As a 17 year old copywriter, I was given the opportunity to learn brand strategy and positioning in the greatest brand management university that ever existed.

Unfortunately, the opportunity will not be offered to anyone again. Because (due to social pressure) the university is closed for good.


The first advertising agency I worked for held the Rothmans account. It was one of the biggest pieces of business in the agency.

It had a section of the agency all to itself, with stringent security, and specially vetted office cleaners bound by oath and money not to sell the contents of our rubbish bins to our competitors.

In the Rothmans section there was a conference room that was usually kept locked. The room was big enough for a dozen people to meet, though, most often, meetings comprised just two or three people huddled around an end of the conference table.

Across that table strategies were hatched, battles were planned, tens and hundreds of millions of dollars were won and lost.

But the table wasn’t the Big Thing in the room. The Big Thing was the long dark wall behind it.


The wall was completely covered in crumbly, brown cork tiles, forming a cork-board three metres high and ten metres wide.

It was a giant chart. The vertical axis was quality. The horizontal axis was price.

Stuck on the wall in dots, bands and clusters, was a universe of cigarette packs. Maybe 100 of them. Representing every cigarette brand on the market.

In the lower left, close to the floor, was a clump of economy brands like Winfield and Holiday.

Further up and to the right, near the centre of the wall were the high-volume ‘sensible’ brands including that trusty workhorse, Pall Mall Filter. To their right and higher were Rothmans King Size, Benson & Hedges and Peter Stuyvesant.

Higher and righter was a small galactic cluster of high quality, expensive brands including Dunhill and Du Maurier. And, to the extreme right, near the ceiling, and more for show than elucidation, were Sobranie Cocktails, Black Russians, and (my favourites) Balkans.

The sweet spot for any brand to occupy in this intensely competitive market was a broad diagonal swathe running across the wall from lower left (low quality/low price) to upper right (high quality/high price).

Within this marketing Milky Way, consumer expectations were met and sales were high.

But brands which hung in isolation outside the band were in trouble; brands which needed attention; an adjustment to image and/or price that would retrieve them from the death zone and drag them back to the luminous band of volume and profit.

Yes, it was all about cigarettes. But you tell me where there exists a better university in which to learn the art and science of brand positioning, brand strategy and brand management, than in an intensely competitive market comprising very similar, highly addictive products, where consumer choice isn’t driven by features or performance, but by price and image.

I was a young creative having fun and learning my craft. That room was where I spent the most informative days of my working life. That wall was my Harvard and my London School of Economics.


A constant stream of consumer research flowed in, by which the position of every brand on the wall was plotted and adjusted.

In response, we created or modified advertising campaigns to rescue lost brands drifting in dead space. By reshaping consumer perceptions to align with price, or by adjusting price to better match consumer perceptions, we brought them home.

But we weren’t the only ones at work in that universe. The ad agencies of competitor brands were also plotting, planning and campaigning. And we’d see the results when one of their brands would take off across the wall, sometimes on a convergent course with a brand that we were trying to swing towards a potentially profitable position.


Slow-motion brand warfare raged throughout that universe. Us against the enemy.

Our mission was to hold and defend lucrative brand positions, while capturing valuable enemy positions across the consumer universe.

Strategic opportunities would appear: a competitor’s brand with a large market share would move away from its original market position, perhaps deflected rightwards by a badly-timed price increase or driven downwards by an ill-conceived marketing campaign.

Immediately, we would reposition one of our nearby brands to fill the vacated spot which we knew was ripe with consumers looking for a brand that matched their budget and expectations.

Or perhaps we’d launch a sudden attack with one of several secret new brands kept ready for rapid deployment.


When, for three years you have watched 100 brands at play in a market driven only by addiction and advertising, and have been able to test and measure the impact of scores of creative and brand strategies, you end up with an understanding of brands and brand strategy that is tattooed into your skin.

The kind of understanding that refuses to be tricked by bullshit brand theories frequently presented as reality.


A huge volume of stuff is written and published about brands and branding, most of which is dead wrong.

Few marketing professionals understand what a ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ is. This is frustrating. Because the truth is breathtakingly simple and utterly practical.

So here it is. This could be the most important thing you learn in your marketing life:


How simple is that? How elegant?

Branding isn’t a look and feel, a style, a colour, a typeface, or a set of attributes. That’s livery, corporate image and packaging design.

A brand is none of those things because it is neither a product nor a design. It is a relationship.

A brand comprises the sum of the feelings a consumer has about their lifetime of interaction with your product, service and organisation. And their expectations of your future together.

But that’s only half of it. The next truth is equally simple and equally important:


Here’s how this little gem works:

1. A brand is a relationship

2. A relationship is the sum total of the beliefs and feelings a person has about someone or something

3. Beliefs and feelings exist in the mind

4. Therefore a brand exists in the mind of a consumer

If, on reading the above words you got a chill of realization or a thrill of understanding, write your name on a $100 note and send it to me immediately.

If you can hold on to these two truths through thick and thin, you will be the only voice in the room talking sense about brands when everyone else is talking nonsense. You will also be able to discuss brands and branding, wisely, with giants.

If you’ve got skin in the marketing game, these are the two money shots.

We’ll explore the ramifications of these revelations, and provide some concrete examples you can drop on people, in:

How Branding & Brands Work – Part Two



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