The first unified theory of branding

There’s a lot of talk in the business, marketing, and communications world about branding, strategy, and design but not always (well, most of time) in the same breath. There seems to be rift between the right and left side of the brain so it was a such a surprise to find a book that bridges this gap between strategy and design.


The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier, from Liquid Agency, is not only a quick read, but a deeply insightful book presenting the first unified theory of branding – a set of five disciplines to help companies bridge the gap between brand strategy and execution. There are plenty of powerful statements Neumeier sets out from the start to the end of the book. It seems that he wanted to make it perfectly clear that you can’t have strategy without design, communication without dialogue, and brands without focus.


The five disciplines of branding

  • Differentiate
  • Collaborate
  • Innovate
  • Validate
  • Cultivate

Think you know what your business is all about and think you have a great marketing strategy? Try to find unambiguous answers to these three little questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • Why does it matter?


Working in visual communication, I found it also to be a great example of also linking business content (normally boring and stale) with visually stimulating typography, graphics, and layout. It actually makes you want to read this book, which is categorized as “marketing and management”.

Your time is valuable, so my first goal is to give you a book you can finish in a short plane ride. My second goal is to give you powerful principles that will last a career.


If anyone works in communication, branding, or strategy, this book should be the first thing to be read. In addition to the book, you can download for free a PDF that summarizes the concepts and ideas from The Brand Gap in a nice visual storytelling presentation – the images from this post are from the presentation.


Does your “position” pass the evelvator test?

Positioning seems to be one of most elusive ‘components’ in business. The idea seems basic enough - creating a “position” in a prospective customer’s mind – yet there’s plenty of ideas as to how to go about it. While Jack Trout and Al Ries bible on positioning is one that I usually turn to, I found that Crossing the Chasm, the classic book on marketing in the IT sector, has some straightforward advice. The author considers it a communications process made up of four key components:

  1. The claim – the key here is to reduce the fundamental position statement – a claim of undisputed market leadership within a given target market segment.
  2. The evidence – the claim to undisputed leadership is meaningless if it can, in fact, be disputed. The key here is to develop sufficient evidence as to make any such disputation unreasonable.
  3. Communications – armed with claim and evidence, the goal here is to identify and address the right audiences in the right sequence with the right versions of the message.
  4. Feedback and adjustment – Just as football coaches have to make half-time adjustments to their game plans, so do marketers, once the positioning has been exposed to the competition. Competitors can be expected to poke holes in the initial effort, and these need to be patched up or otherwise responded to.


Moore also provides a simple formula to help create a two-sentence positioning claim that should past the elevator test. If you think your product, service or idea is ready for the market, just replace the italics:

  • For… (target customers – direct segment only)
  • Who are dissatisfied with… (the current market alternative)
  • Our product is… (a new product category)
  • That provides… (key problem-solving capability)
  • Unlike… (the product alternative)
  • We have assembled… (key who product features for your specific application)

Example: For the bill-paying member of the family who also uses a home PC who is tired of filling out the same old checks month after month. Quicken is a PC home finance program that automatically creates and tracks all your check-writing. Unlike Managing Your Money, a financial analysis package, our system is optimized specifically for home bill-paying.

Crossing the Chasm – do you know your audience as much as your product?

One of the best ways to see if an idea has actually worked is to revisit past theories, thoughts, and concepts. Considered to be the bible of high-tech marketing in the 1990’s, Geoffrey A. Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” is full of insight that have played out through the 90’s, the 00’s and now even into the (20)10’s. Even though the book is specifically written at a time when high-technology was just being introduced into our everyday lives, many of Moore’s marketing lessons can be seen in terms of how technology and online platforms are now so integral to many people’s lives.

The book was first introduced to me during a course at Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University on using marketing for social development and health behavioral change. I finally had a chance to read it 3 years later and really enjoyed the 30-year old ideas in the book when thinking about how social media, technology and communications in general has evolved. If you’ve heard of the terms “innovators, early adopters, and laggards” when it comes to marketing and behavioral change, it probably came from the book Crossing the Chasm.

The 210-page book is full of insightful tips on marketing that can be applied to not only the technology industry but also most other businesses that have products, services, and brands to sell or bring to a market. I believe many of the ideas in the book also applies to development and social fields because we want to “advocate” and raise awareness to alleviate poverty, provide humanitarian relief, and ensure sustainable development of communities and countries. When it comes down to it we’re trying to convince others to change their behaviors in order to do something socially responsible.

Marketing must refocus away from selling product and toward creating… and maintaining an ongoing customer relationship, so that as things change and stir in our immediate field of activity, we can look up over the smoke and dust and see an abiding partner, willing to cooperate and adjust with us. Marketing’s first deliverable is that partnership.

The key to Moore’s strategy in crossing the chasm between the innovators and early adopters of a product (or in an idea) is replicate D-Day: to target a very specific niche market where it can be dominated from the outset, force your competitors out of that market niche and then use it as a base for broader operations. In order to establish this position, Moore believes that the “pragmatist customers”, those reluctant to adopt, will only buy from market leaders. At the same time, people generally understand who’s the market leader by comparing with other competitors. So, in this context, competition is a fundamental condition to chasm crossing and that companies (or organizations) do this well by focusing on the values and concerns of the pragmatists and addressing the reasons why someone should “buy your product” – shifting the idea from product-based to market-based values.

“If you don’t know where you are going, you probably aren’t going to get there.


Factoids and the roots of a “Merry Christmas”


Did you know that the phrase “Merry Christmas” dates back to 1565? Christmas is a special time of the year for a large proportion of the world, whether they’re Christian or not. As part of my EyeSee2013 project and for the final month of the year filled with photos, I wanted to highlight not-so-well-known facts about Christmas – where does Santa Claus come from? Why are Christmas trees important, etc. Surprisingly what I’ve found out so far is that a lot of what we know about this Christian holiday isn’t as old as we think, is related to marketing and shopping, and has many of its roots that go beyond Christianity. Here are a few things that I’ve found:

The original use of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written by Robert L. May in 1939 for Montgomery Ward, a Chicago-based department store. The store asked its marketing department to create a new and original Christmas storybook from scratch which included the character Rudolph.

The Christmas Tree comes from a long history, even before Christianity, where plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

Santa Claus is originally from Turkey.

Mormon missionaries can only call home twice a year: on Christmas and one other time during the year (usually Mother’s Day).

In case you want more interesting facts about Christmas, check out the rest of the December archive.

Van Damme the risks.


The Loy Krathong festival is an amazing sight to see with all the floating ‘krathongs’ or lotus-shaped container on the river and the hovering ‘khom loi’ or sky lanterns. While people were lining the river to release their krathongs, many others moved to higher ground to prepare their khom lois to launch them into the sky. There’s a risk that the khom lois never fly, but people still make the effort to ensure the conditions like timing, wind, stability, etc. are right so it does happen. The couple in this photo taken last week on Bangkok’s Saphan Taksin bridge was eventually successful, but I remember seeing an impatient group of guys who saw their khom loi go up in flames even before it left the ground.

This process of releasing a khom loi, where people make sure all the conditions are right to reduce the risk of the lantern from catching fire, reminds me of a YouTube video in November that went viral. Do you remember Jean-Claude Van Damme, actor and action movie star? His one-minute video doing the “epic spit” with Volvo Trucks nearly broke the internet – it has been viewed more than 54 million times on YouTube, making it the most viral non-super bowl auto campaign ad ever, according to tracking firm Visible Measures. The aim of Volvo’s marketing campaign of “Live Stunts” is to highlight that its trucks have performance advantages and to promote its Volvo trucks to a mainstream audience with a steady stream of viral videos through an obscure YouTube account.

In terms of reducing the risk of disaster, the Van Damme video, along with the others, really hits the spot when it comes to putting plans in place to reduce the risk of a horrible accident. The fact that disaster is adverted isn’t so much the issue as a lot of planning and preparedness went into the stunts so that a disaster doesn’t happen. This underlying way of communicating disaster risk reduction (DRR) may be subtle, yet it’s this lack of “in-your-face” communication that resonates with people especially when Volvo is showing that its innovative dynamic steering can make the most precarious situations safe. Highlighting this message regularly and with some creativity ultimately builds a strong brand for Volvo and also instills confidence in people about the safety of Volvo’s safety measures. This could be the future for making DRR accessible and for communicating science and climate change that makes sense to people – and that means understanding people, their needs, and their interests.

Even with all the calculated risk taking, check out the pre-stunt video where Van Damme looks concerned and a bit shell-shocked over what Volvo is asking him to do!

The 22 Laws of Marketing

At 2681m the air is thinner, the space is larger, and the atmosphere is harsher. This is the first thing we learned as we trekked up to the Faulhorn. The weather in the Grindelwald valley below wasn’t all the that pleasant but as we moved up in altitude in the mid-morning, the skies cleared up and the peaks of the Jungfrau and Eiger could clearly be seen. This cow was also up on the mountain – how it managed to get up to 2681m wasn’t really on my mind, but more on why he/she would be here – could the grass be better?

Being first on the mountain (or anything for that matter) reminds me of the First Law of Marketing. According to Al Ries and Jack Trout who wrote the ‘22 Immutable Laws of Marketing‘, the first law is about creating a category to be first in. It’s what they call the “law of leadership” – It’s better to be first than it is to be better and it’s much easier to get into someone’s head first than it is to convince them you have a better product than the one that got into his/her head in the first place.


Why the book is a bit dated (the version I have is from 1993), it is a classic in terms of breaking down marketing concepts into 22 simple to understand laws. For the authors, the essence of marketing is narrowing the focus, where you become stronger when you reduce the scope of your operations.

You can’t stand for something if you chase after everything.

For the first half of the book, the authors, who also wrote the bestseller on Positioning, made it pretty clear that everything is tied to the First Law and how marketers need to understand their consumer base and how they think. Towards the second half of the book, they touch on more internal issues particularly on how to maintain customers once you’ve gotten into their minds.

Marketing is a game fought in the mind of the prospect. You need money to get into a mind. And you need money to stay in the mind once you get there.

Even with the ideas and the resources to make it happen, they make a cautionary note not to wear out your welcome when it comes to messaging:

One way to maintain a long-term demand for your product is to never totally satisfy the demand.

Again, the book is a bit dated and the examples used come from a time when computers were just a novelty, the internet was in its infancy, and where traditional communication channels and media were used. Despite all this, the laws still hold up for marketing in the modern day – it would be nice to see this book updated with examples from the digital sphere, where we spend a significant portion of our time being entertained, finding information and interacting with our friends, family and companies.

Women and Girls: a visible force for resilience


The International Day for Disaster Reduction (IDDR) takes place every year on October 13. Since 2011, the Day has been part of a 4-year concept to build up momentum to 2015, an important date for the United Nations – it’s not only the deadline of the Millennium Development Goals ends, but also when the 10-year international framework for disaster risk reduction comes to an end. Conceptualized during my work with UNISDR, the 4-year Step Up initiative aims to promote disaster risk reduction and build up partnerships along the way to create a movement for the post-2015 international framework for disaster risk reduction.

Each year of the Step Up initiative focuses on a theme and group as described in the UNISDR website:

The Step Up initiative started in 2011 and will be focusing on a different group of partners every year leading up to the World Conference for Disaster Reduction in 2015 – Children and Young People (2011), Women and Girls (2012), people with disabilities (2013), and the ageing population (2014).

Watch the Romanian video below

In 2012, my role was to establish an online promotional campaign, that included using social media, to raise awareness about the day and highlight the role of Women and Girls as a force for disaster resilience. I also designed the t-shirts (photo above) for UNISDR for the day which were a big hit, especially the QR code on the backside.

In partnership with a whole range of partners and tapping into other campaigns such as “Because I am a Girl“, I led the project in developing an interactive website to celebrate IDDR, which included getting people to comment on and “map” the role of women in disaster risk reduction. We also developed a strategy to promote and engage in conversation on Twitter and Facebook, and setup a Flickr group for people to share photos. The partnerships, collaboration, and promotion led to the 2012 International Day becoming a global event with activities taking place from Afghanistan to Zambia. Over 80 countries celebrated the day with the theme “Women and Girls: the [in]Visible Force of Resilience”.

IDDR 2012 in Uganda

Before the day, I had an understanding that social media would be a powerful force for advocacy and promotion, much more than your traditional media broadcast. But, the results were beyond our expectations! We did a quick count and over 5000 tweets using #iddr were seen over 27 million times! Here’s a sample of what people were saying before, during and after the 2012 IDDR.

… and check out these videos below. The first one by a small island in the Caribbean who put a music video together, splicing video messages from different people, and second one of artists doing a graffiti mural interpreting the theme in Romania. This is inspirational and shows that there is not only interest in risk reduction, typically a difficult concept to understand, but also that there are people and groups who have the creativity to make this important subject, dare I say, cool!

SMACK-ing communication in the face


I’ve been drinking a glass of Coke at night for the last couple of weeks. The reason? I have 5 two-liter bottles of Coke sitting on my balcony thanks to my cousins who bought them just to get a free stuffed polar bear as part of the deal. Their excuse was that they were doing market research because they work in the marketing industry for a small agency in London. And why not research and learn from a company/brand that has been around for over 100 years doing some creative marketing that gets you to buy and drink their product?

Warning: this might upset some people… If their communication and marketing strategy has been so successful, why not apply it to other areas and industries, like around social issues (ex. health, climate change, and education)? The strategy behind the “buying” can be applied to other things like getting people to wash their hands properly or to switch to more climate friendly transportation.

If you’ve ever wondered the same thing, you’re in luck. There’s a summer program at New York University that covers the topic/issue from 8-26 July 2013. It’s called the “Integrated Marketing Communication for Behavioral Impact (IMC/COMBI) in Health and Social Development“. Here’s a brief description of the program:

This New York University course in collaboration with the World Health Organization focuses on strategic communication planning for behavioral impact in health and social development… The course stresses that behavioral impact comes with the critical support of effective communication programs purposefully planned for behavioral results, and not directed just at awareness creation, advocacy, or public education.

I took the 3-week course in 2010 and had a blast: met great people in the program, got some interesting insight by visiting some heavy-weights like UNICEF and Burson-Marsteller, fine-tuned presentation and speaking skills, and came up with some innovative communication ideas and plans. After the 3 weeks, you’ll know why you want to “SMACK” communication in the face. :)

With the right pitch, you can sell an idea in 4-minutes.

Honestly, on Friday night I wasn’t too enthusiastic about spending a weekend “locked” in a room with eight strangers to come up with a ‘start-up’ company. But, after listening to the 60-second pitches, the buzz of energy from the 100+ people who turned up, and the persistent and friendly Scottish brain behind the idea that interested me, I decided to give up 54 hours and a bit of sleep to get a crash course on building a business.

While there was a huge demand on all sorts of people with different skills (i.e. marketing, strategy, HR, communications, web developers, programmers, etc.), what we realized was it was all about the “idea” and how well we thought it through… basically to convince the jury and audience that our business ideas was worth an investment. We spent all weekend refining what we thought was a  good idea to something to the point and valuable to a customer. Did I mention that we only had 4 minutes on Sunday to explain this idea to them?

Roughly 40 ideas were pitched on Friday night, with 15 of these eventually getting “developed” by Sunday. Finding out the “pain”  – what it is, who has it, and the solution for it – was one of the hardest things to do. Focused, targeted and measurable – any business idea is possible taking these three things into account… it doesn’t sound as easy as it seems.  In the end, StartUp Weekend Geneva was all about selling and presenting an idea and inspiring potential investors to throw money/resources at the idea… don’t ever underestimate the power of sales and communication to get your point across.

It’s kinda the same thing with information… we’re producing so much of it these days that if we really want to get our message across, it has to be sorted, organized, and put together in a way that makes sense. Not only do we need to understand the information, the people we want to communicate to and what kind of impact we want, we also need to communicate it in a way that gets the point across, otherwise it’s just a lot of wasted energy.

Difficult is easy, simple is hard… we eventually didn’t reach the finals, but the group we formed really sees the potential in the project and we’re looking to continue working on it – I’ll keep the idea a bit of mystery for now!

Marketing with a bit of a conscience

UPDATE (4 March 2014): I just found the presentation we put together for the final project of the course on how to provide safe drinking water to South Sudan. Download it here.

I’ve enrolled in a three-week course at New York University on using marketing and communications for social/environment/development issues… basically – taking what Coca Cola, Nike, Nestle, etc. has done with selling their products and applying it to more social justice issues. It’s an interesting concept and one that I’ve been thinking about for a while especially since I’ve been reading on how techniques in advertising, public relations and graphic design can be used to help worth-while causes. The program is called “Integrated Marketing Communication for Behavioral Impact in Health and Social Development” or “IMC/COMBI” for short.

I’m in week two of the program and it’s been a lot of discussions, lectures, presentations, and field trips to advertising and PR agencies in NYC. It’s great to be exposed to a variety of different marketing-type companies and projects. So now it’s onto the final week – I think there’s a likely possibility of staying after school to work on a final project – a marketing communication plan that will encourage someone somewhere to adjust their behavioral for some common good… so far, we are going try to ensure that people in rural Northern Sudan are able to have clean drinking water.

Washington Square Park – just outside our NYU classes where it’s a pretty chilled place to take a break.