Episode 292 — Marty Neumeier

Episode 292 — Marty Neumeier

Marty Neumeier is a best-selling author and speaker who writes on topics of brand and design. Today Marty spends most of his time lecturing all over the globe about the role of creativity and innovation in the creation of relevant and meaningful brand experiences. 

Marty has written several best-selling books including The Brand Gap which outlines how to bridge the distance between business strategy and design; ZAG which introduces “onliness” as the true test of a brand strategy; and The Designful Company which offers leaders a blueprint for building a culture of innovation through design thinking. ZAG was named one the “100 Best Business Books of All Time.”

In 2013, Marty published Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age, a deep dive into the future of workplace creativity. He then wrote The 46 Rules of Genius as a “quickstart guide” to “Metaskills.” His latest book The Brand Flip is the long-awaited sequel to The Brand Gap. It offers a simple formula for addressing the changes brought by social media and the rising power of customers.

Marty was also commissioned by Google Brand Lab to write the Dictionary of Brand, a relational glossary containing 500 interconnected terms in brand strategy, advertising, design, innovation and management. The Dictionary of Brand is the first step in creating a “linguistic foundation” — a set of terms that allow specialists from different disciplines to work together in a larger community of practice.

When Marty is not lecturing or writing, he is facilitating inspirational workshops or providing consulting services to companies the likes of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Skype, Twitter and Patagonia.

In this Podcast, Allan and Marty talk about the difference between brand and personality, which skills make up the best leader, the importance of empathy and the power of a well-written email.


The Marty Neumeier Website: https://www.martyneumeier.com

Level C Website: https://www.levelc.org

The Brand Gap on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Brand-Gap-Distance-Business-Strategy/dp/0321348109

Marty Neumeier on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Marty-Neumeier/e/B001H6GP4Q

Marty Neumeier at Liquid Agency: https://www.liquidagency.com/people/marty-neumeier/



[03:38] Marty Neumeier Introduces Himself and His Work

[05:13] Marty’s Design Background

[07:20] The Importance of Writing and Communication Skills

[17:08]  On Paying Your Dues 

[21:26] The Timing and Inspiration Behind The Brand Gap

[27:38] T-Shaped Skills, X-Shaped Skills and the Best Leaders

[30:39] Branding Versus Personal Reputation

[34:53] The Importance of Taking Responsibility

[46:46] How to Write Laconic, Powerful, Well-Written Emails

[54:08] To Niche or Not to Niche?

[1:00:05] Additional Resources from Marty



Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay. 

Welcome to Episode 292! I’m sitting down with Marty Neumeier, one of the godfathers of personal branding. I’m really excited about this Episode! We’re going to dig deep into how to build a personal brand. I thought this would be really inspiring! 

Please take a few seconds to share this Episode. 

Let’s dive in!



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[03:28] Allan: Thanks again for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Marty: Thanks, Allan! I’m Marty Neumeier. I’m a brand guru, I guess you’d say. I’ve been talking about branding since the late 90s when it wasn’t that common to talk about. My contribution to the field is connecting brand strategy and design. Those were two separate worlds to the detriment of both. I wrote a book in 2003 called The Brand Gap that outlined the problem. That book has been read by 25 million people now. This was a great kickstarter to this part of my career where I get to talk about branding. Ten books out and 8 of them are strictly about branding! I work for a company called Liquid Agency in Silicon Valley. I’m the thought leader there. I also have a company that teaches branding called Level C. These days, I spend most of my time teaching masterclasses about branding around the world. Nowadays, it’s all virtual but we’re liking that too.

[05:13] Allan: Thanks so much! I’d love to know about your origins. You’ve done so many amazing things. But first, how did you get into design?

Marty: I started when I was 7 years old. I don’t know why [but] I clamped onto this idea of being a commercial artist. At 7 years old, that meant drawing cartoons and illustrations. I kept drawing, knowing that would be my destiny. It didn’t need to be, but you get these ideas as a kid. When someone says, “He’s an artist,” that feels great. You have your identity. You have your position in the marketplace (at 7 years old!). I went with it! When I got out of high school, I went to the Art Center in Los Angeles and became a graphic designer. That was in 1970. I learned how to write copy because I knew I wanted to control my work. Visual communication is more than just graphics, it’s words too. That led to lots of stuff: writing articles, being a journalist, starting a magazine on design thinking back in the 90s, and writing a lot of books.

[07:20] Allan: You mentioned writing copy. How integral do you think that is? A lot of people think they’re a designer and they should just be good with topography. But are the things that give [an artist] more strength?

Marty: I think it depends on the type of design you’re doing. If there is a verbal component to it, you have to hire writers to get it done. Doing your own writing gives you incredible advantage because you can marry the two that otherwise would be almost impossible in a team. I’ve seen it done extremely well where an art director and a copywriter are like one mind. That’s how I started out. I found it difficult to find copywriters who were prolific and could keep up. I just started to learn it myself. If your work doesn’t include writing, the only reason you need to know how to write is so that you can express yourself when you’re working in a team so you can explain what you’re doing or make a great presentation. Having a good command of [your language] is super important! Someone with a good command of English is going to be a leader in some capacity. It’s a really important thing to learn! How do you learn about that? You can practice everyday. You can read about writing. Whatever you do in the design aspect of it, it will be so much more valuable with great presentation skills or good writing skills. It’s going to raise you up. It’s easy money. You’re just missing that part that makes you credible. I know it’s tough for people whose English isn’t the first language. But it’s worth a lot of effort. You’ll find your life richer for knowing the main language of your industry. 

[10:31] Allan: I love that! I couldn’t agree more. Communication is the number one strength that everyone should put their time in. Growing up and doing design, were there any thought leaders that inspired your career?

Marty: Absolutely! That’s how you learn. [11:12] I think if you want to be great at something you need heroes. You need to find out who you love and follow their work. Follow more than one person. Don’t fall into the trap that all work is good. Some work is just genius and that’s the work you should follow, even if it makes you feel incompetent in comparison. If you really fall in love with it, you’ll absorb those lessons. Just because you can’t do that type of work now doesn’t need you won’t be able to do it. It can take 10 years to get to that level, but if you don’t have models, it’s going to take longer to figure out where you fit in the world. When you choose your heroes, you’re actually choosing yourself. You see something in those people that you resonate with. 

For me, Paul Rand struck me as someone who was very serious and confident, and could communicate well. Milton Glaser was a hero to everyone in my generation because he was so brilliant, and thoughtful and well read. There were a lot of them! Saul Bass! People in advertising too. Bill Bernbach was great, Jay Chiat was a great writer. You find these people and you pay attention to them. You find what’s good all the time. You steal from other fields. If you have the desire to become great at something, you become magnetized. The things you need, they just hit you. You look for things you could steal, you have to steal it in a way that the person you’re stealing from couldn’t say, “That was mine.” Then you’re in a position to go further than that and go to where no one has been. That’s when you really start using your imagination. First, you need a grasp of your industry. You need to know what’s what. It takes 5-10 years of hard work before it pays off. I was also influenced by a lot of writers: Ray Bradbury, the sci fi writer, knocked me out. I felt like if I were a good writer, I’d try to do what he was doing. His vocabulary and imagination, the color of his words. I was influenced by musicians. I was in a band for which I was writing songs, but I hated practicing my instruments. I tried out for the Monkeys (a little known fact) and I didn’t make it. In my early 50s, I got a call from a producer of a documentary about them. He said he had a shortlist of contenders and my name was on it. I got closer than I thought! I was number 2! That would’ve been a completely different path.

[16:18] Allan: Do you think you would’ve ever circled back to design?

Marty: I doubt it! I think I would’ve been seduced by the money immediately. If I’d taken that role, that would be a dead end. I wouldn’t have much of a future as an artist after that. I would’ve been writing songs. I’m quite happy with how it turned out.

[17:08] Allan: You’ve mentioned earlier that people are inspired by others and they cannot match their talent. Do you find that people tend to be impatient early on? 

Marty: That’s a really good observation. [17:39] If you’re a shy or self-effacing person and you say, “I’m never going to get there”, it’s going to slow down [because] you don’t have any faith in yourself. But then there are people who also think they’re better than they are. They learn after a while that they aren’t. That might be better. You have to figure out where you fit. But then remember, that’s not where you’re always going to fit. When you get out of school, for the first few years are the imcompetent years. You don’t have enough knowledge and you cannot get work. They don’t prepare you for that in school. I went through those years. I got through them by learning on my own and looking at other people’s work, and getting whatever work I could get and applying what I’d learned. I set my sights as high as I could. That worked for me really well. I was better off figuring it out on my own.

[19:37] Allan: I was trying to explain this the other day: I do feel some people are cheated by getting a job too early. There is something to be said about rejection and learning the lessons, and not expecting things to come so easy.

Marty: Paying your dues is a good thing. [The important part] is not to lose heart and to realize that everyone goes through this. It gets easier but very, very slowly. I was still struggling in my 40s. On the other hand, the work was fun. Not making the progress financially, I was still having great fun doing it. [20:36] But at some stage, you do need to start seeking better opportunities. It’s a struggle to learn how to get there. It requires mastery of various forms, but it’s really satisfactory. Mastery keeps your attention. It keeps you interested. It focuses your mind. You don’t worry about little stuff when you go after mastery. Everything becomes secondary to that.

[21:26] Allan: What about your books? The Brand Gap was your first book, correct? How did you know it was time to write that book?

Marty: Desperation! Total desperation! What had preceded that was a 10-year period of huge success designing retail packages for software. That’s when it was sold in stores. I took over that niche. My company was built on that. After 10 years, we started thinking that most people would start to buy software online. And I was getting kind of tired of it. I kept doing it but I also started a magazine. I wanted to do a high-end magazine about the thinking of design, which has never been done before. I had been working as a journalist and in communication arts. We talked about [it being] needed. I took the magazine for 5 years, but it never made a profit. There were high budgets for printing. After 5 years, we were getting into debt. 

Other things had happened as well and I lost everything. That was the first time I’d gone backwards in my career, it set up a lot of problems. I owed a lot of money I didn’t know about. I had to do something. I took all of my experience and thought, “Where can I take this?” I realized my error was that the magazine was aimed at designers. I was trying to make designers more business minded. It was too early. They didn’t want to be business minded, or how to be of value. I was trying to get them to understand strategy and open their minds. Very few people were interested in that. What I did instead is try to get design and business people together. That had to happen! I needed to work with business people to bring them into design. I started a business doing that and it was successful from day one. All the business people wanted to know about design. I did that and to support that I wrote The Brand Gap: to bring both parties to the dance floor. So that’s the book that has been read by 25 million. It started me on this path of doing these simple, compressed books about branding. These principles would last you a lifetime! After 9 years of publishing these books, I realized I was more in demand as a workshop leader and a speaker than I was as a branding person. I sold my company and continued on as an author. That led to Level C where I’m teaching branding. It’s come full circle and now I’m teaching creatives. Two thirds of my students are designers.

[27:38] Allan: That’s amazing! Now you are getting that success with teaching business to creatives. Do you think there is still some resistance to that?

Marty: Oh, yeah! It doesn’t come naturally to people. It takes an effort. That’s part of the mastery. If you want to be a leader, you have to understand other fields. You need to be a t-shaped person. [28:28] It’s something that got started in Silicon Valley as a way to think about who you want on your team. Think about what the letter “t” looks like. Some people are just the stem: they go deep into something, they’re nerds. The difference is that a nerd is a geek that’s not socially inept. A t-shaped person goes deep into something but also knows something about on each side, either working with other people or other stuff. T-shaped people are best to have on a team. And the other person I added later is the x-shaped person who extends from the middle into all kinds of skills and they’re really good at bringing people together. At some point in your career, you can be more effective if you’re a leader of a team, not just on a team. Getting more leadership skills is very valuable. You can work toward that in your career.

[30:39] Allan: I’d love to talk about personal branding. You were drawing at 7 years old and identifying as an artist.

Marty: The kid artist. I went to a school where there were remarkably few creative people. Out of 4 levels, the whole time I was the only artist that did something. I got to do some jobs for people. I was getting paid too! You could say I had a personal brand. [31:50] The thing about personal branding is that you have to distinguish between branding and just building a reputation. If it’s just you and everything revolves around your behavior / personality, that’s just personal reputation. Branding has a commercial intent. All branding is somewhat artificial (which doesn’t mean inauthentic). If that’s what you’re doing, that’s fine. If it’s just you, your branding will be close to your own personality. If it’s more than one person, now you have a collective reputation to deal with. How do you, as a group of people, have an identity and a culture that resonates in the commercial world?

[33:24] Allan: I love that! That aligns with what you said: Brand isn’t what you think it is, it’s what others think it is. Or more importantly, what their gut reaction is to that. 

Marty: It’s true to personal reputation. It’s always in the mind of the beholder. If you’re creating a brand for a company, you have to think about it from their point of view. You have to understand how you’re being perceived. If you don’t agree with that, it’s your fault for not communicating that right. It’s not communication until they get what you’re saying. It’s a skill and you will get it wrong. You should always be thinking from their point of view and you should always be finding out whether you’re communicating what you think you are.

[34:53] Allan: Anytime I’ve had conversations with my friends, I always take responsibility for it: What could I do better next time? There is always going to be room for improvement. Having a chance to reflect is always important. How important do you think it is for people to be more empathetic?

Marty: It’s everything! Business is relationships. Think about how impressive it is when you come across someone who takes responsibility for their mistakes. It’s really impressive! And it’s really rare in the U.S. [35:54] In the U.S., people have this attitude: Don’t admit failure because it means failure. Whereas in reality, it’s the opposite. Saying that you’ve made a mistake is a sign of strength. It’s what leaders do. They take ownership of it. To the outside world, it doesn’t look like a mistake. It looks like something that was unavoidable. By taking ownership, you look really big. It doesn’t have to depress you to do that. Everyone makes mistakes. You’ve made a mistake because you’re leading this. You’re leading your life. You’re leading this company. By taking responsibility, you’re showing leadership. Most people are looking for someone else to pin it on. It’s like Trump.

[37:03] Allan: I’m sitting here, like, “Do I go there?” 

Marty: Facts are facts with him. Anybody can see it.

[37:13] Allan: I do think that it’s so important! You’ve mentioned dealing with failure early in your career. I was so adamant about being an artist, I got rejected so many times. I’d use it as data and pivot. I do think that people do the same thing. They don’t look at the result from the other person’s position.

Marty: There seems to be some kind of a misunderstanding about how to look for work that says: The more people I contact, the better chance I have of finding something. And it’s crazy but it doesn’t work that well. Maybe you can get lucky that way. But you get much further faster by narrowing your target. 

  • What you want to do is think about who you want to work with? 
  • And who are the top three people? 

Nevermind that you may be completely intimidated by them. Why don’t you just see if you can figure it out even if it takes you a while to get invited into that world. You have to know enough about these people to know that you really want to be there. And that means caring enough about them to find out what they’re doing and learn about their world. Go specifically after them. There may be no way and that’s fine. You’ve made a mistake. But I bet you get to talk to them about it. 

Compare that to what I get everyday on LinkedIn. You get these little companies that do web design or an app design. Usually, it’s technically related. They usually send a really long letter with links to their work. The quickest thing is to cut that person off because they don’t even take the time or effort to tell me that they’ve read a book of mine, or that they’ve even heard of me. People who can help you are pretty far along in their careers. They’re looking to simplify their lives and you’re complicating their lives. Instead, if you went to them and said, “I loved the way you’ve done such and such movie and what blew me away is… I don’t know if there is any hope of ever working with you, but I just wanted to say that I appreciate your work.” And don’t do it all at once. It’s like dating: Go slowly. I know you wish there was some other way. The people that can help you don’t have a lot of time to pay attention. But if they need something and you’ve proven to them that you’re a good person — that you care about them — everyone likes that, no matter how famous they are. That means narrowing down your options. Just go after a few people.

A good example of that was Lee Clow. He was a surfer in LA. He found out about an advertising agency Chiat Day. They’ve been doing powerful ad campaigns since day one. Lee begged for a job at the company. He did not give up, he just kept trying. He got into some menial job and has been hanging around for long enough. Eventually he became the President of the company and changed everyone’s mind. He wasn’t going around trying to work with anyone. He wanted to work with Chiat Day. You can go too far in the other direction. I wanted to go work in London for Panagram, and move my entire family there. The company was interested but I would have to start as a partner and bring my own clients. They offered to become a partner for the New York branch and I said no. I wanted the whole bunch of people that worked in London. Maybe I overdid it with narrowing my focus.

[46:46] Allan: I think it’s really important to understand how to contact people. There is a lot of subtlety with it. Sometimes, it is a matter of knowing what to communicate first. And it is about showing that you’ve invested in them too.

Marty: [47:18] And don’t write a long letter. Start out with really short emails. Say the right thing, make sure that it’s human, it’s not forced or scared, and that everything is spelled right. Start a conversation. Maybe ask a question. If the other person keeps their emails short, you keep yours short. The worst thing is to write a long email to a busy person. 

[48:36] Allan: I always say there is no such thing as a good writer. There is only a good re-writer. 

Marty: Write fewer words and make them good. Volume doesn’t count.

[48:55] Allan: Hemingway had a bet once that he could make a story in 6 words. 

Marty: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” 

[52:11] Allan: I only heard that recently. It’s the most brilliant thing.

Marty: Just to stretch my skills a little more, I’m writing outside of the branding world. I’m writing thrillers. That’s a whole other discipline. It uses the same skills but that world is different and how you explain your plot is an art. I have some advantage in that but it’s still hard. You have to say just enough about your book and express it in less than 25 words. If you can’t express the value in 25 words, you’re lost. You can spend a day on those 25 words and still get it wrong. That’s kind of what you have to do. You’re selling your career. Why wouldn’t you spend a lot of time on that 25-word explanation? 

[50:58] Allan: I started putting together some email teardowns, anonymously showing other people’s messages and deconstructing them. A lot of other people don’t apply for work because they think the bar is set so high. Seeing these teardowns can encourage them to communicate more effectively.

Marty: That’s a great insight. [52:07] If you write something intelligent, you’re going to be way ahead of everyone else. So be confident! If it doesn’t work out after that, at least it wasn’t because your email was wrong. Be real with people. Be helpful. That’s something I have to tell myself all the time. It took me my whole career to learn: It’s better to be helpful than right. You spend your whole career trying to be right about something or have the right information, to get an A. It’s good to strive for that. But mostly people want you to be helpful. You can be right and helpful. But it’s better to be helpful. Do that for yourself. I know that sounds abstract; but when you start thinking about real world situations, you offer yourself as a help to someone. Everything else you’ve learned in school you’re giving away for free. It’s the help that you’re getting paid for.

[54:08] Allan: Thank you for that! You’re absolutely right. I watched a talk of yours earlier today about how people want features, but how you can actually tap into what people are after. We touched upon specializing and people having resistance to it. In more technical industries, like VFX, there are so many categories. We hire people to solve issues. A lot of people do have that resistance.

Marty: This is really hard to get over because it’s driven by fear and partially driven by, [56:15] “I want to do it all!” But it’s not what the world wants from you. It wants that specific thing and in the right way. If the person says they do it all, we don’t believe it. The general practitioner who says he is a heart surgeon, we don’t believe that. We go to the best heart surgeon. And a heart surgeon sticks to that. We all trust them. That’s the same thing. Think about it from their point of view. You pick something you love doing or that you can get good at, so you don’t have a lot of competition. Then you contact the right people and tell them that’s what you do. You’re the rare person that just does that one thing. They may not need it right now, maybe later. Or they may need it now. You get more money and more respect doing that thing. 

[58:50] But if you’re thinking that by saying you do that one thing, you’re going to miss out on all the other jobs — then here is the news: You probably won’t get those jobs anyway because there are other people specializing in those. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do that work. You can. Do the job, but don’t tell anyone. Always stick to your specialty. Hollywood is a network economy. There is plenty of new work. The idea is to find a niche that is so narrow, that only you can do it. Then you can do more on the side. 

[1:00:05] Allan: This has been amazing! Where can people find out more about you and your books?

Marty: You can learn about my books just by putting my name on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Marty-Neumeier/e/B001H6GP4Q. If you want to get free articles, just go to my website: https://www.martyneumeier.com. If you’re interested to learn about branding, I highly recommend our programs at www.LevelC.com. Level C is because we’re moving branding to the top level of the company. Or just read my books! 

[1:02:29] Allan: Thank you so much! This has been amazing!

Marty: Thank you, Allan! My pleasure!


I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Marty for his time. 

I will be back next week. I have a lot of great Episodes coming up. I will have Beeple back on the Podcast. I’ll be back next Episode. 

Until then —

Rock on!


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