Marty Neumeier wrote a business thriller
Within the branding community, Marty Neumeier needs no introduction. But just for good measure, here’s a quick rundown:
- Director of Transformation for the Liquid Agency
- Author of The Brand Gap, hailed as one of the best 100 Business Books of All Time
- Also wrote Zag: The Number One Strategy of High-Performance Brands, and Brand A-Z
Marty and I kicked things off talking about his latest book Scramble: A Business Thriller, which launches today on Amazon. What makes Scramble different from Marty’s previous books is that it’s a fictional story. It tells the tale of a CEO and leadership team in peril, with five weeks to turn things around. The story becomes a vehicle for the two core themes of the book:
- Agile strategy; and
- Design thinking.
Marty and I talked about what inspired him to try out a different format and how the book explores the branding process in a realistic and deeper way than most traditional business books.
So, what is agile strategy? Marty uses five strategy Qs (questions) and five design-thinking Ps (principles) to break it down:
The five Qs of strategy
- What is our purpose?
- Who do we serve?
- Where should we compete?
- How will we win?
- How will we grow?
The five Ps of design thinking
The design thinking principles can be used to help answer some of the strategy questions in a way that forces you to go beyond conventional thinking.
I asked Marty about positioning and brand strategy frameworks, and he brought up a model he introduced in his previous book, The Brand Flip: the Brand Commitment Matrix. The Matrix features six boxes, each to be filled with the answer to one of six corresponding questions.
To learn more about Marty and his work visit his website, www.martyneumeier.com. I suggest signing up for his newsletter while you’re there.
Scramble is now available on Amazon as a paperback, audiobook, or ebook. Or, if you’re interested in a beautiful version with an embossed cover and French folds, visit 800ceoread.com. Even better, if you order two or more copies, you’ll receive a 40% discount!
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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Today’s episode is sponsored by Squadhelp. To begin a business name contest with hundreds of business naming experts, check out their services to get a fresh perspective on your company.
ROB: Marty Neumeier, thanks so much for joining me.
MARTY: My pleasure.
R: I posted a question on social media the other day: “What’s your favorite book about branding?” and, of course, whenever anybody asks that, people are going to mention some of your best-selling books, Brand Gap and Zag, but you just wrote a new book called Scramble and you decided to do something a bit different and write a business thriller. My first question is, “Just what is a business thriller and what inspired you to write that format this time around?”
M: The Brand Gap and Zag are written and presented in a format that I’m calling “whiteboard overview.” It’s super simplified, compressed information framed in a really memorable way with illustrations. It’s very lively. It’s about probably a third of the length of a normal business book in terms of words.
R: Thank you for that.
M: You’re welcome. It’s been successful. [People] Keep coming back to it and find deeper and deeper meanings. You can use those illustrations and charts. We’ll probably use that format again in the future but, with this subject, agile strategy, it’s a lot about collaboration and how you get disparate people with different skill sets to work together. Just giving people a list of things to do or things to remember doesn’t really capture the full excitement–let’s say, to use the most positive term—of working together under deadline pressure. I wanted to capture that with this book and, to me, it became really obvious that I had to write it in the form of a story so I could deal with realistic characters and talk about the emotions, the nuance, the difficulty of collaboration and so forth so that’s why I did it.
R: For those who aren’t familiar with the book, it’s a fictional account of a leadership team at I guess what you’d called a hospitality company called Big Sky, and I won’t go deep into the plot but they end up using agile strategy, as you said, and that is really the core of the book. What is agile strategy?
M: Agile strategy is a faster way of working through collaboration and using design thinking as part of the process. Instead of working in the traditional manner, which would be I would describe as linear where decisions flow down from the top. The board director says, “We’ve got to do X. We have to come out with a new product. We have to increase revenues,” whatever it is, and gives the order to do something, and the orders roll downhill. Every time it reaches a different level, a lower level or a different level, the door is closed; that decision is sealed.
R: It’s sort of a stage-gate approach to strategy.
M: It’s a stage-gate, exactly. If someone down the line says, “Hey, I have a better idea. Why are we making another SUV? I have a better idea,” it’s too late. It’s not going to happen. It’s much better to get everybody working at the same time in the beginning and probably throughout the process and sharing ideas on the way. That becomes pretty chaotic, nerve-racking but the results are terrific and it speeds up the process–I don’t know–5 or 10 times. It’s just amazing.
R: You’ve broken agile strategy down into the Five Qs and the Five Ps. The Qs are questions of strategy: “What’s our purpose? Who do we serve? Where should we compete?” and then the Five Ps of design-thinking, which we can get to in a minute. I’m curious. You also included exercise for each of those Five Qs in the book. Are these exercises in the book the only ways to answer those questions? Are they the best ways to answer those questions?
M: The short answer is no. They’re not the only way. I’m always experimenting, but the ones that I’m presenting are–I would say that they prove to be durable and possibly even evergreen so I presented the ones that are foolproof, the ones that I always go to, my go-to exercises, but I’m always learning about new ways of doing things. When I work with different groups hey bring ideas in and sometimes I’m skeptical and I’m proven wrong. The people I work with the most, my company, Liquid Agency, they like to do an exercise in personality types for brands, and there’s 12 types. I thought, “That’s fluffy thinking,” but, boy, does it work in a group situation. People love it.
R: Jungian archetypes?
M: Yeah, I know a lot of people use those and I’ve always been skeptical but I’m a total believer in the situation of a workshop where you’ve got a lot of people there nervous about it, feeling like fish out of water and suddenly given something like that. Then, they latch onto it and they can identify the traits of their company and then we’ve got something to refer back to.
R: You mentioned Liquid. Is agile strategy now—whether you can speak for yourself or for Liquid as a whole—but is agile strategy your default approach to new projects or does it only work in certain situations or certain types of clients?
M: We use variations of it depending on the client, the situation, the mission that we’re on and so we might use part of it or all of it or some variation that works better or, depending on who’s leading the workshop, they may say, “Well, I want to do a slightly different way,” but the elements are swirling around in all those workshops. I’ve just tried to make it really simple. If you need a formula, this would be my formula. It’s the one I like to use when I’m doing what I call The Full Marty, really going into the whole thing and doing a big number on the company, but sometimes it can be a lot quicker than that. You don’t need all of these questions and you don’t need all of the principles of design-thinking so you have to be flexible, but I’m trying to present a standardized way of doing it that anybody can see value in.
R: In the book, are you saying it’s an idealized version? How much did you try to make it realistic versus trying to demonstrate or depict a perfect example of how it could work?
M: In the book, it isn’t perfect. People are bumping into each other. Emotions are flaring. You can see how difficult it is when you’re trying to work with people in a group and they’re coming from a different point of view and a different experience space. That’s what the book is about. It’s showing, “This is what we’re trying to do.” However, it’s not easy and you’re going to have to be flexible and human and empathetic and all these other things, which most business books don’t go into, do they? They just say, “Here’s how you do it,” and then you’re left to find out that, “Hey, it’s harder than it seems.”
R: Yeah, I really enjoyed how it allows you to give the blueprint or the schematics of a process but then it also gets into the emotional context of delivering on that process, which is so much of what brand consulting and I imagine any kind of consulting is. It’s dealing with egos, dealing with personalities in the room and, you’re right, I’ve never read anything that really helps you understand how to deal with that in real time. This book, by telling it in story form, gets into that.
M: Yeah, that’s the beauty of it. I really enjoyed how that worked out.
R: One of the aspects of agile strategy we mentioned a minute ago is design-thinking which you break down, again, into those Five Ps: problemizing, pinballing, probing, prototyping, and proofing. What’s your definition of design-thinking and if you could explain how it relates to agile strategy?
M: I think the simplest way to define design-thinking is to think of it in comparison to traditional decision-making. In a traditional business setting, decision-making is a two-step process. You know something and you go directly from knowing something or thinking you know something to doing something. You know something because you’ve had it at Harvard, you had it in a case study or you read about it in Fortune magazine or, “Hey, I did this in my last company and we had a huge success with it.”
That passes for knowing. What they want to do if you’re a traditional thinker is to move directly into doing. You have this confidence that, “It worked before. It’s going to work again so let’s move right into it.” However, because it is risky, you tend to pull back on what you do; you don’t take a big chance. In fact, you’re working with old information because if you’re dealing with case studies and stuff you learned in school or something you read in a magazine, it could be outdated. It could be the wrong answer for the current problem that you have so there’s difficulties within.
What you do is you play it safe and then where are you? You have a solution, a direction to go that is not very bold and certainly not innovative so how do you innovate with confidence so that you can de-risk it to a certain point? That’s where design-thinking comes in. It adds a step in the middle. Instead of just moving right from knowing to doing, you put in the step of making. You go you know something and then you imagine some options that weren’t on the table before so you apply your imagination and prototype something, put it on the table, and that changes your understanding of what’s possible. It changes what you do but it also changes what you know, and it makes it seem a bit safer before going forward. Then, you have something you can test, and that’s how you have to do innovation. You have to prototype things and test them. Design-thinking is all wound around that goal.
R: One of the central tenets of brand strategy is that brands should stand for a single, focused idea. What do you call that? What kind of terminology are you using these days? Is it a brand position or positioning or do you use something else, usually?
M: No, it’s positioning. It goes straight back to Trout and Ries. Their books are beautiful, the positioning book that came out in–it was a little book when they first came out in 1970, just like a little pamphlet. It’s beautiful and true so I’m fine with the word ‘positioning’ but I take it a little further in my work because I think you can have a position that’s not compelling. It’s position and you can own it but nobody cares.
R: It’s uninspiring, maybe.
M: Right, and, typically, it’s because it’s either off-target or it’s not bold enough. The whole thing about branding is to be different. Don’t get good at something; get different. Difference is very powerful so I call it a Zag.
R: I was going to say it’s one of the only book titles that is also a piece of advice for branding. I can’t think of any other books where you could just look at the title and get a lot of advice out of the book.
R: You were speaking to the idea of brand positioning sometimes maybe not being compelling, or inspiring, or lofty enough. Is that where you get to this idea of purpose that I’ve seen you write about?
M: Purpose is really the existential part of the whole branding thing. It’s at the very top of the strategic pyramid. It’s, “Why are we in business beyond making money?” and this is a question that a lot of companies didn’t even dare ask themselves 20, 30 years because they were so afraid of alienating their shareholders so they always say, “Our purpose is to make our shareholders rich.”
R: That’s still what a lot of companies are doing.
M: There’s a lot of that, yeah, but they’re not going to get rich without customers. Who’s going to want to join that company? How are you going to attract talent with that as your main goal? Purpose is usually lofty. It’s something about changing the world.
R: There are these other terms like ‘brand essence’, and what you just said reminds me of that Simon Sinek, Golden Circle where he talks about, “It’s not what you do; it’s why you do it.” What do you make of all these different buzzwords that are out there? Are they all just different ways of saying the same thing or do you distinguish between them?
M: I think they’re just different ways, different flavors of the same thing. I hardly ever see something that’s stunningly different or really wrong. I just try to take these ideas and create a standardized language for them. I’ve even put out a dictionary to help that along on Brand A-Z.
R: Yep, and I use some of your definitions when I teach brand strategy so thank you for that. Speaking of purpose statements, the Big Sky Team writes a purpose statement in the book to democratize life-enhancing travel. Is that a good purpose statement and, if so, why and what does it help them achieve in the book?
M: It’s not exciting but it’s true for them. When they finally realize that’s what they were doing, then they’ve had to question how they were doing it because they realized they weren’t doing a good job of that thing that they want to do. Democratizing travel, they realize, means that they have to make it affordable for people. They have to get more people in, more people that normally couldn’t travel, or wouldn’t travel, or afraid to travel, or couldn’t afford it–how do they bring them into the fold so they can achieve their purpose? That’s the answer, which I won’t reveal, is they have to think about that really hard. The CEO’s troubled by this because he realizes they’re not actually doing what they set out to do.
R: It gets them focused and then it expands their thinking of what’s possible.
R: You mentioned your strategy pyramid a second ago with purpose at the top, and then mission and vision below that, and short-term goals at the bottom of the pyramid. Is that your model of a comprehensive brand strategy platform? I don’t know if that’s the term you would use.
M: Yes, but it’s not completely original. It’s drawn from a lot of different sources but, if I were to average them all out and make sense out of them–which, to me, they don’t always make sense. The terms are always mixed up. Some people put mission at the top or they put vision at the top and purpose isn’t even there.
R: Where do things like brand personality, brand values, brand pillars–if those do fit in at all in your formulation of a brand platform. Are those separate or are they contained somehow in that strategy pyramid?
M: We use the pillar idea sometimes but I tend to use something called the brand commitment matrix that is the centerpiece of, so far, my last whiteboard overview called the Brand Flip. It turned out to be very useful. It has six spaces in it, six things you have to fill in, two columns of three each, side by side. I know you have to use your imagination to picture this but, in one column, it’s customers and, on the other column right next to it, it’s company and there’s three pairs of things that have to align.
At the top of this matrix is customer identity. Who are they? Who is that customer that you want? What are you going to do for them? How are you going to make their lives better? What do you want them to become as a result of you being in the world? Across from that is company purpose, and that should be pretty much related to that so that’s why you exist beyond making money. Those should relate. Then, below that–those things don’t have to be–you don’t have to own those; they don’t have to be differentiated at all. You can have the same purpose as your competitors. The main thing is that you have a purpose and it’s an honest, authentic purpose and it gets you up in the morning, gets you to work and…
R: Inspires the employees…
M: Yeah, it inspires you to get over the hurdles and stuff. Below that, though, you need to now be specific if you want to compete in the world and so you have to think about customer aims. Those are the jobs that they’re trying to get done, the benefits that they need. It’s what they want. Across from what they want is what we offer, and that’s what I’m calling “Onlyness” that’s your ZAG. You asked what I call that. It’s only-ness. We’re the only blank that blanks, and that only-ness needs to be super simple, compelling and has to be something that everyone can see and agree to and that no one else could or would want to claim.
That’s a very high bar but, to me, that’s where you have to start to have a really bold brand or a really strong one, is you have to have some sort of only-ness. Then, below that, at the foundational level is customer mores, which is how they belong, the tribe that they belong to, how they belong to that drive of people. If you don’t have a tribe, you don’t really have a customer base because you need people that think the same way, act the same way, talk to each other that can spread the word and all that.
R: So what’s an example of that—of the tribe concept?
M: A really strong tribe would be like Harley-Davidson. There’s a real strong tribal belonging in that, and there are all kinds of rules. A woman might ride a motorcycle but she’s not going to be sitting in the back of a man or she’s not going to be driving and the man sits on the back of her because she’s going to have her own motorcycle or sit in the back.
R: Is that an unspoken rule?
M: It’s not unspoken but, if you violate it, everyone will say, “Oh, that would never happen.” It’s those kinds of things you have to be aware of and so those customer mores have to align with company values. The values of the company need to be pretty much the same as the values of the customers because they’re going to find out what they are. They’re going to experience them. They’re going to read about them. You have to have those three things. When you’ve got those locked together, now you have a filter for all your decisions going forward, a very simple filter and a platform to create touch points and experiences for customers. The simpler, the better so that’s why I only have these six and they’re expressed very simply.
R: The process that you would recommend for populating those six boxes, is it a somewhat standardized process of immersion? Maybe you do in-depth interviews or quantitative research and then you go through rounds of recommendation and revision? How do you get to the words that go into those boxes?
M: It could just be two days with hardly any research at all because you’re deciding in advance what customers you want and you have some ideas about how you’re going to do that. It could be simple and rougher but, for companies that have a lot more at stake, larger companies, then I would suggest the Full Marty. This is where I can’t do this by myself so Liquid brings in a team of people to do research, market research, customer research.
They’ll come up with, often, three positioning territories that would work, that occurred to them as a result of interviewing customers and executives. They aren’t set in stone but they’re at least a direction that we could test out. Then, it’s two days of the exercises and working through these items and then, if Liquid is actually going to go further with this – then a really interesting way of doing this is to stay for another three days and prototype in rapid speed. Prototype some of the key touch points for the brand so that you can see how this would play out, and the executives can say, “Oh, I can see where this is coming. This is awesome,” or, “This might not work. Why don’t we back up and try something else?”
You do this on the fly and everybody is working at the same time. You don’t do it in a linear order at the stage or you’re researching, you’re designing, you’re strategizing, you’re copywriting on the fly and everybody’s learning from everybody else. It’s this chaotic, hectic process that ends up brilliant at the end. It’s just amazing how much you can accomplish and, at that point, there’s no more selling for the consulting firm because the executives are there the whole time.
R: Right, you get them excited about the touch points that you’ve prototyped and they’re the ones pushing you to get there.
M: Yeah, and they can see it in a week.
R: We’re back at agile strategy so now we see how these things sync with one another. A couple of wrap-up questions: You’ve written some of the most popular books on brand out there and I’m just curious. What are some of your favorite books, whether they inspired you to start writing or things that you’ve read recently about branding that you would recommend?
M: That’s a good question. Lots of them. I haven’t ready everything and I tend not to read books that are too close to what I already do, so some of the people–my fellow travelers, I don’t always read their books. I get a sense of what they’re about and I don’t have time to read them all so I read things that, a little bit, go a level below or a little bit deeper or add some knowledge that I need. I think when you said that, I first flashed on the book that made me try to do this whiteboard overview thing, which is a book that came out in the ’60s. I’m sure nobody has it or remembers it but, at the time, when I was in art school, this was like a mind-blower.
It was based on Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message. An art director called Quentin Fiore took his ideas and then, working with Marshall McLuhan, simplified them into a really simple illustrated book that was about a quarter-inch thick called The Medium is the Massage. It used all these great photographs of journalistic photographs of the time, diagrams and all kinds of stuff. It was graphically really arresting and very ’60s, hip-’60s and I just thought, “That really spoke to me,” and I really could understand that much easier than reading the full Marshall McLuhan book.
I totally got it because it just brought it down to its essence. That book was really essential for me. I think I got a lot of out reading Confessions of an Advertising Man way back when, David Oglivy, just because he’s so smart and erudite. I was really impressed with the possibilities of talking about advertising and design. Trout and Ries, those were the ones that really set me off on this path, and I realize they were completely right but they were leaving out the part that I did and my part of the profession, which is the execution, the touchpoints, all the communication of the strategy.
R: Aside from books, as one of the most successful brand-thinkers out there, what advice do you give young brand strategists or designers that are interested in becoming successful brand consultants?
M: I think about something that happened to me when I was a young designer and a writer way back when. I started to get some attention for my work and I got invited to things, to judge competitions. I got invited to an International Poster, Biennial. It was full of people, like older graphic designers from the period before, the greats of graphic design, coming from all over the world for an exhibit of their posters. One of mine got chosen so I was in this group of people.
I just looked around and there’s all these people I’d always wanted to meet. One of them was an art director of the first great international design magazine called Graphis or, in Europe, it’s called Graphis. I met one of the early art directors of Graphis and we had a conversation.
He says, “Look, I’m going to give you some advice.” I didn’t ask for it; he just had to give it to me. I said, “Okay, what is it?” and he goes, “Well, I first have to ask you.” He’s a Swiss guy. He says, “I first have to ask you: Is your desk against the wall or is it out in the open?” I said, “Well, it’s out in the open.” He goes, “Well, that’s good.” I said, “Okay?” He says, “Well, here’s what you do. Here’s my advice: When you’re finished with your design, walk around to the other side of your desk.” I said, “And?” He goes, “No, that’s it,” and a big smile crept across my face because I realize what he was trying to tell me.
It was a metaphor. He says, “Look at your work from the other side,” from the customer’s point of view, and that stuck with me. That eventually led to The Brand Gap because I realized it’s not what you say it is; it’s what they say it is. Brand belongs to customers. They decide what the brand is. It’s your reputation and they decide what it is. You can affect that reputation by what you do, how you behave and what materials you share with them, what the products do and all that kind of stuff but, ultimately, they decide. You have to start with that and work backwards.
R: Wow, that little, enigmatic piece of advice of walking around to the other side of the desk led to The Brand Gap, and The Brand Gap really led to everything else, it seems like, from the outside, looking in.
M: Yep, that’s the story.
R: All right. Great. We’ll leave it there. Thanks so much, Marty, for making the time to join me.
M: Thank you, Rob. It was a pleasure.