This week, a branding maven learns how best to market her own offerings. —Dan Beyers 

The entrepreneur

A brand strategist and writer, Amber Williams launched her marketing agency, PunkyFlair, just three months after giving birth to her son, Carter. She hit the ground running. In just one year, the Florida A & M University and Northwestern graduate secured contracts with feminine-facing brands like Camille Rose Naturals and the niche spa collection, Bekura Beauty. Indeed, the business took off so quickly Williams never quite had a chance to focus on exactly what kind of work she wanted to do.

The pitch

PunkyFlair specializes in shaping lifestyle brands near the start of their formation. The agency views those beginning stages as the most crucial time to develop and craft a brand’s identity. “It’s a crowded marketplace! What sets a commodity product line apart from one with a cult following that can cut through the clutter is branding,” Williams says.

Her agency takes a half science, half art approach to building brands by first analyzing the market environment. How does this product or offering solve a problem? For whom? What percentage of the market will likely buy into this? After crunching the numbers and determining the opportunity, “the fun begins,” Williams says. Her team of strategists then work to undercover the brand’s values that resonate most with the target consumer. This serves as the foundation for crafting the brand story and shaping its verbal and visual identity. “It’s all about the emotional connection that a brand can foster with its audience,” Williams explains, “That is what attracts, keeps, and up-sells the customer for a lifetime. A product or service can be replicated, but a strong brand cannot.”

The challenge

Despite winning early contracts, Williams struggled to snag the kind of engagements she really coveted. She found that most of the small and medium-sized businesses she wanted to help didn’t have the budget for such comprehensive attention. So she would settle for bits and pieces of work. One contract might be for social media, another for public relations, and another for only brand communication. Her desire to create a lasting impact over the life of a brand conflicted with the limited scope of her involvement. She frequently suggested the creation of “brand books” and “messaging guides” to clients whose brand identities had never fully been developed. She knew that in order for her to do her job effectively, those first steps had to be taken. But, she couldn’t afford to offer free advice, and her clients couldn’t afford to pay more.

The advice

Williams turned to Steve Vesce, a marketing expert and mentor at the business mentoring organization SCORE.

“This often happens in a professional services setting. You take on clients with different needs in different industries in an initial quest to build your portfolio.” Vesce said. “As the business matures, it must decide whether it wants to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ service provider or a ‘master-of-one’ shop.”

“What do you want PunkyFlair to be known for? Who do you want to work with? What unique value can you add? Why should clients invest in you?”

The questions were simple enough, but the answer would likely shape the future of her agency’s reputation, Vesce said. Williams mighthave to turn down financial opportunities in the short-term in order to give longer-term solutions for clients. This in turn would provide future bottom-line rewards for her own business.

The reaction

Williams began by conducting research to understand how business owners viewed the necessity of branding and their willingness to invest in a service that had a difficult-to-measure return. She mapped out a “brand creation journey,” pinpointing where and how her expertise could have the greatest impact. The result was a tiered package offering that was designed to meet business owners in different stages of their brand evolution:

1. The first tier, a brand-building workshop that targets business owners in their first two to five years of operation, will offer an abbreviated version of the agency’s expertise through activities dedicated to helping business owners uncover their brand story and fine tune their messaging.

2. The second tier, a hands-on offering, allows PunkyFlair more control in shaping the direction of a brand from conception. Everything from market research to logo development and website design is conducted over a three -to-six-month period.

3. The most comprehensive package targets mature businesses looking to overhaul their image. Challenges facing her clients include targeting a new customer base or shifting the perception of an existing brand.

“Steve helped bring some much-needed clarity to my agency’s direction,”Williams said.

SCORE is a nonprofit association dedicated to entrepreneur education. Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? The Greater Washington DC Chapter provides confidential counseling and mentoring from more than 50 executives across the region. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com or request a mentor at www.washingtondc.score.org.