Once in a while, someone interested in becoming a brand strategist (or becoming a better brand strategist) asks me what they should read. The honest answer is that there are as many flavours of brand strategist as there are flavours of ice cream: we all have different tastes, interests and capabilities and what we read should reflect these differences.
I always appreciate the question, though.
It’s possible to be a decent brand strategist if you don’t like reading, but it’s difficult to be great unless you’re interested in exploring the different and clever ways people think about brands, marketing, business and what it all means in the first place. To steal a quote from Tyrion Lannister, ‘a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.’ I’d go even further. Reading does more than simply sharpen the mind of a brand strategist: it provides an inexhaustible source of inspiration and energy that can sustain you over your entire career.
This is a long and rather convoluted way of saying that anything you read will help you become a better brand strategist, provided it stimulates you to think differently about the world around you. Brands touch every aspect of life, so a book on any subject can be regarded as relevant: fiction or non-fiction. And the more ideas, perspectives and voices you are able to soak up, the better you will be for it. Your work will become less and less limited by your own narrow experience of work and life.
That’s an honest answer but it’s also remarkably unhelpful for someone who just wants to know where to begin. So, here’s an entirely personal (and in no way definitive) list of the books and articles that have helped to shape my own way of thinking about brand strategy. It’s broken down into sections, because I think (or hope) that the strategy of a reading list is as important as the books themselves.
Brand strategy classics
It’s important to say from the outset that I use the term ‘classic’ with a heavy pinch of salt. The books in this section are those that you must read simply because many other people in the branding business have also read them. In terms of quality, I’m afraid this selection is the poorest of the lot, with one or two notable exceptions.
Basic Marketing, by E. Jerome McCarthy
Read this first! And you’ll see how much ‘new’ thinking about brands and marketing already existed in the 1960s. Behavioural science, the marketing mix, insight, strategic planning: they are all in there.
Positioning, by Al Ries and Jack Trout
Written in the 1970s, this book is fun, mercifully short and remarkably relevant. Vital for anybody who wants to understand where ‘brand positioning’ comes from.
Brand Portfolio Strategy, by David Aaker
If you’ve ever pondered the choice between ‘House of Brands’ and ‘Branded House’ then you need to read this book: the author’s intention was far more nuanced.
Start With Why, by Simon Sinek
An impassioned call for a more purposeful approach to business, best paired with Jim Collins’ Good to Great, which makes the commercial case for purpose.
Good To Great, by Jim Collins
Many books have been written about the importance of purpose in business. This is the best.
How Brands Grow, by Byron Sharp
If you want to believe branding is a science, then you’ll enjoy this book.
Brands and Branding, by Rita Clifton
A collection of experts come at branding from different directions. Some are more compelling (and expert) than others, but this a solid introduction.
Unfortunately, many of the ideas propagated by the books in the preceding section have evolved into marketing dogma. The books and articles in this (briefer) section are intended as a reminder not to believe the hype.
On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt
This is both a book and an essay. I’d suggest starting with the essay: a penetrating, powerful, funny piece about the ubiquity of bullshit in modern life and the defining qualities of a bullshitter. You’ll find free PDFs all over the Internet.
No Logo, by Naomi Klein
Written at a time when the anti-globalisation movement was gathering serious momentum, there’s still much to pay attention to here, particularly given the subsequent rise of the gig economy. Personal experience suggests that the people behind the ‘superbrands’ are given more credit than they deserve, though.
Hyper-power, the marketing concept and consumer as ‘boss’, by Mark Tadajewski and D.G. Brian Jones
Mark Tadajewski’s thinking rarely fails to excite me. This article (available online) challenges the idea of customer-centricity that sits at the heart of many brands and organisations.
Anthro Vision, by Gillian Tett
Once you read this book you will see cargo cults everywhere you turn.
The Soul at Work, by Franco “Biffo” Berardi
Is ‘brand purpose’ just another tool for subjugating people? It’s worth thinking about…
Learning from leaders
Books about leaders can be an effective antidote to books on leadership: the latter encourage us to think of leaders as paragons of virtue, while the former tend to paint a more honest picture of people at work.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz
This book was bought for me by an ex-boss of mine. I suspect she meant it as an insult, but I found it unexpectedly useful and entertaining (in a Kanye-meets-Elon, sweary sort of way).
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
It’s intimidatingly huge, but worth it. If only because the next time someone tells you they want their brand to be the Apple of its category, you’ll be able to ask them if they are willing to become the Steve Jobs of their company.
Christian Dior & Moi, by Christian Dior
Apologies to anybody who doesn’t read French. Mine is very rusty, but well worth struggling through to understand what ‘elevated’ really means.
Ways to jog your thinking
I often find myself stuck in a strategic rut, particularly since I spend a lot of time working alone. When my mental turntable keeps looping, the books in this section provide the jolt I need to move my thinking in new directions.
I Am a Beautiful Monster, by Francis Picabia
A book that makes no sense, until it makes perfect sense.
The Art of Looking Sideways, by Alan Fletcher
A thick slab of a book that provides readers with tiny glimpses of the world, seen from unexpected perspectives. A bit like setting the good parts of the Internet to shuffle mode.
It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be, by Paul Arden
Before there was Dave Trott, there was Paul Arden. And he used pictures as well as short, punchy sentences. Read this book if you worry about impostor syndrome.
Consumers, investors and business decision-makers all have one thing in common: they are all people and are consequently prone to all manner of human foibles, biases and idiosyncrasies. Understanding how people make decisions – collectively as well as individually – and how they think and feel their way around the world is fundamental to being able to develop influential brand strategy.
Spent, by Geoffrey Miller
An evolutionary psychologist’s perspective on consumption, marketing and capitalism. It had me squirming in my seat in the best possible way.
Stuff, by Daniel Miller
A great companion to Spent: this book encourages us to think more deeply about our relationship with ‘things’ and the idea of materialism more broadly.
How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer
I feel like I should recommend something by Antonio Damasio, but I found Jonah Lehrer’s stories more interesting and easier to understand.
How Customers Think, by Gerald Zaltman
Metaphor is an essential tool in the strategist’s arsenal of ideas. This book explores how visual metaphors act as a language through which we can understand and explain the ways in which brands interact with and influence people.
Influence, by Robert Cialdini
A nice complement to Lehrer’s book: one focuses on what happens in our minds, while the other explores how interactions between people affect our decisions.
Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
Makes a compelling case for choice architecture, although at points it does feel like the authors overstate the power of nudge theory, as well as glossing over the question of whether it’s OK to manipulate people, even if you believe it’s in their best interests. If you like this book, it’s worth looking into Kenneth Arrow’s impossibility theorem.
Love at Goon Park, by Deborah Blum
Based on the controversial experiments on monkeys by Harry Harlow, this is a brutal, beautiful, upsetting insight into the nature of love and its role in shaping us. Heartbreaking.
Coming up with interesting ideas for brands is only half the story: great brand strategists also need to be great communicators. The books in this section have helped me to choose my words more carefully, as well as being more deliberate in how I present information visually.
Brilliant Business Writing, by Neil Taylor
John Simmons’ We, Me, Them & It is the older and more famous book, as well as being an entertaining read. Neil’s book is less anecdotal but more practical. And funnier.
Envisioning Information, by Edward R. Tufte
How do you make data visualisation interesting and intuitive, without compromising on integrity? You begin by reading this book.
Grid Systems, by Josef Müller-Brockmann
I have little natural talent for design, but thanks to this book I at least appreciate the impact of a clear layout in helping people to navigate their way around my thinking.
Thinking about design
Strategy doesn’t achieve anything until it finds its way into the world through design: physical and digital media and experiences, brand identity elements, messages, organisational artefacts, hallmarks, sounds and even smells. The better a brand strategist understands how design works, the more likely it is that their strategy will translate into better brand experiences.
From Lascaux to Brooklyn, by Paul Rand
Everything Paul Rand writes is beautiful. I defy anybody to read this book and still believe that design is largely about fluff or decoration.
Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers
I had no idea at all how colour works until I opened this book.
Design as Art, by Bruno Munari
An amazing book, in which words like ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘dignity’ find their way into sentences about industry and design.
Designing Interactions, by Bill Moggridge
Although the focus here is on digital interactions, the principles and anecdotes translate equally well to physical experiences. And there’s a fascinating story about the double click.
Ways of Seeing, by John Berger
Because there’s a huge difference between looking at something and actually seeing it.
Thinking about value
I studied economics at university and spent the early part of my career valuing brand portfolios, so I’m extremely biased in this respect: if you don’t understand what ‘value’ means then I think it’s impossible to be a brand strategist in any serious sense.
Small is Beautiful, by E.F. Schumacher
A wonderful book that challenges us to think more deeply about value in the broadest possible sense, and the relationships between humankind, organisations, money, technology, energy, nature and the future.
Bettering Humanomics, by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
A book about economics which swings from ruthless skewering of nudge theory and behavioural economics to a fascinating analysis of why ‘capitalism’ is a misleading term and how ideas are the ‘dark matter’ of history.
How to Make the World Add Up, by Tim Harford
Everything Tim Harford writes is great and he has the ability to make economics accessible in a way that the other books in this section don’t. This is a vital book for anybody who needs to be able to see the story behind the numbers. Which is all of us.
The Balanced Scorecard, by Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton
A systematic way to think about the relationships between financial performance, customer relationships, touchpoints, business processes and how an organisation learns and grows.
Coffee table books
I’m an absolute sucker for these and I’m not ashamed to say so. Just because a book is outrageously large, prohibitively expensive and ludicrously heavy doesn’t mean it can’t also be practical.
Saul Bass, by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham
Of course, it’s big and beautiful, but it’s also peppered with stories about what it was like to succeed in convincing big businesses to take design seriously… Only for it to become a commodity.
Art is Work, by Milton Glaser
Milton Glaser tells the stories behind many of his spectacular design projects, rounded off with a collection of essays and speeches. Together with Paul Rand, he demonstrates that great designers are great thinkers and can also be great writers. Thank goodness most people don’t realise this, or there would be no demand for brand strategists.
How to, by Michael Beirut
This is a ‘how to’ book in the same sense that ‘Do the Right Thing’ is a film about restaurant interior design: there’s much more to think about here.
Nike: Better Is Temporary, by Sam Grawe
Although I’m not particularly into athletic apparel, I do find Nike a consistently compelling brand. This book provides some insight into the creative engine responsible for its success.
Because sometimes good stuff doesn’t fit into neat categories.
21 Things You Won’t Learn in Architecture School, by Adrian Dobson
Swap out ‘architect’ for ‘brand strategist’ and there’s plenty of practical advice in here that I wish I’d come across sooner in my life.
The Conquest of Cool, by Thomas Frank
It’s easy to assume marketers cynically leach off subcultures and countercultures. But what if marketers are active participants in those cultures? Perhaps we’re not all parasites, after all…
When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamin Labatut
A brilliant, bonkers tour of some of modern history’s greatest scientific minds. I’d be happy if I could tell a story even half as powerful as this.
A constant source of ideas to steal.
Not strictly something to read, but a fascinating podcast series that delves into the hidden stories behind the design of everyday things we take for granted.
Brand New, by UnderConsideration
A weekly insight into the latest brand launches and redesigns. As much something to look at as something to read.