Can Love Be a Brand Strategy?

I am just not a Valentine’s Day person. Hearts, flowers, gifts, candlelit dinners… none do much for me. Acts of service are much more my love language, and not just one day a year.

That is why when I saw this shirt from Mahogony Mommies, it seemed like a perfect February uniform: Love is an Action Word.



Photo credit: Meghan’s first-grader. ❤️

I’ll admit, it feels a little strange to talk about
love in the context of business. Culture, sure. Values, no problem. But love?

Even though we don’t always think about them this way, businesses, especially family businesses, are deeply human, and derived from love at their core. Us humans crave connection, respect, and a sense of belonging… in other words, love as action.

The book, Love as a Business Strategy, makes the case for building an internal “culture of love.” I think many businesses could take it one step further and develop a brand of love. 

In Six-Point’s brand strategy workshops, we define branding as “the consistent alignment of a company value proposition to customer values.” Basically, you have to connect the value that the company creates to what its customers value. 

We know that humans fundamentally and deeply value love. That is not a question. The question is… can a business produce love as a value proposition in an authentic, non-exploitative way? I believe we can.

Simon Sinek has a quote that I love: “There is a difference between providing a service and being willing to serve. Only one is generous.”

I think within these words lies the secret to love as a brand strategy, and it is something that many family businesses do quite naturally. In fact, it is one of the hidden strengths of many family businesses. 

I see it daily:

  • An IT company going the extra mile to understand their customers’ businesses and make recommendations that may actually lose them short-term sales
  • A manufacturer with a passion for engineering a product that can withstand a “forever” guarantee in a channel where skimping on quality boosts volume and profit margin
  • A food producer who experiments and tinkers constantly but won’t release a new product until they have deemed it worthy of their customers (which has taken over a decade in some cases!)

This willingness to serve and deeply respect customers is of tremendous value in a world where the pressure is often focused on growing quickly, showing a profit immediately, and being opportunistic during market fluctuations. 

But a brand is a reputation… what others say about you, not what you say about yourself. So, if your company naturally acts out of love and respect for its customers, the opportunity is to become known for it. In many ways, this idea is fundamentally at odds with the mindset of humble service that permeates our culture. That said, it is important to connect with customers who value love, belonging, and respect. These will be your most loyal customers, and the ones who fully appreciate the value you are creating.

So, how can you build a brand of love without bragging? 

  • Tell stories. I know, this is every branding expert’s advice, but one thing that I have learned over the years is that businesses get very good at telling case study stories. These are the stories of “problem/solution/outcome.” Totally fine, but it does nothing to showcase the heart behind the service or product. Instead, it is critical to tell stories of emotion and heart. Stories that people can relate to on a gut level. Don’t talk about technical problems. Talk about where people were emotionally. How were they feeling? What effect did this have on them? How did the work of your team fundamentally change things, and why was this important on a human level? 
  • Amplify the voice of your customer. This means going beyond reviews alone. Are there opportunities for your existing customers to connect with or spend time with your prospective customers? Are there emails you’ve received or reviews that perfectly capture the love present in your company and your team? If so, don’t just share them once, or leave them in a “customer feedback” file somewhere. Talk about them and feature them prominently and consistently. Maybe there are other stakeholders in your business whose voices you can amplify as well? Is there a vendor you have had a relationship with for decades? A supplier who depends on your company’s success as much as your employees do? These voices can tell your story and affect your brand more than you will ever be able to.
  • Create a sense of belonging. Humans want to be seen, feel connected to other humans, and to something bigger than themselves. At first, this may feel awkward in the context of a product or service, but think of a time when you were personally connected with a brand. The value of feeling seen and appreciated is universal. Can you connect your customers to your ability to create jobs in your community, or to develop and promote a key employee? Maybe you have specific stories of your company’s philanthropic initiatives or its ability to positively impact the environment? During COVID, brands became better at connecting these dots for customers, connecting dollars spent with customers’ ability to maintain jobs. The fact is, this impact is always true. 

If, like me, you believe that love is an action word, let’s make sure that we center it in every part of our lives, including in our business and in our relationships with our customers, suppliers, and colleagues. Let’s make love our legacy.

Cleaning the Mirror with Coltrane

John Coltrane was an incredibly hardworking jazz musician, driven by the creative process to continue to become a better saxophonist and leader, and to capture more emotion and truth in his music. His drive for challenge and excellence is a reminder that there is joy and satisfaction in the hard work that all business leaders much engage in.

When immersed in brand strategy and positioning, we’re constantly reaching for  Windex and a fresh cloth to help companies see more clearly who they are, and who they can become. 

To my benefit, I almost compulsively do the same “polishing” on myself and my business as much as I do it for others. And just like my own house, I only get a moment of satisfaction looking into a sparkling clean mirror before I turn back and notice it is already smudged again, ready for yet another refresh.

All of the mirror-cleaning I’ve been doing lately has left me exhausted, but dead-set on desmudging still. Several years of rapid change through the pandemic was fueled, for our business as it was for many others, by necessity and adrenaline. It led to exciting and positive changes, and it has also been incredibly draining.

As leaders, we have reinvented our businesses, and therefore ourselves, at least once or twice in rapid succession, and this pace of change persists. On top of it, with inflation and the threat of a recession, much of this innovation must happen even as profit margins keep shrinking. 

So, as we enter the last month of the year, how do we gather strength for what’s next? Is there an industrial size solution or home-made vinegar blend that can help us gaze more clearly at this moment, and into our future? What do we give thanks for? 

Is it possible to give thanks for the change and challenge itself? 

Long before he got his big break playing saxophone with Miles Davis, John Coltrane served in World War II and used the GI Bill to take music classes. He then worked as a journeyman musician for nine years, taking any gigs he could get, and learning whatever he could. 

Even once he was selected by Miles Davis to join his band, Coltrane referred to Davis as “Teacher” and spent years searching to find his voice on the saxophone. He then took a break for a summer-long collaboration with Thelonius Monk to learn even more before returning to Davis’ band.

From then on, Coltrane was on fire. He practiced incessantly. In less than 10 years, from 1957 up until his death in 1967 (at only 40 years old) he put out 25 albums, his style shifting and evolving in each one, including his best-known, the Grammy-nominated A Love Supreme

Coltrane loved learning. He loved being challenged. In the last year of his life, his celebrity was at its peak, and yet he was in almost constant pain from liver cancer. Still, he did not let up. He continued to perform and record until only weeks before he died. 

“The real risk is not changing. I have to feel that I’m after something. If I make money, fine. But I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.” -John Coltrane

When I am deep at work on my own business, or laser-focused with other leaders working on theirs, I am often reminded of Coltrane and his love of striving. Changing, learning, becoming better at our craft, and better versions of ourselves… for the best-led businesses, this is what it is all about. Profit is merely a proof-of-concept, a byproduct of the learning, not the end goal. 

It may feel sometimes like nothing you do is enough. It may feel like that the crystal clear mirror you spent so much time and care polishing will quickly become foggy. And that is true. There is always more to learn, more to try, and more to become. Or to borrow Coltrane’s words once more, “There is never any end…there are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at.”

This Thanksgiving, I am going to try to embody that spirit of Coltrane. Instead of peace and restoration, I wish you even more change, challenge, struggle, and striving. 

We are blessed with an opportunity to continue to clean our mirrors. With each attempt we see a step more clearly, and we become more whole and better in the process.

Business Target Market: How Confident Are You?

Leaders of family businesses need confidence to answer critical questions surrounding their brand and company positioning. Lack of confidence often means that important decisions are not being made, and the brand will immediately begin to falter. In most cases, confidently answering questions about the business target market and differentiators is more important than picking the “best” answers to those questions.

I was having some severe writer’s block this week until I had an unexpectedly lovely chat with Steven Wolgemuth, author of The Crucial 12, an award-winning marketing book that unpacks what leaders need to successfully direct effective marketing efforts.

Steve and I were nerding out together about branding and marketing strategy when all of the sudden he said something that hit me hard.

He said that he has found a leader’s confidence in answering questions about positioning, business target markets, and other aspects of their strategy to be as important as the answers themselves.

I want to let that sink in for a moment.

It is as or more important that you can confidently answer questions around your business target market and differentiators than it is that you have picked the “best” answers to those questions.

As soon as he said that, I knew it to be true.

When I see family businesses get stuck – whether they are $5M or $20M or $1B in revenue – it is most often because they have lost confidence in their answers to those questions.

  • Are we really meaningfully different from our competitors anymore?
  • Are we targeting the right customers to fuel our future growth?
  • How do we explain the complexity of our company in a way that our employees and prospects can understand?
  • Are we driving our growth or just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks?

When, as a leader, you lose confidence in your answers, the effects trickle down almost immediately.

Your team becomes confused. Your marketing partner starts providing uninspiring or off-brand content and design. Your sales team starts going off-script and improvising. The clarity and consistency that you need to build value in your brand and drive sales and profit become elusive.

The most important thing to know is that it is natural and normal to go through these periods of uncertainty. If you didn’t question these things, you wouldn’t be doing your job to keep the company evolving, relevant, and competitive. The key is not to dwell too long on them. At some point soon, deciding becomes almost more important than the decision itself.

I’ve seen a 60-year-old company that built up a hugely complex (and confusing) divisional and product brand structure to avoid an emotionally charged decision to change the company name.

I talked the other day with a company that has been trying to decide whether they should launch a new product line for over five years.

I have recently had conversations with four different people in a company that is trying to decide whether to double down on their existing customer base or expand to a market they don’t know well. (Three have competing perspectives, and one is just desperate for a decision so they can move forward and do their job.)

These stalemates suck morale, energy, and money out of these businesses.

If you find yourself relating to this, consider participating in our leadership team workshop or our brand accelerator system. Both of these options can provide the clarity, confidence, and energy you need to move your team forward.

Remember, by not deciding to give clarity to your team, you are deciding to keep your company where it is. You are deciding to stay stuck.

Deep Roots: Sunnyland Farms Interview

Staci Willson and her husband Alex are the 4th generation owners of Sunnyland Farms, a unique pecan farm, processor, manufacturer, and catalog retail business.

Located in what has long been known as the “Pecan Capital of the World” Albany, Georgia, Staci and Alex are continuing to honor their family’s legacy, and build a bright future.

Knowing that Sunnyland is a 4th generation family business, can you tell us a bit about the history of the company?
Sunnyland has a unique story. It started when my husband’s great-grandfather inherited beautiful pecan groves down here in Southwest Georgia, originally around 5,000 acres. Our groves today are around 1,700 acres, all planted with beautiful pecan trees. Alex’s granddad was a Harvard businessman, and after World War II decided he was gonna come down with his wife Jane from Atlanta and move to the agriculture hub of Albany, Georgia. They were already selling some of the Willson family pecans to college friends, etc., and thought there just might be something to that!

So they moved down here in the late 40s and started to cultivate the farm and started the mail-order business in 1948, just selling Sunnyland pecans. And from there it started to flourish. Then they started to add praline pecans, candies, cakes, and added other mixed nuts to their products. Developing relationships with nut farmers worldwide was crucial for maintaining Sunnyland’s standard of “Only the Best.” We still benefit from these relationships today, purchasing the highest quality almonds from California, Macadamias from South Africa, and gorgeous Cashews from India.

In the seventies, Larry, Alex’s dad, who is the third generation, came back and started to help his dad modernize the growing operation. He was one of the first pecan farmers in the industry to implement irrigation. He planted new and upcoming pecan varieties, which we are bearing the fruit from now. Pecan trees take 15-20 years to mature, so you really have to implement a long-term plan to see it through fruition.

With that long legacy, what are you and Alex doing now to keep it thriving?
Right, so Alex is the fourth generation. We moved back about six years ago and since we have been involved, we’ve been working on really modernizing the catalog business, the online business, the SEO, and all of the digital marketing and sales aspects of the business.

My thumbprint has been on most of the catalog business, recipe development and PR/Marketing. Our catalog is still a huge part of our business, we mail almost 3.2 million catalogs a year nationwide! You would think in the modern age, it might not be, but it is. And we’re really trying to minimize packaging and become greener. We’re working on sustainable energy as well, using some of our pecan shells to fuel our shelling plant.

Is there anything else that is unique about the company and your team?
I know I focused on the Willson men, but a legacy that Sunnyland has always had is a husband and wife partnership. And that started way back with Jane and Harry. They really were ahead of their time and Jane took such an active leadership role in the business. It continued with Larry and Beverly in the seventies, and now it continues with me and Alex, so it’s really a joint partnership and a beautiful legacy to continue.

We’re very, very proud to say that most of our workforce is 80% female. We have had really wonderful lifetime employees across the board as well. We just celebrated 44 years of retirement last week with one of our very best long-term employees. And that’s really something we’re proud of. It’s not an uncommon thing to have multi-generations working here, like we’ll have a mother and a daughter working in a department together.

How did you and Alex decide to come into the family business? Was that an easy decision?
We were living in Nashville at the time when Alex and I met, he was in the financial industry and I was working in the food industry. We were in our late twenties and I remember asking him, as you do in planning for your future, do you ever wanna go back and step into your dad’s/granddad’s footsteps? And I was asking myself, do I want to go back and be a part of this farm, this business, and this family? He never would rule it out and I wouldn’t rule it out either. It took us probably about five more years to make the final move down here from Atlanta.

In the end, the one thing that we wanted to do was make a difference. We love this community, and wanted Sunnyland to grow and thrive as an employer. We decided we can make a bigger difference by moving to Albany than we could by working in our respective industries in Atlanta. We can make a difference and continue a beautiful legacy of giving back.

And I was just fascinated with the farm, and the recipe development is something that I loved. It was really a no-brainer. It was a beautiful lifestyle change from Atlanta down here, and a great place to raise the family, and really put our roots down and give back.

On a personal note, is there someone who you looked up to as a hero growing up?
I would definitely have to say Julia Child. I come from the beverage and food hospitality industry, and she was just such a pioneer and leader. As a female within that industry and gaining the respect she did and continues to have, she is someone that I’ve always looked up to. I’m not a chef, I’m a cook, and I love all of her recipes, and her personality, and just her fearlessness. She had so much courage to lead in the male-driven, culinary world. Man, what I wouldn’t give to have a cup of coffee with her and discuss these things!

What is the biggest leadership lesson you have learned along the way?
Definitely flexibility. Since we’ve moved back, we’ve dealt with devastating weather events, like Hurricane Michael where we lost 5,000 trees, a whole crop. Then we are dealing with the new digital marketing landscape that exists now. And then COVID. So we’ve been in constant crisis management since we moved back.

Now dealing with inflation and production shortages that affect our business from start to finish. So I have really had to work on flexibility. Things are always going to change. The life cycle of the business cycle is going to go up, and it’s going to go down.

And you manage that through embracing leadership within. We are very, very big on individual voices and we appreciate honesty and directness from our management leaders. We couldn’t do it without them.

What do you want your legacy to be?
Wow. I would probably say commitment. Commitment to things that matter. Commitment to quality. Commitment to roots, to people, our team, to family, to Sunnyland. I moved around a lot in my life prior to this, and joining this family and this business and everything… roots mean a lot to me. I want to invest in people’s futures. We’re going to figure out ways to thrive in the middle of these crises. I think that’s something that we’ve done and will continue to do.

This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
Oh my goodness, there have been so many. I would probably go all the way back to my middle school chorus teacher, Miriam Walton in Richmond Virginia. She was so dynamic and so energetic. She led by example and encouraged my growth as a performer and singer. She had so much energy and passion for what she did. We still keep in touch and I’m proud to know her.

She encouraged me to step out and have courage, and believe in my talent. Getting up and singing a solo was difficult in middle school, but she encouraged me and gave me the opportunity to do that. And I think that honed some amount of leadership, learning to push through fear and knowing what courage looks like. And I know that may sound silly in middle school at a spring concert, but I look back at that and I really appreciate the influence she had on me.

That’s great. I think middle school is one of the most difficult times to stand up yourself, but if you can do it in middle school, you can do it forever.
Right. You know if you can do it in that moment, then you can do it forever, and in many other eras in your life.

Staci and Alex Willson are co-owners of Sunnyland Farms, a 1,760 acre farm nestled in the heart of Pecan Country in Albany, Georgia. Since 1948 Sunnyland has been the premier provider of gourmet Georgia Pecans, nuts, chocolates, dried fruits, and assortments of gifts for all occasions. Their incredible gourmet, heart-healthy and Kosher-certified snacks and pecans are the perfect treats. To learn more about Sunnyland Farms, visit their website: sunnylandfarms.com

Photography by David Parks

To catch the next wave of growth, patience is key

Sometimes moving too quickly will slow you down in the long run. Making the right decision, not the fast decision is critical when your goal is long-term, sustainable, profitable growth. The wrong fit customer, the big but unprofitable sale, the commitment without the ability to deliver… these are all moments when companies think they are moving fast, but often ultimately end up moving backwards. But when you feel a sense of urgency and opportunity, what is the alternative? Take a deep breath, try out these small business tips, and remember: slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

One of our Six-Point project managers brought a mantra to our company that I love: Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
He is a big believer that getting the details right up front, excercising patience, asking the right questions, and listening carefully to the answers will save time and rework down the road.

And he is right.

I’ve been taking that mantra to heart not just in the day-to-day of our projects at Six-Point, but to my own strategy for my business as we ease out of pandemic lock-down, and to my work as an advisor for our clients. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

In the spring of 2020, I felt like there was no time for inaction. Anyone who froze and didn’t act was in jeopardy. Since we couldn’t control the landscape shifting under our feet, just moving forward was the smartest way to go.

In the spring of 2021, I feel differently. I feel like there are major opportunities for growth, but particularly for smart growth, because all growth isn’t created equal. And being ready with the right solutions for the right people at the right time will be the difference between catching that wave and getting either overwhelmed or left behind.

So I have taken the past two months and gone into listening mode. Because slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

What am I doing during this intentional slow down?

I am reading a lot and I am listening to a lot of podcasts. There are a lot of smart people who are extremely generous with their expertise and insights. I am also connecting with the authors and podcast hosts that I find the most valuable on LinkedIn (and sometimes offline, too) to be able to stay connected and in tune with what they are seeing and talking about.

I am interviewing leaders of successful brands in industries where I feel like my team can create true value. I’ve been having conversations with CEOs, sales directors, and marketing directors, and I am learning a lot about what it feels like on the ground in companies right now.

Our team is collaborating with Bean Group Global to survey business leaders all over the globe to better understand the effects of this acceleration into a hybrid world of both virtual and in-person workforces.

I am speaking less and listening more. And I am becoming much clearer for it.

I know it is tempting to just jump at opportunities, especially after you have either experienced a drought last year, or to keep your head down if you were overwhelmed with unexpected demand. But resist that temptation.

I would invite you to figure out what slowing down looks like for your business and your opportunity. Sometimes, the brave thing to do is to move forward even when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But right now, I would argue that truly courageous leaders are practicing discipline.

What might this look like? You might:

  • Start “auditioning” new relationships instead of selling to them.

  • Survey your customers to better understand what has changed in their world.

  • Set up some virtual coffees with key customers and just listen to what their world is like.

  • Talk with the competition. (I know, I know… terrifying! But we have seen some amazing collaborations when small competitors take on the big guys together.)

  • Collaborate with someone else who serves your industry and share insights.

  • Scan the social feeds of your ideal customers and see what they are talking about and doing that is not related to your product or service.

  • Read a lot, and not just about your industry. Find macro trends that you should be aware of and incorporate into your planning.

  • Prioritize with your team. You can’t do everything well, so what are the 1-3 things that are most important to knock out of the park? Allow them to really focus on those.

Now is the time to slow down.

To pick your head up and look down the playing field. To listen closely to your current and future customers. Listen, learn, and pick your best opportunity, not just any opportunity.

And then you will really catch that growth wave at its peak and let it carry you swiftly and smoothly to what’s next.

The Founder Effect

How does a brand transcend a founder while still keeping their value, perspective, and influence? This is a uniquely “second stage” dilemma. Whether you are talking about the next generation of a family business, a new company that emerges after a merger, or installing a new CEO, the question is essentially the same.

This is a bittersweet article for me to write. At the end of this month, Six-Point’s “founding father,” David Wicks, will be retiring.

We have been preparing for this moment for years, but it still somehow feels like walking off a precipice.

Since we began transition discussions, one of the main questions in my mind wasn’t “how will we replace David” (impossible!). Instead, it has been “how will we keep David’s influence intact?”

Before becoming Six-Point’s chief creative officer, David’s background was an art director and creative director. He has worked for large retail grocery store brands, technical manufacturing brands, as well as international consumer product brands like Guinness. He learned how to design “the hard way” — in the time before desktop publishing — painstakingly pasting-up layouts and hand-illustrating concepts to present to clients. The skill, patience, and creativity that went into his work over his career has made him into the multi-faceted, multi-talented creative thinker he is today.

Marsha Montori (who retired in 2019), David, and I started Six-Point back in 2007, and while Marsha strongly influenced the brand and its personality, David was the one who was most emphatic about what we would be… and what we wouldn’t.

  • We would be irreverent. If there is one thing that David can’t stand, it’s people who take themselves too seriously. For David, the work was important. We weren’t. Any time any of us started getting heated, or cocky, or focused on peripheral issues, David is there with a quiet but pointed remark to bring things back into perspective. 

  • We would be communicators, not artists.. A lot of creative folks think of themselves as artists. The beauty of the work is paramount. For David, all writing and design for an agency should be in service to the message and the strategy. Is this element moving us forward toward our goal? Or is it making things less clear? Or worse, is it doing nothing at all? “Because it looks cool” is never a justification at Six-Point. 

  • We would make the work interesting. Never tell David that a client is boring, or that a project isn’t meaningful. As far as he is concerned, we are the only ones who can make something boring or exciting. Our passion, our curiosity, our creativity…That is what makes great work.

For all enduring brands, there comes a time when a founder needs to step back.

It’s always a precarious time in a brand’s lifecycle. Founders are the creators of the vision and the culture of their company. The brand is often very much in their image. The question of how to keep the success of a brand intact without this driving, central force is one that makes transition fraught with both opportunity and danger.

Six-Point Creative is no different. We have had to be intentional to build these founding principles into the daily rhythm of life at the agency. We infuse them in our onboarding. We tell stories to reinforce them. They also affect our selection of employees, partners, and clients. When you are clear on your values and your promises, you have the opportunity to attract like-minded people and create a virtuous cycle.

Preparing for this transition has allowed us to practice what we preach. Our work is all about making brands less dependent on individuals, clearer, more consistent, and more scalable. We are with companies during once-in-a-lifetime transition points when they need to orchestrate the careful balance between honoring the value of “what got us here” and also step bravely out into unchartered territory without dependence on any single person to bring about the future vision.

And now we are at a transition point ourselves. As we move into a new year, I am confident that David will still be with us in everything we do, just as I am confident that we will take that foundation to new heights.

I think David would agree that Mott the Hoople said it best:

Rejoyce for the king ain’t lost his throne, oh no
He’s still here, you’re not alone.