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The Brand Flip: An Interview with Marty Neumeier

In this interview with Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Flip: Why customers now run companies and how to profit from it, Marty talks about brand tribes, the onlyness test, and his favorite brand disaster story.
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How does The Brand Flip differ from your previous books, The Brand Gap and Zag?

The Brand Gap was the first of my “whiteboard overviews,” and Zag was the second. The Brand Gap redefined a brand as an asset built by customers, not companies, and Zag laid out a 17-point process for managing it.

My new book, The Brand Flip, extends these two books into the era of social media. It’s been 13 years since I wrote The Brand Gap. What’s changed is that today customers not only build brands, they virtually control companies.

If you could share one idea from the book that would change our thinking about brands, what would it be?

It’s that customers are not focused on products, but meaning. They choose products to build their identities. The question they ask is: If I select this product, what does that make me? Customers no longer buy brands. They join brands.

Once you wrap your head around this concept, it changes everything you once believed about branding. You start wondering how you can empower your customers to make them better people. Then you think about building a whole community of empowered customers—a sort of brand tribe. And finally you do what you can to lead that tribe by supporting their personal goals.

How does belonging to a tribe influence a buying decision?

When people buy anything, they rely on trust. Who are you likely to trust more, the company, or customers like you? A brand tribe is a group of customers who are trying to achieve similar goals, and who talk to each other. They congregate around a particular product or company that will empower them to achieve their aims. So, first, their buying decisions create the tribe, then the tribe influences future buying decisions.

Can you share an example of a brand that has gone from the old-school company-driven approach to the new-school customer-driven approach?

Burberry and IBM come to mind, but in reality only few companies have made the transition successfully. Most either start with a company focus and get stuck in it, or they start with a customer focus and go on from there. I hope the book will help the old-school brands get unstuck so they can “flip” to the new approach. I also hope that new brands will start with the “flipped” model from the get-go.

Examples of brands that could have made the the flip, but didn’t, include BlackBerry, Sears, Chevron, Radio Shack, and Ryanair. Ryanair is thriving now, but it will have change if it hopes to survive another 20 years. The others are close to becoming irrelevant.

Brands that were “born flipped” include companies like Zappos, Mini, Airbnb, Twitter, Etsy, Google, Craigslist, Ritz-Carlton, Netflix, Starbucks, and Southwest. These brands are in good shape for the future.

Do you have a favorite brand disaster story?

Well, for me one of the saddest stories is Kodak. They made decision after decision to protect their legacy products instead of investing in new customer-centric brands. Early on, they had pioneering digital cameras and image software that would have let customers access and share photos easily, but they starved those products for fear of cannibalizing their film business. Their decisions not only hurt the company, but also the community that grew up around it.

Everyone claims to be a storyteller these days, but you advise companies to flip from storytelling to storyframing. What’s the difference?

Storyframing is the art of building a structure that lets customers create their own narratives. You set up the parameters of the brand story to keep it contained, but you don’t dictate it. It’s almost impossible for a company to tell a consistent story anyway, since there’s no single “writer,” and every member of the audience has a different viewing angle. So you give people the basic “trueline,” and let them riff off it.

For example, the trueline for Southwest Airlines might be, “You can fly anywhere for less than it costs to drive.” Or for Harley-Davidson, “Join a gang of American rebels.” Customers can then make up their own stories around it. Their stories are bound to be more believable than the company’s stories.

Can you explain the Brand Commitment Matrix at the heart of the book?

The matrix is a simple tool for crafting and organizing the six key elements of a brand. It’s divided into two columns, one for customers and one for the company. There are three elements in each column. Each element has to match up with the one across from it. The customer’s identity has to match up with the company’s purpose. The customer’s aims have to match up with the offering’s “onlyness.” And the tribe’s “mores” or rules have to match up with the company’s values.

I really like the “onlyness” test. Can you explain how it works?

Sure. This comes from my earlier book Zag. You just complete this sentence: Our brand is the only ___________ that ___________. In the first blank you put your category (say, “motorcycles”), and in the second blank you put your most meaningful difference (“that lets you be an American rebel”). It’s a very strict test, because of the word only. But in the absence of onlyness, you’ll be forced to compete on price alone.

How would you describe the Marty Neumeier brand?

I hesitate to describe myself as a brand. But I guess I do have a purpose and a reputation, so maybe. Let’s see then: “Marty Neumeier is the only business author who makes branding understandable in a two-hour read.” What do you think? As I’ve always said, a brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is. My brand is completely defined by you.

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