Chutzpah. The real key to brand and business growth?

3 minute read


What does it take to develop a successful brand or business? It’s a question we get asked repeatedly and has been asked for as long as I can remember. Often the answer is ‘differentiation’ or ‘relevance’; recently people have talked about ‘authenticity’ or about having ‘a higher purpose’. And of course, there is always ‘consistency’. But last week as John Murphy, the founder of Interbrand spoke to an assembled group of business folk about his life in building brands, I thought to myself that none of those are really the answer (however essential they are). The real answer lies not in the brands themselves but in the people behind the brands. In their spirit, personality, energy, their ‘let’s just do it’ attitude which might best be described as ‘audacity’ or better still, ‘chutzpah’.

Here are just 3 stories John tells in his excellent book, Brandfather with its suitably chutzpah subtitle ‘The Man Who Invented Branding’, that make the point.

  1. John set up his first business, Interbrand, on a ‘wing and a prayer’. He had no experience of consumer goods marketing, knew little about consumer research, he had not worked in brands, and branding as a discipline did not exist. In fact there was no existing market for his services (unlike advertising or graphic design). But he knew that brand names were important and that no one knew how to advise global businesses on how to create them. So off he went and started what became the world’s first and largest international brand consultancy.
  2. John invented the process of valuing brands financially. He had no accounting or formal financial background and nobody had thought of brands as assets which could or even should be valued. But John in an audacious and speculative punt for business from RHM, a branded foods company, which was the subject of a hostile takeover bid, persuaded its Chairman and his advisors that their only hope of seeing off the bid was to value their brands and Interbrand was the only firm that could do it. He won the contract on a Friday and then worried about how to develop the methodology over the weekend. Within 2 years, that methodology was approved by Accounting Standards Boards and used by major businesses worldwide.
  3. After John sold Interbrand, he was persuaded to buy a failing gin brand, Plymouth Gin, which was selling around 9,000 cases a year (which is next to nothing). It was at a time when the white spirit everyone was drinking was vodka; gin was a ‘drink for old people’. He knew little about gin – other than as a drinker – but he knew a good brand story when he saw one. He used PR to drive stories of how bland, tasteless and boring Vodka was, increased his Plymouth Gin‘s strength to 41.5% to differentiate it from other gins and turned it into a premium brand. He sold it, with delicious irony, to the owners of Absolut vodka for much, much more than he bought it.

There are a host of other stories he tells about his career including an amusing one about sabotaging the Annual General Meeting of one of the world’s biggest companies when he accused them of ‘stealing his brand name’ (they had created a logistics business called Interbrand). But the constant theme throughout is the sheer audacity, the sheer chutzpah of going out and getting it. Of never letting a little thing like lack of experience, lack of an existing product or any established market get in the way of your ambition.

“Get going quickly, because audacious people don’t tend to be lazy.”
Think about the brands that we have all become familiar with, the ones which get regularly cited as ‘great’: established ones like Apple, Virgin, Nike, Disney; more recent ones like Facebook or AirBnB; or even smaller ones that punch above their weight such as Innocent or Patagonia. What unites them? It’s not so much that they share attributes of consistency, differentiation, relevance etc.  And it’s not that they were especially innovative (Facebook was not the first social networking site, nor Apple the inventors of Mp3 players). What really marks them out is the sheer audacity, the chutzpah of their leaders, the boldness of their vision and their relentless energy in pursuing an opportunity when others would walk away.

Some people of course don’t like the concept of ‘chutzpah’; it sounds superficial to their ears. They probably don’t like those great brands either. They might accuse them of poor quality compared with technically superior products or services. They might attack them for aggressive marketing and for their ubiquity. But of course, the point about a brand is that it is different. And difference will often breed dislike. So there’s no point in worrying too much about people who don’t like you. You’re better just going off and doing what you think is right until somebody stops you. Show some audacity, some boldness. Have fun too.

And get going quickly, because audacious people don’t tend to be lazy either.

As the founder of JCB, the world leader in construction machinery, said, be possessed with “the urgency of now”. That is what distinguishes the very talented and well-intentioned people who never quite make it, from those who may have less talent but who are very successful. The latter get on with it.

Call it chutzpah. It’s the secret to success.


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Andy Milligan
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  1. I came across the expression ‘A visitation of continuous excitement’ a while back (I can’t re-find it now to acknowledge the source) and from from a lifetime of frequent entrepreneurial outbursts, I’d say it’s the pre-requisite to the magical force of Chutzpah.

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