In this Corner Office article, Cyndy Trivella, Events Manager with TalentCulture, spoke with Brian Carter, Founder and CEO of The Carter Group and Co-author of the best-selling book The Cowbell Principle. Brian is one of the most innovative people in business, and a marketing and branding genius. He went from a state of unemployment to building one of the biggest and most successful non-traditional agencies in the social marketing space.
Cyndy and Brian talked about the struggles people face with marketing, managing their brands, the challenges of business ownership, and value of innovating responsibly. In line with our series, this article will highlight the perspective and experience of someone who has made the move to the “corner office.”
Cyndy: Brian, I can understand why you easily engage with people. You always have a thoughtful way of explaining things and I know our readership will appreciate your comments. So let’s begin with you. What are the top challenges you face in your current role?
Brian: We’re currently facing growth challenges in my consultancy, the Brian Carter Group. We’re hiring and streamlining our back-office, CRM, accounting and client onboarding processes. And because we don’t want to use the typical agency model, we emphasize only having experts doing our clients’ work. So we grow personnel slowly, which means a lot of work for each of our experts. This means morale, communication and efficiency are critical to our clients’ success and to ours. I work directly on our communication systems and make sure we stick to processes that will keep us efficient.
Cyndy: I applaud you for breaking the mold on the stereotypical agency model and it sounds like a lot of high-quality work is being produced because of it.
So in full transparency, the thing that brought you to my attention, well over a year ago, was your book, The Cowbell Principle. You and your co-author, Garrison Wynn, take an interesting approach to offering career advice in the book using the cowbell to help people recognize their unique gifts, their personal brand and how to capitalize on them to find success and happiness. So tell me why is finding and sharing our personal cowbell so difficult?
Brian: A cowbell is a passion, talent or skill that you enjoy and so do others. To start, a lot of people don’t develop their skills, or don’t know what their talent is, or don’t pursue their talent. And sometimes they have emotional hang-ups about the thing they love or pursuing what they love.
Conversely, there are people who believe they should pursue what they love no matter what effect it has on others— that’s not a cowbell either. It has to be something that is valuable to others.
Honestly, a lot of people want to do “good-enough” work and go home and watch Netflix. I feel that temptation, too. Finding or developing a cowbell requires a desire for greatness and a rejection of mediocrity. If you’re not driven by something, or toward something, you won’t excel and you won’t stand out.
Cyndy: What you’ve just said is very impactful, especially about not understanding our skills, strengths and gifts. No doubt, some people struggle with brand identity and marketing their attributes. What’s odd is, I see this same problem affecting companies and in many ways they suffer with the same issues. So why do companies struggle with marketing their brand?
Brian: First off, a lot of companies don’t have a brand, or at least not an exceptional, interesting, developed one. And just because you created a logo doesn’t mean you have a brand. There are a lot of crappy logos out there.
Branding is about identity. Who are you? Who is your company? How are you unique? Just as with the cowbell question, a lot of people don’t have an answer to the uniqueness question. They aren’t doing anything unique.
It takes work to find that thing. Exploration. A commitment to a difficult search within.
And once you find it, the guts to stick to that brand. Not wanting to be all things to all people. Being willing to turn some people off in order to turn others on. That’s scary, it really is. But leaders need to have that kind of courage. And when you don’t have courage, you don’t have a great brand.
Once you have that brand, marketing it is easy — if you know what it is, you should be able to convey it in video and blog posts and other media. If you can’t, you may not really know what your brand is yet.
These days, it’s a good idea to let customer feedback influence how your brand develops. When you see what Facebook posts they like and don’t like, which ones they share or don’t share that tells you which parts of your brand resonate with customers and which ones don’t. If you want your brand to move customers to take action, you need to pay attention to how they respond to it.
Cyndy: Great advice to people and companies, alike. Without a unique value proposition, it’s impossible to distinguish one person or company from another. So I have a last question. If innovation keeps companies relevant and timely, why do some companies and employees believe business should continue as “we’ve always done it that way?”
Brian: You should never innovate just because something is new. The innovation has to be better than the old way, and the benefits of adopting the innovation have to outweigh the costs of changing.
Every time you change how things are done in your company, you create inefficiencies, even if they’re temporary. And you may find that some of your employees just can’t adjust. They might quit or you might have to let them go, which is costly. And further, there’s a cost to replacing them.
So it’s important to ask if the innovation is worth it. Is it going to last? Who is going to have trouble adapting to it? How big of a problem will that be?
It’s always hard to get people to change, and there are smart ways to get them to adapt, so you’ll never be able to avoid the grumbling and inefficiencies that come with change, but make sure the change is worth it before you implement it.
Cyndy: Change, even when for the better, can be scary for many people. Weighing the pros and cons makes a lot of sense when considering the benefits and consequences of innovating.
Brian, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for your time and insights.
Brian: I appreciate it and enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.