Season four wrap-up: How brands (and branding professionals) can do good
It’s the summer of 2021—one year since the murder of George Floyd. And if you’re wondering what that has to do with the season-four wrap-up of a podcast about branding, let me tell you: in early 2020 I had a plan for season four of How Brands Are Built. But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and protests around the world, my plan changed a bit. 2020 was already a pretty awful year for most people, and it just seemed to be getting worse and worse. So I started thinking about whether there was a way I could use this little platform of mine to do some good—or at least talk about something positive.
That led me to reach out to my most diverse set of guests yet, starting with Dr. Jason Chambers, who talked about the origins of racist brand names and what to do about them. I talked to female agency founders like Dava Guthmiller of Noise 13, Sunny Bonnell of Motto, and Emily Heyward of Red Antler about how they got started and the role of diversity in their agency cultures. The season ended with a two-part episode featuring Brian Collins and his agency’s design apprentice, Diego Segura, who told me about one way to create opportunities for talented, but less privileged, designers and strategists. And along the way, I talked to Armin Vit of Brand New, Alina Wheeler, author of Designing Brand Identity, and Nirm Shanbhag of Sid Lee.
While I talked to guests about their agencies, books they’d written, or other topics specific to their areas of expertise, I also asked nearly all of them about what brands and branding professionals could be doing to improve the state of the world—in light of COVID-19, in light of racial injustice, and just in general. Are brands a force for good? Can they be? Should they try to be?
At the end of this episode, which features clips from every interview this season, I boil everything I heard and learned down into five ways brands—and branding professionals like you and me—can make the world a better place (sorry):
- Be selective (and stick to your values)
- Walk the talk
- Wield your influence
- Proactively pursue diversity
- Don’t underestimate the power of your work
Let me break these down one by one:
1. Be selective (and stick to your values)
I think it’s right—at least in this context—to think of brand as a tool. On its own it’s morally neutral, but it can be used to advance good, neutral, or bad causes. Put simply, one purpose of branding is to get a message out: usually, the message is “Buy our product.” But of course, it can be more than that.
Recently, due to shifts in consumer expectations and events in the world, brands seem to have a lot more to say, and many align themselves with ideas, ranging from environmental sustainability to outspoken support for a political party. As consultants, we get to choose which brands we help strengthen—assuming we’re in a position to be picky, that is. So stick to your values, and choose wisely. By the way, this same logic applies to brands looking to enter co-branding relationships with other brands.
2. Walk the talk
It’s not enough for brands to say the right things, though. Some brands want to associate themselves with racial equality, for example, but don’t seem to be working toward it inside their own organizations. So, look beyond the romance copy and Instagram posts—when you’re making decisions about whether to support or work with a brand, do your homework. And again, stick to your values.
3. Wield your influence
Beyond being selective about our future clients, we can often influence our current clients in ways that align with our values (and hopefully, theirs too). We’ve been invited into these organizations to help make them better, and sometimes that means encouraging them to take action. Maybe that means cutting energy use or hiring more diverse talent. Maybe it just means producing a higher quality product or putting an end to a somewhat annoying email campaign. Even these little changes could positively impact many people’s lives. Even if you want to be cynical about it, and do it all under the guise of “creating proof points” for a recommended brand promise—who cares, as long as the positive changes get made?
4. Proactively pursue diversity
Racist brand names and imagery are some of the many things that can go wrong with an insufficiently diverse team. I won’t go into all the benefits of diversity here—I feel like that case has been made. What I liked about some of these conversations was hearing about how to pursue diversity. How to be proactive and thoughtful about it. Dava Guthmiller talks about something as simple as keeping track of the backgrounds of people she’s inviting to speak at her conference. Not as a quota—not We need three black people and three white people. But just keeping track, so you’re conscious of how diverse (or not diverse) a group is.
And Diego Segura talks about the internship program at Collins, which aims to create a pipeline of diverse talent. This is a great way to build diversity on the Collins team, but more importantly, it does a huge service to these high school kids and to the design industry overall.
5. Don’t underestimate the power of your work
Near the end of the episode, Brian Collins shares a story about redesigning a security team’s uniforms. What I hope you take away is that your work, even when it might seem trivial, can make a huge impact. Whether you’re a strategist, a designer, or some other kind of marketing professional, your work could make someone more proud to do their job. Or it might create new jobs, or help your clients get promoted. It might make someone try a product that they end up loving, or stop using a product that’s bad for their health.
Some of my most meaningful projects have been helping second or third-generation business owners revitalize their family business, which, as you can imagine, is deeply meaningful to them on a personal level. It’s part of why I named my agency Heirloom.
I won’t pretend brands or branding are saving the world or that everything brand consultants do is good for the world, even. But I hope that you’ll listen to this episode and Brian’s story, and realize that you can make an impact. That your work does make an impact. And if you think about being selective and sticking to your values, walking the talk, wielding your influence, and proactively working to ensure greater diversity—then the impact you make will be a positive one.
Finally, the episode ended with some inspiring advice from Alina Wheeler:
Dream big. Put your big audacious dreams on a Post-it Note on your forehead and share them with everyone because sometimes some of the biggest opportunities come from the most unlikely places. Disengage from your digital devices and just wander around some more and explore. Expose your brain to things that have nothing to do with your day job. Do something crazy.
Get rid of toxic people and clients. Make sure you have an I-believe-in-you person, especially when you’re really stretching and coming up with big ideas.
My favorite quote … is [from] George Eliott: ‘It’s never too late to be who you could have been.’ So, it’s like, start now. Start today.”
Don’t forget to go back and listen or read transcripts from this season and the last three. Thanks to everyone who listens to the show, and especially to everyone who subscribed, left a rating or review, signed up for the newsletter (see footer), or connected on social media. If you haven’t done those things, please do—I really appreciate the support!!
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SEASON FOUR WRAP-UP EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
ROB MEYERSON: Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, and the Washington NFL football team—these brands and others announced they’d change their names or mascots in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests for racial justice. A year later, Aunt Jemima is Pearl Milling Company, Uncle Ben’s is Ben’s Original, and the Washington football team is…The Washington Football Team, pending another new name coming sometime soon…ish?
I asked Dr. Jason Chambers, Associate Professor of Advertising at the University of Illinois, what might be a bit of an ignorant question—where do these brand names come from? Why do these racist brand names exist to begin with? Here’s his response:
DR. JASON CHAMBERS: I think there are a couple of reasons. Let me take the first part of your question first, which use why these symbols at all? Symbols are simply shorthand. They’re like a logo or a trade character. It’s a way for every consumer to recognize my brand in the marketplace without me having to take 6, 8, 10, or 12 paragraphs if we think about when these symbols were created back in the world of print advertising—even before radio becomes a thing.
These symbols become shorthand, the stereotype about the group of people for which the symbol is being utilized, in this case, African Americans. Even within all of the racist tropes that had existed about African Americans—then or now—there are certain areas at which African Americans are stereotyped to be good at. Stereotyped to be expert at.
If we just step back and just (off the top our head) listed stereotypes about African Americans, where they’re good at sports—particularly basketball, they’re fast, they’re tall, they’re good dancers, or they’re good at music. We could list categories of life, of areas of operation which the stereotype—though it exists and aspects of a racist in and of themselves—are taken to be perceived to be good at sports and the like. If you turn the clock back to the early 20th century, the late 19th century, cooking would have been one of those for African Americans as well. They’re good cooks.
You combine in that stereotype of good cook, expertise, service, authenticity, and quality. If I’ve got a quality cook who has a recipe for pancakes, we’ve been able to mirror that recipe in the box and then we surround that in the wrapper of an old Black mammy in the old South who served her famous pancake recipe to, not quite the slave owner because of the time that’s created slavery is over, but this White master—in the old South kind of model. That stereotype, that sense of authenticity, that sense of quality that’s conveyed in that idea is conveyed to the brand itself. We wrap the rest in the story of the old South and all of that foolishness.
And then you can see the same thing for other brands. Land O’ Lakes butter and margarine. If we want to convey the quality of our ingredients, we utilize this Native American image. Because who are the people that are closest to the land and really typify this sense of authentic connection to manufacture and the making of an agricultural product. I can simply use Native Americans to convey that natural imagery, this connection that I want to make.
ROB: I also asked Dr. Chambers why these names hadn’t changed sooner—his response pretty much came down to money and inertia—but I didn’t ask him how brands can avoid naming mistakes like this going forward. A big part of the answer, however, is diversity. Diversity in the team coming up with names, diversity in the people vetting the name ideas, and so on.
So, let’s talk about diversity a bit. When I interviewed Sunny Bonnell of Motto, I was shocked by a statistic she cited. According to Sunny, 0.1% of all creative agencies are owned by women. I asked her to talk about the importance of diversity on an agency team.
SUNNY BONNELL: When you meet our team at Motto specifically, there’s one thing that you pick up on immediately and that’s that we’re very different from one another. Some of us grew up under a democracy, others under a dictatorship. We were born into privilege and disadvantage in the cities, and on the farms into enough and into never enough. We identify as female and male, a blend of both, maybe neither. We’ve got fur babies. We’ve got human babies. We’ve got folklorists with MBAs, logisticians, or artists. Some of us roam the streets of New York and others may tuck themselves away and into a forest.
What I’ve learned is that sameness only brings sameness, and we need more people who don’t nod their heads in agreement. We need Black leaders. We need more women at the top. It’s time to shatter templates and shed the old guard. That’s how you get different perspectives to get a seat at the table.
ROB: Dava Guthmiller, founder of Noise 13, agreed that there are too few female-led agencies, although she says it’s gotten better since she started Noise 20 years ago. Dava’s agency has a diverse team, but I also talked to her about a conference she’s created, In/Visible Talks. And we started talking about how speakers are selected for the event to ensure it’s not just a bunch of white men on stage. It was interesting to hear, because even if you’re looking to host a diverse event or hire a diverse team, it’s not like you can just snap your fingers and make it happen. Here’s what Dava said about the process of finding speakers:
DAVA GUTHMILLER: One of the things that we do in the beginning when we’re sort of kicking off the project is that we put together this list. All the time you’re meeting people, hearing about creatives that you want to meet, that you want to talk to, that are doing great things. We just put this huge spreadsheet together and we had to start actually putting their background, their ethnicity to make sure that we were having a representative set of people. Part of that spreadsheet, we also look at their age. We do not have or we need to have one Asian person, one Black person. We don’t do that at all.
ROB: I’m glad Dava talked a little bit about the how of creating diversity. Because it’s one thing to want a diverse agency team, but wanting it doesn’t make it real. And, I’m sure you’ve heard it before, people say they wanted to add diversity to their team but they “couldn’t find a black designer” or “couldn’t find any women with the right experience for the job,” and so on.
Well, Collins, the design agency led by Brian Collins in New York, came up with a great solution. They created an internship program to educate young designers who can’t afford the biggest, most prestigious schools, as well as a summer internship for high school students of color. Here’s Diego on why that’s important, based on his personal experience.
DIEGO SEGURA: I had no idea at 16, 17 years old, what SVA was – art center. I had no idea about Parsons. These were not on my radar. The only thing that was on my radar was the guidance counselor saying, “Hey, you have pretty good grades. You could get into a lot of great schools and you’re automatically accepted into UT.” You know, all that stuff, the standard college stuff coming out of high school. I had no idea that these things were available. So it’s funny that when I was. Out of high school for a year already joining Collins, people said, well, why didn’t you go to art school?
I said, to be completely frank, I made my dropout decision before I knew any of those things existed. I didn’t even know you could go to school really for design, which sounds stupid, but it just wasn’t, I wasn’t thinking about it. And so when you look at the broader industry, I would venture to guess that the people who get into design somehow were made aware of it at well, obviously they were made aware of it at one point.
And I would guess that a lot of lower income high schools, for example, the high school I went to was the lowest income in our district. We weren’t made aware of those things. Maybe as much as we could have been, or should’ve been. And so it’s a clear discrepancy between going to a wealthy school where, Oh yeah, my, you know, my friend is the director of marketing, you know, My friend’s mom is the director of marketing at some massive corporation, and so they’re aware of that.
ROB: Emily Heyward, co-founder and and Chief Brand Officer of Red Antler, also said our industry has a very long way to go on diversity. But, because Red Antler has so much clout in the branding industry, I also talked to Emily about her agency’s ability to influence clients on issues like diversity and inclusion. And in answering, she again made a point about why diversity is important in any organization:
EMILY HEYWARD: 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 like, “Okay guys, maybe we should rethink 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.”
ROB: And that gets us to a major way branding people can do good: by picking the right clients. If your job is to help your clients succeed, then it makes sense to choose clients that align with your values. Here’s a bit of my conversation with Armin Vit, of UnderConsideration and the website Brand New, about choosing clients carefully.
ARMIN VIT: Where we can make a difference is who we make that work for. We’re making that work for people, for companies, for organizations, for products, and services that can make a difference in the world; a positive difference in the world. We empower those clients to be their best—to communicate clearly, to do it engagingly, to do it in a way that is memorable, that sticks in people’s minds. When we see our industry to be in service of other people who are making a difference in the world, I think that can be really empowering.
It’s important to choose who you work for. I’m not saying all your work has to be for nonprofits, for NGOs, or for people saving the world. You can do work for profit, for companies, as long as it’s not… I don’t want to name companies.
ROB: Right. You’re just advising people to have their own values and ideals in mind, and not just doing the work to do the work. Some people, I suppose, are in a position where they can’t afford to turn work down; that’s one thing.
I like what you’re saying, that the power of designers, consultants, and agencies, a lot of it is in simply selecting which clients to work for and which ones to kind of let pass. If you just feel like, well, I don’t really like what they’re doing or I don’t agree with what they stand for, then you have the power to just not help them and let them go on their way.
ARMIN: Having that sense at the end of the night that you helped someone be their best version of themselves. By someone I don’t mean a person, but an entity to communicate in the best way possible. I think that’s a really valuable job. It’s just not going to save the world.
ROB: That idea, that branding won’t save the world, was echoed by Nirm Shanbhag, Chief Strategy Officer of Sid Lee USA.
NIRM SHANBHAG: At the end of the day, I’ve said this before, and you’ve probably heard me say it a million times, but there has never been a brand emergency. The stuff we do, at the end of the day, it’s just about brand. It’s constructs. It’s helping people make choices. And while important, I think it pales in comparison to the discovery of elemental particles.
ROB: Nirm mentioned elemental particles because it came up after I’d asked him about his favorite books. He recommended A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, because it’s a book about perspective. While we were getting philosophical, I asked Nirm directly whether he thinks branding is good or bad for society.
NIRM: Is brand good or bad? That’s hard to answer because I don’t think of brand as something that is inherently good or bad. Is a hammer good or bad? I mean, if you’re driving a nail into a wall, a hammer’s a good thing. If beaten over the head by your crazy neighbor, it’s a bad thing. And so I think brand isn’t any different than any other tool that human beings have constructed. Now, sure, it’s not physical, but still, it’s a thing. And I think there are examples of brand being used for bad. There’s certainly clients I’ve had where I didn’t necessarily agree in the end with their business practices. On the other hand, you can have brands that are just solely to improve things.
ROB: But what about this buzzword, “Purpose”? Brand purpose. Well, I won’t get into the strategic value brand purpose right now, but let’s agree that a business can have a purpose beyond making money and that organizations are made up of people who have values—maybe even shared values. So, as Nirm said, if branding is a tool, it can be used to clarify and amplify that purpose and those values. Again, it’s why picking the right clients is so important.
Here’s Sunny Bonnell of Motto again, talking about how leaders and leading brands can make an impact—and she even gives an example.
SUNNY: Brands have huge influence. Many of them that I’ve seen recently, being extremely tone-deaf with the pandemic, but that’s another topic. I absolutely believe that leaders can use that influence to stand for something, not just sell something, and make a positive impact on the planet and the people living on it. They should because why on earth would anyone have a problem with businesses doing good?
I can’t stand the argument personally that there’s no place for politics, social opinions, and keep it strictly business. A lot of people have this ethos like stay in your lane. I just say, […] the lane. For rare breeds, there is no lane.
Brands can inherently be good or bad. Look at Oatly, they are a huge business. I think they’re valued at $2 billion and fucking fearless. They took what used to be an invisible brand and turned it into a lifestyle brand by doing their own thing, having guts, sticking to their convictions, and going against the norms of traditional marketing. It’s not something you drink. It’s something you believe.
ROB: But if branding is a tool, like Nirm said, what are some examples of it being used by the “dark side”? I asked Sunny about this in a follow-up question:
SUNNY: I think we’re seeing it all the time. There’s a lot of these brands. Ashleigh just wrote a post on LinkedIn that took off. She was talking about how big brands have responded to the assassination of George Floyd and these sorts of anti-racist messages. Zillow, I think in a post that they did says, “Racism has no home here.” We said, “Apparently, neither do black people on your leadership team.”
Nike, “Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America.” Well, “how about not pretend that there’s not a problem in your c-suite.”
I believe there’s maybe less than 5% of Fortune 100 companies that have black people at the top. This is the conversation about business, money, and power. There’s not equality and representation in the business right now. I think you’re seeing it even with other brands that are aligning to the dark side. You have companies that align and celebrate on the light side. I think it’s just the conversation that’s out there are some of these brands, they’re rooted in some evil practices.
ROB: To be clear, I don’t think Sunny’s saying Zillow and Nike are evil brands overall. But in this one example, they’re using part of the branding tool—let’s call it messaging—to glom onto social justice movements and espouse values that they can’t back up very well in practice. And that, I suppose, is a form of evil. Or negligence, at least, to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Let’s hear a few more examples of how branding—design, specifically—can make a positive impact on people’s lives. Here’s Brian Collins, talking about a point in his career when we went from leading the Levi’s business at Foote Cone Belding to starting a design and innovation division for Ogilvy:
BRIAN COLLINS: When I arrived for my interview and I walked into this huge lobby on 49th street and eighth avenue was a giant Skidmore, Owings and Merrill building, a very intimidating lobby that was like a hundred stories, tall covered with like Italian marble. The lobby was it looked, it looked like what it was. Is it a headquarters of a large global enterprise, but on the wall here is this logo. They said Ogilvy and Mather, and it was like brass or bronze and it could kind of look like a hip Lenin sort of mausoleum.
It was head to toe, like a tiny marble everywhere. It was very sort of mid nineties, corporate or Gothic. And, um, Rick asked me to work with him on the redesign of, of the ogilvy brand itself. And so we do. And so we changed the identity. We one things we wanted to do reassert David’s relevance and thinking, as we were moving into the 20th and 21st century,
ROB: This is David Ogilvy
BRIAN: David, this is 1998, 1999. And it turns out that many vocal, these thoughts about branding, which he wrote in the fifties, sixties and seventies were. Even more timely now than, than they were when you first wrote them. So we wanted to reassert David’s philosophy as a key part of the Ogleby culture. The other thing we want to do is sort of re reassert his personality. And so we went and got some, some, some of those old letters and we pulled his signature from one of them and we turned his signature into the logo of the company. Along with doing that, I remember walking down as we were doing design development identity. I walked in and I looked at the security guards and they are at Ogilvy and there’s a massive security desk.
It was like the size of the runway at JFK. And there were like four security guards behind the desk and they were always really kind, really nice, but they were dressed like attendants at the zoo. It was maroon, textured, polyester suits. Really bad spun polyester with this horrible maroon texture, the gold piping along the shoulders and on the edges.
And it said security on the front, on the front jacket pocket and security on the left shoulder and security on the right shoulder. And they had black pants, maroon jacket with this with black sort of flared pants. It was, it was hideous. Um, and it looked awful and they were embarrassed to wear them and had big clunky ties and, and w and the women had these ties, this outfit.
See, it was, it was awful, but we had it apparently. I said, well, why don’t we change those outfits. Rick had explained that they had a contract. W w w with the security company, the security company supply was outfits. So I said, well, that’s ridiculous. Let’s go and get better outfits for that. Let’s let’s get like nice looking suits.
So I went and I found out who made the suits for the Ritz Carlton for, uh, for the Four Seasons. And we went out work with them, found it an exquisite suit. Um, what’s beautiful, like thin lapels. We’ve found a very elegant crewneck, black—so this is the late nineties—so it was a black sea black crew knit, black pants.
It was slightly pegged and, uh, in some nice shoes and the book, men and women, we tried on them and they looked awesome. They, and, and, and I banished the word security in, so security underpins. It said security nowhere. And I remember one of the other executives and said, Well, how do they know there’s security guards? Well, maybe it’s because they’re behind the security. And it made no sense to me that they need it.
ROB: To say security on each sleeve.
BRIAN: Yeah, exactly. These were the, the, the diplomats. These are the first people who welcomed you as you came into the company, they, they greeted you. They said, hello, this who you were speaking to, they asked how they could be of help.
They told you which office to go to. They called ahead. They pointed you the elevators. They asked if you needed anything. They’re our first voice to people. When they visited us at our, at our New York headquarters.
ROB: But just to be clear, they were not Ogilvy employees.
BRIAN: We were con you described, we had contracted over overly had I thought they were.
And they explained to me that we contract the services of a security company.
ROB: Yeah. That seems like a real barrier. I mean, I, I, I wonder how hard you had to push, you know, to make that change. It sounds like it might’ve involved. Well, it involves a third party.
BRIAN: Did we? I think if I remember properly is what we decided to do is this is the, I don’t think the security company was willing to pay for a bit for the students.
So, so Ogilvy did. And we gave them, you know, better suits. And I remember when they first tried them on and they really liked them and it looked like, and they looked like a million bucks. I mean, that looks great. It looks like you’re walking into the lobby of it, like a five star hotel, which is David Ogilvy says we run a first-class business in a first-class way.
And these are lobby. Now looked like a first entering into a first class, which made sense a month after. We re launched the brand and a month after, um, the w everything happened at the same look, the same time the identity changed the website change and all the uniforms of the security guards and the org change.
And about a month after that, one of the security guards had worked at the company for at least 15 years, came up to me and he pulled me aside and he said, Brian, can I talk to you and he said, I have to tell you something. Is it, this is for the first time in my life, my daughter called and she said, I’m coming by to see you.
Um, and I took my daughter out. I walked her outside. She hadn’t seen me in that outfit. And I took her down to the Starbucks and we had coffee in the Starbucks. And for the first time I felt like I worked at Ogilvy and Mather, I didn’t feel like I was a, just a security guard. And it changed my relationship with my daughter that I wasn’t wearing an ugly hideous security outfit.
ROB: He didn’t have to be embarrassed about it.
BRIAN: Beging a security guard is a good job, but he felt because of the way he was dressed, he felt like he was part of the culture, not just a contract employee. Right. Because we, because the agency provided him with a suit that made him look great.
And he got a little emotional and telling me this. “I saw my relationship with my daughter change. Cause I could take her out in public and she was going outwards.” Her dad worked for Ogilvy rather than her dad who was a contract security card. And all that changed was a suit. Yeah, right. So this is a very small thing of all the things I did at Ogilvy & Mather, that’s the story that I’ll never forget.
ROB: What a great story from Brian Collins.
So, let’s recap. Based on all my conversations with my guests this season, I’ve boiled everything down to five ways brands and brand consultants can make a positive impact on the world:
- Be selective (and stick to your values)
- Walk the talk
- Wield your influence
- Proactively pursue diversity
- Don’t underestimate the power of your work
I’ll break these down one by one.
Be selective (and stick to your values): I think it’s right—at least in this context—to think of brand as a tool, as Nirm said, that on its own is morally neutral, but that can be used to advance good, neutral, or bad causes. Put simply, one purpose of branding is to get a message out: usually, the message is “Buy our product.” But of course, it can be more than that.
Recently, due to shifts in consumer expectations and events in the world, brands seem to have a lot more to say, and many align themselves with ideas, ranging from environmental sustainability to outspoken support for a political party. Armin Vit and others reminded us that as consultants, we get to choose which brands we help strengthen—assuming we’re in a position to be picky, that is. So stick to your values, and choose wisely. By the way, this same logic applies to brands looking to enter co-branding relationships with other brands.
Walk the talk: It’s not enough for brands to say the right things, though. Sunny Bonnell reminded us that some brands want to associate themselves with racial equality, for example, but don’t seem to be working toward it inside their own organizations. So, look beyond the romance copy and Instagram posts—when you’re making decisions about whether to support or work with a brand, do your homework. And again, stick to your values.
Wield your influence: Emily Heyward made the point that, beyond being selective about our future clients, we can often influence our current clients in ways that align with our values (and hopefully, there’s too). We’ve been invited into these organizations to help make them better, and sometimes that means encouraging them to take action. Maybe that means cutting energy use or hiring more diverse talent. Maybe it just means producing a higher quality product or putting an end to a somewhat annoying email campaign. Even these little changes could positively impact many people’s lives. Even if you wanna be cynical about it, and do it all under the guise of “creating proof points” for a recommended brand promise—who cares, as long as the positive changes get made?
Proactively pursue diversity: From Dr. Chambers, we heard about one of the many things that can go wrong with an insufficiently diverse team. And Emily Heyward mentioned some challenges she’s seen with all-male leadership teams. I won’t go into all the benefits of diversity here—I feel like that case has been made. What I liked about some of these conversations was hearing about how to pursue diversity. How to be proactive and thoughtful about it. Dava Guthmiller talked about something as simple as keeping track of the backgrounds of people she’s inviting to speak at her conference. Not as a quota—not “we need 3 black people and 3 white people.” But just keeping track, so you’re conscious of how diverse, or not diverse, a group is.
And Diego Segura talked about the internship program at Collins, which aims to create a pipeline of diverse talent. This is a great way to build diversity on the Collins team, but more importantly, it does a huge service to these high school kids and to the design industry overall.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the power of your own work: What did you take away from Brian Collins’ story about redesigning the security team’s uniforms? What I hope you took away is that your work, even when it might seem trivial, can make a huge impact. Whether you’re a strategist, a designer, or some other kind of marketing professional, your work may make someone more proud to do their job. Or it could create new jobs, or help your clients get promoted. It might make someone try a product that they end up loving, or stop using a product that’s bad for their health.
Some of my most meaningful projects have been helping second or third-generation business owners revitalize their family business, which, as you can imagine, is deeply meaningful to them on a personal level. It’s part of why I named my agency Heirloom.
So yes, branding is not the discovery of elemental particles. I don’t want to pretend we’re saving the world or that everything we do is good for the world, even. But I hope that you’ll listen to this episode and Brian’s story, and realize that you can make an impact. That your work does make an impact. And if you think about being selective and sticking to your values, walking the talk, wielding your influence, and proactively working to ensure greater diversity—the impact you make will be a positive one.
I’d like to leave you with one more clip from this season. Another question I often ask interviewees is about advice for people in the branding community. If you want to hear what people like Marty Neumeier, David Aaker, and others have to say about this, please go back and listen to their episodes or previous season wrap-up episodes. But today, I’m leaving you with this little bit of wisdom and inspiration from Alina Wheeler, author of Designing Brand Identity, a fantastic reference for anyone working in branding, now in its fifth edition. Here’s a bit of my conversation with Alina:
ALINA WHEELER: Dream big. Put your big audacious dreams on a Post-it Note on your forehead and share them with everyone because sometimes some of the biggest opportunities come from the most unlikely places. Disengage from your digital devices and just wander around some more and explore. Expose your brain to things that have nothing to do with your day job. Do something crazy.
Get rid of toxic people and clients. Make sure you have an I-believe-in-you person, especially when you’re really stretching and coming up with big ideas. Find a professional tribe like I had at AIGA. You just have to dream big. Like I never, ever, when I wrote this first edition, I never dreamt that I would have a week like this week. So, this week I have been contacted by a business owner in Barcelona, an entrepreneur in Bavaria, a brand strategist in India. I talked to Simon in Ghana. I talked to somebody who has a brand consultancy in Dubai. I mean, I never dreamt…
ROB: And you’re doing the How Brands Are Built podcast, which is about as prestigious as it gets in the world of branding.
ALINA: I love it. No. Well, look at all the people you’ve interviewed. Oh my God, to be interviewed by the same person that did David Aaker couple of weeks ago. Holy smokes. Yeah, you’re right.
ROB: Right. Well, I love your advice to dream big. And I love the fact that you’re a living example of, of that, of doing that and seeing how it can pay off. And I like, you said put it on your forehead. I like that idea of not only dreaming big but sharing it with people. ‘Cause I suspect that a lot of people have these big dreams or ambitions or ideas, but maybe keep them to themselves partly because they’re afraid to share it because they think people might laugh at them or think that they can’t achieve it. But by sharing it, not only are you making yourself accountable to some degree. People might follow up with you and say, “Hey, did you write that book? Or did you do that big thing you thought you were going to do?” But also you never know where inspiration is going to come from, or potentially a partner—somebody that wants to work on it with you. So the more you get out there and connect with people and talk about these big ideas, the more likely they are to happen.
ALINA: I think, for me, when you write it down and you kind of put it on the wall, it becomes real. When you talk to people, it becomes real. And I’m just always surprised about where possibilities are born and opportunities happen. So, it’s exciting. It’s making the dream tangible and it’s bringing you one step closer. My favorite quote—again, another dead person that I quote in the book is George Eliott: “It’s never too late to be who you could have been.” So, it’s like, start now. Start today.
ROB: Well, that’s it for this season four wrap-up episode. I hope this gave you a taste of this season’s conversations, or a nice refresher, if you’d already listened to everything. To hear more from each of these amazing guests, go back and listen to each episode or read the transcripts on HowBrandsAreBuilt.com.