What it takes to be a Brand Strategist – An interview with Stephen Houraghan

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Brand Strategy has become a buzz word in design communities. Some designers, with very little experience are calling themselves brand strategists, but it’s a deep topic that can take years to master. So what does it really take to become a brand strategist? How can you learn everything you need to develop brands from the ground up? How do you conduct a strategy session, and what do you provide as a deliverable?

On this weeks episode, Ian interviews Stephen Houraghan to answer these questions. Stephen is the founder of Brand Master Academy, a training course developed to help you build strategic brands, grow your expert profile and command premium fees.

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Branding Resources Mentioned



Stephen Houraghan Interview Transcription


Ian Paget: Brand strategy has become one of those buzz words. Everyone’s talking about it. But I’ve learned myself by attending courses and going through workshops, yours being one of them, that there’s a lot more to brand strategy than some people might realise. So, as a starting question, what does it mean when someone calls them a Brand Strategist?


Stephen Houraghan: I completely agree, there is a lot of different ideas about what brand strategy is. There is also a lot of misunderstanding as well and it doesn’t help that it’s not something that explained in black and white. Branding is not something that is explained in black and white. There are a lot of people, even the big wigs in the industry, who would describe it different from one person to the next, but in terms of building a brand, there are quite a few different levels to that. There are a lot of different parts to the overall puzzle.

So, just from the perspective of your background and my background, and obviously your listeners’ backgrounds as well, my introduction into branding has been through visual design, so everything … My initial introduction into branding was through understanding logos, typography, colour palettes, image style, and that was where I cut my teeth on branding. But when you step away, when you kind of look at branding from a broader perspective and you look at what branding is all about, branding is essentially the expression of a brand.

Okay, so we’re trying to shape perceptions and the perceptions that we’re trying to shape are of our audience and the perceptions live in their minds. So, that’s what the brand is trying to do, it’s trying to shape perceptions. And if we’re designing a logo or a brand identify, we’re only going to have a small part of the puzzle. We’re only going to have a little bit of impact on how our work shapes the mind of the audience. So, as I said, when we take a step back and we look at the bigger picture, there’s a lot more to strategy than just the visuals. The visuals are just one small piece to the puzzle. If I had to put a number on it, I would say around about 10 to 20%, and the rest is made up of individual elements that all work together to shape the mind of the audience.

There is a lot of different perspectives, and I know that there are some people out there who are branching out into brand strategy and they don’t have necessarily the background as to what is involved in brand strategy. They apply some strategic thinking to their designs, which is great, and that’s exactly where I started as well. And when I started to about brand strategy and I wanted to introduce the idea of brand strategy into my services, because I was applying creative thinking to what I was doing, I believed I was applying brand strategy. But the more I learned and the more I read, and obviously you know this now as well, Ian, because you’ve gone down that road as well and you’ve done courses and you’ve read books, I know that you’ve done quite a few courses now at this stage, but the more you learn, the more you realise, wow, this thing is pretty big.

I know that the iceberg analogy is used quite a bit, and I do like that because you see what you can see, and the analogy there is that with visual design, you can see it. But with brand strategy you can’t see it, and the more you dig the more you realise how big this thing is, the more you learn how big this thing is, the more you realise how much there is to it, and how many tools you have at your disposal to be able to shape the perceptions of your audience.

So yeah, look, it is definitely kind of in a grey space at the moment, because you’re right, it has been a buzzword over the last couple of years. It’s something that I’ve been digging into for many years now, but certainly with the likes of the future and more and more people talking about brand strategy, a lot more people are interested. Okay, I’m in this field of branding. I want to know more. And the more you learn, the more you go down the strategic road. And as I’ve said and as you’ve said, the more you learn, the more you realise there is to learn.


Ian Paget: Yeah, it’s definitely a rabbit hole. And to give some kind of background as to my experience with it, I designed a lot of logos and brand identities, and when I started my process I basically got a questionnaire, I ask a load of questions, I get that information. I put together a list of bullet points based on that. And I’ve always kind of described it as a strategy and I’m working in a strategic way, which is true, but I’ve learned by doing courses, reading books, spending a lot of time on this stuff, it is an incredibly deep rabbit hole, that there’s so much to this. I don’t think personally that I planned to become a strategist as such.


Stephen Houraghan: Where did you start your design career? Did you work for an agency as a junior designer or did you work with other designers?


Ian Paget: I started in-house with a medical company, working on things like brochures, basically doing just graphic design. Someone would provide me with information, tell me the type of thing that they would want, and then I would basically make it look nice. I guess in terms of thinking more about strategies, it’s come from reading books on branding or brand. And when I first started reading those books, I thought brand was the graphic design side of things. Brand is, I guess, business. Brand is business. It’s all that background work behind the business.


Stephen Houraghan: You’ve hit the nail on the head there. And look, when designers start out, whether they’re in an in-house role or an agency role, they’re job is design, so they get to design all day every day, they get briefs put in front of them, and essentially the briefs give them some strategic direction.

If you’re in an in-house role, there is probably less thought put into strategy, it’s more along the lines of we need a brochure, make it look good. But if you’re working in an agency, you often have some strategists, or certainly art directors, who have their fingers more into strategy and apply some strategic direction before the job lands on your plate.

But the shift then happens when you move out of that employment role, and you move into a freelance role, because you’re not dealing with somebody else’s client any more. You’re not dealing with somebody else’s business. You’re dealing with your own clients, and it becomes clear quite quickly because it starts with okay, well who is this business and who are we trying to appeal to? That’s the first question that leads down the strategy path. Who are we trying to appeal to? Because that leads into knowing the audience, and that is the very first starting point of building a strategy. You need to know that audience.

And people like yourself and people like myself, when I started to freelance and I started to ask these questions about audience, that’s when I started to ask more questions. Okay, let’s read about branding. Let’s get stuck into branding, because branding is what I loved more than anything. In my agency role, I got a lot of print work. I got a lot of web work, but when I got brand work, when I got the opportunity to design a brand identity, that’s when I had a good week. I loved that part of it, so it became clear to me that I loved branding.

And when I branched out on my own and I started to do freelance work, then they became my clients and I wanted to know about their business, who they were trying to appeal to, what way they were trying to appeal to them, and I first started to shift my designs by, as I said, I read more and more and more and I realised that strategy is not just an extension of your design. It’s a whole different ball game. So yeah, I mean I had a similar background in terms of coming across brand strategy for the first time and that opening up my appetite.


Ian Paget: Yeah, I found through the years … I mean, I’ve been reading about branding for quite a few years now, I’d say maybe five, six years or so, and just from the beginning, just some basic knowledge actually improved my work right away because I went from just making something look nice to, like you said, asking questions, trying to understand, who are we trying to target with this, what is it we’re trying to achieve with what we’re doing. And even though … I mean, that was with an agency so I needed to work the way that they worked, but just that basic level of understanding significantly improved my work and I could see the real value of digging deeper, and that’s why in the last year or two that I’ve been looking into it more.

Like I mentioned, recently I’ve attended Marty Neumeier’s Level C. I’ve done Master Class level 1, I’ve got Master Class level 2 booked. I’ve taken things like Core from The Futur and their advanced strategy bundle. And I’ve also looked at what you’re doing. There is so much out there. There are all these different frameworks. There are all these different approaches, and there’s no set way of doing it and I think that’s why it can seem quite overwhelming. But the general idea is just to understand the business that you’re trying to target, just basically understand what the business is trying to do. And in some cases, and I’m sure you’ve found this a lot, a lot of businesses I speak to don’t actually know the answers to a lot of these things, and that’s one of those things I would like to help with.


Stephen Houraghan: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s a really important point, actually, because when you sit down with a prospect and with a client and you want to understand as much as possible about their business, they don’t have all the answers for you. They have the basic business answers, and they are the initial ingredients that you need to develop a brand strategy. But a lot of the time, these business owners have created a business based on an idea. They’ve seen an opportunity in the market, and what they know is how to execute what their business proposes to give the target audience an end result.

That knowledge is really important in the operation of a business, but when it comes to branding it doesn’t help too much. And even when you ask questions about their target audience, often they’re very, very generic in their answers. Women between 25 and 35, they’ll give you basic demographics.

And if you’ve done any kind of strategic background work in terms of developing buyer personas or anything like that, then you know the demographics and psychographics are only really the starting point. It just rules out who your target audience is not, as opposed to who it really is. And the more you dig into who that person is, the more you gain some insights.

And when you look at the competitors then you gain some more insights. And then you apply some creative thinking and you start to see opportunities and gaps and positions in the market. Your client is not going to have all that information. They’re going to have some basic information to give to you and you’re going to gather that within a discovery session, but it’s really the research that you then apply to the information that they’ve given you, and what you learn from that research and what you learn about their audience, and then applying creative thinking to that to find a unique position that then really opens up what their brand is about to become.


Ian Paget: Well, I think one thing that I’d love to spend some time going through, and I don’t think we’ll be able to go through everything because like we’ve mentioned, strategy is a very big, broad topic, so we do have a little bit of time. I’d like to ask you how you would go about conducting a strategy, and like I said, I know that we don’t have that much time so we need to go through fairly high level and I want to try and steer people towards your course, because it’s the most comprehensive and well-covered course that I’ve come across personally. You go through everything really well. You’re very good at explaining things.

So, I think if you’re happy to, I’d love to dig into how you go about conducting a strategy, and then in the show notes or something I’ll link to your course so that if people do want to dig deeper, they can. But this should just be a high level so that people can understand the types of things that they can get into.


Stephen Houraghan: Yeah, so in terms of conducting strategy sessions and then developing the strategic framework, they’re two different things. And on the strategy session side of things, my approach is different to a lot of approaches that are out there at the moment. I know that Future have some good stuff, and I’m a proper fan boy of The Futur. I love Chris Do and everything that they’re doing. I think it’s awesome. I know Melinda Livsey, she’s got a bootcamp as well and she’s from the same school of thought in terms of the strategy sessions.

And the approach and the philosophy from that side is more along the lines of in person, one- or two-day strategy sessions where you’re in with the C-suite. You’re in with the CEO, the COO, the managing director, the marketing manager and the senior group of people within the organisation for an intense two-day period to go through the whole brand strategy from start to finish.

My approach is a bit different to that. The reason that mine is different is just in the way I developed it and just in the way I learned, because all of my work was remote. I do have clients and still to this day I do have face-to-face clients that I catch up with and sit down and have coffee with quite often, but in terms of running brand strategy sessions, a lot of the work that I’ve done has been remote, and that’s where my philosophy has been developed from.

And I know that a lot of designers are quite introverted. Now, I’ve got a background in finance, actually. I used to be a stockbroker, believe it or not, up until 2008, and that’s when I kind of shifted. When the GFC happened, I shifted into something that I loved to do, which was design. I would be more than comfortable to sit in a room of C-suites and go through a session like this, but just in terms of the way I developed my process and the way I learned and the dealings I had with my clients, most of it was remote and that’s how I developed my strategy sessions.

And they are broken up. They’re not a two-day session face to face. They’re broken up into three different sections. The start of that would be your traditional discovery call, and this is part of the sales process as well. That is when you start to speak with your prospect about their business, you’re gathering information but you’re also selling them. Now, I don’t mean selling in terms of the traditional selling, but there’s a very specific structure that I use, a very specific framework that I use to get them to open up about their business.

On a traditional discovery call, what you’ll probably find is that the client will come to you and say, “How much for a logo,” or, “How much for a website?” And they’ll get on the phone and they’ll jump straight into visuals and they’ll start to talk about I like this logo, I like the look of that, I want to make sure that it’s blue. If you have a conversation like that, if you allow the conversation to kind of go down that road, well then it moves completely away from strategy. They see you as a designer and that’s the only contribution you’re going to make to their business.

But if you keep it on a business level, so keep the conversation on a business level, you don’t go down the road of talking visuals at all and just ask business questions. The more you ask about their business, the more they’re going to open up, because look, at the end of the day, entrepreneurs and business owners, they’re invested in their business. They’re passionate about their business. They’ve come up with this idea themselves. They’ve got great ambitions for it, and other than probably their partner, they haven’t had the opportunity to talk about their business. So, when you open up the floor to them and say, “Tell me about your business,” it gives them the opportunity to really open up.

And you meet their enthusiasm with enthusiasm yourself, and encouragement, and you open the floor for them to really dream big. You encourage them to think about what life looks like on the back of a successful brand, and encourage the thinking of their vision. And once they do that and they’re talking to you on a business level, they see you differently. They don’t see you as just a pixel pusher that is here to throw together a website. If they’re having that conversation with you, if they’re speaking about their business, if they’re speaking about their aspirations, they’re looking at you on a different level.

And that’s a really important part to this step, and it’s part of your positioning as well. If you’re going to go down the road of brand strategy, well then you need to position yourself as a brand strategist. And part of that is the way you hold your conversations with your prospects and your clients, and that just opens up the direction of the conversation to go down the strategy road. A technique that I like to use, which I call the epiphany question, is to ask them a question that will make them have the epiphany themselves of what they need, so by the time you get to that point they’ve kind of opened up about their business. They’re dreaming about that vision. They’re thinking about what their life looks like on the back of a successful brand, both professionally and personally, how that’s going to impact their family.

They’re having that level of conversation with you, and when you ask them about their target market, so tell me about do you have a clear profile of who your target market is and the position that you want to take in the market, that’s a very direct question and a very strategically-based question that will … They’re not going to have a direct answer for you. They’re not going to have a clear-cut answer that is going to be yes, this is who my target audience is. This is the position that I want to take in the market. And the answer that they give you, it will be a cross between no, I don’t or a vague idea of what they’re talking about.

And that’s your opportunity to shift the conversation towards strategy. Now, if you think about it, if you had just jumped on the phone for a standard discovery session and they ask, “How much for a logo?,” and you turned around to them and said, “Well, I offer brand strategy services as well.” Then they would say, “I don’t need that,” because they don’t see the value. And that’s part of your role and part of my philosophy and part of the philosophy that I teach is that there’s a massive disconnect between entrepreneurs and business owners about what branding is, what it’s not, and what they need to be successful.

And as a brand strategist, it’s your role to close that gap. It’s your role to teach them what tools they have at their disposal. It’s not just something that you’re trying to sell, you’re actually trying to help them with their business. And they’re coming to you for help. They might think they need a logo, but when they come to you for a logo or for a website, it’s because they believe that’s what they need, and if you do your job well enough by shifting the conversation to strategy and having that conversation, then you’re going to speak to them on a couple of different levels.

You’re going to speak to them on an emotional level, because you’ve opened up that conversation about their vision and their aspirations, and you’re going to speak to them on an analytical level and a logical level as well about where are you actually going with your business and how are you going to get there? That just opens up the conversation and that leads into them being open to that brand strategy route. And then there are another couple of steps after that. There’s the remote information gathering, where they go away and take their time and think about a series of questions that you have for them, and they’re going to provide you with more information here.

But again, remember what I said before, these business owners are not strategists. They’re not necessarily going to have that information for you, but they will give you the key ingredients that you need about the business, and that is the basic ingredients for the strategy. You then take that away and you apply your own research. And this is the bulk of the work when it comes to strategy. You really need to dig deep into the individuals that you’re trying to connect with, because again, remember what I said before about what brand strategy is. It’s an expression of the brand, and with that expression you’re trying to shape the perceptions in the mind of your audience.

You’re not going to be able to shape their perceptions with just a logo or just a website. You will be able to shape their perceptions if every single one of your brand strategy elements are developed correctly with the audience in mind, and a specific way and a specific message to get across to them based on what difference that business is going to make in the marketplace. There is the discovery section phase, which is all about learning about the business and all about researching about the information that you need to develop the brand.

And then there is the framework development section, so that is taking the information that you’ve learned from the discovery session, taking the information that you’ve learned from the research session and strategising, bringing that information together, strategising about what are the opportunities in the market, what can we do differently in the market compared to our competitors? What is our audience like? What’s their personality like? How can we shape our messaging to mirror their personality, to mirror their tone and their desires. So, the framework does go deep.

And you’ve seen it yourself, it goes into of course the standard branding elements, such as your audience persona, your competitive analysis, your positioning strategy, but then it goes deeper into personality. And there is a whole section on neuroscience and psychology, because look, at the end of the day, my philosophy and something that I’m absolutely fascinated about, this is not just branding, this is I’ve got a fascination about science and psychology and why we think the way we do, why we behave the way we do, why we act the way we do.

And this is hugely influential in branding, because at the end of the day, the audience is just people and they are behaving in a certain way and they’re reacting to certain things, so if you understand why they react in a certain way, why they react to certain things then you’re armed with really, really high-level information to be able to shape a strategy, to be able to shape the messaging, to influence their mind the way you want their mind to be influenced, the way you determine in the brand strategy.

So yes, it is a really broad topic, brand strategy, and there are a lot of individual elements, but for those who are getting into strategy for the first time and they’re thinking about well do I do strategy already with the design thinking that I do? Have a look at what’s out there in terms of the free material, but certainly pick up some books and start to read about branding strategy and brand strategy frameworks, but also go a little bit further than that and learn a little bit about the psychology behind communication, why we do things the way we do, how the triune brain works, which is essentially a reptilian brain, and that’s where we make all of our decisions.

We make all of our decisions based on emotions, not analytical thinking. The brain is divided up into three sections and you have to appeal to the older reptilian brain through emotional communication rather than analytical communication. If you’re armed with that knowledge when developing a brand messaging strategy, then you’re going to be far more successful at developing a strategy that will resonate with who the audience is. I know I went on a bit of a tangent there, but it is quite broad.

There are a lot of elements involved, but it is going back to that idea about what branding is. It’s about shaping perceptions, and the more tools you have at your disposal, the more knowledge you have at your disposal, the more knowledge you have on the minds that you’re trying to influence, the people that you’re trying to influence, well then the better end product your brand strategy product is going to be.


Ian Paget: Absolutely. There’s a lot to dissect there. There’s a couple of things I want to mention based on what you said. First, you mentioned that there are loads of books and courses and information out there, and I’ve personally read loads of different books. I’ve had loads of conversations about this and I’ve taken a number of different courses, and the main reason for all that is because there’s no set way of approaching brand strategy. There’s basically an end goal of discovering this information and creating a strategy, but in terms of how you actually go about getting that information, there’re loads of different frameworks, there’re loads of different approaches.

And what I’m personally trying to do is just understand as much as I can about how different people do this and then I’m going to do my own thing based on what I’m comfortable doing. That’s the reason why I began to check out what Melinda’s doing, for example. It’s why I’ve looked at things like Core and what The Futur are doing, why I’ve looked at what you’ve done. Everyone’s doing things in a different way and it means that I can basically build my own things. And it’s also worth noting that some companies have different problems, and you work with different people and you might want to approach understanding something in a slightly different way with different tools. And like you said, the more that you have at your disposal, the better it is.


Stephen Houraghan: One hundred percent. Yeah, I totally agree with you, and I’m the same. It’s how I put together my framework. It wasn’t looking at what one person was doing. It was reading a lot of different things about not just branding, not just branding either, about marketing and neuro marketing and influence and all of these different things to kind of piece together my philosophy. And as you said, there are a number of different philosophies out there. I’ve got plans to take some of the courses that you’ve taken as well, just to get a broader perspective and just to be armed with more tools.

The more tools you’re armed with, the better you’re going to be able to do your job in terms of strategising. And that’s something that I really focused on within the courses, helping the students understand not just the steps, because steps are just a framework and today’s steps are going to be out of date in two or three years’ time. Best practices of today in any industry are going to be obsolete in two or three years’ time. It’s really about helping the students understand the why behind each and every one of those steps. What are you trying to do? What’s the end goal here?

And if you understand the fundamentals, if you understand end goal and if you understand what you’re trying to actually do, then you can take different pieces of different frameworks and as you said, like what you’re trying to do, piece together what works for you. Piece together what works for your own style and your own philosophy and your own beliefs and just develop the best brand strategy that you can with the tools that you have at your disposal.


Ian Paget: I want to say one thing that hit the nail on the head for me that you said that no one else has said. From a sales perspective, I probably would do what you said where I’d say, “I also do strategy.” And you are right, I’ve always that gut feeling that most of my clients would say that I don’t need that. Having that conversation in the way where it’s just part of what you do, it’s part of your process, that’s hit the nail on the head for me. It’s not something I’ve considered, just to embed it in there. And as well, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about but it’s something I want to make aware to the audience, you also mentioned about how you present yourself.

From all your marketing, your website, everything that you’re doing from the initial touch point of someone finding you, it needs to be clear in how you work, how you approach things, and then it runs through everything that you’re doing. So that by the time someone’s actually gotten in touch with you they should be aware that you work in a more strategic way or you do position yourself as a strategist and that’s the reason why they’ve gotten in touch with you.


Stephen Houraghan: Absolutely.


Ian Paget: I think something like logo design and graphic design, it is commoditised. There’re loads of platforms out there now. People can do it themselves with things like Canva. You can get graphic design for cheap. But if a client wants help and support with the thinking and translating that in a more effective way, that’s where graphic designers have real value and why I’m planning to go more down a strategic route, and why I feel people listening should as well.


Stephen Houraghan: Yeah, and look, here’s the thing. What you said is 100% true in terms of graphic design at the moment, it’s a game of supply and demand. If there is enough supply of something … forget about design style and your quality over another’s quality. If there are enough designers out there, it’s going to affect the perception and the perceived value of design. And that’s what I saw. That is part of the reason that I started to go down the strategic route.

On one hand, I was passionate about branding, I wanted to learn as much as possible, but on the other hand I had seen a lot of changes in the market, and for a while my thought process was that the cream rises to the top, and when you get your prospects on the phone you convince them that your design is a lot better than the one that they can get for half the price or 10% of the price.

But that is a game that you don’t want to play. If you’re trying to convince your audience that your level of quality is better, they will get an end result of a log over here. They’ll get an end result of a logo over here, but the one that they’re going to get over here is going to be much better. You’re not going to win that argument, because you’re still in their mind a graphic designer compared to the person over here who’s charging 50% less who is also positioned as a graphic designer.

It’s not until you position yourself as different from the rest of them, different in the marketplace. Yes, what I do is help you with your business. If you want a graphic designer, you can get a graphic designer.

But what I do is more than that. And you’re right, you talk about that on your website, you have conversations like that over the phone. And if you have your services up there that are geared towards design packages, brochure design, business card design, flyer design, website design, well then you’re positioning yourself as a generalist designer, because that’s what generalist designers do. They do all of those things. And there is an issue in the market at the moment for generalist designers.

The issue that I see is for the good generalist designers. The ones who are really good at what they do, they produce beautiful work, and the work is undervalued because there are so many designers out there and the perception from the business community, the entrepreneur community, is that design is cheap.

You can go and get this done cheap on fiverr. You can go and get this done cheap on Upwork. So when you come along with your beautiful designs and your well-thought-out processes, it’s going to be undervalued. So you need to position yourself, talking to them about their business from the start, from the messaging on your website, from the conversations that you have over the phone. And if you allow them to jump straight into visuals, if you allow them to start talking logos and colours and all of that sort of stuff, well then you’re allowing them to position you as a generalist designer.

You have to take control of that. Positioning is a big part of strategic branding, so you need to do it for yourself, first and foremost. You need to position yourself so that they see you as more than just a designer and they open up to the idea that hey, maybe this person can help me with more than just my designs.


Ian Paget: Yeah, you nailed it on the head there. And what you mentioned about doing the strategy for your own business, that’s very much the reason why podcasts like my own and The Futur speak about this. There’s a lot of conversations around niching down, and that’s one of the reasons why is because it’s positioning, and if you are able to present yourself as the expert in the area and work in a strategic way so that you are solving specific problems, and you’re able to demonstrate that you understand those problems in their specific niche, that’s when you’re going to be very busy.


Stephen Houraghan: Yeah, exactly.


Ian Paget: I think that’s the way to go.


Stephen Houraghan: And niching goes beyond just strategy when it comes to design. If you’re a designer and you’re a kick ass illustrator, well then you know … and you also like to deal with creative-style businesses or let’s say health businesses for argument’s sake, whatever you can couple your skills with a passion and then niche down and become the illustrator within that space. Niching goes beyond just design, it’s just creating a position for yourself in the mind of a specific group of people that you are the go-to person for this thing.

And if you don’t do that, if you … and this is something that I talk about in the course as well, a lot of designers, when they put their services out there into the world, their positioning is design for small businesses. Now, when you think about that, if your target audience is small businesses, well then there’s only two other types of businesses in the world, medium and large.

So, small, medium and large businesses are all the businesses in the world, so small businesses, you’re not niching. You’re not speaking to anybody. If I see something for a small business on a Facebook ad, for example, I’m going to scroll past it.

I’m going to scroll past a Facebook ad anyway, but if the messaging on the other hand is targeted specifically to me, they’re offering me accounting services. Accounting services for creatives, or accounting services for creative entrepreneurs, well then that message is going to speak to me a lot more clearly than accounting services for small businesses.

So, if you’re able to niche down to any field within branding, just make yourself a go-to for a specific style of design, a specific type of branding within a specific field, well then you’re going to be able to tailor your messaging to speak more directly to the people at the head of those businesses, and they’re going to be more open to your messages because they’re going to feel that you’re speaking to them.


Ian Paget: Absolutely, and I know that in itself is another rabbit hole that we could go down. I do want to steer the conversation back to the strategy. I know we’ve spoken about quite high level, but there wasn’t the time to go through everything. We spoke about what you would do in a strategy session, and you mentioned about the frameworks. In terms of a final product or a final item that you give to the client after doing that work, what does that look like?


Stephen Houraghan: Okay, there’s a few schools of thought with this. When we go back to the … and I’ll tell you what mine is, but when we go back to the definition of what a brand strategy is, it’s a plan for brand expression. So what you need to make sure that the business has at the end is a tool for them to go out and express the brand from a strategic point of view. I look at brand strategy deliverables broken up into three sections. The sections that I see them broken up into is brand strategy, brand identity and marketing strategy and execution.

And the reason it goes across into marketing strategy and execution is that if you are going to develop a brand from scratch and you put in place a roadmap for this brand to succeed, well then they’re eventually going to have to go into the market and market themselves.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to branch into marketing and become a marketing strategist, become a Facebook ads expert, an SEO expert and all of that, but you do need to understand that your audience is on a journey. They’re on a journey to promote their business and turn their business into a successful one through the brand that you’re going to develop for them.

So you should understand the customer journey that they’re on, and understand how far down the road that customer journey that you’re going to take them, because once you’ve developed the strategic brand for them and a tool for brand expression and all of the visual tools that come with that, then they are in a position where they’re ready to go into the market. They’re ready to introduce this brand to the world.

Now, if you leave them at that point and let them go off on their own, then they’re going to come into the marketing world and yes, they will have a guide to go out and express the brand, but they will probably need a decent level of marketing knowledge to be able to go out and do that effectively, whether that’s through Facebook ads or content marketing or SEO, whatever it may be.

What I’m trying to get at here is that the deliverables of an entire brand strategy is dependent on your position. If you’re going to be a one-stop shop, and you’ve seen these out there, and there’s more and more of these out there that will do your branding, will do your website, will do your marketing, your SEO, your all of this, because there are a lot of people out there that just want one person to hold their hand and bring them through everything, and bring them all the way through.

But if you want to be a brand strategist and you want to become a specialist within branding and work on delivering a brand strategy to them, a brand expression tool and the brand visual elements that go with that, then you need to know the crossroads of marketing and where you’re going to let their hand go, and to at least have a path for them to go down.

That could be in the form of a partnership with a marketing firm. It could be in the form of a referral. But if you just kind of wipe your hands and say, “See you later,” well then they’re going to be left with a well-developed strategic brand and really great visual assets for them to be able to go out and express that brand, but they’re not going to have the pathway to do it.

So, in terms of my philosophy and what I provide my clients, I provide them with a tool for brand expression so that they know they can hand that to a brand manager or the brand leader can take this and understand how to go out and express that brand through social media posts or through their content marketing. They know they’re at the head of the business. They know what needs to happen so that they can manage it. They can take that brand into the market and express it.

And the question then becomes do you pass them on to somebody else to do the marketing? Do you have a partner to be able to do that marketing for them? Or, they might have their own direction in terms of the marketing that they want to go down.

But the point that I’m getting at is understanding that crossroads. You’re getting into brand strategy. You’re going to start developing brands for your clients. You should have a good grasp of the different channels that are available to the business that you’re trying to help when it comes to the marketing side of things.

Now, you can develop a marketing strategy if you have those skills, but if you don’t have those skills then focus on developing that strategic brand and that tool of expression, and that is a brand strategy manual that you hand over to them that they’re going to be able to use, and they can hand that on to a Facebook ads expert or a copywriter that they’re using so that the tone of the brand, the strategy of the brand, the expression of the brand is consistent across the board.

In terms of the philosophy that I teach and the framework that I teach and the deliverables of that framework, it’s having all of those brand elements in place that influence and express the brand in a strategic way that’s going to influence the mind of the target audience in a way that we want them to be influenced, in a way that we want them to see the brand, and the assets and the visual brand expression tools that the brand can use then to express themselves in the market. That’s what is handed over to the client, and then a roadmap or a pathway for them to either hook up with somebody else, a business partner or a referral, to go on and then express that through the marketing channels.


Ian Paget: Amazing. I know that you mentioned about the manual and I want to mention that in the course you’ve got a downloadable end design file that you can edit, which I really wasn’t expecting in there, because a lot of courses like this don’t have that.


Stephen Houraghan: I went all out. I went all out on you. It took me six months to develop the course, and I think a month and a half just to develop the tools.


Ian Paget: Yeah, it’s good. The manual, one thing that I was thinking as I was going through it and I’m sure other graphic designers might feel the same way, because I’ve come from a graphic design background, I am quite good at writing but it’s not my strongest skill. A lot of what’s in there needs to be written and translated and written. Do you advise to work with copywriters or collaborate with other people in order to put that together? Because I think that’s probably one of the most daunting things, is gathering all this information together, translating it, rewriting it, putting it together in some kind of document. How would you get around that?


Stephen Houraghan: I know, and I have had one or two people who were thinking about taking the course ask that exact question. It’s something that comes a little bit more natural to me and I spend a lot of my days writing content now, and the whole course that I created was written out. It’s something that came a little bit more natural to me, but it is a core skill that is required when developing a brand. If you go back to what we’re doing with a brand strategy, we’re expressing the brand. Now the brand expression is broken up into visual expression and verbal expression, so any of that verbal expression is going to be written, so all of the messaging framework, the key messages within that framework, the storytelling framework, each of the chapters of the storytelling framework, it’s all written base.

You will have to structure together sentences and copy to be able to … for your client to use as a guide to express that brand in the marketplace. The choice is this, either work on honing those skills and developing your copywriters skills or team up with somebody. I had somebody reach out to me the other day and they’ve just become a student actually, and her name is Dee. And she said to me, “Look, I’m not a graphic designer, I’m a copywriter, but I develop brands. I have my hands on brands and I’m really interested in going down the brand strategy road. Do I need to be a graphic designer to be able to take this course?” And my answer to her was, “Absolutely not, because brand strategy is about brand expression and that’s divided up into visual and verbal.”

Her thought process is okay, well I have the verbal skills. I don’t have the visual skills. So what she’s going to do is she’s going to team up with a graphic designer and create a branding business together with this person to be able to offer strategy and have the verbal communication and have the visual communication. It definitely is an option if you really can’t stomach the writing, then you’re going to need to team up with somebody who can. And if you’re going to go down that road, find somebody who’s good. Find somebody who’s really good who has similar ambitions to yourself, who wants to build something. And then all of a sudden you’ve got a partner that you’re able to bounce ideas off.

You gather together your brand-building framework. They take the writing part of it. You take the visual part of it, and there are parts of it that you will be able to collaborate on together and put your creative thinking caps on, because at the end of the day, copywriters, good copywriters, they’re creative thinkers as well. You’ve got two creative minds in the game, and then you’re going to be able to develop brands that have the visual skills and that have the copy skills. That would be my advice. Try and hone your craft if you can, because it is very important. If you don’t have those skills at all, it can hinder you. But if you don’t want to hone those skills, if you don’t want to go down that road, then team up with somebody.


Ian Paget: I know with writing, I think that’s important for marketing your own business and working on things like SEO concept marketing and stuff like that. As a graphic designer, it’s an incredible skill to be able to write and I do feel very fortunate that I do have those skills myself, but I think it’s the best advice to team up with somebody else.

I think branding for a small business is manageable for one person, but the moment you go up to a medium-sized or large business … I know you mentioned earlier that’s not the best way to categorise, but if you do move up those levels, it’s a very, very big task to work with a business to create that strategy, so teaming up with someone I think makes total sense, especially if that’s not your strongest skillset or that’s something that you dislike.

It’s a benefit to both people, and I think it’s a testament to your course as well that brand strategy isn’t just for designers. It’s for business owners. It’s for copywriters. There are so many different potential backgrounds that you could be from where you would require this. It just happens to be that graphic designers, like I mentioned earlier, we gravitate towards branding and from branding you go into understanding what a brand is and then you want to start creating those from the ground up, and understanding what existing companies are doing so that you can help those businesses more effectively communicate what they’re trying to do and basically succeed.

And that’s where I really see the value of learning as much as you can about these different frameworks and approaches so that you can help your client, help business owners achieve their goals, rather than just create a logo.


Stephen Houraghan: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And just on the graphic design versus the copywriters versus the entrepreneurs, one of the reasons that I’m speaking with designers and my messaging is completely geared to designers is based on my positioning. I know that this course will be beneficial for entrepreneurs, I know that this course will be beneficial for copywriters, but if I tried to appeal to all of those people then I would appeal to no one.

So my messaging is tailored specifically to graphic designers, and that allows me to resonate with them on a much deeper level, because my experience is graphic design, my story is graphic design, so all of the concepts of what I’m teaching is present within the Brand Master Academy brand itself, because my messaging, the storytelling framework and how I’m communicating to my target audience is based on graphic designers.


Ian Paget: Brilliant. We’ve spoken for about an hour now. We’ve covered loads of topics, so what I’m going to do is in the show notes for this episode I’m going to link to your course and more information about you and everything else that we mentioned in this episode so that people can go and look into it and make their own mind up if it’s something that they’d like to dive into more. I think this has been an absolutely fantastic conversation, so Stephen, thank you much for your time.


Stephen Houraghan:
Mate, it’s been an absolute pleasure and I’m sure I’ll talk to you again soon.


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What it takes to be a Brand Strategist - An interview with Stephen Houraghan

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