Goodbye Relevance, Hello Relatability: The New Industry of Brand Connection

‘Relevance’ Is Losing Relevance

There is a new industry of cultural relatability emerging that has moved the benchmark of brand connection. The brands that are winning today have already discovered that “being relevant” is a dying industry, and the only way to move forward is through relatability.

With apps like TikTok at the helm, individuals today only have to engage with brands that relate to who they are and what they care about. Being relevant – i.e., making your brand and product matter in the moment at hand – is no longer enough. Instead, the new frontier of relatable connection facilitates deeper relationships that go beyond what brands are selling. Brands must now behave like mirrors of our psyches and attempt to forge relatable, intimate connections.

Relevancy flourished in the 2010s with the rise of the D2C model. Aesthetic homogeneity defined the relevancy era as every startup capitalized on the “millennial aesthetic,” We saw homogeneity in logos as luxury brands rebranded themselves in san-serif font. Even within the model itself, every D2C brand focused its efforts on marketing a single product to everyone. When you think Glossier you think of Boy Brow. For Casper, their Original Mattress. For Article, the Sven Charme Tan Sofa.

These brands set the tone in our culture. They gave us a model for relevancy in our own lives. The premiumization of these products made us fit into the norms of what was presented to us as popular and mainstream. It started taking over our Instagram feeds as we worked hard curating the perfect aesthetic to fit the aspirational standard of the millennial lifestyle. The goal being, “I want to be relevant” as opposed to “I want to feel relatable.”

Facebook’s advertising platform drove the success of these brands. For D2C companies, this was their retail space, and buying more ads further established their relevance. We saw the same ads, and we were all drawn to buying the same products. Whoever spent the most money on ads would be the most relevant. Having the single best product at first felt enough.

Casper was one of many D2C brands that spearheaded the industry of relevancy. The disruptor of the “sleep” category, Casper became known for their “Original Mattress”. By making one perfect mattress for everyone, they made one product relevant to everyone.

Source: Antler

Buying for relevance led to their demise. As Casper’s competitors, like Leesa and Purple, came out with their own version of the “one best mattress.” What we thought disrupted the mattress category ended up becoming an online version of the traditional mattress store. The only loyalty was determined by the number of eyes bought through millions spent on buying space instead of building relationships.

In 2021, Casper took itself off the market, going private for less than half its original IPO price and has become the poster child of DTC death.

Questions to consider:

  • Consider how your brand is being perceived today. If everything is premium, how is your brand differentiating itself from others in your category?
  • If your brand stopped all of its performance marketing today, who are the people that remain? These are the relationships you should be building and paying attention to.

TikTok, The Relatability Platform

Relatability is the only way to cut through the noise of relevancy.

TikTok has become the ultimate relatability platform and has pushed brands to change the way they communicate.

The TikTok experience thrives on discovery and how we curate our feeds is based on our interests instead of the people we follow. Although there is a “following” feed, unlike Instagram and Facebook you’re more likely to spend your time on the For You Page (FYP) to discover what’s new, what’s going viral, and watch content that is most interesting to you. Instagram has never been able to figure out its discovery features, and despite its attempts to catch up, it’s clear that the culture of Instagram is drastically different from the culture of TikTok.

On TikTok, we create virtual mirrors. We teach our algorithms to reflect only what’s relatable to us and our inner selves. Our views, likes, and shares are all validations of what feels deeply true to who we are. It creates a kind of intimacy, a reflection of our subconscious.

Knowing this, brands have to compete for our attention differently. In order for your brand to show up on a user’s FYP, there is a deeper level of relatability and intimacy that’s required. Talking about the benefits of your product will leave your content unengaged. You have to find moments that tap into your audience’s subconscious. It’s about revealing something that exists at the edges of their identity.

This has also forced brands to put a face to their brand, bringing relatability face-to-face. It’s no longer enough to have curated products displayed on a simple background. Even if it’s a person in an owl suit (Duolingo) or a humanized version of an airplane (Ryanair), when you’re looking at someone face-to-face, you also look for the things that relate to you.

As with every other social media platform, we will eventually get inundated with ads that flood our TikTok feeds. However, the brands that succeed won’t be the ones that make themselves relevant but create content that feels relatable.

Questions to consider:

  • Besides TikTok, where else in your brand communication strategy are there opportunities you can reveal moments of someone’s subconscious identity?
  • How can your brand validate the feelings they’re experiencing through a “face” in which they can see themselves?
  • What they care about and what their values are is just the first step. When you go deeper, what are the things that are being left unsaid? These are the “a-ha” moments that facilitate a deeper connection.

Relatability in Action

On TikTok, we see clear depictions of brands leveraging relatability. The ones that succeed thrive more on relatable content rather than relevant content, either through original media or strong proxies.

Duo’s “unhinged” personality on TikTok is an example of a brand that is leveraging this kind of relatability. Learning a new language on Duolingo may feel relevant to a young audience of Gen Z, who typically take a language course in high school, but simply talking about the benefits doesn’t feel relatable. However, the experience of shooting your shot for someone who is completely unattainable is 100% relatable. This, along with their frequent use of trending sounds and “absurd” entertainment, have made who they are as a brand completely relatable to a human experience that many can feel intuitively, even if it has nothing to do with their business.

Doja Cat is a strong proxy for relatability.

This was an ad for JBL. It received 23.8M views, and 5.2M likes.


#ad 🧊🔊 @jblaudio #ad

♬ original sound – Doja Cat

This was her “contractualjingle for Taco Bell. Together they accumulated 59.8M views, and her jingle alone got 8.6M likes.

Would you consider these relevant or relatable? If you said relatable, you know it’s because it has everything to do with who Doja is and how she’s perceived. In addition to its absurdity, you too might be rallying for the comeback of Mexican Pizza and forever pronouncing JBL, “jibble.”

Her fame rose because of TikTok, but in addition to good music, she makes herself feel completely relatable to her audience.

She often gets comments such as “Does Doja know she’s famous?” because of her raw and unfiltered behavior. She uses trending filters and sounds like every other person on the app. She is tapped into the culture and knows her audience because she is one of them.

One of many similar comments in Doja Cat’s comment section

This video of her shows perfectly how in tune she is on TikTok, reciting the obscure trend of flooding comment sections with “brownie recipes,” “chupagetti,” “story time,” “crop time,” and “you don’t have this emoji.” There is no purpose, no promotion, no makeup, hair undone, and all done on her phone. It’s so unhinged that there’s no way you could believe this was produced. She is both Grammy-winning and a hot mess.

For an audience that is ad-jaded, having her deliver your message will cut through the noise.

Questions to consider:

  • Where are the places your brand can also be the audience?
  • Who are the proxies you can leverage that have a genuine understanding of the people you’re trying to reach? This is more than getting someone who can put together a sales pitch or an influencer that your audience follows. Really consider who and how you want to deliver your message.

Understanding Relatability

What’s relatable today may not be relatable tomorrow, but creating relatability is key to developing deeper relationships with your audience. It’s not to say relevance isn’t important, but understanding the difference will shape the way you strategize, position, and communicate your brand.

As brands, we tend to ask, “How can I stay relevant?” But, the question we should really be asking is “How can I be relatable?”.

To be relevant is to establish context. Relevant brands create the setting that makes their brand feel relevant to their audiences.

To be relatable is to facilitate a deep connection through this context. Relatable brands reflect their audiences’ identity in a way that goes beyond the product they’re selling. They reveal and validate hidden truths to which their audiences can connect and relate.

Venmo is relevant. They’ve made P2P payments incredibly easy to use for anyone who engages with the app.

Cash App, in contrast, is relatable. Their brand goes further, tapping into a subculture that goes beyond P2P payments. They facilitate a deeper connection beyond finance as a category. Cash App is a culture.

Both of these brands are relevant, but only one of them is relatable.

Relatability Moving Forward

Although TikTok is a catalyst for the relatability industry, the platform signifies a larger shift in the way we navigate and experience our digital worlds. As brands make their way into the Metaverse, relatability will become more critical.

A truly decentralized digital world promises that users will own and govern their own spaces and have full autonomy to choose how they identify or want to be perceived (i.e., digital avatars that might not look anything like their physical selves, controlling their own data). This means the ways in which we connect will be led exclusively by similar interests and values in very tight-knit communities. Establishing relevance won’t work in the Metaverse. Instead, you’ll have to find ways to create, build, and facilitate relatability.

On TikTok, it’s Duo, Ryanair, and Doja Cat, but in the Metaverse, virtual influencers like Lil Miquela will take the stage. As the first virtual social media influencer, some may say that she isn’t relatable because she isn’t human. Yet in the age of filters and photo editing apps that completely alter our human faces and bodies, Miquela is arguably as real as it gets. Although she isn’t AI-powered, her success has sparked the creation of many after her. Miquela forces us to consider what it means to be “real.” She fully acknowledges that she’s not human. There is no room for ambiguity or skepticism, only honesty.


i think i won this trend #onethingaboutme

♬ Summer Background Jazz – Jazz Background Vibes

When you create moments of relatability, what you’re really creating is moments of authenticity.

Look for the places where people are searching for deep truth. Learn their language, understand their culture, and go beyond face value, because where there is a lot of noise, people will focus on the voices that look, sound, and feel the most familiar.

When you create a relatable connection, you become a part of their identity. These are the brands people will remember.

Brand Strategy

Using Permission and Perception to Change the Brand Experience

On signaling behavior, moving the defaults and taking big swings

For a few weeks during the Coronavirus’ spread across the United States, Americans all spoke the same language.

Phrases like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” entered our lexicon. Many have documented our new set of social norms, from stepping away from strangers on the street (once awkward, now thoughtful) to wearing a mask in public (once suspicious, now a sign of good citizenship).

But then these shared standards began taking on political connotations.

As government officials split over next steps in the battle against the virus, Americans fell back into factions, now perhaps easier to distinguish than ever. Those who stepped away from strangers on the street and those who didn’t; those who wore masks and those who wouldn’t.

Stores became battlegrounds for this changing, charged environment. Customers at Costco and Gelson’s filmed seething cell phone videos in response to mandatory mask policies, which quickly went viral. For some viewers, these moments became cause to support the brands, while others pledged to cancel their memberships.

By simply following government orders or recommendations, these companies made an inadvertent political statement, entering into a heated cultural conversation.

And yet, this is just another proof point that our societal frameworks are changing.

When societal frameworks shift, your brand’s actions are perceived through a different lens.

As Scott Galloway heralded in 2018 after Nike made Colin Kaepernick the face of their 30-year anniversary “Just Do It” ad campaign, our leadership has politicized sports — the last “oasis” of politics-free discourse — and has since then upped the ante in making everyday acts partisan in nature.

This is likely a reality that we can never revert away from again.

In moments of crisis, brands attempting to reestablish their commitment to consumers face a particular challenge, one that can easily go awry if you don’t pay attention to the societal framework shaping our choices.

There is a subtext to every move, an implicit bias or belief to every action. Brand perceptions don’t just come from words or actions — they come from reading between the lines.

That means you can’t make brand choices in a bubble. You need to consider the culture and the belief systems that those choices live within.

So, let’s look at some of the implicit forces at play.

The power of signaling behavior

As Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti began increasing the number of Coronavirus-related regulations in the city, he often returned to the idea of “self-enforcement.”

Acknowledging the logistical nightmare of trying to impose social distancing in all of the sprawling city’s public spaces, he instead maintained that individuals would personally analyze the risk and choose to heed his advice. Once enough people did that, the rest would likely follow suit due to perceived or voiced peer pressure, not wanting to stand out from the crowd.

In other words, adhering to social distancing became what sociologists call “signaling behavior.”

I spoke with Rory Sutherland about this concept for our brand strategy + culture podcast, Unseen Unknown. Sutherland is the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy, prolific thinker, and author of acclaimed brand strategy book, Alchemy.

To explain signaling behavior, Sutherland pointed to the practice of taking business trips to visit clients. Oftentimes, an in-person meeting is not the most conducive to productivity, particularly when you factor in the time and cost lost in travel.

Yet, the business trip has remained a standby not because of its efficacy, but because the gesture signals a high level of commitment. It proves to clients that they are valued, important enough for you to make personal sacrifices on their behalf.

For many brands, signaling behavior has become a key strategy to connecting with consumers amidst the Coronavirus.

With limited access to their self-isolating audiences, companies including Coca-Cola, Walmart, and Dove all released what New York Times critic-at-large Amanda Hess has dubbed the “pandemic ad:” spots focusing on the valor of front-line workers, with little to no actual acknowledgment of any products or services from the brand.

Instead, the ads signify that, by buying from these brands, you’re supporting a company that understands your concerns. That shares your admiration for everyday heroes. A company that gets it.

Just like Sutherland’s example of an employee taking a business trip to convey devotion to a client, these brands are spending their advertising budget to prove that they are there for you, a reliable constant during “these unprecedented times.”

Hess points to Facebook as one of the most persistent purveyors of pandemic ads. The social media giant has seen a spike in users this spring, up 10% from the same time last year. The brand has seized onto this surge, rolling out quarantine-friendly features for users that range from a new video calling option to a “feel-good” reaction emoji.

After years of declining users and scandals that made the act of quitting Facebook itself a popular signaling behavior, these actions have helped the brand once again become synonymous with connection and innovation — and not just in their approach to consumers.

Choice isn’t always enough. Sometimes, you have to change the default.

Facebook most recently made headlines for CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of the company’s new remote-friendly employee policy, which he claims will make it the “most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale.” Despite his trailblazing rhetoric, Facebook is not the first to take this step, with Twitter quite notably offering employees the right to work from home “forever.”

Across the country, an estimated 34% of US workers are remote due to the pandemic, with a sizable percentage likely to never return back to their previous in-office schedule. With that perspective, the policy change these Silicon Valley giants touted as pioneering can seem more like an inevitability of this moment.

But what is revolutionary about their announcements is the framing of work from home as the new standard.

By making it not an option, but a key factor in establishing themselves as a “forward-leaning company,” they have effectively changed the perception of remote work as a default rather than an outlier.

Working from home is no longer for B-players and non-core employees. It is the new standard, and now those people who have to go to the office may be the ones carrying a stigma.

This is another concept I discussed with Sutherland. Acknowledging that we are, as he notes, a “copying species,” he explains how simply giving employees a choice to work differently will typically fail to create any real shift in behavior. For most, the threat of standing out remains too high — even if employers say work hours are flexible, few will chance being the only person to eschew the culturally accepted 9–5 workday.

Think about the paradox of unlimited vacation. Employees at companies that offer what seems to be this fantastic perk have repeatedly proven to take less time off for fear of surpassing the norm.

That’s why, to truly encourage new behavior, Sutherland recommends changing the default rather than providing options. He advocates the adoption of what he calls “Libertarian legislation,” or giving people the “right to do things differently” through permission-granting policies.

Don’t just give people choices. Give them new defaults and permissions that can actually change behaviors.

[You can listen to Sutherland talk more about his theory on “Libertarian legislation” on our podcast here.]

For brands, changing the default isn’t limited to implementing structural changes. It can also mean redefining the culture around your products.

Billie, a toiletries company best known for shaving kits, perhaps confusingly calls itself a “hair-positive” brand. What seems at first to be a contradiction of its perceived goal — to sell razors — proved to be exactly what set it apart in the crowded industry.

By encouraging people to see body hair as the norm, they’ve created a space where purchasing personal care products no longer feels like a response to societal pressure, but instead, an opportunity to support a brand aligned with progressive values.

Their flagship video, a celebration of body hair and the choice to shave or not, was noteworthy in its message. But even more noteworthy were the thousands of comments, most of them overwhelmingly appreciative.

The messaging has seemingly paid off, with the company reportedly seeing a 268% increase in sales volume between December 2018 and December 2019.

By changing the norms, you change the reasons for using your brand.

Recently, Billie launched an additional set of personal care products, accompanied soon after by a social media call encouraging people to stop apologizing for “looking like ourselves” while working from home.

Once again, the brand received widespread praise for their candor in encouraging body positivity.

For Billie, a counterintuitive marketing campaign wasn’t new territory — but for Uber, it was.

Don’t be afraid of trying something new in response to a crisis.

In April, the ridesharing app put out an ad thanking users for “not riding with Uber” due to Coronavirus concerns. It was an unusual move, but one that paid off by keeping the brand top of mind despite its lack of use to customers at the moment.

Crises create instability, which can make it seem like a daunting time to take risks like Uber did. As Sutherland sees it, though, times of uncertainty actually give you the latitude to experiment.

While he believes we are typically predisposed to “incremental” improvements due to fear or failure, he points to the proverb that “necessity is the mother of invention” to illustrate how we are open to bolder ideas during difficult times.

  • Just a few months ago, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang was largely dismissed for promoting universal basic income; today, multiple countries, including the US, have implemented schemes along those lines.
  • Brands like Ford, GE, and 3M quickly pivoted to meet the manufacturing needs for respirators and ventilators to fight coronavirus.
  • Fashion designers went from drawing gowns to making masks.
  • Beauty brands all around began manufacturing and selling hand sanitizer — and it will likely be the new mainstay for a beauty brand’s product mix going forward, just as with face wash and serums before it

Changes don’t even have to be particularly radical to be impactful. Consider the King Arthur Flour brand.

After the company saw its sales increasing by 600% overnight in response to the frenzy of quarantine bread baking, the 200-plus year old brand took some out-of-character steps.

It shifted both its production and transportation models, doubled its social media and call-in hotline teams, and even began producing two new shows on YouTube.

With these moves, it not only met the needs of its customers, but also innovated to better serve them across platforms and in new ways.

Sometimes the biggest brand moves are simple moves. You don’t need to be radical in order to be impactful.

For brands, this can be a key time to take a look at the broader societal playing field and make forward-thinking changes with this bigger picture in mind.

Keep in mind that there are cultural shifts, but your brand may exist in a smaller subculture that has its own rules, too.

How can your brand contribute to the cultural/ subcultural conversation? What needs are you uniquely positioned to address?

Think about your users’ shifting attitudes about themselves, their communities and the universes they live in. We are constantly renegotiating these relationships and refining our world views.

Prove to your customers that you’re paying attention. Instead of falling victim to the implicit forces at play, use them to inform your brand’s position.


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.

Brand Strategy

The Brand Perception Queries

Photo by Mathieu Stern.

Two deceptively simple questions that will reveal a world of strategic opportunity for your brand.

(From the Archives: A version of this article was previously published as Two Questions At The Heart Of Every Great Brand Strategy)

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.

(Before reading the rest of this case study, you can watch my 5-minute primer below to get the most out of this exercise.)

TLDR Strategy: The Perception Queries

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 here’s 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.

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 2–5 years is at best an educated guess, and I often call this ‘making your bet’.

The best brands make their bet on the future, and then work to make that bet a reality.

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.

Your competitors aren’t necessarily the ones making the same products. They’re the ones imagining the same 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

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.

As I’ve written in the past, 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.

More important than the right answers, are the right questions.

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 soundbytes.

They’re a pact — an agreement that everyone is moving in the same direction — and that’s something worth knowing.


Originally published at on January 15, 2017.

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