JP Kuehlwein On How To Use Brand Strategy To Build Successful Social Enterprises


JP Kuehlwein is the co-founder of Ueber-Brands, a firm that helps owners elevate their brands to make them peerless, priceless, and profitable.

He was previously Executive Vice-President at Frederic Fekkai & Co, a prestige salon and retail hair-care business, and he served as Brand Director and Global Director of Strategy at the multinational Procter and Gamble, and was based in Germany, the US, Singapore, Hong Kong, and finally in New York.

JP is a recognised brand builder with a 25+ year track record of translating consumer insights into propositions that generate more than $1 billion in sales today. He is also a faculty member at NYU Stern School of Business, and an advisory board member at CFMM Master's Program of the Fashion Institute of Technology, both in New York City. He has co-authored "Rethinking Prestige Branding - Secrets of the Ueber-Brands” with Wolfgang Schaefer, a reference book for those building premium brands across different industries.


JP discusses the importance of brand strategy to engage customers and build successful social enterprises.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Mike Lepre] - To get things started, could you please share a bit about your background and what led you down the path of branding and strategy?

[JP Kuehlwein] - Sure. It wasn't very clear to me at the beginning after my studies, which were in France, Portugal, UK, and Germany. I had done a lot of things, but was a little bit at a loss about what to do for my professional career. And so Procter and Gamble knocked on my door asking me if I wanted to join them and I said, "Hey, sure, why not?" Actually, in order not to have to write too many applications and instead being able to do a long vacation to Australia before starting to work. So between the studies and work, I did a three month trip through Australia. I figured I can always change companies later. I stayed, I think, 23 years with Procter and Gamble. I started in finance and then pretty quickly moved over to marketing because it seemed so much more exciting and interesting on that side of the conference table and the company.

Over the years you've worked with brands in different industries and at different stages of their journeys. So what are some of the common challenges you've seen brands experience and what tips can you offer on how to navigate through them? [02:39]

I've worked in the US, I've worked in Asia and India. Actually I've stayed in Asia and India for a combined 15 years. And then I did global jobs, worked across household care, beauty, baby care, you name it. I can tell you, some of the common challenges might seem very straightforward, but they kept being repeated.

One, a lot of brands are not very clear as to what they actually have to offer, or they're not very differentiated in what they have to offer. I mean, often when I teach at NYU or even watch TV with my kids here or YouTube, I do the so-called video test, we mute the sound and I ask them, “What brand is this commercial about?” And you'll often struggle, and sometimes you struggle even leaving the sound on.

Brands sometimes overlook that. At the end of the day, they need to have a proposition that's relevant, that's exciting, that's heart and mind opening, and that's different from what other people have.

And they get either too far ahead of themselves in talking about stuff that when you meet the brand for the first time, it doesn't make sense to you in a first time encounter. Or they simply are not even able to articulate who are they and what are they about and why are they around. And so I would say that's one big thing that everyone working on a brand needs to make sure of.

Do you really make it clear what you're all about and why you're here?

The second big thing that I see a lot, even among the most professional marketers, is that marketers get bored about their brand, and their communication, and their campaign in particular, before the customers do. They change what they're talking about and how they're talking about their brand way before that message actually gets through to the average customer. And that might be driven by tons of organisational changes, which often happens in big groups, or simply impatience, because you know your own message, you've seen your own video over and over, you read your own blog posts and your own social media interactions and you get bored with it, or you get worried that you're repetitive.

But believe me, for a message to get out there and to sink in and be understood, it takes a while. And so the mistake is to pull the plug, or to change your message too quickly.


A couple of really good tips there. JP in your book with Wolfgang, you introduce the idea of Ueber-Brands. Now what is an Ueber-Brand, and why should a business strive to become one? [05:44]

Ueber-Brands comes from the German, ‘Ueber’, so it has nothing to do with the taxi service. Ueber is there to annoy a little bit the Anglo Saxons who can't pronounce it. But really the background is when Wolfgang and I were thinking about what to call these brands that we got very interested in, we were reminded a little bit of Nietzsche's philosophy. Nietzsche talks about the Ubermensch. It's controversial and it's been abused historically. But what we extract or what we take from that, which is interesting, is this concept of going above and beyond, which is what Ueber means in German. And what we find is that these brands have in common that they want to be more than good, they want to be more than a functional utilitarian benefit or service.

They strive to do something bigger, to bring humanity forward, whether it's in the arts and philosophy, whether it's protecting the environment, whether it's about a certain ideology that they think will somehow change or save the world.

They all have this in common and that's why we call them the Ueber-Brands. Ueber-Brands are about creating meaning beyond the material, being more than a car, a handbag, a vase, a soft drink, you name it. Why is that attractive, why should brands be interested in that? When you are able to create more meaning with your proposition, then people have their heart in it. So if you're not just a soft drink, but you are a little magic potion that gives people wings, literally make them Superman, and gives them the energy and the courage to jump out of the sky or do crazy stunts on their bikes or disco party through the night, you've got a different kind of following than if you're just a refreshing drink. And I think you know who I'm talking about, Red Bull. If you help people understand that it's important to protect the environment, that you discover in their products, and you show them to some extent the way, by advocating building back dams or even protesting against making national monuments smaller and you're Patagonia, then people buy more than a sweater. They buy into an ideology, beliefs, values. And so they have more heart in it. They become more loyal. They're also less focused on price because these things are often priceless as we say. And so you've got more flexibility in terms of margin that you can put against funding those causes, pay your people decently, growing your business. People are more engaged with you. So they spread the word more. And word of mouth is this very strong advertisement. In fact, it's not even perceived as advertisement. And so creates great trial for your brand and awareness. It also creates more flexibility for your brand equity in that a brand like Red Bull or Patagonia or Ben and Jerry's or Brunello Cucinelli and all these brands we talk about in our book, They can open a hotel, they can make sweaters, they can make surfboards, they can brew beer, which is now true for Patagonia for example. And the stretch can hold quite a bit because they are about more than just having made sweaters. If Nautica or Levi's was making beer tomorrow, it might be more difficult because there's less meaning and less broad meaning in that brand. So it opens up possibilities from a brand architecture side as well. And then finally, one interesting aspect that I come across quite a bit is people become more forgiving. They think about you in a more human way. So for example, you're Method laundry detergent and you tried to use ocean plastic and that ocean plastic is brittle, and early bottles of your hand soap leak, then instead of getting all upset on social media, people actually exchange how to help you, how they refill this stuff into glass and give you tips of where it's leaking and how you might change the design. This kind of kindness doesn't happen with a product that is perceived as just industrial and doesn't have any further meaning to people.

Some great insights there JP. In your book, you talk about the concept of prestige as the human need for distinction and aspiration. Social enterprise has an advantage over regular business because of the aspirational mission and values that are inherent within the business model. How can social enterprises leverage this advantage to increase sales, while making sure they don't appear as trying to guilt the consumer into making a purchase? [10:58]

I think you're right. I mean social enterprises have a big advantage. When we talk about Ueber-Brands, we talk about mission, myths, and truths as important ingredients to these brands. And mission, obviously social enterprise should have and is a big asset there because it provides a lot of that meaning I was talking about. So they have this higher mission from the get go as part of their DNA.

To your second question about how not to look like you guilt people into something, that's actually something we also talk about in the book, which is we talk about the concept of unselling.

Selling is not sexy. Selling is perceived as commercial. And I guess in the case of social enterprise, asking for money is not very sexy. It feels like charity and it might cheapen what you do. So my advice would actually be for social enterprise to focus and to deliver clearly a message that their services and their goods are very valuable.

Some great insights there JP. In your book, you talk about the concept of prestige as the human need for distinction and aspiration. Social enterprise has an advantage over regular business because of the aspirational mission and values that are inherent within the business model. How can social enterprises leverage this advantage to increase sales, while making sure they don't appear as trying to guilt the consumer into making a purchase? [Continued]

I'll give you an example. I've just started discussing here with my little village in New York around trees. Trees get chopped here like crazy because people are afraid that the old trees in town will fall on their houses. And all the new people moving in are so afraid that the first thing they do when they buy a house is to cut all these hundred-plus year old trees and they plant nothing behind it except for a few decorative bushes. They also live with this ideal of their children playing in the backyard, which is all grass. And so there is this charity now forming around, "let's get the trees back". Rather than begging for money and subsidies and trying to push people to plant trees, we want to be very clear that trees actually provide energy savings, they provide health, and there's tons of studies around even mental health and how it's positively correlated to a green neighbourhood. They're not just pretty things. And so I think in the same way a social enterprise that really focuses on the value it provides, and the value can be beauty or it can be functional value etc. But the value it provides is the way there.

I love these companies like Freitag that we talk about in the book, or Patagonia, or TerraCycle, that really often make good business, and actually might've been born out of commerce, but have developed into social enterprises. When you think about Not For Sale, which is another one on our podcast that we talk about, or Toms with their one-for-one. In fact, there's an interesting episode in the life of Patagonia, which is one of my absolute favourite brands that I studied in detail, where Yvon Chouinard, the founder, thinks about what's the next step after his company has become bigger than he's ever imagined. And he's thinking about selling it. And if you know him, his company, if you've read the books, you will know that his ambition was to sell the company and then put all the money he would get into a foundation. Fortunately his advisors said, "you know, Yvon, you'll be able to do so much more good for so much longer and for generations to come and at a global scale if you remain an enterprise and make money that way, but also spread the news that way and enable investment into all the things that you want to do, like building back dams and so on, than if you take the money out and become a charity, it'll just dwindle away". And I think that might be true also for social enterprises that have an enterprising and value creation mindset versus a charity mindset.

Definitely. I think most of the people listening to this podcast certainly understand the extra value that a social enterprise can bring over a charity. JP, we're seeing a shift towards purpose within business, and even multinational corporations are jumping on board. Big businesses are even spending millions of dollars on marketing and advertising to appear to care about trending issues.

How can social enterprises rise above the hype and communicate to consumers that they truly exist to create social and environmental change? [15:42]

I think social enterprises that really mean it, that have in their DNA, that really live their mission, have a huge leg up and a huge advantage over, let's call them "imitators" and the big commercial companies moving in and all talking about purpose and doing good as well. And that is this aspect of living it. It's the third aspect when I said mission, myths, and truth.

Truth is the perceived authenticity by customers, and the perceived authenticity comes from living and living up to and putting your actions and your money where your mission is.

And I think that's where social enterprise has a big advantage. So for example, Ben and Jerry's has been an activist when it comes to social justice in the US for decades now. So when Ben and Jerry's, and literally the founders, get arrested on the steps of Capitol Hill during the elections because they protest against unjust legislation or conditions in the US, then nobody's surprised. It makes total sense. It's part of what endears this brand to its core audience, its apostles, if you like. The people who spread the word. As I said earlier, contrast that with something that just happened a few weeks ago where Kraft Heinz group, the folks who do Velveeta and Heinz Ketchup and so on, went out in Washington during the Government shutdown that you might've heard about, and handed out in a special kind of pop-up store, paper bags with a big Kraft and Heinz logo on it. And in the paper bag was obviously, as you can imagine, Velveeta cheese and Heinz Ketchup and the other goods that this company makes. And they said, "we're doing good. These Government employees are laid off, many of them don't have the means to just skip a paycheck, as happens now with the Government shut down. So we're handing out free product." Well there are some people of course who thought it was great, but many people were very sceptical, very sceptical that this would be a stunt. Obviously with all the logos everywhere and the company itself blasting it on social media, and making sure all the TV cameras are there, really just exploited these poor government workers rather than really doing good. And I think that's where the difference is, with Ben and Jerry's that has lived its mission and has authenticated it through its consistent actions over time and through what it does as an organisation internally as well, has the credibility and it has the right to stand for things like that, whereas these quick adopters cannot. So I think that's one big advantage of social enterprise.

And then I think the other way to defend is not to defend at all, but rather to collaborate, and acknowledge that struggle for big companies and say, "why don't we make this a win-win? Why don't we work together, but everyone has their place in it." And that's where I see, for example, a social enterprise like TerraCycle, with their loop system now working across big companies, P&G, Unilever, Coca-Cola, you name it, and work on things like recyclable, in fact, reusable containers, whether it's for shampoo or for ice cream, instead of throwaway plastic. Or do they work on scaling ocean plastic now with Head and Shoulders and Pantene and so on and so on, where the social enterprise can lend the credibility, the independence, the DNA that has been proven over time, and the big company can lend the scale, the publicity certainly around it, and making it matter because, you know, it only matters, all these things of recycling or avoiding plastic, if it's in big quantities, and Coca-Cola can certainly deliver those quantities of replaced bottles, etc. So I think it can be a symbiotic, very interesting relationship that is valuable.

So who are some of the businesses with true social and environmental missions that you have come across who you see excelling at brand strategy, and what can we learn from them? [21:08]

There's many. We talk about some of them in our book. Some of our favourites, Freitag, the Swiss bag, and by now suitcase, wallet, you name it, brand that basically uses trash that doesn't decompose, it's not biodegradable, which are tarps that are used on trucks, particularly in Europe, as well as parts like seat belts, tires and tubes from bicycles, and fashion them into bags. From the beginning the DNA of that company was recontextualisation and "how do we preserve our resources?" This goes all the way through, not only by recontextualising these materials, but also how they do it. So when they wash it, they use rain water, and some of their products are, for example, compost bags, etc. They live it through and through. But they also have incredible design, incredible language, corporate identity, visual identity, sound identity. They are also incredible brand builders. And it's a fantastic brand and doing good story. And the same applies for Patagonia. Even in the B2B arena by now there are great companies.

There's a company I stumbled on called Rockwool, and they make insulation material from rock, basically that lasts longer, it's nontoxic, it's 100% natural. So there's a lot of interesting stuff going on across a very broad spectrum of categories.

To finish off, what are some great books or podcasts that you'd recommend? [23:19]

Some really inspiring books are written by the people who make these brands. So I like the classics, The Responsible Company, which was written by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia together with Vincent Stanley, his nephew who we interviewed on my podcast, and you know, he's just an incredible thinker when it comes to really thinking through the relationship between product, brand, and doing the right thing, and organisation. They are incredibly considerate when it comes to that, so you really benefit from people who have thought about these things for a long time.

There is a book about Freitag called Out of the Bag. And it's fascinating and instructive from a brand design. They are designers, after all. It's one of the few companies, I guess, owned by graphic designers. They are industrial, not only graphic designers, and talk a lot about things even like the brand architecture or the brand language, how they found their own language, very distinctive language for the brand. Fascinating read.

Excellent recommendations there. And of course, your book with Wolfgang Schaefer, Rethinking Prestige Branding - Secrets of the Ueber-Brands, is another great one that all of our listeners out there should get a copy of and read. JP, thank you very much for your time today.


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