In our second interview with influential marketers in the Caribbean, we speak with Giselle Carr, Partner with Abovegroup. Founded in 2001, Abovegroup has grown to become one of the most respected and forward-thinking design consultancies in the region, with a reputation for the consistent delivery of beautiful, memorable solutions.
Giselle joined the Abovegroup team in 2016 as Director of Strategy, bringing with her over a decade of experience across several disciplines, including economic development, social innovation and environmental analysis. Originally a designer herself, today Giselle conducts research into brand trends, market and industry developments, in order to develop invaluable insights and deliver smart solutions. Warm and extremely personable, Giselle is a detail oriented big-picture thinker who develops strategies that leverage creativity within firms, non-profit organisations and government bodies, to create value that is financially, socially and environmentally sustainable. She is also a practicing biomimic.
AE: People often confuse marketing, branding and advertising. What do you consider to be the difference between the three?
Giselle: Marketing is often a bit more about a one-way conversation without true deep dialogue, than is design strategy. Abovegroup is in a unique position because we do not consider ourselves to be only a design consultancy; instead we build bridges between design, communications and business strategy; we use creativity as a catalyst for business innovation.
At Abovegroup, our approach is to foster a deep knowledge and relationship with our clients and our clients’ stakeholders. Branding is more about creating something that endures, i.e. designing systems, structures and visuals around a concept of permanence. You have to uncover the DNA of the organisation or entity and create something malleable that works over time. Advertising builds on this concept but is typically very transient; more focused on a moment. It’s more about capturing a particular trend and capitalizing on it.
AE: I read this article on Forbes called Marketing 101 written back in 2007. The author said: I’ll give you the essence of marketing in two sentences: First, it’s marketing’s responsibility to see that everyone is playing the same tune in unison. Second, it’s marketing’s assignment to turn that tune or differentiating idea into what we call a coherent marketing direction. Do you agree with this definition? Do you think that marketers in the Caribbean would define their roles this way?
Giselle: Yes, I believe that Caribbean advertisers definitely see their role this way. And you also see that with some marketing strategists. The end goal is usually to get consumers to behave a certain way and once again, they’re referring to a one-way conversation. You’re gathering data from your audience. That is marketing. In our region, we are pushed to behave in that way. We will have to encourage our clients to unlearn some of these experiences. In Trinidad and Tobago, for sure, efforts are centered around selling, or push marketing, but I believe that if you listen more, you can determine a different and more meaningful outcome.
AE: One morning on one of the call in programmes, I heard a caller lament that Barbadian marketers don’t know how to create brands and how to create advertisements that encourage consumers to buy. What are your thoughts on this? Is it the same in Trinidad and Tobago?
Giselle: Not sure about Barbados, but here in Trinidad a lot of what I’ve seen is somewhat inauthentic so it won’t work. We have to focus on elevating the consumer, not yelling at them mainly out of radios and TV ads. The same brands are now competing with international brands because people shop online. As an industry, we have to stop belittling them.
One simple difference is that Barbados appears to have an advantage on Trinidad and Tobago in terms of environmental sustainability. There is a lot of thinking that would have gone into solar bus stops, for example. They are just stunning, especially at night. But they’re also really smart.
In Trinidad, every ad on the radio is loud and consumers are trained to tune out ads, especially if the ads are almost attacking you. Sometimes they’re sexist. Sometimes they’re poorly done. TV in particular can be appalling, and our market is flooded with those types of ads. You can definitely see a need to provide an alternative, as people do not want to feel insulted.
AE: Given your time working in marketing in the Caribbean, how do you think local brands are performing in terms of developing strong brand identities?
Giselle: A few of our clients have done extremely well at developing strong identities. Guardian Group, for example, has seen a definite improvement in employee buy-in, even though it has only been a few years since the rebrand and it came at the same time as an extensive reorganisation. We also have had great success with luxury hotels. Luxury hotels provide this odd sort of confluence of luxury, aesthetics and place – they can become destination brands. For example, the Mount Irvine Beach Resort in Tobago was recently rebranded and much of their renovation design aesthetic was informed by the new brand. There’s a hotel we’re also working with in Grenada that hasn’t been built yet, so the design work we’ve done would definitely influence the look and feel of the property. Secret Bay in Dominica has also been wildly successful, winning several awards and receiving a ton of free press and celebrity endorsements. For these three at least, a brand is a living thing, an experience and an impression you walk away with.
AE: How do you think local brands compare to international brands? Why do you think this is the case?
Giselle: Foreign ads speak to you differently than local ads, so you connect with them better. And in Trinidad and Tobago, consumers appear to value international brands higher than local brands. Trinidadians have an obsession with foreign products, from food to clothing to consumer products. But buying local has experienced an upsurge recently, though not across all price points. Coconut Growers Association – they create food, bath and other products from coconuts and coconut derivatives – created their brand conversations around ensuring that the brand is valued for high quality, and not merely to convince people to buy because it is local.
Another local brand we’ve worked closely with, the Alliance of Rural Communities, brings the agricultural communities of Trinidad to the fore – or as they put it, “the periphery becomes the core”. Our local food products are second to none and it’s about time we started treating them that way.
AE: Do you think that the presence of a small number of local TV channels is hindering the development of the advertising industry in the region?
Giselle: It depends. There is something about the healthy competition that ensues when you have more than one TV station. Consumers are mainly focused on the news and coverage of major events, so watching local TV is more about bonding over current events. Apart from those, there’s no imperative to watch anything on local TV, in my opinion.
AE: Apart from advertising, are there any other avenues that local brands should be pursuing more to strengthen their brands?
Giselle: Some brands simply want to keep up with every new trend. Typically, local brands focus on print (magazines and editorials) but more digital and social platforms are emerging. Depending on how savvy the brand is, they’ll take the push approach (their traditional approach) into that space. Most are replicating traditional methods. Instead, they should be trying to have conversations with their customers. It seems like brands don’t know where to start and, in error, they reach out to their marketing team. I believe that to be more successful, social media, like so many other interactions with a brand, requires more dialogue and a deeper level of engagement.
Giselle Carr is a Partner with Abovegroup. This interview was conducted by Stacia Howard, Managing Director of Antilles Economics.