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Marketing Insights and the Power of Branding

In Conversation with Nicole Powell

For this episode of E-coffee with Experts, Ranmay Rath interviewed Nicole Powell, CEO of Halcon Marketing Solutions, a boutique marketing agency located in Saint Louis, Missouri. Nicole shared how they work closely with their clients to develop a brand strategy that allows for flexibility and adaptation. They also help them define their brand values, mission, and vision in a way that allows room for growth and evolution.

Watch the episode now for some profound insights!

AI gives you the head start, saves you time, but eventually the human touch has to be there.

Nicole Powell
CEO of Halcon Marketing Solutions

Hi Everyone. This is Ranmay here on your show, E Coffee with Experts. Today, we have Nicole Powell with us from Halcon Marketing. Welcome, Nicole, to our show.

Hi, everyone. Hi, thanks for having me. Excited to be here.

Great. Nicole is the Chief Executive Officer at Halcon Marketing and a full-time mom. Before we move forward, Nicole, could you help us understand more about Halcon Marketing? What do you do? What has been your journey so far? And then we’ll move on to the questions and learn more from you about marketing.

Awesome! My name is Nicole, and I am the owner of Halcon Marketing. Our main base is located in Saint Louis, Missouri. We are a boutique marketing firm, as they like to say, but I prefer to describe us as small yet mighty. I began my career in New York City, coming from the entertainment industry where I worked with companies such as ESPN, Disney, and Fox, among others. Our clients, in terms of advertising and marketing, were major players – huge brands. However, about six years ago, I moved to St. Louis due to my husband’s job. I worked at an agency here but eventually became completely exhausted, to be completely honest. I experienced burnout and felt unfulfilled due to excessive travel. At that point, I started to think that marketing was no longer my dream or something I wanted to pursue further. I decided to quit and ventured into an entirely different industry, starting from the absolute bottom. I thought I was done. However, word got out about my marketing background, and people began tapping into my skills in that area. In this new role, I had the opportunity to work with more local and smaller businesses in the area.

And it reignited my love for marketing because I felt more fulfilled, being able to see the impact of my work. Through this experience, I also noticed that many small and midsize businesses were unaware of the distinction between branding and marketing, despite the significant investment that larger brands made, sometimes amounting to millions of dollars, in building their brands. I saw a significant knowledge gap in this area. With that realization, I started doing some consulting on the side, which gradually turned into an overwhelming workload, ultimately leading to the establishment of Halcon Marketing as a full-time endeavor. Originally, it was just meant to be me, but life took its course, and we were blessed, and now we have a team. That’s my story.

Great. A superb story, I must say. Like they say, once a marketer, always a marketer, irrespective of the domain you’re working in. That passion always shines through. Speaking of clients, how do you work with them to present a unique position and differentiate them from their competitors? How do you go about crafting that art, especially in the SMB segment, where there are numerous services in a particular industry or niche? How do you differentiate your clients from their competition there?

There are several layers to it. With social media and everyone being in the digital age, I find that many small to medium-sized business clients do understand the importance of branding. Years ago, people didn’t grasp the concept of needing a color palette or other foundational visual elements. Now there’s a sense of understanding that these key elements are crucial. However, simply focusing on the visual aspects of your business is no longer enough in today’s competitive landscape. You need to level up because there are competitors who comprehend the value of positioning themselves as full-fledged brands. So, businesses that solely focus on visuals need to take it to the next level. When we shift our focus to the verbal brand identity, one significant way our team helps clients differentiate themselves is through our brand development process, which involves extensive research. There’s a big misconception that you can simply jot down all the ways your business is great and declare it as your brand positioning. But to truly become a brand, extensive research is necessary, diving deep into understanding your audience, including their psychological and internal pain points. This involves methods like focus groups, surveys, and leveraging my certification in Neuromarketing to understand subconscious decision-making mechanisms. Competitor analysis is also crucial, going beyond superficial website comparisons and truly identifying gaps between what your competitors are saying and what you currently offer. By identifying these gaps, you can step in and offer something unique. There’s enough business and a target market for everyone. However, many people only scratch the surface of brand building without delving deep enough into understanding the market, their competitors, and their values to establish themselves as true brands.

That’s it. But to take it to that next level and to become a brand, there’s so much research that goes into it, your audience. Not just going through the superficial pains and needs, right? What are the psychological? What are the internal pain points? Understanding who that person is. And that’s through focus groups, that’s through surveys. And also, I’m certified in Neuromarketing, and the brain is just fascinating to me. So all of those subconscious decision-making mechanisms and wiring and all that stuff going on in here, in addition to just the market research, is key. And then competitor analysis. And again, competitor analysis is not just looking at the person’s website and saying, Oh, okay, this is how they’re different. It’s getting in there and getting deep, understanding where the gaps are between what your competitors are saying and what you’re currently saying and where is there something missing that you can essentially step in and say, I provide this. I think the world is vast enough that there’s a business for everyone. There’s a target market for somebody. But I think people are just looking at brand building on a superficial surface level that they don’t get deep enough to understand the market, their competitors, who they are as businesses, and what their values are to establish themselves as brands.

Long story short, it’s a lot of work. It involves extensive research and effort. One of my missions is to bring awareness to the amount of work and resources that big businesses and brands invest to make you buy and support their products. It’s not as simple as it may seem.

There are significant differences when working for a big brand compared to working on projects as an agency or as an in-house marketing team, especially when it comes to the SMB segment. Considering you have experience on both sides of the table, what has been your experience so far?

They each have their pros, and those pros are different. When working with smaller businesses, you’re working directly with a passionate owner. This business is their baby, their livelihood. The conversations are different because they have been there from the beginning. As a brand builder and strategist, it can be challenging to suggest changes to their messaging because they have a personal attachment to it. However, on the flip side, you’re working with someone who brought this business to life and whose livelihood depends on its success. You witness that passion, and it motivates you to work harder. This resonates with me as a small business owner myself, where my livelihood is tied to my work. Being a full-time mom, I need to do an excellent job because I see how it impacts my clients’ lives. Now, I’m not implying that I didn’t work hard when collaborating with bigger companies, but there was more bureaucracy involved. There were many levels removed from the key stakeholders, and often decisions had to go through boards and numerous intermediaries.

In bigger companies, there are investors and various layers of decision-makers involved. While they care about the brand and are good at their jobs, that intangible passion that small business owners have for their businesses is something different.

Absolutely, please continue.

Since we have worked with bigger brands, I’ve adapted and tweaked the brand-building process to better suit small business owners. They don’t need all the additional complexities that big brands require. They need something they can easily understand, digest, use, and share with their team. While the brand books and brand guides we create for our small business clients are still impactful and comprehensive, they are tailored specifically for the needs of small business clients and are not as intense as the brand books I have helped create or seen for larger brands.

I speak with a lot of agency owners and the focus has shifted from being too focused on working with the big brands out there because of the very reason which you mentioned, that passion and talking to the founder of the company, the actual visionaries. They started with the problem statement and still running behind to solve that versus big brands running to talk to level two, level three as you mentioned, and their employee’s end of the day. It is different learning altogether. But a lot of agency owners want to work with the actual owners, the founders of their businesses because they’re so passionate about it. Then as you mentioned, you also run that extra mile for them because of the passion that you see on their face while they’re explaining the business to you because this happens with us as well. If you ask them about the business, they’ll speak. If you have asked them a simple question, they can give you 10 answers for that because they’re so passionate about it. Then they can write a book about their product and services. Then you as a marketer have to figure out the top three or top five product services, then think around it, market it, brand it, make those calls land, and all that.

So it can completely relate to the story which you just mentioned. Talking about branding, you must have gone through a project, I’m assuming, wherein you might have done a rebranding of an existing company. How do you approach the rebranding of an existing brand? What are the common challenges which you face in that process?

Sure. When we do any rebrand, we always start with an extensive audit. A brand audit, a marketing audit. We dive in and really take a look at the visuals and also what’s being said. But we also do a lot of interviews, with internal and external stakeholders, because I’m sure you found that everyone thinks they know what the brand is or what the brand was, but then there are all these competing messages, and it turns out that no one has a clear idea of what the brand is. So it all starts with the audit. And then once we gather all of the information and also take a look at what the current landscape is and what the competitors are doing, and also the why for the rebrand, I think people think that they can just do a rebrand and it’s easy peasy. But sometimes you don’t need one. What are your true intentions for this rebrand? And after doing all of that preliminary work, you dive in. So I guess the biggest challenge working with a rebrand is people are attached to what the brand was. So even if they know that they want to do this rebrand, they still are tied to how things work.

Changing people’s perceptions and gaining support for the new direction is indeed the biggest challenge in rebranding. The businesses we work with often view their brand as an extension of their family. They have built it from the ground up. Altering the visuals, messaging, mission statements, and vision statements can be extremely difficult, especially for businesses that have been established for a long time. It’s a challenge to effect such changes and get everyone on board.

Absolutely. People’s strong attachment to a brand they have built over the years presents a significant challenge. Speaking of branding and strategy, based on your experience working with multiple brands, what are some common misconceptions clients have about branding strategy? How do you address those concerns or misconceptions when starting a new project? Educating clients about branding strategy, positioning, and online presentation can be crucial. How do you tackle those initial misconceptions and concerns?

Yeah, there are so many misconceptions. It is one of my personal goals to educate and share information about the differences between marketing and branding. While they are closely intertwined, they are not the same thing. The biggest misconception, in my opinion, is that brand strategy, which includes branding and the visual aspect, is not necessary or can be addressed at any point in the process. However, I firmly believe that it should be the first step, the foundational piece for all future marketing efforts. So often, I’ve seen people invest significant time and money into marketing tactics such as social media, without having a clear understanding of their brand identity or what sets them apart from competitors. They end up conveying a bunch of messages, hoping that something will resonate.

So what do you think?

I agree. That’s true.

Yes, that’s a common misconception. Some people believe that branding is just about having a logo, color palette, and font, and once they have those elements, they think they’re done. But there’s much more to it than that. Another misconception is that brand strategy is solely about creating mission statements, vision statements, and values, and once those are in place, they consider the job finished. However, as I mentioned earlier, there’s extensive research and understanding of the audience that needs to happen. It’s not something that can be accomplished in just a short period. It’s important to go deeper and truly understand the audience on a deeper level, beyond just surface-level pain points, because often competitors are saying the same things and thinking the same way. So it’s crucial to delve further and gain a deeper understanding of the audience.

I hope I addressed your question. I’m not sure if I fully answered it.

No, that’s fine. Since we are discussing brand strategy, and you touched upon it, how do you ensure that a brand strategy remains flexible to adapt to changes in market conditions, consumer preferences, and evolving competition? How do you help your clients stay ahead in the face of market changes that we all inevitably experience?

What I always like to say is your brand strategy and your brand book, your brand guidelines mean nothing. It’s just a coffee table book unless you put it into action and you present it to your audience via your marketing. I look at it as a cyclical thing. So you create this brand through all your brand development efforts, which influence your marketing. But your marketing through your analysis of the data, through people’s perceptions, through focus groups of your campaigns, what you see from the marketing level is going to impact your branding. So it’s like this circular process. And what I always like to tell our clients is your brand is not one and done. It should be flexible to your point because this is what’s happening right now, but we’re not going to be able to know how to tweak, how to change unless we go out there and do the thing. Unless we go and market and use this messaging, we’re not going to know how people are going to resonate with it or what works and what doesn’t work until that happens. So what we also like to do is we regularly do brand audits.

Again, on the branding or the brand strategy that we did. So every six months or so, We’re always monitoring what people are doing, our clients are doing, and to make sure that it’s working and it’s still on brand. What they’re doing is on brand. That’s a huge thing as well. And to keep adjusting. I think people think we create this brand book and that’s it. We don’t have to make any adjustments. But it’s really important in that brand development phase that we’re always talking to our customers. We’re always listening to them and seeing if the messaging that we’re rolling out in our core messaging is still in alignment with what’s going on. It’s not a one-and-done thing. Did that answer the question? I keep asking that because sometimes I go off on a tangent and I don’t quite know if I answer the question.

That’s fine. It’s learning all the way. It’s fine. Speaking about experiences, it’s much better than going through those traditional techniques. It’s fine. Before we let you go, I have to ask you about this burning topic of chat, GPT, AI, and content. What is your take on that? Overall holistic approach? How as an agency do you look after the overall AI revolution, which we all are in right now?

That’s a very good question. I, as a brand strategist and die-hard lover of content, want humans to write their content. Okay, I’m going to say this.

So do I.

Especially if you’re saying it’s a representative of your brand, right? There’s no better expert at your people, your tribe, your audience, your business, and your background than yourself. Now, that said, I think there’s a variety of different tactics that can benefit from an AI content program. So for instance, for SEO, for example, if we’re trying to get you ranked, sometimes we’ll use an AI thing or something to ge Not we, just in general. I can see that being okay, but my heart lies with human beings writing content that represents their brand. That is my love. Am I judging? No. As long as a human being sees it and as long as a human being tweaks it and revises it, and someone is looking at it, then I’m okay with it. So let me give you an example. If I give an AI program a topic, and then they do the same as a skeleton or the main structure because I’m hoping someone’s going in and editing it, right? And it creates the general framework for the content. And it shaves off 10 minutes that I could be spending on creating it. But then I go in there and I use my viewpoint, my own perspective on this skeleton of a blog post, for example.

And I still think that’s okay. I don’t think that’s terrible. I think my biggest concern would be if there was no human contact, no human revision, and no heart to the content being posted.

I guess. It can never be your final product. You get a base out of it in terms of what you want to write. Human is making those final tweaks for it to look more natural and putting the heart and brain behind it. Because it helps you, let’s say, if you have to submit something at four o’clock and you just go to the tool and ask them to give them 10 topics about the particular niche on which you wanted to submit the report on. It gives you out of 10, it gives you 10, but you feel that three, four are not relevant, but at least five, six are relevant. It gives you a head start and saves you time, but eventually, the human touch has to be there because we are all thinking about how Google is going to evaluate and see whether it is AI-written content or manually written content. Eventually, it will rank you somewhere because of those algorithms at the back end. But the content is being read by humans will make that final decision to click on it or not.

The human aspect of it is more critical because the result, the end action which is going to happen is going to be happening with the human fingers.

It’s the human heart and brain at the back of it which will make that call to click on that button, the call to action button, or whatever your business and service is. AI, we cannot ignore it. It’s there to stay. But how we use it is very important versus looking at it as a final product.

I agree. There’s nothing more disappointing than the user thinking, Oh, I’m about to click on an insightful article or insightful piece of content and then to click on it only to see that it wasn’t what I was expecting. Content should be storytelling, right? And a robot can give you that story. I saw an ad, though, for one of the AI things. I sent it to everyone on my team and sent sad faces on it. The main headline was, robots, write your blog post or something along that line. It was so disheartening. I was like, why did someone do this? But it makes sense. I see the value. I see why people want to use it because, again, we’re all business owners. We’re so busy. And if it could help us a little bit, sure. I think, as you mentioned, the issue becomes when we stop infusing that human touch, that story, that our perspective into the content and just hit publish and then call it a day. I will always prefer us to write it from scratch, but we also all understand that life gets busy.

As long as there are no robots, as long as he’s not calling it robots, I think I’ll feel better because then we’ll be out of the job. Because my main theme is creativity and branching. I’ll be out of the job if robots take over.

That will never happen. No worries. That will never really happen.

Egot, it was lovely speaking with you. Before we let you go, I want to play a quick rapid-fire with you. I hope you’re game for it. Sure.

Oh, my God. Okay, go. Let’s do it.

What did you do with your first paycheck?

Oh, ever?

Yeah. Ever?

I put it.

In my bank. It started working.

It was boring. I put it in my bank account.

Okay. So it’s still interesting. A lot of my guests say that they paid rent, so putting it in the account still is a better way of investing that versus paying rent, I would say.

Are you planning your next vacation?

Right now? My husband and I are trying. It was our fifth wedding anniversary. We’re trying to plan.

Congratulations. Thank you.

We’re trying to plan a weekend away without our toddlers. It’s been weeks in the making. We haven’t done it yet. We’ll see what happens.

It all happens in agency life.

Yeah, it never happens.

One thing I wanted to ask, why the all-girls team? It just happened or it was by plan, or by design or how is it?

Just happened. It just happened. I’m open to everyone and anyone I’m open to, but it just happened.

Okay. I’m okay with it. I will have anyone.

I’m open. But it is just these lovely humans just.

Fell on my lap.

I guess. The universe.

Superb. I’m open.

To all of it.

That will make your inbox full of a lot of job applications that waste. Yeah, I don’t think it’s everyone.

Everybody. Yeah. I’m open to anyone, anybody.

So, Nicole, I would not drill you any further. I would round up with that. Thank you so much for taking out time for the podcast. Appreciate it. I’m sure our audiences would have benefited a lot in terms of listening to the insights which you shared. A big thank you for taking out time for this.

Of course. Thank you for having me and I hope everybody learns something from today’s session.

I’m sure they would have. I’m sure. It is a pleasure hosting you, Nicole. Have a great day.

You too.



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