Art Director and Designer Marla Stough on why personal branding is far from fully mature, and the value beauty brands can gain by actively listening
This year’s PSFK series highlighting alumni of the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters in Branding Program continues with Marla Stough, who is the Global Creative Services Manager at Revlon as well as a 10-year veteran of the health and beauty industry. In her interview with PSFK, Stough touches upon beauty brands’ migration to more organic forms of grabbing consumers’ attention, and what can be done to connect with women on what is a deeply cultural, emotional, and psychological experience for them.
SVA’s Masters in Branding program allows students to create frameworks to guide brand, design and business development, critically evaluate brand, business, marketing and design strategies and master the intellectual link between leadership and creativity.
What made you decide to enroll in the Master’s in Branding program?
It was a happy accident that I saw an online ad for the program. Pursuing a Master’s degree was the culmination of my deep love of learning, starting at an early age. As design education has grown more popular, I had to think of the best way to differentiate myself and strengthen my knowledge in the field. Branding seemed like a natural extension of the design field, and I was excited for the opportunity to learn from a variety of areas new to me (business, strategy, finance, etcetera).
I loved that the program was so new and experimental (I was in its second class). Branding as a discipline also felt very new but was becoming more relevant. My job at the time (and my jobs before that) focused on developing brands for new markets—how to inspire belief and excitement for the promises we were offering. I saw the field of branding as a perfect complement to my experience in design. I wanted to move my career from executional to more strategic leadership through design. But I also wanted to have a better understanding of the impact and effectiveness of my work and have better collaboration with my coworkers in other areas, such a sales, marketing, and production.
How would your career in the health and beauty industry have differed if you hadn’t enrolled in the program?
Looking back, I landed in the beauty industry by happenstance. After a couple years designing for the construction industry, I felt it was time to move to New York City. I had three interviews in one day with a variety of companies, with AMOREPACIFIC (one of the top health & beauty companies in South Korea and on Forbes’ list of Top 20 Innovative Companies) being my last. I was interested in getting experience in a different industry and learning about another culture. I thought I had blown the interview but was so happy when my art director decided to take a chance on me. During my seven years with AMOREPACIFIC, I was introduced to many facets of the beauty industry.
Beauty products are some of the most intimate products women use every day. We use them up close on our faces and skin. Women’s experiences with beauty touch emotional, cultural, and psychological aspects of their lives. Beauty is also a very individual experience, with the rise in popularity of beauty vloggers, YouTube and Snapchat. There is an expanded level of knowledge and experimentation present that is very new to the established beauty companies. Customers now have a strong platform for their voices, and brands are understanding the value of listening.
The branding program opened my eyes to the opportunity I had been given. Not only was I getting the chance to design beautiful things and feel the rush of a launch, I was also deeply learning about the vast array of women’s life experiences, hopes and expectations. I was starting to move past purely executional design to really understanding the impact brands and brand experiences can have on women’s lives.
Where do you see the field of branding growing, developing or evolving?
Right now, I think we are still at a pretty early stage of the branding field. Branding and design thinking are just starting to be understood by companies as a way to provide value and encourage engagement. The power of the personal brand will also continue to grow. Social media has been instrumental in democratizing the global marketplace. Consumers are not only finding their voice, but also discovering very powerful ways to get companies to listen. A space has also been created for entrepreneurs to create their own brands when they do not feel the established marketplace has an answer for them. Branding can be a vehicle to succinctly communicate a company’s values beyond the products they make, and a way to provide holistic experiences that people crave.
I believe the next frontier for branding will be a move away from traditional advertising and more seamless integration in people’s lives. Consumers (especially beauty consumers) are becoming increasingly savvy and even distrustful of traditional advertising methods. Beauty brands increasingly are leveraging relationships with social media and cultural influencers to gain trust and inspire experimentation. There is a move toward more organic approaches to get attention: the viral post, the how-to video, the glowing (or scathing) review.
This distrust and higher expectations are mirrored in other industries as well, as consumers become curious about where their products are made, how and from what materials. Having a great product is simply not enough anymore. People want to see how brands deliver on their promises in every area of the business.
How exactly does one straddle the space between ‘creative’ and ‘strategy’? Any tips or tricks of the trade that let you bestride the two?
Good design can only result from great strategy. The job of design is communication. There is a distinct purpose to design and an expected end result. If you don’t understand what you need to communicate, or what result to inspire, how can you create effective design?
Keeping an open and curious mind is key for me to bridge both design and strategy. I can’t discover new ways to blend the two if I’m stuck in one mode of thinking. Bridging the gap is also a fluid process that’s not always 50 percent design and 50 percent strategy. Switching gears between the two can help me gain a different perspective and a better way to solve a problem. As a designer, I made sure to perfect my craft first before moving into strategy. My colleagues were more open to my opinions on strategy because they could trust my creative abilities and execution.
If you had to offer one key piece of advice to interested applicants, what would it be?
Be curious. This is an incredible year where your ideas will be challenged. You will get much further if you let go of any preconceived notions about branding and learn from everyone around you.
Work hard. The branding program is one intense, accelerated year. What you get out of it only depends on what you put in. The assigned readings will become your arsenal. The presentations you create are your portfolio. And you can only get them if you put in the effort.
Take advantage of every opportunity. This program offers amazing access to the top professionals in this industry—from guest speakers to Design Matters tapings. Attend every event. Learn to ask great questions. And listen.
To learn more about The Masters in Branding Program, email the program at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please register here to attend their open house.
This article is paid for and presented by the SVA Masters in Branding program