A Whole Brand Briefing x John Grant, Author + brand strategist.
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The following is a recent interview between author + brand strategist John Grant and Barkley.
John Grant: How can you hope to be one of the special brands in people's lives when it's such a short list? It's shorter than the list of apps people keep on the front page of their phones.
Barkley: Hi everybody and welcome to the Whole Brand Briefing. My name is Tim Galles and I'm the director of The Whole Brand Project. Really excited today and actually quite honored to be joined by author + brand strategist John Grant. I've followed John for a long time, really dating all the way back to when he was at the Seminole Advertising Agency, St. Luke's in London. I love St. Luke's and there's probably not a week that goes by where I don't think about the impact of St. Luke's on my thinking or actually my career. As I said, John is an author + a prolific one at that. I have lots of John's books on my shelves and they're all incredible, but his latest is really special because it's really tackling a challenge that a lot of brands are facing today. It's called Greener Marketing.
And what I love about this book is it's really intended to help sustainable brands be better at marketing, and it really fuses this idea of creativity and doing good, which is a big concept in my career and the work that we do at The Whole Brand Project. John has worked on brands like IKEA, Lego, The BBC, Carlsberg, Samsung, + Sony. And nobody has really thought more about the ins + outs of brands more than John Grant. What I love about John's work is, he helps us all imagine what brands can be, and that is really what gets me going. So without further ado, let's get to The Whole Brand Briefing with John Grant.
I want to start with a question that we ask everybody, and it really is, because I think it's sort of telling about where your head is + maybe where it even started around the topics of brands but, what do you remember as your first brand memory?
John Grant: There were probably earlier ones, but the one that stands out to me was a red Adidas tracksuit, which became my second skin for about a year. Luckily, it was made of something like polyester so I could wear it at every moment. Back when I worked with Coca-Cola, actually one of the projects I worked with them on was about branding the company and I said that brands, we talked about Adidas, brands like that are identity trump cards, they're symbols that we play into our social dealings, but an organization has a brand that's more like the story of your tribe and it has a past, a future, some kind of vector between that, some competitors, a current leadership, + it's very much like brands like a Shakespearean drama or the Mahabharata or whatever, but they are stories of tribes and less well coined by or encompassed by archetypal images.
They're sort of Nike being like a tribal spear or wings of victory or something like that, but they're not quite so symbolic, they're much more narrative-based. My second book, which I called After Image, which was challenging the 1950s psychoanalytic inspired brand personality thing, started quite early in the book with the question, which I used to ask people at the time which is, what's the brand personality of eBay?
And Alan Moore, who I know very well, and many other people were transfixed at the time by the potential of communities to become + define brands. The world of aficionados, the people who built lots of modern brands in Reddit like the GameSpot investing trend and crypto. These are brands of enthusiasm that are defined by their audience + their community and they're a much more interesting space potentially to play, but not in the traditional mode of 1950s branding where you make an ad or a poster or something, you know have a symbol like the Jolly Green Giant, which is an absolute archetypal symbol of vitality + that's your brands.
Barkley: I always think of a brand being on its best days being a bit of an alibi. It's a story you get to say, why did I choose? Why did I choose a Honda? Why did I choose a Volvo? Some brands have tougher alibis.
John Grant: We have many brands in our lives which are just heuristics. You don't have to think about what razor to buy every time you're in the supermarket just by the same one as last time, whether that's Bic or Gillette or the own brand or anything, but it's just a cognitive shortcut. I produced something with some colleagues back in the 90s for IKEA called the Not a Brand Book, and we were commissioned as their London agency who'd done barnstorming successful creators for them. And they said, well, we've struggled in a few other markets, so could you produce a brand book? And me and one of the creative directors of St. Luke's created something called the Not a Brand Book + we said, look, you are not Nike. You're basically Nike makes things in places that look like sweatshops, which was a very current controversy at the time with Naomi Kind's no logo.
And then they charge a hundred dollars. And the difference, some of the difference goes to their shareholders and some of the difference goes to sports stars, but they're here to inflate the value of objects. You, IKEA are a factory outlet, if you make a mug for 50 euro cents, you charge 51 euro cents for it and you just make a billion of them and you are not here to inflate the value, but you're actually here to democratize design and make it available to the further reaches of the mass of humanity who can't afford European lifestyles and so forth. It was just a thundering IKEA manifesto about brands. It had a picture of Richard Nixon, was the second page, + with the line, only liars need to be consistent and it produced an effect. I worked years later with IKEA in North America and I found that the country manager of Canada had a bootleg copy of this.
It was never adopted as an official thing, but people photocopied it and shared it. And the core question that we asked because we'd been asked to do something that helped other markets be effective. And we just said, just to ask one question which is, is this us? Because IKEA has such a strong culture and ideology and mission, there's no need to put a gloss around it like Chanel would where you're handed the manual and you're not allowed to spoil the round by doing anything renegade, + you've got one creative director, they've got a hundred thousand creative directors or more these days and a hundred thousand CEOs and they have a really strong culture, which I think is what appealed to me about your Whole Brand Project is that certainly the minority of companies that really have brands and really have cultures don't need so many of these crutches to formulate what they do + they're able to respond authentically and actually change over time.
Barkley: When you hear the word the concept of the whole brand, and just the idea of a holistic brand, what does that conjure up to you? What does it mean to you without leading the witness too much?
John Grant: There are several connections I immediately made with it and there were things that I realized at different times. So it was very influenced way back in the 90s. There were a couple of business books about the whole business concept. So, the idea that actually a company culture + its products and the brands and the formats and everything could become this holistic meaningful entity. So, when I work with The BBC, there was this great sense of an organization that really didn't have to find its purpose because it had one ever since it was founded + it was more of a public service remit to entertain and inform and that carried them into the digital age and gave them an anchor attached to the boat. And they have a very strong culture and culture isn't a metaphor there. There's a lot of appreciation for what makes quality.
We'd say now today a quality piece of content, but they put a lot of thought into the craft of storytelling and production and so forth and would always produce things to their own standards rather than some current commercial fad or the need to chase ratings, which also insulated their cup. But I realized at the time that I was working with them + I was on a panel discussion, they were saying what if anything is really new in brand thinking? And what was new in my thinking at the time was to be starting to look for the kind of ideas that organize + cement and attach great diverse parts of a brand. And I'd started, which I riffed on in several books to draw brands as molecules of connected ideas and always to be looking at the what's the glue or connection or what's the genetic principle behind this molecule that gives it a certain function, a certain way of being, which is different.
Barkley: When you think about sustainability efforts as being part of those, this is what we do, where is your head in that space? Has that been an evolution into getting to sustainability? And I know I love this idea of the CUSP or C-U-S-P and how to actually get credit and express your sustainability efforts in order to have that be part of what your overall brand is. Can you talk about sustainability as an initiative + an area of interest for you? And then where you see that for brands.
John Grant: We are, in most industries that I deal with, moving rapidly from an unsustainable model to one that's sustainable or regenerative or net good beyond not bad. And a lot of the leading organizations in the world have already committed + signed up to this and those that are going slower are having fires lit under their feet by everybody from employees to investors. And so, the question, rather like digital in 1997, the question wasn't should we adopt digital or not. More + more people were buying the idea that every company in the future would become to some extent a software company. So the question was how are we going to do this? How are we going to flex our own culture + value and brands to do this best and to serve the people that we serve and make lots of money and make a better world? So that broader sustainability thing, and I think sustainability has moved to that kind of front foot position where more + more conversations I'm having assume that, but then there's a maturity curve as there was with digital.
So there are pure-play sustainability innovators, and I deal with a number of those, who are trying to create brands but who have the future of growing food in cities or the future of protein or to name a few or the world's most sustainable personal care company. And now they're trying to hammer out brands + businesses behind that. But they're right at the Tesla end of the journey. And then there are others who are, to varying degrees, on that bell curve + as long as they're moving in the right direction, I think they're all admirable projects and clients. The core thing that I often remind people, I was in quite an idealistic workshop with the design council in the UK as part of the COP26 conference that was going on in Scotland and there were some young designers there and they were saying, well shouldn't we just forget all of these corporations because none of them, there's no such thing as sustainable corporations.
Shouldn't we just work with the really purest new, you know guys are a B Corp, but you know what, we only work with B Corp. And my thing was, well on current projections we need to make about 7% a year improvement in carbon emissions and I'm more likely to make that next week working with an IKEA or even a Walmart than I am working with somebody who knits baskets + sells them on Etsy. So first of all, know where you are and then bring your communications and your brand and your strategy and your sustainability in line with that, and moving. I know somebody from a large global travel company who told me that his predecessors stated KPI was moving from D to B and actually, they were referencing the Carbon Disclosure Project, which has an A-list + they didn't aspire to be an A because they help people book tickets for flights and other things and it would be a long way to go, but they wanted to get from D to B.
So, knowing where you are and the tactics change at those different levels just as if you are an authentic local cafe or deli, you are going to have a whole suite of different ways of engaging your customer base than if you are Walmart. And you know what you mean by supply chain + sourcing and ethics and everything else will be slightly different in those different circumstances. And then making sure that your marketing program, which is driving and bringing consumers and suppliers and everybody with you is appropriate for being at that level and is ambitious enough to drive forward and make a difference and isn't just sort of... I think that one thing I've noticed recently is that hanging back seems less of an option than it did five years ago.
Everybody five years ago was so worried about greenwash and so concerned with other things that they thought modesty, particularly I've worked endlessly with companies in Finland and Sweden + Holland as well, where people are kind of, oh, we should just do this and we shouldn't boast about it. And it's quite a Calvinist, North European view that you shouldn't take credit for your good actions, that you should quietly work for the village, + so forth. And actually, if we're going to rally and bring everybody with us, maybe we do need to make a bit more noise and engagement and communication and community and things like that. So I think people have woken up to that a bit.
Barkley: It's interesting because I think that hanging back and being afraid of greenwashing, I wanted to ask you on that note in the sense of, this is a weird sort of analogy, but there's a brachistochrone curve, have you ever seen those physics? Where basically they drop a ball and the theory is, well, if you drop a ball, the fastest way from A to B is just a straight line. But in fact, the brachistochrone curve is, there's a little curve at the bottom as the ball drops + it gains momentum and it will get to the end faster than the straight line. And I was thinking about that through this idea of brands that are telling the world their agenda and then using actions along that way to create momentum until they get there, versus waiting until it's all done + then revealing where they've been or never revealing where they've been. But the idea of, Patagonia in a way has told the world where they're going. So every time they create an action, whether it's small or large or in between, it furthers that agenda.
John Grant: Sustainability is quite nebulous and it reminds me a bit of other nebulous human values like health + it's a decision of how you weave it in. So, when I started this journey 20 years ago with clients like IKEA, it was actually my shortest strategy presentation probably it's still in my whole career when the president of the company and the sustainability team asked me and a copywriter to come back with a point of view on how to communicate their sustainability given their previous 12 years putting their house in order. And they had a new boss who'd been our local clients and was now the president of the company said, so we should bring some of that pizazz that you guys have brought from London. And the presentation was just one word on a big sheet of paper, it just said, 'don't'.
And we showed him BP's Beyond Petroleum and some data from his own research showing that people thought that they were doing more than they were actually doing. And people assumed because they were Swedish + democratic and had a lot of those values, people trusted them and thought that their timber would be sustainable, whereas that was a complete nightmare for them and still is to some extent. So, we advised them instead to put all of their efforts into internal engagement, innovation, + getting 160,000 ambassadors and innovators working on this, and they did that really successfully. And over that 10 years, they managed to get to zero waste stores + incredible initiatives, which set them up more recently to be more out and forward about sustainable living at home and the future and cities and so forth, which there is more their position now.
I used to, in that time, I was one of very early on the, either the marketing circuit talking about sustainability or the sustainability circuit, talking about marketing. And in both cases, I used to do this big reveal + say, what's the world's most sustainable company? And I used to show eBay and just say, look, this has in the last year saved this many tons of American goods from the landfill because it's created a market for secondhand goods. And in fact, secondhand clothes last year on eBay were growing at 1,200% in the UK + they've always been a channel for that.
They've never made a particular play of being virtuously sustainable in the way that health food stores and Co-ops and indeed outdoor clothing companies have played on it because it didn't suit them. People can have a passion for collecting + of bargain hunting, almost Stone Age instinct, and enjoyment of eBay, and the founders who went on to start the Skoll World Forum and PR Omidyar funded loads of charities, were very idealistic about why they were doing this, but they couldn't see an advantage to making that the front and center of their brand and the company still hasn't, and it gives them, I think, more kudos + credibility.
Barkley: When you're brought into an organization, into a brand. When you're looking around + when you're getting a feel for what the challenges are, do you start to have a sense of what might be missing? And anything along the ideas of sometimes when I'm looking at a brand, I see that there's a core idea, there's a driving force missing, there's a story, obviously culture, but do you start to have a feel for what might be those barriers or what might be missing in order to get to something more holistic?
John Grant: Yeah, it's an interesting one because the inconsistencies and flaws of cultures or individuals are also their characteristics. I was helping the boss at IKEA update + produce a new thing about their internal culture and we were trying to distill it. We were walking through the corridors of their headquarters in the south of Sweden and he said, look, just look around you. I mean, we are not one of those corporate companies, you know, don't see any suits, open collars. And I said, can you see anybody who doesn't have blonde hair or a blue shirt? It's just a different kind of uniform. But they have, and he was, to his credit, he brought in an African American woman who was the former head of IKEA in Canada. He brought her in as head of IKEA in Sweden, and I actually remember, as I was meeting with him at the time, he said, this is going to send a signal. IKEA is changing, we are a global company + we need to start acting like one.
Barkley: John, I've kept you about 20 minutes over, thank you so much, I really appreciate it. It's hard to interview you because I've found myself just wanting to listen to you + luckily I kept saying I want to write notes, but I'm recording all of this. I love your thinking and it's been great to follow that over the years. Thank you for participating in this idea. You were very high on the list of people that I wanted to speak to at the beginning of this, so thank you for that.