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"Respect Your Strategy"

By Shana Childs

On August 18, students from Columbia’s M.S. in Strategic Communication program attended an exclusive panel led by executives from the global brand consultancy, Interbrand. The bottom line: Only the brands that have a relentless dedication to their customers, play across multiple arenas, and integrate strong leadership and transformative innovation will stay relevant and profitable.

The panel discussion and networking reception, which took place at Interbrand headquarters in New York, included the following speakers:

  • Daniel Binns, Interbrand North America CEO and Global Director of Partnerships
  • Holmfridur Hardardottir, Executive Director and Chief Operations Officer, Interbrand
  • Daniella Bianchi, Chief Strategy Officer, Interbrand 
  • Oliver Maltby, Executive Creative Director and Portfolio Lead, Interbrand 
  • Cheryl Fenelle Dixon (moderator), Lecturer, Columbia University Strategic Communication Program; Chief Communications Officer and Communication Strategy Consultant 

Binns opened the discussion by sharing insights from the firm’s latest edition of the Best Global Brands report. His take: Despite global upheavals such as climate change and armed conflicts, notably in Ukraine, some brands are producing higher profits by designing bold, new high-touch experiences that place consumers at the very center of their products and services. For example, the luxury air travel market: Binns compared the standard first-class experience in the 1990s—just wider seats and more legroom—with the contemporary experience of flatbeds and personal suites.

Dixon—who teaches Communication and Global Brands and Strategic Communication Management—kicked off the panel by asking them about Interbrand’s indicators of brand growth: participation, affinity, and agility. She also asked about the changing demands of leadership and the importance of tackling real-world topics. The panelists agreed that the brands tackling societal issues are rising to the top. “You can’t be neutral these days; you have to pick a side,” Maltby said. They held up Prada, Lego, and Nike as case studies of the benefits of leaning into sensitive yet important topics. In 2019, for instance, Prada entered the Fashion Pact at the G7 Summit; it began using recycled nylon and pledged to find more sustainable materials. In 2018, LEGO made a $155 million commitment to using all sustainable materials by 2030. Despite initial negative reactions on social media to Nike’s 2018 ad campaign with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the brand produced a 31% sales increase the following year. 

A robust Q&A session and networking reception followed the panel discussion. Students asked about the globalization of brands, career paths, and industry disruption, among other topics.

Above: A robust Q&A session and networking reception followed the panel discussion. Students asked about the globalization of brands, career paths, and industry disruption, among other topics.

Maltby, meanwhile, highlighted AirBnb’s agility during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite health restrictions, the company offered spaces for employees and frontline responders to isolate and/or work remotely safely. Hardardottir agreed, adding that “if a brand is crystal clear about its identity,” and each employee knows what it stands for, then they’re more likely to make the right tweaks and pivots when it matters.

Bianchi warned that while brands have to react to a changing environment—be it COVID or runaway inflation—well-thought-out planning is crucial. “Respect your strategy,” she said, further explaining, “When [brands] change without thought, it’s inconsistent and could hurt the reputation overall.”

Disruption was a big topic for the panel as well. How can legacy brands compete with disruptors? One strategy, Maltby said, is creating smaller offshoots that appear, to the consumer, to be feisty challengers in the market. “We’re often disrupting ourselves,” Hardardottir chimed in. 

Applications are open for fall 2023 enrollment in the Executive M.S. and Part-Time and Full-Time M.S. in Strategic Communication program at Columbia. Learn more about the program.