Caren Williams plays creative brain games with clients
Caren Williams and I met in 2012 at Interbrand San Francisco, where she was a Director of Strategy. Caren’s since become an independent brand consultant, working with brands like Google, Sunrun, and Sandbox VR.
One reason I wanted to talk to Caren is because of her diversity of experience, which includes an MBA from University of Texas, managing brands at consumer packaged goods (CPG) firms like Proctor & Gamble and Nestle, strategy and innovation consulting at a firm called Jump Associates, and, finally, brand consulting. This background gives Caren a unique perspective on brand strategy and brand experience.
I asked Caren about the difference between building brands in the CPG space versus corporate and B2B brands. She says that while the fundamental approach is the same, the inputs and outputs are often slightly different. Consumer product brands can require deep consumer research and the resulting strategy can revolve around functional and emotional benefits and “reasons to believe.” Corporate brands, on the other hand, may require more internal stakeholder research to get to the “spirit and ethos of the entire company,” and some of the strategic positioning pillars might be “almost tagline-y.”
Next, we talked about brand experience. Caren and I talked through a model we both have experience with, which breaks brand experience into four dimensions:
- People includes corporate office employees who don’t interact with the brand as well as customer-facing people, like retail store employees or drivers for Uber/Lyft. The People category also includes performance reviews, job descriptions, and on-boarding processes.
- Places (and spaces) means physical places, like stores, lobbies, and conference room names, but also digital spaces like websites, assuming they can be considered “a place you can go. … [Visitors are] entering into your brand world.”
- Products (and services) are simply “the things that you make and sell.” For Google, products include the G Suite, which houses Gmail and Google Drive. Caren says, “If you’re trying to bring your brand to life, it’s not just how you bring it to life across your advertising and your communications and your messaging. The things that you make and sell need to represent that brand.”
- Communications include anything written or spoken on behalf of the brand. Most marketing and advertising falls into this category, including email marketing, social posts, responses to emails/chats/phone calls, as well as keynote speeches from the CEO and blog posts.
Then Caren shares some simple, straightforward tools and exercises (or “creative brain games”) you can use with clients to tease out the best ideas for building a brand experience.
She recommended an “old school” book called Why We Buy, by Paco Underhill that explains purchasing behavior such as “why we reach for things on the middle shelf versus the lower shelf.” (To see another book she recommends, as well as recommendations from many past interviewees, check out the Useful List: Books recommended by branding experts.)
To close out, Caren shared some great advice for people just getting into brand consulting.
To learn more about Caren—her approach, the services she offers, and her client experience—check out her website at Caren-Williams.com.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
Click above to listen to the episode, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or elsewhere to hear every episode of How Brands Are Built.
Disclosure: Some links below may be affiliate links, meaning How Brands Are Built receives a commission if you make a purchase through the links, at no cost to you. Please read our disclaimer for more information.
- Squadhelp. To begin a business name contest with hundreds of business naming experts, check out their services to get a fresh perspective on your company.
- Audible.com. For a free audiobook and free 30-day trial, visit audibletrial.com/hbab.
ROB: Caren Williams, thanks for joining me on the podcast.
CAREN: Hi Rob, thanks for having me.
R: I’m glad to have you here. I want to start with a question about your career path, which is not normally what we talk about on this show but yours is pretty interesting and I think some people would be interested to hear how you started out in the CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) world, and made your way over to brand consulting where I met you at Interbrand. Could you just talk a little bit about that background.
C: Sure. I think it makes sense, maybe, to start with how I got into CPG in the first place. I went to grad school. I got my MBA, specifically to go into brand and marketing. I don’t think I knew what CPG was at the time, but I had a vision of working for a big company that sold products at a grocery store or something like that. It has always been something I wanted to do.
When I was there, I was taking a brand management class. I don’t remember what the lecture was specifically about, but I do recall our professor talking about brand consultancy where He mentioned Landor and Interbrand. That was my first […] brands. He was like, “They produce this making of the best brands in the world.” I just got so excited I was like, “This is what I want to do.”
After class, I went up to him and I said, “I know I’ve been really focused on working for a big product company, but I think I want to do consulting.” He was probably like, “Slow down eager student.” He said, “I love that you are interested in this. My advice though is to actually work on a brand and manage a brand and then you’ll be an even better consultant.” I kind of always had this, just appreciation and love for those types of strategies, or design, or specialist. I did get very lucky. When I graduated, I got a pinnacle, a job, my dream job. I went to Procter & Gamble. I moved to Ohio for the job, which says a lot because I was not a Midwesterner.
R: You’re from Texas originally, right?
C: I’m from Texas. I went to grad school in Texas so this was a big departure. I worked on—they’re probably bigger than this now—we call them Billion-Dollar Brands. Folgers coffee, Tide detergent, the big flagship brands. Loved it. I was an assistant brand manager, learned a lot, moved out west, did the same kind of work at Nestle. I worked on the ice cream business, the Breyers and […] ice cream and a lot of the packaged snacks like popsicles and things.
This has been maybe five years of being in brand management. We worked a lot with agencies and I feel like I’m ready. I’ve always been thinking about making this move. I’m ready now to be a brand consultant.
An interesting opportunity came my way. I’ve sent in my work to the innovation agency. They’re called Jump Associates. They were doing really cool work with really cool clients and they were hiring people that they called this intersection of creative and analytical minds. […] I managed P&L but I love the creative, strategic side of things. I went there, worked on fantastic clients, did really, really interesting things. We worked on just big problems for clients. After a year, Interbrand contacted me and I was like, “It happened. I willed it to happen way back in grad school.”
R: Do you think now, knowing all that you know, was that professor’s advice the right advice?
C: It’s interesting because I don’t think it’s the only advice. It was amazing advice and it was right for me, but I don’t think that everyone needs to follow that advice.
R: Talk a little bit about just the difference in the job. I guess there are some obvious things you’ve already mentioned about managing a P&L versus being a consultant where you typically don’t have to worry about that, at least not directly. I also know from our work at Interbrand, a lot of times we’re doing brand strategy for companies at that corporate level. Sometimes, it’s B2B companies or B2B products. What did you have to do differently going from packaged goods, popsicles, to doing the same type of brand strategy work but for, say, a corporate brand?
C: A couple of nuances in there. The first one is on a spectrum where this is a brand. On one end, you have running the business through the general management side of things. On the other end, you have the brand building. As a brand manager, like my time at P&G and […], you’re clearly in the middle. You’re kind of overseeing all of it, so you’re sort of on the surface, if I will say, of a lot of things. Finance, operations, strategy, marketing, working with agencies, et cetera. When I moved over to be a full-time brand strategist, you go really deep on that end of the spectrum that’s brand building. There is that for one, is you are going deep on a craft and a skill across many different things versus for owning in the big picture of a lot of different things but for one product or one brand. That’s one nuance.
You asked about CPG versus corporate brands?
C: It’s funny because when I was interviewing at Interbrand, everyone kept saying, “But can you do corporate brands?” I was like, “What are they talking about? Aren’t they all the same?” They are different because a corporate brand, you can think of it as a master brand or an umbrella brand. It holds a lot of different products and services in it. Fundamentally, the work is the same, I would say. Everything gets into those components, but I think it is how deep do you go on usage, benefits, and customer insights for a product brand versus a corporate brand. They’re different, I think, in that respect. Fundamentally, the brand building and the structure is the same.
R: What are some of those differences, whether they’re nuances? I’m especially curious about differences in process or tools that you might use for one that you don’t use for the other and things like that.
C: Maybe process is a good place to start. I feel like in a lot of the corporate brands, because they sit above all the different products and services, the language is really hard and unnecessary to do a lot of deep consumer research for every single product within the portfolio. Think about, we’ll just say P&G. If you were building that master brand, that umbrella brand, I don’t know if it’s necessary that you have deep, deep consumer insights about how people use this detergent versus razors and things like that. It’s more of the spirit and the ethos of the entire company.
Process-wise, at least this is in my experience with corporate brands, it focuses a little bit more heavily on the company itself and […] stakeholders, and those could be people running the company, board members, partners, et cetera. It’s more of their vision and mission and that kind of stuff. I feel like it’s heavier on corporate brands whereas on a product brand, you will go much deeper on benefits and, to steal a P&G word, Reasons to Believe or RTB. Really getting into the nuts and bolts of that thing.
R: Nobody has a mission statement for an individual flavor of some product, right?
C: Exactly. I don’t remember which is good because I won’t give anything proprietary-wise, especially […] but if you think about it, P&G had a brand pyramid on Folgers coffee. That brand pyramid was for everything like in the Folgers brand, so instant coffee, different flavors, different roasts, different forms, different sizes of packages. You wouldn’t still have a brand pyramid for a 28-ounce dark roast full bean coffee. That would be overboard, but you have it for the brand itself. Within there, we do have those functional and emotional benefits and Reasons to Believe in the products.
R: You’ve mentioned a couple of really tactical things and that’s the kind of nerdy stuff I want to get into on the show. You mentioned brand pyramids and you mentioned Reasons to Believe, which presumably sit somewhere in that brand pyramid. Just as far as you know because you haven’t been there for a while, but I assume Procter & Gamble has a pretty formulaic approach they take because they have so many different products and brands. Is that what they’re doing consistently and can you say more about what’s in that pyramid or how it’s structured?
C: Yeah. I can go from memory. Hopefully, I’ll get one for you right.
R: Don’t divulge any corporate secrets.
C: I think that’s not a problem. I definitely don’t remember the details. There is a brand pyramid that P&G uses, at least when I was there, used for all of the brands within their portfolio. I think what was really nice about that is—this is just a side note—part of the job of being a brand manager within Procter & Gamble is you do rotate a lot. It’s part of career development. You might be on a brand for a year-and-a-half, for two years and then you move to another one. Having that consistent framework just made it not easy, but made it somewhat structured to move from brand to brand and be able to pick it up.
I’m working at Folgers one day and then I’m working on Tide the next. The nuts and bolts are the same even though the products and the insides might be different. In a nutshell, from what I remember, at the base of it, again, I don’t know if there was a vision necessarily, but there is something of higher order in the value phase of the brand because that’s important. That sits at the base.
Then, there is something to do with customer insights, some of those core beliefs by your audience. Again, anyone that’s at P&G now will remember. They’re probably like, “No, that’s not right at all,” but it does ladder up. I do recall, this is something that a Proc brand review is the benefits and that sort of that key section. We may think about it in the corporate brand as positioning pillars, that these would benefit.
There is an important breakout between functional benefits and emotional benefits. The functional benefits might be the things that people could essentially copy. It might be the price or things like that and then emotional benefits are those higher order ones. The functional benefit might be, “The best cleaning product on the market.” Then, the emotional benefit is, “It makes me feel proud of my home,” or something like that. Reasons to Believe are really to back up. If you say you’re the best product, “We kill 99.9% of germs,” or those kinds of things.
C: It does ladder up to personality or expression, attributes and then there is a thing at the top we use to at Interbrand as the […] bottom and then the brand idea, that sort of thing that encapsulates everything within the pyramid. I would say just a little bit more specific and grounded in a product brand because it’s a product. You are really trying to build a brand around how, why, and when you use something or interact with something. Whereas that corporate brand would be a little bit more higher order. That’s where we get those positioning pillars that are almost […] in a way.
R: You used that brand pyramid at P&G, then you went to Nestle and presumably they had their own.
C: I think we also got a brand pyramid. It may have different components and that’s why I might be mixing some things up amongst emotional and functional. There is also a pyramid and it was very similar.
R: Let’s pivot a little bit and talk about what you do with that pyramid or whatever that framework is once you’ve pinned all the words down. I want to talk about brand experience. I’ll start with do you have any kind of working definition of just what brand experience is or what it means to you?
C: This is one of my favorite things to talk about because it circles me back to my time working on an actual brand. I don’t actually know what the textbook definition of brand experience is. What I always say is making it real and actually bringing it to life for your audience, connecting the dots across everything you do.
It has two benefits. The first one is as brand strategist, we can look at a pyramid or a platform or something and we’re like, “Yes. I totally get it and I know what to do with it.” I think a lot of people look at that and they’re like, “Okay, that sounds nice but what do I do?” I’ve literally had people say, “Now, what do I do?”
For brand experience, it’s that next level. […] what defines you as a company or as a brand. This is your ethos. What is the experience that you want your audience to have? It’s not different from that. It’s just flip-flopping thinking about, “Who are we? Who am I? Now, what do I want people to experience?” If I say I’m a really friendly person, that’s me. I wouldn’t say to someone, “I’m a friendly person.” I would say, “I’m going to always greet people by their first name. I am going to ask them how they’re doing.” It’s like taking it from what does it mean to you to what does it mean to them
R: In the world.
C: In the world, yeah, to your audience and really connecting the dots. I really use the […] as an example, but I think what people think about is you […] products. When you go to the site versus go to the store versus go to the genius bar, if you have the product, it feels the same. It’s […] broken parts of it because they have taken their brand strategy and they have made it an experience for their customers and they’re connecting all the dots.
R: Everyone loves to give that example because they make it look easy. It makes sense from the outside looking in. But we know it’s not easy. How do you do that? Once you have your brand pyramid, how do you work with a client, let’s say, to translate that into something that does connect all those dots out in the real world?
C: This is the most fun part of a project, I always think so. Whenever a client doesn’t want to do it, they’re like, “No, we’re good at strategy.” I was like, “Oh, okay. Just keep going.” I feel like it’s really fun because when it becomes less about me or my team and my ideas and really getting them involved. There’s absolutely no way that I can work with a client and say here’s what your experience should be across all your touchpoints without knowing all of those touchpoints. I’ll try to think of the easiest way to explain what I do.
You recall from Interbrand we worked at a framework where we said how does the brand come to life across people, communication, products, and places or spaces. Actually, it’s something really similar and it’s not because I’m trying to steal someone’s framework. It’s just that it makes sense. Those are big categories. I tend to go deeper and break them out into a few more sections, but I would say let’s start with strategy and let’s start whether it’s the brand idea or the whole platform, what does it mean.
Now, let’s make a list, many as we can think of, our core customer interaction points or as you call them, touchpoints. Let’s make a list of all of those. Where do we want someone to experience the brand? Where do we want the brand to show up? We literally just make a list of those. Sometimes it’s a worksheet, sometimes it’s on a white board, form of a video, we’re using some sort of Google Sheet or something. Then, we literally go one by one and say, “How would I modify this now that I know this is my brand strategy and this is what I want to express? How would I modify this? What would I remove or what would I add?” We literally go through every single one of those.
It sounds tedious but it’s not because it’s beneficial for two reasons. One being that you get people to just think and just be like, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea that this is something I needed to think about. The way our customer service representative answers the phone for example.” That’s beneficial. It’s also beneficial for people that aren’t purely abstract thinkers. Again, you can give me something deep and abstract and I’ll get it. I’ll appoint it to everything but a lot of people aren’t like that, they’re more concrete thinkers. It’s like let’s take each one of the things and how does it show up when the brand is applied to it.
R: I want to just touch again on these distinctions we’ve been drawing the world of CPG and, say, corporate branding. I assume you could apply that same methodology but the list would look very, very different. If it’s a packaged good, then you’re talking maybe about the packaging or the experience in the grocery store and then the product itself. Whereas for a corporate brand, you have things like onboarding for employees, social responsibility initiatives of the company and things like that. Is that the same process, maybe, but very different output?
C: Yeah, exactly. I say this, but I don’t know if this is true. It feels more natural on a product brand or in a CPG environment to think about all those things because that’s what you’re doing on a daily basis. You are thinking about where it’s going to be on the shelf, what the packaging is going to look like, what the coupons says. That’s part of your daily routine and how you think about the brand. Whereas at the corporate level, you tend to not think about all those touchpoints.
I love that you mentioned onboarding because I always say let’s not forget about people, people’s limit that people forget about. Even performance reviews. In your performance reviews, are you actually “living the brand”? People don’t think about, “Wow, the brand extends all the way there.” Either it’s wider or it’s less natural, but I think it takes a little bit more rigor and thought at the corporate level.
R: Last question on this. Do you have any tips or strategies that you use if you’re in a brainstorm session with a client and you’re going through, and you’ve successfully listed out all of these touchpoints but now you’re going through trying to say, “Well, how do we change it? What would we add? What would we take away?” To really push the client to think creatively or to try things on that maybe they wouldn’t have considered before? I just wonder if you sometimes get into a situation where you feel like you and/or the client is having trouble figuring out, “We have this strategy, we think it’s right, we like everything about it, but we’re not really coming up with what feels like really dramatic, or interesting, or different ideas across these touchpoints.”
C: I love work session. Whether they’re virtual or in person, I always walk the talk and lots of ideas because that can happen, whether it’s just fatigue of working on a brand. You’re like, “I’ve been sitting here for three hours and I can’t think about this anymore,” or it’s just not your natural way of thinking. Some things, for example, that come to mind, sometimes, it’s hard and this is true for life like anything in life, it’s hard to think about what you want something to be because it’s easy to think about what you don’t want it to be.
If people are stuck, sometimes I’ll say for example,“All right, let’s take your landing page. How do we want to change this so that it really represents the brand that we’ve just created?” Usually the ideas are like, “I don’t know, I’m thinking about normal things,” or, “Nothing really inspirational coming up.” You can say, “Okay, what could be the worst landing page that we could come up with that would really just not represent the brand?” For some reason, it’s easier. It’s like when you ask them a question they’re like, “Well, I don’t know what I want to do but I know what I don’t want to do.” Definitely, you take that and you say, “Now, what’s the opposite of that?” There are different ways. Just sort of creative brain game where you can get to the end result without just saying, “What should this look like based on the brand?”
Another way is just not putting so much pressure on one person or one team to come up with something so you may say, “Okay, you guys take people. You can bring forms around this area.” Then, you take their ideas and talk it to the next group or to another person and let them build.
Another things also, what’s easier for us to do is build in other people’s work. Sometimes, they can’t come up with something from scratch. There are a lot of brain games, if you will, that can get to a really great result. I would say I’ve learned a lot of those just through the years especially at Jump, the innovation agency. They had so many amazing ways to get people thinking and so I definitely borrow some of those.
R: That’s great. I love brain games. It sounds a lot more fun than conference call. Even brainstorm session, unfortunately, has become sort of a dull corporate term.
I said that was the last question but I want to make sure I do touch on something really quickly. I realized you and I are pretty familiar places, people, communications, and product, but for our listeners who maybe haven’t heard of that framework before, can you talk a little bit about what’s included in each of those four things? Maybe we can just rattle off some of the ideas that would be housed within each of those four.
C: Sure. To start with, typically this is the easiest one, and that’s product. I always like to say products and services. They’re just the things that you make and that you sell. Let’s just take Google. That would be the G Suite, Gmail, Drive and things like that. Those are products. If you’re trying to bring your brand to life, it cannot just how do you bring to life across your advertising, and your communications, and your messaging. It’s actually the things that you make itself need to represent that brand.
Communications is another easy one but more natural one because that is your written or verbal communication. That is where most of your marketing and advertising falls into. You can do email marketing, social, or anything like that. If you’re going to have people, whether it’s answering emails, or a chat, or a phone for customer service, what do you want them to say? What sort of that script? Because that’s also communication.
R: Sure. That could be a keynote speech from the CEO, it could be your content strategy, what’s on your blog. Maybe a good way to think of that is anything that’s written or spoken, basically, on behalf of the company or the brand.
C: Exactly. People could be your own employees, people that maybe never interact with customers. You could think about is it your finance department, whoever you think in your corporate office. It can also be people who are out there working on behalf of your brand or customers. If you have a retail store employees or if you’re Lyft or Uber, your drivers, really anyone, people’s capacity that can bring your brand to life.
That’s what we were talking about earlier. It could be conversational. It could be in that way. It also could be at the time your internal employees. How are you measuring them? What’s in their performance reviews that you want them to live up to? What does your job description say even? You could think about that as people.
Places and spaces, this is the way I like to break this one out because it tends to get confusing just because so much of our world is digital but this is physical places. If you have a drawer, your corporate office even, what does your lobby look like? What are the […] of your conference room? Airbnb I think is a perfect example of this. They’re conference rooms are modeled after some of their actual places that the guests can stay in. I think they pick some of, I don’t know if they’re the favorite ones or most popular ones, but their conference rooms actually represents some of the people’s homes, which I think is really cool.
Places and spaces also includes digital places and spaces. The easiest way to differentiate is like what was the website communication or is that space. I like to say that if it’s a place that people could go, like they can show up there, then it’s a place or space. Your website. Someone can just go there. I think of that as a space or entering into your brand world. If it’s something that they might see or hear on a regular and frequent basis, then it’s more communication.
R: Got it. Okay, great. Let’s do some lightning round wrap-up questions here. I have a few things I want to ask. Book recommendations. It doesn’t have to be a business or branding book necessarily but something that you’ve read that you feel influenced the way you think about what you do.
C: I got to go really old school on this. There is a book called Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill. I think a lot of people know this book. Either he was like a pioneer in customer, consumer insights or I was just young enough and it was the first one I read. It literally does talk about our why behavior around purchasing and why we reach for things on the middle shelf versus the lower shelf. It was fundamental to me. I read it before I went to grad school, while I was still—I don’t tell many people this—a computer programmer. I’m doing technology consulting. I read that book and I was like, “That’s what I want to do.” It’s basic. It’s simple. It’s old. It’s just very straightforward. We communicate, but it’s not just fancy. I think it’s an amazing one.
R: Great. I got to admit I don’t know that one. The title sounds really familiar but I don’t think I know it so I’m looking forward to picking that up.
C: Another one, when I was at Jump, we had a little library there and they have the coolest books in the library. I picked up a book called Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. You can tell I really enjoy the things that are about the insights that drive the behavior that then you build the brand around. It’s exactly what the title says. How as human beings, we make pretty irrational decision, but they’re completely predictable. I think it’s just so fascinating. It has to do with pricing. It’s not about necessarily behavior with purchases but you can apply it to that as a brand builder.
R: His books are a lot of fun and he’s got a couple other ones. I don’t know what the most recent one is but he’s, I think, still writing. That’s a whole school of I guess behavioral economics. There is Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is written by Daniel Kahneman but sort of similar ideas.
Great. Last question. We started with career-oriented question so we’ll end with any advice that you have for junior people or people that are just interested in getting into branding or brand strategy.
C: A couple of things. I feel everyone wants to work on something that they are personally passionate about. Whether that’s fashion, pets, or technology. What I found is that if you love the art and the craft of brand building, it doesn’t matter what you work on. There is some excitement or some thrill in working on anything. I often do say to people it’s fine, if you’re really passionate about it, great, go for it but if you’re really trying to break into the world of brands, work on things that don’t necessarily sound sexy. I don’t remember if this is when you and I were together, but my first couple of projects at Interbrand scared the crap out of me. I worked on aerospace, I worked with Intel, and I was like, “I used to […] ice cream.”
R: It’s not ice cream anymore.
C: Yeah, and it was really like, “Oh my God, I’m not any good at this,” but it taught me that no matter it is, B2B, B2C, someone has something that they want people to engage with and then there’s an audience that needs to engage with it. I love that craft of connecting those dots to a brand so I would say, “Don’t get so hung up on what it is, the category.” I know I mentioned this at the very beginning, even though I don’t think this is the only way forward, I actually really do recommend working on a brand, on a product and really understanding what it’s all about, and you know you’re a better consultant in some ways because you’ve been there, you’ve lived it. If you have the opportunity getting your wings by actually going deep on something, it’s a great place to start.
R: Great. Caren, thank you so much for all of your insights and ideas. I really appreciate you being on the show.
C: Thanks, Rob. This is fun.