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Episode 10: The Power of Brand Strategy in Defining and Differentiating Your Business

Hosted by Aaron Burnett with Special Guest Catherine Carr

In this episode of the Digital Clinic, Aaron Burnett is joined by Catherine Carr, Founder and Chief Inspiration Officer of Vitamin C Creative, to discuss the power of brand strategy and how it can define and differentiate your business from competitors. Catherine shares her wealth of knowledge from working in content and marketing roles at Microsoft, Cranium, and Hasbro, to founding her own brand strategy firm, where she has helped a wide range of clients develop and implement effective brand strategies. 

Catherine emphasizes the importance of crafting an authentic and compelling brand narrative that captures the essence of a company’s identity, purpose, and unique value proposition, which should be activated and implemented across all aspects of the business. She explains her process for developing brand strategies, which involves gathering insights from stakeholders, customers, and competitors, and using tools like brand archetypes to create an emotional connection with customers and to achieve a transformative impact on growth and market position.  

The episode features several case studies from Catherine’s work with clients such as Blackbird Health, LiveRamp, and Aegis Living, illustrating the tangible benefits of a well-defined and executed brand strategy. 

Catherine Carr’s Background as a Brand Strategist

Aaron: Welcome to the Digital Clinic, the podcast that goes deep on critical digital marketing trends, strategies, and tactics for the healthcare and medical device industries. Each episode brings you expert guests sharing the knowledge, insights, and advice that healthcare marketers need to be successful in this complex and rapidly evolving digital landscape. I’m Aaron Burnett, CEO of Wheelhouse Digital Marketing Group, and with me today is Catherine Carr, Founder and Chief Inspiration Officer of Vitamin C Creative. Catherine is a gifted brand strategist who held senior marketing leadership roles with Microsoft, Cranium, and Hasbro before founding Vitamin C in 2010. Vitamin C clients include LiveRamp, Aegis Living, Mumm, Meta, Danaher Diagnostics, and Blackbird Health. I’m also proud to say that Wheelhouse has been a client. Catherine, thanks so much for talking with me today. I’m excited for the conversation. 

Catherine: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be back here.  

Aaron: Can you tell me a bit of your story and how you came to become a brand strategist?  

Catherine: Yes. I had a pretty atypical path, as you might recall. I majored in English, and we won’t dwell on all the details, but just hold in your mind that I love words, and I love synthesizing and analyzing large amounts of information. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with that when I graduated, and I had a lot of sort of weird jobs that tapped into those skills but not in a very fun way, so like proofreading government contracts – incredibly boring. Fast forward a couple jobs, I ended up at Microsoft doing technical editing, and we’re getting a little bit closer. I landed in their Encarta multimedia division. Do you remember the days of Encarta? The virtual globe and the encyclopedia, it was kind of that golden age of multimedia, and I was working on content there, and that started to be a little bit more fun. Where I really hit my stride in terms of my career was going to Cranium. As you probably are familiar with Cranium, the board game that was founded here in Seattle. The founders brought me on to build and lead their content team. My title was not Brand Strategist, my title was Keeper of the Flame. We all had these very unique titles, and the founder kind of looked me in the eyes when he hired me and said, “Take good care of my baby.” The flame was the brand, and the content was really the soul of the brand, so I took that responsibility very seriously, and it was a really amazingly fun and creative place to work. I mean, incredible talent, we were growing. We were just trying to solve all kinds of creative problems. We were producing all these games and different languages. Because the content plays such a role in the in the brand, it’s the questions on all the cards, it’s the experience that you’re having from start to finish in these games, we had to get really good at defining what made Cranium, Cranium. What are the rules of the brand? What does it always have? What does it never have? What is that kind of secret sauce, that recipe that brings that Cranium magic to the experience? We had to kind of figure that out, deliver it very quickly, and then also teach our teams and partners how to do the same thing and get the same results and keep that magic. So, that was kind of keeping the flame alive in the brand and every touchpoint, every experience. I was a Cranium for about eight years, and we went through all kinds of exciting growth, expanding to different ages, different formats, books, games, toys, video games, and we were always asking ourselves those questions. Cranium was acquired by Hasbro, ultimately, in 2008. I started spending a lot of time at the Hasbro office and with their agency in New York, and they were going through a big exercise of taking all of their brands through this process of reinvention. I would sit in on those meetings, and whenever their brand strategist was talking, it was like I was like, “Oh my gosh,” my brain just lit up, and I wanted to talk to her more wanted to learn more. I realized I’d been kind of doing brand strategy for years without calling that. That’s when it kind of clicked for me. But again, that love of the written word in all its forms, that that passion for kind of understanding the rules and the boundaries, and documenting it, and then making sure that everyone is following it, those are really the central tenets of brand strategy. I had been doing it quite a long time, I just wasn’t calling it that.  

Aaron: One of the founders of Cranium was Richard Tate. I only heard him speak one time, but it was an electric experience. 

Catherine: Mesmerizing.  

Aaron: Mesmerizing is the perfect word. As I’ve worked with you, because you helped us with a rebrand years ago that was fantastic – and I was just recounting to you before we started that I had the experience of looking back on the brand documentation you gave us, the positioning and messaging that you gave us, the guidance that you gave us, now we think probably eight or nine or maybe even 10 years on and still finding it to be deeply resonant and have such high quality that we’re re-implementing some of it now. As I listened to your story, and I think of what I know about Richard, he seemed to be the embodiment of sort of brand magic, that simultaneous intellectual and soulful connection. 

Catherine: My colleagues and I often say, “Wow, we didn’t realize what a rare opportunity we had to learn brand from the master.” He was so rigorous, and so soulful, as you said, and just so obsessive about every detail. It was really fun to think that way, and it was very different than my time at Microsoft, which I would say at that time was not a very brand driven place. We would maybe do customer focus groups once a year that I would get to sit on. It was just a very sort of abstract thing. To go to an environment like Cranium where no touch point was too small to consider how that brand can be expressed. It was pretty magical to be part of that and to just drink that in and see the power of it because we developed quite a passionate following. This was before the days of social media or even really having a website. This is kind of like old school word of mouth, and people playing the game having an amazing experience telling their friends about recommending it, buying it for others, and it just created this, this electric feeling and we all felt really part of that. We felt very proud of it. We all felt we all understood our role in delivering that brand experience across every area well beyond marketing. A lot of people kind of think about brand and marketing as being synonymous, and at Cranium there were no boundaries. It was everything, it was customer service. How did we respond to customer inquiries? It was the product design, the materials that we used. We obsessed not over what was on the cards, but even the order of the cards because we wanted to orchestrate the experience from start to finish and make sure that the arc of fun had that perfect cadence and flow, so that people can really have that magic. Everyone really felt part of it and invested in it. It definitely felt special at the time, but it’s kind of looking back at it after working with so many companies over the years, and I still miss it. It’s been quite a long time now and to really see how rare that was. I do credit Richard with a lot of that. He tragically passed away a couple summers ago, and that’s still some raw feelings for all of us. He was a really amazing person. I’m grateful to have learned from him.  

Aaron: What was your path from Cranium to Vitamin C, your brand strategy firm?  

Catherine: Well, it was a big leap. Hasbro acquired Cranium, and the founders kind of left, and the small team of us stayed with the brand to really help integrate it into the larger portfolio. I learned a ton during that chapter. I really soaked in as much as I could about these brand strategy methods and tools. There was a point where it just felt like we had reached the end of that tape, I guess is how I would say it. It was really interesting because Cranium was a very unique place, as I could talk at length about, but it was very fluid. We weren’t structured like anyone else. I came out of the Cranium experience feeling like I can literally do anything. Richard used to say to us, “If we could invent a plane and figure out how to fly it.” He didn’t hire people based on their experience. He hired based on the fit of the culture and the energy and that commitment to the brand, so things really moved. I would oversee the art for a while or maybe the gameplay, and things would move around. When I started looking at jobs, I realized that I loved that experience, but I did not fit into anyone else’s boxes. They didn’t really know what to do with me. I had to kind of decide whether I wanted to go into a smaller box, or if I wanted to create my own box. I chose the latter path, and it was quite a leap to say, “Alright, I’m going to go out on my own, and I’m going to take what I’ve learned at Cranium and apply it outside of the games and toys industry.” At the time, that felt really exciting because, I mean, it is certainly fun to work in games and toys, but there’s some weirdnesses in that industry. At that time especially, it was very gendered, as far as like the boy team and the girl team. It was all men on the boys team, all women on the girls team, and I was looking to have an experience beyond that. I decided to launch my own practice and I really didn’t know how that was going to go. I had to kind of figure it out as I went along, just like we did a Cranium, right? You try things, you experiment, you draw on your connections, and Richard was actually my first client. I remain super grateful to him to kind of help me get that momentum. I had such as deep network at Cranium, and when everything kind of unraveled, people just landed in interesting places. I found myself working with Mumm Napa Sparkling Wine brand and Brooks Running and different companies where my colleagues had landed, and I ended up working with them and getting experiences in different industries, and then going beyond that. I think that’s how we know each other, through one of my Cranium colleagues. That was 14 years ago. It was really fun, as I was prepping for this, to look back at all the different projects I’ve done over the years and really see that variety of different kinds of companies, different stages. I’ve been pretty intentional about keeping that variety, and I think that comes from Cranium because we were always trying to like have a very rich and varied experience. I love that it keeps me curious and learning new things, and it’s fun.  

Finding the Emotional Connection

Aaron: I was looking at your website and looking at your client roster, which is very impressive. So clearly a very successful brand strategy firm. One of the things that I so appreciate about the work that you do, is a soulful expression of a brand. Your brand strategy work takes into account a company’s identity and their practical business needs. But also, the emotional connection, the meaning behind what they’re trying to do, the intersection, I think, between that emotional connection and what a firm can do and what clients need. What is your process for doing that? I also have worked with large agencies that purport to provide brand strategy, and they do have a type, but they don’t provide what you provide. 

Catherine: I think, to me, that the process is always kind of similar, whether I’m working with a very small team or a large company, and I have a very wide range, as you probably noticed. You hit on a lot of these points, but I think you want to get the inside out view. I love to just sit with the founders and other team members or stakeholders that maybe have something important to say, and just get them talking the same way that you do with this podcast. Hear about what inspired them to start this company, or what is their vision? What are they excited about? Where do they struggle with telling their story? Because it’s very common. When you’re in the thick of things to kind of articulate what you do in a simple, clear way, it’s hard. It’s hard to do it from the inside out, so I just let them talk. That might be a few people or many people depending on the needs of the team, but that’s just really kind of getting that that vision and that authentic, “What makes them tick?” Then you need to hear that outside in as well because brand is both. You’re being intentional about what you want to project but it’s also how others perceive you. You need that as a particular input. You need to hear that customer voice. That can take many forms. Sometimes it’s just sitting down and talking with their most passionate customers or maybe customers who’ve worked with them and decided to leave or customers who have been with them a long time and hearing, “How do they talk? How do they think about this brand and this company? What did they love? What would they love to see?” Just really grounding it in that customer insight. I have seen over and over again that a lot of times customers can just articulate something, I think of it as like the golden nugget, that you’re like, “Such a perfect phrase.” When you’re trying so hard to think of it from the inside, often just kind of letting your customers take you where you need to be, is really powerful. Some companies are really great at doing this. They’re very, very close to their customer needs and voice and they invest a lot of time in customer feedback, and others really don’t. They get busy, right? That happens. Just hearing that and grounding in what the customers say and think is usually very powerful for a team, so that gives the outside in perspective. 

Then you have to look at the context because you’re not operating in a vacuum. We will agree on what is that competitive space that we want to take a look at, and how are they showing up in the marketplace? I know you all work with a lot of healthcare companies, but you start to see things like when you look at a lot of healthcare brands, everyone is improving patient outcomes. It’s important, but you just start to understand how these freezes that people want to go to it’s difficult for your brand to stand out. We’ll sort of go through that and look at some observations and opportunities. I always do kind of outside in brand audit, just my fresh eyes of how I’m seeing you show up across different touchpoints. A lot of times, the teams are like “Oh yeah, we know the website needs work,” or sometimes you can kind of show things that they’re like, “Hmm, I hadn’t really thought about that before.” All those inputs are really important to have and you can be creative and how you get them or how deep you want to go in any of those areas, but you are looking at that intersection in the middle where everything aligns. Then you can start to sort of put together an articulation of all that in a way that feels authentic, feels true, and captures that aspiration and leaves some room for growth, but is also defensible and believable. You start to kind of capture those reasons that a brand can kind of put those stakes in the ground and say this is what we do to reform. This is what we believe in. This is where we’re going to go. It’s very energizing for teams. It’s really fun to take them through that process and to feel that sense of maybe getting alignment on some things that hadn’t been quite hashed out or feeling a sense of pride in seeing their story come to life in a way that’s hasn’t before. And again, I’m not here to tell them what the brand is. I’m here to listen and pull out those useful pieces and build around them and kind of whip that story into shape, so that it can show up the way that it wants to.  

Brand Archetypes

Aaron: One of the things that you did with us that was powerful and enduring was to anchor us to a particular brand archetype. Does that remain a consistent part of your process and can you describe that?

Catherine: Absolutely. That’s one of the tools I learned from the Hasbro agency. In some ways it inspired my path because they brought in an expert to assign the brand archetypes to all the archetypes in the portfolio, and the archetype that was assigned to Cranium I knew in my heart was wrong. Even though I had never encountered this theory before, but I was like, “No, that’s not what we’re about.” I got on the phone with him and kind of made the case and he was like, “It says this on your package.” It was a very superficial application of a very deep and rich theory. I remember this vividly. I got the book, I read it. There’s a book called “The Hero and the Outlaw” that applies this archetype theory to brands. Just to touch on that a little bit, basically the model is that throughout all of human history, across cultures, languages, geographies, there are these different kinds of archetypes that we just inherently as humans get. You see these characters appear in literature. You sort of understand, “Oh, this is the rebel, or this the hero, or this is the magician,” and we just intuitively get them. “The Hero and the Outlaw” applies this theory to brands in a really fascinating way. It’s a book written probably in the 70s. I read the whole thing, and that was maybe one of, not the not the only reason that I decided to leave, but it was like, this theory is very powerful, and I would like to deliver this in a much more thoughtful way than I had experienced. Not only do I still use it, Aaron, I keep evolving it and developing it. It’s probably quite different than when we went through the exercise because I just find it so rich and fascinating. As I recall, we kind of went through the exercise and we had a resonance for “Explorer,” which is about kind of independence, and mobile technology fits into that really well, and kind of forging new ground. You have it in your name. Looking out your window at your office, you’re overlooking this beautiful blue water. There were a lot of points of resonance. One of the archetypes is that “Every Person,” which is that humility and the common, the hard work. We wanted that “Explorer” to have that influence in how you show up to make sure that felt authentically you. That’s something that I don’t see a lot of other practitioners do is maybe having that nuance of how those different archetypes can interplay. There’s a lot of depth behind each one. Often I see, “Oh, you’re the “Jester” archetype or you’re the “Creator” archetype – that would be the one that I identify my own business with. When you really look at it, it can show you a really amazing path for how you can really have a very high impact in your craft. It gives you some guidance on how that should show up in your culture, and it’s pretty cool.  

Aaron: It’s remained a touchstone for us.  

Catherine: That’s amazing to hear.  

Aaron: As we said out loud what just true already in the business, which is we’re focusing on healthcare, MedTech, and life sciences, those clients were already 70%+ of our client base when they made that declaration. We repositioned, and we focused on solving our clients toughest digital problems, unlocking performance by doing so. That’s so consistent with that “Explorer” identity – restlessness, wanting to come up with something bespoke for every client that is perfect for them. Being really dissatisfied with doing the same work over and over again. 

Catherine: Absolutely. It’s not a best practices checklist.  

Aaron: No, in fact, we try very hard not to say the phrase best practices. It’s enduring for us. 

Catherine: Yeah, you’re always sort of exploring the new territory on the forefront of what’s happening in the industry. I’ve watched you all doing this from afar and seeing how those new privacy regulations are changing and what can you do to stay on the leading edge of that. Very “Explorer.” Very powerful. Great job.  

Aaron: Well, thank you. We had your expert help that pointed us in the right direction, even this many years down the road. You’ve gone through this process that kind of shows people and shows the company who they are and establishes a brand identity. How is that then expressed? How’s it activated? 

Catherine: Well, the worst thing that can happen, and it does happen sometimes, I’m afraid to say, is you go through this amazing strategy, the team is aligned and it’s all documented in a lovely presentation that then sits, and that’s no good. Then you get to the really important part. The first part is figuring out what kind of brand you want to be. The second part is actually being that brand. I go back to Cranium, it takes sort of a relentless going through every touchpoint that you have – internal, external, and really thinking about how does that brand need to show up? What do we need to change? What do we need to add? What could we maybe stop doing that isn’t aligned? One of the most important things I think to consider, as you think about your brand, it’s not just what do you do, it’s getting clarity about that, but what do you not do? That’s hard for some companies. It’s hard to sort of say, “Well, that’s a revenue opportunity, but it isn’t aligned with where we want our brand to be.” It’s powerful, you can kind of stick to the clarity of that vision, and I think many times your brand can grow and thrive in a way that you wouldn’t if you were sort of making those more short term. “Oh, why don’t we just kind of add on to this one thing?” You were asking about how it happens. Part of it is, like we talked about, just documenting, creating a brand book that the team can go to. What I often see is, teams don’t have this stuff really nailed down. Every time they’re doing a presentation, every time they’re trying to write a social media bio, or they’re doing a one pager, it’s like they’re starting from zero. Which version did we like? Which was the best one? Which one should we be using? When you can get it really crisply defined, “Here’s our one sentence. Here’s our one paragraph. Here’s our brand platform,” that just reminds us of our purpose, our position, who we’re for, what we do, how we do it. You have a go-to reference that just makes it much easier to execute. I always think a lot of teams kind of rush to execute. They want to just work on their website without having this nailed down, and you can do that, but it’s not going to be super clear. You’re going to probably put out some mixed messages. You’re not going to have that sense of cohesion. Similarly, if you invest in a brand strategy and you don’t activate it, that’s a waste of the investment that you’ve put into your brand. I do end up working with a lot of my clients on that activation piece, which is different from some other brand strategy practices. A lot will just do the strategy. Sometimes I inherit a strategy from working with clients that another agency has done and they don’t quite know what to do with it. They like it, and it’s all beautifully documented, but they’re not quite sure what to do next. I think again, going back to my passion for the written word, for me, it’s very intuitive and fun to translate that strategy into what should your website sound like? What should that one pager be? What should the tour script be for my sparkling winery client? How do we just bring that brand to life and make it real and keep it true, but push out creatively across all of these different touch points? It’s very fun.  

Aaron: Is there a typical duration for a brand strategy project?  

Catherine: It does vary. Sometimes there’s some sort of a deadline. We’re going to this conference and we need all of our materials updated by so and so, so we’re trying to compress that process that I described. I would say the ideal is several months is good to be able to go to the level of depth that you need. If we need to, we can do it in shorter time. If it stretches out much longer than that, I feel like things maybe start to lose a little bit of energy and momentum. I think three or four months is pretty good. More and more, I’ve been working with my clients for quite a long time after because of that activation piece, making it real and staying true to it, helping them through coaching, through feedback, sometimes through creating these deliverables or training the team to help them kind of internalize it and become invested, for them to become their own keepers of the flame, for them to really get it and feel that confidence in keeping it true to what we agreed on.  

Brand Strategy at Blackbird Health

Aaron: You’ve worked with a wide variety of clients, some of them in healthcare or senior living. Can you give examples of some of the more interesting or exciting ways that you’ve seen brand strategy come to life?  

Catherine: Yeah. One that comes to mind was a company I worked with a couple summers ago, Blackbird Health. They’re based in Pennsylvania, and they were at an interesting point in their lifecycle. They had just taken on some funding. They had kind of one or two in-person clinics. They had a vision for kind of extending what they were doing by adding in technology, and they had just changed their name, they had brought on a new co-founder, so there was a lot of change happening. I took a look at their website and it was like, “Okay, interesting.” When I really sat down and talked with the founder, she blew me away. Her passion for what she was doing, her commitment, and what they’re working on is kind of bringing precision diagnostics to mental health for kids and teens.  

Aaron: Blackbird sounds really interesting.  

Catherine: It was such an interesting brand to work with. I love it when brands that I work with have some sort of intersection with my personal experience as a human. I love thinking about running shoes or sparkling wine is certainly fun, but when I heard about what the Blackbird team was doing, the insight that they had was so much of kids mental health is really based on trial and error. You try a certain medication, and you see if it works. Then if it doesn’t, you try something else, and then if it doesn’t, you try something else. That’s really hard on the kids and excruciating for the family when you’re in a time of crisis. They had developed a very holistic way of looking at all of the different factors in a kid’s life that might get missed otherwise. They looked at things like sleep and diet, and they brought this sort of genetic testing component into it to be able to match the exact diagnosis with the potential treatment much more quickly. This is something, when I really understood what they’re doing, it was like I really want to see this in the world. I want them to be more known for this incredible work that they’re doing. The way they were sort of presenting themselves and showing up wasn’t matching the power of that vision. That’s the most gratifying kind of brand project, when you really can bring those things into alignment. We did the stakeholder interviews, we looked at the competitive set, and there was kind of an emerging set of companies who were doing some things with remote virtual mental health, and they were doing things like subscription models, and they had some impressive credentials and founders and they had some lovely brands, but it sort of illuminated some of the opportunities that Blackbird Health had to stand out and tell a different story. Then we talked to some of the families who had worked with the founder. Their stories were incredible. I mean, a very high percentage of them credited the Blackbird team with saving their child’s life. I mentioned the “Hero” archetype before, and when we looked at the possibilities, a lot of times teams are a little bit hesitant to choose the “Hero” because it feels kind of self-aggrandizing in some way. I said, “If anyone could be the hero, you already are being the hero.” You are trying to tackle this very difficult problem, a need that we have across the country. There’s a mental health crisis with kids of this age, and the passion and the commitment, I mean, they were working around the clock. They had made sacrifices to help as many kids as possible. It was very, very aligned. We landed on the “Hero” archetype.

The other part of the story that I love about Blackbird was they have an interesting name. It’s a unique name, but the story wasn’t quite, it hadn’t quite come into focus. I talked with one of the founders, she’d say, “Oh, it’s inspired by The Beatles song.” “Take these broken wings, and you’ll learn to fly” is one of the lyrics in there. Then I talked to the other co-founder, and he said, “Oh, it’s there was this high-tech surveillance plane, the Blackbird,” who’s really interested in the technology side. They even had different versions of the logo that we’re showing up. They were using one on Twitter and one on their website, to the point where I was like, “Is this the same company?” Think about how important trust is in the space. You don’t want to have those moments of, “Is this the same company?” There was a lot of opportunity to bring all that into focus. In terms of the name story, we came to alignment around really taking inspiration from the Redwing Blackbird. We even did some research and looked at some of the characteristics of the bird that align with what they were doing. For example, they have a very expansive reach across the country. That was one of their aspirations to grow their geographic impact. They actually work collaboratively. They build nests together. We brought forward this idea of teamwork and helping the very resilient. Then the coloring of the wing pattern has a very bright little pop of color on the black background, and to us that symbolized this feeling of hopefulness and optimism in what can be a very dark time when your child is struggling. Getting that alignment and getting everyone to sort of rally around, “This is the story that we’re going to tell about our name,” and then I could bring in a designer that I collaborate with quite a bit to give them a new version of that logo that captured those elements and has that feeling of hope and optimism. Then we found some other places to talk about the technology which is an important part of it. All of those inputs could kind of fall into place, but in a way that gave them a lot of clarity.

Then through the process, we also hashed through some important topics of discussion, like they had been hesitant to really put a stake in the ground in saying, “Yeah, we’re doing genetic testing as part of it.” They were really debating that. Do they want to do that or not? They decided, yes, they did want to put a stake in the ground and say, “We believe this is an important component of taking the trial and error out of diagnosis and treatment.” Genetic testing is one of those phrases that people can have a reaction to. It can feel a little bit scary, but if we can kind of explain why we do that, and the benefit, and how it helps you eliminate that process of trying to sort of figure out what kind of concoction is going to help your child, it starts to feel much warmer and powerful. Then the other thing that, again, looking at the competitive set, I think I mentioned some of them were doing a subscription model. If you think about that, that’s not being covered by your health insurance, and it limits the audience that you can reach to people who have the resources to afford supplemental care. The founder of Blackbird was like, “We want to help as many kids as possible.” She had taken the time – again, this goes back to the “Hero” – she’d taken the time to go through the insurance codes and figure out how to make what they did match, so that their services could be largely in-network, so we decided to really elevate that as part of their messaging and say, “This is an in-network service,” which they often aren’t. We could bring forward these aspects of their vision, get their story really tight, help them get clear on how what they were offering was different from competition. Through that process, just get them really energized and proud and equipped with some strong inspiring messaging that they could use to find the kind of partners that they need, and then recruit the kind of talent that they need to fulfill their goals. It was really, really fun to work with that team. That was maybe a smaller type of project or company, but we really went through that whole process from start to finish, and you could just see that transformation on how they start to show up and the kind of materials they can produce and their energy and alignment that they have as a team.  

Aaron: Yeah, sounds like an amazing company. I hope they’re still thriving.  

Catherine: Absolutely, yes. 

Vitamin C Creative’s Impact at LiveRamp

Aaron: I saw that you also have worked with LiveRamp, which is an entity, a business, that’s increasingly important in our space because of the data they provide. Can you describe a bit about what you did for them and the impact that had?  

Catherine: That has been a really exciting project and brand to work on. I started working with LiveRamp when they had just hired a new CMO, who I had partnered with on a couple other brand projects before. She said, “Catherine, I need you to come in and do what we had done for these other companies.” That was an interesting one because they actually had a really lovely visual branding. They had just done a visual rebrand that was quite strong. There had been some strategic parts of that, but it hadn’t quite stuck. I think they had tried to kind of land brand strategy a few times, it’s a very big company. Appetite for brands strategy was pretty low. I’m going to be honest about that. It was kind of, “Do we really have to go through this again?” type of feeling, which I have empathy for. When you’ve maybe gone through a process that didn’t quite have the results that you want or takes time, to hear everyone’s thoughts and go through this discovery process. 

Aaron: Brand strategy, in my experience in working with other agencies, is brand strategy done wrong can seem really esoteric and disconnected from any reality that the businesses is dealing with.  

Catherine: Nobody wants to be spending time on that, it’s a publicly traded company. I mean, they’re a thriving business. We had to be a little bit creative in how we approached that.  

Aaron: One of the things that I’m curious about because, this to me, gets to the practical value of brand strategy, is that LiveRamp as a business, their offering is complex, and it’s pretty vast. It’s challenging from the outside to figure out what they do. I am guessing that a lot of your work focused on clarification of what you’re actually trying to communicate to the outside world.  

Catherine: Yes. I was the perfect person to partner with because it is very technical. It’s very complex, and it’s one of the more complex things I’ve ever worked on. We all agree across the board that they need to simplify their story, and that’s really important. When I started working with LiveRamp, actually, they had just done some kind of business strategy work that was shifting them much more toward data collaboration. That was a new term that we were trying to connect a lot of what they were doing to that term and anchor in there. When we worked on the brand strategy, it was really pulling those things together and starting to give them some very clear, simple, inspiring language that helped them step into this new chapter because they’re really leading this industry. What I love about working with LiveRamp is they have just been so invested in pulling down the work that we did together to everything, like the product architecture, the naming of the products, how they describe their products, Over time, they are a very big company, they had acquired different things. They also have a very large ecosystem of partners. My outside in observation was it’s really hard to tell when you talk about your products if you’re talking about a product or a partner, like it sounds like another company. I was always trying to sort of tease out, “Wait, this is something you own or is this someone you’re partnering with?” We just overhauled everything to be much more aligned with how does it fit into data collaboration, and what is the benefit for the customer? What can they do with this product? Shifting more from the brand names and acronyms they had been using, which are really hard to get your head around, there’s a lot. I’m always like “Wait, what is this? What is ATS? What is this?” Asking those questions just illuminated this opportunity to just completely simplify how they wanted to go to market with their platform. That commitment to really making this topic of data collaboration more approachable and clear and to ground it in what their customers are actually doing, what problems they’re solving, it’s really been quite a transformation, and it’s ongoing. There’s always so many things, so many touch points to consider. I’ve worked with them for, I guess, it’s been about a year and a half. We sort of aligned on the brand strategy right before their big industry event ramp up, and they bring all their customers, and they tell their stories, and it’s fascinating. It’s like hearing the customer voice just all around you all day long. They were just starting to talk about data collaboration, and one year later, I went again, and it was just everywhere, data collaboration. All the sessions were talking about it. I heard people talking about data collaboration. It just had completely changed the focal point of what they had been known for and what they want to be known for, so very exciting. I admire just the commitment. It’s sometimes daunting to pull a brand through at that scale. There are so many teams, there’s so much deeply ingrained language that they use. I’ve had to do a lot of like, “From this to this. Instead of this, say this.” We just kind of keep simplifying, keep talking about that customer value, keep bringing everything back to the brand, which is all about building enduring brand and business value. 

Aaron: I’m listening to you and I keep thinking, “Oh, yeah, we need to be doing that too. We should be doing that as well” I need to be more thorough. We have to go back and revisit what you’ve provided us and make sure that it’s more thoroughly implemented and socialized.  

Catherine: Yeah, it’s been a very fun challenge. It’s a great team.  

Aaron: What a time to clarify their messaging. You mentioned privacy regulations. I know LiveRamp was successful before, but the privacy regulations that arrived on the scene at the end of 2022 kind of created a market for them. It’s very much a data collaboration market. How great to have clarified messaging as everyone is seeking out what they can provide.  

Catherine: Absolutely. Our grounding phrase at LiveRamp is “the data collaboration platform of choice for the world’s most innovative companies.” It’s really fun to showcase because they have an incredible client roster, and when you really hear them coming to ramp up and sharing the innovative things they’re doing, the partners, the new partnerships they’ve launched, the new insights they’re generating by putting their data together in a very secure way that protects the privacy of all the parties involved, they’re pulling out ideas for new innovations, they’re able to provide very deeply personalized experiences in ways that they weren’t before. It’s pretty exciting.  

Aaron: In the case of LiveRamp, I would assume that that actually is a statement of fact because they’ve been around for a long time and they’ve lived up to that. To what extent can a positioning statement or should a positioning statement like that be a reflection of what is true today or an aspiration? We’re not right now the agency of choice, the platform of choice. We can see it from here, and we would like people to have the sense that we are that  

Catherine: Absolutely. I’m glad you brought that up because whenever we’re working through a brand strategy, I do want it to feel aspirational. I want it to leave room to grow. I’m thinking of one of the messaging maps, the early messaging maps that we did, and when I’m putting together a brand platform, we want that purpose or that promise at the top position, and then there’s sort of the pillars, this is, to me, the DNA of the brand. This is just the things that you can consistently speak to that make the positioning believable, they are the reasons to believe. For LiveRamp, we really focus on the right foundation, which is their excellence, and data ethics and privacy and identity, all these kind of aspects that they’ve had many, many years of experience doing. Then we talked about flexible collaboration because the technology they’re building, you can do data collaboration across any cloud across different platforms. We bring the tech to the data so you don’t have to move the data. Just getting that realm of opening up all those possibilities to make different kinds of collaborations possible. Then the premier global ecosystem, which is just this massive network of publishers and brands and these deep relationships that they have. LiveRamp calls those their “rights to win.” I love that. I don’t usually use that language, but they really rally around them. It’s really great. I went to their product kickoff a couple months ago, and the leaders would just have the whole room going over their rights to win over and over again. That’s kind of what it takes to really get the brand in your bloodstream and for everyone to feel that sense of ownership. Then you sort of detail at some different proof points, to give those pillars depth and meat and start to bring out supporting messages and examples. There were some aspirational parts of that. When you have that clarity of what you’re trying to be and become, you know those areas that you have to prioritize to really fulfill the richness of that vision. As you probably know, LiveRamp acquired one of its competitors earlier in the year. That’s always an interesting kind of test because sometimes that happens, and you have to kind of go back to square one because maybe you have built your positioning against that competitor. Then you’re like now what? In this case, it was really fantastic because we realized that that acquisition fulfilled a lot of those aspirational points, and everything that we had outlined for the brand stayed true. We had to tweak maybe some of the wording of the actual messages or the proof points, and we added some new proof points, but the brand stayed intact, the promise of the brand, and that was really a powerful thing. Very exciting.  

Developing Brand Strategy for Aegis Living

Aaron: Yeah, that’s very interesting. Can I ask you about one more?  

Catherine: Yes.  

Aaron: Aegis, a common client, and long-term client for us. I’m curious about brand strategy for Aegis. Their market position is interesting and, I think, unique. I’m intrigued by their model and the way they present themselves. Can you talk a little bit about bringing their brand strategy to life? First of all, I guess, developing their brand strategy and then bringing it to life. 

Catherine: It has been a few years since I worked with them, and I haven’t worked with them in a little while. Interestingly, Aegis has a connection back to Cranium. Richard, who we’ve talked about, had a very close relationship with the founder of Aegis Living, and he had introduced me to him many years ago. 

Aaron: Ah, another fascinating person.  

Catherine: Yes, yes. They had a lot of similarities in terms of that. I remember him talking about trying to find care for his mother and how hard it was to find the kind of experience that he wanted her to have. We had to create it as a very Richard idea. One of my Cranium colleagues ended up going and working for Aegis on the marketing team, and she brought me on to help with that. When you look at the competitive space for senior living, you see pretty quickly the opportunity to do something different because it’s either downright depressing or what I would call kind of “fake cheery.”  

Aaron: Even the real pictures look photoshopped.  

Catherine: Yeah, it creates a very strange feeling and a very different feeling than the passion and the warmth I was hearing from the team. They’re very deeply committed to the unique experience that they’re providing. This element that they really wanted to bring forward was this feeling of optimism and even joy. I know that’s a word that resonates with Wheelhouse from one of your values, but it’s not an emotion that you really associate with this space at all. When you kind of hear some of the stories and the intention with which they create that joy, it’s like “No, there are residents who run their own newspapers and interview the residents, and they have these amazing parties where they bring all the families and they have bands.” They really do try to create these joyful experiences and opportunities for the residents to keep learning and use their talents. We really wanted to bring in a lot that language and the warmth. We used words like wholehearted commitment to the human and optimism and joy, brimming with optimism and joy, just really trying to bring in this feeling. What I admired about what they were doing business wise was they recognized that a lot of times when you are looking for care, it’s often the child looking for the parent. It’s the time of crisis, and it’s hard. I’ve actually been through this myself. It’s very, very hard on you. You are just desperate to find someplace, and you don’t know where to start. I think they were trying to, as a business and as a brand, develop that awareness well before that moment of crisis hits, so that you have this sense of “Oh, this is a different kind of place. I’m starting to maybe feel some trust.” They were doing things like they were working on putting out really helpful information to help how to even start that process, what to look for, what kinds of questions to ask. It was really fun to, I think in that case, bring forward that very authentic commitment, creativity, and the experience they’re trying to create and bring that forward into their brand platform and capture that in a way that they could really own. I haven’t worked with them in a little while, but I’ve loved seeing that they brought Troy Nebeker, a photographer I also know from Cranium, who is very, very talented, to come in and take photos of the residents. They are real and they’re beautiful. You really get that sense of that wholehearted commitment to the human, to the person, and they’ve done some really lovely things.  

Aaron: Yeah. It’s a neat brand and neat organization. I think one of the things that impresses me is that the commitment to a quality experience isn’t superficial. There’s a way you can do that, and it’s sort of the Vegas treatment. It’s a fancy looking hotel, but it was cheaply constructed, and if you want to closely, you see, “Oh, that’s not wood, that’s plastic. 

Catherine: Exactly, yeah. 

Aaron: I know, because I also bumped into other people who work to furnish or equip some of the facilities, that the commitment to a quality experience goes very deep. The artwork is real. The framing is custom framing. The fixtures are high quality, and many of these things, they don’t necessarily have to be. No one’s going to know that the artwork is custom framed, but it makes a difference. Cumulatively, it makes a difference to the brand experience, so it’s impressive. 

Catherine: It does. I agree. I admire that as well.  

Aaron: The other experience that I have is that those senior living facilities are kind of alone in that when you drive by, they look like a place you’d like to spend time. 

Catherine: Right, and they’re different.  

Aaron: Each is different from one another.  

Catherine: That’s what was interesting to me. They each have sort of a unique feel, ethos, and character. I can’t remember the name of it, but there’s one I remember learning about in the area that sort of specializes in Asian residents. They have a special tea room, a place that the families can come and have the traditionals there, but it’s just really, really interesting ways of making the families feel comfortable with that new experience and at home. That was a very inspiring brand to work with.  

Aaron: Yeah, sure. What have we not talked about that you would like to talk about?  

Catherine: We talked about the archetype work, and I’m really excited to be sharing that at the Seattle Interactive Conference at the end of July.  

Aaron: If anybody is thinking about brand strategy and considering what they should do with their brand, how they should evolve their brand, how they should deepen their connection with their clients, they should definitely attend that session.  

Catherine: Absolutely. Yeah. I think we’ve covered a lot of really fun topics. I’ve enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.  

Aaron: I have, too. The work you do is amazing and impactful and, as I said, enduring. It certainly has endured with us and endures with the other brands that you’ve mentioned. I think you’re fantastic. Thanks for talking with me.  

Catherine: Thank you so much. That means a lot. 

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