Brand Strategy Tips from Marcia Hoeck & Ed Roach

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Conference presenters Marcia Hoeck and Ed Roach joined us for a live chat at HOW Design Live Online on June 10, sharing their insights on brand strategy. As brand strategy veterans and experts, Marcia and Ed work as a team, teaching and coaching creatives on using branding to bring in new income streams.

Three designers joined the chat, picking Marcia and Ed’s brains for advice branding and business advice. Check out what Marcia and Ed had to say in this excerpt from the chat session:

Brand Strategy Tips from Marcia Hoeck & Ed Roach

Guest 1: I’m trying to transition into freelancing, and my experience in brand strategy is extensive, but I’m concerned that taking on too many clients will give me too much work for too little pay as a brand designer. Should I offer more services? Any recommendations for making sure I don’t go crazy trying to juggle too many clients?

Marcia: We think you should probably offer FEWER services, and focus on branding. Branding gives you more opportunities to dig deep. For example, if branding equals “reputation,” there’s a LOT you can do to help a client with their reputation.

Ed: I agree with Marcia about offering fewer. I like to go to market (open the door) with branding, then offer my other services.

Guest 2: Marcia, could you expand on what you can do to help a client with their reputation?

Marcia: When you offer design, you’re all over the place, and that actually confuses clients. They don’t often wake up in the middle of the night feeling that they need design. But they DO wake up in the middle of the night worried about their reputation. And often, as we discuss in our session, there are BIG problems with their rep in the marketplace. Ed and I (and others) feel that brand = reputation, so when you approach it from that angle, you can really help. Are their sales down? Is the competition badmouthting them? Is morale sagging? These and other things are all repuation problems, thus branding challenges you can help with.

Ed: With my process, I’m able to determine where the client’s brand (or reputation) is right now and then working together we strategize where they are going, based on a positioning strategy.

Guest 3: How do I know if I am capable of being a branding expert? I know design, but I don’t know if I know enough about branding to be able to cultivate that reputation.

Marcia: Everyone feels this way at the beginning. But you know more than you think you do. Get one case history under your belt. Ed took a friend’s company through the branding process, I did a dummy company, for our firsts. I have a graphic design firm client who took a client/friend through the process at a discounted price, then worked her way up in price.

Ed: Believe us when we tell you that as a graphic designer you are more than qualified to be a branding expert. [Graphic design] is where you can plant the seed and start your branding journey.

Guest 3: Great advice. Would you recommend doing your first one for free or at a discounted price, so you can get the experience first?

Marcia: Ed did a relative’s brand for an “undisclosed” price. I did a dummy company. I have clients who do it for a discounted price. You can do it in several ways just to get that first one under your belt. I got away with doing my first one as a dummy company because I was in a proprietary industry, and they understood I could not disclose my client. So no one was the wiser.

Guest 2: How did you integrate the “dummy company” into your portfolio? Or rather, how did you show it off to future clients?

Marcia: I told them it was a sensitive industry, [and] I clearly marked it as “Dummy Company” the first few times I showed it. Then, after I got some better REAL samples into my portfolio, I stopped showing it.

Ed: I did services for my brother at half price. I did the entire process with my brother so the feedback was genuine.

Guest 3: When you’re doing something for say, a dummy company or a friend, though, how do you go about getting feedback. For the dummy company, who might you show your work to? Same thing if your friends might be too nice to give you real feedback?

Ed: I don’t add the case history to a portfolio. I ONLY show the case history to pitch the client. The case history sells the reality of the process. I don’t want them to see my deign except what is show relating to the case history.

Marcia: Same for me. Whenever you do a process, for a discounted price or dummy company, when you show it, you will get fabulous feedback — even when the process is not for them!

Guest 1: What are some good ways to ensure that a brand is unified across platforms (web, promotional materials, etc.)?

Marcia: To get a unified brand, you have to follow a process. The answers come from the client! You will work together to ensure the correct and unified direction. It really is fascinating how it works out when you are consistent and follow a process.

Ed: As part of our process, we look at consistency in a analysis. Actually doing it s outside of the process and would be additional work.

Guest 2: Can you share a time when a brand strategy failed, or was flawed? What went wrong and how did you fix it?

Marcia: I have never had a branding process fail. But some things that can go wrong: Clients wont go along with it. For example: I had a religious institution client. They WERE the best, but felt it was bragging, so when we went to do the positioning, they wouldn’t say it. The positioning failed. Other times, clients don’t follow directions. Example: We suggest a branding team of x amount of members. The client “doesn’t have time” to pull them together, so we don’t get the input we need. Clients can be crazy sometimes!

Ed: Not to sound arrogan
t, but I’ve never had one that went wrong. They all achieve certain but diverse goals. You have to understand that the results come from a team of stakeholders. The only challenge I’ve had is to keep the client using the positioning. Sometimes it’s quite a bold but authentic boast. Branding (hence positioning) is new to them. They’re used to slogans but positioning is sometimes a challenge.

Guest 2: I saw that you’re going to present a webinar on positioning yourself as a branding expert on 6/23. What all are you going to cover in that tutorial?

Marcia: In the Branding Expert webinar (thanks for bringing that up!) we’ll be talking about positioning your firm and why creatives don’t like to do it (even though we help our clients do it!) — and HOW you can do it so it will help you. It’s part mindset, part tactics. We all (creatives AND clients) want to be everything to everyone, so positioning is hard.

Guest 3: How did you both get into branding/becoming brand experts? Was it something that happened in your professional life that made you want to transition to this line of creative work?

Marcia: Ed and I met at HOW MYOB over 10 years ago and have been in a mastermind group with other design firms ever since. We put it together ourselves.

Ed: About 11/12 years ago Marcia and I and others met at a HOW event in Phoenix. We started a mastermind group. This group eventually spearheaded a branding discussion which led to all of us developing our own process. We’ve been at it ever since, growing the process and fine tuning it.

Marcia: We decided we needed to know branding, so we could better control our situations. We wanted design to be more important to our clients.

Ed: My business is more of a consultancy now. Consultants have lots of respect with business owners and they expect to pay them more than say “designers”.

Marcia: So as a group, we started learning all we could about branding and built our branding process together. Each of the firms then tweaked the process to fit themselves and used it successfully on their own for the last 8 years or so. It was the single most profitable thing I did in my design firm. We kept it to ourselves until recently when we decided to teach it to others. It’s too good not to share, plus we heard another group was offering their process to designers at an obscene amount that we thought was grossly unfair. We had to jump in.

Guest 3: Do you find that your clients are used to the sales pitch? Is it sometimes difficult to change the conversation with them?

Marcia: Sylvia, if you listen to our webinars, and the way Ed and I go on and on about this stuff, I think you’ll see why we’re so excited about it. There’s no icky salesy stuff. Clients often request that we “sell” it to them, even when we don’t think they are good prospects for it.

Ed: It’s natural discussion with designers. You are facilitating a solution with your client’s team. Sometimes I don’t think that they see themselves as being sold to. They appear to take it as seeing themselves in a unique solution — one they have never been exposed to before. It’s all about changing the conversation. Try it. Next time you’re with a customer only talk about our way of branding. Don’t even discuss design and see what reaction you get.

Marcia: I told a client once that they didn’t need branding, that it was too expensive ($20,000) and they were offended. They practically forced me to sell it to them. They ended up spending $90,000 with me.

They may be used to a sales process, but when you’re just talking to clients, an branding comes up, they don’t see it as sales. [Another time], I had a client start talking about a sales challenge they were having while waiting for a meeting to start. To me, it was a branding problem, and I just said so. They asked me what I meant, and off we went. The rest of the meeting was spent discussing brand strategy, and before I left — without having any intention to sell them branding — I left with a $20k branding contract.

Remember, the beauty of this is that it makes your design solution so much more robust, YOU don’t have to come up with all of the answers, THEY give you more buy-in, AND, they let you charge them for the privilege.

Guest 3: So design and marketing can be a part of the process, but you made brand strategy the starting point. It sounds like you did what Ed mentions about not discussing design since that part came later.

Marcia: YES! Branding is more strategy. Design comes out of it — and we designed our process to LEAD to design — we’re designers, after all!

And another thing — don’t ever sell yourself short. Because of the intuitive way designers think, YOU are the perfect person to do branding, not account execs or fancy agency people.

You think these things through when you design — we’re just asking you to do it out in the open, to think as a team with your client. Let them see how smart you are! There are things you are doing to arrive at the design solution that are strategic, but the client can’t see that. The more you show her what you’re doing, the more you can charge for it.

Clients (the right clients) WILL PAY for things you’re doing now for free in order to get the design work. Package it up as strategy, walk your clients through it, and they’ll love you for it.

Guest 3: It’s great that designers are set up to be able to do this based on the things we do every day. Do you both have a project you are most proud of? What makes it special for you?

Ed: For me it was for a Nutracuetical company. The positioning was spot on and it changed how they do business. They went after a different market. I was golden to them. I now use that case history in my pitch.

Marcia: Actually, the thing I am MOST proud of is the process itself, and seeing how designers’ light bulbs go off when they understand how to use it. The difference it can make in their businesses is astonishing, and that is so rewarding to me.

Some last tips before we end: Understand the value of things you’re not charging for, make them visible, and place a dollar value on them. Also, designers are really strategists, and we forget that when we get too wrapped up in the design solution itself.


For more information from Marcia & Ed, you can watch their session at HOW Design Live Online or register for their LIVE design tutorial, How to Position Yourself as a Branding Expert (Even if You’ve Never Done it Before).

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About Marcia HoeckAbout Ed Roach