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.

Brand Strategy

When Consumer Habits Fall Apart, Look For The Rituals That Remain

Now is the time to decide if your brand is a habit or a ritual

When people or brands say, “We’ll get through this together,” or “After the Coronavirus has passed,” they’re revealing a lie in our collective words of encouragement.

There will very likely be no “before and after” COVID.
Instead, there will be a very slow tumbling of closures and business failures, amplified by a reshuffling of social norms and broken ideals.

Today, grocery stores have begun installing plexiglass barriers and safe standing zones for checkout, while airlines have less and less direct flights and stewards ask travelers to raise their hands to go the bathroom. Tomorrow will bring us ultra-hygienic hotels and contactless restaurants.

We won’t really know when we’re out of this, and that means we won’t go back to many of the habits that characterized our pre-COVID lives.

As business slows, the retail landscape contracts, lagging companies rush to D2C and we unwillingly embrace uncertainty in the face of a global deceleration, now is the time to ask yourself what your brand actually means to consumers.

Is your brand a habit or a ritual?

It’s an important question because there’s a good chance many habits will not survive the current climate, but rituals will.
And most of our habits are centered on the products we buy.

Habits make life easy. Rituals make life meaningful.

In a consumer study last month, market research firm Perksy found that 70% of Millennial and Gen Z buyers have already switched brands:

Perksy Study: April 14th, 2020

Granted, much of this brand switching is happening because of lack of availability, but even so, 44% of those who have switched brands are likely to keep buying those new brands after the pandemic has ended:

April 14th, 2020

The vast majority of brands and products are consumed like habits — a regular tendency to repeat the same purchasing behavior because it cuts down on friction, cognition or effort.

We buy the same brand of chips, underwear or personal electronics because we already know we can trust them. Not because they’re the best, but because the effort involved in finding the best outweighs our current ‘good enough’ solution.

That’s why when those habits are effectively disrupted, it’s very easy to stay with the new solution, even if the old solution becomes available again.

But as brands large and small lose their customer base to manufacturing disruptions and retail closures, there is a segment of companies that is not suffering the same consequences.

As sociologist and brand executive Ana Andjelic has pointed out, “Show me what’s NOT accelerating and let’s figure out why.”

In her recent piece, Contradictions, Inversions, Oddities, and Coincidences, she notes that astoundingly, cruise ship bookings for 2021 are already outpacing bookings for 2019.

Moreover, “76 percent of the travelers who canceled a cruise in 2020 chose to take credit towards a future cruise in 2021, compared to 24 percent who opted for a refund.”

Cruise ships aren’t the only outlier here.

Peloton’s backorders extend out over 2 months (and continue to grow), while brands like the Mirror interactive system see huge spikes in conversion.

Yes, gyms are closed and people need a way to workout, but it seems that the very premium end of smart home workout systems is enjoying an outsized return. Even as social restrictions begin to ease, the demand for these brands continues to accelerate.

A new cottage industry for birthday parties and baby showers has sprung from ashes of the pandemic, with companies like Kiki Kit and Imagination Adventures parties offering experiential party planning that transcends the limitations of your typical Zoom call. These are immersive experiences that just happen to have a screen.

In LA, elaborate “Porch Pop-Ups” have shown up around town, with music and masked performers entertaining party goers from a safe distance on the front lawn (and even this past week, Elaine Welteroth’s stoop wedding in Brooklyn made news for its new take on celebration.)
All of these brands have one thing in common: they have ritualized the experience of their products.

We don’t fight for our habits, but we do fight for our rituals.

Rituals fulfill our current needs in a way that habits can’t.

They provide meaning in an uncertain time. They help us mark change and they tell us who we are.

It only makes sense that when our daily habits are ripped out of our hands, we hold on even tighter to the rituals that define us.

Even if your product is utilitarian in nature, or your brand is seemingly too inconsequential to be ritualized, there is a way to create greater context around your story so that you are no longer consumed like a habit.

But first, we need to understand what makes rituals so powerful.

Decoding the mechanics of a ritual.

How does a ritual actually work?

I spoke with Sasha Sagan, author of the book For Small Creatures Such As We, to answer this exact question for our brand strategy + culture podcast, Unseen Unknown.
Having grown up in a secular household with her father, astronomer Carl Sagan, and mother, author and producer Ann Druyan, Sasha’s work has been dedicated to finding meaning and rituals outside of traditional religion.

Whereas habits create ease and consistency, rituals create meaning.

According to Sasha, rituals provide us with an anchor and whether they happen daily, weekly, monthly or annually, they deepen with meaning over time.
Rituals tend to serve the same human needs:

  • Rituals help us feel the passage of time and/ or appreciate change
  • Rituals give us stability, order and routine in times of chaos
  • Rituals help us sanctify and extract context from a situation

Every one of these emotional benefits is in high demand right now.

As crazy as it might sound to take a credit for a future cruise instead of taking a refund, keep in mind that a cruise is something to look forward to every year for some people. It helps us mark the passage of time.

The $2,400+ price tag for a Peloton seems exorbitant given the glut of other options in the market, but the well-documented cult-like experience of a cycling class gives people stability, order and routine.

Birthday parties, weddings and baby showers haven’t just gone digital. They have changed venues, changed artifacts, changed norms, and changed language, but the ritual persists as a way to sanctify the moment and extract context from a time in our lives.

It can be easy to dismiss these as unique situations — brands and products that came as a result of rituals that already existed before them — but that would overlook the value of storytelling in a brand.

In fact, there is an opportunity today for brands of all kinds to position their products not as habits, but as rituals (new or old) that help people extract one of these same pillars of meaning.

Oscar Meyer’s #FrontYardCookout invited neighborhoods to replace the tradition of a backyard barbecue with friends and family, and instead create an intimate (but socially safe) front yard cookout in their driveways.

Rather than talk about quick meals or feeding hungry kids sitting in front of a screen being homeschooled all day, they elicited the tradition of summer celebration.

The golden lighting, long shadows and lawn chairs remind you of warm weather rituals — moments for pausing to reflect on the year so far and gather, reconnect and solidify relationships.

Open Spaces, the home organizing company launched late last year by cofounders Emmet Shine and Nicholas Ling of Pattern Brands, has created some great content and storytelling around the act of cleaning and organizing your home.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by OPEN SPACES (@getopenspaces)

In their Space Tapes series, they explore “the lives of our community and what they’re listening to.” Each song is tied to a story about that person’s life, a reflection on their past and life journey.

Open Spaces sells home organization items like nesting trays and wire baskets, but content like this adds gravity to the act of cleaning your home. It’s about the ritual of cleaning your mind, your soul and your heart.

That may sound like an exaggeration, but considering the Marie Kondo platitudes that float around in our digital world, it’s no stretch to have people invite deeper meaning into their spring cleaning.

[You can listen to cofounder Emmett Shine talk more about how they built the brand on our podcast here.]

Dame, a high-minded, stylishly designed women’s sexual wellness brand has started Self-Love Sundays for the month of May, beginning with a lesson on self-massage.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Sunday, a traditionally holy day, evokes thoughts of observation, pause and gratitude. The concept of self-love, even in a sexual context, feels far more intimate and important when celebrated on a weekly schedule.

None of these brands have typically ritualized products, but they found a way to either evoke a ritual or create one in their content, storytelling and positioning.

The products we need right now aren’t merely about ease and reduced friction. They’re about anchoring us, in whatever way possible, to the things that make us feel certain again.

“The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.”

— Neurologist Donald Calne

Rituals are about emotions.

If you feel that your brand is positioned as a habit, find ways to message around the emotions that your product experience creates instead.

  • Create a routine out of the experience that ties it to a sense of meaning, celebration, remembrance or normalcy
  • Provide context that makes users appreciate a larger tradition through content, storytelling and positioning
  • Offer meaning, identity or the marking/ significance of time as a benefit

Every brand tells a story. Think of the stories that your customers need right now, and start your narrative there.

This is the time to take big swings, ritualize your brand and try new storytelling. Bold moves will be celebrated. Well-intentioned mistakes will be forgiven.

Make your brand meaningful.

Brand Strategy Video

One Interesting Thing – Episode 2

insights in culture

One Interesting Thing – Episode 2

The Nature of Intelligence

Intelligence is a tricky subject to define, and yet those who have it tend to dominate our media, our education, our pop culture and even our personal relationships.

But what if intelligence isn’t what we think it is? What if, instead, intelligence is the perceived ability to predict the future?

When you take inventory of all the influential voices we turn to in our society, is it those with wisdom that we deify, or is it rather those who are willing to make a prediction about where we are headed? In fact, it seems like the wilder the prediction, the more intelligence we attribute to that person – and that has huge implications for our cultural perspectives.

For this intimate episode, we’re going into the home of Brandon Kleinman. Brandon is the founder of Opus, a serial entrepreneur, creator, and former Global Director of Strategy for Chiat Day who also works to support underprivileged and underrepresented entrepreneurs around the world. He’s also fascinated by the nature of intelligence and takes us on a journey through his life and his observations on the topic.

Written By
Jasmine Bina​

Think With Us:

Strategy In Your Inbox
Brand Strategy

Language Is Changing Entire Industries Right Before Our Eyes

This is what the business of identity looks like.

If you want to know the values of a culture, look at its language.

In America, we’ve come to talk about time through a very distinct metaphor hiding in plain sight:

  • Can you spare some time tomorrow for a quick chat?
  • Let’s make this worth our while.
  • I’ve invested a lot of time in this project.
  • Thank you for your time.
  • Don’t forget to save time for the Q&A.
  • Use your time wisely.

In American culture, time is a valuable commodity as pointed out by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their fascinating book Metaphors We Live By. You don’t see this in the languages of other cultures like those in the Middle East or Africa because their cultural values are markedly different than ours.

In this country, time is quantified. It is saved, protected, counted and measured. Just like money.

That’s because of how our concept of work evolved in the US. We pay people in hours, we rent hotel rooms by days, budgets are created annually, interest accrues over months and so on.

When we treat time like money, we give it the same inherent qualities and meaning. It takes up the same space in our heads as money does, and I’ll stress again that this is not a universally human concept. It is distinctly western and borne of our modern relationship to work.

Our words betray our history. Our common metaphors and devices map us to our shared evolution over time. What we say is tied to who we were.

You can see the same relationships in other places, too, like our use of war terminology in everyday vernacular in the U.S. to the new text and emoji languages that have sprung from the mobile screens in our hands.

Language is something we live inside of. You simply cannot separate it from the human experience.


John McWhorter talks about how texting norms like “LOL” have evolved to mean a lot more than what they initially stood for.


Language can bring us close and at the same time throw us into discomfort. If you’ve ever read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where the first person narrative of a mentally disabled protagonist was told through a stream of consciousness, you understand how quickly language can destabilize you while pulling you into a completely foreign world.

It has the capacity to change how we see our own bodies. In a recent profile of Loom, the ultra popular health education center in Los Angeles, a student stumbled upon a linguistic relic many of us have overlooked as women, but founder Chidi Cohen has not:

At the end [of the class], she passes out a variety of vibrators, anal plugs, and lube so that her students can feel their rumble, weight, and viscosity, respectively. […]

“You don’t stretch out?” someone asks, eyeing an enormous mint-green phallus.

Chidi Cohen lights up. “That’s a wonderful question,” she says… The idea of tight and loose is, again, really patriarchal. Exactly the type of junk we’re trying to dismantle.

(emphasis added)

Language like this is so deeply embedded it escapes our noticing, but it always leaves a fingerprint behind.

This same interplay between words and identity is happening in business as well.

You may not realize it, but new cultural values are seeping into nearly every industry by way of the words we use, effectively shifting our relationships to our peers and ourselves.

That’s no small thing. It’s opening up new opportunities for brands and categories that weren’t viable before, making branding itself about so much more than product.

If you’re a founder, you should realize that above all else, you’re in the business of identity. Your words and your messages (written or otherwise) are all pulling from a living language that defines who we are.

In fact, the language of every medium is going through a renaissance right now, but when it comes to business, some especially interesting changes are taking place.

The Language of Extremes: A New Relationship With The Other

This chart, created by researcher David Rozado, tracks word usage in the New York Times since 1970.

A snapshot of how our moral language has changed in the last 30 years, by researcher David Rozado.

There’s something happening here and different people have different opinions on what that is. Rozado, the researcher himself, sees it as a “peek at shifting moral culture.”

Others, like VC Paul Graham, saw it as a reflection of the news industry’s subscription model and the need to skew politically in order to win an audience:

The most interesting insight, however, came from my twitter friend Zach Shogren who pointed out that many of these terms didn’t even exist a few decades ago. Those that did exist had a completely different significance.

It’s a huge emotional burden to carry these words in our everyday language, but many (including myself) would argue a necessary one. We hear them and we ask ourselves if these words encompass us or not — if they perhaps encompass those we know or those we don’t.

Terms like triggering, micro aggression and cultural appropriation allow us to see actions that were always there, but imperceptible to us in the past. Other phrases like implicit bias, fat shaming and white privilege codify things that we have always felt, but could not fully name or explain. These words make the invisible visible. They force a new field of vision whether we like it or not.

When you can articulate human experiences that you didn’t have the words for before, you’re creating a dichotomy of 1) intimacy through revealed experience, but at the same time 2) an otherness that demarcates yourself from your peers.

Does that dichotomy sound familiar? It’s the dichotomy of tribes.

We all know about the concept of tribes in marketing thanks to Seth Godin’s genius, but what’s interesting about our new language of extremes is that it points to an evolution in how tribes operate.

Our most vibrant modern tribes are not about shared interests. They’re about grappling with who we are. And we’re inventing terms as part of that exploration.

Many strategists and marketers talk about how tribes are connected to a larger altruistic belief about how the world should be, and in some cases that may be true, but the most powerful tribes of today help us form a culture around the questions of identity.

Certain brands, and their tribes, know this.

As the brilliant brand strategist Ana Andjelic has pointed out, many of the influential brands we call disruptive are actually defining culture, not disrupting an industry:

Insights from brand strategist Ana Andjelic.

Yes, social influence is the real disruption, and language is a leading indicator of where the social signal is headed.

Patagonia, Harry’s, Dollar Shave Club — they burrowed themselves within a subculture and grew it into a mainstream vehicle for identification.

You don’t buy Rapha because you have a shared interest in cycling. You buy Rapha because you want to see how far you can push yourself physically, and that originated in a subculture mentality.


Rapha advertisement, 2019.

Rapha, in the macro, is making a comment on identity. Not just any identity, but the hyper specific identity of their tribe.

They’ve seen the language in the landscape, either through words or cultural touchstones, or any other number of communication mediums.

That New York Times chart is telling us that our identities are top of mind for us as a culture. We are moving in a million different directions trying to figure out who we are by way of our extremes.

If this new language is about defining ourselves by defining the other, then brands are a framework for turning that language into a conversation.

The Language of Wellness: A New Relationship With The Self

Self-care is a miraculous term because it has completely changed our relationship to our bodies and ourselves, especially for women. But it comes from very, very deep roots in marginalized communities, and later the civil rights, women’s, and LGBTQ movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

According to professor and writer Jordan Kisner:

The scholar Matthew Frye Jacobson points out in his book Barbarian Virtues that immigrants arriving to the United States from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century were deemed “unfit citizens” because they lacked the “ideas and attitudes which befit men to take up . . . the problem of self-care and self-government.” The same arguments were made to deny women the vote. Consequently, self-care in America has always required a certain amount of performance: a person has to be able not only to care for herself but to prove to society that she’s doing it.” […]

In 1988, the words of the African-American lesbian writer Audre Lorde became a rallying cry: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” In this formulation, self-care was no longer a litmus test for social equality; it was a way to insist to a violent and oppressive culture that you mattered, that you were worthy of care. Lorde’s quote remains the mantra of contemporary #selfcare practitioners.”

(emphasis added)

Self-care, remarkably, comes from a wildly different place than you’d expect, but in America has always carried the tension between doing something for oneself versus doing it for an audience — a tension between being run into the ground versus carving a safe space for yourself.

After 9/11, the concept of self-care started to get louder in the mainstream consciousness and after the 2016 election, reached a fever pitch by way of the “the grand online #selfcare-as-politics movement”.

Except by then it was no longer driven by the marginalized people who founded it, but rather by affluent white women — the kind you often see on Instagram who popularized the version self-care you may be familiar with today — who felt “a new vulnerability in the wake of the election”.

Self-care is a term that’s permutated between fear, strength, politics, personhood and cultural appropriation. The most authentic version of the phrase is not a marketing gimmick. It came from some place real.

That’s why it has been so powerful in changing our behaviors.

  • Self-care and sex: Today, you can find sex toys like PlusOne in Walmart (Walmart!) because they have been rebranded as self-care and sexual health tools for women. They’re right there, sitting next to the yoga equipment.
  • Self-care marijuana: CBD and marijuana are experiencing a golden age of adoption under the term self-care and wellness. It’s hard to say if increased legalization created a new narrative or the other way around, but it most likely worked both ways as changing attitudes and stories helped tip the balance of law. Gossamer, Dosist, Beboe and countless others have mushroomed in the D2C landscape under the consumer spell of self-care.
  • Self-care and beauty: Beauty is going through a huge boom in large part because we’re no longer using skincare just to look good, but to feel good, too. Ask any number of beauty CEOs from companies like Milk Makeup and Glossier and they will tell you that beauty is about having an experience that makes you feel empowered and strong.
  • Self-care and fashion: Sports brands and athleisure companies have had tremendous success selling the idea of wearing their clothing when you’re not working out. Meanwhile, a brand like Nike, who has a long heritage of fetishizing the lean, athletic body, is able to successfully spearhead discussions at the other end of the spectrum around body positivity, fat shaming and ableism.

Why have all of these industries blown up under the wellness umbrella?Because self-care has given us permission to look at ourselves differently, touch ourselves differently, relate to ourselves differently… all without saying SEX, DRUGS or VANITY.

It has created both a literal language and an experience language that’s opened up entirely new industries and audiences.

Everything means something.

Language is the most powerful brand tool you have. Whether your use it in conversation, listen to it for signals or map it back to a hidden meaning, it will always give you more than what is on the surface.

Any of these insights can be applied to industries I haven’t mentioned, and many other doors can, and will, be opened through the language we use.

Everything means something. Don’t choose your words lightly.

Brand Strategy

Mining for your brand’s “big idea” to unlock new markets

[Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash]

The only rules worth following are the ones you write yourself.

Very few companies understand the big idea behind their brand, if they even have one.

They may know their mission and vision. They may see how they plan to disrupt their space, or have a feel for what the big idea is behind their product, but the big idea behind a brand is something very different.

Your brand’s big idea is a notion or concept that changes the rules for everyone in the space — you, the customer and your competitors.

The rule used to be that food programing on television was a specialty genre. Food shows and channels were niche, much like crafting programs or channels centered around sport.

Then 9/11 happened and suddenly people were looking for comfort.

One of the first places they turned to was The Food Network. There was such a huge influx of viewership, that the company chose to rethink the very concept of their brand.

They quickly understood that food didn’t have to be about food. Food could be about entertainment and safety — a notion that was unthinkable even a few months before that point in history.

That’s a huge change in the rules.

When you change the rules, you change the paradigm. The Food Network’s big idea not only affected them, it affected their customers and perhaps above all, affected their competitors.

Alton Brown recalls that time and what it did for the landscape:

It spawned an entire comfort culture that led to the proliferation of experiential wellness and self-care, ASMR and mukbang videos, and hygge, among other things. All ways to shut off our brains and simply absorb feel-good sensory content.

Changing the rules creates a new lens that hasn’t been considered before by the user.

Very few companies today — even many of the buzziest or well funded — have a big brand idea behind them, and that’s because they’re tapping into a rule set that already exists.

Great Jones makes beautiful, affordable cookware that millennials love, but they’re playing by today’s rules of what it means to be a good host and transitioning to an adult life.

Great Jones, February 27th, 2019.

They, along with others like Year and Day and Misen, have a huge opportunity to redefine the spaces we eat in. After all, gender roles in the kitchen have changed, this is the first time in history when entertaining a dinner party does not have be precluded by marriage and homeownership, and the role of the celebrity chef has altered our relationship to food altogether.

Any of these new millennial-facing cookware brands could capture the latent value of these cultural shifts by creating a narrative or context to understand them in.

They could write new rules around the intimate act of eating in the home or what it means to reclaim the cooking and eating space that was once so politically charged and gendered, but is now up for complete redefinition. There is room for a brand to lead this conversation and create the new rules of engagement around it.

Instead, they’re playing by the old rule book that Le Creuset wrote decades ago: embody the role of a good host, create something beautiful that guests will remember, and have that picture perfect adult life. Basically the same roles and relationships we’ve had to eating and cooking for a very long time now. The same rules our parents and grandparents operated in.

Brands following someone else’s rules leave money on the table.

They can get very far, and perhaps even win, without a big idea propelling them, but let’s be very clear about what’s really happening here — they’re creating a brand for today, playing by today’s rules and today’s values.

Even though Great Jones and Year and Day both have very specific visual styles and motifs, illicit a general feeling very well, and have seemingly figured out product-market fit, there’s more to be had here.

Those that create a brand for tomorrow by defining a new set of rules and pushing users into that unfamiliar future are far more defensible in the long run because they are creating their own authority and their own playing field.

There is no doubt that The Food Network has benefitted tremendously by spearheading a big idea.

It led to celebrity chef franchises (unlike any we had seen before), food and cookware (both chef-driven and private label), and a major event circuit. This is an entire world of market opportunity that didn’t exist before they changed the rules.

It’s risky but when done right, a big idea with new rules means new market opportunities as well.

If you’re building something meaningful, you need to start mining for your brand’s big idea now. Here’s how to know it when you find it, and how to leverage it to create a whole new roadmap.

Your brand’s big idea must create new rules that make old norms obsolete.

This is the first sign of a big brand idea.

You’re not just making things better or more advanced in a way that evolves current norms. When you change the paradigm of an entire space, there simply is no room for old norms to exist anymore. You’re creating a whole new reality.

If you take a look at The Cooking Channel, a graveyard for old food programming and spinoff of The Food Network, you can see that these brands literally live in two different worlds.

Every user touchpoint from the videos to the cookbooks and community either falls into the old or new paradigm. A show on The Cooking Channel such as Cook’s Country is not a passive experience, nor does it trigger the same entertainment signals in your brain.

The community that’s formed around the show does not engage the way that you might see around The Food Network, celebrity chefs have very different relationships to their audiences, and the overall experience is wildly different.

You couldn’t even evolve The Cooking Channel’s programs, non-TV content or community to fit into The Food Network. A Cook’s Country chef isn’t going to show up on an episode of Hot Ones like Alton Brown did.

The brands are on two different planes.


A typical episode of Cook’s Country on The Cooking Channel (PBS).


Big brand ideas are hard for this very reason — you oftentimes have to scrap everything you know and be willing to build from the ground up.

The idea is bigger than the sum of your product and your user. It’s a new lens that changes the way we see (and behave within) the world.

Big ideas are debatable, risky and likely to fail.

Big ideas are not guaranteed to work.

Your audience is always ready to be pushed into the future, but sometimes we push them too hard, too far, or in the wrong direction.

The Food Network’s big idea was highly debatable (especially for its time), risky and likely to fail. But it worked.

Then again, so was Snapchat’s big idea, as I wrote back in 2016:

According to Evan Spiegel, “It’s not about an accumulation of photos defining who you are … It’s about instant expression and who you are right now.” If you think Snap’s new Spectacles product is a misguided step into hardware, consider it from that strategic narrative. Spectacles are about reliving memories, not creating a curated online album like every other social network out there.

Snap Inc.’s strategy created pressure to move into a different market. Killer strategies pressure you to make divisive decisions. They pressure you to change your consumer’s behavior and mindset.

They also pressure you to talk directly to audiences that are on your wavelength, and force you to risk not talking to the rest of the world.

They’ll push you to do the impossible. In this case, that means winning where Google Glass failed, with an arguably simpler product no less.

Snapchat and Google both shared a big idea around how we experience life through AR and shared content.

Neither of them could make it work, but rest assured there will be other companies with other attempts, and each time the big idea will be just debatable as it has been.

That doesn’t mean, however, someone can’t figure it out. It only means that we’ve tried to either go too far, too soon, or in the wrong direction.

Big ideas will open new doors that sound crazy (at first).

Hardware sounded crazy for a social network. Private label goods sounded crazy for a television network. But in both cases it was the big idea that revealed those new market opportunities, and once the gates had been opened, it didn’t sound so crazy anymore.

If your big idea leads you into new categories and products, then you’re likely on to something.

You can think of big ideas — and brand strategies by extension — as master filters.

When you’ve nailed down that big strategic idea, you should be able to filter every choice through it and arrive at an on-brand decision.

Everything from product to communications, customer service, UX, partnerships and collaborations, HR and hiring, executive team, sales, operations, business development… everything should be filtered through your big strategic idea to make sure you are arriving on an on-brand decision.

It is a filter for every choice that matters, and the choices that matter the most are the ones that move you forward in your market.

Use your big idea as a filter for your product roadmap and you may find that the obvious choice for your brand is no longer the right one. Big ideas will move you into weird, scary places sometimes, but that is where the true opportunity lies.

Fewer and fewer companies are winning by staying in their lanes.

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TLDR Strategy: Brand Tension

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TLDR Strategy: Brand Tension

When brands create tension, they force people to move.

Tension turns people into lovers and haters, but the one thing it doesn’t allow is for people to sit still. That’s good, because the last thing you want is a brand that’s ’nice’ or a brand that people are indifferent to.

Tension can come from a few places, such as comparing what is to what could be, or unearthing a new belief. Whatever the source of tension is, it 1) has to be about the user and 2) has to be consistent.

When done right, it creates loyalists and avid fans.

When done wrong, it can make people angry (Pepsi, anyone?) This video shows you the right and wrong way to create tension that actually moves people.

Read the full case study on “The Magical Art of Making People Move With Brand Tension” with examples, here.

Written By
Jasmine Bina​

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Brand Strategy

The Lifestyle Brand Blueprint For Tomorrow’s Companies

[Photo by Joel Bengs.]

Lifestyle consumers are changing. Your brand should, too.

Lifestyle brands have existed for a very, very long time. From Pears Soap of the early 1800s, to the Marlboro Man of the 1950s and the Glossiers of today, all of these brands are part of the same lifestyle heritage.

The existence of lifestyle branding hasn’t changed. What has changed, however, is the role that lifestyle brands have played in our lives over time.

Early lifestyle brands were gatekeepers that informed us of our stations in life and how to act within them. You used a certain soap in order to be a good member of society. You shaved your legs if you were an upstanding woman.

This reflected a larger truth about the consumer. We looked to institutions for meaning. Government, marriage, education, class, career — all of these goalposts sorted us among our peers.

From left: Pears Soap prescribing identity, Marlboro promising the life not lived, Glossier creating a likeminded tribe.

In the late 20th century through to today, things took a dramatic shift. Our goal posts began to evaporate and those same institutions (known more commonly as the corporate ladder, the American Dream and the nuclear family, among others) no longer served the same purpose.

Meaning had become democratized and created a fantastic vacuum for companies.

New lifestyle brands like Apple and Nike allowed us to self-organize around ideals of our own choosing, regardless of our lot in life. We could find our tribes and rally around the aspirations that stirred us.

Lifestyle went mainstream and was layered over every vertical, from fashion to finance. As a culture, we moved from interacting with brands as vehicles of self-labeling to vehicles of self-expression.

This is where we are today.

We can stop here and build a lifestyle brand based on this insight, and that would be enough to get your company off the ground.

But the consumer is changing again, and I absolutely do not believe that building a successful brand is about the current market.

Successful brands are built in the future market.

In which case, we need to ask ourselves where lifestyle brands are headed next. And of course we’ll start where we always start: with the user.

There’s no denying the fact that users are becoming more and more sophisticated in the brand vernacular, and more demanding of the brand value they pay a premium for.

Without gatekeepers, institutions and traditional life milestones, users have come to create their own centers of meaning around lifestyle brands that help them signal to the world who they are. I may not have an executive title, but I have a WeWork office because I believe I am a disruptor.

But self-expression opens the door to something much more important on the horizon. Today we want to belong, but tomorrow we will want to matter. Accordingly, the lifestyle realm is undergoing a transition from aspiration to something with more substance.

We’re moving from self-expression to self-discovery.

This is not about design aesthetics or leveraging influencers, or even creating buzz as we see with the bulk of lifestyle brands today. It’s not soothing sans-serif fonts and pastels that make us feel tuned into a trend. And it’s certainly not a USP.

This is about a maturing consumer that’s seeking new centers of meaning in their lives, and accordingly will seek out brands that help them discover who they are in the process.

We’ve gone from macro to micro, outer world to inner world. It’s a much more intimate and personal relationship that adds a layer of intrinsic value to the product.

The successful lifestyle brands of tomorrow will need to follow consumers deeper into themselves in order to resonate.

This is where you start building in the future.

This is where tension comes from. If you can create a brand that pushes your audience to get to where they are going (perhaps when they don’t even realize they are going there themselves), then you will create and capture a special kind of value that will serve your brand for years to come.

With this new perspective, let’s look at some of the elements that should go into your brand blueprint.

Start with the conversation, not the lifestyle.

A lot of brands falter from the very beginning because they don’t understand what a lifestyle brand actually is.

A lifestyle brand is a conversation that happens at specific points in a consumer’s life.

Forget the aesthetics or aspirations. Those are mere tactics. If you want to be a lifestyle brand, you need a rock solid understanding of the values that you want to explore with your consumer.

Keep in mind you can’t effectively explore values like “transparency” or “honesty” or “social responsibility”… the common items listed in company’s mission statement. Those are baseline requirements (self-expression at best, features at worst) that you should be delivering to your consumer anyway.

The values worth exploring are the ones that help your user move down the self-discovery path.

Values sound provocative, revealing, and you either really care or you really don’t because as a consumer, you immediately know if that value will get you to someplace deeper within yourself:

  • “The thrill of vulnerability in an unforgiving world.”
  • “The political act of self-love.”
  • “Freedom of the human soul in nature.” (Check out what Yeti is doing here.)

The New York Times has taken an interesting turn toward lifestyle recently. True, the news and media company advertises no-nonsense slogans like ‘You’ve read the news, now read the facts’, but take a closer look at their content investments and you’ll see that they’re actually exploring the value of “being human without judgement.”

It’s a compelling concept.

Part of how they underscore this is in two excellent content series: Modern Love and Conception.


Modern Love isn’t about the news. It’s about the non-newsworthy events that define our love lives.

Conception doesn’t include doctors or experts. Just the private voices of parents.


You’ll notice in both of these series, there is no news.

Modern Love is about the non-newsworthy events that define our love lives.

Conception doesn’t include doctors or experts. Just the private voices of parents.

These are avenues toward “being human without judgement”, and for many viewers, a straight path to self-discovery.

You can’t explore that value just anywhere. The New York Times knows explorations like these have to happen at certain points in the user’s life.

You can’t get more human than disappointment in love and heartbreak in parenthood, nor can you find two topics more charged with judgement. The New York Times deliberately chose these moments in our lives because they push the self-discovery conversation forward more quickly and more effectively than any other moments in our day-today.

That demonstrates the simplest definition of what a lifestyle brand truly is: Lifestyle brands insert themselves into the important life moments of their users. Specifically, those life moments that echo the brand’s guiding beliefs and the values they’re working to explore.

The values worth exploring with your users are usually the ones that go unspoken. They’re the paths less traveled our minds, but hard to resist going down once someone shows us the way.

Emulation vs. empowerment.

If we’re moving from self-expression to self-discovery, then we’re also moving from emulation to empowerment.

In other words, purely “aspirational brands” will decline.

Many companies have beautiful and tight visual branding that signals something to aspire to, but not much more than that. We see them everywhere — clothing, food, tech, entertainment — but as consumers, we’re so oversaturated with this kind of two-dimensional branding that it has started to become redundant.

How can many of these brands be deciphered from one another? At what point do I stop caring about the novelty of aspirational brands and start looking for something that will deliver more?

When three major athleisure brands like We Are Handsome, Stellasport and Sweaty Betty become indistinguishable from one another, what is left?

From left: We Are Handsome, Stellasport, Sweaty Betty.

We will eventually reach a point where users won’t care about attaining a prescribed lifestyle nearly as much as they will care about being enabled to create the deeper lifestyle they want.

Aesthetics, while important, are a tactical trap. They are not where lifestyle brands start, but rather where they end.

A simple way to vet your brand is to ask yourself, “Am I encouraging people to emulate this lifestyle, or am I giving them the tools to attain something bigger?”

Notice I said tools, not products. For truly brand-led companies, the product is secondary. You’re not selling your yoga pants in the promise that people will become more athletic — that’s aspirational.

Instead, you’re doing what Outdoor Voices is doing and build a brand around “happiness” while everyone else is building theirs around extreme grit, physical endurance and in the women’s category, sexiness.

The name comes from her childhood, where [Outdoor Voices founder Tyler Haney’s] mom would encourage her to use an indoor voice while the kid in her just wanted to be outside all the time.


“I thought, What if I built a brand around something people loved — a recreational Nike that’s all about staying healthy and being happy doing it?

The brand empowers happiness in a multitude of ways, including crowdsourcing many of their designs, deliberately focusing on low-impact daily activities instead of extreme sports, and featuring un-retouched ads of women with real bodies and real cellulite.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Outdoor Voices (@outdoorvoices)

These are all ways to empower women in being happy.

“OV is about being human, not superhuman.” Haney knows that for the next generation of brands, aspiration is taking a back seat to something more powerful.

It’s why the company grew 800% in 2016 alone and commands huge lines at their NYC sample sales, rivaling the sample sales of most luxury brands I’ve had the chance to queue up for.

The buck has to stop somewhere.

Lifestyle brands need a founder’s face and voice.

Someone needs to take responsibility for everything that goes right and everything that goes wrong.

People need to know that if they are investing in so much intangible brand value and giving themselves over to such a demanding (but rewarding) self-discovery experience, there is someone on the other side of it all that is just as committed.

Unlike B2B and non-lifestyle B2C brands, lifestyle brands across the board need to showcase a real person that’s driving the vision and innovation in the company.

Your consumers don’t need a relationship with the founder specifically, but they need the comfort of knowing they aren’t being cheated by some flashy marketing gimmicks and a savvy art department.

The best companies are the ones led by CEOs who have their own personal brands. They’re influencers in their own realm who are one or two steps ahead of the company brand that they are building.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal brand (as exemplified through her life) is like Goop on steroids, and Elon Musk’s personal brand of being a rebel futurist is arguably leagues ahead of Tesla’s.

Elon Musk covering literally everything in his interview with Joe Rogan.


When a founder’s personal brand is further into the future than the company they are building, it demonstrates a real devotion to a larger belief.

It also gives avid users — the ones who spend the most and thirst for deeper engagement — a direction to point their attention in.

You don’t need to be a celebrity CEO, but you do need to be creating spheres of influence through content, social or in your physical network. You need a strong point of view that perhaps would be too heavy handed for your company, but can comfortably be explored by you as an individual.

Take your big idea and use your personal brand to push it further. Don’t be afraid to draw a line in the sand and show which side you fall on.

If you’re the CEO, people need to be able to find you, understand you, and make you part of the story.



The lifestyle consumer is changing. Your brand should, too.

The next generation fo winners in this space already see that we’re moving from Lifestyle 1.0 of graphics and clever taglines to Lifestyle 2.0 of conversation, empowerment and accountability.

As we move from self-expression to self-discovery, you need to be positioned as a brand that can guide users deeper into themselves.

It’s a riskier strategy that will take more time and money. But it’s the only strategy that will win the long game.

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TLDR Strategy: Strong Brands Ask, Weak Brands Answer

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TLDR Strategy: Strong Brands Ask, Weak Brands Answer

You may not realize it but the world can be divided into two kinds of brands: those that ask the questions, and those that answer them.

Leaders are often compelled to create the kind of brands that answer. ‘This is how you should shop. This is the best way to dress. These are the products that will solve all of your problems.’…

But smart brands don’t fall into the answer trap. Instead, they exist to pose the big questions that matter.

Pantone vs. Crayola, Google and Facebook vs. everyone else, Unilever and P&G vs. a world of upstarts – all of these spaces have brands that were shortsighted enough to answer compared to those that were smart enough to ask.

Asking questions leads to a path forward, while answering questions leads to a dead end.

This is an abstract concept, but an extremely important one. I dive into all of these examples and show you exactly how an asking approach differs from one that answers.

Once you see the pattern around you, you’ll understand how to navigate your space in order to create a powerful brand position.

Read the full case study on “Strong Brands Ask, Weak Brands Answer” with examples, here.

Written By
Jasmine Bina​

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Brand Strategy Video

TLDR Strategy: The Perception Queries

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TLDR Strategy: The Perception Queries

There are two deceptively simple questions that will reveal a world of strategic opportunity for your brand.

They actually reveal a tremendous amount of information about the mindset of a company’s leadership team while posing a much more difficult challenge than most people realize.

Taken together, I like to call them the Perception Queries, and everyone can benefit from answering them.

You can use these queries to get laser focus on the direction of your brand strategy from the point you’re at today to where you need to be in 1, 3 and 5 years from now. I will show you the right and wrong way to answer the queries, how to best leverage these answers in your work, and how to unlock their deeper power.

Most importantly, they will prove valuable at every juncture in your company’s trajectory, especially when easy short term growth opportunities gently nudge you away from your ultimate long term vision.

Read the full case study on the Perception Queries, with examples, here.

Written By
Jasmine Bina​

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Brand Strategy Video

One Interesting Thing

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One Interesting Thing

War Stories

War stories have always had a special place in American culture – the War on Cancer, War on Drugs, War on Poverty, the Battle of the Sexes, Fight Against Climate Change… the list goes on and on.

How has all of this war rhetoric, much of it false, shaped our thinking? Where did these stories even come from, and most importantly, where will they take us?

Jasmine Bina, CEO of Concept Bureau, shares her thoughts on how these stories have taken root in American culture and why they will likely never go away.

Written By
Jasmine Bina​

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