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Marty Neumeier: bringing customers up the brand ladder

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By accident, he wrote a book read by 23 million people. When someone put his book The Brand Gap free to read online, he just let it happen. He started as a designer, but became interested in brand strategy. When he moved to Silicon Valley, Apple became one of his prominent clients. Marty Neumeier takes customers as a starting point. 'If you are doing it right, your customers are running the company and you are serving them'


Many brands think they are differentiating themselves, but actually they are not. "Companies often start out differently, then collapse to the center after a while and become normal like everybody else. They underestimate how much difference you need to make. Humans are like that: we like to fit in and fitting in is not the best strategy to stand out. This is a noisy world, so you can't be just a little different, you have to be very different. You need to exaggerate it."

The Brand Gap
Having started out as a designer, Marty Neumeier wanted something more. If you want to have influence, you have to think about the strategy of a company. So, with his design work came strategy advice. It was something companies didn't expect from a designer, but it helped him to work for the big tech companies of Silicon Valley. Apple was his most prominent client. He created a completely new design for its software. "It is not about just making a logo, it is about solving problems for their clients." Now, Neumeier is a best-selling author of books like 'The Brand Flip: why customers now run companies – and how to profit from it' or perhaps his most famous book: 'The Brand Gap: how to bridge the distance between business strategy and design'.

In his book he describes what he calls the 'brand ladder' or the 'brand commitment scale'. The idea is to bring your clients up a ladder little by little. The first step is satisfaction about the purchase of a product of service, a next step is engagement where they start to feel like they belong to a tribe. The final step is empowerment. "That's when they would be really upset if your brand was taken away from them, because they feel their lives depend on it, their identities depend on it, their whole tribe depends on it. That's where you want to get it. Customers don't buy brands, they join tribes," he explains in a video interview to digital marketing company Fresh Movement.

Mattering is the new marketing

It is a misunderstanding that a brand is just a logo or an ad campaign. "The, name, logo and advertising campaigns are manifestations of it, but a brand is something deeper and that is super important, because it is the reason you have customers. The essence of what a brand really is and what it is trying to do in business is to create understanding in people's minds about a product. (…) It is very simple: a brand is a person's gut feeling about a product, service or company. It is nothing more, nothing less."

Companies need to take the right steps to focus their strategy. "The first thing to do is decide that you are not going to do what everybody else is doing," he elaborates in a video talk to Brand Master Academy on the future of branding. His advice may sound superfluous, but companies often do the opposite. "It is the hardest thing, because we all like to do what other people are doing, especially if they are successful. Strategy is not about copying other people. It is about being original in some way that matters. Mattering is the new marketing. That's the way I always think about it. If you matter to people, that's going to be so powerful and then marketing and selling becomes so much easier."

Steve Jobs and the architecture of brands
One of the best examples of a successful de facto Chief Brand Officer was Apple's Steve Jobs. Of course, he was the CEO, but he stood out in branding. "My poster boy for CBOs is Steve Jobs. In everything he was playing the role of the CBO. He was all about which products do we produce and how do they fit together. What is the architecture of all these brands and sub brands that we have? How do they work together to create something more than just the individual products? He was not so much about spreadsheets and finance. But the reason it worked is because he was all about customers. How do we change their lives and how do we make them into better people? That is kind of the job of a CBO."

When asked about his favorite experience, Neumeier mentions his work for Apple. "It was a very big project which was to change all the packaging, the whole way they communicated about software at Apple," he recalls during a talk with How Great Marketing Works. The company was initially hesitant, but finally agreed. There was one design that was almost all white with a very loose drawing of an icon on it, something people had never seen in a software store. "They wanted a big change. So, we tested it in the store with real customers. We went forward with it and sales went up 40% with no change to the product."

What advertising people get wrong about storytelling
Neumeier stresses that Chief Brand Officers need to have a variety of skills. They need to be able to think strategically and be creative at the same time, fostering imagination and storytelling. "Imagination is not a strategy, it is not about checking boxes or making lists. It is more like imagining a future that doesn't exist right now. You need critical thinking skills, use numbers when numbers make sense and use intuition when intuition is more useful, you need to become an artist of the possible. Storytelling skills are huge in brand strategy. You have to be able to tell a very simple compelling story that illustrates your difference and how you are going to make somebody's life better. Storytelling is really good for that."

The importance is to create a framework for stories seen from the perspective of customers. "Whenever advertising people and a lot of brand strategists talk about stories they get very animated, they understand intuitively that a brand is a kind of an ongoing story. But what they get wrong is the story shouldn't be told by them, but by customers on your behalf," he argues in a step-by-step presentation at Khosla Ventures. "Empower them to say the right stuff about you. How do you do that? You have a framework for the stories where you just set the scene and you let them tell the story. You give them little pieces that they can make sense out of and tell stories, but don't dictate the story."

The magic happens when strategists and creatives come together
A mistake some executives make is first design a strategy and only later on involve creative people. "They have this assumption that strategy comes first and then hand that off to someone who is going to execute it, to some designers or creative people. Strategy and execution have to happen at the same time. (…) Ideally there would be a head strategist and a head creative person as equal partners. That's the way to bridge the gap between the logic and the magic."

He recalls the way people worked in advertising in the 50s and 60s when the creative team was born. "You had a copywriter and a designer working equally and where they almost finished each other's sentences. That can work the same way at the strategy execution level and we may not be talking about two people, but about two teams that have to work together. I know from such collaborative sessions that designers come up with ideas that strategists might never come up with. So why wouldn't you avail yourself of those ideas, so that strategy is informed by more possibilities?"

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