An interview with Idris Mootee

Idris Mootee, CEO of Idea Couture Inc and author of "The 60 Minute Brand Manager"
Idris Mootee, CEO of Idea Couture Inc and Author of “The 60 Minute Brand Strategist”

Idris Mootee is CEO and Co-founder of Idea Couture,which describes itself as “the world’s premier innovation firm”, and which works with global clients from Pepsi to Samsung to Fed Ex to Kraft to LG and beyond. A graduate of the London Business School and the Harvard Business School, Mr. Mootee was previously Global Chief Strategist at Blast Radius, Global Head of Strategic at Organic, and President and Chief Strategy Officer at Live Lowe and Partners. He is the author of more than five books, including The 60 Minute Brand Strategist, which he generously carved some time out of his busy schedule to discuss with us.

why?

Agency Review:

As we explain in the review, writing a book about branding like 60 Minute Brand Strategist is often an invitation to disaster – too short and you don’t treat the subject sufficiently, too long and you lose readers in an avalanche of education. Not that any of this has stopped anybody; there are literally hundreds of books that cover, ostensibly, what you illuminate so brilliantly. So with a crowded marketplace and a minefield of a topic, what on earth prompted you to write the book in the first place?

Mootee:

Branding is one of the most important business tools ever invented – next to accounting. It is practiced by every business from a one-person mom-and-pop set-up to multi-billion enterprises. And yet I feel it is still the least understood among business and practitioners. Thus I had two options: write a super thick book that aimed to be the ultimate branding guide, or write a short one that I hoped would get to the truth about branding and the most important core subjects.

Agency Review:

You opted for the second option, obviously.

Mootee:
Yes. People should be able to finish reading it in 60 minutes or they can chose to take the time and spend an hour on every page. In fact, I could write a whole separate book on each page in the “60 minute…”

Agency Review:

Okay, so if you could expand the book – and one would assume you will in future editions – what would you particularly want to address that you either didn’t get to, or didn’t feel you spent enough time on?

Mootee:

If I do an extension of this book, it would include how to embrace social branding. The topic itself is as much a myth as the topic of branding itself. The idea of architecting a social brand system is about facilitating brand narratives and dialogs and not monologues. Of course, you have less ability to control, but that’s the new reality of branding. Further, social also changes the economics of branding allowing marketers to build a brand with a smaller budget by taking a more grassroots approach which they can quickly scale

why? – part 2

Agency Review:

As someone who has worked in advertising and marketing his whole life – and who grew up among ad people – it comes as a constant surprise to me how little people who are running brands large and small understand the fundamental principles of branding – which are themselves fundamental to marketing and advertising. Why do you think this is? Was it always so, or was branding less important than it is now?

Mootee:

Branding has always been important but it is both a lot more difficult and a lot easier to build brands today.

Agency Review:
Both difficult AND easy?

Mootee:

“Easy” in the sense that there is enough writing and research about the subject and that we have generations of marketers who understand the new realities of branding. In short, they are better equipped and better informed. “Difficult” however, because technology is constantly changing, and changing how we connect and engage. Also because we don’t know how the new generations are willing to engage, to participate or are even to show interest in brands other than those which they believe serve a bigger purpose. Even the term “generation” is, itself, changing; it used to mean a 10 year co-hort, but now we are talking about 3 years!

Agency Review:

It’s mind-boggling. One of the things we keep trying to remind students, CMOs, marketers is just exactly how much change is going on.

Mootee:

That’s why the smart companies have moved to competing on ‘purpose’ and every brand will struggle to define themselves this way.

Agency Review:

Sounds difficult.

Mootee:
Yes. It is more difficult because 10 years (or more) ago it was only about one big idea, one cute logo and one good advertising campaign. These days, advertising barely build brands; they create awareness but they do little to make people like them. On the other hand, it is easier now than it was then, because many young companies can build a brand and strong followers when they align themselves with a mission and a purpose (as they couldn’t or didn’t in the past), turning them into household names almost overnight.

Agency Review:

That idea of mission and purpose particularly resonates because we were just talking about that with Scott Goodson, the founder of StrawberryFrog and whose book Uprising is all about that idea. So let me ask you the same question I asked him – why is this idea of “movement marketing” something that’s developing now? What is unusual about our time that has bubbled this idea to the surface – and what does that say about our time and our brands?

Mootee:

He is basically saying that we are now competing on a higher level beyond the givens – a good product, good services and all of those. Now we are bringing people together and activating based on shared beliefs. Tactically speaking these are ‘movements’ that we can use to mobilize consumers. That’s why, on a macro front, brands need to find a ‘purpose’ to power these movements.

meaning

Agency Review:

One of the more intriguing passages in the book – and more incendiary when we quoted it in the review – is your contention that “many of us turn to… brands to cultivate more meaning in life.” And we don’t disagree with you – but 1) how did this occur to you, 2) do you find it difficult for people to understand and 3) have you found it incendiary yourself?

Mootee:

Our consumer culture has evolved and for most of the industrialized world we are not just “buying” products anymore. And on the product side, products are becoming more commoditized and it is harder and harder to stand out based on unique features or performance.

Agency Review:

Of course, because any feature you invent, if it’s successful, will be instantly copied by your wealthier competitors. And yet brand managers are still determined to focus on them. Why?

Mootee:

I tell my clients your competitive advantage will only sustain you for 3-9 months at the most (on a feature level) and at best 12-16 months on a product level. Any features can be copied or licensed or reverse-engineered. Only a strong brand can sustain them and buy them time if they need to recover from a few bad quarters or product mishap. Investing in brands can make the company’s story known and align with their customers, suppliers, shareholders and employees. Brands drive product and not the other way around. Branding is not marketing. Branding is strategic leadership. Many don’t get this.

Agency Review:

Only “many”? I would assume most.

Mootee:

My studies of consumer behavior over the last two decades have confirmed that the most powerful brands are those into which we can embed meanings. The greatest brands of the ’70s or ’80s mostly owned a ‘positioning’ that communicated what their brand stood for. These are mostly category-related benefits. The greatest brands today carry ‘meanings’ and these are more difficult for competitors to replicate. That’s why “purpose” is so important.

Agency Review:

Why?

Mootee:

Because purpose creates meaning and meaning creates desire and desire drives demand.

Agency Review:

You say, “embed” and “carry”, as if meaning is an afterthought – like a cookie we insert into a dish of ice cream, as opposed to something that’s baked in from the beginning. But if it’s so important, why isn’t it where you start, instead of something that’s assigned afterwards?

Mootee:

Let’s be honest. Not many products have meanings on Day One. Even Apple. It is a process. The brand/product must find its way to justify its presence and position in our life. Which means that marketers need to work hard to find how it fits with our personal identity system. Remember, consumers use brands to construct their very selves and to find meaning. Brand stories and narratives drive the construction of the self whether it is symbolic, iconic, or indexical. The semiotic theory and the relationships between the product (object), the sign, and the interpretant are truly the art and science of brand management.

Agency Review:

But do you think that advertising agencies – usually the ones tasked with creating those brand stories and narratives that consumers use to define themselves – are doing that?

Mootee:

Most advertising agencies are distracted by increasing media fragmentation and the consumer behavior and resort to trying too hard to make advertising shout. When everyone is shouting, no one gets heard.

Agency Review:

Agreed – but how does meaning and even differentiation release a marketer from the obligation of shouting in order to get recognized at the point of sale, for example? In other words, isn’t a certain amount of shouting sort of cost-of-entry in our business?

Mootee:

A certain amount of shouting is necessary to achieve “presence” – like having billboards on taxis and bus stops. But they don’t build a brand – they merely remind people that you’re around. In fact, from a creative standpoint, they are just adding more noise. From a practical standpoint, they’re fine as long as they are just a small part of the mix.

form/content

Agency Review:

The book is distinctive for many reasons, not the least of which is the intense interplay between visual style and text. As we know, format impacts content, which then impacts form, and so on. So how much back and forth was there as you were writing and designing the book? Were there things that changed or that evolved as you moved between form and content?

Mootee:

Good question – and actually I forgot how it happened. I started with trying to turn my Advanced Branding Masterclass slides into a book as a lot of people were asking for it. Then I added more and more design to it and eventually I collaborated with a book designer. We went back and forth on photos and design ­– the process worked pretty well – and it evolved into a pretty cool book. It has a simple look, but that’s sort of a disguise, of course, because the book contains a lot of deep concepts.

Agency Review:

That’s interesting – so the book started as a presentation? When you began to evolve it into a book, were there elements of it – perhaps the way you explained a problem or a solution, the structure of the overall argument, or even the way you used art and copy – evolve as well? Because a presentation has two distinct parts, right? – the force of the words+images on the screen but also the force of the person making the presentation. While a book, just has, well, the book. So what changed?

Mootee:

Not much, really. Because the fundamental idea we started with is that no one reads and that there is no point in repeating what has been written a hundred times. So, in a world where we all have a little attention span, how could I get to the essence of what I needed to communicate ­– whether as a presentation or a book. And it’s been successful; people are treating this book as a living presentation to which they can add their thoughts. I have some readers who sent me feedback saying that they finished the first read in probably 2 hours, but that they go back to it again and again as a practical reminder of the core principles of branding.

story

Agency Review:

You touch on the importance of story in marketing – citing Rolf Jensen at the Institute for Future Studies, for example. And we are seeing more and more discussions about the value of story and it’s subsequent involvement in marketing. Do you think story has always been important in marketing, but that we just didn’t perceive it as such, or do you think this is a new development, in reaction to something new in consumers or the landscape?

Mote:

Story is critical and is the most practical part of how the brand expresses itself. Except marketers are too caught up with brand vision, mission and promise and forgot what really counts is the story. Delivering the story with authenticity and making sure that it is relevant to the audiences.

Agency Review:

Wait – I’m a little confused by that. You’re chastising marketers for being too caught up in “brand vision, mission and promise” at the expense of story – but you’re clearly concerned about the importance of branding, since you wrote a book about it. So… um… huh?

Mootee:

The vision and mission is part of the mechanics of building the brand story. The ultimate thing is to have a compelling story that talks about your vision, mission or purpose in a way that is relevant and people can connect with. Those are part of the process; at the end, all you need is a brand story. The vision and mission thing is to help develop that purpose, the “why”. Story used to be told by advertising (TVC) and it is more and more difficult as the medium itself won’t allow it. People have such short attention spans that your story will be buried by all the noise. The challenge is finding the right medium to tell your story. And you need to get creative.

Agency Review:

And yet, again and again, with the clients I encounter, and the students I teach, I find that they are either terrified of creativity or find it completely to marketing. Why? And how do you bring them out of the dark and into the light?

Mootee:

The storytelling part is the hardest. It requires a lot of creativity. It needs to be authentic so it cannot be force-fitted, and it needs to be credible so it has to be supported by a strong business or economic logic. It is the wrapper for your business strategy – but it must be delivered in a way that people will engage with.

desire

Agency Review:

At one point in the book, you write, “Desire does not want satisfaction. To the contrary, desire desires desire.” This is tremendously powerful and insightful and we completely agree with you. On the other hand, we also believe that products exist to solve problems and that the brand is the promise of solving that problem that the product delivers on. We don’t think these are mutually exclusive concepts – indeed, we sense they fit together somehow. We just can’t quite figure out how. Do you agree, and if not, well, where do you think we’re going wrong – and if you do agree, well, how do they fit together?

Mootee:

No they are not mutually exclusive. The power of this statement is it articulates a very core human nature sometimes we refuse to admit. Desire is hard to satisfy and every time we purchase a brand or product, it only serves as a temporary solution.

Agency Review:

So your amendment to my statement might be “Products exist to solve problems. The brand is the promise that the product will solve that problem. But not permanently because human nature rejects permanence.” Yes?

Mootee:

Yes, products exist to solve problems. Sort of like jobs that need to be done. That is the product at the most basic level. Our needs, however, go way beyond, say, a bag to carry our stuff or a pair of shoes to wear everyday. We are looking for more. This is the desire – and it is always impossible for us to say “Enough”. The “more” is the desire that powers us to look for meanings, associations, identity and self. As humans, we want progress and more, better, different and even sometimes the unachievable. This is the evolution of our consumer culture. I could write a book about desire, as it is a very least understood terms.

Agency Review:

We’d buy that book because we agree with you. Although we’d also suggest “The Power of Glamour” by Virginia Postrel…

Mootee:

We see it in simplistic terms. If you want to create desire for your brand, first, you need to know what people already desire – you can’t create those deep desires. Then you need to create products that help people fill those desires. And finally, you need to convince people that your brand can satisfy that. And keep doing it so the desire doesn’t stop. If you deliver the solution, the desire satisfies and you are no longer needed.

Agency Review:

Wait, again, to be clear – you need to keep doing it in order to perpetuate the desire? Or you need to keep doing it because the desire is self-perpetuating; the need is always there?

Mootee:

Desire is not a goal or an end state. It is like innovation for companies – it is ongoing and is needed to maintain the appeal of a brand/product. It is needed to counter the millions that are working actively to make your brand/product a commodity.

You can read our review of Idris’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Illustration of Idris Mootee by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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