Q&A with Austin McGhie

Q&A with Austin McGhie, president of the Strategy Group at Sterling Brands and author of the newly released, BRAND is a Four Letter Word.

Q. What has been the biggest shift in marketing in recent times?

A. This one’s easy. The biggest shift in marketing has been the biggest shift in our lives in general: the Internet.

Not that many years ago, marketing was understood to be a fairly one-way process. You tried to hammer home your messages and persuade consumers more effectively than your competitors did. Often the only “information” readily available to consumers came from packaging, marketing communications and possibly a salesperson. As a result, you “shaped the truth” to make the strongest possible argument for your product.

Fast forward to today, and a “wealth of information” is readily available to your audience. If they care enough, they can learn the facts. The facts about your product. Comparisons to other products. Facts about the company behind the product. And they can talk to each other. Opinions about you and your product will be posted by your biggest fans and your biggest detractors, not to mention your own employees.

Historically, the truth generally won out in the long run. But today it wins in the short term. Marketers must manage all this information as an ongoing conversation. In most categories, with complete information, the better product or service wins—simple as that. If someone has a better product than you, you’d better like lower prices and the margins that go with them.

Brands are still important, but they’re the outcome of all that information, and they will change as the conversation changes. That rate of change is therefore greatly accelerated. Great brands are, almost always, great products or services. You can’t get away with anything less.

Q. What are the biggest mistakes designers make when undertaking a branding project?

A. First, as I say in the book, unless you’re a rancher, there’s no such thing as branding. You can’t just brand something. The idea should never be used as a verb. Brand is the prize. The outcome. It’s a noun. The actual work—the verb, if you will—is positioning.

The biggest mistake marketers make, in general, is not clearly positioning their product around a simple, clear idea that creates “differentiated advantage” with their audience. In other words, you need to clearly communicate a single idea that explains how you are different, and in a way that shows you are better. This single idea must guide and inspire your entire organization and everything it does, including your marketing communications. That includes your design aesthetic.

The biggest mistake designers make is starting any design project without fully understanding that position. Great brands, like great people, have a strong, clear point of view. A world view that is theirs and theirs alone. Understand that POV. Feel it. Explore it.

Then, and only then, go to work.

Q. What do you love most about your career?

A. I’ve worked as a client, in advertising and now as a marketing strategist. I’ve enjoyed every job I’ve had, most of the time. But it turns out the only thing I’m actually good at, and the one thing I have enjoyed most in all my jobs, is strategy. So I almost feel guilty doing what I do now. I get to move from one strategic problem to the next. I get to try to solve puzzles every day. I get paid to do what I love to do.

Q. What advice would you give to designers starting out now?

A. Push it. In the book I attack this idea of “thinking outside the box.” If you think of the strategy as the “box,” then coming up with out-of-the-box solutions is stupid. Any idiot can ignore strategy and get outside the box. Similarly, the middle of the box is just boring—no one will pay attention. As a designer, your job is to bang the hell out of the inside edges of that box.

Make it bigger. Expand it in unforeseen directions and ways. But always by pounding on the inside edges. Always with a goal. Push it, because it’s a crowded, noisy marketplace out there. Most marketers underestimate how hard it is to truly stand out. Many don’t have the nerve to make the bold decisions necessary to really stand out. Give them a push.


Austin McGhie is the president of Sterling Brands’ Strategy Group. Throughout his 30-year career, he ran marketing departments, sales forces and advertising agencies before slowly coming to the realization that he was really only good at strategy. Austin fervently believes that there is no marketing problem or opportunity that can’t be framed as a positioning exercise.

Austin’s team at Sterling Brands works with some of the top marketers in the world, including Disney, ESPN, Nike, Google, Visa, Expedia, Best Buy, Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch, Abbott Labs and YouTube.

Austin travels too much, but when he’s home he lives in Northern California’s Marin County with his wife, two children and dog. Back in the day, he was “almost good enough” to play professional soccer. Having recently ridden his bike 100 miles a day to cross the country, you can usually find him riding up the nearest hill. Austin can be reached at [email protected].

BRAND is a Four Letter Word
is available now at Amazon.