Founding CODO immediately after graduating college allowed Cody and I to bypass a lot of the bureaucracy and hubris you find in some agencies. While this makes for a great sound bite, it also meant that we had no practical experience running a business — let alone some of the finer points of how to develop a brand and tell a compelling story. We were running on theory from school and our collective gut.
Perhaps driven by my own imposter syndrome anxieties, I sought to fill in these knowledge gaps by reading as many books as I could find on everything from business and marketing, to branding, writing, positioning, and creative strategy. Over the last eight years, I’ve come across several books that were transformative to helping us refine our own message and philosophy, which in turn, helped us create better work with our clients.
The books I’m recommending will be valuable to a few different audiences:
1. Designers and marketing folks who want to better hone their thinking and creative approach.
2. Small business owners (non-designers like craft brewers, food artisans, distillers, etc.) who want to understand how branding, positioning and storytelling can help them sell more product and create a better customer experience.
While almost everything on this list is design-related, there’s very little that speaks to form-making itself: that is, how-to graphic design instruction for brand identity, speccing colors, or best practices for web development. These books center on the theory, storytelling and positioning that drive branding and help you grow your business.
I’ve winnowed this list down to books that will give you the best bang for your buck, be it money spent or how well it presents a particular concept (versus a similar read). Check back from time to time (or sign up for our newsletter). I’ll update this list as as I come across new books that I think are valuable.
The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier
“A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company. It’s not what YOU say it is. It’s what THEY say it is.” A quick read (less than an hour), ‘The Brand Gap’ was one of the earliest books to clearly define branding and bring the term into widespread use.
Bonus Read: Zag
Start With Why by Simon Sinek
The now ubiquitous concept of “why” is one of the most powerful tools in branding. Whenever we partner with someone who has no clear grasp on their story or what differentiates them from competition (more common than you’d think), we take them through these exercises.
Sinek recently released a followup, Finding Your Why. And while we’ve only read it once, it contains a lot of prompts and how-to exercises for digging into and developing your why.
For a quick rundown on this subject, check out Sinek’s TED Talk.
Brewing Up A Business by Sam Calgione
Sam Calagione built Dogfish Head into one of the largest and respected craft breweries in the country on pure passion and a deep understanding of his brand essence. For those who may skip this book thinking it doesn’t apply to them—we’ve gifted this to several clients and friends who don’t work in the beer industry, and they’ve all raved about it. Beyond Sam’s grasp on branding, it’s a fun entrepreneurial story.
Positioning by Al Ries & Jack Trout
For anyone out there starting a business in a crowded industry (craft beer, subscription box, food artisan, etc.), if you don’t position yourself, you’re facing an uphill battle to stand out. The principles in this book (creating a new category, developing a brand name, and exploiting your competition’s blind spots) hugely informed CODO’s brand strategy process.
Tribes by Seth Godin
After reading ‘Tribes,’ you can directly look at your life and see how this theory drives everyday decisions. What does buying a specific beer brand say about me? How will people perceive me by the car I drive? We all make decisions emotionally and wrap ourselves in these choices to craft our identities—and it’s a powerful concept for branding.
22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout
This book has dozens of bite-sized nuggets on core marketing concepts, including the Law of Leadership, the Law of Category, and Line Extensions (something our industry tends to over complicate).
Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy
A solid primer on marketing and advertising by one of the original ‘Mad Men.’ And despite being written over 30 years ago, most of this book still holds up. Bonus points for posing with that badass pipe—well played, Mr. Ogilvy.
STEP-BY-STEP BRANDING PROCESS GUIDES
Why Johnny Can’t Brand by Bill Schley
I remember buying this at a used book store when I was in college (I paid something like $2). And the concepts outlined in this book helped Cody and I put into words why we were founding CODO and what made us different from every other design firm in the world. It clearly steps through the branding process and is an easy read for non-designers.
United We Brand by Mike Moser
Five simple steps to an unforgettable brand (including the “Tombstone Exercise“). This book does a great job of outlining how to frame your brand values and personality.
Bonus Read: Take a Stand for your Brand
Craft Beer Branding Guide by CODO Design
Yeah, I know. Super lame that I’m including our own book here. But I do believe it’s a great primer for people who are interested in branding. Plus, we’ve received emails from craft breweries all over the world letting us know how valuable it was for getting their own branding in order (!!!).
BOOKS SPECIFICALLY FOR DESIGNERS
Design is a Job by Mike Monteiro
I’ve read this once a year since 2012 and believe it should be required reading for all design students. It’s helped me be a better designer, business owner, and coworker.
Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek
You are responsible for what you put into the world. Even if you’re a young designer working in a large, faceless agency, you need to understand the impact your work can have—you can swing elections, market products that kill people, and create unnecessary waste (through frivolous packaging). Define your own core values and live by them.
How to be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy
This book was a big reason Cody and I founded CODO after graduating college. We wanted to work with people we liked on projects we believed in. This is an especially valuable read for students and young designers who are still figuring out that next step.
How to Think like a Great Graphic Designer by Debbie Millman
Candid conversations with some of the most respected designers on the planet.
Body Language by Alan and Barbara Pease
This is indispensable during interviews and presentations—it helps you read the room and disarm people who may be hesitant to listen to your (hopefully worthwhile) ideas.
Selling Eating by Charlie Hopper
Great read if you work with restaurants or food artisans. Mr. Hopper also runs a great blog.
** No pictures of these. they’re either out on loan or gifted **
Writing without Bullshit by Josh Bernoff
Write better emails, blog posts, books, presentations, proposals,
weird pamphlets, love letters—everything. The R.O.A.M. idea alone is worth the price of the book.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
You there, stop procrastinating.
Change by Design by Tim Brown
Even if you have no interest in Design Thinking, proper, this book will give you a new skillset for approaching problem solving.
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink
This is one of the few leadership books I’ve ever found valuable. Great for working in teams, building them and leading them.
** These were added after this piece initially published **
Don’t Call It That by Eli Altman
Fantastic, step-by-step naming workbook that anyone can grasp.
Setting the Table by Danny Meyer
The idea of ‘Enlightened Hospitality’ is imminently transferrable to any business model. Including a small branding shop.
I’m grouping these books together because the most valuable takeaways from each were the importance of putting in place repeatable systems, job descriptions, and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) so that my team can take ownership of our process and flourish without having to run everything by me. Like many of the books on this list, I wish I had read these when we were starting out.
Run Studio Run by Eli Altman
This book provided us with a much needed framework for employee reviews and goal setting now that we’re steadily growing.
Boss Life by Paul Downs
More a cautionary tale than a how-to guide, this is the closest representation (for better or worse) of what I deal with on a daily basis building and running this small business than any other book I’ve ever read.