Identity Crisis (It’s a Good Thing to Have One): Discovering the Heart of Your Behavior Business for Sustainable Success

Written by Kim Brophey, CDBC

Part Two of The Business of Animal Behavior in the 21st Century Marketplace Series

In our first article in this series, we tackled some of our collective industry assumptions about financial obstacles. We talked about the important reasons why we need to start to overcome them, about the connection between company success and our ability to reach the animals and people who need our help as behavior consultants. Now that we are all on the same page and have gotten all that “why” stuff out of the way, it’s time to get to work. In this edition, we will address your need to have a cathartic business identity crisis (even if it is just a little one) in order to concentrate your efforts and stake a claim in your community as the place to go when a potential client is looking for a service.

What is our client looking for? And who, as a matter of fact, is our client? If we can’t answer these questions, we sure as heck aren’t going to be able to reach them with effective messaging and marketing strategies. If we don’t know what is motivating the people we are trying to lure, how can we attract them and engage them as customers and help their animals? We can’t afford to be vague about the answers to these kinds of questions. We need to get very specific if we want to be successful over the long haul.

We have to go through a process of answering some hard questions. We have to get clear on who we are and who we are not, what defines us as a business and what is superfluous or secondary to our core: This is our identity. We need to then recognize who our audience—our ideal customers —are: They are our avatars.  We can then speak directly to them with meaningful messaging: This is our hook.

It’s iust behavior mod for the people

The irony is that, for all our inadequacies in the world of business and marketing to other people, we behavior consultants and trainers go through this kind of “marketing” process every day with dogs, cats, birds, and horses.

We know what kind of animals we work with and which ones we don’t (our avatars). We know a great deal about their specific natures, needs, challenges, and motivations. We are generally clear about what we have to offer these creatures, what unique assets we bring to the table of conversation with them in order to make a difference for them (our identity). We are observant, curious, and understanding about their experiences and feelings. We reach them because we are able to honestly perceive their potential and limitations, and because we understand how to employ what matters to them as the motivation to take new actions (our hook).

Every new animal we work with, every new case or behavior challenge we are tasked to address, demands that we consider exactly these things with the creature in front of us. We are actually quite accustomed to approaching a situation in this fashion, and are remarkably primed to accomplish great things with our companies given our knowledge and experience with animal behavior. We just have to turn our attention toward the two-legged animals we are trying to reach, grab them by the “lizard brain” with meaningful marketing, and shape their behavior into actions that will make the difference for their cherished pets.

Crystal clear

The first thing we need, each and every day, is a personal reality check. This IDENTITY piece of the puzzle is where it all begins; it requires getting honest, humble, and practical. We have to know what our own potential and limitations are as professionals, even though we don’t always like to admit what our strengths and weaknesses are. We want to be good at everything. But getting in over our heads, too big for our britches, or spreading ourselves too thin will always backfire sooner or later.

How can we effectively communicate who we are to our ideal customer if we don’t know? We have to know what the heart of our work is so that we can concentrate our efforts into real results that fit our mission. The public is going to largely pigeonhole your business, whether you like it or not. You will get a reputation for something, whether accidentally or by your deliberate choice.

Are you the problem solver for serious behavior problems in the region? Are you the fun trainer for sports, tricks, and competition in your city? Are you the place to go for group classes in town? Are you the cat whisperer in the state? Are you the only professional capable of working dangerous aggression cases? Are you the guy to call when someone has questions about weird bird behavior? Are you the only trainer that the community trusts with their high-dollar hunter-jumper horses?

Whatever your company does best, and most definitively, needs to be the focus of your marketing (even if you do offer many other things). The worst thing you can be in your town is none of the above. If you get a reputation for nothing, you do not exist in the minds of your potential customers.  You are just another company.

Ambiguity only creates confusion and hesitation (or even worse, acute anxiety) for any animal. Clarity fosters confidence, not just in critters but in people too. You need to decide what matters most in order to become the anything in your city and effectively serve your customers. Really wrestle with your identity. Be prepared to pull your hair out a little as you ask yourself, “Who am I?” It’s all good—it’s totally cleansing for the business of the soul.

The nitty gritty

So get yourself a pen and paper. You are about to engage some serious brainstorming. As with any identity crisis, it is bound to get a little messy. Your assignment is to write down all of the words and phrases that come to mind when you ask yourself the question, “Who am I?” Be brutal and demanding.  Think about what makes your company different from other businesses.

Why are you better or special? What makes you unique? What is your product or service? If there is more than one, can you identify the primary three? Is there an underlying theme to the most important services you offer? What do your offerings say about your company’s values? What needs, what demands, are you able to meet for your human and non-human customers? Is there really a demand for what you are offering in the first place? Do you need to make a change in the course of the company services because the market demands of the pet owners have shifted? What do your customers say about your services? What are your greatest assets and strengths? What are your greatest weaknesses or obstacles?  What is the bread and butter of your income, and what is failing to produce revenue? And what, after all, gets you out of bed in the first place to do this every day? Are the things that seem important to you about the company really important to your customers? (You should never be having to convince people that something should be important to them, but rather be speaking to something that already is.)

If you have done this exercise correctly, you should have pages upon pages of notes with all sorts of words and phrases scattered about—some of them starred and highlighted, and others scratched out altogether. You should emerge from this pile with a very short list of three or four quintessential defining elements of your business identity. They might be something like “best classes,” “family-friendly,” “professional,” and “fun.” They could be things like “serious behavior problem intervention,” “effective results,” “elite certification.” There should be a sense of a shared tone between your key characteristics, as if they merge together with a certain feeling and possess a general quality across their features. Challenge yourself, as your go through the process, to think about whether you feel you are in an uphill battle trying to define yourself by criteria that are meaningful to you but seem to be meaningless in your community. It won’t do you any good to market yourself as a highly credentialed, scientific professional if no one in your town gives a hoot about that stuff.

So, by the next article in our series you should have your list ready. If you can get it down to a list of under 10, pat yourself on the back. You’re on your way. Next, we will be talking in greater detail about who your ideal customer actually is, and what really matters to them. This next step of the process might help you to clarify your identity further.

For now, roll your sleeves up and get prepared to get dirty in your fun little crisis. The animals, and your wallet, will thank you for it later.


Kim Brophey, CDBC, is the owner of The Dog Door behavior center, store, and dog welcome center in Asheville, NC, and serves on the board of the IAABC and Asheville Humane Society. Incorrigibly passionate about humane education and innovation in applied ethology, Kim juggles a full-time behavior consulting and service/ therapy dog training career with her service positions, community initiatives, and book writing. She is determined to deliver practical science to the masses for the benefit of all species.