During this Northbound team Q&A, we interviewed Senior Strategist, Natalie Balthrop to get to know the practitioners behind the work and what makes working at Northbound unique.
How did you arrive in the world of brand strategy?
After finishing my Masters degree at Parsons School of Design in New York (MA in Design History & Curatorial Studies), I was seeking a job that allowed me to flex my creative muscles, apply my design history knowledge, problem solve, and find new solutions to old problems. My first job was with a small design agency that was focused on driving social change and social impact through design. It was a tight-knit team and we thrived in the multidisciplinary space. I had found my niche and was excited to go to work every day. As my career progressed, I found that brand strategy was the exact collision of creativity, storytelling, and practical problem solving that I was seeking. This led me to land roles at agencies like Interbrand and Wolff Olins and solve problems for some of the world’s largest brands before joining Northbound to do the same.
What is your role at Northbound?
For clients, I work to facilitate brand strategy processes and develop brand strategies. Ultimately, I meet our clients where they are and help them achieve whatever it is they're striving for. Sometimes this means a new name or a rationale for why a certain path should be chosen. Other times, I’m developing an entirely new brand for a spinoff company of a larger organization or rebranding an existing organization. Regardless of the output, I’m a partner to our clients. I strive to understand the ins and outs of their team, their business, and their audience. One of my favorite parts of my job is in client partnership. The greatest joy for me is helping one of my clients have a successful meeting or to feel confident in presenting new work. A 10-12 page deck can often be the culmination of 8 months of work! It’s exciting to be able to give clients the tools they need to bring others along on the journey and launch a brand.
At Northbound, I wear a few different hats. I love helping my teammates solve problems and being a sounding board for new ideas. A few of my life’s passions are human rights, diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice. And I’m working with the leadership team to ensure Northbound is a safe space and living its values and goals.
What are some skills today’s strategist must have that may not have been necessary to the role before?
The courage to forge a new path. We must look to past solutions for what has worked, but also keep a sharp focus on larger trends in culture to really understand what will resonate with those we are trying to seek. We must always be willing to challenge our assumptions and listen closely; to our clients and to our audiences. It is our job as consultants to bring an outside perspective and to really push our clients to think about their brand challenge in a new way. It’s a perfect balance on knowing when to lean on our frameworks to establish that strong foundation and when to leverage those frameworks to build a foundation in a space where no one has ever been.
What drew you to Northbound?
The fact that it’s female-owned and independent. Also, I love the size of Northbound. It’s large enough where you can work with different teammates on a variety of projects and feel like the ideas are fresh with new perspective. But small enough that you know your teammates and everyone is approachable.
Lastly, I was intrigued about working at a (mostly) brand strategy consultancy with a growing design arm. I was excited to see if the energy of a brand strategy shop would have the same pulse of the design-led agencies where I’ve spent most of my career. Turns out that the energy is there!
What are the ingredients for a strong brand strategy?
Relevance. Differentiation. Credibility. (Channeling my inner Sam!!) Is what we’re bringing to market relevant to who we are trying to reach? Is what we’re doing different and offering a new way? Are our claims credible to the business?
As a writer, I’d also add a strong, true, inspiring story. Brand stories can be so powerful and inspire internal teams in a way that other elements cannot.
What’s surprising about the world of brand strategy that a lot of people don’t know?
It’s not marketing! It’s not advertising! And it’s not just a logo!
People are often surprised to learn how close brand strategy is to the business. Brand strategy is a business decision that should stand the test of time.
What gives you joy?
Writing, storytelling, reading, and being outside in the mountains/on the coast/on an urban hike. I have been writing stories for as long as I can remember and am happiest when I’m creating.
Also, my family.
What is unique about working at Northbound?
The people are smart, sharp, thoughtful, kind, and collaborative. It’s a culture of “all tides rise” meaning that we all genuinely want our teammates to thrive and find the best solutions for our clients. It means we can ask for help, push each other’s thinking, request a second opinion, and celebrate each other’s victories. Turns out that this culture helps us deliver top quality deliverables to our clients, so it’s a win for everyone.
What are you most excited about with the work you’re doing at Northbound?
We have great clients who are a joy to work alongside. And my teammates as some of the best I’ve worked with in the industry. I’m excited to be a part of a growing agency and to bring our rigorous thinking and methodology to more and more client teams.