Susan Meier | Small Business Branding

Adam LeanPodcast

In her work as a brand strategist, Susan Meier discovered early on that people form deep emotional connections with the brands they buy. Using her talent as a visual artist, Susan, founder of Susan Meier Studio, has been able to excel in a key part of branding – the design.

She also pays close attention to the other part of branding a business: your unique story and your values – who you are, in a nutshell. Plus, you must showcase what makes you different – and better – than the competition. Otherwise, you compete on price, which Susan says is a race to the bottom.

We take a deep dive into branding strategies any business can use, as well as…

  • What small businesses can do to establish an effective brand
  • The biggest myths about branding
  • Making your business relevant to your target audience – and how to make sure they know
  • Using branding to create a competitive advantage
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in this episode:


Adam Lean: In this episode, we’re going to talk about how to develop a brand for your business. We’re going to talk to a brand strategist and visual artist who’s on a mission to help business owners use creative thinking and analytics to create a solid brand that will deliver their message to the world. This is P is for Profit. 

Adam: Welcome to P is for Profit. My name is Adam Lean and I along with the rest of the team at The CFO Project are passionate about helping business owners improve the profitability and cash flow their business. My guest today is Susan Meier. She is a brand strategist and visual artist and founder of the Susan Meier Studio. Susan, welcome to the show. 

Susan Meier: Thank you so much, Adam. 

Adam: I’m really excited to have you here. I want to also learn what a visual artist is. But, you know, before we jump in too far, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a brand strategist and visual artist. 

How Susan Became a Brand Strategist and Visual Artist

Susan: Sure. Oh, a visual artist is just a fancy way of saying, I make art, like, sketching, drawing, sculptures. And that’s what I studied in my undergrad, visual art and making art as well as art history. So it’s a little bit of a zigzag path from there to strategist, isn’t it? But the way I, the path that I took started out with management consulting, which was really just a leap of faith, first job out of college. 

And okay, I’ll try something new that I don’t know anything about, but sounds pretty interesting. The way the company described it, I worked for the Boston Consulting Group which is, you know, a terrific company and they really gave me a great education. And the way they described what they did and the job that I would be having was like solving puzzles, which is something I like to do. 

And in general, I guess I’m a curious person, I like to try new things. And so that was how I jumped off into a completely new world, much of which I was totally unprepared for. But like I said, it was a great learning experience. And where I came out of that, with this really strong interest in branding because I had the opportunity to do a lot of customer research as part of their consumer goods practice. 

And I found it fascinating how people had these really intimate emotional connections with the products or the brands that they were using. And I wanted to learn more about that and get involved in that. And when I discovered that there was this whole discipline or industry called branding, which looked at that connection, that relationship between humans and brands and also have this visual component because, you know, an important component of expressing your brand is design. I thought, wow, that’s for me.

Adam: Let’s just talk about branding for a moment. This is a topic that gives, or a word that gets thrown around in business circles. Some people think that branding is a logo. Other people think that branding is your, you know, sort of your persona of what people think of your business. So how do you define brand? 

How Susan Defines Brand

Susan: Yeah, it is confusing. And it’s confusing because it’s all of those things. And so when you’re talking about branding, you need to define which kind or what part of branding you’re talking about. And I think as a small business owner, which, you know, I myself am also a small business owner, my consulting practice is a small business and I need to run it as such. And when I think about my own branding, I am sometimes, I’m thinking about, you know, what’s my positioning, my story, the niche that I fill in the world of all possible strategy consultants or brand strategy consultants. 

Who am I? What makes me different? And that’s the part of branding that I help my clients with mostly. And then there’s another part of branding, which is also very important and that’s the visual expression piece. And I do some of that for clients, as well. But, you know, and I think that’s where often people will jump straight to that and say, Okay, I’m starting a business. 

I need a website and a logo and business cards. And, you know, what’s really helpful is if you, before you get to that stage, you think about, you know, well, why should it be that color or that design? Or what story am I going to tell on that website? You know, how am I going to position myself in the world of, I don’t know, landscape architects or whatever it is that I do. How am I different from other people? What do I uniquely bring to the party? You know, what’s my background? What are my values? 

And all of that goes, that self-knowledge and storytelling and differentiation. That’s your brand strategy. So when I talk about branding, when I, as a business person talking about branding, I’m usually talking about that part. And then the third piece that people often talk about, which, you know, I professionally don’t get involved with generally, is social media. And, you know, when people talk about personal branding, they’re often talking about their social media strategy or their content online, which is also important, of course. So I think those are the three places people tend to use the word.

Adam: This is gonna sound like a dumb question, but what is the point of branding? Why should a business owner listening even focus on this?

Susan: Not a dumb question at all. And I think it ties into your first question, which is, when you’re thinking about the world of branding, which ultimately comes out as your website and your logo, it may be, it may feel like a, that’s such a big exercise. Just sit and write my story and think about, you know, who I am and how I serve people. I paint houses. How hard is that? But it’s really important because it’s your competitive advantage, right? Because otherwise, you’re just competing with all the other house painters on how much you charge. 

And that’s a quick race to the bottom. You don’t want to be competing on that. You want to be competing on whatever it is that you’re good at. Maybe you are really meticulous and detail-oriented and you just get the job right. Or maybe you’re really good with color and you have this other kind of advisory piece of your business where you help people think through their design as well as painting their walls. You know what I mean? Like, each person is going to have something a little bit unique that they bring to the table and that’s going to grow your business, versus just being, you know, a generic entrant into a big market.

Adam: So in a way, your branding sort of tells your story of who you are and what separates you from your competition.

Susan: And why people should work with you versus anyone else.

Adam: Okay. So at a bare minimum, what branding elements should a business owner have and think through?

Susan: So I think you want to think about yourself, and by self, I mean yourself and your business, and your customers or your potential customers. And then think about how those two things fit together. So when you think about yourself you’re going to want to think about, like I said, your credentials your skills, like your, what practical things do you offer can you offer, Do you enjoy doing? And then something also about your values? Like, what kind, you know, what purpose do you serve? Or why it is that you’re doing this in the first place beyond obviously trying to make some money. 

But why did you choose to put your time and your energy into this way of making money versus something else? And so, you know, that becomes Okay, here’s who I am and what I’m bringing. And then thinking about who it is that you’re serving. So, you know, is it a local family market? Or are you targeting an international audience? Or, you know, is this something that’s for women? Or is it, you know what I mean? Like so like narrowing it down to, I hear people talk a lot about the minimum viable audience, right? 

Like, the more you can be really, really clear that you’re not just something for everyone, but that you’re something for a specific group of people, that’s also going to help you refine the way that you talk about your business and your story in a way that’s relevant to the people who are going to really want to buy it. So understanding who would be most interested in what it is that you have to offer. And then bringing those two together is how you tell your story.

Adam: Yeah, no, that makes sense. Let me ask you this, what are, what’s a myth that a lot of people have about branding and brand strategy as it relates to business that you just want to dispel?

Branding Myths Busted

Susan: Well, I think the jump straight to the business cards is a myth that I see really frequently, or jump straight to the, you know, what does my Instagram feed look like. And, you know, not that that’s unimportant at all. It’s very important and, you know, maybe you don’t even need a website and your Instagram feeds you. So it’s, social media is important and your logo is important. But thinking about those, you know, differentiators, as, you know, we call it in the world of branding. Like, what is it that makes you unique and different? 

That is also what your target cares about, is going to be the key to really sustainably building a business long term. That’s your strategy piece, right? Like that’s the business piece. And the other stuff is design, its content, its connection and community and that’s super important. But before you know who you’re connecting with on Instagram, for example and, you know, what that community looks like and how you want to speak to them what kind of content you want to deliver. You have to know kind of what your business is about, what is your positioning? Like, what is this little stake in the world that you are going to stake out?

Adam: Yeah, that makes sense. So you’ve worked with big businesses, as well as small and medium-sized businesses. What lessons can sort of small businesses learn from how big businesses handle strategy? I mean, obviously, the budget is different. But what are some takeaways that small businesses can learn some sort of, some tips that you can give from premiere experience working with big businesses?

You Have Much More Room to Experiment as a Small Business

Susan: Sure. So I do think one of the things that big businesses do well often because they do have the luxury of a budget, is to properly go through that process. And so talking to their customers, taking the time and expense and effort of really listening to, you know, not just what their customers care about in terms of the whatever it is, bathroom cleaner, but really who they are and how they live and, you know what they care about as human beings. 

And then thinking about how that applies to the product that they’re selling. That’s a rigor and a discipline that large companies, you know, that I’ve learned a lot about from working with large companies. And I think that it translates to a smaller company environment where you don’t have to do fancy focus groups that cost a million dollars in order to basically follow the same process. You can just ask a handful of people. 

You can do a Survey Monkey survey, you can phone up a few friends or a few former clients and ask them, what do they really care, like, what did they get out of working with you or what are they looking for in a house painter? And quickly, you know, put down on a set of what I would call brand attributes, right? Like the things that they care about when they’re making a purchase decision in your industry. And that goes such a long way. And it’s something that I think small businesses often don’t think to do or don’t think they have the budget to do. 

And so I think that’s something where they can pull a page from the book of larger companies in really doing that, you know, customer insight work and then applying it to how they run their business. You know, on the other hand, I think there’s a lot of advantages that small companies have that, you know, large companies struggle with, especially like if you’re a public company, right? You have to meet certain profitability requirements for your shareholders. And so it’s more difficult to innovate, right? 

It’s more difficult to take chances, because if the chance if it doesn’t pay off, you know, you’ve got those shareholders that you’re beholden to. Whereas in a small business, you can really take chances. You can come up with a crazy new idea, lob it out there, see if it works. If it doesn’t, okay, move on to something else. You don’t have that kind of like, group of folks depending on you and watching you and the kind of constraints that that applies. So I think it’s very exciting to be a small business owner from that perspective.

Adam: Yeah, absolutely. You’re way more nimble and in can pivot. Whereas big businesses, there’s just a lot of red tape and a lot of people that you have to convince, and there’s just, things move slower. You’re absolutely right. Let me ask you this. Just outside of branding, you’ve worked with a lot of businesses. What do you see that separates successful business owners from those that always seem to struggle?

Be Optimistic and Take Chances

Susan: Optimism, I think is one. You know, I think you can either frame, sort of back what I was talking about just now about innovation and taking chances, you know, life is risky, business is risky. And the way to grow and do great things is really through taking risks. Not crazy off the wall risks necessarily. You know, you can do things smartly, but, you know, innovating, creating new things is one of the, you know, one of the keys to that, right?

Adam: Yeah, no, that that makes sense. The business owner has to set the vision and has to lead their business. And if they don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it.

Susan: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Adam: So if somebody feels that they have a branding problem, they sort of get lost with all their competitors, they feel like they’re just like constantly lowering prices just to compete. What are their specific next steps that you suggest that they do?

Susan: Oh, yeah, no, and that goes straight back to what we were just talking about before. It’s so easy to get caught on that treadmill of oh my gosh, there’s new people entering my market. I better lower prices, or I better offer a discount or something. And it’s absolutely always going back to what’s my differentiator, right? Like what is it that makes me different that people are willing to pay more for, you know? 

That, you know, not everything is a price war. We all spend money on things that we don’t absolutely, positively need. And why do we do that? Maybe we do it because we want higher-touch service. Maybe we do it because we want more convenience or something delivered to our door. Maybe we do it because we want higher style. But what are those things that you can offer that’s above the generic version of what you could offer? And I think that’s the way out of that conundrum. 

Adam: Yeah, no, that makes sense. I mean, it, you know, Starbucks is my favorite example of branding done right and that they position themselves as a status. If you go to Starbucks, that’s a status symbol. I mean, I personally think that their coffee is awful. But it doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what, you know, the people that are buying it, that how they feel. And that’s, I mean, if you just wanted a cup of coffee, you can go to, you know, a gas station and get that. But they created their brand to be about something and that they know that their target audience wants to feel.

Susan: That’s such a great example. I’m so glad that you raised that and use that as an example because that’s exactly what branding was, Right? Because it elevates beyond, you know, the object or the product, in this case, a cup of coffee, to a whole experience, lifestyle. You know, in branding, we talk about needs and aspirations. So, I might need well, arguably not need, but in my case, maybe need a cup of coffee. 

But what do I aspire to? Do I aspire to feel like I’m, you know, sort of part of a community or do I aspire to feel like, you know, they know me or I have a customized order and this is the way I like it or any number of things that that Starbucks brand offers. Those are aspirations that go way above and beyond, you know, the actual need for a pen or a cup of coffee or a widget. That’s powerful branding.

Adam: So, Susan, if somebody wants to learn more about you and about your company and to see if, you know, they can get your help to help them with their branding, where can people find you?

Susan: Sure. So I have a landing page. It’s easy to remember, Electrify Your Work. And from there, you can jump off into my website and find me on social media. But Susan Meier is SUSAN MEIER. Meier Studios, my website.

Adam: Excellent. So the electrify? What was that? 

Susan: Electrify Your Work. 

Adam: Okay, is that dot com?

Susan: Dot com. 

Adam: Okay, and then Perfect. All right. We’ll put both of those in the show notes. Susan, thank you so much for Being here, this is very, very helpful.

Susan: Thanks for having me, Adam. this was fun.

Adam: Yeah. So again, if you would like to see if Susan and her team can help you with creating a brand, brand strategy for your business, feel free to reach out. I’ll put those two links in the show notes. Thank you so much for listening. And remember, the goal of your business should be to make more profit than last year and turn that profit into cash that you get to keep. Thanks for listening.