Your Brand is My Problem: The Life of a Branding Consultant


Your brand is my problem.

I don’t see this as a negative. As someone who has built a career on the pseudo-science of brand strategy, I take the identity of the companies I work with very seriously. It is my responsibility, and even privilege, to do the work that I do. As rewarding as it may be, it can also be tough. For one, it requires a special combination of inspiration in which the creative and analytical parts of the brain are working together. On top of that, the work itself lives in a grey zone: brand strategy isn’t exact, and depending on your client, much is still left up to interpretation.

A lot, then, depends on the client and agency relationship.

In my work at Puccini Group, I’ve had the good fortune of working with excellent clients – so many of whom we are lucky to work with again and again, which is somewhat rare regardless of industry, but especially in hospitality where brands and owners have portfolios that span the globe.

Whether working a signature restaurant identity for a luxury resort in the Maldives, or developing a new brand for a lifestyle hotel in our own backyard of San Francisco, client trust is paramount. From this variety of work across so many markets, I’ve realized how valuable breadth of experience within an industry is, and it’s perhaps what separates Puccini Group’s branding and marketing efforts from those we often compete with for business: while we’re hospitality-specialized, we aren’t limited by geography or time zones. In fact, portability is built into our business model. We bring fresh, unbiased eyes to the property and trade area, and research the mindsets and motivations of both the locals and travelers.

After we have a clear understanding of the most viable prospective guest, we build recommendations that help our client market most effectively and directly. This variety in landscape helps us to deliver inspired, totally unique solutions to our clients that fit their specific market, rather than a product that is pinned to the dominant aesthetic in a specific market — for example L.A. or NYC, where the same trends are recycled across hotels and restaurants in that area. While the work can be both exciting and creative, I’d recommend anyone seeking a career in branding or marketing to also consider whether they are interested in the analytical and occasionally emotional aspects of the field: it’s not all flashes of inspiration and unbounded creativity. It’s also a lot of careful communication and interpretation of your client’s wishes.

Navigating Emotional Responses

A good brand story is designed to evoke an emotional response — see some of the most notable logo controversies in recent history: Airbnb, Starbucks, Hillary 2016, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. As such, developing a brand story and identity can often defy reason, regardless of whether that emotional response is positive or negative. As a result, creative agencies often grapple with client feedback like “I just don’t like it.” This form of emotionally-charged feedback is particularly dangerous, because it isn’t actionable. There’s no why to address. On the agency side, you hear creatives complaining all the time about how the client doesn’t “get it,” that they lack taste or that they aren’t aware of trends. While sometimes this may honestly be the case, it’s not the client’s fault for having a reaction to the material. After all, that is exactly the job that people like me — the brand strategist, copywriter, or graphic designer — are hired to do.

Photos courtesy of The Puccini Group

Always Overcommunicate

A client is not required to love the first idea or image that the agency sends, but it is important that they understand why those elements were chosen and know how to articulate what can be done better the second time.

It is the responsibility of the creative agency to provide their clients with a foundation of knowledge that can better aid in the communication process.

Nothing irks me more than to see a round of logos go out without explanation or context, and I take special care to make sure that I never leave a client in the dark. It’s a form of negligence contributing toward a very fragile relationship between client and creative.

Create a Roadmap

In my role at Puccini Group, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the most notable international brands in the hospitality industry and with the talented individuals who lead that space. Despite that extensive experience, my team and I are always careful to assume nothing about a client’s familiarity with the process and principles of branding. Instead, we set out to establish a strong foundation for the client-creative relationship – a clear roadmap of the goals and checkpoints ahead. Equally important is instituting a lexicon of terms for client and creative team to share, so that everyone is clear on association and meaning, particularly if any technical language is involved in either the deliverable or the feedback.

To those on the creative services side who don’t already embrace this foundational work as part of your process, I recommend trying it.

We’ve found it’s well worth the upfront investment of time and effort.

To those on the client side, I’ll say this: push yourself to identify the why and to go beyond personal bias. Collect feedback broadly from your target customers, not just your colleagues. It’s also important to remember that even with the best laid plans, the process is rarely smooth. It’s oddly emotional, fraught with associations, and you have a lot of people involved who really care about the outcome.

The payoff is that when you nail the combination of caring and communicating so that both client and agency are in perfect sync, with a clear understanding of desired outcome, the work tends to be amazing, and well worth the emotional rollercoaster.

7min read

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.

A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization ( publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.