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 Cognitive Dissonance Hiding Behind Strong Brands


Smart brands convey a strong, overt benefit that lines up with people’s actions and beliefs. Great brands, however, are smart enough to see the gap between people’s actions and beliefs, and leverage it for greater opportunity — and they do it without you realizing.

Cognitive dissonance occurs “when your ideas, beliefs, or behaviors contradict each other.” If you think you’re financially responsible but then feel guilty spending $400 on a new pair of shoes, you’re experiencing the weight of cognitive dissonance. When you buy a new computer but look up reviews and prices afterward to convince yourself it was a smart purchase, the stress of cognitive dissonance is driving your behavior. It’s a landmark theory pioneered by social psychologist Leon Festinger that has impacted the way we view behavior and culture ever since it was introduced in 1957.

As a brand strategist, I search for the clues that underly what people think and how they act. Here, we’ll dig deeper into the principles and ideas that turn this concept into a powerful tool:

  1. What cognitive dissonance is in a human context, as well as a brand context
  2. How to spot the gap, and a look at companies who are leveraging cognitive dissonance to better serve and sway their customers (usually under the radar)
  3. How to employ the concept in your own company for better product design, branding, engagement and loyalty

That Feeling When

You can return the $400 pair of shoes, or you can keep them and tell yourself they’re handmade in Italy and will be a wardrobe staple for years to come. You can search and search until you find a better computer at a better price, or instead comfort yourself in the changed belief that it was a good investment and what really matters is that you no longer have to worry about your programs constantly crashing.

If you’ve ever bought an expensive luxury item or untested piece of hardware, you’ll agree that none of those options ever feels quite right. Either by lack of information or lack of self-control, there is a measurable discomfort we feel when what we believe is not synonymous with what we do.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory explains how that mismatch drives our behavior… the urge to pacify and rectify ourselves, even when no one is watching.

It’s easy to see that the greater the gap between your actions and beliefs, the greater the tension that is experienced… and the greater our urge to do something about it. We have three choices in dealing with that tangible tension:

  1. Change our beliefs
  2. Change our actions
  3. Change the way we perceive our actions

Depending on the situation, you’ll go for one, two or all three of those options in relieving your state of cognitive dissonance.

eLearning Industry, July 22nd, 2016

Most of us think we’re honest, but call it a “fib” instead of a lie when we act dishonest in an awkward situation. Calling it a fib lowers the tension between believing we are good, honest people, and the fact that we failed to tell the truth.

Cognitive dissonance plays many roles in our lives, ranging from self-denial to simply getting through the day.

Can’t Escape It

By the way, it’s everywhere.

We have all kinds of conflicting desires and beliefs, not to mention outside influences, internal biases, and the fact that the expectations and restrictions placed upon us change in different environments.

For example, most people think that climate change will harm Americans, but they don’t think it will harm them personally:

New York Times, March 21, 2017

…and we know it’s important to wash our hands, but not so much if nobody’s watching:

PR Newswire, February 7th, 2017 | Bradley Corp., December 12–15, 2016

…and of course we believe in religious freedoms, but the expressions of those religious freedoms by others can make us uncomfortable:

Washington Post, November 17th, 2015 (but note the PRRI study is from 2011)

From the time we’re kids believing (but not really believing, but maybe kinda believing) in Santa Claus, to being teenagers who convinced ourselves we “like, omg, really loved prom” even though it sucked and was nothing like the movies we grew up with, to being adults who cheat on our diets because we can always jog for an extra 30 minutes tomorrow… it’s a part of life.

Cognitive dissonance reveals our human nature by exposing:

  • What we want to believe about ourselves
  • How we truly view the world
  • How we want to be perceived by others
  • What we desire
  • What we feel can’t be said
  • What we fear, what we hope

A good brand will address subconscious drivers like these, and any company that makes it easy for a consumer to narrow the gap between what they believe and what they do will tap into a viable market opportunity.

They will create a product that makes it easy to change your behavior (, Wunderlist), or a story that makes it easy to change your beliefs (Starbucks, Supreme). Either way, your actions will match your words.

…but there are some brands that let you have your cake and eat it, too. They covertly allow you to maintain your current behaviors, but reap the rewards of lowered cognitive dissonance. These are the brands I find the most interesting.

Coddle Your Brain

A lot of startups have tried to solve the personal finance problem. Companies like Mint and LearnVest help you manage your budget by hooking up to your bank accounts and giving you transparency into your spending habits. The more you know, the more empowered you are to maintain and follow a plan that will turn you into the financially responsible person you believe you are.

The cognitive dissonance here is that many people want to believe they are smart with money, but oftentimes their actions prove otherwise. It can be a very emotionally taxing dissonance for some, so Mint and LearnVest have created products that change the behavior to be closer to the belief.

Digit, however, realized that for a lot of people, transparency wasn’t the issue. It was the behavior itself. Changing that action is incredibly difficult for most people because they overspend for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with transparency, including overwhelm, emotional spending and personal attitudes toward money.

Digit silently siphons money from your checking and savings balances every week into a separate account for safekeeping. You can “save money without thinking about it” because Digit sets aside money “in a way that you won’t notice.” In six months, you can be surprised to find out you have enough cash to take a trip to Europe or put a down payment on a car.

You maintain your spending behaviors, and still reap the rewards of lowered cognitive dissonance… a very attractive promise that Mint and LearnVest fail to offer.

Instead of a changed action, you have an adapted one that is far easier in practice.

Let’s think about another strong point of dissonance — charity. I’m not convinced anyone has permanently cracked this nut, but there have been a handful of brands who hacked cognitive dissonance in order to make charity happen where it might otherwise not have.

The gap is a) we believe ourselves to be charitable, kind, generous people, but b) we rarely give to charity. Standard practice here is to change our beliefs.

Can you really trust a charity to not be corrupt? Is there a charity for a cause that I’m truly passionate about? Will my $5 even make a difference?

It’s not that giving money isn’t easy or painless. Think of the last time you were at a grocery register and the checkout person asked you, “Would you like to donate $1 today to [insert charity here]?”

It’s a dollar, and it’s a yes or no answer. Dead simple with virtually no significant cost to you. But you likely said no.

You might be the same person, however, who said said yes to a “Buy One, Give One” brand like TOMS or Warby Parker (although Warby Parker takes a slightly different take on the concept.) Although it was far more trendy just a little while ago, Buy One, Give One is still a huge force and was woven into the very fabric of a brand like TOMS.

We tend to behave selfishly. It’s hard to give without getting something in return. TOMS let’s us give in the name of receiving every time we buy a pair of shoes.

You maintain your self-centered behavior, and still reap the reward of lowered cognitive dissonance… another very attractive promise that your checkout attendant simply can’t give you.

Brands like these relieve you of lower feelings such as guilt, worry and even shame, without ever saying it out loud. That’s why they have the potential to be so powerful.

It can be your product, your story or your user experience — all touch points are levers for easing the discomfort and helping people reinforce their view of who they are in the world.

We’re All Adults Here

When Stephen Dorff created a national wtf moment with his blu e-Cigs commercials, he was enacting a very deliberate campaign to reduce the huge cognitive dissonance existing in the minds of most smokers.

With stakes that high, a brand has to work on multiple fronts. When a behavior and belief stand in such opposition to each other, amplified by immeasurable public pressure and negative stereotypes, there is huge opportunity to reduce cognitive dissonance for your core audience.

blu could have just conveyed a more socially acceptable product, which was at the time supposedly deemed 95% safer than smoking regular cigarettes and posed far less risk to others through secondhand smoke. In fact, according to the brand, it allowed people to “enjoy smoking without letting it effect the people around me.” That would have been enough to adapt the action for many smokers. It gave you permission to smoke, and not feel so bad about it.

But the behavior of smoking itself has such a deeply ingrained stigma, they knew they had to take it one step further and change the action perception as well.

All you had to do was take it from the rugged, free-thinking, leather jacket wearing Stephen Dorff himself when he said, “I’m tired of feeling guilty every time I want to light up […] We’re all adults here. It’s time we take our freedom back. C’mon guys, rise from the ashes.

Those are fighting words. Those are words that make it ok to be a smoker… words, I’ll add, that smokers never hear. It flipped the script and said you’re not the bad buy, you’re the victim. You don’t deserve to be vilified.

A new behavior coupled with a new narrative can be very strong, especially with marginalized groups. blu understood that and eased the intense cognitive dissonance smokers feel every day — something that would resonate with both casual smokers and life long addicts.

Please and Thank You

Brands that play cognitive dissonance often channel it as ‘permission’. They make it ok to stay the way you are, while reducing the emotional friction.

You can use it for good (finance, charity) or not so good (cigarettes). What’s worth noting is that generally speaking, different levels of dissonance create different factors.

Common overspending is often a punchline or the subject of a meme, while smoking doesn’t afford such light discourse. Political and religious ideals often require us to hold steadfast to one-sided arguments in order to resolve factual disconnects, but sneaking a slice of cake and moving your diet start date to tomorrow doesn’t summon the same sense of urgency.

Of course, there are some caveats to this, including the fact that different people feel different levels of dissonance on the same topics. It’s been found that extroverts are less likely to feel negative tension and less likely to change their minds than introverts are. We also have to keep in mind that different cultural backgrounds, genders and socio-economic status play a role, too.

Look Over Here

The funny thing about cognitive dissonance is that it feeds into itself. Here’s an example put forth by Dr. John M. Grohol…

Say you’re a student applying to two different universities and you rate each one before sending in your applications. You’re accepted to both schools and after some deliberation, choose the right one for you.

If you were asked to rate those same schools again after making your choice, you’d be likely to give a higher rating to the one you chose, even though nothing about that school has changed. We have a strong compulsion to prove to ourselves that we make good decisions. Even after the fact, we will continue to search for proof that we were right.

Many brands facilitate your ‘proof-searching’ so you can feel good about the purchase and feed the positive cycle.

  • Amazon’s weekly emails to Alexa users not only keeps them informed of Alexa’s new skills, but also protects against buyer’s remorse when users fail to immediately find the skills that would make it most useful to them.
  • Washio (R.I.P.) used to pacify my guilt with a special reward. Every time someone would come and pick up my laundry, they’d give me a tiny sample pack of the most heavenly dessert from DeLuscious. I’m not joking, it was unreal. I looked up their brownies to buy some for a party and they cost over $60 a dozen (!) Needless to say I didn’t make the purchase, but I can tell you that my crippling guilt over wasted money on laundry (that I really should have been doing myself) washed away when I got that brownie.
  • Gusto sends business owners a hearty congratulations every time payroll has been paid or tax forms have been filed. Keep in mind that a business owner isn’t actually doing that work. Gusto has automated both of those processes, but deliberately gives the pleasure of a reduced cognitive dissonance to the customer.

The message is always clear — “Relax, you made the right choice.”

You Are Here

Cognitive dissonance isn’t behind every brand, and it won’t apply to every founder or executive, but you will run across it at some point, whether it’s in marketing, user experience or attracting new demographics.

If it does apply, here’s how to start using these principles for your own company.

Start with yourself

If you want to be good at spotting it for your brand or product, look to yourself first. Cognitive dissonance can be easy to miss. It’s subtle and insidious by nature, and can take many forms. It’s easy to mistake it as ‘friction’ or a ‘pain point’.

In fact, I was inspired to write this piece because something strange happens to me when I travel. I find myself in heated political discussions with people in other countries, and have a near out of body experience when I suddenly realize that I’m defending a point of view that I wouldn’t normally hold in the United States — especially if the other party is being critical of America, American values, or its citizens.

If someone says, “Americans have really lost their way. The state of the country is shameful,” my normal response would be, “I understand where you’re coming from.” But when I’m overseas, I get defensive. Instead I’ll say something more like, “Well hold on, it’s not as simple as that. There’s a lot of fear and misinformation plaguing the country right now…”

Some of that is an immature, knee-jerk reaction to feeling personally attacked. Some of it is my desperate need to move away from divisive, anxiety-inducing language to something more constructive and less apocalyptic. But a lot of it, I’m realizing, is actually cognitive dissonance. There is a measurable difference between my conflicting beliefs, and it plays out in my actions.

Start by examining yourself and the people around you for a few weeks. See if you can surface dissonance in their actions and ideas, and figure out where the tension is coming from.

Ask the right questions

When you’re ready to apply it to your own customers and user base, begin with smart questions that dig a little deeper than the usual problem-solution statement.

  1. What secret beliefs do my users hold?
  2. What makes my users nervous?
  3. Is there a driving emotion underneath each pain point?

Look for the gap that shows a misalignment. That gap will lead you to the core of your brand.

Choose your approach

Ask yourself: Can I change the story? Can I change the behavior? Or can I adapt/ “cheat” the behavior?

Nabisco couldn’t turn their sugary snacks into a diet food, but they could cheat the concept with 100 calorie packs that let people think they were changing a behavior to match their beliefs, relieving them of the cognitive dissonance… even though they weren’t entirely practicing healthy eating like an actual health food would require.

That was bolstered with carefully balanced marketing that promoted the changed belief that portion control is all it takes to make Oreos or Chips Ahoy! part of your diet.

This is where the artistry and science of brand strategy comes in. Depending on your approach, you’ll have to adapt your product development, brand narrative and any number of factors to beneficially leverage the dissonance for your consumers. A good place to start is to look at other brands (much like the ones I’ve outlined in this piece). See how they’ve done it and how you can apply the same approach to your brand challenge.

That Felt Good

In the larger scheme of things, we already know it’s important to give our customers a sense of agency. We know that reducing friction (experiential, emotional or otherwise) is crucial. And we know, above all else, a successful brand makes people feel good.

If you really want to hit the emotional triggers that make people trust and value a brand, you have to go deeper than the problem on the surface. You have to dig until you find the discrepancy — the gap that needs to be fixed — and resolve the tension.

That silent relief is the hidden key to winning your target.