Brand Makeovers: Ted Vaughn of Historic Agency On The 5 Things You Should Do To Upgrade and Re-Energize Your Brand and Image

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

You need to integrate your brand values into your people’s behavior. Too often, we have core values and brand values and brand narrative that exists completely divorced from management supervision and standards of accountability for behavior. Then we wonder why we get Enrons. This is why we wrote, “Culture Built My Brand”. You’ve got to figure out how to integrate your brand values into your people management. Otherwise, you’re mitigating success at best.

As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Ted Vaughn.

Ted Vaughn is co-founder of Historic Agency where he leads client transformation and specializes in executive leadership, brand development, and strategic clarity. Ted has served hundreds of for-profit and nonprofit brands. His passion is to serve senior leaders by helping them align everything they do to build their brand from the inside out. Ted is also the co-author of “Culture Built My Brand”.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Throughout my entire career, no matter where I worked, I was having brand and marketing conversations without ever knowing I was having brand and marketing conversations.

When I took an executive director role overseeing a group that involved marketing and communications, it connected the dots. That team helped me understand all of the things that I was passionate about and interested in and gave it language: brand strategy, brand theory, the way it connects to marketing.

That’s what set me on the course to becoming passionate about the topic of brand. For me, it’s more about brand strategy and less about marketing. It’s more about how the true north of any organization fits into the strategy and less about the marketing of their specific products or services.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my branding career, I worked with a client where all correct answers were there for their rebrand. I ran forward with the rebrand, knowing that we had the right logo and marketing strategy. But we failed to get buy-in and bring senior leadership into the conversation, and everything started to fall apart. We thought that because they trusted us and we had the right answers, they’d just adopt every idea we had, but it was a lead balloon.

To this day, it was a failure to launch. Not because it was wrong, but because we didn’t get buy-in and have senior leadership understand the process. That will forever be a mistake I will not repeat.

This was before Historic Agency. But in many ways, this experience created the primary value that we live by now, which is: the process is the product.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

It goes right back to the recent transition my business partner (Mark) and I made at Historic Agency. We doubled down on what we are best at and let our organization be aligned around it, which, ultimately, is culture and strategy.

We wrote a book, “Culture Built My Brand,” because we’re passionate about healthy culture and the fruit it provides any brand in any vertical or industry. When we as an agency took our own medicine, it was a game-changer.

Understanding what you’re good at and embracing it can empower you to cross chasms you never thought possible.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Working on and then launching our new book has been really exciting. The idea that culture and strategy are inextricably linked is at the heart of this book and it was a fun exercise to take what we do day in and day out and put words to it. We believe a strong culture breeds a healthy brand, and we wanted to share how organizations can create that through the process and techniques we use.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

You need self-awareness. I meet many people who have ambition, drive and hustle, but they fail to understand who they are — their personality and their liabilities. Those things they live blind to might not be a big deal when they’re 17 or 18, but they become bigger and bigger barriers to growth and success as one grows older.

In marketing, especially, it’s about how you communicate and inspire confidence (or don’t inspire confidence) in your clients. If you’re lacking self-awareness and you’re lacking understanding about your blind spots and what you’re good or bad at, it becomes a real barrier to growth, success and, frankly, health. You end up making mistakes that a more self-aware person wouldn’t make.

Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

I’ve always looked at brand marketing as the tide that raises all other ships. Many organizations spend a lot of effort marketing services or products when they really have brand gaps. If they were to spend time addressing their brand, it would end up fixing other issues on the product or service side.

Brand is often a more subtle psychological game. A lot of people are absolute fans of brands like Patagonia and Apple, but they don’t necessarily know why, nor do they actually process that on a regular basis. They are attracted to the brand in a very subtle psychological way, which is why they purchase their products and read their catalogs and get their emails.

There’s a real covert, below-the-surface strategy to brand marketing. There’s a much more overt above-the-ground strategy involved in product marketing.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

If you get brand right, you can survive a product failure here or there. You can survive a website failure. You can survive some narrative issues because you have a brand that’s clear and healthy. It’s a brand that’s able to withstand the little cracks.

If you don’t have a healthy brand, those little cracks can sink the whole ship. The crack becomes a tipping point for other things.

We wrote our book because the single greatest investment in any brand begins and ends with culture. Investing in brand is ultimately investing in your organization’s engine so it has the capacity to carry you anywhere, even if you get a flat tire along the way.

Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?

It’s really important to ask the question behind the question: What does our brand need? It’s not usually a complete rebrand, but it’s repositioning or tweaking an element of the brand.

Too often, we lack subtlety and fine brushstrokes when we talk about brand and brand strategy, and it results in misguided scopes of work, mistakes or assumptions that aren’t healthy. Assumptions like, “We’ll change our logo. It’ll fix everything.” When maybe the last thing you need to worry about is your logo because you have a product problem or a culture problem.

That’s why we have the five pillars of brand because, depending on the problem in one or more of the pillars, it might not be a rebrand. It might be some more subtle repositioning. That ends up saving you money and maximizing your effort.

Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?

There are three specific risks highlighted in any rebrand. Number one, if your culture is broken — because you don’t have a clear why, or you’ve got people in the wrong seats, or you’ve got management issues or toxic leadership — a rebrand is not going to help you. A rebrand is essentially going to put fancy wrapping paper on a box of air. Thinking a rebrand will fix culture is a problem. That’s not a reason to rebrand.

Second, if you have a rebrand with all the right answers and all the right things, but you fail to roll it out and launch in an effective way, you might as well have not rebranded. Oftentimes, especially in the nonprofit sector, the failure is on communication, rollout and launch. There’s an assumption that people will get it or like it, but there has to be context given to it.

You’ve got to have a launch strategy for any rebrand. If you don’t, it’s going to fall flat.

The third thing is that there are times where you underestimate brand awareness, brand affinity or brand loyalty. You think that, because you have loyalty or awareness, everybody will love it and go with you if you rebrand. That’s a death blow if you don’t do the research to understand what the audience you serve actually thinks about your existing brand.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.

  1. You need to integrate your brand values into your people’s behavior. Too often, we have core values and brand values and brand narrative that exists completely divorced from management supervision and standards of accountability for behavior. Then we wonder why we get Enrons. This is why we wrote, “Culture Built My Brand”. You’ve got to figure out how to integrate your brand values into your people management. Otherwise, you’re mitigating success at best.
  2. You need story (we refer to this as “lore” in the book). I’m not talking about marketing narrative, as that can change frequently. If your internal narrative and key stakeholders — whether they’re donors or your core consumer — aren’t clear on why you exist, that lack of clarity is going to kill you at some point. Assessing internal language is crucial. If you get that right, external marketing language is not difficult, but often brands go wrong in marketing because they forget who they are and what they stand for.
  3. The third is product innovation. One of the biggest barriers we see with clients is a failure to innovate. Innovation is a proactive strategy for improving things to better serve your audience. Innovating intentionally and proactively, taking appropriate risks, and not just waiting for crisis to drive innovation is a key component of success.
  4. Fourth is experience. It’s really important your physical experience aligns with your digital experience. If they’re not in sync, you’ve got brand gaps. There’s a reason Apple’s physical experience is so aligned with its digital experience. It’s not a coincidence. It’s very intentional, which just continues to deliver on its brand promise.
  5. Finally, there’s identity. It’s important to audit all your print and digital collateral every 12 months or so. It’s amazing how those grow antiquated or become violators of brand standards. There are many ways we begin to dilute our brands in how we communicate, and because we’re insiders, we just stop seeing it. We don’t see that the old logo is still in use in 25% of our print collateral until we audit all our assets.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

The best example recently is Gucci. I remember being a kid and thinking Gucci was only for this elite group of Upper East Side folks. Now my 17-year-old daughter wants Gucci because her favorite hip-hop artist loves Gucci. The way they went from this sleek, wealthy brand to a more Instagram-worthy, progressive, urban brand is a killer study in how to rebrand. They didn’t just modify the logo, they reinvented themselves from the inside out as a company, and it worked.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

When I think about movement and brand, the more we can see Fortune 50 companies demonstrate cause for human good as a core driver of why they exist, the better. I don’t mean in a small team marketing way, but in a way that demonstrates true brand citizenship. Then we begin to see that ripple down and put other brands under pressure to do the same.

If the largest nonprofits improve their messaging in a way that compels greater engagement and models new ways to build a tribe of advocates, that can change the world. If we get that right, we can help all the other nonprofit brands at a smaller scale learn from them. Ironically, in the nonprofit space, the small brands often innovate and get that right. The larger brands are the most backward until they hit such a pain point they have to change.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

We often build a brand, and if we don’t do it thinking holistically about culture, we’re surprised when, several years later, we have a brand that has shaped us in ways we might not like.

I think I can speak to that firsthand at Historic Agency. We built something, but we didn’t build it with our eyes open. We didn’t build it as intentionally as we should have. Then, three years later, we realized that it built us in a way that we weren’t happy with. So we had to tear down some buildings, if you will, and rebuild. It’s really important to build stuff with your eyes wide open and assess and align on a routine basis. Brand isn’t one-and-done. Brand is an evolving process you have to revisit regularly.

How can our readers follow you online?

On LinkedIn or on our website,

Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.

Brand Makeovers: Ted Vaughn of Historic Agency On The 5 Things You Should Do To Upgrade and… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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