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For this episode of E-coffee with Experts, Matt Fraser interviewed Mariko Hickerson, the CEO and founder of Huckleberry Branding, a digital marketing and branding agency located in Nashville.
Mariko shared her wealth of knowledge and top strategies focusing on the art of crafting compelling brand stories that have elevated her clients to astonishing heights of success.
Watch the episode now for some profound insights!
Identifying first who you are as a business is obviously step number one and then articulating that is a key process.
Hello everyone. Welcome to this episode of E Coffee with Experts. I’m your host, Matt Fraser, and on today’s show, I have with me a very special guest, Mariko Hickerson. She is the CEO and founder of Huckleberry Branding, a digital marketing and branding agency located in Nashville, Tennessee. As a former San Diego journalist turned Nashville marketing professional, she believes that a great story lies at the heart of every business, and that elegant simplicity is the key to a powerful brand. She helps her clients identify their unique brand identities and create consistent messaging across all platforms and channels. With years of experience in branding and digital marketing, Mariko has successfully worked with very small and large businesses in developing effective branding strategies that help drive growth and increased customer engagement. Mariko, thank you so much for being here. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show.
Thank you, Matt.
One question I always like to ask is how would your university professors describe you as a student.
I would say that they would say, I was always very hardworking, always on time, and never missed class. I always did my homework, and always asked questions. So, I think I was a pretty good student. Especially if the subject matter was very interesting to me, that’s something that I could just eat up and I’d really be engaged in class. So yeah, I think that’s a pretty good summary of what they’d say, hopefully.
Well, that’s awesome. What inspired you to become a journalist?
You know, I had an internship in Washington, D.C, I got a Capitol Hill Press pass, and I got to go into all sorts of different congressional hearings and interview people all over D.C. So, that’s really where I got my first sort of toe in the marketing realm. We sold audio clips to news stations all over the U.S. And yeah, so it was really neat. I got to just go and it was mainly audio recordings on a little Moran’s recorder that wrote talking points about what each clip was that we were selling and then that was my first foray into journalism. Then I became a newspaper reporter in San Diego, freelance at first, and then became their only full-time reporter at a small community paper.
Wow. How did you transition from that, from being a newspaper reporter to starting your own digital marketing and branding agency? That sounds like a pretty interesting story.
Yeah. So, I definitely jumped ship from print to digital pretty quickly. When I was at the newspaper, I had a lot of responsibilities that were related to marketing, design, and web development as well. If the editor needed help, then I would help lay out the paper at the time using a platform called QuarkXPress. I recognized that our stories weren’t showing up on Google News, so I had trouble shooting. How to do that? I wanted more eyeballs on my stories. I would also publish my own content on the website, so I got a little bit of dabbling into WordPress. Then from there I actually picked up a couple of freelance marketing clients on the side where they basically gave me an entire marketing budget and let me run with it. So, it started with writing blog content on their websites, doing their email marketing, doing their social media, sort of the whole gamut. At the time, I even did a little bit of light PR for these clients, and so they sort of just gave me the freedom to learn these new platforms like MailChimp and WordPress and these sorts of things. That’s really where it started and then from there, I love learning and I’m not scared to dive into new tools and just get going, kind of break things and fix them and learn and get better over time. So, kind of got my start there.
Well, that’s cool. People were obviously interested in you, were interested in I mean the whole PR story about wanting more eyeballs in your press release. I want to do the same thing too. So, it’s like, well, let’s figure this out. I’m assuming those skills are transferable. I guess what transferable skills and experience as a journalist have you been able to use in your current role as CEO and founder?
Yeah, a ton. So, our primary services are graphic design, website development, and organic SEO. Throughout all of those, we like to tell stories, we like to tell our clients stories. There are a lot of SEO agencies that know the right keywords, and they know how to write for SEO, but maybe what they are lacking is that storytelling element, and then the same with branding and any sort of website messaging brochures, things like that. So, I think those skills that I learned as a newspaper reporter definitely translate into the storytelling elements for our clients. And then, you know, my role as the CEO and sort of business development is sales. So, instead of sort of just pushing our products and services onto clients, it’s really about trying to ask them the right questions so I can sort of dive into my journalism background and try and extract what are their challenges, who are their audiences really trying to understand what their pain points are and why they’re contacting us, maybe even what bad experiences they’ve had in the past that make them a little bit more hesitant to move forward on a website project or something like that. So, in the sales arena, I definitely think my inquisition, sort of my natural curiosity about what got their clients on backgrounds and things definitely come into play and that certainly stems from my journalism background.
Have you found it difficult to like a pivot to being I mean, so many people think the sale is a dirty word. And yet I think sales, everybody sells all the time, like you’re going to sell your friend to go to a certain movie or your partner to go to a certain restaurant or I mean, it’s influencing people. Now you can do it for good or bad. You can manipulate people, but you don’t want to do that. Did you find it natural because of your journalistic background? Because I mean, there’s a question there’s literally a book called Question B selling and it’s all about asking the right questions. When I was selling cars, that’s what it was. It was about asking the right questions, knowing when to ask them, and knowing your lines, if you will. And it wasn’t until I learned those things that I thought, yeah, okay, I can do this because I came from a restaurant background where you sold food and you did suggestive selling, which helps because you learn rapport building and all of those things. You can get your guest check average up higher than everybody else’s and hopefully get a better tip. But going to sell the actual transactions like where you close with the sales closing parties involved. And again, it’s all about the questions, knowing what you just said, knowing, asking what their problems are, and finding out those things in the fact-finding part of the sales process and knowing the right questions to close the sale is very important. So, did you find it difficult or easier because of your intuitive, inquisitive nature? Maybe the sales closing part didn’t come? I don’t know. So, we’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
You know, it did not come naturally to me in the beginning until I think I discovered what you just described. That process of you can sell by being a good consultant and asking all of the right questions and so I’ve grown into this role, certainly over almost ten years old now, and I’ve certainly gotten better. I think one of the things that makes me a better salesperson is that, first of all, I’m not going to sell you something you don’t need. If you don’t need one of our services, I will tell you I will try and send you to the appropriate party that maybe can help you in your unique situation. The only way that I can learn what the client really needs is by asking them those questions and really consulting with them. And on the flip side, consulting also has the added benefit of sometimes discovering things that they really need but didn’t know that they needed until they were asked about certain things. So, it can be interesting. You can sell a website and then maybe you dive into, well, how well does your website perform online? Are there any sort of challenges there? Do you get leads through your website? And so, we’re able to kind of dive into, well, have you explored SEO as an opportunity to drive leads to your site? So, I think that’s just my approach to sales. I’m certainly not and I don’t feel like I’m a very pushy person, I’ll do some follow-ups, but really, I just kind of want an answer. So, I get you off of my pending leads list or can we sort of close this out one way or another? But yeah, I feel like I’ve grown into the role and it’s really thanks to just finding the approach that works best for me.
Yeah, absolutely. Hey, what do you think is the most important factor based on your experience that comes to building a successful brand?
I think it’s all about making sure that your brand messaging and visuals really align with your actual customer experiences. So, you know, there’s one thing to say here, core values. Here’s what you can expect by working with us. Here’s the great quality work that we do. If your customer’s experiences don’t match what you’re saying, that creates a huge problem. That is a big challenge that a lot of people face because they have outdated websites and they’ve never really sort of dug deep into their brand messaging and their brand visuals. But it is more than just what you say and what you look like. Your brand is your customer’s experience as well, and that can follow you in the form of reviews like, they say they do this, they say that there are really high touch agencies, but I haven’t heard from them in weeks. So, I would say that the best thing you can do for your brand is to make sure that your messaging aligns with reality.
Absolutely. Like, I think that if you’re high-end or even not high-end, but if you’re trying to build trust, your visuals shouldn’t look like it’s a piece of clip art that came off the internet that you customized logo or outdated or, looking like it was designed by a five-year-old. I’m being extreme to make a point. Because people will look at that and I think they judge businesses more and more about their brand visuals and the quality of design, especially with how much technology has progressed to actually bring the cost down or things in some respects. I mean, for instance, like the days of HTML and CSS tables where you had to, you know, I think people were charging $125 an hour to change CSS tables and HTML tables and whatever, you know, WordPress databases and themes and all those things out there have definitely made it a lot affordable for people to have a half decent looking website at the very least. So yeah, I think it’s important and I would, you agree, increase distrust. If a lawyer had a really bad website, poor design, poor color theory, poor branding, ugly logo, bad information architecture, poor copy, broken English copy, whatever bad grammar. I mean, that’s going to affect people’s perception of your business, is it not?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you’re sloppy on your site, I think that hints at maybe to the customer or the lead sort of, what can I expect in the actual process with this particular attorney or if the information on your website is just incorrect because you didn’t vet what your content writer wrote or all your attorneys are outdated or something on the site. Obviously, the experience there, you’re giving people incorrect information. What can they expect from you in real life? Like, can you really trust this person? So yeah, absolutely. I think, visuals, messaging, everything about, you know, the user-friendliness of the website, maybe if it’s a really complex website, maybe they are also assuming that it’s going to be a complex process. Really, the benefit should be that you’re going to make this process easier on your clients and things like that. So, absolutely. I think what you present online certainly reflects, or at least maybe lays down some hints to your prospects that, hey, maybe this is the perfect agency for us or I don’t think so.
Do you think small business owners or business owners are taking websites more seriously in regards to putting things up online that are better quality?
Yes, it certainly seems like it. I mean, obviously, nowadays you have to have a website to legitimize any business. No matter how small your business is, having a website is one of the first things that people try to stand up for. But yeah, it seems like even though occasionally you’ll see the old Dreamweaver or a similar type of site, you can tell that it was built in the nineties and has never been touched and but nowadays it does seem like more and more people are honestly changing their websites every few years because their business changes or because it needs to evolve and it can evolve so much easier now than it used to. So yeah, and I think people on their team with lots of opinions as well. So, we often work with marketing directors, not necessarily small business owners as well, and they have a lot of input about how their site should look. They’ve seen what competitors are doing. They’re trying to stay relevant and outpace their competitors and so having a really, really nice, informative lead-generating website is kind of the first step, it seems like, for everyone.
So how do you help clients identify their unique brand identity?
We have sort of a starting point discovery session with the clients, it involves a lot of offline research as well. We don’t want to put out messaging that is a mismatched sort of what they say and what they do. So, we dive pretty deep, our firms are just not set up to do like market research activity. So, we don’t do focus groups, we don’t do customer surveys and things like that. But we will sometimes partner with customer feedback tools or survey platforms or third-party market research firms if they don’t have that sort of information to make sure that the brand messaging does align with the experience. But to kind of come up with a unique selling proposition or a value proposition, it can be very difficult. There could be a lot of cooks in the kitchen, too. So if that’s the case, it just takes a lot of really deep conversations with the key stakeholders and maybe we do propose like, okay, let’s gauge what your customers are thinking and feeling about your brand. Maybe we do need to do sort of a review generation sort of activity that benefits maybe your Google profile, but also you get some key insights about key pain points, why they came to you in the first place, as well as the trends in the praise that they’re giving you. Maybe you saw that it was really high quality. It was because you were producing really high-quality widgets, but really, it’s because of the ease in your customer service and working with them. So, I think that can help uncover things that some companies really just don’t know about themselves by asking other people, their past customers, and their referral partners’ prospects, why didn’t you use us? That’s a really important question to ask too. Identifying first who you are as a business is obviously that’s step number one and then articulating that, it’s sort of the easy part. The fun part is where you get to kind of use our creative juices and I think it really comes down to the business self-identifying and helping them come to that conclusion of this is what makes us unique.
Do you use any frameworks or anything for helping develop the story of the brand? For instance, I’m thinking of Donald Miller’s Story brand framework or something like that.
Yeah, he’s actually here in Nashville in our town. So, we’re familiar with his framework. We don’t specifically use it, although we have partnered with some of the coaches that do the story brand framework. We’ve had a couple of clients sort of submit their worksheets to us and really, I mean, this is a good process. It’s a really good tool for clients to self-identify. Doing Donald’s workshop or using a story brand coach is really beneficial because it helps sort of dive into what is our key selling point. You know, who are we, especially maybe as a start-up, we’ve got a couple of clients that are startups that went through the story brand process, and then we have a client who was actually just got acquired. But before that, their aim was to grow. So, they needed sort of a specific pointed message that they could sort of shout from the rooftops and stake their claim that this is what they do best out of everyone else. And that served as the baseline for all of the marketing activities we did for them. So, I do think that that tool or sort of that framework is very beneficial. We don’t specifically use that framework, but we do find it very valuable. We have sort of our own just process and framework. But it kind of flexes based on what the client needs if they’re of a long-established business, that they’re having a bit of an identity crisis, then you do need more data before we can just prescribe something and say, this is what makes you different. We really need to better understand who your customers are, why they are coming to you, and where you want to go in the future. Because sometimes what they want and where they are doesn’t match. So, your vision for your company and who you want to be when you grow up, that that can evolve, you know. I think it’s not a specific framework, but we do love the framework that Donald Miller and the Story brand team have in place. It helps companies like ours just sort of bring it to life.
Absolutely. How do you balance creativity with strategy when developing a brand identity for a client? Because that’s always tension, isn’t it?
It is. Yeah. We’ve got a really good team that brings unique skill sets to the table. So, we have a couple of project managers and they keep things on track. They keep sort of the big picture goals in mind, then we also have our creative team and they let their creative juices fly. Personally, I’d probably have the biggest challenge, balancing the two because any sort of creative work I’m doing, even if I’m just reviewing some work that our team has done, I can get really lost in the leads doing that because I love it so much and then kind of the same with a strategy too. You know, there’s definitely a balance where you have to produce really high-quality work, but you have to do it within certain timelines. You have to do it within certain frameworks. Sometimes there’s a little bit of navigation with the client that’s involved and that requires a little bit more of a strategic touch. But I think because we’re able to sort of leverage the different talents of the team, the strategy folks, and then the creative folks, we make it work, but certainly not easy because you have to balance the scales for sure.
How do you find the right people for the right roles? I mean, you’ve had an agency for quite some time now, how do you attract the right people to be able to fit in the holes in your business?
Yeah. I mean, we’ve been really lucky. The very first hire that I made was a full-time graphic designer, and she’s still with us today. And then we I guess have the benefit of being able to use contractors first and sort of test out our relationship with contractors and then move them potentially into part-time or a full-time position with us. We’re still a small team. So, we have six core team members and then contractors, but we do have that advantage where we can work with contractors. We pay well, we pay on time, and we’re easy to work with. So, we make sure that we have all of the things that a graphic designer or a web developer would need to make their job easier and so they want jobs with us because it’s easy to work for them. And we’ve got a really good team environment. So, we’ve really only ever put one job posting online and we got great candidates back and narrowed it down to three and got one that we love. But otherwise, everyone else has come from our current contractor pool or a pool event or an internal review.
Oh, cool. So, being a woman entrepreneur, are there any unique advantages you think that you have as opposed to someone else in being in the position that you’re in? For instance, they say that men are interested in things and women are interested in people for the most part. So, do you think they think you have more empathy or anything you want to speak about? I’d just be interested to know your thoughts on that.
Yeah, that’s a really interesting question, and I’m starting to see it more now. Maybe some of the benefits of being a woman entrepreneur and I think one of the benefits is we do have a pack mentality a little bit, and I think women like to help other women succeed, not that we don’t want men to succeed also, but we have some really good referral sources. One is a local PR firm in town, and one is a local social media agency in town. They know what we do really well and we know what they do really well. It just occurred to me that most of our best referral sources are actually from other women-owned businesses. I’m also a member of a group called Brain Trust, which is a kind of forum-style mastermind group of women business owners. So, all different types of industries, not just marketing, a lot of sorts of the messaging around that are that it’s not a networking group. It’s really to help each other out. I mean, similar to going back to the consulting style of sales, it’s really like a consulting style of networking. Even if you come out of a mastermind-type meeting with no new sales, you learn something that is going to be beneficial to your business. And so, yeah, I think there is some sort of like group think women helping each other out and just resonating with other women business owners.
You know, I’ve got two young kids, I know other agency owners that have two young kids. So, we’re trying to balance life and work and we’re sort of in the same boat. So, wanting to help each other out and grow each other’s businesses in a sustainable way is really important because if their businesses succeed, then so does mine because they’re sending us referrals. It’s not intentional. It kind of comes naturally to me. We’ve just built a really good network of other women sort of network with each other. A really good question, though, because I’ve just kind of come to realize a lot of these benefits.
Oh, thank you so much for sharing that. How do you stay up to date with all the latest trends and changes that are happening in digital marketing and branding?
Yeah, that’s a tough one too, because things are changing so quickly now. Some of it is just sheer interest. I mean, we just wrote a piece on how chatGPT and AI content writing tools affect SEO and that was out of sheer interest. It’s hard to predict the future, but I’m diving into these topics pretty deeply because it’s fascinating to me and it does affect my industry certainly. Trying out all the new tools that Google is giving us. One of the things that we made a decision on a couple of years ago was to actually trim down a lot of our services. So, we used to provide email marketing, social media, and pay-per-click, but we would leverage contractors for that. So, first of all, we weren’t making a large margin on those activities and also, it’s just hard to keep up with everything.
Social media is a blind spot for me. If you ask me if you need to be Tik Tok advertising, I have no idea. But if you ask me about Google’s latest search algorithm change, I’ll be on top of that or find an answer. So, I think part of it’s just that we’ve called down our services so that we’re not sort of just chasing squirrels all the time and we really have an in-depth understanding of different tools that we’re using. We also really only specialize in WordPress websites, and I know that there are a ton of new platforms and a lot of them are really great platforms, but we know every little thing there is to know about WordPress. Again, just sort of narrowing down into these, these interest areas and focus areas that our team is naturally intrigued by. On our group, Slack channel, there are often lots of curious questions about how you think this new technology will work and whether we can use it. Lots of such sort of groupthink on our group Slack channel about updates to algorithms and things like that. So, we’re keeping each other up to date.
Absolutely. It’s amazing. I know a lot of agencies don’t do social media anymore because it’s not scalable and it’s also not profitable. Sorry to say that all the clients are out there, but it’s not really something that should be done in-house, in my opinion. I’ve learned that as well. In that regard. There’s just so much to it, but we won’t go there. But, ChatGPT and AI have broken records in regards to the number of users within five days it had a million users. I signed up on day five and I could talk for an hour about how I ever said, you know, Google just recently lost $100 billion in one day as a result of the poor presentation and poor performance of their offering, which I think they scrambled. I think they’re on their toes. They’re on their heels there for the first time in 20 years. They’re feeling threatened and rightly so. I mean, the creator of Gmail said that ChatGPT and open AIs language predictive model has the potential to put them out of business within three years. I personally agree and some people disagree with me on that, and I think some people are brushing it off and I don’t think they should. But what do you think about that, like the change that’s going to impact the marketing industry, for instance, I think copywriters have something to worry about. Most definitely. I know one guy who’s making $1,000,000 a month writing direct response sales copy for businesses, and he taught people who don’t even know how to do it, how to write it and scale out, how to write, direct sales copy, anything he wrote is trainable. Some of his friends do it, and then they don’t have any copywriting experience at all. It’s amazing to see what it’s doing and how it has the potential to pull a lot of people out of business, but it also has the potential to make a lot of people rich. So, yeah, it’ll be very interesting to see what happens with that. That’s for sure.
Yeah. I mean, it’s hard to predict where these things are going. I look at all these things from sort of an SEO perspective and there’s certainly going to be a lot more AI-written content on your net for sure. The questions that I have are, are they going to be unique content? I think so. Is it going to be accurate content? Probably. So, how does that make custom-written content by a copywriter different? There’s still so much to be learned about it. I think you have to feed the right queries in there with the right information but one of the things that our copywriters do is we often have to interview our clients to learn about their unique process or solution to this. But really the base of the article maybe could be written by AI, and it’s just sort of the last quarter of the piece that is about what makes this particular client’s process different or why you should use them for this. So, I think some of that still needs to be extracted from our clients, but I also think a lot of small businesses don’t pay too much for a marketing agency to do these things if you don’t have the budget. Utilize these tools and produce content because that’s better than doing nothing. So, I do think that Google’s got a big challenge up ahead and they need to either figure out how to capitalize on this technology. But I know which tool you’re talking about and that sort of fell short. Google search console, suggested topics and things, a lot of those tools, and even AI writing have been around for a while. It’s just that it’s gotten so much more intelligent and accessible. We’re sort of at the forefront and something’s bound to change. I just don’t know if Google is going to somehow find a way to capitalize on this technology or if there is now some new competition for Google and others. As always, producing high-quality content is important to us. How we do it is to be determined, we want to kind of just make sure that we’re producing quality content and how the strings are pulled behind the scenes probably is something that we’ll be figuring out over the next couple of years for sure.
I don’t think Google is going to be able to figure out what difference it makes if it’s AI-driven content or human being.
I don’t think they are going to be able to tell.
And as long as it answers the user’s query, you know? And frankly, I’ve stopped going to Google for lots of questions. I mean, it’ll be very interesting to see the drop in search volume if it even has happened, because there are answers that I’ve gotten from chatGPT that I spent 10 minutes trying to find on Google and couldn’t find. Then I asked it and boom gave me the answer. So, you know, it kind of makes me wonder why Google didn’t come up with this first. But I think they’ve been their model. They weren’t thinking outside of the box regards to things being just the way they were and then all of a sudden came along open AI. anyway, if we’re very.
I’m sure ChatGPT eventually will build some sort of advertising platform.
They have to.
Yeah. And they don’t totally go the route of Google.
Maybe but do you think that because Microsoft has $10 billion invested in it, they’ll have some stipulation that its Bing search engine is what?
I think it’s like there’s an interview with the CEO of Microsoft. He’s saying for the first time we have the playing field leveled for search. Yeah.
Absolutely. Hey, the competition’s a good thing, I think.
Absolutely. And what do you enjoy most about your work and what do you see as the future of Huckleberry Branding?
Good question. I really love going to work every day and I just feel so lucky that I get to do that because I know not everyone loves the jobs that they’re in. My team is incredible. Our clients are great.
I think we have a really good team culture and so nobody really on our team knocks on wood gets sort of a Sunday scaries and we really enjoy each other’s company. I do like project-based work as well which is a lot of what we do and we’re always trying to sort of strive toward a finish line and that sort of is exciting to me. It’s not mundane work. It’s always something new for a new client, or new project, whether it’s a website or a logo design. My clients are so interesting no matter what sort of industry they’re in, or what their business sizes are, I’m fascinated by all of them. We can find those and extract those stories and tell them sort of in a nice, pretty, and powerful way. That kind of drives me every day and makes me excited to get to my desk in the mornings.
Hey, that’s awesome. How can our listeners connect with the online if they choose to do so?
There is huckleberrybranding.com. We’ve got some free marketing resources on there. Priceless for all of our services, so feel free to go and download any of those and sign up for our email list. The best way is through our website.
Well, that’s awesome. And I want to thank you so much for being here. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the show. It’s amazing how fast time went by. Love to have you back again and to talk more if you will be willing to. It’s been a pleasure having you here.
Thank you, Matt. Thank you for having me
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