Goodbye Relevance, Hello Relatability: The New Industry of Brand Connection

‘Relevance’ Is Losing Relevance

There is a new industry of cultural relatability emerging that has moved the benchmark of brand connection. The brands that are winning today have already discovered that “being relevant” is a dying industry, and the only way to move forward is through relatability.

With apps like TikTok at the helm, individuals today only have to engage with brands that relate to who they are and what they care about. Being relevant – i.e., making your brand and product matter in the moment at hand – is no longer enough. Instead, the new frontier of relatable connection facilitates deeper relationships that go beyond what brands are selling. Brands must now behave like mirrors of our psyches and attempt to forge relatable, intimate connections.

Relevancy flourished in the 2010s with the rise of the D2C model. Aesthetic homogeneity defined the relevancy era as every startup capitalized on the “millennial aesthetic,” We saw homogeneity in logos as luxury brands rebranded themselves in san-serif font. Even within the model itself, every D2C brand focused its efforts on marketing a single product to everyone. When you think Glossier you think of Boy Brow. For Casper, their Original Mattress. For Article, the Sven Charme Tan Sofa.

These brands set the tone in our culture. They gave us a model for relevancy in our own lives. The premiumization of these products made us fit into the norms of what was presented to us as popular and mainstream. It started taking over our Instagram feeds as we worked hard curating the perfect aesthetic to fit the aspirational standard of the millennial lifestyle. The goal being, “I want to be relevant” as opposed to “I want to feel relatable.”

Facebook’s advertising platform drove the success of these brands. For D2C companies, this was their retail space, and buying more ads further established their relevance. We saw the same ads, and we were all drawn to buying the same products. Whoever spent the most money on ads would be the most relevant. Having the single best product at first felt enough.

Casper was one of many D2C brands that spearheaded the industry of relevancy. The disruptor of the “sleep” category, Casper became known for their “Original Mattress”. By making one perfect mattress for everyone, they made one product relevant to everyone.

Source: Antler

Buying for relevance led to their demise. As Casper’s competitors, like Leesa and Purple, came out with their own version of the “one best mattress.” What we thought disrupted the mattress category ended up becoming an online version of the traditional mattress store. The only loyalty was determined by the number of eyes bought through millions spent on buying space instead of building relationships.

In 2021, Casper took itself off the market, going private for less than half its original IPO price and has become the poster child of DTC death.

Questions to consider:

  • Consider how your brand is being perceived today. If everything is premium, how is your brand differentiating itself from others in your category?
  • If your brand stopped all of its performance marketing today, who are the people that remain? These are the relationships you should be building and paying attention to.

TikTok, The Relatability Platform

Relatability is the only way to cut through the noise of relevancy.

TikTok has become the ultimate relatability platform and has pushed brands to change the way they communicate.

The TikTok experience thrives on discovery and how we curate our feeds is based on our interests instead of the people we follow. Although there is a “following” feed, unlike Instagram and Facebook you’re more likely to spend your time on the For You Page (FYP) to discover what’s new, what’s going viral, and watch content that is most interesting to you. Instagram has never been able to figure out its discovery features, and despite its attempts to catch up, it’s clear that the culture of Instagram is drastically different from the culture of TikTok.

On TikTok, we create virtual mirrors. We teach our algorithms to reflect only what’s relatable to us and our inner selves. Our views, likes, and shares are all validations of what feels deeply true to who we are. It creates a kind of intimacy, a reflection of our subconscious.

Knowing this, brands have to compete for our attention differently. In order for your brand to show up on a user’s FYP, there is a deeper level of relatability and intimacy that’s required. Talking about the benefits of your product will leave your content unengaged. You have to find moments that tap into your audience’s subconscious. It’s about revealing something that exists at the edges of their identity.

This has also forced brands to put a face to their brand, bringing relatability face-to-face. It’s no longer enough to have curated products displayed on a simple background. Even if it’s a person in an owl suit (Duolingo) or a humanized version of an airplane (Ryanair), when you’re looking at someone face-to-face, you also look for the things that relate to you.

As with every other social media platform, we will eventually get inundated with ads that flood our TikTok feeds. However, the brands that succeed won’t be the ones that make themselves relevant but create content that feels relatable.

Questions to consider:

  • Besides TikTok, where else in your brand communication strategy are there opportunities you can reveal moments of someone’s subconscious identity?
  • How can your brand validate the feelings they’re experiencing through a “face” in which they can see themselves?
  • What they care about and what their values are is just the first step. When you go deeper, what are the things that are being left unsaid? These are the “a-ha” moments that facilitate a deeper connection.

Relatability in Action

On TikTok, we see clear depictions of brands leveraging relatability. The ones that succeed thrive more on relatable content rather than relevant content, either through original media or strong proxies.

Duo’s “unhinged” personality on TikTok is an example of a brand that is leveraging this kind of relatability. Learning a new language on Duolingo may feel relevant to a young audience of Gen Z, who typically take a language course in high school, but simply talking about the benefits doesn’t feel relatable. However, the experience of shooting your shot for someone who is completely unattainable is 100% relatable. This, along with their frequent use of trending sounds and “absurd” entertainment, have made who they are as a brand completely relatable to a human experience that many can feel intuitively, even if it has nothing to do with their business.

Doja Cat is a strong proxy for relatability.

This was an ad for JBL. It received 23.8M views, and 5.2M likes.


#ad 🧊🔊 @jblaudio #ad

♬ original sound – Doja Cat

This was her “contractualjingle for Taco Bell. Together they accumulated 59.8M views, and her jingle alone got 8.6M likes.

Would you consider these relevant or relatable? If you said relatable, you know it’s because it has everything to do with who Doja is and how she’s perceived. In addition to its absurdity, you too might be rallying for the comeback of Mexican Pizza and forever pronouncing JBL, “jibble.”

Her fame rose because of TikTok, but in addition to good music, she makes herself feel completely relatable to her audience.

She often gets comments such as “Does Doja know she’s famous?” because of her raw and unfiltered behavior. She uses trending filters and sounds like every other person on the app. She is tapped into the culture and knows her audience because she is one of them.

One of many similar comments in Doja Cat’s comment section

This video of her shows perfectly how in tune she is on TikTok, reciting the obscure trend of flooding comment sections with “brownie recipes,” “chupagetti,” “story time,” “crop time,” and “you don’t have this emoji.” There is no purpose, no promotion, no makeup, hair undone, and all done on her phone. It’s so unhinged that there’s no way you could believe this was produced. She is both Grammy-winning and a hot mess.

For an audience that is ad-jaded, having her deliver your message will cut through the noise.

Questions to consider:

  • Where are the places your brand can also be the audience?
  • Who are the proxies you can leverage that have a genuine understanding of the people you’re trying to reach? This is more than getting someone who can put together a sales pitch or an influencer that your audience follows. Really consider who and how you want to deliver your message.

Understanding Relatability

What’s relatable today may not be relatable tomorrow, but creating relatability is key to developing deeper relationships with your audience. It’s not to say relevance isn’t important, but understanding the difference will shape the way you strategize, position, and communicate your brand.

As brands, we tend to ask, “How can I stay relevant?” But, the question we should really be asking is “How can I be relatable?”.

To be relevant is to establish context. Relevant brands create the setting that makes their brand feel relevant to their audiences.

To be relatable is to facilitate a deep connection through this context. Relatable brands reflect their audiences’ identity in a way that goes beyond the product they’re selling. They reveal and validate hidden truths to which their audiences can connect and relate.

Venmo is relevant. They’ve made P2P payments incredibly easy to use for anyone who engages with the app.

Cash App, in contrast, is relatable. Their brand goes further, tapping into a subculture that goes beyond P2P payments. They facilitate a deeper connection beyond finance as a category. Cash App is a culture.

Both of these brands are relevant, but only one of them is relatable.

Relatability Moving Forward

Although TikTok is a catalyst for the relatability industry, the platform signifies a larger shift in the way we navigate and experience our digital worlds. As brands make their way into the Metaverse, relatability will become more critical.

A truly decentralized digital world promises that users will own and govern their own spaces and have full autonomy to choose how they identify or want to be perceived (i.e., digital avatars that might not look anything like their physical selves, controlling their own data). This means the ways in which we connect will be led exclusively by similar interests and values in very tight-knit communities. Establishing relevance won’t work in the Metaverse. Instead, you’ll have to find ways to create, build, and facilitate relatability.

On TikTok, it’s Duo, Ryanair, and Doja Cat, but in the Metaverse, virtual influencers like Lil Miquela will take the stage. As the first virtual social media influencer, some may say that she isn’t relatable because she isn’t human. Yet in the age of filters and photo editing apps that completely alter our human faces and bodies, Miquela is arguably as real as it gets. Although she isn’t AI-powered, her success has sparked the creation of many after her. Miquela forces us to consider what it means to be “real.” She fully acknowledges that she’s not human. There is no room for ambiguity or skepticism, only honesty.


i think i won this trend #onethingaboutme

♬ Summer Background Jazz – Jazz Background Vibes

When you create moments of relatability, what you’re really creating is moments of authenticity.

Look for the places where people are searching for deep truth. Learn their language, understand their culture, and go beyond face value, because where there is a lot of noise, people will focus on the voices that look, sound, and feel the most familiar.

When you create a relatable connection, you become a part of their identity. These are the brands people will remember.


These Are The Brand Moves You Should Be Paying Attention To Right Now

The Smithsonian shows that our collective scrambling to define the canon is, in fact, a rebellious act. Alrosa begs the question of ownership. Outdoor Voices pulls a Mariah Carey.

I write a lot about defining strategy and how to build a brand. My goal is to always look for companies that are doing it right because those are the ones we best learn from (although it would be much easier to simply point out the ones that are doing it wrong).

Strategy, however, is only half the equation. The way companies bring those strategies to life can reveal a whole new world of learnings. Their tactics, decisions and moves are all signals to the consumer and to the marketplace.

They show us both what people want now, and how much they are willing to tolerate in being pushed into the future.

Here are some recent brand moves that have definitely edged the conversation forward.

The Smithsonian shows interest in obtaining the artwork of migrant children detained at the border.

You couldn’t hear this story without feeling something. After CNN shared images of drawings by migrant children who were recently released to a respite center in McAllen, Texas, the Smithsonian reached out to inquire about obtaining the disturbing works of art. Many of the works depicted heavy metal cages and towering authority figures in hats.

Via The New York Times.

The Smithsonian describes itself as a museum, a research and education organization, and an “opener of doors”. But this move is about much more.

The brand signal here is clear. While other museums exist to celebrate America, the Smithsonian is here to hold it accountable.

  • The Smithsonian has accepted the fact that every act is political (and there’s good reason for that, as Professor Scott Galloway has explained). By collecting these works, they act as the ultimate witness to America’s actions — a very provocative role to play as a brand.
  • There’s perhaps no stronger way to flex your muscle as a brand than to choose which voices matter. It’s especially poignant as they’ve chosen to highlight the wordless voices of children. It opens up much more opportunity for discussion in a way that public outcry and political reporting can’t touch.
  • Art has always been controlled by the gatekeepers of history, but it looks like that’s changing. Gatekeepers only have control if you give it to them, and in the art world, there is a stubborn old guard that refuses to open the door (and perhaps that is the “door” that the Smithsonian references in their description).
  • This reminds me of other brands that are experimenting with the fabric of culture and history like Otis, an alternative investment platform that deals in items of cultural currency like Air Jordans and KAWS works. They’re democratizing both the investment itself and the act of choosing what is worth investing in.
  • There are also the admirable efforts of companies like Fast Retailing (Uniqlo’s parent company) who may not be acting as a cultural gatekeeper, but say something about it when they make genuine efforts to hire refugees.

Alrosa creates digital passports for diamonds that beg the question of ownership.

Alrosa has tested out an interesting new initiative for its gems: electronic passports that “will tell the buyer the gem’s age, the place and date of its extraction, as well as the time and place of its cutting and the craftsman’s name and background.”

If you haven’t heard, millennials are cooling on the complicated idea of diamonds. Alrosa is hoping transparency and proof of sustainability will change that. It’s a noble brand tactic but not a strategy. Causes are never strategies, but that’s beside the point.

What matters here is who is executing the initiative. Alrosa is the world’s second largest diamond miner. You may own one of their stones but you’d never know it.

They are a producer taking on the responsibility of a retailer in branding the product, proof that everyone in the supply chain is in the business of branding now.

  • Calling it a passport is interesting. The word passport is on-the-grid, not off. It’s about permission to move freely. It’s about having a state given identity.
  • If you grew up in California like me, you were exposed to nonstop Diamond Exchange television ads touting “GIA and EGA certified”. The GIA (Gemological Institute of America), a monolithic governing body that works to standardize the trade, recently added a 5th “C” to their list of Color, Cut, Clarity and Carats — Country of origin. Major move, if not more symbolic than anything else.
  • This reminds me of brands like Toogood who use labeling as a way to create meaning and connection with their products. Their garments have large tags sewn into the lining with a record of its name, designer and country, among other details. Blank lines for “Sold By” and “Worn By” complete the story once they’re filled in.
  • These moves by Alrosa and Toogood both convey a philosophy about what it means to “own” or use something. Do we really own a fine item, or are we just using it for a portion of its lifetime?
Toogood label.

Outdoor Voices flexes their muscle by refusing to tell an athleisure story.

A few people this week emailed me a New York Times interview with Outdoor Voices founder Ty Haney. It was this quote that caught their eye:

“We’re not up against the Nikes, Under Armours and Lulus of the world. What we’re up against is people’s negative perceptions of themselves.”

But in product terms, Outdoor voices is up against other sportswear and athleisure brands, and that underscores the brilliance of this quote. Ty Haney is talking from a brand perspective, not product. She knows she’s selling a story first and foremost.

  • If your brand isn’t informing actual business decisions — not just marketing or design — then you’re not really building a brand… and Ty Haney backs this up with a mention of the new Exercise Dress. If exercise + dress feels weird to you, that’s a good thing. Outdoor Voices’ brand has actually informed their product design. That tension you feel in the name is because they’re not creating athleisure, they’re creating a new definition of what it means to be active.
  • Netflix’s former VP of Product Management recently said, “at world-class companies, you often see exceptional teamwork between marketing and product teams, where the marketing team defines the brand, and the product team helps bring it to life.” This is where brand-led companies are going in the future.

  • Speaking of Netflix, this reminds me of CEO Reed Hastings once saying that their biggest competitor was “sleep”. That’s a baller claim. When other companies don’t even register on your radar, you’re sending a bold message to the market.
  • Branding genius Mariah Carey owns this move. When asked about other mega pop stars like Jennifer Lopez or Demi Lovato, her simple response is “I don’t know her.” It’s the shade that’s launched a thousand memes.

What else?

Have you seen any smart moves in a vertical? Is someone forcing a new conversation?

Let me know in the comments or email me at


The New Definition of Brand: A model for every business activity

[Photo by Jeff Frenette.]

3 Ways To Redefine Your Business Through Branding

Your brand is a series of consistent decisions that bolster your positioning and demonstrate what you stand for. You should be able to take any business decision — HR, sales, communications, operations, PR, product, UX/ UI, or otherwise — filter it through your brand identity, and arrive at an on-brand answer that you can act on.

That’s not an exaggeration. The best brands do it every day, from high-level strategic decisions to day-to-day tactical actions.

On a strategic level, we see numerous examples of companies that based their business choices on their brand strategy:

  • WeWork moved into living spaces and childcare because of their belief in utopian communities. Rather than following their capabilities into new co-working formats, they followed their brand belief into new centers of citizenry.
  • Apple saves all of their PR announcements for a few highly publicized events a year because they believe their brand is about an elite experience, not a continuous rollout of features.
  • Four Sigmatic, a beverage company selling popular mushroom coffees, recently launched a new category of products in the beauty space because their brand isn’t about health drinks, it’s about optimizing the body.
  • Airbnb released a hosted city experiences product as a vehicle for their ‘belong anywhere’ brand belief. The brand was the basis for the product.

On a tactical level, we see companies make small (but meaningful), everyday choices that bring their brand strategies to life as well:

  • Zappos trains its customer service team to have longer, more meaningful and textured conversations with users, often providing backstory and personal feedback on the items. It’s a costly tactical choice based on their strategic commitment to being the anti-Amazon.
  • Red Bull often dropped hundreds of empty cans outside of nightclub dumpsters in the early hours of the morning so that clubgoers believed the drink was for hardcore partiers. Their strategy to reach an untapped influencer market led to a clever WOM guerrilla marketing tactic.
  • Harry’s Razors creates emotional video content around men’s issues to push forward their belief in challenging toxic representations of masculinity. The content is dictated by the brand, not SEO.
  • The Ordinary deliberately packages their beauty products in identical, hard to understand packaging labels so that users spend hours figuring out the routines and combinations are right for them. This clever packaging tactic has created a huge online community of beauty fanatics that share advice and ingredient recommendations — a testament to The Ordinary’s strategy to turn everyday users into discerning beauty experts.
The Ordinary product packaging.
Typical product description from The Ordinary.

Brand strategy is a daily choice in every department, in every activity.

That’s because brands exist between the lines. Consumers understand a brand by the decisions it makes.

If your brand isn’t informing actual business decisions — not just marketing or design — then you’re not really building a brand.

It follows, then, that the way you define the word ‘brand’ is critical your company’s trajectory.

Do you subscribe to any of these definitions?:

  • The sum total of all your touch points with the customer, or, as Seth Godin put it in 2009, a brand is “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”
  • A brand is a feeling, which is often synonymous with an aspirational aesthetic or thought leadership
  • A brand is a unique voice or personality. Taken to the extreme, brands are one of the 12 brand archetypes like The Hero or The Outlaw.
  • Brands are an intangible asset — the line of goodwill on an organization’s balance sheet that captures the extra premium a customer is willing to pay above and beyond the actual product

Most people use at least one of these definitions. The problem with all of them, however, is that they describe a set of static characteristics.

The new definition of the word ‘brand’ captures, instead, a measurable change.

Whatever your story is — and by story, I mean the narrative that ties your product, voice, UX, team, history, roadmap, everything together — it needs to create a new sense of meaning that didn’t exist before your brand made it a reality.

Brands are not fixed characteristics. They are dynamic movements that make something matter.

A brand is the creation of meaning where there was none before.

That’s vitally important because it changes the way a business functions.

So how do we take this new definition and bring it home in a way that is actionable within a company?

As with all things branding, there is more than one way to arrive at the right answer. Here, I offer three ways to slice the challenge and move forward.

These are only a few, certainly not all, ways to articulate the act of ‘creating meaning where there was none before’.

You need to be deliberate about which definition you choose (or create) for your own brand because how you define it will ultimately dictate your strategy — and your strategy will dictate whether you win or lose in the market.

1. Brand Is A Gateway

LEGO has used their brand to create meaning for parents where there was none before.

Every time you catch a hidden hidden joke just for adults in their movies, come across LEGO FORMA kits for stressed out professionals or see a print ad meant to make a 30-something chuckle, that is the brand winking at you and whispering, ‘you should play at every age.’


“Things About The Lego Movie You Only Notice As An Adult” | Looper | August 2017


LEGO’s brand creates new significance for parents who believe they were supposed to stop playing a long time ago. Non-children are given opportunities to engage, and they’re hidden right in plain sight… a sort of peekaboo game in and of itself.

Lego ad designed to engage parents in play, March 2018 (Agency: BRAD)

While Sesame Street and Disney also nod to parents in a similar way, LEGO is different because it opens up a space for change that didn’t exist before — a space where parents have permission to be children again. There is meaning in that transformation.

When a brand acts as a gateway, it promises a change in the user.

When we come to understand that we should ‘play at every age’, we realize something about ourselves, and we understand that to go through the gateway is to emerge someone different.

Brands like LEGO are constantly working to show adult users what their experience can be like on the other side. There is a clear vision of before and after that forces a reaction.

To be a brand like this is to create meaning in the act of crossing the threshold.

It informs their decisions to release adult products, inject tongue-in-cheek double meaning into their content and move into media. The business sits on top of the brand, not the other way around, and that makes the meaning they are creating that much more impactful.

2. Brand Is A Remix

Greek philosopher Parmenides of Elea said Ex nihilo nihil fit, or rather, nothing comes from nothing.

Every new material, creation or concept is borne of others that already exist. The deeper you get into branding the more true this seems. It echoes another common refrain often heard in the marketing world that ‘everything old is new again’. Every new idea is a remix of ideas that came before it.

The thing about remixes, though, is that even though they may not come from new origins, they do take us to new places.

Vitamix, remarkably, created a cult around the humble kitchen blender, and they did it while charging people upwards of $500 at a time.


Vitamix: Make the World a Better Place


It’s easy to see the stoic machines as wellness status symbols today, but you have to remember that in 2013 consumers had no idea that the words “luxury” and “blender” could work together so well, nor did they think they needed a 2-horsepower engine to make their morning smoothies.

The Vitamix brand wasn’t just about healthy eating. It was a very deliberate remix of extreme power wrapped up in notions of self-care that could demand a premium price. It combined the story of strength with gentler beliefs that were starting to emerge around wellness, to create an audience that looked more like a trendy club than a demographic — skewing toward affluent, health conscious men despite the fact that the company came from pretty granola beginnings in the 1930s.

Vitamix created meaning around the everyday luxury of smoothie making that didn’t exist in the mainstream before. Certainly not in the kitchen. There was a new significance to the appliance that only occurred when two different narratives were combined.

The company radically grew sales through Costco, primarily via energetic demonstrations over a loudspeaker and free samples of whole fruit margaritas, green soups and nut butters circulating in the crowd. It was a spectacle that combined their power-driven angle with a luxury price point that only made sense in a store that promised middle class luxuries in a highly curated format for older millennials.

And you may not realize it, but you see Vitamixes every day at your favorite Starbucks. Sure they’re a corporate client, but Starbucks is also a strategic bit of product placement in the movie that is millennial life. That same kind of product placement has sold out Oatly oat milk in the US.

Brand remixes have occurred in other areas of food, too, specifically in the celebrity chef space.

Why was Gordon Ramsey such a sellable brand?

Because he operated from the belief that you can be a crass and vulgar person but still make highly refined food. You can literally feel the tension in that combination, and it forces you to love him or hate him.

Why was Rachael Ray able to create multi-billion (not million) dollar businesses on the back of her name?

Because she dared to not only celebrate low-brow cooking, but venerate it. She cooked 30 minute meals out of canned foods and pre-cut produce, and was proud of it.

They were both remixes that made people see something they couldn’t see before. They created new meaning where there was none.

3. Brand Is A Key

I’ve talked about brands as master keys before. A good brand strategy will solve 5 problems with 5 solutions, but a great strategy will solve 5 problems with 1 solution.

When a brand is a key, it creates new meaning because it lets people enjoy contradictions without having to account for them.

In other words, it lets people have their cake and eat, it too.

Costco uses a master key to solve a few brand problems at once. They’re a physical retailer living in a world where online marketplaces like Amazon have taken over in both selection and last mile delivery, and yet Costco keeps growing.

Once lumped in with Walmart, Sam’s Club and Target, Costco has somehow managed to develop a brand image that resists discounter stereotypes, compels people to make long and inconvenient pilgrimages to it’s locations, and all without spending money on a PR or traditional marketing.

They solve all of these problems with one choice — to position their brand as a pillar of honesty — their master key as a brand.

Retired CEO Jim Sinegal once said, “We try to create an image of a warehouse type of an environment […] I once joked it costs a lot of money to make these places look cheap. But we spend a lot of time and energy in trying to create that image.”

Costco spends significant money to create a raw, unfiltered, un-marketed experience. When you shop there, you get the distinct feeling that you have behind-the-scenes access without the selling layer. It’s been engineered to feel like an honest experience.

There are no point of sale ads, no finished floors or ceilings, and product is sold on the same crates it’s shipped on.

Even though they force consumers to buy huge quantities, they make no secret of the fact they they markup prices by no more than 15%. They choose to keep very little mystery behind their business practices.

Every year around the holidays you will hear provocative stories about Amazon’s poor worker conditions and failure to treat temporary workers with basic respect.

But every year, you will also hear stories about Costco’s incredible work policies, high pay hovering around $20 per hour for a floor worker, and the fact they remain closed on major holiday moneymakers like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter because they believe in respecting their employees.

When a brand is a key, it opens up the possibility of two worlds at once. You can be a deep discounter and yet at the same time be premium. You can follow stodgy business models but be perceived as nimble. You can be cheap, and yet generous. You can be a complete inconvenience and still be a pleasure to use.

When contradictions occupy the same space, they create a new meaning around what is possible.



When a brand creates new meaning, it creates value that people are willing to pay a premium for.

You can create many truths from this one starting point. Every tool you use is a way to find that first thread that will weave the story. Your definition of a brand is one such tool.

The longer I do brand strategy, the more apparent it’s become to me that there’s no single way to get there. Each of these three definitions is an entry point. Somewhere to start. You’ll see that different brands follow different definitions, and in doing so, land in different areas of the landscape.

Your goal is to use (or invent) a definition that gets you as far out into the field as possible.


Belief Is The New Benefit: Why you need to find your deeper brand

Photo by Scott Webb.

Time to rethink what you’re selling.

We’re living in a time when every brand is rethinking who they are and what they stand for.

That’s because at some point during the Apple revolution, consumers stopped buying products. They stopped buying specs like more horsepower in their cars or greater color options for their shoes. They stopped buying features like cheaper price for electronics or faster delivery of their food.

And at some point, they even started migrating away from benefits like productivity by way of their note taking apps, or the confidence that comes with a whiter smile, or anything that stopped at being aspirational.

What people started buying instead was beliefs, and nearly every new disruptor out there is banking on that insight.

Belief is the new benefit. Users are buying not the product, but rather the larger belief that makes that product necessary.

And for all of you that think you sell more ‘practical’ products immune to this new branding frontier, like toothpaste or moving services or mortgages, I guarantee there is someone plotting to steal your market with a belief, right now.

Yes, even if you sell toothpaste, a brand like Twice is here to eat your lunch.

Twice website Jan. 16, 2019

The Twice story has philanthropy and social good, safe ingredients and even Lenny Kravitz.

But what Twice is really about is turning toothpaste into something much greater. If grooming is now about self-care and wellness, then Twice is about a mood… or rather, elevating your mood to reach that pinnacle of wellness we strive for in every other part of our lives.

Twice embodies the belief that our most intimate rituals are sacred.

It’s a young, newly launched company that still has room to grow on the branding side, but they’re smart enough to know that they’re not here to sell you a product.

They’re here to sell you a new belief you didn’t know you held before.

After all, why shouldn’t we have different toothpastes for day and night, to serve two very different needs? Why shouldn’t we take care of our smiles and bodies and mental states the way we deserve?

Why shouldn’t brushing our teeth — something that marks both the beginning and end of the day, something that prepares us to both fight and to rest, something that signals self respect just as much as it does societal norms and taboos — be treated like a sacred ritual?

Twice goes deeper, like so many other brands I have written about over the years. When you go deeper, you reveal a much richer way to tell your story and capture your audience.

Going deeper transcends nagging consumer concerns like cost or convenience, and lets you play outside of the confines of product.

Your deeper brand is the one that sells a belief. The product is secondary. It’s the belief that people want to consume.

What is a belief?

Many CEOs and and brand executives mistake beliefs for causes.

Let me be clear that causes are not beliefs. They are also not defensible brand strategies. These kinds of causes can certainly serve you in the short term and help align the brand today, but they will not motivate beyond a core group of users in the long term:

  • Charity
  • Gender equality
  • Product safety, anything “natural” or “free of X”
  • Climate change
  • Fighting against the system/ any system
  • Resources for the underserved
  • Philanthropy

Sustainability, too, is an identity driver that helps us align with a company as a consumer, but it is not a belief that will build a brand.

If you look at a company like Allbirds, it can be tempting to say that their commitment to sustainability, their craftsmanship and promise of ultimate comfort… that all of these things are the immovable pillars of a strong brand.

Allbirds website Jan. 16, 2019

But that’s not what Allbirds is really selling to the Bay Area VCs, New York lawyers, big city executives, west coast entrepreneurs and greater members of the gig economy that love them.

What Allbirds is selling is the belief and romance of Silicon Valley. They are selling all of the grit, determination, exceptionalism, autonomy and glory that the Silicon Valley myth holds within it.

This is a belief about upgrading yourself to a higher professional level, and Allbirds is the gear that will get you there.

You can see signals of this belief in their genesis. Allbirds, much like a tech-driven design experiment, were designed by the founders to be “the simplest sneaker we could imagine.”

After launching on Kickstarter, they were funded by a stable of name brand investors, their flagship NYC store is nestled among other D2C startup darlings like Casper and Everlane, and journalists and writers continue to say things like “Allbirds might be the closest the world of everyday fashion has come to embracing this ideal of optimized efficiency” or Allbirds are like “an algorithm on my feet.”

Take a look at their interviews and the press they have in business outlets like The Wall Street Journal, CNN, BusinessInsider and TIME. These are all signals sending the same message.

This is not a shoe or a comfort statement. It’s equipment for personal optimization.

If you look at the signals surrounding the brand, you come to understand that wearing Allbirds is like placing yourself within that greater Silicon Valley story.

Pay attention to how they don’t hide the fact that Silicon Valley’s elite is where this whole brand started. Notice how these shoes are part of the VC uniform that also includes Patagonia vests, button down shirts and S’Well bottles — an anecdote that is played up in nearly every mention of the brand.

Whether the brand was consciously seeded in the Silicon Valley scene, or was merely co-opted by its inhabitants, is unclear. But that’s not the only place where we can gather the brand belief that has emerged.

Look at the very people that make up their core audience. These are people who may not have careers in tech or have founded a startup, but work in adjacent industries where such a move might be a very alluring dream. Those same lawyers, creatives, executives, entrepreneurs and gig economy members resonate very strongly with the Silicon Valley belief of autonomy and personal success. Merino wool and the “the world’s most comfortable” design are merely the features to back it up.

A belief, unlike a cause, is a guidebook for understanding the world.

When you buy a belief, you are buying the whole universe of values, codes of conduct and rules that go along with it. That’s more than any benefit could ever do.

Beliefs are more powerful than benefits because they lock in a behavior. A brand led by belief informs your user’s mental model, not just their preferences.

Allbirds aren’t just comfortable shoes. They are a belief about who you are becoming, and inform your ideas about personal potential, drive and perhaps even destiny.

That may sound crazy, but it’s there in the brand. There are other options for eco and ethical footwear that also deliver comfort, but none of them deliver the magic that people really want to buy.

Centers of meaning.

Hospitals are becoming supermarkets. Supermarkets are becoming bars and restaurants. Bars and restaurants are becoming workspaces.

Like I said at the top of this discussion, every brand is rethinking who they are and what they stand for. They are rethinking their centers of meaning.

Left to right: Market on the Green, a grocery store run by ProMedica (WSJ), Local beers on tap at “The Parlor” at Whole Foods (Vox), Spacious turns restaurants like the Milling Room into co-working spaces during the day (NYT).

These companies have started to ask themselves who they are in a user’s life, what role they play and what they are actually offering.

When they did that, they realized they were not selling goods and services. They were selling much larger beliefs that touched on peoples’ lives in many more areas than previously thought.

When a healthcare company like ProMedica opens up a grocery store so that their doctors can prescribe both medicine and food to the patient, it’s because they understand their role as a guardian of health, not merely a hospital.

The same mechanics are at play when Whole Foods creates gathering spaces around in-store bars, or Spacious turns restaurants into co-working spaces during off peak hours. They looked at where they created meaning in a user’s life, not what they created as a product, and that is where they built their brands.

But what is most important here is the brave steps they took in having the brand strategy and belief direct the business strategy. They boldly started with the belief and meaning first, and then looked at the business. Most companies do it the other way around.

Yes, when you take an honest look at the centers of meaning that you are creating for your users and the beliefs that surround them, you will find that your business model may change.

You can decide to take the leap or play in your current comfort zone, but be assured that no one is safe from this tectonic shift. Not even major brands like Mastercard.

Apple, Nike, Target — these are all major brands with logos that omit the name. Starbucks dropped the word “coffee” from their logo a long time ago, and now that Mastercard (perhaps a less fervently admired consumer brand) has followed suit, it’s worth understanding why.

For Mastercard, the word “card” referred to a bygone relic of finance that no longer mattered. It tethered them to an archaic past.

The future of money is digital and Mastercard had to not only reassess the role it played in people’s metaphorical wallets, but how they could create meaning around money in general.

That meaning no longer revolved around a piece of plastic.

Dunkin’ has deleted the Donuts from its name because the product is incredibly limiting (especially in foreign markets where they have struggled) and because the product is no longer the brand.

Weight Watchers, which is now simply WW, has realized that they live in the sphere of wellness, not specifically weight management. That has caused them to revamp everything from the sourcing of their ingredients to the packaging of the program itself.

What we’re really left with in all of these cases is logos without names. Core images and icons.

It makes perfect sense: images and icons are the most primal ways to convey a belief.

You can see Jesus written in the sand, but you will feel the image of that cross on a hill. You can read a danger warning on a dumpster, but nothing strikes fear in your heart like a the spiky swirls of a biohazard symbol.


Excellent video on how to design fear into a perfect warning symbol.


Logos, name changes, new business verticals, subtext… they all point toward the larger movement that’s happening in branding right now. We’re in the next phase of how consumers and companies come to interact with one another.

When you truly hit on a resonant belief for your audience, the product and everything else around it falls away. That’s not to say that the product and every other part of the user experience don’t matter.

It’s to say that they are there to support the belief that holds them.

Understand your place in the user’s life.

This is the time to rethink what you’re actually selling. Your product and its features and benefits may have been the start, but they shouldn’t be the end of your brand journey.

For many founders, the belief is already there. They just have to stretch themselves to unearth it. Chances are you started your business because you had an important belief about the world or the future, but didn’t consciously realize it.

For others, they may have started with a product gap in the marketplace, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a belief to be found. Consumer rush in to fill those gaps when they are given the opportunity because they have tapped into a larger, silent belief that hasn’t been articulated yet. Look at your user to see what it is.

Branding never stops.

Honor your work as a company by giving it the context most likely to matter to the user. Give people the meaning that will make them understand why you exist in the first place.


These 3 Brand Languages Will Change The Playing Field For Your Company

Own the language, own the customer.

Every industry has a language, and every company can either choose to use that language or create a new one.

In manufacturing, we typically speak a language of ethics. Values, quality, hard work, jobs, output and history all point to an ethical hierarchy in the space.

In cancer medicine it’s a language of conflict, with phrases like ‘the war on cancer’, ‘battling the disease’, ‘ ‘fighting the illness’, ‘staying brave’ and ‘soldiering on’.

In the beauty industry, we used to speak a language of ideals — youth, delicateness, lightness and western definitions of femininity. Today that language is (slowly) evolving to be one of identity instead — body positivity, diversity, strength, resistance, waving your flag and so on.

Regardless of the industry, a specific language exists… and that language matters.

Language is a crucial element in your brand strategy because it frames the entire user experience for your customers.

When you choose to adopt a certain vernacular, you’re creating the foundation on which customers will build their perceptions.

The Power Of An Educated Customer

Language educates and influences your customer in three important ways:

  1. Changed behaviors: How, when or where to use it. This is especially important in new categories, or when there’s very limited time to educate (such as mobile app on-boarding experiences).
  2. Changed expectations: The value of using it. Important if the value is intangible or mundane (like money-saving or insurance).
  3. Changed beliefs: Why you’re better. Critical, especially for challenger brands or new entrants that need to migrate users from competitors, or when the perceived cost of migration is high.

There’s no greater power than that of an educated customer. When your user really understands how to use you, how using you creates value for them, and why there’s no one else that can do it better than you, then the playing field shifts in your favor.

There are some great examples of how companies in very different industries have leveraged language to their advantage.

Here are three ways to control the conversation.

1. The language of identifiers.

We’re often inclined to compare apples to apples when qualifying a purchase as customers. We may look at one platform compared to another and try to see which is lacking in comparable features.

But sometimes, comparing apples to apples can hide important, hard-to-describe details that make one option far more superior to another.

Think Slack channels, Lululemon’s athleisure category or Ikea’s flat-packed furniture. All of these identifiers gave us subtle clues for how something should be used or compared. They revealed a hidden value or use case we may not have otherwise understood before purchase.

The same mechanic works for more abstract, experience-driven identifiers as well.

We all know Starbucks isn’t a brand powerhouse because of its superior coffee or fair prices. Starbucks, more than anything else, is a deeply comfortable space akin to home.

Whether you need to meet a colleague, find a place to relax and read, need a power outlet to charge up your phone, are desperately seeking a free cup of cold water in a foreign city, or have to get some work done, you understand that Starbucks is the only place to go… every time.

So how did we come to know that?

Because Starbucks gave it a new name.

Early in their brand messaging, they were smart to insert subtle references to The Third Place — where “all the comforts of your home and office” are available to you, without judgement and without limit.

It was an identifier that didn’t exist before, and once it did, we suddenly understood where Starbucks fit into our daily lives and hearts. We understood how, when and why to use it.

Naming it The Third Place allowed us to understand its value in a way that couldn’t be explained through words otherwise.

Creating new identifiers forces your audience to be open to an entirely new kind of experience, belief or expectation.

Plenty of brands try to communicate a home or work environment, but no one else has been able to make us inherently understand it the way Starbucks has.

If they simply called it a ‘workspace’ or ‘your second home’, we would have still failed to understand the true depth of value this Third Space afforded us as consumers.

The new identifier forced us to erase any preconceived notions or expectations, and be open to a different kind of coffee house experience.

2. The language of metrics.

Oftentimes, the biggest player in the room dictates the metrics we all go by.

Whether it’s number of features, size and number of customers, revenue, amount of licenses sold, being named “Top Company” XX years in a row, number of countries launched, company size, growth or anything else, those metrics work for them, but they may not work for you.

So why do we aspire to meet or exceed those same measures (and usually fail)? Because we let another company dictate the language of metrics.

Any metric that somehow quantifies value to the customer, with hard numbers or soft descriptions, falls into the language of metrics and should be carefully considered before blindly followed.

In the big data industry, the language of metrics has taken an especially unremarkable turn.

A quick survey of some major players shows the same metrics over and over again:


Three generic measures meant to help the customer make a decision.

IBM Analytics

Different, but not really.

New Relic

Remarkably similar.


A promising newcomer in the space that still sounds the same.

This list could go on and on.

When you use the same metrics as everyone else, all you’re saying is (surprise!) you’re like everyone else.

If you’ve read any of my writing, you know that the golden rule of brand strategy is to be different, not better — and certainly not the same.

In The 16 Rules of Brand Strategy, I wrote:

Don’t play in someone else’s backyard.

Many spaces with two major players fall into a “better” trap. Box’s brand is a better version of Dropbox, but that does nothing to differentiate them. Better is actually worse. Different is what matters.

MapR seems to get that.

They don’t use the same metrics as everyone else, and it makes the customer think differently about how to compare their platform to others:


Agility and engines.

That’s different.

It’s a different language to measure by, and a set of parameters that puts MapR in a better position than if they had just repeated the same metrics of scalability, number of customers, speed and security as others.

When you change the metrics, you move the goalpost closer to your brand and farther away from your competitors.

Check your language and see if there isn’t another set of metrics that matters more to your customers, while sidelining your opponents.

3. The language of vocabulary.

Your day-to-day vocabulary matters. It’s another form of language that signals what people can expect from your brand. It also dictates CTAs and consumer behavior.

And it’s easy to see in a place like the nonprofit sector.

In charity, we often speak in complementary tones of lack and pride. Themes of needing, scarcity and suffering are meant to inspire guilt and short-term action… while language that congratulates us for pulling through and saving, rescuing, or collaborating delivers the quick relief we need from that guilt.

Advertisement: Red Cross Belgium
Advertisement: Red Cross Paraguay
Advertisement: Red Cross Brazil

Speaking in a vocabulary that people expect from your brand can be a good thing.

After all, if you’re looking for something purely utilitarian, like car tires for example, you’re not looking for anything aspirational. You just want to know that the tires work, right?

Maybe, but Falken Tires decided to challenge that thinking.

In a space where much older and more established tire makers already owned huge market share, they had to create a new conversation that put them at an advantage.

In 2016, they changed their tagline from Falken High Performance Tires to something very different with On The Pulse.



Competitors are all communicating on quality, reliability and safety but for a challenger brand like Falken we don’t have 50 years to build a reputation,” according to their Head of Marketing in Europe, Stephan Cimbal — and he’s right.

On The Pulse is human-centered language that shifts the discussion away from reputation and toward Falken’s core strength: a youthful, adrenaline-fueled experience that ties into their connection with motorsports, soccer, and events like Red Bull’s air race.

They saw “an area of communication that’s not used by competitors” and took advantage of that in order to be “something like the Red Bull of the tire industry: younger, dynamic, quicker and not so ‘business as usual’ like the others”.

This is a challenger tire brand that revolves around excitement, while others are tethered to heritage. Suddenly, the consumer’s field of perception widens and Falken falls into the consideration set.

By changing the language, they shifted the playing field.

You can do the same.



Your language is choice. An important one.

So many brands default into whatever has already been defined by another company— usually the oldest (or the biggest) player in the space — and not only play by someone else’s rules, but miss a huge opportunity to create a new set of rules that benefit themselves.

A new language can unlock audiences that simply couldn’t hear you before.

Whoever owns the language, owns the customer.

Choose your words carefully.


How To Create Powerful Brand Messaging: 5 Truths and a Framework

[Photo by Lauren Peng]

The goalpost is different for brand-led companies.

Decisions are 100% emotional.

That’s not hyperbole. It’s scientific fact. Without emotions, we’d have incredible difficulty choosing even the simplest of things, such as what to shoes to wear.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio discovered that fact a few years ago while studying patients with lesions in the area of the brain where emotions are generated. These were people with full control of their logical faculties, but unable to feel emotions.

Fascinatingly, they were normally functioning patients with one very notable exception:

They couldn’t make decisions.

The vast majority of decisions have benefits and drawbacks on both sides. Choosing between blue shoes and red shoes may involve some logic (the blue shoes are more comfortable, the red shoes look cleaner), but when it comes down to it, there’s no one prevailing logic that will get you to the final choice of which shoes to wear.

It takes a non-logical leap to get to the final point of decision-making, and you can’t get to that decision point without emotional input.

So yes, we all use emotion when choosing things, especially as consumers. Not just little things, but big things, too.

Feeling With Dollars

My car was an expensive emotional choice. My entrepreneurial career (no matter how wtf and omg I can’t take this anymore it has been at times) is an emotional choice I make every day.

I bought $85 worth of cosmetics yesterday. They’re good brands, (logic) make me look nice (logic), are high quality (logic) and are necessary for my brand research in the luxury space (logic-ish)… but really, I felt like hot shit walking through Sephora and trying on makeup that was going to transform me into an empowered, beautiful, unstoppable woman (emotion).

You already know what made me drop the cash.

If 100% of decisions are made emotionally, why are we still using logic-driven, pain-point focused messaging frameworks to brand our companies?

The best brands, I mean the:

  • Pay $85 for a brow gel and mascara brands
  • Pre-order an electric car without a guaranteed delivery date brands
  • Spend hours waiting in line on Lafayette Street for Tuesday’s drop kind of brands

… these brands go way beyond logic in their positioning and messaging.

There is no pain point to solve here. There is no real, hard-pressing need. There is, instead, a human intangible that all of them have capitalized on. An emotional need that’s rarely expressed.

Whether that’s to fit into a tribe, realize one’s potential or escape reality, unspoken emotions like these are far more compelling than any pain point.

  • For the mid-management clients of your SaaS product, it might be to get the company recognition they feel they deserve but never receive
  • For the entrepreneurial users of your productivity app, it may be to feel they have real and meaningful jobs just like their 9 to 5 corporate counterparts
  • For the C-level buyers of your enterprise AI product, it may be to make their mark on the company, or even the industry at large

For all of these, there is a very strong emotional need that supersedes a logical one.

That’s not to say that customer pain points and needs shouldn’t be a part of your messaging process, but they shouldn’t be the end point, either.

Controlling The Right Things

As other great branding bloggers have pointed out before, “the goal of marketing is to control perceptions and change behavior.”

Changing behavior and controlling perceptions is especially important for brand-led companies as opposed to branded ones.

In my last post, I discussed the difference between branded and brand-led in the context of strategy, but here’s a quick rundown:

Branded companies have an identity, but consumers truly identify them by their products. When a product supersedes the brand, a company is always at the mercy of the consumer and their needs.
→ Think American Apparel and Old Navy

Brand-led companies, in contrast, play the long game and require more investment. The identity of the brand supersedes the product and allows a company to resist certain market forces.
→ Think Nike and Shinola

Brand-led companies clearly have heavy challenges when it comes to messaging and narrative.

They are in the long game of changing behavior, and changing behaviors requires certain ingredients.



For brand-led companies, anyone will tell you the story should lead the product.

But the story… the real story that most frameworks out there miss, is not very obvious.

I have a simple framework that will get you thinking in the right direction, but first we have to start with basics.

5 Truths of Brand-Led Messaging

1. Change the baseline

You can compete directly with your competitors in the landscape, or change the playing field altogether.

A good, brand-led messaging strategy begins by telling a new story that makes your direct competitors irrelevant to your core audience.

Evernote wasn’t a productivity app. It was a personal world for “Your Life’s Work”.

Yeah, it was weird when they started selling socks, but hey, it was so much more than just a way to keep notes. For a core and enthusiastic group of gig economy users, their “life’s work” couldn’t fit into a lowly to-do list app. Evernote’s messaging changed the baseline.

One of my favorite present-day examples is Moon Juice, which bills itself as “Plant-sourced alchemy to elevate body, beauty and consciousness” and has the Gwyneth Paltrow GOOP seal of approval.

As I’ve said in a previous article, Moon Juice may be riding the celebrity wellness wave, but it knows where to play.

The brand goes after highly motivated, self-care obsessed, information-junkie millennials that want a product to work where traditional medicine may have failed, while dazzling their imagination much like K-beauty does.

Products such as “Brain Dust” for mental flow, “Beauty Dust” for luster and the “Cosmic Provision Collection” of snacks for enzymatically live eating have proven extremely popular as Moon Juice continues to grow.

Whether it is real science or health-tainment is nearly irrelevant.

Moon Juice’s strategy is to literally be the magic potion in a world of medicines — with emphasis on the magic.


Founder Amanda Chantal Bacon is cutting through the extremely cluttered self-care and supplements space by changing the baseline.

And she’s winning.

From packaging and naming, to customer journey and narrative, Moon Juice is not a vitamin or mere health food. It’s a self-care tonic “alchemized to align you with the mighty cosmic flow needed for great achievement.”

No amount of logic can compete with that.

(You can read my full article, “3 Things New Luxury Brands Can Teach Established Marketers” here. Paywalled, sorry.)

2. Create contrast

Nancy Duarte has written some great books on the art of presentation and storytelling, but the biggest takeaway she left me with was the power of juxtaposing ‘what is’ with ‘what could be.

That constant up and down carries people through an emotional narrative.


She calls it the Secret Structure, and it’s compelling not only in presentation, but in brand messaging as well.

There is a harmony to the juxtaposition that resonates with all of us:

  • Today vs. tomorrow
  • The current me vs. the true me
  • The reality I have vs. the reality I deserve
  • Who people see me as now vs. who I really know I can be inside

What’s happening here, however, is more than just rhythm.

Extremes are hard to follow. By connecting the new and unfamiliar with the old and familiar, we’re managing that tension and making it palatable.

Jonah Berger calls it the Goldilocks effect.

“When it comes to new product or service adoption, the outcomes follow the same inverted U-shape curve. If something is too novel, it’s unfamiliar, weird and harder to understand.

But if it’s exactly the same as what is happening already, it’s boring and there’s no reason to change behavior. In between, though, it’s just right.”

Create just enough contrast to spur action. Brands like Under Armour, Slack and Dove have done just that.

3. Signal before changing lanes

If you’ve done your job as a brand-led organization, people will feel like they have jurisdiction over your company. They will feel like the brand itself belongs them, not as consumers, but as owners.

If you think about it, that’s both a very powerful force, and a frightening one.

As a brand, it means you can’t just call the shots. You have to make people believe they call the shots… that every decision you make for the brand is one that they would make themselves.

When Coke changed it’s formula in 1985, consumers lost their minds. Comments like, “Changing Coke is like God making the grass purple” pretty much summed up the sentiment at the time, and forced the company to bring back the original recipe as Coke Classic within 3 months.

Funny thing is, if you considered their campaign and positioning at the time, it made total sense to introduce the new Coke to the American market.

Except for one consideration.

Coke’s president and COO Donald R. Keough said it best himself.

‘’All of the time and money and skill that we poured into consumer research could not reveal the depth of feeling for the original taste of Coca-Cola.”

In other words, the company didn’t really own the brand. The consumer did.

That “depth of feeling” was a clear sense of ownership.

We saw the same thing happen when Netflix split their product tiers and sent stock prices plummeting as 800,000 subscribers left. They eventually weathered the storm, but not without a painfully drawn out comeback effort.

An even more poignant example is Chapstick’s 2011 ad.

People. Lost. Their. Shit.

The 2011 ad that got Chapstick into a lot of trouble.

If you’re a post-boomer woman like me, it might not seem like much. It’s even relatable. I own 15 chapsticks, I just don’t know where they are. And ok, it’s objectifying but I’m used to images like this.

However, when this ad went live, a blogger posted their views on how the ad was sexist and disgusting and the sentiment spread like wildfire.

Let’s remember it was 2011 and brand social media scandals were part of the news cycle, and the reaction was very poorly handled by the company, but nonetheless people were incensed.

It even inspired a petition to “Remove Ads That Objectify Women and Sexualize Lip Balm!”

… but wait a second, aren’t most heritage women’s brands built on some form of sexualization of women?

Why did Chapstick get chastised while others like Calvin Klein and Bulgari crossed the same line on a regular basis?

It’s because people like me didn’t own the brand.

In 2011, the consumers who owned Chapstick were our moms and grandmothers. They were the moral, price-sensitive American women who saw Chapstick as a utility for chapped lips and not a beauty product associated with feminine sexuality.

They’re the women who grew up watching these kinds of Chapstick ads in the 1970’s (and likely the older demographic that Chapstick was trying to move away from):



‘Where Do Lost Chapsticks Go’ was too much of a break from the current messaging and people felt betrayed.

If you’re going to change lanes, signal first. Otherwise you’re going to crash.

4. Know which ‘why’ you’re answering

I’ve talked about the ‘why’ before, and if you didn’t hear it from me, you probably heard it from someone else lauding Simon Sinek (as they should).

But what the ‘why’ actually is seems to be debatable.

I’ve seen the ‘why’ made synonymous with the ‘vision’ of a company countless times in branding articles.

But I disagree.

The why is not your vision.

It’s your reason for existing, and it answers the question, “Why should I care?”

Filmmaker Andrew Stanton drives this point home in his talk on storytelling for film and media.



It’s your job, as a brand, to make the consumer care.

  • Lego’s why is because wholesome play should happen at every age
  • Andreessen Horowitz’s why is because systems will change humanity
  • Chipotle’s why is because eating right can heal the planet

None of these are company visions, but it’s easy to see how the vision was derived from the why.

When you can answer the question, “why should I care?” you’re going to force a reaction, and a reaction is the marker of a strong brand-led message.

5. Earn respect, don’t demand it

This truth is a product of the current climate. Markets are extremely fragmented, information is cheap and barriers to entry (both on the supply side and demand side) have crumbled.

Luxury brands, heritage brands, exotic brands and limited-access brands that once exerted authority are quickly losing power.

You can say you’re #1, best-in-class or world-renowned, but those aren’t differentiating markers anymore. There are just too many choices and too many alternatives… and in general, post-boomer consumers are too self-empowered to take a brand at face value.

Talk is cheap. Actions are the new currency.

When a brand takes bold risks to resonate clearly with their core audience, perhaps even alienating non-core users, consumers take notice.

Bold risks don’t have to be huge. They just have to be deliberate.

One of my favorite music secrets is the W Hotels app.

W Hotels app (Home Screen → Music Screen → Mix Loading)

Everything from the homepage to the top level menu and content revolves around music. And not just any music — tons of custom mixes by amazing DJs you’ll never find anywhere else.

Why a music-centric app? Because the W experience is never about the room. It’s about the tribe.

I’ve spent countless nights at Ws across the world but I’ve only ever slept in a W room once.

I, like most people, go there for coffee meetings, dinner meetings and parties. It’s where you gather, and no matter where you are in the hotel, incredible music is pulsing through the air.

W knows that music can transport you. Music is the experience and if they can own the experience of discovering, consuming and feeling music, then they own the in-app relationship.

That’s why music is organized by common areas in the hotel, so you can move through the music the way you’d move through a party or night out with friends.

It was a bold move that de-emphasized room bookings (like most other hotel apps) and elevated a sense of discovery and belonging instead.

In fact, the only place you won’t hear music at a W is in the actual room you’re sleeping in.


A Framework For Getting Started

Good brand messaging solves multiple problems at once.

A strong story can make issues around user behavior, trust, retention and competitive forces disappear. Just look at Airbnb and their brilliant “Belong Anywhere” positioning.

It also takes the complex and makes it simple.

The framework below is designed to get you thinking in the right direction. It asks hard questions that combine user psychographics with needs and patterns.

The point is to go past the obvious and find the powerful subtext that you can incorporate into your brand.

Remember, branded messaging usually addresses the pain point, but brand-led messaging addresses the reward.

Use this framework to move from surface-level pain points to soul-level desires.

This framework is not an ending point, but rather a starting point to help you:

  1. Empathize with your customer and see the world through their POV
  2. Ask questions that get to the subconscious truth, not the conscious answer
  3. See the invisible matrix that controls your user’s beliefs, behaviors and perceptions
An emotion-driven framework to help uncover the stories and language necessary for strategic messaging.

You can see there are a lot of heavy questions here, but all of them tie back to two things: messaging opportunities within a user persona, and patterns between personas.

Using this framework takes time and some digging, so let’s look at examples two ways.


Let’s assume we’re developing messaging for a food tech startup that’s developed a vegetarian meat alternative that tastes and looks like the real thing.

Their strategy is to go after an untapped market in the millennial male, beef-eating, middle America, steak-and-potatoes audience who grew up with a strong narrative about eating meat as part of a healthy diet.

It’s counterintuitive and seems like a difficult demo to capture, but if they can get it right, there’s tremendous opportunity.

I want to be clear that this is not researched, focus-grouped or based in any hard findings. This is a shallow set of personas made up for a fictional company, but it makes a point about finding patterns between personas:

Three patterns are already apparent:

  1. Strong themes of personal excellence.
  2. All 3 personas are seeking some sort of optimization (emotionally or physically).
  3. All 3 have a strong sense of autonomy. Seeking a sense of control.

We know that this needs to be about the customer experience, and we know that our product must lend itself to that experience.

Thus a plausible idea would be to make our product about performance.

This is a meat alternative made to perform better than meat. It’s not a substitute, it’s an improvement. It’s also about the internal, physical and emotional performance of our users.

Better performance of the body + better performance of the soul.

Already we see the message is not about health. It’s about reaching your personal best.

That’s a very unique message that resonates with our three personas, differentiates among other heath- or planet-driven players in the market, and raises the baseline.

Messaging Opportunities

Now let’s look at messaging opportunities within the Dave persona.

We immediately see a few messaging opportunities. Keep in mind these aren’t necessarily the words you’d use in your messaging, but they are threads to follow and see if they create a compelling brand.

  • Internal Qualifiers show Dave is looking to reach the next level within himself. A message around a new level of mind/ body strength, no matter how subtle, will matter to him.
  • External Qualifiers are interesting. If we gave Dave a new narrative around his identity, he may find the freedom and flexibility he’s looking for in not just a product, but his lifestyle.
  • Behaviors are interesting, too. We know Dave appreciates premium, upmarket offerings. He’s extremely intelligent and empowered in his personal lifestyle products and realizes you get what you pay for. Messaging around a personal health journey fits well into his life story.

The beauty of this matrix is the interconnectedness of messaging. The three concepts within Dave above harmonize with our observed pattern across Dave, Mike and John.


Best Practices

  • Always be customer centric. Your ‘why’, your ‘what’ and your ‘how’ should be about them, not you.
  • Separate the product from the brand. They can be closely linked in the end, but ultimately a brand-led company is not promising a product experience. It’s promising a human experience.
  • Look for cultural trends and constructs all around you in daily life. For example, significant trends around self-care and wellness, personal transformation, redefined parenthood and decentralized luxury are all front and center for the millennial generation right now.
  • As Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”. A framework will tell you all of the boxes you have to tick off, but finding a single message (or handful of messages) to meet all those requirements is difficult. This is the art of brand strategy and strategic messaging. Don’t give up. Just keep pushing yourself. When you get it, you know it.
  • Fill out this framework and then leave it alone. The hidden truths you uncover will germinate in your mind and eventually find a path to the right message.



Ah, messaging. So simple, yet so convoluted.

The next time you hear a brand message that stirs your soul, pay attention to how it works. I guarantee it’s working on multiple levels, solving multiple problems, with one eloquent solution.

The stories we tell ourselves shape our life experience. As a brand, you can insert yourself as an instrumental part of that life experience, but only if you truly understand what that experience is in the first place.

Take the time to do your messaging right. Your customers deserve it.