insights in culture

The 16 Rules of Brand Strategy

How to radically assert your position in the market.

“This looks like a comfy spot in the landscape.” [Photo by Martin Reisch]

Brand strategy is a moving target and no matter how many strategies I create for clients big or small, new or established, I always get nervous at the beginning of the process.

Finding the hidden truth — that one giant opportunity in the landscape — that also speaks to the DNA of the company is what brand strategy is all about.

Connecting consumer behaviors, beliefs, trends and time to your company’s core competencies while making competitors irrelevant feels like fitting a key into a lock. Finding that key is rarely an easy process.


Branded vs. Brand-Led

The difference matters.

Branded companies have an identity, but consumers truly identify them by their products. When a product supersedes the brand, a company is always at the mercy of the consumer and their needs.

American Apparel and Old Navy are branded companies. They have an identity, but if the market demands lower prices or generic styles, American Apparel and Old Navy are forced to follow.

This principle holds true in all spaces, from tech to food to consumer packaged goods.

Brand-led companies, in contrast, play the long game and require more investment. The identity of the brand supersedes the product and allows a company to resist certain market forces.

Nike and Shinola are brand-led companies that can release distinct new product categories and occupy different price levels. The brand vision, not mass consumer pressures, dictate growth.

Only One Wrong Choice

Know what you’re doing.

Brand-led may sound better than Branded, or the other way around, but there is no right or wrong option here.

Each has pros and cons.

Branded companies tend to grow quickly and extract a lot of market value early on. Brand-led companies create movements and have more market authority once they find their ideal positioning.

The only wrong option is to not make a conscious decision about which kind of company you are. I meet many founders who fail to ask themselves what kind of brand strategy they want to employ, and as a result default into the Branded category… when they want to be Brand-led.

The list below can work as a cheat sheet for anyone, but it’s focused for Brand-led startups that want to define a clear, defensible strategy.

If nothing else, remember that if you want your Brand-led company to attract more upmarket customers, it’s critical to maintain a specific point of view — a key differentiator between Branded and Brand-led.

While product is at the heart of any business, you’re building a strong, compelling narrative that lives outside of it.


16 Rules To Guide You

If you’re developing your strategy, use this list to guide you. If you already have one in place, use this list to test it.

Most importantly, read this through a brand lens. When I mention companies below, measure them by their brand identities, not their product offerings.

1. Don’t play in someone else’s backyard.

Strong brands are unique. They say and do something different than other brands. They take a unique tone, follow a controversial belief or see the future through a different lens.

Many spaces with two major players fall into a “better” trap. Box’s brand is a better version of Dropbox, but that does nothing to differentiate them. Better is actually worse. Different is what matters.

2. Be specific.

This is truer than ever. In such fragmented and noisy markets, you can either speak loudest (a huge marketing budget) or be the most resonant (the right message for the right audience.) For 99% of companies, being the loudest is not a viable option.

Specific wins hearts and minds. [I get deeper into the matter of specificity here: Two Questions At The Heart Of Every Great Brand Strategy.]

3. Lead with the story, not the product.

Even when it’s about the product there needs to be an emotional narrative. Otherwise you’re just another branded company with a smart product, but no real brand vision.

Even tax software can give you the feels.

4. Answer the why.

Simon Sinek pioneered the concept of answering the ‘why’ and it’s worth your time to watch.

This will seem deceptively simple, but once you get it, you’ll see branding very differently.

I’ll admit even I brushed this off as overly obvious marketing jargon when I first watched it, but there’s a great deal of depth to this simple concept.

The why is not your vision, not your mission, and not your promise. It’s your reason for existing, and it answers the question, “Why should I care?”

5. Look for triggers. Speak to the subtext.

What your consumers say and what they mean are oftentimes two different things. Pay attention to what’s really being said. Margo Aaron captures this idea brilliantly in her discussion of how the best marketers read minds:

She says: “I try to cook 3x a week. I just don’t have time.”

Untrained ear hears: “She’s busy. She really wants to be healthier. We need to emphasize convenience and low-cal in our marketing!”

Trained ears hear: “She wants to cook because she thinks she should, but honestly she doesn’t give AF. It’s not a priority for her. She just feels guilty about how much she orders take out. She’d be happier if she allowed herself to not feel like shit about how much she orders out.”

6. Easing cognitive dissonance is good. Cheating cognitive dissonance is better.

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.

If you can find ways to ease cognitive dissonance with your product, great. But if you can find ways to cheat it through your brand narrative, it can be incredibly powerful. P.S., that’s exactly the mechanism at play in the example for rule #5 above.

I dive into cheating cognitive dissonance here: The Cognitive Dissonance Hiding Behind Strong Brands.

7. Spotlight the customer, not the company.

This is an iteration of the age-old best practice, “benefits not features.” When looking at user experience, content, packaging, even homepage menus, you should position language not only to speak to the benefits, but benefits that spotlight the customer. Marie Forleo gives a quick overview of it here.

8. Don’t define against a competitor.

As long as you define yourself against a competitor, your identity is tethered to theirs and will always be limited. People make this mistake in a variety of different ways: creating nearly identical (but perhaps “better”) website experiences, referencing competitors in content or mimicking sales strategies.

If you’re truly a brand-led company, you need to send the signal that those other players don’t even register on your radar.

9. Speak your secret language.

Strong brands have their own secret language. One of my favorite examples is Milk Makeup, where I’ve had my own secret language experience as a consumer:

In a sea of gold black and red, you will always be able to spot the sterile white Milk Makeup kiosk in Sephora. In fact, you’ll be drawn to it. Models faces are captured at odd angles, whose looks range from androgynous to tomboyish to ultra feminine.

This isn’t just good point of sale marketing. This is a conversation. You’re immediately forced to identify or dis-identify with the brand and its subjects.

Milk’s visual language is so specific, that you either get it or you don’t. And when you get it, you fully realize that the 10 girls behind you didn’t. You speak a language that others aren’t privy to.

Another great example that I love is Atlassian’s outdoor billboards:

It’s clear their secret language creates a private moment between the brand and those who “get it.”

10. Make your future bet.

Have a hypothesis about where the world will be in 2, 5 or 10 years and place your bets on that vision. Solving a problem that exists today completely ignores the fact that your consumers are dynamic and always changing. Cultures, beliefs and behaviors are evolving faster than ever.

Your brand strategy needs to look into the future, and what you see there should be informing your approach today.

11. Take bold risks.

If you’re placing your bet on a specific future vision, then you’re taking a risk. Placing bets on the future should feel risky.

But risk cuts another way, too. Old brands demand authority among consumers… and they’re quickly losing marketshare because that’s an old model that simply doesn’t work today. Most founders already realize that.

What they don’t always get is that new and emerging brands must earn authority by taking bold risks. This is especially evident in luxury (which is basically an exercise in pure brand strategy).

12. Force hard decisions.

A good brand strategy will force you to make difficult decisions. Having a point of view means you won’t please everyone. It also means you’ll be pushing your core consumers to continuously walk into the future before they’re 100% ready.

Snap’s Spectacles, Tesla’s pre-orders, 23andMe’s story of human connection — all of these brands had heavy narratives that pushed consumers to take a leap forward. They were hard decisions for both the company and the customer.

13. Create tension.

Tension earns attention. Being specific, taking bold risks, speaking your secret language… all of these things create tension. They captivate your core audience and keep secondary audiences on the sidelines.

No one explains this better than Seth Godin. Different brand narratives create different levels of tension and engagement:

The tension of how it might turn out.
The tension of possibility.
The tension of change.
Stories work because we’re not sure. We’re half there, half not.
This might work.
This might not work.
The tension of maybe.

Tension comes from juxtaposing what is, with what could be.

14. Empathize with your customer.

One of my favorite quotes is, “Everyone is a hero in their own story.” Your customer is trying to be the best version of themselves that they can. You must empathize with them if you expect to uncover the triggers, behaviors and beliefs that will underlie your brand strategy.

Sound obvious? Yeah, I think so too, but plenty of founders fail to do this.

15. Relief beats guilt. Reward beats fear.

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.

Brands like Do Something, Teach for America, and Habitat for Humanity reverse the negative story and move in a positive direction.

16. The opposite must also be a strategy.

Roger L. Martin’s simple strategy test asks, “Is the opposite of our strategy also a strategy?”

The point is this: If the opposite of your core strategy choices looks stupid, then every competitor is going to have more or less the exact same strategy as you.

If you’re a wealth management company looking to “target wealthy individuals who want and are willing to pay for comprehensive wealth management services […by] providing great customer service across the breadth of wealth management needs”, you’re not really saying anything.

The opposite would be to target poor individuals who don’t want to pay for your services, with crappy customer service across a narrow set of tools. No one would go for this opposite strategy… so it’s safe to say you’re basically going after the same thing everyone else is.

That means that you are likely to be indistinguishable from your competitors and the only way you will make a decent return is if the industry currently happens to be highly attractive structurally.

Don’t fall into the trap of being indistinguishable.



I often tell people brand strategy feels like an excavation. You dig and dig and dig until you arrive at what the core of the company is about, and then suddenly, a market path is revealed.

Challenge yourself to dig deeper. Go past the obvious and discover an approach that excites you just as much as it scares you.

That’s the feeling of good brand strategy.


This is a companion piece to The 14 Rules of Identity.

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