Today’s Five for Friday is with strategist, story teller, dog lover and crime fighter Maria Ross. Maria is both a good friend and former colleague who now runs her own consulting firm Red-Slice, focusing on helping companies build their unique brand story to enable business success.

Maria’s personal story is also unique, having survived a near death experience only to come back stronger than ever.  She is great person, an inspiration to many and has a great story to share.  Meet Maria Ross.

PM:  You are the founder and chief creative muse at Red Slice.  Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

Maria Ross of Red Slice

MR:  I’ve always been a storyteller – on stage, on the page and throughout my marketing career. I love stories and their ability to inspire, delight, move and even provoke people. Now, as a brand strategist, author and speaker I advise start-ups, solopreneurs (businesses of one) and small to midsize growth businesses on how to craft irresistible brands, tell their unique story and attract the right clients and customers.

Prior to Red Slice, I spent many years crafting marketing strategies for Silicon Valley start-ups and software firms, including Business Objects (now SAP), Savvion (now Progress) and even a consumer back in the day.  Before that, I worked with consumer brands such as Discovery Networks and – and created communication and training strategies for Fortune 1000 clients as an Accenture management consultant.  Having worked with both large and small businesses throughout my career, I can honestly say the fundamentals are always the same: no matter what you sell, you’ve got to start with a good story to stand out, attract the right people and create an irresistible brand. You have to give your target audience something to get excited about.

I also believe cash flow and creativity are not mutually exclusive so I continue to write, speak and act and that has become part of my own brand story. I wroteBranding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget and recently published a humorous and heartfelt memoir Rebooting My Brain, about my comeback from a near-fatal brain aneurysm.   I speak and write a lot about branding and business building and have appeared on MSNBC, ABC News and in Entrepreneur and Seattle Business, among other outlets. I really enjoy presenting keynotes and workshops and seeing the big “A ha!” moment in people’s eyes,  most recently, at The New York Times Small Business Conference

PM:  How do you think about the role of technology in building a brand?

MR: I think it’s become even more important than ever before. Branding is about communicating a message and as more people embrace technology in their daily lives, if you can’t speak to them where they are, you’re irrelevant. Now, granted, not all target audiences use technology in the same way – my 80+ year-old parents are not kicking it on Twitter – but you’ve got to communicate your brand where your tribe works and plays. Five years ago, as a marketing director for a software company, we were using email marketing , webcasts and podcasts to reach ou audience and starting a blog at our company was seen as cutting edge. Now, you can’t even build a campaign plan without considering Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or influential bloggers. And across all of those channels, your brand message has to be clear and consistent or people will not trust you or get what you’re brand is all about.

All of that said, how you use technology needs to strengthen your connection with your target audience. You can’t just use technology for technology’s sake if it’s not the right fit or doesn’t add value.

PM:  What are the biggest brand and marketing differences between tech companies and consumer companies?

MR:  It’s funny. I often have branding clients work on an exercise in which they build target customer personas. And I always get asked, “Do I need to do this if I sell B2B?” Absolutely! Look, at the end of the day, you’re selling to a person – a human being with interests, needs and goals.  If they are buying technology for their company and not their personal use, their needs are just different but you still must speak to them. Are they risk-takers or do they need to play it safe to get ahead? Can your technology help them get that next raise or promotion? Will it enable them to be a hero in saving the company time or money or increasing revenue? You still have to appeal to those basic human needs of security, recognition  – and yes, maybe even the need to be the “cool” guy who introduces your cutting-edge technology into their organization. The only extra layer you have as a tech company, is you not only need to understand the target buyer or influencer as a person, you need to also build a target profile of the companies that you’ll go after – size, revenue, culture, needs. If you have really high-end, bleeding edge technology at a super high starting  price point, spending time and money going after companies with risk-averse, conservative cultures and smaller revenues may not be the best marketing bet for you.

PM:  After a near death experience, you had to reboot your life – can you share a little bit of what happened and how it changed you?

MR:  In 2008, I survived a near-fatal brain aneurysm rupture shortly after starting my own business. I had what’s called a Subarachnoid Hemorrhage, which is fatal in about 50% of cases and 10-15% of people never even make it to the hospital. Luckily, my husband decided to leave early and work from home that day. I lost a month of my memory, had three separate brain procedures and lost my sight, which required eye surgery. My doctors were amazed at my recovery, but I still had to heal and adapt to unseen cognitive and psychological impairments. One of the biggest changes is that I now work in a whole new way. Things that used to come more easily take longer now, especially since some of my executive skills were impacted, like prioritization, focus, etc. Once I stopped fighting the whole, “But I used to be able to….” and learned to adapt to the New Me, I actually found ways to accomplish my goals, but via a slightly different route! I get anxious very easily when plans change abruptly or when overwhelmed by too much information or stimuli coming at me, which means I have to plan carefully and focus on one thing at a time now….not really a bad way to live, when you think about it! This requirement to focus has actually enriched my life and my work and helps me produce great work. It also enables me to be much more in the moment and appreciate things more. Once your brain explodes and the world doesn’t end, it’s kind of hard to complain about waiting too long at a stoplight!

PM:   What brands are doing great campaigns right now? 

MR:  I have a total brand crush on Virgin America – so much so, they follow me on Twitter and retweet me often.  I just think companies of any size can learn so much from them. They start with a strong brand strategy to deliver a fun, easy, hip, and hassle-free flying experience. And every customer touchpoint conveys that message. From their quirky illustrated safety video to their funky purple cabin lighting, to their cheeky signage copy – to even the products they offer in-flight, like a personal entertainment system and the ability to order (good) food whenever you want. Most companies simply “slap a coat of brand paint” on themselves and launch a splashy ad campaign or re-do their logo. But Virgin America knows it’s about the delivering on the promise across the complete, end to end customer experience. They are consistent and that engenders trust and loyalty – to the point that you get customers like me evangelizing for them for free. That’s the holy grail of brand connection for which all companies  – whether B2C or B2B  – need to strive. And it starts with a strong, aligned brand strategy and brand-supported culture inside and out.