Freelance brand strategist Anu Khosla reflects on her path from public health to branding and the power of storytelling for social impact
For the first installment of this year’s PSFK series highlighting alumni of the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters in Branding Program, we talked with Anu Khosla, a freelance brand strategist based in New York City. Anu discusses how the program prepared her to pursue a new direction with more confidence, how being part of the branding community has defined her legitimacy as an expert and her pursuit of using storytelling for social impact.
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.
You’re originally from the Bay Area and earned your BA in Human Biology from Stanford, where you concentrated on Global and Public Health. What initially drew you to apply to SVA’s Masters in Branding program?
Between my family and my community in the Bay Area, I was raised to care about making a positive impact in the world. I grew up with so much privilege and opportunity that impact work wasn’t something I ever considered—it was a given. I had plans to work in the social sector and get a Masters in Public Health one day, but after college I did a stint in for-profit. I realized that marketing and public health have a lot in common. In both fields, you’re trying to persuade people and to create conditions to lead them toward a certain action. In one case, the condition you’re seeking is a sale; in the other it’s a positive health behavior. It was always important to me that the companies I worked with were adding true social value, whether it was building a product that would help people be more active or creating a space for people to find love.
In my for-profit jobs, I found myself drawn to the companies’ creative directors and the work they were doing to define and tell the story about the value that the organization brought to the world. It occurred to me that if organizations of any sort want to offer something to real people they have to be able to create a clear vision for their impact and be able to articulate to themselves, their employees, and especially the people whose lives they want to touch. There is true power in storytelling. It only sounds cliché because it is said so much, but it’s only said so much because it’s true.
I realized that branding has traditionally been an underutilized resource for social impact. I saw the power in branding, and I wanted to use it for good. This was going to be really hard to do without a proper background in branding. At the Masters in Branding program at SVA I could learn from some of the best brand thinkers on the planet—and I could do it all in only 10 months.
You’ve worked with in-house brands like Jawbone, HowAboutWe, Kiva and DonorsChoose. Since graduating from SVA in 2016, you’ve paved your own path as a freelance brand strategist focusing on impact for consumer brands, social enterprises and nonprofit organizations. In what ways did the branding program prepare you to embark on this path?
I would say there are four main ways this program empowered me. Before I tell you what those four things are, I’ll point out that even breaking up my answer into its component part is a very strategist thing to do. So, I guess being able to answer this question is a fifth thing this program prepared me for.
The four main tools I got out of the program were frameworks, community, legitimacy and confidence. The frameworks are the main thing I was seeking. I got the idea behind branding, but how does one actually do it? Each professor gave me a different set of tools for thinking through that question. I also built relationships with each of those professors, as well their TAs, the staff, the alumni and my fellow students. This was the community part. All of these four tools are so important to my success, but the community piece might be the most critical part of it. To this day I still lean on the community, and in ways I didn’t imagine I would prior to joining it.
Being part of that community also gives me legitimacy. Particularly in New York City where SVA is known and highly regarded, I find that people believe in me and my ability when they know I went through this program. For those who don’t know SVA or the program, though, there’s still a credibility that comes with being able to say you put the time and effort into earning a degree in this space. Finally, all of these component pieces have given me the confidence to know I can do this work, and I can do it really well! This may seem like a small thing, but confidence is an immeasurable resource—especially for women, and even more so for women of color!
What is something that people don’t understand about branding that you wish they did? As a freelancer, do you educate clients to help them better understand branding as a concept and application?
Educating the client is really important. Our work in branding can be a bit nebulous to people outside the field, so it’s important to be able to communicate why it’s important and how it can be useful.
Of everything I’d love to share with the world about branding, the number one thing I wish people understood about branding is that it isn’t just marketing, and it isn’t just your logo. Your brand should touch everything from the name of your company, to the people you hire, to the financial investments you make, to how you treat your janitors. A brand is your organization’s identity. When you think about your personal identity, you wouldn’t say it only has to do with the clothes you wear, would you?
You’re now a teaching assistant for Professor Bret Sanford-Chung who teaches “Business and Branding Strategies” in SVA’s Masters in Branding program. Do you have the opportunity to pass along your experiences and advice to students, and, if so, what do you share with them?
I do! I try to be available to all the students and give advice on anything they ask about. It can range from reminding them to make time for sleep or self-care all the way to helping them figure out if a job is the right fit. In general, because of my particular take on branding, I’ll often have conversations with students about applying their work to social impact. It seems like more and more people are trying to figure out how to do this well, which is inspiring and exciting to see. Even for those students who don’t necessarily have social impact branding as their goal, though, I try to show them that the power inherent in branding means that it must be used thoughtfully. I think our students care a lot about bringing integrity to their work whether they’re branding a non-profit organization or a bar of soap. It means a lot to me to be able to have those conversations with them and encourage them to think through how to do that, even when it’s hard.
The other thing I try to impart to them is the importance of business and financial literacy. That is something that Bret really taught me, and it’s an honor to help her—and my co-TA Ryan Beickert—teach that to others now, too. A lot of people are surprised to learn this, but I wasn’t naturally interested in business; it was almost something I avoided. That was also true for finance more broadly. I realized, though, that if you want to make a difference in this world, and especially in this country, you have to understand our financial system. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to affect change through business, through non-profit, through politics, through medicine, through art—business and financial literacy are key to empowering yourself. That is certainly true for branding.
Outside of your work, you’ve competed as a mogul skier. How does this pursuit influence your approach to work—are there any applicable lessons that cross over into your branding career?
I could probably write a book on all the things I learned from skiing. Of those many lessons, one of the most relevant to branding has to do with competition. As a young competitor, I was always so worried about all the other girls and how much faster, better, stronger and more confident they were. My coaches taught me that while, yes, it’s important to know and understand your competitors if you want to win, you really need to focus on yourself and your own strengths. If you’re always comparing yourself to someone else you’re only ever going to be as good as them—not as good as your own potential. I think that’s especially important for brands, because if you’re just following the crowd, you’re really not defining who you are or what you’re capable of.
Skiing has also taught me a lot about beauty. There wasn’t one day on the hill when I didn’t look around and realize how beautiful the mountains were. Even on my bad days, even on the white out days where you couldn’t see a thing, I’d recognize that the mountains are truly beautiful. I may not usually think of that when I’m working, but aesthetics and beauty are so key to storytelling and impactful branding.
This article is paid for and presented by the SVA Masters in Branding program