If you ask IVY Innovator Finalist Daren Bascome about his most audacious goals, two answers stand out: “to build innovators a better soapbox” and “to take on 800-pound gorillas.”

Daren’s an innovator in every sense of the world, and through his work at Proverb, his design firm based in Boston, Daren is constantly pushing the boundaries of ways brands can express themselves.

“I rashly prod clients to think like designers,” says Bascome. “I don’t mind asking, why is this being created? How is this really making life better for your audience? Tough questions can start great conversations.”

Daren Bascome sat down with IVY Magazine to talk about brand design and how companies can excel in today’s overwhelmingly competitive market.

Daren Bascome

What branding advice do you have for people who are just starting their companies?

I would say it’s important to make your idea as real as you can as fast as you can. People form opinions on what something is incredibly quickly, so you need to find ways to help those that you’re looking to win figure out what to do with your product. Figure out the essence of what you’re offering. Instead of building a robust website, put up a one-pager and make it right in terms of the image and being very, very clear about what the product is and who it’s for.

You need to tell people about your product. All too often when you’re starting out, there’s a tendency to hang back to work more and improve the concept. It really is a world where almost all of us are perpetually in Beta, but you can’t buy groceries with a great idea. If it’s a company where it’s self-funded or you have some incremental funding, you really do want to figure out how to get to a revenue stream as quickly as possible.

“I would say it’s important to make your idea as real as you can as fast as you can…It really is a world where almost all of us are perpetually in Beta, but you can’t buy groceries with a great idea.”

 

How do really successful brands get under our skin?

It starts with two things. On the one hand, you really need to understand your consumers and what their unmet needs might be. I can’t stress this enough. You need to know their priorities, the things that they value, and the types of relationships that they seek out and enjoy.

Secondly, you really have to have a product that’s meaningful to them. I think that all too often it’s too easy to take what a client has to sell and figure out how to sell it to those consumers. It’s a totally different thing to work with a client to figure out how to build products that consumers are actually going to want.

We’ve all experienced examples of products that we really love or that just seem to fit us. We’ll read an ad and feel like it’s just speaking to us. Great marketing is able to create the sense of building relationships, one by one, in a genuine, personal way.

What companies do you think are doing a really great job?

A company like Porsche nails that and even a mass-market company like JetBlue has done an extraordinary job in terms of creating a persona that speaks to consumers on a meaningful, first-person basis.

These companies focus on what it is that they deliver. If you really want to be best in class at something or truly known for something, you need to embrace one or two things that you are great at, and you need to let go of some things that you may not be as strong at. To try to cover too many bases all the time leads to exhaustive mediocrity.

How do you think the age of technology and social media is changing the way we think about branding?

First of all, consumers have never been more empowered than they are today. Secondly, they’ve never been more distrustful of advertising than they are today. Consumers can smell bullshit from a mile away. Companies have to understand what they truly offer and be transparent if they want to have an ongoing relationship with their customers.

People are definitely looking for more authenticity.

People make a sport out of exposing phonies. It’s not enough to wrap things in a pretty bow or a clever ad, you need to be what you say you are. It’s less about selling and more communicating. That’s really where a sustainable advantage can be created.

“Consumers can smell bullshit from a mile away. Companies have to understand what they truly offer and be transparent if they want to have an ongoing relationship with their customers.”

 

How are you developing authenticity?

At Proverb, we don’t think of branding solely as a public exercise—how do we target our audience?—but about a company or product’s identity, or soul. The public facing brand is only a third of the equation; the brand should play a role in organizational and product development as well. For example, we know BMW makes “ultimate driving machines” because of their brand, so if BMW decides to make a skateboard, we have some idea of what that will be like. But their emphasis on performance affects how people within the organization prioritize their work and make decisions, and how their designers and engineers tackle challenges.

In other words, if you’ve created a bumper sticker that really captures what you’re all about, you should be able to use it whether you’re reaching a new audience or acculturating a new employee. This can be tough for companies, because it means you’ve got to commit to your brand. But the best brands and products feel like they have a soul and a personality, and staff and customers respond to that.

What is it like for you to be now working on your own company?

When you are working independently or you’re a solo-preneur as I was, you’re instantly confronted with the things you’re good at and the things you’re not so good at, and everyday can feel like Sunday night. It always feels like you should be spending your time more wisely than you might have. So, you either figure out how to get good at things you’re not good at or you start to figure out if you’re successful enough what things you can begin to hand off. The pleasure of having your own company is that you get to hire the people who do things better than you can.

There’s a tremendous case study out of Harvard Business School that I would recommend to anyone who is looking to start a company. It’s called “Why Entrepreneurs Don’t Scale,” and it really shows that the skills required to start a company are in many cases entirely different from the skills required to scale a company. Unless you’re really willing to learn and unlearn a bunch of things, you can get stuck at a particular level of success. That’s fine if you’re more of a lifestyle entrepreneur, but if you’re really a growth entrepreneur, the systems that go along with scale become increasingly important.

What advice has helped you most in your career?

I take to heart advice that was given about 2,000 years ago: “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” I spend a lot of time trying to think about what are the right questions to ask, and then listening to the answers.

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