Interbrand Associate Strategist Kate Larrabee discusses the power of recognizing, developing and embracing our strengths as individuals and brands

In another installment of this year’s PSFK series in partnership with the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters in Branding Program, we spoke to Kate Larrabee, Associate Strategist at the New York division of global brand consultancy Interbrand, about her move from anthropology to branding and how SVA’s program helped her recognize and develop her strengths and prepare her for the next stage of her career.

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 have an undergraduate degree in anthropology from New York University. How did your interest evolve into branding, and what led you to choose SVA’s Masters in Branding program?

I discovered branding at Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon, on a rainy night in 2011. I had moved to Portland after graduating from NYU and had lived there almost a year, and the doors were not opening for me career-wise. I had interviews, but I wasn’t experienced in articulating what I was good at and what I could offer—two very important things. After spending the majority of the year trying to explain the value of my undergraduate degree in anthropology to people in advertising, I was feeling down. I decided to walk to Powell’s bookstore to buy What Color is Your Parachute?, a seminal classic for people who don’t know what direction to go in.

As fate would have it, a different book found me instead. On the end cap of the business aisle I discovered Brand Thinking by Debbie Millman. I opened the front cover and read the first line on the dust jacket: “Scientists and anthropologists tend to agree…” I didn’t need to read any further. Thrilled to have found someone using the word anthropology in the context of branding, I immediately bought the book. The next day I wrote a letter to Sterling Brands in New York, where Debbie worked. I was so excited about the possibilities of the discipline because it combined everything I had done up to that point: my background in the arts, design, culture, philosophy and anthropology. I dove into branding and haven’t looked back.

Fast forward a few years, I decided to go back to school, and I choose SVA’s Masters in Branding program. It was the perfect fit. I had looked into other more traditional MBA programs, but I didn’t think they would be creative enough for me.

Students in the program have diverse backgrounds and come in with a variety of degrees. Did you enter with the hopes of combining your interest in anthropology with what you were going to learn? And how did your previous studies blend with the new knowledge you gained at SVA?

I think I could be included in the running for student with most diverse background! At least I can say I was really liberal with my liberal arts education. When I was growing up, my dad told me, “Find your purpose.” That was his version of career guidance. That statement combined with an innate sense of curiosity launched me into a decade of serious wayfinding and I covered a lot of ground.

As an undergraduate, I studied botany, fine art, photography, animation, poetry, East Asian studies—seriously, I wrote a whole term paper on covert operations in Okinawa during the Cold War and I got an A!—and anthropology, which is the study of people and culture that combined all my pursuits in a great way. Then after college and prior to the branding program at SVA, I worked stints as an account planner, design project coordinator, visual strategist and futurist. All of that exploration served me well and I came to SVA having been exposed to a wide slice of life. I had already worked at few agencies and was familiar with the industry. In short, I showed up to the branding program with open eyes, aware of the flexibility inherent in branding and eager to develop new skills.

I think you can mold the practice of branding into whatever shape you want. You can customize it. Deciding that you want a career in branding is just the first step. The work is then deciding what you want to do with branding and carving out the space you want to occupy. I think branding is at its best when you start to make connections between disparate subjects and find novel relationships and patterns in your work—that’s when it gets fun, when combinatorial thinking really gets going.

What surprised you the most, or what did you learn about yourself, while you completed the one-year graduate degree program?

I learned that I had value. I started graduate school after a long period of wayfinding and a lot of rejection. Discovering I had value and something to offer was a revelation. The second part is I learned how to package all of what I thought I could offer in a way that was digestible and accessible and communicated what I could bring to the table. I believe this is an especially valuable thing for students with diverse backgrounds to learn: how to present themselves in way that communicates their value.

On another note, I learned that I was a good “opener.” At one point, the students got feedback on their individual presentation styles, and apparently I was good at kicking off a client presentation. After that discovery, I was frequently the member of the team that started our presentations and presenting was something I really came to enjoy.

You graduated in May 2016 and now work as an Associate Strategist at Interbrand. Tell us about the work you do there and how the branding program helped you prepare for the role. 

It’s still in the early days for me at Interbrand, but so far as a strategist there I’ve worked on a range of projects. Recently I’ve worked on developing a purpose statement to help a heritage brand find relevance in culture. I co-wrote an article about artificial intelligence as it relates to hospitality brands and have worked on a couple pitches for new clients. Projects change frequently. On any given day, I could be navigating a different challenge. The branding program prepares you for all of that because it teaches you how to approach and tackle business problems creatively.

If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice prior to entering the branding program, what would it be? 

I think I’ve grown quite a bit in the two years since I applied to and graduated from the program. Thinking back, I would tell myself to have more confidence in my abilities. Self-doubt was the biggest obstacle I had to learn to overcome. As a graduate student, surrounded by brilliant thinkers and listening to lectures from design and creative luminaries, imposter syndrome set in. I would tell my former self to trust that I am worthy of being where I am and to get out of my own way and have fun with it all.

Applications are still being accepted for Fall 2018—apply today! Or, to learn more about the Masters in Branding program, email branding@sva.edu.

This article is paid for and presented by the SVA Masters in Branding program

In another installment of this year’s PSFK series in partnership with the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters in Branding Program, we spoke to Kate Larrabee, Associate Strategist at the New York division of global brand consultancy Interbrand, about her move from anthropology to branding and how SVA’s program helped her recognize and develop her strengths and prepare her for the next stage of her career.

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.