Advocacy Program Branding: How a Solid Brand Can Elevate Your Program

Read some of our conversation with brand expert and COO of creative marketing agency Mad Genius, Ryan Farmer, on how savvy customer marketers should be building intentional advocacy brands.

“I imagine there are brand managers listening to this in terror saying, “Oh, wow, we're encouraging our advocacy people to take risks and go rogue. Deliver the unexpected.” The brand police don't like those sorts of things.” - Ryan Farmer

Frankly, B2B advocacy programs can be….boring. They often lack the creativity and personality of our B2C counterparts. As B2B customer programs are being added by the day, customer marketers need to get more savvy about competing for customer attention. Your advocacy brand is one of your most powerful tools for capturing your customer's attention and building long-term program engagement and loyalty. But what is an advocacy program brand exactly and how do you stand out in a space full of customer programs? 

We spoke with brand expert and COO of creative marketing agency Mad Genius, Ryan Farmer, to discuss how savvy customer marketers should be building intentional advocacy brands to increase program clarity and stand out in an increasingly crowded customer programs landscape. 

Why does a real brand foundation matter, specifically, when it comes to advocacy programs? 

Because regardless of the setting, people are still making value judgments in really unfair amounts of time. So every little interaction matters. [Even] [w]hen you're walking down the grocery aisle, [evaluating] products that you've never heard of or seen before, you're going ‘oh, that's top shelf, that's middle shelf. That's the great value, Walmart brand’, so-to- speak. [P]eople are making those [types of] judgments on advocacy programs as well. They're taking those associations of things that they've seen in the space and automatically labeling you. 

Branding often gets mislabeled. It gets misunderstood a lot. We [Mad Genius] adhere to a philosophy that's a little bit controversial: we believe that you don't actually own your brand. Your brand actually exists in the minds of your users, your constituents, your people out there. The great philosopher Jeff Bezos even said “your brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room.” Breaking down the wall of a brand is not a logo or a color palette or a website. It is trying to influence all of the things in the stratosphere to get people to have a feeling about your product.

When Captivate Collective enters a strategy session with clients for launching an advocacy program, the first thing we ask is “how do we want people to feel when they are a part of this program?”  We find that a lot of people skip this. In the advocacy program space, brand is so often associated with a name. But in a very crowded space full of very similarly-named programs, how do you stand apart? If you skip the work of finding what we call the “Advocacy Brand Core”, then you’ll miss the mark when it comes to laying a strong brand foundation. 

Your brand core consists of four foundational elements that we believe will help you do just that: 1) brand archetype, 2) Purpose, Vision, Mission (PVM), 3) Program Values, and 4) Value Proposition. To learn more about the brand foundation, read our Advocacy Program Brand Foundation blog.

It seems most businesses want their clients to feel a lot of the same things. What's the next step here?

Everybody's time is incredibly valuable. The average American sees between six and 10,000 advertisements or calls for their attention a day. So you might be one of those tiny little blips. How do you distinguish yourself as worth two seconds of paying attention in those moments? 

Following that same grocery aisle analogy from earlier, there is a little bit of a challenge in that everybody naturally wants to be top shelf. What does that actually mean? You've got to present yourself as having tremendous value, and even luxurious value. 

It's a different strategy than bottom shelf. Great value is not a bad strategy. It is a different strategy. Now you're selling volume and now you're selling the feeling of saving money. [T]here are a lot of people that will buy things because they feel like they're getting a lot of bang for their buck, as opposed to people that want to buy something expensive that makes them feel good about their purchase. So find out where you are in that stratosphere, and then commit to it. And once that's established, try to find ways to be unexpected in those lanes that makes someone stop because they’re seeing something they didn’t expect. 

And it’s not easy, even just from a branding perspective. We've seen such an influx of branded B2B programs that standing out in a sea of everyone trying to be the same thing  is becoming difficult. Most clients we’ve worked with come in offering the same value – networking, spotlight opportunities, access to the C-suite, access to great content. There's a lot of overlap in programs today. And it's a crowded space. So when you can offer something that immediately stands out and that your customer can’t find anywhere else, it hits. What unexpected value can you offer?

Customer advocacy is about relationship and connection; it’s about extra value. Do you think it’s time to take a page from our B2C counterparts and provide more tactical, tangible benefits? And if so, what are some best ways to help us differentiate our programs from others?

Yes, especially in the tech space. I feel like there's a lot of what you're talking about in that arena. Copycat syndrome is incredibly proficient. It started off with kind of silly names: Google, Dunzo, Spotify, Shopify, Hulu, Hooli, all those quirky names just for the sake of being quirky. And we've noticed a shift in the last couple of years where a lot of these names are getting a little more intentional with their emotions. Now it's Clubhouse, Moments, Discord, Retool, Mindtrip. So we've moved away a little bit from silliness and we're now moving into intentional. This is the emotion, or this is the scenario, that we want you to think about, which is great. 

But now, if you are trying to build a product, you've got to not be one of “those.” You've got to look like you belong, but you also have to stand out in the arena. It’s incredibly challenging. Research. Research is the absolute best way in which you can try to stand out in the arena. Understanding where your audience lives. Yes, they live on your platform, and you've already won them and that's a really, really good thing. But go see where else they live. Go see where else they participate online. Go find out where they eat and sleep and stay and travel. Find out every single thing you can about them because there might be an angle that you could play that someone else is not playing based off of an audience's behavioral traits.

So, what are some practical ideas that come to your mind if you’re trying to build a brand that really stands out in this space? What do I need to do practically?

You have to understand that every little interaction matters. Your email signature all the way up to fully-produced commercials. You need to be consistent and incredibly disciplined to hit to strike that same tone in every single interaction because, as human nature is, you can interact with somebody 100 times and 99 of them will be good, but the one that is bad you're going to remember. You probably won't remember the 99 in detail at the same level as the bad one. So constantly look for opportunities and understand all of those moments, and make sure they're important to your organization. 

Then you've got to know your audience. [K]nowing that you've already won this audience over, it's a little bit of a different strategy. I think there's a window to be able to take a few risks in this arena. So if there's some emerging technology, or if there's something that you're seeing in another industry and you wish you could try doing that with your existing customer base, go for it. Trying it with your existing champions is less risky because they’re already a fan, so you've got the ability to experiment. 

What words of wisdom can you provide to people looking to create their program brand?

Whatever you do, do not lose the spirit, do not lose the core values, the core tenets of your parent brand. It's incredibly complicated to have a brand program within a brand. If your program [brand] does not tightly align with the brand foundations of the parent company, then it's just causing fractures, and it will cause problems downstream. But if you can find a way to align with the parent organization, but be just different enough to stop someone in their tracks, then both of those worlds can exist in harmony. And they can have compounding positive effects.

We call that being slightly left of center. 😉

Creating a unique program brand that connects with your audience may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Start by doing the work. The research, as Ryan reiterates. And remember:

  • Take the risk. Like Ryan said, these people are already your fans. Look at your program as a safe space to do just that.
  • Alignment isn’t always a straight line. Perfect alignment to the parent brand shouldn’t be the end goal. Think about what’s special and unique about your advocacy program and your audience. Provide the right value that's going to create or draw out the desired emotions from your audience. 
  • Not every program is a VIP program. And that’s ok. But be very clear on your value and what your members will receive from being a part of it, and then follow through.
  • Don’t try to be everything to everyone. That will only weigh down your program and cause it to be “nice-to-have” program. Rather than be a “nice-to-have” program, be integral to the strategy of your organization. And to do that, there needs to be clarity around the value to the organization and to the member themselves. 

If you want to hear the full conversation with Ryan, listen on Spotify or Vimeo. It’s full of insight and advice from a creative expert and may help get your own juices flowing to think outside of the box. 

January 23, 2024
Elisia Carr