There are two mandatory qualities for a successful branding specialist: a compulsive obsession for details and a vast curiosity. Ştefan and Adriana possess them both and raise these antes with astrong dose of passion. And patience, because in this field success is “a game of patience: a question of who stays and who goes. If you get tired and want to make a lot of money, go into oil prospection or sell gas. The branding specialist must have patience and every guy who works into this field must really enjoy his job,” Ştefan explains. This dedication was what drove Ştefan to quit his job as strategist and senior partner in Grapefruit, a well-established branding and digital agency, after 13 years of working there.
While the company was expanding its services into new directions such as digital solutions, Ştefan and Adriana, his wife and strategist colleague, decided to stick to what they love best: creating and developing brands. The separation was civil and consensual, but is there a market suitable for their ambitions? “The number of people who have the know-how and can do a good job does not increase. By contrast the need, at least formally expressed, and demand of branding services, and I refer in particular to SMEs, did increase. The branding market is somehow different from the advertising market. In advertising, you see the presence of multinational agencies, while on the branding market that does not apply in Romania. Our local market is too small for them. The only interesting markets for global giant branding agencies, in this area, are in Russia and Ukraine,” Adriana elaborates.
The proof of market
In fact, in Romania there are only about ten dedicated branding agencies. The growing demand for their services is, strangely enough, brought by the crisis. “People are now trying to seize any advantage they can reach. There was a mental barrier, the misconception that branding services are expensive and inaccessible. Not anymore: we have examples of really small companies that made these investments in branding; even if some of the investments were not large amounts, they proved to be important in turning the respective brands into successful ones.” As a proof of their good results, they were shortlisted for the prestigious Transform Awards 2013 with a content project developed for an independent education institution – Shakespeare School – a venture that fits the SME profile.
Choosing a branding agency is a tricky business; collaboration decisions are usually based on personal recommendations and slowly built reputation. In other words, as a branding agency, you don’t chase your clients, you select them. “We never go knock on doors and ask if anyone needs rebranding, this need is quite rare in the life of a company,” Adriana explains. “But here is something nice to remember,” she adds, “the first email that we received was on a Wednesday; we started on Monday July 2, and the mail came on July 4. The email sender later became our first client.”
Their portfolio currently includes 17 clients for whom they have been working since July 2012. Currently, ten of them are active, among them multinational companies, but also small and medium Romanian ventures. Their services vary from internal communication campaigns translated into animated movies to the expected visual identity building. “We don’t work with all the people that sent us emails, but those who get to be our clients eventually, certainly manage to understand the value of strategy,” Ştefan explains. “If we’re talking about speculative pitches alone, where no pitch fee is provided to cover the workload, we do not enter the pitch. Here are several reasons: some clients unfortunately do not understand what is really necessary for branding and they ask first for the visual, the logo. You can’t make a logo without going through other stages of audit and strategy. I mean you have to do things correctly”.
Heaven is in the details
A significant part of the three-hour chat with Adriana and Ştefan was dedicated to the exposure of misconceptions: the high price of branding services, the definition of their job, the importance of the visual elements in branding. Because, when you say branding, you say logo, right? Storience says otherwise: when you say branding, you say story, the logo is just one of the details that make the story consistent and coherent. How far are they willing to go in order to achieve this consistency? As far as possible, exploring apparently insignificant details as the color of the manager’s tie or the buttons of his shirt, if needed.
“We always explain to our client to watch over all the details – like answering the phone, your message on the answering machine – all of this must be part of the story,” Ştefan says. “We come up with detailed recommendations but the client must be open and willing to make the effort to do so, because eventually, we can’t control what happens in the organisation. We can only come up with recommendations, suggestions and ideas.”
But how exactly does the branding process work? “Usually we start with a brand audit, if it’s not a new brand. This means that we talk with representatives of all target audiences for that brand, be it employees, the clients, suppliers, partners, the media if they pay attention to that action field. Based on this report, which finally has our recommendations, we work in brainstorming sessions to define the brand, or to redefine it,” Stefan explains.
“The next step is to make a brand management plan that is similar to a marketing plan. This plan sets the goals based on the audit conducted in the first phase, and the strategies necessary for achieving those goals. We collaborate with PR agencies for our clients, because branding is very closely related to this field, and we believe in the concept of integrating the related services in branding. We coordinate this effort in communication, it’s very important to fit these details under the same communication umbrella when you start the branding process,” they summarise. “We are not the kind of agency that won’t share its “toys” with others, and we believe that the more the customer knows, the more he is likely to understand what we do and how we add value. It is very important to transfer value. The brand must not be dependent on the agency in other ways than voluntarily seeking advice,” Ştefan concludes.
Adriana and Ştefan are a dynamic duo, they share their profession and their private life, they finish each other’s sentences and, most of all, they both have a vast curiosity. Out of all the interviews I ever conducted, they were the only subjects who knew about me as much as I knew about them. The urge to document and crosscheck everything, including the journalist you’ll meet, seems to be an occupational hazard. Ștefan agrees: “If you aren’t a curious person, you might as well quit. You must be curious from the morning until the night falls. I am a news freak myself, I read many Romanian and foreign news sources. I need my constant contact with the media, and it happens in short sessions during the entire day”.
His thirst for information does not only apply to the news – Ștefan studied to become a doctor, and found his academic formation extremely useful as a PR & Communication graduate and, later on, as branding professor for a master class hosted by the University of Bucharest. Adriana, a journalist by formation, and an HR specialist by experience, describes him as a gifted storyteller. She is also devoted to unlimited and unbiased curiosity. “It’s mandatory”, she says, “because we have to find insights, to manage to tell the client something new and essential about his business. We collected so far, during previous projects, detailed information ranging from the beer markets to building materials, pharmaceuticals, health care or food markets”.
Doing business within the family might not seem like a good idea for everybody, but the Storience founders agree to disagree. “We love our job and we don’t need a switch between our professional and private life. You cannot stop thinking about a project just because your office hours are over. It does not work this way. Not for us!”