Scattered generously throughout BrandSimple are excerpts of conversations I had with colleagues, clients past and present, and even a few of my former bosses, during the book-writing process. These were some of the people who lived and breathed the brand stories I use to illustrate certain points in my book. Rather than interpret their thoughts and experiences, it seemed to make more sense to let these folks relate their experiences in their own words. Anything told first person, anything that doesn't smack of theory, but conveys genuine practical application is generally more helpful.
When you tell people you've written a book and they ask what it's about, what do you tell them?
I tell them it’s about the title, BrandSimple – the best, most powerful brands are built on very simple ideas. When a brand is based on a simple idea, it's easy for consumers to understand instantly what makes the brand better and different and relevant to them. This is essential because consumers use a brand name as a mental shortcut when it comes to making a choice about what to buy, be it a product or service.
Equally important, when a brand is based on a simple idea it makes it easy for the people in the brand organization to understand what makes their brand better and different and relevant to the consumers they want to attract. Since they're the ones doing the branding, they should be the first to know what they're supposed to convey about the brand.
The subtitle, "How the Best Brands Keep it Simple and Succeed," reinforces that this book provides examples of how simple ideas have made the world’s best brands the world's best brands.
You use the words brand and branding. What’s the difference?
Good question. A brand is a mental image, a thought or feeling you have when you hear or see a brand name. If I say Ivory soap, for example, you might think about softness, or purity, or a bar of soap floating in water. A brand lives in your head.
Branding, on the other hand, is the process of creating the signals that help people conjure up these mental images or feelings. It's the advertisement that shows the soap floating in the water. It’s the phrase “99% pure.” It’s the packaging with the picture of the sweet baby.
Branding used to be comprised of things like advertising, promotions, or signage. That’s how we formed our opinions about a brand. Branding was primarily the responsibility of the marketing department or the advertising agencies. Today we form our opinions about a brand based on a lot of different types of branding signals. These include customer service interactions—phone, face-to-face, and online—anything Internet, packaging, product placement, product engineering, cell-phone ring tones, guerilla and viral marketing. You name it, if some experience or interaction makes you feel one way or another about a brand, it’s a branding signal.
When you say "simple idea" what do you mean?
Here’s what I mean. You step into an elevator with someone and tell them you've got an idea for some new product or service. Before the door closes, you can convey this idea in a way that enables them to play it back to you accurately. That’s a simple idea. Taking a long time to explain something is easy. Give anyone ten minutes and they can probably explain anything. Chances are it will be a pretty complicated explanation. It’s boiling something down to its essential meaning in as few words as possible that's hard.
Give me some examples.
Okay. Beyond Petroleum. That’s BP’s simple brand idea. In two words it says it’s an energy company that's about more than just gasoline. Crest is about healthy teeth, and Apple is easy-to-use computers. JetBlue’s simple idea is that flying can be fun, and FedEx is about absolute certainty in delivery. You instantly get what these brands mean. So do the people who work for these brands, which makes the branding brilliant and incredibly effective.
You say in your book that getting to simple is hard. Why?
Well, as I said before, it’s easy to complicate issues. It’s done all the time. To get to simple, you have to make tough choices. Your brand can’t be everything to everybody. You've got to decide exactly what you want to stand for in people’s minds, and you have to determine which people you want to attract.
There are so many brands today in every category, it’s hard to find something different to say and then boil it down to something people can understand in an instant. It’s like good writing. You put all your ideas on paper and then edit until you have the words that express precisely what you mean. Same thing when it comes to identifying a simple brand idea. It’s about paring down and discipline and taking a stand, even if there’s a risk involved.
Is building a brand more difficult today than it was when you started in the business?
You make me sound old. Actually, it’s a lot harder today. People are inundated with data, with messages, with media. There are far more brands than ever before, and on a global scale, and they’re all competing for your attention. With so much mental clutter people are becoming more skeptical. They want proof and they're not content to take what they hear on a TV commercial on faith. You have to go deeper to connect with people. We’re an experiential, an interactive society. People need experiences as proof points.
But wait, there’s more, and there’s less. There is more clutter and we have far less control over how people get information. Everything is segmented to the nth degree. People suffer from brand attention deficit disorder. Time has vaporized. I was at the gym the other day and saw a guy on a treadmill watching the scrawl on CNBC while he was listening to his iPod and reading the Wall Street Journal. He also checked his Blackberry from time to time. While this may be an extreme case, we're all heading in the same direction.
It used to be that you could use a little advertising, a little PR, a little promotion and people would understand what your brand was about. There were three basic television networks. We sat down every night and watched the same shows. There wasn’t as much fragmentation. People read the same magazines and newspapers – got their news and cultural updates from basically the same sources. If you don’t have a simple, compelling idea that can cut through this fog with laser-like branding, you’re not going to get anyone’s attention.
How do you teach the 30-somethings who come to work in the industry about branding? They’ve grown up with this fragmentation.
I ask them about their first experience with an iPod. I ask them to talk about the packaging. Was it easy to read through the instructions and actually download music or video? How helpful was the person at the Genius Bar in the Apple store where they purchased the iPod? How soon did someone answer the customer service call if they had a question? How do they feel about the other people they see with white earbuds dangling from their backpacks or briefcases?
I explain that each of these interactions with the brand has to be consistent in experience for Apple to get its brand idea across successfully. Each interaction is a branding signal and together they make up how we feel about the brand. If we feel how Apple wants us to feel, it means Apple started with a simple brand idea (which they did), which allows everyone in the organization to do a brilliant job at branding (which they do).
How do you make sure everyone in an organization understands what the brand stands for?
First and foremost, communicating a brand idea internally is more difficult than communicating a brand idea externally. Organizations generally have the resources and skills required to be customer-focused. They often forget that their most important customers are inside. Changing behavior inside an organization takes work. The objective is to get people to internalize how their daily activities and behaviors have an impact on how customers feel about the brand, and how it has a great impact on the bottom line.
Among the things I tell my clients is to map their customers’ journey with the brand. Do a brand touch point audit. Orchestrate every interaction a customer has with the brand. Have the sales reps explain the brand and what it means relative to their role. If you’re on the product side, have employees open the packaging, read the operating instructions, see what the engineers take into account in their research and development. On the service side, let people experience the retail venue, have them make reservations or call customer service. Let them scan a credit card, track a delivery process, write an ad, design a Web site.
Employees must get actively engaged with the experience of the brand in order to act on it appropriately. It’s not about sending them emails and power points. People don’t learn passively. You don’t learn to ski by reading a book. You learn by putting on a pair of skis, falling down a few times, and then eventually making it down the slope.
Why did you write the book?
I have lots of books on brands and branding. One is more complicated than the next. They’re filled with segmentation techniques, equity models, graphs, charts, buzz words. It’s hard to decipher what they’re talking about. The key to good branding is to find something different and relevant to say and say it succinctly. Some of the founders of the best brands never read a book on branding, or never got a degree in brand management.
I wrote this book to cut to the chase, to provide examples of how the best brands got to simple, and how anyone who works in the world of brands can take advantage of what these brands know and put it to use.
What kind of book is BrandSimple?
It’s an enjoyable, simple and interesting book. It is not an academic book. If you have time to read one book about brands and branding, this is the book. It’s a quick read full of anecdotes, fascinating stories, behind-the-scene doings, as well as intriguing and practical ideas that are made as simple as possible to turn into action.
What would you like people to take away from the book?
I want the reader to take away the fact that the book is called BrandSimple because that's what a brand should be: simple.
Building a brand is in large part common sense. Identify something different and relevant to say about your brand and make it simple to understand. While this may be harder than it used to be, it doesn’t mean you should engage in an over-complicated, theoretical process. BrandSimple provides the framework for what anyone involved with brands or branding needs to know to succeed.
Who is this book for?
This book is for anyone who needs to build a brand, is responsible for a brand, or just wants to know what makes brands tick. It’s for start-up companies in search of how-to, and big companies in need of a refresher course. It’s for anyone who wants to have the world of brands demystified, and anyone who’s interested in why they’re attracted to some brands and not to others. I guess that it would make this a good book for anyone searching for an interesting read.
What was Landor’s role in the book?
Most important, Landor gave me more experience in the industry of brands and branding than I ever thought possible. The number of brands I've been able to work with has been incredible, from technology companies, to communications, health care and beauty products, packaged goods in myriad categories, cities, states, the Olympics, magazines, even celebrities. Landor also gave me the time to think about and develop the book, which I had greatly underestimated. My Landor team in New York served as a sounding board for my ideas, and they were generous with sharing ideas of their own, which I greatly appreciated. Quite simply, without the support of my colleagues at Landor, this book would not have been possible.