Cheers to 2013! An interview with Richard Lewis – the ABSOLUT brand guru and an amazing human being

I wanted to start the year with something special… And here it is! I am particularly happy to present this interview to you. Why? Because I can introduce you to one of the people who are a source of inspiration to me. A brand guru, a master of branding and above all a wonderful human being that touches me. Richard has some pretty good advice for all of us.

A little bit of backround for you. I met Richard Lewis at a conference about Marketing in Instanbul where we both were invited to speak at. I was deeply impressed by his presence, attitude and what he had to say (by the way: “Lead, follow and get out of the way” was the title of his presentation – he names all of his presentation like that;)). You can find the full recording of his keynote here.

Richard is mostly known for (his unique humor and) his work on the Absolut Vodka brand over many, many years. We all know the classic ads with the distinctive bottle. Their branding and campaigns fill many marketing books as best practice example and I remember studying his work during my time at university. He also wrote a book called “Absolut Book: The Absolut Vodka Advertising Story which you can find on Amazon.

But now let´s see what he has to say:

Q: What are you up to lately? What is your main focus these days?

A: When I left Agency Land eight years ago I was determined to do many different things. Right or wrong, that’s what I do. I have a modest consulting business where I help small companies with branding, strategy and business development. I prefer to work with owner-run firms where everyone has a stake in the success versus a stake in their career. I also teach at New York University, a course on Branding, which I created for Yale. I revise it annually to stay awake. My current fascination is the branding of religions, heaven, and God. It shakes people up. I also write restaurant reviews for a hyper-local network owned byAOL/Huffington Post. And I go to the gym a lot: 5-6 days a week. This is something I never did until 2-3 years ago. I thought bodies were just the brain’spackaging. But I smartened up—never too late—and realize “Health is Everything”: which is also a brand I’m playing with.

Q: Which brands do you admire the most for their continuous adoptionsto the changing media landscape and marketplace? And which brandhas sadly missed the transition?

I was watching a Cadillac TV commercial over the weekend and thought, “Amazing: this brand came back from the dead. Dead!”And they did it inside GM, a brand and business that, if possible, were even deader. Cause Cadillac was a status brand when I was a kid, and slowly circled the drain when BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, and others, conquered the high-end U.S. car market. Everything they did was crap. Crap! Their recovery began with building better cars not better ads. I’m also amazed how well LG and Samsung have done. Twenty years ago they built low-priced, practically generic TV’s, and now they’re the Kings of Korea! Who has fallen by the wayside? Look what cliff Blackberry jumped off. They couldn’t make the transition from business to customer and just got whacked by Google and Apple. Whacked!

Q: How has marketing changed in the past 5-10 years? Can you compare the old vs. the new marketing? Did anything remain the same?

Everyone wants the next new thing, the shiny toy; they believe will be the Holy Grail. In the past decade-ish, it was the website, then search, then social media, then fortune cookies. Just kidding. The point is these, and whatever come next, are tools not ideas. I don’tthink Facebook sells soap or Coke or really, anything but fantasy marketing. Also, people have no sense of history. Radio, invented about 100 years ago, hasn’t disappeared. The radios just look different, i.e.,music, news, and stories coming out of your computer.

Q: Give us your 3 golden rules for world class brand management, please. What does every brand manager need to keep in mind when building a brand?

  1. Brand managers, and ad guys need to be more patient. Because they can get instant feedback they all too often don’t give ideas along enough cruise to see what they’re worth. Plus, because they live with stuff before it goes public it often feels old on Day One in the real world. Patience, people.
  2. Master the consistency/disruption road. Meaning: know when abrand’s articulations, products, messages, packaging need to looklike a happy family and when, to continue the analogy, need tobehave differently to stay fresh, grow, and be alive.
  3. Take chances. Brands tend to make smaller bets, put the pokerchips back in their pockets, and smoke cigars when things are good.Meaning: rich begets complacency, because once you taste thegold you don’t want to go back to tin. But this is just the time, whenbusiness is great to take risks to ensure things stay great.

Q: Which trends to you see for the upcoming years in terms of branding and brand management?

In some quarters “branding” has already become a negative word.It’s interpreted as “touchy-feely” and not critical to the business.It’s critical that everyone understands that brands and businessare wrapped together like strands of DNA. If you’re someone whothinks branding is an extra, like chocolate sauce on ice cream, you’remaking a big mistake.

Q: Lastly, where do you get your inspiration from? How do you trigger your creativity? Please share some of your personal rituals.

I’m a people person, I enjoy meeting, talking, and hanging out with them. Humans can be pretty interesting. I also read a great deal, particularly, novels; because I believe it’s the little stories of people are what hold the big truths. I also like to just sit with a blank pad in front of me and let my brain just take a walk.

Thank you, Richard, this great advice with us.

And people look out for the fortune cookies. They will be HUGE soon! 😉

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