Just over two years into my new company, I took a step back in order to take a giant leap forward. I went through a comprehensive branding exercise, the kind that I -- like many of us in start-up mode -- had glossed over in the early days. The end result was a new name (KLA), new logo, new website, new marketing collateral -- and a new appreciation for why I do what I do. That journey and the lessons I learned along the way could prove instructive for your community programs.
While I knew I wanted to start my own business, like many, I questioned the best approach to making it a reality. I spent a lot of time meeting with people, attending conferences, and reading books, magazines, and blog posts. Lots of articles and approaches to being an entrepreneur and starting a business, sales, marketing, branding, business strategies… all kinds of stuff that I actually had experience doing to some extent, though it was more because I had to promote a program or sell an organization (remember- I worked in local government and non-profit for the better part of a decade). I was not using any particular structure or process. I just did what made sense to me.
I thought about the new company I would start. What would I call it? What would I do? I knew I wanted to continue my work with local governments, but would I go beyond that? I have worked a bit in the college and university market, and l love the idea of linking those two markets together to create even greater change. Whatever it was, I had to have a real impact on fighting climate change and creating more sustainable communities.
It was September 2014 and I was still thinking about my strategy and developing my business plan. Finally, I met with a very business savvy woman, who also started her own company- which is now a multi million dollar business. She gave me the best piece advice I had received to that point.
JUST GET STARTED.
You know what you do. Just go do it. You will figure out what you want your business to be from there. And so I did. In November 2014, the City of San Antonio put out an RFP for a sustainability planning project. The scope of this RFP read like my resume: a sustainability plan with metrics, a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, climate vulnerability assessment, community engagement, stakeholder facilitation, and so on.
This was IT! My opportunity to start my business. But with a deadline.
There was no time to think about my logo or website or my mission. I just had to have them. So I got on the phone with a lawyer, an insurance agent, and a web designer- I know it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke- and we made Kim Lundgren Associates, Inc. REAL. (Nope, no time to think about the name! But I did take the time to ensure my business was formed as a benefits corporation. I pride myself on walking the talk and there is no way that my business was not going to follow suit.)
Fast forward to April 2016. My team and I have just completed the San Antonio Sustainability Plan project (check out the final plan!), and it was time to take that step back and ask the question: WHAT IS KLA?? It seems like such an easy question- well of course I work with local governments to create more sustainable communities. As I learned, this was the wrong question and the wrong answer.
Brands & Branding Strategies
What is a brand? With blogs and social media, I feel that we talk a lot about brands and branding strategies, but unless you are a sales or marketing professional, you may not fully understand it. I know I didn’t until I really dug into this and if you are a local government staff person this is not going to jump too high on your never ending to do list- so let me give you the Cliffsnotes…HINT: Your logo is not your brand.
My favorite definition is from Entrepreneur magazine
“Simply put, your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offering from that of your competitors. Your brand is derived from who you are, who you want to be and who people perceive you to be.”
Now of course your logo, website, and other materials are tools to communicate your brand. They should be developed AFTER you are clear on what your brand is.
So how do you develop a brand? Well, you can use books and try to do it yourself, but I sought out a consultant. There are TONS of them out there, but definitely shop around and find the one that you feel is the best fit for you and your organization. I worked with Laura Willis of Encore Revolution. Laura specializes in working with small, mission-driven businesses on her proven C.O.R.E process. The C.O.R.E. is described as follows:
Connect with your story, vision, and beliefs
Optimize for your ideal target audience
Revolutionize your voice and imagery
Engage using your message and brand
Laura’s main theme is Your Brand is You. Now, for a local government, that might not be true, but for a small business just getting started, it really is. It all has to start somewhere, right? This was probably the area I struggled with the most. I had spent most of my career working hard to keep my personal life and my professional life separate. Enter a branding expert who wants me to share my personal stories and focus not on WHAT I do or HOW I do it, but WHY I do it.
Why I Do What I Do
Laura’s initial thought was that my passion for saving the planet was sparked when I became a mother. That is a fair guess for someone who just met me. For me, my mind went back almost two decades when I had just started graduate school at Tufts University. During one assignment during my first month, I realized that while I had been an undergraduate (1993-1997) studying Environmental Science and while I was actually working as an Environmental Scientist (1998-2000), there had been a TON of updated research on global warming AND the first international treaty (the Kyoto Protocol) was developed and signed by the US and 83 other nations. I remember being completely shocked. How did I not know about this? I AM AN ENVIRONMENTAL PROFESSIONAL! I subscribe to E- the Environmental Magazine. How could I have missed this? And, more importantly, if I did not know about this, how would anyone not working in this field know?
That moment in 2000 was a huge “a-ha” moment for me, and I shifted my entire career to focus on climate change. But Laura wasn't convinced this was the root of my passion. She made me dig deeper AND share it.
That was when I remembered the baby seals.
I was about 6 and I was walking home from school (yes, we did that in the 80’s- by ourselves!) reading Scholastic News and I learned of the baby seals being clubbed for their pelts. I nearly lost my mind. How could someone do that to little baby seal pups? My mom describes the emotion I shared as overwhelming- which wasn't too different from most other days, but in this case, I had a mission. I told her I was going to the Arctic and the polar bears and I were going to get those poachers and make them stop.
When I shared that story with my branding expert Laura, she knew that was it. The root of my passion for protecting the planet and all its species stemmed all the way back to 1st grade. I had never really considered that this random anecdote was the root of my true passion. I guess I didn't make the connection because I swayed off the path a bit as I grew up. I almost went to college to be an accountant. I see it now though and look at me sharing it all over the place!
What Are Your Core Values?
Once we got to the WHY, everything seemed to flow a little easier. The next thing we had to work on was developing the KLA Core Values or Manifesto. An article in the Harvard Business Review, had a great definition of core values:
Core values are the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions; they serve as its cultural cornerstones.
Here’s an abridged version of what we developed -- over the course of many sessions together -- for KLA’s Core Values:
Impact: KLA seeks to drive action and long-lasting behavior change to create a sustainable future.
Inclusivity: Every individual can do their part and we believe that local governments have a unique opportunity to lead their community toward a more sustainable future. We provide tools, services and solutions that are affordable and accessible to all who are inspired and ready to take action.
Innovation: Our approach to innovation focuses on looking at things in a new way and translating data into compelling and easy-to-understand stories that enable local governments to streamline processes, track progress, and enhance their community engagement.
Authenticity: We have a clear understanding of our clients’ challenges because we’ve been in their shoes and know how to make their jobs easier. We must be real about the issues and provide guidance on possible solutions, whether it includes our products and services or not.
Leadership: We want to raise the bar on how everyone takes action towards ensuring clean, healthy, and thriving communities across the globe.
A critical next step is ensuring that those core values don’t just gather dust on a proverbial bookshelf.
They represent the promise we make to our clients and who KLA is as a business, a partner, and member of Planet Earth. It is easier to build and sell our products and services and tell our stories when we refer back to this framework. We used it for a suite of new collateral from the logo to a revamped website to fresh marketing pieces.
Here is an example of how we applied it to the logo, part of our transition from Kim Lundgren Associates to KLA. For the KLA Logo, it was really important to me that we highlight that our impact comes from working with local governments, and sure not all the local governments we work with are cities or have skylines, but that is a very easily understood image that reflects my target audience without saying a word. I was also getting tired of so much green. While I am green and proud, it seems that this field is just flooded with the color green in everything we do. When I started looking at other colors that resonate, I really love the blues and blue represents trust and authenticity, which just made sense for our brand. I have already received so many complements on the new look and feel of KLA- THANK YOU!
Takeaways for the Sustainability Professional
For my fellow sustainability professionals, I believe it is more important than ever that we stand up for what is right: a clean, healthy, prosperous future for all. I know many of you are not in a position to go through a branding exercise, and for some local government professionals that might never be part of your job.
That is why I want to share with you some key takeaways from this process that might help you as you continue fighting the good fight in your current role.
- Share the story of your personal passion
If you have been working as a sustainability professional for at least 5 years, there is a 98% chance that you are driven by a fundamental passion that is within you. It may have stemmed from something in your childhood or later in life, but take the time to find it and connect with it. Once you do, consider sharing your story as part of your community presentation or one-on-one chat where you suggest others take sustainability actions like recycling, taking public transit, or installing solar panels. People love stories. It is human nature and actually neurobiology, our brains are attracted to stories, particularly those of human struggle and triumph.
- Create your own manifesto
Develop your core values. Your core values should never be compromised. Not sure how to even get started on something like this?
1. Read through a list of adjectives - there are plenty online, here is one that is easy toread.
2. Select 5-10 adjectives that you feel describe you best.
3. Then narrow the list down to no more than 5 and think about why you chose each one.
Your final manifesto of core values should come from this. Get those 3-5 words that really resonate with you and build out your why. If you are feeling good about your product hang it up in your office, on your FB page, or send it over to me, I would love to see it! When you find yourself at a crossroads or having to make a difficult decision, refer back to this. This should keep you focused on the why.
- Refine your elevator pitch
You don’t have to go through a full branding exercise -- or even be in charge of your company’s or local government’s brand -- to contribute to the brand. Depending on your job, you’re probably a default brand ambassador in the sense that you’re the one telling your company or local government story, representing it to the public, and fielding questions about it.
In marketing circles you hear people talking about an “elevator pitch” -- which means a rehearsed way you would tell someone about your company/program/mission/event in the time it would take to ride an elevator (60 seconds). It might take different shape depending on who you’re talking to or whether that elevator ride is really a Thanksgiving dinner conversation with your cousins or a conversation with someone you don’t know at a community event. And it is certainly something that evolves the more you practice it -- when you hear and see (glazed eyes or nodding heads) people’s reactions and follow-up questions.
Take a few minutes now or the next time someone asks "what do you do?" to look at your brand with fresh eyes. Maybe it's time for you to think about some of these rebranding exercises. If you've already done this, I'd love to hear your story and see/hear your final product!