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Conducting a Brand Audit with Dana Cassell

Bigeye’s senior strategist Dana Cassell joins us to kickstart the new year and our ninth season of the podcast. Dana discusses the importance of auditing all a brand’s assets and explains Bigeye’s five-step process. Learn why brand audits start with internal branding, move to external branding, and need to incorporate customer experience. Dana offers advice on determining which KPIs managers need to monitor to track a brand’s health. Download the Bigeye Guide to Conducting a Brand Audit.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:

Dana Cassell: A brand audit starts with internal branding, moves to external branding, and then also involves customer experience. Most important is having someone on the team who can identify what to measure and then convert the data to insights.


Adrian Tennant:
You’re listening to the first episode in the ninth season of IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. A full-service, audience-focused creative agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, serving clients across the United States and beyond. Whether you’re a regular or listening for the first time, thank you for joining us today.

Over the past two years, many of us have had to adapt to new ways of working, shopping, and connecting with one another because of the pandemic. Supply chain issues, leading to shortages of some goods, have presented challenges for sellers and buyers – and for the agencies responsible for crafting advertising that connects consumers with brands. Cable and network TV viewership has been declining for a while with streaming services becoming the new normal especially among younger generations of consumers. Taking an audience-focused, strategy-led approach to marketing communications means understanding the underlying beliefs and behaviors of brands’ target audiences, and devising ways of connecting with them wherever they are geographically, as well as attitudinally. But strategy work also encompasses information about brands themselves: how they’re perceived, their competitors – and considers how to grow their market share. Ensuring that we start 2022 on the right track, my guest today is well-known to those of you who listen to IN CLEAR FOCUS regularly.

Dana Cassell is a seasoned brand strategist and self-confessed media junkie. Since 2003, she’s worked in marketing for media brands, including Disney, the Orlando Sentinel, and Bright House Networks, as well as SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, and Orlando Health, among many others. Dana holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Temerlin Advertising Institute at Southern Methodist University and a Master of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. Today, Dana is Bigeye’s Senior Strategist. She also teaches courses in marketing, advertising, and sales, and regularly speaks to professional groups about brand management and digital marketing. Dana, welcome back to IN CLEAR FOCUS. 

Dana Cassell: Thanks. Thanks for having me back. Adrian. 

Adrian Tennant: Let’s start with some definitions. First, in the context of marketing communications. What is strategy?

Dana Cassell: Yeah, I think of strategy really as a definition of direction and scope. So, it’s more concrete than a vision. It’s informed by the past but focused on the future and it’s all-encompassing. So strategy is for everyone in the organization, all partners in the organization work with it, and no one on the team works outside of the strategy. And the last feature that I think of with strategy is that it’s semi-permanent so it’s not going to change as the wind blows, but it’s flexible to be amended over time. So really direction plus scope is how I think about strategy.

Adrian Tennant: So, Dana, what does your role as Bigeye’s Senior Strategist typically entail?

Dana Cassell: I’m usually brought in pretty early in engagements, which is lovely. And it’s usually about understanding the current state of affairs with our client’s business. So the first thing that I might do is just step into some conversations about what’s been happening, what they’re trying to do. If they have problem areas, what those are, or what they’re trying to grow, what opportunities they see, and then defining the direction and the scope of the marketing tactics that I believe will be the most effective at answering those business objectives. So some of the tactics that I participate in in the process are participating or leading discovery sessions. I also look at a lot of analytics along with the media team and create strategic planning statements out of those analytics. And I participate in conversations about audience definition and then work on defining key performance indicators a lot. So that I think is something that happens pretty frequently – that I’m part of figuring out how we’ll measure the success of whatever we’re working on. Sometimes I’m brought in to work on messaging documents, so I’ll partner with the creative team and the writers at the agency to make sure that the messaging really lines up with the strategic direction. And my favorite strategic work really happens when I have an opportunity to really clearly tie together our client’s current business opportunities with a real clear direction and scope for whatever project we have. That’s like the tidiest time, you know, when I get to come in early enough that I can really just get in the beginning of the project and set that scope and direction. It doesn’t always happen that way, but I love when it does.

Adrian Tennant: Dana, how do you define a brand?

Dana Cassell: So I think about a brand being all the features of a business that makes it what it is. So that would be things like visible features like logos and colors. Or messaging features like key phrases and taglines. And then also I include things that are totally intangible components, like culture and vibe and all of that together is the brand.

Adrian Tennant: It’s a phrase we use a lot, but I think it can mean different things to different people. How do you define brand strategy?

Dana Cassell: So two answers come to mind with this. One is more philosophical, which is the way I think about what a brand strategy is, and the other is more tactical, like what actual work we’re asked to do when clients are using the phrase, brand strategy. So when I hear clients coming, needing a brand strategy, saying those words, most commonly they’re referring to the architecture of how the company and its products are named and work together. So the architecture is what they’re implying and that might be a leading brand strategy or an endorsing brand strategy or having a branded house. So, many times when clients talk about a brand strategy, that’s what they’re looking for. And there’s something that’s happened inside the business that is producing this inquiry – like they’re acquiring another company or they’re changing their name, or they’re launching a new product line, or they’re creating a holding company above their current assets. So something strategic like that’s happening in the business, and now they need a brand strategy to support that new business structure. And I love those projects! Those are like puzzles and that happens a lot. And usually, the reason that clients might come to us for something like that is they’re really close to the business. And, these are sometimes emotional decisions, like if we’ve acquired another firm and we’re trying to figure out how to rename. So sometimes clients really just need a third party to help think through a strategic direction for moving forward that can, understand, but not let those emotional things influence, the decision that we’re making. So another way we use the phrase brand strategy, like the more philosophical approach is it’s usually a document that encompasses all of the marketing components we think of being necessary for communicating on behalf of a brand, like a high-level definition of our objectives, a clear understanding of our target market audience personas, a positioning statement, all the identity components, and the messaging strategy. So you can kind of think of brand strategy in a couple of different ways: either that tactical, more hierarchy strategy, or the collection of communications components that together make up everything we need to communicate on behalf of a brand.

Adrian Tennant: The start of the year is as good a time as any for brand owners and managers to review the previous year’s performance and to set goals for the year ahead. A brand audit can be a helpful tool here. Dana, could you walk us through what a brand audit involves?

Dana Cassell: Sure. A brand audit – it can be a really in-depth process – it kind of depends on a client’s tolerance for our digging, and how much they really want to learn. So at its deepest level, a brand audit starts with internal branding, moves to external branding, and then also involves a customer experience audit. So, what we think about for internal branding are things like mission, vision, values, any kind of internal brand communication, internal communication strategies. And then external branding are all those visual things like logos and print and marketing materials, PR, your website, your social media presence, all your digital platforms, any kind of content that you have. And then we like to include the customer experience of course because that includes the sales process, that conversion optimization, any kind of customer service or retention. So if we’re really kind of digging deep in a brand audit, we look through all three of those layers to understand what’s happening internally, externally, and with our customers.

Adrian Tennant: What are some key areas that brand managers need to take into consideration during an audit?

Dana Cassell: So really understanding what you’ve currently been doing. And I think what’s important here is without expectation of its judgment, you know, just what have we been doing, whether it’s been working or not, being honest about whatever current strategy we have or don’t have – and understanding the way that the team has been working, both structurally, like who is the team that manages the brand inside the organization? And then what are they measuring? So what have they been working on and how have we been measuring the success of those efforts? And then, of course, any kind of data and analytics. So what has that team been looking for? What do we know about our customers? What do we know about our communications tactics? All of that’s really important and sometimes the answers to these feel a little embarrassing or painful, like, “Ooh, we haven’t been tracking that or looking at.” That’s okay! I think a great brand manager gets comfortable with admitting where their opportunities or failures, so I think that’s great. And then really the funnel. We’ll talk a lot in strategy and in media about where are we working in the funnel? And several of the thoughts I have around our conversation today really depend on where in the funnel we’re looking to improve, but do we understand our marketing efforts as they relate to a conversion funnel? And what have we been working on in that funnel? And has that been working? So maybe that’s like a real concise answer to that question. Where in the funnel are we working? What have we been trying to do? And has it been effective? And I think if brand managers are really trying to conduct a brand audit, they have to think about those external pieces too. So that’s also understanding what our competitors have been up to, and that can get into a brand audit too, is really seeing what else is happening in the market at the time – and how our brand is positioned independent of our competitors. And then when you throw everybody together, how are our brands positioned and how distinctive it feels. So I think those external factors are really important, too. And when we do that, we think a lot about the words that we’ve been saying, the key phrases, and, what’s nice about an audit is that you can look back in history and throw everything out on the table and find those common threads. What of the things we’ve been saying over the last couple of years – is that consistent? What have our key messages been like? There’s a lot a brand manager can do in an audit. I think honesty and transparency, and just having a little bit of a thick skin is important.

Adrian Tennant: Dana, where does responsibility for brand management typically lie in a medium to large organization?

Dana Cassell: Yeah, that’s a great question. We often see it in the marketing department. Sometimes there’s a key stakeholder that’s a brand manager. Sometimes it lies at the C-suite level. And, sometimes maybe that’s where the problems for brand management come from – is that it’s being held by someone who doesn’t actually have the tactical responsibilities for it on their plate, nor should they at that level. Sometimes it also lies with product line managers. So I’m thinking of some of our clients for brand strategy from ’21, and we have let’s say, a new product line with an organization that’s launching, and that person who’s launching the product holds the brand for that product. So you can kind of already see where the issue comes from there is that they’re really thinking about a vertical component of the organization rather than the holistic brand. So it can kind of be anywhere, Adrian, and I think sometimes too, this is kind of a sneaky place that brand sometimes lies, which is in HR and internal communications. So sometimes you have a really strong writer or communicator inside of the HR team and they’ll be influencing some of those internal pieces, like mission, vision, values, and internal comm strategy. So it could be divided.

Adrian Tennant: I think it was around the beginning of the 1980s that interest in the financial value of brands really took over. A new word entered the lexicon – brand equity. Do you think that’s still as important today, in 2022, as it was 40 years ago?

Dana Cassell: Well, I don’t think it’s as much of a point of distinction as it was 40 years ago, because everybody’s doing it now. So I think it’s as important because if you don’t have it, you’re really on the outside of what’s happening in the marketplace. But I don’t think it’s going to be as strong of a differentiator as it likely was for some people in the eighties. So when you were doing it well in the beginning, that was a point of difference. It’s not always the same. There are certainly some categories where a strong brand strategy still makes somebody an outlier. It can be a point of difference, but I think it’s just more of a requisite now than it was in the eighties. And I also think two things about brand equity that are really important in ’22, which I think we named in ’21 and important for brand strategy – and I just think they’re really continuing – are authenticity, empathy, and inclusion. So brands that lack any of those three things, equity is just right out the window. So I think a brand is really important right now, particularly important to be authentic and clear, and transparent. To actually have empathy, but then also as importantly, communicate their empathetic platform or philosophy, and then a sincere commitment to inclusion.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.

Seth Segura: I’m Seth Segura, VP and Creative Director at Bigeye. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as creative professionals. At Bigeye, we always put audiences first. For every engagement, we commit to really understanding our clients’ prospects and customers. Through our own primary research, we capture valuable data about people’s attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. These insights inform our strategy and guide our creative briefs. Clients see them brought to life in inspiring, imaginative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns. If you’d like to put Bigeye’s audience-focused creative communications to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com. Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Each month, in partnership with our friends at Kogan Page, the Bigeye Book Club features interviews with authors who are experts in specific areas of marketing. January’s featured book is Myths of Branding by Simon Bailey and Andy Milligan. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can save 20 percent on a print or electronic version of the book with exclusive promo code, BIGEYE20 –  that’s B I G E Y E 2 0. This code is valid for all products and pre-orders and applies to Kogan Page’s free ebook offer. To learn more, visit our website at bigeyeagency.com/insights.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Dana Cassell, Bigeye’s senior strategist, about conducting brand audits. What framework, if any, do you find the most useful when conducting brand audits for clients?

Dana Cassell: I really like starting with that clear understanding we talked about. This usually happens on the heels of a discovery meeting, but having the leaders of the organization sit down and just kind of spill what’s happening, that’s incredibly important. And the faster we can get to a level of trust where that comes out, the better a brand audit goes. So it’s kind of working through a SWOT if you want to think about it in MBA terms or Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. If we can have that conversation and really get everything out on the table, the brand audit forms itself from there. So, if we start with that clear conversation, the next step in the framework I like to do is a collateral review. And my favorite way of doing this, which has been harder in our Zoom age is to throw everything literally on a table and look at it together. So finding all the collateral that’s been used since our last big branding effort and putting it out and kind of digging through it visually. And often, you know, we’ll wind up in the office with all of that on a wall somewhere, as we work through the project. And then the sort of the same thing with a digital platform review. So I really like to go and look at what’s been happening online related to that client. It’s interesting, you can ask somebody, “What are your digital platforms?” And they’ll give you maybe eight. And there’s never just eight. You know, people forget how much there is about our business that’s online that we actually don’t have control over. So, looking at the client-held digital platforms and then also everything else that exists about them online. And then, one of my favorite components is an analytics review. So usually the media team and I’ll look together at the analytics that are currently happening with the customer on those digital platforms. And then if a client has it well and can deliver it, poring through customer and sales data. The first component is the conversation, and then from there, it’s really a lot of review and reading. And then after that, we work through those steps of internal, external customer service, and then move into conclusions and presentation mode. That’s the framework we usually use.

Adrian Tennant: It feels very right brain, left brain. So there’s some analytical work there, but there’s also some creative writing and synthesizing what you’ve learned. 

Dana Cassell: Absolutely. And this is like my sales pitch for why strategy is a great position as you get to use each piece of your brain and tell stories and there’s a lot of learning and listening involved before we do speaking. And I think, the older I’m getting, the more I realize it’s a great approach to life in general, but certainly, a really, I think, high-quality way to do business is to really listen to our clients and their clients. And then hear the story from what we’re hearing.

Adrian Tennant: What kinds of brand-related measurements or key performance indicators are most helpful for brands to track on an ongoing basis?

Dana Cassell: So we hear a lot about what KPIs people have been tracking related to the brand, and those will be things like search volume, direct traffic, social reach, subscriber numbers or unsubscribes, lead volume, lead quality scores, or all manner of conversion rates and customer acquisition rates and costs, average purchase. But what I think is more important than this master list of KPIs that speak to brand measurement, is having someone on the team that can identify the most important KPIs that tie together the current business objective with the campaign that’s planned, and then being able to look at that data and tell a story. So somebody who can identify what to measure and then convert the data to insights. And in my opinion, having a handful of highly accurate and relevant data sets is the most useful for telling a story. 

Adrian Tennant: How do you typically communicate the results of a brand audit to clients?

Dana Cassell: Yeah, this is always a fun day for us! It’s usually on a presentation and we start with what we heard – and that’s usually what that slide is titled, just “What we heard.” And that can take a long time because we’ve been listening so much. And then we offer up our observations from their current environment. So those collateral reviews, I mentioned, or digital environments. And then sometimes all of this is juxtaposed with their competitors. It kind of depends on the client and what we’re trying to do, but sometimes right after those observations, we’ll also have competitive observations. And then after we’ve done that, which is really a presentation of everything we’ve heard and observed, we’ll present our ideas about opportunities for growth, or if there are problems, what problems we see that need to be corrected.

Adrian Tennant: Dana, if listeners want to conduct their own brand audits, could you offer some tips on how to get started?

Dana Cassell: Sure. I mean, the first thing is I I’m going to say Bravo! for doing your own brand audit, ’cause I think that can be really hard. I think it’s often easier to bring a third party in that doesn’t have the attachment and can be objective, so I think it’s great that you want to do that. I think, for sure, having the posture of objectivity and finding the people on the team who can be the most objective through the process is really important. And then I would just say kind of go back to these tactics I mentioned, getting all the collateral together, putting it on the table, learning what you can learn, looking at your digital platforms, and also the things that are mentioned about your company online, that aren’t your platform, so that complete digital review. Also, looking through the analytics that you have available, and any customer sales data. So really poring through, reading, and listening. Those are the places to get started. And Bigeye has a downloadable guide that you could use – so we’re going to put a link in the transcript for the podcast to that, so if you want to do your own brand audit and kind of get moving, that’d be a great place to start.

Adrian Tennant: So far, we’ve been talking mostly about established brands. For brands that may be only a few months to a year old, do you think they benefit from brand audits or would you recommend taking a lighter approach?

Dana Cassell: I think a brand audit at a few months old is a good idea if you didn’t start with a brand strategy at all. So if we have, an incredibly energetic founder who kind of powered through the first few months, and now all of a sudden we’re in the marketplace with all this energy, but we didn’t consider brand, sure – it’s not too soon to do a brand audit. But if the brand strategy was on board in the development of the brand, then I think that a lighter approach is okay. And I think the first months to a year is a time to listen and learn. I think a frenetic approach to brand change can be very confusing and yield confusing data, actually. So if we are only a few months to a year old and we start making changes based on an audit, it can be hard to understand what the data is telling us because we’ve made too many changes. There’s not enough stability in the brand to produce reliable data. So a brand audit from a few months to a few years old, only if we didn’t start with a brand, which we know happens sometimes, because – what did Steve Jobs say? “The people who can change the world are the ones crazy enough to believe that they can”. So, sometimes all this great change is happening with brands because people have been a little careless with it from the beginning. So maybe at that point, we do a brand audit, but otherwise, I’d say let it sit and then measure and maybe at 18 months, start to think about an audit.

Adrian Tennant: Great advice. In addition to being a very busy strategist, you also teach marketing and advertising to college students. I’m curious, how do younger generations view the relationships between brands and our digital environment, particularly social media?

Dana Cassell: So most recently, I’ve been working with Gen Z. So right now that’s who’s in school, and really specifically working with them on social media and communication. So, it’s my observation that Gen Z expects to be able to use digital environments for two-way conversations with brands, which is really different than what I thought about brands and the digital environment when I was their age. It was definitely more of a one-way, like a robust website that has information for me. But this generation, for sure, sees digital environments as two-way conversation platforms with brands. And they’re also really incredibly good at spotting a lack of transparency or authenticity, and then unfollowing, blocking, hiding, and unsubscribing. So they’re not digital natives, they’re the children of digital natives. They are like double digital natives and there’s no confusion for them about what that digital environment can offer. And they have expectations related to all of that experience that’s just born into their life.

Adrian Tennant: The book, How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp has been hugely influential over the past decade or so informing how many strategists and account planners think about integrated brand communications. One of Byron Sharp’s key ideas is that in order to be successful in the marketplace, a brand needs to be “famous”, like a celebrity, conferring what he refers to as “mental availability” to the brand, which is achieved primarily through consistent exposure, for example, mass media advertising. Of course, it’s an approach that favors already well-established large brands. But Byron Sharp points out that a brand also needs to offer consumers convenient, physical availability of its products. So Dana, do you think this concept of both mental and physical availability still holds true for brand-building in today’s environment, where social media is a more significant channel than it was when How Brands Grow was first published in 2010? 

Dana Cassell: I think in today’s digital environment, there is a lot of room for small brands to be successful and stay small and call that successful. So like an understanding that not every brand has the end goal of being viral and massive, and our digital environment supports that. So there are wonderful ways to balance, let’s say, like a work-life for a small business owner, through successful digital communications. I also think there are big brands that are finding small, niche places to relate to target pieces like segments of their target market beautifully. So identifying that certain channels and digital environments are the right place to connect with certain customers. So I think in general, less of a mass approach and more of a nuanced, unique approach, and I’m definitely seeing a trend of brands connecting their digital tactics with their business objectives. So, not needing to be all things for all people all the time.

Adrian Tennant: Great. Looking ahead, do you foresee the role that strategy plays within agencies evolving?

Dana Cassell: Yeah, well, I’d certainly hope so because I would think any role in an agency that stays the same is falling behind. But more specifically, I would say I’m going to compare what I think will happen with strategy to what I saw happen with digital marketing. So when I started in digital marketing professionally in 2004, there was a few special people tapped on the head as the digital team, right? And as digital marketing grew, it became very clear that every organization within a marketing department had digital responsibilities. So the digital team didn’t go and help PR with digital PR, the PR team learned digital skills to incorporate in their portfolio. And, you know, so on and so forth across the marketing department. And it was kind of fun, you know, to have like digital siloed for a minute. And then it just got so heavy and all-encompassing that it was just very clear that everybody needed those skills. And so many organizations have done a great job to equip all marketing positions with their own responsibility for their digital tactics. So I think that’s probably where strategy is going within ad agencies, that there’s a responsibility for every department to have a strategic outlook. And that really started a long time ago. The creative team has always been highly strategic because they’ve been interested in influence, always, that’s been their role. I see it for sure in media – you know, our media team at Bigeye are my favorite people to sit down with a cup of coffee with because they have very similar brains as strategists. And I definitely think it’s moving into the account side. So, I think of the best features of account team members as being, conversational, empathetic, great listeners, wonderful communicators. And our team has been that for a long time. I am seeing our account managers increasingly have strategic questions that they come to me with on behalf of their brands or questions they’re asking their clients and then coming to me with some answers. So I think strategy is just going to continue to cross over and grow. And it’s a joy to really watch that happen because it means that our entire agency understands the importance of strategy as a campaign flows through each department.

Adrian Tennant: Well said. Finally, if listeners would like to learn more about the role strategy plays in branding, do you have any favorite books or podcasts you could recommend?

Dana Cassell: Sure. The way I like to learn about strategy is by listening to other people who are great strategic thinkers and can articulate the way they think clearly. So I have a couple of examples of that. This year, my pandemic crushes have been Adam Grant and Brené Brown. So if you don’t know either one of them, I encourage you to go find them. They’re both academics, who I think articulate strategy beautifully, and their areas of interest academically, are marrying data with storytelling. So I think, you know, we’ve talked a lot about that today. I’ve mentioned data to insights and storytelling and listening and storytelling. So I think really they’re both just incredible strategists. And I think you could learn a lot by listening to them. The podcast where you’ll find them, but also the podcast that I really like for learning more about strategy is NPR’s How I Built This with Guy Raz. He interviews people who’ve built some of our favorite brands and businesses, so I recommend it because you hear people tell strategy stories in retrospect. They’re looking back on how they did what they did, and sometimes they knew what they were. And other times they don’t, but either way you hear the strategy. So it’s really easy to learn. And, I think you might enjoy the Burt’s Bees episode, so if you haven’t listened before, that’d be a fun one to start with. And then also Adam Grant, and Brené Brown, both spoke at the How I Built This virtual summit this past summer. So their talks have been made into podcast episodes as well. So that’s NPR’s How I Built This.

Adrian Tennant: Excellent, great recommendations. Dana, thank you so much for being our guest again today on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Dana Cassell: Thanks for having me, Adrian.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Dana Cassell, Bigeye’s Senior Strategist. You’ll find a transcript with links to the resources we discussed today, including our downloadable guide, on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at Bigeyeagency.com under “Insights”. Just click on the button marked “Podcast”. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Audible, YouTube, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant until next week, goodbye.

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