aesthetic, but you look at their books.

[00:20:18] And I saw a stat the other day. I think they've raised over $300 million and their market cap is right around $300 million. So I feel bad for, for, you know, the founders and the employees and all the people who, are not going to get a cut of any of that upside. But it it's, it's likely this played a role.

[00:20:39] If it wasn't enough in that market, to, to kind of become a moat for them.

[00:20:45] Greg: Yeah, Casper is a good example. I have had a Casper mattress of their brand. I think they're an example of a brand where it's like, I love this brand, but I know that it's not a good business model and I know they're not making money, but I can still like the brand.

[00:21:00] And that is, that is a tension that I have. And I think. you know, I was thinking about brands that I liked in case studies we might chat about in this conversation. And they were one that came to mind where I was like, I love their brand, but they're not a successful business. So it's not one I would generally like, but,

[00:21:14] Max: but, but I think that's even more important, right?

[00:21:17] I mean, we it's, I think they did do a stellar job with their branding. But, but you're right. I think it has to be paired with a business model that makes sense. And they were, they, I think there's, there's some serious problems with their unit economics and their cost per acquisition.

[00:21:34] Greg: Yup. And I think that also goes into a much larger question, but something I've been thinking a lot about is kind of what, what you need. He did convince investors to give you money, right. To actually start a company. And I feel like most often, and I've never had to raise capital for money, but I've helped work on a couple of pitch decks is, you know, is there a massive addressable market and is there an opportunity, but you know, there, I feel like Casper found that, very quickly and a lot of products are, you know, a lot of products can find that.

[00:22:09] But how much of a pressure test was there at the beginning to understand how we're going to make money and as someone who hasn't gone through that I don't know, and probably depends a lot on the investment firm. You might be going to how much they pressure test that. But that was a good one. I was probably like, this is an amazing idea.

[00:22:23] At what point did they really start questioning? Like, how will we make this financially feasible?

[00:22:28] Max: Yeah. And I also think it was probably a result of the times too, because this was prime I mean, SoftBank era. You know?  It's like, I mean, even before that, I don't know when they got started, but I know it was before the last couple of years when the belt started to tighten a little bit on some of these companies.

[00:22:51] And I mean, I lived in San Francisco for the last seven years and I will tell you. I was very grateful to the many venture capital firms that were funding my lifestyle, because there were so many companies that were spending a dollar to you know, to make 70 cents. And that meant subsidized Lyft and Uber rides, it meant free food delivery.

[00:23:16] It meant, free parking, like valet parking apps. I mean, it was just out of control. So I don't think Casper was alone in, in probably getting a little bit aggressive and, and in their approach from their investors.

[00:23:31] Greg: Definitely. And I think with the fall of and I don't want to say fall, like it's formalized, it's already happened, but there are a lot of reports about direct to consumer brands, whether it's, you know, Outdoor Voices struggling to make money or, you know, Harry's is going to be acquired by Edgewell and they backed out of the deal.

[00:23:47] Like we're seeing some pretty prominent brands that have been kind of highlighted and really lauded over the last few years, struggling to whether it's to make money or to grow or get acquired. And I think it's going to your point, affect how investment goes moving forward. And then you also have things like, you know, more broadly COVID things that would directly affect, kind of the economies and how much people would have to invest will also make a pretty big impact.

[00:24:13] So I think. Moving forward, people who are going to be a bit more conservative. But it also might start to open up which categories, will continue to grow quickly. Like, you know, software things related to running your actual businesses.

[00:24:26] Max: Yeah. D to C is a very interesting segment to look at because it's maybe one that shouldn't have ever been VC fundable.

[00:24:41] And the, you know, I mean, these are businesses that make really good cashflow businesses. These C's are looking for theoretically brands that have staying power for 10 years or longer. And, and, and I actually think brand is the ho is a big part of whether they can do that and pull that off because I will tell you it is possible to spin up a product on Shopify plus Facebook ads and sell a lot of units.

[00:25:11] And I think some of the D to C brands that have gotten hyped up have done that they're successful performance marketing funnels, and it's just harder to sell that. It's hard because it's unclear whether it has a staying power, but maybe brand is the answer in that case.

[00:25:29] Greg: As a brand marketer, I would like to say it could, it could, and maybe it should be the answer. But, I think when one thing we wanted to chat about and kind of more broadly is when is the right time to invest in brand. And I think we touched on this a little bit earlier. I feel like one of the most common answers is like, we're not in far enough, or we don't know where we're going enough to start investing in brand.

[00:25:49] And I would kind of make the counter argument and say, thinking about brand and think about all these fundamental questions are the things that are going to give you the roadmap to move forward. And if I was going to a venture capital firm, or if I was on the receiving end of a pitch, I would want to see some level fundamental understanding of what the brand is and kind of to your point, what is going to be enduring and what is going to be guiding this company in five, 10, 15, 20 years.

[00:26:14] And that would hopefully then give them kind of the clarity and the confidence to really want to invest in give significant money. And the same way they would want to see really strong financials to make sure that you've thought through the business case of how you're going to be making money. So when I think about kind of when to invest in brand, or when it's most important, my argument would always be as early as possible.

[00:26:36] Right. and I kind of think about it in like three phases. You think about it one and kind of the origin of the company, right? So whether you're looking for your first users or you're asking people for venture capital money, or even just family for money, or you want to hire your first employee, having a clear brand story, is going to be really important to get people to believe in your company?

[00:26:56] And for me, that's again, getting into that minimal viable brand, why you do it, what you do and how you do it, maybe, you know, in articulating an admission for that company. And all of those things really happen before you even make a logo or a brand. And I think to my earlier point, it also helps provide things like focus, and can hopefully help attract investors when they might be getting dozens of pitches every single week.

[00:27:22]Another kind of point, I feel like, you might start thinking about branding a little bit differently is whether it's like you found product market fit and like a substance, a significant way, or maybe you're going to like our larger round of investment. And I feel like that's generally when a company gets an influx of money that they can actually put towards marketing.

[00:27:40] Right? So maybe the earliest budgets went towards building the product, hiring people, building their first fundamental website, doing performance marketing to kind of get those first users. So if they get to a point where they now have. You know, maybe some significant money and they can start thinking about marketing, right.

[00:27:56] And if they have all those fundamental pieces we talked about earlier, I feel like it's really starting to evolve into more than a minimal viable brand more into like an actual brand book, a style guide, those kinds of fundamental assets, like your visual design, your voice and tone of the brand. You know, again, maybe evolving your color palette, all those things to me helped provide a really foundation, a great foundation.

[00:28:19] So when you've just started doing marketing, significant marketing, it all at least looks the same. It's consistent, it's cohesive. And I feel like, again, when you're doing those earliest market testing, it might be a little bit inconsistent because you're still trying to figure out w what is resonating with people.

[00:28:34] Hopefully by this time you've started figuring out, okay, this is the message and the differentiators people care about. So let's really double down and invest in those.

[00:28:42] And then I think the third one is, and we think about like enduring brands or like growing companies eventually get to a point where it's like, we're, you know, we have established a market.

[00:28:52] We're doing really well. We're hiring people now. It's like, what next? Right. And that's maybe where some of these brands, like Away or Casper are really it's that expansion. So am I offering new products and services? Am I expanding, you know, the services on top of my existing products. Am I going after new audiences, do I have to get new rounds of funding?

[00:29:12] And those are also the points where you might start thinking about brand as communications, right? Am I doing significant TV, radio, podcasts, out of home, all those things to, to really warrant, kind of mass appeal of my brand, but also thinking about. If we're launching new products and services, how does that fit in within the vision of where our brand is going?

[00:29:34] And obviously all these things depend on kind of the category, right? If you're more commodity, it might change how you think about brand and high investment. It's like, how crowded is your market? How unique is your offering, all of that can affect how you think about it. But I'd say at the highest level, if I was sitting down with someone who's starting a company, I would think about it and kind of that type of phasing.

[00:29:52] Max: Yeah. I love how you, you said foundation. Because I think that's probably the best analogy here. At least for the early stage startups is you're laying a foundation. It's interesting. I talked to a lot of early stage startups because a lot of, companies come to us before they have a marketing team.

[00:30:11] They want somebody to help them out and almost every time they come and they say, I need something very specific. I need a Facebook advertising expert, or I need a content marketer. Which is great, but I have never had an early stage startup come to me and say, I need an interim CMO, or I need a brand marketer.

[00:30:37] And I think that we, it makes sense, right? Because you're you're, you ha we have this tendency when we're early stage to do everything super lean and to be very tactical and to be very careful with our dollars and our time. And so you want to see a direct ROI on everything that you do immediately, but investing in that longterm foundation for your brand, that's inclusive of all of the things that you do.

[00:31:08] You had touched on your brand story and how that impacts the aesthetics and your, your tone. It just makes everything else work better for the next 10 years. Right. So the ROI is there and we'll probably, you'll probably even see it, within that phase of the company, as you start to test your advertising channels.

[00:31:28] So I just, I it's great to hear you say that. And it's something that I, I wish more startups would consider. I think the ones that I see doing it are, you know, people who already have one brand and they had a lot of resources and they're creating another, you know, like, oh, we want to do a second brand for Amazon.

[00:31:48] Or we wanna do a second brand for this new product line. Or I've talked to startup studios that again, have a lot of resources. They have the time to figure it out and really put some thought into it. 

[00:31:59] But I think it's cha it's just more challenging for startups who the clock is running out.

[00:32:06] And they're super budget constrained to think about these long term things.

[00:32:11] Greg: Yeah. That story is not super surprising. But there are a couple of pieces that I wanted to kind of pick out. I think one, whether or not founders are considering brand at the very beginning probably is affected by kind of what their longterm goals are.

[00:32:27] Right? Like if their goal is to grow and sell the company as quickly as possible, brand may not be as important. If their goal is to be the next Nike then brand would probably be a lot more important. So I think it's partially kind of rooted in what, what the aspirations are for the business, and how long they're actually thinking about it.

[00:32:46] And I think people that, to your point, think more longterm beyond maybe a year or three years, really start to prioritize that stuff earlier on. So whether, you know, I think every music, good example of that, I think Harry's is a good example of that. The founders of Harry's were also able to look at Warby Parker and see what they're able to do there and kind of take some of those lessons as well.

[00:33:05] So I think that's an aspect of kind of where our aspirations are for the company. I think the second thing is also just, we keep talking about kind of, shared language, but just the perception of like the role of brand, right? So often brand has thought about to be the final executional piece. We've made the product, we've developed a marketing, and now we're going to make some ads.

[00:33:27] And as a brand marketer, I think what I do is like some of the most upstream sort of thinking. So there's obviously some some level of disconnect there where I'm thinking, okay, I'm helping develop a brand before there might even be a product, or I'm helping develop a brand where there's only a product, but there's never been any external communications of it.

[00:33:46] And that's still feels really, kind of upstream to me as well as I think people that work in the brand worlds also often have opinions or I've worked on. Research that relates to products. It's not always an advertising. And I think a lot of those fundamental skills being able to do survey writing, focus groups, ethnography, you know, categorical research, understanding market segmentation, that stuff can be used at kind of any point in the journey, whether it's like really upfront to develop the product or later on to kind of test advertising.

[00:34:19] So it really comes I think for myself has been finding a way to sell those core skill sets and say, look, I can do these things that can really help depending wherever you are in the journey. Just some of the outcomes and outputs might be a little bit different, but as marketing gets more specialized in, someone's like I do this specific kind of marketing and this specific kind of marketing and that specific kind of marketing.

[00:34:41] Now people, so it's harder to sell that kind of generalist skillset, when people want to be gurus of any individual thing.

[00:34:48] Max:  And given the amount of research and, and immersiveness, I guess, of brand marketing as a freelancer. How do you structure that? Because. You know, we have a lot of different types of marketers in the Growth Collective Network.

[00:35:06] Many of them work a few hours a week. They help out with specific channels. I imagine it's pretty different for brand.

[00:35:12] Greg: Yeah. I think in an ideal situation, I'd say most of the engagements, I think about are usually in like a one to three months sort of timeline. I would generally say like the minimum of a month and it doesn't always have to be full time.

[00:35:25] Is really something that allows me to do enough research to make recommendations that feel sound. Right. Like I could do the job in a week, but I'm not sure he'd have a lot of confidence in what I was doing. And one of the aspects, and sometimes this depends a lot on kind of the size of the company is a generally a product starts, a project starts with like a discovery mode, right?

[00:35:43] It's interviewing the founders of the company, maybe kind of our key stakeholders. A lot of times just doing an audit of everything they've done before, whether it's they have a brand book, they don't have a brand book. They have done some market research, really trying to look through everything they've found with a critical lens and say, is there something they haven't discovered or what have they already figured out that I don't need to repeat to do?

[00:36:04] So with one of the clients I had, they'd actually done quite a bit of market research to understand kind of the genderless clothing space and kind of where they, where they go could go and what kind of products they would want to launch and why there's a addressable market and where the cultural trends are going, but they didn't really have a good understanding of the customer.

[00:36:20] So generally I would start with, let me look at what the brand has done thus far. Next. I would generally actually look at the category and say, okay, who's already in the space. What are the competitors? Like? Where are the opportunities? You know, how big is the actual market? If we were to come into the market, what, what would you, be making in a kind of a loose way.

[00:36:39] And then the next thing is thinking about customers and saying, okay, assuming there's market, and there's a way to be making money. What are customers really looking for? And often that can start with doing some level of surveys that can kind of help us segment users, on a project I did, you know, 15 to 20 hours of, one to one interviews, really talking to people kind of around the struggles they have with finding clothes, talking to them about kind of what their current options are actually showing them names and value props and kind of other tangible marketing assets and getting their feedback on that.

[00:37:10] So, you know, When I think about those projects, I can often do a month, six weeks of research. And then, and the actual strategy that comes out of it can often be done on a much more truncated timeline, I think about, okay. One of the first things is positioning. So what are you offering to who, what are your differentiators, value propositions, all, all of those kind of key marketing assets.

[00:37:35] I can often come to those conclusions pretty quick. And then I might come to another state where we have kind of these strategies or these thoughts, and we want to put them back through testing and kind of get gut checks with people. And then I feel like the third phase, depending on the scope of the project might actually be some creative executions.

[00:37:51] So I think as a strategist, something I have kind of, I don't wanna say struggled with, but somebody I'd need to think about what my engagements are. What is the final output and deliverable of the project. And do I need to bring on a creative partner that can help me execute that? You know, a lot of companies would really value and understand and  see the value of the research, but unless it can be tied to a direct, tangible output, like an ad campaign or a new logo or something else, they might be a little bit hesitant to making that investment. So when I market myself, I think about, you know, how can I work with others to package things so it feels like it's, you know, start to finish.

[00:38:26] And it helps make things more tangible. Right? So if I do all this research, but it doesn't lead to anything to like, why, you know, helping actually, you know, bring those insights to life in a meaningful way is the most important thing, because if it just lives in decks and it's all theory, it doesn't really help companies, especially if they feel like they are tied for money.

[00:38:47] Max: So you've been a freelancer now for what? Almost a year?

[00:38:52] Greg: Yep. About 10 months now.

[00:38:54] Max: How, how has it been, what are the pros and cons?

[00:38:59] Greg: You know, I've really enjoyed it and if I take a step back, I feel like for all the freelancers I've talked to, there are people that knew they wanted to do it had an entrepreneurial mindset and it was something they had contemplated for a long time.

[00:39:13] And then there are other people that kind of fell into it. So sometimes job layoffs happen. Sometimes they have to move for a personal reason. And I was kind of a mix of both. Where I was working in corporate America. I had a good job. That's paid well, generally pretty comfortable. But I knew from a kind of personality standpoint, I have more of an entrepreneurial mindset and had aspirations of starting my own company.

[00:39:36] At the same time, I was looking to move from San Francisco to New York, and I couldn't find a full time job in New York from San Francisco. So I kind of also made the decision to just move and figure it out. So it was kind of a stepping stone. So when I started freelancing, didn't know exactly where I was going to go.

[00:39:51] And I said, I might do this for three months or six months before I find a full time job. Or if I really like it, maybe I'll continue doing it. So I wasn't completely sure, but I would say after about three months and kind of my first couple of projects, I realized I was enjoying it a lot more than I expected. The freedom, the autonomy, the diversity of work, all the things I was looking for.

[00:40:09] And I feel like I wasn't getting my in my previous role, were really coming, coming to life in a meaningful way.  In general, it's been a really great experience. I talked to a lot of people who are considering to go freelance and I, I generally push people to make sure it's kinda, it's something you really want to do.

[00:40:26] It is, it is challenging and is complicated. And we talk about the pros and cons. There are long lists in both sections. So I generally push people to, you know, there's a lot of appeal on the surface, but you have to realize, kind of some of the challenges. So to that point, as far as the challenges that I've run into.

[00:40:42] I think the blur of work and life, right become a little bit, even more blurred than maybe they were previously. Right. I feel like a lot of the time that I would spend doing cultural things in the office, or, you know, more team-based stuff is spent doing business development. So, you know, I spend all the time working on my actual client work and then I have to spend a fairly significant amount of time generating new leads, finding new projects, et cetera, et cetera.

[00:41:08] Fortunately as more extroverted person who enjoys networking, I actually get a lot of value out of those conversations, even if they don't always turn into new clients. And I learned how to kind of, to hone my pitch, how to talk about myself, how to find the projects that seem most interesting and appealing purely by having those conversations.

[00:41:23] Max: It really is interesting, like, and I always kind of knew this was the case even before starting growth collective, but I always felt like the starting your own company. You just get this incredible boost in terms of your professional network. I dunno what it is. Like, I guess you just have a reason to talk to a lot of people cause you have to sell.

[00:41:47] But it just, my network has just grown just like you just said, it's just grown so much, since starting Growth Collective.

[00:41:54] Greg: Yeah. And I think it's also, you know, I generally go into the, a lot of these conversations. It might turn into a project and it might not. But I'm going to learn something from this conversation.

[00:42:04] And as someone who is a, again, an extroverted person who enjoys connecting someone, I think, one of the good pieces of advice I got, when working with freelancers is: when someone's talking about a project, use the answer "no, but..." and it was this idea where it's like never just end with no. And if I'm often not a good fit for a project, I will probably know a freelancer who is also great that I'd love to give a referral to.

[00:42:27] So I think, freelancing in general is it feels like such a community based thing. I feel a level of community that maybe I'd even feel in a previous roles where people are always looking out for each other, giving referrals to one another making introductory conversations. And I feel like I don't know the simplest way to put it is like freelancers look out for one another. And that has been something that I really appreciated. And there's actually a lot less competitiveness then, and kind of, I had found previously, and there's a lot more comradery and finding ways to either find you meet interesting people that you want to find opportunities to work together.

[00:42:59] You know, you can give referrals to other people's projects when you see they're awesome at something. I've really been grateful and even maybe a little bit surprised on, the community and just having an excuse to talk to someone, you know, Oh, you're a freelancer too. Let's talk about kind of the pros and cons and struggles and like, how do you grow your business?

[00:43:18] How do you attract your customers? And more often than not, people have actually been really open and willing to share that information with me, especially someone just getting started.

[00:43:25] Max: Greg, thank you so much for joining us. Sharing your brand wisdom. I feel like I finally understand what brand is now and I'm excited to encourage a lot more early stage startups to dive into it.

[00:43:42] So thanks again for coming on.

[00:43:44] Greg: Yeah. It was great chatting with you, you know, brand is one of those complicated things. So if we even just got that kind of that clear definition, I think that's great. And, you know, I. Have loved kind of learning about your journey and seeing where you're growing with with Growth Collective.

[00:43:59] And if there are any companies that yeah, pop up that want to do brand marketing. I'd love to chat with them.

[00:44:07] Max: Thanks for taking the time to listen to today's episode. Just a reminder that you can work with Greg and hundreds of other incredible freelance marketers right now at GrowthCollective.com

[00:44:18] And we will actually hand match you with the marketers who are the perfect fit for your business.

[00:44:25] Today's episode was edited and produced by my wonderful brother-in-law David Reineike. If you could give us a like, or a subscribe or review on your favorite podcast app, we'd love you for it. See you next time.  


Greg Donnelly
Seasoned Brand Strategy Consultant
Former company
About Author
I'm a seasoned brand strategist with experience working across brand management, product marketing, and creative strategy. Over the years I've been fortunate to learn from some of the best in the business at Altria, Airbnb and Google. I'm excited to be a part of Growth Collective so I can help start-up founders and marketing teams bring their vision to life. In my past roles I've worked across the entire brand development process. I can deliver market analyses and competitive audits to help identity the whitespace for your company. I can execute research to develop consumers personas so you can better understand your customers. I can help bring your product to life through naming, branding, and positioning work. If you need assistance on campaigns, I'm comfortable working with both in-house creative teams or external agency partners. Most importantly, I promise to bring a strong work ethic, a can-do attitude, and a flexible/collaborative approach to all aspects of your project.
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