Why do you do brand strategy? How do you create meaning? What's the future of branding? What's your book about? Are you aware of Polish brands? I'm honoured to be featured in Polish magazine, 'Marketer+' where I am interviewed by Łukasz Murawski of Studio102 Group.
Below is the original English version of our interview which was translated and then published in Polish in Marketer+. I hope you enjoy it.
ŁM: Matt, How you became one of the UK Top 50 Advisors?
MD: The top 50 advisors award was given to me by the wonderful people at a UK organisation called Enterprise Nation. Enterprise Nation supports start-ups and SMEs in the UK. I was honoured to be nominated and then awarded the amazing accolade of being one of the ‘top 5 advisors’ in the ‘design and branding’ category and overall a ‘Top 50 advisor in the UK’ for my work in brand and culture building.
ŁM: You started your career as a graphic designer. Why did you decide to take the path of brand strategy? I appreciate it is still designing if we use Herber A. Simon definition that “design is changing existing situations into preferred ones”
MD: You are right. The principles of design are not simply about creating logos brochures and websites.
The reason I was attracted to graphic design right at the start of my life was that it was all about “purpose” (as opposed to art which is more about self-expression). Graphic design is about selfless purpose because it is all about somebody else’s communication that you, as a designer, are trying to get across. You are indeed trying to change their audience's perception of things and communicate things effectively.
One of the things though that really annoyed me as graphic design as when I was asked to create a “veneer” - or a “look and feel” which communicated something which I knew did not really stack up to reality. As I grew in my career I eventually found myself in senior positions where I could challenge people about this. That led to me helping them to define their strategies and live into them. I found my “design-thinking” brain was a powerful aid to business leaders. Couple that with brand theory and a customer-centric approach and I discovered there was a place for me to work with business leaders in a helpful, highly valuable way which they were lacking from other sources.
Now I don’t tend to do any graphic design at all. I mainly get hired to help align leadership teams around their purpose and then help them live it, creating meaningful businesses, brands and cultures.
ŁM: What people buy has changed over the years – from features, through benefits to experience. Today what we buy is meaning. What do you think people would buy in future?
MD: I think in the future we will buy more things which give us an identity. A sense of belonging to communities and purposes which align to our value system.
ŁM: What is the difference between meaning and identification (identity).
MD: Great question - because they are closely linked. Let me try and articulate how I see it.
Simply put: buying for personal identity is more focused than simply buying for general meaning.
So for me “meaning” is a broad term. It has to do with communicating something that is not directly expressed (like the purpose and belief system which underpins a brand).
This could be something top level like the brand story but in a more focused way, this might be something like the choice of sustainable materials in a product or the type of experience a customer has.
Because businesses are only just coming to terms with this idea of meaning as a differentiator in some market places they can really get ahead and create loyal fans by tapping into and designing their whole businesses and customer experience around it. As a generalisation, therefore, consumers at the moment might like the depth of meaning reflected in a brand as opposed to the lack of meaning in others. This is especially true in Business to Business markets.
However in the future when all brands begin to manage their meaning more effectively the battleground will be identity. When faced with ten brands offering the same depth of meaning (and the same convenience) consumers will choose the brand which creates the identity they are looking to live into. Brands will have to understand the belief systems and ‘desired identities' of their audiences in order to compete. Thus branding will become more and more about helping customers to create identities through the experiences they enjoy. Consumers will be making more and more conscious decisions based on this. This is just a suggestion though - who knows the future right?!
ŁM: There are different definitions of brand. In my opinion, Marty Neumeier proposal (gut feeling) is timeless. Do you think brand definition would change in the future?
MD: Marty’s definition is definitely a very very good one and it has shaped my appreciation of brand for sure. My personal definition of “brand” is “the meaning that people attached to you or your offer” and the game that all businesses and organisations should be in is the game of branding. “Branding” is the “attempt to manage that meaning” - to give off the right signals to the right people so that they appreciate and understand who you serve and why they should care.
I don’t see that definition changing because I think we have now got the definition to a place which is very human-centric. What may change though is how business sees “brand”. Currently, it has been given over to the Marketing department - but that has (and thankfully is) changing because meaning is derived across all business areas. For example, I am getting asked more and more to work with HR teams to help create brand-aligned culture programs which help to unite the internal thinking of companies with the external market positioning. I think as time goes on "brand" will touch all areas of business and in this is the start of this revolution.
ŁM: How do brands create meaning? Can you give an example (short case study) of the brand who does it right.
MD: This is literally the question of my whole career - how do you create meaning?
I think to answer this you have to have a very deep understanding of the way that humans create meaning. The way that humans create meaning is through stories. I do loads of work using the principles of storytelling for this reason. If you think about it, stories help us to make sense of the world around us. As we were growing up stories were told us which helped us to understand the world we were in and our position within it. Cultural stories, family stories, religious stories. Psychologists actually tell us that we write our own story and see ourselves as the hero of that story. If things in life are going in accordance with the expectations we set in our self-written story, then we feel satisfaction - but if, in an area of our lives our reality does not align to our story, we feel dissatisfaction and we are unhappy. In those situations, we look around for things to help bring us back on track in regards to our own story and one thing which helps us here is “brands”. Brands fit in with our story and help us to live into it. They help us to create our identity.
With that in mind, there are many brands which do a super job. One that comes to mind is IKEA. IKEA hinges all of their experiences and communications on “the wonderful every day”. They are basically saying “it’s ok to be normal” - “it’s ok to be you”. They want to champion and celebrate that normality. They build their stores around this concept of showing you everyday life and helping you live with the clutter of life and be completely normal. So they would be a great example of a brand which is creating meaning through its products and in the experiences and communications which fit in and make the customer the centre of its existence. If we want a bit of “normal” furniture to help us in our ordinary lives we think of their brand.
ŁM: What do you think is the future of branding?
MD: It seems to me that as technology increases things will get more and more convenient. We’ll be able to work from home, we’ll continue to have access to a greater amount of products and experiences. But under this, we will still be human. We will still want meaning. We will still want and crave identity. We will want stories to do this and so what I imagine will happen is that we will buy from brands which help to crease intense meaning for us. I see a world where we have incredibly focused brands which create higher and higher levels of human meaning and identity for those who purchase from them. I suspect that soon we will see brands who exist to sell to the mass markets slowly decreasing in dominance and more fractured market places inhabited by focused brands appearing. Brand experiences which help us create identities will become more prominent.
ŁM: Let's talk about British charismatic brand - Mini Cooper. Being a charismatic brand seems to be the highest level of differentiation. How did Mini become that kind of brand? How do you create a brand that has no substitute?
MD: A “charismatic brand” is a brand that would be missed by its audience (tribe). A brand which has no substitute in their minds. Mini has certainly done that.
You create a brand that has no substitute by focus intense focus. A brand which is not necessarily better but that is different. A brand which helps its customers create an identity. When you think of mini you see a very “different” car. It’s small. It’s cute. It says “I’m different”. It says “I’m creative”. Due to its British heritage and the connection with the Union Jack (often painted onto its roof) we see that the Mini becomes a symbol for British quirkiness and innovation. This is played on with the ability to customize your mini in the purchasing process. If this fits in with your personal story (and you don’t have long legs!) then you will be very tempted to own one because when you drive around it will help to reinforce your self written story of yourself. You see yourself as a bit different. You see something in the meaning of British culture and heritage. You believe you are creative. The mini is not for everyone. But for those that it is for it is passionately loved.
When you design everything around a specific customer and what they want, what you will find is that you will exclude lots of people - but to that customer, you will become the only brand that they will turn to, in order to solve their problem, meet their ambition or live into their identity. You will help them become the hero of their story. You will help them create their story. Therefore the trick in creating charismatic brands is to be brave. To focus in on who you serve and why you exist beyond making money and why they should care.
ŁM: How did Harrods, London’s third most visited tourist attraction, became the only department store that’s a must-shop for UK tourists?
MD: Harrods is a very interesting brand. With them, it’s all about quality and luxury. Their store oozes this. When you visit Harrods you are creating an experience and a memory - a story - that you can go and tell your family and friends about. If you want a taste of British style and class and see this of value on your holiday you will no doubt go to Harrods.
How did they create this meaning? Years of focus. Focus on sophistication, product choice, maintenance of their premises. Training od staff. Culture. Stocking the best and most expensive goods in the world. Years of telling this story over and over and giving their customers (and staff) a story which fits in with their personal desires, identities and goals.
ŁM: Do you know any polish brands? Furthermore do you know any polish brand with good branding? (Do you know Eve Sleep? This is rather British company than polish but this is company run by two poles?
MD: If I’m honest (and please don’t hate me!), No. I don’t know much about Eve Sleep I’m afraid and no, I could not name any famous Polish brands. I think there is a lot of work that could be done in Poland in the brand space to bring more brand thinking to Polish businesses and help them stand out.
ŁM: If you were about to create a "step by step” checklist for brand building what it would consist? I think this is something that is missing in (marketing) books. Do you think it is possible to create step by step manual for non-experienced brand manager that will help to create strong brand)
MD: Well, I agree that there is not a lot out there in regards to practical books that you can pick up and use effectively to create a brand. That is why I wrote my book, Storyategy - in that book you will find six simple steps that you can use to build a powerful brand. I do think however that brand is a very simple concept but very hard to execute and the reason it’s hard to execute is because it cuts across traditional business divisions. Brand and brand strategy sits right at the top of business and it has to do with the customer and the behaviour of the business and its staff and therefore brand to be understood and executed requires the alignment of the leadership team and then the alignment of all of the teams that sit underneath them. This is incredibly difficult for the modern business to affect. Therefore you might have a simple book in which you can and some steps which you can begin to follow but because every business is different and it’s full of different types of personality is the actual execution is the thing which becomes the problem. It's human. It needs creativity and problem-solving. I am yet to find an answer and a simple answer to solving this which is why I am a consultant and I've not built an automated branding robot.
ŁM: What is your book Storyategy about?
MD: Storyategy is all about creating meaningful brands. It contains the most powerful ideas I have come across and used to discover, define and live brand stories from my work. It presents this in six simple steps that you can go through. Each step is accompanied by theory and exercises for leadership teams. It is designed to be easy to read, digest and follow. If you read it it will help you to unlock the power of your brand with a story-based branding strategy.
ŁM: What key business areas you should consider to do “branding” properly?
MD: To do branding properly I would say the main area you need to focus on is your leadership team. Do they get it? Do they understand the brand? Do they all see the brand the same way? And if they don’t that is the area that you first need to focus on.
After you have pointed your leadership team in the same direction the next step is to consider how are you are building your culture internally so that your people will reflect the thinking of the brand to customers. As wells this you need to really think about the customer experience. You need to focus on what you are producing and the systems you use to deliver it. Every single interaction and touchpoint and every single item that you produce needs to be “designed” to add value to the specific customer that you’re trying to attract and help. You need to create authentic experiences around your purpose for both customers and staff.
Finally, you need to think about your communications and positioning - but this should be something that you look at at the end of the process and not at the start. In my view we often jump to this end step and so people think branding is a set of fonts and a logo - but the truth is that’s just the lick of paint at the end. To do branding properly you need to get your business sorted from the inside out. You need to be authentic. Your communications have to align with truth.
ŁM: Who was your mentor or teacher? Who had the greatest impact on you?
MD: If I’m honest I do feel like I’m a little bit of a lost soul! Haha, that probably sounds really sad! I don’t know where it comes from but I do tend to look at things very differently and to not be satisfied with the way things are - to always be looking to improve. That hasn’t been "taught" to me that’s just something that is a part of my brain.
If I had to name someone it would be my father. My father is an incredibly insightful and sceptical man and his insights into human nature and the way humans think it’s been incredibly helpful to me as I think about business, brands and culture building.
In more recent years the work of Marty Newmeyer has been hugely influential on me. I have had the privilege of being personally mentored by him and his thinking has had a huge impact on me professionally. I would definitely recommend anybody who is interested in getting into branding to have a look at Marty’s “Level C” courses which he is personally conducting around the world. (https://www.levelc.org/). I was lucky enough to of been working with Marty on a few things and so I got the chance to go to the first-ever one he ran here in London in the UK. It was amazing.
I’ve also read a lot of books which have influenced my thinking and still continue to influence my thinking one of the best ones was by Margaret Mark and Carol S Pearson and their book on archetypes called “The Hero and the Outlaw”.
ŁM: What is your next dream, both professional and personal?
MD: My real dream is to move to my family (My wife and three children) to a rural setting and to bring up our kids closer to nature. To do this I know that I need to build up my consultancy businesses so I can work remotely - I’m working towards that dream!
Professionally I am working with some super clients and I want to keep serving them well. I am looking to launching a brand conference here in the UK. I also have a couple of other books in the pipeline. Watch this space.
ŁM: Are there any clients whose work you are especially proud of?
MD: I do not discuss client work in public most of my work is done on NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements) and therefore it’s incredibly difficult for me to comment on this. However, one recent project I am really excited about is with a company who I helped align their Executive Leadership Team around their purpose and have been working with them to live into it by creating a Culture Programme which proves that they do indeed value what they claim. I love this project because they have bought into the whole concept and are allowing “brand thinking” to flow through all their business functions.
ŁM: Thanks Matt!
MD: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me and let the brand revolution begin!