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How and Why You Should Target Generation Z Through Branding

Predicting market trends and anticipating consumer shifts can make or break your company. However, we’re so often hyper-focused on what’s happening right in front of us, we forget to look ahead. Don’t let Gen Z sneak up on you – arm yourself early with data and resources to engage this consumer base effectively and powerfully.

You might not have the time or the resources to fully understand how this up-and-coming generation will affect your brand, so we’ve done the work for you.

Who is Gen Z?

Remember when Millennials overtook Generation X? Well, it’s about to happen again – but this time with Generation Z. Born between the years 1997 and 2015, this group currently makes up 26 percent of the population. Undeniably, marketers need to pay attention to this demographic before it’s too late.

Massive Buying Power

Although they’re young now, Gen Zers already have a combined buying power of $44 billion in the United States. If that wasn’t enough, they also influence $600 billion of family spending and by 2020, they’ll own 40 percent of consumer spending.

Digital Natives

Often referred to as “Digital Natives,” individuals in Gen Z cannot remember a time without Internet. Given this, they spend the majority of their free time online. According to Mediakix, with an eight second attention span, they value speed and ease-of-use.

Their media consumption behaviors differ from previous generations as well. Approximately 85 percent watch anywhere between two and four hours of YouTube per day. They prefer brands communicate with them there as opposed to anywhere else (like television or direct mail). On average, they use five screens – a smartphone, TV, laptop, desktop, and an iPad. That’s a lot of different screens communicating a lot of different messages.

Social Still Rules

Social media heavily impacts the way Gen Zers interact with one another and the way they view themselves. Because everything is so public and visible, personal appearances weigh heavy in their minds. Their parents – mostly Gen Xers – did not grow up with the same technology, so when it became available to them, they went all-in with snapping photos and sharing them with the whole world. Because, why not? Well, now we have an entire generation where their whole lives have been documented online. This is their “normal.”

Desire for Privacy

Since Gen Zers are accustomed to their whole lives being broadcast to the public, they crave privacy. More and more Gen Zers are setting up private social media accounts and being careful about what they post online. While Millennials like to share every experience and every thought with the online world, Gen Zers tend to share things among smaller, more intimate groups of people.

The “Instagram Effect”

The pressures presented by social media are encouraging Gen Zers to spend less on products and more on leisure services, such as vacations, dining out, and going out. This is what we call the “Instagram Effect.” Showing the awesome, cool, aspirational life they’re living draws more attention and satisfaction than just showing the latest, greatest product. Brand-name recognition holds far less credibility – in fact, many Gen Zers are extremely critical and less trusting of brands.


The older Gen Zers watched their families and older siblings suffer financially during the Great Recession. They see Millennials with thousands of dollars in debt and their parents’ businesses scrambling to get back on their feet. Although Gen Zers don’t have their own revenue stream yet, they have still felt the impact of financial crisis. This makes them far more cautious about spending money. They view college more as a time to hit the ground running to prepare for their career rather than a relaxing time of self-discovery.

What does this mean for my brand?

Brands can evolve to reach this new generation of consumers by following these steps:

Cater to Their Unique Shopping Habits

Gen Z individuals are twice as likely to shop on mobile devices – increasing the need for responsive websites and easy-to-navigate apps. Offering mobile-friendly shopping experiences and digestible product education is key. Convenience and visibility are critical here. If your site is too slow to load or difficult to traverse, Gen Zers will abandon ship quickly. More often than not, this generation will see your brand online before they see it on shelf.

This generation searches for information on their own, so proactive marketing will be most effective. Too impatient to wait for it to come to them, Gen Zers seek out to self-educate. They have a do-it-yourself, entrepreneurial mentality from being told “no” time after time during the Recession. They like to take things into their own hands.

Just as they look to their peers and influencers for recommendations on purchase decisions, they also love sharing their own knowledge online. This generation seeks out collaborative engagement and trusts peer recommendations before anything else. Influencing peers and sharing “insider” information on social media gives Gen Zers credibility among their followers. Brands need to give this consumer base easy ways to share this information digitally.

Since this generation lives with almost anything at their fingertips, they demand convenience. With the click of a button, they can have food delivered right to their door from their favorite restaurant in no time. Thousands of movies and television shows exist just beyond the tap of a screen. One-click smart shopping is a must.

Above all, Gen Zers demand speed. As they’ve grown up with quick load times and lightning fast streaming, they have very low tolerance for anything slow. Lagging apps or difficult-to-navigate websites will be the kiss of death for some brands. If a page takes too long to load, 60 percent of this generation won’t use it and will quickly move onto the next.

Put Values First

Gen Zers see themselves as do-gooders. As the most diverse generation, they believe people can coexist in society and want to make the world a more equal and fair place for all.

They’ve grown up seeing the Wall Street protests – rebellion against the establishment is practically in their DNA. They’re label-wary and challenge common “norms” like gender identity. Instead of relying on labels to define their personal identity, they actively craft their own personal brand through shared values.

This generation cares about transparency. They want to know how their beauty products are tested, who made the food they’re about to consume, etc. They will boycott a brand if the owner’s beliefs oppose their own or they don’t treat their employees fairly. Their money-conscious mentality makes them much more thoughtful about every purchase. If they’re spending their hard-earned money, they want to know exactly where it’s going.

With endless information always at their fingertips, anyone can be an “investigator” – looking for the truth behind veils of secrecy so prevalent in corporate America. When brands break their trust, they don’t forget that. Ethical and transparent brands that tell their story will resonate strongly with this generation.

Innovate, Innovate, Innovate

The Millennials paved the way for Internet-based innovation. As Gen Zers have grown up with innovation after innovation, they now expect it.

That being said, they’re far less impressed and excited by technological innovation. They crave something more – experience. In-store virtual and augmented reality shopping experiences will define the customer experience in the next few years. This experiential, interactive technology physically connects this generation to brands – therefore building a much stronger bond.

It’s important for brands to offer value beyond the product offering itself. In other words, brands must offer a lifestyle. These price-conscious consumers want to spend on experience, rather than material.

Although this generation has yet to gain their own revenue streams, we can already confidently identify certain characteristics based on behaviors, culture, and history. This generation craves security (in every sense of the word), convenience, innovation, and brands they can connect with on an emotional level. The Recession made them cautious with their spending, but they’ll become brand-loyal when they’re offered what they crave. Educating customers on the value beyond the product itself and providing meaningful experiences will tap into this generation’s massive buying power.

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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How Brands Use Rituals to Meaningfully Engage Their Customers

If your target audience lacks engagement or community, ritual can answer that need by fulfilling your customers’ natural desire for routine and belonging. Embracing this type of behavior modification will allow you to not only capture their attention but retain it as well.

Ritual comes from an inherent human desire; we’re creatures of habit. We naturally look to routines for stability and simplicity. From an anthropological perspective, rituals are an integral part of the human species. While habits and routines are typically naturally-derived over time, rituals follow patterns of behavior developed by an external source (like a brand or an organization).

Primitive images of sacred, mystical, or religious rituals often come to mind when thinking about this concept. But more “modern” rituals can be just as powerful. Organizations use ritual to build loyalty, conjure a perception of exclusivity or secrecy, and naturally intertwine with the everyday behavior of its members. Rituals are reassuring, giving us a sense of security and belonging.

Brands tap into the power of ritual by leveraging simple behaviors they recognize in their customers. Involving customers physically in the brand experience helps build loyalty.

While marketers may salivate at the thought of a ritual that cements the brand into the cultural zeitgeist, know that it’s really hard to pull off. Nabisco didn’t have Instagram to show them that people were unscrewing and dunking Oreos; the ritual developed organically among the audience over time. We have faster, deeper-reaching tools into the psychology of our consumers, so why is it harder than ever to leverage these rituals?

If you’re eager to identify and elevate a ritual among your brand’s devotees, use our 20 questions to guide you on where to look for them and how to capitalize on them. To discover those 20 questions, please complete the short form below:

Which Brands Do Ritual Well

The following brands harness ritual in powerful and memorable ways that can be adapted to increase loyalty and engagement for your brand.


Corona and lime is a terrific example of how a brand can use ritual to elicit emotion. The smell of the lime evokes the tropical essence of the beach, reminding consumers to kick back and relax. Even the action of pushing that thin green lime into the golden yellow liquid screams sunshine.

This ritual transcends time, language, and culture. Without speaking a word, consumers acknowledge the “right” way to drink a Corona. This pseudo mutual agreement makes us all feel like “insiders.”


Think about it – you have a very particular way you eat a Kit-Kat bar. Think about it: You have a very particular way you eat a Kit-Kat bar. Why? Why do we feel so strongly about the correct or incorrect way to eat one of these candy bars? The brand has created a sacred consumption ritual reinforced by catchy ad jingles and clever marketing. They leveraged a simple, inherent behavior they recognized in their customers and made it into a memorable ritual known by all. It’s woven into the collective consciousness of the world — something few brands can lay claim to.


This brand utilizes emotional storytelling as well. Their brand ritual of twisting the top and dipping the cookie into milk could be an individual ritual, but they have shifted the narrative to make the consumption experience an event in itself. Their advertising shows dessert time as a time to connect with family and the ritual experience as a bonding moment between individuals.

It also leans into consumption behavior that already exists. Marketers coined the “twist, lick, dunk,” but customers were already doing this before the ads came on television. The brand harnessed the power of a pre-existing behavior and ritualized it — powerfully bridging the connection between the consumption experience and the brand itself.


Starbucks is the ultimate example of brand ritual playing into human nature. The brand is rooted in emotion and behavior. The brand took the European ritual of drinking coffee and “Americanized” it. Until the conception of the “Third Place,” coffee was always an individual experience. The goal of the “Third Place” was to give consumers somewhere to go besides work and home. The brand created a place for people to gather, chat, read, listen to music, study, and oh, by the way, drink coffee. This collective ritual changed the game.

Not only did Starbucks harness the social routine of the “Third Place,” they also tapped into our desire for individualized rituals. Their drink customization system made customers feel important and in control. In personalizing their experience, they felt involved in the brand in a new way.

All in all, brands embrace human natures and behaviors — giving them purpose and meaning through ritual. Enhancing the brand experience through ritual involves customers, weaves the brand naturally into their lives, and builds an emotional connection.

In order to create a successful brand ritual, you must:

  1. Modify or take advantage of an existing behavior.
  2. Tell a story to elicit emotional connections.
  3. Physically involve the customer through action, smell, movement, etc.
  4. Personalize the experience.
  5. Keep it simple and easy to replicate.
  6. Be natural; don’t force it.

Adapt these lessons for your brand to powerfully engage your audience and foster loyal relationships.

And if you’re interested in a deeper dive into how you can identify and leverage consumer rituals around your brand, access our 20 Questions: Brands & Rituals worksheet.

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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How to Use Form Factor to Powerfully Transform Your Brand and Disrupt Your Industry

Form factor can either be part of your brand’s selling mechanism or integral to the functionality of the products. In either case, it dramatically impacts how customers are attracted to and interact with your brand.

We can all recognize Coca-Cola’s signature glass bottle silhouette anywhere and can spot a Pringles can from a mile away. Coca-Cola’s glass bottle was created to sell. They wanted to disrupt on-shelf and throw off copycats. The company wanted to be so memorable, someone could feel it in the dark and instantly recognize the brand. The classic Pringles can, on the other hand, was born out of necessity. They wanted a resealable chip vessel to keep their product fresh and a cylindrical, structured shape so their chips would remain aligned and avoid being crushed.

Strategy-driven form factor does not always look this dramatic. Small, subtle changes can influence consumers on a large scale and revolutionize your brand or even your industry. The following examples of how brand strategy can translate into form factor show both sides of this.

Form Follows Function, Right?

Hilary’s Eat Well veggie burgers had a form factor problem the aisle audit revealed during our brand strategy work. Hilary’s veggie burgers were packaged in two-pack, freezer safe pouches. Once the customer purchased a package, the remaining pouches on the shelf fell over (often face-down). This posed a very large problem in terms of visibility on-shelf .

And while the company was aware of this issue, their previous attempts to remedy the situation were engineered too costly and received push-back from Whole Foods and other natural grocers.

The outcomes and goals identified during brand strategy drove the design of the simple recyclable box. This solution improved sustainability (after all, it is a vegan brand), shopability, flavor appeal, and provided room to tell the more compelling story of the brand’s true point of differentiation. The packaging educated customers about the product being convenient culinary and made free-from common food allergens. Who knew a cute little chipboard box could do all that?

Form Informs a New Way to Effectively Reach Your Target Audience

Reaching new audiences is all about understanding how consumers interact with your product. DRY wanted to be known as the go-to sparkling beverage for tastemakers but struggled to gain traction with key bartenders and chefs. This wasn’t because these culinary masters didn’t like the product or refused to use it, no. It was because of the limiting form factor. The small, non-re-sealable 12-ounce bottles made it difficult to work within a hospitality setting. To combat this, DRY created a larger resealable bottle.

Not only did DRY’s new form take off in the hospitality industry, but major retailers took notice as well. Now consumers who wanted larger bottles for parties or entertaining could purchase a re-sealable bottle as well. By changing the form factor, DRY reached new, powerful audiences and provided them with new ways to consume their product.

Form Informs Emotional Connections

Form factor can also be effective in communicating practical uses of products through storytelling. For example, Ruffwear’s mission was to create a deeper bond between people who love the outdoors and their dogs – allowing their companion to accompany them on their epic outdoor adventures. They made mountaineer-quality gear for dogs, but nobody knew this because they cost-engineered their packaging to be as thin and small as possible. It didn’t tell the story. Our brand strategy pulled at the powerful bond between owner and pet. Through emotion-driven customer education on the product attributes, we told their story.

Form Informs the Revolution of Your Industry

The wine industry notoriously feels stuffy – embracing exclusivity and the culinary elite. The beer industry’s reputation, on the other hand, feels more inviting and approachable. A large part of this is form factor of the two beverages. Canned beer is portable and seen as less sophisticated. Wine is known for being bottled and corked; saved for fancy glasses and sit-down dinners.

Underwood effectively flipped this norm on its head. The brand saw the craft beer industry beginning to infiltrate wine’s territory by becoming more of a gourmet, culinary experience – even paired with food on occasion. As the craft beer industry threatened to steal market share, Underwood decided to steal it back by canning their wine – subsequently making it approachable, portable, and unstuffy. Younger audiences can now have quick, adventurous experiences that involve wine without the barriers typically preventing them from consuming wine conveniently. Underwood used form factor to completely upend the industry.

Califia revolutionized their industry as well through form factor. Any shopper can recognize their signature bottle shape with just a quick glance. Their unique, elegant plastic bottle shape disrupted the milk category because the product no longer lived in just the paper carton anymore. The brand wanted to move into the natural, organic, alternative milk category, so their form factor emulated characteristics that would communicate those qualities and shared values to customers. The graceful and iconic shape feels reminiscent of glass milk bottles – evoking a feeling of farm-to-table and reminding customers of the benefit of organic farming. The brand elicits this emotion right from the aisle. Now, customers can find everything Califia (from cold brew to almond milk to juice) in the same form – building a brand connection between completely different areas of the grocery store.

We often get so caught up thinking about graphic design or digital experiences that we forget about the engineering of products and the vessels they live in. Form factor plays just as large of a role – if not more – in influencing consumer’s purchase decisions. It provides the canvas for storytelling and the correct mechanics to optimize performance. Shape, structure, and function can revolutionize an entire brand and even an entire industry.

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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Using Values to Differentiate & Define Your Brand

Brand values impact relationships and reputation – two key business assets that are earned (rather than bought). When the marketplace is cluttered and consumers have tiny attention spans, brands must bring something more valuable to customers than their product or service. They must connect with consumers through shared principles.

Ethos can best be described as beliefs and behaviors that advance an ideology. Brands, just like people, have values they hold near and dear to their hearts. These principles form the reasons that brands exist.

In our profit-driven world, many brands consider emulating values as an afterthought. It’s easy for leaders to have tunnel vision focusing on the bottom line instead of turning their eyes internally to reflect on the company’s original mission. But just as the marketplace changes, the consumer changes. The individuals with the highest spending power care less about the “what” or the “how” and more on the “why.”

Brand values influence two important business assets:

1. Relationships build loyal customers and organic brand ambassadors

Relationships are built on trust, and trust is built on delivering on your promise. In our overcrowded marketplace, points of difference that are function- and future-based are no longer sustainable. Consumers today are tuning out marketing and tuning into those brands that represent shared values.

2. Reputation forms the basis of an enduring brand legacy

Reputation revolves around respect and legacy – both are earned, rather than bought. This highlights the importance of companies putting values first rather than profits. Since many companies fail to do this, a brand that excels at earning respect and creating a meaningful legacy will earn a stellar reputation.

Clifford Geertz, arguably the godfather of cultural anthropology, put it this way: Ethos and worldview describe how cultures create a seamless, unified system. The ethos, which is an understanding of how we should act in the world, is supported by the worldview, which is our picture of how the world really is, and vice versa.

In a sense, ethos and worldview are what differentiate one culture from another, and it is the culture that traditionally gives individuals their definition of self, who they are, what they believe, and how they should act.

Let’s take REI for an example of an ethos-driven company. Through equipping customers (and employees) for adventure, REI promotes a love of the outdoors and stewardship of nature. REI is an employee-centric operation meaning they attribute the success of their company to their workers and offer incentives for them to live out the brand promise of engaging with nature. These values translate into happy and passionate employees, which then permeates every aspect of their business to create a strong, loyal customer base.

When employees live out brand values, those principles naturally translate to the right customers.

Patagonia thrives by wearing its ethos on its sleeve as well. The company’s Common Threads initiative converted people into customers based on the shared desire to do more with less. Leading with “reduce, repair, reuse, recycle, reimagine,” they speak to consumers’ interest in sustainability and doing good for the planet. It is aspirational and inspirational. They even launched an e-commerce recycled clothing site called Worn Wear to encourage a “sharing is caring” mentality. Not only does this subtly remind consumers that their high-quality products last a lifetime and commitment to sustainability, but it also encourages storytelling around the adventures the brand equipped.

Ethos-based brands value their purpose more than their profits. They eliminate a sales-first culture and focus on things money can’t buy. They live their convictions, rather than conform to the convictions of the marketplace.

Ethos-driven brands listen more, and market less. They elevate the quality of life for their cult followers.

Shared values form the basis for all relationships. Wherever we go in business, and in life, we bring our own values along. When others share our values, this becomes a powerful and attractive force to bind us closer together. Enlightened brand owners realize that in our busy days, most of us have little time for things and people that don’t really matter to us.

For brands to matter, the customer must believe the brand is bringing something more valuable to them than the money they spend.

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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Self-Selection, Archetypes, & Symbolism

Creating a cult brand takes a lot more than clever positioning. After coming out with a bang, then what? Your brand’s reason for being needs to be meaningful and it has to create its own visual and verbal language that is unique and resonates with its fan base. Each “member” must feel that they’re important, treasured, and that they share special values with everyone else in the group—to the exclusion of society as a whole. The brand forms a common core; from it emanates shared values that are holistically satisfying and enrich lives on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.

In part one of this article, I discussed the concepts of exclusive inclusion and branded ritual as tools for marketers who are tasked with taking a brand stand they can uniquely own. Rituals are simple, straightforward, and easily replicable actions that can be shared by members of the group or solo. Simply put, rituals are behaviors embedded with meaning, purpose, and belonging. Rituals are not the same as routines. Routines become habits. Rituals, when your brand’s community vitally enacts them, become a way of life. Rituals are the glue bonding together memory, identity, community, and daily living.

But for rituals to take root there has to be a strong brand archetype and compelling symbolism.

An archetype personifies the brand—makes it human. Archetypes give brands context and storylines. As long as established brands stick to the meaningful archetypes they’ve created, the emotional resonance of their storytelling power will only increase with time. Sounds great, but what is a meaningful archetype?

Archetypes can be summed up easily in our minds by a single word. Here are some examples:

  • Caregiver: All State, Lululemon, Whole Foods (self-care and nurturing of one’s loved ones)
  • Creator: Apple, Lego, Crayola (uses talents and unique vision to make something new)
  • Dreamer: Godiva, BMW, Coach (indulges in luxuries large and small)
  • Everyman: Walmart, The Home Depot, (no pretensions to elitism wanted or needed)
  • Rebel: Harley Davidson, Virgin (pride in nonconformity)
  • Seeker: North Face, Patagonia, Jeep, REI, Levi (intrepid; enjoys overcoming challenges)
  • Warrior: Nike, The Olympic Games, Gatorade (“Just Do It”)

Archetypal brand strategy 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 our sense of self. For most of us, our self-identity is textured with personal and archetypal mythos. Learn more about archetypes and how to use them in brand development.

This form of character alignment has the potential to reach far deeper into the human psyche than traditional advertising mascots such as Tony The Tiger, Ronald McDonald or The Old Spice Man ever could. To be clear, Tony the Tiger is an advertising mascot not an archetype. He has nothing to do with Kellogg’s brand values or the brand promise of Frosted Flakes. Because the truth is, kids who eat sugary cereals for breakfast are not on the swim team. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great, long term, contiguous storylines that have wielded some power over my childhood. The simple fact remains that advertising is really the only differentiating element in these brands. And that approach, Dear Reader, is a 20th century concept and an antique.

The universality of archetypes.

Brand implementation based in an archetype has great power. Archetypal brands have compelling stories that are universally or globally understood, memorable, and persuasive in their appeal to specific consumers who become emotionally invested in them. Storytelling is as old as mankind, yet there are only a small, finite number of universal themes, so it is crucial for brands to first identify themselves by archetype and then to weave a unique story within that framework. For example, there are a number of cult brands that are based on magician archetypes, but there is only one Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap; only one Disney.

They have unique stories based on their founders’ visions. Those visions grew as posthumous chapters were written that began to weave their founder’s unique point of view and history into brand’s new frontier. Even with new, invented landscapes Dr. Bronner’s and Disney magician archetypes success comes from being so single-minded that they are willing to ignore everyone for whom the brand’s core values and belief systems don’t resonate. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, they have built their brand by focusing on a small, but dedicated group who value what’s important to the brand, and who strongly believe that, through and with them, dreams do come true.

Words as symbols and a broader definition for icons.

Established archetypal brands with cult followings are identified by both visual and verbal brand communication. I’ve been discussing the verbal aspects of these brands but they have equally strong visual cues.

We live in a world that is dominated by symbolism and we are hard-wired to tap into it. Regardless of whether these symbols are religious icons or iconic logos, people create and attach meaning to them. These symbols, and the meaning we ascribe to them, are the building blocks that we use to build our personal identities.

Therefore, taking a symbol we already know and adding another layer of meaning is a wise and powerful way to build brand story. Icons are quick concentrations of meaning that cause your brand identity and brand values to spontaneously resonate. The Nike Swoosh, The Apple Start-up Bong, The smell of Cinnabon, The Coke Bottle, The Beatles mop-top hairdo, KISS’s make-up… Iconic symbols can be sounds, hairstyles, platform shoes, or even an absurdly long tongue. Whether Icons are visuals, sounds, smells, or some other form, they are sensory imprints that instantly summon the brand essence.

People are hard wired to create shorthand.

Symbols are empty vessels that we pour meaning into, and then carry around in our subconscious. Symbols like stories, or memory-anchored pictures, serve us in powerful ways. The ones we hold onto longest and care about the most have a spiritual element and are based upon genuinely caring about people.

As you think about how to use symbols and symbolism to elevate your brand, consider the influence of pop culture, the endurance of long standing human ideas, and the pervasiveness our collective subconscious. Watch 3 minute webcast on the cultural relationship between icons and longstanding symbolism. Remember there is power in a good story. Story doesn’t discriminate and is not dependent on a big advertising department or celebrity endorsement.

Story is the universal marketing tool available to anyone. Remember, for it to get under our skin, your story should not be about significance, but rather contribution. Tell me again, why does your brand matter?

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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Brand Purpose: The Key to a Cult Following

It’s no secret that everybody yearns to be a part of something greater than themselves, their loved ones and their work. But it does seem to be a secret to many brands.

So let us tell you: not only can brands do well by doing good; they can, in fact, create devoted, avid cults around them if they commit to a deeper mission or raison d’etre. People respond to brands that inspire, give back and work for more than profits.

Who doesn’t want to support brands that do good things within their communities or to the larger world community? Some brands that started small grew in a big way due to the quality of their product, their business practices, and their philanthropic bent. Don’t kid yourselves: all of these things matter.

For example, Ben & Jerry’s support of environmental and social causes is legendary; it goes to their earliest days and the heart of their brand. They also practice sustainability within their business and give back to the local community. The consistent quality of their product, and the innovative way in which they launch quirky new products are hallmarks of their brand. These are all of the ingredients in the secret sauce that keep a brand relevant… a brand that continues to grow and maintain a cult following.

Our friends and fellow Seattleites, PCC Natural Markets, support local and organic farming, embrace sustainability and work to establish standards of the highest quality for the food products that it offers to the community. PCC is also a major donor to the PCC Farmland Trust, a non-profit that seeks to preserve farmland and move it into organic production. The brand talks the talk and walks the walk.

It’s transparent and it’s authentic; a top priority if brands want to create a cult following. Note that PCC is also deeply committed to a cause that’s greater than doing business profitably. Even cooler: it’s set up on the co-op model with 10 stores and 52,000 members and counting, who have a stake in PCC Natural Markets. Nothing inspires a community like having direct ownership in a brand that has a larger mission.

Why B Corps Rock

We’ve always been fans of Benefit Corporations, better known as B Corps, because inherent in their brand DNA is the desire to do business at a higher level. Sure, they’re in business to turn a profit and that’s great because if they’re not profitable they’re not going to stick around for very long.

These are brands that show the value of “conscious capitalism”. They build sustainability into their business models. They support worthy local, national and worldwide causes. Many support Fair Trade initiatives and small producers locally, nationally and abroad, and in doing so help to create shared economic growth while taking better care of our planet. These kinds of initiatives resonate with consumers and employees. In a big way.

There are other benefits, too. B corps can lead new movements. They differentiate their brands from competitors and pretenders – the brands that talk in a big way but do little in reality, other than an occasional local donation to a worthy cause. B Corps also have a way of generating PR without having to do all of the grunt work themselves. And they attract and engage real talent; people who want to work for them and contribute in meaningful ways because of who they are.

There are many solid-performing B Corps aside from Ben & Jerry’s. Method, Patagonia, Etsy and Warby Parker are all rock stars within the B Corps constellation. Almost 1,000 companies, large and small, from across the globe are certified B Corps, and the movement continues to grow.

New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado is a new breed of B Corp. Founded in 1989 by Jeff Lebesch and his wife, Kim Jordan, they set out with a core mission of crafting world-class beers while being environmental stewards. The company states that they “Look for ways to be less wasteful, be more efficient, recycle and reuse”. Reducing waste and water usage while lowering energy costs are cornerstones of the brand. Employees and owners work together to give grants to organizations that support sustainable agriculture, environmental advocacy and water conservation, among other worthwhile causes.

To top it off, New Belgium Brewery became 100% employee-owned in 2012 after the company set up an ESOP or Employee Stock Ownership Program and is all about full transparency in its business dealings and financials. Quality and innovation are equally important. To reiterate: all of these things taken together are components of the cult brand value equation. And it’s proof that you don’t have to be the size of a major corporation to create a cult. Local and regional companies, small and mid-sized, can create their own rabid fan bases.

Corporate Karma

There’s no mystery as to why brands like these create enthusiastic cults around themselves, right?
Their uniqueness starts on the inside and draws attention and devotees from the outside, making these brands grow exponentially.

You know the adage: “It’s better to give than to receive”. Ironically, those who give the most tend to be gifted in a far more significant way. We call it corporate karma.

And, hey, if your brand is lacking the richness and core meaning that lead to creating a meaningful cult and greater value, no worries. It’s never too late to reinvigorate your brand with a deeper purpose and mission. If the guys at Unilever are reevaluating their business model and becoming more community-oriented, why aren’t you?

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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What’s Your Language Saying about your Brand?

If language builds and binds cultures, why shouldn’t it be used to build and bind cults around brands?

Think about the power of words. If I use specific words in a specific way, it builds an image in your mind. It paints a picture. It has meaning. Words tell stories and humankind responds to storytelling, as we all know, in an emotional way.

Now think about some of the world’s top brands. They know the secret of using the right kind of language to amplify who they are and what they’re all about.

That’s why it’s puzzling to see that so many brands aren’t effective communicators. If you’re going to use bland language, don’t be surprised when your target audience isn’t energized. When has lackluster, uninspiring language ever gotten people excited?

Another big no-no is misused language. You know: words that say one thing while the brand proves it’s something else in every action that it takes from the inside out—with its employees and with every customer facing aspect of its business. Look, nobody’s perfect and maybe we have a brand mission that’s tough to live up to 100% of the time, but misleading is never acceptable. Because then the brand is labeled as a fraud and avoided like the plague.

So moral of story: be selective about the words you use for your brands. And find the right ones and use them in the right context, too.

What about the grand majority of brands, the ones who aim to be compelling but cannot seem to supply the language? Well, brand language has to come from the creation of a unique, one-of-a-kind brand to make a meaningful impact. So let’s start there. And let’s have a real proposition to offer; one that can inspire. Then our words and story will fall into place.

Oh, so you have a commodity product line and there’s just no way for you to generate the kind of excitement we’re talking about? Think again.

Let’s talk about Johnny Cupcakes. What kind of cupcakes are Johnny’s? They’re not cupcakes at all. They’re T-shirts. T-shirts with cool art and wording on them. They happen to be sold in the brand’s own retail stores that happen to look like old, funky bakeries. They’re also sold online. And they’re packaged in bakery boxes.

A 19-year-old kid named Johnny Earle started up the brand in 2002. He had an idea, and a passion. He knew he could sell his T-shirts and he did; out of the trunk of his old, beat up ’89 Toyota Camry. Then he opened his first retail shop in 2004.

“When it came time to open a store, I really wanted it to be an unforgettable experience,” he said.

Some people just get branding in their bones, don’t they? And then more shops opened. And then Johnny got the idea to do some fun events and pop-up shops around the country.

It took a while but the way he used language, visuals and ideas to build a brand is pretty breathtaking. And you know what happened? Johnny Cupcakes developed a cult following around the country. By 2006, JC was getting all kinds of press—radio, TV, print—all about his brand. Free PR that has only fueled more interest in his brand. Wow—right?

“What blows my mind even more is that Johnny Cupcakes brand has been a case study in several branding and business books,” Earle is quoted as saying on his website. Maybe he’s surprised, but once you see his website and understand his vibe, you won’t be.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Earle is busy collaborating with a host of other brands: musicians, famous people and licensors to crank out more unique T-shirt designs.

As the icing on the cake, Johnny Cupcakes donates its time to community organizations in need and supports sports teams and other local groups in their hometown of Hull, Massachusetts as well as local charities. Plus: they donate T-shirts to fundraisers across the country.

Yep, we’ve always said it: the truly great brands are good corporate citizens.

So there you have it. Quirky brand, quirky brand owners and employees, cool tees. What’s not to love? Check out how to create and really rock a unique brand at But remember: this language set is taken. Just use this to get inspired and go find your own.

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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Conventional is the New Specialty Grocer

If you’re the owner of a natural/organic food brand you know the roller coaster. Natural product stores, from Whole Foods to the smaller independents, might love your brand today and discontinue it tomorrow. Let’s face it, shelf space is always at a premium and brands are subject to getting bumped for a variety of reasons. If turns are slow at first, out you go. If another brand comes along that looks sexier, you’re gone. If the retailer decides on private label offerings in the category, finito. It isn’t easy to get into most retail stores to begin with, but it’s easy for them to give your brand the boot.

These are the scenarios at retail. You know it and we know it. The question is: what to do about it? You have to recognize as the entrepreneur of a small brand that distribution is key to survival and that means having a presence in different channels. You might not like the idea because you think your natural/organic brand belongs in natural product stores, but that kind of thinking will hamper your chances of success. In 2015 the number of organic items available in traditional grocery stores was up between 35 percent and 50 percent, according to estimates from investment bank Piper Jaffray.

Never put all of your eggs in one basket, right? While the traditional natural product shopper continues to buy at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and their local health food stores, there are plenty of other customers who are buying natural/organic products in other channels. They may not be as hardcore, as educated about the products, or as dedicated to buying whole foods and clean products all of the time, but there are millions of these consumers shopping in mainstream retail stores. And having access to products that they know are intrinsically healthier choices influences buying decisions.

That’s why your goal has to be to take your natural/organic brand and cross over into mainstream retailers both online and off. Sure, some conventional shoppers are dabblers. However, others will try your brand, like it, and become loyal consumers. They’ll tell their friends and that buzz will help build your business.

With eggs in multiple baskets, it isn’t a disaster if a major player in the natural/organic industry drops your brand, either. You can sustain that and look for more distribution as you go along. Revered brands like Traditional Medicinals did this a long time ago. They’ve got a presence in natural food stores and supermarkets, including Wal-Mart, specialty/gourmet stores, drug stores, and among e-tailers. More recently Alden’s Organic Ice Cream and Hilary’s Eat Well – purveyors of veggie burgers, salad dressings and snacks – made the same leap. They have gone from exclusive distribution in natural product stores to stocking their products in supermarkets. Smart.

The natural/organic category is no longer an afterthought for retailers, but a powerful part of their over overall merchandising strategies. There’s a commitment to expanding these categories like never before.

Enter the trendsetter for non-traditional consumers: Target

We all know that when Target gets behind a category and niche, the retailer has the power to move the needle in a big way; it’s been no different for consumers seeking better-for-you alternatives. In a recent article in Business Insider, Target CEO Brian Cornell is quoted from a November conference call: “We’ve been very focused on assortment changes and bringing more natural, organic, local items into many of our categories, and we’re seeing the guest react very favorably.”

Given its M.O., Target will experiment, bring in the unusual, merchandise creatively, and go after natural/organic in a meaningful way (i.e. go after Whole Foods in a meaningful way). They’re not alone, although they’ll likely do it best. Hence the title of the article in Business Insider: Walmart, Target and Aldi are addressing a huge weakness—and it’s turning into Whole Foods’ worst nightmare.

Reread: There’s great potential growth in mainstream retail stores; the consumer is primed and ready for it. Natural/organic can be attractively priced against specialty retailers without sacrificing quality while still enjoying much better margins than the average fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands.

There’s an interest among the nation’s largest food retailers to source more local products and brands, as well – the former bastion of natural product retailers. With the lines continuing to blur, consumers expect to find these products where they shop in their daily life. Things are going to get even more interesting; stay tuned.

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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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.

Connect with David
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Sports Authority: A Name without a Brand

A recent article discussed the woes of Sports Authority with the headline: Sports Authority Is Sinking Under Discounts And Naming Rights.” Really? There’s no doubt, as the article cites, that Sports Authority has some major problems. What the article doesn’t explicitly say, however, is that these problems are of their own making. But they are.

In a nutshell: deep discounting to move out merchandise due to slow sales, paying a whopping $6 million per annum to have its name—Sports Authority Field—on the Denver Broncos’ stadium, and a $20 million default on its $343 million dollar debt all led to the company’s declaration of bankruptcy under chapter 11. These are the reasons given for the company’s demise. The company itself cites increased competition, as well.

And then of course, the lamentable state of retailing is yet again pointed out in other articles discussing the demise of Sports Authority. After all, retail giants like Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Radio Shack, Sears, Barnes & Noble are all going the way of the dodo bird; and with good reason in every case.

But coming back to Sports Authority, there’s more to the story than the company’s sinking under discounts, debt and naming rights. Let me ask you this question: what comes into your mind when you hear the name “Sports Authority”? Summarize their brand in a few words. Can’t, can you? Nor can I. And that is really the crux of their problem more than anything else.

Not saying they haven’t made bone-headed business decisions here, but Sports Authority is literally a name without a brand.

Make No Excuses

Brick and mortar retailers are finding it harder to pull in customers. Etailers are taking their customer base away from them. Competition is intense in every category. To all of that I say this: too many retailers aren’t giving customers a reason to believe. Too few are giving customers unique and compelling experiences. If they did, they’d have fans pouring into their stores. People can buy merchandise anywhere, but what they’re hungry for is the experience more than the product. Let that truth sink in.

Now think of this. Think of the sports names that represent meaningful brands. You know: brands that have meaning, substance and values, that they live and breathe up and down the line. In spite of a tough economy, in spite of increased competition, these brands are in it for the long haul. They can withstand tough times. They can even flourish because they attract customers and then turn them into brand fans. Their fans do purchase from their websites but they also enjoy coming into their stores because it’s always a great experience.

Who am I talking about? REI comes to mind. LL Bean. Cabela’s. Bass Pro Shops. Eastern Mountain Sports. All of these companies are brands. Brands with a clear position and value proposition. Brands with a vibrant story. What’s Sports Authority’s position, proposition and story, anyway? Hmmm, can’t seem to recall… isn’t that the larger point?

And here’s the thing: when you own a brand, it dictates business decision making. It actually helps you to avoid making bone-headed mistakes that could derail your company because anything that isn’t brand-centric and customer-centric simply isn’t done.

Naming a famous sports complex might stroke the egos of the inhabitants of the C-Suite but it doesn’t do much else. Don’t tell me that wasn’t why Sports Authority chose to fork out millions to put its banner in the Denver Broncos stadium. After all, competitor Dick’s Sporting Goods did it, so the mentality was likely one of not being outdone.

Strong sports brands help to support and underwrite events in their local communities—the ones that make sense for them and their fans. No need to blow millions on extravagant stuff. And you know what? I’ll bet legions of Denver Bronco fans bought their team jerseys, hats and sweats online or from a competitor—not from Sports Authority. That makes this tale even sadder.

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