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How did you get started on the agency side? I started out as a TV journalist and in public affairs, so working for a creative agency wasn’t part of my original career plan. I was actually a client who got headhunted to join Frost*, the agency I still work at today, seventeen years later! My training as a journalist prepared me for many of the skills you need as a brand strategist—to ask probing questions, uncover insights and synthesize lots of information into a clear story. Not to mention learning how to work quickly and under pressure.

When did designers start getting seats at the table? What opportunities and challenges has this presented to the design team? Without oversimplifying things, it’s fair to say there’s been a fundamental change in the role of design from last century to today. Design used to be about craft and aesthetics, which makes sense in the context of industrial economies concerned with manufacturing, production and reaching mass markets. But today, design is also becoming about the need to innovate and understand human needs, especially in the context of rapidly changing technology, niche markets and personalization. Design used to be about “Does it look good?” Now it’s about “Does it do good?”

At Frost*, we’re embracing this change because what we really care about is making a difference. We now have permission to tap into our creativity and our intuition to solve bigger problems, but we need to do this within robust frameworks of accountability. This means we have many different experts in our business collaborating on solving problems, including human-centered designers, customer experience designers, graphic designers, digital designers, architects and industrial designers.

Just like brands, we need to live our values and create work that comes from what we believe in.”

What do we mean when we use the term branding today? I like how marketing guru Seth Godin describes branding when he says, “Your brand is a story, a set of emotions and expectations, and a stand-in for how we think and feel about what you do.”

A good brand strategy sets out simply and unambiguously the place we want to own in people’s minds and how we will get there through having a clear sense of purpose, values that manifest in what we actually do, and a strong understanding of how this responds to market wants and needs.

What should all designers know now about brand strategy? I have great respect for design and creativity. What brand strategy does is to set the compass point—it adds clarity and focus. It makes creativity more impactful because it can be directed towards driving change and helping a company realize its purpose. If the creative response is even five degrees off, then it’s heading in the wrong direction.

What kinds of strategic truths do you aim to uncover about the brands you work with? At Frost*, we use an analytical framework that’s a bit like a SWOT—identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats—but instead looks to uncover insights about the company, category, customers and culture. In each case, you need to look for a defining insight that can drive the brand; for instance, a point of view that addresses an unmet need or rights an industry wrong. There’s a lot of talk today about purpose-driven brands—brands that are driven by their “why” and not their “what.” Working through this with a client is often revelatory.

For example, when we teamed up with Cellarmasters, an online wine retailer, its team was passionate about doing away with wine snobbery and putting exceptional wines on the tables of everyday people. Armed with this purpose, they could rally around a cause that many consumers believe in too. This is how a brand can give a company power. Brands can do more than talk about product and price—they can stand for something.

You’ve provided strategies for a number of places, like the Sydney suburb Redfern and the Australian community Broken Hill. What is unique about branding a place, and how do you have to adapt your process to it? Place branding is something I’m really passionate about, especially when working with places that have a perceptual barrier to overcome, like Redfern. Whenever we work with a place, it’s important to understand what success looks like for that community, as its spirit is often as defining to the place as its physical characteristics. Our process often extends to a lot of community workshops and market research to really get under the skin of a place.

Redfern is an interesting case study, as the key barrier we had to overcome was that people from outside Redfern were afraid to go there. Once we understood this, the strategy became very simple, but also very compelling: we needed to overindex on making people feel welcome. This was something that everyone in the community could understand and do something about, from changing the urban design by taking down the shutters that used to cover shop windows at night—creating a perception that there was a lot of crime—to the new identity we created that takes the form of a smile, a universal sign of welcome. We bought into our own story, as two years ago we moved our studio to what was formerly seen as the most dangerous street in Redfern.

How is the rise of the empowered consumer affecting brand strategy? Because every consumer is now able to mobilize her point of view, if you don’t deliver on your promises, you risk significant reputational damage. Conversely, if you stand for something good, you can tap into the growing movement of people who champion brands that manifest their own values.

Brands have been getting political in their social media and marketing. Should brands proceed more carefully? This all comes down to how genuine the brand is and if it can back up its position, rather than just jumping on a bandwagon. Dove is an interesting brand that comes to mind. Its “real beauty” stance is famous, but recently, it inadvertently created a piece of content that unleashed a fury around a centuries-old stereotype that dark skin is dirty and light skin is pure. Consumers hate hypocrisy, so if you’re going to take the moral or political high ground, be 100 percent sure you belong there.

You will soon give a talk at The Design Conference in Brisbane, Australia. Please share a few takeaways that you hope to leave with the audience. I’m a big believer in meditation as being important for creative minds, so I hope to encourage people to turn off their screens and tune in to their own minds as a source of creativity, intuition and ideas.

Who you are is a vital ingredient to what you do. Just like brands, we need to live our values and create work that comes from what we believe in.

Cat Burgess is passionate about finding insights that transform brands and businesses. She’s provided strategic inspiration for some of Australia’s largest brands, including Dan Murphy’s, Qantas and Woolworths. Burgess has a particular interest in cultural and place branding, having created transformational strategies for Broken Hill, Canterbury Bankstown, Redfern, the State Library of New South Wales, the Sydney Living Museums and the Sydney Opera House. In more than fifteen years at Frost*, she has collaborated on many internationally award-winning projects and developed a strong understanding of how to connect brand strategy to the creative process.

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