After 10 years of working with Stefan Sagmeister and seven years as a partner/co-founder of Sagmeister & Walsh, in 2019 Jessica Walsh went solo and launched &Walsh. Her creative agency focuses on, among other things, helping brands “find their weird,” and oftentimes that requires what she calls “brand therapy.”
I spoke with Walsh about launching her studio, and during our conversations she told me why that therapy is necessary, discussed the interplay between politics and brands, and touched upon one of my personal favorite brands: Hello Kitty.
A child of the ’90s, Walsh grew up with Hello Kitty and Furby—which she never considered to be brands, but in retrospect, she realizes they are. “I love Furbies,” she exclaims. “I realize now that it was a big part of what brands are … humans supporting brands, buying things that align with our personalities and our beliefs. That was the start, but I didn’t think, these are amazing things and I want to be a designer.”
(Hello Kitty and Furby still enjoy a large following, although today’s Furby is more of an interactive and app-driven toy. A six-foot-tall customized Furby went viral recently.)
Nostalgia for the ’80s and ’90s has been stronger than ever these days, especially with the ’80s references made in shows such as “Stranger Things,” which Walsh watched, and reflected upon. “They capitalized on nostalgia in a smart way. What they did with brand partnerships was interesting: They worked with 75+ different companies to recreate the look of the ’80s. They didn’t charge the brands but required them to help promote the show to extend reach. It was a win-win for both sides, fueled largely by the strong emotions that nostalgia conjures. I read somewhere that nostalgia these days is particularly strong because of how fast-paced technology is going, leaving people longing for feelings of simplicity and comfort, how things were in the simpler, good old days.”
Doing the Right Thing
Those familiar with Walsh and her work know that she takes risks, and she believes that brands—big or small—should do the same. “Brands should not be afraid of being political,” says Walsh. “There have been many reports and studies … brands that have taken a visible stance with political and social changes have seen increases in sales and brand loyalty. It's important to note though, that consumers are more savvy than ever. They can tell when something is fake vs. performative allyship for the sake of selling products. One of the worst examples is the Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad flop. When it’s dishonest, people see right through it.”
The controversial ad starring Jenner has been called, among other things, tone deaf. Mocked in a Saturday Night Live sketch and turned into one meme after another, Pepsi’s mistake was avoidable, Walsh says. “Agencies and brands need to make sure they have enough diversity in their leadership to avoid these mistakes. They also need to make sure they are tapping into causes and beliefs they are actually a part of, understand and align to, not just because a target audience segmentation told them to.” For brands, listening to focus groups, studying audience and consumer reports, and having the best creative team still might not be enough. Values, as Walsh tells me time and time again, matter a lot.