The 14 Rules of Identity

Image credits clockwise from top left: Mihai Stefan, Carlos Arthur, Emil Vilsek, Erik Lucatero, Kyle Loftus, Almos Bechtold, Ethan Haddox, Ali Marel.

How to radically change your brand’s relationship with the user: A companion piece to The 16 Rules of Brand Strategy.

Identity precedes everything in brand strategy.

Before your company, before your product, before your market, there is your user’s identity, and that identity dictates the world your brand gets to play in.

Everything we do as consumers is an expression of who we are.

From conversion to consumption to churn, every action we take is aligned with how we see ourselves, and identity is the underlying code that makes those behaviors happen the way they do.

Identity triggers behavior.

If you can understand that code, you can radically change your relationship with the user — so radically, that your users pivot even their most deeply rooted behaviors and beliefs.

We’re constantly feeding our minds with meaning and narrative, bringing our identities to life every day through the stories we tell ourselves.

Whether it be zoning out during the ride to work or the way we treat the barista at the coffee shop, we not only live in these moments, but also observe ourselves through a third (extremely subjective) eye as they happen — “Beautiful woman is lost in her thoughts on the the way to the office”…“Man with kind eyes tips the barista a little extra because he has character.

It’s the nature of identity to experience something in the moment while also contextualizing that experience for meaning.

That eye is a perpetual reinforcement of who we are and where we belong, and the single most personal story we tell ourselves.

The story is also the world in which your brand will live.

While most brands only consider the observable world of their ideal users, truly smart brands look for the hidden inner world that operates within each user.

That’s the world where decisions get made. If you can understand that world, you can make the right decisions happen.

In order to know how to speak to your user, you have to first understand how they speak to themselves when no one else is listening.

The best brands among us already demonstrate this:

  • TED created a new world of ideas, but also let us see ourselves as casual experts without the usual mental and emotional labor involved. They realized that while we may have wanted to learn, what we really wanted was to just know something.
  • Trader Joe’s started a food movement, but also constantly evolved their inventory and rearranged their stores, creating the thrill of discovery so that we could tell ourselves we were not only healthy people, but health tastemakers on the bleeding edge.
  • HBO’s daring and intelligent content changed television, and also allowed us to see ourselves no longer as just viewers, but as active participants. We once told ourselves we were an audience, but now believe we are active agents.

These brands changed not only the outer world, but our private inner worlds as well… and that is the most powerful way to build a brand.

They understood that identity was the starting point.

The quickest way to get there for your own brand is to understand how our identities form in the first place.

This is a list of the most important identity constructs we’ve learned at our agency. They are the rules and truths that guide any internal monologue in any audience.

Time and again, they’ve helped us get past the distractions on the surface and into the minds of the people we’re trying to speak to.

There is an inner world hiding in plain sight.

Use these guidelines to get there.

1. If you believe something, you will find the proof to support it.

I never thought I was very athletic, although I desperately wanted to be athletic growing up in high school. The story (which felt as real and deep as my DNA) was that I just didn’t get that gene.

I dropped out of tennis lessons and chickened out of kayaking not because the story was true, but because I was looking for proof of the story I believed.

Then I had my DNA sequenced at the age of 36 and it turns out I have the ACTN3 gene, which is in fact associated with athletic performance in elite power athletes.

My surprising 23andMe result instantly changed my internal story.

The moment I read that, my relationship to my body changed and a new script started playing. I suddenly felt something inside of me that was always there, but I simply did not believe in.

Nothing in reality had ever changed. I had that gene for 36 years, but when my internal monologue shifted, so did my beliefs, and thus my behaviors. I got a personal trainer, started tennis and kayaking, and began to treat my body very differently.

We will always find proof for the stories we believe.

Our internal scripts are so powerful, it’s nearly frightening.

  • Vice changed our script about serious journalism
  • WeWork changed our script about work that doesn’t look like work
  • Tinder changed our script around the shame of casual sex

You, too, can change the script for the betterment of your users.

Look for the story that needs changing and then create a new reality where that story can live. Give your users new proof, new evidence, new rules. Give them a new architecture to build their stories on top of.

Give them all of the props and staging they need in order to step inside the new narrative.

(More on this here: Dig Deeper — The Secret To Gripping Brand Narratives.)

2. Income doesn’t really mean anything.

If people want it, they’ll find the money for it.

Most of the people in your local Verizon store shouldn’t be spending $1k on an iPhone. But they do. And most of them upgrade every year, too.

Don’t waste your time with two-dimensional demographic info that only tells you what people should do, instead of what people want to do.

We spend our money on the things we believe in.

Look at psychographics instead.

Understand what permissions people give themselves in order to do or buy something outside of their usual scope… or better yet, what permissions they’re still waiting for.

Remember that Apple gave us the permission to make electronics a signal of our self-worth, before we even knew we wanted it.

Oftentimes gender, age and socio-economic background don’t matter, either. The people who can afford your product are the people who can afford to have their minds changed.

Ask yourself who those people are, and what drives their purchase behaviors more than their budgets.

That’s where you’ll find your answer.

(More on this here: How To Create Powerful Brand Messaging — 5 Truths and a Framework.)

3. What people really want is to learn about themselves.

Most brand positioning takes one of three forms:

  1. This is what our product does.
  2. This is what you can do with our product.
  3. This is who you can become with our brand.

The third positioning, This is who you can become with our brand, is the most powerful position to come from, and the only direction that the consumer mindset is headed for in the foreseeable future.

Ikea knows that even affordable modular furniture can reveal something on an emotional level.

This year, they’ve announced a slew of daring collaborations with not only breakthrough fashion icons like Virgil Abloh and OFF WHITE, but also musicians like Solange and her arts and culture hub Saint Heron, perfume creator Ben Gorham, and childhood throwback Lego.

The message is clear — you can become a creator with IKEA. This isn’t about furnishing your apartment anymore.

It’s a realization that changes your relationship with both the company and yourself.

There is perhaps nothing more valuable for your user than the experience of realizing who they are.

Every action your brand takes is a reflection of your positioning. It’s easy to go with This is what our product does, or This is what you can do with our product, but that’s leaving money on the table.

Push yourself to create a different a story that weaves both you and the customer into the future. A story that will deeply change both of you.

(More on this: How To Be Different, Not Better.)

4. Values rarely change. Beliefs change easily.

Short of a life changing event, consumer values typically don’t budge.

The beliefs that sit on top of those values, however, do change easily.

Cannabis startup MedMen knew that changing peoples’ anti-drug values was a dead end, but changing the belief that sat on top of that value — the belief that drug users are bad people — could in fact be changed.

MedMen ads challenge your beliefs with a heavy dose of empathy.

MedMen’s new narrative gave people room to understand that you can be a drug user and still be a good person.

And logic only dictates that if you want to use marijuana, you can still maintain your values and stay a good person, too.

The ads above literally crossed out the old belief and inserted the new one. Now your drug use didn’t define you. Your humanity did.

Changing our values is extremely uncomfortable. Changing our beliefs is a lot easier.

Brands that keep your values in tact but change your subsequent beliefs allow you, the user, to grow without the pain of changing your worldview.

Make sure you separate beliefs from values and know where to insert your narrative.

Yes, you can change values if that’s really where you want to go, but sometimes people only have room to shift their belief systems.

5. Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t always correlate with wealth.

Somewhere along the line, we started believing wealth pushes people up Maslow’s hierarchy.

But oftentimes it doesn’t.

Not everyone gets to the top of the pyramid. Not even the wealthiest among us.

Source: Big Think

While it may be largely true that increased prosperity moves people up the bottom three tiers, we’ve found in our work that the top two tiers actually correlate a lot less with wealth than you’d expect.

Many consumers in the top 5% have the disposable income to donate to charity, give back to their communities, volunteer, partake in immersive travel, become more spiritual, expand their world views or philosophies (all behaviors that reflect self-actualization and self-transcendence), but get stuck somewhere between the love/ belonging and esteem stages.

Wealth doesn’t move you up the pyramid. Confidence does.

It takes more than money to move up Maslow’s hierarchy.

Mindset, not money, defines where we are.

If you’re surprised that your wealthy neighbors hold xenophobic views, or your prosperous family members won’t give change to homeless people, it’s likely because their money moved up the pyramid faster then their hearts could.

Similarly, just because your customer is affluent doesn’t mean your corporate social responsibility program will resonate or your environmentally friendly practices will keep them from churning.

Make sure you understand where your customer is before you make any assumptions.

If you can help them move up a little faster with your brand, that’s even better.

6. People can have different identities in different parts of their lives.

I call this Poly Identification, and as more and more rules about class, gender and social roles begin to evaporate around us, the more comfortable we have become with letting people carry multiple identities at once.

As I wrote in Business of Fashion last year:

When Chiara Ferragni dresses in head-to-toe Chanel one day and Supreme and sneakers the next, she’s not just mixing styles, she’s moving between spaces.

It’s indicative of a much larger trend of millennial consumers willing to simultaneously identify as preppy, bohemian, emo, street, glam or any other number of subcultures.

Indeed, young consumers increasingly travel between styles instead of committing to a singular diehard identity. Rather than breaking out of the box, they collect boxes that reflect different senses of self at any given moment, on any given day.

It’s obvious in fashion, but also evident in our careers, love lives and social circles.

Kim Kardashian and Howard Stern can travel between wildly different identities without friction. That wouldn’t have been possible a generation ago.

Instead of fitting into boxes, people are increasingly moving between them.

Identities are a mosaic.

You can find a way to let people explore a different dimension of their identities or make a certain dimension fit in with others, but you can’t assume your user looks the same to you as they do in other parts of their lives.

7. You can’t leapfrog fear.

No matter how positive, hopeful or uplifting your brand promise is, you have to resolve any fear that may precede it.

Food tech companies tend to struggle with this.

Impossible Foods, Memphis Meats and Perfect Day have compelling brand messaging, but it all sits on a house of cards. Consumers still have a fear of the unknown in modified foods just as they always have with GMOs.

You can’t skip messages when it comes to fear. Fear must be resolved before any higher message can be adopted.

You already know a confused buyer never buys. Confusion is a form of fear. There are other common forms of fear, too:

  • Hate
  • Anger
  • Misunderstanding
  • Phobia
  • Bias

A2 Milk is from regular dairy cows while Perfect Day creates dairy without the animal.

Granted, A2 doesn’t have the same battle against consumer biases that Perfect Day has, but they still understand that the fear must be alleviated first before the optimistic horizon can be introduced:

A2 Milk homepage.

Their messaging turns unspoken fear into a simple story that consumers can tell themselves whenever those uncomfortable feelings crop up.

Perfect Day, on the other hand, let’s an unspoken fear sit in the mind of the consumer:

Perfect Day Homepage.

Do a sense check of your brand and see if fear is creeping up anywhere in your user experience. It can be sitting right under a positive sentiment.

Consumers can skip over most other emotions if something bigger is on the horizon, but fear is like quicksand.

Don’t let people get stuck.

8. Everyone has a garden.

Everyone has something they hold dear. Something they nurture often. A place where they focus the expression of their identity.

The mistake we make as brand strategists oftentimes is stopping short of finding that garden.

The garden is that one expressive outlet that reveals far more about your user than any other insight.

You’ll know it when you find it:

  • It will be where you user feels the most comfortable to be themselves
  • It will reveal what your user values the most
  • It will usually tell you when and where you can break the rules

Life hacking is a fascinating garden that reveals a lot about the men and women who spend time in it. Tim Ferris podcasts, Bulletproof Coffee and all live there.

It’s a garden where men, especially, can obsess freely over their bodies, reveal values that can easily be mistaken for vanity, and give you one important insight that goes against many other commonly held beliefs — that men will pay a lot of money to feel good.

HVMN knows this. That’s why their branding taps directly into a psychographic that wants to “Be Impossible”.

The video’s adrenaline-laced visuals tie in things like aging, mood and cognition, metabolism, obesity, inflammation, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.

This is hyper self-care for men.

It’s compulsive wellness. All-consuming self indulgence.

And if you didn’t look in that garden, you may have kept believing the stereotype that men are far less concerned about those things than women.

There is always something valuable in the garden.

If you can find it for your consumers, you’ll hit on something important.

9. We will do a lot to ease our cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance occurs whenever we believe something about ourselves, but act in a way that diverges from those beliefs. For example, we may believe we are healthy lovers, but fail to stay in any long term relationships.

That rift between what we believe and what we do creates an unease, and usually points to where we have the most dissatisfaction in our lives.

That’s why the love industry is so big and people are willing to spend immense amounts of money on both legit forms of help (books, therapy) and more questionable ones (reiki practitioners, fortune tellers and energy workers).

Sometimes our entire identities are driven by the motivation to narrow that cognitive gap.

Esther Perel understands that as desperately as we want to see ourselves as enlightened romantic partners, we do very little to actually get there. That’s why she’s positioned herself as a relationship explorer.

Instead of offering relationship advice in the traditional form that only creates more distance between who we are and how we see ourselves, she offers a path for self-discovery.

The Esther Perel experience allows people to see themselves as experts instead of disciples, and that brings our behavior a lot closer to our beliefs. She teaches us not how to fix, but how to think.

Look for gaps that need closing in the minds of your own audience.

Solving a problem for your user is great, but easing their cognitive dissonance can have a much greater emotional impact.

There is likely something that your user wants more than just a solution.

[More on that here: The Cognitive Dissonance Hiding Behind Strong Brands.]

10. “Everyone is a hero in their own story” … but there are different kinds of heroes.

If you’ve read my writing, you know this is one of my favorite quotes.

It forces you to identify with anyone, and without judgement. I often refer to this quote when I find myself bothered or turned off by a customer profile because it brings me back to a place of empathy right away and helps me see the goal my user sees.

Empathy is a great homing device.

Keep in mind, however, that different people are different kinds of heroes:

  • There are the anti-heroes that look like villains on the outside and need someone to see them for who they truly are
  • There are the reluctant heroes that not only need the motivation to take on their destinies, but are secretly hoping and waiting for someone to give it to them
  • There are the catalyst heroes who act heroically, but rarely want change much themselves in the process
  • There are the tragic heroes that believe they will continue to stumble and fail, and may resist a narrative that says otherwise
  • There are the willing heroes who are eager to take on the challenge, and expect to get the Hollywood ending

Every kind of hero needs a different kind of message, but every one of them can be motivated to act.

Understand your hero, and you will understand how to make them move.

An anti-hero (like Harley Davidson’s customer) needs to be discovered while a willing hero (like Nike’s customer) expects you to already know who he is.

11. The journey is starting to matter more than the destination.

Something has started to change in the psyche of most post-boomer American consumers.

The end goal is starting to matter less, and the experience of getting there is starting to matter more.

Consumers are gradually entering a constant state of evolution.

Rather than defining themselves as who they are (a state of being), they are defining themselves by who they are turning into (a state of becoming).

Our ever-evolving co-working setups, our daily experiments in beauty and nutrition, and the transformative experiences we fervently search for in everything we do (from spiritually uplifting SoulCycle sessions to healing travel) show how the becoming piece matters more and more.

I refer to this as the treadmill vs. the step ladder. Previous generations understood social class and the incremental step ladder you moved up into in each rung.

Today we are moving along something that looks far more like a treadmill — no destination and no gatekeepers, but a constant experience of moving upward.

When people move from a ladder to a treadmill, you need to center your brand around the journey, not the end point.

That’s an important difference.

[More on this here: In The Transformational Economy, ‘Being’ and ‘Becoming’ Have Started To Merge.]

12. There are utility users, and there are premium users. You can’t speak to both, but you can turn one into the other.

Every client we work with wants to move upmarket to a more premium user, but many of them get scared when they realize that premium positioning will likely box out their core utility user base… even when that core is limiting them.

You can’t win over both with the same branding, but you can turn a utility user into a premium one.

Utility users need to be educated into caring about the right things. You need to find something more important than value-for-price that they can latch onto.

Lululemon didn’t miss out on a mainstream market. They turned a mainstream market into a premium one by educating and transforming those users into discerning yoga wear addicts.

Lululemon hired Vice to help explain and expand to the mainstream.

If you feel yourself sweating in the brand strategy process because you don’t want to leave your non-premium core behind, change your perspective.

You don’t have to leave them behind. You have to change them so they’ll come with you.

Give them a message that will make price irrelevant.

13. There is value in the ‘in-between’ spaces.

Consumers in every vertical of every category are looking for greater meaning, and they’re finding it in the connections between spaces.

Health is no longer just a doctor’s visit. It’s mind-body-spirit. It’s a juice cleanse, a heart-to-heart with your partner and a colonic. It’s a trainer and a nutritionist and therapist.

Beauty is no longer just an eye cream. It’s a non-inflammatory diet, a 24 karat facial and stem cell serums.

Career success is no longer a well paying office job. It’s a personal brand, an active blog and a creative side gig.

The connections between spaces have put new life into old paradigms.

Connections give consumers the answers (and narratives) they’re looking for.

All of these examples create a narrative of how and why we do things.

They add meaning and value in a way we can control. Instead of just trusting a drugstore eye cream brand, you have an empowering story of how and why your beauty routine is working.

Just like religion and folklore, connective stories become part of our hardwiring.

Look for how your brand can connect to more than just one part of someone’s life. There is a story to be told that is much bigger than your product.

Make the connection and go deeper into your consumer’s world.

14. Identity is a story.

Truth has very little to do with identity. How we interpret that truth is what matters.

To change a person is to change the stories that define them.

Every construct on this list culminates in this one, simple fact.

If you want to really see a person, look beyond the ‘truth’ of their external lives — listen to the stories they tell themselves internally.

Behavior, belief, bias, conversion all weave together to tell a tale. No one of these things can demonstrate who your consumer is. But together, they do just that.

Don’t get distracted by facts and statistics. Don’t chase after trends.

Instead listen for the story arc that emerges from them.

(Here are some common ones we all like to tell ourselves: Pain, Villains and Fuck You Money)

Reaching For Identity

Searching for identity can feel like grabbing at clouds. Just when you think you’re holding the truth, it slips through your fingers.

That’s because truly understanding someone else’s identity is an out-of-body kind of experience. It’s one thing to see it on paper. It’s another thing to feel it your bones.

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”
― Patti Digh

But no matter how you cut it, identity is where it all starts.

You can’t know where your brand belongs if you don’t know what world it’s living in.

This is a companion piece to The 16 Rules of Brand Strategy.

Brand Strategy

Language Is Changing Entire Industries Right Before Our Eyes

This is what the business of identity looks like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

(emphasis added)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Language of Extremes: A New Relationship With The Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certain brands, and their tribes, know this.

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

Insights from brand strategist Ana Andjelic.

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

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

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


Rapha advertisement, 2019.

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

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

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

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

The Language of Wellness: A New Relationship With The Self

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

According to professor and writer Jordan Kisner:

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

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

(emphasis added)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything means something.

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

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

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


Dirty, Ugly Shame Stories: The Next Frontier of Brand Disruption

[Photo by Sharon McCutcheon.]

If your users carry a shame story with them, you need a very different kind of strategy.

There are pockets of shame hiding in everyday life, and every one of your users encounters them.

Some of us feel shame about status symbols like money or marriage, while others may feel shame about personal shortcomings like fear or failure.

Shame is a universal part of the human experience, and is always borne of a story: stories we tell ourselves, stories that have been told to us, or stories we’ve co-opted from culture and community over time.

It’s also an important emotional trigger to study because unlike other triggers, it causes us to behave both irrationally and severely. There are few other things that sting us as deeply as a shameful memory, and no greater negative driver in our behavior. We’d go to great lengths to erase the cause of our shame if we could.

If a specific narrative makes someone feel devalued, wrong or guilty because of the expectations of their societal group, then it is a shame story.

Shame stories start to appear when our reality does not match what we feel is expected of us by others.

By that definition, they are intrinsically tied to the role we play in the group.

And when you look closely, you start to see that shame plays a role in many more industries than you may realize.

Some are obvious:

  • Fertility (both male and female)
  • Pain Management & Mental Health (cannabis, ketamine, suicide)
  • Sex (less so dysfunction, more so pleasure and deviance… which is fascinating in its own right)
  • Dating, Marriage (a woman’s worth as she gets older, a man’s worth based on his career/ height/ hair)
  • Illness (especially when it’s terminal or dehumanizing, like cancer)

But some are not as obvious:

  • Finance (money and self-worth are basically the same thing)
  • Food (what we eat and how we eat is extremely personal, and a reflection of what we think we deserve)
  • Parenting (the secret struggle between autonomy and giving yourself over)
  • Beauty, Fashion (fitting a standard that is often classist, sizeist and racist)
  • Higher Education (or lack thereof)

I call these stories dirty because as individuals, they make us feel wrong.

I call them ugly because as a society, we don’t want to look at them.

The next time you feel shame because someone cheated on you, or you refuse to leave the house because you’re ashamed of how you look, or you experience shame because you could not perform at work/ in bed/ as the breadwinner for your family, take note of its unparalleled power over your perception of reality. Even in the face of one hard fact —that none of these situations are your fault — you will continue to hurt yourself privately.

If your customers are fighting against a shame story somewhere in their lives that’s relevant to your brand, it wields the same kind of power over them, too.

You’re up against something very big and very strong, and you have to respect the different behavioral outcomes it creates. Fighting a shame story requires a different kind of brand strategy.

We see this as an increasingly important brand challenge because the low hanging fruit of structural disruption — access, supply chain, cost, distribution, etc. — has been exploited.

The next wave of disruption will happen on a cultural level, and shame stories are the structural dinosaurs living in our minds.

If you can effectively dismantle a limiting narrative for your audience, you can create a new reality for them… and creating a new reality is the ultimate goal of branding.

A new reality means new behaviors, new truths, and new opportunity for your company to speak to your audience.

Don’t just expose it. Replace it.

The hardest thing about shame is that we hide it.

Guilt is something we confess or share, but shame is something we work hard to conceal:

Shame is often confused with guilt — an emotion we might experience as a result of a wrongdoing about which we might feel remorseful and wish to make amends. Where we will likely have an urge to admit guilt, or talk with others about a situation that left us with guilty feelings, it is much less likely that we will broadcast our shame.

Mary C. Lamia Ph.D.

The very nature of its secrecy leads to a different set of behaviors.

People who feel shame over things like addiction, bullying or failure can project it in blame and anger… oftentimes even rage.

Others find ways to make themselves small in an attempt to ‘disappear’.

If you’re a CEO or strategist seeing these behaviors in your audience, it can be incredibly easy to read them the wrong way.

A nootropics brand founder might see an over-indexing of bro-culture on their platform and interpret it as bonding, or a the founder of a beauty brand might see its female customers hesitating to use bolder products and interpret it as lack of confidence, and they’d both have a good chance of being wrong.

Unlike other emotions, shame thrives the most when it remains hidden.

A lot of brands in the fertility space know this.

Many, like Modern Fertility, Glow, Extend Fertility, FertilityIQ and Dadi have worked to start an open conversation around the topic for both men and women.

FertilityIQ website, March 27th, 2019. “The very best information you wish you never needed.”

It’s clear from their messaging, product bundling and brand stories that they want to start a discourse around something that has historically stayed behind the closed doors of a physician’s office.

I commend them for that.

What’s missing however, is a new story.

Shame stories don’t die just because they see the light. They die when a new story supplants them.

Shame is a weed, and one of the best ways to stop a weed is to grow something else in its place.

Unfortunately, old fears and biases don’t get erased simply because we talk about them and make them more normalized. They go away when they are written over with something else.

Modern Fertility marketing email, March 27th, 2019.

Messaging like “The very best information you wish you never needed” or “We won’t tell you you’re infertile” are not new stories.

They are versions of the same fear-based, private shame stories women have carried all of their lives, only now made public.

True, these brands are giving men and women new, democratized options for accessing the tests they need, without the gatekeepers that may have deterred them in the first place… but there is a much bigger brand opportunity to be had here.

Couples are ready for a new story that will replace the old one. They’re just not hearing it yet. Until they hear it, the shame (and its behaviors) will persist.

An adjacent industry that is successfully supplanting and old narrative with a new one, however, is sex.

Kill the old audience.

Just like fertility, sex used to live behind a gatekeeper (underground sex shops and far corners of the internet). Just like fertility, it could cause both great pain and great happiness. And just like fertility, it was a vessel for all kinds of shame that few would talk about.

Even as we move into a new era of female-forward sex brands and body positive movements, sexual health has been regarded as a fringe concern. You might not feel embarrassed to walk into an Adam & Eve, but you’re not going to talk about the details of your sex life with your yoga class either.

But that’s changing.

When sex toy company Dame Products launched in 2014, the founders realized that their audience overlapped more with a yoga crowd than with a traditional sex/ pornography crowd. When they saw that, they decided to position the brand squarely in the wellness space.


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A post shared by Dame Products (@dameproducts)


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A post shared by Dame Products (@dameproducts)

Wellness is an empowering narrative that stands tall in the face of anything shame-based. Consistently, throughout every touchpoint in the UX, both on brand properties and off, Dame communicates this new wellness story in different ways.

They make no secret of the “pleasure gap” they doggedly seek to close, have an active Dame Labs that invites users to join their people-centered research (regardless of gender or sexual identity), and most importantly, employ very clear design thinking because “we felt our products should look like beauty tools.”

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”

-Oscar Wilde

As a result, sex toys like theirs were taking up space on shelves typically reserved for beauty, health and fitness.

As Business of Fashion pointed out last October, Dame was a signal that sex-care is the new self-care:

Sexual wellness is shaping up to be the next big opportunity in a category increasingly focused on wellbeing and ritualistic me-time. […]

It helps explain why US pharmacy chain CVS sells a rather stunning assortment of 48 whirring options — merchandised next to straightforward sexual health products like condoms and pregnancy tests — and family-friendly Target stocks 74 different models. Talk about self-care.

What Dame and others did was not only replace the old story with a new one (which in itself is remarkable), but they effectively moved the discussion from a group of people in the sex industry to a group of people in the self-care space.

They killed the old audience. Instead of having a hush-hush conversation about sex with one group, we were having it with another… our yoga friends.

The most important part of the shame equation is the group. Without the group to measure ourselves against, we would not feel shame.

The group is part of our social survival. They bind us, and our behaviors, to the people we care about, and reveal just how hyper-aware we are of how others perceive who we are to them.

If brands are tribal experiences, then shame lives somewhere within that tribe.

But if you kill the old tribe and create a new one, the equation falls apart. A new story can thrive someplace more fitting.

Give it the time it deserves.

Shame stories, just like shame itself, take time to dissipate.

They’re always old narratives.

They’ve been around for generations, long before your brand came on the scene. People may want to give them up but it’s scary to change your personal truth overnight.

However without fail, positive stories win in the long run. As a strategist, I’ve always believed this:

You will always have the choice to go positive or negative in your strategy. Tell the scary, shame-based story or the positive, goal-oriented story. Neither is inherently wrong, but some do work better than others.

Charity, global warming, war — why do none of these narratives work to permanently move people? Because they’re shame based. They inspire guilt. They create a feeling that may motivate in the short term, but most people want to avoid and escape in the long term.

16 Rules of Brand Strategy

But giving it time doesn’t mean just waiting for time to pass.

It means constantly telling and retelling the new story in new ways, and never letting the dust settle on the new reality you’re creating.

It means killing off the old audience over and over again, no matter how many times you have to do it.

Addiction, mental health, illness, marriage and dating — brands have been trying for years to change these stories, and the ones that will succeed are the ones that keep making noise.

When people start waking up, it will be the persistent brands who are there to meet them.

Giving it the time it deserves means using that time wisely. You can create a safe space that gently nudges your user in a new direction, and gives them the room they need to start changing the story for themselves.

Brand Strategy

The Lifestyle Brand Blueprint For Tomorrow’s Companies

[Photo by Joel Bengs.]

Lifestyle consumers are changing. Your brand should, too.

Lifestyle brands have existed for a very, very long time. From Pears Soap of the early 1800s, to the Marlboro Man of the 1950s and the Glossiers of today, all of these brands are part of the same lifestyle heritage.

The existence of lifestyle branding hasn’t changed. What has changed, however, is the role that lifestyle brands have played in our lives over time.

Early lifestyle brands were gatekeepers that informed us of our stations in life and how to act within them. You used a certain soap in order to be a good member of society. You shaved your legs if you were an upstanding woman.

This reflected a larger truth about the consumer. We looked to institutions for meaning. Government, marriage, education, class, career — all of these goalposts sorted us among our peers.

From left: Pears Soap prescribing identity, Marlboro promising the life not lived, Glossier creating a likeminded tribe.

In the late 20th century through to today, things took a dramatic shift. Our goal posts began to evaporate and those same institutions (known more commonly as the corporate ladder, the American Dream and the nuclear family, among others) no longer served the same purpose.

Meaning had become democratized and created a fantastic vacuum for companies.

New lifestyle brands like Apple and Nike allowed us to self-organize around ideals of our own choosing, regardless of our lot in life. We could find our tribes and rally around the aspirations that stirred us.

Lifestyle went mainstream and was layered over every vertical, from fashion to finance. As a culture, we moved from interacting with brands as vehicles of self-labeling to vehicles of self-expression.

This is where we are today.

We can stop here and build a lifestyle brand based on this insight, and that would be enough to get your company off the ground.

But the consumer is changing again, and I absolutely do not believe that building a successful brand is about the current market.

Successful brands are built in the future market.

In which case, we need to ask ourselves where lifestyle brands are headed next. And of course we’ll start where we always start: with the user.

There’s no denying the fact that users are becoming more and more sophisticated in the brand vernacular, and more demanding of the brand value they pay a premium for.

Without gatekeepers, institutions and traditional life milestones, users have come to create their own centers of meaning around lifestyle brands that help them signal to the world who they are. I may not have an executive title, but I have a WeWork office because I believe I am a disruptor.

But self-expression opens the door to something much more important on the horizon. Today we want to belong, but tomorrow we will want to matter. Accordingly, the lifestyle realm is undergoing a transition from aspiration to something with more substance.

We’re moving from self-expression to self-discovery.

This is not about design aesthetics or leveraging influencers, or even creating buzz as we see with the bulk of lifestyle brands today. It’s not soothing sans-serif fonts and pastels that make us feel tuned into a trend. And it’s certainly not a USP.

This is about a maturing consumer that’s seeking new centers of meaning in their lives, and accordingly will seek out brands that help them discover who they are in the process.

We’ve gone from macro to micro, outer world to inner world. It’s a much more intimate and personal relationship that adds a layer of intrinsic value to the product.

The successful lifestyle brands of tomorrow will need to follow consumers deeper into themselves in order to resonate.

This is where you start building in the future.

This is where tension comes from. If you can create a brand that pushes your audience to get to where they are going (perhaps when they don’t even realize they are going there themselves), then you will create and capture a special kind of value that will serve your brand for years to come.

With this new perspective, let’s look at some of the elements that should go into your brand blueprint.

Start with the conversation, not the lifestyle.

A lot of brands falter from the very beginning because they don’t understand what a lifestyle brand actually is.

A lifestyle brand is a conversation that happens at specific points in a consumer’s life.

Forget the aesthetics or aspirations. Those are mere tactics. If you want to be a lifestyle brand, you need a rock solid understanding of the values that you want to explore with your consumer.

Keep in mind you can’t effectively explore values like “transparency” or “honesty” or “social responsibility”… the common items listed in company’s mission statement. Those are baseline requirements (self-expression at best, features at worst) that you should be delivering to your consumer anyway.

The values worth exploring are the ones that help your user move down the self-discovery path.

Values sound provocative, revealing, and you either really care or you really don’t because as a consumer, you immediately know if that value will get you to someplace deeper within yourself:

  • “The thrill of vulnerability in an unforgiving world.”
  • “The political act of self-love.”
  • “Freedom of the human soul in nature.” (Check out what Yeti is doing here.)

The New York Times has taken an interesting turn toward lifestyle recently. True, the news and media company advertises no-nonsense slogans like ‘You’ve read the news, now read the facts’, but take a closer look at their content investments and you’ll see that they’re actually exploring the value of “being human without judgement.”

It’s a compelling concept.

Part of how they underscore this is in two excellent content series: Modern Love and Conception.


Modern Love isn’t about the news. It’s about the non-newsworthy events that define our love lives.

Conception doesn’t include doctors or experts. Just the private voices of parents.


You’ll notice in both of these series, there is no news.

Modern Love is about the non-newsworthy events that define our love lives.

Conception doesn’t include doctors or experts. Just the private voices of parents.

These are avenues toward “being human without judgement”, and for many viewers, a straight path to self-discovery.

You can’t explore that value just anywhere. The New York Times knows explorations like these have to happen at certain points in the user’s life.

You can’t get more human than disappointment in love and heartbreak in parenthood, nor can you find two topics more charged with judgement. The New York Times deliberately chose these moments in our lives because they push the self-discovery conversation forward more quickly and more effectively than any other moments in our day-today.

That demonstrates the simplest definition of what a lifestyle brand truly is: Lifestyle brands insert themselves into the important life moments of their users. Specifically, those life moments that echo the brand’s guiding beliefs and the values they’re working to explore.

The values worth exploring with your users are usually the ones that go unspoken. They’re the paths less traveled our minds, but hard to resist going down once someone shows us the way.

Emulation vs. empowerment.

If we’re moving from self-expression to self-discovery, then we’re also moving from emulation to empowerment.

In other words, purely “aspirational brands” will decline.

Many companies have beautiful and tight visual branding that signals something to aspire to, but not much more than that. We see them everywhere — clothing, food, tech, entertainment — but as consumers, we’re so oversaturated with this kind of two-dimensional branding that it has started to become redundant.

How can many of these brands be deciphered from one another? At what point do I stop caring about the novelty of aspirational brands and start looking for something that will deliver more?

When three major athleisure brands like We Are Handsome, Stellasport and Sweaty Betty become indistinguishable from one another, what is left?

From left: We Are Handsome, Stellasport, Sweaty Betty.

We will eventually reach a point where users won’t care about attaining a prescribed lifestyle nearly as much as they will care about being enabled to create the deeper lifestyle they want.

Aesthetics, while important, are a tactical trap. They are not where lifestyle brands start, but rather where they end.

A simple way to vet your brand is to ask yourself, “Am I encouraging people to emulate this lifestyle, or am I giving them the tools to attain something bigger?”

Notice I said tools, not products. For truly brand-led companies, the product is secondary. You’re not selling your yoga pants in the promise that people will become more athletic — that’s aspirational.

Instead, you’re doing what Outdoor Voices is doing and build a brand around “happiness” while everyone else is building theirs around extreme grit, physical endurance and in the women’s category, sexiness.

The name comes from her childhood, where [Outdoor Voices founder Tyler Haney’s] mom would encourage her to use an indoor voice while the kid in her just wanted to be outside all the time.


“I thought, What if I built a brand around something people loved — a recreational Nike that’s all about staying healthy and being happy doing it?

The brand empowers happiness in a multitude of ways, including crowdsourcing many of their designs, deliberately focusing on low-impact daily activities instead of extreme sports, and featuring un-retouched ads of women with real bodies and real cellulite.


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A post shared by Outdoor Voices (@outdoorvoices)

These are all ways to empower women in being happy.

“OV is about being human, not superhuman.” Haney knows that for the next generation of brands, aspiration is taking a back seat to something more powerful.

It’s why the company grew 800% in 2016 alone and commands huge lines at their NYC sample sales, rivaling the sample sales of most luxury brands I’ve had the chance to queue up for.

The buck has to stop somewhere.

Lifestyle brands need a founder’s face and voice.

Someone needs to take responsibility for everything that goes right and everything that goes wrong.

People need to know that if they are investing in so much intangible brand value and giving themselves over to such a demanding (but rewarding) self-discovery experience, there is someone on the other side of it all that is just as committed.

Unlike B2B and non-lifestyle B2C brands, lifestyle brands across the board need to showcase a real person that’s driving the vision and innovation in the company.

Your consumers don’t need a relationship with the founder specifically, but they need the comfort of knowing they aren’t being cheated by some flashy marketing gimmicks and a savvy art department.

The best companies are the ones led by CEOs who have their own personal brands. They’re influencers in their own realm who are one or two steps ahead of the company brand that they are building.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal brand (as exemplified through her life) is like Goop on steroids, and Elon Musk’s personal brand of being a rebel futurist is arguably leagues ahead of Tesla’s.

Elon Musk covering literally everything in his interview with Joe Rogan.


When a founder’s personal brand is further into the future than the company they are building, it demonstrates a real devotion to a larger belief.

It also gives avid users — the ones who spend the most and thirst for deeper engagement — a direction to point their attention in.

You don’t need to be a celebrity CEO, but you do need to be creating spheres of influence through content, social or in your physical network. You need a strong point of view that perhaps would be too heavy handed for your company, but can comfortably be explored by you as an individual.

Take your big idea and use your personal brand to push it further. Don’t be afraid to draw a line in the sand and show which side you fall on.

If you’re the CEO, people need to be able to find you, understand you, and make you part of the story.



The lifestyle consumer is changing. Your brand should, too.

The next generation fo winners in this space already see that we’re moving from Lifestyle 1.0 of graphics and clever taglines to Lifestyle 2.0 of conversation, empowerment and accountability.

As we move from self-expression to self-discovery, you need to be positioned as a brand that can guide users deeper into themselves.

It’s a riskier strategy that will take more time and money. But it’s the only strategy that will win the long game.


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.

User Experience

How Brand Thresholds Push Users Forward

[Photo by Marco Bianchetti.]

Make people go deeper into your world.

We all carry symbols within us. Symbols like parenthood, gender, blue collars, a country’s flag, a cross on a hill or a grad school pin.

These are symbols that, regardless of place or context, will make us feel something when we encounter them.

In some cases those symbols alter our mental state. There is a measurable change between the person we were before we encountered the symbol, and the person we became after it.

When symbols change us emotionally, they become powerful thresholds.

One of the symbolic thresholds that has always had a profound effect on me is the Japanese torii.

A torii is a freestanding gate that symbolizes transition — from human to sacred, from the known world to the secret world. It is a border between the visible and invisible, and for all of its simplicity and detachment, it carries a gravity that I haven’t experienced in any other symbolic threshold in my work.

The Great Torii of Itsukushima Shrine

When I first learned about torii in an art history course over a decade ago, it wasn’t the structure itself that struck me but rather the power it carried outside of place or time.

While torii are typically placed at the entrance of Shinto shrines, they also appear in completely secluded locales. You may see one in an empty field, a forest, or outside of Japan altogether, but no matter where it is, it’s meant to mark a path for transition.

That is the significance that was imputed on this structure. It is created over and over again to exist outside of any specific time or place, and there are very few other symbols that operate in the same way.

It is not the space that makes the torii meaningful, it is the torii that makes the space meaningful.

Thresholds change the context around them.

I’ve seen them in Japan, in French museums, and standing tall in barren cattle ranches in southern California… and in all of these places, the torii created an emotional threshold that framed my experience of the world around me.

There is a lesson here in how thresholds mold the human experience and how they are different from every other kind of touch point we experience in our lives as users.

For brands, a threshold is an opportunity to create meaning where there once was none.

What It Means To Create A Brand Threshold

A $2.6 billion industry has popped up around subscription products, and 55% of that growth is attributed to a newly popularized brand threshold we’re all familiar with by now: unboxing.

There are now 3,500 subscription box offerings in the US market, all with markedly different business models.

Some, like Birchbox, use the subscription box as an upsell to full sized products on their website.

Ipsy takes a different route and uses beauty and lifestyle influencers to create content that generates ad revenue on top of the actual product.

FabFitFun makes a healthy margin off of sponsored products, and Sephora blends the sponsored model with straightforward sales.


Ipsy Glambag Plus unboxing by Madison Miller


It is not the convenience, the price point or the novelty that has propelled these brands to success. In fact, many boxes have wildly different price points irrespective of value-for-price, many do not allow customization, and at this point, what novelty can be left?

It is the emotional threshold of unboxing that has moved the subscription box industry into the mainstream.

As Elizabeth Segran of Fast Company puts it, “It hinges on a business model that goes beyond making money on the box itself, and investing in content that makes the unboxing experience exciting every single time.” [Emphasis added.]

Unboxing is an emotional threshold that has been iterated, perfected and monetized for maximum effect. A good unboxing creates a clear transition from before the event to after. People feel changed after an unboxing.

Every time your brand compels a user to increase their engagement in order to receive an emotional reward, you are creating a threshold.

Emotional brand thresholds promise a changed user on the other side.

Your user has to make a choice to move through that threshold and experience the change. It is in these critical mass moments that people move deeper into the brand, and they operate on 3 principles:

  1. Investment. Thresholds always come with an upfront cost of time, money or effort on behalf of the user and the brand. For an Ipsy box, all of these investments come into play.
  2. Change. There needs to be a before-and-after change in emotional state. Unboxing isn’t about the products you get, it’s about the anticipation of the reveal, the payoff and the euphoria afterward. In this case, it is also about the promise of who you will become with this new arsenal of goods.
  3. Message. A strong threshold is a very powerful branding moment. It communicates the brand position in action, not words. There needs to be a message that comes through, and in Ipsy’s case, it’s a message about playing with beauty.

These rules can help you turn certain touch points into positive thresholds. They also mean that not all customer touch points are thresholds to begin with.

Sponsored gift bags at an event, for example, are not thresholds. There is no directly related upfront cost for the user, and no unified message.

Customer service, thank you emails, subscription pages, POS gimmicks, videos and content usually aren’t thresholds either. They may employ one of the principles above, but not all three.

Touch points are simply a time and place when your brand touches the consumer, wherever they are.

Thresholds are an occasion where you and the user both agree to meet someplace new, and to leave in an altered state.

Different Portals For Different Needs

The Ordinary skincare brand, for all of its drama and troubles, has been extremely clever in creating thresholds that move users deeper and deeper into their brand world. Fans have to travel through a series of costly portals in order to get the emotional reward they are seeking.

One of these thresholds is their extremely active and engaged Facebook group managed by users. It’s a private group that you actually have to apply to get into by answering some questions about yourself.

Once you’re in, you’re thrust into a world of acronyms, coded language, intimately revealing skin photographs, excel spreadsheets for experimenting with different regimens, documents and fervent followers that will push you even further out of your comfort zone and demand an increased investment in time and effort. This is a new space that both you and the brand are agreeing to meet in.

If you want to learn about skincare like a dermatologist, you have to educate yourself in The Ordinary’s world. And if you don’t, you’re not welcome here.

It’s a steep price to pay, but believe me, once you successfully pass that threshold you are a changed person with a changed relationship to their skin.

For the frustrated legions of women who have tried everything to get their skin better, it is an emotional reward they are willing to pay upfront for.

And it is that stretch between the investment and the reward/ change that leaves users wide open to the brand’s message — ‘The beauty industry is ugly. We’ve found a new way.’

Thresholds force us to suspend our biases and be open to a new message. They’re moments of change that allow us to accept fresh ideas in place of old ones.

One of the best times to have your brand message heard is when your user is going through a transition.

Everything about The Ordinary’s threshold creates a sacred space with promise and evolution… and that’s the best time to form new beliefs. That is precisely when the message comes through.

A threshold happens when both the brand and user are drawn closer together because both have opted to take a voluntary step toward each other. The user invests their time/ money/ attention, while the brand invests in a sort of wall, where not everyone is let through, but those who are get that emotional change.

You can look at it as a test, a boundary, a wall or a step. It can take many forms. What is consistent across all of them, however, is that not everyone will pass. Those who do will be changed on the other side.

Places Where Thresholds Can Appear

If you’re hard pressed to find examples of thresholds in your own brand or others’, you’re right. Brands are starting to understand the significance of these moments and it’s a tactical device that has been historically underutilized.

Many things come close to being a threshold, but don’t quite get there. Traditions like the Jeep Wave in the US or John Lewis’ holiday ads and the Coca Cola Truck in the UK, tribal gatherings like SoulCycle and Tracy Anderson cults, or any other number of unofficial events we care about as consumers.

But with the right thinking and perspective, there are a few key touch points that could be turned into thresholds:

  • Store Entrances: Literally the physical threshold that users pass through every day. The best, most experiential storefronts get the message right, and can affect at least somewhat of an emotional change, but almost none can balance it with some sort of upfront investment for the user. Popups are perhaps the only thing that come close.
  • Product Drops: Yes there is an investment, but the message and emotional change usually fall short. At best, you have brands like Supreme that create a flex-focused brotherhood, but it’s more akin to a game than an exchange.
  • Events and Pilgrimages: Everyone understands how to create an immersive, on-brand experience. And of course there is the cost of traveling and attending, but what is really missing is the emotional change. Many brands create an experience for the sake of experience — delight, fun, indulgence — but can they really say that their users leave as changed people?
  • Announcements and Product Discovery: Again, do brands balance all three principles when it comes to announcing a product or creating a sense of discovery around their new offerings? There is no upfront investment before the actual cost of the product itself. The message may be there, but there likely won’t be a before-and-after emotional state for the user.

Thresholds are not easy to create.

They require a totally different lens through which to see your users interactions with your brand. But when they do appear, they are powerful engagement machines.

Questions To Ask Yourself

With the right thinking, mundane touch points can be turned into thresholds that follow the three main principles that all thresholds follow.

Start by asking yourself the kinds of questions that will lead you to that critical user interaction:

  1. What emotional change or arc are we capable of creating in our users? What emotional arc is best aligned with our brand?
  2. How can we create an upfront cost in those touch points that will a) only draw committed users, and b) amplify the value of the reward?
  3. What theme or message needs to be integral to the experience in order to communicate our brand identity?
  4. Where are our users looking for more meaning in the brand experience?
  5. What are the emotional ups and downs they go through in the overall UX, and how can we turn those points into thresholds?

Remember, the point is to gently push users deeper into your world with every gate that they have to pass through. If those gates are solid, they will begin to take on a life of their own and hold a meaning that is as big as your brand.

Crossing a threshold is about taking a risk and accepting the change that lies on the other side. Just like any relationship, the one that your user makes with your brand is strengthened by these moments.

Use them wisely. Sometimes creating a boundary around your world helps ensure that your true users can find a meaningful way in.


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.


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 😉


The Magical Art of Making People Move with Brand Tension

A pinch of salt can make things sweeter. A dose of discomfort can make your brand stronger.

When Nike first told us to Just Do It in 1988, they weren’t telling us to follow the biggest athletes of the time — the very athletes in their commercials — and plan a life of greatness.

No, they were saying something quite different.

Nike was telling us to stop paying attention to the rules and go against conventional wisdom. Ignore the proven models. Ignore the winners and losers. Ignore if you should or shouldn’t. Ignore the superstars on Nike’s payroll.

Don’t use your brain. Just do it.

Nike was the first major brand that told you to do something without rationally thinking about it.

Do you feel that?

It’s tension. It forces you to stop and make a decision.

It pulls you close to the message or pushes you away from it, but it never lets you stay where you are.

Seth Godin talks a lot about the value of tension in a brand, and I credit him for making the concept a holy grail of modern brand storytelling.

But where does tension come from?

And how do you delicately create tension that pushes your customers to move without pushing them so far that their connection to the brand snaps?

I define brand tension as a sense of discomfort that pushes target customers to convert, and non-targets to walk away.

Tension turns a group of neutral people into die-hard lovers and haters.

It’s the polarizing element that suddenly makes your brand matter.

….and most importantly, it forces action.

Tension happens when something is pulled by opposite forces, and can manifest in many different ways:

  • Uncertainty of the unknown
  • Pushback against the norm
  • Juxtaposition of what is vs. what could be
  • A unique or remarkable opinion

Don’t confuse it with shock value or stunt marketing, which may look and feel like tension, but is instead a form of short term emotional highjacking.

When Kendall Jenner bought the world a Pepsi, it didn’t feel good. Don’t do that. Positive tension is, above all else, genuine and speaks to a larger reality.

In the art of creating tension, there’s just one important truth to keep in mind: If you want to create tension, you have to come to grips with the fact that you must, by definition, not speak to everyone.

Nike may have mass appeal today, but the Just Do It slogan didn’t speak to everyone in the beginning. Moreover, the concept of doing without thinking — which has propelled the widely accepted notion that “thinking about what you are doing, as you are doing it, interferes with performance” — may not be entirely true.

(Fun fact: it was recently revealed that the phrase was inspired by a murderer’s famous last words. Even the origin has tension.)

However from today’s perspective, Nike is an easy example.

Let’s dig into some more current brands that achieve tension in different ways. Watch this video for an overview, and then continue with the article for even more examples:



You’ll see there’s different paths to getting there and, with some time and observation, you’ll likely start seeing a treasure trove of invisible tension in the branded world around you.


Tension Hotspots In Today’s Brand Landscape

Dyson’s Higher Ground: Permission to care about the mundane

Five to ten years ago, Dyson was synonymous with vacuums in America, and for many people, a vacuum is a vacuum.

So when they first started airing dark, moody, near-spiritual ads for their new ball technology, featuring Sir James Dyson, not everyone got it. Certainly not my family, who laughed at the TV every time it came on.

But Dyson wasn’t speaking to them.

They were on the leading edge of a new message that created tension between what is vs. what could be.



This was a vacuum that stood as a remarkable piece of engineering.

There was a science behind it. An inventor. Something so beautiful and noteworthy, that Sir Dyson literally signed his very name to the product like an artist would.

Back then, this wasn’t even really about the vacuum. What we didn’t realize was that it was about the motor inside of it.

As Benedict Evans has recently pointed out:



That means every chance they had, Dyson doubled down on the motor story. They constantly pushed that position until we came to see Dyson not as a vacuum company, but something much, much bigger.

Dyson quickly became a brand that we’d happily pay a steep premium to for everything from air purifiers to electric cars.

They knew motors… and if you need a piece of elite equipment with a motor in it, you go to Dyson.

Tension frees you from the limits of your industry.

The 4-Hour Anything: We’ve been doing it all wrong

From the 4-Hour Workweek, to 4-Hour Chef, 4-Hour Body and now Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferris’ point of tension comes from the silent narrative that underscores all of hacking culture – “we’ve been doing it all wrong this whole time.”

This story is especially effective today where the disillusioned masses are looking for both a new truth they can believe in, and control in a world where they feel let down by old social systems, cultural constructs, and corporate control.

Just as the world of wellness (Moon Juice, SoulCycle, Goop) has popped up to supplant traditional medicine… the 4-Hour series is the new standard of self-improvement.

The real power of all of these platforms, including Ferris’s, is that they prime the user for a very different kind of experience.

I personally wouldn’t put Ferris’s body of work in the same category as something like Goop, but on a branding level they operate in a similar way— “Forget what you were taught. We’ve discovered the new truth.”

When you come into an experience like that, you leave your old biases at the door and use the product with fresh eyes.

I can tell you that for me personally, the 4-Hour message is what made the 4-Hour Body such a unique and rewarding experience. That inherent tension changed my behavior, and results, from Day 1.

You drop old metrics. You forget past disappointments. Your brain doesn’t even call this a “diet”.

That’s what tension can do for you.

Opencare’s Health Proposition: It was never about the illness

When we started working with Opencare in September of this year, we had an interesting challenge before us.

How do you get healthy millennials to understand the value of preventative care, and prime them for a very different kind of experience, with a very different kind of doctor?

We realized that there was a hidden bias sitting on top of an interesting tension point.

We invincible millennials believe that doctors are only for bringing us back to a baseline in times of illness. Doctors aren’t there to make us stronger or superhuman. They’re there to stop making us feel sick.

Because Opencare Activated Doctors are specially enabled to make patients feel better than they ever have before (from the moment they make an appointment to years later when they’re living an elevated life), we knew we had to put pressure on that tension point in a simple and eloquent way.

Thus came the concept of:

“Doctors that see your true health potential.”

Opencare’s target market rarely realizes just how powerful the right doctor can be — not merely in treating illness, but rather as a partner for life.

It was a drastic departure from the current health narrative that surrounds us, and created a valuable tension that forced consumers to move. Health was no longer about loss prevention. Now it was about value creation.

As rollout begins with Opencare’s dental vertical, we’re seeing the tension-driven position already start to change the way people engage with the platform.

Which would you rather do? See a doctor when you feel sick, or collaborate with a doctor who can design a new level of health you never imagined before?

Tension changes the story.


The Truth Of Tension

You know a tension-driving message when you hear one. They tend to be simple. They tend to be big. They will always cause movement in the consumer.

…and they have a special super power where they can live and evolve in meaning over time, without necessarily changing in language.

Nike could have just copy+pasted their original positioning into the Chinese market, but they were very smart not to. The Just Do It that we are familiar with would not have resonated with young Chinese consumers who define themselves within a very different cultural construct than Americans.

For China, they took a subtly (but powerfully) different approach:


Just Do It, as introduced to the Chinese market.


As Helen Wang has pointed out, Nike took the same words and imbued them with an alternate meaning:

The ad seems to be about sports. But it is more than that. It addresses the internal tension that the Chinese are experiencing everyday.

In a society of Confucius tradition, young people are expected to “glorify” their families with academic advancement and financial success. They are constantly under pressure to fulfill family and society’s expectations. In addition, Chinese culture is very collective. People tend to do what their peers think is cool and trendy.

The lyrics of the video inspires a defiant attitude toward conventional wisdom. “You don’t have to do it for the glory. You don’t have to do it to be famous… You don’t have to do it to be like others…. You don’t have to do it this way or that way.” As it turns out, there isn’t a right way to do any of it at all. All you need is to “Just Do It.”

Similarly, Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour brand has grown beyond the concept of work to include food, diet, leadership and life hacks.

The 4-Hour language may not perfectly map on the surface — apparent in something like the title of his book The 4-Hour Body — but on a deeper level it actually does.

If you engage with his master brand you quickly understand that 4 hours is not about linear time. It’s about shifting one’s focus so that time becomes less and less relevant.

That concept can grow to cover just about anything. If Ferris wanted to release the 4-Hour Relationship, it would still work.



The Connections We Feel But Don’t See

Here are some questions to ask yourself, which can help guide you toward a good point of tension in your brand:

  1. What truths or realities are my consumers internally struggling with? What new truth does my product reveal to them?
  2. If my product is the hero, who (or what) is the enemy?
  3. What immovable rules do my target customers abide by every day?
  4. Is there an ‘aha’ moment in the customer experience that changes them internally?
  5. What other experiences or products create a good tension for my users?

Most importantly, pay attention to the signals around you and see where you begin to feel an interesting unease. Sometimes someone else’s model for tension can inspire something in your own endeavor.



The concept of tension reminds me of an Isaac Asimov quote:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’

People want solutions. That’s important. But when you force them to make a new connection on a deeper level, that takes them somewhere interesting.

That tension forces them to see something that they either didn’t want to see, or were unable to see before. It’s a moment that makes them stop and consider what they took to be true.

If you can be the brand that gives them that moment, you‘ll be the one that matters.

You can watch a video where I go deeper into the topic of tension, here.

Brand Strategy

These Are The Hidden Counterstories That Will Undermine Your Brand

What‘s said vs. what‘s heard.

At any given time, your brand is communicating two different stories — the spoken story that you’ve created, and the heard story that the consumer internalizes — and they’re not the same thing.

The spoken story is under your control.

Your history, legend, consumer touch points, language, brand identity, packaging, user experience and so on are all part of the spoken narrative you’ve created.

The heard story, however, is what the consumer actually hears when your spoken story touches them.

Even though that’s ultimately the story you want to influence, you can’t directly control how the heard story is internalized.

Let’s consider a very literal example.

When I say the phrase “That which cannot be named,” where does your mind go?

Do you hear the spoken story of something nameless, formless, blank and full of positive potential… as was intended by this originally Taoist phrase?

Or do you instead imagine something dark, mysterious, looming and threatening? Something taboo and perhaps evil.

Chances are you heard the second version.

In fact, that heard story is so much stronger than the spoken story, that J.K. Rowling adapted it for the character “He Who Must Not Be Named” a.k.a. the existentially evil Voldemort.

That’s how spoken stories and heard stories work.

The heard story is usually stronger than the spoken one, and it takes into account a lot more than just what you’re saying.

Just because you’re saying it doesn’t mean that’s what’s being heard.

One of the biggest mistakes a company can make is not knowing which heard story they’re communicating.

There are 2 common types of hidden counterstories — heard stories gone awry — that are important for any brand to be aware of.


1. The Silent Kind

For some brands, the heard story is likely the exact opposite of the narrative they want to employ.

This is especially true with brands trying to address a clear pain point.

Sometimes talking about a solution underscores the hopelessness of the problem instead.

Whether you’re a task app highlighting the overwhelm of daily life, or a nonprofit focused on the suffering of the disenfranchised, what people are actually hearing you say may not be what makes them convert.

Is Remember The Milk telling a story about control… or instead chaos?
Is the ASPCA creating a story of hope… or rather hopelessness?

These silent counterstories are deceptive.

You might think, why shouldn’t a brand explain the problem they are solving?

You can explain the problem you are solving, but that’s fool’s gold at best.

People don’t want to know you can fix their problem. They want to know who they can become with your product.

…and who they can become is much bigger than the problem holding them back today.

The better version of themselves is the real prize for consumers.

Move past the pain point, or your heard story may backfire.

2. The Tethering Kind

Be wary of any narrative that talks about the “other”.

We see this a lot in politics and the public realm. Notable figures, leaders and sometimes entire nations define themselves as not being the other.

If I mention Israel, you may think Palestine. If I say Aaron Burr you may reflexively respond with Alexander Hamilton (and milk, if you’re an older millennial like me). The thought of Taylor Swift may conjure up Katy Perry.

These are examples of how defining yourself against something will, by definition, wrap that thing into your identity.

Defining yourself as ‘not the other’ will always tie you to whatever that ‘other’ is.

Brands do this all the time.

Anytime a brand is ‘XX% better than’, ‘a newer version of’’, ‘ the most XX’ or ‘not like XX’, it is tethering itself to the very competitor it’s trying to break away from.

You can employ these comparisons to help users make more informed decisions, but they should by no means be your top line message.

Use tethering language very carefully and sparingly, if at all.

When it comes to commodity goods (such as mattresses) this is especially true.

What is left of the Leesa brand if you take away the “other”?

It’s easy to see the Leesa brand has no legs once the shine of “better new” wares off.

When Buzzfeed recently announced the slogan “All the news too lit for print” for their AM to DM show, it was a clear appropriation of The New York Times’ famous slogan “All the news that’s fit to print”.

The threat of lawsuit quickly forced Buzzfeed to take down the phrase, but it may have been for the best considering how tethered the branding was.

If Twitter is any barometer, it was a poorly conceived idea.

After all, how can you build a meaningful counterculture brand that is so reliant on the traditional institutions it claims to supercede?

Tethering stories may work in the short term, but they will not work in the long term.

If you’re looking to create a lifelong brand that sits outside of your competitive set, you have to resist tethering stories.

Once you’re tethered, it’s very hard to get above your competitor’s story. You’re intrinsically tied.

I’ve said before: Better is actually worse. Different is what matters.

Stories that define a different standard rather than a better one will always rise to the top.

Airbnb isn’t about better accommodations or prices — its about belonging.

The emotional concept of belonging is a dramatically different standard, defined by them, that makes any hotel, hostel or traditional B&B suddenly irrelevant.

Airbnb resisted the tethered story, and it served them well.

If you feel your best brand story is the one that tethers, you’re not trying hard enough.

There is always a larger, more significant story that will push you into less crowded territory.



You can make sure your spoken story and heard story are synonymous, or purposely creating tension by working against (or with) each other, but failing to acknowledge the heard story altogether is almost always a fatal mistake.

What is heard is what matters.

Create the story that you actually mean to tell.