What Branding Teams Can Learn From The Progression Of Pop Culture
Philippe Ostiguy, strategist at 2×4, shares his thoughts on how culture, quality and timing come together in the most successful branding projects
For this year’s PSFK series in partnership with the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters in Branding Program, we spoke to Philippe Ostiguy about some of the best ingredients in branding: pop culture, gut feelings and good timing. Currently a strategist at 2×4, Philippe shared his thoughts on building a flexible skillset and harnessing the spontaneous excitement of fandom.
SVA’s Masters in Branding program allows students to create frameworks to guide brand, design and business development, critically evaluate brand, business, marketing and design strategies, and master the intellectual link between leadership and creativity.
You start off your bio with a definitive statement: “I learned just about everything I know from popular culture—and it has taught me tons.” How does pop culture come into play in your branding work?
I’m happy to stand by that! Popular culture moves fast—very fast. To me, that makes it the best place to learn about the now. Often when we hear “pop culture” we think about the bubblegum entertainment of the Avengers or the Kardashians, but it can also be seen as a vessel for people’s priorities in this moment. When people rally around something and it spreads through culture at that level, whether it’s Pussyhats or Fenty Beauty, it’s usually a manifestation of something deeper. By asking yourself why it caught on, you learn about what people are focused on and invested in, right now. Of course that knowledge is invaluable in branding—pop culture as a teacher of what connects with people, and, if you work to stay on the pulse, of the first signs of cultural changes as well.
But beyond that, it’s also the context our work exists in. We want to make things that are new and interesting, but those things will never exist in a vacuum, on their own—only within the context of culture as it is when they are introduced to the public. Something wonderful can fall flat if it doesn’t find its place in that context. It happens all the time. To make something that resonates, to have the impact we want to have, we have to be deliberate about how it will interact with that context. We need to understand culture to be able to push it forward or outward or both—good timing is not an accident.
What sparked your interest in branding specifically, and what led you to choose SVA’s Masters in Branding program?
At the time, I was studying and working in marketing in Montreal, and most of the experiences I was stringing together were creatively limiting. I wasn’t finding my footing at all. Eventually, I started working with two incredible people in a tiny marketing agency, and the three of us basically spent our days asking questions and trying to figure out how to answer them. After a while it became clear to me that I didn’t have the experience or confidence to make the most of the opportunities we were working with, so I went solo to make up for that gap elsewhere.
That’s when I turned to branding. I only had a limited understanding of the term, but I was looking for a platform that would force me think a little bigger and to be more creative, and SVA became that platform. The whole approach and network felt refreshing and very different from my undergrad—I never even applied for another program.
What surprised you most while you completed the one-year graduate degree?
Two things come to mind. The first is the flexibility of branding as a skillset. I had heard it described as the marriage of business and design, but eventually found that to be a little reductive. Branding is also cultural anthropology and creative writing and exhibition design and so on—there are so many ways in. Essentially, good branding is the process by which you are able to tell a story that is coherent, relevant and true. That can benefit anything, from Louis Vuitton to a new magazine to your friend’s t-shirt line. The program really lets you explore that breadth, if you want to.
The second is the role of intuition. It took me a long time to value gut feelings. But in the end, so much of brand strategy is listening and researching and absorbing things from a million different industries and perspectives. The point of view you develop through time and experience is valuable, and it’s informed. Intuition is one of the manifestations of that point of view. If something catches your eye, you have to trust that there is something interesting there, and that it is your job to figure out what.
You graduated in 2015 and now work as a strategist at 2×4 design consultancy as well as on a few side projects. What kinds of projects have you been working on, and in what ways did the branding program prepare you to address them?
I tend to either pick by topic—industries or brands I have an interest in—or by collaborator. I prefer hyper-collaborative environments and always find the work to be so much more energetic when that exchange is fluid. To me, 2×4 blends both: we often take on projects that stay very close to culture through art or fashion, which I like, and we work in multidisciplinary teams with extremely talented people. On the side, I also get involved in smaller projects that are more personal. No matter what, though, the goal is always to make something that I’m excited to make and that people will be excited to engage with. That’s what I want work to feel like.
The branding program is relentlessly collaborative, to the point of causing friction, and that’s probably the best part of it. It basically teaches you, one, that you’re better when you’re not alone and, two, how to work through the challenges inherent to that kind of close collaboration. The classes also address problems from different angles, from trend forecasting to research to design, so you leave with a broad toolkit and, probably more importantly, a clear notion that no one methodology will suit all your projects.
You also cite media and art as areas of professional interest for you. How does your background in branding inform your approach to these other disciplines?
Honestly, it’s more the other way around. Art, media, sports—they’re able to excite people, and to do it spontaneously and naturally. They light up some kind of spark, some kind of passion, that’s very active. People will learn whole records by heart or watch the same movie every Christmas or feel actual sadness when the Habs lose. These things are all an incredibly defining part of my life. It’s wild that the word “passion” is often seen as trite—there’s nothing more beautiful.
So, for me, that spark is the permanent reference. No matter what I’m working on, that’s the reaction I want to provoke. It can totally be about mundane things—Converse has made canvas shoes special for 100 years. It doesn’t even matter if I even share the interest. More important is: Can we get people excited? Can we make something they’ll love? Something they’ve never seen before?
On the flip side of course art benefits from good branding too, so we can return the favor in some way. In its purest form art is not concerned with commerciality—less “product” than “piece,” right? So branding comes later, to help connect to an audience. This relates to your first question, when I said good timing is not an accident. There’s something amazing that happens when work that seemingly wasn’t destined for huge audiences strikes a chord and suddenly becomes ubiquitous, like with Moonlight or SZA’s Ctrl. That happens through a combination of quality work, branding and timing, and those moments—that’s what I meant. They’re the ones that push culture forward or outward or both.
This article is paid for and presented by the SVA Masters in Branding program
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