When potential clients are getting to know us, they often ask, “What is Bullhorn’s specialty?” Because I’m a smartass, I always reply with the same answer: “branding.” If I’m feeling full of myself, it’s “building confident brands with language and design.”
The question’s intention is, of course, to uncover whether we’re a specialty branding agency – one that focuses on a specific industry vertical. We’re not. We’re industry-agnostic. Our clients are nonprofit advocates, civic and educational institutions, new and historic business, etc. We’re proud of our work’s breadth. And those categories we haven’t ventured into yet? We see them as more opportunities to apply – and improve – our process to new challenges.
Here, I will identify a few branding themes in different industry verticals. Grouping by industry would be fun, and easy, but let’s dig a little deeper. Here are some examples of trends I’ve seen across three categories: established organizations, new businesses (startups), and advocacy groups.
Kentucky Eagle, a beer distributor founded in 1948, is a successful business, but it had a perception problem: people didn’t know what they did. They couldn’t connect the cold beer they bought and drink to the people getting it to them.
Louisville Public Media (LPM) is a nonprofit serving its community through three popular public radio stations and an investigative newsroom. Their problem? You guessed it: perception. Listeners knew their specific stations but couldn’t connect them with LPM.
Many established organizations face the same story. To be established, you must first become successful and then, sustain that success. Problems take a while to emerge, particularly when you’re focused on your core offering.
Humility can also become an obstacle. People aren’t used to talking about themselves. They do their job, whether it’s delivering high-quality radio or cold beers, and don’t believe in patting themselves on the back. Transition often forces established organizations to take a closer look at themselves, which can be uncomfortable at first.
We worked with both Kentucky Eagle and LPM during leadership transitions, but the end products were distinct. One, a new logo and public campaign proudly announced that Kentucky Eagle’s employees are working “every damn day” catalyzed an unspoken momentum that had been building for generations. The other, sonic branding and a refreshed brand identity, enabled clarity between the parts and the whole.
Branding projects with established organizations certainly don’t start from scratch. But being granted the opportunity to help discover, capture, and amplify what’s working is one of the most rewarding branding challenges we face.
When new businesses come to us, they’re often overwhelmed. Juggling business plans, partnerships, loans, rent, recruitment – just typing that half sentence made me sweat. When they come to us, they’re seeking a partner to help balance spreadsheets with strategy and staffing with stationary. Shit, I’m still sweating. We were a startup too, once upon a time.
Startups, like many founder-led businesses, are often personality-driven. In those early days, there’s usually not much more than an idea, an office, and a business plan. How do we help these folks? We are patient, knowing that starting a successful business takes all you’ve got and then some. We are flexible, making our schedules work around theirs. And, we are unflinchingly honest, knowing that startups hire us to be a filter, not a mirror.
The new businesses we’ve worked with are financial firms, distilleries, landscapers, ice cream makers, bike shops, large scale indoor agriculturalists, shipping logistics experts, high-speed trains, space explorers – you get the idea.
We’ve helped them all uncover and unveil brand identities that work for them. In the startup world, it’s important to know your role, whether that’s sensing where criticism or tough feedback is useful or just getting the hell out of the way and letting our clients do their thing. Seeing a client’s new brand pop up on social media or unveiled at a ribbon cutting is worth all the hard work. And stress.
People rarely gravitate to an advocacy group because of a logo. Indeed, design is an integral part of a dynamic advocacy brand. But our work for them usually revolves around two goals: defining the purpose and understanding the group. I’ll address the second first.
Successful advocacy strategies depend on dynamic coalitions. Alienating members of your coalition isn’t an option. Period. So, for a successful branding strategy to take place, first we have to understand the group. Who is in the coalition? Who needs to be in the coalition, but isn’t? Who has left, who’s going to leave, who needs to leave? More important: why? Answers to these questions are critical. Any recommendation we make relating to the first goal – defining the purpose – has to be done through the filter of the second.
The US Hemp Roundtable is a coalition of dozens of hemp companies. They represent every link of the product chain, from seed to sale, as well as all of the industry’s major national grassroots organizations. By understanding how this coalition sought to include new members and accomplish strategic goals (namely, the legalization of hemp), we were able to unveil a purposeful, successful public strategy. We helped make clear their dual purpose: clarifying that hemp is not marijuana and that hemp is a multifaceted, national growth opportunity. Hemp was legalized in 2018 and has exploded nationally, led by the US Hemp Roundtable.
Our involvement with this and other successful advocates (The Fayette Alliance, The Community Farm Alliance, Children’s’ Advocacy Centers of Kentucky) is core to our corporate DNA. Only by understanding group dynamics – and their effect on decision-making – can we offer these clients useful, authentic recommendations. When we do, we feel genuinely rewarded.