Podcast

Episode: 141 |
Robin Albin:
Building Brands:
Episode
141

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

Robin Albin

Building Brands

Show Notes

Our guest today is Robin Albin, a brand strategist and brand sherpa based in the New York area.

Robin has invented – or reinvented – over fifty brands for startups and major corporations across many categories, with particular expertise in cosmetics, health and wellness, and fashion.

In our discussion Robin shares some case studies of how she works with clients to help them express the promise that the brand wants to make to its customers.

To learn more about Robin, visit her website.

Submit your question to be answered in a future episode. Record and submit at: askumbrex.com

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will Bachman: Hello, Robin. Welcome to the show.
Robin Albin: Thank you for having me.
Will Bachman: Robin, is it ever too early to start thinking about branding, or when is the right time?
Robin Albin: Well, I’m a very big believer that the sooner you start branding, the better decisions you can make. So I try and encourage young companies, particularly founders, that as soon as they have an idea on a napkin, that’s when they should start branding. Because what happens is that people get very anticipatory, they start to say, well I have this idea, I need a website, I need a logo, I need to have this identity so that I can go out and raise funds.
Robin Albin: But really what you need to do is have your idea perfectly articulated. And many founders wind up wasting a lot of money on things that are going to be redone eventually, once they do have their idea. But also, the positioning of your brand early on helps you make thoughtful decisions not just about where you spend your money, but things that are right for you as you begin to grow and develop your next steps. So I believe that branding should start from day one.
Will Bachman: And how do you define branding?
Robin Albin: To me, branding is really your idea. It’s exactly what you stand for. It’s your purpose, your reason for being. Why anyone should purchase your product, why anyone should align themselves with you. It’s not a mission statement. It’s really what the brand stands for and what it means in that world, and that’s really what branding is to me. And then all of the other elements that people traditionally think of branding, such as logos and websites and advertising and communications, are the expression of that idea. It’s the way the idea presents itself to the world.
Will Bachman: Can you maybe give us an example for a company that we’d be familiar with of what you would say the brand is?
Robin Albin: Well one of my favorite brands that I think has just done a magnificent job is Airbnb. It started off, again, three great founders who had an idea to start off with which was to put people up in their homes. And as they started to evolve this idea, they realized that it had terrific meaning, that whole idea of belonging. And as they evolved the brand to become belong anywhere, it really touched a lot of people and began to have a tremendous outreach.
Robin Albin: From there, they were able to develop everything from their philanthropic strategy to the way the community builds. The way people, whether you were an Airbnb host or whether you were an Airbnb visitor, the experience grew out of this idea of belonging os that you belonged in someone’s home, and you belonged in that neighborhood. And that became the total expression of the brand.
Will Bachman: You and I have spoken before and you explained to me there’s kind of this traditionalist approach to doing branding with a lot of set questions, and you have a more organic approach. Could you talk a little bit about the typical approach that some people take helping … typical brand consultants as a brand identity, and how do you do things differently?
Robin Albin: Yes, okay. So when people think about branding in a traditional way, and obviously every branding firm as their own approach, and this is not a criticism of anyone else’s because obviously I’ve done all sorts of branding types. But generally, it becomes very much about identifying your purpose, then your promise, then your mission, then your vision, then your values. And it’s a very linear approach in my mind.
Robin Albin: In my experience in working particularly with young founders but also working with mature companies is, in the beginning and then over time, a lot of things get dumped into this idea. And the more people you talk to and the more you experience around the development of your brand or the evolution of your brand, more stuff gets dumped in.
Robin Albin: So what I like to do is, I start my process by actually taking, deconstructing the brand. I call it detonating, and I blow everything up. I take all the brand’s assets, and I don’t mean assets by things that you necessarily own such as products, but things that you have accumulated in terms of ideas and points of view along the way that are all getting mushed together so that there isn’t really a focal point to the brand. You’ve got everything kind of competing in a very cluttered environment, and everything is of equal emphasis.
Robin Albin: So what I do is, I spread out all these assets, all these ideas, all these different elements of the brand whether it’s a piece of language or a product, or an audience, or a piece of communication. I spread them all out and then begin to look for anchoring themes. And I look at it through a couple of different lenses, obviously, with all of these different assets laid out. It’s the same brand, but by pulling forward any anchoring theme, you can reassemble a brand and different elements take on a different position in the hierarchy. So that if you were a brand that was about discovery, or a brand that was about curiosity, or a brand that was about respect, you could have all these different elements but they take on different importance.
Robin Albin: So what I like to do is, I like to show founders or brand stakeholders different lenses that they can view all of their assets through. And then we collectively decide, as a team working together, which one is most appealing and has the strongest future. All of the elements remain the same but they, again, fall into a different hierarchy.
Will Bachman: And could you walk us through maybe a case example that could be sanitized of a client that you’ve worked with and sort of how those steps come together?
Robin Albin: Sure. One of my favorite case studies that I love to talk about is the Origins brand. I was one of the founding members of the brand many, many, many, many years ago. And as part of our evaluation and our spreading all of these different ideas out, we began to look at the world and what was happening in the world at this time, it was the late 1980s. And it was a time where it was about … President Reagan was in office and there was the, American exceptionalism was a philosophy of his. It was the dawning of the internet and people were just starting to say, how is this machine, dawning of technology rather, how is this machine going to take over my life? Is big brother watching? It was the time of all the greed on Wall Street.
Robin Albin: And we started to look at all these elements that were influencing and affecting the consumer. And our charge at the time was to forget beauty as we knew it, and to say, what is the next movement in the beauty industry? So in looking at all of this landscape and all of the things that were happening, and the knowledge that we wanted to be a brand that was about taking care of your skin and having a sense of wellness and health, that was all more assets spread out all over. We began to say, gee, what is a lead theme here?
Robin Albin: And one of the things that we recognized was that the consumer was feeling very intimidated and overwhelmed and a bit marginalized. So we identified as a big anchoring theme the idea of respect, that the consumer felt disrespected. When she or he went into a department store which is the primary point of purchase at that time, they were feeling very … again, it was all glitz and glamour and glass and chrome, and it just was very ostentatious in a way, and overwhelming. And a beauty expert or advisor at the time might asy something to you like, my dear, you don’t look so great today, I can fix you. Which, again, is a very intimidating way to approach a consumer.
Robin Albin: So with this lens, this anchoring theme of respect, we said first and foremost if we’re going to be a beauty company, the first thing we wanna do is respect the consumers’ skin. So that’s how we became a natural brand. We said, we’re not going to put harsh chemicals on the skin, we’re going to go to the tried and true nature. That’s how the brand became anchored in the idea of natural ingredients coming from this idea of respect. We said, if we’re going to take from nature, then we have to respect nature and give back. That’s how the brand became an environmental steward.
Robin Albin: We also said one of the things that we’re going to do is we’re going respect you as a consumer because nobody knows your skin better than you do. And with the right information, you can make a thoughtful decision, one that’s right for you. So we decided to give a lot of information so that the consumer could take control and be in control of her own decision making process, with the availability of a guide versus an advisor. So we named our beauty helpers guides, they were going to facilitate this journey but not tell you what to do. So that was a decision that again came out of this respect for the consumer’s intelligence.
Robin Albin: We also knew that if we were gonna give a lot of information, we had to give it in a way that people wanted to hear it. Because if you talk down to people or you talk at people, or you’re having monologue with the consumer, then they’re likely to shut you out. We wanted to create a language and a dialogue that the consumer would be nodding along saying, yeah, you’re talking to me. So we created a funny light hearted language that would make people smile and funny names. We were the first to come into the industry with not fractured French or descriptive names, but names that provoked a bit of wit and humor and felt lighthearted. Because we also knew if you’re smiling, then you’re receptive to learning things.
Robin Albin: So again, that was all developed from this idea of respect. We said we’re gonna respect the consumers pocket books, so we’re not gonna over package. We’re gonna do these clean white minimal packages, and we’re going to invest the money into creating better formulas rather than over packaging something. And that would be also very consistent very our environmental message.
Robin Albin: As a sort of backlash against this American exceptionalism we said, wait a second, there’s a million countries out there in the world with wonderful traditions and cultures, let’s learn about them. Let’s respect other people, other lands, other ways of doing things. So we began to study traditions from China, South America, and from Polynesia, and incorporated that sense of discovery and learning again into the brand.
Robin Albin: And then we said that we were going to just be a brand that was about totally taking away the barriers to shopping, to allow you to be again in control and respect your judgment. So we created a barrier free environment of self service and we’re the first brand to do that in the prestige market. So all of that, everything that we did came from this one word, respect. That was also by putting out this entire world, this ecosystem, and saying what are all of these things that we’re looking at in this environment, this landscape of political and cultural and shopping experiences, what’s a lead anchoring theme that comes from that?
Robin Albin: And as I said, over and over, the word respect came out. And we built an entire universe around one word.
Will Bachman: And I understand that that’s kind of part of your approach, right? You talk on your website about how figuring out, what’s the one word that really encapsulates your brand? Could you say a little bit more about that?
Robin Albin: Yes, I think it’s very very easy to, as I just spun on and on and on to talk at great length about what your brand stands for. But if you can distill it down into one word, that is extremely powerful. And the great brands all do that. If you think about Nike, they’re about inspiration. If you think about Volvo, they’re about safety. So they build their entire universe, Coke, happiness. They build this world around this one word and it’s very powerful. And as I said at the very beginning of this, it helps you make the right decisions so that you don’t do something that’s … for example, in the Origins brand, you wouldn’t do something that was inauthentic or something that was demeaning or something that was not honest and straightforward, because you were always trying to respect the consumer. So again, it helps you make, tells you what to do. And it tells you what not to do.
Will Bachman: When you’re working with a startup on their branding, walk us through what that kind of engagement with you would be like. Is it two weeks everyday or is it kind of on day here and there? Is it workshop based, do you go off and do a bunch of research on your own? Just walk us through if someone says, hey we’re starting a company, we have a great idea and we need some help on the brand. What would that look like?
Robin Albin: Again, I think you only get to be, I say you only get to be stupid once. You only get to be the consumer coming to a new product or a new brand for the first time. So I try never to do any research before I start a project. I like to come at it totally cold blank and have a founder or a key stakeholder tell me about the brand, talk to me about it. And I try to ask them lots of questions. Sometimes the questions seem like, why are you asking me this question that has nothing to do with anything?
Robin Albin: But frequently, and I say this also on my website, there are things you talk about all the time and then there are some things you just need to be able to suss out. Those are things that you think and feel, and sometimes you think they’re irrelevant or unimportant. And in fact, they have great value because they are the things that make you passionate about what you’re doing and why you care about it. And if you don’t care about it, why should any consumer care about it? It’s not about finding the greatest features and benefits, it’s about finding that definite reason for being. As I said earlier on, why are you here? What difference are you gonna make in the consumer’s life, in a human person’s life, what’s your moment of empathy? What do you care about? Because if you care about it enough then other people are going to say, sign me up, I wanna be part of that.
Robin Albin: So I spend a lot of time just listening and asking questions and talking to brand stakeholders, whether they’re the founder or the CMO of a more mature company, just listening and really getting under the hood and finding out all these little incidental facts. Again, this is part of this deconstructing an idea in a brand because sometimes something’s buried deep into the soul of the brand and it’s just been dormant, and it needs to come forward.
Will Bachman: What are some common mistakes that companies make, particularly early on in their branding?
Robin Albin: Well I think the common mistakes are a misconception, again, about what branding really is. I think people think a brand is a name or product or a logo or a piece of advertising or a website. So they try and develop those different messaging tools before they really know what the brand is about. And particularly when you’re a founder and you’re bootstrapping and you don’t have big budgets or infusion of cash, those 15 thousand, 20 thousand, whatever those numbers are, wind up being wasted. And I see that far too often with young brands.
Will Bachman: What advice do you have for independent professionals on establishing, particularly independent consultants, on establishing a compelling brand for their consulting practice?
Robin Albin: Well, I think whether you’re doing a personal brand or a product or business brand, I think it’s all the same steps. I think it’s really about finding what makes you get up in the morning and what you stand for and what you care about, and using that as a point of view. I think too many people try to be imitative and try to say, this is the trend so I’m gonna be about this. Or, this is what I think people when hear. I think there’s nothing that can replace authenticity. And if it’s not something that you care about or believe or have a point of view about …
Robin Albin: I’m brutally honest and I don’t mean it to be a way of offending someone or being snarky or whatever. I think you’re here to tell the truth, to be honest and to help people see things beyond what they would look for. That’s not for everybody. Not every founder wants to hear that not every stakeholder. But that’s my brand, that’s what I stand for. And it took me a long time to get to the point where I said, this is who I am and I’m an insurgent. I’m always going to push you to see and to try things and to take risks, and then make decisions that are right for you. It’s not about me it’s about you. But someone needs to be able to ask you the really hard questions.
Will Bachman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I often see with independent professionals the story isn’t really coming clear, or it can be a bit confusing. When you look at their LinkedIn profile, it’s kind of positioning themselves as a generalist, or I do work in financial services, and pharma, and retail, and telecom, a bunch of different functional area. And it’s just sort of the whole message is kind of confusing, right?
Robin Albin: Well again, that goes back to what I said early on about finding what differentiates you as a brand and you as a person. A lot of people do financial services, and they have great pedigrees and they’ve got wonderful experience under their belt. But what makes you stand out, you know? What is the unique thing … Do you geek out on something or is it something that you just really try to interject into your day to day experience? What makes you stand out?
Robin Albin: And again, not everybody’s gonna say, well I think that’s really cool. But then you’ll find someone who really will appreciate your individuality whatever that is. And that’s where you love your work. The most important thing is to do what you love and to be around people that respect and value what you do. So the only way to do that is to tell people who you are, you know?
Will Bachman: Right.
Robin Albin: Everybody wants to be a pleaser. And I think it’s, unfortunately, I’ll probably get criticized a lot for this, but women do it probably more than men. You don’t wanna ruffle feathers, you wanna be able to be liked, you wanna be part of the team. But being part of the team doesn’t mean you have to be obsequious or following the path, the straight and narrow. Being part of the team is helping the team be its best. So however you can help that team achieve that success in your unique way while still respecting the members of the team is what distinguishes you and differentiates you and makes you valuable.
Will Bachman: So, if someone’s working with a brand strategist or, as you call yourself, a brand Sherpa, what would the deliverable look like?
Robin Albin: And again, the reason why I call myself a Sherpa is because I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’m here to guide you, to help you find what’s right for you. As I said, it’s not my brand, it’s your brand. And my role is to help you articulate it and differentiate it and make it be the best it can be.
Will Bachman: What would the typical outcome of working with you look like? Is it kind of that statement of the story of the purpose? Do you also get into visual identity? Is it like, how do we answer the phones around here? What sorts of things are you gonna help guide people on?
Robin Albin: Well, that’s all part of the brand expression. What do you stand for? Earlier on I said a lot of traditional pathways to branding, cover your vision and your values. I believe that once you articulate once your brand stands for and what you’re about and why anyone should care about you, that leads to the visualization of the brand. What’s your photography like, what’s your typeface like, what’s your color palette like? And then that’s one form of communication, but the other part is building a culture so that people …
Robin Albin: Every touch point along the pathway of a brand reinforces what that brand is about. So again, going back to the Origins example, we were a very collegial team, particularly when the brand was young. And very respectful and very aware of the way we treated one another and the way we heard one another. We never said anything like, you can’t wear leather or you can’t eat meat. People just took it upon themselves to adapt that style, that way of being, particularly in the office. Because they said, we believe what this brand is standing for and what this brand does, and we sign on and we believe it as well. So that’s all part of building a culture and building the entire ecosystem of a brand.
Will Bachman: Robin, for folks that are listening to this and wanted to find out more about your work, what’s the best place for them to go to? Do you wanna point them to a website?
Robin Albin: Sure, my website is insurgents.io and it’s I-N-S-U-R-G-E-N-T-S, like being an insurgent, dot I-O. Or they can go to my LinkedIn profile, Robin Albin. And I do a lot of mentoring, I do a lot of advising. Anyone can call me at any time, I’m happy to talk to anyone, happy to answer questions and just help you figure out what your next step is. I do lots of office hours and I’m happy to help anyone in the process.
Robin Albin: I was very very fortunate as a young person, I had amazing mentors I had amazing people who helped me and I totally believe in paying it forward.
Will Bachman: That’s awesome. In terms of just your own personal routines, daily routines or weekly routines, is there anything that you have been doing for a long time or recently adopted that you’ve found really helps you be more effective?
Robin Albin: I believe in being a sponge, and I teach a lot as well. And when people come up to me and they say to me, what should I do? I said, read everything and anything there is and don’t follow a linear path. I read a gazillion different things, everything from Wired magazine to political pieces to … I was reading, I was working on a project recently where I was reading construction magazines just to learn about the construction industry. And you just never know where an idea is gonna leap out at you or you’re gonna be able to connect the dots and say, I’m seeing this happening in construction and I’m seeing it again happening in fashion … These threads start to appear and you can start to knit things together in unique ways. So I believe you should learn about everything, you should talk to everybody and everyone. There’s no such things as bad experience. I think you should stay curious throughout your life and throughout your work career, and not follow a traditional path.
Robin Albin: I know a lot of people who, if they’re in the beauty industry, they only look at beauty websites. Or if they’re in the fashion industry, they’re just watching with the designers are doing or what’s happening at fashion week. But particularly now where culture and politics and the environment and everything is linked together, that being open minded and being a sponge and looking at all sorts of things from a variety of points of view, whether you agree with them or you don’t agree with them, they’re gonna tell you something about the world and they’re gonna help you find a vision and a point of view for anything that you’re working on.
Will Bachman: Any books or magazines or articles that you’ve read recently that you’d really recommend?
Robin Albin: Oh my god, I wouldn’t even know where to start. I mean, I have a pile of books on my desk now and a pile of magazines. I look at things from international. I love View Points which is a great great trend magazine. I live on WGSN, I think they’re phenomenal. I read lots of books whether they’re … I’m reading a terrific book which is called Bad Blood which is about this startup that … I read very very wholistically so just pick up anything. Don’t try and judge it-
Will Bachman: I love it. The omnivorous attitude, I love that too. Just be looking for making connections, great advice.
Robin Albin: And talk to anybody, talk to anybody and everyone. One of the things you don’t wanna do is sit next to me on the train for a two hour train ride because I’ll start asking you questions and strike up a conversation. But it’s great it’s just a phenomenal way of beginning to understand the complexities and the wonders of people in the world. And there’s a million ideas there.
Will Bachman: Robin, this was fantastic. Thanks so much for the conversation and thanks for joining the show.
Robin Albin: Thank you, I’m looking forward to hearing it.
Will Bachman: Thanks.

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