reBuilding a Strong Brand (What I Have Learned)

reBuilding a Strong Brand (What I Have Learned) | www.sycamorestreetpress.com

Editor’s Note: For those of you wanting to create your own paper goods company, I’m now teaching an online course called Stationery Business 101: Starting Strong

You often hear business gurus talking about the importance of building a strong brand. They give examples of companies who are doing a great job of it. And many of those brands probably did a great job from day 1. But there are many others who struggled, lost their footing, had a sophomore slump… but were able to sort it out and become even stronger than before. To me, the stories of those who have come back are more inspiring because they are more relatable.

And so, I thought I’d share my journey — the Sycamore Street Press journey — to building a stronger brand. Maybe some of you who are just starting your own creative businesses will find something you can glean from our story. But keep in mind that we’re still working on it. I think we always will be… and I think remembering and taking the time to do so is the key to staying relevant.

Keep reading to see some of my mistakes and how I’ve learned from them… 

 

The Beginning

To be fair, when I first started Sycamore Street Press, I wasn’t planning for it to become the full-time career for both me and Kirk. (I thought it would be more of a side project while we both pursued careers in academia.) It was a year later (Thanksgiving weekend of 2008 to be exact) that Kirk and I had a long heart to heart and discovered that we both wanted to put all our efforts into making SSP succeed.

At that point, I should have taken all the steps in my power to create a really cohesive brand. I should have taken the time and had the courage as the owner and creative director of SSP to figure out what the clear and authentic voice was for SSP and how to make that show in everything we did.

Instead, I basically put it off for over 4 years.

The Denial

During those 4 years, it’s not that I wasn’t trying. I was.  But I was constantly struggling and a bit confused. You see, a few months after starting SSP, a few friends approached me about printing some of their designs on my letterpress and then selling them through Sycamore Street Press. They were/are all super-talented and I knew they’d come up with great designs, so I agreed and we got started. Over the years, I genuinely loved working with all of them and learned a lot from them. Their designs were fantastic and sold well. But their styles are quite different from mine. So we had three distinct lines, each designed by a different designer. It was always difficult for me to try and figure out how to connect these three lines and make it feel like a cohesive brand. I think that overall, with their help, we did a pretty good job. And like I said, all of the lines sold well, and we were able to reach audiences that my designs alone wouldn’t have reached. But still, when you said the name “Sycamore Street Press” there wasn’t one distinctive look that came to mind. And for anyone trying to create a strong brand, you know that’s not a good sign. Maybe it would have worked if I had built up SSP for several years around my aesthetic until we were a cohesive, well-known brand and then invited those same friends to do a guest collection? (Kind of like Rifle Paper Co. has just done with Garance Doré.) But trying to build a business from the ground up based on three distinct aesthetics just wasn’t the best idea.

I think I knew this at some level, but at the same time, I didn’t let myself dig deep and ask the tough questions, because subconsciously, I knew it meant change. Big change. And I was afraid of that. Afraid to let down my friends. Afraid that we would lose customers. Afraid that my designs on their own wouldn’t be enough.

The Breakthrough

And then, in January of 2013, I read this book. I followed the exercises.  And I decided that I would be completely honest and authentic — wherever that took me. When I made that choice, it’s crazy how quickly my vision for SSP became clearer. I saw right away that the SSP brand needed to be more cohesive. And I saw that I would need to fix that so that  1) I could continue to be passionate about what I was doing and 2) SSP could continue to grow and be successful (and therefore keep supporting my family and our employees).

I saw two clear solutions:

Solution #1: I could start inviting more and more contributing designers and make the SSP brand into a whole community of designers/illustrators. That way, the whole aesthetic of the brand becomes about the community. Variety is expected. It’s maybe not as cohesive as a brand with a single designer or design aesthetic, but it makes up for it in terms of sheer volume of contributors. That said, there would still be certain aesthetic threads that hold the community of designers together — a color palette, a medium, a fresh point of view… (These “common aesthetic threads” are things that I had implemented with the three existing SSP lines, but in order to be really successful, I think it needs to be done on a larger scale, with many more designers.) Examples of companies that have successfully navigated this “community of designers” type of brand (each in their own way, of course) are Tattly, Redcap Cards, Poketo, Minted, and Fine Little Day.

But I didn’t see this as a viable solution for my situation for a couple of reasons. First of all, I wanted to spend more time illustrating/designing and less time managing other designers. Second of all, although it can work really well as evidenced by the companies I listed above, it’s more difficult to create a cohesive brand from a community of designers than from one designer. I’m not a branding expert. I was already having a hard time making a cohesive brand out of the three lines/designers SSP had. I knew there was an easier way that would be more instinctive for me and the way I work.

Solution #2: Focus on a single designer/aesthetic and create the brand around that. (Good examples of this approach include Yellow Owl Workshop, Jonathan Adler, Emerson FryHerriott Grace, and Little Hip Squeaks.) This meant a more straightforward route to a focused brand and aesthetic, since it would just come down to my own authentic style. It would also mean less time managing and more time designing, since I’d need to phase out the other two lines/designers and focus on my own.

The Transition

I chose the second solution. And although it was the simpler route and the right one for Sycamore Street Press, it meant having to do some really difficult things. (Which is why this decision was so hard to make.) Things like telling my friends that we were phasing out their existing lines and wouldn’t be working with them in the future. Things like losing 2/3 of our product line in a little over one short year. Things like practically re-building our brand from scratch. To make it more complicated, during this time our two kids (although always amazing and wonderful) were quite a handful:  a spirited toddler and a colicky baby.

Let’s just say that 2013 was a bruiser.

Despite the difficulties, it’s all worth it and it’s all working out. We’ve sold through the majority of the two contributor lines. (Those same former SSP contributors — our friends — are working on an exciting new business of their own.) We’re working on filling the holes in our product line, and although we still haven’t quite caught up to the amount of designs we had before, we’re picking up the pace and getting into a groove. As far as re-building the brand — we launched a completely new website and blog design last fall, I’ve had a creative epiphany, and we’ve and focused the Sycamore aesthetic even more. We’ve been delighted (and relieved) that the website and all the designs we’ve launched under the refreshed Sycamore brand have been met with praise and (more tellingly) sales.

(And just in case you were wondering, our toddler has grown into a more independent pre-schooler and our baby has outgrown his colic. They’re both still as amazing and wonderful as ever.)

2014 is looking up.

Moving Forward

They say hindsight is 20/20, and it’s not worth beating yourself up over it. I believe that. But I also believe that it’s very helpful to look objectively at past decisions and learn from them. Looking back at the path Sycamore Street Press has taken, I can see that I should have gotten a lot more serious about a focused SSP brand & aesthetic much earlier on. Along with that, I should have listened more to my gut and been really honest and transparent about the direction I wanted SSP to go in.

I can’t change the past. But I can learn from it moving forward. So I’m regularly taking the time to step back and really think about my art and aesthetic, the way we run Sycamore Street Press, the way we connect to our community, etc… I’m asking the hard questions and I’m digging deep. Along with Kirk and the rest of the SSP team, I’m trying my best to build a really honest, authentic, cohesive brand that will stand the test of time. By doing so, we’ll be able to stay passionate about what we are doing, continue to put food on the table for our families, and keep making beautiful products for our customers. I think we’re off to a pretty good (new) start… – Eva

You might also like A New Focus for SSP, National Stationery Show FAQ, Part 1, and Top 5 Legal Concerns for Small Creative Businesses.

62 Comments

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  1. Jenny says:

    Eva this is brilliant! Thank you for sharing. I think sometimes we get caught up in a whirlwind and forget how important the soul searching part of it is. I struggled with adding contributors to the blog and I like it just being mine. So I love that you are only you. I’ve been looking back lately too and while I’m still making mistakes, when I get something right (and I did it more on purpose than accident) is a big thrill. Great things and brilliance for you in 2014. xo

    • Eva says:

      Hi Jenny, Thank you for your thoughtful comment! Yes, it’s soooo easy to get caught up in the whirlwind. And I am going to write more about this in a future post, but just to clarify, I do have an assistant designer now who helps me getting files press ready, laying out the catalog, and things like that. But yes, we got back to basics and it is now only my line of product and my creative vision/aesthetic. I think that as the founder and creative director of your business, you have to just do what feels authentic to you. And Jenny, you are always doing such wonderful, creative things! Best to you for 2014, too! xo

  2. Amber says:

    This is amazing and what I needed to read. Branding is ever evolving process, some moments seem harder than others, for me. Xoxox love you guys!

    • Eva says:

      Thanks so much Amber! It really is an evolving process. It has to be, or you become stagnant, right? So hard sometimes. You’re awesome! xo

  3. karm says:

    thank you for sharing this, eva … i’ve been wrestling with the question of defining a signature aesthetic (and do-i-have-to) so it is helpful to read about your own journey in this. such great motivation/inspiration to dig deeper :-) one question i have: how do you keep yourself focused to a cohesive style when you come across other styles you also like? — i have this problem all the time !

    • Eva says:

      Hi Karm, That’s a great question! I think I always struggled with this, too. But just recently, I did a lot of soul searching and discovered what my true aesthetic is right now. (I need to write a more in depth post about it, but I talk about it some in the recent “Minimal Bohemian” posts.) Of course there are things outside that aesthetic that I like. And that aesthetic will also evolve over time. But I think you can find what style feels the most “you”, the most authentic, and then just discipline yourself to stay true to that. Easier said than done, and I feel like I am just starting to get a handle on it. But I can feel the SSP brand becoming stronger because of it. Hope that helps a bit!

  4. lauren says:

    So incredibly inspiring! I feel like you are writing my story as I read it. And to know you were also successful while managing a growing family is even more inspiring! I have so much work to do- and designing for myself and my business is the biggest challenge I’ve ever encountered. Something about the shoemaker and his children… =P
    keep up the great work!! =)
    Lauren
    http://www.darlingandpearl.com

    • Eva says:

      Such a nice comment, thanks Lauren! And good luck with your own journey! Running your own business and raising a family at the same time are tough but so rewarding.

  5. Laura says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this journey of yours! It’s so great how you were able to honestly evaluate yourself and your brand and learn what was best for you. I think the hardest part about building a brand is the cohesion and the editing – most of us love many styles and directions (which is why I imagine you began your collaborations in the first place!), and it can be difficult to hone in on what the definition of your brand should be. You’ve done a beautiful job, and I can’t wait to see the continued evolution!

  6. Emily Mann says:

    love this post and love the direction ya’ll have taken! thanks for sharing these insights!

  7. Ashleigh says:

    This was a read I really needed. I’ve been struggling to find my “brand” mostly because I have a slightly ADD designer personality…. I’m all over the place! But I’m working on that slow transition into something more cohesive. I just have to find out exactly where that sweet spot is.

    • Eva says:

      Hi Ashleigh! Yes, I’ve been all over the place in the past, too. It’s hard when you just like so many things, right!? But slowly you’ll start to figure out that perfect sweet spot of what feels like you, is distinct in the marketplace, and has customer/client appeal… And then once you figure it out, you’ll have to keep honing that and updating that for the rest of your career. At least that is what I am doing. Best of luck!

  8. Kim says:

    Eva, I’m so glad that things are going well for you in this new direction you haven taken. Your closing that chapter in your life, opened a window for us. It has been a HUGE challenge and learning curve starting Paper Bandit Press. We still feel like we have a long way to go. We appreciate your continued friendship and willingness to share your expertise. See you at the stationery show.

    • Eva says:

      Thanks for your comment, Kim! Yes, you guys are doing wonderful things over there, and we appreciate your understanding and friendship, too. And I know, we’ve been doing this for over 6 years now and it is still a HUGE challenge. Good luck getting ready for the NSS! (We still have so much to do here at SSP!) And let us know if you have a specific question…

  9. Cyn says:

    I am in the midst of a rebuild of my brand, as well. I was “in the weeds” for a bit, but just in the past few weeks have realized that I need to translate my home style into paper/web/brand. Reading this post and your Minimal Bohemian posts have made me feel like I’m following the right path, hitting my branding stride. Thanks so much for sharing, Eva!

  10. heather says:

    I always loved the way you had collaborated with other designers but totally understand the idea of creating a really solid ‘brand’ and identity! I think your new style and aesthetic really resonate with me as well and I look forward to seeing how it evolves into your work, Eva!
    Also know that the stage your little ones are at is probably the most demanding stage as far as parenting goes. It doesn’t exactly get ‘easier’ as they get older, it just changes in a lot of ways and some of the physically demands ease off as they get more independent and start pre-school and then school. It’s hard to stay in the moment and cherish everything but it is nice to know that you will have more concentrated time for your business as they get older. All the best- h.

  11. Alex says:

    Absolutely LOVE this post. Just went online and bought the book. Congrats on your re-branding too – absolutely worth the effort!

  12. Mer says:

    this is so great Eva. Inspiring and so genuine. xo Mer

  13. Bravo Eva!! Thinking deep and being honest with yourself about your brand is hard, hard, hard. And doing this with 2 young’ uns in tow? You are amazing. I went through a similar process, and like you, I procrastinated for a long time before I was ready to admit to myself that the re-brand was inevitable. Still a lot of work ahead, but I’m hopeful it will pay off. Looking good, lady!!

    • Eva says:

      Hi Viola! Yes, still a lot of work ahead of me with this re-branding, too, that’s for sure. You have a beautiful company — you always have — and I love your new name!

  14. Sarah says:

    Such a open and honest post thank you for sharing your journey with us! It’s actually my first time reading your blog and this post really spoke to me as I’m at the stage of re-building my florist brand here in the UK. Thank you for the inspiration! And good luck to you and your family as well as other readers in the same boat.

    Sarah x

  15. Brittany says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I’m constantly getting tips and ideas thrown at me from friends and family or even a newbie who just found out what I did today. While I love the enthusiasm it’s important to me to keep a clear vision of what my brand means to me. I sometimes feel guilty for all the no’s I’m tossing around but this article is a great reminder to stay focused!

    • Eva says:

      Yes Brittany! You have to stay true to yourself. Advice is great, but in the end it comes down to what feels right to you.

  16. […] Rebuilding a strong brand. Sycamore Street Press is one of those companies that I totally admire (and adore!), so it was […]

  17. Nykke says:

    This was the perfect post at the perfect time. I am currently considering a re-branding and find the concept somewhat daunting. It’s lovely to read about other people’s struggles and realise you aren’t alone. And there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You’re website looks fabulous and I love the direction you are going. Good luck!
    Now to check out that book… 😉

  18. Claudia says:

    Eva, I couldn’t have said some of this better myself. It’s tough working on your own brand because as creatives we tend to have many styles it’s just focusing on the one that best suites us that’s the trick. We are in the midst of a small rebrand as well, nothing earth shatteringly different, just trying to be more consistent. I found it really insightful to hear how you perceived your line. Personally I’ve been a longtime fan. I love that you pair interesting patterns with unexpected colors. I love that you did start with a collaboration line because it is probably what helped drive you to where you are today. Your post made me really think about our Letters for Love line in a different way. I think I’ve made a very conscious effort to keep it within the Fig. 2 brand but as we expand it I will refer to your post to keep me in check. Your latest designs are fantastic and I’m not surprised they’ve been well received. Congratulations on all fronts! You have a lovely family, beautiful work, and new focus for your business.

    • Eva says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, Claudia. Now I’m really curious… I’d love to chat with you sometime about your impressions of SSP and also Fig. 2 Design. I’ve always thought you’ve had wonderful designs and a strong brand!

  19. […] and articles about the subject. I have recently read a great blog post from Sycamore Street Press here about Eva’s journey of re-branding or rebuilding a strong brand. This post also put me on to […]

  20. Hi Eva,
    Just came across your beautiful website and work, and this very inspiring post.
    I have just ordered the book and cannot wait to read. I have also just written a post and linked you in, thank you for the inspiring and real discussion on finding your authentic personal brand.

    Lovely to connect.

    Jess from Melbourne Australia.

    • Eva says:

      Hi Jess,

      Thank you so much for your comment and for linking to my post! I will have to go check out your post after I write this comment. :) It is a subject near and dear to my heart.

  21. Sandy says:

    Eva, I’m a little late to the conversation, but as someone who has been an online acquaintance for a while, I have to say it’s been so inspiring to see you come into your own this year! Hindsight is indeed twenty-twenty, and I also have tons of things I would do differently if I was launching Treatzone goods today. But the flip side is, if I had waited until I had everything figured out I never would have started, and even with all my mistakes the experience has changed my life for the better in just about every way. We’re still in the soul-searching phase figuring out where to take Treatzone next, so it ‘s nice to read your words of encouragement from the other side. Congratulations on all you have accomplished and wishing you the best going forward!

    • Eva says:

      Hi Sandy! So nice to hear from you, and thank you for the kind words. It’s crazy how much things have changed since we started, right? Best of luck with your soul-searching and figuring out the next step. I’m sure you will continue to do amazing things!

  22. Desiree says:

    This was an excellent article. You hit the nail on the head with every subject you broached. I’m walking away with a wealth of information. I couldn’t be happier that you guys pushed through & finding success on your terms. Authenticity takes work & your story preaches that. I wish you the very best. Your product – Your art – Is beautiful.

  23. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this! I found it very inspiring, and it makes me think about my own work and personal brand.

    At some point in my life I spent a lot of time managing other writers, and despite the energy and the friendship, this project didn’t turn out as I had expected.

    I decided to stop this project, and only manage myself (which is tough enough, isn’t it!) and to communicate in my own name.

    I’ve just subscribed to SSP’s feed, and can’t wait to read more posts like this in the near future :)

    • Eva says:

      Hi Marie,

      Welcome! And thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. It’s true, I feel like it’s hard enough to manage myself! :) Best of luck with your endeavors!

  24. Kasia says:

    Eva, thank you for sharing your story!
    I started my own little paper business in April this year. I have to work full-time at the office as well to make a living, so my postcards are some kind of a free-time project.
    I’ve wanted to make postcards since I watched the movie ‘500 days of Summer’ few years ago. I studied German language and literature and then went to work at the office. I was very depressed, then I met my future boyfriend and thought it might be good as it was. It wasn’t, we broke up in January 2014 and I decided to make something with my life (before I’m 30 😉 ). I wasn’t familiar with designing and had to learn everything from scratch. I met a guy on Twitter and I told him about my dream and it occured, that he was doing this for ages and he can teach me. So he did. Late March I launched my first collection – the Easter Collection. Because it’s all about the Bible – I wanted to make modern postcards with quotes from the Bible. Since then I designed the Baby Collection (also in English and German) nd the Wedding Collection, now I start thinking about Christmas. There is a great craft show in my city (Poznań, Poland) in December and I want to be there.
    People buy my postcards, give me a very positibve feedback. My family supports me, although they have almost nothing in common with the church. I have I dream, that ‘Malska’ will became my full-time job. It’s not a very strong brand, but I trust God and do everything I can, to make it work. It has only sense, when it is His work. And I think it is :)

    • Eva says:

      Kasia,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story! I love the determination and passion you have. And yes, I believe you are doing His work, too. Good luck with the craft show this fall!

      Best,
      Eva

  25. Tracy Shirley says:

    Hi, this was what I needed right when I needed it. I’m building a new brand, company and contributers. I am so encouraged that I am on the right track. The information was informative and helpful to say the least. Thank you again.

  26. Deanna says:

    Thanks for sharing your story! I need to work on making my brand stronger and I’ve been wanting to sell some stationary in my Etsy shop, but am unsure about how that may change the brand. This was very helpful! Thank you!

  27. […] So, “stationery designer” is not what you’re going for. You want to realize that you’re a “simple, beautiful, sustainable family paper goods company, focusing on minimal bohemian designs” (That’s Eva from Sycamore Street Press’ insight into her branding and finding her style – you can read more about that here). […]

  28. Rachel says:

    Thank you for this really beautiful and thoughtful post. It is inspiring for so many reasons.

  29. Susan says:

    I’m so happy for you – and can’t wait to see you at NSS again this year (I’ll be walking it). The wonderful thing is how much your joy shines through in the work. I agree, there should be more ‘second time around’ stories shared out there – there is so much to learn from the little “re” at the beginning of “rebuilding”. I loved reading this, and that you shared it. : ) x Susan

  30. Sonalika says:

    Eva, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and knowledge. I love the way you express yourself and explain complicated concepts with such ease. I am taking your atly stationery biz class and I am so excited and relieved to have found it. You have a great talent not just at designing but also communication. Not to leave out, a big heart to share your learnings. Thank you so much. You inspire me! :)

    • Eva says:

      Hi Sonalika, Thank you so much for your heartfelt comment! I’m so glad you found the class and that it is helping you. It means SO much to hear that. Best of luck with all your endeavors!

  31. Timea says:

    This came at the perfect time!
    Very glad to hear an honest voice about these problems. Thank you for being so open.

    I wish you all the best and a lot of success for the future!

  32. Tasha says:

    Thank you so much for posting this! It really helped steer mean in the right direction. Ive been woeking on creating a brand for my account at my job. I was completely stumped and disnt know where to start. After reading your post, its kindled the flame to creating a brand. Thank you!

  33. Eloise says:

    Thank you so much for this! Your struggles sound all to familiar and finding our voice and aesthetic is my #1 goal this year!! Thanks again so happy I just found your blog

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