How branding is pivotal to success

It’s not always clear how to position and build brand awareness for one’s business or startup, leading a lot of good businesses to make bad decisions. Sarah Woods is marketing director at Bridges, a rapidly-growing D.C.-based technology business, and has deep and diverse experience working with companies to make sure their branding and marketing is right for them. At Bridges, she’s been able to take their consulting business model and shift it to something that can successfully sell a service.

ABERMAN: Well I think it’s really important for our community that we have experts like you on, because a lot of us aspire to build our businesses. What does Bridges do?

WOODS: So Bridges is basically in three areas: we’re trusted for cyber solutions, for shaping big data into confident decisions, and for our innovations. We call them frontier innovations. Those are things that people haven’t thought about needing yet, but we’re already beginning to work on. We are doing that in two different sectors: both our government sector and our commercial sector.

ABERMAN: And that is, I think, really the part that I find most important for our listeners, in that we have so many government-related companies here. How do you go through the process of marketing or changing a culture to become more commercial-oriented, from a marketing perspective?

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WOODS: So, we’ve come a long way since 2000, since Chuck Faughnan Sr founded the company in his garage. And he had over 50 years of experience in IC. And today, his son, Chuck Faughnan III, is our CEO, and we have over 100 employees direct, and 300 on prime contracts. But at the heart, we’re still that same small company that’s focused on a family-type culture, and our focus is our talent, and our people. The news, for us, was being able to talk about that we’re now more than just a government contracts-focused company, we are also delivering the talent to the commercial sector.

ABERMAN: Now I have found, over the years, that commercial customers, they look and expect a company to be different, smell different, act different. What are some of the things that, from a marketing perspective, tactically, a business like yours has to do to really make commercial customers comfortable, that you get what their lives are like?

WOODS: So, to talk a little bit about the different sectors: from the federal side, there’s the scale and experience that have been the core of what we do. It’s a huge environment, where you have the ability to scale to solve enterprise level requirements. So, think big, think exacting, in the work that you do, and that you have the opportunity to build the solution, versus buying off the shelf. And you get to deeply understand the technology and the problem. And it’s a longer-term engagement.

For the commercial, you need agility. You get quicker, more direct feedback, you get a market response on what’s working. You have short turnarounds, you need a more rapid fix, you need a fixed-price solution. And you need to be quicker at adoption of new technologies and services. So, the beauty in having both is, you can get a good feedback loop on the latest technologies into government and commercial, and you have employees that are getting exposed to both the business processes on each side of the customers.

So, for us, you may have somebody on the government side who needs a little bench time. We can bring them over into commercial, we can use their talents and skills. Or, you have something that’s hot on commercial, we may bring somebody over from government to work on the hot thing in commercial, and build that out, really get cutting edge, and then bring it back into the government. So, it’s a really nice synergy between the two.

ABERMAN: Do you find that brand is more important when you sell commercially? I think back, maybe, to your experience at Procter and Gamble. Does brand matter more when you’re reaching commercial customers than it does when you deal with the federal government?

WOODS: It does, because in the federal government, you’re really working with contracts, and bids on contracts. So, there is a direct interaction of here, can you work on this, and then there’s a response with your proposal.

ABERMAN: It’s very structured.

WOODS: Right. It’s very structured, and when it comes to commercial, folks may have a more private way of looking at your company. They need to go to your website and be able to get to have a first impression from your website. They need to be able to talk to your customers, and find out what your reputation is in the business. So, being able to get your word out there is more important in the commercial business.

ABERMAN: Do you find that’s the biggest cultural challenge that you’ve faced, working with the company? My experience working the government contract sector is that it’s a very different world, different vocabulary, and that often, I find, telling people look, you really have to brag on yourself. You have to be everywhere, you have to be ubiquitous, you do have to spread that brand. That’s the hardest conversation, I find, to have.

WOODS: It is. They’re so used to being humble, and direct, and on the one thing that they’re working on, and in the commercial world, you really need to be able to speak broadly, on a range of talents. And so, for us, we had the opportunity over the last year to rebrand the company. We looked at the strengths, and got to take a deep dive into what’s working, and what is so important to Bridges, and rebrand the company, and then update the materials.

So, we found that some of our materials were very densely written, very technical, and you needed a way into that. You needed a layer above that, so that somebody who’s a CEO, that’s not a systems engineer, may be able to go out a top line and say, yes, that’s what I’m looking for, and then bring in their partner for the more detailed discussion.

ABERMAN: You mentioned earlier that this is a family business, and it’s a government contract business. Those are the two business types that, I find, are generally the most humble, and the least interested in bragging on themselves. Coach me: if I’m a founder, or coach a founder that’s listening right now. Why should they understand, and why should they embrace branding and PR?

WOODS: From a brand standpoint, if this is your company, you need to get it in front of people. So, if you had to give a three minute elevator speech to somebody, to talk to them about your company, what would you say? So, think of your materials in that introduction. You’ll get that next opportunity, once you’ve had that introduction, to go deeper into the technology. But you need that first introduction.

ABERMAN: As you think about the people you’ve coached, both at this company and previously, what do you look for in an entrepreneur to be able to make this adjustment and become a great marketer?

WOODS: We’re blessed. We have Chuck Faughnan III as our CEO, and he is an innovator. He is passionate about his people, but he’s also passionate about innovation, and staying ahead. For him, that combination has meant that we are forward-looking, and we’re inward-looking in doing the right thing for our people. So, it’s a very good company to work for.

ABERMAN: So, it’s willingness to learn and change.

WOODS: Absolutely. That’s why we talk about our third leg as being frontier innovations.

ABERMAN: Well, Sarah, thanks a lot for taking the time and talking with us about your journey at Bridges. I have to tell you, the big lesson I take away from this is that, if you’re not ready to brag on yourself, you’re probably not ready to be commercial.

WOODS: That’s true.