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Today I speak with Rita Clifton CBE – a global brand expert and former Chair of Interbrand, described by the Financial Times as a ‘Brand guru’, and by Campaign magazine as ‘The doyenne of branding’. Alongside her board chairing and non-executive roles, Rita is a writer, keynote speaker, conference chair and practitioner on all aspects of brands, branding and business leadership.

A regular columnist and media commentator, Rita is the author of several books, including the best-selling title The Future of Brandstwo editions of The Economist book Brands and Branding, and her new book, Love Your Imposter, which explores new types of business leadership and how we might take  our imposter self and use it as a driver to come out stronger.

Having worked as the Vice Chair and Strategy Director at Saatchi & Saatchi, the London CEO and Chair of Interbrand, and as co-founder of BrandCap, in 2014 Rita received a CBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list, and is now a portfolio chair and non-executive director on the board of businesses including John Lewis Partnership, Nationwide Building Society and Ascential plc.

Previous boards have included ASOS, Dixons Retail plc, Emap, Bupa and Populus Group. Her non-profit boards have included Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), the UK Sustainable Development Commission and Green Alliance, and she was recently appointed Chair at Forum for the Future, the leading international sustainability organisation.

Recorded on 11th February 2021.


Produced by Caro C. Written & recorded by Nathalie Nahai © 2021.


Nathalie: Rita, thank you so much for joining me on this podcast today.

Rita: Well, it’s very good to be here, and thank you very much for having me. I’m looking forward to it.

Nathalie: So we’re living through a very interesting point in history right now. I’d like to present you with a question that I invite all of my guests to answer. And that’s, what do you think is happening in the global human psyche right now?

Rita: Gosh, that’s such a big question and it’s of course, so difficult to generalize. I think, and I hope what I’m saying is an effect of the pandemic. If we can see some positive coming from it, I think we’re seeing actually a greater human connection. And what I mean by that is even though we are seeing the rise of populism in some places and anger and torment, I also think alongside that, we have got a growing recognition that we are genuinely all in this and on this planet together. So alongside all the terrible stuff, I really do feel that not only a greater sense of humanity and shared feelings about humanity and frankly, the fragility of some aspects of humanity too, but also that we have bigger issues. We have big issues that we need to solve, and if we don’t solve them together, they aren’t going to get solved.

If we’ve learned things about, again, each other’s humanity, I think we’ve also learned that things can happen very quickly when we want them to, and so when we come to big issues like climate change or addressing issues like biodiversity, there’s been a sea change. There’s been a sea change in business and investor sentiment about the importance of sustainability and long-term impact. So I think like a lot of people, I feel slightly ambivalent, if I can say, about where humanity is, the planet is, business and so on. Is it the moment, which is all the one hand, it’s a dark place and scary place, but on the other, there’s a sense of into the light, into the light, which is enlightenment about us as human beings and us in the context of the planet as a whole. I think there’s some positive stuff to come out of that. That’s frankly, the hope I’m holding on to.

Nathalie: There’s more of a reckoning of where we are and how we’re contributing to the degradation of the damage of our planet. I wonder if you’re seeing a greater appetite among business leaders and certainly even in industries where we wouldn’t expect to see it. I’m thinking in coal or in energy to engage in finding solutions to systemic challenges. Is that something that you think people are breathing up to?

Rita: Without a doubt. When you have people like Larry Fink, who is the global head of BlackRock, a global investment management firm, talking about how they are investing in and gearing their investments towards longer term sustainable assets, and taking money from non-sustainable assets, as they see it because they are more risky assets to be involved with. Also, the feeling that actually that’s not the right thing for the future. When you see that kind of sentiment, and also when you see some radical statements of intent by organizations like BP, when you look at programs like Oxford Saïd business school doing studies on enacting purpose for businesses of all kinds, and the people that you see around the table in those conversations aren’t the usual suspects.

They are people from banking, they’re people from the insurance community. They’re people from government offices and yes, consumer companies as well. There’s a very different set of people now around the table talking about these things and real money, real money being transferred from more unsustainable assets to more sustainable assets, and also much more talk about long-term, long-term impact and long-term value. Also, the fact that every business is not just going to be a slave to one dimensional types of shareholders. Businesses will be responsible to the full range of stakeholders, including employees, including communities at large.

Again, I do think we can take some hope. Now, the question of course, is about the scale and the speed at which we can all act. But without a doubt, I’m experiencing and seeing and contributing to conversations now around boardroom tables that 10 years ago, if you raised them in the nicest possible way, people would look at you as though you are a hippie communist. And I have been involved in the environmental and sustainability movement since, I’d like to say I was seven. I had a crush on sir David Attenborough from the age of seven, and I’ve always been involved in some way, shape or form, with environmental organizations since then. I’ve always had one foot, if you like, in the sustainability camp.

What’s really good and positive now is that that sustainability leg is actually joined to the other leg that I’ve had in the commercial world, if you like, and finding two things coming together and for sustainability, indeed, regeneration being much more core and central to the strategy of all of these organizations. That is a fantastic thing to witness and to experience. It feels real or can be cynical about these things, but the direction is real because the evidence is real. I feel as though we’ve had a big awakening on so many fronts and we are definitely moving forward, even though of course, there is still some difficult and dark patches all over our planet.

Nathalie: I like the image that you painted of the commercial leg and the sustainability leg now standing conjoined. Actually because very recently in November, in 2020, you were appointed chair of the board of trustees of Forum for the Future, which if you’re listening and you’re not familiar with it, it’s a leading international sustainability non-profit, that’s been working in partnership with business, governments and civil society to accelerate exactly the shift that we’re talking about, towards a more sustainable future. They’ve been doing this for, I think it’s over 24 years.

Rita: Exactly, yes.

Nathalie: Yeah. Well, first congratulations. That’s very exciting for them and for you. Then secondly, given your experience that you’ve just outlined as well, but in the private sector and the public and nonprofit sectors alongside your personal passion for sustainability, what change are you most excited about in the realm of business and sustainability?

Rita: I think that one of the things I’m excited about, and I know this sounds a little bit strange, but ESG reporting, environmental and social and governments reporting. Now, I know that sounds like a slightly dry subject, but whereas over, I guess the last five, 10 years, we have seen increasingly the right words been spoken about purpose and about long-term and about regard to all stakeholders, not just shareholders in that very singular sense. However, of course, it’s only when the metrics and the governance systems come out the other end and companies and organizations are judged by those, that the rubber really does hit the road. I’m not quite sure it’s the right analogy when we’re talking about sustainability, but nevertheless, I hope you understand my meaning here, which is again, after all those great words, we’ve seen a wave of “business proof” that actually being a sustainable business means a good business. It means long-term valuable businesses.

If you look at those organizations that seem to have a strong meaning or strong purpose, they seem to be outperforming the average of all others. If you look at an organization like Unilever, their purpose-led brands have been outperforming all of their other brands in that stable. Therefore, you have seen the business evidence and frankly, you’ve also seen the business risk. That has been a great spur to organizations, particularly in areas like fossil fuels, et cetera, where for shareholders to take money out of those sorts of businesses and invest them in more sustainable businesses, this was a real eye-opener. An eyeopener and a boot up the proverbial, where suddenly legacy-type organizations who have not been acting as fast as they might’ve done in the energy transition, for example, transition to sustainability have suddenly again, got a bit of a rude shock.

We have seen that happening. Businesses that aren’t sustainable have got a risk and also frankly, a talent risk. If you don’t look after your employees, for example, if you aren’t good at looking after the environment and being socially responsible in the main, you will not attract the best type of employees, and particularly not very able and talented young people who want to work for an organization that makes them feel proud and is doing the right thing. We have seen that evidence of running away from risk and running towards sustainability, both from a financial, also from a talent point of view. The final part of that process, that stage, is going to be actually when organizations are judged by how they are being run, how they’re being governed and in hard measures. ESG has been in my view, a great initiative, and clearly it’s something that needs to be scaled and spread. But when you’re chairman or a CEO of an organization and you are going to have to report on some of these environmental, social and governance-type metrics, that really does concentrate the mind.

Nathalie: Yeah. I think that shift from the virtue signaling, the empty posturing towards things which are quantifiable, measurable, where you can point towards real and tangible progress, that’s really quite a remarkable change compared to what we’ve had for decades previously.

Rita: I totally agree. And you need to see the evidence. I think I’ve been through every possible sequence of hope and fear or worry and frustration over the years. From greenwashing in the late 1980s, which was very frustrating to, yes, let’s put it in the corporate social responsibility pot, almost separate from the main strategy. Then some of these issues being drawn into core strategy of an organization. And now absolutely, this has been taken absolutely seriously by the investment community and measured increasingly. That, I think just a huge difference and gives me hope, real hope.

Nathalie: I’d like to turn the conversation a little bit towards leadership. You recently published an exciting new book called Love Your Impostor: Be Your Best Self, Flaws and All, which explores myths and qualities around leadership and how we can embrace authenticity to drive change. Given all the uncertainty and turbulence we face, what are some of the qualities that you feel we most need to cultivate for people to lead well.

Rita: Well, the first thing I’d say that, why did I write this book? I’ve obviously written books before about brand strategy and business more generally, but this time it was more personal. And it was personal because I feel so strongly that business has to be a whole lot more human if it’s to succeed and thrive and do what it can do in the future. I know that sounds like an obvious thing to say, but it’s one of those things where even now, you can see business leaders who were asked to appear on mainstream media, et cetera. There might be fabulously, self-deprecating, caring people in their personal lives, but you put them in front of a camera and ask them to defend their business, and suddenly the corporate face goes on, the corporate stance goes on, the shoulders go up and somehow they turn into corporate press releases.

That doesn’t do the image of business, that doesn’t do brand business any good. I think this is a source of shame and frustration a lot of politicians believe that they’ll get more votes by giving business a good kicking than actually supporting business. I think in some ways, it’s been illustrated by the pandemic because for some ridiculous reason, this split and views of why they care about people’s health and lives, all you care about the economy, you just go, the economy is not an inanimate object. This is about people’s livelihoods. This is about how people are living their lives. This is how you generate the possibility of paying for all the aspects of civil society. These things are not separable. My worry about the world of business is that if you allow it to be caricatured as populated by alien nation-type people who dress differently, speak differently, pay themselves in a way that’s out of this world.

You are not going to create connections with your broader stakeholders, either with the people who work with you or broader society, and again, that will not be healthy. It won’t be supportive of the kind of vibrant and very human economy that I think we need. So I wanted to write the book because I wanted to try and help people be themselves, be as much of themselves as they can, human frailties and all, and encourage people to do that because that’s frankly, what makes us human. Also, it helps you to empathize with other people. I get sick sometimes when people use the language of warfare in business. There used to be a textbook and MBA-type projects called Marketing Warfare. It had a tank on the cover, and it had ambushing the consumer and guerrilla marketing and things like that.

I just thought, treating people like target, almost third party constructs, this is not the way to build long-term trusting relationships. And frankly, that’s how you build long-term successful businesses, by building long-term trust and long-term engaging relationships. And that goes for your own staff who are of course, building customer and client relationships on your behalf. They need to feel good about what they’re doing to believe in what they’re doing, and then pass that positive vibe and energy onto your clients and customers. So I want a business to be more human and I want many more types of people to believe that they can run businesses and frankly, that they should. Because we need more decent human beings with all of these human emotions, good and some, a bit more frail, in charge of businesses so that we can make sure that we have that very human connection with the range of audiences.

What I wanted to do was to share some of my experience of getting on in business from a very early stage and sharing some of the mistakes I’ve made and some of the things I’ve found and some of the things I’ve actually found to be quite useful. I hope to written a very honest book, and it’s called Love Your Impostor, because about 70% of people say they experience imposter syndrome. It’s so common. It ceases to feel like a syndrome, but starts to just be more like the human condition. We all have these feelings about, Oh my goodness, can I do it? Am I good enough and do I deserve to be? These are the things that make us human. And that means, you can actually learn skills and develop yourself and how you communicate what you know, how you behave.

You can make the best of yourself to end up at the top of organizations. Because if you, as a decent human being, can end up at the top of an organization, you can run it and create a culture that you believe in. That’s the goal, that’s the gift. That’s, I guess, the end prize, is being able to make things work and the way that you believe in not be subject to other people’s prejudices or particular leadership challenges. As a leader, I think you need to want to see other people be brilliant. And if that’s how you feel, you need to get yourself into that position to really, really make a difference.

Nathalie: You point towards so many vibrant themes there. And I think one aspect that really resonates with me is, well, obviously there’s the imposter side of, am I good enough? Can I do this? But I think the other aspect, which is opening oneself up a bit more, bringing more of oneself to work to the relationships that we cultivate. One of the themes that keeps coming up in these conversations is, how do we show up in a way that invites other people to bring more of themselves, whether that’s through psychological safety or through the values that we uphold or through supporting other people to overcome barriers that are maybe systemic, that have kept people, that are brilliant and competent, unable to reach the same levels of success as those who are in more privileged positions? It’s really that focus on how we can be almost possible. Do you think that there has been a shift in what we value, and if so, why do you think we’re starting to see it now?

Rita: I definitely think there has been a significant shift. Actually ironically, again, thinking about the last year, the last Zoom year, I think it must be 18 months ago, I’m not sure if I’d actually Zoomed at all. That’s the explosion, the absolute explosion of the take-up of Zoom. Why was it was Zoom that did it, rather than some more established players? That’s the interesting thing there. But I think what’s happened is that we’ve seen people in their home environment, we’ve seen unruly pets and children rushing in and out, we’ve seen technical breakdowns, that kind of stuff. And we’ve seen people in elasticated trousers, by the way. I think in some strange way, this is actually, this is potentially enriching our relationships with others, as in, we’re not putting our corporate face on and going into meetings, meeting rooms that don’t look anything like we would have in normal life. So I think in some ways, actually the last year, I hope in the end, will have helped with some of that. I think that certainly made a big difference.

Nathalie: You also have a rich background in advertising and branding. You have such a storied professional career. I’m curious to ask if you’re seeing a shift in what the most successful elements are for building a successful brand in a digital age as we face the climate crisis? Are there certain qualities or characteristics that a brand has to be able to embody to have success?

Rita: Yes, yes and yes, I think actually. I’d also add another yes. Which is some of the thinking that you would apply to a successful brand at whatever stage and whatever size, et cetera, you can’t actually use some of that thinking on yourself. I don’t mean in terms of the personal brand thing as in the Kardashian-ization of society. I do worry sometimes that people get the wrong end of the stick when I talk about personal branding, I’ll come back to that in just a moment. What I am suggesting is that some of the thinking that you would use in the business world around building successful brands, purpose-driven brands, by the way, and they’re like Patagonia. They share some of the characteristics I’m now going to talk about. These apply in a digital world as well as an analog world, and they are pretty timeless.

Those are three characteristics. Number one is being clear about what you stand for, being clear about your purpose, being clear about your role in society and how that makes you stand out from others, either in your category or indeed in the relationships that you can play with your customers. So, clarity. Secondly is about coherence, which is, it’s all very well to be clear that you want to be the best customer service organization in the world, whatever it might be. But in terms of coherence, what it means is you need to make your clarity of thinking show up through everything you do. So don’t pretend that you’re a smiley customer service organization on the outside if you’re an ax murdering culture on the inside. It doesn’t work and people will find out with the scale and the speed that will take your breath away.

If you look at websites like Glassdoor, you can’t hide who you are anymore as an organization because it does get to the outside. I think in some ways, the great thing about the digital world is everything is visible, so everything counts. That means you’ve got to be as good on the inside as you are on the outside. You can also succeed even as a much smaller business. If you are great, your customers love you, your own staff love you and they’re prepared to tell other people, that is incredibly powerful. That’s also frankly, cheap and effective marketing. So, coherence. How do you behave? How do you create a service that’s consistent with what you’re saying about yourself? Don’t say you’re a great customer service organization if you don’t answer people straight away with queries or otherwise, that you get back to people to respond or to replace things or whatever, you’ve got to make sure you are coherent in how you are behaving. That reflects what you stand for, the clarity of what you stand for.

The final characteristic, the third one is about leadership. Now, that does mean, whoever runs the organization, or is it the top or senior in an organization, they need to epitomize the best values of that brand. Whether it’s integrity or trustworthy or playful, whatever, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got a leader or leaders who in some way symbolize that brand because otherwise, it’s not going to work. There are lots of stories about chief executives of organizations, where you think it’s a groovy or a dynamic organization. The person at the top looks like a middle-aged accountant, and you couldn’t make sure that these things, again, hang together and are coherent. That’s leadership, but it’s also a general characteristic, which is about a leadership tendency to be restless, to innovate, to keep on developing and to make sure you’re setting the agenda.

Those three characteristics, clarity, coherence and leadership, are really important in building a brand at any stage, online or offline. If you apply those similar characteristics to you yourself, you think about, well, actually yeah, clarity about what you stand for. What are your values? What are your strengths? It’s really good to understand that because fundamentally, if you don’t understand yourself and what it is that drives you, whether it’s imposter syndrome or insecurities or wanting to save the world. But if you’re not clear about what it is that drives you, sometimes those drives might be expressed in unhealthy ways in the workplace or with friends or business associates or whatever. So it’s really good to understand yourself. That clarity, what is it you stand for? What is it that you’re good at? Also, what are your goals? They could be short-term goals, medium term goals, long-term, you want to save the world, I don’t know.

Frankly, my short-term goals when my children were small and I was working full time was I wanted to stay awake for long enough, I think in meetings, that was my short-term goal. But anyway, be clear about what you stand for. Then of course, be coherent about how that shows up. Don’t say you want to run a company if you don’t understand finance. You’ve got to understand the numbers. Even if you want to express your future strategy and your humanity in business terms, the language of the boardroom is finance. If you don’t understand that language, you either won’t be there or you won’t be able to make the kind of impact that you need when you’re there. So coherence and learning how to be a good communicator. That’s becoming a fundamental skill, particularly in the digital world where if you’re not careful, the devil has all the best tunes. If you can’t learn to communicate and therefore get yourself heard and your points of view heard, in comparison with people whose values you maybe don’t want to get spread.

You need to make sure you are making the very most of yourself. That’s also in terms of personal development as well, which leads me on to the leadership thing. You are the leader of your own personal brand. You’ve got to be nosy and keep on learning about new stuff and keep yourself moving forward and keep yourself in the stretch of learning new skills, et cetera, because that’s how you keep on progressing. I’ll make no apology, I’m talking about progressing because I want lots more different sorts of people to end up running organizations and believe that they can, flaws and all, I think it’s fundamentally important.

Nathalie: And to that point, when it comes to leadership and being more clear and coherent in our own goals, and then transmitting that to those around us at whatever stage of the hierarchy within an organization we are, is there a question that you wish people would ask you that they don’t often ask, that would be helpful for them?

Rita: I’m not sure if there is a question that people ask. My people say things to me like, can you talk about journey to CEO? It’s difficult for me to avoid guffawing, that question. The reason being, is that it’s almost as though journey to CEO, you woke up at age of seven and decided you wanted to run Goldman Sachs or something, and you got a hold of your flag and he marched up the mountain to plant your flag up there. I think my career has come as a bit of a shock to me or a surprise to me. It’s certainly came as a surprise to my director of studies at university. She actually dropped me a note saying as such, which was really, really funny.

But my career, my working life has come as a bit of a surprise just because I hadn’t thought that I would go to university, let alone do some of the things that I’ve done. I guess I know that the honor system is a stranger one, but my mother sitting within 10 steps of the queen when I received a CBE, that was an absolutely high point in my life just because of the family and what it meant to them and what it meant to my mother who’s sadly passed away since then. I think that the thing that has really, really thrilled me personally, has been able to make a bit of a difference.

When I was chief executive, we had 50/50 men and women on the executive board. We did a lot of interesting personal development programs and personal bursaries. I was able to create the kind of culture that I’d like to see. That’s why I want to make sure that others who feel strongly about this stuff can put themselves in a position where they can. All I would say is that the world needs changing. Business runs the world, so we need to change business.

What I’d really like to say is if you are capable of running an organization, please do that. Please get to the top and do it differently. Because the resources of business and the scale and the power of business, if we can harness that in the right way, we can accelerate so many of the changes that we want to see in society and more broadly across the planet. Because businesses and indeed brands, can cross borders and connect with people in a way that governments and global institutions can struggle to do. That’s why rather than spend all my career in the nonprofit or charity sector, I’ve tried to straddle the commercial and the nonprofit, because it’s all of these channels. It’s all of these routes that we can use to really make the difference that we want to see in the world.

Nathalie: Given the vision that you’ve created there, this is a related question, but what kind of world do you want to build?

Rita: Oh, I want to build a world where mankind, personkind, peoplekind and nature thrive in harmony. That’s what I want to see. I know that might sound, so why should we be strumming a guitar and holding people’s hands? But that’s what I want to see. I love our planet and I love the world that we live in and I love the potential of people. So I want a world that’s rich in all of that. That’s about people and the planet thriving together. And I mean thrive.

Nathalie: If you were going to suggest one thing or place that people could do or start from to help us move in that direction, what would that be?

Rita: Be the best you can be, make the very best of yourself that you can. I know that sounds an obvious thing. Although, actually sometimes I laugh when people give when people give other people advice, saying, be yourself. Well, I think that’s fine, but I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure if I want to let my entire true self hangout all the time. Because there are certain things about ourselves that frankly are probably better left it home. That’s why I say the best of yourself. That might well be making the best of your skills and talents, practicing, practicing things that you think actually are going to make a difference in how you can engage and influence other people. So, Being Your Best Self, Flaws and All, that was actually the subtitle of the book. And that’s what I really do feel.

I feel we all need to make the most of what it is that we can do while we’re on this planet and make the most positive difference that we can. I say that in a way, I am unashamed in my positive hope for who we can be and what we can achieve with that kind of mindset. And everything I can do between now and when I shuffle off this mortal coil to make that happen, I’ll give it a go.

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