Episode 69 | Posted on

Branding With Heart and Integrity with Brian Richards

In this episode, we talk to Brian Richards, an internationally recognized expert on branding. He founded New Zealand’s first full-service consultancy specializing in brand strategy and design and his team works all over the world. Brian’s unique methodology has been recognized by universities and marketing circles internationally. In this conversation, he shares it with Marketing Speak listeners, offering a high level of insight into what goes into successful, compelling branding.

In this Episode

  • [01:41] – What is — and isn’t — branding?
  • [02:47] – Brian offers Red Bull as an example of a company that does branding well, then offers a current case, of resin, as a business-to-business example.
  • [04:14] – Brian moves onto talking about cement, specifically Holcim, and how he found that cement is what dreams are made of, not just a powder.
  • [08:18] – We learn about the process that you need to go through before you start designing a logo or tagline.
  • [10:59] – Brian talks more about how he works with senior management teams on defining the vision, values, and purpose.
  • [12:00] – What makes Brian’s method unique and special?
  • [13:04] – We hear more about the difference between large consulting firms and what Brian does (which involves more intuition and imagination).
  • [14:20] – Brian shares his opinions on customer research and surveys.
  • [15:56] – Is Brian a fan of net promoter scores?
  • [17:58] – Brian talks about the work that came out of Stanford regarding rapid innovation, and explains what he finds interesting about it.
  • [19:09] – New Zealand’s relatively small population has made it energetic and inventive, Brian says.
  • [20:58] – About two-thirds of the work done by Brian’s company is for export clients.
  • [23:42] – Brian walks us through a project to illustrate how his process works.
  • [31:20] – We learn about how important it is to avoid superlatives and words like “leading” or “leader,” and why it’s a benefit to acknowledge the downsides of your brand or product.
  • [32:58] – Stephan talks about an example of brutal honesty in marketing: a girl scout who sent out an email with frank reviews of each kind of cookie.
  • [33:46] – Brian responds to Stephan’s story, pointing out that we’re all humans and like to be treated with respect.
  • [34:35] – We hear Brian’s thoughts on brand anthems.
  • [36:15] – What’s the difference between an archetype, a persona, and an avatar?
  • [38:00] – It’s essential to write brand stories as part of the branding process, Brian says.
  • [39:07] – Where does the brand guidelines or brand standards document or manual fit into this process?
  • [42:00] – Brian talks about what makes a brand infections.
  • [43:36] – Stephan shares a story about Zappos and the type of unsolicited extras that make the brand infectious.
  • [46:18] – Brian and Stephan talk about the definition of a brand.
  • [48:57] – We learn more about Holcim, the cement company Brian had discussed earlier.
  • [52:42] – Brian explains how he created the tension of opposites in the case of Holcim.
  • [53:59] – Does Brian have an example of a case in which he changed the company culture because of his branding exercise?
  • [56:42] – When asked about “sticky content,” Brian talks about Icebreaker Clothing.
  • [59:00] – Brian offers ways to get in touch with him and his company.


Hello and welcome to Marketing Speak. I’m your host, Stephan Spencer. Today, I have the distinct pleasure of having Brian R. Richards on the show. Brian is an expert on branding, an internationally recognized expert. I’ve known him for many many years since the time I lived in New Zealand. He’s based in New Zealand. Brian founded the company bearing his name twenty some years ago and he built New Zealand’s first full service consultancy specializing in brand strategy and design. Over the years, he grew a capable team, they’ve got dozens of staff for over multiple floors and an office building and they are doing work all over the world not just New Zealand, Australia, but also all over Asia and Europe and their unique methodology has been recognized by universities and marketing circles internationally. Brian, it’s great to have you in the show.

Thank you Stephan. Nice to talk to you after so many years.

It’s been too long. Let’s talk about branding because you are one of the top gurus in that field. What exactly is branding and what is not branding? I know there are lots of different definitions and so forth. Let’s provide a definition and also what is branding not encompassing?

It’s fair to say that branding has come of age in the last 25 years, although brands have been around since time immemorial. But for me, branding is about capturing the unique intellectual property of the company. If you’ve seen it before, then it isn’t a brand. I also think that brands are very much about the unsolicited extras, the things you never knew you were going to get when you went out to buy a product or service. The delightful side of the product or the service, the infectious story that runs with the product or service, the aspiration that it tends to appeal to about, there’s many aspects of a brand which are nontechnical things, they are emotional things but obviously below the surface you have to have a good product, a good service, you have to have all those things but the actual innovative qualities of the brand and the story that runs with it are very important.

What would be an example of a motive qualities of a brand that we’re all familiar with?

If we’re familiar with something like Red Bull? Red Bull’s a very successful brand globally. It’s known for its aspirational lifestyles, it’s known for its edginess in terms of out there doing things on the adventure world that’s aimed at particular people. I think it’s a very successful brand and the way its content is managed and its story I think is an excellent example of those things. We get involved a lot with products and services that aren’t quite visible, of course and you’re still looking for that special piece of information that you could impart on somebody’s mind. A business to business brand for example, we’re doing a project at the moment and of all things it’s about resin which is about a third of what’s in a painting and resin is a really business to business story between reason chemists from the resin chemist to the paint chemist so to speak. We’ve found that it’s very interesting when you really interview the customer and you really get involved in the insights that they want to tell you about how you can shape and develop a story, no matter how technical with some emotion which will sway we think and convince people to come in your direction.

I remember one business to business example that you shared with me years ago. It was a cement company. Was it Holcim?

That’s correct. Holcim, and we’re still working with people in the cement industry in South East Asia, some of them are Holcim companies. Cement is the third most used raw material by man behind oil and water. It’s a massive industry. It suffers from large emissions of CO2 so it’s going downside in terms of its brand story line. We have been working in that space for some years and what we found is that cement isn’t just grey powder, it’s actually what dreams are made of, whether they’re a bridge or a simple set of stairs for community in the most impoverished of areas, all over the world it’s used its materials to make a better life. In that particular place, we led a project which was all about building sustainable foundations for society’s future which is the long way of saying we want to help people’s lives get better through the use of very skilled and knowledgeable building techniques and materials and it has been usually successful right across the globe. The company’s now in the process of merging with Lafarge and they’re going through another revamp of just what their industry is about. We’re working with some of the cements operations in South East Asia right now.

Cement is the third most used raw material by man behind oil and water. It’s a massive industry.

That’s amazing and I love what you said about cement is not just a grey powder, it’s what dreams are made of. That is so aspirational and so emotive and powerful. Is that a tagline that you came up with for them?

It’s internal tagline that we use. In fact, the tagline that the company adopted the strength, performance and passion. For example we write stories all over the world, in the most humble circumstances in Africa or in South East Asia with simple irrigation systems are helping villages using cement products right the way through the very sexy buildings designed by Renzo Piano, in the middle of Milan. The idea of a dream and the use of raw materials to deliver that dream is scalable depending on wherever they are on the globe. And what we were trying to find was a thread that could build to a tangible story about a product or an outcome. That’s what we have now got universally accepted across all of the companies. They had about 82 companies across the globe, 110 advertising agencies commemorate the time when lots and lots or PR firms but we actually wrote the original toolbox, as we call it the Regional Brand Guidelines. The total voice and all that kind of material to help actually create this platform across the world for the company which previously had been a company group with lots of different company names but they wanted to create a common brand across the globe and needed some common denominator which we eventually found.

Does that include the logo? I think you designed their logo too.

Technically we were advising on the logo. The logo is basically designed around a cement kill and we multiplied that globally from a graphic point of view. It looks very simple when you see it on the side but think of it, it’s actually quite a complex piece of design work. Particularly on concave surfaces and so on. Designing the graphic design rules we built here in New Zealand and then we created these particular guideline documents across the world which we actually built a digital platform for as well.

When you have a bigger brand like that, you don’t start with just riffing about what the logo should look like, you have to identify. There’s a whole process, you got to understand the target audience and the aspirations that you’re trying to convey to that target audience and so forth. Let’s talk about that process and then we’ll get to where the logo design, the tagline development, the brand standards or guidelines, where all that fits into the end of the process.

It really starts with the Chief Executive or the Senior Management Team who want to do something new in their category, want to say something different in their category because they’ve got a new product, or they’ve got a new service or they really want to reinvent that particular offering. I spent my life in boardrooms these days with sometimes very difficult challenges in front of me with CEOs and Senior Management Teams. In the case of cement for example, most of those individuals are engineers or accountants by profession and they don’t really value the idea of intellectual property or brand. It’s not like the FMCG Company who’s involved in the supermarket everyday but I do find that it’s not in the mind of senior management. What do we want to say about our products or service? How do we want to catch up all these wonderful work we’ve been doing to make us different or to make our product different? What I have found is you got to connect it, even going back to the beginning again in terms of the visual values and purpose of a company and it’s got to be connected to the brand that they’re involved in and you’ve got to sell the sizzle inside the board room first before you get involved in any of the scoping of a project of that scale. Generally, it happens when companies merge and they realize they got a series of interests that have to be brought together. It could be that a company’s share prices is undervalued and yet they’ve got a fantastic product and their customers think they’re great and all that kind of thing. What triggers the change of mindset is usually the fact that their advertising isn’t working or their promotional platform isn’t doing anything for them. Most of my work over the years has come by default. When people have come to me for a small piece of advice about how they should do something and it’s a little bit like opening a door, you just get this tiny crack in the door and then all of a sudden that starts to open wider and wider. I’ve never had the resources, or want to have them, to manage roll ups but I have been involved in leading roll ups across the globe. I guess my skills have been used in the boardroom, in the scoping exercises in the story and the actual original ethos of the brand where we would have the most valuable input.

You’re in the boardrooms, you’re helping them go through some scoping exercise and defining the vision, values and purpose.

There’s lots of people doing this kind of work but I do it with a particular method and techniques and case model stories over time that I’ve developed and I’m always looking for new ones but it is a process of emotion where if you’ve got the time with Chief Executives and Senior Management teams, it’s surprising how most of the ideas inside the structure need to be teased up, they need to be encouraged to be expressed in very contemporary ways. That’s where I‘ve come from over time, it’s a skill, not just facilitation. You have to get your hands with as well and the part of an ideation process or certainly a leader and also looking at their competitors in a tangible way as well. Yes, that’s what I do and overtime, people know me for that, I think.

What makes your method unique and special?

I guess it’s years of experience. It’s a bit like an architect, the work gets better as architects get older and some architects are designing women today at ‘90s. I hope that there is a bevy of work that I’ve already done which is almost 30 years old. I’m a prodigious reader, I’m very conscious of social change in all sorts of forms, both commercially its impact in community. Being well read on the topic is something that would make me different, I think. I’m not like a McKenzie Consulting, I don’t do business for those guys alongside them in large projects but I think the human dimension of what I would offer is probably a different angle than they would come through with. They have such a strict methods, those large consulting firms, my technique is much more personalized.

What would be an example of a McKenzie type of technique that’s very rigid and how you would do something different than that?

I shouldn’t have named the company so much as large consulting firms.

Sure, sure.

There are many of them. McKenzie seems to come to mind probably as a compliment to their brand. But essentially, the large consulting firms would usually go through a process of in-depth surveys inside the business and externally. I guess my skills would be more intuitive. They’d end up with a fairly route type of positioning and what happens is that if you don’t have an imaginative mindset and skills to ideate well, you’ll come up with intuitive answers, in other words, you’ll come up with a view of a category which is as you see it and then perhaps you might say, well, look, why don’t we just do something a little bit different and it’s usually an iteration, it’s not an absolute dysfunctional step which will really throw the industry and create something exciting and new. To find that, you have to be more than simply an analytical practitioner which is what the big consulting firm seem to do, they get to the end of the analytical process and it intuitively is often too much for them.

Got it. How do you feel about the surveys and the customer research, how should that best be done?

I think that there’s such a lot of data available now and obviously with really skilled software you can mine and you can develop insights, etc. There’s a lot of connotative material around. What I have found over time is that if you think of a bell curve which is simply the extremities of user and nonuser, the bit in the middle is reasonably predictable. What you’re looking for when you’re trying to assist the positioning of a brand, are the up riders in terms of attitudes, the nonbeliever or the entrenched attitude is very much with the opposition brand or whatever. When I look at those sorts of things I like to do personal interviews or have my people do those personal interviews, we call them ‘customer insight’ type of work. We do customer experience mapping, we do all those sorts of techniques, it’s pretty well accepted these days. Stanford’s School has financed some of this work. It’s been done also in Copenhagen and also in University of Toronto but the technique is to have very skilled people to be able to do that. Again, it’s about what people are answering as opposed to what they might say to you and developing attitudinal statements from customers which give you the real deep insights as where we try to dig around, but they’re not usually extensive surveys, they are more picking the right kind of customers and also looking at connotative data at the same time and make sure the two operate.

Are you a fan of net promoter scores or not?

I think they serve a purpose. There’s so many different measurement systems these days and they’re getting better every year and the software is getting slicker and smarter, etc. In the end, you still have to have an opinion. It’s a bit like the difference between a GP and physician in the sense that the physician will look at all the extremities of the person’s health in which case I put myself in that status over time. When I was younger I would’ve been much more intuitive and risk averse. These days, I think that risk if you decide what the risk is and then you measure that in relation to the company’s capability on delivering on that particular new step or task or product, you then get involved in is the copy capable of turning the core and making these changes and so on. I think that you can have a certain amount of data but then you’ve really got to feel the temperature of the company and its sales force, its ability to do stuff. With all these new social media tools for example which are incredibly useful, it still comes back to content and editorial and the ability to tell a story, the ability to engage to edit, to subedit, to do stuff really on a continuous basis because the loyalty level in brands has gone down considerably and it is sort of much more momentary than it’s ever been. You might recall a brand of cow or something like that that you love but unless somebody’s in front of you with a new element of the story or some new aspect of the product or service, then you’ll easily forget it because of what’s coming at you in terms of material status. I think that analytics are very, very useful but I still think that it’s important to be a physician in this game of brand and not simply a GP.

Right. A GP as in General Practitioner for American listeners. Let’s talk just a bit about the work that came out of Stanford. What makes that special?

The faculties there were really studying how the speed of innovation took place in Palo Alto in the Californian area and other companies worldwide. Companies like IDEO and one or two others really pioneered relationships with Stanford professors. The school is something that is not unique, I mean, just only thinking around the world is alive and well in many universities and faculty, etc. but then companies of course. One I think is interesting is that its speed of innovation, the way you form teams, it’s the way you ideate prototype around what’s called sprints and really evaluate ideas very fast and discard them very fast. I’ve seen it up close with Facebook and Google whom I have visited. Those sorts of techniques are actually rapid innovation is something that I think is giving great brands leadership if they engage in these sorts of processes.

I think that New Zealand is pretty known for having a rapid innovation and being very much an early adopter culture. Would you agree?

I think so. We’re very small. It’s only 4.2 million people here which is peanuts on a global scale or even a city scale by American standards. It has made us inventive and energetic because we’re isolated. If you got a business here doing more than $1,000,000 or $2,000,000 in sales, you’ll be exporting because simply the market isn’t big enough here for you. The amount of energetic young exporters, big and small, some of them are in products such as refrigerators and healthcare products and some are in software, there is a lot of energy and we’re great travelers. New Zealand is probably the most travelers in the world, many of us just hop on planes as I do. We’d hit Switzerland and Bangkok on business, it means nothing in terms of guiding the business in other parts of the world. I think that’s a proud feature of what we have here.

Also, the part of the culture is to do the big OE, the Overseas Experience where you drop everything in New Zealand and then you move for some period of time overseas and maybe get a job, do some world travelling and what have you. I found when I moved to New Zealand, I was there for almost eight years and I was able to attract the most amazing talent, amazing staff and the quality of the work just went way up because we were able to attract such great people versus when we were just purely in the US. Of course, as you say, you have to export so we had a 30 some staff in New Zealand office and probably 80%-90% of our work was done for the US market.

That’s the same here. About 2/3 of what we do would be for export clients or clients living off shore and they’ve got nothing to do with New Zealand economy too, they’d come to us because we are now in a certain categories. Coming back to talent thing, I think that the number of young people that graduate travel off shore, come home and then join our firm or the number of young ones who have been here and have gone off shore and we still keep in contact with them and some of them come back and even join us, rejoin us etc. That sort of interchange of international talent I think is a very interesting. Of course with the travels in Europe these days and other parts of the world, the amount of people that are interested in coming to live here in New Zealand, we have found it quite surprising in the last 12 months particularly the amount of CDs that are sent to us over LinkedIn and other ways where people want to join us because they like the work we do and so on. We’re very honored by some of these people and we do see them if they want to come to New Zealand. We’ve just employed a wonderful young man from Finland, of all places, we just literally bounced up the stairs with a degree in Design Management from the Parsons School of Design in New York. He was very much part of the digital transformation prior to Nokia’s demise in the phone business and he’s very, very skilled managing digital projects. He’s happy and well living here and he’s now got citizenship and all that kind of thing. It’s not impossible for very bright and talented people to relocate here to New Zealand quite easily. There are places for them here.

I’m a case in point because I have never even been there and I applied for residency back in 1999 and I got in. Okay, I’m moving to New Zealand. It was an incredible experience. I’m so glad that I did that and my kids are just so much more cosmopolitan and open minded and everything because they had that whole experience. It’s an amazing part of the world. Let’s now circle back to where we talked about this process and how important the early stages are where you define the vision, values and purpose. You get the CEO and the board involved and you scope out the brand’s positioning. After that, you get to the point where you’re able to start thinking about logos and tag lines and so forth. You’ve done your customer research and customer insight experience mapping, all that sort of stuff. Where does the rest of the stuff fit in? How does that work? How do you come up with a tagline? How do you come up with a logo? How do you some up with a website design?

Let me just take you to a project which I can speak about without naming the company but I’m doing a significant project in Thailand at the moment. It’s a company that has got seven and a half thousand employees. It stretches across the whole of Thailand with about 38% market share in its category. And that board company is in five different parts of South East Asia and they wanted to become original brand. Now doing business in Thailand is a challenge. They have a thing called Jai which is respect for the older person in the room and the wiser person in the room, presumably. It’s quite hard to work in workshops environment. What I decided to do here was I talked to the CEO and said could I come to Thailand with a team of two others, my colleagues, could we have a room on the executive floor which was very close to where they will work and would they give us the time of day for at least half an hour to an hour each day. They had 11 companies in the group. We had to meet with 11 different General Managers or Directors of each one of these quite significant companies in their own rights. We then had to shape the vision, purpose and values of the group and also the parts of the group where their take on those particular subjects were somewhat different because the category was a little bit different as well. What we found really interesting was, I took a writer with me, I took a researcher with me and guy who’s a wiz on laying things out beautifully. Literally at the end of the workshop, we would spend a few hours each day into the evening and by the following morning we had actually got the essence of a particular path of the business etc. and putting it altogether and 12 or 13 different entities and putting it together. The great advantage was that the Chief Executive was literally down the hall, he would pop in at the end of the day for a cup of tea and we would walk him through it very carefully and get us places and get us insights. The speed at which we did it is actually what I really want to talk about and the methods, techniques where you’re looking at attributes and values and essence and your writing vision and purpose statements, etc. Doing it in another culture where English is not a first language, it’s a second language, you have to be careful about the use of English and how to manage it. I’ve spent a lot of time in different counties now. The use of language is something that I have found a very important part of developing brands. Once we’ve done all that and we’ve got their buy in and the board has pledged the vision and purpose of the holding company, the parent company, I should say, and then all its subsidiaries and everybody’s bored into it in terms of the individual 12 or 13 Management Directors is what we did. We put everybody together and we signed off in a collaborative way and then the design process truly started. Then, you start to look at the touch points of a brand. We have these corporate messages we want to communicate. What are the touchpoints? There are external touch points which are physical, there are internal touch points which are content development or story telling, all those kinds of things. Assembling all these different touch points and then measuring their importance in terms of when they would be the most convincing versus the least convincing parts of the equation all the way down to a call center in terms of the product whole internal voice for an operator. There are so many different things when you plot and scope up how a brand can be inflated and rolled out. You end up with a list of things that you do from important to less important, from scale to tiny, of course, and then it should start to drive the way which you can do something. A brand usually takes 3-5 years to develop and bid down and you have to do it with an operating budget that already exists. We always talk about the change cost and then the ongoing operating cost, the change cost is obviously the cost to do all the initial front end work and do the design work and so on but then the operating cost is the actual way in which you roll it out and the touch points you apply to it. The thing I have now found particularly in digital is that you have to reorganize often the cultures inside a company to adopt the brand. For example, you could be a division of a company and you have got a certain section of the company’s website that you control the content on, that’s an open source type of architecture that you’re using but how energetic are you in telling stories about your particular part of the company? You see so many stale websites across the globe these days. Once you start with a very good intention but really don’t have the resources devoted to them to keep them alive and well, when you start measuring the impact of them, you wonder why you just don’t get the click-throughs or whatever, the stuff is so boring and static. We have found in more recent times that in rolling something out, you really have to capture the minds of divisional managers of product and brand managers in particular categories to see that they devote sufficient time to the digital space and have the resources and the skills inside the company to tell stories. There’s nothing better than a story told by the person who lives that story as opposed to advice from PR firms or whatever who would frame up stories and so on. I think it’s important that the story line could be polished by a professional but at least be developed by the individuals inside the company about their own products and services. It’s a bit of a long way saying that when you start inside a company, and you develop this resources, we try to do things at great speed these days because people really aren’t interested in long exercises on vision and values and playing around with adjectives on walls and mission statements. We tend to store minutes with the ear of the Senior Management very close to us because people are frustrated, their skills and language or the use of it may not be that sharp, and they know it when they see it but to write the right phrases and to write the right words is a skill that we think is important and you need to have people that are playing with those things all the time. Good copywriters in advertising often come to us because they are frustrated with writing inane comments about things we’d like to do something more meaningful. We tend to see that the craft of words, the essay writing thing is very important. When you tell a story about something, great stories have always got attention and opposites and then every great novel has peace and war or hate and love, all these sort of things. Every great story has theses tensions and unfortunately it’s a mistake when a lot of companies try to tell this story about their service or product is they don’t set up the tensions well enough in the debate about why they should be chosen as a product or service mainly because they are nervous about lifting negatives or talking about things that aren’t that positive. Too much hype these days has given us a whole series of words that are absolutely meaningless now. The words like excellent and best and finest and all these wonderful superlatives, we always say to people do not use superlatives and mainly try to own an adjective or some kind which is a unique expression that actually captures your particular essence well. Language is very important.

Too much hype these days has given us a whole series of words that are absolutely meaningless now. Click To Tweet

No use of the word leader or leading.

Yeah, that’s right. You see it is so often by people who write these things and literally the moment you start to read that first few words, your concentration just dies away because you know what to expect next. It’s better for a company to be honest about their product offering, to say they have some downsides that they’d improve on or whatever. People can see through things these days. We’re also very visually literate these days and things like accreditation of your brand is important. We sell of a lot of dairy products from New Zealand and farm related products in New Zealand and our design in our studios can make the grass look greener and make the bottle look more yellow or white or whatever color it used to be. It’s not the same as actually the provident story of people who made it and the accreditation of the system and processes and thing like traceability of food which is really a very important part of what a brand offers these days particularly when you’re standing in the supermarket and want to choose something. Those sorts of things that the honesty of brands, the integrity of them is a growing thing that you have to be able to listen as a company, you have to have responsibilities in all these areas as well.

I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know if you saw this recent viral video from Mike Rowe, he did this hilarious episode where he was talking about this girl in the girl scouts who was selling cookies and wrote the most amazing piece of direct marketing copy to send us an email. Did you see this video?

I don’t recall it, no.

Oh my god. I’ll have to include it in the show notes and I’ll send you the link as well. But the idea here of it was she was brutally honest about which girl scout cookies sucked and which ones were amazing and she rated them all and just the language that she used. Like, this cookie is an original, this one is a wasteland of gluten free. It was just hilarious. She went viral and I’m sure she has sold tons of cookies all over the country from that little direct mail piece she wrote as an email, ended up in the hands of Mike Rowe. Just case in point, be brutally honest and skip all the hype.

That’s what I call humanism as opposed to consumerism in the sense that we are all human beings, we all like to be treated with respect and not be hoodwinked and so on. I think that’s the coming age of brands. Their transparency is an absolutely critical thing going forward.

Have you heard of brand anthems?


Yes, so let’s define a brand anthem. We had an episode of this podcast with Sally Hogshead who is also an excellent branding specialist. I’m curious what your take on brand anthems is and how they fit. I start to think about that as you’re talking about playing around with adjectives on walls and got me thinking about the brand anthem process. Let’s talk about brand anthems.

It’s a term that obviously somebody has coined we all know an anthem is, it’s a little bit like if you go to an opera, you usually hear an overture at the front end of the opera where the orchestra plays, excerpt or the main line of the story line, I should say music line, themes that come through in the bounce of the show. One of the things about the brand is to catch something in an opening essay or piece which is really the top end of the message and song. One of the things that we do these days is that we are very interested in archetypes, people who actually will consume the brand or like the brand or be attracted to the brand. We spend a lot of time here thinking about the kind of personas or archetypes that we think will respond well to an anthem or a master story. I’ve quoted a motherboard story which is an old fashioned term but we do write brand stories here but the front end of this work and we do use those to make videos, to make films inside the companies for internal consumption, all sorts of things, we’re right in the middle of making several of them right now. We script them in such a way that they are a little bit like your girl scout story, to bring the human dimension to a product so that those who get engaged in, whether they use it or involved in a company to sell it or market it, that they get enthused by what you’re trying to do and capturing that is actually a real art form.

Is an archetype the same as a persona and is that the same as an avatar? Let’s define those.

They’re all words around the same topic but the skill in developing archetypes, there has been lots of good stuff written about archetypes. One of the things we do is that we would whiteboard the archetype, we would storyboard it from the point of view of character personality. For example I’m doing some work in the fashion industry at the moment with a fashion brand, who follows this particular fashion? What kind of people are they? What sort of life stages are they? What are they doing? What sort of movies do they go to? All the rest of it. The social interaction that those people will have with that brand is something that we’re interested in in shaping that archetype. That would inform the designer, it’ll inform the agency that promotes the brand and so on. These are the sorts of messages that we’re trying to get across. I think there’s been good examples where people have been able to describe these things really well given up certain products. If you think about motor cars or you think about motor bikes etc. There is plenty of good case models about Harley Davidson and all these kinds of people who have really carefully understood their archetype and carefully designed their brand and deliver their story along those lines. Of course those archetypes move, they change, they vary in their time and history or their time in life. To take those archetypes and keep them over time or redefine them for the person in that particular life stage is a very important things as well.

Let’s talk about brand stories a bit more. First of all, let’s define what a brand story is and is that an essential component to write brand stories as part of the branding process?

Yes, it is. It starts with that and something we talked about. If you write the long essay and that allows you to find the short statements about a brand, the short stories about a brand, then that’s the first stage beyond the strategy phase where the brand begins to come alive. One of the things that’s important is to write blindly without seeing any images because if you can see it in words, then it will come alive visually so much better. Great writers, they can create great characters in their word skills. That’s a very, very important start, otherwise the advertising agency or somebody else who’s doing graphic design or whatever will take it off to their particular sense of style then they won’t capture the character of the brand.

Got it. Where does the brand guidelines or brand standards documents or manual fit into this process? Is that done at the end after you define all these other things? Is it something that you come in and set a framework for towards the beginning? How does that work?

At the beginning of an exercise, we scope what we think the touch points are going to be. Generally, they’re not that difficult to know about. Companies are very skilled knowing all these things. You say alright, we’ve got an index of things that we’re going to communicate on. We’re going to communicate on the side of the track, we’re going to communicate in the call center, we’re going to communicate on a website, we can do all sorts of things like that. Then you start saying, if we’re going to do that, we’ve got guidelines that are graphic, guidelines that are social in the way of tone of voice, guidelines that are kind of stories that are consistent in form and order. Your guideline document isn’t just a graphic design document, it’s also a socializing instrument to get people to look at carefully and these days we use to produce with books, these days we can do it all digitally, we can change things. To set up a platform, one of the problems that big companies particularly in North America have and Europe is that they have huge computer platforms and they put this sort of materials on what’s called DocuShare or some sort of big SMP system or something like that and it doesn’t have that sort of life in it. But if you come into a guideline site and it’s an internal kind of closed user group site, it should excite the employee. It could be a video or a story about let’s say somebody’s joining the company, they need to know what the brand is about, then this introductory storyline for them, there is a Q&A section that they can do. There are various things that you can do these days digitally which is as marvelous and we didn’t have these things 25 year ago. Setting up these platforms, there are technical things that anybody rolling up a brand needs to know of course but there’s also a lot of social interaction that can take place on a brand and you can run blogs, you can get feedback from staff and customers if you are confident enough to allow them access to your site. What we call close user group sites are really very useful in keeping tab of a brand and managing it very carefully.

Closed user group as in staff or as in customers or both? How does that work?

You can have both. You can have both, separate or together, integrated or whatever. But if you wanted to find out whether people want to use your brand or not, if you’re giving something infectious that they’re going to look at then they might they give you the odd comment, etc. What you should be looking around for is wonderful anecdotes about the use of your brand or whatever, things that happen to them when they were using it and things like that. The amount of learning if you’re listening carefully and you’ve got that right intuitive skills I spoke about, it’s actually really important to use these new digital mediums in this way.

You mentioned infectious. What makes a brand or an aspect of brand infectious in your opinion?

I think it’s the unsolicited extras you didn’t know you’re going to get. In other words, you bought a product, you bought a service but then somebody came to you and they gave you something, they told you something that was relevant to their particular product or close to it, right? They don’t necessarily have to be directly related things but if you know your archetypes well enough, you can put stories around your products that would be quite valuable. For example you see the motor car companies Lexus and one or two others that have got a really good platform these days of talking to people about excellence well beyond their motor cars, it could be musicians, it could be poets, it could be writers, it could be all sorts of people. Rolex did the same thing with sport. You begin to enjoy the brand for what it is because you’re interested in the particular category of achievement or excellence or something that is connected to the vision and value of that particular brand that you bought. That’s great editorial, that’s very controlled communications and careful thought from us which somebody inside the company has to maintain, it’s very, very important.

One case in point for me is this is a past client of mine is Zappos. They have a great value proposition and then it’s free shipping both ways. They really derisk it for you. If you want to try different sizes, order the same shoe in different sizes and then ship all the wrong sizes back, ship them all back if you didn’t like any of them. That’s not what makes Zappos infectious, it’s just a nice value proposition. The unsolicited extras include there’s this incredible story that went viral of this blogger, she had a mom who was terminally ill. She ordered shoes from Zappos for her mom and her mom never ended up wearing them and her feet were swelling overtime then she passed away. It was well passed for the guidelines when you can return items, it was many months later that she finally got around to it but when she talked to the customer service person at Zappos, the person was really kind and of course took the shoes back and everything but then the unsolicited extras that got her blogging about this whole thing and that went viral was the CSR or the customer service person had a bouquet of flowers sent to this lady and a sympathy card and everybody there in the local team of her customer service reps wrote on the card. This blogger was just so touched by that. That’s I think a great example of unsolicited extras.

Exactly. If you take Zappos for example, and somebody sent you personally a note about, I think it’s called deep vein thrombosis flying, right? You and I both fly hell of a lot, I imagine, it’s only just in more recent times that I learned to wear compression socks when I’m travelling because I had a friend that had a really serious condition that happened as a result of too much travel, etc.

I have one too.

If somebody tell you beyond the shoe that lower leg health is very important as you get older, and support and all that kind of stuff around the care of your feet, that’s what we mean by unsolicited extras etc. They’re not just selling style, they’re also selling comforts and other things and depending what the brand is. There are many, many different elements of a product than can by association be communicated to a customer. Skin care, we’ve done quite a little work in skin care recently and found the same thing that people have beauty challenges and all sorts of different ways. That’s what’s exciting about working in this field, as we become more and more aware, we become more discerning and we need information to make the right choices and we need honesty. Great brands could capture that.

Yup. That’s for sure. Now, if you were to define in just a few words what is a brand, you gave us a ton to think about and take on board but how would you encapsulate that into just a few words?

I would reiterate what I said before. It’s the unsolicited extras that you never knew you were going to get when you went out to buy a product or service.

Okay. The unsolicited extras is really where the brand lives. I’ve also heard of a definition that goes something like this: a brand is a promise fulfilled or promise delivered. How do you feel about that definition?

That’s the second part of what I just said. What will capture you will be the emotive element to say that to say that we like you, you’re a wonderful customer, thank you so much for buying our product. We give it use of information, we recognize you as an individual. Just supposing you’re a hotel guest with Renaissance or one of the big hotel chains etc., and what you’re looking for is you and I are as business consultants travelling globally is that we want a good night sleep, right? That’s what we actually look for. We’ll find a Renaissance or whatever hotel group based on their points card or their go plus card or whatever, I mean, we got a wallet full of cards from different hotels over time. What distinguishes the one that I really like is a company that talks about offering me a good night sleep because I’m addressing a group in the morning, or being able to help me with my technology when I’m about to arrive to a place when I know the projector will be lousy or something. Those are the sorts of things if you really aren’t sure to then understand the archetype, that is the compelling reason why people will prefer a brand. They’re constantly changing and they’re different from one archetype to another.

I remember hearing about how, I forgot if it was Nike or Adidas or somebody like that. I guess you pronounce it Adidas over there in New Zealand. I still remember. I forgot which major shoe company it was but they have a whole room dedicated to understanding the personas of their teenage customer base. They have these full sized posters, life sized posters of each of the personas and that person’s locker. These are actual lockers. You can open the locker and you can see how they decorated the locker, you can see what sort of sports gear and books they have in the locker, their snacks and everything in there. You really kind of enter their world. Really powerful. What would be your best example of a company or client that is doing an amazing thing getting inside the head of their archetypes?

To give you something personal, a few years ago I was in Indonesia working on a large project for Holcim, a big cement company. I discovered that they had 800,000 masons, masons who are plasters as we call them in New Zealand, who literally live in the city of Jakarta, on building sites. They go home only once a year, twice a year on the bus and that could be an 18 hour journey for Ramadan or whatever. You’re sitting in a high rise building in the middle of Jakarta and you try to say how do we sell mortar? Which is the product you make plaster from, to do this beautiful work which finishes a room or whatever. What I did was I dragged the young guys in this apartment, in this workshop out into the field. We’re going to go and have a look at these sites. If you’ve ever been onto a building site in the middle of Jakarta City where the scaffolding is bamboo, there was no health and safety regulations, nobody wears a hat, everybody’s walking around in thongs which is most dangerous on a building site. These sites can be 30-40 floors high. Often, the individuals live in literally hats either at the back of the building or as the building goes up, they’re living on the higher floors or the lower floors which are under finished.

It’s so scary.

And you say to them, no amount of advertising are going to sell these guys our mortar, that’s going to make them prefer our particular brand of cement, etc. What we have to do is get into their hands. We found out that for example that they live in hammocks, they read the Koran, they’re wonderfully respectful young man and people, they’re sort of pecking order inside their little team of masons. They did the most beautiful work, they got real, real skills. We needed to get into their heads. What we did is we created a coupon system based around every bag that you bought, you collected these coupons. It simply gave you the access to join a school for masons and we made a fuss of their particular skill sets. We created these mason schools around Indonesia, we also tried and did the same thing in Sri Lanka and all of a sudden we recognized a particular individual on a building site that had never really been given any sort of accolade or respect. The brand grew dramatically in the sense that we had incentives to who got home on the bus, we paid some of the journeys if you use the particular type of bag, like collecting this coupon of the size of these bags etc. Nothing to do with advertising, these people can’t read information on the back of the cement but actually getting into their mind and really understanding how they were going to consume and use the product and prefer it was all about the product quality, the product was good in its own right, it was a very good product. It was just seen as just another one along the lines. Recognizing them was the key thing. That’s a very third world, unsophisticated example. We’re doing some work right now at the moment for major bank, looking a teenage banking between 13 and 15 years of age and we really are trying to get into the mindsets of these teenagers and so on, the differences between boys and girls in terms of their ability to consume or save. We’re doing this on the street at festivals, various things to try and get this insights we’re looking for to advice the bank who are coming with us in this process and learnings a great deal s we do these exercises.

Actually getting into their mind and really understanding how they were going to consume and use the product and prefer it… recognizing them was the key thing.

Amazing.  I love those stories. Back to the story idea, what would be the tension of opposites, either with wholesome or with the bank? Pick whichever one you want to do. How did you create tension of opposites for the story telling?

I think the bank project isn’t quite complete yet but certainly in the case of masons in Jakarta, the tension of opposites was the amount of rework that has to be done on a building when the mixes aren’t right and the down time, the lost time in terms of plastering a wall. Learning properly the viscosity of the material, being able to apply it at speed will give you great savings. The tension of opposites was about bad workmanship versus good workmanship or pride of work between doing something that you really are proud of and we took this beautiful images of these man that we’re doing these mosques and beautiful, really really, difficult kind of plastering jobs and use those as story lines in promoting it. We told stories to them on building sites, we didn’t use brochures because they can’t read them, they can’t read. The idea was to actually run these mason schools and have them recognized amongst their peers, having them compete between each other amongst their peers and see what pride of work is really all about.

That’s great. Do you have an example either client or otherwise where you significantly changed the company culture because of the branding exercise that you took the company through?

I wouldn’t say I’ve been totally responsible for it but I’ve had quite a lot to do with the image of New Zealand, the identity of New Zealand as a country. I’ve done government projects and various things and one of the major players in this is companies lacking in New Zealand and the tourism board and those kinds of things. What happened in the case of New Zealand is the level of service in flight at the airport etc., has just lifted by, I would say 150%. If anybody travels by New Zealand these days, considering where they were 10 years ago, this is what they’re doing now. It’s just phenomenal. I travel a lot on all sorts of airlines etc. around the world. Even though I’m sounding nationalistic in this comment, I would say in New Zealand, alongside one or two others, we’ve got actually impeccable service standards.

I agree. I’ve flown a lot and I’d say Air New Zealand is one of the top airlines in the world. Maybe Singapore airlines is right up there as well.

That’s the thing where it wouldn’t matter how many brand manuals you put on or how many training programs, you actually got appeal to people’s individual human instincts and say that how would you like to be treated if you are travelling. New Zealand has what I call unpretentious courtesy about them. When they do service, it’s not sort of insincere, you often see service trained people that are going through the motions but they really don’t mean a damn thing. Whereas if you have humanized service where obviously people will tell a little story about themselves or be open in terms of their approach to whatever they’re trying to achieve. Some of the blueprint work that we developed, that’s had a huge impact on the number of businesses here in New Zealand and the tourism game particularly in terms of the tourist experience when people visit New Zealand. I would think role sophistication is better than sophistication. You’ll find it in America, the amount of genuine Americans you meet when you give them the time or they give you the time, it’s such a warm exchange, etc. There’s always the near of commerciality that you have to break through with a brand before you’ll be remembered and it will resonate.

One last question. I know we’re about out of time. If you could give an example of sticky content. The brand is in place, it’s been solidly developed, and now you want to create some sticky content that is in line with that brand, what would be an example or two that are just really stand out examples?

I’m the author of originally working with Jeremy Moon and the Creation of Ice Breaker which is a New Zealand brand of Merino clothing. It’s global. We talked about soft adventure as opposed to hard adventure. We didn’t feel that we were the company that needed to have people coming out down the Southern Alps or the Himalayas more that we wanted people to enjoy the outdoors and do the best they could of that space depending on what their capabilities were from the fitness point of view. Soft adventure was a story that we developed a long time ago and the brands rolled up globally now, it’s in a number of different places but we try to sell that kind of down under infectious quality about getting out and doing things in the open spaces and so on. I think that’s the sticky content that people have picked up on. We’ve not got about 35 competitors in that same space of course, all these people are into the same thing but essentially Ice Breaker was the first involved in Merino clothing and a ton of story of soft adventure really well and still now, I think. I think that there’s plenty of very visible brands around the world that have sticky content whether it’s Red Bull or whether it’s motor car companies, there’s a whole bunch of them. I’m getting a little bit more jaundiced around putting the ears around things as opposed to creating souls about companies because I just know that you put it around something and then you got to redo it again in five years’ time, whereas if you can capture the soul of the business and that soul can continue to evolve over time given it’s carefully managed by Senior Management and looked after, and even if they don’t like the last year’s advertising campaign, if there was an element of a story that could be threaded and continued with, the continuity of a brand is actually is a very critical part of going forward. So many people may change management and then they get rid of a lot of intellectual property or unique IP or recall and want to start again. Brands aren’t necessarily like that. There are long endearing topics which need constant energy of course.

Makes sense. Alright. Thank you so much, Brian. Now if somebody wanted to work with you and hire your firm to help them with their brand, how would they get in touch?

We have a website which is called richards.partners. I have personal website blog, that thing I do each board night which is called brianrichards.com. I can be reached pretty much over the internet fairly easily these days. I’d be delighted to talk with anyone who wants to discuss these things. It’s my passion, I hope that I will continue to do this for a long time yet. And as I said, it’s a troubled world that requires honesty, capture and soul more than ever and brands, if they’re clever, will capture that wave and I think you’ll see it return to what we used to see in the ’20s and ‘30s when we sold genuine products in very narrow categories at a time that just sold honestly good razor blades if they were Gillette or whatever. I think you’re going to find that we’re going to return to that sort of era albeit with digital mediums to excite people so there will be fewer brands but stronger ones going forward and those that catch the wave will grow, those that don’t will get lost I feel.

Alright. Thank you so much, Brian. Listeners, do check out the Marketing Speak website for the show notes of this episode which includes links to all the different stuff that was mentioned and also a transcript is available on the Marketing Speak site as well and also a checklist of actions you can take to improve your branding based on the content of this episode. This is Stephan Spencer signing off. We’ll catch you on the next episode of Marketing Speak.

Important Links:

Your Checklist of Actions to Take

☑ Look for a thread that can lead to a tangible story about your product or outcome. This can give you
ideas for how to take the direction of your branding.

☑ Before you come up with a tagline or logo, clearly define your brand’s vision, values, and purpose.

☑ Shift toward being more like a physician than a GP, by looking at all the extremities of a person’s health. In other words, look at the big picture instead of being purely risk-averse.

☑ Avoid too much hype. Instead, set up a set of compelling tensions, just as you’d find in any great novel.

☑ Don’t use superlatives. Pick an adjective that truly captures your particular expression, and use that

☑ Focus on creating an honest brand with integrity. Being honest about your brand’s shortcomings can
make it more compelling.

☑ Treat your customers (and potential customers) with respect by offering transparency within your brand.

☑ When you’re looking for a tagline or short story about your brand, write a long version of the brand story. From here, you can extract shorter concepts or images.

☑ To make your brand truly infectious, offer unsolicited extras. This can be what it takes to make your
brand competitive and memorable.

☑ Work on creating “sticky” content. In other words, create content so good that it sticks in consumers’
minds and keeps them engaged.

About Brian Richards

Brian R. Richards founded the company bearing his name some 20 years ago. Building New Zealand’s first full-service consultancy specialising in brand strategy and design. Over the years he and a growing capable team have contributed to transforming company and community brands in New Zealand, Australia, Asia and Europe. Their unique methodologies have been recognised by universities and marketing circles internationally.

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