Marc Ecko’s #1 Branding Tip

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If you ask Marc Ecko about the key to success, he’ll say that authenticity is everything. Ecko, a graffiti-artist-slash-pharmacy-student-turned-fashion-designer, sat down withInc.’s Scott Gerber to discuss branding, strategy, and his new book, Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out.

During the conversation, the man behind the billion-dollar business offered some sage advice for young entrepreneurs seeking to break through their mental barriers and embrace their authentic brand.

It’s OK to Be Emotional

According to Ecko, fear is the first challenge to overcome–by understanding it better. “So much of what inhibits us is our inability to overcome that threshold of not wanting to be ridiculed or not wanting to be judged by your peers or others,” he says. In order to do so, you have to think about and identify what’s really holding you back. In Ecko’s case, it was the anxiety of being a “white Jewish kid from Lakewood, New Jersey” trying to break into the hip-hop fashion world in a commercial way.

What should you do? Understand the root of your fear. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m afraid of losing my shirt.’ … It’s another thing to be afraid because you’re afraid of how you’re going to feel.” He suggests asking yourself if you’re being emotionally honest–and then taking an inventory of why. “Is it the external motivation, or is it money?” he asks. “The answer’s not a one-size-fits-all.”

The reason that many people have trouble doing this is because they try to deny how emotional entrepreneurship can be. “It’s an emotionally grueling business,” says Ecko. “It is a full contact sport. We don’t make room for the emotional realities that take place on the field, in the office, in the pursuit of your creation of your business, of your invention.” To move forward, it’s necessary to accept the emotional aspects. “It’s OK to have a mirror around how you’re feeling,” he says.

Find a “Quiet” in Adversity

At the low point of Ecko’s business, he had overstretched credit and millions of dollars in debt, despite strong market demand for products. “That was a really pivotal moment in my career where it seemed like everywhere I was going, there were wolves and people that I owed money to,” he says.

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But he credits that difficult time with giving him the “ability to find a quiet” and to focus on what was truly important. He and his team turned to “that classic old chart that they draw, which is ‘urgent vs. important’ and what quadrant something falls in,” he says. “We pretty much focused on all the urgent and important things and stopped being distracted by some of riffraff in marketing, some of the nice-to-haves.”

The situation forced him to reconsider what the market truly wanted from his product line. Eventually, he says, he chose one core item–the hoodie–and decided, “I’m going to build the hell out of this.”

Focus on What Makes You Authentic

“There’s something very powerful about giving yourself the space of quiet and giving yourself the space of saying, ‘Well, what’s the need-to-have,'” says Ecko. “That space is where you can thoughtfully identify the most authentic area of what you’re doing and build from there. It’s where you realize what you need to say yes to and what you need to turn down.”

The danger is when you get caught up in “the blocking and tackling, checking a box, fulfilling a punch list of ‘Well, this is what needs to happen right in this instance,'” explains Ecko. That’s how “you lose sight of the context of the potential of your platform.”

To get to your authentic brand, you need to pause and take an honest look at your motivations. “Sometimes it might be money. That’s OK. Sometimes it might be because you want to be liked. And that’s OK, too. But at least articulate it and have that process,” says Ecko. “Give yourself the space for understanding that and then see if you’re measuring up to those standards in everything that you’re doing.”

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