Marty Neumeier: An interview by Bob Morris

Marty Neumeier

Neumeier’s professional mission is to “incite business revolution by unleashing the power of design thinking.” He does this by writing books, conducting workshops, and speaking internationally on brand, innovation, and design. He began his career as a brand designer, and later added writing and business strategy to his skills, working variously as a communications director, magazine publisher, and brand consultant. By the mid-1990s he had developed hundreds of brand identities and architectures for companies such as Apple, Netscape, Kodak, and Hewlett-Packard. In 1996 he launched Critique, the magazine of design thinking, which quickly became the leading journal for improving design effectiveness through analysis and criticism.

In editing Critique, Neumeier joined the growing conversation about bridging the gap between business strategy and customer experience, which led directly to the ideas in his bestselling “whiteboard overview” books, The Brand Gap, Zag, and The Designful Company. The Brand Gap was named Fast Company’s “Surprise Book of the Year,” and Zag was listed as one of “The Top 100 Business Books of All Time.” He recently released a 45-minute video called Marty Neumeier’s Innovation Workshop, based on his three books.

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Morris: Before focusing on your books, here are three general questions. First, to what extent does it remain true that, in essence, marketing’s primary function is to create or increase demand?

Neumeier: I see “demand creation” as a 20th-century construct that’s bound up with advertising. It’s an outmoded view of marketing that says, “First, we build a product or service, then we advertise it into people’s lives.” Embedded this view is the belief that companies control brands. This is a myth. My message all along has been that brands are actually created by customers, not companies. Companies only provide the raw materials—the products, messaging, behaviors—that people use these to create brands. A brand is a person’s perception. Of course, it makes marketers nervous to think that marketing is out of their control, but that’s why the discipline of branding has emerged.

Morris: During the last 3-5 years, what has been the single most significant change in what Ted Levitt once characterized as “the marketing imagination”?

Neumeier: Levitt wrote a brave article called “Marketing Myopia” in the late fifties. He said that companies focus too much on short-term goals at the expense of long-term ones. Well, guess what? A survey my firm did with Stanford University of top executives last year showed that the number-one problem plaguing leaders today is reconciling short term demands with long-term goals. Nothing has changed! He went on to become the publisher of the Harvard Business Review, with all the influence that position offers, and still no transformation. After 50 years, business still hasn’t figured out how to act on Levitt’s epiphany

Looking back at his seminal book, “Marketing Imagination,” a conceptual error seems to appear. His premise was that marketing’s main job was to create customers. But companies don’t create customers. Customers create companies. Unless we align our marketing with this new reality, we’ll never crack the short-term/long-term problem. It can only be fixed with sustained profitability, which can only happen with a loyal following of customers and other stakeholders—in other words, a strong brand.

Morris: In 2003 you started Neutron to help companies transform their brands. To what extent has Neutron changed in terms of its (presumably radical) differentiation from competitors since you founded it?

Neumeier: We started with the unseen truth that a huge gulf existed between business strategy and customer experience. I called it the “brand gap” in my first book. So we set out to help companies bridge that gulf through a better understanding brand, design, and innovation. We created new mental models, easy-to-understand content, and training modules aimed at helping companies “build their brand from the inside out.” That part never changed. What did change is that we found companies needed more than an understanding of brand. They needed a framework for transforming their cultures. So we become change consultants as well.

Neutron has recently merged with Liquid Agency, a transition that marries Neutron’s internal branding expertise with Liquid’s external branding skills. As Director of Transformation for Liquid, I’m in an even better position to help companies bridge the gap between strategy and execution.

Morris: In The Brand Gap, you identify “Three Little Questions” can bring a high-level marketing meeting to a screeching halt:

1. Who are you?
2. What do you do?
3. Why does it matter?

What’s so difficult about these questions?

Neumeier:  “Who are you?” requires that a company knows why it exists beyond money. Does your company have an answer for that? Without a core purpose, most companies can’t withstand the headwinds they’ll face in the course of competition.

“What do you do?” asks Levitt’s famous question: What business are you in? In other words, how do you frame your competitive set? This is a crucial question for positioning. Many companies fail precisely because they can’t answer this in a way that makes sense to stakeholders.

“Why does it matter? gets to the heart of branding. If customers create companies, then what’s the thing that will make them care in the first place? When a company answers this question correctly, it can build a charismatic brand—a brand that customers wouldn’t trade for love or money. Brands like the iPod, the Prius, and Whole Foods fit this description.

Morris: Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck have much of value to say about how to break through “clutter” in The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. In Zag, you suggest the best way to overcome marketplace clutter is with radical innovation. In other words, when everyone zigs, zag. How and where do you find a “zag”?

Neumeier: The simple fact is that you can’t be a leader by following a leader. Yet, for some reason, most companies prefer to follow instead of lead. You can tell which ones these are, because they usually describe themselves as “a leader” instead of “the leader.”

The starting place for a zag is to map out the market and see what’s missing. In the restaurant industry, for example, why are there no drive-throughs for vegetarian food. Or gourmet finger foods? Why are there no national baby-sitting services? Why are there no screw-in halogen bulbs? Maybe there are, I don’t know. But most marketers find it difficult to see what’s not there. And most traditional business people are suspicious of any innovation that hasn’t already proven successful by someone else. I look at these factors as great opportunities.

Morris: In the book, you go on to explain how to design, build, and then renew one’s “zag.” Please explain how you and your associates have guided companies through this process.

Neumeier: Most of our engagements start with an executive workshop, or a series of workshops. It’s easy to get leaders and managers to buy into safe moves, but radical moves? That’s why the workshop format works well for us. Decision-makers are asked to work together from day one to envision some bold strategic move. During this process, we provide a brand framework so that whatever we come up with together meets the criteria of a winning brand. We help them think through the process of aligning business strategy with powerful brand outcomes.

As a result of the initial workshops, we may discover that the company needs to make some cultural shifts before it can really capitalize on brand thinking. It may need to start transforming itself from a traditional company to what I call a “designful company.”

Morris: What are the dominant characteristics of a designful company?

Neumeier: A designful company is an organization in which the ability to innovate—at will—is baked into the culture. Design is the underlying skill that activates innovation. If you want to innovate, you’ve got to design. The premise of the book is that, in a world of increasing complex problems, we can no longer decide the way forward. We have to design the way forward. The only problem is that traditional business, and business education as well, makes little provision for design thinking. In a sense, traditional business is design blind.

I’m not talking about design as a styling function. More as a thinking style. We naturally think of design as the go-to discipline for styling products or creating advertising. But design can also be used to invent strategic futures, make complex decisions, and craft a bold corporate vision. We need to move design up the ladder of influence

Here’s the heart of the problem. Traditional business thinkers use a two-step process to get things done: knowing and doing. But design thinkers add a third step in the middle: making. When you insert making between knowing and doing, you push back on knowing, and you put more options on the table for doing. Knowing/making/doing is a more strategic process than knowing/doing. 

Morris: How can an organization (regardless of size or nature) establish and nourish an environment of innovative thinking?

Neumeier: I don’t want to simplify or trivialize the process of cultural transformation. And I don’t want to suggest there’s only one way. In the book, I suggest 16 levers of change, in the hopes that companies will gravitate toward the ones they think will work best given their particular cultures.

Morris: But don’t you think the greatest resistance to change comes from cultural barriers, what James O’Toole calls “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom”?

Neumeier: Cultures are naturally resistant to change. The same shared mental models that allow large numbers of people to work together efficiently can also keep people from imagining new ways of working together. In many corporate cultures, new ideas are viewed as heresy. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Morris: Based on your experience, as well as what you have observed, how can companies overcome such barriers?

Neumeier: By building a culture of nonstop innovation. Designful companies are those that weave design thinking into the fabric of the company. In a designful company, innovation is rewarded instead of punished. Risk taking is the norm instead of the exception. Some companies have already embraced this type of culture change with impressive results. Gore Industries and Google come to mind. It’s no accident that Google is the number-one most desirable company to work for. The employees believe they can matter.

Morris: Much has been said and written about “employee engagement” in recent years. How do you help your clients motivate their people to be more innovative?

Neumeier: It starts with helping them find their zag. Without a big, beguiling mission and a bold strategic vision, employees will never be fully engaged. This is another instance of where workshops are valuable

In a series of workshops for security software firm Symantec, for example, we found that some of the employees envisioned themselves as firemen running into the Twin Towers while most people were running out. They saw themselves as heroes, making the world safe for networked computing. That was a great start in crafting the stories that they needed to feel engaged.

We take our clients through a series of checkpoints that lead from a shared vision to the employee behaviors that activate that vision—a culture-change roadmap. The engagement can take anywhere from 18-36 months, and usually includes a training component. My particular role is in helping develop the roadmap and getting the top-line strategic and messaging elements in place.

Morris: You say your mission is to “incite business revolution.” Why do we need a revolution?

Neumeier: Because our current business model is based on the Industrial Revolution, and industrial thinking is too linear and too top-down for the digital age. We need a more organic, human-centric theory of wealth creation. The old car is running out of gas.

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For more about Marty Neumeier, visit these sites:

Liquid Agency

The Brand Gap, by Marty Neumeier

Zag, by Marty Neumeier

The Designful Company, by Marty Neumeier

Marty Neumeier’s Innovation Workshop


Amazon Page



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