Illustration of mountains under stars.

Searching for Sherpas

How a competitive audit showed the way for our brand

By Matt Steel
30 July 2021

When Jon and I started Steel Brothers in June 2020, we immediately got to work on client projects. Besides a name, we had absolutely nothing in terms of our brand language and identity. And we had no web presence besides my personal website and a fledgling Instagram account with “fpo” (for placement only) as the avatar.

I decided to use this awkward toddler phase to give you an insider’s view, documenting the process of building our brand from research and writing to design and launch. This essay is the first in a five-part series.

My purpose in writing this series is threefold. First, to shine a light on what takes place during a branding project and dispel some of the mystique. Second, to reveal the intent and value of each phase. And finally, I want to show you how it all comes together.

You’ll get a play-by-play view of how we work at Steel Brothers. To borrow from The Mandalorian, this isn’t the way, but it’s our way – and it works.

I’ve led more than two dozen branding projects that included verbal and visual components, and my process is constantly evolving. I hope I never stop learning, testing various methods, failing up and perfecting each step. But in the last 3–4 years, I’ve settled into a core approach that consistently turns businesses into brands that people love.

The key to good decision-making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.”
Malcolm Gladwell

In addition to qualitative and quantitative research, I use the Enneagram, a framework for self-knowledge, to give brands a human soul. I use what’s unique and often subconsciously hidden within you as the main point of difference for your company. You get an authentic identity that slices through the noise. And you get tools that will strengthen your team for years to come. Value far beyond the brand.

I call this essential branding. Sorry, I mean Essential Branding™.

Just kidding. You shouldn’t trust people who trademark their processes.

Essential brands aren’t sunk costs; they drive business, producing more money than they consume. They attract and retain ideal customers and employees. Airbnb, Monocle, Patagonia, Warby Parker and Virgin are a few brands either accidentally or intentionally based on real people’s values and purposes. As such, they’re authentic, original and winsome. They exhibit high levels of empathy for their customers. Empathetic people are curious and curious people are nimble. It’s no accident these brands have remained essential through fluctuating markets.

There’s a strong connection between the character and personalities of business leaders and their brands’ effectiveness. When leaders are self-aware and honest, their public promises are realistic and attractive. And when leaders possess integrity, the business delivers on its promises. People talk and the brand (i.e., reputation) grows. If there’s a disconnect at any link in the chain, the results can be disastrous.

No amount of branding and no number of rebrands can save you from a personal identity crisis. As Brené Brown says, “Without self-awareness and the ability to manage our emotions, we often unknowingly lead from hurt, not heart. Not only is this a huge energy suck for us and the people around us, it creates distrust, disengagement, and an eggshell culture.”

For brand-builders, there’s a balance to be struck. Self-awareness devolves into self-absorption if it doesn’t turn outward. We have to spend time with our customers, ask about their hopes and dreams, and discern patterns and differences between market categories. And of course, we need to know who else is trying to reach our customers.

At Steel Brothers, we tailor research methods to every client but we always aim for this careful tension between looking inward and outward. When developing our studio’s brand strategy and identity, we used three instruments: a competitive audit, written surveys and Enneagram assessments. This essay focuses on the audit.

Keep Your Competitors Close

We talk a great deal about purpose in the branding field, and for a good reason. Without purpose, every business and every person is lost. But competition is really what branding is all about. A strong brand is a decisive competitive advantage, and healthy competition sharpens everyone involved. To deliver maximum value, we need to understand who we’re up against and then thoroughly dominate the game. In a nice way.

As Michael Johnson says in his indispensable Branding in Five and a Half Steps, there are several kinds of audits that can produce superb insights at the start of a branding project.

Visual and verbal audits provide clear analysis of current communication instruments in established businesses. This exercise helps clients and agencies determine where to focus their energies during the writing and design stages.

Behavioral audits are ideal for business-to-consumer (b2c) brands – hospitality in particular. If I’m branding a delivery service or a hotel, I’d want to ride along or watch staff interact with customers. How do they greet people? What’s their approach to conflict and complaints? What does their body language say? As Johnson says, this tactic reveals the conscious and unconscious messages and signals that employees are sending.

Competitive and peer audits take in all of the above for direct, indirect (peer) and aspirational competitors. These are helpful for any business and vital when branding startups.

A solid competitive audit maps out your playing field. You can locate your competitors, locate yourself today and tack a few pins in the places you want to go in five or ten years. Another great feature: you can do a competitive audit separately from a branding project. I recommend running a fresh audit every 3–5 years.

If the thought of mapping an entire industry makes your palms sweat, fear not. Exhaustive competitive audits obfuscate more than they clarify. Selectiveness is your buddy here.

For Steel Brothers, we reviewed eight companies: four direct competitors, two indirect competitors (shops we might come up against at some point), and two aspirational competitors (bourbon would flow if we so much as bid a project against them). One fits into both the direct and aspirational camps, meaning we’ll probably compete with them in the next few years, and we’ve got our work cut out for us when that happens.

Five of these shops are in the Southeastern US, one is on the West Coast, one is in the UK and one is in Australia.

We set basic criteria upfront to keep the audit focused and relevant.

  1. Independent creative agencies that specialize in branding. No ad agencies, full-service firms or generalists.
  2. Small is a great destination. We looked at shops with teams ranging from 2–15 people. No freelancers or larger agencies.
  3. Focus on small to mid-sized clients. The odd multinational client is okay, but mega clients often require monster agencies.
  4. Solid portfolios only. Everyone on our list produces work we’d be proud to call our own.

We audited each agency across several categories, using a blend of qualitative analysis and quantitative research. Our goal was to boil everyone down to two critical competitive factors: value and magnetism.

We used two 2×2 matrices.
Portfolio × price point = value.
Distinction × Influence = magnetism.

If we’re judges in an award show, how do we grade their work from 1–10? How strong is their portfolio in terms of copywriting, design and art direction? Do they demonstrate expertise across all media, or do they suck at websites and excel at print?

Price Point
This is where Jon really delivered. Through public records, networking and good old-fashioned phone calls, he sussed out hourly rates as of 2020. Granted, many people in our industry use project-based or value-based pricing models rather than flat fees based on hourly estimates or hourly retainers. Some use all of the above. But if you poke a little or a lot, you can get an hourly rate from virtually any creative shop, and that rate will be a fair indicator of their general price point. Full disclosure: our original audit list was longer, but several agencies either didn’t respond or didn’t want to divulge their rates.

Have they taken their own medicine? Is their language compelling and unique, or is it lukewarm gruel from the “we collaborate with you to make cool things” bucket? Does their visual identity overshadow the client work, or, as we often see in this industry, are they virtually brandless?

As with portfolios, we graded distinction on a ten-point scale. We assessed brand language and visual identity separately and derived a single score from the average of both. I was glad we kept track of separate verbal and visual scores, which yielded a fascinating insight. More on that later.

This is hard to quantify, but thankfully a sketch was all we needed. To get a low-resolution picture of each agency’s influence, we started by looking at their Instagram feeds, how many followers each company has, and the quality and variety of engagement. Agencies with substantial followings are more likely to have work featured on leading design sites, give talks at conferences and so on. The inverse is also true, but we weren’t trying to solve the chicken-or-egg paradox.

Influence scores were based primarily on the raw number of followers, with plus or minus bumps depending on quality of engagement and agency team size in proportion to followers. We also considered other factors such as book publishing and other promotional activities.

Setting aside the fact that Instagram is run by the world’s leading surveillance agency and uses the same shady algorithms, Instagram is simpler and less noisy than its big blue brother. And it’s by far the most-used social media platform in our industry. At least a few competitors on our list have enrolled clients through conversations that began on Instagram.

Before we zoom in on our competition (sorry, no names or hints), let’s look at a snapshot of the creative industry at large. First through the lens of value, and secondly, magnetism. This high-level analysis came out of our audit’s last stages and it’s a helpful exercise for every industry. It helps you not only figure out who you’re running with but who you want to run from.

Hike, don’t hustle

Let’s unpack these patterns clockwise from the bottom right. These are broad characterizations with any number of variations. Coining descriptive and even silly names can help you remember core traits.

Golden Hamsters do solid work but could stand to raise their fees, sometimes by $50 per hour or more. They stay afloat by churning out work at a high rate, often working gonzo hours. There are lots of these people in my industry and many of them hit a wall and burn out. Some don’t bounce back.

Flounders produce work of mediocre or worse quality at relatively low rates. Few stick around for very long. If they do, it’s by finding uninformed clients and failing to elevate their standards, most often through a simple lack of chops and unfocused purpose. Years ago, I worked at one of these places for six weeks and then fled. It’s not on my resumé.

Hustlers have somehow figured out how to command high fees for lousy work. Nearing the diagram’s middle, we have shops that do mediocre work for above-average prices and are almost certainly not consciously ripping people off. And at the other extreme are those in the upper left corner, which might be a purely theoretical zone for all I know. I couldn’t think of any agency owners who fit in that space, but if they exist, I’d imagine their high school yearbook prediction might’ve been “Most Likely to Start a Cult.” It’s worth naming this quadrant if only to make sure we don’t get lazy and fall into the dark hustle.

Sherpas produce excellent work for high fees. This combination isn’t a panacea for long-term success or a sustainable lifestyle – for some people, “Enough” is never enough. Still, you’ll often find agencies in this space who consistently ship good work, at a steady pace, for decades on end. Retirement is optional for these people. They don’t have to drive themselves into the ground because they’ve cultivated discerning clients who understand that good work takes time and comes with an appropriate price tag. The great Milton Glaser was a Sherpa.

Loud Lookalikes can be either Golden Hamsters or Sherpas in terms of value. Their work is good and visibility is high, but their brands have no discernible position or distinction. They’ve got a bullhorn but aren’t saying anything new.

Gray Ghosts are also virtually brandless but with insubstantial visibility. The ones who survive rely on word of mouth. In all fairness, I know many lovely, talented, solvent and definitely living people in this category. Most of them are freelancers over the age of 45. They’ve been self-employed since before social media was a thing. But if established relationships dissipate, they could wind up floating through the halls and walls of Hogwarts.

Hidden Gems are worth watching when motivated and armed with effective marketing tactics. They’ve put some elbow grease into their own brands, but visibility is low, often because they’re new (like us). When motivation is lacking, or they hide their work, these people become the quintessential suffering artists.

North Stars are the relatively few agencies with stand-out brands and high visibility relative to team size. They set industry standards. The very best of them are Sherpas.

Five years from now, this is where we want to be.

Here’s the aggregate data. Steel Brothers are the black dots; since we’re both the client and the consultant, I asked a couple of discerning colleagues to grade us in the two purely qualitative categories. The $150–$250 price range is hourly rates as of eoy 2020. And the 35k figure is the approximate ceiling of Instagram followers for small studios.


We were surprised to find relative parity of rates across three continents and various team sizes. For example, two agencies in different countries reported the exact same rates in 2020. One had 3–4 employees, and the other had 12.

In terms of how Steel Brothers stacks up, our audit revealed two competitive advantages, two disadvantages and two opportunities.


Competitive Pricing
We did this research shortly after we opened for business, and it enabled us to confidently set our rates and stand by them. At $200 per hour or $1,600 per day, we’re just below the meridian in this group of competitors. It’s good to know you’re paying yourself a living wage, better to know you haven’t priced yourself out of market, and great to know you don’t have to work like a maniac to turn a profit.

There are two quick sidebars worth taking here. First, as I mentioned above, creative firms use several methods to price their work. Jon and I have been looking to get away from hourly and day rates, which tend to punish efficiency and put more focus on input than output. Time-based rates also completely ignore factors like market performance or regional size. We’re moving towards project-based and value-based pricing, both of which offer distinct benefits to both client and firm. Value-based pricing is particularly interesting. It fosters outcome-related dialogue – and outcomes are all that clients actually care about. Interesting questions arise, such as how much do you value a strong brand? or what market share do you hope to claim next year or in five years? and what is the average annual value of a customer?

Secondly, creative professionals consistently undervalue their work and don’t charge enough. It’s a stubborn old plague, and it’s why there are hordes of Golden Hamsters spinning their wheels. Pricing can be treated as a marketing tool that attracts savvy clients and repels tire-kickers. A high price compels a designer towards creative integrity, i.e. delivering their very best work. I often quote Dann Petty on this topic: “Buy nice or buy twice.”

Brand Balance
Two firms have strong (9+) visual identities, and two have strong brand language. None of them are excellent across the board; their image is significantly better than their words or vice versa. I’m a designer who writes, and this is an area where Steel Brothers can shine right out of the gate, solving for half of the magnetism equation.


Public Portfolio
Our work’s quality is competitive with our selected group. But we need to step up our game in several categories. And it’ll take at least three years for our public portfolio to fully capture our capabilities and come anywhere close to the competition. From 2016–2020, I led portfolio-worthy projects that we can’t show because they were for another agency’s clients. All but one of the projects we can show right now predate 2016. We’ll spend much of the next few years playing catch-up.

As a fledgling studio that dove into client work before our own brand and website existed, we have a long road ahead of us regarding influence and visibility. A proactive social strategy will help, but the field of play is jam-packed and algorithms rule the roost. We have little control over what people see or don’t see.


Steel Brothers has room for significant differentiation through self-publishing. Only one of the agencies we audited is committed to publishing. Studio news bulletins and infrequent emails don’t count.

Publishing books, articles, newsletters – these are tactics agencies can control. But publishing is time-consuming and few do it effectively. In light of that, Jon and I have started hatching plans for ways to monetize our self-initiated publishing and art projects.

Leading by Faith
If you know me personally or you’ve read my other essays, you probably know I’m a Christian. So is Jon. Belief in Jesus is the central fact of our lives. We deliberately chose to speak and write openly about our faith on Steel Brothers’ website and everywhere else. This isn’t a marketing ploy or a manipulation. It’s a mandate: we have no other choice. We believe God is making all things new and that this is very good news. It would be selfish for us to keep quiet. Faith informs everything we do, but we never beat people over the head with it. We work with anyone seeking to make a difference, no matter what they believe. But we will not hide or compromise what we stand for under any circumstances.

As far as I know, there are no other firms in our industry that are committed to constantly outdoing themselves and leading with faith on their sleeves. Some get political, many are outspoken about cultural issues, but they don’t talk openly about spiritual matters.

Our stance will turn some people away. We may even be ostracized and publicly shamed. The creative professions are densely populated with agnostics, atheists, and pantheists, after all, and some of them are vehemently opposed to Christianity. I respect and support their right to disagree.

And yet, for some people, the clarity and uniqueness of our message will be a breath of fresh air. As our positioning has taken shape, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by its warm reception from my non-Christian friends.

At any rate, we sure as hell won’t blend in.

· § ·

This audit underscores a fact that seems simple but is commonly ignored in practice: brand, marketing, operations and sales strategies are deeply linked. Pricing is a brand positioning tool. Absent values, operations fall apart. Reactive marketing squanders brand identity and equity. Business leaders silo these disciplines and populate them with highly specialized experts to their detriment.

If a brand audit sounds like a valuable exercise for your business, let’s talk.

In the next installment, we’ll dive into survey results and Enneagram profiles.