It’s real pleasure to have an interview with you Simon, as you are one of the well-known brand advisors and experts.
Simon: It’s great to talk to Branding Mag too. I was in Serbia recently and I was very impressed with the ambition of businesses and organisations to adopt the principles and tools of branding in order to develop.
First of all, can you tell us when was the milestone where you decided to learn, speak and teach about branding and why did you decide to do it?
Simon: From early 1990s I was an advertising copywriter and I then became the Creative Director of a UK full-service ad agency, working clients ranging from Barclays Bank to Merial pharmaceuticals, and from brewing to leisure. A very wide range of brands. Over a period of focusing on creative work for these clients, and leading the creative team, I realised that of course the best creative work comes about when you have the clearest and strongest brand strategy to support it. I begane to study branding as a discipline and then to teach it to other staff and to client teams. In 2005 I left to set up my own consultancy, which is now called Brand Strategy Guru.
In my research I’ve seen that you’re doing a lot of TV shows about brands on stations like BBC and CNN. How does it feel when you know that you have a big influence on people and brands?
Simon: Well I don’t think I have much influence. Successful brands are not influenced one way or the other by one industry commentator. But I do think that it’s useful and interesting for people to become more aware of what’s going on with branding, because brand behaviour affects all our lives and work, whether we are employees or run our own businesses. It’s healthy for the debate to be getting media coverage and for people to understand so much better than they used to about how marketing works.
I’ve noticed that one of your favorite brands is Apple – what do you think about their branding strategy? Are there any other brands that inspire you or brands that you find exciting?
Simon: I am a huge Apple fan as you say, because I think they manage to keep excitement and a sense of magic going, ever since the early 90s when they created the wonderfully distinctive iMac. But there are many brands which I find exciting for different reasons: many of the really exciting ones being small local businesses. Some local food producers, hoteliers, leisure operators, small publishers, designers and small manufacturers and places can create a real sense of excitement and a powerful brand narrative which generates enthusiasm and loyalty from customers. Being a great brand doesn’t actually depend on size. Apple is an exception.
For those who don’t know, Simon Middleton is a great writer. Can you tell us something about your previous books and the one that you’re writing right now?
Simon: I have only been a published author for a couple of years actually. I’m a late starter, and the story of how I got published says something about how branding works. My consultancy was originally call Simon Middleton Company Limited. Very boring and safe and not much of a brand actually. About three years ago I changed the name to Brand Strategy Guru and gained immediate stand-out from the crowd. Suddenly I was winning bigger consultancy projects across the UK and beyond, and suddenly my proposal for a simple guide to branding (previously rejected by publishers) was snapped up by the world’s biggest publishing group John Wiley. That book, called “Build A Brand In 30 Days” came out in April 2010. It’s a kind of courseor programme really, designed for entrepreneurs and small business owners with no brand or marketing knowledge to turn their business into a distinctive brand, no matter how small. My second book “What You Need To Know About Marketing” came out in April this year, and is intended as a guide to marketing for board-level executives from non-marketing disciplines such as operations directors or finance directors. I’m most excited about my third book, which comes out in May 2012. It’s called “Brand New You” and it’s all about how to use the power and discipline of branding to reinvent your work, business and whole life. It’s a self-help book but with a strong business rigour applied to it.
My next book (a couple of years away) will be about my journey to creating a consumer brand of my own. I have recently launched two online music retail brands called Left Hand Bear and Folk At Heart. Your readers can find them online to see what they’re about. I created them to prove my theories in my first book, and both of them are growing very fast. I may even retire from branding consultancy and just run those brands!
You were one of speakers this year at The Brand Conference in Belgrade. Was it a good experience for you and what do you think about local brands?
Simon: Speaking at The Brand Conference was a real honour and thrill for me. I had not expected branding to be so well established and developed in Serbia and I learned that I was wrong. I really loved the welcome and spirit of all the Belgrade people whom I met. I don’t know enough about the Belgrade business scene to pick out individual brands, but much of the city felt very forward looking and dynamic. There is lively design everywhere and a real sense of ambition. Also, in one of Belgrade’s main streets I found more independent bookshops gathered together in one area than I think I have seen anywhere else outside of New York. As a writer that was very exciting for me.
What are the current trends in today’s branding strategies?
Simon: Well the meta trend of course is that everyone has to make their brand come alive online. If you’re not branding online then you’re not branding at all. And that applies to local food producers and artisan businesses just as much as big technology brands.
Alongside that I think the strongest trend that I can see is the rise of customer service as a genuine differentiator. A few years ago brands tried to make customers loyal to them with all kinds of schemes. The best brands have realised that nothing beats great service and it’s great service combined with great product which keeps people coming back.
Finally, what do you think, do brands need people or people need brands? Or maybe both?
Simon: Of course commercially speaking brands need people. Companies create brands in order to sell things. That much is simple. What’s harder to understand but absolutely true in my view is that people want and need brands. And it’s not just because we like status or nice things. It’s because we use brands (even if we don’t consciously realise it ) to define ourselves to ourselves. This is actually more important than defining ourselves to our social group. In other words brands aren’t really about social status but creating a narrative about oneself. I don’t buy Apple products to impress anyone else, but because using Apple tells me a story about myself.
In an existential sense I’m not if anyone actually ‘needs’ brands. We could all survive without them: but if they didn’t exist sooner or later we’d start to reinvent them all over again.
I sometimes say that ‘brand’ is just a word we use to describe the stories we tell ourselves about our lives in the modern world.
Thank you for your time.
Simon: You’re very welcome. I hope I’ll be back in Serbia soon.