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Skip B-School. Study Life.

The 3 subject areas to master if you want to become a great brand strategist

Reading Time: About 9 minutes

The young man hovered outside my office. At first I thought maybe he came to visit my assistant, who was out at lunch. But then I realized that he was doing “fly-bys.” He’d walk past the door and glance ever so carefully to see what I was doing in my office. When his loitering bordered on annoying I called out.

“Hey, there. Can I help you?”

He introduced himself and asked if I had a minute. He had seen the presentation on brands that I give every 8 weeks or so to new trainees and he had some questions. They were good questions, too. One of them is the question I get asked the most: what should I read if I want to learn how to become a brand strategist.

The answer I am always tempted to give is to read my book, Brand Real. But I resist that urge because it would not only be self-serving, it would also be the wrong advice. The great brand strategists I’ve worked with in my career didn’t learn their craft from branding books. They didn’t learn their craft in business school, either. Sure, many went to business school, and most have read plenty of branding books (including mine). But I’m here to tell you that their knowledge and technique derived from other influences.

I answered the young man’s question as best I could. I told him to study human behavior and learn the domain of designers and other creatives. He was very appreciative—even wrote me a lovely thank you card that I received the next day. I decided it was time to prepare a better answer. What follows is my advice to anyone who wants to create and manage strong brands.

1. Exercise your analytical mind

This is the least sexy portion of my advice. I used the word exercise deliberately. Analytical thinking is the foundation of all strategy. To some it comes easier than others, but this much I know is true: it can be learned.

First, let me tell you what analytical thinking is not. It is not technical tricks you learn in a statistics or finance class. You may know how to do regression analysis or how to calculate an NPV but that does not make you an analytical thinker.

Great strategists divide problems into useful pieces. They rely on logic to test hypotheses and draw conclusions. They force issues into mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive (MECE) structures and then rigorously work the problem until they are confident in their recommendations or actions.

There is nothing shocking about the above paragraph. You could say it about a lot of strategic professions. But it is especially hard to be a confident and comfortable analytical thinker. If you put too much of your emphasis on the analytical dimension of brand strategy you will certainly produce lackluster strategies. This is why I say you have to exercise your analytical mind. Your analysis should flow so that you hardly realize you’re doing it. Junior strategists who have worked for me have often heard me tell them they are spending too much time “showing their math.” This criticism is levied when the strategy is far too focused on how conclusions were drawn rather than why they matter. Too many frameworks. Too many charts and graphs. Too little insight.

Analytical thinking was a gift nurtured in me by my father. When I was 12 years he bought me a computer. This was a novelty in 1981. Few people had computers, but my dad was a software engineer and he wanted me to learn how to program. I have been writing code ever since. That may surprise you because I don’t make a living as a software engineer. Not even close. But I enjoy coding. Writing code is akin to doing crossword puzzles (I do those, too). It’s one way that I continue to exercise my analytical mind. The logic required to write functioning code is the same logic required to do competitive analysis or to design brand architecture.

Want to exercise your analytical mind? Learn to program in Ruby. It was designed by Yukihiro “Matz” Matsumoto in the 1990s for “programmer productivity and fun.” The fun part is important. Ruby has an easy learning curve and once you get into it you’ll have fun. That’s why it has become one of the most popular scripting languages of modern web development. It is also an object-oriented programming language, which is a benefit because you will exercise your thinking about encapsulation, polymorphism, and design patterns. If you have no idea what those things are, I can safely say that they are entirely relevant to brand strategy work.

If writing code makes you squeamish, I would suggest the following books:

  • Women, Fire and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff. This master work in linguistics and cognitive semantics is an excellent journey into categorization. It’s a fun read, too. How can it not be with that title?
  • The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Thinking and Writing by Barbara Minto. This concise and compelling book on business writing is actually an excellent primer on MECE thinking. Minto gives you useful tools to build your case and it’s all written in a no-nonsense manner. I used to give a copy of this book to every starting strategist.
  • Competitive Strategy by Michael Porter. This is one of only two official business books that I recommend. The truth is that Porter has been the benchmark for all strategists for four decades. This volume is the one that started Porter's reign as strategy-master, but he has written several other books that are equally good. Technically, this is a book on economic and business strategy, but the principles translate fluidly to branding.

2. Walk in a creative’s moccasins

This part of my advice is the yin to the analytical yang. The chastising I mentioned about “showing your math” is usually due to the absence of creativity—or at least an understanding of how a strategy must inform and inspire creativity. Great brands are not expressed in logic. Logic is there, but it flows through creative—whether a name, a logo, a creative system, a tone of voice, a digital interaction or a piece of content.

This is where so many students get it wrong. They want to know what business classes to take; what text books to read. They want formulas for strategy. The best strategies are not formulaic. They have a soul. My friend and colleague Christie Henricks Harper defined this dimension better than I. She said that great brands romance people. I love this notion. Who doesn’t want to be romanced? You won’t get romance with analytical thinking alone. In fact, as a strategist it is very likely that one of your creative colleagues will deliver it. But you have to be romance-compatible.

The best strategists I know are either closet creatives or creative groupies. Closet creatives create things—usually in their free time. They write, paint, sculpt, photograph, sew, work with wood, make little movies, act in community theatre, play in a band, do stand-up etc. For whatever reason, they either couldn’t make it as a professional creative or they didn’t feel confident following that path, but they continue to produce creative work. And this makes them better creative partners because they understand how a creative views the world. They have first-hand experience with the joy and desperation that is inherent in the creative process.

The second group—creative groupies—aren’t really creatives in the practitioner sense, but they live amongst them and they devour creative work as much as they can. They go to museums. They read fiction and any kind of non-business book voraciously. They have massive music libraries or collect art or subscribe to the local theatre. Some of them just prefer to hang with creative people most of the time.

Whether you’re a closet creative or a creative groupie your goal is to connect with feeling as much as, if not more than, thinking. We feel great brands. They stimulate us. As a strategist, you have to be comfortable feeling the brand you wish to create or manage. You will almost always be doing this in collaboration with a designer or other creative professional. But that should not prevent you from nourishing this dimension of yourself.

There are three books that can help you develop this dimension:

  • A Sense of Direction by William Ball. This book was written to guide aspiring theatre directors. Ball was the founder and general director of American Conservatory Theatre. I read and re-read his book when I was an undergrad and an aspiring director (yes, I am a closet creative). In the first two pages of the book, Ball declares his prejudice for theatre as art, and then explains what that means to him. This is one of my favorite passages:
    There is something else that the work of theatre is expected to have that show business and television entertainment are not necessarily expected to have. That has to do with the revelation of the beauty of humankind.
    As a brand strategist, there is no better quality than the capacity to reveal the beauty of humankind in a brand.
  • The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. If you don’t feel like reading, you could also watch The Power of Myth, the fascinating 6-hour dialog between Campbell and Bill Moyers. Art, humankind, storytelling. They are found in abundance with Campbell.
  • The Photographer’s Playbook by Jason Fulford and Gregory Halpern. I love this book. It contains a series of creative exercises to do with a camera (or your smartphone if you don’t have a camera). Photography is more accessible than ever. You will be a better creative partner simply by trying these, even if you never share the results with another soul.

3. It’s about behavior, behavior, behavior

We create brands for one purpose and one purpose only: to affect the behavior of a target audience. You want them to try your brand. You want them to stick with your brand. You want them to share your brand. These are all behavioral actions that we attempt to influence in our strategies. So it makes perfect sense that you should understand how and why humans behave as they do.

I tell aspiring strategists to skip the brand strategy class in their business school curriculum and take basic psychology instead. Cultural anthropology will do, too. As will some branches of economics, political science and sociology. These will yield a much greater capacity for insight on behavior than any brand strategy class I’ve ever seen.

Here’s the great thing—particularly if you’re not in school anymore—if you just walk a couple of aisles over from the business section at your local library or book store you will find a vast treasure trove of books about psychology and cultural studies.

Speaking of books, here are a few I recommend:

  • The Art of The Interview by Lawrence Grobel. This is a book for journalists by a veteran journalist. Why do I include a book on journalistic interviews in a section on behavior? Because the rigor that goes into getting a good story works equally well delving into the motivations and beliefs of your brand audience. We practitioners are always interviewing, even when we don’t realize we are. But there’s a way to do it well and Grobel's practical advice is so helpful that I refer to it constantly in my work.
  • The Long Interview by Grant McCracken. Another interview book! This one is short, and it is guided less by journalism and more by social science. McCracken is still an active voice in the academic world and as an expert on cultural insight. His blog CultureBy and his Twitter stream are two of my favorite sources of inspiration. This book will help you dig into a consumer’s mind.
  • Asking Questions by Norman M. Bradburn. I promise, this is my last recommendation about interviews. This is an old book about survey research. It’s all too easy to get on SurveyMonkey or Typeform and field a quick study. Most of these quick studies are failures because not enough thought went into the questions. Bradburn’s book is the bible for anyone who wishes to understand the difference between different types of questions we ask to assess behavior. One size does not fit all.
  • The Wisdom of Teams by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith. It’s not enough to understand consumer and/or customer behavior. Successful brand strategies have to engage people inside. Also, your branding work will be part of a team (see above on the collaboration with creatives). This book changed the way I thought about the teams inside the brands I advise. A good strategist should think broadly about the behavior required to make a brand successful, and that includes the behavior of the team managing the brand.
  • Corporate Lifecycles by Ichak Adizes. I am fascinated by cyclical patterns of behavior. Adizes book casts a light on these patterns within corporate cultures. It’s a good read for anyone who builds and manages brands because brands often have to change as the company they represent advances to the next stage of its natural corporate lifecycle.

I plan to use this lengthy edition of The Findings Report as my cheat sheet the next time an aspiring strategist haunts my doorway wondering what to study to get into brands. In writing it I have pulled down many of these books from my shelves to re-read. I hope they inspire and help you as much as they have for me.


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