How to Put a “Twist” in Your Brand with Julie Cottineau (Archive)

Julie CottineauJulie Cottineau is the Founder and CEO of BrandTwist, a brand consultancy group that helps entrepreneurs and corporations build stronger, more profitable brands. Prior to launching her own business, she was the VP of Brand at Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, overseeing branding strategy for new and established Virgin companies in North America.

About the Interview:

Ever wonder how Richard Branson manages to shake things up every time, in so many different industries? Julie Cottineau, spent 5 years as the VP of Brand for Virgin in North America helping to grow this iconic brand. Now the best-selling author of TWIST: How Fresh Perspectives Build Breakthrough Brands (Panoma Press 2016), Founder & CEO of BrandTwist will show you how TWIST your non profit’s brand  for maximum impact.

Fresh ideas come from looking at old problems from new perspectives.

In this podcast, Julie will teach you how to:

  • Go beyond “me-too” marketing, and get stand out
  • Make the most of every brand touch-point – large and small
  • Connect with target more deeply to create loyal brand ambassadors
  • Walk away with tangible new ideas for your organization

Why nonprofits should care about brand

A unique, compelling brand can make or break even the strongest, most worthy enterprise. Once you understand the true nature of your brand, you achieve clarity and focus. You are in a much better position to serve the cause and the people you’re really passionate about. Literally, it can change a life.

Your charity, church or synagogue needs a strong brand – one with a TWIST. The TWIST is your unique story that will help you stand out, get the attention your good work deserves and build a loyal community of followers, donors, and volunteers.

Julie’s Website

Get her book Twist


Read the Interview

Hugh Ballou: Welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. It’s Hugh Ballou and Russell David Dennis. Russell, how are you out there in Denver, mile high Colorado?

Russell Dennis: The sun is shining, but you step outside and it’s very cold. I’m having Northern Maine flashbacks with these single digit temperatures here.

Hugh: We are recording in the wintertime. People listen at all places. It might be warm in the other hemisphere, and it might be summer in the northern hemisphere when you listen to it. But the message is that we give you the techniques and strategies and information. It doesn’t have a season. It’s stuff you can use any time. This is a real important topic today, like all of them, but we tend to skip over this thing of branding. We tend to think it’s a picture, a logo. We got a brand, we got a logo. We are going to explore the different facets of branding and give you a top level view of what it looks like and what it is. One of the best people I know has this great book out called Twist. Julie Cottineau. Did I say it right, Julie?

Julie Cottineau: Close enough.

Hugh: I have a good memory, but it’s short. Thank you for being our guest today. Tell the people listening a little bit about you and a little bit about brand twist.

Julie: I think I have been branding since I was eight years old. When I was a little girl growing up in Massachusetts, my parents wouldn’t let me have a pet because my brother was allergic. I went out in my garden and took a rock and put it in a Cool Whip container. I poked holes in it so it would be able to breathe. I invented the pet rock. Two years later, some guy named Gary Dahl in San Francisco invented the official pet rock because he was also fed up with regular pets. He was in a bar after work, he worked in advertising, and all his friends were leaving to feed their cats and walk their dogs. He said there has to be a pet with no hassle, so he created the official pet rock for no hassle. I created the non-allergic pet rock. Ever since then, I have been creating solutions with a twist from a different angle.

Hugh: Twist. How did that name come about?

Julie: That’s another story. I was working as a branding consultant for Interbrand, a large branding agency. I was traveling all over the country. I was at Newark Airport one day. I looked out of the window and saw this 747 with these golden arches on the tailspin. I stopped in my tracks and thought, That would be a really interesting airline. It would be different than all these other airlines that had the same color seats and stewardesses and the same experience. A McDonalds airline, maybe I could buy a regular economy seat and supersize it to a premium seat. I looked up again and realized that it was a mirage. It was actually the reflection of the food court sign on the window, and there happened to be a plane. You following me? It was a hallucination. But it started me thinking, if you are in the airline business and want to break through, stop worrying about your other airline competitors and twist with other brands. Find brands that you admire that are doing cool things outside of your category, and twist those lessons with your brand. That started it all.

Hugh: We put a snazzy title for this. The top mistakes. What are some of the things that people do that you wish they wouldn’t do?

Julie: We put the top three mistakes; it was hard to keep it to three.

Hugh: I’ll bet.

Julie: You can grow to four. These were mistakes nonprofits are making. The first one is what we were just talking about: not really understanding what a brand is. In fact, confusing your branding with your marketing. That is a big mistake. Your marketing is how you get your message out there, but your branding is your fundamental story. What are you about? Why should people care? All great stories, if we think about our favorite movies and books, they have a twist. They have something unexpected in the plot. The number one mistake is stop saying if I only had ten times the marketing budget, I could build my nonprofit. Well, I could throw 20 times the marketing budget at you, but if your brand isn’t in shape, your fundamental story of who you are, who you serve, and what’s different about you, then it’s a waste of money.

Hugh: It’s a waste of money. What happens when- I guess one of the fundamental branding issues with a nonprofit is the word “nonprofit.” It really puts us in a negative twist of scarcity thinking and nonprofit, we gotta have profit to be able to run this church or synagogue or community charity. How do we start out on this journey of creating our brand? Talk about brand image, brand promise, brand identity. There is a lot of facets to this besides the logo.

Julie: Your brand is not your logo. Your brand is fundamentally your story, and your logo and name should help reflect that.

I think a very unique challenge of nonprofits is the second mistake. They really try to welcome everybody. People who work in the nonprofit world are attracted to it because there is this inclusive instinct. Branding is actually about choices. If you have a page of your website that tries to tell everybody about everything that you do, you will connect with no one. It’s like the twist on AT&T: reach out and touch someone. It’s like reach out and touch no one.

What I say the most important thing about branding is be clear on who you want to serve and the issues you want to promote. Be very choiceful. Narrow them down. Most nonprofit websites look like someone threw spaghetti up on the website and wanted to see what sticks. Branding is like an onion. Just tell me a little bit for me to get to know you, and then I will keep peeling the layers back to continue to get to know you. Less is more. Particularly in nonprofit branding.

Hugh: Russell, we see lots of funky things, don’t we?

Russell: Yeah, it gets really interesting. If your target is everyone, you’re marketing to no one. What it’s about is really having people understand what it is that you do. A confused mind always says no. From a perspective of nonprofit, what is it precisely that a brand should do for a nonprofit? What is that main benefit that they get? I don’t think people always understand the benefit in taking time to actually build a brand. What is that main benefit, and how does that really empower nonprofits?

Julie: The main benefit is your brand promise. Getting clear on your brand promise. Getting specific on your brand promise. It’s not we want to help people, or we want to make everyone feel included, or we want to make life better. Those brand promises are not gonna stick because not that they’re not valid, but they’re just so overused. It’s like when Charlie Brown hears the teacher talk, and all he hears is “wah wah wah.” When I work with nonprofit clients, what problem are we trying to solve? Can we get really specific on that problem? Not that we want to give people shelter or help homeless people, but keep digging deeper. We want to help people feel at home. We want to help people feel that they can realize who they are in their minds versus how other people are seeing them. We keep digging. We get to one brand promise. The main thing we do with that brand promise is we don’t validate it by looking at all the other nonprofits in our space, and we don’t create it by committee, which is hard for nonprofits. Nonprofits love committees. What we try to do is say if there is a leader of the nonprofit, whether it’s the president of the board or head of marketing, they need to own the brand. Everybody else can contribute their ideas, but at some point, someone needs to make a decision and get everybody on board. Versus we need a direction that everybody can live with, but no one hates. That is the definition of weak branding, when you go to the lowest common denominator.

Hugh: She has good sound bites here, doesn’t she, Russ?

Russell: Brilliant. It’s quite a field. I have done some marketing myself. I started out working in market research and sold some advertising on television and in print. But that doesn’t really speak to brand. I was just fascinated by why people do some things. Describe to us what attracted you to the career of helping others build brands. How did that particular piece of marketing expertise jump out at you?

Julie: I’ve always liked storytelling. I studied communications and creative writing. When I was little, my rockstar was Judy Bloom. I won a contest at the library to go hear her speak. To me, that was winning the Super Bowl. I was so excited by it. I’ve always been interested in storytelling. Branding is a very unique way to tell your story.

I am in my office. I like to use all the different tools that I have. My brand is purple because it’s the twist of red and blue. I tell my story not just in words, but also in images. You will never see me on stage without some purple on. The walls of the office are purple. The cover on my book is a twist of pink and purple. Nonprofits, one of the mistakes I see them making is they use stock photography because it’s cheap, and I understand that. But they build websites. Don’t invest a lot of money in them, but build them with a lot of images. The minute they set up their nonprofit, they are saying we’re just like everybody else. There are inexpensive ways to take stock photography but frame it differently, treat it with a different color.

We learn those lessons by looking at brands like Tiffany’s. Tiffany’s is a great brand to twist with. If someone gives you a blue Tiffany’s box, I say to my husband, it almost doesn’t matter what’s in the box. The blue is their brand. Tiffany’s robin egg blue. It sets up this expectation of an experience. I think that nonprofits should look at things like that, like owning a color. As soon as you see the red Target ad, you know right away, even if you don’t hear the name and only see a slice of the logo, you know right away it’s a Target ad.

Hugh: It’s funny you bring that up. They are changing their colors in Lynchburg to white. I don’t know where I am. I was so into the red. The doors are still red, and people still wear the red and khaki. You were vice president of Richard Branson’s Virgin. What are some of the important things you learned from that experience? That’s powerful.

Julie: It was an amazing experience. I think the biggest thing that I learned from Richard is not to be afraid to fail. He has an expression, “Fail harder.” Another one he has that is hopefully ok for this podcast, and is the title of one of his books is, “Screw it, let’s do it.” If you have a good idea, and it feels like it’s going to make an impact, don’t test it to death, don’t run it through 10 different committees, just try it. It might be successful, and it might not be. We know that we learn the most from the things that go wrong. It really opened me up to being more adventurous. I came home from my corporate job. I had been there five years, and I was having a great time. I said to my husband, “Screw it, let’s do it. I am going to start my own company.” He said, “I don’t think that’s what that means. We have two children to put through college.” I said, “No, that’s exactly what that means. I have an idea to create a branding consultancy and a book and a learning program, and I’m going to do it. If it’s successful, great. If it’s not, I am going to learn a lot.” That’s what I did seven years ago actually.

Hugh: Wow, you’re still there doing it. Your book is called Twist: How Fresh Perspectives Build Breakthrough Brands. I remember you kindly sent me a copy to preview it. I think I did a respectable interview a couple years ago on the Orchestrating Success podcast for business leaders. This is a wholly different focus today. Really it’s not. Good branding, good leadership, good marketing is probably the same. We do have a lot of hang-ups when we are working for a nonprofit that we shouldn’t have. Where can people get your book?

Julie: You can get it on Amazon. The easiest place.

Hugh: And the color makes it stand out. I was amazed, Russell, that she finds a way to twist that word “twist” into pretty much every page of that book. It’s phenomenal how this plays out. Before Russ goes into another question, I want to ask you. You do board retreats. There is a tension between different perspectives and an apparent contrast. When you have this side and this side, when you start looking at the intersection, there is some real finite truth or wisdom. We have a different outcome, but we also have ownership at some level. When you do a board retreat, I would assume it’s a branding retreat, talk about the dynamics of how the board plays into the decision and how it goes from the retreat to the final decision. That is where a lot of us get stuck.

Julie: Board retreats are interesting dynamics. The first thing I do is get everybody out of whatever the location is, whether it’s the church or synagogue, into a relaxed atmosphere where they can think differently, to use the apple. I also get them to start thinking about other brands. We don’t think about our organization as a brand, as a story, as something unique. We get bogged down into that won’t work, we tried that, I’m not sure about that. We have to remember that the people we are trying to engage, whether it’s members, donors, or volunteers, they don’t live in this box with only our brand. They live in the wider world with a wider brandscape.

I ask the board members ahead of time, “What brands do you admire, and why?” If you admire Starbucks because it customizes your order or Nike because it motivates you or Uber because it helps you get around when you are on a business trip, why wouldn’t you bring some of those qualities to your organization? Why wouldn’t you twist some of those things? Why shouldn’t our church or synagogue or nonprofit also be customized and seamless to use and have clever impactful messaging? When I get them to think beyond their nonprofit to his larger brandscape and twist those ideas, then it breaks through. We come up in a short amount of time with solutions we hadn’t had for months and months of board meetings.

The second part of your question is the trickier part, which is how do you move it forward? That is where I would say it shouldn’t be a democracy. The president of the board or the head of the nonprofit should get the input of everybody. If they are in a position of leadership, they have to take the leadership and say, “I have listened to everybody. This is what we’re going to do. You don’t have to agree with it 100%, but you have to understand why we’re doing it and help us tell the story to a larger group.”

Russell: That’s an interesting perspective. There is a tricky balance to strike as far as getting by it. Obviously, you want your people to go with that. Who exactly is brand twisting for? With nonprofits, you have multiple audiences. You have multiple constituencies. You have your board, volunteers, donors, other people who fund your work, staff. How do you make that marriage work for all of those different audiences? Who is twisting specifically for? How do you do that?

Julie: I like to work in brand development committees. I just rebranded a school system. We created a brand development committee that had the superintendent as the leader. Ultimately, she is the leader of that brand. She had to buy into it. We had two members of the board represented, not all 12, just two. We had a few practitioners represented, so some principals and teachers. We had some staff, the people, if we were going to change the website, on a daily basis, who are going to have to program it, and things like that. We had a committee of about 8 or 10 people. We worked in that committee and got through surveys and other strategic planning input from the community, parents and students. You can pull in input as data points, but don’t make your committee 30 people sitting around a table. You’re not going to get anything done. The 8-10 people worked on the branding solutions. We led them through the process. We committed as a group with the superintendent’s opinion counting the most to the one recommendation we were going to go back to the school board and make, with a lot of great rationale of how we got through the journey. It worked because we had a process. We had representation. Ultimately, we went with a recommendation and a clear rationale on that recommendation.

Russell: When it comes to communication, eight people is about the span of control. Once you get beyond eight, the wheels start to come off the wagon.

Julie: What we did was when we rebranded, we didn’t ask everybody, “Do you like this?” Branding is like naming your kids. You never tell anybody your intended names until the birth announcement comes out because all those opinions won’t be helpful. It’s your opinion as the parent that really counts. We named the new logo and gave it a story. We created a video that explained the change. We launched internally first so all the teachers beyond the committee got the preview first. Then we went out to the larger group. It wasn’t like the brand launch was overnight. It wasn’t just throwing up a logo and saying, “What do you think?” It was a really carefully crafted story that we told over and over for about a year until everybody understood it and got it and got behind it.

Russell: One of the things that you mentioned in the book is that people have blinders on around branding. What is it that you mean by blinders? How do we work around these?

Julie: It’s like a horse, if you’re trying to lead a racehorse out and put the blinders on so they can’t see anything beyond them, it keeps them going forward. But the downside of that in branding is we work in nonprofit that has to do with cancer. We spend all our time looking at nonprofits that have to do with cancer and we worry about being seen as legitimate. Because we worry about being seen as legitimate, we end up being very safe but also using the same words and images as everybody else. That is what I mean by brand blinders, is only thinking in your category.

If you lift your head up, I mean honestly your next board meeting, have it in a Starbucks. That would be a good use of everybody’s time, or your favorite restaurant, or your favorite brand experience. Say, Look around. Why are we spending twice as much on a coup of coffee? Why is this an experience that we all come to? Why is everybody else hanging out here? What are they doing? Look how they are naming the baristas. Look how they are using the color green. Look how they are creating an atmosphere of welcome. What are the specific things that they’re doing to make us feel like this is not just a cup of coffee, but an engaging experience? How can we twist those with our nonprofit?

Russell: What do you think are some of the more common mistakes that nonprofit leaders have? I imagine that these blinders have a lot to do with it. But what are the most common ones?

Julie: Sticking within the category is a really common one. Another thing is taking too much input, trying to do too many things, like I mentioned. Most nonprofit websites, the front page will give you a headache because they are talking about everything. Setting a clear vision and using that as a funnel. I would say there is some overlooked brand touchpoints that nonprofits should think about. In my book, I talk about these vomit bag moments, which came from Virgin Atlantic, which was one of the brands that I looked after as part of Virgin Management. Virgin Atlantic did a very clever thing. They had these air sickness bags, which they had to provide anyway. It’s an FAA requirement. They have to be in every seat pocket for every flight over six hours, I think. Most airlines, well, what color are they for most airlines?

Hugh: White?

Julie: White, plain, no message. What Virgin Atlantic did was brand them. They made them red, which was the brand color, and they wrote a little story on them about how flying used to be fun, people used to get dressed up, and what happened to flying in terms of taking away all the peanuts. They twisted it back to a story about on how Virgin Atlantic, you will always feel great flying. I say to for-profit and nonprofit clients is: What are your vomit bag moments? What are the things you’re doing anyway as part of your brand experience, but you could add a twist? Whether it’s an invoice that you send, whether it’s a thank-you note, whether it’s a gift, on-hold music. If you have a phone calling as part of your nonprofit. Those are the little moments where you could add something that supports the brand and stands out.

Hugh: When did this word “twist” come in your present thinking? How did that get so deeply embedded in your being?

Julie: I think it was that airline experience. The McDonalds airline, I needed to look in a different way. I needed to look at things from a different angle. The more I started using it, the more people played it back to me as something that was helpful to them.

Hugh: I like how she uses it instead of other words and twisting ideas into something that is unique. Part of what you all are talking about is back when you started this interview today, who do we serve? It’s our avatar, so to speak. Russell talked about marketing. We have to have a target. We want to attract certain people. We tend to think everyone needs us. How do you help your clients narrow down to that specific person that they want to attract?

Julie: We create brand avatars. We look at up to three targets, and we create personas for each of them. Instead of saying, if you’re a medical nonprofit, it’s health care practitioners, we will say it’s Dr. Bob, and we will give Bob a backstory, and what keeps him up at night, and who lives in his household, creating a character in a novel. We will do that up to three times. What we’re looking for though is to turn this target into real people with real problems we can help solve.

Hugh: When we’re talking to a specific person, we’re talking to the person who is sitting in the community nonprofit trying to figure out how to attract donors and volunteers and the next board member. Russell hit on it earlier, he says a confused mind says no. How many times have we had people ask for donations and board and all they get is excuses because all that person sees is I’m going to get sucked into this vortex?

Russell: Endless time commitment and bottomless blank checks. People aren’t clear. The brand is important. The one question I have about brand is is a brand what you make it, is a brand forever? Are there appropriate times to look at it to see what you have is outdated or not working?

Julie: That’s a great question. I think you do need to update your story every once in a while, or at least take a look at it. I do a lot of rebranding, if organizations merge, when there are major changes in the segment that organization serves, when there is new leadership. I think it’s a very worthwhile exercise every five years or so to check in and say, “Is that story we’re telling now relevant to the people we’re trying to serve? Is it relevant to who we are at this moment? Have we become something different?” Even if you go through one of those exercises and don’t change anything with the outwardly facing part of your brand, you will have validation that you’re telling the right story. I think that’s a really important exercise to do.

I would say if you look at great brands in the for-profit world, like Coca-Cola for example, their core brand promise has always been about happiness. But every once in a while, they will update their advertising. “We’d like to teach the world to sing,” or “Open a Coke and a smile,” or “Happiness.” The fundamentals are there, but there is a bit of a refresh. People get excited about the refresh. People pay attention to brand refreshes or rebranding. It’s a great opportunity to get out in front of your targets and your donors and say, “Let us tell you what’s new. You might have noticed we made some changes. It’s not because we just needed cosmetic changes, but our vision is evolving. We wanted the brand to reflect that vision.”

Hugh: We’ve talked around these terms. Let’s clarify. You’ve used the phrase “brand promise” a few times. There is a brand image, brand identity, brand promise. There are different facets. How do you segment the different parts of a brand?

Julie: Your brand identity is everything. It’s the way you show up, the way you present yourself to the world, not just in your logo and website, but in the way your people behave, etc. I look at it as a house. The brand promise is the roof. That is the main thing you stand for. There is a diagram in my book of the roof of a house. That is what you enable. If you look at Nike, for example, they sell sneakers, but their brand promise is “Just do it.” Supporting that roof, you have three brand pillars. Those are your values. Why should I believe that you’re someone who can help me just do it? You have three pillars that support that.

Hugh: When we’re doing strategy, we nail down the problem we’re solving. Why do we exist? What is our solution? What is our unique value proposition? What do we do that’s different from others? Is that the building block to a brand? How does that fit into the branding that you do?

Julie: Yeah, I think your unique value proposition is your brand twist. That is your brand promise. When I do it, I like to make them succinct and easy to remember. I’m not a big believer in mission, vision, values, 10 layers of the brand. When I do it, I answer four questions. The first is “Who are we trying to serve?” and dig into that psychographic. What are we promising them? That is your brand promise or your unique value proposition. Why should they believe us? That is your brand values. Who, what, why? The last question I answer is how, how do I bring it to life? What is my website? What is my tagline? What is the way I dress? What are the cuts of people I hire? One of the biggest mistakes I see for nonprofits and for-profits is they say, “We want to update our website.” If you are creating a new nonprofit, they are creating a new website. They go right to the how, how are we going to bring this to life? But they don’t do the who, what, and why. They don’t have a strategy. They spend hours and hours on versions of websites and logos, and they waste a ton of money. They think they’ll just know it when I see it. It’s not a great way to create a brand. You have to have a strategy. Once you have a strategy, the execution is actually pretty easy.

Hugh: That’s so common. Russ and I see that a lot. We had David Corbin on here a while back. David has a book called Brand Slaughter. We have seen that happen with another airline; we won’t mention their name, but their initials are United. That one person destroyed the brand. It’s happened a few times. But there are other companies where one person acted in a way that violated the way the company wanted to represent their value proposition and brand identity. What we do, we do values and principles. Part of that is how do we behave in the culture? How do we make decisions? Talk a minute about taking this brand promise we have and how to get people who are volunteers, board members, committee members represent that brand. We can violate that brand with our behavior, can’t we?

Julie: Yeah. You asked me what I learned from Richard Branson. That’s the second biggest lesson besides taking chances. Your employees are the ambassadors of your brand. They bring the brand to life in their behavior. I do a lot of internal brand activation, meaning I train employees on the brand. I train them how to behave based on the brand. If our brand stands for teamwork, we actually look at all of our systems and evaluate where we are acting as a team and where we are breaking down. I had one client who was standing for teamwork, but we realized their office had an open plan with lots of cubicles. There were no nameplates. Somebody new to the team, it was taking them months to learn everybody’s name. That’s not a way to create a team. They’d see each other in the cafeteria, and they were embarrassed because they didn’t know each other’s names. Something as little as that. Definitely hiring. I use my brand values, even if I am hiring an intern. I ask them questions. Tell me a time that you twisted. Tell me about a time that you solved a problem from a different angle. Hiring, training, and rewarding on brand. Don’t keep your brand values in a notebook somewhere. People will start really paying attention to them if they know their compensation or advancement is tied to them.

Hugh: I just remembered when I was in high school, the twist was a dance. Russell, rescue me, will you?

Russell: Thank god for the power of good video editors and sound editors. The first couple of months, I was co-hosting. This is Hugh, and old what’s-his-name in Colorado somewhere. But it’s important for people in the organization to have all the tools. If your organization is firing on all cylinders, even the person that comes in and sweeps the floor at night can talk to you about what that organization does and how it works. We have had good discussions. The brands that stick out in our minds are large, a lot of them larger than life. A lot of small nonprofits are resource-starved. They are listening to this, thinking, this is all well and good if you have 100 grand to throw at your marketing. But if you are like us, you’re small and don’t have a lot of resources, how do we build a brand? How do we bring this about with limited resources?

Julie: Having a strong brand is even more important if you have limited resources. If you have limited resources, you can’t afford to have things that don’t tell a really tight story. I work with a lot of small businesses and nonprofits, 1-3-people sized companies. We spend that time on the brand promise and the brand pillars because that allows you to use every tool in the toolbox to tell the same story. Branding is harder, but more important, when you’re smaller. It allows everything to work together.

When I worked at Virgin, we actually spent way less than all of our competition on advertising. Way less. Virgin Atlantic spends way less than British Airways. But those ads would stand out, and they would create a loyal following. They would punch above their weight because they were very clear about who they were going after. The twist was very clear. What was different about the experience was very clear.

Russell: What are some of the tools as a bare minimum that someone in the nonprofit should have to be able to talk about their organization in a compelling way? Are there one or two tools that you would say are absolutely essential? How important is it that these are simple and easy to use?

Julie: I think your website is probably the biggest tool. For good or for bad, people come in, even if they are going to meet you in person, they will look at your website. Your brand walks in the room for you, and it sticks around after you’re gone. I think having a smaller website, one or two pages, that are just super clear and really visually engaging, is important. The same thing for business cards. As you said, a confused mind doesn’t remember anything. Keep it really simple, really streamlined. Your website, your business card, and your presentation. You can do a lot with live presentations. But talk on your elevator pitch. Have your elevator pitch be concise. Help people understand what you do in three floors, not in 35 floors. That comes from being clear on your brand and practicing it.

I was telling Hugh at the beginning that I have done a lot of work lately with personal branding. I am teaching a class at Stanford with Tyra Banks who has built a huge personal brand as an entrepreneur and model. I think that nonprofit leaders need to embody their personal brands, and show up as their brands, whether that is wearing a color, a tie, or a pin. Don’t go around saying your nonprofit is caring or innovative and not acting that way. One reason Richard Branson has been so successful is his business brand is about shaking things up, but his personal brand is about shaking things up. He spends a lot of time- he is the most followed executive on Twitter. He tweets about business and also life. He is frustrated about things, and is finding new ways to solve old problems.

Russell: I follow Richard Branson on LinkedIn. He has a lot of interesting things to say. A lot of people think about them. I think most of us have interesting things to say. A lot of people who may not be clear on how interesting the stuff they have to say is, or how to put it together. We talked about the people of stories. How do you work with people who are having difficulty finding their voice, what it is they stand for, what it is they want to communicate?

Julie: The first thing I do is offer brand health checks. These are the best place to start. You wouldn’t go into your doctor and say, hey, help me fix everything. You go in once a year and say, “These are the things I feel good about. Here are some of the things I think need attention.” We offer these brand health checks through the website. What we do is spend some time asking you some questions. We look at your materials, whether it is your LinkedIn profile or your website. We will triage: What are the areas you need to look at? Maybe your brand promise is pretty good, but you are not expressing it right. Maybe your targeting is all over the place. Maybe you need to use social media in a slightly different way, or colors in a slightly different way. These brand health checks are a great place to start.

Hugh: In your book, you talk about brand blinders. Can you say more about that?

Julie: Sure. Those are when you are looking in your category and not outside of your category for inspiration. Taking off your brand blinders means that you are looking beyond your segment to the larger world for inspiration.

Hugh: We want to make sure you highlight this offer. You say you work with a lot of individuals on personal branding, small businesses, and nonprofits. We have probably a mixture of all of those that follow us and listen to us and watch this. Where do they go first off for this brand checkup?

Julie: We have two diagnostic products. One is a brand health check. That is 60 minutes. That is if you want to talk about your overall nonprofit. Go to Get Started. Brand Health Check. If you are interested just in your personal brand, we have a personal brand plan call. That is half an hour. That is very similar, but we will ask you more personal questions. That is great for people who want help with their leadership, who are changing careers, who are job seekers. We talk a lot to recent graduates who want to get into the nonprofit or another space. That is for people who want to focus on their personal brand. But all roads lead to We will have a special promotion for your listeners.

Hugh: You are? Behind your head, it says Brand School. What is that?

Julie: Brand School is our online school that we offer a few times a year for small businesses and nonprofits. It’s a 10-week program. We get you all of the consulting that a big company would get, but we do it in groups of 10-12 students at a time. More heavy lifting on your side. It becomes more affordable and also creates a community of entrepreneurs.

Hugh: Do you have a blog or podcast or anything people can tune into to get more of Julie?

Julie: Yeah. If you go to, we have a blog that we update all the time. I am pretty active on Twitter as well. @JCottin on Twitter. You can Google Twist. We have good branding. There is lots of information that comes up.

Hugh: Yay. Russell, why don’t you have another question? He’s got one cooking, I’m sure.

Russell: All those wrinkles in my forehead are just common creases. They don’t have any particular significance. For those of you who are watching this now, there is a branding twist school coming up. A semester in a couple weeks. If this is something of interest to you, look at it.

One of the things I saw as I was looking through this website, which has a wealth of information, there were some things we didn’t talk about. Julie says there are three mission-critical reasons why you should have a twist. I’d like for her to share those if she could.

Julie: The first is a twist will help you stand out. I think it’s really hard to stand out today in the competition.

The second is bringing a twist to your business means you will have more fun. It’s hard work. We should be having fun and doing things differently.

I would say the third thing is think about your personal twist. Many of us will change careers or work for different nonprofits over the course of our lives. Paying attention to your personal and professional twists will always serve you. A lot of us are serial entrepreneurs or serial nonprofit professionals. You want to build not just a reputation for your nonprofit, but also your own reputation.

Hugh: We talked about the symphony a little bit. There is a composite here. Maybe that’s the wrong word. But you have the symphony, which needs a brand. We have 750 orchestras in this country. I bet you most of them want to play classics, so they want people to come. They complain they are not attracting millennials at all. There is a real interest in millennials for authentic historical church and culture. The orchestra has its identity, but the conductor also has an identity. That is the person that shapes the sound of the orchestra and is the figurehead for the orchestra, even though there is a huge culture. Is that a contrast or a conflict? Is there a synergy? There are lots of examples, but I tend to know a little bit about this one.

Julie: I think there should be a synergy. I think it’s great that you have an organization that has its identity. They don’t have to be identical, but there should be a synergy between the face of the organization and the group.

The other thing I would say is that orchestra who is looking to attract millennials, this is a great example. Take off your brand blinders. Stop looking at what other orchestras are doing. Look at brands that are attracting millennials. Twist those lessons.

Hugh: Whoa. What do you think of that, Russ?

Russell: I think that she is absolutely spot-on. Only Virgin Airways can be Virgin Airways. Everybody can’t be exactly the same. When you are focused on what everybody else is doing, you are probably leaving your own unique talents on the table. It helps to go through a process. We lead people through a process with our own success framework, and brand twisting will help you do that as well. It’s looking through that unique lens of what you bring to the table.

Hugh: Our SynerVision brand is based on creating synergy through the common vision. We know who we are. We know where we’re going. We know who we want to influence. It not only builds the synergy on our team, but it’s building the synergistic interaction with our audience, our supporters.

*Sponsor message from SynerVision’s Community for Community Builders*

We are going to let Julie give you a final thought or challenge or tip as we close out this really helpful interview. Julie, thank you for such great information.

Julie: My pleasure. I would say if you feel that your brand isn’t as healthy as it should be because you should build the brand that your business deserves, then I’d love to talk to anybody listening to this. You can go to and look at our brand health check or personal brand plan. If you put in the code SVLF, then you will get 15% off any of our products, and you will go to the top of the queue in getting something scheduled. I would love to check up your health and support your community however I can.

My final thought is your brand is your business, whether your business is for-profit or nonprofit. You can’t separate the two. You can’t say, I’m working on building the business over here, and the brand over there. Strong brands are connected. Your brand is your business. Make it a priority.

Russell: Great. If you haven’t visited this website, go check it out. There are cool tools here. Don’t think you have to trip over half a million dollars to do something about your brand.

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