How to Beat the Branding “Ick” Factor

In our work with numerous professionals, CEOs, and creative entrepreneurs, we hear a common tension: They want to take charge of their brand but they do not want to appear fake. You probably know that feeling.

In this engagement economy, you likely know that a signature online presence can distinguish you or your business from others in your field. Your signature brand and brand story can captivate ideal prospects, leads, and community members. Yet, there’s the downside.  You can get distracted by the glittery online personas and assume that in order to take charge of your brand you have to follow suit. It can feel daunting to distil the essence of your work or business into a cohesive branded message without sounding slick and corporate. In short, you want to own your brand but avoid the ick factor.

The ick factor – that discomforted feeling when something seems less than genuine – can hold back otherwise talented professionals and businesses from taking agency of and owning their brand.

There’s good news: You can brand without the ick and brand with integrity.

One way to avoid the ick is to be clear on your intentions and goals. Know when and to what extent marketing skills work to your advance your goals. Some clients state outrightly that they want to earn a bigger return on their ideas or business. Others want to build a platform of ideas and intellectual property over the next five years.

Yet one client once said, “I don’t want to make a list of influencers, connect with influencers, or even build a list.”

Instead, she wanted to stay quiet with her writings, publish them on the site, and see what happened over the course of the year. It was both refreshing and eye-opening. She was asking me to return to her center, rather than mine or the marketplace’s.

She didn’t want to advance an enterprise, expand her reach, or “become big” in the public eye. Not yet.

Instead, she wanted a website to catalyze her writing process and satisfy her existing followers who want to read her work. She was also by no means the only client I’ve worked with who has had this approach. Established writers, start-up designers, and corporate executives dipping their toes in creative pools have approached me with similar aims: Their online presence is a testing grounds and laboratory for their ideas. It’s also a testing ground to be public with their ideas.

Marketing matters to anyone wishing to build a business, advance a career, or earn a return on a project. But in the wrong doses and with the wrong timing, marketing can kill creativity, thwart innovation, and stall personal and professional growth.

Rather than encourage or bully people into accepting the ick factor and forcing them to market their wares,it’s more important for some professionals and creatives to develop an authentic strategy, which puts marketing in its proper place.

How Does Authentic Strategy Start?

When developing a website, know where marketing has its place. Its role should come once you have established your deep intentions and distinguished them from measurable, attainable, and action-oriented goals. It might come even later once you’ve drafted and tested out your designs or your messaging  or your ideas in a prototype website.

Whenever someone comes to Tracking Wonder with queries about branding, and whether or not we can help, we start by getting acquainted with their ideas, the nature of the problems they’re suited to solve, their ethos, and their personality.

Strategy without context can be time-wasting and creativity-killing. We fairly quickly suss out the gaps between where you are now and what your vision of the next year or more is. I say “or more” because clients come to us with rough 10-year and even 25-year visions. Others come with 5-year business plans.

Then we assess your best next steps and where marketing and branding come into play.  

OR we say, “Let’s slow down.”

One private client works within a company he helped build. He originally wanted a pivot plan by developing his own business model, branding plan, and thought leader platform. Two months into the work, he resisted the more public-facing parts of the branding process. The branding process had started to open up some ideas and some startling self-knowledge. Rather than advance with our first plan, instead, he requested that we design for him a private path for deeper self-knowledge that include a reading list, research, influencer connections and other exercises that helped him prepare behind the scenes as an emerging thought leader.

Start With Your Core Intentions

We say slow down because if you currently have more creative than revenue goals, with a book or a website, then leading with marketing can actually thwart the innovative aspects of the creative process. If marketing trumps everything when developing a website, you’re missing out on the “deeper” picture, not just the bigger picture.

But for clients who are ready to move onto the next steps, it’s vital to know that we’re collaborating with the client’s core intentions at the heart of what we do.

Another client’s core intention for rebranding her organization’s twenty-year-old website is to position her organization for national, not just local, business. What happened in the branding process, though, was that the leadership team recognized their full potential to lead with their mission and make a difference while making a better living.

There is no one size fits all approach to branding.

Apply Creative Process to Web Development

Most corporations and agencies have creative departments and marketing departments. Creative develops the product. Marketing sells it. It’s an on-going, often messy process between the two. But creative often leads marketing in the sequence of things.

Creativity is a process of discovering and implementing solutions that are both novel and useful. In branding, the novel solutions help you distinguish yourself from others and deliver exceptional experiences to your clients, customers, or community. The useful aspects, of course, help assure that they might work to your goals. To come up with novel and useful solutions on a regular basis engages faculties other than the rational, analytical decision-maker. Imagination, emotions, and intuition are foundational faculties that drive and influence the rational mind.

In creative process, you choose website titles or website architecture with imagination, emotion, intuition (novel) – plus marketing savvy (useful). You take creative risks to step outside of what everyone else is doing while being authentic.

Here is what being creative looks like in branding: You identify and define the core problems of your clients or customers that you or your business are uniquely suited to solve for. You view problems and decisions from various angles – and challenge your own assumptions about what you think you know to be true and right. You watch your mind-at-work and at-play. It demands you love the material – in this case, yes, the material of a website and a brand identity and brand story.

Draft your brand story to discover your own talents and ideas. Craft your brand story to design experiences that elevate other people and earn you a return.

Draft to discover. Craft to design.

Share This Article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Ohhh, love this post! There’s so much hype around branding (and even around being “authentic”). This brings it back to the core – and the heart. Here’s to branding and marketing that emerges from that place, sourced from integrity…within the context of the creative, ever-emergent process.

  2. Dana~ Thanks for the affirmation and for joining the cause, so to speak. We’re in a new age of branding in which branding itself is being rebranded, right?