1600 – Practical Solutions to Thorny Problems with VSA Partners’ Ariadna Navarro

In this episode of the Thoughtful Entrepreneur, your host Josh Elledge speaks with the Chief Growth Officer of VSA Partners, Ariadna Navarro.


Ariadna Navarro, Chief Growth Officer of Partners, a renowned brand strategy and design consultancy, shared some invaluable wisdom about defining a brand's ethos and standing.

Defining a brand can be challenging, especially in an era where cancel culture and fear of missteps prevail. However, Ariadna says that if a brand remains honest and consistent about who they are, it will continue to thrive. She even highlighted Bud Light and Nike as examples of brands that faced backlash for their decisions but stayed true to themselves and their values.

She also spotlighted Patagonia as a prime example of authenticity. Despite potential skepticism regarding their fleece zip-ups and commitment to saving the world, this outdoor clothing company wholeheartedly embraces their mission. This unwavering dedication to their purpose resonates with consumers and sets them apart.


About Ariadna Navarro: 

Ariadna, originally from Venezuela, is a trailblazer connecting business strategy to brand and experience strategy to foster growth. As the Chief Growth Officer, she spearheads design, client engagement, and business development, applying a unique perspective on market trends and brand differentiation.

Her expansive portfolio includes projects with leading firms like IBM, AT&T, and Wayfair. She is genuinely interested in emerging technologies, corporate acquisitions, politics, and filmmaking, holding a postgraduate degree in the latter. 

Before joining VSA, Ariadna led strategy at Interbrand. She currently resides in New York with her family.


About VSA Partners: 

VSA Partners, a strategy and design agency, is committed to designing better human experiences. VSA creates impactful, measurable experiences in a busy world by merging consumer insights, data, and human-centered design.

With fully integrated capabilities, including branding, advertising, data science, and technology, VSA operates from Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. As a part of ‘Meet The People,' it leverages international collaborations. VSA's 40-year journey includes partnerships with renowned brands like Google, Nike, and IBM.

Adapting to a hybrid working model, VSA encourages its team to define their workspaces – anywhere within the United States. This flexibility promotes solitude, collaboration, or small-group engagements, as needed. Geographic neutrality in hiring ensures diverse experiences and perspectives.

Viewing their offices as flexible work hubs, VSA values human interaction, a change of scenery, and participation worldwide for employee wellbeing and organizational benefits.


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Check out Ariadna Navarro on LinkedIn at

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Josh (00:00:05) - Hey there, thoughtful listener. Would you like consistent and predictable sales activity with no spam and no ads? I'll teach you step by step how to do this, particularly if you're an agency owner, consultant, coach or B2B service provider. What I teach has worked for me for more than 15 years and has helped me create more than $10 million in revenue. Just head to up my influence and watch my free class on how to create endless high ticket sales appointments. You can even chat with me live and I'll see and reply to your messages. Also, don't forget the thoughtful entrepreneur is always looking for guests. Go to up my and click on podcast. We'd love to have you. With us right now. It's the chief growth officer of Partners. It's Ariadna Navarro. Ari, thank you so much for joining us.

Ariadna (00:01:09) - Of course. Thank you for having me.

Josh (00:01:10) - Your website, by the way, is VSA Partners. It's great to have you. You do amazing work. I'll let you tell us about it.

Ariadna (00:01:21) - Yeah, well, thank you, first of all Josh. Yeah, So VSA is a brand strategy and design consultancy. And we basically work with really big blue chip clients all the way down to startup companies, really trying to help them figure out where they need to go, whether that is brand strategy, whether that's thinking of a new identity system, whether that's thinking of organizational transformation, but really trying to solve big, thorny problems. And that's when and where we are best. And when companies come to us as sort of these big pivotal moments of either trying to grow or stagnated growth or the competitions eating their lunch. So we're really thoughtful and intentional about how we think of a business and where to take it and come with solutions that are really practical in the real world.

Josh (00:02:19) - And it looks like VSA does a lot of work around purpose, you know, kind of the why, advocacy, you know, just, I guess mattering and I don't know if that's always been the case or if VSA is kind of leading the charge for what I and many others know to be expectations of consumers today.

Josh (00:02:42) - Who are you? What do you stand for? And that's far more important than today. Then four out of five dentists agree, you know.

Ariadna (00:02:50) - Yeah. I mean, I love that you I love that you're asking that. So VSA was founded 40 years ago. And the ethos of this company is design. And when I say that, it's not just like, Oh, they're designers or we are designers, but it's a company that was founded on the belief that design is a business asset. So you can use design to transform an organization to transform behavior. So from that thinking comes our purpose, which is we design for a better human experience and think that may be what you're catching on to in our work and what that means for us, whether you're solving seriously like a giant global challenge, whether you have a company that's gone through 100 mergers and acquisitions that doesn't know, you know, how things fit anymore, or whether you're literally a startup trying to define yourself. We think about the value that that company is bringing into the world, and that's the design for a better human experience.

Ariadna (00:03:50) - And we really try to be intentional about not putting more noise into the world. And, you know, we're marketers, so our job is to create more and we really believe that more is not more because that comes at the expense of the audience or the customer or the human being on the other end. So when we are creating brands or business strategy or design systems or advertising even, we're really intentional about is that a better human experience? And that we defined through an understanding of what is the value and value for all. So that's what sort of that's the common thread in our work. And sometimes it means that we are very tortured and we really think deeply about the problem we're trying to solve and the best way to solve it.

Josh (00:04:39) - And so ultimately, in connecting the dots, you know, at that level and I should point out, like you work with Kleenex, Google, Goose Island, a lot of Mac trucks, Manuka Health, YWCA, some really great brands. And why? Why do you feel that this sort of work, you know, makes that change or, you know can impact so much? Is it just about driving revenue or is there more? It sounds like that you're saying that brand can help foster.

Ariadna (00:05:17) - Yeah, It's generally sounds like you work at VSA becausewe really think of this like a three dimensional value creation. And I know value creation sounds like a silly buzzword, but it's not. So what I mean by that is and you're hitting on it is are you creating value? Yes. There's got to be a profit side of it. So if you're doing business strategy, you have to think of the business case, of course. But we also have to think about is it creating value for employees? You know, so if you can be if you're creating value and destroying your employees, then that's sort of break in kind of that relationship. Are you creating value for your customers? Obviously, that should be the first thing. It's not always the first thing companies ask, but it should be the first thing you know, Is this a value to your customers? Is that an unmet need or is it meaningful or is it relevant or is it vital? You know, however you want to define the vital value for your customers? And then ultimately, is it good for the world at large? And that's, you know, that's probably a whole other podcast because companies tend to think that sustainability claims and that's, you know, that's a whole different conversation.

Ariadna (00:06:22) - But when you think of value for all, it sounds really difficult, right? It sounds like, holy crap, like, well, I can't either create something that's going to make money or something that, you know, the audience wants, maybe doesn't make money or employees are not happy. But you have to think of it holistically and it's not always easy, but it's always not that hard because we do think about we talk about like, are there false constraints? You know, are the things you think you can't do but really can you? So it really is kind of when you ask yourself those questions and you come out with something better on the other end.

Josh (00:06:59) - Yeah. And you know, so VSA, you know, one of the upper end branding agencies here in North America. And so from this position to I would imagine that and I know that you've been in this world for quite some time. If you were to dispense advice to a founder of an SMB who says, well, I don't know that I've got, you know, VSA budget, but boy, would I love to learn a thing or two from when, you know what maybe what things you are advising your clients to pay attention to or, you know, again, if you're trying to be a little bit more future thinking you know, you might want to start leaning in this direction with your communications and how you present yourself.

Ariadna (00:07:47) - Yeah, it's a good question. And we don't always just work with the IBM's and Googles of the world. We do do a lot of smaller companies as well because there's something really exciting about defining someone from the beginning. I do think it's a mindset shift. A mindset shift. It's really thinking about what do you stand for and think sometimes companies and by the way, this isn't startups. It could be startups, it could be giant corporations. Sometimes they think brand is the fluff thing. It's the fluffy thing. It's like, Oh, well, that's advertising and it's not. It's basically defining your ethos. It's no different than if ask you, Josh, Hey, tell me who you are. Who are you as a human being and then tell me what you do and all that stuff and like, you know, what do you like and your hobbies. But first, like, what's who? Who are you as a human? It's the same thing for a brand.

Ariadna (00:08:37) - So what I would say is take the time. The same time you're taking and defining your product. Or if you're a software company or your services or whatever it is you make and you do most of the time goes there. And for better or worse, people, there's so many brands and companies in the world that it's very hard to win by selling features, very hard to win by selling what you do. You really this is kind of the Steve Jobs sort of philosophy you have to sell. You know, a brand is a set of values. What do you stand for? Because that's what you want people to attach themselves to, to gravitate toward. So I am a you know, I've been in this business, as you said, a while, although I still say I'm 28. But it's I do love the concept of brands because it's more than a group of things. It really forces you to I mean done well, It forces you to really put a stake in the ground of who you are and what you stand for.

Ariadna (00:09:36) - And that can be scary because we live in times where. It's cancel culture. It's, you know, people are afraid to say anything brand or afraid to get it wrong. But I think if you are honest about who you are and consistent about it, then you should be okay.

Josh (00:09:56) - Yeah, I agree. Well, and you know, there's obviously been some very notable headline, you know, evoking stories in the branding world where there's been, you know, maybe I don't know my observation and I want to be careful here, but I think you just mentioned. You know, where it doesn't feel like you're co-opting something like this feels in integrity. Always has been. And I think that it's a little unsettling and shocking when you do see a brand like, oh, gosh, I'm going to be careful here, but let's just say Bud Light, you know who it was abrupt. And I think that that was unsettling for what you may have thought, you know, was the Bud Light audience. And I'm not saying that it's good or bad.

Josh (00:10:46) - I think time will tell here. Ultimately, you know, if this is if they're playing three dimensional chess with, you know, with consumers. But right now it certainly seems like that. Yeah, I kind of took one on the nose there in that decision. And again, I don't want to get into the rights and wrongs or morals or values of that, but they just they made a brand decision.

Ariadna (00:11:09) - I think that's ultimately that's all you can do. I think it just has to be true to who you are. Yeah. Versus a marketing scheme. And maybe schemes are a word, but like, you know, marketing tactic. So, you know, when Nike supported the whole Copernicus, you know, the knee like the whole thing, like they caught a lot of slack as well. And people there probably tens of thousands of people that said they were burning their shoes. But for them, it was a symbolic of who they are and what they what they stand for, or at least that's how it was communicated.

Ariadna (00:11:43) - And that, I don't know, the word is resonated, but at least it seemed authentic. Yeah. And I think it's the co-opting feeling is when it feels like you're obviously just using something or it's just a tactic, you know, sort of pushing it because you have because you feel you have to.

Josh (00:12:02) - I feel like it's really tough to pull one over on consumers today because they're already with anything you do generally pretty skeptical.

Ariadna (00:12:13) - Yeah. I mean, I go back to like and feel like they're lazy examples because they're so good. But when you think of a Patagonia who. Yeah, it's not even like that they're true to their purpose, you know, of saving the world. I mean they are, that's what they are. Everything about them. And I was reading something today about, I'm spacing out on the CEO's name. Yvonne or Yvonne. What's his last name? I'm spacing out. But anyway, so talking about sort of quality of everything we do and you know, at some point you don't have to grow anymore.

Ariadna (00:12:54) - Like we just we'd rather have quality for our employees and, you know, like just sort of using quality as a thread. But the point I wanted to make back to that is like, they are who they are. You know, they could potentially catch slack for some of it or they could, you know, someone could say like, Oh my God, yeah, you make fleece zip up, you're going to tell me you're going to save the world. But they put everything behind it. You know, they give all their profits to the world and everything is given back. So that's very hard to do. But as a startup, think startups in particular have a better chance because you don't have all these legacy.

Josh (00:13:29) - Yeah, right.

Ariadna (00:13:30) - Years and years of things, you know you had to do in the 80 or 90s that you can't undo or untangle. You can in theory start from a better place. And that doesn't mean you give up profit, it just means you do it in a way that's more connected.

Josh (00:13:47) - You know, when you've got clarity, I can just say personally, you know, when you have clarity about, you know, what your mission, purpose values are like who you are, why you're here, what your impact role is in the world. Not only does it make a lot of decisions easier in and around what you communicate, but it makes every decision in business easier because you can just hearken then back to your values. And certainly I would imagine Ariadna There's folks listening to our conversation right now that should probably be reaching out to VSA Partners, your website again is VSA partners dot com and who is kind of like that ideal boy, they are just so teed up there. It's like a great marriage waiting to happen.

Ariadna (00:14:30) - Yeah, it's such a good question because we never think of that, do we? Like you think of like, Oh, even when clients reach out, they're like, Oh, I'm going to bring these five agencies into a pitch. And, you know, and then we ask them what's an ideal agency partner? And they say, one that's this or that.

Ariadna (00:14:46) - And, you know, rarely anyone asks, What's your ideal client? So I love that you're asking that. Well, first, I feel like any client that is at a pivotal moment in their trajectory and like was saying earlier, whether it's a big legacy organization, that has to change very quickly, that has organizational challenges, that has to transform internally, or whether you're a smaller organization that is figuring out how to grow the legacy organizations and small organizations have very different challenges, big challenges, both of them, but very different challenges. So we like really thorny problems to solve. And one thing we do really great, which is what attracted me to or part of what attracted me to BSA, is we really turn strategy into actionable, whatever that is, go to market or execution, or we really think about it in the real world. And that's rare with consultancies because a lot of the consultancy strength is in the sort of in the brain, in the intellectual sort of business and brand strategy.

Ariadna (00:15:55) - And we really have sort of both sides of the coin. So the ability to really turn that into into the real world.

Josh (00:16:02) - And so when somebody goes to VSA partners, what would you recommend they do at this point? And they're like, yes, you know, they're very, very they know that they need to do the work. And, you know, there's some known gaps there. But yeah, what does engagement look like? How does that begin.

Ariadna (00:16:19) - Yeah, it depends on the on the challenge. But we we have a kind of a very simple ethos in how we think about it. And we say every business problem is a human problem. So we really start with what we call a problem party, which is kind of our approach to really understanding what is the problem, what are we trying to solve? Because very often you get a brief that says, I need a narrative or I need a new business identity or I need a new positioning. And it may not be that.

Ariadna (00:16:51) - It may be that what you have is actually an internal organizational challenge or you have a purpose or a set of belief challenge, or it is a behavioral problem, you know, like diagnosing that that business problem to the human problem is really core to how we think or how we start. And then we get to hypotheses very quickly. And then we have a rigorous approach to how we validate that. So it's sort of this it almost feels like this continuous cycle of how we think and iterate.

Josh (00:17:23) - Awesome. Ariadna Navarro, chief Growth Officer at VSA Partners website is V. S A partners dot com. One thing I'd recommend to our friend listening is click on work. Look at the examples of the work that you've done and you'll see exactly. Okay. VSA is an amazing, amazing organization. Again, you've worked with the biggest of the big Google, IBM, McDonald's, Harley-Davidson, Mack Trucks, Nike, AT&T. So again, this has been a fantastic conversation. Ariana, thank you so much for joining us.

Ariadna (00:18:00) - Of course.

Ariadna (00:18:01) - Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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