The SMART Interview #7 Rita Clifton

This month: Rita Clifton. A former Vice Chairman at Saatchi & Saatchi and Chairman at Interbrand, the world’s leading brand consultancy, Rita is one of the world's leading experts on brands and branding.

Thinking smarter, being creative; it’s something many people struggle with – is there a secret?

I’m not sure that there’s a secret, and the truth is that it’s often difficult to define what different people really mean by being ‘smart’ and ‘creative’! It is certainly true that with the explosion of channels, devices, social media buzz and infinite digital content, it’s easy to lose your focus, your head – and your common sense. You do need to keep on asking yourself ‘Is there a better/faster/cheaper way of doing this’, both for your business and for you personally. But it’s also really important to keep curious and on top of what’s going on, so you get stimulation for new ideas. From a personal point of view, I like to use the Notability App on my iPad for capturing ‘to do’ lists and random thoughts for clients, speeches, boards I sit on – and without filling endless notebooks as I used to.

Has the internet made having a strong brand more or less important for companies?

It’s always been important to make sure you’re building a brand if you’re trying to build any kind of sustainable value in a business, in any sector. These days, it’s even more critical because, unless you have all your staff doing the right thing to build your brand reputation in an authentic way, and have your customers saying great things about you, you don’t have as successful a business as you might. If you’re doing anything that is inconsistent with your brand values, in the digital world people will find out about it with a scale and a speed that will take your breath away. Quite apart from anything else, there is just so much information and content on the internet today that you need to have trusted brands that can help people navigate the best offers.

Personal branding is a bit of a hot topic. Should it be or is it just another way to describe ‘being an interesting person’?

There’s so much competition these days for people’s attention and spend generally – but also, from a personal point of view, so much competition for jobs, attention and influence. Clearly, anyone would aspire to being an interesting person, but it does really help if you think about what special qualities you have to offer - and then think about how you look, sound and behave in a way that supports that. For example, there’s no point in saying you want to be on the board if you don’t look the part and don’t get yourself trained in the language of finance. Over the years, so many people have said to me ‘but it doesn’t matter what I look like/I want to be myself’. Sure, but surely you want to be your best self – and if you were advising a client, you wouldn’t say ‘I know you’ve got a quality product, but it doesn’t matter if it's in a shabby old package’ People pick up their cues and clues from everything a person does, and it all has to be coherent.

Will big data kill off the need to build a brand? Marketers will be able to target customers with exactly the right product and price point for them – so an emotional connection with the product won’t matter.

An emotional connection of some kind is always important because human beings are not automatons. What’s more, there’s so much choice these days that you’ve got to use every element to help people choose you rather than another option. Clearly, you have to get all the ‘hygiene’ factors right like price, quality and availability, but then you have to be the brand that people will trust to deliver the right product and experience for them, and connect with them both rationally and emotionally better than any other brand offer.

Which brand(s) are absolutely the best in your opinion, and why?

This is a difficult one, because there are some very obvious cases which are very over-used, like Apple. But there’s a reason why it's so over-used, and that’s because it has been probably the best brand building case study in living memory – and it has become the world’s most valuable brand as a result. It’s absolutely clear about what it stands for, it’s extremely consistent and coherent about how that clarity shows up through everything it does, from its products and services designed with human beings in mind, to its people who are passionate about the brand and what they do, to the stores which are so different and yes, to distinctive communications. Until recently, they also had ‘leadership’ that symbolised the best of the brand, and were innovative, restless and set the agenda. Their challenge is keeping it up now that their leader and champion has gone.

Could you share an example of a branding fail – and suggest some learnings that come from that failure?

There are numerous branding failures, but these are almost always the ones where a company has thought it could make a bad or confused company better by creating a snazzy logo, or having a different name. If there’s no distinctive and genuine substance, you can have the sexiest marketing or ad campaigns going, but they won’t work because people won’t find the experience delivers on that promise…and won’t buy again. These days, they can also tell other people in record time – and customers more readily believe other customer views than any company’s.

You’ve run a lot of big businesses. What’s the best way to motivate people?

There’s no substitute for people believing what you’re trying to do, and having a clear sense of shared purpose. Also, you have to create an environment to help people be brilliant, to be the best they can be, rather than creating an atmosphere of fear and blame. Most people want to do a good job, and then it’s just a matter of helping people do that.

You must travel a lot – what’s your favourite place in the world and why?

From a personal point of view, apart from my home, I love to spend time in the Greek Islands. I feel very at home there; the light, the sea colour, the views and the people. And as a classicist, I find the history constantly riveting. Apart from that, I love Sydney, Rio, New York, Cape Town. Ocean cities are particularly special and I love the combination of city and sea.

What do you always take with you when you travel and why?

I always take (and literally, take) Bach Rescue Remedy. Even after all these years travelling on planes, I still get tense at take off and it really helps!

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