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Beyond the Buzzwords: A Q&A with Branding Guru Ron Vandenberg

Posted By: SGK August 11, 2015

With an illustrious career span of over 25 years Ron Vandenberg has held executive creative director roles with some of the world’s leading brand and design consultancies where he contributed to creating to some of the most recognized and iconic brands. This body of work, created by Ron and his teams, has been recognized by every major industry awards show including an unprecedented three CLIO awards in a single year.

Ron is not one to stand still while the industry evolves to meet the expectations of each new generation of consumers and customers. His work with many of the Fortune 100 has included stints in New York, London, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Along the way he co-founded, built and sold three brand agencies: Futurebrand, Blue Mint (which became Anthem’s San Francisco office) and Merchant. 

Vandenberg’s return to SGK as Executive Creative Director comes at a time when many large CPG, retail and service companies are pressed to find ways to build deeper connections with consumers through innovation, transparency and social good. We sat down with him to discuss these major trends in the branding world and what the industry might expect next.

Tell us about your recent return to SGK. What are you most excited about? 

I’ve had a great relationship with SGK right from the moment our paths crossed. SGK acquired Blue Mint in 2004, the company I co-founded in order to jump-start Anthem, part of SGK’s brand development offering. I became the Chief Creative Officer for Anthem and worked closely with brand development leadership to build the business in North America.

I’m most excited that I have the opportunity to have it all! I get to be part of the SGK community, work with amazingly talented creative teams and return to my roots in Anthem’s San Francisco office.

Brand innovation is a big buzzword today. What do you believe are the biggest obstacles brands face in being truly innovative?

I believe the biggest obstacles lie in not identifying the right questions to ask. 
I’m working with my colleagues at Anthem to develop a set of questions that will advance the art and science of brand innovation for our clients. Here is a sampling:
1. How did Apple use a combination of brand and innovation to become the world’s most valuable company?
2. What level of the organization does brand innovation need to sit at in order to be supported culturally and financially?
3. What aspects of a company’s brand will benefit the most from innovation – product, image and communication?
4. What are the most urgent, important and valued unmet needs of a brand’s target consumers – regardless of category?
5. Can a company’s brands credibly meet these need states while retaining existing loyalists or do they need to develop a new brand?

What are the necessary ingredients for brand innovation? 

The average innovation failure rate is 90%, so this is a good question. Brainstorming alone does not produce results and chasing too many ideas burns up resources and time. I believe the necessary ingredients for brand innovation are the same as the requirements identified by the Doblin Group for all types of innovation:
1.    Establish a clear ambition and direction for your innovation activities.
2.    Define and execute a high impact program of innovation initiatives.
3.    Develop new capabilities and reorganize to better support innovation.

The expression I like best is one of IBM’s core values, “Innovation that matters.” 

With short attention spans and branded content screaming at us from all directions, it takes a lot for a brand to be memorable today. In your opinion, what makes a brand iconic? 

Simplicity.  Consumers and customers across every category are saying, “Simplify my life. Make it easier.” Apple, one of the world’s most valuable companies and most iconic brands, uses the power of simplicity to set them apart. They reject complexity in everything they do, whether it’s their product design, branding or marketing. In a world crowded with complexity, simplicity stands out and stands the test of time. Simplicity brings clarity instead of confusion, decision instead of doubt and inspires greater loyalty in customers.  To achieve iconic status brands need to thoughtfully curate to a point where they end up with fewer brand assets of higher quality that can be deployed more strategically.

Transparency is not just nice to have these days. It’s a necessity, especially with so much engagement between consumers and brands on social media, review sites and blogs. Do you agree?

Yes. Transparency is a critical component to trust and clarity.  I would add the interactions between a company’s employees and their customers to this list as well. A brand’s intentions might be pure, but if they are not as transparent as consumers expect them to be, then there’s a loss of trust.  It’s equally important to give consumers all the information they need to make informed choices. This takes a brand beyond transparency about products and services to a larger story about the company itself and the way it operates. There’s growing evidence now about consumers making purchase decisions based on the combination of product and service performance and the way the company operates.

What can brands do to solidify their reputation and brand equity in an increasingly transparent world?

The most important thing is everything. The brands that win will be best-in-class across every dimension of consumer relevance and customer touch points. As the
marketplace becomes more crowded and complex,  we’re are also seeing the merging of channels, the expansion of the digital shelf and the globalization of brands. I have three core beliefs about brand reputation and equity:

1. That people are more inspired by why a company or organization exists than by what they do.
2. That brand reputation is shaped more by the way people experience your brand character than by what you tell them.
3. That your brand can reinvent itself only if every employee is truly grounded in what you value and stand for.

Branding is all about what’s next, so what’s next in your opinion? 

What I see happening is a rebalancing between the dominance of a product and service focus to more of a focus on the company, as the dominant form of branding required to engage consumers. Increasingly, people want to know about the companies behind the brands they love. What’s their story? What do they stand for? In the same vein, provenance and country of origin are also becoming very important, as consumers want to know how and where their products are made. Brands will need to make it easy for people to trace the product through the supply chain. Lastly the saying, “You are the company you keep,” applies to brands too. I can see “brand clubs” emerging for brands that share the same values and social and environmental commitments. There may be symbols that are developed to communicate those ideals. 

After many successful years in the branding industry, what keeps you hungry for new experiences? What inspires you? 

It’s what I love doing. I’m fortunate that the work I do doesn’t feel like work at all. It’s the excitement of working at the intersection of psychology, trends, strategy, communication, design, business and technology. It’s a world that’s evolving all the time and we’re right at the center of it. There is nothing more interesting for me than working with a talented team to crack the code on a new client challenge - and beat the competition. 

The people I work with and our industry legends, past and present, are my major source of inspiration. Most of the good fortune that I’ve enjoyed is a result of working this industry and meeting the most amazing people. I met my wife Kim, a great number of our life long friends, and all of my business partners in the branding industry. It’s allowed me to travel the world, apply my craft and work with talented professionals in every industry.

It’s a rare gift to have a second chance to work with SGK. I’m hungry for the experience and inspired by the opportunity.