Evelyn Starr,  founder of E. Starr Associates helps Brands in Adolescence. Her fascination with why people buy and the problems that brands encounter as they struggle to grow give her a unique perspective helping people overcome marketing problems. The following is an excerpt from our recorded conversation on my podcast, Embark.

LS: Before we get into anything about (brand) adolescence, could you just talk about brands in general and how we as consumers relate to them?

ES: Brands are formed in the mind of your consumers. When you launch a business…you had an idea of the way that you want it to be perceived. And you probably put it out into the world that way… but you can’t control how people perceive it.

It’s like when you call for a plumber, right? … You get three names, and one guy calls you back right away, one guy doesn’t call you back at all. Another one says, I have an appointment two weeks from Tuesday. So, they become the very responsive guy, the guy that never responded, and the guy that’s too busy to really help me as soon as I need.

Those are brands, that’s the very beginning of a brand formation in your brain. Over time, people have more and more experiences with you. And so those experiences accumulate, if you will, in a folder in your brain. And that’s your brand to them.

LS: You’ve always worked with branding, how is doing it on your own different or is it then when you’re working for a larger company?

ES: All these pieces of wisdom I’m sharing with you on brand were not things that I had on day one. It’s different when you’re on your own because it’s hard to see it on yourself. Right? I had the same issue with my brand. I had to think of it in the terms I used to use for corporate but also understand the differences that there were.

LS: You were really intentional about putting together your own brand. I think you mentioned it took about 18 months of soul-searching and figuring out where your niche is. Do you think that you’re an outlier in that way?

ES: Yes. That’s the short answer. The truth is, when you take that time and create those guidelines, it makes your life going forward much easier. Please just take the time and figure out who you really are first, and what you stand for, and where your audience really lies, who you really want to work with.

I didn’t have Brands in Adolescence on day one, I didn’t even have it on day ten. There’s the iterative processes you put out into the world, the problem you want to solve for people, who you are and who you want to work with. Through the experiences you have, you can refine and figure out, oh, you know, I have a strength here, I could build a niche in this area.  I have connections in this area. This will help me build another market or segment for myself, or the problem I’m solving for people isn’t really a problem anymore, and I need to do something different. All of those things happen over time. But you have to communicate all of those things to people.

LS: There are so many different brands that either overlap or do exactly the same thing. How does one communicate or elevate that message with the brand?

ES: The best way to stand out is to… declare a niche and stake out some territory… Creating a competence in a niche and really demonstrating that gives you a halo of competence for a lot of other things. Saying you do a lot of other things doesn’t help you stand out in the way that a niche does. So not all the brands I work with are brands in adolescence.  Far from it. But by having this specialty and talking about it, people see the way that I think about brands, the way that I think about marketing, and people have approached me on that basis to do things that have nothing to do with brands in adolescence.

LS: (According to Mark W. Schaefer’s book, Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins). Businesses believe 81% of their marketing messages are relevant and useful but 84% of consumers say these communications are not. 83% of the time businesses think 13% of their marketing messages are unsolicited, while consumers feel 85% of the messages they receive from businesses are spam. That is a huge gap in reality versus perception. How do businesses get it so wrong?

ES: The reason businesses get it so wrong is that many of the performance indicators… or measurement tactics they put in place are formed…They don’t talk to consumers, they don’t ask them about their expectations. And so that’s where the mismatch comes.

LS: In a time when…there is not a lot of brand loyalty… how do you retain people with a brand when people are so fickle?

ES: Brand loyalty is at an all-time low. I don’t really ever counsel my brands to rely on loyalty. The idea is you’re as good as your last interaction and your last experience because that’s the most recent piece of your brand people are going to recall when they think about what to do next, and whether to give you their next piece of business. And so, you’re earning your place in their brain. You’re earning their business every single time.

LS: I want to get to your book. (Teenage Wastebrand: How Your Brand Can Stop Struggling and Start Scaling). What was your inspiration to write it?

ES: My inspiration in the way that I even came up with the concept of brand adolescence was that in the first 10 or so years of my business, so many business owners told me how much they hated marketing.   And I found that the hatred was rooted in a little bit of fear they would be throwing money away, and a lot of uncertainty about how to make marketing decisions. Most of these business owners didn’t come from business school backgrounds.  They came into the business because it was a family business, or they had an idea, or some other route. All of the marketing jargon… key performance indicators…those other things that make us all want to run for the hills just fell on deaf ears, and they didn’t know what they were doing.

It broke my heart that they were so afraid of and really disliked marketing that it kept tumbling down their to do list. So I struggled to find what way  I could explain [marketing] in a way that’s more intuitive, less jargon-driven, and takes away some of that uncertainty. And so it’s probably not a coincidence that just as I was trying to figure this out, my kids were hitting adolescence. So I saw a lot of parallels there. And I also remembered my adolescence. And so one day when I was struggling with my own brand, I thought God, this is just like having an identity crisis. And, and that was the first spark to ‘Hmm, maybe there’s some parallels.’

LS: What are three major signs (brands are in adolence?)

 ES:  If you feel like every time you go to market your brand, you are recreating the wheel, and don’t know what to say, or you’re saying something very different than you said last time, that’s a sign that you may have an identity crisis.  You haven’t defined your identity enough to have those guidelines so that you know what your message is going to be and the tone and voice you want to put forth.

[Or] you feel compelled to list every single benefit that your competitors have, and meet all those benefits, you know, so that you end up having a laundry list.  And you’re afraid that if you don’t have something that one of your competitors has, you’ll be knocked out of competition.  That’s a FOMO thing, a fear of missing out. Your brand would really benefit from you being brave enough to declare a niche. Your business actually grows more if you go narrow and stand out, than if you try to fit in with the crowd too much.

A third sign is if everybody else in your industry has adopted new technologies or incorporated new trends, and you have just been coasting along, not worrying about it, because you have this handful of clients or however many. And you risk becoming irrelevant. Brands can oversleep for a little while and then they play catch up. But if you really ignore the big changes that are going on in your industry, so for example, if you’ve never had a zoom session at this point, you probably are putting yourself behind.

LS: How much can you take on trends? There are certain trends that may not suit your philosophy or your values. What does one do with that? Or do you just stay steadfast and say, ‘I’m standing here, there are certain things that I’m going to adapt to but that’s a non-negotiable.’ How does that generally work?

ES: Once you’ve defined your brand, you figure out what fits in with it, that your purpose, your attributes, your values, all of those things that go into the book as guidelines for what fits in and what doesn’t fit in. So for something we were talking about a while ago, for example, one of my values is that, you know, I have integrity. I know that sounds, you know, pretty basic, but I have a trust relationship with my customers and my clients. And I won’t violate that part of my integrity is to not do things to them that I hate. Which is why I don’t put those pop ups on my website, because they bother me. I don’t care that I would probably get a few more percent subscribers to my newsletters. It’s not who I am. And it would be a misrepresentation.

LS: During this time, many people can feel that sense of lack or scarcity. ‘I don’t have the money. I can’t really I can’t see myself working with somebody about this. I don’t know what the next steps are.’ What’s your advice to them?

ES: I would be remiss if I didn’t say you could pick up my book. I have a battery of questions, and if you answer yes to two or more of those questions, you can get an idea of where your business is stuck. So that that would be one way to do it. But another way is to take a moment to really determine your purpose. I think it all starts with your purpose. What are you trying to achieve? Figure out what your purpose is. You might get some insight on new ways to deliver your service, and turn things around.