How we see the world:
Three kinds of brands



Dry, confusing, ugly, amateurish. Repel people rather than attract them. Severely limit business performance.


Safe, slick, conventional. Make people feel like they have a brand. But don’t do what a brand should do — contribute to explosive growth.


Stand out sharply from the pack. Ooze empathy, intelligence, and personality. Transform and drive the business.

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After 30 years, this simple graph neatly sums up how we see the world. True drivers are rare. They’re the kind of brands we build.

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How to build a driver brand.

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Stand out. The minds of the people you want to reach are packed to overflowing. If you want them to even notice you, you need to be really interesting.


Get emotional. Brands, like people, function on many levels simultaneously. The most influential level is the emotional one. Operate there and you’ll be amazed how receptive people are.


Talk like real people talk. Find a brand voice that is natural, relatable and authentic. Use cool, simple words. And lay off the technical jargon – it drives people away instead of drawing them in.


Have a point of view. People respect people who express a distinct point of view. The same is true for brands. Stand for something. It works.


Empathize. Find out what’s important to the people you’re trying to reach. Then relate your offering to things they really care about — like how it empowers them, or makes them feel smart or secure.


Use restraint. Give people just enough useful information. Don’t obscure your message with excruciating detail. Don’t be so immersed in your own world that your audience no longer thinks you care about them.


Respect people’s brains. People are very, very smart — especially when it comes to brands. You can’t fool them. Treat them like intelligent beings and they will reward you generously with their loyalty and affection.


Avoid groupthink. Nothing kills valuable creative ideas more reliably than a committee. Here’s the most important thing to know about trying to please everybody — don’t.


Don’t dabble. Spend consistently on your brand. Make it a meaningful budget item and you’ll be thrilled with the financial and emotional return on your investment.


Have high expectations. Your brand can define and drive your entire organization. The more original and dynamic it is, the more powerfully it will propel your business. Don’t settle for anything less.

How to choose a brand partner.

(It sucks to be in your shoes.)

Tons of firms offer branding, marcom, digital marketing, design and other services that sound vaguely like what you’re looking for. Each service differs from the others. So does each firm. Your chances of getting lost in this labyrinth and making the wrong fit are significant.

Ask yourself the following questions. They’ll help you tip the odds of success sharply in your favor.

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Do we need strategy or tactics? Most people start out looking for tactics: Build me a web site. Design a logo for me. Develop a content strategy. The firm you want, regardless of how they describe themselves, will need to root the tactics in some strategic context. The strategy will inform the specific tactic and endure far beyond it.

Is this abstract? Hell yeah. Can we give you specific examples? Totally. For now, just know that you need strategy and tactics. A good firm will always lead with strategy. An even better one will have a smart, efficient way to develop it.

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Is the strategic work any good? Brand strategy is typically proprietary. Still, a firm should be able to show you some example of their strategic work. When they do, it should be exceptionally clear and concise. It should demonstrate serious intellectual rigor. It should be extremely focused. And it should be imaginative. If it doesn’t provoke in you a visceral reaction, like great creative work does, it’s not great strategy.

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Is the creative work any good? Is it original? Does it make you feel an emotion? Does it have an idea in it? Does it stand out, hook you quickly, then reveal layers of depth? Does it show exceptional empathy for the audience? It should.

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Should we issue a formal RFP? Unless you have a $20 million budget, don’t issue an RFP. It’s more likely to help you find the wrong firm than the right one. RFPs are invitations for firms to do a bunch of busy work and jam their unique proposition into a generic form. They commoditize sophisticated services. Good firms don’t want to subject themselves to this reductive process, nor do they need to.

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What size firm do we need? Do you have both a massive budget and a massive marketing organization? If not, you should work with a small or medium-sized firm. Every firm has a handful of central talents. The closer you get to those people, the more value you will get. You want to be an important client. That’s much more likely to happen at a boutique.

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Who will actually do the work? It’s a classic boondoggle. A firm’s principals swoop in and dazzle a prospective client, then disappear forever once the contract is signed. Make sure you ask who will be doing the bulk of the work on your account. It’s a fair question. You absolutely need this information.

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Have they worked in our category before? A great firm can do breakthrough work in any category. It happens all the time. Sometimes having prior category experience is a good thing — there’s a slightly flatter learning curve. On the other hand, bringing fresh thinking and energy, and perspectives from other categories, is far more valuable.

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What’s our budget? There’s no way around it. To be an important client, and get great work, and hire the right firm, you need to have a defined budget. It doesn’t have to be huge — big ideas cost the same as little ones — but it has to be sufficient.

Don’t say to a firm, “Tell us what it costs.” They’ll make fifty blind assumptions and come up with a big number, after which you’ll say, “Well, here’s what we have.” Cut out that step. Only with a concrete budget can a firm help you prioritize and set expectations, and tell you how quickly they can move you toward brand nirvana.

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Are they artists or businesspeople? Branding is the province of creative thinkers. But it’s creativity in the service of business growth. The firm you hire should be focused on the impact branding can make on your business. You may need to open your mind a little to appreciate how they think. Ultimately, though, their ideas need to generate results in your world.

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Do you like the people? Do you find them pretentious, dull, fake or otherwise unpleasant? Then cross them off your list and work with people you connect with.

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Great, so how do we make our ultimate decision? If you’ve followed this guide and answered these questions, you’ve built a solid context for making your final decision. Chances are you have one or two firms that feel like a fit. (If you don’t, go get referrals to some more.)

At this point, don’t agonize. Go with your gut and commit to the relationship for one year. Keep your expectations realistic but high. Get this one relationship right and your business will become an altogether more glorious, enriching endeavor. Get it wrong and, well, you won’t be alone.

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Keep going.

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