Think of your favorite brand.
What feelings are evoked in you? How has this brand impacted your life? What memories come up? Take a minute or two to close your eyes, and picture all the associations you have with your favorite brand. Then, come back to this article when you're ready.
How did they feel? What memories came up for you? Were they all expressed in your favorite brand's tagline or advertising? We're there other associations that came up for you? Were they tangible or abstract? Structured or messy? Were they rational or irrational?
Branding is both tangible and abstract. It's both structured and messy. Rational and irrational. When we try and box a brand into a neat document, after hours of throwing post-it notes on a whiteboard, we fail to consider how visceral branding really is. Our unconscious can't be compressed down into a 3" by 3" square or a few adjectives. We can't just think our way through crafting a brand. We have to feel our way through it.
Most branding agencies today speak of "solving the customer's problems" or developing the "why" behind their client's brands. They aren't wrong. A brand should be driven by a strong "why" and a solution to the customer's problem. What you don't typically hear branding agencies talk about is the messy, abstract, and irrational nature of branding.
You may hear buzz words like "positioning," "customer personas," or "design thinking," but you don't often hear them speak of the unconscious fantasy of associations surrounding our encounters with a brand. You may hear buzz words like "mission statement" or "brand purpose," but you don't often hear them talking about how a mission can't be summarized in a paragraph. They also don't speak to the fact that a truly impactful and inspiring mission fights to uphold the dignity of the human person at all costs.
My goal with this article is to get you thinking differently about branding. Whether you are interested in crafting your own brand, or you are looking to hire an outside agency like us, we hope this article will help you to avoid the traps of traditional branding models.
It was 2015 and my Samsung Galaxy S5 kept crashing on me. I needed a new phone. I did my research and determined that the new Galaxy S6 was the fastest and most powerful phone on the market, so I showed up to the Verizon store with my mind made up. While waiting to speak to someone, I was bored and decided to go and look at the phones on display.
I walked straight over to the S6 and examined it, confident this was my new phone. My coworkers all had iPhones and tried to convince me to switch, but I did my research. I read endless articles detailing how Samsung's Galaxy S6 was far superior to the iPhone 6 Plus.
Then I took a look at the iPhone situated right next to the S6. I picked it up. I played with it. I examined it...
All of a sudden, I was caught completely off guard. The design was BEAUTIFUL!!! Stunning! I looked over at the Galaxy S6, and it was so disappointing! It just felt inferior. In fact, all I could think about was the broken S5 in my hand. There was nothing to distinguish the broken phone in my hand from the brand new one right in front of me. They looked identical! I began to notice the boxy design of the Android Operating System for the first time. It felt childish, outdated, and boring.
A battle began in my mind. On the one hand, the Samsung Galaxy S6 was faster, more powerful, and would last longer by all accounts. But on the other? My life was flashing before my eyes...
All within a fraction of a second, I must have recalled my first iPod in 2002 and the wonderful feeling of having all my favorite music at my fingertips. I would have recalled the first Apple computer I ever saw back in 2003. I never thought a computer could make a statement, until that moment.
I would have remembered staying up late in my dorm room to edit my very own documentary on my first MacBook Pro. I would have unconsciously replayed the "Think Different" commercials I grew up with. The dancing silhouettes from the late 90s. Justin Long standing beside the personification of old, boring, and outdated.
The Samsung Galaxy S6 solved my problem, but the iPhone? The iPhone captured my imagination.
That was the genius of Apple. Steve Jobs wasn't too concerned with solving problems. He was an artist, a contrarian, and a visionary. He just happened to solve problems along the way. Apple is successful because of all the unconscious associations we attach to their products. Yes, that includes associations with their "Think Different" tagline, but that's not all! Whether you love them or you hate them, you have attached almost endless associations with Apple.
Apple has implanted in your mind associations of rebellion, creativity, innovation, modernity, color, beautiful design, Steve Jobs, your formative years, photos of your children at your fingertips, your grandfather's struggle to use his new iPad, Apple Stores situated in the middle of upscale shopping centers, diversity, convenience, Genius Bars, your cool friend in Junior High, Silicon Valley in the 80s, the American dream of dropping out of college and starting a business in your garage. The list goes on, and on, and on.
Apple didn't rely on post-it notes or "design thinking" (more on that later). They didn't rely on a few guiding words to dictate the direction of their company. They tapped into the unconscious (decision making) regions of our brains, to woo us.
For the rest of this article, we'll dissect what makes Apple, and others great brands, so effective. We'll peel back the onion and expose the 4 primary pitfalls of an outdated approach to branding. By the end, you will be equipped to make the best decisions for your brand moving forward.
I want to preference this section of the article by providing you with the following warning. Everything that you read below can be used to manipulate your customers and employees, if you don't take section 2 of this article into consideration. Our intention is not to contribute to the harmful practices of some companies that employ these techniques, but to redeem them. With the proper care, the following techniques can be used to make a positive impact on the world.
In a few words, don't be an asshole.
I met my wife in 2019. When I saw her, I immediately started to think "could this woman solve my problem of not having a wife?" So I Facebook stalked her, googled her name, talked to friends, took all that information back to my office, and got to work. For the next several hours, I began writing a pros and cons list, ran some numbers, talked to a few more friends, and read some more articles. I had to be absolutely sure before I asked her out.
Once I analyzed the data, I determined that yes, she might just solve my problem of not having a wife. I proceeded to start my "trial run." I took her on dates to see if she was worthy of my time and after 6 months of extensive research, I decided to ask her to marry me.
You're laughing (hopefully) because my story sounds completely ridiculous! Of course none of this is true (except for a little Facebook stalking...). For the real story, check out my article, "Branding is Matchmaking."
In reality, when I met my wife, my gut processed her artsy glasses, curly hair, her mannerisms, her laugh, the fact that we had the same friends, her gorgeous blue eyes, and so much more! My only conscious thought was "This woman is pretty! Don't say anything stupid.”
Taking into account the time I would spend with my wife, the money I would invest in our life together, the children we would bring up, and so on, the decision to marry my wife would be the most costly decision I would ever make. In other words, I primarily followed my gut in making the biggest decision of my life. Why wouldn’t I follow my gut in every decision? It turns out, we do.
Whether we are deciding between Coke and Pepsi, Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, or Apple and Samsung, 95% of our purchase decisions, according to Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, take place unconsciously. Why?
Since the dawn of time, human beings have followed their gut. The earliest humans decided to avoid scary tigers, long before they could articulate why. They saw the tiger's muscular body and sharp teeth, so their brain instinctually told them to flee, fight, or stay still.
Today, instead of scary tigers, there are scary brands.
Just as early humans took one look a tiger and felt scared, brands can also strike fear in us. Even if it's subtle.
You might be afraid of brands that appear outdated, because you perceive them as unreliable. You might be afraid of hyper trendy brands, because you perceive them as too risky. Some people are afraid of Honda because Japan represents a "foreign tribe." Others, are afraid of Volkswagen because they have a recent history of deception.
Which brands are you afraid of?
Regardless of the reasons for why you might choose one brand over the other, your brain wants you to hurry up and decide. That's why your gut feeling of a brand is usually more powerful than conscious thought. Your brain is strategically lazy. It's a well-oiled efficiency machine. It's always working to conserve as much energy as possible. In short, the purpose of thinking is to stop thinking.
Your relationship with your favorite brand comes down to neuroscience. In the 1960s, American neuroscientist Paul MacLean formulated the 'Triune Brain' model, which is based on the division of the human brain into three distinct regions. The rational, emotional, and physical regions of the brain. Some of the evolutionary details of MacLean's theory have since been disproven, but the basic concept still remains largely agreed upon among neuroscience researchers today.
When you begin to examine this theory, you can see why we follow our gut. The emotional and physical regions of our brain are connected to our brain stem. Our brain stem controls all of our movement.
You might think you are carefully examining different brands of tomato sauce on your grocery store shelf before buying one. In reality, the emotional and physical regions of your brain are telling your arm to reach out and grab the one that "feels right."
The next time you're in your local grocery store, pay attention to your gut. What is your gut telling you? How do these two tomato sauce varieties make you feel?
Does the DIY design of Prego's Farmer's Market label make you feel like it's healthier? Does the Classico "Traditional Sweet Basil" make you think of some old lady in Italy? Once you allow yourself to concentrate a little harder, you might be surprised by what you find with a quick Google search.
By now, I hope you're convinced that, as human beings, we tend to follow our gut before strategically weighing our options. For more on this topic, I recommend reading Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink.
Taking into consideration this basic human understanding, I want to move on and show you why "branding as usual" misses the mark.
"Branding as usual" misses the mark because it only scratches the surface of our unconscious, and relies way too heavily on our conscious.
If you were to spy on a strategy workshop with the majority of branding agencies today, you would find them working with clients to define their positioning, competitors, customer personas, adjectives, mission statements, core values, brand archetypes, and attributes.
You probably won't find them making space for quiet reflection on a brand's feeling. In fact, you probably won't find much quiet at all, because the traditional brand strategy approach is to facilitate one long brainstorm session. However, in order to properly drive the unconscious decisions of your customers, you need to tap into your own unconscious. You need to create enough breathing room for clients to feel their way through their brand.
You will often hear branding agencies speak about how customers follow their emotions, and yet, their workshops don’t seem to take this into account. Why not? Below, I will lay out the 3 reasons why I believe most branding agencies don’t leave enough room to do this.
1. Design Thinking
I think the biggest reason, is an overconfidence in our ability to communicate through verbal language. Branding agencies believe they can help their clients define a brand by "hashing it out" in a discussion. However, verbal language is a very crude tool we use to express what’s in our gut. So why do they believe that using this crude tool is the best way to build a brand? I believe the popularity of “design thinking” over the last 20 years is to blame for this.
Design thinking refers to the "cognitive, strategic and practical processes by which design concepts are developed." But if customers make decisions with their gut 95% of the time, and those decisions are often irrational, it would follow that this approach is flawed. We have to move beyond "cognitive, strategic, and practical" thought, and into our unconscious.
At Woo Punch, we do help our clients define their positioning, think of some helpful adjectives, dream about their mission, and list their features and attributes. However, we leave plenty of space for our clients to tap into their unconscious as well. We help our clients to feel their way through their brand by employing several unconscious association exercises throughout our workshops.
This allows us to move beyond the "cognitive, strategic, and practical processes” of design. To move beyond the crude tool of verbal communication.
2. Pretty Boxes
Another reason why agencies might use a traditional approach is that it's simple, clean, and easy. We like it when complex ideas are contained into pretty boxes. When you allow space for quiet reflection on a brand's feeling, branding starts to get messy. Your brand starts to get harder to pin down. Harder to domesticate.
At Woo Punch, our job is to set up the much needed parameters of a brand, while providing enough breathing room for creativity.
One example of how we accomplish this is by giving our clients homework! The goal of homework is not to pass the buck onto our clients. The goal is to allow our clients to think outside the box with their brand, in a low-pressure environment.
By providing creative prompts, we encourage our clients to spend hours in their physical "happy place," without us, dreaming about their brand. They might choose to dream in their garden, on a boat, in the lobby of an historic hotel, or in a church. Anywhere but a conference room. Our clients usually come back with at least 5 pages of insight. Not 3 adjectives.
By creating the space for our clients to dream, we have discovered a few advantages. A dream makes it a lot easier for new employees to get inside your head and get inspired. A dream gives designers a lot more to work with when developing the look and feel of your brand. A dream can keep you in check as you grow your company. A neat and defined summary of your brand can’t do any of those things effectively.
Embrace the mess! As you experienced earlier, in the very beginning of this article, your favorite brand lives as a mess in your brain. When a brand isn't messy, it doesn't stand out. Coca-Cola, Apple, Nike, and Disney all have messy brands.
3. Deception of Authority
Personally, I was sold on a traditional branding approach when I first started my company, because it made me feel that I could charge more for my services. "Branding as usual" creates a deception of authority where the brand strategist is the expert, not you. It assumes the strategist has a proven method. If they can just funnel you through it, you will come out on the other side with the perfect brand. The magic doesn’t come from your brain, but from theirs. Now you feel justified in paying them more.
Again, if you were to spy on a typical strategy workshop, you would find the strategist is always in the room, constantly asking questions that lead you down a certain path. There’s a well-intentioned and logical reason for this. Their goal is to narrow down your brand as much as possible into the pretty box I mentioned earlier. If a pretty box is, indeed, the goal, then you need an outside facilitator in the room, at all times, to keep you on track. But why do you need a track in the first place, if you still end up with a great brand?
At Woo Punch, we want to leave room for you to go where you please, while still guiding you to the final destination. By allowing you to discover your own path to a great brand, you will feel more confident in your own expertise. You might not end up inside a pretty box we funneled you through, but your new brand will feel more personal to you. The more personal your brand feels to you, the more personal it will feel to your customers.
There is a time and place for a brand strategist to be in the room, and there is a time and place for them to get out of the way. It might not appear “strategic” to give our clients the freedom they need to explore their brand outside of our “proven method," but it works.
The next time you go looking for a brand strategist, ask them about their process. If they go on and on about solving the customer's problems, run. If they don't warn you about the messy, irrational, and visceral nature of branding, run. If they try to funnel you through a so-called “proven process,” run. If they mention a Mission or Vision Statement, run like you've never run before! More on that next.
I spent the first 8 years of my professional career working for a Catholic Non-Profit that consulted organizations and individuals on how to evangelize. Don't worry, I won't try to evangelize you in this article.
By the end of my time with this Non-Profit, our executive leadership decided to spend a couple months defining our Mission Statement (something we didn't have for 20+ years beforehand). Once they had nailed down a few sentences, we had a staff retreat to update us on our clarified mission and we had several planned discussions each week to get us all on the same page.
However, we didn't need to get on the same page. We were already there. We were sacrificing our lives for the mission long before it was ever defined in a paragraph. The vast majority of us (me included) were fundraising our own salaries. We were leaving our families to travel across the country a few times a month for a mission that was in our guts, not on a page.
Not one of us consulted the Mission Statement before making those sacrifices. We didn't need to. Our lives were completely transformed by our Catholic faith. We didn't need a paragraph to inspire us to share that faith, or equip others to do the same.
In addition to what was in our guts, our President was brilliant at inspiring us to get up every morning. Time and time again, he laid out the vision, in his own words, by telling us stories and helping us to dream with him. He helped us to imagine what the world would be like if we fulfilled our mission. By the time I left, he had never once quoted this new Mission Statement in order to inspire us, or keep us on track.
I have absolutely no delusions that a paragraph can inspire anyone for longer than an hour or two. If a Mission Statement doesn’t inspire people to act, what does? Before we can answer that question, we have to ask the question, “What are the characteristics of a good mission?”
My previous non-profit's mission, not our Mission Statement, worked for two reasons. 1, It provided us with a clear goal, and 2, It upheld the dignity of the human person. Throughout this section, I will illustrate how your company can create, or build upon, a mission that works.
First, I will break down a few techniques that were used by Jesus to inspire his followers with a clear and inspirational goal. Then we will take a look at behavioral science for insight into how you can set the standard for how people (your employees and customers) are be treated in your industry.
Any religion that has stood the test of time, has inspired its followers using 3 primary techniques of communication.
Since I'm not an expert on Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or any other time tested religions, I will focus on the religion that I am most intimately familiar with. Catholicism. Putting aside his alleged miracles and divinity (no easy task), Jesus was so brilliant at communicating his mission, that over 70 million people have died for it over the last 2,000 years.
I will describe the techniques Jesus used to launch a movement that has over 2 billion followers today. Then, I will show you how those same techniques can be applied to branding.
Why was Jesus so effective at inspiring people to carry out his mission? I would argue that he used the same 3 techniques that every great religion has used throughout the history of mankind. Story, questions, and sacrifice. Not paragraphs.
Whether or not you know much about Christianity, you probably know at least one of Jesus' parables. Maybe it's the parable of the good Samaritan, or the parable of the prodigal son. Why is that? Why do even atheists know of Jesus' parables 2,000 years after they were told?
Stories are powerful because they allow us to experience for ourselves what's being communicated. They allow us to "enter in" and see ourselves in the same situation. Once we have connected our own lives with a story, whatever is being communicated to us becomes a part of our life.
Chances are, you can see yourself in the parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son, even when those stories are centered around the unique culture of the time. If those same stories were updated for 2020, they would be even more impactful.
Mission Statements don't tell a story. As a result, our brain needs more time to process them, and then to act.
When working with our clients, we have them tell us a story about the future of their company. We encourage them to dream big, to be descriptive, and detailed with their stories. Some stories have been 10 pages long! A Mission Statement might give you a vague idea of a long-term goal, but a detailed story can give you a more concrete vision for how to achieve that goal.
Because those stories are so detailed, they usually include dreams that might seem unrelated to the long-term goal. A Mission Statement for a Civil Rights Law Firm might include something like, “We believe in getting justice for the vulnerable and marginalized members of our society.” That’s a noble goal! But, what if a Partner in that law firm, while dreaming about the day-to-day life of that firm 3 years from now, has a dream that their lawyers don’t have to work long hours, and miss precious moments with their family, in the process.
Imagine for a second that you just started working for a new company. Maybe you are 5-10 levels removed from your CEO. You probably won’t sit down with them one-on-one to discuss the mission of the company. A Mission Statement might give you a vague idea of some lofty goal. But what if your CEO wrote a 10-page, descriptive story, about what the future of your company looks like? Not only would you get an idea for the goal of that company, but you would have a detailed description of what that goal might mean for you.
Maybe you are an engineer, and that story has big dreams in it regarding technology that hasn’t been invented yet. You can start channeling your energy into building it. Maybe you are a janitor, and the CEO’s story describes zero waste for the company in 3 years. You can examine the trash you pick up every day around the office, and dream up a new recycling plan.
Decades after Jesus told his parables, someone thought they were important enough to write down. Maybe that’s because the writer got a lot out of that particular parable, or maybe it was because the writer knew the power of story to inspire action. Either way, those stories helped to launch one of the largest movements in human history. What story would you tell to launch a movement in your company?
Here's an interesting fact. Throughout Jesus' ministry, he was asked 183 questions. Guess how many direct answers he gave to those questions?
Jesus asked so many questions (307 to be exact) because he knew they would inspire action. Before Jesus began his ministry, jewish teachers throughout history, did the same for centuries. Science tells us that questions prompt the brain to think about a behavior, which increases their likelihood of acting on that behavior. Jesus didn't want his disciples to learn from him, as much as he wanted them to act on what he was saying.
Back in 1993, social scientists Vicki Morwitz, Eric Johnson, and David Schmittlein conducted a study with more than 40,000 participants that revealed that simply asking someone if people were going to purchase a new car within six months, increased their purchase rates by 35%.
According to an earlier study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, asking citizens whether they’re going to vote in an upcoming election increases the likelihood that they will by 25%.
Questions inspire action. At Woo Punch, not only do we ask our clients several questions during our workshops, but we help them define the one question they could ask themselves, daily, that will inspire them to act. What would your question be?
Sacrifice would end up being the most important thing Jesus would do to grow his followers to over 2 billion today. Even before roughly 70 million Christians would be killed, 10 of his first 12 disciples would be. When was the last time you can think of when someone died for a paragraph?
There really isn’t much need to expand on the importance of sacrifice, because we intuit sacrifice as incredibly obvious when thinking of great leaders. Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and Mother Teresa all showed great sacrifice for their causes, in their lives as well as in their deaths. Having said that, despite the importance of sacrifice being so obvious, it’s by far the most difficult technique of the three.
The nature of sacrifice is such that, when you sacrifice for one thing, you lose something else in the process. MLK sacrificed for civil rights at the expense of his own safety. Ghandi sacrificed for independence from Britain at the expense of his own body. Mother Teresa sacrificed for the poor and marginalized at the expense of wealth and comfort.
What are you willing to give up for the greater cause of your company? Next, we examine the real meaning behind every noble sacrifice. The dignity of the human person, not profit.
One major issue with Mission Statements is that they don’t usually have anything in place to put people first. When they do, they use vague words and phrases like “integrity” or “commitment,” but they don’t provide actionable steps to prevent the manipulation of people to achieve their goal.
Let’s use Volkswagen as an example. In 2013, their Mission Statement was the following. “Volkswagen's goal is to offer attractive, safe and environmentally sound vehicles which can compete in an increasingly tough market and set world standards in their respective class.” That’s a mouthful!
In 2015, it was discovered that Volkswagen had employed a false detection device in their vehicles to pass emissions tests. As it turns out, their idea of “safe and environmentally sound vehicles which can compete in an increasingly tough market and set world standards in their respective class” was to pretend their vehicles were environmentally sound, and to set the standards for environmental fraud in their “respective class."
I doubt they consulted their mission statement at all before building this device into their cars, but if they had, they wouldn’t have found anything in their Mission Statement that would have prevented them from lying to their customers. That’s not ok. Volkswagen is not alone. They are in great company with Yahoo, Theranos, and Wells Fargo.
Using Wells Fargo as another example, in 2006, their Mission Statement was the following. "We want to satisfy all of our customers’ financial needs, help them succeed financially, be the premier provider of financial services in every one of our markets, and be known as one of America’s great companies.”
In 2016, it was revealed that employees were encouraged to order credit cards for pre-approved customers without their consent, and to use their own contact information when filling out requests to prevent customers from discovering the fraud. Approximately 85,000 of the accounts opened incurred fees, totaling $2 million. Customers' credit scores were also likely hurt by the fake accounts. This fraud was going one from 2002-2016. Four years before and 10 years after they wrote their 2006 Mission Statement, for a total of 14 years!
So, what does this mean for you? If a Mission Statement doesn’t help companies put people first, what does? It turns out, the answer lies in behavioral science.
What behavioral research can tell us about cheating.
Beginning in 2002, behavioral economist Dan Ariely and his collaborators began a series of studies called the Matrix Experiments.They gave everyone an exam of 20 simple math problems. However, they didn’t give them nearly enough time to solve the problems. The students were asked, at the end of the time they were given, to count how many problems they solved. They were told that they would receive $1 for every question they answered. They were then asked to shred the exam and tell the experimenter how many problems they solved.
But there was a catch. The shredder didn’t shred their exams.
The study found that, on average, people reported to solve 6 problems when they only solved 4. Of the 40,000 people that participated, nearly 70% cheated. Then they ran the study with a few variations. One of these variations involved giving students 2 minutes to list as many of the 10 Commandments as they could right before giving them the exam mentioned earlier.
Only 7% of the participants cheated, as opposed to 70% without being given the 10 Commandments exam. Students who recalled more of the 10 Commandments correctly (none of them could list all of them) cheated just as much as students who recalled fewer Commandments correctly. Then, instead of the 10 Commandments, they asked the students to agree to their university’s (made up) moral code before completing the exam. They got the same results. Even when self-proclaimed atheists were asked to put their hand on the Bible before completing their exam, the results were the same.
What can we learn from this? Everyone cheats, but there are some techniques we can use to limit cheating.
Dan Ariely has found 10 main reasons for why people cheat throughout all of his experiments. Everybody’s doing it, conflicts of interest, I’m not hurting anyone, lying for others, creativity, lack of supervision, social norms, fatigue, distance from the crime, and self deception.
At Woo Punch, we leverage these 10 reasons by having our clients name all the vices that they currently struggle with, or could see themselves struggling with in the future. These vices don’t always involve cheating. Often, they are driven by anxiety or insecurity. Some of the vices have included, temptations to cheat on taxes, a temptation to focus on growth at the expense of underpaying their employees, creating a culture of overwork, laziness, a temptation to get down on themselves by doubting their own abilities, using superficial metrics to measure value, obsession over social media likes, etc.
By having our clients write down their vices, they usually discover things they didn’t even know about themselves or their team. Having a list of vices in front of you allows you to be humbly reminded of the ways you might go astray. When our clients look at that list often, they think twice before cheating or falling into traps. As demonstrated in Dan Ariely’s 10 Commandment variation, our clients often don’t even know the effect checking their list can have on their decisions.
Mission Statements are not magic. They don’t miraculously inspire you to get on the same page with a clear and inspirational goal, and they don’t miraculously inspire you to treat your employees and customers with respect. You have to put the work in to go beyond formulating a statement. You have to think about your mission in the context of story, questions, sacrifice, and human dignity.