On How Brands Are Built, branding professionals get into the details of what they do and how they do it. In each episode, Rob Meyerson, a San Francisco-based brand strategist, interviews other strategists, designers, writers, namers, and researchers to help you understand how brands are really built.
This past season, I had a great time reconnecting with old peers like Miriam Stone, Tim Riches, and Erminio Putignano, as well as getting to talk to some other branding experts I'd previously only known through their writing and speaking engagements:
To all my guests, thank you for joining me on the podcast and sharing your expertise. On today's episode-the last of season two-I share five themes I noticed as I looked back on all nine interviews. These are ideas I felt like I was hearing again and again throughout the season-they're not necessarily the only themes or even the most important ones, but they stuck out to me, and I wanted to share them. Each theme is supported by two or three clips from the interviews, but most came up in other conversations, too. The five themes are:
Thinking of brand strategy in terms of questions to be answered [01:51]
Prototype, prototype, prototype [04:20]
Keep it simple [07:03]
The importance of category [09:43]
The flexibility of brand frameworks [15:05]
Toward the end of the episode [27:25], I play back-to-back clips with interviewees' advice to younger or more junior people in the industry, or anyone looking to get into the industry or become a stronger strategist or branding professional. Don't forget to go back and listen or read transcripts from this season and last on HowBrandsAreBuilt.com. While you're there, you can find more content on brand positioning as well as a list of books recommended by guests this season. Thanks to all of you for listening to the show, and especially to everyone who subscribed, left a rating or review, signed up for the newsletter, or connected on social media. If you haven't done those things, please do-I really appreciate the support, and it helps ensure, eventually, a season three of How Brands Are Built!
He's been called "The Father of Modern Branding." If you've ever read anything about branding or brand strategy, my guest today requires no introduction. I'm talking to David Aaker, author of over a dozen books and hundreds of articles about marketing and branding, Professor Emeritus at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley, and Vice-Chair at Prophet, a global marketing and branding consultancy. Given this season is about positioning and brand platforms, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to ask David directly about his brand vision model, which most people refer to simply as "the Aaker Model." We also talked about two of his most recent books, some of his favorite brands, a few books, and his advice for junior people in the branding industry. Aaker on Branding I kicked off the conversation by asking David about one of his latest books, Aaker on Branding: 20 Principles That Drive Success. David says he wrote the book because employees at Prophet were asking him what they should read and he was tired of saying "these 40 pages in this book...these 80 pages in this book." He wrote Aaker on Branding to "capsulize the main ideas that were in each of those books" into a "Reader's Digest version." Aside from the brand vision model (see below), other big-picture advice in the book includes:
"Move from brand competition to subcategory competition if you want to grow."
Regarding portfolio strategy, "you have to make [a family of brands] work so they generate synergy and they generate clarity and they generate relevance."
Develop a "shared interest program."
The brand vision model (the Aaker model) Seven of the principles in Aaker on Branding have to do with what he calls "brand vision," which others (including Prophet) refer to as "brand positioning." David says, "There's a lot of things you can call it...actually, the terminology is not so important. What is important are some fundamental ideas." He created his brand vision model (originally called the brand identity model) because he was convinced advertising agencies were doing it wrong by attempting to reduce brands to three-word phrases. Brands are multidimensional, so David created a model that allows for any number of elements (some are core, others are extended and "provide extra texture and guidance"). He's also against "fill-in-the-box" models that force strategists to populate a model with ideas that may not be relevant to the brand in question. For example, a product brand won't need organizational values and a B2B corporate brand may not need a brand personality. I asked David what determines whether an idea rises to the level of a brand vision element. According to David, elements should:
Differentiate from other brands,
Resonate with customers, and
Be something you can deliver (either a proof point, which you can already deliver, or a strategic imperative, which is aspirational but attainable).
David agreed, however, that not every element has to meet all three of these criteria, although there's "no hard and fast rule." The model consists of 12 elements arranged into four dimensions: Brand as Product, Brand as Organization, Brand as Person (including brand personality), and Brand as Symbol. David clarified that these dimensions are really there to ensure you've thought about every possible way of expressing the brand's identity, rather than requiring the strategist to answer every question or fill in every box. Creating Signature Stories Next, we turned to Creating Signature Stories, David's most recent book. To write the book, David first had to define "what is not a story," given how overused the word has become in branding and marketing today. It's not facts, programs, descriptions, or attributes. He says, "It's a narrative-a once-upon-a-time narrative. It's involving, it's authentic, it's intriguing, and it has some sort of a 'wow' factor. It really jumps out at you. It's something you want to share with others because it's so entertaining, so informative, so relevant. And it has a strategic message." Throughout the conversation, David gives several examples of great signature stories, including UCHealth-specifically, Becky's story. David's has four high-level pieces of advice for creating signature stories:
Believe in the power of stories. "You just have to get religion."
Find strong stories. Not just any story will do.
Figure out a way to get the stories produced so they're effective. Good presentation is key.
Figure out a way to distribute the stories effectively.
As to why stories are important for brands, David says, "Stories are just unbelievably powerful. It's astounding ... It turns out that stories get attention. It turns out that stories persuade-they change perceptions. ... They avoid counterargument." And the emotions from stories are transferred to the brand telling them. This is known as "affect transfer." Wrapping up In a handful of wrap-up questions, David shared his appreciation for Dove soap and their Real Beauty campaign and two "elephant books" (Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff and Who Says an Elephant Can't Dance by Lou Gerstner. David's advice for junior people looking to get into the branding industry is to take advantage of the fact consultancies and client organizations are "just absolutely terrified about becoming relevant in the digital age." If you're young, he says, take advantage of the fact you understand social media, statistics, or data analysis, and use that knowledge as a way to open the door. To learn more about David, visit davidaaker.com. That URL will redirect you to his blog on the Prophet website, where you can also read about his latest books and find links to buy them. You can also follow David on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Medium.
Today's guest is Tim Riches, Group Strategy Director at Principals in Melbourne. I met Tim in Singapore, at FutureBrand. When I joined FutureBrand's strategy team in 2011, Tim was running the Singapore office and serving as Chief Growth Officer for all of Asia Pacific. He left shortly after I arrived, but in the few months we overlapped, Tim made a big impression on me. He's a fast-talking, no bullshit, powerhouse thinker who often seems to be offering solutions before anyone else in the room has even fully grasped the problem. I asked Tim about an article he wrote a few months back, titled "The greatest change branding agencies have faced in a generation," in which he states "branding 101 hasn't changed ... but the shift toward experiences has permanently altered how people assess 'different' and 'better'." He calls out a shift in focus-on the client side-toward a broader definition of "customer experience" that no longer holds marketing or brand as the exclusive "business lens" on the customer relationship. For agencies to maintain relevance going forward, he argues, they must be able to build bridges "between the promise of the brand and the delivery of that promise" by creating actionable principles that experience designers can use to deliver the pillars of a brand. We also talked about brand strategy frameworks and how rigid or flexible they should be. Tim has strong opinions here, which I alluded to briefly in my conversation with Gareth Kay. (When I said a friend referred to some frameworks as "parking lots," I was referring to Tim.) Tim's main point is that, in order for concepts like pillars, values, and personality traits to provide any guidance as to how a brand (or organization) should look, feel, or behave, there must be some coherence between them. "I don't see how you can create a cohesive story unless there is some relationship," Tim says. "At least trying to do that helps you show where you have disjoints and incongruities within the thinking." When I asked Tim about books, he justified his own love of sci-fi by claiming "it's good fuel for the imagination, and I do think strategists have to have imagination-not just analytical skills." He also recommended strategists read The Economist and at least understand the core concepts of books like Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow and Byron Sharp's How Brands Grow. Wrapping up, I asked Tim for his advice to those just starting their careers in branding. He advised junior people to stay focused on what value looks like for each client rather than getting drawn into an obsession with methodology. He also emphasized the importance of having good "practitioner skills," such as being able to run an interview, present to clients, and design and facilitate workshops. To learn more about Tim and Principals, visit Principals.com.au.
This week's guest is Miriam Stone, an independent strategist who works with agencies around the Bay Area, including lifestyle branding agency Noise 13, where she's Strategy Director. In addition to her brand consulting work, Miriam's helped create and develop brands from inside the organization, as a Co-Founder of Swing Left, a national political movement, and previously as VP of Business Development for VisionSpring. Miriam and I first met at Interbrand San Francisco in 2012. Since then, we've become good friends and frequent collaborators. She's one of the smartest, most thoughtful strategists I know. When she told me she'd been working on documenting her process for getting from facts and observations to useful findings and insights, I jumped at the opportunity to have her walk through it on the podcast. This is exactly the "practical and tactical" information for which I created How Brands Are Built. It's an in-the-weeds conversation, but if you're working in branding and looking to get more systematic in your approach to insight generation, you'll want to tune in. Miriam walked through four steps to insight generation. Her perspective is that, while some parts of brand strategy may require "that little, extra, innate spark or talent," other parts, like those below, can be approached systematically. Step 1: Collecting
Try not to make any judgements until the research is done. Miriam: "Just listen. Read, and listen. ... Just be a sponge."
Use the "Three C's" to collect information about the Company, the Category (including competitors), and Customers.
At a minimum, do a few fact-gathering sessions with the client team and supplement with desktop research.
One exercise recommendation: Have the client list every competitor, then prioritize the top three. Break into groups and list out points of differentiation between the client's brand and competitors' brands-not just product benefits, but brand strengths and weaknesses.
Step 2: Grouping
Put everything up on the wall with sticky notes-one fact per note.
Group similar or related facts and findings, without trying to draw out insights yet. Miriam: "I think that takes the pressure off of you as a strategist. It takes the pressure off of the data."
At this point, you might have 10 or 20 different groupings, which is way too many to present to a client as "insights."
Step 3: Synthesizing
Take a step back and ask yourself what themes you see-what the groupings are telling you on a deeper level.
Look for points of tension between the themes, ideas that are strongly supported, or anything that doesn't make sense.
Ultimately, you should be able to get down to five or six big insights.
Write an outline-what's the key observation or insight on each slide, and what facts or quotes will you use to back each one up.
You should feel like your outline is 70-80% complete before you move to slides (assuming that's how you'll present).
The outline allows you to see any holes in the story.
Miriam's a big proponent of using sticky notes throughout these steps, an approach she learned from Caren Williams, with whom we both worked at Interbrand. Caren is now an independent brand strategist working in the Bay Area. Despite having tried other methods, Miriam finds that sticky notes work best for a number of reasons:
They "force you to distill as you're doing your research."
"Because you can only write so much, you have to abstract a little bit as you're writing."
"You can move them around really easily."
They force you to switch medium (from screen to physical paper).
You stand up and move around while using them. "I think it does something good for the brain."
When working with other people, you can look at the wall together and discuss what you're finding.
We also talked about competitive audits, getting from insights to a brand platform, what "ingredients" should be included in a brand platform, and what makes a good brand essence. To learn more about Miriam, visit her website Brand Plume, or Noise 13. You can also find some blog posts she's written on How Brands Are Built.
Gareth Kay believes brands should show, not just tell Gareth Kay is cofounder of Chapter, a San Francisco-based creative studio. Before Chapter, he was Chief Strategy Officer at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the advertising agency known for work such as 1993's iconic "Got Milk?" campaign for the California Milk Processors Board. I was excited to talk to Gareth because, while he's a strategist, he doesn't come from the world of traditional brand consulting that I come from (and so many of my other guests come from). In fact, one of my first questions for him was, "What do you think the general perception of the brand consulting world is amongst people in the advertising world?" Gareth says advertising agencies are increasingly seeing clients that have already been through a brand consultancy, and "when [the brand consultancy's work] was good you would be a little bit miffed because [cracking the strategy] was something, as a strategist, you really loved doing." On the flip-side, he'd sometimes see brand consultancy work that looked "clever on a piece of paper but…frankly, it was un-executable or, worse still, was a piece of thinking that was clearly designed to get through the armies of different interests inside a client organization and it kind of got watered down…through rounds and rounds of meetings and consensus-building." I asked Gareth about an article he published in WARC, titled "The 'brand' word." When you think about how we throw the term [brand] about, more often than not we are describing something we do-a brand strategy or campaign, not the associations we are trying to create. … We use it too often to create a false sense of control and a mistaken belief that we manage the brand. The models we use reinforce this: the tools of temples and pyramids are about what we build, not how people respond to them. The tools we use to shape brands are not fit for purpose. They are used to create simplicity and consistency which run counter to a culture of complexity and change. This led us to a fascinating conversation on what agencies should be using instead of these "temples and pyramids." Gareth argues consultancies should:
"Show the thing," a mantra at Chapter-essentially prototyping real-world applications to showcase brand ideas rather than trying to capture them with words alone, which he calls "a very lossy form of compression."
Avoid wordsmithing. He quotes a friend, Russel Davies, "you'll be discussing whether a brand is funny or…humorous." "Is that really the best use of our time, of our money, of our resources?" he asks.
The brand model used at Chapter is a "Brand Operating System," the underlying code and principles that define everything a brand does. The framework includes three layers:
Belief: What does this brand genuinely believe in the world? This is the problem it's trying to solve or the opportunity it sees.
Purpose: What do you do as a brand given your belief?
Pursuits: Because we believe X (our Belief) and we're going to do Y about it in the world (our Purpose), we will do the following things. The Pursuits are normally three, action-oriented principles.
Gareth provided a detailed example of the Brand Operating System by talking through Chapter's work for Silent Circle. We ended the conversation talking about brands Gareth thinks get all the fundamentals right (Hiut Denim and Allbirds) and his advice to young strategists and planners. For more of Gareth's insights, read his posts on Medium and follow him on Twitter. Below, you'll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors). Click above to listen to the episode, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or elsewhere to hear every episode of How Brands Are Built. Episode sponsors · Squadhelp. To begin a business name contest with hundreds of business naming experts, check out their services to get a fresh perspective on your company. · Rev.com. Rev offers fast, reliable, and accurate audio transcriptions. Right now, Rev is offering listeners $10 off their first order. Follow this link for your $10-off coupon.
Marty and I kicked things off talking about his latest book Scramble: A Business Thriller, which launches today on Amazon. What makes Scramble different from Marty’s previous books is that it’s a fictional story. It tells the tale of a CEO and leadership team in peril, with five weeks to turn things around. The story becomes a vehicle for the two core themes of the book:
1. Agile strategy; and
2. Design thinking.
Marty and I talked about what inspired him to try out a different format and how the book explores the branding process in a realistic and deeper way than most traditional business books.
So, what is agile strategy? Marty uses five strategy Qs (questions) and five design-thinking Ps (principles) to break it down:
The five Qs of strategy
- What is our purpose?
- Who do we serve?
- Where should we compete?
- How will we win?
- How will we grow?
The five Ps of design thinking
The design thinking principles can be used to help answer some of the strategy questions in a way that forces you to go beyond conventional thinking.
I asked Marty about positioning and brand strategy frameworks., and he brought up a model he introduced in his previous book, The Brand Flip: the Brand Commitment Matrix. The Matrix features six boxes, each to be filled with the answer to one of six corresponding questions.
To learn more about Marty and his work visit his website, www.martyneumeier.com. I suggest signing up for his newsletter while you’re there.
Scramble is now available on Amazon as a paperback, audiobook, or ebook. Or, if you’re interested in a beautiful version with an embossed cover and French folds, visit 800ceoread.com. Even better, if you order two or more copies, you’ll receive a 40% discount!
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
Today’s episode marks the end of season one, but certainly not the end of this podcast. Plans for season two are already underway, and I’m very excited about some of the guests who’ve already signed on. But I won’t be ready to release those episodes for a little while, so…to make sure you’re the first to know when they’re available, please make sure you’ve signed up for the newsletter at HowBrandsAreBuilt.com. And between now and season two, we’ll still be posting new articles and information on the website. You can follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook to make sure your seeing the latest content.
Eli Altman runs A Hundred Monkeys, a naming and branding agency in Berkeley, California. A Hundred Monkeys was founded by Eli's dad, Danny Altman, in 1990. Eli grew up helping his dad come up with name ideas, and the second he was old enough to sound like an adult on the phone, he was taking on freelance naming projects. In addition to running A Hundred Monkeys, Eli wrote the Amazon bestselling naming workbook, Don’t Call it That. He has a new book coming out soon called Run Studio Run, all about the business of running a small creative studio.
On this episode of How Brands Are Built, Eli talks about his "naming workbook" (Don't Call It That), the naming process he uses at A Hundred Monkeys, pitfalls for new namers, and what it was like growing up the son of a professional namer.
This week's guest is Allen Adamson, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Metaforce, a boutique, hybrid marketing services firm focused on growth strategies. Allen was previously Chairman, North America of Landor Associates, and has written four books:
BrandSimple: How the Best Brands Keep it Simple and Succeed
BrandDigital: Simple Ways Top Brands Succeed in the Digital World
Shift Ahead: How the Best Companies Stay Relevant in a Fast-Changing World
We started the conversation by talking about the importance of simplicity-the premise of his first book. Allen says he likes to think of your brand as your story and asks, "When someone hears your name, what do you want to pop into their head?" While he acknowledges the utility of the various components of a typical brand platform (i.e., brand pillars, brand personality, etc.), he keeps coming back to the ultimate goals of focus and simplicity. I asked how companies or brand managers should find that simple, relevant, differentiating story or idea, and Allen recommended one exercise he likes to do with clients: Write down everything special about the brand on index cards, and try to prioritize them into pyramids. Force yourself (or your clients) to put one card on the top of the pyramid. Once you have one or two brand stories, he recommends developing some prototype to ensure a story can be translated into execution. We talked about longer brand narratives (that read like ad copy), adlobs, and other potential prototypes. As I've done a few times recently, I ended the interview by asking Allen for a book recommendation. Rather than suggesting a brand or business book, Allen said he likes to read anything that helps him "get out of [his] bubble." A recent book he enjoyed was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. To see other books recommended by podcast guests and branding people, check out our recent post, Useful List: Books recommended by branding experts. To learn more about Allen, visit Metaforce.co. His books are available on Amazon.
Erminio Putignano is founding partner and managing director of PUSH, a brand strategy and design firm based in Melbourne, Australia. He's also an adjunct professor at the School of Economics, Finance, and Marketing at RMIT University. When I met Erminio, we were both working for FutureBrand, where he was managing director of Australian operations and I was strategy director for Southeast Asia. We met in Vietnam, where Erminio was giving a series of presentations to a client. I was immediately impressed by his ability to clearly and persuasively talk about brand strategy-what it is, how it works, and why it matters. I asked Erminio to walk through his process and deliverables from the moment a client asks for help with "brand positioning." After making the point that he'd first try to understand the client's underlying business problem (i.e., Why do they think brand positioning will help their business?), Erminio talked through a phased approach that includes exploring possibilities (through workshops, market research, etc.), defining a strategy while simultaneously validating through prototypes, and developing a final brand platform. Like Marty Neumeier and Gareth Kay, Erminio emphasized the importance of "helping the client...visualize what this brand could be" with prototypes such as visual/verbal identity elements, brand environments, or implications for culture. Erminio also outlined what he considers some of the essential "ingredients" of a brand platform:
A clear articulation of the business problem(s)
Who the brand is aiming for (could be demographic segmentation or a more conceptual target)
"The shift." What is the brand trying to change or become?
Brand essence (crystallization of the core idea of the brand in two or three words)
Promise statement (elaborates on the essence)
Proof points, including those we can activate now, those in the pipeline, and "what if," blue-sky ideas for future proof points
Brand personality and/or cultural traits
I asked Erminio for an example of a good brand essence, and he walked through a detailed explanation of his firm's work for a Catholic university. PUSH developed a brand essence for the school-impact through empathy-which Erminio says works well because it is succinct, meaningful, and immediately sparks ideas for far-reaching implications. We rounded out the conversation talking about trends in brand strategy and some brands Erminio thinks are good at defining their core idea, staying true to it as they grow, and continually moving themselves forward: MUJI, IKEA, Patagonia, Nike, Airbnb, and Aesop, which started in Melbourne. I ended the conversation by asking Erminio his advice for newcomers to branding. While he loves the entrepreneurial spirit he sees in young professionals, and encourages them to set out on their own if they want to, he cautions against doing so too soon. "If you, as a young practitioner, have the chance to identify an agency...that can be a good school for you, where you can receive good mentorship, be guided...stick to it. Try to learn as much as you can, like a sponge." Visit the PUSH website to learn more about Erminio and the work his firm is doing. I also recommend Erminio's recent talk: "Managing brands in the Trump era: not for the faint-hearted."