Six years ago, I shared my 16 Rules of Brand Strategy, a list of tenets to build or test your company’s strategy. That article went viral and is still referenced today more than any of my other pieces. But consumers and culture have changed a great deal, so it’s time to write some new rules.
Consider the original 16 rules to be the cost of entry. They are now the baseline requirement for brand building. This new and revamped list is how you build on that foundation and level up to greatness.
You will quickly see that these rules are not only valuable for brands but can (and should) inform product, UX, sales, marketing, PR, HR and nearly every other business activity.
1. Don’t rebrand the product when you can rebrand the problem.
Rebranding the product puts you in a consideration set with other products, but rebranding the problem can put you in a consideration set of one.
EVRYMAN reframed the problem of therapy from “finding yourself” to “creating yourself” before they positioned their product. Cofertility rebranded the problem of fertility from “egg freezing and donation” to “touching human lives” in order to make their product newly relevant.
We recently helped a client in the debt relief industry rebrand the problem of owing money. Debt relief is a murky category with shady players, and while we understood the tremendous integrity that our particular client was built with, we knew it made no sense to say, “Hey, trust us! We’re the good guys!” (a very common mistake many brands make).
Instead, we dug deep in our psychographic research and saw something remarkable—when people go into debt, they become the debt.
Their entire identities are reduced to one dimension: They no longer identify with their hobbies, they stop going to family functions, stop volunteering, stop enjoying time with friends, stop taking pride in their work, stop planning their lives.
They lose what makes them human, and understanding this was the real brand opportunity.
The brand wasn’t about an honest debt relief company with good products, although that was very true, the brand was about re-dimensionalizing people. We reframed the problem of “debt” to the problem of “losing selfhood.” And that is the concept we built their entire strategy on.
Immediately, their rebranded ads, messaging and positioning saw a huge uptick, while the culture of the company evolved toward a singular vision that guided every decision toward a common goal.
Think clearly about what you’re branding, because sometimes there is something much bigger than just the product.
2. Real conversion happens emotionally, not logically.
People who have damage in the emotional centers of their brains are normal in every single area of their lives with one notable exception—they can’t make good decisions, and sometimes they can’t make decisions at all.
It turns out that decision making is driven by emotion, and logic is what we use after the fact to justify our actions. Risk assessment, emotional processing, memory, self-perception and social cognition are all bound together in our brains, and they are all part of a very complex, very emotional decision-making process.
That means B2B is just as emotional as B2C. It means underneath every feature a user tells you matters to them lies an emotion they themselves perhaps don’t understand. It also means feature-led branding will always lose.
You need to find out the emotional triggers that will truly convey your value to the user. Emotions, not features (or USP or benefits or measures of being “better” than your competitor) should be the basis of your brand.
When people convert from the heart and not the head, they are more willing to pay for premium products, more willing to evangelize and more likely to remain loyal in the face of UX and product issues, delays and other challenges. Why would you give up that much goodwill by ignoring emotion?
3. Changing belief means changing identity.
Most brands have one giant challenge between them and success: changing people’s beliefs.
But the thing about belief is that it’s much more than ideas floating in our heads. Atomic Habits author James Clear famously documented how those who are most likely to stick to changed beliefs and behaviors are the people who first change their identities. Entrepreneur Seth Godin put it another way when he said, “People like us do things like this.”
Belief and identity are so intertwined that changing our beliefs can feel like losing ourselves. It’s scary. We live in a culture that sees it as a sign of weakness—for example, consider the fact that instead of celebrating politicians who evolve their worldviews, we approach them with distrust and skepticism.
But when we change our beliefs, we change our behaviors, and it’s oftentimes the most effective way to get people to understand the value of your brand.
The best way to change people’s minds is to help them see themselves differently in the world. In order to change the beliefs that held people back from running, Tracksmith first had to create an identity around a new “running class” of people who do it for the personal ritual. It created room for a new kind of runner—someone who wasn’t winning races but still had permission to enthusiastically invest in their running practice.
If your brand needs people to change their beliefs, give them an identity worth adopting.
4. Loose places crave tight cultures.
Every category has a culture. Psychologist Michele Gelfand has found that cultures fall on a spectrum between tight and loose. Tight cultures like finance and sports are governed by strict norms, whereas loose cultures like parenting, food or psychedelics may have an overabundance of information but few steadfast rules everyone can agree on.
Loose culture categories feel chaotic. What diet is the right one for me? Am I raising my kid right? What is the morality of doing illegal drugs for mental health? These categories don’t have a paradox of choice. They have an absence of norms.
I’ve found exploring this theory offers a useful framework for brands. Every brand must assess the tightness or looseness of their culture. If there is a pervading sense of normlessness, then it is likely that your audience is looking for a specific perspective.
Today’s most successful food brands bring a tight culture to loose places. Lesser Evil snacks, Ezekiel breads and Garden of Life supplements are brands built on tight culture.
Ezekiel, for example, conjures the authority of biblical language to define what constitutes real, natural food. Is religious metaphor a cute vehicle for branding bread? Sure. Is it a genius device for bringing a strong set of norms that help consumers assess their bread choices amidst shelves of other options? Also very much yes.
If there is a loose culture, there is an opportunity to set the rules of engagement for your space.
5. Love is great. Hate is useful. Indifference kills.
Most brands have the problem of user indifference. People may think you have a nice enough brand but that doesn’t compel them to convert. Don’t get mired in a quest to gently move indifferent people down the funnel.
Your goal should be to create so much tension that your brand really turns on your lovers or really turns off your haters but leaves no room for indifference. Chasing indifferent users will run your company into the ground.
Ideally you’d want to lean into the love side of the equation, but you can successfully lean into the other side, as well. Marmite’s “love it or hate it” messaging created a near-mythical story around it’s divisive flavor, but the truth of the matter is that people were generally indifferent until the company decided to rebrand around this polarizing idea.
Oatly created https://fckoatly.com/, an aggregated history of hate toward the brand that you either get and really love or don’t get and really hate. The one thing you can’t do is remain indifferent.
Most founders see indifference as being on the path to love, but that’s a dangerous falsehood. Love and hate are on two ends of the same path, while indifference is a dead-end highway in another town. You will waste precious time and dollars that could have been spent learning about your true base and how to broaden your audience from there.
You’d rather have lovers and haters than a world of bystanders.
6. Make people leave their biases at the door.
Be cognizant of the consumer biases in your category. People may think childcare is menial work, or that math skills are genetic, or that polyamory is shameful (all bases I have worked with for client brands), but it doesn’t matter if they’re true or not. What matters is if people carry those biases to your door.
You can either let them enter with old biases that will make them blind to your USP, or you can signal a whole new set of rules that will make people enter with an open mind, ready to behave differently. I believe this will be one of the most important factors in defining the brands that win and the brands that lose in the next decade.
When Qualtrics rebranded their category from user data to experience management, they forced a new perspective on how data should be employed. Experience management meant seeing things more holistically across customers, employees and broader stakeholders and crafting an experience, not merely diagnosing problems.
It precluded people from bringing old notions about data into this new environment, which was crucial to their 2019 acquisition for $8 billion, referred to as an “eye-watering” sum at the time.
7. Don’t hide the experience behind conversion.
I often meet companies that have great products and services but their brands do little to reveal the experience beneath. They may talk about features or benefits, but they don’t surface the feelings that underpin them.
However, without first understanding the experience, users are afraid of unknowns around how to engage and measure the benefit.
Don’t make your user wait until conversion to understand what the experience truly is, because most of the time, they won’t get far enough to find out. Instead, give them a glimpse of how they will feel upfront. Allow them, in some small way, to experience your offering without having to first convert.
Airbnb did this when their brand said, “Belong Anywhere”. That phrase offered a brief window into the experience of traveling by way of locals’ homes that, until then, had been locked far behind the door of conversion.
Find out what really happens on the other side of conversion, capture the way that your users change by way of your experience, and move it up front.
8. Don’t let value get misattributed.
When my team was building the brand for one of the world’s largest work platforms, we saw something very interesting happening in the user journey.
The super users that got the most value out of the platform believed they had “hacked” it somehow. They believed that they themselves had figured out how to leverage the power of the platform in their business, without recognizing that the UX was actually designed to get them to that point.
Once we saw it with this client, we began to see it with many others. If your user journey is really good at helping people extract value from your offering, it’s highly probable that people think it’s because they are smart, not because you are good. And that means less loyalty and brand equity.
This is why storytelling around the user journey is so important. You need to take credit for all of the incremental value that is created well after conversion by demonstrating the thoughtful choices and guiding beliefs that led you to build that specific journey. Think of it as the digital version of craftsmanship. It’s an important narrative that helps people understand the value that you created for them.
9. Brand first, business second.
Brand is not the look of your website or the tone of your marketing voice. It is the organizing idea for every activity your company engages in, including product, UX, sales, communications, recruiting and even your org chart.
People read brands between the lines. They understand your brand not by what you say but by what you do, and what you do counts in every single touchpoint, in every single channel. That’s the point of brand strategy—to orient every single business activity toward the same outcome. You should see your brand strategy as a filter for every decision.
The Lego brand is about meaningful play for every age, but that brand isn’t borne of their website or marketing alone. You must take their positioning, product strategy, collabs, press, communities, business model and innovations altogether to understand their deeper brand. If you stopped at the website, you’d just think it was a toy company.
Patagonia’s brand is about drastic measures to save the earth, such as suing the US government and rebuffing the very VCs that turned the brand into a west coast status symbol. These were tactical decisions made through the lens of the brand.
Strong businesses have brand strategy at their core. You’d be hard pressed to find much daylight between business and brand for companies like Tesla, Apple or Meta.
To make brand inferior to business is a mistake.
10. Strive for brand singularity.
Brand singularity is when the company brand, the CEO brand and the employer brand are all synonymous. It creates a powerful flywheel effect in which no matter who your brand reaches or how it reaches them, you can be certain it’s the same resounding message every time.
Not many companies have accomplished this yet. It’s hard to maintain one brand, let alone three that echo each other.
Amazon, despite seasonal blowback, has incredible synchronicity between its employer brand, customer brand and Jeff Bezos’ personal brand. They all stand for efficiency.
You see it in all three places, from their customer manifesto and investments in delivery to the carefully-placed stories of Jeff’s two-pizza rule, upcycled boardroom tables and the story of a guy who found a way to sell books without having to store them anywhere.
It attracts talent, consumer trust and investor money.
11. Treat community like the first layer of brand.
Our world of relationships is shifting from weak ties to strong ties—from wide networks mostly filled with strangers on platforms like LinkedIn and Instagram to narrow but deeper networks where we share intimate values and culture like Discord and Patreon.
In our research, we’ve found that people are coming to expect community to be the first layer of brand, especially in premium spaces where people are paying more in money, time or education in order to use the product or service.
The community around Fly By Jing is what sells their premium-priced sauces and spice mixes. The company’s marketing, product and overall experience are solid, but it is the community that signals what this brand is really about. Chances are that if you asked someone about Fly By Jing, they would start by telling you about the brand’s enthusiastic community first.
Where we once looked to experts, community now drives the level of trust needed to convert in costly spaces.
12. Solve 5 problems with 1 solution.
One of the best heuristics for a good brand strategy is if it solves multiple problems with a single solution. I personally like a ratio of 1 to 5.
Architectural Digest’s recent rebrand has turned the once stuffy media label into a newly relatable lifestyle hub that represents far more than architecture alone.
According to WANT, the branding agency behind the rebrand, Playbook for living was a new brand positioning idea that “captured in a powerful and simple way, the notion of AD as the definitive ‘dream’ book that could direct and guide the essential aspects of how architecture and design unite to create living spaces.”
This concept allowed AD to successfully make their brand relatable to a much larger audience without alienating their core base of conservative readers, moving from being a utility (an educational resource) to being a lifestyle (a resource for imagination and inspiration). It meant tapping into the emotional opportunities of rule #3—“changing belief means changing identity”—to make themselves relevant to the much larger conversations of life, style and identity. It also positioned the brand as a part of pop culture, which has resulted in natural and impactful collabs with celebrities and influencers and has helped form a strong community of like-minded people around the AD brand.
They solved 5 problems with 1 solution, and this ratio is what makes a brand strategic.
Having this high ratio means you are creating more equity with significantly less resources while keeping all of the company’s momentum focused on a single direction. It means you are leveraging specific brand choices today that will create a future market which favors your brand over others. You can’t deny that the AD brand has created a new design culture that today sidelines competitors like Dwell and Wallpaper.
Planning (5 solutions for 5 problems) creates work. Strategy (1 solution for 5 problems) creates great advantage.
13. Optimism is the only secret weapon.
If strategy lives on a time horizon, brand strategists need to have a strong grasp of where the world is headed. Although it’s very easy to only see the negative outcomes that can happen on that horizon, any futurist or historian can tell you that it is the optimistic future that pushes us forward and usually wins out.
Time and time again I have experienced how optimism is a brand strategist’s only secret weapon. When you can forecast the unexpected benefits of technologies, cultural movements, emerging beliefs and behaviors instead of only seeing the negative outcomes of so much change, you can plant your brand’s flag in the right territory.
Pessimism is easy, but optimism is very hard, which is part of the reason Concept Bureau Senior Strategist Zach Lamb has dubbed it a status signifier of our modern era.
It’s a skill that takes a tremendous amount of imagination and flexibility because it rarely comes naturally. You must cultivate it (and if you’re interested in doing that, I recommend Jane McGonigal’s book Imaginable). It is the optimists, not the pessimists, who make the future and who are able to stand out in the present.
14. Let the work change you.
Never judge your user, even if you see something in them that you don’t like or want to change. My ultimate test for knowing if my team and I or our clients are approaching the user with total empathy is to answer the question, “Has the work changed you?”
Have you looked at the user with enough of an open mind to let it change you as a person? Have you listened with enough presence to connect with a stranger or have a small piece of your worldview shifted?
You can’t experience that kind of change without first asking a certain kind of question. “Can you tell me a little bit about your work?” in a user interview will never get you transformative answers. “If you could have had a job for another life, what would it be? Who would you have been?” demands a degree of openness.
You will understand their deeper value systems, the lies they tell themselves, the struggles they conceal and the lenses through which they make decisions. All of these insights are a goldmine for not only branding, but for UX, UI, pricing, positioning and product.
Your goal with user research shouldn’t be to merely gather data but rather to make people feel seen. Without deep empathy, you are guaranteed to miss an important insight.
The reason why strategists love what they do is because it allows them to constantly evolve past their own limited beliefs. Working with a beauty brand made me excited about getting older. Branding a construction tech company made me proud of the American work ethic. Spending time with the fans of a plus size clothing brand made me grateful for parts of myself I once tried to erase.
In fact, “Let the work change you” is our company’s first value. It’s that important.
Ask yourself the last time the work changed how you related to a population you thought you had nothing in common with. If you’re not changing, you’re not really doing the work.
You don’t need to follow all of these rules to have a successful brand, but it’s crucial that you embody the general spirit of this list, which is to always be questioning and investigating the deeper reasons why people think, behave and believe the way that they do.
The greatest brand strategies have one thing in common: they understood their users. On a fundamental level, that’s what building a company is about, too. Understanding people is what leads to big and impactful ideas.
I believe the path to an incredible brand strategy already exists for every brand. Your job is to keep searching until you find it, and my hope is that this list acts as a wayfinder on your journey there.