What’s the story? Sairah Ashman on why brand matters more than ever
Branding, for both your business and personal profile, has gained in importance over the past two years. Sairah Ashman, Global CEO of creative consultancy Wolff Olins, tells Lysanne Currie why the brand matters more than ever in a post-pandemic, values-led world.
When Sairah Ashman was little, her mum used to tell her if she didn’t stand for something, she’d fall for anything. It was a lesson she never forgot. As Global CEO of creative consultancy Wolff Olins, helping others to articulate what they stand for, and relaying that message, or “story”, is what her business is all about. You may know it simply as branding. “What impression do I want to leave?” is the question leaders should be asking themselves, Ashman believes. Which is where Wolff Olins comes in.
Once described as “the perfect blend of maths and magic” the consultancy has worked with clients from Unilever to Uber and TikTok, creating, building and reinvigorating their brands. The infamous 2012 Olympics logo – the one some said looked like Lisa Simpson – was one of theirs too. A believer in lifelong learning and alumna of Harvard Business School (where she took a programme for leadership development in 2007-08) and Goldsmiths (a master’s in digital sociology in 2013-15), Ashman has been with Wolff Olins for nearly 30 years, rising from Senior Account Director to Global COO, and for the last four, Global CEO. Clients are international and span many sectors. Finance is a key area.
Anita Roddick had a cause, and she made it happen. She just got on with it. I’d like to be more like that
“We’ve worked with most of the high-street banks, asset managers and fintech disruptors that are coming over the horizon now,” she says. “We’ve got good experience in lots of sectors in finance, both in the UK and globally, which gives us a really rounded view, because we get to see a lot of trends early on.”
Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, there were few female leaders she could look up to as a role model. Margaret Thatcher was out – there was no love for Maggie in the Ashman family – so instead she found inspiration in the prescient, environmental entrepreneur Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop. “I wanted to run it!” she laughs. “She had a cause, and she made it happen. She just got on with it. I’d like to be more like that, actually.”
It’s that same mix of passion and business acumen that defines Ashman, a founder member of the House of St Barnabas homeless charity and a regular TEDx speaker. It’s a mix she’s keen to instil in her clients, to help them realise their brand on a professional and personal level. “A well-developed brand really helps position that business for future growth,” she says. The aim is to make companies engage in a more compelling way with their various audiences, in this era of conscious consumers where values and transparency are increasingly important.
It was about four years ago she noticed that CEOs were much more comfortable talking about certain issues they previously might have shied away from for fear of alienating customers, whether that was the head of Qantas coming out to support LGBTQ+ rights in Australia, or leaders speaking for (or against) Brexit. It re-emphasised for Ashman the fact that businesses can’t afford to be invisible.
“You can’t be a shy leader any more,” she says. “You have to give of yourself and be authentic. It’s absolutely key. Leaders can’t fudge it any more. And there’s no point pretending to be something you’re not. It’s quite easy to get caught out. And that’s where I think transparency and straightforwardness are appreciated, as opposed to sitting in the office obfuscating or pretending things are other than how they are.”
Not so long ago, consumers or employees knew nothing about the boss’s personal life or opinions. But an increasing number would now like to know where they stand on any number of topics before deciding whether to buy their product, invest in their company or take a job with them. “You have to figure out what your point of view is, how it aligns personally with your business and then how you want to represent that,” says Ashman. “You have to explain why you’re valuable in the world.”
This type of personal branding has risen fast in recent years, she says, particularly in the age of working from home. “As soon as we went online, there was an opportunity,” she recalls. “You’ve got influencers and people who do that for a living. And then you’ve got the rest of us who’d like to focus on the day job, but also realise a big part of that is communicating what the organisation’s about. Why would you want to come and work at our companies? Why would you want to buy from us? Business leaders have got no choice but to have an opinion.”
Some Wolff Olins clients have embraced the process, she says: “People like Paul Polman from Unilever: you feel he lives and breathes it, and it totally shows. Lego are great too, because they back the idea of play. And Ikea are really interesting – they’re trying to put their money where their mouth is in terms of sustainability.”
Political leaders she admires include New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern, “who has that gift most politicians want, natural empathy… I think we’d all feel pretty comfortable if she was running wherever we happen to be. She just looks like she makes sensible choices and understands things on a very human level.”
The new glue
The pandemic has, of course, also changed the map in hugely significant ways. “There’s that joke: who accelerated your digital transformation? Was it the CEO, the CTO or Covid-19? Because the latter has changed a lot of things. For example, the idea of going cashless is now more believable than it ever was. So from the bank’s point of view, I think they’ve already had to get their heads around branches closing, and much more stuff happening online,” says Ashman.
Also, with company headquarters or offices very much part of corporate identity, “the glue that held everyone together”, their suddenly emptied-out status found many a CEO relying heavily on branding “to make people feel that they were still part of a team”, she says. “There was a real spike in people needing comms and op eds, just to get themselves out there, because there was no other way of portraying themselves.”
It was rough going for companies who had to merge too – something branding, she argues, can help with hugely. “Usually, when you’ve gone through an acquisition or merger it can get a bit chaotic and messy,” she says. “And you’ve also got to give a very clear, compelling, differentiating reason why this new entity is better than what was there before. As you go through that process, you often need to communicate more clearly, because you’re trying to symbolise the change you’re going through, while also undergoing internal brand work to help everyone in the organisation understand the journey you’re on and why it’s important.”
Those businesses that already had quite a strong identity have enjoyed an easier ride these past two years, Ashman believes, but “lots of businesses had to pivot, massively. And some did really well, but not all of them. Those that didn’t had to start revising their strategy really quickly. If there was any disconnect between what the organisation was trying to say about itself and how the leader was behaving, for instance, that showed up very, very quickly.”
Fintech companies have a completely different challenge, she says: “No one knows who they are. So you’ve got to lay this all out and explain why they’re important, and most importantly, why the hell you can trust them, because nobody ever does.”
So, what advice would she give a leader who wanted to reposition themselves or their brand? “I think first of all, you have to get to grips with the new role you’re in and the expectations around that,” she says. “When I make decisions, some of them are quite tricky. I have to know what’s acceptable to me.” It helps, she says, to literally get some paper out and write some questions down: “You have to go back to basics: ‘Where’s my compass? What do and don’t I believe? What decisions shall I make and on what basis? How do I want people to talk about me when I’m out of the room? What impression do I want to leave that is real and authentic?’ And if you’re not happy with something about yourself, that’s the time to understand why and figure out how you’re going to make that change.”
In particular, she says that CFOs becoming CEOs will have to think in terms of the big picture: “You have to figure out how to tell stories in the organisation that frame the future in a way people understand and can believe and follow. And if you don’t already have those skills, you’re going to need some help acquiring them.
“When we think about leaders who are good at what they do, we assume they’ve always been that way. But very few of the leaders I’ve spoken to have been; most have just had to work at it through practice. So you have to know what the role is and what the expectations are, and know that you can do it – it’s just going to take a while. And if you’re not happy with something about yourself, then that’s the time to understand why and figure out how you’re going to make that change. I’ve got an idea of what a great leader looks like. And I’m just going to imagine that person. You have to do the work to get there.”
ICAS programme How to create and develop your personal professional brand runs this autumn