Image Credit: Mary Gardella
Inspiring brands to grow and laying down strategies to help them is what makes Melanie tick. She operates at a higher frequency, dreams bigger than most, and claims to be a little nuts. We caught up with Melanie ahead of her keynote address at Big Digital Adelaide.
Woj: Welcome to Adelaide, Melanie.
Melanie: Thank you.
Woj: Thank you for joining me.
What’s something a little bit nuts that you’ve done recently?
Melanie: I jumped on an airplane and 26 hours later ended up here. I guess that’s a little nuts. Something else I have done recently is I jumped out of an airplane, which actually you don’t jump out of an airplane, you fall out of an airplane and drift down to earth. So that was the one of the most recent nuts things that I’ve done.
Woj: Where did you do that?
Melanie: In Virginia.
Woj: Okay, cool.
What inspired you to start Sisarina, which I have learned is a combination of your sister and ballerina?
Woj: An imaginary friend. Talk me through what inspired you to start Sisarina after running a web business, and some of the lessons you learned that helped with the business today, especially how your web experience has helped with branding.
Melanie: Goodness! That’s a mouthful.
Melanie: So I had Sisarina started in 2009 when I was 28 and the market crashed in the U.S. And basically what I realised was that I needed to be able to work for myself in order to keep making money. So I started it as a web design company, and slowly it turned into a branding agency, but by the end it had become a full fledged brand strategy agency. So about a year ago, I decided to restart it as a brand strategy agency under the same name, doing the same stuff, same kinds of plans, just not doing web design anymore.
Woj: Yeah, that makes sense. I was in the same boat when we started Kwasi Studios. We’d built a few websites – my background is in web development – but it’s in search marketing and inbound marketing where I felt more alignment.
Melanie: And you feel much happier in your purpose when you’re doing that. And I realised every time I did a workshop, I walked out and I was like, “Ooh, can I do that again?”; and I was like, “I never say that about websites. Maybe I should quit doing that.”
Woj: Yeah. Websites are like building a house. You build one and move on to the next one.
What does a day look like as Chief Inspiration Officer? How do you live your values daily and how do you encourage your team to rock their brand?
Image Credit: Mary Gardella
Melanie: Oh goodness! So, my typical day is not ever typical, I’m not very good at typical. One day, I’ll be speaking at a conference all day, and then the next day I’ll be sitting at my office in a pair of shorts curled up in my chair with my dog and my whole team rocking whatever we’re doing, and we’re laughing about something, or heads down and writing new content for something or writing a proposal or rewriting a whole presentation. So there is no such thing as a typical day for me. And it’s usually six to seven days a week…
Woj: So there’s no routines?
Melanie: Oh gosh, no. I have my morning routines and my evening routines but…
Woj: You run, don’t you?
Melanie: Oh yeah. I am up early every morning. I have morning rituals I’m trying to get better at and I also like to go running or work out or do something to make my brain not crazy. The other questions you asked were about our values and how my team lives them.
We have a really solid set of core values that we talk about every day. So being able to have things like dream bigger, and talking about how we’re dreaming bigger today? It helps us to keep our core values at the forefront of mind.
Plus, building inspiration is one of our values. So being able to do that for each other is such a huge deal. If someone’s having a hard time or going through something, we’re able to help them with that also. So the whole team is totally living it.
Woj: I love how your values aren’t just words but sort of like little phrases, little nuggets of inspiration.
Melanie: Yeah, we even have them painted on the wall in chalk. It’s our daily reminder and every week we actually make everyone say, “I saw so and so living the core value ‘blank’ when they did this.” So it could be a client, it could be one of us, it could be you yourself…
Woj: It’s like a call to action.
Melanie: Yeah, a reminder.
Tell me about the 7,000 mile journey you took across the U.S.A. where you explored 18 brands. What were some of the key things you learned on tour?
Image Credit: Sisirina Blog
Melanie: Oh goodness! I learned mostly that branding’s really humans talking to humans about humans. It’s all storytelling, and it doesn’t matter how big you are or how small you are. You basically just have to run your company like humans work there, and so many companies don’t do that.
The reason I did the whole ‘Live Your Brand‘ journey was because I heard all the same stories over and over. Nike, Under Armour and Apple, we’ve all heard those stories. I wanted to hear new ones from the little people. Little and big, but still the little people that are everyday entrepreneurs who are always at the top of everyone’s list to interview.
Woj: Was there anything that made you go, “Aha!”?
Melanie: Yeah. I had specific questions, and I started writing the stories. I had to rewrite them three times because Entrepreneur Magazine wanted to print them, and they have to have them a certain way, which means you really dig into your notes every time you rewrite. But what I realised out of all of it was I didn’t walk in thinking that’s what I was going to get, but I totally walked out with the “it’s all about the humans.”
It’s the communication of the humans. It’s how you build the culture around the humans. It has nothing to do with your customers necessarily. It has more to do with the people inside the company, and that affects the humans on the outside of the company. Oh my goodness! Branding is all human.
What are some common core values that align the best brands?
Melanie: Oh man! It’s never great customer service. I can tell you all the ones that it’s not, like “trust” and “integrity.” Blah! Those are givens. Some of my favourite ones are ones that we’ve helped our clients come up with, and some are like spark magic. And you’re like, “What? I want to do that!” You know, stuff that really gets people to go, “Oh! Cool! I want to do that!”
The key is to inspire people. So you hire people with those core values and you get clients with them also. You have to get your company to run a certain way because of those core values.
Image Credit: Live Your Brand Tour Tumblr
Woj: We’re actually working on our core values at the moment as we’ve had a few staff changes recently. And we’re trying to redefine some of them to fit our current team. I think we’ve got a pretty good fit, but it’s so important to have the right people in the team.
Did you encounter any examples of brands not working because they didn’t have values in place?
Image Credit: Live Your Brand Tour Tumblr
Melanie: Oh yeah. I didn’t just interview 18 companies. I did 26 in total, but 18 of them made the cut.
Woj: So it’s kind of like that show “The Profit,” have you seen that?
Melanie: I have, yes.
Woj: It’s like, you know, there’s some good guys, there’s some bad guys…
Melanie: I just didn’t want to tell a bad story. So I figured I’d not ruin people’s reputations to do that. Some of them I was just like, “Eww, this isn’t okay. Good luck.” But with core values usually, I mean just even how companies are running, you’d notice the ones that aren’t running very well cause they’re not thinking about people, they’re just thinking about profits. They’re not thinking about how they can inspire the people working for them.
Your staff are the people who are going to get you more clients. The people inside your company, they’re the ones who are going to help you talk about it. So, why wouldn’t you want to inspire these people? They’re your marketing department, every single one of them.
Woj: Yeah, they have to live it, don’t they?
Melanie: Every day.
Image Credit: Live Your Brand Tour Tumblr
Woj: I find this interesting. One of Airbnb’s core values is to be a cereal entrepreneur. This was to remind their employees about the need to constantly think outside of the box. So they created a cereal box during a political campaign, and then sold it. They ended up making more money from this than they did from the early Airbnb service, and it helped them get out of debt.
How important is it for brands to tell their story?
Melanie: Well basically, it’s thinking about people as intrapreneurs. You don’t want to hire entrepreneurs. I mean, entrepreneurs don’t want to be intrapreneurs, they don’t want to be employees. But the ex-entrepreneurs, the ones who couldn’t make it work on their own, like my number two for example. She was an entrepreneur for five years and it didn’t work, and now she loves being an intrapreneur, because she knows how to run a business, but she doesn’t want to be responsible for the end game. But when it comes to brand storytelling, every person in the whole company has to know the story.
Recently I was in the car with one of my new co-workers, this is about three weeks into hiring her, and she was reading through one of our client surveys that we had asked them before we went to the meeting. So she’s reading the client surveys and sees that half the people in the company couldn’t tell where the company came from. So I asked my co-worker, I said, “Okay, so where did we come from?” She told me the entire story of where we started, where we went, and where we’re going. I’m like, “Okay, you’ve been here three weeks, and these guys don’t know after being there for eight years.” That’s a problem.
Woj: I’m looking forward to seeing your talk…
In Boston in 2014, you said, “Your brand is built on what everyone is saying about you, not what you say about yourself.” Can you expand on that?
Melanie: So, people are talking about you, and as much as you might be telling everyone what you want them to say, they’re going to talk about you however they want. So does it match what you want them to say? Is it something that you want them to share with the world? And how are you telling them that that’s what you want them to say?
Woj: Yeah. And I guess, you know, when that really works well is when you’ve got brands where you refer to the brand name as an object like…
You also mentioned that we should replace B2B and B2C with H2H, why is that?
Melanie: Right. So the B2B and B2C, it’s not businesses talking to businesses or businesses talking to consumers.
Are you a consumer? I’m not a consumer, I’m a human. So instead of boxing our consumers up you think about the core of being human, and how you’re a human and you’re talking to other humans. As much as you might be your business brand, you’re still a human and there’s a human behind their business.
Image Credit: Live Your Brand Tour Tumblr
Woj: I remember when I first started Kwasi Studios, I’d use Kwasi Studios as my Twitter account, and the engagement just sucked. No one wants to engage with a brand. And I was like, “Oh, just be Woj Kwasi” And, “Hello!” People started interacting.
Melanie: Yeah, I get more interaction on my personal Twitter than I do on my business one, but if the business likes or retweets something, people are like, “Woah! That’s so cool!”
Woj: It’s a whole different level, isn’t it?
Woj: So you have a very strong human focus in your work and philosophy.
Is creating content and websites for humans better for SEO than creating them for search engines?
Melanie: Yes, yes and yes, because humans are the only ones interacting with it. You can get the best possible search ranking and get people to your site, but if your site sucks, it doesn’t matter. It’s great that you got all of this traffic, but if it doesn’t read like a human wants it to read, then they’re not going to stay.
So I would say make sure that your site is really interesting, and make sure that people want to engage with it. And that it captures your brand voice. Make sure it sounds like a human talking to a human, then rock the SEO on the other side of it and bring them into a site that actually will engage them with something.
Do we have to work harder to keep a human focus in the digital age?
Melanie: We do, because we’re stuck staring at our phones all the time. We’re spending time in front of each other with laptops between us and we’re looking at our phones all day while we’re interacting, and the introverts are very happy about this. And even the extroverts are joyous, cause they get to talk to more people.
Woj: And the chiropractors are doing a great ’cause we’re stuck at our desks all day…
Melanie: Oh man. My poor neck… but I feel like it needs to be more person to person, human to human, so that we can actually have real…I mean, I need a hug sometimes.
Woj: There’s no such thing as digital hugs.
Melanie: No, as much as it might seem like there are sometimes. It’s like God hugging me, and maybe like, “Great, thanks dude.” Impossible.
Woj: It might feel a little bit warm and fuzzy but…
Melanie: But like, it’s like my imaginary friend hugging me. No.
How does online make it easier to brand for humans, and how does it make it harder?
Melanie: It makes it harder because it’s a barrier. It makes it harder because most people don’t know how to get their humanity across online. When people come to our site they’re like, “It’s so cool! It sounds exactly like you. Oh my gosh” And I’m just like, “What? It should. Why wouldn’t it?”
But why isn’t it like that for everybody?
It’s so easy for us to interact with each other, but we get stuck behind screens all the time, and we’re forgetting how to interact with other people. Then we go, “Hi, what do you do?” Don’t ask that question. Ask something like, “What are you doing this weekend?” That gets somebody talking about something they’re passionate about. I don’t want to talk about work. Just as much as I love branding, sometimes I want to tell you what I did on the weekend instead.
Woj: Okay, I understand. Interview is over. I can read between the lines.
Melanie: Just kidding. I get it.
Are there any significant differences in the way search engines understand brands and the ways humans understand them?
Melanie: Search engines are thinking about the humans. I mean, they’re watching what the humans are doing, and they’re seeing how they interact with it.
SEO is totally built on human interactions, so it doesn’t really matter what the search engines want. I feel like it’s all about what we want, and how we read it, and how we’re able to view it. And how most of us are looking at stuff on our phones now, where everything has to be optimised for a phone instead of a computer. I feel like everything needs to be super optimised for humans.
Woj: I believe the best brands focus on user experience, which is an outcome of the product or service plus the customer or client. Apple do this well, where they focus on you being a conductor of an orchestra rather than simply using a music app on the iPad.
Is there a brand that you think really nails branding online, and what do they do that sets them apart?
Melanie: Dude, Airbnb totally nails the user experience, 100%. Like from the app to the website to everything. Look at how Airbnb is laid out, and how it captures people’s attention, and how it gets people into the site and through. So I love Airbnb. I don’t even want to use other websites, because Airbnb is just so slick and easy.
What comes first, living your principles and have a brand grow out of that, or defining your brand and living by that?
Melanie: You can’t define your brand if you actually don’t have a definition for your brand. I mean, even if you don’t understand what it is, you still have a brand, everyone has a brand. And if you’re just starting your business and you have no idea, your brand is you. So typically if I have to start working with you, I would sit down with a Define Your Brand workshop and we’d have to define what your brand is, whether you’ve been in business for 30 years or you’re just starting and you’re not really sure what that is. But regardless, you have a brand, it’s what do you want your brand to be? And typically it’s about thinking in the future.
I worked with the Mathematical Association of America recently, and we actually redefined their brand after 101 years. I sat down with them and asked them, “Where do you want to be in the future?” And they said that they wanted to be the place where every mathematician could come.The one group in the whole world where people would come for math. That was huge for them. Because they aren’t that right now, but they want to be. So it’s thinking far enough into the future and going, “Okay, what do we need to do from now till then to be able to get there?”
Woj: Just out of curiosity…
How many times do you think you’ve said the word ‘brand’ in the last…?
Melanie: Hundreds of thousands I’m sure, I don’t know. But branding actually only became a real term five to seven years ago. I mean, when I first started in branding it was identity management. We were talking about logos and identity and icons. We weren’t talking about a holistic brand. There were few brands, even ten years ago, that could say that they were a solid brand as in the whole company was branded. Where now, these tiny companies are popping up all over the place taking over Fortune 500 companies.
I mean Kodak went out of business, because they had a brand, but their brand never changed with the times, it never kept up with it. Instagram killed them. Instagram. Of all things, Instagram killed Kodak.
People ask me, “What’s the one most important thing to do when you have a brand?” I’m like, “You have to have the basis for who you are and what you stand for.” Because if you get a great logo with a white piece of paper, awesome. That’s a brand, fine, but it’s what’s behind that brand that’s really the brand for the whole thing.
What are your favourite bands who rock it with great brands?
Melanie: Ooh. One of my favorite bands is Needtobreathe. They’re a Christian southern gospel rock band. And I mean they definitely sound like that. But Mumford and Sons has a solid brand. They recently started taking their fiddle out. So it’s not in there anymore, which is very different for them, but you still have that sound of Mumford and Sons and just their brand behind it. But I like Adele. I mean, she’s depressed. All the time. You want to be depressed, just listen to Adele. But you know, that’s her brand.
The music industry and the car industry are the two biggest brand building empires. I talk about BMW and Mini all the time in my presentations because they have a club, and people get in that club, and they want to be a part of that club. BMW drivers just like look at each other like, “yeah, you’re jealous.” “yeah, you’re jealous too.”
Woj: It’s so true.
Melanie: It’s all about getting them into a club of some sort. That’s how bands do it…that’s how Lady Gaga built her fan base, the little monsters. You want people to be in a club, and those two industries have nailed it.
What’s the next most important thing you want to learn?
Melanie: I want to stop learning. Just for a minute. I realised recently that my second strength on StrengthsFinder is input, which is a great strength and a great weakness all at the same time. I’m always putting information in my head, categorising it, then keeping it for other things. So if you wanted to talk about something, Q and A is my favourite, because I just pull it out of the little archive, and start spitting it out all over the place. But right now I just feel like I need to take a break. There’s so much information out there about so many things. I’m like, I don’t even want to learn anything anymore. Oh, and recently I’ve been learning about podcasting. We just launched a podcast about maybe five weeks ago this week.
Woj: Nice, I’ll have to tune in.
Melanie: It’s pretty amazing, it’s called Adventures in Branding, and it’s been a love-hate thing for me, because I didn’t want to learn a whole new thing, but I knew it was something I needed to do in order to get the word out more about how to build your personal brand and how to build your life. I know I’m being called to do this kind of a thing and it’s not part of my business, but it’s something I needed to do elsewhere. So that is the thing that I’m learning now. And as much as there are articles about it, no one’s really figured out the secret. It’s usually that you have to have a pretty big audience to be able to do something like that.
Woj: You’ve got to start somewhere I guess…
Melanie: Everybody starts somewhere.
Woj: I’m a big fan of Lewis Howes’ podcast.
Melanie: Oh yeah, The School of Greatness.
Woj: Yeah, and I’ve listened to like 300 or so episodes. I like seeing the journey and his progression.
Melanie: Yeah, I started listening to him a year and a half ago when I started halfmarathon training…
Woj: There’s some great guests.
Image Credit: Mary Gardella
So finally, what’s your vision for next five years for Sisarina as a business, and Melanie as an individual?
Melanie: Oh, goodness. So my goal in the next five years is to speak in front of 20,000 people in a stadium. So I have some pretty big goals and I just realised that I wanted to be able to share the message of rocking your life and I feel like that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
My business, as much as I focus on business branding, it’s really about the humans behind it, as I keep saying. It’s human to human. But it’s also about helping intrapreneurs, bosses and all employees figure out how to rock their own lives, not just their business. Because if they’re rocking their lives, they’re rocking their businesses.
So my biggest goal is to kind of build an empire, like everyone wants to do, but be able to build it so that other people get such huge changes from it that it’s not about having my name attached to it.
Does that mean everyone can live their own brand and be what they want to be?
Melanie:Yeah, be who you want to be and be able to know how to do that. I realised recently that’s not something a lot of people really know, and that’s really sad to me. So I want to make sure that other people really understand how to do that.
Woj: Yeah, I’ve just started speaking. I did a conference last week, and I think my content was great, but I think I was just petrified. I couldn’t be myself. My wife said that I didn’t seem approachable or friendly to the audience.
Melanie: But she still loves you.
Woj: That’s right…
What’s something I can do to express myself on stage and be who I am?
Melanie: Well, I actually sat down with a client who has given very few talks. So he came to me and he literally outlined a 15 minute presentation for 90 minute talk. I was like, “you have 90 minutes to give this. What are you going to do?”
So we mapped it out, but also made him practice his intro and exits a lot, along with all of his transitions. It’s not about the content, he knows the content. Like, you knew the content of your speech, but if you don’t sound like yourself, you’re never going to get through it. So the one big tip that I learned a long time ago was start your talk with something you don’t have to say.
So tomorrow, I’m going to be starting my talk and I don’t get nervous anymore about speaking, but sometimes it’s nice to get out there because you get so amped up out about it you might start talking too fast, which I do a lot. So I get up there and I’ll usually say something that’s practised and rehearsed, not just made up on the spot. If you say, “good morning. How was your bla bla bla?” then you lose track of what you were going to say. So always walk up and say the same thing and know exactly what that sentence is and then start a video or something else that will get other people engaged. That’s my one big tip. Did you practice beforehand?
Woj: Not a huge amount.
Melanie: That’s a problem.
Woj: That makes sense.
Melanie: Yeah, so TED speakers practice at least 25 times before they give their talk.
Woj: Yeah, that makes sense.
Melanie: It’s all about the intro, the outro and the transitions. It’s not about the content itself, because sometimes you just play with that, and as long as you have good slides you can nail that. So typically I’ll put my screen in front of me on the podium just in case there’s no monitor. Then even though the slides are behind me, I’m always looking at that. I can glance off to see what’s coming next that way. Oh, and never stand behind the podium. Never, ever stand behind the podium. Get rid of the podium if at all possible.
Woj: Excellent, great tip. Well on that note, thanks so much for taking the time and having a chat with me.
Melanie: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Woj: I hope you enjoy your stay in Australia and we really look forward to seeing you on stage tomorrow.
Melanie: I’m excited!
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