What your Brand is NOT

An observation on brand and marketing, regardless of if you're B2B, B2C, or any other freaking combination you can imagine.

Several months ago I was in the retail space for Treason Toting Co. (Treason is the company I've been with for a little over a year now.) We make backpacks and carry goods. I jokingly say we make elevated man purses for hipsters with expendable income. :) I was in the storefront and a group of tourists from Alabama walked through the doors and asked about the bags. They felt them, tried them on, commented on the great quality. You know... all the usual things. Then came the moment I'd been waiting for. We talked... I learned a bit about them, and then they said, "why the name Treason?" So I gave them the schpeel. I told them of how were were founded by two unlikely Baltimore natives. And I drew them in by connecting it with them and passionately spoke of how every single day we wake up wanting more. More time... a better job... deeper friendships... or to finally chase that passion we've set aside for so long. And how there are some people out there that are actually DOING that. They defy what is expected of them and press in to that unknown territory and commit "everyday treason". I highlighted how the last two things you grab before you walk out your door every single day are your keys, and yes... your BAG. And that we are a company that is not just about making a product that carries your crap. But we make a product that inspires you to be a Treasonist. Our bags are a symbol of possibility. Our bags stand for more than just a bag. By the end of it, a large, scrappy man with a Marlboro ball cap from Alabama said, "Brother, can I hug you??" And we hugged it out right there in the store. 

Why did that happen?? What compelled a grown southern man in a Marlboro cap to hug a millennial hipster kid in a fedora? I can tell you this: it wasn't how well our bags are made. It wasn't the color choice of our canvas. It was that we made the leap from it being about the bag, to it being about HIM. We got to the heart of the matter. We got to the emotion of it all. And THAT, dear ones, is brand. 


It's as simple as that. Your brand is what a person feels when they think of your name, your logo, your product or service... it's what is evoked from deep inside the moment they come in contact with any of your collateral. 

What often happens is, well-meaning businesses are so focused on what they offer to the consumer, that they obsess over explaining the product. They spend energy, resources, and most importantly -- precious moments of a consumer's time -- obsessively talking about that "thing". But here's why that doesn't work: we're all selfish. We're all far less concerned with that thing you're obsessed with, and far more self-interested! Wanna sell me something? Woo me. Wanna give me a reason to buy from you and not amazon? Tell me how great I am. Want a second date?? Act interested in ME. And then once you know who I am, use some your energy explaining how your thing will meet that need you know I have. It's sales and it's psychology, and it's like good old fashioned dating.

So here are a few steps to help you figure out how to make the leap from it being about you and your product, to truly drawing emotion out of that consumer and give your brand sticking power.


This is more than just your value propositions. Take time to run yourself through a brand prism. Create guidelines and a one-sheet that articulates it all clearly and concisely. Understand the words, colors, shapes, smells... that best describe you! Hone it down and be laser focused. This way when that consumer finally gives you a chance to speak, you know exactly what to say in as little as one sentence.


Identify who in the world you're actually trying to reach! Once you know who they are, you can identify how to get in front of them, and when you're in front of them, you'll actually have something worthwhile to say because you've taken the time to figure out who you are. (Side note: often you'd be surprised at who a company THINKS their clientele is versus what the data shows.)


This part is sneaky: do you ask that amazing human to marry you after your first date? No. Of course not. And buying patterns for humans are not that different. Yes, some will buy at first touch, but the reality is, you'll probably need to date a bit longer before a real commitment is made. So be patient! And when you go on that second date, you had better present yourself as the same human being you were last time! Be consistent and align every bit of collateral, every word, every everything with who you are as a brand. (If you don't, you'll erode buyer confidence... but that's a whole blog post in it's own right!)

This can be deep stuff to wade through. I'm here to help. Let's brand it up together, dear ones.





There's a sneaky myth that lies inside of the current start-up biz climate that we all live in. We understand that the world is changing rapidly, and therefore we must change with it. We must stay agile. We must be able to predict, pivot, act, react... it's as if the internet and the speed with which information flies around is so fast that business feels more like a game of basketball and every startup company is just another player on the court, making hard cuts, juking and jiving, waiting for their moment to shoot that three pointer. And inside of all that movement and sneakers squealing on hardwood... there's one word that seems to be the golden calf of it all:


If a company isn't being innovative, what ARE they being?! But I would submit a different way of thinking:

Innovation is useless if it's not serving to honestly add value.

Far too many companies are striving to be innovative simply for the sake of being innovative. But innovation is not the end-all. Innovation is a tool. OOr perhaps better put, it's a conduit by which we arrive at solutions to add value or make life better. Some acquaintances of mine are starting a company that uses a device on the dash of your car to help you find open parking spots. Instead of driving around and looking for open spots, they notify you exactly where those spots are located, and pre-pay for your parking so that you never have to worry about a ticket on your  windshield from an expired meter. The technology itself, and the device they've built, is actually not that innovative. But the idea, and the execution of that idea, add incredible value to the life of anyone trying to find parking in the DC metro area! 

The point is this: the litman's test for if that project you're working on is worthwhile is found in asking, "does the end result of this innovation add real value?" If the answer is no, stop it and redirect your energy.



The Secret behind UX: BE HUMAN

User experience... or UX as all the cool kids call it... is an important slice of the pie. It's the place where the thing you've been pouring your energy into intersects with the humans for whom it was made. And this angle of industry is ubiquitous because essentially it's function is to make sure that when that happens -- when people touch / feel / experience what you've worked so hard on... it's a genuinely positive situation. UX is not limited to a department. Proper UX should be woven through the fabric of your brand/organization/product from start to finish. Here's why:


To effectively filter your ____ through UX, you simply must approach it with empathy at every step of the journey. From "What question does this answer or problem does it solve?" to "Does this aspect of the design create a seamless engagement for the human interacting with it?" ... To literally every other question you should be asking -- the common thread -- the golden nugget -- the question behind the question -- is always centered around placing oneself in the heart/mind/soul/shoes of that person you intend to engage. It's not just about your product. It's not just about your brand. It's ALWAYS about how those things come in contact with that end user -- and ultimately how it makes them feel.

Here's a quick litmus's test: If you've compromised significant quality or design that you know is better/important to the people you touch -- you aren't being empathetic. Try again. Be human.




Naveen Jain said "Success doesn't necessarily come from breakthrough innovation, but from flawless execution." His point was no that breakthrough or innovation are bad. In fact, they are pretty important for forward movement. At the end of the day, the thing that allows some to leap ahead while others don't even cross the finish line is simply the grit to do what they set out to do.

So what does effective execution look like? What does it entail?


Having this mindset creates a powerful culture and shifts the atmosphere. 
It sounds simple. And while it is simple, that doesn't mean it's easy. Any venture worth doing -- large or small -- is going to have hiccups and reason to sideline the project. But if the thing you've set out to do is in line with your vision and strategy, not completing said task is simply not an option. Why? Because to do so would erode the things you say matter, and make it easier to quit or "change direction" again the next time it gets tough! Having this bedrock mindset also means that when you hit that hiccup, instead of it creating a sense of defeat, the auto-response is immediately one of problem-solving. How great would it be a to see each derailment as an opportunity to find new solutions?! And when those difficult projects reach completion, it builds team confidence that the next hill is capable of being taken as well.

The point is this: the cost of incomplete or poor execution are greater than that singular project. It creates cancerous consequences and can alter your organization DNA and trajectory. So... NO EXCUSES. NO QUITTING. NO WAITING.





There is literally nothing in our world that thrives outside of strategy. I'm so convinced of this that if you can prove me wrong, I'll buy you dinner. Strategy is simply the outworking of clarity. When we get clear, the natural progression is to ask, "So now what?" And that "so now what" is NOT just going out and doing things... it's the incredibly important precursor to that. If we skip this step, it's like a basketball team hitting the court knowing it wants to win, but not having any plays in the playbook. (I hate using sports analogies so please forgive me for indulging in one.) Here are three keys to effective strategy that can apply to any context:

Each and every "thing" that is determined to be important or worth doing should have a person who champions it, and that champion should have a regular drip of check-in's on progress. Outside of this, accountability is impossible because you can't talk to the person in charge of the thing if the thing doesn't have someone in charge of it.

Each task needs to have clearly defined metrics attached to it. From calendar deadlines, to budgetary restraints, time allotment ( i.e. "spend no more than three hours per week on this task"). Without metrics, it's impossible to get an accurate feel on progress when check-in's occur. 

Someone with clear ownership and objectives will still fail if they are not resourced well. The simple question of "How can I help?" is not trite, it is absolutely necessary. And following through with that resourcing and help is paramount in things getting done. 

Strategy doesn't have to be complex or burdensome. It does need to exist though. Get clear, get a strategy, and then we can get to work.




"NO." -- A powerful word that is vastly under-utilized.

Time and energy are two of our most precious resources. They are both finite, and in the case of time, it's not replenish-able. You can take a day off and recoup your energy, but once that five minutes is gone, it's never coming back. And in regards to time, recent studies show that just 30 seconds of distraction can take as much as fifteen minutes to regain the degree of focus you had pre-distraction. So how we use these assets is incredibly important. So the things we say "yes" to matter all the more in light of this. While in many cases I'd posit that "best is the enemy of good", I'd say in this one context, the rule is entirely reversed. Here's what I mean:

Saying yes to too many "good" things distracts us from investing in what is ultimately best.

How does this happen? How we we end up in the place where we have so much "good" that's happening that we end up missing out or shortchanging the things we say really matter? It's because we haven't weighed that "yes" against our goals. We've allowed our clarity to become clouded. It could be because that "thing" we want to say yes to is a passion, but isn't aligned with our actual goals. Or it could be that the idea we just heard would make us a quick buck, but cause us to miss important deadlines for the bigger things that matter. But in any capacity... the more good things we pile on, the less room we have to keep laser focused on what is actually best.

So say it with me... "No." ... Say it again... "NOOO." It stings. But it's necessary. Stop doing good things and do only best things.




When was the last time you heard someone say, “Have you seen the water in the West Hudson River?? It’s dirty and amazing!”  No? Oh. Well what about, “Man I love the sound quality in these cheap headphones I use… it’s so garbled!” Hmm.. nope to that too? Okay okay… what about when you’re on the phone with someone and they have you on speaker phone as they drive down the road with their window down. Love that? Nah. Of course not. It makes me want to pull my hair out, and I’m already bald.

We all love clarity. Whether it be crystalline waters, crisp high-fidelity music in our ears, or the ability to simply hear and comprehend every word of a phone conversation – we want things clear. We crave clarity because clarity makes it easier for us to comprehend/interpret, and interact with whatever the medium is.

Clarity is just as important in any organization/pursuit/product/you-name-it. But what does that even mean? What are we trying to get “clear” on? Clarity means we know who we are, and what matters to us. And in so doing, clarity equips us to make decisions based on those things that we say matter. Clarity also gives us the freedom to say no to the things that really don’t (or shouldn’t) matter.

Clarity is a balance between our goals and our passions. It must be both because if it’s a goal that’s not attached to a passion, our motivation to achieve it can wane faster. If it’s a passion that’s not attached to a goal, we might be expending valuable energy on something that’s ultimately completely useless.

So – marry your passions and goals, get clear, and then you’ll be ready to effectively move into step two: strategy.




This morning I was surrounded by men, many of which close to twice my age, discussing business and profession and the like. One quip stood out to me more than anything else. A quick observation on the word "AMATEUR".

That word. It's almost intended to be an insult. "Look at that person over there... What an amateur."

But we have it dramatically backwards. The word's original intent had far more to do with PASSION than it did PAY. In other words, the meaning shifted from doing something because you're passionate about it, to doing something without pay. If you google the word right now, it speaks to doing something for free, and the implication is that you're probably not that great at it (otherwise you would in fact be paid for it!)

So, why does it matter? Why bother with semantics?

I would say that we have far to many people working hard to validate themselves as professionals when what we need are few more people who exhibit fortitude and drive hard because it's born out of their passions. We need people doing what they LOVE. Passion is contagious. Passion fuels us. Passion, coupled with a plan, can yield results that exceed simple exterior motivations. Passion fuels us past obstacles. Passion will carry us beyond our natural abilities. Passion is what starts sweeping movements.

The next time you see someone do something amazing or share a revolutionary idea... pause and say, "Whew... now there's an amateur."




The American dream "is the best brand out there... it's stronger than Apple and Microsoft and Google combined times 10." - Dara Khosrowshahi (Uber's new CEO)

Dara came to the US as a nine-year-old Iranian refugee.

What brand is he referring to? Freedom, peace, and opportunity. In that order.





Attempt number 303. That's the one that counted.

Because 302 times, Walt Disney's idea... dream... vision for Disneyland was rejected by bankers. That's a crushing blow every single day for nearly a year before the idea was even considered! Truly innovative ideas are almost always met with incredible resistance. As usual, the reason we remember Walt is not for those first 302 tries. Fortitude is mandatory.




I'd like to ask permission for a brief moment of honesty to discuss a topic that seems to be a favorite in some circles: "Relevance." And I would say this about it... The idea of relevance is actually rather silly. It's silly because relevance is completely subjective. In a desperate effort to be "relevant" to one audience, you instantly make yourself irrelevant to another. It's just how it works. So I would submit that we change our language, and change our thinking. Instead of filtering our ideas through relevance, let's filter them through transcendence. In other words, what are the elements that transcend one audience? What are the ingredients? What is that thing hiding inside the idea that will move anyone/anything? THAT is the spark we're after. That's the flame to fan. Anything less will burn out and -- ironically -- end up being completely irrelevant.