The story of Anya Smilanick and Joy Whittemore began simply. In a simpler time, too.
It was 2007. Smilanick had just founded Small Dog Creative, a boutique-style graphic and web design company in Santa Clarita, and Whittemore, then the marketing manager for a food services company, was searching for such expertise.
“Joy, actually, was one of my first clients,” Smilanick recalls.
“Way back when!” Whittemore interjects with a laugh.
“Way back in the day,” Smilanick agrees.
That’s how much marketing and branding has changed in recent years: 2007 is truly from a different age in an industry that has taken on increased prominence as businesses – from burger joints to auto repair shops to insurance companies – fight to earn a place in today’s crowded and fiercely competitive marketplace.
A sign in front of the store is hardly enough. A website – even one with the bells and whistles – is only a good start.
Want to succeed? You’ll need a winning brand and a unified strategy through marketing to tell your story. It’s a package deal.
“There was a time when advertising was a company’s focus and public relations merely supported the marketing department’s efforts. With the advent of social media and a growing public conscience, businesses need to find their voice,” says Teresa Todd, president and CEO of Point of View Communications, a Santa Clarita-based integrated marketing, advertising and public relations agency. “Public relations has emerged at the forefront of the C-suite [senior executives] within organizations to serve as the guardian of the brand. Integrated marketing is now a conversation between a business and its many publics – buyers, employees, vendors, regulators, stockholders, interest groups, and other stakeholders.”
The World’s 100 Largest Advertisers, as compiled by Ad Age, disbursed $267 billion on ad spending and other marketing activities in 2016, an increase of 3.4 percent from the previous year. The 2017 numbers have yet to publish.
The spending, though, is expected to continue on an upward trajectory – and that’s even with Procter & Gamble, No. 1 on the Ad Age list, pulling back $200 million on digital advertising last year as part of a campaign to pressure media companies for greater transparency of viewership metrics.
In 2018, for example, Netflix plans to increase its marketing budget by 54 percent, from $1.3 billion to $2 billion, to “amplify the value of the content,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
Another global brand, Amazon, kicked in $7.2 billion on marketing in 2016, up 38 percent from the prior year, according to the Motley Fool. The result: Total revenues were up 27 percent.
“As the world speeds up, decision-makers use brands as shortcuts to make instant judgments about a business’s offerings, its values and, ultimately, its’ worth to them,” says Kevin Walker, president of Boardwalk, a nearly 30-year-old branding agency based in Newhall. “So, it’s more important than ever that a business understands, exactly, what its brand is saying about it.”
He adds, “Effective branding is now much more than graphic design, trademark protection and reputation management. Now, we show clients what role the market expects them to play in their lives and develop brand strategies accordingly. This allows them to build and maintain steadfast, authentic brand relationships with markets embroiled in rapid change.”
It’s this profound transformation across the industry that brought Smilanick and Whittemore together again about two years ago, this time as partners at Small Dog Creative, which has evolved to include integrated marketing, photography and video as part of its imaginative approach to helping clients build their brand.
“I actually started my own business [a marketing agency called Add+In Marketing that was based in Thousand Oaks] about eight years ago and we ran alongside of each other. We’ve been friends this whole time and working together this whole time, on and off,” Whittemore says. “We just got a point where we said, ‘Why are we not doing this together?’”
By combining their expertise, Smilanick and Whittemore are confident they’ve created an agency that can engage at a deeper level with its clients and provide a rounded approach to business development that doesn’t, as Whittemore says, “just stop at the website.”
A premium website, once upon the time the crowned jewel of marketing, might now be the easy part. It’s the strategic marketing plan – Who are the customers? Where are they? How do we communicate with them? How much will we spend to reach them? – that can be the difference between success and failure.
That’s even truer in a noisy marketplace such as the Santa Clarita Valley, where there are multiple businesses working to earn the same consumer dollars – particularly across retail outlets and restaurants, with new rivals regularly arriving on the scene.
The stakes are just as high on the B2B scene, where Walker of Boardwalk says businesses prefer their vendors to be alike. “That way, he says, “they can pressure everyone to lower their prices.”
If you don’t win the game of branding, the experts say, you won’t win at business.
“It is so competitive now. It’s more competitive than it’s ever been,” Whittemore says. “The challenge, chiefly, is that there are so many different channels out there, right? There’s so many different messages coming at us from different angles. And there’s so many opportunities. Which social media channel do you choose? Which media outlet do you choose?”
Adds Smilanick, “You can have a brand, but until you take control of it, you’re not really branding.”
While marketing is the process to building awareness and promoting a business, including advertising and market research, branding is a business’s promise to its customers or clients.
A successful brand will, first, set an expectation, and then continuously meet that expectation.
In 2013, Forbes ranked the seven characteristics of successful branding as 1) Audience knowledge; 2) Uniqueness; 3) Passion; 4) Consistency; 5) Competitiveness; 6) Exposure; and 7) Leadership.
“If they don’t walk the talk and deliver on their promise, it can totally discredit the branding message,” says Jill Mellady, president of Mellady Direct Marketing, a Santa Clarita institution for more than 30 years. The company’s list of clients includes the SCV Chamber of Commerce, Poole & Shaffery and College of the Canyons, her alma mater. “We strongly believe building a solid brand is about the whole package – not just the professional logos and marketing collateral that we provide – but also the way the business backs up the promise of the branding material. In every business, amazing customer service is the biggest difference-maker.”
Like Mellady Direct, POV Communications has been a fixture on the local marketing scene for decades – led by Todd, who was honored by the Santa Clarita Valley Business Journal earlier this year at its first Women in Business Awards. POV’s client list features the Valley Industry Association, Mission Valley Bank and KKAJ.
“When done well, a brand differentiates a business from its competitors,” Todd says. “But to achieve that level of differentiation, a company must define their brand, communicate it, and deliver on it consistently. Beyond the promise of what a brand represents, it is an intangible asset that appreciates over time and adds to the overall market value of a company.”
What does a successful brand look like? Todd points to another of her clients.
“One of our local clients, Valencia Acura, is a great example of a business delivering on their brand promise as the Friendship Dealership,” she says. “That promise is woven into the culture and every aspect of their business operations and delivered consistently. It defines who they are and communicated at every touch point. In the fiercely competitive automotive landscape, they stand out in the local market.”
Mellady concurs, stressing the significance of “tapping into a specific niche” to deliver on the wants and needs of a customer base that she says has become more “varied, flexible and demanding.”
“But one thing has not changed, even as new marketing channels and technologies have come on line over the past couple of decades: Effective marketing and branding takes repetition and it takes a media mix,” Mellady says. “The right mix will vary for each type of business, but the upshot is that effective marketing and outreach isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s part of an ongoing strategy. Our job is to find that right mix for each client and help them execute it to perfection.”
The objective of branding is not only to create recognition among prospective customers but gain the upper hand over market competitors in a specific category – be it automobiles, as in the case of Valencia Acura, or sub sandwiches, batteries or beer.
In an April 2017 analysis for Ad Age, Atlanta-based marketing strategist Al Ries wrote on what he described as the five revolutionary changes across the industry since the turn of the century, emphasizing, among other things, the necessity of building an authoritative brand.
Ries’ philosophy prioritized public relations (over advertising), name (over strategy) and visual (over verbal). He also stressed the importance of conquering a class, using the example of Apple’s approach to marketing smartphones compared to its competitors.
Consider Nokia, a company that dominated the cellphone market with its Nokia brand name. What did Nokia do when the market shifted from cellphones to smartphones?
It did what most companies do. Nokia tried to use its cellphone brand name on its smartphones – with disastrous results.
That’s not what Apple did. When the computer market shifted from the home to the office, it didn’t use the Apple name. It called its office computers “Macintosh.”
When Apple decided to get into the smartphone business, it again didn’t use the Apple name. It called its smartphone “iPhone.”
(I should have said Steve Jobs, not Apple. Because when Apple got into the smartwatch business, it promptly adopted the line-extension strategy used by almost everybody else.)
After the success of the iPhone, you might think some of the iPhone’s competitors would also use new brand names. But they didn’t.
Every major global smartphone competitor used their existing brand names: BlackBerry, HTC, Huawei, Lenovo, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, Sony and Xiaomi.
The power of the right brand can be worth billions, too – even on name alone. Walker singles out a pair of billion-dollar companies, Uber and Airbnb, as prime examples.
“These companies have almost no tangible assets,” he says. “The value is all in the relationships they’ve developed with their markets.”
At Small Dog Creative, Smilanick and Whittemore envision a future that will only amplify the present. Relationships will matter. Genuineness will be critical. Effort will be required.
“Creative authenticity,” Smilanick says of the key to future branding and marketing success. “People want to buy from a brand that they know and trust, and they want to know their story. … Your messaging (can’t) just be a tagline. It’s something you have to have threaded through your organization, in your values and across the board.”
And, together, Smilanick and Whittemore are ready for the challenge.
“We take what we do very seriously,” Whittemore says. “It’s an honor when you get to work with people’s businesses and they’re trusting you to learn everything about them and communicate that. It really is a place of honor, and we recognize that. We live, eat and breathe this. This is what we do. It’s our passion.”