Samantha Joy Ariola talks about emotional advertising and the influence of her immigrant upbringing on her path to a branding career
Growing up as the daughter of immigrants, Samantha Joy Ariola did not imagine working in a creative field, but her upbringing ultimately set the course for her education, career and personal mission to use branding to counteract cultural stereotypes. For PSFK’s series in partnership with the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters in Branding Program, we spoke to the Interbrand client manager about changing professions, the sociology behind brand ‘tribes’ and the ads that make us cry.
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 led you to choose SVA’s Masters in Branding program after working in business immigration for five years?
After college, I gravitated toward the field of business immigration, thinking I might go to law school one day, but, subconsciously, I was also trying to reconcile inner conflict connected to my immigrant upbringing. Being the daughter of Filipino immigrants is an extremely formative part of my identity. Growing up I loved the arts and excelled in creative endeavors but was ultimately expected to become either a doctor, lawyer, nurse, engineer or accountant. I think many first-generation Americans can relate to the immigrant guilt that can ensue if your aspirations do not align with the ones your brave parents have for you—you know, the parents who uprooted their entire lives and started from scratch in a country they had never been to before, all to ensure you had opportunities that they did not. Think the Master of None episode called “Parents.”
A few years into listening to other immigrant stories every day at work, I grew more empathetic to my family’s determination to pursue careers that fulfilled U.S. visa categories but also increasingly aware that being a natural born U.S. citizen is an immense privilege. I never did anything to earn this privilege but definitely have a responsibility to pursue a version of the American dream that truly resonates with me. I believe that that in itself honors my immigrant heritage. That epiphany was the beginning of my personal rebranding journey that eventually led me to the SVA Masters in Branding program, which enabled me to tap into my creativity, love of performance through presentation, and curiosity about human behavior and culture.
What surprised you most about the program once you started?
What surprised me once I began my studies at SVA was how often I cried in class over advertisements and how emotionally rich branded content could really be. Brands, especially big global brands, are in the position to tell compelling stories and capture global audiences’ attention to spread positivity. Diageo’s Johnnie Walker brand, a legacy brand I studied in depth while at the branding program, is especially resonant with me. Their “Keep Walking” campaign has been telling global stories of progress for 18 years, recognizing the universal truth that all humans—no matter race, religion or country—have an innate desire to progress in life and that we all do so one step at a time. The visually stunning and emotionally stirring advertisements have aimed to encourage countries in turmoil, from Lebanon to Brazil, over the years and, recently, have been focusing on the United States in support of cultural diversity and inclusion.
You got a degree in History, specializing in race, gender and sexuality studies, at NYU. How were you able to bring this background to your studies at SVA?
When I studied History at NYU, I was drawn to the works of thinkers like Michel Foucault and Simone de Beauvoir and their ideas around how one’s social identity is shaped by cultural or ethnic background, gender and class. These social constructs influence who we think we are, how we want to be or are perceived by others, and to which groups we feel that we belong. They are also the material from which narratives of “Otherness” have been crafted historically—and, unfortunately, currently. This type of sociological training in recognizing how identities are formed is directly applicable to understanding brand tribes—why people choose to rally around some brands over others, how brands help them tell the world who they are and how identity drives brand choice.
Understanding the formation of identity was also useful in trend forecasting. We live in a volatile climate where the Other is still persecuted in one realm but is also wholly embraced in another as superior to being “basic.” Today, the Other often sets the tone for what will be mainstream years into the future, which requires branders to explore the cultural fringes now to mine for hints of what will be relevant and worth investing in later. It is critical for companies to be tapped into the cultural zeitgeist in this way and to evolve their brand where and when it makes sense. This is how brands stay culturally relevant, and it is how they can course correct if they go astray.
You recently started a job as a Client Manager at Interbrand. What does that role involve? Which skills from the branding program have you found most valuable since graduating in 2016?
As a Client Manager at Interbrand, I play a cross-disciplinary role, liaising and collaborating with research, strategy, verbal, design and implementation, as well as new business, finance and resource management. The role continues to evolve and unfold, but one constant is that I have hit the ground running when it comes to learning what it takes for an agency to operate as a business. My role is to nurture Interbrand’s relationships with our clients and understand their business needs. Because I am involved with the work from a high-level perspective, I am able to identify how various work streams can develop into mutually reinforcing ecosystems and propose opportunities for organic growth. This is an exciting place for me to start because it lays a solid foundation for business leadership down the line.
The Branding program equipped me with the vernacular to relate to my colleagues and the credibility that I am well-versed in the work even though I have transitioned into branding from a vastly different field. In that sense, the most valuable skill I took away from the program was the ability to reposition myself in the job market. My personal mission, effectively my positioning, is to build brands that dismantle cultural stereotypes. This statement is the distillation of everything I previously revealed about my upbringing, my education, my early career and my decision to make a change. It is my personal brand truth that I reached after asking myself why many times, and it will serve as my true north while I navigate my branding career going forward.
What do you wish more people understood about branding?
I find that when I tell people I am in branding, they often assume I make logos. While design is certainly a major component of the branding process, it is not the whole of it, and I wish more people understood that there is so much else happening behind the scenes to bring their favorite brands to life.
Branding is the practice of actively defining and intentionally differentiating, and it should inform everything about a business, from its holiday advertising campaign to its talent acquisition approach. Branding involves the strategic organization and execution of ideas, words and, yes, visuals, all considered against the context of the cultural zeitgeist, orchestrated to be simultaneously enduring and flexible, while also striking the right emotional chord.
All of these nuances can make branding seem rather nebulous, but when combined, form the brand, the expression of the business’s truth and reason for existing in the first place. The all-recognizable logo is a shorthand for the deeper meaning imbued into it over time through the experiences that people have with a brand—delightful and dismal experiences alike—so it behooves companies to ensure their branding promotes positive moments of influence and is thoughtfully infused into every part of their business.
This article is paid for and presented by the SVA Masters in Branding program