UPDATE: I ended up sticking with the Academy team for seven months. Great folks, they are.

I am excited to announce that, beginning next Monday, I will be serving a two to three month stint as Senior Designer at Academy Sports + Outdoors.

Headquartered in Katy, Texas, Academy has grown to 185 stores in 15 states over the course of its 70+ year history. In 2011, the company was purchased from its founding family, and a substantial re-brand is underway to position one of America’s largest sporting goods retailers for an even stronger future.

Every company must periodically evaluate itself for weaknesses and strengths in its brand and strategy. That is the kind of work I am passionate about. Launching a trendy website is a matter of paying the right price to the right team, and a good marketing strategy can boost short-term sales, but what I am interested in teasing out the who, what, why, and how of brand fundamentals. Without clarity on identity and goals—and why they matter—a company’s culture and communication efforts simply carry the brand wherever the wind blows.

In recent months, and years, Academy has been on a roll recruiting exceptional talent for its in-house team, and I expect to learn a tremendous amount from them. I am very interested to understand how a national retailer operates behind-the-scenes—especially when I get to play some small role in shaping the brand experience inside and out.

Despite this great news, I must keep the search going for a more permanent position. The Academy position is slated to conclude by August, but I can accept another opportunity at any time. I am looking for a full-time role in design, marketing, and/or brand strategy. If anyone you know may have an available opportunity please send them to my resume page here.

In the last couple of weeks since I started my job search, I’ve realized that finding a new role is a lot like one of the first games I ever played—the one where you have to fit the square peg in the square hole, and the octagon peg in the octagon hole.

But life isn’t geometric.

Square Peg in a Round Hole_0565

I suspect others can relate to my story. My professional career has been all over the map. As a musician I released two albums and gained national recognition. As a writer, I’ve contributed to one of the most influential research institutes in Washington DC, helping to transform the discussion around a values-based understanding of business, markets, and policy. I’ve designed websites and painted murals, developed marketing plans and branding strategies, led worship teams and creative professionals, and—to shore up my bona fides as an artsy intellectual type—paid my dues as a Starbucks barista.

I worked as a graphic designer to pay my way through college, but before I could finish my PhD in political science, I realized that I had become more valuable as a creative and strategic thinker in the marketing and branding space than I could ever be in academia alone. And ultimately, the prospects in that profession seemed too limiting. I finished up my MA and decided to focus more on what I could do to make businesses, non-profits, and other projects more successful.

The greatest challenge so far has been identifying where exactly I fit in a typical corporate structure. My previous role lacked that clarity of function, which did allow flexibility and a broader set of experiences, but had its drawbacks. I’ll let you in on my “dream job.” It would involve sitting down with CEOs to evaluate the challenges and the opportunities to position their companies for growth. That means (1) great products that people love, (2) a sound business model that actually makes money, (3) a healthy company structure and culture that is conducive to growth, (4) a brand that establishes a sense of purpose and value that people can get behind, (5) a marketing plan that reaches and engages audiences, and (6) creative material that manages to communicate all of these pieces effectively.

That would probably put me in the management consulting category, but with an emphasis on comprehensive brand and marketing strategy. The problem today is that while my experience is broad enough to give me the necessary macro-level view, it is perhaps too shallow in several areas. In other words, I may need a few more years—and few more successful clients—to be competitive for that kind of role.

I need an interim step. On which piece of the puzzle should I focus? Marketing? Brand strategy? Advertising? Content management? Creative direction? I could do any of them very well, but some will put me on a better track than others. Further research, hard thinking, and some prayer is in order—and the wisdom of friends is always welcome.

This is the stage where I have to refine my short-term goals, and somehow make the peg fit, regardless of what shape it takes in the future.

People use the words marketing, branding, and advertising interchangeably. Though they are clearly related, it is helpful for any businessperson to understand the difference.

Advertising refers specifically to media that “gets the word out” by interrupting your day with some useful and memorable message. I use the word “interrupt” not because ads are inconvenient—though many are—but because they tend to find you, not the other way around. Good advertisers predict why you might like a given product, what you might be up to today, and how to use the right words, visuals and tactics to make you consider using that product. Advertising is typically handled by a separate agency, and is measured in short-term results.

While advertising can have huge payoffs, it is expensive and has almost nothing to do with making the product better, or keeping customers happy, and is therefore often the hardest thing for companies to invest in.

Advertising is but one tool in a broader marketing and brand strategy.

Marketing is the whole set of tactics that describe a company’s efforts to gain business, and is therefore mostly an internal function. While a company can choose not to advertise, there is no such thing as not marketing. The philosopher and theologian William Craig once said that “the question isn’t whether Christians will be philosophers or not, but whether they will be good philosophers.” Thus it is with marketing.

Good marketers spend time learning about what you want, then they use that data to either show you how their company can meet your needs, or they help the company produce better products. They can set prices, lead new R&D, plan events and promotions, launch ad campaigns, create web content, and develop an endless variety of strategies to ultimately turn you into a customer.

Many companies believe marketing is so central to their business model that they appoint a Chief Marketing Office (CMO) to operate at the highest levels of executive leadership.

Still, marketing is just part of what makes up something even larger and harder to define: branding.

Branding is the business—or at least the way it is perceived, and as the old saying goes, perception is reality. Branding seemingly has no boundaries, because it is the sum of experiences, promises and values of an organization, which establish its reputation. The brand is shaped and measured over time and is the single most valuable thing a company can improve. Why? Because it determines the window of opportunity for everything else. A negative brand will kill all other efforts. A positive brand will buy forgiveness. Companies like Apple, Google and Whole Foods are masters of branding.

In a sense, almost every branch of a company owns the brand—yet, in the real world that means none of them do. This is why many companies have created the CBO (Chief Brand Officer), whose job it is to root a company’s various branches in a particular vision and identity. This is particularly useful when a CEO either lacks the requisite strengths or prefers to spend his or her energy on other aspects of the company. A solid branding strategy gets to the core of what makes a business meaningful, and works to rally the entire organization around this central idea in order to build momentum, excitement, loyalty, focus and purpose for every current or future customer, employee or investor.

As communication is the primary tool for this rallying activity, the tools of marketing—and, by extension, advertising—are critical parts of brand building, but are quite different things in themselves.