[Podcast] The 7 Key Business Strategies Businesses Need with Kevin Duncan

[Podcast] The 7 Key Business Strategies Businesses Need with Kevin Duncan

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Kevin Duncan is a business consultant and best selling author – known for his snappy no-nonsense wisdom packed books on business strategy. In this episode, we dig into Kevin’s approach and his overview of 7 strategies businesses need to create to be successful from his book “The Smart Strategy Book“. The seven strategies we touch on are: Commercial, Brand, Customer, Sales, People, Innovation and Communication.

We especially dig into brand strategy, discover how this fits into the other six strategies and Kevin shares some of the techniques and concepts he uses to create effective strategies with his clients. Recommended listening for all brand builders.

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Transcript (Auto Generated)

Hello, and welcome to JUST Branding, the only podcast dedicated to helping designers and entrepreneurs grow brands. Here are your hosts, Jacob Cass and Matt Davies.

Hello, everybody, and welcome to this episode of JUST Branding. Today, we are going to stretch our minds a little bit, because we’re not just going to look at one form of strategy, we’re actually going to be looking at the seven key business strategies. And we have with us our esteemed guest, Kevin Duncan, who’s a bestselling author, a business advisor, a motivational speaker, and he’s got over 20 years experience in advertising and direct marketing, and almost 20 years working as an independent troubleshooter for businesses.

So we’ve got a wealth of experience with us, with Kevin today. We’re super excited to have you on the show. Welcome, Kevin, to JUST Branding.

Hello there. Nice to be here.

We’ve also got Jacob, obviously, with me as well. Jacob, what are your initial thoughts about having Kevin on the show?

Well, I’m super excited, as we always say, for every guest, super excited. But the book, I haven’t got it myself, so I am very keen to hear what’s inside and how you break down strategy into seven different realms. So I’ll let you do the talking in that respect.

Okay. So we’ll come on to that in just a second. I think it might be worth, Kevin, just mentioning how I came across you, right?

Because I was privileged enough to be involved in Marty Neumeyer’s MetaSkills Challenge. And on the judging panel, there was one, Kevin Duncan, who I’d never heard of before, to be honest. And sorry that that was the case.

The way the challenge went was Marty had these various challenges, which he and his founder of Level C, Andy Star, set for global teams to run off and kind of adhere to. And then we would submit our work to you guys, the panelists, right? And one of my team, I said, who’s this Kevin Duncan?

Because we kept getting these responses back to our work. And some of the comments were not massively favorable from this. Everyone else loved them.

But Kevin Duncan was not happy with our teams thinking sometimes. And I said, who’s this Kevin Duncan? And someone said, don’t you know who Kevin Duncan is?

He’s amazing. Check out his books. And that’s how I came across you.

So I’m so thankful that we’ve got the benefit of your thinking now with us on JUST Branding. So, yeah, how did you find that MetaSkills challenge and being a judge on that? Did you enjoy it?

I really did enjoy it. Yes. It’s a strange experience being a judge.

And in a lot of contexts, actually, the judges never get to meet the participants. And so, for example, you might be asked to, quote, do a judging day. And then various people you’ve never met before would descend on a room and then sit there with a bunch of work that they haven’t seen and thrash it out and then, as it were, cast judgment on it.

And one of the things about that, of course, is that the judges have essentially got what you might call anonymity. And so they can be as blunt and brutal and whatever as they like behind the scenes. And then it’s a bit like they are white smoke from the Vatican, you know, a decree is made and someone gets a gold award or something.

What I didn’t really appreciate, of course, doing this Marty thing, and Andy didn’t tell me beforehand, is that I’m parking all my comments, waltz and all, on a Google Drive spreadsheet. And of course, they just pass them straight on to the teams.

I thought, what?

I didn’t know that. Anyway, you’ve got the unvarnished version. And you know, that’s how we learn, right?

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Well, now you’re here. Maybe if you didn’t do that, you wouldn’t be here.


That’s it. Now it’s my chance to get my own back on you, Kevin. So it’s all good.

No, but in all honesty, like, I think, you know, we benefited a lot from your blunt comments in a weird way. I mean, I kind of can cope with stuff like that. So, you know, I’d rather someone tell me something’s not right.

And, you know, to be fair, my team, not that we’re here to talk about me, but my team got a silver star. So we were very honoured to basically be granted that in that kind of award. So thank you for that.

You’re welcome. And you know what? Your team’s work significantly improved, in my humble opinion, throughout the five stage process.

So I think that’s called learning, assuming the judges have got something to say.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Well, Matt, was there any comments that you remember from Kevin that is stuck in your mind?

I don’t think we should probably go through it. I think there were a few very blunt sort of things, like I can’t understand why they’ve done this and stuff like that. When we’re like, well, clearly on slide three, we’ve illustrated why we did that.

But anyway, let’s not get into that because we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here because what happened was, just telling our listeners the story, was after I heard that Kevin wasn’t in fact an absolute jerk, that he was a genius from one of my fellow team members, I thought, well, I better check this genius out, right? So I went to Amazon and I googled Kevin Duncan and I found some of your books.

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And one caught my eye, and that’s the one that we’re going to be talking about today on the show. And it’s called The Smart Strategy Book, 50 Ways to Solve Tricky Business Issues. And I thought, as listeners will know, and Jacob and I, we’re very keen about doing meaningful work that solves business problems, because we know that’s where the value is, and it provides us excitement and puts food on the table.

So I thought, right, I’ll buy that. And I was so happy because it was my kind of book, like I’m a designer, right? So I like short snappy stuff, right?

I don’t like volumes of academic books, which we sometimes have to digest. It’s really snappy. And the key thing here is that it actually sort of articulated something that I’ve begun to appreciate in my work with my clients.

And that is that brand strategy is only one part of a big sort of strategic framework that businesses need to lean into to be successful. And what this book does is it actually explains that there are seven key business strategies that businesses need to get to grips with, brand being but one of those seven. So we’re going to dig into that with you in a second, Kevin.

But first of all, I think perhaps might it be a good idea if we kind of take the really high lofty eagle’s view of this subject and sort of start where Jacob and I usually like to start with these things and is to ask you about your definitions. Like first of all, how would you define strategy? And particularly for the benefit of our listeners, you know, how would you define brand particularly?

Because these are things that we need defining for us so that we can all articulate it from the same lens.

Yeah, sure. Well, first of all, you say, I define seven strategies, plural. I should clarify that I’m not saying there are only seven strategic territories.

I just happen to choose seven. And yeah, there must be hundreds more. And a lot of them, as you rightly point out, are impenetrable, boring, and go on and on.

And you get these sort of academic textbooks that are just frightening even to look at because the spine is about the width of your palm. And as you rightly say, I like pithy, bite-sized books myself. And as I’ve been writing over the years, I’m writing shorter and shorter and shorter to try and provide a pithy service, if you like, for the time pressed modern executive.

So when it comes to my definition of strategy, I’m actually very much a debunker. I will not accept a 47 page definition of what apparently strategy is. In my opinion, strategy is just when you’ve decided what to do.

That’s it. Now, sounds almost crassly simplistic, almost facile. But really, if you look at all the definitions of it, strategy is just a posh word to make people in business who are a bit underconfident think that they’re doing something more intelligent and important.

Because strategy somehow, linguistically, sounds way more elevated and lofty than tactics, which sound a bit shitty in short term. But really, strategy is what you’ve decided to do. So that’s my definition of it.

And so throughout this thing, what I’m pointing out is there’s way too much waffle attached to the discipline. And the more of it you have, the less you and your teams have got any idea what you’re really trying to do. And you’ve all been in these multidisciplinary joint meetings, and someone says, well, it’s clearly one of these, three of those, four of those, and so on.

And there’s a lot of hot air and jargony stuff. And you walk out of it thinking, I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing with this. I don’t know what the direction is at all.

I’ll invent something, probably. So that’s the sort of backdrop to it. So when it comes to the seven areas, I’m conscious that your listeners and associates and so forth are very much likely to be in the whole brand area.

And brand strategy, close quotes, boy, has that really taken over the world. And you know it inside out, and I’m sure all your listeners do. And in a way, it’s an extraordinary combination between utterly charming subject matter, highly talented creative people on the one hand, and also a massive smoke and mirrors job on the other.

There’s an entire industry built around that stuff. And I’m not going to slag it off too much, but we’ve all been in receipt of an 80-chart PowerPoint document, which apparently has been written by the Brand Guardians. And you read the thing and you think, well, apart from being advised that the house colour is teal and the whole thing must be done in Garamond Bold, I’m none the wiser.

And I’ve seen all this stuff before, right? So with regard to The Seven Territories, I deliberately put commercial as the first one. And the primary reason for that is that we’ve been in thousands of meetings with all kinds of strategies, strategists talking about strategies, and particularly if they’re brand people, they’re eminently capable of talking about brand all day while simultaneously completely ignoring any form of commercial reason why you might be looking at this issue in the first place.

And so I do that because to help all brand strategists and to point out that if you start talking about quotes of the brand without discussing the commercial imperative, you have immediately undermined yourself and shot yourself in the foot because you’re very likely to come across as being naive with the client, in essence saying, can I design something beautiful for you? I’ve got no idea how much money we’re spending and why and whether we’re going to get any of it back. Bluntly put.

This is what I’m talking about, folks. I’m talking about Kevin’s untempered feedback, right? So we can take it though, Kevin, because this is why you’re on the show.

You need to tell us how these things are. So just in terms of commercial strategy, is there a way you could sort of summarize that bluntly again? When we talk about commercials, we’re talking about the business financial kind of underpinning of any activity.

Is that correct? How would you define it?

So on a very, very personal level for anybody to understand this, what I usually suggest is try to imagine that you’ve set up your own business and you’ve made a profit of some kind or put aside a pot, and you are now proudly going to a communications advisor to say, I’ve put this money aside and I’m going to trust you with it. Can you do something intelligent with it so that I can increase the size of my business, get more customers or whatever the objective is? So let’s keep it really stripped down and simple, okay?

I’ve started something at my kitchen table. I’ve set aside 10,000 pounds. I’m bringing it to you and I’m saying, here is my 10.

I trust you with this. What are you going to do that is communications wise and strategic wise very helpful to me? And what return on investment would I want for my 10?

And of course, when you put it like that to people, they say, ah, what would you want? Do you want to spend the 10 and get 10 back? Or do you want three times 10?

What is your ROI? Your return on investment. And when people think about it, they usually end up thinking, no, I don’t want to just blow 10 grand.

So I definitely want my 10, yeah, oddly enough, but I’ll have a lovely logo. It won’t have done anything for my business, but lovely logo and fantastic colorways, you know. So I definitely want my 10 back, but actually, why would you waste all the time just to spend your 10 and get 10 back?

So it’s got to be more than 10, right? So it’s got to be two to one, three to one, four to one, five to one. Anybody advising anybody on any form of comms should have at the very least that thought process and really should have the conversation with the person briefing them, how much would you like back and how are we going to achieve it?

That’s what I mean by that’s blunt commercial.

At this stage, are you talking about to the client to uncover this sort of information, how are you actually going about figuring out what their business problem is in this stage?

So brutal cross-examination, the like of which Matt obviously seems to think is appropriate and it’s not supposed to be rude at all. It is a simple human truth. Somebody is asking you to do a thing and they’re asking you to do that because apparently you’ve got skills that they haven’t got and they’re going to pay you money for it.

So it’s more than reasonable to say, you’re going to pay me X or you set aside budget X for this task or challenge. What are we trying to achieve here and how are we going to get our money back with multiple return? Once we understand that, and it could be as simple as understanding when we sell a thousand units of this product, the margin is X percent.

And when I take X percent times a thousand, I realize I’ve got quarter of a million pounds. Now I understand why I’m spending 25,000 pounds in order to get 10 times that back. And suddenly you understand what the brand work or the design process is actually there to achieve.

Finding out the problems of the business, not just what they came to you asking for.

Yeah, because otherwise, if you think about it, and I almost encourage people to imagine that all the meetings that you have with clients to take a brief are videoed. And you’ve just got to watch it and say, how naive are these people really? Someone’s giving someone money and someone else is saying, no, thank you, I’ll take your money and I’ll do a bit of drawing and fiddle around on a Mac and do some stuff.

And everyone will say, that’s marvellous. But no one’s addressed the issue. What are we doing this for?

That’s what I mean by commercial.

We often speak about this, like, it’s about solving problems, isn’t it? And understanding the problem. I would also push it as far as, we cannot do meaningful work from a business perspective unless we have those conversations, unless we understand what problem we’re solving or what the ambition is.

And as you say, like, we can’t even be neutral on this. Like, it’s not good enough to be, oh, you’ll get the same as you pay me back somehow. No one’s going to be interested in that.

What we’re interested is in the multiplier. And we may not always know the exact multiplier, but at least we can sort of say, well, look, we believe if we, you know, if we go into a new market, that’s going to give us X amount of growth opportunity that should then give us the return. How nailed down do you see these going?

Because you can’t always say, well, you pay me 20 grand, I’m going to give you 200 grand back because it can’t always be that clear. But how comfortable are you and how sort of spongy can you even be on that side in your view, Kevin, in terms of the return?

Well, the way I do it personally, I always want my clients to get a 10 to 1 return on what I do. So, for example, if I go in and train some people on commercial strategy or how to present better or sell their proposals or whatever it may be, ideally I want to hear later that they’ve sold 250,000 pounds worth of additional stuff based on the new skills that they’ve gained, something like that. Now, in a way, part of this is to do with the blending, if you like, of art and science.

Basic science, straight economics, is spend X, get X times 10, something like that, bluntly put. This broadly is of no interest whatsoever to artists who don’t give a shit about that because they just want to draw and paint, right? Design and branding arrive somewhere in the middle of the Venn diagram, should have a commercial purpose, is intrinsically creative.

And so really what we’re trying to do here is equip all arty people with the ability to not appear naive in front of all the sciencey people, roughly.

Nice. We need it. We need the help.


I assume we’ve got the commercial strategy, we’ve had that conversation, we understand the big problem that we’re looking to solve for the business, and how the business is going to move towards recuperating and having a multiplier on its investment in us as strategists. What’s next? What’s the next strategy we need to think about?

Well- Is it my favorite one?

Well, the brand one.

Do these all go in order or not?

Now, it’s a brilliant question, and I was just about to make that point. They do not go in order. I arbitrarily chose an order, and I’ll quickly tell you why I did it, although it’s not very scientific.

I deliberately put commercial first for all the reasons we’ve just discussed. In other words, if you don’t do that, anybody, you’re in danger of appearing naive. We don’t know why we’re doing the work.

I then, if you like, charmingly put brand next because I’ve got so many mates, and I’ve been in and around brands all the time, I would have felt like a complete heel if I’d sort of relegated it. But very quickly followed by customer strategy, sales strategy, these are much more ballsy, and then people strategy, because interestingly enough, there’s a whole wave, not surprisingly, I don’t know if you remember the old days, you’re probably too young, you guys, but you know, they used to call it the personnel department. Oh, yeah.

Yeah, and then came human resources, which of course is one of the world’s most derogatory word pairings you could ever come across. You know, do you fancy being a resort? Are you a resource?

Who’s a resource? It’s a human resource, though. I find it really insulting, but there you go.

So if particularly in recent times, of course, people have been working from home and all sorts of difficulties and so forth. And so mental health and so forth comes much, much higher up the agenda. So you need a people strategy as well.

And then of course, we’ve got innovation, that type of thing as well. And then I put in at the end, put communication, but without an S. Communication strategy, not communications, as in a whole industry, including advertising.

But they are not sequential. You can start anywhere. And in fact, as I mentioned at the top, there are probably way more territories of strategy, but that’s enough for a small book, I reckoned.

No, fantastic. And as I say, what it did for me, as I went through it, is it helped to dissect this kind of quite lofty concept of strategy into these areas. And it gives, in the book, as you go through, in each section, in each strategy, we get the beautiful pithy little tips and concepts, which you obviously use in your work as a consultant and advisor to your clients.

So I wonder if, I mean, I think the rest of the strategies seem to be fairly clear in the way that you’ve articulated that maybe if we do, obviously we’re on JUST Branding, so maybe if we dive into the branding one, and maybe pick some of the key concepts that you talk about there and dive into that. How does that sound?

Sure, yeah, happy to. Would you like me to just start on some or?

Yeah, well, I mean, there’s one I know that I think is going to be a really exciting one in terms of chatting about. Let’s go into that one where you talk about the gap. Do you want to talk about the gap and sort of articulate, you know, what, well, first of all, what is brand strategy?

What is the purpose of it? And then let’s dive into the gap. So we’re probably about to start there.

Yeah, probably. Yeah. Brand strategy, pithily put, is what the customer believes you stand for.

And there’s an interesting emphasis there. And, you know, I’m sorry, but you may not like all my views, but essentially the world of brand strategy is often populated by brand strategists who are very easy to take the piss out of because they talk broadly about other people’s assets as though they were some sort of conceptual construct. And they talk, you know, often in a rather sort of supercilious, arrogant sort of way, which undermines their credibility.

And a lot of this, I think, is to do with the fact that it sounds as though, and I stress it sounds as though, many brand strategists think that they are actually in control of a brand. They think they can manipulate or dictate what it represents and stands for. Whereas if you read carefully into the origin of branding, going back all the way to the 60s and 70s, the humble strategist accepts that actually the brand only exists in the minds of the customers, not the people who provide the brand or the service.

But I think a lot of that has been lost. So in essence, therefore, I think brand strategists need a higher dose of humility and reality to accept that, pay more attention to the customers, and come up with something that’s more humble. And that’s why throughout the book I have, after every section, smart strategy warning, and that’s why on the front of the book you’ve got these hazard symbols in black and yellow for road warning signs, which is essentially, every time you’re just about to put up some massive great diagram that looks like the Parthenon and it’s got 80 adjectives brand inside it, just consider how ludicrous it is.

And whether it’s actually going to enable anybody to be more enlightened about what on earth you’re doing, what the brand stands for, and if the answer is no, rip it up and do something simpler.

So you guys, this is what I’m talking about when I’m talking about Kevin’s point of view. Man, that hurts a little bit. But at the same time, there’s such a truth to what you’re saying that is undeniable, that we need to get real with this stuff.

And I think you’re absolutely right. I think we overcomplicate, we try and justify our existence with all these sort of diagrams and stuff. And you’re right, at the end of the day, we need to keep it simple.

And the truth is exactly what you said. The brand, really, I mean, the way I define brand is the meaning that other people attach to us, right? So attached to our offer.

So, and branding, which is the game that I’m in, is the attempt to manage that meaning, right? The attempt, but as you rightly say, you know, no business really controls it because it’s in the hearts and minds of the audience. And there are so many things that a business does that influences the way that the customer might think about them, you know, paying their taxes, where they source their products from, as well as what the products are and the problem that that product actually solves and the value that I place as a consumer on that product and that problem that it solves.

All of these things and more, you know, define and help us to define the meaning that we attach to a brand. So we’re aligned, we’re aligned, although I do love a good Parthenon illustration. What do you think, Jacob?

I saw that Kevin brought out a book called Diagrams or something similar, so I’m curious about the contradiction there.

Jacob comes in with a right hook. How are we going to deflect this one, Kevin?

Well, I’m really pleased that there’s nothing to deflect. The Diagrams book is really what started this entire series. That came out about seven years ago.

It’s the blue one.

Yeah, I’ve got it. I was just looking at my book. Yeah, I’ve not read it yet.

Is it filled with diagrams?

It is.

It has the 50 best diagrams in the world, according to me.

What’s number one?

Isn’t that funny? Ah, it’s not a league table or a chart. It’s here are 50 that you may care to use.

And this is why we’re not at odds here. The Diagrams Book was simply… I’ll tell you quickly how it came about.

I noticed in training, I don’t know, seven, eight years ago, something like that, that a lot of people these days, attendees in training, I hesitate to call them students because they’re all employed, but you know what I mean. Instead of doing those long hand lecture notes where you write down sentences of what the lecturer has been telling you at university, people would just do two circles, an arrow and a little pyramid thing. Meanwhile, when I put up diagrams to try and illustrate points to people faster than the average waffle, you get a good response.

So joining those two things together, I just asked myself, right, how many diagrams have I got in all my training materials? And the answer was 46. So I went and found four more and I wrote that book with the 50 best diagrams in the world.

But the interesting thing about them is the shape of the construct that you populate that is of interest, not what’s inside it, because it is not for the author to dictate what you put into a construct. I offer up the construct, you populate it. So where those two things meet, it’s eminently possible that you could put up a simple, excellent diagram that might help a brand somewhere, which is then hideously abused by someone that you’ve never met, because they packed it with a hundred adjectives and we’re none the wiser.

No, absolutely. And by the way, folks, I flicked through that diagrams book. It’s on my bookshelf.

I’ve still got to get through it. It looks like another excellent book as well, full of pithy but helpful ways of articulating ideas, you know, two by twos, four by fours, Venn diagrams. It explains everything.

So I would say as a strategist, I know there’s going to be stuff in there that’s going to help me. So folks, go and grab yourselves a coffee. A coffee, a coffee, but grab a coffee as well.

Grab a coffee, yeah. I was thinking of coffee. I want to kind of direct the conversation back into the brand strategy stuff in the Smart Strategy Book.

So talk to us about some of the concepts in a good brand strategy in your view, Kevin. The brand strategy is what we’re deciding to do in relation to how we’re trying to basically allow people to attach the right meaning to us using my definitions in and amongst yours, if you like. Talk to us about some of the great concepts that you’ve come across to use the tools, the methodologies that you find helpful.

So, the one you were mentioning earlier, the gap in the market. Now, I call this the market map, and this is the strategist’s, arguably best friend ever in the world. Now, I’m going to quickly describe it verbally, but it is visual, which makes it a little harder on a podcast, but let’s give it a go.

So, if people can imagine one vertical straight line and then one horizontal one going across it, so it’s a little bit like a crucifix, but both lines are of equal length, and you would choose two important parameters in whatever the market is or brand that you’re dealing with. So, to give a rubbish example, you might, if you’re dealing with cars, you might have fuel economy, good, bad, you might have style, good, bad, family, saloon, whatever. You can work out those parameters easily enough.

And then as a strategist, what you’re going to want to do is plot your brand on the map. So, it’s becoming a market map already. Now, just by putting the brand on the map, it means that you as the brand strategist have to have a reasonable working idea of what this brand does indeed stand for.

So, that’s step number one. If you then do it with all the other brands in the market, suddenly you’ve got a market map. Now, in that, you can’t fill that chart in if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Or, if you’re working in a team, you’re going to have a massive discussion with your mate. So, if you and Jacob, for example, were filling that thing in and you said, right, put Volvo on the map, and you’d say, well, it clearly goes here, and he’ll say, you’re an idiot. No, it doesn’t.

It goes down here. And suddenly you’re having a strategic discussion but you didn’t even intend to. If you repeat that with all the other brands in the market, stick Fiat on the map, stick Mazda on the map, stick everything, you have to debate that entire market fast and furious with your colleagues and you can generate that market, Matt, usually in less than 10 minutes.

I would just say that Jacob would still probably call me an idiot even if I had all that tied down. But I take your point and I think, you know, I’ve used this in some of my work in terms of, and it’s so powerful, right, working with clients, because I don’t know if you’ve used it like this as well, Kevin, but, you know, strategically, you know, we talked about the commercial strategy. Strategically, it allows you to see whether or not we need to move our brand somehow.

We need to change the dial in some of these things, whether there’s a gap with, you know, with one of these features that we’ve chosen, which is an important probably customer need or customer challenge or something that we can overcome as a brand. And if we’ve plotted ourselves, say, week in that area and there’s lots of other brands that are week in that area and we spot, there’s an opportunity here. You know, it’s just great.

You might shoot me down in here as one of those strategists, but it’s just great to kind of put that on the slide. Like, this is where we are today. And in five years time, our five year strategy is to move our dot from here on the left to the right over here, because we know that there’s a territory here which will distinguish us for this feature.

Is that the way that you would sort of use that as well?

Yes, that is perfectly articulated. That’s exactly how I describe it.

A plus for you, Matt.

A plus, man.

I’m going to get shot again. I was getting nervous there, guys.

Maybe get the gold star.

Give them a gold star. So to overlay a couple of other parameters on that to help your listeners, it’s often the case that when a strategist looks at a map like this, and we’re talking about what effectively becomes a four box grid, essentially, and they look at that and they think, ah, that’s interesting. There’s a load of white space over there.

There must be a gap in the market. Hmm, that’s tempting. And they go thundering in thinking, haha, I’m a strategic genius.

I have just populated a part of the market that was open and up for grabs. But of course, what they didn’t ask themselves was, hang on a minute, why is that empty? What do they know that we don’t?

Why is nobody in there? And it’s what we call fool’s gold white space. Because the white space makes you tempted to think, aha, there’s a gap in the market.

But your next question should be, hang on though, is there a market in the gap? And that’s why we call it fool’s gold. Yeah, you see what I mean?

It reminds me of the hot coffee, the cold coffee. And then it’s like, you may as well make lukewarm coffee. There’s a gap in the market, right?

I love that, because there’s a gap.

There you go. But this is what I love about this book, right? Because you mentioned these smart strategy warnings, right?

And what I find fascinating is you basically lead us as readers into a concept, explain the concept. And then as a reader, I’m like, right, I’ve got that concept, right? This is great.

And then I read the smart strategy warning, and then you basically get a smack around the face, like, come on, get back to reality. This is Kevin here. It’s not going to be easy, folks.

And that’s what I love about it, because that is exactly kind of how you articulate the gap in the market versus market in the gap. You sort of explain the concept, and then you give us this warning, like you’ve just given us. Like, so what?

Like, have a sense check. Like, double check this. Like, are you just going off on one as a strategist, or is there actually a market here?

And I think that is the business intelligence that I’ve learned from you, at least in this book and so far in the podcast, that I think we all need to have that scepticism. Where does that scepticism come from, Kevin, for you? Where does it kind of, where is that?

Where’s that from?

Yeah, I’m not sure if I’m qualified to answer that, but I’ll give it a go. Go on. Well, ever since being a child, I’ve been actually fairly annoying, because I got into quite a lot of trouble at school.

I was in boarding schools back in the 60s, and I would always get in trouble for pretty much pointing out, hang on, what’s the point of this, to a teacher, for example. And I used to aggravate them hideously. I’m not particularly proud of it.

But what was very annoying about me was that I was simultaneously that quizzical and almost disruptive, saying, what’s the point, which is annoying to a teacher. But I always used to get high grades. So when it came down to it, they couldn’t say, no, he’s bone-idle or he’s thick as what’s it, because it wasn’t true.

And so I think that was the genesis of my annoying attitude, you might say. But fast forward to now, if I’ve spent 40 years in business, what we can say is that I’ve seen a lot of presentations and a lot of charts. And so I’ve had to work hard in my own head to say, how am I going to, as it were, grow old gracefully and not just sit in the corner hurling abuse at everybody, because that’s of no help.

So as a brief to myself, essentially, I thought, right, what I should do is convert this into wisdom that is constructive, that can be passed on with a little warning sticker on it saying, beware this, because that usually goes wrong and bores clients and so forth. It’s somewhere in that area.

Now, what a brilliant explanation. Can you imagine having a class and having a Kevin in the class?

But what I think is amazing is, and we can touch on this perhaps in another conversation, is the education system, which is geared for the masses, for those that are challengers, for those that don’t just swallow it whole, it isn’t an easy place to exist in. I struggled myself in the education system. But when we come out of that, and as you say, we look to be constructive if we are rebellious and slightly inquisitive and curious about why, these are the things that businesses can really benefit from.

So I would say thank you in a weird way to the bad experiences that you had as a child, because what you’ve been able to bring to business, bring to us as strategists is this clarity of thinking and this constructive challenging way of looking at things. Even in your own book, you challenge your own ideas that you put out, and I think that’s wonderful. Wonderful.

Give us some more, give us some more, Kevin. Let’s go through a couple more before we look to close it up.

One that logically fits next, I think, given what we’ve just discussed, is one that I call rational drowning. And if I quickly explain the background to this, because it’s absolutely relevant to comms generally, and branding in particular, and strategy, and any form of general discussion about what do we do with this brand. Now, here’s the backdrop.

It’s fascinating and charming that the entire industry of communications is essentially populated by optimistic, lovely people. They’re normally very good looking, very thoughtful, charming to be with, full of character. Everything’s a dream.

And we all have, you know, right? There we go.

It’s basically describing Jacob there. Probably not me being the good looking side, but you know, charming I’ll say. Anyway, go on, smack us around the face then, Kevin.

Come on, I’m ready for it.

So what you’ve got is a charming industry full of lovely people and you know, everyone loves each other and everything’s positive and optimistic and there’s no such thing as a bad idea, which of course there bloody well is, you know, who wants one? And it’s all lovely and sweetness and light and everyone drinks Chardonnay on a Friday afternoon, you know? This is not real business in that regard.

And here’s what falls to bits. If a client who’s got a very serious issue goes to their agency and says, I’ve got a very serious issue. If the agency says, oh, great, new brief, excellent, yeah, we can do something without, ping, ping, ping.

They’re just permanently optimistic in a way which seems charming to do business with, right? I love these people, it’s so optimistic. What they don’t realize is that if an equivalent client went to a serious business advisor, like a management consultant, an architect, or an accountant, then that advisor doesn’t sit there saying, yeah, yeah, yeah, we do tons of these, this is great, what a marvelous, exciting new brief, ping, ping, ping.

They don’t do that. They look at the client and they say, yeah, yeah, you definitely do have an issue with this thing that you brought me here. But we’ve looked at your business, and you’ve also got an issue with this, and this, and this, and this.

And that is the beginnings of a process we call rational drowning. So what you do is that by rational and serious analysis, you allow your customer or client to quote, drown a bit more. And the consequences are fascinating.

Of course you then bring them up and out and through, that you can immediately see that the first example of the relentlessly optimistic comms agency is going to yield a formulaic, samey response. Because they’ve done it loads of times before, you just say, fine, not one of those up by Friday, please. So it’s going to be short.

And because it’s going to be short and formulaic, it’s got to be cheap. And that’s why there’s no margin in the business, as in comms businesses. Whereas the management consultant or the architect says, well, yeah, this is going to cost 10 times what you thought it’s going to take five times as long.

It’s a very serious issue and we really need you to concentrate and we’re going to need more and so on. And you see what I just did? Suddenly we’re being taken more seriously.

And this is directly linked to most communications agencies belly aching that they are, quotes, not at the strategic top table. So, well, no wonder, because you make everything seem as though it’s like a balloon party and we can knock it over by next Tuesday. And so that’s what I mean by rational drowning.

If you want to be taken seriously, take it seriously.

Yeah, and I think we need to, it’s a, well, it’s funny because Jacob and I and, you know, I guess we often talk about this because I do think there’s a genuine desire for most communications professionals to do more meaningful work, but it’s just like, we’re institutionalized in the, you know, in a way of doing things in agency and so on. That means that we almost position ourselves in this kind of way that you’ve just described very eloquently. And, you know, the truth is, is that as you say, businesses want us because we solve them big problems.

That’s why we get paid for adding value. And if we just agree with everything, we don’t challenge, we don’t question, we don’t try and understand the problem at hand. We’re not going to create meaningful work and then we’re going to fail.

And I sadly agree with you. I ran an agency nine years and I saw it. And, you know, now as a single sort of solo consultant, probably not, probably on a much lesser level, but probably not too dissimilar to yourself, Kevin.

I now feel that I can come into companies and do much more meaningful work at the top level with the C-suite, with the CEO, with the leadership team. But perhaps when I was presenting myself with my team as an agency, I would never be allowed to touch that problem because it was always perceived as being, you know, being more of a sort of a business problem. And we’re not perceived necessarily as solving business problems as an industry.

So we’ve got a problem. That’s partly what this podcast is about, to help folks, you know, understand that and to move more into these strategic areas so that they can create them the meaning for work. Because I’m sure you would also agree, and obviously you will correct me if not, that design and that fluffy stuff does have a part to play in a strategy, in its execution.

But at the start with these problems, they’re the bit that we sometimes often get wrong. So that we are executing stuff that isn’t strategically grounded. Would you agree with that?

I do agree with that. Don’t panic.

There’s another one guys. I was waiting for the swing round the face.

It didn’t come.

What’s going on? We’re actually getting on now, Kevin.

It’s amazing. So to elaborate a little bit on that for you, it is a natural tendency of all designers, brand strategists, and anybody who has any kind of artistic and creative flair to stampede to the execution and the art direction within about 30 seconds of being offered up the brief. That very tendency is an Achilles heel because it seems to trivialize the thought process that should have gone on beforehand.

And of course you saw this probably in the way that the design industry sort of reinvented itself back in the nineties. The client used to go and say, can I have a new logo, please? And they’d say, certainly, this is our price card for new logos and they’d produce a new logo.

And then of course you realize that the serious clients are saying, I don’t believe this. I’ve just read in the Sunday Times that BT have paid a million pounds for a new logo. What the?

And all that stuff goes on. So the design industry retrofitted itself to do all the research first. And this is why I’d say this BP logo has taken six months to develop because we did 400 tons of research groups in Qatar and all around the world just to justify the price that makes the logo more expensive, which is why everyone takes the mick out of it.

So what we’re trying to do with this is to get people to think more carefully first. And it’s also, by the way, rooted in the development of technology, by which I mean these days, anybody thinks that they’re a creative director, right? You’ve got your phone, you can film things on it, you can take photos on it, you can get your Mac and you can fiddle around and you can knock up a really good looking thing in about 10 minutes.

It’s a disaster, because if you go back to the old days, you would say, I’ve got a pen and a piece of paper, can I just quickly sketch out the rough territory that this thing might be? And that’s even our direction. So what we need is people thinking first, putting the emphasis on that, the execution can flow any old time.

And that’s almost like the easy bit. So we’re adding severity and strategic gravitas to what branding and strategists and comms advisors can and should be doing. It’s almost like, don’t reveal the answer now, just in the briefing session, even if you think you know what it is, shut your mouth, draw nothing, present nothing.

Just ask half a dozen critical questions, tug your beard a bit, and look bloody serious. Then, yeah, and then. Now, it’s not even a trick.

It’s just you will be more thoughtful if you haven’t stampeded to the execution so fast.

And I will verify that you will also appear more thoughtful if you have a beard. So we’ll just throw that out there. There’s another tip.

That is true. And I think it’s a hard, you know, that’s my view as well. And I’ve come to that conclusion over through the fire, if you like.

I’d be interested, Jacob, what are your thoughts? Cause you still do the design stuff, but you obviously see a lot of value in the strategic thinking. I don’t do any design, Kevin, your sort of basic knowledge.

I just stick in the business side. But Jacob, what are your thoughts on what you’ve just heard from Kevin?

Well, I was just thinking of how that looped all looped back to the commercial strategy that you were talking about in the beginning, the why and uncovering the business problems and figuring out why the customer has come to you in the first place. So the more I asked the customer, the more I can know, the more I can define their problems, actually tell them or suggest things that they may need rather than just a logo or just a website or whatever it may be. And you can discuss what they’re trying to do and figure out some metrics to help them achieve that, to get that ROI.

So I definitely 100% agree with everything you’ve said.

I think when people first come to you as a professional in this space, that’s your window of opportunity to open up those conversations. Because as you say, Kevin, if you immediately, oh, you need a logo, okay, let’s just, here’s our logo design process. You’ve fallen foul of that already.

The first point is to start asking those questions at that moment and then almost start to educate them and help them to widen their thinking in critical thought in order to help you do a better job for everybody’s sake. And in turn, you become more valuable and therefore you can charge more money. So everybody’s happy.

So, you know, that’s how I see it.

Just asking more questions, the more you ask, the more they speak and the more you uncover about the brand. So you’re just digging deeper and that way you have more ammunition to help them better. So your proposals are better and the results are better.

So everything is better because you’re understanding why they’re doing this in the first place.

Well, Kevin, let’s dive into a few more of your juicy tools, as I like to refer to them as. What other things would you advise brand strategists on and what other tools could you suggest for us to use?

Yeah, okay, so I’ll give you two or three examples. The first one that should be helpful to your listeners is something I call Investigate the Uninteresting. Now, there’s a bit of human psychology behind this because of course we naturally always default to the stuff that we’re familiar with and comfortable with, and that’s perfectly understandable.

However, if you’re a strategist and you just keep doing this, well, you’re going to end up recommending the same sort of stuff all the time, really. So you bore yourself rigid and probably bore the client as well, I would have thought. But there’s a bit more to it if you’ve got your intellectual hat on, and that is whether the strategist is being hoodwinked or misled in any way because they didn’t really know the full picture.

Now, there’s a chap called very famous Daniel Kahneman who wrote Thinking Fast and Slow, you’ve probably heard of him. And he’s got this lovely concept, which is an acronym called WISIATI. Now that stands for What You See Is All There Is.

Okay, what you see is all there is. And put this simplistically, can you imagine a brand strategist being handed a brief by the client, if indeed a client ever writes a brief these days, but you know what I mean. You get a piece of paper, a metaphorical sheet of A4, and the naive strategist looks at that and thinks, ah, well, there we go then, that is the picture of what the brand is.

As a result of that, I propose we do X and Y. They’re assuming what they see is all there is, but they haven’t asked the question behind the question. And it’s a bit like the known unknowns or even the unknown unknowns.

What don’t I know about this? Like to concentrate on what they see as the shape, the known formula. We are sort of preternaturally programmed to say, aha, I see the pattern there.

I can see that shape. Yeah, but what about the anomaly? And people ignore the anomaly because they don’t like it because it doesn’t fit the shape.

So no, no, no, go and investigate the anomaly because over there is something interesting we may well learn. And classically for brands, that could be the way the market is going in the future is currently reflected by this tiny anomaly over here, but it will become the main market in five years’ time, for example.

That’s fantastic. I think sometimes we, you know, as outsiders to a business as well, you know, I mean, some of our listeners will be in-house, but most of them will be outsiders and employed in some sort of service industry sort of scenario. But as outsiders providing a service, I think we’re almost often in the space where we can ask those stupid questions, right, and find those anomalies.

And sometimes we, I think naturally humans get scared, like to point, to ask the simple question. But I often think, I often say to my clients, like, I know this is a really stupid question, but I’m going to ask it anyway, because there might be something behind this. And I think you’re right.

Like investigate the uninteresting is about asking those questions that probably seem obvious, the elephant in the room, but let’s just dig into that. Why is that the case? You know, why are we doing this?

Yeah. Love it.

The elephant in the room is now the elephant in the Zoom. I don’t know if you’ve heard that one.

The elephant in the Zoom.

Love it. Yeah, it’s an online elephant.

Um, yeah, shall I do another one?

Yeah, let’s do another one.

Yeah, so this one I rather like. I call it Messiness Equals Unexpected Links. Okay.

Yeah, so I’ll just take a moment to describe that. There’s a very intelligent writer for the Financial Times called Tim Harford, and he effectively became the undercover economist. You may have heard of that book.

And he wrote a lovely book called Messy. And at the core of this thing is, what’s better in business and for executives to A, be thoroughly organized, sorted, detailed, et cetera, or B, just leave it a bit random and you never know what might happen. And he then investigates all this in a lot of detail.

Now, we’ve got two extremes there. There’s of course your slightly scatterbrained, creative, artistic-y, designer-y type person will of course favor the mess, close quotes, the unpredictability of it all. Whereas of course many industries, and if you think of banking and architecture and all the rest of it, none of that’s satisfactory at all.

Everything has to be completely buttoned down. Now, what gets interesting is when you start looking at brand strategies and how creative they can be, what is the origin of a creative brand strategy? Is it somebody sitting in a highly organized way, plowing through 410 quantitative surveys and coming up with, look, you’re shaking your head already, right?

No, you say no, no, no. But at the other end of the spectrum, if it’s total chaos, you’re not going to arrive with a sensible brand strategy either. So when we talk about messiness equals unexpected links, what we’re talking about is allowing enough latitude for stimuli that are not part of the core and relatively straightforward mainstream to come into the mix.

Now, to give you a flavor, mentally, this is what they talk about people who have weak potential filters. And what this essentially means is that your average designer is very easily distracted. If you follow it to the nth degree, some people will say, well, that’s a disgrace because that person, they’re all over the shop with a butterfly mind.

But what the critic doesn’t realize is that people with weak attentional filters take in more stimulus and therefore they are more likely to be creative. So you want people to be more easily distractible so long as they then channel whatever that thinking and stimulus collection is into a specific commercially based solution, but with a creative twist, something like that. To give you a final point on that, for example, you’ve probably heard about the Apple offices in Cupertino or whatever, and Steve Jobs intentionally put the toilets and the catering area in the middle of a hub and spoke operation so that people who don’t normally work with each other bump into each other randomly, and in fact those meetings in the corridor generate greater creativity than the structured meetings to generate ideas.

And the other thing that’s really interesting with regard to how well do I work at my desk is this conversation between what we call filers and pilers. So thoroughly organized people are filers and they have really neat desks and lots of managers in the corporate policies these days say we have a clean desk policy. So that’s a great way to stifle creativity, isn’t it?

Because the pilers have got stacks of shit, you know, files, things, random bits of stimulus stuff. And what’s really interesting is when you compare statistically is that the the filers lose every time because they’ve got so much stuff. It’s all filed these days on a computer.

It takes them ages to find it if they can ever find it. Data statistics show that the average UK company spends 40 percent of its time just looking for email, not even doing anything, just looking for it, right? Whereas the pilers have got a load of stuff and they regularly have a clear out and say, oh, you know, don’t eat that, don’t eat that, chuck it in the bin.

So they keep less stuff. And then as they chuck their stuff out or look at it, they make random connections between stuff. And so that’s why I’m talking about messiness equals links, because they’re joining bits together and coming up with really intelligent new angles on things.

Absolutely love that. Two thoughts come to mind just quickly. The first is, you know, just going back to the educational sort of system that we talked about, you know, isn’t it interesting, I find it fascinating what you were saying about, you know, creative stimuli, you know, with brains that jump around, you know, the whole education system is basically forcing that out of kids, and forcing kids channel into and focus into one thing.

So that’s just something for folks to bear in mind. I think that’s quite an interesting angle as to, you know, as to how the way education is going, and perhaps way education might be failing some of our kids in some areas. But Jacob, just a thought, are you a filer or a piler just out of interest, I’m interested?

I am a filer, very, very organized. I love clean, yeah, yeah, I love a very clean, minimal space.

Actually, I have seen photos of your studio, and it looks phenomenally spick and span. Mine is less so. So I would probably put myself on the piler list of chaos, much to my wife’s disgust.

So I, you know, I’m constantly clearing out and then when it’s all tidy, I do feel good, but it doesn’t stay, stay tidy long.

Well, now that you’re talking about partners, it’s probably my wife’s cause for me being so organized, because she puts that on me. So now I’m organized. Hey, there you go.

Kevin, so are you a piler or filer yourself, Kevin?

Yeah, I’m pretty annoying. I’m, I’m, I am tidy. And I think this also goes back to the boarding school days, because my parents were in the military, is that you really, you just packed off to boarding school with one jumper, one pair of shorts, one thingy.

And if you don’t keep it neat, you just get beaten. So eventually, that’s the way you do it. So I’m tidy.

Tidy, Kevin. Well, I’m just, I’m just mindful with slowly coming to the end of our really epic, what’s been an epic episode for us here on JUST Branding. I’m just wondering, just before we sort of sum up, have you got one final thing?

Because I’m so enjoying these tips and these ideas that you’re sharing. One final one that you want to share with us in closing?

Yeah, sure. So, and this is a nice one, really. It’s just called copy something.

And yeah, it’s interesting because people seem to think that in order to be effective, they somehow need to be extraordinarily original. But it’s not true. And in fact, there are many ways to demonstrate this.

But for example, some very intelligent professors at Princeton a couple of years ago, they wanted to know, of all the stuff ever invented in the world, how much of it was really, really original. And they invented this algorithm, which is almost beyond my ken, but essentially they dropped it into the whole of the Google database in the world, which of course has got every paper that’s ever said, we’ve just invented X, we’ve just invented Y, whatever it may be. Over 11 million academic papers, this algorithm analyzed.

And they found that over 90% of these so-called breakthrough papers contained material that had already been used somewhere else.

So my definition of innovation is essentially 90% old stuff with a 10% new twist. And so what most designers understand is not where you get it from, it’s where you take it to. Because all musicians know all that stuff.

So when we come to something like copy something, this is best articulated by a good friend of mine, Mark Earls, who wrote a book called Copy Copy Copy. And the essence of this, it’s a very good book, actually, that is a handbook for how you can do that. And to clarify, this is not what he calls single white female copying.

That’s based on the film, I don’t know if you remember it, Single White Female. Do you remember that? Where a girl’s flatmate moves in and over time, rather creepily, makes herself look identical to her mate.

So yeah, it’s very creepy. She morphs herself into, I mean, that was called Single White Female. Copying of that type doesn’t work.

You clearly cannot go into a market and say, I’m going to copy exactly what my competitor is doing. Not straight copying like that, but copying with a twist. What kind of thing is this?

We often call it category stealing. I’m working in the airline category. How would a car approach this issue?

How would a mobile phone company approach this issue? Somebody somewhere else has already cracked the strategic problem that you are working on probably. So don’t be shy.

Look across, get informed, nick it in essence, but give it a twist and a spin to arrive on your thing. And there you are. We used to joke really, there’s only about six strategies in the world.

So it’s probably one of them. Use it and apply it to your brand now. Save yourself hours of work and a hundred PowerPoint charts probably.

That’s fantastic. Yeah, I think some of the work I do with my clients is in the innovation space. As I say, once you know what you want to stand for in a category, you find and you want to add meaning to people’s lives, you sometimes have to add new product lines, new services, new solutions to customers.

One of the things I like to touch on in some of my workshops is exactly this. There’s a story that I can’t reference the source of, so forgive me. The idea is, you remember, I think it was in the 90s when the ozone layer was under threat from aerosols.

We had a lot of big companies looking at this as a problem where we spray deodorant on. What other ways can we get deodorant on our skin? To illustrate your point of borrowing, they were looking at other techniques of how liquids could go from a container, lightly layered, onto somebody’s skin.

One of the innovators was one day staring at his pen, the ballpoint pen, and realized, oh look, there’s a load of ink in my pen and it’s lightly going onto the paper. So the idea of the roll-on aerosol, well not even aerosol, roll-on aftershave, I guess you’d call it, deodorant, came about by someone borrowing the idea from pens and applying it to perfumes. So there’s just a nice little story of that and how successful that has been.

Jacob, did you have anything to say to that? Sorry, I think you were about to say something.

I was going to say it was a perfect way to end on that tidbit.

Yeah, really, really good. Kevin, I think on that note, we will wrap up. You’ve given us a great overview of the seven strategies.

We’ve been so privileged to hear your thoughts on some of those key things, gap in the market versus market in the gap, investigate the uninteresting, copy something and so on. Just so that folks can know where to find you, if they’ve got anything you’ve touched on that they’d like to talk to you about, or where they can find your books. How’s the best way that people can get to know Kevin Duncan a bit more?

Yes, thanks. My website is expertadviceonline.com. There people can find every book I’ve ever written and have a rummage.

Each of those books has got its own supporting blog. So I won’t bore you with all of those right now, but if people are particularly interested in this topic, it’s the smartstrategybook.com. And I’m always delighted to hear from anybody.

The nice thing about being an author is that you’ve got to write in the broadest sense because you don’t know who’s reading your stuff, and they’ve got to be able to apply it, if at all possible, to whatever their circumstances are, and I don’t know what they are. So that’s why everything’s written in this sort of pithy, generalistic way, so that hopefully the widest possible audience can apply this stuff. But I’m always delighted to hear from people, so if anyone wants to get in touch and say, I tried that on this and it did work or it didn’t work or whatever, then I’m always keen to hear.

Well, I’ll be getting the book first for sure.

Yeah, great, and I’ll say you’ll definitely be getting some emails from me as to how some of this stuff works out with some of my clients, because I’m immediately following some of this thinking. So I just wanted to sort of wind up by thanking you so much for your time today, for your generosity of thought. I’m so grateful that you were so brutal in your comments in the Marty Neumeyer challenge.

And through that, I got to meet you and to do this podcast and to read your books. Thank you for all you’re doing. Keep doing it.

And I know Jacob and I are really thrilled that you’ve spent some time with us today. So I don’t know if you’ve got any final thoughts, Kevin, and just before we leave you.

No. Not really, but let’s put the message out to everybody. You know, question everything what you see is not it necessarily.

Rummage around, be inquisitive, stir things up a bit in a good way and arrive at better solutions for people.

Awesome. Thanks so much for coming on today, Kevin.

You’re welcome. Thank you. Thanks, Kevin.

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