“Be on the Books” is a regular series in which Braithwaite staff break down what they learned from the best business and marketing books, focusing on the ideas and stories that they find useful on a regular basis.
In “The Brand Gap: How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design,” Marty Neumeier writes that, “The more a brand becomes distributed, the more it requires strong, centralized management. Creativity can quickly turn to chaos in the absence of adult supervision (as any parent knows). And while controlled chaos is necessary for innovation and change, uncontrolled chaos can make a brand schizophrenic and confused.”
Use of the term “brand” has certainly become chaotic in the decade since Neumeier published his book, which many marketers refer to as a foundational guide to modern branding.
Today, people use the word “brands” when referring to all businesses, every other article offers advice on building a strong brand, and every individual is supposed to have a personal brand. The term’s been overused to the point that all specific meaning has been eroded.
That’s why The Brand Gap is arguably more useful now than ever. It lays the fundamental groundwork for understanding what a brand is, what it isn’t, and how to make it stronger. Essentially a whiteboard presentation expanded into book form, it’s brief, but it benefits from being blunt. It dispenses with the filler that makes up much of marketing advice, which often confuses and leaves vague, half-baked ideas in people’s heads. In this sense, Neumeier takes his own advice: “The danger is rarely too much focus, but too little.”
The gap that gives the book its name is the gap between business strategy and creativity. While the right brain vs. left brain divide is mostly a myth, he uses it as a helpful metaphor for competing forces in an organization.
We often see in our consulting that one group will want to be as direct and literal as possible, whereas another group wants a more artful, nuanced approach. Bridging that gap can be challenging, but if you don’t, “it can divide a company from its customers so completely that no significant communication passes between them,” Neumeier writes. “For the customer, it can be like trying to listen to a state-of-the-art radio through incompatible speakers: The signal comes in strong, but the sounds are unintelligible.”
Any business aiming to strengthen its brand, especially those who have never undertaken a true branding project before, would find The Brand Gap useful. Some of the references are a little dated – Amazon’s plan to sell more than books didn’t exactly sink its brand after all – but the core concepts are timeless. It’s actually often one of the first books we ask our interns to read, because they can tackle it in one or two days and have a much clearer idea of what brands are all about. Below, some of our current interns shared their favorite takeaways.
Julie Solomon, senior at The University of Delaware
The key idea for me was that when enough people concur on the same gut feeling about a company, only then does that company have a brand. Neumeier made this crystal clear by summing it up this way: “A brand is not what YOU say it is. It’s what THEY say it is.”
The other phrase that stuck with me was this quote from a Japanese businessman: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” In other words, don’t stick your neck out to try something different. The impulse to stay safe and stick to the status quo is appealing, and Neumeier points to that as a key reason why so many brands are so bland. His recipe for finding a breakthrough idea is doing the opposite – go with the idea that scares the hell out of everyone.
Mark Connolly, junior at Fordham University
As someone who began his college career studying computer science and spending an ungodly amount of time editing faulty code, Neumeier’s section titled “Focus, focus, focus” relates to me in a pretty special way. When something is wrong with a program’s code – no matter how small the error might be – the program doesn’t compile, meaning it doesn’t work. Everything has to be in the right place. You have to be hyperfocused.
Neumeier’s idea of focusing your brand is similar. Your “code” is what creates your brand’s identity. If the processes behind your brand aren’t leading to the brand you want, maybe it’s time to see how you can edit the code. By rethinking the specifics of what your brand represents, e.g. specializing to create a niche product that appeals to a particular audience, you can dramatically change the outcome – maybe even become the leader in a new industry. In fact, you could be the one to create that new industry. The secret is a change of focus.
Madison Jones, sophomore at Haverford College
As an economics major, I loved that Neumeier broke down the major concepts behind creating a noteworthy brand into five simple steps that were easy for the novice to understand: differentiate, collaborate, innovate, validate and cultivate.
Of those, two ideas really stood out to me.
First, he emphasizes the need for brands need to be relatable and flexible. That’s the cultivation part. I loved this particular explanation:
“Brands that don’t project depth and humanity tend to create suspicion among customers. The old paradigm in which identity systems try to control the ‘look’ of an organization only result in cardboard characters, not three-dimensional protagonists. The new paradigm calls for heroes with flaws – living brands.”
Second, he talks about how human nature is hardwired to notice differences. If your brand’s voice is eerily similar to other competitors in your market, it follows that you’ll be overlooked. One example is that while seemingly every gym promotes their experienced staff, their equipment, their low prices, and the concept that anyone can join a gym, the gym that took a more aggressive, provocative tone won by daring to be different.