Sir John Hegarty

The secret to building a brand

Brand & Purpose
with Sir John Hegarty


What does ‘building a brand’ mean? Find out from the remarkable Sir John Hegarty — creative legend, brand expert, founder of award-winning advertising agencies BBH and The Garage Soho, and keeper of over 50 years worth of brand advertising knowledge…

Hegarty on Creativity Books stacked on a table

Brand advertising at its best: Sir John Hegarty on brand building

Sir John Hegarty (who our founder Holly Tucker MBE had the pleasure of interviewing on her podcast, Conversations of Inspiration, in 2019) is nothing short of an icon. Most famously, he created the 1980s Levi’s brand advert, which anyone of a certain age will remember. It featured the late Nick Kamen, stripping off his 501 jeans and t-shirt to wash them in the laundrette while other customers watched on admiringly. Not only did the ad revolutionise what was then a flagging denim brand, it also caused a spike in boxer short sales (signalling the demise of Y-fronts), and sent Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine to number one in the charts. Knowing what makes a good brand ad is important.

What Hegarty does is make brands unforgettable. With over 50 years of award-winning work under his belt — from resuscitating brands to making them household names — Sir John Hegarty is the perfect person to share his creative knowledge, wisdom and courage with small businesses. His key business advice? He says, “Don’t start a business, build a brand.” Why? “Because whatever business idea you have, somebody will copy it. They can’t copy the brand though — and that’s where value resides.”

Your size is your advantage: small businesses can build brands nimbly

Sir John started in advertising in the late ‘60s, and in the early ‘70s, was a founding shareholder of what was then, a little-known (but about to become huge) advertising agency called Saatchi & Saatchi.

He says, “Advertising really didn’t get exciting until the ‘70s (unlike the ‘60s for music and fashion). But music and fashion were driven by young people. Advertising was really employed by corporations. Corporations are about 10 years behind where the general public are, but they control the purse strings. So it took them some time to kind of catch up with what was going on.”

As a small business and brand you have an advantage. You have your ear to the ground, and probably notice what people are buying and what they like much more quickly than larger brands and companies. This is valuable intelligence. It becomes harder to stay close to the customer as a company grows, so embrace that connection you have, and use it to be nimble and reactive in your business decisions.

"Don’t deny who you are. Express it in a way which captures people’s imagination."
Sir John Hegarty

Tell your brand truth: find the roots of your brand

With the famous Levi’s Launderette advert, BBH really had to get to the crux of why people like jeans, why they had fallen out of fashion in the post-punk world of the early '80s, and what Levi’s represented as a brand. Jeans had originally been claimed and made cool in the USA by the rock 'n’ roll-loving teenagers of the '50s. Before that, they had been viewed solely as durable workwear. So that was at the core of Levi’s brand truth — hardwearing, American, teenage rebellion.

The late model Nick Kamen, in his white t-shirt and denim, was a modern-day James Dean, a rebel without a cause. John's conclusion: “The lesson is, don’t deny who you are. Go back to the roots of what you are. Express it in a way which captures people’s imagination, relates to today, and success grows out of that.”

Put ‘belief’ at the core of your branding: sell the idea not the product

Levi’s then asked BBH to help them launch black denim in a world that was used to only wearing blue jeans. John came up with an iconic poster of a flock of white sheep going in one direction and one black sheep going in the opposite direction. Beneath, it simply said, “Black Levi’s. When the world zigs, zag.” The brand was unconvinced because this was one of the first pieces of advertising that didn’t show the product; it showed a concept, a belief. John’s response was, “We all know what a pair of jeans looks like.”

The advert ran (mainly because it had to go to print and time to make a decision ran out). And it was a huge success. The ‘black sheep’ symbol also went on to be BBH’s logo as it encapsulated everything they stood for creatively.

Nowadays of course, having a belief at the core of your brand is almost expected as it’s what people buy into. It’s important to keep this at the heart of everything you do, in order to maintain authenticity and stay true to your followers. John is emphatic about this, “It’s more than just a product. It’s more than a brand. It’s a movement, and that’s what a great brand is.”

'Let ideas take flight' print by Basil & Ford
"It’s more than just a product. It’s more than a brand. It’s a movement, and that’s what a great brand is."
Sir John Hegarty
A colourful umbrella amongst many black umbrellas that says 'Bring Colour to Grey'

Stand out when building a brand: embrace being different

If someone says what you do is 'different' John says to take that as 'a great compliment'. We’ve always said at Holly & Co that we need to bring colour to grey, to be creative and to be unique. It can be easy to follow what everyone else is doing, but being different as a brand is your business advantage. A brand that’s unusual in some way stands out in a sea of sameness. John has some interesting thoughts on why we feel compelled to follow the herd, too.

“I think there is a natural instinct in people not to put your head above the parapet. They think, ‘Why do that? I’m going to be vulnerable if I do that.’ And I think often what happens with a lot of businesses is that they’re started by very entrepreneurial people. They’re successful, they grow and all of a sudden, they’re now run by process. People consequently stop being different because they see 'different' as 'dangerous'. Whereas ‘different’ is the way you sustain your relevance to the audience.”

If you feel like your brand stands out from the crowd, it’s probably a good thing as you’ll attract the right kind of attention.

Secret to building a brand: key takeaways…

Brand advertising is how you communicate your business idea and ethos out in the world — both what you say and what you do. Have Sir John’s tips front of mind, and you’re on your way to success. Here’s the secret:

1. When building a brand, stay ahead:

As a small business, you can have your ear to the ground and move much faster than bigger companies. Use this to your advantage when developing your advertising strategy.

2. Know your brand truth — and make people believe it:

If you started your business because it spoke to a need that others identified with, and you’ve stayed true to that, you’ve got a strong brand. Now you just have to keep people believing, by being authentic and staying true to your values.

3. Make sure your brand stands out:

If you’re doing something that nobody else is doing or you’ve started to do something that others do, but have made it significantly better, you’re standing out in a sea of ‘sameness’. Keep moving against the grain and you’ll have something that stands out to the right audiences.

Best of luck.

Image sources: Sir John Hegarty, ‘Hegarty on Creativity: There Are No Rules’ Book — by Sir John Hegarty, Glitter Trainers — by Team Holly & Co.

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