The branding edge: Unveiling effective strategies
Effective branding goes beyond logos and slogans; it’s about crafting an immersive experience that resonates deeply with your audience. Welcome to an exciting episode featuring a true branding expert, John McIndoe, the former CMO of IRI. John discusses the world of branding, exploring the pivotal moments that shaped his journey and honed his brand strategy expertise. From working on positioning and architecture to crafting captivating creative designs, John walks us through his brand strategy prowess. Drawing from his extensive background as a former Chief Marketing Officer, John unveils the secrets behind successful brand strategies that leave a lasting impact. Discover the essential elements that comprise a winning brand strategy, and gain practical tips to elevate your own brand’s positioning and design. Tune in now!
This episode is with John McIndoe, who is the former Global Chief Marketing Officer of IRI, now Circana. You might know IRI as being the global tech leader in analytics and market data solutions covering CPG, retail, and media sectors. They always competed very closely with Nielsen. John was responsible for IRI’s corporate solutions branding their global communications and marketing efforts.
He was part of the executive team that transformed this $600 million research company into a $6 billion SaaS analytics and data industry leader. John has enormous passion and expertise for creating disruptive marketing ideas that expand awareness in market share, drive revenue, and increased shareholder value. He’s worked under private equity ownership and been in the agency world.
In this episode, we talked a lot about John’s love for brand building, building businesses, how he started off in the agency world, and a very interesting story of what it was like working under private equity. John shares a lot of great wisdom and knowledge about building alignment within the C-suite and not being too idealistic about a brand. Here’s the interview with John. I hope you enjoy the episode.
John, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you on.
Thank you so much, Gabe. I’m delighted to be here. I’m excited about this topic.
John, you’ve been in a lot of different roles and you’ve been chief marketing officer. As it relates to brand and as you think about your career, what was the first time that you got your brand strategy chops, whether that was working, positioning, architecture, or creative design?
It’s funny as I was preparing, I was excited for this because if you think about branding from an entire marketing perspective, it is like the epicenter of where art and science come together. I got excited thinking about my journey as it relates to branding. I started getting my feet wet in terms of branding on the agency side. I was working for an integrated marketing shop in Chicago, a division of a much larger agency. We were serving a variety of clients, and that’s where I started getting into branding work initially.
A lot of positioning and messaging frameworks, helping dilute and distill, and re-architect a lot of the messaging frameworks. That slowly started moving into a lot of design and identity work. As I reflect back, I caught the branding bug when I moved over to the corporate side and started becoming a member of a team that was responsible for the brand overall.
John, you said you were doing brand work at the integrated marketing agency. That’s not allowed. Only the branding agencies are allowed to do.
I know. I wondered if you might take issue with that.
Shouldn’t they have handed it over? Were they allowed to do it? Were they licensed to do brand work?
That was the beauty of integrated marketing communications at that time. We do annual reports, investor relations, and billboard advertising back in the day and then we dabble in brands. It’s certainly not as good as what you probably are doing now.
That’s why branding agencies are getting their own back now and saying that they do campaign work and all these other bits as well. I think the lines have always blurred. They blur even more now but any agency says that they can do branding. It’s the depth of expertise and something I’m doing every single day. I do want to ask a serious question. Your experience is having worked at an integrated marketing agency doing brand work and then having worked with pure-play brand agencies. Do you notice a difference or not really?
I do. I’ve worked obviously on the agency side doing broader integrated marketing and creative work but having hired specific agency talent with domain expertise in branding, there’s no comparison. We’ll probably get into that in a little bit but having a solid understanding of what you know and what you don’t know about the brand is critical. Hiring a seasoned brand agency for a multitude of reasons can bring a lot of value to your overall process.
It’s interesting seeing how things have changed because now you see a lot of people even on the brand agency side who have moved client side. Branding used to be where there was almost a principal-agent challenge where the branding agency had all the expertise. There wasn’t much of a conversation debate with the clients. You, as the agency, always knew better. Now there’s a lot more collaboration and expertise inside client organizations as it relates to a brand than it used to be.
Without question, I totally agree.
Branding can be very messy when you are on the client side. What was the difference for you? When you went client side, you started working with the brand. Where were you? What was that experience like? What was going on?
I had the good fortune of working within an organization that fundamentally understood brand. Our clients were some of the biggest brands in the world.
This is IRI, right?
Correct, which is where I spent a great portion of my career and was the Chief Marketing Officer for many years. We understood the brand and our clients were massive brands but that didn’t necessarily translate to the levels of investment and the overall commitment that you would think that one might get from serving such powerhouse brands as PepsiCo and Anheuser-Buschs of the world. There was a lot of educating, informing, inspiring, and evangelism that was required to keep the branding effort well-funded and top of mind in terms of our overall strategic agenda.
Even the concept of a brand means for an organization like IRI which was very B2B-oriented, very sales-oriented, and probably very account-based marketing-oriented.
We did a lot of work in terms of helping people understand the importance of the brand. As a professional services firm, brand played an immense role and underpinned virtually every aspect of the marketing machine. Professional services are about building trust and preference. Building a framework in an environment where the brand can help you become the partner of choice, and brand perception plays such a critical role each and every day, it’s a strategic imperative.
We continually put that notion at the forefront. We did a lot of research to understand where we were as the business continued to evolve. Did we think that we had the brand perception that was ultimately going to get us where we needed to go strategically? If not, what modifications, messaging, look, and feel did we need to make? How are we going to evolve this brand to come into our own and in various portions of the business?
Is it fair to say that you were playing more of a challenger role because you were coming up against the behemoth of Nielsen?
We were. When I first joined the company and started looking at brand, we were in the number two position. There are advantages, pluses and minuses, to being in that challenger spot playing number two. A very nimble organization with a lot of agility and resilience, which ultimately helped us grow the business the way we did. We surprised a lot of folks and become the number-one player over the years.
How did you do that?
A variety of things. We focused on impact. This relates to the brand. What is the impact? What is the value that we’re providing to customers and how do we quantify that impact and make that central to everything that we do from a marketing perspective? We had a very smart CEO that came from a consulting background, understood the power of storytelling, and imagined a world where you could do X, Y, and Z. We embraced a lot of that from a branding perspective to paint a picture and a vision, to tell a story, and then build brand moments that helped illuminate that.
You also went through one of those big moments that every so often, you get a few opportunities in your career to go through, which is in the context of a merger or acquisition. Tell us a bit about that story.
I had the good fortune of refreshing the brand and redoing it twice during my tenure at the company. Each and every time, we learned a lot. We had a unique situation in that. We had this rich 30-year history. At that time, it was 30 years of this brand equity. Did we believe that some of that brand equity needed to evolve? Did we need to be known for different things and elements? Without question, we had this rich heritage.
We got into a situation where one of our ownership groups had been building out a master brand strategy for their portfolio of companies, and slowly over time, we’re bringing people into their portfolio of master branding. At the end of the day, we had to abandon that equity and rebrand as a different company name. We then were SymphonyIRI, part of the Symphony Technology Group family of companies. We didn’t have a tremendous amount of time or investment to build out new equity and sustain that over time. That was a very interesting endeavor. Fast forwarding a handful of years, we ultimately decided to rebrand, return to our roots and heritage, and revert back to being IRI.
John, the SymphonyIRI story, anyone who’s remotely geekish about brand strategy, is such an interesting story. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a story like this where the private equity owner, essentially what you were saying, decided to put their brand at the top of the pile. I guess the closest you have that I can think of might be when you have a company and underneath it might say a Berkshire Hathaway company. This was taking it to another level where it wasn’t like a deep-level endorsement. As the lead brand, Symphony leading it at the same level. What was the mentality that was even going on as to why they wanted to do that? What was the rationale even for thinking like that?
As you can appreciate and likely imagine, there were lots of differing opinions. I tried to stick to a data-driven approach. We had this rich benchmark information, understanding equity and value that we had within the marketplace, and painted a variety of different scenarios about what would happen if we made these series of moves. At the end of the day, the decision came to be that we were going to embrace being part of this family of brands through the private equity ownership group. We went forward and we rebranded. The big learning and takeaway is branding obviously is a long-term value proposition. You’ve got to have heads in the room that are thinking about not only 1 or 2 years down the road but 5 and 10.
Clearly, we knew that we were not going to be owned by the same private equity group forever. It certainly made for a lot of exciting times. We did a lot of tests and learn throughout that brief rebrand. We were able to come back. I was still fortunate enough to be in the role of the chair and get to do it all over again, embrace our roots, and come up with a lot of new and creative ways to activate and truly build out a brand platform that was going to take us into the future.
I understand that everyone has different opinions but it was the rationale of whoever thought that it was the right thing to do. They believed that Symphony brought specific equities and they were going to invest in that. Whatever the reason was, I’m interested to hear what the rationale was for doing that or what the strategy was.
There were several rationales. As you can likely appreciate, there was an effort to build out visibility, equity, and awareness for this successful private equity firm. That was probably the leading rationale behind it. There was a time in the market when many of these private equity organizations were trying to build out additional capability and discrete capabilities around unique brand names. We’ve seen this happen in a lot of professional services. If you look at, for instance, executive surge, they all create these boutique groups of companies, rename them, and call them an X, Y, Z company. I think that was the primary notion of it.
When they sold the company, you got to refresh it again because then they had to remove Symphony.
Exactly. We had the opportunity to delve in and start from the ground zero. I was fortunate enough to work with a CEO who understood the power of building a brand. He had come from very well-respected brands. I had the freedom to do it from the ground up properly with the right amount of research, investment, and a process that enabled me to truly build out the foundational elements for a world-class brand platform.
What was critical, John, in terms of the process and the work that got you to a good outcome in that brand work? If you’re able, share a bit about that brand story.
This will sound quite elementary, but being very clear about what the brand will and will not do. You have to be crystal clear with ownership, your C-suite stakeholders, and your employees about why we’re embarking on this mission and what does brand truly mean for our business. Give them the appropriate set of tools to help them be successful in being brand ambassadors. It’s everything from templates, brand guidance, premiums, and logoed stuff down to what is your role as a brand champion. That’s constantly evolving but bringing people into the process and giving them ownership of the brand. There is no single group or person who owns the brand. The brand is constantly evolving and is a collection of thoughts and perceptions at any given time.
Once the core of the brand work was done, how did you successfully activate that brand both internally and externally? Sometimes you start with this very high-level brand idea, especially within the B2B context, translating that down into positioning, messaging, and all the different industries and clients that you have and products and services.
We took a very holistic approach in terms of the effort, the fundamental difference between our most successful branding or rebranding effort, and those that were less successful. We spent a tremendous amount of time developing an internal brand platform. We spent a lot of time with internal stakeholders doing a variety of focus groups and benchmarking research and a lot of dialogue throughout the global organization to understand a variety of different perspectives. Also, enrolling a large number of employees into the effort from the onset versus letting everyone do this massive unveiling, which of course, we did at the end. We went and got a lot of support and sought a lot of perspective and input from the organization to build a brand from the inside out.
We did an equal amount of work on the external to understand the competitive landscape and a variety of different stakeholders’ points of view, clients, analysts, press, board, etc. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t just focus on the external and all the pretty external stuff and you can’t focus on the internal. We did a good job in balancing the two and that led to a tremendous amount of excitement that ultimately put people in a different position of feeling like they had ownership, a role, and a duty to be brand stewards.
Any tactics or things that you did or ideas that you can take us under the hood in the process that you think to tell a story or made it a little bit more unique?
We’ve tried to make it a lot of fun but we also tried to give people tools. We did a variety of lateral pieces. We did a whole host of videos and days-in-the-life type scenarios to help people understand the different ways in which the brand was occurring which could help shape that brand. We did internal naming contests and a whole host of off-the-wall fun wacky things to get people engaged and bought into this transformation.
It wasn’t just about look and feel. This was about value proposition and the way we articulated our value to our clients and the marketplace. There was a whole effort underway to outline and essentially help people understand what it was like to be an IRI employee from a recruiting perspective. How we work with one another, how we respect and interact with one another, how we collaborate. We felt that all of those things look, feel, and act like IRI at that time. We felt that that was critical to do that kind of work. We did a lot of that fun stuff, which ended up getting people enrolled and behind it.
As a marketing data and measurement company, how did you apply measurement to yourselves? How were you going to be planned out to know if the brand refresh was working or not? What metrics or measures did you use?
You likely have clients that want to skip the research step. I was amazed being in the research and insights business and being such a quantitatively driven type of organization and space. There were a lot of people that didn’t feel like we needed to have ongoing research around this. You could do it before and then after. I pushed the agenda of constantly monitoring where we were in terms of brand health, both internally and externally. We did a variety of things to help understand initial benchmarking surveys, both internally and externally, to understand perceptions and attitudes about it. Over time, we would do these pulse checks to understand whether were we moving the needle or were we accelerating and moving in the right direction. How was that perception changing over time?
Can you go deeper and even more specifically into some of those metrics, John, because it’s such a challenge to so many people face, which is brand? It’s something that, in many ways, can be ethereal. It can be a challenge sometimes if you’re using metrics like how well are we doing now on this specific attribute or awareness to then somehow tie that to the financials.
I personally took the opportunity to get in and try and gather insight whenever and wherever we possibly could. We did our traditional benchmarking of brand perception that you would go out and do externally. We did something very similar. We also did a series of activities at various events as well as an annual client satisfaction survey and our annual employee engagement surveys. I made sure that we had questions and areas of each of those instruments that delved into. Do you perceive us as an innovator? Do you perceive us as a trusted advisor? Do you perceive us as having high-quality talent, information, insights, data, and the accuracy of what we do?
We use those as a pulse and a series of data points in time to paint this broader brand health picture over time. Clearly, you’re aware of the type of ownership that we had, which was private equity. We had quite a job in helping them understand that being owned by private equity organizations, you certainly have the role and responsibility to help them understand what is going to create value. It’s not only growth for the company but value for their shareholders.
The math is there. Companies that invest in brands and do so continually are ultimately worth more at the end of the day. That was a piece of the narrative as we thought about how we were going to fund this and what was the return on our investment. We continually kept that narrative at the forefront. It was critical to help secure the support financially as well as strategically to keep investment in the brand at the forefront.
What data sources would you use? You were saying that companies that invest more in brands deliver better financial outcomes. Where do you go to get that data source?
This is the help of brand experts, firms like yours at Monigle that live and breathe this every day. I relied on my agency partners a lot to help frame what was happening in the brand now and peer into what other companies in our space were doing. A lot of competitive assessment and evaluation of what our competitive set was doing from a brand perspective and then following a lot of their moves, taking stock, and what those moves were. Was the brand a central part of some of these marketing moves? Keeping a long list to be able to share that information back and say, “This is what our competitive set is doing, and here’s why we need to be making similar moves or investments.”
John, the whole purpose of this show is to also get to the human stories behind the brand creation. I would love to hear from you what are some of the real personal lessons that you learned in the journey that you went through in IRI, working with brands, and some of the mistakes and screwups that you’ve made.
It’s been so much fun and I learned something through each effort. Certainly, a marketer of data and insights data comes back into its own and is the driver again. We are all data-driven marketers now in 2023 so you have to rely on the data. It’s a blend of art and science from a brand perspective. I said this previously, but it does take a village. Everyone has a role to play from the people that answer the phones to the people that are out in the marketplace presenting and interacting with clients to your senior executives. One of my big lessons was to take advantage of that, inform, educate, inspire, and give them tools to go out and be amazing brand activists and evangelists.
If you don’t, I think you fall short. One of the biggest pitfalls that a lot of folks make is they keep the branding effort and the list of internal constituents smaller because everyone has an opinion about the brand game. You know this better than anyone. Everyone thinks, “Branding is easy. It’s just gut feel and do you like it or not?” We know that there’s so much more to it. I think you shortchange yourself when you don’t invest in the internal side as well. You’ve got to get people educated and get them excited about where you’re going through top-notch creativity. Paint a vision and help them understand why this is such a critical part of our business strategy.
Through the rebrands that you worked on, was there anything that you learned where something that you focused on that you thought was important but later realized wasn’t? Was it something that you saw team members or other people do, “No. That’s not as important as you think it is?”
Two things. One, a 125-page brand book. Your brand book in today’s day and age can be 30 pages. Probably the second is the macro theme.
Why is that? Go deeper on that. What made you realize why we need the 120 pages? No one reads it.
You need to create a framework where you give people enough license to express the brand and make things creative, relevant, and individualized. It needs to be configurable, not necessarily customizable. This is a challenge of managing a global brand. We were a global organization and so different things play differently. That’s why you’ve got to have a broad set of individuals providing input as you’re building out a brand platform and the assets, visuals, and creative.
At the end of the day, you have to have a set of standards and rules. Giving them the tools to configure things and make them relevant for their markets, but not going so far off the beaten path that it doesn’t look like what it’s supposed to look like. It doesn’t look, feel, and act like something that’s on brand. I never liked the term brand police. That’s why we used an ambassador term because no one wants to be policed. It is essential to adhere to standards. There are people that like to break the norm and not use an approved PowerPoint template. That ultimately degrades your brand.
If you’re starting with a tighter set of standards, that’s only 30 pages, and obviously, you’re giving a lot more room for freedom. Does that mean that you need a lot more training and reinforcement because there’s more for interpretation? Do you also need to have more feedback so that you get to see what people are doing and then celebrate? It’s almost reverse engineering some of those new creative ideas into guidelines because you start to show what good looks like.
It was a constant learning process. One of the things that we got very good at was test and learn. You can’t be throwing out a new PowerPoint template to 6,000 associates every three months after you tweak things. We tried to have a continuous feedback loop. We sought a lot of input post-launch and then made modifications installments and changes in enhancements. Over time, updated people regarding those changes. A brand is not static. The big learning from the massive brand book was people don’t read it and certainly don’t print it anymore. Give them 80% of what is going to make them successful to stay on brand, do the work, and carry the load with 30% of the space because no one has the time to delve in. Not everyone is a brand purist and wants to dig in at that level of detail.
Is there a flip side to that learning? Is there an area where you weren’t thinking about or people don’t think enough about, “You should be investing more time that is key to success,” but that isn’t enough talk about?
Many organizations underestimate the timing and the amount of energy within an organization that is required to go through a branding exercise. Many have the perception that it’s just about letterhead and logos and banners at the top of screens. It’s about a cultural mindset shift. That varies depending on the scope and depth of the branding effort and how much positioning, messaging, and business strategy is tied to that.
Probably one of the greatest pitfalls a lot of marketers and branding executives make is underestimating the timing. It will take not only to come up with the brand platform and all of the creative surrounding it but also to roll it. Having people truly indoctrinate it and build it into the DNA of the business takes months and years. I don’t know if you share that same perspective, but it’s typical for many executives and C-suite executives to think it’s a one-and-done effort like, “We rebranded. Now we’re on our way.” We all know that it’s something that takes care, feeding, constant fine-tuning, expansion, and amplification each and every day that we’re operating our businesses.
Fundamentally, if there’s one thing that changed most over the last decade has been that the hard work starts the day that you roll the brand out. It requires not just a mindset shift, but thinking about the funding of these projects and the resourcing. Oftentimes, the rebrand is done out of a single capital expenditure budget. After the brand works were done, it’s like, “No, I need continuing operating budget in order to continue to sustain and drive it through the organization and connect it into the culture or an experience.” People need to hear things a lot of times before they get it.
It’s like the ultimate proof point to tell them what you said, tell them again, tell them again and again. It’s critical. We’ve all bared witness to companies that have gone and done a big splashy rebrand or relaunch. All of a sudden, they fall off and you’re like, “Where did they go?” They spent everything in the first three months of launching it in big newspaper ads but they’re not continuing to sustain that investment. That’s essential.
Over my career, I’ve had very tough conversations about, “Are we willing to make these investments over time to build new equity if we’re talking about a total brand overhaul, a rename, re-messaging, etc.? If not, we’re likely better sticking with where we’re at and working to try and build on the existing equity. Equity takes time, money, energy, and mindshare to create.
That’s a really important lesson. It’s not to say we need to go here and say, “If we’re going to do it, then this is what’s going to take.” Otherwise, it’s okay. We can stay here. We can do either. It’s not an idealistic mentality to say, “No, we must do this.” We can still play with what we’ve got.
As I said earlier, be very clear about what the goals and objectives are. It’s tough when you’re sitting in a boardroom and you’ve got pressure from ownership and perhaps even fellow C-suite members. You’ve got to stay true to what you know is correct, which is clear alignment on the objectives and the goals of what this branding effort is to do for the company.
John, as we wrap this with what we call a bit of a wisdom round which is getting a bit more personal in your background experiences, what would you describe as your superpower?
I’m not so sure it’s my superpower but this is what a lot of colleagues like to say. I’m pretty good at staying calm. If there’s been a tragedy, let’s try and stay calm. We’re going to get through this and be that steady guy in the boat that keeps us moving forward.
I had to ask you. Can you tell us about the guitars behind you?
I thought during the COVID pandemic that I would learn how to play these with all that free time we were supposed to have. I have collected these at a variety of events that we’ve put on. A couple of them are signed by some pretty big-name country artists. I got the Jersey Boys here. Someday, I’ll learn how to play them, but not just yet.
They look great on the wall.
How do you get the most out of agency partners?
I have been so lucky to have phenomenal agency partnerships. This is going to sound so pedestrian, but it’s about trust, respect, and transparency. I started my career on the agency side saying know what it’s like. If you hire an agency for a specific set of reasons, you have to empower and trust them in their expertise. Ultimately, treat them the way you’d want to be treated even though you’re the client and “the boss.”
Being the CMO, one thing that we often hear from people who are in a brand role is, “How do I make the case internally? I’m struggling to make the case for the brand internally. My executives don’t get it.” Having been in the C-suite as a CMO, what advice do you have for those people? Is it okay to say, “Leave and work somewhere else?”
No, because you’re walking away from an exciting challenge. We all know what a thrill brand is, rebranding, and building out a brand. You’ve got to be honest about your reality and meet people where they’re at and then lean on your brand agency and your partners there to say, “This is where we’re at. This is where we’re trying to go. As equally as important as the ultimate brand work will be, we can’t do that brand work unless we get people thinking differently about the brand.” What I did several different times and has proven to be a winner for me was to go out, tap those relationships and get a pulse for where we are at across your key stakeholders and your ownership, and build strategies based on where that mass or those individuals are.
I don’t think it’s a one size fits all approach. Everyone’s got very definitive opinions about it. You can have the guy or the woman next to you on the left thinking, “We need to become a household name.” The individual to your right, your colleague, or your partner thinks that everything is just fine. Ultimately, you want to be somewhere in the middle. It’s not a one size fits all approach in terms of building and support for branding activity.
If you could go back and give some advice to your 30-year-old self, what would that be? I know that’s only a few. I did this in a previous interview so I can’t make that joke every single time.
This is a good one. Take risks. Some of my greatest achievements and accomplishments have been when we took risks. I know that sounds trite, but notably in the marketing space, you have this ability to test and learn in small, medium size, and large ways. Look at the rise of artificial intelligence, self-learning, and machine learning. We have the capacity as humans, marketers, and executives to do the very same thing. We have to get into this constant muscle memory pattern of taking a risk, testing it out, evaluating, learning, and making it better.
That’s awesome. John, the conversation has absolutely flown by. It’s so helpful and interesting to hear the brand perspective from someone who’s been in a CMO position and also in an industry that’s research-oriented where you’re working with some of the best friends in the world. Thank you so much. It’s been a great conversation.
Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure talking with you. I’m excited that you guys are tackling these topics. One of the things that we constantly rely on, as marketers, is peer perspective. Bravo to you for doing this kind of stuff. I appreciate it and thank you.
Cheers. Thanks, John.
About John McIndoe
John is the former Global Chief Marketing Officer for IRI (now Circana), the global leader in technology, analytics, and market data solutions and services for the Consumer Goods, Retail, and Media Sectors.
John was responsible for IRI’s corporate and solutions branding, global communications, and marketing efforts. He was part of the executive team that transformed this $600M research company into a $6B SaaS, analytics, and data industry leader. He has passion and expertise for creating disruptive marketing ideas that expand awareness and market share, drive revenue, and increase shareholder value for Private Equity ownership.
He loves building brands, businesses, and teams and creating marketing moments that make a difference. John has more than 25 years of experience in brand, communications, and marketing, spanning B2B and B2C brands across multiple sectors and domains, including FMCG, retail, healthcare, media, big data, analytics, SaaS, AI, and Professional Services.
Before joining IRI, John was with InstallShield Software Corporation, a leading enterprise software firm, where he helped the company transition from a world-renowned tools provider to that of a recognized enterprise-class software solutions company. Before working on the corporate side, he held senior marketing and communications positions in the high-tech agency sector with Ruder Finn, Inc., and Parallax Technology Group.
John resides in Denver, CO, with his wife and three children.