Q&A with Amanda Munilla, Managing Director, Wolff Olins San Francisco
Q: Wolff Olins emphasizes business’ inflection points, whether that involves major repositioning, a refined narrative, strategic fine-tuning, or simply a sharper expression of purpose, or even a blend of all of the above. Help us understand what truly defines an inflection point, and how a brand can know “for sure” that they’re at one.
The strategies you mention above are some of the ways Wolff Olins helps brands respond to inflection points. The inflection points themselves are rooted in the state of the company’s business, brand, and culture. For example, a company that brought an innovative product or service to market just a few years ago might find that competitors have emerged or caught up, leaving the brand without a way to grow and differentiate. A late-stage startup might have scaled its business globally and expanded into new areas, but that might mean that the brand organization needs new ways of gaining user insights, a strategy reset, or better design tools to match the scale of the business. Or an inflection point can be driven by the need to attract talent. A company may start asking “What kind of people do we need—skillswise and culturally? Why would they want to work here and how do we shape our culture and articulate a narrative that attracts them?”
Q: What does it mean to traverse an inflection point? Can you give us an example?
Our recent work with Uber came at a well-publicized inflection point. The company had grown immensely and had changed the conversation on transportation in many cities around the world. Uber had new leadership and was investing in safety and accessibility, as well as new business areas like food delivery and freight. The company was also looking to realign its internal culture and define a new mission that could tell a new story about what Uber as an organization could become. All of these shifts taken together created a pretty significant inflection point. The previous Uber brand was no longer reflecting the company’s role as a global mobility platform and wasn’t up to the task of creating the interactions Uber wanted to have with riders and drivers. The work we partnered with Uber to create required a lot of thinking about the company’s renewed mission, the design of the brand, and the role the brand could have in supporting Uber’s ambition around the world. For example, we created a specific blue in the Uber color palette to be used in UX and communications for moments of care and safety. That allows Uber to functionally deliver on safety as a priority, but also to tell compelling stories around their safety focus.
Q: What is the opportunity to be had? And how about the risks?
An inflection point is an opportunity to proactively redefine your business and brand. The risk is waiting until the inflection point has de-positioned your brand and business, making you irrelevant to customers and no longer competitive in the market.
Q: When a brand approaches an inflection point, how important are internal changes versus external ones? Must they always be tied together?
Ideally, they are tied together. Explaining to employees what needs to change and why is crucial. It’s also crucial to set expectations and identify a meaningful role for employees (especially those outside of the brand/marketing/design organization) in making progress against the brand goals. ‘Internal’ work is not just feel-good for employees, either. It’s also about equipping teams with the right understanding of the brand and the tools to deliver great experiences for customers. Wolff Olins has a growing practice in Social Learning—building platforms that help companies educate employees and strategically scale new ways of thinking.
Q: Should brands make industry-specific considerations? If so, what kind?
Brands usually don’t need us as partners to tell them what’s going on with their competitors. In fact, they’re often obsessed! We often encourage them to look elsewhere for learning and inspiration. Rather than react to what your direct competitors is doing (which is usually already being addressed somewhere in the business), look forward and think about what you can uniquely deliver as a brand. What are the unmet needs of your customers or users? What brands outside of your category are setting the bar in terms of delivering value and a great experience?
Q: Is there a difference between an inflection point for the brand and an inflection point for the business, or do you see the brand and business as one and the same?
How long do we have? This is a classic debate! I believe brand and business are intrinsically tied together, but sometimes it’s the distance between them that can create a problem. Perhaps the business has evolved and changed shape and the brand isn’t telling the whole story. At the end of the day, the brand has to meaningfully contribute to the user’s experience and represent the best of what the business is delivering in the world.
Q: When you help bring a brand through to the “other side,” what does that look like? What sort of transformation is to be expected?
On the other side of a well-navigated inflection point is a renewed vision for the company, a re-energized workforce, and a redefined relationship with stakeholders and customers.