Q&A with Tanya Puka of Brandsmith and the upside



Tanya and I worked together for a short month back in December 2015. I was elated and excited to work with the strong research component and subsequent strategic direction Tanya provided and have looked for any excuse to work with her since.  Tanya’s kind approach with clients and her team puts everyone at ease so a natural exchange of information flows - aiding in a collaborative creative process that creates exceptional brand foundations. So when tackling a Q&A on the broad topic of strategy - Tanya was my natural choice!

Big question; how did you end up with two large job titles - Head of Accounts & Strategy at Brandsmith and Partner, the upside, luxury online reseller?
Hah... well, I’m a Libra so let’s blame my indecisive side. All jokes aside, I believe the expectation of ‘career’ is evolving. Marketing strategy is my background, and consignment is my passion. I wanted to pursue both, and thankfully I’ve found a position with a company [Brandsmith] that supports my passions wholeheartedly and a partnership [the upside] that shares my vision. There is plenty of experience crossover so that helps!

What is your role within in each company?
Head of Accounts & Strategy is a multifaceted role, and since joining Brandsmith 3 years ago we’ve established a number of MARCOM (marketing communications) clients, which I have managed making up the accounts side. As our lead strategist, I work to set up the process to gather insights for clients before we move into the branding phase. The work I do helps to inform design decisions and marketing recommendations within the early and mid growth stages that brands encounter. I am also responsible for developing this process as Brandsmith grows. We now have another senior strategist and account manager on the team, and learning from them and watching them develop is really one of the most thrilling and rewarding aspects of my role.

What path led you to specialize in strategy?
I believe it was simply a need for strategic thinking in our industry. Marketing was really starting to evolve from this ‘madmen’ era with improvements to technology, social media and digital advertising capabilities – the need for more brand transparency became evident too. At the time I was starting to move into this niche, research and strategy was a tough sell, but pushing for it really started to equip our agency with the right solutions to truly benefit the client. My affinity for research and asking ‘why’ paired with good timing helped to angle me into this specialty. Timing is everything, as they say!

Do you still take on freelance clients for strategy?
I am careful about what I consider given that my schedule is pretty jammed (self inflicted, of course), but if it’s a great fit - absolutely. You just say the word Shannon...

Why do businesses need strategy and where should they start?
We are now in a world where consumers analyze and scrutinize the decisions companies make. In a sense, brands that are ‘self aware’ find success much easier. Being strategic, in my opinion, is one of the first steps to finding this awareness. As I mentioned, asking the question ‘why’ is a great start, but staying true to core values is essential to strategy. Not sure how to figure out what these are for your company? Email me, and I’ll share a valuable exercise to help you get there objectively with your team.

What role does audience planning have within strategy?
Audience planning or ‘mapping’ is a major vessel of strategy. Understanding your bulls-eye i.e. target audience empowers you to make the right decisions for your company and leverage success. I’m not just talking demographics (now somewhat irrelevant – great article here). We now have the technology to understand so much more – from interests, to behaviours, to mindsets. Part of my process is to engage with these audiences directly, to learn more about what motivates their purchasing and alignment decisions. This also tells me what story you (the client) aren’t telling and should consider.

Does a client need to have a business plan in place before you’ll work on strategy with them?
A business plan is always a great tool for bringing a brand to life, but not always essential. What I am looking for is whether I actually believe I can support you as a client; this typically means that there is a well thought out idea or plan in place.

What process do you take with a strategic client? Branding client?
We start with discovery; here I learn about you and your brand vision. We map out a plan for insights gathering (a composition of primary and secondary research), which is initiated by my team. From here, we analyze insights and condense findings to develop the communication tools for your brand which includes a visual language moodboard to inform design. Lastly, we develop strategic marketing recommendations based on the work plan to date. If a client is purely strategic, their visual language might be audited for a potential rebrand as necessary.

How long does a typical strategic project last? Does strategy ever end?
The full process including branding typically takes about 2-3 months. Strategy should never end in a sense! I suggest revisiting certain exercises on an annual basis, and I can set my clients up to do so internally.

How does strategy drive the creative process? And how do you hand off strategy to a client or designer to execute?
Insights work to inform strategy. The key threads and findings often evoke a mood, which is captured by the visual language moodboard – a composition of photography style, typeface, design inspiration, and colour palette. This sets a very clear path and set of parameters for our design team to execute in. I am always in awe of what creatives can do, even with defined guidelines! They really earn their title...

What types of strategy do you specialize in? Do you have a size of business that you like to work with?
I have worked extensively with small to medium sized businesses in early growth stages. I’ve since adapted my approach to be able accommodate a team with many decision makers through a workshop style branding session. I appreciate this size and scale because the leadership team is typically quite involved, hands on and invested. I see and feel the passion behind the vision and helping to empower this even further translates meaning in my work. At this stage we can really develop lasting brand positioning from the onset, versus having to recalibrate 10+ years too late.

What industries do you like to work with?
It’s hard to say! The glamourous industries are never quite as glamourous and some of the most challenging clients and foreign industries are the most rewarding. I will always have a soft spot for lifestyle brands, restaurants, hotels and mixed-use developments.

 How do you measure your results?
My first metric is the alignment the client feels to the communication tools and brand moodboard we’ve developed. Our decisions are rationalized considering that our work is so deeply rooted in insights. When you’re working so closely with data it’s harder to screw up! Measurement is also developed based on business goals, and what success truly looks like to the client – this is key and a difficult lesson learned from my early years in this industry.

Most memorable project you’ve worked on?
There are so many, but if I had to choose - repositioning and branding a luxury, estate community a few years ago. We were relying on some divergent insights and asking the client to make big changes in their approach to marketing and storytelling; pulling away from the features and specifications to capturing the emotion that characterizes buying a lifetime home. In the end, sales doubled and the client was able to reconnect with their residents in a way they hadn’t been able to before.

What qualities do you value most in your clients/vendors/partners?
I would have to say transparency and trust. I am not here to blow smoke and mirrors (which is surprisingly sometimes the expectation!). If we work together, I will put all my chips in because I am driven by relationships; I care; and it’s my reputation on the line too.  

What is your biggest challenge of being a business owner and employee at the same time?
Balance. There is a constant tug to work harder and be better in both positions, but the expenditure of energy and output will always stop somewhere! I just wish I had 4 more hours in a day.

If you had to do one thing for the rest of your life would you pick strategy for clients or being an entrepreneur in the fashion business?
Well, my role as an entrepreneur will always play on my strategic side... but you never know where the side hustle will go. At this stage it’s still wait and see!

Learn more about Brandsmith and the upside


qaShannon HewlkoComment