All your brand needs is three little words


I was at the Royal Institution’s club in London last Tuesday for a fascinating speech from Robert Polet, the former head of Gucci Group. You may recall that Polet was the Dutch executive headhunted from Unilever in 2004 amid much ballyhoo about consumer goods executives being unsuitable for senior roles in luxury. The fashion bible Women’s Wear Daily christened Polet the “ice-cream man” and queried whether selling frozen foods was any kind of background to manage a mighty brand like Gucci.

Well it turned out that Polet was exactly what Gucci Group needed. He quickly set about introducing structure, profit-and-loss responsibility and long-term objectives into the Italian luxury goods company. Seven years later the Gucci Group is more than £1bn a year better off thanks to the ice-cream man, and well placed for the boom decade for luxury that now beckons. Not only has the Gucci brand grown its sales significantly since Polet took over, the seven smaller sister companies in the group such as YSL, Bottega Veneta and Alexander McQueen have been transformed from inefficient loss making vanity projects into profitable luxury brands.

In March, Gucci announced Polet was standing down and on Tuesday night he spoke to Harvard Business School alumni (and a few interlopers like me) about his experiences at Gucci. It was a fascinating 60 minutes. He described the structure he put in place and the way in which he learned to work with the various creatives within Gucci. He also spoke with genuine sadness about the discovery that Alexander McQueen had taken his own life and about the sensitive way the group selected Sarah Burton later to become famous for designing that wedding dress to replace him.

But the biggest takeaway was perhaps Polet’s simplest point of the evening. Time and again he spoke about the importance of clearly defining the “DNA” of each of Gucci’s eight brands, adding each time, with great emphasis, “in one sentence, never more!”.


It might seem like a minor detail, but what sets Polet apart from bog standard marketers is his appreciation for brevity. Most marketers are still using bifurcated pyramids or concentric circles with level upon level of pointless and self-defeating complexity to define their brands. Every month I sit through a presentation from a marketing team who need 10 minutes and their overhead slides to explain their brand essence. Switch off the projector and ask them to continue unaided and your actions are met with blind panic. The depressing reality of most brand positioning is that it fails before it even leaves the gate because it is just too damned complex.

When Polet arrived at Gucci he recognised immediately that each of the brands was unsure of its own identity. So he set about working with each team to capture the essence of each brand with one clear proviso: no more than three words. Gucci defined itself as “Seduction, Powerful, Accomplished”. Boucheron opted for “Precious and Mysterious”. Sergio Rossi memorably defined itself as “Sexy and Comfortable”.

Brand consultants will sneer at this tight simplicity. They prefer to add layers of complexity to any definition. Like most consultants who focus on strategy development rather than the execution part, they miss the big picture. When you are word-smithing the brand positioning on the 20th floor it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of believing more words equals more brand impact. Of course, the opposite is true. Every word you add to the brand positioning makes it less likely to stay in the brain cells of your staff and then your consumers and influence their behaviour.

Of course you feel better with 35 words and a parallelogram because you want to justify six months and 50 grand’s worth of activity. And your brand consultant is only too delighted to help add more words to your definition because she is being paid by the yard rather than on your ultimate success.

The secret of every great brand I have ever worked for is that it can define its brand in up to four words. And the problem with every weak brand I have ever worked for is a brand manager with a diagram that looks like Leonardo Da Vinci conjured it up on acid.

Trust me, Polet is right. If you can’t define your brand in three words, give up the day job and try writing that novel instead. And if you still don’t believe me take your current brand positioning (yes, every word of it) and go ask five of your team to tell you what it is. None of them will be able to recite even half of it back to you. Only then will you begin to grasp that before it even got out of HQ, your brand was already a lost cause.

Any moron can come up with 20 words to capture the essence of their brand. Only the good ones like Polet are smart enough to whittle it down to three.

Tight is right. Long is wrong. And Robert Polet is about the best brand building CEO in the business.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

Readers' comments (8)

  • I certainly won't quibble with Robert Polet's credibility and his genuine belief in the three-words-or-less brand DNA mantra. He has been immensely successful at Gucci and deserves all the praise he has received.
    However, I think we need to be cautious when trying to prescribe a one-size-fits-all model to marketing, branding and public relations. What works for one brand rarely works as well or exactly the same for another. Just like no the DNA of no two humans is exactly alike, the DNA of each brand is distinct and unique to that specific brand.

    Perhaps a better way of thinking about this is using Mr. Polet's brevity as a call to action for marketers and communicators to keep things simple and not feel a need to constantly justify spending thousands, if not millions, on rebranding efforts by coming up with long-winded and obtuse brand descriptions.

    I have always believed in the mantra that simplicity done right is a beautiful thing. However, I also think each brand is distinct and we shouldn't try to shoehorn the successful marketing and communications strategy of one brand upon thousands of others. Ultimately, companies have to figure out what works best for their brand, their customers and their marketing efforts.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director of Public Relations
    Public Relations Society of America

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  • Mark Ritson made some excellent observations in his piece about brevity and focus in branding. How many of us have sat through long winded presentations which take a million buzz words to say what could be said in ten human words? I have often wondered whether this particular affliction is more common amongst us marketing folk because we struggle, more than any other discipline, to truly and unquestionably demonstrate the value of our day jobs to our senior stakeholders, especially when you get up to large scale strategic media like TV. Commercial and sales directors (and some DR digital marketers to be fair) have the benefit of black and white numbers and so need not be scared of brevity. I hit my target, I didn’t hit my target. We turned over 100 million, we turned over 200 million.

    When asked what impact, say, our repositioning of a brand has had, we turn to fallible evidence like brand metric trackers, awareness and consideration scores etc. Try to claim credit for any more than this, such as the bottom line, and you often find a challenge from the sales team for example.

    The other key thing here is that everyone is a frustrated Marketer. If we don’t wrap our strategies up in complex models and layers of jargon, how we will demonstrate our expertise?

    The key for Marketers is, as Ritson says, to be confident and secure enough to keep things simple when appropriate, especially when it comes to headline brand positioning which requires emotional buy in from so many stakeholders both internal and external. Of course, there is still a place for complexity in marketing too, but it shouldn’t be for the sake of it. Now I’m off to construct a multi input propensity cube overlaid with a Social-purchase behaviour segmentation for a board presentation, at the end of which I will conclude that we should try to target current non-customers who are otherwise similar to existing customers.

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  • The key challenge where often a semi-smart marketer starts to realise they have a problem is when they do brand tracking.

    These wheels and triangles are impossible to track because to do so, against key competitors, and from a representative sample of the market - would cost 500k and be impossible to administer.

    Three positioning is possible to execute and measure....

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  • And also - I think its awesome that Keith wrote in from the PRSA in the USA (see the first comment). The PRSA is a brilliant operation and hugely influential.

    But your post Keith is total bollocks. I absolutely agree that a one size fits all approach to branding does not work. Thats why I am in favour of the DNA concept.

    But while you can have any words that you deem appropriate - more than 3 - in my experience never works. So I am not restricting the choce of words, just the number.

    Brevity and heterogeneity are not mutually exclusive - thats where you go wrong. Hasn't the human race managed 6 billion unique people with one single DNA structure built from 4 amino acid bases?

    Hasn't Polet managed to create 8 totally distinct brands with a general DNA approach?

    Do you see my point Keith? You can have any three words as long as you only have three.

    I note that the PRSA has a 24 page document to giude their people on brand consistency. Can I challenge you to get that down to 3 words? Because the other 16,742 are actually getting in the way of building the PRSA brand. Really.

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  • First, Mark, thank you for the very kind words about PRSA. It's nice to know we are making an impact, both in the US and other key markets, such as the UK.

    I see where you’re coming from regarding the choice of words versus the restriction of words. I guess I read your original piece as saying that it must be three and only three, which got to my point about not trying to shoehorn what works for one brand into another brand's efforts.

    I still think, though, that saying three words is the best number is a bit restrictive. And the reason being is that, yes, that can work great for Gucci or some other brand that fits within creative markets. But what about a b-to-b firm that sells accounting software to other b-to-b firms. To me, restricting their branding message to just three words may end up being a bit … well, dull. In that case, I think having some freedom to explore outside of what some could consider a restricting set of parameters would be helpful.

    As for PRSA’s advising document on brand consistency for members, I don’t want to speak out of turn for our marketing department, which oversees branding, but I’ll give a shot at taking all that PRSA does for its members and the PR profession and summing that up into three words: Leadership, Advocacy, Ethics.

    Not as sexy as some of what Gucci has produced, but I think it nicely and succinctly sums up our work.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director of Public Relations
    Public Relations Society of America

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  • The same holds true for values and vision in organisations. Overly complicated, long-winded processes and statements rarely if ever get traction or buy-in. The craft comes from distilling simplicity from complexity.

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  • Fantastic article. It's very easy for an aspiring designer like myself to get side tracked with what our brand DNA is versus what we aspire for.

    From the onset using poignant words to define the brand will keep the operation tight whether it's a defined creative aesthetic or tight marketing campaign. And I think it's a good idea to keep those words close by as they will help make thoughtful brand relevant decisions.

    The article is less about having the same DNA and more about ackowleging that we have our own DNA. So find it, create it, define it, resurrect it & stick with it.

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  • Kevin,

    I think Mark's article here, may well be the most insightful article I have read on this site. How Polet runs his brands at Gucci is how I have long maintained each brand needs to operate in the day to day.

    You quote;

    "I still think, though, that saying three words is the best number is a bit restrictive. And the reason being is that, yes, that can work great for Gucci or some other brand that fits within creative markets. But what about a b-to-b firm that sells accounting software to other b-to-b firms. To me, restricting their branding message to just three words may end up being a bit … well, dull. In that case, I think having some freedom to explore outside of what some could consider a restricting set of parameters would be helpful."

    I take issue with this paragraph for the reasons below;

    1. It it not about which sector you are in, or what your competitors are doing. It is about creating a brand essence based on your brand identity - which let's not forget is your own perceived image of your brand. You have to decide for yourself internally based on your own knowledge and insight what you want your brand to be. Keeping the essence to three words is the perfect solution.

    2. The brand essence is just that. It is the essence which then goes on to help direct your messaging and keep that message on message! It is not THE message or the tagline (although in some cases it can be.) It is important to distinguish the difference here.

    To be honest, your opinions seem a little confused, and I am not sure you truly understand where Polet is coming from?

    Just to recap, the essence (dna) is there to direct the brand in all of its comms and to check that the brand in the comms is being represented correctly.


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