The 13 Best Books I Read in 2020

(Reading Time: 6 minutes)

2020 was the year I learned to quit a book.

See, I have a problem.  Maybe you have it too.  Once I start a book, I feel guilty about putting it down.  Even if it’s awful.  Mom & Dad said, “Don’t start something you’re not going to finish,” and I guess I took that to heart.

But then, earlier this year, I was about 10% into a book when I stumbled over this chunk of verse:

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“We Hired Your Brain, Not Your Ass”

(Reading Time: 2 minutes)

“We hired your brain, not your ass.”

I received these words of wisdom from one of my first bosses, half a lifetime ago.

It’s one of my all-time favorite quotes. It (usually) brings a chuckle, but it also delivers a solid point in only seven words.

It’s a reminder that whatever it is you’re being paid to do, it’s not to just fill a chair.  So bring your best every day.  Own your area fully.  Be a reliable contributor to the conversations happening a level or two up.  Challenge the orthodoxy when it needs to be challenged. And engage the most powerful asset you have: The point of view created by your unique collection of experiences.

And if you’re managing others: Make room for the above to happen.  Remove obstacles wherever you can.  Let your team know that you want more from them than to merely parrot your opinions.  Don’t punish them for challenging sacred cows.  Seek to develop your people into not just doers, but thinkers.

The longer I do this branding & business thing, the more I realize: Surrounding yourself with the right hearts & minds makes all the difference.  And there’s no substitute for a team of people who are truly invested.

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About Matthew Fenton: Matthew is a former CMO who helps brands to focus, stand out and grow.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He’s based in Chicago.

Copyright 2020 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

What “The Biggest Bluff” Can Teach You About Strategy

(Reading Time: 3 minutes)

“The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win” will be on my list of the best books I read in 2020.  It’s a layered story, compelling and well-told.

Written by Maria Konnikova, a Ph. D. in psychology and a contributing writer to the New Yorker, “The Biggest Bluff” details the year she spent learning to play poker, starting as a complete novice.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it goes pretty well for her.

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Brand Differentiation: Ten Traps to Avoid

(Reading Time: 7 minutes)

In my last post, I proposed five principles of brand differentiation:

  1. The goal is not “difference.”  The goal is value and meaning.
  2. Differentiation is not something you find.  It’s something you create.
  3. In branding, as in life, what we do matters more than what we say.
  4. “Best” is relative.
  5. Be precise with your Who.  Be creative with your How.

These are the starting points.  But if you’ve ever attempted to cut your own hair during a pandemic – speaking hypothetically, of course! – you know there can be a huge gap between “best intentions” and “end result.”  Things go wrong along the way.

The same goes for brand differentiation.  There’s the moment of inspiration, and then there’s all the hard work that comes after it.

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Five Principles for Creating Brand Difference

(Reading Time: 3 minutes)

Harvard’s Michael Porter famously said that there are exactly two ways to compete: Cost leadership and differentiation.

Are you Walmart or Amazon?  No?  Then differentiation seems like the way to go.

Practical example: If you own an independent flooring store, and a Home Depot opens up half a mile away, do you really think you’re going to beat them on price?  Time to start thinking about playing a game you can win.

The trouble is, many products, services and brands have no real point of difference.  Which means they’re in trouble.  If you’re not different, you’re dying.

So here are five “first principles” – mindset, not tactics – to help you stand out: 

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Act With Purpose: Four Factors for Making a Difference

Act With Purpose
(Reading Time: 3 minutes)

Last week, I shared five reasons why I’m at odds with the “Change or die!” fear-mongers.  Today I offer an alternate (and calmer) approach: “Act with purpose.”

I’ll begin with another rebuttal to “Change or die”: We’re already changing, without anyone shouting at us to do so.  As people, as teams, as organizations, we’re changing all the time.

Any time we adopt a new habit, launch a new product, or add even one new team member, we’re changing.  But change can be intentional or unintentional.  So the operative question is this:

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Starting My Company: Fear-Setting & Asymmetrical Risk

Fear-Setting & Asymmetrical Risk
(Reading Time: 3 minutes)

My positioning & strategy consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, turns 23 today.

I started it from the second bedroom of my Cincinnati condo in 1997. I run it from the second bedroom of our Chicago condo today. Progress!

Back then, going solo was less common than it is today. “I can’t believe you’re doing this” was a typical response – not always in a flattering way.

Some people even said I should try it part-time first, as if that were an option. (“I can help solve your strategic challenges, but only after 6pm.”)

I was all-in from the get-go. Today, I’m sharing some background on how I chose self-employment over a steady paycheck, since this is a question I get often. Fun fact: I made this decision in about 24 hours.

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