Can You Pull Off DIY Branding?

When even an ad man thinks you're better off taking some marketing activities in-house, you know it's something to consider

Written by Wayne S. Roberts

Just about everybody thinks they can “do” branding and advertising. How hard can it be? Come up with the company name yourself by combining the names of your two cats, buy a bargain basement internet-sourced logo, grab a stock photo from an online library, work up a cute headline and a few bullet points, make sure the website and phone number are spelled correctly. Done!

As flippant as that may sound, being an advertising and branding professional I’ve heard this refrain for years—particularly from SMEs. And they’re not entirely wrong.

It’s natural for many hands-on entrepreneurs to want to do their own branding and marketing communications in-house. This also has the perceived benefit of keeping marketing dollars under strict control and away from those carpetbagging Mad Men types in the advertising game. The trend to go in-house cuts across companies of all sorts and sizes, with many firms electing to build their own, fully integrated departments that provide a full suite of branding and advertising services.

But should you be doing the ads and branding all by yourself, or with your own in-house staff?

By way of full disclosure, I am a senior partner with an established branding and advertising agency. We actively seek out new customers. These columns are part of our strategy to provide you with valuable insights and establish a sense of credibility about our agency so you’ll feel inspired to contact us.

But don’t pick up the phone just yet. I’m here to tell you that doing your own branding and deploying your own advertising campaign, in whatever media you decide, can be a wise and profitable business decision. However, it can also be a money pit of missed opportunities that, if you screw it up, can hamper your brand and stall your company’s growth prospects.

Here are some profiles gleaned from decades of personal interactions with clients to help you gauge where you’re at—and whether being a DIY brander is in your interests.

PROFILE ONE: Branding Schmanding

“I need a branding agency like I need a kick in the head!”

Just like lots of people who think branding and advertising are easy to master on their own, so too, many SMEs deride the value and importance of branding altogether. If this is your mindset, you’re among the best candidates to do the work in-house, such as it may be.

Chances are that your need for branding, or lack thereof, is informed by the fact that your product or service is profoundly niche oriented, highly technical in nature and in a market that’s so firmly regulated you’ll sell carloads of stuff without so much as a business card. Congratulations! You’re in an elite minority of businesses that have conclusive evidence that most forms of anything other than the bare necessities of branding and advertising are a waste of money. And you have no experiential evidence to cause you to explore a greater investment in branding. Whatever you need, you can handle it on your own. Rock on!

PROFILE TWO: Branding is Us!

“We are all about the brand and super psyched to €˜do the do’ ourselves!”

We’ve often encountered startups and growth-oriented companies that are enthusiastic about doing their own advertising because, well, it’s their thing.

They love the creative process; they may even have some natural strategic, design or writing talents that they’ll bring to the effort. And they have enough street smarts to realize that, a lot of the time, good advertising comes down to common sense and quick deployment. This is a company that sees its product or service through a marketing lens. Branding matters so much that they want to do it themselves.

The most a company like this may need is some outside help from a freelancer or two, from time to time, who can provide some strategic advice, graphic design, copywriting or web development services. Costs are kept under control, and the overall mission and feel of the brand is still very much an in-house reality.

Read: Create Great Ads, Guaranteed

A few years back, we worked with a now famous premium craft brewer that retained us for strategic counsel only and went on to build its own in-house “agency.” This works wonderfully, and the brewer pumps out ads and packaging, does killer events and has a slew of other initiatives that many ad agencies would envy.

The only caveat is, as your business grows, your investment in branding will likely grow with it. Are you ready for that commitment? Before it gets sophisticated and requires a senior staff of professionals, maybe it looks like €¦

PROFILE THREE: Meet Laura. She’s Our In-House Sales, Marketing, Advertising and Media Department

“Yeah, when she’s isn’t too busy doing sales, she works up the ads, too. Efficient, no?”

No. You may think this multitasking approach will get the job done. And in the short term, it just might. But sooner rather than later, Laura is going to need help, drop the ball on sales or blow a gasket. Then you’ll have to decide to replace her and try it again, or expand your in-house skills.

Or you could put Laura back on the sales beat and find that rarest of all birds: the hybrid designer, writer, web maven and all around marketing and branding tufted warbler whiz kid. Good luck with that fantasy. People who are that talented want variety and some fame now and then. Working in a vertical, single-focus environment like yours won’t cut it. Those folks head to ad agencies.

So, before Laura burns out, blows up or starts bleeding clients she can’t service, you might think about getting some outside help. We’ve been there, too. The client is encouraged to keep it simple by employing a firm nimble enough to drop by and take a project or two off Laura’s hands.

Worth a shot, no? Seek out a vendor who has some experience in your sector or a similar one—and who’ll make credible promises about budgets and timing that they’ll keep. Agree on a clear scope of work and live by it. When Laura’s sales numbers ratchet back up and the outside supplier brings home the bacon on the project you scoped out, the investment will generate happy returns.

Or maybe you have done a reality check and discovered that instead you fit:

PROFILE FOUR: Professionals Hire Professionals

“We make world class wizbang thingies. That’s our core skill set. Branding and advertising, like dentistry, should be left to professionals.”

Plenty of small but growing firms that we’ve worked with embrace this perspective. They know that recognizing and accepting one’s limitations is a sign of wisdom. The plain truth is, many startups simply don’t have even a basic affinity for branding or advertising, except that they understand it’s essential to their success.

These kind of companies know they must stay focused on making the best damn wizbang thingies out there. But they also know they’ll need help getting the word out and sustaining the effort over the longer term to ensure growth and profitability.

If you’re ready to embrace an agency relationship, be prepared to assign a person, maybe like Laura, to write up a creative brief (see Great Ads Start With a Great Brief for more on this) that the agency will use to develop strategies and tactics.

Again, map out a detailed scope of work with budget, timelines and benchmarks for success. Meet the agency at regular intervals to include the effort in your ongoing business operations. And always demand results that are measurable and meaningful to your bottom line.

Depending on your scale, skill set, culture and resources, doing your own branding and advertising can make a lot of sense. Big and small companies alike have fully integrated in-house teams that do a host of branding and advertising work.

Smaller firms employ hybrid solutions using in-house and outside vendors, and still others work with an assortment of strategic and creative partners who swoop in and help out as need be. Or these vendors are hired for a contract period to move the company’s brand to a higher level, and then the company takes over again.

Before you decide which route you’ll take, first establish whether branding is essential or worthless. And figure out whether branding is something you love and can’t wait to do because your company is all about the brand, or is something that you know needs doing but is best handled by pros, at least for a while. After all, pulling your own teeth can be messy and painful.

Wayne S. Roberts is principal and chief creative officer of Blade Creative Branding, a firm specializing in strategic branding, creative advertising and innovative online solutions.

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