Enduring Brand Lessons from the Worlds of Retail, Restaurants, and Other First Jobs

Group Interview

Is there anything as formative as our first jobs? It’s a magical time when the newfound autonomy of getting a paycheck is immediately countered by an ugly truth: making money is hard work. For many of us, first jobs start in the worlds of retail, restaurants, and other seemingly unglamorous customer service gigs. There are, by definition, entry-level positions, but don’t let that fool you. Any job that puts you in front of people — people with highly-specific desires, big expectations, and virtually no patience — requires a herculean amount of smarts and emotional intelligence.

There is a certain social stigma against customer service positions. We are taught to laugh off those early stints and seek out “real jobs.” The truth is, the early lessons from those first jobs can form the bedrock of great branding. You must embody consistency, differentiation, experience, and the simple fact that when you win someone’s heart, it’s not long until you win their wallet.

The following is a roundtable interview with the Emotive Brand team about their first jobs, and how those early experiences have informed how they approach branding today.

Saja Chodosh, Writer

For two years during the summer, I was a hostess at a pub in Salt Lake City. Naturally, I had to deal with a lot of drunk or impatient people. One of the first lessons you learn is: tone really matters. You can relay the same basic information — It’s going to be an hour-and-a-half wait — with drastically different tones and get drastically different results. It’s the difference between someone storming out or someone saying, “It’s cool, I’ll just get a drink at the bar.” As a writer for brands, tone in copywriting is super important. Just like at a pub, it’s going to affect how long people are willing to interact with you.

Kelly Peterson, Project Manager

Believe it or not, I was actually a papergirl. Every Wednesday, right around the corner from my middle school, I would plug in my iPod and run the streets. It was all about how you can be most efficient before it gets dark. It’s a lot like solving how to get the most out of people before a deadline. You had your regulars, the people who would plan to see me at the same time every week. They depended on that consistency – getting consistent value at the same time, no matter what. Plus, the emotional connection of being able to take time to chat with their neighborhood papergirl – despite my sunlight influenced deadline. As a project manager, consistency, efficiency, and people skills all factor in.

Shannon Caulfield, Project Manager

For better or worse, in Burlingame, I was known as the “frozen yogurt girl” because I worked so much. That job is where I really learned the importance of customer experience, and how a brand’s perception totally depends on their people. We took our Yelp reviews super seriously. If someone took a picture of a frozen yogurt that wasn’t perfectly swirled, we got in trouble. If you’re a company, you are producing thousands and thousands of customer experiences every day — but you have to remember, the customer only gets that one impression. When you don’t treat each experience with care, they could walk away with a bad taste.

Carol Emert, Strategy Director

One summer during college, I traveled around Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, writing for the “Let’s Go: Europe” travel guide. It was fun but pedantic work, researching transit schedules, hostels, and cheap eats. The big lesson I took from that time is that people love to tell their story. It may feel like an imposition, but when you show a genuine interest in someone else’s experience, most people delight in being able to talk about themselves and their interests — whether it’s their hometown in Norway or their relationship to a product or a brand. It’s not universally true, but when you want to hear someone’s story, it’s usually possible to find people who are happy to share. Today, as a consumer insights researcher and brand strategist, I am quite unapologetic about asking people to share their story.

Joanna Schull, Strategist

My first real job was working at Häagen-Dazs. As part of the training, you must learn to do everything. Whether you’re the manager or have only been there for a week, you need to know and be willing to do all the tasks. And that’s because, if you’re a customer, you don’t really know or care about the difference between who’s a manager and who’s not; you just want a great experience. No matter your place of employment, you should always be willing to do all aspects of the job. If you’re the CEO of an international coffee conglomerate, you should still know how to pull an espresso. At the end of the day, you need to know how to do the thing and live the brand. Everyone should understand the ins-and-outs of what makes the customer happy.

Also, when I was a lifeguard, I had to assert control over people who were considerably older than I was. I needed to find a way to convince adults to follow the rules, to follow my rules, and to keep people safe without being a jerk about it. It’s challenging to exercise authority when it’s questionable whether or not I should even have authority. In our line of work as consultants, we’re often working with people that are unbelievably successful, and the question becomes: how do you get them to trust you? How do you lead them through a process that might be uncomfortable? You need a mix of confidence and humility. Whether you’re leading a workshop or watching a pool, you’re not there to be the most important part of the engagement. You’re there to make sure things work seamlessly.

Keyoni Scott, Junior Designer

I’ve had a ton of jobs — pizza delivery, clothing stores, sandwich shops — but I learned something interesting about working at this deli in Yountville, a small town in Napa Country. You know, Napa has a certain association of being a very high-end, maybe even uppity place. There are the stereotypes of the fancy, wine-tasting people. I think it taught me the importance of ignoring assumptions, and really taking the time to truly know your audience. Regardless of stereotypes about a place, everyone is different and brings something unique to the table. Working in a deli, it’s a matter of being able to read people quickly. You should engage people on an emotional level, and get a real idea of what their life is like. Reading people goes a long way, creates stronger bonds, and ultimately, earns you more tips. Knowing when to joke with customers — or clients — goes a long way. Don’t make assumptions about your audience. Take the time to read them.

Robert Saywitz, Senior Designer

Oh man, I’ve worked as a host, a busboy, an ice cream scooper. At an all-you-can-eat buffet, I was literally the muffin man. When I was going through art school, I worked part-time as a waiter. In general, working in the service industry not only teaches you how to engage with difficult people, it teaches you extreme empathy. It informs you how to be a considerate and normal person when you walk into a restaurant, and that there are two sides to every story. It’s a brutal, but necessary lesson to learn. I truly believe that every single person on this planet should work in the service industry, like a military draft. Because here’s the real lesson: it teaches you how not to be an asshole. Working in a restaurant is a lot like working at an agency. You’re dealing with all sorts of different job positions — writers, strategists, designers — with tight deadlines and many links in the chain. Things simply won’t get done if you’re not a well-oiled machine. You can have the world’s best menu — if the chef and waiters and hosts aren’t communicating well, no one is eating there.

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So, whether you’re entry-level or enterprise, serving up mixed drinks or massive deliverables, we hope you find something to take away and apply to your brand. To misquote Gertrude Stein, “A job is a job is a job.” No matter your position, there are tangible steps you can take to make people fall in love every time they interact with your brand. And if you have lessons you’ve learned from early jobs, we’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Emotive Brand is a San Francisco brand strategy and design agency.

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