James Wu (ECON ’01), brand consultant for change makers
James Wu (ECON ’01) ditched his chosen career path in what would have been his senior year at Virginia Tech. Accepting that journalism was not the most lucrative profession, Wu changed majors, then dropped out for a semester to join a local startup before finally graduating after 5-1/2 years.
Today, Wu is a self-employed brand consultant in New York City who tries to pick his clients based on whether they are “building a more just and sustainable world,” even if it sometimes means walking away from work.
Over the past two decades, he worked for different employers, helped build fledgling organizations, and discovered a love of marketing and branding as well as a desire to help mentor students for more fulfilling careers and lives.
Wu began his first job out of college while he was still in school — at Blacksburg startup Nueweb, launched by Virginia Tech students David Catalano (FIN ’05) and Aaron Herrington (FIN ’00), which later became the digital ad agency known as Modea. To help get the venture off the ground, Wu left school for a semester, to his parents’ consternation. But these were “the early days of the internet,” he recalls, “and there were dreams of getting rich quick!”
That didn’t happen to him, he said, but he remembers those startup years with fondness. “I was in my early 20s traveling all around the country drumming up business and partnerships with big brands like Amazon, Mattel, Samsung, and Johnson & Johnson.”
The autonomy and freedom were heady, as was knowing he was helping to build something from the ground up. He also discovered then “how powerful good design and storytelling could be in driving decisions.”
Evolving Career Plans
He left the firm after four years to explore work in the nonprofit world, landing a job at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which sparked his interest in organizations dedicated to making the world a better place. It led to another job, at an emerging nonprofit in New York called Acumen that sought to tackle poverty through business and entrepreneurship.
He helped grow Acumen during his seven-plus years there, leading it through a global rebranding. During that process, he was struck by how branding “could give clarity to an organization — not just in terms of marketing and communications, but also in terms of strategy, operations, and culture.”
Seeking more branding experience, Wu joined SYPartners. The firm works at the intersection of management consulting, innovation, and branding, he said. There, he helped lead projects for Coach, IBM, and USA Today before venturing out on his own.
Now in his fifth year as an independent consultant, Wu has worked with Sesame Street, Duolingo, National Geographic, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, General Motors, and the United Nations Development Programme.
The clients he takes on are working in such fields as education and health services, environmental sustainability, human rights, clean energy, and criminal justice reform, he said.
When sizing up potential clients, he tries “to get a sense of the organization’s culture, values, and ethics, and how its leaders demonstrate those in service of a greater mission,” Wu said.
“I also try to get a sense of how willing they are to challenge the status quo and how much they identify as risk-takers. At Acumen, they call this combination ‘entrepreneurial moral leadership.’ The world is filled with both remarkable entrepreneurs and remarkable leaders with great moral clarity, but rarely do you find these traits embodied in the same person. You need both to enact meaningful change, especially when tackling some of the greatest challenges we face in our communities and society.”
Selecting clients or assignments according to these ideals isn’t easy. “A couple of years ago, I turned down a big project with a massive global media and entertainment conglomerate, because I questioned the values and ethics of the company’s leadership. A few months later, I said ‘yes’ to a project with one of its subsidiaries whose values and ethics were in stark contrast with that of its parent company at the time, and whose leaders I believed in. It came down to the people I was working with and the mission that drove them.”
He thinks too that, as a new father, his priorities have changed and so probably influenced that decision. “Maybe that line will shift for me in the future. I recognize the privilege I have to be able to pick and choose my clients. I don’t take that for granted.”
Giving Back to the Community
Wu, who volunteers with several New York-area education, civic, and business organizations, has also made time to be more actively engaged with Pamplin and the Honors College at Virginia Tech. Invited to join the marketing department’s advisory board, he accepted and has been serving as the board’s president for about 18 months.
“Most of my career has been devoted to marketing, so I felt I had something to offer, especially given my distinct focus on nonprofits, and wanted to give back,” he said.
He and his fellow board members are fully committed to making a difference.
“We may never lead the college in job placement or fundraising, because of our board’s relatively small size and the nature of the marketing industry,” Wu said, “but our goal is to serve as a model advisory board for student engagement, with a real focus on mentorship and experiential learning. We want to help ensure that our students have the mentors, networks, opportunities, and other resources they need to get ready for the real world.”
Advising students and inspiring them to pursue careers and lives of great meaning can be very rewarding for board members, he notes. “It’s an incredible feeling when you unlock curiosity, belief, and courage in a student. Personally, I hope I can inspire more than just a few to think about how ‘Ut Prosim’ can fit into their careers.”
Wu, having attended Pamplin’s inaugural Engagement Summit last October, thought it was “a great first step in aligning Pamplin’s advisory boards around the strategic direction of the college.” Delighted at participants’ commitment and openness to learn, he is excited about the prospects for continuing the initial momentum.
– Sookhan Ho
Wu’s thoughts on branding
“The best brands understand that the line between external and internal perception no longer exists. If your brand is all about empowerment, fairness, and transparency, but if you treat your employees poorly and have a culture that’s at odds with those values, all the advertising, PR, and clever TikTok videos in the world won’t be able to hide the fact.
“The world’s top talent want to work for companies that walk the walk. Anyone can go onto Glassdoor and see how people really feel about a company and its leadership. It’s important that the words I help my clients come up with don’t just sit in a brand book filed away in a drawer but serve as a North Star for how to behave every day. People may fall short from time to time, but they need to be aspirational.”
It’s not just about a logo
“Many don’t understand how intrinsically tied design, language, strategy, and culture are. Branding isn’t just about making things look or sound prettier but a chance to solve big challenges, develop greater clarity about the future, and align and excite everyone around that vision.”
All need not agree
“Many do a poor job of socializing the work along the way. The risk of extreme backlash to a rebrand or advertising campaign is significantly minimized through a thoughtful and inclusive process. The challenge is doing this without watering down the best ideas by thinking that decision making should be consensus-driven. If a small percentage of people don’t hate the work, you’ve probably played it too safe.”
You’re not done when you’re done
“Executing a brand strategy requires an investment in talent and resources, and you can’t rest on your laurels. A brand is a living, breathing thing that needs constant tending in order to reach its full potential.”