Brand Love

Irrational loyalty is the ultimate goal of branding


By: Deb Gabor

The ultimate goal of branding is to create a condition of irrational loyalty. When your customers consider using a competitor’s brand—but ultimately feel like they’re cheating on yours—THAT’S irrational loyalty.

The world’s top brands bond in highly emotional and compelling ways with the customers who are likely to spend the most money with them.

Do you ever wonder how top brands create this condition of irrational loyalty?

Let’s dive in.

The antithesis of the cable company is that any business that treats its customers so well that those customers develop irrational loyalty to that brand. My relationship with is an example of this in practice. Zappos’s entire brand is a customer experience. Zappos has successfully branded a particular type of customer service and customer love, and it shows in everything they do: from the free overnight shipping and free returns they offer to their exceptional, over-the-top telephone customer support when the unfortunate happens. As a result of my experiences with the Zappos brand, I am so irrationally loyal to them that if they sold chicken feed and I had chickens, I would have to buy it from them. This is the type of customer relationship that all brands should aspire to.

Let’s explore that notion of irrational loyalty a bit more.

When I consult with clients, they often ask me to illustrate the importance of branding. That’s when I like to talk about irrational loyalty—this notion of being loyal to something no matter what. The idea behind irrational loyalty is that you have so much positive juju built up in your emotional bank account for a brand that you would go back and buy from the company no matter what it did to you. If you’re irrationally loyal to a certain product or company it could disappoint you, and you would still remain a loyal customer.

A great example of a product that inspires irrational loyalty is the Apple iPhone. I’ve owned every model of an iPhone since the beginning of iPhones. I’ve had iPhones that heated up in my hand and burned the side of my head when I tried to talk on them. I have broken half a dozen iPhone screens, which I think are too delicate. And the iPhone costs about one thousand dollars! For a phone!

I believe there are more durable, technologically superior and better-functioning products out there. But I don’t care. I won’t switch to a different brand because I’m irrationally loyal to the iPhone. I once looked at a gorgeous Samsung phone with a big beautiful screen. I caressed it in my hands and lusted after it. But after about a minute of pure animalistic attraction to the sexy device, I ran out of the store because I felt like I was cheating on Apple. Sad, I know. But that is the definition of irrational loyalty.

The concept of irrational customer loyalty embodies some key lessons about the importance of branding. Irrationally loyal customers say things such as, “I love the whole experience,” or “I like how it makes me feel,” or “I like what that brand says about me.”

The best-loved brands in the world are the ones that become part of the person who uses them.

What does it say about the person that he or she uses this brand and what does it say about you that you use this brand? The reason I don’t use a Samsung phone is because I don’t want anyone to see me using a Samsung phone. I like what it says about me that I’m an iPhone user. I don’t care if there are other products that cost less and function better. I like the iPhone. I am obsessed with Zappos, even though I have to wait for my shoes to arrive with the UPS carrier. I know there’s a perfectly good Nordstrom store with thousands of pairs of shoes just a few miles from my house. I can walk in there, buy a pair of shoes and wear them home today. It seems crazy that I’d trade instant gratification for a customer experience in which I feel loved and embraced, doesn’t it? But I still prefer to shop at Zappos because I like what it says to the rest of the world and to myself about who I am as a person.

Branding is so much more than a clever logo, pretty colors or a funny advertising campaign. Branding is about building strong emotional connections with customers. That’s a seriously smart business move that will have an enormous impact on growth and profitability. Consider this: one of the most significant emotional connections humans experience is love. When people talk about the brands they’re loyal to and the brands they engage with, they often use the word “love.” I love Apple. I love Zappos. I love Audi. I used to drive a Volkswagen, but sorry Volkswagen, I never loved you.

What’s next?

Now that you understand what irrational loyalty means—I’m sure you’re wondering how to put this into action to create deeper connections with your customers.

Lucky for you, I dedicated an entire chapter from my best-selling branding book, Branding Is Sex, to the topic of "The Brand Values Pyramid". How do you get to the top of the pyramid so you can connect with your customers needs, wants, and desires?

To receive the free “Brand Values Pyramid” chapter from my bestselling branding book, Branding Is Sex, enter your information below.

P.S. You’ll have the option to read or listen to the chapter.

Name *

What is a Brand Personality?

Brand Personality

Branding is, in a lot of ways, the act of creating expectations for how you will interact with your customers. Like an individual’s personality can give you clues into what interacting with him or her will be like, a brand’s personality sets the expectation for what you’ll experience as a customer of a particular brand.

Whether that’s the expectation that you’ll be relieved when you call Zappos customer service, excited by the kindness of the team at Passion Planners, delighted by the fun emails from Kettle and Fire, or hysterically laughing at any interaction with Cards Against Humanity, brands have a personality, and it dictates what we expect from them.

The brand personality can help bring your brand into clearer focus. It provides you with clues to how you want customers to experience your brand—the feeling you want to give them when they interact with you through your marketing, customer service, and even your products.

What’s my brand’s personality?

To understand your brand’s personality, think of your brand as if it were a human being. Create a comprehensive list of personality traits by detailing as many characteristics of that person as you can.

If you’re having trouble getting started, begin by considering how old your brand is. Is it ten years old? Is it twenty years old? Is it forty years old? Is it sixty-five years old?

Is your brand a man or a woman? Is it friendly or slightly more aggressive? Is it a lone wolf? Is it funny? Is it maybe a little bit irreverent? Does it like to shock people?

One of my favorite travel brands is Virgin America. I will happily fly at odd times of the day or on different days of the week in order to take a Virgin flight instead of a flight on one of the usual suspects like United, American, or Delta, just because I love the Virgin brand.

Most of our domestic airlines have really dry, authoritarian personalities (with the exception of Southwest Airlines). Aside from going “off book” as an outlaw brand, the Virgin brand personality is distinctly different from other airlines. It’s upbeat. It’s funny. It’s uplifting. It’s irreverent. It doesn’t feel oppressive and rigid like the other airlines.

Most travel days, I show up at the airport thinking, “How am I going to get screwed today?” When I fly Virgin, I don’t have that feeling, and I actually look forward to flying. I feel the brand’s warmth. It’s welcoming. It’s modern. It’s hip. It’s lighthearted.

In contrast, I recently took a trip to New York on Delta, another brand that offers a product that is exactly the same as what Virgin America provides. Yet Delta’s personality feels completely different than Virgin’s. Everything on Delta was totally buttoned up, all the way down to the uniforms that the flight attendants wore—pressed blouses buttoned all the way up to the top, suit jackets and vests, and black stockings. To Delta’s credit, they had an entertaining in-flight safety video featuring a host of visual gags to keep passengers’ attention. But the whole experience of watching that video fell flat because it didn’t align with the rest of Delta’s more serious brand personality.

Brand personality is so important for defining the way people experience the brand. The brand personality informs everything from the way the brand looks, the way it sounds, the voice and music it uses in its commercials, the actual words it always says, and words it would never say.

Brand personality is another way to ensure your brand carries the right tone and character to deliver on your brand promise to your customer.

How Does Your Brand Get Your Customer Laid?


When I consult with clients and they struggle with the story their brand tells about their customer, my favorite shortcut is to ask, “How does your product or service get your customer laid?” I literally ask my clients this very question. At first, they’re shocked. But it works.

Strong brands help their customers solve problems, present a positive image to the world, feel empowered, feel accomplished, and feel like the hero in their own personal stories.

Think about what happens when you’re feeling like you’re on top of the world, feeling heroic, and feeling that everything is working out the way you hoped it would.

No matter which cliché you use—the feeling of having wind in your sails, the world on a string, or holding life by the balls—that feeling puts you in the mood for sex.

When I say having sex, it may mean literally jumping into bed naked with your partner. But it may also have a more figurative meaning: experiencing the exhilaration of neighbors or other moms in the carpool complimenting, fawning over, and praising you, as well as having your ego stroked and being appreciated your husband and children. All of these things feel great, too.

Branding is about making people feel so good that they want to take a roll in the hay. That’s it.

The IT manager as hero

The most successful and profitable brands in the world are created around people. Sure, some brands are naturally sexier than others, but why should a purchasing manager have less of an emotional connection to their microprocessors than I do to my shoes?

Let me give you an example.

My company works extensively with Dell Corporation on the enterprise side of their business, the part of their company that sells systems and solutions to the IT managers of other businesses. Traditionally, Dell treated enterprise IT managers as if they were robots—completely devoid of feelings and abstract thoughts.

What we know here at Sol Marketing is that each of those IT managers has a story they are writing for their own lives. That story involves them, eventually, getting laid.

If your brand can help that happen, you’ll have a loyal customer.

When I am working with Dell or with any other company that sells technology products and services to IT purchase influencers, I want the company to step outside of itself as a brand and step into the hearts and minds of its IT manager customer. That IT manager is a human being who has wants and needs and desires.

Conjure up an image of that person in your mind. Ask yourself, “What does success look like for that person? What does getting laid look like for him or her?” Then ask yourself, “How does my product/brand/service do that for them?”

Dell sells a lot of servers. The servers Dell sells go into racks that live in computer rooms and data centers all over the world. Servers don’t feel cool when you hold them in your hand. To the unindoctrinated, run-of-the-mill human, a server probably looks like a mess of metal and plastic and wires.

On the surface, a server just isn’t that sexy, nor is the Dell brand. A server is not like a bottle of perfume, a designer leather jacket, or a Ferrari.

So let’s do an exercise for illustration’s sake. For purposes of this exercise, take a walk in an IT manager customer’s shoes. Let’s say this particular customer is a forty-seven-year-old man. He works at a nationwide furniture retailer with stores in twenty-two states.

He has a need to put together an IT program in which all of the remote stores can send their transaction and inventory data to a central location at night. That requires a lot of computing power, remote access capabilities, and powerful servers and software—none of which are very sexy. All of those things must work together flawlessly.

If you think about what is unsexy about this IT manager’s job, it is a phone call from a store manager in the middle of the night.  Also unsexy is when the chief information officer comes down on him hard and says, “We did not pull data last night, and we don’t have the store-by-store results. My boss is up my ass for sales results, and because of an IT infrastructure issue and a network failure, we cannot do that.”

These are terribly unsexy things that can happen to this guy, and they absolutely can prevent him from getting laid.

The essence of brand strategy is to take that unsexiness and turn it around. To do that, you should ask, “How do we actually get that guy laid?”

How we get our IT manager laid

Dell does that by offering reliable products that they stand behind and develop with IT purchase influencers’ needs in mind. Dell is trying to give that IT manager the world-on-a-string feeling we described earlier in this chapter by delivering on its promises to him.

Dell’s goal is to make that IT manager the hero in his own story. It’s right there in their current brand manifesto: “The Power to Do More.”

Dell gives an IT manager the power to do more, not only with IT but in his life. Dell gets him home for dinner on time and inspires him with the confidence that everything back at work is functioning flawlessly, even when he’s not there.

Dell’s industry-leading uptime and reliability get him laid by preventing phone calls in the middle of the night when stores cannot send their data to the home office.

Dell makes sure the boss is not standing in the IT manager’s office at 8:00 a.m. the next morning growling, “Where have you been? The network crashed.”

These are the things Dell does to help him become the hero in the story of his life. Sure, Dell products are reliable, scalable, flexible, durable, innovative, and a good value. But it’s the way they make, sell, deliver, and support those products that enable their customers to “do more.”

How can you get your customer laid?

Take a moment to answer this same question for your own brand.

What does your customer need? What gets them love, attention, and affection? What could go wrong with your brand that would ruin their chances at sex?

By understanding the story behind your customer’s purchase, you’ll be better suited to ensure you are getting your customer laid. That’s the whole game.

When should we brand? Early, often, and always


By Deb Gabor I hear one question from business owners all the time: “When should we brand?”

My answer is always the same: “Early, often, and always.”

Branding is not optional, and the risks of not taking it seriously are very real. Your customers might lose touch with your brand and leave you. A competitor with a strong commitment to branding might overtake you. Or, perhaps worst of all, the market might define your brand for you.

Brand yourself, or someone else will brand you. It’s very dangerous to let your customers, or the news media, or bloggers, or social media, or your competitors define your brand for you.

If you don’t intentionally control your brand yourself, it will take on a life of its own.

Brand or be branded For decades, cable television companies had no competition. They owned a local franchise, which allowed them to do business in a particular geographic area, and that was that. The regional cable companies had mini-monopolies because their customers had few options for home entertainment.

Hence, they often didn’t treat their customers well.

The cable companies knew their customers weren’t going to leave and, as a result, poor customer service became an ingrained way of doing business.

I don’t know if you’ve ever personally had the experience of being a customer of any of the big cable TV companies. If you have, then you’ve probably experienced the overwhelming sense of dread that comes whenever you have to call a cable company about anything. Dealing with cable companies is not a pleasant experience.

Invariably, you’ll start by waiting on hold for 30 minutes. When you do get a customer service rep on the line, you have to repeat all your account information that you’ve already entered. Then the rep will ask you a bunch of stupid questions you already answered for the person you spoke with previously. When you do schedule your appointment, customer service provides you a four-hour window of time when you need to be home. The technician shows up either early or late, or not at all. Finally, you get your cable bill, which is already too high to begin with, and discover that the company charged you way more than you expected for the service call.

When it comes to customer satisfaction—or the lack of it—it doesn’t get much worse than this.

With that atrocious level of customer service, pretty soon some of the big cable companies earned a dismal reputation among customers. You can go into a party and overhear people talking about how frustrated they are with their cable provider. “Oh gosh, I had to call the cable company the other day. What a nightmare. I’m still upset!” Everybody in the room utters a sigh of disgust because they’ve experienced the same thing.

Pretty soon, Consumer Reports or Temkin Group releases a survey and finds that the cable industry has the lowest customer satisfaction scores of any industry. Then the news media picks up the story. The bloggers start ranting. Twitter goes crazy.

Before you know it, the cable industry has been branded as an awful industry that abuses its customers. It can be very difficult to shed that reputation, and it can take years.

The cable industry lost control of its brand and let someone else—in this case, customers—own the brand. When you don’t take control of your brand’s image, and you don’t properly manage the relationship you have with your customers, the results can be devastating. And they show up on the bottom line.

What to do instead Branding doesn’t need to be complicated. You don’t need to have a major branding agency on retainer or go on weeklong branding retreats.

By answering three major questions, you can take control of your brand and understand who you are and how you fit in the market.

These are deep questions, and three full chapters in my book, Branding is Sex, are dedicated to understanding them and how best to answer them.

1) What does it say about the customer that they choose your brand?

2) What is the singular thing that only your brand can deliver to your customer?

3) How does your brand make the customer the hero in their own story?

By understanding the answers to these three questions, companies can ensure that they are sending the right message, and that their customers’ experiences are aligning with their messaging.

Branding is not a step-by-step process I want to be clear: Companies cannot just answer those three questions once and then hang up their branding hat. Answering the above questions is an ongoing exercise that should happen throughout the life of the brand. Branding is not something that takes place at a single point in time.

The answers to these questions will always be evolving and, even more importantly, living your brand and ensuring that customers experience your values is a constantly ongoing process.

You are in a competitive environment with changing customer needs and market forces that are beyond your control. Your brand needs to be constantly evolving to meet these challenges. You have to be in constant touch with your customers and your customers’ needs or subject yourself to the risk of becoming irrelevant.

Create your ideal customer profile


By Deb Gabor

What’s the one thing that should always be at the center of your brand?

It isn’t design, color schemes, or masterful copywriting.

It’s your customer.

Some business owners have a hard time understanding this, but your brand isn’t about you. Your brand exists to bolster your customer’s self-image, lead them to achieve their goals, and help them become the kind of person they want to be.

To accomplish this requires you to think carefully about who your customer is. You need to understand them better than they understand themselves.

First, ignore traditional marketing advice Traditional marketing has always taught us to think about segmenting and dividing markets.

When you’re bringing a new product to market, the traditional textbook methodology is to think about who are all the potential people who could possibly buy this product, and then segment based on the potential use cases, the possible purchase channels, and their reasons for buying and not buying the product.

In other words, traditional marketing methods tell us to identify as many potential audiences as we can and then divide them further based upon demographics or shopping behaviors or desires and attitudes.

Using that old way of thinking often means taking your brand message and dividing it rather than multiplying it. Segment marketing suggests that you’re going to create a different brand experience for each of those different audiences. When you start dividing and segmenting your market, you start creating more and more marketing messages that are dissimilar from each other. If not managed, that practice can dilute your brand’s impact.

I’m not against segment marketing. In fact, part of my company does quantitative psychographic research with the goal of creating and identifying market segments and then coming up with marketing strategies and tactics for companies to go after those segments.

But when you create your brand, you need to look to what’s similar among all of those segments to create a singular brand for a singular customer archetype. That customer archetype is called the ideal customer, and it’s an in-depth profile of the customer who is most highly predictive of a brand’s success.

Who is your ideal customer? The ideal customer archetype is something that serves as a guiding principle for everything you do in branding and gives you a singular, highly identifiable customer persona toward which to point your brand’s story.

The ideal customer archetype is a fleshed out, detailed, hypothetical profile of your absolute ideal customer.

This doesn’t need to encompass anyone who might engage with your brand. I like to think of the ideal customer archetype as the profile of that single customer who will spend the most money with you over the longest time because he or she has so strongly bought-in to your brand experience.

Create your ideal customer profile This is where your creative skills come into play. After you’ve spoken to enough customers and people in your social networks who use the product, it’s time to write down a description of your ideal customer.

Close your eyes and conjure up a vivid image of who the perfect person is to buy your brand. Who are they? How old are they? Are they male or female? Married or single? What is their income?

Conjure up an image of who that person is, and write down everything you can think of.

Once you’ve written down everything you can think of, dig deeper.

The best trick I’ve found is to try to imagine his or her lifestyle. For instance, for a hypothetical online grocer in the Northeast, the ideal customer might be a thirty-five-year-old mom with two school-age kids at home.

That’s great as far as demographics go, but we can dig deeper by picturing the rest of her life. She works thirty hours a week outside of the home. She lives in the New York suburbs. She shops for groceries once a week in a big shopping trip, and then she does fill-in shopping every other day. She’s a technology user — she has a smartphone and a laptop and a tablet. She wears high-end casual clothes with designer labels when she shops. She carries a gigantic pocketbook. She keeps a yoga mat in her expensive European SUV, and she does not like minivans. Her total household income is around $200,000.

Now dial in your vision even further. Imagine her getting out of her SUV wearing one of her pairs of high-end designer jeans that cost around $200. She’s wearing a puffy down vest from North Face because that’s what all the other moms are wearing when they pick up their kids from private school.

Continue to go through the process of envisioning who this person is and what their life looks like. Write it all down. Even draw a picture of her if you have to.

Identify the Ideal Customer’s Needs Once you’ve created this ideal customer profile, the next step is to think about that person’s needs.

This is the hardest part of the ideal customer archetype process. This is the part where you have to really dig in.

Let’s go back to our suburban, working mom with two kids. From that detailed description, I can probably deduce some of her needs. She needs to feel like she is the best possible parent she can be. She also needs to look like the best parent in comparison to other moms at her kids’ school. Since she works outside the home, she likely feels the strain of balancing her job and spending time with her kids at this critical age. So she has needs for activities and services and products that give her as much time as possible to spend with her kids in the way that she wants to that also makes her feel like she is fulfilling her potential as their mom.

We also know that she values quality in the products that she buys because she doesn’t have time to drive around town making returns. In thinking about food, for instance, she probably wants to have the healthiest, most nutritious meals she can get for her children without the need to do a lot of shopping or preparation. She certainly doesn’t have time to shop at multiple grocery stores, and sometimes she doesn’t have the time to cook everything that comes to the table for a family meal. However, she still wants to feel like she’s the provider of tonight’s dinner and that the meal meets her very high standards.

Understanding your ideal customer in depth enables you to understand what that person needs most from you and your brand. By getting inside the head of your ideal customer, you’re able to extract from it the story that the customer wants to tell themselves and the world about who they are.

Eventually you’ll get a clear image of who your ideal customer is and, ultimately, whom your brand is for.

The ideal customer profile exercise This is great, but how do you actually do it? How do you figure out who your ideal customer is?

The ideal customer archetype exercise is ideally done in a group brainstorming session with the staff in your company who are most involved in customer-facing roles.

Don’t just invite the top executives! Often it’s your salespeople, customer service reps, returns processors, and delivery drivers who are closest to the customers. They actually know more about your customers than your marketing team ever could.

What I’d recommend is bringing a group together with a big roll of butcher paper, and dividing up into smaller groups to answer the following questions:

  • Who is our ideal customer?
  • What does their average day look like?
  • What are the needs they’re looking to fulfill?

This seems easy enough, but companies often struggle with these branding exercises because the conclusions are sometimes difficult to swallow. It’s hard to leave behind the myths and beliefs that are part of the company history.

But, ultimately, this ideal customer process is extremely galvanizing for companies.

I’ll give you an example. One of the companies that I worked with for a long time was Back in its heyday, iVillage was probably the largest online destination for women. At the time I started working with the company, it had just become part of NBC Universal. With a mid-2000s onslaught of “mom media,” iVillage struggled to remain relevant and knew it had to reinvent itself in order to compete. Additionally, the proliferation of highly focused digital media sites in passion verticals, such as food, entertainment, parenting, fashion, and beauty, was stealing their readers.

By late 2011, iVillage was struggling to figure out how to both narrow its focus and grow traffic. As part of a branding engagement, I had them do the ideal customer exercise.

For iVillage’s ideal customer exercise, we did exactly the process described above. My team brought out a big roll of butcher paper and cut it into six-foot lengths. We divided up the staff of about one hundred employees into smaller groups. We gave each group markers, art supplies, magazines, photographs, glue, and scissors. Then I gave them the assignment of creating an image of iVillage’s ideal customer, using all that stuff.

One group actually had one of their team members lay down on the butcher paper, and they traced her body with magic marker. They gave her big eyes and big ears because they wanted to communicate, “Our ideal customer is somebody who has a curiosity about the world around her and is seeking information from other people.”

Another group drew their ideal customer as a woman with a gigantic pocketbook filled with items from different categories, such as parenting, beauty, fashion, and health. Their idea was, “Our ideal customer is somebody who is super engaged and productive in her world and needs inspiration, information, and connections in all of these different areas of her life.”

Another group drew this Picassoesque Cubist version of a woman with five arms and six legs and ten eyes. This was their version of a woman who is doing a lot of things at once.

Each team presented their ideal customer diagrams to the rest of the teams. Then I challenged them as a larger group to combine those traits to come up with a singular ideal customer profile. That group of one hundred people used all of those inputs to create the North Star version of their ideal customer.

Although it was difficult for them to give up some of their company’s tribal knowledge and assumptions around who their audience should be, it was extremely galvanizing for them to narrow their focus to align on a singular profile.

What’s next? The ideal customer profile is just one exercise I recommend for companies to align their focus on exactly who their customer is and what deep needs they are fulfilling.

For all the tips, tricks and exercises we use with our Sol Marketing clients, as well as a deeper understanding of how to think about your customers’ needs, check out my book, Branding is Sex.


Investor pitch archetypes

Archetypes abound in all sorts of storytelling, and investor pitches are, after all, storytelling. Which archetype best represents these classic startup stories? archetypes_V6

Podcast: The 3 Big Questions Your Business Needs to Answer when Building Your Brand

Deb was recently interviewed by Tim Hamilton for the new Praxent Commanding Business podcast -- listen to it for a mini branding MBA, Sol style! Listen to the podcast in iTunes

Commanding Business Podcast by Tim Hamilton, CEO of Praxent

EP018: The 3 Big Questions Your Business Needs to Answer when Building Your Brand with Deb Gabor

Released Oct 13, 2015

From leadership to management and marketing to innovation, Commanding Business covers a variety of topics with an aim to uncover actionable takeaways you can implement in your own organization today.

Episode synopsis: To become a financial asset for your company a brand needs to have an essence, a promise and a personality. Building your brand requires sustainable differentiators, scientific research and most importantly, focuses on your customer’s point of view. Your brand should also closely resemble the strategy of the business to benefit your end customer. There are three questions your organization needs to answer to achieve top of mind awareness within your business sector. When you have answered the three questions you have the criteria for the top of your brand value pyramid.


Building a kick-ass brand that wins

Sol Marketing was proud to participate in Austin Startup Week last week and share our brand love with a room full of startup founders and entrepreneurs! Our interactive session detailed the importance of branding for startups and guided them through practical tips for defining their company's core brand DNA. If you missed out, check out the slides and highlights from attendees! In this session you'll:

  • Learn what a brand is and why it's important for startups
  • Understand how a brand informs future business strategies
  • Know when startups should start building their brand
  • Learn practical "hacks" to accelerate the process of defining your brand and articulating it to customers
See the slides on SlideShare: Building a kick-ass brand that wins from Deb Gabor



The shoe fetish continues


That’s not what I owe in payments on my car.  Nor is that my Central Austin property tax bill. That’s how much money I’ve spent on shoes at in the past 10 years.

About a year ago, I did a blog post about my love for Zappos. Since some time has passed, and my taste in shoes has become decidedly more selective and expensive, I felt it was time for me to give you an update.

Check out this year's Zappos order chart below.  You can see, while my 2013 average order size went down, my total number of orders went up. Apparently, during 2013, I was buying LOTS of cheap shoes.  I have no explanation for this other than perhaps I went on a flip-flop binge. I do live in Austin, so it’s possible.


Looking back on 2014, the total number of orders remained the same (16), but the average order size when up by more than $30!  What I have to show for that is a couple of pair of “couture” shoes (ask me to show you the blue suede Ted Baker stilettos; they’re fabulous) and a handful of athletics, trendy open-toed booties and a variety of more sensible styles.

To be fancy, I added a trend line so you can see how my lifetime value as a customer is trending over time: it’s increasing at a pretty good rate (I think the Zappos team loves me).

So, besides the obvious fact that I love shoes, what else can you take away from this?

As I wrote in last year’s blog post, there are lots of places online to buy shoes – many of them less expensive than Zappos.  And, believe it or don’t, there are dozens of convenient brick-and-mortar places at which I can buy shoes and even wear them home the same day.  However, I still choose to buy most of my shoes at Zappos because I love what they stand for.  I love how they deliver service.  I love how I experience their brand.

You could say that I love WOW, and that’s what bonds me to them year after year, even when there are less expensive, more convenient choices.

Here’s something that comes directly from Zappos’ website:

At Zappos, Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing With WOW.
WOW is such a short, simple word, but it really encompasses a lot of things. To WOW, you must differentiate yourself, which means doing something a little unconventional and innovative. You must do something that's above and beyond what's expected. And whatever you do must have an emotional impact on the receiver. We are not an average company, our service is not average, and we don't want our people to be average. We expect every employee to deliver WOW.  Whether internally with co-workers or externally with our customers and partners, delivering WOW results in word of mouth. Our philosophy at Zappos is to WOW with service and experience, not with anything that relates directly to monetary compensation (for example, we don't offer blanket discounts or promotions to customers). We seek to WOW our customers, our co-workers, our vendors, our partners, and in the long run, our investors.

Delivering WOW through service is a core tenet of Zappos’ culture. And Zappos culture – not shoes – is their brand.  In fact, since last year’s blog post, Zappos has launched several additional retail categories on their austere e-commerce site, and that’s got my attention.  With the addition of beauty, sporting goods and home products, Zappos is my first go-to place when shopping online for anything.  With free overnight shipping (both ways) and no-questions-asked returns up to 1-year later, how could I ever pass up an opportunity to check with Zappos first?  I’d say that I’m irrationally loyal to Zappos.  That means that I’d check there first for product availability before shopping anywhere else.  Zappos and I, we have a tight bond.

There are many companies with core values, but most read the same.  Can you guess which company belongs to these?

  • Customer Service
  • Quality
  • Empathy
  • Respect
  • Integrity
  • Responsibility
  • Teamwork

Of course you can’t – because they’re too generic; they aren’t memorable or ownable; they aren’t part of a company’s very culture; they aren’t this company’s brand. The best core values are ones that are remarkable and define how customers experience a company’s brand.  They have the following characteristics:

  • They are actionable
  • They describe how you act as a company
  • They are visibly integrated with how a company does business
  • They are aligned with what’s important to customers
  • They are used to attract and retain the best talent
  • They have support from all levels of the company

…and most importantly, they aren’t platitudes.  They are unique to a company’s beliefs.

Many companies have core values, but don’t really commit to them. They usually sound more like something you’d read in a press release or on a plaque in a company’s lobby.  Your core values are part of the DNA – or the story – of your brand.

So what core values are you willing to commit to?

Beloved brands around the world: The brand called Santa

You may know what the most beloved brands in the world are, especially because they are, by definition, super popular. Walt Disney, Yahoo (still!), Google, Sony, Nestle, Auchan, Netflix, Whole Foods, Apple and Lowe’s made the top 10 last year. But a brand that’s been popular for the past 100 years, whose modern incarnation may or may not be the invention of the Coca-Cola Company, has a thing or two to say about what creates enduring brand love.

I’m talking about Santa, of course.

I was lucky to pull some strings to get an exclusive interview with the big guy. Here’s what we talked about over braised pork belly and an ice-cold Coke (he’s nothing if not brand loyal, Santa is).

Inspiring Santa Love
Sol Marketing: Santa, how do you pull it off year after year? With stiff competition from Amazon, Best Buy, Target and Mom, what is it that inspires all the Santa love?

Santa: First, I think we need to talk about what DOESN’T do it. The legend that I can see everyone when they’re sleeping and when they’re awake stems from my focus on effectively targeting my gift-giving by really understanding my customer. I know there are lots of marketers who read your blog, so I want to make sure those boys and girls understand that they’re not going to build a brand that gets love just through Big Data. You have to apply some insight and heart to see the true story.

Sol Marketing: I couldn’t agree more, Santa! And I’m not just saying that, even though it would be incredible to finally get that pony. So, if it’s not about knowing everything about your customer, what is it that you do to create all this loyalty and emotional connection?

Santa: I take that research about my customers, what brings them the most joy and fulfillment, and I deliver that to them every Christmas. Let me tell you, it’s not about the pony. It’s about what it says about you that Santa brought you a pony that truly creates the kind of connection boys and girls can’t get anywhere else.

Sol Marketing: But it is kind of about the pony, Santa.

Santa: The pony is the symbol, the token of the love you feel for Santa, because of how Santa makes you feel when you find that pony under the tree Christmas morning.

Sol Marketing: So I might still get that pony, right?

Santa: Forget about the pony. It’s not about the pony.

Sol Marketing: OK, so let’s talk about brand love. What has Santa got to do with love?

Santa: Santa loves all the children, even the ones who don’t believe. People can sense that, and that’s why everyone loves Santa. You don’t need to celebrate Christmas to know that Santa is about joy, about giving, about making and keeping that emotional connection. Not just with others, but with the child who still lives within you, no matter what your age. Brand Santa is about magic, about being jolly. Perhaps most importantly, and it seems counter-intuitive, Brand Santa is about consistency. You always know what you’re going to get when you are dealing with Santa.

Sol Marketing: Alright, Santa. Thanks for talking with us today.

Santa: You’re welcome.  And I know all about that naughtiness that goes on at the Sol offices – but Santa loves you anyway.

Brand Storytelling isn’t Telling the Story of Your Brand – It IS Your Brand

Storytelling is the latest buzzword kicking around ad and brand strategy agencies all over the world.  People often misuse the term brand storytelling to describe stories about a brand. Actually, a true brand story originates from its story platform – the emotional core, the DNA of the brand. The brand story is the very essence of the brand – something you need to convey in order to connect your ideas with your audience. We rarely evaluate companies based upon their products alone.  We’re in a world where a brand’s values and the emotions they evoke are narrative material. The most powerful way to persuade someone of your idea is to unite that idea with an emotion.  The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story.  Your brand’s story isn’t a tagline or a headline. It isn’t the logo or visual representation. Your brand’s story creates an experience and defines the emotional relationship your customers have with you.  Ultimately, the best brand stories are those that intrigue, engage and connect with users on a level that transcends the products or services themselves.

Your brand story is like the glue that will hold all your brand’s actions and words together for a long period of time.  Your audience may not see it, but without it, your brand is nothing.   Sol is doing a series of brand storytelling workshops next week, so it’s timely for me to write about how to create the story of your brand.  Perhaps attend one of our workshops (link to reserve your place is here), or it give it a try on your own with the following tips:

How to write your brand’s story:

1. Define your brand promise:  Your brand promise is a single statement that is the articulation of your brand’s values, the primary benefit you provide and your unique relevance to your brand’s users.  Your brand promise lies in the answers to the three questions below:

  • What does it say about a person that they use your brand?
  • What is the singular thing your brand offers that your customer can’t get anywhere else?
  • How do you make your customer a hero in his/her OWN story?

2. Define your ideal customer:  There is an archetype of the “perfect” customer for your brand.  This is almost a caricature of the singular customer who would be MOST predictive of your brand success – the customer for whom your brand is specifically tailored.  Sure, there are probably multiple use-cases for your brand and even a variety of target audiences who might use your brand, but the archetype is exactly that – an archetype, which serves as a prototype for customer behavior and attitudes.  Understanding who this person is empowers you to understand at a very emotional level the CONFLICT in the brand story.  As I said in this previous post about Brand Swagger, great brands solve acknowledged problems and address real customer needs.  Knowing your ideal customer intimately will help you ensure that your brand addresses significant and real pain and anchors the concepts and language your brand uses to create a vision for what the world looks like when you’ve solved customers’ challenges.  To create your ideal customer archetype, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the person for whom my brand is absolutely perfect?
  • Describe them demographically/firmographically…if you’re a B2B brand, that means focusing on to the very person within an organization who is buying your brand: job title, what level she is within the organization, what that person’s work day is typically like. Also focus on what type of business she’s in -- what’s her workplace like?  What’s the competitive environment?

Then, focus on attitudes, behaviors and other descriptors that help you bring fine focus to the picture of who that person is:

  • Where does she live/shop/learn/play/work?
  • What does she care about most in her life?
  • What are her problems relative to what you’re selling? How significant are those problems?  How is she currently solving those problems?
  • On what metrics do they measure themselves? How does she know she’s living the life she feels she’s designed for?
  • Finally, how does she view herself vis a vis her world, other people, her job, her family, etc.?

3. Explore and define your brand’s personality and character: The best brands in the world have a distinctive point of view and a unique voice that translate into verbal and visual articulation of the brand. The language you use, the colors, images, even the photographic style you use should reflect your brand’s personality and character. The brand personality makes your brand feel human.  To understand your brand’s character and personality, ask the following questions:

If your brand were human, where would it:

  • Go to dinner?
  • Go on vacation?
  • Who would it go with?
  • What would it wear?
  • What would it eat?
  • What would it drive?
  • Where does it shop?
  • Which brand of athletic shoes does it wear?
  • Would it live on a street, an avenue or a road?
  • How old is it?
  • Male or female?
  • What are its personality traits?

You get the picture, right?

4. Create the story arc:  The purpose of a story arc is to move a character or a situation from one state to another; in other words, to effect change. This change or transformation often takes the form of either tragic fall from grace or a reversal of that pattern. We often find this form of reversal in stories in which a character goes from a situation of weakness to one of strength. For example, a poor woman goes on adventures and in the end makes a fortune for herself, or a lonely man falls in love and marries.  Or a tragic hero falls from grace and then redeems himself in the end or transforms himself.

Great brands have a story arc too.  What’s the story of your brand?  How do you reverse your customers’ fortunes?  How do you transform people’s lives?

Chief Creative Officer of Momentum Worldwide, Jon Hamm (no relation!), recently wrote a piece in AdWeek which sums it up nicely:

“The truly great storytellers have long embraced the fact that the most powerful stories happen in the mind of the audience, making each and every story unique and personal for the individual. They also understand that stories are important because they are inherent to the human experience. Stories are how we pass on our accumulated wisdom, beliefs and values. They are the process through which we describe and explain the world around us, and our role and purpose in it. Audiences have always known this and asked for stories.”

So what’s your brand’s story?  How will you bond emotionally with your audience?