How to hack brand building in a noisy world, part 1

There's a rhetorical question I'd like you to ask yourself — what’s more important in a ping pong game: watching your competitor or the ball? We'll come back to this.

To help you answer that question, let me tell you a story about my five-year journey as a strategy advisor to executives, founders, and talent. A journey that led me ask that question to myself, and in doing so, ultimately led to the development a new branding system fit for Fortune 100 companies, startups, and non-profits, to help them break-through in a noisy world.

Flash-forward: there's five primary ways to hack branding. Want to know how I discovered them?

I moved to LA in 2013. At the time, I was teaching at Columbia University in addition to working full-time as a practitioner. The job that took me from Harlem to Hollywood was working for Diddy (aka Chairman Combs). His cable television channel Revolt, a media startup in the $100 million club, was set to launch in the fall. I joined the executive team to run communication and PR. I was 28, and I brought with me a Millennial savviness for how things could become culturally-infectious, having left the agency world where I had clients including Bank of America, HP, Timberland, L'Oreal, and P&G.

It was the third largest independent cable channel launch in history, behind the NFL Network and Reelz. The executive team had powerhouse credentials, and the co-founders’ ability to assemble all-stars was like striking magic with the casting of early Real Worldseasons. I invited a Forbes editor to immerse with us for a few hours, and after seeing our studio & control room in action, followed by a town-hall forum with employees, he called Revolt a “cross between grad school and some sort of pop-culture NASA.” It was where passion met pursuit of moving culture forward intelligently though content, and the passion platform of music was the star.

My lifestyle changed. That year marked a clear exodus of NY agency talent to LA — a shift The NY Times dubbed “a renaissance with a burgeoning art, fashion and food scene that has become irresistible to the culturally attuned.” And as I assumed the typical LA habits - sun, hike, beach, run, juice - I started to notice a bevy of brands that were developing a cult following. Tribes that redefined the brand-consumer relationship by acknowledging the third rail of community. Something magical was happening in the fitness category, specifically, and when I went to my first Barry’s Bootcamp class, it opened my eyes to an immersive experience that made me feel... happy.

I became obsessed with these types of brands that represented “parachutes of happiness” — some fast-growing digital darlings and others industry giants opening new growth lanes. So in my next role at Atom Factory, I joined music manager and venture capitalist Troy Carter to run communication and business development, and my hunt for an answer continued. Still teaching at Columbia, I now had inside perspective on how some of the fastest-growing brands in the world achieved success. At that time, the company’s investment portfolio had just topped 80+ startups, including Uber, Spotify, Lyft, Warby Parker, and Dropbox. More tribes, all community, culture catalyzing juggernauts. To prepare the company for a lightning rod of visibility as Troy starred as a guest investor on ABC’s Shark Tank, alongside co-creating and launching a high-profile incubator called Smashd Labs, my day-to-day tasks consisted of understanding what moved culture, exploring why certain startups succeeded, applying those learnings to an in-house media startup we were running, and advising the new crop of companies we were incubating.

When I returned to Harlem after three years in Hollywood, there was a fire. No, not one in the Valley; rather, an intellectual fire. An intellectual curiosity that grew from the convergence of #communication, #culture, #technology, and #digital, producing a desire to know how fast-growing companies were navigating today’s reality of consumers tethered to an internet of Things. I wanted to know what was the relationship between those four variables as they all evolved in tandem with behavior and markets. In 2016, I developed a new course for #ColumbiaUniversity on the role of communication & behavioral science in decision-making, and started introducing students to the marketing applications of behavioral economists. Priding myself on being ahead of the curve, one year later, Richard Thaler won a Nobel Prize in economics, having already penned critical works Nudge and Misbehaving on the subject of creating behavioral cues. His win confirmed there was a there-there, giving me a quiet indicator to keep digging for secrets and shortcuts to brand building.

Fun fact for anyone wanting to geek-out with me on economics: after winning the Nobel Prize, while being interviewed, Richard Thaler admitted that he turned down working on a book with NY Times writer Stephen Dubner; Thaler's colleague Steven Levitt took Dubner up on the offer, and the result was the best-seller Freakonomics.

Out of college, having studied economics at The University of Chicago, I understood the that the cousin of economics was communication. And in their DNA lived "influence." To me, communication principles represented the foundation of all branding, content, reputation-building, and relationship management. Beliefs that further blossomed in grad school at Columbia University, where I studied strategic communication as a "system." The short version of the lesson I learned about communication: no brand could survive without it, and no brand can grow when it is negative. A notion that became binary. And in decoding those binary signals, enabling me to help teams apply creativity strategically. A strategist was born.

So when I returned to NY, I came home. Not only to a city but also to a company that I had started my career — Ogilvy. The world’s largest and arguably most famous advertising agency. But, despite being one of the most awarded agencies within culture — with defining work from Dove’s Real Beauty to Amex’s spots starring Beyoncé & Ellen Degeneres to IBM’s US Open court-side courtship — advertising was not the same as 10 years ago when I walked the halls. Advertising had evolved into being omni-channel, content-driven, culture-dependent, and tech-infused. I joined their consulting practice, which was building a moat around their 70-year old global business, to defend against new entrants on brand marketing rosters like McKinsey, Deloitte, and Accenture. And one Fortune 100 company after another, we navigated digital transformations, wired innovation into business processes, and explored the future of industries.

50%

That’s the number of companies on Fortune 500 lists from 2000-2015 that went bankrupt, got acquired, or became extinct. That figure further fueled my fascination about how to best advise our larger clients while adding value to startup founders, and ultimately, to work on developing a new systems-based approach for building brands in a noisy world.

I started to codify what works and doesn’t work. Armed with access to our bright analysts and associates, we developed eight growth lanes for companies that centered around new revenue paths: Delivery Dynamics, Data into Action, Mobility, Sharing Economy, P2P, Inventory Management, End-to-end Experience, and Convenience. Yet, there was more to be done to codify why companies were growing or failing. I then spent several months independently in an academic exploration, digging through years of public financial data to uncover more indicators, to inform a new brand building system.

1,500

That’s how big the dataset of fast-growing companies grew before 100 anomalies appeared. Within those 100 companies were secrets and shortcuts as to how they were either doubling growth each year from 2015-2018 or growing consecutive quarters within a time-frame their competitors were stagnant, stalled, or significantly in decline. To name a few, the anomalies included startups like SoulCycle, Peloton, and S’well, alongside 100-year old brands including Disney, Intel, and Oreo. By the end of the research, the brands ranged from Alibaba to Zara.

Through the analysis, five themes emerged among the fast-growing companies; themes that all focused on how the companies successfully engineered a positive feeling across key brand touchpoints. Those five brand areas became a guide:

  • lexicon triggers (e.g., vocabulary)

  • audio cues (e.g., sonic branding)

  • visual stimuli (e.g., glyphs, images, video)

  • experience drivers (e.g., closed feedback loops)

  • (internal) culture (e.g., point of view, policies)

Let’s abbreviate that as LAVEC, or if you’re in a global mood — “clave” for “key” in Spanish. We will unlock what each means across this series of posts using systems-thinking. Each fast-growing brand had a different system, yet all competing systems could simultaneously win the attention of consumers without having massive integrated campaigns that focus on optimizing share of voice over resonance. The strongest brands had a system in which relevance was fueled by renewal, a perpetual brand refresh. Brands that demonstrated a sense of self-repair, resiliency, and adaptiveness — rather than just remixing & recycling a static bank of assets. If you want to develop a brand strategy that fits into a systems-based approach, thus capable of scaling geographies and business units, then keep reading.

So what does this LAVEC system do and why do you need it? Good question. A big, complex macro question; let me unpack this gently by trying to establish a zone for conversation.

Ever need to write a speech in a jam, develop talking points, fine-tune your resume, work on your bio, or figure out your life, like “right now”...? Let me give you a secret from working with founders, talent, and executives… focus on crafting a narrative based on the top three questions people always ask you or those around you. Within that zone of three questions is your expertise and trust. And within that zone, you’ll likely find a set of good stories to tell to connect with others. So, to start to develop the new branding system, I considered the top three questions I’ve been getting from students, clients, and entrepreneurs:

  1. what can startups learn from Fortune 100 companies, and vice-versa?

  2. what parts of a “brand” are most important?

  3. how do you apply creativity strategically?

LAVEC is one framework for a system that answers those three questions. For this series of posts, it’ll help us navigate why feelings matter MOST amongst a sea of brand metrics, how the five parts of a brand in LAVEC can come to life for a brand, and how you can help your own brand follow the feeling to build a tribe that delivers a new growth lane. I’ll share a mix of global research from leading universities while keeping it practical with profiles on companies that have recently used the principles to achieve growth. And my goal, above all else, is that “learning” something new thing remains enjoyable for you, your network, and you’d pass it along and use the tips. While we may not have a semester together, let's take a digital journey; one you can come back to at your own pace.

Everyone has the potential to unlock a great brand; we are all members of the creative class. And each week my goal is to move you closer towards your north star of being a parachute of happiness for audiences, consumers, clients, and beyond, so your brand grows in a noisy world in which, as Portuguese neuroscientist and UCLA professor Antonio Damasio reminds us, “we are feeling machines that think.”

So, talk to me in the comments. Let the community know what one positive feeling you would want your brand to evoke in others? Just put "brand name = desired feeling." Whether your brand is your company, a non-profit, or yourself... don’t be shy. Set the destination. Because in this world of big data and technology, be sure to keep your eye on the ball.

Kai WrightComment