Create your ideal customer profile


By Deb Gabor

What’s the one thing that should always be at the center of your brand?

It isn’t design, color schemes, or masterful copywriting.

It’s your customer.

Some business owners have a hard time understanding this, but your brand isn’t about you. Your brand exists to bolster your customer’s self-image, lead them to achieve their goals, and help them become the kind of person they want to be.

To accomplish this requires you to think carefully about who your customer is. You need to understand them better than they understand themselves.

First, ignore traditional marketing advice Traditional marketing has always taught us to think about segmenting and dividing markets.

When you’re bringing a new product to market, the traditional textbook methodology is to think about who are all the potential people who could possibly buy this product, and then segment based on the potential use cases, the possible purchase channels, and their reasons for buying and not buying the product.

In other words, traditional marketing methods tell us to identify as many potential audiences as we can and then divide them further based upon demographics or shopping behaviors or desires and attitudes.

Using that old way of thinking often means taking your brand message and dividing it rather than multiplying it. Segment marketing suggests that you’re going to create a different brand experience for each of those different audiences. When you start dividing and segmenting your market, you start creating more and more marketing messages that are dissimilar from each other. If not managed, that practice can dilute your brand’s impact.

I’m not against segment marketing. In fact, part of my company does quantitative psychographic research with the goal of creating and identifying market segments and then coming up with marketing strategies and tactics for companies to go after those segments.

But when you create your brand, you need to look to what’s similar among all of those segments to create a singular brand for a singular customer archetype. That customer archetype is called the ideal customer, and it’s an in-depth profile of the customer who is most highly predictive of a brand’s success.

Who is your ideal customer? The ideal customer archetype is something that serves as a guiding principle for everything you do in branding and gives you a singular, highly identifiable customer persona toward which to point your brand’s story.

The ideal customer archetype is a fleshed out, detailed, hypothetical profile of your absolute ideal customer.

This doesn’t need to encompass anyone who might engage with your brand. I like to think of the ideal customer archetype as the profile of that single customer who will spend the most money with you over the longest time because he or she has so strongly bought-in to your brand experience.

Create your ideal customer profile This is where your creative skills come into play. After you’ve spoken to enough customers and people in your social networks who use the product, it’s time to write down a description of your ideal customer.

Close your eyes and conjure up a vivid image of who the perfect person is to buy your brand. Who are they? How old are they? Are they male or female? Married or single? What is their income?

Conjure up an image of who that person is, and write down everything you can think of.

Once you’ve written down everything you can think of, dig deeper.

The best trick I’ve found is to try to imagine his or her lifestyle. For instance, for a hypothetical online grocer in the Northeast, the ideal customer might be a thirty-five-year-old mom with two school-age kids at home.

That’s great as far as demographics go, but we can dig deeper by picturing the rest of her life. She works thirty hours a week outside of the home. She lives in the New York suburbs. She shops for groceries once a week in a big shopping trip, and then she does fill-in shopping every other day. She’s a technology user — she has a smartphone and a laptop and a tablet. She wears high-end casual clothes with designer labels when she shops. She carries a gigantic pocketbook. She keeps a yoga mat in her expensive European SUV, and she does not like minivans. Her total household income is around $200,000.

Now dial in your vision even further. Imagine her getting out of her SUV wearing one of her pairs of high-end designer jeans that cost around $200. She’s wearing a puffy down vest from North Face because that’s what all the other moms are wearing when they pick up their kids from private school.

Continue to go through the process of envisioning who this person is and what their life looks like. Write it all down. Even draw a picture of her if you have to.

Identify the Ideal Customer’s Needs Once you’ve created this ideal customer profile, the next step is to think about that person’s needs.

This is the hardest part of the ideal customer archetype process. This is the part where you have to really dig in.

Let’s go back to our suburban, working mom with two kids. From that detailed description, I can probably deduce some of her needs. She needs to feel like she is the best possible parent she can be. She also needs to look like the best parent in comparison to other moms at her kids’ school. Since she works outside the home, she likely feels the strain of balancing her job and spending time with her kids at this critical age. So she has needs for activities and services and products that give her as much time as possible to spend with her kids in the way that she wants to that also makes her feel like she is fulfilling her potential as their mom.

We also know that she values quality in the products that she buys because she doesn’t have time to drive around town making returns. In thinking about food, for instance, she probably wants to have the healthiest, most nutritious meals she can get for her children without the need to do a lot of shopping or preparation. She certainly doesn’t have time to shop at multiple grocery stores, and sometimes she doesn’t have the time to cook everything that comes to the table for a family meal. However, she still wants to feel like she’s the provider of tonight’s dinner and that the meal meets her very high standards.

Understanding your ideal customer in depth enables you to understand what that person needs most from you and your brand. By getting inside the head of your ideal customer, you’re able to extract from it the story that the customer wants to tell themselves and the world about who they are.

Eventually you’ll get a clear image of who your ideal customer is and, ultimately, whom your brand is for.

The ideal customer profile exercise This is great, but how do you actually do it? How do you figure out who your ideal customer is?

The ideal customer archetype exercise is ideally done in a group brainstorming session with the staff in your company who are most involved in customer-facing roles.

Don’t just invite the top executives! Often it’s your salespeople, customer service reps, returns processors, and delivery drivers who are closest to the customers. They actually know more about your customers than your marketing team ever could.

What I’d recommend is bringing a group together with a big roll of butcher paper, and dividing up into smaller groups to answer the following questions:

  • Who is our ideal customer?
  • What does their average day look like?
  • What are the needs they’re looking to fulfill?

This seems easy enough, but companies often struggle with these branding exercises because the conclusions are sometimes difficult to swallow. It’s hard to leave behind the myths and beliefs that are part of the company history.

But, ultimately, this ideal customer process is extremely galvanizing for companies.

I’ll give you an example. One of the companies that I worked with for a long time was iVillage.com. Back in its heyday, iVillage was probably the largest online destination for women. At the time I started working with the company, it had just become part of NBC Universal. With a mid-2000s onslaught of “mom media,” iVillage struggled to remain relevant and knew it had to reinvent itself in order to compete. Additionally, the proliferation of highly focused digital media sites in passion verticals, such as food, entertainment, parenting, fashion, and beauty, was stealing their readers.

By late 2011, iVillage was struggling to figure out how to both narrow its focus and grow traffic. As part of a branding engagement, I had them do the ideal customer exercise.

For iVillage’s ideal customer exercise, we did exactly the process described above. My team brought out a big roll of butcher paper and cut it into six-foot lengths. We divided up the staff of about one hundred employees into smaller groups. We gave each group markers, art supplies, magazines, photographs, glue, and scissors. Then I gave them the assignment of creating an image of iVillage’s ideal customer, using all that stuff.

One group actually had one of their team members lay down on the butcher paper, and they traced her body with magic marker. They gave her big eyes and big ears because they wanted to communicate, “Our ideal customer is somebody who has a curiosity about the world around her and is seeking information from other people.”

Another group drew their ideal customer as a woman with a gigantic pocketbook filled with items from different categories, such as parenting, beauty, fashion, and health. Their idea was, “Our ideal customer is somebody who is super engaged and productive in her world and needs inspiration, information, and connections in all of these different areas of her life.”

Another group drew this Picassoesque Cubist version of a woman with five arms and six legs and ten eyes. This was their version of a woman who is doing a lot of things at once.

Each team presented their ideal customer diagrams to the rest of the teams. Then I challenged them as a larger group to combine those traits to come up with a singular ideal customer profile. That group of one hundred people used all of those inputs to create the North Star version of their ideal customer.

Although it was difficult for them to give up some of their company’s tribal knowledge and assumptions around who their audience should be, it was extremely galvanizing for them to narrow their focus to align on a singular profile.

What’s next? The ideal customer profile is just one exercise I recommend for companies to align their focus on exactly who their customer is and what deep needs they are fulfilling.

For all the tips, tricks and exercises we use with our Sol Marketing clients, as well as a deeper understanding of how to think about your customers’ needs, check out my book, Branding is Sex.


Branding is Sex: Get Your Customers Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything


If you hate making money and the feeling of a mind-blowing, toe curling orgasm—stay far away from Deb Gabor's new book.

In Branding is Sex: Get Your Customers Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything, the Sol Marketing founder and "brand dominatrix" explains how proper brand positioning gets your customers in the mood.

In just seven short and sweet chapters, Deb covers these juicy topics and more:

How the most successful brands in the world get their customers laid How to never fail The Bullshit Test Who your brand should hop in the sack with (and it’s not who you think)

Don’t rot in the brand graveyard like Blackberry, Oldsmobile, Circuit City, Compaq, Blockbuster Video, and Pets.com.

Get your sexy back and move from being “just friends” with your customers to being long-term “friends with benefits.”

Branding is Sex provides you with a concrete foundation and a basic how-to plan for building or re-igniting your brand without needing a PhD.

Buy your print or e-reader copy here, or read more about it at brandingissex.com

Podcast: The 3 Big Questions Your Business Needs to Answer when Building Your Brand

Deb was recently interviewed by Tim Hamilton for the new Praxent Commanding Business podcast -- listen to it for a mini branding MBA, Sol style! Listen to the podcast in iTunes

Commanding Business Podcast by Tim Hamilton, CEO of Praxent

EP018: The 3 Big Questions Your Business Needs to Answer when Building Your Brand with Deb Gabor

Released Oct 13, 2015

From leadership to management and marketing to innovation, Commanding Business covers a variety of topics with an aim to uncover actionable takeaways you can implement in your own organization today.

Episode synopsis: To become a financial asset for your company a brand needs to have an essence, a promise and a personality. Building your brand requires sustainable differentiators, scientific research and most importantly, focuses on your customer’s point of view. Your brand should also closely resemble the strategy of the business to benefit your end customer. There are three questions your organization needs to answer to achieve top of mind awareness within your business sector. When you have answered the three questions you have the criteria for the top of your brand value pyramid.


Building a kick-ass brand that wins

Sol Marketing was proud to participate in Austin Startup Week last week and share our brand love with a room full of startup founders and entrepreneurs! Our interactive session detailed the importance of branding for startups and guided them through practical tips for defining their company's core brand DNA. If you missed out, check out the slides and highlights from attendees! In this session you'll:

  • Learn what a brand is and why it's important for startups
  • Understand how a brand informs future business strategies
  • Know when startups should start building their brand
  • Learn practical "hacks" to accelerate the process of defining your brand and articulating it to customers
See the slides on SlideShare: Building a kick-ass brand that wins from Deb Gabor



The shoe fetish continues


That’s not what I owe in payments on my car.  Nor is that my Central Austin property tax bill. That’s how much money I’ve spent on shoes at Zappos.com in the past 10 years.

About a year ago, I did a blog post about my love for Zappos. Since some time has passed, and my taste in shoes has become decidedly more selective and expensive, I felt it was time for me to give you an update.

Check out this year's Zappos order chart below.  You can see, while my 2013 average order size went down, my total number of orders went up. Apparently, during 2013, I was buying LOTS of cheap shoes.  I have no explanation for this other than perhaps I went on a flip-flop binge. I do live in Austin, so it’s possible.


Looking back on 2014, the total number of orders remained the same (16), but the average order size when up by more than $30!  What I have to show for that is a couple of pair of “couture” shoes (ask me to show you the blue suede Ted Baker stilettos; they’re fabulous) and a handful of athletics, trendy open-toed booties and a variety of more sensible styles.

To be fancy, I added a trend line so you can see how my lifetime value as a customer is trending over time: it’s increasing at a pretty good rate (I think the Zappos team loves me).

So, besides the obvious fact that I love shoes, what else can you take away from this?

As I wrote in last year’s blog post, there are lots of places online to buy shoes – many of them less expensive than Zappos.  And, believe it or don’t, there are dozens of convenient brick-and-mortar places at which I can buy shoes and even wear them home the same day.  However, I still choose to buy most of my shoes at Zappos because I love what they stand for.  I love how they deliver service.  I love how I experience their brand.

You could say that I love WOW, and that’s what bonds me to them year after year, even when there are less expensive, more convenient choices.

Here’s something that comes directly from Zappos’ website:

At Zappos, Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing With WOW.
WOW is such a short, simple word, but it really encompasses a lot of things. To WOW, you must differentiate yourself, which means doing something a little unconventional and innovative. You must do something that's above and beyond what's expected. And whatever you do must have an emotional impact on the receiver. We are not an average company, our service is not average, and we don't want our people to be average. We expect every employee to deliver WOW.  Whether internally with co-workers or externally with our customers and partners, delivering WOW results in word of mouth. Our philosophy at Zappos is to WOW with service and experience, not with anything that relates directly to monetary compensation (for example, we don't offer blanket discounts or promotions to customers). We seek to WOW our customers, our co-workers, our vendors, our partners, and in the long run, our investors.

Delivering WOW through service is a core tenet of Zappos’ culture. And Zappos culture – not shoes – is their brand.  In fact, since last year’s blog post, Zappos has launched several additional retail categories on their austere e-commerce site, and that’s got my attention.  With the addition of beauty, sporting goods and home products, Zappos is my first go-to place when shopping online for anything.  With free overnight shipping (both ways) and no-questions-asked returns up to 1-year later, how could I ever pass up an opportunity to check with Zappos first?  I’d say that I’m irrationally loyal to Zappos.  That means that I’d check there first for product availability before shopping anywhere else.  Zappos and I, we have a tight bond.

There are many companies with core values, but most read the same.  Can you guess which company belongs to these?

  • Customer Service
  • Quality
  • Empathy
  • Respect
  • Integrity
  • Responsibility
  • Teamwork

Of course you can’t – because they’re too generic; they aren’t memorable or ownable; they aren’t part of a company’s very culture; they aren’t this company’s brand. The best core values are ones that are remarkable and define how customers experience a company’s brand.  They have the following characteristics:

  • They are actionable
  • They describe how you act as a company
  • They are visibly integrated with how a company does business
  • They are aligned with what’s important to customers
  • They are used to attract and retain the best talent
  • They have support from all levels of the company

…and most importantly, they aren’t platitudes.  They are unique to a company’s beliefs.

Many companies have core values, but don’t really commit to them. They usually sound more like something you’d read in a press release or on a plaque in a company’s lobby.  Your core values are part of the DNA – or the story – of your brand.

So what core values are you willing to commit to?

Beloved brands around the world: The brand called Santa

You may know what the most beloved brands in the world are, especially because they are, by definition, super popular. Walt Disney, Yahoo (still!), Google, Sony, Nestle, Auchan, Netflix, Whole Foods, Apple and Lowe’s made the top 10 last year. But a brand that’s been popular for the past 100 years, whose modern incarnation may or may not be the invention of the Coca-Cola Company, has a thing or two to say about what creates enduring brand love.

I’m talking about Santa, of course.

I was lucky to pull some strings to get an exclusive interview with the big guy. Here’s what we talked about over braised pork belly and an ice-cold Coke (he’s nothing if not brand loyal, Santa is).

Inspiring Santa Love
Sol Marketing: Santa, how do you pull it off year after year? With stiff competition from Amazon, Best Buy, Target and Mom, what is it that inspires all the Santa love?

Santa: First, I think we need to talk about what DOESN’T do it. The legend that I can see everyone when they’re sleeping and when they’re awake stems from my focus on effectively targeting my gift-giving by really understanding my customer. I know there are lots of marketers who read your blog, so I want to make sure those boys and girls understand that they’re not going to build a brand that gets love just through Big Data. You have to apply some insight and heart to see the true story.

Sol Marketing: I couldn’t agree more, Santa! And I’m not just saying that, even though it would be incredible to finally get that pony. So, if it’s not about knowing everything about your customer, what is it that you do to create all this loyalty and emotional connection?

Santa: I take that research about my customers, what brings them the most joy and fulfillment, and I deliver that to them every Christmas. Let me tell you, it’s not about the pony. It’s about what it says about you that Santa brought you a pony that truly creates the kind of connection boys and girls can’t get anywhere else.

Sol Marketing: But it is kind of about the pony, Santa.

Santa: The pony is the symbol, the token of the love you feel for Santa, because of how Santa makes you feel when you find that pony under the tree Christmas morning.

Sol Marketing: So I might still get that pony, right?

Santa: Forget about the pony. It’s not about the pony.

Sol Marketing: OK, so let’s talk about brand love. What has Santa got to do with love?

Santa: Santa loves all the children, even the ones who don’t believe. People can sense that, and that’s why everyone loves Santa. You don’t need to celebrate Christmas to know that Santa is about joy, about giving, about making and keeping that emotional connection. Not just with others, but with the child who still lives within you, no matter what your age. Brand Santa is about magic, about being jolly. Perhaps most importantly, and it seems counter-intuitive, Brand Santa is about consistency. You always know what you’re going to get when you are dealing with Santa.

Sol Marketing: Alright, Santa. Thanks for talking with us today.

Santa: You’re welcome.  And I know all about that naughtiness that goes on at the Sol offices – but Santa loves you anyway.

Hunting the energy vampires in your life

Have you ever felt like another person was just sucking the life out of you? Have you felt bored, annoyed, stressed, anxious, threatened or overwhelmed in another’s presence?  Have you had negative thoughts about that person that make you feel even worse?  (Oy! The guilt!)  Maybe you’ve even experienced the telltale physical signs of stress when you’re around that person – headache, nausea, muscle tightness, spontaneous hair loss, heavy drinking, the desire to shoot yourself in the face? You’re probably having your blood sucked dry by a negative person – an energy vampire.  Like vampires, negative people are incapable of generating positive energy. Hence, they feed off the energy of others. Vampires convert living beings into their kind because they feel lonely living in solitude. Similarly, negative people tend to drag people down into negativity too.  After all, misery loves company!

Spotting an energy vampire

Energy vampires are emotionally immature individuals who believe the entire world revolves around them.  They’re incapable of seeing things from your point of view. They lack empathy.  They don’t take responsibility.  And they believe they have to take everything they can get from others so they’re not deprived of resources.  In other words:  the whole world exists just to serve them, and YOU are their latest object for exploitation.

How do you know you’re a victim?

At first glance, energy vampires are very attractive, even highly desirable. Remember in the “Twilight” movies the vampires sparkled like diamonds and looked like Hollywood starlets?  They often are good-looking, bold, flamboyant or intelligent, and may appear to have a high opinion of YOU as indicated by their flattering attention. Drawing you into their inner circle may seem like just the boost you need in your usually drab work environment.

However, be warned that they are just setting you up to exploit you in whichever way best suits their purposes later. What seems quite innocent at first, such as asking you to introduce them to your professional network, making sales introductions or attending their Pampered Chef party may then turn into activities that exhaust you or even make you compromise your own ethics or values against your will.

There’s no good way to deal with energy vampires.  As long as you’re providing the fuel for their supernatural lives, they’ll continue to suck your blood whenever they need nourishment. Of course, you can try the time-tested vampire eradication techniques of submerging them in holy water, exposing them to direct sunlight or driving the inevitable wooden stake through the heart, these techniques may be NSFW, depending upon your place of employment (they certainly are at Sol.)  Also, sometimes those energy vampires are work colleagues, clients and even your boss.  Those are energy vampires you may not be able eradicate completely from your life.  That’s why you need some techniques to help you avoid having the life sucked out of you.

Don’t get drained by the energy vampires

Getting rid of vampire-ish clients, co-workers or head honcho isn’t exactly convenient in the work setting.  That’s why I offer you the following tips for making sure the energy vampires don’t drain you:

  1. Spend more time with the life-givers rather than the life-takers. Specifically identify the energy vampires, and begin to evaluate ones you'd like to limit contact with or eliminate.  Spend more time with people who give off positive energy, and avoid drainers. Notice how this beneficially affects your physical and emotional well-being.
  2. Draw a line. It's crucial to limit the time you spend discussing a vampire's gripes. When approaching him or her, remember: the difference between being a bitch and setting boundaries is attitude. Instead of saying, “You're self-obsessed, I can't take you anymore,” which you likely feel, perhaps shift the conversation to something more productive and positive.
  3. Get centered. I don’t practice meditation, but maybe I should.  However, I’ve learned from others that sitting in meditation gives you a lifeline to your center.  I say, getting centered in whatever way is most effective for you will calm your mind and let you re-align with your essence.  For me, that might mean a good workout, a long walk or some quality time with Comet and Beyonce.  Use whatever makes you feel centered to rejuvenate and get back to you.
  4. Beat it. If you feel your energy being zapped, politely excuse yourself from a killing conversation. Move at least twenty feet from the person, outside the range of his or her energy field. “I need to pee,” is my foolproof line. Most people are oblivious to how their energy impacts others.  Don’t worry about appearing rude or offending the vampire.  Energy vampires are so self-absorbed that they probably won’t even notice you removing yourself from the conversation.
  5. Put up a force-field. While doing my research for this piece, I became aware of this technique, which, on the surface, seems silly. However, I’ve tried it, and it works.  When you're with vampires you can't get away from visualize a protective shield of while light surrounding every inch of you. This lets positive energy in, but keeps negative energy out—particularly efficient for vampires at family dinners or social events where you're trapped.

Energy vampires are like human black holes.  Don’t let yourself be victimized by one of these people.  You can recognize them by the telltale signs:  they’re negative and self-absorbed and make you feel stressed and anxious.  Sometimes they’re overbearing and obnoxious.  But more often than not, they’re friendly and charming. I hope I’ve inspired you to keep your eyes open, and make sure you’ve got your garlic and wooden cross in the form of these tips at the ready!

Graciously accepting an apology

One of my recent posts was about making apologies.  Within days of launching that post, a loved one perpetrated a small wrong against me for which he made amends.  Armed with my instructional blog post, he tendered a brave and heart-felt apology, which I felt woefully unprepared to appropriately acknowledge or accept. While my recent disagreement with T. won’t make or break our friendship, how both of us handled our situation will forever define our future as friends.

In the spirit of catching you up, here’s the situation:  in a casual conversation the other night, T. said something I found hurtful.  He then followed it up with an email fraught with language that stung.  Stunned and baffled, I quickly pointed out how and why his statements hurt me.  To his credit, he swiftly responded with a sincere and specific written apology worthy of the previous blog post.  And, typical of his warm and authentic communication style, he signed off his note with the word “sorry” in the language he grew up speaking at home, letting me know that all was ok with him.

I was truly touched.  I offered the following response to his apology:  “Thank you for the sincere and thoughtful apology.”  And I immediately forgave him in my heart.

While he courageously admitted his own wrongdoing, I wondered: did I do enough in accepting his apology?  

With this fresh question on the top of my mind, I resumed my study of apologies.   I turned again to the fascinating book On Apology, by Aaron Lazare, which starts with the following paragraph:

“One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies. Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore. The result of that apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.”

A genuine apology provides so much benefit with so little cost, I’m surprised it isn’t done more often. The decision to apologize is a tug-of-war between pride and guilt. Guilt can be a killer.  So it makes sense to just get on with the apology.  While I previously wrote about how to effectively make an apology, I now share how best to accept one.  Maturely and graciously accepting an apology can help you restore and preserve your most precious personal and professional relationships.

Here are a few tips my research yielded:

  1. If you receive an apology you can choose to accept it, ignore it, or reject it.  If the apology meets the elements I presented in the previous post on apologies, it’s sensible to accept it.  If you find it sincere, demonstrating remorse, and if you feel the relationship is worth maintaining, forgiveness can strengthen your bond.
  2. Forgiveness is usually a strength. However, if the apology is inadequate, and you believe the omissions are deliberate and manipulative, turn down the apology and give the apologizer your reasons.  Then he or she may try again.
  3. Certainly, you should decline an apology that lacks authentic remorse. An off-handed “I'm sorry” is rarely adequate. When you do decline an apology, describe what you see as deficient in the apology and see if the other person responds with a revised apology that does meet your requirements.
  4. When you accept an apology, do so graciously and sincerely without any attempt to insult or humiliate the apologizer. Do not exploit their vulnerability either. Use this as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship and not as an opportunity to inflict harm.
  5. Don’t blow off an apology by saying “it’s ok.”  If you truly feel wronged, it’s not really ok.  If you’re not ready to accept the apology, or if you need more from the apologizer, it’s your job to ask for it.
  6. Finally, once you’ve accepted someone’s apology, MOVE ON. This will be cathartic for both of you. You will be able to give up some of your resentment and begin healing your wound. He/she will be able to begin letting go of the guilt that he/she feels for hurting you. Trust that the incident will never reoccur. Try to put it out of your mind completely and focus on the positive aspects of your relationship.

Sincerely forgiving someone who’s hurt you can be as difficult as enduring the pain caused by their actions in the first place. Learning how to graciously accept an apology without rolling over for the person apologizing is a valuable life skill. A well-handled apology can be a healing experience, and anyone can learn how to handle apologies with maturity and discretion.

Update:  I’m happy to say that T. and I mended fences and are on our way to many more transgressions for which we’ll both undoubtedly need to say “I’m sorry.”

"Sorry" doesn't cut it

Sometimes we mess up.  Royally.  Unforgettably.  Disastrously.  And sometimes when we mess up, we damage others’ property or even hurt their feelings.  When that happens, it’s time for an apology.  As our big Jewish Day of Atonement looms, it seems an opportune time to discuss what I’ve learned about how to say you’re sorry and do it right. For the Jewish people, this time of year is the season of repentance.  Starting with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and extending through Yom Kippur – the most serious and solemn of all holidays on the Jewish calendar – we Jews fall on our swords and ask forgiveness for our sins of the past year (for those of you familiar with Catholic traditions, it’s kind of like an “instant Lent”). During the past week, I’ve been systematically collecting and cataloging the last year’s mess-ups, preparing to amend my wrongs and ask others for their forgiveness.  Having been on the giving and receiving end of bad apologies, I realize that now is the time to give my apology skills an overhaul.  Now with this post you can benefit from my experience.

Making good apologies isn’t difficult.  The 12th century sage Maimonides said that true repentance requires humility, remorse, forbearance and reparation.

Not much has changed since then.

  1. Own the offense, even if it makes you squirmy:  Not “I’m sorry you misunderstood me,” rather, “I’m sorry I called you a fat bastard.”
  2. Be specific; own the sin:  “I’m sorry I smashed your smartphone with a rock.”  But don’t go overboard: “I’m sorry I destroyed your smartphone, which you so insensitively checked every two minutes, during our romantic dinner.”
  3. Use the first person, and avoid passive voice:  “I apologize for running over your smartphone with my car,” not “I apologize your smartphone was broken.”
  4. Acknowledge the impact:  “I know I was not respecting your time you when I showed up late to dinner. I know you had a busy day, and I’m sorry I made you wait for me to start.” 
  5. Don’t offer too much explanation:  Keep explanations short and relevant, and, above all, don’t use them as justification for your actions. “I’m sorry I rolled my eyes at you during dinner, but you were droning on and on about the same topic for what seemed like hours,” is not an effective apology.
  6. Finally, mean it when you say it. When you apologize, feel sorry in your heart.

When you’ve said your piece, let the other person have their say.  If they need time to process, let them process.  Even if they say nothing but “I accept your apology,” just politely say “thank you.”  If the other person remains angry, you have to sit with that for a while.  And, if they don’t accept your apology the first time out, it’s your responsibility to try at least two more times.  If they still don’t accept, it’s time to assess the overall state of your relationship.

In all, making a good apology means being a little vulnerable.  In his book On Apology, author Aaron Lazare said, “Apologies are one of the most profound interactions that can happen between people.  Apologies can heal humiliation, free the mind from deep-seated guilt, remove the desire for vengeance, and ultimately restore human relationships.”  I totally agree.

Ten things I’ve learned in 10 years

Sol Marketing is celebrating a decade in the business, so I figured it would be a good idea to share 10 things I’ve learned in the past 10 years that you can learn from. Here they are in no particular order, with the exception of learning #1.   That’s really the top thing I’ve learned that somehow I still can’t manage to stop repeating.

  Ten things I’ve learned in 10 years:

10.  Serve clients but don’t over-identify with them.   Sol Marketing’s reputation is built on stellar client service.  What separates us from other client-service focused organizations is that we know how to be a trusted advisor while maintaining a healthy distance from our clients and their businesses.  I personally have close, long-standing relationships with clients that include such niceties as vacationing together or even serving as Godparent to their children. Despite that personal closeness, my clients still pay me as an objective third party to think strategically about their business and act with their best interests in mind.  While I care deeply about my clients and their desired outcomes, while we’re working on difficult projects, cooler heads always need to prevail.

9.   Try new things; they just may work out! Looking back on 10 years in business, I can say that today’s Sol Marketing was built on saying “yes” to just about every problem that’s come our way.  That’s why today we’re in the business of creating kick ass brands that win instead of being a PR and strategic communication firm, which is what I initially set out to create. Creative approaches to addressing client problems and trying things that have never been done before are the cornerstones of our business today.  From learning how to create online training modules for Dell’s learning management system. to pioneering new research techniques to inform brand positioning, to creating an entire business around supporting entrepreneurs with their investor pitches, trying new things has almost always paid off for us.

8.  Hire people who make you feel uncomfortable.  Many managers tend to hire in their own image.  Throughout my tenure with Sol Marketing, I’ve learned how to get comfortable with people who make me feel uncomfortable.  I feel most comfortable with people who think and act just like me.  Without pushing myself to be around individuals who think and act differently, the company would be going nowhere fast.  Innovation needs newcomers who see and respond to things in different ways.

7.  The client isn’t always right; but they sign the checks.   I have a personal policy of always trying to act in my clients’ best interest and guide them towards solutions to their business challenges while letting them feel like they’re in charge.  Sometimes those two ideas are at odds with one another.  Often in the throes of working together, I see the client veering down a path that I wouldn’t personally support.  But occasionally there are intervening factors that I have no knowledge of that require that us to do things in a certain way.  In these cases, I set my own personal feelings aside and shift into the role of supportive advisor, with a primary goal of clearing the way so the client mitigate the risks associated with those choices.

6.  Being strategic isn’t just big-picture thinking.  I’ve often said that there are two kinds of marketing and communication strategy.  Strategy with a big ‘S’ and strategy with a little ‘s.’ While big ‘S’ Strategy – rooted in quantitative and qualitative research and often a “big idea” – is the dazzling jewel in the marketing crown, little ‘s’ strategy is the often overlooked and undervalued approach that can make or break a program.  This kind of strategy covers things like project timing, the application of software tools, creative financing and the thoughtful use of team resources.  While the brand strategy and account planning teams get all the glory for coming up with the big “ah-hahs” that drive programs and creative, don’t forget about program and project management people behind the scenes who make sure we actually deliver on our promises.

5.  You’re going to make mistakes.  Pay attention to the small ones. Of course, no one can execute flawlessly every time.  I could fill up about a hundred pages of prose about the huge and obvious mistakes I made over the past ten years. While memorable and usually very public, the huge mistakes rarely make a difference in the long run. The little things, like misprinted nametags at a client event, fat-fingered email typos and deadlines missed by only an hour can all erode a client’s trust over time.

4.  Don’t spend too much time at work.  “Wow, I wish I had spent another hour at the office,” said no one EVER.  The reason I got into this owning and running a business situation in the first place was to have more time for myself.  Now I have the flexibility to stretch myself in ways that I can’t by sitting at a desk all day every day.  Very few of the rewarding experiences I’ve had during the past 10 years have occurred while seated in front of my computer at a desk in Austin.

3.  You always have enough time to do things right the first time.  This one really doesn’t need explanation.  Take the time to do it right the first time.  Never compromise quality or strategy in an effort to make a deadline.  Clients ALWAYS appreciate someone pulling on the brakes to avoid disaster, even when it impacts timelines.

2.  Listen to the voices inside your head.   Contrary to popular belief, hearing voices in your head doesn’t necessarily signal a serious psychiatric issue.  Recent scientific research indicates that hearing voices in your head relates to one very ordinary aspect of your personal experience: your own internal running monologue. Most of us talk silently to ourselves as we go about our business, and some scientists think that we hear “voices” in our heads when we don’t recognize those little bits of speech we hear as self-talk.  Whoever’s voices those are, I have learned to pay attention to them because they’re often signaling me to make important choices or take risks.  Those internal voices have become a wise inner guide.  They rarely place limits on me and have given me the confidence to try new things and contribute to my world in ways that I perhaps never thought possible.

1.  NEVER take the last flight out of anywhere.  EVER.   This one goes without saying.  Those who know me know that I’ve pissed off some travel god somewhere along the way.  Even those of you who are not generally travel-cursed should heed this good advice.  It should go without saying: fly early in the morning or at least some time before noon if you can swing it.  Less opportunity for travel disasters to pile on throughout the day.  Also, revised pilot rest rules go into effect this January, guaranteeing us safer flights and introducing more opportunities for disaster.  You can read more about this here.

All branding is about sex

There, I said it.  

This statement isn’t just provocative; it tells you nearly everything you need to know about brand strategy.   Brands delivering bigger, badder, longer, faster, sweeter, softer, tastier benefits are nothing if they don’t help get your customers laid.


If you want long-term leadership in your category and market, you need to develop deep emotional bonds with your customers.  How do you do that?  You help them feel, look or be more effective in some way.  Those of you who are sexually active know that when you feel your best, you can get a sexy swagger.  If you use your imagination you can picture how your brand gets your customers out of the grocery store, oil field or office and into bed.


If you have a consumer product or brand it’s easy to make the mental leap from basic functional benefits to super-sexy-swagger benefits.  And if you think really hard you can probably come up with all the ways that using day-to-day brands – from beauty to food to consumer electronics – can get you the love that you want.


But what about enterprise brands?  I promise, you can make those connections too.  Let’s say you’ve got some kind of super-fast, super-light, super-super technology product you sell to enterprise IT managers.  You’re probably having trouble picturing how that product would help an IT manager get laid.  Remember, enterprise IT managers work in a super unsexy work environment often in thankless, grueling, under-appreciated jobs.  Start there, and think about how your product delivers benefits that give that IT manager a super-sexy swagger:


  1. Confident people are sexy.  Does your brand enable customers to triumph over the soul-crushing monotony at work, boosting his or her self-esteem?
  2. Successful people are sexy.  Do you give the customer an edge over co-workers that make them more valuable to the organization, securing greater financial rewards?
  3. Uninterrupted whoopee is sexy.  Can your brand keep the customer’s boss from calling him or her at home at night?


So, the next time you’re stuck in a rut communicating just about your brand’s features, speeds and feeds, breakthrough your idea block by digging in and thinking about all the ways your brand can get your customers laid.  Rich information about your brand’s benefits lies in this creative exploration.

Welcome to the new blog

The best-loved brands have great stories. We’re telling some of those – and some of our own – right here. It seems everyone in the marketing business has latched on to the notion that brand storytelling is some new-fangled thing. But storytelling is nothing new. What’s new is telling the story that hasn’t yet been told.

Over a brand strategy and marketing career spanning more than 20 years and literally hundreds of brands, I’ve seen that the brands that experience the most sustained success are those that have discovered and embraced an “aha” about their brands and leveraged those to create and tell powerful brand stories to connect with their audiences.

Our new Sol Marketing blog will highlight some of those experiences from our unique point of view.  We’ll share branding and marketing insights and best practices. And in typical Sol style, we’ll throw in some fun and surprising stuff too.  Thanks for reading.

~ Deb