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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Depression has no face

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I am not a K-Pop fan and previously didn’t know who Jonghyun was, but the passing of the SHINEE singer hit me hard, as a depression survivor.

It seems when a celebrity passes away from mental illness, people are shocked or in disbelief, because their private persona turned out to be so different from their public one.

Because they are celebrities, it makes their battle with mental illness even more hard-hitting for fans, who look up to them as idols and role models. Who would’ve known that behind a shining star was such a heavy burden that no one saw?

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Does a celebrity’s status somehow legitimate the battle with mental illness more?

I once had a friend who was really close to me at one point. Our relationship strayed because for some reason she was really uncomfortable dealing with mental health issues, and unfortunately, defined my whole identity with my condition.

A person with mental illness is not their illness, just like a person with cancer is not their cancer.

Although it’s easier to draw this connection for mental illness as compared to physical ones, because mental illness somehow seems intuitively connected to our personalities.

After all, who we are is observed by others through how we think, feel and act.

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Dear people who are uncomfortable with mental illness, how many celebrity passings will it take to legitimise the pain of the people around you?

For you to realise that they are not weak, or not trying hard enough, or bringing it upon themselves?

Depression has no face, no scar, no open wounds. But when someone confides in you, they are entrusting their pain in you, and trust that you will accept its existence despite not being able to see.

If anything, the struggle with depression has only taught me to see better, and look harder at what I cannot see.

Paiseh silence

In Singapore, our colloquial language has a word “paiseh” (pronounced pie-say), which means something like embarrassed or shy, usually used in a context of being reluctant to trouble others. It is actually very much a part of our culture, but sometimes this also leads to a worrying indifference towards acts of injustice or discrimination.

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I wrote this article on one of our local lifestyle websites, about how this “paiseh” culture of silence also enables sexual assault. With the silence of bystanders, perpetrators get away scot-free, and the blame usually falls on the victim in our typically conservative culture, for “wearing that dress/skirt/shorts” or “asking for it” because you “chose to hang out in certain places”.

Because a lot of discourse has been made about victim blaming, which exists even in western cultures, my opinion piece is a rallying call to bystanders to look out for one another instead, and not be afraid to speak up. An important issue like sexual assault is a good place to start in changing our MYOB culture of “mind your own business” and “don’t create trouble for yourself or others”.

Anyone in other countries or cultures also able to relate to Singapore’s paiseh culture?

Culture is not an excuse

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Watched this video Scared Straight: Out of Advertising, and as much as it was funny and entertaining as a parody, it also disturbed me quite a little. A parody is an exaggerated from of something in order to entertain, but inside there is always some level of truth.

So essentially this video portrays #agencylife as such:

  • Ruins family life (creative director hasn’t seen his son since he was an ultrasound scan 4 years ago)
  • Losing your soul and sacrificing your principles (“You know what I gave up for these (awards)? Everything.”)
  • Insatiable thirst for Awards (although no one seems to see the point)
  • Bitter, cynical, dehumanised bits of what’s left (of your soul)
  • Be prepared to lose your dignity and your self-esteem stripped bare
  • Respect (and self-respect) has no place here

 

While the video was kind of cruel to idealistic young graduates looking to enter advertising, unfortunately from personal experience, it is all true to a certain degree.

And if you can’t take it, you’re either weak, ‘not cut out for this industry’, or it’s simply failure on your part. 

Seriously?!? Doesn’t this sound a little familiar – like victim blaming?? “You chose this career yourself.”

I’ve been told once too often in response to burning out, “Well this is the nature of our industry.” 

While I respect industry standards, I feel this is used too often as an excuse to conveniently dismiss the need for change. Or to numb oneself to the possibility or duty (if you’re in a superior position) to improve the company or industry culture.

It’s always easy to push the blame to something bigger than individuals or teams, whether it is the government, big corporations or “the industry”.

It’s like Big Brother in 1984 – who’s this guy anyway?? No one actually knows yet everybody obeys the hell out of him. 

 

Culture is created by people, and the collective is built from the individual. I think this is worth thinking about because it doesn’t just happen in advertising.

My partner is a civil engineer in a company dealing with structural design. As an ordinary member of the public, you would think that this industry prizes safety and quality above all else. Right??

The reality is, a lot of the work involves different parties and stakeholders pushing responsibility to one another. No one wants to take responsibility. And what’s more appalling is, like any other industry, everything depends on cutting costs – it’s a numbers game. The fact that they are constructing public goods that affects the safety and lives of an entire country’s citizens doesn’t insulate this industry from the capitalist economy’s laws of supply and demand.

When questioning the way things work, my partner was told blatantly by fellow engineers, “It’s the nature of our industry.”

 

On another instance, I read this NPR article, which deals with the contentious topic of sexual harassment in the workplace (remember what I said about victim blaming earlier?). A female chef who complained about sexual harassment by her male colleagues was told by the HR department, “Sorry this happened to you, but that’s the way kitchens can be.”

$%&!%?!?

You see, whether it’s a kitchen, an office, or an industry, this is how things will turn out and continue to be if everyone lives to conform. Even if it is company or industry culture, we should not continue to accept and condone things that are not right and not beneficial – for ourselves, each other and the bigger picture – in the long term.

After all, how many actresses/singers/performers had to put up with, “This is Hollywood for you,” before the Harvey Weinstein case actually got people to pay attention??

 

A realistic gaze at the romantic in me

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Found some photographs I took five years ago – I remember it was the first time I stepped into, or ‘explored’ as my bright-eyed and curious self would have called it back then, the neighbourhood estate of Ang Mo Kio.

Having been brought up in a relatively newer neighbourhood in the western part of Singapore, I remember having a fascination and love for older estates in Singapore such as Ang Mo Kio, Toa Payoh and Queenstown – ironically, two of which I would end up staying at in the next few years.

These were the mature estates I considered the ‘true heartlands’ of Singapore. After all, our country is known for its efficient public housing system, and its policies for assigning newly-wed couples to property of their own. The new mass-constructed flats, however, were mostly build with pared-down or more uniform design in order to cut production costs and speed up construction.

Hence I found myself drawn, increasingly over the years, to the tacky, mismatched paint facades and brick surfaces of older HDB flats.

Buildings then were shorter – the 16th floor rooftop level flat I lived in for most of my childhood in the then less-developed west area was already considered very high. Nowadays, a typical HDB flat would likely go above 30 storeys, and for more premium classes of public housing like the famous Pinnacle@Duxton (that note for my foreign readers, is not representative of the living conditions of average Singaporeans among the 80% who reside in public housing) would go as high as a dizzying fifty storeys – its rooftop turned into a local or tourist attraction for skyscraper viewing, even charging an admission fee.

Such is the way public housing has evolved over the years. I remember when I first went to the home of my current boyfriend, who is, ironically and perhaps with an amazing affinity, an Ang Mo Kio resident for the entire 20 odd years of his life. He was extremely amused by the way I admired all the old things that no one pays attention to, and things that are wearing, withering away – in the ordinary person’s eyes, nothing to be proud of.

I admired the old faded cream walls of the pillars at the void deck leading to the lifts, the long corridors with adjacent units (new generation flats nowadays are designed for more privacy and inevitably minimises the need for social interactions or small talk) looking out over a low barred banister, on which some neighbours draped and dried their laundry the old-school way, and the way everyone on the same floor seemed to know each other. While at my new generation house, my family only vaguely knew the Indian family opposite us, and thanked them with red packets when they gave us traditional Indian snacks during Deepavali.

I also admired the interior of his old, almost thirty year-old flat, the peeling paint, the cave-like kitchen with the back light against the laundry poles laden with clothes, with a blue mosaic tiled arc framing the kitchen doorway. I admired the pastel blue colour of the walls, which he told me was not always this colour but has weathered drastically with time. I told him I like how faded it looks, and also the way a Stephen Chow comedy/martial arts movie poster hung above a metal rack of clothes he shared with his elder brother.

Was I romanticising the old? Perhaps, in some ways, I have always tended to look at things through tinted glasses, although less so now as I aged myself. But this romantic streak in me was what led me to capture moments like the above photographs, and edit them the way it ended up – not a literal representation of what I saw, but what I actually felt in that moment, as I observed the scene in front of me.

Nowadays, I tend to edit my photos less, compared to maybe five years ago, when I would play with the colour tones, monochrome, and slightly faded/rosy vintage effect that I had taken to at that time. Compared to five years ago, I also write less poetry – which I produced prolifically, especially when I was falling in love.

I used to lament myself for writing romantic fiction only to realise that it’s not really fiction anymore, and unlike many good writers, my imagination and powers of creation are vastly limited. I could, after all, only write fiction from real life, so how fictitious is it really? But what is the point of fiction anyway? This leaves me with a whole new essay to write.

And there I’ve said it – now most of the time, I write essays. Essays about the world, thoughts about humanity, and reflections about my thoughts. My reading tastes have changed too, and I find myself reading only three fiction books out of ten, the rest being memoirs and essays on various topics, many of them by journalists. So what happened to me, the journalism major who resisted journalism, and turned obstinately to creative writing instead, only to find myself back to where I had started?

Honestly, I was incredibly upset for a time when I found that my poetry and photography inspiration seemed to have faded away together. The last poem I wrote, it seems, was two years ago. That was when my father passed away – but I too am not sure whether there is a correlation, whether grief has taken away my inspiration, and why now, after times have settled into normalcy, it is not being returned to me.

For much of my formative years, poetry and photography were a vital part of how I saw and made sense of the world. It is also worth noting that my late father and I bonded deeply through photography. After his diagnosis, I bought him a camera and he would take these spectacular shots of the sunrise – which he said, after so many years, he found the time to slow down and appreciate every single day. Not surprising coming from someone who is terminally ill, but then again, why do we always understand the truth of all cliches when our time is running out?

I’m not sure how these changes in self-expression reflects the change in my intrinsic nature. Now I find myself writing down more literally the things I think about, and have been told that it makes an impact on the reader. I focus more on thoughts than emotion, and ponder over the meaning of emotions more than describing the feelings themselves with flowery, ambiguous language.

Perhaps that is also the product of going through the rigorous self-questioning process of therapy, the result of teaching General Paper, a critical thinking and argumentative essay writing subject to junior college students. It could also be the process of growing up, of entering the working world, of witnessing the dominance of business over creativity, sales targets over the appeal to emotion, that made me more pragmatic. Or quite simply the task of paying the rent and bills by myself every month could have taken away the tinted lenses through which I viewed the world, recorded as evidence in the photographs above, from five years ago.

But I’m coming to terms with my new self. I appreciate honesty, vulnerability, and imperfections even more so now – and not because I think imperfections are ‘beautiful’.

I started this blog like no other before, not to showcase my perfect polished works of creativity and literature, but to document the incomplete reflections and endless questions of living life every day. There are no answers, no conclusions like a short story, no finale in a play or poem. Because isn’t life a long, arduous journey of writing our own non-fiction essay?

Get comfortable with anxiety

Because it’s not going anywhere.

We live in a world, I’m starting to think, where anxiety is unfortunately a constant in our lives. Observing people around me, I realise that anxiety, whether as a clinical condition, an emotion or a state of mind, manifests itself with greater prevalence than before.

Whether is it the stress of living in an ever-changing, fast-paced city, the increasing pressure of work and the normalising of work-life imbalance, constant distractions from smartphones and social media, or simply the hyperactive mind, unable to slow down and stay quiet even for a moment – there are so many reasons for us to be anxious today.

There are of course different variations of this emotional state, and I’m certainly not generalising it to disregard the severity of anxiety as a mental health condition. In fact, it seems like everyone is suffering from anxiety these days; do people actually understand acutely what an anxiety attack is like? The kind that people actually see therapists for?

I sometimes wish Anxiety, as in the health condition, could have a more grandiose, severe sounding name, instead of sharing its namesake with a generic emotion that everyone can claim to feel. Just like how people use the word “depressed” so frequently it could actually dilute the meaning and understanding of clinical depression in society.

It is, however, an unfortunate fact that anxiety is here to stay. It won’t go away after a relaxing holiday, or automatically disappear just because certain good things may have happened. We will always struggle to find the balance between all the complex, ever-changing and transient yet seemingly pervasive (especially in the moment itself) and sometimes crippling emotions that we experience – as part of being human.

This piece was actually inspired by a Medium article Why Anxiety is the Handmaiden of Creativity. While I definitely don’t support glorifying anxiety or mental health conditions, especially on the subject of how great artists like Van Gogh or Sylvia Plath have produced their greatest work in their darkest moments – one line in the article actually stood out to me: “Get comfortable with anxiety“.

Perhaps it is the wise thing to do. It is what every therapist tells his/her patient, like it’s easier said than done. Accept it, embrace your feelings, get comfortable with the discomfort. Sit through the difficult moments, and tell yourself that it will pass, time heals, and you might as well try to learn something from it, and gather some meaning or insight.

It’s easier said than done isn’t it? I always wonder how many therapists have successful and well-functioning lives, marriages and families, equipped with the tools every human being needs for every human condition.

In all seriousness, I truly respect the noble field of psychology and therapy. It is truly a meaningful calling that creates immediate value and impact on the lives of others, at least I can say for good therapists.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in modern life is actually to get, and be, comfortable with anxiety. All while creating something productive from a modern ill we cannot escape, transforming the very nature of the modern ill itself.

It is still an ongoing endeavour for me.

Doing good work

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Saw this animated video on Facebook by illustrator and animator Daniella Shuhman.

What sounds/is dismissed as idealistic, is sometimes the advice that we, and even the world, need the most of all.

Be concerned with doing good work. And make the right choices to protect your work.

Most of us start out wanting to do good, and be good at what we do (not limited to artistic endeavours). Yet it is something we forget or let go of along the way, weathered by external forces.

That’s why I think we shouldn’t trivialise or dismiss these “idealistic” “advice”, because despite all our survival instincts and our desire to be financially comfortable, these are the reminders we need to go back and stay rooted to where we started in the first place.