5 Minutes with Karen Schnelwar

On Thursday, November 8 at 6pm, Starrett-Lehigh is bringing together today’s industry experts for a panel discussion on branding – INSIDE THE BRANDING STUDIO: BUILDING A BRAND, BEING A BRAND, WORKING WITH BRANDS.

From sample sales to product testings, the #StarrettFamily knows few brands as well as OXO! On Thursday, we will be joined by Karen Schnelwar, VP, Global Brand Strategy and Marketing.

Starrett-Lehigh sat down with Karen to learn more about her and her experience leading up to our annual panel. See below to spend 5 Minutes with Karen Schnelwar!

How would you describe your role at OXO?
I lead brand and marketing for OXO globally. This encompasses crafting and amplifying the OXO Brand Strategy, bringing it to life through visual and verbal identity, and activating it across the brand journey—all aspects of branding, content and marketing. I have a great, talented team that works across all aspects of brand communications and brand design.

How did you decide to work in branding?
I’d never heard of branding until a few years of working in advertising—it was the mid-90s/early aughts, and branding was even less known than it is today (and while it’s a buzzword today, it’s still an unknown quantity to most). I was at a large WPP agency and serendipitously connected with a fantastic woman in HR with contacts at Landor; thanks to her, I moved from one agency to the other—one world to the other, really. And in the world of branding, it’s like the sky was more blue, the clouds were more white. Serendipitously, I found what I loved to do most—define brands, help bring them to life on an elemental level. And I never looked back.

What is something your coworkers don’t know about you?
For better or worse, I don’t hide most of my quirks. Some, but not all, know that I was a White House Intern (with the first Clinton Administration). Everyone who knows me knows I’m obsessed with Cape Cod. But not many people know my heroes are Nancy Drew and Carl Sagan.

How does building a personal brand differ from building a corporate brand?
The principles are actually the same: Who are you? What do you stand for? What’s your point-of-view? What difference do you make in the world? But personal brands are a weird topic—I’m not a fan of thinking about your personal brand more than knowing who you are—anything else is hyper-self-conscious and cloying. Just figure out who you are, and be it, authentically. Corporate brands and consumer brands are about defining an entity that transcends any individual—it’s about a pure idea, products and experiences.

How do you handle complex problems at work?
I make lists—lots of them, and perceptual maps. They break things down to its parts and pieces, and helps you think things through. I work in Sharpie, which I swear is a magical tool. Sharpies help you think out loud, in permanent ink, so you can see your thoughts and rearrange them. I try to give things a lot of care and thought, and simultaneously not over-think them—you can’t force good ideas. And things usually come together. Constructing and sharing ideas is a lot like storytelling. (Short answer: Sharpies and noise cancelling headphones.)

How do you destress after a long day at work?
I’m usually out and about doing lots of different things—there is too much to see, do, learn. Tonight, I’m going to a lecture the Museum of Natural History. Last week the Met had late hours, and it was a thrill to walk around the museum on a school night, when it’s normally closed. I spend a lot of time at museums, and a lot of time with friends. When I go right home, I watch Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell and think about the state of the state. (The latter is not un-stressful, but important.)

What advice would you give someone who wants to work in branding?
Good question—the field of branding is not very good at branding itself, and there is no natural career path. I’d say do your homework on agencies that work with brands in different ways, and on companies whose brands you admire to get a feel for internal opportunities. I’d proactively ask for informational interviews, even if there isn’t an opening. I’d go above and beyond to distinguish yourself—send a printed and signed note, write elegantly and cleverly (but not over-the-top), be articulate about your passion.

What is your favorite OXO product?
It’s hard to pick just one. I have deep affection for the oyster knife, because it gives me the confidence to conquer one of my favorite foods without fear of impaling myself. I love our iconic salad spinner because it works so damn well and, oddly, I’m obsessed with radicchio. The OXO angled measuring cup is the product that made me fall in love with OXO: you can view measurement markings from above so you don’t have to bob your head up and down to look at the side of the cup. But my current favorite is the grate and slice set—it’s a series of blades in a self-contained situation that’s easy to use and very smart. My mother loves it the most, and she’s legitimately always right about everything.

If we went to your home, would we find any non-OXO products?
I mean, of course. OXOnians are brand loyal, but we’re only human and we make impulse purchases and get gifts from other people that go beyond our brand. But the OXO products are slowly/not-so-slowly taking over.

What’s your favorite thing about working in the Starrett-Lehigh building?
I love the undulating northern wall of the building. It’s subtle, but beautiful. I walk by that curve at least a dozen times a day, and every time I think: elegant.

What are you most excited about participating in our fall speaker series?
I love the world of branding—it’s interesting and fun. It’s great to do it in practice, and interesting to talk about in theory. This beautiful building is full of interesting brands, and it will be nice to meet a few of the people bringing those brands to life.