Cheryl Johnson tells PSFK about her experience in SVA's Masters In Branding Program and how it informs her career in brand strategy and business development
With experience in public relations, social media and event planning already, Cheryl Johnson followed her natural passion for branding to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters in Branding Program. There, SVA gave Cheryl Johnson the skills to grow her professional career beyond what she had previously thought possible.
Johnson currently holds the position of Strategy and Development Associate at COLLINS, a strategy and brand experience design company based in New York and San Francisco. In this role, she works to identify new opportunities and territories for the company to explore and move into. Additionally, Johnson coordinates with the press in regards to project launches to make sure clients' stories are told accurately and interestingly.
In the second interview of a series in partnership with SVA, PSFK spoke to Johnson about how her experience in the program influences her 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?
Cheryl Johnson: My interest in branding began in high school. After being in the school’s choir for nearly a decade, I signed up for a Sports Marketing class, which sparked my interest in marketing and public relations. In college, I would incorporate brand tactics into my assignments and extracurriculars; without even realizing it, I was setting the foundation for a career in the field.
After college, I worked for a company that was going through a rebranding and was on a small team deciding the work’s creative direction. I was also in charge of implementing the new system across internal and external communications as well as on social media. The experience heightened my curiosity about all the ins and outs of developing and deploying a brand, so I looked into graduate work in the field. After researching many schools, I was impressed by SVA’s Masters in Branding program. I was sold after attending the school’s 2017 thesis presentation: Repositioning the American Dream.
The original plan was to sit in on only one or two presentations, but they were so compelling I stayed for the whole day; seeing the various way a smart brand dialog could change the understanding of America reframed what I thought was possible. I left that day plotting my goals for the program and accomplished nearly all of them before I graduated this past July.
What surprised you most while you completed the one-year graduate degree?
I realized my understanding of the field was only the tip of a huge iceberg. So I immersed myself in all that I could to understand all of the integral practices of branding. In school, I worked harder than I ever had before, except it didn’t feel like work—every project was another opportunity to gain a better understanding of strategy, storytelling, research and more. My favorite part about learning is understanding how things operate, mastering them and then seeing how I can improve the process.
You currently work as a Strategy & Development Associate at COLLINS. What are some of the lessons from the branding program that helped prepare you for it?
Developing new ideas and activations for brands every week in the program helped me prepare for my work here at COLLINS.
The program expanded my way of thinking; it taught me to consider other points of view when trying to figure out how a brand can reinvent itself for the future. This frequently comes up during conversations with new clients as we start to identify new opportunities for their brand.
The SVA program also reawakened my interest in writing and research—finding the right voice and tone to frame a new vision for our clients, and helping them interpret that idea through design is endlessly inspiring. Speaking in front of my classmates every week for a year gave me the confidence I needed to lead our efforts with the press regarding our work. For example, I recently used my experience in public speaking to help a colleague of mine here at COLLINS create his talk for a conference in Egypt.
What made you choose to pursue branding and how does your previous experience inform your work?
I already had experience in public relations, social media and event planning. Adding brand thinking to my skill set would enable me to be more deeply involved in what I love to do, from discovery to implementation.
Before the program, I sat in on plenty of meetings where decisions were being made, but I felt like I wasn’t being listened to. I needed to strengthen my expertise and knew branding would help me with that.
COLLINS often works with mythic archetypes in the development of our strategy work. So if I had to pick an archetype for myself I would probably say “The Every(wo)man,” due to my varied experiences working in jobs in aviation, hospitality, fashion, beauty, government, retail stores and even running the carry-out window at a Mexican restaurant—my first real job.
All the knowledge of the inner workings of these industries—how they operate and what it’s like for an employee—has been invaluable when determining what might work best for a brand and helping clients decide where they could credibly go next.
Also being a person of color, I’m committed to creating more opportunities for our communities to be heard. I cannot accept the excuse that companies still aren’t sure where or how to find talent and advance people of diverse backgrounds.
Could you tell us briefly about your process? What do you particularly like about the work that you are doing now?
My own process involves finding a fresh insight that will enable me to tell the best story possible or to convey a worthy idea. I start with research and gather all the information I need to start crafting a narrative. But I have learned to not be so attached to every tiny bit—I still sometimes struggle to trim unnecessary information, without losing or diminishing the ideas.
Working at COLLINS has taught me to appreciate the power of metaphor. We use them to give our work tangible, measurable attributes, almost in a way that if you were describing the work to someone who was blindfolded they’d still be able to understand it. We don’t like fluffy “brand speak” here.
What’s one thing you wish more people understood about branding?
Two things: First, whether a company likes it or not, its brand already exists. The big question is are they managing it as meaningfully as they would any other company asset? After their product, their means to deliver it, and their customers, their brand will be the most powerful tool they have to help build and scale their business.
Second, COLLINS helps companies work better for people. We do that by working with leaders to improve their brands to better anticipate and be more responsive to their customers’ evolving needs. Then we build the brand—in the form of communications, experiences and technologies—to better connect with them every day. There’s no right formula for this, which makes it even more exciting—I can't imagine ever getting tired of doing the work that we do.