November 17, 2011

News & Opinion: Brand Thinking with Debbie Millman and Tom Peters

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 3:00 PM – Filed under: Marketing & Sales

As mentioned yesterday, today we're featuring part of a chapter from Debbie Millman's new book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. What's the book about? It's a collection of Millman's interviews with some serious minds from the ad industry (and beyond) about what branding is, how it affects us, and how to better understand our relationship with it (both as professionals and as consumers). It's a compelling read about a subject that involves us all (whether we like it or not).

In the chapter featured below, Millman interviews management expert and design conscious thinker Tom Peters. This is just one example of the type of thinking you'll see throughout the book (and a pretty good one, in my opinion).

Here we go!

(A reminder: Questions are by the author, Debbie Millman, and answers are by Tom Peters, taken from the book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits)

Why do people care about branded items? What do you think it does for the human psyche?

One part of it—which is less relevant today than it was in the past—is once they got connected with companies like the Unilevers and the Kimberly-Clarks and the P&Gs, a brand was a guarantee of reliability. This did not exist in my grandfather’s store in rural Virginia. Have you read Thomas Hine’s book on packaging? One of my favorite examples from his book focuses on Quaker Oats. Hine talks about how, in 1870, oats were something you fed to an animal. And suddenly, you had a cardboard box with a Quaker on the outside, and oats became a human delicacy—due entirely to packaging—in the short space of 20 years.

First, branding was about safety and reliability, but let’s also acknowledge that human beings are an emotional species. I was in China for the first time in 1986. As soon as Deng Xiaoping took the lid off of regulation, women went from wearing gray, shapeless Mao jackets to sporting colorful wardrobes nearly overnight. This need to express our individuality and vibrancy is obviously a fundamental, basic human need.

Why do you think it’s a basic human need?

I have no idea. It may be that giraffes are colorblind, so they have patterns on their bum that other critters don’t. I assume at some point, in some sense, it’s a version of peacocking. I assume that there was probably an aspect of Darwinian selection to it. My bet would be it has something to do with this, though I do have a proclivity for being fairly Darwinian in my beliefs. Frankly, I have no idea what the history is.

Let’s assume that we are hardwired to want to be attractive to each other for some deep-seated procreational need. How is this connected to oats transforming into a delicacy when the food is put in a package decorated with the image of a Quaker?

In Darwinian terms, we’re suckers for stories. Stories are the way that humans have always communicated. The Quaker Oats box is not only visually attractive, but it’s a story. Since Aboriginal times in Western Australia—and I’m sure if one goes back thousands of years, or hundreds of thousands of years before that, you’ll find the same dynamic—a good story has always been a good seller. A brand is a story. Period. Frankly, I would rather dump the word “brand” and use the word “story.” I think we’re in the process of wearing out the word “brand.” At some level, when I’m a brand, I’m more commercial. When I’m a story, I’m more human.

So what do you think the Quaker story was at the turn of the 20th century?

I presume that—to your point with plastic bags and diapers—as late as the beginning of the century, sanitation sucked. The pharmaceutical companies should get none of the credit for our life expectancy going from 50 to 75 during the 20th century. The two things that account for 90 percent of this improvement are sanitation and diet. So here comes a cereal that’s reliable and clean and that you could buy for your dearly beloved children without any fear they would get sick when they ate it.

How was the quaker telling that story? What did the quaker represent?

Doesn’t a quaker, in theory, stand for reliability? If it’s good enough for a quaker, then it’s got to be good enough for my little Martha.

One of my favorite stories revolves around the Morton Salt Girl. She is all about metaphor. Morton chemically alters a salt crystal so that it won’t stick to other crystals when it’s wet or humid outside. The Morton Salt Girl is holding an umbrella while the salt is pouring freely. So when it rains, the salt pours. But you don’t have to read a word—it’s all expressed by a visual puzzle that you have to figure out. I think this is why people like it so much. People love puzzles—they feel better about themselves when they correctly figure them out. That’s why people like the “I ♥ New York” logo so much. It’s a puzzle made out of a word, an abbreviation, and a symbol.

I remember reading an article about a social psychology experiment relating to this and being totally unsurprised, as I imagine you would be. Two sets of subjects are given two lists of the same words to memorize. One of the lists is of the words “farm,” “basement,” “bar,” and so forth. The other list is the same, except that random letters are left out, so instead of basement, you’ve got BAS, underscore, MENT. In terms of subsequent recall, the people who had the list with missing letters outperformed the people with the full words by a dramatic margin. Cognitively, you had to work your ass off, so it stuck in your mind.

Yes, the experience of figuring out the words creates a deeper neural pathway in the brain.

It’s extraordinary the way the brain works. . . .

I hate economists.

Why? Why do you hate economists?

Because they’re impersonal bastards. They believe in the rational model, which makes them dumb. When the great recession of 2007–2008 descended upon us, it was not an economics issue. It was a psychology issue.

How was it a psychology issue?

The behavior that got us there was herd behavior. The government has convinced people of the emotional need to own a house. If you look at the economics studies, in many respects the housing market doesn’t go up all that much over a long period of time. There are a million studies that will tell you that renting makes more sense than owning. But psychologically, owning a piece of turf is incredibly important. So I understand why people—who had no money and were given the chance to borrow money—were total suckers for it. And I use “sucker” not in an abusive sense, but in a realistic sense. Then again, you’ve always had herd behavior on Wall Street.

They’re now saying Silicon Valley is the “green” crash. The current punchline is that any human being, including you and I, can put together a business proposal tomorrow morning. And as long as we use a computer and include the word “green” a sufficient number of times in our proposals, the venture capitalists will be showering us with money by dawn the day after.

I’m obviously using hyperbole, but that’s where we’re seeing more of this herd behavior. In terms of the rational-mindedness, I’ve trained in that. I was trained as an engineer, but now I’m a reformed engineer, a “born again” engineer. The reliance on rational models—or models in general—to me, makes economists highly suspect. I don’t believe anything they say. That is very close to not being hyperbole. In the 1970s, when I was getting my PhD, my classmates and I read books by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Tversky and Kahneman invented “behavioral economics.” This is the hottest branch of economics right now, the “Freakonomics” branch.

Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics, but he was a social psychologist, period. I am royally pissed off that these f’ing economists have appropriated psychology and now call it the coolest thing in economics. Screw them. These straightlaced, rationally thinking economists have appropriated social psychology, and it pisses me off for reasons that are totally childish on my part.

Why childish?

Because it’s stupid. I’m delighted that the irrational realities are beginning to seep into economics. The rational me is delighted that irrationality is seeping into the rational profession, because maybe they’ll get some things right.

Look, I have a very strong smart-ass streak. I have learned to be “appropriate” and politically correct on many scores over the years. To the extent that I must, I guard my “smart-assery” when I’m giving speeches to middle managers from financial services companies. But the smart ass lurks no more than one glass of chardonnay below the surface.

I’ll remember that when I need to get your honest opinion on something. In the past, you’ve said, “Design is so critical it should be on the agenda of every meeting in every single department in the business.” Why do you believe that?

The term I’ve used for 20 years—and maybe I stole it from somebody or maybe by the grace of God they’ve stolen it from me—is “design-mindedness.” Design-mindedness is about bringing an aesthetic dimension into a discussion of anything. I am a great fan of Carly Fiorina. A lot of the reason was that she—kicking and screaming—brought a design aesthetic to Hewlett-Packard. I know this because I lived next door to Lew Platt, Carly’s predecessor, in college. Prior to Ms. Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard ranked 200 on a list of 199, in terms of design sensibilities. When she left, they were a significant consumer goods company, and that was Carly, pure and simple. When they gave her successor, Mark Hurd, the credit for having a great design team, it made me want to barf. Carly was not a good chief operating officer, and she probably needed to be let go at some point. I don’t deny that for a minute. And she had an ego that was a little bit out of control, and I don’t deny that for a minute either. But she brought about a cultural change at Hewlett-Packard, which makes the work that Lou Gerstner did at IBM and Jack Welch did at GE look like chump change by comparison.

Do you think that anything can be successful now without being highly positioned?



Well, we obviously would have to spend the next two weeks defining “highly.” As the ethos of quality that began to bubble up in the United States during the 1980s took root, the major fast-moving consumer goods companies started having significant problems going up against store brands. Once store brands became reliable, they began to market and brand themselves. Then Wal-Mart came along, and the average American started saving something like $900 a year, which isn’t small cookies for people making $45,000 annually. The things they’re buying at Wal-Mart might be much less sexy, but as long as they’re quality products, this is perfectly acceptable. The recession obviously has pushed people even farther toward this model.

Look, I own a Subaru. I own a Subaru because they’re perfect for Vermont. But the quality revolution has taken such root that, in terms of quality, I’m probably just as well off with a Kia as I am with a Subaru or a Mercedes.

Do you really think that the quality is that comparable?


So it is really just branding and positioning?

Well, branding, positioning, and people who like to have sex with their car. The electronics in BMW and Mercedes cars allow you to do a whole lot of things that you really don’t need to do. But in terms of a vehicle that can travel 30,000 miles without ever having to go into a shop, I would bet that a Kia is very, very close to these other brands.

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.