Erminio Putignano connects big ideas and tiny details
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.”
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB: Erminio, thank you for joining me.
ERMINIO: Thanks for inviting me, Rob.
R: I guess a good place to start, just to set the stage in terms of what we mean by brand strategy and brand positioning, if a client comes to you and says they need to create a positioning for their brand or reposition an existing brand, what are you thinking that you’ll be delivering to them?
E: Well, first of all, probably, I would try go a step back in that conversation with the client, trying to understand better what is, if you want, the business problem that they are actually facing, that they believe positioning can help address. That is the first point, really. From then on, we move into exploring the possibilities and that is often an initial stage where consultations, workshops take place, market research is conducted before moving into the strategy per se. And the brand positioning or whatever you want to call it, is the result of that brand strategy. Within that brand strategy, usually there is also a strong component of validation, building concepts, prototyping, and progressively moving into a positioning platform that is sharper and sharper.
R: So, when you’re presenting those strategy ideas before one path has been selected, are you also presenting some initial thoughts about those implications to help the client visualize what this direction would look like?
E: Yes, certainly. Very important. Really, the positioning platform that we would work on would try to be very single-minded in terms of what is that core brand idea. But we’d also outline a series of proof points that touch on the many facets of the experience about that brand. But we also like to go a step further. Yes, helping the client, as you just said, visualize, and in particular visualize what this brand could be—this is the “so what?”—across what are the key expressions of that brand. Again, it could be the evolution of a vision and verbal identity. It could be the brand environment. It could be even implications on the culture of the organization.
At that stage you may not crack it completely—you’re not offering the full solution. But you’re helping the client imagine, see the possibilities of what the brand could be once it is fully implemented.
R: You mentioned the full solution and you’ve used the phrase “positioning platform,” I think a couple of times. Can you share a little about what’s included in a brand positioning platform, if that’s what you call it?
E: Yes, it is a platform because it’s made of different elements, but all those elements are then converging into a core, single-minded idea. We start with, first of all, importantly, a clear articulation of the business objectives or the business problems that the brand positioning can help address. Then we start moving into the who, who this brand is aiming for. There are different ways to articulate the who. Depending on whether what the brand strategy is more of a long-term, broad, brand-building exercise rather than something that is after more immediate short-term results. Because if it is more brand-building, we look for a unifying insight, a conceptual target that can bring all these different audiences together. If it is more short-term, more immediate results, we go sharper on the segmentation and prioritizing some segments over others.
Then from then on, we articulate the shift. What is the shift for this brand? From–to. What are potentially the barriers that this brand needs to overcome and change to be able to become something stronger and better? And then we get to the core of the strategy, a brand essence, a brand promise that is really more a crystallization of the core idea of the brand, which often is defined in terms of a world view, a set of beliefs, and the type of benefit that that brand can provide for those that endorse it, engage with it.
From then on, we go more granular: the pillars, the proof points. Often the proof points are articulated around different factors from a product, from the pricing, distribution, internal culture. And they’re often structured over time: those that we can activate right now, those that are in the pipeline that we need to prepare for, and then importantly also, “What if?”—blue-sky ideas about proof points in the future. Then we often complete this with a point of view on the personality of the brand (or the brand personality) and the cultural traits that this brand wants to own.
R: Great. How much do you distill that down? I know a lot of times we’ll see an attempt at least to kind of do a brand on a page where you have all of this information, or at least a summarized version of the strategy, on a single slide or a single page. Is that something that you do or is it too long for that?
E: No, we do. Ultimately, everything is to come to life into a single page. That is really the platform in its more concise expression, whether behind that one-page platform, there are lots of thoughts, lots of considerations.
R: You mentioned that the core of the brand there’s, you said, essence and promise. I just wanted to understand, are those different things or just different ways of saying the same thing?
E: Look, the essence, if you want, is the very sharp articulation of the brand. Usually, that essence is centered around two or three words that really define the core idea at the heart of the brand. What I describe more as a statement, as a promise, instead is elaborating on that a little bit further.
R: Okay. How is differentiation included in this process or this model to ensure that the idea you’re building the brand around is unique, if you think that’s important.
E: It’s absolutely important. Differentiation is key. So, another component of the brand strategy—whether we include it in the brand positioning per se, platform or not, but certainly it’s a core component of it—is identifying, “What are the conventions of the category that we want to break?” Very importantly, I would say that in any strategy you need to have almost an enemy that you need to fight against. Whether that enemy is a specific number or type of competitors. Whether the enemies, as I said, are more category conventions, habits—that is critical to define. That fundamentally gives you a big insight around which to build a differentiating type of brand platform.
R: You mentioned earlier that you typically have a brand essence that’s just a couple of words to really succinctly define a brand and then a longer statement. Since so much of what we deliver as strategists is written content, do you have any rules of thumb around how to write a good brand essence, for example? Is there any format that you believe in or any kind of guiding principle that you give to your strategy team?
E: I would say that it comes down to being very single-minded. It comes down to being very sharp, very accurate in terms of conveying an idea. This is all the more important because nowadays, brands operate in a high degree of complexity—the system they operate in is very complex. And that’s why I mentioned to you, Rob, before, the need to articulate proof points of different types.
Now, to get practical, I usually invite my people, my team, to work with probably one, a couple of words, three words. Beyond that, potentially, you’re starting to…diluting that single-mindedness. Sometimes those words can be quite abstract words. Sometimes those words can be more propositional because it could be read more as an invitation to your audience to engage with that brand and what that brand stands for.
R: I don’t want to put you on the spot and I know you probably can’t share real client work, but do you have any examples of what you think are strong brand essences?
E: Look, I can mention some of the brand essences that we have recently developed. For instance, for a university that we worked on, that is a Catholic university. They came to us because they wanted to broaden the meaning and the appeal of the university beyond more of a Catholic-type of space. We worked with them and ultimately, we engaged them; workshops, market research, segmentation. Ultimately, we landed on what I believe is pretty strong brand essence. That is, “Impact through empathy.”
An essence like that, why, in my mind is a strong essence? It’s an essence that is pretty clear, pretty sharp, they’re talking about a university, a Catholic university, that wants to have impact in the world. The means, the key to have that impact is to engage from an empathetic point of view. Empathetic from an emotional, from a cognitive, from an intellectual point of view. Why would I describe it as a powerful essence is because it’s certainly single-minded, it certainly projects a fundamental core idea, an idea of empathy.
The other thing that you see there is that while it is single-minded, it’s also an idea that is pretty powerful in terms of connotation, in terms of implication. Almost, you can interpret and look into that idea of empathy from so many different angles, all of them valid, but all of them are the starting point for some measure of consequences in terms of storytelling. Not only that, you may describe it as a powerful idea because if you buy into a more empathetic engagement with the world, the implications are not just on communication, but you could start thinking about how the campus life may need to change, how the curricula could be structured in a different way. What you see in that case of a strong brand essence is the implication, the consequences of it. You can start imagining how powerful, how far reaching they can be.
R: Do you have any sort of go-to prototypes or a list of things that you might use as prototypes that you think really help your clients envision what a strategy could look like?
E: We don’t necessarily have a particular methodology applied to that. We like to work with the brand concepts to articulate. So, think of them as mood boards. Think of them as references to other brands. Think of them also as starting to flesh out, sometimes, how the user experience for certain manifestations of the brand could look like. And in that case, often we partner with specialist agencies that may go deep on that end. But otherwise, more often than not, it’s articulating—even with words—what, potentially, a particular implication could actually be.
R: You’ve had a relatively long career in brand strategy. I’m wondering if you feel like there’s anything significant changing in the way that it’s done or just the context within which you’re doing brand strategy. Do you see big trends or changes on the horizon?
E: Certainly, there are a few trends. I can say probably some of them are more positive than others. Let’s start on the negative side. I see sometimes a larger number of brands operating without a clear brand positioning. This also happens with large brands when there is certainly a lot at stake. It’s hard to even explain why that is happening. I think that it may be happening because there is more a belief that what constitutes a brand is ultimately experiences more than having a predefined strategy driving all of this. In that case, there may be more of a shift of emphasis on experiences. But what is the strategy? It feels like the strategy is created organically from the bottom up. By saying this, Rob, I’m not saying that experiences are not important. Absolutely, they are. But I certainly continue to see experiences as a manifestation of an overarching idea.
The other reason probably why a few brands don’t have really a clear brand strategy behind could be because everything is all happening very fast nowadays. It’s hard often to commit to a particular idea of the future, a particular idea of strategy, so there may be almost a temptation to go with the flow. “Let’s see what happens and let’s try to constantly adopt to the context.”
I’m seeing a little bit of that, which for me, is a worrying trend. On the other hand though, there are some very positive trends happening. In particular, what I see more and more is that the very role of brand strategy and brand positioning being elevated further as the guiding principle of an organization. You may often not call it anymore brand positioning, but ultimately that is what it is and becomes more guiding, not just sales, but the organization—the sense of identity, the place in the world that that organization want to play. Which ultimately means, more and more, brand strategy is about giving an organization a cultural position, a world view. You may call it a purpose, even though that is a bit of a controversial word that is sometimes abused, but certainly is signifying that we are elevating the role of brand strategy, which obviously, at the end, makes our job all the more interesting with all the responsibility that now goes with it—probably more than it was in the past.
R: Talk about how the word purpose is abused. I’m just curious what your thoughts are on it.
E: I mean everybody is talking about purpose. By the way, we’ve been talking about purpose for many years, but there is no doubt that it has become especially topical over the last few years. From my point of view, the heart of that debate at there is something fundamentally right, as I just said. An organization needs a purpose and that purpose needs to convey a position in the world, a set of beliefs, a reason why an organization exists and can engage all sort of audiences. But at the same time, often there is a bit of a big risk there that is a bit of a bullshit risk at the end. The fact that often brand purpose is nothing more than an employee value proposition on steroids, that may not really drive much business results, but is more aimed at employees and feeling good about working in an organization.
The other bigger risk is that as much as organizations and brands need to play a bigger role in society—I certainly believe that—often, brand purposes are pursued or articulated in a way that may sound a little bit delusional, as if a brand, an organization, can solve all sorts of problems. The reality is that, it’s not true. That is not going to be the case. So, they can end up quite being delusional and not last the distance.
R: Are there any brands out there that you think are doing a great job, that are doing almost everything right, right now?
E: Oh, there are certainly plenty of brands doing that, and I often find that the most interesting brands and the brand strategy behind comes not necessarily from the very big brands, household names around the world. They’re often the medium-sized companies, small enterprises, that are doing the best job. In fact, often the question then becomes whether they can scale up and stay fundamentally true while enriching what the original brand strategy is. If your question is more about household names that we all know, I think that there are a few of them that I certainly admire. The brands MUJI, IKEA, Patagonia, Nike, Airbnb—these are all brands that I think have been pretty good at defining a core idea, been very consistent in following a particular brand idea, but also being able to scale up and continue renewing themselves. I really, really admire those brands that have been able to follow a journey like that.
R: How about any that aren’t household names that you want to introduce us to? Something maybe that’s smaller or local to you?
E: Smaller or local to me, yes. If I look at Australia, all people living in Australia, like myself, they would say that they are proud of a brand called Aesop.
R: How’s that spelled?
R: Oh, okay. Yes, I am familiar with that.
E: Yeah, it’s like the Greek…
R: Right, right.
E: Probably by now, it would have been a household name also for many of your listeners. Essentially, it’s a brand that was created here in Melbourne, perhaps around 20 years ago. Beauty care. It’s a brand that from the beginning has adopted a brand strategy—really more of a culture—about perfectionism, almost an obsessive attention to detail. They’ve conveyed it without really aiming at the usual advertising/marketing approach that is common in the beauty care system. But adopting almost a more pharmaceutical approach to what a brand could be about. It’s really the ingredients, it’s really the craftmanship that goes with it.
And then they started expanding, and their expansion has been driven by a strong degree of localization. The most important expression of the brand is the product range per se, it’s the packaging that is very iconic, it is in particular the points of sale. All of them different and all of them, to a large or lesser extent, capturing the particular culture of the place where those shops are situated. It’s a beautiful brand that so far has been able to expand from Australia around the world, retaining a high degree of integrity.
R: Great. I know you have junior team members at PUSH. I know you’ve been somewhat of a mentor to junior employees throughout your, or at least recently in your career, I’m curious if you have any advice that you feel like you give consistently to younger people that are interested in becoming successful brand consultants.
E: Rob, I think that here I may need to echo some of the other people that you have interviewed on your podcast, and it’s a lot about inviting them to go out there, to experiment, to try new things. For me, when I say “try new things, to learn a lot,” it’s in particular trying to have a particular attention to mixed high-brow and low-brow things and experiences—not that probably that difference makes any sense nowadays—but it’s very important to mix experience, readings.
But at the same time, my recommendation is also this: If you as a young practitioner have the chance to identify an agency, an environment, a workplace that can be a good school for you where you can receive good mentorship, be guided especially in the early years of your career, stick to it. Go there, and try to learn as much as you can, like a sponge. This is very important.
I’m saying this because one of the other trends that I’ve seen over the last years is that young people, and fair enough, they are right, they want soon to go out and set up their own agency, their own practice, and conquer the world. All this entrepreneurial spirit is absolutely very valuable and to appreciate. What happens is that I find people that have enormous potential, that have almost gone solo a little bit too early, and after a few years they’ve realized that they’ve not really defined a particular approach, a particular methodology. They don’t have a particular point of view that has been nurtured and tested to give them confidence to go to the next level.
My recommendation is this: Yes, try new things, set up your company, do all this different stuff, but also be able to acknowledge the importance of joining an environment and a team of people that can be a little bit like a school in your early stages of your career.
R: Great. Well, I know I’ve learned a lot from you and I’m sure your employees are now doing the same, so thank you for that. And thank you for joining me today on the podcast.
E: Thanks, Rob. Thanks a lot.