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Wolfgang Schaefer of zwoelf consulting: “A brand must always stay true to itself”

Try to do what you’re really convinced of and work will hardly ever be negative stress. And if, just remember: Nothing in life is so important that you couldn’t also laugh about it — certainly when it comes to marketing and branding. As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Wolfgang […]

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Try to do what you’re really convinced of and work will hardly ever be negative stress. And if, just remember: Nothing in life is so important that you couldn’t also laugh about it — certainly when it comes to marketing and branding.


As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Wolfgang Schaefer.

Wolfgang Schaefer is CEO and Founder of zwoelf consulting, specialized in narrative brand strategies. Based in Berlin and NYC, he lectures at XU Exponential University Potsdam and other schools in Europe and the US. For the past 25 years, as chief strategist, he has worked with many of the world’s top marketers at LVMH, P&G, Miele, Swarovski, Coty and Unilever et al.


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?

Fresh out of college I was en route to my first interview when my car broke down — in the middle of nowhere on a derelict stretch of Ex-East German Autobahn between Berlin and Hamburg. Needless to say, I came hours late and thought all was lost. But the opposite happened: Expecting nothing anymore made me so relaxed that I wowed my bosses-to-be. A month later I, was international strategist on the Unilever business at which was then one of the top three agency networks globally.

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?

Boardroom at the top battery brand in the US, discussion of parity, top-parity or superiority claims vis-a-vis our competitor. We’re evaluating various ‘longer lasting’ claims, when I want to introduce the idea that we shouldn’t just talk quantity but also quality: ‘I think it’s not just about longer, but stronger longer’. As I heard the words coming out of my mouth it was already too late — I turned a crimson red. Luckily, all laughed but then agreed strategically — though not to the phrasing. Obviously, how you say something is as crucial as what you say.

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?

I was still working in Germany, Berlin to be precise. I had just become Creative Director of a newly won bank account and we had to introduce the new campaign with a bang on January 1, 1990 — the first New Years with the Wall just opened. How can you possibly live up to this highly emotional and culturally defining moment? I had the crazy idea of quoting Saint-Exupéry’s Petit Prince and his story of collecting stars by writing their number on papers saved in a drawer. The perfect fable about our financial system of saving and investing, as I thought. Of course, the bankers didn’t see this at all. But then the head of the board recognized the poetic truth and inspirational power and gave it a go. It became a big hit with lots of their clients calling to thank them for such an uplifting albeit unusual financial ad. And it taught me to always trust my guts. They may mislead me occasionally, but at least I’ll have the fulfilling feeling of having followed my heart.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Actually, I’m currently working for a bunch of NGOs — Save the Children, the biggest global children’s rights and aid organization. And Impacc, a new approach to developmental aid, investing in sustainable and socially impactful business start-ups in Africa. And I’m on the board of Make-a-Wish in Germany. All this is very uplifting and fulfilling. Though working for prestige brands, which I mostly do, is rewarding as well — hopefully making the world a bit prettier and more delectable step by step.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Try to do what you’re really convinced of and work will hardly ever be negative stress. And if, just remember: Nothing in life is so important that you couldn’t also laugh about it — certainly when it comes to marketing and branding.

Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Product marketing is mostly tactical where brand marketing is usually strategic. But ideally those two shouldn’t be opposing: Brand when you sell and sell when you brand.

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?

Because brands, if done right, give meaning to all you do and build your business. Creating a positive bias among your targets and shelter you from price sensitivity.

Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?

Having lost its way, losing business, feeling out of date, shifting business, having an innovation to tout … there are lots of reasons to ‘rebrand’. Not the least that brands must surprise themselves and their followers to not become too predictable and boring. But watch out…

Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?

A brand must always stay true to itself. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t evolve. The old adage that things must change to stay the same holds for brands as it does for anything. But change grows out of the past through the present into the future. You always must respect your roots and who or what you were, are and could be as you evolve.

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.

You’ll actually find more than five in our latest book, Brand Elevation: Lessons in Ueber-Branding

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?

One brand that really has done an amazing job is the European frozen food brand FRoSTA. They’ve been around for more than 100 years, but in 2003 they started what they call their ‘Reinheitsgebot’, changing recipes and production to do completely away with additives, flavor enhancers, stabilizers etc. for all-natural products, sustainably sourced and produced. The necessary price increase almost cost them their business, leading to a 30% drop in sales. But they stuck to it and soon things turned around and today their almost twice as big as they were before. More on that in our new book.

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. 🙂

Actually, I believe we are doing this with Impacc — using donations to inspire and empower people in underprivileged situations instead of patronizing them as ‘the poor’ (impacc.org). And we’ve started a network called ‘Designing Future’, bringing together different disciplines from bio-chemistry through organizational management to production to communication to holistically help companies transform towards a circular economy.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Sapere aude — Dare to know. Living means growing and growing means widening your horizons — intellectually, emotionally and socially. Curiosity has been my number one driver throughout life. And the good thing with that: You’re never disappointed no matter what, because you’ll always learn.

How can our readers follow you online?

Website: www.zwoelfconsulting.com

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/wolfschaefer/

Ueber-Brands Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/ueber-brands/id1054748249

Blog: https://ueberbrands.com

Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.

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