Maria Ross Interview: Insights Into Running A Brand Consultancy

We have the great privilege of talking to Maria Ross, founder of the marketing consultancy Red Slice and author of the book Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget. We discussed how she got started in marketing, her advice for succeeding in the corporate marketing environment, and her favorite books.

Maria-Ross-interviewWhy did you decide to go into marketing and how did you get your start in the marketing field?

As a kid, I was exposed to marketing at a young age: I acted in TV and radio commercials! As the talent, I got to see how ad agencies worked, how marketing messages were formed and how brand image helps sell products and services. I majored in Marketing in college to be in control of the message and I was fascinated by the psychology of marketing – and how it could be used for good to incent people to give, act, or get involved. My original goal was to combine my business and arts backgrounds and do marketing for a city ballet and theatre company. But I got offered a management consulting job with Accenture and I saw that “marketing” was actually a part of that job: communication and training for systems implementations or organizational change. I quickly saw how marketing skills could be applied to any job where you need to communicate and persuade. I then moved back to pure marketing at Discovery Networks and proceeded to get more and more exposure to all aspects of the marketing function as a Director of Marketing for various companies: from working in advertising on the agency side to becoming a client and having responsibility for not just branding and advertising, but PR, lead generation, operations, and sales enablement. Each job taught me about a marketing aspects that I built on for the next job, like the pieces of a long puzzle were slowly being revealed to me. This taught me the full spectrum of marketing’s role and that broad perspective is my greatest asset as an independent consultant.

Having achieved a great deal of success in your marketing career, what advice would you give to marketers who would someday like to reach a leadership position in a corporate marketing department.

I’m a bit old school in that I believe you should at least have exposure to the whole range of marketing functions in order to lead a department. Marketing is not just advertising or public relations. There are so many more “flavors” that marketing covers: product positioning, market analysis, branding, media, pricing, competitive analysis, operations, lead generation, etc. – and I’ve seen too many leaders who only have strong skills in one area, like advertising, but were never exposed to the principles and disciplines of lead generation, PR or the like. I’m not saying you need to be an expert in all of those areas – I’m certainly not. But at least I was exposed to them and learned enough to be fluent in those areas and have a good idea of what to look for when hiring staff or agencies who will be specialists in those areas.

What motivated you the most as a marketer and what got you excited in the morning when you woke up?

I think the opportunity to use marketing for good always motivates me. How can we solve a problem, fulfill a need or just make the world a better place with our product or service? I also really like donating pro-bono hours to help non-profits use marketing effectively to rally support for a good cause and raise money for a worthwhile effort.

I also really enjoy the visual and verbal aspect of marketing: how can you communicate the right mood, mission or message with visuals and with words? I love the moment when a client sees a comp of a logo or a draft of a mission statement and says, “Yeah! That’s exactly how we want to look and sound!”

Why did you decide to leave the corporate marketing environment and start your own marketing consultancy?

Bottom line: I wanted to do work I liked with people I liked. I was in technology marketing for about 8 years, and there is this notion in B2B marketing that you need to strip away all personality and forget that you are selling to an actual human being. It tended to be more about features and functions and less about a brand people could be proud to support. Apple is one of the few companies who gets that this is not the case. So I went off on my own to do more of the branding work that I liked for a wider range of industries and that variety keeps me fresh and focused. And having the ability to pick and choose my clients as much as they choose me is a luxury I enjoy, too!

What type of companies does Red Slice serve and how are you different from other marketing consulting companies?

I have served solopreneurs, small businesses and fast-growth mid-sized businesses. I tend to work with service providers or technology companies, but have also worked with retail and eCommerce businesses as well. The marketing fundamentals are the same no matter what type of company you have. It’s more the personality of the client company that drives my decision: are they a believer in the power of brand and its impact on the bottom line? Do they want to change, grow or adapt? Do they want to try new things? Do they want to launch the business correctly right from the start and not waste time and effort later on? I work with people who understand that strategy comes before tactics – but you can expedite strategic work with a nimble partner like me.

I’m different because I’ve had such a broad range of marketing experience.. Even though I focus on branding and messaging, I can offer advice around how that impacts your lead gen strategy or your PR efforts. I can spot red flags with how to implement the brand due to operational constraints. I also decouple strategy from tactics, so the client can implement the tactics that make sense for their business goals. I am not biased (like only focusing on Twitter, or only focusing on online advertising, as an example) So while other branding consultants are excellent designers or experts in one arena, I bring a broad business savvy that ensures we accomplish corporate goals and leads to not just pretty pictures, but more sales and happier customers.

Your book, Branding Basics for Small Business, is one of my favorite books about branding. What was your goal in writing the book?

Thanks! My goal was to educate people (in a light, entertaining way) on what branding really is, what it is not, and what it means to your bottom line. I also wanted to provide those who might not be able to afford my services a way to craft a strong brand strategy on their own with time and effort. It drives me crazy that people waste so much money on logo design or websites before they’ve ever thought through what they are trying to communicate and to whom they need to appeal FIRST. They immediately jump to tactics – what will I Tweet about? What colors should I use for my website? – before they think about what they want to communicate through those tactics. I’ve heard so many horror stories of people wasting money, or worse, working with a high-priced “branding consultant” for 6 months and getting nowhere. They could save themselves so much money, time and cycles and have much more effective marketing if they spend the time on the strategy first.

What aspects of running a marketing consultancy do you enjoy the most and what aspects are the least fun?

What I enjoy most: Flexibility in my daily schedule, having my dog in my office all day, making all my own decisions, being able to pick and choose clients and collaborators, interacting with a strong entrepreneurial network and community of really smart people.

What I enjoy least: Tracking invoices and all the little business taxes, doing EVERYTHING myself, feeling that the to-do list never ends, trying to make time for client work AND social media, PR, etc. And not always having someone to collaborate with or bounce ideas off of (I often rely on a network of partners and friends to help with this one!)

What books have you found to have a great impact on you professionally or are just great resources for marketers?

Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers. If you have not read this gem about compelling messaging, you must run and read it.

The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier. He’s a genius and this book is a simple but profound read you can tackle in an airplane ride (he did that by design).

Switch by the Heath Brothers. A book about how to enact change and motivate people no matter what level you are within an organization. Their theories on motivation apply just as much to marketing as they do to creating a movement or making a significant change in a big organization.

Ogilvy on Advertising. A classic.

Drive by Daniel Pink. A fascinating book that challenges our old perceptions of what motivates people, based on studies and experiments. It’s an excellent book for anyone managing a team.

As the founder and chief strategist of Red Slice, a Seattle-based branding and marketing consultancy, Maria Ross revels in helping leading-edge small to mid-sized companies translate captivating stories into irresistible brands. She is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business (Norlights Press, 2010) which teaches small and start-up businesses how to create an irresistible brand on any budget and has received raves from experts and media alike.

Maria’s adoring clients range from small businesses to savvy industry leaders, including Microsoft, the CRAVEcompany, Talent Technology, and Mudbay. Prior to founding Red Slice, she crafted branding and marketing strategies for Silicon Valley start-ups, global software firms, Internet companies, entertainment powerhouses and consumer businesses — including Business Objects (an SAP company), Discovery Networks and – and created communication and training strategies for Fortune 1000 clients at Accenture. An actress and wine columnist in her spare time, Maria knows first-hand that creativity and cashflow are not mutually exclusive. Her marketing mantra? “Don’t just engage your customers — inform, delight and inspire them.”

40 Top Marketers to Follow on Twitter


Barry Judge
Bio: Avid traveler, reader, sports enthusiast and like to eat out.
CMO of Bestbuy

Jeffrey Hayzlet
Bio: Author, Change Agent, South Dakotan, and sometimes Cowboy.
Former CMO of Kodak

Rod Brooks
Bio: CMO for PEMCO Insurance. President-elect for WOMMA. Board member of WA. DECA. Dedicated WSU Cougar. Blended family man and grandfather. Student of Social Media.

Marketing Authors:

Andy Sernovitz
Bio: The Word of Mouth Marketing Guy
Author of Word of Mouth Marketing

Bob Gilbreath
Bio: My mission is to help you create marketing that people choose to engage with, and advertising that itself improves people’s lives

Brian Halligan
Bio: CEO of @HubSpot; Author of Inbound Marketing book

Chris Brogan
Bio: President, New Marketing Labs.
Co-Author of Trust Agents

Dave Evans
Bio: Social Media enthusiast and author of Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day.

David Meerman Scott
Bio: Marketing strategist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of The New Rules of Marketing & PR, now published in 25 languages.

Jackie Huba
Bio: Co-author, Creating Customer Evangelists, Citizen Marketers, Church of the Customer blog. Principal, Ant’s Eye View. Pittsburgh Steelers fanatic.

Greg Verdino
Bio: strategy vp at powered. micromarketing author. social media whatever. long islander. father. the lesser half of gremanda. not necessarily in that order.

Joseph Jaffe
Bio: Powered. Jaffe Juice. Jaffe Juice TV. Flip the Funnel. Join the Conversation. Life after the 30-second spot.

John Moore
Bio: As a marketingologist, I give companies “Second Opinions” about the business and marketing activities they are currently doing or considering doing.
Author of Tribal Knowledge

Josh Bernoff
Bio: Coauthor of Groundswell, Forrester analyst

Laura Ries
Bio: marketing and branding strategist, bestselling author, blogger, speaker and media personality

Maria Ross
Bio: Brand & marketing consultant, writer, speaker, actress. Engage, inform and delight! Author, Branding Basics for Small Business.

Mitch Joel
Bio: President of Twist Image. Blogger and Podcaster of Six Pixels of Separation. Speaker, Author, Journalist.

Tom Asacker
Bio: Don’t follow me. Follow your bliss.
Author of A Clear Eye


Matt T. Grant
Host of the Marketing Profs podcast Marketing Smarts and Managing Editor at Marketing Profs.

Brian Martin
Host of the Brand Fast Trackers podcast which features great interviews with marketers.

Christopher S. Penn
Bio: Blue Sky Factory VP, ninja, PodCamp cofounder, cohost, speaker, USF marketing prof, Warcrafter.

John Wall
Bio: I’m a business guy, photographer, husband, dog owner.

Jay Ehret
Bio: Creator of small business marketing awesomeness. Social media antagonist. Practitioner, not a theorist.

Mike Volpe
Bio: VP Inbound Marketing @HubSpot + Marketing Speaker – B2B, lead generation, blog, social media, SEO, analytics, golfer, Patriots, Red Sox

Karen Rubin
Bio: Product Owner, HubSpot TV Co-Host, runner, foodie, talker, laugh-o-holic

Bob Knorpp
Bio: Host of The BeanCast Marketing Podcast. Features a panel of smart ad-biz types discussing news and issues.

Agency Marketers

Ben Kunz
Bio: Director of Strategic Planning, sometimes wishful thinking, at ad planning shop Moonlights as tech columnist at BusinessWeek.

Frank Adman
Bio: Ad man. San Francisco, 1963. Purveyor of Fresh, Stimulating Propaganda. Join me for a Twittertini. 2010 Shorty Winner: Best in Advertising.

Kevin Urie
Bio: Advertising/Marketing Geek @DestMark, Dad, Husband and @SMCseattle Founder

Patrick Byers
Bio: CEO of Outsource Marketing + Responsible Marketing Evangelist. Speak, write, blog, strategize, name stuff, social media, social good

Simon Mainwaring
Bio: Ex-Nike/Wieden creative, former Worldwide Creative Director Motorola/Ogilvy, branding/advertising writer, author/speaker/blogger, Australian, idea geek.


Beth Harte
Bio: Client Srvcs Director, Serengeti Communications. Digs Integrated Marcom. Fan of books, beer, cowgirl boots and brilliance

Bill Green
Bio: I have these thoughts… in my head. I also speak them here:

Brian Morrissey
Bio: Digital Editor at Adweek, marathon runner, cheeseburger connoisseur

Dave Knox
Bio: Brand Manager – Digital Innovation at Procter & Gamble Productions, Author, Connector of people and ideas

Jonah Bloom
Bio: CEO/Ed-in-chief at Breaking Media, which publishes,, and Also a geographer.

Olivier Blanchard
Bio: Business strategist, Brand Management, Marketing & Social Media integration, and harbinger of growth for smart companies.

Stephen Denny
Bio: Marketing + brand strategy consultant, author, blogger, influence strategist living in paradise. Dry suit scuba, tennis, ex-Tokyo expat, husband + dad.

Steve Hall
Bio: I’m all about advertising and publish Adrants and AdGabber.

Search Engine Optimization

Lee Odden
Bio: CEO @TopRank sharing online marketing insights on Social SEO, Content Marketing & PR topics. Proud dad, world traveler & foodie.

Rand Fishkin
Bio: CEO & Co-Founder of SEOmoz. I tweet 15-20X each week, mostly insights and articles about startups, search and social.

Vanessa Fox
Bio: I’m fascinated by our evolving online searching culture. Maybe you’d like to buy my book, Marketing in the Age of Google.

Ross Hudgens
Bio: SEO Manager @ Full Beaker Inc. | Blogger | Scalable Link Building Strategist | Productivity Enthusiast
-Ross provides great SEO commentary and ideas at his blog

Social Media

Jay Baer
Bio: Hype-free social media strategist and tequila lover. Co-author of I write a blog marketers seem to like. Can I help you?

Did I miss any marketers that you think should be on the list? Please leave a comment below.

Best Marketing Career Advice From 10+ Top Marketing Minds

I asked top minds in marketing about the best marketing career advice they have ever received. Here are their responses:

Go, start something. Don’t wait.

Seth Godin, author of Linchpin and Seth’s Blog

The best career advice I have ever received is actually very counterintuitive. I talked to people and they said that if you really want to learn something you are passionate about you have to be willing to do it for free. It started as an unpaid intern at SEOmoz. I came in and said I would work for free as long as they would teach me. As you can tell, this worked out great. SEO was something I was passionate about and looked forward to learning it everyday. Over the course of three years my job changed a lot as I took on more responsibilities. The experience was fantastic. That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t offer to work for free.

Danny Dover, author of Search Engine Optimization Secrets. Danny also blogs at

The best marketing advice that I ever received I got from my mother. She told me to always be empathetic. (Rather, she pounded this value into me so acutely and successfully as a child that I began to empathize with inanimate things, which is a whole other story). Empathy is easy and the only way to reach your audience with a sincere and useful product or message. Put yourself in your audiences’ shoes and ask every question you can about what you have to offer. If it is useless, annoying, not genuine, too complicated, condescending, or ugly to you, it likely will be to your audience. Sincere empathy works with client communications and employee relationships as well. It is a guiding principle for life and for business.

Anika Lehde is the co-founder of Projectline, a Seattle marketing agency that was named as one of the fastest growing private companies in America by Inc. Magazine. You can follow Anika on twitter @anikamarketer.

So much great marketing advice…..! But the best piece I often remember was, “Intimately Talk to One Ideal Person.“ Your communications shouldn’t be you shouting to a room of 5000 people, but should be you connecting one on one to that person who matters the most. This comes from an amazingly talented advertising agency Creative Director I worked with long ago. He said he wrote print ads, not as if he was speaking to a large room full of people but remembering that the ad would be consumed as one person reading a magazine in his or her lap. His job was to ensure he was speaking to that one person.

I remember this when I work with clients on their ideal customer. Creating brand messaging that speaks to the needs of a real-life person you imagine (ie, Jane, 45, married, lives in Redmond, has two kids, etc.) is much more connective and will resonate much more than if you just try to boil the ocean (ie, Busy moms everywhere!). If you are aiming for a huge, generic blob of people that don’t exist, your marketing will reflect that. So even though you can sell to a variety of people who want to pay you money, no matter their profile, always keep an ideal customer profile and “character” in mind. Your communications will resonate much more effectively and memorably that way if you write “for him/her.”

Maria Ross is the Chief Brand Strategist at Red Slice and author of Branding Basics for Small Business. She also blogs at the Red Slice blog.

Don’t try to be good at everything. Try to be very good at one thing. – Al Ries

Laura Ries, co-author of War in the Boardroom and the blog Ries Pieces.

The best advice I ever got was in my first-year marketing class in business school: Habit change is extremely difficult. People naturally embrace and hold onto habits because it makes their lives easier; and they develop a deep resistance to marketers’ attempts to convince them to buy new products that necessitate a change in habit. I learned this the hard way myself during my first assignment at Procter & Gamble, where I was tasked with launching a natural soap for people to clean their fruits and vegetables. It failed to succeed for many reasons, but mostly because it forced people to add a step and product their age-old habits. I later learned five ways to more effectively build new product habits through marketing:

  • Reduce barriers – make it easier to do the new habit, provide incentives and a range of options
  • Provide a link to the familiar – associate the new habit with an existing one; make it similar to what they are doing today
  • Encourage usage frequency – it takes regular use of around 14 times to get a new habit to hold; create usage reminders, tips and other positive reinforcement along the way
  • Actively engage the consumer – obtain a commitment to change at the start
  • Provide social reinforcement – foster a community of others who are changing together

Bob Gilbreath is the Chief Marketing Strategist at Bridge Worldwide and the author of The Next Evolution of Marketing. Bob also blogs regularly at Marketing With Meaning.

“Get involved in the process.” Oddly, I learned this from Senator John Montford in the late 80’s. We were flying back to Austin from Lubbock and I asked him about impacting the legislative process: At the time the state was beginning a new push for insurance regulation. I thought it was a simple matter of having the best products. He said, “No, it’s what your customers say about you.” That simple re-orientation of marketing perspective changes everything. From that point forward, my career in business and marketing has been defined by a customer-centric POV aimed across the entire organization, which is exactly what excites me so much about social media and the new career opportunities for CMO’s who are willing to exert themselves beyond the marketing department.

Dave Evans is the author of Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day and also blogs at @evansdave on Twitter

There was a guy at Labatt, a client at the time, that I think nailed it about the risk of over management, risk avoidance, paint by numbers marketing and analysis paralysis

“Sean, there are a tonne of things you could do in an average day – marketers could feasibly work 168 hours of week and feel justified. But let me tell you – if you can find the 3 most important things to affect your brand tangibly, importantly – focus as much time, attention and effort on those and do the minimum on the rest.”

Sean Moffitt, author of Buzz Canuck

Perhaps the best advice was succinctly stated by ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy, in Portland: Fail harder. So few of us give ourselves permission to fail let alone court failure as we try to achieve our goals. It’s even worse for corporations or brands. Yet the best brands in the world and their advertising partners take big enough risks consistently that failure is inevitable and invaluable learning at the same time. So as we rush to be “something” or achieve a goal, perhaps the best advice I ever heard was plan to be good at failing too because its a tough but wonderful teacher.

Simon Mainwaring, Owner of Mainwaring Creative and author of Mainwaring Blog

I would say something I have said for a long time, “Dont Fight the market”. Too many draw lines in the sand and don’t want to accept the new rules, I embrace them!

Gary Vaynerchuck Co-Founder at VaynerMedia and author of Crush It!

I’ve been in the business for 25+ years now (it sucks to type that!) and what I’ve learned is that if you are not willing to always be learning, experimenting, asking new questions and wondering why — you will be mediocre in marketing. You’ll survive and maybe even Peter Principle your way to a cushy job — but you won’t be able to keep the fire in your belly.

What makes marketing the best career in the world is that is it ever evolving. There’s always a new insight, new tool or tactic. So if you want to be at the top of your game and really be someone your clients love and rely on — keep learning. Read, write, listen. Every day.

Drew McLellan, Top Dog at McLellan Marketing Group and author of the blog Drew’s Marketing Minute. Drew is also the Co-Editor of the book Age of Conversation 3.

The best advice I’ve every gotten for my career actually comes from the Bible. And no, this is not proselytizing. It’s just a simple truth that’s always stuck with me: “Only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own house is a prophet without honour.” (Mark 6:4, if you’re interested.)

The one place you are absolutely destined to be taken for granted, pigeon-holed and disrespected in your career is among your co-workers and in the eyes of your employers. This is especially true if you are one who challenges accepted thinking or encourages new action. Why do you think the people who do as they are told and never challenge authority are always the ones who walk away with the Employee-of-the-Year awards? It’s because they fit the mold. They not only “do” what’s expected of them, they also “are” what people expect of them.

A prophet, though, has thinking too big to contain. He (or she) is disruptive. He is an agent of change and change, for all companies talk about it as a necessity, is a bad thing for power-structures. This kind of message can find a home, but almost never in the confines of a “hometown.” It needs to be set free.

All this was finally made clear to me when I found myself out of a job two years ago. I had a bad parting with an employer and a choice to either find another job or be on my own. And in choosing the latter path, I finally realized how suppressed my message had become. I had rallied for transparency, content strategies, relationship-based promotion, networking among peers and other key messages of the social sphere for over ten years. And I had let most of the digital revolution pass me by, fighting for it among people who didn’t want to hear about it.

My advice is simple: If you have a message and people aren’t listening, go find someone who will listen. Take the risk. Get out there. It won’t be easy or necessarily bring immediate financial success. It may never bring financial success for that matter. But it will bring you integrity. And in many ways that’s the most gratifying business success you can have.

Bob Knorpp, host of The BeanCast
, @beancast on Twitter

The best marketing career advice I have is never stop learning and experimenting. Marketing is constantly changing. The second you start relying on the old techniques you used to use and stop learning new things, is the second you start getting lower performance and become less valuable to your company. Make sure you are always watching for new trends, learning new things, and experimenting with new techniques.

Mike Volpe, VP of Marketing at Hubspot, co-host of Hubspot TV and author of the blog Marketing With Mike.

Do not study marketing in school. Study anything but marketing.

David Meerman Scott, author of World Wide Rave and the blog Web Ink Now.

Listen more.

Bill Green, Idea Guy at Plaid, co-host of the podcast AdVerve and author of the blog Make the Logo Bigger.

Check back for updates as I get more responses!

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