Marty Neumeier on marketing’s “new realities”: An interview by Bob Morris

Neumeier, Marty Marty Neumeier began his career as a designer, but soon added writing and strategy to his repertoire, working variously as an identity designer, art director, copywriter, journalist, package designer, magazine publisher, and brand consultant.

By the mid-1990s he had developed hundreds of brand icons, retail packages, and other communications for companies such as Apple Computer, Adobe Systems, Netscape Communications, Eastman Kodak, and Hewlett-Packard.

In 1996 he launched CRITIQUE, the magazine of design thinking, which quickly became the leading forum for improving design effectiveness through critical analysis. In editing CRITIQUE, Neumeier joined the growing conversation about bridging the gap between business strategy and customer experience.

In 2002, Marty Neumeier launched Neutron, a design think tank based in San Francisco focused on internal brand-building processes that drive organizational change. While at Neutron, Marty authored a series of three “whiteboard overview” books, titled THE BRAND GAP, ZAG, and THE DESIGNFUL COMPANY, all published by New Riders, which have been hailed as breakthroughs by Fast Company, BusinessWeek, and Harvard Business Review. ZAG was recently named one of “The Top 100 Business Books of All Time.”

In 2009, Neutron merged with Liquid Agency, where Marty now serves as Director of Transformation. His recent DVD, called MARTY NEUMEIER’S INNOVATION WORKSHOP, offers a peek at how he works with Liquid’s clients to drive organizational change. Marty travels extensively as a speaker and workshop leader.

His latest book, THE BRAND FLIP: Why customers now run companies and how to profit from it, was also published by New Riders.

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Morris: Before discussing THE BRAND FLIP, a few general questions. First, of all the changes that you have observed in brand creation and management during the last 12-15 years, which do you think has had the greatest impact?

Neumeier: I think there are two changes taking place.

The first is that business leaders are moving away from the old-fashioned belief that a brand is merely a logo, and moving toward an understanding that a brand is a customer perception based on a wide variety of inputs and behaviors.

The second change is a realization that business strategy is only self-talk unless it’s matched by effective design across all these inputs and behaviors. The gulf between strategy and design is what I tried to show with my first book, .

I can chart these changes in my Amazon reviews over time. When the book first came out, 13 years ago, the ideas in it — design thinking, brand tribes, zagging, customer centrality — were controversial. Today’s readers are more likely to complain that the book seems dated. They’re saying, “Who doesn’t know that a brand is a customer’s perception?”

It reminds me of the time my wife and I saw Romeo and Juliet in London. An American couple was walking out of the theatre in front of us. The man asked the woman what she thought of the play. She said, “I liked it, but there were too many clichés.” I tell myself I’m in good company!

Morris: Branding was around even before Shakespeare, in the ancient markets of Athens and Rome. What has stayed the same, insofar as creating or increasing demand are concerned?

Neumeier: Since I wasn’t there—I’m not as old as I look—I can only imagine that Greek and Roman marketers faced a certain level of competition. If so, to be successful they would have had to choose between lowering their prices or differentiating their products. It’s a timeless law of business. Either you differentiate, or you risk competing away your profits. They would have also needed to establish some trust. Without trust, customers are always wary of paying a premium. This is Branding 101.

Morris: Despite the availability of 280,915 books on marketing that Amazon now offers, what — in your opinion — do most C-level executives still not get about what marketing is…and isn’t.

Neumeier: That’s a lot of books. My guess is that most of them are perpetuating the idea that marketing is selling. I have to side with Peter Drucker and say that it’s more than that. About fifty years ago he stated that the job of marketing was to “make selling obsolete.” The thing is, he was actually describing modern branding. The job of branding is to get more people to buy more things for more years at a higher price. It’s not about selling, per se. In Drucker’s time, branding wasn’t much more than sticking logos on things. He didn’t know he was the world’s first brand guru.

Morris: Ted Levitt is one of my intellectual heroes. I still read his classic 1960 article, “Marketing Myopia” (see July/August 2004 issue of HBR), at least once a year. You and he, as well as Drucker and Sun Tzu, have had the greatest influence on my thoughts about marketing. Which sources have had the greatest influence on you?

Neumeier: I’m a student of those great thinkers. I would say Drucker and Levitt the most, and also David Ogilvy, Trout and Ries, and David Aaker. I’ve also been influenced by strategy authors like Roger Martin, Gary Hamel, and Clay Christensen. The value of Christensen’s insights into market disruption can’t be overstated.

Morris: Of all the books you have written before THE BRAND FLIP, which one has generated the most discussion (pro and con) in various quarters—and what do you make of that?

Neumeier: It’s funny. When I think about which book has made the most difference, I’d have to say either THE BRAND GAP or ZAG. THE BRAND GAP has sold about 100,000 copies so far, and has gotten more than ten million downloads on SlideShare. ZAG was named one of the top 100 business books of all time, and is still selling briskly after ten years.

But the book that has caused the most discussion, albeit in a smaller community, is METASKILLS. It’s quite different than my simplified “whiteboard” books. It runs 300 pages with 30 pages of notes. It takes on questions like the future of work, the role of humans in an era of intelligent machines, the need for more creativity in a society on the brink of collapse, and the challenge of educating young people for what I call the Robotic Age. It also describes the process of design thinking in a way that hasn’t been done before.

The book’s view of the future — which I find positive — has energized some readers and upset others. To some people it seems to equate creativity with liberalism, which in some ways it does. This is too bad, because it contains ideas that today’s conservatives could really work with. Tellingly, the book is finding more success in Europe, where there’s a higher percentage of liberal thinkers.

Morris: For those who wish to understand design thinking, what do you think are the most important points to keep in mind?

Neumeier: First, you can use design thinking without being a designer, and second, you can be a designer without using design thinking. It’s a process for innovating — a repeatable process that incorporates accident and surprise.

The best way to explain design thinking is to contrast it with traditional thinking. A traditional business thinker makes decisions in a two-step process: know and do. You “know” something about how to address a problem—by past experience, from reading a case study, from exposure to it at Harvard, or from reading an article. So you tend to move directly from “knowing” to “doing”. But if your goal is innovation, this two-step process doesn’t cut it. Innovation, by its very definition, requires doing something new. Anything you do from a position of knowing — from received learned, if you will — will be borrowed from the past. By definition, it can’t be new.

A design thinker doesn’t accept what’s already known. He or she inserts a third step between knowing and doing. I call it “making.” So now the process looks like “know-make-do” instead of “know-do”. The design thinker imagines new solutions, makes prototypes or formulates hypotheses, then tests these to see how well they work. It’s fast and rough but it yields information. It pushes back on what you think you know, and it changes what you were going to do. It puts options on the table that weren’t there before. So instead of deciding the way forward, you’re designing the way forward. It takes most of the risk out of bold, new ideas.

Morris: How important has design thinking proven to be during your own adventures in the vineyards of free enterprise?

Neumeier: Personally, I wouldn’t try anything important without it. Without design thinking, the only sane response to a problem is to make a smaller, “safer” move. Smaller moves don’t get you very far. They key is to let out the leash on imagination, but not take it off the leash. Imagination is the only path to innovation. It’s a good example of something that humans do better than machines.

Morris: In your opinion, is human interaction during the purchase process (i.e., dealing with people rather than electronics) more important, less important, or about the same as it was before the emergence of online commerce?

Neumeier: That depends. It’s true that human beings are better at handling certain business transactions and solving certain customer problems. But there are times when a customer might prefer the simplicity of using software or the anonymity of talking to a robot. The question is always: Would the automated solution be better for the customer, or better for the company? Both the live person and the automated process are your brand advocates on the front lines. You need to make sure the experience is a good one for the customer.

Morris: I’ve been waiting to ask you this question for at least ten years. What is the most effective way to convince someone to purchase a product, service, or whatever? What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind?

Neumeier: I think the problematic word here is “convince.” Convincing isn’t really possible in an age of customer control. Customers hold most of the cards today. They have good visibility into their choices, and they can easily share information with each other. Not only that, they don’t like to be sold. But they do like to buy. Your job shouldn’t be to convince customers to buy, but to help them buy what they want. How do you offer what they want? By thinking first about the customer instead of the company, and more about the relationship than the transaction. This is the essence of today’s branding.

Morris: Let’s shift our attention to THE BRAND FLIP. When and why did you decide to write it?

Neumeier: Well, even though THE BRAND GAP is selling as briskly as ever, it’s been 13 years since I wrote it. A lot’s happened in 13 years. For example, back then social media was just a gleam in a few people’s eyes. There was no iPhone, no Facebook, no Twitter. Amazon had only just started, and Google was still battling AOL, Yahoo!, and Excite for dominance. Remember Excite? Probably not!

As the dust of social media started to settle, I could finally see some patterns emerging. I thought I could turn these into new principles. What was interesting about social media was that, far from making the ideas in THE BRAND GAP obsolete, it was proving them truer than ever. But I felt as though I hadn’t gone far enough with the earlier book.

Morris: We’re there any head-snapping revelations while writing it?

Neumeier: Yeah, quite a few. One epiphany was that the whole idea of market segmentation was growing less useful. Segmentation is the process of gauging the size and makeup of an existing market, then chopping into smaller chunks so you can deal with it better. You might divide it into different types of customers or regions or feature types, so you can focus only on where you can win. You might target different customer groups with different messages so you can optimize each message.

But what if the market doesn’t really exist yet? Or if it exists in a form that’s rapidly changing? How do you segment a market that’s not there yet or looks like a moving target? What I realized was that, for emerging markets, the best way to market was to find your most likely core customers, work closely with them to build out your offering, then let them build your brand by telling their friends. Instead of “divide and conquer” as in the process of segmentation, you have “multiply and conquer.” This is the process of building a brand tribe.

I define a tribe as a group of people who have similar interests and talk to each other. The rule here is one tribe, one brand. You can’t really sell the same product to two different tribes, because they’ll see your product as inauthentic. You can’t give one message to one tribe, and another message to another tribe. One or both tribes will drop you.

The traditional device for selling to a segmented market is the sales funnel. In the book I propose a new device, the brand ladder. The idea is to move your customers up the ladder from satisfaction to delight to engagement and, finally, to empowerment. The question to ask is, “What’s the highest good we can bring to our customers? “In other words, “How can we offer meaning instead of merely products?” If include a number of charts and graphs to deal with this.

Morris: How does a “whiteboard overview” differ from other forms of discourse?

Neumeier: I call my books whiteboard overviews because they try for a kind of graphic simplicity. Most business books try to stuff as much information as possible into readers — the more-is-better approach. I try to remove all but the most important information. Then I try to make it clear and memorable. My belief is that most business people have a lot on their plates and would prefer to get only the most useful information in the least amount of time. They can always go back later and unpack the supplementary material. Therefore I prefer simple charts and easy-to-read text, like notes on a whiteboard.

Morris: To what extent do the organization and presentation of material in THE BRAND FLIP demonstrate some of the basic principles of design thinking?

It’s mostly about deciding what to highlight and how to illustrate it. When I write a book, I put a big sign over my desk that says, “Tell us something we don’t know.” Then I sort through my hundreds of notes and ideas and pick out the ones that surprised me most when I first happened upon them. These trigger new ideas.

Then I put another big sign over my desk that says, “Show us something we haven’t seen.” I look through my ideas to see which ones might be easier to understand visually than verbally. These become the charts, graphs, and illustrations.

The next stage is to build these ideas into a logical flow so I can see what I have and how it’s working. From there I can refine it, until I get to a stage where I can share the ideas with my colleagues. This is the prototyping and testing stage.

For THE BRAND FLIP I led a workshop with my teammates at Liquid to test and build out the key ideas. After that it’s all about polishing and production.

Morris: What’s next for Neumeier fans? Do you have any future books on the drawing board?

Neumeier: I always have a couple dozen ideas going. Which one becomes the next project usually depends on the feedback I get from the last one. Right now I’m fielding a lot of questions about brand tribes. So we’ll see. It’s all about what my readers will need next.

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

Liquid Agency link

Peachpit Pearson link

His Amazon link

LinkedIn link

Twitter link

Wikipedia link

Here is a direct link to my Neumeier interviews, book reviews, and commentaries

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