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Why marketing your business on the power of cool just isn’t cutting it anymore.

December 10, 2012

I built my first business on the power of cool.

Abby Kerr's MomIt was a brick and mortar retail store called THE BLISSFUL in my Ohio hometown. (These are its blog archives.) 2000 square feet of funky, French-inspired lifestyle goods — everything from organic cotton t-shirts to upholstered chaise lounges to a stone bust imported from Egypt to Scandinavian stationery. Four years of harder work than I’ve ever done in my life — oftentimes back-breaking, dispiriting, pride-swallowing work — alongside my (cool) mom (that’s her at left, across from me at an Asian fusion restaurant), who was my unofficial business partner and the shop’s visual stylist.

It was a cool store.

We sold cool stuff that we merchandised in a way that made it look even more cool; other shop owners would drive in from states away to surreptitiously photograph the shop and get ideas for their own displays. Oh, she just  . . . we could hear them whispering one to the other as they ambled from display to display, narrating aloud the elements that made up our vision.

We won an independent retail industry award and got cool perks because of it, like comped hotel rooms when we traveled to market. I was invited to serve on the Advisory Board of a retail trade magazine.

Our customers mythologized us as shopkeepers. “My mother knows the owner,” one man who’d called the shop told me . . . about me. “The owner travels back and forth to France all the time.” I’d never been, and had never claimed to have been, to France.

A writer and stylist for a high-profile shelter magazine called me to ask if she could do a story and a photographic feature on my home (assuming it was as cool as my shop was). At the time, I was living with my parents and sleeping in my childhood bedroom.

I got used to being a merchant of cool*.

(Hat tip here to the fabulous documentary of the same name — whose topic is not exactly what I’m talking about in this post.)

When I closed my shop and started freelancing full-time, I assumed that my new Brand Proposition could easily be the same as the one from my retail business: buy from me because my brand, my POV, and my “eye” are cool, and this is the coolest approach to home decor/gifts/personal accessories copywriting/branding and marketing consulting you can get.

I intentionally shaped my freelance brand as aspirational in flavor, because aspirational lifestyle retail — over the top displays that bore little to no resemblance to how people would actually use these objects in their own homes, but that was what was cool and wow-worthy about it — was what I knew and did well.

I tried marketing my freelance business on the power of cool for a year or so.

I trusted that the Right People would be attracted to my brand, because, well, they’d just “get it” or they wouldn’t. I would’ve bet the farm that just “being myself in my brand’ was the best way to shape it. I ended up working with all different sorts of clients that year. Some of them were Right Enough for my phase in business, some of them — weren’t.

I wrote sales page copy for myself that was way too meta. My $127 audio course converted at about 1% of my list size. I cycled through highs and lows, both with income and in entrepreneurial self-esteem.

Then one day, a mentor gave me a b*tch slap of a newsflash:

“You know why your sales pages aren’t converting? It’s because you’re trying to market your brand on the power of your personality. Like, hey, look how cool I am, don’t you want to spend time with me and my brand because we’re so cool? You need to talk benefits. Results. What they get. People would LOVE to throw money at you if you’d just tell them what they’re f*cking getting!”

A-ha!

People aren’t really drawn to our brands by us, because of us. It’s not our cool factor, our witty one-liners in audio interviews, or even our jaw-dropping tagline that calls them in.

People are drawn to our brands by what they need from us to be more of themselves or to have the life they’re trying to create.

In order for them to realize we’re offering what they need from us, they need to believe that:

  1. we see them,
  2. we get what’s challenging for them, and
  3. we have a thoughtful solution.

Cool alone isn’t cutting it.

I’m not anti-cool by any means. I love cool. I refuse to assign any one tantamount definition of cool to cool.

Cool is subjective. Cool has 32 flavors and then some. Cool looks, sounds, acts, thinks, and feels differently on each of us — and on each of our brands.

As for me, I stepped down from the platform I was intent on riding around on (to protect myself and my energy as an introvert), and I got wise to how to really connect with my Right People. And it wasn’t — shockingly, to me! — about modeling ‘cool.’

Neither was it, for me, about becoming hyper-accessible or more available for Skype chats with everyone who wants to say hello, or endless emailing back and forth with people who love to discuss ideas but have no immediate intention of ever becoming clients.

For me, it was about (and still is about) designing a business that addresses my ideal clients’ true needs, core desires, and persistent questions. It’s not about me living out my own journey through the offers I create. It’s about composing a brand story that speaks to my Right People’s identity at many levels.

It’s about approaching branding, copywriting, and marketing with empathy, taking the focus off of me and how I want to feel and looking at life and the problems my business solves through my ideal clients’ eyes.

My brand today is a reflection of my style and aesthetic preferences, sure, but you better believe I conceptualized it to please my Right People first. I can do that easily now, because I know who they are.

We hear this advice all the time — focus on your readers’ needs, step into their shoes — but have you really done it yet? (Hint: If you had, you’d already know exactly what your Ideal Client wants to buy from you.)

The risk of self-centric branding and marketing — marketing your business on the power of your own personality, the juice from your own vein of cool, or on the stoked embers of how you want to feel – is building a business that misses out on serving Right People because you’re expecting them to look just like you.

Conflating yourself and your Ideal Clients is the quickest way to build an ego-centric business.

Assuming that you must design your business and your brand to serve a past version of yourself — I can’t think of a more limiting belief for a business owner.

When you conflate your Ideal Client and yourself, you fail to see and understand who they are because you’re so caught up in Doing You through your business. You assume their needs, challenges, questions, stumbling blocks, and pain points are the very ones you yourself have struggled with — or are still struggling with.

In some cases, this is absolutely true.

And in other cases, it’s absolutely untrue.

Have you considered that maybe your Right Person doesn’t have all that much in common with you psychologically or emotionally, and may be drawn to work with you for that very reason?

Are you sure you can only be satisfied in your business if you’re serving people a lot like you?

Ego-centric businesses, while they might attract big headlines, don’t necessarily have big bottom lines.

It’s time for a new paradigm in branding.

Here at The Voice Bureau, we begin with each client’s Voice Values, three to five core features of your naturally powerful voice that you already rely on when you’re connecting with readers, clients, and colleagues.

Think of your Voice Values as the current of Empathy that flows through your brand. Your Right People are drawn to you because of your Voice Values. So whether we’re rewriting your About page, helping you finesse a sales page for your new online program, or putting together a visual creative brief you can hand off to a web designer — we start by looking at how you’re already primed to connect with your ideal clients. (No navel-gazing or psychoanalysis on your part necessary.)

Discover Your Voice Values today, right here, for free. Enter your best email address below and click Go.









 

In the comments, would you share with us:

Where have you caught yourself conflating your own journey with your Ideal Clients’ journey? Or what assumptions have you made about your Right People that you’re ready to let go of so you can really serve them? I’ll share my story if you’ll share yours.

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Tara Gentile December 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm

Right on, Abby.

Unfortunately, there is a prevailing “wisdom” that if you always market to yourself-two-steps-behind you’ll be able to find plenty of customers who have had the same problems you figured out. This is myopic–and often creates sycophantic relationships, not only between customer and seller but seller and mentor. Gross.

I think it should also be said that Empathy isn’t just about feelings but knowledge and true understanding. So many people talk about being highly sensitive to others feelings yet either can’t (or, more likely, don’t acknowledge) their ability to have direct knowledge of others circumstances and needs beyond a wash of emotion. I believe we all have the ability to look for the Truth of others experiences and thoughts and harness that to do real & substantive good through business.

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abby December 10, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Hi, Tara –

YES! I couldn’t agree more to your points in the first paragraph. Much of ‘online business’ has devolved to ‘I solved this problem in my own life two years ago and I can help you solve it for yourself, too!’ That’s not necessarily a bad proposition, but to me, it raises flags about Ego Fulfillment By USP.

And yes — the sycophantic relationships. (I’ve been on both sides of those relationships, and I can vouch they aren’t healthy for anyone).

Another point of agreement: Empathy isn’t just a wash of emotion, it’s the capacity to take a deep, critical look at someone else’s perspective — and then to *offer* them the solutions they’re actually asking for.

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Jo Crawford December 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm

I love this post Abby – especially getting a peek at the pre-Voice Bureau Abby and your referencing Ani di Franco gets you extra cool points with me :)

But to the case in hand, the issue of what’s me and what’s my client is slowly unfolding for me. I’m realizing that my right clients are very similar to me in some key motivations and desires but oftentimes different in how this is executed and their specific goals. I feel what works for my brand is giving my clients a sense that they have an ally in me, not necessarily a new BFF.

I think it’s hard not to get caught up in ego-driven brands when you have such a personal brand. I’m striving to not be a Sally-Fields-oh-you-really-really-like-me brand or codependency with my clients. Sometimes in my attempt to do so, my copy can come across as aloof and less personal though, which gets in the way of my Voice Value of Intimacy.

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abby December 10, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Hi, Jo –

I admire how thoughtful you are about this whole process of claiming your voice, and discerning what’s yours from what is your client’s and where the twain shall meet. A woman after my own heart — especially now that Ani DeFranco’s in the mix. ;)

I think that the conflation of self and audience is a phase of business. I don’t think it has anything to do with how LONG someone’s been in biz, necessarily — I think it’s more about business development and awareness. And also how much pain the conflation has caused the business owner/brand creator and how willing s/he was to face it! (This is true for me.)

I like your ally versus BFF distinguishment. And agree with you that if we look at Big Personality Brands as models — as hella inspiring as they can be! — it’s easy to fall into thinking we should be actively grooming sycophants. (Gah.)

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Jo Crawford December 10, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I’ve also come to realize that no matter how intact your professional boundaries are there will always be clients who project onto you (or are sycophants as you say).

It reminds me of that belief that humans are pack animals in search of the alpha to lead them and how this can play out in celebrity (or online A-lister) worship in today’s pop culture.

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abby December 10, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Oh, yes. People are people. I think the microbusiness culture is a microcosm of the culture at large.

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Ali Shapiro December 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Abby – I love your point about “if I solved this for myself, I can help you too” As a health coach, I’ve spent four years getting a Masters degree in Coaching because too many times, someone finds a tool/hammer, and everything looks like a nail to them. Or, someone lost 30 pounds and now they are a weight loss coach. The human body is so complex and to think one diet, one path, one whatever will work for everyone is definitely uncool.

It was so important for me to do the work (not just in academia but also with real life clients for six years) to build a tool-box so I have real value and solutions to offer clients. I’ve devised my own health coaching model but like Tara’s work, it’s systems and frameworks for people to discover what works for their body. It’s never about what worked for me. Yes my intimate knowledge of my own health struggles helps but it’s not what I’m actually selling.

As someone new to this online marketing world, I appreciate you pulling the curtain back!

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abby December 10, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Ali! Can I just say how desperately this world of businesses marketing themselves online NEED people like you who believe in old-fashioned credibility indicators, take the time and patience to earn their wings, and then stand behind their training proudly? We all start somewhere, it’s true, but with the low barrier of entry to online business, it’s all too easy for people to hang up a coach or consulting shingle who have no actual real world experience yet!

Very glad you’re participating in the convo.

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abby December 12, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Interestingly, Marie Forleo’s MarieTV today is about this very issue:

http://www.marieforleo.com/2012/12/want-to-coach/

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Lindsey December 10, 2012 at 4:02 pm

I was just having a version of this exact conversation with a colleague last week, so I enjoyed reading this (and, like Jo, enjoyed the Ani live video insertion).

Interestingly, I hadn’t put it in this language — hadn’t been able to articulate that the issue with certain businesses is a narcissistic one. But it’s true that the snake oil on the (online) market today has a weirdly self-reflective element.

As a writer and editor heavily invested in various client/company marketing, though, I must applaud this post for setting the record straight. With a few very specific exceptions, I don’t think most businesses can grow by marketing only to past versions of their owners. Benefits always come first, and those benefits should be clearly spelled out and easily verified. Just because we can all throw up a WordPress site in an afternoon doesn’t make us business owners. The same rules still apply, and consumers are pretty hip to this, even if we think they’re not!

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abby December 10, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Just because we can all throw up a WordPress site in an afternoon doesn’t make us business owners. The same rules still apply, and consumers are pretty hip to this, even if we think they’re not!

Nodding my head emphatically over here, Lindsey. Brava and thanks for being here!

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Ali Shapiro December 10, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Abby – yes, the low barrier to entry is such a double edge sword. It’s great people who have real skills and results (it doesn’t have to come through schooling) can find an outlet for their unique value. If I had to be a registered dietician, I’d never have a business. I philosophically disagree with the standard protocol for nutrition training so I appreciate aspects of these low barriers. But on the flip side, oie! Coaching is all about precision and clarity – I find it so ironic the industry has no set definitive terms for who is a coach!

I’m sure this will change and love Lindsay’s point that consumers, especially if they aren’t immersed in this whole online marketing world, are very savvy. I’m fortunate that my clients are sophisticated “shoppers”. They keep me on my toes and given how complex they are, are skeptical of snake oil. They challenge me in the best ways and I adore them.

I love this conversation and am thankful others feel the same. I have spent so much energy doubting if I was doing things right because I’ve taken the slow and steady wins the race attitude and worse, thinking online business is different than offline. Tara’s thankfully straightened me out with that through her Make Your Mark program.

And who did the original version of 32 flavors? Ani or Alana Davis? I thought Alana did but I think I learned something else new today! Either way, I love that song!

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abby December 11, 2012 at 9:19 am

I have spent so much energy doubting if I was doing things right because I’ve taken the slow and steady wins the race attitude and worse, thinking online business is different than offline.

In some ways, it is, but in other ways, I think online-only businesses would do well to take a few lessons from what we think of as ‘traditional,’ offline-facing businesses. I’m glad you’ve discovered this for yourself! It’s exciting to me how the lines between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ businesses now get to be blurred — and in many cases, already erased.

And that is a REALLY good question about “32 Flavors”. I first heard the song from Alana Davis (whose voice I love), but when I was Googling for a video yesterday, I came across Ani’s version and I assumed that she recorded it first and I didn’t know. Hmm. Anyone know for sure?

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Jo Crawford December 11, 2012 at 11:46 am

32 Flavors was written by Ani and first released on one of her early albums, Not A Pretty Girl, which came out in the early/mid-90s. My understanding is that Alana Davis’ is a cover released in the late 90s.

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abby December 11, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Thank you, Jo!

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Tami December 10, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Abby, you are most definitely not anti-cool — you have raised *cool* to a whole new level. This took a lot of reflection and experience to write. You have drawn some incredible comments from people who obviously “get it” and I find it all so refreshing. Thank you for opening up this conversation.

There is a way to use first hand experience without getting caught in thinking you are the ideal client and to move from being egocentric to customer-centric. It is a much more pleasurable and rewarding business experience. Bravo.

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abby December 11, 2012 at 9:21 am

Thanks, Tami! Working with you has helped me to recognize the necessary, crucial, and respectful divide between ourselves and our clients so much more clearly. It truly is in service to them to NOT make assumptions about them, but to be curious about who they really are and want to be (and not assume, in either case, that it’s US).

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Leslie December 11, 2012 at 8:17 am

Abby, well said! I like the honesty and the glimpse into the writings of the Abby of two years ago.

I think it’s most important to focus on service and benefits, basically how to help other people reach their goals (which are generally not “become the person I’m listening to”). This is something I’ve tried to do for a wide variety of clients. I think it requires taking my own ego out of it. This seems to slightly contradict with building around myname.com and selling my own skills, perspective, and experience but I guess that is part of the process.

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abby December 11, 2012 at 9:24 am

Hey, Leslie –

These days, I think of having one’s domain be one’s own name as more of a ‘property ownership’ thing than a ‘personality brand’ thing. I have this belief that within 10 years, most Americans will own the domain that is their name, or at least a version of their name. It’ll be something you register for your children at birth — along with getting them a social security number, etc.

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Leslie December 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Just imagine the day when people might name their kids based on whether the URL is available!

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abby December 11, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Right?!?

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Laura Simms December 11, 2012 at 8:46 am

Bam. Abby strikes again.

I’m reworking my website, and while the copy feels pitch perfect, visually I keep getting my foot caught in the “let me express myself” trap. I’m working to let my right people see themselves in the design, rather than me me me.

And while I strongly believe that business (at its best) is a form of self-expression, it has to go way beyond there and truly serve folks. The focus must be outward.

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abby December 11, 2012 at 9:28 am

Hi, Laura –

I’ve never thought of myself as a bam kind of girl, but I love hearing this from you! :)

Designing a website is a tricky balance, isn’t it? I think you absolutely SHOULD love your website — it’s your home on the web, after all. Loading your home page should strike you with a sense of glee, or a deep yes. And many times (but not all the time), I think what YOU are drawn to is what your Right People will also be drawn to. (This comes back to the Voice Values — our people are drawn to us because of what we embody through the way we communicate. It’s intuitive, intellectual, and visceral.) But there is a line.

One place I see risk in the design process is when vetting and hiring a designer. Make sure the designer’s signature style IS what you’re looking for, aesthetically, or make sure the designer’s portfolio shows great range. Because otherwise, you’ll end up with a website that caps off his or her portfolio beautifully but does nothing to showcase YOUR brand in its most advantageous light.

And on that note — I can’t wait to see your site rework!

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Ali Shapiro December 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Thanks for that research Abby, so thoughtful of you. Last month, as I was thinking of all these ideas, I googled the song because it felt like a 32 flavors of ideas kind of day! Ani’s version came up first. It was the first time I realized she sung that song. I switched between versions that week (I can play a song to death!) and forgot about it. And now, I have my answer. If only I could be patient about everything in my life like that!

Both really talented artists.

Thanks again for the spirited conversation. What a luxurious space here in the Internet world!

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abby December 11, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Mmm, thank you, Ali — what a delicious compliment. So glad you feel good here!

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Jeffrey Davis December 11, 2012 at 6:37 pm

Abby~This post is refreshing. The cult of cool – as much as I love Miles Davis, the king of cool – has often grated me. I’ve recently been tempted to think that somehow my sales pages should be jazzier, sexier, more about “me.” Recently, I asked a few trusted souls in my Wild Pack to critique a sales page for a upcoming program. One of them said, “I want to know about you, see a video of you doing x and y, etc.” I appreciated her point, but the spirit of it contradicted my archetypal way of being in the world. Luckily, I listened to my inner counsel – and have sweet outer corroboration here. :-).

Tara Gentile’s comments about empathy are interesting, too. Empathy, I find, involves the capacity to put aside your own agenda, to get yourself out of the way so the art of how you or your products engage & enchant others can shine. It involves truly feeling and imagining the world & suffering of the other. It’s an important way of being for an artist, a writer, or an entrepreneur (or all 3 as you seem to be :-)).

Cheers

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abby December 12, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Hi, Jeffrey –

Love that description of empathy, thank you.

And bravo to you for not jumping on a tactic or a tool (video on a sales page) to “connect” more effectively with your readers. Video is a beautiful tool for certain people in certain ways — and not the right tool at all for others of us or in other places. Glad you allowed your understanding of your archetypal influences to guide you on this one. And quite excited to take a look at your new offering!

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Jessika December 12, 2012 at 6:46 am

Can you feel me leaping up and down singing your praises to the world? Thank you for this post and your exquisite clarity! I got over my fascination with being cool when I was a teen after some scraped knees & moved on to being able to recognize the cool-factor without needing or coveting it for myself. Since then I’m drawn like a magnet to the most un-cool person in the room and am likely to leave the cocktail party to kick it with the street kids.

The cult of cool/celebrity works-it sells product, moves people to action, and brings fame to those who choose to wrap their package up in it. We can see this drama played out over and over again in the tabloids-we build someone up to iconic status and then circle close when they start to fall apart “cause everybody harbours a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room”. This type of fame/status is all wrapped up in ego and tied into our consumption driven economy. Being surrounded by glitz and shine makes others feel less so that they fill up the spaces where confidence should be with product and adulation for icons. Cool is an effective marketing tool with plenty of precedence.

While we can be easily distracted by cool I believe at our core we crave to see things as they really are. To look beyond the smoke and mirrors to the truth beneath-even if it is ugly. That is why we tear down our celebrities and the tabloids make such a killing publishing pictures of celebs looking rough. Businesses built on cool without substance lack the foundation for true sustainability. I like to think of building a business of value I could pass on to my children or that could continue beyond me. I want to create tangible value-this is why I love handmade-it is all about the work!

So I watch it all unfold & keep doing my thing working on supporting the shift from ME (or mefirstgimmegimme!) based business to values based, community driven social enterprise. I think larger pockets of us are moving from top-down/iconic leadership to collaborative/servant based leadership. In business that can take many forms but the root is that in order to truly see your market/fans/followers you need to allow yourself to be seen as well. Then step out of the way so that the work can speak for itself or the dialogue can unfold. I don’t want to be the prettiest girl in the room with everyone wanting to be like me (UGH) I want to be in a room full of people secure enough in our own power to get out of the way so we can work together.

Thank you again for creating a place to have these conversations-I could write piles more but this has gotten ridiculous!

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abby December 12, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Oh, Jessika, you’ve said it all and more: your portrayal and critique of celebrity culture and why we feel the need to throw the very celebrities we “love” under the bus, substance-less business flash, and even the perfect Ani DeFranco lyric to make this point!

I’m curious and can’t remember: any chance you have a high Legacy value (from the Discover Your Voice Values self-assessment)?

I think larger pockets of us are moving from top-down/iconic leadership to collaborative/servant based leadership.

I love that you said this. It used to be that I thought I had to remain *removed* from my audience in order to have impact as a brand, but I now understand that sharing my story — scrapes and all — is the way into real conversation that makes a difference and helps brings about the results we all want.

So glad you’re a part of this convo. :)

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Rebecca December 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm

I love this. A lot of my business is based around my own personal values of freedom and adventure, and I choose to live my life this way. Many people seem to think this is “cool”, and email me saying they want that too. Trouble is, I don’t have a set structure for how to teach you to have my life – how could I possibly know what is best for anyone other than myself?

People see someone they admire, and they want to be that person, and I think it’s our responsibility as business owners to work with people to create their own dreams, instead of promising a re-creation of our own lives.

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abby December 12, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Hi, Rebecca –

Absolutely! I think what this comes down to is the need for every good service provider to have a sound methodology she can take clients through to move them towards results. I think every service pro — be she a life coach, a creativity consultant, or a wellness advocate — needs a methodology. Otherwise, it’s all just reinventing the wheel every time, at best, and at worst, it’s fluff or flash-in-the-pan stuff.

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Hawk August 27, 2014 at 3:20 pm

This is the ideal answer. Evoeyrne should read this

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Corrina Gordon-Barnes December 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Haha – I grew up being decidedly UNcool. A few years ago, a business mentor told me I should brand myself around being uncool i.e. my Tribe also feel uncool, like outsiders and like there’s not a place for them in the cool business world. I don’t think I’m leveraging that as such yet – maybe unintentionally it just seeps out?! – but it was an insight that stuck with me.

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Abby Kerr January 2, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Does this perspective on your Right People resonate with you? Knowing your people as you do, do they see themselves as patently (and proudly) uncool, and would they want to rally around that characteristic as a self-identifier? I don’t have the answer, just putting the question out there. ;)

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Corrina Gordon-Barnes January 3, 2013 at 2:48 am

Great question. I think they mostly identify with “being different”. Un-mainstream, unwilling to do things which don’t resonate completely with their heart and values. Some of them feel lonely because of this; others proudly embrace this characteristic. My live community meet-ups and blog comment space provide online and offline places for them to meet other like-minded, like-hearted outliers. I think “cool” or “uncool” are less significant self-identifiers, but it’s certainly something I could ask them about…

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