User Experience

How Brand Thresholds Push Users Forward

[Photo by Marco Bianchetti.]

Make people go deeper into your world.

We all carry symbols within us. Symbols like parenthood, gender, blue collars, a country’s flag, a cross on a hill or a grad school pin.

These are symbols that, regardless of place or context, will make us feel something when we encounter them.

In some cases those symbols alter our mental state. There is a measurable change between the person we were before we encountered the symbol, and the person we became after it.

When symbols change us emotionally, they become powerful thresholds.

One of the symbolic thresholds that has always had a profound effect on me is the Japanese torii.

A torii is a freestanding gate that symbolizes transition — from human to sacred, from the known world to the secret world. It is a border between the visible and invisible, and for all of its simplicity and detachment, it carries a gravity that I haven’t experienced in any other symbolic threshold in my work.

The Great Torii of Itsukushima Shrine

When I first learned about torii in an art history course over a decade ago, it wasn’t the structure itself that struck me but rather the power it carried outside of place or time.

While torii are typically placed at the entrance of Shinto shrines, they also appear in completely secluded locales. You may see one in an empty field, a forest, or outside of Japan altogether, but no matter where it is, it’s meant to mark a path for transition.

That is the significance that was imputed on this structure. It is created over and over again to exist outside of any specific time or place, and there are very few other symbols that operate in the same way.

It is not the space that makes the torii meaningful, it is the torii that makes the space meaningful.

Thresholds change the context around them.

I’ve seen them in Japan, in French museums, and standing tall in barren cattle ranches in southern California… and in all of these places, the torii created an emotional threshold that framed my experience of the world around me.

There is a lesson here in how thresholds mold the human experience and how they are different from every other kind of touch point we experience in our lives as users.

For brands, a threshold is an opportunity to create meaning where there once was none.

What It Means To Create A Brand Threshold

A $2.6 billion industry has popped up around subscription products, and 55% of that growth is attributed to a newly popularized brand threshold we’re all familiar with by now: unboxing.

There are now 3,500 subscription box offerings in the US market, all with markedly different business models.

Some, like Birchbox, use the subscription box as an upsell to full sized products on their website.

Ipsy takes a different route and uses beauty and lifestyle influencers to create content that generates ad revenue on top of the actual product.

FabFitFun makes a healthy margin off of sponsored products, and Sephora blends the sponsored model with straightforward sales.


Ipsy Glambag Plus unboxing by Madison Miller


It is not the convenience, the price point or the novelty that has propelled these brands to success. In fact, many boxes have wildly different price points irrespective of value-for-price, many do not allow customization, and at this point, what novelty can be left?

It is the emotional threshold of unboxing that has moved the subscription box industry into the mainstream.

As Elizabeth Segran of Fast Company puts it, “It hinges on a business model that goes beyond making money on the box itself, and investing in content that makes the unboxing experience exciting every single time.” [Emphasis added.]

Unboxing is an emotional threshold that has been iterated, perfected and monetized for maximum effect. A good unboxing creates a clear transition from before the event to after. People feel changed after an unboxing.

Every time your brand compels a user to increase their engagement in order to receive an emotional reward, you are creating a threshold.

Emotional brand thresholds promise a changed user on the other side.

Your user has to make a choice to move through that threshold and experience the change. It is in these critical mass moments that people move deeper into the brand, and they operate on 3 principles:

  1. Investment. Thresholds always come with an upfront cost of time, money or effort on behalf of the user and the brand. For an Ipsy box, all of these investments come into play.
  2. Change. There needs to be a before-and-after change in emotional state. Unboxing isn’t about the products you get, it’s about the anticipation of the reveal, the payoff and the euphoria afterward. In this case, it is also about the promise of who you will become with this new arsenal of goods.
  3. Message. A strong threshold is a very powerful branding moment. It communicates the brand position in action, not words. There needs to be a message that comes through, and in Ipsy’s case, it’s a message about playing with beauty.

These rules can help you turn certain touch points into positive thresholds. They also mean that not all customer touch points are thresholds to begin with.

Sponsored gift bags at an event, for example, are not thresholds. There is no directly related upfront cost for the user, and no unified message.

Customer service, thank you emails, subscription pages, POS gimmicks, videos and content usually aren’t thresholds either. They may employ one of the principles above, but not all three.

Touch points are simply a time and place when your brand touches the consumer, wherever they are.

Thresholds are an occasion where you and the user both agree to meet someplace new, and to leave in an altered state.

Different Portals For Different Needs

The Ordinary skincare brand, for all of its drama and troubles, has been extremely clever in creating thresholds that move users deeper and deeper into their brand world. Fans have to travel through a series of costly portals in order to get the emotional reward they are seeking.

One of these thresholds is their extremely active and engaged Facebook group managed by users. It’s a private group that you actually have to apply to get into by answering some questions about yourself.

Once you’re in, you’re thrust into a world of acronyms, coded language, intimately revealing skin photographs, excel spreadsheets for experimenting with different regimens, documents and fervent followers that will push you even further out of your comfort zone and demand an increased investment in time and effort. This is a new space that both you and the brand are agreeing to meet in.

If you want to learn about skincare like a dermatologist, you have to educate yourself in The Ordinary’s world. And if you don’t, you’re not welcome here.

It’s a steep price to pay, but believe me, once you successfully pass that threshold you are a changed person with a changed relationship to their skin.

For the frustrated legions of women who have tried everything to get their skin better, it is an emotional reward they are willing to pay upfront for.

And it is that stretch between the investment and the reward/ change that leaves users wide open to the brand’s message — ‘The beauty industry is ugly. We’ve found a new way.’

Thresholds force us to suspend our biases and be open to a new message. They’re moments of change that allow us to accept fresh ideas in place of old ones.

One of the best times to have your brand message heard is when your user is going through a transition.

Everything about The Ordinary’s threshold creates a sacred space with promise and evolution… and that’s the best time to form new beliefs. That is precisely when the message comes through.

A threshold happens when both the brand and user are drawn closer together because both have opted to take a voluntary step toward each other. The user invests their time/ money/ attention, while the brand invests in a sort of wall, where not everyone is let through, but those who are get that emotional change.

You can look at it as a test, a boundary, a wall or a step. It can take many forms. What is consistent across all of them, however, is that not everyone will pass. Those who do will be changed on the other side.

Places Where Thresholds Can Appear

If you’re hard pressed to find examples of thresholds in your own brand or others’, you’re right. Brands are starting to understand the significance of these moments and it’s a tactical device that has been historically underutilized.

Many things come close to being a threshold, but don’t quite get there. Traditions like the Jeep Wave in the US or John Lewis’ holiday ads and the Coca Cola Truck in the UK, tribal gatherings like SoulCycle and Tracy Anderson cults, or any other number of unofficial events we care about as consumers.

But with the right thinking and perspective, there are a few key touch points that could be turned into thresholds:

  • Store Entrances: Literally the physical threshold that users pass through every day. The best, most experiential storefronts get the message right, and can affect at least somewhat of an emotional change, but almost none can balance it with some sort of upfront investment for the user. Popups are perhaps the only thing that come close.
  • Product Drops: Yes there is an investment, but the message and emotional change usually fall short. At best, you have brands like Supreme that create a flex-focused brotherhood, but it’s more akin to a game than an exchange.
  • Events and Pilgrimages: Everyone understands how to create an immersive, on-brand experience. And of course there is the cost of traveling and attending, but what is really missing is the emotional change. Many brands create an experience for the sake of experience — delight, fun, indulgence — but can they really say that their users leave as changed people?
  • Announcements and Product Discovery: Again, do brands balance all three principles when it comes to announcing a product or creating a sense of discovery around their new offerings? There is no upfront investment before the actual cost of the product itself. The message may be there, but there likely won’t be a before-and-after emotional state for the user.

Thresholds are not easy to create.

They require a totally different lens through which to see your users interactions with your brand. But when they do appear, they are powerful engagement machines.

Questions To Ask Yourself

With the right thinking, mundane touch points can be turned into thresholds that follow the three main principles that all thresholds follow.

Start by asking yourself the kinds of questions that will lead you to that critical user interaction:

  1. What emotional change or arc are we capable of creating in our users? What emotional arc is best aligned with our brand?
  2. How can we create an upfront cost in those touch points that will a) only draw committed users, and b) amplify the value of the reward?
  3. What theme or message needs to be integral to the experience in order to communicate our brand identity?
  4. Where are our users looking for more meaning in the brand experience?
  5. What are the emotional ups and downs they go through in the overall UX, and how can we turn those points into thresholds?

Remember, the point is to gently push users deeper into your world with every gate that they have to pass through. If those gates are solid, they will begin to take on a life of their own and hold a meaning that is as big as your brand.

Crossing a threshold is about taking a risk and accepting the change that lies on the other side. Just like any relationship, the one that your user makes with your brand is strengthened by these moments.

Use them wisely. Sometimes creating a boundary around your world helps ensure that your true users can find a meaningful way in.

User Experience

In the Transformational Economy, ‘Being’ and ‘Becoming’ Have Started To Merge

The old brand model started at customer personas. The new model now begins at user evolution.

We’re seeing a change in the modern consumer that our current brand frameworks aren’t capable of addressing.

What best defines your brand’s target market isn’t demographics, income level, hobbies, social circle, attitudes, political leanings, past purchases or other traditional qualifiers of the ubiquitous customer persona framework.

All of those labels indicate a state of being.

They are static in place and time. They are two-dimensional labels that, while helpful in adding context to outline your user within, fall short of providing the real depth your brand needs to get to — the ‘user evolution’.

The user evolution refers to the transformation that your customer is undergoing.

One or two generations ago, transformation had a time and place. A job promotion, salary raise, first child, first home or becoming an empty nester were finite moments of transformation that changed the customer’s buying habits and brand loyalties.

But today, none of those rules stand.

Today, we work in ever-evolving co-working meccas where the people sitting around us are different from the beginning of the week through the end. Today, we combine 23andMe results with customized supplement stacks for daily experiments in cognition and output.

Today, we reveal ourselves in the micro-content we publish on an hourly basis, increasingly create our own job titles, and regularly move between diets and juice cleanses.

We walk into a SoulCycle, Crossfit, Anger Room or bootcamp one person, only to emerge a spiritually uplifted human being an hour later.

If you had to take a second look at what truly defines us as consumers, it’s clear that we are experimenting, testing, pushing, changing, discovering, formulating, creating and effecting. It is the level and type of transformation that defines us more than anything else.

All of these new labels indicate a state of becoming.

As I spent the last year traveling the world, speaking to millennial consumers and the brands that court them, I kept hearing the same thing over and over from people when I asked them to tell me a little about themselves.

“I’m writing a novel.”

“I’m trying to get to 5k followers.”

“I’ll be blogging from Australia next year.”

“I’m fundraising for my new startup.”

“I just started keto.”

Whether it was Zurich, London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong or Tokyo — people didn’t tell me who they were. They told me who they were turning into.

Your user today is constantly growing into someone new, in every moment of every day.

Our new state of being is actually a state of transformation, and we need to understand how the user got here in order to understand how to speak to them.

Photo by Les Anderson.

The Step Ladder That Turned Into A Treadmill

I remember being in graduate school eight years ago and learning about life cycle marketing for the first time.

Created in the 1960s by Wells and Gruber, it asserts the notion that people are more likely to try and change brands during major life pivots and milestones.

People advance through a family life cycle over the course of a lifetime. Their needs change as they pass through these different stages.

Thus, a bachelor is likely to be more interested in some kinds of purchases than a married woman would be. Practitioners of the life cycle marketing approach take these differences into account.

Even then, the concept felt like a revelation, but at the same time, like the artifact of a bygone 1960s era.

As general wealth spread through the US and more and more individuals moved up the hierarchy of needs, our relationship to the world around us started to change.

As I’ve written about before, the major milestones of marriage, homeownership and child raising have either moved or dissolved altogether for millennials.

Moreover, the institutions we once outsourced our decision-making to, like college, the corporate ladder and government, have started to crumble.

So what happens when the reputations of these once unchanging, external brands start to weaken?

The consumer becomes the expert. The consumer becomes the authority. The consumer becomes the agent of change.

The consumer is now the brand.

… and the products and services he or she consumes turn into vehicles for supporting that personal brand.

Enter the Experience Economy — the exciting predecessor to the even more exciting Transformation Economy.

B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore first wrote about the Experience Economy in 1998 (a concept now widely known as the shift away from a service-based economy to one where customers seek enjoyable experiences over products… and published far ahead of it’s time).

They later introduced the subsequent Transformation economy —an economy where experiences are elevated from mere enjoyment to actual personal transformation — and the age in which we are living in now.

We seek those transformative experiences around us, through brand activations like Nike’s personalized sport, apps like Headspace or health and wellness cruises like Celebrity Cruises’ “Mindful Dreams” voyages.

But it goes further than that now.

It’s been my observation that we’ve come to internalize the transformative experience so deeply, it is now an ever present existence in our hearts and minds.

Transformation is the new baseline.

It’s why a runaway hit brand like The Ordinary doesn’t just sell beauty formulations, it practically (and literally) forces you to turn into an amateur dermatologist in the process.

When the transformation economy takes hold, old rules around selling become meaningless.

It frustrates luxury brand directors.

It frustrates premium tech, CPG, commodity and B2B brands, too.

I found myself on stage in New York recently, speaking to a group of such executives at Luxury Daily’s First Look trends conference for 2018.

The very last question posed to me on my panel — the one that I hoped wouldn’t be asked, because I knew people wouldn’t like my answer — came from someone in the front row who said,

“Shouldn’t premium and luxury brands reclaim the exclusivity and rarity they’ve lost to social media and other forms of over-exposure, and pull back?

Wouldn’t you agree that many luxury brands have lost their edge because they’ve made themselves too accessible? Too available to the public?”

In other words, she was asking me if the luxury consumer persona was longing for a return to good old luxury values.

My answer was no.

Not only was that sentiment incorrect, it was posing the wrong question altogether.

The real question is, “where does authority come from in a Transformation Economy?

It comes from within the consumer. Where they once looked outward for authority, they now look within themselves.

Transformation, ultimately, comes from within. So does the authority to dictate the terms of that transformation.

That’s why users rely on brands (especially luxury brands) less and less to tell them what the true luxury experience should be.

It’s why we have high-low fashion taking hold for the first time, and premium sharing economies like Rent The Runway making that transformative experience available well outside the confines of old socio-fiscal rules.

The step ladder of social progression has now turned into a treadmill.

In the 1960s world of Wells and Gruber, social and economic classes had clear steps between them, divided with plateaus and vertical climbs, and leading to a final ascent. You got a job, got a raise, got new access, and then repeated the process.

But to experience the consumer world of today feels more like a treadmill. No plateaus, just the constant feeling of ascent which may or may not need to lead anywhere.

The step ladder is easy to brand for. The treadmill requires more dexterity.

When we move from the step ladder to a treadmill, we move from being to becoming, from customers to users, and from personas to evolutions.

Rent The Runway users. Garvin and Co.

The User Evolution

Transformation is different from a typical experience because it is usually tailored to the individual, and leaves the individual perceptibly changed afterward.

Transformation is:

  • The thrill of growth
  • Personal achievement
  • The experience of change
  • Being able to look back at a different version of oneself

All of these can exist on grand and lofty scales (like Airbnb), or in small and mundane moments (like Harry’s disposable razors).

As noted by Mark Bonchek and Vivek Bapat, the smartest direct-to-consumer brands have already figured out that customers may buy things, but users experience things on a deeper level… and that comes from how a brand creates context within the user’s life.

We suspect that the nature of their products, culture, and business model leads them to more of a usage mentality. They think of customers less as one-time buyers and more as users or members with an ongoing relationship.

That relationship (or context) comes from meaning.

Users impute meaning onto a successful brand because they share a transformative belief.

  • Harry’s razors has a transformative belief not about shaving, but about what it means to be a man
  • The Ordinary has a transformative belief not about beauty, but about who has the right to be a beauty expert
  • Airbnb has a transformative belief not about travel, but about belonging in this world

Personas are static. They’re filled with descriptive labels that fail to tell us what really makes a user tick.

The deeper beliefs we’re looking for are very hard to find in a typical persona framework.

But it’s not impossible.

Instead of a snapshot of a person, we need to understand their constant evolution.

A simple way to hit at the heart of what matters is to simply ask ourselves, “What transformation is our user going through/ wanting to go through/ starting to go through?”

“What treadmill are they on?”

“What is the constant transformative feeling they are looking to create in their lives?”

“Who are they becoming everyday?”

“What evolution are they experiencing right now?”

“How do they use our products during the evolution experience?”

If you really push yourself to answer those questions, you’re going to find something very interesting.

Your personas won’t neatly categorize by gender, age, income or any other typical bucket anymore.

Instead, they will categorize by mentality.

Rent The Runway is speaking to Amy. Amy is of the mentality that being a strong woman means showing every side of yourself, whether it’s the playful 20-something at brunch with friends, the serious entrepreneur at WeWork, or the flower child at Coachella.

She is going through the evolution of embodying all of her selves… and believes in the authority she has to move between identities and to transform into who she wants, whenever she wants.

She’s 29 years old, just quit her 9 to 5 job to start her own company, and lives in a metropolitan area.

Amy sounds specific, but Amy could be anybody.

Amy is me (a 36-year old woman rediscovering the many sides of herself as she becomes more comfortable in her identity), she is my mother (the 59-year old schoolteacher whose many sides have blossomed with maturity), and she is my male cousin (whose many sides have only become socially acceptable in the new age of the metrosexual man…if Rent The Runway ever decides to release a men’s offering).

Amy isn’t a target in and of herself.

She is representative of a mindset.

She is a symbol of the human evolution that the brand is speaking to, and an authoritative mindset that the brand fits within.

The mentality is a much stronger signal than any demographic could be.

When you understand the mentality, you understand where the user evolution needs to go.

… and that is a very good place to start your brand strategy.