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100 Branding Lessons for the Age of Disruption

Scott Stratten & Alison Stratten

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The Usual UnIntroduction

We've received some flack over the years for our often random and rambling intros on the UnPodcast. It seems as though some people would like us to just get to the point.

Well, a few months ago Scott had a weekend gig in the Bahamas, a keynote for a great crowd of franchisees. While Alison usually can't travel with Scott (someone has to keep the children and pets alive), she's no fool—and so she flew out for a couple days to join him in the sunshine. The hotel was glorious, right on the ocean, and as a treat we booked moonlight oceanside massages. It should have been everything—but it was terrible. We each spent the entire time waiting for it to be over so as not to ruin it for the other. The wind was cold, people were walking by, and the massage itself could only be described as irritating. When it was over we just looked at one another and then spent the next two hours laughing about how we are the only two people on the planet who could hate a Bahamian oceanside massage.

We swore never to tell anyone. What kind of horrible people would?

Now we could talk about branding here, find the symbolic nature of the story: everything to make a great brand experience ruined by a number of controllable factors. We could teach a branding lesson. But instead we're just going to leave this here as a confession and an homage to our intro haters.

UnBranding has been in the works for a while now. When you've written UnMarketing and UnSelling, it seems like the next logical step. But we've always fought against content for content's sake, and we waited until we had something to say. We could tell you how to be a brand in one sentence—be good to your customers, employees, and vendors and have a great product and/or service. But we can't sell that for $20. The message of UnBranding isn't new for us. Branding is in every part of your business—how and whom you hire is branding, your front line is branding, what your CEO likes on Facebook is branding. Branding isn't a department or a campaign; in fact, branding isn't in your hands at all. Your brand belongs to your customers—it's what they think of when they hear your name and how they tell your story.

Today, technological innovations and increased access to information have transformed that story. They have disrupted all our traditional relationships: how we hire, market, and even date as well as how we find our favorite foods, watch our favorite movies and television shows, and learn about the world around us. They have changed the dynamic between brands and their markets and between students and their teachers. Our digital age has put a world of information and connection in our hands, and the way we market and are marketed to has changed forever.

The concept of disruption isn't new. It was introduced in 1942 by Joseph Schumpeter, when he wrote about “creative destruction,” a concept that described how new technologies, products, and processes make their predecessors obsolete and reinvent businesses, industries, and the economy.1 While the economic process of the new taking the place of the old may not be revolutionary, the pace at which innovation happens today is. This is the age of disruption.

To be in business today means that one interaction at a local restaurant can change the face of a global brand. Customer service, once an exercise done one-on-one, now happens in public. The online world has blurred with real life, making them one and the same. Today, we learn the truth about unethical businesses practices with ease, while at the same time those seeking to deceive continually have new tools for doing so. It's enough to make your head spin.

Now before you throw away your phone and run off to book your own oceanside massage, we're here to tell you the truth. The age of disruption means nothing at all. Good business is still good business. While news of your ethical practices or lack thereof may travel further and faster today, what makes them good has never changed. We've always put forward only what we feel is the best version of ourselves; Facebook didn't invent that. “Disruption” means no more and no less than any other buzzword, and even the newest, flashiest technologies, those that change our lives from morning until night, won't change why we love the things we do.

In the following pages we're going to look at 100 brand lessons in the age of disruption, taken from thousands of brand case studies we've researched and studied. We'll talk about everything from changes in the workplace to the value of emerging tools and how change, especially fast-paced change, can be daunting. There can be an instinct to protect ourselves, to attempt to lock down content, to blame technology rather than embrace it, to focus on the overall change rather than making real improvements to our core values and practices. We're going to fight that instinct together and see innovation as an opportunity. We're going to look at companies, big and small, that have navigated innovation and change both successfully and not so successfully, to find actionable lessons we can apply to our own branding.

If you want to dig deeper and don't feel like copying out an 85-character URL from the footnotes, visit for all the sources included in the book, listed by chapter.

Let's have some fun and get through these crazy times together, one brand lesson at a time.


The Moral of the Brand Story

Over the years we've read hundreds, if not thousands, of brand stories. We do this so you don't have to, fine reader, because it's our job and because we absolutely love them. We're fascinated by what makes businesses thrive, grow, and sometimes self-destruct. From all these stories we've distilled the four factors of brand loyalty, factors that ensure you will thrive in the face of disruption and innovation and that, given your focus, will lead to success.

A note on success before we continue. In many of the companies we look at, success has been a victim of innovation as well. As individuals we are faced with countless versions of it, and we need to remember to decide for ourselves how it will be measured and experienced. Financial success to us means having a home we are proud of; having the ability to provide safety, comfort, and opportunities for those we love; and having a little extra on the side to leave in Las Vegas a few times a year. For you, it may mean being able to quit your current job to pursue a dream, attend college, independently feed and clothe your family, or buy the car you've always wanted (or buy any car for that matter). Business success for us means maintaining the status quo—a life where we get to do the things we dreamed of doing, where Scott gets to be onstage, and we can have people like you read (and hopefully enjoy) our work. For you, business success may be seeing your product in a store, reaching the Fortune 500, partnering with people you respect, or getting that raise you've been hoping for.

As we caution you about chasing the “next big thing” in business and in digital, we also caution about chasing other people's ideals of success. We're here to tell you that you don't need to be working toward someone else's definition of the next big achievement. It's okay to answer the question of “what's next for me?” with “I'm going to keep enjoying what I have now.”

And that ends the self-help section of UnBranding :). Now back to loyalty.

We all want loyal customers and to become a habit in someone's life—the golden rewards of being the coffee they always drink, the hotel they always stay at, the accountant they've worked with for years, the store they always go to, and so on. In loyalty we are impermeable to competition, and our business is chosen without any other choice even standing a chance. So how do we create loyalty in the age of disruption? By focusing on four key factors; comfort, cost, convenience, and convergence.

  1. Comfort. All the successful brands we've seen brought their customers from a feeling of need or want into one of comfort. They focused on answering a question for the market, whether it concerned a product or service. Once the need had been met, customers walked away confident that in the future the company would rise to the occasion again; this way trust was born.
  2. Cost. Until an innovation comes about where we don't exchange currency for goods and services, cost will always be important. This doesn't mean to create loyalty one should race to the bottom, price-wise; in fact, many of our most habit-forming brands are among the most expensive in their market. Focusing on cost really means focusing on perceived value and giving people what they paid for. Our most successful brands made it their job to ensure that customers felt their money was well spent, to explain why their products are of value, and to keep the price promise.
  3. Convenience. Products and services don't only cost the customer's money, they also cost time. This factor relates to all your business processes, from the number of hoops people need to jump through on your shopping cart to how far they need to drive to your store. Everyone is busy, and our successful brands earned loyalty by appreciating and saving customers' time.
  4. Convergence. Loyal customers feel their ideals line up with the companies they work with. The most successful businesses understand their customers and what they believe in, making their products and services part of the individual's identity. There isn't one ideal for everyone, which is why when some people flee from a brand for aligning themselves with something, others flock to it. Our most successful brands have been names people said they were proud to be loyal to.

In the chapters ahead we will look at 100 branding stories in the age of disruption and see how creating loyalty by focusing on comfort, cost, convenience, and convergence has kept them level in the bumpy world of innovation. From established, well-known brands to the corner store, online and off, these businesses all have something we can learn from. From some, we'll learn what to do—and from others, in true UnMarketing style, we'll learn what not to do.

Lesson 1
Logos Don't Matter

If you've ever spent time designing or redesigning a logo for your company, raise your hand. Don't worry, no one in the Starbucks will notice.

Remember the long meetings, going over and over the tiniest details, deciding which blue better represents your mission statement or choosing a font or two. You're never going to get that time in your life back.

We're here to let you in on a little secret: logos don't matter. And they certainly aren't the be-all and end-all of branding. We spend so much time and money on logos, but our brands aren't in our business hands; they belong to our market. Your brand changes with each interaction—a living, breathing relationship between you and the world.

Let's picture two logos. The first is an apple with a bite taken out of it. You can see it, and you may even be holding it in your hand reading this book. When you picture that logo, you'll think of two things: the most recent and the most extreme (good or bad) experience you've had with the company. For us, we think of how great the laptop is we're using to write this chapter (most recent), and about all the times they've replaced Alison's phone, no matter where she dropped it (most extreme).

The second logo we want you to picture is a circle, within which you'll find a V and a W. When you see it, you may picture the car you drove to Starbucks in, and you may also remember how the company it belongs to was outed for deceiving its market and polluting the environment on a global scale. The smog doesn't even need to be added to the lettering.

That's branding, and you'll notice it had nothing to do with apples or cleverly shaped letters. If the bite was moved to the other side or the color was changed, our brand understanding would remain the same. We love logos because they can be controlled and pushed out, but branding in the age of disruption cannot be.

Our logo lesson from Apple and Volkswagen is that a logo needs to be clear and concise and it shouldn't offend. It should be designed by designers, not by a group of people who can't even get an appropriate outfit together. A logo should be consistent so that it reminds people of the good business you're investing your time and money into providing. You can't redesign it to fix your problems, and you shouldn't try. Instead, focus on the stories behind the logo—create current positive experiences and long-lasting “wow”s to delight and move your market into comfort and loyalty.

Lesson 2
Peanut Butter Branding

Our house is very popular with UPS, and FedEx, and those Amazon delivery folks. Our online ordering addiction aside, people send us stuff. Over the years, we've been sent shoes, doughnuts, Google Cardboard (Alison didn't know what it was until the 13-year-old freaked out and showed her how it worked), a ton of books, and even a knife set. But none of this has ever impressed our children—that is, until the box of peanut butter showed up. After we met him at the National Speaker's Association annual event, Clint Greenleaf (co-founder and CEO of HomePlate Peanut Butter) finally gave us the street cred with our children that has so far eluded us.

Clint and his pro-athlete partners had seen baseball players eating peanut butter, an inexpensive, heat-stable, high-calorie snack, the way college kids ate ramen noodles. They saw a need in the market for healthy peanut butter that didn't separate in the jar, tasted as good as the high-sugar varieties, and was all-natural and no-stir—and HomePlate was born. Using the quality of and need for the product, along with their connections to professional baseball, Clint and his partners got HomePlate into clubhouses, and players loved it.

When news of a story about basketball players crossed the HomePlate desk—specifically about the Golden State Warriors not being able to get their favorite PB&J sandwiches to the court—HomePlate was sent to the rescue. When Steph Curry 1 says he loves your product, what else do you need? Here is a great example of active listening and action, creating amazing branding opportunities.

Today HomePlate is still a small company of about six employees, with products in grocery and retail locations in the United States. They handle feedback quickly and deal with negative feedback by the “approach of solving the problem first, and saving face second.” Clint believes customer service is a critical part of HomePlate's marketing. He loves the flexibility that being a small company allows and told us, “when you're all sitting in the same room, you can develop a plan for how to deal with customer service consistently. Branding is easier when you're smaller because we're all on the same page.”

Homeplate also gives back to its community. Twelve-year-old Bella Grace Parker 2 (BG to her friends) has been playing softball since she was three and dreams of one day playing in the Olympics. However, after years of suffering stomach aches every time she ate, BG was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. To manage the disease, she had to make radical adjustments to her diet. Her mom began searching for options to keep her healthy, maintain her weight, and keep her softball dreams alive and found the answer in HomePlate Peanut Butter. BG loved the taste, and the product has all the calories, protein, and nutrients she needs to keep her healthy. BG's mom credits HomePlate with changing their lives for the better. In true HomePlate style, the company visited BG's team and brought enough peanut butter for the girls' entire season.

There are many branding lessons to be learned from Clint and HomePlate Peanut Butter. One of the most powerful for us was the importance of recognizing, valuing, and utilizing your strengths. Clint and his partners knew their market and valued the needs of athletes. They utilized their connections and spread the word (and the peanut butter) accordingly by putting their product in as many players' hands as possible. They then took this success and realized that a greater market would value it as well. Throughout our conversation with Clint he mentioned strength after strength, defining his business, his partners, his employees, and his customers by what they brought to the table. The challenges of working with food, of being a small company, and even those of depending on endorsements from celebrities were never his focus. Far too often in business we see only our faults and we are left continually on the defensive. Good branding is about bringing value, and that starts with valuing what you bring to the table, or in Clint's case, what you bring to the table and to the dugout.


Lesson 3
We Know You Think You're Good, but Are You GoodWell Good?

Fast Company recently featured a business called GoodWell that offers an audit for your company. This is not the kind of financial audit we're used to that brings to mind tax evasion and frozen bank accounts (not us personally—what have you heard?). This audit rates your business practices. While most companies claim to be good places to work, few are. Issues of pay discrepancy and a general lack of communication and training are the norm, and these issues travel down the line to the customer, creating poor experiences. GoodWell looks at 11 indicators, ranging from current employee satisfaction to the attrition rate. It collects the data and rates businesses, nonprofits, and even governments, providing a type of social seal of approval where “rather than just being profitable and fiscally responsible, they can earn a certification as a fair, equitable, and humane place to work.” 1

As we'll see throughout UnBranding, the age of disruption has created a digital megaphone for all things good and bad in your company. We can no longer focus on keeping issues quiet; rather, we are now forced to change. It's one of our favorite things about social media: when you treat your employees and/or your customers poorly, the world finds out. With this increase of access to information, consumers who care about buying from good companies can make educated choices. Good business equals good branding.

Here are the 11 factors GoodWell looks at in its audits.2 We ask you to consider each one and think about how your business would rate.

  1. As an employee, how likely are you on a scale of 1 to 10 to recommend working at your company to others?
  2. What is the ratio between the salary of your highest-paid employee and of your average employee? (To pass the GoodWell audit, the ratio cannot be higher than 100. So if Scott makes $1,000 per year, the cats can't make less than $10 a year on average.)
  3. What is the ratio between your executive team's average salary and the average salary of your employees? (See the previous example, but now average in Alison's salary and include the dogs with the cats.)
  4. What is the ratio between the average male employee's salary and the average female's salary in similar jobs?
  5. What is the ratio between the average salary of any population segment (visible minorities, for example) and the average salary for similar jobs?
  6. What is the total number of injuries on the job?
  7. What is the percentage of underage workers?
  8. What is the percentage of part-time workers?
  9. What is the percentage of workers making below-poverty-line wages?
  10. What is the attrition rate?
  11. What is the percentage of employees participating in the benefits package?

Valued, respected employees stay in their jobs. They communicate better as teams and provide optimal service to customers. The challenge is to make employees feel valued and respected, and we think GoodWell's rubric offers the perfect place to start. Our GoodWell lesson is that it isn't enough to focus on earnings when evaluating your company's success, nor is it effective to wait until market share starts dropping to turn your eyes inward for solutions. If you want to improve your bottom line, you need to improve your front line, and the best way to do that is with critical business analysis and hard work.


Lesson 4
Selling Cookies Is a Dirty Job

Leading up to Emma's1 Marketing United Conference this past year, we ran a contest on the UnPodcast, giving away two trips to Nashville, conference passes, and as an added bonus (and if the winners wanted to, of course), dinner with us. Two of the winners were amazing women from Kellogg's, and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting them and sharing some Peg Leg Porker BBQ together. As a surprise, because they'd listened to our UnPodcast episode where we spoke about Mike Rowe and Girl Guide Cookies and because Kellogg's makes the treats, they brought us a box of every single flavor. Scott was in heaven, and we brought all the cookies home for a taste test with the kids to see which was their favorite. The Thin Mints won in a landslide. We had tons of fun tasting the cookies and especially loved having the kids guess their names. Really, all food should have names like Do-Si-Dos or Savannah Smiles.

If you have kids and have the pleasure of cooking for them, you know they cannot tell a lie. Unlike adults, most of whom will muscle through a meal they don't love out of kindness, kids will actually flat-out refuse to eat—or possibly worse, spit out food they don't like. Full-on grimaces, torture-like cries, accusations of poisoning—these are not uncommon sightings when testing out a new recipe. Scott would eat a meal he didn't care for without a complaint for the next 30 years if Alison cooked it for him. The children wouldn't last 30 seconds.

Back in January, Mike Rowe, the celebrity known for his TV show Dirty Jobs and his all-around awesome support for trades and tradespeople, posted a video about Girl Guide Cookies. Before we watched it, Girl Guide Cookies weren't really on our radar. None of our kids were in Guides and other than Scott's buying a bunch of cookies every season, we'd never paid much attention to the brand. The video is hysterical; Mr. Rowe himself breaks down laughing every few moments, and it really shouldn't be missed. There's a link in footnote 2 of this chapter if you want to check it out. Go ahead, watch it now. We'll wait 2.

In the video, Mr. Rowe reads a letter sent to him by Sean McCourt, who works with him on his podcast. The letter is an email sent by Mr. McCourt's 11-year-old daughter Charlotte to one of her dad's friends from high school, one who her dad told her is very rich. In the letter, Charlotte asks Mr. Rich Friend to consider buying some Girl Guide cookies from her. To help him choose which ones, she rates the cookies—on a scale of 1 to 10—with all the honesty of an 11-year-old.

The perennial favorite Thin Mint (as our children would agree) earned a 9 for its “inspired” combination of chocolate and mint. The Do-Si-Dos peanut butter sandwich cookie earned a 5 for “its unoriginality and its blandness,” while the Savannah Smiles earned a 7 for its “divine taste.” “If you have a wild sense of adventure, try the S'mores,” Charlotte wrote of this year's new s'mores-inspired cookies. “Full disclosure, I have not tried the S'mores so I cannot rate it in good conscience.” Charlotte's least favorite is Toffee-tastic, which she called a “bleak, flavorless, gluten-free wasteland” and added, “I'm telling you, it's as flavorless as dirt.”

A bleak, flavorless, gluten-free wasteland. We love Charlotte so much. We just hope she never switches her focus to rating business books.

She didn't give any of the cookies a rating of 10; as she explained, “There's a reason for this. It's because the only way to get a 10 is by donating a box—any box. It helps strike a spark into the treacherous lives of those men and women protecting our country and keeping America safe.”

We also hope she doesn't decide to start writing business books, because we honestly cannot compete with that quality of writing.

As Mr. Rowe says in the video, Charlotte understands one of the fundamental tenants of sales—“you can't sell a product unless people first trust you. And the best way to get people to trust you is to tell them the truth.” Charlotte's goal was to sell 300 boxes of cookies; she ended up selling 26,086 boxes and 12,430 were donated to the troops. Our lesson here is that honesty matters. Tell the truth in your marketing and advertising, be honest in your business practices, build trust with your employees and vendors, and good things will happen. As Mr. Rowe wrote on his site, “[There are] many reasons to feel good about this story, but my personal favorite is still the fact that Americans are standing by to reward honesty and decency wherever and whenever it appears. Thanks to everyone on this page for playing along.”

We couldn't have said it better ourselves.


Lesson 5
Complacency and ADT's Lame Season's Greetings

Over the years, we've railed against creating content for content's sake. Forcing yourself into a calendar can lead to a lot of bad content, made and shared only because of what day it is. A lame post on Mother's Day isn't good simply because of what day it is, and no one has ever shared your company's newsletter because you sent it out on Wednesday. We understand the value of planning your content along with the inspiration holidays and events can bring, but if the quality isn't there, you're just conditioning your audience not to care.

Perhaps the worst example of putting in the least effort possible that we've seen was from ADT Canada, who released a video (we use this term with hesitation) in its December newsletter. 1 The moving picture was no more than a letter from the firm's president, Andrea Martin. She didn't read the letter, mind you, and she didn't even do a voice-over. The written letter just scrolled along the page with music playing in the background, and it didn't even scroll in a cool, opening of Star Wars kind of way.

Figure depicting a screenshot of YouTube page, where an actual video of Ms. Martin, wishing customers a happy holiday, is played.

There are a number of things ADT could have done instead:

  1. Create an actual video of Ms. Martin wishing customers a happy holiday. People love video, right?
  2. Don't want to be on camera? Read the letter! Shake things up a bit, and use images of actual people at the company rather than scrolling text.
  3. Skip the video, and send the letter as text (you know, because it is text).
  4. Skip the whole thing. Reach out to customers only when you actually have something of value to share.

Our branding lesson from ADT is not to let your brand get lazy. Maybe ADT is a great company with a wonderful product that enriches people's lives. Maybe a lame video will in no way change that or how someone who is actually in the market for their services would make their choices. Lameness is unlikely to cause the end of your company, but that doesn't mean you can or should just mail things in because you can usually get away with it. While this may not be earth-shattering stuff, it is a perfect lesson in treating opportunities to connect with your customers with care rather than laziness.

The bigger issue here is that laziness breeds complacency, and complacency is the enemy of business success. It opens doors to our competitors, increases the chances of mistakes missing our radar, and reflects poorly on our brand in general and specifically on our products and services. No one wants to hire a complacent security company, and the lack of focus and effort in one area of ADT's business affects the brand as a whole. When we're just starting out, we tend to be driven and detail oriented, but once we've found success we can sometimes become lazy. Look for ways to keep yourself driven, don't forget your competition, and remember that your customers deserve effort in all your brand interactions.


Lesson 6
Pizza Saves Lives

Becoming a habit is the ultimate goal in building customer loyalty. Just ask the café you always stop at for coffee in the morning or the local pet-food store you drop into on your way home from work every other Tuesday. Habit feeds community. You get to know the owner, the other customers, and your fellow entrepreneurs working at the local coffee shop. Our parents were great at this. Alison's mom can tell you all about the bookstore clerk with the best recommendations and the Tim Horton's employee who has her coffee ready before she orders. Habit brings value both to the business and the customer. It's one of the things the online world works hard to mimic from brick and mortar.

Our favorite example of habit this year came from Domino's Pizza. You probably have a place you always order from. Next time you do, think about how “that place” became “the place” for you and remember our four loyalty factors (comfort, cost, convenience, and convergence). We always order from Gino's Pizza whenever our friend and contractor extraordinaire Jay comes over. The kids love Jay, but they also know that Jay's car in the driveway means pizza for dinner. Jay = Pizza = Fun.

When workers at an Oregon Domino's realized that a regular customer with health concerns had an irregular time between his orders, the staff were concerned. 1 They decided to take action and sent out a delivery person to check on him. “When the driver arrived, he saw lights on and heard the TV, but no one answered the door and the phone went straight to voicemail. He called for help, and when paramedics arrived, they found the customer lying on the ground in his house. It's believed he had a stroke, but it's not clear when he was affected.”

They saved his life. The manager even visited him in the hospital, saying, “‘I think we were just doing our job checking in on someone we know who orders a lot. We felt like we needed to do something.’”

That kind of concern for customers and for other humans is something we could all show more of. This is much more than a branding lesson; it's a lesson on how we should all care about others. Nurturing habit is about nurturing community. and that can't and shouldn't be a campaign—it should be a way of life.


Lesson 7
The Diet That Crossed the Line

A few years ago, Alison stopped buying gossip magazines. To be fair and so as not to seem as though this was a moral decision on her part, she did so under some duress from Scott. He felt, and rightly so, that they make money off other people's suffering, promote unhealthy lifestyles, and generally set a less-than-optimal ideal of beauty. Since Alison couldn't argue with any of these points and gets more than enough celebrity gossip from Instagram, she stopped buying them.

Magazine brands like Cosmopolitan are synonymous with celebrity break-ups and fad diets. That's their brand, and it's up to us to decide if that's what we're into. So when a recent issue featured the article “How This Woman Lost 44 Pounds Without Any Exercise,” 1 it could easily be passed off as the norm. The thing is, this woman didn't lose weight eating only celery, or potatoes, or purple foods between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM; this woman lost weight because she had cancer.

The article explained that when the 31-year-old woman was diagnosed with a severe kidney infection, doctors discovered a malignant carcinoid tumor of the appendix. She underwent multiple surgeries and suffered horrible complications. “After she was diagnosed with ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ triggered by her cancer diagnosis, she turned to food, later losing weight on a diet called The Bod.” She could not exercise; the article explained that “she's still recovering from surgery, she isn't physically able to work out the way she used to before her cancer diagnosis.”2

Safe to say, this is not the way anyone would ever want to lose weight. Social media agreed, slamming the magazine and demanding a change. Cosmo kept the article, but it did change the title to “A Serious Health Scare Helped Me Love My Body More Than Ever.”

Clearly, there is a line, and Cosmo found it. Readers will happily accept unfounded gossip about strangers, revel in stories of failure and deceit, take in 101 sex tips, and accept that if they ate only chives they too could lose that post-baby weight. But they won't accept cancer as a diet plan. Our lesson here is to know your line as a brand. Don't act in the name of looking edgy to get attention, because some kinds of attention are things we could all do without.