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The last thing you want is more stuff in your inbox. But it's sometimes good to read about new thoughts and ideas. Brand Matters aims to communicate a few ideas about Brand in the shortest possible time. It will come out occasionally, when we have something worthwhile to share. We hope you like it and find it useful. Let us know (either way).


“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write you a short one.”

Brand is about simple. The strongest, most appealing brands are based on a very simple, single-minded idea. Sometimes the idea is encapsulated explicitly in a neat tagline, sometimes it is more implicit. Almost always it will have taken a period of months or even years to arrive at the idea.

Why is it so difficult?

Well partly because it just is. It’s hard to articulate something in a word, a phrase or even a sentence, as suggested by the quote above. It’s also hard to look objectively at yourself and explain what it is that’s special about you. You often need help to do that - someone to hold up the mirror.

But increasingly the biggest challenge I encounter in working with organisations is complexity.

Whenever I walk into an organisation and ask to review all the existing materials and current thinking, I am met by a blizzard of complex Powerpoint presentations, resembling a series of wiring diagrams and containing page after page of inaccessible industry jargon and (often gratuitous) data.

We appear to have entered an age where complexity is valued for its own sake.

What happens in the midst of all this noise is that we lose the thread of the argument. It may be clear in the author’s mind (although I doubt even that), it certainly isn’t clear to the reader.

Years ago (and I mean years), I attended a two-day course on communication. At the beginning of the course, we each had to make a presentation on a topic of our choice in 20 minutes - no more, no less. The next two days was spent learning the principles of making a succinct and cogent argument. At the end of the two days, we each had to make the same presentation in 60 seconds - no more, no less.

Two points to make here. Point one – it took us two days to boil it down. Point two – without exception, the 60 second version was clearer, more persuasive and more engaging than the 20 minute version.

Around the same time, I was introduced to and trained in “The Pyramid Principle.” The book of the same name was written by Barbara Minto. The entire book is devoted to the art and science of making a simple, coherent argument in a document or presentation. An entire book on how to produce a message pyramid. That in itself is a demonstration of how much effort it takes.

I note, by the way, that not only is it still available on Amazon, but there is now a 17 page summary edition produced by – a (welcome) sign of the times.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that clear, logical thinking is the only way to an effective brand idea. Creativity and inspiration are equally, if not more important. But my focus here is on the challenge of complexity.

What I am suggesting is two things. Firstly, that it helps to find your way through the complexity to a clear and succinct message. Secondly, that you need to be prepared for this process to take some time.

It took years of tactical positioning before South West Airlines realised that they were really all about “freedom of the skies”. Accenture worked through many positioning options before landing on “High performance. Delivered.”

Perhaps the epitome of simple is Apple. Clear messaging, simply and elegantly presented. Their packaging makes grown men weep with joy. So, what would happen if Apple were taken over by Microsoft? Take a look at this video.

It makes the point.

Many Hand Prints



There are two parts to defining a brand. The first is razor sharp clarity of message. The second is a brand idea that is capable of inspiring employees and customers. Both have their challenges.

For the reasons stated above, achieving clarity can be hard and it can take time. It frequently requires many iterations of internal discussion, aided by an external perspective and, crucially, the voice of the customer.

Inspiration is even tougher.

The best brands, even in the B2B sector, engage both the head and the heart. My experience is that many company leaders and managers are so buried in the head part that they are unable even to begin a conversation about heart. “If you can’t measure it, I don’t want to know” is a typical attitude.

Interesting then to reflect on the sign hanging in Einstein’s office at Princeton:

“Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

And that from a theoretical physicist.

So where do we look for inspiration? How about starting with the point that inspires many business owners in the first place – their purpose. In many organisations, the purpose has been lost in the mists of time. It has been subsumed by commercial pressures and multiple leadership initiatives.

We all need a sense of purpose in order to be inspired. We need to feel that what we are doing for eight or more hours a day has a meaning beyond earning a living. We need to feel we are making a difference. We need to feel that the organisation’s values are aligned with our personal values.

To achieve this, organisations need to have a purpose that transcends profit. Some organisations do have a clear sense of purpose. BMW is committed to “helping people experience the joy of driving.”Old Mutual “helps people achieve their lifetime financial goals.” Barclays’ newly stated purpose is “helping people achieve their ambitions – in the right way.”

Barclays is a great example of an organisation that had a strong sense of purpose and a benign culture, which it lost in its pursuit of growth and investment banking. It is now trying to re-discover its roots. The jury is out.

Many professional partnerships appear to have lost any sense of purpose in their relentless pursuit of earnings per partner – not at all the original purpose of a professional partnership.

I recently worked with a semi-public sector organisation that had lost its sense of purpose to the pursuit of “commercialism” in the past decade and its employees were immensely grateful and inspired to be reminded of why they had joined in the first place and what it was in their work that really turned them on.

Clarity will help clear the fog but inspiration will come from purpose. People will go further, faster and longer in pursuit of purpose. A purpose-based brand has real depth and authenticity.

If in doubt, just keep asking “Why?”

Red Paint


Branding is not for the faint of heart. So often, when I work with organisations on their corporate brand, they are surprised both by the depth of investigation involved and by the degree of challenge to the organisation’s thinking.

Often brand is seen to be the gloss that is applied to a business strategy, so that it can be more effective in the market place. The reality is that definition of the brand often poses fundamental questions about the focus and robustness of the strategy itself. The discipline of defining a clearly differentiated market position and an inspiring brand idea can itself lead to a much clearer and sharper strategy.

I have been working with a client recently where the definition of the brand has forced people to face the strategic choices that had been simply fudged in the business strategy process. They’ve been asking questions such as:

  • Are we really committed to our core target market or should we retain the shopping list of segments in the current strategy, just in case we turn away someone who doesn’t quite fit the core?
  • Should we focus our services on our known position of strength, where clients say we are unbeatable, or should we continue to pretend that we can do pretty much anything people want to throw at us?
  • If our difference lies in our culture, shouldn’t we be doing more to preserve and build that culture as we grow?

Brand thinking, done well, helps organisations find the courage to answer these kinds of questions.

The sad truth is that very few service organisations are bold enough to make the strategic choices required to forge a strong brand. Which is why so many service brands are vanilla.

Sometimes that is the fault of the initial thinking. More often it results from a lack of conviction to implementation.

Branding agencies generally have bright people, who can frequently get to the heart of the matter and carve out a well-articulated brand idea. What they are less good at is realising the depth of courage and determination required to implement the idea. So the new visual identity is launched, staff are engaged and then very little of substance happens. Corporate cowardice steps in to ensure that not too much changes.

Courage is needed at each stage of the branding process:

  • to tackle the brand issue in the first place
  • to define a differentiating position
  • to challenge existing strategies and beliefs
  • to drive through the change required to deliver
  • to invest enough time, money and resource to make a difference

Branding done well can be your most powerful business development tool. Done badly or half done, it can waste a great deal of time, money and resource and delude people into believing that the job has been done.

If you want to stand out, be bold. If you can’t be bold, be honest and don’t even start.