Brand Strategy

Language Is Changing Entire Industries Right Before Our Eyes

This is what the business of identity looks like.

If you want to know the values of a culture, look at its language.

In America, we’ve come to talk about time through a very distinct metaphor hiding in plain sight:

  • Can you spare some time tomorrow for a quick chat?
  • Let’s make this worth our while.
  • I’ve invested a lot of time in this project.
  • Thank you for your time.
  • Don’t forget to save time for the Q&A.
  • Use your time wisely.

In American culture, time is a valuable commodity as pointed out by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their fascinating book Metaphors We Live By. You don’t see this in the languages of other cultures like those in the Middle East or Africa because their cultural values are markedly different than ours.

In this country, time is quantified. It is saved, protected, counted and measured. Just like money.

That’s because of how our concept of work evolved in the US. We pay people in hours, we rent hotel rooms by days, budgets are created annually, interest accrues over months and so on.

When we treat time like money, we give it the same inherent qualities and meaning. It takes up the same space in our heads as money does, and I’ll stress again that this is not a universally human concept. It is distinctly western and borne of our modern relationship to work.

Our words betray our history. Our common metaphors and devices map us to our shared evolution over time. What we say is tied to who we were.

You can see the same relationships in other places, too, like our use of war terminology in everyday vernacular in the U.S. to the new text and emoji languages that have sprung from the mobile screens in our hands.

Language is something we live inside of. You simply cannot separate it from the human experience.


John McWhorter talks about how texting norms like “LOL” have evolved to mean a lot more than what they initially stood for.


Language can bring us close and at the same time throw us into discomfort. If you’ve ever read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where the first person narrative of a mentally disabled protagonist was told through a stream of consciousness, you understand how quickly language can destabilize you while pulling you into a completely foreign world.

It has the capacity to change how we see our own bodies. In a recent profile of Loom, the ultra popular health education center in Los Angeles, a student stumbled upon a linguistic relic many of us have overlooked as women, but founder Chidi Cohen has not:

At the end [of the class], she passes out a variety of vibrators, anal plugs, and lube so that her students can feel their rumble, weight, and viscosity, respectively. […]

“You don’t stretch out?” someone asks, eyeing an enormous mint-green phallus.

Chidi Cohen lights up. “That’s a wonderful question,” she says… The idea of tight and loose is, again, really patriarchal. Exactly the type of junk we’re trying to dismantle.

(emphasis added)

Language like this is so deeply embedded it escapes our noticing, but it always leaves a fingerprint behind.

This same interplay between words and identity is happening in business as well.

You may not realize it, but new cultural values are seeping into nearly every industry by way of the words we use, effectively shifting our relationships to our peers and ourselves.

That’s no small thing. It’s opening up new opportunities for brands and categories that weren’t viable before, making branding itself about so much more than product.

If you’re a founder, you should realize that above all else, you’re in the business of identity. Your words and your messages (written or otherwise) are all pulling from a living language that defines who we are.

In fact, the language of every medium is going through a renaissance right now, but when it comes to business, some especially interesting changes are taking place.

The Language of Extremes: A New Relationship With The Other

This chart, created by researcher David Rozado, tracks word usage in the New York Times since 1970.

A snapshot of how our moral language has changed in the last 30 years, by researcher David Rozado.

There’s something happening here and different people have different opinions on what that is. Rozado, the researcher himself, sees it as a “peek at shifting moral culture.”

Others, like VC Paul Graham, saw it as a reflection of the news industry’s subscription model and the need to skew politically in order to win an audience:

The most interesting insight, however, came from my twitter friend Zach Shogren who pointed out that many of these terms didn’t even exist a few decades ago. Those that did exist had a completely different significance.

It’s a huge emotional burden to carry these words in our everyday language, but many (including myself) would argue a necessary one. We hear them and we ask ourselves if these words encompass us or not — if they perhaps encompass those we know or those we don’t.

Terms like triggering, micro aggression and cultural appropriation allow us to see actions that were always there, but imperceptible to us in the past. Other phrases like implicit bias, fat shaming and white privilege codify things that we have always felt, but could not fully name or explain. These words make the invisible visible. They force a new field of vision whether we like it or not.

When you can articulate human experiences that you didn’t have the words for before, you’re creating a dichotomy of 1) intimacy through revealed experience, but at the same time 2) an otherness that demarcates yourself from your peers.

Does that dichotomy sound familiar? It’s the dichotomy of tribes.

We all know about the concept of tribes in marketing thanks to Seth Godin’s genius, but what’s interesting about our new language of extremes is that it points to an evolution in how tribes operate.

Our most vibrant modern tribes are not about shared interests. They’re about grappling with who we are. And we’re inventing terms as part of that exploration.

Many strategists and marketers talk about how tribes are connected to a larger altruistic belief about how the world should be, and in some cases that may be true, but the most powerful tribes of today help us form a culture around the questions of identity.

Certain brands, and their tribes, know this.

As the brilliant brand strategist Ana Andjelic has pointed out, many of the influential brands we call disruptive are actually defining culture, not disrupting an industry:

Insights from brand strategist Ana Andjelic.

Yes, social influence is the real disruption, and language is a leading indicator of where the social signal is headed.

Patagonia, Harry’s, Dollar Shave Club — they burrowed themselves within a subculture and grew it into a mainstream vehicle for identification.

You don’t buy Rapha because you have a shared interest in cycling. You buy Rapha because you want to see how far you can push yourself physically, and that originated in a subculture mentality.


Rapha advertisement, 2019.

Rapha, in the macro, is making a comment on identity. Not just any identity, but the hyper specific identity of their tribe.

They’ve seen the language in the landscape, either through words or cultural touchstones, or any other number of communication mediums.

That New York Times chart is telling us that our identities are top of mind for us as a culture. We are moving in a million different directions trying to figure out who we are by way of our extremes.

If this new language is about defining ourselves by defining the other, then brands are a framework for turning that language into a conversation.

The Language of Wellness: A New Relationship With The Self

Self-care is a miraculous term because it has completely changed our relationship to our bodies and ourselves, especially for women. But it comes from very, very deep roots in marginalized communities, and later the civil rights, women’s, and LGBTQ movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

According to professor and writer Jordan Kisner:

The scholar Matthew Frye Jacobson points out in his book Barbarian Virtues that immigrants arriving to the United States from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century were deemed “unfit citizens” because they lacked the “ideas and attitudes which befit men to take up . . . the problem of self-care and self-government.” The same arguments were made to deny women the vote. Consequently, self-care in America has always required a certain amount of performance: a person has to be able not only to care for herself but to prove to society that she’s doing it.” […]

In 1988, the words of the African-American lesbian writer Audre Lorde became a rallying cry: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” In this formulation, self-care was no longer a litmus test for social equality; it was a way to insist to a violent and oppressive culture that you mattered, that you were worthy of care. Lorde’s quote remains the mantra of contemporary #selfcare practitioners.”

(emphasis added)

Self-care, remarkably, comes from a wildly different place than you’d expect, but in America has always carried the tension between doing something for oneself versus doing it for an audience — a tension between being run into the ground versus carving a safe space for yourself.

After 9/11, the concept of self-care started to get louder in the mainstream consciousness and after the 2016 election, reached a fever pitch by way of the “the grand online #selfcare-as-politics movement”.

Except by then it was no longer driven by the marginalized people who founded it, but rather by affluent white women — the kind you often see on Instagram who popularized the version self-care you may be familiar with today — who felt “a new vulnerability in the wake of the election”.

Self-care is a term that’s permutated between fear, strength, politics, personhood and cultural appropriation. The most authentic version of the phrase is not a marketing gimmick. It came from some place real.

That’s why it has been so powerful in changing our behaviors.

  • Self-care and sex: Today, you can find sex toys like PlusOne in Walmart (Walmart!) because they have been rebranded as self-care and sexual health tools for women. They’re right there, sitting next to the yoga equipment.
  • Self-care marijuana: CBD and marijuana are experiencing a golden age of adoption under the term self-care and wellness. It’s hard to say if increased legalization created a new narrative or the other way around, but it most likely worked both ways as changing attitudes and stories helped tip the balance of law. Gossamer, Dosist, Beboe and countless others have mushroomed in the D2C landscape under the consumer spell of self-care.
  • Self-care and beauty: Beauty is going through a huge boom in large part because we’re no longer using skincare just to look good, but to feel good, too. Ask any number of beauty CEOs from companies like Milk Makeup and Glossier and they will tell you that beauty is about having an experience that makes you feel empowered and strong.
  • Self-care and fashion: Sports brands and athleisure companies have had tremendous success selling the idea of wearing their clothing when you’re not working out. Meanwhile, a brand like Nike, who has a long heritage of fetishizing the lean, athletic body, is able to successfully spearhead discussions at the other end of the spectrum around body positivity, fat shaming and ableism.

Why have all of these industries blown up under the wellness umbrella?Because self-care has given us permission to look at ourselves differently, touch ourselves differently, relate to ourselves differently… all without saying SEX, DRUGS or VANITY.

It has created both a literal language and an experience language that’s opened up entirely new industries and audiences.

Everything means something.

Language is the most powerful brand tool you have. Whether your use it in conversation, listen to it for signals or map it back to a hidden meaning, it will always give you more than what is on the surface.

Any of these insights can be applied to industries I haven’t mentioned, and many other doors can, and will, be opened through the language we use.

Everything means something. Don’t choose your words lightly.


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.

Brand Strategy

Two Questions At The Heart Of Every Great Brand Strategy


[Update: This article has been updated here, along with a 5-minute video covering the major principles discussed in this piece, here.]

I like to start every brand strategy for a new client with two simple questions. They may seem easy enough, but they actually reveal a tremendous amount of information about the mindset of a company’s leadership team while posing a much more difficult challenge than most people realize.

1. How is your brand perceived today?

2. How do you want it to be perceived in the future?

Before you write those off as simple questions, consider the fact that your answers can literally change the course of your business. Taken together, I like to call them the Perception Queries, and everyone can benefit from answering them.

Take a moment to answer them for yourself. Without expectation or marketing jargon, write down your own responses as sincerely as possible.

These are actually loaded questions that you can use to get laser focus on the direction of your brand strategy from the point you’re at today to where you need to be in 1, 3 and 5 years from now. They will prove valuable at every juncture in your company’s trajectory, especially when easy short term growth opportunities gently nudge you away from your ultimate long term vision.


How You Answer Matters

The smartest founders I’ve ever met have struggled with this question in our first meeting. That’s because they understand that the Perception Queries force them to predict the future of their industries, fully embracing the distance between where they are now and where they need to be — all without any guarantees that the world will look how they expect it to later on down the line. The very premise and viability of their businesses are tied up in these answers.

The responses I get usually fall into 1 of 3 categories:

  1. The Vision/ Mission Response — “Our company builds the best widgets for the modern widget-using consumer who needs speed, quality and dependability.” No, this is not how a company is perceived. When I get some version of the company vision or mission as an answer, it often means that they haven’t stopped to empathize with the user. The Perception Queries force you to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and feel what their relationship to your brand truly is… and it’s not a marketing line.
  2. The Goal/ Model Response — “We want to be perceived as the #1 widget-maker in the US market within four years…” or “We’re the Uber for widgets…”. Of course everyone wants to own their market or adopt a proven model, but heres the thing — if the opposite of your strategy is not also a strategy, then you don’t have a strategy to begin with. Nor do you have an answer to the Perception Queries. People who answer with a Goal/ Model response usually haven’t stopped to develop a clear hypothesis of the future they’re creating for.
  3. The Characterizing Response — “We‘re perceived as fun, unique, nimble, creative, growing and smart today… but we want to be perceived as large, institutional, trustworthy and influential in the future.” If you’re answering with adjectives, you’re on the right track. Perception is a point of view, and when users take a specific view of your company, they characterize your brand in a similar way. But a long list of general adjectives like this can still lead you astray. The specificity and deliberate choosing of those characteristics is what matters.

Regardless of your answer, we can test and refine it by considering the world of the future, specifically the unique world you envision for your business.

Your Hypothesis Of The Future

I’ve talked about this before in my workshops because it’s fundamental to a strong brand identity. Your hypothesis of the future is how you see the world changing at a later point. The way you see the world in 3–5 years is at best an educated guess, and I often call this ‘making your bet’.

If you imagine the future to be an endless set of possibilities as represented by a circle (or perhaps more accurately, a sphere), then your hypothesis is the small sliver of possibilities that will actually come to fruition.

If you’re Uber, your vision of the future isn’t that we will all be getting around in self-driving cars, but rather that manually operating your own car will become an outdated, dangerous, archaic activity that the public collectively rejects.



Once you have your vision of the future, your competitive set will shift. The people who are really in your way aren’t those that are making similar products with similar features today, but rather those who are making the same prediction of the future.



Snapchat was a social platform on par with Instagram and Facebook, but their vision of the future wasn’t about an app. It was about how we create and consume content. That’s why they created Snap Spectacles and suddenly became a hardware competitor in line with Apple. Anyone who paid attention to their hypothesis would have seen that coming.

Just like Snap Inc. and Apple, a clear vision of the future will likely put you in interesting company.

Once you have your hypothesis and competitive set, every step of your brand strategy needs to project you past all other players to a defensible, forward-looking position.


If you want to get deeper into this landscape/ hypothesis exercise, go here.

Now we can return to our original two questions. Once you know your hypothesis and what you need to project yourself past others in your space, consider the Perception Queries again.

1. How is your brand perceived today?

2. How do you want it to be perceived in the future

Be Bold & Get Specific

A characterizing answer is on the right track, but I often push people to get specific with their perceptions. Let’s imagine a young company that has recently entered the incredibly crowded travel booking space.

How is the brand perceived today? Well it’s new, so the perception is broad. Travel booking involves a lot of trust, especially in the face of legacy companies, so people will be hesitant and struggling to understand how the offering fits into their consideration set:


I want to note here that it’s ok if peoples’ perception of you company today is broad. It’s not the best place to be, but that’s exactly what we’re going to fix in the near future. What isn’t ok is if your future perception is still very broad.

If a company knows how their brand is perceived today, the temptation is often to ‘fix’ the negative characterizations for their perception tomorrow:

Future Perception A


But having a positive future image is the booby prize. Positive doesn’t mean unique, and it certainly doesn’t mean differentiated. It may seem like a good decision, but it leaves money on the table.

Most importantly, it creates a very broad perception that can be confused with any other travel booking company out there. There is no specific assumption about the future of travel here. This is a perception that many brands embody today and as time goes on, will only become a baseline of expectation for travelers.

Let’s narrow our focus and really dig to see what is under the modern travel experience. We want to see what the future (and our future perception) might look like.

Travel is increasingly becoming a very personal experience. We travel to find ourselves, to discover who we are, to understand why we’re here and where we belong in the world. It’s why industries like adventure travel and eco tourism are flourishing.

If we venture to create a more narrow perception with even just this little bit of information, we get something very different:

Future Perception B

Note that this narrow perception doesn’t mean you can’t still be trustworthy, established and offering a clear benefit. It simply means that you are willing to take a bolder stance, to be a far more specific brand that resonates with users who are seeking that same brand experience. It runs in parallel with what every marketer, salesperson and founder already knows — it’s about benefits, not features.

What we have here is already more familiar than you might realize. In the mid- to late-2000’s, a proliferation of travel startups had entered the space. Every week there seemed to be another company trying to disrupt the industry, and every single one of them could be described as startup, risky, novel, niche, techie, confusing, and fun.

However, two major companies made it through the tumult. HomeAway and Airbnb evolved their brands for the future, but one of them took the bold risk of defining a narrow perception, and is the clear winner today:



Your second answer to the Perception Queries is the one that really matters. You can start from anywhere, even if it’s the same place as your competitors, but you need to know where you’re going if you want to stop playing in someone else’s backyard.



Brand strategy requires tough decisions that will touch every aspect of your business. Asking the right questions up front is crucial.

If you’re a founder, I’d recommend asking your team the very same things as well. Their responses may surprise you.

The Perception Queries are important for an entire team because they go beyond a Vision or Mission. They aren’t marketing sound bytes. They’re a pact — an agreement that everyone is moving in the same direction — and that’s something worth knowing.