Sara Mendez-Bermudez is Head of European Brand Experience for People Against Dirty - the business behind eco-friendly home, fabric and personal care products, released under the Method and Ecover brands.
Sara joined Rare’s Andrew Piper on the Solutions Stage at Millennial 20/20 in London earlier this month: now she’s back to share more of her insights on brand building, brand challenges and authenticity in the post-truth era.
Rare Design (RD): Hi Sara, thanks for joining us again. Our first question follows up on the panel you did with us at Millennial 20/20. That centred around the speed of advanced technology, ideas-wise and product-wise, and the constantly shifting sands. You’re an international brand marketing director, so… what are the biggest challenges that you see for branding today?
Sara Mendez-Bermudez (SM-B): One of the biggest challenges links to the speed of technology: the availability or kind of information that’s now available in comments or reviews means consumers don’t know what to trust anymore. This is aso linked to the fact that everybody can make a nice post online or produce a great video. You don’t know what the real truth is, so it is harder than it used to be to really build a brand on consumer credibility. That is, as we know, fundamental.
RD: So that comes down to the question of trust...?
SM-B: Yes. Consumers don’t know what to believe about what is out there, and whether a given comment or review is a fake, created just to make the product look good on a special post. I think this is also linked to how consumers use social media and digital media themselves, how they create a kind of “wall diary” that might be real or might not.
It is also linked to the influencers people follow. Some of them are expert and genuine, and have genuine interest and connection with the brands, but some of them don’t - and people don’t always know that they just get paid for it.
RD: Is that driven by the audience themselves? Are people constantly striving for that kind of authentic brand experience, or is it something they expect?
SM-B: I think it’s little things. I think in a world where people are overloaded with input, they need to be much more choosy about the things they want to be part of, and the things they want to read, and things they want to see. I think they just want that - their identity and experience - to be real and to be authentic. I think it’s a trend that is very important: it’s been going on for the last five years. and it’s not going away.
RD: It’s interesting you mentioned influencers, because you see a lot of Instagram feeds that are peppered with brand placements. There’s research that claims the Millennial audience doesn’t notice, or maybe doesn’t care, that these products are being placed in these kinds of Instagram posts. When we are striving for authenticity, brand placement is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but people aren’t noticing, so there seems to be a disconnect there...
SM-B: I think that’s where you link brand placement with storytelling. The product needs to be integrated in the story that’s in the post, so it all adds to the authenticity of the story. So, for example, if you are promoting new baby clothes, and you are using a mum that has five children as your influencer, and the story is in the right context and it’s someone you trust, then it’s going to work.
If you just place the product in a kitchen, it doesn’t. It’s about the authenticity of the source, the credibility of the influencers and the storytelling that you build around - and it needs to be interesting and relevant.
RD: So talking specifically about People Against Dirty: how have you guys gone about tackling that question?
SM-B: We are very lucky, basically, in that we know our brands and our products are loved by consumers, so our main challenge is actually awareness, getting more people to know about them. Our awareness is relatively low, and when we use influencers, we always use people that have already consensually said something about our brands online. They are already using the brand and they know it and they love it. We have seen that this is much more authentic, and also they normally have more engaged followers we can reach out to, so that’s the way we go about it.
For example, we recently partnered with Johanna Basford, who is quite well-known in illustration. We picked her because she had already posted a picture of her daughter on Facebook and in the background of that picture, the kitchen was full of Method products: she was already a user. When we looked at her bio and what she delivers - she is all about colour and how colouring can bring some happiness and joy into your life, and that’s very linked to our brand values as well. It’s about design and colours and the whole product experience.
RD: This is a bit of a weird question, because it comes down to the definition of celebrity, but do you think there is more power in social media influencers than recognisable faces? You know when you are talking about authenticity, getting a message from a Hollywood star is potentially less effective than someone like Johanna who is sitting in her kitchen with your products. Do you think, for brands, there is more of a push towards these online influencers than celebrities?
SM-B: Yes, definitely, but I think they do different jobs. I think those influencers are obviously more affordable, but also more likeable. That offers something that you could use to get deeper engagement with your audience.
I think there will always be a role for celebrities, because they will help you to drive awareness really quickly. With a celebrity you reach more people, really fast, and with your influencers you will get deeper engagement.
There is a trend that I’m noticing, though - a change in how celebrity branding works. In the past, you just put a celebrity in a campaign and that would work by itself. Now those celebrities need to demonstrate that they are actually doing something about the thing they are advertising.
Cara Delevingne is a very good example - she actually gets her hands dirty. She has been supporting a lot of charities, but she actually does stuff for them too, beyond endorsement. They are the sorts of celebrities that get interaction at the moment, whereas celebrities who are famous for doing something else, something not related to the brand, are actually not so successful any more.
RD: With the chat about authenticity comes the chat about purpose as well. We’re interested in how that works for brands who are maybe a little bit more long-standing, and who can’t manufacture a purpose for their brand from scratch. How would you tackle that?
SM-B: I totally agree - it’s becoming a buzzword, and there’s a challenge for brands that have always been there: they were often not created with a purpose in mind. They can always build one, but it’s a different type of purpose.
You can always look at what your brand or your product is doing for consumers, in their lives, and think more about the emotional impact. You’re looking at how the brand makes them feel or makes them look, and elevating that into a benefit and purpose. I think it’s harder to manufacture a social or ecological purpose - something that is linked to consumer emotions and wishes and desires. A good example of a brand that did this before it became popular is Dove.
Dove wasn’t a brand that was created with a purpose, and you couldn’t put them in a particular box, but what they have done is look at an emotional benefit of the product to the consumer. The product suggests they clean or they moisturise, but they also make consumers aware of the effect of that on their appearance. What they did is elevate that emotional brand benefit into a higher order brand purpose.
RD: That’s a really nice example! On the other panel Rare did for Millennial 20/20, in New York, we spoke to Francesco Tortora - one of the brand managers for Gillette. He was talking about how they are a 150-year-old brand startup in their outlook. How do you guys look at innovation - brand innovation and product innovation? Is it at the heart of People Against Dirty?
SM-B: Yes we do! Actually, we have internal teams that are focused on innovation. We have what we call global long-term innovation, which is focused on really futuristic technology and ideas. They look at what’s going to happen in the next five to ten years, and then we have other teams which work more on product innovation, on a more three year, two year kind of framework.
RD: So, with the global long-term innovation, what kind of things are you looking at?
SM-B: I can’t give you all the details, the specifics, but mostly new technologies and really challenging ourselves. We’re an ecological company, so we’re looking at packaging or ingredients or formulations. What could be even cleaner or greener, and what new materials or technologies can deliver that? It’s quite groundbreaking. Plastic is a big topic at the moment, and some of our products are made of plastic, so we’re imagining what the next plastic could be - things as big as that!
RD: Innovation comes from tech advances, certainly, but it also comes down to the audience as well. You’ve mentioned a Millennial audience - what does the word Millennial mean to you?
SM-B: I know that the technical definition is an age bracket, 24-35, but to me it’s more about the mindset. Of course it just happens that those people fall in those age brackets, but when you’re fragmenting and targeting a demographic it’s more important to look at the attitudes.
The Millennial demographic don’t lead their lives in the way their parents used to or the way they are expected to, they are more guided by their principles and their values and what they believe in, and that gives a lot of potential to brands for creativity.
RD: Does branding still work in this context? Talking about social media influencers, and Millennials becoming more and more savvy to branding and advertising in general, and about comments and user-generated content - what we’re really asking is “how much of your brand do you own?”
SM-B: I think yes, it works, but it doesn’t work in the same way it used to. The ownership has shifted, as you quite rightly said. In the past it used to be the brand owner and the manufacturer that was putting it out there and presenting it to consumers for them to buy into or not. In today’s world you have no choice, as a brand, but to become a part of consumer life and for them to actually make the choice to open the door and let you in.
Consumers have a lot of ownership in brand building today, definitely, and it’s not just about the consumer-generated content - which is getting bigger and bigger in terms of the pillars building a brand - they actually want to be part of the brand world.
We’re an ecological company, and we ultimately aspire to make the world a better place. When we think about building our brand we think about what kind of missions we can share with our consumers, how can they be part of it, and I think that’s the shift that we all have to make, whether a given brand is more anchored in kind of a social and environmental sphere or not.
RD: So that’s the big picture, we have a smaller question: packaging. The Method packaging is really distinct, and we wondered - how important are aesthetics in the wider context of your approach, and the brand?
SM-B: They are crucial, crucial... I mean, packaging design is at the heart of what the brand stands for. That’s how the brand was created, the combination of a designer and a green chemist. It was created as a challenger brand to challenge products where people had to compromise on aesthetics or product experience, product efficacy or product affordability in order to be green.
Our founders believed that you shouldn’t have to compromise: it can be green and ecological and it can still look beautiful, smell amazing and really work. That’s what makes the brand unique. So aesthetic design is at the heart. We look at it as beautifully designed inside out, so the beauty on the outside actually reflects all the beauty inside the product.
Thanks again to Sara for joining us at Millennial 20/20 and for this follow-up interview - we’re looking forward to the next one!