20: Ownership Anxiety, Brand Storytelling, and the Human Condition

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Have you ever stopped to think about what ownership means to us as a culture? Many of us see it as an artifact of the legal system or something that’s decided in courts. We believe it is a self-evident concept that lives outside of us and isn’t really part of who we are, but rather a set of rules that affects our mortgages and our car payments.

But ownership is in fact very much a part of what makes us human.

Today and throughout history, a mere six competing stories of ownership have dictated how everything in the world is distributed. As resources have become scarcer, everyone from American homesteaders and ranchers, to tech leaders and consumer brands, have created ways to impose their own preferred ownership story in a world where what it means to “own” something is constantly evolving.

We speak with Michael Heller and James Salzman, two of the world’s leading scholars and authorities on ownership, and co-authors of the book Mine!: How The Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives to understand how the concept of ownership has been upending the brand landscape.

They explain to us how the rules of ownership change in every generation, and how those changes reveal the true brand frontier, the role of business, and most importantly, a society’s shifting values.

Podcast Transcript

JUNE 15, 2021

66 min read



Welcome to Unseen Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina. Have you ever stopped to think about what ownership means to us as a culture? Many of us see it as an artifact of the law, something that’s decided in courts, a self-evident concept that lives outside of us and isn’t really a part of who we are, but rather a set of rules that affects our mortgages and our car payments. But let’s take a moment to consider this through the lens of a familiar story in the Bible.  


…. the fourth river is Euphrates, and the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man saying, “Of every tree of the garden, thou mayest freely eat. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”  


We all know what happens next. Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge and they’re kicked out of the garden of Eden. But what’s interesting is that if you listen closely, there is an ownership story at the heart of this passage. God says, “That fruit is mine and mine alone. You can’t have it. And if you take it, there will be consequences.” That ownership story is how humanity begins. 


Ownership is in fact very much a part of what makes us human. It is not a system relegated to the law. As resources have become scarcer, everyone from early American homesteaders and ranchers, to today’s tech leaders and consumer brands, have created ways to impose their own preferred ownership stories. In this week’s episode of Unseen Unknown, we’re speaking to Michael Heller and James Salzman, two of the world’s leading scholars and authorities on ownership, and coauthors of the book, Mine! How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control our Lives. 


They reveal to us how the rules of ownership change in every generation and how those changes reveal the true brand landscape, the role of business, and most importantly, the society’s shifting values.


Think when was the last time you were in an airplane. For me, it was a while ago. When you lean back and the person behind you says, “Hey, you’re in my lap.” What’s going on there? You’re both claiming that wedge of space behind the airline seat. When you’re each saying, “That space is mine,” what each of you are doing, the person in front leaning back and the person behind you who is squished, you’re each relying on, it turns out, one of six simple stories that everyone uses to claim everything in the world. 


When I lean back, when I press that button, I’m using the attachment story. It’s mine because it’s attached to something mine, the back of that seat’s attached to my seat and that space is mine. The person behind is saying, “Hold on a second. I had the space first.” First in time. That’s the second primitive powerful story. The person behind is also saying, “I possess that space. That’s where my laptop is. That’s where my knees go.” Possession is nine-tenths of the law is a third of those six simple stories.


So right there, when you lean back on an airplane, that’s already three of the six simple stories that everyone uses, attachment, first, and possession. The fourth story is labor. It’s mine. Why? Because I worked for it. You reap what you sow. Fifth story, it’s mine because it comes from my body, our bodies ourselves. The sixth and final story, it’s mine because I’m in the family, birth and death, marriage and divorce. That’s when big amounts of property really move.


That’s it. The three simple stories when you lean back, labor, our bodies, and our families. And that’s it, all ownership conflicts. Everyone fighting over everything is a fight among those six simple stories.


What’s interesting is that you call them stories. There doesn’t seem to be any innate, fundamental truth behind ownership. These are all competing stories, the way you describe it.



Ownership is really a storytelling battle. One of the real message, one of the real points for us to write in this book is to have people realize that ownership and who gets what, basically, who gets what in the world isn’t something for lawyers. 99.99% ownership disputes, who gets what and why, happen outside of the law. What’s going on there is I’m telling a story for why it should be mine, and you are saying another story for why it should be yours. 


Our kids are saying stories in the playground. “The shovel is mine because I had at first.” “No, I’m holding onto it.” And that’s always what’s going on with every battle, not just in the playground, but also for climate change and who owns wealth in America. It’s the same simple stories. They really are that, just attempts to be persuasive over who gets what and why. 


The other thing to realize is that this goes way back. Really what we’re talking about is who gets access to scarce resources. It’s not just humans. I mean, birds. When you go out and you hear the wonderful birds chirping, they’re not saying, “Oh, wonderful. So happy to see you, Jasmine.” It’s not like a Disney film. What they’re actually saying is, “Back off, buddy. This territory is mine.” And it has to be that way. 


Yeah. It’s interesting when you bring up the airline story because, as you guys have described in the book, the airline is really selling that space twice. And they could easily just make a rule, like who does that space belong to? But they choose not to do that. What are some ways that brands play with ownership stories, or manipulate ownership stories, or maybe don’t even tell ownership stories in order to create the behaviors that they want among their consumers?


Let’s take another airplane story, and that’s Southwest. Southwest has open seating. Basically, it’s first come, first serve. Depending on when you sign up, 24 hours, you’re either group A, B or C, or you can just pay a little money and be in the early bird. There’s this huge debate that’s arisen, really conflict that’s arisen over what happens when someone in group A goes in and then saves a seat for riff-raff in group C. Fights break out over this. They’re actually on the bulletin board for Southwest. There are these raging back and forth. USA Today has written about this.


Southwest knows this is happening. They tell the attendants, “Don’t get involved.” They could clearly solve this. They could have a rule that says, “No saving seats.” They could rule, “You can save seats. No saving seats in exit rows.” They could do any of this. They don’t. Why don’t they? They don’t because they expect that us, the passengers, are going to work it out amongst ourselves. We’re going to rely on politeness, and customs, and good manners, and such, except when we don’t.



But thing that’s fascinating, and it’s true both for Southwest and for that example we started with, with the reclining airline seat, the one actor you don’t blame is the airline, when in fact they’re the ones who are creating this problem in the first place. It’s even worse, to go back to the original reclining seat, because the airlines have reduced what’s called pitch. That’s the distance between the seats. One inch of saved space is equivalent to adding an entire row the airline. It’s real money that’s involved.


We didn’t use to have fights of whether you can recline your airline seat, in part because the seats weren’t so close together, and in part because the space itself wasn’t so valuable. Now it is. We use the space differently. Laptops are now our entertainment centers, our workspaces. And so, the space is more valuable, it’s tighter. But we blame each other. We don’t blame the airline.


From the ownership perspective, what’s going on here is that airlines are using one of the most advanced tools of ownership design that we reveal. This particular tool is called strategic ambiguity. Ownership is ambiguous a lot more often than people realize because there are these competing stories. People don’t realize ownership is up for grabs. And the airlines know this. They take advantage of our innate feeling that we want to just work things out. We don’t want to be the bad guy.


So it’s that wanting to work things out that lets them sell that space, sell that wedge of space twice at every seat on every flight. Strategic ambiguity is just one of the really important tools that we’ve identified that leading edge brands use to profit from what we call ownership engineering.


That’s so fascinating. We’re all competing over scarce resources, but I think people like me feel like, “Well, we’re living in modern times. Resources aren’t scarce like they used to be.”



Well, if you think back to the origins of America, the discovery by Europeans of the continent, and then the conquest of the people that were already living here, all ownership in America, every single piece of land, the place that you’re standing right now, place that you live, every plot of land in America traces back to a seller who sold it to you, who bought it from someone else who sold it to them, and then traces back ultimately to conquest.


So what you see in America, and what you see actually for every piece of land everywhere in the world is the playing out of these ownership stories, “It’s ours. Country is ours. The land is ours,” versus, “Land is ours because we labored in a particular way to make it ours. We labored to cut down trees, to clear the fields, to plant in rows, to basically make new England look like old England.” So the origin of ownership in America, the origin of ownership in the world always traces back to these same few simple stories.


As land, or airplane seat space, or your online clickstream, the record of your likes and looks online, whenever any resource becomes scarcer, anything, and that is everything, people fight over it. 


One of the other aspects of this that I think is fascinating is how technology changes this. Think back to the Westerns we all love to watch the limitless vista of cattle, with the cowboys and the doggies and stuff, that only existed for a few decades in America. Actually, those cattle drives were over private land, going from the ranches to the railway stations. They could basically ship them off Chicago and such.


Why was it over private land? Well, because there was no way for the private land owners to keep the cattle out. Cattle don’t care. Cowboys probably couldn’t read, or if they could read, they’re not going to care anyway. What changes all that? Very simple invention, barbed wire. Joseph Glidden invents this. All of a sudden, you have a way to inexpensively enforce your property rights. 


Barbed wire really is the fundamental reason that we see so much agriculture in places that used to be pure ranching. They’re the range wars that they talk about. These were very real and dangerous fights, and technology, ownership technology was at the heart of it.


What is the equivalent of barbed wire for our age today? Have we seen something as impactful as that?  


Yes, very much so. I think of our cell phones as being the barbed wire of our day. Barbed wire is what created the “No Trespassing” version of ownership in America, the version that said, “The attachment story wins over the possession story of the ranchers.” Your cell phone is the technology today that lets you buy a stream of services. You press the button and a car comes, or you press a button and you get an apartment. So that shift to the micro payments, to being able to track things, that whole ability to organize our lives around a new technology of ownership. 


The cell phones are important in the sense that they’re quite a lot of actual technology in there. But what’s under-appreciated is the transformative effect they have in the kinds of ways that we can fight over and divide scarce resources. We can divide them up in ways that we never could have done even a few years ago.


It’s so interesting to see over and over again that it’s the same laws, no matter how much the world changes, that we always go back to, to figure out how we’re going to deal with this brave new world. I know that you guys talk about how a lot of our ideas around ownership are changing. They’re under attack. Culturally, why, as a group, are we starting to renegotiate these six laws?


They’re all in flux, and they always have been, all the way back to the Bible and they are still today. But one of the thing that’s most visible right now is the change in possession. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. We’re wired to have a very actual physical, tangible reaction in our brains when we hold on to something tangible and physical. You hold a mug, it becomes worth more to you than that same mug was worth just a moment before. 


That’s why the Apple stores are these open scenes of tests. They want you touching this stuff because you’re actually willing to pay more once you touch it. It’s why car dealerships have test drives. They want you to be physically connected with the stuff. So retailers already know the importance of physical connection. What’s changing most rapidly of the six stories today is the move to an online world where retailers want to evoke that primitive feeling of connection. 


But it’s very hard to do in the online world. So that’s why, for example, Amazon has that little shopping cart and why they have this “Buy Now” button that’s highlighted. What they’re trying to do is to basically have you have that feeling of when you actually buy a book and bring it home. They’re saying downloading a book is the same. You can buy it now. The reality is that your online life isn’t what you actually think it is. The “Buy Now” button doesn’t mean what you think the “Buy Now” button means.


When you click that to download a book, Amazon can, and indeed has, deleted books right off of people’s Kindles, just like Apple has deleted movies right off people’s devices. Online you actually own more like one-tenth. Possession is not nine-tenths anymore. That gap between nine-tenths of the law, that feeling that we have, and the reality of what you actually have, it’s one of the biggest shifts that people don’t realize about what it means to move to an online world.


About 90% of people believe that buying something online is the same as buying the physical version of it, and that’s not true. Because of that gap, Amazon and Apple, they each earn an unearned, an extra premium and extra profit on every single download because we think we own more than we actually do in the online world.


Take one example. If you hold up your iPhone, I mean, this is pretty amazing. What you actually own, you actually own a plastic brick. But what makes the iPhone valuable is the operating system. You don’t own that. It’s the data on your phone. You don’t own that either. It’s stored for you. As Michael said, we’re not wired to think in terms of ones and zeros, so these intangible forms of ownership. We’re used to thinking about horses, and horse shoes, and the clods of earth they run on.


And so, there’s this real shift that’s taking place, and folks don’t get it, in the sense that we’re just not wired to think that way, and retailers obviously realize that and try to make the online experience, as Michael said, as similar as possible in the setup to actually just being in a store.


Yeah. Also in the book, you guys roll the dice forward and you say, “I mean, what happens in a world where we don’t own anything?” And if you think about it, so many of our communities historically have been focused around shared ownership of something, I own a home, you own a home. We’re in the same neighborhood. There’s a camaraderie there. What’s your take on where this is all going in terms of the culture around community and how we gather?


I was in a Airbnb two summers ago in Barcelona, downtown Barcelona. It was wonderful. I loved… So a wonderful city. But what I realized, on the streets, was that nobody spoke Spanish, or Catalan, which is actually the language in Barcelona. But what they were all speaking was German, and French, and English. Basically, downtown Barcelona has been taken over by Airbnb so that the ability to have a neighbor who is going to help you out when you’re sick or someone whose door you can knock on and borrow a cup of sugar, intact communities, is disappearing, that we’re moving to a new kind of living together world where the strength of ties that underlies…


The little league team, or the Cub Scouts, or the Brownies, the sense that we’re more than just ourselves, that we’re part of a community is starting to fray, not because of big partisan politics, but because of the hypermobility that comes from living in a streaming world, a world where you stream residences rather than in a stock world, the world where you own and stay put for some longer period of time.


There’s an optimistic and a dystopic version of where we’re going with the move to an online ownership. The six simple stories don’t change, but the technology does change and the culture changes with it.


Do you think people realize that we’re actively making this trade-off every time we buy into these shifting notions of ownership, or not quite?


No one realizes this. So much about ownership is that it’s a language that we speak. It’s a language that we’re socialized into as small children, and we don’t even realize. We are like fish swimming in the ocean and we don’t realize that we’re actually in water. The water are these rules, these stories, these practices about who gets what and why, the way we defer to each other, all of that shapes every minute of our lives.


It’s how you stand in the line to get a cup of coffee. It’s how you line up to get gas for your car. It’s where you live. It’s what you drink. It’s the medications you take. Everything always, all around you, is being shaped actively by people who know how to use these simple stories to get what they want. It may or may not be what you want.


Let’s talk about ownership of communities in the digital sphere. A lot of interesting things have happened recently. The New York Times abandoned their Facebook cooking group because the culture got so toxic, they decided to just throw their hands up and walk away from it. You have apps like Telegram famously picked off the app store and then sued for not kicking them off the app store sooner.


New apps like Clubhouse, where there’s been a lot of chatter about ethically and morally, what does a platform or a brand like that owe to the safety of its users? A lot of this is signaling, how much does the brand really own when it comes to community? What’s your thought on that? Where is this going?


The baseline here is that the app or the service that’s selling you that service owns the content on it. So it’s not a first amendment issue. It’s not a free speech issue. If Telegram says, “You can say this,” then do your complaint is with Telegram. They say you can’t be on it, your complaint is with Telegram. If they delete your tweets, you didn’t own them in the first place. So online, it turns out, you own much, much less of your digital life, which for many of us is our real lives, than people believe that they own.


All those Facebook posts and likes that you’re making, Facebook owns them and Facebook profits from them. You don’t pay to use Facebook. The reason is that you are the product. You’re not the consumer. They’re selling everything about you to advertisers, so they can target you more effectively to sell you stuff you may or you may not want. So who owns communities online? Not you is the answer.


That has a very profound consequence for what your life is going to look like. When people used to pass away, they would leave a trunk of old love letters or diaries, some tangible record that they had lived a life and they had loved, and they had been connected to people. Today, all of that potentially disappears. There’s no tangible record of the most intimate thoughts that you had beyond those controlled by companies that may well not have your interests foremost in their minds.


There are these shifts taking place. I remember very well I moved about five years ago. I’d been at Duke for over a decade and then moved out to the University of California, Santa Barbara. I remember going through my Duke account, which is going to close, and printing out some of the emails. It just felt weird to do that because I don’t have the journals or the letters. There’s this very incomplete and awkward attempt to recreate what Michael is talking about.


On the other hand, there’s also a panopticon, this notion of the all-seen eye, which is that much more of our lives are being recorded online than ever would have been put into our diaries. What that means is potentially, if you do pass away, for example, whoever does have access to your Facebook account can learn all sorts of intimate details, not just about you, but about all the third parties that you were interacting with, whose privacy would very much have been protected in a pre-online world.


Because was one of the questions for our day is, how do we think about this enormity of information that is being kept around for us? Not just the specific letters that we want to write, but every email, every tweet, every direct message, all of it is being saved in ways that are very much outside of our awareness, and to some extent, outside of our control.


This leads me to another thing that I thought was very interesting in the book, which is this quote. “There’s an important difference between natural and virtual resources. So far, governments have not been driving ownership online.” Can you describe that a little more?


Right. Think about kids fighting a playground. They’re saying, “Mine, mine, mine.” Psychologists have studied those fights and it turns out that whenever you hear that, toddlers four-year-olds, five-year-olds, they’re fighting about a shovel, or some food, something tangible. They’re never saying, “Mine,” about a joke or a story. That division goes back to the notion we were talking about before about the change in the idea of possession from nine-tenths to one-tenth.


The online world was never thought to be property. We had things called patent law and copyright law. The notion that there’s something called intellectual property, it’s actually a fairly recent ideological invention by patent lawyers and copyright lawyers to try to get people to think about our intangible lives, our online lives as being like our tangible ones. Most people wouldn’t ever shoplift a CD or a DVD, but when Jim and I poll our students, these are law students. 100% of them illegally download and stream books and movies and music.


So we have a really different sense online about what it means to own things. That’s been driven substantially outside of law. Governments really have not taken the lead in trying to think through what ownership should look like in the online world. It’s been driven much more by businesses trying to tell these stories about labor, “We worked for it, and therefore it’s ours.” Or sometimes the opposite, “It’s ours, but we want you to steal it.” That’s the magic of HBO. HBO actually lets… It tolerates, even encourages, people to steal their passwords.


All of our students use passwords that mostly aren’t theirs. They’re using somebody else’s HBO account. It turns out HBO can find you. They can find out who you are. But they choose not to. They actually far prefer for people to be stealing because it builds future consumers. HBO uses password stealing as another advanced tool of ownership design. Like strategic ambiguity for airlines, they’re using a tool there called tolerated theft, because tolerated theft helps build their business. This is mostly happening outside of the law.


What’s fascinating is that Netflix is having second thoughts. Some of your listeners may have noticed on Netflix recently, there are messages coming up saying, “Just to remind you, you’re only supposed to use this within the same household.” And it’s a beta. They haven’t decided yet whether they want to crack down or not. 


Yeah. HBO and Netflix, they’re long-term players, and they’re thinking ahead. What they want is for you to feel that you’re stealing just a little. Like when people use somebody else’s passwords, all our students, we know it’s wrong. We know we shouldn’t be doing this. That’s the feeling that HBO wants you to have, is to… People do it. They don’t want to pay right now, but they know that they’re doing something wrong. What they’re actually doing is actually committing a federal crime. It’s actually punishable by up to a year in jail to use somebody else’s password.


But HBO wants you to be vaguely aware that something is a miss, which is part of this longer term strategy to have you feel, to have your brain react, if this is possible, in the same way it reacts to the mug that you’re holding onto, to light up in the same way, to feel that copyright is like property, not just some ephemeral construction in American law. It’s an uphill battle for them. It’s why they have those… When the movie starts, the lights go down and says, “Piracy is not a victimless crime,” those scary Interpol badges.


What they’re trying to do is get you to feel that what you’re doing is stealing. That’s part of trying to have you assimilate or to analogize intellectual property, intangible property, to good old-fashioned hard, physical stuff. So they’re trying to figure out how do they activate those ownership instincts in an intangible world.



Going back to the intellectual property thing that you were talking about, patents are being filed at a dizzying rate. I think the patent office in the US is struggling to keep up with tech eating the world. It seems like IP is never going to slow down. What’s the end game here? Where is this going to end up?


Well, there is a phenomenon, actually, that I discovered about 20 years ago, which is a concern. I call this phenomenon gridlock. Gridlock arises when there are too many owners of the same thing. Paradoxically, when there are too many owners, it means scarce and valuable can be wasted, can be destroyed by being underused. The most important examples of this out in our economy today turn out to be in the area of patents.


It used to be the case that when a scientist figured something out in their university lab or government funded project, they just published it. The way that they got rewarded was that they got famous, maybe they won a Nobel prize, they got tenure. But all the basic knowledge you needed to make to put pills in bottles, all that basic knowledge was available for free. The scientists didn’t patent their discoveries, by and large. The drug makers did. But the basic tools they used to make drugs were all available to everyone. We all built on each other’s shoulders when we created.


Starting about 40 years ago, America switched to a new strategy, which let people patent really basic tools for science, all the stuff that we need to actually do research. Now if you want to put a pill in the bottle, you have to collect potentially dozens, or hundreds in many cases, of separately owned patents, and each one of those patent owners can block you


Why did we make that switch 40 years ago? What happened?


It was an illogical moment. That was when President Reagan was elected after Carter, and it was right at the very end of the communist countries regime as they were starting to fall apart. There was a real push in this country, a very heavy ideological push originally, but eventually it became an American push towards privatization, the notion that government couldn’t fix things and people should be more incentivized, motivated to do them on their own.


But if you really want scientists to be turbocharged and do basic science, the way to do that isn’t to have university science, is to have private science, to have biotech companies pair with professors as they’re doing their research. Indeed, the biotech revolution was started in this country. So having more patents available did lead to hundreds of billions of dollars of private money pouring into basic science research. So there was a tremendous amount of value from having that.


But what was missed, what was overlooked in that rush to privatize was one of the hidden rules of ownership, which is that too much ownership can be as costly as too little. So we ended up with, in the ’90s and the last several decades, is having way, way more patents, way more ownership of upstream or basic, the basic tools that you need to do science. But that’s led to actually fewer pills in bottles, fewer downstream, fewer actual treatments for disease, because all those upstream owners in certain areas block each other.


They each want to get a share of the profits from the ultimate treatment. If everybody wants the full profits from that treatment, there’s no deal to be made and the resource never gets discovered.


I think one of the bigger questions around ownership lately, that’s been top of mind for people like me is NFTs. Like what do you actually own with an NFT? Why is this a phenomenon now? I feel like it signals a lot about our culture, but I’ve never really thought about it from an ownership perspective. What does an NFT mean about our beliefs about ownership, especially since you could argue the most valuable NFTs are the ones that have been already the most consumed by our culture?


Just to explain to your listeners, an NFT stands for a non-fungible token. Your Bitcoin or your Ethereum, those are fungible tokens. One Bitcoin’s the same as any other one. A non-fungible token, an NFT, is a unique identifier. It uses the same blockchain technology that Bitcoin does. But it uniquely identifies something out in the world. What that thing often is, is some digital image. Could be the Beeple image that sold for $69 million, or LeBron dunking from an NBA top shot image.


And then NFT says, “I, the owner of this NFT,” on the quote unquote… I’m putting this in air quotes for your listeners, “The original of that image.” Now, all of us right now can go and download the Beeple image, or the LeBron dunk. One of the things about online art is that it’s exactly perfectly copyable down to the pixel. There’s one original Mona Lisa and a lot of college dorm posters. For online art, every image is exactly identical to every other one.


This has meant that online art has been one of our most democratic and innovative spheres of artistic endeavor. What NFTs do is they basically are designed, I think, are laser targeted on killing the creativity and value of digital art. For me, what NFTs do is bring together the worst of art and the worst of blockchain. They’re enormously energy consuming to prove that this is the original, all for the purpose of making art worse.


What NFTs, I think, emerged from is partly a response to the pandemic. It’s the attempt to impose artificial scarcity. It’s creating the artificial scarcity not for the benefit of art, but for the benefit of a handful of early adopters, the traders who got in first. Here would be my question for those of you who are thinking about investing in NFTs. Is there a secondary market for NFTs? That is, does anybody buy a used NFT?


The answer I believe is going to be that we’re not going to see that kind of secondary market. And I worry about being the person left holding the bag when this NFT market collapses, which I believe it will.


Yeah. Talking about things born of the pandemic, I want to know how you guys have seen the pandemic possibly change our thinking around ownership, or forced questions around ownership. One thing that came to mind for me was a lot of companies are asking their employees slowly to start coming back to the office. You hear stories about employees saying no in large numbers and putting pressure back on their employers.


It raises this question of, who owns or how do you own the employee’s time? What are you seeing either in there, in that example, or anywhere, anything that’s happened in the pandemic, that shows pressure or change around our ideas of ownership?


Well, part of it, I think, you can see in the commercial real estate market, the idea that do you actually, if you’re a company, do you have to own physical space for your employees to get together? I think there’s going to be, as these leases end over the next few years, there’s going to be a real shake-out, I think of what commercial real estate even looks like.


I mean, I’m seeing with law firms right now, they’re moving to shared office spaces. In a sense, you get this Tuesday, Wednesday, the other person gets it Monday, Thursday. Someone else gets it Friday. So this notion that we have to have this communal meeting place in very high-price location, I think is up for grabs. Now, as we said a number of times in this shift to the virtual economy, something is lost. I feel for young professors who are just starting to teach right now because they’re not making personal connections.


I mean, Michael and I met at a workshop I don’t know how many years ago in Montana, and that formed this lifelong friendship. That wouldn’t have happened if we had basically been relating to each other via zoom. So some something is lost. But my view is the whole notion of the workspace as something that a company has to own because they’re a company, I think that’s up in the air.


When I look at the way you guys describe ownership. I see it as an image of resources going into the hands of many to the hands of the few, then back to the many hands. It just feels like ownership moves resources in the world between the many and the few. I think that’s what’s happening on a cultural level when it comes to work, because you’re seeing more and more things where employee groups, activists, and playgroups, like what happens at Google pretty often, where people arise up and say, “Hey, we don’t appreciate this part of corporate culture.”


When the pandemic happened and Google was treating their full-time employees and their contract employees very differently, like two classes of employees, full-time employees stood up and protested that and they caused change. It’s why we’re seeing a lot of unions forming too in a lot of places that you wouldn’t expect, like in the tech world. It feels like they are working to take culture back from the corporation, like, “You don’t get to determine the corporate culture here. We get to determine it.” I see ownership changing on the social plane like that.


One change or one deep battle in the world of the corporation and corporate culture, is who the corporation ultimately is intended to serve. In the last generations, we’ve moved, in this country, very strongly towards a stockholder value model of who owns the company. Who is the ultimate owner? It’s the people who’ve got the leftover money, the people who have the leftover money after salaries are paid and after rent is paid, and those are the stockholders.


The theory of the American corporation has largely been the theory of the stockholder owner. And there’s been real pushback against that, which I think the pandemic is highlighting. The move towards more employees’ say and what their workspace looks like is a different model of ownership. Sometimes it’s called a stakeholder model. That’s been much more of the model in Europe historically. In Europe, a lot of decision-making around the flow of work that affects workers is made by a council that includes both representatives from the management and representatives from labor. So they decide together.


You’re beginning to see more of that in this country as well. Not that long ago, a new form of company was created called a B corporation, a benefit corporation. You sometimes see a little B on the side of your organic milk bottle. That’s a new form, a new structure of ownership where the company is explicitly committing to a stakeholder model, to a model that concerns neighbors, and workers, and the community, and the planet, along with the residual shareholders.


What we’ve seen in the world of corporations of series of shifts, historically, from old British shipping companies that were organized a certain way 15, 16, 1700s, up through the stock corporation. Now you’re seeing versions of corporations that have more attention to employee concerns. You see that with employee stock-owned companies, ESOPs, they’re called. You see that with cooperatives, companies. There’s been a lot of, for example, dairy farmers are organized in cooperatives.


You see that in benefit corporations. But you also see that even in the core American corporation, the Exxons and the Googles, that are having to compete in an environment where ownership of the firm has a range of models. They have to compete for employees against firms that have a different notion from the stock notion. That is part of what creates the pressure to be more responsive to the ownership of our most valuable resource, the most valuable resource that each of us has, which is our time and attention, like what we do during our day.


People are beginning to realize that they’re often selling that out too cheaply and giving up too much control compared to the life they actually want to lead. That sense of like, “What does your day look like? What does your work day look like?” That’s structured entirely by the ownership rules of the workplace that you’re a part of.


Something that keeps coming up for me is, what comes first? Does culture change first and then the law is an output of that, or does the law change first and then culture adapts? Especially when I think of things like the experience economy, which I think was coined over 20 years ago now. As millennials started to focus more on experiences over ownership of things, and this was well-documented and we de-emphasized the value of ownership.


Then you start to see new models like the sharing economy, like what is it? Is it the chicken or the egg, especially in the digital world where you have companies that are basically playing in the clay of the law unhindered because there’s no government interception there. What do you think the order of this is?


It’s an excellent question. The answer’s both. In many instances, law reinforces and reflects norms and customs, and that’s why the law usually… We know usually what the law is, actually. And it’s not because we studied statutes. It’s because we know that’s just the way we operate. However, laws are written by legislators, and legislators can be influenced. And so, there are a lot of examples. We talk about them in the book in terms of how copyright extension keeps going on and on and on and on. The lawmakers, I want to say, bought and sold, but lawmakers can be influenced, and they’re setting these rules.


For example, turns out there are separate rules for if you’re super wealthy, or if you’re not. If you’re super wealthy, you put your money in South Dakota because South Dakota’s legislators have essentially been told, “These are the rules the super wealthy want in order to park their money there.” We don’t know about it. What you want to call it, the chicken or the egg, is up to you, but that’s the model of basically the rules of ownership being written by very few for their specific benefit. And there are a lot of stories like that.


Then there are the other stories, the basic reflect, first come first serve, possession’s nine-tenths of the law, aphorisms that we learn as small kids, and then by and large tend to be reflected in the rules that we have around us.


I would push back a little bit against your question as well, the notion that younger folks are done with ownership and they’re all about sharing. Oh, that’s not right. That’s very much what the sharing economy companies want you to believe. But the truth is not that we’re at the end of ownership. What we have moved to in this country is the hyper concentration of ownership. When you’re streaming something, it’s a handful of companies that control access to those resources, whether it’s Rent the Runway for a wedding dress, or your Uber or Lyft, or Apple or on Amazon.


What we’re seeing is the hyper concentration of the ownership of the resource and the control and the decision-making around that resource. And then the giving out some little twigs and branches and little bits and little leaves of ownership license to you. But it’s a license that they can pull back and they can say, “You can’t have this book anymore. We’re not going to offer it anymore. No, you don’t pay your bill, all your photos disappear.”


So it’s not the end of ownership. It’s the end of you having ownership. What you have is a stream of services so long as you can continue to pay.


A big question that I had in my head while I was reading the book was, what do you guys think about suspending vaccine patents?


This is the long-standing debate. I work in the environmental field and you can go back to the 1980s when the ozone hole was a huge concern. These companies like DuPont were developing these refrigerants, chemicals that would still run your air conditioner and your aerosols and such, and your freezers, but that didn’t destroy the ozone layer. A treaty was developed to address that. One of the sticking points was, should those patents be shared on a non-commercial basis with other countries, with developing countries?


The treaty kicked the can down the road. The companies basically said, “Hey, we’re not charities. We have business models that we have to meet.” Same thing with climate change. Renewable energy technologies. There’s other low-emission technologies. Shouldn’t we make them much more available, much cheaper, much more accessible to developing countries? It’s the exact same conflict. It’s the same thing we see right now. With the COVID vaccine, it’s not clear they’ve lost. Biden said this should happen. It’s not clear what’s going to happen.


But this is the first time that they’ve really been challenged seriously in the United States on this. Internationally, it’s always with environmental, India, Brazil, China, to a degree saying, “Give us these technologies on a preferential basis. You want us to help prevent ozone depletion, you want us to help battle climate change? Okay. But help us.” Companies, US, European, say, “Not so fast. That’s not our job.”


This goes back a long time in the biomedical patent area as well, when retrovirals were discovered to treat AIDS. They were very expensive and AIDS activists said, “Those patents should be available to everyone on a non-commercial basis. No one should be dying of AIDS anymore.” The pharmaceutical companies were able to fight it off and a lot of people died. The overall American patent system is mostly wealth destroying.


When you talk to Elon Musk about his patents on all his incredible space gizmos, he says, “I have no patents.” He hasn’t patented anything. He’s like, “If we patent it, people just copy it.” For Tesla, for his electrical car patents, he says, “I want GM and Ford to use them. They all can use them for free.” He doesn’t use his patents as a way to block. “We need to move to a electric car economy, and I’m going to make my patents available for that.”


Overall, the patent system basically lets you create a fence, like remember barbed wire where we started the conversation. Patents are the barbed wire of the intellectual property world. Keep a fence to keep people out. For the most part, they actually destroy wealth in this country. If we basically eliminated patents altogether, America would be much wealthier. There’s one area where potentially patents actually do create wealth, and that is in pharmaceutical patents, because it takes so many hundreds of millions of dollars to create a drug to get through the FDA pipeline, to prove that it’s safe.


And then, once you create it, you can reproduce it for a penny a pill. If you had no patents or no protection for pharmaceutical patents, you wouldn’t have any reason to invest to create them in the first place. That’s the justification for the patent system as a whole. And then, particularly, it makes sense in the pill area. That counts against President Biden’s move, to some extent.


But I’m skeptical in this particular context, and for a couple of reasons. One is that most of what it takes to make these drugs is really deep technical know-how. The patent itself is disclosed. That isn’t particularly hard to reproduce. But they wouldn’t have the know-how to prove these very, very complicated drugs. Even that company in Baltimore that was producing the vaccines and wasn’t able to do it properly. That was a very high tech company and it was having a hard time.


So this is an area where the patents are somewhat overrated. The patent isn’t the real protections. Protection is the know-how that these firms have for producing these very, very sophisticated RNA drugs. But the notion that we should be able to patent a lot of very basic technology around biomedicine should be more controversial in this country than it is. And it is very controversial in a global perspective, and it’s a conversation we really haven’t been having.


On the sky is falling concern of the pharmaceutical companies that you hear around, if you lift the patents for the COVID drugs, research will grind to a halt, I don’t believe that that’s true.


Ultimately, why are there only six rules of ownership? Why aren’t there more? Why these six? Do they really cover everything?


We’ve been talking about this book with law professors and students for many years. We always actually ask that question as well. And so far, no one’s told us otherwise. We are the gurus of ownership. There’s a bunch of people teaching this stuff, but we would count ourselves among the people who thought about this. This is what our careers are largely about. We think back in history. We think what the online world is going to look like.


Ownership looks very different in different cultures. There’s tribal cultures, there’s customary cultures. There’s more social welfare, European legal systems versus America. There’s lots of differences around ownership around the world. But even with all those differences, you’re still, it turns out, fighting among those same six simple stories. The original claim to ownership seems to trace all the way back and all the way forward. So far as we can see.


That isn’t an absolute claim. It can’t be. The world can change in ways that we can’t predict. But looking in our crystal ball and looking back through a historical lens, pretty much it reduces down to that and every ownership battle that we can look at, and that’s everything. That’s every ownership battle that as you’re walking down the street, as you are thinking about climate change, as you’re thinking about wealth inequality in America, who owns your online life, or who owns your genetic data, it’s the same few stories that pop up again and again and again.


I think, actually, as Michael said, I’ll be surprised if a seventh pops up. I think it’s actually hardwired. I mean, I think it’s no coincidence that many of the great cultures creation myths, try ownership. The Greeks, Prometheus steals fire from Mount Olympus. Garden of Eden, the fruit. It’s not yours, but they take it and they’re evicted literally from the garden. And so, I think that, basically, we’re clearly hardwired to care about ownership. And ultimately, the stories that are in play are remarkably, remarkably few.


Looking back at all of this, you’ve written the book. Your careers have been dedicated to this. On a gut level, looking at the world through these six lenses of ownership, how do you feel about where we’re going?


I think that our culture with ownership is essentially where we were 500 years ago, a thousand years ago, and 3,000 years ago. Whenever there’s scarce resources and more people want them than there are to go around, there are going to be competing stories. Whether it was in Babylonia, or Sumeria, or Victorian England, or 21st century America, it’s a small number of stories that are taking place. And the question always is going to be, which story is more persuasive? And how are we going to decide which story is more persuasive? That really, to me, is the story of the human condition. Ownership, to me, is timeless.


Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Unseen Unknown. If you’re new here and like what you’re listening to, do us a favor and leave a review. Those reviews mean a lot and help our audience grow. Don’t forget, you can always get more of our brand strategy and culture articles, videos, podcasts, everything, at While you’re there, you can also sign up for our awesome newsletter that will deliver valuable thinking to your inbox twice a month. Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time.

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19: Systems In Flux: Birth of the New Spiritual Consumer

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For the fourth and final episode in our series on Systems In Flux, we’re talking about seemingly new emerging forms of spirituality, and how new spiritual brands are positioning themselves to take advantage of our collective movement towards wanting to be both categorized but at the same time free from conventional binary definitions.

Everything is being catered more and more to us as individuals—and religion seems to be shifting in that direction, too. Part of that shift is the way we understand what religion is in the first place, and our youngest generations are pushing us further toward newly remixed ideas of spirituality that borrow from a wide range of traditions.

Allegra Hobbs is a journalist who’s explored the phenomenon of the Enneagram. The Enneagram is a newly-revived derivative of the teachings of the Bolivian-born philosopher, Oscar Ichazo, that practitioners believe can lead to improved self-awareness.

She found that the Enneagram and other categorizing devices like it have also seemingly crossed over into the mainstream because we find ourselves in a perpetual state of isolation and alienation—something Rachel Lo discovered as she developed the dating app Struck, which helps match people based on their astrological signs.

This episode explores what these new forms of spirituality mean and how they’ve come into the mainstream with the emergence of a new spiritual consumer, and while discussions about spirituality can be challenging for a number of reasons, our conversations ended up revealing surprising potential implications for equity and inclusion in everything from how we find meaningful relationships to how we conceptualize our work.

Podcast Transcript

MAY 13, 2021

60 min read

Systems In Flux: Birth of the New Spiritual Consumer


Welcome to Unseen Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina. For the fourth and final episode in our series on Systems In Flux, we’re talking about seemingly new emerging forms of spirituality and how new spiritual brands are positioning themselves to take advantage of our collective movement towards wanting to be both categorized but at the same time, wanting to be free from conventional binary definitions.

Everything is being catered more and more to us as individuals and religion seems to be shifting in that direction, too. Part of that shift is the way we understand what religion is in the first place. And our youngest generations are pushing us further toward newly remixed ideas of spirituality that borrow from a wide range of traditions. Allegra Hobbs is a journalist who’s explored the phenomenon of the Enneagram.


The Enneagram is a newly revived derivative of the teachings of Bolivian-born philosopher Oscar Ichazo that practitioners believe can lead to improved self-awareness. She found that Enneagram and other categorizing devices like it have also seemingly crossed over into the mainstream because we find ourselves in a professional state of isolation and alienation—something Rachel Lo discovered as she developed the dating app Struck, which helps match people based on their astrological signs.

This episode explores what these new forms of spirituality mean, and how they’ve come into the mainstream with the emergence of a new spiritual consumer. And while discussions about spirituality can be challenging for a number of reasons, our conversations ended up revealing surprising potential implications for equity and inclusion in everything from how we find meaningful relationships to how we conceptualize our work. First, Allegra breaks down the history for us. What is an Enneagram anyway? And how did it capture the imagination of some of the world’s most powerful leaders and institutions today?


So, the Enneagram as it is currently used is a system of typing people into nine basic personality types. And you are dominant in one. That does not mean that that is all you are, you theoretically contain parts of each personality, but you’re only dominant in one type. And that type is all about what fundamentally motivates you.


What is the core motivating factor? So it is not based on behavior, you cannot tell a person’s type based on the way they behave. It is all about what motivates them at a fundamental level. So for example, I am Type Four or dominant in Type Four. And my core motivation is, according to the system, to establish an identity for myself.


So I guess when it comes to exploring the history of the Enneagram, it’s important to note that this is all based on a wisdom tradition that serious practitioners will tell you is ancient and somewhat mysterious. Like the exact origins of the wisdom tradition itself are disputed, but we can pretty precisely pinpoint when that wisdom tradition started to become the personality typing system that is in use today.



There was a philosopher named Oscar Ichazo, who was the leader of a non-religious human potentialist movement that was based in Chile in the 1970s. He crafted the Enneagram into a system for understanding how essence, which he posits is perfect and in oneness with the cosmos, becomes distorted into what we would call our personalities, which are the nine types. It’s not that you’re your personality, it’s that your personality is kind of a mask, or is this distortion of your core essence. So the work of the Enneagram is all about tearing down that personality to get back to the core of who you are, so learning your type is the start of the journey and not the end in itself.


So he kind of started with that philosophy and established these nine types. His work was then expounded on by a student of his named Claudio Naranjo. And then some Americans came to Chile, discovered the system, they passed it on to a group of Jesuits in the United States. And that is how it came into the hands of a Franciscan friar named Richard Rohr, kind of known for his work in meditation and quiet contemplation. He has kind of a retreat in New Mexico. And then he wrote the  first book about the Enneagram from a Christian perspective in 1990. And it was literally called The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective. So this is something that’s kind of been out there for a few decades in the Christian world, but not anywhere near mainstream. But Rohr kind of became the entry point for a lot of other Christians who were curious about the system.


One of them was Suzanne Stabile and she was a pastor’s wife. She journeyed to Rohr’s center where he was teaching the Enneagram. She absorbs the wisdom of the Enneagram and she co-wrote a book with an Episcopal Priest named Ian Morgan Cron called, The Road Back To You. And it was published in late 2016. And that was the book that changed everything.


It’s interesting that that book is called The Road Back To You because the words read like self-help to me.


And I know that you’ve written that a lot of people who have really embraced the Enneagram, Christian or otherwise, they tend to be quite young. They are into self care and wellness. They are open to therapy, possibly astrology, things like that. You talked about Christianity, the Christian system, which you’ve written posits that, “We are inherently flawed,” but you’re describing the Enneagram system is we are inherently perfect. And our personalities kind of mask that perfection. I’m sensing a tension between these two systems, or I guess you could even call them brands. Is there a tension there?



There is a tension between the Enneagram and a certain strain of Christianity. And I think that’s important to specify because whether or not the Enneagram comes into conflict with Christianity, kind of depends on who you ask, because there are many ways of practicing the faith of Christianity. But what I did find is that the way American evangelicalism is often practiced can be traced back to the teachings of John Calvin, a philosopher out of the Protestant Reformation.


And he taught a doctrine called total depravity, which is pretty much what it sounds like, which is that every effort by a human being is tainted by sin. And it is only through faith that we escape our fate of eternal damnation. So here’s a quote from John Calvin that I cited in my piece. “Our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil that it can never be idle. The whole man from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot is so deluged, as it were, that no part remains exempt from sin, and, therefore, everything which proceeds from him is imputed as sin.”


If you look at American evangelicalism, it stems from this Calvinist teaching and this Calvinist understanding of sin nature and human nature. So there is a sense among a lot of American evangelicals that, “You are bad at the core, and it is only through the grace of God that you even have a hope of salvation, but any efforts that you personally make to better yourself are fundamentally flawed because we’re sinful at our core.” What the Enneagram teaches is that at your core, is this kind of perfect essence. 

Oscar Ichazo believes that we are in essence, in perfect oneness with the cosmos and that we become distorted and lose that perfection when we fall from essence into ego. So the Enneagram is a significant departure from that kind of Calvinist American evangelicalism which is still pretty prominent because it teaches you that you can, through your own efforts, work your way back to this fundamental goodness at your core.


When you contrast that with this message that, “You’re bad, bad, bad, that you’re sinful at your core, and you need to move away from yourself,” it’s really striking.


Why do you think this has entered the spiritual mainstream at this point? Because this is quite recent, it’s been around for a long time, but like you said, in 2016, it was a turning point and it feels like more of a movement now than anything else. Why do you think that is?


Yeah. I think that for one, something I’ve found in reporting this piece, there is a trend of younger Christians who are really jaded by the showy megachurch type of Christianity. These charismatic pastors holding religious services in sporting arenas. It strikes a lot of younger people as disingenuous. And so there’s actually a really interesting trend of younger Christians moving towards more liturgical traditions and being more open to meditative practices and quiet contemplation, and the Enneagram kind of falls in line with those trends.


If you look at it the way it’s supposed to be followed and supposed to be studied, the Enneagram is practiced as this life long journey to better understand yourself and your place in the world. It’s very serious work to the people who practice it. And it is often taught in tandem with quiet contemplation. That’s the way that Franciscan friar Richard Rohr taught it.


So when you look at it that way, it’s kind of an intentional departure from the more surface level glitzy, aesthetic brand of Christianity if that makes sense. The other thing, the evangelical world is more open to influences outside of the explicitly Christian, which is a fairly new phenomenon. If you look at the history of evangelicalism in America, you see a resistance to things like yoga, which some believed was satanic. You see the Harry Potter books were kind of approached with fear and trepidation and kind of moral panic because evangelicals believed that it would impart witchcraft and on a more serious note, the evangelical church has been exclusionary and even outright hostile to marginalized groups that it felt were not in line with their moral teachings specifically the LGBT community. All of that has changed in recent years.


As I was surveying this, and even my personal experience with Enneagram and talking to some of the people that I know, a lot of people are introduced to the Enneagram through totally non-religious routes. You could easily embrace this and never feel, or know about the religious context. What are some of the spectrum of brands that have emerged around the Enneagram from religious to non-religious that might give us an idea of just how big this is?


Yeah. So the first example that comes to mind and the most prominent kind of in the influencer brand sphere is definitely Sarajane Case. And she runs an Instagram account called EnneagramAndCoffee. At the time I wrote my piece, she had half a million followers. That’s pretty significant for this little kind of personality typing system that a few years ago was relatively unknown. 

And she kind of has built herself into a brand around the Enneagram, if that makes sense. Her Instagram account is quite personal. It trades both in serious spiritual work and advice for people who are looking to explore the Enneagram and fun, more topical means that are Enneagram adjacent if that makes sense.


A lot of this does in fact, live on Instagram. There’s one Instagram account that I find funny called Rude Ass Enneagram. It’s mostly screenshots from TV shows that people love like New Girl. And it’s kind of like, for example, it will show what character, maybe what type, or it’ll have memes using screen grabs or quotes from these TV shows, making fun of each Enneagram type in a good natured way.



And that’s the kind of content that people online who are into the Enneagram seem to like, and there’s a lot of accounts along those lines. Sarajane’s is a little bit more earnest if that makes sense, because I asked her, there are some people who are serious practitioners of the Enneagram who may view these meme accounts and these brand accounts kind of cynically because for them, this is a serious spiritual practice. When I asked Sarajane, how she reckons with that and how she sees herself fitting into this world, she basically told me that she hopes that her Instagram account will be a starting point for people who are seriously interested in exploring the Enneagram. 

She doesn’t just do the Instagram account to her credit. I mean, she’s kind of launched this whole platform where you can do Enneagram workshops with her and more deeply explore the system if you choose to. So it doesn’t just end at memes.


I saw that she also has a five day summit that looks pretty comprehensive as well. You’ve written in the past that, “To be human is to categorize.” And it’s really obvious when you look at something like the Enneagram or astrology, but where else do we see this kind of need to categorize in our everyday lives?


Yeah, I’d also noticed that beyond personality typing systems that Buzzfeed quizzes are really popular right now. 

People love these deeply individualized and digitized ways to better understand themselves and to do so publicly. And you see that also with the trend of people sorting themselves into Harry Potter house, like if you look at a Harry Potter fan’s Twitter account, it’s not uncommon to have one’s Myers-Brigg type in the bio and then Gryffindor or Slytherin or Ravenclaw or whatever. 


Right, right.



There seems to be a real desire for people to use a shorthand to say, “This is who I am.” And the Enneagram helps build that space in a way. If you’re familiar with the Enneagram and someone tells you, “I’m a Type One,” you immediately have at least the beginning of an understanding of them or what motivates them and the same for Myers-Briggs and the same for Harry Potter Houses and to a lesser degree and in a more, perhaps less serious degree, Buzzfeed quizzes and things of that nature.


So on the serious side of things, I’ve noticed that all kinds of personality typing systems, but also the Enneagram are being used increasingly in a business context. I mean, I was talking to the CEO of a big public company who was telling me that they had just taken their own Enneagram test. They were a little bummed to learn that they were a Type Two or something like that. And it’s just so interesting to me that we’ve seen things like this crossover into business, things that maybe had a religious origin or a non-scientific origin, certainly a non-business origin and they’ve they’ve crossed over and they cross over into so many other parts of our lives too. How does this kind of thing happen? How do we lose the origins of typing systems like these and start applying them in seemingly unrelated places?


Right. I think that with any typing system, and in any mode of spirituality, any strain of spirituality, that kind of crossover is inevitable. Or I don’t want to use the word warping because that has a distinctly negative connotation, but, but it is essentially a warping of the original intention of the thing.


So the Enneagram may be intended as its serious practitioners will tell you to be a serious spiritual discipline that lasts a practitioner’s lifetime and ultimately serve the purpose of allowing you to understand yourself better and to understand your place in the world and how you relate to others better. That is the purpose of the Enneagram. But any time there is an opportunity to do so systems like that will be shoehorned into other purposes. I think that there’s just a real desire to use whatever tools we have in our arsenal to  improve ourselves, improve our workplaces.


I think that modern life can be quite alienating and the current trends for these ultra personalized systems of bettering ourselves or better understanding ourselves, or maybe in response to that. And so I’m not surprised that people are using it in a work context, because I think the modern workplace is a really strange one to navigate. I think that perhaps there is more depersonalization and there’s more remote working and we’re more dependent on technology. I can see how if a manager thought, “This is a way that I could make my team function better and I could improve morale, then I’m going to do it.” And I think that’s why workplaces try to use Myers-Briggs to improve the workplace. And I imagine that’s why they’re using the Enneagram.


When you take a step back to look at all of this, how do you think the new consumer’s sense of spirituality is changing and how will it continue to change into the future?

So a wonderful journalist named Tara Isabella Burton wrote a book called Strange Rites about this new kind of a religious spirituality that she observed taking hold in the culture. She observed the companies that were selling wellness products or fitness dads like SoulCycle were using pseudo-religious language to do so. And so nothing was explicitly religious, but this kind of vague a-religious spirituality was running through all of these things. And she also made a few observations in general about American adults and the kind of consumer that might be interested in these products.



So she found that a quarter of American adults are religiously unaffiliated. And for those born after 1990, that number climbs to almost 40%. She also found that three-quarters of those religiously unaffiliated people still believe in a kind of higher power. And she called these people faithful nones. And then she also found that 27% of Americans consider themselves spiritual, but not religious.



So it’s a weird consumer landscape, right? Because on the one hand, people are becoming less religious, people are attending church in fewer numbers, but on the other, you still see a pretty significant bend towards spirituality and a desire for something deeper. She also observed that people are taking what she calls an intuitionist approach to religion rather than an institutionalist approach. So taking bits and pieces from different traditions that they feel serve them. And so I think you see that with the Enneagram, right? And you see that with the way a lot of young adults now are approaching Christianity. 

You take what serves you, whether it’s astrology, a meditation app, the Enneagram, and you leave the rest. She kind of made the observation that there’s a sense that everything is ultra personalized, catered to the individual and digitized. So you see that in the way your Netflix queue is personalized, you see that in the way that we look for love on Tinder. So there’s this expectation that we should be able to meet our spiritual needs in a similar way. Why would we force our beliefs into this category, into doctrines and creeds that we feel don’t really serve us when we could instead cobble all of these different systems together and walk away with a strain of spirituality that we feel serves as a person?


We have a strong desire to find a shorthand that explains who we are in business and in life. But there’s another interesting place where our new consumption of spirituality is starting to show up and it’s in our dating lives. Rachel Lo is the founder of Struck, a dating app based on astrology. And her work is a perfect example of how our new consumption of spirituality is creating a world of new brands. What’s most interesting however, is how these new brands are opening us up to new kinds of user experiences, regardless of whether you’re a believer or a skeptic.



So our philosophy when we were building the app was authentic human connection. So when I was living in San Francisco after college, I used basically every dating app under the sun. And for me, it was actually a decently enjoyable experience. I met a lot of cool people, I made some friends, I dated a couple people, but I noticed that my friends didn’t have the same experience. And what really felt like it was lacking was this lack of authenticity when they were meeting new people on dating apps.

And something I realized was that through my growing interest in astrology, I found that my conversations with friends and even strangers around astrology were often so much deeper than random conversations about your job or what you did this weekend, which is usually the bulk of the conversations you have on dating apps. And so I felt like there was this really amazing opportunity to combine the two and help people just connect that much more deeply, that much more quickly through the vocabulary of astrology.



I think that’s really fascinating and something that maybe people miss it first, just as you described it, the fact that if you approach dating through an astrology lens, it seems to kind of force a different level of authenticity you don’t normally get on a dating app. And I think I’ve even seen this in your interviews where you say that you see astrology is a great tool for speaking about your emotions in a language that a lot of us weren’t taught to communicate in. What did you mean by that? What is that language?



What astrology does, I kind of call it “therapy with training wheels.” What it does is it just provides this existing framework and existing language that people feel is a lot more approachable than something like therapy. I don’t think it’s a direct substitution, I don’t think astrology can completely displace something like therapy, but I do think having those pre-existing words and phrases is really helpful, like saying, “I have a tendency to think about myself a little too much at times because I’m a Leo,” right?

Just acknowledging that fact, I think wouldn’t normally happen in conversation. And one thing I love to talk about is even people who are skeptics, even someone who is adamant that astrology is fake and not empirical, you can still have a really good conversation with that person if you use astrology as the tool.


So an example of that is I might say to a die hard engineer, “Hey look, you have in your chart that you’re a Mercury in Cancer. So you might cry a lot. You’re very soft-spoken, you might be passive aggressive,” and they go, “Wow, that is so wrong. I’m actually extremely assertive. I don’t cry. I express myself in a very assertive way.” At that point, you still had a conversation about how that person views themselves, how they communicate. And that, again, wouldn’t normally happen if you didn’t have this framework or the pretense of astrology there.


That’s so interesting. So obviously it’s forcing these more intimate conversations. I tried the app and I found that for some reason it felt more intimate. It felt familiar, not the app itself, but the people as I was going through my matches and understanding how their astrological profiles fit into the identity or who I was looking at. I think I could fall in the diehard engineered camp. Right? But I’m not above seeing the tremendous value in starting these dating conversations from a really emotional place.

I’m just curious, how are people using the app? Are you seeing any interesting behaviors or are you seeing them move in a certain way that they wouldn’t in other dating contexts?


Yeah. So what we see is that the people who come onto our app are sort of self-selecting to begin with, right? They tend to be more open-minded, tend to be more empathetic, tend to be more heart on their sleeve in some ways, because they are willing to put it out there that they’re into astrology and they have XYZ traits about them. Another thing that we developed into the app was forcing people to choose their priorities. And that it doesn’t really even have a lot to do with astrology, but we were writing this idea that again, those people who are into astrology are more self-aware or at least more introspective and would be more willing to interrogate what it is in life that they want. 

And so these are categories like financial stability, which is a huge driver for some people and not at all for other people or spending time with family, which I know sounds crazy for those people who are really close with their families, but for some people that really isn’t a priority either. And so we wanted to force those conversations upfront as well. And so I think that’s a lot of where this sense of familiarity comes from is these people are amazing users just being really open and honest about who they are and craving that more authentic connection too.


Something else I was kind of struck by was… At least with my matches, they seemed like a very diverse crowd of people. All kinds of different jobs, all kinds of different backgrounds and stories. And I think in my one data point anecdotal experience, I didn’t see that on other dating apps when I was actually dating in the past. Do you think that’s unique to your app and is it part of a function of how you’ve built this thing?


Yes, absolutely. And I am so glad you said that, it’s something I take a lot of pride in. So the team that built the app is incredibly diverse by Silicon Valley standards and just corporate standards in general. It was mostly women and a lot of women of color, a lot of women who built the app. I say a lot, but there weren’t that many of us anyway. 

But proportionally, we made up the whole team. So I think when you have a diverse team building a product, it’s inherently going to be serving a diverse population. So, that’s something we’re really proud of. I also think there’s something about astrology that’s really powerful for people who feel overlooked, which obviously tends to be underrepresented people, minorities, that kind of thing.


So I think there’s a real reason that people of color and queer communities really are the driving force behind the popularity of astrology. And I don’t think they get enough credit for that either. And I think it’s that astrology makes you feel really seen in a way that you might not be seen in a predominantly white community that you’re used to growing up in.

So to answer your question, I think astrology kind of self filters for that type of person. And one thing anecdotally, we’ve heard from some of our users is, this is the first dating app a lot of people have used, which is interesting because you think in today’s world everyone’s tried a dating app at least once. But it sounds like for a lot of people, this aligns more with what they want to get out of a dating app. And so they’re finally willing to take that leap and try it out, which is really amazing and sort of bolstering to hear.


When you said the word ‘seen,’ that was the exact word in my mind too. And I’m curious to know what your experience was growing up and how that influenced the way that you created Struck.


Yeah, absolutely. So I grew up in an extremely secular household and I think part of that is my parents immigrated maybe already having that mentality to some degree. And that’s part of why they immigrated thinking that America was this amazing equalizer kind of country. But I also think that part of it may have stemmed from them wanting to assimilate more quickly. And they felt that by embedding themselves in the science culture of the US that would be a way for their kids to assimilate more quickly. So I was raised like super, super science focused. Actually studied mechanical engineering, material science at Berkeley. So I have a very, not just technical background, but technical rooted in the physical world. The exact opposite probably of something like astrology. For a long time I rejected any sort of spirituality because I felt like there was such a bias against that. Buddhism and those types of religions, if you want to call it a religion we’re the butt of jokes for a long time when we were growing up.

And I think now it’s a little bit more in Vogue and so it’s easy to forget that kind of thing, but I really didn’t want to be seen as this Chinese kid who went to the temple and prayed with incense to my ancestors. Right?


Because that was just such a foreign thing to people, but basically long story short, in my mid 20s, I had sort of a quarter-life crisis of identity, which I think a lot of people did, especially around the 2016 election. And suddenly I think a lot of especially first generation immigrant kids were like, “Wait, I’m not white actually.” And I know I had that experience too, and it just really shook things up for me. And I realized how much I had been sort of forcibly and actively suppressing that side of my cultural heritage in favor of almost using science as a religion which I could talk forever about.


Yeah. Well, also just being a kid and not having a model for living between these two different identities, it’s a lot. Of course, it makes sense to just choose the one that is being offered to you. And a lot of people would relate to that. So let me ask you when the Indian Matchmaking [show] came out and I think all of us had this awakening to like, “Wow, astrology is so fundamental to so many ancient cultures.” I think we started to see it a little differently. We were all home-bound anyways, and that was the one week where we all watched on Netflix. What happens for you and the app? Did you guys see anything? Was there any new interest in Struck?


That’s such a funny question. First of all, I do want to acknowledge, of course I glossed over that obviously South Asia is still hugely important for astrology. They practice Vedic Astrology, which is a little bit different, but I would say probably in the modern world, they take astrology maybe the most seriously as a culture and a society. As far as the show, I know the show is very divisive as well in the South Asian community from the people I’ve spoken to. So also acknowledge that, but in the context of Struck, what’s really funny is we had obviously been developing this app for months and months at this point. And when Indian Matchmaking came out, we actually went semi-viral in India.

Oh wow.


A bunch of articles were written about us. But they were saying things like we were copying Sima Aunty. They were saying that we built the app to ride this wave of Indian Matchmaking, which was a really interesting take. I can see why they might’ve thought that, but it was just kind of a funny anecdote. So there’s a decent number of people in India I think that actually know that we exist. We had requests from people in India, which I was surprised about for us to launch there, because from what I’ve heard from a lot of younger Indian people… And this is very, very generalized and very anecdotal, but from some of my friends and people who have reached out, I was under the impression that the younger generation was a little bit more skeptical. And as younger generations do, they always want to reject what their parents were into or believed. So I was surprised to see that we did get some demand there as well.


Yeah. You mentioned that you have interest in other countries. Are there any other places where people are reaching out and asking you for the app?


Oh yes, absolutely. So Latin America is a huge, huge astrology center. So…If you haven’t seen Mucho Mucho Amor on Netflix, I can’t plug that film enough. It’s a documentary about this amazing astrologer Walter Mercado, who did a lot of work to bring astrology to the mainstream. So Latin America has been huge. Also Europe and Australia have been really big requests as well. And I think that’s just a side effect of the growing popularity of astrology in sort of the Western world for the same reasons that it’s becoming popular in the States.


Right. So let’s talk about the brand for a bit. I kept thinking as I was researching before this call, how you were able to build a brand that really honored what astrology is, but still made room for your tagline which says, “Skeptics welcome.” What were some of the brand decisions that you made that helped you find that balance?


Yeah, definitely. I think at its best astrology can be this really welcoming tool for connecting people for all the reasons we’ve talked about. And I think what it boils down to is just like a culture and a brand that’s built on top of respect. So I really believe that people with different views and opinions can get along with one another, as long as there’s a mutual respect between the two. We welcome people who are skeptical with open arms for the reasons I said earlier, which is that you don’t necessarily need to believe in astrology to reap some of the benefits of astrology so long as you are not going to be a person who puts down other people who do believe in it. As long as you’re willing to have a dialogue and listen to what that person has to say and are respectful of their thoughts and opinions, I think there’s definitely room for people like that on our platform.

Why do you think we’re in a place right now as a culture where astrology and so many other ancient systems are getting mainstream acceptance? Why do you think that’s happening right now?


That’s such a loaded question and I love it because I talk so much with my friends. One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about is the idea of subjectivity. And something I find really refreshing about astrology when you actually talk to those in the know, including professional astrologers, they consider astrology just as much art as it is science, right? So there’s often this false argument happening from the science side of things where they’re saying, “This is not an empirical science, so therefore it’s not real,” et cetera. And from the astrology side, I’ve heard the argument… Well, there’s not really an argument against that. It’s just an ability to embrace this thing that does have subjectivity involved, just like art does. Right?


And as far as, why now, I think collectively, especially we’re seeing this in Gen Z, like we’re realizing that binaries don’t exist and I know some people might roll their eyes at that, but I really think that’s true.

As someone who grew up very invested in science, I had some realizations like the idea of Schrodinger’s Cat, which if you don’t know what that means, it’s basically the idea that you have this metaphorical or theoretical cat in a box and you close the box, is the cat alive or dead? Well, it’s actually both dead and alive in coexistence at the same time. And if you told that to someone like a really young kid they’d be like, “What? That is insane,” right? It’s such a weirdly faith-based argument for a very scientific concept. So I think we realize now science isn’t black and white, medicine is not black and white. Medicine has so many subjectivities and biases built into it.

Science has biases built into it as well. And so I think we’re entering a world where things are just much more nuanced on the whole. 

So Gen Z is like, “Gender’s a construct.” A lot of Gen Z believes that nobody’s truly straight, right? Everyone’s a little bit heteroflexible or queer or whatever the case is. So I think we’re just at the beginning of that, right? It feels like with 2020 in our rear view mirror, we’re really headed in a new direction.



So I think where a lot of this conversation is coming to is, you look at a lot of people in our generation who feel like they’re scientifically minded like myself, but also embrace spiritual things that maybe don’t seem to jive with that scientific mindset. So this idea of like two seemingly opposite things existing in the same person, two very different truths existing in the same person. I think a lot of us carry that within us. Where do you think that’s coming from?



I really think that’s kind of this fundamental human thing. I used to wonder the same thing, honestly about really devout Christians who were scientists, because I was like, “How can you hold these two things at the same time?” But this is really nothing new. I mean, even if you look at the development of modern psychology as one example, Carl Jung was a noted fan of astrology and even he had this idea of synchronicity. It’s this idea of meaningful coincidences. So even though he was in cahoots with Freud and these other guys who were building this new branch of science and medicine, he was very insistent that there are coincidences in our world that kind of go beyond just pure statistical chance. And he didn’t really know what to chalk that up to, but he called it synchronicity and just said, “There are these in our lives that we can’t ignore that have some meaning in them.”


And the last thing I’ll say, I actually was having a really amazing conversation last night with another founder. And I think he typically would skew sort of on the skeptic side of things, but we were talking about astrology and he said, “I’m a very mathematical person and I’ve had a lot of conversations about astrology.


And while I may not believe every piece of it, what I’ve basically decided is that astrology and a lot of these…” Maybe he wouldn’t say synchronicities, but he was basically describing synchronicity. So, “A lot of these meaningful coincidences are things that we as human beings with all of our flaws have just not discovered yet, right? There’s this truth that we only know as much as we know, and people are absolutely very far from perfect, and we have so much to discover.” And he was saying that he felt astrology may point to some of these truths that we just haven’t discovered yet. And I really liked that.

So coming back to the app, now that you’ve created this world that really lets people see themselves, it lets people connect in a different way. It started a very different kind of conversation. It’s tapped into a sea change that may have already been happening in people. Where do you see the brand going?

Yeah, I mean, for us, what’s really important is to continue to make people feel welcome no matter what their background is. And you kind of spoke on the diversity of the users on the app, and we want to definitely keep that going. We want people to feel welcome on our app where they may not feel welcomed elsewhere. And I think we want to continue honoring where astrology comes from and its roots because they do go so far back and we owe it to so many people that came before us for getting us to this point. And so as a brand, I think those are really important principles for us.


And ultimately that same underlying thread that started this project is something I don’t want to let go of, which is trying to improve the authenticity of the connections that we make, because we are at a point where people are just so depressed and anxious and lonely, and it just feels so paradoxical because we have the world at our fingertips. So it’s an ambitious goal, but I want to see if there’s a way where we can reign in what we’ve done this far and bring us back to a place where we can make more of those authentic connections with other people.

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18: Systems In Flux: A Unified Theory of Culture, Branding, and Human Behavior

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For the third episode in our series on Systems In Flux, we’re talking about the invisible systems that make a culture tight or loose, relaxed or rigid. The culture in your state might be loose, while the overall culture of your country may be tight. The culture at your school may be relaxed, but at your fancy gym, is in fact quite rigid. Every single culture and subculture falls along the tight-loose continuum, and it affects people’s perceptions of threat, how they relate to each other, and how they consume. This in turn affects every kind of brand, including international brands, political brands, lifestyle brands, service brands, and CPG.⁣ ⁣ Michele Gelfand is the author of ‘Rule Makers, Rule Breakers’, and her life’s work has been spent researching something extremely fascinating - how tight and loose cultures form in the first place, and if and how they can actually be changed. She’s also one of the most interesting people we’ve had the privilege of interviewing.⁣ Once you understand the concept, it will not only reveal a new perspective on the world of business and branding, it will also reveal the deeper logic beneath the many seemingly illogical things in the world that may have been on your mind lately.⁣

Podcast Transcript

APRIL 28, 2021

60 min read

Systems In Flux: A Unified Theory of Culture, Branding, and Human Behavior


Welcome to Unseen Unknown. I am Jasmine Bina. For the third episode in our series on Systems in Flux, we’re talking about the invisible systems that make a culture tight or loose, relaxed or rigid. The culture in your state might be loose while the overall culture of your country may be tight. The culture at your school may be relaxed, but at your fancy gym, it’s in fact quite rigid. Every single culture and subculture falls along the tight-loose continuum and it affects people’s perceptions of threats, how they relate to each other, how they consume, and, of course, the narratives that shape the businesses and brands that form within that culture. 


Michele Gelfand is the author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers. Her life’s work has been spent researching something extremely fascinating, how tight and loose cultures form in the first place and if and how they can actually be changed. Of all the studied cultural phenomena out there, this is perhaps one of the most important in helping us understand the world in this very moment and, as we love to discuss on Unseen Unknown, why the world works the way that it works. Tight and loose cultures are systems that have been especially in flux over the past few years. Once you understand the concept, it will not only reveal a new perspective on the world of business and branding, it will also reveal the deeper logic beneath the many seemingly illogical things in the world that may have been on your mind lately.


But I have a story about how I accidentally discovered cross-cultural psychology. I was pre-med and I was at Colgate University. I left to go for a semester abroad to London and I remember really being totally shocked when I got to London in terms of the differences in… I remember calling my father, Marty from Brooklyn, and confiding in him how much culture shock I was having. Among other things, the idea that people were just going from London to Paris or to Amsterdam just for the weekend. My dad said something that really changed my life. He said, “Well, imagine like it’s going from New York to Pennsylvania.” I’m like, “That’s a great metaphor.” Actually, the next day, this is a true story, I booked a trip from London to Egypt and it was really there in Egypt when I was traveling around and thereafter around the world where I recognized just how powerful a course culture was.


So I came back to Colgate and I luckily was able to find a class on cross-cultural human development taught by Caroline Keating who was telling us about all her work on Africa on visual illusions and how they’re not universal. I went to the University of Illinois, worked with Harry Triandis. From then, it was history. I’ve just been spending my life in studying this invisible, powerful force that affects us all.


Define for us how you delineate between tight and loose cultures. What are the differences? How are they formed?



All cultures have social norms or unwritten rules for behavior. We’re socialized from a young age to wear clothes when we leave the house, most of us, to not steal people’s food off their plates in restaurants, or not to sing loudly in libraries or in movie theaters. We implicitly learn the codes of our cultures in terms of following social norms. What I’ve been focusing on is the idea that groups vary in how strictly they adhere to social norms. Some groups very strictly adhere to norms. They’re tight in our language. Other groups are more permissive. They’re much more loose. 


Basically all cultures have tight and loose elements, but what we can see from our research is that you can place groups on a continuum in general from tight to loose. For example, cultures in our data that veer tight include places like Singapore and Japan and Austria. Culture that veer more loose include places like Spain and the Netherlands and the US and Brazil. It’s important neither is intrinsically good or bad. It really depends on your vantage point. Tight cultures provide a lot of order, a lot of discipline. Loose cultures are the bastions of creativity and tolerance.


So it’s really something to really understand in terms of why these cultures evolved the way they do. Why might some cultures be tighter or looser? That was really the subject of our first study on tight-loose. What was fascinating is tight cultures on the one hand and loose cultures on the other weren’t united by any obvious features. They didn’t share the same geography or the same religion or tradition. They didn’t share differences in wealth either. But they did share something really pretty profound. Tight cultures in our data tended to have much more collective threat in their histories. That threat could be from Mother Nature, like think about Japan having chronic natural disasters, or it could be from human nature. Think about places that have had constant invasions of their soil or have had high population density where there’s potentially a lot of chaos. Or even pathogen outbreaks.


When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. When you have chronic threat, you need stricter rules to help coordinate and to survive. That’s not to say that all tight cultures have had a lot of threat or all loose cultures have been on easy street, but in general, tightness tends to evolve from having a lot of collective threat. So that’s a big picture summary. In the book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, I talk a lot about how we can analyze our many different contexts through a tight-loose lens, whether it’s nations or states, organizations. Even our own households and our individual mindsets. 


Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that because I’m wondering, how powerful is threat really? Does it take much of a threat to create a tight culture or does it take very little?


Yeah, I mean, it’s a really important and fascinating question. In fact, prior to COVID, I would have had a different answer to this question because a lot of our research in the laboratory, like if we bring people into the lab and we activate threat, like fake threat, we talk about potential terrorist attacks or we talk about population density increasing or other types of threats, we see quickly people tend to like rules more. They want rules. They have this intuition that having rules helps in these kinds of contexts, whether they understand that consciously or not. We saw that with the Boston Bombing for example or 9/11. We saw that immediately we accept more rules and, again, the intuition that rules can help coordinate during these kinds of contexts.


But what was fascinating is that last March in 2020, I was starting to get really nervous about whether or not the US, with its great amount of looseness, is going to be able to tighten up as quickly as other cultures that have experienced a lot of chronic threat. Looseness is great for, like I mentioned, for things like creativity and innovation and tolerance, but there’s a real question whether these cultural traits are a mismatch during times of collective threat. So I started studying this, partnering with computer scientists, seeing, well, is it the case that loose groups tighten up less quickly? Is it the case that this affects their ability to contain the disease in terms of cases and deaths?


Sure enough, what we found in a paper we just published in the Lancet, is that loose groups across 57 countries had five times the cases and almost nine times the deaths as tighter cultures. This was controlling for many different factors that could be important in predicting these variables. Things like population density, like average age, wealth, inequality. Tightness-looseness predicted above and beyond these variables. What was really fascinating from my point of view was we found that loose cultures were far less fearful of COVID. Not just in the first 100 days of the virus, but also throughout COVID-19 up until the day that we were analyzing this data, which was mid-October, whereas tight cultures had far more fear. It was on the order of 70% of people on average in tight cultures were very scared of getting COVID, whereas only 50% in loose cultures were.


So would you go so far as to say that tight or loose cultures can actually affect your perception of a threat?



Well, yeah, because when you’re in a context that’s had a history of a lot of threat, it becomes something that’s chronically accessible in the population is what I would say. If we in the US were constantly invaded by Mexico and Canada throughout our history, if we constantly had chronic natural disasters or chronic pathogens, then we would have this cultural preparedness to know that sacrificing liberty for some constraint temporarily is important, that it saves lives. 


How do the people that are raised in tight or loose cultures relate to the idea of authority? Because you did mention in the book how different cultures create different kinds of authority.


Yeah. Well, I think that in general in loose cultures, you socialize from an early age to question all sorts of rules. You look at the bookstore, mainstream American bookstores. They’re all about breaking the rules. If you live in a context where there’s less threat, those codes really make a lot of sense. But if you live in contexts where there’s a lot of collective threat, then following the rules is going to be more important and transmitting those kind of values and norms to kids is going to be more important. This also applies, by the way, even within our country.


In some of our research, we’ve been looking at differences across social classes. You can think about people in the working class having a lot of threat, like chronically having to worry about slipping into poverty, into hard living. Chronically living in neighborhoods that are more dangerous and being in occupations that not only have more structure and less digression, but that are also more dangerous. In our research, we can see that working class families, parents think rules are much more important than middle and upper class families where there’s a cushion, there’s a safety net. If you do something wrong, you’re not going to be in dire straits. I mentioned this is socialized very early. We can see this even among three year old kids in our laboratory who are playing with puppets who start violating the rules. It’s the working class kids in our data that are much more likely to protest when the puppets starts breaking the rules. 


So it’s not as though rules are not important in any social class or any culture. They are, but it’s the matter of how much they are negotiable.


Yeah. This idea of how if there is chaos in our lives or lack of control, people are pretty willing to give up a lot of liberties for a strong hand that would actually promise some idea of normalcy.


Totally. That is totally right. In fact, we just published a chapter on culture and populism that applies exactly what you said. You’re a great psychologist, Jasmine. This is a perfect hypothesis, that when people feel threat, whether it’s perceived or it’s actual, then it makes sense that they want stricter rules and stricter leaders who are going to deliver that kind of structure. We know from the election dynamics that this was found to be the case. So before the 2016 election, we were measuring in the US how much threat people perceived from ISIS, from immigration, from other threats. Sure enough, people who felt a lot of threat, they felt the US was too loose and they wanted a stricter ruler like Trump. This was also replicated in France during the Le Pen election. 



It also helps to explain some puzzling phenomenon. Like why were people in Iraq welcoming ISIS in some areas? It sounds ridiculous to Americans. In fact, when we look at some of the data being collected on the ground during that time, my colleague Munqith Dagher was measuring people’s sense of security, their sense of normlessness in some of these areas. Sure enough, the places where ISIS took over rather quickly felt like there was just a sense of normative breakdown whereby you’re yearning for some kind of order. 


The same thing applied in many ways to Arab Spring. Once Mubarak was taken out, this very strong man, things tended to go to the opposite direction. They went to extreme normlessness and chaos. You heard people shouting freedom in the streets of Cairo, but in fact, it quickly became obvious that there was very little coordination, a lot more crime, a lot more disorder. Sure enough, in our data, people who felt that things were getting too loose, they wanted another autocrat. They wanted the return of the Muslim brotherhood or Salafi government. This is a common pattern that we often miss in foreign policy, that when we see a place losing control of their norms, having no order, they yearn for extremists and autocrats to fill that void. It’s not the only reason why that autocratic recidivism, we can call it, happens, but it’s certainly culture is an important part of that story.


You also expand on this a little bit in your whole chapter on America’s warring states. Because I think I, like many people before they read this book, if they just heard of the concepts tight and loose, they might confuse tight and loose for conservative and liberal. But they’re not the same, are they?


That’s right. I mean, conservative is really a mindset and preference for stability and traditions. Certainly conservatives probably would like to live in contexts where there’s stricter rules. They even, in fact, probably are able to enforce them more. But you certainly could find loose domains among conservatives and you can find tight domains among liberals. So environmentalism is really a very tight domain for liberals. It’s something that’s become an ultra rallying point around having stricter rules in this context. It’s not the case among conservatives. I think we can think about, zooming into any context, what domains are tight, what domains are loose, why might that be the case, and then, of course, thinking about how to negotiate those.



Yeah. So I want to start applying this to branding a little bit. Let’s talk about this in a brand context. When it comes to political brands, is there anything that ever beats the threat story?


Well, I don’t know… I’m not a branding researcher, but I can say that threat is certainly a primal response and we don’t always realize it’s affecting us. Like I mentioned, in our laboratory research, we can easily manipulate threat, activate fake threat, and we see pretty quickly people have this tightening response. That is to say that they start desiring stricter rules, stricter leaders. They start becoming more focused on order and discipline to the sacrifice of creativity and tolerance. So we see this in the laboratory. It’s not, obviously, long lasting because it’s just a rinky dink prime in the laboratory, but clearly, I would say, when it comes to using threat messaging, it’s a mixed bag when it comes to trying to get people to change their behavior


Like for example, if people are just told that COVID’s really threatening, unless they feel that they have some kind of efficacy to deal with it, they might withdraw completely and it might backfire. A lot of research in psychology will suggest that. So I think when we use threat as a messaging technique, particularly to deal with a collective threat, we need to really couple it with strong sense of empowerment that we can do this. That said, I think it’s a fascinating area.


I just wrote a paper on tight-loose and consumer behavior. Some of the things we talked about for example were that brands in tight cultures that have a lot of threat might have more stability, tradition, reliability, formal types of themes whereas cultures that veer looser might have more risk-taking, creative, informal types of themes. Anecdotally, we can see some of this even in the same industry. Like Harley Davidson is like, “Oh, let’s screw it. Let’s ride.” Real loose kind of mentality. Whereas Suzuki is more about performance. Performance above all. Even in the banking industry, I’ve seen, anecdotally again, we don’t have a lot of research on this, but I’d put some money on this, that, no pun intended, but American banks like Chase, they emphasize innovative banking features. You look at places like in India, India Core Bank, it’s more about safety, security.



So I think that branding also is something that really reflects these cultural codes. We probably expect to see much more variability in loose cultures in the kinds of brands that people try and see if they work and try to differentiate ourselves from our competitors with different types of brands where I think you’d see a lot more homogeneity in branding in tighter cultures. That’s my speculation. I say we put some money on it and get some research done on this because I think it’s a really important topic and I’m fascinated by it. The paper, Tight-Loose and Consumer Behavior, is on my website for anyone that’s interested in it.


Oh, yeah. For sure. We’ll link to it in the show notes for this podcast.





So this idea that in the US, unlike other cultures, we don’t have very strong parenting norms so oftentimes parents feel very lost. I, as a parent myself, have experienced this firsthand. It seems to have created massive room for industries that teach you how parent and some of the most lucrative portions of that industry are based on threat stories. When I think of baby-safe foods, baby-safe clothes, baby-safe toys, nontoxic. Things that I’ve spent a fortune on because it is a very, like you said, primal cultural reflex. I mean, this might just be a primal human reflex, trying to keep your children safe. But do you feel that loose cultures like ours specifically do create these kinds of branding opportunities? I see branding opportunities where businesses and organizations are stepping in where the culture can’t answer a problem.



Yeah, it’s such a fascinating question because in tighter cultures, we know that there’s just stronger situations in the sense that people are co-oriented to what’s the right way to do things, have a shared reality around things. Think about the military. That’s a tight organization where people are socialized. They have strong socialization so that people co-orient to the same reality. That’s really helpful during collective threat. Loose cultures have much more variability in how we train people to think and what we value. So that creates a space for lots of different narratives to fill and way more variability on what’s the right or wrong way to do things that, in tighter cultures, there’s a much more restricted range of how we think about things like parenting.


I would say that I’ve seen it on both ends of the spectrum. Some of the branding’s all around tightness for parenting, like you mentioned. The kind of expensive schools that all these kinds of threatening toxins and… Basically helicopter-like parenting. Ultra tight types of parenting. But you also see the flip side, which is more of the kind of movement around no, no, no, let’s have laissez-faire parenting. That’s the way to go. We have too many rules for kids and kids need to experience life. You have a whole other movement that’s on that end of the spectrum.



I think it raised another interesting question, what you’re mentioning, which is that that just suggests that parents are going to have a lot more conflict on what’s the right or wrong answer if we have so much variability. I don’t think we think about this when we marry someone. We don’t think about, well, how tight or loose is that person’s mindset? On my website, I have a tight-loose mindset quiz that’s based on our data. People who tend to veer tighter, they like more structure, they’re more focused on not making mistakes. They have higher impulse control. On the flip side, you have people who veer looser. They’re less attentive to rules. They’re more risk-taking.



Again, to the extent that we don’t really think about who we’re marrying, you can imagine you get into a marital situation where your partner veers very differently in their parenting philosophy and you really realize that and then you’re in a predicament. You got to negotiate these differences. I, for one, can say that’s the case. I veer on the looser mindset. My husband, who’s a lawyer, veers tighter. He’s kind of mortified by my dishwasher loading behavior and other markers of looseness. But the thing is that these things aren’t destiny. We can negotiate culture in the household. I’ll just mention one more thing about this. Research does suggest that either too strict parents or too laissez-faire parents produce maladaptive kids.



Just like your country chart in the book. Super tight or super loose cultures tend to be the ones that suffer the most, but finding that right balance is the difficult piece. When you look at places like Singapore, which you mentioned earlier, and Thailand, they’re tight culture, but they’re working hard to bring in tourism dollars and oftentimes those tourism dollars come from very loose countries. What happens there? When these tight cultures need to attract loose dollars and they meet on their home turf, is there tension? Is there risk? What happens?



Yeah, I think it’s a great question. It just gets to this broader issue of the importance of being culturally intelligent. CQ, or cultural intelligence, is really becoming more and more important in the context of globalization. In particular, when it comes to tight-loose, the idea of knowing your audience, knowing where they’re coming from in terms of their level of tightness and looseness, I think, is enormously important. Often, we ignore it in business, international business. At our peril, we tend to focus on strategy and other types of things. But we often miss that kind of cultural iceberg.



I studied this actually when it comes to ex-patriots and found that it’s a lot harder to go to tight cultures. Much more difficulty adjusting. But also what was really interesting was that people coming from tight cultures going elsewhere were more adaptable. It might be because they’re used to reading the situation and then following the rules that go along with that. So really, it’s quite possible that the context of Singapore, that it’s really on the mindset of we need to be ambidextrous. We need to deploy tight advertising in contexts where it works and need to loosen up and be more attentive to, like I mentioned, ads that might focus on risk-taking and creativity and informality that wouldn’t work necessarily in tight cultures, but that might work in looser contexts.



So I think anywhere, what we need to do is first and foremost understand tight and loose and where it comes from, and then be strategic about being ambidextrous when we are operating in other cultures. I can mention also, in a study that we’ve recently done, we talked about it in a Harvard Business Review paper, we know that this is really difficult to do. It’s not easy. Devil’s in the details. We studied cross-border mergers and acquisitions across many, many different companies and across years. We found that countries that had big differences in tight and loose suffered a lot in terms of their performance and these mergers. That was particularly the case in contexts where they were in creative types of industries where people had to actually deal with each other versus manufacturing


But the point gets back to this issue of negotiating. It’s really understanding where we’re coming from and then negotiating what domains should be tight, what domains should be loose, which branding should be tight, which should be loose depending on the context. The more we recognize this invisible force and start really drilling down to why it exists, I think the better off we’ll be able to adapt in these marketing contexts


I really feel like you have this secret formula for understanding everything in the world. Something I forgot to mention earlier, that your tight-loose framework predicted the Trump election over 40 times better than even the most mainstream predictive tools out there. Is that correct?


Yeah, I think it’s one of the tools. I never want to totally say it’s the… Clearly it’s not the only construct that’s important in predicting human behavior. But I think that it’s useful to think about why it would affect things like national elections because here we have this issue of threat. As I mentioned, threat can be real and it can be misperceived and it can be manipulated. We don’t tend to focus on these kinds of things. I was just actually listening to a webinar, trying to understand the rise of autocracy. Obviously there’s a bunch of factors, but culture matters for this. I don’t think it’s something that just applies to Trump. These leaders will come and go, but what won’t come and go, what’s a cultural mainstay, is the perception of threat


So I see two different tensions. One is that misperceiving a real threat and not tightening enough, that’s what we found in COVID. That’s one kind of mismatch that we have to really deal with. On the flip side, what we’re talking about now is what happens when actually there’s misperceived fake threat and that’s causing tightening when it shouldn’t happen. When that happens, it, of course, deals with this trade-off of order versus openness. The tighter that we tend to move in general, we tend to sacrifice openness and creativity and vice versa. So I think that one of the most important challenges that we face is trying to calibrate in terms of the level of threat we have and be ambidextrous. We need to do this in the US. We need to prepare ourselves for the next major threat. How can we really come together to tighten temporarily?


Let’s talk about some of the cultural shorthand or clues that you observed in your research. Something I want to mention too is you don’t just do research in a lab. You go into countries and do serious observations and large scale research with populations. What I loved was some of the more quirky things that you noticed, like how public clocks are more accurate in tight cultures or there are more left-handed people in loose cultures. What are some of the more interesting signals that you’ve seen around the world?


Yeah. In the book, we have a chart that looks at how synchronized clocks are in city streets. We got this data from a colleague of ours. It’s amazing. In some cities, clocks say almost the same exact thing, like in Switzerland and Japan and Austria. In other places, clocks are off by a lot, like in Brazil and Greece, and you’re not totally sure that time it is. I think it’s profoundly interesting that this is another expression of coordination. So whenever I go places, I look to see, okay, how aligned are the clocks? When they’re not so aligned, I’m like, okay, I’m getting into a loose context.


Other things that remind me that I’m getting into a tighter context include things like the level of uniformity or people tending to look more similar in terms of what they wear, what they drive. I look at even how people park in parking lots. Actually, I’m really guilty of this, where I really bad parker. Like I park out of the lines. I think that’s another thing. When you start seeing that kind of levels of norm violations, trash in city streets or graffiti, when you see a lot of variability, you start getting into looser contexts. When you see people wearing different types of clothing and wearing tattoos and all sorts of other… things like even wearing pajamas, I’ve seen that in my own classrooms by the way, people wearing PJs, that you start thinking that you’re getting to a more loose environment.


Yeah. A couple more that I liked. You said there’s more synchronicity in the stock markets of tight cultures.

That’s right.


Also, loose cultures have a great problem with self-regulation with things like food or alcohol.


That’s right. Also, debt and even weight. We analyzed, controlling for lots of factors across tight and loose cultures, and sure enough, loose cultures have people who weigh more. When you live in a context where there’s stricter regulation, when there’s punishments that are real and chronic, you learn to manage your impulses more from a young age because you want to avoid those punishments. So that leads to differences in self-control and it has ripple effects on things like alcoholism, drug abuse, and debt. Loose cultures struggle a lot with self-regulation and failures, but what you’ll find on the flip side is that in contexts where there’s less accountability, people can be more creative.


Actually, we did one study where we looked at this even in the brain. We looked at how do people respond in the brain when they’re witnessing norm violations like Michele singing in the library or dancing in the art museum or Jasmine yelling in a bank or kissing someone in a crowded elevator. These are all sorts of things that you could study. What we found, when they were in these EEG caps as they were witnessing these kinds of norm violations, and afterwards, we gave people a creativity task where we just asked people to come up with different uses for a brick or for a paperclip. Like creative uses. What we found is really interesting.


First of all, we found that in our Chinese sample, they had far more brain activity in the frontal area of the brain, which is responsible for punishment decisions and thinking about behavior. Far more activity witnessing these same violations as Americans. We also found though that people that had a lot of brain activity witnessing these violations were less creative. So that suggests that when you’re really concerned and disturbed by norm violations, even at the level of the neuron, it actually makes you see creative acts to be more dangerous too. So there’s this direct order versus openness trade-off that goes along with tight and loose.


People try to ask me, “Which is better?” It’s like, well, they both have their liabilities. There really is, in the best of both worlds, we should be trying to maximize order and openness. I’ll just mention I was asked what city might have the best Goldilocks order and openness in the world. I nominated Toronto as the place that might actually maximize this.

Oh, wow.


Because it’s a context where there’s a lot of diversity and a lot of tolerance, but also quite a bit of order, less crime than other cities.


Yeah. Toronto does feel a bit like a utopia when I go there, so I totally get that. Okay. I want to try something. I would like to just do a quick fire round of cultures, subcultures, countries, groups, whatever, and you tell me if they’re tight or loose.


Okay. Let’s go for it.



All right. Let’s start with an easy one. France.



Well, yeah, France in our data veers on the looser side. Clearly, there are tight domains in all cultures. I think French society is very tight on the language. You go into France and you’re trying to speak French and you’re going to get some serious feedback when it’s not very good. Also, other cherished values in France like food, wine, these things also tend to be pretty tight. Like in Germany, which also veers tight, in general… You look at beer, something like beer in the US, I mean, crazy amounts of different types of beers you find in the US. In Germany, I’ve been told that there’s really very strict regulations on the kinds of ingredients that can go in beer. On the other hand, there are domains in Germany that are looser also. You’re more likely to see people, for example, sunbathing nude in Germany than you would in the United States. But in general, you can see that there is a restricted range of behavior in general in both contexts.


Yeah, the language thing in France, it makes me think of the academy that they have to project the French language from aberrations or-


That’s right.

… from English words. When a new word comes out like Wi-Fi or internet, they create the French counterpart for it.

That’s right.


Okay. Silicon Valley.

I would say it veers quite loose. The kind of framework of break it and then… I forget the exact phrase, but it’s a-


Move fast and break things.


Yeah, move, that’s right. It’s really a place that… In a loose context, California is a loose state in our data, which is really interesting. They do suffer some threat, but it’s a place that’s extraordinarily diverse and it has been for over a century in our data. A lot of people that went to California were risk-takers. The people that were attracted to go there and schlep out there had looser mindsets, we would say, in our language. I think some might argue that Silicon Valley needs to tighten up in some contexts, that it gets to be too extreme in terms of the looseness. I had talked to some people who were starting up companies and it’s fascinating because when you have a loose mindset and you’re starting up a company, often it’s the case you get bought out by tighter, larger organizations. I think a lot of starter uppers don’t really like those cultures. They struggle and they wind up leaving and starting up another company as these serial start uppers. 


I think what’s fascinating to me though is in order to innovate, you nearly need both tight and loose. You need looseness to help create ideas, but you need tightness to scale it up and to coordinate. So I think that at some point, any company, even as loose as it started, needs to insert some structure. I call this structured looseness in the book because you want to allow for that creativity and that idea generation, but you also need people and practices that help to structure interaction to have accountability. On the flip side, you have some contexts that are much more tight like airlines and the military, and they should veer tight. You don’t want people making all sorts of weird decisions in these contexts. They have a lot of threat, a lot of coordination needs. But these places also sometimes can use the alternative cultural code of looseness. We call this flexible tightness. How do you insert some discretion into those systems, some looseness into some non-safety domains? It’s something I’m working with the Navy with right now.


Okay. What about the NFL?



would say that the NFL veers tight compared to basketball. Because there’s set plays that you have that you’re orchestrating. There’s much more focus on sticking with those plays as compared to, I would imagine, in basketball where there’s a lot more room for improvisation. So I think it’s fascinating to analyze sports through a tight and loose lens and looking at other sports like baseball or golf or tennis. Another thing I’ll mention that I’m interested in within the context of sports is whether or not female sports are tighter than male sports. I’ve often had the working hypothesis that lower status groups live in tighter worlds, meaning that they are subject to stricter punishments. I have to say, from my n of one experience watching lacrosse games, my daughters were crazy lacrosse players, it just looks to me like there’s a lot more penalties, a lot more calling of rule violations, a lot more tightness that they’re subject to, including what kind of equipment. So I think it’s fascinating to look at. Not all sports in all contexts are equally tight. They might be tighter or looser depending on your status.


Yeah. Okay. So let’s move to a more gendered territory. What about SoulCycle?


I’ve been to SoulCycle with my brother, who is a crazy SoulCyclist. I don’t have a tremendous amount of familiarity, but I would probably venture to say it’s pretty tight. I think it’s a pretty strong brand whereby there is a certain kind of way of being, the appropriate SoulCycle operation. That would be my hunch. What do you think?


You know what I have trouble with SoulCycle is I can see where the threat comes in with women’s sports, the threat of not excelling or not be taken seriously, whatever, or the threat of football, which actually is kind of dangerous. SoulCycle, maybe there’s a social threat there that creates more of a tight culture.


It’s possible. I think it’s also could be just based on the founders. We know in organizations that the leader’s tight and loose mindsets, for whatever reason, help to set the stage for how the organization develops. I read recently a paper in the management literature on how people who have a tight mindset, leaders, the organizations they create, they continue even after they leave, the level of tightness. So that’s possible.


Very interesting. Okay. Two more. I want to ask about Israel because you talked about this in the book. But Israel has a huge startup economy, but also a very threatened region. So where does it fall?


Yeah, Israel’s a really interesting anomaly when it comes to the theory because it’s obviously a place that has high density, it has a lot of conflict. It’s a place that should arguably be tight. But in our data that we collected in early 2000s and then more recently replicated this again, Israel comes out as quite loose, a place where people feel like the rules are negotiable. Of course, there is lots of variation in terms of secular versus orthodox, which is another way to think about tight-loose in religions, and also regionally in Israel, Jerusalem versus Tel Aviv. But in general, our data suggests that Israel is quite loose.


There is a couple of reasons that the threat instinct might be overridden in Israel. One of which is diversity. Diversity in any context tends to push groups to have more looseness because it’s harder to agree upon any particular norm up to a point. When there’s extreme heterogeneity like in Pakistan, stricter rules start evolving because that’s could be very chaotic. But in general, diversity pushes groups to be loose. The other thing about Israel that’s really interesting is that the religion itself promotes a lot of debate and debate pushes groups towards looseness. So if anyone goes to a Jewish service or reads the Torah, sees that no one can agree on anything. There’s constantly just incredible amount of debate and disagreement about basic things. It’s really part of the culture.


I want to mention though, like I’ve talked about, in all cultures, even that are loose, there are some very tight domains. Israel certainly has some of those. So one domain that’s really pretty tight in Israel is having children. It’s really like I’ve heard that if you don’t have children, you’re practically a criminal in Israel. It’s really a very, very strict rule to have families, to have big families. That in itself suggests some kind of survival mechanism to deal with threat. Incidentally, that norm is now butting heads with environmental collapse in terms of population density and resource scarcity and things like that.



Even just the fact that I think Israel… If I’m remembering correctly, it has experienced a lot of migration out of the country. A lot of young people moving out, studying abroad, staying abroad. So I’d imagine it maybe even created added tightness to that topic. Okay. Last one. 4chan.


Oh, yeah. I would say famously normless. Extremely loose. Like we see on the web, it’s a really big challenge in terms of the new world that we live in that tends to be pretty normless. The main reason is really about accountability I think. If you really think about it, the places like 4chan that veer extraordinarily loose are places where there’s a lot of anonymity. You don’t have to make a profile, username. You’re assigned a number for posts. It makes it pretty much impossible to enforce any consequences or to form any meaningful relationship with other people. The other thing about 4chan that’s really interesting when it comes to accountability is that your posts can disappear after a certain amount of time. This impermanence of things can really add to the normlessness.


So I think when we think about the web, and we’re doing some research on this now, I talk about it in the last chapter of the book, how do we harness the power of culture to create spaces that have more of the Goldilocks. Like we want, of course, social media to have a lot of latitude and it’s a really great context for idea generation, for connectivity, but we also want to have some accountability in the system. We want to be in a place where we don’t experience a lot of normlessness. We know that that’s extremely stressful to people in our data. It’s not the amount of time you spend online, it’s the perceived normlessness that’s really a big problem. 


So I think part of what we’re trying to figure out in our research is what are the structural features in these different platforms that lend themselves to having more or less accountability and then how can we tweak them so that we can have places that balance autonomy and freedom with some levels of accountability to make them civil, livable places? That’s not 4chan. 


Right, right. It’s so interesting. I just want to pause on it for a moment, the fact that it’s not the amount of time you spend online, it’s the perceived normlessness that creates stress in people. Wow. That kind of blows my mind. Okay. What can people do as individuals in their own lives to make sure that they’re responding to threats, perceived threats, the stress of normlessness appropriately and not having a skewed response or responding to things that are engineered to make them respond or whatever? How do you have a healthy relationship to this kind of stuff?


It’s a great question. I think cultural intelligence get back to knowing yourself. Where do you veer, tight or loose, and why might that be the case? Are you what we call an order Muppet? Using Dahlia Lithwick’s famous metaphor. The order Muppet’s like Kermit the Frog and Ernie, basically loving order and noticing rules. Or are you a chaos Muppet? These are kind of rough distinctions like Cookie Monster and Animal. These are Muppets that like disorder, or at least, they tolerate disorder and they like openness. They don’t necessarily notice rules. On their website, they mentioned you can think about where you fall on this continuum and why that might be the case. Then I think we can think about, okay, wait, if we really veer very tight, where might we loosen up a little bit?


Same when we start thinking about other people in our lives, whether they’re our spouses, our kids, our colleagues, our friends. We have to try to understand why people might veer very differently than us, what might have caused that in their own lives, try to empathize with those differences. Then, as I’ve mentioned a couple times, then try to negotiate them. Try to understand, for people who veer tight, it’s really scary to give up that rule orientation, that it feels unsafe. How can we help them take baby steps in that direction? On the flip side, for people who veer loose, losing the autonomy feels very frustrating. How can we convince people who veer loose that when we have threat, it’s important to temporarily tighten, that it’s temporary? Let’s try to activate a mentality that says we can do this and then it will be done with. 


I can say that it’s really important to recognize that. It’s those very basic psychological approaches that need to be negotiated. They can happen. I mean, I teach negotiation. I love the study of negotiation. We developed norms. We can negotiate them. I’ll just give one example. I mentioned that I veer looser, Todd veers tighter. We said, okay, what domains really need to be tight in our household? Your health behavior, your schoolwork, how we treat each other with respect. That’s pretty tight. But what can we give up a little bit of slack on? Maybe how clean their rooms are. Just close your door. I’m not going to look. Maybe your bedtime. That’s a little looser. Or your curfew.


There’s ways to think about how we can give up our low priority domains. That’s really what negotiation’s about, to settle on a win-win agreement. It takes time. It takes some effort. It’s a little cheesy. But we can negotiate culture in our daily lives and that’s an exciting thing.


You’ve been in this world for so many years, just completely immersed in the subtext of culture. I wonder, has it changed the way that you form relationships with people?


Wow. It’s an interesting question. Well, I’m a generalist, so I think when it comes to be a scientist, my approach has been to try to have a big, large tent. I mean, I’ve also learned this very much from Harry Triandis, my advisor, the founder of the field of cross-cultural psychology, or one of the founders. Devoted the book to him and to my dad, Marty from Brooklyn.

Marty from Brooklyn.


Getting back to that phone call that started this whole process. I think that my approach has been to try to bring in as many people to study this stuff as possible from different disciplinary perspectives. I love to bring in computer scientists to our group and neuroscientists, political scientist. All sorts of people. Then like you mention, I try to interact with people who are in other spaces who have a lot of knowledge about something that I want to know about, but also that we can add culture to their equation. So it’s very mutually beneficial to partner with people to study culture that really have really different, very, very different vantage points. 


Thanks for listening to this episode of Unseen Unknown. If you liked it, go ahead and share it with somebody that you think would appreciate it too. A friendly reminder that you can always sign up for our newsletter where you’ll get all of our latest brand strategy thinking, articles, videos, podcasts, everything. Just go to to subscribe. If you’re new here and you like what you’re listening to, we’d love it if you left us a review. I read those reviews. They mean a lot to me. But more importantly, they help us get this podcast in front of the right people. Thanks for listening and we’ll catch you next time.

Interesting Links & More Reading

Brand Strategy

Using Permission and Perception to Change the Brand Experience

On signaling behavior, moving the defaults and taking big swings

For a few weeks during the Coronavirus’ spread across the United States, Americans all spoke the same language.

Phrases like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” entered our lexicon. Many have documented our new set of social norms, from stepping away from strangers on the street (once awkward, now thoughtful) to wearing a mask in public (once suspicious, now a sign of good citizenship).

But then these shared standards began taking on political connotations.

As government officials split over next steps in the battle against the virus, Americans fell back into factions, now perhaps easier to distinguish than ever. Those who stepped away from strangers on the street and those who didn’t; those who wore masks and those who wouldn’t.

Stores became battlegrounds for this changing, charged environment. Customers at Costco and Gelson’s filmed seething cell phone videos in response to mandatory mask policies, which quickly went viral. For some viewers, these moments became cause to support the brands, while others pledged to cancel their memberships.

By simply following government orders or recommendations, these companies made an inadvertent political statement, entering into a heated cultural conversation.

And yet, this is just another proof point that our societal frameworks are changing.

When societal frameworks shift, your brand’s actions are perceived through a different lens.

As Scott Galloway heralded in 2018 after Nike made Colin Kaepernick the face of their 30-year anniversary “Just Do It” ad campaign, our leadership has politicized sports — the last “oasis” of politics-free discourse — and has since then upped the ante in making everyday acts partisan in nature.

This is likely a reality that we can never revert away from again.



In moments of crisis, brands attempting to reestablish their commitment to consumers face a particular challenge, one that can easily go awry if you don’t pay attention to the societal framework shaping our choices.

There is a subtext to every move, an implicit bias or belief to every action. Brand perceptions don’t just come from words or actions — they come from reading between the lines.

That means you can’t make brand choices in a bubble. You need to consider the culture and the belief systems that those choices live within.

So, let’s look at some of the implicit forces at play.

The power of signaling behavior

As Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti began increasing the number of Coronavirus-related regulations in the city, he often returned to the idea of “self-enforcement.”

Acknowledging the logistical nightmare of trying to impose social distancing in all of the sprawling city’s public spaces, he instead maintained that individuals would personally analyze the risk and choose to heed his advice. Once enough people did that, the rest would likely follow suit due to perceived or voiced peer pressure, not wanting to stand out from the crowd.

In other words, adhering to social distancing became what sociologists call “signaling behavior.”

I spoke with Rory Sutherland about this concept for our brand strategy + culture podcast, Unseen Unknown. Sutherland is the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy, prolific thinker, and author of acclaimed brand strategy book, Alchemy.

To explain signaling behavior, Sutherland pointed to the practice of taking business trips to visit clients. Oftentimes, an in-person meeting is not the most conducive to productivity, particularly when you factor in the time and cost lost in travel.

Yet, the business trip has remained a standby not because of its efficacy, but because the gesture signals a high level of commitment. It proves to clients that they are valued, important enough for you to make personal sacrifices on their behalf.

For many brands, signaling behavior has become a key strategy to connecting with consumers amidst the Coronavirus.

With limited access to their self-isolating audiences, companies including Coca-Cola, Walmart, and Dove all released what New York Times critic-at-large Amanda Hess has dubbed the “pandemic ad:” spots focusing on the valor of front-line workers, with little to no actual acknowledgment of any products or services from the brand.

Instead, the ads signify that, by buying from these brands, you’re supporting a company that understands your concerns. That shares your admiration for everyday heroes. A company that gets it.

Just like Sutherland’s example of an employee taking a business trip to convey devotion to a client, these brands are spending their advertising budget to prove that they are there for you, a reliable constant during “these unprecedented times.”

Hess points to Facebook as one of the most persistent purveyors of pandemic ads. The social media giant has seen a spike in users this spring, up 10% from the same time last year. The brand has seized onto this surge, rolling out quarantine-friendly features for users that range from a new video calling option to a “feel-good” reaction emoji.

After years of declining users and scandals that made the act of quitting Facebook itself a popular signaling behavior, these actions have helped the brand once again become synonymous with connection and innovation — and not just in their approach to consumers.

Choice isn’t always enough. Sometimes, you have to change the default.

Facebook most recently made headlines for CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of the company’s new remote-friendly employee policy, which he claims will make it the “most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale.” Despite his trailblazing rhetoric, Facebook is not the first to take this step, with Twitter quite notably offering employees the right to work from home “forever.”

Across the country, an estimated 34% of US workers are remote due to the pandemic, with a sizable percentage likely to never return back to their previous in-office schedule. With that perspective, the policy change these Silicon Valley giants touted as pioneering can seem more like an inevitability of this moment.

But what is revolutionary about their announcements is the framing of work from home as the new standard.

By making it not an option, but a key factor in establishing themselves as a “forward-leaning company,” they have effectively changed the perception of remote work as a default rather than an outlier.

Working from home is no longer for B-players and non-core employees. It is the new standard, and now those people who have to go to the office may be the ones carrying a stigma.

This is another concept I discussed with Sutherland. Acknowledging that we are, as he notes, a “copying species,” he explains how simply giving employees a choice to work differently will typically fail to create any real shift in behavior. For most, the threat of standing out remains too high — even if employers say work hours are flexible, few will chance being the only person to eschew the culturally accepted 9–5 workday.

Think about the paradox of unlimited vacation. Employees at companies that offer what seems to be this fantastic perk have repeatedly proven to take less time off for fear of surpassing the norm.

That’s why, to truly encourage new behavior, Sutherland recommends changing the default rather than providing options. He advocates the adoption of what he calls “Libertarian legislation,” or giving people the “right to do things differently” through permission-granting policies.

Don’t just give people choices. Give them new defaults and permissions that can actually change behaviors.

[You can listen to Sutherland talk more about his theory on “Libertarian legislation” on our podcast here.]

For brands, changing the default isn’t limited to implementing structural changes. It can also mean redefining the culture around your products.

Billie, a toiletries company best known for shaving kits, perhaps confusingly calls itself a “hair-positive” brand. What seems at first to be a contradiction of its perceived goal — to sell razors — proved to be exactly what set it apart in the crowded industry.

By encouraging people to see body hair as the norm, they’ve created a space where purchasing personal care products no longer feels like a response to societal pressure, but instead, an opportunity to support a brand aligned with progressive values.

Their flagship video, a celebration of body hair and the choice to shave or not, was noteworthy in its message. But even more noteworthy were the thousands of comments, most of them overwhelmingly appreciative.

The messaging has seemingly paid off, with the company reportedly seeing a 268% increase in sales volume between December 2018 and December 2019.

By changing the norms, you change the reasons for using your brand.

Recently, Billie launched an additional set of personal care products, accompanied soon after by a social media call encouraging people to stop apologizing for “looking like ourselves” while working from home.

Once again, the brand received widespread praise for their candor in encouraging body positivity.

For Billie, a counterintuitive marketing campaign wasn’t new territory — but for Uber, it was.

Don’t be afraid of trying something new in response to a crisis.

In April, the ridesharing app put out an ad thanking users for “not riding with Uber” due to Coronavirus concerns. It was an unusual move, but one that paid off by keeping the brand top of mind despite its lack of use to customers at the moment.

Crises create instability, which can make it seem like a daunting time to take risks like Uber did. As Sutherland sees it, though, times of uncertainty actually give you the latitude to experiment.

While he believes we are typically predisposed to “incremental” improvements due to fear or failure, he points to the proverb that “necessity is the mother of invention” to illustrate how we are open to bolder ideas during difficult times.

  • Just a few months ago, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang was largely dismissed for promoting universal basic income; today, multiple countries, including the US, have implemented schemes along those lines.
  • Brands like Ford, GE, and 3M quickly pivoted to meet the manufacturing needs for respirators and ventilators to fight coronavirus.
  • Fashion designers went from drawing gowns to making masks.
  • Beauty brands all around began manufacturing and selling hand sanitizer — and it will likely be the new mainstay for a beauty brand’s product mix going forward, just as with face wash and serums before it

Changes don’t even have to be particularly radical to be impactful. Consider the King Arthur Flour brand.

After the company saw its sales increasing by 600% overnight in response to the frenzy of quarantine bread baking, the 200-plus year old brand took some out-of-character steps.

It shifted both its production and transportation models, doubled its social media and call-in hotline teams, and even began producing two new shows on YouTube.

With these moves, it not only met the needs of its customers, but also innovated to better serve them across platforms and in new ways.

Sometimes the biggest brand moves are simple moves. You don’t need to be radical in order to be impactful.

For brands, this can be a key time to take a look at the broader societal playing field and make forward-thinking changes with this bigger picture in mind.

Keep in mind that there are cultural shifts, but your brand may exist in a smaller subculture that has its own rules, too.

How can your brand contribute to the cultural/ subcultural conversation? What needs are you uniquely positioned to address?

Think about your users’ shifting attitudes about themselves, their communities and the universes they live in. We are constantly renegotiating these relationships and refining our world views.

Prove to your customers that you’re paying attention. Instead of falling victim to the implicit forces at play, use them to inform your brand’s position.


17: Systems In Flux: Class, Taste and the Modern Aspiration Economy

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For the second episode in our series on Systems In Flux, we’re talking with brand strategist and sociologist Ana Andjelic about systems of class and taste. In the past 10 years, new brands have emerged, specifically in luxury and premium categories, that point to a divergence in our social systems around what class and taste are, and how they are achieved. Ana talks about the rise of the Modern Aspiration Economy and how the brands of this new economy have done something remarkable: they’ve successfully decoupled class from money, and taste from wealth.

Podcast Transcript

October 29, 2020

60 min read

Systems In Flux: Class, Taste and the Modern Aspiration Econom‪y‬


Welcome to Unseen Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina. For the second episode in our series on Systems in Flux, we’re talking about systems of class and taste. In the past 10 years new brands have emerged specifically in luxury and premium categories that point to a divergence in our social systems around what class and taste actually are, and how they’re achieved.

Telfar Clemens, founder of the fashion brands TELFAR is part of a new group of brands that points to this divergence.


I was just super ambitious and always wanted to show my work. It wasn’t Fashion Week that was supporting me when I started. It was the art world that had spaces that they actually just give you because fashion is expensive and to actually be part of that system is expensive. There’s a monopoly on what gets in. It’s always been like kind of the support from New York and from my friends that actually did make things happen, and they didn’t have to be expensive, but they were memorable.


Brand strategist and sociologist Ana Andjelic places people like Clemens in the modern aspirational economy. This emerging economy trades in taste, aesthetic innovation, curation and environmentalism, and what’s remarkable about these brands, brands like TELFAR, Blenheim Forge, Fly By Jing, Brightland, brands that you see in your world is that they have all successfully decoupled class from money and decoupled taste from wealth. In her new book, “The Business of Aspiration”, Ana explores this decoupling and contrasts the modern aspirational economy to the traditional economy where consumers once signaled their status through collecting commodities, Instagram followers, airline miles and busy back to back schedules. Now, it’s about collecting knowledge belonging to micro communities and leveraging influence. As Ana points out, this new cultural and environmental capital changes the way business and entire markets operate. I talked to her about how brands can trade in this new capital and it all starts by understanding where this decoupling actually began in the first place.


The class decoupled from money at multiple points during the 20th century. I like the example of Ikea in the 1950s because it’s an excellent illustration of what happens when a company disrupts the value curve in its industry. And value curve refers to coupling between the price and whatever is deemed the most valuable that company is creating, it can be design, it can be quality, it can be luxury or it can be accessibility or whatever. So how IKEA basically did value innovation in its category and disrupted the value curve is by creating decent quality, well designed, trendy furniture at accessible price point. We’re talking about 1950s, that was where Scandinavian modern design was at its peak, or at least it was something that that was very coveted and it was also very expensive. And as such it was not available to large swaths of the population so well designed, trendy furniture was for the rich people. So IKEA came in and it was like, “Hey, we can offer the same thing. We can offer decent quality, we can offer great design for accessible price. And how are we going to do that? We’re going to do that by disrupting what is thought as the cores component of the value chain in the industry, which is the furniture arrives assembled already”.


So, IKEA said, “You’re not going to have assembled furniture, we’re going to put the cost of assembly to the customer and by doing that, we’re going to allow our furniture to be well designed and accessible”. So, that is one long winded example but it’s important to sort of realize how, even more recently, the budget airlines have done the same thing. Like you have, for example, Ryanair, which sort of decoupled the place from ability to fly and ability to fly around the world, as a matter of fact, even though the Ryanair doesn’t fly, Norwegian does, for example. So that opened up flying, flying used to be for the affluent.



It used to be for the very rich at the beginning, then it was for more classes of people but it was never for everyone. And now basically everyone can fly everywhere. How they’ve done that is basically through decoupling the price from the service, from the offering because they took all the amenities away. So, that’s sort of the mechanism. The reason that these examples are illustrative are basically because prices is not any more connected with the value that’s being provided, you can get value for lower price, so that’s a big economic decoupling.


I think the Ryanair example is especially poignant for me and probably is for a lot of people listening to this podcast because we’re all somewhere in the millennial generation and I think this decoupling that you talk about characterizes what we’ve grown up with. And I remember being in Europe with so many of my other peers, and suddenly you could just jet about different countries during your break and it costs almost next to nothing. And that was a very new experience. And so we developed the taste for that kind of luxury at a really formative time in our lives, I would say.


You’ve also talked about something else, which is that the rise of the creative class of the knowledge economy kind of coincided with all of this and was another driver in this decoupling. Can you talk about that a little bit?


Yeah, of course. I think what you just described, that you and your friends were able at a very young age, as a youth… as a representative of a creative class. So, it’s going to expose yourself toe a lot of artistic knowledge, cultural knowledge, taste, food, museums, fashion design. So you acquire that knowledge of the world for a very low price. That was something that was not available before when the money was connected with the class and knowledge economy disrupted in two ways. The traditional economy, which had a very strong hierarchies and you have upper classes that were educated and they have taste, and they have access to all the finer things in life because they could buy them. And now, even when you don’t have a lot of money, you can still have access to those things. And one is through education and the other is through the Internet, because you don’t have to be the smartest, the most talented or anything. You just need to have Internet access and if you dedicate enough time and sort of interest, you can become an expert in a number of things.


And now, of course, that creates a new class distinction, because if someone has three jobs and two kids, they obviously can’t invest time to become a coffee connoisseur or furniture aficionado. But it’s that democratized access levels the playing field and in that sense, also knowledge economy created a new class of those who cares about where their clothes has been made, where the food has been made. They know what the latest sneaker is to wear, they know where to go when they’re in Abu Dhabi, they know which exhibition is a state modern. So in that sense, the knowledge economy created this also big decoupling between the economic value and the social, environmental and cultural values.


This always makes me think of this question that I have when I come up against this truth that you’ve just described. And that is that you said that really now, being able to consume this kind of luxury is about dedicating time and interest to the knowledge that’s required to have it. But I wonder, this information you’ve described it as wokeness in the book as well, being in the know. Isn’t this in some ways even more expensive than money because it costs our time and not just time, the fact is, you kind of can’t rest. I feel like in the old luxury context, if you were of a certain class, you just were of a certain class and you could enjoy the amenities that came with it but with this new kind of consumption, you can never rest. You always have to learn about the newest coffee brand or the newest hidden place to travel to or the newest cultural cause. Am I misunderstanding or do you feel that same kind of unspoken cost?


Actually, I see where you’re coming from, and I like yes, that is definitely true on one level. On the other level, we have a completely different economy that we’re dealing with and our markets are reshaping because actually there are curators now who are doing all of that for you. You just need to know… you can follow three Instagram accounts and you know what’s in. You can read two magazines and they’re doing the job for you. So in that sense, the new class, the new intermedia are being created between yourself and your time and your money and knowing what is in, what is new. You can just walk in Zara and know what’s trendy. So I think there are a lot of shortcuts that we have restructuring that is wider than just consumers’ relationship in brands.


Yeah, that’s a really good point.

Right? So I think yes definitely, if you really want to become like, vinyl aficionado, you will going to spend time and money and no, and not everyone can afford it. But look at Zara, people shop at Zara because they can’t afford anything else, among other things. But they’re also buying stuff that is trendy, and they’re like… I literally heard in H&M the other day in New York. They were like, “I’ll give you this after a week”, one person said to another after a week, “I just need to wear it with a couple of more outfits”.


Think about that. We have created a completely new set of problems. We’re having that wide accessibility of things that used to be accessible only to a limited number of people. But also there are good things because at the same time, if everyone can have access to what’s new and without any work to be done, then there’s a new and economic and social environment.


Okay, so this is what I want to talk about really, which is the crux of the book that you’ve written. Our systems of class and tastes are in flux right now and that’s as part of what you explore here, and you’ve described a split specifically in luxury that’s happened in the last 10 years and you said something to the effect of where aspiration has never meant more and yet has never meant less. What is the split that you’re talking about?


There are two splits. In the book, I’m talking about the split between this big luxury which is like Big Pharma or Big Media, which is something that’s operated by conglomerates, by holding companies that is globally present that has stores in Tbilisi, Georgia as much as in New York City or in London or Tokyo or Abu Dhabi. So the one that’s pervasive and that is very mass and that is accessible to anyone who has money to pay for it, which is that very old definitional aspiration as we just discussed about. The value curve is still like, “Oh, you pay for a logo or you pay for the brand name”. And then there is this other one that is very much like Hermes quote, which is like, “We’re not a luxury company, we are maker of high quality goods”. So that means they’re they’re focused on making, on craftsmanship on the work of human hands which is something that’s very much rapidly disappearing from the luxury industry, which is largely created in factories in China or in Turkey or in Bosnia or in Spain or in India. It’s not made in Italy. It’s not made in France.


So that’s that’s split where something… How can you grow? What I’m looking is overall global economic growth strategy for a brand is either you do that scale and that mass and you keep the relationship between the logo and what’s trendy, the street wear and collaborations and high price or you stay relatively small by creating artificial bottlenecks or real bottlenecks in creating products because you’re not resorting to mass production. Like Hermes has artificial bottleneck for their Birkin bags, but it’s also limitation off how many hours and artisan can spend on it.


All right, so you mentioned this is happening in other places, this is not unique to the US, this split that you’re talking about and the modern aspiration economy that’s kind of facilitating it? We see it here in the States, but is it something that is happening globally?


Absolutely, and what we’re seeing, I mean, look like look at the largest luxury market, China. That used to be logo, logo, logo, logo, logo and it’s still to a large degree is. But there is also like emergence of local brands all of a sudden, because once the sort of the playing field is established and people with money can show that they have money, then is the second phase, which is that invincible phase like, we don’t need to prove anything. Now we can actually like care about taste, care about, like the refined point of view, care about locally made things and so on. So in China we’ve seen the rapid happening towards that knowledge economy, towards that modern, aspirational economy.


And that brings me to my next question: With these systems changing luxury itself, splitting as you described, it’s obviously creating new kinds of brand opportunities to kind of play in this knowledge space. I’d love to know what are some of the more illustrative examples that really show how powerful you can be outside of the old luxury context, brands that have really understood what you’re describing and turn it into a phenomenon?



I think there is two layers of brands, one are old school brands like Hermes, or Loro Piana or those that are very wedded to their factories and to their artisans and they work the same people from decades. I mean, their turnover of employees is very small, so that’s one level. The other one are those more modern brands, the brands that are making artificial Japanese knives or they’re making like East Fork pottery. They’re vertically integrated, and they’re all focused on improving the quality of life for a very selected group of people. So in that sense, it’s still aspirational. I’m not talking about the economy that’s equal. I’m just talking about the economy that changed its formula. But the inequality is still there because on one layer, there’s entire sector of brands that we’re seeing that are just focused on improving how much we enjoy life.


People who can’t afford that, like all the Ubers around the world, the Seamless, the Kashmir’s, Fat Pants, those brands that they’re focusing or making one thing and that improve our lives, that make us sleep better, that allow us to track our body, what’s happening in there. So the entire wellness industry, the entire nutrition industry, all of that is an example of that sort of modern luxury because it’s very human oriented in one way but it’s not for all humans, which is the downside obviously.


And then they have very specific business model because again, what I talked about before with IKEA and Ryanair, they really decoupled the price from the products of services. So how they’re making money is through membership, through community, through collaborations, through contents. That’s the way they add value in their value chain. Through taste, so it’s all about, “Oh, this is very carefully curated selection of brands”. And you go and you buy there because you want a carefully curated selection of brands, which goes back what you said. You don’t need to do the legwork. You just go. And you’re like, “Oh, but I’m buying from this influencer”.


Okay, so I’m glad you brought the conversation here too because you talk about how they add value through membership, through communities and something that your work also centers on is how taste communities have evolved and how brands should shift their focus at times from targeting the individual to actually looking at the taste community that that individual is a part of to understand how to build their brands. I want to know… I feel like I understand what a taste community is but what makes it taste community different than a fan club or like a general branded community or even an unbranded community, what makes it a taste community specifically?



I think that’s more related to the intangibles. You can have a shared taste and like different things. So you and I may have same taste in movies or in travel and gravitate and purchase completely different things. When you have a fan club that’s still more of a mass, and that’s still more of a reaction to the mainly mainstream, and what I’m talking about is there is no more mainstream. I recently also wrote about the cultural icons and how, at the time of mass media, the way to achieve scale was to have one icon that everyone rallies around like the Air Jordans or Back to the Future or Britney Spears. They had one singular meaning in a society that kept society together and mass media also sort of allowed it. And there was mass retail, which was the same, the American Apparel, the J.Crew.



There was one big door into the brand, and brand stood for a specific set of values. And in order to appeal to the mass, they had to create the taste that is very generic, that appeals to the mass, and now we don’t have this one big door. We have a lot of small doors. It’s very hard to say we have one set of values as a culture or as a society, not just in North America, overall. And that’s when you think the good illustration is like moving from broadcasting to streaming and what I mean by that is like my Nike is not your Nike, my J.Crew is not your J.Crew, my Netflix is not your Netflix, and Netflix is one brand, one umbrella brand. But what I see there versus what you see there are very different things.


That is fascinating when you describe it like that.

So, that’s what I… Try to apply that to cultural consumption when you have on Spotify, my Spotify is not your Spotify. If you have Amazon, the same thing, it’s very different. So, that’s hard to say it’s a fan community. It’s not about that, it’s about almost more about our data footprint and what we like and what we buy and what is our psychographic profile. So I think that, it’s more looking at our profiles can be seen on such a granular level that there is no need anymore to have those big, sweeping mass brands.



You know what else I kind of… I feel like I’m kind of seeing here is that when you talk about those old mass brands like I think of Calvin Klein, let’s say, hen I was growing up. It feels like they were more in charge of setting the culture or setting the norms for a taste community or culture, whereas now it seems like the members of a taste community are setting the norms and it’s the brands job to amplify it or support it or kind of help explore the frontier of that. They’re not so much on the leading edge. They’re more trailing and I don’t know if you would agree with that or not but it reminds me of something else that you said in the past, which is that brands need to hack culture before they can hack growth or in order to have growth, they need to hack culture. Is that what you’re seeing or how would you describe that?


Absolutely. I mean, that goes back to what they said about one set of dominant values versus having a lot of different value combinations. And I mean, it sounds very abstract, but let’s go back to maybe the Netflix example. You have different genres, and those different genres go all the way to micro genres. So that means, maybe noir, that is also anime, that is also romance, and that is like science fiction at the same time and they’re all those micro texts. for content. Imagine if the T-shirt was described in such a granular way and then on the other side. You have me, I’m Serbian living in New York for 20 years, highly educated professional, these are my tags. Your tags are like entrepreneur with a company with a family in LA With two kids and match your tags with the content tags or with a T shirt tags, and you’re getting a combination that is very unique, it’s very personalized.



So what we’re dealing with now is that the Internet basically allows such a level of personalization that mass brands have a hard time addressing all off that it’s not that they can’t. They absolutely can. But in order to achieve that, they would need to become thousands of brands. They need to have collection of street wear, collection for mothers or collection for someone who likes to live in their sweatpants, which is basically all of us right now and then like division of all the communication, the packaging, the newsletter, the messages for each one of us. I think we’re moving towards very granular way because we can.



Do you see any fashion brand specifically that are moving that direction?



Oh yeah, I think a lot of like the DTC brands are very targeted towards… Even the platforms that you have now. This platform, called The Yes, is using stylist and artificial intelligence and you’re basically like scroll through your Instagram feed and you’re like, “Like this, Like that, like that”. And you get hyper personalized curation of stuff.


Right. But do you see any large luxury brands or fashion brands in general that are starting to create sub brands that let them speak to these different communities?



I don’t see that but what I do see is collaborations. So what they’re trying to do that… Right now, it’s very blunt instrument right now. It’s very like, “Oh, younger and older”. It’s very demographic, but it can be selected… I’ll give you an example. I think in CPG we see a lot of that. I didn’t invent this but for example, Nestle, they have Evian and they have Volvic. They have just other regular waters. And each of those waters they’re created with a different value proposition. One is for health and wellness, the other is for vitality, the third one is luxury the fourth one is just hydration. So, they created all those different needs states and we haven’t seen that yet in massive retail.



And yes, you’re absolutely right. When you brought up hacking culture, when you have those massive brands. They were setting the trends, but there was one trend, it was one. And now you have those niche communities going back to taste communities because we have Internet, because we can connect in micro communities with like-minded others, we can have absolutely specific taste. Maybe I love just Momotaro Japanese jeans and I’ll find those and that I’m going to know what the new trends in that super subarea are.



You know what else struck me about all of this conversation is that, as you’ve pointed out, all of this only happened in the last 10 years. It took 10 years for the last 100 years to be disrupted this way. You know, like you said, all these cultural things when it comes to our social systems changing, the Internet, all the things that you’ve described. So obviously it’s one thing when people say the change of or the pace of innovation isn’t going to slow down, it’s another thing to understand that it’s not even ramping up slowly. It’s like a switch flipped. Have you thought about like what the next 10 years might look like?



Oh, I mean, that’s your asking… Yeah. Okay, so let’s just go back for a second. I think in last 10 years it was like almost everything came to fruition. But I think, as I said, that’s why on purpose went back to 1950s and IKEA and a value curve. Back then, when was that big decoupling or think about automobiles, there was one person who can afford an automobile 100 years ago or maybe 120 years ago, and that was luxury.



And now, what is luxury is how can you customize your automobile or if you drive a Tesla, how does that reflect your environmental values that you wanna signal. The value curve completely changed. So what happened in the past 10 years, I believe, is simultaneously fragmentation off taste, all of a sudden, we’re like, “Hey, wait, why do I need to go on by J.Crew when I can buy like 35 other things”. Think about denim, for example, you used to buy denim from Levi’s or from Wrangler or from Diesel like 20 years ago. Now every single brand offers denim. So I think it’s the combination of factors but it’s also on-demand economy, it’s not about the supply. And when you have so much choice, it becomes how do you curate that choice?



This all comes to like, “Okay, what are brands supposed to do with this”? And that’s what the bulk of your book talks about and you discuss this readiness, as you say, to create, distribute and deliver social, cultural and environmental capital to your audience. A lot of this I can imagine is long term thinking that’s gonna butt up against short term goals and growth targets for a company. What does it really take for not just a founder but an entire company to embrace this new way forward? Because when I was reading this book, I was thinking, what kind of leadership does this require? I know that’s a big question, but what are some of the big things that you’ve seen leading the companies that you’ve worked at that are good signals that a company will be able to embrace what you’ve described her


Right, well when I mean… I think that… thank you for asking that because when I was finishing the book, it was end of March and then I realized I need to go back and I need to add a chapter about how changes that we’ve seen due to global pandemic and our own unpreparedness for it because science fiction writer Frederic Paul said, “It’s not innovation to create an automobile. It’s innovation to predict traffic jam”. So you’re very right.


I mean, we’re very unprepared for all sorts of externalities, of our actions, and we’re still unprepared for externalities of our actions when it comes to climate, and that’s gonna hit us very soon. So, the way I was thinking throughout the book about the brand is like the brands until recently, or even until this spring, they’re rewarding a bad behaviors of both their companies and individuals. They put forward imagery that is like Castle and “Just do it” and your an individual, you need to be better than others and if you buy our products, use our services, you’re distinguishing yourself from your peers or you’re better than your neighbors and so on.


And all of a sudden you’ve seen this narrative, that’s unbelievably communal now, that’s very empathetic, that is very human, that is very like, “No, no, there is no one hero. All of us are heroes”. So that, in a sense, needs to flip the script of the brands to say, “Hey, no, it’s more towards our communities and how we support each other and how we solve problems together”.


I remember talking to you about this the first time we did our podcast and it was a totally different topic, but it brought me to the same question. I mean, is this permanent change? I feel like Americans have some really deep seeded capitalism based values. I mean, are we going to, I don’t want to say learn a lesson, it’s just the world is changing, but are our values permanently changing. Or do you think this is temporary?


Well, that is the second part of my answer is talking about case shape desperation. So people are saying, “Oh, what I just answered, people are going to pay attention. Brands are going to be more sustainable and to spend and people are going to buy more sustainable and they’re going to want a more socially responsible companies and so on”. And yes, that’s I’m sure that is going to be a group of people or a class of people who are definitely going to say, “Hey, I’m going to invest less but better”, but the large swath of population are going to buy what they can afford so when you talk about fast fashion or fly Ryanair and so on, people are buying at Zara and Poshmark because that’s only the only thing they can afford.


So we have this like this wide gap that has become unbelievably obvious, it was there and it before and it was there for some time, when you have that like class of people who are ordering Ubers and class of people who are driving Ubers. And I think that is actually shaping the aspirational economy. This is not something I talked about when I was writing a book as I came to the very end and I completely agree with you that that is this strong capitalistic spirit in the United States but it is unbelievable inequality that is now in the focus.


In terms of capturing the mood of a moment, how do brands actually do this? And it’s so crucial. A lot of times when brands do it, it almost looks it was… In hindsight, it seems like it was almost by accident. But how can a brand capture a moment, let’s say, even just this moment right now, and use it as a way to support the communities that are their consumers?


Well, the ways that I describe in the book is twofold. I do look with what the small group of people is doing that going back to same taste community of, say runners, for example, or cyclists or nutritionist or wellness aficionados and so on. They’re telling you where the future is going because these are those edge cases and they go very deep into specific area. For example, Panagonia fans and their passion for environmentalism, I would not even think that they are fans, they have more taste for outdoors because they’re not maybe like for me, fandom is very single minded and it’s very mass culture.


So you’re not a fan of this, so you’re a fan of that. But if you’re just a fan of… if you have a taste for something, I think it’s much softer relationship. So if you like outdoors, you’re probably going to preserve that outdoors and you’re going to want to probably care about the environment and you probably care about climate change so you’re probably going to care not only to buy Patagonia jacket because it allows you to spend 55 hours outdoors, but you’re also probably going to care about what you buy to eat or if you recycle and other behavioral and passion points. So that is one way of looking at it.


How are the people who are very passionate about certain thing or that have a taste for a certain thing, what are they doing or those who like food aficionados you have now, for example, on Instagram, a giant economy of direct to consumer food brands who are completely bypassing being a brand and bringing this back to the market economy when we were going and buying like the farmer’s market, people buying from people because thanks to the pandemic and stores being closed and so on, a lot of people like they don’t have jobs in their backyard they started growing vegetables or making teas or curing meats and so on. And they’re just going to Instagram to sell that.


And we’re buying from other people because thanks to Instagram, thanks to that visual sort of culture, we know about their lives. When you go to say, Haus or the Aperitif or East Fork, you know, about the family, you know about their kids, you know about their values, you know what they stand for, you know how they spend their time, you know how they treat their employees. That’s one micro way of sort of seeing that the future is going so I see a lot more personal relationships if I have to give any prediction. And that’s not like ground breaking but when you think about how big brands are communicating is a very, very, very far away from that. And that goes back to what we talked about.


It’s like all of overall micro overall personalization, if I get from J.Crew newsletter that knows me so intimately, I would have a completely different relationship with a brand that you have, for example. So that clarifies a bit the previous point about the mass brands and micro. And the second way is to how do you read the room, read the mood. And I always say Japanese have this expression “Kuuki wo yomu, which is how do you read the atmosphere? So right now, when you read an atmosphere is like everyone is on the edge. If you’re a brand, you’re not going to be, “La, la, la, la, la, nothing’s going on”. You probably want to show empathy for how people are feeling.


Right. It’s interesting that you mentioned farmer’s markets, too. We were doing research for a brand a while ago, maybe one or two years ago. And part of the demographic that they wanted… And I know demographics or maybe an antiquated way of looking at this but that’s where we started. And they wanted to, because of the cost of the product, really speak with super affluent people in regions but regions everywhere from California, straight through the Midwest to the East Coast. And we were trying to find insights about how people ate and see if we understood or could understand their value systems around the food that they bought.


And you’d think with such affluent people, with the other behaviors that we observed when I would talk to them about the food that they bought, I was expecting to hear like organic or grass fed or the kinds of diets they were on or the nootropic sacks that they were taking but the most common… I mean, it was remarkable. Everyone I spoke to brought up farmer’s markets and it forced us to realize, oh, people are not relating to food as a function. Food is part of their larger value system around how they relate to other people. And it totally changed the way we looked at the brands. And I think farmers markets… Just when you described that, it brought up that example for me, because I think another thing about capturing the mood or the zeitgeist is you really have to be open to what the information is going to tell you, because it’s not always what you’re expecting.


That’s exactly what to say, if you care about the environment, you are not a fan of Patagonia. You care about the environment, that is the primary relationship with the world that you have and then also buy organic and you also buy also… That is a great…


Exactly. The big question that this leaves me with then is and I see this with founders that we talk to all of the time, can you do what we’re describing here without being a part of that taste community? Can you sell to, let’s say, an audience of parents that have a certain taste community around, I don’t know, whatever and it relates to like values of childhood and things like that without being a parent yourself? Because I feel like we saw a wave of brands when I was coming up in brand strategy that were founded by people who did not look like their audiences and that was okay because they were creating value innovation like you’ve described. They were disrupting models, they were building brands that were very sticky. But now that consumers have changed how they relate to brands, as you’ve described, is there room for founders who don’t look like their users?


But that’s I think where the empathy comes in, that’s what was the big shift is from just having your own vision and then just being able to capture the mood in society and in culture and just having empathy for your users and their way of life and how they relate. So I think that is more of a shift from founder’s centric to customer centric organization or from the board centric, again, to customer centric organization. And I know it sounds like it’s been said a lot before, but it’s the hardest thing to do. The reason why omnichannel hasn’t happened yet, it’s not because of the lack of technology or data is just because organizations are siloed and they’re not organized around their customers.



Yeah, I think the empathy piece is really important. That’s a hard north star to kind of build a company around.



It’s very hard exactly, because it requires operational empathy and it requires operational and it requires empathy to be operationalized and it requires organizational empathy and I don’t think that’s something we talk about enough. You know, we hear people say, “Oh, empathy is important”. But is like how do you really operationalize that throughout your organization?



Yeah, that’s a great question.



Or through your value chain. So, I think that is going to be a great mandate for the next 10 years, back to your question.



So after all this is said and done, luxury is no longer connected to wealth and opulence. The ability to acquire our value systems have changed. Access means something different, taste has fragmented. Social classes are defined differently. After all of that, what’s left? If you had to define modern luxury in one sentence, what are we left with?


I think one thing that we are left… it’s not going to answer your question directly, but it’s that we have to work hard on our social cohesion, we have to work very hard to feel part of the same culture and the same society. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think that we are forced to see and understand and listen to each other and recognize our differences and accept our differences. So that’s going to lead to a more diverse society. Having all those taste communities, because in a sense, mass media masked our diversity and our differences and our racial differences and our economic differences. But now we have to find a way to reconcile them if we are to to survive as a society. So I think that is one big takeaway.

And when it comes to modern luxury, this is going to be very unpopular opinion, old luxury is the new luxury. And honestly…


That is an unpopular opinion!


It is very unpopular opinion because during this pandemic, we’ve seen the people who have money actually fared way better than people who don’t and when you’re on your yacht in the middle of Mediterranean or in your luxury bunker or in your giant house with the pool, that is what mattered all of a sudden, forget about this aspirational economy. Forget about this experience economy and travel and leisure and food and culture. When you don’t have access to any of that, what matters is hardcore cash and estate. And that’s what you’re seeing now, people are going back to stores, they’re buying things again, they may not want to sit on a plane, but they want to still feel good about themselves so they’re buying stuff.


That’s hard to argue with. And I know you’re saying it from a very nonjudgmental place. I think what I like about the way you think about things is that even though there’s a time and place to talk about whether any of this is good or bad, you can’t get there if you don’t look at all this objectively and just ask yourself the truth of what’s happening. And that means sometimes you arrive at an unpopular opinion. And I think that’s what’s so alluring about your writing. But to wrap this up, I want to ask you about what you’re seeing yourself as a consumer. So you’ve been in this business for a long time. You’ve led some amazing companies. You’ve had some of the most provocative thinking out there. You yourself are a luxury consumer, you’re part of the modern aspiration economy.



From both ends, you have access. But if we took that access away from you, you also have the knowledge and the wokeness. You walk both paths. So for you, what brands are really exciting and kind of playing in this primordial clay of these new aspirational systems or whatever systems are taking us back to what old luxury was like, what are some brands that kind of get it and excite you a consumer?


Well, I always like to see when brands are disrupting themselves before being disrupted. So for me IKEA is a great example. I don’t know why I’m so into it, but I guess when I was researching for… I wrote about five different business models in modern aspirational economy and I looked at the value disruption for IKEA and they’re doing it again because you know what they’re doing? They’re basically inventing the furniture to the small businesses and students. They are rebuying from people who are… who don’t need any more of their stuff. They’re also providing parts for their furniture because they don’t want they want to avoid that association with cheap with Zara basically. “Oh, I’m just going to have this sofa for a year and then I’m going to discard it then it’s going to end up on a landfill”. So they are very actively working on changing that perception and what really attracted me to that sort of thinking is that they’re making those to value changes part of their business model. So they’re not just doing this for PR purposes.


They actually want to make money out of rentals and they want to make money off rebuys, they want to make money on the repairs. And I think that’s a blueprint for it for many for fashion industry, above all, like there is a handful, if any, like Ganni for example, again another Scandinavian company who partnered with Levi’s for the recycled denim and I think is a good way to think about that is like which companies out there are basically moving their products from functional level, something you wear and discard or use and throw away to the next level of the ritual level with the taste comes in, “Maybe how do I make coffee or any grind my own coffee at home”, to the level of a collectible. “Do I have these Ganni jacket because it was made of recycled Levi’s denim”. And then to the sacred object, “Do I wear this jacket only once a year when there is Christmas sort or a family gathering”.

So I think that brands can operate in any of those layers, but it’s basically, we need to really rethink the relationship with objects as consumers.


And you as a consumer, do you feel like you’ve changed at all in just the last few months in any permanent ways?



I don’t think so and that may be disappointing to hear but I’m more cautious when I’m buying things but that’s just the situation, just because if you don’t go to the office, if you’re not socializing at the same pace is before, of course, you’re not going to be like, “Oh my God, I need this jacket” or something. I still have that but I’m not in that … it’s just situational so I don’t think that’s permanent at all. So it remains to be seen really, I don’t think I really changed that much. I mean, give me new habits, I want to replace my old habits. But right now, I don’t have anything to replace old habits with.

I think it’s also important to emphasize that change happens slowly and then all at once. So whatever change we’re not seeing right now, we may actually see next year or in two years. And we’re going to be like where did this come from.


And you’re you’re open to the fact that might happen to you as well.


Absolutely. Oh, absolutely. And, you know what? One thing that did change, we were in Mexico City and I’m so sensitive to inequality, economic inequality. I think maybe I’m seeing more of that, just having more empathy to how people live and the discrepancy between rich and poor.


Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Unseen Unknown, if you’re new here and you like what you’re listening to. I have one request and one offer. First, we’d love it if you left us a review. I read those reviews. They mean a lot to me, but more importantly, they help us get this podcast in front of the right people. Secondly, I’d love to give you more of our brand strategy thinking in the form of articles that we write, the videos that we publish, and anything else that captures our attention. Just sign up for our newsletter at and I promise you won’t be disappointed. Thanks for listening and I’ll catch you next time.

Interesting Links & More Reading


The 14 Rules of Identity

Image credits clockwise from top left: Mihai Stefan, Carlos Arthur, Emil Vilsek, Erik Lucatero, Kyle Loftus, Almos Bechtold, Ethan Haddox, Ali Marel.

How to radically change your brand’s relationship with the user: A companion piece to The 16 Rules of Brand Strategy.

Identity precedes everything in brand strategy.

Before your company, before your product, before your market, there is your user’s identity, and that identity dictates the world your brand gets to play in.

Everything we do as consumers is an expression of who we are.

From conversion to consumption to churn, every action we take is aligned with how we see ourselves, and identity is the underlying code that makes those behaviors happen the way they do.

Identity triggers behavior.

If you can understand that code, you can radically change your relationship with the user — so radically, that your users pivot even their most deeply rooted behaviors and beliefs.

We’re constantly feeding our minds with meaning and narrative, bringing our identities to life every day through the stories we tell ourselves.

Whether it be zoning out during the ride to work or the way we treat the barista at the coffee shop, we not only live in these moments, but also observe ourselves through a third (extremely subjective) eye as they happen — “Beautiful woman is lost in her thoughts on the the way to the office”…“Man with kind eyes tips the barista a little extra because he has character.

It’s the nature of identity to experience something in the moment while also contextualizing that experience for meaning.

That eye is a perpetual reinforcement of who we are and where we belong, and the single most personal story we tell ourselves.

The story is also the world in which your brand will live.

While most brands only consider the observable world of their ideal users, truly smart brands look for the hidden inner world that operates within each user.

That’s the world where decisions get made. If you can understand that world, you can make the right decisions happen.

In order to know how to speak to your user, you have to first understand how they speak to themselves when no one else is listening.

The best brands among us already demonstrate this:

  • TED created a new world of ideas, but also let us see ourselves as casual experts without the usual mental and emotional labor involved. They realized that while we may have wanted to learn, what we really wanted was to just know something.
  • Trader Joe’s started a food movement, but also constantly evolved their inventory and rearranged their stores, creating the thrill of discovery so that we could tell ourselves we were not only healthy people, but health tastemakers on the bleeding edge.
  • HBO’s daring and intelligent content changed television, and also allowed us to see ourselves no longer as just viewers, but as active participants. We once told ourselves we were an audience, but now believe we are active agents.

These brands changed not only the outer world, but our private inner worlds as well… and that is the most powerful way to build a brand.

They understood that identity was the starting point.

The quickest way to get there for your own brand is to understand how our identities form in the first place.

This is a list of the most important identity constructs we’ve learned at our agency. They are the rules and truths that guide any internal monologue in any audience.

Time and again, they’ve helped us get past the distractions on the surface and into the minds of the people we’re trying to speak to.

There is an inner world hiding in plain sight.

Use these guidelines to get there.

1. If you believe something, you will find the proof to support it.

I never thought I was very athletic, although I desperately wanted to be athletic growing up in high school. The story (which felt as real and deep as my DNA) was that I just didn’t get that gene.

I dropped out of tennis lessons and chickened out of kayaking not because the story was true, but because I was looking for proof of the story I believed.

Then I had my DNA sequenced at the age of 36 and it turns out I have the ACTN3 gene, which is in fact associated with athletic performance in elite power athletes.

My surprising 23andMe result instantly changed my internal story.

The moment I read that, my relationship to my body changed and a new script started playing. I suddenly felt something inside of me that was always there, but I simply did not believe in.

Nothing in reality had ever changed. I had that gene for 36 years, but when my internal monologue shifted, so did my beliefs, and thus my behaviors. I got a personal trainer, started tennis and kayaking, and began to treat my body very differently.

We will always find proof for the stories we believe.

Our internal scripts are so powerful, it’s nearly frightening.

  • Vice changed our script about serious journalism
  • WeWork changed our script about work that doesn’t look like work
  • Tinder changed our script around the shame of casual sex

You, too, can change the script for the betterment of your users.

Look for the story that needs changing and then create a new reality where that story can live. Give your users new proof, new evidence, new rules. Give them a new architecture to build their stories on top of.

Give them all of the props and staging they need in order to step inside the new narrative.

(More on this here: Dig Deeper — The Secret To Gripping Brand Narratives.)

2. Income doesn’t really mean anything.

If people want it, they’ll find the money for it.

Most of the people in your local Verizon store shouldn’t be spending $1k on an iPhone. But they do. And most of them upgrade every year, too.

Don’t waste your time with two-dimensional demographic info that only tells you what people should do, instead of what people want to do.

We spend our money on the things we believe in.

Look at psychographics instead.

Understand what permissions people give themselves in order to do or buy something outside of their usual scope… or better yet, what permissions they’re still waiting for.

Remember that Apple gave us the permission to make electronics a signal of our self-worth, before we even knew we wanted it.

Oftentimes gender, age and socio-economic background don’t matter, either. The people who can afford your product are the people who can afford to have their minds changed.

Ask yourself who those people are, and what drives their purchase behaviors more than their budgets.

That’s where you’ll find your answer.

(More on this here: How To Create Powerful Brand Messaging — 5 Truths and a Framework.)

3. What people really want is to learn about themselves.

Most brand positioning takes one of three forms:

  1. This is what our product does.
  2. This is what you can do with our product.
  3. This is who you can become with our brand.

The third positioning, This is who you can become with our brand, is the most powerful position to come from, and the only direction that the consumer mindset is headed for in the foreseeable future.

Ikea knows that even affordable modular furniture can reveal something on an emotional level.

This year, they’ve announced a slew of daring collaborations with not only breakthrough fashion icons like Virgil Abloh and OFF WHITE, but also musicians like Solange and her arts and culture hub Saint Heron, perfume creator Ben Gorham, and childhood throwback Lego.

The message is clear — you can become a creator with IKEA. This isn’t about furnishing your apartment anymore.

It’s a realization that changes your relationship with both the company and yourself.

There is perhaps nothing more valuable for your user than the experience of realizing who they are.

Every action your brand takes is a reflection of your positioning. It’s easy to go with This is what our product does, or This is what you can do with our product, but that’s leaving money on the table.

Push yourself to create a different a story that weaves both you and the customer into the future. A story that will deeply change both of you.

(More on this: How To Be Different, Not Better.)

4. Values rarely change. Beliefs change easily.

Short of a life changing event, consumer values typically don’t budge.

The beliefs that sit on top of those values, however, do change easily.

Cannabis startup MedMen knew that changing peoples’ anti-drug values was a dead end, but changing the belief that sat on top of that value — the belief that drug users are bad people — could in fact be changed.

MedMen ads challenge your beliefs with a heavy dose of empathy.

MedMen’s new narrative gave people room to understand that you can be a drug user and still be a good person.

And logic only dictates that if you want to use marijuana, you can still maintain your values and stay a good person, too.

The ads above literally crossed out the old belief and inserted the new one. Now your drug use didn’t define you. Your humanity did.

Changing our values is extremely uncomfortable. Changing our beliefs is a lot easier.

Brands that keep your values in tact but change your subsequent beliefs allow you, the user, to grow without the pain of changing your worldview.

Make sure you separate beliefs from values and know where to insert your narrative.

Yes, you can change values if that’s really where you want to go, but sometimes people only have room to shift their belief systems.

5. Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t always correlate with wealth.

Somewhere along the line, we started believing wealth pushes people up Maslow’s hierarchy.

But oftentimes it doesn’t.

Not everyone gets to the top of the pyramid. Not even the wealthiest among us.

Source: Big Think

While it may be largely true that increased prosperity moves people up the bottom three tiers, we’ve found in our work that the top two tiers actually correlate a lot less with wealth than you’d expect.

Many consumers in the top 5% have the disposable income to donate to charity, give back to their communities, volunteer, partake in immersive travel, become more spiritual, expand their world views or philosophies (all behaviors that reflect self-actualization and self-transcendence), but get stuck somewhere between the love/ belonging and esteem stages.

Wealth doesn’t move you up the pyramid. Confidence does.

It takes more than money to move up Maslow’s hierarchy.

Mindset, not money, defines where we are.

If you’re surprised that your wealthy neighbors hold xenophobic views, or your prosperous family members won’t give change to homeless people, it’s likely because their money moved up the pyramid faster then their hearts could.

Similarly, just because your customer is affluent doesn’t mean your corporate social responsibility program will resonate or your environmentally friendly practices will keep them from churning.

Make sure you understand where your customer is before you make any assumptions.

If you can help them move up a little faster with your brand, that’s even better.

6. People can have different identities in different parts of their lives.

I call this Poly Identification, and as more and more rules about class, gender and social roles begin to evaporate around us, the more comfortable we have become with letting people carry multiple identities at once.

As I wrote in Business of Fashion last year:

When Chiara Ferragni dresses in head-to-toe Chanel one day and Supreme and sneakers the next, she’s not just mixing styles, she’s moving between spaces.

It’s indicative of a much larger trend of millennial consumers willing to simultaneously identify as preppy, bohemian, emo, street, glam or any other number of subcultures.

Indeed, young consumers increasingly travel between styles instead of committing to a singular diehard identity. Rather than breaking out of the box, they collect boxes that reflect different senses of self at any given moment, on any given day.

It’s obvious in fashion, but also evident in our careers, love lives and social circles.

Kim Kardashian and Howard Stern can travel between wildly different identities without friction. That wouldn’t have been possible a generation ago.

Instead of fitting into boxes, people are increasingly moving between them.

Identities are a mosaic.

You can find a way to let people explore a different dimension of their identities or make a certain dimension fit in with others, but you can’t assume your user looks the same to you as they do in other parts of their lives.

7. You can’t leapfrog fear.

No matter how positive, hopeful or uplifting your brand promise is, you have to resolve any fear that may precede it.

Food tech companies tend to struggle with this.

Impossible Foods, Memphis Meats and Perfect Day have compelling brand messaging, but it all sits on a house of cards. Consumers still have a fear of the unknown in modified foods just as they always have with GMOs.

You can’t skip messages when it comes to fear. Fear must be resolved before any higher message can be adopted.

You already know a confused buyer never buys. Confusion is a form of fear. There are other common forms of fear, too:

  • Hate
  • Anger
  • Misunderstanding
  • Phobia
  • Bias

A2 Milk is from regular dairy cows while Perfect Day creates dairy without the animal.

Granted, A2 doesn’t have the same battle against consumer biases that Perfect Day has, but they still understand that the fear must be alleviated first before the optimistic horizon can be introduced:

A2 Milk homepage.

Their messaging turns unspoken fear into a simple story that consumers can tell themselves whenever those uncomfortable feelings crop up.

Perfect Day, on the other hand, let’s an unspoken fear sit in the mind of the consumer:

Perfect Day Homepage.

Do a sense check of your brand and see if fear is creeping up anywhere in your user experience. It can be sitting right under a positive sentiment.

Consumers can skip over most other emotions if something bigger is on the horizon, but fear is like quicksand.

Don’t let people get stuck.

8. Everyone has a garden.

Everyone has something they hold dear. Something they nurture often. A place where they focus the expression of their identity.

The mistake we make as brand strategists oftentimes is stopping short of finding that garden.

The garden is that one expressive outlet that reveals far more about your user than any other insight.

You’ll know it when you find it:

  • It will be where you user feels the most comfortable to be themselves
  • It will reveal what your user values the most
  • It will usually tell you when and where you can break the rules

Life hacking is a fascinating garden that reveals a lot about the men and women who spend time in it. Tim Ferris podcasts, Bulletproof Coffee and all live there.

It’s a garden where men, especially, can obsess freely over their bodies, reveal values that can easily be mistaken for vanity, and give you one important insight that goes against many other commonly held beliefs — that men will pay a lot of money to feel good.

HVMN knows this. That’s why their branding taps directly into a psychographic that wants to “Be Impossible”.

The video’s adrenaline-laced visuals tie in things like aging, mood and cognition, metabolism, obesity, inflammation, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.

This is hyper self-care for men.

It’s compulsive wellness. All-consuming self indulgence.

And if you didn’t look in that garden, you may have kept believing the stereotype that men are far less concerned about those things than women.

There is always something valuable in the garden.

If you can find it for your consumers, you’ll hit on something important.

9. We will do a lot to ease our cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance occurs whenever we believe something about ourselves, but act in a way that diverges from those beliefs. For example, we may believe we are healthy lovers, but fail to stay in any long term relationships.

That rift between what we believe and what we do creates an unease, and usually points to where we have the most dissatisfaction in our lives.

That’s why the love industry is so big and people are willing to spend immense amounts of money on both legit forms of help (books, therapy) and more questionable ones (reiki practitioners, fortune tellers and energy workers).

Sometimes our entire identities are driven by the motivation to narrow that cognitive gap.

Esther Perel understands that as desperately as we want to see ourselves as enlightened romantic partners, we do very little to actually get there. That’s why she’s positioned herself as a relationship explorer.

Instead of offering relationship advice in the traditional form that only creates more distance between who we are and how we see ourselves, she offers a path for self-discovery.

The Esther Perel experience allows people to see themselves as experts instead of disciples, and that brings our behavior a lot closer to our beliefs. She teaches us not how to fix, but how to think.

Look for gaps that need closing in the minds of your own audience.

Solving a problem for your user is great, but easing their cognitive dissonance can have a much greater emotional impact.

There is likely something that your user wants more than just a solution.

[More on that here: The Cognitive Dissonance Hiding Behind Strong Brands.]

10. “Everyone is a hero in their own story” … but there are different kinds of heroes.

If you’ve read my writing, you know this is one of my favorite quotes.

It forces you to identify with anyone, and without judgement. I often refer to this quote when I find myself bothered or turned off by a customer profile because it brings me back to a place of empathy right away and helps me see the goal my user sees.

Empathy is a great homing device.

Keep in mind, however, that different people are different kinds of heroes:

  • There are the anti-heroes that look like villains on the outside and need someone to see them for who they truly are
  • There are the reluctant heroes that not only need the motivation to take on their destinies, but are secretly hoping and waiting for someone to give it to them
  • There are the catalyst heroes who act heroically, but rarely want change much themselves in the process
  • There are the tragic heroes that believe they will continue to stumble and fail, and may resist a narrative that says otherwise
  • There are the willing heroes who are eager to take on the challenge, and expect to get the Hollywood ending

Every kind of hero needs a different kind of message, but every one of them can be motivated to act.

Understand your hero, and you will understand how to make them move.

An anti-hero (like Harley Davidson’s customer) needs to be discovered while a willing hero (like Nike’s customer) expects you to already know who he is.

11. The journey is starting to matter more than the destination.

Something has started to change in the psyche of most post-boomer American consumers.

The end goal is starting to matter less, and the experience of getting there is starting to matter more.

Consumers are gradually entering a constant state of evolution.

Rather than defining themselves as who they are (a state of being), they are defining themselves by who they are turning into (a state of becoming).

Our ever-evolving co-working setups, our daily experiments in beauty and nutrition, and the transformative experiences we fervently search for in everything we do (from spiritually uplifting SoulCycle sessions to healing travel) show how the becoming piece matters more and more.

I refer to this as the treadmill vs. the step ladder. Previous generations understood social class and the incremental step ladder you moved up into in each rung.

Today we are moving along something that looks far more like a treadmill — no destination and no gatekeepers, but a constant experience of moving upward.

When people move from a ladder to a treadmill, you need to center your brand around the journey, not the end point.

That’s an important difference.

[More on this here: In The Transformational Economy, ‘Being’ and ‘Becoming’ Have Started To Merge.]

12. There are utility users, and there are premium users. You can’t speak to both, but you can turn one into the other.

Every client we work with wants to move upmarket to a more premium user, but many of them get scared when they realize that premium positioning will likely box out their core utility user base… even when that core is limiting them.

You can’t win over both with the same branding, but you can turn a utility user into a premium one.

Utility users need to be educated into caring about the right things. You need to find something more important than value-for-price that they can latch onto.

Lululemon didn’t miss out on a mainstream market. They turned a mainstream market into a premium one by educating and transforming those users into discerning yoga wear addicts.

Lululemon hired Vice to help explain and expand to the mainstream.

If you feel yourself sweating in the brand strategy process because you don’t want to leave your non-premium core behind, change your perspective.

You don’t have to leave them behind. You have to change them so they’ll come with you.

Give them a message that will make price irrelevant.

13. There is value in the ‘in-between’ spaces.

Consumers in every vertical of every category are looking for greater meaning, and they’re finding it in the connections between spaces.

Health is no longer just a doctor’s visit. It’s mind-body-spirit. It’s a juice cleanse, a heart-to-heart with your partner and a colonic. It’s a trainer and a nutritionist and therapist.

Beauty is no longer just an eye cream. It’s a non-inflammatory diet, a 24 karat facial and stem cell serums.

Career success is no longer a well paying office job. It’s a personal brand, an active blog and a creative side gig.

The connections between spaces have put new life into old paradigms.

Connections give consumers the answers (and narratives) they’re looking for.

All of these examples create a narrative of how and why we do things.

They add meaning and value in a way we can control. Instead of just trusting a drugstore eye cream brand, you have an empowering story of how and why your beauty routine is working.

Just like religion and folklore, connective stories become part of our hardwiring.

Look for how your brand can connect to more than just one part of someone’s life. There is a story to be told that is much bigger than your product.

Make the connection and go deeper into your consumer’s world.

14. Identity is a story.

Truth has very little to do with identity. How we interpret that truth is what matters.

To change a person is to change the stories that define them.

Every construct on this list culminates in this one, simple fact.

If you want to really see a person, look beyond the ‘truth’ of their external lives — listen to the stories they tell themselves internally.

Behavior, belief, bias, conversion all weave together to tell a tale. No one of these things can demonstrate who your consumer is. But together, they do just that.

Don’t get distracted by facts and statistics. Don’t chase after trends.

Instead listen for the story arc that emerges from them.

(Here are some common ones we all like to tell ourselves: Pain, Villains and Fuck You Money)

Reaching For Identity

Searching for identity can feel like grabbing at clouds. Just when you think you’re holding the truth, it slips through your fingers.

That’s because truly understanding someone else’s identity is an out-of-body kind of experience. It’s one thing to see it on paper. It’s another thing to feel it your bones.

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”
― Patti Digh

But no matter how you cut it, identity is where it all starts.

You can’t know where your brand belongs if you don’t know what world it’s living in.

This is a companion piece to The 16 Rules of Brand Strategy.


16: Systems In Flux: The hidden divergent forces shaping the next generation of brands, consumers, and capitalism