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

[Photo by Jeff Frenette.]

3 Ways To Redefine Your Business Through Branding

Your brand is a series of consistent decisions that bolster your positioning and demonstrate what you stand for. You should be able to take any business decision — HR, sales, communications, operations, PR, product, UX/ UI, or otherwise — filter it through your brand identity, and arrive at an on-brand answer that you can act on.

That’s not an exaggeration. The best brands do it every day, from high-level strategic decisions to day-to-day tactical actions.

On a strategic level, we see numerous examples of companies that based their business choices on their brand strategy:

  • WeWork moved into living spaces and childcare because of their belief in utopian communities. Rather than following their capabilities into new co-working formats, they followed their brand belief into new centers of citizenry.
  • Apple saves all of their PR announcements for a few highly publicized events a year because they believe their brand is about an elite experience, not a continuous rollout of features.
  • Four Sigmatic, a beverage company selling popular mushroom coffees, recently launched a new category of products in the beauty space because their brand isn’t about health drinks, it’s about optimizing the body.
  • Airbnb released a hosted city experiences product as a vehicle for their ‘belong anywhere’ brand belief. The brand was the basis for the product.

On a tactical level, we see companies make small (but meaningful), everyday choices that bring their brand strategies to life as well:

  • Zappos trains its customer service team to have longer, more meaningful and textured conversations with users, often providing backstory and personal feedback on the items. It’s a costly tactical choice based on their strategic commitment to being the anti-Amazon.
  • Red Bull often dropped hundreds of empty cans outside of nightclub dumpsters in the early hours of the morning so that clubgoers believed the drink was for hardcore partiers. Their strategy to reach an untapped influencer market led to a clever WOM guerrilla marketing tactic.
  • Harry’s Razors creates emotional video content around men’s issues to push forward their belief in challenging toxic representations of masculinity. The content is dictated by the brand, not SEO.
  • The Ordinary deliberately packages their beauty products in identical, hard to understand packaging labels so that users spend hours figuring out the routines and combinations are right for them. This clever packaging tactic has created a huge online community of beauty fanatics that share advice and ingredient recommendations — a testament to The Ordinary’s strategy to turn everyday users into discerning beauty experts.
The Ordinary product packaging.
Typical product description from The Ordinary.

Brand strategy is a daily choice in every department, in every activity.

That’s because brands exist between the lines. Consumers understand a brand by the decisions it makes.

If your brand isn’t informing actual business decisions — not just marketing or design — then you’re not really building a brand.

It follows, then, that the way you define the word ‘brand’ is critical your company’s trajectory.

Do you subscribe to any of these definitions?:

  • The sum total of all your touch points with the customer, or, as Seth Godin put it in 2009, a brand is “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”
  • A brand is a feeling, which is often synonymous with an aspirational aesthetic or thought leadership
  • A brand is a unique voice or personality. Taken to the extreme, brands are one of the 12 brand archetypes like The Hero or The Outlaw.
  • Brands are an intangible asset — the line of goodwill on an organization’s balance sheet that captures the extra premium a customer is willing to pay above and beyond the actual product

Most people use at least one of these definitions. The problem with all of them, however, is that they describe a set of static characteristics.

The new definition of the word ‘brand’ captures, instead, a measurable change.

Whatever your story is — and by story, I mean the narrative that ties your product, voice, UX, team, history, roadmap, everything together — it needs to create a new sense of meaning that didn’t exist before your brand made it a reality.

Brands are not fixed characteristics. They are dynamic movements that make something matter.

A brand is the creation of meaning where there was none before.

That’s vitally important because it changes the way a business functions.

So how do we take this new definition and bring it home in a way that is actionable within a company?

As with all things branding, there is more than one way to arrive at the right answer. Here, I offer three ways to slice the challenge and move forward.

These are only a few, certainly not all, ways to articulate the act of ‘creating meaning where there was none before’.

You need to be deliberate about which definition you choose (or create) for your own brand because how you define it will ultimately dictate your strategy — and your strategy will dictate whether you win or lose in the market.

1. Brand Is A Gateway

LEGO has used their brand to create meaning for parents where there was none before.

Every time you catch a hidden hidden joke just for adults in their movies, come across LEGO FORMA kits for stressed out professionals or see a print ad meant to make a 30-something chuckle, that is the brand winking at you and whispering, ‘you should play at every age.’


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


LEGO’s brand creates new significance for parents who believe they were supposed to stop playing a long time ago. Non-children are given opportunities to engage, and they’re hidden right in plain sight… a sort of peekaboo game in and of itself.

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

While Sesame Street and Disney also nod to parents in a similar way, LEGO is different because it opens up a space for change that didn’t exist before — a space where parents have permission to be children again. There is meaning in that transformation.

When a brand acts as a gateway, it promises a change in the user.

When we come to understand that we should ‘play at every age’, we realize something about ourselves, and we understand that to go through the gateway is to emerge someone different.

Brands like LEGO are constantly working to show adult users what their experience can be like on the other side. There is a clear vision of before and after that forces a reaction.

To be a brand like this is to create meaning in the act of crossing the threshold.

It informs their decisions to release adult products, inject tongue-in-cheek double meaning into their content and move into media. The business sits on top of the brand, not the other way around, and that makes the meaning they are creating that much more impactful.

2. Brand Is A Remix

Greek philosopher Parmenides of Elea said Ex nihilo nihil fit, or rather, nothing comes from nothing.

Every new material, creation or concept is borne of others that already exist. The deeper you get into branding the more true this seems. It echoes another common refrain often heard in the marketing world that ‘everything old is new again’. Every new idea is a remix of ideas that came before it.

The thing about remixes, though, is that even though they may not come from new origins, they do take us to new places.

Vitamix, remarkably, created a cult around the humble kitchen blender, and they did it while charging people upwards of $500 at a time.


Vitamix: Make the World a Better Place


It’s easy to see the stoic machines as wellness status symbols today, but you have to remember that in 2013 consumers had no idea that the words “luxury” and “blender” could work together so well, nor did they think they needed a 2-horsepower engine to make their morning smoothies.

The Vitamix brand wasn’t just about healthy eating. It was a very deliberate remix of extreme power wrapped up in notions of self-care that could demand a premium price. It combined the story of strength with gentler beliefs that were starting to emerge around wellness, to create an audience that looked more like a trendy club than a demographic — skewing toward affluent, health conscious men despite the fact that the company came from pretty granola beginnings in the 1930s.

Vitamix created meaning around the everyday luxury of smoothie making that didn’t exist in the mainstream before. Certainly not in the kitchen. There was a new significance to the appliance that only occurred when two different narratives were combined.

The company radically grew sales through Costco, primarily via energetic demonstrations over a loudspeaker and free samples of whole fruit margaritas, green soups and nut butters circulating in the crowd. It was a spectacle that combined their power-driven angle with a luxury price point that only made sense in a store that promised middle class luxuries in a highly curated format for older millennials.

And you may not realize it, but you see Vitamixes every day at your favorite Starbucks. Sure they’re a corporate client, but Starbucks is also a strategic bit of product placement in the movie that is millennial life. That same kind of product placement has sold out Oatly oat milk in the US.

Brand remixes have occurred in other areas of food, too, specifically in the celebrity chef space.

Why was Gordon Ramsey such a sellable brand?

Because he operated from the belief that you can be a crass and vulgar person but still make highly refined food. You can literally feel the tension in that combination, and it forces you to love him or hate him.

Why was Rachael Ray able to create multi-billion (not million) dollar businesses on the back of her name?

Because she dared to not only celebrate low-brow cooking, but venerate it. She cooked 30 minute meals out of canned foods and pre-cut produce, and was proud of it.

They were both remixes that made people see something they couldn’t see before. They created new meaning where there was none.

3. Brand Is A Key

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

When a brand is a key, it creates new meaning because it lets people enjoy contradictions without having to account for them.

In other words, it lets people have their cake and eat, it too.

Costco uses a master key to solve a few brand problems at once. They’re a physical retailer living in a world where online marketplaces like Amazon have taken over in both selection and last mile delivery, and yet Costco keeps growing.

Once lumped in with Walmart, Sam’s Club and Target, Costco has somehow managed to develop a brand image that resists discounter stereotypes, compels people to make long and inconvenient pilgrimages to it’s locations, and all without spending money on a PR or traditional marketing.

They solve all of these problems with one choice — to position their brand as a pillar of honesty — their master key as a brand.

Retired CEO Jim Sinegal once said, “We try to create an image of a warehouse type of an environment […] I once joked it costs a lot of money to make these places look cheap. But we spend a lot of time and energy in trying to create that image.”

Costco spends significant money to create a raw, unfiltered, un-marketed experience. When you shop there, you get the distinct feeling that you have behind-the-scenes access without the selling layer. It’s been engineered to feel like an honest experience.

There are no point of sale ads, no finished floors or ceilings, and product is sold on the same crates it’s shipped on.

Even though they force consumers to buy huge quantities, they make no secret of the fact they they markup prices by no more than 15%. They choose to keep very little mystery behind their business practices.

Every year around the holidays you will hear provocative stories about Amazon’s poor worker conditions and failure to treat temporary workers with basic respect.

But every year, you will also hear stories about Costco’s incredible work policies, high pay hovering around $20 per hour for a floor worker, and the fact they remain closed on major holiday moneymakers like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter because they believe in respecting their employees.

When a brand is a key, it opens up the possibility of two worlds at once. You can be a deep discounter and yet at the same time be premium. You can follow stodgy business models but be perceived as nimble. You can be cheap, and yet generous. You can be a complete inconvenience and still be a pleasure to use.

When contradictions occupy the same space, they create a new meaning around what is possible.



When a brand creates new meaning, it creates value that people are willing to pay a premium for.

You can create many truths from this one starting point. Every tool you use is a way to find that first thread that will weave the story. Your definition of a brand is one such tool.

The longer I do brand strategy, the more apparent it’s become to me that there’s no single way to get there. Each of these three definitions is an entry point. Somewhere to start. You’ll see that different brands follow different definitions, and in doing so, land in different areas of the landscape.

Your goal is to use (or invent) a definition that gets you as far out into the field as possible.


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

Mining for your brand’s “big idea” to unlock new markets

[Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash]

The only rules worth following are the ones you write yourself.

Very few companies understand the big idea behind their brand, if they even have one.

They may know their mission and vision. They may see how they plan to disrupt their space, or have a feel for what the big idea is behind their product, but the big idea behind a brand is something very different.

Your brand’s big idea is a notion or concept that changes the rules for everyone in the space — you, the customer and your competitors.

The rule used to be that food programing on television was a specialty genre. Food shows and channels were niche, much like crafting programs or channels centered around sport.

Then 9/11 happened and suddenly people were looking for comfort.

One of the first places they turned to was The Food Network. There was such a huge influx of viewership, that the company chose to rethink the very concept of their brand.

They quickly understood that food didn’t have to be about food. Food could be about entertainment and safety — a notion that was unthinkable even a few months before that point in history.

That’s a huge change in the rules.

When you change the rules, you change the paradigm. The Food Network’s big idea not only affected them, it affected their customers and perhaps above all, affected their competitors.

Alton Brown recalls that time and what it did for the landscape:

It spawned an entire comfort culture that led to the proliferation of experiential wellness and self-care, ASMR and mukbang videos, and hygge, among other things. All ways to shut off our brains and simply absorb feel-good sensory content.

Changing the rules creates a new lens that hasn’t been considered before by the user.

Very few companies today — even many of the buzziest or well funded — have a big brand idea behind them, and that’s because they’re tapping into a rule set that already exists.

Great Jones makes beautiful, affordable cookware that millennials love, but they’re playing by today’s rules of what it means to be a good host and transitioning to an adult life.

Great Jones, February 27th, 2019.

They, along with others like Year and Day and Misen, have a huge opportunity to redefine the spaces we eat in. After all, gender roles in the kitchen have changed, this is the first time in history when entertaining a dinner party does not have be precluded by marriage and homeownership, and the role of the celebrity chef has altered our relationship to food altogether.

Any of these new millennial-facing cookware brands could capture the latent value of these cultural shifts by creating a narrative or context to understand them in.

They could write new rules around the intimate act of eating in the home or what it means to reclaim the cooking and eating space that was once so politically charged and gendered, but is now up for complete redefinition. There is room for a brand to lead this conversation and create the new rules of engagement around it.

Instead, they’re playing by the old rule book that Le Creuset wrote decades ago: embody the role of a good host, create something beautiful that guests will remember, and have that picture perfect adult life. Basically the same roles and relationships we’ve had to eating and cooking for a very long time now. The same rules our parents and grandparents operated in.

Brands following someone else’s rules leave money on the table.

They can get very far, and perhaps even win, without a big idea propelling them, but let’s be very clear about what’s really happening here — they’re creating a brand for today, playing by today’s rules and today’s values.

Even though Great Jones and Year and Day both have very specific visual styles and motifs, illicit a general feeling very well, and have seemingly figured out product-market fit, there’s more to be had here.

Those that create a brand for tomorrow by defining a new set of rules and pushing users into that unfamiliar future are far more defensible in the long run because they are creating their own authority and their own playing field.

There is no doubt that The Food Network has benefitted tremendously by spearheading a big idea.

It led to celebrity chef franchises (unlike any we had seen before), food and cookware (both chef-driven and private label), and a major event circuit. This is an entire world of market opportunity that didn’t exist before they changed the rules.

It’s risky but when done right, a big idea with new rules means new market opportunities as well.

If you’re building something meaningful, you need to start mining for your brand’s big idea now. Here’s how to know it when you find it, and how to leverage it to create a whole new roadmap.

Your brand’s big idea must create new rules that make old norms obsolete.

This is the first sign of a big brand idea.

You’re not just making things better or more advanced in a way that evolves current norms. When you change the paradigm of an entire space, there simply is no room for old norms to exist anymore. You’re creating a whole new reality.

If you take a look at The Cooking Channel, a graveyard for old food programming and spinoff of The Food Network, you can see that these brands literally live in two different worlds.

Every user touchpoint from the videos to the cookbooks and community either falls into the old or new paradigm. A show on The Cooking Channel such as Cook’s Country is not a passive experience, nor does it trigger the same entertainment signals in your brain.

The community that’s formed around the show does not engage the way that you might see around The Food Network, celebrity chefs have very different relationships to their audiences, and the overall experience is wildly different.

You couldn’t even evolve The Cooking Channel’s programs, non-TV content or community to fit into The Food Network. A Cook’s Country chef isn’t going to show up on an episode of Hot Ones like Alton Brown did.

The brands are on two different planes.


A typical episode of Cook’s Country on The Cooking Channel (PBS).


Big brand ideas are hard for this very reason — you oftentimes have to scrap everything you know and be willing to build from the ground up.

The idea is bigger than the sum of your product and your user. It’s a new lens that changes the way we see (and behave within) the world.

Big ideas are debatable, risky and likely to fail.

Big ideas are not guaranteed to work.

Your audience is always ready to be pushed into the future, but sometimes we push them too hard, too far, or in the wrong direction.

The Food Network’s big idea was highly debatable (especially for its time), risky and likely to fail. But it worked.

Then again, so was Snapchat’s big idea, as I wrote back in 2016:

According to Evan Spiegel, “It’s not about an accumulation of photos defining who you are … It’s about instant expression and who you are right now.” If you think Snap’s new Spectacles product is a misguided step into hardware, consider it from that strategic narrative. Spectacles are about reliving memories, not creating a curated online album like every other social network out there.

Snap Inc.’s strategy created pressure to move into a different market. Killer strategies pressure you to make divisive decisions. They pressure you to change your consumer’s behavior and mindset.

They also pressure you to talk directly to audiences that are on your wavelength, and force you to risk not talking to the rest of the world.

They’ll push you to do the impossible. In this case, that means winning where Google Glass failed, with an arguably simpler product no less.

Snapchat and Google both shared a big idea around how we experience life through AR and shared content.

Neither of them could make it work, but rest assured there will be other companies with other attempts, and each time the big idea will be just debatable as it has been.

That doesn’t mean, however, someone can’t figure it out. It only means that we’ve tried to either go too far, too soon, or in the wrong direction.

Big ideas will open new doors that sound crazy (at first).

Hardware sounded crazy for a social network. Private label goods sounded crazy for a television network. But in both cases it was the big idea that revealed those new market opportunities, and once the gates had been opened, it didn’t sound so crazy anymore.

If your big idea leads you into new categories and products, then you’re likely on to something.

You can think of big ideas — and brand strategies by extension — as master filters.

When you’ve nailed down that big strategic idea, you should be able to filter every choice through it and arrive at an on-brand decision.

Everything from product to communications, customer service, UX, partnerships and collaborations, HR and hiring, executive team, sales, operations, business development… everything should be filtered through your big strategic idea to make sure you are arriving on an on-brand decision.

It is a filter for every choice that matters, and the choices that matter the most are the ones that move you forward in your market.

Use your big idea as a filter for your product roadmap and you may find that the obvious choice for your brand is no longer the right one. Big ideas will move you into weird, scary places sometimes, but that is where the true opportunity lies.

Fewer and fewer companies are winning by staying in their lanes.

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.


View this post on Instagram


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.


These Are The Secret Signals That Lie Beneath Every Successful Brand

[Photo by Hugo Jehanne.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collective Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sounds logical, right?

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

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

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

That should draw your attention.

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

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

It’s a sin to be average in America.

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

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

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

How to use this signal.

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

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

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

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

This is about changing your perception of yourself.

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

Changing the context can change user perceptions.

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

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

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

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

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

Changing Definitions

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

Sometimes our very definitions even change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to use this signal.

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

Definitions, above all, need to be spelled out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


There’s always a signal.

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

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

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


Belief Is The New Benefit: Why you need to find your deeper brand

Photo by Scott Webb.

Time to rethink what you’re selling.

We’re living in a time when every brand is rethinking who they are and what they stand for.

That’s because at some point during the Apple revolution, consumers stopped buying products. They stopped buying specs like more horsepower in their cars or greater color options for their shoes. They stopped buying features like cheaper price for electronics or faster delivery of their food.

And at some point, they even started migrating away from benefits like productivity by way of their note taking apps, or the confidence that comes with a whiter smile, or anything that stopped at being aspirational.

What people started buying instead was beliefs, and nearly every new disruptor out there is banking on that insight.

Belief is the new benefit. Users are buying not the product, but rather the larger belief that makes that product necessary.

And for all of you that think you sell more ‘practical’ products immune to this new branding frontier, like toothpaste or moving services or mortgages, I guarantee there is someone plotting to steal your market with a belief, right now.

Yes, even if you sell toothpaste, a brand like Twice is here to eat your lunch.

Twice website Jan. 16, 2019

The Twice story has philanthropy and social good, safe ingredients and even Lenny Kravitz.

But what Twice is really about is turning toothpaste into something much greater. If grooming is now about self-care and wellness, then Twice is about a mood… or rather, elevating your mood to reach that pinnacle of wellness we strive for in every other part of our lives.

Twice embodies the belief that our most intimate rituals are sacred.

It’s a young, newly launched company that still has room to grow on the branding side, but they’re smart enough to know that they’re not here to sell you a product.

They’re here to sell you a new belief you didn’t know you held before.

After all, why shouldn’t we have different toothpastes for day and night, to serve two very different needs? Why shouldn’t we take care of our smiles and bodies and mental states the way we deserve?

Why shouldn’t brushing our teeth — something that marks both the beginning and end of the day, something that prepares us to both fight and to rest, something that signals self respect just as much as it does societal norms and taboos — be treated like a sacred ritual?

Twice goes deeper, like so many other brands I have written about over the years. When you go deeper, you reveal a much richer way to tell your story and capture your audience.

Going deeper transcends nagging consumer concerns like cost or convenience, and lets you play outside of the confines of product.

Your deeper brand is the one that sells a belief. The product is secondary. It’s the belief that people want to consume.

What is a belief?

Many CEOs and and brand executives mistake beliefs for causes.

Let me be clear that causes are not beliefs. They are also not defensible brand strategies. These kinds of causes can certainly serve you in the short term and help align the brand today, but they will not motivate beyond a core group of users in the long term:

  • Charity
  • Gender equality
  • Product safety, anything “natural” or “free of X”
  • Climate change
  • Fighting against the system/ any system
  • Resources for the underserved
  • Philanthropy

Sustainability, too, is an identity driver that helps us align with a company as a consumer, but it is not a belief that will build a brand.

If you look at a company like Allbirds, it can be tempting to say that their commitment to sustainability, their craftsmanship and promise of ultimate comfort… that all of these things are the immovable pillars of a strong brand.

Allbirds website Jan. 16, 2019

But that’s not what Allbirds is really selling to the Bay Area VCs, New York lawyers, big city executives, west coast entrepreneurs and greater members of the gig economy that love them.

What Allbirds is selling is the belief and romance of Silicon Valley. They are selling all of the grit, determination, exceptionalism, autonomy and glory that the Silicon Valley myth holds within it.

This is a belief about upgrading yourself to a higher professional level, and Allbirds is the gear that will get you there.

You can see signals of this belief in their genesis. Allbirds, much like a tech-driven design experiment, were designed by the founders to be “the simplest sneaker we could imagine.”

After launching on Kickstarter, they were funded by a stable of name brand investors, their flagship NYC store is nestled among other D2C startup darlings like Casper and Everlane, and journalists and writers continue to say things like “Allbirds might be the closest the world of everyday fashion has come to embracing this ideal of optimized efficiency” or Allbirds are like “an algorithm on my feet.”

Take a look at their interviews and the press they have in business outlets like The Wall Street Journal, CNN, BusinessInsider and TIME. These are all signals sending the same message.

This is not a shoe or a comfort statement. It’s equipment for personal optimization.

If you look at the signals surrounding the brand, you come to understand that wearing Allbirds is like placing yourself within that greater Silicon Valley story.

Pay attention to how they don’t hide the fact that Silicon Valley’s elite is where this whole brand started. Notice how these shoes are part of the VC uniform that also includes Patagonia vests, button down shirts and S’Well bottles — an anecdote that is played up in nearly every mention of the brand.

Whether the brand was consciously seeded in the Silicon Valley scene, or was merely co-opted by its inhabitants, is unclear. But that’s not the only place where we can gather the brand belief that has emerged.

Look at the very people that make up their core audience. These are people who may not have careers in tech or have founded a startup, but work in adjacent industries where such a move might be a very alluring dream. Those same lawyers, creatives, executives, entrepreneurs and gig economy members resonate very strongly with the Silicon Valley belief of autonomy and personal success. Merino wool and the “the world’s most comfortable” design are merely the features to back it up.

A belief, unlike a cause, is a guidebook for understanding the world.

When you buy a belief, you are buying the whole universe of values, codes of conduct and rules that go along with it. That’s more than any benefit could ever do.

Beliefs are more powerful than benefits because they lock in a behavior. A brand led by belief informs your user’s mental model, not just their preferences.

Allbirds aren’t just comfortable shoes. They are a belief about who you are becoming, and inform your ideas about personal potential, drive and perhaps even destiny.

That may sound crazy, but it’s there in the brand. There are other options for eco and ethical footwear that also deliver comfort, but none of them deliver the magic that people really want to buy.

Centers of meaning.

Hospitals are becoming supermarkets. Supermarkets are becoming bars and restaurants. Bars and restaurants are becoming workspaces.

Like I said at the top of this discussion, every brand is rethinking who they are and what they stand for. They are rethinking their centers of meaning.

Left to right: Market on the Green, a grocery store run by ProMedica (WSJ), Local beers on tap at “The Parlor” at Whole Foods (Vox), Spacious turns restaurants like the Milling Room into co-working spaces during the day (NYT).

These companies have started to ask themselves who they are in a user’s life, what role they play and what they are actually offering.

When they did that, they realized they were not selling goods and services. They were selling much larger beliefs that touched on peoples’ lives in many more areas than previously thought.

When a healthcare company like ProMedica opens up a grocery store so that their doctors can prescribe both medicine and food to the patient, it’s because they understand their role as a guardian of health, not merely a hospital.

The same mechanics are at play when Whole Foods creates gathering spaces around in-store bars, or Spacious turns restaurants into co-working spaces during off peak hours. They looked at where they created meaning in a user’s life, not what they created as a product, and that is where they built their brands.

But what is most important here is the brave steps they took in having the brand strategy and belief direct the business strategy. They boldly started with the belief and meaning first, and then looked at the business. Most companies do it the other way around.

Yes, when you take an honest look at the centers of meaning that you are creating for your users and the beliefs that surround them, you will find that your business model may change.

You can decide to take the leap or play in your current comfort zone, but be assured that no one is safe from this tectonic shift. Not even major brands like Mastercard.

Apple, Nike, Target — these are all major brands with logos that omit the name. Starbucks dropped the word “coffee” from their logo a long time ago, and now that Mastercard (perhaps a less fervently admired consumer brand) has followed suit, it’s worth understanding why.

For Mastercard, the word “card” referred to a bygone relic of finance that no longer mattered. It tethered them to an archaic past.

The future of money is digital and Mastercard had to not only reassess the role it played in people’s metaphorical wallets, but how they could create meaning around money in general.

That meaning no longer revolved around a piece of plastic.

Dunkin’ has deleted the Donuts from its name because the product is incredibly limiting (especially in foreign markets where they have struggled) and because the product is no longer the brand.

Weight Watchers, which is now simply WW, has realized that they live in the sphere of wellness, not specifically weight management. That has caused them to revamp everything from the sourcing of their ingredients to the packaging of the program itself.

What we’re really left with in all of these cases is logos without names. Core images and icons.

It makes perfect sense: images and icons are the most primal ways to convey a belief.

You can see Jesus written in the sand, but you will feel the image of that cross on a hill. You can read a danger warning on a dumpster, but nothing strikes fear in your heart like a the spiky swirls of a biohazard symbol.


Excellent video on how to design fear into a perfect warning symbol.


Logos, name changes, new business verticals, subtext… they all point toward the larger movement that’s happening in branding right now. We’re in the next phase of how consumers and companies come to interact with one another.

When you truly hit on a resonant belief for your audience, the product and everything else around it falls away. That’s not to say that the product and every other part of the user experience don’t matter.

It’s to say that they are there to support the belief that holds them.

Understand your place in the user’s life.

This is the time to rethink what you’re actually selling. Your product and its features and benefits may have been the start, but they shouldn’t be the end of your brand journey.

For many founders, the belief is already there. They just have to stretch themselves to unearth it. Chances are you started your business because you had an important belief about the world or the future, but didn’t consciously realize it.

For others, they may have started with a product gap in the marketplace, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a belief to be found. Consumer rush in to fill those gaps when they are given the opportunity because they have tapped into a larger, silent belief that hasn’t been articulated yet. Look at your user to see what it is.

Branding never stops.

Honor your work as a company by giving it the context most likely to matter to the user. Give people the meaning that will make them understand why you exist in the first place.


The Defensibility Fallacy: Product vs. Brand


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

What makes a brand defensible?

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

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

Defensibility is the ultimate goal of brand strategy.

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

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

When it comes to product, defensibility looks like:

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

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

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

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

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

Brand defensibility looks very different than product defensibility:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belief models move markets and make markets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A perfect place to see this happening is in fashion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belief models for the future.

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

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

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

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


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

3 moves you need to be making right now.

Brands emerge from choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A compelling brand takes risks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell the story you don’t want to tell.

There is a way to make it work.

2. Show your face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Every risk taken is a brand signal sent.

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


The California Concept: When a Belief Is Constantly Reborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

French, German and American ads for travel to California.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that sparkling sense of freedom?

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

California Republic flag.

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

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

California is a belief.

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

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

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

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

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

The Tireless Business of Rebirth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And its influence travels far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jacob Repko.

What It Means To Brand Around A Living & Dying Belief

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

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

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

So what does rebirthing mean exactly?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death and rebirth help unify a brand’s narrative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And relying on products alone is a risky move.

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

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

It’s only new if it feels new.



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

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

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

Come to California to witness it.

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


The Emergent Story Arc of Food: How to Win the Brand War (In Any Industry)

[Photo by frankie cordoba.]

Every brand has a chance to bend the consumer path away from competitors and toward itself in a new future. This is how.

Stories change a lot more than we realize.

Between decades and generations, our collective ideals around basic desires — money, happiness, health, family, food, technology, you name it — radically evolve.

But like a frog in hot water (supposedly), even radical changes are imperceptible to us while they’re happening.

  • ‘Marriage to survive’ becomes ’Marriage for love’: Dating in America is only about 100 years old. Before that, marriage was a socioeconomic means to survive. As civil institutions proliferated to create mass economic security across the U.S., the notion of marriage came to be newly infused with the concept of romantic love.
  • Cold hard cash’ is suddenly ‘The abstract money concept’: 1950s consumers couldn’t dream of today’s norms — paying with cards, borrowing freely, a new crypto currency frontier — because money had inextricable rules that dictated how and when you spent. Money was in the purview of the government, not outside of it.
  • From ‘Working life’ to ‘Life’s work’: As recent as the late 20th century, jobs used to be something you did outside of real life. Today, we live within the cultural construct of the ‘career’, and your career is your waking identity. Even the lifelong mono-career spent climbing the corporate ladder at a single company is being supplanted by a new hyphenated, multi-part career ushered in by the creative class.
Image by Jasmine Bina.

It’s not just the systems that change, but our engagement with those systems as well.

With every new cultural narrative comes a new human experience.

When stories change, so does our reality… and this has happened over and over and over again since the beginning of humankind.

Collectively, we call these different eras of thought and belief the Emergent Story Arc.

Your brand can be a part of the Emergent Story Arc, or work against it, but every single smart brand poised for success is making a very clear and risky bet on where the trajectory of the story arc is going.

Brands that matter place bets on the future.

… and they use their brands as signals to push consumers toward that specific future path.

(I talk more about placing your brand bets here and here.)

So how do you draw out the Emergent Story Arc, learn from it, and bend it to your brand’s advantage?

You start by looking for patterns.


Building The Emergent Story Arc

Let’s look at a very basic story that affects all of us — food.

Let’s also assume we are a food startup that has created a chocolate candy bar that’s actually fortified with 50% of your daily vitamins and minerals.

It’s called the Chocolate Happiness Bar.

Imagine Snickers, if Snickers doubled as a vitamin.

The questions we must then ask ourselves stem from the concept of food, snacks and health in everyday life, such as:

  • What is the story of food and snacks in America? How do we define it today, yesterday, and likely tomorrow?
  • Over time, how has our cultural understanding of food changed not only how we think about it, but also how we consume it, package it, talk about it and gather around it?
  • How has our understanding of health changed over time, and how have food and snacks adapted to the health ideal?
  • What role does food play in our lives? What stories do we tell ourselves about it?
  • What major brands, advancements and beliefs have shaped those stories?

If we looked over all of these considerations over the past few decades and created a 3-part Emergent Story Arc, this is what the first iteration would look like:

© Jasmine Bina 2018. Please contact for publication use.

In each era, we see that beliefs, attitudes and behaviors changed.

Sometimes brands created those changes. Other times, they were reacting and adapting.

If you go through the points in each era, you can start to see how the overall perception of food, snacks and health have evolved — and how all of those evolutions are interconnected.

It’s in the connections between consumer eras that we start to understand what makes an industry move forward.

If we zoom out and take a look at what all of these data points are telling us, we start to see some extremes emerge… and between those extremes, some very important patterns.

© Jasmine Bina 2018. Please contact for publication use.

Food, snacking and health have all gone from external activities and beliefs, to internal ones.

This second iteration of our Emergent Story Arc show us what is buried in the details.

The emergent story of food is increasingly within us. It is inward facing. It is personal, it is private, it is intimate.

Food has gone from a relationship we had with our peers and communities, to a relationship that we have with ourselves.

Our beliefs around consumer advocacy, personal health, and the ‘buyer beware’ mentality that causes each of us to spend hundreds of hours reading ingredient lists and pop health articles all support this.

You may have come across a perfect culmination of this mental shift last Thanksgiving when a frustrated host sent a letter to New York Times columnist by Aaron E. Carroll:

“Welcome to the United States of Divided Dinner Tables” (Vox: This woman’s Thanksgiving plight perfectly captures America’s fraught food culture)

This Thanksgiving wasn’t defined by external societal standards. It was defined by internal, personal beliefs — both emotional and logical.

This change in perspective also underscores the surge in snacking over the decades.

Meals are something we expect to do with others. Snacking is something often done alone, between places and events.

Snacking is a largely private event.

As our attitudes about food have moved inwards, so have our habits around it.

Image by Jasmine Bina.

Knowing all of this, we reach the final iteration of the arc where we outline the pervading stories of each era, and then plot our competitors along the future arc to find opportunities for our own brand.

Let’s return to our Chocolate Happiness Bar and see what this new chart looks like.

You can define your competitors however you like, but in this example, we will define it as any single-serving chocolate flavored snack that can be found at the common grocery store — including those that compete with us along the health metric (protein bars, diet bars, fiber bars, etc.).

Here we ask ourselves, what is the dominant story in each time period, and what new stories are on the horizon today and into the future?

© Jasmine Bina 2018. Please contact for publication use.

You’ll notice a few things about this final iteration of the Emergent Story Arc:

  1. The future story splits into three different narratives. That’s because we’re living it, and the dominant narrative hasn’t been written yet.
  2. You’ll notice something very interesting happening here. Both the Guilt Story and the Regressive story actually originate from previous eras of consumer thinking that are no longer prevalent (!) This shows the lack of smart branding innovations in the space, but also highlights something very important for any company: You may find that some of your competitors today don’t really seem to have a POV on the future, in which case you may want to reconsider if they are even competitors. Having a POV on the future is making a risky bet, and like I said at the top of this article, every single smart brand poised for success is making a very clear and risky bet on where the trajectory of the story arc is going.
  3. The further your story arc diverges from another competitor, the more tension you are creating… and that is a good thing. I’ll explain in a moment.

The real beauty of this arc is that it tells us how to position ourselves in order to be different, not better (because if you’ve read my work, you’ll know better is a losing game.)

Your positioning should answer the consumer question, Why should I care?

Because snacking is a sacred ritual.

That POV is a strong brand position to come from.

You can see from the arc that it diverges from the rest of the pack, while directly speaking to future forces like the decline of family meals, the inward nature of modern food habits, food as healing, and the growing abandonment of old rules.

From here, we can start to build something interesting.

Image by © Jasmine Bina.

The Emergent Story Arc will tell you what decisions to make

For me personally, building a full arc for a category can feel like being lost in the woods. But once it’s built and the full forest is in view, I can hear it whispering to me.

The arc will reveal opportunities you can’t see when you’re on the ground.

In this example, even though high-level, we are already getting some strong messages from the arc:

  • We need to elevate snacking to be the sacred ritual we believe it is. That can come across in our branded language, in our customer engagement experiences, and in our partnerships.
  • We need to think about where we sell. We have the most tension with the most outdated narrative — that of traditional and masstige candies you usually see in the checkout lane, and it may be a strong strategy to place our products there instead of the health food section.
  • We shouldn’t describe our vitamins using dated language like fortified or daily allowance. Not only are these words connected to an old narrative, but they also echo the language of the very institutions the public has become wary of. Instead, we should consider reframing our benefits as restorative, healing and balancing.
  • Create a new category outside of candy, medicine or health. All of these spaces and stories are incredibly crowded — and to fall into them would be to lose our own story.

Product decisions must also reflect brand decisions.

If we truly are an internally-facing brand that creates triggers around sacred moments, then an extension of our product line may look like this:

  • The ‘Eat Me Before Bed’ Chocolate Happiness Bar: with vitamins and supplements to enhance the sacred ritual of sleep
  • The ‘Eat Me Before The Meeting’ Chocolate Happiness Bar: with vitamins and supplements to enhance focus during the sacred ritual of work
  • The ‘Eat Me On The Way To Work’ Chocolate Happiness Bar: with vitamins and supplements to increase energy during the sacred ritual of travel

Again, referencing the future trajectory of the consumer mindset, we know that customization, functionalization, and internalization can be creatively applied here in a candy format in order to place our bets on the future.

Image by © Jasmine Bina.

Every story changes.

You will find an emergent story arc in everything from the nuclear family and higher education to gender norms and beauty.

We are seeing every institution around us morph into something quite different, and at a faster and faster rate.

but that presents a wealth of new opportunities — especially when it comes to your competition.

Look for signals and win the war.

See where your competitors are going.

The more they invest in a direction, the harder it will be for them to change it. That’s your advantage.

There is always a higher path to pursue.

Image by Jasmine Bina.

The Inputs Always Matter

The inputs for any framework matter. Here are some best practices for this one, that will help guide you in the right direction:

  • Go as far back as it matters. I like to cover the formative decades of every living generation, but you may want to go back centuries if you feel it will reveal something even deeper in the human psyche.
  • Remove all judgement. What may have once seemed backwards may now seem right-side-up. If you judge people’s behaviors, you won’t be able to learn from them.
  • You can (and should) go back to that first iteration and find new patterns. You can rebuild this and it will create a different story arc for the same space, and every version is important. Note that I’ve excluded medicinal competitors like vitamin gummies, but if this were a larger arc with more layers, they would be included.
  • Pay attention to which things have carried throughout the length of the arc, and which have emerged and disappeared as fads (…100-calorie packs are decidedly on their way out).


Build Something That Takes Us Somewhere

You have to start at the mouth of the river in order to understand where it’s going, how fast it’s going, and how likely it is to overflow and change direction.

“I see the future as a series of branching probability streams. So you have to ask, what are we doing to move down the good stream?”

Elon Musk

You’re building a company around a theory that will take us into the future.

Theories come from observation of patterns. I hope this framework gives you the tools to surface those patterns and act on them.

We will always follow those people who can imagine a future so vividly, that they practically guide us there from the here-and-now.