Dirty, Ugly Shame Stories: The Next Frontier of Brand Disruption

[Photo by Sharon McCutcheon.]

If your users carry a shame story with them, you need a very different kind of strategy.

There are pockets of shame hiding in everyday life, and every one of your users encounters them.

Some of us feel shame about status symbols like money or marriage, while others may feel shame about personal shortcomings like fear or failure.

Shame is a universal part of the human experience, and is always borne of a story: stories we tell ourselves, stories that have been told to us, or stories we’ve co-opted from culture and community over time.

It’s also an important emotional trigger to study because unlike other triggers, it causes us to behave both irrationally and severely. There are few other things that sting us as deeply as a shameful memory, and no greater negative driver in our behavior. We’d go to great lengths to erase the cause of our shame if we could.

If a specific narrative makes someone feel devalued, wrong or guilty because of the expectations of their societal group, then it is a shame story.

Shame stories start to appear when our reality does not match what we feel is expected of us by others.

By that definition, they are intrinsically tied to the role we play in the group.

And when you look closely, you start to see that shame plays a role in many more industries than you may realize.

Some are obvious:

  • Fertility (both male and female)
  • Pain Management & Mental Health (cannabis, ketamine, suicide)
  • Sex (less so dysfunction, more so pleasure and deviance… which is fascinating in its own right)
  • Dating, Marriage (a woman’s worth as she gets older, a man’s worth based on his career/ height/ hair)
  • Illness (especially when it’s terminal or dehumanizing, like cancer)

But some are not as obvious:

  • Finance (money and self-worth are basically the same thing)
  • Food (what we eat and how we eat is extremely personal, and a reflection of what we think we deserve)
  • Parenting (the secret struggle between autonomy and giving yourself over)
  • Beauty, Fashion (fitting a standard that is often classist, sizeist and racist)
  • Higher Education (or lack thereof)

I call these stories dirty because as individuals, they make us feel wrong.

I call them ugly because as a society, we don’t want to look at them.

The next time you feel shame because someone cheated on you, or you refuse to leave the house because you’re ashamed of how you look, or you experience shame because you could not perform at work/ in bed/ as the breadwinner for your family, take note of its unparalleled power over your perception of reality. Even in the face of one hard fact —that none of these situations are your fault — you will continue to hurt yourself privately.

If your customers are fighting against a shame story somewhere in their lives that’s relevant to your brand, it wields the same kind of power over them, too.

You’re up against something very big and very strong, and you have to respect the different behavioral outcomes it creates. Fighting a shame story requires a different kind of brand strategy.

We see this as an increasingly important brand challenge because the low hanging fruit of structural disruption — access, supply chain, cost, distribution, etc. — has been exploited.

The next wave of disruption will happen on a cultural level, and shame stories are the structural dinosaurs living in our minds.

If you can effectively dismantle a limiting narrative for your audience, you can create a new reality for them… and creating a new reality is the ultimate goal of branding.

A new reality means new behaviors, new truths, and new opportunity for your company to speak to your audience.

Don’t just expose it. Replace it.

The hardest thing about shame is that we hide it.

Guilt is something we confess or share, but shame is something we work hard to conceal:

Shame is often confused with guilt — an emotion we might experience as a result of a wrongdoing about which we might feel remorseful and wish to make amends. Where we will likely have an urge to admit guilt, or talk with others about a situation that left us with guilty feelings, it is much less likely that we will broadcast our shame.

Mary C. Lamia Ph.D.

The very nature of its secrecy leads to a different set of behaviors.

People who feel shame over things like addiction, bullying or failure can project it in blame and anger… oftentimes even rage.

Others find ways to make themselves small in an attempt to ‘disappear’.

If you’re a CEO or strategist seeing these behaviors in your audience, it can be incredibly easy to read them the wrong way.

A nootropics brand founder might see an over-indexing of bro-culture on their platform and interpret it as bonding, or a the founder of a beauty brand might see its female customers hesitating to use bolder products and interpret it as lack of confidence, and they’d both have a good chance of being wrong.

Unlike other emotions, shame thrives the most when it remains hidden.

A lot of brands in the fertility space know this.

Many, like Modern Fertility, Glow, Extend Fertility, FertilityIQ and Dadi have worked to start an open conversation around the topic for both men and women.

FertilityIQ website, March 27th, 2019. “The very best information you wish you never needed.”

It’s clear from their messaging, product bundling and brand stories that they want to start a discourse around something that has historically stayed behind the closed doors of a physician’s office.

I commend them for that.

What’s missing however, is a new story.

Shame stories don’t die just because they see the light. They die when a new story supplants them.

Shame is a weed, and one of the best ways to stop a weed is to grow something else in its place.

Unfortunately, old fears and biases don’t get erased simply because we talk about them and make them more normalized. They go away when they are written over with something else.

Modern Fertility marketing email, March 27th, 2019.

Messaging like “The very best information you wish you never needed” or “We won’t tell you you’re infertile” are not new stories.

They are versions of the same fear-based, private shame stories women have carried all of their lives, only now made public.

True, these brands are giving men and women new, democratized options for accessing the tests they need, without the gatekeepers that may have deterred them in the first place… but there is a much bigger brand opportunity to be had here.

Couples are ready for a new story that will replace the old one. They’re just not hearing it yet. Until they hear it, the shame (and its behaviors) will persist.

An adjacent industry that is successfully supplanting and old narrative with a new one, however, is sex.

Kill the old audience.

Just like fertility, sex used to live behind a gatekeeper (underground sex shops and far corners of the internet). Just like fertility, it could cause both great pain and great happiness. And just like fertility, it was a vessel for all kinds of shame that few would talk about.

Even as we move into a new era of female-forward sex brands and body positive movements, sexual health has been regarded as a fringe concern. You might not feel embarrassed to walk into an Adam & Eve, but you’re not going to talk about the details of your sex life with your yoga class either.

But that’s changing.

When sex toy company Dame Products launched in 2014, the founders realized that their audience overlapped more with a yoga crowd than with a traditional sex/ pornography crowd. When they saw that, they decided to position the brand squarely in the wellness space.


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A post shared by Dame Products (@dameproducts)


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A post shared by Dame Products (@dameproducts)

Wellness is an empowering narrative that stands tall in the face of anything shame-based. Consistently, throughout every touchpoint in the UX, both on brand properties and off, Dame communicates this new wellness story in different ways.

They make no secret of the “pleasure gap” they doggedly seek to close, have an active Dame Labs that invites users to join their people-centered research (regardless of gender or sexual identity), and most importantly, employ very clear design thinking because “we felt our products should look like beauty tools.”

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”

-Oscar Wilde

As a result, sex toys like theirs were taking up space on shelves typically reserved for beauty, health and fitness.

As Business of Fashion pointed out last October, Dame was a signal that sex-care is the new self-care:

Sexual wellness is shaping up to be the next big opportunity in a category increasingly focused on wellbeing and ritualistic me-time. […]

It helps explain why US pharmacy chain CVS sells a rather stunning assortment of 48 whirring options — merchandised next to straightforward sexual health products like condoms and pregnancy tests — and family-friendly Target stocks 74 different models. Talk about self-care.

What Dame and others did was not only replace the old story with a new one (which in itself is remarkable), but they effectively moved the discussion from a group of people in the sex industry to a group of people in the self-care space.

They killed the old audience. Instead of having a hush-hush conversation about sex with one group, we were having it with another… our yoga friends.

The most important part of the shame equation is the group. Without the group to measure ourselves against, we would not feel shame.

The group is part of our social survival. They bind us, and our behaviors, to the people we care about, and reveal just how hyper-aware we are of how others perceive who we are to them.

If brands are tribal experiences, then shame lives somewhere within that tribe.

But if you kill the old tribe and create a new one, the equation falls apart. A new story can thrive someplace more fitting.

Give it the time it deserves.

Shame stories, just like shame itself, take time to dissipate.

They’re always old narratives.

They’ve been around for generations, long before your brand came on the scene. People may want to give them up but it’s scary to change your personal truth overnight.

However without fail, positive stories win in the long run. As a strategist, I’ve always believed this:

You will always have the choice to go positive or negative in your strategy. Tell the scary, shame-based story or the positive, goal-oriented story. Neither is inherently wrong, but some do work better than others.

Charity, global warming, war — why do none of these narratives work to permanently move people? Because they’re shame based. They inspire guilt. They create a feeling that may motivate in the short term, but most people want to avoid and escape in the long term.

16 Rules of Brand Strategy

But giving it time doesn’t mean just waiting for time to pass.

It means constantly telling and retelling the new story in new ways, and never letting the dust settle on the new reality you’re creating.

It means killing off the old audience over and over again, no matter how many times you have to do it.

Addiction, mental health, illness, marriage and dating — brands have been trying for years to change these stories, and the ones that will succeed are the ones that keep making noise.

When people start waking up, it will be the persistent brands who are there to meet them.

Giving it the time it deserves means using that time wisely. You can create a safe space that gently nudges your user in a new direction, and gives them the room they need to start changing the story for themselves.


The Defensibility Fallacy: Product vs. Brand


Defensible products do not make defensible brands, although it can be easy to confuse the two.

What makes a brand defensible?

The world talks a lot about product defensibility, but brand defensibility seems to be a far more abstract subject. How do you build a brand that not only triggers users to act, but also puts competitors in a natural position of weakness?

Defensibility itself is an inherent trait or quality that puts your company in a role that’s hard to challenge. It is an advantage in your DNA that places you in a white spot of the landscape, and often gets stronger with time.

Defensibility is the ultimate goal of brand strategy.

Anyone can make a brand. Very few can make a brand that naturally undermines the value of others in the space just by existing.

But if I ask CEOs, leaders and other strategists what brand defensibility actually is, they’ll usually confuse it with product defensibility.

When it comes to product, defensibility looks like:

  • Data Moats
  • Ecosystems
  • Network Effects
  • Intellectual Property (sometimes)

These are locking mechanisms. They lock people into an escalating commitment over time.

When people make the decision to switch from Apple’s iPhone ecosystem to Google’s Android ecosystem, they are running an equation in their heads: what is the cost/ pain of leaving a walled garden vs. the benefit/ reward of an open platform?

A similar locking mechanism is at play when someone considers using an alternative to Google Maps (data moats) or investing their personal lives in Instagram vs. Snapchat (network effects). The more you have invested, the harder it is to jump ship.

Product defensibility is really easy to spot, and for many, it can be easy to confuse it with brand defensibility. You may think Google’s trustworthy brand is borne of their data and ecosystems, but it’s not.

Brand defensibility looks very different than product defensibility:

  • Protected Narratives: Stories and storytelling devices that are fundamentally unavailable to your competitors. (I talk more about this here.)
  • Identity Validation: Validating a user, subculture or group that’s primed to be acknowledged. (Strategist Ana Andjelic does a great job of describing it here).
  • New Truth/ Worldview: A vision of the future that no one else can afford to tell. (I go deep into this topic here.)
  • Brand Perception: The trust, perceived sense of autonomy, and sense of “what this brand says about me”. (I explore a specific case study here.)

These are belief models. They are a highly personal logic that explains how something works in the real world, and they operate very differently than locking mechanisms.

Snapchat may have had strong network effects early on that caused people to join its platform, but it was Instagram’s belief model of Identity Validation and New Truth that said “A beautiful life on display is the only life worth living” which ultimately won out and made many of those same Snapchatters move their life investments over to Instagram.

When Instagram copied Snapchat’s ephemeral content with Stories, they erased any product advantage. But what caused the migration was their brand.

In other words, Instagram’s brand defensibility around identity and belief won over Snapchat’s product defensibility of network effects.

That dynamic underscores a critical point in product vs. brand:

Locking mechanisms force a decision based on short-term need.

Belief models create a behavior based on long-term desires.

I can tell you right now that behaviors based on long-term desires ultimately beat out decisions based on short-term needs, and we’re seeing that happen more and more in business every day.

Belief models move markets and make markets.

Food and beverage, travel, luxury, wellness, beauty — these are all markets based on belief models.

There’s very little IP or inherent product defensibility in these verticals. They rely on belief models in order to move product. You might even say that those belief models are the actual product themselves.

A belief model can easily move a market. But more importantly, it can launch entirely new markets and spaces that never existed before.

Many of you reading this will likely already have adopted a new belief model around functional ingredients.

This is a new slew of ingredients like CBD, adaptogens, nootropics, CoQ10, Vitamin C, turmeric, moringa oil, collagen and so on that are promising to change our lives. They’re finding their way into everything from makeup and ingestible beauty to infused drinks and functional foods.

They tell the intoxicating story of “inside out” potential — the belief model that anything can be cured or optimized with the right functional ingredient. Find the right ingredient, and you can unlock something amazing within yourself.

This belief model, although very new, has already had huge impact in consumer markets.

If you pay close attention, you’ll see that it not only moved many markets like food, beverage, beauty and luxury, but also created new ones in personal development, productivity and medicine.

… and it all came from a market progression that already existed. In beauty alone, the story is clear:

  • The “all natural” movement of the 1980s and 1990s: Natural, clean, unscented — ingredients were about purity, and we centered our values around that belief. Brands like Jergen’s All Natural came on the scene, Dove introduced their unscented bar, Burt’s Bees graduated from its cult following.
  • The “actives” obsession of the 2000s: People begin to believe in immediate results and visible change. Botox, limp plumpers, tooth whitening kits, eyelash serums and new plastic surgery procedures all become popularized.
  • The “functional” frontier of today: Charcoal, ginseng, adaptogens, CBD, hemp and special supplements all reflect the belief that we can unlock something within ourselves with the right functional ingredients. Brands like Moon Juice, Vital Proteins, Ambika Herbals, Dirty Lemon and Kalumi Beauty are a tiny fraction of the companies that have rushed in to fill the new demand based on this belief model.

Don’t forget the emerging authority of functional medicine, gut health and alternative medicine, too.

More and more, we are driven by our belief models over our logical short-term needs.

The way we choose to understand the world is driving our purchase decisions. The evidence is right here in front of us.

Defensible brands can survive without defensible products, but not vice versa.

You can’t win the war with only a defensible product.

The moment someone comes in and layers a compelling, defensible brand on top of a similar product, you’ll lose.

The opposite — a defensible brand without a defensible product — can actually win.

A perfect place to see this happening is in fashion.

Defensible product is almost unheard of in fashion. Spend some time on Diet Prada’s feed and you’ll see why. Not only do all brands constantly steal ideas from each other, but everyone is pretty much helpless in safeguarding their designs, looks or processes from a competing label.

One of countless copycat callouts on Diet Prada’s feed.

There is no IP in fashion. There are no data moats, ecosystems or network effects.

And when you take away all of those product protections, all that is left is brand. That brand is a story. It’s a story that heavily employs Identity Validation and Brand Perceptions.

If you try to dissect a company like Prada, Michael Kors or Burberry, you’ll see that under that story there is not much else. The clothes themselves are interchangeable and meaningless. The actual product is irrelevant.

It is our beliefs about that clothing brand, and what that brand says about us when we wear it, that drives our purchases.

We do not buy to clothe ourselves for comfort against the elements. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves by way of the brands we wear.

Never has this been proven so true than when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had used fashion tastes to identify right-wing voters at Business of Fashion’s 2018 conference.

‘”Preferences in clothing and music are the leading indicators of political leaning,” said Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower.

Clothing serves as such a strong belief model that we can, with great accuracy, determine a population’s political leanings based on it:

The narratives of the great American brands, which play on the myths of the West and the (mostly male) frontier are also the narratives of the Republican right. Those who choose to spend on the former are susceptible to the latter. He mentioned Wrangler and L.L. Bean in particular as brands that Cambridge Analytica aligned with conservative traits.

(Kenzo, by contrast, which is designed by Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, the avant-garde duo behind the retail store Opening Ceremony, appealed to liberals, he suggested.)

This is a tremendous example of how defensible products (and the locking mechanisms behind them) operate very differently than defensible brands (and the belief models they employ.)

Locking mechanisms are logical levers that can be reduced to pros and cons, but belief models are far more flexible representations of the relationship between things.

Belief models are a combination of our knowledge, experiences and intuition, and they can easily cause us to replace black-and-white reasoning with more colorful ideology — such as with fashion.

The fact is you can’t fight ideology with logic.

Once we believe the world works a certain way, we bend logic into that framework.

The more an audience is bombarded with choice, fragmentation and competing truths like we are today, the more valuable these ideologies become. They’re crucial frameworks for our behaviors.

We’re living in an age when those ideologies have become everything.

Belief models for the future.

Nothing is defensible eternally — product, brand or otherwise. But focusing on brand defensibility in the first 2–5 years of your venture can set your company up for a decade of dominance.

I believe that no matter your industry, whether you are B2B or B2C, the brand is what you are selling. In which case, you need to do everything possible to make sure that brand is defensible.

Brands, just like products, have to evolve over time with their customers. Belief models, no matter how strong they are today, will be supplanted by new ones in coming years and generations.

Pay attention to the ideologies that are growing within your audiences. They will always lead you into the future of where your brand needs to be.


If You’re Not Taking These Risks, You’re Not Building A Brand

3 moves you need to be making right now.

Brands emerge from choices.

A brand isn’t your website or tagline. It’s every decision and action you take, and the meaning that emerges from those activities.

Brands occur between the lines. When you consistently make on-brand decisions about your sales, operations, communications, UX, product development, CSR, partnerships, new markets and new hires, you are demonstrating a commitment to a larger belief.

If people can find a common and compelling thread among those choices, then you’ve successfully brought a brand to life.

But the kind of brand you are creating is a different story.

There may be a common thread, but if the thread is mundane or unimportant, it won’t travel far.

The Italian coffee shop at the airport is highly branded with a voice, set of service principles and beautiful aesthetic, but I will still pay more for inferior coffee at Starbucks because the Starbucks brand taps into a larger belief about work and connection.

A compelling brand takes risks.

Risks are decisions just like anything else you can spend your resources on at your company, but I would argue that taking risks is one of the most important things you can do.

I recently took an Instagram poll asking people to choose from topics in the world of branding that they’d like some discussion on… and risk taking was the clear winner (follow me on Instagram to be a part of the next poll.)

I’ve written about brand risks extensively, from having a POV on the future and resisting the temptation to be better, to alienating non-targets and creating tension.

There’s an infinite world of calculated risk out there for any company to navigate, but there are a handful of decisions that most companies would benefit from making right now.

1. Tell the story you don’t want to tell.

Every entrepreneur I meet has two versions of their story — the version they tell, and the version they hide. The job of brand strategy isn’t to bury the less glossy story (or what some may call the truth).

Good brand strategy takes the whole story and makes meaning out of it.

I was in Tokyo recently where I met a fantastic Chinese fashion startup, and although they had created a phenomenal product with a phenomenal team and bold ideas about the future, they were conflicted on what to do with the fact that their materials were created in China.

Although they took great pride in the heritage and quality of their textile facilities, the origin story troubled them.

I could understand. Chinese manufacturing, especially in high-end fashion, has very clear and negative connotations in markets like the US.

My recommendation was to turn around that Made In China stereotype and actively own it. Define a new wave of manufacturing in the country that was emerging from the ruins of the old guard, and use PR and content to position the fashion brand as the figurehead for a fascinating textile manufacturing renaissance that was just emerging in pockets throughout the country — including their own plants.

I’ll admit, that wasn’t easy advice to take.

It’s a huge risk for any brand to try and overcome and reverse decades of belief about its country.

But it was the right risk, and the only risk worth taking. In some regards Ikea has done it. Samsung did it before them. Not taking that risk is a bigger potential pitfall than taking it.

Another consultant the company had spoken to suggested they avoid the Made In China fact, citing the cultural difference between America and China. It was her belief that the two countries have different value systems, and making one care about the other’s was an impossible task.

First off, no. A smart brand willing to take a risk can make people care. That is what brand strategy, at it’s most basic level, is supposed to do.

This is what I do for a living, and I can tell you that the craft of changing consumers’ hearts and minds is no different for big challenges as it is for small small challenges — you change the story in order to own it.

Secondly, if you don’t own your entire story, then someone will use it against you.

Even worse, someone else will turn Made In China into a valuable asset, and that opportunity will be lost for your brand.

Every time you are faced with a liability, find a way to turn it into an asset.

Tell the story you don’t want to tell.

There is a way to make it work.

2. Show your face.

If you’re a CEO, you don’t need to be the face of your brand, but you do need to show your face (figuratively, not literally).

Accountability, transparency and humanity aren’t features anymore. They’re baseline expectations. At the very least, you‘re expected to make your brand honest.

Honesty means a lot of things, from customer support best practices to checks and balances in the value chain.

But nothing signals honesty the way an accessible leader can. To hide behind a brand name and pretend the CEO is not a public figure is a copout.

As I’ve said, every decision is a building block in the foundation of your brand, and the decision to not show your face as the founder or CEO is to say that the brand doesn’t have a human behind it.

Customers need to understand that the buck stops somewhere. That there is a person who is willing to be accountable.

Showing your face means you have the guts to stand behind what you’ve created.

It’s a risk. Of course it is. When shit goes sideways (which it will) your face is the one people will be coming after.

As a leader, that’s the job you signed up for.

But taking ownership of the company, good or bad, always pays off. I have seen this time and time again, no matter the size, stage or industry of our clients.

Tell your individual story as it relates to the brand, personally seek out feedback from customers, blog about your beliefs and steps forward in the industry, and be willing to engage in public conversations with other stakeholders from time to time.

If you’re shy, if you’re modest, or if you’re like many of my clients and are just uncomfortable with the idea of being known, I’d encourage you to do some soul searching.

You started your company for a reason. There’s nothing wrong in taking ownership.

People want to know exactly what (and who) they are putting their trust in.

3. Find a white space for the brand, not just the product.

Ah, the landscape axes. A fundmanetal slide in every pitch deck.

Love ’em or hate ’em, if you’re actually honest about those axes, they can reveal some powerful opportunities.

I find many entrepreneurs create them for their products, but very few actually look at the landscape for their brand identities as well.

Your product sits against a set of feature/ benefit axes, but your brand sits against narrative axes: the stories that are being told in the product playing field.

Just as with product, the axes you choose will drastically effect the placement of you and other relevant players. That’s why it’s important that you choose wisely.

When looking at which brand axes to plot against, ask yourself these questions:

  • Where do the prevalent stories in the space start to diverge from the behaviors of our users?
  • Which narratives do we take for granted? Which narratives are ready to be challenged?
  • Which stories are so entrenched that they go unquestioned in the space?
  • What stories have become so big that the competitors who tell them will have a hard time straying away from them?
  • What stories can our competitors not tell?

The story you tell should be defensible and difficult for your competitors to follow or co-opt. That’s exactly what this set of questions is designed to uncover.

It can feel risky to look at your brand in a competitive environment, because for the humble founder it’s oftentimes hard to see the brand as more than just the sum of it’s products and features. But that’s a mental trap.

Your brand should measure up to more than just the sum of your products and features.

If products + features was enough, Starbucks wouldn’t be beating that Italian coffee shop at the airport.



If actions speak louder than words, then every move your company makes is a brand signal.

One of the most important signals you can send is that you are willing to take risks. Risk is rewarded in the consumer market, and the most important risks lay in the bedrock of your brand identity.

Every risk taken is a brand signal sent.

Be bold and show people that what you say is almost as important as what you do.


The Emergent Story Arc of Food: How to Win the Brand War (In Any Industry)

[Photo by frankie cordoba.]

Every brand has a chance to bend the consumer path away from competitors and toward itself in a new future. This is how.

Stories change a lot more than we realize.

Between decades and generations, our collective ideals around basic desires — money, happiness, health, family, food, technology, you name it — radically evolve.

But like a frog in hot water (supposedly), even radical changes are imperceptible to us while they’re happening.

  • ‘Marriage to survive’ becomes ’Marriage for love’: Dating in America is only about 100 years old. Before that, marriage was a socioeconomic means to survive. As civil institutions proliferated to create mass economic security across the U.S., the notion of marriage came to be newly infused with the concept of romantic love.
  • Cold hard cash’ is suddenly ‘The abstract money concept’: 1950s consumers couldn’t dream of today’s norms — paying with cards, borrowing freely, a new crypto currency frontier — because money had inextricable rules that dictated how and when you spent. Money was in the purview of the government, not outside of it.
  • From ‘Working life’ to ‘Life’s work’: As recent as the late 20th century, jobs used to be something you did outside of real life. Today, we live within the cultural construct of the ‘career’, and your career is your waking identity. Even the lifelong mono-career spent climbing the corporate ladder at a single company is being supplanted by a new hyphenated, multi-part career ushered in by the creative class.
Image by Jasmine Bina.

It’s not just the systems that change, but our engagement with those systems as well.

With every new cultural narrative comes a new human experience.

When stories change, so does our reality… and this has happened over and over and over again since the beginning of humankind.

Collectively, we call these different eras of thought and belief the Emergent Story Arc.

Your brand can be a part of the Emergent Story Arc, or work against it, but every single smart brand poised for success is making a very clear and risky bet on where the trajectory of the story arc is going.

Brands that matter place bets on the future.

… and they use their brands as signals to push consumers toward that specific future path.

(I talk more about placing your brand bets here and here.)

So how do you draw out the Emergent Story Arc, learn from it, and bend it to your brand’s advantage?

You start by looking for patterns.


Building The Emergent Story Arc

Let’s look at a very basic story that affects all of us — food.

Let’s also assume we are a food startup that has created a chocolate candy bar that’s actually fortified with 50% of your daily vitamins and minerals.

It’s called the Chocolate Happiness Bar.

Imagine Snickers, if Snickers doubled as a vitamin.

The questions we must then ask ourselves stem from the concept of food, snacks and health in everyday life, such as:

  • What is the story of food and snacks in America? How do we define it today, yesterday, and likely tomorrow?
  • Over time, how has our cultural understanding of food changed not only how we think about it, but also how we consume it, package it, talk about it and gather around it?
  • How has our understanding of health changed over time, and how have food and snacks adapted to the health ideal?
  • What role does food play in our lives? What stories do we tell ourselves about it?
  • What major brands, advancements and beliefs have shaped those stories?

If we looked over all of these considerations over the past few decades and created a 3-part Emergent Story Arc, this is what the first iteration would look like:

© Jasmine Bina 2018. Please contact for publication use.

In each era, we see that beliefs, attitudes and behaviors changed.

Sometimes brands created those changes. Other times, they were reacting and adapting.

If you go through the points in each era, you can start to see how the overall perception of food, snacks and health have evolved — and how all of those evolutions are interconnected.

It’s in the connections between consumer eras that we start to understand what makes an industry move forward.

If we zoom out and take a look at what all of these data points are telling us, we start to see some extremes emerge… and between those extremes, some very important patterns.

© Jasmine Bina 2018. Please contact for publication use.

Food, snacking and health have all gone from external activities and beliefs, to internal ones.

This second iteration of our Emergent Story Arc show us what is buried in the details.

The emergent story of food is increasingly within us. It is inward facing. It is personal, it is private, it is intimate.

Food has gone from a relationship we had with our peers and communities, to a relationship that we have with ourselves.

Our beliefs around consumer advocacy, personal health, and the ‘buyer beware’ mentality that causes each of us to spend hundreds of hours reading ingredient lists and pop health articles all support this.

You may have come across a perfect culmination of this mental shift last Thanksgiving when a frustrated host sent a letter to New York Times columnist by Aaron E. Carroll:

“Welcome to the United States of Divided Dinner Tables” (Vox: This woman’s Thanksgiving plight perfectly captures America’s fraught food culture)

This Thanksgiving wasn’t defined by external societal standards. It was defined by internal, personal beliefs — both emotional and logical.

This change in perspective also underscores the surge in snacking over the decades.

Meals are something we expect to do with others. Snacking is something often done alone, between places and events.

Snacking is a largely private event.

As our attitudes about food have moved inwards, so have our habits around it.

Image by Jasmine Bina.

Knowing all of this, we reach the final iteration of the arc where we outline the pervading stories of each era, and then plot our competitors along the future arc to find opportunities for our own brand.

Let’s return to our Chocolate Happiness Bar and see what this new chart looks like.

You can define your competitors however you like, but in this example, we will define it as any single-serving chocolate flavored snack that can be found at the common grocery store — including those that compete with us along the health metric (protein bars, diet bars, fiber bars, etc.).

Here we ask ourselves, what is the dominant story in each time period, and what new stories are on the horizon today and into the future?

© Jasmine Bina 2018. Please contact for publication use.

You’ll notice a few things about this final iteration of the Emergent Story Arc:

  1. The future story splits into three different narratives. That’s because we’re living it, and the dominant narrative hasn’t been written yet.
  2. You’ll notice something very interesting happening here. Both the Guilt Story and the Regressive story actually originate from previous eras of consumer thinking that are no longer prevalent (!) This shows the lack of smart branding innovations in the space, but also highlights something very important for any company: You may find that some of your competitors today don’t really seem to have a POV on the future, in which case you may want to reconsider if they are even competitors. Having a POV on the future is making a risky bet, and like I said at the top of this article, every single smart brand poised for success is making a very clear and risky bet on where the trajectory of the story arc is going.
  3. The further your story arc diverges from another competitor, the more tension you are creating… and that is a good thing. I’ll explain in a moment.

The real beauty of this arc is that it tells us how to position ourselves in order to be different, not better (because if you’ve read my work, you’ll know better is a losing game.)

Your positioning should answer the consumer question, Why should I care?

Because snacking is a sacred ritual.

That POV is a strong brand position to come from.

You can see from the arc that it diverges from the rest of the pack, while directly speaking to future forces like the decline of family meals, the inward nature of modern food habits, food as healing, and the growing abandonment of old rules.

From here, we can start to build something interesting.

Image by © Jasmine Bina.

The Emergent Story Arc will tell you what decisions to make

For me personally, building a full arc for a category can feel like being lost in the woods. But once it’s built and the full forest is in view, I can hear it whispering to me.

The arc will reveal opportunities you can’t see when you’re on the ground.

In this example, even though high-level, we are already getting some strong messages from the arc:

  • We need to elevate snacking to be the sacred ritual we believe it is. That can come across in our branded language, in our customer engagement experiences, and in our partnerships.
  • We need to think about where we sell. We have the most tension with the most outdated narrative — that of traditional and masstige candies you usually see in the checkout lane, and it may be a strong strategy to place our products there instead of the health food section.
  • We shouldn’t describe our vitamins using dated language like fortified or daily allowance. Not only are these words connected to an old narrative, but they also echo the language of the very institutions the public has become wary of. Instead, we should consider reframing our benefits as restorative, healing and balancing.
  • Create a new category outside of candy, medicine or health. All of these spaces and stories are incredibly crowded — and to fall into them would be to lose our own story.

Product decisions must also reflect brand decisions.

If we truly are an internally-facing brand that creates triggers around sacred moments, then an extension of our product line may look like this:

  • The ‘Eat Me Before Bed’ Chocolate Happiness Bar: with vitamins and supplements to enhance the sacred ritual of sleep
  • The ‘Eat Me Before The Meeting’ Chocolate Happiness Bar: with vitamins and supplements to enhance focus during the sacred ritual of work
  • The ‘Eat Me On The Way To Work’ Chocolate Happiness Bar: with vitamins and supplements to increase energy during the sacred ritual of travel

Again, referencing the future trajectory of the consumer mindset, we know that customization, functionalization, and internalization can be creatively applied here in a candy format in order to place our bets on the future.

Image by © Jasmine Bina.

Every story changes.

You will find an emergent story arc in everything from the nuclear family and higher education to gender norms and beauty.

We are seeing every institution around us morph into something quite different, and at a faster and faster rate.

but that presents a wealth of new opportunities — especially when it comes to your competition.

Look for signals and win the war.

See where your competitors are going.

The more they invest in a direction, the harder it will be for them to change it. That’s your advantage.

There is always a higher path to pursue.

Image by Jasmine Bina.

The Inputs Always Matter

The inputs for any framework matter. Here are some best practices for this one, that will help guide you in the right direction:

  • Go as far back as it matters. I like to cover the formative decades of every living generation, but you may want to go back centuries if you feel it will reveal something even deeper in the human psyche.
  • Remove all judgement. What may have once seemed backwards may now seem right-side-up. If you judge people’s behaviors, you won’t be able to learn from them.
  • You can (and should) go back to that first iteration and find new patterns. You can rebuild this and it will create a different story arc for the same space, and every version is important. Note that I’ve excluded medicinal competitors like vitamin gummies, but if this were a larger arc with more layers, they would be included.
  • Pay attention to which things have carried throughout the length of the arc, and which have emerged and disappeared as fads (…100-calorie packs are decidedly on their way out).


Build Something That Takes Us Somewhere

You have to start at the mouth of the river in order to understand where it’s going, how fast it’s going, and how likely it is to overflow and change direction.

“I see the future as a series of branching probability streams. So you have to ask, what are we doing to move down the good stream?”

Elon Musk

You’re building a company around a theory that will take us into the future.

Theories come from observation of patterns. I hope this framework gives you the tools to surface those patterns and act on them.

We will always follow those people who can imagine a future so vividly, that they practically guide us there from the here-and-now.


The Business Of Storytelling

A framework for developing compelling brand narratives

[Abridged] Concept Bureau Storytelling Presentation from Jasmine Bina

[Click here to download the full deck of slides and watch the accompanying video recording where I walk you through my framework.]

A lot has changed in the world of brand storytelling, especially in the last 5–10 years, but the frameworks we use to develop our brand narratives remain dated. We’re essentially using old tools to reach new audiences in new markets, and it doesn’t make sense. The challenge is twofold:

  1. Aggressive Evolution. We’re living in incredibly dynamic landscapes. Regardless of the market you’re in, change is happening at an ever-increasing rate. New entrants, bandwidth technologies, legal policy, generational personnel, emerging territories — this is not the industry or climate our parents grew up in. It is certainly not the climate that our familiar brand frameworks were once created to address.
  2. Inconsistent Behaviors. Where once you could count on the major behaviors of a generation to be consistent across age, time and psychographics, we now see a proliferation of sub-cultures and idiosyncrasies with millennials. Geek chic, bro culture, riot grrrls, foodies and hipsters are just the tip of the iceberg. Behaviors have fractured across all dimensions, and what remains is the overarching ambitions and mentality that begat them.

Taken together, these two factors necessitate a new framework, not just for brand storytelling among millennials, but any brand strategy that will resonate with an increasingly informed and empowered audience.


Watch a recording of my workshop and an in-depth look at the Active Story Framework for your own brand here.


My work with startups, established brands and B2C companies reaching millennial audiences allowed me to develop a new approach for decoding the fabric of a brand, and I was recently fortunate enough to share it during a workshop.

You can watch the video and get access to the full deck here .

The Active Story Framework

I call this the Active Story Framework because that’s exactly what it is — active. Each of the three elements propels you into the next and forces movement.

Build A Defensible Territory: Building a defensible territory as part of your brand story will 1) take you to a part of the landscape where your competitors will be unable to follow, 2) allow you to sing your siren song clearly, reaching the very target audience that is crucial to your success, and 3) allow you to be specific… because you can’t be a generalist today. If you’re not specific, you’re not valuable.

Create Meaningful Tension: There is a push and pull action that drives conversion. You ‘push’ your audience by tapping into existing (but often hidden) behaviors and either align or oppose their collective belief systems. You ‘pull’ by leveraging macro movements that resonate with those core beliefs.

Change Hearts and Minds: Your voice is key, but voice is not marketing channels or tone. Voice is tactics. Voice is gestures. Voice is actions, because when it comes to millennials, actions will always speak louder than words. Through your secret language, you have the one-on-one conversations that audiences demand in a such a noisy, static-filled environment.

All three of these elements together force movement.

They force you to make the hard brand decisions key to your success in a crowded, hostile market.

They force you to always land on the right side of the line between core market and mass market — regardless of what stage your company is in or which market you need to reach.

And most importantly, they force your audience to react, decide and convert.

What powerful brand strategy does

Think of this as a tapestry. When you look closely at the individual elements of a brand strategy, it’s hard to see what you’re really creating. But when you pull back and look at all pieces collectively, an image emerges. That image is the brand identity that your followers are looking for. A strong brand strategy gives that image resolution.

But what matters even more than that, at least in practical terms, is the power to solve problems with a strong strategy. A decent brand strategy will take 3 problems and solve them with 3 solutions. A powerful brand strategy takes those 3 problems and solves them with 1.

Don’t miswrite your own story

You can’t live outside of the story framework. You can fit into a current cultural narrative or oppose it, but you cannot exist outside its realm. We are all human, and we are all looking to make sense of the options presented to us in the marketplace. Stories help us do that.

Whether you’re an incumbent CEO or a startup founder, the worst thing you can do is miss the great story that’s sitting right under your nose.

Your hunch led you to a product. It wasn’t just a need. It wasn’t merely good product-market fit. Most leaders and entrepreneurs subconsciously see something bigger when they take the reigns of a company, and under that subconscious draw is a story. The real story. The story that wins.

Use this framework to find it.