MANILA, PHILIPPINES – It is morning in Zurich, Switzerland– a cold wintry one at that, as Dean Aragon showed up wearing an olive turtleneck sweater in his family home. A stark image in contrast, of course, to the sweltering afternoon in Manila, his hometown, on the other side of the video call. But it is as his 12-year old self would be quoted saying: “The heart leads the mind to unthinkable places.”
When the opportunity of a lifetime to lead one of the world’s most iconic and ubiquitous brands came knocking in 2014, the Filipino marketing whiz knew that he had his work cut out for him. While Shell is widely known around the world, the brand comes with significant challenges unique to the nature of its business. Add to that, a familiar yet borderline-clinical messaging that has found its creative strategies and narratives wanting in human connection.
Happy and settled in London, leading some of Unilever’s global haircare brands (Sunsilk, TRESemmé and TIGI), Aragon was not really looking for a shift in career, company or base country. But he was enticed by the free rein to steer the Shell brand’s overall strategic and creative direction and eventually decided to accept the chief role at Shell — a decision that paid off.
Today, Aragon is at the helm of Shell as the CEO of Shell Brands International AG and Global Vice President – Brand for the entire Shell group of companies. In this dual-hatted role, he leads the development and execution of overall brand strategy, which includes thought-leadership in brand marketing & advertising, digital-social media and creative services. Additionally, Aragon is responsible for commercializing and protecting the Shell brand trademark for licensing to Shell companies and third parties.
With an international career spanning over 30 years, that has seen his family (wife and 5 kids) live across 5 countries, one can say that Aragon’s assimilation to the West would be understandable, if not expected. Yet Aragon is a proud Pinoy, at heart. And viewing through the video call’s middling screen resolution, this is vividly clear: his living room is adorned with distinctive furniture (butaka resting chairs) and art pieces (Filipiniana themes) from the homeland, arranged to feel like one is peering into a neighbor’s home in Makati instead of a European dwelling. He insists that his Filipino core is instrumental to his effectiveness in his craft, as he carves his personal niche amidst the sea of marketing and creative minds from around the globe.
For instance, on handing the day-to-day issues of his large and demanding role, he shares, “I have this trick of explaining a very complex problem to 12-year-old Dean, growing up in the Philippines. That’s my mechanism for deconstructing the challenge to simple jobs-to-be-done. Suddenly, it’s no longer that daunting.”
Aragon’s talents are undeniable. Yet more striking is Aragon’s uncanny ability to stay true and authentic to himself– from his days as a “dark and scrawny kid” in Don Bosco Makati and later on at the Ateneo de Manila University for college, to his ad agency beginnings at J. Walter Thompson, before landing various international brand management roles at Unilever until the big move to Shell.
This uncompromising authenticity has led to a brand of leadership that is distinctly Dean Aragon’s: one that fuses his Pinoy upbringing with a discerning global, cross-cultural perspective. He explains, “It requires courage and commitment to stay true to my personal brand that is indelibly linked to being a son of the Philippines. The moment you play someone else’s game, you can only lose the game. I believe that your best self is your real self, free and empowered to flourish.”
One of these uniquely Filipino traits he brings to the workplace is his unapologetic passion– that “feverish sort of emotional investment where it’s always personal”. Aragon however qualifies that his passion can be a boon or a bane, as it can either leave him inspired or utterly drained. At its best, this heartset has inspired his human-centric marketing philosophy, which has driven Shell’s winning brand strategies.
Take the ‘Sound of Shell’ sonic branding strategy: an entire soundscape that overlays another memorable component of ‘sensorial branding’, backed by a full library of mnemonics, soundtracks and ambient sounds with over 600 variations. Under Aragon’s leadership, the brand sought out British film and television composer Tom Howe, an Academy member who has scored the likes of BBC’s The Great British Bake-Off and commissioned an orchestra to record at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. Enriched by its signature sound, Shell transforms the brand experience by adding another human dimension that evokes visceral connections through the power of music.
Listen to the recent rendition of the Sound of Shell, a tribute to the first woman truck driver in India. Released in time for #InternationalWomensMonth 2021.
Launched only in 2015, Shell’s sonic brand already placed second at the ‘amp 2020 Best Audio Rankings’ (climbing from sixth place in 2019). This is but one of many transformative innovations helping Shell to humanize its brand.
This sense of humanity emanates from Aragon’s personal ethos that the Marketing profession can and must reframe how to do business. “We have an opportunity to be of service to the humans at the heart of our business. We should stop using references like B2C or B2B or B2B2C. That’s why I’ve been advocating the notion of B2H: Business to Humans or B4H: Brands for Humans.” It also builds on the work he led towards crafting and embedding a refreshed brand purpose for Shell: ‘to power progress together by providing more and cleaner energy solutions”, which has shaped the company’s latest purpose-led strategy towards becoming a Net Zero Emissions energy business by 2050 or sooner, aptly entitled ‘Powering Progress’.
Despite his many career pivots in the international scene, Aragon maintains that his heart and spirit remain anchored back home. “In various speaking engagements, I always open by stating that I am Filipino or simply greeting everyone in Filipino (‘Magandang umaga po’). I reckon if they think I am good, then they will be more aware of and open to Filipino talent.”
More than a sentiment, Aragon is placing a solid bet on the world-class marketing and creative capabilities of Filipinos. Under his orchestration, Shell is building a global brand management hub in the Philippines, housing some of the brand’s key leaders for Brand Strategy, Brand Advertising, Digital & Social Media Management and Creative Solutions. The hub will handle projects for Asia-Pacific, but also cater to requirements from North America, Europe and Latin America. One could say, this is Aragon’s way of looking back to the country that has spawned and moulded his illustrious career, and further amplifying Filipino talent in the international arena.
Dean Aragon may have arrived in unthinkable places, but every step forward comes with a glance towards his past. Twelve-year-old Dean would have been proud.
Download a free digital copy of Build Brilliant Brands where Dean Aragon wrote the chapter on Humanized Data-Led Creativity.
Connect with Dean Aragon, The Brand Guy on LinkedIn via the QR Code and URL.
As we celebrate International Women’s Month, this article and his journey is also a tribute to the formative women leaders in Dean’s career: Nanette Diyco, Lulu Lim, and Eileen Araneta.
Shell will start hiring for its global hub in the Philippines soon. Learn more on starting a career in Shell here: shell.com/careers/about-careers-at-shell