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.
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.
This was her “contractual” jingle 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.
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.
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 manyafterher. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
Before your company, before your product, before your market, there is your user’s identity, and that identity dictates the world your brand gets to play in.
Everything we do as consumers is an expression of who we are.
From conversion to consumption to churn, every action we take is aligned with how we see ourselves, and identity is the underlying code that makes those behaviors happen the way they do.
Identity triggers behavior.
If you can understand that code, you can radically change your relationship with the user — so radically, that your users pivot even their most deeply rooted behaviors and beliefs.
We’re constantly feeding our minds with meaning and narrative, bringing our identities to life every day through the stories we tell ourselves.
Whether it be zoning out during the ride to work or the way we treat the barista at the coffee shop, we not only live in these moments, but also observe ourselves through a third (extremely subjective) eye as they happen — “Beautiful woman is lost in her thoughts on the the way to the office”…“Man with kind eyes tips the barista a little extra because he has character.”
It’s the nature of identity to experience something in the moment while also contextualizing that experience for meaning.
That eye is a perpetual reinforcement of who we are and where we belong, and the single most personal story we tell ourselves.
The story is also the world in which your brand will live.
While most brands only consider the observable world of their ideal users, truly smart brands look for the hidden inner world that operates within each user.
That’s the world where decisions get made. If you can understand that world, you can make the right decisions happen.
In order to know how to speak to your user, you have to first understand how they speak to themselves when no one else is listening.
The best brands among us already demonstrate this:
TED created a new world of ideas, but also let us see ourselves as casual experts without the usual mental and emotional labor involved. They realized that while we may have wanted to learn, what we really wanted was to just know something.
Trader Joe’s started a food movement, but also constantly evolved their inventory and rearranged their stores, creating the thrill of discovery so that we could tell ourselves we were not only healthy people, but health tastemakers on the bleeding edge.
HBO’s daring and intelligent content changed television, and also allowed us to see ourselves no longer as just viewers, but as active participants. We once told ourselves we were an audience, but now believe we are active agents.
These brands changed not only the outer world, but our private inner worlds as well… and that is the most powerful way to build a brand.
They understood that identity was the starting point.
The quickest way to get there for your own brand is to understand how our identities form in the first place.
This is a list of the most important identity constructs we’ve learned at our agency. They are the rules and truths that guide any internal monologue in any audience.
Time and again, they’ve helped us get past the distractions on the surface and into the minds of the people we’re trying to speak to.
There is an inner world hiding in plain sight.
Use these guidelines to get there.
1. If you believe something, you will find the proof to support it.
I never thought I was very athletic, although I desperately wanted to be athletic growing up in high school. The story (which felt as real and deep as my DNA) was that I just didn’t get that gene.
I dropped out of tennis lessons and chickened out of kayaking not because the story was true, but because I was looking for proof of the story I believed.
Then I had my DNA sequenced at the age of 36 and it turns out I have the ACTN3 gene, which is in fact associated with athletic performance in elite power athletes.
The moment I read that, my relationship to my body changed and a new script started playing. I suddenly felt something inside of me that was always there, but I simply did not believe in.
Nothing in reality had ever changed. I had that gene for 36 years, but when my internal monologue shifted, so did my beliefs, and thus my behaviors. I got a personal trainer, started tennis and kayaking, and began to treat my body very differently.
We will always find proof for the stories we believe.
Our internal scripts are so powerful, it’s nearly frightening.
Vice changed our script about serious journalism
WeWork changed our script about work that doesn’t look like work
Tinder changed our script around the shame of casual sex
You, too, can change the script for the betterment of your users.
Look for the story that needs changing and then create a new reality where that story can live. Give your users new proof, new evidence, new rules. Give them a new architecture to build their stories on top of.
Give them all of the props and staging they need in order to step inside the new narrative.
3. What people really want is to learn about themselves.
Most brand positioning takes one of three forms:
This is what our product does.
This is what you can do with our product.
This is who you can become with our brand.
The third positioning, This is who you can become with our brand, is the most powerful position to come from, and the only direction that the consumer mindset is headed for in the foreseeable future.
Ikea knows that even affordable modular furniture can reveal something on an emotional level.
This year, they’ve announced a slew of daring collaborations with not only breakthrough fashion icons like Virgil Abloh and OFF WHITE, but also musicians like Solange and her arts and culture hub Saint Heron, perfume creator Ben Gorham, and childhood throwback Lego.
The message is clear — you can become a creator with IKEA. This isn’t about furnishing your apartment anymore.
It’s a realization that changes your relationship with both the company and yourself.
There is perhaps nothing more valuable for your user than the experience of realizing who they are.
Every action your brand takes is a reflection of your positioning. It’s easy to go with This is what our product does, or This is what you can do with our product, but that’s leaving money on the table.
Push yourself to create a different a story that weaves both you and the customer into the future. A story that will deeply change both of you.
Short of a life changing event, consumer values typically don’t budge.
The beliefs that sit on top of those values, however, do change easily.
Cannabis startup MedMen knew that changing peoples’ anti-drug values was a dead end, but changing the belief that sat on top of that value — the belief that drug users are bad people — could in fact be changed.
MedMen’s new narrative gave people room to understand that you can be a drug user and still be a good person.
And logic only dictates that if you want to use marijuana, you can still maintain your values and stay a good person, too.
The ads above literally crossed out the old belief and inserted the new one. Now your drug use didn’t define you. Your humanity did.
Changing our values is extremely uncomfortable. Changing our beliefs is a lot easier.
Brands that keep your values in tact but change your subsequent beliefs allow you, the user, to grow without the pain of changing your worldview.
Make sure you separate beliefs from values and know where to insert your narrative.
Yes, you can change values if that’s really where you want to go, but sometimes people only have room to shift their belief systems.
5. Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t always correlate with wealth.
Somewhere along the line, we started believing wealth pushes people up Maslow’s hierarchy.
But oftentimes it doesn’t.
Not everyone gets to the top of the pyramid. Not even the wealthiest among us.
While it may be largely true that increased prosperity moves people up the bottom three tiers, we’ve found in our work that the top two tiers actually correlate a lot less with wealth than you’d expect.
Many consumers in the top 5% have the disposable income to donate to charity, give back to their communities, volunteer, partake in immersive travel, become more spiritual, expand their world views or philosophies (all behaviors that reflect self-actualization and self-transcendence), but get stuck somewhere between the love/ belonging and esteem stages.
Wealth doesn’t move you up the pyramid. Confidence does.
It takes more than money to move up Maslow’s hierarchy.
Mindset, not money, defines where we are.
If you’re surprised that your wealthy neighbors hold xenophobic views, or your prosperous family members won’t give change to homeless people, it’s likely because their money moved up the pyramid faster then their hearts could.
Similarly, just because your customer is affluent doesn’t mean your corporate social responsibility program will resonate or your environmentally friendly practices will keep them from churning.
Make sure you understand where your customer is before you make any assumptions.
If you can help them move up a little faster with your brand, that’s even better.
6. People can have different identities in different parts of their lives.
I call this Poly Identification, and as more and more rules about class, gender and social roles begin to evaporate around us, the more comfortable we have become with letting people carry multiple identities at once.
When Chiara Ferragni dresses in head-to-toe Chanel one day and Supreme and sneakers the next, she’s not just mixing styles, she’s moving between spaces.
It’s indicative of a much larger trend of millennial consumers willing to simultaneously identify as preppy, bohemian, emo, street, glam or any other number of subcultures.
Indeed, young consumers increasingly travel between styles instead of committing to a singular diehard identity. Rather than breaking out of the box, they collect boxes that reflect different senses of self at any given moment, on any given day.
It’s obvious in fashion, but also evident in our careers, love lives and social circles.
Kim Kardashian and Howard Stern can travel between wildly different identities without friction. That wouldn’t have been possible a generation ago.
Instead of fitting into boxes, people are increasingly moving between them.
Identities are a mosaic.
You can find a way to let people explore a different dimension of their identities or make a certain dimension fit in with others, but you can’t assume your user looks the same to you as they do in other parts of their lives.
7. You can’t leapfrog fear.
No matter how positive, hopeful or uplifting your brand promise is, you have to resolve any fear that may precede it.
Food tech companies tend to struggle with this.
Impossible Foods, Memphis Meats and Perfect Day have compelling brand messaging, but it all sits on a house of cards. Consumers still have a fear of the unknown in modified foods just as they always have with GMOs.
You can’t skip messages when it comes to fear. Fear must be resolved before any higher message can be adopted.
You already know a confused buyer never buys. Confusion is a form of fear. There are other common forms of fear, too:
A2 Milk is from regular dairy cows while Perfect Day creates dairy without the animal.
Granted, A2 doesn’t have the same battle against consumer biases that Perfect Day has, but they still understand that the fear must be alleviated first before the optimistic horizon can be introduced:
Their messaging turns unspoken fear into a simple story that consumers can tell themselves whenever those uncomfortable feelings crop up.
Perfect Day, on the other hand, let’s an unspoken fear sit in the mind of the consumer:
Do a sense check of your brand and see if fear is creeping up anywhere in your user experience. It can be sitting right under a positive sentiment.
Consumers can skip over most other emotions if something bigger is on the horizon, but fear is like quicksand.
Don’t let people get stuck.
8. Everyone has a garden.
Everyone has something they hold dear. Something they nurture often. A place where they focus the expression of their identity.
The mistake we make as brand strategists oftentimes is stopping short of finding that garden.
The garden is that one expressive outlet that reveals far more about your user than any other insight.
You’ll know it when you find it:
It will be where you user feels the most comfortable to be themselves
It will reveal what your user values the most
It will usually tell you when and where you can break the rules
Life hacking is a fascinating garden that reveals a lot about the men and women who spend time in it. Tim Ferris podcasts, Bulletproof Coffee and https://www.reddit.com/r/Nootropics/ all live there.
It’s a garden where men, especially, can obsess freely over their bodies, reveal values that can easily be mistaken for vanity, and give you one important insight that goes against many other commonly held beliefs — that men will pay a lot of money to feel good.
HVMN knows this. That’s why their branding taps directly into a psychographic that wants to “Be Impossible”.
The video’s adrenaline-laced visuals tie in things like aging, mood and cognition, metabolism, obesity, inflammation, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.
And if you didn’t look in that garden, you may have kept believing the stereotype that men are far less concerned about those things than women.
There is always something valuable in the garden.
If you can find it for your consumers, you’ll hit on something important.
9. We will do a lot to ease our cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance occurs whenever we believe something about ourselves, but act in a way that diverges from those beliefs. For example, we may believe we are healthy lovers, but fail to stay in any long term relationships.
That rift between what we believe and what we do creates an unease, and usually points to where we have the most dissatisfaction in our lives.
That’s why the love industry is so big and people are willing to spend immense amounts of money on both legit forms of help (books, therapy) and more questionable ones (reiki practitioners, fortune tellers and energy workers).
Sometimes our entire identities are driven by the motivation to narrow that cognitive gap.
Esther Perel understands that as desperately as we want to see ourselves as enlightened romantic partners, we do very little to actually get there. That’s why she’s positioned herself as a relationship explorer.
Instead of offering relationship advice in the traditional form that only creates more distance between who we are and how we see ourselves, she offers a path for self-discovery.
The Esther Perel experience allows people to see themselves as experts instead of disciples, and that brings our behavior a lot closer to our beliefs. She teaches us not how to fix, but how to think.
Look for gaps that need closing in the minds of your own audience.
Solving a problem for your user is great, but easing their cognitive dissonance can have a much greater emotional impact.
There is likely something that your user wants more than just a solution.
10. “Everyone is a hero in their own story” … but there are different kinds of heroes.
If you’ve read my writing, you know this is one of my favorite quotes.
It forces you to identify with anyone, and without judgement. I often refer to this quote when I find myself bothered or turned off by a customer profile because it brings me back to a place of empathy right away and helps me see the goal my user sees.
Empathy is a great homing device.
Keep in mind, however, that different people are different kinds of heroes:
There are the anti-heroes that look like villains on the outside and need someone to see them for who they truly are
There are the reluctant heroes that not only need the motivation to take on their destinies, but are secretly hoping and waiting for someone to give it to them
There are the catalyst heroes who act heroically, but rarely want change much themselves in the process
There are the tragic heroes that believe they will continue to stumble and fail, and may resist a narrative that says otherwise
There are the willing heroes who are eager to take on the challenge, and expect to get the Hollywood ending
Every kind of hero needs a different kind of message, but every one of them can be motivated to act.
Understand your hero, and you will understand how to make them move.
An anti-hero (like Harley Davidson’s customer) needs to be discovered while a willing hero (like Nike’s customer) expects you to already know who he is.
11. The journey is starting to matter more than the destination.
Something has started to change in the psyche of most post-boomer American consumers.
The end goal is starting to matter less, and the experience of getting there is starting to matter more.
Consumers are gradually entering a constant state of evolution.
Rather than defining themselves as who they are (a state of being), they are defining themselves by who they are turning into (a state of becoming).
Our ever-evolving co-working setups, our daily experiments in beauty and nutrition, and the transformative experiences we fervently search for in everything we do (from spiritually uplifting SoulCycle sessions to healing travel) show how the becoming piece matters more and more.
I refer to this as the treadmill vs. the step ladder. Previous generations understood social class and the incremental step ladder you moved up into in each rung.
Today we are moving along something that looks far more like a treadmill — no destination and no gatekeepers, but a constant experience of moving upward.
When people move from a ladder to a treadmill, you need to center your brand around the journey, not the end point.
12. There are utility users, and there are premium users. You can’t speak to both, but you can turn one into the other.
Every client we work with wants to move upmarket to a more premium user, but many of them get scared when they realize that premium positioning will likely box out their core utility user base… even when that core is limiting them.
You can’t win over both with the same branding, but you can turn a utility user into a premium one.
Utility users need to be educated into caring about the right things. You need to find something more important than value-for-price that they can latch onto.
Lululemon didn’t miss out on a mainstream market. They turned a mainstream market into a premium one by educating and transforming those users into discerning yoga wear addicts.
If you feel yourself sweating in the brand strategy process because you don’t want to leave your non-premium core behind, change your perspective.
You don’t have to leave them behind. You have to change them so they’ll come with you.
Give them a message that will make price irrelevant.
13. There is value in the ‘in-between’ spaces.
Consumers in every vertical of every category are looking for greater meaning, and they’re finding it in the connections between spaces.
Health is no longer just a doctor’s visit. It’s mind-body-spirit. It’s a juice cleanse, a heart-to-heart with your partner and a colonic. It’s a trainer and a nutritionist and therapist.
Beauty is no longer just an eye cream. It’s a non-inflammatory diet, a 24 karat facial and stem cell serums.
Career success is no longer a well paying office job. It’s a personal brand, an active blog and a creative side gig.
The connections between spaces have put new life into old paradigms.
Connections give consumers the answers (and narratives) they’re looking for.
All of these examples create a narrative of how and why we do things.
They add meaning and value in a way we can control. Instead of just trusting a drugstore eye cream brand, you have an empowering story of how and why your beauty routine is working.
Just like religion and folklore, connective stories become part of our hardwiring.
Look for how your brand can connect to more than just one part of someone’s life. There is a story to be told that is much bigger than your product.
Make the connection and go deeper into your consumer’s world.
14. Identity is a story.
Truth has very little to do with identity. How we interpret that truth is what matters.
To change a person is to change the stories that define them.
Every construct on this list culminates in this one, simple fact.
If you want to really see a person, look beyond the ‘truth’ of their external lives — listen to the stories they tell themselves internally.
Behavior, belief, bias, conversion all weave together to tell a tale. No one of these things can demonstrate who your consumer is. But together, they do just that.
Don’t get distracted by facts and statistics. Don’t chase after trends.
Instead listen for the story arc that emerges from them.
When markets for premium toilet paper and convenience store wine start to prove themselves, a brand reckoning isn’t far behind.
When I arrived in Tokyo’s Nirita International Airport on a cold December morning, before I even searched for baggage claim, I had located my first asian 7-Eleven on the second floor of arrivals.
It was all there — puffy cloud pastries, fried chicken on a stick (soon to become my preferred breakfast for the next two weeks), racks of single sushi pieces in colorful wrapping — and it all lived up to the hype.
The fabled foodie culture that haloed 7-Elevens overseas just two years ago hadn’t quite come to the US at that point, but today something is changing.
More and more people are posting 7-Eleven food hauls, hunting down limited edition 7–Eleven foods, sanctifying new products with enthusiastic taste tests and talking about the midnight convenience store run more like a gastronome hobby than a stoner pastime.
Through their 7-SELECT private label, limited edition releases of emotionally driven food brands, the 7NOW delivery app and new lab stores that test concepts like turmeric slurpees, the company has started to drive a wedge between the words “convenience store” and “cheap junk food”.
Although many fan posts still use #junkfood, it is more of a term of endearment than derision.
There is an active hunt for that one 7-Eleven food you haven’t felt before. You may have seen Slurpees and Sour Patch Kids, but when you see a Slurpee push pop or a bag of only blue Sour Patch gummies, you feel delighted before you even know what you’re looking at.
It’s a move straight out of the Trader Joe’s playbook: start a food movement around the thrill of discovery.
By constantly evolving their inventory and rearranging product mix in their stores, 7-Eleven is creating an experience where we can tell ourselves that we’re not only fun foodie people, but tastemakers on the bleeding edge of this new foodie movement — and it’s still dirt cheap.
This is the new premiumization. There is no premium price point but there isdefinitely a cost to participate. Whether it’s time, education, emotional investment or understanding the unwritten code, premium brands make us pay in ways that are perhaps more costly than money to begin with.
New premium brands don’t charge in dollars. They charge in expensive intangibles like time, emotion, education and understanding.
When you charge a premium that can’t be measured in dollars, you’re trading, not transacting. This isn’t an exchange of goods and services. This is a reciprocity of commitment. It’s very clearly a different kind of relationship.
Of course it doesn’t stop there. Last year, 7-Eleven launched their own premium private label bottled wines and canned wines, named Voyager Point and Roamer, respectively.
This is in addition to 7-Eleven’s value-priced Yosemite Road and Trojan Horse wines. As they build their wine selection horizontally across price segments, they’re signalling to the market that you don’t come to 7-Eleven to get cheap wine. You come to 7-Eleven to evolve your tastes.
That may seem like an exaggeration, but when taken in context with all of their other efforts to grow the brand story, including experimenting with private label meal kits, kombucha aisles, local craft drinks, patios, interior dining areas and rustic decor, you get the idea that you can invest time here.
There is something much more to be had than just food or convenience. You can feel all of the emotions that come with building a meaningful meal, and learn about the secret world of a well-stocked 7-Eleven.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s this: Anyone — literally anyone — can be a premium brand. We are living in a time when consumers will let brands change as they outgrow their heritage. They will allow for you to redefine yourself in a way that previous generations may have had difficulty with (i.e. New Coke).
The revolution is taking over every inch of real estate from the forgotten corners under your bathroom sink to the lines on your monthly portfolio statements.
But new premiumization isn’t just a clever story and good packaging. There’s more to it than meets the eye.
And when the dust settles, there will be winners and losers.
The Balloon Crowding Out Value and Luxury
To fully understand this new premiumization, we need to discard any old connotations around the word.
Premiumization is not a form of diffusion branding, nor is it a higher margin (although a higher price point may be there, it’s not core to the brand’s positioning). The notion of what is premium has completely untethered from the product, its heritage, its quality or its features.
Consider the endless parade of premium brands that are either eroding value from their luxury counterparts above, or stealing marketshare from their value-priced neighbors below.
Pay attention to where the real cost is incurred for each of these examples. Any premium in price pales in comparison to the emotional, educational, time or personal commitment cost hiding beneath the brand.
In case you were wondering if there was a new way to package water and sell it, there is. This brand has taken over the baby wipes category by storm by virtue of the fact that its only ingredients are water and a drop of fruit extract. I’m a new mother and even though I know the mechanics at play here, I still co-sign this.
This is not an easy category to make gains in. It’s a commodity product, the behemoth that is Amazon had introduced their own private label version of baby wipes, and by 2016 they had driven the price so low, even Huggies and Pampers were forced to follow with cheaper prices.
When WaterWipes entered the US market, they became a viral hit. Billing themselves as the “World’s Purest Baby Wipes” and crafting a premium brand by way of storytelling, reimagining of a product’s meaning and it’s role in the home, they gained significant marketshare.
Although their cost is not core to their premium positioning, the fact that they command a 300% premium in the market does reveal something important —even water can be made more valuable. That’s 300% that has absolutely nothing to do with inherent quality, heritage, craftsmanship or luxury.
Remember when Fancy Feast and that flamboyant white cat were the only game in town?
Times have changed. Today’s market for premium pet food runs the gamut from niche local brands inspired by clean eating, to celebrity fronted names like Rachel Ray’s Nutrish brand dog food.
Consider the fact that you can now buy pet food in the pet food aisle, the refrigerated foods, the frozen section, in health food stores, in sporting goods stores, in gourmet cooking stores, have it delivered fresh to your door, and of course, get it online.
Premium pet food isn’t about feeding an animal. It’s about the overall lifestyle of the pet owner. That’s why Nutrish’s parent company Ainsworth Pet Nutrition was able to sell to J.M. Smucker Co. for nearly $2 billion.
This is an interesting premium brand that I have been watching for a while, and consistently I have seen them make smart, brand-led moves.
Uqora is an over-the-counter supplement brand that helps women deal with potentially dangerous urinary tract infections, often triggered by sex. The medical community has no real preventative solution other than antibiotics, and an invisible faction of women has silently suffered without a real solution — a story Uqora has carefully managed to surface in their content.
But if you do some searching, you will find that a supplement called D-Mannose has helped women who are searching for a DIY cure. You can buy D-Mannose, basically a sugar that prevents bacteria from attaching to the urinary tract, in bulk on Amazon.
Uquora has taken this commodity supplement and repackaged it with a hefty amount of vitamin C. D-Mannose is not rare or exotic. It’s cheap. It’s available for delivery. It’s there if you need it.
What made this a premium brand was the fact that they created a new narrative — a narrative that forced its users to invest emotionally, personally change their views and pay with the time it took them to learn this new perspective. This is the premium price.
To truly understand the genius in their approach, you have to first take a look at something like Viagra.
Both Viagra and Uqora are actually in the business of sex. And not just any kind of sex, but sex inside of a relationship. Viagra took the subject of erectile dysfunction, a very emotionally charged issue between a couple, and made ads like this:
It’s been well documented that when ED hits, the woman probably doesn’t demand sex like an expectant minx. Instead, she’s likely to blame herself and feel a just as much shame as her male partner, making an already loaded issue even more complicated. Ads like this often misrepresent the emotional turmoil that ED can cause.
Uquora also exists between two people in the context of their sex lives, but their approach is very different (watch the video here):
They get right into that uncomfortable spot between two people. They involve both parties. They uncover triggers and fears in a way that others have failed to do, and they do it in a supportive context.
This is not a premium product, but it is a premium brand.
The list goes on and on…
Karmicare and Twice: Two different toothpaste brands, both deconstructing the toothbrushing experience into day and night rituals, both reinventing your relationship with your mouth.
The InstantPot retail phenomenon: Basically the same pressure cooker that we’ve always been afraid to use, but suddenly made friendly with better buttons and a new ethos around the magic of super-fast cooking.
Blenders like Vitamix: Simple countertop machines that have no business flaunting so much horsepower, but have become a $500 symbol of middle-class superiority.
When you pay for these brands, you pay with a piece of your identity. If you become emotionally invested, have to learn a new code or spend time to understand something you didn’t know before, then you are paying for the premium.
Alchemy at the Edges of Your Category
So why is all of this happening?
The bulk of my research as a brand strategist has led to this question. Why are today’s consumers fueling the emergence of premium brands across every single category?
What’s happening is a shift in where we draw value as a culture. Where we once found meaning in the focused perfection of a single product or vertical, we now look for meaning in the blending between spaces.
The intimate act of eating has birthed a movement around functional foods (food + medicine), traditional education was the unwitting precursor to edutainment brands like Masterclass (education + entertainment), and even something as simple as the humble water bottle has evolved into a new ‘hydration’ category with brands like S’well and Corkcicle (water bottles + lifestyle).
When you combine to create something entirely new, you build meaning where there was none before — the pinnacle of brand-led companies. It’s this alchemy that has powered the premium market.
You see this blending everywhere:
Food is the new religion: “Good” foods, “bad” foods, “clean” foods, “pure” foods — we’ve come to apply religious principles to the foods we eat because, as researchers like Alan Levinovitz have pointed out, “Seeking out natural products is about health, yes, but holistic health. Physical and spiritual, personal and planetary. Nature becomes a secular stand-in for God, and the word ‘natural’ a synonym for ‘holy.’”
Gyms are the new temple: SoulCycle is a daily pilgrimage toward an out-of-body experience. CrossFit is where we push ourselves from manliness to godliness. Heated yoga inspires heart-racing highs. We emerge from all of these hallowed spaces as better, purer beings.
Pets are the new children: You don’t need to go any further than the phrase “fur baby” to see this. We millennials see our pets as ‘starter children’ and spend money on them like we would children, too. Heated cat houses, dog ice cream, puppy beer, cat wine, ornate halloween costumes, rechargeable fetch machines and leash umbrellas are just the eccentric goods that come with the territory.
Founders and VCs are the new celebrities: It was only weird for a little while when Ben Horowitz hung out with Kanye. Gary Vaynerchuck has a one-man documentary crew follow him around. Elon Musk’s autograph is probably worth more than any A-lister in Hollywood. You see the pattern.
As a culture, we are searching for new meaning, and new meaning comes from the unexpected combinations that cause us to experience and understand the world differently.
If 7-Eleven would have been bold enough to try today’s rebrand 30 years ago, it wouldn’t have worked. Back then, we were still deriving meaning from categories in silos (the best car, the best tech, the best product, the best anything).
But we, the consumer, have changed. We didn’t scoff at 7-Eleven’s moves because we understand they’re going somewhere. We know that if we invest in them with our patience and curiosity, they will delight us.
Who Will Be Standing When the Dust Settles
We’re living in the wild west of premiumization right now. The rules are still being written and every time a new cowboy comes riding into town, the everyone gets shaken up.
But there is one truth emerging, and it is the rule that will define the winners and losers when the landscape starts to mature.
The winners in the new premium space will be the ones that committed to something bigger.
Forget story, forget packaging, forget design, forget all the trappings of a flashy new D2C company. Instead, pay attention to who is consistently creating meaning outside of themselves.
You don’t need to be in CPG to do this. Wealthsimple, a clear cut investment platform (like all those that have come before it) proves that.
They are not talking about how to invest and make money. They are having a much larger conversation about what money means.
This isn’t a simple topic. Everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dr. Laura has tried to tackle it… but perhaps never before has an investment firm tried like this.
In their Money Diaries section of the Wealthsimple Magazine, the company reveals the very messy, very human side of how famous people deal with money. You quickly come to understand that money is about self-worth wrapped up in all kinds of emotions like fear, denial and joy. The content is engineered to remove judgement and change your relationship with your own bank statement.
“We never had money. You learn, as a kid whose family is broke, not to ask for things. You even learn not to want things. Just be happy with the basics you need to survive: food, clothes, and a place to live, which my mom always found a way to provide.
But every year, as Christmas approached, it meant the same heartbreaking ritual. My mom would sit my brother Sergio and I down and say to us, “I’m so sorry, but there won’t be any Christmas presents this year. I just can’t really make it happen.” She’d have tears in her eyes.
It wasn’t the lack of presents that broke my heart; it was seeing my mom feeling like she’d failed us, even though we’d tell her again and again that she hadn’t.”
In the Dear Ms. Etiquette section, readers get answers to hairy questions like “Do I need to have to lend my siblings money?” and “I just got engaged! Yay! So can I ask him for a prenup or does that mean I’m actually dead inside?”
This isn’t really about etiquette so much as it is about permission. Their readers already know what is right. What they’re really seeking is for someone to tell them it is.
All of this content is about creating something that didn’t exist before it. Wealthsimple is taking a machete into the overgrown wilderness that is money and clearing a path for people to inch forward in.
It’s a commitment, and if you felt a range of cathartic emotions as you clickholed your way deeper into this excellent storytelling, then you repaid that commitment with a premium.
Even our dear friends at 7-Eleven are committed to something bigger.
“We’ve been on this journey to redefine convenience,” said EVP Gurmeet Singh in a recent statement. “This makes it easy for people to stay in the moment.”
Nice, but not entirely accurate. What they’ve really committed to is honoring the food some of us love, but others among us hurtfully call “junk”.
Whether that’s reinventing it to be healthier, repackaging it to delight us as it did when we were children, or pairing it with something a bit more adult, it’s all the same thing: a way to create new meaning where there was none before.
Now is the time to decide if your brand is a habit or a ritual
When people or brands say, “We’ll get through this together,” or “After the Coronavirus has passed,” they’re revealing a lie in our collective words of encouragement.
There will very likely be no “before and after” COVID.
Instead, there will be a very slow tumbling of closures and business failures, amplified by a reshuffling of social norms and broken ideals.
Today, grocery stores have begun installing plexiglass barriers and safe standing zones for checkout, while airlines have less and less direct flights and stewards ask travelers to raise their hands to go the bathroom. Tomorrow will bring us ultra-hygienic hotels and contactless restaurants.
We won’t really know when we’re out of this, and that means we won’t go back to many of the habits that characterized our pre-COVID lives.
As business slows, the retail landscape contracts, lagging companies rush to D2C and we unwillingly embrace uncertainty in the face of a global deceleration, now is the time to ask yourself what your brand actually means to consumers.
Is your brand a habit or a ritual?
It’s an important question because there’s a good chance many habits will not survive the current climate, but rituals will.
And most of our habits are centered on the products we buy.
Habits make life easy. Rituals make life meaningful.
In a consumer study last month, market research firm Perksy found that 70% of Millennial and Gen Z buyers have already switched brands:
Granted, much of this brand switching is happening because of lack of availability, but even so, 44% of those who have switched brands are likely to keep buying those new brands after the pandemic has ended:
The vast majority of brands and products are consumed like habits — a regular tendency to repeat the same purchasing behavior because it cuts down on friction, cognition or effort.
We buy the same brand of chips, underwear or personal electronics because we already know we can trust them. Not because they’re the best, but because the effort involved in finding the best outweighs our current ‘good enough’ solution.
That’s why when those habits are effectively disrupted, it’s very easy to stay with the new solution, even if the old solution becomes available again.
But as brands large and small lose their customer base to manufacturing disruptions and retail closures, there is a segment of companies that is not suffering the same consequences.
As sociologist and brand executive Ana Andjelic has pointed out, “Show me what’s NOT accelerating and let’s figure out why.”
Moreover, “76 percent of the travelers who canceled a cruise in 2020 chose to take credit towards a future cruise in 2021, compared to 24 percent who opted for a refund.”
Cruise ships aren’t the only outlier here.
Peloton’s backorders extend out over 2 months (and continue to grow), while brands like the Mirror interactive system see huge spikes in conversion.
Yes, gyms are closed and people need a way to workout, but it seems that the very premium end of smart home workout systems is enjoying an outsized return. Even as social restrictions begin to ease, the demand for these brands continues to accelerate.
A new cottage industry for birthday parties and baby showers has sprung from ashes of the pandemic, with companies like Kiki Kit and Imagination Adventures parties offering experiential party planning that transcends the limitations of your typical Zoom call. These are immersive experiences that just happen to have a screen.
In LA, elaborate “Porch Pop-Ups” have shown up around town, with music and masked performers entertaining party goers from a safe distance on the front lawn (and even this past week, Elaine Welteroth’s stoop wedding in Brooklyn made news for its new take on celebration.)
All of these brands have one thing in common: they have ritualized the experience of their products.
We don’t fight for our habits, but we do fight for our rituals.
Rituals fulfill our current needs in a way that habits can’t.
They provide meaning in an uncertain time. They help us mark change and they tell us who we are.
It only makes sense that when our daily habits are ripped out of our hands, we hold on even tighter to the rituals that define us.
Even if your product is utilitarian in nature, or your brand is seemingly too inconsequential to be ritualized, there is a way to create greater context around your story so that you are no longer consumed like a habit.
But first, we need to understand what makes rituals so powerful.
Decoding the mechanics of a ritual.
How does a ritual actually work?
I spoke with Sasha Sagan, author of the book For Small Creatures Such As We, to answer this exact question for our brand strategy + culture podcast, Unseen Unknown.
Having grown up in a secular household with her father, astronomer Carl Sagan, and mother, author and producer Ann Druyan, Sasha’s work has been dedicated to finding meaning and rituals outside of traditional religion.
Whereas habits create ease and consistency, rituals create meaning.
According to Sasha, rituals provide us with an anchor and whether they happen daily, weekly, monthly or annually, they deepen with meaning over time.
Rituals tend to serve the same human needs:
Rituals help us feel the passage of time and/ or appreciate change
Rituals give us stability, order and routine in times of chaos
Rituals help us sanctify and extract context from a situation
Every one of these emotional benefits is in high demand right now.
As crazy as it might sound to take a credit for a future cruise instead of taking a refund, keep in mind that a cruise is something to look forward to every year for some people. It helps us mark the passage of time.
The $2,400+ price tag for a Peloton seems exorbitant given the glut of other options in the market, but the well-documented cult-like experience of a cycling class gives people stability, order and routine.
Birthday parties, weddings and baby showers haven’t just gone digital. They have changed venues, changed artifacts, changed norms, and changed language, but the ritual persists as a way to sanctify the moment and extract context from a time in our lives.
It can be easy to dismiss these as unique situations — brands and products that came as a result of rituals that already existed before them — but that would overlook the value of storytelling in a brand.
In fact, there is an opportunity today for brands of all kinds to position their products not as habits, but as rituals (new or old) that help people extract one of these same pillars of meaning.
Oscar Meyer’s #FrontYardCookout invited neighborhoods to replace the tradition of a backyard barbecue with friends and family, and instead create an intimate (but socially safe) front yard cookout in their driveways.
Rather than talk about quick meals or feeding hungry kids sitting in front of a screen being homeschooled all day, they elicited the tradition of summer celebration.
The golden lighting, long shadows and lawn chairs remind you of warm weather rituals — moments for pausing to reflect on the year so far and gather, reconnect and solidify relationships.
Open Spaces, the home organizing company launched late last year by cofounders Emmet Shine and Nicholas Ling of Pattern Brands, has created some great content and storytelling around the act of cleaning and organizing your home.
In their Space Tapes series, they explore “the lives of our community and what they’re listening to.” Each song is tied to a story about that person’s life, a reflection on their past and life journey.
Open Spaces sells home organization items like nesting trays and wire baskets, but content like this adds gravity to the act of cleaning your home. It’s about the ritual of cleaning your mind, your soul and your heart.
That may sound like an exaggeration, but considering the Marie Kondo platitudes that float around in our digital world, it’s no stretch to have people invite deeper meaning into their spring cleaning.
[You can listen to cofounder Emmett Shine talk more about how they built the brand on our podcast here.]
Dame, a high-minded, stylishly designed women’s sexual wellness brand has started Self-Love Sundays for the month of May, beginning with a lesson on self-massage.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Sunday, a traditionally holy day, evokes thoughts of observation, pause and gratitude. The concept of self-love, even in a sexual context, feels far more intimate and important when celebrated on a weekly schedule.
None of these brands have typically ritualized products, but they found a way to either evoke a ritual or create one in their content, storytelling and positioning.
The products we need right now aren’t merely about ease and reduced friction. They’re about anchoring us, in whatever way possible, to the things that make us feel certain again.
“The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.”
— Neurologist Donald Calne
Rituals are about emotions.
If you feel that your brand is positioned as a habit, find ways to message around the emotions that your product experience creates instead.
Create a routine out of the experience that ties it to a sense of meaning, celebration, remembrance or normalcy
Provide context that makes users appreciate a larger tradition through content, storytelling and positioning
Offer meaning, identity or the marking/ significance of time as a benefit
Every brand tells a story. Think of the stories that your customers need right now, and start your narrative there.
This is the time to take big swings, ritualize your brand and try new storytelling. Bold moves will be celebrated. Well-intentioned mistakes will be forgiven.
The Smithsonian shows that our collective scrambling to define the canon is, in fact, a rebellious act. Alrosa begs the question of ownership. Outdoor Voices pulls a Mariah Carey.
I write a lot about defining strategy and how to build a brand. My goal is to always look for companies that are doing it right because those are the ones we best learn from (although it would be much easier to simply point out the ones that are doing it wrong).
Strategy, however, is only half the equation. The way companies bring those strategies to life can reveal a whole new world of learnings. Their tactics, decisions and moves are all signals to the consumer and to the marketplace.
They show us both what people want now, and how much they are willing to tolerate in being pushed into the future.
Here are some recent brand moves that have definitely edged the conversation forward.
The Smithsonian shows interest in obtaining the artwork of migrant children detained at the border.
You couldn’t hear this story without feeling something. After CNN shared images of drawings by migrant children who were recently released to a respite center in McAllen, Texas, the Smithsonian reached out to inquire about obtaining the disturbing works of art. Many of the works depicted heavy metal cages and towering authority figures in hats.
The Smithsonian describes itself as a museum, a research and education organization, and an “opener of doors”. But this move is about much more.
The brand signal here is clear. While other museums exist to celebrate America, the Smithsonian is here to hold it accountable.
The Smithsonian has accepted the fact that every act is political (and there’s good reason for that, as Professor Scott Galloway has explained). By collecting these works, they act as the ultimate witness to America’s actions — a very provocative role to play as a brand.
There’s perhaps no stronger way to flex your muscle as a brand than to choose which voices matter. It’s especially poignant as they’ve chosen to highlight the wordless voices of children. It opens up much more opportunity for discussion in a way that public outcry and political reporting can’t touch.
Art has always been controlled by the gatekeepers of history, but it looks like that’s changing. Gatekeepers only have control if you give it to them, and in the art world, there is a stubborn old guard that refuses to open the door (and perhaps that is the “door” that the Smithsonian references in their description).
This reminds me of other brands that are experimenting with the fabric of culture and history like Otis, an alternative investment platform that deals in items of cultural currency like Air Jordans and KAWS works. They’re democratizing both the investment itself and the act of choosing what is worth investing in.
There are also the admirable efforts of companies like Fast Retailing (Uniqlo’s parent company) who may not be acting as a cultural gatekeeper, but say something about it when they make genuine efforts to hire refugees.
Alrosa creates digital passports for diamonds that beg the question of ownership.
Alrosa has tested out an interesting new initiative for its gems: electronic passports that “will tell the buyer the gem’s age, the place and date of its extraction, as well as the time and place of its cutting and the craftsman’s name and background.”
If you haven’t heard, millennials are cooling on the complicated idea of diamonds. Alrosa is hoping transparency and proof of sustainability will change that. It’s a noble brand tactic but not a strategy. Causes are never strategies, but that’s beside the point.
What matters here is who is executing the initiative. Alrosa is the world’s second largest diamond miner. You may own one of their stones but you’d never know it.
They are a producer taking on the responsibility of a retailer in branding the product, proof that everyone in the supply chain is in the business of branding now.
Calling it a passport is interesting. The word passport is on-the-grid, not off. It’s about permission to move freely. It’s about having a state given identity.
If you grew up in California like me, you were exposed to nonstop Diamond Exchange television ads touting “GIA and EGA certified”. The GIA (Gemological Institute of America), a monolithic governing body that works to standardize the trade, recently added a 5th “C” to their list of Color, Cut, Clarity and Carats — Country of origin. Major move, if not more symbolic than anything else.
This reminds me of brands like Toogood who use labeling as a way to create meaning and connection with their products. Their garments have large tags sewn into the lining with a record of its name, designer and country, among other details. Blank lines for “Sold By” and “Worn By” complete the story once they’re filled in.
These moves by Alrosa and Toogood both convey a philosophy about what it means to “own” or use something. Do we really own a fine item, or are we just using it for a portion of its lifetime?
Outdoor Voices flexes their muscle by refusing to tell an athleisure story.
A few people this week emailed me a New York Times interview with Outdoor Voices founder Ty Haney. It was this quote that caught their eye:
“We’re not up against the Nikes, Under Armours and Lulus of the world. What we’re up against is people’s negative perceptions of themselves.”
But in product terms, Outdoor voices is up against other sportswear and athleisure brands, and that underscores the brilliance of this quote. Ty Haney is talking from a brand perspective, not product. She knows she’s selling a story first and foremost.
If your brand isn’t informing actual business decisions — not just marketing or design — then you’re not really building a brand… and Ty Haney backs this up with a mention of the new Exercise Dress. If exercise + dress feels weird to you, that’s a good thing. Outdoor Voices’ brand has actually informed their product design. That tension you feel in the name is because they’re not creating athleisure, they’re creating a new definition of what it means to be active.
Netflix’s former VP of Product Management recently said, “at world-class companies, you often see exceptional teamwork between marketing and product teams, where the marketing team defines the brand, and the product team helps bring it to life.” This is where brand-led companies are going in the future.
Speaking of Netflix, this reminds me of CEO Reed Hastings once saying that their biggest competitor was “sleep”. That’s a baller claim. When other companies don’t even register on your radar, you’re sending a bold message to the market.
Branding genius Mariah Carey owns this move. When asked about other mega pop stars like Jennifer Lopez or Demi Lovato, her simple response is “I don’t know her.” It’s the shade that’s launched a thousand memes.
Have you seen any smart moves in a vertical? Is someone forcing a new conversation?
Let me know in the comments or email me at email@example.com.
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.
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. […]
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.”
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
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:
Hypothesis: Although some newspapers can survive the switch to online subscriptions, none can do it and remain a politically neutral "newspaper of record." You have to pick a side to get people to subscribe. pic.twitter.com/bWNZzYFzFJ
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.
To be fair, a lot of these terms weren't around 30 years ago. Not the way they are used today at least.
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 definingculture, not disrupting an industry:
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, 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.
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.”
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.
Your brand is a series of consistent decisions that bolster your positioning and demonstrate what you stand for. You should be able to take any business decision — HR, sales, communications, operations, PR, product, UX/ UI, or otherwise — filter it through your brand identity, and arrive at an on-brand answer that you can act on.
That’s not an exaggeration. The best brands do it every day, from high-level strategic decisions to day-to-day tactical actions.
On a strategic level, we see numerous examples of companies that based their business choices on their brand strategy:
WeWork moved into living spaces and childcare because of their belief in utopian communities. Rather than following their capabilities into new co-working formats, they followed their brand belief into new centers of citizenry.
Apple saves all of their PR announcements for a few highly publicized events a year because they believe their brand is about an elite experience, not a continuous rollout of features.
Four Sigmatic, a beverage company selling popular mushroom coffees, recently launched a new category of products in the beauty space because their brand isn’t about health drinks, it’s about optimizing the body.
Airbnb released a hosted city experiences product as a vehicle for their ‘belong anywhere’ brand belief. The brand was the basis for the product.
On a tactical level, we see companies make small (but meaningful), everyday choices that bring their brand strategies to life as well:
Zappos trains its customer service team to have longer, more meaningful and textured conversations with users, often providing backstory and personal feedback on the items. It’s a costly tactical choice based on their strategic commitment tobeing the anti-Amazon.
Red Bull often dropped hundreds of empty cans outside of nightclub dumpsters in the early hours of the morning so that clubgoers believed the drink was for hardcore partiers. Their strategy to reach anuntapped influencer market led to a clever WOM guerrilla marketing tactic.
Harry’s Razors creates emotional video content around men’s issues to push forward their belief in challenging toxic representations of masculinity. The content is dictated by the brand, not SEO.
The Ordinary deliberately packages their beauty products in identical, hard to understand packaging labels so that users spend hours figuring out the routines and combinations are right for them. This clever packaging tactic has created a huge online community of beauty fanatics that share advice and ingredient recommendations — a testament to The Ordinary’s strategy to turn everyday users into discerning beauty experts.
Brand strategy is a daily choice in every department, in every activity.
That’s because brands exist between the lines. Consumers understand a brand by the decisions it makes.
If your brand isn’t informing actual business decisions — not just marketing or design — then you’re not really building a brand.
It follows, then, that the way you define the word ‘brand’ is critical your company’s trajectory.
Do you subscribe to any of these definitions?:
The sum total of all your touch points with the customer, or, as Seth Godin put it in 2009, a brand is “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”
A brand is a feeling, which is often synonymous with an aspirational aesthetic or thought leadership
A brand is a unique voice or personality. Taken to the extreme, brands are one of the 12 brand archetypes like The Hero or The Outlaw.
Brands are an intangible asset — the line of goodwill on an organization’s balance sheet that captures the extra premium a customer is willing to pay above and beyond the actual product
Most people use at least one of these definitions. The problem with all of them, however, is that they describe a set of static characteristics.
The new definition of the word ‘brand’ captures, instead, a measurable change.
Whatever your story is — and by story, I mean the narrative that ties your product, voice, UX, team, history, roadmap, everything together — it needs to create a new sense of meaning that didn’t exist before your brand made it a reality.
Brands are not fixed characteristics. They are dynamic movements that make something matter.
A brand is the creation of meaning where there was none before.
That’s vitally important because it changes the way a business functions.
So how do we take this new definition and bring it home in a way that is actionable within a company?
As with all things branding, there is more than one way to arrive at the right answer. Here, I offer three ways to slice the challenge and move forward.
These are only a few, certainly not all, ways to articulate the act of ‘creating meaning where there was none before’.
You need to be deliberate about which definition you choose (or create) for your own brand because how you define it will ultimately dictate your strategy — and your strategy will dictate whether you win or lose in the market.
1. Brand Is A Gateway
LEGO has used their brand to create meaning for parents where there was none before.
Every time you catch a hidden hidden joke just for adults in their movies, come across LEGO FORMA kits for stressed out professionals or see a print ad meant to make a 30-something chuckle, that is the brand winking at you and whispering, ‘you should play at every age.’
LEGO’s brand creates new significance for parents who believe they were supposed to stop playing a long time ago. Non-children are given opportunities to engage, and they’re hidden right in plain sight… a sort of peekaboo game in and of itself.
While Sesame Street and Disney also nod to parents in a similar way, LEGO is different because it opens up a space for change that didn’t exist before — a space where parents have permission to be children again. There is meaning in that transformation.
When a brand acts as a gateway, it promises a change in the user.
When we come to understand that we should ‘play at every age’, we realize something about ourselves, and we understand that to go through the gateway is to emerge someone different.
Brands like LEGO are constantly working to show adult users what their experience can be like on the other side. There is a clear vision of before and after that forces a reaction.
To be a brand like this is to create meaning in the act of crossing the threshold.
It informs their decisions to release adult products, inject tongue-in-cheek double meaning into their content and move into media. The business sits on top of the brand, not the other way around, and that makes the meaning they are creating that much more impactful.
2. Brand Is A Remix
Greek philosopher Parmenides of Elea said Ex nihilo nihil fit, or rather, nothing comes from nothing.
Every new material, creation or concept is borne of others that already exist. The deeper you get into branding the more true this seems. It echoes another common refrain often heard in the marketing world that ‘everything old is new again’. Every new idea is a remix of ideas that came before it.
The thing about remixes, though, is that even though they may not come from new origins, they do take us to new places.
Vitamix, remarkably, created a cult around the humble kitchen blender, and they did it while charging people upwards of $500 at a time.
It’s easy to see the stoic machines as wellness status symbols today, but you have to remember that in 2013 consumers had no idea that the words “luxury” and “blender” could work together so well, nor did they think they needed a 2-horsepower engine to make their morning smoothies.
The Vitamix brand wasn’t just about healthy eating. It was a very deliberate remix of extreme power wrapped up in notions of self-care that could demand a premium price. It combined the story of strength with gentler beliefs that were starting to emerge around wellness, to create an audience that looked more like a trendy club than a demographic — skewing toward affluent, health conscious men despite the fact that the company came from pretty granola beginnings in the 1930s.
Vitamix created meaning around the everyday luxury of smoothie making that didn’t exist in the mainstream before. Certainly not in the kitchen. There was a new significance to the appliance that only occurred when two different narratives were combined.
The company radically grew sales through Costco, primarily via energetic demonstrations over a loudspeaker and free samples of whole fruit margaritas, green soups and nut butters circulating in the crowd. It was a spectacle that combined their power-driven angle with a luxury price point that only made sense in a store that promised middle class luxuries in a highly curated format for older millennials.
And you may not realize it, but you see Vitamixes every day at your favorite Starbucks. Sure they’re a corporate client, but Starbucks is also a strategic bit of product placement in the movie that is millennial life. That same kind of product placement has sold out Oatly oat milk in the US.
Brand remixes have occurred in other areas of food, too, specifically in the celebrity chef space.
Why was Gordon Ramsey such a sellable brand?
Because he operated from the belief that you can be a crass and vulgar person but still make highly refined food. You can literally feel the tension in that combination, and it forces you to love him or hate him.
Why was Rachael Ray able to create multi-billion (not million) dollar businesses on the back of her name?
Because she dared to not only celebrate low-brow cooking, but venerate it. She cooked 30 minute meals out of canned foods and pre-cut produce, and was proud of it.
They were both remixes that made people see something they couldn’t see before. They created new meaning where there was none.
When a brand is a key, it creates new meaning because it lets people enjoy contradictions without having to account for them.
In other words, it lets people have their cake and eat, it too.
Costco uses a master key to solve a few brand problems at once. They’re 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.
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 — their master key as a 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 temporary 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 moneymakers like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter because they believe in respecting their employees.
When a brand is a key, it opens up the possibility of two worlds at once. You can be a deep discounter and yet at the same time be premium. You can follow stodgy business models but be perceived as nimble. You can be cheap, and yet generous. You can be a complete inconvenience and still be a pleasure to use.
When contradictions occupy the same space, they create a new meaning around what is possible.
When a brand creates new meaning, it creates value that people are willing to pay a premium for.
You can create many truths from this one starting point. Every tool you use is a way to find that first thread that will weave the story. Your definition of a brand is one such tool.
The longer I do brand strategy, the more apparent it’s become to me that there’s no single way to get there. Each of these three definitions is an entry point. Somewhere to start. You’ll see that different brands follow different definitions, and in doing so, land in different areas of the landscape.
Your goal is to use (or invent) a definition that gets you as far out into the field as possible.
If your users carry a shame story with them, you need a very different kind of strategy.
There are pockets of shame hiding in everyday life, and every one of your users encounters them.
Some of us feel shame about status symbols like money or marriage, while others may feel shame about personal shortcomings like fear or failure.
Shame is a universal part of the human experience, and is always borne of a story: stories we tell ourselves, stories that have been told to us, or stories we’ve co-opted from culture and community over time.
It’s also an important emotional trigger to study because unlike other triggers, it causes us to behave both irrationally and severely. There are few other things that sting us as deeply as a shameful memory, and no greater negative driver in our behavior. We’d go to great lengths to erase the cause of our shame if we could.
If a specific narrative makes someone feel devalued, wrong or guilty because of the expectations of their societal group, then it is a shame story.
Shame stories start to appear when our reality does not match what we feel is expected of us by others.
By that definition, they are intrinsically tied to the role we play in the group.
And when you look closely, you start to see that shame plays a role in many more industries than you may realize.
Some are obvious:
Fertility (both male and female)
Pain Management & Mental Health (cannabis, ketamine, suicide)
Sex (less so dysfunction, more so pleasure and deviance… which is fascinating in its own right)
Dating, Marriage (a woman’s worth as she gets older, a man’s worth based on his career/ height/ hair)
Illness (especially when it’s terminal or dehumanizing, like cancer)
Food (what we eat and how we eat is extremely personal, and a reflection of what we think we deserve)
Parenting (the secret struggle between autonomy and giving yourself over)
Beauty, Fashion (fitting a standard that is often classist, sizeist and racist)
Higher Education (or lack thereof)
I call these stories dirty because as individuals, they make us feel wrong.
I call them ugly because as a society, we don’t want to look at them.
The next time you feel shame because someone cheated on you, or you refuse to leave the house because you’re ashamed of how you look, or you experience shame because you could not perform at work/ in bed/ as the breadwinner for your family, take note of its unparalleled power over your perception of reality. Even in the face of one hard fact —that none of these situations are your fault — you will continue to hurt yourself privately.
If your customers are fighting against a shame story somewhere in their lives that’s relevant to your brand, it wields the same kind of power over them, too.
You’re up against something very big and very strong, and you have to respect the different behavioral outcomes it creates. Fighting a shame story requires a different kind of brand strategy.
We see this as an increasingly important brand challenge because the low hanging fruit of structural disruption — access, supply chain, cost, distribution, etc. — has been exploited.
The next wave of disruption will happen on a cultural level, and shame stories are the structural dinosaurs living in our minds.
If you can effectively dismantle a limiting narrative for your audience, you can create a new reality for them… and creating a new reality is the ultimate goal of branding.
A new reality means new behaviors, new truths, and new opportunity for your company to speak to your audience.
Shame is often confused with guilt — an emotion we might experience as a result of a wrongdoing about which we might feel remorseful and wish to make amends. Where we will likely have an urge to admit guilt, or talk with others about a situation that left us with guilty feelings, it is much less likely that we will broadcast our shame.
The very nature of its secrecy leads to a different set of behaviors.
People who feel shame over things like addiction, bullying or failure can project it in blame and anger… oftentimes even rage.
Others find ways to make themselves small in an attempt to ‘disappear’.
If you’re a CEO or strategist seeing these behaviors in your audience, it can be incredibly easy to read them the wrong way.
A nootropics brand founder might see an over-indexing of bro-culture on their platform and interpret it as bonding, or a the founder of a beauty brand might see its female customers hesitating to use bolder products and interpret it as lack of confidence, and they’d both have a good chance of being wrong.
Unlike other emotions, shame thrives the most when it remains hidden.
It’s clear from their messaging, product bundling and brand stories that they want to start a discourse around something that has historically stayed behind the closed doors of a physician’s office.
I commend them for that.
What’s missing however, is a new story.
Shame stories don’t die just because they see the light. They die when a new story supplants them.
Shame is a weed, and one of the best ways to stop a weed is to grow something else in its place.
Unfortunately, old fears and biases don’t get erased simply because we talk about them and make them more normalized. They go away when they are written over with something else.
Messaging like “The very best information you wish you never needed” or “We won’t tell you you’re infertile” are not new stories.
They are versions of the same fear-based, private shame stories women have carried all of their lives, only now made public.
True, these brands are giving men and women new, democratized options for accessing the tests they need, without the gatekeepers that may have deterred them in the first place… but there is a much bigger brand opportunity to be had here.
Couples are ready for a new story that will replace the old one. They’re just not hearing it yet. Until they hear it, the shame (and its behaviors) will persist.
Women’s fertility startups seem to think that the problem they need to disrupt is one of price and access. What they really need to disrupt is the story of fear, shame and female identity. That’s a much harder business problem and I don’t see anyone tackling it.
An adjacent industry that is successfully supplanting and old narrative with a new one, however, is sex.
Kill the old audience.
Just like fertility, sex used to live behind a gatekeeper (underground sex shops and far corners of the internet). Just like fertility, it could cause both great pain and great happiness. And just like fertility, it was a vessel for all kinds of shame that few would talk about.
Even as we move into a new era of female-forward sex brands and body positive movements, sexual health has been regarded as a fringe concern. You might not feel embarrassed to walk into an Adam & Eve, but you’re not going to talk about the details of your sex life with your yoga class either.
But that’s changing.
When sex toy company Dame Products launched in 2014, the founders realized that their audience overlapped more with a yoga crowd than with a traditional sex/ pornography crowd. When they saw that, they decided to position the brand squarely in the wellness space.
Wellness is an empowering narrative that stands tall in the face of anything shame-based. Consistently, throughout every touchpoint in the UX, both on brand properties and off, Dame communicates this new wellness story in different ways.
They make no secret of the “pleasure gap” they doggedly seek to close, have an active Dame Labs that invites users to join their people-centered research (regardless of gender or sexual identity), and most importantly, employ very clear design thinking because “we felt our products should look like beauty tools.”
“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
As a result, sex toys like theirs were taking up space on shelves typically reserved for beauty, health and fitness.
As Business of Fashion pointed out last October, Dame was a signal that sex-care is the new self-care:
Sexual wellness is shaping up to be the next big opportunity in a category increasingly focused on wellbeing and ritualistic me-time. […]
It helps explain why US pharmacy chain CVS sells a rather stunning assortment of 48 whirring options — merchandised next to straightforward sexual health products like condoms and pregnancy tests — and family-friendly Target stocks 74 different models. Talk about self-care.
What Dame and others did was not only replace the old story with a new one (which in itself is remarkable), but they effectively moved the discussion from a group of people in the sex industry to a group of people in the self-care space.
They killed the old audience. Instead of having a hush-hush conversation about sex with one group, we were having it with another… our yoga friends.
The most important part of the shame equation is the group. Without the group to measure ourselves against, we would not feel shame.
The group is part of our social survival. They bind us, and our behaviors, to the people we care about, and reveal just how hyper-aware we are of how others perceive who we are to them.
If brands are tribal experiences, then shame lives somewhere within that tribe.
But if you kill the old tribe and create a new one, the equation falls apart. A new story can thrive someplace more fitting.
They’ve been around for generations, long before your brand came on the scene. People may want to give them up but it’s scary to change your personal truth overnight.
However without fail, positive stories win in the long run. As a strategist, I’ve always believed this:
You will always have the choice to go positive or negative in your strategy. Tell the scary, shame-based story or the positive, goal-oriented story. Neither is inherently wrong, but some do work better than others.
Charity, global warming, war — why do none of these narratives work to permanently move people? Because they’re shame based. They inspire guilt. They create a feeling that may motivate in the short term, but most people want to avoid and escape in the long term.
But giving it time doesn’t mean just waiting for time to pass.
It means constantly telling and retelling the new story in new ways, and never letting the dust settle on the new reality you’re creating.
It means killing off the old audience over and over again, no matter how many times you have to do it.
Addiction, mental health, illness, marriage and dating — brands have been trying for years to change these stories, and the ones that will succeed are the ones that keep making noise.
When people start waking up, it will be the persistent brands who are there to meet them.
Giving it the time it deserves means using that time wisely. You can create a safe space that gently nudges your user in a new direction, and gives them the room they need to start changing the story for themselves.
It’s the most important destination for your brand and users. This is how to get there.
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:
they are willing to be vulnerable enough, and
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.
This also underscores something important: thetipping 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’.
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:
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:
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.
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.