Two full sleeves of tattoos, no college degree… And the Senior Vice President of Branding and Creative at ALEX AND ANI. Kate Richard proves that there is no official formula to achieving career success.
Kate oversees the billion dollar label’s design, marketing, and branding departments, and is an expert on building a brand’s unique story and keeping fans connected as is evolves. How do you know it’s time to rebrand? Is your brand ready to evolve with changing trends? Should you even let trends dictate the changes you make to your brand? How do you bring your day one fans with you as you evolve?
I’m asking Kate the big branding questions, she offers up some of the best advice the show has ever heard, and we dive into her own not-so-typical career evolution and what it’s meant to build her own brand from the ground up.
Kate grew up with her twin brother and family in Vermont. Her father passed away when she was 13-years old, and she and her brother were raised by their single mother. She didn’t have much, but she had a strong family and support system around her. Through watching her father battle his alcohol addiction and coming from very little, she always knew she wanted to get out of her small town and do something big with her life. Nearing senior year as she and her brother were applying to colleges, her mindset was mostly “get out of dodge”. Kate signed the student loan paperwork, not truly realizing the weight of her signature and the debt she was signing up for.
Kate got into Pace University in New York City. She loved the environment, but she was working two jobs to support herself through school in a very expensive city, without any financial fallback from her mother. “It was the first time in my whole life that I really felt like an adult and I felt like I made a mistake,” she explained. Kate ultimately decided to drop out of school after six months with no real plan except to start working.
Kate moved to Philadelphia and got a minimum wage job at Tower Records, and she remembers sitting in the basement of the office knowing that there was more to life for her than that. “It was the first time I ever really thought about the power of yourself as a brand, and who you are, and what you have the ability to do by seemingly inconspicuous changes in the way you carry yourself, what you’re accessible to, how you got to work and what you do when you’re there, and how all of those decisions could eventually roll up to be a substitute to traditional education.”
The Exception to the Rule
As women, it’s easy to feel under qualified anyway (imposter syndrome, anyone?) So how did Kate work into a leadership role at a worldwide brand without what our society preaches as the “rule” for earning such positions? In this episode, Kate explained her “perfect storm of circumstances” that lead to the ultimate SVP position at ALEX AND ANI… and a ton of hard work. She hustled through her retail career with a goal to be the absolute best at that job, making herself the “most sparkly, enigmatic” person. She volunteered to help with everything, she learned everything she needed to know (and then some), and was a stand-out when corporate came through the stores. Kate knew she didn’t have her degree to fall back on, so she made an entire career out of being referred and recommended for her next position. “If you don’t have what you think is standard in your industry, you need to have something else.” For Kate, she showed up and she worked her butt off. That was her “something else”.
The founder of ALEX AND ANI presented another unique circumstance for Kate to get her where she is today. Kate was entered the company on the operations side. Founder Carolyn Rafaelian looked past Kate’s lack of college degree because Kate was great to work with, she understood and could support Carolyn’s vision for the company and brand, and she didn’t care what Kate had done before — She only cared about what Kate was doing for Alex and Ani and what she could do in the role of SVP of Branding and Creative.
Evolving versus Rebranding
Kate is well-versed in the branding space, acting as the filter for ALEX AND ANI’s creative and ensuring it aligns with the brand’s overall mission. You must be scrupulous in your decision-making when it comes to your brand’s story. While a certain trend may be gaining attention or a theme is particularly timely and important to society, if it doesn’t align with your brand story, it shouldn’t be part of your plan. But how do you know when that brand needs to evolve, and how can you do it while staying true to that core mission?
“I think people view rebranding as a negative. Evolving sounds like a much sexier word than re-anything. RE sounds like you’re stepping back, like you’re redoing something,” Kate explained, “The R-E should be used sparingly when you’re talking about this.” Evolution means constantly having a gut check about your brand, and evolving in those moments when you’re prepared to do so. The first leg of your company’s growth might be about keeping up with the explosive demand, as it was in ALEX AND ANI’s case, and evolution wasn’t the main focus. Once business had reached a comfortable point, then Kate took a step back and analyzed the brand and how it could evolve within the existing mission of the company.
Rebranding, on the other hand, might mean you have a great concept, product, or service, but it’s not being received in the way you thought it would be. You believe in what you’ve created, but it’s not resonating with it’s current messaging or mission. “That’s when rebranding is the bravest thing you can do for your company,” Kate said. Rebranding is knowing what you do best in the industry and making sure the presentation is appropriate for what you’re trying to achieve.
Learn From Trends, Don’t Copy Them
“Sometimes the most inhibiting thing you can do is ask people what they want.” When Kate works with the product design team, she ensures that the choices they make align with the mission and brand, not just what the consumer is asking for. “It’s a service to our fanbase to stay true to stay true to [our identity] and work through trends and inspiration in a way that feels familiar and recognizable, while still being able to offer newness.” Instead of looking at what’s going on in your industry and creating your version of it, be inspired by the trend or concept, run it through your brand lens, and make it into something that helps YOUR business.
On the flip side, ALEX AND ANI has its share of imitators — other brands and companies who see their products and the success, and create their own versions that look strikingly like the original. While some businesses are inspired by ALEX AND ANI’s model of meaning-based jewelry (something Kate commends) others are straight counterfeit products. The signature bangle that was key in the popularity and growth at the beginning is actually patented, and they’ve maintained a stern standard that it’s not accessible and taken it very seriously. They made the decision to invest in legal early on and it helped them continue to battle the counterfeit markets through the years.
3 Tips for Evaluating Your Brand
If you’re looking at your business and your brand and feeling like it’s time for a change, or if it’s not being received as you would like it to be, what can you do to evaluate your next steps? Kate shared her three tips:
- Do an audit of what you look like in the world and compare it against how you describe yourself. You may think you’re presenting yourself in a certain way and your communication is aligned with that, but if you were to be honest, is it the same way your audience is perceiving you?
- If the perception is in conflict with your mission, go back to basics. Create a written manifesto of where you are, where you want to go, and what you’re doing here. Be clear on the details so you’re not chasing opportunities that get you further away from that core mission or “why”.
- Be ready to walk away from things that aren’t good for your “why”. Some of the hardest decisions that ALEX AND ANI made as a company was walking away from revenue that wasn’t good for the brand anymore. Some definitions of success may not be right for you.
More from This Episode
What does a typical day look like in the SVP of Branding and Creative role? What project is she most proud of in her time at ALEX AND ANI? And so much more. If you want to dig deep and really lean into the conversation of branding, no matter what season you’re in with your personal brand or business, this episode is rich with insight and advice. Press play on the player above for the full interview.