Sunny Bonnell reframes your vices as virtues
On the podcast today: Sunny Bonnell, co-founder of Motto, one of the leading branding agencies in the country, with clients like Google, Hershey’s, and Twentieth Century Fox. Sunny and her co-founder, Ashleigh Hansberger, recently wrote their first book, Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different. Sunny says the book started with a question: What if you could take the parts of yourself that other people criticize—traits they call defiant, dangerous, and different—and turn those things into your selling points?”
We talked about how Sunny and Ashleigh arrived at the seven “virtues” in Rare Breed:
If you’re curious which virtue applies to you, try the Rare Breed quiz.
Sunny and Ashleigh also host a YouTube series, also called Rare Breed, where they sit down with guests like Charlamagne Tha God and Jon Batiste.
I asked Sunny about Motto’s origin story, the challenges of being one of very few female-owned agencies, the importance of diversity, and more. Toward the end of the conversation, Sunny recommended a few books: It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be and Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite, both by Paul Ardern, as well as The Hero and the Outlaw, by Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson.
We ended with some of Sunny’s motivating advice for anyone trying to grow their career:
Own who you are. In a world that wants to own you, owning yourself in this way can really hurt like hell. Being defiant, dangerous, and different is a gift. Succeed because of who you are, not despite who you are.”
To learn more about Sunny, check out her agency’s work at wearemotto.com. Rare Breed is available now on Amazon and elsewhere. And, if you go to rarebreedbook.com, you can watch episodes of Sunny and Ashleigh’s YouTube show and take the Rare Breed quiz. If you take the quiz or read the book, drop us a line on social media—I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I’m sure Sunny would, too.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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SUNNY BONNELL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
ROB MEYERSON: Sunny Bonnell, thanks so much for joining me in the podcast.
SUNNY BONNELL: Happy to be here.
R: You and your co-founder, Ashleigh, run a successful brand consulting or branding firm called Motto. Why did you start Motto? What has the company’s path been over the past 15 years?
S: Yeah, 15 years ago, we set out to change the branding conversations. We were young college dropouts in our early 20s and had $250 to our name, and yet we had a vision. We wanted to move companies beyond what they do and sell to what they stand for and believe in. Over the past decade, we’ve really spent the time building the company, building our vision, trying to create a world where, essentially, every company and brand that we’re working on actually means something. That they understand what it means.
It’s important that a business doesn’t exist just to exist. This need for meaning has become the centerpiece for Motto specifically as a company. Even our name, it symbolizes a sentiment of hope and purpose. It’s what a motto is. It was important for us to really help create a foundation for leaders to help them get unstuck so that they can realize their ambitions and make those big impactful visions that they want to have into a reality.
We’ve been doing that by really creating a space for leaders to deeply explore the inside of themselves and their culture—who they are, what they believe in, what they’re fighting for, and why they matter. So a lot of our work focuses on clarifying those big brand questions like purpose, vision, values, and ethos.
Strangely enough, we’ve evolved into an anti-branding branding agency where we’re getting less and less into doing brand building per se and working more with leaders and teams to help them wrestle vision forward.
R: You said that you wanted to change the conversation back in 2005. You started in South Carolina, so I take it that you felt that there and then, you felt like these kinds of conversations weren’t happening. I’m just curious. Now, 15 years later—presumably understanding the industry far better than you did in those early days—do you feel like that was a conversation that wasn’t happening anywhere, or was that just because of where you were? What did you feel like? What do you feel like now looking back? Was it a South Carolina thing or was it just 2005 people weren’t having the kinds of conversations that you thought they should be?
S: I think it was both, but I do remember not seeing a whole lot of our kind around. Many, many people in the industry that I can recall mostly called themselves either graphic designers or ad agencies. Very few companies were calling themselves brand companies or branding agencies. It was very few and far between. It’s evolved to now, there’s one in every corner.
Back then, what I saw and what we saw was a tremendous amount of vanilla homogenized ad agency ad hoc work, and we felt that there needed to be more of a meaningful conversation around that.
We positioned our company as how do we make a brand matter, not just pretty. That really became the ethos of everything we did because we didn’t have another founder, any other instruction manual, or any other branding person to look up to. We were just two women who had a bold and brave idea and wanted to shake the status quo. I think that’s where that came from.
R: Yeah. I suppose that lack of an instruction manual cuts both ways. It feels daunting and that you have to create everything yourself, but also gives you the opportunity to create it the way you think it should be instead of just conforming to the industry norms.
S: Absolutely. We took many black eyes. We were getting schooled in board rooms left and right at a very young age. Keep in mind that we were early 20 something dropouts of college. I was going to be a veterinarian. I think Ashleigh was going to be a writer or an English major. We abandoned it all to follow this wild, ambitious, audacious vision, with little plan B or any way to look to anyone else for guidance or help.
That was extremely difficult in the very beginning and sometimes still remains difficult because there are few of our kind. I think 0.1% of all creative agencies are owned by women. We felt like lone wolves then, and we certainly, sometimes, feel that way now.
R: That stat you just mentioned—0.1% of creative agencies owned by women—it’s remarkable. What obstacles have you faced as a female-led agency? It wasn’t just a female agency but also your youth and the fact that you dropped out of college. I’m just curious specifically because I’m trying to get a little bit of a handle on how big of an issue the branding industry and maybe corporate America at large still has from your point of view with sexism or whatever you want to call it. Any personal experiences and do you feel like things are changing at all?
S: I think we are starting to chip away at the iceberg, but I wouldn’t say that we’re where I’d like to see us be. In the early years of running Motto, I can—without a shadow of a doubt—say that we were told numerous times we were too young, too inexperienced, too broke, too weird, or too something to succeed in a world where […] made the rules.
What happens is that as women, we’re often incredibly underestimated. What I can tell you is that we’ve built Motto off of sheer force of will. The more you tell us we can’t, the harder we work to prove that we can, and we will build an agency with a name that people know.
I have a saying that be thankful for small minds because that’s how the rose grew from the concrete, how templates are shattered, and how battles are won. The more that you are oppressed, often the harder you fight back. That was very much the case in our early years. We were sabotaged. Again, we were in a small town where it’s extremely competitive. No one wanted to see us succeed because we were stealing markets, we were stealing clients. We were a threat.
We didn’t realize at the time we were a threat, but we absolutely were. It allowed us to get shaped very early on about what that looks like when not everyone is rooting for you when not everyone is in your corner. I’d like to think that that’s changing. Now, I have so much more camaraderie with other agencies, other brands, branding companies, and people in the industry far more than we did in the very beginning. I love that I’m seeing that. I feel very supported more so than we did in the beginning but it was absolutely there.
R: Not to be too cynical, but it’s easy to want to support the two of you when the success is already there. People want to associate themselves with that success. It’s harder to be supportive when you guys are just getting started out, I assume.
S: Absolutely. Many folks were doubters. I think it happens because of a lot of reasons—jealousy, just lack of awareness, lack of support, or feeling that you’re going to take projects from other people.
It’s tough being in business, no matter what you’re running—a company, being a solopreneur, leading a full team, having a big agency. All of these things are extremely difficult to do and it’s not easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it. The reality is not many people are cut out for staring into the abyss as Elon Musk calls it, where you feel like you are at the top of the mountain and you’re carrying a lot of the weight.
R: You’ve clearly learned quite a bit over the 15 years through all those trials and tribulations of staring into the abyss. Now you’ve written a book, which I assume contains some of the lessons that you’ve learned. The book is Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different. I feel like we’ve already hit on some of the reasons that it makes sense for you and Ashleigh to be the ones to write this book, but what is the central thesis or premise of the book?
S: We started with a curious question, what if you could take the parts of yourself that other people criticize—traits they call defiant, dangerous, and different—and turn those things into your selling points? At the heart of Rare Breed are these seven so-called vices—rebellious, audacious, obsessed, hotblooded, weird, hypnotic, and emotional.
Society tells us that these vices are cautionary tales, they’re counterintuitive to our success. We’re supposed to quiet these traits and make them invisible, but we reframed them as virtues. We’re giving a floor to the misfit and to anyone who’s ever stood outside of the pact to finally lean into who you are and succeed on your own terms.
The thesis in its simplest form is being defiant, dangerous, and different is a gift. Succeed because of who you are, not despite who you are. Now, it’s become the central theme of being more than a business and brand book. We didn’t originally write it out to be any way a branding book because we felt that was very limiting.
We felt that the message was bigger than just a business or brand. We saw this really resonating with individuals both within organizations and without. Those that were starting careers at the beginning of their journey of finding their life’s calling and to speak to them about what that really looks like.
Now, we use this model to lead workshops and global teams to teach them not only how to lead their company with this kind of rare breed mindset, but also how to find, nurture and celebrate rare breed talent within their organization.
What’s interesting is now, we’re getting so many emails and people that have read the book that is coming from outside of the business world per se. I’ve had parents reach out to me who was like, I’m the parent of a rare breed kid. It’s really taking off in a way that has been surprising. It’s truly remarkable because it’s exciting to know that we have superseded essentially the walls of business as usual. Now, we’re penetrating young outliers, young rare breeds, and even their parents to know how to nurture and celebrate them rather than oppress them.
R: I suppose by focusing on the individual, you’ve created something that’s somewhat universal. I’m sure it has a lot of applications within the business. Even within business, you could talk about talent recruiting. You could talk about leadership. You could talk about teamwork and how teams, if they understand each other better, then maybe there’s better teamwork dynamic. Outside of business as well, it could have implications for schooling or just self-help types of things. Just understanding yourself and taking ownership of what some people call faults and turning them into virtues.
S: It’s been extraordinary to see. What was interesting is, in the very beginning, we were taking our own advice like, don’t stay in your lane. The publisher was like, no, you guys, this is bigger than a business book. We’re like, no, but we come from the entrepreneurial world. We wanted to be steadfast to that and anchor ourselves to the core theme. What we know and what we studied and worked in obviously is in brand building and leadership in culture building, but we realized very quickly that this was such a universal message.
Now, we’re starting to see interest from even bigger entities seeking us out to bring us in to talk about these themes and concepts. It just makes the work even that much more meaningful than it was before.
R: As a branding guy and given this is a podcast about how brands are built, I’m curious how it’s applied more of a corporate brand level, but let’s table that for just a second because I have a couple of questions just about the process of writing the book. How did you arrive at seven? I’m always curious about these books that have 5 ½ rules for this or something like that. Was it hard to get up to 7, or did you start with 100 and had to narrow it down? What was that like?
S: That’s a good question. Through honestly, years of research study, late nights, crumpled paper, anxiety attacks, all the fun things like that. As I mentioned early on in our business, many people doubted us to the point where we’re starting to doubt ourselves. A few years into the business, we were struggling to stay afloat. It’s not like we ever had $1 million in capital to float us. We were 100% bootstrapped, and still are to this day. We’ve never taken outside funding. We’ve never had any help financially.
I guess we were probably about 1 ½ year into business, and we actually considered closing up Motto, until we had a pivotal conversation with my dad who also had a unique entrepreneurial journey where he grew up in a coal mining camp and had started his company. He never never went to college, but I know that he started with even less than we had.
I remember him telling us, you two are a rare breed, and not everybody’s going to get you. The ones who do will never forget you. That completely changed how we saw ourselves and built our confidence. Keep in mind, he gave us the phrase rare breed in 2007. It wasn’t until 2019 that we turned that phrase into our book.
R: It really stuck with you.
S: Absolutely. What we started to see was making these connections around working directly with leaders and leadership teams to solve very tough problems. We began to see that there were these inherent traits, unique DNA, and characteristics within not only the individuals that we were working with but also within the company and brands that we were building. What gives someone a competitive edge and what doesn’t, and how often we go into companies who actually say that they want to be anything but who they are.
They point to brands that they’ve come to know that are in the ether, the algorithm. They look at them and they’re like I want to be that, or I want to be the next Warby Parker, or whatever. I’m like, why don’t you try being the next you? It’s a very difficult conversation for them to embrace because they’re so used to not being able to go into the room and look around and see that many of the things that make them inherently valuable have been dust-covered and forgotten.
What we started to do was go in, almost walk in the room, and blow the dust off the shelves and say, you have all these amazing things within you that you’re not celebrating. Then, we started to say what does that look like in individuals? We started to map out what are these traits. We had hundreds and hundreds of these things.
What we knew that they had to have was they had to be inherently good and evil, meaning they had to have a dark side and a light side. They had to be as uplifting as they were undoing. What was interesting that we found is that the more that we wrote words out, the more that we kept finding that they laddered up to one of these seven.
For example, if you take a word like relentless, which is greater, obsession or relentlessness? Obsession is going to win every time because number one, it’s paralyzing. It can keep you from doing things and accomplishing things. It can haunt you, but it can also make you do some of the greatest work of your life.
The most important criteria that we had was they all had to have this dangerous dark side, and they had to be destructive in some way. That’s what you think about the book is we go deep on not just talking about why obsession is a great trait to have. We also talk about why obsession is a very dark trait to embody and to have within, not only yourself and your life and your work and your career, but how you then turn that into something that becomes a competitive edge for your business. That’s what’s been universal about this.
A very long-winded answer to a short question, the truth of the matter is we had hundreds and hundreds of them. There are so many that didn’t make the book, but I found that these seven—just everything that we could think of—we just said, no, that ladders up to that. We, at one point, had hubris as one of the things and we’re like, well, but hubris is only the dark side of audacity. You can be audacious, but you can also be hubris. Hubris is when you’ve just drunk your own Kool-Aid. We see that right now in politics and things like that.
As a matter of fact, some of our greatest and most influential rare breeds have also been some of the most evil.
R: Right. I suppose you see a lot of the dark side of some of these in politics right now, but we won’t get into a political conversation. That’s a whole separate episode. One of the implications here is about talent and diversity specifically on teams. In some ways, I take it you’re encouraging leaders to hire people that they consider weird because maybe weirdness can actually be a good thing and if you use some diversity of thought into a team.
I’m curious, why do you feel that teams should be looking for rare breed talents? A larger question than that, what are the benefits of diversity at an agency like Motto?
S: 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 folklores 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. It’s why we wrote Rare Breed.
We started out with everyone telling us we were the things that we shouldn’t be. We often found ourselves slugging it out, just trying to get a seat at the table. What we quickly understood is that we needed to be at that table. They needed to hear us. They needed to hear our voices. They needed to understand our perspective.
That’s what you need. You need more rare breeds who are not only seen but given the floor. That’s what makes great companies. They’re not all made up of everyone that looks like me or you. We have to bring in people that stay up all night, and don’t follow the 9:00 AM–5:00 PM and work a little bit odd. Just have different idiosyncrasies that maybe is not the norm, but are certainly very valuable to the way we think, work, and operate.
We’ve seen time and time again, more companies—often than not—they do not know what to do with the rare breed or those that they feel are different within their organization. We seek out cultural fit, when in fact, sometimes, we need someone who’s not exactly totally in alignment with how we think and work. That’s really dangerous for a lot of companies to bring on because we don’t know how to deal with ourselves, let alone the mess of other humans.
R: You said that leaders sometimes have trouble knowing what to do with the rare breeds. I want to get to that because you’ve clearly put a lot of work into helping people understand this concept and maybe where they fit into it.
In fact, I should mention—in addition to the book— you created the Rare Breed Quiz, which is great. I encourage people to check that out. It’s rarebreedquiz.com. I took it. I’m apparently audacious. Also, it was a really, really hard quiz because so many of the multiple-choice answers I couldn’t decide or I wanted to answer with two out of the four options.
R: Yeah. Now that I know that I’m audacious, for example, how do you recommend people use this information? I take it that you may have a set of instructions for me or for individuals, but I’m also curious, how might you use this with a client with an organization and how it would impact their brand.
S: The quiz has become something a bit of a phenomenon. We had this idea that we were going to create a quiz when we wrote the book and started to work with a psychologist and a professor to create this 28-question-quiz. What the quiz sets out to do is reveal what your dominant virtue is. Are you rebellious? Are you audacious? Are you obsessed, hot-blooded, weird, hypnotic, and emotional? Once you take it, it reveals the dominant trait.
It was sort of a deep analysis of the positive and negative sides of each trait, and how to unlock it within your life, work, and career. What’s nutty is over 20,000 people have taken it in the last few months. We’re not even marketing. It’s really bananas. What’s cool though is to see what I see from the back end—what people identify with, which is really fascinating and probably very valuable to someone out there that needs that kind of data.
What it’s going to teach you, it’s not going to go deep, deep as if the book would, but it’s very revelatory. It’s going to talk a lot about what is that dominant trait that you have, what are some of the characteristics of that trait, who are people in the world right now that have that trait specifically? We identify sometimes like if you say Whoopi Goldberg is weird or something like that, you might identify with that or know who that is. We pinpoint some historical figures both in the past and current that embody that trait.
Then we just go a little bit into what it looks like to leverage it from a positive standpoint into a negative standpoint, but of course, the book itself goes much, much deeper into that. Far more than a quiz result can do. However, we’re currently working on a business quiz that would allow businesses and business leaders to take the quiz and see not only who their team is—as what you mentioned earlier—which is very valuable. Who am I working with? What are they like? It’s got a nice spectrum because you can be like, okay, Bob is hot-blooded. You know he’s probably going to be a little bit feisty and fiery.
R: It’s the last thing I expected of Bob.
S: I’ve met some Bobs that are hot-blooded, believe it or not. They’ll bang their fists on the table. You’ll be like, what’s up, Bob? We never knew. You would think Bob would be emotional, but he’s not. That’s the gist of it. What it does is when you know who you are and how to lean into unorthodox traits, it immediately begins to separate you from the pack. It also begins to change the way you think about those traits because keep in mind, we’re notorious for telling people you’re so emotional. You’re so weird. We throw it off as if it’s no thing, but people who hear that over time, that’s their identity. Our identities are being shaped from the moment that we’re born.
Some of these people that you throw those kinds of statements to, they never quite get beyond it. I know a lot of people that have read the book and have reached out to me who are like I’ve never heard my own voice, and this gave me the opportunity to hear my own desires of where I want to go in life. That’s huge because some people stay silent forever. If this book can help them change course or get out of a job and get into a calling, that’s a powerful thing. To have a book reach on that kind of level is why we wrote it.
R: I’m still curious how Rare Breed brand thinking can create a more competitive business. Is there a point at which you’ll be telling a brand—so you’re working with Uber or Coke or Apple—and you’re saying your brand is audacious, or your brand’s primary virtue is weirdness, and therefore do this and don’t do this? Is it going to work or is that a goal for it to work at that entity-wide or intangible level of the brand concept? Or is it more of a people-oriented tool and you would say no, no, let’s focus on the leader of this organization, and that will help her or him know what to do with the brand or the company?
S: Right now, we are working with some global brands on this concept of becoming rare breeds. We’re workshopping currently with very smart people who want to do even bolder things in the world with their brand. What that’s doing is it’s going to drive a competitive edge, it’s going to drive diversity, and we’re making these leaders look through the lens of these seven virtues in the book.
We’re asking them if we’re thinking about rebelliousness, what are we fighting for? What are we fighting against? Let’s answer these questions. How can we be more audacious in our thinking? How can we be more emotional or heart centric as leaders and with our audiences?
We’re using these pivotal virtues which were applied to a person. We’re now applying them within the structures of organizations. It’s actually been super successful. We’re currently not even able to take on any more clients who want to do it because of the waitlist. We’re literally turning people away just simply because we can’t do it. We haven’t even built it enough to where other people can do it. Now, we’re trying to build out that so that we can service more companies at a higher level. Right now, it’s kind of one-to-one through virtual means given what’s going on right now in the world.
What we’re teaching them is how to celebrate things like rebellious attitude, audacious vision, obsessive work ethic, weird unexpected experiences, and emotional connection. These are qualities that most businesses do not possess. They don’t inherently possess them. They’re seen as too risky.
Trust me, I’ve been in some of the biggest brands on Earth. Some of the best brands on Earth, I’ve been in them, and they still fundamentally struggle with these questions because we’re all curious about relevancy. We want to make sure that the brands that we’re building and the companies that we build never fade, they never age. Relevancy is a big thing. You’re always having to be looking over your shoulder a little bit to know where you fit, where you’re going.
Absolutely. We’re trying to teach leaders in organizations and teams how to not only embrace these qualities within their cultures, teams, and in their mindset, but actually, hire for them. It’s kind of a dualistic thing that’s happening and it’s pretty powerful.
R: Sure, because the culture should be reflected in the brand and vice versa. You can’t have a weird brand if you don’t have any weird people working on the brand or working at the company.
S: Yeah. That alignment, that symbiotic relationship is what we do. Motto is one of the very best at helping cultures, teams, and organizations align at the leadership level, align at the culture level, and then align at the brand level.
We’re slowly getting out of the branding “space” in terms of helping teams develop new logos and things like that. We’re being brought in to solve incredibly complex problems at a mindset level, first and foremost. We’re teaching teams how to embrace these seven traits. What we’re finding is that it’s so needed, and they’ve never been approached in this way. No one’s ever come in and is doing what we’re doing, period.
Why it’s so unique is because we’re teaching them how to be a one of a kind, how to think like a one of a kind, and how to operate like a one of a kind. We’re teaching them how to distribute this thinking and operationalize the brand at every single level. That takes us away from just coming in and designing a brand. It’s what we started out doing. Now, we’re slowly and surely growing even into more security of that position because it’s what we do best. We don’t have a love affair anymore with designing the brand. Not like we did.
R: Right. Well, it sounds like fascinating work. I take it, from what you’re saying—I don’t want to put you on the spot and make you guarantee anything. It sounds like listeners can expect some kind of write up on some of this work in how you’re applying it to businesses and brands in the future. Whether that’s a blog post, a workbook, or a white paper. I’m sure you don’t feel like writing another book right now.
S: I already have another book idea, and Ashleigh is like, no. Don’t even think about it. I’m like, but wait. She’s like, we’re still trying to build Rare Breed. Absolutely. We’re getting interviewed on it quite often now, actually. We did a YouTube show where we’ve got interest from some really big networks right now on Rare Breed as a show. That’s really exciting because, again, we’re taking it beyond the boardroom and beyond the walls of the company. Now, we’re making it bigger than that. It’s meaningful work. Absolutely.
R: It sounds fun to watch. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the positive and negative impact that brands can make. We’re going to pivot a little bit. Although I’m sure, a lot of your rare breed thinking will influence your answers here. How do you see brands and branding impacting the world—this is a very big picture question here—for better and worse? Do you think that branding is inherently good or bad? Or is it just a tool that can be used for good and evil (so to speak)?
S: Yeah, I think that rare breed leadership is the answer to business survival in the 2020s because so much needs to change. Change happens by people who enjoy the impossible, think around corners, pivot after failure, and don’t hold on to the way that we’ve always done it—which is the sacred way of thinking.
I think we’re living in a time and place that is extremely vulnerable. Brands have a 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 […] 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.
That is where I think more businesses should operate. Strangely enough, almost all of the companies that reach out, they’re struggling. It’s usually coming from the bottom-up. It’s usually the leadership that is safe and guarded. The people underneath the organization are kind of ra ra ra. They want an idea worth rallying around. They want to create a ruckus. Someone at the leadership level is just going through 90 levels of approval. By the time that it gets to anywhere, it’s got so many bullet holes in it you can’t recognize it anymore.
I think that’s the problem with these companies and leaders. They’re just thinking all wrong. They’re doing it all wrong. There are a few brands out there doing it really well, and I think Oatly is one of them.
R: Yeah, I suppose there’s a lot of fear, inertia, or even just the idea of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it thinking. I could see it on any end of the spectrum. Companies may feel like they’re so small that they don’t even have the right to assert a point of view, that nobody will hear them because they’re so small, or that they can’t afford the risk because they’re just getting started.
Then, likewise, companies that get really big may feel like, hey, we’ve succeeded. We’re really big and chugging along, and we can’t go out on a limb. How do you break through that thinking? In the room with the client, do you feel like there’s something that you can say or an exercise that you do that is one of the most useful tools in breaking through that way of thinking?
S: Yeah, you have to make people uncomfortable. You have to push boundaries. You have to say what others won’t. You have to turn in brilliant work. When everyone in your workplace is saying blend in, don’t stand out, rare breeds are going to violate that contract usually because we can’t help ourselves.
It’s going into companies and being unafraid of steering them in a direction. You’re pointing them in an opposite direction from where they’re going. It can be extremely vulnerable. We’ve done it time and time again. If brands had it all figured out, they wouldn’t need us, right? They need us.
It’s good that they need us because we can come in, and we can take the blinders off and say, you’re headed in the wrong direction. Let’s try to shift this around so that we can help you think in a new way. Let’s graffiti over the pretty walls, be a natural insurrectionist.
There’s always a better way to get the job done. It’s really hard when somebody comes in to take that sledgehammer to conventional wisdom, which is what we do. Again, it’s extremely unnerving. What you have to get them to think about is, more so, what if you built your culture around anti-conformist qualities most prominent in you and your team? What if you let them shape how you think, act, and communicate?
Rare breeds, they believe six impossible things before breakfast. It’s not just a quote from Through the Looking-Glass. It’s a business plan, it’s a life plan. You have to get them to think in a way that they’ve never been thinking, or they’ve been thinking that way, but they’ve never had anyone give them permission to actually build upon it.
Keep in mind, a lot of these corporate structures are meant to kill great ideas. They’re built to reduce risk-averse. We can walk them to the ledge, but very rarely will they take the leap. First, recognizing, are they willing to make that change? Are they willing to have courage? Are they willing to do what hasn’t been done? Are they willing to shatter templates? Are they willing to shake the mold? Are they willing to do all of these things? Because without it, it’s very hard to get them to take the leap, but we have done it. We’ve done it many, many, times.
It’s been truly remarkable and transformational. Not only from a bottom-line standpoint but just from the overall mental health and wellness of their organization. The way they hum along with changes. The rhythm in which they move is very, very, different.
You come in and you see one thing. When you’re done and you walk out, you have transformed that company and they are on a different path in a different way. It creates something very powerful. It’s why we do the work that we do. It’s not easy work. You don’t always get the pat on the back until the very end, but it’s worth it.
R: I said we weren’t going to get political.
S: You just couldn’t help yourself.
R: I’m listening to what you’re saying and I keep hearing, let’s have an uncomfortable conversation. I want to touch on something. It occurs to me—and maybe I’m misinterpreting it—a lot of the thinking here seems to me sort of inherently progressive. That you’re speaking to this idea of diversity and allowing for things that are (I suppose) less conservative.
Is there a place in the world for brands that fall outside the norm or fall outside the mainstream? To the degree that that’s kind of what you’re encouraging your clients to do—to go a step further and not stay comfortable in the mainstream. Is there a place for brands that go to the other side? That maybe is more to the right, more on the Conservative side of the spectrum, and they’re differentiating themselves by being on that side? If so, do these ideas in rare breed thinking still apply to them? I don’t know if the question makes sense, but it just occurred to me.
S: Yeah. Explain it a little bit more because I want to make sure I answer it in the right way because I’m trying to understand exactly. I think I understand what you mean but maybe expand on it just a little bit.
R: Yeah. Maybe you have a personal take on where we’d like to see a lot of brands go. To a degree, I feel like some of these ideas were encouraging them to move them in a more progressive direction. Oatly, for example, put yourself out there and take a stand. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of brands taking a stand. Whether they’re backing it up with actions or they’re just posting a black square on Instagram.
Let’s say, just to get specific, they’re saying Black Lives Matter, which I, as a progressive, don’t think should be a political statement. Apparently in the United States right now, it is. Is there a place for brands that I might not want to be the customer for them, but if I’m accepting that branding as a practice is partly about differentiation and standing apart? Therefore, is there a place for these brands that would align themselves with the “opposite side” of that debate?
S: Look at Trump. That’s a perfect example of what you’re talking about.
R: Right. I suppose Goya, for example, the brands that have become famous or infamous for aligning themselves with his movement.
S: Yeah. 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.
R: Yeah, it’s funny. It seems to me that—maybe it’s because I’m clearly not the target audience for it—a lot of the brands that may feel differently about things like Black Lives Matter and some of the other political questions of the day, they just don’t speak up.
As much as we can put Nike’s feet to the flames for not having a diverse board or C-suite, they did come out and say something. I would think that for every company like Nike, there’s probably a dozen or more that not only don’t have any diversity but also didn’t even bother to say anything, which is maybe worse. I guess we could debate, which is worse or better.
S: Silence is compliance. I’m seeing that in many brands. Even in brands that I’ve personally been in who have sold me on their culture. When I have walked in that culture, and have found a very different idea of a good culture versus a bad culture, I would argue that some cultures I’ve been in are extremely toxic. They’re touting themselves as a positive work culture.
I think this runs rampant on both sides of the coin. What these brands and how they position themselves is certainly noteworthy. I think that we’re seeing more and more companies who either don’t speak up. What I’m also seeing is people who were compliant somehow grew a conscience and are now speaking out.
There are people—recently, I believe—who jumped off the Trump executive team and leadership team who are now coming forth and saying what a shit show that was.
S: They’re speaking out, turning against them. But then you have people who are drinking the Kool-Aid on both sides of that.
R: Yeah. I think both on the individual level and on the corporate company level, it’s easy to be cynical. A lot of these people who have jumped ship, turned around, and want to write a book about what a shit show it was, maybe they’re just trying to make money, maybe not. Maybe they are trying to have a come to Jesus moment about what they really should be doing.
Similarly, when you’re mentioning brands, I was thinking of the NFL, which all of a sudden seems to be realizing, “that they should have listened to Colin Kaepernick when he was kneeling to protest police brutality.” On the one hand, maybe they’re sensing that it’ll start to hit their pocketbook if they don’t recognize that.
I guess as consumers, maybe it’s okay to just accept that at least they’re listening right now. At least think they are doing what they probably should have done. Maybe it’s a lot later than it should have been. Maybe they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Still, I guess I would prefer them doing it than not doing it.
S: Yeah, I have seen brands do that as well. I imagine that or at least what I’ve seen is that it takes so much to have courage. Even in companies where the risk isn’t that great, where there’s not much to lose, there’s not much to forego, I still see leaders and teams grapple with owning who they are, and also doing the right thing in the right moment at the right time.
Sometimes, they rebound and come back and say, I shouldn’t have done that or whatever. I saw it with Fearless Girl down on Wall Street. You saw the Fearless Girl, that whole theory that the whole entire board was just a marketing ploy and the entire board was made up of men.
I think those types of intentions get snuffed out really quickly. I think more and more consumers are making brands accountable. They will stand with them or stand against them. You’ll find that their veracity and ferocity across the spectrum, both for those who are advocates for it and against it.
What I think we’re living in is a very powerful time where transparency is more prevalent than ever. We are calling out work environments that are toxic. We’re calling out leaders that are terrible. We’re speaking up for sexual harassment and things like that.
When Ashleigh and I started, that was very, very much at the tables that we sat at. Who were you going to tell? There was no voice for you. Now, I’m hearing the megaphone just get bigger and bigger in the sermons, getting bigger and bigger, and more people are hearing it because of that courageousness you’re seeing. More and more people come forward because we are willing to illuminate ourselves when we see others do it.
When others stand in the light, we’re more influenced to do it as well. I think that’s what we have to remember, is that more brands can do good by doing good. Hopefully, we can influence other people, other brands, and other teams to also be thinking in that same way. There is always going to be those causes and groups of folks that you’re never going to reach and you’re never going to change. Some hearts are hardened, but I truly believe in being an optimist.
R: I was just going to say that leaves me feeling optimistic. Thank you for that. That’s quite an accomplishment in this day and age as we’re all locked in our houses.
S: I know. I keep finding things to do. I’m like, when’s the last time I painted that door? Well, it’s probably three weeks ago. I literally can not stop looking around trying to find things to do. I’m like, I should completely redesign the entire living room because I’m just going crazy. I’m such a creative. I’m an operational type person, too. I’m a weird hybrid of both. Structure and creative chaos—I’m an opposing force in that way, but it’s really interesting to see how many people are like I’m just trying to find things to do because I’m going nuts.
R: Well, I’m glad I gave you something to do today besides rearrange the living room. I’ll let you go back to that, but I do have just a couple of wrap up questions just to kind of close on here. Maybe we can do this as a lightning round with quick answers.
You mentioned Oatly. Any other brands that you are really impressed by that you feel like they’re doing things right now?
S: You put me on the spot.
R: Was Oatly your example.
S: Yeah, Oatly was kind of my example. I just saw a cool piece of work that they did about their positioning and how simple their positioning was. It was like everyone else is over here and we’re just fucking fearless. I thought it was really, really smart.
Actually, a client of ours that I think is doing some amazing things is a brand called Humankind that we created back in 2016. It’s under the USA Today Network umbrella. We created a digital news platform where they went against the negative news stories and tried to create stories where sharing positive news stories of people doing good in the world.
That brand has since now grown into a viral platform and has sprung off into military kind, animal kind, and now just recently—womenkind. It’s just a really proud thing to see that they took a stand, number one. Number two, it’s now turned into womankind, which is a proud moment.
I remember when we were working with the Gannett Innovation Team and we were up against 70 other pitches for this concept in terms of trying to pitch a concept that would get picked up and funded. This concept ended up winning.
We named it. We branded it. We created the platform around it—all of the digital assets and motion assets. To watch it just sort of bloom has been exciting. To see now that it’s bringing back that woman-led story of women doing amazing things in the world, it’s so needed. We need more of that. I think they’re doing really interesting things as well.
R: That’s great. I’ll check that out. Aside from Rare Breed, any book recommendations? Things that you recommend to your team that help them learn about branding, just how to be leaders, or whatever you think is important?
S: Yeah. Well, of course, Rare Breed is a good one to pick up. There are actually a couple of books that have been really influential to me, two. It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be and Whatever You Think Think The Opposite by Paul Ardern.
Another really good one. We’ve done some archetyping in the past with some of our clients. We love The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes. That’s a really powerful book. Those are some good ones that I like to keep on the shelf.
R: I’ll add those to the list. I have a long list of book recommendations from other guests on the show, but I don’t think anyone has mentioned those three. Although, of course, I’m familiar with The Hero and the Outlaw. I can’t remember whether anyone’s mentioned it before. I’ll get that on the list.
S: It’s a really good book. The language is just so powerful and inspirational. I think she was way ahead of her time. We started doing archetyping in 2008, 2009, and it was just not a thing. Now, a lot of companies do it. It’s really exciting to see it take off.
Now, we’re creating a kind of this archetypal wheel with the seven rare breed traits. That’s cool to see that. We’re using that within companies to pick out where they fall in the spectrum of one of the traits and how they can use that as a competitive advantage. That’s been pretty, pretty neat.
I’ll share a graphic with you. We’re almost done. I’ll be sure to send it your way so you can post it on the website or share it.
R: Oh, great. I’ll get it up there as soon as you send it over so listeners take a look for that. My last question here is just any kind of parting advice that you’d like to leave listeners with. Especially those that are maybe a junior, maybe earlier in their careers in branding, or just trying to get into the field?
S: Own who you are. In a world that wants to own you, owning yourself in this way can really hurt like hell. Being defiant, dangerous, and different is a gift. Succeed because of who you are, not despite who you are.
R: All right. Sunny, thank you so much for joining me.