Emily Heyward builds brands that inspire obsession
Emily Heyward is co-founder and and Chief Brand Officer at Red Antler, the leading brand company for startups and new ventures. Red Antler is the branding firm behind brands like Casper, Allbirds, Keeps, and Burrow. They also work with established brands like American Express, HBO, Google, and Gap.
Emily was named among the Most Important Entrepreneurs of the Decade by Inc. Magazine, and has also been recognized as a Top Female Founder by Inc. and one of Entrepreneur’s Most Powerful Women of 2019. She’s also the author of a new book, Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One.
I asked Emily what makes Red Antler different from other branding firms and what makes it, in the words of a 2018 Adweek article, one of “the surprisingly small group of branding shops behind today’s top challenger brands.” She says Red Antler was “the first creative services company that was designed and built to work with startups” and, as a result, “we’ve thought about brand in an incredibly holistic way … with obviously a particular focus on digital.”
Next, we turned to Emily’s book, Obsessed.
The book really came out of 12 years of running Red Antler, launching new, disruptive businesses into the world, and seeing the ways in which brands’ relationships with consumers are shifting. … The rules are not the same as they were, certainly 20 years ago, but even six years ago. Things keep changing.”
– Emily Heyward
Then we turned to the events of 2020, and I asked Emily for her take on how brands should respond to racial injustice, as well as the COVID pandemic. Lastly, I asked Emily some wrap-up questions, including a brand/initiative she recommends checking out (the 15 Percent Pledge), a book recommendation (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), and her advice to you people in the industry:
Be curious. I think that so much of what we do is a response to the world around us—to culture and trends and what makes people tick. And when I meet with someone that doesn’t seem like they’re passionate about what’s happening in the world, and what businesses are out there, and what they’re seeing, and what they’re loving—for me, that’s an immediate red flag.”
– Emily Heyward
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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EMILY HEYWARD EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
ROB MEYERSON: Emily Hayward, thanks so much for joining me on How Brands Are Built.
EMILY HEYWARD: Thank you for having me, I’m thrilled to be here.
R: So I’ve been following your agency, Red Antler, for a long time. And it seems to me that you guys are sort of part of a new breed of branding firm. One that an Adweek article described as, “The surprisingly small group of branding shops behind today’s top challenger brands like Casper and Allbirds.” I came from more, what I think of as maybe a traditional, old school world of brand consulting. I’ve worked at Interbrand, Siegel + Gale, FutureBrand. What is it that’s different about Red Antler, in your book?
E: So, interestingly, I actually started my career, not in branding, but in advertising. At equally traditional ad agencies as the branding companies that you just named. I worked at Saatchi & Saatchi and JWT, so big global firms, working for big global brands, on big national TV campaigns. And when we started Red Antler in 2007, our mission was to create, I think actually the first creative services company that was designed and built to work with startups. That was our vision right at the beginning.
R: I see.
E: The startup scene was just getting going, and we saw an opportunity to take all that we had learned about how to think about your consumer audience, and brand strategy, and creative communications, and apply it to actually launching and growing the businesses that we were excited to see in the world. So in terms of our key differences, I think one is that we’re all about entrepreneurs. Most of our clients are startups. And two is that from the beginning, because of that, we’ve thought about brand in an incredibly holistic way. It’s never just been about an identity. It’s always been about all the ways that a business needs to show up in the world, with obviously a particular focus on digital.
R: Yeah, it seems like there are a lot of challenges with working with startups and making that commitment from the get-go. But one of the most obvious, and kind of to cut right to the chase, is just how do they pay for it, right? So I wonder if that was a challenge that you had to address that maybe some of them didn’t have the budgets that an Interbrand or a Saatchi + Saatchi for that matter would expect of a client?
E: Well, that was the exact question that our parents had when we [inaudible 00:02:25]. Yeah, so you’re in good company. I think that in the early days it was literally just two of us. We had no overhead, we were working out of a client’s office, we were able to sort of charge the rates that we could charge, but really grow into the business and take on clients that we knew would present great cases for us, that we could really do our best work and show the success of our model.
And then of course over time, our expertise has developed, our team has grown, and the startup landscape has changed a lot too. And at this point, yeah, we’re not working with the same kinds of budgets that Interbrand would be, but we’re working primarily with venture backed startups who are raising around and financing and we figure out creative deal structures to make it happen. We’re not working for free, but we’re definitely getting flexible, and it’s a business that we’re incredibly excited about.
R: And I wonder if that background you mentioned, the fact that you came from more of a traditional advertising background, did that … I mean, on the one hand, it’s presented a challenge, I suppose, that you hadn’t done full scale holistic brand consulting, you had been more focused on through the advertising piece of the puzzle. But at the same time, I suppose that freed you up to maybe not get into some of the same ruts perhaps. And I don’t mean to speak badly of any of my former employers, but there are some kind of traditional approaches that maybe you are able to look at with fresh eyes because you were coming at this without that experience, is that fair to say?
E: I think so. And I obviously don’t have … No direct point of comparison because I’ve never worked in a traditional branding company. But I do think that we’ve always been incredibly focused on execution. Even when we think about strategy, it’s an incredibly important piece of the puzzle, but we’ve been very careful not to say, spend six weeks and at the end all you have is a PDF. And it might be the most intelligent, thought-provoking PDF anyone’s ever read, but no one’s going to see it. So we’re always thinking about sort of, how does this brand need to show up in the world? How does it need to behave? And how do we, within reason, but as quickly as possible, get this business out into the world.
R: Right. And then it also just strikes me that a lot of the clients that you guys are kind of famous for having at least, and I know that you’re … At least these days, your client roster is pretty diverse. But back to the Adweek article that I mentioned, for example, and some of the brands that I see. I think of them, and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but some of them are sort of Instagram brands. The ones that I get, at least, heavily advertised from. I mentioned Casper and Allbirds, for example. And also a lot of them are really targeting millennials. Is that something that you approach it purposely that way? Is Instagram or social media something that you advise your clients to invest in heavily? And do you have a specific strategy for cutting through the clutter on social media?
E: I mean, I think that Instagram is obviously an incredible channel. I don’t think that Instagram is a business strategy. I think that there are some niche brands that are literally just launching through Instagram. And that’s great, I don’t think those businesses are aiming for the same kind of scale that the most of the businesses we work on are aiming for. But that being said, it’s a really powerful channel.
It’s a channel where people, for the most part are excited to engage with advertising. Because it’s a discovery platform, and it’s visual, and it’s easy. So we certainly are advising our clients to think about Instagram in the mix of what they’re doing, but it’s not the be all end all. And it’s not the silver bullet that some brands think it is. And frankly, it’s not even nearly as cheap as it was even a few years ago. So I think that Instagram, and Facebook to a certain degree, have to always be considered within the context of a larger launch and growth strategy.
R: And what about that sort of millennial centric aspect of some of your clients? And correct me if I’m wrong, or if you feel like I’m mis-characterizing some of the clients you have, but it just strikes me that Red Antler seems to me from the outside looking in, like maybe it’s kind of a younger demographic in terms of the founders, and the employees, and then the clients that you’re working with also seem to be targeting … And I know millennials doesn’t necessarily mean young these days either, but maybe millennials and younger, and a lot of direct to consumer as well. Is there kind of a niche that you guys have really … Beyond just the startup aspect of it, do you feel like there’s a niche that you guys have really mastered that along those lines?
E: I wouldn’t pin it to an age group. I think a lot of times these brands get labeled as millennial brands, because millennials happen to be the generation who sort of came of age in a digitally native way, and were immediately comfortable sort of shopping e-commerce, and discovering brands through Instagram, and many of the sort of strategies of how these brands are launching.
But truthfully, even the brands that you named like Casper and Allbirds, their target audience spans every age range. I see people wearing Allbirds on the street or in their 60s or 70s, my cool grandma had a pair.
R: They’re very comfortable, so it makes sense.
E: And now there’s … Yeah, they really are comfortable. And now of course, everyone’s eyes are on Gen Z. But we work on a lot of businesses that aren’t going after youth too. We’re working on a business right now that’s all about a new way to sort of care for aging parents in the home. We did a Medicare supplement business. So again, I think we’ve had some fits that seem like they’re going after the young ones, but that’s not really how we think of ourselves and the work that we do.
R: Yeah. Well, thank you for indulging me and answering some questions about Red Antler. I’ve been really fascinated by you guys since I first discovered you, which I honestly can’t remember how long ago that was. But maybe another way that I and others could learn kind of what the magic is behind Red Antler is by reading this book that you’ve written. So the book is Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One. Can you just share a little bit about what the theme or the premise of the book is?
E: Absolutely. So the book really came out of 12 years of running Red Antler, and launching new disruptive businesses into the world, and seeing the ways in which brands’ relationships with consumers are shifting. And along with that, the shifting set of expectations, like how to bring a brand into the world that inspires obsession. The rules are not the same as they were, certainly 20 years ago, but even six years ago. Things keep changing. And it’s really about sort of what it means to launch a winning brand today.
R: And what are some of the big shifts that you call out in the book? I mean, maybe you’ve already mentioned some of them when we were talking about Red Antler. But obsession, for example, even the title, is that a reference to something that you think has changed dramatically, or are there other sort of key points in the book about what’s different now than a decade ago?
E: Yes. So all of this change boils down to the fact that consumers have more information, more choice, and therefore more power than they’ve ever had before. It used to be that you would buy the brand of laundry detergent that your mom bought, because that was what was available in the grocery store or the drug store. Now you can go online, research 20 different companies, find out what their ingredients are, what their packaging and sustainability ethos is, and pick one that really aligns with your identity.
And because of that, it obviously puts an incredible amount of pressure on brands to get out there with a meaningful story that actually connects with people, but it’s also an amazing opportunity. And I think ultimately because consumers have so much choice, the choices that they make mean more to them. They’re really incorporating these brands into how they see themselves.
And the title of the book, Obsessed, is funny because I had a lot of conversations with my publisher about whether it was positive or negative. Does obsession imply something negative? And I ended up pulling up the hashtag on Instagram and other than some puppy pictures, most of the images were products. People were, “I’m obsessed with my new jeans. I’m obsessed with my new face wash, or this sandal brand I discovered.” That’s the level of fervor that people have for these businesses.
R: And part of that, and it’s something you talk about a lot is that people are paying closer attention to who’s behind the things they buy. So it’s not just about the quality of the product, certainly not just about the logo or the package design as much as some of us in branding pretend that it is. But it’s actually about the human beings that lead the companies that create the products. So how does that impact the approach that you advise your clients to take, or that you take as an agency?
E: So I think that a prominent founder can be an incredible asset for a brand. People love knowing who the human being is behind the business that they’re supporting. I think the days of just a nameless, faceless corporation are over. People want to know, “Who is my money going towards?” It doesn’t mean that every single business that launches needs to make its founder part of their storytelling strategy. Sometimes that’s just not going to happen, right?
There are times when it doesn’t make sense to have the founder be a forward facing part of the narrative, but when we can do it, we embrace it. Because it’s just so much more compelling to have someone, a person out there talking about how they came to this idea, and why they launched this business, and what was the problem that they’re seeing. And sort of rallying the troops behind the vision versus again, just this kind of faceless monolith.
R: And how do you manage … I mean, this is kind of an awkward question and maybe there’s no great answer to it. But human beings are human beings, and so inevitably some of them will have some kind of negative or sort of blow back moment, right? So as much as people admire Elon Musk, he’s also said and done plenty of things that have offended people. And that’s a balance that I suppose every brand strikes, and no brand is supposed to be for everyone all the time, and so maybe that’s okay.
But I still, I wonder, is there an inherent risk in building the brand or tying the brand too strongly to one person and then risking that that person does something really-
R: Yeah, Controversial, or just straight up bad? The news breaks. I mean, we’ve certainly seen plenty of examples of this in popular culture.
E: Definitely a risk tying a brand to a human being. Human beings are fallible. I also think that with this new wave of businesses, consumers hold them to an even higher standard than they might hold a traditional corporation, because they’re out there talking about values, talking about their mission. So when their founder bumbles, or even worse does something deliberately bad, people get really mad, as they should.
It’s funny, when I was writing my book I was living in constant fear that the businesses and the founders that I was covering were going to be part of some scandal. I even wrote a little author’s note that was, “Hey, look, I can’t control what all these people do and by the time this book comes out someone may have put their foot in their mouth or worse, and I’m not endorsing that behavior.”
Look, I think that we’ve certainly seen stories even in the past year of founders who have come under fire for how they’re treating their teams, or comments that they’ve made, and sometimes they stay on and sometimes they get shoved out. The hope is that the brand, the product, the experience are bigger than that one person, even if that one person played a significant role in the early days and in getting the story out there. So you never want it to be that it’s named after the founder and their face is on the homepage.
But I think that our hope is that we’re also vetting people who aren’t going to do something deliberately nasty. We try to work with good people, not just for this reason, but because we don’t want to subject our team to working with terrible egomaniacs [inaudible 00:14:44] horrible [inaudible 00:14:46].
R: Yeah. I mean, I guess it comes back to striking a balance, right? You used the word holistic right at the beginning of the conversation that, while it may be more important now than it has been in the past to tie a brand or to sort of show the face of the people behind the brand, that doesn’t mean you go all in a hundred percent on that and only that. You have to diversify a little bit and have other things that you’re sort of hooking the brand to, that should any one of them have some kind of failing, there are other things to rely on.
E: Yeah. And a founder alone is not going to be enough to motivate people to buy a product, right? I think that it’s an interesting piece of the puzzle. It can help humanize, it can help deepen a connection that you have with the business, but you’re not going to buy something just because you like the person who launched it.
R: Right. Speaking of people behind brands, I think a related concept, you’ve written about brands needing to feel human. And that’s a word that I’m sure as you know, is kind of overused in the branding world. So what does that mean to you exactly? And what kind of steps should brands take to achieve that human feeling?
E: To me, it’s about letting go of the myth that consistency is the number one tenet of branding. I think it used to be that you’d learn about branding and the number one lesson is be consistent. Be out there with the same message, keep it simple, hammer it home. And I do think that it’s important to have consistency of purpose. You want to really know what you stand for and stick to it. But I actually think that the way that a brand can feel more human is by showing up in different ways, in different places.
To bring up Instagram again, you’re not going to behave the same way on Instagram that you would on LinkedIn, or on a billboard, or on your website. And you need to sort of let go, loosen up, and not be tied to the idea that there’s only one way to show up in the world. Because that’s when it starts to feel like you’re just constantly marketing to people instead of drawing them in and creating a conversation.
R: Yeah. That’s a great point. And I take kind of two things away from that. One, is just what do you mean by consistency, right? Because to your point, you can be consistent in terms of some kind of underlying ethos, just sort of what you’re all about. But that doesn’t mean that you literally look exactly the same all the time in every context. And I’ve always really admired brands that have the design chops, frankly, to … You always know it’s Coca-Cola, but they do a lot of really interesting and creative things with that color palette, and the different ads that they do. It always feels like Coke without looking exactly the same all the time.
And the other aspect of it, I suppose, is maybe sort of embracing some imperfections, or at least taking some risks. But by doing that, by allowing yourself to be more flexible, showing up differently in different places and just accepting that you’re not going to be perfect, and rigid, and templated exactly the same way every time, maybe that means you kind of screw up, or do something that doesn’t look as perfect every now and then. But that’s okay, because it’s all in the pursuit of being a more human and sort of real brand.
E: That’s so well said, and you’re absolutely right. It does take design chops. It’s not easy. It’s easier to just say, “Here’s our logo, here’s our font, here’s our color palette, and we stick to it and we’re never going to stray.” But that’s so not interesting. And I think that your point about imperfection, more and more, our aesthetic standards as a culture are shifting because we’re used to seeing so much user generated content every single day.
So even when I worked in advertising in 2004, 2005, I’d be sitting in the backroom of focus groups and consumers would be, “I don’t want to see models, I want to see real people.” And we’d all kind of laugh. We’d be, “Yeah, they say that, but that’s not true. They want to see models.” Now it’s kind of true. People do want to see a range of bodies. They want to see flaws. They don’t want to see airbrushing because that’s what’s being shown to us every single day on social media. (silence)
R: So I want to pivot a little bit and talk about 2020. We’re recording this in the middle of 2020.
E: Do we have to?
R: I know, I know. But I because I have you here and you’re an expert on startups, among other things. I’m just curious, what do you think startups and maybe other small businesses need to be thinking about right now, and perhaps in the coming year? Because we know we’re not going to get out of these issues. The pandemic and the economic fallout from the pandemic, among other things, overnight. So what do startups need to be thinking about right now in order to stay afloat, if not succeed and thrive?
E: We’ve seen some great launches happen in the past five or six months. I don’t think that we’re in a situation where all business needs to be halted. Obviously we’ve had some clients whose initial plan was much more oriented around brick and mortar, and they’ve had to rethink that, and sort of figure out how to launch digitally first. But truthfully, any modern business should be thinking about how to bridge the gap between physical and digital.
So it’s not like the playbook has just been thrown out the window. I think that we’re past the point in time where everybody had to actively acknowledge the pandemic and tell us how much they’re here for us. That was sort of irritating anyway. And now, truthfully, people are bored. They’re wishing for more stimulation. Certainly I think people are welcoming moments of joy and comfort where they can get them. And I think that’s an opportunity for brands who should be thinking about how to add value to people’s lives every single time they’re interacting with their audience, whether we’re in the midst of a global pandemic or not.
R: So is there anything that brands should be doing differently in light of COVID-19? I mean, is there a shift in how they should be marketing themselves? And while we’re at it I’ll throw in, as if the pandemic was not enough, the protests happening for racial justice and everything happening, at least in the United States around racial injustice.
I mean, do you think brands … You mentioned the emails that we all got, “We’re here for you,” which were annoying. We also had, of course, the black squares on Instagram, which were controversial at least. I mean, should brands be trying to address these issues head on? Should every brand do that, or just some of them? What’s important for brands to think about right now?
E: So I think that this question always gets asked, sort of lumping together the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement because they happened within such a tight timeframe, but I would actually separate those two. I think that with the pandemic, there were a lot of brands that felt the need to sort of speak up about, “This is happening,” and they should’ve just remained silent.
Whereas I think that when the Black Lives Matter movement really took off this summer, remaining silent was not an option. I noticed the businesses that didn’t say anything, and I absolutely hold it against them and don’t want to support them moving forward. I think this is a moment of reckoning that’s centuries overdue. And I think we all have a responsibility to speak up and to be part of change and progress.
So my hope would be that any company launching today is thinking about who they’re bringing on to their founding team, who sits on their board, who are they serving? Who were they creating this product for? How do they ensure that it’s an audience that really reflects the true nature of our country, and that they’re not just perpetuating white supremacy, right?
I think the pandemic is a totally different thing where obviously it’s very serious, and there are people who are dying, and I’m not at all belittling that. But not every brand has a role to play as it relates to the pandemic. Some brands just need to continue doing business, make things more convenient. Again, figure out with that they can make our lives, which has been constricted in so many ways, a little more joyful, a little more uplifting. I think comfort is huge right now. Obviously there’s a huge opportunity in the home.
There are a lot of business opportunities that are coming forward as a result of the pandemic, and I’m excited to see the innovation that this unfolds. I mean, thinking back to the Global Financial Crisis, that’s when a lot of new businesses launched that fundamentally changed the way our world works for the better. So I do think that we’ll see a wave of startups coming out of this time period that are rethinking the very nature of our society. And a lot of people have recognized that we can’t necessarily rely on institutions that we once thought we could. So that’ll lead to interesting new launches.
R: Yeah. I suppose if there is a common thread between the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, or brand’s responses to it, it seems like providing really … Avoiding platitudes, maybe, is kind of the common thread from my perspective, at least. So whether that’s an email that says, “We’re here for you during the pandemic,” or whether that’s a black square on Instagram that just says, “Black lives matter,” which every brand should be saying that, everyone should be saying that. But just saying it obviously is not enough.
So I’ve really been valuing kind of tangible comments. So on the COVID-19 side, I do think there’s a role for brands, if they have brick and mortar, to send out an email saying, “Here’s what we’re doing. If you’re thinking of coming into our store, we want you to know how we’re keeping it clean and keeping you safe.” I don’t know that I necessarily need an email about that from every single store that I’ve ever shopped in since I started having an email account, which is kind of how that played out, but I do see how that information might be useful to me as a customer.
And then on the Black Lives Matter side, I do think it’s good to know whether companies are doing the right thing. As you put it, what is their plan for diversity? Or are they already a diverse organization? When you just see the social media posts, I don’t know how many people are really looking into, “Okay, they say that they care about this issue, but have they actually backed it up in any real way?”
E: I totally agree with you. And I love your point about avoiding platitudes. The way that I’ve framed that is that you should say something, but your actions need to outweigh your words. So that should be the measure through which you’re evaluating what you’re saying. Are you doing more than you’re saying, and not the other way around?
And look, I saw brands come under fire, rightfully, on Instagram who posted in solidarity messages. But when you look at the brands that they offer, if it was a marketplace or whatever else, that they’re not backing it up and people were furious, as they should be.
R: Yeah. Do you think that this has had an impact, or should have an impact maybe on our industry? Kind of the agency side of things, the marketing agency world, or branding agency world?
E: I mean, I think our industry has a very long way to go. So I hope things will shift, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that is going to happen overnight. Certainly I think the conversation has changed, but if you look at the makeup of our industry, it’s predominantly white. And that’s true at Red Antler, right? I’m not proud of that fact. But I think that it’s true across the board if you look at most companies in our industry. And that’s a very, very depressing fast because the work suffers as a result.
R: Yeah. And it’s also predominantly male, I believe. I mean, at the very least, you’re one of the very few female agency founders. And I happened to be talking to quite a few this season, but I hope that doesn’t give people the false impression that it’s commonplace, really even. So how do you feel like the industry is doing in terms of supporting female entrepreneurship? I suppose within the agency world, but just in general?
E: No, I think you’re right. I’m very spoiled at Red Antler because our team is 60% women, and a lot of that is at the leadership level. So I forget what it used to be out there in the world. And in the venture world, which is the ecosystem that I spend most of my time in, it’s also still predominantly male. And there are many, many times when I’m the only woman in the room. A lot of the founders who we see getting funding are white men, that’s still very much true. And I think that all needs to change.
R: Yeah. Is there, I mean, it’s a little bit of an awkward position, I suppose, to be a consultant where you don’t want to … It’s against your financial interests to piss off your clients or potential clients, but do you feel that now that Red Antler has grown and has become … Has a bit more clout, I suppose, do you feel that you’re able to influence clients? Or make decisions about which clients to take on maybe? Based at all on diversity or their sort of attitude towards these issues?
E: Definitely. We do play a role. So one is that we’re much, much more likely to get flexible when it comes to taking on a project if it has a founder from a diverse background. Whether that be a woman, a person of color, or both. That’s where we’re likely to make this work because we are in a position where we can really help businesses succeed, and we want to see more people succeeding who don’t just look like your typical startup founder profile. So that’s one.
Two, is that when we do have a team of all men, I often find that my role is to sort of be a reality check for them. I think that part of the problem of having a not diverse team is that you have blind spots, right? Everybody does, it’s no one’s fault. But you’re going to be in a room, all talking and think something’s a good idea. And someone else could very easily thought that it’s not a good idea, but if you don’t have that person at the table, you run the risk of putting the thing out there and everyone’s, “What the hell were they thinking?” So we’re often in the position of being, “Okay guys, maybe we should re-think this. That might not be the best idea, especially coming from an all male team and you might want to think about that in a different way.”
R: Yeah. I love those examples and it seems like they come up a lot on Twitter, for example, of mistakes that companies have made, presumably because they didn’t have a woman or a person of color in the room. And when you look at it from that perspective, it’s such an obvious face palm. But, but whether it’s Kim Kardashian naming her company Kimono and not realizing. I assume that that was cultural appropriation, that might’ve been offensive.
And again, I assume because there weren’t Asian people in the room that might’ve spoken up about that. It’s great to see those examples because it provides a really kind of tangible … This is why diversity is important, because it can keep you from screwing up and costing yourself money. It’s not just sort of a kumbaya, let’s do the right thing. It’s actually a business decision that can have a financial impact.
E: Totally. I can think of two names, and I won’t name them because I don’t want to put anyone on the [inaudible 00:31:07]. But I can think of two names that we were, “You cannot call your business that. We will not work with you, because that’s just a no-go.”
E: And again, these were not founders with bad intentions. They just didn’t realize they couldn’t go out there with that name. Yeah. And then another example, we were working with an all male team and they wanted to incorporate a feminist icon into their brand imagery. And I wouldn’t let them. I was, “You can’t do this, you can’t borrow this imagery that’s an incredibly important part of feminist history when you’re an all male team. People are going to call you out.”
E: And it’s not appropriate. And they were really surprised. They were, “But we … Our target is women, and we believe in these principles.” And I’m, “It doesn’t matter. You don’t have a single woman on your leadership team. You can’t be out there using the face of a feminist icon.”
R: Yeah. And again, obviously in that case, it sounds like they had good intentions. But it’s a real moment of humility, I think. And I’ll say this as a white male. A lot of these names that we’re talking about, or these incidents for me, sometimes they’re kind of, “Oh yeah, I didn’t realize, but that’s awful.” And I probably would not have realized that not somebody said that. So it takes some humility and some empathy that hopefully we all have and are working on. And our empathy muscle is being flexed and growing over time, but it’s not something that you’re ever going to get perfect. And so getting that perspective from a diverse group of people is critical.
E: A hundred percent agree.
R: So I have a couple of wrap-up questions for you here. We’ve talked about some of these sort of causes of the day, things that we think it’s important for brands to be on the right side of. I’m just curious, are there any brands that you would specifically use as an example that you think are making a positive impact on the world, and that you would maybe encourage people to look up or support?
E: So a designer out of Brooklyn, her name is Aurora Jean, came up with this idea of the 15% pledge. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.
R: No, I haven’t.
E: But her company is … I thought it was so smart, her call to major retailers was, “Pledge to stock 15% of your shelves with black owned businesses.” And to me, that was an incredibly strong and tangible way to enforce accountability and act on behalf of these brands. And I know that Sephora was one of the first major retailers to sign on for the 15% pledge. And that made me feel really good about Sephora. I [inaudible 00:33:51] and I have not bought makeup since the pandemic started because I’m not wearing any. But when that happened, I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to log into Sephora, see what I can … Maybe I’ll buy some face cream.” So I think things like that. This is a larger movement and she sort of put it out there. And I think the brands that raised their hand and responded to it is a great example of doing something.
R: Yeah, that’s great. I’ll definitely look that up. Books. So obviously everyone should go out and pick up a copy of Obsessed, or maybe not go out given that it’s a pandemic, but they can get it online. Aside from Obsessed, any book recommendations? Things that maybe informed your approach at Red Antler, or just that you’ve read recently that have kind of changed your thinking about brands and branding?
E: So here is my little secret, which I probably shouldn’t admit as the author of a business book, but I almost exclusively read fiction. I actually think fiction helps me with my job more than most business books.
E: I think that we talked about empathy earlier in the podcast, and for me, so much of my role is about putting myself in the shoes of people who aren’t me. Right? I have to be thinking about the consumer all the time, and what their lives are like, and what their experiences are like, and what problems they’re facing, and how the brands that we’re building can be a response to those problems. And I think nothing opens you up to other people’s experiences better than a great novel. So that’s my recommendation, is pick up a fiction book and get out of your head and into the experience of someone whose life looks nothing like yours.
R: Any recent favorites, or all time favorites that you want to put on our listeners lists?
E: Oh, I’ve been reading a lot of just fun lighthearted summer books lately, but right before all of this I read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, I hope I’m pronouncing his last name right. And it’s a beautiful book. It’s so heartwarming. And again, reading about someone whose background and experience is totally different from my own, but you really feel like you’re right there with the characters in this book and I just highly recommend it.
R: Great. And lastly, you’ve built a team at Red Antler, I’m sure you have quite a few junior people on that team. Any advice to either people interested in starting a career in branding or that already have, and just want to grow and be successful in the industry?
E: I think this is probably really cliché advice, but be curious. I think that so much of what we do is a response to the world around us, to culture and trends, and what makes people tick. And when I meet with someone that doesn’t seem like they’re passionate about what’s happening in the world, and what businesses are out there, and like what they’re seeing, and what they’re loving. For me, that’s an immediate red flag. So I think just having just an incredible appetite for experience, for brands, for digital, and really paying attention and exploring is so important for doing what we do well.
R: Yeah. It sounds like be curious and, and be engaged. Get out there and experience things.
E: Yeah, definitely. More than just thinking you’re going to be able to, you just sort of crack this on your computer or [inaudible 00:37:21] face in a book.
R: Yeah. Certainly don’t just read a bunch of business books and think that you know everything. Read some novels.
E: Yeah, except for mine. Obviously read mine.
R: Yes. Well, I hope that our listeners do pick up Obsessed, and I hope they’ve learned something from this conversation. Emily, thank you so much for your time.
E: Thank you. Such a pleasure speaking with you.