What Owners Need to Know About Branding – Sean Wilkinson

What is branding, and how can it help your business grow? What’s the difference between branding and marketing? Is branding only important to big corporations like Apple and Nike, or can it make a difference to a small, growing business in Maine?

In today’s episode, we chat with branding expert Sean Wilkinson of Might & Main, on what goes into a successful brand, and how you can improve your own company’s brand.

Rich:As founding co-principal and creative director of Might & Main, our next guest has overseen the creative work of this boutique brand design studio since 2010. Might & Main has created visual identities for over 70 restaurants and hotels and launched creative campaigns for heritage brands like LL Bean, Stonyfield Farms and Beam Suntory. The studio has been recognized by HOW Design, Communication Arts, Art of the Menu, and For Print Only for their work, especially in the hospitality industry, and was recently the focus of an Adweek piece titled How a Design Agency Helped Make Portland, Maine, The Hippest Foodie Town In New England. He lives in Portland, Maine and has had board positions with the Portland Museum of Art Contemporaries and the Percival Baxter Foundation For Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and is a past president of the Maine Chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design. We’re very excited to be chatting with Sean Wilkinson. Sean, welcome to the show.

Sean: Thank you.

Yury: We are delighted to have you. That’s very exciting. Sean, quick question, can you tell us a little bit about the name of your company, Might & Main?

Sean: Yes. It’s sort of an older, outdated phrase and it has some nautical origins and it has this idea, this meaning, that’s like to do something with all of your strength. So it’s like, I really pulled on that yardarm with all of my might and main. We sort of dropped the “and main” over the years, and just say, I did it with all my might, but we liked the idea that it felt sort of nautical in Portland. It felt appropriate. And this idea that everything that we do, gets everything we have kind of a … We really put all our all into the work that we do.

Yury: Do you always communicate that message to your clients?

Sean: We don’t. Actually, we’ve learned some good lessons about branding through naming ourselves and that it should be easy to pronounce on the phone. Somebody says, “Mike in Maine, who?” So we like that it’s unique and it’s a little challenging at times, but at the same time … and it evokes something. But yeah, we don’t always get into that whole story with all of our clients.

Rich:Got you, yeah. I’ve also learned that if you are going to have a company name, you should spell it correctly. So, we’re flyte new media and it’s F-L-Y-T-E and I have to explain that to every single person I’ve ever spoken with. Probably something, if I could go back in time, I might rethink, but.

Sean: Right.

Yury: Trust me, we hear that all the time with Machias, when people get on the phone, it may be “Makeas” or “Makias,” all sorts of different ways. Actually, during my job interview, I butchered the name of the company that I was applying for.

Sean: Yeah. I had a friend from California visiting years ago and she was insistent that it was the “Piscataqua” River and that we were crossing the “Piscataqua” Bridge and maybe we’re pronouncing it wrong.

Yury: Maybe we are.

Sean: Maybe it’s “Calay,” Maine.

Rich:Sean, how do you define branding when it comes to a company and what makes for good or bad branding?

Sean: We define branding and we get that question a lot because people are saying, “I’ve heard that I need it, but I don’t know why I need it.” We talk about it as like a promise, as sort of something that you’re putting out there to build your reputation and set an expectation for your customers or your clients before they step through the door or before they create a relationship with you. Something so that you’re sort of setting expectations and saying, “This is who we are, this is what we do and this is what you should expect from us.” And hopefully you can do that to some extent with your name and your visual presence and how you appear in the world.

Rich:So it’s a little bit of a promise.

Sean: Yeah, we like the idea of a brand as a promise. This idea that a good brand is a promise that’s not lying to you. It’s something that says that it really, truly reflects who you are and what you do. And when somebody does engage with you, which usually means these days spending money or time or both, when they walk away they’re not disappointed. They’re like, “I got what I expected. This is exactly …” And so, which is easy for us to reflect in a lot of the hospitality restaurant brands that we do. We hope that we can sort of give somebody a taste of what they’re going to get before they actually walk through the door and order something.

Yury: What comes first, culture or brand?

Sean: Ideally, culture. That’s, I think, our best, our most successful clients, our most successful projects are the ones where somebody comes to us with a distinct idea. There is a clear, creative vision and we have the opportunity to sort of take that in, digest it, translate it into something visual, and then put it out there in the world. And if we do our job right, we’re accurately representing what they do and what they’re promising of a culture of and that’s a great word for it, because it’s more than just the kind of experience you’re looking for. It’s about a style of relationship, a style of culture. You can’t really describe such a wide range of somebody’s experience. So, ideally culture comes first. I think the weakest brands are the ones that sort of come brand first and are skin deep and create something cool and sexy first. But you may not have the sort of foundation to back it up.

Rich:Just the shell, not-

Sean: Yeah, just the shell, yeah.

Rich:So you’ve worked with, I’m guessing with both companies that have been around for a little while as well as companies that are brand new and they’re like, “We want to open this restaurant or this hotel or whatever the business may be. Can you help us with this?” Correct?

Sean: Yep.

Rich:So it a different type of challenge when you’re developing a brand for kind of a non-existing company? And what is that like for you?

Sean: Yeah, I enjoy both of those challenges. One is, I mean, working with a company like LL Bean that’s been around for 100-plus years, 150 years? I forget what the exact-

Yury: A long, long time.

Sean: A long time. Our job there is to accurately reflect the culture and the brand that they’ve built over a really long time. Our job, as somebody new, is really to help them in … They’re in those early stages of even figuring out what their culture and personality and reputation should be and wants to be, and we get to be a part of that process, which is really fun for us to sort of say … I think it’s sometimes like therapy, in a way, where they come to us and they just have so many ideas and they’re just trying to figure out how to corral them into something that makes sense. And that’s where we can be sort of an objective translator and say, “You’re saying you want to be all these things. Here’s the way we can help you channel into that right category of how to speak about it and how to represent yourself.”

Rich:And maybe they want to do two things that are diametrically opposed, like “We want to be fun and trustworthy,” or whatever it might be, something like that.

Sean: And that’s actually, … Yeah, and when we’re doing that process, I often say that’s those tension points are where a lot of the good stuff happens. Like, how can you be something that is fun and trustworthy or irreverent, but well-respected, you know?

Yury: Sean, if you had to convince a business owner that branding is important or was important, what might you say to him or her?

Sean: I think it’s different for every industry, but I feel across the board without getting specific about the industry, in this day and age, everybody shops with, let’s not say like this is something relying on long-term reputation or long-term sort of reviews and knowing what’s out there, but people make really quick judgements and really snap decisions and no matter what you’re purchasing or jumping into, you sort of shop with your eyes and your gut first and you make a decision based on, “Do I like that? Do I feel like I get that and it’s something that appeals to me, something that I can have a relationship with?” And I feel like a lot of that is through visual thinking. I know I do it. I mean the reason I think I’m bad at wine, because there might be beautiful, amazing wines out there, but they have a bad label, so I’ll never buy that wine.

Yury: Right.

Sean: I’ll buy the bad wine that has a great label first. And yeah, there’s so many things like that out there that, unfortunately … obviously, we can swing that in the wrong direction, where somebody who is not good at what they do, but invested in a really great look and feel, can maybe rise above somebody who’s better at what they do, but didn’t invest the money in that branding, so it’s a funny conversation to have. I’d like to think that we’re doing good in that space and hope to help the good people rise to the top.

Rich:Sure, by choosing the right clients and that sort of thing. People you’re passionate with or are in alignment with.

Sean: Yep.

Rich:So you, I know, focus on a couple of different industries, especially hospitality and restaurants. And I can totally understand why branding may be so important, especially in a town like Portland, which ha so many restaurants and now so many hotels. Do you feel that there are certain industries that branding is more or less important? And do you feel, tied into this, obviously a lot of companies turn to Might & Main to help them with their branding, but is this ever something that certain companies can do in-house or should you always be looking for an outside agency to help you develop that brand?

Sean: That’s a good question.

Rich:I shouldn’t have bundled those two, now that I asked them. Those are two separate questions.

Sean: The second … I might have to ask you to re-ask the first part.

Rich:No worries.

Sean: And the second part there, we work with a lot of places that have really good internal marketing departments or design departments or creative departments and I do believe that those places can do a lot of really good work themselves. Actually, we’ve done work for IDEXX and they have a really killer internal design department, but they brought us in to … and I think it was a really smart move … it was something that they just needed some objective opinions. They needed somebody to come in who hadn’t been sort of steeped in the culture of what they were doing forever and I think that’s something that we can offer to somebody, even if they have a really strong internal team, the idea of bringing somebody else in and getting to sort of just dump fire hose, like, give us everything you got. We’ll listen, we’ll filter, we’ll translate and sort of put it back to you. I think that’s a valuable thing to look into. But I do think that there’s a lot of value in having the people who know your brand the best, which are your internal team doing that work, and being really committed to it, and helping to sort of shape it. And I think that the danger is just doing it in a vacuum and being a little too siloed and not having external opinions about what you’re doing.

Rich:And I guess related to that or not relate to that, is just the question, are there industries where branding is more critical and other ones where it really does make a difference?

Sean: I mean, you brought up Portland as an example and I think that, for us, it started with Eventide. That was our first restaurant client and that was 2012 and that was really the beginning of when Portland started getting super-crazy with restaurants. And I think that was when people started noticing, “Oh, some of these places have made a concerted effort to change the way they look or be really conscious about how they look and feel.” And I do think that when there’s 400-something restaurants to choose from, that makes a big difference. Yeah, when we were choosing a mortgage broker, it was who my real estate agent recommended, and I was like, “Yeah, sure.” All their logos are bad. I don’t care. So, there are things that you, I think … I guess that said, I chose my real estate broker partly based on the fact that I believed in the company they’re representing and I knew what they were doing and they represent themselves as pros.

Yury: You mentioned IDEXX and that they brought you guys in as kind of like an external type of consultant, in a way. But if I’m a business owner and I don’t really have a runway to bring in the consultant or agency, are they any ways for me to test if my brand reciprocates with my employees or with my customers or just the market, in general? Do you have any recommendations on how we can tackle that?

Sean: Yeah, I mean part of that is I think it’s always great to try to step back and just ask some simple questions to yourself and your employees about what do we think defines us? What do we think sets us apart from our competition, our strengths, and weaknesses, and things like that. What is the promise that we want to put out there? And then there’s so many great tools now. I mean, we use it and we’ve seen a lot of places use it, and try to upcharge for it, but it’s simple tools like Survey Monkey. You can create basically an almost free survey and put it out there to a hundred people that you have email addresses for, or even a purchased audience if you’re talking about a new product. So yeah, I feel like there’s great resources out there. If you’re asking the right questions and being honest with yourself, I think there’s a lot of great tools out there. And even just sticking a poll out there on Facebook and asking people, depending on the sensitivity of the question.

Rich:And how talented your friends are.

Sean: Right, right.

Rich:That kind of touches on something. I was kind of curious about how much research and strategy does the branding process require? Are you going out and looking at, in this example, 50 other restaurants and restaurants in Portland, restaurants that are also selling oysters in other parts of the country? Do you survey potential guests? What does that look like?

Sean: For restaurants in particular, just because it’s been a thing that we’ve been doing for almost 10 years now, I feel like one of our promises that we sort of carry this institutional knowledge of we’ve been following the scene for a while, we sort of know the trends, we know what’s happening out there, but for a Portland place we especially know. And I think that we’re pretty knowledgeable about if a new Portland place is going to open, we know the town here. But, for instance, we just opened a new place in Chicago and I spent a couple of days out there. I’d been out there before, but I hadn’t really focused on what new restaurants were getting attention. So I definitely invested a good chunk of time, sort of looking at what is the local eater account saying about the hot new restaurants? What are people writing about? What are Yelp reviews saying? What are the top rated places in each neighborhood out there? What do the trends seem to be? And that’s like a James Beard town. And so we do like to do our research for a place, for cities that we don’t know, and I think that’s part of what sets us apart from a place that just sort of comes in and says, “We’ll make you a cool logo and write some nice swag and a really cool T-shirt.”

Rich:And did you get to eat your way through Chicago? Is that part of the job?

Sean: It was part of the job. I did my best, yeah.

Rich:Awesome, awesome.

Yury: Speaking about research, as the business owner, how do I know that it’s time for me to fix my logo or my brand? And also, how do I know if I’m hiring a right agency for the job?

Sean: The timing thing, it’s interesting because there are places that will never change. They’re hopefully never changing their brand. They become legacy brands. They become things that last forever. There are places that do refreshes. Duckfat was our second client and they had been around already for six or seven years with essentially a brand that they did themselves, but they wanted to sort of step things up and take it to the next level. They saw where Portland was going and we helped them do that. It’s different for every business. Sometimes it’s worth somebody coming in to do a little. I worked for a guy who used to call it a shave and a haircut. You know, clean it up, make it look a little fresher, but maybe not even tell anybody. We did a refresh of the Hannaford logo a few years ago, that 99% of people probably never noticed. We just re-drew the existing logo, but it looks more modern, it looks contemporary, it sort of prepares them for the next five years and a potential future full rebrand. And, honestly, a big portion of working with the right team, the right partner, is if you feel good working with those people. And now that’s how we make a lot of our decisions. Like, do we have a good rapport? Is there … trust is really important. It’s an expensive process often, and if there’s trust and if people can sit at the table and sort of have an honest exchange and take honest feedback and advice and really take each step of the process and move it forward, you’re going to have a much more effective and satisfying and successful process. If somebody on either end of the table is questioning what you’re doing or not 100% committed, it’s going to end up costing you more or ending up with something that you’re just not in love with. And if you’re not in love with your brand, then you can’t sell it. And if you can’t sell it, then nobody’s going to want it.

Yury: Sounds like branding is the equivalent of a relationship, right? Just like how much you value or respect or like what you see in terms of branding and in the same way you’re interacting with people.

Sean: Right.

Rich:Sean, you mentioned earlier somebody might just come in and say, “I can make you cool logo.” In your opinion, what’s the difference between branding and a logo and then also, what’s the difference between branding and marketing? I’m sure you must get that question a lot.

Sean: I do get that question a lot and there’s a very practical way for us to answer that in that, if somebody comes to us, let’s say it’s a startup, we can offer them branding and design, which means they come to us, we do a bunch of research and strategy. We create a beautiful visual identity for them. We give them all the things, like a toolkit that they need to get out there in the world, everything from a business card to a website and the logo suite. But we’re pretty project-based, so we draw the line there and they’re off on their own. And if we were a marketing agency, then we’re managing their social media. We’re helping with media buys, talking about radio ads, video, talking about all kinds of sort of ongoing retainer-based things. So, for me, that’s the distinction is basically the branding piece as a branding and design agency, we hand off a product and then it’s usually onto either an internal team to manage that marketing side or they start working with a marketing agency. And then I forget the first part of that question.

Rich:Just like the logo. I wouldn’t say you’re dismissive of somebody who is doing a logo, but you were saying it felt like that wasn’t the same thing as branding. So, a lot of people I think do think of a brand as the logo-

Sean: Right.

Rich:… but I’m assuming it’s more, so how do you differentiate between those two things?

Sean: There are always really distinct trends happening especially in the world of restaurants and hospitality, where things all start looking a certain way and then they start changing and so you can sort of just look at trends and look at what would look really cool right now. I remember when it was Xs for a while and you put something in each quadrant of the X, like that was a cool thing you did. Established dates for a while, that was like you had to put an established date in everything. You could just whip those out and make something look great and hand it to somebody and it might actually be something that they grow around and it becomes their brand and it feels like it fits after a while. Or, you can sort of go through a real process of creating a visual identity that tells a story and it’s going to be with you for 10 to 15 years. I think a logo is a small part of the brand.

Rich:One data point, compared to the entire set.

Sean: Yeah.

Rich:Might be a brand. Cool.

Yury: You know, talking about branding and all the visual elements, what about slogans or … I don’t want to say like a mission statement because it feels more as a part of the strategy, but are slogans still a thing? Do we rely on those in branding?

Sean: Yeah, like taglines?

Yury: Taglines, yeah.

Sean: Yeah, a lot of times that can help set the expectation for what the place is. You know, I was working with a friend of mine who does a lot of … basically all of his clients are Broadway musicals. So we were helping them try to create. We did a little bit of work with them. Our work didn’t end up seeing the light of day, but it was fun to sort of collaborate. We did work for the new Tootsie musical on Broadway and the producer was really obsessed with the tagline, in that it had to be like, a new musical or a new comedy musical. So he’s was like … Did you want to lead with the fact that it was a musical or lead with the fact that it was a comedy? So you can kind of give a little context to a place. Even saying Oyster Company after Eventide, you know, setting an expectation a little bit, too. I guess that’s part of the name, more than a tagline, but yeah, most of our clients, I would say, have some kind of expectation for some little three to five word tag-

Yury: [crosstalk 00:23:27]

Sean: Yeah, something that just, again, it helps even if it’s like Gritty’s Brewpub and Restaurant or whatever. Yeah, it helps set that expectation.

Yury: Well, speaking about setting up expectations, what are the legal requirements in terms of branding or naming process and is it something that you help your clients with?

Sean: When we get into naming, we’ll do some basic searches. We’ll look on Google and make sure there’s no obvious … We wouldn’t try to tell a new car rental agency to call themselves Alamo or some kind of like … And then we’ll go a little bit deeper and get into things like the USPTO database where you can get trademarks and patents and things that have been legally filed. But we have the access at any Joe Schmo on the street would have to that stuff. So we always advise that you work with an IP attorney. We have a couple that we’ve worked with in the past, that if they don’t already have an attorney they work with, we could recommend somebody. But it’s important to get out there and sort of make sure you’re not going to invest 20 grand in your brand, get out there and put a big beautiful sign out and brand all of your things and then get a cease and desist six months later.

Yury: Yeah, that’s scary.

Sean: Yeah.

Yury: Do you encourage your customers, not just kind of like as a research part, but then safeguard their brands after they go through the exercise?

Sean: Yeah, I think it’s really important. In all honesty, I opened my agency 10 years ago and our original name was apparently the name of another agency in Boston.

Yury: No way.

Sean: So, less than a year later we got a cease and desist because we were making inroads to Boston and we were growing pretty quick and I think they got a little spooked and they were like, “Whoa, we’ve been around for five years. Who are you guys up in Maine?” And we just hadn’t found them when we were naming ourselves. So we changed our name to Might & Main and ever since then, we’ve realized the importance of … and we protect that with the trademark, and we worked with an attorney to do that. And you know, I get Google alerts about people using Might & Main or even “brandsmithery,” which is a word that we maybe didn’t invent completely, but we do own the trademark on it. It’s a little challenging. When you see somebody using it out there, you have to defend it or else you could potentially lose it.


Sean: So I’ve written a lot of awkward letters, like, “Hey, I know you’ve just made this whole line of clothing called Might & Main, but we also have a line of clothing, and it would be nice if you’d stop doing that, please.”

Rich:I know. I had to write one of those letters once, too and I’m like, “Hey, you know, I really love everything you’re doing and I’m a huge fan of entrepreneurship, but could you call it something else, please?”

Sean: Wow.

Rich:Sean, this one may be difficult to answer. The answer may be, “It depends,” but what’s the typical budget for a rebranding or the branding process?

Sean: It depends.

Rich:Okay, I can move on from there.

Sean: No, it’s totally different. I mean, I feel like somebody should … As time has gone on in the past 10 years, we’ve seen that baseline budget sort of increase from people who are approaching us with five grand or less to spend, to usually these days being in the 15 grand range, 15 to 20, but depending on the project, like 10 might be the right fit for somebody and then you might be a Marriott or a Hilton who’s looking to open a new place and the work that we’re doing actually encompasses so much stuff that it’s in the six figures. So it does depend, but people are less, I think, turning to things like 99 Designs and hopefully not Fiverr. But they’re typically including some line item for like, “I need some kind of designer/branding agency to help me get my idea to a sort of a thing that feels real.

Yury: For the past few years, customer centricity and customer experience has been like a buzz word. Do you feel like those elements can actually be a part of the brand experience and be kind of like factors that differentiate your business after the branding exercise or rebranding?

Sean: I think so, yeah. I mean, you’re almost creating a lifestyle brand, in a way. And you can build some of that into your customer experience. I mean I look at places like Ace Hotel, like it’s just a hotel, and they actually offer a lot less amenities than a lot of hotels, but the amenities they do offer, are kind of hipster and cool, like a turn table in your room and a vintage fridge and a … But they’re really committed to a good customer experience, which then ties into all these other little distinctive things they do. And it’s to the point that people will wear clothing that is Ace Hotel branded. You don’t see walking around with Marriott clothes, even though their customer experience is really great, and they do have a lifestyle brand in a way, but it’s not the same as something that you can really sort of bake into this boutique-y sort of lifestyle brand.

Rich:And maybe people would be more excited about saying, I’m hip enough to wear Ace, where no one’s saying I’m so awesome, I’ll wear Marriott or Holiday Inn.

Yury: Or Walmart.

Sean: Right. I’m using my Bonvoy points on this one.

Rich:We ask this question to all of our guests, Sean, what one thing would you change if you could, to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?

Sean: I was thinking about that and I wanted to give a selfish answer, which is … and it’s something that I think that everybody says that they do and they’ve been saying for five years, but I don’t think anybody actually really does very well, and it is collaboration. And I would include us in that. I feel like we try to do it well and don’t always do it well, but some of our most promising and successful projects are the ones that we were really successfully collaborating with people and really bringing our A-game to the table while there’s other people bring an A-game. I think the challenge we’re not willing to accept sometimes especially in Maine, in a smaller market, because this is usually happening for us in larger markets like New York or Chicago. There might be a PR agency at the table and an interior design firm and a marketing agency and us as a branding agency and in larger markets, we all know we’re getting paid-

Yury: Right.

Sean: … so nobody’s getting snippy about, “Oh, my toes are getting stepped on,” and like, “Don’t you dare touch that piece of the puzzle.” It happens more in Maine, in that everybody gets a little, sort of Hungry Hippo about things and they want-

Rich:Yeah, territorial?

Sean: Yeah, they want every marble in the bowl, to continue that weird metaphor. But yeah, I want more of … and maybe it’s about people having the funding just to engage all of the proper experts at step one. But yeah, there are great marketing agencies and full-on advertising agencies in Maine and we are not that. And I feel like we should be working with them or we should be working with other PR agencies in Maine. We should be working with other … You know, having those experts all sort of dialed up to 10 and stepping to the table, feeling like equals. Not feeling like, “How dare you take that website away from me?”

Rich:Right, that was mine, exactly.

Sean: Yeah.

Yury: This is my lane, this is your lane, you know, don’t encroach on my territory, right?

Sean: Right, yeah.

Yury: So Sean, for those who are listening to us right now and who are interested in learning more about you or your company, where should they go and find you?

Sean: Might-main.com is our website, our main presence. We try to update those case studies on a regular basis and represent ourselves well. It’s hard to … you know, the cobbler shoes, all that. And our best social media presence is on Instagram right now. We’ve seen Facebook attention sort of drop off and LinkedIn is the most boring social media profile in the world, so yeah, instagram.com/mightmain.

Rich:And just for all of our listeners who aren’t reading the transcript right now, that is M-A-I-N, not like the state.

Sean: Right. M-I-G-H-T-M-A-I-N, no E.

Rich:Awesome. Sean, thanks so much for coming by today.

Yury: That was great.

Sean: Thanks guys.