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
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.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.