SVA's year-long Masters in Branding program helps strategists and creatives like Phillip Lauria hone their skills while building new understanding of the industry
Before attending SVA's year-long Masters in Branding program, Phillip Lauria was working with media and technology, using data to understand consumer sentiment and behavior. His continuing education experience at SVA added context and a philosophical understanding to his approach to advertising and marketing. Now employed as a strategist with creative agency RoAndCo, Phillip applies his skills and experience to deliver thoughtful, innovative work for clients across categories.
In the third interview of a series in partnership with SVA, PSFK spoke to Phillip about how his experience in the Masters in Branding program informs his current work. 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.
PSFK: Where did your interest in branding begin, and what led you to choose SVA’s Masters in Branding program?
Phillip Lauria: My interest began at a young age. I grew up in a religious home which gave me an interesting perspective on the power of a story well told. The ability to create realities out of words and symbols were initially used by the church to build faith. Those sample methods were adapted to foster patriotism, and most recently adapted to generate loyalty for consumer brands. I am no longer religious; however, my background did lead me to explore how historically we’ve used stories to encourage human cooperation.
The father of public relations, Edward Bernays, famously observed that the power of propaganda during wartime to build an army could be adapted in peacetime to sell products. My pursuit of branding was less about possessing the capacity to wield this power, and more a way to avoid being manipulated by it.
What surprised you most while you completed the one-year graduate degree?
I wouldn’t say surprised, but something that came into fuller view is the increasing rate of change in my lifetime. We are still in the early days of the digital revolution; only half the world has the internet so far. We are in for geopolitical and commercial changes in the next decade that will require complete systems redesign and solutions that can be rapidly tested and implemented at scale. This is completely antithetical to the way governments and large organizations function. The result of this will be large-scale disruption, and our field needs to be prepared for that outcome.
You currently work as a strategist at RoAndCo Studio. What are some of the lessons from the branding program that helped prepare you for it?
The course curriculum and readings around the power of inquiry left a big impression on me. Through the SVA Branding program, I was also introduced to brilliant mentors in my field whom I have learned a great deal from. One of the most powerful lessons for me was how we think about the time we spend on a problem. Most of us think of progress and time as having a direct linear relationship. The more time you spend on a problem, the more progress you’ll make. This isn’t necessarily true. A period of inquiry must happen before one can start designing solutions. This may not result in any output at first, but it’s necessary to make sure you’re asking the right questions to solve that problem.
Returning to school also provided me a free space for inquiry and the time to think deeply about problems. I think this is important for anyone in their career. We tend to get wrapped up in our roles, forced to multitask so often we can lose our ability to work deeply, free from distraction and guilt. Allowing myself time to ask seemingly extraneous questions is an important function of my role as a strategist. Depending on the demands of the day, this can be as simple as closing my laptop and pulling out a sketchpad.
What made you choose to pursue branding and how does your previous experience inform your work?
My previous work was in media and technology. For a number of years, I helped grow a data and research startup based in London. We tracked consumer sentiment, predicted major political outcomes and much more. Working in that field gave me an interesting perspective on human behavior and in some ways our individual sense of agency.
Behavioral research is an essential tool of any strategist, and the methods of extracting that data are getting increasingly sophisticated. Most people in branding shy away from this characterization, but the core of our work is predicting and changing behavior. We use research to understand behavior as it exists, uncover the human truths or drivers behind that behavior, and then use that knowledge to intercept consumers with words and symbols designed to change behavior.
Could you tell us briefly about your process? What do you particularly like about the work that you are doing now?
I wouldn’t say I have a set process. I’ll paraphrase what Mark Kingsley, SVA lecturer, told me last year. Strategy is context. We analyze an object’s existing context—its function, cultural context and historical context—and then propose a new context.
Interestingly, context is something traditional behavioral research often fails to consider, instead taking a more mechanistic approach to human behavior. I try and take a more philosophical approach.
This is something I love about what Roanne, founder and chief creative director of RoAndCo, and Rebecca, managing director at RoAndCo, have built into the culture here. I think we’ve developed a really elegant way of observing the world and individual lived experience with empathy, and I believe you can see this come through in the work we do.
What’s one thing you wish more people understood about branding?
That the tables have turned. That if we start using our devices as tools rather than escape portals we’d realize we not only have the capacity to inspire change but the means to organize around new stories. We are more connected now than ever before in human history. It’s no longer necessary for an idea to have a large media budget, it just has to resonate.
#BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and #NeverAgain are all branding exercises consistent with this new order. They arose as the medium of communication evolved, with little funding, but because they resonated with so many people they made an impact that will endure. We are witnessing a manifestation of this new reality as consumers are increasingly spending with brands that share their values and punishing brands that do not.
To learn more about the Masters in Branding program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is paid for and presented by the SVA Masters in Branding program