Connecting with Bill Sobel

Julie Cottineau doesn't mince words. "My business is branding. I teach you how to improve yours," she said. Cottineau is the founder and CEO of BrandTwist, a brand consultancy that helps entrepreneurs and corporations build their brands and leverage them as actionable business assets.

Before BrandTwist, she was vice president of brand at Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, overseeing branding strategy for new and established Virgin companies in North America. She also served as executive director of consumer branding at Interbrand and was a vice president and management supervisor at Grey Worldwide in both the US and France. She has been an adjunct professor of integrated marketing communications at Columbia and Cornell universities and is a frequent commentator on brand strategy and innovation.

What's Brand Got to Do With It?


With a resume like that, Cottineau obviously has a lot to say about branding. So let's listen.

Sobel: Julie, you started your company — BrandTwist — after many years at Richard Branson's organization. Can you tell me a bit more about your experience, the inspiration for BrandTwist and where you see the company going?

Cottineau: During my five years as vice president of brand at Virgin, I witnessed the passion and excitement of Richard Branson and the other entrepreneurs who worked with Virgin. This inspired me to break out on my own and create BrandTwist, my branding consultancy, as well as my Brand School Master Class, a brand-learning program that helps entrepreneurs create stronger brands and take their businesses to the next level. Virgin embraces innovation and I found tremendous encouragement by its support when it became my first client. Right now, I'm working to expand the reach of BrandTwist with more live workshops and events, and plan to bring the Master Class program to Europe in the fall.

Sobel: There are a lot of people who do what you do. What sets you apart? What is your unique selling proposition?

Cottineau: My difference is definitely the Twist. I’m energized by the creative process and love looking for new ways to solve old problems. The author Ambrose Bierce said, “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don't know.” I'm a big believer in lateral thinking, looking for an out-of-category twist that can help break through branding challenges. I teach how to look at successful brands and imagine how twisting them with your brand might open up new delivery channels, more innovative products or freshen your branding.

Sobel: What are some of your greatest success stories? And what were some of your mistakes?

Cottineau: Rather than a particular “success” story, I’ll share how a completely random experience ended up sparking the philosophy I use today to drive innovation. I was at an airport and saw a 747 with McDonald’s golden arches on the tail fin. I started wondering what this McDonald’s airline was like and how it must differ from another airlines. Is it more child-friendly? Does it offer services for all price-points? Can I “super size” my economy seat to business class? Does it have more family-oriented seating? As it turns out, this airline was a figment of my imagination. The arches were a reflection of the neon sign in the food court on the window and there happened to be a plane parked behind the window on the tarmac. So while it was just imaginary, it led to the very real practice of thinking in a whole new way about brand innovation — twisting brands in different categories to come up with new ideas.

That’s actually why I named my company BrandTwist. It's also why I advise clients to always keep a notebook handy. Those little moments can produce amazing success stories.

Failure is an inevitable part of business, but it can be a very productive learning tool. At Virgin, we had an expression “fail harder,” which meant that failure is a sign you’re trying new things and pushing the envelope. That’s how great brands succeed. Richard Branson often cites the failed Virgin Cola as one of its most important launches. The company learned the brand’s sweet spot is in providing experiences — airlines, hotels, health clubs — versus products, like soft drinks and cosmetics.

Experiences offer more opportunities to surprise and delight customers, which Virgin does so well. It’s important to be cautious about taking calculated risks and make sure that one failed product won’t bring down a company, but I feel it’s better to be failing often and learning than to play it safe and stand still as a brand.

Sobel: What's changing in the world of marketing and what should people be thinking about?

Cottineau: Strong brands have always enjoyed a two-way relationship with consumers who in turn tell friends about a favorite brand through word-of-mouth. But now, with the web and networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, consumers can instantly broadcast their feelings to an extremely wide audience. Social media is having a profound impact on branding and we’re only at the tip of the iceberg. Brand messages are also becoming more visual – and quickly recognizable “word of eye” visuals are becoming a pivotal factor in making a brand stand out. Mobile technology is also having an impact in the form of smart phones and ”wearables” like tech wristbands. We're only just beginning to see the potential power of these things.

Sobel: How do you do your own personal branding?

Cottineau: That’s a good question. Many people don’t realize that each of us is a brand. If you’re a celebrity, entrepreneur or a business owner, you directly represent your company or product. As an employee, you represent the brand employing you. If you’re on the job hunt or expanding your career, having a clear sense of your personal brand can help you get noticed.

In designing the BrandTwist brand, I chose colors I'm personally passionate about — pink and purple. I wear those colors all the time, so they’ve become synonymous with both the personal brand of Julie and my BrandTwist business. It makes my business and me a little more memorable. When I'm appearing at events, I have a purple bucket for attendees to deposit their business cards. Paying attention to those little touch points is important because they add up to help you stand out.

Sobel: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs just starting a business?

Cottineau: One of the biggest mistakes made by those starting out is underestimating brand. I know that may sound a little self-serving, but I cannot overstate the importance of developing a well-defined brand promise. It’s literally your relationship with your customer — your most valuable business asset. Strong brands have tangible business benefits: they allow you to charge a premium, develop new products and services and help you be forgiven when you mess up. And let’s face it, all brands — even Apple — make mistakes. If you keep your brand healthy – in return, it will help you build a loyal customer following.