Susan Britton, Owner/ Principal Creative Director, Britton Marketing & Design Group (Fort Wayne, IN)
Susan Britton is Owner and Principal Creative Director at Britton Marketing & Design Group, a branding boutique agency that focuses on strategy, design, and helping its color-trended consumer goods clients better brand and market themselves. Sue started her career at Vera Bradley and rode a 9-year growth boom where things changed so rapidly the company had to reinvent itself every six months. (Revenues increased from $10 million to $400 million.) She left Vera Bradley on such good terms that they provided her with furniture for her new company and stayed on as clients with Britton doing catalogs and marketing for them for the next 10 years until Vera Bradley went public.
Sixteen years after she left her position at Vera Bradley, Sue says the experience “gave us a wonderful foundation to work with companies that are focused on home and colors, or fashion” – Britton’s niche market. She believes that brands “really take off” when a brand is distinctly “nuanced” in a way that shows the brand is special and the agency builds a “very highly descriptive visual expression” reinforcing the brand identity and couples that with a “strong strategy.” Done right, the created assets can be amortized over time, broadly used, and will promote a “more devoted following.”
As an example of a typical client, Sue talks about working with a number of paint companies, the importance of tracking color trends and building brand uniqueness, and the challenge of reaching out to “the do-it-yourselfers and the do-it-for-mes and then the pros.”
Some changes Sue has seen over the years are “a reluctance to invest in creative because it’s changing so quickly,” the need for lots of online (and often transitory) creative assets, and the flux of brands vacillating between bringing their creative work inhouse . . . and seeking an external agency. Sue’s agency has deleted some staff positions over the years and today outsources to partner vendors such less-frequently used services as building website backends or videography.
Sue is a strong believer in work-life balance. Before Covid, her agency interviewed people to discover what they valued . . . and came back with these results: “Their family, whatever that looked like. Their community. Their spirituality, whatever that looked like, or wellness. And then their environment.” She says, “They’ve circled the wagons around their family in a really, really big way.” She describes this as “the new American middle.”
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Susan Britton, Owner and Principal Creative Director at Britton Marketing & Design Group based in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Welcome to the podcast, Susan.
SUE: Thank you, Rob. You can just call me Sue, that’s fine.
ROB: We’ll go with Sue. Yeah, it’s excellent to have you here. I want all the Fort Wayne stories that the audience might not want to hear. But why don’t we start off first with a little bit of introduction to Britton Marketing & Design Group, and what is the firm’s superpower?
SUE: Well, we’re in Fort Wayne, Indiana because my education happened when I went to work for Vera Bradley, which is located – their headquarters are here in Fort Wayne. I joined Vera Bradley when they were about $10 million, and nine years later they were about $400 million. We tried everything, we experienced everything, and growing at that fast rate, we were reinventing every six months what we were doing. So that was a real privilege, and like I said, a great education.
Then I jumped off after about 10 years, and owner/founder Barbara Bradley Baekgaard and her partner, Pat, were really supportive when I left. They gave me furniture from the merchandising department and helped me get set up because they appreciated that they were female entrepreneurs and I wanted to be one again as well.
Then we continued to work with Vera Bradley, doing their catalogs and some marketing for the next 10 years until they went public. It really gave us a wonderful foundation to work with companies that are focused on home and colors, or fashion. We worked with Peter Millar as well for a few years, getting them on the map.
So really, our superpower, I would say, is design. It sounds very typical, but I think it’s sometimes underappreciated. I guess it’s hard to define sometimes, but when you have a brand that is really nuanced, when you have a very highly descriptive visual expression of what that brand is coupled with a really strong strategy, that’s when it operates on all cylinders and when we’ve seen brands really take off. I think people talk about it a lot in this industry – the form and function, the art and science – but it has always been true and will continue to be true.
ROB: I assume on Day 1, you were the one designer. Is that the case?
SUE: Yes. [laughs] I was sitting there looking out the window on a rainy day, at my desk. I had two other family members involved with me, and we were like, “Oh my gosh, what did we just do?” But the work followed, and we worked really hard. It all worked out. We’re here 16 years later and still figuring out marketing in the world today, which has gotten very complicated as well.
ROB: I was going to ask, because design in and of itself can be a little bit tricky to define, but then the definition has even probably changed on you. How has the nature of the work you do, the services, the deliverables – what has shifted in those 16 years?
SUE: I think it’s how fast everything – the kind of creative assets that people need constantly, day in and day out online – in the past, when we started out, it was print. Catalog work, and you would do two-week photoshoots. Well, that has really changed because of the tentative nature of the imagery that people need and the quantity of it. But I think what happens today is it’s easier to rely more on the science, which is more memorable – how many click-throughs – as we look at the success of an email campaign or whatever, a social media campaign.
I’ve seen a transition for a couple of things. One, a reluctance to invest in creative because it’s changing so quickly. But when they don’t do that, then you could put anybody’s logo on a picture on Instagram, like fashion or even home goods. It really needs to be nuanced in a way that you know when you look at it that that is a special brand. And it takes a little investment to do that, but there is a way that it can be done where you’re really creating assets that are amortized over a certain period of time and used in every area. I see when companies do that, they really have a more devoted following. People respond so well to the uniqueness that that brand represents.
Secondly, I think I’ve seen a change where in order to save costs many brands will bring their creative in-house, and that can be very successful, too, if they find the right people. It can also be easily unsuccessful just because of the complacency or the repetitive nature of the work. Focusing on one brand, day in and day out, I think sometimes people lose a little bit of edge. But not necessarily.
ROB: There’s definitely a lot to consider there. The pendulum of in-house versus – not outsourced, but out of house, working with a creative services firm. That pendulum seems to swing both industry-wide and then some clients really swing that pendulum back and forth as well.
You certainly mentioned Vera Bradley as a foundational client; what does your mix of clients look like? Are there typical industries, other key clients you’re able to talk about that you’ve snapped up since then?
SUE: Yeah, what’s happened since then is we really have honed our expertise in mostly color-trended consumer goods – I can say primarily purchased by women, but sometimes not. We’ve really worked into a lot of different paint company work. When you think about paint, it’s kind of like chemicals in a bucket. It’s really all marketing to talk about what’s special about that particular brand of paint and to do it in a lifestyle way, but sometimes with humor. It’s very color-oriented, so we’re always working on trends, looking at trends, trying to look ahead to what’s coming up that the consumer is looking forward to seeing.
Also, we asked ourselves when we were getting into especially the home goods market, what makes us successful in Fort Wayne with these kinds of customers, the color trending customers, home group customers? We saw that it was like the everyday person. It’s you and me, and so many percent of their consumers were everyday people. It wasn’t the super high end or super low commodity end. It’s really right there in the middle. So we’ve done a lot of research on that and have built an expertise around that particular consumer. That helps us work with these different companies.
ROB: Paint’s a really interesting one because nobody looks at your wall and can tell what kind of paint you have, and you probably don’t know either. There’s not a lot of word-of-mouth there, I don’t think. Any paint could be any color. But you have an industry buyer – we’ve had somebody helping paint our house; I don’t even know what they’re picking. They know, absolutely, what they’re picking for us, and then there’s “What do I pick up when I wander down the aisle at Home Depot or Lowe’s?” It’s anybody, for sure.
SUE: Right. And then they also have their pros that they’re trying to respond to. They have the do-it-yourselfers and the do-it-for-mes and then the pros.
ROB: Yeah, that’s what I’m getting at with the pro that we work with. I don’t know what they’re picking. I don’t ask for anything. They tell me where to go pick my colors. They say, “Go to this store and pick a color.” And I listen and I do it.
SUE: Right. They have undue influence. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] You got ahead of us on the origin story and where the firm came from, and you mentioned, of course, that you are still the principal creative director, but I’m sure you don’t do it all now. What did it look like to bring in let’s say the second design creative, and what did it take to get over the hump of you not doing it and letting them do the work?
SUE: It’s probably a variety of things, but I think what’s really important is to not only mentor but provide room for mistakes. We had a saying early on; we bring in interns and grow our own. We would bring someone in and explain the level of quality that our clients expect and then coach them on how to get there and make sure they were getting there. Then they would embrace it. And we really provided a non-threatening environment where people could really grow, we could really mentor them, and give them their own work to own and really work at.
That’s really what they’re doing today. Some people that are here have been here over 10 years, and probably the last group we hired has been for 7 years. So we’re probably getting ready to add another couple. But I think the important thing is respecting your team and allowing them to be different from you, but just making sure that the expectations are really clear and the goals of the company are clear too.
But we also wanted to create an environment where they could have a life beyond work. I think we’ve all worked places where we just worked way too many hours and we couldn’t have a personal life. Even before COVID, which I think has really brought that whole situation to light, we wanted to create an environment where family also comes first. So, if you’re taking care of the people that are working for you, they’re your human resources, and respecting them as much as you respect the work I think has been really key to our success and to having a well-oiled machine where everybody has been here a while and keeps it all humming.
ROB: Do you think that sort of autonomy is partly – you mentioned people who’ve been there 7 years, 9 years – do you feel like there’s a degree of autonomy where they get to do the work they would do even if they were out on their own, without the headache of being out on their own? Is that some of the mix? What’s some of the secret sauce on that kind of longevity?
SUE: I think it’s very close to what you said. I think it’s a way that they feel ownership in the work that they’re doing, and as a team, we might group critique something so that it’s not really threatening, but we’re always looking at improvements so that they can grow into their work and they can own it, and I don’t have to look over their shoulder. Because I don’t think people really like that. Especially creative people. They have their own expression within a certain frame and having them hone that and be able to do that I think is what creatives really want to do.
ROB: Certainly, with the amount of time you’ve had the firm up and running, I’m sure you’ve had to make some choices of where to grow and maybe some service offerings and lines of business that you’ve perhaps decided intentionally to not add. What are some things that maybe you have chosen to not do, maybe you keep partnering on them, maybe you refer them, maybe you say you don’t do that? Have there been decisions like that along the way?
SUE: Oh yeah, for sure. We used to have a videographer on staff and some photography, and we decided a few years ago that our expertise is a branding boutique agency where we’re helping our clients brand themselves better and have a better marketing strategy and better nuanced creative. So we have partners that we use for website backend building or videography or some even just video editing, those kinds of services. We don’t always need them consistently, or even photographers, because for every particular job you want to customize the right vendor to that particular project. They all have different levels of need, from high quality to a lower quality maybe, depending on budgets. It’s nice to be flexible and then just plug in and play with those other vendors as needed.
ROB: Got it. That makes sense. There’s an element even where maybe you have enough work to keep a videographer busy, but you really need half or a quarter or a tenth of 10 different videographers rather than ten-tenths of the same person.
SUE: Yeah, exactly. That’s definitely true.
ROB: Sue, as you reflect on the journey so far, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned in building the business – things you might go back and tell yourself to do differently if you were starting over?
SUE: That’s a good question. I think building an expertise is so important. I learned that from a fellow that was helping with us, consulting with us on our business a few years ago, and it’s the best thing that we’ve ever done because it helps us focus on what we’re really good at, what we have the right to win, and not try to be everything to everyone. I’m sure many agencies go through that, because you really do want to reach. You want to do something new and exciting. And sometimes that’s fine, if it’s not too far from your expertise, to stretch. But sometimes if you overreach, you get yourself in a difficult position. That’s not really good for you and not good for your client, and it’s not good for your team. So, I think really understanding what you’re good at and owning that is key.
In the past, we may have hired people that we thought, “Oh, we’re going to build this whole department,” but that really wasn’t going to happen. One thing is, people didn’t always trust you to be able to do it. They would look at what you were traditionally good at and they would not trust that you could go that far the other direction. So, I do think you have to really focus.
ROB: I can see that. It definitely helps you know how to talk to your clients as well, rather than being everything to anyone. But it’s hard to get that conviction.
You mentioned in some notes as we were getting this scheduled something about the “new American middle.” Tell me about the new American middle. What is that, and what is that expertise? How does that play into the firm?
SUE: As we all know, marketing is really about values. If you’re in lifestyle marketing, it’s really about values, and it’s a pretty complicated, noisy world. You’re not going to get a chance to remember much about a brand with everything going so quickly, so it’s really important that when you’re marketing, you’re really connecting and resonating with your consumers’ values.
As we looked at, again, who we were in Fort Wayne, why anybody should work with us, the kind of projects that are a good fit and companies that we could align with, it came back to that everyday person. As we dug in and we did a lot of research, we did some primary research, it was really illuminating to us that – and this was before COVID – we realized that the world had become less certain, and while maybe in the ’90s or some of the more consumer-driven decades, things had really changed.
When we interviewed people, the most important thing to them was their family, whatever that looked like. Their community. Their spirituality, whatever that looked like, or wellness. And then their environment. Those are the things everyone was really concerned about. They’ve circled the wagons around their family in a really, really big way.
For example, if you’re featuring maybe a woman with a handbag and that’s the product, so many companies feature it as a product on a person. But if you would reflect them doing things with their family, they may relate to that photo more quickly on a social media post than a single one. It’s just an idea of blending and taking your brand and looking at, with your competition also, what are the values that you compete over? What are the values you share? And what is the open space that they’re not owning?
Many brands are not owning family. If, for example, when you do your research, it pops up as a top important consumer value to those customers, then you can really reflect that through your digital expressions and your copy, etc., if that makes sense.
ROB: Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned also – we talked a little bit about family. I understand that family’s also important to how you operate the firm. How have you thought about setting up the work environment, setting up the work, setting up roles in a way that is compatible with families, in a way that maybe other services firms have a hard time with?
SUE: I think one thing we do is, for example, with the creative team, we have three different creative directors so that when we’re working with a client, usually there’s one that’s assigned, but they help each other out. So if one’s going to be out for a week, they’ll double up a little bit and do some handoffs just to get by through that week. And they know each other well enough that they can do that smoothly. In the past, I would say it was not the case.
Early on, we had creative directors that were very specific about their work, which was great, but they didn’t really overlap. But I think as we’ve worked into trying to be more flexible in our schedules, we’ve overlapped with each other so that we can help each other out when the other person’s not in, and also, again, the work from home has really helped. I think it’s helped many companies realize that, oh, we didn’t lose productivity, and oh, this gives us more flexibility to have more work-life balance, and we haven’t seen a drop in productivity. I think that’s been of the nicer outcomes of COVID.
ROB: How are you handling work from home? Is everybody home? Is there still an office? Do people come in anywhere at any particular time? How are you thinking through that?
SUE: We feel like for our culture, to maintain a good culture, it’s still good to have a building and a place where we can be. So we work two days a week in the office and three days a week from home. But sometimes people don’t work in the office for the work because they may have a project that they really want to concentrate on, they don’t want the distraction of office. But I think naturally now, the days in office become more meeting-oriented days. It’s naturally flowed that way, and then the other days are more work days. I feel like it’s been less distracting than when we were in every day.
ROB: So, it adds a little bit of predictability, less Swiss cheese on people’s schedules of meeting, work, meeting, work, meeting, work. But it also sounds like it’s a little bit more of a norm rather than a rule in terms of how many days in the office per week.
SUE: Yeah, we don’t really use rules here in that fashion. [laughs] We’re all here on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, try to get in. And people do. And I think people do like that balance because it orients you to be here and to be able to have meetings together and see each other, and then it’s balancing to be able to work from home the other three.
ROB: That’s good. It’s always interesting to hear the different ways that people are handling this. But I do think there’s value – if you’re going to still hire people and have people in a certain geography, it seems like being in the office sometimes matters. Otherwise, why not just hire somebody somewhere else? Which then you’re also competing with everybody everywhere else for talent.
SUE: Right. I think that’s so true. It is really interesting to us how everybody’s handling this whole thing and how it’s evolving. It is true you can hire people remotely anywhere these days, and that’s a good thing. It can be good and bad. I don’t think we would be opposed to hiring somebody out of Fort Wayne, but it does sometimes get more challenging when you’re trying to put everything up on a board. I mean, you can Zoom some of that.
I think everybody’s making it work, but there is a camaraderie. Actually, we do have someone who works out of Fort Wayne at this point and comes in every other week for a couple of days. That’s great because you still get to see them. But everybody will handle it differently, I’m sure.
ROB: Yeah. It’s very, very interesting. I have a friend who just took over as president of an existing agency, and she lives in Atlanta, and the agency is in Knoxville. I think she’s going to be up there every other week. It really depends on the age and stage of life. I think her children are grown, college-bound. Flexing life here and there is a better fit for different people at different times. But I think picking a lane – you’ve picked a lane for your team, and you let them know what the expectation is – that really helps versus what we see in the news where Apple’s still trying to get their people to go to the office, but every time they try to get them to go to the office, they complain, a couple of people quit. It becomes this whole fits and starts, and “what are we doing here?”
We ended up hiring primarily – during COVID was a lot of our growth, so we ended up being a distributed team without trying. We have folks everywhere from Florida to Georgia to California to now Canada. You know what lane you’re in. You pick it, and people who will gravitate towards that will be your tribe, I think.
SUE: I think so, too. It’s really how you treat each other and how the culture is developed and how you respect each other. That’s where people want to work. Location almost doesn’t matter anymore. Many of our vendors are all over the U.S. We work with companies for photography, all over. Also video, also web development. You just try to pick the best vendors that you work well with, that you understand their quality level or their style.
ROB: Yeah. Sue, when you look ahead, when you’re looking at the future of Britton Marketing & Design, you’re looking at the future of marketing and design in general, what gets you excited? What should we be looking for? What’s coming up? What’s going to be our exciting future?
SUE: I think for us, we still just love telling a great story about a great brand that people have worked hard to develop and have put their heart and passion into. That’ll just never get old, looking at someone’s journey of developing an idea and then making it work. That is still really possible in the U.S., and I think that’s always an exciting thing for us: to take that beautiful idea, brand that they’ve developed, and then really illuminate it. Give them a nuanced creative that shows it for what it really is, the heart and soul of somebody’s idea, and then really laying that over a really wonderful marketing matrix where you’ve looked at the most inexpensive yet most effective way for them to go to market, and then how they reach the people who would really like this, who they can really respond to, to make their quality of life better.
Also, the conscientious capitalism piece of it. What are people doing? How are they giving back? How are we as a community helping each other grow and be successful? I think whatever form that takes, it’s always still going to be a really exciting journey from a marketing standpoint. So many people think of marketing and think, “Oh, they’re just trying to sell me something.” No, that’s not what we do. That’s not what we get up for. It’s really a lot more layered than that.
ROB: Yeah, you loop it all the way back to the paint conversation. I feel like when I see paint advertising, a lot of it is about creating ideas of what’s possible, it’s about how you make people feel, it’s about a combination of pride and hospitality. And maybe I’m making some of that up, but I think about it more on those levels. I’m not looking for a material datasheet comparing one paint to another. Maybe somebody in an industrial application is, but when I’m thinking about my home, my office, you’re not showing me a picture of a bucket most of the time.
SUE: Right. It’s really your interaction with that brand – how does that brand make you feel about the products they have, the color ranges they have, the names? We had a project with Benjamin Moore years ago where we named a whole set of paint colors, and that was super fun for the team. They really loved that. Like some people will only buy paint that’s the name of a food, like whipped cream or chocolate or something like that. It’s funny what influences people.
ROB: How did you come up with these names? Did you do research with consumers on their responses to these names? How did you get to the answer on that one?
SUE: It was kind of a high-end line of paints that had different layers of pigments in them. The team would get together and – yeah, they didn’t really research. They just knew what the goal of the name should be in terms of a style, in terms of what they needed to imbue. So, they would come up with a range of names, a couple of names for each color, and then the company would look at them and pick them.
Since then, we’ve worked with other paint companies – some of the very prominent, and they don’t like us to talk about it too much because they like us to just be quiet about it. And that’s okay, because we do a lot of work with them. But it really is about the paint names; it’s about how you talk about the paint, like you said, envisioning their new space or home and how it makes their home better. Paint is difficult for people to choose, so making it easy for people to select paints and pre-curating some for them is all really important.
ROB: And I understand them wanting to take the center stage. That’s what every client wants. That’s what most people want. They want to be in the Story Brand metaphor. In the Hero’s Journey, they want to be the hero and they want you to be the guide, that you help them be the hero. That’s what we end up being there for when we’re on the services side, I think, so it’s hard to even market ourselves and show other potential clients how we can also be a good guide for them rather than using another client’s story to be the hero.
SUE: That’s really true. It’s funny; we really feel very successful at helping other brands illuminate what they are and what they do, and it has always been a struggle for us to do a good job of that about ourselves. I think we’re a little humble, too. Midwest, you know.
ROB: That’s right. There is that Midwestern humility. Sue, when people want to find and connect with you and with Britton Marketing & Design Group, where should they go to track you down?
SUE: They can go to our website, which is just bmdg.com, as in Britton Marketing & Design Group. They can send an informational email to us and we’ll call them back. Or they can just email me as well, which is firstname.lastname@example.org.
ROB: Excellent. Was it difficult getting a four-letter dot-com domain?
SUE: We were surprised that it was not. That’s why we snagged it.
ROB: [laughs] Well, excellent. Sue, thank you so much for coming on, for sharing your journey. Congratulations on everything you have done, and we look forward to seeing so much more ahead.
SUE: Thanks, Rob. Thanks for your time and for the conversation. I think we can all help each other by having these kinds of conversations. We all learn from everything we hear and read, right?
ROB: So much, Sue. Thank you. Be well.
SUE: Thank you so much.
ROB: 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 email@example.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.