Women Of The C-Suite: “Flaunt your fabulousness” With Julie Cottineau
Flaunt your fabulousness. A Brand is a story well told. YOU are your brand. Embrace what is unique and different about you and put it front and center. Don’t be shy about sharing your accomplishments. Define your TWIST and be prepared to deliver it in a short and impactful elevator pitch. And bring it to life with style (like my purple example).
I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Cottineau, Founder & CEO of BrandTwist and former VP of Brand for Richard Branson’s Virgin. Julie is best- selling author and global branding expert. In addition to her time at Virgin, Julie honed her branding chops in senior positions at Grey Global and Interbrand.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The birth of my company was due to a pivotal moment I had in an airport years ago. I was traveling for business, I was tired, in a hurry, was having a mundane experience. I couldn’t even remember which airline I was flying with — they all look the same. Then I saw an airplane on the tarmac that caught my attention; it had McDonalds golden arches on the tailfin and I immediately thought, “That’s different! That’s going to be friendlier; it’s going to have brighter colors. Maybe I could buy a regular seat and super-size it.” I kept thinking of all the ways this airline would be different — and stand out from the others. But it turned out to be a mirage. The arches were a reflection of the food court on the window, which just happened to have the tailfin of a plane perfectly in line… so it looked like a McDonald’s plane, but it wasn’t. But it was that moment that inspired my TWIST thinking. I began the practice of lateral thinking and using out of category inspiration to create branding solutions that cut through the clutter while working at Interbrand. It’s what caught the attention of Virgin and led me to a job there as VP Brand. Ultimately when I started my own company I decided to call it BrandTwist. It all ties back to that moment and mirage with McDonald’s.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Earlier in my career I was transferred from the NY office of Grey Global to the Paris office to work on a global beauty care account. While I was pretty fluent in the language of the global client (in this case Procter & Gamble), I didn’t speak French at all. The first 6 months of my new assignment were so tough. Learning a new language, a new country, a new office environment. I was determined not to be one of those Americans who lives in a country for years and never assimilates. So I tried to really hard to learn French from the beginning and speak it as much as I could. So one day, I ask the receptionist at the agency if I could reserve a conference room for a client meeting. Instead of asking for a “salle” I used the word “chambre” which means bedroom. Well word of this gaffe spread quickly around the agency and everyone had a great laugh at my expense. But they also appreciated the effort and it helped me really connect with my French colleagues. I learned early on not to take myself too seriously, and I think that helps me to this day connect with others. Also I had the last laugh. My contract in France was extended beyond the original term. I became fluent in French, and I met my husband at a tennis camp in the French suburbs. Over twenty years later we are living in the US, happily married with two wonderful American/French children.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think this idea of TWISTING is what really makes us stand out from how we work with clients to find fresh perspectives and breakthrough results. I also embody this idea in the presentation of my brand. I’ve chosen the color purple to represent my company. Purple is a TWIST of red and blue. It also represents passion and prosperity. I use it on all of our brand materials, but I’ve also incorporated it into my personal brand. When I speak in front of live audiences or in the media (which is often), I always dress in purple. It helps me embody the brand and stand out from other experts. I think having a signature brand color and look is really important for women executives. It helps your personal brand stand out, and honestly with all we have going on- it helps to have a “go to uniform”. When I need to pack for a week full of speaking engagements and conferences, I just grab my purple dresses and go.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes. Recently I’ve been taking TWISTING to whole new level through BrandTwist Safaris. The best way to get inspired about branding is to step outside of the office and learn from the amazing world around us. BrandTwist Safaris are custom curated inspiration outings that TWIST with the experiences of out of category brands to uncover fresh insights and ideas. We have successfully employed this methodology with Virgin and Spotify and a variety of multinational clients (ex. New York and Frankfurt). We go in teams and act like shoppers in interesting retail environments (Nespresso, Apple, Converse, Tesla to name a few) and then TWIST those insights with a client’s own challenges to create fresh ideas.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think it’s really important to inspire and educate your teams by getting out of the office and experience the world. So often we are so busy that we stay locked behind our desks and use the internet as our portal to understanding our clients and categories. But it’s not the same as talking to real people and observing market behavior first hand. So for example, if I am working on a new retail project, I take the team to the food court at the mall for the internal kick off. If we’re working on a dog food account, we’ll go to the local dog park for a few hours before putting together a project plan. It doesn’t have to be a big deal or expensive. If you want to talk about a strong brand plan, go to a local Starbucks with your team and observe how they create a unique experience with a TWIST. The price of a few cups of coffee is priceless in terms of learning and motivation.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I had pretty large teams at Interbrand when I was Executive Director of Consumer Branding. Both the Naming and Packaging teams reported into me- over 30 people. I think the key is to have lieutenants that you trust and meet with often to oversee the day to day work. But to always be accessible to all team members for inspiration. I also believe in TWISTING up people’s areas of input for new perspectives. For example, I would often ask the graphic designers to help contribute names for a product or corporate naming project. They come it at from a visual, not verbal, perspective and this really enhanced our thinking.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
One of my first bosses at Grey Global was a fantastic woman named Janice Spector. Janice was instrumental in sending me to Grey Paris. So I guess in a way she is responsible for me meeting my husband, and our two wonderful children. What I learned from Janice was how to become a strong leader while still retaining my approachability. Early on in my career in one of my performance reviews she pointed out that when the creative team was presenting their work to me, I had a very “negative” expression. I wasn’t aware of this. I was just concentrating on what was being said. But once she pointed it out I realized how off putting it could be. I think we all have habits that can have unintended consequences. I was lucky to have someone who took the time to point this out to me. Now when I am concentrating, I make sure to be smiling at the same time. Janice went on to be my client at Avon and also to bring me on to the AEF (Advertising Education Foundation) as a guest lecturer. She’s remained a great friend and mentor.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I do a lot of pro-bono speaking and teaching with students (Middle School, High School, College) on building strong personal brands. I think this helps them build confidence, embrace their uniqueness and share their talents with the world.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I think that as women, too often we try to subdue our feminine instincts in favor of appearing more masculine which is often equated with having more authority or being more credible. I think we should actually embrace our femininity and TWIST these traditional feminine traits to be more effective leaders.
My 5 “Women Who Rock” Leadership Lessons include:
#1. Flaunt your fabulousness. A Brand is a story well told. YOU are your brand. Embrace what is unique and different about you and put it front and center. Don’t be shy about sharing your accomplishments. Define your TWIST and be prepared to deliver it in a short and impactful elevator pitch. And bring it to life with style (like my purple example above).
#2: Search for your soul mate
Be choosier in the company you keep. Don’t “hop into bed” with everyone in terms of partnerships, networking and clients. Look for people you really connect with — that will respect and value your services and focus on them. You will build deeper relationships and create Brand Ambassadors — not just customers. Learn to swipe left and say no to people in your life who can be toxic and bring you down — personally and professionally.
#3: Go ahead and get emotional.
Great leaders connect on an emotional level. They don’t just inspire with facts and figures, they make their followers feel something special. Embrace your feminine intuition, treat people as three dimensional- connect with hearts, not just heads. Be professional, but don’t be afraid to show your foibles as well. Let people see you as a human being. I like to share on social media and in presentations about professional moments that went wrong (not always what went right). I think people learn more from this. And I like learning these lessons from others as well.
#4: Embrace your personal TWIST.
Too often I see women trying to separate their personal and professional passions. But I think it’s more powerful when you combine them. For example, I had a client who is a graphic designer. Her personal passion was trapeze arts. She kept these two worlds separate, but I helped her see she would stand out more and be a more of a leader in her field if she combined them. So she re-branded her firm as Herculiz and grew her business. I had another client who is a talented kitchen designer but was having trouble getting the recognition she deserved. She TWISTED her passion for ballroom dancing and rebranded as Kitchen Choreography and has since been winning awards and expanding her services.
#5. Make a plan to develop your own brand
Women are great planners. As business leaders, we are often very comfortable and good at creating plans and strategies for our clients and business. But this isn’t often the case for our own careers. We can’t just leave it up to chance, and hope our uniqueness will shine through. If there are things you are less confident about, create a Personal Brand Plan to develop missing skills. For the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of working with Allison Kluger Shaw and Tyra Banks in teaching a class at Stanford Graduate School of Business called #ProjectYou. Helping these future business leaders develop and embrace their personal TWISTS.
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 am a big believer in Kindness. Lately I’ve been doing some pro-bono work with Kindness.org, a wonderful organization that helps promote acts of kindness and researches their impact. My daughter had an internship with them last summer and I connected with their CEO. I am interested and invested in their success. I think the world (especially now) needs more acts of kindness and the positive ripple effect is amazing and well-documented.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Richard Branson has a quote: “Screw it. Let’s Do it!” I took that lesson to heart and quit my wonderful corporate job at Virgin to start my own business. It was a big leap of faith, but I caught the entrepreneurial bug at Virgin and wanted to create my own brand and business. It’s been seven wonderful years and I’ve never looked back. And Virgin was very supportive. They were my first client when I opened up shop and I still continue to work on many exciting branding projects with them.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@jcottin on Twitter, @brandschool on Instagram and https://www.facebook.com/BrandTwist/