Find Courage Through Emotion with Brandon Larson

May 19, 2022

(highlights from Episode #5 of the Gutsiest Brands podcast)

Check out the latest lessons from our Gutsiest Brands podcast as GutCheck’s Chief Revenue Officer, Jess Gaedeke, sits down with Microsoft’s Director of Brand Strategy, Brandon Larson, and discusses how audiences are often two-sided, what to do when your brand isn’t reaching people in the right way, and how to convince investors to let a company stay true to itself after an IPO.

Brandon loved choose-your-own-adventure books as a kid, and he’s used that framework to turn himself into a free-range strategist, able to chase down whatever is most interesting or compelling to him. He is the first to admit, “I’ve been super lucky to be able to do that. Despite what his titles in brand strategy might tell you, Brandon doesn’t see his job as a form of selling. Instead, he says, I help companies listen. Through all his positions, Brandon has been able to bring his skills to the table to create amazing outcomes. Here’s what he’s learned. 

Takeaway #1 Being Human-Centric Means Thinking Outside the Brand

When a company tasks an employee with marketing their product or service, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the thing itself. As Brandon says, you spend your entire day obsessing about the products and services you’re developing. But that’s not how to run a genuinely human-centric brand. Ultimately, while we think of ourselves and our companies first, the reality to the rest of the world is that your brand doesn’t matter that much. Harsh. But Brandon is right. What do we do instead? Being customer-centered to me, Brandon says, really starts with understanding…what role you play in somebody’s everyday life, and then orienting yourself to that constantly.

Takeaway #2 Help Others Find Clarity

Despite his work in technology, Brandon jokes that the last thing the world needs is another app. As he says, We don’t lack options. What we lack is clarity. And staying true to providing clarity is basically [Microsoft’s] objective as a team, and I think that has been really helpful for us as a north star. Not only is Microsoft concentrating on keeping things simple for their users, but they are also keeping their own purpose clear for their workers, something Brandon admires. Fundamentally, all we’re trying to do is help people be better at work. That’s why being aligned to a company that has that clarity of mission has been really a good fit for me.  

Takeaway #3 Ask Who Your Real Customers Are 

Brandon talks about how many businesses must deal in a two-sided marketplace. He says, The question of who you serve is an interesting and complex one. And I think when you reflect on all the other marketplaces that exist in the world—Airbnb, Uber—a lot of these places, your job as a brand person might not always be on the demand side of that equation. He brings up his time at Etsy when the development and branding teams had to work closely to create an experience that benefited the makers and sellers, not just the buyers and users. 

Takeaway #4 – What to Do When Mission Meets the Market

Gutsy brands see opportunities where others force compromise. But Brandon was sure there didn’t have to be a tradeoff between purpose and profit when Etsy went public. Going through the experience of an IPO is quite an intense one. You end up with this collision of viewpoints where this purpose-driven brand is meeting the capitalist marketplace for the first time. Instead of bowing to pressures to change, Brandon ensured that Etsy stayed true to its beliefs, no matter how unpopular (another gutsy brand trait). This was not a moment for Etsy to change to fit the demands of the public markets. It was a moment for the public markets to understand something differently about how companies could be built. 

Takeaway #5 – Ask How You Can Be Different 

From challenging macho with the Viagra brand and the use of scare tactics with Microsoft Security products, Brandon has always looked at how to market brands in ways that go against the old norms that clearly weren’t working or that everyone else was doing. He says, We asked ourselves, what other routes are out there in this category? How could we address these people differently? This is all about empathy. Brandon needed to understand the real human experiences before he was able to understand what to say to them about the brands and how they could help.  

Brandon‘s Best Advice?

When I think about what it means to be a gutsy brand, it comes down to ‘what are you championing on behalf of your audience?’ What can’t they say? What are they too afraid to say? Once you’re able to locate what your audience needs at a deeper level, I think the gutsiness comes naturally. Once you connect to that deep need and you feel it the way they feel it, you can’t help but move towards them. It’s such a natural human reaction. You know you’ve gotten deep enough when all of a sudden, the courage to act is there. Once you connect to that emotion, you’ll find the courage. 

Keep Learning 

Catch up with Jess and Brandon’s full interview by listening to the Gutsiest Brands podcast. If you are interested in how your brand can uncover the deep customer insights that can enable you to lead with empathy, pioneer new paths, stand behind bold ideas, and lean into the power of AND, we’d love to help. Drop us a note!

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