What brand strategy has taught me

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Nicolai Bernsten on Unsplash

Finally, after a long journey of searching for my direction in life and struggling with my career path, I think I may have found what I’m meant to do. With that comes a quiet gratitude.

I remember how I struggled at my previous job as an advertising copywriter, coming up with copy and one-liners that “sell” for clients like credit card or insurance companies. It didn’t feel right or meaningful to me personally. I questioned why I was in advertising. I got told again and again that my copy was too “soft” and not “punchy” or “snappy” enough. It didn’t make people want to buy things.

I never wanted to make people buy things.

Even so, I saw it as a personal failure on two levels: being “not cut out” for the advertising industry, and not knowing what I want or can do. I wanted to work in the creative industry, but what if this was it, especially in a pragmatic society like Singapore, where the market is really small? What if there were no other, or better options?

Along the way, I found out about this thing called brand strategy. I was immediately intrigued and drawn to the idea of research and gathering consumer and brand insights, before distilling it into a strategy that guides creative work. In other words, I was more drawn to this big-picture role than churning out lines and wordplay day after day. Which was the first surprise, because I always thought I would do something related to words. And at that point, copywriting was the only realistic option I could think of, other than journalism, which I didn’t enjoy, and online editorial/content writing, which couldn’t pay the bills.

After the advertising job, I met a lot of people who did work that was somewhat related to brand strategy. I say this because a lot of big brand strategy agencies have offices in Singapore, but the legit portfolio you see on their websites is actually work that’s done overseas in big cities like London and New York City. Their offices in Singapore, which usually function as regional headquarters for the Asia Pacific, are usually either struggling financially, forced to do either advertising work, or heavily focused on the design/production part.

A true-blue branding or rebranding strategy project is as rare as a blue moon.

The reason for this is, again, Singapore’s small market. Multinational companies here usually take the direction of their original headquarters, which are far more well-equipped to do their own branding and strategy, or engage a competent agency there to do it. Small and medium enterprises, or SMEs as we call it here, usually have scarce budgets and resources to invest in branding. After all, advertising yields immediate, short-term results. And at the end of the day, when you have to present the annual report to your board of directors, it’s the numbers that count after all.

I always wanted to work in an international branding agency at its Singapore office, but after I met with several people and teams, I found that the reality of what they do is very different from what I saw on their (global) portfolio online. From my encounters with strategy directors and consultants, I found that brand strategy often really meant business strategy when put into practice. Everything was much more tactical and profit-driven than what I expected.

Now, of course I understand that this is how the commercial world works. I’m not expecting brand strategy to be a purely emotive or creative process. But what drew me to the role in the first place is the need for both rationality and intuition, and the way it finds that delicate balance between business and creative goals.

Instead of seeing these two goals in tension, a brand strategist seeks to harmonise both together to create what’s best for the brand, its consumers, and the world they inhabit.

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Leone Venter on Unsplash

Fast forward a few months of focusing on freelance work, I got offered a content strategist position at a local design agency. My main account was to run a content-driven social movement for a corporate client. Basically, it’s a commercial company wanting to do good and give back to the community. My heart leapt at this opportunity. The INFP in me rejoiced – finally a corporate company having the funds and resources to maximise the reach and impact of community and social work, which many non-profit organisations struggle to achieve despite their best intentions.

I was excited at the prospect of finally reconciling my beliefs in life with my daily job scope. Besides, I felt that content strategy was a specific area I would enjoy as a creative writer myself, crafting emotive language, tone of voice and messaging. And we live in a content-driven age; I consume content voraciously myself, from brands and publications on Facebook and LinkedIn.

However, after I started doing it, I was caught by surprise once again, for I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. Without revealing too much, I would just say that I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of mining real people’s life experiences to create compelling narratives. Soon I started to feel that I was manipulating people’s emotions to create material for a great story. When one of my colleagues described filming a documentary and how she felt really happy when her subject cried on screen, I realised then, that maybe this was not right for me.

It reminded me of the time when I was doing an internship for a local newspaper, many years ago. That was the first time I experienced this ethical dilemma of using people’s experiences as material to fit into your desired agenda. The ideal of journalism is to fight for truth and justice, and I do respect it as a noble and honourable profession. But in reality, what I sensed was that every journalist is a human being, with his or her own perspective. It is impossible to remain completely objective. It’s not their fault, but this was a very difficult hurdle for me to cross, and one of the reasons I didn’t pursue journalism as a career despite studying it in school. Nevertheless, I kept the spirit of questioning and curiosity with me, and it has definitely shaped the way I think and evaluate social issues and current affairs.

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rawpixels.com

Recently, by a surprising stroke of serendipity, my company gave me the opportunity to work on two rebranding projects – one for retail/lifestyle and the other for f&b. Initially not expecting much because I thought it would be very commercial and business-driven, since it was a corporate job. By this point, I had concluded that working in the advertising industry means that your ultimate goal is to help your clients grow their businesses. This is what they pay you to do, regardless of whether it is branding, rebranding, marketing or advertising. Everything like building consumer loyalty, adding value to their lives, was just another euphemism for “generating profits”. Many a time it seemed to me that rebranding gave businesses an excuse to charge a higher price for a more “premium” brand experience.

Yes, that was how jaded/realistic I had become. I went in with an open mind and zero expectations, and keeping in mind my professional weakness of taking things too personally or becoming too emotionally invested in my work (a problem all creatives will face).

To my very surprise, I learned so much. Only when I had the chance to do an actual brand strategy project, did I realise once again the power of an effective brand. It is not just making the consumer buy things and helping the business grow, but also giving the consumer MORE than just the product or service they paid for, and giving the employees of the brand a culture to be part of and a feeling of belonging to something bigger than their job scope.

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Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash

And after reading this article about purpose-driven branding, I found myself sitting up and realising that things have changed. Times have really changed. Many brands now stand for something and want to make a comment in the social, political and cultural landscape they (and their consumers) live in. Again the cryptic in me thought it was just another attempt at “CSR” or gaining the favour of consumers. Perhaps yes, some of these brands are not as sincere or honest as they make themselves out to be.

But in spite of all this, isn’t it great, that brands are actually doing something more than just selling things and generating profit? Isn’t it better than to have nothing at all? If buying, spending and consuming have already become so ingrained into our modern lifestyles, isn’t it great that in the process, we can have some meaningful conversations, or be prompted to reflect on important issues, and change our perspectives, even if it’s just a little bit?

Precisely because buying and spending is such a big part of our everyday lives, brands have such great power to shape and influence culture and points of view. And with great power comes great responsibility. 

Perhaps it is no longer just the onus of the governments of the world to solve problems. We live in an era where citizens are becoming more disillusioned and disappointed than ever before, by human and systemic failings. Perhaps humanised brands will be able to fill the widening chasm between the establishment and the people.

We all know that an individual can make a change, but how many of us actually feel driven and confident enough to do something? Perhaps brands will be the ones who empower us individuals, by rallying us together as not just their consumer demographic, but a real community of people who care and want, and can, make a difference today.

 

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comforting sounds

This is one of the rare occasions in which I feel the cover goes beyond the original song, giving it a whole new dimension and interpretation.

The harmonisation of piano keys and various strings, together with Birdy’s vocals at her best and most haunting, results in what I consider to be her best, although not most well-known cover performance. I’m not the biggest fan of Birdy, although I think she has a pretty decent and impressive voice. But this choice of song completely takes her vocals to a new level.

And that’s really saying a lot, considering how this original song by Danish band Mew is a composition I really revere and enjoy.

This particular song called Comforting Sounds, while not entirely accurate to simply label as my favourite song of all time, holds a very special meaning in my heart. It has been with me through a lot of key moments in my life. I believe we all have that one song in our lives.

Which is why this OOH campaign by Spotify (“Thanks 2016, it’s been weird.”) is one of my favourite examples of advertising. It is also a exemplary case of how useful insights can be extracted from numbers and data to create meaningful messages to connect with people:

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See the rest of the brilliant campaign here

The song Comforting Sounds begins with the lyrics “I don’t feel alright…despite all the comforting sounds that you make.” 

That’s the opening line that gives the title its name, but truth is, the entire track is an amazing hypnotic mixture of comforting sounds – both the original version and Birdy’s strings rendition.

This is my go-to therapy song whenever I need to feel that it’s ok not to be okay, just like last night when I was sitting at the bay of the Singapore River, staring at the golden glitter of light reflections in the rippling waters, until my vision became a blur of starlight.

Often it’s the moments we share with a song that gives it meaning, as though it were a person by our side, from which we gain solace and calm amidst anxiety, sorrow, and many other emotions language cannot find names for.

The most amazing thing about this song is how it’s a full nine-minute track, of which the later two-thirds have no vocals, only pure instrumental beauty. Yet it doesn’t feel that long, in fact, not long enough maybe, for I always get this feeling of lingering yearning at the end, as the cymbals come to a crash. It’s a feeling of knowing something inevitably has to end, and accepting and anticipating it, yet not without a wishful thinking for the moment to go on forever.

It’s also the song that first got me to encounter and fall in love with the genre of post-rock, because of the layers upon layers of instruments and sounds that build up gradually in a canon, as though painting on a canvas. Listening to songs like these feels like walking through a journey.

Leaving this post with a beautifully shot black and white film of their live performance in Beijing 2015, as I look forward to their concert in Singapore on Sunday. Thank you for coming to Singapore it is really an unexpected and joyful surprise :,)

What advertising could be

Seriously. I was browsing through advertising work from different agencies, and this one really takes the cake. So much love and charm and heart oozing out of every frame.

And then you watch the Behind the Scenes video and be like -I CAN’T EVEN-

Seriously.

This just made my day and makes me so happy because it shows me what advertising is capable of doing, and being. :,)

Creative concept by TBWA\Singapore