Welcome To The New Premiumization of Everything

When markets for premium toilet paper and convenience store wine start to prove themselves, a brand reckoning isn’t far behind.

When I arrived in Tokyo’s Nirita International Airport on a cold December morning, before I even searched for baggage claim, I had located my first asian 7-Eleven on the second floor of arrivals.

It was all there — puffy cloud pastries, fried chicken on a stick (soon to become my preferred breakfast for the next two weeks), racks of single sushi pieces in colorful wrapping — and it all lived up to the hype.

The fabled foodie culture that haloed 7-Elevens overseas just two years ago hadn’t quite come to the US at that point, but today something is changing.


More and more people are posting 7-Eleven food hauls, hunting down limited edition 7–Eleven foods, sanctifying new products with enthusiastic taste tests and talking about the midnight convenience store run more like a gastronome hobby than a stoner pastime.

Through their 7-SELECT private label, limited edition releases of emotionally driven food brands, the 7NOW delivery app and new lab stores that test concepts like turmeric slurpees, the company has started to drive a wedge between the words “convenience store” and “cheap junk food”.

Although many fan posts still use #junkfood, it is more of a term of endearment than derision.

There is an active hunt for that one 7-Eleven food you haven’t felt before. You may have seen Slurpees and Sour Patch Kids, but when you see a Slurpee push pop or a bag of only blue Sour Patch gummies, you feel delighted before you even know what you’re looking at.


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It’s a move straight out of the Trader Joe’s playbook: start a food movement around the thrill of discovery.

By constantly evolving their inventory and rearranging product mix in their stores, 7-Eleven is creating an experience where we can tell ourselves that we’re not only fun foodie people, but tastemakers on the bleeding edge of this new foodie movement — and it’s still dirt cheap.

This is the new premiumization. There is no premium price point but there is definitely a cost to participate. Whether it’s time, education, emotional investment or understanding the unwritten code, premium brands make us pay in ways that are perhaps more costly than money to begin with.

New premium brands don’t charge in dollars. They charge in expensive intangibles like time, emotion, education and understanding.

When you charge a premium that can’t be measured in dollars, you’re trading, not transacting. This isn’t an exchange of goods and services. This is a reciprocity of commitment. It’s very clearly a different kind of relationship.

Of course it doesn’t stop there. Last year, 7-Eleven launched their own premium private label bottled wines and canned wines, named Voyager Point and Roamer, respectively.

This is in addition to 7-Eleven’s value-priced Yosemite Road and Trojan Horse wines. As they build their wine selection horizontally across price segments, they’re signalling to the market that you don’t come to 7-Eleven to get cheap wine. You come to 7-Eleven to evolve your tastes.

That may seem like an exaggeration, but when taken in context with all of their other efforts to grow the brand story, including experimenting with private label meal kits, kombucha aisles, local craft drinks, patios, interior dining areas and rustic decor, you get the idea that you can invest time here.

There is something much more to be had than just food or convenience. You can feel all of the emotions that come with building a meaningful meal, and learn about the secret world of a well-stocked 7-Eleven.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s this: Anyone — literally anyone — can be a premium brand. We are living in a time when consumers will let brands change as they outgrow their heritage. They will allow for you to redefine yourself in a way that previous generations may have had difficulty with (i.e. New Coke).

The revolution is taking over every inch of real estate from the forgotten corners under your bathroom sink to the lines on your monthly portfolio statements.

But new premiumization isn’t just a clever story and good packaging. There’s more to it than meets the eye.

And when the dust settles, there will be winners and losers.

The Balloon Crowding Out Value and Luxury

To fully understand this new premiumization, we need to discard any old connotations around the word.

Premiumization is not a form of diffusion branding, nor is it a higher margin (although a higher price point may be there, it’s not core to the brand’s positioning). The notion of what is premium has completely untethered from the product, its heritage, its quality or its features.

Consider the endless parade of premium brands that are either eroding value from their luxury counterparts above, or stealing marketshare from their value-priced neighbors below.

Pay attention to where the real cost is incurred for each of these examples. Any premium in price pales in comparison to the emotional, educational, time or personal commitment cost hiding beneath the brand.


In case you were wondering if there was a new way to package water and sell it, there is. This brand has taken over the baby wipes category by storm by virtue of the fact that its only ingredients are water and a drop of fruit extract. I’m a new mother and even though I know the mechanics at play here, I still co-sign this.

This is not an easy category to make gains in. It’s a commodity product, the behemoth that is Amazon had introduced their own private label version of baby wipes, and by 2016 they had driven the price so low, even Huggies and Pampers were forced to follow with cheaper prices.

When WaterWipes entered the US market, they became a viral hit. Billing themselves as the “World’s Purest Baby Wipes” and crafting a premium brand by way of storytelling, reimagining of a product’s meaning and it’s role in the home, they gained significant marketshare.

Although their cost is not core to their premium positioning, the fact that they command a 300% premium in the market does reveal something important —even water can be made more valuable. That’s 300% that has absolutely nothing to do with inherent quality, heritage, craftsmanship or luxury.

Pet Food

Remember when Fancy Feast and that flamboyant white cat were the only game in town?


Times have changed. Today’s market for premium pet food runs the gamut from niche local brands inspired by clean eating, to celebrity fronted names like Rachel Ray’s Nutrish brand dog food.

Consider the fact that you can now buy pet food in the pet food aisle, the refrigerated foods, the frozen section, in health food stores, in sporting goods stores, in gourmet cooking stores, have it delivered fresh to your door, and of course, get it online.

Premium pet food isn’t about feeding an animal. It’s about the overall lifestyle of the pet owner. That’s why Nutrish’s parent company Ainsworth Pet Nutrition was able to sell to J.M. Smucker Co. for nearly $2 billion.


This is an interesting premium brand that I have been watching for a while, and consistently I have seen them make smart, brand-led moves.

Uqora is an over-the-counter supplement brand that helps women deal with potentially dangerous urinary tract infections, often triggered by sex. The medical community has no real preventative solution other than antibiotics, and an invisible faction of women has silently suffered without a real solution — a story Uqora has carefully managed to surface in their content.

But if you do some searching, you will find that a supplement called D-Mannose has helped women who are searching for a DIY cure. You can buy D-Mannose, basically a sugar that prevents bacteria from attaching to the urinary tract, in bulk on Amazon.

Uquora has taken this commodity supplement and repackaged it with a hefty amount of vitamin C. D-Mannose is not rare or exotic. It’s cheap. It’s available for delivery. It’s there if you need it.

What made this a premium brand was the fact that they created a new narrative — a narrative that forced its users to invest emotionally, personally change their views and pay with the time it took them to learn this new perspective. This is the premium price.

To truly understand the genius in their approach, you have to first take a look at something like Viagra.

Both Viagra and Uqora are actually in the business of sex. And not just any kind of sex, but sex inside of a relationship. Viagra took the subject of erectile dysfunction, a very emotionally charged issue between a couple, and made ads like this:

It’s been well documented that when ED hits, the woman probably doesn’t demand sex like an expectant minx. Instead, she’s likely to blame herself and feel a just as much shame as her male partner, making an already loaded issue even more complicated. Ads like this often misrepresent the emotional turmoil that ED can cause.

Uquora also exists between two people in the context of their sex lives, but their approach is very different (watch the video here):

They get right into that uncomfortable spot between two people. They involve both parties. They uncover triggers and fears in a way that others have failed to do, and they do it in a supportive context.

This is not a premium product, but it is a premium brand.

The list goes on and on…

  • Karmicare and Twice: Two different toothpaste brands, both deconstructing the toothbrushing experience into day and night rituals, both reinventing your relationship with your mouth.
  • The InstantPot retail phenomenon: Basically the same pressure cooker that we’ve always been afraid to use, but suddenly made friendly with better buttons and a new ethos around the magic of super-fast cooking.
  • Blenders like Vitamix: Simple countertop machines that have no business flaunting so much horsepower, but have become a $500 symbol of middle-class superiority.
  • Taco Bell Hotel: We all laughed. And then it sold out in two minutes.
  • Peach Goods Toilet Paper: It’s a subscription service that uses phrases like “Developed with diligence”, “Made in American plain country” and “We believe in moments for ourselves”. And they’re in good company with other names like Tushy , Who Gives A Crap, No. 2 and Cheeky Monkey.

When you pay for these brands, you pay with a piece of your identity. If you become emotionally invested, have to learn a new code or spend time to understand something you didn’t know before, then you are paying for the premium.

Alchemy at the Edges of Your Category

So why is all of this happening?

The bulk of my research as a brand strategist has led to this question. Why are today’s consumers fueling the emergence of premium brands across every single category?

Yes, we’ve moved into the experience economy. Yes, people want to participate in stories. But these aren’t the answers, these are the effects.

What’s happening is a shift in where we draw value as a culture. Where we once found meaning in the focused perfection of a single product or vertical, we now look for meaning in the blending between spaces.

The intimate act of eating has birthed a movement around functional foods (food + medicine), traditional education was the unwitting precursor to edutainment brands like Masterclass (education + entertainment), and even something as simple as the humble water bottle has evolved into a new ‘hydration’ category with brands like S’well and Corkcicle (water bottles + lifestyle).

When you combine to create something entirely new, you build meaning where there was none before — the pinnacle of brand-led companies. It’s this alchemy that has powered the premium market.

You see this blending everywhere:

  • Food is the new religion: “Good” foods, “bad” foods, “clean” foods, “pure” foods — we’ve come to apply religious principles to the foods we eat because, as researchers like Alan Levinovitz have pointed out, “Seeking out natural products is about health, yes, but holistic health. Physical and spiritual, personal and planetary. Nature becomes a secular stand-in for God, and the word ‘natural’ a synonym for ‘holy.’”
  • Gyms are the new temple: SoulCycle is a daily pilgrimage toward an out-of-body experience. CrossFit is where we push ourselves from manliness to godliness. Heated yoga inspires heart-racing highs. We emerge from all of these hallowed spaces as better, purer beings.
  • Pets are the new children: You don’t need to go any further than the phrase “fur baby” to see this. We millennials see our pets as ‘starter children’ and spend money on them like we would children, too. Heated cat houses, dog ice cream, puppy beer, cat wine, ornate halloween costumes, rechargeable fetch machines and leash umbrellas are just the eccentric goods that come with the territory.
  • Founders and VCs are the new celebrities: It was only weird for a little while when Ben Horowitz hung out with Kanye. Gary Vaynerchuck has a one-man documentary crew follow him around. Elon Musk’s autograph is probably worth more than any A-lister in Hollywood. You see the pattern.

As a culture, we are searching for new meaning, and new meaning comes from the unexpected combinations that cause us to experience and understand the world differently.

If 7-Eleven would have been bold enough to try today’s rebrand 30 years ago, it wouldn’t have worked. Back then, we were still deriving meaning from categories in silos (the best car, the best tech, the best product, the best anything).

But we, the consumer, have changed. We didn’t scoff at 7-Eleven’s moves because we understand they’re going somewhere. We know that if we invest in them with our patience and curiosity, they will delight us.

Who Will Be Standing When the Dust Settles

We’re living in the wild west of premiumization right now. The rules are still being written and every time a new cowboy comes riding into town, the everyone gets shaken up.

But there is one truth emerging, and it is the rule that will define the winners and losers when the landscape starts to mature.

The winners in the new premium space will be the ones that committed to something bigger.

Forget story, forget packaging, forget design, forget all the trappings of a flashy new D2C company. Instead, pay attention to who is consistently creating meaning outside of themselves.

You don’t need to be in CPG to do this. Wealthsimple, a clear cut investment platform (like all those that have come before it) proves that.

They are not talking about how to invest and make money. They are having a much larger conversation about what money means.

This isn’t a simple topic. Everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dr. Laura has tried to tackle it… but perhaps never before has an investment firm tried like this.

Wealthsimple’s blog untangles the messy money stories we all share with people like Sasha Lane, Jonathan Van Ness and Kim Kardashian.

In their Money Diaries section of the Wealthsimple Magazine, the company reveals the very messy, very human side of how famous people deal with money. You quickly come to understand that money is about self-worth wrapped up in all kinds of emotions like fear, denial and joy. The content is engineered to remove judgement and change your relationship with your own bank statement.

“We never had money. You learn, as a kid whose family is broke, not to ask for things. You even learn not to want things. Just be happy with the basics you need to survive: food, clothes, and a place to live, which my mom always found a way to provide.

But every year, as Christmas approached, it meant the same heartbreaking ritual. My mom would sit my brother Sergio and I down and say to us, “I’m so sorry, but there won’t be any Christmas presents this year. I just can’t really make it happen.” She’d have tears in her eyes.

It wasn’t the lack of presents that broke my heart; it was seeing my mom feeling like she’d failed us, even though we’d tell her again and again that she hadn’t.”

– Excerpt from interview with actress Sasha Lane

In the Dear Ms. Etiquette section, readers get answers to hairy questions like “Do I need to have to lend my siblings money?” and “I just got engaged! Yay! So can I ask him for a prenup or does that mean I’m actually dead inside?”

This isn’t really about etiquette so much as it is about permission. Their readers already know what is right. What they’re really seeking is for someone to tell them it is.

All of this content is about creating something that didn’t exist before it. Wealthsimple is taking a machete into the overgrown wilderness that is money and clearing a path for people to inch forward in.

It’s a commitment, and if you felt a range of cathartic emotions as you clickholed your way deeper into this excellent storytelling, then you repaid that commitment with a premium.

Even our dear friends at 7-Eleven are committed to something bigger.

“We’ve been on this journey to redefine convenience,” said EVP Gurmeet Singh in a recent statement. “This makes it easy for people to stay in the moment.”

Nice, but not entirely accurate. What they’ve really committed to is honoring the food some of us love, but others among us hurtfully call “junk”.

Whether that’s reinventing it to be healthier, repackaging it to delight us as it did when we were children, or pairing it with something a bit more adult, it’s all the same thing: a way to create new meaning where there was none before.


The tipping point of trust

It’s the most important destination for your brand and users. This is how to get there.

[Photo by Oliver Sjöström.]

I had a prenatal massage at one of my favorite spa chains recently, and struggled with trust in a way I’ve never experienced before.

I love massages. I always have and I get them regularly. But a prenatal massage is different. You can’t lay down in the same positions or put pressure on certain body parts like the stomach and ankles. You feel stiff on the table, but because the hormone relaxin has actually loosened your joints, you may be far more flexible (and prone to strain) than you realize.

Overall, it’s like discovering yourself in a new body, which means I wasn’t in my favorite spa getting my 60 minute massage.

I was a new consumer buying a new service for the first time, and any trust accumulated between me and the brand up until that point had been wiped out. I was experiencing this with a fresh perspective.

Instead of zoning out the moment I laid down like I usually do, I was tense for the first 45 minutes before I could finally relax for the last 15. I simply couldn’t ease my body or turn my brain off.

I was unable to give myself over to the process because there weren’t enough brand interactions to get me to the tipping point of trust.

The brand had done nothing to indoctrinate me into our new relationship, and I had no way to frame the experience or contextualize what was happening.

Although the masseuse was well rated, kind and continuously checking in with me to make sure I was comfortable, I was missing the cues that should have told me, “this is what to expect”, “this is how you know it’s being done right”, and “this is what you should care about.”

Without those cues, I simply didn’t know when I could relax and I didn’t have the permission to let go.

The tipping point of trust is the moment that we go from thinking about an exchange to purely experiencing it. Depending on the business you are in and the customers you are speaking to, you can think of it as going from shopping to consuming, witnessing to being, or conscious to subconscious.

Users cross the tipping point when:

  1. they are willing to be vulnerable enough, and
  2. that vulnerability is rewarded.

Your job isn’t to get rid of the vulnerability. Vulnerability is an important relationship-building tool. Your job is to make that vulnerability worth it.

Trust is inherently tied to risk, but you don’t gain trust by making risk go away. You gain trust by making the risk worth it.

When you give people permission to be vulnerable and then reward them for it, you create a strong bond.

23andMe understands this. There is a great deal of inherent risk with their product, but instead of focusing on mitigating that risk in their brand positioning, they work to set a narrow field of expectation that users can measure their experience against:



When users take the leap and contextualize their experience not as a black box DNA test, but rather as “Meet Your Genes” — or put another way, a colorful way to familiarize yourself with anthropomorphized genetic personalities living in your body — they are rewarded with an easy understanding.

You know to interpret your results with a sense of playful discovery. You know to connect with your genes as if they are friends living inside of you. You know to see them not as cryptic markers that control your life, but rather as personified characters that answer to you when you ask them to reveal themselves.

That brand positioning primes you for a very different kind of experience.

(I‘ve written’ more about my own experience with this, and identity narratives in branding here.)

This also underscores something important: the tipping point is reached with the brand and not the UX.

Many people think that you get to the tipping point of trust with good UX moments or product features, but neither of those things can give users the context they need in order to have the right kind of experience going in.

They can certainly build trust incrementally, but they do not change the overall mindset of the user like brand can.

Brand is where you start.

The Nature of Trust and Control

Trust has been defined and redefined many times in the past few decades. It’s a tricky word to describe, like ‘cool’ or ‘porn’.

There is one recent definition, however, that works well in a branding context:

The willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the truster, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.

Mayer et. al., 1995:712

Trust means giving up control in one way or another, but in a user context, giving up control is scary. As brands, we work diligently against that fear, trying to offer control through transparency, dashboards, customization or any other number of features that put our customers in the driver’s seat.

On their own, these features fall short of true control because in the end, they’re just band-aids for the symptom.

No company can ever give 100% transparency. Dashboards are limited by definition. Customization usually only goes so far.

A far more powerful way around the trust issue is to change the way your user perceives control in the relationship to begin with.

23andMe moves the center of control from your genes (which comes from a very strong historical narrative, by the way, that says everything about a human is genetic) to you as an individual.

Genes are made to be coaches, HQ operators, friends and so on. They help, but they do not control us. They guide, but they do not command the quality of our lives.

For a silly brand campaign, it’s actually quite smart in changing perceptions of what genes are and how we should interface with them. Genes don’t control us. We do.

Control is in the perception. You can shift the center of control by shifting the paradigm.

Framing For The Tipping Point

Another way to think about the tipping point of trust is to think about framing.

Brands are framing mechanisms. They inform us how to embrace and internalize an interaction.

At the extreme end of the framing spectrum, we run into a bias called the framing effect. The framing effect is our predisposition to assume there are certain boundaries to a choice or situation, based on the information at hand:

The framing effect is a cognitive bias where people decide on options based on if the options are presented with positive or negative semantics; e.g. as a loss or as a gain.

People tend to avoid risk when a positive frame is presented but seek risks when a negative frame is presented. Gain and loss are defined in the scenario as descriptions of outcomes (e.g., lives lost or saved, disease patients treated and not treated, etc.).

As a former publicist, I can tell you this happens a lot in political reporting.

Take a look at the recent coverage for the Green New Deal and you’ll see that most of the headlines asked “Can we trust this deal?” rather than actually trying to understand what was in it.

The framing proved very powerful — from the beginning, we were primed to see it as problematic and unfeasible, even without knowing what it was comprised of.

You can literally watch hours of segments about the Green New Deal, as Vox reporter Carlos Maza did in the video below, and realize that none of them actually explain how the deal works:



Granted, the policy set forth was still lacking in certain details, but that’s not atypical for a proposal like this where further explanation is released later. There were plenty of details right there in the deal that were simply never covered in the press in any meaningful way.

Tactically framed political reports and articles are positioned so you don’t think to trust the content, you think to trust the critique.

Framing can be dangerous, especially when you have a lazy or jaded audience that’s become more accustomed to reacting than investigating.

But if framing can obscure the things that should matter, it can also force us to care about things that may have not mattered before.

Wilkinson Mazzeo PC is a small legal duo in San Diego, California that has used framing to completely change the way their customers view both the law and lawyers: March 13th, 2019

I often write about large brands in B2C or D2C, but this is a strong example of how the same branding principles can be applied to B2B, or smaller to medium-sized brands (although Wilkinson Mazzeo does have impressive clients experience under their belt).

As you go deeper into their website you realize this company is having a completely different conversation about law, entrepreneurship and community than anyone else in the space.

They say that they are “humanizing the practice of law”, but I would argue that even more importantly than that, they are reframing both what law should be, and what we should care about as consumers of that law:

Wilkinson Mazzeo’s love letter to the creatives they serve.

You can’t explore this website as a creative or entrepreneur and not start having a conversation in your head. “Does my lawyer think like these guys do?” “Would my lawyer care as much?” “Is my lawyer creative enough to protect my company?”

“Have I been thinking about law in the right way this whole time?”

Emily Wilkinson and Sam Mazzeo have reframed the conversation to get you to the tipping point of trust very quickly. Whereas you may have observed the brands of other law firms in the past, you come to quickly experience the brand of this one right now.

They even have merch. They have merch because they know they’re not selling legal services, they’re selling a relationship based on trust.

Just like when you wear a Patagonia shirt or band tee, you’re celebrating your relationship with the other party.

Wilkinson Mazzeo’s merch.

Most importantly, they make it easy to leave your biases about lawyers at the door when coming to this brand.

Framing for the tipping point of trust changes the reference points people use to gauge your brand.

Understand how to get users to the tipping point of trust first, then create the signals that will guide them there.

There is a certain kind of vulnerability required here in order to converse with this brand. You have to be willing to forget what you thought about lawyers. You also have to connect with these two specific lawyers as friends first, legal practitioners second.

Once you do, you’re rewarded for your vulnerability and start the relationship from a very different place.

That tipping point is the most important place to get to for this brand, or any other brand.

Find it and then steer your users toward it.


These Are The Secret Signals That Lie Beneath Every Successful Brand

[Photo by Hugo Jehanne.]

You can’t move the market if you don’t know how to read the market.

There’s a big difference between building a brand for today and building a strategic brand for the horizon of your industry.

I meet a lot of branding people who create or consult companies based on two-dimensional principles. That usually sounds something like:

  • “We’re making health food for the young urban professional that doesn’t have time to cook, but wants to feel good about what’s going into their body.”
  • “We’re a D2C lifestyle clothing brand for young, single men who aren’t afraid to put some personality in their wardrobes.”
  • “Our brand is for the millennial yoga mom who wants an electric car that reflects her values.”
  • “We provide frictionless financial solutions for small businesses and their vendors.”

If any of these sound familiar, then you are building a brand for the here-and-now. It will work for the here-and-now, but there is no strategy for how it will compete in the next few years.

That’s because these brands fail to look at the deep signals that are going to move their markets. Some of the most important of these signals are in culture and definitions, and it takes a keen understanding of markets and mentalities in order to pick up on them.

They are hidden because they haven’t emerged yet, but the groundwork for what they will mean to us as consumers is already being laid.

This is part of thinking like a brand strategist. I’ve written about it in a previous post, but here I want to cut deeper into a certain aspect of what those signals mean and where to find them. Specifically, the more foundational signals we may take for granted but see all around us in the world.

Above all, I want us to explore how to use these signals for your own brand. If you’re creating a brand based on strategy, it’s important to have a curiosity not only for how things are changing, but why, and to apply that ‘why’ to your own business.

You’ll see that these signals can come from any corner of the playing field, and yet can be applied to nearly any business in the landscape.

Signals usually supersede any particular vertical because they’re not about the market itself, but rather the forces that move the market forward.

You can’t move the market if you don’t know how to read the market.

Once you see a signal, you start to understand how it powers much of the activity in our lives.

Signals are codes. They underlie what you see on the surface of a market, and the strongest brands out there have made those codes part of their DNA.

Collective Culture

A strategist has to be something of a cultural anthropologist. You have to see your users as individuals as well as products of their surroundings and part of a greater whole.

Sometimes, a glitch in the cultural system can lead you to the faulty code of a signal. I saw something like this recently in an old story about finance.

The world’s first index fund was founded by John Bogle of The Vanguard Group in 1975. There was nothing like it at the time. You couldn’t simply ‘invest in the market’, and most investors worked with advisors to actually beat the market with their portfolios.

The entire investment paradigm at that time was to perform better by placing your bets in a subset of market stocks.

Bogle, however, noticed something interesting that was starting to emerge in the research of economists like Paul Samuelson and Burton Malkiel.

He saw that oftentimes, if you just invested in a weighted basket of all stocks in the market, you’d be better off than trying to beat the market by predicting with a few key companies. In other words, the average of the market performed better than most investors did with their portfolios… and he had the historical figures to prove it.

That sounds logical, right?

But for many it wasn’t. The concept of an index fund was met with huge resistance in the financial community, as well as its fair share of ridicule.

It was called “un-American” and Fidelity Investments Chairman Edward Johnson was quoted as saying that he “[couldn’t] believe that the great mass of investors are going to be satisfied with receiving just average returns”.

An executive from a different firm wrote that all but “a very small minority” believe “index funds are a ‘cop-out’ and a fad that will soon disappear.”

That should draw your attention.

Why would Americans believe, that despite all the logic and proof behind it, an index fund was un-American and destined to fail?

Because there is something about being American that stands in the face of what Bogle’s fund represented.

It’s a sin to be average in America.

Somewhere, deep in our collective psyche, we believe that to be American means to be exceptional, and that cultural quirk revealed itself back in 1975 in this very incident.

Anti-index fund poster distributed by financial research firm Leuthold Group, who later claimed that the posters were in jest.

It’s such a sin to be average in America, that we are willing to ignore facts and figures in order to prove our beliefs.

How to use this signal.

As a brand, you can use this signal for your own benefit.

There are themes of exceptionalism, elitism, superiority, personal potential and self-discovery all wrapped up in this signal. These are strong personal motivators, whether we admit them or not.

That’s why stories like The Ugly Duckling keep recurring over and over again in the canon in modern day versions like John Snow in Game of Thrones and (of course) Harry Potter.

At the root of it, there’s an interesting mentality.

This is about changing your perception of yourself.

We can’t change the story that it’s a sin to be average, but we can change the average.

Changing the context can change user perceptions.

As a business, you can take what is normal about a user and reposition it as something extraordinary.

Brands like Moleskin, Apple and Bulletproof Coffee have all elevated something mundane about their users into something far more valuable.

That change in perceptions is the added value of their brands. When you use their products or buy into their philosophies, you are changing your perception of who you are.

Don’t underestimate the power of this mechanic. When perceptions shift, so does our purchasing.

[You can uncover other cultural signals using The Emergent Story Arc here.]

Changing Definitions

I’ve written before that peoples’ values rarely change, but the beliefs that sit on top of those values are more fluid and change easily.

Sometimes our very definitions even change.

We carry a big cultural value to eat what is good for us. But the definition of eating good food has evolved from the 1950’s through to today. Some of that was powered by science and government guidance, but a lot of it has been powered by beliefs around ethics, how we gather as a community, and what foods actually provide for our bodies.

The modern health food ‘craze’ as we know it today first took hold in the 80s and 90s, when restaurants like Souplantation and El Pollo Loco were rapidly growing.

Both of them reflected the healthy eating definitions of the time: that fresh food was healthy food. Souplantation had the mile-long buffet filled with trays of colorful produce. El Pollo Loco made open kitchens core to all of their locations and showed your flame broiled chicken being prepared, without microwaves or pre-processed ingredients, right in front of you.

By 2014, El Pollo Loco had taken on considerable debt and losses (despite growth), and since going public in that same year, the stock price has steadily declined by 40%.

By the 2017, Souplantation had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The decline in casual dining and overall declines in the market hit both companies hard. They weren’t mismanaged, but they were relics of a bygone era. Not because we stopped eating healthy, but because our definition of healthy had shifted.

Meanwhile, new salad upstarts like Sweetgreen, Salata, Tender Greens and Chopt are booming because they were smart enough to tap into a new definition of eating healthy.

They saw that it wasn’t just about the food anymore, but about sustainable practices, transparency about where the food comes from and the artisanal craft of preparing and honoring that food.

Sweetgreen made a point of teaching consumers that, unlike places like El Pollo Loco and Souplantation, people should not expect to get the same standard of food in every restaurant location:

“We want people to understand that that’s normal and that’s okay,” [Sweetgreen’s co-founder Nathaniel Ru says. “Something should taste different in a different place.”

That’s a major shift away from traditional fast-food principles, which dictate that customers should be able to walk into any location and get the exact same food and experience. In this realm, each chain is constantly trying to prove it’s more connected to farmers than the other guy. (Fresh&Co even bought its own farm on Long Island, announcing it would provide “hyper-local seasonal” ingredients.)

These brands understood that our definition of eating good went from ‘food that looks fresh’ to ‘food that has a story’.

Tender Greens and Sweetgreen both turning food into a different kind of story.

How to use this signal.

Definitions are a different kind of signal. When definitions change, it’s a reevaluation of our beliefs, but also a recommitment to our values.

Definitions, above all, need to be spelled out.

If, as a brand, you see that your audience is starting to untether themselves from a belief that centers around a core value, that’s a tremendous opportunity to help people define that change.

When consumers start to feel a change in their beliefs, it’s the brands who define those changes that win.

You can help people change the definitions around them, when they’re ready, by giving them a concrete stepping stone for getting there.

We didn’t know that we wanted to play with our makeup until Glossier defined that new relationship for us, although young women were starting to feel it.

We didn’t consciously realize that our cars were turning from self-expressive statements to utilitarian objects, but SUVs got us there. That’s why sedans have started to fade away and SUVs, the fastest growing truck category, have increased in shares to 42%, from 30% in 2010.

If you watch carefully, you will see a changing definition in your own industry (if not a few).

You can help people articulate it and become an important part of your user’s evolution into a new set of beliefs.


There’s always a signal.

I’ve seen that even in the stalest of industries, where it may seem as if there’s no innovation and no change in what consumers are searching for, there is, in fact, a signal.

It may be weak, but it’s there. Nothing in the market is static, and nothing about your audience is set in stone.

If you search for that emerging change, you will find it. Building a strategic brand means digging for those signals and making them a part of your DNA.


Where to push your brand forward in the next 2–5 years: An Industry Guide

Distinct brand challenges are emerging across every market, and they reveal untapped opportunities for the players that are willing to solve them.

People aren’t buying products anymore. They’re buying brands. That should make you think long and hard about what you’re actually selling.

Even the most mundane of companies — from those that sell toothpaste to those who hawk discount furniture assembly — realize that we are no longer selling goods, features or mere solutions for jobs to be done. We’re selling a story that sparks change in the consumer today, by showing them our brand vision for what the future can be tomorrow.

Some industries have moved forward faster on this than others. Hygiene, beauty, consumer technology and travel have seen huge steps forward in brand ideology. Finance, education and housing, not so much.

On top of these staggered gains hovers a cloud of rapidly changing user behaviors and perceptions.

In beauty, savvy consumers have dramatically shifted from single-brand loyalty to mixing and matching premium names with indie brands. A big part of the beauty experience is now about concocting your own Google-driven regimens.

In finance, peoples’ spending behavior has changed, but new values that pit immediate gratification against future uncertainty have created a tension we haven’t seen before. Brands in this space have done little, if anything, to ease that tension and create a new story around money (which is really a story around success and self worth — two deeply emotional themes).

Even if your brand-leading CPG company has gripped the attention of a lucrative audience, there’s a very good chance you may have educated your consumer past your product.

Specialty diet brands in niches like keto and paleo focus on content in order to build a cult following, but then that content creates a demanding consumer whose tastes quickly evolve out of the brands that sparked them in the first place.

Bulletproof may have opened your eyes to a new narrative around health, but soon enough MCT oils lead to adaptogens and nootropics, and a whole world of possibility that lives outside of the Bulletproof product mix.

Both rudimentary brands and evolved brands face the same problem — the world will not look the same in the near future.

It doesn’t matter how evolved a space is or isn’t. Every category is facing major brand challenges, and these challenges are market-making opportunities for the companies that are willing to solve them.

Below is a high-level rundown of what our agency is seeing in just a few category hotspots. There is a treasure trove of untapped opportunity here.

You may not see your industry on this list, but keep an open mind. Some of the greatest brand innovations have been inspired by outside industries.

You may not be in finance, but perhaps you’re in a space that hits on some of the same emotional triggers. You might not be selling a wellness product, but maybe a wellness story is exactly what can make people more open to trying your product in the first place.

This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it does cover some of the biggest brand challenges (slash opportunities) we see emerging in the next 2–5 years.

If you move your brand in a direction that solves these challenges, you’ll be poised for major payoff.

Use this as your treasure map.


[Also important for brands that face cultural bias, speak to users that are seeking ‘permission’ to consume/ engage, or are pushing up into new premium levels.]

Brands in the cannabis space, even the great ones like MedMen, are killing it with narratives related to relaxation, stress management and premium fun. But these are the industry’s 1.0 version of benefits.

As cannabis quickly grows up, we won’t be rewarding brands that sell us on benefits. We’ll reward the brand(s) that create a lifestyle.

There is no lifestyle in the cannabis industry right now, save for old cliched relics like the beach bum stoner or high school dropout.

A lifestyle is about values and belief systems, and that matters for the industry because creating a values-driven lifestyle around a product is the fastest way to circumvent cultural biases and fears (of which cannabis will have to contend with as it spreads from early adopters to the masses).

Our parents and neighbors will soon have access to CBD infused drinks, marijuana-laden dishes at restaurants and THC bath bombs, but without a lifestyle narrative, they will not know how to integrate these products into their lives with meaning.

Any brand can convince people to try a CBD drink or pot cookie once. But a very, very tiny fraction will figure out how to make the discerning consumption of these products a lifestyle marker.

The goal isn’t to get your mom to smoke a joint and relax. It’s to make her become a cannabis tastemaker.

(You can read more about the DNA of a lifestyle brand here.)


[Pay attention to this space if your brand is related to wellness or self-care, relies on scientific claims, or stands in the crosshairs between institutions and disruptors.]

Healthcare’s brand is caught between the truth and a lie.

Consumers are exhibiting a growing distrust of old institutions, “disease awareness campaigns” are turning benign conditions like excessive sweating into profitable medical maladies, peer reviewed journals are coming under fire for dubious content, and people like Gwyneth Paltrow and the Medical Medium, for all of their dissenters and critics, are still among the very few voices speaking to fatigued patients with empathy and compassion.

In all of these interactions, our health is constantly being pushed top of mind.

The Medical Medium’s unique style of empathetic nutrition is resonating with millions of people who are willing to turn a blind eye to science in search of something more human. There is a network of trust here that you’d be hard pressed to find in other health communities.

Its spilling into many other parts of our lives as well. No longer is it just under the purview of doctors, hospitals and researchers, but also our personal trainers, our phone apps, our grocery stores, and our Walmarts. It laces the fabric of countless consumer stories.

But all of that information is creating a unique problem.

When people see huge medical advancements on the horizon promising to treat cancer, yet somehow can’t figure out how to turn the results of their gut health testing kit into actionable, measurable lifestyle improvements, the system suffers a significant loss in trust.

All of that frustration and friction is eroding greater brand value.

‘If we’re so close to a cure for cancer, why can’t I make sense of my gut bacteria?’ What many don’t understand is that the perceived failure of that gut health kit is amplified 10-fold by the cure-for-cancer story that’s in the back of a user’s mind.

The fact is that health brands don’t just have to answer to the stories and expectations of their own niche, but those of the larger space as well.

In this case, the expectation isn’t about gut health, it’s about the modern miracles of science. That is the expectation that needs to be addressed and managed.

Even if you’re selling a simple product in this space, remember that it is not only your brand narrative that people are layering over their product experience, but any larger notions they have about healthcare as well.

Startups and old guards need to be far more diligent in mapping expectations and beliefs to actual experience, and to frame those experiences in an empathetic conversation that balances the promise of reaching the pinnacle of medicine with the opacity of how we will actually get there.

Wellness & Self-Care

[Also any brand that relies heavily on consumer education, or is going from niche to mainstream.]

There are a million different messages in wellness and self-care, but the strongest brands have done an excellent job of educating their early cohorts. Most narratives fall in two different camps — those that are empowering and mobilizing, or those that are disempowering and creating fear — and both have engendered sophisticated buyers as a result.

There are brands that heal from toxins, scary environmental threats, encourage restoration and retreating to a safe space. These brands are about getting from -1 to 0.

Then there are those that urge users to reach new levels of ability and productivity, to fight against the accepted norm and unlock hidden human potential. These brands are about getting from 0 to +1.

In wellness you are either healing or fighting. And on either side, information drives behavior.

That creates a problem for the masses of new consumers coming into the fold. There is a growing disconnect between early consumers who have been well educated and the wider masses that have a lot of catching up to do.

Because early adopters in this space are so regionally and demographically concentrated, every rising star wellness brand will have to start reaching downwards into the mainstream whether they like it or not. That means connecting a very sophisticated message with a more entry-level one.

The challenge will be figuring out how to connect these two very different groups and the spectrum of users that lies between them.

Perhaps in no other space will it be this critical to thread together different messages with one strong and resonant belief because in wellness, a consumer’s level of education defines the depth of their consumption.


[Look here if your brand is facing divergent value systems among consumers and institutions, or if old sources of meaning are starting to evaporate.]

Everything about money is emotional.

The vast majority of finance companies, both incumbents and startups, still think it’s about value and wealth. It’s not.

Money is about how we value and respect ourselves as individuals, what we believe we can accomplish, and most importantly, what we believe we deserve.

Someone who treats money like a scarcity is in a very different mental paradigm than someone who treats money like a game.

Today, most of finance is predominantly about a future reward. Savings, 401ks, estate planning, life insurance, portfolio trading… these are all about delayed gratification and value. Delayed gratification and value were also hallmarks of the Baby Boomer generation.

Gen X and millennial value systems, however, have become very present.

Lives, careers, families and identities have become very fluid, and perhaps even more personal and emotional as uncertainty has taken hold around us. We’re starting to see a huge divergence between the fluidity of our emotional value systems and the fixed rigidity of our utilitarian money stories.

The immediate challenge for companies in this space is to bring these financial instruments and services into the present value system of our daily lives. If I don’t know who I’m going to be in 5 years, how can I plan for the next 30?

What does retirement even mean anymore? What is the goal? And if we’re not clear on the goal, how can we write the story around it?

There is a long distance to cover between what money has historically meant, and the meaning it now holds in people’s hearts and minds.

Once you cover that distance, you have to strip it out of the ambiguous future and bring it into the tangible reality of today.


[Any brand in an old space with a story that refuses to die.]

The American Dream is a very deeply entrenched cultural narrative that connects homeownership with identity.

Even if we understand that the dream has become less and less attainable and perhaps needs to be replaced as a cultural narrative altogether, we still find ourselves lamenting its death. There remains a strong attachment to the idea that our homes mean something important about us as people.

But as with any major economic shift, there is a slew of young companies rushing in to create a new norm.

Startups ranging from those that rethink financing and sales, to those that redefine the mechanics of rentals and co-ownership stand a good chance of replacing the usual American Dream story with something more attuned to reality.


a16z partner partner Alex Rampell explains how as consumers get used to less friction and more transparency in the age of mobile, software is finally beginning to disrupt buying a home.


Companies like Divvy, which turn your monthly rent into a down payment on the home you’re living in over time, are accompanied by others like Point (which let’s you sell part of your house), Homeshare, HubHaus, Bungalow (all of which are creating some form of ‘WeWork for housing’), Flyhomes and Opendoor (focused on non-traditional solutions for buying and selling) and many others.

When companies like these create new formats for housing, they also change the way we live in and inhabit our homes.

Our relationship to the home is beginning to significantly change, in no small part because of companies like these. But any time there’s a big shift such this one, we need a strong, new story to effectively frame our experience as consumers. A story that tells us where we are in life, and the meaning that our home is to give us. A story that essentially tells us how to relate to this new living format.

And in this case, the American Dream story simply will not fit.

For brands in this space, there is a huge opportunity to create both a new narrative and a new vocabulary around who a person is through their relationship with the spaces they live in.

As traditional homeownership morphs into something else, consumers will be primed for a new perspective that validates both their homes and their station in life. They will be ready to feel the same pride and sense of accomplishment, but in a different kind of relationship with their living spaces.

We will need brands that can give us that perspective.

This isn’t about a space to live in. This is about what it means to live in these new spaces.


[If you’re a brand with an audience that’s evolving very rapidly, or in a category that has recently been fragmented.]

Travel and recreation culture, as it started in the US in the 1950s after soldiers returned home from war, was primarily focused on external values. With newfound time and money, and a newly expanded palate they had cultured overseas, men and their families wholeheartedly bought into this new consumerist category.

But from the beginning, travel and recreation was about an external set of values. It was about leisure time, entertainment, casual fun and of course, middle-class social status.

Today we’ve shifted to a much more internal set of values.

‘Travel and recreation’ has been replaced by ‘travel and experience’. We travel for self-discovery, wellness, personal identity and to find our place in the world. Travel is meant to reveal some deep truth within ourselves.

This is far more of an essential need than a nice-to-have, and with this new function of travel comes a new purpose. Travel is not about holidays, but about daily life.

People have evolved to value travel as a continuous necessity, but brands still treat it like a luxury.

Some people may find ways to actually travel more often, and some will not, but that almost doesn’t matter.

There’s an opportunity to build a brand world that matches this newly emerging consumer belief. Even Airbnb, one of my favorite brands which I’ve written about many times, doesn’t yet go this extra step.

What would the world look like if we talked about travel as a given requirement to everyday life? What if we gently shifted the conversation from travel as a major life event or rite of passage to travel as part of the American experience?

People are already having this conversation with themselves in their heads. They’re ready for a brand story that legitimizes that conversation in the world.

(I talk more about users, their internal dialogues, and how these dialogues shape their identities here.)



Use these challenges as conversation starters in your own company.

I promise that on the other side of each of these problems lies a huge opportunity to not only lead change in your space, but to redefine your goals and future direction as a brand.

Future challenges, in many ways, are just levers for creating a powerful brand.


The California Concept: When a Belief Is Constantly Reborn

Creating an immortal brand, no matter how many times it has to die in the process.

California has always intrigued me as a brand, and it’s not because I was born here.

It wasn’t until I left America that I fully understood the magnitude of everything that is the golden state. This is a brand that lives and morphs independently of its borders, in ways that are hard to appreciate until you take a flight out.

I’ve lived and traveled abroad over many years, but my six-month journey across Europe and Asia this past year forced me to see California the way others see it — a giant, amorphous bastion of freedom that can mean anything to anyone.

Not very specific as far as brands go, but surprisingly very powerful.

Whether it’s Designed In California, the hippie movement, the movie industry, a burgeoning technology sector, the countercultures of mind-expanding drugs, biker gangs and communal living, or picturesque beaches laid alongside snowy mountains, people perceive California as both uncontrollably alive and deeply exciting.

Decades of policy and planning, and a rich natural geography have lent themselves to that strong identity, but there’s something much bigger to recon with.

It is the vast mental geography that California represents in peoples’ minds — the constantly growing narrative of free opportunity — that’s fascinating from a branding perspective.

Somehow, despite America’s clearly declining brand in the international community (of which I got an anti-American earful in many cafes and Uber rides), the California brand continues to capture the hearts and minds of people who have never stepped foot in the state.

French, German and American ads for travel to California.

Noting a difference in reception a long time ago, I stopped introducing myself as from America, and instead defaulted to being a California native.

It’s one thing to tell people that you come from America. It’s quite a different thing to tell them you’re a Californian.

I’ll never forget a sales clerk in London who once said to me with complete sincerity, “You’re from California! Why did you come here?”

I get responses like this in wealthy countries, not-so-wealthy countries, westernized countries and non-westernized ones. I get it from people of all ages and backgrounds, each one taking a markedly different angle on what California means to them.

It’s worth asking ourselves why this brand works in ways that others don’t.

How has it implanted itself into the psyches of people so vastly different across mentality, lifestyle and age?

How has the California brand traveled so far, while meaning so many things to so many people at once?

… especially since the truth behind California isn’t always synonymous with the myth.

The road system is in the greatest state of disrepair it has ever been in, critical gridlock wastes immeasurable money and man hours, and the beaches you see in postcards are covered in litter.

Our homeless population is growing at alarming double-digit rate and the funds to help fix the situation are tied up in the court system. Hate crimes have jumped nearly as much as homelessness, all while prohibitive tax laws continue to cause valuable businesses (and their jobs) to leave.

And that sparkling sense of freedom?

It’s been complicated by a profoundly corrupt justice system, persistent gender inequality, continuously surprising/ unsurprising forms of racism and an economic reality that’s making it harder and harder to live here.

California Republic flag.

I could have told all of this to the sales clerk in London, but it wouldn’t have tarnished the California brand in her mind.

That’s because California isn’t really a place or an entity.

California is a belief.

And how does a belief persist for so long, despite inconvenient truths and lack of proof or experience? When that belief is reborn over and over again.

California has a way of dying, resurrecting, and regenerating itself. Our faith in it is continuously lost and then found. We forget and then remember ourselves once more.

That cycle is especially compelling from a distance, where a state that is reconciling its unappealing idiosyncrasies looks more like a brand that is rising to meet whatever need the viewer may have in his or her heart.

There is always the promise that California will become something new.

To be honest, it does look like this in real life. [Photo by Ev.]

The Tireless Business of Rebirth

Being a bastion of freedom is a heavy brand pillar to carry.

Freedom isn’t concrete. It’s a belief with many definitions, and every definition is personal.

The vision of the ‘overnight success’, a clear sub-brand of freedom, has been reborn over and over again in this state:

  • The rags to riches ideal of the Gold Rush starting in the late 1840s
  • The 1930s golden age of Hollywood stars being born
  • The wunderkind, college dropout millionaire of Silicon Valley today

Each one of these eras represents the emergence, death and rebirth of the ‘overnight success’ phenomenon, and thus a regenerated freedom belief anew.

Freedom, like every other belief, stays strong when it is kept alive… no matter how many times it has to die in the process.

We see another sub-brand of freedom in the vision of ‘self-discovery’.

  • The health resort/ sanitarium movement of the 1870s (which has parlayed into a popular culture best demonstrated by the Rehab Riviera of today)
  • The free love hippie movement of 1960s, which overlapped with the LSD and drug movement of the 1970s, and corresponding lifestyle communes we still see being developed in different regions
  • The self-empowered food movements of recent history — such as Norman W. Walker’s juicing trend, the brain-powering Bulletproof coffee craze and the curious Moon Juice powders for everything from good sex to clear mindedness— all of which originated in California

We also see it in the notion of ‘escape’, or the freedom to leave, move and go wherever one pleases:

  • The western frontier, which has penetrated the American consciousness from the very first settlers to risk their lives on the Oregon Trail, to the pioneers who took us to the moon, and the explorers of today in the world of tech
  • The highly romanticized image of hitting the road on Route ’66 throughout multiple generations
  • The emerging trends of international citizenship, digital nomads, and experiential travel

Again, each passing era is a birth, death and subsequent rebirth — only in a different form as a different phenomenon.

Designed In California is an interesting sub-brand to to consider as well: think typography, stylistic representations of everything from surf culture to to California fashion, personal computers, smartphones and social media.

As the Design Museum of London noted in their recent California exhibition:

“California design is shaping the nature of the 21st century.”

That’s a big statement that underscores a simple fact: California has an outsized influence on the world.

And its influence travels far.

That ubiquitous California seal t-shirt you see everywhere? It’s huge overseas.

It perhaps means something even greater to someone who lives in a different country.

The allure of the California brand overseas: Japanese Influencer Hiromi from Nadia Harajuku wearing a Vans California t-shirt (via Tokyo Fashion), Italian blogger and influencer Chiara Ferragni wearing a vintage inspired California tank, South Korean actor and singer Lee Min-ho on set of Heirs/ The Inheritors wearing an ‘I Heart California’ shirt.

UC Davis professor of architecture and urban history Simon Sadler, describes it as (surprise) a promise of freedom and opportunity:

“California design promises to do something, to enable its subjects to attain a better and more replete future. Over-wrought though that might seem, the beautiful (Apple) boxes shipping from California contain this covenant, illusory or real.”

To wear a California shirt as a Japanese person in Japan, or Korean person in Korea, is to make a statement about your beliefs and attitudes.

And I guarantee each person wears it for a different reason.

Through whichever death and rebirth of whichever sub-brand of freedom, they found a space somewhere in the narrative to fit themselves in.

… and that is what I call the California Concept: the constant rebirth of a belief that keeps a brand coherent, but at the same creates enough latitude for a whole spectrum of meaning.

No two people I have ever met abroad have described their love of California to me in the same way.

Whether they fawn over the food culture, weather without cold seasons, surfing community, startup scene or lavish middle class living, one thing stays consistent — their belief in California’s freedom. A freedom they may feel is lacking in their own lives.

The location of the belief moves, but the belief itself remains.

Photo by Jacob Repko.

What It Means To Brand Around A Living & Dying Belief

A state is very different than a CPG company or tech startup, but there are some truths here that can help us reframe branding in a forward-thinking way.

When a belief is constantly reborn, it feels new and relevant to an audience. Every generation and/ or group is able to be a part of its creation. They develop a sense of ownership and connection.

They experience a genesis that isn’t tethered to a time or place. That is why when a belief is constantly reborn, its ideas can spread further and faster.

So what does rebirthing mean exactly?

As far as the California Concept is concerned, it means a few things.

If you follow my writing, you know that I like to stick to examples of companies that do it right, rather than companies that do it wrong. It’s a lot harder to write that way, but a lot more useful.


That being said, I don’t really see a true rebirthing in any corporate brands today, and so these examples below are to help start a discussion of how the California Concept can be used in branding going forward.

1. Always keep the cycle going. Letting something emerge and form — and once it dies, letting it stay in the past — can be difficult. But that’s exactly why California works the way it does.

It’s been a trend for many brands to go back to their roots and resurrect an original (read: retro) version of themselves. That’s a strategy, and given the current consumer need for authenticity, it has oftentimes worked.

But that’s just one cycle. It can’t last forever or simply work on its own.

The belief behind the brand of Pabst Blue Ribbon is ‘autonomy’. It was an under-the-radar, independently-minded, small brewing company that, in the late 2000-aughts, stood in stark contrast to the amped up, collectivist bro culture touted by brands like Budweiser and Coors.

They were extremely smart in tapping into the hipster counterculture that most aligned with their autonomy ideal, and seeded the brand among bike messenger communities that they knew would help spread that belief to the right people.

In that strategy, Pabst’s marketers created the perfect conditions for a huge spark around the ‘autonomy’ ideal. If you lived in San Francisco at the time like I did, you likely remember the Pabst renaissance happening in every hipster bar.

They were smart in rebirthing the belief, but when it died as we reached peak PBR and the once autonomous brand was now perceived as mainstream (being consumed by yuppies and middle class parents as much as it was by counterculturists), they had done nothing to rebirth it in a new form.

That belief was contained in one moment in time and place.

Instead of being resurrected in something new, it was extended in something old.

Pabst worked hard to lengthen the cycle, but it ended up hurting the brand. Had it been reborn in another form, it would have traveled even further without being perceived as mainstream in the same way.

The rebirth of the belief creates a tight narrative, but provides room for different meanings among different people.

2. Let things die. If they won’t die, kill them. Sometimes the best way to kill something is to push something new into its place (much like romantic relationships and songs that get stuck in your head).

UC Berkeley has had a hard time rebirthing its belief around ‘human potential’, not because the school hasn’t moved into new story cycles, but because an old and very persistent cycle hasn’t properly died.

When most people think of the Berkeley brand, they think of flower child hippies in the streets, the civil rights movement, citizen activism and open-minded creativity. Put another way, they think liberal arts.

But Berkeley isn’t a liberal arts school, and it hasn’t been for a very long time.

For decades now, Berkeley has prioritized heavy investments in science, mathematics and engineering, and in 2015 it announced the launch of a $250 million fund to invest in startups are borne of UC research.

When I was there completing my undergraduate degree in Literature over 15 years ago, I wasn’t aware of this new rebirth via STEM. STEM wasn’t even in my vocabulary.

Instead, I was caught up in the old cycle of the university’s yesteryears.

Berkeley’s old reputation had been heavily communicated to me and many of my peers through music, film, media and pop culture. If you head up to Berkeley now, you’ll still find vestiges of hippie art, 1960’s inspired storefronts, and altars to its related movements.

The school hadn’t done enough to signal to people like me that this was now a time of rebirth.

I resentfully watched for 4 years as new buildings and facilities were being erected on the science campuses, while my dark and moldy literature classrooms didn’t even have enough functioning desks.

That lack of signaling created a misalignment of expectations for many students, and colored a very significant experience in our lives.

Little did we know that we weren’t really where we thought we were.

If Berkeley had killed that old story during the time of its rebirth, it would have enjoyed a much stronger and unified reputation as a school that existed around the ‘human potential’ belief, rather than a school existing around the fighting notions of science and art.

Death and rebirth help unify a brand’s narrative.

3. It’s only a rebirth if the user experiences a total change. You can’t take something old, add a veneer, and call it new.

Every rebirth must take a different form if the user is to re-commit their belief in your brand.

I hate to say this, especially given the tremendous value Apple has added to the California identity, but the company is at risk of undermining their brand belief of ‘thinking different’ if they don’t find a new way to reintroduce it to the world.

Over the past decade, the company has relied on a slew of impressive product releases to uphold the belief.

But before that, Apple used design elements (UI, iconography, typography), message-driven content in the form of compelling ads, and the bold moves of its CEO to keep the belief alive after many deaths.

Through Jony Ive’s highly publicized design vision and Angela Ahrendts’ push to turn Apple Stores into community hubs, they’ve tried to complement their product launches with other belief-building activities in this new age of Apple.

But for the consumer (especially one that is shelling out more and more cash), there is little to no new experience to be had here.

As peripheral efforts fail to live up to their potential, all that is left is the latest new device.

And relying on products alone is a risky move.

Many will agree that the experience of upgrading from an iPhone 5 to a 7 Plus felt like an exciting and meaningful change both outwardly and inwardly, but going from a 7 Plus to an iPhone X paled in comparison. Not because the feature jump was any less impressive, but because the experience of that change is no longer new to us.

The stories of design and commerce aren’t new. They’re actually quite old to the Apple DNA and very valuable tenets of heritage, but without a new cycle to resurrect the belief in a measurably new way, customers will begin to stray.

It’s only new if it feels new.



Life and death is an interesting lens to look at brand building through. We’re forced to part with the things we love before we’re ready, and embark on new paths before we even know what they are.

The greatest brands are living things that respect their own life and death cycles.

That is the magic of California, and the magic of creating something that lives outside of any borders, features or definitions you may give it.

Come to California to witness it.

Or better yet, fly out of the country to really feel it for yourself 😉


Dig Deeper: The Secret To Gripping Brand Narratives

3 secret places.

Brand strategy is an excavation.

I’ve written in the past that “You dig and dig and dig until a market path is revealed.”

The perfect story, just like strategy, already exists. There is already a compelling, loyalty-building narrative hiding in the DNA of your brand. If you pull apart the floorboards and start shoveling at the dirt underneath, it will be there.

It’s your job to find it and bring it to life.

There’s always money in the banana stand, and there’s always brand equity hiding in the foundational story of your company.

This excavation mindset matters because it pushes you to look in the right direction.

Many CEOs I’ve worked with believed that their brand story was either a shallow retelling of, “I had a need for this, so I created it” or an entirely fictitious story made to fit into a product offering.

While it’s true that a good brand narrative may take some finessing, it’s always far, far bigger than a need or a product.

The brand stories that matter are the ones that usher us into a specific future where we are a more ideal version of ourselves.

Let me be clear, however, that this is not a vision or a mission. Nor is it your ‘why’ or reason for existing.

It has nothing to do with you as a brand, and everything to do with the customer as a human being.

Literally driving into the future in a Tesla.

What would you say Tesla’s story is?

Is it about the future of electric cars? Really? No, I don’t think so and you likely feel the same way. It’s much bigger than that.

Perhaps it’s the story of our planet — one heroic man’s attempt to reverse the environmental damage of so many generations before him…but again, that feels way too small.

Maybe it’s about the cool, mad scientist that dates actresses and builds awesome machines. That guy that proves everyone wrong and looks good doing it. While that may start to feel more exciting, it’s still far too granular.

Tesla’s story is about our very human need to progress.

It’s both our childhood longing to explore the unknown, and our adult compulsion to break our own limits.

It is the story of how our world should be.

Tesla is the company that turned science fiction into reality.

When you look at this deeper story, utility, environmentalism and engineering all fly out the window.

This narrative captures imaginations. It captures hope and possibility. It connects us to a specific future in which we are more ideal versions of ourselves.

That’s much bigger than the product, the need, or the founder could ever be.



Your company, no matter how small or mundane, can have an equally provocative brand story.

You just have to be willing to dig long enough, and in the right spots.

1. Search for: A hidden connection.

SoulCycle is built on the ideals of grit, determination and suffering.

You know how it goes. Dark rooms, front row politics, loud music, a trainer’s screaming encouragement blaring over the speakers.

It’s meant to be a very soulful experience all about you… but also a very hard, consuming, exhausting experience that leaves you a very sweaty, yet hopefully changed person.

Compare SoulCycle to the last exercise craze that was perhaps this sweeping — Jazzercise or Jane Fonda aerobics of the 70’s and 80’s—and you can see it speaks to a very different mentality.

SoulCycle isn’t about exercise. It’s about belonging to an elite tribe. You only get it if you’ve been in that room.

Source: New York Times

This didn’t just happen spontaneously.

Somewhere in the mid-2000’s, the founders of SoulCycle realized the definition of health was changing for the affluent American woman.

Concepts of healthy mind and body were melding, a subgroup of upper middle-class millennial women were in constant search of a ‘secret’ to health they didn’t feel they could get from traditional medicine or their doctor, and there was a very strong emerging belief that exercise had to be hard. You had to sweat bucketloads for it to count.

Source: Daily Mail

That’s why SoulCycle exalted these virtues in their brand story. They could have talked about weight loss or cardiovascular health but they didn’t.

Instead, they talked about a mind-body connection, meditative sport, pain suffering, and ultimate euphoria.

… and that hidden connection proved to be a goldmine.

I find connections between cultural signals, trends, behaviors, political climates, industry movements, subgroups, emerging tastes, innovations, mentalities — a whole world of indicators — and my client companies.

You know what’s amazing? No matter who the client is, there’s always a hidden connection somewhere.

If you’re a founder, you launched your company because on some level, consciously or subconsciously, you sensed a changing tide.

Founders are always taking in ambient information, passively digesting signals from far outside of their industry, and building their companies on that larger scope of understanding.

The connection exists, and if you can find it, you can leverage it in your brand story.

Unpack your thinking and see where it leads you.

2. Search for: The missing hero.

Plenty of industries have stagnant pockets where, even if there is innovation, users are generally disenfranchised and deserve something better.

That was the case before Casper.

To this day, you can walk into mattress stores like this one (although they’re starting to slowly disappear from the landscape) and indulge miles of choice overload:

Miles of mattresses. Source: Daily Republic.

There was little to no innovation, either in product or business model.

And very little ever changed.

Casper saw an opportunity to not only enter the space with a different mattress and model, they also saw a chance to assume the voice of a hero in the industry.

Casper is the mattress brand that said enough is enough. There is a better way.

Casper website, September 26th, 2017.

From the outset, Casper positioned itself as a hero that advocated for what was right by the consumer.

No other mattress brand had ever come close to assuming that role.

Language and story that put the consumer in a co-creator, co-hero role amplified that perception, and allowed Casper to change the baseline for the consumer.

Casper woke us up to the fact that sleep should be simple.

Casper website, September 26th, 2017.

There are different kinds of hero roles. You can speak truth to power, you can challenge the status quo, or you can even argue for a return to what’s familiar and right.

Heroes all have one thing in common — they stand for something.

If your audience is lacking an advocate that can fight for what’s in their best interests, you can be that hero.

Playing the hero comes with added scrutiny, and requires commitment as well as a high founder profile… but if you can successfully fill that gap, it comes with a powerful brand story.

3. Search for: A retelling of the past.

Where you come from is important, but that story only matters if you’re willing to tell it in the right way.

Your story is not a history.

It‘s not a recounting of what happened. It’s a point of inspiration that will define everything which happens tomorrow.

In my article on Creating Brand Legends, I point out Chanel as a company that has retold their history as a way of connecting the brand to the future.

Chanel has done a great job of managing their legend, most recently through the Gabrielle Chanel short film series.

In these 20 frenetically breathtaking short videos, a new generation of consumers is reacquainted with Chanel’s personal inflection point as a female designer.

The sixth film in the series, titled Mademoiselle, is especially powerful in placing Chanel in the lives and histories of all of us.

You simply cannot watch this film and not feel as though Chanel changed history, and after her, nothing was the same again.

If you watch those pivotal short films, you’ll understand that Coco Chanel’s story was couched in the new lens of modern feminism. It is not a story of the past. It’s a spark point that will forever define the future, and us as women.

You, too, can stitch yesterday to tomorrow, and create a compelling brand story.

A story of the past should be a lens that also provides a glimpse into the future. It is both forward-looking and backward-looking.

The narratives that stir us have to power to reveal who we once were, and who we will become.



Increasingly for brands, story is the strategy and strategy is the story. If you can weave a story arc that shows your vision of the world and how your brand will get us to that future, you will draw consumers to your horizon.

Show them who they can become.


This Is Why You Have Brand Haters

It’s a good thing.

“Suck it up.”

That was often the tone of my response to our PR clients when Concept Bureau was a communications agency in the early years.

A CEO would complain about negative comments readers were leaving on a recent article… or worse yet, a journalist that had included a negative remark in an otherwise good piece.

It never feels good, but here’s the thing — brand haters are usually a sign that you’re doing something right.

If you’re pushing the boundaries of your brand strategy, making bold moves and actually moving the needle, you will inevitably get brand haters.

When people care enough to have an opinion about what you’re doing, that’s a good thing.

When you’re saying something that matters, people will have a reaction.

When you make the effort to create a family of lovers, you will, by definition, create a family of haters.

That’s because saying or doing something new will always be met with resistance. Just as with any revolution, people will resist and fight back. They’ll tell you it’s against the ‘rules’ to do what you’re doing or that you have no right to do it.

But it’s the people who refuse to give power to the rules that always make the biggest difference.

Amazon, Uber, Facebook — these brands didn’t follow the rules. They created them. You can try please everyone by following the rules that will limit you, or you can get comfortable with the fact that you will not please everyone, and instead write new rules that will take your brand to new heights.

Speaking at GSOFT in Montreal about how building a real family of lovers means building a family of haters, too.

Every visionary founder has ignored the rules and looked for patterns instead… but for many of us, rules are inescapable unless you’re willing to take a step back and see how you live within them.

Here’s a short list of rules the vast majority of us blindly follow:

  1. You can’t fight City Hall (…unless you’re Uber)
  2. You can’t have a store without inventory (…unless you’re Amazon)
  3. You can’t act like a president (…unless you’re Facebook)
  4. You can’t have a ‘scandalous’ past and become a role model for young girls (…unless you’re Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie or Miley Cyrus)
  5. You can’t create a new category of clothing (unless you’re Lululemon)
  6. Plus nearly every other rule you can think of…

Rules are a list of cultural do’s and don’ts, but patterns are those giant trends hiding just under the surface of a society, that point toward where society is really headed. Patterns converge toward the future and tell us what new rules people will be open to adopting.

Beware of rules. Rules usually don’t give you the answer. They hide the answer.

Uber, Facebook, Amazon, Lululemon— all of these companies saw underlying patterns about where the future was headed and just how much change society was willing to endure if given the chance and right incentive.

But betting on the future is risky.

And it should feel risky! There are innumerable unknowns. You face immeasurable hazard. The future literally could look like anything, and even though you can see the pattern, you may not always be certain of where it will end.

Heck, even choosing to have a specific, brand-led strategy is a risk.

I’m not crying, it’s just a risk headache.

But when you choose to embrace that risk and place your bet on your vision of the future, it will bother other people.

Whether it comes in the form of a customer service complaint, hate mail, a rude tweet, or a nasty comment on an article, it all stems from the same mentality —

People will hate you for not following the rules.

Haters take it upon themselves to tell you when you’re breaking the rules, and that’s a good thing.

Lean into it, because if you’re doing things right, the arrival of haters should also herald the arrival of lovers.

Provided you’re running your business ethically, sense-checking major decisions and following your true north as a brand, haters are a strong indicator that you’re on the right track, and lovers are a confirmation of it.

You need both lovers and haters to ensure you’re moving in the right direction.



I’ll admit, “Suck it up” was tough advice, but I never appreciated just how hard it was until I had to take a dose of my own medicine.

I had written an article for a major fashion industry website, and I wasn’t sure if I should publish it. It was bold considering other writing in the space, and it had a strong message that I felt the industry needed to hear.

It was my vision for the future, and my best advice for people who wanted to head in that direction.

I knew some people might resist at first, but hey, no risk, no reward.

Then it published.

Soon enough it was being shared everywhere and while some comments on the article came in as positive, there were definitely haters that started to voice their opinions.

“This article is so off-point and literally a disgrace […] There’s absolutely nothing insightful about this article, except that maybe BOF should raise their standards.”

“This article is everything that is wrong with marketing…”

“This is SUCH a ‘Millennial’, egocentric, self centered and self involved perspective.”

I can tell you that it was hard to ‘suck it up’ in that moment.

Let me be clear — I stand by my opinions but I am always open to expanding them. I took each comment to heart and really considered the opposite perspective, and I’m sure if given the chance to have a conversation with these commenters, we may have come to a common ground or I may have reshaped some of my thinking.

But these haters weren’t the only feedback I got.

Chanel, Brioni, Harvey Nichols — these are just some of the major fashion brands that reached out after reading that piece, eager to share how they related to the article in their own experiences.

Yeah I got some haters, but the people who really mattered — the ones I was really talking to — they turned out to be lovers.

You can’t have only lovers, and you certainly can’t have only haters. You need both to help guide you down the right path.

Embrace the rollercoaster.

Scott Galloway recently wrote that regression to the mean is the strongest force in the universe.

He’s right. People will always be pushing you to be unremarkable. Competitors, customers, critics, shareholders and investors — they will find reasons to make you follow the rules.

If you’re going to build a great brand, then you need to resist.

Haters can come from anywhere. Even people who were once friends may gently remind you to follow the rules or pay the price. They may grow resentful of your risk taking. They may provide fear-based thinking disguised as sound advice.

It’s ok. Everyone is doing the best they know how in a world of unknowns. You just happen to know better.

Congratulations, you have haters. That’s a good thing.


The Cognitive Dissonance Hiding Behind Strong Brands


Smart brands convey a strong, overt benefit that lines up with people’s actions and beliefs. Great brands, however, are smart enough to see the gap between people’s actions and beliefs, and leverage it for greater opportunity — and they do it without you realizing.

Cognitive dissonance occurs “when your ideas, beliefs, or behaviors contradict each other.” If you think you’re financially responsible but then feel guilty spending $400 on a new pair of shoes, you’re experiencing the weight of cognitive dissonance. When you buy a new computer but look up reviews and prices afterward to convince yourself it was a smart purchase, the stress of cognitive dissonance is driving your behavior. It’s a landmark theory pioneered by social psychologist Leon Festinger that has impacted the way we view behavior and culture ever since it was introduced in 1957.

As a brand strategist, I search for the clues that underly what people think and how they act. Here, we’ll dig deeper into the principles and ideas that turn this concept into a powerful tool:

  1. What cognitive dissonance is in a human context, as well as a brand context
  2. How to spot the gap, and a look at companies who are leveraging cognitive dissonance to better serve and sway their customers (usually under the radar)
  3. How to employ the concept in your own company for better product design, branding, engagement and loyalty

That Feeling When

You can return the $400 pair of shoes, or you can keep them and tell yourself they’re handmade in Italy and will be a wardrobe staple for years to come. You can search and search until you find a better computer at a better price, or instead comfort yourself in the changed belief that it was a good investment and what really matters is that you no longer have to worry about your programs constantly crashing.

If you’ve ever bought an expensive luxury item or untested piece of hardware, you’ll agree that none of those options ever feels quite right. Either by lack of information or lack of self-control, there is a measurable discomfort we feel when what we believe is not synonymous with what we do.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory explains how that mismatch drives our behavior… the urge to pacify and rectify ourselves, even when no one is watching.

It’s easy to see that the greater the gap between your actions and beliefs, the greater the tension that is experienced… and the greater our urge to do something about it. We have three choices in dealing with that tangible tension:

  1. Change our beliefs
  2. Change our actions
  3. Change the way we perceive our actions

Depending on the situation, you’ll go for one, two or all three of those options in relieving your state of cognitive dissonance.

eLearning Industry, July 22nd, 2016

Most of us think we’re honest, but call it a “fib” instead of a lie when we act dishonest in an awkward situation. Calling it a fib lowers the tension between believing we are good, honest people, and the fact that we failed to tell the truth.

Cognitive dissonance plays many roles in our lives, ranging from self-denial to simply getting through the day.

Can’t Escape It

By the way, it’s everywhere.

We have all kinds of conflicting desires and beliefs, not to mention outside influences, internal biases, and the fact that the expectations and restrictions placed upon us change in different environments.

For example, most people think that climate change will harm Americans, but they don’t think it will harm them personally:

New York Times, March 21, 2017

…and we know it’s important to wash our hands, but not so much if nobody’s watching:

PR Newswire, February 7th, 2017 | Bradley Corp., December 12–15, 2016

…and of course we believe in religious freedoms, but the expressions of those religious freedoms by others can make us uncomfortable:

Washington Post, November 17th, 2015 (but note the PRRI study is from 2011)

From the time we’re kids believing (but not really believing, but maybe kinda believing) in Santa Claus, to being teenagers who convinced ourselves we “like, omg, really loved prom” even though it sucked and was nothing like the movies we grew up with, to being adults who cheat on our diets because we can always jog for an extra 30 minutes tomorrow… it’s a part of life.

Cognitive dissonance reveals our human nature by exposing:

  • What we want to believe about ourselves
  • How we truly view the world
  • How we want to be perceived by others
  • What we desire
  • What we feel can’t be said
  • What we fear, what we hope

A good brand will address subconscious drivers like these, and any company that makes it easy for a consumer to narrow the gap between what they believe and what they do will tap into a viable market opportunity.

They will create a product that makes it easy to change your behavior (, Wunderlist), or a story that makes it easy to change your beliefs (Starbucks, Supreme). Either way, your actions will match your words.

…but there are some brands that let you have your cake and eat it, too. They covertly allow you to maintain your current behaviors, but reap the rewards of lowered cognitive dissonance. These are the brands I find the most interesting.

Coddle Your Brain

A lot of startups have tried to solve the personal finance problem. Companies like Mint and LearnVest help you manage your budget by hooking up to your bank accounts and giving you transparency into your spending habits. The more you know, the more empowered you are to maintain and follow a plan that will turn you into the financially responsible person you believe you are.

The cognitive dissonance here is that many people want to believe they are smart with money, but oftentimes their actions prove otherwise. It can be a very emotionally taxing dissonance for some, so Mint and LearnVest have created products that change the behavior to be closer to the belief.

Digit, however, realized that for a lot of people, transparency wasn’t the issue. It was the behavior itself. Changing that action is incredibly difficult for most people because they overspend for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with transparency, including overwhelm, emotional spending and personal attitudes toward money.

Digit silently siphons money from your checking and savings balances every week into a separate account for safekeeping. You can “save money without thinking about it” because Digit sets aside money “in a way that you won’t notice.” In six months, you can be surprised to find out you have enough cash to take a trip to Europe or put a down payment on a car.

You maintain your spending behaviors, and still reap the rewards of lowered cognitive dissonance… a very attractive promise that Mint and LearnVest fail to offer.

Instead of a changed action, you have an adapted one that is far easier in practice.

Let’s think about another strong point of dissonance — charity. I’m not convinced anyone has permanently cracked this nut, but there have been a handful of brands who hacked cognitive dissonance in order to make charity happen where it might otherwise not have.

The gap is a) we believe ourselves to be charitable, kind, generous people, but b) we rarely give to charity. Standard practice here is to change our beliefs.

Can you really trust a charity to not be corrupt? Is there a charity for a cause that I’m truly passionate about? Will my $5 even make a difference?

It’s not that giving money isn’t easy or painless. Think of the last time you were at a grocery register and the checkout person asked you, “Would you like to donate $1 today to [insert charity here]?”

It’s a dollar, and it’s a yes or no answer. Dead simple with virtually no significant cost to you. But you likely said no.

You might be the same person, however, who said said yes to a “Buy One, Give One” brand like TOMS or Warby Parker (although Warby Parker takes a slightly different take on the concept.) Although it was far more trendy just a little while ago, Buy One, Give One is still a huge force and was woven into the very fabric of a brand like TOMS.

We tend to behave selfishly. It’s hard to give without getting something in return. TOMS let’s us give in the name of receiving every time we buy a pair of shoes.

You maintain your self-centered behavior, and still reap the reward of lowered cognitive dissonance… another very attractive promise that your checkout attendant simply can’t give you.

Brands like these relieve you of lower feelings such as guilt, worry and even shame, without ever saying it out loud. That’s why they have the potential to be so powerful.

It can be your product, your story or your user experience — all touch points are levers for easing the discomfort and helping people reinforce their view of who they are in the world.

We’re All Adults Here

When Stephen Dorff created a national wtf moment with his blu e-Cigs commercials, he was enacting a very deliberate campaign to reduce the huge cognitive dissonance existing in the minds of most smokers.

With stakes that high, a brand has to work on multiple fronts. When a behavior and belief stand in such opposition to each other, amplified by immeasurable public pressure and negative stereotypes, there is huge opportunity to reduce cognitive dissonance for your core audience.

blu could have just conveyed a more socially acceptable product, which was at the time supposedly deemed 95% safer than smoking regular cigarettes and posed far less risk to others through secondhand smoke. In fact, according to the brand, it allowed people to “enjoy smoking without letting it effect the people around me.” That would have been enough to adapt the action for many smokers. It gave you permission to smoke, and not feel so bad about it.

But the behavior of smoking itself has such a deeply ingrained stigma, they knew they had to take it one step further and change the action perception as well.

All you had to do was take it from the rugged, free-thinking, leather jacket wearing Stephen Dorff himself when he said, “I’m tired of feeling guilty every time I want to light up […] We’re all adults here. It’s time we take our freedom back. C’mon guys, rise from the ashes.

Those are fighting words. Those are words that make it ok to be a smoker… words, I’ll add, that smokers never hear. It flipped the script and said you’re not the bad buy, you’re the victim. You don’t deserve to be vilified.

A new behavior coupled with a new narrative can be very strong, especially with marginalized groups. blu understood that and eased the intense cognitive dissonance smokers feel every day — something that would resonate with both casual smokers and life long addicts.

Please and Thank You

Brands that play cognitive dissonance often channel it as ‘permission’. They make it ok to stay the way you are, while reducing the emotional friction.

You can use it for good (finance, charity) or not so good (cigarettes). What’s worth noting is that generally speaking, different levels of dissonance create different factors.

Common overspending is often a punchline or the subject of a meme, while smoking doesn’t afford such light discourse. Political and religious ideals often require us to hold steadfast to one-sided arguments in order to resolve factual disconnects, but sneaking a slice of cake and moving your diet start date to tomorrow doesn’t summon the same sense of urgency.

Of course, there are some caveats to this, including the fact that different people feel different levels of dissonance on the same topics. It’s been found that extroverts are less likely to feel negative tension and less likely to change their minds than introverts are. We also have to keep in mind that different cultural backgrounds, genders and socio-economic status play a role, too.

Look Over Here

The funny thing about cognitive dissonance is that it feeds into itself. Here’s an example put forth by Dr. John M. Grohol…

Say you’re a student applying to two different universities and you rate each one before sending in your applications. You’re accepted to both schools and after some deliberation, choose the right one for you.

If you were asked to rate those same schools again after making your choice, you’d be likely to give a higher rating to the one you chose, even though nothing about that school has changed. We have a strong compulsion to prove to ourselves that we make good decisions. Even after the fact, we will continue to search for proof that we were right.

Many brands facilitate your ‘proof-searching’ so you can feel good about the purchase and feed the positive cycle.

  • Amazon’s weekly emails to Alexa users not only keeps them informed of Alexa’s new skills, but also protects against buyer’s remorse when users fail to immediately find the skills that would make it most useful to them.
  • Washio (R.I.P.) used to pacify my guilt with a special reward. Every time someone would come and pick up my laundry, they’d give me a tiny sample pack of the most heavenly dessert from DeLuscious. I’m not joking, it was unreal. I looked up their brownies to buy some for a party and they cost over $60 a dozen (!) Needless to say I didn’t make the purchase, but I can tell you that my crippling guilt over wasted money on laundry (that I really should have been doing myself) washed away when I got that brownie.
  • Gusto sends business owners a hearty congratulations every time payroll has been paid or tax forms have been filed. Keep in mind that a business owner isn’t actually doing that work. Gusto has automated both of those processes, but deliberately gives the pleasure of a reduced cognitive dissonance to the customer.

The message is always clear — “Relax, you made the right choice.”

You Are Here

Cognitive dissonance isn’t behind every brand, and it won’t apply to every founder or executive, but you will run across it at some point, whether it’s in marketing, user experience or attracting new demographics.

If it does apply, here’s how to start using these principles for your own company.

Start with yourself

If you want to be good at spotting it for your brand or product, look to yourself first. Cognitive dissonance can be easy to miss. It’s subtle and insidious by nature, and can take many forms. It’s easy to mistake it as ‘friction’ or a ‘pain point’.

In fact, I was inspired to write this piece because something strange happens to me when I travel. I find myself in heated political discussions with people in other countries, and have a near out of body experience when I suddenly realize that I’m defending a point of view that I wouldn’t normally hold in the United States — especially if the other party is being critical of America, American values, or its citizens.

If someone says, “Americans have really lost their way. The state of the country is shameful,” my normal response would be, “I understand where you’re coming from.” But when I’m overseas, I get defensive. Instead I’ll say something more like, “Well hold on, it’s not as simple as that. There’s a lot of fear and misinformation plaguing the country right now…”

Some of that is an immature, knee-jerk reaction to feeling personally attacked. Some of it is my desperate need to move away from divisive, anxiety-inducing language to something more constructive and less apocalyptic. But a lot of it, I’m realizing, is actually cognitive dissonance. There is a measurable difference between my conflicting beliefs, and it plays out in my actions.

Start by examining yourself and the people around you for a few weeks. See if you can surface dissonance in their actions and ideas, and figure out where the tension is coming from.

Ask the right questions

When you’re ready to apply it to your own customers and user base, begin with smart questions that dig a little deeper than the usual problem-solution statement.

  1. What secret beliefs do my users hold?
  2. What makes my users nervous?
  3. Is there a driving emotion underneath each pain point?

Look for the gap that shows a misalignment. That gap will lead you to the core of your brand.

Choose your approach

Ask yourself: Can I change the story? Can I change the behavior? Or can I adapt/ “cheat” the behavior?

Nabisco couldn’t turn their sugary snacks into a diet food, but they could cheat the concept with 100 calorie packs that let people think they were changing a behavior to match their beliefs, relieving them of the cognitive dissonance… even though they weren’t entirely practicing healthy eating like an actual health food would require.

That was bolstered with carefully balanced marketing that promoted the changed belief that portion control is all it takes to make Oreos or Chips Ahoy! part of your diet.

This is where the artistry and science of brand strategy comes in. Depending on your approach, you’ll have to adapt your product development, brand narrative and any number of factors to beneficially leverage the dissonance for your consumers. A good place to start is to look at other brands (much like the ones I’ve outlined in this piece). See how they’ve done it and how you can apply the same approach to your brand challenge.

That Felt Good

In the larger scheme of things, we already know it’s important to give our customers a sense of agency. We know that reducing friction (experiential, emotional or otherwise) is crucial. And we know, above all else, a successful brand makes people feel good.

If you really want to hit the emotional triggers that make people trust and value a brand, you have to go deeper than the problem on the surface. You have to dig until you find the discrepancy — the gap that needs to be fixed — and resolve the tension.

That silent relief is the hidden key to winning your target.