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Podcast: Huckleberry Branding Founder, Mariko Hickerson, on The Trust Factor Radio with Host Neil Howe

In this episode, The Trust Factor host Neil Howe speaks with Mariko Hickerson, owner of Huckleberry Branding in Nashville, TN, about how her business helps clients in the midst of brand identity crises discover their authentic voice and brand story, then help share that story with the world.

Listen in as Mariko shares common mistakes about how companies often hit the ground running marketing their business – and spend big bucks on it — before taking a deep look into their brand. This faux pas can lead to wasted effort, expense and less-than-optimal results in the long run. Learn why nailing down a strong brand story and identity first will lead to more fruitful marketing efforts in the long-run.

Full Transcript:

Intro: [00:00:02] Welcome to the Trust Factor Radio, bringing you interviews and insights to unlock the power of the subconscious mind to create authority, credibility and trust — with your host the authority architect and best-selling author, Neil Howe.

Neil Howe: [00:00:19] Hello, and welcome to the show. This is your host Neil Howe, and today, my special guest is Mariko Hickerson, and she is with Huckleberry Branding. She helps businesses with brand identity crises discover their authentic voice and brand story, and then she helps them share that story with their target audience.

I think a lot of people have that problem — not exactly knowing what their brand is, so I’m very interested to get into this conversation with Mariko. Welcome to the show.

Mariko Hickerson: [00:00:52] Thank you for having me.

Neil Howe: [00:00:54] Tell is a little bit about yourself, Mariko, and Huckleberry Branding and who it is that you help.

Mariko Hickerson: [00:01:01] Sure. Before I started Huckleberry Branding five years ago, I was a print newspaper reporter in San Diego — before I turned to the dark side of digital marketing. Ironically, I actually learned a lot about digital marketing from my career as a reporter. Part of that, I think, is because I was the youngest person there, and I saw the opportunity that digital marketing presented for, frankly, a somewhat dying industry. I got our newspaper on Google News for instance; I uploaded and promoted my own articles onto our website and onto our social network; and I helped out the editor with the print design and layout of the newspaper. All of those experiences really culminated into what would soon be Huckleberry Branding.

As for the steps in between, I picked up a couple of clients on the side while I was working at this newspaper full time who really gave me a huge opportunity. They gave me free reign to manage their marketing strategies and their budgets. So, it led me to gain a ton of experience in things that I really hadn’t dealt with a lot before, such as social media, email marketing, a little bit of PR, and website development. In fact, over the past maybe 10 years or so I’ve actually built about 20 websites myself, done a lot of SEO myself, written hundreds of blogs, and managed lots of different social media accounts. But now, as the owner of Huckleberry Branding, I have a great team of people who are experts, and they’re much better than me at doing those things.

So, like I said, we’re about five years old. Most of our clients are in the healthcare industry here in Nashville. Healthcare was something that sort of just fell into our lap from the beginning, but we developed a process that really works well for our clients. Most of our healthcare clients are patient-driven healthcare — so they might be clinics, drug treatment centers, or hospitals — but we also have some in health tech, as well as general B2B healthcare businesses. That being said, we do have other clients in other industries and all across the United States, but that’s really sort of our niche: healthcare — specifically patient-driven healthcare.

Neil Howe: [00:03:25] Great. So talk about this brand identity crisis that you say many companies have. What exactly is a brand identity crisis? What problems are they facing?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:03:40] A lot of our clients come to us in the midst of this brand identity crisis and it can come in a few different forms. It might be that they’re struggling to find their authentic brand voice or the message that’s really going to resonate with their target audience. They might be suffering from a poor reputation or a poor brand perception — often that is a result of previous leadership or a poor customer experiences that they’ve since resolved, but [the brand] really hasn’t gotten that message out there. In some cases, they might just be held back by their visual marketing materials. And then in other cases, maybe they have a very clear idea of who they are and what their message is — they have a solid brand identity in place — but they’re still having trouble connecting or resonating with their target audience. Often, it’s that they’re using the wrong platforms, they’re not hanging out where they’re their target audience is getting information. Those are some of the most common problems that we see. And really the root of it is that a lot of companies don’t take the time first to come up with a clear brand story — really take a deep dive into their business, their core values, their  brand personality, or who they are — and they start marketing before they even have a clear message in place. So those are really some of the problems that we see most often with our clients, and that’s part of the reason that they come to us.

Neil Howe: [00:05:20] What point do they have to get to to realize what they’re doing originally isn’t working?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:05:27]  A lot of times they have started implementing a marketing strategy, and they’re really not seeing the results that they had intended. I think a lot of times when that happens, a lot of people say “Okay, am I on the right marketing channels?” instead of “Are we spreading a consistent and strong brand message out there across all of these marketing platforms?” Really, sometimes the problem is both — they’re on the wrong platforms and their message isn’t very compelling or consistent. So we really like to address both of those, but often that sort of decision point comes because they’re not seeing their marketing efforts as being very fruitful.

Neil Howe: [00:06:21] And once you have the clarity of the brand message, do you then help them create a marketing campaign?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:06:29] Yes. So, again, we want to put at branding before digital marketing in terms of the timeline. A lot of people I think make the mistake of starting their business, they hit the ground running with marketing, and they spend a bunch of money on marketing before taking that deep look into their brand. So, we do start with that brand identity creation first, and then we help them identify the most appropriate channels — where their target market is hanging out, where their competitors are seeing success. We do help them come up with that marketing strategy, as well as implement that marketing strategy, and, most importantly, we measure that marketing strategy.

Branding is really not a “set it and forget it” type of service; it’s really something that you want to hone over time. You don’t want it to send mixed messages out in the marketplace, but at the same time you do want to refine your brand story, and the only way you can do that is by measuring what your target audience thinks about your brand message through marketing. We put together monthly reports for our clients and it does encompass what platforms are you doing best on, who are your target audiences — we really help refine that — and to really just hone their brand identity as well as their marketing strategy simultaneously month to month.

Neil Howe: [00:08:01] Well, let’s walk through this. Tell me the steps that you take to help somebody identify what that brand identity is and, from there, what their brand message or brand story would be.

Mariko Hickerson: [00:08:17] We really start by taking a deep dive into the business. We help clients identify and define their core values. We also give them parameters on how to use those core values. I think a lot of people think of core values as a laundry list of values that you and your team agree on. You put it on your website, you put on your marketing materials, and that’s it. But really your core values should be action items; they should be the ways that you reward your team members and the way that you guide your team members’ interactions with your clients. So, we really try and bring a lot of these concepts to life.

Once we’ve identified core values and brand personality, we’ve taken a look at some of the competitors, we identified a key differentiators between one business and its competitor, and help define their value proposition, we document all of that into some brand guidelines, key brand messaging, and a style guide for the visual brand.

From there, once we have all of that in place, we move on to the marketing phase where we identify the right marketing channels where their target audience is hanging out. From there, we often also implement that marketing strategy for our clients, and, like I said, measure — which to me is very, very important — those brands’ messages, the visuals and the platforms themselves on a month to month basis. So, that’s sort of it from start to finish.

Neil Howe: [00:10:05] Let’s talk about what that looks like for a business in the healthcare industry, because I know a lot of doctors and clinics and things notoriously have terrible marketing. You may look up the doctor, and all you find is a list of directories that they are on, which doesn’t really give you a great deal of information about anything. How do you help them to step out from the competition and really work on their brand?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:10:37] Healthcare is interesting, because like you said it is somewhat confined; we are restricted a little bit more than other industries. You don’t see a whole lot of creativity in healthcare, but you really can identify key differentiators for every doctor or for every practice.

One example that I like to use: we have been working with a drug treatment company for a little over a year, and in the beginning they did have that brand identity crisis. A lot of drug treatment centers sort of all start looking the same, and especially in drug treatment, there’s a lot of bad reputation out there. So really trying to stand out from the bad apples, as well as differentiate yourself from the other kind of competitors out there — getting to the heart and soul of this business — was really important. And what we discovered was that their approach was absolutely unique to their competitors. They don’t have one path — it’s not just 12-Step philosophy — they integrate a number of different kind of recovery paths for their clients, and they let their clients really choose the path that’s right for them. And that really is unique, but they didn’t know that. So, once we shifted the language a bit, the messaging, and got them on the right platforms, they were able to see a huge influx of new leads coming to their business. And part of that was just clarifying the message and getting them on the right platforms. But, again, at the heart of that was identifying that that is their key differentiator.

With individual doctors, if you own your own practice, each doctor is going to have his or her own distinct personality. If you’re an individual practice, as opposed to a team of doctors, then you are your brand. So, identifying who you are as an individual — are you straight to the point and so you need clients that are not going to ask a whole lot of questions and they just want to get in and out and get their services completed? Or are you someone maybe who’s willing to spend a lot of time with the patient, answer all the questions that they have, and share your own experiences? Those can be distinct brand differentiators. But as an individual, it really comes down to who you are as a person.

And then if you’re a team, it’s a little bit more of a combination of your team’s personality as a whole. For example, we there’s a women’s group that I go to — I’m actually seven months pregnant — so we have an O.B. group here in town, and I chose them because it’s a group of very friendly female doctors, and every single one of them would take the time to talk to you and answer any questions that you have. And at this stage, I feel like I’m asking a whole bunch of dumb questions, so I don’t want to go in and out quickly; I want to feel like I’m really catered to and get all the answers that I need for this new adventure. So, with this women’s group, I realized that I can go to any one of those doctors or nurse practitioners, and I feel like I have the same experience, so it doesn’t matter who’s delivering my baby, I feel 100 percent confident that I’m in the right hands with that group. They all have somewhat similar personalities and you can see that they really share the same core values, and they represent that with each and every patient when they come in. So that’s really part of that brand personality and sort of why I, as a customer, chose that particular office for my own personal needs.

Neil Howe: [00:14:44] And that’s important. You’ve really got to know what your customer avatar is and what they’re looking for. A lot of people just want to get in and out, and time is a big issue, and then other people like yourself are very concerned and they have multiple questions and they want to know whoever they’re talking to is giving them the time and answering all those questions. And in that case, you see less patients, but you could probably charge a lot more for that kind of service.

So, as far as some of the platforms that you are seeking as the best platforms for these health-based industries, where are people looking to find information online?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:15:36] It’s interesting because healthcare does have very distinct segments within it. So, for our patient-driven healthcare clients, we’ve really built a pretty solid model on organic optimization. Good reputation — so reputation management online – is [also] very important. Especially for something like a bad back or if a loved one has a drug treatment problem, the first place they go is Google. They put in their symptoms and search for an appropriate doctor or physician or treatment center for them. Really, we’re seeing organic search engine optimization and good reputation management online as being key elements in a patient-driven healthcare marketing strategy.

Whereas for some of our health tech clients, it’s a slightly different marketing strategy that works well for them. We’ve seen inbound marketing work really well for them. Pay-per-click has worked pretty well for our health tech clients.  In both cases, getting listed on the appropriate networks. So, for a doctor, maybe like HealthGrades or if you can get a guest blog on WebMD or some high-ranking site, then that’s always good. But in most cases, we recommend digital marketing. There are few instances where we might say “Okay, let’s put in this print ad”. You know, I’ve come a long way from my print newspaper days; I’m really putting most of our eggs in this digital marketing basket.

So, it’s interesting the distinct marketing strategies that work even within the healthcare sphere. I don’t think many people are finding our drug treatment clients on social media. We have a good presence on social media, but really for them it’s about being the solution that comes up first when they type in their search query and see that they have high reviews online and therefore picking up the phone and actually talking to our clients.

Neil Howe: [00:18:03] So these people are going to Google and they’re asking questions. So, a question-based search. What kind of content then are you creating for your clients in order to show up for those questions?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:18:19] We do a lot of blog writing. So, for each client it varies, but the goal is to really answer those questions thoroughly and thoughtfully and in a way that’s on the person who’s searching on their level and that they would understand. And, of course, having clear calls to action.

Video content has been doing really well. It seems like people don’t like to read as much anymore, so we’ve seen that video content does pretty well and for our clients too.

We also do things on social media and email marketing, but it’s really just reinforcing the answers that we’re providing to our clients through those kinds of search queries. Our goal is just to identify what the most common questions are and answering those through blog topics, through video, even on social media. You can do now Facebook Lives — depending on what the ailment is. Some people feel comfortable asking healthcare questions on a Facebook Live, so it’s interesting the different ways that marketing has now gone.

Neil Howe: [00:19:43] I think it’s important to find a platform that works, obviously, but it seems like video has really taken over, like you said. I imagine in the healthcare industry, seeing the doctor that is going to be seeing you or taking care of you would be very helpful to actually get somebody to pick up the phone and make the call. Do you find that the doctors give the marketing enough time to put forth their face and their voice via a video?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:20:19] It depends. It depends on the client. But I think it’s absolutely helpful for a doctor to get on screen and showcase their brand. But it’s also helpful for that third-party validation. If the doctor doesn’t have the time or we can’t go in and showcase their practice for one reason or another, client testimonials and partner testimonials are also great supplements to get to that video if, for some reason, the doctor just isn’t willing or isn’t able to get on the video.

Neil Howe: [00:20:58] So what are some myths misconceptions about branding and digital marketing within the healthcare industry?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:21:08] The biggest thing is that a lot of people think of branding as just a logo or just the visual identity of a company. And really it’s much more than that — and this spans you know within healthcare but also outside of it. A brand is what your customers think of you; it’s their experiences; it’s what they’re telling other people about your business; it’s the way that your team or your staff interacts with the clients or customers that are coming in. And it is the message and whether or not it’s resonating with your audience, and so when people are looking for branding companies often they limit that to “I’m looking for a graphic designer who can help with a logo.” But it’s really much more than that.

The second misconception really is — and I think I mentioned this before — it’s that it’s a one-time set it and forget it service. It’s really something that you want to nail down, you want to really have a good foundation, but just like your marketing strategy, you want to hone that every month over time. Your brand is never going to be perfect; it’s a living, breathing entity, and it changes with your new team members, with new discoveries within your business, new industry shifts and things like that. So, it’s really important to hone that brand every month or regularly. It doesn’t have to be every month, it could be every quarter, it could be every week. But just having a set time to really take a step back and evaluate what your brand message is. Are we still sticking with that, or is there something that maybe we need to A/B test in the market to see if this is a better way to phrase this core value? Is there something that shifted internally? Has our philosophy changed? Anything like that.

Those are I think the two biggest misconceptions: that a brand is just a logo and then that branding is really just a one-time, set it and forget it service.

Neil Howe: [00:23:14] And what holds people back from taking the time to really look at their brand? I know there’s different timeframes for companies. Many startups really need to have a look at it, but some companies have been in business for a few years. You know what holds them back from working on their branding?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:23:35] I think for startups, it really comes down to price. They have so many things that they need to accomplish right from the outset. They need a logo; they need a website; they need their key brand messaging; they need a marketing strategy. And all of these things, especially when they’re culminated, does not come cheaply. So, my advice to startups is really start somewhere. Like I said, you can iterate on that brand identity over time; you can iterate on that marking strategy. But you have to start somewhere, so take it one step at a time. Start with a logo. You don’t have to hire a big fancy brand company like ours; you can go on 99Designs. That’s perfectly fine for the first version of your logo. It’s not going to make or break your business if you have you know the perfect logo. Again, a brand is not just your logo; have a good business first.

For some of the bigger companies, a lot of times they have almost the opposite problem. They’re stuck. Especially these big corporations move pretty slowly and never really go back to the beginning or take the time to take a deep dive and evaluate their brand identity. And the bigger you get the harder that is because there’s so many different stakeholders involved. I think for them it’s easier to stick with what they’ve been doing, whether it’s actually working or not, and taking the time out of our busy schedules to really evaluate our brand evaluate our marketing strategy and make those changes. That’s probably the biggest issue/challenge that we see with those that companies. So there’s sort of distinct challenges for each group.

Neil Howe: [00:25:28] And for those that take the time and put the effort and the investment into their brand, what kind of return or transformation is there for them?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:25:40] I mean you should absolutely see traction in your bottom line. So, you should see more leads coming in. You should see more impressions in the marketplace. And as you hone your strategy, you really should see more leads that come in. One of the biggest things that is sort of challenging with a lot of our clients is measuring the ROI that they get from their marketing strategy. With digital marketing, it’s a little bit easier to measure that ROI, but one of the things that we like to see is how many people actually called your business, and not all of our clients will keep accurate call logs that they are willing to share with us. But we do have some great case studies with some clients especially with regard to digital marketing, so SEO has done really well. Measuring social media is a little bit tougher, and I don’t think a lot of our clients are really getting a ton of their leads from social media. And then some e-mail marketing, we get a lot of good kind of referrals from email marketing.

In one example, our client in that entire year before we actually were contracted with them, they received four total leads through web search. They do provide us with some some call logs, which are great, but they sort of just have one category and it’s “web search”, which could be a business directory listing, it could be organic search, it could be pay-per-click, that sort of thing. And they were employing all of these strategies in the year before we actually were contracted with them. And just in the first six months that we worked with them they had 111 leads. So, that was probably one of our best case studies, and part of that was just because we were able to collect the data from the client. For this particular client, one admission into their practice, was upwards of ten thousand dollars, so that more than makes up for what we’re doing. And they have a marketing director there who could utilize our entire team to just get everything that she needed done. She was the only person really in that marketing department, so she was able to get a lot more done and see a lot more traction from organic search and just a good reputation online.

Neil Howe: [00:28:23] Right, and that’s some great results right there to get nothing from online the previous year to you know a hundred plus in six months, that is great. And like you said, that’s a high ticket in the medical field and the healthcare. So, it’s definitely worth it. And the traffic is online. People are online; they’re on there asking questions, so it’s extremely important that you are able to be found and get yourself out there. Now, Mariko, if somebody is looking for a company to help on their branding, what kind of questions should they be asking to make sure that they are finding the right company?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:29:05] I think it’s important to ask for previous samples of work or case studies like that before contracting with anyone really. And making sure that the team and our own brand resonates with you. There are some people and businesses that are just not good matches for each other. I think it’s important to ask those questions, so the track record — do you have any case studies — but also meet with them and sort of use a little bit just of your instinct to determine if the personalities are going to jive together. Because this is someone that you’re going to have a regular interaction with. Like I said, it’s not a set it and forget it thing. It’s someone that you’re going to have a relationship with for a long time, so it’s important that you really see eye-to-eye with that company and meet their team and make sure that the team of people that individual will be working with directly is going to represent your company well. So, I think that’s really important. Making sure that communication styles fit. So, a little bit of instinct and then a little bit of science and data behind the company to make sure that I know what they’re doing.

Neil Howe: [00:30:29] Excellent. If somebody listen to this wants to reach out to you Mariko, what is the best way for them to do that?

Mariko Hickerson: [00:30:35] You can go to our website. It’s huckleberrybranding.com. In addition to our contact information, we’re on socials too. We also have some great free marketing resources, so if you’re looking for a marketing plan template or a case study template, we’ve got lots and lots of free resources on our website for you.

Neil Howe: [00:30:58] Excellent. Well, Mariko Hickerson with Huckleberry Branding you’re based in Nashville, Tennessee.  Thank you very much for being my guest on The Trust Factor Radio today.

Mariko Hickerson: [00:31:08] Thank you Neil.

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