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Episode #141
Martin Lindstrom

Life-Changing Personal Branding Tips For Consultants

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A book can be your business card, your ultimate branding tool which can help you take off in your career or business. In today’s episode, Michael Zipursky and Martin Lindstrom talk about branding tips for consultants. Martin is a brand and culture transformation expert and the Founder of Lindstrom Company. He shares his fascinating story, starting from being a 12-year old kid from Denmark hired by Lego to becoming a world-class author and branding expert. Leveraging your personal brand to grow your business depends on the team that you have. Martin shares how he works with his team when distributing, marketing, and establishing partnerships when launching books. He also talks about one of his most significant books called The Ministry of Common Sense.

I’m here with Martin Lindstrom. Martin, welcome.

Thank you for having me on your show.

Martin, I’m honored to have you on. I read your first book years ago. It’s great that we’re jumping on here. You’ve been at the forefront of branding and customer experience for the last years. You’ve worked and advised organizations like Lowe’s, Burger King, Swiss Airlines and Majid Al Futtaim. Let’s start at the beginning because I want you to take us back to before you were known and established. What were you doing before you got into the world of consulting and writing books?

I was probably one of the craziest kids you could imagine. I’m not kidding when I decided that I wanted to be a branding expert when I was eight years of age. I’m born and raised in Denmark. There were no television commercials back then on television. I got a pen pal from the US, who sent me these VHS videotapes with three hours of TV commercial recordings. When I was reaching the age of eleven, I was a huge fan of Lego. I decided to build up my own Legoland in the backyard of my mom and dad’s garden. I loved it. I was serious that I went to Japan to learn how to cut bonsai trees. It was a sponsorship I’ve got from Sony. I don’t know how I persuaded those guys to do this. This Legoland opened after almost a year of preparation when I was twelve. Two people showed up, my mom and my dad. That was the lowest point of my career. I went down to the local brick office and I persuaded them to sponsor me. They said, “Yes.” Two days later, I had 131 visitors in my Legoland.

Was this one in the back of your house?

It was in the back of the house and it was serious. I had real canals. I had building cement where the ships would sail. There would be special techniques making them sail through a rubber system under the ground of these canals, which I stole from Lego, believe it or not. It was a replica of Legoland. The only problem was on this first day of opening, after this ad went into the paper, the owners from Lego showed up including the lawyers. They said, “It’s our brand.” I said, “No. It’s my brand.” They wanted to sue me. Remember, I was twelve years of age, so it was a bit of a shock. They’re pretty reasonable people so they decided to give me a job. I was probably the youngest kid in history to work at Lego. About a year later, I got Lego as a client. That is the history. That’s the first that I opened my own advertising agency at the age of twelve.

Were you thirteen years old when you had your first client?

I was twelve years and eleven months old. I was focused on the months back then. I had Lego laid on. It grew and I sold the agency later on to a chain called BBDO.

Was that when you were fifteen?

CSP 141 | Life-Changing Personal Branding Tips For Consultants With Martin Lindstrom


I was 23.

I want to pause for a moment because that sounds fantastic to hear that you’re not even thirteen years old and you’ve landed your first client. It’s a global brand. There’s a story behind it, so that part makes sense, but what were you doing for Lego when you’re not even thirteen years old?

This is the interesting part of it because Lego had a philosophy. It was to understand the kids extraordinarily well. They had the philosophy of, “Why don’t we employ our own target group?” I became this Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory thing. I literally had yellow liquid trucks packing up at my mom’s and dad’s house. I don’t need to tell you I had hundreds of friends. I had zero before but hundreds after this. It worked because Lego taught me how to place myself in the center of an organization and seeing the world from a consumer’s point of view, which has stuck with me ever since. You will even see it in 2020, my book, Small Data, which came out a couple of years ago, was all about how you live with consumers and see the world from a consumer’s point of view because we’ve completely forgotten about it. That was something I learned more than 30 years ago through my work with Lego.

Lego was the first client. How did you go about getting your next client?

First of all, I went to BBDO where I worked at a large advertising agency group. They’re one of the largest in the world and they still are. I grew within the organization to become the Scandinavian Head of Business Development. At that stage, in 1994, something unusual happened. I was going to Canada, and you’re from Vancouver. I was going to Montreal and this British man came up to me after my presentation. I did a presentation about something called The Internet. Remember that was the year the World Wide Web was invented. This British man said, “Martin, I adore your amazing story about the internet. Is there any chance you could write a white paper on that topic?” I had no idea what white paper was. I jumped on a plane back to Denmark. I still lived in Denmark back then.

On the way back, I’m sitting next to this large man, an American guy and he’s saying, “I’ve been to Sydney, Australia.” Honestly, my only impression of Australia back then was the Sydney Opera House and the kangaroo. I started the conversation with this guy while reading this paper from this British guy. I realized that this guy from Britain was Australian. I thought, “This is a sign. There’s something to do with Australia.” I went back to Copenhagen and two months later, this British guy that I realized was Australian, called me, “Is there any chance I could come by and visit your office?” I said, “Sure. Come by.”

We came back. We sat in this office and he said, “Have you made any thoughts about the internet?” I said, “Yes, I have a thought or two. Do you have a napkin?” He said, “Sure, I have a napkin.” He gave him a napkin and I wrote, “I, Clint Williams, is hereby employed Martin Lindstrom as of tomorrow.” I signed it and sent it over to him. He said, “What a wonderful idea,” and I moved to Australia. That was the first time where I jumped to another continent. On top of that, it was the first step into the internet and how to grow that whole space. I transformed my background from being pure branding to become branding on the internet. Later on, I wrote books about it. That was the first time where I started to be serious and write about it and all that.

For everyone to understand the timeline here, at 12 and 13, you get your first client, Lego. Your ad agency was born at 23. Ten years or so later, you sold that or that was acquired by BBDO. Is that correct?

That’s right. It was acquired.

If you want to build your personal brand, books are still the way to do it because it brings credibility. Click To Tweet

Then you worked within BBDO for several years.

I went with them until 1994 when I was 24. That was where the net was invented or at least the World Wide Web. I moved shortly thereafter when I was 27 to Australia. I started up BBDO Interactive in the Asia Pacific, which grew to become the largest player in that region.

At what point did you decide that you were going to go out on your own again and start your own business after being within the corporate world of BBDO?

It happened in the year 2000. I sat on the board of something called Yellow Pages in the US. I was not founding but close to. We sold that to a company called Pacific Bell. At that stage, I thought, “I have to retire,” and realized that was horrible.

Why do you think you had to retire? Is it because you made so much money or because you were tired of business or politics?

Politics was probably the main trigger. I did not understand the concept of politics back then. Later on, it became a huge part of my life but at that stage, politics was overwhelming for me. I didn’t understand how people could be irrational in everything they were doing. What happened was I started to write a lot of books and a lot of people approached me. They said, “Do you want to consult for us?” I was flattered by it, so I started to travel a lot out of Australia to the rest of the world. That became the foundation of Lindstrom Company and the organization we run, which is all about healthy companies to transform the business, cultures and brands.

You’ve written seven books. You have an eighth coming out. I believe my numbers are correct. Would you consider yourself well-known or well-established before you started writing books or was it through books that put you on the map?

For readers, if you want to build your personal brand, books were and still are the way to do it. It has some powerful benefits. The first one is it’s the most expensive business card ever, but it has a lot of credibilities. The second thing it does is it gives you an ability to fragment or defragment your data and your brain. It would be like when you have a lot of data on your computer, you have to defragment it. It’s the same with what your memory does. You may have a lot of interesting thoughts but you never combined it as perfect building blocks. When you write a book, you structure these sentences and those building blocks in an elegant way. It helped me to articulate things in a professional way whenever you’re seeing something. The book was helping that to happen.

As a consultant, I have got a lot of phrases and methodologies but when you write a book, it becomes even more sophisticated. That was the second thing. The third thing it helped me to do was to constantly renew myself because you need to launch a new book all the time. You need to do that to maintain your brand. It’s incredibly difficult to do because you tend to fall asleep and say, “I’m pretty successful as I am. Why do I have to reinvent myself?” That’s one of the things I learned, and I recommend everyone else to do, I always said when I was 10 or 12 years old, “I want to be the best at branding the word, but I can’t own that space because a lot of other people were much better than I am at that. Why don’t I combine it with another thing?”

CSP 141 | Life-Changing Personal Branding Tips For Consultants With Martin Lindstrom


I always tend to say that creativity is to combine two ordinary things in a new way. I said, “Why don’t I combine it with the internet?” The internet plus branding becomes online branding. After that, I took it to the children. Branding and children became Brandchild, another book of mine. I took the senses, branding of the senses became Brand Sense, a book about how to build brands. I took clicks and mortar and two combinations of that. Later on, I took neuro and marketing and that became neuromarketing and my book about Buyology. I constantly have tried to combine new things around the core spaces of branding. When you’ve done it 7 or 8 times, at this state, you by default become the expert in the center, which is branding. It’s incredibly hard because in the process you constantly need to ask yourself, “Can you reinvent what you’ve been standing for over the last years?” I always feel deeply insecure. Once you get used to it, it’s like you’re on this rolling ball. That is the key factor and benefit I’ve had by writing books.

When did you know that you had “made it” or that the book was working for you? Was it as soon as you published it? Was it a year or was that even your second book? At what stage did you know, “This book thing is working for me?”

I probably realized it when I would go to a foreign country somewhere out in the world and I would see my picture on billboards. I would have 20 or 100 people waiting for me at the airport. A little bit like a mini-celebrity without any comparison to anyone.

When was that? How many books was that?

After 3 or 4 books, it started to happen. One of the strengths of my books is that I’m probably one of the few non-Americans who has done well in this space. As a Canadian, sadly few non-Americans would have done well on the speaker circuit and writing books with truly global books. One of the things I pushed immediately when I was fairly young was to say that my book needs to be published in as many languages as possible. Quite often, I was discounting my books when we sold it to foreign rights offices around the world. That’s one of the reasons why the book is out in 50 languages and 172 countries.

Over time, my brand was built. To prove my point, my brand name is almost nonexistent in France and my book has never been published in French. This gives you a good idea that the book is a good tool to build your local brand. For that sake, remember when you’re building a personal brand, you also increase your value. That means that your price tag is going up, you can ask for pretty high price points for an hour of consulting or whatever it may be. That has helped me not only to earn the money, which is for me, probably secondary. What’s more important for me is whatever advice I give, it has a true influence on the organization. The stronger your personal brand is, the more people listen to advice, the more you have an influence on the organization and can make a change. That for me has been the profound impact that the books have given me in my life.

There are a lot of people out there who have published books but haven’t seen the level of success that you have. What would you say if you had to identify 1, 2 or even 3 pieces of advice? Maybe it’s around distribution, the marketing or partners. What has made the difference for you? What has contributed to the success you’ve had through the books?

There are probably three things. The first one is I never repeat stuff that has already been written. Quite often, it’s attached to a major study, which I’ve conducted specifically for the book. Buyology was written in 2008 and still the largest neuroscience study in the world. I was almost going bankrupt when I wrote it. I remember that I was a month away from going bankrupt because it was costing $7 million. I put up a lot of money myself.

What was costing $7 million? Was it to conduct a study?

Creativity is combining two ordinary things in a new way. Click To Tweet

Yes, we scanned 2,000 consumers’ brains using fMRI. That’s the most advanced scanning methodology on planet Earth and a scan can easily cost $3,000 or $4,000. We need to have professors and independent teams verifying all of this stuff. I had zero knowledge about it when I began writing that book, so you can imagine that it is costly. This study helped to give the book a twist that no one else had. The twist to that book and to hopefully all my books is what I call a counter-intuitive twist. You think you know one thing but you’re completely wrong. One of the key conclusions out of Buyology was the health warnings in cigarette packs had the opposite effect. They encourage you to smoke more, not less. That had a profound impact particularly in Canada. Canada was the first country in the world to have blank cigarette packs. It started spitting out the work from this book, but also around the world. That story has pushed people to smoke less.

The first thing is to do a proprietary study of solid nature, which can question the established norms. The second thing in the book is not to write it to your colleagues, professors or to people which you aspire to become or look up to, but to write it to the ordinary person. I’m looking down at my readers because I love them to death. We don’t have the patience to read those heavy textbooks with graphs and bullet points and all this stuff you read in school. You and I go blank when we feel like we’re in school and kids again. What we like to do is to read books that are both entertaining and we learn at the same time. That’s a reason why my writing style is almost written like a novel. Small Data is written like a novel but it’s all true. You learn while you read this novel of finding small data around the world. That’s the second thing.

The third thing is to realize that when you get a publishing house, and by the way, do not self-publish. I know I probably will have a lot of enemies saying to me, “Why do you say that?” I say it because even though publishing houses are credible, conservative and old-fashioned, they do still have a distribution system, which you cannot establish with the same credibility when publishing yourself. I say that because if you are going through a publishing house, you’re also more likely to be reviewed by the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. If you publish yourself, it is almost impossible. There’s another dimension to this. Do not rely on publishing houses to do the marketing for you. To put this into perspective, when I write a book, it takes me about a year but it probably takes me two years to do the marketing plan. It is incredibly expensive and exhausting. I hate it. I love writing the book, but I hate to release a book because you always feel like you’re doing something wrong and you’re the biggest failure on planet Earth.

What are the biggest things that you need to do from a marketing perspective when you launch a book? What have you found has the biggest impact? If you could only choose two things what would they be?

I don’t know. I wish I could give you a formula. Everyone you know or would know of that has been successful with the books has given up figuring out what the formula is. I thought I knew it in 2008 writing Buyology and I wrote another book called Brandwashed, which was entertaining. It was a huge flop and I thought I cracked the code. I had to rebuild everything from scratch again. I don’t know what it is. The key is you need to understand your audience to an extraordinary degree and get hold of people who are near your audience. You have this influential aspiration dimension playing. The publishing industry has changed a lot over the last few years. Back in the days, you would be much more reliant on conventional media. Nowadays, it’s podcasts and socials in 95% of the cases, yet still there’s no formula even in the podcast. I don’t know.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about this $7 million study. What was the monetization plan behind it? What was going through your mind in terms of the finances and making that business decision to invest at such a high level? Where did you see that would be profitable for you?

When I’m driven by an idea, there’s nothing that can stop me such as health or something. When I believe in something, I go for it and I don’t care about the cost, and of course that is always putting things on the edge. I’ve been lucky so far that it hasn’t in any way hurt me.

Were you self-funding this or did you have sponsors?

I was self-funding most of it.

CSP 141 | Life-Changing Personal Branding Tips For Consultants With Martin Lindstrom


This came from the fortune that you’d accumulated from past ventures.

It came from hard work. It wasn’t like I was a millionaire or billionaire for that sake when I did my past jobs. I also went out and did sponsorships and I approached all the big brands. Time after time, they said, “No. I don’t want to support Frankenscience.” That’s what they called it back in the days. No one knew about neuromarketing by then. It was completely reinvented through this concept. When the book was released, it had a profound impact on how companies that have a larger size are doing the research. I would claim that out of the top thousand companies in the world, probably half of them are using neuromarketing in one way or another. It has affected companies, but back then as it is with everything when it’s completely new, people are scared. They want to convince themselves. Raising the money was a nightmare because people backed out all the time. That’s the reason why I ended in red until I published a book.

It appears from the surface and the outside that you’re doing a fantastic job leveraging your personal brand to grow your business without a big team. Take us behind the scenes for a moment there. What do your company and team structure look like?

We have a pretty large team behind the scenes these days, which is up to 600 freelance people in one way or another, which I helped lead some company to become what it is. I have 600 freelance people in one way or another and we have a core team which is employed full-time. We work globally and we operate in more than 30 countries. In Saudi Arabia, we help women to drive but we do these pretty crazy projects. In the old days, I would help brands to survive or sell more and we increasingly now work with changing entire structures in organizations. We reshuffle everything. We reinvented a new concept, reposition countries, religions, people and we quite often have a twist of sustainability or doing good as part of the underlying agenda for what we do.

What’s the reason why I’m here with women and driving? It could be anything else from the environment where we say to Maersk, the largest shipping company in the world, 21% percent of all traders are run by them, “How do we clean up the seas while you have all these ships on the sea?” That laid on a lot of initiatives for Maersk, not only because of us but because of a lot of people in Maersk. In order to make that happen, you need to have a pretty big team and they have to be specialized and that team is super-specialized. We have people who are experts in the psychology of tastes. For example, what childhood memories are activated in your brain when you eat a bar of chocolate? It’s that type of level. We have experts in the feelings associated with words and how they can combine feelings through combining words and that become names. We have psychologists using types of colors.

These are all freelancers or experts that you bring in?

It’s a mixture. It depends on how big the projects are but typically, we have a core team of 5 to 10 full-time people working on a project. In addition to that, we have perhaps 10 or 20 experts that are coming on board.

How many full-time people are in the company?

In a company based for any given client, we’ll have 3 to 5 full-time people assigned per client we work with. We work to deal with fifteen clients.

Common sense today, or the lack of it, is probably the reason why companies are perhaps 30% or 40% slower than they would be. Click To Tweet

You might have 50 core full-time people and the hundreds of freelancers to support those projects in all the different ways. For you, as the leader of your company, you’re writing books, giving lots of talks, you’re all around the world, take us inside. What does a typical day look like for you? How do you ensure that you stay focused and you’re able to be productive with all of that happening, with all the 30 to 50 full-time people, the hundreds of freelancers and all the clients?

My typical day is probably as unusual as anyone could imagine. I spent most of the time in consumer homes, visiting people, so that’s what I’m doing in Saudi Arabia. I’m in Jeddah and I’m visiting ordinary people in their homes living with them to understand how the view of life is. I do that because if you want to change a corporation, government or religion, you need to truly see things from the consumer’s point of view back to the Lego’s story. When you stand at the boardroom level and talk to them, you with a strong credibility can say exactly how things are out there in the real world, which they’d never done. On top of that, to make things even more impossible, I don’t have a phone. I haven’t had a phone for a few years, not a smartphone or a regular phone. That has been a tremendous help for me not to have a phone I have to say because people around me or people in my organizations are used to not being able to get hold of me. They can if they will call my client when I’m on the road.

To be clear for everyone, so you don’t have a phone but do you carry a tablet or a laptop with you?

I’m using a laptop but I don’t take it with me on the road or when I’m in the field. I’m in my hotel room now. I only have an ordinary PC and I use that with the local internet connection. I don’t even have a Wi-Fi card I can plug into. The reason why is we become addicted to using the phone everywhere. As soon as we have one minute of a break, we will grab it and do something or anything with it so we don’t get bored. I want to reflect. I want to defragment my brain to see how the world works and put everything into perspective. I’m blessed because I’ve been traveling and doing work in more than 100 countries. I see so much stuff and rather than me sitting on a bloody phone all the time, I learn. I put it into perspective and that becomes a new book. It also becomes quite often an insight on which companies are keen on learning more about.

That’s incredibly powerful. As you were talking about that, my mind just went to how present you must be in that moment. For many of us, you’re right, we’re not present. Our minds are going in all different directions. We’re thinking of different things. We have all these different distractions. We’re missing so much of the opportunity that is in front of us to enjoy that moment. I appreciate you sharing that and amazingly, you’ve been doing that for a few years. Martin, tell us what the new book is all about?

This is the backstory of the new book. One of our clients, a major bank, called us, “We want you to figure out how we can become more human.” It’s one of the largest banks in the world and we said, “That’s interesting because banks and humans don’t normally fit together.” We began working with them and realized the bank because of compliance was heavily attacked by compliance left, right and center. Through that process, I worked with this young girl, who one day said to me, “Martin, I’m sick and tired of all these compliance stuff, rules and regulations, red tape and bureaucracy everywhere. Why don’t we invent something called the Ministry of Common Sense? We will reinstall common sense in our organization.” That became the title of my new book, The Ministry of Common Sense. The book is looking at how organizations, you and me in our ordinary lives have been completely attacked by a lack of common sense in everything we do. It happens everywhere.

I was at the JF Kennedy Airport, and I bought a pair of headsets. They were wrapped in this bubble plastic, heavy, solid plastic. I bought it after security. I had to open it and the entire departure lounge was involved in opening my headset. We all ended up having bleeding hands and the headset was perfectly intact. I went through TSA, the security in the United States and there was a sign saying, “People that are 75 years or older do not need to go through screening.” I said to the guy behind security, “Tell me, do these terrorists retire officially at the age of 75?” Where’s the common sense in offices where our clients quite often tell me that I have to call in for sick leave 48 hours before you turn sick.

All the technical stuff we waste time on every day like how often have you tried to go into a meeting room and you tried to set up the projector or you tried to dial in on some line and it’s the wrong number or whatever? Common sense is completely gone. What I decided to do was to write this book to reinstall common sense and to give some concrete tools where even midsize to large size companies can immediately restore common sense and make the organization much more productive. Common sense or the lack of it now is probably the reason why companies are perhaps 30% or 40% slower than they would be because of all these rules and red tapes that are holding them back and also killing ideas, cultures and innovation. That’s the essence of the book.

Where did you get all these stories from? I’m sure from your travels and working with clients, there’s a whole bunch there. Did you collect data around this? Did you do a study? Where were you able to capture all this for the book?

CSP 141 | Life-Changing Personal Branding Tips For Consultants With Martin Lindstrom


We spent a lot of time on the road for the last few years collecting information and doing interviews with hundreds of our clients. We went into Maersk and we went through the entire transformation of Maersk, which is a pretty big job. They had 88,000 staff across the whole world. While I did the job, I was thinking about ways to common sense factory here and we removed the lack of common sense throughout the organization. We did that in the banks and every major industry you can imagine.

Out of that, the book became not only, “Here are all the stupidities going on,” it became real-life examples on how you solve it in a super simple way in order to free up and give people more oxygen. Everything is live, real and practical. Hopefully when people read it, they will say two things. They’ll say, “You’re right. This is exactly my life. I forgot about how good that could be and how dreadful it is.” The second they’ll say is, “That is such a clever solution. I want to implement that straight away.” I do think we’ll get to that point. Certainly, all my clients which I have given pre-reads of the book are saying, “That is the book we wanted to have years ago.”

For everyone reading, I’ve been reading Martin’s books for years. I’ve always found them to be a great read. I highly encourage you to go out and grab a copy of it. Martin, thank you so much for coming on here. I appreciate it.

Thank you, Mike. Thanks for all your good questions. I’m still nervous. If anyone would hear about my new book, but at least I know I have one reader and that’s you.

It’s good stuff.

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