Jeremy Miller helps you unlock your team’s creative genius
One thing that makes Jeremy different from most strategists I’ve talked to is the way he got into this business: He was working for his family’s company, a Toronto-based recruiting firm, when the business started to fail. He diagnosed the problem, recognized the need for a rebrand, and—long story short—he helped turn the company around, and it sold in 2013. In 2015, he published Sticky Branding, in which he shares what he learned from that experience as well as his decade-long study of other companies and how they grow recognizable, memorable brands.
Now Jeremy’s got a new book, and it’s about a topic near and dear to my heart: naming. When I first reached out to Jeremy, I didn’t even know about the new book (or I might’ve had him on season one, which focused on naming).
Jeremy and I covered a lot of ground in our conversation: We talked about brand strategy, brand experience, Sticky Branding, and the new book, Brand New Name.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB: Jeremy Miller, thank you so much for joining me.
JEREMY: Rob, it’s a pleasure. I’m glad to be here.
R: I want to start out with a question that’s going to sound like I’m putting you on the spot, but I’ll explain in a minute. With respect to your business, Sticky Branding, how would you describe who you are, what you do, and who you serve in ten words or less.
J: Sticky Branding helps companies build their brands through tools, programs, services, and books.
R: Great. I didn’t count but that sounded like ten or less. Of course, the reason I asked it and the reason I asked it that way is because that’s the first principle in your book, Sticky Branding. It’s called “Simple Clarity,” and it recommends that companies be able to describe themselves in about ten words. Can you talk a little bit about why you think that’s important and how it’s different from other concepts that we’ve heard in the world of branding and brand positioning?
J: If you think of Simple Clarity, it is like a label on a file folder in your customer’s mind. It is just a simple way for someone to retrieve what you are, who you are, and you think of how you shop. Say you are going to the grocery store and you want to buy dish detergent. You are not going to walk all of the aisles. You’re going to walk to the dish detergent aisle and then you’re going to choose which product that you normally buy. The same thing happens when you buy for an accounting service, or marketing service, or anyone else.
A large part of where this comes from is Google. Google has really shaped the way we look for things anymore. We used to come out as marketers with the unique selling proposition. How do we catch someone’s memorable and then repeat it over and over again through advertising? With Google, we now were conditioned to look for things by category. I believe Simple Clarity is the way you categorize yourself or your brand, so that somebody can recall that or refer that really, really quickly.
It’s surprisingly difficult. I struggle with it constantly with Sticky Branding. But it is to me the foundation of your brand because once you have that kind of messaging, now you can get your website aligned, you can get your campaigns aligned, you can get your sales people aligned. It just sets a strong platform to market from.
R: How critical is differentiation and that ten-word phrase? We hear so much about you have to have, like you said, a unique selling proposition or a different take on what you do. Is that critical? Or when you talk about some clarities, it really just, “Let’s not focus on differentiation. Let’s just say what we do”?
J: Say what we do. I think differentiation comes second. Let’s look at a very popular program right now which is StoryBrand. I think Don Miller has created something that’s absolutely remarkable—make the customer the hero, focus on what makes you different. The problem is, if you don’t say what you are to start, then what are you differentiating? We need that first anchor in order to then explain why.
Sticky Branding, my book, is used in a group of schools as part of the entrepreneurial program. I chatted with a group of students recently, and they said, “Our problem is when we are trying to brand our school. In Ohio, there’s a dozen or more Liberal Arts colleges. What makes us different?” It doesn’t matter. What really matters first and foremost is you own your category and then when someone knows that, then you could explain you’re different. I think there is an order on things.
R: Using your Google analogy, it’s like the Simple Clarity statement is what they use as a search term and maybe the differentiation takes place once they actually arrive at your page and presumably a couple of different pages that might have come up. That’s when they’re kind of comparison shopping.
J: One-hundred percent. Yup, you nailed it.
R: Can you share any other examples of Simple Clarity-type statements, whether they are from big companies we would have heard of, or clients of yours, or even just some hypothetical examples?
J: I’ll give you two. Where the origin of all this actually came from was in my family business. In the early 2000s, I joined my family’s recruiting business. We tried to rebrand the company because of a whole set of changes that are going in our industry. We didn’t know it at that time, but basically, recruiting has been following a very similar trajectory to the travel industry, LinkedIn is to Expedia, so we were forced to reinvent ourselves.
Now, the word “recruiter” came in with so much baggage, negative terms like headhunter and other things that are wrapped up with that. Thinking I could differentiate the firm, I spent all this time trying to rebrand the business. What I discovered was, nothing worked until we actually said what we were, which was a sales recruiter in Toronto. When we did that and put that on Google, the phone started ringing. When we said that at a networking event, people would come up and talk to us. That simple phrase, “sales recruiter Toronto” set the entire organization up for success.
That was where I got started on this. I’ve seen dozens of examples since then. One of my favorites, though, is a company called Cardinal Couriers. They’re a shipping company. Cardinal Couriers would say, “We are a logistics or shipping organization,” and then, what they do is they say, “We specialize in pre-8:00 AM delivery.” Their category is pre-8:00 AM delivery for shipping. That simple statement immediately differentiates Cardinal from FedEx, UPS, DHL, and everyone else on the space.
R: Let’s talk a little bit more about some of the principles in the book. The full title I should say, is Stick Branding: 12.5 Principles to Stand Out, Attract Customers, and Grow an Incredible Brand. We’ve talked about that first principle, which was Simple Clarity, but the whole book is broken out into four parts, three principles each, there’s a half principle at the end. Let’s dig in to a couple of the other principles.
The third one is Function That Resonates. That was one that’s resonating with me. It’s interesting because it goes deeper down what a lot of people think of when they think of brand. It’s not the color palette, it’s not a tagline. Can you talk a little bit about what Function That Resonates means?
J: Sure. I think you build your brand from the inside out. It’s in the quality of your services, it’s how you innovate in your customer engagement. Where a brand gets a road, it is when it’s commoditize, when it’s the same as everyone else. That point, they’re competing on price, relationships, and availability. How do you win when everyone looks the same? The answer is, how do you change your value proposition?
What Function That Resonates argues is that a key way to grow competitive advantage is looking at how you can take your course services and add on additional value-add to create a net new category or subcategory. I’ll give you a very specific example of this. One of the companies in the book is called the Central Group and they are a packager and manufacturer of corrugated and cap displays in aisle type of packaging solutions. They would sell the big companies like Mars, Loreal, and those types of places.
R: They’re making the display that the Mars products go into?
J: Correct. When you go into a grocery store and you see those little in-aisle displays, they would be manufacturing those.
R: Got it.
J: Problem is, manufacturing cardboard and making a pretty box is relatively commoditized. There are hundreds of manufacturers across North America that all do a relatively good job at the same price. It is an established market. What Central did brilliantly is they said, “What most of the competitors are doing is treating the art of in-aisle displays as a black art,” and what they said is, “We can prove which kind of box and which kind of design do actually move sales.”
They created an entire consumer testing lab inside of their office to demonstrate which kinds of designs were going to have the most effect. They could go to a large brand and say, “You’re going to be launching XYZ product.” Let’s say it is Colgate and they’re going to do a new line of toothpaste. “Rather than just guessing because this is a major launch, let’s do a round of consumer testing. Let’s look at what kind of displays, color options, and placement will work best, create the answer and then we will manufacture to whatever spec consumer testing does.”
What they’ve essentially done to create Function That Resonates is, they took consumer testing and manufacturing and merge together under one purchase. That kind of thinking is, “How can we give the customer the answers that they’re looking for?” When you do that, that’s brand building, that’s innovation because now you are solving problems that may not have been recognized but are being drilled down in a way that someone else will value and that creates a gap between you and everyone else.
R: If somebody is listening and here’s that example. It’s a great example that presumably worked really well for that company and they’re thinking, “I love that but I can’t apply exactly the same logic to my own company.” How do you recommend companies or brand leaders go about figuring out or even looking for a Function That Resonates that they could add to their own brand or their own business?
J: What I would recommend is you look at what the customer needs are, what problems are you trying to solve. Clayton Christensen has a book called Competing Against Luck and it’s the story of innovation and customer choice. He talks about the research that McDonald’s did and why were people buying milkshakes first thing in the morning. It turns out they wanted a breakfast that fill boredom. You can suck on that thing for half an hour and have breakfast. Not healthy, but customers didn’t care about that.
R: This is in America, I’m assuming, so less of a care.
J: Yeah. You get your sugary milk product and it’s solving a problem. What Central Group did is they look to their customers and help solve a problem. One of the things that I have found is that what you’re trying to ask is look from the customers perspective what the solution perspective is and then start working backwards. Rather than trying to do what everyone in your category or industry is doing, try to actually solve problems.
I can see this on my own business, for example. Within Sticky Branding, we’re combining leadership development with marketing and business strategies. We’re combining HR consulting and brand consulting under one. The reason for that is in the mid-market, the Achilles heel to brand building is actually sitting within the management team.
When you go from 10 million to 50 million, to 100 million, you’re going from a tribal leadership culture, to a professionally manage culture, to an executive culture. If that team can’t change and evolve, then the brand strategy actually starts to blow apart. We’ve been creating our own Function That Resonates by combining executive coaching and leadership development in part of our programs. The answer is, look at the customer what the needs are versus your competitors.
R: Let’s talk about another principle, it’s called Total Brand Experience. I’m trying to have conversations in this season of the podcast about brand experience, so of course, that principle stuck out to me. The way you’ve written about it, it’s about looking at every customer touchpoint and asking yourself whether there are ways to improve the experience and delight customers.
I’m just curious. When you really dig into the details, if you’re working on a project with a client, is there a way of categorizing or conceptualizing all of those touchpoints just to make sure that you’re not leaving anything off the table or that your clients aren’t missing anything when they’re assessing that customer journey?
J: You named it. It’s the customer journey, it’s journey mapping. What you’re looking at is from the customer’s life cycle, from the purchase behavior to how they become a customer, to how they leave you, is mapping out what are those critical engagement points. You can get overly detailed on this and I think what really matters is what are those key moments where you are creating a memorable experience or where are those key moments where you can influence a memorable experience?
Zappos is a good example. The big resistance point to buying shoes at least 10 years ago when they were launching was how do you try on a bunch of pairs risk free? By offering free shipping both ways for up to a year, solve the key customer challenge, and by making both the purchase and return seamless and effort-free was that touchpoint. That was a high-value connection. So, map the customer journey, look at the key areas where you’re touching them, then ask more specifically what are those moments you can influence to either create a positive experience or to reduce risk?
R: I’m struck by the fact that in the Zappos example and the example you gave from the Central Group, both of those changes that they made in their business costs them money. That’s an investment that they have to make especially for Zappos to cover the cost of that shipping. I just wonder how often you’re put in the place of convincing clients that yes, there will be a down payment on this but it will reward on the tail end in terms of customer loyalty.
J: Isn’t this the business of brand building, that brand building is an investment? This is what David Archer taught us for the last 20 years that these are course skills and assets.
Let’s look at another big example, Apple. Apple is always credited for its designed, but their most important asset or competitive advantage is in their supply chain. When they were launching the iPhone, they bought up all the five inch display screens that were available so that Samsung and no one else could actually have a similar sized phone. Yes, to create competitive advantage is an investment. You are making strategic investments in terms of your assets, or skills, or people so that you can create a better experience for your customers. If you’re not willing to do that, then you’re not in the brand building game.
R: Good point. Once you’ve identified all the touchpoints on that customer journey, is it as simple as sitting back and saying, “Here are the key moments on that journey. How can we improve them or what’s wrong with them?” Or is there more to it? What steps do business owners take to just ensure that they’re creating a great brand experience?
J: I think of the total brand experience or the total customer experience as total quality management. Everything that you create in the planning stage or at the border is a hypothesis. Until you get it out into the world and get data, get customer feedback, and actually see what moves the sales needle, then you’re not really getting anything validated.
When you look at the total customer experience, it is a living strategy. It is constantly evolving, you’re constantly improving, you’re responding to what’s going on in the marketplace. Zappos offering free shipping both ways is probably table stakes now in the e-commerce world; everybody does that. What’s happening is as you innovate, your competitors are copying you and were standing on whatever that is as a convention. You’re constantly every year taking a step back to look at what’s working, what isn’t working, and making shifts and adjustments to further improve your brand.
R: I love that idea of thinking of it as trial and error, and constant tweaking and measuring. Let’s talk about some of the exercises that you have in the Sticky Branding book. I’m excited to pivot and talk a little bit about a new book but just last question on Sticky Branding. After each of those principles, I love how you have some just immediate simple exercises that your readers can do as homework. I’m just curious. Out of all those exercises in the book, is there one of two that you found especially effective or that are just favorites of yours?
J: One of my absolute favorites is on Brand Metaphors. That is Chapter Three, I believe. What you’re looking for in that is how do you create a core metaphor for your organization? This comes from research from Gerald Zaltman on the idea of deep metaphors. There are seven core deep metaphors from control and journey to container and others. These are metaphors that are used to cross all cultures, all races, all areas of the world.
When you think of journey, this is something that we all can relate to. By digging down and discovering what your brand’s deep metaphors are, gives you a very interesting insight and how you can build long-term relationships with your customers. I love the exercise itself because it’s really fun. You get customers tell their origin stories using pictures. It gives you some really compelling insights into how you’re going to tell your story going forward.
R: What’s one example of that for Sticky Branding or for LEAPJob or just anything out there that might help explain how that works?
J: At LEAPJob, we did the research. What we discovered was that a career is like a journey. When people are talking around their career, they’re stuck, they’re moving towards retirement, they’re moving forward and all of these elements, it’s very much a progressionary way to think of your life. What we did through that research is we were able to pull that backwards. If your career is like a journey, we could bake that into the name, the name is called LEAPJob. We had a brand identity based on a frog in motion. He was always in the air, he was always leaping forward. We also used that metaphor to frame how we communicated. We wanted this positive uplifting motion. So, we used the journey metaphor and really baked it into the idea of leap.
The other one that I think is just a classic big company example is Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers’ core metaphor is balance. Remember when Oprah invested in Weight Watchers, she did the Twitter video where she said, “I love bread.” She spent 3 minutes talking about bread. I’m like, “What’s going on?” What she said is, “I love bread and with Weight Watchers, I can eat bread. It just allows me to control how much I have. I eat it in balance. I eat it in proportion.” What the Weight Watchers point system does is allow you to have everything you want in balance. By owning that, they have a category position whereas Jenny Craig would be control, “We don’t think you can make good choices so we’re going to give you the food you should eat.”
R: Great. Let’s talk about your new book. I should say, when I was first reached out to you, I was familiar with Sticky Branding but of course couldn’t have known that you have this new book in the works. It’s funny to be talking to you about naming. Naming is, for listeners, the topic of the whole first season of this podcast. I talked to 9 or 10 professional namers and naming experts. Now, we get to add another naming expert to the list here. Your upcoming book is called Brand New Name: A Proven, Step-by-Step Process to Create an Unforgettable Brand Name. First question is what motivated you to write the book?
J: I think brand naming is a cornerstone topic. Everyone has to name something, every entrepreneur, every marketer, we all have to name something at least once. When you go on to Amazon, there’s only about four books on the topic. It seems to be completely under served topic.
I get on my website over 2,000–3,000 unique visitors every single week coming to me at the topic of brand naming and I didn’t have good answers for them. You can go hire a naming consultant and spend tens of thousands of dollars or you can do it yourself and figure it out. It’s like Sticky Branding’s origin as well. Where was the practical guide that would show someone how to name something and do it really well, with all the process, inspiration, and examples, and give them the tools they need? As a marketer, as a person very passionate about this category, how do we elevate the category of brand naming so that everyone knows that it’s really important and they should do it really well?
R: There is a surprising dearth of books, as you mentioned. I should also say, because of this conversation, I’ll put together a list of what is out there as far as I know in terms of books about brand naming and of course, we’ll add your book to that list. I’ve found about five that seem to be really whole books about brand naming and some of those are more sort of storytelling about big brands and how they got their names. Only a couple are really helpful in terms of how should we actually go about this.
J: Probably three of those are out of print.
R: Yeah, that may be true. I’ve had trouble tracking some of them down. You advocate a different way of going about it, I think. You talk about unlocking the creative genius of your employees in order to come up with a great brand name. Can you talk about that? Why recommend that approach versus some of the other ones you just mentioned, like just trying to do it yourself or hiring one of the naming firms out there?
J: One of the keys to naming, whether you do it yourself or with a firm or with anyone else is a process. Naming is not a black art, you need a structure in terms of how you build your strategy, how you do your ideation, how you do your testing. That’s the most fundamental piece to it.
Where my approach starts to get unique and interesting is I fundamentally believe that in every single organization is immense creative talent. And much of that talent goes untapped. What I have set out to do is rather than crowdsourcing externally and using a stranger to help you name your brand, use the people that are actually working inside your business, the people who are passionate and want to make a difference, that actually know the stories. Give them a process where they can actually co-create and work with you to name the brand, whether it’s the company name, a product name, a service name, whatever it is.
When you get your team involved, not only you’re going to come up with something brilliant, you’re actually going to create a culture shift and get people more connected to what they’re building. So few branding projects ever connect people at any side of the organization into the brand building process. If we can do that once, we actually have the power to really create a powerful moment inside the organization.
R: You mentioned crowdsourcing there, I think you’re disguising between external crowdsourcing services like Squadhelp—there maybe a couple others—versus internal. Would you distinguish also at all between an internal crowdsourcing or even contest, which we’ve heard of naming contests from within organizations versus the process that you’re advocating?
J: I would call what I’m advocating employee co-creation, which is a structured methodology to use your internal employees to name, test, and select the brand name. The principles of these draw a little bit from what Jake Knapp and the Google Ventures team has done with Sprint and design thinking and other areas. Rather than a randomized contest, I think one of the other key insights that has come to my research is that while everyone is creative, most of our creative skills sets have atrophied.
There has been two long-term studies that have demonstrated that; the Flynn Test of IQ and the Torrance Test of Creativity. According to the Flynn test, IQ scores have been going up every single decade for over a century. Basically, each new generation, IQ scores are going up by 10 points. According to the Torrance test, since 1990, creativity scores have been declining. There’s a whole host of reasons for that. From the way we structure our school system to the way we work, our lack of time, our diction to screens, all of that is affecting creativity.
The problem I have with generic crowdsourcing is it assumes that everyone is naturally creative. The problem is they are but they don’t know how to use those creative skills. In employee co-creation, what we’re doing is giving very disciplined structure and guidance on how to actually create names and think through the process so that people can make a meaningful contribution versus randomly showing up and throwing invented words at the wall.
R: I’d take it then that there’s a little bit of training involved, guiding, and some specific exercises designed to tease out that creativity as opposed to the blanket, just come up with name ideas and send them to this email address and we’ll pick the best.
J: One-hundred percent. The way Brand New Name is organized is a three-steps sprint. The first week, what you do is you build your strategy. Analyze your market, look towards naming, try to define what it takes to create an unforgettable name. We also, in that week, just assemble your creative team and that, there’s really two parts. You’re going to have a core team of 3–10 people that are responsible for doing the naming exercises, and you have an opportunity to extend that to everyone else inside of your organization if you are in a larger business.
The core to the creative process is the five-day naming sprint. What the book gives you everyday is a daily exercise with action items, inspiration, and a quota. The key to this is both the exercise and the quota. When you assign people a number, and say, “We need five good names per day for five days with structure.” It sets the behaviors that you’re actually looking for to be more disciplined in the naming process. There’s a few other techniques that we apply in order to increase the quality and additive ideation from group brainstorming.
R: You mentioned phase one, I think you call it plan. Phase two is sprint. What was that third phase?
J: The third phase is select. In the third phase, what we’re doing is short-listing, getting rid of all the non-starters, creating a short list of 3–10 candidates to then test. We put what the book provides as a name scoring tool, which is a weighted matrix to analytically evaluate your names, plus three consumer testing steps that you can do and they’re designed to be quick and dirty in a way that anyone can execute and get some decent information, and some guidance on how you can use that data to make the final selection.
R: Great. I look forward to the book coming out, giving it a good read, and having it to that list. I have a few wrap-up questions. It could be one of the examples you’ve already given or something from one of your books, but what’s the brand you think is doing almost everything right from a brand strategy, brand experience, naming standpoint?
J: There’s a few. One of my favorites right now is Slack. I think Slack is just an incredible name. It’s a quirky name. You think it’s a flawed name in context, but Slack creates space and the team environment is done so well. You look at how well that team has grown the brand. It’s actually Stewart Butterfield, who founded Flickr, is the CEO of Slack and just how far he is grown as a leader. We’re going to see Slack go IPO this year and it’s just immense value, immense product, immense branding, immense naming, check the boxes that’s a great brand.
R: You’ve mentioned a couple of books just in the course of this conversation. I can tell you’re a big reader as well as a writer. Beyond what you’ve already mentioned, any books that you would recommend to people in the world of branding or just marketers who know they need to work on their brand?
J: I think my favorite branding book of all time is the classic which is Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout. It set the category.
R: Yeah. I had that privilege of speaking to Laura Ries, daughter of Al Ries, about that book and about positioning in general and she mentioned that they’re coming out with a new version of that. I’d say that my only issue with that book is it feels pretty dated. Whenever I recommend it, I say, “Give it a read but note that it’s going to feel like it’s a little out of date.” It sounds like they’re correcting for that.
J: It’s still timeless and I think, like anything it will continue to evolve. The other book I would throw out, there’s not a traditional branding book, it’s called Playing to Win by Roger Martin and A.G. Lafley. It is the former CEO of Procter & Gamble and the former Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto is my favorite strategy book. It’s where those questions “Where do you play? How do you win?” come from. I have been drawing more and more from the core strategy field to influence branding than the marketing field.
R: Great. That sounds like a great read. Last question, any advice for junior people or people interested in getting into branding as a career or people that are already in that but just looking to grow?
J: I think the key thing I look at is getting really good at business. For me, successful businesses create successful brands and never the other way around. A lot of times, we spend too much energy looking at logos, taglines, colors, campaigns, and not asking the strategic questions of, “How do we actually serve our customers brilliantly? How do we create a competitive advantage?” I think if marketers spend more time actually looking at business strategy, they would be able to deliver even better creative. So, let’s look at the business so that we can actually do better at what we do.
R: I love that advice. You hear a lot of brand people talking about the merging or the interplay between brand strategy and business strategy, but it’s clear that you’re really walking the walk on that and not just talking the talk. It’s clear in your books and everything you said today. Thank you for that reminder and that advice.
J: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
R: It’s been great talking to you, Jeremy.
J: Thank you.