John Murphy - 2001

John Murphy

There can scarcely be a large organisation in the western world that has not considered its brand image. If the brand is not right, then executives these days set about 're-branding'- or bringing in consultants to advise them about the activity. It is strange to think that these familiar concepts - indeed our current uses of the words branding and re-branding - are relatively new. We owe our familiarity with these words and concepts in large part to John Murphy.

It is because John Murphy reflects on life's experiences in a way different from most of his fellow men that he has been able to create a new industry, based not on industrial process but on ideas. Many of John Murphy's contemporaries as pupils at St Ignatius College in North London will share his memories of it as a good but extremely tough grammar school. It is unlikely that they will also have formed the same perceptive judgements as John Murphy about the Jesuit priests and brothers who taught him. John Murphy sees things that others do not see - and he identifies opportunities where others see none.

Though he took a good first degree in Geography at Manchester, he always intended a career in business or commerce. To achieve this end, he decided that he needed a formal training in business, so after assessing with his keen eye the offerings of the UK university system he enrolled on the intensive course leading to the award Master of Technology in Business Administration, run by Brunel University London in the late 1960s. The course was offered at Brunel's Acton site and was one of the earliest of its type in the country.

Armed with two degrees, he went into corporate planning and marketing, first at Leesona Ltd and then from 1970 - 1974, at Dunlop Ltd. His experience convinced him that if he was to work in a company with the standards of management he thought appropriate, he would have to start his own company and manage it himself. So in 1974 John Murphy, using his special skills to identify a gap in the market, established 'Interbrand'- a brand name creation company.

Amongst Interbrand's early successes were the names Metro, Hob-Nobs, Homebase and Prozac. John Murphy then added trade mark law, packaging design and market research to the activities of Interbrand with the result that by the mid 1980s, Interbrand was an established consultancy with offices in London, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, Sydney, Frankfurt and Paris.

John Murphy's pioneering work on brand valuation was a major cause of an explosion of interest in brands. From the late 1980s Interbrand had adopted an ever-steeper growth curve and by 1992 had offices in over a dozen countries, 200 staff, and clear international leadership in the growing branding business.

Despite being an extremely busy chief executive, John Murphy wrote numerous books and articles. He was also asked to lecture at venues worldwide. He discovered that this can, occasionally, have its dangers. A Dutch newspaper, reporting a talk he had given in Amsterdam in 1992, drew attention to his new “Murphy's Law" which states that brands are important and valuable. A short while later, he received an invitation from the Postgraduate Technical University at Eindhoven, to repeat his Amsterdam lecture there.

John was impressed to find a lecture hall packed with 500 staff and students, and he remarked to the Dean who was just about to introduce him that this was a splendid turnout to hear a talk about brands and branding. The Dean turned, perplexed, to John and said “Brands and branding? What's that? You're here to talk about Murphy's Law. You are the Murphy of Murphy's Law, aren't you?" John was able to commence his lecture with the apposite observation that the event was a demonstration of the proof of Murphy's Law - that is, that anything that can go wrong will go wrong - and that it just had! The people at Eindhoven had read the headline, not the story. John regards this as perhaps the most challenging event of his business career.

Secretly, John had always intended to retire at age 50. In December 1993, two months before his 50th birthday, he sold Interbrand to Omnicom, the large New-York-based marketing services group. He stayed on until 1996, partly because his unique expertise was crucial to the company, and partly out of loyalty to the staff he had hired at Interbrand. There is no doubt, however, that he reduced significantly the international long haul flights which had consumed so much of his time when he was first growing the business.

But retire? In 1996, having cut the ties with Interbrand, John's capacity to see what others had failed to see led him in a new direction. He observed that Britain, unlike many other countries, had no great international brand of beer. So he started his own brewery - St Peter's Brewery Group plc. Ever a man to combine interests - he is an enthusiastic collector of antique furniture - he first bought a 13th century moated manor house in Suffolk, filled the house and some local pubs with fine antiques, and built a state-of-the-art brewery in the former farm buildings. It is no surprise to learn that his award-winning St Peter's Ales, in their distinctive green oval bottles, are now consumed enthusiastically at home and exported around the world.

In the same year, 1996, John Murphy saw another opportunity. He led the buy-out of Plymouth Gin from Allied Domecq - and, as Chairman, took that brand from a flat sales graph to a steep growth curve in UK and overseas sales. This is further demonstration of enormous management skill and unusual vision; everything that John Murphy supports, encourages and nurtures proves successful.

Pro-Chancellor, for his achievements in identifying and developing a new area of academic, financial and commercial activity; for his contributions to UK industry; for providing the authorship of household names upon which we all rely; I present to you an extraordinary Brunel graduate, John Matthew Murphy, to be admitted to the degree of Doctor of Social Sciences, honoris causa.

DSocSci - July 2001

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