Lessons from the Brandfather

4 minute read


In the early 1970s, John Murphy had an epiphany. It would lead him to change the way the world thinks about brands.

Working as a senior executive at Dunlop, he was approached by a company who wanted to buy an unused trade mark that Dunlop owned. The trade mark was Extron. The offer was £1m (around £14m in today’s money). For a trade mark that was of no interest to Dunlop, it was too good a deal to turn down. The buyer was Exxon. They wanted to rollout a single global brand, changing local brand names like Esso along the way. Like a giant property developer buying up all the land it can, Exxon was removing any unnecessary legal challenges to its global ambitions.

It was the first time that John realized brands were specific assets that had financial value. They were intellectual property as ownable, protectable and transferrable as any other form of property. If you had a registered trade mark, you could not only grow and protect your own business, you could put a spanner in other people’s plans too.

Two years later, he had to develop an international brand name for a pioneering Dunlop product – the effort nearly drove him mad. But it taught him another lesson: that businesses were becoming increasingly global and their products and services becoming consistent around the world, but there was no one to help them with the increasingly complex challenges of creating and managing a brand internationally.  The world needed something that did not exist. A branding consultancy.

In 1974, he opened the doors of what quickly became one of the most influential consultancies of its kind: Interbrand. By the time he had sold it to Omnicom 20 years later, he had made branding a recognized multi-disciplinary process. Moreover, he had made the financial valuation of brands a formal and normal practice that transformed them from a key marketing tool to, in the words of McKinsey, a central organizing principle for business. Where was the sustainable value in modern business? It was to be found in the brands. Billions were spent acquiring or building them.

Brandfather: The Man Who Invented Branding is John’s brilliant story of his business life, from those early days at Dunlop through the establishment, growth and sale of Interbrand to his subsequent career as a global brand builder of his own with Plymouth Gin and St Peter’s beer.

It is forthright, often funny and never anything less than honest. When almost every business book you read tells you that success comes through seven habits, 22 laws, a dozen ways or one thing above all other, John shares experiences and lets you draw conclusions.  The lessons range from how to deal with a drunken priest who has wet himself to how to stand up to a Madison Avenue agency when you disagree with their proposed campaign.

And in a world where people appear to think business has an almost religious or psychosocial role to play in changing the world or transforming your mental health as well as financial wealth, John is devoutly pragmatic and down-to-earth about what business should do – and especially about the role of brands.

The purpose of a brand is simple: it exists to protect the rights of the supplier/producer and the customer/consumer, ensuring the former gets to keep the goodwill and profits that comes from its ownership and the latter gets what they were promised.

It represents a pact between the two parties.  And woe betide the stewards of a brand who forget what their part of that pact is. A brand’s value can go down as well as up.

John railed against the ‘hunch, anecdote and bullshit’ of business and especially of branding. He could not understand, for example, why Advertising Agencies were given disproportionate amounts of credit for the process of brand building. Advertising agencies, he writes, “know a lot about advertising but not that much about marketing”. He was concerned with how a brand grew through its product or service offer, its distribution and pricing, its customer segmentation and the branded identity that distinguished it consistently and protected it legally.

I don’t know what he would make of the current obsession with ‘higher purpose’. Actually, that’s a lie. I know exactly what he makes of it.  If it is relevant and helps build the brand, fine. Other than that, it’s irrelevant at best and downright disingenuous at worst to claim ‘brands change lives’.

I know this because 27 years ago, I walked through the doors of Interbrand’s Covent Garden office in London as one of its early and few graduate trainees. John was one of my mentors as he was to many others.  I learnt many lessons from him. Lessons about what makes a valuable brand, about the importance of a story and personality to distinguish the brand, of the vital role of intellectual property law, of consistency and meticulous attention to detail in every aspect of the experience. He taught me lessons about business, particularly about culture and the obsession with ‘keeping the right people in and the wrong ones out’, the importance of rigour in how you think and especially in what you write, about the sheer energy and chutzpah needed to get you noticed. I learnt numerous tips that I don’t have room to mention which have helped me over the years. Most of them can be found in the book.

I was only one of many who learnt the value of his lessons. Early this month a friend and former colleague of mine at Interbrand, Simon Mottram, brought in a new majority shareholder in Rapha, the cycling and performance lifestyle company which he had built from an idea into an international brand, for a reported enterprise value of £200m. I emailed Simon to congratulate him, he wrote back: “We had the best schooling for brand building; Mr. Murphy!”

He is right and the Brandfather’s lessons are still worth learning. And it’s a fun book to read.


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Andy Milligan

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