Always Learning, Always Teaching: Emily Viola, SS+K

It’s not enough to capture consumer mindshare; we must be able to instill cultural meaning.

Emily Viola
Managing Director, Cultural Insights + Brand Strategy SS+K

Tell us a bit about yourself, what do you do?

I am cultural strategist and brand planner who strives to bring uncommon thinking and fresh insights to solve sticky problems. With 20 years of experience in brand strategy, consumer insights, new product launches, qualitative and quantitative research and channel planning, I have led strategic thinking in the areas of CPG, consumer electronics, retail, healthcare, education, social responsibility, and beverages (alcoholic and otherwise). I also specialize in motivating niche audiences and demographic groups like Gen Z, Millennials, Boomers, and various multi- and omnicultural groups.

What did you do before your current role and what led you to where you are now?

I was most recently the Head of Cultural Strategy at Sparks & Honey, a cultural consultancy. I loved finding the ways that I could apply my cultural insights to futurism and innovation. As I learned more about how cultural insights, markets dynamics and disruptive technologies shape our possible futures, I decided to apply these learnings to brand communications to find more relevant ways for brands to live their values. That’s when I returned to SS+K, which is an agency famous for helping brands live their values in culturally relevant ways.

How would you define the role of a strategist/planner?

What I’ve always liked about this role is the ability to work from both sides of the podium. I am always learning and I am always teaching. To do that, one must dig deep, look wide and ingest a wide variety of information. But that’s not all. One must then internalize, distill and simplify the key elements so that you can effectively impart those insights to a broader team and establish a North Star by which to navigate all brand actions.

How has the role of a strategist been evolving since you first began?

The classic persuasion model revolves around marrying a simple product insight with a simple consumer insight into a single “winning proposition.” For example, Bounty’s “the quicker picker-upper” or Brylcream’s “A Little Dab’ll Do The louder your voice and the sharper your point of difference, the bigger the wins. However, in today’s world with our always-fragmented attention, increasingly insular media bubbles and a growing cultural tribalism, it’s rare to be granted the space to have a one-to-one conversation with your consumer. Today marketing communications don’t just get played out in the living room; they get played out in the court of culture, as anyone involved with marketing for Pepsi, Gillette or Nike can tell you. The result is that today cultural relevance is even more important than commercial prevalence.

To navigate this new marketing landscape, we as brands, strategists and communicators must embrace not just only a product insight and a consumer insight but also a third layer of insight--cultural insight. Cultural insight relies not on what a single consumer sees, feels or experiences, but upon examining the various ways that entire groups of people are thinking, moving, and behaving. It’s not enough to capture consumer mindshare; we must be able to instill cultural meaning. 

In your opinion, what are the greatest barriers an aspiring planner/strategist encounters when trying to start their career?

While junior account people have no problem finding work that lets them shine, finding ways to add value can sometimes be harder for a junior planner. For junior planners, however, it’s harder to establish credibility of insight without experience. The best thing to do is to make yourself indispensable by finding and imparting knowledge. Read the top books on the topic you’re researching. Watch TED talks on the topic. Listen to podcasts. Be the go-to source for information and insights will follow. Stay hungry. Stay curious. Stay informed.

In your time, what have you noticed are the key skills and traits that separate great strategists from the mediocre?

When I hire strategists, I look for the following things: flexibility of thought, the ability to transfer knowledge and insights from one category to another, storytelling and narrative craft, unstoppable curiosity, and the ability to think in surprising, insightful and unusual ways about even the most ordinary things 

How do you keep your finger on the pulse of culture and avoid getting stuck in a bubble?

The more exposed you are to new situations, new people and new ideas, the better you are able to understand the insights behind them and the better you are able to generate new thinking from common values. Be a culture vulture. That doesn’t have to mean a Netflix marathon binge. Go to meet-ups; accept random invitations; ask people to coffee; read voraciously; check out Reddit; listen to podcasts. And of course, find times to shut down your thinking and let the connections flow. Walking down the street, halfway through Zumba classes, in the middle of the encore of my new favorite band—these are all places where I have had great flashes of insight. Keep a list of notes on your phone and write down your ideas in the moment. Tomorrow at your desk, you will thank yourself.