MADE TO LAST —a content series exploring the concept of longevity and how it applies to our lives and businesses. Through featured interviews, brand spotlights and community conversations, together we’ll dig into ideas, perspectives and practices around sustainability, self-sufficiency, and living more with less.
In this second edition of Made to Last, I’m thrilled to introduce you to Lisa Hennessy. Lisa is the founder of Fernweh, a creative studio based in Kauai. Our paths originally crossed in 2019 while both living in Los Angeles. I remember sensing her immense wisdom almost instantly as we chatted next to her beautiful wooden dining table during an event held at her mid-city home. Lisa has a way of seeing the world from multiple viewpoints. Call it curiosity, but at her core, Lisa cares about serving something bigger and beyond herself.
I was especially excited to interview Lisa for this series as she and her team work every day to navigate the intersection of brand building and sustainability. As a thought leader, I hope you enjoy reading Lisa’s insights on building brands that are not only made to last, but also do good in the world.
Tell us a little bit about what you do at Fernweh!
Fernweh is a creative studio and production, building and amplifying ethical and sustainable brands. We believe in a strong strategic foundation as a base for all of our creative work and value collaboration and care over anything else. Our approach to branding is circular, which means that we don’t believe in creating only a shiny façade – instead we want every touch point to be aligned and every part of a brand creating the same emotional connection, and following the same mission and values.
When you hear the phrase, “made to last”, what do you think of? How does it make you feel?
To me, that phrase implies care and values. Something that is so important right now. Every founder I meet who cares about the well-being of this planet has a moment of pause where they wonder if it’s okay to make more things, even with good intentions. Selling always feels wrong. But if something is created as regeneratively as possible, with empathy and care, not just to make profit, but to make someone’s life a little bit better, I think that goes hand in hand with the term “made to last.”
A quote we love by Muhtar Kent is featured front and center on your website: “A brand is a promise. A good brand is a promise kept.” How has this statement set the tone for your work?
I spent the first 16 years of my career in big, international ad agencies, integrity really wasn’t very important for the people around me, instead there was a lot of ego going around. Advertising was storytelling. It was a bunch of lies, and shiny promises that meant nothing. And even now, so many of these brands I used to work with talk about the right things, pretend to care about marginalized communities and the planet, but behind that shiny campaign, not much has changed. It breaks my heart. I believe in under-promising and over-delivering. I want brands to earn their consumers trust and never let them down. I want them to stand for something. To care. To make purpose and sustainability part of their bottom line and think about the long term effects of everything they make. I encourage our clients to deeply look at each part of the puzzle that their brand is, be honest and transparent about what’s possible right now and how that might not be good enough, to learn and to grow and to let their customers know about it all. It all comes back to integrity and care. And I think a “woke” consumer demands that from a brand they buy from.
“I believe in under-promising and over-delivering. I want brands to earn their consumers trust and never let them down. I want them to stand for something. To care. To make purpose and sustainability part of their bottom line and think about the long term effects of everything they make.”
As someone who has advocated for planetary wellness for years in your personal life, was this commitment to sustainability weaved into the fabric of Fernweh from the beginning? How is it woven throughout your brand today?
It was the reason why I started Fernweh. After all of these years working on the world’s biggest and most influential brands, and with so many bros who only cared about where the next award came from, I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to use my creative superpowers to make the world better (and more beautiful along the way). I wanted to work with people who cared deeply and who are just as obsessed with sustainability as I am.
I am thrilled whenever we meet a new client and they completely blow our minds about everything that’s broken in the category they want to completely shift. We are so here for that. Creating something from the ground up that finally replaces something that’s not good for our or the planet’s health will never not excite me.
The same goes for the production side of Fernweh. Tim and I both spent so many years on these big film/commercial sets and watched the wastefulness of it all. Now, when we create brand campaigns or photos, or videos, we make sure we run our production as sustainable as possible. We get local food in reusable containers and give everyone on set a reusable bottle, we try and work with local talent as much as possible to reduce the carbon footprint of travel and so on. Our friends from Green The Bid are doing an incredible job helping production companies around the world improve their processes as well. And we make sure that what we create matters, and somehow improves someone’s day, at least a little bit, instead of simply creating more stuff that people will just scroll past with no emotional connection whatsoever.
Tell us more about how you navigate the intersection of brand building and sustainability. What does your process involve when working with a new client? Which elements should perhaps be considered more carefully?
We build brands with a very strong strategic foundation, based on values, a mission and a vision that all stakeholders stand behind. Visualizing from that standpoint allows us not only to build a truly unique brand that withstands the test of time and trends but also allows us to branch out into all necessary channels with the same clear language. We encourage our clients to keep checking themselves and every decision that they make against these values. Does it make sense for the brand, is it aligned? And we encourage them to keep iterating and checking and holding themselves accountable for years to come. Brand building is never done, you have to constantly work at it, and we try to set our clients up to be as self-sufficient and knowledgeable as possible to keep improving and iterating as they go.
We ask a lot of questions and want our clients to do the same. Why has it been done this way? And does that really mean there is no better solution going forward? IDEO’s design thinking principles of “How might we…” is very dear to us and supports shifting mindsets and eventually whole paradigms.
Aside from thoughtful brand identity, design and strategy, what else do you believe contributes to a brand’s longevity?
Definitely care. People can tell if a brand just wants to sell to them or is serious about their mission. We can’t trust our governments, and more and more people seek that trust in brands. But it has to be earned. Honest communication and transparency helps. Really caring about your customers’ feedback and wellbeing.
But also content that matters. We talk to so many companies who want to create more meaningful connections and build community, but all they do on social media is push sales. It doesn’t work like that. Sales comes from trust, from real recommendations, from service. So, instead of creating content for content’s sake, create something that matters. Educate, support, give a stage to marginalized voices that should be heard. Stand for something. You will see this will go a lot further than another sales funnel.
You currently live in Hawai’i – talk about a location that is perceived to embody a caring mentality, for both the land and its people. Does living in this culture make it easier to approach your work with a slower, more sustainable mindset?
It’s definitely a good lesson, for the German perfectionist in me. The more I try to push, the more resistance I am met with here, things happen in their own time. So, I am constantly practicing letting go a little and easing into it all.
Here, people savor the moment, they connect and take their time to really hear someone’s story, or they go surfing, when the waves are good, and it’s widely accepted that that always takes priority over punctuality and deadlines.
And the absolute stunning nature we are surrounded by is a constant reminder that no matter how hard making the better choice is sometimes, it’s really the only way to preserve all of this beauty. My Why is basically right outside my window at all times.
The term regeneration seems to be on people’s radar these days. How might a regenerative model take a step further than sustainability in future-proofing a business or its impact?
Well, sustainability just isn’t enough these days. It’s a great start, but if we are all just sustaining what is, there can never be healing, or improving. Regenerative farming is something I have been learning more about here in Kauai. It’s so fascinating, and could make such a huge difference if applied more broadly. We just spent decades taking from the planet and its people and not caring, so we need to do more than just sustain, we need to rebuild now.
Not just climate neutral but climate positive is the way to go, give-back models need to be more important than ever and resources are just too far gone to keep taking without a second thought.
What excites you about the future of business?
“Sustainability just isn’t enough these days. It’s a great start, but if we are all just sustaining what is, there can never be healing, or improving.”
You’ve said before that “it’s rarely the most convenient decisions that lead to the most sustainable and ethical results” —how do you hold the weight of this work without it wearing you down or becoming discouraging?
It’s hard. For us, and for our clients. We want to help everyone who wants to create something meaningful, we mentor and we do a lot of pro-bono work, but we have to find a balance and make sure we can stay profitable and make decisions that not only work for us as individuals who care a lot, but also for our business.
The same goes for our clients. Someone once said to me: The first rule of business is to stay in business. That means care is very important, but unless you manage to stay profitable so that you can keep caring and supporting whatever cause you chose to support for a long time to come, you aren’t helping anyone.
That means often, compromises have to be made. There might not be the most sustainable packaging available, but you do the very best that you can right now, and you aren’t satisfied with it. You keep learning and researching and improving every step of the way. And you honestly share with your customers what that journey looks like. Constant iteration is really important, and doing the best you can right now. And hopefully, there will be a better version of the thing tomorrow.
That decision is tough though. And it can be super discouraging at times. That’s why I started our Better Brand Salon. To create community and hold space for entrepreneurs who are on this difficult journey of building better brands. We can hold each other accountable, but also let ourselves off the hook sometimes, we are all still humans, doing the best that we can, and often that’s not perfect.
What advice would you give to someone trying to build a purpose-driven, regenerative brand from the ground up?
Don’t just create another iteration of something that so many people have already made before you. Make something truly meaningful to you, something that will impact people’s lives, even on a small scale. If you can’t stop thinking about it, it probably wants to exist in the world. And then be ready to fail, over and over again, and embrace it as the best lesson and learn from it. Ask for feedback and take out your ego. Get really clear on your Why and breathe that into everything you do.
And then, build a brand, don’t just sell stuff.
Care the most.
What does success look like for you?
Who and what inspires you?
What are you most proud of?
Favourite quote or philosophy you live by?