Communication, Connection, Consistency, Curation

Rachel Wilson Thibodeaux, Founder, Brand Strategist, and Professional Speaker, SWAG Strategy Solutions (Houston, TX)

Rachel Wilson Thibodeaux is Founder, Brand Strategist, and Professional Speaker at SWAG Strategy Solutions a boutique consultancy that helps clients design unique brands to “better position their offers” and market them at least twice as effectively as they were in the past. Clients include women entrepreneurs, as well as service providers and experts, people Rachel says want to make a big impact and income.

Building blocks of what Rachel connotes as “brand curation” include: 

  1. Asking clients, “What do you most want to be known for?”
  2. Identifying the audience, even down to the one person who will most resonate with the client’s offering
  3. Establishing the most effective way to connect with that individual.

Rachel majored in finance and marketing at the University of Houston and spent the first 16 years of her career in financial services. In 2013, she left her “good-paying, good-benefits” six-figure job to chase her entrepreneurial marketing dream. 

How does someone make that kind of transition?

Rachel believes that it important to communicate to your community, the groups to which you belong, what you are doing businesswise, “even if you don’t yet have a product or a service out there.” She provides a number of questions that can help build the kind of engagement which can turn into future buy-in. She says that success requires disciplined consistency in doing the hum-drum activities; e.g., making a certain number of phone calls to connect with customers.

In this interview, Rachel talks about when and how to reengage humor and the importance of sensitivity to what is going on in terms of the pandemic, social unrest, the fact that it is an election year, and concerns about the economy. When posting to social media, Rachel often posts questions she thinks will “bring a smile to someone’s face,” help them escape for a moment what they are going through, and increase “connection.” The most important thing? Know and respect your audience.

Rachel had an Ask Me Anything Live session at virtual HubSpot Inbound 2020 where she fielded audience questions about Brand Development, Positioning, and (especially) Social Media Marketing, as well as offering guidance on posting and engagement in  the “new normal,” connecting with people, managing COVID impacts, and online responses to the pandemic and the changes it has brought. 

She also addressed social listening, paying attention to the data available online, your audience feedback (comments, likes), and engagement to identify what works and what doesn’t, create better campaigns, and communicate better.

Rachel can be reached on LinkedIn at Rachel W. Thibodeaux, Instagram at @rachel.theswagstrategist, and on her company website at swagstrategy.com. She has a Facebook group – Brand, Sell profit – for entrepreneurs/brand-builders/experts. She offers a virtual program for strategic pivoting called “Pivot to Profit,” with a free “sample portion” (one of the five parts) available at: bit.ly/pivot2profitnow.

Check it out.

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Rachel Wilson Thibodeaux, Founder, Brand Strategist and Professional Speaker at SWAG Strategy Solutions. She’s based in Houston, Texas. Welcome to the podcast, Rachel.

RACHEL: Thank you so much, Rob.

ROB: Why don’t you start off by telling us about yourself and about SWAG Strategy Solutions and what gets you going and keeps you going?

RACHEL: Oh boy. That can be a dangerous question when you ask a speaker to talk about themselves. But I am in the Houston area. I’m originally from North Texas, from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. College brought me to Houston. I’ve been here almost ever since. Not quite. I did return home for a few years after college and then came back to Houston around 2008. Even saying that is a little scary because time has really flown by.

But I spent about 16 years in corporate America, working mostly in financial services. I was a double finance and marketing major at the University of Houston, so I went in the finance route. Marketing, though, was always a passion of mine. I know “passion” sometimes is an overused word, but that word comes to mind. Throughout my corporate career, I was always still focusing on and doing things on the side that were entrepreneurial and also that allowed me to feed that hunger, if you will, in terms of the whole marketing and brand aspect.

I kept getting this pull, this entrepreneur pull, when I was still working in corporate America, and more so the last 2 to 3 years. So in 2013, I left my good-paying, good-benefits-having job, as I’ve referred to it before, because that’s how my mother referred to it as she was asking me, “Are you sure you’re leaving that good-paying job?” “Yeah.” [laughs]

Since then it has been quite an adventure. My business, SWAG Strategy Solutions, which is a boutique consultancy, has certainly evolved over the last 7 years or so. Now we focus primarily on brand development, and as I like to say, helping clients curate a brand. I use that word more than “build” because I think with curating something, more of a design comes into place. We want to help you design a brand. We want it to be very unique. Sometimes when you build something, it’s based on instructions. It’s based on a model, almost like a model home. Other homes in the neighborhood tend to be modeled after that home.

So; I’d like to think that I’m helping clients curate a brand as well as better position their offers and market better – at least twice as better. We work a lot with women entrepreneurs along with service providers, experts – folks really looking to make big impact and income.

ROB: Doubling your effectiveness is certainly a big difference. When we are breaking down brands from the big picture into some of the pieces and parts, what are the components or building blocks of a brand you think about when you’re starting to work with a client? 

RACHEL: First and foremost, I usually ask prospective clients as well as clients – and this is something I’ve shared when speaking, in blog posts; I think it’s such an important question – “What do you most want to be known for?” I emphasize the word “most” because many of us are good at more than one thing. Many of us are multifaceted, multi-passionate, multi-something. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can make things more difficult in terms of really creating a brand and niching down and honing in on what you can most be effective at.

That is a key question. I think it’s important to really get foundational, if you will, and look at how you’re most wanting to effect or impact your audience. You also want to get clear on who that audience is because it really should not be “everyone” – although I know, especially with newer entrepreneurs, and sometimes not just new, we tend to think we can help the world. We want to change the world, and we sometimes think of that literally. “I want to help everyone.” But it’s important to really zero in on who is that audience, who is that group.

It helps to even get it down to thinking of one person who’s going to most resonate with what I have to offer, and how do I connect with that person?

ROB: That focus, I’m sure having that external perspective from you is helpful in even getting to that understanding because sometimes we don’t fully know ourselves.

You mentioned a little bit into your origin story, and your last 2 or 3 years in corporate America, you had this longing on the entrepreneurial side. What pushed you over the edge? It sounds like you were thinking about it, but that means you were also thinking about not doing it, and at some point you overcome that tension and you make the leap. What was that process like for you?

RACHEL: I had been doing entrepreneurial things almost throughout my career. Not quite throughout, but from different ventures I was involved in. For example, I did some consulting. I helped form a real estate investment group with three of my buddies. That happened when we were in our mid-twenties. We were kind of crazy kids, or somewhat kids, exploring real estate development.

The last 2 or 3 years or so, things had started to change at the company where I was and even in my role as well. At the time, I was a relationship manager – which I enjoyed. Even at the time when I left, I still enjoyed it, although I didn’t feel quite the same about it. The writing was just on the wall, as it often is in these situations. There had been changes in leadership; the direction of the company and our division in particular was really going in a different direction that I didn’t really like.

I often tell people, I was not fired, but it was one of those situations where I felt I didn’t really have a choice because of some things that happened, what transpired to make me take that leap. Frankly, I had considered leaving a few months before that. I actually left my last job in August of 2013. I seriously considered leaving in May because of another situation. It wasn’t the right time. I didn’t feel it was the right time.

I wasn’t totally sure it was the right time when I left, and I tell you, Rob, my eyes were glazed over for about two weeks. I was in a state of “Huh . . . I really did that. I left.” [laughs] I left my six-figure corporate job that at one time, certainly when I started and probably even during the first year or two, I figured I would be there long term. I wasn’t convinced necessarily I’d retire there, but I figured I’d be there longer than I was. It just goes to show you how things can happen.

There was certainly some fear. I say all the time, everything was certainly not perfect. It wasn’t close to being perfect when I actually left. My husband has been in law enforcement most of his career. He had just gotten back into law enforcement at that time, had started a new job. His benefits had not even kicked in. We had savings, but it still wasn’t an ideal time. But again, I felt it was time for me.

ROB: Congratulations on that. Now if there’s anything concerning in the business, you’ve just got one person to look at, and they’re in the mirror, so that’s a little bit different.

We were originally looking at connecting around HubSpot’s Inbound conference, which is a great conference. Happens every year. Normally, past couple of years, we record it live with speakers like yourself, so we always love connecting with HubSpot speakers. You had an Ask Me Anything Live session on brand development, positioning, and social media marketing. What kind of questions did you expect coming into that, and what were some of the themes of what you did hear from the audience?

RACHEL: Going in, I figured I would get questions about brands, about branding, certainly about social media. I got more questions, though, about social media, which is kind of interesting since that was the last thing mentioned. But I think it just goes to show you social media continues to be a hot topic, especially among marketers, whether online or traditional marketers.

There were several questions about social media. There were a couple of questions as well about how to navigate this “new normal” we’re in, how to manage what’s going on with COVID, things to do online in light of the pandemic and the changes that has brought about. So yeah, there were some questions along those lines too.

ROB: How do you suggest people think about marketing in – I don’t even know if there’s a new normal. It seems like things just continue to change, and we keep adapting, and you wonder what you can say, what you should say, what you shouldn’t say, and what to start doing and what to stop doing. How are you thinking about all this, and what do you have to tell the audience here?

RACHEL: One thing certainly is I don’t think it’s a good idea to ignore everything happening. I’ve seen that with some brands and marketers. Not many. Frankly, I think most are addressing what’s going on – and when I say what’s going on, I mean it’s more than one thing because we’re dealing with a number of things in this very interesting year of 2020. You’ve got the pandemic, obviously. You have this social unrest going on. It’s an election year. There’s challenges and certainly concerns about the economy. So, there’s a lot going on.

I think any really great marketer – and this is part of being connected with and knowing your audience – you have to speak to that. It doesn’t mean that you dwell on it all the time, but in your marketing, in your messaging, I think it makes sense to address these things.

I have a big sense of humor, sometimes a quirky, sarcastic sense of humor, and I’m big on incorporating humor. I think sometimes it helps, certainly. If you can put a smile on someone’s face or help them escape what they may be going through, even if it’s for a few minutes, a day or so, that certainly helps.

So, I think in terms of posting on social media, for example – and I’m also big on questions. I love posting questions. It could be, of course, related to business and related to brands, or it could be something, again, to put a smile on people’s faces. I’ve asked the question before to parents, “Have you had any brown liquor before noon today? I’m just curious,” because a number of parents I know are really going through it.

I think that is really important, and connecting even more. Obviously, connection has become a big thing, or bigger, I would say, over the last few years. I think consumers are wanting to connect more. They’re expecting more, or have been, even before this year, expecting more from brands. I think it’s really important to engage.

Social media is social. I think sometimes people forget about that. They think it’s a one-way conversation when it’s definitely not. 

ROB: Hmm, so you’re saying that clear liquor before noon is okay?

RACHEL: [laughs] Maybe. You might be able to get away with it, Rob. The brown, you’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to be careful about that brown liquor.

ROB: Yeah. Even on a podcast. It’s interesting – even where you went with that, the humor you used there, it’s relatable and it acknowledges the moment without engaging in humor at someone’s expense. It’s kind of humor at our own expense. I was speaking a while back with someone who’s involved in marketing at Buffalo Wild Wing, and they said with the pandemic, they basically cut – they engage in humor a lot, but they cut it all. They went transactional and they’re killing it in ecommerce now. Their best day used to be the Super Bowl. Now every day is the Super Bowl for them for online ordering, which is fascinating. They really had to overdo and redo their ecommerce systems.

But how do we figure out when it’s okay to reengage humor, how to reengage humor, how to not do so in a tone-deaf way?

RACHEL: I think what you said is key. You don’t want to offend people – at least, I try not to offend people. Now, it’s possible that could still happen, I suppose, but I don’t try to offend people. Again, this is your audience, or typically you’re speaking to your audience, so you want to respect your audience. You don’t want to be offensive.

Now, having said that, I think being bold is different from being offensive. What you believe in, what you stand on, I think there’s nothing wrong with communicating that and standing your ground on what you believe. I think you let that be your guide.

ROB: Definitely makes sense there. The Inbound crowd in particular can be a little bit more of a business-to-business marketing audience. Quite often, although you get a mix because it’s a big, big conference. When it came to social media, what sorts of questions – where do people fall on the spectrum? Was this B2B marketing, “How do you even do this?” Were there questions about emerging channels or channel selection? What were people wondering along the lines of social media?

RACHEL: I don’t recall there being anything specifically about B2B. The questions had more to do with, to some degree, posting, engagement. That came up. I answered that question in terms of engagement because it was related to – I think that was all the same question, how to engage now, given the environment. I spoke to that in terms of engaging now, giving everything, going on, and connecting with people, and the humor and that kind of thing.

There was also a question – and it threw me off a little because I have heard this term, but there’s different versions of this term. A question came up about social listening. I have heard more so of social media listening, and then there’s another version I’m not remembering right now that’s similar to that, although there’s a slight difference. So that question came up.

Social listening is really about taking data, using the data available to you online. It’s using feedback that you get from your audience, whether that’s through comments, likes, you paying attention to the comments, the likes that you’re getting, different parts of engagement, and using that. There’s one thing, collecting that data, and then the other part is what you do with it. You certainly use that data certainly to your benefit. You can use that in helping you create better campaigns, communicate better, paying attention to when you are posting, what works and what doesn’t.

ROB: That all makes sense, especially within the context of the conference. I do hope that you will be back to share in person next year. I hope we can do that by September of next year, but I guess we will see.

RACHEL: Yeah, that would be cool.

ROB: Maybe we can meet after noon so that we can choose whichever color of liquor we prefer. [laughs] It’s about creativity here.

Rachel, when you reflect on your journey, it sounds like you have honed in on some focus areas for SWAG Strategy Solutions. What are some lessons you’ve learned since jumping off on your own and building and growing the business – lessons you might do differently if you were starting afresh today?

RACHEL: Ooh. How much more time do we have, Rob? [laughs]

ROB: [laughs] We have as much as you need.

RACHEL: You absolutely learn a number of lessons. Or you should, I think, especially in 7 years or so. One lesson certainly that I’ve learned is how important it is to build or create an audience, a community if you will. I didn’t realize how important that was when I first started. When I left my job, I was on social media, I was on a few platforms. At the time I was using LinkedIn somewhat a lot, Facebook – but Facebook completely socially – and Twitter.

I am also somewhat – I like to think I’m recovering – somewhat of both an information and a political junkie. So, as you can imagine, I spend a lot of time on Twitter. But again, not as much for business purposes. When I started my business, I figured the skills I had before and that I had utilized in corporate America were transferable. And to a degree, they are.

But it really makes a difference when you have a community. That can show up in different ways, whether it’s an email list, whether it’s a Facebook group, some other group. When you have people who really understand what you’re doing in terms of business – and even if you don’t yet have a product or a service out there, you’re talking about it, you’re getting them to buy in even before you put it out there – that turns into, often, your customers, your clients, and folks who can sing your praises and help you get more customers and clients. That is certainly one lesson.

Also, consistency. Again, some things you think that you get. “Yeah, I know I need to be consistent.” But I really didn’t. Not the way running a business really requires, being really committed to doing certain things – and certain things that are not necessarily sexy, certain things that are not what you jump out of bed in the morning wanting to do, whether it’s blogging, whether it’s making phone calls and making a certain number of phone calls, whether it’s an actual phone call or a text. However, you’re reaching out to people, connecting with people, pitching, these are things that really make a difference in a business and help you move it forward. Those, as some people refer to them, revenue-generating activities – that is what you most need to be consistent about. That’s something else that I have learned more since starting my business.

ROB: That’s very consistent. I can see why HubSpot brought you in. Last year they mentioned this flywheel concept. It was a little bit forced, but basically it’s a similar thing. They talked about talking to people and building a community and serving them well, and then it turns into business. But then business turns into service. You still have to service those customers well. It turns into word of mouth, it turns into marketing. They had this flywheel effect.

I think a challenge many people have here is with consistency. Some people are very, very natural community builders. You watch them, and the moment they decide they’re going to have a new business, they’re building the community before you even know what the business is, and maybe before they do. For someone who it’s not as natural for, how do you think about getting to consistency, getting to the right audience, if maybe you don’t know who that audience even needs to be?

RACHEL: I am really big on feedback. If that’s something that doesn’t come quite naturally to you, and certainly if you’re not quite sure of what audience or what group you should be connecting to, look around at your own network, even if that’s very small. That may be coworkers. That may be subordinates. That may be even friends and family. It could be someone in a Facebook group that you’re in.

Start asking them questions along the lines of what you want to do, what you’re thinking of doing, or if you do have something that you’re working on or maybe even you’ve completed, ask them questions about that product or that idea. And really pay attention to what they say. Also ask them and the people closest to you, like friends and family, how they see you. What is it that they feel comfortable and they feel pretty confident coming to you for?

I think those basic questions, that can also be profound, can be underrated. Sometimes I think we also underrate or discount our friends and family, but those are the people closest to us. It’s not to say that that’s necessarily your target audience, but it’s a starting point just to get that feedback.

For folks who are not natural, I would say, or it doesn’t come as natural to them for building a community, you have to find the way that works for you. It may not work as well for one person to do a podcast or to create a blog. It may work a lot better for them to build an email list, to put something out there of value that they can offer free and folks jump on it because they do find a lot of value in it, and they just communicate through email. It all depends on you.

It’s not just about what you’re comfortable doing. I do think you should enjoy what you’re doing, and specifically in terms of building community. But realize it absolutely may require you – probably no “may” – it will require at some point for you to step out of your comfort zone. So, make sure that you’re balancing comfort rather than hate. You don’t want to do anything you hate, but at the same time, don’t rule out certain things because you’re not comfortable with it, you’re a little fearful or it doesn’t come naturally, as you say. That doesn’t mean necessarily that you should not be doing that.

ROB: That’s such a great distinction between the things that you hate versus doing the things you’re uncomfortable with. That’s a great point. The people that know you well are going to be able to give you good feedback because people you don’t know, so often, will tell you that your idea sounds nice because they don’t have the relationship to tell you the truth.

RACHEL: Yeah.

ROB: This is really, really good stuff, Rachel. Tell us, when we want to go out and find and connect with Rachel Wilson Thibodeaux and when we want to see more about SWAG Strategy Solutions, where should we go to connect with you?

RACHEL: I hang out a lot on LinkedIn and Instagram. Those are probably my two favorite platforms. I kind of have a love/hate relationship with Facebook, but that’s another conversation. You can find me there too. But you can find me on LinkedIn under my name, Rachel W. Thibodeaux. You can find me on Instagram @rachel.vswagstrategist.

On Facebook, I do have a group for entrepreneurs, for brand builders, experts if you will – those looking to curate a brand and to do that better and market better. That’s called Brand. Sell. Profit. It actually is also the title of my latest book, Brand. Sell. Profit. And then my website, of course. You can find the website at swagstrategy.com. And I’d like to offer your audience a gift, Rob, if I can.

ROB: Please do.

RACHEL: I’ve been talking a lot, as many people have, especially people in business, about pivoting and the importance of being able to pivot, especially in this environment. That has probably become a buzzword, so while I think it’s really important to pivot, I think there is a way to pivot. I like to think it’s better to pivot strategically.

So I have a virtual program called Pivot 2 Profit, and I have a portion of that – I’m offering one of the five parts of that that you can check out. There’s a video. It’s absolutely free, and I talk about a couple of those ways to pivot in a strategic way. You can find that by going to – and this is a shortened link – bit.ly/pivot2profitnow.

ROB: Fantastic. We’ll work to get that into the show notes. I imagine you have some excellent points there. You pivot, keep one foot planted if you move the other one. If you move both feet at once, it’s just dancing. There’s some good stuff to find there. We’ll get it in the show notes. Rachel, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on the talk at Inbound. I heard they had very, very large audiences for that.

RACHEL: Yeah.

ROB: I hope they have us back in person next year. I’d love to connect up and record live.

RACHEL: Absolutely. Thank you.

ROB: Have a great one, Rachel. Be well.

RACHEL: You too.

ROB: Bye.

Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.