As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Nicole Nieves.
Nicole is a marketing and personal brand strategist from Chicago who founded her consulting agency, The Brand Vibe. As a former vice-president of sales for a Fortune 500 company, she now teaches executives, entrepreneurs, and brands how to build credibility and profits through story, strategy, and digital impact.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up Latina, my parents always wanted me to have the American dream. Get an education, a stable job with benefits, have a family, buy a house, all that jazz. I wanted to make them proud, so I did it all. I worked my way through college graduating top of my class in just three years. I became one of the youngest vice presidents at a Fortune 500 company at just 24 years old. I married my high school sweetheart, had three beautiful baby boys, and bought my first home (all that was missing was the white picket fence!)
But I was stuck in a career that didn’t bring me joy and it was time to Marie Kondo my way out of it. So, I pivoted. I jumped feet first into a more creative field refining my skills as a marketer, brand strategist, and creative director. Soon enough, I recognized that the knowledge and experience I’d built up over time were secret weapons all entrepreneurs needed to know to create and up-level their brands. And so was born The Brand Vibe — my boutique consulting agency where we empower dreamers, leaders, and entrepreneurs to use their authenticity and story to build powerful brands that impact the world.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I use an intuitive email marketing service called Flodesk. They take the complexities of email campaigns and simplify them with pre-designed templates that can be customized. The first thing I did was set up my email welcome sequence (the series of emails that automatically get sent to new subscribers to properly welcome them to your brand — an absolute must!)
One day, a friend of mine asked how my new product photography business was going. Thoroughly confused, I read the email thread and realized one of the sample emails on food photography was sent out to my full list! After sheer panic, I decided to embrace the mistake with a follow-up email that said, “Well, that was awkward!” My audience laughed right along with me. In the end, I learned that being honest in the mistakes we make is always better than trying to twist the truth. That level of transparency is exactly what helps build brand trust.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My dad was a serial entrepreneur who always felt the opportunity for a better life was at our fingertips. He had the vision but was missing the right strategy. And that’s where so many brands fall short. Because your “brand” is so much more than a logo — it’s the essence of your business. Your “vibe” is your authenticity, the heartbeat of your brand. That combination? That’s where you win. And that is what makes us unique.
At The Brand Vibe, we believe you have exactly what it takes to create a powerful business and personal brand. We offer the strategy to connect the dots by helping you uncover your competitive edge, market your story online, and attract your ideal client using your authenticity as your secret weapon.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I have two exciting new projects in the works right now — The Brand Vibe Podcast and The Brand Vibe Tribe (an online Facebook community for entrepreneurs and leaders). I believe we’re approaching a new generation of brand leaders in the workplace where time and freedom are the new currency and where thought-leaders, passion projects, and online businesses are the new norm. From free training to marketing shortcuts, I’m excited to empower and equip these like-minded leaders to go after their most audacious goals with a focus on community over competition. Because we’re better together!
Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
Product marketing advertises your product’s features and benefits. Brand marketing connects people to the heartbeat of your business. Let’s use Nike as an example. Their mission is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world (*if you have a body, you’re an athlete).” Nike isn’t just selling the latest gym shoe craze — they’re selling possibility, inspiration, and global reach. Their “Just Do It” brand marketing campaign reflects exactly that.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
Like any relationship, if you don’t have a confident understanding of who you are, how can you possibly connect with — or give back to — anyone else? Your brand represents exactly who you are and what you want to be known for so you can connect with your ideal client on a deeper level. Because for every amazing product or offer you have, another competitor is vying for your customer’s attention. The way to distinguish yourself, build trust, create loyalty, and become truly loved is not just through impressive marketing ads. It’s by building a brand that connects with people on a personal level to organically create loyal brand advocates.
Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
What people aren’t talking about — from start-up entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 companies — is that creating a believable, beloved brand starts from the inside out. After 15 years of working in sales, marketing, and brand strategy, consulting with hundreds of small businesses and corporate executives, here are my 5 key strategies for building a trusted brand:
1. CLARITY: Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, famously said, “your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Creating a clear brand promise on what your company offers is key to building a foundation of trust and creating conversations that align with your mission.
A brand promise is simply the expectations, beliefs, and feelings you want your customers to have when they experience your brand. Disney is dedicated to “keeping alive the magic of childhood.” Facebook is on a mission to “bring the world closer together”. Amazon’s brand promise? To be the earth’s most customer-centric company. Today, over 197 million people around the world visit Amazon.com each month. Decide what you want to be known for and build your brand on that.
2. CONNECTION: People are yearning for connection and community. Gone are the days when a punchy marketing slogan was enough to draw in — and keep — new customers. To build trust, your brand needs to authentically tell a unique narrative on how you are dedicated to bringing your mission to life. You can do this through the power of brand storytelling.
A few years ago, Chick-fil-A shifted its brand strategy from “EAT MOR CHIKIN” to a story-based approach that instead communicates the heartbeat of its brand. Because while the former killer ad campaign created brand recognition, it wasn’t representative of their unparalleled service or community-centric mission. Now, they run brand story campaigns highlighting their staff as community heroes doing work like learning sign language for their hearing-impaired customers or working late hours on family night for single, working moms.
Today, Chick-Fil-A is dominating the fast-food market with over $10 billion in sales. Since implementing this story-based approach to their brand strategy, they’ve grown by over 35%! Because people do business with people.
3. CULTURE: The purpose of communicating your brand’s vision and impact through story is to create a deeper connection to your audience both externally and internally. One of the biggest mistakes companies make when building a brand is focusing the majority of their time on external customers, often neglecting the lifeblood of the brand — their internal staff.
If you can organically build brand loyalty from the inside out, then the spark you create quickly starts to catch fire. Your employees should be your biggest brand advocates — the quality of your product or service depends on it! Don’t underestimate the impact of building a dynamic company culture. Recognition, appreciation, flexibility, respect, innovation, diversity, growth, equality: these are all factors in creating a brand name that is trusted in the marketplace. Need a case study on this? Just google, GOOGLE.
4. CREATIVITY: If you want to stand out from the rest, you’ve got to be the best. Enter, creativity. Now, lest you think it’s only about guerilla marketing or shock advertising, think about this Steve Jobs’ quote: “Creativity is just connecting things.”
Finding new ways to connect the dots between what your customer needs and the solutions you provide increase the trust they have in your ability to produce impactful services designed with them in mind. When Apple was close to bankruptcy, they launched arguably one of the most famous campaigns in history: Think Different. Yes, Apple has innovated some of the highest used technologies in the world, but what saved their business was finding a creative way to connect the mission and product solutions to their customers clearly.
5. CARE: If you want a brand that is near and dear to the heart of your customer, then you need to show them you genuinely care. If your intentions are simply self-serving, people will see right through even the best marketing messages — and you’ll taint your brand faster than it began.
There are far too many competing brands out there that are fighting hard for your customer’s business. If you want to build a brand that stands out from the rest, flip the script by focusing on people over profits. Because when you care deeply about serving others first, brand trust and loyalty will always follow. Just look at the likes of Southwest Airlines, Trader Joes, and Nordstrom to name a few.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
Starbucks is by far one of my favorite brands. I’m a true advocate and loyalist. Now listen, they have one of the oddest logos I’ve seen which is just a perfect example of the fact that your logo is not the center of your brand. The reason Starbucks so fantastic at building a brand is because they focus on experience, service, and innovation above all. Every location has a consistent ambiance that’s welcoming to all. Their service is bar none which comes from the confidence they have in the quality of their product. They constantly innovate, finding new ways to make their customers happy from their reward program to their give-back campaigns. It’s how they can get away with charging $8 for a cup of coffee and still manage to be the #1 coffeehouse chain in the world! Now that’s impressive (brb, going to grab an Americano).
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
It’s really a unique combination of both social proof + sales. Things like user-generated content (UGC), positive reviews, and organic marketing are all direct results of a solid brand building campaign that builds trust over time. Over time being the operative words. Be patient with your brand-building campaign because when sales do trickle in, they yield long-term success, multiple purchases, and greater retention. KPIs and data can and should still be tracked for brand marketing campaigns across a longer period of time measuring things like secondary purchasers, retention rates, and a potential referral tracking system — all wonderful measurements of success!
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
I love this question so much, and my answer might surprise you. While social media is absolutely integral to branding efforts, it’s simply one part of an all-channels marketing strategy. The fact is, you can’t build your business on borrowed land. Unless your last name is Zuckerberg, you have no ownership or control of your social media accounts. They could be revoked, hacked, or thrown out of whack by algorithms at any moment.
Think about this: when you’re out at a networking event, what’s one thing you always walk away with? Their contact information to follow up later, right? Social media is a lot like that. Those who hang out and network online without getting contact information to follow up with at a later time are missing the whole point. The key to properly leveraging social media is to network, make an authentic connection to your brand, and walk away with contact information (like an email address) to continue the relationship elsewhere. This is why I’m a huge proponent of email marketing. You 100% own your email list, and it’s exactly where you should continue cultivating relationships forged on social media platforms.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
To be honest, I rewrote my answer to this question 3 times! Because as a mother of 3 boys, community volunteer, founder of a rapidly growing brand marketing agency — and recovering perfectionist — I know a thing or two about burnout! But I’ve also learned a ton about balance, rest, and health because we don’t just want to survive as business leaders, we want to thrive.
I started to list out advice like “set practical goals” or “prioritize what’s most important in your life.” While I’ve implemented helpful tips like those, the single most important piece of advice I can give someone is this: Embrace the power of NO. It feels good even writing that sentence! Every time you say yes to something, you automatically say no to something else — whether it’s your family, health, business, etc. So learn to reserve your best yes for what matters most, and become empowered in saying NO to anything that doesn’t add value to the areas of your life that matter most.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I truly believe that we are all uniquely qualified to contribute something significant in a way that no one else on this planet can. I want to empower a movement of people who are courageously owning their talents, gifts, and superpowers to create a legacy of fearlessly living out their passions and calling in their life. From building global brands to changing company culture to giving back to their local community, I want to inspire a movement of leaders dedicated to impacting their sphere of influence in the best way possible. The world needs your awesome — let it shine!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Choose courage over comfort. Choose whole hearts over armor. And choose the great adventure of being brave and afraid…at the exact same time.” — Brené Brown
I have the privilege of connecting with thousands of inspirational leaders and powerful entrepreneurs from all around the world. Many are sitting on ground-breaking ideas and life-changing stories that can truly transform people. More often than not as a society, we allow the fear of failure, vulnerability, and other people’s opinions to overshadow our potential. I love that this quote challenges me — and the amazing clients I serve — to be braver each day, to be authentic to who we are, and to never be afraid to fail forward.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oh goodness, Michelle Obama girl, I’m in Chicago. I’d love to meet you at Bongo Room for brunch!
I dream of sharing a stage one day with her, Brené Brown, and the one and only, Rachel Hollis. Together, we’d run a business conference designed to inspire a movement of women who lead from the inside out. Our opening act? Beyoncé. Who run the world? Girls!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Come catch a vibe with me over on Instagram @thebrandvibe and @nicolemnieves. And join me in my Facebook community group, The Brand Vibe FB Group where I provide monthly training, guest experts, inspiration, and a safe place to simply be authentically you.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
It’s my honor. Thank you for allowing me to share my story and insights today!
This article was also republished on Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global!