insights in culture

How To Think Like A Brand Strategist

[Photo by Jon Moore.]

Nothing sacred. Nothing immovable. Always in the future.

I was speaking with a friend in Paris last year who comes from the luxury industry. We were talking about the future of the high end automotive space, and how the consumer mindset was starting to change with new technologies.

“What is the single most branded element of a company like Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati?” he asked me.

Admittedly I did not know.

“It’s the roar of the engine! It’s that sound. It’s all of the feelings and emotions that come with that auditory trigger. That roar is everything.”

He was right. These brands have spent over a century celebrating and venerating that very sound. Countless articles, discussion threads, car shows and marketing campaigns have worshipped the sound that makes these cars what they are.

Lamborghini recently worked with artist Kaj Niegmann to have the sound wave turned into a sculpture for prospective buyers. Porsche employs acoustics experts at their Weissach Development Center to “compose the right melodies for new models… create[ing] individual sound concepts for every generation of engines.”

BMW uses what they call Active Sound Design to “deliver recorded engine noises through the car’s stereo speakers, synced up with engine speed and other variables.” It’s a controversial feature that makes the engines of many of their models sound bigger than they actually are, including the M5 and 3, 4, and 5 Series cars.

And there was the 2008 Hiscox study that claimed women had a measurable biological response “indicative of a stirred libido” when hearing a Maserati engine — similar to the same testosterone response men have when hearing a Lamborghini.

The Lamborghini sound wave sculpture: an artistic rendering of the iconic engine sound.

The point of all of this reverence is to create a protective layer around the brand. Just like how a Samsung store may feel like a weird version of an Apple Store, or eating off-brand sandwich cookies makes you wish for Oreos, luxury automakers want it to feel wrong when that roar doesn’t sound quite right.

That sense of right and wrong — that feeling when the roar rings true to the ears — was what my friend was referring to.

“What happens, then, when the sound is suddenly gone? What does that world look like?” he asked.

He was referring, of course, to Tesla.

In 2014, Tesla released the Model S P85D, which was essentially described as a revolutionary Porsche killer. Then in Motor Trend’s 2017 World’s Greatest Drag Race, the Tesla Model S P100D blew away some of the fastest cars in the world, including the Ferrari 488 GTB, Aston Martin DB11 and Mercedes Benz AMG GTR in a quarter mile race.

All the while, a fervent fanbase of newly speed-addicted luxury car consumers was being bred under Tesla’s wing.

And there was no engine involved in any of this mania. There was no heritage of sound to design, make sculptures out of, or to ‘stir the libidos’ of men and women. Even though many of these luxury sports car makers are making their own inroads into electric vehicles, there is no denying that Tesla singlehandedly tore through the brand layer that once protected many of them, with a silent car.

The roar had lost its meaning as a metric among this new audience because Tesla made it irrelevant. They knew they’d never be able to compete on engine sound, so they redefined what luxury automotive cars were altogether. (I talk more about Tesla’s brand magic here.)

But what struck me most about my friend’s words was what they revealed about his thought process.

A great strategist like him doesn’t hold anything sacred. He doesn’t assign ‘good’ or ‘bad’ qualities to a shifting landscape. (Ask many auto industry insiders and they will tell you it’s a travesty that the ‘sound’ is fading, and that blinds them to the larger picture).

He asks the question, “What if?” because he’s playing in the 5–10 year horizon, which is usually where major consumer shifts take place. Talking to him felt like taking a walk in the future because he was changing the rules of the game, not merely moving the players on the field.

Great strategists don’t ask who will win. They ask what the world will look like when the truths of today are false tomorrow.

If he’d asked, like many do, “What happens when Tesla wins?” we’d be having a conversation about competition.

But because he asked “What if the sound of the engine suddenly becomes irrelevant?” we were having a discussion about so much more — the market, cultural shifts, industry mindset, perceived value, band narratives, technology, future investment and so on. It’s only from that macro view that you can start to see where the future may go.

Once you change the truths, the winners will reveal themselves. Not the other way around.

I get excited when I speak to people like this because it’s a lot easier to walk in the future when someone else is there to walk with you.

I’m always asking myself how to think more like a great strategist and in my work I’ve found a few principles that get me in the right mindset. They’ve become second nature to me now, and if you’re interested in taking on a more strategic mindset in your business, they will help you, too.

In fact, many of our clients start to think like strategists about halfway through our engagements because we’ve deliberately structured our processes to shift the mindset first, arrive at answers second. The order matters.

That’s also how you should try to internalize these following points. Let them shift your perspective and trust that the solutions will follow.

Look for the emergence of common ‘truths’

I put ‘truths’ in quotes because truths change, but that’s not what matters. What matters is when they change.

Truths start to change in waves across different industries and audiences, but stay under the radar until they reach a critical mass of adoption. You need to spot that wave before it’s fully visible.

Transformation travel, D2C brands like SmileDirectClub and Hims, the new adoption of marijuana, newly developed utopian living communities — these are some of today’s seemingly random truths.

But if you pay attention, you’ll see they’re all telling the same story: Health no longer comes from old institutions of authority.

The emergence of this common truth is pushing us into a future where the doctor is far less relevant. If you’re in healthcare, food, medicine, personal care or beauty, this is something you should be thinking about.

Truths come in increments and over time.

But you don’t just need to look at the truths of industry. There are those of culture, too.

The sharp decline of enrollees in Boy Scouts and kids baseball leagues, the huge push into STEM studies, the celebrity status of lone wolf entrepreneurs and the transcendence of the sports star over the team — again, there is something happening underneath all of these.

We have adopted a new truth that says individual pursuits are more virtuous than those of the group.

That has profound implications for the future of education, local communities and any organized body such as government or corporations.

Truths are always evolving and if you pay attention to the early signals, they’ll start to tell you what the future might look like.

They’ll give you a good starting point for the “What if?” questions you’re searching for.

Learn to spot master keys

I often say that good strategy solves five problems with five solutions. Great strategy, however, solves five problems with one solution.

This was a random sign I saw in an office building, but it stopped me dead in my tracks. Accidental philosophy, right there.

Costco uses a master key to solve a few brand problems at once.

The fact is that they are a physical retailer living in a world where online marketplaces like Amazon have taken over in both selection and last mile delivery, and yet Costco keeps growing.

Brick and mortar has all but been pronounced dead, and yet Costco continues to gain traction with elusive millennials — the one segment that no one can figure out in the space.

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

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

It’s doesn’t matter that Costco refers to itself as a big box discount store. The fact is that every choice they make is a very deliberate signal of the brand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

These news stories and business choices are no coincidence.

These are brand-building moves that indicate the pillar of honesty Costco wants to be perceived as in the space — something wildly different than what other large value chains are known for — and something that helps them grow despite the multitude of problems that plague their competitors.

The perception/ position of honesty is Costco’s master key, and it solves many problems at once.

Finding master keys isn’t easy. It takes practice. But if you’ve done your due diligence and know all of the questions, problems and promises that your brand needs to answer for, a master key will eventually appear.

Master keys create strong, unified brands.

The fastest way to spot them is to practice. Look at successful brands like Costco, and try to figure out the one master key that unlocks all doors — both in brand and in business.

They’ll help you understand how master keys work, and how they can give you the escape velocity needed to transcend your industry’s drawbacks.

Find evidence in actions

Pay attention to what people want, not what they need. People will always find the reasons — and the money — for what they truly want.

Instead of paying attention to what people say, watch where people are spending their time, money and attention. People will always vote with these three things.

Moreover, as I’ve written before, income doesn’t really mean anything. There is always money for the things we believe we need (iPhones, meal kit delivery, juice cleanses, sports car leases, etc.)

Where people spend their time and attention is perhaps even more important than where they spend their money, because time and attention are the most precious things we have and can never be earned the way another dollar can.

When we were working with a premium parenting brand, we couldn’t arrive at a good reason why people would pay more for a high-end diaper. The diaper itself was superior and cost significantly more to manufacture, with far better materials and design, but ask a mom if she needs a better diaper at a higher price point and she’ll likely say no. Diapers, especially with so many new ‘natural’ brands, are good enough the way they are.

That was what the moms were telling us. But it wasn’t how they were acting.

These same women were spending fortunes on midwives, organic baby food, designer baby clothes, alternative preschools and Mommy & Me Yoga.

Where they spent their time was even more telling. The time it takes to take your baby to a music festival like Coachella, from all the things involved in traveling to a dirt patch in the desert with an infant to time and money spent on extra purchases like baby noise canceling headphones, cannot be underestimated. Same goes for conferences and overseas trips.

And yet that’s exactly where many of these moms took their little ones.

Mothers were spending their time, money and attention on experiences.

It was the shared experience that mothers needed. Even more than comfort, convenience or dependability — which, as we know, are the typical hallmarks of every diaper ad.

And that’s how we knew where to build the brand. Around the shared experience of a rich and eventful early life.

Once we understood that, the brand became exponentially more than the product. It became a belief that huge groups of consumers quickly rallied around.

The proof of who we really are is in our actions.

You need evidence to form your thinking. You should look for it by watching where people spend their most precious resources.


The day-to-day of strategy

College students often ask me what resources I read to stay on top of my game. I’m a news and info junkie (a leftover from my days as a PR agency CEO) and it’s served me well.

You can’t do any of the things I’ve outlined above if you’re not consuming large amounts of content. I read anywhere between 2–4 hours every day, and below are some of my favorite sources for material.

You may be surprised that I don’t really read strategy texts… at least not anymore. There’s only a finite number of good books in that field, and all they will teach you is a handful of smart approaches.

At some point, you’ll need to stop reading what other strategists say, and start developing your own beliefs, your own frameworks, your own processes and systems.

That leap only comes when you’ve gained enough confidence in your understanding of the world, to the point where you can have your own opinions.

If you read enough and stay committed to being open-minded, you can’t help but start having some serious opinions about where the future is headed.

Here’s some of what I read. I’ll skim the headlines to know what’s going on, and if something piques my interest, I’ll click through to the article:

  • I subscribe to both Luxury Daily and Business of Fashion because I have an interest in luxury and fashion, and find that they are extremely correlated with other industries (BoF has especially good analysis)
  • Watch a lot of Vox, Vice and i-D videos to get a handle on subcultures and hear some of the more controversial viewpoints that are entering the larger discussion
  • I use IFTTT to get real-time headlines from Mashable for a dose of pop/ internet culture, and TechCrunch for tech culture (because tech culture influences everything and everyone around the world)
  • I get the Wall Street Journal and New York Times daily news digests for the official record, and also because they sometimes have smart articles on behavior
  • I use Pocket to track everything I read, and then sign up for their weekly newsletter where they make excellent reading recommendations based on their recommendation engine
  • I get the a16z newsletter, as well as Benedict Evans’ newsletter for more of a macro view on the future of markets
  • I also sign up for relevant newsletters from Quartz, the Atlantic, the Guardian and the New Yorker because somehow they capture the stories others miss — somewhere between subculture and mass culture
  • Listen to podcasts (I go through periods) like Hidden Brain and Reply All… and Sam Harris when my husband puts it on, because they either stretch my understanding or deepen my appreciation for human behavior
  • Follow any company or influencer I want to study on Instagram. Taking in a brand visually can be a lot more powerful than anything you read about them.
  • I also try to make sure I’m not stuck in too much of an echo chamber in my social networks and follow old classmates that have wildly different political and social views than me. It’s important for me to understand how they think and how they validate their choices, just as we all do.

Here are a few things I do to complement my reading:

  • Play around with frameworks. This is not an easy thing and I maybe come up with a new one every six months, but it forces me to reconsider how we approach our work.
  • Take the occasional call from a reader, my schedule permitting. Have conversations with random people (especially overseas). I’ve learned invaluable things about foreign mindsets, market movements and new trends just by talking to people that may not be in my field. I especially love talking to other strategists doing interesting things at other agencies.
  • Expose myself to lots of different ideas, especially in the arts. I regularly attend Creative Mornings and PopUp Magazine and visit museums.
  • Have thought experiments with my partner, always asking ourselves, ‘Why did a brand/ public figure/ entity do that?”
  • Write and write and write. If you’re like me, you may not fully understand how your own brain works. Writing these articles helps me discover exactly that.

Remember that everything changes. Everything we believe and do is fluid.

That’s what makes strategy possible. The future is never entirely unknown because it’s already revealing itself under the noise of daily life.

You just have to listen for the subtext and you’ll get the signals you’re searching for.

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