Abagail Vanmerlin of Brand Theory talks about why encapsulating the culture, values and long-range vision of a company is so important

Abagail Vanmerlin is owner at Brand Theory Inc.

Abagail Vanmerlin Brand Theory Inc.
Abagail Vanmerlin

What is Brand Theory and what does it do?

Vanmerlin: We are a full-service creative agency specializing in the strategic branding of mid-to-large business-to-business organizations. By full service, I mean that we offer a suite of brand deliverables which can be anything from interactive and responsive website design – including traditional SEO, voice SEO, and social media account activation—to the design of brochures, business cards, presentation folders, sales packages, PowerPoint templates, Word documents, email signatures, letterhead, social media templates, outdoor signage, indoor graphics and vehicle or equipment decals. 

Brand Theory’s approach to the branding process, and the way we work with organizations, is fairly unique. As a team, we immerse ourselves in our client’s corporate culture, in a way that allows us to learn as much as possible about the company, the industry, the competitive landscape and ultimately the long-range vision that drives key-stakeholders. This research-based focus allows us to create brands that align with our client’s core purpose for being, with clear topline messaging that can speak directly to the needs of our client’s target audience.

We also do things a little differently post branding. In a way, we are the anti-marketing consultant, because we aren’t looking for repeat business. We leave our clients with the tools they need to succeed and foster creativity within their organizations. Early on in my marketing career, a creative executive once referenced, “the lowly graphic designer that will sit in a dark corner somewhere and just have at ‘er”; it was a comment that became a defining moment for me in my career, shaping how I view and think about the creative process. In my experience – and across all industries – I’ve found that the brightest marketing minds exist within each organization, and part of Brand Theory’s role is acting as a conduit for creative initiatives and future brand development.

What’s your background and why did you start this business?

Vanmerlin: I built my first website when I was eight. I learned to code in three days and had a large following of teenagers who engaged with my website, The Teen Tune In, where, I can imagine, I offered some very naive advice.

I began graphic designing in my early 20s while working as a realtor but decided to sideline this career to pursue one in extreme athleticism. I joined Innovative Fitness, and after completing the Penticton Ironman, decided that all forms of extreme athleticism should be left to professional athletes.

Shortly after this, Innovative Fitness was purchased by Coril Holdings Inc. At the time I was running the company’s marketing, and so I was launched headlong into the exhilarating process of my first full-scale rebrand. 

Our new name became INLIV and following the completion of the company’s rebrand, we relocated. I was offered the position of marketing director, and as we expanded into corporate health services, I was able to cut my teeth on several external branding initiatives. It was a gift to learn from some of Calgary’s brightest minds in business, and being exposed to multiple industries, board activities and organizational functions deepened my appreciation for the struggles that our client’s face, beyond just branding needs and marketing tactics.

Brand Theory was born, oddly enough, 10 months into my maternity leave from INLIV, when I was approached to execute a large scale corporate rebrand. To date, our team has facilitated a wide variety of branding initiatives, across multiple industries, although we specialize in heavy civil construction.

When we talk about branding, what do we mean by that, and why is it important for business to make sure their brand is right?

Vanmerlin: In simplest terms, your brand tells the story of your organization. To build your brand, our team combines elements of design like colour, space, and texture with principles of design like contrast, balance and harmony. When these elements are merged with photography, illustrations and typography, we can create visual art that captures the essence of a company’s purpose for being. Our branding process boils down to having the global knowledge about what makes a specific organization tick.

We ask: Why is this company unique? Why are the employees engaged in the work? What is the bigger picture?

For us, success is not defined by the creation of a stunning brand, it’s about knowing that we got it right – for our client and for their target audience. When our team presents brand options, we know when it’s right by our client’s reaction to seeing the visuals and reading the copy deck for the first time.

But, that aside, when we talk globally about the importance of whether a business’s brand is right, there are many practicalities to consider, within a large framework of possibilities.

To put it simply, if you are a startup organization, attempting to bring a product to market, and you have thousands of consumers as your client base, then your branding needs and considerations will be different than an multimillion-dollar business, built on a few dozen personal relationships and negotiated contracts.

In saying that, I do think there is confusion between getting your brand right”and having the right sales drivers and marketing tactics within your business. For example, within business-to-consumer organizations where sales tend to flow from direct marketing tactics, the brand may be influenced more strongly by a sales cycle than the organization’s core values and long-term strategic goals. Industries that operate within the business-to-consumer realm are often faced with rapid change, executive turnover, erosion in market share, new forms of competition and razor-sharp margins – and almost all are driven to achieve ever more profitable economies of scale.

These business stressors can mean that getting the brand right is less important than appealing to a current fad or trend, which is, perhaps, getting the brand right.

Where I do see brands go wrong, is in the space of business-to-business, where there can be confusion between a company’s brand, the brand strategy and marketing tactics. Put simply: tactics are actions that support strategy, and strategy is a plan to achieve a company’s long-range vision. An easy way to think of a good brand is this: it will encapsulate the culture, the values and the long-range vision of a company. And a great brand will go a step further by articulating the entire company strategy and, often, it will also identify the most effective short-term marketing tactics.

What are some simple steps businesses need to do to brand themselves?

Vanmerlin: The first question I would ask is: Who are you? And I mean that in a literal sense – if your company walked through the door, what would your company look like as an individual? How would this person be dressed? How would they carry themselves? What kind of words would they use? And so on. This exercise gives you an immediate snapshot of your company’s brand.

This next step is to get really clear about what you do. We often work with companies that have grown rapidly and successfully, so, when asked to describe each of their product or service offerings by placing them a category or business unit, the question is often followed by a long exhale and many clarifying meetings. So I’d say get really clear about what you do, what you should be doing and what you should stop doing. I suppose this doesn’t have so much to do with branding – although it is helpful for making brochures and websites – but it has a lot to do with good business.

Invariably, what your company is doing, what it should be doing and what it should stop doing comes into focus when we begin looking at market saturation, growth potential, your competition and even profit margins by product or service. Getting really clear about each division in your business will bring the master brand into focus outline the brand hierarchy, while identifying where to best focus your sales and marketing efforts.

What’s next?

Vanmerlin: Next, know your culture, and I mean your true culture, not the one that’s written on the wall. The best way I have found to do this is through a team survey that asks employees to describe the most memorable moments or positive attributes of standout individuals within the organization.

Then look for redundancies and themes within the responses. This is a simple and effective way to easily define your core values and has been adapted from Jim Collins’s process called Mission to Mars.

It’s equally important to hear from your clients. So next, I would suggest hiring a third party to conduct interviews or create your own client survey. It’s important to identify from this survey the specific need that your organization is meeting for your client base.

Finally, get really clear on where you are going as an organization versus where you would like to go. Without understanding your current trajectory and your long-term goals, the brand becomes only a logo with a tagline.

When built with strategy in mind, your brand should serve to reinforce your company’s entire existence.

Interviewed by Mario Toneguzzi, a Troy Media business reporter based in Calgary.

© Troy Media


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