Trueline CEO Haj Carr named a finalist for MADcon 2020 award

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Trueline CEO, Haj Carr on marketing and what it means to be a finalist for MADcon 2020.
Trueline CEO, Haj Carr on marketing and what it means to be a finalist for MADcon 2020.

When you get one step closer to winning an award, the reaction is to take a bow—especially when it’s something as prestigious as a nod from MADcon.

However, rather than use this as an opportunity to talk about Haj’s career or the services Trueline provides, we thought we’d take a slightly different approach. Given the pain, isolation, fear and anger being felt by people and businesses around the world, we want to offer a few frank words of hope.

In the Q&A below, Haj shares his unvarnished thoughts on the power of marketing. He argues that marketing—when done well—is about being relentlessly honest and expressive. It’s not just about owning who you are; it’s about embracing who you want to be.

It’s a big departure from the conventual view of full-service marketing. And you know what? Maybe that’s exactly what we need right now.

TL: Between the COVID crisis and the massive protests against racial injustice, our country is going through a lot right now. Why do marketing and branding still matter?

HC: They’re incredibly important. Marketing and branding aren’t just what you do to sell stuff; they represent a modality of expressing yourself to the world—of conveying your values. They’re a way for organizations to define who and what they are.

TL: Can you give us an example?

HC: If Citgo gets acquired by Cumberland Farms, you don’t see the Citgo logo anymore, right? Why? Because having both logos side by side clouds the message—it obscures what the organization is about. This applies to nations as well. Were there courthouses in postwar Germany with swastika’s on display as a nod to the “history of the nation?” Of course not! The swastika represents the violent oppression of Jews, so a mindful rebrand was clearly necessary.

Now think about the Confederate flag. It’s been proudly hung in courthouses and other public spaces under the guise of “remembering Southern pride.” But the confederate flag, like the swastika, represents oppression. Specifically, the support of slavery and the belief in white supremacy. In my opinion, we should’ve made it illegal to fly that flag after the Civil War—in all public spaces. Allowing it to openly fly clouds the message that we, as post-slavery Americans, really want to express: that *all* people are indeed created equal. This belief is the promise of America; it’s our mission statement.

To borrow the words of Simon Sinek, this belief is our national “Why.” This belief is what holds our “social contract” with American society together. It’s so central to our hearts and minds that we were and remain willing to fight and die to defend it. And yet, we continue to allow this heinous, dangerous and confusing misbrand to continue to circulate, which makes it hard for the U.S. to solidify its brand message.

TL: Can you expand on that a little bit?

Marketing is about knowing who you are and how to tell your story—and that includes owning the bad parts. If I were the marketing director for the United States, I would acknowledge the past in order to build a better future. The first thing would be to recognize Native American genocide. Next, I’d acknowledge and apologize for the role slavery played in creating our economy. I would acknowledge the wrongs of patriarchy and institutionalized discrimination in all its forms—including sexual discrimination. I’d make sure that the mission and promise of America is clear: This is a place where all people are equal. I would make sure that acknowledgment was firmly weaved into our national narrative and reflected in our branding—including symbolizing it on the flag somehow.

Trueline CEO, Haj Carr poses with other panelists at the Maine Business Expo.
Haj Carr poses with other panelists at the Maine Business Expo.

The only way you change the narrative and move it forward on a solid footing is to acknowledge the aspects of the narrative that no longer work. That’s why I take digital marketing so seriously: It’s a reflection of your values.

TL: Given the state of the economy, and the uncertainty that lies ahead, a lot of businesses are having to make tough choices—including making cuts to their marketing departments. What would you say to those businesses? 

Abandoning your marketing plan is like being on a boat in the middle of a storm and literally jumping ship. It’s the worst thing you can do. I understand that marketing can have a pejorative ring. People often see it as this nebulous or ambiguous thing. But that’s because they don’t understand it or know how to measure it. Marketing is about your values. It’s also about how you position your product or service, and how you navigate the waters around you. Marketing is your ship. How do you navigate those seas without a ship?

When the waters get rough, as they are right now, you have to be able to tack—everything from how and where you work to what your business strategy is. When the winds change, and you don’t tack, the boat flips. It’s those who change with the wind that will make it. This is a pivotal time for a lot of businesses—a time when the work we do informs overall business health and viability.

TL: You’re also a big believer in the power of personal branding. For people who are just trying to weather the storm, why should they care about personal branding?

The most important thing about personal branding is to recognize that you have one. I don’t care if you’re a general counsel for a Fortune 100 company or an intern at a small newspaper, you have a personal brand. To me, it’s about being an entrepreneur with your time. At the end of the day, we’re all workers. We all exchange our time for money. But what you have to realize is that *you* are your biggest asset. Not the company you work for, not your education, and not what’s in your bank account.

In this way, personal branding lets people come alive and own their time. When you honor your personal brand, there’s an awakening that happens that allows us to view our role in our capitalist society in a different way. Capitalism has a lot of pros and cons, but to make it sustainable, and to make it work for everyone, we have to encourage everyone to own their role in this greater system. That, to me, is what personal branding is about.