Making Your Brand Irreplaceable

Finding that special ingredient that makes your brand irreplaceable is tough work. If you don’t put yourself in the shoes of your customer, that job turns from tough to impossible.

Job #1 is to turn your brand inside out, understanding that one simple answer that every customer seeks:

What’s in it for me?

Think of your own life. Which brands are such an important part of who you are that there are no brand substitutes?

As I went through this exercise myself, I immediately thought of the 2012 Excedrin recall. That devastating recall in which every single bottle was removed from every single shelf in every single state. Excedrin is my standby. It is the medication I turn to when migraines put my head in a vise and won’t let go. For me, there is just no substitute. I frantically searched through purses, suitcases and drawers stockpiling Excedrin so I could manage to cobble together a cure until that jubilant day when the brand magically reappeared on shelves.

I thought about the other brands in my life that are irreplaceable.

So, here is the $6 million question:

What emotional benefit does your brand promise its customers?

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Are You Using an A.C.E. Moderator?

Over the course of my 20+ year marketing career, first as a client, then as an agency planner, I have participated in hundreds of focus groups, brainstorms and interviews from both sides of the glass. Throughout these years, I have learned that you can train someone to be a good moderator, but that the skills required to become an A.C.E. moderator are innate … they are hard-wired into who the person is at their very core.


Selecting the right moderator is the first, and most important, step in truly understanding what customers think and feel. A great moderator is the foundation of a great strategy.


Authentic. Curious. Empathetic.
Three words used to describe Sue Northey’s moderating style.


Sue has spent over 20 years uncovering unexpected insights which inspire communications and build brand affinity. She is a skilled communicator, having moderated over 750 interviews, focus groups and workshops in order to brainstorm new ideas, understand consumer motivations, evaluate new products, assess brand equity and evaluate communications. One of Sue’s specialties is leading branding workshops with multidisciplinary teams, working collaboratively to understand and reposition brands.

Sue has spearheaded efforts for well over 100 consumer, business-to-business and nonprofit brands. Her work experience encompasses the client, agency, academic and entrepreneurial sides of business. Her previous leadership roles at a major CPG company, a notable advertising agency and a D1 university all prepared her to launch her own consulting firm, Branding Breakthroughs, in 2015.

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5 Reasons B2B Brands Should Be on Social Media

One of the most common questions I get as a brand strategist is whether a B2B brand should be on social media. There is a common misconception that social media only benefits consumer brands. The truth is … social media can equally benefit both consumer and business-to-business brands if a clearly thought out and well written social media strategy is in place. There are at least five solid strategic reasons why B2B companies should be on social media.


The single most important benefit of social media for B2B marketers is the opportunity to increase awareness of your brand. Consider the following awareness-to-loyalty continuum. Without awareness, a prospect doesn’t even know you exist, so how could they consider purchasing you? Social media is a cost-effective means to increase awareness among individuals you believe are your core prospects.

Awareness – Loyalty Brand Continuum


As a B2B business, you are not reaching out to the 321 million people that live in the United States … a feat that a consumer brand may have to realistically consider. Instead, you are reaching out to a finite group of individuals. The key is to discover which social media channels your prospective target is frequenting. Gone are the days when the number of followers you have on social media is the lynch pin to success. If you have 500 followers but they are exactly the type of individuals you are trying to connect with, that lower number of followers may be a virtual goldmine.


Each channel serves a purpose and, therefore, should be selected on the basis of your specific needs. Many articles talk about the big three for B2B: LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. While these channels may represent a good starting point, they may not be the most appropriate channels for your business.

  • LinkedIn provides a perfect forum to connect with other like-minded individuals in your industry. Join a special interest group to talk about industry trends, ask customers to endorse your brand or to write a recommendation, publish original content to establish your company as a thought leader or find young professionals who share your company’s passion to hire for that open position.
  • Twitter is a terrific channel to establish thought leadership by using industry hashtags or a special hashtag you have created to showcase something specific to your company. It is also a great way to remain plugged in to industry news and happenings. Follow industry leaders to understand which issues and topics are top-of-mind and tweet relevant and important topics to individuals that will begin to turn to you for advice.
  • Facebook is a good forum to showcase your corporate culture, engage with customers on a personal level and show a little bit of the fun side of your personality.
  • YouTube is a perfect platform for brand storytelling or how-to videos that help your brand come alive.
  • While the jury may still be out on the overall effectiveness of Google+ as a networking forum, there is one thing that is irrefutably true – it elevates your brand in Google search, providing an easier way for current and prospective customers to find you.
  • If you work on a particularly visual brand, perhaps Instagram or Pinterest will provide you the perfect forum to connect with others looking for infographics, how-to pictures or suggestions on how to use your brand in unexpected ways.


How do you stand out from your competitors? As President Mike Crawford of marketing firm M/C/C points out, “As a B2B business using social media, your goal is to position the company as an industry leader.” If you have a blog on your website and are struggling to get people to read it, social media provides a forum to broadcast your content. So much of what is shared on social media is regurgitated information, so original content can really break through the clutter and establish your brand as a thought leader, helping to build credibility and trust in your overall brand.


But, the most convincing reason to use social media as a B2B company is that, plainly and simply, it works. Research conducted by the Content Marketing Institute shares a number of very impactful statistics.

  • Over four-in-five B2B marketers (86%) use content marketing to reach their targets and social media is a prime way to distribute that content.
  • Over half of B2B marketers use five social media platforms – LinkedIn (91%), Twitter (88%), Facebook (84%), YouTube (72%)  and Google+ (64%) and usage of all these channels is on the rise.
  • While there is certainly room to optimize their usage of social media, B2B marketers believe that LinkedIn (63%), Twitter (55%) and YouTube (48%) have proven to be effective for their businesses.

Should you make a decision to move forward with social media, do not tiptoe into the effort. Making a half-hearted attempt to engage in social media can set you up for greater damage than doing nothing at all. (See: Are You A Drive-By Social Media Marketer)

Drive-by MarketerThroughout this process, please keep in mind that building a loyal social media following takes time. Services that offer you thousands of followers for a small price merely populate your follower count with individuals that are not your core target.

Evaluate. Plan. Provide adequate resources. Take the time to execute properly. You will not regret it.


Branding Breakthroughs Social Media

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7 Life Lessons Learned While Fishing in Alaska

A great deal of research has been conducted in the past few decades on the restorative powers of nature. It has been demonstrated that nature can make us more productive, help us focus, prevent depression and reduce stress.  So, I shouldn’t be terribly surprised that my 10-day fishing trip in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska resulted in such an epiphany of sorts. Not only did I have the adventure of my life, but I achieved mental clarity on so many things that had been on my mind. Perhaps you can take this trip with me vicariously and benefit from some of the powerful lessons I learned.

1. Embrace Risk

Seaplane Condensed

Of the four of us who traveled to Alaska, I was the most inexperienced fisherman … by far. Well, let’s be honest, I had only fished once in my life and that was 30 years ago. I’m not going to lie – I was a bit nervous. Could I fish side-by-side with these more experienced individuals without making a fool of myself? Would I get seasick as we darted along the ocean waves? Would the seaplane be safe? Would I have the wherewithal to pop out of bed bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our 3am wake-up calls? While those questions may have made me a bit hesitant, they certainly didn’t stop me from going on this adventure. Truthfully, the inherent risk was a little bit intoxicating. So, I found myself tugging on chest high waders, climbing on sea planes, wading into rivers and sailing over the choppy Pacific waters with a sense of gusto. Everything I was experiencing was so raw and new. The air felt crisper. Nature was more vibrant. People were more interesting. I saw colorful jelly fish floating in the ocean, a bear sticking its paw in the river, salmon swimming against the strong current, glaciers lining the landscape as far as the eye could see and so much spectacular beauty that I felt small in comparison. As the above articles so eloquently illustrated, my mind was refreshed and energized … and so was my spirit.

2. Trust Your Guides

Dick - condense

I had the fortune of traveling with some very knowledgeable and patient guides. They knew where to go to find the fish and where to avoid stumbling on less-than-friendly grizzlies. They knew when to move up our fly-out time to capitalize on the fish population and when to cut the trip short because we were just wasting our time. They knew how to encourage, instruct, demonstrate and cajole. They taught me how to cast, set the hook and let the salmon think they were winning the battle. I learned to listen and trust the lessons they imparted.

3. Collect Experiences, Not Possessions

Ocean condensed

In preparation for this adventure, I found myself in the business of buying lots of things. Clothing: a wind-resistant jacket, a rain suit and breathable shirts. Fishing: chest high waders, wool socks and an Alaskan fishing license. Travel: hotel, fishing lodge, flight, car and excursions. Accessories: a water bottle that wouldn’t leak and a waterproof camera case. Collecting things for the trip was an adventure unto itself. It involved two trips to Cabela’s, a trip to Gander Mountain and numerous dinners and nights out with our best friends to plan the details of the trip. It was part of the overall experience and it was fun, helping to build our anticipation for the trip that lie ahead. But all that paled in comparison to the experiences we collected in Alaska. Adventures like this fuel stories for years to come. Honestly, the stories had begun before the first day was complete. We talked among ourselves, shared fish stories with others at the lodge, posted on social media and sent texts to our families. The storytelling had begun.

4. Be Prepared to Fall

Bird condensed

While I generally understood the mechanics of casting, my casts were falling short. Short enough that I wasn’t going to catch any fish unless I figured out how to improve my technique. One of our guides told me to ‘put a little more oomph’ into my casts. So, I decided to take a giant step off the sandbar into the water so I could put my whole body into it. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, my left foot found the one and only drop-off so close to shore. Within a matter of a few short seconds, I went from casting to swimming. Once I realized I wasn’t in danger, I have to admit I felt a bit like Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality after falling in the Miss United States pageant.

“I mean, I know we all secretly hope the other one will trip and fall on her face, and – wait a minute, I’ve already done that!”

A little known fact about me is that I am not the most graceful creature on the planet. I have had a few face plants in my day. So, truth be known, I had a sneaking suspicion that I would be taking a swim at some point during our 10 days exploring the Last Frontier. So, in a way, getting it over with was a bit of a relief. Sometimes planning for the inevitable – or the not-so-inevitable – takes the pressure off and makes a tough thing not so tough.

5. Believe in Yourself

Sue condensed

You already know I’m a novice, so perhaps you won’t be surprised that I had two unsuccessful days on the river. When I say unsuccessful, I mean wildly unsuccessful … not one single fish caught. I had an internal battle with myself on the second day that went something like this:

It’s okay. Really. Look at how beautiful this place is. Soak it all in. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t catching any fish. Just keep practicing. It will pay off eventually; if not today, tomorrow.

This mostly worked, although I had an emotional dip for a few hours. But, then I realized, I am in Alaska and not on some comfy cruise boat, but I’m actually in the wilds of Alaska! How many people have the courage or the resources to make something like this a reality? So, I turned my attention to the ripples in the water, the way the sun reflected through the trees, the snow-topped glaciers in all their splendor and – yes – to the salmon my husband and friends were pulling in. I savored every last minute on the river and figured the next day would be a fresh start. And I was right. As time went on, I figured out how to cast and set the hook without overthinking it. The next time we traveled to the Kenai River, I caught the largest silver salmon on our boat and actually had to throw fish back so I wouldn’t go over my daily limit. Keeping a positive attitude and not giving up paid off.

6. A Kind Word Goes A Long Way

Sunlight condensed

We spent a week at the Gone Fishin Lodge filled to capacity with die-hard fishermen. Now, one might think that these river-hardened gentlemen might be uncomfortable around the likes of inexperienced women attempting to fish the wilds of Alaska, but it is amazing what a smile and a kind word can do … even at 3:30 in the morning. A bright, ‘Good Morning!’ followed by, ‘How was your fishing yesterday?’ brought smiles to everyone’s faces. While we came from all over the United States, we quickly formed a bond. We shared stories (it turned out I wasn’t the only one that went swimming!), talked about our families back home and discussed tasty ways to prepare salmon and halibut. We went on daily adventures with some of our new friends, crossed paths at local restaurants and sat on the deck in the evenings sharing a few drinks after a long day of successful fishing. We truly enjoyed each others company.

7. Respect Nature

Bear Condensed (2)

I had an overwhelming desire to see a bear while in the Alaskan wilds. I saw them as the cute, cuddly, sweet-faced bears I gazed upon at my local zoo. The guides had warned us that we were in bear territory and that we were guests in their land. We needed to respect them and their sense of territoriality. While I took heed, I still wanted to see a bear. And then it happened. We were fishing from a sandbar when he appeared across the river. … just a little more distance than a cast away. He paced back and forth, obviously hungry and on the lookout for dinner. He must have liked what he saw in the river because he toyed with the idea of fishing. As he took a few tentative steps into the river, our guide hurriedly put all the salmon we had caught into an air-tight container, while coaching us to get ready to jump into the boat for a quick getaway. That was when the adorable grizzly turned into a menacing predator. Lucky for us, he stayed on the other side of the river, but it taught me a valuable lesson.

Mountains Trees Condensed

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Sometimes You Just Need to Nurture Your Creativity

These days, there seems to be an insatiable desire to link everything we do on social media back to ROI, a statistic or something else that helps move your business forward in a dollars-and-cents kind of way.

  • How many new prospects did you generate on Twitter?
  • Did your LinkedIn article show how knowledgeable you are?
  • Did your Facebook post make people want to work for you?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I agree that there has to be a purpose for it all at the end of the day. Why spend countless hours and brain cells working on something if it doesn’t elevate your business in a quantifiable way?

But lately, I can’t help but wonder if we are missing some of the really important ‘soft’ benefits of engaging in social media.

Like creativity, for example.

Concepts - Creativity

Posting to your social media account can allow you to flex your creative muscle and to solve some of those business problems that have been nagging you for days.

Branding Breakthroughs may be dedicated to advancing our client’s understanding of branding, but let’s be real … creativity is a critically important component of crafting an insightful and inspiring brand strategy.

For us, outlets like Tumblr and Instagram provide the opportunity to go beyond the day-to-day business workings (which can get tedious at times) and express ourselves in a way that brings new clarity and vision to the work at hand.

If you read any of the many articles written on breaking through creative blocks – like this one at Creative Bloq or this one at Fast Company – you see some common threads. Take a stroll around the neighborhood. Snap some photos. Draw a picture. Write aimlessly. Commune with nature. It is through these creative outlets that our brains are allowed to free float and to, sometimes miraculously, come up with a solution to a problem that has stumped us.

Perhaps Jill Davis is on to something when she says, “The waves of the sea help me get back to me.”

The waves of the sea help me get back to me

So, don’t be afraid to use a social media channel like Tumblr, Instagram or Pinterest to feed your intellectual curiosity and to nurture your creativity.

It may pay off for you in unexpectedly wonderful ways.

To see how Branding Breakthroughs nurtures their creativity, check out our Tumbler, Instagram and Pinterest accounts. You will notice each still pays off our brand by delivering consistent imagery in a voice that is in total alignment with who we are.


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An Obituary Can Help Your Brand Come Alive

Obituaries Make Us Sad

The word ‘obituary‘ likely conjures up images of lilies, funeral homes and heartbreak. It’s generally not a happy thought … no matter how it is served up.

But perhaps it’s the context in which we think of obituaries.

Consumer-Written Obituaries Add Fresh Insight

A consumer-written obituary can be immensely helpful when it comes to the health of your brand. It can point out vulnerabilities before they become reality and help you understand why your brand is revered by its loyalists.

Doing an obituary exercise in a focus group or as preparation for a brainstorm can be very insightful. Split the group in two and have half write an obituary for your brand and half write one for a key competitor. Ask them to read their obituaries out loud and use their comments as fodder for a group discussion.

Ask These Questions

So, what’s in a good obituary?

Obituary exercise

An Obituary Can Breathe Life Into Your Brand

Sometimes, asking consumers to write an obituary can breathe life into your brand before it becomes a mere epitaph.






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Are Snackable Visuals Seductive? You Decide.

According to Socially Sorted, Snackable Visual Content describes “images that are digestible, highly shareable and can easily cross social platforms and drive traffic.”

To illustrate the value of snackable visuals, let’s take a fact and illustrate it in three different ways. Then you judge which is most captivating.

Here is our fact:

When you add a visual to a tweet, you can boost retweets by 35%.


Adding a photo to your tweet can boost retweets by 35%. (HubSpot)


The Power of Visuals



Which Is Most Effective

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Is Brand Strategy Just BS?

In my work at Branding Breakthroughs, one thing has become abundantly clear … people think they understand Brand Strategy, but they really don’t.

So, just what is Brand Strategy and why does it matter?

What Brand Strategy Is Not

Perhaps it is best to begin by explaining what Brand Strategy is not.

  • It is not your logo.
  • It is not your website.
  • It is not your product.
  • It is not your brand name.
  • It is not that fancy newsletter you publish.

What Is Brand Strategy?

Think of it as the frame of your house. The 2x4s that make up the walls, the roof, the ceilings, the floors. These important pieces form the foundation of your house. If you use inferior materials or hastily construct it, your house may not withstand normal wear-and-tear; worse yet, it definitely will not hold strong when the high winds of that unexpected storm hit.

Which Questions Do I Need Answer?

Here are some of the questions you should answer in order to create a compelling Brand Strategy.

Brand Strategy Questions

So, now perhaps you understand that BS stands for Brand Strategy and that it is a really important building block for your brand.


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How To Use Brand Magic To Increase Sales

When I set out to create Branding Breakthroughs™, I decided to scope out my competition. After all, they are branding and marketing gurus, so they must have incredible websites, right?

Marketers Don’t Necessarily Brand Themselves Well

But, my research left me a bit stymied.

While I certainly found some great marketers out there, I was shocked at the number of websites that entirely missed the whole point of brand strategy.

Tons of copy. No differentiation. Lack of focus. Marketing-speak. Inconsistency. Old-fashioned imagery.

In a word:


Turned To Social Media For Answers

So, I put the question out into the social sphere.

“Did you do for your own brand what you do for your clients?”

While some readily acknowledged a hearty YES!, others openly admitted they wanted to focus on their clients rather than themselves.

Wait … what?

How can you possibly hope to engage prospective clients if you don’t practice what you preach?

First and foremost, you have to get your own brand right. Even Psychology Today offers the advice,

“Love yourself before you love others.”

The Secret Sauce Behind Branding

So ask yourself.

  1. What keeps my customers up at night?
  2. What makes our brand different?
  3. Where is the white space in our category?
  4. What kind of personality do we have?

Brand Ecosystem 6.24.15

It’s Hard Work, Not Magic

Clients often look at me and think I have some magic up my sleeve. I throw a little of this and a little of that into a magic black box and *PRESTO* out comes the perfect brand ecosystem. But you and I both know, there isn’t a whole lot of magic that goes on. It’s just good old-fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves, noodle-it kind of hard work.

Phase 1 Discovery Process

My Advice To You

  • Take the time to talk to your employees about what they see as your brand strengths and weaknesses. What do they wish you did differently?
  • Look at everything you share with your customers. Is it focused or all over the map? Can your competitors say the same things?
  • Speaking of competitors, analyze their digital presence. What are they saying to differentiate themselves from you? Hint: Don’t play in their sandbox if you don’t have to.
  • Look at the media attention you’re receiving. Is it consistent with what you say about yourself? Does it play out your point of differentiation?
  • Convene a multidisciplinary team for an afternoon. Talk about your brand. I mean, really talk about your brand. Ask the tough questions and hang around until you’ve figured out the answers.
  • Now lock yourself and a few trusted allies in a room. Use everything you’ve learned to carefully craft your brand ecosystem.

It’s Hard Work, But It’s Worth It

If you want to create a meaningful, differentiated brand, do the work. You won’t regret it.  (Tweet this.)

It will be worth every single minute and every drop of sweat.

Don’t Want To Go Solo?

Feel free to drop me a line at I’d love to help you find the magic behind your brand.

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Are You A Drive-By Social Media Marketer?

According to Pew Research Center, 74% of internet users are on social networking sites. With numbers that high, it’s not surprising that 80% of Fortune 500 companies have a presence on social media (Source: Simply Measured).


But, just because companies and individuals have a Facebook or Twitter account doesn’t necessarily mean they are actively engaged. In fact, most social media marketers would likely agree that there is a whole lot of one-way communication going on in the social sphere.

  • You see a great article, you post it.
  • You hear some breaking news, you share it.
  • You see a great recipe, you pin it.

But, how often do you actually carry on a conversation with someone on social media? (Other than on your personal Facebook account, of course.)

Chances are … not very often.

So, why do 74% of internet users the world over even bother? Perhaps, for many, the answer is because ‘everyone’s doing it.’

This reminds me of a question my mom used to ask me when I was a kid. I would insist I needed a certain brand of jeans or specific style of shoes because – everyone sing along – “Everyone has them, Mom” to which she would promptly ask,

“If everyone else walked off a cliff, would you follow them?”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a huge proponent of social media. I believe it is a great channel to learn about new developments, to share your expertise with others and to nurture relationships with your customers.

But, here’s the rub.

Too many companies are on social media because ‘everyone’s doing it’ rather than because they have made a premeditated decision to meet their target in that space and to engage with them.

A study conducted by Convince & Convert revealed that 70% of consumer complaints on Twitter are actually ignored.


I don’t know about you, but I find that statistic alarming.

In their article, “The Value of Complaints,” the author shares,

“96% of unhappy customers don’t complain, however 91% of those will simply leave and never come back.”

When you think about the ease of tweeting at a brand or the ability to easily vent frustrations on Facebook, social media instantly becomes an extremely important customer service channel. Perhaps, that 96% of non-complainers will begin to shrink as people turn to social media for quick solutions to their brand problems. To then be ignored, well, I think you know the ending to that story.

What is the moral to this story?

“If you are a drive-by social media marketer, you could be doing a greater disservice to your brand than if you were not on social media at all.”

Your mere presence on a site indicates a willingness to engage with customers. If you ignore their comments, you are not only missing a golden opportunity to connect with them, but also fueling a potentially volatile situation.

So, let me ask you … are you willing to walk off a cliff just because everyone is doing it?

If your answer is yes, perhaps you need to rethink your strategy.


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