Myra El-Bayoumi doesn’t mind blowing up the process
My guest on today’s episode is Myra El-Bayoumi, Strategy Director at Character, a branding and design studio with offices in New York and San Francisco. Before Character, Myra held senior strategy positions at Landor, Siegel+Gale, and Interbrand (which is where I met her). Myra also holds an MBA from the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management.
Given Myra’s experience, I wanted to get her perspective on the similarities and differences in brand strategy approach, philosophy, and deliverables among top-tier brand consulting firms. She has a lot of respect for her prior firms, but admits she’s biased toward Character now that she’s leading their strategy efforts. She says she’s “better equipped to see the value of a place like Character because [she] grew up in the big shops,” and that differences at Character include more flexibility, the ability to “blow up our process in service of solving” the client’s problems, and speed.
Myra describes the Character approach to brand strategy as arriving at answers to two key questions:
- Why did this brand exist, beyond to make money?
- Why should the world choose this brand?
The second question should be answered in a way that’s relevant in today’s culture but also “evergreen for the future.” This link between the brand strategy and cultural trends is equally applicable for B2B brands, Myra says, citing the example of UberConference (a product of Dialpad, a Character client).
One of the examples of a B2B brand that we worked with, who I actually think does the brand experience thing pretty well is Dialpad. You might not know Dialpad, but you probably know UberConference, which is one of their products, and UberConference has that famous hold music. That’s an example—and we didn’t create that, so I won’t take any credit for it—but we know those people now and we know how well that hold music—what it says, the sound of it, and the fact that it exists in the first place—represent the spirit and the DNA of who that company is.”
I asked Myra what components she thinks are necessary in a brand platform. She says purpose is critical, but that values and personality traits “lack precision, focus, clarity, and sharpness.” We got into an interesting conversation about whether personality belongs within a brand strategy platform or should be removed, allowing design principles or voice principles to play a similar role, but “outside” of the brand platform.
We wrapped up by talking about a brand Myra thinks is doing “pretty much everyhing right” (Billie) and a book she recommends (Mating in Captivity) even though “it has nothing to do with branding. It just has to do with humans.”
To learn more about Myra, visit the Character website.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB MEYERSON: Myra, thank you so much for joining me on the show.
MYRA EL-BAYOUMI: Thanks, Rob, for having me.
R: You’ve done brand strategy work at Interbrand, of course, where we met, but then also Siegel+Gale, Landor, and now you’re at Character. I’m familiar, of course, with Interbrand and with Siegel+Gale, but I haven’t worked at Landor and I haven’t worked at Character. I’m just curious, in your experience across those four consultancies, how similar or different did you find the approach and processes and tools for brand strategy work?
M: My answer will probably and obviously betray my current bias, but I think there are a lot of similarities across the first three and not in a bad way. They’re all big global consultancies. They have nuances to their approaches, but in general and I think in a good way, their goal is to solve the client’s challenge at a scale, via a process that is relatively similar.
R: What’s different about Character? I should say that, of course, Interbrand, Siegel+Gale, Landor are some of the big boys, I guess, out there. Character is smaller but one of the more well-respected smaller consultancies out there. Is it different? How is it different?
M: All those things are true and I think I’m better equipped to see the value of a place like Character because I grew up in the big shops. Character was born in a flexible, fluid, and “let’s just solve the problem” mindset. The perks are that we just get to focus on that. We don’t have to be bound by, “This is what the model has to look like every time, this is what the process has to look like every time.” We get to say, “This is the problem we’re solving.” If we want to blow up our process in service of solving that problem better, it’s not only allowed but encouraged.
R: What do you think is different from the client’s perspective, working with—I don’t want to pick on any of the bigger consultancies—the consultancy that maybe has more of a rigid or traditional process versus working with Character where things maybe are blown up a little bit in terms of process on occasion?
M: I hope that they feel a singular focus on our side to working together with them toward a shared goal and permission, again, on their side and on ours to push the buttons necessary to achieve that goal. We get to call bullshit on each other internally and across our client-agency relationship. We get to go experience those things in the world together, but we’d hope that they feel a level of commitment for us that reflects the almost laser-focused passion that we get to bring to the problem because we aren’t bound by the process. Also, really tactically, they experience the speed. We get to do things way more quickly.
R: You mentioned something a few minutes ago about going out and seeing something in the world as a source of inspiration, maybe, or information. Can you just give some examples? What do you mean by that? It sounds like maybe the client joins you sometimes for that step?
M: Yeah, we talk about it in two ways. We talk about getting inspired on purpose, so, yes inspiration can come from anywhere, but we have to make a concerted effort to go do whatever we define as anywhere. We also talk about these ideas of working from culture, that what we bring from our outside lives and the way we spend our time as creative professionals—even though I’m a strategist, I get to call myself creative, I hope—we get to bring that in and allow that to influence our work.
Some examples: We recently worked with a guided meditation brand called Core Wellness. They’ll be launching a retail space here pretty soon where they will hold classes. We went as a full team and meditated together. That feels getting inspired on purpose, something we needed to do to build empathy and be smarter about the brand we were building.
Another example of that is we’re working with a male fertility brand and it’s really easy to say, “We’re in San Francisco. We’re in an incredibly progressive town,” where—I won’t speak for everyone at Character, although I think I can—we really want to be part of the gender equity discussion and moving away from toxic masculinity and all of these social and political issues that feel especially acute, and people are especially passionate about in the Bay Area and other coastal cities. To be successful with the client like lot, we went out of our way to seek out men who have differing views than we have, who have differing cultural pressures from their own respective background, even though they might be within the United States.
It’s our job to say, “I might feel this way,” but to do a service for this challenge I’m trying to solve alongside my clients, I have to go speak to someone who has the exact opposing political views to me, or the exact opposing religious view to me, or whatever the case may be on those cultural and social influences that we bring to the problem.
R: This is all outside of what you would do traditionally in a discovery phase of a project. Yes, you might be interviewing customers or potential customers of your client anyway, and you’d do that Interbrand, I would think, or Landor or Siegel+Gale, but you’re saying there’s this extra space in the process for outside of that standard operating procedure. You’re looking for other ways, other sources to inform the process or just inspire the work.
M: Yeah, and I wouldn’t say that the other shops wouldn’t do that. I think it’s just a critical and unskippable part of the process at Character. That little extra piece looks different from client to client, but exists as a personal exercise for the team who is working on it, to make sure we do every time.
R: Some of the examples or one of them that you just gave was somebody with opposing views to you. Is there something about those experiences specifically being a little bit uncomfortable that makes them more important or more impactful?
M: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. We’re not looking to speak to those people to convince them on something or dissuade them from something. Rather, to broaden our own aperture in terms of having empathy and understanding that, in the case that brand to be successful, they need to be able to speak to men who are united in a pursuit of fatherhood in some capacity, regardless of those other views. It was just in that case, our job to blow up our own biases that we consciously and subconsciously are bringing to the equation.
R: You’ve talked a little bit about the difference in the process at Character, but is the output, the deliverable—I know it differs from project to project, but I will assume that you have some brand platform or brand strategy documentation, or something that comes out of this—does that feel relatively similar to what you’ve seen across these other agencies? Is it somewhat different, very different?
M: I think it depends. I mean, it’s not going to blow anyone’s mind in how different it is.
R: Right, because what would be the point?
M: Yeah, exactly. Not different for different sake. When we are kicking a project off, in any project, our focus from a positioning and strategies standpoint is the answer to two questions: Why did this brand exist, beyond to make money in the world? And why should the world choose this brand? Those might not be the same answer. They might, but they always work in tandem. For us arriving at those answers is the only important thing. Sure, there’s a framework that we tend to use. We flip things around in it often enough to make it more digestible and more relevant for the client, based on their particular situation, but we’re always answering those questions.
I think where there is, again, a little bit of a difference in my personal experience or personal professional experience is that we spend a lot of time on that second question of why the world should choose this brand, anchoring it in two ways to finish that question. Why should the world to this brand today, and why should they continue to choose it over time? That means we’re setting strategies that is evergreen for the future, but that is also relevant today based on the cultural conversations and tension, with which that brand intersects.
We get to spend a lot of time saying, “Here’s all the stuff impacting this conversation. What conversations do we think this brand should be leading? Where should it have perspective? Where should it stay silent? Where should it be screaming from the rooftop?”
R: Great, so you have to do the work then to understand current trends and where it’s situated in terms of those, but also thinking ahead a little bit about maybe future competitors, or just how those trends, the direction they’re pointing in. If such and such a conversation dies on the vine or becomes less relevant three years from now, then how is this brand still going to maintain its own relevance.
M: Exactly, and it’s the most fun part, speaking for me.
R: The trend watching or the future-proofing part?
M: Yeah, I think identifying the cultural tensions and therefore who are we for, who are our foes, and if we were to achieve our purpose tomorrow, what would that mean?
R: Do you think that that thinking is just as applicable for B2B brands? It’s immediately clear that for the male fertility company, for example, that’s going to be easy to talk about—or maybe hard to talk about—but it’s going to be easy to connect to the broader culture. Whereas, if you’re doing something for some esoteric software or product, that’s only behind the scenes, does the same process and do the same questions apply?
M: Short answer is “yes,” because we operate with a similar view to the majority of branders, which is that humans make decisions, whether they’re making those decisions on behalf of themselves, on behalf of a company, a government, something else, they’re still making decisions. The way humans make decisions are based on emotion, especially when all else is equal. The process is more or less the same. We don’t delineate in an official capacity between a B2B brand and a B2C brand, because we think they should be serving or striving for the same goals, let’s say.
One of the examples of a B2B brand that we worked with, who I actually think does the brand experience thing pretty well is Dialpad. You might not know Dialpad, but you probably know UberConference, which is one of their products, and UberConference has that famous hold music. That’s an example—and we didn’t create that, so I won’t take any credit for it—but we know those people now and we know how well that hold music, what it says, the sound of it, and the fact that it exists in the first place represent the spirit and the DNA of who that company is.
Sure, the actual client making the choice to engage with Dialpad may not be thinking of that hold music is cool, but we all know as people who work at companies that conference calls can be really shitty and having something to make you chuckle during it has incredibly disproportionate impact.
R: Yeah, any little bit helps. I want to come back to those two questions. You said it was, “Why does this brand exist?” and “Why should anyone choose it?” I suppose one way then of creating a brand strategy for a client would be to just really clearly and articulately answer those questions based on research, based on hopefully valid information about the market place and what the consumer wants and so on. Once you have those answers, your clients need to be able to do something with that. Often times that might involve design or creating some kind of experience, whether that’s online, or in real life, or it might involve the product.
How do you help clients get from here to there? Do you find that you need to help them bridge that somehow? I know different companies use experience principles or sometimes personality traits play a role. Do you have any consistent process for that?
M: Maybe consistent in thinking, but consistent in shape of deliverables, I think no, in a good way. We do include, almost every time, behaviors within our positioning work. So, if this is our purpose, if these are the things that we believe, if this is why the world should choose us, how should people behave within the organization to serve that purpose and pursue that purpose? Also, along the lines of experience principles the way you just talked about, how are those behaviors apply to the brand itself?
We, of course, do the verbal identity and the visual identity and that helps take the positioning or whatever the whole of the strategy work is into a real place. I think what becomes even more exciting is when we do these activation workshops, which we don’t do every time but whenever we can. A lot of shops do something similar, where we actually bring our clients and once we’ve nailed the positioning, maybe we’ve nailed the other pieces as well or maybe we’re earlier in the process.
We set up stations in our conference room or whatever space we happen to be in, that are reflective of specific channels or important touch points for that brand, and we go around set up huge cross functional teams from the client side, our entire cross functional team who worked on it, and brainstormed the implications of the positioning on each of these things. While we may not actually do influencer strategy, we do plenty of brainstorming on what social media should look like, what are the types of influencers we would want to work with, and what are the implications for how the experience you’ve come to like in a retail environment.
R: I want to come back to right at the beginning of the conversation. I know we’re going in circles here a little bit, but you have said that the actual brand strategy model used at Interbrand, Siegel+Gale, Landor, Character that there’s some slight points of distinction but by and large, they have the same ingredients, and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I know it’s really in the weeds, but are there components of any brand strategy platform that you think are really critical to have or that you would feel like if you went to another agency tomorrow, let’s say hypothetically, and they said, “Here’s the framework that we use here,” and something was missing from that. You’d be like, “What is this? You’re missing X, Y, or Z. It’s incomplete.”
M: Yeah, perhaps I’ll answer that in the affirmative and the opposite way. I think I would say if the purpose was missing, I would feel confused. I think it’s very rare that that’s missing, though, but the articulation of the North Star feels to me the most crisp at the expression of the purpose of why this brand exists beyond to make money, so that feels critical.
R: Right. Even if they call it something else, just having that in there.
M: Exactly. The place where maybe the question you didn’t ask is the thing that I don’t like.
R: Yeah, I definitely want to hear that.
M: I have an aversion to anything that lacks precision, focus, clarity, and sharpness. For me, when I see things like values or even personality traits, let’s say, I feel like we are out of the world on brand positioning and into the world of either a reflection of what matters to the business, or a beginning of how we articulate and bring the positioning to life.
To unpack that a little bit, to me values belong to the business. They’re good to have, they’re important to have, but to say that the business values honesty and transparency feels useful, to say that the brand does feels general, like I haven’t learned something more about this brand. If I am a person out in the world, which I am, who is trying to see myself in a brand, that doesn’t give me something to work with. It feels generic, almost. I have an aversion to those sorts of words.
R: Would you say that the brand positioning or brand strategy work that you do could, however, influence the values that the business decides or even the language the business uses to characterize its values? Or would you say vice versa: That you want to know what the business’ values are, so that you can therefore create a brand strategy that makes more sense for that business, or is it both, unfortunately? Does it just work both ways?
M: I think it’s both. Obviously, that information is articulated, then it becomes a valuable input for us as we develop the positioning. I just think that the positioning job is not to define the qualities of the business. It’s to go even sharper, even more precise, and even more focused. Someone said to me very early in my career, “Strong brands clarify, they don’t always attract.” If the level of precision that is placed on the positioning does not serve to clarify, then it is not focused enough.
R: I can guess, but what do you say to clients who come to you and say, “Well, I was taught in business school that we need these 3–5 brand personality traits and you haven’t delivered them, so it feels like this is an incomplete piece of work”? Do you just explain your point of view to them, I assume?
M: Short answer, yes. Longer answer is I do believe in identifying a personality specifically when it comes to the verbal identity. It is important to have those guard rails, but they to me are not the answer to why the world should choose this brand. They are the answer to how that North Star is brought to life across all of the senses out in the world. I will say, maybe I’m speaking too soon, I haven’t had that happen very often.
R: Yeah. I haven’t had it happen on personality, certainly. I’ve had it happen on things like purpose, promise, and value proposition, and some of these things that frankly, I think, people get confused. Some people use them interchangeably and some people don’t. I’ve had people say, “Well, you need to deliver a promise,” and I’ll say, “But we already delivered a proposition,” and that seems like the same thing.
What it sounds like you’re saying and I wonder if this is true, I wonder if brand personality as being part of a brand platform and packaged right up next to that positioning statement or that purpose, if that’s a little bit of an old school way of thinking? The way I have understood it is, a lot of what brand personality is going to help you dictate is it’s going to influence maybe visual design stuff or it’s going to influence voice, like you said, voice and messaging.
But increasingly, it seems like rather than having one set of traits that you then try as you might to interpret visually, interpret verbally, and maybe interpret in other aspects of the experience, maybe it makes more sense to just not have that and just have your really clear, as you put it, focused, and sharp brand strategy, and then when you get to those other places like now, we need to create a brand voice and write some messaging. Instead of just going with some generic brand personality, that’s when you create some, say, voice principles that are really specific to verbal communications.
M: That is exactly the process that we take at Character and pretty similar to the process that I took in my previous roles as well. I wouldn’t want to make that seem unique to us, but it does feel most right. It does feel most right to leave the exercise of strategy to the job of strategy, which is to provide a filter for decision-making. That needs to be one idea that is super crystal clear. We can deliver that empathetically, or cleverly, or transparently and factually, later.
R: I have a couple of, actually more than a couple of wrap up questions here that I ask of most guests and I’d love to get your take on as well. The first is just any brands—they can be clients of Character or not—that you think of in your day-to-day life as having really great brand experiences, or just really doing everything right when you look at it as a strategist and/or as a consumer. What are those brands?
M: I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the brand Billie. They sell women’s razors.
R: I am not, but I love being introduced to new brands.
M: Yeah. Billie is not a Character brand, although I would be so proud if we had that network. They are an example to me of someone who’s doing pretty much everything right, and my experience with that brand has reflected it. Even if you go to their homepage right now, it has video, imagery, and copy that shows women with hair on parts of their bodies that they want to get rid of like leg hair, or underarm hair, or other hair. It’s just about being real and building this brand and therefore the product for women.
Not to mention the visual identity, the verbal identity, it all feels really aligned. We are, sure, eliminating the pink tax in an industry like this, but we also get that women have this burden of shaving if they want to ascribe to that burden or not. If they’re going to, then we’re going to make something for you that handles the job rather than having the beautiful leg with the blue colored stuff in the shower from Venus and whomever else that we’ve grown up seeing, it’s nice seeing a razor that actually takes hair away, if you want to take it away, and the brand that says, “You don’t have to take it away.”
R: Yeah, which is an interesting thing for a razor brand to say, but to your point, pretty real. I’m just curious, is it a direct-to-consumer? Is it a Harry’s or Dollar Shave Club type of business model?
M: It is exactly that.
R: Interesting. I’ll check it out, although not for myself I suppose. Professional curiosity. Any books that you read either recently or that you read earlier in your career. They don’t have to be branding or marketing or even business books, but just things that have somehow influenced your work or the way you think about brands.
M: I think my answer to this is a little bit of a cop out. For me, the best reading for our space is reading about what’s happening in the world and being engaged with culture, and engaging in really just what’s happening around us. That type of reading feels super powerful to me. I recently finished reading Mating in Captivity, which is Esther Perel’s book, and that to me has been a tremendously enlightening book in life, but also in my work. It has nothing to do with branding. It just has to do with humans. Maybe that’s a copout response, but challenges have to live.
R: Right. I take it that if I ask you the same question two years from now, it would be another book, that’s your point. That it’s just what’s current to somebody.
M: Yeah, exactly.
R: Call it a copout, but I’ve gotten that answer from a few people. In fact, quite a lot of strategists seem to say they don’t like reading anything about branding or marketing all that much. A few people have answered similarly to you. That it’s more about just getting new information. I almost feel like there’s a new sub-question to this that I should be asking people which is just where do you go for news or trends. How do you get news, I guess.
M: I go to the obvious places, but I think the real answer for me personally is that I go to my team. I have these incredible people that I get to work with, who are different to me inside and outside of work, and I think we do a pretty good job of sharing the events that we have recently attended or that we’re going to attend, and inviting others that we know will broaden our perspective in some way. I read that book because it was recommended to me. I’m sure it’s popular right now, but…
R: Sure, but a lot of books are popular. You got to have it some way to narrow it down.
R: That’s great. That’s a perfect segue into my last question here. I know that you are managing a team now, I think a growing team, so I’m curious, what advice would you give to—whether they’re junior people or people that are in the middle of their career, or people that are just getting into branding—do you have any advice or any tips that you share consistently?
M: Yeah, I do. I am both lucky and burdened with doing a lot of interviewing. Often what I would share is that branding is so relevant to our daily lives that to me the best way to practice thinking like a brander, is to look at what’s happening in the world around us and view that as a brief. There is no more interesting time to look at the brand of the United States than right now, whether you’re for or against them.
R: It’s easy for you to say it as a Canadian, an outside observer.
M: I know, but the same question applies to Canada actually right now. Look at what’s happening in the world and pull apart the brands that are being impacted by all of what’s happening in the world—good, bad, or somewhere in between—and train yourself to do the exercise of, if this were a company, they all are brands, how would you describe it? It’s an interesting question to ask why someone should choose the United States today versus if you were to ask questions 5 or 10 years ago, and how might we want the answer to differ 5 or 10 years in the future.
R: It’s a little bit depressing to think about the answer to that question right now, I’m afraid, from my perspective.
M: It is. Mine too.
R: Well, thank you so much, Myra, for making time to do the podcast and I know we’ll stay in touch, but I hope to talk to you again soon.
M: Likewise. Thank you, Rob. It was super fun.