John Murphy, his career and his legacy to the world of branding, makes for a fascinating tale.
In 1974 John set up his name creation business out of his spare room and today that company is Interbrand, the world’s biggest brand consultancy.
The seeds of Interbrand’s success were planted with a stint working at British rubber giant Dunlop. This convinced him of the need for a competent, professional name creation agency.
There were many incidents which drilled into him this conviction- in particular, the hassle he encountered when tasked with finding an international name for a tyre that could run while flat.
After many false starts, this became Denovo. Murphy was astonished by the interest in the naming process throughout the senior ranks at Dunlop, but also how chaotic and subjective their judgement was. He discerned a need for an established methodology for name creation.
He was also intrigued when the board of directors took just a few minutes to approve a £100 million write-down on a disastrous merger and then took one hour and 55 minutes to rubberstamp the name of Denovo. It struck him that if the choice of a name held such significance this meant that a business providing one would take off.
The first thing John did and creatively develop was a methodology which combined insights from consumer groups with desk research, language checks and legal search.
John spent weeks putting together a contact list and his first mailshot was sent out to 7,000 businesses – his aim not just to promote his services but also to foster the idea that brand names were important pieces of marketing and legal property and needed to be taken much more seriously.
He got one reply – to come up with a name for an over the counter medicine. Less than three months in and he had a client. He was in business.
Soon after, the company came up trumps with the name ‘Homebase’ for Sainsbury’s. They were branching into the DIY business. On the strength of this he started working with big companies such as BT and Mars on hugely important projects. The company attracted particularly significant press coverage when it created the name Mondeo for Ford.
By the end of the 1970’s, when no such services existed and other clients had assured him there was lots of work to be had in the States, in 1979 Interbrand set up in New York, in 1982 in Paris and Frankfurt with Tokyo a year later. By now the company was unrecognisable from its beginnings. They were no “word – smiths” but increasingly creators of ‘brands’.
John called the concept whereby branded products and services should project a distinctive and protectable “persona” branding. Astonishing to us today, he coined the word “branding” – it didn’t exist before, even the term “brand” was little used – and he edited the first book on the subject, Branding: A key marketing tool.
By 1983 Interbrand had added market research, packaging and corporate identity design and brand strategy consultancy to its services and then in 1988 it landed the deal that inspired its invention of brand valuation.
A spate of high-profile mergers had put the spotlight on brands. Up to this time, brands were simply wrapped up into the general catch all heading of goodwill and balance sheets. They were not separately identified or valued.
John could see brands were being taken for granted, even ignored, even though they were identifiable and separable assets. Investors and city analysts started to take notice.
A seminal moment for Interbrand came when an Australian food group made a hostile bid for a giant British food company Ranks Hovis McDougall and Murphy warned RHM that to head off this hostile bid they needed to demonstrate the true value of their most valuable assets, their brands. Indeed, it was these which were inspiring the hostile bid.
RHM listened and asked him to take on the task of valuing their brands and this led to the development of a revolutionary brand valuation technique which transformed not just accountancy practice but management practice everywhere.
In 1989 Interbrand’s valuation led to a £650 million brand value going on RHM’s books. This saw off the bid and was a turning point for brands, for management thinking and practice and for Interbrand.
But at the age of 50 John felt his work was done at Interbrand; it had expanded so much it needed a more corporate culture and behaviour. He realised that he remained, at heart, a maverick entrepreneur.
Consequently, in 1993, after a careful look at going public, he sold up to advertising giant, Omnicom. They remain the owners today.
Interbrand had been a rollercoaster – with exhilarating highs and devastating lows – it had been a lot of hard work but also a lot of fun and John had certainly left his mark; today top brands are worth billions and Interbrand still releases its annual league tables of the most valuable brands.
More importantly for John, his talented team at Interbrand included men and women who are now among the giants of marketing.