Allen Adamson thinks Jerry Seinfeld would be a great brand manager
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
- The Edge: 50 Tips from Brands that Lead
- 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 typical brand platform components (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 story ideas, he recommends developing some prototypes 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 (links above).
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB: Allen Adamson, thank you so much for joining me.
ALLEN: My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.
R: Allen, you were managing director of Landor in New York when I first discovered you. While you were there, you wrote a book called, BrandSimple. By the way, a background, I’d noticed that book because at the time, I was at a firm called Siegel+Gale who talks about simplicity a lot. I think they may still be using a tagline “Simple is Smart”. When BrandSimple came out, I thought, “Oh, here’s somebody else writing about the importance of simplicity and branding.”
A: I was trying my best to build your business.
R: Well, I bought the book and thought, “Well, what can we learn from this?” But since then, you’ve started your own firm Metaforce. Is Metaforce a brand consultancy? What kind of firm is it? What kind of work are you doing?
A: It’s more of a growth consultancy. If a company is not growing, or a business is not growing, an organization is not growing, sometimes the result of their brand not being sharp enough but sometimes, as we say in the days there, what they stand for is no longer relevant, and they’ve been shifted ahead. I wanted to work off some research I’ve done for my latest book, Shift Ahead, as to why does some companies struggle to stay current. Sometimes, there’s a need to focus on their brand but sometimes their brand is fine and they sometimes they need to push other levers to accelerate growth.
R: When you are focusing on brand—obviously, that’s what I want to talk about most here today, although I do want to hear about your latest book—a central idea in brand strategy and sort of what you just said, this idea of staying relevant and being focused on a simple idea, what are you calling that right now? Are you calling that brand positioning or do you have some other terminology that you use?
A: No. I find that every day I wake-up another consultant’s found another buzz word to try to make the simple complex. I bet you Steve Jobs never read may books on brand, yet he probably has the best one. I like to think of your brand as your story. What do you want somebody when they hear Rob, this name, what do you want to pop into their head? If they hear apple, what do want to pop in their head? What’s the story? That is the positioning. There are dozens of word for it. But what do you want to stand for when somebody hears your name?
Branding, of course, is how you get what the story is into people’s heads, and both are complicated. Sometimes marketers struggle because they don’t have a clear brand story. Great logos, great branding, but no story. Sometimes they’ve got a great story that exist on a nice power point or on their computer desktop, but they can’t get it into people’s head because it’s they don’t have the resources, or they don’t know how to do it, or the story is too complicated.
R: Right. You need both pieces.
A: The theory is really easy. If were everyone gets the theory, I think what separates brands that cook in a marketplace to brands that are footnotes is execution.
R: When you document what a brand stands for on a paper or in a power point presentation or whatever it is to the extent that you feel that that’s an important step for brands to take, do you include all these different piece parts and say, “You do really need to have a brand personality and you need to have X brand pillars that support your brand idea,” or are you a little more fluid about it?
A: I think that you just brought up one of the key points from my BrandSimple book. You sort of need all that, but if you try to get all that into what you want to stand for, by the time you finish writing your brand platform, you’ll be out of business. I always like to think that the most important thing is to figure out what’s the point of you story? What’s the starting point? Get some focus. It could be about what you do, could be about how you do it, could be about your purpose, it could be about why you do something—your mission and your vision, it could be about who you are, your personality. But for sure, if you’re trying to make it about everything, only you will know what your brand stands for and you’ll never be able to get it out because great execution, great branding, requires real tight focus and simplicity. Yes, you need all that. But if you throw everything but the kitchen sink at the wall, you’re not going to have a powerful brand.
R: Whether it’s your company and you’re trying to build your own brand, or a consultant working with clients, how do you determine what to focus on? It’s easy to look at a template and say, “Oh, I just need to fill out these boxes. I need three brand personality traits. Let’s figure those out.” But if you’re saying, “Well, it really could be any of these different things and you need to determine which makes the most sense for your business.” What’s the process at a high a level that you use to figure that out?
A: That’s where the theory is easy, but the execution is hard again. To some extent, of course, everything we’ve learned about brands that they need to have a story, it needs to be something different that people care about, relevant differentiation—that could be about what you do, how you make packages deliver overnight if you’re FedEx, or why you do something. But the trick is to figure out what’s going to be your most relevant lead differentiated point of your story and start there and make sure you hammer that across before you get into, “and we’re also your trusted, confident, carefree advisor.”
R: Genuine and..
A: Right, right.
R: I’m sure there’s no magic bullet to figuring that out, but do you have any consistent first step that you would take if a client comes to you and says, “We need to rebrand.” Or, “We have a business strategy, but we need to build a brand.”
A: I assume that I like either getting all the possible things you could say about your story on paper and maybe on little index cards or made with natural ingredient or organic or fun. Whatever the benefit, get everything on little index cards and a little bit of exercising, if you’re going to tell the story, try to put them in a little pyramid. How do you start the story? I try to get people to say, “If you’re going to tell me one thing about your brand story and the elevator door is closing, what is that one thing that you begin your story with? How do you start? What’s the most important thing?” When people are forced to edit themselves, they do a better job.
In the olden days, when we were all watching 60-second commercials in front of one television set in the family room, you could make a whole movie about 100 things about your brand story and people were paying attention. Now, in the ADD world we live on, where people are multi-tasking and looking for experience, you have about five seconds to tell your story clearly. If it takes you longer than that, people are already too dense. I actually force the teams to build their stories in a pyramid form, trying to get to a point because if they can’t go to a point, then their audience won’t be able to get to a point.
R: Do you think there’s ever any call for these more detailed models out there? I’m sure you’ve seen things like David Aaker’s brand, I believe he’s now calling it the Brand Vision model or just the brand houses and things that you see inside of agencies and companies, is there ever a good reason to have those or do you feel they’re always a bit of a waste?
A: Sometimes they help the organization internally get alignment and people understand everyone and every department, what they stand for. But often, you could read one of those brand platforms with four pillars on the house, and foundation, and you could put your name over the company and you ask somebody to describe what it is, and you get generic words. Another tactic we try to do is—where I started from a little bit—which is, “Yeah, you can have a good story but if you can’t execute it, if you can’t do branding, it doesn’t matter.”
One of the things we try to do is we come up with two or three brand platform stories. It’s simply articulated and crisply articulated as it can with some focus and then we do a few prototype execution. Because if you can’t translate your strategy, do you want to be the trusted yet funny, yet serious brand and you cannot create an execution that captures it, that’s already a signal to you, if you would, that you’ve got a problem. By forcing early prototypes and saying, “Can you do great execution?” You look at some of the first brands out there, I like to poke fun at GEICO, their brand strategy is […], “15 minutes will save you 15%.” Yes, you can go through the Warren Buffet onto them, and that they also do motorcycle insurance. You could spend half an hour talking about GEICO. But the core brand story is so tight and sharp that it permits you to do great execution, great branding.
When I was in advertising, when I started in the madmen days, if I walk down to the big time creative director with my brief from Proctor & Gamble with 15 benefits that Dawn dishwashing liquid was going to offer the user or whatever the product I was working on, and I walk into her office, she would take my little brief of 14 power point slides, crunch it back and throw it back at me. If you could come up with it on a napkin or in five seconds, because great creative people wanted focus and simplicity in their brand platforms. And then we got into this world of every consultant trying to help intellectualize and help think someone else, it became more complicated. Lots of good stuff there, but the trick is, “How do you ladder up to some focus?”
R: A lot of what we end up delivering it feels like is you’ve used the term brand story and I know from the book, BrandSimple, you write these one-sentence brand stories or…
A: Brand Drivers, I call them. Because it’s the driving idea behind your brand. It’s the same sort of thing, Federal Express’s, FedEx’s, Absolute Certainty, there are 100 other things FedEx is about, but the core brand driver is about delivering absolute certainty to everyone who touches FedEx.
R: In addition to these short brand driver statements that you use to really keep a brand focused, I’ve seen and I’m sure you’ve seen these very long brand narratives or brand manifestos that are a little more evocative, they almost read like ad copy, do you ever use those or do you think that there’s a good reason to do things like that with a client to help them understand what the brand is all about?
A: Yeah, to some extent, I think they work exactly as you just described it. They become ad copy so that you get a feel before you try on that absolute certainty idea and see if it feels right for the personality in the culture of the company versus four people sitting and looking at a whiteboard says, “Yeah, absolute certainty. That sounds pretty good. Let’s go with that.”
R: Is that one example of a prototype?
A: Yeah. A manifesto could be a prototype or corporate ad or a homepage. But the challenge is that manifestos get long. If people aren’t totally focused on, “Yes, we want to stand for absolute certainty.” Then you also may have a manifesto saying, “Yes, we deliver absolute certainty. But sometimes we take our time, cover things very carefully, and we’re not always sure the package will get there on time but that’s why we are in business.” You get more and more ideas and qualifications then becomes a better story but it’s impossible to translate that mushier story into a powerful branding execution.
R: There’s a term that I’ve heard floating out there, ad-lobs. I don’t know if you’ve heard that. I’ve always attributed it back to Landor, it’s for ad-like objects. Do you know if that came from Landor?
A: Anytime something works, a lot of people take credit for it. Ad-lobs, in attempt to say, “Look, if you stand for Beyond Petroleum, here’s what your brand starts to look like. Here’s the types of ads you do. Here’s what your station’s may look like,” back to the prototyping. Because if management is not comfortable with service stations, with solar tunnels and sponsoring sailboat races versus Indie 500, then it doesn’t matter if you have a strategy decked that says, “We want to move Beyond Petroleum.” you can’t live it. Ad-lobs, or prototypes, or manifestos, help the organization understand. As you know, brand is about what you stand for and also needs to be what you don’t stand for which is a harder part of branding for most people.
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Back to this idea of how you find that the right brand idea for your brand whether it’s absolute certainty or something else, there’s a line from BrandSimple that I just wanted to ask you about. I think it’s in the end of the book where you have 10 guiding principles for keeping the brand simple, and one of them is to find a different and relevant brand idea, look for the obvious. Can you explain what you meant by that?
A: Everyone knows, brands needs to solve a problem for somebody. They don’t exist to keep people like you and I busy in the brand strategy business. They’ve got to taste better, work faster, make you smile. Sometimes, we get, again, over complicated. It reminded me of when I spoke to the folks for BrandSimple at Timberland and he told me how his father started the company, and everyone was walking around in rubber boots and putting on galoshes when they went into the snow back in the olden days. The founder of Timberland said, “I wonder why you have to use ugly rubber boots to stay dry? Why don’t we make a shoe that’s waterproof?” which was pretty obvious, but no one had tried it. Lots of great brands. “Why does a computer have to be hard to use? Why can’t you talk to a computer?” I always thought Jerry Seinfeld would be a great brand manager. Take for example a keyboard, you can’t talk to them or you have to out reverse, shift, control, option command to erase something.
R: That sounds like a beginning of a great exercise for a workshop is, “What would Jerry Seinfeld make fun of in your industry?” maybe there’s an insight there.
A: Yeah, there’s a great routine he does which your listeners could look at, but it’s called The Drugstore. He’s standing in front of the shelf and trying and […] that pain relieve show. He says, “Do I want something that will work fast, or do I want something that’ll last long? Do I have more pain now or do I want to be in pain later on? Do I want extra strength, or do I want super extra strength? Yes, give me the maximum amount of pain release, humanly allowable, give me something that’ll kill me.” That was his whole routine just by reading the branding, if you would, on Bayer Aspirin and Aleve and Advil, and you see how silly all these terms are.
R: What do you think is happening right now and maybe this is where we can talk a little bit about Shift Ahead. Just in the arc of your career, what do you feel like has changed about the way brand strategy is done. Is it, to some degree in decline? Are there other things that are more important in business strategy or marketing overall now? Is branding more important than ever? What’s your take on the trendlines?
A: I think two things are happening that make branding still relevant but much harder. One is that we’ve gone back to the future. It used to be, if you ever had a headache you ask your neighbor always at the back of your fence, “What do you take for headache?” Then we went through this whole period where we sat in a couch and watch people in white coats tell us to take this pill or that pill. But now, we’re back to word-of-mouth is really important.
The funny thing about word-of-mouth, if you know—I know your listeners know—no one shares that ordinary. No one shares, “How which I took a flight to LA, they got me to LA, they didn’t lose my bag.” no one shares that. They’re allowed to share, “I took a flight to LA and the pilot landed in Cleveland. He got lost.” Or something extraordinary happened on the flight, “They served me French toast for breakfast instead of bag of […].”
Brands need to figure out how they can be more extraordinary. That means, as they look at all the branding things, their packaging, their logo, and their name, and their ads, and their websites, everyone has sort of a checklist mentality, it’s all sort of nice, but boring.
A: Yeah. It’s all tested well, yes, but no one wakes-up and says, “Oh my goodness, did you see this?” I think part of success is figuring out what are the one or two things you can do extraordinary. Make your website phenomenal or don’t spend forever analyzing it. No one’s going to double your business if you have an average website. You need one but figure out where you can play to win and that’s really hard.
R: Is that part of the underlying theme of Shift Ahead?
A: Yeah, part of the Shift Ahead is that everyone’s trying to do everything and they’re doing it okay. But to succeed in growing your business, you have to figure out, “What are the growth levers? What are the one or two things back to focus I need to do better than anyone else?” and then doing it better which is really, really hard. Look at the cellphone business, every phone looks the same. They’re all 2×3, and slick, and clean. You can to go to a Verizon or AT&T store and look at the shelf and it’s phenomenal how everything is a sea of similarity. Yes, there are other reasons that people buy phones now based on software and other ecosystems but ultimately, every category is starting to look like the cellphone category.
If you’re going to breakthrough, you’re going to figure out, back to where we started, how do you solve a problem, how do you do something different that will get people to care about.
R: A question I always ask authors like you, other than your own books, we talked about BrandSimple and Shift Ahead, I know you’ve written other books as well, but what branding or business books do you recommend? Whether they’re recent things that you’ve read or just some of the old classics that you always refer back to.
A: One of the things I try to do, I try to read books that are not business books. I try to read books about politics, about history, about the human condition—anything to get out of my bubble. This is a bit of story but when I was coming out of business school, I was interviewing at Ogilvy & Mather, a large ad agency and I had apparently answered a few questions right. I’ve done my seven interviews without spilling coffee in anybody, and finally I’m in the CEO’s office and I’m all set to tell the CEO how to do market segmentation and all that. His first question to me was not how to do market segmentation, it was, “Tell me about the last book you read. Tell me about the last movie you saw. Tell me about the last show you went to.” I think, you zoom out.
R: I’ll ask the Ogilvy & Mather question then, what’s the recent one that you’ve read that you just recommend? It doesn’t have to have anything to do with branding.
A: I like Sapiens a lot, a Brief History of Humankind by Harari. It just gets you to look at evolution, look at history, other than knowing the facts when the revolution happened, when this king was overthrown. It just tells of a story.
R: I’ve heard that one recommended. It sounds great. I haven’t picked it up yet.
A: The other one he wrote was Homo Deus which is a brief history of what’s coming after homo-sapiens. Again, it’s not quite Star Trek, it gets you out of reading 14 books about brand platforms.
R: Right, right. Last question for you then is, given the success that you’ve had in your career at Landor and now at Metaforce, I know you do a lot of teaching as well, do you have any pieces of advice that you like to give to young people that are interested in getting into brand consulting or marketing whether they’re on a strategy side or not.
A: Great question, Rob. I always tell people, if they’re not thinking about what they do when they’re at the gym or running in the park, then do what you’re thinking about when you’re running at the park or at the gym. Don’t look at your job as something, “Oh, I’ve got to go to the office. It’s like 400 emails. By 4:30 PM I’ll be able to get out.” When I met founders of successful companies throughout my career, my father-in-law was in the shopping mall business. I say to him, “What’s so exciting about that?” He would take me on Saturdays and we would walk the mall. I had a tour of the mall. “Why was the food court here? Why was the sneakers store next to a socks store?” He was passionate about malls. He was there on a Saturday and Sunday and loving it.
Whatever you choose to do, do something you love doing because you’ll do it better over time than if you’re there just to make a buck.
R: Alright, Allen. I can tell that you’re passionate about what you do. I really appreciate you taking the time to share some of that passion and your insights about branding.
A: Thanks for inviting me. It was fun talking to you.