Wednesday, October 29, 2014

10 Steps To Creating a Compelling Brand Story

It's hard to believe it's already been over a week since my whirlwind trip to North Carolina. I was there speaking as a part of Decor Mentor's #Elevate series and was truly humbled to share the session with the incomparable coach Gail Doby. Gail is all about helping designers increase their profits and decrease their stress, and she spoke first on finding and getting hired by your ideal client. As usual, she was truly inspirational! In fact, I'll probably inject some of her nuggets of wisdom into my post here.

I promised those in attendance that I would share my portion of the presentation as a blog post so that they could revisit my tips and insights on how to create a compelling brand story, and I hope it will be of interest to all my designer friends and brands who are looking to connect with their ideal clients in a meaningful way.

So, why call it a brand story you ask?

Well, because we are all storytellers, and the framework of a good story really informs so much about what makes for compelling marketing, brand strategy and copywriting. Whether you design interiors or create beautiful products, you are telling a story. So let's make sure it's a good one.

{Side note: If you want to read more on this subject from two of my favourite thinkers, check out this book by Simon Sinek and also the work of Donald Miller. Both have significantly shaped my thinking and the insights I'm sharing here.}

I'll get into how the elements of story effect our thinking and good branding in STEP THREE, but for now let's dive in. Here are my 10 STEPS TO CREATING A COMPELLING BRAND STORY:


In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek says: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Apple doesn't have loyal customers and raving fans because their products are cheaper than the competition. They’re not. In fact, sometimes they are four times the price! They have loyal customers and raving fans because they have clearly defined their purpose and - even if they can't quote Apple's mission statement verbatim - their customers get it. Do you know what Apple’s mission statement is? They exist to challenge the status quo, and in doing so, they have become an extension of how their customers define themselves. They sell a philosophy. They sell a way of life. Their products are merely an extension of their WHY.

As another example, Gail Doby and Lisa Ferguson's Flourish Summit connects with designers because their WHY is abundantly clear. They exist for your success, and they want you to experience 3 things: Less Hustle. More Profit. WAY more joy.

Sign me up, right?! I don't know about you, but I want all of those things in spades! Their WHY connects emotionally because it is compelling, both for them and for the designers they seek to serve.

You need to connect on that same level with your ideal clients, so here are a few questions to ask yourself to clearly identify your WHY:

  • Why did I get started in this business to begin with? 
  • Why do I love what I do? Why do I get out of bed in the morning?
  • What are my non-negotiables?
  • What are my core values?
  • What are my filters for how I make decisions {on my designs, the products I select, how I run my business and how I engage with my clients?}

For example, the products you choose will become proof of WHY you do what you do. For some, “better” is about getting everything they can out of their budget. For others, “better” is about one-of-a-kind, it’s about bench-made craftsmanship and high-end quality. Neither one is wrong per se, but it is very important to know what your values are and how they align with your ideal clients.

Other questions to ask yourself:

  • What gives me the greatest joy and satisfaction - in my work and in my life?
  • What am I doing when I feel I am being most true to myself?
  • When am I most inspired?

Why do you need to put clear thought and language around all of this? Because when your clients understand and buy into WHY you do what you do, they will be increasingly loyal and less likely to even bother researching the competition. 

The other very important reason you need to clearly identify your WHY is that people will sense it, whether it is clearly written into your brand script or not. If you are only doing what you do to make money, people will sense that and they will not feel compelled to work with you. But if your WHY, for example, is to improve their quality of life, to inspire them, to free them to shine in their own areas of strength, to create a beautiful context or a beautiful product to enhance the way they live and their relationships...well, people will get it. They will more than get it. They will CONNECT with it. And it will become their WHY for working with you.

We all know Habit #5 from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” As designers, we have to decide WHO we are seeking to understand by first identifying our ideal client, and then we need to get to know them well.

We’ve all had at least one dream project, right? You know, the one that made you remember WHY you got into this business to begin with. The one that made you excited to jump out of bed each morning. The one that made you feel like your greatest strengths were being used to their full potential.

So take the time to write down WHY they were your dream client by answering the following questions:

  • What were their core values? 
  • How did they treat you? 
  • Was it a highly involved partnership or were they totally hands off, leaving everything to you? 
  • What kind of project did you work on together? Was it the style that made it a dream job for you? The scope? The speed at which it happened? The budget? The team with which you worked?
  • What was the outcome - both visually and financially?

I loved Gail's reminder that our clients - yes, even the CEO's and lawyers - are often intimidated by us as designers. So we need to do what we can to set them at ease, and the best way to do that is to make them feel understood. This means asking the right questions and learning to speak their language. It does not, however, mean morphing into whoever you think they want you to be. We will talk about why that is in STEP FOUR. But first...


Once you’ve identified your ideal client, it is incredibly important to identify what problem you solve for them. 


Because - as Donald Miller says - every compelling story has a main character who wants something and has to overcome an obstacle to achieve it. This is where the framework of story steps in to shape how we think about branding, copywriting and marketing.

Clearly your client is the main character in their own story. But if you help them overcome their obstacles in achieving their goals, you will become a very important supporting character in their storyline. You want to be a key supporting character in your ideal client’s storyline by helping them overcome their obstacles. 

Clearly articulate this by creating an empathetic statement that your brand can make towards your client’s problem. As a designer, this can be included in your bio such as "I understand what it is like to want a home that is as beautiful as it is functional for your real life." 

Remember that your client likely has both an internal problem {such as knowing their taste, creating a vision, etc} and an external problem {such as budget limitations, a house that needs renovation, a tree on the property they need to build around. etc}. You want to express how you help them solve both their internal and external problems to help them achieve their goals.


We’ve all heard it said that “you are your brand.” But in actual fact, I believe the formula is this:

You + Your Ideal Client = Your Brand

Marketing can be about science - what key words create the best SEO, what post titles get the most clicks, and so on - OR it can be about the art of inspiration. Whereas science or statistics-based marketing leads to transactional relationships, inspiration leads to loyalty because it taps into people's emotions. And as I’m sure you know, one loyal client is worth 10 cheap, one-time transactions over the lifetime of your business. So this is super important: You want to INSPIRE your ideal clients and leave them feeling like you and your brand are an extension of how they define themselves. 

In Canada, Brian Gluckstein has done a brilliant job of branding himself as an extension of the aesthetic and values of his extremely high-end clientele. His work has become synonymous with a very sophisticated, discerning and luxury segment of the market. So ask yourself this very important question:

  • How do my ideal clients define themselves and what would it look like for my brand to become an extension of that definition?

This is in part about knowing yourself really well and articulating your unique strengths in a way that connects with your audience and their needs. This is where doing your StrengthsFinder assessment and getting coaching from StrengthsMentor. Add to that the potent and rich value of VIP coaching from Gail Doby and you will likely have cracked open your soul and poured out your essence in it’s most distilled and beautiful form. At the end of that process, you will know more than ever before who you are, what makes you happy, what your greatest strengths are and how you can best use them to make money, how to define your ideal client, how to create a complimentary team that has everyone working in their sweet spot, and how you can be truly happy in your daily work and life!


Once you have clearly defined who you are, who your ideal client is, what their internal and external problems are, how you help them solve those problems and how you are an extension of how they define themselves, you are well on your way to finding the language that most succinctly defines your brand story. 

Now it's time to start writing. From your website copy to your bios to your press releases, this is key:

When telling your brand story, use as few words as possible. 

Less is more, friends. Just like with the design process, EDITING IS EVERYTHING. Forcing yourself to be succinct will force you to get to the heart of the matter. Avoid fluff. Make every word count by putting your copywriting and marketing content through the filter of your answers to WHY you do what you do and WHY your ideal client hires you. 

A couple of tips on this:
  • Scan your copy to make sure you're not saying the same thing more than once. 
  • Seek connections between thoughts so that rambling paragraphs can be shortened into tighter sentences.
  • Create a story-like flow between thoughts so that the reader feels you are leading them to an important conclusion.

Are you more of a trusted girlfriend or a powerhouse authority on design? Are you more likely to be found in the city wearing Valentino pumps or in a country farmhouse with bare feet? How can you incorporate your personality and uniqueness into the language of your brand script? 

This is very important to building authentic relationships with your clients right from their first contact point with your marketing and media content. As Gail mentioned in our #Elevate session, people feel way more comfortable with someone who is warm and authentic. Trying to be too buttoned-up and starchy just won't connect with your ideal client. 

So think about how you speak with your family and friends when you are relaxed and then think about how that translates into your "professional voice." {Kind of like your "radio voice" for copywriting and marketing.} Yes, it's a slightly cleaned up version of your regular speaking voice, but it still needs to have warmth and personality and feel like you

Start by reducing your brand story down to a two minute elevator pitch. Next, see if you can get your brand story down to two lines. Lastly, see if you can reduce it down to one phrase or tag line that defines your business. If you can do that, you have clearly defined your WHY. Make sure you use your tag line on your website, on your business cards, and on as many other communication touchpoints as possible to reinforce your brand story to clients.

Do you do consults only? 

Do you have more than one tier of service? 

Break everything down into bite-sized categories so your potential clients know how exactly how to engage with you. This will take the intimidation and guesswork out of the process for them. The gents at Madcap Cottage have done a fantastic {and personality-filled} job of this!


How do you want your clients to engage with you first? By referral? By filling out a client questionnaire? By hiring you for an initial consult? By an initial phone interview? 

Whatever your answer is to that question, make it clearly available as a call to action on your website such as “Contact us for a quote” or “Book a Consultation” or simply "Work with Sarah." Every website should have a clear call to action so that people can act on the inspiration to work with you.


What does life look like for your client after they have worked with you? Cast a vision for them. Connect with them emotionally. Let them know their goals are achievable if they work with you.

You can define the "after" quite effectively through client testimonials. You can also of course define the "after" visually with your portfolio photographs. While it does not necessarily always have to be overtly stated, it does have to be very intentionally woven into your brand script and content. 

And that, my friends, sums up my 10 STEPS TO CREATING A COMPELLING BRAND STORY! I hope you feel a sense of clarity on what you need to include and how you can get there. 

And if after reading all of this you realize that you need someone else to strategically mine the gold from your story, polish it up, and present it in a way that connects with your ideal client, then let's work together! I am accepting branding strategy and copywriting clients on a limited basis and would love to speak with you about your needs.

Happy Wednesday! Here's to finding beauty and meaning in what we do. Life's too short to settle for anything less.


Friday, October 3, 2014

An International Story | Canada's Love Affair with bluebellgray

Paris truly is the city of love, so it's only apropos that Canada's love affair with bluebellgray should begin there. Arren Williams of Hudson's Bay made the home-textiles-love connection with Fiona Douglas when they met at Maison et Objet, and her vibrant and joyful collection of home textiles and furnishings has now launched here in Canada this Fall.

In a home décor category filled with endless whites and neutrals, Fiona Douglas' handpainted bluebellgray collection of home textiles fairly sings with joie de vivre. And there is a freedom to Fiona's collection that belies her story.

Coming from a family that was quite clearly either artistically or medically minded, Fi fell to the artistic side of the family tree right from the start. Inspired by children's illustrator Quentin Blake and her Mum's use of colour, flowers and beautiful books in the house, Fiona pursued her love of beauty when she enrolled in the prestigious Glasgow School of Art's fine art program.

While Fiona enjoyed the opportunity to hone and refine her skills in Glasgow, she found that the fine arts program and it's classical roots felt somehow restrictive. She was soon to discover - through the nudgings of a good friend - that the real problem was quite simply that the canvas was too small for Fiona's expansive imagination.

Fiona made the switch to textile design on the promptings of a friend in the program who saw the freedom Fi needed and encouraged her to embrace it via a slight change in medium and a broadening of her canvas and her horizons. As I'm sure you would agree, the results are truly beautiful and offer us the opportunity to dream watercolour dreams filled with vibrant colour and unrestricted imagination as we tuck ourselves into bed each night.

Image via Hudson's Bay
I confess I am already designing a heart-happy guest room in my imagination, all centred around the Glasgow Queen Headboard {pictured above} from the bluebellgray furniture collection that is exclusive to Hudson's Bay. And I'm doing so with a clean conscience. Fiona shares my passion for the process behind the product, so much so that her company is both completely carbon neutral and diligently ensuring that the craftspeople making the linens and furniture for bluebellgray are treated fairly and ethically at every step along the way.

All of the furniture pieces in the collection for Hudson's Bay are not only exclusive, but also made right here in Toronto at a small father-daughter studio. She's my kind of girl, that Fi, as she truly believes in supporting the local economy and local artisans as she shares her inspiration with the world. Integrity and human kindness really are two of the most profound forms of beauty, after all.

I hope Fiona's beautiful, handpainted bluebellgray collection has inspired you to follow your dreams, expand your canvas, and leave your own unique mark of beauty on the world. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Fi! I look forward to tea together again the next time you are this side of the pond.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

2014 Brian Gluckstein Princess Margaret Lotto Showhome | PART THREE

So without further ado, let me share my favourite space in the Princess Margaret Lotto Showhome. It is - in one sense - the simplest space in the house.

A desk.

Two chairs.

A tree.

That's it.

Well, unless you count the endless windows and decadent abundance of natural light. At the end of the day, that's all I really need. NATURAL LIGHT. In fact, it's my favourite Designer luxury.

Turns out, the chairs were scooped up at a thrift store and reupholstered. My kind of find!

And have I mentioned those windows?! 16 feet high and capped off with a skylight above to basically make this as outdoors as you can possibly get while still being inside the house. The third wall is mirrored so that it feels like a glass box and just reflects the light even further into the space, and the fourth wall is just open to the house. THIS is the sightline at the end of the hallway from the entrance you would use daily as a family. Can you say inspired? Talk about a welcome home for the senses.

L  O  V  E.

I don't know about you, but I think a lot of dreaming and planning and world dominating {in the most feminine, kick-ass way possible, of course} could happen in this space. Sign. Me. Up.

What do you think? What's your favourite space in this house?


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

2014 Brian Gluckstein Princess Margaret Lotto Showhome | PART TWO

So yesterday I shared with you some of my favourite design features from this beautiful home through the lens of my personal Dream House Wish List. I think I'm going to have to make this a regular feature as the list of dream details keeps growing, and they are far too delicious to keep to myself! For now, more design love from the 2014 Princess Margaret Lotto Showhome designed by Brian Gluckstein.


The heart of every dream home is truly the kitchen. This is where family and friends gather, where meals are prepared and shared and where some of the most meaningful conversations of the day often take place. There should be a simpatico in the kitchen - a welcoming of the ebb and flow of people who make a house a home - matched with a comfortable calm that invites creativity and connection.

I love the high gloss black lacquer on the island cabinetry, which serves as a nice punch of contrast to the clean and serene waterfall countertop made of Cambria quartz.

The satin brass cabinetry hardware is a modern twist on a classic. I also love the retro feel of the brass and frosted glass pendants over the island {below}.

The Le Cornue range and hood vent offer a dramatic focal point, adding more contrast and a touch of French decadence to this kitchen.

And the collection of toasters from the 1930's and '40's adds just the sense of quirky personality this kitchen needs!


For me, every dream house absolutely has to have a sense of whimsy. We should never take ourselves too seriously, but especially not at home. After all, how can we have a house filled with laughter if we lose our playful spirit? Laughter is a must in my world! And in this house, the whimsy and lightheartedness I look for are best seen in the art found in the children's bedrooms, all from Art Interiors. I love how the artwork plays off of the colourful bedding from the Gluckstein Home collection. Bright, cheerful colours for a bright and cheerful little life! It doesn't hurt that navy and orange happens to be one of my favourite colour combinations.

Creamsicle anyone?
The effortless drape of the bouquet of tulips over the bed creates a casual beauty that's perfect for this room!

I'm also in love with the GENIUS way that Brian concealed an awkward bulkhead in one of the bedrooms by creating this nautical-inspired built-in bunk bed {below}. Rumour has it the ladder was tucked away for safe keeping before the house was opened to guests because the adults on the team "may or may not" have been climbing up it and playing on the bunk beds themselves. That's a good sign in my book! It's all about keeping a childlike spirit alive.

How much is that doggy in the window? Love him!
Isn't the craft room adorable? That whimsical dalmatian totally sets the tone!


To juxtapose that playful whit and lightheartedness, every dream home should have at least one moment of drama. Take, for example, the the theatre room on the lower level of this house. The dark walls, masculine furnishings, gallery wall of photography and eclectic, well-traveled spirit of the styling of the accessories all tell an interesting story and set the stage for the drama and intrigue that make for a perfect movie viewing room.


One of the things I love most about being an interior designer is the opportunity to use my strategy gene to turn problems into solutions and even design features. Brian Gluckstein is the absolute master of this very brand of design magic. I love how he used his ingenuity to solve the problem of a home gym that was totally lacking in natural light. Not one to settle, Brian got creative and thought - what if one of the walls was "see through?" Literally! By encasing the wine cellar in glass instead of drywall and suspending the racking between the floor and ceiling so that it didn't require a wall to anchor it, Brian created a giant window into the home gym that welcomes in a wash of natural light to keep the fitness buffs in this household feeling fresh and inspired. Genius!

Stay tuned for tomorrow when I'll reveal my favourite space in this house and why I love it so!


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

2014 Brian Gluckstein Princess Margaret Lotto Showhome | PART ONE

I've been putting a lot of thought of late into what my Dream House Wish List looks like, assembling mental pictures and thinking through styles and historical periods for reference. There are really three architectural periods - Georgian, Regency and Art Deco - that most speak my language, and this year's Princess Margaret Lotto Showhome is a beautiful interpretation of a modern day Georgian classic.

Designed by Canadian Design Icon Brian Gluckstein, the house is awash with details and delights around every corner. I had the opportunity to chat with Brian as he graciously toured a small and privileged group of designers and design bloggers through the house before it's grand opening. I loved hearing Brian's insights into the nuances and design details of the process behind this beautiful South East Oakville home, and now I'd love to take you on a little tour as I share with you some of the details that are firmly planted on my personal Dream House Wish List.


To make a house truly engaging for the mind - and to make it feel open and embracing of the hum and buzz of daily life - a dream house should have really beautiful sight lines. What does that mean, you ask? It means that when you look down a hallway or through a room, the place at which your eye comes to rest should be interesting, ideally extending to you an invitation to come in and see what is around the next corner. For me, this includes an abundance of natural light to draw you in and open you up to the possibilities. That is what an inspiring space should do, after all, isn't it?

It was actually the view from the mudroom through to the Conservatory {see below} that first had me catch my breath a little. Yes, I just said Conservatory. Here's a sneak peek of that beautiful sight line.

Note the rhythm created by the repetition of archways, the tray ceiling details and repetition of light fixtures down the hallway. Yep, you guessed it. Dream House Wish List details.

I'm going to make you wait for more details on the Conservatory {you can just make it out at the end of the hallway}. Just a glimpse for now, but we'll come back to it, I promise.

The gracious curved staircase also offers beautiful site lines at every level of the house, and the window that extends through all three floors floods the staircase with natural light.


For me, one of the ultimate indulgences on my Dream House Wish List is simply a house that is drenched-to-the-point-of-drunken with natural light. I think Brian and I speak the same design love-language in this regard, because wherever and whenever possible, he insisted that the windows come right down to the floor or function as garden doors to keep the flow of indoors to outdoors as effortless as possible.

Isn't the rear elevation of the house gorgeous? Totally a modern classic. 
These doors were swung wide for the little fête we enjoyed together, showing off this house's true design destiny: a lifetime of effortless entertaining. Dream House Wish List? Check.


There are a couple of ways in which this year's Princess Margaret Lotto Showhome exemplifies my personal passion for handmade craftsmanship. The first is the fireplaces. Not only did Brian design a beautiful two-way fireplace for the front hall entryway and living room to share as a warm Canadian welcome on a cold winter's night {pictured below}, but he also appointed a decadent and refined marble fireplace to serve as the focal point for the family room and the Master Ensuite. All of the fireplaces in the house were hand-carved in Portugal. {Note to self: Design trip to Portugal for inspiration = a must!}

Detail of the Art Deco inspired fireplace surround in the Family Room.

Is unwinding at the end of each day in a classic cast iron tub while mesmerized by the hypnotic sway of flickering flames on your Dream House Wish List? Yes? Me too. Check and Check.

Note the master vanity floating in front of a large window - the perfect spot for flawless makeup application!
The second brilliant touch of hand-made craftsmanship in this house is found on the wallpaper in the dining room. From afar you might think it is "just pretty," but this wallpaper is anything but "just pretty." It's actually the secret gem in the house, which you realize when you get up close to it. The beautiful chinoiserie of flowering branches and birds has been painstakingly hand embroidered onto the silk paper by artisans from England's Fromental. The colour palette was customized just for this house. It's truly exquisite! Just look at the feathers on the bird in the second photo below.


One of my design signatures for many years has been detailed floors - specifically with the use of mosaics inset as tile carpets and with the use of larger tiles to create herringbone and chevron patterns. Naturally, Brian features both in this spectacular Showhome. 

{I'm beginning to think he has been reading my Dream Home Diaries!}

I particularly love the use of these simple subway tiles {above} to create the striking yet subtle herringbone pattern featured on the main floor of the house. The tiles look like natural stone but are in fact a quartz composite called Technoquartz, making them perfect for high traffic areas.

The herringbone pattern, as you know, is my all-time favourite and I feel it grounds and elevates the main floor all at once with an approachable sophistication that is just my cuppa. Brian shared that he found these tiles stacked in a discounted section of the showroom and started playing with them while everyone else was chatting. He knew they were the perfect choice the moment he'd laid out the herringbone pattern. Now, you've got to love a man who scoops up a deal and creates something as beautiful as this with it!

I hate to be a tease, but I'm going to leave you hanging on until tomorrow for the next instalment of details from this gorgeous house! There's truly too much to squeeze into one post, and I want to do it justice. I hope what you've seen so far will fuel some dream house dreaming tonight.


All images courtesy of The Princess Margaret Welcome Home Sweepstakes
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