Over the past three years, we have been able to work with many industry leaders, founders, and CEOs who have built very successful businesses. They are currently sustaining their companies or have evolved them by merging with or selling to larger companies. Some on that list include:
Dr. Trevor Blatter, Endodontist, Podcast Host, and Author of Redefining The Top 1%
David Schnurman, CEO of Lawline
Brandon Green, Co-Founder, Keller Williams
Luke Cooper, CEO, Fixt (acquired by Assurant)
Mona Patel, CEO, Radx.ai, Carefirst Imaging, MonaLisa Properties, and Couture for Cause
Allen Gannett, Former CEO of TrackMaven (merged with Skyword), now Investor and Author of The Creative Curve
Dan Berger, CEO Social Tables (acquired by CVENT)
Nir Eyal, Author of Hooked and Indistractable
The common thread between these leaders is that they have been heads down, in the trenches for years building their businesses to support their teams, customers, and families. However, there came a point in time when they realized, “I have something to say, and I want to make a wider impact.”
While there are tons of books out there on thought leadership and “what you need to do to build an audience and people who are doing it,” what most people fail to recognize is that it takes many moving parts to become a thought leader yourself. It starts with a brand foundation—who you are and what you’re here for—which needs to be built out and fully thought through.
If you’re looking to build a brand the wrong way, feel free to read this article I wrote as an autopsy on my first startup…
What I share below is about building a brand the right way in order to become a successful thought leader. I lay out a path with clear steps for what actions you need to take and what you need to consider during the process. While there is no perfect way to build a brand, and while some people start at different steps of the journey, I’m writing this article as if you’re just beginning to give thought to this complex process.
The 3 Types of People Who Need Brands
The first is a new author, referred by a book agent or someone in our network. They are so excited about the launch of their book and becoming the next big voice in their subject area, but what they haven’t done is the foundation work to build their brand and understand their message beyond the book. They get so caught up in the book itself that it becomes their identity, but they don’t stop to think about the “so what” and the bigger picture: building a brand that survives after the book and adapts with the times.
After a successful book launch, the question then becomes, “What do I do next?” The problem is, they didn’t think long-term about their work from the start.
The second is a client we take on from the beginning who doesn’t have a book yet, but they have book ideas, speech ideas, and more. They want to be known and make an impact, but they don’t know exactly what they want to be known for just yet. This is a precarious position because there are a lot of wrong turns to take at this stage as well. This client’s question becomes, “What do I do first? Build a course? Create content?”
The third is a successful client who has already built their brand, audience, and community. However, they haven’t activated their audience fully from a digital and grassroots perspective, shared valuable content with their community, and given that community pathways to get further involved in their brand and buy from them by creating products that fully encompass their brand’s value.
At this stage, the question becomes, “I’ve done all this successful legwork upfront—built an audience, released a book—but how do I build a community that lasts, create content that provides value, and continue to adapt my product lines around my message, all while making an impact?”
Below is the process through which we craft pathways for thought leaders:
- Develop a brand foundation
- Pick an audience and build personas
- Build a consistent visual brand identity
- Develop content themes, post topics, and distribution channels
- Craft your story for a larger audience
- Build your tribe—intentionally
- Build a BRAND-FOCUSED (NOT product-focused) website
- Create PR opportunities
- You’ve built your brand infrastructure. Now what? Think about your products
Develop a Brand Foundation: Keycode [Client A & B]
If you are reading this and fall into buckets A or B, then it is very important to ask, “What is my brand message and how can I adapt it over time?” and “What is something that I can lean into for the next 20 years every time I have a new book or idea I want to move forward?”
Your brand foundation and the message is rooted in your story. Who you are is infused into everything you do and create—they represent your beliefs, values, and the ways in which you want to make an impact on the world. We are in the business of Pathfinding; we help current and future thought leaders like you belong in a world where feeling out of place is the norm.
When we build out a brand message, we start by diving into the trenches of each client and bring them through Rich Keller’s One Word Brand Foundation Process.
We shared a bit about this process as it relates to Lady Godiva in building Godiva.
Note: When building a brand, most people think of building successful products first. BW Missions gets to the core of a person’s offering/niche and then translates it across products and channels. Put simply, we believe it should be value first, product second.
Pick an Audience and Build Personas: [Client A & B]:
Once you align your brand foundation and story, it becomes extremely important to pick your audience(s)—whom you want to reach. Your message and brand could be targeted to many different audiences, but picking the first one or two audiences on whom you want to have an impact is extremely important because it forms a precise focus on how to ready yourself, aim, and fire.
For instance, Nike was born from a focus on how to serve elite athletes. As their brand continued to grow, they started to serve different audiences with the same product. But the key learning in this is that they picked one place to start and didn’t try to appeal to the masses. When starting BW Missions, I created 3 different personas, people I thought we could work with and gear our business toward. In reflecting on those, here is the persona that we have worked with the most and are focused on serving today:
NAME 1 is a 40-year-old entrepreneur who is building/wants to build a business around their personal brand. In their prior professional life, they were quite successful (whether in a startup or corporate setting) and now they want to give back and share everything they have learned on a topic they are passionate about and expand their brand to encompass that goal. They strive to create great content on various platforms, including videos, podcasts, events, and blogs, but they struggle to find the right pockets to make their message heard.
Name 1 is energetic, authentic, passionate, and wants to make a difference in the lives of others, but also seeks financial power from their work. They spend their free time holding meaningful conversations, visiting new coffee shops and restaurants, and attending personal development workshops. They don’t waste their time on surface-level topics, TV shows, and conversations about people that don’t further society and are progressive in their views and desires to make positive change.
Name 1 is creative, driven, and has been very successful, but realizes they need a team to help them execute their vision and their personal brand to make their future endeavors truly successful. They realize that they might not know all the new technology tips and tricks, so having a younger team who understands the lay of the land across the digital landscape, as well as the ins and outs of brand building, strategy, speaking, and product creation is a real asset.
This person has $65,000 to invest in that team for at least twelve months to help them build and develop a brand strategy, a PR arm, and a defined audience. This person is receptive to feedback and willing to invest in the long game to help them develop products that will align with their brand and help them make money to reinvest in the impact they want to create.
At the end of the day, you are offering value, not a product. Identifying the key stakeholders (yes, down to their possible name, job, and income bracket!) will allow you to target explicit and implicit ties to generate new leads, new referrals, new networks, and new opportunities.
Correct audience segmentation yields a long-term value that increases brand awareness, establishes the overall sentiment of an organization and its services, and contributes to the dissemination of knowledge that ensures your message reaches its intended audience.
This value you can give a specific audience is in itself a commodity.