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ZAG: The #1 Strategy of High-Performance Brands

ZAG: The #1 Strategy of High-Performance Brands by Marty Neumeier

Here are my favourite excerpts…

In a 1998 Gallup poll rating honesty and ethical standards across a range of professions, advertising people ended up near the bottom, sandwiched between lawyers and car salesmen.


When BMW decided to launch the Mini Cooper, piles of research showed that Americans had no interest in an ultrasmall car and only wanted more SUVs. Despite this “fact,” the zagmeisters at BMW stepped on the gas instead of the brakes and motored straight into profitable new market space. The intrepid folks at BMW had a lot in common with physicist Niels Bohr. Many years ago one of his colleagues was invited to deliver a controversial paper to a group of scientists, including Bohr. Immediately afterward his colleague asked Bohr how the paper was received by the other scientists. He replied, “We all agree that your idea is crazy. What divides us is whether it is crazy enough.”The Mini people were crazy, too. Like a fox.


A. G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble, has energized his company by putting a microscope on the need states of its consumers. Using ethnographic researc hin which researchers move in with consumers to observe their habits firsthand, they uncover need states like the one that led to their hugely successful Swiffer product. They noticed that the consumer had no easy way to spot-sweep dry spills without the hassle of a broom and dustpan—and found a solution that helped her get it done. “The simple principle in life,” said Lafley, “is to find out what she wants and give it to her. It’s worked in my marriage for 35 years and it works in laundry.” When you’re searching for a need state, don’t think so much about the unbuilt product as about the unserved tribe.


“Tell me,” said my mother. “How do you see your future?” I said, “I don’t know. I feel like I could be a leader of something—I’m just not sure what.” She thought. “Well, that’s not so hard. Just find a parade and get in front of it.”


All design relies on heuristic thinking more than algorithmic thinking—meaning that there is no set path, no mathematical formula, for reaching your goal. But you still need rigor and process, otherwise you’ll drift from one thought to the next with no more hope of it making sense than the proverbial thousand monkeys with their thousand typewriters. WHEN FOCUS IS PAIRED WITH DIFFERENTIATION, SUPPORTED BY A TREND, AND SURROUNDED BY COMPELLING COMMUNICATIONS, YOU HAVE THE BASIC INGREDIENTS OF A ZAG.


And what about your company? Where’s your passion? One way to bring it into sharp relief is by completing the exercise that the corporate story experts at C2 (San Francisco) give to their clients to help them shape their visions. It goes like this: 25 years from now your company is wiped out. Now, sit down and write your company’s obituary. What would you like posterity to say about you? You’ll find that the answers are also the answers to the seminal questions: Who are you? Where does your passion lie? What gets you up in the morning?


The relationship between purpose and vision was explained vividly by Peter Senge in THE FIFTH DISCIPLINE. Referring to the Kennedy years, he saida purpose is “advancing man’s capabilities to explore the heavens.” A vision, on the other hand, is “a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.” Everyone could picture that man, up there on the moon, planting an American flag in the soft sand.


Complete this sentence: Our brand is the ONLY __________ that __________. In the first blank, put the name of your category (frozen pizza, furniture dealership, computer repair service). In the second blank, describe your zag (that tastes like Naples; that sells sustainably manufactured furniture; that makes house calls). If you can’t keep it brief and use the word ONLY, then you don’t have a zag. Your best option in that case is to make a list of all the competitors who could make the same claim, then start to shift your strategy away from theirs.


Now that you’ve got the principle, here’s a more detailed version of the exercise to help you pinpoint your onliness. It parallels the journalistic model of storytelling: WHAT is your category? HOW are you different? WHO are your customers? WHERE are they located? WHEN do they need you? and WHY are you important?


In our workshops we demonstrate alignment using “the sacrifice game.” In this exercise teams of participants start with a well-known brand, decide what makes it different and desirable, then prune back the brand to its core meaning by removing unaligned elements. Only then do the teams suggest new elements that might increase—not decrease—the focus of the brand. Thus they might decide that Ralph Lauren Polo stands for “classic upscale American clothing.” To increase brand alignment, they might suggest that the company keep the clothing and accessories, but drop elements such as dog gifts, wall paint, furniture, TV show, magazines, and restaurants. They might then suggest adding one or two elements such as luggage or equestrian clothing.




In some categories, a 5% increase in loyal customers can produce a 95% increase in profitability.


According to a recent survey of CEOs, today’s top three business goals are: 1) sustained and steady top-line growth, 2) speed, flexibility, and adaptability to change, and 3) customer loyalty and retention. Most of the CEOs said they’d be satisfied with any two of these. My advice? Be different. Go for all three with a brand that zags.

3 replies on “ZAG: The #1 Strategy of High-Performance Brands”

Oops …

2) speed, flexibility, and adaptability to change,

This has been on “the list” for many years .. and I am surprised that, given what is possible now, it’s taking such a long time to try to address and activate the possibilities.

So true, Jon. Did you see the excerpts from The Designful Company? He picks up on that comment and goes a bit deeper…

“A company can’t “will” itself to be agile. Agility is an emergent property that appears when an organization has the right mindset, the right skills, and the ability to multiply those skills through collaboration.”

Sounds a bit like wirearchy, no? I dream of the day we don’t refer to change management inside organizations because the way we work has become agile (the dynamic, two-way flow enabled by interconnected people) ;).

I’m fascinated how different disciplines are acknowledging challenges with management etc. But we are raising these in echo chambers – inside our own industry – instead of re-combining capabilities outside our silos. See my rant here for a bit more on my fascination/frustration:

And thanks for commenting – always a pleasure to connect with you!

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