How brands can keep it personal



Recently, I attended the first ever Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York.  The week-long event was created to inspire creativity and innovation through workshops, panels and on-site visits. The candidness and depth of information shared by each speaker inspired me to share my takeaways from the event.

Regardless of industry, we are all bound to face challenges within our business. So why not share our experiences and find common ground in the areas we should be working on thriving in?

  1. Identify what makes you special…then execute on it

I should preface this by saying I’m a big Oprah fan. Abnormally so for someone who was still a college student when The Oprah Winfrey Show came to an end (I’m still recovering.) So when I heard the co-presidents of her television network OWN, were speaking about ‘Inspiring Innovation,’ I was excited to say the least. Specifically I wanted to hear what these individuals had to say about the conceivable pressures and expectations when working on a new venture with one of the most powerful women in media.

I listened closely as Sheri Salata and Erik Logan shared what it took to turn OWN around after a dismal start to the network just a few years ago. In an arguably short amount of time, they pulled the network out of what was reportedly going to be a complete failure for my favorite daytime talk show host. As they worked vigorously to increase ratings, Sheri stated the turning point was when the team finally asked themselves, “What do we have that nobody else does?”

While I thought the answer was obvious, it seemed the solution wasn’t solely Oprah. It was strategizing how to best infuse her into the network because she was always going to be OWN’s greatest asset.

It’s undeniable that asking, “What do we have that nobody else does?” is so vital. However asking the question isn’t enough; it’s how you execute on the answer. Wolff Olins’ President for North America, Tim Allen, talks about promise and delivery often and those two words are really what it comes down to. With so much competition in the marketplace, it’s not sufficient to just have something that sets you apart. You have to find how to best deliver that unique offer so it captures your audience’s attention. Maybe it’s time to take a step back and have that Aha! moment Oprah’s always talking about.

  1. Make your philanthropy personal  

In high school I worked with The African Millennium Foundation, a non-profit that provides tools for self-sufficiency in the poorest areas of Africa. I traveled to Mozambique to visit one of the orphanages we raised donations and supplies for. My most vivid memory was spending the day with an energetic young boy whose shoes were completely damaged. They were worn to the point of uselessness but I knew he had no other choice but to walk in that pair.

It wasn’t long after my trip I heard about TOMS. I was immediately intrigued after learning that with every pair of shoes purchased, a pair would also be donated. This One for One concept (also known as the “buy one give one” model) was completely innovative at the time, which is easy to forget in today’s emergent socially conscious market.

While their One for One model has evolved since launching in 2006, TOMS’ brand story and messaging have remained clear due in large part to founder Blake Mycoskie. I was able to hear him speak alongside model and founder of the non-profit Every Mother Counts, Christy Turlington-Burns.

It’s been almost a decade since TOMS was founded and the popularity of companies incorporating charity into their business, from Warby Parker to The Honest Company, has increased significantly. Studies continue to prove that consumers are more likely to support businesses with a philanthropic component. What used to be a revolutionary way of thinking is becoming the new normal. This should only give organizations further incentive to keep thinking of new ways to set themselves apart.

If TOMS launched today, I wonder if it would still be as successful as it’s become. A lot of the attention that led to their initial success was a result of Blake sharing how his life-changing trip to Argentina inspired both the shoe design and the One for One model. Regardless, TOMS proved it’s more than just a fleeting trend, which it very well could have been. As the business and product line expanded, they remained true to the brand they built, in everything from the content they produced to their partnerships – one most recently with Christy’s non-profit, Every Mother Counts.

Every Mother Counts is dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safer for mothers around the world, and through TOMS they sell tote bags and backpacks. It was a natural partnership according to Blake and Christy, who both discussed the importance of having a personal connection to what you do. In Christy’s case, it wasn’t until she had complications giving birth that she became an advocate for maternal health. She talked about the irrationality of celebrities she knew who were “matched” with charities and couldn’t understand how anyone could find the authenticity in that.

If your story doesn’t feel genuine, it will always be harder to get people invested in your cause, regardless of if it’s a non-profit or for-profit organization. Being able to communicate why giving back matters to your business is necessary, given that it’s becoming such a large part of organizations’ DNA.

  1. Go with your gut

On the last day of the festival, I visited STORY. If you live in New York and have never shopped there, you’re missing out. The 2,000 square foot space is advertised as a “Retail concept that takes the point of view of a magazine, changes like a gallery and sells things like a store.” Every one-two months an entirely new “issue” is produced for the store consisting of a new store layout, merchandise and theme. I was there to hear STORY’s founder, Rachel Shechtman, speak about creative collaboration with fashion icon and businesswoman Iris Apfel.

Iris, who had a successful interior design career, shot into the spotlight ten years ago when The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited her vibrant personal collection of clothing and accessories which she’s renowned for. Since then, the self-proclaimed “oldest living cover girl” has had successful partnerships with everyone from MAC Cosmetics to Bergdorf Goodman. She’s now more popular than ever, thanks in part to the late Albert Maysles’ documentary Iris which was released earlier this year. At 94 years young, Iris has had enough life experience to inherently know what collaborations she’s interested in being part of. She truly enjoys involving herself in each project, which is probably why every partnership she’s done thus far feels so authentic.

When asked to explain her thought process behind choosing collaborators, Iris expressed there was no real strategic method and that luck was her reason for success. While a little luck never hurt anyone, she has her own unique creative process whether she was aware of it or not – Iris follows her gut. “I don’t intellectualize it. I just feel it.” In an age when we’re taught to overprepare, overanalyze and overproduce, can it really be as simple as going with instincts?

After hearing Rachel Shechtman speak alongside Iris, I’d trust she bases a good portion of her decisions for STORY on intuition as well. There’s clearly a strategic plan behind everything her team does but I imagine it might be difficult to develop a distinct voice when so much of who you are is rooted in a constant rotation of collaborators, sponsors and merchandise. Rachel, a former brand consultant, acknowledged nonetheless that without STORY’s partnerships, the entire concept of the store couldn’t thrive in the way that it does. Having only opened in 2011, they’re still continuing to grow their audience along with their brand. I’m confident STORY is on the right trajectory but their biggest challenge will be continuing to ensure their consumers understand their individual brand and what they represent. Maybe they’ll just have to go with their gut to find the story.

Post-festival, I had a greater optimism and curiosity for the future of business and creativity. I stand by Blake Mycoskie’s notion that being philanthropic soon won’t be perceived as the right thing to do in business, but the necessary thing to do. Still, without an authentic connection or delivering something that sets you apart, it can only be done so successfully. Whatever story you’re going to tell, make it a distinct one that people want to hear. Then if you follow your gut, perhaps the rest will follow.

Illustration by LA Hall. 

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Rebecca Dersh

Rebecca Dersh is Marketing Manager at Wolff Olins New York.

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