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Making Brands Authentic: Pianist- turned- Marketeer Grace Nikae’s Insights 

Portrait of Grace Nikae

Pianist & Marketer

Key Takeaways

  • Grace Nikae has reached great heights in not just one but many careers, beginning her journey as a globe-trotting classical pianist at Carnegie Hall.

  • As she explored interests beyond music, Grace wrote 8 novels under a pen name and developed an accidental career in marketing.

  • Having worked with bigwigs Zara, Adidas and Prince Waikiki, Grace is currently the Marketing Director of Women in Tech NY and runs her agency,  

  • Grace’s Prediction for 2024: In an era of hyperfocus on metrics and data, humanizing brands is integral in fostering connections to audiences.

“Brand to me is identity. And just as human identity is complex, brand identity is also complex.”  — Grace Nikae

Grace Nikae has always enjoyed pursuing multiple interests growing up. She remembers having many homes. She was born in Japan, and grew up in Hawaii, having lived in New York, and Europe (Holland and Spain). Grace made her debut as a solo classical pianist in high school at Carnegie Hall in New York City, but her association with music ran much deeper than that. As a nine-month-old toddler, Grace learnt the language of music even before attempting the spoken or written word.

Grace attended the music division of Julliard, the famous performing arts school. She then toured the world as a classical music soloist for six to eight weeks at a time. Though she loved music, she admits having faced tremendous pressure of performance. “You can’t miss a note, you’ve got to show up ready to go, you can’t turn it off,” Grace says. “My whole life became art and music,” she continued. 

In her late 20s, Grace started to question her choices. Concerts and media appearances followed one another in a blur. “I started to lose connection to why I was doing this,” she admits. Nikae felt her life belonged to agents, PR persons and the public, to “this nameless, faceless audience" that somehow had a hold on her. She continued performing but also started exploring other interests. 

Birth of a Marketer 

“Because of my career as an artist, I have a natural talent for understanding and connecting with people.” — Grace Nikae

Grace wanted to own her life. “I had to ask: Who am I? I had no answer to that.” She wanted to explore who she was outside of music and had to move past her fear to do that. “I didn't know what I was going to do outside of music,” she says. Social media was just starting to pop up. Grace intrinsically understood online mediums. “I think because of my career as an artist, I have a natural talent for understanding and connecting with people.”

As new platforms emerged, Grace became one of the first musicians to hop on to Myspace, Twitter, and more. “I saw the potential of being able to connect with my audiences and communicate with them via those platforms,” she says. However, in the early days, there were low safety nets. Grace discovered a potential downside of social media: stalking. “I pulled off all socials,” she says. Even today, Grace is careful about sharing her thoughts online. 

Between concerts, rehearsals and travel, Grace used her downtime to read, write and teach herself to code. “It was a creative hobby that I picked up because this was right around the time that websites were starting to bloom,” she says. Grace loved creating her magic online. Gradually, social media evoked in her a genuine interest in design. The websites and design work she was doing were noticed by those in her circles. Grace says, “An accidental marketing consulting career emerged,” as people saw her work and asked her to build websites and design logos and marketing materials. 

“It was very, very deeply healing to be off stage, with no one knowing that it's me, and exploring ideas and themes that were important to me.” — Grace Nikae

Ever the artist, Grace wrote eight novels under a pen name. There was a young adult's adventure series and a psychological suspense series. Having been onstage all her life, Grace found writing anonymously to be cathartic. She loved being away from the limelight, offstage, in the silence of her thoughts. Grace says writing is thinking, and thinking is writing, a process she names “disentangling.” It's a way for me to get all these thoughts out and untangle them and start to view new perspectives and how things fit together,” she reveals.

Over time, Grace left the music industry. It was “to this day, probably the biggest, most life-altering decision I have ever made,” she says. Soon, her digital marketing career grew from websites and design to brand and content strategy. She lived in Europe, one of her four homes, and worked with iconic brands including Adidas and Zara. 

Erring to Grow 

As Grace worked her way through this new chapter in her life, she found delight in allowing herself to make mistakes —a luxury that she could not afford as a world-class pianist. “I call myself a recovering perfectionist,” she says. “It took many, many years for me to unravel and untangle and figure out where it was coming from.” Now, Grace encourages clients to make room for making mistakes. There’s no growth in life without a few setbacks. 

 “The boldness and uniqueness of who we are lies in imperfection - in the things that make us different.”  — Grace Nikae

Over the years, Grace has come to see that perfection is a myth and that without mistakes, there is no innovation. “The boldness and uniqueness of who we are lies in imperfection - in the things that make us different,” she says. This led Grace to be very passionate about the journey of creation and life. “It’s so critical for the creative journey, and in any journey, to focus less on the results. If we can learn how to focus on the process, the results will unfold the way they must.”

Brand as Identity

“Brand to me is identity. And just as human identity is complex, brand identity is also complex.”  — Grace Nikae

In her agency, Kizuna, Grace focuses on branding, content strategy and community development. “Brand to me is identity, Grace says. “And just as human identity is complex, brand identity is also complex.” When educating clients, Grace details the factors that make up the brand: stories that get told are based on experiences, context, and position in the market. She emphasizes that the purpose of any identity, human or brand, is connection. “We understand ourselves so that we can understand and connect with others,” she says.  

“Branding and marketing go hand-in-hand with product development,” Grace informs. Too often, branding is developed later, which she thinks is not the right approach to branding. She believes that when people zoom in too close to work, they often get excited about features and benefits and push products. “No one cares,” she says. Products without a brand identity and story provide no emotional connection. 

Brands work best when they can connect emotionally with their audience. Grace points to Nike as having relevance and the ability to tell stories that people can insert themselves into. She references a commercial featuring basketball legend Deion Sanders. He speaks into the camera, as though speaking to the viewer personally, about chasing dreams versus shoes. “Nike is a brand associated with high performance,” Grace says. This commercial taps into this core concept in a way that the audience can connect emotionally with their own lives, finding inspiration to chase their dreams. “If you can capture that (a brilliant story), you can understand what it means to connect,” Grace says.

On Making Brands Authentic 

Grace predicts that the humanization of the brand will be critical in 2024. She points out that we are coming from an era of hyperfocus on marketing metrics. “We're going to see a shift back this year into really focusing on how to emotionally connect with your audience, how to create authentic connections, where they can adopt your story into their own,” Grace says.

To do this well, Grace ponders over two important factors: One: make no assumptions about the audience or what is important to them. Two: Ask questions and actively listen. “Active listening is one of the most critical skills in connection,” Grace says. To do this, brands need to understand that they cannot be one-dimensional. Cultural expectations are such that there will be two-way communication where customers can engage with companies and give feedback. 

Taking Career Pivots: Lean Into Your Humanity 

Grace thinks those looking to make a drastic career transition should remain unafraid of starting all over again—of being a novice. As long as they can find work that is aligned with their values, they’ll achieve success in any field of work. She believes people are gifted with transferable skills that help them through pivots in their careers. “Always ask yourself, what is it that drives me? What is it that I love? And an infinite array of possibilities will open up before you,” Grace says. With the exponential rise of technology, adding that personal human touch to everything one does is going to make all the difference, she tells Horizon Search. What’s next in the cards for Grace? Lots of travel, including a visit to Spain and perhaps more personal and professional exploration through multiple mediums. Why? To grow and connect. 


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