Alan Brew sees corporate narrative as the evolution of positioning
Alan Brew has been in branding since 1985. In this, episode he takes us back to that year to explain how he got into the industry and what he’s seen change since then. Along the way, he’s worked with clients like Chevron, Elsevier, Tech Data, Royal Bank of Canada, Delta Airlines, and Huawei, as well as a number of startups and small-to-medium businesses. Now a founding partner at BrandingBusiness in Southern California, Alan’s career has also included roles at Landor, Addison, and Siegel+Gale.
Alan and I met at that last one: Siegel+Gale. I was lowest man on the totem pole (I think that may have actually been my title) when Alan came in as Managing Director of the LA office. I remember an early meeting with Alan. We were in a full conference room with lots of smart strategists and designers sitting around the table. I was used to being a fly on the wall for meetings like this—maybe just taking notes or waiting for some marching orders. I can’t remember what the meeting was about or what we were trying to decide, but I remember, vividly, Alan turning to me and asking my opinion on the matter at hand. Now, maybe Alan just didn’t know how unimportant I was, but I took it as something else: To me, it was a recognition that my point of view had value, hierarchy be damned. That moment stuck with me, and shortly after Alan left, I followed him to his next agency and joined his strategy team.
I wanted to get Alan talking about his early days in the industry, including the origin of “global brands,” the first time he saw the book Positioning, the age of the corporate narrative, and a fateful dinner meeting with Walter Landor, back in 1985.
Next, we talked about a proprietary tool at BrandingBusiness, the Brand Performance Platform.
The Brand Performance Platform is a databased research program that produces analytics, metrics, for evaluating brands on … awareness, consideration, preference, and purchase intent—the classic sales funnel. But we can put metrics against those elements and look at where a company is succeeding or where a brand is succeeding. … We can, on those four metrics, create an index, which we call the Brand Performance Platform, and say, ‘This is your index and this is how you increase it,’ and we can correlate that increase to revenue performance.”
Afterward, we got into an interesting conversation about “corporate narrative,” which Alan think of as an evolution of positioning. We talked about storytelling and content creation, with Alan explaining that brand strategy has “become more of a fungible externalized set of strategic components rather than just this inert strategic document that lives on somebody’s shelf.”
Lastly, Alan shared some favorite brands (Amazon and Subaru) and recommended some non-business books and authors he recommends every brand strategist and businessperson reads: Dickens, Michael Lewis (including The Undoing Project), Man’s Search for Meaning, and The Economist.
To learn more about Alan, visit BrandingBusiness, where you can learn about his agency, read his bio, and see many of his blog posts. Speaking of blogs, you should also check out Alan’s blog about brand naming: Namedroppings. You can also follow Alan on Twitter.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB MEYERSON: Alan Brew, thank you so much for joining me.
ALAN BREW: You’re welcome, Rob. Nice to be talking to you again.
R: The last season of this podcast was all about positioning and we talked about the Al Ries book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. I remember a few months ago I mentioned that to you and you told me a story about the first time you’d seen that book. Would you mind telling that story again?
A: Not at all. That book has got a lot to answer for because […] change the business, our business, or whatever that business is, Rob, quite fundamentally from what it was when I joined, which was 1985. Just to take you back in time to that particular period or why I actually came into this business in the first place, when I had a very good job in the Financial Times in London, a very secured job.
R: Right. You were a journalist or an editor.
A: I was a journalist and an editor or I should rather say in the FT, a reporter. At that particular time, I was writing about advertising, public relations, design. The reason I joined Landor was because of an article I wrote about British Airways. British Airways was duly privatized in 1984 very successfully, transforming the airline with Saatchi & Saatchi and Landor to create something called the world’s favorite airline. And on the basis of that, they wanted to create a global campaign. This concept of globalism was coming to the fore at the time on the back of Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village article. Saatchi & Saatchi bought into it. They saw the onset of global brands as the thing of the future. Do recall this is 1985–1986.
Landor was […] back in particular and I can’t give him too much credit for what he did for Landor at the time. He was the CEO in San Francisco. Newly appointed CEO. Former advertising man. He completely saw the virtue of this global approach, the incoming globalization of business, and the onset of global brands. It was his will and vision that lead to the opening of the London office for Landor, which is when I came into the picture. I was hired at that particular time to join the company.
R: What did you join as? What was your role going to be?
A: I wasn’t sure at the time, Rob. I had this dinner one night with Walter and I don’t think John was there. Walter Landor was in town, who become more of a kind of a figurehead chairman at that particular point. But I think I put the question to him. I said, “Walter, I am not quite sure where I see the connection between what I do now and what you want me to do.” He said, “Look. Our business is about business. Our business is about helping businesses to succeed and you can talk about that. You understand why businesses succeed and why they don’t. The more you can articulate that, the more we will be successful because that’s how we see the future.” Not about the art, craft, and design, which is important. Walter was a designer, but an industrial designer. He gave me that speech, which was ultimately convincing. That’s why I joined. It was a very rough time, Rob, because of the fear and loathing of the local design businesses and what the […] sell out of design to business.
R: And you had just become a part of that?
A: Just became a part of it, but the wheel changed very quickly. British Airways was a tremendous success. But that British Airways experience was seminal and won the establishment of Landor as the first truly global branding company and also, I think, the genesis of why we all talk now about global brands.
R: When did the positioning concept introduced itself on that time line?
A: That came later. That was another straw in the wind that came a couple of years later when I was talking with John […] back in London. He threw this book on my desk. I remember it had a blue cover and it’s called Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. He said, “Read that. It’s about the future.” I read it and it was interesting, but the most interesting thing about it was that it was about psychology. It was about living in an abstract world where people see things according to perception.
At that particular time, things began to change. Corporate identity morphed into corporate branding. The advertising world moved into corporate branding. The whole thing became much more intricate and seamless. That’s how I came into this business and where positioning came from.
R: You’ve had a long career. You spent a long time at Addison running, I think, the San Francisco office also, at Enterprise IG, which then became Brand Union and more recently, Superunion, Siegel+Gale, and now at BrandingBusiness over the course of the career. Any other stories like the Walter Landor dinner or any other big moments or shifts that you’ve seen that are notable?
A: Rob, the thing that kept me going is this belief in business. Our business exists because of the capitalist system. In a system where there’s choice, you need competition. Competition requires branding and differentiation. That’s where we thrive. Free enterprise and competition. […] the system they […] for what we do.
The advice I would give to anybody coming into this business is to love business, put up companies, how they function, and why they’re successful. Be a part of that and not get obsessed with thing we call branding because it’s a small piece of the picture, but it’s nonetheless an important piece, it’s a great piece, and a very creative piece. I said creative deliberately because it’s become very processed. We’re seeing Deloitte, Bain, and McKinsey, they have branding divisions and it’s very processed-oriented. They try to turn it into a science and they’re taking the inspiration out of it.
R: I take it then that your approach is different, or you have tried to maintain some of the art and not let it be sacrificed to the science side of branding?
A: That would be my opinion, my approach, and frankly, the joy I get out of it because the reasons that clients come to us—they have companies, they are CEOs and businesspeople—is because we do what they can’t. They’re very smart people, they’re very well educated and trained, but there’s something that we do that they cannot do, and that’s take a creative leap on the basis of very clear data. These days, you cannot even come into the room with a set of recommendations if they’re not backed up with some data because people want to make sure that you’re making the right decision for them and it can’t be an intuition.
R: Right, and that the data is so much more accessible than it once was.
A: Exactly that. You’ve got align capabilities now and global markets to investigate at will. You can get tremendous data very quickly, but it’s what you do with it, how you interpret it.
R: Do you have any tools or processes, though, that you rely on or feel that you use to great effect time and time again?
A: I wish we had a proprietary approach to this, but it’s the same tools as everybody else, what’s available to everybody else. You start with your two ears and you listen. There are tools that we have. One is what we call The Brand Performance Platform is a databased research program that produces analytics, metrics, for evaluating brands on … awareness, consideration, preference, and purchase intent—the classic sales funnel. But we can put metrics against those elements and look at where a company is succeeding or where a brand is succeeding.
You could have extremely high awareness like Huawei, for example, but it’s for a lot of the wrong reasons. We can, on those four metrics, create an index, which we call the Brand Performance Platform, and say, ‘This is your index and this is how you increase it,’ and we can correlate that increase to revenue performance.
R: Is this something you typically use on the front-end to diagnose, or the backend to measure success, or both as it is some sort of before and after?
A: Yes, it can be both. It’s typically the front-end. When you get a very big public company acquiring another competitor or business, they don’t want guesswork, they want certainty, as far as they can get about what to do with this brand they’ve acquired, the asset they’ve acquired. It comes in the front-end. You give recommendations based on data and you show them the data, but it produces a benchmark in which they can go back into the market and evaluate movement against key performance indicators.
R: Let’s talk about the situation of having to create a new brand. When you’re building a new brand from scratch, you’ll do your research of some sort on the front-end and then eventually get to the point of putting the brand ideas down on paper, so to speak. I want to pause there for one second and just ask what kind of framework or model if you are using one consistently. Do you have some kind of language or framework that you’re using consistently to document and articulate what a brand stands for?
A: Again, the world is changing around that. We’re now into the world of corporate narrative, which is another aspect of the digital world we’re living in. In that, it’s expensive or difficult to get awareness in this mixed multimedia world, this digital world. What you’re seeing now is the emergence of this dreadful […] of storytelling.
R: I knew you were going to say it.
A: It sounds like bedtime stories but…
R: It’s unfortunately another one of these terms that is used differently by different people. By saying corporate narrative, I assume you’re speaking to the idea of a single narrative that sits at the heart of that organization, let’s say, if it’s a corporate brand. One single relatively unchanging and therefore, probably a pretty big and maybe abstract idea that you’re telling through some form of story, versus the kind of storytelling that we see in ads, for example, where a full ad campaign will be created telling individual stories maybe of different consumers or something like that and through the amalgamation of all those stories, maybe you perceive something about the brand, but it sounds like you’re talking more about the singular story than the kind of day-to-day storytelling that lots of companies are doing?
A: Yeah, exactly that. It’s an evolution of positioning. A lot of clients used to look at positioning and not know what to do with it. The idea is a very strict codification of constructive messages.
R: Right. And you have brand pillars, personality traits and things like that, and you’re saying it felt disjointed, or at least the clients weren’t sure what to do with those piece-parts.
A: At one time, it was simpler. There are certain kinds of execution you could take from that platform, the positioning platform. What has happened is the need for greater traction. The whole concept of positioning has morphed into—on the basis of this research, on the basis of this positioning platform—what is the story we tell externally? What do we do with this? How do we use this in our marketing, in our corporate communications, in our speeches, in our publications? What are the components of the narrative that we need to be building into everything we communicate with? It’s become more of a fungible externalized set of strategic components rather than just this inert strategic document that lives on somebody’s shelf.
R: What form did those stories take? Short of actually staying on board and writing every individual speech and piece of communication to ensure that that story is told consistently, but presumably not in exactly the same words every time because then it would get boring and redundant, what kinds of things are you delivering or could you deliver to clients so that it’s giving them enough that they can then take it and start creating things on their own, that tie back to that same story?
A: Oh, well, you’ve just opened the secret box. Mind you, that’s where the entire industry is going. It’s going to content. The digital age has opened up a huge need and appetite for content. We do more and more content now than we’ve ever done. Content means finished work. It’s not advertising, but it’s finished narrative for various uses and it’s a creative exercise.
R: Talk about a few of the forms that that might take other than if it’s not advertising, these are videos that might go on their website, for example?
A: Well, everything is a video experience now. People watch video. It’s entertaining and it’s short. People would rather watch video now than read, which is a sad commentary on our time. It’s true. So you have to create in visual form, in video form of what you’re—
R: Although audio is very big now. Podcasts, I hear, are blowing up.
A: Well, Ron Burgundy is now the world’s most popular podcast, I see.
R: Oh, is that true? I haven’t even been following
A: Oh yeah. Catch Ron Burgundy, the podcast. Is very entertaining. I believe it’s got the most subscriptions now. But podcasts, certainly, downloadable little nuggets of entertainment.
R: Would you agree that there is some role for someone to be directing all of this content, so that it’s not just entertaining and catching eyeballs, but so that through watching videos, for example, you’re getting some kind of consistent message through a brand’s various forms of content?
A: Well, step forward Chief Marketing Officer. If there’s any job that epitomizes the current world we live in, in terms of integrated communications, it’s the role of the Chief Marketing Officer who coordinates everything and controls every budget. He or she has got a really difficult job because there’s no direct line to revenue, which is another problem of our industry, that company’s CEOs have to live and die by quoted results of the public companies. So the branding has its longer time horizon.
R: Even if it’s in your personal life as a consumer or in your professional opinion, are there any brands out there that you feel like are doing pretty much everything right from a brand standpoint?
A: I have a phenomenal admiration for Amazon and what it’s done and where it’s going. I don’t think it’s halfway there yet in terms of what it’s capable of being. I mean look at what it’s buying now, moving into food, pharmacies. I just see that as the lone star of the old digital brands. But you can go off from the digital world into the real world. I think there are a lot of brands that are doing fine jobs.
I’ve got a lot of admiration for Subaru, for example. Once, it used to be a clunky odd sounding foreign car, but now it’s regarded as an American brand. It’s found its market, it knows its audience, and it’s produced some fantastic products. I think Subaru has done a tremendous job and I’d love a new Forester. I’d go out and buy one if I have the discretionary money to buy another vehicle, but I don’t, but I would. I used to admire Land Rover, but now it’s gone into the luxury market, which, I think, is a mistake. It used to be a really good rugged kind of middle of the world vehicle, but it’s product strategy has left its brand behind, I think.
R: How about books? I know you started out your career as a writer. I don’t know if you still write, but I know you read a lot, too. Do you have any book recommendations for anyone in branding or marketing that you think would be relevant or a good read?
A: Well, I do. I get asked, “What branding books should I read?” My advice is to stay away from them because they’re all confusing. They’re all somebody else’s point of view and based on what? This is a completely inventive industry. The true strength of a brand strategist or brand consultant is their own life perspective and experience. Read Dickens. Read Dickens or read about business. Read Michael Lewis. Read The Undoing Project, about how people make decisions. Read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Read The Economist. Read about business and the stories about business because it’s what makes our world go ’round.
R: Where do you get your business news other than The Economist? Do you have a go-to, even if they’re online publications or anything like that?
A: These days, you could take several data points, like go to The Economist or go to the BBC, which probably betrays my background.
R: Your accent betrayed that.
A: Right, a few moments ago. And then, I would read widely after that. I wouldn’t take any one point of view. I mean, to say we’re fake news, I would make your own mind based upon several data points of news, but news organizations with a reputation they depend on like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Don’t get you news from Facebook. I think if any brand has got a very confused or dangerous future, it’s that one particular brand, which is a whole other conversation.
R: Maybe we’ll have that one some time soon.
R: Aside from these books that you recommended, any other advice for our junior people that are already in the industry or people that are just interested in a career in branding or a related field?
A: It’s hard to recruit brand strategists. You get them from various sources. Is there any school for brand strategists these days? I don’t know. Maybe there is. Is there a diploma for brand strategists?
R: Not that I know of.
A: No. You take them from where you can get them. They’re usually from the good old fashioned disciplines of journalism, or public relations, or marketing, predominantly marketing I would say. The traditional marketing discipline. A great source of brand strategy is people who have written for the screen, screenwriters.
R: I guess increasingly so, given what you said about storytelling.
A: Yes, indeed. That just betrayed one of my little secrets.
R: I guess it’s a good thing you’re down in Southern California.
A: Yeah. I believe that’s where it’s all going. I really do. Maybe not in the immediate future, but ultimately, we will all be brand strategists around consumption of information.
R: Well, thank you. That’s good advice and we’ll leave it there. I hope to talk to you again soon, maybe about a future or lack thereof of a Facebook brand.
A: Thank you, Rob. I really enjoyed the conversation. I hope you found some interest and in between the edits, some sense of my […].
R: Thanks, Alan. I appreciate it.
A: Thanks, Rob.