The Sociology of Branding

I had an honor of being interviewed in Communication Arts magazine, both online and in the July/August print edition. You can read the interview on or here.

How does your PhD in sociology help you as a digital strategist?

A PhD program is a boot camp for thinking. It’s hard. Your professors, advisers and peers all push you to do better thinking: clearer, more succinct, more imaginative, deeper, wider and smarter. The training in thinking is indispensable in any profession, including digital strategy.

At Columbia University, I learned from David Stark about organizational innovation and digital technologies. I also studied the work of Bruno Latour, a French sociologist who claims that social behavior is distributed between people, technologies, objects and ideas. It is so great to have that perspective as a strategist who designs interfaces and interactions that shape human behavior. Think of Facebook and how it constantly pushes — by design — how we think about privacy.

Media business classes taught me to think of interfaces as a business plan and digital design as a business revenue stream. This was in 2004 and 2005 — way before this approach became common. My hybrid background lends me a wider perspective in everyday problem solving that has repeatedly proven to be a competitive advantage. It also makes me a thinker-doer: someone who is able to not only think, write and publish, but also do the client work.

What interests and challenges you about your work with luxury brands?

Modern luxury is defined differently than traditional luxury. It is less about exclusivity, conventionalism and messaging and more about attainability, timeliness and marketing. It’s also much less product and logo-focused and puts service and experience first. Getting luxury brands to move from the traditional position to the modern position is such a fantastic challenge. Successful luxury brands today are truly global, fully digital and aligned with the values of the next generation. This requires a different brand positioning than in the past. It also requires an understanding of what luxury means in different markets. It’s a great time to be working in this space.

How is the rise of the sharing economy impacting luxury brands?

The sharing economy creates a marketplace for any sort of preowned products, including luxury products. Rent the Runway, Gilt Groupeand JamesEdition are very successful. But more than just having a secondary market for luxury products, services like Uber enable every one to have a personal limo driver. Collaborative economy services thus give access to luxury experiences to those who may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience them. Airbnb is similar in the sense that you can rent a French château for your vacation. So even though you don’t live there, you get to experience it for a little bit.

The sharing economy introduces a new set of values, such as transparency, sustainability and collaboration, which come naturally to those who grew up with it. Luxury brands will need to adapt. Although it may seem inconceivable that the sharing economy and luxury brands have anything in common, sharing economy services have revolutionized customers’ expectations of what good service is. Just think about how seamless Uber is — luxury brands can learn a lot from it.

What trends in advertising are you most interested in and why?

Advertising professionals are time and again reminded that their ideas need to be relevant and actually effective for their intended audience — like a business case for an idea. How does this idea perform? That’s a relatively new question in advertising, introduced by digital media and its measurability. Creatives today need to be business savvy, something that traditionally wasn’t the case.

What is one challenge currently facing advertising agencies that they need to address in order to remain relevant? Advertising agencies don’t have a sustainable competitive advantage. Their internal processes can be replicated as people leave. This is called the “McKinsey challenge” — former McKinsey & Company consultants go on to become CMOs and start implementing the McKinsey thinking tools and processes internally in their new companies, reducing the need for external help. For advertising agencies, which have nothing going for them but process and people, the competition is endless. They can defend themselves by creating a strong brand for a particular kind of work. CP+B used to have it. They could get away with much more than other agencies could at the time. People were lining up to go to Boulder.

Better than branding is constantly updating the agency process, effectively making all previous iterations obsolete. Something like software updates: v5, v6 and so on. People can leave, but can take only the old software version with them. No one wants to be the person with the old software. No one wants to miss out on being the first one to test new software, either. So people stay. The problem is that this takes a lot of thinking and time. Being really responsive and iterative and adaptable is a long-term competitive advantage, but the current process doesn’t allow for this new, competitively superior process to come to life. In agencies, everyone is too busy delivering to be thinking, and everyone works within the time frames and pay structures that encourage repetition of best practices. But as long as efficiency is the goal, replication will be its side effect.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career?

The best advice I got is from my former manager and great friend, Nicole Victor, is now running her own agency, Rumble Fox, so she knows what she’s doing. She would say, “Deep breaths.”

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