040 | The Brand Is The Business, With Rob Meyerson

Rob Meyerson _ Podcast Guest

Our guest for today is Rob Meyerson. Rob has about 15 years of experience in brand consulting, including senior brand strategy and global identity roles and major global consultancies, like Interbrand,  Siegel+Gale, and future brand. He was Global Head of naming and brand architecture at HP, which is Hewlett Packard when it split into HP and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. He has experience with working in the US, China and Singapore, with client experiences all over the world. So welcome, Rob. We are excited to learn all about branding from you.

Can you tell us a little about yourself your background experience?

Sure, like you said, I’m a brand consultant. What that means is I help businesses build stronger, more effective brands. Sometimes that means strategy. So I do a lot of brand positioning, brand architecture if you’ve heard of those things. But it also means identity, I like to split identity up roughly into a visual identity. So that’s a logo, color palettes, typographic things like that. And verbal identity. And a lot of the work that I do is around naming, messaging, and things like that.

Awesome. So I think you covered a bit of this question, but I’ll ask it anyway. So a brand is basically an identity for a business. So why is it so difficult to get it? Right? Like, you know, it’s easy for us to identify ourselves by our name and whatnot. But why is it so difficult to get the brand right?

Well, yeah, it’s a great question.

Our parents giving us names, you know, was arguably easy or difficult, I guess, depending on who you ask and who your parents were. But what makes us “us” is so much more than our name, right? We have experiences, personalities, values, cultures that we come from. And it turns out that brands need a lot of those things, too, if you really want to build a strong brand. So in reality, it’s not just a name, and a logo and an ad campaign, or even a nice website. It’s beyond the superficial, it’s that complete identity, or the different experiences that brand creates for consumers, you want everything to be authentic to come from a true place, relevant to the people that you’re building that brand for, whether its consumers or a b2b brand. And ideally, you want it to be differentiating too. you don’t want to be the same as every other brand out there. And it turns out doing all those things is a big challenge.

Yeah. So um, you know, as a business, most businesses, they either produce a product or they offer a service. Now, if their product or service is pretty high quality, and it’s satisfying the customers, is that not enough to build the brand? Or there is something else to it? or?

Yeah, it’s a great question. There’s some quote, I think it’s Drucker that says something about 50% innovation and 50% marketing, or maybe I’ve got the percentage wrong. The sort of conventional wisdom is that having a great product isn’t enough, unfortunately. And I think there are plenty of anecdotes of great products. The Microsoft Zune, for example, a lot of people said that just based on specs, it was better than the iPod at that time. But they didn’t have the branding clout, they didn’t have the brand that Apple had, or the design capabilities that Apple had. And so there’s more that goes into it. So you know, you need people to try the product for the first time to even discover how great it is. So a lot of marketing and branding is just about drawing people in and creating that demand.

I see. And so can you work on your brand? Because you know, there are a lot of tech entrepreneurs and professionals in the audience. So can you work on building a brand, even before you’re building your product or service?

Yeah, I think so ideally, they should be done. And in tandem, as you learn about who your audiences for the product and what you should be creating to make them happy or to solve the problem for them. A lot of those same answers could inform the type of brand that you want to build or the type of identity that you want to build around that product or company. So I think ideally, there’s a little bit of a back and forth as you work on the product, or setting up a company and building the brand for that company.

Cool. So let’s talk about some of the famous brands and get your opinion on that. It seems like Red Bull is doing amazingly, as far as that brand is concerned. So what do you think about that? What type of strategies they used to like sort of enhance their brand?

Yeah, they at least Red Bull, atleast used to be thrown out as an example of brilliant branding.  Maybe it still is. But I heard that from Laura Reese recently, whose father al Reese wrote a pretty famous book about branding called positioning. And it’s old now. But it’s still recommended reading for anyone interested in branding. Red Bull a good example of a few really critical concepts around branding. What’s really impressive is they took a product that has some unique qualities, but it’s kind of just another sugary, somewhat carbonated beverage. And what they did is they managed to create a category. And that’s a phrase you hear a lot in branding, they came up with or supposedly came up with this whole idea, certainly one of the biggest brands in this category of energy drinks. And so that ability to position yourself as something new, is a goal for a lot of brands. And creating a category is something that you hear a lot of companies say they want to do.

Yeah, yeah. So and, you know, they sponsor all the extreme sports and, you know, some crazy kind of personal achievement. Like, you know, there was a man who went up in space on a capsule and things like that… How do you know, how does that align with the branding intent?

Well, I don’t know the brand that well, but they clearly positioned it around this idea of, of extreme sports and sort of doing sort of not feats of strength, but amazing things that human beings can accomplish, if they’re driven and put their minds to it like that. That guy who jumped into the skydiving, so everything that they do seems to be aligned with that idea. And their ad campaign backs that up. So a lot of really strong brands are able to build their brand around an abstract idea. So while they are an energy drink, they’ve also really tethered their brand to this bigger, more abstract, more aspirational idea of what are you capable of? And we see similar things from great brands like Nike, that it’s really not about the shoes, you see their ads, and you rarely see the shoes. Apple when they do have ads, it’s not just the latest specs on the new MacBook. It’s, it’s something that makes you feel and has an emotional hooks hook to it. And also some more abstract ideas.

Yeah. Now I’m bringing it back to the startup scene. You know, all these big names that we mentioned, they have billions and billions of dollars to spend on their branding and marketing. How can we learn from them? And you sort of, you know, utilize those lessons, in a startup world where you know, we have very limited resources or very, you know, a shoestring budget for marketing.

Yeah, it’s tough. There, I think it’s really just a question of knowing where to cut and where to avoid cutting, you know, how much can you cut before you’re really doing things the wrong way. I think there is a fair amount that you can do in house, you need to kind of know where your skill set is, if you have a designer in house, then maybe you’re able to save some money on some design aspects. If you’re really able to get your business strategy, crystal clear, then that’s going to help immensely with getting a brand strategy set. So I think the more you can do in house and really, sort of think carefully about how you brief outside partners, is one thing you can do. And then also, there are a lot of freelancers now available that can do this kind of work, they may come from the big agencies and have that expertise and experience, but not be charging big agency prices. So that’s another thing to watch out for.

That’s great. And I’ve heard this expression. You know, it’s something that our businesses trying to do, or companies trying to do is good for the brand, but it is not a good business decision. Have you heard that?

Yeah, I’ve heard the opposite to people say, you know that that’s going to be a great business, great business decision, but it’s going to harm our brand. I think it’s really kind of misguided. to separate the two, I’ve actually written something about this. They’re really tied together and sort of deeply intertwined. I’ve just mentioned the link between business strategy and brand strategy, for example. And so I think really, what people mean is, there’s good for right now, and there’s good for the long term. And so you can be opportunistic in the way you run your business and say, Hey, we could license our brand out to this company that makes something completely different. You know, Caterpillar, for example, famously licenses their brand out to a company that makes boots and shoes, although that has gone well for them. There are times that you don’t want to do that. You could just frivolously license your brand out to make a quick buck. But then find out that the products that this other company was stamping your logo on are harming your brand over the long term. And so do you want to make decisions that will maybe boost revenue in the near term, but begin to decline over the long term? Or do you want to On the flip side, pass up some of those opportunities, maybe have a little bit of a harder time getting revenue scaled,  but be thinking about the next 5-10 years of building a company and building a brand.

Yeah, that’s so true. Alright, so earlier we were talking about naming and you know, our parents name us. Now, I see a lot of people struggle with this, like when they want to pick a brand name or the company name. So can you give us you know, some of your thoughts on how you pick brand names?

Yeah, so I do it in a very rigorous way, that will not sound familiar to anyone outside of the branding world. But hopefully will sound very familiar to people in it. We hear these stories of startups getting their names, out of a late night brainstorming session over pizza and a six-pack or everybody throws an idea in a hat and then they pull it out, the CEO pulls an idea out and that’s the name. Maybe that really happens. Maybe in the past, that was possible. But realistically, there are a lot of challenges with that. Not, not the least of which is just legally, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that a lot of great, you know, “great name ideas” are going to get you sued down the line because somebody else is already using them. And anybody who’s ever tried to buy a domain knows that. Not that you necessarily need an exact .com, but pretty much any name or you know, anything close to a real English word that you want to choose is already owned by somebody else. And that can cause all kinds of problems. So the process I use is coming up with a brief, I mentioned briefs earlier. So just some kind of document or alignment or agreement around what do we want the name to do? What do we want it to sound like? And then coming up with, believe it or not hundreds or even thousands of name ideas. Usually, that involves multiple people, experienced namers, it is a real job. People can be professional namers, and they’ll come up with hundreds of ideas. And they’ll compile a list and start to shortlist and then try to get these names to jump through a couple of hurdles, or hoops for you. Legally, linguistically, maybe domain wise, you need them to pass all of these different gates before you can really narrow it down to your final name.

Cool. All right. So you mentioned the book positioning and interestingly enough, I have a quote from there. It talks about this concept called “overcommunicated society.” So right. What can you tell us about that?

Well, it’s crazy. First off that they said that I think the book came out in the maybe the very early 80s. So they said that before the internet, much less Twitter and Social Media, I don’t talk about over communication. So their whole thesis was that because of the barrage of ads, and they were talking about TV and radio and billboards. Because we’re so used to this, we’re sort of numb to ads at this point, because it’s just a constant, you really need to have an idea that’s going to cut through that clutter. And so owning a specific idea in the mind, like energy drink for Red Bull, just owning that idea, so that whenever about whenever anybody thinks I need an energy drink, Red Bull pops to the top of the list. I think to some degree that’s more true than ever. There’s, so much out there that we talk a lot about making sure that your brand is simple, that you have a focused, single-minded idea that you’re building it around that idea again, might be really practical or rational like energy drink, or it might be more abstract or emotional like night, people say Nike stands for victory, or the spirit of the athlete or something like that. There are different answers to that in different situations. But, being single-minded is a useful way, I think of making sure that you don’t just sort of blend into the background noise of other communications out there.

Yeah, you brought up a very good word “Simple”. So you know, that simplicity to achieve? You know, it’s obviously it sounds simple, but I think it’s very, very complex to get it to that level of simplicity.

Yeah, it’s, um, it’s always hard. You know, with startups, you have, usually founders who have big dreams and big ambitions for the brand. And so some time for the business. And on so often, there’s the famous pivot, right for startups somewhere along its evolution. And so boiling it down to that one thing that you want to stand for can be really difficult, because you don’t want to paint yourself into a corner. And I get that, on the other end of the spectrum, working with companies that have been around for 75 years and acquired a dozen other companies and now every decision is made by consensus in a conference room full of 12 people. That’s I think, maybe even harder to get everyone to agree on killing the other 10, “great ideas” that other people had and saying, Now let’s just pick this one, maybe this two, these two and just really focus in on those eyes. It’s tough. And that’s part of what we do as brand strategists.

Yeah, yeah. All right. So and you also host a podcast about branding. It’s called how brands are built. And you focus a lot on photos as essence of the brand. So what can you tell us a little bit about that? About the purpose of the brand?

Yeah, so so thanks for bringing up the podcast. Season One was all about naming, which we’ve talked about a little bit, but it was really focused on that. So if that’s interesting to you, or your listeners, then go to the first 10 episodes. Season Two, the next 10 was really more about positioning, which is what you’re asking about. And one of those episodes, in particular, at least that I recall was with Marty Neumeier, who’s the best selling author writes about brands and branding. And he brought up purpose. Other people have brought it up as well. Erminio Putignano also mentioned it. There’s a lot of talk, just over the past 5-10 years about brands aligning with a cause. And you see brands like Patagonia that have really positioned around not just an abstract idea, but a really sort of socially conscious idea around environmentalism and, and things like that. And increasingly, data shows that millennials and younger generations are really interested in aligning their own personal identity with the identity of these brands that have a good cause a good purpose, something more to them than just a for-profit company that’s trying to get you to buy their stuff. And so we’re hearing more and more about purpose. It is sometimes an overused or abused term, like so many other things in branding, it can sort of turn into to jargon, or meaningless buzzword, but I think it does have some validity and used properly with the right kind of brand and the right kind of situation, it can be really powerful.

And you brought up millennials and I have worked with a lot of founders, and they’re obsessed about capturing the millennial market segment. So how do you think they have like they have changed the mindset, you know, from the previous generations?

Well, one is what I just mentioned, there seems to be data showing that I think there’s more interest in companies that are aligned with some kind of cause. I think there’s also more interest in transparency. And, you know, it’s partly interested in it. It’s partly just that transparency is harder to avoid now for companies. It’s harder to, to kind of pull one over on consumers. And so there’s a lot of old school thinking and in branding that maybe is not as relevant anymore. I’ll give you one example. It used to be that people would talk about a brand architecture model called the house of brands and  Procter and Gamble is the best example of this. They have shampoo with one brand name and detergent with another brand name. And for a lot of us, myself included, if you go to the grocery store, you can’t remember which ones are Procter and Gamble. And so you don’t know that these two brands are connected to each other.

Yeah, one of the reasons that that that approach was taken, not the only reason and I don’t mean to impugn Procter and Gamble. But one rationale for that is that if something terrible happens with the shampoo, it’s making people’s hair fall out. That’s not going to stop me from buying the detergent, because I didn’t really didn’t realize that the same company makes those. These days, you see boycotts on Twitter all the time. I mean, it’s so easy for one person to do the homework and say, Oh, actually, this one company makes all these products post a list. It goes viral. And you know, the secret is out, so to speak. So, I think there’s more transparency. Now, these two things have kind of worked in parallel, that the transparency is partly necessity and partly desire on the part of millennials and younger consumers. But that’s why you see brands like everything popping up now that have this ethos of radical transparency. And let’s just be honest about what we pay wholesale and what how we’re marking it up to sell it to you. People are pretty savvy, that that’s what’s happening. And so why not just be in the open about it?

Yeah, yeah. And what about, you know, the amount of choice consumers have these days? Does that have? You know, is that an effect of this phenomena of, you know, the more transparency and consumers wanting that from the businesses?

That’s just one small example. Yeah, maybe I mean, I think in a lot of ways, it’s easier to set up a business, you know, especially in the US, very, very entrepreneur friendly market. You see a lot of these smaller brands popping up. And a lot of them, I’m thinking of Allbirds, for example, the shoe company, a lot of them, because they’re small, and because of the way they can enter the market, they can afford to really position themselves around a cause, be really single-minded about product and the way they do things and why they do things. And that’s going to help them cut through in a market that’s dominated by Nike and Reebok. But it’s also going to create more choice. And I think it increases the importance of this idea of simplicity and positioning and finding ways to differentiate.

Cool. And then you’ve also written a book called How to write a naming brief, a practical guide for branding professionals. So it’s not I haven’t read it, to be honest. But you can, you know, to the audience, they can download it for free. I’ll put a link in there in the show notes. But do you have any frameworks that you share in the book or, you know, advise them, practical advice that people can implement on their own?

Yeah, it’s, it’s full of it. And calling it a book, by the way, is being too kind. It’s about 20, It’s about 20 pages, I think. So I’ve called it a booklet. It’s a really quick guide to creating and naming brief. So I mentioned a few times that that’s step one, if you’re really trying to go through a proper, rigorous brand naming project. So it contained Yeah, in terms of practical tools, it contains a naming brief template that is interactive in the PDF, you can just type right into it, print it right out from the PDF. But it also has some really hope, easy to follow steps of how do you figure out the right answers to the questions in the brief? What process should you go through, it walks you through that full naming process that I just mentioned, and a little more detail. And I’m actually just published a companion booklet. That’s how to generate name ideas. So how to come up with the names once you have the brief. Hopefully, I’ll be doing more like that so I’m happy to share the links with you.

Yeah, that will be great. Yeah, naming is something that people need out of it for sure.

Yeah, everybody, everybody has to do it. You got to name your company, and maybe some products.

Alright, so now let’s talk about your professional journey. So tell us a little bit about your time at HP. I was Adam. How has hp reinvented itself over the years?

So I was at HP not for a huge amount of time, I think was two years. But it was a really interesting two years because right, I think a month after I got there, Meg Whitman, who was CEO at the time announced that we’re going to be splitting this company up to into two companies, HP and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. So during those two years, I got to help build the brand for Hewlett Packard Enterprise from scratch, essentially, we worked within a great outside agency, and the whole internal brand team was involved in working with senior management, more than I probably would have been otherwise to figure out how that brand was going to be positioned and everything else. But then at the same time doing my day job, which was managing hundreds of inbound naming requests, really throughout HP, and then after the split on just the HP side, the blue circle, not the green rectangle. And then I also got to help hire an entirely new brand strategy team and brand team to go work at Hewlett Packard Enterprise since I split off to the other side. So that was a very interesting, challenging, but a great way to learn.

Yeah, that’s cool. It’s a pretty iconic company has had the pleasure of working with a number of people from there. And, you know, they have an amazing product line. And I believe, you know, they’re also transforming themselves, like, you know, recently their laptops, designs, and it has been changing quite a bit for the better.

Yeah, and there’s been a lot of change on a lot of it after I left. But while I was there, a new CEO had to step in, because Meg Whitman, went to the Hewlett Packard Enterprise, she’s since left. But with the new CEO, new CMO, the that with the new leadership, and I think, you know, the idea behind the separation was that it would hopefully make each company a little more nimble and a little more focused, we talked about how focus is important for our brand. When I got to HP, it was over 300,000 employees, and you know, did everything from services and servers and networking all the way down to small personal devices and laptops. Now, HP is really mostly laptop printer and sort of consumer electronic devices company. And so I think with that came a little more, maybe a little more freedom. And they’ve been doing some innovative things lately.

Alright, so then after that, you decided to go and turn yourself into entrepreneur. So tell us about that decision? How did it come about? And how’s it going?

Yeah, it’s going well, I started heirloom, which is my own Brand consultancy. I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of freelancers out there doing brand strategy work. In many ways. I’m one of them. I’m fully independent, but I partner with other freelancers for projects. So I built small teams. I don’t do design work myself, I mentioned visual identity, but I certainly couldn’t create a logo for you. But I know that people who can and, and will bring them into to build a client team as needed. So it’s, it’s been great. I’ve gotten to work with smaller companies, but also still some really big ones. I’ve gotten to partner with people that I never partnered with before, as well as some old friends from the agency world. And we’re going to year four and I’m enjoying it.

That’s great. And you mentioned you work with smaller companies. So what does the typical profile of a smaller company that you work with? Is it like, beyond series A or something like that? or?

Yeah, well, it’s funny, because one of the companies you have asked me about before, we started recording was corelight I don’t know if you want to talk about them still. But I was just looking at some of the things they’ve done since I named that company and one of them was their series a round. Typically, though, yes, it’s usually companies with some, some funding, so that they can really afford to invest in brand. I’ve talked to people who are, you know, are pre-funding or for whatever other reason, they’re not really willing to make an investment. And I’ll always have recommendations for them. But often it’s, it’s not come work with me. It’s here’s what I would do if I were in your shoes. Yeah, typically, when I say startup, it’s a company that’s five funded, and maybe it’s been around for a little while.

Okay. And you brought up a Corleight, because of some lack of time. I sort of skipped over that. But tell us a little bit about that. I think they have some interesting story about that, right?

Well, it was funny, it was a company called Broala. And it’s based on an open source software product called bro, which believe it or not, was named to reference George Orwell’s 1984 and Big Brother, which is kind of creepy, but it is a security software so it’s supposed to be sort of watching over your network like Big Brother. But because that was called bro and they just needed a name for this company. They called it Broala to rhyme with koala Dave and had a little koala bear logo. And a new CEO came in and I don’t want to put words in his mouth. But he basically said, I want to be taken seriously, I think maybe we need to consider rebrand here. And I worked with, partnered with a great business strategist and sort of technology expert, a brand strategist named Karen Williams, who had worked with in the past, she came up with a brand positioning strategy for them. And then based on that, I named them core light, which was getting at this idea of illuminating the core of your network. And since then, they’ve rebranded from a visual identity standpoint, and gone through series A and Series B funding, expanded in Europe made a bunch of strategic hires and I can’t take really any credit beyond the name, but, they’re doing really well. So that’s exciting to see.

That’s great. That’s great. And so can you share with us like you know, it seems like a great success story can you share any other interesting names that you picked? Maybe they were they did really well or maybe they bombed.

Some failures. Gosh, off the top of me if you go to my website, you’ll see some of them. I have done a lot of naming FOR FLEX, which is Flextronics, maybe more familiar with Flextronics, although they rebranded A while back to flex. So I’ve had a great relationship with them over the past couple of years naming some products, I named something called power play, which is a consumer-facing, sort of smart home and solar solution. And that has, I believe, spun off now from flex, it’s still using a lot of flex branded products. But it’s an I think, technically a separate entity. Named a couple of other things with them.

I’ve named there was a company called Go animate that sort of similar to Broala, and the name wasn’t maybe embarrassing, but they felt like it. It pigeonholed them a lot, which is something that happens a lot with names. If you’d name yourself a little too descriptively around what you do. Now, it can then make it hard to pivot or just expand. And so we named them Vyond, partnered with a great agency in Silicon Valley called liquid agency to do that work. So yeah, it’s been sort of either renaming start-ups in a lot of cases or naming from scratch, or going to some of these bigger companies, in which case, I’m usually hired back multiple times to name products or software solutions, or cloud platforms or something like that.

That’s great. Awesome. Thanks a lot for all your, you know, all the knowledge that you shared with us about branding. And I think a lot of people got this concept and will be able to work on their own brand. Now, some of them may want to reach out to you or, you know, listen to your podcast. So can you tell us a little bit about how they can reach you how they can listen to your podcast or download your book?

Sure, yeah, I’ll give you a bunch of links that you can put on your website. So hopefully they can find them there. But I’m on Twitter at Rob Meyerson. Heirloom, my consultancy is on Twitter and Instagram just as heirloom. And the blog and podcast is called how brands are built. You can go to how brands are built calm, probably the easiest thing to do and just find all the social links there as well as signing up for a newsletter, finding those booklets if you want to download them as well.

All right, great. Thank you so much for being with us today was an amazing experience to learn from you. Thanks a lot. pleasure.

Thanks for inviting me.

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