Meredith Farley

On Content People, host Meredith Farley interviews creative professionals and leaders to get a behind-the-scenes look at their career experiences and turn that into actionable advice for listeners. Tune in to hear from experts in various media, and get inspired to find contentment in your own creative career.

Episode #15 Summary

Kelli Corney has always let creativity be her guide. Along with Content People’s creator and host, Meredith Farley, Kelli talks about her career path, what she’s learned about being creative and why that approach is helping her inform brands and marketing strategies.

In episode 15 of Content People, I chat with Kelli Corney. 

Kelli’s had a very cool career in media and creative marketing. She’s worked at established titans of industry like NBC and the Financial Times, as well as really lean, high-growth startups — Kelli was the Chief Growth Officer at Mightily, an agency she helped grow from 4 to 40 employees in less than 5 years.   

Currently, Kelli’s a fractional CMO and consultant based in London. She also teaches a course, through Maven, called Brand Strategy for Innovation.

In this ep, we really got into the weeds on branding. Sometimes when marketing folks talk about branding, I think the topic can err on the side of nebulous or vague. I find that frustrating. I like details, bullet points and clear descriptions. Kelli delivered all that and more in our convo.

If you’re interested in knowing what “brand” really means, and how to create one that has meaning and staying power, tune in.

We also covered:

  • The meaning of “good sales.” (Hint: It’s simpler than you think.)
  • Why you should start your career with a big company.
  • The prevalence of imposter syndrome.
  • A thoughtful definition of the word “brand.”
  • How branding and marketing are different (and why it matters).
  • B2B vs. B2C communication and why it all comes down to the human being at the other end of your message.
View on Zencastr

Thanks for listening!

– Meredith Farley, Host of Content People

More Content for Content People

Meet Kelli: Head on over to Kelli’s LinkedIn for a closer look at her incredible career (and to connect about marketing and more).

Take a crash course: Try Brand Strategy for Innovation and let Kelli be your guide.

Brafton: Kelli’s not the only one who does a little bit of everything. Check out our digital marketing newsletter to see what we’re up to.

Meredith’s newsletter: Check out Meredith’s newsletter (also called Content People).

Podcast Transcript:

Meredith Farley: Hi, everyone, and welcome to Content People. Tune in to hear from creatives, leaders, and experts in various media. I’m your host, Meredith Farley. I’m here alongside our producer, Ian Servin. Hey, Ian.

Ian Servin: Hey, Meredith. 

Meredith: On today’s show, we’re talking all about branding with Kelli Corney. Kelli’s had a really cool career in media and creative marketing. She’s worked at established titans of industry, like NBC and the Financial Times. And she’s worked at really lean high growth startups. Kelli was the chief growth officer and mightily. Currently, Kelli is a fractional CMO and a consultant based in London. She also teaches a course through Maven, called Brand Strategy for Innovation.

We really got into the weeds on branding in this one. Sometimes when marketing folks talk about branding, I think the topic can err on the side of nebulous or vague. I find that frustrating. I like details, bullet points, and clear descriptions. Kelli delivers that in our convo today. If you’re interested to know what brand really means and how to create one that has staying power, stay tuned. 

Ian: One thing that she touched on that I definitely agree with is that brand is misunderstood by a lot of marketers. I think some people see it really more as a coat of paint rather than something deeper and more intrinsic to the company. And she did such a great job of articulating what brand actually is, why it matters, and how marketers can go about building brand in a strategic way. 

Meredith: Yes, I totally agree with that. It’s not a coat of paint. It’s like part of the foundation. I totally agree. And I think she makes some really salient points here. And PS Kelli is also my friend. Kelli, thank you so much for doing this. This was really fun. We hope you all enjoy it. 

Meredith: Hey, Kelli. 

Kelli Corney: Hey, Meredith. 

Meredith: All right, so you’ve worked as a media owner. You’ve been in the client role, and you have run an agency. So you have a really 360 view of the industry. My plan for this convo is to pick your brain about your career journey for a bit, because you’ve done a lot. And then later jump into branding, which you have a ton of expertise and a lot of wisdom around. 

But first, how did you get into creative work in the agency world?

Kelli: I think like many people, I had a bit of an untraditional journey into my career. I went to a liberal arts university, so I was a little bit confused when I graduated. I knew I loved learning, and I knew I was a really curious person. But I didn’t have a very specific discipline that just led straight into a job title that matched with it. I studied creative writing and philosophy. I was like, what do we do with this now? I knew I was a creative person, but I wasn’t quite sure what shape that would take.

And I think also like many girls being a young teenager in the early 2000s, I had this dream job that was like being in a business suit, walking in my high heels in a big city, and being an editor at a fashion magazine, which was literally every single rom-com that we watched growing up. Yeah, I was equally insane. I didn’t dream, yeah. Yeah, so my very first internship actually, professional internship, was at a fashion magazine in Chicago. 

So I was like, oh, great, I get to try this. And as soon as I did it, I realized I didn’t like it. So again, I was like, what do I do from here? And like most things, life just pushes you in a direction. Because I was living in Chicago, a friend of a friend was like, hey, I work at NBC Universal. We are hiring for this position. And I think you should apply for it. So I did, and that was how I learned that I loved advertising and loved media. And my first job was actually in sales. But I thought sales sounded a little bit sleazy. So I was too embarrassed to tell people that I would just be like, oh, I work in advertising. But actually, it really taught me how much I actually love selling. When I believe in an idea, my favorite thing is to be able to tell people about that and share it with them. So to me, that’s all that good sales is. It’s just like being really passionate about something and sharing it with people and getting them on board with you. 

Meredith: Yeah, so thanks for sharing that. That makes a lot of sense as to how you got into it. And I think it’ll resonate with a lot of people. But so for folks who aren’t familiar with you, from that point forward, what has been your career journey? And what have you done with everything you learned about selling and what you love about media? 

Kelli: Yeah, I’ll try to make this short because like you started, I’ve done a bunch of different things, so it could take forever. But basically, I started my career in the world of media working for NBCUniversal. So at the time, it was owned by GE. So it was literally one of the biggest companies in the world. And I feel like I got a really good education in the industry working for them. 

So the first big chunk of my career was doing that. And I worked for NBC both in Chicago, and then I moved abroad to London and spent about four years working internationally for them. Then at that point, I moved back to the US and I was like a little bit frustrated with the corporate world being really ambitious, wanting to have more impact, feeling frustrated with hierarchy and all of the things that can happen in big corporate environments and got interested in entrepreneurship and thinking about startups. So I just experimented for a little while. 

I did a startup accelerator. I did a small project to launch a sustainable network line. I started an organic tea company. I was just playing around, seeing what would I want to do? How can I express my creativity? And I met at that time who would become basically my future business partner, who funny enough, even though I was back in the US, happened to be British. And we started an ad agency. And like I said, I was really in this mode of experimentation, and I had no idea if it would work or if it would really go anywhere. 

But the end of this story is that it was quite successful. And I spent about five years helping to grow that business. It was 40 employees by the time I left. We were winning tons of awards for our work, had an amazing company culture. Everybody wanted to work for us, getting covered in the press a lot. It was just like this really exciting growth story. And then from there, I went back to a bigger corporate environment. 

So I went client side. So at this point, I had worked for a media owner and an agency. And then I became the client and ran a large brand and marketing team of about 50 people, which was essentially like a creative agency, an in-house agency. And then most recently, moved from the US back to the UK. I am living in London now. And to work for the Financial Times for AlphaGrid, which is the sort of creative content studio at the Financial Times. 

So I’ve jumped around a bit between all three. And I think sometimes that can make people feel like it’s a little bit hard to place me in what I do. But I actually have found once I’m in a role, it ends up being one of the things people value the most about working with me. Because I really understand what it’s like to be a client working with an agency and an agency working with a client and have been in both of those shoes. And I know, I’m sure you know this all too well, Meredith, that can sometimes be a contentious relationship. Or it’s hard to always empathize with somebody on the other side. 

Meredith: Yeah, I can imagine your knowledge and empathy of the other side as just being an incredible asset to whomever you’re working with or for sure. So you’ve been at places and had really big jobs where there’s hyper growth and they’re in startup mode. 

Like when you’re at Mightily, you’ve been in more established, really big, funded organizations like Atria Senior Living. And you’ve been at places like Alpha Grid within the Financial Times, which is a historical institution. So one first question, is there an environment that you enjoy the most? 

Kelli: It’s a really hard question to answer because they all obviously have a lot of benefits to them. But I think if I was forced to choose, I would say, I think the most rewarding thing I’ve done is build and grow Midoli or help build and grow Midoli. And so that would probably be my answer. I really love building things. I get super excited about that. And building things alongside people I respect and just genuinely enjoy being around. 

So that can obviously happen within a larger corporate setting. But I think creating something from the ground up is a very unique experience in and of its own. And probably what has been the most fulfilling for me. So I think I would choose that. But it is a hard choice. 

Meredith: Yeah, that makes sense. If I had to guess, I think I might have guessed that only because when you talk about Midoli and that building stage, I think about how what you created was in so many ways an extension of all the amazing things about yourself. And I feel like that’s really powerful. But so for younger folks who are starting out in their career, would you steer them in the direction of one environment over the other? And do you think it’s helpful to start somewhere in particular? 

Kelli: Yeah, I’m going to unsurprisingly give the advice that’s exactly the trajectory my career took. But I do have some good ways to justify it. I think it’s really valuable, if you can, to start with a big organization. And the reason I say that is because you get a really good education in your industry by doing that. So there are just resources and access that a big company like NBCUniversal has that if you were to go straight into a startup or straight into a small business, you’re just not going to learn the same things and you’re not going to have the same kind of resources. 

And particularly for me, maybe there’s a lot of other people who identify with this. But I grew up in Kentucky. And there weren’t, I didn’t have a ton of exposure to the kind of access and cultural impact that an organization like that has. And it felt like so world-opening to me to be a part of it, to not only see what can be done through a company that has that kind of history and access and reputation, but also just for myself to believe in myself, to know that I belonged there, to show up and realize I could not only do the job, but I could do it really well and to know that I could do more than that. That was really affirming and expanding for me. 

And yeah, I think for those reasons, it’s a great place to start. I’ve also seen it on the flip side, where when you start out just in a startup or just in a small business, it always feels a bit like the Wild West anyway, because people are often making it up as they go. And if you haven’t had a more structured experience, then I think it leads to people feeling always a little bit of a sense of wandering in the dark and just figuring it out. So to me, I think it’s a really strong foundation to build on and a great place to start your career. 

Meredith: So you feel like the structure or for you, do you think that starting off somewhere like NBC incredibly established lots of structure, maybe there’s a bit of an intimidation factor, because as you said, it’s not something you were surrounded by. Do you think that in some way, maybe, that helped you avoid an imposter syndrome, because you proved to yourself really early on that you could, I don’t know, it’s the word I’m looking for, that you could play on a really big playing field and be successful? Or no, maybe not. I’m just curious as you’re talking. 

Kelli: Yeah, in some ways, yes. I think imposter syndrome is one of those weird things. I feel like it’s like an epidemic. I feel like everybody feels like they have imposter syndrome sometimes. Maybe that’s just because it feels so hard to keep up the way how quickly information comes and how fast we’re expected to learn and change and grow all the time, particularly in our careers. I think it just lends itself to everyone feeling that way sometimes. 

But I do think maybe there’s a grain of truth in what you’re saying and that it definitely gave me an injection of confidence early in my career that I don’t know if I would have had otherwise. But who’s to say? I have no idea what another life would have been like. 

Meredith: It’s interesting. Yeah, with the imposter syndrome, I feel like I’ve started to just think of it as self-doubt that some people have more than others and everyone has sometimes. And I feel like what you’re saying aligns with that a little bit. But I could see it being confidence-inspiring as a younger person to be like, yeah, I worked at this really big organization. I got to learn how the structure worked and did fine there and feeling like a confidence that you can be equally successful in other types of environments, maybe. 

Kelli: Yeah, for sure. 

Meredith: All right, so brand strategy. I think of this as a particular superpower of yours. Let’s get into it. So first and foremost, people say the word brand a lot. How do you define what a brand is? 

Kelli: Yeah, it’s a great place to start. Because brand has just become like a nonsense word. If I asked five different people to tell me what it meant, I would get five different answers back. We all have different ideas about it. 

I’ll start from the very basics, which is like people often think a brand is a logo or a color palette or a font. And it’s not. It’s something much more foundational than that. Many people have made many attempts at creating one definition for what a brand is. I’ll give you mine. And it’s the simplest and easiest thing I’ve been able to boil it down to. It’s the simplest and most essential thing I’ve been able to boil it down to. 

I think a brand is just the truth. So what that means is when you think about a company’s brand, what you’re doing is trying to discover what’s true about that company and then connect it with people in ways that make them feel something. Good brands make you feel something. I loved. 

Meredith: As you say, a brand is the truth. I feel like it like pings something inside of me. I’m like, yes, it is. That is, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it described that way, but I can’t think of a better way to describe brand. 

Kelli: Thank you. Yeah. I think, especially when I work with companies that are bigger, more well-established brands, there’s this fear that they come into the process with, where they think, oh, no, I’m hiring this brand person to come. They’re going to go away into a corner and build this thing and then hand it to me, and they’re going to change who I am. And it’s not going to feel like me anymore. 

And the best way that I’ve come up with of reassuring people about that is, actually, my job is the opposite of that. You know. You feel inside of you somewhere what’s special about what you do or what your company stands for. Because you’re you, I can’t do this for myself. I have to have someone help me, because no one is self-aware enough. We all get a bit overwhelmed with our own business. It’s hard to see it from an outside perspective. But I can do it for other people, right? So it’s, yeah, being able to come in and, sorry, I lost my train of thought for a second. 

Meredith: No, actually, what you’re really sparking for me, which I never thought about, is the way that, so it’s coming to mind for me, is write even just stuff like, so I started a newsletter, a substack, and writing the about page was one of the most brutal writing experiences I’ve ever had, and I still hate what’s up there. 

And as I’m going through it, I’m like, why is this so hard for a client or a friend came to me and had a trillion ideas and be like here’s what it’s about. And the way that writing, as you say creating things about yourself is sometimes the most brutal, because you don’t have enough space, and you need friends or folks to help you. 

I never thought of it in the same way for a company, but the reason outside eyes and expertise are so helpful for a brand is maybe similar, because you need someone with a little bit of distance to really help you extract those kernels of truth. Is that what do you think about that? 

Kelli: Is that, I think that’s exactly the word I would use. You need distance from it. Yeah and that’s with anything in your own life when you think about understanding yourself or your own problems. You need you go through an experience, I don’t know, even if you think about really big experiences in your life a breakup or things that are very emotionally triggering, you can never see the truth in the moment. You need distance to be able to reflect back. And maybe there’s a little bit of a digression, but for companies, it’s the same thing. It’s you are your goals, you’re working on things day to day. You can feel it inside of you, but you just don’t have the distance to be able to articulate it. And I think that’s exactly why outside help is really valuable, especially when you’re working on brand. Yeah, 

Meredith: So founders and leaders, they are busy, resource-strapped, and I always love the expression that they are building the plane while flying it. And when folks are in that startup mode or in a stretch that feels more we just need to survive right now, as opposed to thinking about thriving, creating a brand or bringing in someone to help them with branding can seem like a nicety as opposed to a necessity. How would you advise someone who is “I want a brand, I just don’t have the time or money to really focus on it right now?” 

Kelli: Yeah, that’s a great question. I would tell that person, you’re not gonna have a successful business for very long if you don’t. So I think we need to talk a little bit, we need to break it down a little bit more. Branding and marketing often get conflated. Yeah, they’re not the same thing. Marketing is giving people the right message to the right person in the right environment at the right time. So it’s about like frequency and repeating a message over and over again. A brand is the soul of a company. It’s why that company deserves to exist, irrespective of financial gain. So brand is a foundation for marketing, but it’s also a foundation for the wider business. 

And I have this little presentation that I give sometimes where I show like, what a brand strategy is, what branding is, and what a business strategy is, and how, and really defining those things because they often get quite conflated. A brand strategy and a business strategy are equally important. If you only have one, you won’t be successful. A brand without a business strategy won’t make money. And a business without a brand strategy is just like one price cut or one copycat product away from becoming irrelevant. So there are different things, but they work together and they inform each other. 

So if you start to think about brand in that way, then it becomes more of a North Star for your organization, or like a rubric that you use to make decisions. So if you’re talking about strategy, any kind of strategy, it’s all about looking at the vast variety of infinite possibility and narrowing that down and making choices. So a good strategy is one where you choose one path and that’s your strategy. So your brand strategy is that path for your company. It’s your North Star that informs everything you do. So this is how you become a really powerful brand that continues to feel true to people. 

Meredith: I think that’s really powerful. Sometimes I know there’s a perception that brand building is it’s expensive, time-consuming, nebulous, soft KPIs. And I know sometimes some people think of it as a little bit of smoke and mirrors. Now for the record, I don’t think good brand work is any of that to your mind. What are, you start to touch on them, but what are some of the non-negotiable, tangible elements of a brand? 

Kelli: It’s a great question because I think this is how most people come into it. It feels like exactly what you said. But I think when you think back to how we just defined a brand as being a foundational pillar of your business, then would you ask if building a company culture or building a sales team or building a business plan were time-consuming and nebulous? You know what I mean? 

It’s, I think the important point is that without a brand strategy, you really open yourself up to a huge amount of risk of becoming irrelevant or easily outperformed by a competitor who does understand the importance of it. And that’s just the difference between having a product and knowing that, think of all, there are so many businesses, so many products, so many startups, so many things that are like very similar to buying for your attention, with all things being equal, why do you pick one over the other? I have two brands of toothpaste in front of me. They’re exactly the same price. Which one do I pick? Yeah, that’s the power of brand is it gives people a reason to care about you and why you exist. 

So again, I think not thinking about it this way opens you up to a huge amount of risk. And I can break it down and make it more tangible by talking about, because even now we’re still saying a brand is this, a brand is that, but what actually happens when you create a brand strategy? Can we talk through and break that down a bit? Because I think it’s all good to say a lot of these things, but like knowing what the app, knowing what you do as part to build it is what makes it powerful. So there are three main aspects to building a brand. It’s purpose, position and personality. So I’ll define and talk through each of these. Purpose is the change you wanna see in the world, irrespective of financial gain. So this is why you do what you do. It’s the thing that makes people wanna root for you. 

And it plays a huge role in aligning people to wanna come work for your company. It makes people feel a part of something bigger than, the product itself or whatever smaller things that you’re doing inside of a company. So a purpose statement should sound something like, we exist to blank. Some good examples of this that like everyone will be familiar with. So Nike’s purpose statement is, we exist to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. And if you have a body, you’re an athlete. It’s a great one. And Google’s is, we exist to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. So I think the bottom line with purpose is it’s not about what you do, it’s about why anyone should care. 

So next is position. Your position is the space you occupy in your target customer’s mind. So you know you have a positioning problem if you ask 10 of your customers or employees what you do and you get 10 different answers back. Or if I ask you to explain to me what you do in one sentence and you can’t. And like for everybody listening to this, I would just say pause for a moment and think about that because, and think about your own organization and you’ll probably be like nodding along with me. Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. So the risk here is if you don’t define your position, other people will do it for you and not necessarily in a way that you’ll like. So an example for this might be, if we’re thinking about shampoo, the experience of buying shampoo, there’s like a million choices and it’s pretty, I don’t know, I’m sure like you’ve been through this many times Meredith, just as I have, you’re like standing there and you’re not really sure what choice to make. It’s pretty arbitrary. So are you familiar with the company Pros? Yes yeah. Cool, yeah. I feel like any millennial woman especially who’s on Instagram knows what Pros is. Smart. We’ve all seen the ads. Yeah, they’re great ads though. So Pros did something really smart, which was instead of playing in the category of shampoo, which is overcrowded, really nebulous, they created a different category and decided that they’re gonna play in the space of custom shampoo. So now, if you want a custom shampoo, you only think of Pros. And that’s a really smart way to think about positioning yourself. It’s, I call this like the 50-50 rule and you can use it in any sort of either positioning or like sales process, which is I always want my competition, all of my competition to be in a group together and for me to be in a standalone group by myself. So people really only have two choices. They either want the thing that you are, in which case you’re the only choice, or they want something else and you can let a bunch of other people fight over that. And there are ways to break this down even more. 

And you can modify an existing category, which is what Pros did. So they aren’t shampoo, they’re custom shampoo, or you could create an entirely new category that never existed before. Uber’s a good example of this. They created ride share. Like no one knew that word didn’t exist before Uber. So those are some ways that you can and it gives you a really strong competitive advantage as well because there’s so much that comes from being first to market that just you get to skip a lot of the mess and honestly make sure marketing to holders more efficient, customer acquisition more efficient, all of those things. 

So just to break down a little bit the difference between purpose and position. Your purpose is more of a long-term thing. So it should last you for about 10 years. It could last you forever, but I would say like you want to be thinking that long-term when you’re crafting purpose. Your position is shorter term. It should be true for at least the next 18 months. It can be longer than that, but a position is a little bit more closely tied to a product. So that can evolve as you launch new products or your product offering evolves. And a purpose is more just about the company as a whole. And then the other thing I would say that’s different between them is while they both can be both of these things, purpose is more emotional and position is more functional. And I think in marketing and branding, this push pull between emotional and functional is always a, again, something that’s a little bit hard to wrap your arms around. So I think that sort of is a nice way of thinking about it. And then the third thing is personality. So this is like literally how you show up in the world. It’s what do you look like, how do you speak? It’s what gives you a point of view that people can connect with and makes you feel more human. So I like to think a lot this in if this company was a person, what would that person be like? The most interesting brands have tension in them, just like real people do. For example, I have a friend who is like super stylish. She’s always showing up in like the coolest outfits and is very fashion forward and modern, but she only listens to old music. And that’s an interesting tension. That makes me wanna understand her more and find out more. So this like tension between modern and nostalgic, a brand that kind of embraced those two things, there’s a lot to play with there. And it makes you like, when you say that, you perk up a little bit and you’re like, oh, what’s going on there? And a lot of companies fall into the trap of like just being a lot of the same thing. We’re trustworthy, we’re reliable, we’re honest, they’re all the same. You’re just it’s all one note. You’re saying the same thing. So it’s not very interesting to anyone and it just starts to lose meaning and it doesn’t feel very dynamic or real. So those are broadly the three elements. I think that, personality is probably the least KPI driven part of what we’ve just talked about. But I think it’s hopefully really clear how the others are really tangible critical parts of building a business. And just to distill it down to its most essential thing, building a good product or business doesn’t mean anything if no one cares about it. And this whole process of building a brand is why anyone should care about what you do. 

Meredith: So one other question then, of the three P’s, it sounds to me like there’s the potential that one and two, so that would be purpose. And what was the second one? Position, so purpose, position, personality. Does position intersect with business planning to your mind as you were talking, I thought it might, but how did those two play with each other? 

Kelli: Yeah, it’s like I said, it’s a bit more functional than purpose. So it does have a little bit more to do with the product itself and how you wanna think about where it sits in a market. So in that sense, yeah, but like I said before, I think all of these things to divorce anything about brand from an overall business strategy is to be very short-sighted. Your brand position should be the North Star for your decision-making across everything that you do. 

So for example, if you are a company that cares about sustainability and you’re making a financial decision, you need to check yourself and say, does this financial decision help to support the fact that we are a company that cares about sustainability? If the answer is no, then you probably need to find a different solution. And that’s really key because we all have had experiences with brands that like just feel gross where, I think that the secret like unspoken thing behind all of this is that branding can feel, I don’t know, like honestly, I’m sitting here like glowing and advocating about how important branding is, but I have this conflict within myself quite often, which is that do you always want your brand to care about everything and does branding really does it feel authentic all the time? 

Do I feel like I’m being manipulated by companies? I think people have these thoughts, especially when brands present inauthentically or they say one thing and do another. I remember seeing a lot of things, especially like deep in the middle of the pandemic where there were a ton of articles coming out about does my mayonnaise need to care about human rights, right? Where there are just these kinds of opportunistic stances that companies will take under the guise of branding that actually has nothing to do with what their core brand strategy is. So I think that’s where things can really veer off track. And when you do hold, when you look at branding as the truth, when you define that really clearly, and then when you make company decisions, using that always as a gut check for literally everything you do, then it will always feel true. It’ll always feel authentic. 

And the people that connect with it will do so in a very real way and it’ll feel meaningful. It’s when you create a brand position and you’re like, oh, that’s just some like marketing stuff that we do and then go and make decisions that are completely opposite of that. It’s both a misunderstanding of what branding is, the power of it, and it starts to create a brand that falls apart and people don’t trust and it feels inauthentic. I veered a little bit from your question, but I think this does have to do with, it’s bringing together like what it means to have a business strategy and what it means to have a brand strategy. 

Meredith: No, I think that’s helpful. As you’re talking, I’m thinking that, or I’m interpreting what you’re saying, as brand is actually much more, it is the integral structure of an organization. It’s not the paint on the outside of the building that you can change out on a whim. Is that right? 

Kelli: Absolutely. 

Meredith: So a couple more questions for you about branding. One, I’m curious about this. If a company is launching a minimum viable product, do you think that they also need to have a brand established or is that something that can come a little bit later in the process? 

Kelli: Yeah, I think this is a pretty simple one. It depends on what your goal is for that minimum viable product. If you’re testing functionality, you don’t need a brand. If you say you’re building an app and you’re trying to see, do people get confused with how well is the UI working? Are they taking the actions we want them to take and using it? You don’t need a brand. You’re just trying to, you’re testing and trying to learn about your product. If what you want to test as part of that minimum viable product is like, is it competing against, is it standing up against certain competitors? Or is it holding the space in the market that we want it to? Is it holding the price point that we want it to? 

Those are things that you would probably want to have a brand established for. So I think it’s variable. But most often when people ask that question, it’s because they’re testing functionality or just trying to work out kinks in a product and refine it into what will be the thing that they’ll truly launch to market. And no, I don’t think it’s just not an important factor at that point, because you’re trying to answer a different kind of question. That’s helpful, thanks. 

Meredith: Similar in my mind, do you think that brands matter as much in the B2B space as they do in the B2C space? 

Kelli: Yeah, this is a great one and something I’ve spent a lot of time working in, being in big news organizations that mostly speak to other businesses as their customers. The answer is yes, absolutely. I think it’s almost trite to say this at this point. But whether you’re B2B or B2C, there’s a real human being receiving your message. So I don’t know, there’s some strange thing that happens in people’s minds when they do B2B that they think that they’re talking to a high rise or something, there’s actually a human being who’s reading what you’ve written or getting the ad, right? So there’s a real human being there. It’s a real person who, like you and me, can’t fall asleep at night because they’re ruminating on a real problem that they’re dealing with every day. 

And a critical part of building a good brand is deeply understanding your customer’s real lived experience and clearly articulating the problems they either knowingly or unknowingly need a solution for. So articulating a problem that a real person is feeling and providing a solution for it, that’s what all good brands do. But particularly when you think about the business space, it’s super important. And a couple other things I’ll say about this. A trap that often people often fall into in the B2B space is being overly technical. And a good check to see if you’re doing this is to think about explaining that problem that we just talked about to a non-technical person. So I, as a non-technical person, should be able to understand what you’re talking about when you explain to me the problem that your customer has. 

So explain it to me as if I’m a bored but smart teenager. You still need to grab my attention, and you need to make it simple enough for me to understand. Once you’re speaking in that language, you know you’ve fallen out of the trap of becoming too technical, too insider-speak. Because again, you’re not speaking to a robot, you’re speaking to a human being. And then the second thing I would say is, find this to be a really helpful framework. To think about what you’re doing, is it a painkiller or is it a vitamin? Oh, yeah, it’s a really nice framework to use. So as a business, I think you want to be a painkiller. Or when you’re doing B2B, you want to be a painkiller. So painkillers are must-haves. Vitamins are nice to have. So for example, if I have a migraine, I literally can’t do my job. I’m stopped. If someone gives me something that’ll solve that, someone gives me an ibuprofen, I will pay anything for it, because I need it. Versus if I want to take some kind of vitamins to optimize my performance at work. It’s not that I don’t want that or that I wouldn’t be willing to pay for it, but it’s just solving a different kind of need.

So it’s not that you can’t be a vitamin, but particularly in B2B situations, people are willing to pay to solve painful problems. So if you can identify a problem and then show them how much that problem is costing them, they’ll really value the solution that you bring. 

Meredith: I love that concept of painkiller versus vitamin. And as you were talking earlier at what you hit onto, I think sometimes where the B2B world can fall a little bit short or miss an opportunity is not investing and spending the time to get to know the person that is the target demo in that role, which is in line with what you are saying.

I think B2C companies, they know what time of day their target customer wakes up and what music they play first thing in the morning. And so they get such into the details of who is that consumer. And in B2B, I think it tends to just be it’s the VP of operations at a mid-size company. And there’s missed opportunities to intrigue and delight those folks. It’s don’t we deserve intrigue and delight in our jobs, too? 

Kelli: That’s interesting. This isn’t a B2B example, actually, but I think it’s still a good avatar to use for it. Sometimes the person you’re talking to isn’t actually the person you think you’re talking to. So for example, when I worked at Atria Senior Living, you might think that you’re targeting the older adults who are going to move into a living space. But actually, they’re not the ones making the decision. It’s their adult children. So you’re actually not targeting an 80-year-old man or woman, you’re targeting their children who are probably in their 50s. So it’s a different target with a completely different mindset. And I think this often happens in B2B, where, like you said, we think everybody wants C-suite marketing. We want to talk to the top executives who are making the decisions. 

A lot of times, it’s the data engineer who’s really passionate on Reddit and on different forums looking for new tech solutions. Or there are other people in the organization who are actually the real influencers behind these things. It’s not always just who we think the key decision maker is. And it’s really worth, I worked on a project for a little bit about this and we’re in a similar space. And we narrowed it down and identified, OK, it’s not actually the CTO who’s making this decision. It’s the data scientists. And what are they like? They love superheroes. They love video games. There are all these interests they have that when you start to think about, oh let’s create a cool gamified experience. Let’s do this.

It starts to become something a lot more interesting and engaging instead of just the same old boring white paper for the C-suite executive to read, which they’re probably only reading a few lines of or not reading at all. 

Meredith: Yeah, they’re sent that five times via email by the data scientist who eventually is like, can you please rubber stamp this? And the CTO does. That’s really interesting. 

All right I really want to dig a little bit into your Maven course, Brand Strategy for Innovation. So maybe first, for anyone who is not familiar with it, could you talk a little bit about what Maven is and what your course is about? 

Kelli: Yeah, sure. So I just started teaching a course, like you just said, Meredith, called Brand Strategy for Innovation. And it’s on a platform called Maven. So Maven is just an online platform for cohort-based courses. And I’ll explain for a minute what a cohort-based course is. And speaking of good branding, Maven is a fairly young company. They’re less than two years old. And they created their own category of cohort-based courses, which was not something that anyone was talking about or really existed previously. So good job, Maven. 

If you think about how online learning has traditionally happened, it is a very passive experience, like Corsia or Udemy or some of these other platforms. You pay a fee, you get a bunch of videos, and you watch them whenever you want. The completion rate is super low for those, because people just lose interest. Cohort-based learning, it happens real time. It’s really similar to a university course that you would take. There’s an instructor who teaches live, which would be me. You enroll cohorts of students together. So you are in a live course that’s happening on specific days and times with a bunch of other people who are all showing up on Zoom together to attend. 

And the advantages of doing this is not only do you get the benefit of being able to interact real time with an instructor and ask questions and get their knowledge, but it’s not just a lecture happens, you’re listening, and then you log off. It’s a really interactive way of learning. You’re getting to meet the other people in your cohort. So you’re networking with peers and other people who do similar jobs to you, probably at really cool companies that you can learn from. And we do a lot of live workshopping in the course. So I’m presenting concepts. And then I’ll say, OK, here’s an exercise. Go do it. And you’ll do it with other people in the cohort. So you’re learning alongside each other and from each other. And then when the course is over, you walk away with actual work done. 

So there’s real, you really get something at the end of it. It’s not just all intellectual. So I feel really passionately about it. I think it’s a great way to learn. It’s really reinvigorated me as a leader to think about how I present concepts and lead inside of a business, thinking about it more through the lens of teaching and relooking at it in that way. So that’s been really interesting for me. That’s what Maven is and how the course works. 

Meredith: I feel like I always learn a lot any time we talk. And you have so many, as I said, put on a branding clinic. So I can’t even imagine how beneficial that course could or would be. What type of exercises would you do with folks? What would they come away from it with? 

Kelli: Yeah, so I ask everybody to come in with a company in mind. So it can either be the company that you work inside of, or it can be a company you want to launch. Or it’s really good for early stage founders. I think back to your earlier question, there’s this perception that, and truly, it can be quite expensive to hire a full agency team to. We’ve worked in agencies. We know what it costs when you are pretty bootstrapped and you just literally don’t have the money. So it’s a good solution for that, where as a founder, you can really learn about the importance of building a brand, how to build an effective brand. And then you walk away basically with a platform. You’ve got something down for your purpose, your position, and your personality as a playbook that you can launch from. 

So everybody comes in with a company in mind, whether it’s your own. It’s also really good for marketers who don’t work in brand. So whether you’re a content marketer, a product marketer, growth marketer, if you want to understand how to be a better brand marketer at the same time, which all of these disciplines work together, then it’s a really beneficial thing to do as well. 

And I’ve also had interest from venture capitalists and people in the innovation world who are dreaming up and building new companies, but don’t necessarily have any kind of education in branding or marketing and want to better understand that side of things. So some of the workshops we do is there’s a fun little word game that people play with each other, where everyone writes down, they try to define their category and write down their position. And then you have to actually speak it out loud as if you’re sitting at a bar having a beer with a friend. And people start getting really tripped up on their words. And you can you start to realize very soon, very quickly, how easy it is to fall into meaningless business speech, which is speaking like a real human being in a really simple way. So it gets you out of your head and being like, ooh, what does a what would I actually say to people? What makes sense? 

Meredith: It sounds very useful. And as you were talking about it, the concept of founders taking it was making me think about just what we talked on earlier, how kind of integral creating a brand is to creating a business and how if you can allow your business plan and your brand to be really symbiotic with each other, that you’re probably going to make things a lot easier for yourself as time goes on. 

Kelli: Definitely. It’s what I advocate for. 

Meredith: All right. Kelli, thank you so much. You have been an incredible guest. You have educated me. I’m sure you’ve educated some listeners. I really appreciate it. 

Kelli: Thank you very much. Thank you. It’s been so good to chat with you, Meredith. As always, love talking to you and love having the opportunity to do it in this platform. 

Meredith: So if folks are really intrigued by some of the things you talked about, the course, or they just want to follow you, where are the best places for them to look you up? 

Kelli: Yeah. So you can connect with me on LinkedIn. It’s Kelli Corney. And that’s where I share everything that I’m doing and getting up to. And then if you go to, you can type in my name. Or if you just Google Maven and Brand Strategy for Innovation, you’ll be able to find my course. And you can sign up on my page there to get on the wait list for my next cohort, which will probably be at the end of April. I’ll be releasing the date quite soon. Would love to have you there. 

Meredith: Amazing. And one question. So if folks have a credit with their organization that they can apply toward courses or learning, are they generally able to do that through Maven too? 

Kelli: Yeah, that’s such a great question. The majority of people who take courses through Maven use their learning and development budgets from their organizations. Oh, awesome. It’s a great way to put it to use. And the testimonials and ratings from courses across the board, just because of the type of learning it is, are super high. And actually, the last thing I’ll say about this is the benefit of the type of content that’s typically taught on Maven, including my own course, is it’s the kind of things that you would like to learn at a university level, but isn’t really taught there because it’s more professional skills. 

So you’re getting to learn from people who have the real-world experience of doing this every day in their jobs in really reputable positions and organizations and teaching them to you at a really high level. So yeah, it’s a great place to learn. 

Meredith: Amazing. We’ll definitely put a link to your course in the show notes too for anyone who’s interested. Amazing. Kelli. It was such a pleasure. 

Kelli: Yeah, thanks, Meredith. 

Meredith: All right, everyone. We hope that you enjoyed our chat with Kelli. 

Ian: We’ll be coming to you next week with a new episode. 

Meredith: If you like the show, please don’t forget to rate, review, and subscribe in your podcast app. That really helps other folks find the show. And also, consider subscribing to the content people newsletter. The link is in the show notes. 

Ian: And that’s our show. Thank you so much for listening.