The brand values pyramid: get to the top

Brand Values Pyramid

by Deb Gabor In Marketing 101, professors taught us that customers make rational purchase decisions. However, as a student of branding and marketing over the past 25 or so years, I’ve learned that reason informs, but emotion persuades.

The practice of branding requires digging a lot deeper into your customers’ needs, wants, and desires and then trying to uncover the inner stories customers tell themselves.

Marketing 101 was a good start, but to really understand branding, we need to leave the business school and walk across campus to the psychology department.

Maslow Was a Marketer If you think back to Psychology 101 class in college, you probably remember studying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow shaped his hierarchy like a pyramid, with the most basic human needs—food, water, shelter, air—at the base and loftier, more emotional needs at the top. The theory is that all humans must first solve for the lower levels of the pyramid before moving to the upper levels.

Once a person is no longer worried about finding food and water, he or she can move up to solve the problem of safety. Once that person figures out safety, he or she can move up to love, and so on.

brand values graphics for blog-04
brand values graphics for blog-04

Just as Maslow’s hierarchy explains human motivation, the brand values pyramid illustrates the idea that, when a person makes a decision to purchase or use a brand, they are motivated to achieve certain needs. After fulfilling one need, a person seeks to fulfill the next one, and so on.

As customers move up the pyramid, brands must meet more of their customers’ emotional needs, and as those emotional needs are met by more and more companies, the best brands must support customers’ process of becoming self-actualized.

Branding Lessons from My Garage Currently, I have two cars parked in my garage. I drive a sweet midsize Audi SUV, and my daughter drives a midsize Hyundai SUV.

Baseline Requirements The things that make both of these products midsize SUVs are what we call baseline requirements, which equate to the base of Maslow’s hierarchy.

In Maslow’s pyramid, those basic physiological needs are food, water, shelter, air, and so on.

In midsize SUVs, the baseline requirements are wheels, an engine, and a steering wheel, as well as seats, mirrors, windows, and the basic functional benefit of getting you from point A to point B.

The basic things that these two cars have in common with one another that make them function as midsize SUV’s are the baseline requirements for anything in the midsize SUV category.

All cars must meet these baseline requirements and deliver these functional benefits, or today’s market of SUV buyers will not take them seriously.

Emotional Benefits The next levels up in Maslow’s hierarchy are safety, belonging, and affiliation and esteem needs. These are the benefits that make you feel like you’re part of a group and protected.

In the brand values pyramid, these middle tiers describe how certain features make the consumer feel. In car talk, these are the options. In branding, we refer to them as emotional benefits. Emotional benefits can provide a competitive advantage, but they are not your brand.

The options packages in the middle of the pyramid for today’s cars are things such as Bluetooth, voice-activated navigation, heated seats, self-darkening mirrors, bi-xenon headlamps, and a variety of other cool things.

Not every model of car in a category offers those features, so they’re still somewhat differentiating and can command a premium purchase price. However, these features are easy for other brands to imitate, so they don’t define the brand and certainly aren’t sustainable long-term brand differentiators.

Like the functional benefits we discussed before, emotional benefits alone will never be enough to create and sustain a brand. As today’s options become tomorrow’s standard equipment, these emotional benefits aren’t enough to differentiate your brand.

brand values graphics for blog-02
brand values graphics for blog-02

Self-Expressive Benefits Self-expressive benefits—the stuff at the top of the brand values pyramid—enable customers to complete the statement, “When I eat/drink/drive/wear/use this brand, I am___.”

This is where brands become transcendent, symbolizing their customers’ self-concept and giving consumers a vehicle to express themselves.

When brands provide self-expressive benefits to their users, they can engender deep emotional connections. For example, consider the difference between the self-expressive benefits associated with Heineken beer, which may heighten a person’s self-concept of being a sophisticated, discerning, worldly person, with those of Budweiser.

Back to the two cars in my garage: the Hyundai and the Audi both meet the baseline requirements for midsize SUVs and provide some similar and compelling middle-of-the-pyramid features and emotional benefits. These two cars are so similar in their physical makeup, features, and benefits, that if you were to take the brand names away, they’d be virtually indistinguishable.

But everyone can agree that an Audi is an Audi, and a Hyundai is not an Audi. It’s a Hyundai.

Each of these two brands is unique and singular in what they let their owners say about themselves. For me, driving an Audi makes me feel powerful, cool, and in control. For my daughter, driving the Hyundai makes her feel responsible, stylish, practical, and safety conscious. Those feelings connect us to each of the two brands in very powerful ways, and elevate our concepts of ourselves and support us in telling a story to the rest of the world.

The most powerful brands are the ones that say something about their user. The key to successful branding is to make self-expressive benefits part of the brand value proposition to add richness and depth to the brand and the experience of owning and using the brand.

brand values pyramid for blog-01
brand values pyramid for blog-01

How to Discover Your Brand’s Self-Expressive Benefits There are three questions that every brand must be able to answer in order to understand how the brand values pyramid impacts their brand. These questions can be difficult to get to the bottom of, but once you understand them, they allow your brand’s strategy to flow naturally.

The three questions are:

  1. What does using your brand say about your customers?
  2. What is the singular thing your brand delivers that customers can’t get from anyone else?
  3. How do you make your customer a hero in their own story?

These questions may seem simple, but very few companies are able to answer them clearly. Those who can are usually the brands who win.

How to accurately answer these questions is beyond the scope of this blog post. In fact, there are three full chapters in my book, Branding is Sex, that focus exclusively on better understanding these three questions.

If you’re a brand struggling to deeply understand your customers, that’s the best place to start.

What it means that content is (still) king

With the explosive growth in the interest and need for content in marketing, the old adage has taken on new meaning. No longer is it okay to cut and paste bloodless brochure and web copy for “all your marketing needs,” or ignore content marketing entirely in favor of paid advertising campaigns. Content rules my world, and from his subjects, he demands much.

I work on content all day, every day. I do it for clients, for Sol and for personal/community projects. I must be a loyal subject, paying homage and being faithful and constantly vigilant. It takes a LOT of time to make content. Almost always more time than you – or your client, your team, your boss, your committee chair – think it should.

At Sol, we’ve developed a streamlined workflow leveraging the latest tools for producing content, and we’re constantly looking for ways to optimize that workflow. However – no matter how efficient you are, good content takes brainpower, heart, soul, and effort.

And here’s a fallacy I want to bust right now: it is not faster to repurpose or migrate existing content. Inevitably, copy needs to be rewritten, specs updated, new images and data researched or created. And then the repurposed content has to go through the entire production and QA process.

That doesn’t mean you should overlook existing content as a source for creating new pieces. Quite the contrary – repurposing or re-skinning already-approved messaging is a great way for your team to leverage outsourced resources like Sol so your internal teams can focus on your core marketing strategy. Just be prepared to pay for it and allow adequate time to get it.

Given the headache, why should you even bother with content? Because it works. Kapost reports that for large enterprise companies, leads generated through content marketing cost 41% less than those generated by paid search; for mid-size companies, they cost 31% less.

Content works. You just have to work at it.

Long live the king.

Great marketing reads from the past 10 years

Marketing has changed a lot in the past 10 years, and our (now virtual) marketing bookshelf is groaning with proof. Blogs and LinkedIn posts may have supplanted the throne once occupied by books, at least for guidance on immediate trends, but there are still some essential books published during the past decade that are well worth a read. How many have you read? Do you have others to suggest?


Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

Not strictly about marketing, this book, appropriately enough, starts with, “Why?” Why are some people and organizations more innovative, more influential, and more profitable than others? The author studied leaders of all kinds who have had great influence, and discovered what they have in common. Guess what it is.


The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

Hits and niches. Anderson’s theory is that the 20th century was dominated by hit products, and the 21st will be the century of niche products. This one really hit home for me when I first started working in the videogame industry.  Anderson looks at the economics and psychology behind niches and how the changing economics are transforming our culture.


Lead With A Story by Paul Smith

An inside look at the culture inside consumer product behemoth P&G. Smith, a P&G marketing veteran, is a pro at following his own advice on how to use storytelling to impart big lessons. We’re believers in the power of storytelling, and this book has both fascinating examples from brands like Nike, 3M and Kellogg’s, and real-world tips on writing your own powerful stories.


Content Rules by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman

We do a lot of content marketing here at Sol. Content or entertainment marketing is the idea of offering potential customers real and valuable articles, video, or similar in order to build brand loyalty. Although service businesses typically favor this approach, content marketing is still very important for ecommerce entrepreneurs.


The Art of Client Service: 58 Things Every Advertising & Marketing Professional Should Know by Robert Solomon

Whether you’re on the client side, the agency side, or service or act as a client inside n organization, this is an acknowledged classic that includes on of my personal mantras: “Be brief. Be bright. Be gone.”. Amazon calls it a fast-reading, pocket-size, actionable checklist of 58 essential ideas to help client service professionals improve their account management strategy and skills. They had me at “checklist.”


The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but Some Don’t by Nate Silver

Everybody’s favorite statistician takes a look at the wild world of predictions, examining how we can recognize a true signal in a universe of noisy data. Silver’s point of view is that most predictions fail because we have a poor understanding of probability and uncertainty. I predict a bright future for Nate Silver.

Deodorant equals success

Everyone has had a co-worker with less than awesome hygiene habits. Take a second and think about that person. Is there anything about that person that stands out more in your mind than their body odor? In our experience, the answer is usually no. And that’s why we always tell our clients to wear deodorant when they are giving an investor pitch.

Rolling your eyes yet?

The most important part of that advice is not actually remembering to apply deodorant, but rather to think about your personal habits and ticks before going into a pitch. There are many little things that can end up taking away from your overall presentation; the good news is most of them can be mitigated if you diagnose them and take corrective measures beforehand.

If not wearing deodorant is an issue for you, takes steps to make sure that you don’t leave an odor-related impression on the investor. By the same token, if you’re in the habit of stuttering or resorting to sweeping arm motions when you ad-lib a presentation, make sure you get enough practice to roll through smoothly without doing either of those things.

There are two key steps in your preparation process that will allow you avoid problems of this nature:

  • Practice your pitch in front of anyone who will watch. Advisors, friends, neighbors; it doesn’t matter. Anyone who will give an honest assessment of your presentation style is a good person to use as a sounding board.
  • Listen to their advice, even if it comes at the expense of your pride. It’s not fun to have people tell you that you look ridiculous when you wave your arms too much. But if you swallow your pride and implement their advice, it could make all the difference for your pitch.


What presentation ticks have you fixed, and how did you fix them? We’d love to hear in the comments.

Diamonds are forever

How movie stars and a real-life Peggy Olson put a ring on it  

Diamonds are a rare and eternal symbol of romantic love and fidelity. Or are they? The idea of a diamond as a symbol of eternal love was actually created by a diamond company and an advertising agency.

The diamond industry became flooded when a vast supply was discovered in South Africa when Victoria still ruled the British Empire, leading to a panic among the bankers and other concerns in the mining industry.

This is the story of how De Beers, the company that controlled almost all the world’s rough diamond supply, turned to an advertising agency to turn that problem into one of the biggest, most profitable monopolies in history. In the process, they transformed how the world’s couples express their love and commitment.

Marriage is a contract, and throughout the last half of the 20th century, the deal was most likely sealed with a diamond ring. Today, more than 75 percent of brides in the U.S. sport a diamond engagement ring, and diamonds are seen as the ultimate symbol of love, commitment and prestige. But that wasn’t always the case.

When supply gets out of control, the only way to protect your position is to increase demand. In addition, a market with fluctuating supply needs stabilizing. A market without competition from resale is a market that can continue to grow.

In the turbulent years leading up to World War II, diamonds had lost their sparkle. Americans were already buying diamonds for engagement rings. They just bought cheap ones, and with the Depression in full force, the diamonds were getting smaller and cheaper. After World War I, the total amount of diamonds sold in America had dropped by half.

De Beers was convinced that Americans could be persuaded to buy more expensive diamonds. They just needed help to figure out how.

In 1938, De Beers approached advertising agency N.W. Ayer to research and craft a campaign to create a new image for diamonds in the American market.

In their research, Ayer uncovered an opportunity to convince young men who were already buying engagement rings that the larger the diamond, the more it expressed their love. It had to happen both with those who bought diamonds – the young, besotted men—and those who would be the receivers.

The campaign’s signature line, “A Diamond is Forever,” was created by Frances Gerety, the female copywriter at Ayer. They loved it, and De Beers was her main client for 25 years.

Gerety partnered with Dorothy Dignam on PR. Movie stars were given (large) diamonds to present to their beloveds and to wear in movies and at their many public appearances. Dignam made sure the press all knew about it by feeding them stories and writing guest columns. The agency arranged to lend jewels to stars and socialites.

The campaign was a smash, and the price of diamonds continued to climb for decades. A one-carat D loupe clean diamond that cost $2,700 in 1960 went for $25,000 in 2010.

“A Diamond Is Forever” was named the slogan of the century by Advertising Age, and De Beers. Over the years, the campaign evolved to include “education” about the “Four C’s,” the rule of thumb that an engagement ring should cost two months’ salary, and appeals to women to buy diamonds for themselves and for their men.

There are many lessons here for marketers—one that particularly strikes me is how a little research can uncover that nugget of insight that can literally change society.

Telltale signs you need to break up

Around Valentine’s Day, there’s a lot of talk about love, romance and getting together. My husband and I will celebrate our 20-year anniversary on March 5, and Deb Gabor and I have been in business together for longer than she was married, so I’m cool with love and commitment. However, my favorite love song is “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and I have a natural inclination towards being contrary, so I’m going to write about breaking up. If your love (or your client or your job) is tearing you apart, you should probably consider breaking up.  

Here at Sol, where we often work with clients, vendors, and team members over a long period of time, we put a lot of effort into creating mutually satisfying and beneficial working relationships. We’ve worked with several key clients over the course of many jobs and several companies. Occasionally, however, there is a situation that calls for us to reevaluate a relationship, and either change the dynamic or break things off.

Here are a few tips to recognizing when a good relationship has lost its sparkle or just never was that good to begin with, and how to recognize the signs of a potentially bad relationship before you’re in too deep.


Signs you should consider breaking up with your vendor:

  • They treat your business like it’s yours, and not theirs
  • They fail to anticipate your needs
  • They don’t understand your business
  • They don’t take responsibility
  • They make you do all the work
  • They don’t share your values
  • They are completely inflexible about processes
  • They never go above and beyond to ensure success


Signs your vendor should consider breaking up with you (or at least telling you “we need to talk”):

  • You consistently pay late
  • You expect more than you pay for
  • You’re too needy
  • You’re a bully
  • You book work and then cancel it on a regular basis
  • You don’t provide direction, feedback or necessary access, or otherwise fulfill your end of the bargain


And finally, here are a few things you should consider warning signs at the beginning of a relationship:

  • Negotiations about the work, terms, processes and staffing take longer than the actual work
  • Being together makes you feel bad
  • When working together, you do or say things that go against your values or better judgment


Just as in personal romantic relationships, if you and your client or your boss don’t want the same things out of the relationship, there’s bound to be unhappiness. Business relationships shouldn’t be where you look for personal fulfillment and love, but, as in a love relationship, they should be built on mutual respect and appreciation.

Open and honest communication is always important, and most relationships deserve a chance to work things out.

A blog post about blog posts

So a client asked me to pen a POV about some “rules of thumb for blog posts” in support of their content marketing efforts.  Since I did the hard work of finding all this stuff out for them, I figured I would share it with our Sol blog readers. Length:

  • Try to keep your posts over 250 words to get better search engine optimization effects
  • Try to reach a target of approximately 500 words for blog posts; a range between 400-600 is commonly used as the length that most readers will stick to from start to finish, and most writers can communicate a focused message with supporting details.
  • Also, you can actually calculate the ideal blog length for your site by looking at Google Analytics and figuring out the average time spent/page for your website; make sure you look at a data range of about 3 months so you capture seasonality and trends.

◦ You'll get a number like 1 minute and 37 seconds or something.  Take that time and convert it to a number (e.g. 1.62)

◦ Multiply that number times 180 (the average number of words read per minute):  1.62 x 180 = 291.6

◦ This number suggests the length your average blog post should be

  • The average time per page on most websites is around one minute.  If you open Google Analytics for your website (or whatever website your blog will be attached to), you'll be able to get this number very easily.
  • If you don't have access to Google Analytics, with a little bit of online research you should be able to come up with a category average for time spent/page.
  • Great blog posts are designed to get a SINGLE KEY MESSAGE across within the span of time that a person can read it.  Too much detail, and readers don't ever make it all the way through your story and abandon early. Research has shown that this creates guilt in the reader's mind, further contributing to a negative user experience.
  • Seriously, blogs that are too long are bad for business.


As far as blog format goes, the Sol team recently conducted some communication asset testing where we tested things like infographics, "listicles", long-form articles, videos, case studies, photo essays, etc. against each other using a communications testing platform from our partner Cambia Information Group.

  • We learned that shorter, simpler form factors almost always engender greater goodwill at the earlier, information-gathering phases of the purchase influence lifecycle.
  • Greater detail, usually in the form of longer articles, very detailed blog posts and technical whitepapers, are more useful at the point in the sales funnel where customers are comparing products or companies against each other.
  • The compare stage is usually for when someone is actually getting ready to pull the trigger on a purchase and is weighing: "this product/service or THIS product/service?" and comparing the features/attributes of each.


Blog timing should be at regular pulses, but how often is a function of what your goals are.  If you are looking for page views, you would use one approach. If you are looking for engagement or conversion, you might use another.  However, here are some basics.

  • Rule of thumb (and you should experiment with this in terms of what days work best) is blog posts once a week, as long as they are high quality content
  • If you get good inbound traffic from a once-a-week blog, experiment with adding one more blog per week for a few weeks and see if that increases or decreases traffic, and then adjust
  • Once you figure out what day works best, future posts should be at the same time every week
  • Create an editorial calendar that can sustain that level of content
  • Pre-write evergreen blogs that you can insert if you run out of good relevant, timely ideas


As an aside:  here are some interesting facts about timing from the people at KissMetrics (Dan Zarella - he's a big thought leader I follow in the industry)

  • Publish in the morning between 8 and 11am on multiple days, specifically Monday, Friday, and Saturday. Share your posts on Facebook in the morning and on Twitter in the afternoon to stimulate the most social sharing
  • The highest percentage of users read blogs in the morning.
  • A higher percentage of men read blogs in the evening and at night.
  • The average blog gets the most traffic on Monday.
  • The average blog gets the most traffic around 11am Eastern Time.
  • The average blog gets the most comments on Saturday.
  • The average blog gets the most inbound links on Monday and Thursday.
  • The average blog gets the most inbound links at 7am Eastern Time.

Don't become the client from hell.

Over more than two decades involved in some form of client service – first as a corporate marketing staffer and later as the leader of my own brand strategy firm – telling stories of clients from hell has become one of my not-so-secret guilty pleasures.  While I enjoy adult beverage-fueled fireside chats detailing unreasonable requests like “Can you make this PowerPoint slide just 10% sexier?” and “Can you please find an ethnically ambiguous moderator for these focus groups?”, I can honestly say that most of the people I work with on a day-to-day basis are model clients. I’ve learned that the most profitable and trusting relationships I have with clients have a couple things in common.  I’ve documented these things (conveniently, there are 10 of them) and put them into the short list below.

Ten tips for being a beloved agency client:

  1. Be concerned with impact – not your own greatness
  2. Be a generous partner – make quick and thoughtful decisions, be clear about your expectations, respect the entire team
  3. Give and RECEIVE feedback
  4. Say “thank you” now and then
  5. Connect and collaborate with your agency team – we’re not just order takers
  6. Involve us in your business, not just your marketing
  7. Step outside your comfort zone
  8. Be available
  9. Don’t delegate important decisions to the agency
  10. Have a great sense of humor

Yes, of course, if you’re a current agency client, it’s likely you follow these rules.  And I promise not to tell anyone which one of you asked us to create a logo that looks “modern vintage.”