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Seven great books for people interested in branding their small businesses


I tend to read a lot of business and marketing books (stop laughing at me) and over the past few years, I’ve noticed one important group that I don’t think is being served well by the existing books out there: small business owners.

Some branding books are too theoretical or philosophical, with little in the way of practical tips or tangible projects. You end up nodding your head a lot, but have no idea what you should actually do when you are finished. Other brand books are too technical or jargon-y and require you to already have an MBA and twenty years of marketing experience to understand them.

Yet branding and positioning are critical tools for anyone with a small business to master. If there are 10 other dry cleaning chains in your town, how do you ensure yours stands out? If you are about to open the fifth Mexican restaurant on the street, what makes you different or better than your competitors?

I believe that the rise of Groupon and other deep-discount social coupon services are a direct result of small businesses grasping at straws because they are struggling in tough times, looking for answers, and don’t understand the basics of branding and positioning that could really help them stand out without destroying their margins.

The Ad-Free Brand was a direct response to this dearth of branding books that spoke to small business owners. My goal was to write a book that provided a clear, simple process that anyone could follow, filled with plenty of tips and the absolute bare minimum of marketing jargon. My hope was that it would be just as understandable and useful to someone with no marketing experience as it is to a brand professional (if you’ve read it, let me know how you thought I did).

Out of all of the branding books out there, I have seven that I recommend regularly to small business owners who are interested in going a little deeper into branding issues. I thought I’d share the list with you here.

1. The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier: This is probably my favorite simple branding book of all time. It is very visual, can be read in an hour, and is great for sharing and discussing with colleagues.

2. Zag by Marty Neumeier: Another great book by Marty Neumeier, Zag is also a quick read with plenty of ideas that will help you think about how to differentiate your business from your competitors.

3. Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Jack Trout and Al Ries: This is the book that defined the art of brand positioning, still just as relevant as it was when first published 30 years ago. In fact, in The Ad-Free Brand, I drew inspiration from the thinking of Trout and Ries, just updating the way positioning is implemented for a post-advertising era.

4. Differentiate or Die by Jack Trout: Another classic, in my view the best of several other positioning-related books published by Jack Trout over the years. An easy read.

5. Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler: This is the guide to building out the brand identity for your business. It is an elegant and beautiful book, filled with useful case studies—you may be able to find an example in here that you’d like to emulate for your business.

6. Brand Atlas by Alina Wheeler and Joel Katz: Alina Wheeler’s newest book is an overview of many of the most important issues in branding today. Simple descriptions of the key concepts, featuring quotes and insights from leading practitioners, are paired with simple, beautiful diagrams and illustrations by Joel Katz.

7. Strategic Brand Management by Kevin Keller: When you are ready to move beyond the basics and want to attempt a graduate-level curriculum in branding, head directly for this book. It is the textbook used on college campuses around the world for brand management courses, and it is about as comprehensive a guide to brand management as I have ever encountered.

I’ve also compiled these books into a guide on Amazon here in case you want to buy the whole library (just for convenience, I don’t get any commission since Amazon doesn’t like North Carolina, my home state).

Happy reading!

A review of the new Jim Collins book “Great By Choice”


I admit it. I’m a total Jim Collins fanboy.

Ever since my friend Paul Salazar first introduced me to the book Built to Last back in 2002, I’ve been a willing member of the cult of Jim Collins. During my time at Red Hat, we took some of the ideas from Built to Last as inspiration for the process we used to uncover the Red Hat values. Then we later employed many of the principles from Collins’ next book Good to Great as we further developed the Red Hat positioning, brand, and culture.

Check out this picture of my copies of Built to Last and Good to Great, with little Red Hat Shadowman stickies marking the key sections I refer to the most. (I’m such a nerd.)

While many of the Big Concepts (TM) expressed in these books may initially seem a bit cheesy and Overly Branded (TM), I’ve come to love and occasionally use some of the terms like BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), the Tyranny of the OR, Level 5 Leadership, and my longtime favorite The Hedgehog Concept. Why?

Because they are just so damn useful. They make the incredibly complex mechanics behind successful and not-so-successful organizations and leaders simple and easy for anyone to understand. They are accessible ideas and you don’t have to be a former management consultant with an MBA from Harvard in order to understand how to apply these principles to your own organization.

I’d go so far as to say that over the past fifteen years, no one has done more than Jim Collins to democratize the process of creating a great organization.

So when I found out that Jim Collins had a new book coming out, his first since the rather dark and depressing (but no less useful) How the Mighty Fall in 2009, and that he’d been working on this new book with his co-author Morten Hansen for the last nine years, I was ready for my next fix.

I finished the new book, entitled Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All a few nights ago, and here are my thoughts.

This book comes from the same general neighborhood Collins explores in his previous books (I’d describe this neighborhood as “what makes some companies awesome and others… not so much”), but instead of simply rehashing the same principles, this book explores a particularly timely subject. From Chapter 1, here’s how Collins and Hansen set up the premise:

“Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not? When buffeted by tumultuous events, when hit by big, fast-moving forces that we can neither predict nor control, what distinguishes those who perform exceptionally well from those who underperform or worse?”

In other words, what common characteristics are found in companies that thrive when the going gets wacky? (Times like, for instance… right now.)

In this book Collins and Hansen clearly did an immense amount of research to answer this question. In fact, as with Built to Last and Good to Great, the appendixes at the end “showing the math” for how they reached their conclusions take a third or more of the book.

Their research led to a set of companies that they refer to as the “10x” cases because, during the study period, these companies outperformed the rest of their industry by 10 times or more. After looking at over 20,000 companies, the final organizations that made the cut were Amgen, Biomet, Intel, Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines, and Stryker.

Now you may look at this list, as I did, and say to yourself, “Okay, I get Southwest Airlines and Progressive Insurance… but Microsoft????”

Well, as it turns out, the period they were studying wasn’t up until the present day. Because this research began nine years ago, they were studying the companies from 1965 (or their founding date if it was later) until 2002. So in that context, the choice of Microsoft makes a lot more sense. In 2002, Microsoft was still firing on all cylinders (believe me, I remember).

I won’t spoil the whole book for you, but Great by Choice has an entirely new set of Big Concepts (TM) that will help you understand the characteristics that set these companies apart from their peers. This time around, we are introduced to:

The 20 Mile March: Consistent execution without overreaching in good times or underachieving in bad times.
Firing Bullets, Then Cannonballs: Testing concepts in small ways and then making adjustments rather than placing big, unproven bets (basically akin to the open source principles of release early, release often and failing fast). But then placing big bets when you have figured out exactly where to aim.
Leading above the Death Line: Learning how to effectively manage risk so that the risks your organization take never put it in mortal danger.
Return on Luck: My favorite quote from the book perfectly articulates the concept: “The critical question is not whether you’ll have luck, but what you do with the luck that you get.”

Many of these concepts come with an awesome allegorical story to illustrate them. That’s the great thing about a Jim Collins book: you can’t always tell whether you are reading a business book or an adventure book. In this case Collins (who is also an avid rock climber himself) shares tales from an ill-fated Everest expedition, the race for the South Pole, and a near death climbing experience in Alaska interspersed with specific stories from the businesses he is profiling.

Overall assessment: The book is a fitting companion to Built to Last, Good to Great, and How the Mighty Fall. Simple, accessible, easy to digest, and with some very actionable key concepts that you can immediately put to use. And, unless you read all of the research data at the end, you’ll find it to be a quick read that you can likely finish on a plane trip or in an afternoon.

So go on, pick up a copy and let me know if you agree.

If you found this post helpful…

Consider taking a look at my new book The Ad-Free Brand (not an advertisement, mind you, just a friendly suggestion:). It has some nice tips for how to build a great organization without the help of… you guessed it… advertising!

Only $9.99 for the Kindle, but available in each of these formats:
Book
| Kindle | Nook | EPUB/PDF

How to test your brand positioning: is it desirable, deliverable, and differentiated?


Once you and your positioning team have determined what the positioning for your brand should be and identified the points of difference, points of parity, and maybe even a brand mantra, consider checking your work with the following approach I learned from branding expert Kevin Keller.

Write up your key points of difference and points of parity (and your brand mantra if you have it) where you can see them together, representing the sum of your positioning. When you look at these pieces as a whole, does your chosen positioning pass the following three-question test?

1. Is this positioning desirable to your brand community?

Does the positioning reflect characteristics your brand community would want? It isn’t enough just to be different—the positioning should show that you are different in a way that people would value.

2. Is this positioning deliverable by the brand?

Does your brand experience already deliver on this positioning? If not, and if you’ve identified aspirational points of parity or points of difference, can you make changes to the organizational strategy that will ensure this positioning will reflect the actual brand experience at some point in the near future? If your brand can’t deliver on the positioning, it won’t feel authentic to your brand community and may actually do some damage if people perceive it as false or misleading.

3. Is this positioning differentiated from your competitors?

Does this positioning distinguish your brand from everyone else in the competitive frame of reference? Even if the positioning is desirable and deliverable, if it is indistinguishable from the positioning of your competitors it won’t be effective.

Desirable, deliverable, and differentiated: great positioning will be all three at once.

Sighting: The Ad-Free Brand in Singapore


Thanks to my friend Jesslyn Koh for sharing this picture from the from the Kinokuniya Bookstore in Singapore. If you happen to be in the neighborhood and haven’t yet picked up a copy of the book, looks like they have a few available!

12 design thinking rules from David Burney


One of my business partners at New Kind, David Burney, is an exceptional facilitator of design thinking sessions. David introduced me to design thinking and the work of IDEO (where many of the concepts behind design thinking were developed and applied to the business world). David taught me everything I know about facilitating projects and sessions using a design thinking approach.

At the beginning of any design thinking project, David shares a set of rules that help get every participant on the same page. The rules apply to everyone (including executives) and help create an optimal environment for creativity. If you are planning to run a project using a design thinking approach, you might want to consider sharing these rules with your group before you get started. I’ve used this list many times, and I promise, it really helps keep things on track.

1. Avoid the devil’s advocate: The devil’s advocate is someone who (purposely or accidentally) shoots down the ideas of others without taking any personal responsibility for his actions. The devil’s advocate often begins his objection with the phrase “Let me be the devil’s advocate for a second…”. The devil’s advocate often intends to be helpful by pointing out flaws in an idea, but ultimately this focuses people’s attention on what won’t work rather than exploring unexpected ways that it might work.

2. Make agendas transparent: Every participant should make their personal agendas as clear as possible.

3. Leave titles at the door: No one person’s ideas are worth more than anyone else’s.

4. Generate as many ideas as possible: During ideation, you are not trying to generate the best ideas; you are trying to generate the most ideas.

5. Build on the ideas of others rather than judging them: If someone else has an idea you like, build on it. If you don’t like an idea, share another one rather than critiquing.

6. Stay on time: Don’t let your ideation session spiral out of control. Each ideation session should be timed and should have a clear ending point.

7. State the obvious: Sometimes things that can seem obvious reveal great insight from their simplicity.

8. Don’t sell or debate ideas: Selling and debating ideas takes time away from generating new ideas.

9. Stupid and wild ideas are good: Sometimes the craziest ideas lead to the best ideas.

10. DTA stands for death to acronyms: Avoid acronyms—they are exclusionary because people who don’t know what they stand for will quickly be lost. If you must use an acronym, write what it stands for somewhere everyone can see it. Keep a running list of all acronyms used during the project or session.

11. Always understand in which stage of the process you are: When you are ideating, you are not critiquing ideas. But when ideation is over and you begin the process of selecting the best ideas, you’ll need to discuss the merits of each idea in a more traditional, analytical way.

12. Play is good, have fun: The more fun you are having as a group, the more creative ideas you’ll generate.

If you’d like to learn more about design thinking and how you can use it in your projects, I recommend any of the following books.

From the amazing team at IDEO:

The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley
Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley
Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown

Other great books to consider:

The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage by Roger Martin
Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value by Thomas Lockwood

Was this post helpful?

If so, you can find more tips about how to employ a collaborative approach to building brands in my book, The Ad-Free Brand (not an advertisement, mind you, just a friendly suggestion:).

Only $9.99 for the Kindle, but available in each of these formats:
Book
| Kindle | Nook | EPUB/PDF

Google PR team: I salute you for defaulting to open


It’s been a week now since Steve Yegge of Google fired the shot heard ’round the tech industry. In case you missed it, Steve wrote a thoughtful, yet highly charged rant intended to begin an internal conversation about Google’s failures in learning how to build platforms (as opposed to products).

In the post, he eviscerates his former employer, Amazon, and in particular CEO Jeff Bezos (who he refers to as the Dread Pirate Bezos), but doesn’t pull any punches with his current employer either. It is an extremely passionate, well-written piece which, my guess is, will change the conversation internally at Google in a positive way.

But there was one problem:

When posting it to Google+ (which he was admittedly new to), Steve accidentally made his rant public, where the whole world could see it.

And over the past week, pretty much everyone has.

This prominent re-post (Steve took his original piece down, which I’ll get to in a second) has generated, as of this writing, 487 comments and over 11,000 +1s on Google+.

The comments are spectacular and largely supportive. Some have referred to this as Steve Yegge’s Jerry McGuire moment.

But my post isn’t about Steve. He’s received plenty of attention in the past week, poor guy.

It’s about the Google PR team that, in a time of crisis, made the tough decision to stay true to the spirit of openness that Google Senior VP of People Operations Laszlo Bock described in his recent piece in Think Quarterly. From Laszlo’s piece:

“And if you think about it, if you’re an organization that says ‘our people are our greatest asset,’ you must default to open. It’s the only way to demonstrate to your employees that you believe they are trustworthy adults and have good judgment. And giving them more context about what is happening (and how, and why) will enable them to do their jobs more effectively and contribute in ways a top-down manager couldn’t anticipate.”

So if “default to open” is the overall philosophy at Google, how does it play out in practice? As it turns out, Steve Yegge’s rant provides a pretty good data point.

In a Google+ message explaining his decision to take down the original post, Steve described the reaction of the Google PR team this way:

“I’ve taken the post down at my own discretion. It was kind of a tough call, since obviously there will be copies. And everyone who commented was nice and supportive.

I contacted our internal PR folks and asked what to do, and they were also nice and supportive. But they didn’t want me to think that they were even hinting at censoring me — they went out of their way to help me understand that we’re an opinionated company, and not one of the kinds of companies that censors their employees.”

This is not, in my experience, the kind of support that most PR folks would have given Steve in this situation:) And because of it, this episode, however traumatic, serves as one piece of proof showing that Google’s “default to open” approach is not just aspirational bullshit.

I’m sure there are plenty of places where people could argue that Google is not being open enough, or could stand to be more open than they are today.

But in this particular case, in a moment of crisis—where many weaker leaders would have given in to the frightened urge to attempt a cover up—Google stood by its core beliefs and defaulted to open.

While openness is sometimes ugly and painful (as it certainly is in this case), it often allows great opportunities to emerge that would otherwise never see the light of day.

I suspect that when the waters recede, this authentic, beautiful, and raw piece of communication might be the starting point toward something better, not just within Google, but in the tech industry as a whole.

And for supporting openness, even in its most painful form, Google PR team, I salute you.

Sighting: The Ad-Free Brand in Malaysia


Thanks to Pip Kasim, an MBA student in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for sharing this picture of her friend Jojo Ds and the book!

Ally Bank shows there’s a right time for even ad-free brands to advertise


Even though I wrote a book called The Ad-Free Brand, I don’t hate all traditional advertising. In fact, sometimes, I absolutely love it. Today is one of those days.

This morning I opened the New York Times, reading, among other things, stories about the Occupy Wall Street protests. In the business section, on page 7, the top of the page featured a series of images of the protesters, from an 87 year-old man in a walker to a woman carrying a sign that says “Logic of capitalism: you cannot be rich without making others poor.”

Right beneath these photos was a half-page ad from Ally Bank. I’ve been keeping an eye on Ally for the past few years because they seem to be a fantastic example of a Zag approach—a bank that is going one way when every other bank is going the other (in my view, wrong) way. Here is a story that will give you some background on Ally’s approach, but essentially their mission is to re-humanize banking. According to their website, the bank was founded on three simple principles: 1) talk straight 2) do right 3) be obviously better.

That sounds pretty good for a bank.

Here is a close up of the ad that appeared beneath the protester photos:

In The Ad-Free Brand, I answer a question I’m often asked: Can ad-free brands ever advertise?

The answer?

Absolutely.

But rather than building their brands exclusively through traditional advertising, ad-free brands build their brand by following the principle of esse quam videri, “To be rather than to seem to be.”

Rather than talking about what the brand is through the language of advertising, they live the brand and design it into the DNA of the organization so that the brand comes through in every interaction with it.

But sometimes there is a moment in history when a brand story resonates especially well on a broad scale.

For Ally Bank, this is that time.

For the last few years, Ally has been building a brand as a different type of bank from the inside out, by being a more human bank rather than just seeming to be a more human bank. Even though Ally isn’t exactly an ad-free brand (they do regularly spend money on traditional advertising), they are investing much more money and effort getting the brand experience right than they are in spouting endless marketing messages.

Now, with a growing movement increasingly dissatisfied with the financial industry, it is a perfect time for them to dial up the volume with a few well-placed advertisements. And with a pitch-perfect, authentically-articulated message, this particular ad not only differentiates Ally from its banking competition, it serves as an olive branch—one bank willing to break with its brethren and show sympathy to the pain being expressed by a growing movement.

I mean, come on. Are the banks really arrogant enough to believe it is OK for them to screw the very consumers who bailed them out and have seen none of the benefits from that investment trickle back to them? Ally Bank doesn’t think so.

I don’t either.

Was this post helpful?

If so, you can find more thoughts about how to build your brand effectively in my book, The Ad-Free Brand (not an advertisement, mind you, just a friendly suggestion:).

Only $9.99 for the Kindle, but available in each of these formats:
Book
| Kindle | Nook | EPUB/PDF

Kevin Keller’s five favorite classic brand mantras


If you’ve read any of the previous brand positioning tips here on my blog, you’ve heard me mention Dr. Kevin Keller, author of Strategic Brand Management (the classic textbook on building brands) and professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

Kevin Lane Keller, E. B. Osborn Professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and author of Strategic Brand Management

For The Ad-Free Brand, I asked Kevin if he’d share his five favorite examples of real brand mantras. He not only provided the mantras, but also included a few sentences describing why each works so well. Here are his choices:

1. Nike: Authentic Athletic Performance

One of the best brand mantras of all time, developed by Nike’s marketing guru Scott Bedbury in the late 1980s (he would later become Starbucks’ marketing guru). Bedbury actually coined the phrase brand mantra. It did everything you would want a brand mantra to do—it kept the Nike brand on track, it differentiated the brand from its main competitor at the time (Reebok), and it genuinely inspired Nike employees.

2. Disney: Fun Family Entertainment

Adding the word magical would have probably made it even better, but this brand mantra—also created in the late 1980s—was crucial in ensuring the powerful Disney marketing machine didn’t overextend the brand. Establishing an office of brand management at that same time with a mission to “inform and enforce” the brand mantra gave it real teeth.

3. Ritz-Carlton: Ladies & Gentlemen Serving Ladies & Gentlemen

The Ritz-Carlton brand mantra has a clear internal and external message, an especially important consideration for services brands. It is simple but universally applicable in all that Ritz-Carlton does and highly aspirational.

4. BMW: Ultimate Driving Machine

BMW’s brand mantra is noteworthy in two ways. One, it reveals the power of a straddle branding strategy by combining two seemingly incompatible sets of attributes or benefits. When launched in North America, there were cars that offered either luxury or performance, but not both. Two, it is also a good example of how a brand mantra can be used as a slogan if its descriptive nature is compelling enough as is.

5. Betty Crocker: Homemade Made Easy

Another example of a brand mantra that was effective as a descriptive ad tag line, Betty Crocker’s brand mantra remarkably staked out three points of difference (“quality,” “family,” and a “rewarding baking experience”) as well as a crucial point of parity (“convenience”) at the same time.

Thanks to Kevin for providing these awesome brand mantras for The Ad-Free Brand. If you want to learn more about brand mantras, please see this post (or check out Kevin’s book Strategic Brand Management).

Hey, writing is fun again!


Here is a picture my dad took in Antarctica last year. I think he's not only happy to have been there, but also enjoyed the journey too. I promise those two sentences will make more sense after you read the post.

Over the last few months, I’ve started posting more frequently here on the blog. And I just noticed that I actually enjoy writing again.

For the first two thirds of this year, I was writing a book. As it turns out, this is not the easiest thing to do on top of working a full-time job at a company that is still in startup mode. Who knew?

According to our New Kind time-tracking system, it took 138 hours for me to write 300 pages. And another 130 hours to edit. So, add in a few other book-related tasks, and I spent roughly 300 hours of 2011 working on The Ad-Free Brand.

To put it in perspective, 300 hours is almost eight weeks of a full time job. Or enough time to fly back and forth to Singapore sixteen times. I could have watched 100 major league baseball games or had 100 practices with my band. I could have taken a lot more bike rides. I could have breathed more fresh air. I could have written more blog posts.

But I didn’t, I wrote a book instead.

And, while, I’m glad I did, I can’t say it was an entirely fun experience. Looking back, I feel the same way about the book as I feel about going to Antarctica. I’d really like to have been there… but I’m not so interested in the actual experience of going there. Sounds cold, difficult, and I’d probably get seasick.

So I like having written a book, but the writing itself?

That part sucked.

Writing a blog post is like running a sprint. You go really fast for a few seconds, then you can relax and eat snacks. Writing a book is more like running a marathon (or what I expect that might be like, anyway, I haven’t done it). You write for hours and hours then, when you are starting to get really, really tired of it, you look up, see a mile marker, and realize you still aren’t even half way to the finish line. Writing books is an endurance sport, and I think I’m more of a sprinter.

While I’ve written throughout my life because I love the process of writing, I noticed because of the book I no longer got up early in the morning to write blog posts or stayed up late at night getting a thought exactly right. It just felt too much like work. But just the other evening, writing this post about Netflix, Apple, and Facebook, I realized I was actually enjoying it again.

So that’s why I have been blogging more often. I’m enjoying it, and hope that comes through in what you read here.

Hey, I Wrote a Book!

The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World

Available now in print and electronic versions.

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