Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 53 seconds.
Given that Heidi Harrison has consulted on brand communications strategy for household names in footwear, consumer electronics, and even pet food, one might think she prioritizes products over people in her thinking and in her approach to life.
“Early on, I realized I had an interest in why people behave the way they do and think the way they do,” said Harrison, the 2009 Mitchell Scholar from Hampden Academy and Senior Director of Strategy for the global consulting firm Material. “Clients come to us with their biggest foundational challenges. My aim is to help them be more relevant to their customers.”
Harrison’s path to the world of global marketing and brand management began at Bowdoin College, where she nurtured the goal of becoming a lawyer by earning a bachelor’s in Government and Legal Studies. And it’s where two Fellowships from the Mitchell Institute were instrumental in refining her career plans.
First, a $500 Fellowship Award in Spring 2011 helped support her through a summer internship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland.
“Interning with the U.S. Attorney’s Office gave me the opportunity to see what that world was like and to be in a professional work environment,” she said. “It also helped me figure out what I didn’t want to do.”
The following summer, supported by a $1,200 Fellowship Award, Harrison interned in the Public Affairs Division of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. The work experience after her junior year of college was her first foray into the fundamentals of communications work, such as writing blog posts, Op-Ed columns for newspapers, and press releases.
“That internship got me a little closer to understanding what I wanted to do,” said Harrison, who worked in Dining Services and as a Resident Assistant at Bowdoin to help pay her way. “I was financially responsible for myself during summers, and without the fellowships, I wouldn’t have been able to live where the internships were during summers. If I hadn’t had those experiences, I could have spent a lot of my 20s waffling, just trying to figure it out.”
Harrison carried on with coursework in Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin, but she also complemented it with classes in Creative Writing. And she began to think of Government a little differently — as an arena for the expression of human behavior.
“I find people fascinating. With Government, I was most interested in understanding why people get behind certain leaders and how, as voters, they become unified,” she said. “That’s when I realized I had an interest in marketing.”
When LEGO came to recruit at Bowdoin during her senior year, Harrison leaped at the chance to join the famous maker of multicolored, interlinking building blocks.
She started as a marketing assistant at LEGO’s U.S. headquarters in Enfield, Conn., where she managed the digital, social, and print campaigns for LEGO Friends, LEGO Disney Princess, and LEGO Elves. After a couple of years, she was promoted to Associate Brand Manager, a role that gave her sole responsibility for the U.S. brand management of LEGO Juniors and LEGO Classic within the LEGO preschool portfolio. A little more than a year later, she was named the lone Brand Manager of the fourth largest business at LEGO as well as LEGO Juniors and LEGO Classic product lines.
Less than a year later, Harrison found herself in Billund, Denmark, working as Global Marketing Manager for LEGO. And her meteoric rise in the company peaked with her serving as Senior Global Marketing Manager in Denmark and later Senior Brand Manager of LEGO Masterbrand in London.
In all her roles at LEGO, Harrison says she was motivated by understanding and showing how the product can aid in human development.
“One of the fundamental questions for me was, how can we elongate kids’ creativity and self-expression throughout their lives?” she said. “There’s so much evidence that demonstrates how building with LEGO supports creativity and intellectual development — core competencies — in children. This is one product that helps develop problem-solving skills in children and sets them up for navigating a world of ambiguity.”
Harrison’s leadership roles with LEGO focused on product development with design and developing global marketing campaigns. The work involved some heady questions to ensure the company and its products remained relevant to people.
“I wanted to find out what problems and human truths are at work across cultures,” she said.
Stimulating as the work was, Harrison said that she longed for new challenges and realized she would have to make a switch.
“I found that companies often hire experts from the outside to make the really big decisions,” she said. “I wanted to be in that role, and I wanted the challenge of working with different brands, rather than just one. So, I knew I would have to make a shift to the agency side. But if it hadn’t been for LEGO and its ethos — LEGO over Ego — I’m not sure I’d be in the world I’m in.”
Thus, Harrison returned stateside for brand and marketing consulting work, first in senior leadership roles with the firm Egg Strategy in Denver and now Material, where she works remotely for clients worldwide. In service to myriad brands, she and her teams help make brand strategy “the epicenter” of companies and better position themselves in their respective markets.
And as her responsibilities to clients have increased, so too has her interest in the people who report to her.
“I’ve been managing teams of junior strategists for the past five years,” she said, “and I’ve enjoyed developing talent and mentoring a great deal. Through good coaching, you can really scale your impact and help people find their way and set them up for success.”
It’s one reason why Harrison stands ready to speak with current Mitchell Scholars interested in the fields of marketing and brand management. That and a deep appreciation of how other Scholars helped her, especially in the early going at Bowdoin.
“Having the Mitchell Scholarship helped make it possible for me to attend my dream school,” she said. “The Mitchell Scholar receptions at Bowdoin gave me a sense of belonging and a point of commonality in a place where most students aren’t from Maine, and many didn’t attend public schools. Knowing Mitchell Scholars in college helped me feel less alone and more confident.”
For now, she has this advice to share with current Scholars who might feel out of place in college or surrounded by people from backgrounds of privilege:
“Like many of your classmates have done, you will have opportunities to explore a world outside of Maine,” she said. “Take advantage of those opportunities. But what your more worldly classmates will never have is the foundation provided by growing up in Maine — a resilience and humility that can’t be bought or acquired other than through lived experience. I believe growing up in Maine creates a down-to-earth aspect for each of us, so that when you later explore the world, you never lose sight of what matters.”