Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

Surabhi grew up in India at a time when it was opening up to the world and evolving from its post-independence socialist roots. She saw first-hand how introduction of new brands and advertising changed behavior, while the country rose up global ranks. As she bloomed into a professional, the country’s diversity and complexity added another challenge. The experiences have made her intensely curious and dedicatedly exacting.

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After graduating with a degree in visual communication from Sophia Polytechnic in Bachelor of Fine Arts, Communication Design and Graphic Design, Surabhi worked for global giants like Leo Burnett, Lowe Lintas, and Brand Union. Most recently, she was a design director at OPEN, an award-winning strategic design consultancy. In all these years, she worked on brands like Kellogg’s, Britannia, Garnier, Yardley, Cipla, Vistara Airlines, Airtel, Micromax, Axis Bank and many more. At SVA, she wants to learn, how to harness the power of brands to make a positive impact on the world. She hopes to find a tribe that will help her shape the brands that will define the future.

Prior to SVA’s year-long Masters in Branding program, Surabhi Rathi worked as a designer in branding consultancies and creative agencies. Her time at SVA added strategic rigor to her creative background, helping position herself as a Brand Expert with holistic understanding of business, brand strategy and design.

Surabhi will soon join Tether, a cross-disciplinary creative studio, as a Strategist. She is excited to join the team at Tether where she hopes to build brands that will define the future.

In the fourth interview of a series in partnership with SVA, PSFK spoke to Surabhi about how her experience in the Masters in Branding program has been fundamental in shaping her next career move. SVA’s Masters in Branding program allows students to create frameworks to guide brand, design and business development, critically evaluate brand, business, marketing and design strategies and master the intellectual link between leadership and creativity.

Where did your interest in branding begin, and what led you to choose SVA’s Masters in Branding program?

I grew up in India during the time its economy opened up to the world and evolved from its post-independence socialist roots. I saw first-hand how the introduction of new global brands affected behavior. When the first Starbucks store opened in a historic building in south Mumbai, there were long queues of people who stood for hours to get in. It wasn’t the love of coffee for the practical chai-drinking Indians, it was the “brand” that had the pull.

But brands aren’t just products we consume, they are ideas with immense power to unify. My curiosity to learn how to harness the power of brands to create a positive impact on the world led me to pursue SVA’s Masters in Branding program.

After studying and practicing design for many years, I wanted find answers to questions that design alone could not provide. This is a unique program that recognizes there is no one way to approach branding. I had my heart set to study at SVA since I first read about the program. And five years later, I’m fortunate to have become a part of the school’s rich legacy.

Why did you decide to move to New York City?

My move to New York City was fueled by my desire to learn and grow. It wasn’t so much about choosing the city I wanted to move to, but it was about what I wanted to study next. And, the program I loved, happened to be in New York City. Before shortlisting the School of Visual Arts (SVA), I did thorough research of schools and universities offering post-graduate degrees. I even travelled to London and visited schools there. I was considering all my options. But nothing came close to the Masters in Branding program at SVA. 

I was raised in a family of high-achievers. So, pursuing a Masters felt quite natural to me. My family has always put a lot of importance to education and learning in general. My mother continued her education in her 50s and my brother was the youngest student to have completed his Masters and Ph.D. from Oxford University. However, I didn’t want to pursue a Masters for the sake of it. Having worked in the branding industry for five years I knew what was needed to get to the next level. And the program at SVA felt like the perfect option — it would help me transition from design to strategy. And that’s how I came to New York City.

What surprised you most while you completed the one-year graduate degree?

I did not expect it to become a beautiful one-year journey in self-reflection. Through classes in persuasion, psychology, philosophy and design thinking we not only learned about the functioning of the world but also about our place within it. Every class helped us unearth an understanding of ourselves as we relate to the world we live in.

It’s an intense period of study and, yet, the curriculum design is such that that every class provides time for introspection. This degree has brought me clarity and insight, strengthening my intentions in work and furthering my personal and professional goals.

You will start working as a Strategist at Tether. What are some of the lessons from the branding program that helped you get there?

The program structure forces you to work with students from all over the world in a competitive setting with tight deadlines. Working with people both young and experienced, with backgrounds ranging from theatre to business, I learned the significance of diverse perspectives in developing strategic outcomes. It taught me—what I believe is the single most important skill in our industry—the ability to build on each other’s strengths. These interpersonal skills, as the marketing guru Seth Godin puts it, are at the “heart of what we need today.”

Beyond all the academic learnings, the curriculum left enough room for exploration and encouraged building your own branding frameworks. And so, it was critical for me to find a workplace that embodies fresh thinking with a degree of reverence for convention. Tether is that place for me. Founded by Stanley Hainsworth, the company prides itself in an approach that elevates story over style. It’s rare to come across a place that you love instantly.

And finally, my mentors deserve credit for helping me start off the next stage in my career at a place like Tether. I met them during my thesis and internships through the program. I see this is as the start of a life-long relationship with them.

What made you choose to pursue branding and how does your previous experience inform your work?

I laid a strong foundation for my understanding of branding through a range of professional experiences. These included work for branding consultancies and creative agencies, as well as startups. However, at the time, the creative and strategy departments still worked in silos.

Today, we no longer function like that. What separates thriving organizations from struggling ones is their ability to blur the lines between strategic and creative thinking. As someone who has now acquired a skill-set for strategic rigor, my past experience has made me acutely sensitive to the pain points of creatives. If managed well, involving designers from the very start can lead to exciting results.

Could you tell us briefly about your process? What do you particularly like about the work that you do?

Some of my best projects have been the ones that did not follow a set process. Having said that, every project starts with a deep dive in understanding client needs, studying social and cultural context, identifying business and market opportunities and understanding the audience. A constant reminder from my professor was that “we are in the business of selling, and we are doing that all the time.”

“Selling” here is a metaphor for creation of meaningful rhetorics. And that is what’s so exciting about this discipline. Selling is an art and science—one that requires intelligence, collaboration and the ability to connect on a human level. In a short span of time, you have to identify powerful insights, find distinct value (for your client) and form a smart point of view.

What’s one thing you wish more people understood about branding?

Branding is the social creation of meaning. Branding is intrinsically linked to the human condition. Humans are meaning-seekers by design, and we are constantly looking for meaning through the creation and use of brands.

I came to America at a time of political, social and cultural upheaval. Those large changes have been expressed through branding—be it Pepe the Frog or the symbolic representation of women Democrats wearing white at the State of the Union Address. These are intentional acts that are born out of a human desire: the need to belong to something larger than yourself and communicate what you stand for.

Brands are therefore, manifestations of minds that want to create, connect and influence people to believe in their ideas. People are no longer passive consumers. They are makers, collaborators, investigators and ultimately drivers of change. The more you understand these truths the more powerful your brand will be.