An Important Brand Lesson Learned the Hard Way
I inherited the entrepreneurial spirit from my grandfather. He died when I was three, so I don’t remember much about him. My mom always said I was very attached to him as a baby. When I was older and showed signs of ambition and independence, she often said I was a lot like him. He was an entrepreneur. He owned a successful printing company that employed many residents in the tiny Pennsylvania town my mother grew up in. He was also an excellent marketer. I have a wonderful promotional calendar that features my mother as a baby from 1939.
I started my first business when I was 8 or 9. I made homemade donuts and sold them to my neighbors. I was relentless. I showed up at their door every day until they bought my donuts. My first stab at guerilla marketing…persistence and continuity. As a child and teenager, I started several businesses to earn extra money, including party planning and personal assistant services.
My desire to be my own boss never faded, even when I started my career as a food service manager after college. The plan was to own my own business someday. And I did, a coffeehouse. The two years Cafe Crema was open were the most exhilarating, stressful, and educational of my life. Although the business didn’t work out, and I started a new career in retail marketing, the possibility of starting another company was always on the horizon.
So, when I started my brand strategy and content marketing services company, I took the lessons I learned from my various businesses to this new venture. Every small step we take as entrepreneurs is an opportunity to become better business owners. Here is one of the most important lessons about brands that I learned in my entrepreneurial journey.
An Entrepreneur’s Personal Brand Filters into Their Company’s Brand
I opened my coffeehouse in my small hometown right after my mom died. My mother was very well-known and loved in the evangelical Christian community circles in town. I had been living in other cities for the last 15 years before moving home the year before to care for her. Many times during that year, someone would stop me around town to ask if I was related to her or to ask how she was because we had the same smile. Because my mom was so well-known and I wasn’t, my mom’s reputation became my reputation. And, as I learned the hard way, so did my coffeehouse.
I wanted Cafe Crema to be a community center, a third place for people who love high-quality coffee, pastries, and snacks. There were comfy couches, board games, and books to entice customers to engage with each other and stay longer. My primary marketing tactic was events. I thought if I could get customers in the door, the atmosphere and menu would make them loyal customers. My favorite events were Open Mics, both music and spoken word. I loved giving local artists and musicians a platform to show their talent. Customers loved it too. Those nights were always very busy.
One night we hosted a Poetry Open Mic. The place was packed. Every seat was full and my staff and I were frantically trying to keep up with the orders. I wasn’t really paying attention to the poets on stage. However, I did hear one poet repeatedly use the F word in her poem and thought, “I need to tell the poets to limit the swear words.” It wasn’t that I really minded the F word if it made sense within the context of a poem, but I did think it was unnecessary when used for shock value.
About 10 minutes later, an older gentleman stopped me as I was bussing tables and asked me if I heard that poem. I said yes, I did, and I’m sorry if he was offended. The next thing he said floored me. He said, “I thought this place was a Christian coffeehouse. Your mother would be so disappointed in you.” Now I was offended. I did not want Cafe Crema to be thought of as a Christian coffeehouse. I wasn’t trying to be my mother or leverage her influence. And I couldn’t believe this stranger was weaponizing my dead mother’s reputation against me. I was so flummoxed I blurted out, “This is not a Christian coffeehouse, goddammit!”, which was not the best thing I could have said at this moment to this person. He gathered his family together and left in a huff. I’m sure he told everyone who would listen about the girl blaspheming her mother’s legacy for many months after that.
It took me days to calm down and find perspective in the situation. In my effort to start my own business, I neglected to think about the brand. My communications and marketing centered on the experience and the product. This was important, but I should have also paid attention to Cafe Crema’s positioning and reputation. Because I didn’t do that, the community-made incorrect assumptions and expectations that I would never live up to. Nor did I want to. I made changes in my messaging after that but the damage was already done. It’s likely it was one of the reasons that the business didn’t work. No one in the community really knew what Cafe Crema was or who the target audience was.
Today, as I build my business, I am intentional in fostering both my personal and business brands. I don’t want any confusion or room for making assumptions. I position my business as the go-to branding and content marketing resource for B2B services, healthcare, and nonprofits. My personal brand complements my business by positioning me as a thought leader in branding and content marketing. I do my best to make sure that anyone who encounters either brand walks away with the impression I want them to have.
Your brand (both personal and business) is your reputation. It’s the perception your target audience has developed about you. As a business owner or leader in your field, when you do not pay attention to your own personal brand, you are missing out on a powerful opportunity to establish strong and authentic connections with your company’s target audience. Don’t leave those connections to chance. Personal branding goes beyond just promoting you as a person. Personal branding is about building trust, credibility, and recognition that directly benefit your business. Your customers will know what you and your company stand for and how they fit into the story.
On the flip side, a company’s brand should be the first thing a business owner develops, even before the business plan. Without a brand, a business has no foundation on which to build a reputation or to grow. Your brand is your starting point. It should inform your strategic business plan, not the other way around. The key is to be thoughtful and to base your brand on what is true about your positioning, your audience, and the competitive landscape. From there you can activate your brand throughout your company in ways that will solidify your unique position in customers’ minds.
Read more from Pam Georgiana here.
I am a writer. Writing is my creative outlet and my joy. I believe that words bind us together as humans and that the best stories remind us of our humanity. I specialize in telling brand stories that engage and inspire.
My favorite projects are when I get to help build a brand. Strategic branding is so important for any business. Discovering an organization’s “Why” is so satisfying.
My “Why” is making the world a better place. It’s why I worked for a nonprofit for 7 years before becoming a freelancer and volunteer as a member of the Columbus Museum of Art. My chihuahua Grandon may think differently. He thinks my “Why” is taking care of him. He’s not totally wrong. He definitely runs the household. When I am not writing, you’ll find the two of us walking in the park or just around our neighborhood.