How to Market Yourself Today

by Brian James Rawson
August 16, 2021

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At Owl Street Studio, we believe design and marketing should do good and that no one should be excluded from the table. That's why we partner and volunteer with SCORE - an organization that provides free resources and one-on-one mentorship to entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders across the country. And in 2021, we partnered with SCORE to present the workshop “Moving Your Idea to Market” at Forward Fest in Madison, Wisconsin.

Forward Fest is Wisconsin's largest technology and entrepreneurship festival. The festival holds over 40 different events, brings in more than 5,000 attendees, and continues strong into its 13th consecutive year. And in this section of the Forward Fest workshop, Owl Street Studio’s founder, Brian Rawson, talks about the marketing trends of today and you can use those trends to grow your business. And to learn more about Forward Fest and SCORE visit:

Forward Fest & SCORE

Watch the video above and read the full transcript below.


George Wennerlyn: Well, we're moving on now to our fourth speaker.

You know, it's interesting. Earlier we talked about the Internet, and there's a lot of these businesses that just started up before the internet really was, and now you think about 20-25 years later, whatever the magic number is, and things have really changed in getting your identity out to your customer.

And how do you pull that off because there's so much competition out there. The whole area of marketing is changing -almost day by day, it seems like.

So we have an interesting individual to wrap up our session today. And that's Brian Rawson.

Let me just tell you a little bit about Brian. Comes from Northern Illinois University. He's a SCORE, I'll call him an expert. He is, basically deals in the area of marketing, a lot of freelance work. But in 2019, he started his own marketing and graphics firm. And it's called Owl Street Studio. He deals in marketing, branding, graphic design, copywriting. He’s a very interesting person, and he'll be wrapping up our session for today.

So, Brian I'm going to hand it over to you.

Brian Rawson: Wonderful, I appreciate all that. Thank you for that intro. Usually, when people say I'm “interesting” that's usually not a good thing. So I appreciate turning that around for a compliment.

Yeah, no, I appreciate being here. And, and this whole presentation flows really nicely because what I'm going to talk about kind of wraps up everything else that all the other presenters have shared. So today, I'm going to talk about the big picture of branding and marketing, and what you need to be thinking about when you're taking your idea to the marketplace today.

First, What Is Branding And Marketing?

Brian: Before I jump into more of the details, though, I would like to take a second at least to do just a quick explainer what, at least the way I define marketing or branding. I've found talking with people that usually those two words get confused a lot. So just a quick explainer.


Brian: The way I think about marketing is that it's intentionally and strategically starting conversations with people. So, if you have a business card or a TV spot or anything like that, the point of those things is to spark a conversation between you and your customer and ideally between your customer and other customers to spread that word of mouth. So marketing is all about conversations and how you make those happen.


Brian: Where branding on the other hand, is about taking visual and verbal information. So logos, typography, color palettes, all that stuff, as well as taglines headlines or sales copy descriptions, taking the visual and the verbal components and using them to create an identity and an impression. So it's the brand part is…basically kind of how you look and sound which then creates how you show up and influences how people think about you. So that's kind of the big picture way at least I defined marketing and branding.

So with those in our mind, now we can talk about what's, what do you got to know today when you're taking this idea, the thing you've worked on so hard and you're about to release it out to the world?

The Key To Marketing Today:

Brian: So the way, the way I see marketing today is that there's no… I’d say a magic trend or new smoking gun kind of technology that's gonna instantly change everything for you. What's really different today is that there's no, I feel there's no room for error. So you can't afford today to leave your branding - the identity part of your business and your idea - you can't afford to leave that up to an afterthought. Leave it up to the backburner.

I know when you're working on your idea and you're, you're trying to launch this business, whether it's a nonprofit or a tech startup, that there's all this pressure to just get this thing done. I know you can get tunnel vision on refining your product, making sure the software is correct, the coding’s right, making sure that your logistics are all there.

And with all that effort, you can get locked into just thinking, “We've got to get this thing out there and just get it done. We'll figure out who we are and our culture and our beliefs. We'll figure out our colors and our presentation. We'll do that all later. It'll just kind of work out.” And today you don't, you don't really have that luxury.

You know, you only have a few seconds to make an impression, you know, a few seconds at the most. And if you make the wrong impression, you can't back track that.

And what's hard is that to reach people today, you have to be, you have to be on the internet (and I know that’s not shocking news), but when you're on the internet that means people have access to you all the time. Even if it's, even if all you have is just a single web page, people can access that 24 hours a day from across the globe.

So you never know what kind of impressions you’re making - because you're not always awake or there to make that impression. So your brand has to be there to speak for you when you're not there. And if you haven't taken the time to think through your brand identity and your presentation, you could be accidentally making the wrong impression and you didn't even know it.

And once you make that wrong impression or your brand is inconsistent, if you have a great looking website, you put all your effort into making a stellar website but you forgot how to apply that brand to your business cards; how to make sure that your brand is consistent on the back of the receipt paper or on your invoices; people are going to find those discrepancies and that inconsistency will break trust with people. It's going to show a little bit of - that you're not totally you all the time.

And even if there's a little crack of trust, eventually that trust can grow to where it's fully broken and, and eventually your customers and clients are going to pull away from you, or they're not going to refer you, or they're not even going to come to you in the first place. So you can't leave this brand up to, you know, whims and second thoughts. It's got to be there from the start.

The Key To Marketing Today:

Brian: The other thing is when you're making your brand, you can't just make a logo. A lot of people get that confused. They think that if we just have a logo, we're done, you know, put a sticker on it, get out the door. That's it, got it figured out. And that's not the case.

To do a thorough brand isn't just making something look cool or be flashy or you know any of those kinds of things. To make a really thorough brand, you have to do really in-depth market research.


Brian: So you've got to take the time to thoroughly research your competition. You have to understand who your direct competitors are (the people right in front of you) as well as the people who are substitute and indirect competitors (the ones that are now off to the sides and the corners, the ones you don't even usually think about) to know what your competitive landscape is you can fit in with your industry, but also stand out to make a good impression.


Brian: You also have to do the market research to understand your customers and clients. So kind of going back to what Ted was saying, when you're developing software, you need to do those focus groups to refine your product and service to know what people really want.

But I believe you need to go deeper than that. Beyond just the nuts and bolts and beyond even demographic information of knowing your customers and clients income or age. I believe you need to take the time to really understand their personalities, their values, their beliefs, this deeper layer to them. So that way, you can not just give them a product or service but satisfy a deeper emotional need.

And when you can take the detail to satisfy that emotional need, those people will keep coming back and back. It's the ultimate way to win trust in people.


Brian: And then with market research, you not only need to look at competition and really understand your customers and clients, but you also need to take time to understand yourself, your own “Why”, as Ken was saying. You really need to understand who you are, who your team is, your culture, your personality, your, your values.

And even if you're a solo entrepreneur, a business of one, you still have a culture. There's still a personality and a mission and ethos there. And even, I found firms that even when they take the time to fill out, kind of a mission statement template or a writing prompt. That doesn't automatically mean you’ve figured it out your, your deeper culture.

So once you've taken the time to do that in-depth research, then you can start putting a brand together. Then pour all that into your writing, your visuals, your, your presentation.

The Key To Marketing Today:

Brian: And once you do all that work, you can't just let it go. So thankfully, when you take the time to do that in-depth market research, you don't have to go back to the drawing board every six months or reinvent the wheel, but you do need to maintain it.

So it's kind of as if you've built a beautiful house. It looks amazing. But if you don't maintain that house, if you don't, you know, cut the grass and clean the gutters and maintain it, protect it. Take care of that, that structure. Eventually it's gonna fall apart. And it’s the same thing with a brand.

So you might be able to pour all this effort into it up front. But if you just let it go and just think it's going to take care of itself, it's not going to happen. A brand has to be protected. It has to be managed. It has to be nurtured. I think it's (I’m a little biased here but) I think it's your most valuable asset as a firm.

Brand is not just looking cool. It's, it's your reputation. It's how people think about you, and reputation, I mean, that's the gold standard. So if you just, again, make a flashy logo and walk away, that brand is going to fall apart.

So I like to use the example of Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola has been around for over 100 years, and they didn't just slap some red paint on the wall and come up with some cool letters and walk away. They have guarded, maintained, protected that firm. Like, like Ted was saying earlier, they won't even get a patent on their formula because they don't want anyone to know about it. They're, they're highly protective. And it’s worked. I mean, I've not been around for 100 years but they have.

And as well as being so thoroughly consistent, they've also been able to flex and change with the times and adapt to different situations and environments. So when you have a thorough brand, you can maintain this consistency, like a consistent character which builds trust in people, as well as being able to adapt to the environment, speak to your audience. Whether that's a new marketplace, maybe you're going overseas or even just to a different state. Or whether that's being able to still speak to people 100 years from now. When you have a solid brand, you can do both things: be consistent and be adaptable.

The Key To Marketing Today:

Brian: But I think the last thing to really talk about (and I think it’s the most important here) is why branding is - I believe - the biggest thing that can help you win today.

So maybe I'm a little cynical (or, or I don't know) I don't think every industry necessarily can be disrupted. I know there's, there's all this focus on creating the best product. That if we just make the most compelling thing - whether that's a cupcake or if it's software - that people will just come to us, kind of the “build it and they will come” mentality.

But I…that does work sometimes, but I think that's leaving a lot up to chance and risking a lot on, kind of, lightning to strike or to capture, capture that lightning in a bottle. Some people have done it. But I don't like to take that much risk when it's my time and effort and my, you know, my livelihood on the line.

So as you're defining your product, as you're taking all that time to make, to code that software and refine your service, you need to make sure that you are also taking the time to build this brand. That's just as important because the brand is the thing that can give you that cutting edge.

That when it comes to products and services, sometimes there's that development ceiling. You know, sometimes tax services are tax services. Sometimes there's a, there's a limit to how much technology can change things.

You know, I think of it kind of that way with vacuum cleaners. At the end of the day, vacuums are vacuums. You might be able to squeeze a little bit out of more suction power or, or ease of use or charging capabilities or something, but there's got to be a camp.

And so, maybe your product or services is a little bit better than the other person's. But you know, it might not be miles different. So why would people come to you instead of the other person? And the thing that can give you that edge is the brand.

When you're consistent and your, your values and who you are, your personality that (again it builds trust) and it will draw those customers to you and clients that are like-minded in a good way. Not trying to, not “like-minded” in the sense of being exclusionary or on-purpose pushing people away. But bringing people that are going to be loyal to you.

Like, like Ken was saying, he couldn’t grow that business without drawing the kind of customers that, that worked well with him. And it's right if you bring, attract everybody, you're gonna wind up attracting nobody.

So taking the time to develop your brand gives you that competitive edge where it just lets you be you. Let the other vacuum sellers, let them be them. And there's enough people out there that they will sort themselves. That they'll come to you for your emphasis on…maybe it's vacuum cleaners that have cleaner energy. Maybe it's your emphasis on, the vacuums are the same but maybe you give your employees stock returns and high benefits. Maybe it's, you know, something else, a social aspect that why people buy vacuums from you versus someone else.

So when you run up to a competition ceiling or a roadblock, it's the brand part that can cut through that.


Brian: I know it's a lot of information. So let me do a quick recap. Today, I don't think there's any big magic done that's gonna change things for you when it, when it comes to kind of trends in marketing.

But the thing that is different is that brand can't be an afterthought. It needs to be just as important as your product development. It's got to be right in there when you're working away in the garage or the kitchen table or wherever you do your thing. It's got to be just as important as the product and service development side.

You can't leave your brand up to just a logo. It takes in-depth market research to do it right. I'll be honest, if you don't, if you don't do the market research, you can maybe get away with it, but it, kinda like the legal parts, if you don't think about the legalities, it's gonna bite you later on. If you don't think about the branding, you can maybe get by for a little bit, but it will catch up with you somewhere. And I mean, I've had from personal experience where it wound up costing me a heck of a lot more than if I just would have taken the time to do it upfront.

And then you can't leave your brand being stagnant. You have to maintain it, hold it together, manage it.

And when you do all that, the brand's the thing that's gonna cut through and give you the competitive edge and make your marketing the message and conversation stick out versus other people. It will hopefully be the thing that will cut through the noise of all your competition as well as all the social noise we have.

I mean, there's a, whether it's your competition trying to draw people's attention or it's just another TikTok video, you've got a lot of noise out there. And it's your brand, it's you that will draw people in, cut through that noise, and get them to remember you and keep coming back.

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