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Brand Strategy Checklist 1: Strengthen Your Brand’s Body

We all agree that brand strategy is vital to your business. Profit, loss, fame, or ruin all hang in the balance. Since getting it right is critical and fortune favors the well-prepared, Retail Voodoo created our own brand strategy checklist toolkit to drive all client engagements.

Why is Retail Voodoo’s brand strategy checklist in three parts?

Over the years, we’ve helped hundreds of clients evolve their businesses through brand strategy. So, we’ve learned a few things about how to make it stick. And we believe the journey of developing a comprehensive brand strategy is best broken down into three realms:

  1. The physical (external forces) that influence your brand.
  2. The mental (the psychology) of the organization.
  3. And the soul (the spirit) of the brand.

Just like people, when your organization’s brand strategy has clarity and alignment in these three realms, the outcome is strength and confidence, powerfully focused on the future. In this first installment of our brand strategy toolkit, we explore the physical, external forces that influence the mechanics of your brand. The external forces or physical aspect of brand strategy will help us see the way toward meaningful and long-lasting differentiation.

For brand strategy to be successful and lucrative, your team not only needs to understand but collectively buy-in to the ways in which the outside world shapes your brand’s reality. Let’s look at the difference between a competitive audit and competitive advantage with the goal of using both to put shape to audience mapping through the lens of trend analysis.

Competitive Audit

What is it? 
The basic version is a review of all the competing brands in your space and how they communicate. But this is just the beginning. A meaningful competitive audit also looks at offerings, events, and circumstances competing for your audience’s attention and dollars.

The “Retail Voodoo Way:”
We assess all of your competitors with this checklist. We study their social media streams, public relations, consumer-facing communication, in-store, and online experience. We then benchmark your brand against that information.

What you can do with it:
When armed with a robust competitive audit, your company’ has the power to change from emotion-based marketing to differentiation based communication. It also lays the foundation for seeing innovation from a strategic perspective rather than merely opportunistic.

Questions to ask:
1. Do we know our real competition?
2. What adjacent categories are consumers looking at when considering our brand?
3. What other businesses and products might we make if we had clarity?

Core Audience Map

What is it?
A comprehensive profile of who currently purchases your brand.

The “Retail Voodoo Way:”
A meaningful core audience map goes beyond demographics by placing the people currently buying your brand into an audience-to-be universe. We use primary research to map this and find out who is different and where things overlap.

What you can do with it:
A research-driven core audience map gives a company new power. Not only does this allow for easier persona creation in sales and marketing, but helps leadership and product development get into new businesses and get out of others.

Questions to ask:
1. What primary research are you using to build your current audience map?
2. Who else in your category shares the same audience?
3. Who would you include in an audience-to-be map?

Competitive Advantage

What is it?
Admit it, you think this one is obvious. But remember, there are 300 choices of toothpaste. But competitive advantage isn’t simply what you make, who you are, and how good you are at the 4 P’s of marketing (product, price, place, promotion). In our world, it’s much more.

The “Retail Voodoo Way:”
We look at competitive advantage as a three-legged stool. First, we determine what your company does or makes better than anyone else. Then we look at whether you have proprietary ingredients in your matrix, or not. Finally, we look at who is disrupting you – along with how and why. And when appropriate, we look at which competitors and adjacent categories your brand can disrupt.

What you can do with it: 
Once your team understands your distinct and ownable differences in the competitive landscape, your brand has a chance to move from competing on price and being in the right place to being sought out and commanding a premium at the same time.

Questions to ask:
1. What market conditions exist to give us clear competitive advantage?
2. How and why are we different than others with similar offerings?
3. What needs to change internally or externally for our brand to have a stronger advantage?

Trend Analysis

What is it? 
Trend analysis for branding is different than the financial world. In branding, history does not necessarily repeat itself. In brand strategy, trends are social proof.

The “Retail Voodoo Way:”
Since brands and branding run on the backbone of modern culture, it is imperative to anyone crafting a brand strategy to have insight into what’s coming next. But that takes more than following the Kardashians on Instagram. We believe data, shopper insights, and emerging cultural preferences are the strongest predictors of trends that brands can leverage.

What you can do with it: 
A validated trend report provides management with confidence to move boldly toward a new future, create new offerings, and stop producing items that no longer fit the cultural norm.

Questions to ask:
1. How do our products and services fit into modern society?
2. What social proof do we use when evaluating our innovation pipeline?
3. How might our business change and grow by paying attention to trends as part of strategy?

In our next installment of our brand strategy checklist, we will focus on the psychological aspects that shape your brand.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David
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The Seven Musts of Marketing

Retail Voodoo has developed a diagnostic tool around what we believe are “The Seven Musts of Marketing.” We use this series of seven critical marketing disciplines to benchmark our clients’ brand within their respective category. This process simplifies the communication strategy across multiple channels and streamlines the messaging into a cohesive, ownable narrative that delivers a brand’s message to critical audiences.

Over the course of time, this tool evolved into a pyramid because it helps everyone involved to see clearly how each of these marketing disciplines ladder into one another. The theory is simple: a strong foundation is the key to any structure (whether physical or abstract). In the case of the “Seven Musts,” an outage in the foundation will cause the communication hierarchy to collapse like an imbalanced pyramid.

During our work with many, many brands, we have had the good fortune to refine and optimize this diagnostic tool to make it useful to even the most academic of CEOs and skeptical CMOs in the world of food and beverage, wellness, and outdoor fitness. The “Seven Musts” have evolved with technology and our focused practice of brand transformation, through our strategy-first philosophy (e.g. advertising used to be much more important with multiple channels and social didn’t exist when we first started crafting our theories over 20 years ago).

While reading through this Retail Voodoo Pink Paper we hope you consider your own brand, its narrative arch, and ponder the impact of holistic brand strategy across your marketing systems.

We ask a series of simple questions for each of the “layers” or “musts” in the pyramid. The answers are then used against a rubric of what perfection could look like for each brand. We then compare all the communication musts a brand needs to compete effectively in its given category. When complete, we compile the answers into a version of the pyramid and benchmark our client and its competitive set within the context of those answers.

This article is written from the top down, so you as a reader can experience the gravity of how the layers connect. We believe this will aid you to think of your own brand while exploring the layers. However, our work actually occurs in reverse order based upon a different kind of gravity – just like ancient civilizations, we must build our pyramids from the ground up, one layer at a time.


Social media sits at the top of our pyramid because it’s low cost and easy to do. But because it’s cheap and easy, a lot of people get it wrong.

Brands become overconfident with their content and spend too much time mimicking the competition. They start thinking they can buy engagement (or buy likes). But we all know that likes – and even engagement – do not necessarily translate into sales. They simply give the illusion of this.

Think Your Content is Unique? Swap Logos with a Competitor and Think Again

Brands fail to have a successful social media presence when their content isn’t ownable. In other words, we see brands lacking a point of view or a unique tone of voice. One of the tests that we run to check for this involves swapping out logos of products in different posts with their competitors’ logos. If you can replace the brand’s logo with any of its competitors,’ then the content lacks originality and won’t stand out to consumers. This perfectly highlights how much like their competitors they look, so they understand the need for change.

It’s remarkable how each category tends to have its own distinct generic look and feel. Once brands break out of this mold and define their perspective, they demonstrate how their product is meaningfully different in the marketplace.

Show How Your Product Fits into Your Audience’s Lifestyle

We often see brands aligning their product with too many lifestyles – diluting their message and lacking consistent storytelling. However, success stems from focusing in on a specific, targeted audience. Instead of showing your product simply existing in a lifestyle, share how it lives and fits within that lifestyle.

Our partners at DRY Sparkling nail the concept of a “lifestyle brand” perfectly. They use social to drive engagement and have a clear and distinct reason for why social exists for their brand. Their strategy is rooted in a deeper understanding of their audience. During the brand strategy process we identified the DRY audience consisting of a metropolitan-minded woman (amongst other attributes). We mixed together different lifestyles that made sense when put through DRY’s filter – a little bit of foodie with a little bit girls-night-out thrown in. Their consumers look at their social media and instantly see how DRY fits into their everyday life and understands them rather than just pushing product at them.

Vary Your Content to Speak to Individual Niches

It is important to have a variety of content to speak to different audience segments and address different needs. For example, if you were to have ten posts; we would prescribe two should be educational, four should be aspirational around life, and four could be about product. A healthy mix keeps your audience interested and engaged.

When we started with Sahale Snacks, they had a powerful social channel, and when we assessed them, the top of their pyramid was completely glowing yellow. However, the brand struggled to create trial-and-use education. They integrated lifestyle into their marketing, but the depiction of too many different lifestyles confused their customers. As a result, they just didn’t know how or when to enjoy their product.

Now, the brand focuses on engaging consumers and educating them on how the brand fits into their daily life. They show how their products can seamlessly jump from one life situation to the next, while maintaining that gourmet, friendly feel.

So, how do you measure if your social strategy is effective and provides value to your brand? If you are growing organically – not through purchased engagement or exchanging coupons for likes – it’s a good sign. You want people sharing your content and actively talking about it.


Before the days of email and text messages, direct marketing simply meant post cards and snail mail. Today, direct has evolved into an opt-in, subscription-based world. This type of Direct gives brands the power to engage in conversations with consumers in a longer format and on a more intimate level. It provides the opportunity to tell your brand story in a way that you cannot do with social. Since you’re taking the time to get people to engage beyond the deal, this is not the place to be couponing.

Invite Consumers into Your Narrative

Let’s use the example of Alden’s Ice Cream’s newsletter. While they used to just share a photo of someone enjoying ice cream on a sunny day because it’s hot, they now provide value beyond the product. Instead of saying, “Hey, it’s hot! It’s July! You should eat tons of vanilla ice cream!” they now say, “Here’s how to make an ice cream birthday cake from this product.”

Then they introduce you to the 40 family farms they created relationships with  to sustain multi-generational organic farming, making consumers feel like do-gooders by association. All they have to do is eat ice cream – tough break, right? Telling this type of deeper story helps the audience feel like they contribute to that family farm. As a result, price no longer becomes an issue.

We see a huge opportunity for companies to adopt “old school” direct in a new way. This includes producing bespoke pieces that have a higher production value. Think of versioning and back-end marketing integration that speaks directly to the customer and invites them to have a them-focused conversation about your products and services.

Although direct mail is also easy to do, it takes a little bit more effort than social media. However, it gives brands the opportunity to be more intimate and have a conversation with the key consumers. Your brand must take the time to get them involved in why you exist beyond product.


The digital world and the physical world come together on websites. They need to be deep, robust, and chock full of information, where people feel they can spend time learning about your brand. You want your customer to be able to come to your site and dig deep into who you are, why you exist, and how they can get involved. Use your website to move visitors from merely buying products to a place where they can get involved in everything your brand stands for beyond the transaction.

A Website Should Not Be a Brochure

Your website should be alive and constantly changing so that people have a reason to come back to it. Since users will come to your site from any page, we see websites as a powerful way to encourage users to “choose their own adventure.” This way, no matter where a visitor enters, they can easily navigate to information that is relevant to them, all while being surprised and delighted along the way. This means brands need to think about the kind of content they produce, how it’s getting out into the world, where people are likely to find it, and how they might come to the site. Once you have customers on the site, you must figure out how to drive them to your calls-to-action. When users take these steps, your brand will increase loyalty, overcome price resistance, and ultimately make sales.

Offering website visitors promo codes and deals dilutes your message. You’ve already done something of higher value to get visitors to site in the first place, so to have the discounts and coupons be the thing that they connect with makes them less likely to engage in why you exist beyond the deal. That is really what your website should be all about; why you’re here beyond the deal, why you’re here beyond the transaction, and why you exist in the world beyond making money. That is the key to helping people move from customers to stark-raving fans.

Living Intentions does a terrific job of integrating storytelling, design, and values-based communication into their e-commerce platform. They help the consumer understand why the ingredients are so expensive, what they mean when they talk about sustainability, and why their particular approach is so rare in the world. By having their own e-commerce platform, they control pricing much more easily as well. While they also sell on Amazon and do well there, they cannot control the prices of third-party vendors or other retailers. By having their own e-commerce platform and being able to have their story right there, it reduces the possibility of mistrust.

On the other hand, selling from your own website is not always the smartest business choice. Let’s take DRY for example. Before we worked with them, they were shipping cases of product directly to clients, and it was eating into their margin. Shipping individual cases of soda in glass bottles across the country is expensive. Our recommendation for DRY was actually to move to an Amazon platform because that way, the price included the shipping.

All-in-all, websites should not be brochures but interactive engagement beyond the deal. It’s your chance to tell your huge story about why you exist in the world and why people should care.


As we look at in-store, we look through the lens of brand – specifically focused on packaging design systems where you have products on the shelf of a retail experience when your brand doesn’t own the store.

30-10-3 Rule

Our basic guideline to evaluate the strength of a brand’s in-store presentation is called the “30-10-3” rule. Here is how it works:

At 30 feet, your packaging should help identify the category.
At 10 feet, your consumers should be able to read your brand’s tradedress or core identity (and ideally your logo) in order to navigate to it from feet away.
At 3 feet, your story, features, benefits, and purpose should be so compelling that consumers pick up your package and allow it to whisper in their ear. After all, once your product is in a person’s hand, they’re more likely to buy.

Category Navigation

The simplest way to make category navigation understood is to have you visualize looking for milk in the grocery store. The vessels, varieties, and design language all work together to instantly telegraph milk.

Now let’s think about how this might work at REI or Dick’s Sporting Goods. Our partner Body Glide is a great example of this. They used to disappear on shelf; they looked like every other product within the category. We helped them revolutionize their look and we set them up so that now they are – without any question – the category navigator for athletic anti-chafe balm at 30 feet. You can drive straight to it. The color system and the new identity we built for them makes their packaging the de facto category navigation. And this all happens within seconds, without the consumer realizing.

Brand Blocking

When your product lives in a box you don’t control in an environment you don’t control, brand blocking is crucial. Essentially, this is where a consumer can easily identify your product and all offerings within that line. Color and identity come into play here. This works even if you only get three facings. If you have a good system, you’ll stand out.

While walking through the Philadelphia Airport recently, our team noticed a brand with a significant number of facings – so many that it’s actually intimidating (their sales team are true rock stars). Unfortunately, their packaging is recessive and looks like a value-priced generic version or low-end private label. Subsequently, all of the smaller brands with stronger packaging, better brand blocking, and more legible identities stand out and disrupt the shelf more effectively.

Design Aesthetics

When we think about design aesthetics, we want your brand to look like it belongs in the life of today’s shopper (and does not look frumpy, old, outdated, or that the particular item could have been sitting on the shelf since the 1980’s). Yes, an outdated look implies to today’s busy shopper that your product may have been sitting on that shelf for the last 37 years. It’s important to match the contemporary vision lexicon of your product category, while trying to be at the forefront of that. That’s how brands become disruptive at shelf – whether you like it or not. If you can’t disrupt, your brand will likely compete on price (and nobody wins on price, except Walmart).

Packaging That Whispers In Your Ear

In-store is your first, best, and most-likely sales person. Sometimes, the shelf is the only touch point the consumer has with your brand. You need to make sure your brand can show up in a meaningful way to get your potential consumers to give you permission to whisper in their ear.

Teton Waters Ranch packaging is a good example that follows the 30-10-3 rule all the way through. They use an intentional mix of visually compelling imagery and iconography combined with easy-to-use information (such as the check-list of “no baddies”).

This package excels in storytelling, brand building, and overcoming price resistance. We call this passing the “flip test.” The flip test is best demonstrated while waiting in line at Starbucks. Next time you are there, take notice the carefully curated offering of innovative snacks. Then, notice how intimate their packaging feels. Pay attention as you instinctively flip the package over in order to engage in its ingredients, nutrition content, brand promise, and narrative.


Advertising is an essential tier of the pyramid, but is losing relevance quickly. Marketing is moving away from “Command and Control” methodologies – pushing your offering out to a world that had little choice but to receive your message. In today’s world, many users choose not to engage in media where advertising exists at all (think Netflix). Modern humans have rewired our brains to ignore invasive communications like banner ads.

That said, advertising needs to provoke people to think about your brand. It’s about stopping consumers in their tracks and demanding attention. It’s repetition. But it really is more of an art than a science.

Brands need to communicate how they are meaningfully different in a show-stopping way. Similar to social, when benchmarking a brand’s advertising, we will swap out competitor logos and put them on the ads to see if they are interchangeable.

We find that each category tends to have this insider baseball conversation happening, which is great for all the marketers within that category, but it doesn’t often translate for consumers. With this strategy, there’s no opportunity for brands to grow or new audiences to stem from it.

Who’s in Your Tribe and How Will They Recognize Your Call?

Once you identify who’s in your tribe, you have permission to kick everyone else out – which feels very counterintuitive at first. But it’s the best way to see real growth and it invites like-minded humans to come to you.

This is where advertising gets more into the art versus science. Successful advertising that speaks to your tribe comes down to tone and voice. You must make sure your tribe can recognize your unique call. This is what a good friend of ours calls “the dog whistle.” Only those you’ve identified as members of your tribe will hear your brand’s silent call, and leave all others unable to hear it and therefore, unable to opt-in to your brand.

To make sure your ads are in front of the right people, you need a terrific media buying partner. This person will show you the data of how your tribe lives, works, and shops.

Essentia is a terrific example of using advertising to invite people to join a movement. While the category has grown steadily for the last four years, Essentia experienced twice as much growth as everyone else in this category. They attribute this to the repositioning of their brand and a deeper understanding of their ideal audience (and then having a smart media partner).

In advertising, be brave but be values-based. Be who you really are based upon what you can do for the world, and don’t just be a product.


Public relations sounds so easy. After all, it’s really just placing stories and getting respected third parties to talk about you. But when viewed through the lens of brand building, PR is is an integral foundation of all of the other “Marketing Musts.”

A concentrated, focused PR campaign should be part of every brand relaunch. Developing an advertising campaign, in-store experience, direct and or social program that includes a supporting PR arm is far more effective than one without.

How do you create naturally occurring (organic) evangelists for the brand? For people to swear by your brand, your story needs to be good. Really good. It must be way beyond just explaining the technical functionality. Earned media touches on emotional storytelling and human connection, followed by functionality, features, and benefits. Yes, you can get into the nitty-gritty details, but it needs to have a personal story to it as well. Otherwise people won’t care.

Make Technicalities Easy-to-Digest

When you have something that has a technical component to it or a complex benefit structure, getting third party experts to speak to the benefits in a scientific, yet human way can be extremely challenging, but still most effective.

All the medical, nutritional claims (whether real or imaginary) overtly expressed or implied will be met with the hint of skepticism if your story doesn’t include, well, your story. Instead of pushing the nutritional education or science on the public we advocate that you get personal with your origin story and then let it compel people to discover the science of your offering on their own.

If you insist on weaving science into everyday life, make it tangible. Don’t tell us what happens in a laboratory (or worse, in a focus group). Instead, share with us how it worked on a weekend trip with your family and friends.

People Say All PR is Good PR, But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Smart PR

Ask yourself – is this a compelling story? Are we easily gaining earned media? We caution all founders, brand owners, and people looking for a PR agency: just because you get your brand mentioned in stories doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the right placements. Quantity does not necessarily equal quality.

Recently we had a new client that was featured in the same issue of a nationally respected health magazine in two different articles. While the PR firm was busy high-fiving over cocktails to celebrate their double-placement, we had to gently point out to the client that the first article was about the evils of their category (listing them as least evil) and the other was about which health benefits were absent in their product.

Know who you are as a brand, what promises you will make, and then how you want to show up. Ultimately, you have to know your target audience and how they consume media.


In an era of eroding trust for brands and hyper-choice in nearly all categories, customer education forms the foundation of our entire “Seven Musts of Marketing” pyramid. It plays to the other “Musts” because without customer education, your pyramid will topple over. Customer education is your opportunity to explain why you exist in the world beyond your products, and then to weave the reasons into your “why” (why your business exists beyond making a profit). It’s your brand’s chance to get people to buy into your mission and your vision of how you’re going improve the world.

This is also the place where you can make any complex or technical functionality easier to understand. We see this at play frequently in highly technical outdoor gear, functional foods, and complex consumer goods. Brands often make the mistake of drowning people in information to the point that consumers cannot hear or absorb what they’re being told.

The opportunity to explain your technical details gets more meaningful when you clarify what your brand stands for and how you integrate your mission into your products. If you do this in a completely jargon-free way, your brand will be stronger at overcoming price objection.

One of the things Essentia struggled with for years was how to explain the benefits of their product without sounding like either a bunch of hype or a rigid scientist. It got to the point where people who had never tried the product were responding with strong skepticism to paid media. When Essentia simply told their founder’s story and connected his humble beginnings to the idea behind their overachieving H20 tagline (and offered an invitation to join their movement), it encouraged people to connect the idea of superior hydration to their lives.

In conclusion, customer education is really your first and best opportunity to explain why you exist in the world and what your products and your brand stands for beyond featuring the benefits. You can then bring features and details into that conversation and talk about your brand in a way that helps customers evangelize for you.

A strong foundation in customer education is the key to any branded messaging structure. Then a robust and highly focused PR campaign will build a platform so that your customer education is readily available. Advertising is an important part of any growth plan, but care should be taken to make certain it’s delivering against what makes your brand unique. In-store is critical because it’s often the first and only expression of you brand a new consumer will see. Lastly direct and social are the ways to converse with your audience.

Retail Voodoo’s version of the “Seven Must of Marketing” is best viewed holistically as a series of critical marketing disciplines we use to benchmark our clients’ within their category. Our goal is to simplify their communication with a unique narrative that works across multiple channels.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David
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We Think Consumers Shouldn’t Be Your Innovators – Here’s Why

There are few things as frustrating as having a research- and consumer-validated innovation flop once it hits shelves. You’ve spent a huge chunk of change on surveys and focus groups proving your new product will win at retail, so what went wrong? If you go back to where you started – with consumer-based innovation – you’ll find your answer. Consumers are important to the innovation channel, don’t get us wrong. But if you’re looking for seismic, category-defining innovation, you need to look beyond your customers.

In an era of focus group frenzy and online surveys intended to measure purchase intent, Retail Voodoo offers a contrarian view.

Consumers Don’t Know How to Innovate

If you ask a customer what they want, they’ll tell you one of two things: it should be cheaper or it should be quicker. They just want the same thing for less money and faster. Your current audience cannot tell you what your future audience wants. It’s just not possible.

Truly innovative products – like the iPhone or Tesla – fail consumer testing or never even go through consumer testing. Steve Jobs did not test the iPhone because consumers in focus group settings and online surveys tend to lack imagination. Someone who has never seen an iPhone could most likely not tell you they wanted a hand-held device that could make calls, surf the web, navigate the world, and record video. They certainly could not have told you this product would take off in such an explosive manner. Apple changed the trajectory of human communication forever. Elon Musk did not conduct consumer testing for Tesla because he had a radical vision he knew in his gut would succeed. As a result, he revolutionized a conventional category – transportation vehicles and energy – and now Tesla owns the tech world.

Consumers Only Tell You What They Think You Want to Hear

The reason focus groups and surveys fail is because consumers will also tell you what they think you want to hear. They say what they think they need to say to be liked. They’ll say they exercise four to five times a week when in reality, they hardly work out once a week. They think “that’s what I want to be doing, so I should say that’s what I do.” Statistically, the majority of men add an inch to their height on their drivers’ licenses. It makes them feel better. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all done something like this.

It’s a strange notion, isn’t it? How can you possibly give consumers what they want or need if you don’t ask them?

Customer feedback can often guide entrepreneurs, product developers, designers and marketers towards problems, but feedback should not be used to dictate the solution.

Design for the Consumers You Want, Not Just the Ones You Have

Let’s take Alden’s Ice Cream, for example. Before our work with them went to shelf, they spent a large amount on money focus group testing different packaging. When we saw the design that won, we asked their team to go back and examine their data. They found the “winning” design had not won by enough votes to be statistically significant. If that wasn’t enough proof, they also only talked to current customers when conducting this research. These consumers already had loyalty to the current packaging, hence why they leaned toward a design that felt more familiar. However, we pointed out that through a frosted, freezer section window, the chosen design would be illegible. After developing a comprehensive brand strategy using this insight, we introduced a new design, and Alden’s saw 45 percent growth in just one year.

Now, don’t get us wrong – surveys and focus groups are good for continuity and making sure you don’t alienate your loyal customers. This works well when you take a single design and test different features like certification, and benefits messaging. Consumer testing is a tool to use, for sure. But it’s the least accurate tool. For truly revolutionary innovation that disrupts your category, you must dive deeper.

Learn to Make Mistakes Quickly

Instead of focus groups and surveys, we use our network of humans and expertise as the lab to play in. We take the pulse of the internal collective of the company, using trusted stakeholders to prove our data-based theories. We encourage clients to make mistakes quickly, step by step, until they get it right. Bruce Mau’s incomplete manifesto for growth explains that the process is more important than the outcome and in order to see growth, “good” needs to be thrown out the door. The right answers live within the wrong answers and solutions exist within accidents.

Brands need to listen to what the data whispers. For our food and beverage brand strategy clients, we use trend analysis to flavor forecast. We look at what chefs are doing, have people do taste tests, and conduct extensive research. In the case of DRY, we suggested unique flavor offerings to their product portfolio and saw massive growth within their targeted foodie niche. This is also why sampling is such a better format for testing theoretical situations. Consumers gave real-time feedback on “out there” flavors produced in small batches, so that the brand could know if it was worth creating larger batches of that flavor. But if the flavor flopped, that was fine – for the cost of one batch of product, the brand learned invaluable insight. Brands need to learn mistakes quickly – if they have an idea, they need to test it rather than ponder it.

Ultimately, you can have all of the data in the world. But if you don’t understand how to turn that data into insight or how to listen to your gut instinct, you will be wasting time and money.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David
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Four Packaging Trends to Look for at Expo East

We’ve been on the lookout for the most compelling packaging trends coming up in the food and beverage industries. Just as consumer behaviors constantly change, so do design trends. Oftentimes, we identify trends after they’ve come and gone. Brands must think one step ahead at all times. Being a leader of an emerging trend gives your brand an enviable competitive edge.

As the better-for-you food and beverage industry continues to boom, it’s no wonder why CPG brands are fighting tooth and nail to stay relevant. Packaging is often the first (and only) touch-point connecting consumers with brands right from the shelf.

With Expo East right around the corner, we’ve pulled together our top predictions of what you’ll be seeing this fall.

1. Overhead Photography

The Instagram flat-lay knolling trend has crept out of the digital world and taken over CPG. There are two key strategies within this trend – detailed, slightly messy table setups and strictly ordered, grid-like layouts.

The messier setups emphasize the authenticity and home-cooked feel of products. Instead of overly edited and produced close-up shots, consumers see the food as how they might actually see it as they prepare it in their own kitchen. This point of view transports the product from the shelf right to their table.

More organized, structured overhead photography shots play to the consumers who love order. They associate clean lines and organization with wellness – both in the mind and body. Timbuk2 pioneered this concept with their unpacked bag flat lays. Each item to be packed into one of their stylish bags lay on the ground, organized in a neat grid. This simple, clean photography style illustrates the capacity and functionality of the bags. The same concept applies to food and beverage products, so we expect to see plenty of this style of photography in the coming months.

2. Natural Colors are King (Still)

Pantone declared “greenery” the color of the year for a reason. Color is a universal language we can use to communicate with customers. Certain colors activate appetite, signal danger or emulate peacefulness. Triggering emotions through the use of colors builds a stronger connection between a product and its consumer.

Green represents health, well-being, eco-friendliness and sustainability. Earth tones signal natural and wholesome ingredients. These colors heavily impact the perceived healthiness of the product.

The one caveat to this trend is that consumers expect these colors in the specialty food sector, so it is important for brands to innovate their packaging to stand out on the shelf. Thinking beyond color will be crucial as the specialty food sector continues to grow.

3. Keep it Simple

While minimalism has been a packaging design trend for a while, there is a difference between minimalistic design and simple design. Minimalistic design can be trendy and clever whereas simple design is more straightforward and honest. Ultra-trendy packaging screams desperation. Brands embracing extremely complex or hyper-minimal design are perceived as try-hard and unsuccessful – especially in the specialty food sector.

Health-conscious consumers tend to be more skeptical of packaging. They are more likely to pick up the product to read the label. When brands revert back to simplistic design, it is asking the consumer to do less work to get what they want. They do not have to decipher a clever design or illegible text to understand the product’s function and contents. In today’s busy world, consumers find relief in design simplicity because it takes less time to translate into information.

Now, simplicity does not mean you have to put “HERE IS A BAG OF CHIPS ” in black text on a white bag. Simplicity can even be unique geometric patterns or an interesting texture. The packaging just needs to elevate the product instead of distract from it.

4. Breathe Authenticity

The word “authentic” seems to be the buzzword of 2017. Anyone and everyone is scrambling to crown themselves the most authentic of their category.

In the packaging world, authentic means unique and honest. Hand-drawn lettering, for example, signals the natural and hand-crafted nature of the product. When lettering looks like handwriting, it humanizes the brand more – enabling consumers to emotionally connect.

Narrative illustrations conjure playful and nostalgic feelings of innocence. Using illustration to create a narrative tells a story to the consumer. As consumers seek for a deeper connection to the brands they purchase, a product telling a story will pull at their heartstrings.

Vintage inspiration is another piece of this trend that resonates with consumers. It comes from diving into the roots of history and uncovering the greatness that lies there. When we think about authentic food, it often comes from specific regional recipes or family traditions passed down from generation to generation. Vintage design and authenticity go hand-in-hand.

We’re looking forward to seeing lots of authenticity, simplicity, natural colors and overhead photography on the shelves this fall. If you’re going to Expo East, let us know – we’d love to meet you there and chat all things marketing! Shoot us an email or give us a ring to set up a quick meeting.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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Cultural Transformation: The Ultimate Brand Strategy

You started a business because you had a fire in your belly. You created a brand because you believed that you could offer something that others were missing. After launch, you happily set about building your business but inevitably you got bogged down with the everyday realities of what that implies. You’ve been busy putting out fires, solving problems and worrying about cash flow.

Along the way, you dabbled in marketing efforts, i.e., you tried a bunch of things to see what would stick when it hit the wall. One day, it dawned on you that you’d better get back to your core brand ideals because you’re in a holding pattern. Your business has hit the proverbial plateau and you know in your gut that if you’re not growing, you’re losing ground.

So you get your mojo back and refocus on your core brand and its uniqueness. You dig in, roll up your sleeves and get back to what makes your brand special. (Where had it gone, anyway? Seems time has a funny way of diluting brands unless we stay vigilant, right?) You redefine who your customer is and focus on them like a laser beam. You put together a marketing plan that you intend to stick to. You assess your products and your services and hone in on where your business ought to be and jettison the rest. Then you look at your sites of business and fix the problems with your bricks and clicks so that you can create a seamless experience for your customer.

Or have you? See, brands start from the inside out. Every brand has a unique culture. Every employee is part of that culture. What does your culture say about your brand? Are you hiring and retaining people who are true representations of that brand?

You can fix an ailing brand in the most meaningful way by transforming the culture. REI did it. The Seattle-based outdoor outfitter was open to working with us to reposition its brand and to bring every aspect of their business into alignment with that. Core to its turn-around was the focus on its culture. Now we know that people resist change, so it’s best to engage them by getting them to buy in. Showing them how their tired brand could be engaging, rewarding and magical—making it a fun place to work—is the path forward. For REI, focusing on core brand values: the great outdoors, sustainability, the joy of outdoor activities and sharing this passion with the customer was key. Turning around the culture turned around REI. That turn-around created a cult following among consumers who became rabid fans of the brand.

Now think about how you can transform your own culture.

Then, going forward, tap into the wisdom of Zappos’ intrepid CEO, Tony Hsieh. In a video interview with Inc. Magazine a couple of years ago, Hsieh offered a world of wisdom in 48 seconds flat. Firmly grounded in his brand thanks to vision, deeply-rooted convictions and maniacal focus on what matters—and the ability to dismiss what clearly doesn’t—Hsieh says matter-of-factly that the Zappos culture is all.

To wit: Zappos won’t consider hiring the most gifted people if they don’t fit their culture, no matter how much business they might generate. Zappos candidates must pass two interviews: one for basic skill sets and one that only analyzes whether they’re a cultural fit. In performance reviews 50% of employee assessments are focused on whether they’re not only a great cultural fit but “inspire” their co-workers as well.

Why is this a big deal? Employees are the embodiment of the company brand—or should be. They are the brandto the customer. If they aren’t part of a dedicated, zealous company culture—how can the company succeed? How can the brand be perceived as the best even if it truly is the best?

It’s the people-to-people connection: employees-to-customers that makes or breaks the brand. Now: is it a good idea to hire the best and brightest for key company positions if they don’t buy into and fit into the culture? To fill lower level slots with expendable worker bees who are considered expendable? To hire good people and then not imbue them with the brand so that they buy into it and live it? Uh, no, no and no.

When employees are hired that fit into the culture, great brands recognize them and work to retain them.

They’re rewarded—not only with raises—but with the things that matter even more: recognition, praise, empowerment to make basic decisions, especially when dealing with customers, and the ability to grow, learn and earn positions of greater responsibility. Respect, nurture and appreciate your employees—they’re the heart of your brand.

Where has culture taken brands like REI, Trader Joe’s, Zappo’s, KIND Bars and Burton? To the top of their sectors. And into the hearts of consumers who love these brands like zealots. Does it get any better than this for brands?

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Found/Owner Freakshow

Something strange happens to entrepreneurs, it seems. They start their businesses with passion, insight and ambition. Many of them even get the concept of branding which is elusive to so many. Founder/Owners work relentlessly to build their brands, and then when their businesses take off—that’s when the strange thing happens.

They get lost, and for various reasons. For many, it’s a matter of getting lost in the daily grind and operations of running a business. Others get lost in space, navel gazing and contemplating what they might have done differently or better, or wondering which track they might pursue rather than the one they’re on. For yet others, there’s a constant second-guessing about their pricing structures, or whether and how to innovate their products or services. Often, that brings with it the inevitable fear of spending money; I mean, where and how should that be done? What kinds of innovations should be supported? Or should they just hold onto their money to improve their bottom lines?

Aye, aye, aye. It’s enough to give them—and us—a headache. And it does. To founder/owners of businesses: getting lost is not an option. Doing everything that needs doing every day, sans delegating anything, makes your brands suffer. I mean, who’s minding the store? Who’s seeing the big picture and running the show? Who’s at the helm? Apparently, nobody.

If anxiety is pushing off decision-making about the business, that can be even worse. No decision is a decision, right? Fear clouds judgment. It makes us freeze and that’s not a healthy thing. Look, if a unique brand was born as a result of a founding idea, it ought to be nurtured so that it can grow up healthy and strong. If it’s neglected, inconsistent, or constantly changing gears, it will lose vitality and eventually go the way of the dodo bird. You know, extinct.

Here’s the point: decision making is not as daunting when made through the prism of the brand; what it is and what it isn’t helps owners make the right decisions for their businesses. That’s not to say that they can’t change. Of course they can, and they have to if they’re going to remain relevant to their fan base, which is on the move and changing. But meaningful change happens when it makes sense to the brand and it’s in keeping with its values. Owners have to be on top of their brands to know what needs to be done and when.

Take a Note from Sahale

The Sahale Snacks brand was the brainchild of two co-founders who are avid outdoorsmen. They got tired of eating trail mix made from stale ingredients that lacked imagination. So they launched their own brand. We went back to our kitchens the very next day and created unique combinations of premium nuts, dried fruits, and exotic spices, each reflecting a beautiful location, culture or culinary tradition somewhere in the world.”

That’s their brand. Everything they say and do reinforces that brand. When their packaging didn’t get the “Snack better” message across to justify its premium positioning, we amped up the package design to show just how appetizing and appealing it really is. End result of the Sahale spend? Increased visibility, rapid growth and strong sales among discerning consumers who are becoming brand fans.

This didn’t happen because the founders were star gazing or frozen into indecisiveness. They understood that Sahale had greater potential but they had to do something to make it happen. That could only happen because they were looking at the big picture and managing the brand.

There’s another moral to this tale. Most brands aren’t alone in a category, are they? And for those enviable brands that create a category, we know that they aren’t going to fly solo for very long. Too many wannabees are going to try to take a chip off the old block, steal some of the thunder and the sales.

So What’s a Brand to Do?

Take a page from Sahale and dig into what makes your brand one of a kind. And shout it out to the world. Keep on moving but don’t stray from the brand: it’s your reason for being. When you create a unique niche in a category, you ought to be able to own it if you market it wisely. If you don’t, somebody else is going to come along and take your niche and your brand positioning from you. It happens every day and you don’t want your brand to become one of those statistics. So take the rudder, please.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Dear McDonalds: Ads are Band-Aids and Your Injuries Require Open-Heart Surgery

Let’s turn our attention to Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s new CEO. He’s been in the position for less than two months, so we will give him the benefit of the doubt and say he is not a bad guy (or at least not yet). There is still time to change the direction of the company.

It is easy to say sales at McDonald’s are on the decline because consumers have changed tastes. That’s obvious. People are increasingly demanding transparency, healthy options and better labor standards. McDonald’s is struggling to keep up.

But that is far from the whole happy meal. They are in trouble because they cannot define their own brand or what their company stands for, aside from increasingly futile attempts to make a profit as a junk food in a health nut craze.

The past six months has shown a flurry of haphazard contradiction. They have both trimmed many items from their menu to speed up their service and added “Create Your Taste”menus to a host of locations. It may yield a more delicious, guacamole smothered burger, but at the price of waiting 7 minutes in the restaurant and hefting out $8.50 – a far cry from the quick drive-thru and dollar menu that once made them a staple.

Determined not to let the lovin’ die, they’ve recently staged a host of publicity stunts around “I’m lovin’ it”. But advertising will not solve their problems if they cannot define their own brand.

How can we love you if we don’t know who you are?

“When Ray Kroc helped found McDonalds in the 1950s, his business philosophy was that of a three-legged stool. One leg was the franchisees, the second suppliers and the third employees.”

Looking at the company objectively, we can see McDonald’s gives back to local communities. They do this through the Ronald McDonald House Charities, which helps children with medical support. It even offers tuition and education assistance to some of its workers. Their Corporate Responsibility Statement spouts on about how they are aiming for sustainably produced beef, coffee, palm oil and fish as well as fiber-based packaging by 2020.

Yet the associations most Americans equate with McDonalds are employees who are paid wages so low they cannot afford basic living costs and must result to welfare. We also hear tales of employees who are told to use condiments as burn ointment and returned unopened Christmas gifts for extra cash.

Their franchisees are not very pleased with them either, amid forced restaurant upgrades and mandatory advertising fees.

While McDonalds recently conceded to a $1 an hour pay raise, it only affects company-owned restaurant workers, which accounts for just 10% of their employees. Franchisees are arguing this will force them to raise wages as well, but without assistance from the corporation.

When Ray Kroc helped found McDonalds in the 1950s, his business philosophy was that of a three-legged stool. One leg was the franchisees, the second suppliers and the third employees. It seems they have lost their footing.

Companies like McDonald’s don’t know who they want to be or what they stand for. And the American public doesn’t either.

McDonald’s image and sales have slumped so badly they are closing 700 stores around in the world this year. In the US even Wendy’s and Burger King are passing them by. But Mickey D’s is the original – how is it being surpassed by its copycats?

It’s a conundrum we’ve seen too many times a company creates its own category, then sits back in horror as new companies move in and set up shop on their turf, some even making more money at it.

Give us a call, Easterbrook. Let us help you prove you are a good guy by quelling your company’s attempts to hurl money at dated advertising. Ads are Band-Aids and your injuries require open-heart surgery.

Focus that money on realigning and redefining your brand values. Stand the stool up again, and make your ethos value over profit as opposed to your current model of profit over value.

We may refuse to wear your Big Mac thermals, but we know we can help you fix your broken brand.

Diana Fryc

For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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6 Things You Must Do to Crack the Badge Brand Code

Who are we? Who do we want to be? When the vision, passion and values of one-of-a-kind brands inspire us and make us want to make their statement our own magic happens. These are badge brands.

Badge brands have soul and character. They own a position; one that no other brand can own or ever will own. They’re unlike anything else we’ve ever seen and they make us want to be a part of the whole experience. Badge brands aren’t only about the image we want to project to the world; they’re a lifestyle choice with a definite POV and not in a tepid way. They bowl us over and we’re eager to join them.

Badge brands should not be confused solely as luxury brands a la Louis Vuitton, either. Sure, status is a badge. But not all badge brands and not all people need or want to project the “I am rich” image to the world. There are so many more visions that resonate!

We want to belong; to become members of communities. Badge brands seem to effortlessly make that happen. We don’t even stop to think about it: we just belong. This is what we do think about: we can’t live without our badge brand. Wouldn’t even consider it. Badge brands are as elemental to us as breathing. Powerful connection or what? Every brand has the possibility to conjure up emotion at this level, rather than the yawn that most elicit.

A new brand world with no room for mediocrity.

Now let’s talk about athletes, outdoor and wellness enthusiasts and how specific brands elevate their experience. Badge brands in these categories are statements made with exclamation points! Think of them in this way. They’re the difference between motorcycles and Harley Davidson. Between yoga gear and Lululemon. Between sneakers and Nike. Expressing ourselves with badge brands is like being on steroids without any harmful side effects.

There are so many outdoor and wellness brands that have the potential to become great badge brands, it makes me salivate just thinking about it. The thing is: many haven’t put it all together to make it happen yet. That’s because they’re too timid. Brand owners that think they ought to appeal to as many people as possible are wrong. They end up with brands as bland as vanilla; they’ve missed the point about how to create a one-of-a-kind brand with rabid fans, aka, a cult.

In point of fact, they need to take a stand, narrow their view, and mean a whole lot to a select community and they can’t be afraid to say so in every visual and verbal expression of the brand. That’s what makes the big picture marketers who create badge brands so admirable. They don’t get caught up in fads, trends and the minutiae; dismissing everything that could potentially dilute their brands. Everything is analyzed through the prism of the brand: does it make sense to embrace it or not? If not, it’s jettisoned. And that’s why they have powerful brands on their hands.

So here’s how to crack the badge brand code in six not-so-easy steps. . . If it was that easy, every brand would do it.

All strong brands share a set of common elements: A Foundation story, Brand Pillars, a Defined Brand Personality and, most importantly, a Brand Promise.

Addressing these elements through the lens of your brand’s archetype helps everyone deepen our answers to why our brand exists and why our employees and fans should care.

Look for ways your archetypal story might show up to the world:

Dare to take a stand that will ensure your brand isn’t for everybody. Stake out a position. Just make sure that the people you want to connect with get it. Taking a stand will make your audience sit up and take notice, stand up and applaud and then run straight for your brand. To stand for something you’ve got to make some tough decisions, mostly about what you will not be doing: you cannot be the lowest price, highest value, premium anything. This is heady stuff.

Do you have the courage and sincerity to make it happen?

Badge brand owners have to be able to stand up and fight—against wrong-headed ideas, fads and ideas that might seem cool but don’t align with your brand. This takes more determination, focus and sticktoitiveness than you think it does. It helps when you stop thinking like a marketer and have empathy for the humans you want to to buy from you. You’ll quickly realize that in our time-compressed days, most of us have little time for things that don’t really help us. For brands to matter, the customer must believe the brand is bringing something more valuable to them than the money they spent.

Do you have the guts to stick to the values that define your brand?

We all know how many “me-too” brands are out there. Ask yourself: do you want your brand to take a small piece of the pie or do you want to bake a whole new pie that belongs only to you and your brand? Differentiation really does matter. Giving it personality is huge, but remember you won’t succeed just because you have a story. You’ll succeed when you have a story that inspires people to connect with your brand at the expense of someone else’s. In today’s world, authentic soul matters most of all.

Does your brand have humanity-connecting soulfulness?

Get the look, feel and tone of your brand down. Brands must define and own their brand voice. Stay clearly focused on protecting your brand with a standardized style guide. This not only keeps your messaging on track, it helps reduce the emotional subjectivity that can paralyze even the best marketers. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for using emotion to tell a good story, and evolving it regularly to remain relevant. Be careful that your brand’s POV or mission doesn’t get tweaked to match the new creative. And please, don’t change messaging out of boredom or hubris.

Can you commit to your brand and say “I do”?

Know from the get-go that your brand will be the object of love and devotion, as well as some potential animosity. After all: you will not become a badge brands without a strong POV. Leaders swim against the current of banality and the status quo; they’re category disruptors so they can become targets. The brands that will own the world tomorrow are embarking on the journey towards a more sustainable and socially-responsible future.

Can you get on board and stick to your vision—even if it makes some people uncomfortable?

Achieving badge brand status is one thing. Retaining it for the long haul is another. Look at the brands that have blazed their own trails and resolve stay relevant. Rule Numero Uno: Never follow. Cut a new trail and lead.

How will you walk the line between staying true to your brand while evolving with the modern world to remain relevant?

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Get Leverage: Know Your Brand Archetype

Archetypal branding works because it appeals to all people. We all share a deep need to feel stability, belonging, discovery and achievement. In today’s world, many brands have taken on the role of building blocks we use to fabricate of our sense of self. For most of us, our self-identity is textured with personal and archetypal mythos.

The power of identifying a brand with one of these timeless stories is that the story already exists deep within our subconscious — it does not need to be created. The task for the brand is to simply tell the story through the lens of archetypes.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung identified seven of key archetypes, but said there were many more to be discovered. In their book, The Hero and the Outlaw, Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson expanded this thinking to identify twelve specific archetypes and showed how these could be used to guide brand strategy.

The athlete, the liberator, the rescuer, the warrior.

These are the universal retellings of what Jung called the Hero. The secret to the Hero archetype is that all heroes have something in common: vulnerability. Think of The Man of Steel and kryptonite, or the biblical tale of Sampson and Delilah, his lust and his hair.

The reason archetypal storytelling works so well is that throughout history all cultures have told the tale of the hero. Heroes are typically orphans called to a quest. Hero myths closely follow a recognizable story arc, regardless of the culture telling the story. In his Book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell described this as “the phenomenon of the universal hero masked in local details”.

Hero stories have existed through the ages because they deliver on very important emotional needs we all share. The hero story helps us understand our mortality and speaks to our desire to achieve great things. Such timeless stories bring understanding and meaning to our lives.

Archetypal brand-building starts with why.

All strong brands share a set of common elements: A Foundation story, Brand Pillars, a Defined Brand Personality and, most importantly, a Brand Promise.

Addressing these elements through the lens of your brand’s archetype helps everyone deepen our answers to why our brand exists and why our employees and fans should care.

Look for ways your archetypal story might show up to the world:

How would your business change if your products and services were considered vehicles the company creates in order to keep its brand promise? The strongest organizations know how to weave a strong story into their delivery.

Think of it as symbolic shorthand for your brand beyond your logo. Iconography might include: smell, sounds taste, feel or any other indirect signal that tells a subtle and suggestive story. Iconography can be almost anything, think of the sounds your computer makes when its boots up. Author Martin Lindstrom calls this philosophy “Smash Your Brand.

Reality exists in language. Movements grow, ideas take form and empires are overthrown all because of language. Whenever we can get a group of people to agree on an idea and share it, we have the power to change the world. This could be a tagline like “Talk to Chuck”, or a communication hook like the Absolut ads campaign that hasn’t changed in 25 years.

Think about how you order coffee at your local Starbucks. First you cue up, peruse the pastry case, enjoy the artwork and then when it’s finally your turn you blurt out something like, “Quad Venti Skinny with Whip Iced Caramel Macchiato”. Look for ways to make the purchase, consumption, sharing and re-use of your offerings more intimate, more interactive, more human.

Archetypes give shape to your brand’s intangibles.

People struggle to measure the intangibles of the brand. I think this list, while not exhaustive, puts structure to the conversation and helps us see of where and how archetypal storytelling both internally and externally become powertools.

Create a vision so crystal clear of your future that everyone in your organization sees it so compellingly that your employees can scat with it.

Attract and retain the brightest, passionate peeps in your planet. Today we know that people are looking for more than just a paycheck from their career. They want to belong to something bigger. Give it to them and let them help you tell the story.

Know what business you are in, what business you should be in and which business you should get out of to ensure long term brand viability. This self-awareness becomes even more valuable when success comes in like the tide. It helps us to avoid convoluted brand architecture that can get downright unruly when mergers and acquisitions are involved.

Using archetypes to tell a brand centered story works because consumers often cannot explain their rational decisions for the emotional choices they make with purchases and the brands they favor.

Stop competing on price. Brands that consistently tell one archetypal story perform better financially. Show your customers what makes your brand different and better. Hint it’s not the features and benefits. It’s whom your loyalists get to be when they are with you.

Archetypes help brands climb out from the shadow of powerful and well-funded competitors.

It’s always challenging for a brand with less advertising dollars, fewer products and less social clout to win at the me-too game. I have seen many brands struggle for years with this.

Brooks, Tully’s, and Eddie Bauer all come to mind because they live in my backyard.

Brooks used The Jester archetype to differentiate themselves from all the big brands at specialty running, where due to size and budget, they had no choice but to behave like a cult brand. This worked really well for a long time, but as Warren buffet said in June 2013, the secret to the stellar rise of Brooks came by focusing deeply and narrowly on the needs of runners. Now do you think they would have gotten the same traction trying to out-hero Nike, Reebok and Adidas?

Tully’s enjoyed success when they realized that they could only claim territory abandoned by Starbucks: Hand crafted Coffee from the Pacific Northwest. Tully’s as The Citizen. Tully’s got clarity and power to change their reason for being from a series of lofty and un-actionable goals (which were already being met by the likes of Starbucks and Pete’s) and boiled to down to “helping people have a better day”.

And then there is Eddie Bauer. I was quite excited to see that First Ascent jackets are private label of Eddie Bauer. It warms my heart to see Eddie Bauer getting attention and breaking the bonds of what can only be described as the dark years of Spiegel. My question for Eddie Bauer is this:  what makes you different from North FacePatagoniaMountain HardwareMarmot and the plethora of premium extreme mountain top focused Explorer archetype brands currently enjoying preference?

Perhaps Eddie Bauer could benefit from carefully linking their original explorer mentality with another archetype, just not one that would make them feel like a housewares brand. I have said before, if your brand sees itself as The Explorer and the competitive landscape is such that you are getting beaten regularly by other Explorers, you may need to look for another story to tell.

Our brains create brand shorthand from archetypes.

Archetypal brands rely on the brain’s preference for organizing things to remember in boxes. It helps that these archetype (boxes) have been around for centuries, that they are found throughout the world, and that they reflect some fundamental human emotional needs. Simply said, archetypes are very strong placeholders. The story of the hero, the role of the mentor and caregiver are so engrained in our culture and the stories we hear that they create a familiar pattern.
Brands that tap into archetypes’ powerful combination of being strong placeholders organized in a familiar pattern relieve consumers of the need to remember lots of information about their products.

Strong iconic brands evoke a timeless archetypal story. This story connects them emotionally with their fans. Brands keep the story relevant by retelling it over and over again in fresh, contemporary ways. And they pay attention to the little details because the little things a brand does often comes under greater scrutiny than the big things a brand says. Strong brands are fanatical about the consistency with which they tell the story because they know that it is easy for the spell of the brand story to be broken if the details do not resonate with what a loyal customer believes to be true about the brand and has come to know and trust.

When using archetypes, the role of the brand marketer is to evoke the story through cultural cues and the emotions that consumers seek to derive from the brand. The task of an established brand is to discover and clarify its core archetypal story. The task of new or undefined brands is to identify an archetypal story and stick with it.

Do you know your Brand’s archetype?

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David
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Elevate Your Brand Through the Strong Use of Symbolism

What do lululemon, Starbucks Coffee, and Harley Davidson have in common with the Catholic church?

Watch this short excerpt from our webcast, The Cult Brand Value Equation, to discover how these iconic brands have all leveraged the power of symbolism to create a venue where we are not only aware of their mission but invite them into our daily lives.

If you would like to watch the entire presentation, sign up here to view it now.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David