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Interview with Sabine Schmittwilken – Head of Global Brand Management & Business Transformation

Interview with Sabine Schmittwilken

As a passionate marketeer, Sabine Schmittwilken has built up the brand innogy until March 2021 with a lot of experience in the energy industry – a great experience, as she tells us. We talked to her about the DNA of the brand and learned why the brand is a company’s most important investment.

Sabine Schmittwilken, thank you for being with us today! To start with, tell us what your favourite brand was when you were a child and what it is today.

That’s quite a good question. I think when I was about 5 years old, I wasn’t that into brands. I did a little digging in my memory and tried to find out what was important to me at that time and why I found it important. Nutella, for example, was not my favourite brand, because we didn’t have it at home. My mother attached great importance to a healthy breakfast. But what we ate a lot and with pleasure was Brandt Zwieback. In all forms: dry, with hot milk, and so on. I thought that was great and I associate it with that warm home, well protected, mum making breakfast and everything was good. I don’t think the packaging of the Brandt Zwieback has changed either. It still has that child’s face on it and that has accompanied me. I also liked Ariel’s Klementine. I liked her a lot, but I can’t say why. I thought the woman was somehow cool as a child.

With today’s favourite brand, it doesn’t get any easier. I don’t think I have one favourite brand today. There are brands that are close to me, that I appreciate, that I watch. One of them is Volvo, for example. For me, Volvo is a car brand that is just great at putting itself in people’s shoes, that has set itself great sustainability goals. What I liked about Volvo was that a few years ago they said that they wanted to try to ensure that there were no more deaths in road accidents and came from a completely different insight. I found that great and still do. That is something that I appreciate very much and that I see very stringently managed, with a lot of attention to detail, with a lot of openness and a lot of transparency. That’s at least what resonates with me as a consumer – I only see it from the outside, of course. Another brand that I like extremely well, for example, is Patagonia. It’s is a brand that doesn’t want to grow at any price, but is very committed to sustainability. I’ve been with the brand for about 30 years. My very first piece was a Patagonia fleece pullover and I thought they were great back then, because they simply have great quality, which today is combined with a demand on themselves that they also deliver what they promise. That’s incredibly important today, that you don’t just put a fancy label on the outside – but everyone looks behind it now. I like that and I am very curious to see how they will continue on their path.

Let’s move on from the specific brands to the topic of brands in general. What fascinates you personally about brands?

What fascinates me most is the effect that brand can have on employees. I have already told you that I worked in the energy sector. That’s not really an industry where you proudly present out loud that you work there. It was rather low in the ranking of popular companies. With the founding of innogy and with the creation of a new brand with the search for a purpose, it was especially important that it was about employees. It’s about making it clear to them what the company stands for and what the company’s goals are. If I put this into a brand and accompany and steer a change process from a brand, it can work wonderfully. I have experienced this very clearly at innogy in recent years. All of a sudden, a fascination arose among the employees, you could inspire them beyond the brand, beyond the history of the brand, beyond what the brand wants to stand for. The change from RWE to innogy was not easy. But the employees suddenly understood what was happening in the company, what they were here for and why all this was being done. They also understood that it was not that easy and suddenly saw the sense in the brand. Everyone wanted the change, thought it was great and wanted to take the brand forward. It involved blood, sweat and tears, but was a quite wonderful experience despite everything. Whenever I feel like I’m in a crisis of purpose, I realise after talking to people that there is quite a lot there and the brand has given them a lot – a lot of direction, a lot of confidence and a lot of inspiration. I think especially the inspiration and motivation that it has given the employees is still incredibly important for me. That fascinates me.

Could you name concrete measures that work to trigger precisely this enthusiasm for the brand among employees?

It is very important to go into the DNA of the company and the brand. When I talk about brand, I think very strongly of companies and not of the product brand, not of the yoghurt brand, not of the muesli bar, but of the company behind it. In my experience, this always works well when what the brand is supposed to say is really also laid out somewhere in the DNA of the brand. It may be buried, it may not be fully developed, but it has to be in the foundations of the brand. The step into the future with the brand must be comprehensible for the employees. This is certainly not obvious to everyone at first glance. This is exactly where the work of those who take care of the topic of internal brand activation and communicating the brand begins. They have to explain it to people and talk to them. Of course, you can make a brand film, a great presentation, an internal blog, and so on. But my conviction is that it is important to talk to people. You should go into direct exchange with people and pick them up. You should ask them about issues that are bothering them and also take their criticism and questions seriously. Above all, you should give them the feeling that what they have done so far was good and important. Just because you want to do things differently does not mean that everything in the past was bad. It’s always so easy to say that, but it’s relatively difficult to convey. All of a sudden you have to do things differently and question everything. I certainly spent a year with my colleagues after the introduction of innogy. I spoke with them again and again, went to departments, parts of the company and to the states and sought exchange there and really took things on board from the states. For example, we also piloted applications in the countries – never has everything come out of the headquarters. This gave people the feeling that they can contribute and that their ideas count. They should not have the feeling that the brand is something that is completely controlled from above. The employees helped shape the brand. This has also increased acceptance tremendously. Anyone who does a bit of international brand management knows how difficult it is, to dictate things to other countries from headquarters – there is always a natural resistance. We turned that around a bit and it worked wonderfully. Why shouldn’t country X or country Y develop something that is then adopted by everyone? That kind of thing works quite well. On top of all that, for me it’s always about talking a lot and taking people seriously and picking them up where they are.

From your point of view, how has the pandemic influenced brand management? Has it also created new challenges or new opportunities in your opinion?

I honestly believe that crisis situations are a stress test for brands. They put the brand and the brand management to the test. If the brand was already well positioned in the past, it should not have been so difficult to get through the crisis. I already said it when talking about employees: what fascinates me there is that the brand provides orientation. In times of crisis, this applies not only to employees, but to people in general. In times when you don’t know what’s going to happen next, a brand can give someone very nice orientation and support. But this only works if the brand acts very authentically and if what is invested in the brand is really lived openly and is more than mere lip service. The exchange with the customer has become even a little more important. People in crisis and pandemic times are perhaps not quite so keen to experiment and probably like to fall back on what they know and what is familiar to them. That is a great opportunity for any brand. If I am there as an established brand, I can build on that quite wonderfully.

I think you have to be a bit careful. I remember the commercials that the federal government aired on Covid – the whole theme of “We’re not going to do anything.” I don’t know if that’s the right way to go. I once discussed this with psychologists from Rheingold as part of a larger discussion group. A point came up there that was very insightful to me: maybe it was the wrong thing to condemn people to do nothing. We all already have the feeling that we can’t do anything. As a brand, we should rather try to give people ideas about what they can do in the crisis, what they can still control and how they can get back a little bit of control over their lives. One example are all the DIY stores. There is always something to do at home. Here, a completely different bridge should have been built and people should have been told: “Yes, the crisis is here. There’s not much you can do. But there are things to do!” That is somewhat the task of brands in times of crisis. On the one hand, to give people orientation and a bit of security, but also to show them what they can actually do. If you support them in this, then that is also rewarded.

What about if someone were to try to establish a new brand on the market or rebrand in this special year of 2021? What advice would you give in this situation?

There is never the right time for a new brand and never the wrong time either. If you manage to build something that helps people in times of crisis, that’s wonderful. I do believe that people are looking for that. This can be something they like to fall back on. People have a lot of time to orient themselves at the moment. Social media consumption has increased, all the screen time in general has increased even more than it already did. You should look very carefully at what insights you are building your brand on. What is the actual need? What is the problem that needs to be solved? And then go for it. I believe that this works very well as a new brand.

When rebranding, I would think very carefully about whether it is necessary – it should be considered in general. Neither employees nor the capital market will appreciate it if a rebranding is carried out without any great reason. It has to be well justified. And if it is justified by the need to make the company fit for the future, to secure jobs, then it will work. But here, too, I would say that one should look very carefully at what the insight is and why this is necessary. It should be carried out cleanly; it should be communicated properly, openly and transparently why this step is being taken. In particular, the internal people should be taken along first and you should explain to them what it is about and why this step is being taken, so that you can also use them as brand ambassadors. That always works, no matter what time it is.

How would you convince someone of the importance of the topic of brands with just one argument?

Brands increase the value of a company. Brands give orientation to employees, customers and thus to all people. They give them trust, which makes brands an incredibly important investment for me.

There is a wonderful saying by Steve Forbes: “Your brand is the single most important investment in your business.” That’s exactly what it is, and there is still a lack of understanding in so many places and in so many companies. In so many places it’s still just a nice-to-have. I am always looking for companies that are at least willing to listen. It’s interesting when you have the feeling that people are listening to you. Then you get them somehow and you can build on that quite well.

Sabine Schmittwilken, thank you for your exciting insights and all the best for you!

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