Closing the gap between design thinking and branding!


Marty Neumeier is an author, designer, and brand adviser whose mission is to bring the principles and processes of design to business. His series of “whiteboard” books includes Zag, named one of the “top hundred business books of all time,” and The Designful Company, a bestselling guide to nonstop innovation. An online presentation of his first book, The Brand Gap, has been viewed more than 22 million times since 2003. A sequel, The Brand Flip, lays out a new process for building brands in the age of social media and customer dominance. His most recent book, Scramble, is a “business thriller” about how to build a brand quickly using “agile strategy.”

Today he serves as Director of Transformation for Liquid Agency in Silicon Valley, and travels extensively as a workshop leader and speaker on the topics of design, brand, and innovation. He and his wife divide their time between California and southwest France. 

BK: Could you share a bit about your growing up days, your family etc?

MN:  I grew up the oldest of six kids in a suburb of Los Angeles. Parenting attitudes were different in the 1950s. Kids were encouraged to explore their surroundings without supervision as long as they were back by dinnertime. My father worked four jobs in the early days, while my mother took care of the household. She was an art school graduate, and her drawing skills had a profound effect on my creative ambitions. By the time I was seven, I knew I wanted to be a commercial artist.

BK: What triggered your interest in branding and design apart from what you studied at University?

MN: I came to branding later when I realized that design and advertising were ineffective unless they were bound tightly to significant business outcomes. The real epiphany came when I found that design could not only drive business outcomes, but determine them. Well-designed brands are the connection between business strategy and fanatic customers.

BK: Would you consider it an advantage to begin as a journalist/writer in the sense that it builds up an innate ability to be curious, understand an audience and create narratives that interests, captivates, engages and influences? Apart from the ability to see emerging trends?

MN: I’ve observed, as a rule, writers are naturally more curious and strategic than designers. I started out as a visual designer before adding “verbal design” to my toolkit. Over the years I began to see that writing gave my work more precision. I’m not saying it’s an either/or proposition: I like to combine writing and design, on the principle that one plus one equals three. But I’ve found that many audiences are inspired more by words than pictures, in the same way that movie audiences respond to stories more than cinematography.

BK: Would you say you were ahead of time when you founded Critique, the magazine on Design Thinking in 1996? And, do you see Design Thinking still very much lip service in most organisations?

MN: When I look back, I think Critique was both ahead of its time and behind its time. It was ahead of its time in embracing design thinking, brand strategy, and creative collaboration; it was behind its time in choosing a deluxe print magazine as the primary vehicle. If I were to do it again, I would have started Critique as an event company with a web magazine to promote the events. The discipline of design thinking is still in its infant stage, and won’t make real progress until it’s taught in every business school and across a number of professional development companies. I’ve jumped into this space with a startup called Level C, in which I plan to personally certify professionals through five levels of brand mastery.

BK: Tell us a bit about your Neutron days and how the Liquid Agency understanding came about?

MN: My experience with Critique showed me that most companies are not equipped to make effective use of design, branding, and strategy. They lack the internal management skills to hire, direct, and coordinate the creative professionals that form a brand community. As a result, they find it difficult to align product design, service design, external communications, internal communications, and company culture with a purposeful strategy. The central question of brand strategy is how to get a complex organization to execute a simple idea. Unless a company can focus on a single differentiating business concept, it will always be subject to intense competitive pressures.

BK: To date you have written seven books and all of them have been super successes and importantly respected by theBranding, Marketing, Design fraternity. What do you see as the big trigger points to embark writing a book be it The Brand Gapor your about to be released next month Scramble?

MN: One book inevitably leads to the next. After I wrote The Brand Gap, my workshop participants told me they had trouble wrapping their heads around differentiation. That led to the book Zag, about the importance of being the “only” in your market space. Zag led to The Designful Company, about building a culture around brand strategy. My new book Scramble came out of need to explain what a successful brand culture looks from the inside of fictitious (but realistic) company.

BK: Your new book’s title Scramble- which is subliminally provocative-what are you articulating at the core in this book?

MN: “Subliminally provocative” is an interesting observation. Storytelling has that ability. When you tell a story through characters and situations, you tap into the deeper emotions of readers. To me, that’s what’s missing in most business books. In trying to be clear and logical, they leave out the factors that can torpedo a well-meaning strategy effort: high emotions, hidden agendas, clashing personalities, and the general difficulty of collaboration. Scramble includes all that messiness as it deals with the “hard problem” of management—company culture.

BK: Words like storytelling and narrative are often used interchangeably- you regard that the story of a brand is best echoed by the customer not by the brand itself- could you elaborate on that line of thought?

MN: Companies and their brand consultants love the idea of storytelling. It’s true that brands have narratives that play out over time. But the important narrative is not the one told by the company, but by its customers. Customers decide what the brand is. It’s the company’s job to offer the raw materials with which to create the narrative—the products, experiences, and behaviors that customers interpret for themselves. What the customer makes of all this is what we call the brand. Think of the brand as your reputation among customers. What do you want your reputation to be? Start there and work backwards.

BK: Keeping it simple: in an era of surplus choices, deep discounting and perennial promotions, is the concept of ‘ brand loyalty‘ dead?

MN: I get that question a lot. Brand loyalty dies as soon as companies stop thinking about how to make their customers heroes. Customers can sense when you don’t care enough about their lives to build compelling products, keep them safe from bad experiences, listen to their emotional needs. If you’re not loyal to them, why should they be loyal to you? The history of great companies is the history of customer loyalty: Ford Motors, Procter & Gamble, IBM, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Tesla. Loyalty is not a program. It’s an authentic commitment to customer welfare.

BK: Your title at Liquid: Director of Transformation- it pre supposes that brands need Transformative work and thinking not just transient or transactional – do you think brands have stopped re inventing themselves(or atleast most of them)?

MN: Our company, Liquid Agency, is based in Silicon Valley. Despite the current criticism of Silicon Valley companies as being callous or deceptive, most are geniuses at reinvention. Competition for customers drives them to leapfrog each other at a head-spinning rate. The kind of complacency you’re talking about is more likely to occur in settled industries like banking, oil, publishing, and insurance. But even in those industries, disruption eventually knocks on the door. Most of the incumbents won’t have the necessary mindset to transform themselves, and will end up as disruptees instead of disruptors. Sooner or later, every company is one or the other.

BK: Your blog ‘Steal This Idea‘ is a tongue in cheek title- what are we to read between the lines?

MN: “Steal This Idea” means steal this idea. No hidden messages. I long ago realized that there’s no advantage in keeping my assets locked in a vault. If, by giving you a free book, I can get you to read it, I’ll give you a book. If I can share a powerful new idea that makes you more successful, I’ll share it. There will always be more ideas in the future, and I’d rather have you come back to me than look elsewhere. My generosity is purely selfish.

BK: In an attention starved economy, what do you reckon are currently defining content development trends including advertising and where do you see the next level of disruption emerging from?

MN: Disruptive ideas are everywhere. You have to be careful not to trip over them in the morning. The problem isn’t a lack of ideas but a lack of corporate agility. The reason most companies don’t break through the noise is that they don’t have radically different offerings. They’re so busy following the leader that they never become leaders themselves. The best places to look for the next disruption are sectors that are not only commoditized but overpriced. Today these include education, publishing, advertising, fashion, hospitality, and others. An interesting area to look for growth is the content-to-commerce model—online video or VR that lets you buy the products you see by clicking, thereby joining an active affinity group, otherwise known as a brand tribe.

BK: 6 is the new 30. Shorter attention spans, vertical orientation, emerging platforms like IGTV, the potential of UGC(User Generated Content):and, are we moving from the overt to the covert, appealing to the sub conscious rather than the conscious? What is your take on all of these?

MN: IGTV is an exciting direction, so I’ll be interested to see where it leads. Appealing to the subconscious has always been the key to persuasion. Ben Franklin once said, “If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.” Interest is the realm of the subconscious, of human emotions. Logical arguments are rarely enough, even for customers who believe they’re being logical. The buying decisions we make emotionally happen much faster than those we make intellectually. It’s a shortcut to gratification. Cognitive scientists say it’s useless for customers to choose a car based on a comparison features. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to be rational.

BK: At ISD Global we adopt the 5C Model – Content + Context + Conduit = Customer + Commerce Do you reckon this model will remain as robust and relevant for brands as it once used to?

MN: I find marketing models like 5C too mechanical, not unlike trying to buy a car by comparing features. I use a model I call the Customer Commitment Matrix, which acts as a kind of contract between the company and its customers. It starts by choosing and understanding the customers you’d like to have, and ends by designing a culture around serving those customers better than competitors. Everything else is secondary.

BK: What makes Marty Neumeier go ‘ Wow, another day at work ‘ ?

MN: Having a project, any project. I’m pretty simple.

BK: What do you enjoy doing most; Consulting, Writing, Speaking?

MN: Consulting and speaking are the ways I get paid, but I have to say I really enjoy book writing. It uses my two favorite skills, visual and verbal design, and requires me to think more deeply about topics. Of course, if I didn’t also talk about my books, they’d sit in warehouses gathering dust. Everything has to be connected.

BK: Which are some the books that have inspired you in your career thus far and which are the ones that you look forward to reading?

MN: Oh, so many books. I’ve been moved by big-idea books like The Medium is the Message (McLuhan), The Third Wave (Toffler), Soul Dust (Humphrey), and What Technology Wants (Kelly), as well as industry books like Confessions of an Advertising Man (Ogilvy), Positioning (Trout and Ries), From Lascaux to Brooklyn (Rand), and The Innovator’s Solution (Christensen). I’ve enjoyed the books of Michael Schrage and Seth Godin, and the brand-related books of Kit Yarrow, Niraj Dawar, Denise Yohn, and Wally Olins. Most of the books on my nightstand are related to our current political crisis, which I find fascinating and alarming in equal measure. Part of this reading informs the background of Scramble, my new business thriller about agile strategy. I won’t give anything away. You’ll have to read it.

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