Lindsay Pedersen on “Ironclad Brands”: An interview by Bob Morris

Lindsay Pedersen is a brand strategist with a scientific, growth-oriented approach to brand building. She has advised companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Coinstar, and IMDb.

Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered in Lindsay a deep appreciation for the executive’s charge: increasing the company’s value. There, she led mature, billion-dollar businesses and newly-launched categories, from Clorox Bleach to Armor All to Brita. In each case, she was solely responsible for increasing the business’s value.

Thanks to this executive perspective, Lindsay demands that brands be hard-working, disciplined, and rigorous in growing a business. In a word, “ironclad.” Her brand strategies are tested in the crucible of her proprietary Ironclad Method. Lindsay arms leaders with an empowering understanding of brand, and an ironclad brand strategy, so they can grow their business with intention, clarity and focus.

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Before discussing Forging an Ironclad Brand, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

My dad and mom, and for different reasons.  Before there was Carol Dweck writing about the Growth Mindset, there was my dad, who was (and is) intent upon putting his “all” into everything.  Achievement oriented, yes.  But more than that, interested in input.  If someone asked how his tennis game was, he’d not mention whether he won, but would describe what he liked or didn’t like about the way he played. Inwardly competitive more than outwardly competitive.

My mom was (and is) extremely self-aware and in-tune with other people.  She feels what others are feeling.  She empathizes.  Today, I consider my compassion and curiosity about people to be my super-powers, and I learned this from her.

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

I studied psychology during college, and was planning on getting my PhD in clinical psychology.  Through a boring series of events, I realized the hardship of the PhD path was not for me, and went into management consulting. I hated it. It felt superficial, and I traveled constantly, and it just did not suit me. So, I went to business school.  (My business school admissions essay tells a more eloquent and certain story of my motive for getting this master’s degree!)

My first marketing class at UC Berkeley was with Rashi Glazer, who to this day I consider one of the great teachers of my life. During that very first class when I learned about what marketing was – the blend of consumer psychology and economics and general management – my jaw was on the floor.  How had I not known that this is what marketing was?  Psychology and people and understanding behavior was my first love.  Economics and logic and game theory and strategy were my second loves.  Marketing simply blended these loves into one discipline.  That was the epiphany that led me to pursue a career in marketing.

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

The most important thing I have learned in any stage of my schooling is the ability to persuade through written and spoken communication. With the exception of my graduate education in business, which I draw upon daily and deeply, most of my schooling was useful because it gave me practice relating to people and learning how to bring them over to my side through words. The rest of what I know, I either did or could have learned without formal schooling. Today, I encourage my kids to focus on building their writing and speaking and persuasion skills more than anything else

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?

That all of us – every single one of us – is just a human being doing our best. I used to put leaders on pedestals, believing they must know something that I do not.  Surely they must, for they seem so certain of everything.

Now that I work with leaders all the time – they are my friends and my peers and my clients – I see that they are human beings, and that they are no more certain of everything than any of us are.  Moreover, they want to be seen as human beings – not as deities. I wish I’d known earlier in my career that all of us are vulnerable and fallible and seeking validation. We are all figuring this out as we go along.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

To me, business is simply relationships. A relationship between a business and a consumer, a person and her client, an entity and its audience. There is commerce, so there is some sort of “ask” in this relationship, some sort of trade. Give me a dollar and I’ll give you a tomato. Give me your time and I’ll share with you my newspaper. There is an exchange of value. But it’s really not all that different from any human relationship – at least among the businesses that thrive.

The film that I believe shows this with purity is Chocolat, with Juliette Binoche. As the town chocolatier, Binoche’s character and her business formulate relationships with the townspeople, individual by individual. The chocolate is merely a tool for connecting people, whether it is the shop owner and her customer, a customer and her grandson, or a wife and her husband. The chocolate the business sells is merely a conduit for the relationships.

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.”

I love this.  Isn’t this an interesting paradox?  To be a leader, one has to have a healthy ego, because you have to stick out your chest and be bold. Yet, at the same time, that successful leader has such a strong sense of self that she’s able to cede credit to her people. Success is that the employees are the ones who look good, and feel good, and feel ownership and pride. Success is not the lionizing and kowtowing to the leader. It takes a really big person, a really evolved person, to span both this high self-regard and this high ability to not hog credit.

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

If there is one thing that I hope people remember about my book about brand strategy, it is this: You cannot hedge. You have to choose. If you are not taking brand ideas off the table and selecting only one, then it is not strategy. Don’t kid yourself – the thing that makes it scary (focus) is the same thing that makes it powerful (focus).

From Theodore Levitt: “People don’t want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter-inch holes.”

This is so Marketing 101 – see it from the perspective of your customer, not from your perspective. But it’s astonishing to me how many capable and smart and well-meaning leaders are still creating quarter-inch drills rather than quarter-inch holes. It’s great to be proud of your product – you worked hard on it and earned it. But your customer cares not about your product. Your customer cares about what she gets because of your product.

From Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I love this so very much. You cannot fake caring about people, because we humans are hard-wired to know if someone really cares. What’s more, you don’t HAVE to fake it – you already do care about others (your customers, your employees, your investors). You just need to ensure you keep yourself tapped into your own innate empathy.

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

Psychological safety. For a person to grow (herself, her initiatives, her business), she needs to be creative and creating. In order to do so, she needs to be able to fall down and make mistakes. A person afraid of mistakes won’t create, and won’t grow.

As a recovering perfectionist, I live and die by this. To thrive, we all need to be able to expand ourselves into the unknown, and one can only do this if one has permission (inwardly and outwardly) to fall down repeatedly.

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?

It is appalling and upsetting, because we spend so much of our lives working. I think it comes from a vacuum in purpose. When people don’t feel purpose, they shrink. When they do feel purpose, they spark. When they feel purpose combined with feeling genuine psychological safety, they will engage. It’s good for your business, but it also is your existential job as a leader to provide that for employees.

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

Define your purpose with bravery and integrity and truth, and share it generously and openly with your people.  Brand strategy is my favorite “doorway in” for leaders to do this, though I am sure there are other avenues as well.  What they all have in common is – tap into your own courage as a leader to get specific about why your company exists, and then invite others to join you in activating that purpose to the world.

Now please shift your attention to Forging an Ironclad Brand. 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 decide to write it?

As a brand strategist and advisor to leaders who usually don’t have marketing backgrounds, I found myself explaining (over coffee, over lunch, over blog posts) that brand is not a logo. And I found myself explaining this a lot. Brand is the thing you stand for in the mind of your customer, the relationship between your business and that customer. Brand is the encapsulation of why your business deserves to exist, and it forms your most enduring source of differentiation and therefore most defensible competitive advantage.

So no, it’s not just a logo. That this even requires explanation alone was bewildering to me, since my background is in consumer packaged goods brand management, where it’s taken for granted that brand is the deepest source of valuation creation.

The disconnect was so stark between how leaders perceived it and how I perceived it. And the utility of brand was so obvious to me and so not obvious to others. And the mystique around brand so unnecessary and counterproductive. And my conversations explaining this so eye-opening to so many leaders. It dawned on me that I needed this point of view on brand to travel beyond my 1:1 coffee conversations to leaders I didn’t know.

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

Yes. I was blown away, while researching and interviewing for this book, by the insight of brand’s power as an organizational tool for prioritizing and focusing. That the brand promise of a company, and the pillars that hold up that promise, are a way for leaders to push out and downward decision-making. The business can only scale if leaders are not bottlenecks, and brand formed that tool for pushing out decision-making. Before writing this book, my sense for this was vague. But CEO after CEO described this as where they realized brand was their job, not the job of the marketing department. Brand is the North Star for all of the company, from HR to finance to R&D to engineering to customer care to copywriters to designers to partners to agencies.

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

I knew early on that the book would seek to demystify brand, and would explain the “how” of building one. So the general shape was the same. I didn’t know what each chapter would be until I started writing.

What are the defining characteristics of an “ironclad brand”?

An ironclad brand is the one for your business that creates the most value.  Of the infinite things you can stand for, the ironclad brand is the one that brings the most value to your business.

These are the  criteria for an ironclad brand:

1. Big enough to matter
2. Narrow enough to own
3. Asymmetrical to your own dramatically-lopsided strength, what only you bring and others cannot claim
4. Empathetic, addressing a relevant and meaningful human need for your customer
5. Optimally distinct, so that it is familiar enough to the customer that it’s easy to learn and understand, but different enough that it sparks intrigue
6. Functional and emotional, so that it’s serving the whole person, not just the rational or the transcendent part of that person
7. Sharp-edged so that it is easy to know what falls inside and outside your brand meaning
8. Has teeth, so that you are making a credible, demonstrably-true promise.
9. Delivers. It is not something that you say you stand for. It’s what you actually do stand for. It’s not just what you say you’ll deliver. It’s what you’ll actually deliver.

I think forging a brand is as important for individuals as it is for an organization. Your own thoughts about that?

To be honest, I always feel a little squeamish about going into the territory of personal branding.  Maybe it’s because I have such a specific and contrarian point of view on what brand is. And I think most use the term “personal branding” to describe what would more accurately be called “personal social media-ing”. And since I think brand is the all-encompassing meaning of your business, not just the varnish you apply on top, I feel weird about the high overlap with something as superficial as social media.

Having said that, if I go back to the principle of what brand is: what you stand for. It’s your unique reason for existing in the world. Then yes, a person is going to create more value (relationships, joy, learning) when that person knows why she is here. That will make her choices — about where to spend time, what to say to others, where to say those things – more aligned with their why.

Maybe you and I can someday chat about this more, because I’d love to hear what makes you consider it important. I think I could be convinced that Ironclad Brand applies to personal brand if what we are talking about is the core of who we are, rather than the things we say on Instagram.

As I worked my way through your eloquent as well as informative narrative, I was again reminded that, during the so-called Middle Ages, alchemists used a crucible to try to convert raw materials into precious metals. I think that process resembles the process by which to forge a brand. Applying extreme pressure determines the results…for better or worse. Your own thoughts about that?

I love that your mind went to this, because that’s how I picture it as well. The idea of the crucible is useful for me in two ways.

1. Most leaders consider brand to be squishy. They consider it vague and kinda flaky. And a bad brand is indeed often squishy and flaky. But that is a throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater here. A bad brand is bad because it’s unempathetic or ill-conceived, not because it is a brand. So the idea of using a careful and precise and exacting process to forge a brand helps my leaders see that, oh, brand isn’t squishy. Not if we come at if from this rigorous standpoint. In other words, it is my tool to win the hearts of people who hate squishiness.  What is less squishy than iron?

2. Brand gets lots of airtime for being fun, and it can absolutely include fun. But brand is a hard, economic business driver. It elevates pricing power. It is the source of customer loyalty. It galvanizes employees. These directly and profoundly shape the business model and financial sustainability of the business. And I saw a dearth of arguments to see brand for its sheer economic necessity.

If there were a Rushmorean monument for brands, which four would be your nominees? Please explain.

Best question ever!

o Volvo
o AirBnB
o Trader Joe’s
o Patagonia

In Chapter 6, you discuss the nine criteria for an ironclad brand strategy. Which of them seems to be most difficult meet? Why?

It varies according to the business and the stage of the business. I will say that I have a lot of conversations with leaders to encourage them gently that they must narrow. They don’t want to narrow, they want to broaden. The first two criteria of an Ironclad Brand go hand-in-hand. The brand promise must be big enough to matter to the customer, but it also must be narrow enough that your business can own it. Otherwise, you are building the interest in the category, but not for your individual business.

There’s also a humility and a courage needed to narrow. Out of all of the things that we could stand for, what do we have the most “right” to stand for? Where are we truly different? Can we take a deep breath and take the other things off the table, the things where we lack the “right” to win?

What is an “Uncommon Denominator”?

The Uncommon Denominator is the positioning territory that forms the overlap of what your customer wants and what your business is uniquely capable of bringing. Most businesses do identify a customer need, and they do become good at satisfying that need. But they are bringing a solution that their competitors bring, too. And we don’t like undifferentiated solutions because it becomes a race to the bottom on price. Differentiation is how we make money. And the Uncommon Denominator is a framework for pinpointing your company’s most value-created differentiation.

I agree with you that storytelling “is what unites us as humans.” Why do you think so?

This topic is fascinating. Anthropological and neurobiological research has been showing that the ability to tell stories and the propensity to be moved by stories is how we survived as a physically-inferior species.  We are smaller, weaker and slower than our predators.  But we can band together with other homo sapiens through the use of story so that we can escape predators and even become the predator.  Our brains’ reward system ensures that we continue to love storytelling and story listening even though most of us no longer live on the Savannah.

We love telling and listening to stories. They disarm our debating brain and engage our connection-seeking brain. When I’m trying to persuade my kids to do something, if I really want to persuade them, I don’t tell them what to do. I tell them a story. They love to debate me, but when I tell them a story, there is nothing to debate, and hopefully my lesson seeps in.

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

The book Forging an Ironclad Brand is available on Amazon:

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Connect with me on Twitter: @lindsaycpederse


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