[Podcast] How to make Brands Sustainable with Katie Klencheski

[Podcast] How to make Brands Sustainable with Katie Klencheski

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Katie Klencheski is the Founder and Creative Director of Brooklyn-based SMAKK, a branding and growth studio whose mission is to help values-led clients build world changing brands.

For much of her career she has worked with everyone from industry giants like American Express and Shiseido to a variety of nimble disruptive beauty, fashion, wellness, and lifestyle brands, including The Honey Pot Company, Harry’s Razors, and more.

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Katie applies her expertise across content creation, ecommerce, social media, marketing, and digital experiences toward changing consumer behavior, leading to purchasing decisions that are better for people and the planet.


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Transcript (Auto Generated)

Hello, and welcome to JUST Branding, the only podcast dedicated to helping designers and entrepreneurs grow brands. Here are your hosts, Jacob Cass and Matt Davies.

Hello, and welcome to JUST Branding. This is Jacob Cass and Matt Davies and Katie Klencheski. Katie, is that brilliant?

Is that right? I did that wrong? Again, awesome.

We did it, we did it.

Folks, folks, that is literally the 20th take. He’s got issues saying Polish names. I say we carry on and leave that in for fun.

I think so too. All right. Okay, well, Katie is a brilliant creative and the founder of Smakk Studios, a trailblazing branding and growth agency with a mission to build brands that are better for people and the planet.

So Smakk’s known for their work with socially conscious brands and brands looking to adopt purpose-based or sustainable initiatives in a real way. So as a founder of Smakk, Katie uses her passion, creativity and experience to help values led clients build world changing brands. So she began her career in advertising, working for global brands such as Sony, MX, Cartier and more, and has recently brought her knowledge to her company.

Katie believes that the climate crisis is the most existential crisis of our time and considers sustainability and environmental impact in everything she does. It’s what inspired Smakk to create the Mission Plan, which is a guide to helping beauty and CPG brands build realistic updates to sustainability. So she built a team that uses this expertise as a force for good, not to change consumer behavior towards purchasing decisions.

So they work closely with their clients to disrupt categories, differentiate products and build consumer loyalty. So Katie, we’re super stoked you have me on the show. So apologies about the name.

But yeah, let’s start at the top. Like what inspired you to start Smakk? And great name by the way.

Oh yeah, so I started Smakk over 10 years ago now. We had our birthday this past December. We didn’t have any party because of COVID.

So we’ll really celebrate our 11th birthday. But when we started the agency, it was, I think like a lot of people, it grew out of a freelance practice and then kind of scaled from there. We really kind of pivoted into working with purpose-driven brands about four years ago.

And it happened, we’d always worked with a lot of brands that were taking on issues around social responsibility or sustainability, but we worked with a lot of other brands too. And the reason we made that pivot was because an old client of mine kind of came into the national and global news in a big way and made me rethink the kinds of clients that we were choosing to work with. And the old client was the Trump hotel collection and that man became the president of the United States.

So I hadn’t worked with them for years, but it did make me kind of stop and pause and think about what kind of clients do I wanna be working with in the future and what kind of impact do I wanna have going forward. And I really, from there I said, let’s just choose clients that we really feel like are making the world a better place in a real way. And that was really kind of when we turned into this specialization and real focus that has continued on from there.

So just for some background, what were you doing before in the industry?

I was working at an agency that focused on luxury clients. So it was kind of the odds or the nots or whatever we wanna call that time period. But when kind of luxury was a big buzzword in the world and people were really kind of focusing in on luxury designer and kind of everything was trying to elevate its stance to be considered a luxury brand.

And at that time I worked with Cartier and AmEx and a lot of different hotel groups as part of the agency that I worked at. And the Trump Hotel Collection was one of the accounts that I was on. And in fact, I was the person who wrote their global brand guidelines and did an iteration of the Trump Organization website at one point as well.

So, you know. This is reality. I was an art director.

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Okay, art director. So you’ve come from a design background or what type of background? What’s been your role in those industries?

Yeah, I mean, I started, I went to art school. So I was like a drawing and printmaking major and then moved to New York City and took some more classes at NYU and ended up in graphic design, which very quickly became graphic design for growing brands. And then, you know, kind of as I moved up the chain at different ad agencies, took on the art director title.

And, you know, then when I started Smakk, I was designing and art directing and doing all the business stuff too. And, you know, now I’m more in the brand strategy side, 10 years later.

All right, nice.

Hey, I want to dig into a couple of things, if that’s okay. Because you talked about your positioning, you know, you mentioned the story, really interesting. First of all, how’s it gone?

How’s it gone in terms of finding purpose-driven brands? I’m just super excited to talk to you about that for a little bit.

Yeah, I mean, honestly, there’s no shortage right now of brands that are really trying to think about their role as part of, you know, doing something as far as we’re good. You know, we work with a ton of brands right now that are, you know, whether it be their packaging and they’re looking at how can this be more sustainable or how can we kind of take some of our profits and use that to, you know, support a nonprofit that we care about. There’s a lot of brands that are doing awesome things in the world.

And I think that that’s part of like a change in how people are viewing what entrepreneurship is and what it should be and what the roles of companies should be. So that’s been awesome. You know, when we started this specialization, we thought we might have to get a little smaller before we get bigger.

If we’re, you know, gonna say we’re gonna drop the clients that don’t fit this profile. And we did for like a minute. And then really, it’s just been amazing how many brands kind of recognize that this is what we do.

This is the kind of company we work with. And they kind of raise their hand and say, we’d love to work with you.

There’s so much that I don’t wanna ask you. Can we start with one thing though? This idea of purpose-driven brands, you know, it’s, we say it and, you know, I guess it’s come to the fore of late, I guess, with the explosion of brands across the global world.

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But it’s kind of, I don’t know if you’d agree with this. So, you know, I don’t wanna put words in your mouth, but for me, it’s kind of like not a new idea in a way. Like we, obviously, I’m here in Britain, right?

So in Britain, we had the Industrial Revolution and there were always sort of owners of businesses who were slightly conscious. So, you know, I guess it’s become branded as conscious capitalism, right? So you’d have factory owners, yes, but there were the odd one that would be like a little bit nicer to workers than the other one, you know?

So you think of, there’s a chuckle Brown Tree, he had loads of sweet shops and stuff, and he’s renowned for being a bit more philanthropic, still very wealthy, but you know, and so you get these characters going right back into the Industrial Revolution who were, who didn’t think it was just about making money, but then somehow we lost our way and business was about shareholders and you know, and capitalism unconstrained, and then we had, you know, we’ve had bubbles bursting all over the place and you know, and I think people, like you said, are starting to rethink the purpose, the role of a business and therefore the brands that that business owns in the real world. What are your thoughts on that? Would you sort of go along with that very, very sketchy and very, probably lots of holes, probably our listeners are like, ah, Matt, but that’s how I see it in a very simple kind of bearded blonde way.

What are your thoughts, Katie?

I think that it’s really interesting the way that you framed that because I think that there’s a, that kind of like takes it apart and looks at like every generation, we look at like, what are the vehicles that should be in charge of doing the right thing? You know, and so the way you framed it is like, and there was that whole crop of around the, in fact, there’s a woman who works at our company. She’s from a town called Endicott in New York.

And I forget what it was. They made an Endicott, but it was a factory town that was really built on this kind of utopian vision that if you have a town that has a factory in it and everybody works there, you should be creating a better life for every person who kind of touches that business. Right.

And it was this utopian vision of what industrialization could do. But then, like somewhere along the way to two generations in between us and them, like it fell away from being the job of businesses to do good in the world. And suddenly, whose job did it become?

Was it nonprofits or the government? I don’t know. It’s interesting.

I read recently that one of the things that’s that’s kind of formative for Gen Z is that they’ve really lost faith in the bigger institutions like nonprofits or like the government or like larger organizations that are not businesses to actually be vehicles for good or have real impact. And they’re looking again to businesses because they see that is really the only kind of driving force to get anything done in the world right now. And so you see this kind of return to this idea that business should be the thing that that is actually making change.

So I don’t know. I feel like that’s a larger philosophical question.

I mean, my brain’s going 100 miles an hour. The old institutions of like religion, which we used to look to, and to define what a good person would be, would be found in the scriptures of the Bible, for example, whereas now society largely is atheistic most of the time, although there’s elements, but it’s mainly atheistic. So we don’t have that anymore.

So we’re kind of trying to scramble around to find what is a good virtuous person and what is good. So I’m just fascinated by that as a subject anyway, but probably you don’t have to go too far into that because it’s interesting because you’ve defined, roughly speaking, good. So I want to kind of ask you about that.

Like you’ve talked about sustainability. How do you frame that in terms of the clients that you select? Purpose driven, I get it.

But like you have a manifesto, do you have you set it out? How does it work?

So we talk about social goods, so addressing social issues. And we talk about issues around sustainability and climate change. And there’s certainly a lot in between there and a lot of things that don’t fall into either of those buckets that are definitely issues that need addressing.

I think that the passion of the people at Smakk, we make a lot of decisions together, right? Like so we, when we’re taking on new business, it’s always a conversation of, do we want to take on this client? And there are certain things that we look at in terms of, is this going to be a good client for us?

And being purpose-driven and kind of squaring up on, are they addressing issues that fall into those buckets are one thing. Then there’s also the, hey, are we going to be able to do a good job for them? And that’s like, is the budget good?

Is there a desire at that company to really embrace the services that we offer and kind of have a collaborative relationship? That’s something that we look at a lot as well. And then we also just are like, are they nice people?

Because we’re going to be working with these people for usually six months to three years, our projects are any indicators. So we don’t want to get into a relationship that’s no fun for us either. So we look at a lot of stuff, but I think sustainability and social impact, certainly there are certain social issues that we want to take on and we don’t want to take on.

I think we get into areas around social justice. We get into inequality and issues around feminism and gender conformity and things like that. And there’s a lot of people at our company who are really passionate in those areas.

So it’s really easy for us to take those on. And then on the sustainability side for us, it’s just like all businesses need to be addressing this all the time because it’s really the only chance we have in this world of fighting the climate crisis.

So, yeah, yeah, interesting.

One other question, Jacob. Sorry, I’ve taken over your folks. He is there.

I’m just I’m excited.

It’s on a high.

Yeah, but I just get into it. And it’s just interesting. And the other kind of thing that I was going to say was, do you how do you?

Well, OK, how do you feel about sort of corporate brands who, as you say, are rightly looking at these social issues and to remain relevant to folks are changing things because we’ve for a long time, we’ve had corporate social responsibility. It’s been, you know, CSR. It’s a thing.

It’s baked into a lot of big organizations. This whole departments of people playing in that space. But somehow, you know, we want more for us consumers, you know, we’re not, as you say, we’ve lost trust in those bigger organizations.

So now smaller brands are taking these these things on. And I guess my question to you is, is like, do you feel like everyone’s jumping on this bandwagon now?


So is this a good thing or a bad thing?

I don’t know. I think it’s good and bad. It’s like, you know, on one hand, you have the equivalent of greenwashing happening with everything.

Right. And then on the other hand, it’s isn’t a good that it’s a part of the conversation, you know, like that we’re addressing these topics and everybody wants to talk about them. You know, I think the problem that we get into is like, is it disingenuous?

You know, are people paying lip service to things that they’re not willing to deliver on? You know, are they talking about human rights? But then when you look at their supply chain, they’re actually totally willing to screw people, you know, down the line.

So, well, right.

Because that’s where the panic follows me.


You mentioned greenwashing. I love that. But, you know, the social justice kind of thing, you look at that and you see, you know, big brands, you know, we had Black Lives Matter, we had Me Too, all jumping on, you know, on their Instagrams and their LinkedIn and whatever and posting up all this stuff.

And you think, okay, so if you truly believed in these things, like, why is your board completely misrepresenting these things? Now, I’m not saying that they, you know, that I’ve got all the answers. It just seems very strange to me because it’s almost as if we’re virtue signaling, we’re, you know, we support this, but no one’s really doing anything about it.

And frankly, you know, if you dig down into the belief systems, what are we actually saying as a society, you know, are we really going to kind of adopt a Marxist view of this and expect organizations to sort of disseminate their money across to, what are we actually driving at, I guess, is the question. What do we really want? We don’t want oppression, I get that, but then, what’s the utopia?

What does that even look like? And I don’t know, and I’m interested, I wonder if you’ve got any thoughts on that.

Oof, what does utopia look like? Was that the question?

Yeah, what does it look like? What is good? I guess, because, you know, I guess I’m asking you.

I mean, honestly, I mean, like, I think that I look at it more as like, are we trying to right some wrongs? I don’t know that there’s like a definitive end game here. You know, like, I think we look at what is this company doing?

Do we think that this is the, it’s a net positive, you know? And is it something that’s like more than just what other kind of companies are doing where they’re paying some lip service, you know? And so it’s, you know, we look at, you know, is this product made a better way?

Would it be better if more people bought this as opposed to the thing that they’re buying right now? You know, and that’s kind of what it comes down to because like we’re working with consumer brands. So it’s, you know, like, at the end of the day, I’m helping them sell more product.

Like no matter what we do, the goal is to help them sell more product. Is it better for the world if this product is being purchased as opposed to their competitors? And that’s kind of what I asked myself about it.

And you know, if the answer is yes, then it’s the client that we want to work with, you know? So I couldn’t tell you what the end game looks like. I mean, honestly, like when you start getting into it, then you really have to ask is capitalism any good?

And I’m like, that’s something I’m totally willing to talk about. It’s just not what I’m doing for my clients.

Well, this is where it gets you. This is where I’m at. I’m like, okay, you know, it’s hard and somewhere.

Yeah, I think everybody asks themselves or should ask themselves these moral questions on a regular basis. Like, why am I doing this? What is it for?

And I think we all agree it’s more than making money. You know, it’s not just about the money. But then we have to make some money because we’ve got to survive.

So it’s going like, how does this work? So anyway, I’ve taken over for long enough. I’m going to shut up and pass back to my esteemed co-host, Mr. Jacob Cass, to bring us back down to something that resembles a decent podcast.

Over to you, Katie.

How kind of you, Matt. How kind. I think we can go and continue going with these values, right, Katie?

Because I know you have a few methods that you use to choose whether or not you work with someone. So what are the other values that you have when you go into that process?

Well, I think, you know, I mentioned a couple of them. I mean, one of the questions that we ask is, like, can we do a good job for this client? And like a lot of that has to do with, you know, what we have to offer and whether we’re going to be able to have a really great collaboration with a client, you know, and that has to do with how people are to interact with and, you know, like whether there’s chemistry and things like that.

So, you know, it is it is clear I’ve worked with companies that, you know, are really toxic, like, you know, the way that the top down, the way people are treated, you can you feel it feeling bad, you know, and it’s like even companies that like on the things that they say, it’s like if that’s not how they’re actually doing business and you’re looking like behind like what’s actually happening, that doesn’t feel good either. So it’s like, you know, looking for like respect across the board and like how people are treated at companies is something that, you know, we’re always kind of looking at because it spills out to us to like if you work with a company that’s kind of toxic or, you know, you just feel kind of yucky like when you’re working with them, so we talk about that a lot. I mean, one of the things that has been a topic of conversation for us a lot as a company during COVID is also like, what is this company for?

Like what are we here to do for each other as well? And like one of the things that, you know, has come up a lot is like conversations around like, okay, this company has to provide security for the people who work here. So, you know, like we want it to feel stable.

We want it to feel good. We want it to feel like we’re thinking about things like mental health. And are we providing enough opportunities internally for people and making sure that this is a great place to work?

So, I don’t know. I think we’ve been kind of questioning some of the bigger things around like, what does this agency do for us? And what is it doing for the people we interact with?

And it’s, we always want it to feel like we’re kind of like a force for good. And it’s always, it feels good for everybody.

So what are some brands you think are doing this well?

In terms of kind of like addressing issues, we’ve been working with some really cool companies. We just relaunched a brand called Conscious Step this fall, which is a brand that they make socks and sweatshirts and like the kind of stuff that, it’s fashion, but it’s the stuff you have to buy. And they make really fun products, but every product gives back to a different nonprofit.

But then along the way, everything is fair trade and ecologically sourced. And really it was the founder’s vision that even a small purchase should be something where you’re able to feel like you’re doing good along the way with it. And so, it’s like, you have to buy socks, might as well buy socks that are a force for good in the world.

So we just launched them in, let’s see, right before the holidays. I guess that’s six months ago now. Time is really going fast.

That’s amazing. Yeah, but that, I mean, stuff like that is really fun because for me working with them, I was like, wow, like every part of what they’re doing is considered. You know, it’s not just, okay, let’s give back 1% of this purchase to a nonprofit.

It’s okay also, but like the thread that we’re using in the socks has to be something that’s made well. And everybody who touched this product along the way was better for it. And so like, I take a lot of inspiration from the brands we work with like that.

Sounds like a good partner for Tom’s.

Yeah, yeah.

Patagonia. Well, they’re the go-tos, aren’t they? They’re the classic examples that you look at and you can see that success can be carved out and, you know, money can be made, but also, as you say, the planet and people can be impacted in a really positive way.

At least that’s the image that I’ve got of those brands. I wonder, one day we’ll probably get someone on, Jacob, who’s been inside and we’ll see if it’s all true, but I’m sure it is, you know, because the thing is today, you can’t hide, can you? So I just wonder, you know, your employees are all on social media and stuff and your customers are all on social media, so you can’t hide from these things.

How do you find, well, I was gonna, I guess the question is, do you ever take on a client who maybe isn’t doing the right thing and is coming to you for advice on how to change? Do you ever do that?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the people who are doing the least right have the most room for improvement. So we love taking on those projects.

Like right now we’re working with a brand that is in the oral care space and they’re trying to go plastic free with their packaging, which is tough because technically they have like this at home kit, it’s considered a medical device. So we’re working through it kind of component by component, seeing how we can reduce the plastic and find more sustainable options to achieve the same thing. So that stuff is awesome because there’s so much wrong.

There’s a lot to get right. But then on the other side, I’ve worked with clients who say that sustainability is an important value to them. And that’s kind of why we take them on.

And then we’re going through replacing a packaging program and it’s the difference of a couple cents here or there. And suddenly the standards start slipping. And those are tough conversations to have because you try to hold their feet to the fire and say, hey, you walked in the door saying sustainability was important.

If we can keep this sustainable, we can have better marketing stories to tell. But if you start taking that apart and are willing to not hold yourselves up to standards, what are we really talking about when we’re marketing to people and trying to say you’re a sustainable brand? Because once people really start looking, they’re gonna find that that’s a claim you’re trying to make, but you can’t back it up.

Right, I think that’s such a good insight because it’s not easy, is it, for brands sometimes to fulfill the potential that they want to because of things like price points, you know, consumer demand might not be high. I don’t know, obviously, that client, but it might not be high for a plastic-free dental or whatever product. So it’s tricky.

So what happens then? Like, you have those tough conversations, but what happens if they say, no, we’ve really got to do this, Katie. We’ve really got to, you know, have an unsustainable sort of aspect in our supply chain.

What happens then?

Well, we’ll try to fight the good fight as long as we can. And I have had to admit defeat and it sucks, you know, but that’s not a client I’m renewing a contract with, you know, so that’s, you know, that’s where that comes in. And, you know, it’s, we kind of say like, you know, if you’re not holding yourself up to your own standards, you know, you don’t get our time and talent, so.

Yeah, and you lose trust that way. The brand promises in being fulfilled. So it’s a down, slippery slope to that one.

I think the other side of this, right, is in, you know, I mentioned supply chains just now. And, you know, I think the other thing that brands have to become better at, and I wanna ask you whether you’ve seen this or whether, you know, you have experience in this, and that is in the supply chain route, because they themselves, you know, a lot of brands don’t always manufacture every component for a product or every part of, and some of them don’t own the whole end-to-end supply chain. So how much responsibility do you advise your clients to have or to put into reviewing their whole end-to-end supply chain and really digging into even some of the areas that they may not have full control over?

I mean, we’ve been on some projects lately where we’re really deeply getting into things like not just what is this component made out of, but where is it being shipped from and what are the emissions along the way? And working with clients who are going through auditing like end-to-end, what are the carbon emissions on this product? And you get into some really nuanced conversations.

We were working on a project, and I can’t say too much about it, but we were looking at evaluating glass or plastic for a component, and glass infinitely recyclable, it can feel more premium, but it’s breakable, it’s heavier. So that means that every case of it that gets shipped is that much heavier, it’s gonna require that much more in terms of fuel to transport it. And if you’re looking at the plastic component and it’s this much closer to the production facility versus this glass component, which is further away and it has to travel a great, you get into, this is the kind of math that I tried to avoid by going to art school.

But it’s important, isn’t it? It’s really important because as we say, I’m about for this stuff. And so these decisions are coming more and more into scrutiny.

And I do think some of the kind of decisions are becoming more complex as you’ve sort of illustrated in relation to that. You know, it’s not easy always. You know, sometimes like, for example, I’ve had a lot of, you know, discussions with one client recently about, you know, how much they put online and, you know, they’re saying, well, it’s not actually always more sustainable to put stuff online because frankly, there’s, you know, if someone’s got to wade through PDFs, they might print stuff themselves.

And there’s loads of sort of other areas and behaviors that are not immediately on the surface obvious to you. You think, oh, I’ll just put it online. And then I’m fine.

But then if that’s not usable easily online, and if customers are starting to print stuff or whatever, it kind of gets confusing in terms of what we do.

Yeah, I mean, there’s so much to it. I mean, there is like a whole side by side industry to what we’re doing that is really auditing supply chains and things like that. So that is a different job, but it is a job that informs what we do in every project we’re learning more on because there’s just more to consider.

And I do think there are some brands that are going through like really extensively auditing materials and emissions and really every piece of what happens between when that product is not just produced, but sourced, through to what happens after it leaves your hands when you’re done using it and it goes into the waste stream. And it’s really important that we get a better handle on what happens with things. But then beyond that, you end up in these scenarios just thinking more about packaging.

We’re looking at things like, okay, on your direct-to-consumer channel, because you’re shipping it, maybe we can ditch a layer of packaging, right? Like we can get rid of that secondary box if we’re putting it in a self-shipper. But on the flip side, you have brands that sell on Amazon and it’s the primary container in a secondary box.

Then it goes into something that, from an Amazon ship center has all sorts of plastic around it to cushion it. And then it’s in a separate box that gets shipped out. And you get these multiple layers of packaging that the person who designed that product isn’t in control of all of those layers, but it’s something that needs to be considered too.

So sometimes we talk about e-commerce as being like the silver bullet when it comes to kind of fixing issues with packaging and stuff like that, but then it ends up going the other way. So it’s layered, literally.

So what are some ways that brands could actually adopt or become more sustainable?

Yeah, I mean, definitely like the biggest thing that we look at with brands is packaging, because that’s when we’re talking about consumer packaged goods, that’s literally the definition of it. And the other thing is, in the design process, that’s what we usually have the most control over. So we’re always looking at ways to reduce the footprint of packaging and make it more sustainable, whether it’s switching out materials, whether it’s looking at simplifying components so that there’s just less that goes into it.

I think the challenge that, one of the many challenges there is that, especially when you look at, we work a lot in skincare and beauty, and a lot of what has kind of gone into creating consumer brands, if you look at a category like perfume, so much of what you’re actually buying is the packaging, because that’s what sells the product on shelf. So we’re really having to change kind of what consumers expect from prestige brands or brands that have kind of an implied high value when we go to simplifying things. But I do think that there is like a changing sentiment in how consumers kind of are valuing minimalism or seeing that as a signifier or something that’s valuable.

So, you know, that’s something that, you know, we lean into a lot there. We also talk about things like, you know, can you develop refill programs and looking at, you know, how we can shift the packaging to support that. So a lot of the sustainability stuff is coming in there.

And then, you know, we do work a lot with brands on helping them get credit for the things that they’re doing right. So, you know, helping to tell better marketing stories around the sustainable things that you’re doing. One of the things that we know is that brands that market with sustainability tend to do much better in the marketplace over time.

So there was a study, I think, that NYU Stern did that looked at the historical performance over the last 10 years of brands that use sustainability in their marketing. They performed 5.6 times better than conventional brands in terms of growth. So there’s, you know, some real data that backs up that sustainability is a story that consumers care about.

So we look at, you know, if a brand is doing sustainable things and there’s stories to tell on how the product is made, we’re gonna look at, you know, how can we tell that story in a way that is more memorable and more unique to the consumer?

So what about services that aren’t like consumer packaged goods or like, you know, more digital products and keep working in that realm as well?

Not as much, although we just launched or worked with a brand that launched a FinTech platform that is actually for investing or giving to nonprofits with like a micro philanthropy platform called Gen-E. So that was a fun project to work on and that was a little bit more in that digital side. But for the most part, our brands are things that you can touch and see and use.

Fair enough. So when it comes to like changing consumer behavior and they’re like how they buy, like what would you be doing in the efforts there to help sway their decision?

I mean, I think everything that you traditionally think of within branding and marketing, but we really start with what’s the white space that this brand can authentically own in a category. So we’re always looking at how are we developing, really like positioning and storytelling for brands that is truly ownable and really unique and something that we can then build a larger story around when it comes to visuals and art direction and all of that. But our team is really kind of at its core, always thinking about how we build a branded foundation and then it’s about how do we take that through the consumer touch points.

But would you mind like giving us an example like how you’ve done this? Like you found that white space, you’ve differentiated the product, you’ve found the right positioning and like what’s the story that you’ve told to like, you know, tell that through?

Yeah, so we launched or relaunched rather a really cool brand called The Busy Company this fall. And they are a brand that was founded on the premise that beauty steals time from women, right? It was a female founder who founded it with her boyfriend.

And she kind of had her aha moment when she was a high achieving student athlete in college and realized that she and her boyfriend had the exact same schedule, but she always came up like two hours short at the end of the day. And it was because she had to, you know, after she did her workout, she then had to take a shower, do a blowout, do her makeup. Shave her legs, do all the stuff.

And so she looked at how could I get time back for women? And as she was looking at products, she realized if she could wipe out a shower, she could take back a lot of time in her day and started developing these different wipes. So full body wipes that could replace a shower.

And as their business started growing, she realized that she had just kind of created like the plastic straw in the beauty industry because most wipes are made of polyester. They come in excess packaging and you, every time you’re using it, you’re just throwing away something. It’s a single use product kind of one and done.

And it does no good for the environment, even though you’re saving water and there’s conversation to be had there. So they came to us as they were looking at how could we reformulate our products and completely change how we make them into something that’s completely zero waste. So they came to us and they were working on fully biodegradable.

The one component that is something that goes into the waste stream is fully recyclable. And the product itself is made from refuse off of production runs of Egyptian cotton. So it actually is something that would have gone in the waste stream initially before they started using it.

So it’s a really great kind of circular story in terms of how they’re creating a product. So in working with them, we really dug into, okay, there’s this awesome founding story that has this really cool feminist bent to it that’s about helping women kind of amplify their lives. But there’s also this side by side sustainability story that we need to tell.

And we really started looking at kind of like, what are the rising ideas that we see in how beauty brands are connecting with consumers and what women are kind of demanding from their products. And we really started looking at this idea of no longer compromising, right? No longer saying like, okay, I’m willing to compromise on this or use a product that I feel bad about or I feel like is damaging to the planet.

We really built the positioning all around that. And so there’s within it a narrative voice that really has a kind of fun feminist bent to it. And the packaging was really built on, it’s actually a lot of like handwriting and it’s conversations that feel like they’re happening with the consumer right on the shelf.

And within that looked at like, there’s a couple of different stories that we tell there. One is about kind of getting your time back. One is about like not compromising on your time or what you’re willing to expect from the brands you interact with.

And then the last is the sustainability story and really educating people around, the fact that wipes are a problem and telling the story that they can be zero waste. And so that was what we went to market with and created a really beautiful branding around it and really fun brand to interact with. And they’ve been doing awesome since we’ve launched, which is really great.

That’s a great story. I love how you have this big idea of time and you’ve bolted on the sustainability to it to really differentiate the products. So I think it’s a brilliant example.

Would you be able to explore some or share some more like touch points, how are you actually communicating this story, like on the packaging, the marketing material, what’s going on there?

Yeah, so the packaging, I’d have to pull it up because we have some really great copy on there, but it’s a lot of kind of statements that then get crossed out and replaced by other statements. So kind of playing with puns and having a lot of fun with that voice that kind of feels like it’s like editing what you’re saying in real time. And with the zero waste story, we have one panel of the packaging is really about kind of telling that zero waste story and defining it because people say zero waste and there’s no kind of uniform definition of what that means.

So kind of telling like, this is why this is zero waste and this is why other products in this category aren’t.

I love how you mentioned voice as well. This is important to consider. You have this big idea, you bolt in the sustainability and then you have, how are you gonna communicate that?

And that’s how it’s delivered and that’s how you can differentiate your product from others. So you mentioned the fun side of it. What else is going on when you’re communicating to these women?

So we always go through an exercise where we’re really looking at how this voice is gonna live in the world and really treating it like a true personality. So we always kind of triangulate it usually through a couple celebrities that we mentioned, that we look at as like this is who this brand sounds like. So I think for this, we had a lot of comedians that were kind of the reference points of, this is who this brand should sound like.

It’s people who talk in a really frank tone and are very candid in how they speak. We also talked a little bit about, one of the things that we say a lot in personal care, we work with a lot of brands that are in feminine care and like the girl stuff that kind of makes men cringe in commercials, but one of the big things that’s been happening there is that we have a lot more kind of candid conversations about things that were previously seen as taboo, but between women, it’s just a conversation. And so we’ve been having, within this brand, it was about kind of acknowledging like women sweat and they stink and sometimes like you have a sticky mess you need to clean up and that’s fine.

That’s a part of life. You don’t need to shy away from that. Messes are just a sign of a life well lived.

And so when we were talking about the brand voice and defining kind of like what are the things that we’re gonna say to women, it’s about saying like, that’s totally normal, like we’re here for you. So that was a big part of kind of who this consumer voice was going to be.

And how did you actually get to those insights? How did you arrive at that point?

So we do a lot in our process where we really look at not just what’s happening in category for our clients, so it’s not just about what are other white brands doing, but what are we seeing in terms of adjacent categories? What are the rising trends that we could use as case studies for what might be successful here? And then we also talk a lot about what’s our cultural moment?

Like what’s happening right now and how people are talking and what conversations they’re having and how could that be something that could be relevant to this brand? So when we were looking at this brand, we’re really looking at a lot of the conversations around women’s health that were happening in a big way. And we talk about, me too, we talk about, there’s a lot around kind of female founders and women entrepreneurs and the demands we have in our time and how little time moms have.

And that was something that we’ve realized like, hey, we could be a part of this conversation because we’re offering a real solution to those women. So kind of recognizing them and seeing them and then also seeing that when we look at adjacent categories like women’s razors or what’s happening in feminine care and the way that women are talking about their bodies and their messy bodies and the things that we need to do to support ourselves, we’re like, this brand is really well positioned to carry on this conversation within their category. So really kind of understanding that it’s not just about like this product and the problem solution conversation, but also about kind of a larger evolving conversation about how we kind of ourselves in the world was, something that we brought into that.

Amazing, thank you for sharing that.

It helps a lot that our team is 90% women too.

Yeah, I was gonna say, I saw on your website, that you sort of have a line, something like, under 0.1% of the creative agencies that are founded by women or something, which I thought was an interesting one. So just wondered if I could ask you on that. Like how, do you find that you attract other female founders because of that kind of connection or, yeah, so it’s kind of like a…

I think there’s a lot of, you know, we have a lot of meetings where it’s like…


All women on this call, again.

You think that’s a good thing, Katie?

I think that when you’re marketing a product to women, you know, we’re in a lot of conversation. Listen, I think that whoever the product is for, if you don’t have somebody who looks like a person in the room, you’re probably doing something wrong, right? So I think, you know, we are luckily at this point where, you know, we’re making products for a lot of people who kind of look like ourselves, or, you know, our clients are making products for people who look like us and we’re well positioned to talk about, hey, this is what’s going on here.

So it doesn’t hurt to be a user of the product when you’re a practitioner of the brand, so.

I insist to my clients that I have to use their products, you know, including, you know, very, very high-end products. I definitely insist. The higher, the more higher end the product, the more I insist that I have to experience it.

No, no, that’s fantastic. And I think, I think you’re right. Like, I think, you know, if you are a ideal customer, yourself or your members of your team are, you know, you obviously all come with a different perspective, but you can then, you know, the insights that you will have in your minds that you can bring to the project, you know, are invaluable because you basically, you are the audience.

So you know what ticks and what works and what would put you off and what would make you feel uncomfortable. So it kind of makes complete sense.

And you can see, I mean, we’ve worked with a lot of feminine care brands. So it’s interesting when I look back at like the commercials that were running in the eighties, when you know that like the room was mostly men versus what commercials look like now, you know, because the difference between like, oh, we find this uncomfortable and we’re not sure how to talk about it. So we’re going to pour blue liquid on a napkin because that’s our comfort zone versus what women will actually do.

It’s a different space, you know, so, you know, but I think, you know, we definitely have some subject matter expertise that we’ve built over time that I think is a direct result of, you know, we’re working with founders who are kind of solving problems for themselves and they’re saying, hey, you also are in this demographic and so you probably have some insights that, you know, or you’re just, you’re not starting from zero on this project.

We’ve gone through a lot, unless you have like another really great example to share, like, did you have any, you know, parting words or, you know, words of wisdom for people that want to get more sustainable?

Yeah, so we put out a, I guess, an e-book, if we want to call it that, called The Mission Plan last year, and it’s basically just a big kind of amalgamation of all the things that we’ve learned so far about kind of taking the first steps towards sustainability. If you are a consumer brand that’s looking for some ideas, and that’s something that you can just download off our website, which is smacksmakk.com. So that’s something that we have, yeah.

Amazing, so the mission plan. So is it mission plan for other people or is it part of your mission? Or like just to clarify that?

Well, you mean where did the name come from?

I was looking at your site and it said like mission plan. So is that the ebook or is that part of your mission?

Oh, that’s the book, that’s the downloadable, yeah.

Okay, cool, so smacksstudios.com to download the mission plan ebook. Yeah, cool, well, thank you so much for your time and sharing all your wisdom on sustainability. I love what you’re doing and integrating all of that into your client’s work is really admirable.

I think more people should be doing this and that’s why we really got you on the show to talk about that. So thank you so much for your time.

Yeah, thank you so much, Katie. It’s been a fascinating conversation and really appreciate your thoughts on it and keep doing what you’re doing. We’re big fans of what you’re producing and your approach.

So thank you very much.

Yeah, thanks so much for having me. I’m glad we were able to answer what is Utopia and what is the meaning of goodness. Just a couple of the big questions.

Well, you know, you can’t come on this show and hide, you know, that’s at the end of the day. But the thing is, frankly, just before we close, what I really admired about your responses was that you were so honest. Like you were like, well, I don’t really know.

We’re just trying to figure this out. You know, we’re trying to move towards a better world. And I think the honesty of that, if you had come out and gone, well, this is it.

And I’d have been like, really? Like, wow. So, you know, frankly, I didn’t know how you’d respond.

So thank you for not virtually poking me in the eye when I asked such difficult questions. But, you know, you answered them really, really well. And I think, I hope I speak for the listeners when they’ll appreciate, you know, that response.

So thank you.

Thanks for having me on. This was awesome.

Well, you’re feeling guilty, Matt.

Well, I was worried that, you know, I’d sort of pushed hard, but, you know, I think we’ve got to ask these questions of ourselves. And I don’t mean this just to Katie. I just think all of us need to be thinking a lot more, you know, intellectually and deeper around the impact that we’re having and actually where we’re going as a society.

And these are big, yeah, huge questions that I think we all are grappling with. And I think businesses and brands do well to take Katie up on some of the challenges that she’s put before us in this episode. And, you know, I really commend that.

We’ve all got to keep asking questions, right?

Yeah, no, and I think one of the biggest problems in our industry is that for the longest time, it’s been possible to do really good work for bad clients and not have their retention. You know, people can do a beautiful ad campaign for a company that’s just absolute garbage, you know, and that shouldn’t be possible.

I 100% agree with that. I think we should sign off there. I think that’s a mic drop moment.

Katie’s just slammed it. Like that is, you know, me and Jacob are all for that. Like truth, like if we’re gonna say, we’re gonna show up to do good, let’s do good.

Let’s not just say it like a little veneer, whitewash ourselves, greenwash ourselves, virtually signal ourselves. Let’s actually do some good in the world. And I think that’s a commendable place for us to perhaps pause.

So thanks so much.

Thank you.

Guys, take care.

Take care, Katie. Thank you.

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