Katie Klencheski is founder and creative director of SMAKK, a branding and growth studio in New York. She started her career in advertising working brands like Sony, AMEX, Catier, and Trump (yes … that Trump, and yes … we talk about it). Today, at SMAKK, she says she’s “on a mission to change consumer behavior towards purchasing decisions that are better for people and planet.”
In this interview, I learned what drives Katie to work with only certain types of brands, what she’s learned about the beauty and wellness spaces, and what she listens to while she’s working.
This post is part of a Q&A series featuring interviews with brand strategists, designers, and thought leaders. Click here to view other Q&A posts.
About Katie Klencheski and SMAKK
You’ve led an interesting life in brand building, one that saw you do design and marketing work for a variety of brands, including Trump Hotels. Can you talk a little bit about your path to finding your voice and founding SMAKK?
We’ve worked hard to make purpose and specifically sustainability a core principle at SMAKK, both for how we operate and as criteria for the clients we take on. Before I started my career in advertising, I was a student in studio art and an activist working with environmental and social justice causes. But it’s really only across the past 10 years that my early passions have come together with my career.
When I started my career in brand building, I landed a job working at an agency that focused on luxury and hospitality—and yes, with the Trump Hotel Collection. When I later saw my former client turn into what he became, it made me question “Who really deserves our time and talent as creatives?”
In the work that we do at SMAKK, we often spend 9 months to a year on a project—this means our clients get a lot of our time, attention, and mental energy. To give anyone this, they have to pass a litmus test—do we really believe that they are making the world a better place and that the world is better off for them being in it? And also, are we going to enjoy working with them and be able to do our best work? This guides us in how we choose the clients we work with, and also creates an environment where everyone on the team is consistently motivated to do their best work, because we’re all aligned in mission from the get-go.
Mission-based companies—ones that speak truth to power—are really valuable to the world and we’re incredibly happy to work every day with clients doing good across a range of industries—whether it’s beauty, wellness, or beyond.
What would you say is unique about your approach to brand building at SMAKK?
We start with purpose as a prerequisite in the client selection process. We truly don’t believe in working with brands that aren’t using their sphere of influence to create a better world. So from the get-go, we know we have to tell multilayered stories.
You do a lot of work helping to launch brands in the beauty and wellness spaces. How have you seen those spaces change and evolve over the last few years?
Interestingly, these industries started in such separate places—beauty being focused on what we see, and health (the precursor to wellness) being focused on our physical well-being. The two have since merged in what I would say has become a much larger wellness category that is about how we “feel”—in our bodies and in our experience of the world. Beauty is no longer about amending ourselves to fit a standard, but instead about how we express ourselves, and this is deeply connected to mental health, identity, celebration of ourselves, and self care. It’s art, confidence, fashion, gender identity, and more.
Wellness—”how we feel”—encompasses that, as well as inner health, physical wellbeing, fitness, nutrition, mental health, sexual, even financial spheres. The product categories that touch on that range from mental health products in the digital world to extremely tangible personal care products like supplements and skincare, among others.
Beauty is no longer about amending ourselves to fit a standard, but instead about how we express ourselves, and this is deeply connected to mental health, identity, celebration of ourselves, and self care.”
I recently had a conversation with my father about the word “wellness”—he was an industry pioneer in the fitness space (70s/80s), talking about holistic and preventative health and using the word wellness early on to explain the benefits of physical activity. At the time, selling people on anything that was proactive as opposed to waiting for a significant health event to react to was revolutionary. Reflecting back, we’ve made such incredible progress in our framing of optimizing our mental, physical, and overall well-being as an essential part of our human experience.
You’re a huge proponent of sustainable practices, going as far as to create a Mission Plan guide for brands to make immediate changes to embrace sustainability. If you had to break it down, what are your top three takeaways from that guide?
We created the Mission Plan right before the pandemic—I’m happy to say that a lot of what we talked about as aspirations for brands we’re now seeing as the standards. Many of the tactics we discuss—sustainable packaging, giving back to offset negative impact, and responsible supply chains, to name a few—have become the table stakes for consumer brands. The brands we work with from mass market consumer staples like Burt’s Bees to new startups like Otis Dental are all working towards being as sustainable as possible. The difference being that large brands take a long time to make small changes (but with global impact) and smaller brands can lead the charge as case studies in sustainability, using truly revolutionary tactics from day one.
In your opinion, what brands are setting a good example when it comes to promoting real positive change in branding and marketing?
The brands that we see as case studies to model after are the ones that are making no compromises in their mission and execution. By Humankind and Seed are two brands we talk about quite a bit with our clients—from packaging to messaging to creating products that truly serve consumer needs, they have unique offerings and design-driven delivery that makes them desirable and covetable. Seed, especially, has tight messaging that connects the human microbiome to the world’s ecological system in a smart, yet beautiful way.
Similarly uncompromising, our client Wild Flower is a radically inclusive brand that positions sexual pleasure and personal awareness as human right. They talk openly and directly about sex and sexual wellness, and their products inspire curiosity, honesty, and joy in a way I found so refreshing. Working with the founders to develop their branding and marketing was actually a moment that reminded me of how powerful brands can be in shaping conversations and creating inclusive spaces that can change peoples lives.
Q&A Bonus Round with Katie Klencheski
What’s an object in your home that you love?
I have a collection of original works by female artists that I’m slowly growing. Some works are by friends, others are by women I’ve run into traveling, going to art fairs, and through local galleries.
What’s a personal routine or ritual you adhere to?
I have to do something active in the morning before I start the work day. It’s how I clear my head and get centered in my body before I take on what’s on deck for the work day.
I tend to do something different every day—my go-tos are a HIIT class, reformer Pilates, yoga, tennis, or figure skating. But If I’m traveling it might be a hike, bike ride, or a run to experience whatever place I’m visiting.
What’s playing in the office (or home office) while you work?
The Talking Heads or Fleetwood Mac are my go-tos.
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, namer, and author of Brand Naming: The Complete Guide to Creating a Name for Your Company, Product, or Service. He also runs Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm, and hosts the podcast How Brands Are Built.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Who is Katie Klencheski?
Katie Klencheski is is founder and creative director of SMAKK, a branding and growth studio in New York.
What kind of clients does SMAKK work with?
SMAKK selects clients very carefully, looking for mission-based companies who speak truth to power and use their influence to create a better world. SMAKK works with many clients in the beauty and wellness spaces, as well as other industries. Past clients include Wild Flower, St. Augustine College, and Conscious Step.
Why is SMAKK’s Mission Plan?
SMAKK’s Mission Plan is a guide for consumer brands to help them become more sustainable. It gives brands actionable steps and tactics, like sustainable packaging and offsetting negative impacts, to help build a more sustainable, resilient future.
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