Lynette Xanders is the founder and chief strategist of Wild Alchemy, a Portland-based brand consultation agency that has worked with everyone from Deschutes Brewery to Nike. She helps companies align their business interests with the message that they send to their customers, clients and employees. Lynette also offers workshops for aspiring entrepreneurs that examine strategies on how to succeed in the Portland creative cluster (a world that she has helped shape) and beyond it. Upstream was lucky enough to sit down with Lynette and ask her a few key questions about what it means to build a brand, and how purpose, not price, is why people eventually come to value certain products and services.
1. How was Wild Alchemy founded?
The beauty (and curse) of an ad agency is that no one retires from one unless your name is on the door. So I knew from day 1 that my plan was to migrate elsewhere and my love of freedom dictated that I eventually work for myself. I learned the ropes from other small firms who did what I wanted to do and eventually created a brand for myself. The name came from a brainstorm around the genesis of ideation…and someone said that it was getting the right people in the room and allowing for a ‘wild alchemy’ of perspectives coming together. I followed that goose bump. In practical terms, I interviewed for jobs and asked them if I could do what they wanted to hire me to do on a freelance basis. It took awhile, but it only took one or two to establish my name and develop a list of services I could provide to people…clients don’t buy time, they buy outputs.
2. Since 1997, how have the needs and expectations of your clients changed? How have they stayed the same?
They seem to change almost every year in some respects as clients chase the ‘flavor of the month’ in terms of methodologies and marketing outputs but in the end they always come back to ‘What does my brand stand for?’ ‘Who are my customers and why do they choose me over others’, and ‘What do my ads need to say?’ These are the building blocks of growing any brand (and business). My work has shifted from answering these questions to helping companies implement insights. Now they also need cultural work to get people aligned, inspire good work, improve efficiencies and ultimately retain their best talent—as well as understanding the customer and brand. It seems a lot of companies have gotten seriously off course in managing their ‘creative development process’ regardless, it seems, of what kind of creative output they are producing (e.g. outdoor gear, professional services, ads and/or websites.)
3. What is your personal definition of a brand?
A brand is a visual anchor and accompanying set of associations. It may also include an auditory component (think Southwest Airlines ‘bong’ or Intel’s ‘3 bongs’) but it raises in your mind a visual of the brand’s logo and/or color to identify its position in your mind. The associations can be around the product, naturally, but also includes what it does for you, what it says about you and how it makes you feel.
4. Is it a good idea for a small business to adopt the same brand strategies as larger ones?
The beautiful thing about branding is that it seems the ‘laws’ and benefits are the same regardless of size or category. I would argue that it is more important for a small company to create a brand strategy because it can’t afford to be fragmented or wrong. Guessing is expensive. Big companies can ‘buy’ their way to breaking through, but even then, Nike’s success could be attributed to their laser focus on how they present themselves in the world.
5. When building a brand, why is creativity so important? What are the limits of just doing research?
Research sits on a shelf. It may affect the product and focus efforts, which is part of it, but unless you radiate that out to the world in a compelling way, you’re winking in the dark. No one knows what you’re doing. Great brands are built by great expressions. These expressions are often creatively built and conveyed—this is the magnetism and allure that draws people to you (the message is often secondary). Building a brand without advertising is like trying to steer a ship that isn’t moving. It’s an academic exercise. The value of any branding endeavor is to make people feel—and that is done via creativity. My definition of creativity is ‘productive happiness’…in its best sense it is intended to generate an outcome and it is wholly contagious.
6. Do people working outside of the marketing department of their companies have a responsibility to know the story of their brand?
EVERYONE is in branding (and everyone is in sales) at a company in my mind. At least if they want to be successful. My litmus test is to audit what gets said at cocktail parties when people are asked what their company does. If it’s all the same, you have a strong brand. If it’s all different, you have a weak brand. If it’s said with pride, the cultural ‘stock price’ of that company goes up. And vis-a-versa. People gain ideas of how they feel about a brand by how they feel employees are treated and whether they’re happy or not (think New Seasons or Starbucks). Our greatest source of information is still word of mouth (although Google and YouTube are close seconds) and if you don’t address employees’ ideas of your brand as much as your customers’, you’re working against yourself. Ideally, people at a company not only have a common vision of what business they’re REALLY in (Volvo is not in the car business, it’s in the safety business), they have a common vision of what the IDEAL vision is for the company…the noble goal that gets them out of bed in the morning. People are motivated by meaning, not by money.
7. How important is embracing tech trends like social media for a company?
If you have your house in order, it can be a valuable tool to connect with your customers in real time. I think many brands fall down because they don’t have a ‘voice’. This voice can be in ‘copy’ (the words used to ‘talk’ to people in ads and/or the website), but social is the ultimate way to personify a brand. Often, however, it’s done poorly (too sales-y) and/or it’s implemented to be a ‘silver bullet’ instead of doing their homework and doing the other, equally important, branding work. If the latter, this light that is put on their brand can illuminate the faults and do more harm than good. It’s along the lines of ‘if you don’t know what to say, it’s best not to open your mouth.’
8. Given your experience with the Portland business community, what are your suggestions for people who are just getting done with college and looking for work?
Get an internship. Full stop. You need to prove that you’ll show up every day and are willing to do what is needed—which is often the unglamorous stuff. It’s not what you know, it’s your willingness to pitch in and figure it out—that is what is of real value to companies. If you can DEMONSTRATE that you don’t have an ‘entitled’ mentality and can get a reference as such, it will go a long way toward giving you a real shot. Your goal should be to get a foot in the door, not a title. Especially in the branding/creative field. The other piece of advice I’d give is to create a portfolio. It doesn’t have to be your own work; it can be work you admire (be sure to have reasons for why you admire it). In branding and marketing specifically (for a company or agency), it’s an industry of taste. So be clear what your taste is. Be able to speak to goals/litmus tests for good work. If you can’t talk about it, they won’t trust that you can do it.
9. You do a lot of workshops. What is the focus of your next one?
I’m developing a webinar series around the ‘Entrepreneurial Boot Camp’ and am doing a mini-workshop at 52 LTD’s Design Speaks around Developing Cultural Briefs for companies—both to debut in May.
10. Where can people find out more about your ideas and your work?
Details (and even free workbook downloads) can be found at wildalchemy.com. Sign up for my newsletter and we’ll keep you up to date on what’s going on. FB/Twitter/LinkedIn/Google+)