Michael Wintrob is Chief Strategy Officer at LPK, a brand and innovation consultancy. At LPK, Michael oversees the firm’s strategy, insights, innovation, and trend practices. He’s been with LPK for over 20 years, working with clients ranging from the Fortune 50 to small startups. While LPK works with many consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands, Michael also has experience working with B2B and higher education brands.
When he’s not working with clients, Michael tries to make time to teach at University of Cincinnati’s Lindner College of Business, where he’s been an adjunct instructor. He also co-authored a chapter in the textbook Strategic Design Thinking: Innovation in Products, Services, Experiences and Beyond.
I was curious about a few topics Michael had mentioned to me, including a “playbook” LPK recently published to help CPG brands and something he referred to as a “Head, Heart, and Gut” approach. See below for his explanation of these as well as answers to my other questions.
What makes LPK different from other agencies?
We believe a few things—taken collectively—set us apart:
- The Brand / Innovation / CX Blend: The very nature of brand is evolving. I think we all now recognize that creative and compelling wrapping around a sub-par product will not thrive for very long. There are too many choices for consumers and too many outlets for their voices to be heard. Nor can a brilliant product regularly overcome a lackluster brand expression. Winning businesses are the ones able to consistently deliver seamless, delightful, and useful experiences connected around a single interesting brand idea. By combining brand, innovation, and CX capabilities, we have intentionally structured LPK differently to better meet the demands of brands today.
- Humanity First: We are connected across our services by a belief that putting people at the center of our work enables deeper insight, inspires creative solutions, and unlocks new value. This idea of Humanity First harkens back to our founders and our roots as a design studio. With this as grounding, we then have the flexibility to manifest that idea in all kinds of ways to ensure we are building businesses and brands that exist to serve people.
- Future Fluent: This reflects our long-time commitment to understanding how the world around us is changing and then advising our clients on how to take advantage of that change. Our trends and foresight practice is certainly the flagship for this, but it is more than that. Future Fluency is embedded in the totality of LPK, and we will continue to hone the skill of turning anticipation into decisive action.
- Independent: Independence itself is not the goal, but it’s important for what it enables, namely the autonomy to write our own strategy and create our own future. Independence puts the responsibility for how we run the business on us and no one else. And it means we both own our successes and our failures.
You and LPK recently published a new “playbook” for building CPG brands. What are some of the main takeaways from the playbook? What’s changed in how CPG brands are built today?
For 50+ years, being a CPG brand was a reliable, low-risk business. That all has changed fairly dramatically over the past decade. Now the marketplace favors quickness over size and evolution over stability. In LPK’s Next-Gen CPG Playbook, we identify eight principles that brands can leverage to win in this ultra-competitive environment. A few I see most influencing our clients are the ability to:
- Nurture new brands via development, acquisition, and incubation;
- More tightly integrate innovation and brand-building activities;
- Transition product brands into service brands; and
- Think portfolio first, then brand.
You once mentioned a construct you use that involves connecting with a consumer’s Head, Heart, and Gut. Can you share what that construct is and how it works?
This approach considers how people make decisions, how consumer values are evolving, and how businesses win in the marketplace. It begins with connecting with the Gut via a visceral and intangible appeal that people can just feel. We developed a method based on Dr. Steven Reiss’ 16 Desires that we use to identify the motivations driving a set of consumers and then align a brand’s offer and codes to that motivation. For us, connecting to the Heart is all about defining a brand’s ideology and belief system so there are a set of values shared with consumers. Finally, while we know that emotions are a key driver of behavior, we also know that the critical mind seeks data to reinforce its choices. Therefore we craft the fundamentals of brand strategy with the intent of feeding the most rational parts of the brain. Defining these core elements ensures a brand understands and values its sources of competitive advantage.
In an industry where people seem to move around a lot, you’ve been with LPK for about 20 years. What are the benefits of staying with one agency/company for a long period of time?
I’m fortunate…I’ve been able to evolve along with LPK without feeling like I needed to hop around just to get a title or to escape a bad boss. When you trust and admire so many colleagues, you save a bunch of time and energy that might be spent on unproductive nonsense. You also get to see the work through. Our upstream projects can sometimes take years to see the market so it’s nice to be there to help try to keep things on course (and celebrate a launch!). Finally, I love that I’ve been able to work with clients and colleagues over years and years. You kind of grow up with a set of people and develop strong relationships over that time. I’ve come to appreciate that. Oh, last thing: there are now cringeworthy pictures of me from the early aughts in the company archives. That one may not actually be much of a benefit to anyone.
You’ve done a lot of teaching, as well, as an adjunct instructor at University of Cincinnati. What are some of the most important lessons students learn in your classes?
I try to use a combination of theory and practice, along with a nice dose of war stories from those that live it to provide a balanced sense of what it takes to actually do this kind of work. It’s easy for a student to have a quick opinion on a piece of advertising or a new product idea. With the class, I try to help them better understand the mechanics that support those things. I also make sure they know that no one actually has meetings like they see on “Mad Men.”
Q&A BONUS ROUND
Any book recommendations?
Leaving aside the essentials from Kahneman, Sharp, Aaker, and the like, I’d recommend two others: Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters by Richard Rumelt is a clear-eyed look at the job of strategy in the most general sense. I like that it is not specifically about branding or marketing and steers away from many of the fuzzy concepts that routinely pop up in our industry. Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign by Randall Rothenberg is just an amazing behind-the-scenes look at a pitch and campaign for Subaru from the early ’90s. It’s a page-turner, but also reveals some uncomfortable insights for those of us in this business.
What’s the last movie you saw?
Palm Springs on Hulu. The perfect rom-com for this time. My wife and I loved it.
What’s something weird on your desk right now?
Not weird, but precious. A ticket stub from a 2019 North Carolina–Duke basketball game. The Heels won that one, naturally.
What’s a word or phrase you probably say too often?
So many. “Altitude” is probably my worst at the moment. I’m working to do better.
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, professional namer, and host of the How Brands Are Built podcast. He is also principal and founder of Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.