It was one of those rare moments when you have been searching for something all your career life and you finally found something that just simply resonated with you.
Just last month, I came across a book recommendation from a member of a group I joined on Facebook. While I was really into reading, I wasn’t that keen on taking every recommendation I came across with – except this one. The book recommendation talked about branding and revamping one’s brand. As it (branding) was one of the things I help my clients with, I checked it out to see if I could get an insight or two. So I searched for Nela Dunato on Google and saw the guidebook, “Revamp Your Brand,” as it was talked about in the FB group. What really caught my attention though was her latest book, the one that was just launched a couple of months ago, “The Human Centered Brand.” It was such a coincidence as my brainchild’s (TDC Connect Academy) is all about human centered digital marketing. Anyhow, I got all excited as Nela’s website had its first chapter as a downloadable freebie. To satisfy my curiosity, I of course, didn’t think twice of downloading it. After a few minutes later, just after reading the first paragraph, I was hooked.
Like I said, Nela’s words simply resonated with me, and I was like, “This! This is how it should be done!” My eyes were glued the whole time to the chapter and I was reading it as if it was Nela herself who was talking to me.
Next thing I knew, after reading the whole chapter, I came up to my partner and said, “I should get this book!” I talked to him as if I were possessed by two beings: a child who’d be missing her cartoon series if she wasn’t allowed to watch TV at that very moment and a girl whose phone just ran out of battery while in talking to a friend.
After reading the first chapter, I went back online to send Nela a message on LinkeIn (See below. I would’ve wanted to take a whole screenshot of it but the message was just too long and LinkedIn’s Messaging tool was only 1/4 of a screen that it would take more than one screenshot if I were to share it):
First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to connect :). Let me just tell you that I am a big fan of your writing. I was reading the first chapter of your book, “The Human Centered Brand,” at 2am GMT+8 (I am from the Philippines btw) and my eyes were just glued to your words the whole time. I cannot thank you enough for all the wonderful insights that you’ve shared in that first chapter. For the longest time, I have been so data-driven that all my action plans and strategies were based on numbers, and while I felt my own processes were validated by the articles that I read about identifying target markets, data analytics, something at the back of my mind was telling me to still dig deeper. I was trying to find something that would touch me to the core. Incidentally, I am part of this virtual assistant group on Facebook, and that’s where I found out about you. One of the members was revamping her brand and shared your link. The moment I clicked it, I was hooked!
I just moved out of the city and now living with my partner here in a province with a long and beautiful shoreline called Zambales. As I start a new chapter of my life here, fulfilling my advocacies in financial planning and sustainable living is becoming more exciting as I would really like to make meaningful connections (both online and offline) in sharing what I know about digital marketing. I have asked my partner to buy me your book as an anniversary gift, lol. Your book will probably become my holy grail, so again, thank you so much!
Please continue to do what you do. Your words really resonate a lot to people like me. I wish you all the best!
I felt she had to know that, so I didn’t have any second thoughts of sending that long message. I wasn’t expecting for any reply at all but the next thing I knew the next time I logged on to my Linked was…
Yes, she replied!!! And the fangirl in me just got all ecstatic!
The next few weeks went on, and as I got back my to my online coaching sessions on digital marketing, I would talk about Nela’s take on branding and branding strategy to people who were struggling to develop their personal brand.
And just last week, I asked Nela if she would be happy to do an online interview and answer a few questions. I felt that more people (especially from my country) should know about her. Again, to my surprise, she obliged.
The next section below is my interview with Nela. I cannot stress enough how important her insights were. I hope that whoever is reading this will find those value nuggets worth emulating and practicing especially in the age of the digital economy.
Intro: Nela Dunato is a multi-passionate visionary artist, brand designer, teacher and writer from Croatia (EU). She has set it as her mission is to empower creative people to express themselves authentically in their life and business. She currently runs her own boutique branding and design consultancy that helps small service-based businesses create exceptional client experiences.
TDC: What encouraged you to write a book about human centered branding?
Nela: The ideas I’ve expressed in my book have been brewing for years. I’ve been posting breadcrumbs on the blog and in my conference talks, but I knew if I wanted people to really understand it and implement this framework, I needed to take them on an immersive journey. My initial plan was to facilitate an in-person workshop and create an online course, but I wasn’t making much progress with that. Then a 5-day online course by Tara Gentile on how to write and self-publish a book came along, and I jumped on it. I always wanted to write a book anyway!
TDC: I’ve said this probably twice in our conversations – that you are one of my recent influences 🙂 I’d like to ask you this time, who are your influences?
Nela: Thank you! It’s always an honor to hear that. I’ve got quite a few, too many to list, but I’ll just mention a couple of folks.
Naomi Dunford has been one of my first, and is still one of my favorite marketing teachers. I own many of her courses, and she’s such a kind and funny person.
Tara Gentile was instrumental in lighting the “core values” spark in my own work – the way she used it in one of her workshops made it land for me in a way it hasn’t before, and I knew I had to implement that in my branding work. I’ve been learning so much from her as well.
Sean McCabe has provided lots of inspiration and real talk about working with clients that I needed to hear, and I keep referencing his podcast episodes in my blog articles.
Lisa Sonora and Andrea Schroeder taught me the value of self care, and that our careers don’t have to be all “push, push, push” – their examples gave me an idea of what working in a creative career can look like when you put your own needs first.
It’s important to have a variety of influences, because you won’t necessarily agree 100% with what any of them say. For example, Sean is a young go-getter, very ambitious and workaholic, so I have to balance his advice with a more gentle and wholesome approach by older women who have been working for decades, and have learned how to do this sustainably.
TDC: What is the most important lesson you learned when doing branding/marketing for clients?
Nela: Trust the process. I’ve developed my creative process over the years, and it works – but you need to follow it. When I allow clients to move away from my process, things go sideways and we’re not happy with the results. I learned the hard way that my job is to keep my clients in the process, always. That’s the only way I can guarantee my best work. My process is very structured, but creative sparks happen inside of it. No matter how confused and uninspired I may feel in the beginning, the process pulls me through, epiphanies happen, and I come up with unique and beautiful designs. Learning to trust that was difficult.
TDC: While branding and marketing is applicable in any business, what exactly is your niche? Who are your ideal clients?
Nela: My ideal clients are consultants who offer intellectual or creative services: copywriters, lawyers, therapists, marketers, architects, engineers, coaches, agencies… I’ve found that my skill set and interests most closely line up with theirs, and I can address their needs best because of my experience in this area.
I do occasionally take on projects for other types of business and nonprofits if they’re doing something unusual or innovative.
TDC: Tell me about the most difficult client you had to deal with in the past. How did you deal with it?
Nela: The most challenging client I’ve ever had to deal with was a very difficult personality. They were used to being “the boss” and tried to micromanage me every step of the way, they made their own modifications to my work (which made it worse), and they had a bizarre communication style. On top of that they tried to enforce contract terms that were illegal in my country, but my lawyer told me it would be better for my well-being to let it go because it wasn’t worth pursuing.
In retrospect, the best course of action would have been to reject the project at the first sign of trouble, but I didn’t trust my gut – I thought it would get better. It only got worse.
There was one situation in a meeting when I had to assert my expertise, and said that I would end the project and refund them if they kept insisting on their own design variant. They agreed to me doing another revision when they realized how crucial it was to me to do the best work that we can. That’s when I learned the importance of being ready to walk away. Sometimes we can compromise, but there are things that are not worth compromising.
In the end, I don’t think I’ve dealt the right way with this particular client, but the interaction taught me so much. When I recovered from that experience, I overhauled my onboarding process and my contracts, created my list of “red flags”, and committed to turning down any project that I wasn’t 100% happy with.
TDC: What is your philosophy when it comes to branding?
Nela: The defining element of my philosophy is that branding should be based on the business owner’s core values, instead of creating a brand that we think our audience will like. The ideal client emerges from our process – we don’t base our brand on it. Branding is a self-discovery process, not just a business exercise. It requires us to be honest with ourselves and our team members, and claim our unique quirks.
One of my principles is: “Business is personal”. It’s done by people, for people. There’s no use hiding behind it like a shield.
TDC: What advice can you give to women who are struggling with their branding and branding strategy?
Nela: Do the inner work before you try to create the visuals. So many business owners run into trouble because they start from the end. You can’t just pull the mood board, colors, fonts, and graphics out of thin air. They need something to stand on, and that something is your brand strategy.
“Brand strategy” may sound complex, but it’s just a collection of statements about your business that you’ve written down on paper or in a digital document. It explains who you are as a business owner, what you stand for, what unique value you offer, and who are the people you serve. If you know the answers to these questions, you have a brand strategy. Everything else is a bonus.
No one else can tell you what your brand strategy is, it needs to come from within you. Consultants can guide you through a discovery process, but they can’t tell you to be or act a certain way. You need to be ready to own what comes from inside, even if it scares you. Often the vision of our brand seems too big, and we want to shrink and make it more “ordinary” so we don’t stand out too much. Try to resist this temptation. Your unique brand lies in this quirky, bold, brave, even outrageous vision. This is what you were made to do, and when you finally accept it, your branding will take less effort to envision and implement. It just feels natural.
TDC: What do you think is the future of digital marketing in the next 2-3 years?
Nela: I don’t like making predictions, as I wouldn’t have predicted what’s currently happening in the digital marketing world – chatbots posing as humans, algorithms affecting election results, Google and Facebook listening in on your conversations and serving related ads… It’s freaking me out.
There are certain marketing automation solutions that I absolutely loathe as a user, and have unfollowed people who were using them. It’s just a personal preference of mine, and I’m aware I’m in the minority, still trying to stand behind all my digital interactions. Businesses that want to scale are embracing automation technologies because they can do more without having to pay people. I think this is only going to get more prevalent.
The algorithms will keep following us online and in the physical world, and try to anticipate our needs. You might get served relevant ads at an ATM if the camera recognizes your face, or your card. It sounds like the far future, but the technology is already here in the hands of the biggest media companies. There will be less and less human interaction, and most online customer service will be done by bots. I’m not a fan of that, but we’re slowly getting accustomed to it.
TDC: Are you planning to write another book in the near future? If so, what would it be about?
Nela: I plan on publishing another book in the next 3–4 years for sure, but I’m not committed to any particular topic yet. There are different things that I’d like to explore before I start writing it. One possible topic would be client experience design, which I’ve touched on in The Human Centered Brand, but didn’t have room to get into more detail.
Perhaps my next book won’t be about business – I cover different topics in my articles, like creativity and personal growth, so I’m open to what emerges from that.
TDC: You’ve been invited to several talks and speaking engagements. Would you welcome the idea of coming to the Philippines one day to share your insights about human centered branding?
Nela: One of my favorite parts of speaking is getting to travel to new places. I haven’t been to Asia before and would love to go there, especially to the island countries such as Philippines. If there’s an opportunity to come and speak, I’d gladly accept it.
Latest update on Nela:
On September 20th, Nela will be speaking on Human Centered Branding at the Digital Olympus Event.