Ken Pasternak plots impact versus effort
Today’s guest is Ken Pasternak, President of Two by Four, a full service advertising agency based in Chicago. On the episode, however, you’ll hear me introduce Ken as President and COO of Marshall Strategy, a San Francisco-based brand identity and strategy firm he cofounded in 2002. A few months ago, Two by Four acquired Marshall Strategy, so Ken’s role changed a bit. We recorded this conversation a little before that happened.
Ken leads major positioning, identity, naming, and brand architecture work. He’s worked with clients like Apple, Symantec, MTV, Boeing, Sony, and UC Berkeley.
I’ve known Ken since 2007, and through the years we’ve partnered on quite a few naming and brand architecture projects. It was great to get to talk to an old friend and colleague—who also happens to be a brilliant brand strategist—and hear more about how he thinks about brands and brand experience.
We kicked off the conversation talking about Ken’s interesting career path, which started out in Budapest. The common thread in his career has been storytelling, which took him from a degree in English literature to producing corporate videos, and eventually to brand strategy.
Next, Ken detailed his process for creating a great brand experience, including his definitions of brand and brand experience, and a few simple tools he uses with clients (including plotting potential brand experience touchpoints on a two-by-two with axes of impact versus effort). We also talk about what he means in the video below when he says “[articulating] the identity in ways that everyone from management on down can really see themselves in that core idea.”
Toward the end of the conversation, we talked about how Ken feels about Alaska Airlines acquiring Virgin America (hint: not great) and what they’ll do to the brand. Then he recommended some books and gave his advice for new or junior brand strategists.
To learn more about Ken, visit the Two by Four and Marshall Strategy sites. I highly recommend you check out the Marshall Strategy blog, too—it’s full of insightful, useful articles. Most recently, Ken’s partner Philip, who you’ll hear him mention during the episode, published a great article about what’s changed—and what hasn’t—in his over 30 years in the brand identity world.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ROB: Ken Pasternak, thanks so much for joining me.
KEN: It’s good to be here. Thanks, Rob.
R: Your bio on the Marshall Strategy site says you have a diverse background in writing, education, music, film, television, and digital. I also know you have a degree in American Literature from Harvard. I was hoping we could kick off the conversation just hearing a little bit about how you got from American Literature into the world of brand consulting.
K: Thank you for the question, Rob. When I was in college, I probably had no idea that brand consulting was a thing. In fact, I was really a generalist in college. I did academics, but I also did sports. I did music, but I was a creative person. I was interested in fiction and in film-making, and I thought I might have a career as a writer or as a filmmaker. As a matter of fact, out of college I moved to Europe, mostly to reconnect with my Hungarian roots, but I had the good fortune of eventually joining a successful company there that made industrial films for corporations. At the time, there weren’t any Hungarian companies that did that because they just […] under communism.
R: And this was in Budapest?
K: This was in Budapest, Hungary. Yes. So, that was a bit of an extension of my passion. I can call the storytelling passion, really. A couple of years later, I showed up in San Francisco and through a network at Harvard, I got connected to a firm that was called Frankfurt Balkind. Among other things, they were experts in brand strategy.
The San Francisco office where I landed was led by Philip Durbrow. He had run Landor Associates corporate identity practice for many years and was something of a leading thinker in the area of corporate identity.
I found that I really understood his approach, his way of thinking, and I fit right in. As it turned out, the innate talent and the thread that fueled my interest this whole way was storytelling.
R: And now, you and Philip run Marshall together.
K: That’s right. Philip and I sold Frankfurt Balkind and started Marshall Strategy together to focus really on the core strategy behind brands and not to necessarily get sidetracked or distracted in some cases by the creative or the executional opportunities. Those come next.
What really fueled my transition from where I came from to where I am now was this idea of storytelling. It turns out this critical skill in brand consulting. I was lucky enough that Philip became a mentor to me and helped me really understand the discipline, but I was able to apply my academic and personal passions to it. It really was a natural progression for me. Like I said, when I first went to college it was nothing I had ever even imagined of doing.
R: I wanna talk about brand experience a little bit. Do you or Marshall have a definition of that phrase or just a working definition in terms of how you would deliver on something like brand experience to a client?
K: We do. Actually, our definition of brand experience has to start with our definition of brand. As you know, there’s so many different perspectives on that particular word. We define brand as the intersection of promise and perception. If you can make a clear and ownable promise to the world, you’re going to set some expectations and you’re going to create certain perceptions. When you deliver on that promise, the expectations are met and your brands starts to take on meaning. It starts to take on that emotional quality that so many brands, especially high-performing brands, are known for.
Brand experience then becomes all the different ways in which you make that promise real. It’s in the way you talk about it. It’s in your presence across touchpoints, and it’s about the process of successful promise fulfillment when the customer or other stakeholder interacts with you. Again, it evolves from that brand being a mark of quality to brand experience being a way in which a promise can actually live out in the real world.
Obviously, technology and entertainment. The way society operates has offered up so many opportunities for brands to make its promise, either real or virtually felt in ways that haven’t been done before. Now, if those aren’t orchestrated or coordinated, then there is no experience because it’s fragmented and chaotic. But if they are orchestrated and coordinated, that experience can be very deep, it can be very real, it can be very memorable, and it can be completely ownable.
R: So, in terms of making it orchestrated and coordinated, and also just ensuring that you’re doing a good job creating a consistent and powerful experience for a client’s brand, do you have any approach that you consistently take or any rules of thumb? How do you make sure that you’re doing that in a way that’s less haphazard than just picking a few touchpoints and saying, “Well, let’s try to make the experience as ‘good’ as we can or deliver on this promise as effectively as we can on these three touchpoints”?
K: Great question. Brand experience, while it can be very exciting, it can also be overdone. Or it can be done in a way that’s just superficial and doesn’t enable so much to really understand or interact with a brand in a way that you would like them to.
We always start with brand definition. What promise or promises is this brand making? It’s astounding sometimes when you get into an organization and you realize that they’re not really clear on the promise that they’re making. Or they’re making so many promises that there’s no real rhyme or reason to it and it’s very difficult to get a sense of why this organization exists. That’s the first thing.
Do we have a clear definition of what this promise is? Have we articulated or delivered on those promises in the past? And if not, how can we do a better job of that? How does this promise and that discipline compare with others in the industry? And what are the needs and perceptions of key audiences? This is all really fundamental brand platform type of work, but it really informs the effectiveness of a brand experience. If these parts are not clear, it becomes hard to define a meaningful brand experience. It doesn’t stop many from trying, though. That’s step one.
R: I would like to pause on step one for a second. Last season, I was discussing brand platform specifically, but since you brought it up, I’m curious what Marshall’s approach to brand platform is or if you have something that you’re using consistently. There are a lot of different frameworks and models out there, some of which include the same components like brand personality and brand pillars, and others seem to diverge from that quite a bit. Are you guys using something consistently that you can talk about or is it really tailored to the client?
K: The simplest framework we use to develop a brand platform is also one we use the most. It’s just entering three direct questions. Who are you? What do you do? And why you matter? As the third question, why do you matter, is the hardest to answer in an ownable way. Fundamentally, it’s about what would happen if this brand went away? What would the world be missing?
Of course, you have to layer on top of those three questions, competitive differentiation, a sustainable promise that’s not simply a moment-based or trend-based statement, it has to be believable, people have to be motivated to deliver it, it has to be beneficial to customers, but just thinking about it in very simple terms, in terms of who forces you to be simple and straightforward.
Any other framework like a brand pyramid, brand pillars, brand house, we think of those as good starting places, but we think that it’s important to distill further from that because if you could answer the questions I posed earlier in prose, in a sentence or a couple of sentences, that’s when it begins to mean something. That’s when it begins to become that story rather than a framework or a set of principles.
R: So, taking then the answers to those three questions or whatever it is you’ve done to really define the brand. Let’s go back to brand experience. Do you have any way of categorizing potential areas that a brand experience could come to life or any way of checking that you’ve been as exhaustive as you can be or should be in terms of bringing the experience to life?
K: Yeah. If we’ve got an inspired group of people which ideally we’re trying to achieve, we can then begin to think about ideas. When you have a clear promise, you can develop along with some ideas very quickly. You think about audience, you think about touchpoints, you think about product, you think about customer journey and where you’re actually engaging with the customer. You can develop a long list and it’s good to keep a long list because you want to see the universe of possibilities.
Then there’s a particular tool that’s very simple again, but I found very effective in prioritizing the elements as it most effectively help you orchestrate a brand experience. It’s just a 2×2 matrix. On one axis, you have low impact and high impact. On the other axis, you have low effort and high effort.
You begin to map out all those possibilities that you’ve just listed into that matrix. You’re going to have low effort-high impact possibilities. You’re going to have high effort-high impact possibilities. You’re going to have low effort-low impact and high effort-low impact. If you think about it, the high effort-low impact category are things that come off the list really quickly because they’re time- and resource-intensive and they don’t really make much of a difference. So, your able to begin to focus in.
R: And effort in this case includes the cost, I assume, too?
K: Effort includes cost, yes. It includes resource allocation. It includes, in some cases, credibility. How hard are we going to have to push our customer or the world to believe that we can do this? Effort does take a bit of a definition within whatever category you’re working and that also helps create some discipline around planning and identifying those best opportunities.
R: And then the other three quadrants, I’m curious. Do those quadrants just become a way of prioritizing the other things on the list? Do you always recommend high impact-low effort first because it’s the easiest way out of the gate?
K: Not necessarily. Usually in the high impact-high effort category, there are several opportunities that, if you’re willing to invest, you can really establish ownership very quickly. It becomes a bit of a judicious process where you discuss relative risk, competitive environment, available investment and things like that. Once you know your customer, you’re able to help them facilitate decisions that help them balance that out.
In all reality, you’re mostly going to have a combination of low effort-high impact, high effort and impact, and maybe even some low effort-low impact that are easy to do and simply reach people in a very simple way. I would say, most social media outreach programs are low effort-low impact and you can’t ignore them. You got to be there, but you don’t want to do it all in that quadrant.
R: Sort of table stakes.
R: I don’t want to put you on the spot too much here, but I’m just wondering as you’re talking through this. Do you have any examples of things you’ve helped clients come up with on this 2×2 or a list of things to do to help create a brand experience?
K: Sure. We did this recently with a real estate client of ours who is pretty big in the Bay Area and has a pretty widespread presence, but it wasn’t very visible because they weren’t using the same brand everywhere; they were using different brands. They made the decision with our assistants to consolidate everything behind one brand and one promise.
The question became, what are our available ways in which you can make this promise real? It had something to do with the promise itself, which is really about creating a vibrant living experience in San Francisco. So, how could they demonstrate that vibrancy?
It just so happened they didn’t just own apartments. They own shops, restaurants, and bars. So, a very low effort-high impact way for them to start to make this promise was to show up in those areas where people gather. Not just show up with a window cling, but to show up in a real, physical, or even live way to have sponsor performances or bring their own people together to demonstrate a new community-based effort that they were making.
When it came to higher effort-higher impact offerings, it had to do with investing in new technology for their websites so that they could deliver a more real-to-life experience. For example, when someone’s looking for an apartment, how can you make that tour of the apartment before they actually see it as real as possible?
There are a number of different ways and there are also some high efforts which involves using their own people to go to each of these apartments and hold town hall style meetings with tenants. That’s high effort because you’re using your own internal resources and you got hundreds of properties, so it does take time, but the impact is immediate because it’s people-to-people. So, it became important to them.
R: Great. I want to play a little bit of audio from a video I found, I think through your website, of you talking about creating brand identities for large, complex organizations. I’ll play some of the audio and then ask you a couple of questions about it.
“Marshall Strategy’s approach to identity for large, complex organizations is to first identify the connective tissue that unites the different initiatives and the aspirations of the organization, because that’s where the power of identity really lies. Once we’ve done that, we articulate the identity in ways that everyone from management on down can really see themselves in that core idea. When we look at identity strategy, especially for large, complex organizations, a real sign of success is when you see people acting in ways that bring the identity to life.”
In the video you said, “Articulate the identity in ways that everyone from management on down can really see themselves in that core idea.” Can you just expand on that thought? What would be the articulation look like or sound like?
K: This isn’t my answer, but when you get it right, you know it. I know that brand agencies hate clients saying, “I’ll know when I see it.” What I mean by that is, when you start to hear people saying it back to you or repeating your story using your words, or using your ideas, or discussing it and why does it make perfect sense to them, you’ve hit the jackpot.
I’ll use a couple of my clients to describe it and I’ll use another example that does it or did it so well that they really blew everybody else out of the water. We did a project for UC Berkeley a number of years ago. UC Berkeley is a top public research university. They excel on many fronts, but they’re also buffeted by economic realities and challenges from being a public university, such that people were worried about their future. What we were trying to help them do is create a reason to believe that they will continue to excel into the future.
It became very apparent very early that we can’t rely on facts and figures, status and rankings to do that because every great university has facts and figures, and status and rankings. At UC Berkeley, we identified their culture as the primary reason to believe in the future of UC Berkeley because it’s an unusual and absolutely unique culture. We distilled that culture down to two words, which was challenging convention.
The story basically was, UC Berkeley reimagines the world by challenging convention to shape the future. We will not live by the status quo. We will always be pushing the envelope, whether it’s free speech, or astrophysics, or economic measurements, they will be doing that.
When we went to the trustees with the story, the head of the Board of Trustees said, “This is like looking at a mirror. I believe that this is who we are and this is who we’ve always been, and I’m so glad that we get to tell the story.” That’s when we knew we had it right.
I want to use another example that I think is just terrific and is not my client, but I always look to as someone who’s got it right and helped other people understand it. That was Virgin America. I’ve experienced it many times. I’m sure many of your listeners have experienced it so many times before they were acquired by Alaska, but everything that they did was intended to do something very simple, which was make flying good again and to make you feel good about flying as a passenger.
Everybody it seems within the organization got that and knew what the right thing was to do to make that happen. For example, when I first flew Virgin America, I noticed in the security line that they were playing lounge music. I thought to myself, “Have I ever actually heard music in the security line at all? No, I never had,” and it instantly made me feel more relaxed. The tension of that particular waiting in line experience when I was like being in Disneyland.
Then there were the airplane interiors. The innovative entertainment and food service portal that they had. The attendants, their dress, their attitudes, their friendliness, even the safety video. What type, the perfect cartoon, have a musical number myself.
R: I don’t think I’ve seen the cartoon. I know the musical number very well.
K: The cartoon was great. Have to look it up on YouTube; it was terrific. It was all service delivery, but it’s all customer experience, and […] for the website, the app, the advertising, it goes on. It was all designed to deliver a unique promise that began with Sir Richard Branson and his ideas around the world, throughout the world, and the fact that Virgin America could make flying good again and make people feel good about flying.
It was such a clear promise that the experience delivered it seemed effortless. I’m sure it was years and years of work and investment, but I would say that was a great example of showing how everyone, from management on down, can see themselves an idea, they want to be a part of that idea, and they can figure out how to make it real every single point of the customer journey.
R: The Virgin example is great and that it, at least as far as I can think of and from what you just said, there wasn’t necessarily anything that they added to the experience, the chain of events that we’ve all been through a million times of booking a flight, standing in line, getting on the plane. They just thought about each and every point along that journey really, really carefully and came up with ideas on how to improve a lot of them, if not all of them.
Having done this a few times with clients, we put pressure on ourselves sometimes to come up with something new or disruptive or innovative, when, as far as I can think of with Virgin, they really just didn’t have to do that in order to create a really unique experience.
K: No, it was really one of the different points of tension along the way and how can we loosen that tension by putting a little swing in it. That’s what they did and they did it with conviction, they did it with commitment, they did it with a little bit of snark, and for them, that was the right thing. It turned out to be, in my opinion and in many traveler’s opinions, probably the best thing any airline had done outside the Southwest Airlines in terms of making a complete experience.
R: I just flew on an Alaska flight a couple of days ago and it was a Virgin plane that they were in the process of rebranding to Alaska. They’ve put a sticker on the outside saying, “Please pardon our dust while we Alaskify.” They created that verb “Alaskify this plane” and I thought, “Is there an audience for this? Are there people that really want the plane to be Alaskified?” I feel like maybe they should just leave it alone, get on the plane, and still have the purple hue.
K: Purple and pink?
R: Yeah, which was nice, but I wished they would just leave it that way.
K: I just flew Alaska yesterday, as a matter of fact, and to me to Alaskify is to suck the soul right back out.
R: Exactly. I seemed to me that they had a real lack of awareness without the equity or associations between the two brands. At the very least, they could have just kept quiet about it, I think.
K: Yeah. I’ve learned a little bit about this because I was so troubled by the acquisition and what it meant for the Virgin brand and experience that went with it. What I’ve learned is that Alaska runs an incredibly profitable airline. They really know how to pull the levers to run the business in a profitable way, but I still maintain that if you’re playing the long game, brand experience is as critical to your survival as is smart business and profitable business.
I think that in the case of Alaska versus Virgin, they’ve over-corrected it in favor of the business process and not in favor of the brand experience. You see that in a lot of airlines, especially those who are still trying to catch up. To me, that just speaks so strongly about why brand experience can be fundamentally important.
Disney is another brand with a terrific brand experience. From the quality of their franchises to the way they deliver a park experience, anyone with kids will probably have a closet full of costumes from Frozen, first of all.
R: How did you know?
K: Did you?
R: Yup. My daughter just did her wish list for her four-year old birthday party and it’s basically all dresses from from all different disney princesses, so it’s an expensive list.
K: They get them early and you marvel at how easy it is to stand 45 minutes in line for a three-minute ride because they make it fun. They delivered quality entertainment every time you go in contact with them. It doesn’t matter if you’re an ESPN fan, or whether you’re a Lucasfilm galaxy inhabitant, or you’re a young princess. It’s a terrific brand experience across the board. Why? Because they understand what their promise is and they’ve invested in making the promise as real as they can, every time they can.
R: Great. I want to do a couple of wrap-up questions with you, Ken. These are questions I’ve asked a lot of guests, my […] having sort of cross-section of people that I’ve asked to some of these questions. You’ve just mentioned a couple of brands that have great brand experiences. Thinking more broadly just about brand in general, are there any other brands that you would point to, whether they’re big brands like Disney and Virgin or ones that you know in your personal life but feel like maybe others are not as familiar with that you just feel like as a brand person, you look at that brand and think, “Wow, they really seem to get everything or 99% of this brand thing right”?
K: On the B2B side, Salesforce has done an amazing job of building a community of fanatical users and supporters. They’ve done that not just by making cloud-based software. In fact, people would argue that their cloud-based software may not be the most modern and exciting cloud-based software out there. But they’ve done it by enabling people to build their businesses on Salesforce. By doing that, the brand experience itself is business success.
Salesforce calls themselves a customer success story and they’ve actually made their customers successful by helping them build their businesses on Salesforce. It’s become such a terrific brand experience because it’s got both economic and emotional benefits, that their community, their ecosystem has just grown by orders of magnitude.
If you’ve ever been to Dreamforce in San Francisco, it takes over the entire city and the spirit, the energy, and the excitement that comes with it. This is just cloud-based sales software, but the excitement around it is a lifestyle thing. I think that’s a tribute to Salesforce’s focus on their promise and identification on what experiences we’re going to make that promise most real for its stakeholders and customers.
R: My experience with Dreamforce is mostly the traffic that it creates in San Francisco, so I know what you mean when you say it takes over. I’m just thinking about my interaction with the brand, which again is mostly just being someone who lives in the Bay Area, but they seem to be really […] locally and the community. I know that their CEO has been somewhat outspoken about some political aspects of things going on in the Bay Area, but also just their physical buildings are so impressive. Is there anything along those lines that you feel that they’ve done, that helps build the brand at least locally?
K: I think that’s a great point that you make, which is that your visibility and your activity in the community or in the communities in which you’re present, do make a big difference. In fact, brand experience could also be which events, community or otherwise, you choose to sponsor and be present at, or which causes are you willing to support?
People of certain political persuasions are not too proud Chick-fil-A’s […] and people of another political persuasion are very proud of Chick-fil-A because they have decided that their brand is about a particular social program that they support or don’t support. In the case of Salesforce, yes, they’ve taken a real strong stand, they support the community.
Another brand that could probably benefit from its community involvement and actually has been very strong in the community for many years is Wells Fargo. Here in the Bay Area, Wells Fargo is a prominent sponsor for many community-oriented arts and education programs. And I’ve taken notice; it’s important for me to do that. I think it is an important dimension to brand experience that shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, it can make a big difference as long as it’s sincere and authentic.
R: I was just going to say on the Wells Fargo, I think the unfortunate thing is that even if it is sincere, because of some of the other stories they’ve had on the news lately, it can feel like they’re doing it defensively or something like that and it’s easy to get cynical about things like this from big brands. That’s probably a whole separate conversation, the right way and the wrong way to go about that.
K: I think you’re right. Sincerity and credibility are important and that’s one of the key criteria for any brand experience is not only are we fulfilling our promise but are we fulfilling our promise credibly? Are we living up to what we’re saying we believe in? And does this execution, or this service decision, or this investment that we’re making back it up?
R: Great. We digress a little bit there, but back to my wrap-up questions. So, two more. Any book recommendations? Anything even tangentially related to branding or how you think about branding that you want to recommend?
K: It’s funny and it’s a little bit embarrassing. I’ve been in this business for a long time as a practitioner, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read any books on the subject. A general answer to book recommendations would be anything by Trout and Ries, and they come out in many, many different editions. They always got an authenticity to them and a simplicity to them. They’re good reads and they use real world examples. It’s always good to think about just what’s the principles behind any brand experience.
A more specific example that I read, again just recently, is called Groundswell by Charlene Li.
R: I don’t know that one.
K: It’s about the rise of social media, its influence on society, and how people interact with it. It speaks to one of the more challenging touchpoints that shape the branding experience these days. The social landscape is the fastest moving, it’s the hardest to corral, and therefore it’s the most dependent on simplicity and clarity at the core, followed by sound brand experience strategy because if you can’t control the ground-level social channel, it really becomes a problem for you. If your brand story is clear, if your promise is clear, your brand experience is much more thoughtful and thought through, the social experience actually reinforces it. Even when you fall down. So, Groundswell is a great way of looking at that from multiple angles.
R: Great. I keep a running list of these book recommendations from interview guests, so that one will be added to the list soon. Thank you.
R: And then last question. Any advice for people looking to get into brand consulting if they’re not already in it or just people trying to progress or grow in their career?
K: One thing that I experienced that I think was really helpful, and I didn’t do this actively, but it turned out to be good for me was I ended up at a smaller firm. When you’re at a smaller firm, you may not work on the big brands quite as often, but your exposure to the real work and the senior executives within […] organizations will be that much greater. I think it took me into areas where I was looking at and helping solve big questions very early in my career and helped me gain a maturity, a point of view, and a perspective that I might not have gotten had I started at an entry-level position with a large, large organization.
R: That’s great advice.
K: A second thing that I would say is consider starting in a research role because in research, you can become an authority on information that your client didn’t know before, which is hugely valuable for them. It doesn’t matter whether you have years of experience behind you or not. You have the information.
The third one, I would say, is that if you can find a mentor, whether it’s through a university network, a business or personal connection, LinkedIn, even someone you can shadow for a while, even without pay, it can be extremely valuable at any stage in your career, but particularly when you’re getting started out.
R: Great. Ken, I should mention that you’ve been somewhat of a mentor to me in my career, so I appreciate that and I appreciate the advice as well and can vouch for it. Thank you so much for the conversation and for all of your insights.
K: Thank you, Rob, I appreciate you saying that. I’m really glad to be included and I hope that this is helpful.
R: Very much so. Thanks, Ken.
K: Thank you, Rob.