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How to Humanize Your Brand with An ‘Outsider’

Over 29 million results come up from a Google search of my name, so it’s never a surprise to hear, ‘Sorry, I was looking for a different Susan Jacobs.’

When an email arrived from an Inc. 500-ranked global company that does clinical trials for medical devices in search of a writer and strategist to help them rebrand, I assumed it would be, ‘Oops, you’re not the one we were looking for,’ as I had no experience in or knowledge of their industry. 

Upon responding, they asked about my medical and scientific experience. I was honest; this was not a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ situation. While I have twenty-plus years of marketing, branding, communications, and business experience, looking at their website left me feeling like a ‘newbie’ all over again because I barely understood a word.

Surprisingly, the email exchange turned into a phone conversation, which turned into a request for a proposal. I figured it wouldn’t go any further so did the best I could and sent it.

Shock, joy, intimidation, and terror all mushed together when the email came a couple of days later offering me the consulting gig.

The goal of the rebrand was to humanize their brand so they stood out from the competition. This included conducting a website audit, repositioning them, making the copy and content accessible and user-friendly even though they’re B2B, doing interviews with team members, and revising, editing, and rewriting all of the copy.

Waiting for the signed agreement and first payment to arrive, I pumped up my confidence with positive affirmations, re-read testimonials from my former clients, and thought about whom I could call for a ‘lifeline,’ just in case.

With the contract signed and money in the bank, it was the moment of reckoning.

The first step was to share my understanding of the company’s key message points from their website content before moving onto doing interviews and then the writing.

I read the website repeatedly but was clueless as to what anything meant. How would I be able to do this job? Would I have to resign and give the money back? Find a ghostwriter?

Sink or swim has been a theme throughout my career, often jumping headfirst into projects and jobs with no prior experience, but there was always at least a basic understanding. This was not the case here. For the first time in my career, I was petrified. It felt like I was in a tidal wave about to drown.

Bird by Bird

After a lot of pacing, dark chocolate, deep breathes, Google and dictionary searches, and some ‘come to Jesus’ moments with myself, I remembered a quote (modified slightly) by Anne Lamott, author of “Bird by Bird,” a bible for many writers:

“Thirty years ago, my older brother was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. He was immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. My father sat down beside him and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Sometimes it’s the oddest thing that can completely transform a mindset. This was the reminder I needed.

Going bird by bird, one sentence at a time, I realized the sentences were just a series of intimidating words strung together that didn’t actually say anything of substance. It was like those people that speak so poetically, so eloquently, that you’re almost hypnotized, but then realize you have no idea what they actually said.

My understanding of the key message points was accurate. The client was happy, and with restored confidence, I could proceed creatively and strategically.

The Drama of an Outfit

But then they wanted to meet…

While that shouldn’t have been a big deal, it was. They are very corporate and I didn’t own a suit, an LBD (little black dress), or a pair of slacks. More Bohemian chic, I was concerned my sartorial style wasn’t appropriate for this audience.

I stalled the meeting until completing more deliverables and making sure they were happy with my work. This also bought time to put together the right outfit.

Yes, I could have gone shopping, but was conflicted; be myself or try to be someone that I’m not?

For the meeting, I wore a vintage black dress, funky designer sneakers, and a colorful scarf. I was nervous.

Albeit corporate, this is a family run company with an entrepreneurial bent which I was banking on, and which is partly why they were willing to take a chance with an ‘outsider’ like me. A strong recommendation from the web design agency working on the project didn’t hurt either.

I first met the suit-clad wife and daughter. The wife looked me up and down; in my mind, I was doomed.

The meetings and interviews went great, everyone was happy. As I was ready to leave, the wife took me aside.

“I have to be honest, I was nervous to meet you.”

Say what? She was nervous to meet me?

“We took a risk hiring someone with no experience in our industry, but when you got off the elevator, I knew we made the right choice because you had creative written all over you. We wanted to do something completely different to stand out and didn’t want the usual dry technical writing that would have likely come from a writer and strategist in our industry. We wanted a fresh perspective from someone on the outside.”

Un-friggen-believable. We had a good laugh after I shared my outfit stress.

They ultimately became my top reference and the website was nominated for several awards.

From my initial concern taking on a project so outside of my scope of experience and knowledge, I ultimately realized that being intentionally diverse and industry agnostic, with no experience in a particular industry can absolutely be an asset. An outsider point-of-view can be eye-opening and provide great value.

Sometimes it just takes one opportunity, one person’s trust and vision, to open up a whole new world of possibilities.

Food for thought…

Even though it’s business, we’re still all human beings craving real experiences, respect, and connecting with things that matter to us.

It starts with clarity, without which nothing is possible. Sometimes it first takes knowing what you don’t want before you get clear on what you do want. This brand knew they wanted to sound and look different from their competition. Their vision and goals were clear; they wanted to make it possible for someone like me, who knows nothing about their industry, to look at their website and understand what they do.

A few questions to consider...

Does it matter to your brand if an ‘outsider’ can understand your message?

Are you communicating in a human-to-human way that captures the unique essence of your brand’s DNA and your true brand voice?

Are you trying to be something you’re not just because the competition is doing it?


Comments and shares are welcome. If anything resonates, let’s talk. You never know what can come from a conversation!