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The Brand Gap
How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design

by Marty Neumeier, Berkeley, California: New Riders Publishing, 2003

So what exactly is a brand?

A brand is a person's gut feeling about a product, service, or company. It's a GUT FEELING because we're all emotional, intuitive beings, despite our best efforts to be rational. It's a PERSON'S gut feeling, because in the end the brand is defined by individuals, not by companies, markets, or the so-called general public. Each person creates his or her own version of it. While companies can't control this process, they can influence it by communicating the qualities that make this product different than that product. When enough individuals arrive at the same gut feeling, a company can be said to have a brand. In other words, a brand is not what YOU say it is. It's what THEY say it is. A brand is a kind of Platonic ideal - a concept shared by society to identify a specific class of things. To use Plato's example, whenever we hear the word "horse we visualize a majestic creature with four legs, a long tail, and a mane falling over a muscular neck, an impression of power and grace, and the knowledge that a person can ride long distances on its back. Individual horses may differ, but in our minds we still recognize their common "horseness. Looked at from the other side of the equation, when we add up the parts that make a horse, the total is distinctive enough so that we think HORSE, not COW or BICYCLE.

A brand, like Plato's horse, is an approximate - yet distinct - understanding of a product, service, or company. To compare a brand with its competitors, we only need to know what makes it different. Brand management is the management of differences, not as they exist on data sheets, but as they exist in the minds of people. (page 2)


The idea of brand has been around for at least 5,000 years. So why is it such a big deal now?

Because as our society has moved from an economy of mass production to an economy of mass customization, our purchasing choices have multiplied. We've become information-rich and time-poor. As a result, our old method of judging products - by comparing features and benefits - no longer works. The situation is exacerbated by competitors who copy each other's features as soon as they're introduced, and by advances in manufacturing that make quality issues moot.

Today we base our choices more on symbolic attributes. What does the product look like? Where is it being sold? What kind of people buy it? Which "tribe will I be joining if I buy it? What are other people saying about it? And finally, who makes it? Because if I can trust the maker, I can buy it now and worry about it later. The degree of trust I feel towards the product, rather than an assessment of it's features and benefits, will determine whether I'll buy this product or that product. (page 8)


Trust creation is a fundamental goal of brand design....Trust is the ultimate shortcut to a buying decision, and the bedrock of modern branding. (page 11)


So far the eye-opening valuations on Interbrand's list have happened as much by chance as by design. While the figures undoubtedly represent a huge investment in time, energy, money and study, they're mostly a side effect of caring more about sales, service, quality, marketing, and the myriad of other things that occupy a business. For most of us, brand happens while we're doing something else.

But what if you could isolate brand from those other endeavors? What if you could study it, measure it, manage it, and influence it, rather than just let it happen?

This is precisely what companies are trying to do. They're appointing brand managers, who are building brand departments, which are populated by brand strategists, who are armed with brand research. What they're discovering, however, is that it takes more than strategy to build a brand. It takes strategy and creativity together. (page 14)


When brand communication comes through intact - crystal clear and potent - it goes straight into people's brains without distortion, noise, or the need to think too much about it. It shrinks the "psychic distance between companies and their constituents so that a relationship can begin to develop. These gap-crossing, distance-shrinking messages are the building blocks of a charismatic brand. (page 18)


A charismatic brand can be defined as any product, service, or company for which people believe there's no substitute. Not surprisingly, charismatic brands often claim the dominant position in their categories, with market shares of 50% or higher. They also tend to command the highest price premiums - up to 40% more than generic products or services. And, most important, they're the least likely to fall victim to commoditization.

Among the hallmarks of a charismatic brand are a clear competitive stance, a sense of rectitude, and a dedication to aesthetics. Why aesthetics? Because it's the language of feeling, and, in a society that's information-rich and time-poor, people value feeling more than information. (page 19)


Wanna bring a high-level marketing meeting to a screeching halt? Just do what brand consultant Greg Galle of Creative Capital does - demand unambiguous answers to three little questions:

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

Unless you have compelling answers to all three questions, meaning that customers find them irresistible, you haven't got a brand. (page 21)


Differentiation works because of the way the human cognitive system works. Our brain acts as a filter to protect us from the vast amount of irrelevant information that surrounds us every day. To keep us from drowning in triviality, it learns to tell things apart. We get data from our senses, then compare it to data from earlier experiences, and put it into a category.

The sense we rely on mostly is sight. Our visual system is hardwired to discern the differences between the things we see, starting with the biggest differences and working down to the smallest. (page 34)


The traditional view of design is that is has four possible goals: to identify, to inform, to entertain, or to persuade. But with branding there's a fifth: to differentiate. While the first four are tactical, the fifth is strategic, with its roots deep in aesthetics - a powerful combination of logic and magic. (page 35)


As we've moved from a one-size-fits-all economy to a mass-customization economy, the attention of marketing has shifted from features, to benefits, to experience, to tribal identification. In other words, selling has evolved from an emphasis on "what it has, to "what it does, to "what you'll feel, to "who you are. This shift demonstrates that, while features and benefits are still important to people, personal identity has become even more important.

Cognitive expert Edward de Bono once advised marketers that, instead of building a brand on USP (the Unique Sell Proposition of a product) they should pay more attention to "UBS (the Unique Buying State of their customers). He was ahead of his time in predicting the rise of consumer-centric marketing.

The success of the Nike brand is ample proof that de Bono's concept works. As a weekend athlete, my two nagging doubts are that I might be congenitally lazy, and that I might have little actual ability. I'm not really worried about my shoes. But when the Nike folks say, "Just do it, they're peering into my soul. I begin to feel that, if they understand me that well, their shoes are probably pretty good. I'm then willing to join the tribe of Nike. (page 38)


Would-be leaders in any industry must come to grips with a self-evident truth - you can't be a leader by following. (page 76)


Q: How do you know when an idea is innovative?
A: When it scares the hell out of everybody. (page 80)


Agilent, Agilis, Ajilon, and Agere. Advantix, Advantis, Adventis, and Advanta. Actuan, Equant, Guidant, and Reliant. Prodigy, Certegy, Centegy, and Tality. Why are there so many sound-alike names? The short answer is this: Most of the good names are taken. Between a rising tide of startups on one hand, and a flood of URLs on the other, companies are continually forced to dive deeper for workable names.

The right name can be a brand's most valuable asset, driving differentiation and speeding acceptance. The wrong name can cost millions, even billions, in workarounds and lost income over the lifetime of the brand. (page 82)


1. DISTINCTIVENESS. Does it stand out from the crowd, especially from other names in its class? Does it separate well from ordinary text and speech? The best brands have the "presence of a proper noun.

2. BREVITY. It is short enough to be easily recalled and used? Will it resist being reduced to a nickname? Long multi-word names will quickly be shortened to non-communicating initials. (Not so bad for IBM, but that's old school.)

3. APPROPRIATENESS. Is there a reasonable fit with the business purpose of the entity? If it would work just as well - or better - for another entity, keep looking.

4. EASY SPELLING AND PRONUNCIATION. Will most people be able to spell the name after hearing it spoken? Will they be able to pronounce it after seeing it written? A name shouldn't turn into a spelling test of make people feel ignorant.

5. LIKABILITY. Will people enjoy using it? Names that are intellectually stimulating, or provide a good "mouth feel, have a head start over those that don't.

6. EXTENDIBILITY. Does it have "legs? Does it suggest a visual interpretation or lend itself to a number of creative executions? Great names provide endless opportunities for brandplay.

7. PROTECTABILITY. Can it be trademarked? Is it available for web use? While many names can be trademarked, some names are more defensible than others, making them safer and more valuable in the long run. (page 85)


The standard model for communication has three components: sender, message, and receiver. The sender (your company) develops a message (web page, ad, brochure, direct mail piece, etc.) and sends it to a receiver (your target audience). Communication complete.

What this model fails to recognize is that real-world communication is a dialog. I say something to you, you say something back. You may say it only to yourself, like when you read a magazine ad, but your brain is nevertheless an indispensable component of the total communication system. (page 101)


Whenever you mention audience research, people immediately think "focus group." Yet focus groups rarely deliver any of the consensus-building clarity needed to innovate. They were originally invented to FOCUS the research, not to BE the research. When used as a decision-making tool, they cast ordinary people in the role of professionals, and tend to elicit the received wisdom of a handful of alpha-consumers who see themselves as critics - and who would probably behave differently in a real buying situation. Focus groups are particularly susceptible to something called the Hawthorne effect - the tendency for people to act differently when they know they know someone's watching. in groups, it seems, some people just have to show off. (page 110)


Now it gets more interesting. What if a new product idea could be CONCEIVED at the packaging level? Instead of beginning in R&D, a product could begin with branding, first by building a set of prototypes for an imaginary product or package, and then by conducting and "opportunity test at the point of contact. (page 125)


Testing or validation, is the process of measuring brands against meaningful criteria. All brand expressions, from icons to actual products, need to score high in five areas of communication: distinctiveness, relevance, memorability, extendibility and depth.

DISTINCTIVENESS is the quality that causes a brand expression to stand out from competing messages. It if doesn't stand out, the game is over. Distinctiveness often required boldness, innovation, surprise, and clarity, not to mention courage on the part of the company. It is clear enough and unique enough to pass the swap test?

RELEVANCE asks whether a brand expression is appropriate for its goals. Does it pass the hand test? Does it grow naturally from the DNA of the brand? These are good questions, because it's possible to be attention-getting without being relevant, like a girly calendar issued by an auto parts company.

MEMORABILITY is the quality that allows people to recall the brand or brand expression when they need to. Testing for memorability is difficult, because memory proves itself over time. But testing can often reveal the presence of its drivers, such as emotion, surprise, distinctiveness, and relevance.

EXTENDIBILITY measures how well a given brand expression will work across media, across cultural boundaries, and across message types. In other words, does it have legs? Can it be extended into a series if necessary? It's surprisingly easy to create a one-off, single use piece of communication that paints you into a corner.

DEPTH is the ability to communicate with audiences on a number of levels. People, even those in the same brand tribe, connect to ideas in different ways. Some are drawn to information, others to style, and still others to emotion. There are many levels of depth, and skilled communicators are able to create connections at most of them. (page 126)


A living brand is a collaborative performance, and every person in the company is an actor. When a rep lands a customer, when an admin takes a phone call, when a CFO issues a profit warning, when a product manager gives a demo, when an accountant pays an invoice - each of these events adds depth and detail to the script, just as surely as a new campaign or website does. People "read the script in their experience with the company and its communications, then retail their version of it to others. When people's experiences match their expectations, their loyalty increases.

Drama coach Stella Adler often told her students, "Don't act. Behave. When the external actions of a company align with its internal culture, the rand resonates with authenticity. If a brand looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, and swims like a duck, then it must be a duck. It is swims like a dog, however, people start to wonder. (page 136)


Every person in the company should be issued a personal shockproof brandometer - a durable set of ideas about what the brand is and what makes it tick. Because no decision, big or small should be made without asking the million-dollar question: "Will it help or hurt the brand?

The secret of a living brand is that it lives throughout the company, not just in the marketing department. (page 138)


For brand knowledge to become imbedded throughout the organization, it has to be protected against "evaporation, the tendency for decisional wisdom to disappear as experienced people leave the company. The long-term success of any brand depends on the constant regeneration of corporate memory. Since key people tend to stay in their positions only two to five years, the challenge is to capture brand knowledge and pass it to the next generation intact. How? With a brand education program that's distributed throughout the company and its creative network, guaranteeing the survival of the brand, while keeping it open to feedback from the brand community. (page 140)


In the last century, many corporations found themselves trapped in a vicious circle of R&D investment, initial market success, competitive pressure, and price-cutting, until commoditization eventually forced them out of the market.

Brand creates the opposite effect - a virtuous circle. By combining logic and magic, a company can ignite a chain reaction that leads them from differentiation to collaboration to innovation to validation and finally to cultivation. Built into cultivation is the mandate to question all assumptions, leapfrog the status quo, and begin the cycle again. With each turn, the company and its brand spiral higher, taking it further from commoditization and closer to the Holy Grail of marketing: a sustainable competitive advantage. (page 146)