I think it's always important to invest time and budget into self development. To be the best you have to learn from the best.
So when I heard that branding legend, Marty Neumeier, had set up a new initiative called "Level C" and that he was looking to hold a brand Masterclass at the Barbican in London in March of this year, I signed up.
I've had loads of requests to give a review - so here goes...
A bit about Marty
I’ve been a fan of Marty Neumier for as long as I can remember. I think I came across him some years ago when I was looking for a definition of branding which aligned with my belief that it was more than simply a logo, some colours and a font. I came across his famous Slideshare of ‘The Brand Gap’ and his definition of a brand as “the gut feeling a person has about your product or service”.
I loved the way Marty viewed branding as something that existed in the minds of an audience and not something a business owned. Like me, Marty believes that brand should influence all parts of a business - and that businesses should use this as a powerful way to develop products and experiences with real value to their audiences (or 'tribes' as he calls them).
This led me to purchasing his book “The Brand Gap”. Then his next book “The Brand Flip”. Then other books such as “Zag” and “The Designful Company.” (Note: If you've not heard of these pop them in your shopping cart - you won't be disappointed).
What I really appreciated was Marty’s ability to make the complex simple.
I can’t remember when I reached out to him on LinkedIn. It was probably a few years ago. When I did I found him responsive, humble and always open to discussion.
When I was writing my book Storyategy, I used, developed, built on and adapted many of the ideas which came out of Marty's books and my discussions with him.
These conversations led to him inviting me to be involved in proofing and being part of ‘town hall’ sessions of his new book “Scramble”.
Scramble has taken Marty’s thinking to the next level. It is a one of its kind book. A business book - but written as a story. A thriller all about a CEO who needs to turn around a company in five weeks. Not to spoil anything but he has to think outside the box and embrace a new way of working (agile strategy) in order to achieve his desires. Again I found myself aligned with Marty's thinking, having been running workshops in an agile way with my clients and creative teams for years. If you want to know how this works - buy Marty's book!
When I worked at Capital One, I'd also been involved in getting Marty to speak for us - which he did at an internal brand event and then again shortly after the Masterclass at a breakfast morning hosted at Capital One with Future Heads. I always enjoy the thinking Marty presents in these talks.
So, back to the Master Class - I knew, because of who Marty is, the course would be brilliant. And it was.
About the Masterclass
The class was to take two days and be held at the prestigious Barbican in London. It was to be the first of five levels:
Level 1 - Certified Brand Specialist
Level 2 -Certified Brand Strategist
Level 3 -Certified Brand Advisor
Level 4 -Certified Brand Instructor
Level 5 -Certified Brand Master
You can only progress to the next level after you have passed the first. Marty and his business partner Andy Starr will be doing these all over the world over the next few years.
The venue of the Barbican was a brilliant touch. Its architecture and brutalist style, coupled with the beautifully designed Barbican brand language created a powerful atmosphere filled with 'gravitas'. The food and refreshments were brilliant and regular.
The course was run by events company Clear Left who did a great job of keeping everything on track.
Delegates were made up of around fifty professionals of all spectrums of the 'branding' community. There were people there from agencies, solo consultants (like me) and in-house teams from large and small businesses. Disciplines spanned from graphic design, strategy, customer experience to marketing. Delegates were all highly motivated individuals who were all highly skilled practicing professionals. Some had flown in from all over the world from places like Nigeria, Sweden, Germany, America and even the Middle East.
Course Content - Brand Specialist
The event I attended was for the first level of the five in the courses - that of Brand Specialist.
As you might expect the content of the course was very much based on Marty's first book - "The Brand Gap".
This found us going through the basic principles of brand and then the five stages of building charismatic brands:
The content spanned brand purpose and showed how this should roll out and influence product innovation and customer experience. A powerful way to use brand to create real value for customers.
Also included at the start of the course was a Myers & Briggs style test which helped to break the ice between the group and help us think about where we might fit in the professions currently surrounding "brand".
The two days were structured into classroom style lectures (with interaction and questions from the audience encouraged) and then workshop style breakout sessions. There was also a well-designed binder provided with all the course materials which we all received, used to make notes and took home at the end.
The breakout sessions allowed us to put into practice the principles of the book and work in teams with other delegates. After each exercise Marty would encourage each group to have a spokesman who reported back to the group their progress allowing for everyone to be involved and 'learn on the job'.
My team, for example, had the task of reinventing the 'University' category. Sure enough, using Marty's principles we invented a new brand called "Mobius". Unlike the current university experience this imaginary brand would create peer to peer, life long learning opportunities. Members would teach others, gain credits based on their reviews and then be able to use those credits to learn from peers. For life. It was a subscription based online platform which promoted continual "loop" learning (the modius). Our tagline encouraged our audience to "get in the loop". In two days we had completely flipped the concept of education into a rough business plan which would have real value for an audience. We had a brand with meaning and a solid market position which we had all helped to shape. The same was the case with the other groups who were tasked with reinventing categories like 'airports' and 'grocery stores'.
This practical hands on approach coupling theory with application was so useful. When delegates got lost or confused they were able to ask questions and progress each task - ensuring nobody was left behind.
At the end of the two days there was an exam. The exam was challenging but not impossible if you had been listening to Marty - which thankfully I had and so passed and received a certificate.
So was the course worth the time and money? I would say yes.
But did I learn anything new? If I'm honest, not really - seeing I'd read Marty's books. I practice and speak about a lot of the principles as my day job. But then again this was the first, entry level course. If it had had a load of new stuff in it I probably would of been unpleasantly surprised.
The value I found in the course though was as follows:
Clarification - although I was familiar (and 100% behind) the principles which Marty had already set out in his book(s), it helped to hear him explain it for himself - "Straight from the horses mouth" so to speak! Having the chance to ask questions and also hear what other brand professionals could add to Marty's thinking was helpful to clarify things in my mind and make these principles easy to articulate.
Practical Experience - going through exercises and putting myself (and my team) to the test by giving us practical tasks was superb because the proved that the ideas and tasks Marty taught would and do actually work. It was great to be challenged to think differently and we had a lot of fun.
Comradery - branding, especially in the far flung land of the Midlands where I come from, can be a lonely place as many businesses do not appreciate its worth. I loved the comradarty and relationships which were formed over the time of the course and I'm convinced that the contacts I got will be super helpful in the future for mutual support and knowledge sharing.
Validation - the certificate. This stuff is not taught in school. Those of us practicing brand thinking have a difficult task to validate our skillsets. Having a certificate issued by a branding guru after being put through your paces adds huge value. Many of those on the course who passed immediately updated their linked in titles to "Certified Brand Specialist".
So, all in all, huge value all around. The experience was indeed great. Will I go to the next level? Yes I do hope so. Not because I think I'll learn anything massively new (although I suspect I will as the complexity increases) but for the value of the things mentioned above.