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Role Call | Jennifer O'Brien, Director of Strategic Planning

Jennifer O'Brien, director of strategic planning at branding agency Laird + Partners, says strategists working for luxury and lifestyle brands need to be bilingual in the languages of business and fashion, and that experience gleaned from other sectors can help to evolve the repetitive and formulaic communications strategies of many fashion and beauty brands.
Jennifer O'Brien of Laird + Partners | Source: Courtesy
  • Lisa Wang

There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion. In our continuing series to correspond with the launch of BoF Careers, the global marketplace for fashion talent, we highlight some of the industry’s most interesting jobs and the talented people who do them.

NEW YORK, United States — As the director of strategic planning at fashion and lifestyle branding agency Laird + Partners, Jennifer O'Brien works with clients within the fashion and luxury industries to define their branding strategies. The result of her work informs creative output from photo shoots to messaging. In formulating effective brand strategies, O'Brien combines hard analysis, creativity and consumer insights with probing questions about her clients' values, ideals and market contexts.

BoF: Please describe your current role.

JO: I am the Director of Strategic Planning at Laird + Partners, a full-service branding agency based in New York that focuses on fashion, luxury and lifestyle brands. My department’s role is to help define the strategy or the core idea that drives the creative work we do for our clients. To do this, we look deeply into context — the consumer target, the culture, the competitive landscape, as well as the brand’s own DNA and core equities — to define a strategy that inspires the creative teams to develop work that helps meet the business objectives.


Strategists always ask a lot of questions: What are we really trying to do here? Who are we trying to connect with? What sets this brand apart from the thousands of others out there offering the same thing? What attitudes and behaviours are we trying to shift through our work? What’s going to be the most effective way to get our message across? Asking questions like these – and really challenging the answers – helps us to create work that is more differentiated and relevant. It’s not enough to say, “Make my brand cool and desirable.” You have to dig deeper in order to figure out why and how the brand can meaningfully connect with consumers. This allows you to develop a strategic foundation that not only helps you plan a photo shoot, but also helps you to think about everything you do as a brand.

BoF: What attracted you to the role?

JO: My background is somewhat unusual. I majored in chemistry at university. Then I joined the Peace Corps and taught A-level biology in Africa for two years. There was some value in this indirect route to my career. My education grounded me in analytical thinking. And my time in Tanzania made me a more insightful human being. My work today is all about creatively combining analysis and insights.

I then began my career working for traditional ad agencies. My clients were in the financial services, technology, pharmaceutical and packaged goods sectors. And then, when I began working as an independent consultant over ten years ago, I got the opportunity to work on a global positioning project for a major fashion brand. I began to learn about and love the business of aspiration, in which you are sharing dreams that speak to people’s desires, not just selling functional benefits that satisfy people’s needs. The same principles of strategy used in other categories still apply, but the goal is to create a deeply visceral and emotional connection and to draw someone into the unique world of the brand. I became fascinated by the power of a brand’s visual language to help make that connection. The nuances of an image can convey so much about a brand, in the flash of an eye and without a single word of copy.

In an increasingly cluttered media environment, a well-defined visual language is becoming more important for non-fashion brands as well. Every brand wants to inspire love and devotion but consumers today have less time and a more limited attention span. So just as fashion can benefit from the rigour and discipline of traditional strategy, non-fashion brands can make more of an instant, emotional connection by leveraging some of the codes of fashion, luxury, lifestyle and beauty.

BoF: What is the most exciting project or initiative you have worked on?

JO: We spent several months last year working with one of our beauty clients to develop an entirely new positioning for a great brand that had gotten a little old and dusty. The work we did in partnership with the client has begun to transform every aspect of the brand experience. Helping to drive positive change is always exciting and gratifying. I’m also really excited about the changes we are making at Laird right now. We are building out the strategic team, adding new capabilities and integrating digital into everything we do.

BoF: How is your role changing? What are the forces driving this change?


JO: The usual suspects are challenging our clients and us every day: the increasingly central role of digital media and content, the impact of globalisation and emerging markets and a new generation of consumers who engage with fashion and self-expression differently. Just as culture is always evolving, fashion as a reflection of culture is always in motion. The increased complexity of our world means that our strategic thinking for brands needs to be leaner and meaner, go further and faster. Every idea needs to be torture-tested to ensure that it can drive 360-degree action.

BoF: Tell us about a time you failed and how you learned from it.

JO: There have been a few times when we have presented some really smart thinking, but we just weren’t able to get the client to really embrace and own the idea as a fundamental driver of culture, operations and areas beyond marketing. Today, brands can’t just compete on the surface. It’s rare that an advertising campaign effects a turnaround or drives new growth all on its own. There needs to be organisational alignment to support those marketing efforts. So I’ve learned that we need to do everything we can to make that critical connection with the client in order to make the connection with the consumer.

BoF: What advice do you have for people who are interested in doing what you do?

JO: Be bilingual. Think strategy, speak fashion. Become fluent in the subtle nuances of fashion and design as well as the realities of business and brand management. For strategists, I do think it’s vitally important to have experience outside of fashion in order to introduce new thinking and best practises to the process. Fashion, beauty and luxury brands can get extremely formulaic and repetitive in their approach to communications. Brands in other categories – from technology to automotive to beverages – can inspire us to create relevance and consumer connections in new ways.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

To explore exciting fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers, the global marketplace for fashion talent.

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