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The Power of Strategic Messaging | Douglas Spencer


Ann Kraus: Hello and welcome to TV, I'm Ann Kraus. Our guest today is Douglas Spencer. Douglas is president and chief message builder at Spencer Brenneman, LLC in Boston, where he helps leaders of mission-driven organizations reevaluate their focus and reframe their message. In his 30-year career, Douglas has worked all over the world with industries like financial and professional services, tech, higher education, healthcare, and not-for-profits. Before starting Spencer Brenneman, he was vice president, global head of brand management for Thomson Reuters, where he guided the migration of the multiple Thomson and Reuters businesses to form the then new Thomson Reuters brand. Douglas is a lifelong volunteer and is an active in Boston's non-for-profit community. Douglas, welcome to TV. Douglas Spencer: Why, thanks, I love being here. I love talking about this topic so I love it. Ann Kraus: Great, thank you so much. But I do have to say that I have never heard of the title of chief message builder, and it's very unique. Would you say that this title is unique only to non-for-profits and mission-driven organizations or can anybody use this? Douglas Spencer: Anybody can use it. I think messaging is core to any organization, whether it's for or not-for-profit. Where it came from is that, I'm a brand strategist, we do branding, however, despite my best efforts, people hear the word brand and they think logo. And it's way more than that. Sometimes, there's not even a logo involved. And so, I've tried to rebrand branding, if you will, by calling it strategic messaging. Because everyone understands that your message is really important. And sometimes they think, "Well, the logo's not important." So I really want to get people to think about their message in a strategic way, and so I help them build the right message for their organization. Ann Kraus: And is it always the same approach for no matter what type of organization it is? Douglas Spencer: It is, it is pretty much the same approach. We have a methodology that we use, it's called ABC, ask, build, and connect. Ask is market research. We do ask a lot of questions. Sometimes it's one on one, sometimes it's more traditional like online surveys or whatnot. And then we really try to figure out where people's heads are in relation to how they think about an organization, what are their perceptions, what do they want from an organization like that, whether it's a for-profit or a nonprofit. And then we build this framework that spells out why do you care about your work and why should anybody else? And then what is it you do exactly and more importantly, how do you do it differently in a way that's relevant to all the people that are important to your success, whether those are employees, customers, donors, funders, whomever? How do you do it differently in a way that speaks to them? And then what is the emotional connection that works best with your message? Is it academic? Is it optimistic? Is it dire? So what is the right emotion that goes with it? And then the final stage is connect and that's where we connect it to whatever the client needs, whether that's a new website, whether that's a content marketing program, whether that's a new logo, sometimes they need it, sometimes they don't. Ann Kraus: I would imagine that sometimes, people come to you and they think they don't need new messaging and they don't need a refocus. But I would imagine that there's probably some people that you wish would call because their messages seem out of date. How does a message get out of date? Douglas Spencer: It happens to everyone, all of us. And we're all guilty of this for two reasons. First of all, we forget what's in here but not out there, because we live and breathe our work all the time. And we've take for granted that of course people know X, Y, or Z. And the other way that a message gets out of date is that, all right, when you start out, you are focused in this direction and this is how you're going to operate and here's your message and this is what you do. But over time, you make tweaks to how you work because there's market conditions that change. And so you make little tweaks here and there, and before you know it, you are doing things in this direction but your message is still in this direction. And it's just a matter of taking a moment to think about who you are now and really questioning if it's the right way to talk about what you do and how do you make an authentic, compelling, and memorable message. Ann Kraus: The question I have now is how would you say digital fits in into these mission-driven companies? Douglas Spencer: I think everybody's worked at an organization once in their life where the phrase, "Well, that's not how we do it around here," has been flung around. And I think marketing tactics and strategies fall under that category. Well, of course we do a monthly newsletter. Well, does it work? Of course we put something up on Instagram, does it work? So I think that it's part of the process, to really get people to stop and think about what's working and what's not. And so digital is certainly way more important than it was even five years ago. And so organizations of all types, for or not-for-profit, have to think about that differently. Ann Kraus: Is there ever a time or a situation in which a non-for-profit has not wanted to reframe their message? And how did you handle that? Douglas Spencer: Well, and same with for-profit, I mean, there are people that believe that they know what the market wants, they know. I guarantee you, they do not, they do not. I had one situation where a board chair kind of foisted us upon on the executive director of the nonprofit and he was not interested. But we went through the process anyway, not sure how much of it he used. And you can't make somebody want to change if they don't. So I can provide them with data that shows nobody understands what you do, but if they don't want to change, they're not going to change. Ann Kraus: Yes, it has to be a desire, an internal desire, I would imagine. Douglas Spencer: Yeah. Ann Kraus: Having been both on non-for-profit and for-profit side of branding and marketing for the amount of years that you've been in this career, what would you say is the biggest difference between working with those two industries, besides budget? Douglas Spencer: Right, right. Although I have worked with a lot of cheap for-profits, so budget isn't always. I think a lot of it has to do with kind of the mission. And it's not just, I mean, the delineation isn't black and white between non and for-profit. I do think that nonprofits have it built in more. So for example, people will come to work at a not-for-profit knowing that they're coming to work to help abuse children or that they're coming to work to save the environment. And they get behind it and they respect the message, they respect the work, and that's what gets them out of bed in the morning. But I know a lot of for-profit companies that are the same way, that their employees know that they are making some really cool technology that's going to make people happier or it's going to make people more productive. And so as long as you have that why that we talked about earlier before, as long as you have that why, a genuine why that gets people to care, I think that's what drives success, whether it's for not-for-profit or for-profit. It's that why, why do you get out of the bed in the morning to do this work and why should anybody else care about it? Ann Kraus: Okay, okay. Now, in your career, in all of your time, which doesn't sound like you have much this free, is there a podcast or a book that you would say is instrumental in what you're doing? Douglas Spencer: Not one book or podcast in particular. I love Daniel Pink, his book, I love Adam Grant's podcast, so I get around. Ann Kraus: Great, great, thank you so much. And what is the best way for viewers to learn more about you? Douglas Spencer: Well, to reinforce this idea of building messages, they can go to our website, the URL is for our methodology, Ann Kraus: And the ABC is the methodology that referred to earlier. Douglas Spencer: Exactly. Ann Kraus: Douglas, it's been a pleasure to talk with you and learn more about what you do. And I want to really thank you for being my guest on TV. Douglas Spencer: Thank you. Ann Kraus: And thank you all for watching. TV is sponsored by, helping you to maximize your relevance and multiply results with our industry leading, media buying, and workflow solutions. For more information, visit Thanks for joining us today. I'm Ann Kraus, and I will see you next time.

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