Sarah Robb is a London-based brand strategist with over 20 years working at agencies like Landor and WPP. She now runs her own consultancy, Brand Lateral, teaches the Brand Strategy Academy, and speaks on topics related to brand strategy.
I wanted to interview Sarah Robb partly because I’m interested in the brand education space, which seems to be growing rapidly with offerings from groups like Level C (Marty Neumeier), Section4 (Scott Galloway), and MarketingWeek (Mark Ritson’s MiniMBA), not to mention learning platforms like Domestika. I’ve heard very good things about Sarah’s Brand Strategy Academy, and wanted to get her take on the “state of play” in brand education. As you’ll see in the Q&A below, Sarah’s course focuses on the how as much as the what and why. It’s also a more intimate and interactive course with no more than 25 students at a time. I imagine that means much more “face time” with the teacher than other courses offer. (I’m currently taking Scott Galloway’s Brand Strategy Sprint, and while I’m enjoying it, the opportunities to interact with Professor Galloway are pretty limited.)
Read on to find out how Sarah got into branding, what it’s like doing strategy work in different cities, and what’s changing in the brand strategy world. You’ll also learn more about her Brand Strategy Academy and find out what Sarah’s reading, what’s on her desk right now, and what strategy book she recommends.
About Sarah Robb’s Career
Early in your career, you worked in research and advertising. How and why did you make the switch to brand strategy?
I started my career on the WPP Fellowship Program. It gave me the opportunity to work across three different disciplines for three years. So I started in market research in the UK at Kantar, moved to ad planning in San Francisco at JWT, and while working as a planner I found I got a bit frustrated. I wanted to get closer to the client’s business. When you’re creating a brief for an ad campaign, you’re typically working with a brand that has been defined—I wanted to work on that foundational part—and to work more closely with the C-suite rather than just the marketing team. So I chose my final placement to be Landor in New York to do brand strategy and I’ve been loving it ever since.
You worked at Landor—a leading brand consultancy—for a long time. What’s unique about the Landor approach to brand strategy?
In all honesty, I’m not sure there is anything truly unique about any brand consultancy’s approach to brand strategy, other than proprietary terminology they make up to help to differentiate themselves from competition. I’ve sat through a lot of agency presentations recently, helping my clients choose the right agency to support them, and I see the same conceptual ideas just packaged differently.
At Landor, strategy was heavily influenced by the design output at the end of it, so we tended to include within the final strategy deliverable a ‘Visual Brand Driver’ which was a 9 grid square that answered, visually, questions like—if the brand was a building, which would it be and why? If the brand was an animal…etc.
But was this unique? For a while perhaps—but it wasn’t a completely new technique.
What a client is really buying—and the only thing that really is unique—is the team, their experience, and a comfort level that the team is going to gel with their leadership team and be able to get the job done.
In all honesty, I’m not sure there is anything truly unique about any brand consultancy’s approach to brand strategy, other than proprietary terminology they make up to help to differentiate themselves from competition.”
You’ve lived and worked in London, New York, and San Francisco. Do you feel like branding is approached differently in these places? Are the clients different? Are the branding “communities” significantly different?
The clients I had were often driven by the nature of the businesses that were located there. So, in San Francisco I worked on a lot of wine and tech, in New York a lot of pharmaceuticals and alcohol, and in London financial services and hotels. But the branding community—the people I worked with—were multinational. Perhaps Landor was an anomaly because they were one of the few truly global branding agencies at the time. They also had a very sophisticated intranet so a lot of work was shared across the group.
Twenty years ago you’d find a disproportionate number of Brits in strategy and ad planning in American agencies—and British white men occupying the top strategy job. I hope this has changed but sadly I don’t think it has changed enough. When I look at who I’m ‘competing’ with in terms of selling a brand strategy course, it’s mainly men. I also presented to an MBA class in India a couple of months ago and I was the first female speaker they’d had.
About Brand Lateral
You now run your own consultancy, Brand Lateral. What’s unique about your approach to brand strategy at Brand Lateral?
What I am trying to do for my clients, and with my course [see below], is to show that there is a lot of rigor, process, and insight that needs to go into any brand strategy, but the output should be crystal clear and simple. What I am trying to avoid is adding any unnecessary complexity, made-up frameworks, or jargon. This stuff could make me sound more unique but it does nothing to help clients. So I use a framework that I’ve derived from my 23 years experience and my study of all the brand strategies of the 181 most valuable brands. It strips aways all the labels and terminology and focuses instead on the 5 questions all strong brands answer in their strategies.
What I also focus on, that perhaps others don’t enough, is the process of brand strategy. It has to create deep engagement with the 3 people who will make or break the success of a brand strategy: the CEO, the CMO, and the CHRO. I work with them post creating the strategy to ensure it gets embedded within the business.
What I hear from clients and people taking my course is that other brand strategists they have worked with struggle to do three things:
- Get the leadership team and organization engaged with, and understanding, the strategy
- Explain it clearly
- Back it up with enough rigor, research, and insight that the clients feel truly confident it’s the right approach
What I believe I do well are these three things. ‘Back up’ in particular seems to be lacking when I see other people’s work. Examples from other brands, data on why brand strategy is important, insights from customers, employees, and other stakeholders—you have to have this at hand. And too many consultants just talk about brand strategy like it’s a marketing tool. It’s a business tool. It impacts all the levers of business growth. It needs to include and engage employees as much as customers. So this is what I focus on—and I guess this and the unique experiences I’ve had on different clients makes me unique!
You also do a lot of guest speaking on brand strategy. What’s your go-to speaking topic? Is there anywhere we can see one of your talks online?
I talk most about stripping away the complexity and answering the core questions, getting to brand strategy that works in the real world, and that has deep impact on a client’s business . You can access this through my free mini course: Brand Strategy in 7 Simple Steps. I’ve also run sessions recently on Practical Brand Strategy—What Really Makes A Difference; How to Build Brands in Luxury Hospitality; Building Brands People Love and Trust—The Role Of Brand Identity. I mean to make these more accessible at some point but the only place to access this at the moment is through my course, Brand Strategy Academy.
Brand Strategy Academy
What is Brand Strategy Academy? Why did you create it?
I created it because brand strategy seems to be one of those topics people feel is too complicated to learn how to do—and I wanted to dispel the myths and fully equip people to be able to sell it to their clients. I also wanted to make it accessible to freelancers and smaller agencies who may not have L&D ‘budgets’ to invest in courses over $1,000 but I still wanted them to be able to access the same quality of training. So I deliberately priced it under $500 even though many industry professionals advised me against this! I need to make some money from it to keep it running but I wanted to find a way to ‘give back’ some of my knowledge. I also wanted to find a more structured way to give back myself: I donate 10% of course sales to Mind, a mental health charity in the UK.
What’s one tool or tip that your students really seem to like?
What they feedback on most is the clarity and confidence it gives them. It’s the whole suite of tools they appreciate—all the questions you need to ask in research, a detailed workshop plan, competitor audit frameworks, etc.—actually equipping them to know HOW to do it, not just what it is.
Who is the “ideal” student for the Academy? In-house or agency side? How many years of experience?
There are three typical students who take the course. Copywriters and designers who want to add brand strategy to their process and what they can sell to clients. And brand strategists wanting to improve their skills. Typically, all have a few years of experience. But I also get marketers who are working in house at clients, previous people I have worked with, small business owners, and even professors who are running marketing courses at university!
Brand strategy education seems to be a growing space (e.g., Marty Neumeier’s Level C, Scott Galloway’s Brand Strategy Sprint, Mark Ritson’s Brand Management MiniMBA, and learning platforms like Skillshare and Domestika). How do you think Brand Strategy Academy differs from other education opportunities out there?
I’ve spent time studying the other courses out there and there’s some big industry names running them. What I provide that their courses don’t is the detailed guidance on actually HOW to do brand strategy. Really equipping people with all the tools they need—not just the theory on why it’s important and what framework to use. I also limit my numbers—I’m just taking on 25 people each time at the moment—so I can personally answer their questions. I go live every week and continue to add resources to my course based on the questions I get asked.
You talk a lot about making brand strategy clear and avoiding unnecessary “mystery.” What do you think most people get wrong about brand strategy—why is it so unnecessarily mysterious?
It’s mysterious for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there are not many people who have the job title ‘brand strategist.’ You and I had that role in the two biggest brand consulting agencies, but there were only a handful of us. So people find it hard to get access to and there’s not a lot of great training out there to demystify what it is and how to get it done. Secondly, it’s the jargon and the frameworks. Everyone pushing their ‘onliness’ model or brand onion… It makes it feel like another language without any rules that you can learn. But what a lot of people get wrong about brand strategy—to the second part of your question—is that there is far too much focus on the framework and not enough focus on how to get an organization engaged and aligned behind a strategy so it sets the direction for their growth. A successful outcome of a brand strategy process isn’t the model– it’s the impact on the business.
What’s changing in the world of brand strategy?
There’s a lot of talk now about brand purpose. Which is another area just adding complexity and confusion. I’ve written a ton about this so I won’t go on about this now—suffice to say it’s not helping! Patagonia’s recent announcement was a breath of fresh air and a true embodiment of what it actually means to deliver on a strategy.
How has COVID impacted what you’re consulting, teaching, or speaking work?
Well, it allowed me to actually create the course that I’d wanted to do for so long! I have two kids, so I had to stop all client work and help with home schooling, but between the hours of 4PM and 6PM I got the course done! It’s funny what you can accomplish when you are severely time limited. I’d also had a ton of luxury hotel brand strategy work pre-COVID—which obviously wasn’t happening during COVID. That has all come back now, but I’m now taking only select client projects so I can also focus on building awareness of the course.
Q&A Bonus Round with Sarah Robb
What are you reading right now?
So much! Wild Thinking by fellow brand strategist Nick Liddell and Richard Buchanan. CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest (written by 3 senior McKinsey partners), The Motivation Manifesto by Brendon Burchard (I do love my hit of GrowthDay and I find his energy and advice helpful). Also reading The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. We’re hoping to head to Vietnam next Spring. My husband and I met when we were living in Japan and are desperate to get the kids to Asia. Japan is still blocking tourists so it will be Vietnam first.
What’s something weird on your desk right now?
I love my little Hoptimist!
Any branding book recommendations?
Yes, here are some book recommendations for people: Sarah Robb’s list of “The Best Brand Strategy Books.”
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 Sarah Robb?
Sarah Robb is a brand strategist who teaches the Brand Strategy Academy course. She has over 20 years of brand strategy experience at firms like Landor and Geometry Global, and runs her own brand consultancy, Brand Lateral.
What is the Brand Strategy Academy?
The Brand Strategy Academy is an online course taught by Sarah Robb, a brand strategist. The course contains seven modules and includes video lessons, worksheets, live Q&A with Sarah, and a private community. Each session of the Academy has up to 25 students.
Why is brand strategy important?
According to Sarah Robb, brand strategy has been shown to increase business growth, enhance customer preference and loyalty, and improve employee satisfaction and retention. It can also have a positive impact on business innovation and transformation.
What are the recent trends in brand strategy?
Sarah points out that brand purpose has been in the news a lot lately, including Patagonia’s recent announcement about the founder giving the company away to a nonprofit as part of an effort to combat climate change. Other trends and debates in the world of brand strategy relate to evidence-based marketing findings and their impact on branding.