Ana Andjelic helps brands design for social influence
Ana Andjelic is a strategy executive with wide-ranging experience on the agency and client sides. Recent roles include Chief Brand Officer at fashion retailer Rebecca Minkoff and SVP, Global Strategy Director at Havas LuxHub. Past agency experience includes time at Droga5, HUGE, The Barbarian Group, and Razorfish.
Ana also has a PhD in sociology and has published dozens of articles about luxury and fashion branding, the experience economy, social influence, content strategy, and more. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, Fast Company, AdAge, Adweek, LeanLuxe, Luxury Daily, Glossy, Campaign, and Form Design Magazine.
In 2018, she was listed by Forbes as one of the top 50 Chief Marketers in 2018 who “serve as models of a new, emerging and disruptive chief marketer.” She’s been recognized as one of the “Luxury Women to Watch” by Luxury Daily and one of the top 10 digital strategists by The Guardian.
I kicked things off by asking Ana about her PhD—why she chose to pursue it and how it’s impacted her career. Then we talked about a term she writes about “social currency.” I asked what it means and why it’s important. Next, we talked about how she defines “brand experience” and what brands should do to create compelling brand experiences and social influence.
Ana says, “These days, the strength of the brand is how successfully it can defy the strength of the algorithm.” To do so, she suggests brands must exhibit at least one of her 4 Cs of the modern brand:
Throughout the interview, Ana lists quite a few brands she’s interested in because they’re “trying something new,” including GOOP, Casper, Net-a-Porter, The Upper House (a luxury hotel in Hong Kong), Rapha (cycling clothing and accessories), Tracksmith (running gear), Away (luggage), Glossier, and MUJI.
Wrapping up the conversation, I asked Ana for book recommendations. She likes Value Proposition Design (by the authors of Business Model Generation), This is Service Design Thinking, and a series called Brand. Balance., which she describes as “little booklets [that explore] what iconic brands have done right … a deep dive into the brand aesthetics, identity, and then the brand expression.” She also recommends books in the field of behavioral economics, such as those by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and Bruno Latour.
Lastly, Ana offered some advice to young and/or junior people in branding and marketing:
I overall believe that people need to think more. They’re too trusting of ideas—they just adopt ideas without critical thinking. Whatever can inspire junior people, or advance their critical thinking … I would advise that. And then, … I cannot underscore [enough] the importance of observation and being very aware that one’s own perspective is limited. So, that means travel, expose yourself to other cultures, observe how people behave, observe obstacles, how they overcome obstacles in their behavior, and just be very open.”
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB MEYERSON: Ana Andjelic, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.
ANA ANDJELIC: Thanks for having me.
R: Ana, I’ve talked to a lot of brand strategists on this show and of course, in my career, but I don’t think I’ve talked to any or at least not too many who have a PhD in Sociology. I looked at your bio a little bit. It looks like you’re already working in branding, marketing, or advertising when you got that PhD. I’m curious. What motivated you to pursue a PhD in the first place? How do you feel that academic experiences influences what you do?
A: Right. I think that I’m actually the only one with […].
R: There we go.
A: Good thing or a bad thing, it’s definitely a unicorn situation. The reason […] I actually came here, moved in 2001 to New York and I did my masters in Media Studies. Then, I went on to study Sociology of Innovation and get a PhD in that. My dissertation was on digital branding, but I was mostly interested in how digital technology and technology overall changes branding practices, how brands are built, what modern brand building means, and then also, how you organize innovation. Can you organize innovation? What are innovative organizations? How do they look like? How people and technology interact? How innovations have adopted in society? All of that.
All of those topics we were talking about 13 years ago or more, when I was studying that, and only now we are seeing some of that focused systems, designed systems, innovative organizations and so on. That was a very relevant topic for understanding what is going on in terms of brands and technology.
R: Would you say that you pursued the PhD out of—it sounds like obviously a lot of it is personal curiosity and a passion for learning and understanding—some commercial aspect of it? Did you feel that this would help you differentiate yourself and your career? Or that it will help you just give better advice to clients that would help them build their brands?
A: This was mostly passion for learning and knowledge. Also, I wanted to be set for life in terms of doing different things. I never want to have my role become obsolete, that is I can do a number of different things. If everything else fails, I can go and teach. Once you have that inquisitive in mind, once you have a lot of education and a lot of knowledge, you’re pretty much set to have a number of careers which I actually did. I follow my curiosity and then I build a career out of it.
R: I’ve read a few articles that you’ve written. Some of them mentioned terms that as a non-sociology PhD, I’m not that familiar with, things like social currency and you’ve written about the idea of brands hacking culture. I don’t want to go too deep in the academic world and turn this into some kind of lecture. Is there a quick way to explain what you mean when you say social currency and why you think brand strategist and brands should be worried about it?
A: Yeah, of course. There is going to be nothing academic about it because these are I don’t think academic terms. When you think about hacking culture is coming from growth hacking methodology, which means how do you acquire any […] users by designing products and services in such a way that encourages interaction, sharing, word of mouth and so on.
Social currency is a result of social activity, basically. Think about your Instagram. If you post very often, if your content is really great, if you interact with your audience and your followers, you’re going to have more of that following. You’re building your social currency. Modern brands today, say, Away luggage, or Casper, or Tracksmith Running—they build their brands on top of something that their audience is already passionate about, which is travel or running.
And then, when you think about it, what is the social activity in those communities? There are always those who are more active, they have more social currency. In a sense, they talk more, they maybe travel more, they share more. So, for us, as brand strategists, we don’t need to only design the brands but we need to design for social influence. How is this social influence going to spread? What kind of social influence do you want to implement? What kind of community do you want to have? And what is the social currency in that community going to be? That means the core unit that is exchanged. Is it content? These are personal experiences. Is it running together? Those activities? That is something we need to think about in terms of systems and in terms of what is the core currency in that system? What is important for people to talk about?
R: Are there frameworks or methodologies that you used to think about social currency in a really systematic way? Are there a discrete number of types of social currency that you could identify or that anybody has tried to identify?
A: No, it’s not a specific methodology. You just need to be mindful of the fact that you’re going to have fans. Ideally, you will have fans. Are you going to give those fans something to do and talk about? Are you going to build your brand upon the […] existing conversation? That means how do you hack growth? How do you hack culture? What is the subculture or needs that’s already happening?
Like when you have Supreme, those are sneaker ads, the brand emerge from that niche. Then you look who is the most passionate when you think about Glossy, the brand? Who is the most passionate and most active on in her blog? That was the initial community. Then, she said, “I have a lot of social currency being exchanged here. I’m going to use it to […] my product, but I’m also going to use it to build the brand and the way how I communicate.” Build upon only the existing communities.
If there is any social currency or any methodology related to it, I would say look where your most passionate users or customers in the terms of the area of life, passion, interest, or values that your brand wants to put forward.
R: Yeah. It seems like a lot of your advice revolves around this idea of not attempting to create your own subculture from scratch. I don’t know if maybe some brands make the mistake of thinking they’re powerful enough to do that. If I’m correct, some of the things you’ve written are about being a good listener, paying attention, and identify the subcultures that already exists, that align with your brand and tapping into that. Is that fair to say?
A: Yes, absolutely. The easiest example is when you think about Patagonia. There’s the culture of social responsibility and they’re tapping into those who care about the great outdoors, but above all, they care about how to curb climate change and environmental responsibility. If there is a climate crisis, there is no outdoors. Sort of like how do you tap into that passion and say, “Hey, don’t buy this jacket. Just repair your jacket or exchange it.” Everything they do is really align in terms of values with what their audience considers important. Every single part of the grand experience is delivering on it.
R: Let’s talk about brand experience, you just used the term. Do you have a working definition or what does it mean to you to say brand experience?
A: For me, brand experience for a start is every single relationship that the brand has. Either it refers to its products, services, interfaces, packaging, physical locations, people, customer service and all of that. That is delivered to customers that enforces the brand from itself.
For me, brand experience is a relationship you are building with your customers that also in the systems that’s made up of product services and everything I mentioned.
R: So, is brand experience in your mind different from customer experience which we hear a lot of agencies talking about now? And also user experience which, of course, we hear more on the technology side of things. Are those terms interchangeable or do you distinguish between them somehow?
A: I think that brand experience, that customer user experience are one of the expressions of the brand experience. Other expression of brand experience are product services, people, physical location, interfaces. When you think about how design has evolved from product to experience, to service, to systems, something needs to keep it all together. That’s what I wanted to go back to and say brand is really first in order to have a compelling and consistent experience. They need a clear and strong brand promise.
R: Right. You used the phrase north star in one one your articles, which of course I’ve heard before, but brand becomes that guiding star that maybe the user experience and the customer experience and every other aspect of the brand can line up to.
A: Absolutely. For me, product development and brand development are not separate practices. In that sense, the first step in designing your brand experience overall, every single […] people going, “What kind of relationship you want to put forward?” It’s really defined in brand promise. Why does the brand exist? What is the role of the brand? Who is it? What value it adds to a specific activity or part of life?
In this experiential context, brand promise is going to define what is the core value that exchange? The core value that this experience provides? And make it as clear, visible, feasible, desirable as possible.
For example, Rapha Cycle and Cycling brand. They believe that cycling makes everyone’s lives better. That’s good for the planet, that’s good for the people, that’s good for humans. They’re core value is, make it easier for people to jump on a bike and cycling have a fantastic experience. Whatever they do comes from that core promise, that core value, that the value proposition that they’re putting for the […]. When you […] about other voices, they’re all about making exercise fun. They’re not about like competitiveness surrounding them until you throw up or anything, […] fun. Everything from their call-to-action, which is doing things, the hashtags, to their community, to their content. Above all, their products delivers on this fun aspect of moving or doing things of exercising.
R: I want to talk about technology a little bit more. I know it’s another area of expertise for you, media and technology specifically. Big picture, what are some of the changes that you’re seeing or trends that you’re watching? I’m also curious about the flip side of that as technologies change and there are new social media platforms and other things. What are some of the universals that you think will always remain true despite this certain new bells and whistles that marketers have made available to them?
A: The answer to the first question of technology is really for me, algorithms, change the […] of the landscape. Algorithms, by definition, commodify product and services. They turn products and services into commodities. By the very definition, it’s like you type into Google white t-shirt or on Amazon and you get whatever algorithm sends you. What’s the most popular? What’s the most reviewed? What is closest to your location? What is the most aligned in what you bought in the past?
There’s nothing to do mostly in the brand because it’s the opposite of the brand. These days, the strength of the brand is how successfully it can defy the algorithm. I’m not looking for the white t-shirt brand, I’m looking for the white, MUJI t-shirt. I believe that the brand and MUJI t-shirts are better than others and anything else. That is the difference.
In order to survive the attack of the algorithm brands, for me, to have one of the 4 Cs—how I call them—either very strong content that people gravitate towards; either a vibrant community, they’re going to keep buying, keep identifying with their brand wanting to belong to that community; either be very strong in curation or collaborate, or dial up on collaborations. Collaborate with other brands to create a collectable products.
R: You mentioned curation. Quickly, can you just explain that one a little bit more about what you mean by that?
A: The brand that are either battling the reverse network effect. That means you don’t want to be part of the club that everyone can join. That means, how do you create a tiered program influencers or curators, for example. One example is how Adidas created their Creators Club, when the customers “passionate” about the brand are the first ones who find out about new product releases, or give feedback on new product designs and so on.
Curation means everything that the brand does to put culture, zeitgeist, and conversations through its own brand filter. For example, good brand filter is Valmas. Other voices that […] that and the filter is fun in exercise. There may be recipes, movies, magazines articles, but it’s always through the brand filter. That’s curation.
R: Then, those 4 Cs that you mentioned, the way you phrase it there, their ways of defining the algorithm. I’m just curious about that way of positioning it. Is there a way of thinking of the algorithm as something that brands need to work with instead of working against? Or are those two sides of the same coin?
A: I think that today’s […] environment in particular is very deeply shaped by algorithms. It’s also like media environment is shaped by algorithms and it’s like almost everything we do and what we see on social media, on Netflix, streaming services is defined by algorithm.
I think in that context, you don’t want to be caught in that commodification machine as a brand. You don’t see offered as one of the options. You want to be the option. In order for you to be the option, that’s the way, like those 4 Cs are for me the way to create a relationship with your audience that is strong enough, that’s intimate enough, that’s human enough, that they’re not going to Google and be like, “Give me a white t-shirt. They’re going to go directly to MUJI and say, “I’m going to buy the t-shirt here.”
R: I suppose it also puts a little more pressure on brands to try to do something that I think they’ve always tried to do, which is to own a category, or define, or create a new category. What comes to mind, you mentioned Patagonia earlier, but if somebody wants to buy one of those puffy jackets that they’re so famous for, you could imagine someone googling “Patagonia jacket” or “Patagonia-style jacket” instead of “puffy jacket” or something. They’ve almost corner the market. Everybody makes one now but it’s so well-associated with their brand that I would guess they have a big advantage there.
A: Absolutely, just like white t-shirt, white MUJI t-shirt, et cetera.
R: We talked a lot about some fashion brands here and that’s, of course, because that’s a lot of your expertise and experience is in fashion and luxury. I’m curious. Do all of these things that we’ve talked about, the 4 Cs and everything that you’ve mentioned, do you think they apply equally well in other spaces? Value brands, B2B brands, corporate brands. Is it the same 4 Cs maybe but did they just applied differently or they’re completely different rules of the road when you’re talking about these other industries?
A: I think that is a lot that all industries can learn from the luxury industry, which is about all having that impactable, well-considered, end-to-end customer service. That flexible, anticipatory one step ahead way of building the relationship. I think that everywhere where humans deal with each other, that’s absolutely relevant, B2B, B2C, you name it.
That seamlessness of the customer journey, something that every brand can learn from luxury then the level of personalization. Human intimacy when you use data to behave like a butler, not a stalker. That is something that all brands can learn from. It’s not like hate selling, “Hey, if you don’t buy this now, 15 other people are looking,” or, “You get five minutes to make a decision.” It’s not about that. It’s like, “Oh, you’re like this. How was your purchase? Let me know if I can do anything else.” There’s a lot of concierge-like services that we can’t see a lot in detail and then see more of.
R: Did you refer to the opposite as hate selling? Is that what you said?
A: Yes, hate selling. That means something like, “[…],” or, “Lend us 15 minutes. Fifty-five other people are looking at the same property, the same date.” […] panic face, hate face buying instead of being like, “Oh, we noticed that you’re renting this property. Why don’t you consider this? How can we help? Blah-blah-blah.”
R: I’m jumping around here a little bit between technology and luxury but I realize I want to go back and ask another technology or Silicon Valley-centric question. You’ve written all about startups that are paying a lot of attention to product design, which of course in Silicon Valley is the focus, it’s all about the products, but you’ve said that some of them have done that almost too much or they’ve sacrificed to focus on brand and experience. What kind of mistakes are you describing when you talked about that?
A: I think it’s less a mistake than just later trying to retrofit your product into what you want your brand to be. That goes back to what I said about the core brand promise. When you think about what Airbnb has done early on is they put forward the long […]. That became a binding principle for the relationship between host and guest. No matter what you think about over tourism and so on, that in terms of brand building, they define what their brand is about even before the first interface or the first way that your booking something.
You start from your user experience or that human experience and you think what value might brand adds here. Your product is one of the expressions of the value that you deliver because in modern economy, products are not core value, they’re services and experiences. When you think about what Casper, the mattress company, was doing, they say […] your sleep. They say, “We’re not in the business to sell mattress. We’re in the business of making you sleep better. Mattresses is one way to deliver it, promise.”
But now, they have CBD […]. They probably have playlist, or content, or they are advancing their stores when you have Arianna Huffington talking about slowing down, unplugging and so on. Everything they do across the entire products, services, packaging, delivery, physical properties, customer service ecosystem is to make you sleep better.
When you’re that focus on making a great product or not that great but when you focus on making a product like maybe […] or if you remember Groupon, that’s an example. You over […] with creating the products and then you’re like, “What’s my book market strategy? I can product market fit, but how am I going to put this product in peoples hands? How am I going to attract people to use it?”
Very often, companies resorts to just buying Facebook ads. It […] unbelievable amount of money to acquire customers and to lose them as quickly because they don’t have that brand promise first, brand experience approach by defining the business they’re in.
R: I want to talk a little bit about how you do what you do. If a client comes to you or if you’re hired by a company and that says, “Ana, we need your help creating an incredible brand experience for our customers.” Where do you start? This is a big question but is there kind of methodology or steps that you take consistently that you could speak to?
A: Going back to that brand promise. It’s always like what is the role of your brand in the world? What is that value proposition that is the core of exchange between you and your customers? How are you making their lives better?
Once you define that promise by looking at the what are the value of the company first, then you’re looking at what is happening in culture, what are the conversation, is […] important right now and self care? Maybe unplugging and slowing down or what is travel? What is important in culture right now? What is that conversation? You look again and what is the category doing? Where do the best strategist come from? Do they come outside of the category? Why?
You have the final one. What is your product like? How do you want to build the system around that product? How are you going to build that relationship around the product? How can you add value?
R: You mentioned, I suppose, the 4 Cs so maybe that’s the place that you would start to look. Once you’ve defined that promise and you’ve done all your information gathering about culture and you’re actually just saying, “Okay. What are we going to do tomorrow to start building this brand experience around this promise and this subculture that we’ve identified?” Do you then look to content and curation, and all the 4 Cs or is there another way of organizing yourself to just ensure that you’ve done everything you can to build a great brand experience?
A: I look at it in terms of three layers. First one is strategic, how does this experience move the business and the brand forward? Does it move the business? How is it going to help this company make money? How is it going to advance in brand?
The second one is does it convey the brand message in a convincing, differentiated way? Is it surprising and delightful to customers? Is it seamless enough? Are they going to enjoy it?
Then, from an organizational perspective, what are the right processes? What are the right human and technological resources that you need to implement this experience? How does your company needs to be organized in order to successfully deliver this experience, in a way that you make money and delight customers?
R: You’ve mentioned a few brands throughout the conversation and it’s also really clear from your writing, by the way, that you have some favorites. You write about Away a lot, and a few other brands. Is there anything that you haven’t mentioned any brands that you feel like doing incredible job just at everything in terms of branding but especially around creating a brand experience that’s consistent and fits with their promise and does all of the things that you feel brands should be doing?
A: I wouldn’t say that I have favorites, I’m just interested and attracted to brand experimenting new practices. If some brand—it can be from insurance or health care, whatever—is doing something in a new way, that it has a big promise to become a new branding practice, I’m going to be interested in that.
All of that said, I would say that all brands have experiences that are consistent and that clearly convey and deliver brand promise, are strong brands and they can go from […] to Disney, to Casper, to Emirates, to Upper House in Hong Kong, to Net-a-Porter, all of those that either apply the 4 Cs, that have a very strong content that delivers value even before the product has been purchased.
They have a very strong and vibrant community like Rapha or Tracksmith. They have very clear aesthetic point of view like MUJI, for example. MUJI is very rooted, first in Japanese life. The minimalist and simplicity of Japanese aesthetic and lifestyle. When Japanese started traveling more, MUJI opened the hotel. For me, that’s a great example of how do you spend your brand beyond your core business to still deliver what your promises, what your expertise is in.
R: A couple of wrap-up questions here. You’re a very prolific writer. I’m curious what you’re reading. Are there books or articles that you’ve read recently or even in the distant past that really influenced your way of thinking about brands and how you do what you do?
A: I do read a lot, but I never read anything that’s marketing, or strategy, or brand planning. I usually read sociology texts, that’s organizational studies, or behavior economics, or design thinking, or just some added areas. Then, I think of how I can apply those information, those learnings into what I do.
I found useful value proposition canvas (Value Proposition Design) with same Strategyzer who made business model canvas (Business Model Generation). I found value proposition more relevant for building a model brand regarding the fact that we’re talking about building the relationship and putting forward the way to improve ones experience, ones lifestyle, and so on.
I also like This Is Service Design Thinking, that is the title of the book, which talks about how to design different touchpoints where the company and the customers meet beyond just the usual ones.
I also love the Brand. Balance. books. I don’t know if you’re familiar, that’s a series of little booklets. If you like this combination between books and magazines, that explores what iconic brands have done right. For example, Aesop, or Ikea, or Hoshinoya, they’re all featured there if you deep dive into the brand aesthetic identity and then the brand expression. They’re called the brand balanced books.
R: Those sound great. Is there anything on the sociology side that you feel like business people and branding people should read that’s somewhat accessible, not a textbook but anything that you’ve seen or read that you might recommend to people that are interested in sociology and how it impacts branding?
A: Yeah, absolutely. Above all, I would recommend reading behavioral economics, which […] between economics and sociology, that teachers that humans are not rational creatures and how much context influences our decision-making and how the design of context influences our decision-making. Think about how addictive social media ads are now. They’re design to be like that. Or when you go to the supermarket, almost all the basic stuff are all the way to the back. I would say behavioral economics for sure.
R: I’ve talked to other interviewees about Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, are two behavioral economics authors that are pretty well-known. Are there any other that you’re familiar with or that you recommend?
A: Yeah. There is Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. They’re the ones that had the fathers almost of the discipline. I would say Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Then, there is an entire school of sociology called Science and Technology Studies where they explore how the design of technology impacts, how people use it, […]. That may be a little more academic read but it’s still very much worth looking into.
R: Great. Last question. Any advice for junior people or people that are interested in getting into the world of branding?
A: I believe that people need to think more, overall. They dare to trusting of ideas or they’re just adopted years without critical thinking. I think whatever can inspire junior people or advance their critical thinking aspect, I would advise that.
Overall, I cannot underscore the importance of observation and being very aware that one’s own perspective is limited so that means travel, expose yourself to other cultures, observe how people behave, observe obstacles, how they overcome obstacles in their behavior. Just be very open and very critical, not critical as in negative but very questioning that establish way of doing things.
R: That’s great advice and it tracks with your background as a sociologist. It sounds very sociology-oriented advice but it makes perfect sense for anyone doing branding and marketing.
A: Thank you.
R: Thank you so much, Ana. I really appreciate your time today and hope to chat again soon.
A: Yeah, absolutely. Great questions and thanks for having me.