Susan Willig is passionate and committed to creating “TrueNorth” Marketing and Brand Strategy for Healthcare Startups, Early-stage, and “Restarts”

Susan Willig has a passion and purpose for creating a strategic foundation for startups, and early-stage and “restart” companies to achieve optimal growth and success.

Susan has over 30 years of experience, working with market leaders such as Edwards Lifesciences, Thomson Reuters, LexisNexis, and Gateway Computer.

In this exclusive interview with the USA Leaders, Susan shares her journey and vision as the founder and chief brand strategist of TrueNorth, a firm that helps healthcare early-stage companies and those going through a seismic shift create their TrueNorth brand and marketing strategy, regardless of their stage – because the earlier the better. She also explains why personal branding is as important as corporate branding, and how leaders can leverage it to achieve their goals and create positive social impact.

Susan also talks about the importance of women supporting each other in business, and the value of creating community, mentorship, and empowering other women leaders and professionals.

The USA Leaders: Susan, thank you for joining us today. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got interested in marketing and brand?

Susan: Thank you for this opportunity to share my story and collaborate with you and your audience. Throughout my career, my goal was to get closer and closer to where brand strategy originates. I have always been fascinated by how people think and act and how to influence them positively. When I was 18, I read the book Positioning, the Battle for Your Mind by Ries and Trout, and it resonated with me. It was a precursor to behavioral economics. Marketing and brand represented the perfect balance of business, analytics, creativity, art, humanity, and connection.

I started my career on the agency side, working with different types of clients and learning from multiple perspectives. Then, I moved to the client side, where I had more ownership and responsibility for the brand vision and execution. I also switched between different industries, such as retail, entertainment, and education, to broaden my experience and challenge myself.

Ultimately, I pursued a career in and chose healthcare because I wanted to use my expertise and experience for something that would leave a positive footprint on the world and make a difference in people’s lives.

The USA Leaders: Tell us the origin story behind TrueNorth. Can you elaborate on the term “True North” marketing and brand strategy? What does it signify, and how does it differ from traditional marketing approaches?

Susan: This is a really good story. I worked with startups in the early 2000s and saw them squander abundant resources – time, money, people, and opportunity. They lacked discipline and did not invest in building a focused brand and marketing strategy foundation. They chased every “shiny penny” – wasting resources and ultimately failing.

“Whether you are a startup, scaling an early-stage company, or steering a ‘restart’ in healthcare, TrueNorth is your compass for optimum impact and growth.”

I started TrueNorth to guide and support startups and early-stage or “restart” companies in healthcare to create their TrueNorth brand and marketing strategy. Ensuring they know where to focus their time, money, and other resources for optimal growth and success. I often hear, well I don’t have a big marketing budget. All the more reason to be focused on where to invest. Whether they have had $1, $1M, or $10M; It’s critical to make every dollar, every resource deliver…

The name “TrueNorth” came from a female friend and former colleague. At Edwards, I always asked my team – “what’s the True North” – positioning, strategy, and objective. We were collaborating over my firm’s name and she suggested – “TrueNorth – that’s your firm’s name.” She was right. This shows the power of a tribe you trust and who knows you.

This is the magic. Women helping women (and men) to live their purpose. It means having amazing women around you who are committed to their craft and each other. I am grateful to have a group of friends and colleagues who seek each other’s mutual success and live in abundance.

The USA Leaders: TrueNorth focuses on “foundational and critical” marketing and brand strategy for early-stage companies in health care and tech. What are their most common challenges, and how does TrueNorth help them overcome them?

Susan: A common challenge is not investing time, discipline, and focus to establish the TrueNorth strategic foundation. Another is underestimating the difficulty of changing existing habits and behaviors in your target audience(s). This is the first real competition.

A third is chasing the biggest market against well-entrenched competitors with limited resources.

I respect Seth Godin’s advice to focus on the minimum viable audience and delight them. I follow the Stanford design theory to prototype, test, prototype test, and prototype test. 

The USA Leaders: You’ve built a strong personal brand as a thought leader in marketing and brand strategy. How do you see personal branding and strong community playing a role in a CMO’s success, especially for women in the industry?

Susan: Personal branding is a strategic practice where you define and express your value proposition. A strong personal brand benefits you in many ways. It enhances your visibility, especially among those who matter to you and your goals. It can help you grow your network and attract new opportunities. It can also help you discover and share your unique abilities.

Building a strong personal brand is as important for you as for a company. A brand is strongest when it is true to its core competence, understands the benefit, and communicates the value proposition clearly and distinctly. This helps the audience understand, choose, and trust the best solution. As I said before, looking inward is critical. I guide personal branding exercises like I guide product or company branding exercises.

For my personal brand, I start with my purpose and values. I seek feedback from my friends and colleagues. One of my values is abundance. I apply this to my professional and personal life. 

There is enough of everything for everyone. If we do our jobs well, we can elevate the game for all. Life and business is truly an ecosystem. And requires everyone to show up as their best selves. This is my goal…

Since starting my firm, my community and tribe have been vital.

The USA Leaders: TrueNorth is a company founded by a woman and primarily focused on woman-founded, female-focused healthcare solutions. Can you talk about the importance of women supporting each other in the business world?

Susan: There was a time when women, especially women of color, were absent from leadership teams or boards.

Even today, only 3% of funding goes to women founders. This is stark and undeniable. As I said, existing networks are often homogeneous—and for a long time, senior leadership was too.

Fortunately, now we know diversity is good. It creates better solutions, outcomes, and innovation. And it needs to be pursued—going outside one’s network and comfort zone to ensure there is a diverse perspective at the table… thereby creating the best outcomes and success for all.

The pendulum is shifting. I am surrounded by many badass professional women – some friends, and some colleagues. I learn, grow, and expand as a result of their support and collaboration in my endeavor – making connections, listening, and providing feedback.

For example, a friend and former colleague started her own firm in Ohio at the same time. We share resources, ideas, templates, and learnings. My network is ageless. We learn from our differences. We lift each other and believe in abundance without compromising excellence.  I am fortunate and grateful.

The USA Leaders: How do you achieve a healthy work-life balance? What are your hobbies/interests outside of work?

Susan: I don’t think there is a perfect work-life balance. In my career, it has always been dynamic and flexible. I love what I do, I am energized by using my brain, helping businesses grow and thrive, and creating solutions that change the world. Therefore, I don’t see work as a burden or a sacrifice. However, I do balance out my investment of time and energy with personally energizing activities that nourish my body, mind, and soul. Some of them are hiking with my dog, traveling, visiting with friends while drinking good wine, meditating, journaling, and reading.

The USA Leaders: Finally, if you could leave one piece of lasting advice for our readers, what would it be?

Susan: My advice is to embrace abundance and gratitude in life and business. They are game changers that can transform your mindset and your results. I am extremely grateful to my tribe of girlfriends (and guyfriends) worldwide. They are my source of support, challenge, celebration, inspiration, and comfort. Having a tribe I trust and respect is critical to my success and joy.

Also Read: The 10 Most Innovative CMOs of 2024.

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