Ashley Matchett Woods with her horse, EQ's Bella Luna.
Knowing who we are and what we want in life is often considered on a personal level, but it's equally important in a professional context.
Identifying and projecting the answers to those questions was Ashley Matchett Woods' expertise during a high-powered 20 years in corporate branding. She meant to get off that fast track when she retired in 2006 and opened The Equestrian's Concierge at the Sonoma Horse Park in the Bay Area's Petaluma.
In the process of providing tack, apparel, supplies and an intense level of customer service and custom services at the store, Ashley inadvertently found herself back in the branding business. But this time in the relatively relaxed, no-travel-required setting of the horse world.
"This wasn't in my business plan," laughs the outgoing hunter/jumper rider, a casual student of Marian Nelson Equestrian at the Sonoma Horse Park. One of her first equestrian marketing clients came to the tack store looking for new team jackets for her training barn clients. "We started out talking about colors, but by the end of the discussion we were talking about repositioning and branding," Ashley explains. A few similar encounters later, word spread and Ashley is now busy enough with branding and related campaigns that she's hired Jacquelyn Kuba as manager of The Equestrian's Concierge store.
California Riding Magazine editor Kim F. Miller enjoyed chatting with Ashley about how basic branding tactics apply in the equestrian world.
Kim: When did you see that there was a niche for your expertise in the horse world?
Ashley: Looking through a lot of the hunter/jumper world's magazines, I saw trainer after trainer with ads saying "ponies, hunters, jumpers and equitation." Well, great! That's what every other trainer says. There's no positioning to demonstrate a clear identity of who they are or to demonstrate the advantages of riding with them.
Kim: How does a business create that kind of identity and position?
Ashley: You have to tell people who you are, why they should care and why they should
Kim: To what extent are equestrian professionals seeing the need for a more sophisticated marketing approach?
Ashley: I think they are intuitively starting to see the need. So often their plan has been like throwing spaghetti against the wall to see if it sticks. They'll donate something to a charity auction here, and run an ad there. I had one trainer approach me about doing an ad in a specific magazine, but I wouldn't help her run one ad until she had a real message.
Kim: How do you identify what that message should be?
Ashley: It starts with interviewing the trainer, any stakeholders in their business and, often, some of their customers, in order to indentify their business objectives and challenges. Do they want to increase revenue by simply attracting more clients? Or by attracting more clients from a segment, e.g., "A" show competitors. Or maybe it's a trainer who's been successful and around for a long time, and they just want to update their image and the impression people have of them to reinvigorate their business.
The key to the branding process, and the hardest part of it, is sifting through all of the client's input and the information I've gathered to develop a "message platform." This includes a one-word or a short phrase that states a unique, unassailable position describing how the client differs from their competition. Next come brief, concise descriptions of the benefits their services offer and then proof points of why prospective clients should believe their claims. In the marketing world, there's a proven, standard formula for identifying objectives, creating a message and communication plan targeted to your desired audience.
Kim: The economy is not back to full swing yet and this is an industry that's traditionally resistant to spending money on things that are somewhat intangible. How do you convince clients of the need for what you offer?
Ashley: Having an all-encompassing plan is all about economizing clients' time, efforts and their money. It's about doing less, spending less and getting more. They get that.
Kim: Do some situations warrant full-scale branding efforts more than others?
Ashley: It's important for any business that wants to grow. And part of what I do is educate people about the value of having and sticking to a strategy for attracting the kind of growth they want. If it's a trainer who wants more of an A show clientele, for example, she needs clear criteria for what kind of new clients she'll accept. If she's approached by a rider who doesn't plan to own her own horse or show, the trainer needs to say no.
The emphasis and completeness of what we do is different for every client. One trainer came to me just wanting to refresh her look. She has a small business and wanted to keep it that way so growth for her was higher value on the clients she has. She wanted an updated look, which is a good way to refresh how others think of your business.
Kim: What are the long-term costs of getting and maintaining a brand in our sport?
Ashley: It's more of an upfront cost but the benefits increase over time. Your brand should be specific enough to position you within your market and large enough to incorporate your future plans. You want your brand to grow with you over time. It's not something that you have to re-do over and over: that would defeat the purpose.
Creating branding strategies for the international businesses I used to work with cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. I realize the horse world is a completely different industry and I know that trainers don't have a lot of extra money, so I've designed trainers' branding packages for $500 to $700 and I can also provide help in a modular way, with just a logo refresh, or new barn colors or updating the overall look.
Kim: Who are some of your current clients and what are some of the messages you've helped them create?
Ashley: Charleigh's Cookies: "Hand made with nature's flavors and organic ingredients."
Kara Mia Love's KMC Farms: "A passion for spirited competition, the kinship of community."
Marian Nelson Equestrian: "Enjoy the ride."
Kim: Thanks, Ashley!
Ashley: Thank you, Kim, we're thrilled to get the word out that we're here to help.