Brand Strategy Culture Featured

High Fidelity Society Is Reorganizing The World


We used to pass culture through objects. There was a time for many of us when a vinyl record, a luxury handbag or a Lisa Frank folder were relics that signaled “I am one of you.” They had singular meanings that everyone agreed upon, and appreciation of the object itself was at the center of the culture. 

But today, there is perhaps no more effective way to signal “I am one of you” than with a carefully selected meme or perfectly ungrammatical text. A specific mashup, a certain combination of emoji or a self-referential aesthetic can convey multitudes more about a culture now than any physical item ever could.

When we stopped passing culture through objects and started passing culture through digital artifacts, we moved from low fidelity society to high fidelity society

My cofounder, Jean-Louis Rawlence, coined the term high fidelity society to frame the moment our cultural signals shifted from wide knowledge to deep nuance. 

The low fidelity society of just a few decades ago thrived on singularities and binaries. Households had split roles, careers had predetermined trajectories, perceptions of gender ran within clear lanes, lifestyles spread across a simple set of socioeconomic classes, political parties were mirrored images of one another and economics followed the rules of supply and demand.

The spheres of possibility were narrow. We shared the same core values because we all watched the same TV, read the same papers and subscribed to the same institutions. 

Less information was the hallmark of a low fidelity society and what made it work. When a world is that small, it can only support a simple set of social rules. If a subculture didn’t fit our neat binaries and categories, it was omitted from the canon or filed down to fit into broader societal trends. It makes sense, then, that our cultural objects took little context to be understood. 

But high fidelity society shifted things. Suddenly, with our worlds online and with the ability to capture and codify so much more information, culture ballooned and our digital objects became massively heavy with meaning.

As the sheer volume of culture in our digital worlds inflates every day, the centerpoint of history only gets closer. This phenomenon has rendered trends meaningless as markers of time and place and similarly snapped our connection to what might be called the highest tier of cultural objects: historical art. 



We’ve officially cycled through every single decade… whats next? 🔎 Nostalgia has been one of the strongest driving forces for a long time, but now that we are already cycled through Y2K into the early 2010s, we are starting to wonder… what’s comes after nostalgia? Out newsletter dropping on Monday will deep dive into this and give you free stock photos + strategic tips to stay ahead of the curve 🌊 #culturetrend #nostalgia #nowstalgia

♬ original sound – DEATH TO STOCK

“Nowstalgia” and the loss of time and place.


Younger collectors are proving to have no regard for the masters or the canon because, as professor Giana M. Eckhardt notes, “If you look back at human development, there were tens of thousands of years in which things didn’t change that much. Humans have not developed enough to be able to react to social change that is this quick. This leads to people putting a value on the new in different ways from the past.” 

But I would take this insight a step further. What we’re really seeing is the weakness of physical objects as vessels of culture in our expanding high fidelity society.  

When a culture changes its medium, the medium changes the culture. Keep in mind that high fidelity society is not merely about more choice. It is about exactness. Our new medium of passing along culture has allowed for an incredible new fidelity to be had in every way we choose to engage with the world. When we engage in new ways, we create new realities. 

Nearly every singularity and binary – gender, family, identity, and so on – has crumbled. Lifestyles and socioeconomic tiers have at once exploded and collapsed into each other. Social rules have become complex (and if you don’t think so, you’re probably breaking them). Career paths are unrecognizable from where they were a decade ago, and a meme page like Litquidity can spin out into a VC, which it did. 

If you’ve ever laughed at a “starter pack” meme, you’ve felt the gulf between low fidelity society and high fidelity society. 


high earner, not rich yet finance guy in Montauk starter pack meme showing high fidelity society


A Litquidity meme can nod to various cultural touchstones in one simple image. It might make a reference to HENRY culture, self-skewer bruised egos and the need for status regardless of the cost in money or self-respect and embrace the cognitive dissonance of new wealth at a time when the markets have failed to act the way they should, while still reveling in the basic bitchness of it all. 

But most importantly, if you understand all of these layers together, you also feel the giddy, feverish camaraderie of those who practice the “farce of high finance”. And even if you don’t understand this meme, you still recognize that there is tremendous information density within it.

The physical objects of low fidelity society worked to homogenize our culture, but the digital artifacts of high fidelity society fragment culture into many pieces. And it is within those fragments that we can begin to see the future of business and branding. 

Dating app Feeld operates in high fidelity society. They are part of a cohort of early brands that feel the pressure for a new digital infrastructure to house our high fidelity needs, and my team and I were fortunate enough to work with them to develop their brand strategy.

Feeld has created a platform for dating in all of the ways that low fidelity society could not hold. Polyamory, consensual non-monogamy, homo- and heteroflexibility, pansexuality, androgyny, aromanticism, voyeurism and kink are just a few of the sexual identities that high fidelity society not only holds, but makes increasingly visible. Much like the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of language, the more ways we have of expressing ourselves, the more we will express ourselves in different ways.

All of these identities demand new forms of connection, and Feeld is creating a unique infrastructure that allows connections to evolve instead of conform. Every feature, whether it’s the typical swipe or the novel “desire” tag, is tested with the question, “Are we letting people create new forms of closeness and intimacy here, or are we forcing people to follow old models?”

One of the clearest insights in our research for Feeld was that people in the dating pool have begun to move away from a destiny mindset of marriage, the American dream or other low fidelity aspirations to a distinctly growth mindset. 

Daters today expect relationships to help them grow as individuals, and for many, there is no end state or goal. Instead, dating is a continuous form of growth and opportunity to discover  who they are. This user sentiment stands in stark contrast to the dating apps designed for low fidelity society that boasted of being “designed to be deleted”.

Most importantly, Feeld is not the fringes of culture. In our research, we found that heteronormative users, as well as people who had not yet experienced the platform, expressed the same desire for vivid connection, aliveness and a growth mindset. They simply had not found their avenues yet. Feeld is, in fact, all of us. 

In a sea of dating apps racing to flatten the human experience, Feeld has opened a portal to something much larger. Dating in high fidelity society is multiplicative. It has become recursive, and that requires a very different kind of platform.


feeld dating app


As New York Times reporter Gina Cherelus has astutely said, “To describe yourself as single and in search of a relationship is almost too simple of a label in 2023. The way we seek romantic connections, especially with the influence of social media and dating apps, has naturally altered our behaviors and language around dating.”

Feeld’s world of dating, sexuality and relationships embraces this ever-increasing complexity, in part by utilizing the layered meaning that characterizes high fidelity society. 

In high fidelity society, a wellness influencer can at once signal their health practices and political leanings with leetspeak like “medical indu$try”. An aesthetic like corecore can at once signal a certain subculture’s age, nationality, disillusionment with technology and the larger context of absurdist content that gives people room to criticize something while also sheepishly embracing it. Feeld respects the fact that its users are already immersed in a highly contextual world.



Yea #nichetok #corecore

♬ The Sound of Myself – Disasterpeace

corecore TikTok by flicksaga


Not many brands operate in high fidelity like Feeld does, but more and more are making the jump, and we’ve had the privilege of working with some of them at Concept Bureau.

Companies that are building for high fidelity understand that they are no longer building for the average or the standard. They are building platforms and communities that allow for a fragmenting of experience, giving users room to create net-new realities. 

They know that as peoples’ communities and identities become more specific, our many different cultures will only become more narrow and deep. The mechanics of this new culture, then, naturally incentivize the compounding of meaning and with the proliferation of content creation tools (dare I say A.I.), the density of culture will only increase.

In our work, we have seen a growing appetite for high fidelity infrastructure in every single category. Whether it’s work, finance, health, luxury, education, parenting or anything else, people are already living high fidelity lives but are forced to express them on low fidelity platforms

When we see that tension, we know there is latent demand for new infrastructure. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for brands to leapfrog a market full of low fidelity players by ushering people into a high fidelity experience. 

But codifying high fidelity society is a difficult task for any founder. There is no precedent to fall back on, and as the world reorganizes itself, we have to be careful to not use old rulers for measuring new ideas. 

There are two major paradigm shifts that can guide you in the right direction and have proven to be fundamental in moving our clients over the line from low fidelity society into high fidelity society. 

They require a significant change in how we understand networks, but even more importantly, they begin to show us just how big of an opportunity lies ahead.

Shift #1: From Goalposts to Participation

Low fidelity society is organized around goalposts. Getting a college degree, house, promotion, marriage, kids and retirement are the obvious ones. But there are other goalposts everywhere around us, like being a LinkedIn super connector, being verified on Instagram, making the Forbes 30 under 30, backpacking through Europe, starting your first business or “finding yourself”.

You have or don’t have. You reach the goalposts or you don’t. Up until this point, we’ve been able to measure value in binaries because low fidelity society gave us clear definitions of what mattered.

But high fidelity society resists such clear definitions. What matters to one fragment of culture will not matter to another. What matters to hopepunks vs. nihilists, keto warriors vs. vegans, tiny homers vs. van lifers or anti-natalists vs. mommy tribes will all be different. 

The desire to experience progress in one’s life never goes away, but how we measure that progress has become much more nuanced. 

In high fidelity society, goalposts are replaced by participation. In a culture where there is no singular end goal, progress becomes invisible and our value is instead measured by how deeply we engage. 

We realized that Feeld users across the board were not looking to reach the next goalpost. Their growth mindset resisted everything you might see in a traditional dating environment. Instead, Feeld users, and people in high fidelity society in general, pay attention to participation signals. 

It is not how much you have accomplished, but instead how much you have engaged and evolved. Over and over again, people described coming to Feeld in order to feel vividly connected to their minds, bodies and relationships, and they looked to learn from others who had done the same. They sought to participate rather than reach an arbitrary relationship goalpost, because participation proves a genuine interest in growth. 

Goalposts run out at some point. Business author Donald Miller has noted that after marriage and kids, life stops giving us scripts for how to matter in the world. Perhaps that’s why midlifers 50 years and older are Feeld’s fastest growing demographic on the app. Even up until then, you can likely sense that the goalposts of low fidelity society are becoming increasingly meaningless.

Polywork, a network for multi-hyphenate professionals, is another early example of a brand experimenting with new ways of measuring participation while de-emphasizing the traditional goalposts of their space. They’ve rethought what work and collaboration really mean in high fidelity society, and have built a creative model for revaluing participation between users. They understand that value systems are changing.  

It’s vitally important to note, however, that participation needs to be a currency between people. Platforms have historically made participation a currency between the user and the brand, but that’s meaningless in high fidelity society. We’re exchanging weak ties for strong ties, and deep networks for wide networks (something I have talked about here and here). 

Making participation between people something that is valued, measured and highly visible within the platform experience – without the expectation of reaching a goalpost – creates wholly new opportunities for high fidelity brands.

Shift #2: New Ways of Knowing

In high fidelity society, there is more than one way of knowing. 

For the past year, my Concept Bureau colleague, Senior Strategist Zach Lamb, has been exploring the new ways of knowing that have emerged in religion, politics and lifestyle. According to Zach, we’ve bypassed the models and institutions that used to mediate higher knowledge for something more immediate and direct. 

Knowing in high fidelity society is now firsthand. Self-directed ketamine startups aim to replace the therapist’s office. Mystical Instagram accounts have replaced church. TikTok has replaced school. 

Call it spirituality, intuition or being tapped in – whether it’s knowing god, knowing the truth or knowing oneself, the very business of knowing has become a highly personal and emotionally-driven endeavor. We are exploring new, unfettered ways of knowing everywhere around us. And all of these new ways of knowing help us create new stories about who we are in the world.



As culture multiplies and fragments, new ways of knowing will also be the hallmark of brands in high fidelity society. In such a dimensional era of culture, we can no longer determine what we need to know by glancing at a list of LinkedIn recommendations, a work history or a bulleted resume. Nor can we glean what matters from a Tinder blurb, an Instagram profile pic, a list of interests, a badge, a milestone number, a label or a bio. 

These rough, often misleading approximations of who people are have never fully worked, even in low fidelity society. And they will stop working entirely as culture becomes more exact. 

If we are building for the fragmenting of experience and creating room for nuance and specificity – for people to connect deeper instead of networking wider – then our platforms need to create new ways of knowing that go far beyond anything we see today, because every low fidelity signal will fail in the high fidelity world.

Feeld has the same challenge. Creating new ways of knowing another person (or oneself, a relationship, a couple and so on) will be fundamental to their success. They, like every other high fidelity brand, will need to reconsider how people both express themselves and understand  each other, oftentimes rethinking the very mediums through which people can connect.  

For us as brand strategists, it also meant engineering a brand experience that leaned into the feelings and emotions of truly knowing oneself and others. 

Every great brand sets the expectation of the experience before people cross the threshold of conversion. High fidelity companies need to be especially careful in setting the expectation of new ways of knowing, whatever that might be for a specific brand, because we can’t expect people to behave in high fidelity ways if we do not first make them leave their low fidelity biases at the door.  

Your brand is the first stop in shaking people out of their old habits. Every current way of knowing – from bulleted stats to blurbs to recommendations to bios to photo carousels – needs to be rethought. None of these help us feel a person, and absolutely none of them are a strong foundation for greater participation between people. 

Brands like Fieldtrip, How We Feel and allUP (a Concept Bureau client launching soon) have built innovative formats for new ways of knowing that historically weren’t available to their users. Each of them makes personal or interpersonal understanding the bedrock of their UX.

The new ways of knowing that will matter are those that help us weave a story about who we are in the world and how others’ stories intersect with our own. That is where high fidelity flourishes. 

The Universal Reorg

I’ve found high fidelity/ low fidelity to be a great tool for both organizing the players in a landscape and understanding where behaviors are headed. 

Brands that play in high fidelity society create a natural tension with low fidelity players. In branding, tension is a great tool for forcing a decision. Our new digital infrastructures will not just be incremental improvements. They will be invitations to either stand still or step into a new reality. 

But more interestingly, as a strategist I have seen just how eager people are to start living in high fidelity society everywhere, although they may not have the words to articulate it. In a particularly moving interview, a Feeld user said that in high fidelity, “You feel like you are able and allowed to glow in every part of your life […] I feel like I can breathe”. 

If I took that quote out of the dating space and put it in another space like work or finance or education or social media or fashion or beauty or wellness or anything else, it would still ring true. If you do good user research in your industry, you will eventually uncover this sentiment across your entire population, as well. The desire to live in high fidelity is universal across people and categories

It is not technology that begets culture, it is culture that begets technology, and in every generation there is usually one major cultural shift that reorganizes all of the technology ahead of us. High fidelity society is an incredible opportunity to position your brand as a force for moving forward. 


Welcome To The New Premiumization of Everything

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.


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A post shared by Snack Betch (@snackbetch)

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 is definitely 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.

Pet Food

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.
  • Taco Bell Hotel: We all laughed. And then it sold out in two minutes.
  • Peach Goods Toilet Paper: It’s a subscription service that uses phrases like “Developed with diligence”, “Made in American plain country” and “We believe in moments for ourselves”. And they’re in good company with other names like Tushy , Who Gives A Crap, No. 2 and Cheeky Monkey.

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?

Yes, we’ve moved into the experience economy. Yes, people want to participate in stories. But these aren’t the answers, these are the effects.

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.

Wealthsimple’s blog untangles the messy money stories we all share with people like Sasha Lane, Jonathan Van Ness and Kim Kardashian.

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.”

– Excerpt from interview with actress Sasha Lane

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.


The New Definition of Brand: A model for every business activity

[Photo by Jeff Frenette.]

3 Ways To Redefine Your Business Through Branding

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 to being 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 an untapped 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.
The Ordinary product packaging.
Typical product description from The Ordinary.

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.’

“Things About The Lego Movie You Only Notice As An Adult” | Looper | August 2017


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.

Lego ad designed to engage parents in play, March 2018 (Agency: BRAD)

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.

Vitamix: Make the World a Better Place


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.

3. Brand Is A Key

I’ve talked about brands as master keys before. A good brand strategy will solve 5 problems with 5 solutions, but a great strategy will solve 5 problems with 1 solution.

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.


These Are The Secret Signals That Lie Beneath Every Successful Brand

[Photo by Hugo Jehanne.]

You can’t move the market if you don’t know how to read the market.

There’s a big difference between building a brand for today and building a strategic brand for the horizon of your industry.

I meet a lot of branding people who create or consult companies based on two-dimensional principles. That usually sounds something like:

  • “We’re making health food for the young urban professional that doesn’t have time to cook, but wants to feel good about what’s going into their body.”
  • “We’re a D2C lifestyle clothing brand for young, single men who aren’t afraid to put some personality in their wardrobes.”
  • “Our brand is for the millennial yoga mom who wants an electric car that reflects her values.”
  • “We provide frictionless financial solutions for small businesses and their vendors.”

If any of these sound familiar, then you are building a brand for the here-and-now. It will work for the here-and-now, but there is no strategy for how it will compete in the next few years.

That’s because these brands fail to look at the deep signals that are going to move their markets. Some of the most important of these signals are in culture and definitions, and it takes a keen understanding of markets and mentalities in order to pick up on them.

They are hidden because they haven’t emerged yet, but the groundwork for what they will mean to us as consumers is already being laid.

This is part of thinking like a brand strategist. I’ve written about it in a previous post, but here I want to cut deeper into a certain aspect of what those signals mean and where to find them. Specifically, the more foundational signals we may take for granted but see all around us in the world.

Above all, I want us to explore how to use these signals for your own brand. If you’re creating a brand based on strategy, it’s important to have a curiosity not only for how things are changing, but why, and to apply that ‘why’ to your own business.

You’ll see that these signals can come from any corner of the playing field, and yet can be applied to nearly any business in the landscape.

Signals usually supersede any particular vertical because they’re not about the market itself, but rather the forces that move the market forward.

You can’t move the market if you don’t know how to read the market.

Once you see a signal, you start to understand how it powers much of the activity in our lives.

Signals are codes. They underlie what you see on the surface of a market, and the strongest brands out there have made those codes part of their DNA.

Collective Culture

A strategist has to be something of a cultural anthropologist. You have to see your users as individuals as well as products of their surroundings and part of a greater whole.

Sometimes, a glitch in the cultural system can lead you to the faulty code of a signal. I saw something like this recently in an old story about finance.

The world’s first index fund was founded by John Bogle of The Vanguard Group in 1975. There was nothing like it at the time. You couldn’t simply ‘invest in the market’, and most investors worked with advisors to actually beat the market with their portfolios.

The entire investment paradigm at that time was to perform better by placing your bets in a subset of market stocks.

Bogle, however, noticed something interesting that was starting to emerge in the research of economists like Paul Samuelson and Burton Malkiel.

He saw that oftentimes, if you just invested in a weighted basket of all stocks in the market, you’d be better off than trying to beat the market by predicting with a few key companies. In other words, the average of the market performed better than most investors did with their portfolios… and he had the historical figures to prove it.

That sounds logical, right?

But for many it wasn’t. The concept of an index fund was met with huge resistance in the financial community, as well as its fair share of ridicule.

It was called “un-American” and Fidelity Investments Chairman Edward Johnson was quoted as saying that he “[couldn’t] believe that the great mass of investors are going to be satisfied with receiving just average returns”.

An executive from a different firm wrote that all but “a very small minority” believe “index funds are a ‘cop-out’ and a fad that will soon disappear.”

That should draw your attention.

Why would Americans believe, that despite all the logic and proof behind it, an index fund was un-American and destined to fail?

Because there is something about being American that stands in the face of what Bogle’s fund represented.

It’s a sin to be average in America.

Somewhere, deep in our collective psyche, we believe that to be American means to be exceptional, and that cultural quirk revealed itself back in 1975 in this very incident.

Anti-index fund poster distributed by financial research firm Leuthold Group, who later claimed that the posters were in jest.

It’s such a sin to be average in America, that we are willing to ignore facts and figures in order to prove our beliefs.

How to use this signal.

As a brand, you can use this signal for your own benefit.

There are themes of exceptionalism, elitism, superiority, personal potential and self-discovery all wrapped up in this signal. These are strong personal motivators, whether we admit them or not.

That’s why stories like The Ugly Duckling keep recurring over and over again in the canon in modern day versions like John Snow in Game of Thrones and (of course) Harry Potter.

At the root of it, there’s an interesting mentality.

This is about changing your perception of yourself.

We can’t change the story that it’s a sin to be average, but we can change the average.

Changing the context can change user perceptions.

As a business, you can take what is normal about a user and reposition it as something extraordinary.

Brands like Moleskin, Apple and Bulletproof Coffee have all elevated something mundane about their users into something far more valuable.

That change in perceptions is the added value of their brands. When you use their products or buy into their philosophies, you are changing your perception of who you are.

Don’t underestimate the power of this mechanic. When perceptions shift, so does our purchasing.

[You can uncover other cultural signals using The Emergent Story Arc here.]

Changing Definitions

I’ve written before that peoples’ values rarely change, but the beliefs that sit on top of those values are more fluid and change easily.

Sometimes our very definitions even change.

We carry a big cultural value to eat what is good for us. But the definition of eating good food has evolved from the 1950’s through to today. Some of that was powered by science and government guidance, but a lot of it has been powered by beliefs around ethics, how we gather as a community, and what foods actually provide for our bodies.

The modern health food ‘craze’ as we know it today first took hold in the 80s and 90s, when restaurants like Souplantation and El Pollo Loco were rapidly growing.

Both of them reflected the healthy eating definitions of the time: that fresh food was healthy food. Souplantation had the mile-long buffet filled with trays of colorful produce. El Pollo Loco made open kitchens core to all of their locations and showed your flame broiled chicken being prepared, without microwaves or pre-processed ingredients, right in front of you.

By 2014, El Pollo Loco had taken on considerable debt and losses (despite growth), and since going public in that same year, the stock price has steadily declined by 40%.

By the 2017, Souplantation had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The decline in casual dining and overall declines in the market hit both companies hard. They weren’t mismanaged, but they were relics of a bygone era. Not because we stopped eating healthy, but because our definition of healthy had shifted.

Meanwhile, new salad upstarts like Sweetgreen, Salata, Tender Greens and Chopt are booming because they were smart enough to tap into a new definition of eating healthy.

They saw that it wasn’t just about the food anymore, but about sustainable practices, transparency about where the food comes from and the artisanal craft of preparing and honoring that food.

Sweetgreen made a point of teaching consumers that, unlike places like El Pollo Loco and Souplantation, people should not expect to get the same standard of food in every restaurant location:

“We want people to understand that that’s normal and that’s okay,” [Sweetgreen’s co-founder Nathaniel Ru says. “Something should taste different in a different place.”

That’s a major shift away from traditional fast-food principles, which dictate that customers should be able to walk into any location and get the exact same food and experience. In this realm, each chain is constantly trying to prove it’s more connected to farmers than the other guy. (Fresh&Co even bought its own farm on Long Island, announcing it would provide “hyper-local seasonal” ingredients.)

These brands understood that our definition of eating good went from ‘food that looks fresh’ to ‘food that has a story’.

Tender Greens and Sweetgreen both turning food into a different kind of story.

How to use this signal.

Definitions are a different kind of signal. When definitions change, it’s a reevaluation of our beliefs, but also a recommitment to our values.

Definitions, above all, need to be spelled out.

If, as a brand, you see that your audience is starting to untether themselves from a belief that centers around a core value, that’s a tremendous opportunity to help people define that change.

When consumers start to feel a change in their beliefs, it’s the brands who define those changes that win.

You can help people change the definitions around them, when they’re ready, by giving them a concrete stepping stone for getting there.

We didn’t know that we wanted to play with our makeup until Glossier defined that new relationship for us, although young women were starting to feel it.

We didn’t consciously realize that our cars were turning from self-expressive statements to utilitarian objects, but SUVs got us there. That’s why sedans have started to fade away and SUVs, the fastest growing truck category, have increased in shares to 42%, from 30% in 2010.

If you watch carefully, you will see a changing definition in your own industry (if not a few).

You can help people articulate it and become an important part of your user’s evolution into a new set of beliefs.


There’s always a signal.

I’ve seen that even in the stalest of industries, where it may seem as if there’s no innovation and no change in what consumers are searching for, there is, in fact, a signal.

It may be weak, but it’s there. Nothing in the market is static, and nothing about your audience is set in stone.

If you search for that emerging change, you will find it. Building a strategic brand means digging for those signals and making them a part of your DNA.


Where to push your brand forward in the next 2–5 years: An Industry Guide

Distinct brand challenges are emerging across every market, and they reveal untapped opportunities for the players that are willing to solve them.

People aren’t buying products anymore. They’re buying brands. That should make you think long and hard about what you’re actually selling.

Even the most mundane of companies — from those that sell toothpaste to those who hawk discount furniture assembly — realize that we are no longer selling goods, features or mere solutions for jobs to be done. We’re selling a story that sparks change in the consumer today, by showing them our brand vision for what the future can be tomorrow.

Some industries have moved forward faster on this than others. Hygiene, beauty, consumer technology and travel have seen huge steps forward in brand ideology. Finance, education and housing, not so much.

On top of these staggered gains hovers a cloud of rapidly changing user behaviors and perceptions.

In beauty, savvy consumers have dramatically shifted from single-brand loyalty to mixing and matching premium names with indie brands. A big part of the beauty experience is now about concocting your own Google-driven regimens.

In finance, peoples’ spending behavior has changed, but new values that pit immediate gratification against future uncertainty have created a tension we haven’t seen before. Brands in this space have done little, if anything, to ease that tension and create a new story around money (which is really a story around success and self worth — two deeply emotional themes).

Even if your brand-leading CPG company has gripped the attention of a lucrative audience, there’s a very good chance you may have educated your consumer past your product.

Specialty diet brands in niches like keto and paleo focus on content in order to build a cult following, but then that content creates a demanding consumer whose tastes quickly evolve out of the brands that sparked them in the first place.

Bulletproof may have opened your eyes to a new narrative around health, but soon enough MCT oils lead to adaptogens and nootropics, and a whole world of possibility that lives outside of the Bulletproof product mix.

Both rudimentary brands and evolved brands face the same problem — the world will not look the same in the near future.

It doesn’t matter how evolved a space is or isn’t. Every category is facing major brand challenges, and these challenges are market-making opportunities for the companies that are willing to solve them.

Below is a high-level rundown of what our agency is seeing in just a few category hotspots. There is a treasure trove of untapped opportunity here.

You may not see your industry on this list, but keep an open mind. Some of the greatest brand innovations have been inspired by outside industries.

You may not be in finance, but perhaps you’re in a space that hits on some of the same emotional triggers. You might not be selling a wellness product, but maybe a wellness story is exactly what can make people more open to trying your product in the first place.

This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it does cover some of the biggest brand challenges (slash opportunities) we see emerging in the next 2–5 years.

If you move your brand in a direction that solves these challenges, you’ll be poised for major payoff.

Use this as your treasure map.


[Also important for brands that face cultural bias, speak to users that are seeking ‘permission’ to consume/ engage, or are pushing up into new premium levels.]

Brands in the cannabis space, even the great ones like MedMen, are killing it with narratives related to relaxation, stress management and premium fun. But these are the industry’s 1.0 version of benefits.

As cannabis quickly grows up, we won’t be rewarding brands that sell us on benefits. We’ll reward the brand(s) that create a lifestyle.

There is no lifestyle in the cannabis industry right now, save for old cliched relics like the beach bum stoner or high school dropout.

A lifestyle is about values and belief systems, and that matters for the industry because creating a values-driven lifestyle around a product is the fastest way to circumvent cultural biases and fears (of which cannabis will have to contend with as it spreads from early adopters to the masses).

Our parents and neighbors will soon have access to CBD infused drinks, marijuana-laden dishes at restaurants and THC bath bombs, but without a lifestyle narrative, they will not know how to integrate these products into their lives with meaning.

Any brand can convince people to try a CBD drink or pot cookie once. But a very, very tiny fraction will figure out how to make the discerning consumption of these products a lifestyle marker.

The goal isn’t to get your mom to smoke a joint and relax. It’s to make her become a cannabis tastemaker.

(You can read more about the DNA of a lifestyle brand here.)


[Pay attention to this space if your brand is related to wellness or self-care, relies on scientific claims, or stands in the crosshairs between institutions and disruptors.]

Healthcare’s brand is caught between the truth and a lie.

Consumers are exhibiting a growing distrust of old institutions, “disease awareness campaigns” are turning benign conditions like excessive sweating into profitable medical maladies, peer reviewed journals are coming under fire for dubious content, and people like Gwyneth Paltrow and the Medical Medium, for all of their dissenters and critics, are still among the very few voices speaking to fatigued patients with empathy and compassion.

In all of these interactions, our health is constantly being pushed top of mind.

The Medical Medium’s unique style of empathetic nutrition is resonating with millions of people who are willing to turn a blind eye to science in search of something more human. There is a network of trust here that you’d be hard pressed to find in other health communities.

Its spilling into many other parts of our lives as well. No longer is it just under the purview of doctors, hospitals and researchers, but also our personal trainers, our phone apps, our grocery stores, and our Walmarts. It laces the fabric of countless consumer stories.

But all of that information is creating a unique problem.

When people see huge medical advancements on the horizon promising to treat cancer, yet somehow can’t figure out how to turn the results of their gut health testing kit into actionable, measurable lifestyle improvements, the system suffers a significant loss in trust.

All of that frustration and friction is eroding greater brand value.

‘If we’re so close to a cure for cancer, why can’t I make sense of my gut bacteria?’ What many don’t understand is that the perceived failure of that gut health kit is amplified 10-fold by the cure-for-cancer story that’s in the back of a user’s mind.

The fact is that health brands don’t just have to answer to the stories and expectations of their own niche, but those of the larger space as well.

In this case, the expectation isn’t about gut health, it’s about the modern miracles of science. That is the expectation that needs to be addressed and managed.

Even if you’re selling a simple product in this space, remember that it is not only your brand narrative that people are layering over their product experience, but any larger notions they have about healthcare as well.

Startups and old guards need to be far more diligent in mapping expectations and beliefs to actual experience, and to frame those experiences in an empathetic conversation that balances the promise of reaching the pinnacle of medicine with the opacity of how we will actually get there.

Wellness & Self-Care

[Also any brand that relies heavily on consumer education, or is going from niche to mainstream.]

There are a million different messages in wellness and self-care, but the strongest brands have done an excellent job of educating their early cohorts. Most narratives fall in two different camps — those that are empowering and mobilizing, or those that are disempowering and creating fear — and both have engendered sophisticated buyers as a result.

There are brands that heal from toxins, scary environmental threats, encourage restoration and retreating to a safe space. These brands are about getting from -1 to 0.

Then there are those that urge users to reach new levels of ability and productivity, to fight against the accepted norm and unlock hidden human potential. These brands are about getting from 0 to +1.

In wellness you are either healing or fighting. And on either side, information drives behavior.

That creates a problem for the masses of new consumers coming into the fold. There is a growing disconnect between early consumers who have been well educated and the wider masses that have a lot of catching up to do.

Because early adopters in this space are so regionally and demographically concentrated, every rising star wellness brand will have to start reaching downwards into the mainstream whether they like it or not. That means connecting a very sophisticated message with a more entry-level one.

The challenge will be figuring out how to connect these two very different groups and the spectrum of users that lies between them.

Perhaps in no other space will it be this critical to thread together different messages with one strong and resonant belief because in wellness, a consumer’s level of education defines the depth of their consumption.


[Look here if your brand is facing divergent value systems among consumers and institutions, or if old sources of meaning are starting to evaporate.]

Everything about money is emotional.

The vast majority of finance companies, both incumbents and startups, still think it’s about value and wealth. It’s not.

Money is about how we value and respect ourselves as individuals, what we believe we can accomplish, and most importantly, what we believe we deserve.

Someone who treats money like a scarcity is in a very different mental paradigm than someone who treats money like a game.

Today, most of finance is predominantly about a future reward. Savings, 401ks, estate planning, life insurance, portfolio trading… these are all about delayed gratification and value. Delayed gratification and value were also hallmarks of the Baby Boomer generation.

Gen X and millennial value systems, however, have become very present.

Lives, careers, families and identities have become very fluid, and perhaps even more personal and emotional as uncertainty has taken hold around us. We’re starting to see a huge divergence between the fluidity of our emotional value systems and the fixed rigidity of our utilitarian money stories.

The immediate challenge for companies in this space is to bring these financial instruments and services into the present value system of our daily lives. If I don’t know who I’m going to be in 5 years, how can I plan for the next 30?

What does retirement even mean anymore? What is the goal? And if we’re not clear on the goal, how can we write the story around it?

There is a long distance to cover between what money has historically meant, and the meaning it now holds in people’s hearts and minds.

Once you cover that distance, you have to strip it out of the ambiguous future and bring it into the tangible reality of today.


[Any brand in an old space with a story that refuses to die.]

The American Dream is a very deeply entrenched cultural narrative that connects homeownership with identity.

Even if we understand that the dream has become less and less attainable and perhaps needs to be replaced as a cultural narrative altogether, we still find ourselves lamenting its death. There remains a strong attachment to the idea that our homes mean something important about us as people.

But as with any major economic shift, there is a slew of young companies rushing in to create a new norm.

Startups ranging from those that rethink financing and sales, to those that redefine the mechanics of rentals and co-ownership stand a good chance of replacing the usual American Dream story with something more attuned to reality.


a16z partner partner Alex Rampell explains how as consumers get used to less friction and more transparency in the age of mobile, software is finally beginning to disrupt buying a home.


Companies like Divvy, which turn your monthly rent into a down payment on the home you’re living in over time, are accompanied by others like Point (which let’s you sell part of your house), Homeshare, HubHaus, Bungalow (all of which are creating some form of ‘WeWork for housing’), Flyhomes and Opendoor (focused on non-traditional solutions for buying and selling) and many others.

When companies like these create new formats for housing, they also change the way we live in and inhabit our homes.

Our relationship to the home is beginning to significantly change, in no small part because of companies like these. But any time there’s a big shift such this one, we need a strong, new story to effectively frame our experience as consumers. A story that tells us where we are in life, and the meaning that our home is to give us. A story that essentially tells us how to relate to this new living format.

And in this case, the American Dream story simply will not fit.

For brands in this space, there is a huge opportunity to create both a new narrative and a new vocabulary around who a person is through their relationship with the spaces they live in.

As traditional homeownership morphs into something else, consumers will be primed for a new perspective that validates both their homes and their station in life. They will be ready to feel the same pride and sense of accomplishment, but in a different kind of relationship with their living spaces.

We will need brands that can give us that perspective.

This isn’t about a space to live in. This is about what it means to live in these new spaces.


[If you’re a brand with an audience that’s evolving very rapidly, or in a category that has recently been fragmented.]

Travel and recreation culture, as it started in the US in the 1950s after soldiers returned home from war, was primarily focused on external values. With newfound time and money, and a newly expanded palate they had cultured overseas, men and their families wholeheartedly bought into this new consumerist category.

But from the beginning, travel and recreation was about an external set of values. It was about leisure time, entertainment, casual fun and of course, middle-class social status.

Today we’ve shifted to a much more internal set of values.

‘Travel and recreation’ has been replaced by ‘travel and experience’. We travel for self-discovery, wellness, personal identity and to find our place in the world. Travel is meant to reveal some deep truth within ourselves.

This is far more of an essential need than a nice-to-have, and with this new function of travel comes a new purpose. Travel is not about holidays, but about daily life.

People have evolved to value travel as a continuous necessity, but brands still treat it like a luxury.

Some people may find ways to actually travel more often, and some will not, but that almost doesn’t matter.

There’s an opportunity to build a brand world that matches this newly emerging consumer belief. Even Airbnb, one of my favorite brands which I’ve written about many times, doesn’t yet go this extra step.

What would the world look like if we talked about travel as a given requirement to everyday life? What if we gently shifted the conversation from travel as a major life event or rite of passage to travel as part of the American experience?

People are already having this conversation with themselves in their heads. They’re ready for a brand story that legitimizes that conversation in the world.

(I talk more about users, their internal dialogues, and how these dialogues shape their identities here.)



Use these challenges as conversation starters in your own company.

I promise that on the other side of each of these problems lies a huge opportunity to not only lead change in your space, but to redefine your goals and future direction as a brand.

Future challenges, in many ways, are just levers for creating a powerful brand.


The Defensibility Fallacy: Product vs. Brand


Defensible products do not make defensible brands, although it can be easy to confuse the two.

What makes a brand defensible?

The world talks a lot about product defensibility, but brand defensibility seems to be a far more abstract subject. How do you build a brand that not only triggers users to act, but also puts competitors in a natural position of weakness?

Defensibility itself is an inherent trait or quality that puts your company in a role that’s hard to challenge. It is an advantage in your DNA that places you in a white spot of the landscape, and often gets stronger with time.

Defensibility is the ultimate goal of brand strategy.

Anyone can make a brand. Very few can make a brand that naturally undermines the value of others in the space just by existing.

But if I ask CEOs, leaders and other strategists what brand defensibility actually is, they’ll usually confuse it with product defensibility.

When it comes to product, defensibility looks like:

  • Data Moats
  • Ecosystems
  • Network Effects
  • Intellectual Property (sometimes)

These are locking mechanisms. They lock people into an escalating commitment over time.

When people make the decision to switch from Apple’s iPhone ecosystem to Google’s Android ecosystem, they are running an equation in their heads: what is the cost/ pain of leaving a walled garden vs. the benefit/ reward of an open platform?

A similar locking mechanism is at play when someone considers using an alternative to Google Maps (data moats) or investing their personal lives in Instagram vs. Snapchat (network effects). The more you have invested, the harder it is to jump ship.

Product defensibility is really easy to spot, and for many, it can be easy to confuse it with brand defensibility. You may think Google’s trustworthy brand is borne of their data and ecosystems, but it’s not.

Brand defensibility looks very different than product defensibility:

  • Protected Narratives: Stories and storytelling devices that are fundamentally unavailable to your competitors. (I talk more about this here.)
  • Identity Validation: Validating a user, subculture or group that’s primed to be acknowledged. (Strategist Ana Andjelic does a great job of describing it here).
  • New Truth/ Worldview: A vision of the future that no one else can afford to tell. (I go deep into this topic here.)
  • Brand Perception: The trust, perceived sense of autonomy, and sense of “what this brand says about me”. (I explore a specific case study here.)

These are belief models. They are a highly personal logic that explains how something works in the real world, and they operate very differently than locking mechanisms.

Snapchat may have had strong network effects early on that caused people to join its platform, but it was Instagram’s belief model of Identity Validation and New Truth that said “A beautiful life on display is the only life worth living” which ultimately won out and made many of those same Snapchatters move their life investments over to Instagram.

When Instagram copied Snapchat’s ephemeral content with Stories, they erased any product advantage. But what caused the migration was their brand.

In other words, Instagram’s brand defensibility around identity and belief won over Snapchat’s product defensibility of network effects.

That dynamic underscores a critical point in product vs. brand:

Locking mechanisms force a decision based on short-term need.

Belief models create a behavior based on long-term desires.

I can tell you right now that behaviors based on long-term desires ultimately beat out decisions based on short-term needs, and we’re seeing that happen more and more in business every day.

Belief models move markets and make markets.

Food and beverage, travel, luxury, wellness, beauty — these are all markets based on belief models.

There’s very little IP or inherent product defensibility in these verticals. They rely on belief models in order to move product. You might even say that those belief models are the actual product themselves.

A belief model can easily move a market. But more importantly, it can launch entirely new markets and spaces that never existed before.

Many of you reading this will likely already have adopted a new belief model around functional ingredients.

This is a new slew of ingredients like CBD, adaptogens, nootropics, CoQ10, Vitamin C, turmeric, moringa oil, collagen and so on that are promising to change our lives. They’re finding their way into everything from makeup and ingestible beauty to infused drinks and functional foods.

They tell the intoxicating story of “inside out” potential — the belief model that anything can be cured or optimized with the right functional ingredient. Find the right ingredient, and you can unlock something amazing within yourself.

This belief model, although very new, has already had huge impact in consumer markets.

If you pay close attention, you’ll see that it not only moved many markets like food, beverage, beauty and luxury, but also created new ones in personal development, productivity and medicine.

… and it all came from a market progression that already existed. In beauty alone, the story is clear:

  • The “all natural” movement of the 1980s and 1990s: Natural, clean, unscented — ingredients were about purity, and we centered our values around that belief. Brands like Jergen’s All Natural came on the scene, Dove introduced their unscented bar, Burt’s Bees graduated from its cult following.
  • The “actives” obsession of the 2000s: People begin to believe in immediate results and visible change. Botox, limp plumpers, tooth whitening kits, eyelash serums and new plastic surgery procedures all become popularized.
  • The “functional” frontier of today: Charcoal, ginseng, adaptogens, CBD, hemp and special supplements all reflect the belief that we can unlock something within ourselves with the right functional ingredients. Brands like Moon Juice, Vital Proteins, Ambika Herbals, Dirty Lemon and Kalumi Beauty are a tiny fraction of the companies that have rushed in to fill the new demand based on this belief model.

Don’t forget the emerging authority of functional medicine, gut health and alternative medicine, too.

More and more, we are driven by our belief models over our logical short-term needs.

The way we choose to understand the world is driving our purchase decisions. The evidence is right here in front of us.

Defensible brands can survive without defensible products, but not vice versa.

You can’t win the war with only a defensible product.

The moment someone comes in and layers a compelling, defensible brand on top of a similar product, you’ll lose.

The opposite — a defensible brand without a defensible product — can actually win.

A perfect place to see this happening is in fashion.

Defensible product is almost unheard of in fashion. Spend some time on Diet Prada’s feed and you’ll see why. Not only do all brands constantly steal ideas from each other, but everyone is pretty much helpless in safeguarding their designs, looks or processes from a competing label.

One of countless copycat callouts on Diet Prada’s feed.

There is no IP in fashion. There are no data moats, ecosystems or network effects.

And when you take away all of those product protections, all that is left is brand. That brand is a story. It’s a story that heavily employs Identity Validation and Brand Perceptions.

If you try to dissect a company like Prada, Michael Kors or Burberry, you’ll see that under that story there is not much else. The clothes themselves are interchangeable and meaningless. The actual product is irrelevant.

It is our beliefs about that clothing brand, and what that brand says about us when we wear it, that drives our purchases.

We do not buy to clothe ourselves for comfort against the elements. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves by way of the brands we wear.

Never has this been proven so true than when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had used fashion tastes to identify right-wing voters at Business of Fashion’s 2018 conference.

‘”Preferences in clothing and music are the leading indicators of political leaning,” said Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower.

Clothing serves as such a strong belief model that we can, with great accuracy, determine a population’s political leanings based on it:

The narratives of the great American brands, which play on the myths of the West and the (mostly male) frontier are also the narratives of the Republican right. Those who choose to spend on the former are susceptible to the latter. He mentioned Wrangler and L.L. Bean in particular as brands that Cambridge Analytica aligned with conservative traits.

(Kenzo, by contrast, which is designed by Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, the avant-garde duo behind the retail store Opening Ceremony, appealed to liberals, he suggested.)

This is a tremendous example of how defensible products (and the locking mechanisms behind them) operate very differently than defensible brands (and the belief models they employ.)

Locking mechanisms are logical levers that can be reduced to pros and cons, but belief models are far more flexible representations of the relationship between things.

Belief models are a combination of our knowledge, experiences and intuition, and they can easily cause us to replace black-and-white reasoning with more colorful ideology — such as with fashion.

The fact is you can’t fight ideology with logic.

Once we believe the world works a certain way, we bend logic into that framework.

The more an audience is bombarded with choice, fragmentation and competing truths like we are today, the more valuable these ideologies become. They’re crucial frameworks for our behaviors.

We’re living in an age when those ideologies have become everything.

Belief models for the future.

Nothing is defensible eternally — product, brand or otherwise. But focusing on brand defensibility in the first 2–5 years of your venture can set your company up for a decade of dominance.

I believe that no matter your industry, whether you are B2B or B2C, the brand is what you are selling. In which case, you need to do everything possible to make sure that brand is defensible.

Brands, just like products, have to evolve over time with their customers. Belief models, no matter how strong they are today, will be supplanted by new ones in coming years and generations.

Pay attention to the ideologies that are growing within your audiences. They will always lead you into the future of where your brand needs to be.


How To Tell A Story People Will Never Forget

[Photo by Very Quiet.]

5 rules for deep storytelling that go beyond the obvious.

I already write a lot about what makes a good story. Equally as important, however, is how you tell it.

If you’ve ever told a good story but failed to get an engaged response, it’s likely because you weren’t opening the world of that story wide enough so that the audience could step inside of it.

The stories we carry with us are carefully wrapped and sealed memories in our minds. We create mental frameworks and language structures around them in order to preserve what’s inside.

But if you want others to experience that story the way you did, you’ll need to pry away some of those layers in order to let them in.

The stories people remember — whether they are brand stories, personal tales or cultural narratives — are the ones that reveal something about the listener, and you can’t do that if you‘re stuck in the perspective of the teller.

Memorable stories also follow some common patterns:

  • Repetition: Themes, poetry, recurring feeling… these are the things we are often left with in a good story. If you ever read Love You Forever as a child (or parent), I guarantee the repetition of that book stayed with you for years later into life.
  • Surprises: Emotional or otherwise. The surprise character, the surprise twist, the surprise ending… but nothing comes close to the surprise realization. Think of the epiphany you experienced watching The Matrix, Jurassic Park, Philadelphia or Super Size Me for the first time. We all walked into the theater one person, and out another.
  • Proof: The proof is in the delivery. If the story tells me something, then the delivery demonstrates its validity. Whether it’s the simplicity, passion, poeticism, authority or conviction of that delivery, it’s how it’s told that matters. Look at any popular TED Talk and you’ll see why.

From these patterns come 5 rules for deep storytelling that we’ll dive into in the next section:

1. Make the first sacrifice.
2. Trade the lesson for the theme.
3. Create pockets of emotional contrast.
4. Don’t give them a chance to ask.
5. Make your claim, then explain it.

As you read, you’ll notice they’re not so much about communicating a story to your audience, but rather creating a shared experience with them.

That shared experience dissolves the separation between you and the listener/ reader/ spectator, so that they may be able to walk inside the same universe you’re revisiting.

If done right, you will cause a small change in others, just as the story created a change within you.

Effective stories leave both you and the audience as different people by the end.

Know where that end point is, and then use these principles to help get them there.


1. Make the first sacrifice.

Storytelling is an exchange where one offers something, and asks the other for their attention in return.

It‘s a clear give and take, just as you might feel in a conversation with a stranger on the subway or a sales clerk — through their intonations and reactions, you will quickly know just how willing they are to exchange with you.

Your first words are the invitation to an intimate trade.

The sooner you can sense the willingness coming (or not coming) from the other side, the sooner you’ll be able to control how the trade plays out.

Conventional wisdom says to open with a personal anecdote in order to create a connection with your audience, but that’s not good advice.

We all have anecdotes, and just because they are personal doesn’t mean the audience will care.

What people do care about, however, is the gesture of sacrifice.

A sacrifice is an intimate piece of yourself that reveals how you view the world.

Scott Galloway consistently makes the first sacrifice in his No Mercy/ No Malice blog. Each post masterfully raises the stakes at the top of the exchange.

In the opening for his recent post ‘What Is Heaven?’, he surfaces an unmistakable emotional fingerprint:

Read the full post (highly recommended) here.

This could have easily been a two-dimensional personal anecdote, but instead, he ventured into personal thoughts that expose his view of the world as it was formed. We were actually given something beneath the surface of the story, and that gesture compelled us to move deeper.

In such a moment of vulnerability, you’re offering something of true value — your emotional fingerprint and unique context that signals where the exchange may go.

It is this gesture, not the story or personal anecdote, that communicates your willingness to trade. Your audience can either rise to meet your willingness or shy away from it, but the one thing they cannot do is remain indifferent.

The first sacrifice works because it operates on persuasion.

A recent study by a team of research psychologists in Texas found that when it comes to persuasive communication, framing your relationship with the other party can be enough to sway someone to your will.

A group of dating couples was recruited in order to see if different communication styles yielded different results in relationship negotiation.

The act of framing the relationship worked significantly better than coercion or even rationalization.

…there was a third set of communicators who employed a breathtakingly simple and successful procedure that we term the relationship-raising approach. Before making a request for change from their partner, they merely made mention of their existing relationship.

They might say, “You know, we’ve been together for a while now” or “We’re a couple; we share the same goals.” Then, they’d deliver their appeal: “So, I’d appreciate it if you could find a way to change your stand on this one.” Or, in the most streamlined version of the relationship-raising approach, these individuals simply incorporated the pronouns “we,” “our,” and “us” into their request.

Similarly, storytelling is a negotiation for time and attention.

Framing it in the context of a human relationship can tip the negotiation in your favor… and there is nothing more human than a revealing gesture or intimate offering.

When Galloway says he’s “pretty sure she’s standing in a corner in hell”, he is framing our relationship in a common empathy. Yes, we agree with his worldview, and we want more.

Saying you had a bad early experience with religion is a common refrain with little to offer. Describing how that early experience changed your childhood, your view of your mother in the corporate world, and your relationship with your own children is a true offering.

You can’t just tell the story. You have to give it.

2. Trade the lesson for a theme.

Most people don’t understand how a theme can transform a story, but look no further than some of our favorite cultural narratives and the effect is undeniable.

If we look at recent Pulitzer Prize winning novels and ask ourselves, “what was the point of this story?” it might be hard to immediately say. There may have been no real point or moral to the story to begin with.

If, however, we asked for themes, then the answers jump right out.

Narrative themes come from undeniable human truths that drive every outcome to the same place.

To give your story a theme is to give it an irresistible human depth. Themes reveal themselves over and over again, in different forms, but always constant.

We internalize themes more readily than lessons or morals to the story because instead of learning them, we rediscover them.

Narrative themes are a device we see a lot in television, too.

Have you ever noticed that some of your favorite episodes show different character arcs all revolving around the same thematic message?

In the Parks and Recreations episode End of the World (S4 E6), every character is living out the undeniable life theme of “having to let go of the past in order to move into the future”.



Leslie and Ben finally confront the reality of their breakup as Shauna Malwae-Tweep begins to enter the picture, Tom and Jean-Ralphio shutter their entertainment startup with a massive party where Tom gets closure with an ex, April and Andy finish off Andy’s bucket list as a newly wed couple, and it’s all couched in the story of the Reasonabilists — a cult that is celebrating the end of the world in a Pawnee park.

Everyone is exploring the same theme, but in different ways.

There may be no lesson or point, but the show’s story moves forward in a deeply satisfying way.

The same thing happened in most episodes of The Office, as it does each Sunday night in Westworld.

Themes thread a story together. They create a rich bedrock of feeling that everything else is built upon.

Even when we can’t remember the details of a good story, the theme helps us remember how we felt when we heard it.

3. Create pockets of emotional contrast.

We remember moments of heightened emotion more than other memories.

That’s why stories that compel an emotional response are the ones we tend to remember and repeat. It’s because scientifically speaking, emotion helps encode the story in our brains.

But other than following the conventional advice to communicate with passion and use strings of emotive words, how do we effectively draw out emotion in our audience?

By focusing on the distance between emotional states in the progression of a story.

Emotion is created in the contrasts.

Emotional responses are relative, and you can craft your story in a way that highlights the emotional fluctuations of your narrative as it moves forward.

In his 2014 speech to the graduating class of Maharishi University of Management, Jim Carrey created great distance between emotional highs and lows, one after another, in quick succession.



When he begins to tell his personal story about halfway through the speech, Carrey steadfastly traverses loss, glee, fear, silliness, irreverence, pride and sobering vulnerability without losing a beat.

He deliberately paired together contrasting emotions to create deep pockets of contrast.

Any time the emotion changes in a story, you can create a pocket that invites the audience in.

This goes for brand stories as well.

D2C (Direct to Consumer) brands have to be especially smart in how they position their stories because it’s often the story, not the product, that they’re actually selling.

Biossance, like many upstart beauty brands, has a social cause tied into their business model. But unlike most other brands, they turned that do-good message into an effective emotional spark point:

“A world changed” isn’t about doing good or donating to a cause. It’s about a very tangible epiphany. A new truth.

Brand-led companies like this have a specific point of view, and their stories demonstrate their commitment to it.

Others create emotional contrast through similar ‘aha’ moments — where once life was one way, and now it’s not.

Hims has a very lighthearted story and tone, but their ‘aha’ moment is quite evocative:

“We call bullshit” reverses generations of harmful gendered stereotypes.

You can move the pivot points of your story forward by using ‘aha’ moments, epiphanies and pockets of emotional contrast.

These are great devices for creating the spark that makes a story stick in peoples’ minds.

4. Don’t give them a chance to ask.

One of the most important principles we work into our branding and sales strategies for clients at Concept Bureau is to answer the question before it’s been asked.

Any time you’re telling a story — whether it’s regaling friends at a party, pitching a client, winning team buy-in or soft selling an idea — it’s imperative to anticipate the needs of your audience so that no questions arise.

If you give your listener a chance to ask, “wait, how did that happen?” or “hold on, didn’t you feel scared?”, you’ve lost control of your narrative.

And chances are you won’t even be able to answer the questions in the first place. Most people ask in their heads, but never out loud. Then they zone out and you have no chance at owning their interest again.

I listened to Howard Stern during a year of free Sirius XM that came with my new car, and despite my ambivalent feelings on the nature of his content, I couldn’t deny just how masterful an interviewer he was.

There was one interview so good, I sat in my parked car for 20 minutes after my bootcamp class had started, and nearly missed my session altogether:



Gossipy indulgence aside… why was it so good?

Because Howard Stern pushed Franco to answer the burning questions in our minds when he sensed Franco wasn’t giving them to us.

Howard Stern, not Franco, made the story emerge.

He gently guided the conversion so that no question lingered in our minds for more than a moment.

We’ve all been on the other side of that conversation where someone may be talking in detail, but fails to anticipate the things we are curious about. That makes for a frustrating and un-memorable experience.

You can certainly build tension with the plot of your story, but don’t create tension with the details.

Memorable stories anticipate the things we will be curious about.

There’s an old political adage that says “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” That’s basically all you need to know on this point.

If there is a lingering question, you’ve created distance between you and your listener.

Even if your story is written or presented asynchronously with your audience, imagine your listeners are in the room with you. Let them interrupt you and guide how to move forward.

When there is nothing to ask, people can give themselves fully to the narrative.

5. Make your claim, then explain it.

Most people do this in the reverse order.

We often explain and explain until we finally arrive at our point.

Confident people make their bold point up front and then follow with an explanation. It’s not only more satisfying for the listener, it’s also an effective way to convey authority.

Making your claim first is like putting your flag on a map.

It’s like saying, ‘This is where I am taking you. Now let me show you how we will get there.’ If you reverse that sentiment, it loses all of its power.

Warby Parker does exactly this with their About page (red underline added):

The story first plots each point with conviction, and then explains how they arrived at that point.

Although it may seem a bit stilted and counterintuitive in practice, writing a story this way creates an authoritative voice that much easier to trust and follow.

Compare that to the story of the Australian eyewear label Pared:

This is just as true a story as Warby Parker’s, but notice how different this chronological telling is when there is no mapping of strong points for the audience to tether themselves to.

Not only is there no structure, but there is no memorable anchor to internalize. If there are meaningful points, they are buried in a stream of consciousness.

To tell a strong story, lay out your claims at the top of each arc.



Many of the keys to being a good storyteller are the same things that make you a good communicator.

Unforgettable stories are the ones that make people realize something about themselves.

Make them take a side.

Force them to reconcile something in their heads.

Change their worldview (no matter how slightly).

Stepping outside of yourself, making the memory come alive and creating a shared experience with your audience are, more simply put, just ways to lower the barrier between you and another person.

If you have a great story to share, make sure you’re sharing it in a way people can truly experience.


If You’re Not Taking These Risks, You’re Not Building A Brand

3 moves you need to be making right now.

Brands emerge from choices.

A brand isn’t your website or tagline. It’s every decision and action you take, and the meaning that emerges from those activities.

Brands occur between the lines. When you consistently make on-brand decisions about your sales, operations, communications, UX, product development, CSR, partnerships, new markets and new hires, you are demonstrating a commitment to a larger belief.

If people can find a common and compelling thread among those choices, then you’ve successfully brought a brand to life.

But the kind of brand you are creating is a different story.

There may be a common thread, but if the thread is mundane or unimportant, it won’t travel far.

The Italian coffee shop at the airport is highly branded with a voice, set of service principles and beautiful aesthetic, but I will still pay more for inferior coffee at Starbucks because the Starbucks brand taps into a larger belief about work and connection.

A compelling brand takes risks.

Risks are decisions just like anything else you can spend your resources on at your company, but I would argue that taking risks is one of the most important things you can do.

I recently took an Instagram poll asking people to choose from topics in the world of branding that they’d like some discussion on… and risk taking was the clear winner (follow me on Instagram to be a part of the next poll.)

I’ve written about brand risks extensively, from having a POV on the future and resisting the temptation to be better, to alienating non-targets and creating tension.

There’s an infinite world of calculated risk out there for any company to navigate, but there are a handful of decisions that most companies would benefit from making right now.

1. Tell the story you don’t want to tell.

Every entrepreneur I meet has two versions of their story — the version they tell, and the version they hide. The job of brand strategy isn’t to bury the less glossy story (or what some may call the truth).

Good brand strategy takes the whole story and makes meaning out of it.

I was in Tokyo recently where I met a fantastic Chinese fashion startup, and although they had created a phenomenal product with a phenomenal team and bold ideas about the future, they were conflicted on what to do with the fact that their materials were created in China.

Although they took great pride in the heritage and quality of their textile facilities, the origin story troubled them.

I could understand. Chinese manufacturing, especially in high-end fashion, has very clear and negative connotations in markets like the US.

My recommendation was to turn around that Made In China stereotype and actively own it. Define a new wave of manufacturing in the country that was emerging from the ruins of the old guard, and use PR and content to position the fashion brand as the figurehead for a fascinating textile manufacturing renaissance that was just emerging in pockets throughout the country — including their own plants.

I’ll admit, that wasn’t easy advice to take.

It’s a huge risk for any brand to try and overcome and reverse decades of belief about its country.

But it was the right risk, and the only risk worth taking. In some regards Ikea has done it. Samsung did it before them. Not taking that risk is a bigger potential pitfall than taking it.

Another consultant the company had spoken to suggested they avoid the Made In China fact, citing the cultural difference between America and China. It was her belief that the two countries have different value systems, and making one care about the other’s was an impossible task.

First off, no. A smart brand willing to take a risk can make people care. That is what brand strategy, at it’s most basic level, is supposed to do.

This is what I do for a living, and I can tell you that the craft of changing consumers’ hearts and minds is no different for big challenges as it is for small small challenges — you change the story in order to own it.

Secondly, if you don’t own your entire story, then someone will use it against you.

Even worse, someone else will turn Made In China into a valuable asset, and that opportunity will be lost for your brand.

Every time you are faced with a liability, find a way to turn it into an asset.

Tell the story you don’t want to tell.

There is a way to make it work.

2. Show your face.

If you’re a CEO, you don’t need to be the face of your brand, but you do need to show your face (figuratively, not literally).

Accountability, transparency and humanity aren’t features anymore. They’re baseline expectations. At the very least, you‘re expected to make your brand honest.

Honesty means a lot of things, from customer support best practices to checks and balances in the value chain.

But nothing signals honesty the way an accessible leader can. To hide behind a brand name and pretend the CEO is not a public figure is a copout.

As I’ve said, every decision is a building block in the foundation of your brand, and the decision to not show your face as the founder or CEO is to say that the brand doesn’t have a human behind it.

Customers need to understand that the buck stops somewhere. That there is a person who is willing to be accountable.

Showing your face means you have the guts to stand behind what you’ve created.

It’s a risk. Of course it is. When shit goes sideways (which it will) your face is the one people will be coming after.

As a leader, that’s the job you signed up for.

But taking ownership of the company, good or bad, always pays off. I have seen this time and time again, no matter the size, stage or industry of our clients.

Tell your individual story as it relates to the brand, personally seek out feedback from customers, blog about your beliefs and steps forward in the industry, and be willing to engage in public conversations with other stakeholders from time to time.

If you’re shy, if you’re modest, or if you’re like many of my clients and are just uncomfortable with the idea of being known, I’d encourage you to do some soul searching.

You started your company for a reason. There’s nothing wrong in taking ownership.

People want to know exactly what (and who) they are putting their trust in.

3. Find a white space for the brand, not just the product.

Ah, the landscape axes. A fundmanetal slide in every pitch deck.

Love ’em or hate ’em, if you’re actually honest about those axes, they can reveal some powerful opportunities.

I find many entrepreneurs create them for their products, but very few actually look at the landscape for their brand identities as well.

Your product sits against a set of feature/ benefit axes, but your brand sits against narrative axes: the stories that are being told in the product playing field.

Just as with product, the axes you choose will drastically effect the placement of you and other relevant players. That’s why it’s important that you choose wisely.

When looking at which brand axes to plot against, ask yourself these questions:

  • Where do the prevalent stories in the space start to diverge from the behaviors of our users?
  • Which narratives do we take for granted? Which narratives are ready to be challenged?
  • Which stories are so entrenched that they go unquestioned in the space?
  • What stories have become so big that the competitors who tell them will have a hard time straying away from them?
  • What stories can our competitors not tell?

The story you tell should be defensible and difficult for your competitors to follow or co-opt. That’s exactly what this set of questions is designed to uncover.

It can feel risky to look at your brand in a competitive environment, because for the humble founder it’s oftentimes hard to see the brand as more than just the sum of it’s products and features. But that’s a mental trap.

Your brand should measure up to more than just the sum of your products and features.

If products + features was enough, Starbucks wouldn’t be beating that Italian coffee shop at the airport.



If actions speak louder than words, then every move your company makes is a brand signal.

One of the most important signals you can send is that you are willing to take risks. Risk is rewarded in the consumer market, and the most important risks lay in the bedrock of your brand identity.

Every risk taken is a brand signal sent.

Be bold and show people that what you say is almost as important as what you do.


The California Concept: When a Belief Is Constantly Reborn

Creating an immortal brand, no matter how many times it has to die in the process.

California has always intrigued me as a brand, and it’s not because I was born here.

It wasn’t until I left America that I fully understood the magnitude of everything that is the golden state. This is a brand that lives and morphs independently of its borders, in ways that are hard to appreciate until you take a flight out.

I’ve lived and traveled abroad over many years, but my six-month journey across Europe and Asia this past year forced me to see California the way others see it — a giant, amorphous bastion of freedom that can mean anything to anyone.

Not very specific as far as brands go, but surprisingly very powerful.

Whether it’s Designed In California, the hippie movement, the movie industry, a burgeoning technology sector, the countercultures of mind-expanding drugs, biker gangs and communal living, or picturesque beaches laid alongside snowy mountains, people perceive California as both uncontrollably alive and deeply exciting.

Decades of policy and planning, and a rich natural geography have lent themselves to that strong identity, but there’s something much bigger to recon with.

It is the vast mental geography that California represents in peoples’ minds — the constantly growing narrative of free opportunity — that’s fascinating from a branding perspective.

Somehow, despite America’s clearly declining brand in the international community (of which I got an anti-American earful in many cafes and Uber rides), the California brand continues to capture the hearts and minds of people who have never stepped foot in the state.

French, German and American ads for travel to California.

Noting a difference in reception a long time ago, I stopped introducing myself as from America, and instead defaulted to being a California native.

It’s one thing to tell people that you come from America. It’s quite a different thing to tell them you’re a Californian.

I’ll never forget a sales clerk in London who once said to me with complete sincerity, “You’re from California! Why did you come here?”

I get responses like this in wealthy countries, not-so-wealthy countries, westernized countries and non-westernized ones. I get it from people of all ages and backgrounds, each one taking a markedly different angle on what California means to them.

It’s worth asking ourselves why this brand works in ways that others don’t.

How has it implanted itself into the psyches of people so vastly different across mentality, lifestyle and age?

How has the California brand traveled so far, while meaning so many things to so many people at once?

… especially since the truth behind California isn’t always synonymous with the myth.

The road system is in the greatest state of disrepair it has ever been in, critical gridlock wastes immeasurable money and man hours, and the beaches you see in postcards are covered in litter.

Our homeless population is growing at alarming double-digit rate and the funds to help fix the situation are tied up in the court system. Hate crimes have jumped nearly as much as homelessness, all while prohibitive tax laws continue to cause valuable businesses (and their jobs) to leave.

And that sparkling sense of freedom?

It’s been complicated by a profoundly corrupt justice system, persistent gender inequality, continuously surprising/ unsurprising forms of racism and an economic reality that’s making it harder and harder to live here.

California Republic flag.

I could have told all of this to the sales clerk in London, but it wouldn’t have tarnished the California brand in her mind.

That’s because California isn’t really a place or an entity.

California is a belief.

And how does a belief persist for so long, despite inconvenient truths and lack of proof or experience? When that belief is reborn over and over again.

California has a way of dying, resurrecting, and regenerating itself. Our faith in it is continuously lost and then found. We forget and then remember ourselves once more.

That cycle is especially compelling from a distance, where a state that is reconciling its unappealing idiosyncrasies looks more like a brand that is rising to meet whatever need the viewer may have in his or her heart.

There is always the promise that California will become something new.

To be honest, it does look like this in real life. [Photo by Ev.]

The Tireless Business of Rebirth

Being a bastion of freedom is a heavy brand pillar to carry.

Freedom isn’t concrete. It’s a belief with many definitions, and every definition is personal.

The vision of the ‘overnight success’, a clear sub-brand of freedom, has been reborn over and over again in this state:

  • The rags to riches ideal of the Gold Rush starting in the late 1840s
  • The 1930s golden age of Hollywood stars being born
  • The wunderkind, college dropout millionaire of Silicon Valley today

Each one of these eras represents the emergence, death and rebirth of the ‘overnight success’ phenomenon, and thus a regenerated freedom belief anew.

Freedom, like every other belief, stays strong when it is kept alive… no matter how many times it has to die in the process.

We see another sub-brand of freedom in the vision of ‘self-discovery’.

  • The health resort/ sanitarium movement of the 1870s (which has parlayed into a popular culture best demonstrated by the Rehab Riviera of today)
  • The free love hippie movement of 1960s, which overlapped with the LSD and drug movement of the 1970s, and corresponding lifestyle communes we still see being developed in different regions
  • The self-empowered food movements of recent history — such as Norman W. Walker’s juicing trend, the brain-powering Bulletproof coffee craze and the curious Moon Juice powders for everything from good sex to clear mindedness— all of which originated in California

We also see it in the notion of ‘escape’, or the freedom to leave, move and go wherever one pleases:

  • The western frontier, which has penetrated the American consciousness from the very first settlers to risk their lives on the Oregon Trail, to the pioneers who took us to the moon, and the explorers of today in the world of tech
  • The highly romanticized image of hitting the road on Route ’66 throughout multiple generations
  • The emerging trends of international citizenship, digital nomads, and experiential travel

Again, each passing era is a birth, death and subsequent rebirth — only in a different form as a different phenomenon.

Designed In California is an interesting sub-brand to to consider as well: think typography, stylistic representations of everything from surf culture to to California fashion, personal computers, smartphones and social media.

As the Design Museum of London noted in their recent California exhibition:

“California design is shaping the nature of the 21st century.”

That’s a big statement that underscores a simple fact: California has an outsized influence on the world.

And its influence travels far.

That ubiquitous California seal t-shirt you see everywhere? It’s huge overseas.

It perhaps means something even greater to someone who lives in a different country.

The allure of the California brand overseas: Japanese Influencer Hiromi from Nadia Harajuku wearing a Vans California t-shirt (via Tokyo Fashion), Italian blogger and influencer Chiara Ferragni wearing a vintage inspired California tank, South Korean actor and singer Lee Min-ho on set of Heirs/ The Inheritors wearing an ‘I Heart California’ shirt.

UC Davis professor of architecture and urban history Simon Sadler, describes it as (surprise) a promise of freedom and opportunity:

“California design promises to do something, to enable its subjects to attain a better and more replete future. Over-wrought though that might seem, the beautiful (Apple) boxes shipping from California contain this covenant, illusory or real.”

To wear a California shirt as a Japanese person in Japan, or Korean person in Korea, is to make a statement about your beliefs and attitudes.

And I guarantee each person wears it for a different reason.

Through whichever death and rebirth of whichever sub-brand of freedom, they found a space somewhere in the narrative to fit themselves in.

… and that is what I call the California Concept: the constant rebirth of a belief that keeps a brand coherent, but at the same creates enough latitude for a whole spectrum of meaning.

No two people I have ever met abroad have described their love of California to me in the same way.

Whether they fawn over the food culture, weather without cold seasons, surfing community, startup scene or lavish middle class living, one thing stays consistent — their belief in California’s freedom. A freedom they may feel is lacking in their own lives.

The location of the belief moves, but the belief itself remains.

Photo by Jacob Repko.

What It Means To Brand Around A Living & Dying Belief

A state is very different than a CPG company or tech startup, but there are some truths here that can help us reframe branding in a forward-thinking way.

When a belief is constantly reborn, it feels new and relevant to an audience. Every generation and/ or group is able to be a part of its creation. They develop a sense of ownership and connection.

They experience a genesis that isn’t tethered to a time or place. That is why when a belief is constantly reborn, its ideas can spread further and faster.

So what does rebirthing mean exactly?

As far as the California Concept is concerned, it means a few things.

If you follow my writing, you know that I like to stick to examples of companies that do it right, rather than companies that do it wrong. It’s a lot harder to write that way, but a lot more useful.

That being said, I don’t really see a true rebirthing in any corporate brands today, and so these examples below are to help start a discussion of how the California Concept can be used in branding going forward.

1. Always keep the cycle going. Letting something emerge and form — and once it dies, letting it stay in the past — can be difficult. But that’s exactly why California works the way it does.

It’s been a trend for many brands to go back to their roots and resurrect an original (read: retro) version of themselves. That’s a strategy, and given the current consumer need for authenticity, it has oftentimes worked.

But that’s just one cycle. It can’t last forever or simply work on its own.

The belief behind the brand of Pabst Blue Ribbon is ‘autonomy’. It was an under-the-radar, independently-minded, small brewing company that, in the late 2000-aughts, stood in stark contrast to the amped up, collectivist bro culture touted by brands like Budweiser and Coors.

They were extremely smart in tapping into the hipster counterculture that most aligned with their autonomy ideal, and seeded the brand among bike messenger communities that they knew would help spread that belief to the right people.

In that strategy, Pabst’s marketers created the perfect conditions for a huge spark around the ‘autonomy’ ideal. If you lived in San Francisco at the time like I did, you likely remember the Pabst renaissance happening in every hipster bar.

They were smart in rebirthing the belief, but when it died as we reached peak PBR and the once autonomous brand was now perceived as mainstream (being consumed by yuppies and middle class parents as much as it was by counterculturists), they had done nothing to rebirth it in a new form.

That belief was contained in one moment in time and place.

Instead of being resurrected in something new, it was extended in something old.

Pabst worked hard to lengthen the cycle, but it ended up hurting the brand. Had it been reborn in another form, it would have traveled even further without being perceived as mainstream in the same way.

The rebirth of the belief creates a tight narrative, but provides room for different meanings among different people.

2. Let things die. If they won’t die, kill them. Sometimes the best way to kill something is to push something new into its place (much like romantic relationships and songs that get stuck in your head).

UC Berkeley has had a hard time rebirthing its belief around ‘human potential’, not because the school hasn’t moved into new story cycles, but because an old and very persistent cycle hasn’t properly died.

When most people think of the Berkeley brand, they think of flower child hippies in the streets, the civil rights movement, citizen activism and open-minded creativity. Put another way, they think liberal arts.

But Berkeley isn’t a liberal arts school, and it hasn’t been for a very long time.

For decades now, Berkeley has prioritized heavy investments in science, mathematics and engineering, and in 2015 it announced the launch of a $250 million fund to invest in startups are borne of UC research.

When I was there completing my undergraduate degree in Literature over 15 years ago, I wasn’t aware of this new rebirth via STEM. STEM wasn’t even in my vocabulary.

Instead, I was caught up in the old cycle of the university’s yesteryears.

Berkeley’s old reputation had been heavily communicated to me and many of my peers through music, film, media and pop culture. If you head up to Berkeley now, you’ll still find vestiges of hippie art, 1960’s inspired storefronts, and altars to its related movements.

The school hadn’t done enough to signal to people like me that this was now a time of rebirth.

I resentfully watched for 4 years as new buildings and facilities were being erected on the science campuses, while my dark and moldy literature classrooms didn’t even have enough functioning desks.

That lack of signaling created a misalignment of expectations for many students, and colored a very significant experience in our lives.

Little did we know that we weren’t really where we thought we were.

If Berkeley had killed that old story during the time of its rebirth, it would have enjoyed a much stronger and unified reputation as a school that existed around the ‘human potential’ belief, rather than a school existing around the fighting notions of science and art.

Death and rebirth help unify a brand’s narrative.

3. It’s only a rebirth if the user experiences a total change. You can’t take something old, add a veneer, and call it new.

Every rebirth must take a different form if the user is to re-commit their belief in your brand.

I hate to say this, especially given the tremendous value Apple has added to the California identity, but the company is at risk of undermining their brand belief of ‘thinking different’ if they don’t find a new way to reintroduce it to the world.

Over the past decade, the company has relied on a slew of impressive product releases to uphold the belief.

But before that, Apple used design elements (UI, iconography, typography), message-driven content in the form of compelling ads, and the bold moves of its CEO to keep the belief alive after many deaths.

Through Jony Ive’s highly publicized design vision and Angela Ahrendts’ push to turn Apple Stores into community hubs, they’ve tried to complement their product launches with other belief-building activities in this new age of Apple.

But for the consumer (especially one that is shelling out more and more cash), there is little to no new experience to be had here.

As peripheral efforts fail to live up to their potential, all that is left is the latest new device.

And relying on products alone is a risky move.

Many will agree that the experience of upgrading from an iPhone 5 to a 7 Plus felt like an exciting and meaningful change both outwardly and inwardly, but going from a 7 Plus to an iPhone X paled in comparison. Not because the feature jump was any less impressive, but because the experience of that change is no longer new to us.

The stories of design and commerce aren’t new. They’re actually quite old to the Apple DNA and very valuable tenets of heritage, but without a new cycle to resurrect the belief in a measurably new way, customers will begin to stray.

It’s only new if it feels new.


Life and death is an interesting lens to look at brand building through. We’re forced to part with the things we love before we’re ready, and embark on new paths before we even know what they are.

The greatest brands are living things that respect their own life and death cycles.

That is the magic of California, and the magic of creating something that lives outside of any borders, features or definitions you may give it.

Come to California to witness it.

Or better yet, fly out of the country to really feel it for yourself 😉

User Experience

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

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

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

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

All of those labels indicate a state of being.

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

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

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

But today, none of those rules stand.

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

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

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

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

All of these new labels indicate a state of becoming.

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

“I’m writing a novel.”

“I’m trying to get to 5k followers.”

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

“I’m fundraising for my new startup.”

“I just started keto.”

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

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

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

Photo by Les Anderson.

The Step Ladder That Turned Into A Treadmill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The consumer is now the brand.

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

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

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

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

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

But it goes further than that now.

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

Transformation is the new baseline.

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

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

It frustrates luxury brand directors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My answer was no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rent The Runway users. Garvin and Co.

The User Evolution

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

Transformation is:

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

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

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

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

That relationship (or context) comes from meaning.

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

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

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

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

But it’s not impossible.

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

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

“What treadmill are they on?”

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

“Who are they becoming everyday?”

“What evolution are they experiencing right now?”

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

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

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

Instead, they will categorize by mentality.

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

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

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

Amy sounds specific, but Amy could be anybody.

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

Amy isn’t a target in and of herself.

She is representative of a mindset.

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

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

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

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

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