“Authenticity in branding comes back to mission and vision. What is your purpose? Why do you exist? It’s about walking the walk.”
For many brands, “What is your purpose?” can be a surprisingly difficult, constantly-challenged, and alarmingly complex question to answer.
Lisa Gralnek, Principal of LVG & Co., helps brands find an answer as they try to create a strategy for growth, implement change, stay true to their vision, and deliver on their promises to consumers. No biggie.
What made you decide to go your own way after being a top marketing and branding dog at various companies?
I found that I wasn’t really able to focus on the strategy work, which is the part that I truly love. When you’re creating new strategies in-house, you eventually need to implement. Once a strategy was defined I’d find myself doing change management, which is really what implementation is all about, and change is really hard.
In my experience, people don’t really like change much. Inside any organization — especially big ones — you’re navigating financial and operational resource allocations, human personalities, and politics rather than really being able to do what’s needed. It’s easy to get bogged down in the mechanics.
I realized that consultants bring a fresh mindset and can help navigate implementation in a way that’s impossible when you’re on the inside. I was back in New York, there were lots of opportunities, and it felt like a good moment. I wanted to do something different, and use my experience to help brands ask the right questions and get things done. It’s fun to set strategy.
What’s the first thing you tell startups as they try to define their brand?
What is your purpose? Why are you doing this? Purpose may be an overused word, but it’s really the key. Depending on what kind of company you are, it really comes down to your mission and your vision. Having a clear understanding of those things will be your North Star.
It doesn’t mean you won’t pivot, but frankly, these are fundamental guiding principles that usually don’t change. The product made, the marketing, and the business model may shift, but the core motivation for doing what you’re trying to achieve is generally going to be consistent.
You’ve talked often about authenticity. What’s different now about how brands approach authenticity versus five or ten years ago?
I love this question. Like purpose in the last question, I feel like I use lots of words that make no real sense to people, until a few years later when they’re suddenly completely overused. Purpose is one I won’t yet relinquish. Another is my own job title of “brand strategist” which, about three years ago, I was told I should no longer use because it didn’t mean anything anymore since everyone had become a brand strategist. (That was a bit disheartening.)
In many ways, the same is true today about ‘authenticity.’ Yet I still value the word. Authenticity in branding comes back to mission and vision. What is your purpose? Why do you exist? And how do you consistently deliver value to your end customer that is true to that? It’s about walking the walk.
If your mission is actually just to have a great exit — whether you state something else or not — I personally don’t believe you’re ever going to be able to really deliver to your customer, because you’re ultimately in it to serve yourself. Whereas if you’re trying to solve a real problem, you have to consistently deliver on your brand promise to realize success. That means always thinking about the end customer, as well as re-committing to your values throughout the value chain.
How you do that today is far more complex than it ever has been. So much is fragmented, and the brand doesn’t own the entire end-to-end story. Influencers, consumers, content creators, affiliates, partners … they all have a voice. I think authenticity really comes down to how you communicate what matters to you in a coherent way, plus delivering what you’re about at every touchpoint. This is what resonates with people and they read it pretty clearly.
How do you encourage brands who initially state their commitment to authenticity, but then have trouble maintaining their sense of purpose?
We’re living right now in a world where companies have tons and tons of pressures on them, not least of which is about money to be made. I think we’re seeing a change where people, companies and brands are having to reinvent themselves much more frequently than they used to simply to stay relevant and afloat.
Often when I get involved with brands there’s a major moment happening. A founder is looking towards exit, a company is entering a new market, a new product is launching, or maybe the world has changed and what you’re saying no longer resonates in the same way. It doesn’t mean you need to start over, you might just need to (re-)evaluate your positioning.
Let’s say you just closed a new series of funding. All of a sudden it’s like, “We have this massive pressure to grow, we’re expanding into x number of new markets.” In the midst of the noise, you have to stop and ask, “Does this still fulfill our fundamental mission?” By the way, I think the same should be true for publicly-traded companies, where the board “re-ups” the company’s core values at each quarterly earnings report, or something like it.
In fact, recommitting to the brand purpose during periods of intense growth is very important and necessary, because otherwise things get muddled: internally, it’s difficult to get people working towards shared goals, and externally, it doesn’t take long for customers, and even partners and investors, to start wondering what the brand is all about. Unfortunately, if someone’s not willing to do this, there’s not a lot you can do to force it.
And that’s the real risk: you can almost always find ways to grow, but how do you do so without losing your authenticity? Risking hard-built brand equity is not a great place to land; yet, we have a number of long-standing brands we’re seeing fall into that trap.
What brand used to be great but now has fallen off?
Oh, there are many. Actually, I’m quite frustrated by this at the moment.
So many brands are chasing something that is aside from delivering on their purpose: margin, users, impressions, likes, etc. They’re measuring buzz metrics with a short-time horizon, not how much real value they deliver to their customer over a lifetime. I see this with both start-ups and established brands.
Yet, to counter this, there is this wonderful trend towards conscious consumerism that has come to the fore, especially among Millennials and Gen Z. We’re aware of our impact on the planet, we’re aware of the social impact of our purchases, and we want to do better and buy better. There’s a huge slew of brands that are embracing that awareness.
My current frustration is that too often once these brands hit that first year threshold or first million in sales, much of their customer commitment falls away. Brands change their packaging, their formula, their pricing, their materials used. I understand there are often intense profit pressures happening once a certain level of success is hit, but suddenly, the mandates change- as does the output.
J.Crew is an example of a brand that was doing well delivering on product quality and fashion trends at reasonably accessible price points. But in the past 18-24 months or so, they’ve fallen off a cliff; I don’t think they know who they are, who they’re serving anymore, or what they should be delivering.
On the other hand, Gap’s done a great job reinventing itself over and over again. Cuyana is an example of a values-based brand that so far is staying committed to its values. And, my former employer Chobani is a wonderful example of a brand that was just recently able to buy its way back out of an investor debt situation that was otherwise going to limit its ability to hold true to its mission.
What does your workspace look like?
One of the luxuries of my current situation is being able to work from home, and then migrating when I need to. I have a lovely, light-filled airy apartment with my dog at my feet, and everything else that I need, and that’s very nice.
Then when I need to be at my clients, I go to my clients. When I need to be in the city for meetings, or anything else, I use Spacious as a workspace, or I’ll camp out at NeueHouse, a friend’s office, certain restaurants or parks, or any number of other wifi-enabled solutions that have arisen with the gig economy and allow us to be a nomadic workforce. But my dining room table is truly my favorite office at the moment.
Are you hyper-organized or do you like a little controlled anarchy?
I would say that, perhaps as an act of rebellion against having always been hyper-organized, I now like a little controlled anarchy. There’s no doubt about that.
What’s a current buzzword that you dislike?
Synergy is very annoying. And there are other words, like disruption, that are overused. I don’t hate the word, I just think that we need to be thoughtful about how we’re using it because frankly, everything is being disrupted right now, all the time.
Ultimately, there are so many words that are just trends; they pop up, everyone uses them, and then they decline. I think the fact that there’s this hype cycle is pretty amazing. However, as I already mentioned elsewhere, it’s a shame when useful words get overused and lose their meaning. But right now, yeah — I think synergies, plural, is really my least favorite word of the moment. Whenever I hear it I think, “What are we really talking about here?”
What mobile app do you use the most?
I’d be totally and utterly lost without Google Calendar. It keeps my agenda and schedule —where I’m supposed to be, when, and with whom — in total order.
WhatsApp is another favorite. I love it for communicating with people internationally and locally, but especially internationally. I use Pandora or Spotify a lot because I can’t live without music. Then of course, inevitably, Slack. It allows me to work with different teams in real time, keep lines of communication open, and have quick conversations with multiple working groups.
Is there a book you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?
So, so many! I will say there are three books, one each of my favorite genres, that are must-reads right now. As a novel, the first is Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West. It is quick, stunning, and very relevant to our political and cultural times. It’s just extraordinary for so many different reasons and has deservedly won all sorts of awards.
The second is the non-fiction, Forged in Crisis by Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn. It’s an inspiring look at what five leaders across our history have taught us about leading in times of crisis: Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Nazi-resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer and environmentalist Rachel Carson.
The third book I’m really enjoying is in the self-help category, Mark Manson’s wonderfully-unsubtle The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck.
What do you do when you’re not saving brands?
I play tennis, I walk my dog, I see friends, I travel an enormous amount. I find myself on my patio quite a lot when the weather is nice. And when I can get myself in order, I’m doing yoga or out and about enjoying the city. I do spend a lot of time thinking about my own purpose and how to have a positive impact on the world.
You have lived on the East Coast for a while, but you’re originally from Southern California. What do you miss most it?
Even though I’ve been gone a long time, I still miss lots of things about California. The weather, most notably, although I’ve come to love the seasons here. But my favorite thing about California is the fact that you can live “al fresco” for much of the year. Being outside, close to nature, physically active … that is everything I love and live and want. So the al fresco lifestyle, I would say, is the thing.