Don’t borrow culture. We’ve seen it hundreds of times. Pink-washing. Pride-painting. Woke-washing. Brands who borrow culture feel like an unwanted party guest. To become believable, brands need to have a deep understanding of audiences and their shared experiences. When a brand does its homework, it becomes easier to find ways to link culture back to their positioning in an authentic way.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Candy Peterson. Candy is the global managing director of brand and consumer marketing at FleishmanHillard, and has more than 20 years of brand marketing experience with some of the ad world’s biggest players including Ogilvy & Mather, J. Walter Thompson and Tracy-Locke. Her experience gives her a unique insight into how brands and companies can creatively and deeply connect to consumers to unlock trust and brand loyalty. Candy is the creator and host of the podcast Back of Napkin where she interviews inspiring and influential marketers, spit balling on what’s transforming brands today and sketching solutions that capture our imagination. Recent guests have included Dutch DJ, music programmer, record producer and remixer, Afrojack; Marketplace’s Deborah Clark; and country singer-songwriter Brett Young. Recently back from the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity where she served on the Lions Jury, Candy brought back new insights into what it takes to be a standout brand. She believes the boldest brand stories live at the crossroads of clarity around audiences and shared experiences; curiosity in discovering the undiscoverable; and creativity to transcend language, borders and beliefs. Candy’s experience spans many industries including technology, consumer packaged goods, telecommunications and gaming.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Candy! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Honestly, I think my path was preordained. As a kid I would use my dad’s Super 8 camera paired with a QFX Shoebox cassette recorder to make TV commercials where I’d force neighbor kids to sing jingles I’d contrived about my favorite 80s brands. Such catchy things like, ‘Gonna get me that Jordache look-ook-ook-ook, that ya can’t find in a book-ook-ook.’ Looking back, it was a pretty odd childhood pastime and a downright awful jingle.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
To channel the great Bob Ross, I like to think of them not as mistakes, but as ‘happy accidents.’ Of which there have been many. One memorable early ‘accident’ took place at a giant offset printing facility outside of Cincinnati. As a young art director at my first agency job, I was pleased (err, shocked) that a major hair care client had selected my design for their new campaign. This meant I was sent to oversee the printing of a slew of new marketing materials. The minute I walked through the doors of that pressroom the smell of fresh meat (me) was strong enough to overtake the ink fumes. Doing my best not to be mistaken as a rookie, I leaned in with all seriousness to make my markups on the press sheet: “Model’s face looks too warm, back off the magenta. Not enough density… bump up the K,” and so forth. Did I mention that I ‘leaned in’, as in I full-on leaned into the fresh-from-the-press and not-at-all-dry sheet as I made these mark ups? By the time I was done, I was wearing the ink on my forearms, my waist, my everywhere. I’m convinced the memory still gets a chuckle from the press operator to this day.
After embracing my mistake (and discovering hand soap is only mildly effective in the removal of metallic ink), the lesson I learned was invaluable. It taught me to accept that there would be many times in my career where I’d find myself in a situation in which I wouldn’t know what I was doing. And, like that wet press sheet, it’s okay to lean into the feelings of discomfort and vulnerability and ask others for their expert counsel to find the right answers.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes us stand out in our branding and consumer work is our sense of calculated rebellion. If we take a brand risk, it’s always done with the wisdom to know the brand’s reputation is in play — brand and reputation are inextricably linked. What helps guide these decisions is our firm’s global “Authenticity Gap” study (the most recent report published on August 19). In it, we help brands find the gap between consumer expectations and actual experience. According to the study, 69% of consumers say it’s more important for brands to talk about their societal and environmental impact versus pure product benefits. With a stat like that, it might seem tempting for brands to immediately shift messaging away from product benefits to check that box. But, without connecting this messaging to a brand’s business priorities and values, there’s a risk of undifferentiated messaging that doesn’t help the brand pull away from the pack in a meaningful way.
We believe there’s a way for brands to avoid this trap. The answer is at once simple and challenging: know who you are, what you stand for and why you’re different. When you do, it becomes easier to take that calculated risk — linking your brand’s societal and environmental impact with your business priorities in a way that resonates with consumers in an authentic way and differentiates you from the competition.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, we are. We’ve been working on a series of global generational studies which support our belief that to connect with today’s consumers, we must have a deep understanding of audiences and shared experiences. The first study out of the gate is a global white paper called “Project Z,” spearheaded by our Youth & Culture team. It delves into all things Gen Z, a group who are proving to be a contradictory, mysterious and very misunderstood generation. In the report we cover three specific areas — ‘Ownership and Consumption’, ‘Morality and Mortality’, and ‘2030 Thinking’, highlighting for marketers what unites and divides this generation. Recognizing that Gen Z’s cultural influence and spending power is steadily increasing, now is the time to dig into what they stand for and what they expect from brands and businesses. This report helps do that.
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?
A marketing professor of mine once described the difference between branding and advertising as “push” versus “pull”. Branding is a “pull” strategy; advertising a “push” strategy. If you liken it to a person, branding consists of all the foundational traits that create attraction. It’s how you look (casual, modern, sleek), how you sound (funny, intelligent) and how you act (kind, approachable, mysterious). They’re the foundational attributes for why you’re drawn to that person, or in this case, a brand. Advertising, on the other hand, is the “push”. In keeping with the analogy, advertising is a bit like a wingman for branding. Pumping out a compelling message about how great their buddy is and why you should be attracted to him.
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?
When facing a crisis, a strong brand can make or break a company’s ability to survive. Brand building creates the kind of brand equity that’s needed to ensure that survival. Imagine it being like a storage unit, where you’re stocking up goodwill with consumers over time. When the storm hits, this goodwill can be borrowed, and a crisis weathered.
Take for example beloved ice cream brand Blue Bell, who in the spring of 2015 was linked to a Listeria outbreak where three people died, and 10 people were hospitalized. For the first time in its 100+ year history, the brand recalled its products and shut down manufacturing. But, because the brand had built such equity with customers through the years, instead of bashing Blue Bell, consumers took to social media to defend the brand, creating fan pages like “We Stand with Blue Bell Creameries.” No amount of advertising can replace that kind of brand equity in a moment of crisis. When consumers love a brand, they’re willing to forgive and forget and even fight on the brand’s behalf.
Can you share 5 strategies that a large company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
1. Don’t just do good. Do what’s right. As marketers we often talk about Corporate Social Responsibility. Today, I’d argue we should drop the “social” and simply look to act with Corporate Responsibility. This means brands not just doing good, but doing what’s right. Some examples of brands leading the charge are Microsoft and Volvo. Microsoft open-sourced the use of their adaptive controller making game play accessible to all, even on their competitor’s systems. And Volvo’s E.V.A. Initiative, who after learning there were gender inequities in crash test data (most data was based on the male anatomy), opened up their crash safety data to all car manufacturers in an effort to make all cars safer for women too.
2. Don’t borrow culture. We’ve seen it hundreds of times. Pink-washing. Pride-painting. Woke-washing. Brands who borrow culture feel like an unwanted party guest. To become believable, brands need to have a deep understanding of audiences and their shared experiences. When a brand does its homework, it becomes easier to find ways to link culture back to their positioning in an authentic way.
3. Adopt an empathy mandate. Brands can build trust by creating moments of empathy for the communities they serve. A great example of a brand leading with empathy comes from Fox Premium for the launch of their series “Pose” in Latin America, a show with one of the most diverse casts in history. Fox recognized that the Spanish language is inherently sexist and created a moment of brand generosity by working with Spanish language specialists to develop gender neutral subtitles, eliminating bias all together.
4. Let everyone in. For today’s consumers to see a brand as trusted and believable, the brand can’t just reflect a diverse presence of people. They need to mirror the values and makeup of all the communities they serve. We’ve seen brands embracing diversity and inclusion in their marketing endeavors over the past several years. Today marks a second wave of diversity that is not just addressed by color or identity, but also by accessibility and age as well. An example of a brand getting it right is L’Oréal. It leaned into the statistic that 40% of women are over 50, but are shown only 15% of the time in popular media. To reverse the trend, they partnered with Vogue to produce the Non-Issue entirely created by women over 50.
5. Know your TRUE Self. #MeToo #BlackLivesMatter #NoBanNoWall. Uncontrollable external influences and triggers like societal strife or employee activism can put a brand on its heels very quickly. Having a solid understanding of who you are as a brand, what you stand for and why you’re different allows your brand’s actions to remain aligned with your company’s core values. This makes the brand believable and trusted. Our discipline for helping clients gain that understanding is called “TRUE Self.” We recommend regular assessments to ensure a brand is presenting itself in a way that aligns with actual consumer perceptions.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
Ikea is one such brand. As consumers, we know Ikea to be a democratized brand and one that is easily accessible to everyone. Yet, the brand discovered they weren’t terribly accessible to a portion of the population: individuals living with disabilities. So, they developed a line of adaptive add-ons called “This Ables” to make their furniture accessible to those with disabilities. What’s most impressive, these free add-ons can be 3D printed by anyone, anywhere, simply by going online or in-store. What Ikea managed to accomplish with this campaign was to make a real difference in the lives of their consumers, further deepening their connection to their community. Other brands can take note and look to create these moments of brand empathy and generosity, creating experiences consumers can see themselves in and feel part of.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
If we measure advertising success by sales, then we measure brand building success by its brand equity. Brand equity is the perceived value premium the brand has. A brand building campaign should work to make the brand recognizable, memorable and create the perception that the brand is superior in quality from other similar products or services in the marketplace, allowing it to be sold at a higher margin despite it being the same type of product or service offered by a competitor. While advertising can contribute to brand equity by driving awareness, brand equity is a much bigger equation. Typically, brand equity is measured by a “brand health” tracker. Brand health looks at perceptions (things like popularity, uniqueness, quality), consumer connection (does the brand matter to people?) and price (the relationship between price and value).
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
It’s changed over the years. Not too long ago it was about cranking out a content calendar that was akin to feeding an insatiable Demogorgon. (Yup. Nerdy “Stranger Things” reference). Today the approach is a lot more intentional. We use social listening to uncover the conversations naturally happening in culture and help brands enter the conversation in a way that adds value and ties back to their positioning.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Outside of an obvious vacation, I’d say take on a reverse mentor. Being mentored by someone younger and less experienced than you can be really inspirational and get you out of your head space. Not only can you mine insights and information from them that can help you do your job better, you might also remember why got you into the business in the first place.
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. :-)
I was a juror at this year’s Cannes Lions and will never forget the National Geographic campaign, Planet or Plastic?. The statistic that 9 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean every year honestly made my stomach sick. Because I work at an agency that’s part of a larger holding company (which employs roughly 80,000 employees across all agencies combined), I’d love to start a movement to ban single-use plastic items in our collective workplace. One cup, plastic fork and water bottle per employee generates 240,000 pieces of plastic waste per day; 62,640,000 per year. We can, and should, do better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My great grandfather taught me that, “Bread cast upon the water comes back a hundredfold.” It’s a philosophy of doing something kind or good without expecting anything in return, and it’s guided every aspect of my life. With work, it’s meant rolling up my sleeves to create and build things, not because they were asked for or expected of me, but because they were needed. In my personal life, it’s been giving back to the melanoma cancer community with the Marit Peterson Fund for Melanoma Research, named after my daughter. Through an annual fundraiser, we’ve generated $26 million that directly supports research of the genome that causes melanoma. The impact will live on long after my time on this earth — you might even say a hundredfold.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Gary Vaynerchuck’s content always gets a like in my LinkedIn feed. @garyvee, if you’re reading this, I’m game for sushi.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn — Candace Peterson
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click here to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.