Beth Viner is a big thinker; curious about the world, interested in learning from others and definitely not a fan of micromanagement. Since joining global branding heavyweight Interbrand in July last year as CEO of its New York and San Francisco offices, she’s been on a mission to encourage that mindset both internally and externally. Too much navel gazing and not enough openness and real world listening means that many brands are struggling to shine in a hyper-connected, constantly changing world. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Beth to learn more about her transition to Interbrand and vision for the future.
LBB> I was really interested to see the range of subjects you studied at university – as well as an MBA, you’ve also studied modern languages, history and communications. How has this diverse academic base served you in your career?
BV> A broad, liberal arts education does many things exceptionally well – but most importantly for me, it creates synthetic thinkers who are curious about the world, due to the need to take in information from text, lectures, and the world around you, and then make sense of it all. This sense making is a critical factor in drawing insight, pairing it with your intuition, and learning how to be decisive based on a negotiation between your head and your heart. Being curious about the world allows you to always find the positive, the interesting, the subtle in any situation. It’s about finding that old idea right in front of you and making it new again. It’s about always asking lots of questions and seeking new perspectives, not necessarily the right answer.
LBB> How did you first get into the brand space as a career? Was it always something you were interested in or was it more of an organic/happy accident sort of thing?
BV> I had just finished business school at Stanford, and decided that the traditional marketing jobs in front of me were not why I had invested two years in earning my MBA. So, I moved to Los Angeles to find my passion in sports or entertainment. One of my professors at Stanford, Chip Heath, emailed me while he was writing his first book, looking for a source from one of my papers. He asked me what I was doing. When I replied that I wasn’t quite sure, he wrote back: “You should work at IDEO.” I’d call that a happy accident.
LBB> You’ve been in your role at Interbrand since summer last year – what was it about the role at Interbrand that intrigued you? And how have you found it since moving there?
BV> I loved the opportunity to modernize the way our clients think about brand – moving away from static frameworks or inflexible guidelines, and instead thinking about how brand acts as the connective tissue that holds together an organization’s products, services, offerings, and people.
With Interbrand, I won the talent lottery (which I didn’t even know you could win!). The team here blows me away every day. They’re smart, passionate, engaged, and truly nice people who are insanely loyal, trust one another, and committed to making Interbrand the brand experience firm.
LBB> I’ve read some of your articles on Medium and I was particularly intrigued by your ‘3 requests’ post. It looks like you’ve been really keen to get people to try new things, change up their daily work habits and cross-fertilise with different disciplines. From an organisational point of view, how do you go about instigating this without micro-managing people’s time?
BV> At Interbrand, all experiments are opt-in. The goal of them is to help socialize the idea that we are a dynamic culture and that the way we work will shift and change. We’re creating a culture that is more comfortable with being a little bit uncomfortable. I seeded experiments initially as a way to get started, but what’s now there are others who do them on their own, in their own time, and with their own goals. It’s awesome. I see experiments and the opportunity to take ownership of those experiments as empowerment of our people, who are the reason why we do such amazing work, for such a stellar group of clients. That’s the opposite of micro-managing someone’s time, which I hope to never be responsible for.
LBB> What are the biggest challenges facing brands today?
BV> Too much navel gazing, not enough people engaging. We spend too much time making perfect decks and frameworks rather than testing and learning how our brands live in the world, how our consumers engage with them, and what that actually means for delivering products, services, and offerings that act as a cohesive set. Brand needs to ebb and flow and change, but still reflect the values and vision of the organization without the rigidity.
LBB> I was interested to read about your ideas about brands needing to give up a little consistency in order to give consumers more power and ultimately create a more coherent, responsive brand experience. Are some brands and marketers still too controlling?
BV> It’s easy to spend time creating hierarchies and frameworks and to stop there. Don’t get me wrong; these frameworks and hierarchies are necessary to begin with. But the work simply starts there. The real work of ‘managing’ a brand happens in the world, it happens when the brand influences how consumers experience the products, services, and offerings an organization delivers. It’s not only about communications or marketing campaigns – the real magic of a brand happens in the interactions and experiences of a brand. That’s where loyalty, advocacy and, hopefully, love can be built.
LBB> The idea of putting users at the heart of a brand experience isn’t new but having a few friends in the brand research/consultancy space, I’ve heard a few horror stories (“so when was the last time you spoke to people who actually buy your product” “umm…”). How can brands make sure that they don’t lose sight of the people who matter?
BV> Get outside and talk to your customers. It’s not just a nice-to-have; it’s an imperative. Great brands are not built in boardrooms. Instead, you find greatness in understanding how you connect the needs of your business to the needs of your users. Brand, as one of my colleagues likes to say, is simply the face of your business objectives.
LBB> You’ve spoken about what brands can learn from ‘platform brands’ like Amazon and Google – what do you mean by that and how can brands implement that? I imagine that kind of shift requires quite a deep organisational shift that goes far beyond the remit of the marketing department!
BV> I agree. It means that we think of marketing not just as a function, but as a core driver to make real our business strategies. Brands should implement this by pushing their brand out to the parts of their organization that are closest to their users – through products, services, and offerings – with the goal of creating engaged brand advocates who feel ownership over the brand because, well, they in fact do have a say.
LBB>What are your goals for Interbrand in 2015?
BV> Have fun. Make it real for our clients. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
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