Fabian Geyrhalter on why only a few brands are cherished and most aren’t: An interview by Bob Morris

Fabian Geyrhalter is a renowned brand strategist and the founder and Principal of FINIEN, a Los Angeles-based consultancy specializing in turning ventures into brands. Geyrhalter is also a columnist for Inc. and Forbes, and he has been published by the likes of The Washington Post, Mashable, Entrepreneur and The Huffington Post. He is an advisory board member of Santa Monica College and has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California and Art Center College of Design. A frequent speaker and mentor to entrepreneurs worldwide, he is a “Global 100” mentor at the Founder Institute, and his book How to Launch a Brand is a #1 Amazon Bestseller. His newest book is Bigger Than This: How to turn any venture into an admired brand. He lives and works in Long Beach, California, and is a graduate of Art Center College of Design.

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Before discussing your brilliant book, here are a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

David C. Baker, a management consultant I hired to help me transition from running a Graphic Design Agency to a Brand Consultancy. It transformed me from being a production machine to a strategist, from a designer to a thought leader, and from a stressed agency principal to an empowered consultant.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Yes, that was during the same time period. I had run a successful branding and design agency for over a decade, Geyrhalter + Co, but while everyone around me was growing, I felt like I was just ensuring we keep it running and continue to grow in staff and projects and awards but I remained on a steady payroll and did not feel intellectually challenged. After a particularly rough client engagement, in which I learned why the habit of litigating turned into one of America’s favorite business practices (hint: It’s very easy if you play it well and if you play it with smaller fish), I hit my limit of managing my agency through various ups and downs and hired David who identified my strengths and my agency’s strengths. Six months later I re-opened doors under the name FINIEN with a deep focus on brand strategy, naming and identity. That was five years ago and ever since I have been giving birth, so to say, to new brands, from startups to Fortune 100 sub-brands. My work gets me around the globe, I inked 2 books and am a frequent writer for Forbes and Inc. Through that transition, I found my voice and it was a remarkably empowering experience.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

I went to a world-renowned design school, Art Center College of Design, where I received my BFA in Communication Design. It was invaluable as it pushed my talent to new heights and through the course of those 3-years, it made it clear that branding and design was not only my passion but my calling. Most of all it taught me discipline and that art is first and foremost self-centered, coming from within; design is always centered on a user, a client, an audience and it most often comes from inspiration in unexpected places.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

There are a lot of things I know now about the business world as it relates to entrepreneurship and working with clients to achieve maximum results, but there is not much I could teach my younger self as I dove into my first job (as an employee). I feel that I was doing well and I had the right background and right leadership and environment to succeed.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

One of those great leadership rules that can be applied to any team, really. It is the reason I only derive a brand’s strategy when I get to spend eight hours in a room with all the key people fully involved. That is a lot of time. Many clients are unwilling to commit and I lose their business, but the ones that are willing to collaborate, they win by having crafted a brand with heart and soul that came from within – rather than ‘from a consultant.’

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

This sure can be seen over and over again in the Olympics; the best athletes have a Plan B and Plan C and nothing more than that. They arrived at Plan A based on the numerous other options they outruled prior to picking their chosen as well as one or two alternate paths. Exactly the same holds true in the creative field. It usually is a bad strategy to immediately move towards the initial gut strategy.

From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

…so you can either stay the course and remain bland, or continuously innovate. Both risk your company going downhill fast, but in the second case, there is less to worry as you plan for a constant evolution. It is definitely the course I chose and continue to choose.

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

…which is to be immediately followed by “Eureka!” (As a side-note, my favorite quote of his is “People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.”)

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Vision plus execution is what separates the leaders and doers and fighters and geniuses from all the rest who say “I had that idea a long time ago.”

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

This should be on the doors of every Fortune 5000 company’s conference rooms.

Of all the greatest leaders throughout history, with which one would you most like to be engaged in one-on-one conversation for an extended weekend? Why?

Jesus! No, not as an interjection either. I’d like to spend the weekend with Jesus Christ, as he existed as a person. I am unsure how the conversation would flow without a translator (Siri will be definitely useless, although welcome to listen in, which she likely would anyway), but my goal would be to leave a really positive impression on him. Yes, it would be a future-forward strategy on my behalf, a precautionary move, just to be on the safe side when my final day arrives.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Yet we see politicians change the public’s mindsets that seem on complete opposite ends and advertising still makes us purchase products we did not know we needed.

How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Repetition is key. The message coming from an aspirational personality is also crucial. The message needs to have a straight-forward and extremely agreeable value proposition. It needs to be easy to not only agree with but to start making it into a habit. And once that occurs, we leave it to the next change agent to have to start all over again.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

Horizontal leadership, obviously, but furthermore, and more surprisingly, I am a firm believer in horizontal architecture: No floors, no elevators, no stairs. If there are stairs, they shall be in open space, atrium-settings. Architecture is what brings people together as humans, as teams, as collaborators.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

Just like with society, the differences from extreme wealth to extreme poverty are, well, too extreme. Most are either underpaid, so they mail it in, or overpaid so they are disengaged leaders that only care about shareholders and their own returns. It’s lethal. It’s a disease, and it is within a reason why so many startups are turning the economy on its head right now, sadly only until they too outgrow that stage and turn their interest towards profit over people as well.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

Give a lot of unexpected leadership responsibilities and raises, sit back and watch the company grow. Rules and restrictions apply, but that really is it in a nutshell, and that is just too darn difficult to do as a company with more than, say, 500 employees.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Digital transformation will remain the big hurdle, to be followed by attracting and keeping talent. The next generation cares about a lot of things that CEOs are not making a priority within their company; from empowerment to growth to environmental and social causes and public engagement, the list goes on…

Now please shift your attention to Bigger Than This. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

First, when and why did you decided to write it?

So strange that I actually remember that very moment, but it was rather memorable. My wife and I ran out of candy for the kids during trick-or-treating on the Saturday before Halloween; we were rookies, just having moved to a street that is a Halloween hotspot. So we had to do what a bad neighbor without candy has to do: Turn off all lights and pretend no one is home. That was the setting in which I turned on my computer, told my wife that I’ll start writing down a few thoughts for a blog post and I wrote “Bigger Than This” as the headline, to be followed by thoughts on how people dressing up as someone they would love to be, someone that is creepier, cooler or prettier than their normal selves, yet they knew it was just a façade, it would never happen in real life, but for that short moment that costume earns them candy and emotional reactions. It was exactly what advertising used to be: Playing dress-up to stand out and to tell us that a certain product would make us be, look or feel better. Those times are over; the next generation of brands leads with transparency, solidarity, fueled by beliefs and communicates their message in a personal way. That fascinated me and I kept writing for a few hours straight. By the end of that Halloween Saturday, I purchased the domain name biggerthanthis.com and a book was born.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Among all your many wonderful questions, this would have been my absolute favorite so far, Bob, just that there wasn’t one.

In the book, I only talk about companies that are based on commodity products, so products that don’t innovate, may that be design-based or tech-based innovation. Traditional products or services that remained unaltered yet people went crazy for them because they found a way to differentiate their brand instead of their product. I thought it would be extremely difficult to find enough companies to fill my eight chapters with case studies, but boy was I wrong. As a brand strategist, that kept blowing my mind.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Very little, I would say 80% remained the same. Then I hired an amazing editor who had great suggestions for areas that needed more content or explanation.

To what does its title refer?

All these brands are bigger than their actual offering; they are bigger than this.

You include dozens of observations that caught my eye. For those who have not as of yet read Bigger Than This, please explain each of these. First, from Skylar Grey: “Instead of moving mountains, let the mountains move you.”  (Page 14)

I heard this song on my music player while on a bike ride and my mind was still restlessly thinking about the subject of the book and then these lyrics came on. It made me realize that the brands I was talking about, brands that were moving mountains were actually not doing it themselves, they had their newfound tribes move the mountains for them (mainly through social media). I loved that analogy so I decided to quote her song in the book. Sure it is taken out of context, but I love the analogy.

Next, Certain brands “strive for what I call the AND?DNA.” (25)

The AND?DNA is the search for something that was not inherent in the DNA of these brand’s offering but in the DNA of their carefully crafted and authentic brand story. When they introduce their very basic products to consumers, the natural question anyone would ask is, “And?” – as in, “And why should I buy these (example given) very basic shoes?” These brands can answer the “And?” question with an intriguing, convincing and honest answer that adds a new layer to the brand’s DNA: the story. They can turn the AND?DNA into their BRAND!DNA rather simply, whereas it is a major transformation for most large companies to not only re-identify, but fully integrate their rejuvenated DNA into their brand story, culture, sales, marketing, messaging, etc.

And, “It is the absolute best way to launch a brand that is not based on innovation.” (54)

In today’s environment, either you launch based on disruptive innovation or brilliant brand thinking. If you lack innovation, which many companies do, you have to carefully align your offering with a specific audience and a shared belief. What these common beliefs are, and how to uncover them for your own venture, is what I discuss in the book.

Then, “Go back to the roots of your company or the way the founders met. More often than not, the sheer determination that fueled the launch has a unique story already hidden within it. All you have to do is voice it in a clear and accessible manner.”

Most companies forgot the power of their founding story, the power of the determination that was in the air when the company was crafted, the ‘we can change this,’ the ‘together we can do this,’ the ‘this is a different kind of company’ ideology. Most amazing brand stories can be traced back to the roots of a company’s early days, and if successfully extracted and condensed to its most powerful essence, these stories can fuel admiration by a whole new generation of brand fans.

Finally, Then, “As a startup brand, though, consistently providing small but thoughtful delights can be the one thing to set your brand apart from your competitors’ offering of the same product or service.” (118)

The next time you make a sale, think about what you can give in return (besides the product). If the customer isn’t expecting anything additional, a small unexpected gesture will lead to them seeing you as a friend, and that’s the basis of any relationship. When you repeat that step and that thinking, you move from a friendship to the creation of a whole community. How about you make an order receipt e-mail fun, or a webinar confirmation e-mail eventful on its own – it really are these small steps that can make your audience’s experience delightful, and turn your brand to be seen as a friend.

In your opinion, what are the essential building blocks of an authentic brand?

Define a great value proposition; have a good, or even great offering; derive a winning brand strategy (using any of the 8 traits I discuss in my book); translate it into a succinct and powerful brand positioning statement (tips on how can be found here); talk that talk (and never stop – your brand story is not an annoyance, it is the glue that holds your brand together) to be followed by authentically walking that walk. Authenticity is all about transparency and honesty. If you come from the right place and you translate it into a solid brand strategy and start infusing all your messaging with what you, as a brand, stand for, you have built yourself an authentic brand.

How best to leverage a brand that has this foundation?

Social media is your friend as you have nothing to hide, much to share and you will have many like-minded people that are happy to share your message and products.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Bigger Than This will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

For those who go into marketing or believe that they will launch their own business one day, I feel that the book in its entirety would be extremely useful. And not to worry, it is a lightning fast read and we designed it in-house to make it as engaging as possible, or to quote Shaun Smith, Author of ON PURPOSE: Delivering a Branded Customer Experience People Love, “it is a small book with a very big font and an even bigger idea.”

To those now preparing to launch a new brand or who have only recently done so? Please explain.

The same holds true, really, as I have eight short chapters that each discuss a different trait I saw these uneventful product or service brands showcase that turned them into admired brands, so it really depends which of these areas speaks to a readers aspirations, to their mindset, their personal as well as their business goals and which aligns the best with their offering. My attorney has read the book and I received an invoice from him that stated “You may adjust the invoice amount – up or down – to reflect your perception of the value received, no questions asked. Just pay the amount that reflects your perception of the value.” It was baffling to me to see how, as an attorney, a particular type of vertical that is not necessarily known for transparency, is changing his approach based on the book. He later wrote me that he is transforming his entire business to encompass each of the 8 traits. It was like Christmas as a 5-year old for me hearing this. And yes, I paid his invoice in full.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

Ditto, as the example of my attorney nicely shows.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

“If anyone wants to hire you to transform their business, could they do that?” I am glad you ask, Bob, and the shocking answer is: Yes, they can. I can be reached at fgeyrhalter@finien.com not only as a consultant, but I am happy to answer any questions, or hold a lecture about the findings in my book at a reader’s community.

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Fabian cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Bigger Than This:  http://www.biggerthanthis.com

FINIEN: http://www.finien.com


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