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The following is a recent interview between brand leadership expert Gareth Kay and Barkley.
Gareth Kay: No one cares about your brand, not your category. I hate all this low-interest category nonsense. No one really cares about a brand. How do you make them care?
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. I'm really excited today because we have the great and ever-evolving Gareth Kay. It's probably safe to say that Gareth has inspired me more than anyone over the years about the way I think about brands. He's been generous, he's been prolific, + his evolution has been amazing to watch. From Modernista! to chief strategy officer at Goodby Silverstein to chapter the company that he started to now becoming the chief marketing officer at Twill. I'm really excited to see what Gareth does now that he's inside of a brand and how he brings that to life in the outside world. Welcome. Thank you so much for being here, Gareth, + really excited to hear your whole brand briefing, and excited for others to hear it. When you hear the word whole brand when you hear that idea of holistic or whole brand, what does it conjure up?
Gareth Kay: I think there are a couple of things, Tim. I think it was one thing they're not like most brands that we know nowadays where brand is this surface layer that's applied primarily through marketing communication, so PR, maybe some visual + verbal signifiers, maybe the ad campaign. Firstly, they have to be across every kind of experience you have with the brand. At the end of the day, I think brands are as only as strong as the weakest chain in that experience link, + that's step one. Step two, how do you make the brand not a thing that's an output in many ways or an expressive layer? Obviously, you need to have the expressive layer, but it's deeper than that, + it actually becomes the way that organization moves in the world, the way they do business.
It becomes an intrinsic element of their business model and it becomes just the intrinsic muscle memory of the organization. It's why I think the metaphor of that operating system's really interesting because that's about something that instructs + inspires and enables, so it's not about rules. I hate those kinds of things where you have brand as a set of rules. It's about a brand as a set of principles to inspire others to do things with them. The thing that always makes me fearful, frankly going client side was I don't want to be the police. I don't want to be the one who's walking around going, "That document's wrong, + you have to do some of that."
I want to be the person who's hopefully inspiring other people to do amazing things, but doing it all towards one goal + doing it all to the end of putting a bit of magic into the world. That's what brands are there to do. People don't care about them because they're just not interesting enough. I think if we all started perhaps a more honest place of no one cares about your brand, not your category, + I hate all this low-interest category nonsense. No one really cares about a brand. How do you make them care? We all know from our human relationships there are about four or five different things you can do to make people care about you. So maybe we go + land on one of those and deliver against that, and stop over-theorizing the quasi-business psycho babble and just get a bit more human about how we move and act + behave through the world.
Barkley: It feels like in the world of brand thinkers, depending on who you talk to, it gets beat up or it gets praised. Where do you fall on the word purpose and the idea of purpose?
Gareth Kay: God, my feelings about purpose, Tim, they change every week, I think. The problem is it's become a word that's become remarkably devalued, arguably more devalued than the word brand because it is ill-defined and overused. I think every brand should be purposeful. It should have an intent that goes beyond simply the quarterly return of money + acts as a counterbalance towards, I guess, the short-termism that unfortunately is implicit in most of the capitalist models nowadays, particularly a shareholder-driven model. The problem to me is when purpose becomes one, is not defined well inside the organization. So you have companies going, "We've got a mission + a vision, we need a purpose as well." The question is, "Do you, or should actually the purpose be baked into the mission and the vision?" There are too many terminologies and phrases and slides that exist inside organizations rather than clarity of purposeful intent, which can be expressed in many, many different ways.
Then it's all about what are you going to do about it. Just like mission statements + vision statements, there are lots of really good ones in the world, but good damn, they're just either fluff or they feel really interesting but you don't actually live up to them. There's that old saying, which who knows who came up with it originally, but it's always been applied to Bill Bernbach, which is, "A principle isn't a principle until it costs you money." I think you can just insert the word purpose there, to be quite honest. It probably will cost you money in the short term, but hopefully, it will leave the world in a better place. Actually, I think there's enough evidence now to suggest that it can actually lead to you as a business making much more money in the medium to long term, so it's a win-win situation.
Barkley: I want to ask you a couple of questions. Based on your trajectory, was there something where you said, "This is how I want to do it from now on versus the way you were doing it?
Gareth Kay: I think there were probably two moments where I've probably felt the most growth in the shortest period of time, + it's been the kind of growth that's been the growth and it lives with you, and it changes your view on the world. I think the first was probably when I joined Modernista! + there was obviously I'm learning about America and realizing scale, size, difference, all those types of things. But that was a time as well that the planisphere was happening + the initial early blogs + the community forums of planners. Suddenly, it was the promise of conferences made real where actually you would see the best thinkers work things out in real-time.
I think a lot of the folks or the early bloggers like Richard Huntington + Russell Davies would talk a lot about how in many ways the reason for doing blogging was to help them work out their thinking, try it out, and prototype it in public. The second big moment for me was the year-and-a-half or so I spent a Goodby working with the Google Creative Lab. I cannot underestimate what a transformational experience that was, and how important it was for me to think about how you develop brands + actually, how you work to do that. It was challenging because the way they work is absolutely antithetical to the way an agency works in many ways just in terms of the speed, the desire to show the thing rather than show the thinking, the absolute disdain for the classic creative presentational pitch presentation, the big reveal after six weeks.
That caused some challenges candidly internally to make the teamwork + the way it needed to work. But I learned so much there about the importance of real collaboration and actually, that whole mantra of none of us is as good as all of us and the ability, and I think the evidence I saw that actually the faster we move, the better we can be. I think there is something that's really powerful about that, so I think it can be misused. I think the way that, for example, they move fast and break things is wrong, it's just like being a bull in a China shop. But I think there is a way to break down all these cycles of approval and just get something that goes, "I've got this thing, I don't know what it is. What do you think of it?"
You go and have a conversation around a prototype, be that a poster, be it a bit of code, be it a product, whatever it might be, that, to me, was just a big aha moment as a strategy in particular, which is the slides don't matter. Boy, did that feel uncomfortable because what did you pedal? You're a peddler of slides and cleverness and wonderful terms of phrase. The reality is, when you don't actually show the thing, you end up either with a game of telephone and so it gets misunderstood or frankly, trying to describe a concept. It's like that great phrase that Elvis Costello had, which is around writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It's stupid but someone has to do it. That was what we were doing far too much rather than going, "Here are three things, this is really good at this, if we do this, it means this." All the implications of strategic thinking.
Barkley: Back to the marketing industrial complex, does it feel like that's working against that? I've always seen you as a bit counter to the paradigms of the marketing industry traditionally.
Gareth Kay: It arguably counts the way we built businesses, certainly since probably the era of the early GM business models from the 1920s. It was still living by those organizational rules in many ways, and it does run counter to them. You notice things like marketing versus brand, + does brand nest under marketing? Normally it does. I think that's utterly wrong. I'm very desperate for a world where quite candidly, marketing nests under brand because I think what the world needs are more organizations that truly deliver a brand across everything it does that informs its financial model, its sales model, and its product. That means you need to either have "chief brand offices," quote, unquote, or whatever you may want to call them, either the CEO or become CEO or at the very least in that small group of half-a-dozen critical executives that lead the organization + it's a massive change.
To be a brand-led organization as opposed to a marketing-led organization, I think, is very, very different because the marketing-led organization tends to be arguably communications led quite candidly. If it is genuinely marketing-led, it tends to be about how do we understand how people buy this marketplace, + let's do that. Therefore, you're doing the same thing as everyone else. There's not very much distinctiveness. You get the relevant bits but you don't get the distinctiveness piece. You also don't get the big leaps of "Well, that may be how things are done today. There might be a better way of doing things tomorrow," and that's what I believe we need to learn from technology. It's not the thing, the shiny objects, it's about that etymological meaning of the word technology that Ben Horowitz talks about a lot, which is about technology being a better way of doing things.
Barkley: Well, that takes me back to the second part of your shift stepping into the Google Creative Lab + the DNA of Google and feeling that the thing versus the thinking. Now that you're inside of an organization and working on that feeling, what do you think is the hard thing to do? You can't do that with a mandate, say, "We're all going to bake this into the DNA," but what do you think Google has done? What do you think happened there over the years that when you walked into it was such a well-oiled DNA, well-oiled machine that's always been focused?
Gareth Kay: It's probably the bit when I lose any chance of working at Google and probably annoy some of my ex-clients, I think the Google Creative Lab is remarkably different from Google. It is the skunk work R&D lab, the Lockheed Innovation Center that works at the edges + has built up permission. Hats off to Lorraine, the CMO for doing this and has built up credibility because of what they have done to be able to go, "The experience should be this." It's interesting when they backed into that by basically building credibility through advertising + all that great chrome communications over time. Now they hardly have touch ads, it's all experience. It's about making maps better, it's about making Gmail better, all these kinds of things. So I think there is an interesting oddity at Google. The way it works, I least it's really interesting is they deliberately keep themselves at the edge of the company, so they don't report to anyone inside the business unit. They're in New York, not Mountain View. They're on their own floor in New York where you have to have a specific pass to get into it.
You can't get there through the general reception area. It is as much on the periphery of that company as it possibly can be, maybe more so than Google X quite candidly. I think that says quite a lot, which is, their job is to go + inspire and infect change from the outside in. My experience working with Google, it's a brilliant company, do not let me say it isn't, it's a brilliant company full of incredibly smart people on a really interesting mission. When you work with the core part of the business, + the more you get to the real money-making part of the business i.e., search + ads, the more difficult it becomes to be genuinely innovative. So I think the interesting thing is really big company's stuff on the edges becomes really important because they can infect, if you set up the permissions and you give them the trust that they need, I think that's really, really critical. You see similar things, I think, that happened at Apple with their Black Ops group and maybe the teams that Johnny used to run, for example, become really interesting.
I think big companies need that because it's very easy just to get into the rhythm of, "Do what we did last year + make it 5% better, maybe 2% better." We've all seen, sadly, the end result of that. Look at what happened to IBM. Look what happened to Sun Microsystems. They were the most innovative companies in the world and they stopped being innovative. They stopped pushing, and they became about maintaining a status quo. It's that great lesson in challenger brand thinking that Adam Morgan + Mark Barden will talk about, which is, it's not about achieving a goal. You always have to have that challenger mentality and be prepared to fly unstable. That to me becomes really interesting when you see brand leaders go on the offense like Nike + how they moved towards a DTC model really, really quickly. It wasn't easy, and it was painful, but boy, the leaders just basically changed that category, and that, to me, is fascinating.
Barkley: That's great. Hey, this has been great, Gareth. Thank you.
Gareth Kay: I hope it helps, Tim.
Barkley: It helps a ton.
Gareth Kay: A fun set of questions, a really fun set of questions.
Barkley: It helps a ton. We started this way, but I hear you riffing a little bit, and I hear some things that maybe you've been thinking about for a while, but you got to get back to writing.
Gareth Kay: Oh, man, you got-
Barkley: You got to put this stuff down.
Gareth Kay: Thank you. You got some really interesting stuff. I think the Google thing was, you asked a really good question, and I don't think anyone at Google's going to be pissed off. It's just that really interesting thing where you go, maybe that's what they need. That size of an organization maybe just needs to have the sleeper cell on the outside of the business where every now + then just come in, drop an IED off, and wander out again. This stuff's all-powerful.