Toronto has long since become a well-established hotspot for young professionals who truly encapsulate what it means to be ‘notable’. Entrepreneurs, game-changers, industry experts and thought leaders in cutting-edge fields — you name it, we have it all.
Ally Mcilwraith is exactly that; an entrepreneur, a game-changer for brands both big and small, and a respected industry expert… only, she’s far from your average marketer. Specifically, she’s known around town as a ‘psychology-based brand strategist’. So, what exactly does that mean? We sat down with her to find out.
1. How did you get started? Better yet, how would you best describe yourself and what you do?
I call myself a psychology-based brand strategist, although I wasn’t always working directly with brands. My background is actually in communications and psychology, and I used to do most of my work in language and communications development. But then I realized, how can I create communications or content for companies, if I don’t truly understand who they’re targeting, what market they’re going after, or what their brand looks like as a whole? So I decided to take a deep dive into brand development.
I went to a conference in Banff called The Gathering, which was an absolute game-changer. I was able to hear from the CEOs and CFOs of companies like Nike, Airbnb, The Dallas Cowboys, Barbie… the list goes on. Getting an inside look at how they’ve created these brands, changed everything for me.
So, now, most of what I do is working to connect brands with how consumers think and feel. Identity influences behaviour, so I help brands understand identity to better dictate consumer behaviour.
2. How do you differentiate between ‘marketing’ and ‘brand strategy’?
I’m the Director of Marketing for BRNT Group which is 80% of my time, and the other 20% I consult. I do think there is an important distinction between the two, and my work really started to shift to reflect this last year. I was consulting for an agency in Calgary, and I would do their audits. Essentially, they would come to me asking, “This is the company we are building, where do we need to go with this brand?” and I would look at current marketplace, evaluate all existing brands in that space for positioning, and then figure out the pockets and subsequent strategy for that particular brand. So, in my mind, marketing is the external communication of a brand, while branding is the internal work that’s done beforehand and sets the stage for marketing, advertising, and social. It all begins with the brand.
3. Can you tell me a bit more about BRNT?
BRNT Group is an aesthetically-driven cannabis accessory brand based in Edmonton. We’re now across Canada in about 140 locations and are going to be selling globally by the end of the year, while we also launch two sister brands. It’s a very cool company — everything we do is of the highest quality, and our design perspective is inspired by trends from around the world. Cannabis is such an interesting field to work in, everything is pioneered and fresh because there are no industry trends to fall back on or learn from… a few years ago the industry didn’t even exist.
4. What’s it been like to market for a cannabis company, with the industry being so new?
I find that the people who have really succeeded on the brand or marketing side of things are really good what they do because the industry is so closely regulated in its infancy, especially from a creative perspective. Basically, we are given a certain set of rules and, usually, one company pushes those limits and shifts into the ‘grey zone’ while we all wait to see what happens. If it isn’t pushed back on, we treat that as a new standard, of sorts. Slowly, we’re all pushing the envelope together, piece by piece.
5. Do you find that a career in cannabis is still a bit controversial?
To be totally honest, when I was first approached for this role by a mentor of mine who worked within the company, I thought “Wow, I’m not really sure… because it’s in the cannabis space” and his response really stuck with me, to this day. He told me, “Here’s your opportunity. You can either be a pioneer or jump on the bandwagon in 10 years when everyone else is on it.”
6. When a new brand comes to you for consulting, what are your first steps be while working with them?
My first step with clients is helping them to understand what they do. You’d be surprised to know the number of people I sit down with, who are stumped by the question “What do you do?”. It’s often a hard thing for people to articulate, without over-complicating it. Sometimes you work with people who are doing 10 million in sales but can’t seem to get to the next level in their business. Why? Because they aren’t 100% sure of their identity. There is just a huge energetic shift once you get clear on what you’re doing. So, one of my main goals is to help provide my clients with the clarity they need.
7. What is a major challenge you often face with clients?
A lot of times, clients feel if they pick a ‘niche’, they’re saying ‘no’ to a bunch of people. To which I reply, “Well, you are… but that’s the whole point”. You can’t say yes to everyone, because not everyone is going to say yes to you. Getting specific isn’t the enemy, it helps people identify with your brand. When you’re too broad, it’s hard for people to see themselves in your brand. The more defined you get, consumers will actually start trying to fit into your box. People want to work with specialists.
8. What is something you’ve learned as a young entrepreneur in your industry?
It seems counter-intuitive, but I promise you — the more time you take away from your business, the more successful it will be. I say that having been there, having owned a brick-and-mortar store in the product space, to being a service-based contractor now. It’s easy to feel like that business can’t survive without you, that you have to be working on it 100% of the time. But I realized that more time I took away from work and established a healthy balance, the more time I spent on myself — investing in my own health and self-work, the more my business thrived. It was when I created time and space from the business, that I started to make more money… because I was simply doing better work.