Be truly interested in the brands you’re working on — if you don’t believe the products you’re selling are making the world a better place, it’s hard to get excited.
As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Katie Klencheski, founder of the branding and growth studio SMAKK Studios, who is on a mission to change consumer behavior towards purchasing decisions that are better for people and the planet.
Since 2011, SMAKK has provided a focus on branding and growth tactics for a wide range of consumer-facing brands such as Harry’s Razors, The Honey Pot Company, The NYC Mayor’s Office for Sustainability, and more. In 2019, Katie completed training with Al Gore to become a Climate Reality Leader among its global network of activists committed to spreading awareness of the climate crisis and working for solutions to the greatest challenge of our time.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m on a mission to change consumer behavior towards purchasing decisions that are better for people and the planet. I use my passion, creativity, and experience to help values-led clients build world-changing brands.
I began my career in advertising working with global brands (Sony, Trump Hotel Collection, American Express, Cartier and more), but as the world began changing, I felt the pull to bring that knowledge to companies and organizations working to make a world that is more sustainable, thoughtful, and socially conscious.
After walking out of a new-business pitch some years back (because I was finally through working on projects and with companies that did not reflect my values), I decided to completely dedicate my brand, my expertise, and my team’s talent as a force for good.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of our first clients at SMAKK, SW Basics, found out from their legal team that they had to change their name (they were originally Sprout Wellness) just one month before they were going to be featured in Vogue for the first time. This was a huge deal for us as a small agency and for them as a brand.
We had to go through a renaming process, a significant visual identity update, packaging redesign and make CGIs of the updated product that were close enough to the real thing for Vogue’s beauty editors in just a couple of weeks.
Fortunately, that experience taught us to always be ready to pivot in the event of an emergency.
That lesson then came full circle with a “funny” mistake we caught recently. One of our clients was all set to launch a “Spring Fever” campaign for Spring 2020. Now that we are all experts at pivoting, the SMAKK team was able to catch the “Spring Fever” language right before it went out the door — saving our client from a lot of drama related to having ill-timed campaign language in the age of coronavirus.
We’re grateful for all the branding challenges that have helped us think ahead and think on our toes!
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?
When we started as an agency we were much more generalist in the types of clients we took on — tech, consumer brands, B2B, nonprofits, media, education. I’m a naturally curious person, so I’ve always loved the part of the branding process that allows you to learn a lot about something new, explore it from the inside, and then find a way to share it meaningfully with the audience that’s going to fall in love with it. But working across such a wide spectrum did take away from our ability to really go deep in a couple of categories. It meant that our teams were always jumping from one subject matter to another; while that’s fun, there’s not as much knowledge from one project to the next that you can pull forward.
As our agency evolved, we found ourselves really growing in consumer brands that spanned wellness to beauty and fashion. And within that, I’ve always been drawn to the brands that are really re-envisioning their responsibility to create better supply chains, more sustainable products, integrated social impact, and empowerment of their consumers in new ways.
Once we really committed to only working with brands that are better for people and the planet, we really hit our stride. Going all-in on that meant that we committed to dropping clients and only taking on new clients that matched our values of what “good” brands should be delivered to consumers and the world at large. And that’s the point that everything changed for us as an agency.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We actually made our first hire fully committed to sustainability initiatives at SMAKK at the beginning of 2020 and are in the process of releasing new research and lessons learned from our brands to help other brands become more sustainable.
In 2020, we intend to release The Mission Plan, which is SMAKK’s quarterly sustainability guide for brands looking to apply more sustainable practices across their business. We’ll start off by sharing “Easy Wins” in Q2 over on our site at www.smakkstudios.com.
What advice would you give to other branders/creatives to thrive and avoid burnout?
Be truly interested in the brands you’re working on — if you don’t believe the products you’re selling are making the world a better place, it’s hard to get excited.
Also, choose clients you want to spend time with, our client relationships last at least 4–6 months at a minimum, and more often, they last for years. I’ve learned if I don’t have chemistry with the client team, have mutual trust and respect, and truly enjoy collaborating with them, the projects come out mediocre and it totally drags me down emotionally.
For me, life is too short to not love what I do and the people I spend my time with.
Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between branding and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
Branding is the foundation of what a company is. It’s so much bigger than marketing; it’s your purpose and values, the raison d’etre that informs everything from the products you make to the interactions you have with everyone from customers to employees, to the way you react to any event.
Every touchpoint your brand has comes from building that foundation, and it becomes expressed across your visual identity, messaging personality, tone of voice, and the stories you tell.
In that vein, advertising is a tactical play. It’s what you have to say right now; it has to be on-brand, but it’s much more about a brand’s message to a specific audience in a specific moment.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
Without a solid foundation, a brand is just reacting in real-time to any event, communications need, or opportunity.
There’s nothing that gives you a litmus test to ask “Is this right for this brand? Does this continue the story we’re telling? Does it relate back to who we really are?”
Companies that don’t have a strong, foundational understanding of who they are will never be able to control their own narrative. Also, they rarely build brand equity that wins customer loyalty over time or helps them weather tough times. Companies that invest in branding are investing in the power of their own story.
Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?
For most existing brands, I would actually suggest companies look at it as investing in their brand as an opportunity to evolve forward. For example, we recently have seen our economy and culture shift from a global pandemic that will forever change the way we live, work, and consume. Instead of “rebranding” on the other side of this, many brands will be evolving forward.
Branding is the act of uncovering, looking at what’s uniquely in your DNA, your cultural moment, your target audience, and connecting that to where you can position yourself in the market to the best possible advantage.
With existing brands, I rarely approach a branding project as a “rebrand;” I like to think about how we’re pulling brands forward to become more fully themselves and engage in future opportunities. Today, that means spending a lot of time with brands talking about evolving to be more sustainable and socially conscious.
Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?
A “rebrand” is a fairly extreme measure. When I hear that word, I think about knocking everything down and starting over. That can be costly and unnecessary.
Brands should only do this when they’ve made a major misstep and need to communicate a rebirth or are making a really radical change in their business model.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.
- Identify your brand’s vision for the world.
For example, SMAKK’s vision is to change consumer behavior towards purchasing decisions that are better for people and planet — and we do that through the client work and projects we take on. Determine your brand’s positioning around its vision of what the world could and should look like as a result of your product or service.
- Define and stress test your values.
I often tell the story of how I once abruptly walked out of a meeting to win new business from a well-regarded house of brands, because the client’s brand did not align with my brand’s value of “always using my talent for good.”
Talk about putting your values to the test and leaving money on the table.
Yet, I’ve seen more success supporting brands as big (if not bigger) than that client and actually enjoying the work. Why? Because I was willing to stress test my values and they later proved themselves out by helping me attract more like-minded clients.
We’ve seen this also happen for brands who decide to re-energize their brand with a more sustainable approach to business. While we know that more that goes into those business decisions than it just being “the right thing to do,” the reality is, beyond ethics, brands often see how practicing sustainability actually leads to innovative opportunities, increased employee retention, and wellness, more human and stronger connections with consumers, and ultimately, large payoffs.
- Know your voice and how you want to make your audience feel.
It’s important to start with the audience. Brands that are pivoting to align with consumer values are seeing high returns and are building their own sustainable futures. What does that look like?
Well, in our world, we know that the overwhelming majority of global consumers want to see more of the brands they use support worthy social and/or environmental issues, and 3 out of 4 teenagers say they want to buy more sustainable products.
So that means brands that are pivoting have to begin using language that signals to sustainability, social impact, and “doing good,” to make their audiences feel more connected to their product and/or service.
- Articulate how you want the brand to be described when you’re not in the room.
Think about how you would describe a brand like “The Honey Pot.” You might say “made by women,” or “clean,” or “refreshing and healing.” These phrases ultimately conjure a feeling — and that ultimately defines your brand. The feeling it evokes in your audience.
- Know the stories your brand should tell.
Your brand should, again, tell stories that galvanize your audience. For our clients, they’re often connecting with Millennials and Gen Z, the latter of which is on track to becoming the largest generation of consumers this year. While they are willing to spend more on sustainable products, they’re also more willing than previous generations to boycott and “cancel” brands that aren’t moving towards sustainability fast enough.
Thus, brands that tell stories about sustainability and campaigns for good have seen a dramatic increase in sales as customer trends move in this direction. People care, as a brand so should you, and that should come across in your brand’s narratives.
Brands can be leaders when they use their voice and narrative to lead and stand out from other brands.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
The Honey Pot has done a fantastic job of evolving (remember: evolve, don’t rebrand) from a “start-up” to an enterprising company sold in major retailers nationwide. They have been creating a community online in a way that is forward-thinking and sustainable (simply look at how they built a “social sisterhood” of women of color that weathered the storm — and even boosted sales — during a mini-crisis in early 2020). We think part of the secret-sauce is that brand marketing there is led by women and centered on a commonly held belief (that women’s bodies are to be celebrated).
Over 80% of consumer spending is controlled by women but marketing has typically been driven by men. As more women are leading brands and marketing tactics, we’re changing how brands communicate — moving away from highlighting women’s deficits in favor of crafting brands that accept individuals as they are and empower them to be engaged consumers.
This shift presents a huge growth opportunity for savvy brands: consumers today self-identify as “belief-driven buyers,” and the majority of global consumers want to vote with their dollars and see more of the brands they use support worthy social and/or environmental issues.
Brands need to exercise what I call “Purpose-Driven Branding” that allows them to create more meaningful connections with belief-driven consumers.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We’re in a very real moment of change right now with COVID-19. Brands coming out of this crisis will need to consider how to be more sustainable in a world that increasingly looks for the companies that are doing good when there are climate crises and pandemics.
As sustainability drives growth in consumer categories, brands will have to evolve. A recent study by NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business and IRI showed that sustainability-marketed products delivered $113.9B in sales in 2018; +29% vs. 2013 and are expected to grow to $140.5B by 2023.
At SMAKK we’ve created a Mission Plan for first steps brands can take towards environmentally responsible change — helping consumer brands embrace sustainability as the new standard for success. Brands should embrace these strategies — which include ideas like creating programs to refill, return, repurpose packaging; integrating carbon offsetting; and partnering with nonprofits — and communicate these tactics to win new consumer consideration.
The changes brands can make today, with the resources at their immediate disposal, will have a meaningful impact.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t waste your talent on things that aren’t making the world a better place.” I have a set of criteria for the companies we’ll work with and we hold ourselves to that. The brands that share our values prioritize sustainability, inclusion, empowerment, social justice, and health. We also won’t work with people who aren’t nice. Life is too short.
I once abruptly walked out of a meeting to win new business from a well-regarded house of brands. The brand we were pitching would have given my branding agency a great case study for a fashion category we thought we wanted to break into — and by all accounts, we were a shoo-in for the project. But as I listened to the brand’s goals and watched their leadership’s temperament, I knew I was looking at what would be yet another toxic engagement with a soul-less brand.
I could see that in the months ahead we would be working with a stressed brand team managed by a corporate leader who ruled with fear. As I sat with a polite smile plastered on my face, I realized that I no longer had the capacity to work with people or brands that aren’t driven by core values and kindness.
Since then, I’ve been on a path to define what it means to be a creative agency that truly cares about being a force for good: in the brands, we work with, the client teams we choose to collaborate with, and the way we treat each other at my company.
I’ve been on a mission to cut out anything that doesn’t make the world better and to hold myself accountable to make a workplace worthy of the very talented people who have chosen it.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.