Nirm Shanbhag sees brand architecture from the consumer’s perspective
Nirm Shanbhag is the Chief Strategy Officer of Sid Lee USA, an international creative company. He’s also my old boss. Back in 2012, he was running the San Francisco office of Interbrand, and he hired me as Director of Verbal Identity. Before Interbrand, Nirm earned his MBA from London Business School and worked in advertising, at firms like Mullen and McCann. He also ran his own, independent agency, Notch Strategy, for about six years between his roles at Interbrand and Sid Lee.
Nirm and I have worked together quite a bit—first at Interbrand, then as independent consultants. We’ve been called in on brand architecture projects a few times, and Nirm is one of just a handful of people I consider an expert on the topic. Since I haven’t had too many (any) episodes focused on brand architecture, I was eager to get Nirm to share some of his insights into brand architecture—what it is, why it matters, and how it should be done. Throughout the conversation, Nirm came back time and again to the idea of keeping the consumer’s journey front and center, considering their motivations and approaches to decision-making.
We also talked about brand purpose, and whether brands are good or bad for society (heady stuff). At the end of the conversation, Nirm recommended two very different books: The Experience Economy (“a seminal work and … one that not a lot of people know about”) and A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking.
I’ve probably read [A Brief History of Time] four times in my life. The reason I think it’s worthwhile is because, yeah, it’s about physics, but at its heart it’s a book about perspective and recognizing that your perspective can change.”
– Nirm Shanbhag
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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NIRM SHANBHAG EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
ROB MEYERSON: Nirm, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.
NIRM SHANBHAG: Thanks, Rob. I’m really delighted to be here. It’s been a long time coming.
R: Tell me about your relatively new gig at Sid Lee. Tell me about that organization and what you’re doing there.
N: Of course. It’s relatively new. I feel like I’ve been trapped in the same day for many months as everybody else has.
R: All of us have.
N: I officially joined Sid Lee just before we all went on lockdown.
R: Perfect timing.
N: Exactly. I was lucky there in a lot of ways. I had been working with the team at Sid Lee for a few months doing strategy work and helping out where I could, and they asked me to join them full-time. You know, Rob, I had been doing my own thing for, oh gosh, six years, five and a half years at that point, and it was going to take me a lot to get me to come off my little perch and life that allowed me to work whenever and wherever and with a lot of different people. And so Sid Lee was able to draw me in because of what Sid Lee is and what Sid Lee is building. For those who don’t know Sid Lee, it is a creative company. And I use that term creative company specifically. We dabble in advertising, we dabble in branding, we dabble in motion graphics and digital and social, and pull all of those different things together to draft campaigns and initiatives and live experiences. It’s a really diverse company with a really contrarian or outsider’s view of the world that started in Montreal, gosh, I think it was 1993.
R: Originally named Diesel, right? And renamed in 2006.
N: Yeah, originally named Diesel. Because they were lean and mean. And it has turned to a different name for obvious reasons and just ended up rearranging the letters and Sid Lee was born. It took me a few months to uncover that. I was under the impression that somewhere there was a Sid and a Lee who had come together and formed an agency, but no, I was completely wrong. And it blew my mind. And that’s the kind of thing, that kind of unexpected twist, if there is a calling card for Sid Lee, that’s it. It was founded by two guys who had gone to university together and decided to start an agency and knew nothing about the world of advertising and marketing.
R: A blessing and a curse, I guess.
N: Exactly. They wouldn’t have done that had they known. Somehow through a little bit of naivety and optimism and I’m sure a healthy dose of luck, they were able to be really, really successful and push boundaries and do things that nobody else was doing. And grew and eventually got to the place, about five years ago, Sid Lee was acquired by Kyu and Kyu Collective.
R: That’s K-Y-U, right?
N: K-Y-U, yeah.
N: And it’s a holding company of sorts, but really it operates with much more of a collective model. Our sister companies are companies like IDEO and SYPartners, just businesses that, like Sid Lee, just don’t go down the well-trodden path and they ask different questions.
R: And how much do you interact with those other companies? Is it the kind of model where…
N: A ton. A ton.
R: You do.
N: A lot more than I expected, to be honest.
R: It’s not really a holding company.
N: No, it’s much more of it’s called the Kyu Collective for a reason.
R: That’s a little about Sid Lee and about Kyu Collective. What did you get hired to do at Sid Lee? What is your role and what’s your plan? What are you building there?
N: I’m building a strategy practice, to be honest with you. Sid Lee, in the U.S., last year really, pulled together five different companies to create what we are right now. Originally it was just Sid Lee, the advertising business with a social practice as well in LA. And now we’re the collection of, we’re five very different companies. We have brand identity and development businesses, experience development and execution, we had a company called Digital Kitchen which just won an Emmy for a title sequence for Godfather of Harlem. We’ve got a really broad mix. We had what used to be Hornall Anderson, a well-known packaging company, brand development company up in Seattle. All of those businesses came together, and the last few months, quite frankly, last few years, has been about breaking down any walls that existed and just mashing up people with different backgrounds and different talent profiles and letting them loose on client projects.
N: And so strategy is what I’m in charge of. I’m the Chief Strategy Officer for Sid Lee in the U.S. And that means the strategists that come with those kinds of businesses and the diverse backgrounds that are there, it’s my responsibility to figure out how to grow that, how to make it work for our business, and how to make sure that we get better creative work out of it as well.
R: Sounds great. I suppose one strategy area of practice that you may be delivering on or have your team deliver on and that I want to talk about with you today is brand architecture. At the very least, something that you and I have done quite a bit of work on, both together and separately. Back at Interbrand I’m sure we had a number of these, and even as freelancers, I’ve partnered with you on a couple of architecture projects. I was hoping that we could just nerd out on brand architecture for a bit. It’s a topic that I think is not that well understood and is misunderstood by a lot of people, even within the brand consulting world. I guess I’ll just start with how you’d define it. I’m not necessarily looking for your verbatim definition, but how do you describe it or think of it?
N: I think it’s, at its most basic, it is a way of describing the relationships between different parts of a brand portfolio. You can have a master brand, you can have a product brand or a multitude of them. And the way that they relate to one another is really the domain of brand architecture.
R: And what are some of the misunderstandings that people make? That people say brand architecture and you’re like, “No, that’s not brand architecture.”
N: The most common one is they say brand architecture and what they mean is a design system, what does stuff look like. And what things look like and the relationships that are expressed visually, or the relationships that are expressed verbally through names, through description, that is all fundamentally got to be rooted in something that sits on top of it. Something that provides some rules and guidance, otherwise you just get a hodge-podge. We’ve all seen really bad examples of just mashed up, lost in translation kind of branding, regardless of the point of origin. And to some degree, that’s a result of a lack of a strong brand architecture system.
R: A lot of times those horror shows of brand architecture, the counter examples of what we’re trying to do that we would often show at the beginning of a project, those are often the result of really old companies, large companies or companies that have grown rapidly, often through acquisition. It’s like through gravitational force, they’ve started acquiring, I guess literally and figuratively, all of these different logos and brands and names and none of them match. And they’ve been moving often so quickly that they haven’t bothered to… because they didn’t put a system in place upfront, and they don’t have time or just haven’t put in the effort to correct for all of these things as they’re growing, they end up with, like you said, this big hodge-podge. And I just want to recap one other thing you said that the naming that results, the relationships between names in a portfolio and the relationships between logos or visual identities within a portfolio, those are probably the most tangible or obvious manifestations of brand architecture, but they’re not to be mistaken for brand architecture in and of themselves. Is that fair to say?
N: Yeah, that’s my perspective. I think you can use a naming exercise or a naming rationalization exercise as a way to achieve a brand architecture outcome. You can use it as the stimuli that forces the decision-making. They are ultimately two related, but different exercises. I think there had been a number of times where we’ve used, certainly together, where we’ve used a naming conversation as a way to sort out a portfolio and develop an architecture that can apply more broadly.
R: You often will back into an architecture through names, and that could be partly because a client that you have, it’s just easier to think about the names because it is that tangible manifestation. Sometimes you’ll figure out, let’s solve for the names and then we’ll work back from that to figure out what is the system, what is the rules that we’re building. And I guess it’s really those rules and that top down description of that system that I would say is the architecture. It’s a little less visible, but it comes out in visible ways. What are the goals? Why are we doing this? You talked about that worst case scenario of the hodge-podge. And I guess that’s really ugly, especially to those of us in the branding world, but is it really as bad as it looks? Are there really negative business impacts that we’re trying to correct for? Why are we investing time and money in doing brand architecture work?
N: I think it comes down to two words. One is friction. The path to purchase for a consumer is one that has friction in it. A lot of choices to be made and a lot of information to be absorbed. Friction is one thing. We want to minimize friction to get somebody from the idea that hey, I want to buy something in this category to that’s the thing I want to get. The second is choice. Choice is hard. There’s been a ton of academic work that’s been done around how people choose, how do you shape choice? The whole field of behavioral economics is built around the study of choice and how people make them. And ultimately a good brand architecture can reduce friction and facilitate choice. And that’s what we’re trying to do. When you do that, you can make a ton of money. You can unlock value that exists in the market and go from getting, at best your fair share, to getting somebody else’s fair share too. And so there’s competitive advantage to be had.
R: I want to pause on this and give a couple of examples, if we can, of friction and choice. I like those two words. I’ll start with just one thing that comes to mind and I want to make sure we point out, because it ties back to this question of what is brand architecture. And that’s on your second point about choice, it could be the case that you have a dozen brands in your portfolio, and that upon analyzing them and doing the work, which we’ll talk about a little bit of how we do the work of brand architecture, you recognize that you actually only need half a dozen and that six of them are dead weight or they’re actually just cluttering up the process or causing the friction. They’re confusing people. They’re cannibalizing your other brands. One decision potentially coming out of a brand architecture project is to actually get rid of brands, which is a pretty significant decision. And I just point that out because it makes the point maybe in a more clear way that brand architecture, it’s not just let’s just look at all the 12 names and logos and make sure everything looks and sounds similar, it could be that we don’t need all 12 of those and that’s a much different way of thinking and it’s not a superficial exercise.
N: And in that case you would have, and I can actually think of a handful of specific real world prime examples that I’ve been involved with, where that was one of the outcomes; reduce the complexity of the portfolio and reduce the number of product lines. You get two benefits there. One is you reduce your cost as a marketer. It doesn’t cost you as much to support six brands compared to a dozen brands. That’s one, your costs go down. The second is, if you make it easier for people to actually buy something, sometimes the reality is the academic work has proven out that when faced with more choices, people will find something that matches to them, but they may not be as likely to purchase. Give them fewer choices, they’ll buy more. And so you make more money while having lower costs, which that goes right to the bottom line. And so not only does it help the marketer, any finance executive is going to freak out over that. It’s a no-brainer.
R: Can you give an example or two of friction? One version of that, it seems to me, is just confusion, but I take it that there are other things that could fall into that broader category of friction.
N: Friction can manifest in information overload. If you have a portfolio where your architecture allows or supports the idea of having really, let’s say abstract names all the way up and down, so you have an abstract master brand, you have an abstract product brand, and then you have an abstract version name, all the sudden, as a consumer, I have to create space in my mind to unpack and understand and position things that I can’t normally wrap my head around. And so that actually just creates friction in my ability to navigate and choose a portfolio, let alone assuming that’s the thing I’m going to go after. You could argue that or envision that being a real hindrance. Whereas if you just said, hey, I’ve got a really distinct master brand or parent brand, therefore I don’t need to get down into the weeds and create a high level of creativity at the product level, I can be very, very descriptive, I think that’s one kind of friction.
R: The example I always give here, and again, we’re highlighting how intertwined naming and brand architecture are, you said abstract names. First off, just to make sure anyone listening knows what that means, a name that has nothing to do with, from a descriptive level, with whatever the underlying products or company is. Apple is a great example of that. They don’t sell apples. But if you look at the way Apple names things, if you go down in levels of importance through their portfolio, Apple is an abstract names and obviously now that brand is well-known enough that they do not need to explain who they are or what they do. Then they have computers names Mac from Macintosh, also pretty abstract, although now they call it MacBook, so the book part is a lot more descriptive of a notebook computer. Then as you go down into features, they have things like Force Touch, which is a named technology where the harder you press on a track pad or on your phone, it actually recognizes that and does something different. That’s less abstract. Force Touch, it’s almost just describing what it is, but they got a little bit creative with it.
Then you go down even further to things like the battery and the keyboard and they just tell you what it is. It’s just the keyboard or the battery, they don’t come up with some cool, sexy name for those things. They may still be a little playful with words and they have a lot more leeway than most other brands because they’re Apple, but they’ve really built this hierarchy where, to a large degree, the importance of whatever they’re talking about is reflected through the style of name. And so that’s what you’re talking about when you say that if everything was just named Apple and then they had the computers were called bananas and then the keyboard was called some other fruit and everything was just fruit, you’d look at this and you’d just be like, what the hell is going on? I can’t tell what anything is and nothing rises to the level of that’s what they’re trying to get me to focus on.
N: You’re trying to tell me you wouldn’t want the Apple Pear Banana Pro? What’s not to love there? You know exactly what it is.
R: These days they could probably do it and everyone would line up to buy it, but when we’re advising clients that are just getting into the game and trying to figure out how to name things, steer clear of fruit altogether is usually my advice at this point.
N: That’s good advice.
R: If anyone’s tuning in and they saw that this episode was going to be about brand architecture, they’re probably expecting to hear about three different broad descriptions of approaches that companies take to brand architecture. Of course that’s branded house, house of brands or the hybrid model. And there are some other terms for those. But that’s often as deep as anyone goes. People learn, these days, about brand architecture, if they’re trying to, they’re probably watching a quickly YouTube video or scrolling through people’s Instagram carousels and they’re seeing, oh, that’s all I need to know. It’s one of those three and we just pick one and go from there.
N: I mean, it’s what’s hot in business school. That’s as far as it goes is that.
R: There you go. Even if you get an MBA then that’s probably what you learned.
N: Those different approaches capture the relationship between the master brand or the parent brand, the corporate brand, whatever the case may be, and the product. That’s the extent of it. What it doesn’t do is get you any further. And to me, for brand architecture to truly be affective, you actually have to support consumers all the way through that decision-making process. That’s why it matters, to use your Apple example, that’s why it matters how Apple names features and versions of products and different elements. Because my choice is not between just an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy. It’s also between an iPhone 12, an iPhone 11 that’s still around, an iPhone SE, whatever it is. I’m needing to make these choices and be able to hold in my brain, shortcuts for what those trade offs represent. And brand architecture should provide guidance for the marketers to make decisions around how they support that. Because not doing so means you’re just dumping people into your portfolio and saying, “Have a look around and see if anything strikes your fancy.”
R: This latest release of iPhones, to use your example again, or stay on my Apple example, it’s pretty confusing, to be honest, and I think Apple has strayed quite a bit from their ethos of simplicity in the last decade. But even those decisions of we’re going to come out with four phones, which in and of itself, I’m not sure about that decision, but once they’ve decided these are the four models, let’s call this one the Mini and this one the Plus. I’m not even sure if I’m getting it straight. But those little nitty gritty decisions, that’s all still brand architecture. And yeah, saying that we’re a house of brands-
N: Or it should… Exactly.
R: … or a branded house, it’s like that doesn’t tell me anything about what do I call each of these products? How do I distinguish between them? It sounds silly, but those kinds of decisions, when you think about that systemically throughout a massive portfolio like Apple’s and how are we going to do this in, not necessarily one way applied to everything, but in ways across the portfolio that makes this simple, reduces friction, it gets quite complex. And just saying, again, that we have a branded house or house of brands, it really honestly doesn’t help that much at that point.
N: I’m looking outside my window and at some of the other cars that’s parked out there and being residents of Colorado, we of course have a Subaru Outback. Ours is, I believe, and Outback Limited. I don’t know what Limited really signifies, I just know that it was the model that-
R: You got the only one, I think.
N: … I’m probably the only one. It’s exclusive. By way of example, just go and look at any car manufacturer’s website and look at the way that they have named the versions of a given vehicle. You’ll have premium and limited and touring, everything under the sun. And it’s all there to supposedly help people navigate and choose, but cars are a weird thing. And so you don’t want to tell somebody that you’re getting the base model with no option.
R: They have to come up with a name for that.
N: They call it the Limited, as the case may be. As absurd as that may sound, it’s actually reducing friction because one of the barriers for me buying a car is going, “Gosh, I’m not going to spring for anything?” No, I’m getting the Limited or I’m getting the Premium, or I’m getting the Sport. And somehow that compromise goes away. Human beings, we are not designed to embrace compromise. And so we constantly search for a way to get something effectively for nothing. And sometimes that’s the role of brand.
R: Well, I like that you’re tying this all back into the psychology or the behavioral economics as you called it earlier. I think that has a fair bit to do with how these things are described and how they’re organized. Let’s talk about how we actually do this work. We’ve described it, but when you are tasked with helping an organization figure out how to fix their brand architecture, omitting some specific problem that they’re pointing out to you, if they’re just saying, “Look, we think we’ve got brand architecture problems and we want you to take a look, see if you agree, and if so, tell us what to do about it,” what do you do? How do you start that project?
N: Well, I think it always depends, but I think the first thing is about orientation. You need to orient yourself not from the perspective of the business that you’re working on behalf of, but instead, the consumers that you’re trying to connect with and support. The reality is this is the part where most practitioners and marketers fall down or come up short. They don’t look at the journey from the perspective of an individual consumer. Instead, they look at it from the perspective of themselves and their business and how they’ve organized everything. And that doesn’t work. But if you look at the journey that a consumer goes through and understands the decisions and key points and stages that they have to navigate through, then you can start to align your portfolio with how they navigate and choose. Then you’re actually providing useful information, not just additional roadblock. That’s the starting point for me. It always goes back to who am I trying to support and what is their decision process like today?
R: You might start then, you’ve spoken about it from the standpoint of if you work at the company then yeah, it’s tempting to look inside out, or even if you’re trying not to, sometimes it’s hard to avoid.
N: Even if you’re consulting. I’ll be honest, over the years I’ve worked with my share of people who purport to be experts on brand but lack any empathetic bone in their body. They only look at it from the perspective of the company, the brand that they’re working for, either as an employer or a consultant, and what their objectives are. Not how do I make it so that consumers are going to choose us? Which is fundamentally what marketing is all about.
R: I was going to say it’s fundamental to the client-consultant relationship and it’s this constant challenge that our role is to hold up that mirror and say, “Look, things are not as pretty as maybe you thought they were.” And yet, there’s always an inherent conflict of interest that you don’t want to piss them off or show them something that… your role is to tell them what’s broken and then help them fix it.
N: That’s a lesson I haven’t fully embraced, unfortunately. Sometimes you have to piss people off to get them to move.
R: And you have to walk a line. You have to walk a line as a consultant. I had this conversation with a couple of other brand strategists that some of it is about earning the credibility to be able to tell them something that’s going to piss them off rather than just jumping straight to that. But maybe that’s a separate conversation about the theory of how to be a good consultant.
N: That’s a whole other conversation.
R: I like your take though. I remember one of the first things I did in branding was going to a store and looking at how a client’s products were showing up on the shelf. That’s an example of how you put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Of course these days, or if it’s a B2B company, a lot of this can just be going to the website and seeing how things are organized and named and described. But making sure that you’re putting on that hat of the customer, trying to, even if you know a lot about the client, trying to forget it for a moment and say, “What if I was coming to this fresh? Does it make sense, is it confusing,” and being able to report that back. And doing it really holistically, you might call it an audit or something like that, is a good place to start. To your point, orienting yourself and then helping your client get oriented.
N: And it can be everything from building a part of a workshop, where you are pulling in folks who are the closest people at a client company, the people who are closest to the customer. It can be sales people, it can be customer service reps, it can be the check-in people at a hotel, whatever it is. It can be housekeeping. Get those people in the room and use them as a resource. That’s one level of doing it. Another would be to do real shop-alongs and ethnographic research. Look at a day in the life of a consumer. See what everything is like and how they go about doing things. You can go another layer and do a real quant based simulation model that assesses the value of the different trade off, helps you gauge the importance of different attributes and helps you build a quantified model of choice within a given category. All of those are ways of getting at the fundamental question of how do consumers view the world, how do they work through these decisions and how do they navigate and choose. If you understand that, then you can go and unlock whatever latent value exists in the portfolio of your client and make it more efficient. But without that, you’re guessing and it seems like as a marketer, the worst thing to be guessing about is the consumer.
R: That gets us to the next step, although this may be as far as we can go with a whole lot of clarity, because I take it that what you do next depends on what you see or what you discover, what you uncover when you do that first step.
N: For sure.
R: Are there any other sort of-
N: The second step?
R: … yeah, just typically here’s what we would do next or here are a few of the things that we might do next.
N: I think when you have that view of the journey and that understanding of the consumer, then it’s a question of really digging into the existing business and where they want that business to go. For example, if there is an ambition on the part of the client organization, client company, to increase the average size of the sale, then maybe you’re going to have to do some bundling. And so using that consumer view can help you construct a brand architecture that allows different types of products to be pulled together into one thing. And that may be about introducing a layer that sits above your product. The example that everyone loves to hate is Comcast, the cable company. They are masters of the bundling approach for a lot of reasons that we don’t have to get into. But you could have one view of their portfolio, their brand architecture, and say, oh, well, they have Xfinity and then Xfinity has the cable offering and it has a named phone service and it has a named internet offering, and you can buy the phone, internet and TV package. Or, we could say those are the things we want to sell, so we can build equity there and we’ll call it the Triple Play. Oh, Triple Play, that’s something.
R: It’s a thing.
N: Maybe I’ll pay an absurd amount of money for that in order to get high speed internet. But it can lead you to different ways to unlock value. In their case, it’s been hugely successful and it’s prevented people from pursuing other paths that may have been good enough for them.
R: Bundling, that’s a very specific example, and I know that by no means are you saying that that’s part of the solution in every situation.
R: But that’s one thing that you might do or one thing that’s in your toolbox as someone who’s working on brand architecture. Some that we’ve already mentioned are getting rid of brands, retiring brands, sometimes that means more combining things. Instead of having two, you combine it down into one. And then also those really tangible things. We talked about renaming some things or creating new visual identities for things so that there’s more consistency or so that relationships are more clear. Anything else that you would throw in there as outcomes of…
N: Yeah, outcomes for sure. I think you may have that brand architecture and the findings from all that work can have an impact on pricing strategy. You may find that rather than bundling you actually need to establish tiers. There’s an example of a brand I worked on years ago, a technology client, made a really important part of technology we use every day, and they went and simplified their portfolio but branded tiers for their product. And the result was an increase in profit on the order of a billion dollars. That is significant. It doesn’t matter who’s counting, that’s a lot of money. That could be attributed back to changes in the portfolio and creating additional layers where they hadn’t been before and making it easy for people to understand what the tradeoffs were and how they could shift their decisions to a purchase of something that was going to be, possibly a little bit more, but give them a little bit more in terms of performance or capability.
R: That’s a really interesting example because it involves adding something and we’ve talked about getting rid of brands but sometimes… I do think there’s a bias toward simplifying, and that’s partly because a lot of times when we get called in on these projects it is that mess that we described at the beginning of the conversation of just too many brands, too much diversity in how things are named or how they look and it’s kind of a mess. And so your MO at that point is well, how can we clean this up, which usually involves getting rid of stuff. But there are cases where it actually will reduce friction or make more sense to add things, to add tiers, to add versions that didn’t exist before, or even to create a new brand that can house something that didn’t exist or wasn’t as evident as it should be.
N: I think in what you’re saying is probably one of the biggest failings collectively that we’ve had. I think as practitioners, we’ve certainly latched onto simplification for the sake of simplification and assumed it to be the right path in every case. I think the better and more productive and ultimately more useful view of it would be to look at how we can create better alignment. Alignment between the goals and needs of the consumer and how the brand architecture is structured and how the company comes to market. If we can create better alignment, then that means that brand is going to be able to work for everybody involved. Not just the company and not just the consumer, but in partnership. And I think ultimately that’s what I mean when I was saying earlier on, let’s simplify choice but let’s reduce friction. And to reduce friction things have to be working together.
R: That’s great. That actually answers my last question, which was around just how you know you’ve done it right. And I think alignment is a great word for that. Obviously there are all kinds of specific indicators, not the least of which is a billion dollars of additional profit, which would be nice if every brand architecture project could result in that. But sometimes it’s not going to be that. It could be that you’re surveying consumers and you’ve seen a real reduction in their level of frustration as a result of the work, or any other number of things. But that proximal outcome is that alignment that you just talked about.
N: Exactly. And I think measuring it is often the part that doesn’t happen and probably should. If you were to look at a company before and after a brand architecture project, and you were to measure satisfaction, choice satisfaction, purchase satisfaction, product satisfaction, you would expect to see satisfaction go up after the brand architecture has been implemented and rolled out throughout the [inaudible 00:37:25]. It could take years. Names getting changed, packaging getting changed, brands getting retired and introduced. But at the end of it, it should contribute to people being happier. And when they’re happier with a product, they tend to be more loyal. And when they’re more loyal, you have less price pressure, make more money per unit. The economics start to work in your favor. And so being able to recognize that this isn’t just something that we do because of an academic outcome, not just an exercise for the sake of the exercise. Ultimately it has to be about making brand work harder for a client organization. Otherwise, it’s just a wasted effort.
R: And you said that it can result in making people happier, which is funny. It’s a good segue into what I want to talk about next. I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about branding in general and get philosophical with you because I know that you think this way, and so you’ll humor me here with my questions. But is branding, you said it could make people happier if done right, in general, is it good or bad for society and why?
N: Is brand good or bad? That’s hard to answer because I don’t think of brand as something that is inherently good or bad. Is a hammer good or bad? I mean, if you’re driving a nail into a wall, a hammer’s a good thing. If beaten over the head by your crazy neighbor, it’s a bad thing. And so I think brand isn’t any different than any other tool that human beings have constructed. Now, sure, it’s not physical, but still, it’s a thing. And I think there are examples of brand being used for bad. There’s certainly clients I’ve had where I didn’t necessarily agree in the end with their business practices. On the other hand, you can have brands that are just solely to improve things.
There’s a company here, an organization here, not a company, called Protect Our Winters, and they focused on helping to drive understanding and appreciation of the environment and the impact it has on seasons and global warming destroying, it has a potential to destroy the winter outdoor recreation industry, upon which the state of Colorado depends pretty heavily on. And so Protect Our Winters is trying to encourage people who care about snow to do what they can to make sure we continue to have it. That’s brand being used as a tool to benefit us all. That has to be a good thing. Anti-tobacco ads. The work that Crispin Porter did 20 years ago, that was all about trying to make the world better through brand. It comes down to application, I think.
R: That’s a very clear answer and I like just likening it to a tool that can be used for good or evil, so to speak. And you just gave two examples of really purpose driven brands or branding exercises. But that’s become a bit of a catchphrase, this idea of purpose. And it’s been taken to the level of almost every brand has to have some deep underlying purpose. Do you think that’s true? When you buy paperclips on Amazon, does that need to come from a brand that has some underlying purpose? Am I framing that incorrectly or do you think that there are just some things that don’t need that?
N: Look, I’ll be honest, paperclips are a great example of something that does not require a purpose. And so by that, all brands and businesses do not require a clear purpose, at least externally. Purpose originally became a part of business lexicon because of the internal engagement aspect of it. People increasingly wanted to work for companies that they believed in, that aligned with their values. Overtime, we’ve seen an increase in the importance of purpose for consumer decision. All of a sudden I care about the purpose of the manufacturer of my socks. Something I had never cared about before. A sock was a sock. And yet somehow it matters more than it has in the past. Does every brand need it? No. Perhaps it’s less about a question of brands and more, to keep this in the question of put the consumer first, maybe it’s the question of do consumers need it? For this decision, does a consumer really care about our purpose? If the answer is yes, then it makes the cut. And if the answer is no, then it doesn’t belong there because that is marketing effort that’s being wasted on speaking to the wrong audience.
R: I feel like we could talk about this all day, and honestly even brand architecture I could keep talking about for another hour and I’m sure everybody would tune out from the podcast but I’d still be enjoying the conversation. I do want to wrap up though. We’re getting towards the end of our time together and I have a couple of questions I like to ask everyone that comes on. Are there any books that you would recommend to anybody listening? They could be branding or business books or it could just be something else that has somehow inspired you or influenced your thinking in your work life.
N: I don’t read a lot of business books, I’ll be honest with you. I’m the worst [crosstalk 00:43:35].
R: I had that feeling. That’s why I was giving you the out.
N: You’ve known me long enough to be able to know that. I will say this, a book that I read every year or so is one that I first read when I was in business school a long time ago. It’s called The Experience Economy by Pine and Gilmore. And The Experience Economy was all about recognizing that the idea that our economies operated by the trading of things was now being taken over, at least supplemented, by the trading of experiences. If you look around, Airbnb is arguably as much about the trading of a place to stay as it is the experience that goes with it. You’re not just buying a rental property for a period of time, you’re actually buying into a larger experience. And so the experience economy, to me, is such a seminal work and it’s one that not a lot of people know about.
R: That’s great recommendation.
N: That’s one. The other one has nothing to do with business and everything to do with thinking. And it’s Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. I’ve probably read it four times in my life. The reason I think it’s worthwhile is because at its heart, yeah it’s about physics, but at its heart it’s a book about perspective and recognizing that your perspective can change. And depending on your perspective, you’re going to see things in different ways. And also, it’s about the process of science is about recognizing that what you thought was right before might somehow be wrong today and it’s okay. As long as you’re right more of the time than you’re wrong, you’re moving in the right direction. And that, to me, is a lesson that I don’t think enough of our peers embrace. There’s such a desire to be right all of the time that we dig in our heels and we start to insert bias into how we view the world. That’s that other one I’d recommend.
R: That’s a great point. You end up doubling down on the wrong bet as opposed to, I guess one thing that science teaches us is being willing to question everything and steer ourselves in the right direction, even if it means we have to backtrack.
N: That’s right. That’s how you have progress.
R: I listened to his more recent book. I think it might have been released posthumously. And the title is escaping me, but it was also really enjoyable. And really for the same reason. Even on just a human level, it puts everything into perspective. It puts your job into perspective. It forces you to think about the universe and problems facing all of us at a societal level as opposed to your day-to-day challenges. It’s nice for that reason.
N: At the end of the day, I’ve said this before, and you’ve probably heard me say it a million times, but there has never been a brand emergency. The stuff we do, at the end of the day, it’s just about brand. It’s a construct. It’s helping people make choices. And while important, I think it pales in comparison to the discovery of elemental particles.
R: Thanks for that reminder. Last question, and we’ll take the conversation full circle. You’re trying to build a practice at Sid Lee. I don’t know, I guess, how much that requires hiring and training. But I know that in our past together you’ve certainly had your fair share of hiring and then training junior people, and then mentoring more senior people. Anything that you’d want to share? Any advice for anyone listening that is trying to build their career in branding or brand strategy in particular?
N: I think if you’re going to work in the world of brand you’re working in the world of marketing. If you’re going to do that, you have to be a listener. Listen more than you talk. And this holds for consultants as well. I think without listening you have no hope of exercising your empathetic capabilities as a human being. And that’s what we need in order to be good strategists. You have to be able to understand the nature of the situation ahead of you and be able to understand what the trade offs are so you can guide people to make real choices. Both in terms of what they’re going to do and what they’re not going to do. Echo chambers are the worst place for brands to be born. They have to have perspective. I think another one would be defining problems simply. Being able to get a problem, and I say problem, not opportunity. I think there’s certainly been a trend over the years of people saying, no, it’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity. No, it’s a problem. Define the problem and then come up with a solution to the problem.
And if you can make that problem as tight as a sentence, then you’ve got something that’s going to be really easy for you as a strategist, for your clients, as the people who are paying the bills, or as the creative teams that you have to work with. It’ll make it easier for everybody to rally around the same clear view of the issue that matters most. And that’s key for unlocking any solution. And then last one, get an outside hobby. Seriously, there are too many people in our industry for whom their work, brand building, copywriting, whatever, is their sole creative outlet. Or they have no creative outlet. And let’s be clear, the work we do is work. We’re not in the business of creating art that is just a commentary on the world. It’s meant to shift perceptions and change behaviors. If you need to have a creative outlet, and everybody should, it should be something that is distinct and separate from the work that you do on a daily basis. If you want to go write your novel, go write your novel, but don’t do it on the clock.
R: I love it, Nirm. Thanks for all of the good advice and for all of your insights on brand architecture and brand purpose. It’s been a pleasure talking to you again. I hope we can talk again soon. Thanks so much for joining me on the show.
N: Thank you, sir. All right, Rob.