The Case for Supreme Honesty as a Precursor to Killer Brand Strategy

Like anybody who’s worked in the industry for longer than two decades, I’ve enjoyed my share of deeply satisfying client engagements across multiple industries. There is one engagement in particular, however, that I will never forget, and not for the right reasons. It will actually go down in the books as one of my worst professional experiences. And this is why. We got fired for being dishonest. Let me explain.

I was working for a large branding firm at the time. The kind of branding firm that everyone in the business knows and respects. Not one that often gets fired. We engaged with a large technology firm and began our work, meeting with multiple stakeholders, trekking back and forth for meetings, workshops, and presentations. As the engagement progressed, a pattern began to emerge. We would present strategy and our clients would ponder our recommendations, then chip away at them, slightly watering them down, innocuously at first, more insidiously as time went on. We knew it wasn’t right but the client was fairly insistent and for some reason (fear? intimidation?) we let it go. Until it was too late and the final brand strategy was so incongruous, so off-point, and so entirely useless that the client was left with no choice but to fire us for a poor outcome. Ugh.

The culprit here? No one particular individual, no one particular meeting, but a bad case of dishonesty between our team and the client that prevented us from saying “No, we don’t agree with what you’re saying, we think you’re making some poor choices, and this is why.” This dishonesty cost us the assignment.

The best brand strategies are a reflection of the most honest client/agency relationships.

Honesty in branding is critical. Not just because honesty is the common basis for relationship-building and the development of trust, but because honesty gives agencies the runway they need to develop the most trenchant and compelling brand solutions. Being honest shows up in a variety of instances and includes asking tough questions, pushing back on embedded assumptions, challenging executive consensus, and saying no more often than you may be accustomed to doing.

Allow me to tell a modern-day success story to demonstrate this point. We recently engaged with another technology client. At our kickoff meeting and subsequent briefings, our client regaled us with stories about how much better they are than the competition because they provide a better and fairer solution for their customers. We investigated more deeply, conducting interviews with some of these customers, and what we learned caused us to suspect that this company was not necessarily providing a better solution, but perhaps a different solution to a persistent problem. Emboldened by the belief that honesty was our best policy, we ran a workshop with our client and told them exactly what we thought was going on. We presented several opportunities to truly change the paradigm in their industry and to help them to stand out from the competition in a meaningful and groundbreaking way. In our client’s words: “Emotive Brand brought us a not terribly flattering series of findings and challenged us to think more deeply about our brand. We discovered a disconnect between how we saw ourselves and how our clients and prospects believed we delivered on our promises. [Emotive Brand’s] unique combination of strategy and creative pushed us in a direction that was truly bold.”

Not only did we not get fired for disagreeing with their point of view, but our clients were delighted that we had shed new light on their business and the opportunities it could afford. We knew we had done something right when after making our case, the company’s founder started a slow round of applause that took hold across the full client team. Definitely a proud moment. And a personal vindication for the travesty that had occurred earlier in my career!

Perception vs. Reality: Honesty Wins

There is a weird perception in the client service industry that in order to satisfy the client, the “service provider” must do what they’re told at every turn. The truth that both parties need to keep top of mind is that while the client holds the purse strings, they are hiring not a “service provider” but a consulting body that can provide valuable expertise and experience that the client lacks. To simply “do as one’s told” is undermining the basis of the relationship.

I’ll end with some key things to consider before hiring an agency to transform and elevate your brand.

1. Identify why you (really) need an agency.

Are you looking for a team to execute the vision you already have, or are you hoping to uncover new thinking that may challenge you and your team’s existing thinking?

2. Determine your and your extended team’s “tolerance” for honesty.

Not everyone is on board for honesty. Will your team be uncomfortable or delighted by honest input from an outside body?

3. Let your agency know where you stand on the honesty spectrum.

Before you hire an agency, let them know where you stand and what you would expect from them. They should be allowed to enter the relationship with their eyes wide open.

4. Stick to the plan.

If you say you want honesty, be prepared to hear the truth. It may make you uncomfortable as you work through notions that you previously held sacred …but it will be so worthwhile.

5. Expect the appropriate results.

There is a positive correlation between the degree of honesty that you invite into the process and the incisiveness of the brand strategy that you can expect to see at the end. Decide what you want the results to look like and proceed accordingly.

Please feel free to get in touch with us for some honest conversation.

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