Jos Harrison is the Global Head of Brand Experience & Design at RB (formerly known as Reckitt Benckiser), the global consumer goods company behind brands like Lysol, Finish, Clearasil, Durex, Airwick, Vanish, and Harpic.
At RB, Jos champions the role of human-centric design and creative business leadership, providing strategic tools and creative direction as well as connecting design to other vital functions within the company. Before RB, he worked at Cadbury, leading teams of designers across a variety of disciplines.
I was excited to get Jos’s take on branding in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industries, since it’s not something I’ve covered all that much on How Brands Are Built (with the exception of my season-three conversation with Caren Williams). And, given he has “brand experience” in his title, I wanted to hear more about how he thinks about the topic—which was the focus of season three. Jos also has strong opinions on brand purpose and trends in branding, so I made sure to ask him about those, as well. Check out his answers below, and leave any thoughts or questions of your own in the comments.
ABOUT RB AND JOS’S ROLE
RB is a 200-year-old, multibillion-dollar company that many people haven’t heard of. Can you describe RB?
RB is a group of entrepreneurs and business leaders that has become a successful multinational! It’s a crucial part of our culture to retain that creative entrepreneurial spirit—but managing it at an enterprise scale presents its own challenges!
Your title is “Global Head of Brand Experience & Design.” What are you in charge of? What do you spend most of your time working on?
I have the enviable task of translating brand strategy into the everyday interactions all of us have with the brands; establishing the link between the brand and its users—as a reflection of its purpose and personality. Officially, this means that my teams are responsible for the Brand World that guides all expressions of the brand, its products, and services.
What is “brand experience”? What misconceptions do people have? Why should brands invest in it?
I see it through the eyes of a designer; as designers, we always think first of the end-user, the client, or the other people touched by the solution we are designing—so we already have one side of the dialogue. The other side has to be the brand—in order to create an engaging dialogue between equals, both sides need to be respectful, knowledgeable, and recognizable. So Brand Experience for me is creating and managing the distinctive way in which the brand shows up to interact with its users—which manifests in the way that any human relationship would; over an extended period of time, with multiple interactions as well as both explicit and implicit value exchanges.
Historically, the term has been associated with the ‘softer side’ of branding—all non-product-related interactions; but in truth it is the residual impression we form from the cumulative interactions we have with a brand and its partners. The majority of brands need to shift their understanding from ‘spending on it’ (short term) to ‘investing in it’ (long term) as like any relationship, it is most rewarding (including commercial ROI) when developed in the long term.
You’ve recently argued that FMCG products should have a fuller experience beyond satisfying the immediate need for which they were purchased. Can you explain what you mean by that, and give an example?
Brand owners need to make a clear distinction between PRODUCT and BRAND—as they are too often confused. People buy PRODUCTS for a particular task (e.g., a multipurpose cleaner to clean surfaces)—but people buy into BRANDS as a means of self-expression; aligning themselves with the brand’s values where they feel an affinity. Brand owners must acknowledge this with the blend of products, services, and information they provide.
You’re a proponent for the importance of brand purpose, but some people see purpose as “fluffy” and unnecessary, especially for everyday items like air fresheners and heartburn medicine. (E.g., see David Aaker’s comment on the podcast: “Sometimes the way to [create a relationship with customers that goes beyond functional benefits] is by having a higher purpose. You’re just not going to get there with a bar soap.”
Do you believe every brand should have a purpose, no matter how “mundane” the category? Why or why not?
The notion of mundane or ‘low engagement’ categories is nonsense. If brand owners are asking people to part with their hard-earned money for a product or service, we must respect that value-exchange and provide something meaningful that goes beyond functional delivery. So yes, every brand CAN have a coherent and relevant purpose, although it doesn’t have to save the world! A brand’s purpose must be connected to the reason it exists in the first place—authenticity is critical; so ironically, bar soap is a key component in changing hygiene practices in many geographies, as it is financially and behaviorally accessible to everyone—bar soap and its associated hygiene and health benefits have been instrumental in Dettol becoming a purpose-led cultural icon in India, for example.
What are the tangible, business benefits of brand purpose? I.e., why is it not just “marketing fluff”?
A brand’s purpose must reflect its reason for existing originally and its future marketplace creation—ensuring that the positive effect it has on the world is linked to the category in which it operates. In this way, the brand ensures its future relevance as well as generating a sustainable positive effect on the world and its societies. If you want to future-proof a brand, ensure it has a credible, authentic, and relevant purpose.
How do you expect COVID-19 (and any future epidemics) to change our experience of FMCG brands? How should FMCG brands change, as a result?
Aside from the obvious hyper-focus on hygiene and the resultant benefit of health, the retail landscape for FMCG brands has changed forever as a result of COVID-19; the shift to e-commerce has forced all FMCG brands to reappraise the way they provide value to their users. It remains to be seen whether we will see a ‘reaction’ at some point in the future as people rebel against the limited (in human terms) interactions of the digital world: will we see a huge migration back to offline retail? I think the next area of innovation will be in traditional offline retail channels—centered around creating relevant and compelling experiences for shoppers to tempt them away from e-commerce.
How should established brands defend against the “new breed of digitally-native start-ups” you’ve written about?
It’s not about ‘defending against’—rather it is more a case of understanding the role of existing brands in the ecosystem of the categories they operate in. Start-up brands play an essential role in exploring the ‘niche’ or emergent adjacencies of categories, whereas most established brands are adept at opening out these areas as they demonstrate growth potential. That investment and greater distribution enables new niche areas to develop, and so on.
What’s changing in the world of package design? What are some of the latest trends or future possibilities you’re interested in?
Packaging has to have a life beyond containing the product. All designers are conscious of the impact of their work on the wider environment, so we must ensure that everything we design has a second life and a simple return mechanism—allowing it to be re-absorbed back into the value chain rather than destroyed and wasted. The future has to be circular…it’s a cliché because it’s true.
What is the role of FMCG companies in fighting climate change? What grade would you give FMCG companies right now and what, if anything, are you hoping to see change in the near future?
I think the majority of FMCG brand owners currently get an ‘A’ for effort—but mobilizing these leviathans of industry to actively address climate change and other eco-impact areas is clearly not an overnight task. The sheer scale means that entire value chains have to be restructured—which takes time. However, I don’t think that anyone at RB would say they are satisfied with the progress we have made to date; we MUST do more—and the same is true of all our peers in FMCG brand owners—we have to move heaven and earth to make 10x the progress we are making now.
Any advice for junior people or people interested in getting into branding?
Go for it! BUT only if you believe that brands should be a force for good in changing the world—because that’s the most important thing brands will be required to do in the next 20 years.
Q&A BONUS ROUND WITH JOS HARRISON
What show are you binging right now?
“The Chef Show” with Jon Favreau and Roy Choi.
What’s playing in the office (or home office) while you work?
90s house music—maybe wishing I was in Ibiza!
What are you snacking on while you work?
Bananas and dried fruit.
What’s a word or phrase you probably say too often?
“They’re not ‘consumers’—they’re PEOPLE!”
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.