An interview with Sunny Bonnell of Motto

An interview with Sunny Bonnell of Motto

Nathan: Okay, so today on the Nusii interviews I'm joined by Sunny Bonnell of Motto. Sunny is co-founder and creative director of the award-winning branding firm, where she works alongside her partner in crime and branding strategist Ashleigh Hansberger. Sunny was named one of GDUSA’s “25 Creatives to Watch in 2014” and is a contributing writer for Forbes, Inc. and Entrepreneur, a member and contributor for YEC, an elite organization comprised of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs. She’s also been featured on MSN, CNBC, Success, American Express, and various design and business publications.

How are you doing Sunny?

Sunny: I'm doing well, thank you.

Nathan: Great to have you here.

Sunny: My pleasure.

Nathan: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and Motto? What is it that you guys get up to over there?

Sunny: Sure, that's a great question. As you beautifully described, I'm the other half of Motto. Motto is a comprehensive branding agency. We help promising startups and companies on the rise build inspiring and magnetic brands.

Nathan: Wow okay, that's a better line than we design logos.

Sunny: We worked on that for a long time.

Nathan: Yeah, yeah, okay, so you're branding consultants? You're branding specialists?

Sunny: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nathan: I've been looking through your website and previous articles and interviews you've done. You seem to come from a different angle than most. I see you talk about purpose driven branding. Can you explain a little bit about what this is and how it differs from more traditional ideas on branding?

Sunny: Sure, that's true. I mean we do have a different point of view. We believe that an organization that exists without knowing and practicing its purpose is like a ship sailing around the world without a compass. You can't really rely on instinct alone and so a company that knows what it believes wins hearts. We believe that in today's market the heart must be won.

We discovered this very early on in our own business and began practicing purpose driven branding with our clients almost 10 years ago. By definition, I would say that purpose driven branding is knowing why you started the company, what you set out in the world to do, and anchoring all your decision making whether it's from building a brand or building a culture on that purpose.

Nathan: Okay, so could you give me an example of a well-known company that does this well and how it does it well?

Sunny: Sure, I mean there's so many. The most famous brands would be brands like Apple, Starbucks and Nike. They're all very purpose driven organizations that understand the deeper root of who they are and why they should matter in the world. They build their brands around what they're trying to accomplish in the world. I think the messaging and the branding and everything that comes after that is essentially an extension of that larger purpose.

It's different from traditional ideas on branding in that you seek the meaning first and then you authentically bring that brand to life through its purpose. It's not the other way around, if that makes sense.

Toy ship and compass

Nathan: Do you think it's more difficult for companies that don't know who they are or what their core message is to get to these levels? You know, the Nikes, the Apples, is it possible to do what they’ve done without truly knowing what they stand for and who they are?

Sunny: Well I think that it's, knowing why your work should matter. It's a powerful reminder of why you're on the planet and what you're here to do. I think that companies that don't know that will encounter struggles. They won't know the decision to make because they don't know what their purpose is. For us, it goes deeper than that. It's beyond just knowing your purpose. I mean we do a lot of exercises like brand archetyping and things like that.

That in essence is the foundation, it's sort of like laying the foundation of the house before you build the walls. Companies that do that really well tend to see more longevity in their brands because they just don't waver. They don't waver when the seas get high or when there's competition. Whether it's trends or the latest marketing fixes, they don't really buy into that. They continue following that compass, so to me those type of companies and brands tend to have more longevity than others.

Nathan: Excellent point. I think especially as designers and creators, a lot of us look at branding as purely visual. Certainly when I was doing a bit of branding back in the day, it was something I struggled with. So how as creators, as designers can we begin to look past the visual element and take branding to something else?

Sunny: Well you have to know where to put your efforts. If you put too much weight behind aesthetic you lose sight of the real driving force. There are a lot of creatives in world, great creatives, amazing creative, so how will you make your work matter and how will you create meaningful work for you, your clients, and your customers? That's the question you should be asking. I believe that inside each of us is a truly unique and authentic gift. If not a few. Something that we were born to do and that is ours and ours alone

If you've ever heard the old axiom, be yourself everyone else is already taken. You know the importance of listening for you calling and following it. I think if you lead an extraordinary company and you want to create a brand that means something more, then you have to have a point of view. It goes beyond the products you sell. You have to create a company where people can identify with something deeper within the organization. It can’t just be a great because a lot of people build a lot of great products. A lot of people are great illustrators, great creative, great designers. Everything that you do has to be intentional and reflect that point of view, otherwise you're forgotten and you have to make it matter.

Nathan: Yeah, I think when you talk about these companies that look further and look past this I think about companies like Base Camp. Base Camp make a stand, they believe in what they do. You either love them or you hate them because you either believe what they believe or you don't.

Whereas these companies that are just, I can think of the expression in Spanish but not English, where they're just in the middle and no one cares…Apple have this incredibly well defined vision and stance in the market. Again, you either love them or you hate them. Do you think that's a contributing factor to a solid brand? You love them or you don't. This is what we believe, take it or leave it?

Sunny: I think that it can, but I don't know if you take it or leave it. I think it's more about symbols. I think that companies that share what they believe and are transparent, really embrace it and articulate it both visually and verbally on a consistent basis. Of course, just like any relationship or anything that you get to know, you love it or you hate it. That's the beauty of it. Sometimes great branding is that it's so firm in what it is that you have that kind of visceral reaction to it. It's when you don't have a reaction to it that you should worry, right?

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Sunny: If you're building a company and you're just mediocre or people don't feel one way or another than you haven't gone deep enough into your own organization and your own system of what you're trying to build in order to articulate that more succinctly. Otherwise, you're taking a chance. We believe in really going through that process of self-discovery and building it into the very fabric of what it is that you're doing and what you're building.

Nathan: How did you come to develop this sense of what a brand should be and what it should mean to a company? How did you get there yourself? Did you start out as a designer who was just designing logos and looked past that or was it something that was always in you? This sort of search for something deeper? How did you begin to develop this sense of branding and purpose?

Sunny: Well I think purpose is what we all want, yet it's the most elusive and most mysterious, right?

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Group of people looking at a screen

Sunny: It's the greatest of all human needs. We often become entrepreneurs or build companies because something is unsettled within us. We want to do more. We want to be more. Something is hungry inside of us. Motto was born out of that. Motto was born from our struggle to find purpose in life and in our own business.

Ashley and I started Motto in our early 20s. We had no roadmap. We were, I would say a few years into a mildly successfully design career, when we realized we had lost the passion for our work. To the outside, most people thought we were doing really well, but this isn't something new right? Most of us struggle with that.

We had to start making some decisions that were really tough. We were asking ourselves, what mark are we trying to make? Do we even want to continue doing this and so we began a search for meaning, because in essence losing your way forces you to find a new way. So we became obsessed with discovering our purpose and really understanding our brand archetype. By archetype I mean what character are we going to live out in the world?

Once we identified what those answers were we were able to sort of slowly regain focus and it profoundly changed our business. We began practicing archetyping and began helping our clients do the same, helping them understand their purpose and what they were trying to do in the world and then actually bringing that to life in everything, their messaging, their visual language, and so forth.

We've even had situations where the company’s purpose doesn't necessarily match up with the founder’s purpose and that's okay. Sometimes the founder or the co-founders or whatever their purpose is are their own, but the company that they're building has its own roadmap. We just began helping clients get clear on that and then began helping them articulate their brands in a new and meaningful way.

Nathan: Okay, cool. I read a recent article that, I can't remember what the link was now I'll hook it up in the notes, but you said “Delete the tagline and adopt a motto, a motto is a statement of purpose and belief”. I like this a lot because we've struggled with this ourselves at Nusii and probably still continue to struggle with it.

Sunny: That's why you need us.

Nathan: Yeah. I don't know if we can afford you! Anyway, so taglines can be fun and they are. Everyone loves to sit around and come up with a name and some sort of witty tagline when they form a startup. How do we move past the tagline and discover this motto. If Nusii came to you now, how would we get there with Motto? What would be some of the areas you'd look at or processes that you'd take us through?

Sunny: Yeah, that's a great question. As you say, we call them war cries or mottoes, but they're a short simple phrase that encapsulates the beliefs and ambitions that guide an original organization. To understand how far they go back you have to look backwards. They first appeared centuries ago as sentiments of hope and purpose. They were inscribed on coats of arms. They were etched over doorways. They're revered by universities, big universities like Harvard and Yale and NYU. If you walk down the streets of Atlanta you'll also see their motto etched in the lampposts and walls around the city.

They go back a long way and more recently you see this resurgence of purpose and values driven companies, and so in our mind mottoes are kind of experiencing a resurrection. They have the potential, in my mind, to hold the same significance that they did back then. When people come to us or companies come to us the process is, again, more of self discovery. We really try to get to the heart of why they started the company? What are they trying to do in the world?

Then we begin to put language around it because most organizations, the one thing that they struggle with is how they talk about themselves. When you try and articulate meaning it's one of the most difficult things to do because it's often emotional. A lot of times when we ask a company, tell me what your brand represents. Like if I were to say, “Nathan Nusii is…”. You might have a hard time telling me what that is. You might fill it in with “Nusii is a proposal software company”.

Okay, there are many proposal software companies. So do it again, do it again, and we keep going and going and going until we get something, until we've got a phrase or a simple motto that encapsulates your beliefs. The result of that is the linchpin for encapsulating those beliefs into a brand model and essentially gives your company, your team, and the people that either buy your product or use your product or use your services. It gives them sort of this inspirational idea to get behind.

Nathan: So if we have that initial motto, what other areas might you look at once you've got that foundation?

Sunny: Part of our process is the upfront discovery process. It has to do with articulating values. Those are very important. A lot of companies start with, they'll be like we have integrity or we love quality. Those are fine, but they're not values that you can put out into the world and that people will quickly understand in terms of building language around it.

What does integrity actually look like? How will you practice it? How will it apply to every decision you make as an organization, so that's something that we do. We also do brand archetyping, which I mentioned earlier is a discovery exercise where we look at, we look to characters. Archetyping is essentially reoccurring patterns, themes, symbols, and ideas that have occurred throughout history and film, literature, and folklore.

By defining what your brand archetype is you're able to understand the character that you're meant to live out to the world. For example, Nike is a hero brand. Everything they do is about awakening the hero within each of us, right? By wearing their products, by using their products we essentially become the hero in our own lives. Are we a rebel? James Dean was a rebel figure, right? Well what kind of brands today are rebellious?

What's an explorer? An explorer archetype is an organization that is pioneering, they look for adventure. Great examples of that would be Anthony Bourdain or Patagonia or Fossil, brands like that. That's a very powerful exercise because it allows you to understand the character that you're meant to live out in the world and a lot of your decisions and language is built around that. That's something that we also do.

The motto is more of an internal directive. Think of it like Harley Davidson's “Live to ride, ride to live”. It's a mantra. It's something that you hold dearly and you live up to and all of your actions.

Nathan: That's so interesting. I love the idea an archetype, then moving forward from that. I never really thought about it like that. Certainly not with Nike.

Sunny: The thing that you have to keep in mind is these big brands, everybody knows them and they're overly talked about, but we see this happening in small companies too. Really small, one or two people companies and even smaller companies, mid sized companies, 15, 20, 200 people. Knowing what the archetype is so powerful because it allows you to say, "You know, I'm a rebel." Well there are some very distinct images that come to mind when you say that, or an outlaw. I'm an outlaw. What does that mean? It has some very powerful connotations and those archetyping connotations have existed since the beginning of time.

You can go all the way back to Joan of Arc. You can look at these heroes and these rebels and these people that have come out through time, whether through being famous, through books, through stories, all the way into branding. To make that connection between them is very powerful because if you say, "I'm a rebel brand." Then you know what to expect. You know what this company is going to be, the language that they're going to use is going to be very freedom oriented. It's going to be all about essentially going up against the status quo.

If you're an explorer brand you're going to be a more pioneering spirit. You're going to use language and images that are reflective of somebody who is always looking for that next adventure. They're always looking for the new way to go into uncharted territory. Christopher Columbus was great at that, right? You look to all these things. There are also brands like lover brands. That's Victoria Secret. Victoria Secret is the quintessential lover brand.

Marilyn Monroe was the lover archetype. Every inch of her was very much a lover persona. You can apply that same thinking to branding and it's fascinating. I mean it goes back a long time and we'd be on this call for another hour talking about it, but it's truly fascinating. We've done it for a long time.

We actually just gave a talk at Fossil about it. It was remarkable how many questions we got asked and how people were furiously taking notes, like I got to do this for my own company. I have to figure this out because it's truly amazing. What's more amazing is once you know what it is then you can adopt it and put it into motion.

Nathan: Yeah I know, I totally agree. I mean I can imagine that we could just sit here and talk about this for hours. It's already making me think about Nusii and I'm feeling quite bad about myself, ha-ha.

Sunny: Well, don't do that. Don't do that to yourself, but it's true. It's a powerful exercise and if you can do it, it will reveal a lot about your future in terms of where you're going to go and what you're going to do and what future you're trying to build for yourself as an organization. It also helps both externally as well as internally, meaning who are we going to hire? What kinds of people will we hire? Why will we hire them?

These are all things about knowing, number one, that purpose. Knowing that archetype. Knowing your values, because it allows you to build a more prudent organization because you're essentially putting people in place that you already know will be the right fit for you versus just looking at them from, is it a skill set thing? Well of course, but it's more than that. You surround yourself with people who can further advance the cause. That’s why we build these companies, because we feel like there was something missing in the world and we needed to fill it. That's why we do these things. You have to find people that will also help you advance that for the right reasons.

Nathan: Yeah, this is awesome. I'm going to seriously think about this for a while, after we finish talking as well.

Sunny: I'm always here for you Nathan.

Nathan: Thanks! You spoke about the archetype exercises that you do with clients, and I know that over at your website you have some sort of do-it-yourself. I see you've got a values exercise worksheet, a purpose vision and mission statement worksheet. There's a free manifesto worksheet and of course, an archetype exercise worksheet that you've mentioned. What sort of purpose do these worksheets serve? I mean who are these for? Who are these products for?

Sunny: Sure, well that's a recent thing. For years we've been asked to put our process and exercises into a format that people could purchase. We were always just too busy to do it. We thought it was too complicated and we just didn't think that it was right because most of our facilitation and power comes from working together in groups and with organizations to kind of bring that information out. Because the demand was so high Ashley and I sat down and said, let's try to put this into a workable format that people can download and they can, for the do-it-yourselfers that want get the process started.

It's not a replacement for going through a full-on exercise with an expert or somebody that is trained or understands how to bring those things out. What we've figured out how to do is condense this in a way that you can get a lot of value out of it right away, which is great for companies who don't have a lot of money to invest. For example startups and a lot solopreneurs and entrepreneurs.

They don't have 50, 70, $150,000 laying around to go through an exhaustive process so we've made that accessible to them, for in my mind a very nominal fee for the value that you get out of it in the long run. In essence we've built it for freelancers, entrepreneurs, small companies who are looking to get the process going themselves. If you're looking to clearly articulate your values and your vision and your purpose and create a powerful manifesto, discover your brand archetype these exercises are perfect for somebody you.

Nathan: Yeah they look like great value. I mean we're not talking about just a one page checklist, are we?

Sunny: No.

Nathan: They're pretty in depth.

Sunny: Yeah, they're multiple pages. I think some of them are 12, 15 pages long. A lot of it is mostly specific, for the brand archetyping exercise we go through each of the archetypes and break them down and give real world examples. Not just from big brands, but from small brands and even personalities because today and today's market place we'll all in essence a personal brand, aside from our own companies we are in fact brands ourselves, right?

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sunny: We use a lot of those types of examples in our worksheets and again, we take you through the process of getting there without hiring a big branding agency to do that. So far we've had quite a few downloads, quite a few purchases, and we're getting some great feedback, people are getting great results right away. That means that we've done a good job.

Nathan: Excellent. I hear what you're saying about the personality, especially where for small companies, or smaller startups like ourselves. We don't have the financial means that some of these larger funded startups do. I think we very much try to involve our personality in the whole thing, right from the website all the way through because I think you look at other companies, in other areas, and it's faceless. It is just a product or service or an item. You go somewhere else and all of a sudden there's somebody there on the other side or there's somebody looking at you and you can see who you are going to be dealing with.

For example, Mailchimp. You know whenever you go in the conversation is always going to be very relaxed. The way they speak to you is always going to be this way as opposed to just, how can I help you today sir?

Sunny: Yeah, and those details matter. Startup companies are very vulnerable. Think about it, most companies that start, fail. It's a ridiculous statistic.

Nathan: Yeah, it's a horrible statistic.

Sunny: It's like 90% of companies don't get beyond the five year mark and so how do you move beyond that vulnerability and begin to carve out a unique emotional territory for yourself. It matters, the details matter. How you communicate, what you say, how you say it. It is so powerful, just the intent that you can have with changing up a few words or by being more transparent. The lifting of the curtain, what you can see behind it.

There's a great example of a company called Groove. Probably you're familiar with those guys, but-

Nathan: We use them ourselves.

Sunny: Yeah exactly, we do too. They, for the type of software that they offer, they started this process where you would get these blog posts that were incredibly transparent.

Nathan: They're awesome. In fact, their blog posts are what brought me to Groove in the first place.

Sunny: Yeah, exactly. They’re the perfect example of a lesser-known brand that's starting to make a difference and a name for themselves. The way that they came at it, the language that they were using and like here's what we're doing wrong. Here's what we're doing right and we're laying it all out there for you to see. It’s remarkable.

I've watched them grow. I was one of their first customers, but I've gotten to know those guys fairly well, in communication and whatnot. To see them, to build that and to see it grow and watch it sort of get over the hump and the peak is very interesting and I think a lot of companies undervalue the power of language and the power articulating transparency and just putting themselves out there. They're so afraid to do that.

We spend a lot of times in our lives making things look better than they really are. We spend a lot of energy convincing ourselves that our business is amazing and it's a struggle. I mean we have the same struggles ourselves. We sit down and have these conversations all the time. Even from clients that we work with. Is this the right fit? Does it align with our values?

I mean to stick to that is even more difficult because sometimes money speaks really loud and it's hard to turn away $50,000, but if you know it's going to not be a fruitful relationship or a prosperous relationship then sometimes you have to walk away, and that's very difficult for most organizations so when their values are tested they have trouble sticking to their guns. Yeah, it's so important that you do that, even as a small company and without funding you still have to know who you are. Then you'll be able to make decisions that help you further advance what you're doing.

Nathan: Yeah, that's something we're going through as well, even just on a small scale. Nusii proposal software gets so much feedback and so many requests and some of them obviously would take us out of our way. The idea of what Nusii should be and what we want it to be…sometimes it's hard to turn around and actually say, "Well I'm really sorry but it's not what we had in mind when we started to put this together and I'm very sorry. It's not going to happen."

Sunny: It's okay to do that because you know and of course you have to listen to others, but you can't derail your vision in order to make others happy to some degree. There are some things that might be unwaver-able and I think that's okay. I think that's what builds great companies and I think that's what builds great leaders is knowing that and being able to look for it. I also think that there's humility in saying I don't know all the answers.

I mean as CEOs, as leaders of our own companies we have to do it with others. We have to help. We have to rely on others to help us see things clearly when we can't, but you should never lose sight of the values you hold as an organization because they will come into question. They will be challenged and you have to know who you are in order to be able to move through that and be okay with moving through that, and saying no to some things, which is okay. Completely normal.

Nathan: That's awesome. I got to go make some notes and have serious words with myself afterwards and possibly with Michael!

Sunny: Alright.

Nathan: What does the future look like for you guys now over at Motto? Where are you heading? What are your plans?

Sunny: I feel like the world is full of possibility and one thing stays true and that is that we're relentless in our passion to keep doing remarkable things and creating brands that matter, but more importantly I think sharing what we learn. I'm a firm believer in sharing and helping others and helping others grow. Part of what we're trying to do now is to get more of these ideas out into the world, the Fossil talk was very powerful for us and we really began to start introducing brand archetypes on a much larger level which is what we're looking more to do.

I'm getting more and more opportunities to do podcasts and a lecture series and things like that, which is really something I'm very passionate about. Just sharing those ideas and helping other people grow their companies and their brands because I get a lot of happiness from that. I've had a lot of mentors in my own life and I just feel it's the right thing to do, to continue sharing what I've learned doing it the hard way. We didn't do it the easy way. We had no funding. We bootstrapped Motto. We literally started with $250 and a 14 by 14 room and I'm not even kidding.

Nathan: Love it.

Sunny: It was really hard, it's not like people who go out and get big loans and try to finance their business. I never knew what that world looked like and I don't know if I do, but did it take us a little bit longer and maybe a little bit more hard work? Yeah, but we're starting to see the fruition of some of these great ideas that we've always and now we’re putting them out there so that others may gain. That's exciting.

Nathan: That's so awesome. It's always great to talk to other bootstrappers, whether it's a bootstrapper in software or a bootstrapper in a studio or whatever.

Sunny: Yeah we're a part of a cult, an underground, the under-belly of the world sort of speak. It's amazing because I could tell you some war stories, no doubt.

Nathan: Without a doubt!

So where can people find out more about you and Motto and what you're up to? Where's the best place to go?

Sunny: Sure, so wearemotto.comis our website. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter. Our handle is the same @wearemotto and those are really probably the best places to follow us around. We're also on LinkedIn, you can grab us there, same handle. That's the best way to traipse and follow us around.

Nathan: Excellent. Well thank you so much Sunny. It's been great talking to you and I hope everyone's enjoyed the chat as much as I have.

Sunny: Great, it was my pleasure and thank you for having me.

Nathan: Cheers Sunny, bye bye.

Sunny: Cheers, bye bye.

You can also find Motto on the following links: &

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