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In our latest installation of Lunch and Learn, Chris Ward, our Creative Director, talked about all things branding, creativity, and design. Here are just a few of the highlights from his presentation and some key takeaways for you!

Defining Design

To dive into the world of branding and design, we must first differentiate between fine art and design. In fine art, we often see pieces, paintings and structures that may not make any sense to us, and that’s okay. Fine art isn’t designed to be logical, but rather promote thought and introspection.

In design, the complete opposite is true. Everything you do has to make sense. Design is for the user, the customer, the consumer. Because it serves a specific function (brand awareness, event advertising, etc.), it has to be purposeful. Design has to solve the problem it was structured for. 

The takeaway: The next time that you start planning out a marketing campaign, or when you sit down to design a brochure, an ad, or a billboard, make sure that your piece is serving a specific function. Don’t use a color or graphical element just because it’s the current trend or it’s cool. Every time you employ design, the final piece should make sense, it should promote your message in a meaningful way.

What is creativity?

We all know that defining creativity is difficult. Many people have tried to define it, but often those definitions end up sounding too abstract without any real application for what you’re doing right now. Here at The A Group, we believe that every single person in the world can be creative, and our definition of creativity cuts straight to the point:

Creativity is simply holding yourself to a standard. (Sounds easy, right?) Let’s dive into what that standard looks like.

To harness creativity, the standard that you must hold yourself to requires utilizing the influences around you and pairing those with your life experiences and your capabilities to come up with creative solutions to issues, problems, or needs. Whether the final product be a painting, new software, a restorative policy, donor development tactics, etc., creativity lives within each of us and can be uncovered by holding ourselves to this standard every day rather than resorting to random impulses or senseless ideas.

The Takeaway: Creativity is not wizardry. When someone comes up with a seemingly more creative solution than yours that makes your head spin, it is usually the result of them having broader influences or greater capabilities or different life experiences. That’s why The A Group digs so deep to understand our client's perspectives and challenges. We are building the creative bridge from problem to solution!

What is a brand?

Your brand is what your consumer thinks of when he/she hears your name. In the past, brands were just names necessary to differentiate one product from another one. As more and more brands filled various industry spaces, pre-existing brands were forced to evolve to keep up with their competitors. Now, brands are much bigger than just their name and what they do.

Take for instance: Starbucks. Starbucks consistently offers a luxury “fast food” experience that puts pressure on other fast food players to up their game. At Starbucks, you can sit for awhile, relax on a couch, enjoy some music while you drink your coffee. Until recently, no other fast food or drink company had ever offered that to its customers before. The Starbucks standard was a luxury standard. 

Now when you walk into a brand new McDonalds, you’ll see leather sofas in the corners, giant televisions flanking gorgeous walls—all to compete with the customer experience Starbucks has been offering. Because we eat with our eyes before we eat with our mouths, we have come to expect this standard from the brands we love.

The Takeaway: What now seems normal to us once used to be a luxury experience. With high competition, today’s brands must offer an unique experience, share the same values with their target audience, be invested in their consumers’ lives, offer inspiration, etc.

The Big Takeaway:

So how is your brand doing? Is your team channeling creativity and employing design correctly? Are you offering an unforgettable experience to your audience? It does not matter what industry you are in, if you’re lacking these elements, your brand will fall behind.

But you can avoid that. Take stock of your competitors, see what is working for them. What are they doing that you aren’t doing? It is successful?

Making key creative decisions for your brand, early in the process, can build the foundation for your brand's success!

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Today we are excited to welcome a new face to our office—our marketing intern, Lorena Djuknic!

For the next four months, Lorena will be working with our team on all internal marketing initiatives, so keep an eye out for her on our social channels, email, and blog posts!

Offering internships not only allows us to give young aspiring professionals a look inside the working world, but it also helps us to stay on our toes. Fresh faces often bring new ideas to the table and help us see our own world in a new and different way. One of our daily guiding philosophies here at The A Group is that anyone can learn from anyone. Your interns not only have a lot to learn from you, but you can learn a lot from them too—even if you’re in the C-Suite!

Our EVP, Diana Marsh says, “It is important to give college students a glimpse into what their future might look like in their chosen profession. Internships give students the chance to see if they have made the right choice, and offering these opportunities allows us to create a talent pool for new positions.”

Originally from Croatia, Lorena made the move to the U.S. after receiving a tennis scholarship from Lipscomb University here in Nashville, Tennessee. On her first day in the office, we got a chance to learn a little bit more about her, and we’d love to share a small part of her story with you as well.

1. Where are you from?
Zagreb, Croatia.

2. What brought you to the United States? 
Tennis Scholarship to attend Lipscomb University.

3. What are you studying? 
Double major in marketing and entrepreneurship with a minor in internet and social media.

4. How did you hear about The A Group? 
I met Holly Grenvicz at a Lipscomb Presidential Ambassador event, and she introduced me with The A Group. I did my research and was particulary intreaged by The A Group official website - the way it looked and the way it was written for TAG’s audience.

5. What are you hoping to bring to The A Group through this internship? 
Being a tennis player, I want to use my team experience in helping strengthen this company’s environment that is based on teamwork. Hard work and dedication as my strengths can help me overcome many challenges that arises. I wish to bring fresh ideas about connecting with younger audience through the use of social media and internet platforms. I would hope that my international background and cultural differences may add to that aspect as well.

6. What are you hoping to learn from this internship? 
I hope to learn how things are done in the real world, how everything connects in order to fulfill the needs of a client, and to discover in what aspect of marketing I am preforming the best in order to be a perfect fit for the company.

7. What do you like the most about the marketing world?
That is changing DAILY. I prefer a fast pace, and as an athlete, I like the aspect of competing against daily changes in order to provide our clients with the best possible solutions.

8. What do you like most about the United States? 
That hard work and dedication in the work environment is noticed. Based on my experience so far, when a person is willing to put in the work, only the sky is the limit in U.S.

9. What’s one interesting or surprising thing you have learned about U.S. since you have been here? 
Hmm. Definetely that food in the South is done only one way: fried! (which is really delicious!) And that Apple products are a number one go-to tech devices.

10. What do you miss most about home when you are here? 
Our coast. Croatia is known as a country of thousand Islands, so its coast and Adriatic Sea are absolutely stunnin which makes it perfect summer location. (If you ever need ideas on places to go, please let me know!) I also miss seafood. 

11. Tell us three fun facts about yourself:
1. I went skydiving after getting this internship!
2. Any sport, just name it, I will play it!
3. I can’t sing, but I love to. Sorry TAG team!

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Imagine you’re going to the grocery store on your way home from the office. You just need to run in and grab a pound of hamburger.

On the way home, you decide where you’ll stop. A variety of reasons may go into the decision about where to stop.  Whatever those reasons are, you stop as planned, head into the store and walk to where the hamburger should be.

It’s not there. In fact, nothing is where you think it should be. To get your pound of ground beef, you are forced to go on a scavenger hunt, using best guesses and clues found in random places, such as the memory of a piece of mail you received a month ago.

Once you find it and make it to the register, you have to enter an email address that someone at some point in your family may have used in that store at some point in the past. Was it your work email? Your spouse’s email?  What about the password—which one was used before?

Quite the ordeal to go through for a simple task, right?

Many nonprofits present their donors with the same type of challenge. While the decision to donate is made for a variety of reasons, if the process of completing the gift transaction is too cumbersome, it might keep that decision from ever being acted upon.

A recent study by Baymard Institute showed more than 68% of online transactions are abandoned before the checkout process is complete. Your donor, as much as they love you, must be able to find what they need quickly on your give site, process their transaction quickly, and leave. They know what to expect, because they give to other nonprofits too.

Easy.
Safe.
Simple.
Quick.

Here are four ways you can help keep your donate page from being abandoned:

  1. “Sign-in Optional.”  Yes, a sign-in is a great way to keep donors from creating duplicate accounts. But is that good for your operations team or for the person trying to complete a quick transaction?  Rather than completing a forgotten login or password process, many will simply walk away. Make this optional, with a checkout as guest option, for those who don’t want to dig up an old password.
  2. “HERE is What You’re Looking For.”  Want response to a paper appeal? Make a related visual that’s easy to find. Want them to give after following a link? Make sure to tell the donor through a couple words or an image that they’ve landed in the right place. Requiring your donor to perform complicated look-ups, remember internal campaign names, jargon or hard-to-spell names can virtually guarantee an abandoned transaction.
  3. “Check here to make my gift monthly.” If you present a chance to make a gift, there should be an option to make a gift monthly next to it. Period.  Everywhere, every single time.  Make setting up a recurring gift as easy as clicking a button and make the button obvious.
  4. “Click here to prove you are not a robot.” While this creates an extra step, a captcha or another identity check process will likely instill a much better sense of security to today’s data-breach weary credit-card user.

So, how easy it is to give to your organization? Take the test. Give a friend a dollar and ask them to use your site to make a gift to a specific campaign.  No cheating—don’t ask an IT person, or someone who designed the site.

Time them. The completion of checkout should take less than 90 seconds. Every extra minute longer dramatically increases the likelihood your donor will walk away.

How did you do? Did completing the transaction take longer than you expected?

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You selected your screen name, made sure your sister was finally off the phone and clicked “Sign On.” The little yellow icon ran across the screen…dialing…connecting…and then those three little words everyone loves to hear:

You’ve. Got. Mail.

For many of us, this was our first experience with creating an online identity (back when talking to strangers online and getting in strangers’ cars was considered dangerous), our first experience connecting with others through technology and our first experience with email…and, oh man, was it exciting. Waiting for your turn to use the phone line, the anticipation as dial-up ever-so-slowly connected to this new-fangled thing called “the internet” and the thrill of seeing a new message waiting in your inbox – maybe from your best friend, or a family member far away or a boy at the other middle school (where everyone knew all the cute boys went). It was an event of cinematic proportions.

Today, the internet looks just a little bit different. We live our lives online, not afraid to share our real identities and every detail of our lives on social media. We use the internet to book a flight, a hotel, a table, and yes, a ride in a stranger’s car. We remain ever connected via our smart phones. And email? Well, it’s become commonplace – even a source of stress as many of us are buried in the communications medium du jour. The joy of connection that email used to bring seems to be so much more easily and instantly attainable on social platforms. So is email still relevant in the age of social media?

Facebook or not, email continues to be an effective way to reach audiences; in fact, research shows that audience tolerance for high email frequency is growing, with many brands emailing once or even twice a day. But it does require a more integrated strategy, presence across all channels and tone, design and content to reach ever-connected audiences with endless options. Here are a few tips to help ensure your emails don't end up in the trash bin.

  1. Make your emails resource-based. This varies by industry (some retail brands can pull off some amazing promotions daily), but for the most part, using email to distribute content and resources will help build loyalty, trust and reciprocity among your audience — so that when you do need to promote something, your message will fall on listening ears. If you do anything with your email, use it as part of your content strategy and as a tool to build and cultivate relationships with your audience (P.S. This means that the key to great email marketing is really a great content strategy. Put your energy into content marketing, and email will naturally follow).
  2. Use great design. In general, we follow a "two thumb" rule – meaning that we assume people will only scroll down twice on their phones and that we should keep the most important content in the first 300 pixels of the email. However, truly beautiful design can make you the exception to the rule, as research shows that the more attractive an email is, the more likely a reader is to scroll to view more. 
  3. Keep it short and sweet. Email is not a house for your content; it's a vehicle to get people to your site to learn more, register, give, purchase, etc. Every email you send should have a call-to-action — something you want the reader to do (even if it's just to click through to read your blog post) — and all copy should support that goal and lead the reader to action. Audiences receive too many marketing messages and have too short of an attention span to read long marketing emails; instead, your email should provide just enough information to help the reader quickly determine whether or not he or she is interested in what you have to say and a clear call-to-action to click.
  4. Make sure it's mobile-friendly. While I can't prove this, I personally believe a large part of email's continued popularity is the availability of smart phones and mobile devices. Because you can interact with email everywhere you go, it can have real-time relevance that it wouldn't have if it were still confined to your desktop. Which is why it's so critical that your emails are responsive and easy to read on a mobile device, reinforcing the need for great, clean design and short and sweet content! Also, keep in mind that when someone reads your email, he or she is also likely checking Facebook, reading texts and interacting with a variety of mobile mediums. The more you can show up on all these channels with complementary messages, the more your brand with stick out in someone’s mind.
  5. Segment, segment, segment. Another reason for email's continued success: personalization. With the availability of comprehensive data and affordable CRMs/automation software, there really is no excuse to still be sending out blanket communications to your list. Develop audience profiles, segment lists and send relevant, personal content based on demographics, interest and behavior. Even email marketing platforms such as MailChimp are getting in the game, letting you get started with basic segmentation and triggers without the overwhelming time and cost.

At the end of the day, it’s still about connection. People want to authentically connect with each other and the brands they love, and will rely on all of the methods available to do so… even dial up or a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils. 

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Consider this: 85 percent of all consumer purchases are made by women. That's 85 PERCENT of ALL purchases!

Those purchases includes:​

  • Groceries
  • Clothing
  • Charity
  • Homes
  • Cars
  • Insurance policies
  • Tithes and donations
  • Entertainment
  • Medical Needs
  • (And on and on and on.)

However, the big kicker in the marketing throat is this: 90 percent of women think that brands don’t understand them. If women are making almost all consumer purchases but they feel little to no affection or loyalty to those brands, then we have a marketing nightmare on our hands, right? Raise your hand if you sense a disconnect between those two statistics... (We have all our hands on deck and raised.) The evidence suggests that brands everywhere, in every industry, have been dropping the ball big-time with an audience that could potentially be the livelihood of their entire operation. 

You might be wondering… “What does all of this really mean for ME—the non profit, the ministry, the organization, and the church?”

It means your biggest opportunity right now is to reach women in an authentic and genuine way. And guess what—no one else is really doing it (or doing it well), so you can win in this space no matter how small or large you are.

Last Friday we attended Red Letter Day—an event dedicated to uncovering the fundamentals of marketing to women where we heard from Jamie Dunham from Brand Wise, Liza Graves from StyleBlueprint, Emily Tucker from Gigi's Cupcakes and many more. We learned a LOT (and nearly had a few marketing heart attacks). So grab some coffee and settle in—we’ll let you eavesdrop.

The 7 Big Takeaways

1. Women want to hear from you—right now and in a real way. So the first (and easiest step) is to start talking. Show the women in your customer or audience base that you see them and hope to earn their loyalty. Remember 90 percent of women don’t think brands understand them. So even if women are buying from you or giving to you, if they feel no sense of loyalty to you, they’ll be quick to leave if your competitors come along and speak to them in a more real way.

2. Women also want to be acknowledged for who they really are. That means no guesses on customer and audience profiles. Do your research and try to figure out what makes her happy, what her values are, what she disagrees with, how she wants to be talked to, etc. Always make sure that any kind of communication that you send to her, be it a social post, a direct mail piece, a blog post, or an email, shows women as multi-faceted people with multiple roles. If you’ve only ever used stay-at-home-mommy or career-focused photography, it’s time to mix it up. The woman you are talking to is made up of many different roles and passions--so make sure your communications represent that.

3. 91 percent of women do online research before making a purchase. That means you need to keep your rating app profiles updated, you need to maintain an informative social media feed, and you need to be ranking in Google searches. Once she lands on your website, it better be spectacular AND easy to use with all the important information easily accessible front and center. Speaking of online research...

4. Women trust online reviews. So what happens when someone leaves you a negative one? Quickly acknowledge the problem and show that you understand and are apologetic about the mistake/bad experience. Lastly, correct the wrong--provide a discount or a freebie for the wronged individual. Never try to argue with a customer online (or face to face), just focus on fixing the wrong, regardless of who was/is in the right. If you handle a negative review in a positive way and win back that customer, you not only win with that individual, but you also show the online world that you are tuned in to your people and you genuinely care.

5. Personal business and work business runs together. If you’ve been sending your marketing emails out during the weekend because you think that’s when women are free and willing to check in, think again. Today’s woman is refreshing her inbox during regular business hours, so play around with sending your emails in the early morning so that you’re the first one in her inbox.

6. Women want the content they digest to be gender-neutral and relevant. For example, a mom may never shop at Nike for herself, but she may shop there frequently for her husband or her children. If she continually only sees ads, email communications, and social media messages displaying women wearing the brand--she won’t connect with it. Keep it gender-neutral and appeal to every aspect of her being and livelihood.

7. Email is the easiest way you can reach women. 94 percent of people say they get online solely to check email. Short of face-to-face communication, communicating to your female audience via email is the easiest way for you to reach this demographic. PLUS, email conversion rates are 3x higher than those of social media. So the same promotion you offer on social media has the potential to get you 3x more conversions if you offer it via email. Why? Because email is personal. If you get an email addresses from customers, that means they are willing to take that first step toward brand loyalty with you. Now it’s up to you to wow them when they see you in their inbox.

On Thursday, August 11, we are diving into the complex and thriving world of email a little more. Check back for the basics on how to win at email in the social age.

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Over the last week of our lifestyle brands series, we explored some popular lifestyle brands along with the secret-ingredient elements that make them up. Today, we're looking at how you can start to build your own; transforming your non profit or company into a stunning lifestyle brand. Let's begin.

Turning an average brand into a lifestyle brand takes time, intentional effort and a little bit of je ne sais quoi. While it can be difficult to take emotional connection and boil it down to tactics, there are a few things you can do to start elevating your brand to lifestyle status:

  • Know your tribe. Lifestyle brands cannot be everything to everyone. In fact, their success is predicated on the fact that they instead speak into certain subcultures and their unique identities and interests. Define your audiences, and not just through demographic markers. Focus on the goals, beliefs, values and lifestyles of the people your brand reaches, let go of the audiences you can’t reach and hone your marketing to your tribe.
  • Create great – really great – branding. Brands that are beautiful, consistent and meaningful, both in terms of visuals and messaging, are more likely to garner emotional attachment – plus, you want people to be proud to rock your t-shirt.
  • Invest in internal culture. The experience a customer has with your brand is really the experience they have with your people. Create fans out of your employees, offer unforgettable customer service and give your crew the chance to live out your brand, whether that’s time off for outdoor adventures, free healthy lunches or branded swag.
  • Get social. The LaCroix case study is a great look into social marketing, including influencer outreach, corporate engagement with customers’ photos and simply creating something that people love to share. According to Vox on the power of social sharing, “This is a tiny part of who I am, we're saying every time we share what we're eating or drinking or reading, and hope that someone nods back with a double-tapped heart.” Social media is the ultimate form of self-expression, so create ways for people to express themselves with your brand on their personal channels.
  • Create content about your customers, not your product. Content marketing is hardly optional anymore, but a lot of brands simply focus on creating content around what they do. Great content-minded brands create informative and inspirational content about their customers: about their pain points, their interests and their lives. 
  • Be present. Like any relationship, sometimes all it really takes is showing up. Brand awareness is a key part of building a lifestyle brand, and this is a time when advertising, gorgeous cinematic video and other tactics that help you stay top of mind and part of people’s lives can be worth the price tag.

So why are more non profits not considered lifestyle brands? For one, we’re all inherently selfish, and it can be difficult to get people highly engaged with something that does not directly benefit them. But for passionate and cause-oriented individuals, their giving IS part of their lifestyle, identity and aspiration.

So how can you be the cause they love to champion? For starters, make your supporters the hero. Too often, non profits fail to tell their stories in compelling ways or they make the story all about them, where lifestyle brands are all about the individual. Then, invest in beautiful branding, make your supporters feel special (nonprofits can offer unforgettable customer experiences too!), create social tactics and great content that educates people about making a difference and watch the way you go from tax write off to cause of choice.

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Last week, we took the first step into the magical world of lifestyle brands. We explored what a lifestyle brand is and what some of our favorites are. This week, we're going a little deeper into the conversation to outline the tools you need to elevate your company or organization from overlooked brand to stunning lifestyle brand. 

Because of the deep attachment and loyalty people feel towards lifestyle brands, gaining this status is a ticket to success. So what does it take to get there? If you take a closer look back at the brands mentioned in the first part of this series, you will start see some common elements:

  • Clear values that align with customers’ values. By values, we don’t necessarily mean moral values, though that is certainly the case for many of them. These values could also be personal values or interests, such as creativity, art, nature, fitness or wellness.
  • Authenticity within the company. Not only do these brands empower their customers to live their values, they live their brands. If you’re an outdoor company in a stuffy corporate high rise or an eco-friendly grocer without internal sustainability initiatives, you’ll look like a fraud. Consumers should feel as if they are doing something that contributes to their values or the life they want to live simply by engaging with your organization.
  • An emotional connection or bold claim. In addition to values, brands can also embody emotions – love, freedom, kindness, etc. Great lifestyle brands do more than just align with users’ interests; they make their customers feel and aspire to something.
  • A consistent (and compelling) experience. For your customers to feel as though you represent them, you must deliver a consistent experience every. single. time. Trust and reliability are critical to building loyalty.
  • Quality that goes without saying. Becoming a lifestyle brand goes beyond the practical choice. If people are choosing you only because your product works, you’ve engaged their heads but not their hearts. To create emotional connection, quality must be so ingrained and consistent in your organization that you no longer have to market that point. When consumers know they’ll get a great product every time, they will then be open to connecting at a deeper level.

It is no longer enough to simply create a quality product or service to make your presence known; to truly stand out from the crowd, you must become part of people’s lives in a consistent, authentic way.

Beyond just creating a great product (step one!), what are the things you can do right now to help encourage emotional attachment, social sharing and lifestyle adoption?

Check back on Thursday for the final part in our series, where we'll focus on the practical steps you can take to build a lifestyle brand.

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How does a regional, off-brand beverage consumed by Midwestern moms for nearly thirty years suddenly elevate its neon-canned, naturally-flavored carbonated water to a staple on the shelves of Whole Foods, the Instagrams of trendy young pros and memes floating all around the internet?

It achieved “lifestyle brand” status.

In case you’re not yet on the LaCroix bandwagon, this zero-calorie soda alternative is making waves in both the pantries and pop culture of today’s social media minded audience. A recent Vox.com article broke down the way that the fizzy drink went from a small market product to a lifestyle brand.

Which got us thinking…what really makes a lifestyle brand? Why do we choose LaCroix over Dasani? Or Southwest over American? Or Apple over PC? And could non profits also play in this space, creating brands around causes that move people and become parts of their lives?

But first…what is a lifestyle brand?

According to Lifestyle Brands: A Guide to Aspirational Marketing, a lifestyle brand is “a company that markets its products or services to embody the interests, attitudes and opinions of a group or a culture. Lifestyle brands seek to inspire, guide, and motivate people, with the goal of their products contributing to the definition of the consumer's way of life.”

To help illustrate real examples of lifestyle brands, we asked our TAG team to share some of their favorite brands and why they love them:

  • Southwest Airlines: Though other carriers might offer more flight choices, Southwest fliers are deeply loyal, “luv”ing the airline’s friendly vibe, out-of-the-box approach to things like seating and luggage, and above and beyond care for customers.
  • Apple: Clean, creative technology made for real people’s lives  - served up in very cool packaging. Plus, all devices work together to give you an integrated life.
  • Lululemon: Would a yoga pant by any other name still fit so sweet? Lululemon not only creates great athletic wear, but it has become the modern mom uniform.
  • Target: How can visiting a store to buy shampoo and paper goods almost reach hobby status? With “Target Run” becoming a recognized activity, the bright, happy environment, quality store brands and interesting collaborations make Target stand out from the crowd.
  • John Varvatos: Not a rock star but want to feel like one? Varvatos’s music-inspired designs give an iconic, edgy but still put together style for men looking to stand out from the crowd.
  • Free People: With clothing styles that embody the free spirit in all of us, Free People goes beyond just beautiful clothing to offering content, resources and events around other things that free spirited women value: music, art, travel, wellness, etc.
  • Kate Spade: Simple, sophisticated and organized, Kate Spade embodies what the working woman aspires to be – while creating great products that help her achieve her goals.
  • Mrs. Meyer’s: In case a product that simplifies cleaning, has attractive branding and offers great scents isn’t enough, Mrs. Meyer’s commitment to natural and green products fits in with its users philosophy and commitment to health, wellness and natural living.
  • Teva: Stylish and functional, Teva shoes help carry you along on all of your adventures. Outdoor and athletic brands tend to make great lifestyle brands, as they speak to people’s need for adventure.

Are you starting to get the idea? A lifestyle brand owns, elicits and represents emotions, values, identities and aspirations of its users. It speaks to the human experience beyond just the problem the product solves or the solution the brand offers. It helps people express who they are and empowers them to be who they want to be. Most of us have deep loyalty to these brands regardless of price; after all, to switch would be untrue to ourselves.

When it comes to non profits, what is more aspirational than finding a cause and making an impact? Organizations that contribute to the social good are ripe for lifestyle status.

Check back next week when we tackle the elements of a lifestyle brand and outline how you can build a lifestyle brand out of your organization, non profit or business. 

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Whether you’re looking to hire a new staff member, working with a team of volunteers or reviewing your current team’s performance, having the right individuals on board is critical to your success. But how do you know if you’ve got the right team in place?

Let’s start with looking at individual team members. If you don’t have the right individual in the right role, the rest of your team may suffer. Low morale, lack of communication, frustration or even animosity towards team members can quickly set you back and prevent you from having a stellar team that produces great results—be it your church’s event, your ministry’s fundraiser, or your organization’s operations.

Here are five characteristics of a great team member (and qualities that everyone on your staff should have!):  

Their Attitude

When I first hire someone, I call this “Phase One.” In Phase One, I’m not only looking at whether the employee has a positive attitude, I’m looking for a learning attitude. The right candidate approaches their role with curiosity, intrigue and understanding. They are quieter in the beginning, ask a lot of questions and make it a point to understand how we operate, what processes are in place and what their role in our organization is.

Be cautious of the new volunteer or staff member who is quick to come in and make their mark on day one. Your staff members should carry themselves as if there’s always something to learn, not something to prove. In fact, you can tell a lot about an individual’s attitude just by their body language. Are they leaning in when you’re speaking to signal that they are intrigued and following what you’re saying? This is usually a sure sign of a Learning Attitude. Are they slouching or appearing too comfortable? This can indicate that the staff member or candidate is overconfident or worse, not interested.

Their Engagement

In Phase Two—after the individual has had some time to get settled in, I take a closer look at his or her engagement with our organization. Is his engagement growing? Is she getting excited about the work she is doing as the weeks pass on? Is he passionate about it? If not, you might not be getting 100 percent from your team. That’s not to say that your employees, staff or volunteers should be over-the-moon excited about every task handed to them, whether that’s making copies, preparing reports, handing out programs or setting up for your next event. Those tasks must be done. But if they are not enthused about their job description and the role they serve, they may not be the right fit.

Engagement isn’t solely based on passion, excitement or involvement in an organization though. As I’m reviewing a team member’s engagement, I’m also looking at self-sufficiency. Is the staff member trying to figure it out before asking around? While I always encourage everyone to ask questions, as time passes, your staff members should be digging in and asking better questions. They should continue to peel back the layers and take a deep dive into understanding their role or how to get the job done. Be cautious about the team members who may not be self-sufficient, asking the same questions over and over again. This can show a lack of interest, listening or engagement, and it can quickly become a time suck for the folks picking up their slack!

Their Heart… and their Skillset

As Phase Two continues and the team member’s passion for the work is evolving and growing, so should his or her skillset. In our post 3 Ways Non Profits Should Act More Like Businesses, we noted that hiring folks with the right skillset is crucial.

When I begin the hiring process, I review countless resumes and narrow down the candidates. I carefully review their skillset and determine if it aligns with the skillset that is needed in the particular role I’m trying to fill. Regardless of how impressive a candidate’s resume is or who they were referred to me by, if he or she doesn’t have the skillset I’m looking for in that role, it will not be the right fit. It’s like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

Do yourself and your team a favor—bring on staff members who not only have heart and are passionate about the job, but who have the skillset to excel at it.

If they have a great heart and attitude, but can’t keep a schedule, they shouldn’t be your administrative assistant. If they can’t communicate well and the position involves community relations and event coordination, you’re doing both yourself and the candidate a disservice by putting them in a role that doesn’t play to their strengths. Don’t compromise!

Their Participation

As we move into the final phase of a new team member’s onboarding process and evaluation, I take note of their participation. What does this mean?

For starters, the employee or volunteer actually DOES their work! They meet deadlines and make it happen. But they also challenge the team or other individuals around them. They bring in outside knowledge, sharing it with others for the betterment of our team. They take interest and participate in activities outside of their job description, including staff meetings, Christmas parties, volunteer opportunities or conferences offering continuing education opportunities. They care about the other team members on board and make a concerted effort to contribute to our work environment.

They also ask for feedback—a great sign to you, the manager or leader, that they want to know how they are doing or can improve.

Building a great environment and organizational culture takes participation from staff members. Make sure that yours are doing so.

Their Value

Lastly, in Phase Three, I determine and review value. While value can be tough to interpret or measure, I want you to ask yourself these two questions:

Does your employee, staff member or volunteer make you better than before? Or are they costing you something? Be it your reputation, service or money.

It’s that simple.

Are they making you money or costing you money? Are they coordinating that event or are they neglecting their responsibilities? Are they going above and beyond to provide the best experience possible or are they just simply doing the bare minimum?

If not, give them the opportunity to do so. Just as they should add value to your team, it’s your responsibility to create opportunities for them to grow—making it beneficial and valuable for both of you!

Choosing the right individuals to develop and create the perfect team isn’t easy. In fact, I can almost guarantee that one or two bad apples will slip through. And that’s okay. But remember, as a leader, it’s your job to make sure that when they slip through, you are quick to remove them. The drag and drain on the rest of your staff, team and organization is too costly.

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In our latest Lunch & Learn, our senior strategist, Holly Grenvicz, talked about strategy and read us the endearing children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

If you’ve never read the book, here’s a little recap for you: A generous host invites a traveling mouse in for a cookie. The mouse accepts and asks for a glass of milk to wash down the treat. Noticing the crumbs, the mouse requests a napkin to clean up, which leads to checking the mirror for a milk moustache, and then, seeing that its hair is rather long, asks for a trim, and… Well you get the idea. The story continues on and on until the mouse discovers it’s thirsty from all the endless activity and asks for another glass of milk. And what happens when you give a mouse a glass of milk? Most likely, it’ll also need a cookie.

We all chuckled a little as we thought about marketing processes and how often we all end up needing a proverbial glass of milk to go with our proverbial cookies. So how do we stop that? In the world of marketing, is it possible to avoid being a “mouse” who keeps needing just one.more.thing?

For example, let’s say you’re struggling with brand awareness (not enough eyeballs on your business/non profit), but rather than investing in strategy to solve the issue long-term, you turn to a quick fix and buy a new website. You cross your fingers that people will be more interested.

You see the new site, and you realize that you probably need better SEO to accompany it. So you invest in SEO and to make it worthwhile, you decide to do a pay-per-click campaign. Then you ask for analytics, and when you get your analytics back, you realize that your site traffic didn’t change nearly as much you thought it would.

SO, you might do a brand renovation next and you might buy a new logo. And then you meander into a direct mail piece to announce the new brand… And on and on, until eventually you come full circle and realize that your current website doesn’t actually portray what you REALLY want to say to your audience.

So do you buy another new website or do you finally decide to give strategy a go?

If you want to stop being a mouse, running around, continually chasing just one more task only to end up exhausted and back to square one, you have to invest in strategy.

If you’re not getting enough site users, simply buying a new website won’t solve that issue.
If you have unsatisfied customers, purchasing a Google ad won’t end customer dissatisfaction.
If you lack donors, sending one random direct mail piece will not boost your numbers.

Now, we aren’t saying that those items—like a new site, advertising and direct mail—aren’t important, because they are; we’re saying that if there is no strategic plan driving those items, then they’re nothing but small Band-Aids on gaping wounds. They might help a little bit, but in a few months, you’ll be back in the same position, staring down the same problem.

So what DO you do? Let’s start by redefining marketing.

From now on, think of marketing as tools in your toolbox. In your box you might have your website, advertising, public relations, social media platforms, content, direct mail packages, pay-per-click advertisements, etc. What you do with your tools is your tactical implementation. What you build or create through that implementation is what will achieve your pre-determined goals.

But the most important piece is strategy: Strategy is the plan that outlines organizational goals and then details the steps to reaching them by putting all the tools within your toolbox to use in a meaningful and strategic way. Think of it as the blueprint and the IKEA-style assembly instructions that tell you what tools to use and how to use those tools to make sure you end up building what you intended to build.

An architect never dives into a new project, whether it’s $5,000 or $5 million, without a plan. No one cooks a filet mignon for the first time without researching recipes, finding tips, and then setting up a plan. So why try to solve your business or non profit issues without a plan?

Strategy = your plan.

It is your blueprint, your recipe to success. It’s so simple, yet so many people still skip it. The next time you find yourself facing a marketing need or issue, will you take time to invest in strategy or will you chase after a quick snack and then demand a glass of milk?

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You know it’s time for a new website, but figuring out HOW you’re going to build your site can be quite the undertaking. Not all websites are alike, and today’s market gives us a wide array of choices, from template-based do-it-yourself options, to hard coded sites to fully customizable sites built on easy-to-manage platforms.

The most important thing to consider when building a site is a content management system, or CMS. Unlike hard coded sites, which require a web developer for every single update to the site, a CMS gives you an administrative platform from which you can make updates and add new content to the site. The level of editing ability you have depends on scope of the CMS, which is why this decision is so critical in choosing a web platform.

To help you cut through the clutter, we’ve broken down three of the most popular CMS platforms, ranging from simple to fully customized, to help you understand what they offer, what they lack and when to use which one.

Squarespace

Squarespace, a DIY website builder featuring a drag-and-drop editor and simple CMS, was founded in 2004 but has recently risen to the top due to aggressive advertising and beautiful site templates. With Squarespace, you begin with your template of choice and use a drag-and-drop editor to add pages, sections and “blocks” to each site page, which can include images, videos, galleries and text. Some basic functionality such as adding metadata and forms is available, but Squarespace is primarily used for small, informational sites that fit well into their collection of template designs.

When to Use It:

  • When what you need is a small, informational site with basic functionality (limited customizations)
  • When launching a simple site quickly is critical
  • When you do not have web knowledge and cannot afford to pay a designer or developer to build a site

Best Features:

  • Good designs for a template-driven builder
  • “Building block” style editor can be used by people with very basic tech knowledge
  • Good SEO; settings allow you to add metadata and URL structure is set up for SEO
  • All sites are mobile-friendly
  • Low cost. You can host site through them for as low as $16, and they integrate with common registrars for easy site launch

What It Lacks:

  • The designs are very templated, and you are locked into the template. You run the risk of your site looking like everyone else’s or not being able to organize content in the way you really want.
  • It’s a very manual, time-consuming process to set up the site, and it can be slightly more cumbersome to add and update content on an ongoing basis.
  • Its drag-and-drop builder, which is the only way to edit your site, can be a little finicky.
  • Advanced features, such as integrations with CRM or email marketing tools are limited and may cost extra.

The bottom line: Squarespace can be an inexpensive option for getting a basic site with limited content and little to no advanced functionality up on the web. Think startups, simple business pages, portfolios or wedding websites – sites that are designed to be temporary or be outgrown. There’s a time and a place for doing it yourself, but understand that someday you will want to rebuild your site on a more versatile, easy-to-use and customizable platform.

WordPress

Perhaps the most ubiquitous blogging platform, WordPress had turned into a popular CMS for building content sites and websites alike. There are two different versions: WordPress.com, which is a template-based solution hosted on WordPress’s servers, and WordPress.org, which offers a true CMS for designers and developers to build on. One of the most popular features of Wordpress is its plugins, which allow for expanded features and functionality created by a network of users. But are plugins really all they’re cracked up to be? Read on to find out.

When to Use It:

  • When you’re building a blog. WordPress still remains one of the best blogging platforms out there; there’s something to be said for doing what you were designed to do.
  • When if you don’t want to do it yourself, but only want to pay side hustle prices. WordPress is popular among freelancers, so it’s likely you’ll end up on this platform if you work with an independent designer.
  • When flexibility is critical. WordPress is always growing and changing.

Best Features:

  • Open source, meaning that the source code is openly shared and designers and developers are encouraged to build on it and improve it
  • Easy for the user to add text content in the form of posts and pages
  • Plugins – features and functionality built by individuals on the open source platform – allow for a lot of features

What It Lacks:

  • Central control. While the concept of plugins sounds awesome, in real life it means that your site is basically hacked together using code created by multiple people. Plugins often break and you can’t guarantee that whoever built it will manage it.
  • More advanced content management, such as resources, files, media etc. is not as user friendly
  • Customer support. There is no phone number or email to call to get help with WordPress questions – and with so many different developers contributing to the platform, it can be difficult to even figure out where your root issue lies.

The bottom line: WordPress can give you advanced functionality without the premium of building it from scratch. However, there are no guarantees that it will work or that you will be able to get support if it breaks.

TAG Tools

When you want a truly custom solution with unmatched support, going with a proprietary system such as The A Group’s TAG Tools is the way to get exactly what you want out of your site – from beautiful custom design to a CMS that’s built to power your unique needs. TAG Tools is custom built for each organization using modules, meaning you have sections in your admin to control each piece of the site or type of content you want to update (e.g. staff module, news module, blog module, photo module, video module). Designed to offer advanced functionality and to be easily managed by someone with no web experience at all, TAG Tools is extremely versatile and powerful, while offering a beautiful user experience for both the visitors and the admins.

When to Use It:

  • When you need to easily manage advanced site features without web/technical knowledge
  • When you have an organization that produces a lot of dynamic content and needs to update the site regularly
  • When you want it the way you want it (fully customized for your needs and wants)
  • When you want to do more than the basics (integrations and complex, custom solutions don’t scare us)

Best Features:

  • Fully customized – no two sites are alike
  • Module-based for easy content management
  • Can add or create new modules at any time as the organization’s needs grow
  • User permissions allow you to give people in your organization access to as much or as little of the site as you want
  • Mobile-friendly guaranteed
  • Amazing user interface, with gorgeous custom front end designs and a highly visual admin for easy management
  • A team that stands behind it – always available by phone or email to answer questions or discuss new needs

What It Lacks:

  • Call us biased, but TAG Tools is so incredibly customized that the sky truly is the limit. We try to scope out all needs from the start of the project, but as other needs arise, our team is here to find a solution and build anything that’s needed.

The bottom line: Investing in custom solutions can come with a higher price tag but you’ll get unmatched support, long-term savings by managing the site yourself and unmatched, personalized support.

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If you haven’t investigated this hot new viral game in the entertainment arena, drop what you’re doing, and check it out NOW.

Pokèmon Go is a real-time, real-life game that sends you on a physical chase to gather iconic pokèmon all over your neighborhood, town, state, and yes, even the world. All this for the purpose of building and strengthening your team to fight against others.

If you've seen (or been confused by) people wandering around aimlessly in your neighborhood, downtown, or near your work area (glued to their phone), they're probably buried deep inside Pokèmon Go world. 

You can download the game from the Apple store or Google Play, where it’s currently ranking number one ahead of Snapchat and Facebook in downloads. That alone should pique your interest.

Here’s Pokèmon Go explained in less than 400 words.

Pokèmon Go is basically a transformation of all previous Pokèmon games into a real life adventure.

People, the world is literally your stage now. Enter stage left: you, the local business or organization.

Because the game uses players’ GPS and is based off of real locations, various elements within the game are a gold mine for local shops and businesses. Those include Pokè Stops and Gyms. Here is the short, dialed down, I-don’t-understand-you-right-now explanation of what’s going on here.

Pokè Stop: People come to Pokè Stops to collect free items within the game. Ca-CHING. All you need to know is that a Pokè Stop automatically increases the number of foot traffic in your area.

Pokè Gym: People come here to battle other people’s teams. Being a Gym or being near a Gym is an even bigger win for you than being near a Pokè Stop. Why? Because more people frequent a Gym (and for longer amounts of time) than a Pokè Stop.

Download the app and see if your shop or storefront might be so lucky as to be a Pokè Stop, a Gym, or, at the least, be located near one. Pokèmon has pre-determined all the Pokè Stops and Gyms ahead of time, so currently there is nothing you can do if you aren’t one or aren’t near one (although there are rumors that this may change in the near future). But in the happy event that you're already location-lucky, here some ways to capitalize on those gamers.

If you are a Gym (or near one):

Everyone gets worn out from gaming, and after people are done fighting other teams at your gym, they’ll either need some cheering up (if they lost) or some celebrating (if they won). Stay up to date on who the winning team is at your gym, and advertise the winners. Offer them a discount on your merchandise, food, or services, and come up with a catchy offer for the losers as well. For instance, if you’re a coffee shop and you also sell food, give the winning team a discount on food to refuel for their next duel, but keep everyone interested by offering half-off coffee to the losers to bounce back from their loss. Find someone on your team who is Pokèmon savvy, and come up with catchy or comical lines for any discounts you might offer. Advertise those discounts on your social media, through a sign outside your shop, and via your email lists. Whatever you’re selling or offering, capitalize on the cluster of people around your shop to draw them into your business. 

If you are a Pokè Stop (or near one):

People will come to you to stock up on Pokèmon freebies. Use creative language to attract people to come inside to claim more “prizes” like discounts on items or even small freebies that you can afford to give away.

But here’s the biggest thing you can do: buy a lure. A lure attracts Pokèmon to the Pokè Stop near you, allowing any trainer in the vicinity to benefit from the influx of Pokèmon. Each lure you buy lasts for 30 minutes and you only pay 100 Pokècoins for it. That’s only $.99!

Advertise the lure on your social media channels and offer a discount in your shop during that half hour as well. Even if only a few players decide to stick around for what you’re selling, that’s still more customers than you had before Pokèmon Go.

The truth is, Pokèmon Go is changing the gaming landscape and you can capitalize on people migrating outdoors at very little cost to your business. Those walking, playing people will get hungry, thirsty and tired. They need a place to catch a breath. Take that opportunity to advertise your business or organization. But here’s the catch—you have to be creative. Engage with the players, know the game, be able to talk about it. Finally create pun-y and catchy advertisements to snag players’ interests. You gotta be cool to get the cool kids. 

You truly have nothing to lose. So why not give it a go? You gotta catch 'em all. 

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The A Group
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