Stargazing : Harmony Walton + The Bridal Bar


I’m thrilled and honored to be starting a new feature on my blog…STARGAZING. These features will highlight people who inspire me, challenge me, and who are overall just great at what they do. Better yet, they’re amazing people. I’m excited to launch the features with Harmony Walton of The Bridal Bar! I met Harmony last year, but her reputation preceded her…a reputation filled with determination, fearlessness, and sheer drive. She runs an amazing business, but what she’s best known for is branding. Harmony is business saavy and is one of the sharpest tools in the shed. I asked her a few questions and–boy, oh boy–did she answer. If you’re wanting to build a stronger brand, take a look at the following feature and I’m sure she’ll blow you away…

What do you do?
I run The Bridal Bar Los Angeles and Bridal Bar corporate as we expand into other markets and diversify into other ventures. What is The Bridal Bar? A group of boutiques that represent the best of the best local event professionals in a variety of industries, with a varied set of styles and price points. We offer complimentary assistance to couples planning their weddings, looking for guidance, inspiration, and trusted event pros to carry out their wedding day wishes, unique and specific to each couple.

How much is Harmony Walton infused in The Bridal Bar brand?
Humm…good question…a lot, I think. The business was built on offering real, honest, and helpful advice to couples needing protection from a sea of mediocre and some unethical businesses and I’m a straight shooter so I think a lot of what we do is who I actually am. Thanks to social media and the media in general, I’ve become more of the brand since its inception because we need to have a voice from within. I’d prefer it if our clients were the voice of our brand instead of me, and we have that balance for sure, but the bigger we grow, the more of me you see in the brand. It’s a necessary evil – we won’t succeed if the brand isn’t me or isn’t us, but sometimes I’d rather just be me, and not be a brand at the same time.

What the best advice you can give a business person who’s trying to brand herself?
I think there are three keys to someone starting out down this path (other than start early -don’t do this as afterthought).
1. Be true to you. Stop looking around at others to determine who and what your business and brand should be. I read a billboard recently for a car company and it stated: “be an icon, not an imitation”.” Brilliantly put. If you try to imitate, whether in concept, color palette, strategy, logo, whatever, you won’t get as far in the long run as you could if you went out and put yourself out there to be what you were meant to be. We are all different so no two people will execute the same plan equally; why try?
2. Don’t try to do it all yourself. I see so many bad brands because someone knew who they were and thought they could express that better (or cheaper) than enlisting a professional to help them interpret that and create it. Get help from the start. You don’t want a homemade brand today and be forced to re-brand all over again when your business grows and you’ve realized your makeshift materials or strategy just won’t do. That will cost you more in the end.
3. Be timeless and don’t look to the trends. Just like re-branding a poorly executed company, re-branding every two years because that trendy palette is no longer hip or that message was short lived because you jumped on a bandwagon and now are searching for a new one to generate revenue is just plain silly. Find a business, a brand, an identity, that’s as timeless as you possibly can. Of course you will evolve over time, but evolving and growing is different from starting over at the end of every season.

What are the top three things a business person should invest in at the start of their business?
First off, brand identity and brand protection. Invest in a company you can be proud of ten years down the line when you’re as big and famous as you never knew you would be. Then protect that brand. I have so many clients right now who never thought they would be as successful as they are and others have since knocked them off. But when they started, they didn’t think big and now they’re going through the heartache of fighting to keep their brands because they were never trademarked or legally protected. The Bridal Bar is even facing this battle, it’s not the first time and it probably won’t be the last. But luckily, we protected ourselves so we have the law on our side and so should everyone with a good idea!

Secondly, infrastructure and systems. Something I learned much later in my business (and am still learning and need to work at). I could have grown five times faster had I built the right infrastructure, insulated myself with the right team, and created internal programs for efficiency, growth, diversification and success. I think small business owners (or at least I thought this), think we can do it all ourselves (sometimes because we have to) and that we’ll add structure as it’s needed. I definitely learned on the job. But if you invest the time and money to do this from the start, you don’t need to be the only one running the ship and the ship sails faster and farther than with that one man crew. I’ve been able to grow in ways I didn’t plan on, so of course, we added systems and adapt still, but if I had built from the beginning this way, I certainly would get a lot more sleep and would probably be in a very different place today.

Lastly, when the brand is defined, executed, adequately badass, of course protected, and you’re ready to take on the boom of business; you’ve got to market that business. I don’t care if that’s through a pr firm, social media, print advertising, events, or all of the above and more (as it should be) – it’s got to be done. You have to sell yourself. So many people make the mistake of building a beautiful website and coming up with a creative name or concept, spend all their money upfront, but then don’t understand why the line isn’t forming to the left. You have to spend money to make money; you have to market your value. It certainly can cost a fortune but it doesn’t have to if it’s not in your budget, but you have to put the company out there – strategically and in the right places for where you want to be at the end of the day. Without it, all those pretty materials and your creative ideas are irrelevant.

In light of the economic downturn, are there cost-effective ways to brand a business?
Absolutely! In the creative market that we work in, branding your business can be as cheap as swapping services and growing that brand can cost you just your time. Work with an invitation designer to create an identity, logo and brand materials for you in exchange for photographing their line in your studio or giving them floral trade at your boutique for the holidays (and getting your name out to their clients at the same time!) Once you have your “brand,” so much of branding is the company you keep; so align yourself with like-minded companies and work together. Whether that be on a giveaway (for companies marketing price-conscious brides), a swanky event or launch of something new at which resources are pooled together, a group blog sharing expert ideas from across trades to grow the fan base and readership, or giving to those that can in some way grow your business or position your brand in the place you’d like it to be. Be as creative in marketing as you are in your product for your clients. Necessity is the mother of invention, so without the cash flow; figure out something better than traditional means. And of course, with the explosion of social media, you’ve got the fastest and freest form of branding and marketing at your fingertips if you just put in the time.

The Bridal Bar is often asked to appear on television and make cameos in features, how do you pick and choose what you lend your brand to?
Well, to be honest, at first, I didn’t. I was (and still am a bit of) a media whore (can I say that?!?!) so in the beginning, I took it all! The Bridal Bar and I have even been in a really bad C movie that luckily not a lot of people saw. But overall, the media has helped my business in more ways than I can count; I’m so blessed by their support, so it’s difficult for me to turn down an opportunity – and saying no isn’t my strongest trait. But as the brand has become a brand, I am more careful. When Playboy called for the Girls Next Door and then the Kendra Show, I seriously debated it. What would that say about us or how would that position us to the luxury bride? But I’ve always been a big risk taker, so I went for it. And it was absolutely fantastic for the business, so I’m glad I did…many of the girls at Playboy are still regular clients; I love the organization, so I’m happy my fears or preconceived stereotype didn’t stop me. But more recently I did turn down a huge press opportunity that I was also on the fence about when it came my way but my advisors were adamant about not doing it. We’ll see if it pays off, but often times it is a gamble, so I just have to go with my gut and get the advice of people I trust and respect.

What’s the biggest mistake you made?
Thinking I could do it all myself. I am still learning not be an island in my work. We all need amazing people around us to better ourselves and better our businesses because they do things well that we don’t. I should have insulated my business from the beginning with a core team who excel in different areas to perfect the model and grow bigger, better, and faster. With the right people around you, you make fewer mistakes.

What’s the highlight of your career thus far?
Probably the day Tom Cruise’s camp called for his wedding to Katie Holmes. It was the biggest wedding of the time and here I was, just a relative new comer with my shop, and they reached out asking for me. That was a fun time, a pretty crazy experience (in a good way) and a total honor for me and my company.

What are you afraid of?
Becoming irrelevant. I’m enjoying working a little less than I used to but I feel like if I begin to balance my life, my business won’t be a constant in the marketplace and my competitive nature keeps me focused on being the best. Then again, taking more of my own advice would mean I’d be safe from this. I’ve just built something I think is pretty great and letting go of it while still holding onto the success and making it ten times what it is today is always in the back of my mind.

What are you most looking forward to in 2010?
Time with my niece and my soon-to-be-born second niece (working on that balance thing!) But professionally…seeing a Bridal Bar project come to fruition, something that’s been in the works on and off for a few years now and I’m hoping it takes shape and finally finishes in early ’10. Stay tuned to see what happens…