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Interview with Neil Hugh Kenna

They say that behind every successful person, there is a great partner, supporting and nurturing with love and respect. At The Design Coach, we know that behind every great business, there is a community of people loving and supporting in a manner that enables and empowers. Neil Hugh Kenna is one of those community members, supporting some of the most successful and respected designers in Australia. His studio is responsible for helping to shape the branding and marketing strategies of companies like Mim Design, Fiona Lynch, Studio Tate, Porcelain Bear, Articolo and many more....

Next Thursday we have the privelege of being invited into the studio of Neil Hugh Office to learn about the branding strategies that help attract the right kind of attention to these established brands.

Examining the importance of understanding and defining brand values, brand positioning and brand differentiation, together we will explore how and why these crucial foundations are fundamental to business success. As an exclusive entrée to Neil Hugh Office’s proprietary ‘Brand Definition’ process, an interactive format we allow us to unlock these themes and discuss how you can best articulate the nuances of your brand in the context of target markets and the broader brand landscape.

This week we sat down with Neil Hugh Kenna to find out more about how he came to position himself as a true industry leader.

- Andrew and Jillian

Neil Hugh Kenna, founder of Neil Hugh Office

TDC: Neil, welcome to The Design Coach community! For most of us, we have admired your work without acknowledging the brains behind the branding strategy and marketing. When we think of Mim Design, Golden or KPDO (to name a few), we imagine a carefully crafted brand and marketing strategy. Where do you start with a new client?

NHK: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here! Before we embark on a new client relationship, we strive to understand whether our values align. We believe shared values are key to every successful relationship, and exploring this is often an intuitive process. When I started the business I held a strong desire to collaborate with “differentiated brands and passionate people”. This became a mantra of sorts, and has really shaped our target market and client portfolio. We’ve been very careful to curate a client base that not only reflects our own values, but is harmonious and aligned from an outside perspective too. Once we’re confident we are truly the right partner for a prospective client – because sometimes we’re not – we set out to understand their objectives, and the relationship builds from there.

TDC: In 2016 when you founded Neil Hugh Office, you made the decision to only work within the design industry and a specific type of customer. What was the driving force behind this clever decision?

NHK: When starting your own business, you’re small and agile by both definition and necessity, and it’s at this stage that you have the rare opportunity to shape things according to your own desires. For me, design had always been a personal passion, so it felt entirely natural to specialize in this area. It seemed obvious and certainly wasn’t driven by any great insight into a gap in the market or similar. Personal passion aside, I did have an inkling that clients would respond well to a specialist rather than a generalist, and this has certainly proved true. It’s worth noting though that while we do collaborate with many interior designers and architects, we define our target market as being, more broadly, any brand or business that shares our value of design. This could be a retailer, an airline, a publication, hotel or even a government body. We aren’t confined to any sector or category as long as the business or organisation values design as much as we do.

SAR Residence by Mim Design. Photo credits: Sean Fennessy

TDC: Today, you’re working with Australia’s leading interior designers – how do you differentiate your work between each client?

NHK: We’re fortunate to work with some of the world’s most talented designers, and I can confidently report that no two businesses are ever the same. Even if they work in the same sector or appear to share similar design philosophies, when you examine our client portfolio closely you’ll see genuine diversity. A key element of our brand strategy methodology is defining and articulating this differentiation, and we’re in a privileged position to ensure the expression of this differentiation is unique within the market. Brands and businesses are far more nuanced that what appears in their Instagram feeds. In fact, much of our brand strategy process is as relevant to internal culture as it is to external communication.

TDC: For those of us with our own interior design businesses, marketing and branding is definitely a priority but we find ourselves having to wear so many hats that we don’t take the necessary steps to put a plan in place. As a starting point, can you help clarify what the key differences are between brand and marketing strategy?

NHK: While marketing is essentially promoting a product or service, brand strategy defines that product or service within the context of target markets and the broader landscape. Brand strategy is the step that must come first. It’s common for businesses to hurriedly dive into tactical marketing in the belief that it will quickly drive sales or generate leads, however how can you market something effectively if you haven’t defined and articulated what it is? You certainly cannot in a sustained sense, and we pride ourselves on taking a long-term, strategic approach to our work. Once your brand is clearly defined, only then should you take it to market, at which point the marketing strategy process can commence, starting with defining tangible objectives.

TDC: It’s common for small business owners to try to do it all themselves. When should we call in the experts?

NHK: As soon as possible. It’s important to realise what your strengths and weaknesses are and respond accordingly. Personally, I prioritised outsourcing accounting, bookkeeping and graphic design. These areas are not my strengths or abilities, and certainly not where my energy is best placed. Investing in our graphic visual identity was a considerable investment at the time, however I’ve never looked back and will continue to invest in this area to reinforce our own brand values. It’s important to practice what you preach and understand your limitations, which is why we work with Studio Hi Ho to bring our brand to life in a visual sense, such as our website, marketing collateral and internal documentation.

Work Shop by Fiona Lynch. Photo credits: Lillie Thompson

TDC: The market is flooded with design professionals promising to transform people lives! What advice would you give our members to help differentiate their brand from the masses?

NHK: It might seem counter-intuitive, however in defining and articulating your differentiation it can be helpful to start by examining your target market. For example, if you’re an architect or interior designer and you harbour a desire to work on historic or heritage private residential homes, what are the needs and motivations of this type of client? What challenges do they face? What other considerations factor in their decision making? Do you have experience working on homes of that era? Are you familiar with the local council and its planning restrictions? Do you have specialist knowledge in restoration work or have access to a network of specialist trades relevant to the job? Perhaps you live within the area and therefore have local insight that another practice might not? By identifying the answers to these questions you’ll be able to clearly communicate the role you can play, and express how you’re differentiated from others within the consideration set.

PDG Workplace by Studio Tate. Photo credits: Peter Clarke

TDC: We know that maintaining focus on promoting your business takes time, effort and (more often than not) a degree of financial outlay. Once a designer has landed on how their brand is positioned, what’s next?

NHK: Once your brand is defined you can confidently develop a strategic marketing plan. It’s important to approach marketing strategically and holistically, understanding that nothing works in isolation, and the impact won’t necessarily be felt overnight. Plan for 12 to 18 months, and refer back to your plan periodically to ensure you’re on track. Start by defining your objectives. Ask yourself, “What do I want to achieve this year?” Perhaps you want to grow your turnover by X per cent, land X quantity of jobs, or break into a new sector or market. What will success look like to you in 12 months time? From there, look at your resourcing in terms of both labour and budget, and develop a plan that harnesses all tactical marketing initiatives appropriate to your brand, from social media and public relations to partnerships, events and advertising. This is where a marketing professional can help.

TDC: Social media still feels like something new to the majority of small business owners. We all start out with the best intentions by posting regularly with interesting content and then we start asking ourselves whether it’s worth the effort! What 3 pieces of advice do you have regarding social media for design professionals?

NHK: Social media is an incredibly powerful tool for design practices and Instagram in particular is a direct channel for lead generation. For this reason my first piece of advice is to persist. Yes, it is time consuming and this is a challenge we all face, however the benefits can be transformative. Secondly, develop a content strategy that allows you to plan your content in advance and harness the efficiencies of a scheduling tool such as Planoly, Later or Hootsuite. Consider what content your target market may be interested in, and then harness this to reinforce your own positioning. And finally, keep experimenting and see what works for you. Social media is ever-evolving. Harnessing the power of Instagram is becoming more challenging as the algorithm changes, so it’s important to experiment and observe, continually feeding your findings back into an overarching strategy. Like most things in business, agility is key as the game is ever changing. We are advocates for paid social media (advertising on Instagram and Facebook) for its incredibly sophisticated and effective targeting capabilities, and we have an in house digital strategist for this purpose. Paid social is a tactic that allows you to overcome limitations created by changes in the algorithm, and ensures you’re reaching your followers and your target market.

Trilogy by Articolo. Photo credits: Sharyn Cairns

Limited tickets for the Masterclass: Neil Hugh Office are available here.

Time & Location


DATE: Thursday 10th October 2019

TIME: 6.00pm - 8.00pm

LOCATION: Neil Hugh Office, 10/79 Oxford St, Collingwood VIC 3066

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