Personal growth, self development and constant learning are so important. Athletes train 95% of their time and perform 5% of their time. Why isn’t this the case in business? For me - there is always a lot to improve so I’m always looking to learn and experience more so I can be more effective for my clients.
In May of this year I had the privileged of being part of the first set of 40+ brand professionals to become a ‘Certified Brand Architect’ and complete the third tier LEVEL C masterclass led by Marty Neumeier and Andy Starr.
I know of lots of people who are interested in training with LEVEL C and I get asked about it quite a lot. To help folks who want to know what the course was like, this is my review of the LEVEL C 3rd tier experience.
As any listener to my Podcast JustBranding will know - I’m a big Marty Neumeier fan. Marty Neumeier is an absolute branding legend. He’s written some of the best books on the subject (titles like The Brand Gap, The Brand Flip, Zag and Scramble) and inspired thousands of people with his radical thinking and foresight around the subject of brand. I’ve been using his thinking for years and found it invaluable in my work as a consultant. I’ve seen the principles he teaches bear fruit first hand. I’ve therefore watched closely and got involved as he’s been developing out an education platform called LEVEL C with his business partner Andy Starr.
Anyone who’s been following me for a while will know I was one of the first people to have the honour of completing the first two LEVEL C tiered courses.
In March 2019 I completed the first Masterclass and became a certified Brand Specialist (Review here) and then in November 2020 I completed the second Masterclass in 2021 and became a certified Brand Strategist (Review Here).
These Masterclasses are designed across five levels:
Level 1 - Certified Brand Specialist
Level 2 - Certified Brand Strategist
Level 3 - Certified Brand Archetect
Level 4 - Certified Brand Instructor
Level 5 - Certified Brand Master
The Level C set up dictates that you can only progress to the next level after you have passed the previous one.
This course combined elements from the virtual world and the physical. It was hybrid. And it was unlike the other two courses for a combination of these three features:
There was a pre-work phase conducted online
There was an physical in-person event in London
A live client who we worked alongside
In the pre-work phase, which lasted some months, we were placed into teams. Sessions were hosted on Zoom by the brilliant Andy Starr, Marty would then deliver lecture-style learning, sharing his screen and walking through a deck to show principles which helped explain key concepts and models. We also had a presentation from the client who outlined their key challenges. Next delegates were split into small teams. Over some weeks we met regularly for around 1 hour a week and worked through various exercises (such as a brand audit and research). These took around 1-2 hours per week on top of the meetings. This initial work was then presented to the client and Marty and Andy. This was so it could be reviewed and for teams to receive feedback - all in readiness for the in-person event.
Feedback came in verbal and written formats and it was interesting to see how the client took our challenging research insights. We were encouraged by Andy and Marty to push back on client assumptions and to gently inform the client of where we think their blind spots were.
After a few weeks the team met in person for the main 2 day, physical event. This was run like the first Masterclass I’d attended a few years previously. In fact, it was even in the same room in the Barbican! The atmosphere of the Barbican is brilliant. Its architecture and brutalist style, coupled with the beautifully designed Barbican brand language created a powerful atmosphere. The food and refreshments were tasty and regular. The client, who owns many pizza brands, had thoughtfully provided samples for us!
Over the two days the mornings were mainly spent listening to lecture style talks by Marty and Andy. Then the teams would scramble to work on various exercises. A mural board was provided for each team and so laptops opened and we all contributed our thinking. There was also an online team joining in who couldn’t make it in-person.
Each team had a leader, picked by Marty and Andy beforehand. This led to better efficiencies and organisation. Tasks were delegated. Teams split up and huddled in breakout areas. There was a buzz of activity and creative thinking. Navigating team dynamics and egos is a challenging part of the process but adds to the experience.
Members of the clients team came around to each group to feed in ideas and take questions. They challenged and were challenged. We got great insights into their pain points and plans. What had worked in the past. What was not going to work now. It was high paced and intense.
At the end of the second day each team gave a presentation of their big idea to the group and to the client.
Who was the client you ask? Well each Level 3 Masterclass has a different one but the one in 2022 in London that I attended had the amazing team from billion dollar global brand Dr. Oetker, famous for their pizza and baking brands.
At the end there was no exam as there had been in previous Masterclasses. Instead, there were peer-to-peer assessments where we scored members of our team. Marty and Andy reviewed these as well as the contributions to the Miro boards. They also took feedback from the client. These data points were weighed up before participants were notified of passing the course a few days after attending. Thankfully I got my notification!
I would say the thing which stood out to me was the step up in the thinking of the content. Don’t get me wrong, the other Masterclasses had brilliant content but they were high level and principled based. In this third tier a more business focused context was provided - especially because exercises were completed with a real client in the room. Thinking was grounded in the clients reality.
Marty defines brand archetecture as “the design of the relationships between a company’s purpose, products and customers.” The course focused on the idea of the “search of synergy” and fulfilling the business goal of building “the fewest number
of the strongest brands to serve the highest number of the right customers”. From this principles of brand archetecture were framed and exercises were set for teams to explore. The focus was on seeking ways to design value for customers and businesses so that everybody wins.
Layering into this was the live client. At the start they presented their current challenges as they saw them, asking for advice and ideas to solve for their challenges. Against this setting the principles and exercises were then deployed by each team. The client was a constant influence on how teams developed ideas.
There was a whole raft of new thinking which, to my knowledge, has not appeared in any of Marty’s books to date. Most notably was the allegory which continued to be made between building archetecture and brand building. I found a summary of various brand strategies all named after architectural concepts incredibly useful to describe various approaches to branding. There was also lots of new thinking around how the concepts of a business and a brand intertwine with connections made between Customers, Value, Products, Core Competencies, Management and the Company.
On the final day the concept of “Value design” was introduced and teams swarmed on developing a deeper appreciation for customers needs. From these value proposition design was then developed which connected to the businesses strengths and solved for the customer needs. More than this we were encouraged to build out ideas around exceeding customer expectations.
In summery, the whole of the content and focus had a far more grounded and business focus than the previous courses. This course teaches you how brand strategy can help overcome the challenges and complexities of modern business.
In terms of experience I can assure you that the process wasn't easy. It required rigor and anyone who passes has to earn it. Multiple challenges come at you from all angles. So it is not for the faint hearted.
The best way to describe the course experience is “immersive”. You are thrown into the deep end. You have a team. You have a client. You have a teacher and a guide but ultimately it’s down to you. Your mindset and willingness to embrace the uncertain and back the right ideas. You have to take in teaching and immediately begin to use it to solve problems. You have little time.
It’s very much like real life!
The highlight for me was working alongside other strategy professionals. Delegates were made up of around fifty people from 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 and customer experience to marketing. Delegates were all highly motivated individuals who were all highly skilled practicing professionals. There were folks there from all over the world. Some had flown in from places such as USA, The Middle East, Singapore, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Czech Republic and even India. Working alongside these global professionals is a real highlight for me. You begin to see things in new ways. You build friendships and connections fast. You learn to trust and listen. Navigating these personalities, as you have to do in “real life” is an added bonus of the learning experience.
The experience of this course compared to the other two tiers was again quite different. A less competitive culture was promoted by Marty and Andy. We were not here to shine as individuals or even teams. We were here to solve the clients problems. So amongst the chaos of teams swarming on exercises inter-team conversations were encouraged. Teams linked ideas and built off of each other. At one point two teams nearly merged - and that would have been fine. This course was massively colaborative.
The most exciting part of the experience came at the end of the process. After months of research, then two intense days together comes the big one. The presentation. This is where each team presented their teams ideas to the client and to each other. Only ten minuets were allowed to present a business case with actionable ideas that will help the client outmanoeuvre their competition in the future.
A sample of the final deck my team presented
Yours truly in action leading my teams presentation
The ideas that were presented by the teams on the final day was literally mind blowing. It was amazing to see how each team tackled the clients problems in different ways and there was an amazing depth of thought, innovation and out of the box creative thinking - all grounded in the principles of brand archetecture Marty and Andy had been teaching.
I had the honour or presenting my teams thinking. With little prep time it certainly made life interesting! Can I share my teams idea? Sadly not as it’s under wraps (rumour has it Dr Oetker might use it in the real world which is amazing!). I can tell you it had to do with pizza and we called it a ‘Penthouse strategy’ and our team was thrilled it was well received.
“Overall - was it worth the effort, time and money?” I hear you ask. Yes I believe it was.
This third tier course built on the previous two and adding the live client in the room added a dynamic to the learning which is unprecedented. I learnt new methods and frameworks which I have already begun to deploy in my work as well as being reminded of past methods and their value. I also gained a greater appreciation of the complexities a global business like Dr. Oetker has.
As always, I especially appreciate hearing Marty and Andy explain some of the more complicated concepts. I love to hear them answer questions from participants - all of this helps to deepen my understanding and be able to explain the value of brand strategy.
So I come away with a renewed focus, armed with new ideas and methods to help my clients solve the biggest challenges in modern business. On top of this I now have deeper connections with a Level C community of ‘Brand Architects’ from around the world. Plus I get an amazing qualification which helps to build trust with my clients.
The course gets my recommendation. Bring on Masterclass 4. I’ll see you there!