Building Your Brand

I have had a wonderful week reviewing my reading list. As always, I asked some trusted people for their recommendations. Mervyn Sloman, the owner of Cape Town’s fantastic The Book Lounge, made these non-fiction and fiction recommendations.

Then, Prof Sarah Mosoetsa, CEO of the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Science, made me cry happy tears.  I was woken early on Thursday morning by an unexpected knock on the door. These treasures were delivered. I spent the morning immersed in book wonderland and feeling blessed by Sarah’s generosity. You are sure to find something in these lists to add to your bedside table. They will, of course, turn up in this letter over the next few months.

Friday night found us listening to brilliant jazz drummer Asher Gamedze’s Dialectical Soul. Accompanying Gamedze was saxophonist Buddy Wells. Seeing Wells perform took me back to Melville’s Bassline, an era-defining jazz club that is sadly no more. I remembered Zim Ngqawana who left us too soon. As the evening progressed it was clear that his spirit lives in Gamedze’s music. Robin Fassie on trumpet is a revelation. I have no doubt that Bra Hugh Masekela looks at him with approval. And no South African can ever remember those who have passed over without pausing for Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, a wizard whose musical spells remain ever powerful. It was a beautiful evening. Thank you, Simon Freemantle, for making the recommendation.

The week was a good reminder that being immersed in activities that energise me is an essential part of a life well-lived.


Towards the end of last year, I started to search for good books on sales. Sales are the lifeblood of any business. Yet, it is surprisingly under-researched. Of course, there are the books that preach sales, but I wanted those that explain and enable consistent, pragmatic action that transforms an organisation’s revenue.

My search took me back to Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow, provocatively subtitled What Marketers Don’t Know. Sharp’s argument is that very few of us are brand loyal customers. His research shows that most of us are category customers, switching between various brands thus providing the adept business owner the opportunity to increase sales. He describes consumers as ‘polygamously loyal’ moving between a repertoire of brands.

If you doubt him, think about your most consistently expensive purchase – a car. Despite the best efforts to describe you as [BRAND X] person, you’ve probably owned many different types.

Sharp says marketers make eleven common mistakes. Included in these are:

  • “Failing to research what memory structures are devoted to the brand (i.e. what do consumers know your brand for?).
  • Creating advertising that doesn’t build or refresh relevant memory structures.
  • Over-investing in already highly loyal customers, while neglecting to reach new buyers.
  • Paying premiums for low reach ‘niche’ media.”

He suggests that if you believe that your consumers are a distinctive type of person or that your buyers have a special reason for buying your brand, then you’re operating with false assumptions.

Are you already feeling a little uncomfortable? Read the book. It is an excellent disruption of marketing ‘truths’ that we unconsciously hold, often to our detriment.

Sharp simplifies the marketing job to this “The key marketing task is to make a brand always easy to buy for every buyer; this requires building mental and physical availability. Everything else is secondary…Building mental availability requires reach, distinctiveness (clear branding), and consistency. The brand is seen/noticed, recognised, and recalled more often. Building physical availability requires breadth and depth in space and in time.”

He notes that we are all incredibly busy and so unconsciously and constantly screen out options. He says, “before buyers consciously evaluate which brand to choose: buyers, in effect, ‘decide’ not to consider the vast majority of brands on the market.”

So, “the big marketing issue is how to get a brand thought of, more often, in more buying situations; in other words, how to build mental availability.”

Sharps maps seven rules for marketing:

  1. Continuously reach all buyers of your brand’s category.
  2. Ensure that your brand is easy to buy.
  3. Get noticed. Often.
  4. Refresh and build brand-linked memory structures that make the brand easier to notice and buy.
  5. Create distinctive communication assets.
  6. Be consistent, yet fresh and interesting.
  7. Don’t give customers reasons not to buy.

Of course, none of this is easy but implementing these principles in your business will grow your brand and increase sales (You may also want to revisit Connecting With Customers).


One of my go-to podcasts is Masters of Scale. They describe their mission as being ‘to democratise entrepreneurship’. Isn’t that beautiful? Clear. No impenetrable jargon. Democratise entrepreneurship. If you worked there, you’d immediately know what your job is.

I meet many people who berate themselves because they don’t have as clear a vision for their lives. Some of us are blessed with a crystal-clear vision from early on in life, but for the majority, it is a slightly messier slightly more complex process.

Today, successful businesswoman Tyra Banks says, “my personal brand is I’m covered in mirrors. People look at me and see the most beautiful version of themselves.” But, as she explains in this Masters of Scale episode, it wasn’t always clear where she was going.

As a teenager, Banks wanted a career in advertising. A friend suggested that she give modelling a try. It became a part-time job for a few years. After finishing high school, Banks enrolled in college to study film and television. A few days later she was offered a chance to go to Paris Fashion Week. She decided to give it a go. A few years later her bookings in the world of couture were dropping off, she intentionally started working with broader appeal brands. Her agent told her the idea for her reality show wouldn’t work. A friend encouraged her. She did a pilot. It ran for 24 seasons, in 40 different international versions. Today, she is clear on her mission, but getting there was a mixture of following her opportunities, looking for places where she could be her best, and drawing on her experiences.

When Banks got the opportunity to go to Paris Fashion Week, she decided to spend a year in Paris to see if she could build a modelling career. How did she approach it?

She didn’t just get on a plane, she headed to a fashion library in downtown LA and, as she explains, “I studied, studied, studied, studied. I was like, ‘Yves Saint Laurent loves their women with the hair in a bun. Red lipstick. Very elegant walking. Karl Lagerfeld, curls, fun, big pearls, smiling on the runway.’ Once in Paris, knowing what each designer wanted she would adapt her look before each casting. Her career took off. She was booked for an unprecedented 25 shows in her first season.

Hoffman comments, “A critical part of authenticity is being so confident in who you are that you don’t mind meeting someone halfway on something simple. Tyra didn’t change anything about herself that couldn’t be undone in the lobby of the next building… her willingness to do the research demonstrated a core competency that was instantly valuable…branding is a two-way conversation. It relies on the beholder as well as the beheld. You can still be YOU and adjust to your audience. That’s just smart selling.”

Banks reshaped her career multiple times by pausing and looking for a new opportunity.

She reflects that there was a point at which she was perceived to be too curvaceous for the couture fashion houses. Her mother handed her a pen and told her to write down the name of every client for whom “it was okay if you had curves”. Banks listed them. Then her mother told her to list all the models that those clients might employ. Banks wrote them down. Her mother looked at the lists and said, “These are your future clients, and these are the careers that you can be inspired by.” A simple but powerful exercise that took Banks on to a whole new phase in her career. She matched who she was with particular clients. As a result, she built a presence in popular culture. An asset that became integral to her next phase, her TV success.

When she had the idea for America’s Next Top Model, she was able to leverage both her knowledge of the fashion industry and an extensive network. She built off her own experiences – the experience of being told ‘you’re too curvy’, or ‘you’re too black’ – knowing that she wanted to expand the definition of what it meant to be beautiful. Her experience, and those of other models, told her that others had also been boxed and discriminated against. She knew if she created something else, it would resonate.

She says “I created America’s Next Top Model to use my core competency of the modelling industry almost like a microcosm for women’s issues everywhere when it comes to physicality…we were very pointed with our casting. And so, when I told that girl every week, ‘You are beautiful, and you are this, and you are that,’ I wasn’t speaking to her. I was speaking to everybody that looked like her.”

You might not have a well-defined purpose starting out, but as Banks shows us, maximising your moments of luck, paying attention to constraints and opportunities, being clear about where you’re strong, and finding environments in which you can flourish, allows your purpose and your brand to evolve over time.


When thinking about building your brand, I love the guidance of this Zen koan “Find the face you had before you were born.”

I read it as an injunction to explore your essence, to know yourself outside of who you’re told you should be or what expectations the world places on you. When you know that, you have the principal basis of brand, you know your uniqueness.

So something that you enjoy this week. It is part of your brand. Own it. Grow it. Find your face.


Strategy, Soul and Self

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