The Future of Purpose-Driven Branding 


Learn how to guide, inspire and enable effective communication of a purpose-driven branding program.

In his book, “The Future of Purpose-Driven Branding,” branding expert, David Aaker, shows a pathway to business and social program leadership and offers five branding “must dos” to guide, inspire and enable effective communication of the program. The book includes:  

  • A thorough case for why social programs are the secret weapon to helping business leaders build stronger brands and more connected work cultures, while supporting important social causes 
  • Powerful case studies from organizations leading with exemplary social programs
  • Tools and insights for integrating social programs into the organization and business 
  • Five branding “must dos” when building signature social brands 

Download the first chapter today.  

Loved the first chapter? Order the book on Amazon.

About the Author 

David Aaker is the author of more than one hundred articles and 18 books on marketing, business strategy, and branding that have sold over one million copies. A recognized global authority on branding, he has developed concepts and methods on brand building that are used by organizations around the world. 


Want to interview David Aaker or feature him on your next podcast? Please connect with us or David directly. 

Reach out to learn how David Aaker and Prophet can help your business create signature social programs that capture the hearts of leadership, customers, employees and brand followers.  


The Future of Purpose-Driven Branding


Read the book to learn five branding “must-dos” to guide, inspire and enable effective communication of the social purpose and program.  


Winners in the future will embrace social program leadership … or fade into irrelevance with customers, investors and employees. It’s not enough for companies to commit to reducing energy or have an ad hoc budget for grants and volunteering. The world needs the resources and agility of large businesses to address existential threats in society with imaginative and impactful programs. 

In his book, “The Future of Purpose-Driven Branding,” branding expert David Aaker shows a pathway to business social leadership that include four strategies:  

  • Employ resources to address the most pressing societal challenges – like climate change and identity inequalities 
  • Create impactful, inspiring, and mission-driven signature social programs that will help business leaders build brands that are more relevant and purpose-driven as well as impact important social challenges 
  • Integrate the signature social programs into the business to bolster the organization’s brand as a mission-driven enterprise that is “doing good”
  • Create and manage a portfolio of signature social brands that inspire, engage and communicate with passion and clarity by using the five branding “must-dos” 


  • A thorough case for why social programs are the secret weapon to helping business leaders build stronger brands and more connected work cultures while supporting important social causes 
  • Powerful case studies from organizations leading with exemplary social programs 
  • Tools and insights for integrating social programs into the organization and business 
  • Five branding “must-dos” when building signature social brands 

Take a sneak peek and read the first chapter here.


“David Aaker, the branding guru, shows how to leverage signature social programs using vivid case studies. Integrating the social program into the business creates a win-win infinity loop.  ‘The Future of Purpose-Driven Branding’ is a must-read book for the purpose era.”

Joe Tripodi 
Former CMO at Coca-Cola, Allstate and MasterCard

“Every company should adopt a social cause beyond profit-making. Aaker has written the perfect book to help you find that cause and build a unique program and brand that makes a difference.”

Phil Kotler
The Father of Modern Marketing

“This is a roadmap for nonprofits who want to build an inspiring brand and attract active business partners. The five branding “must dos” are game-changing.”

Eve Birge
Exec Director, White Pony Express, “All of Us Taking Care of All of Us”


About the Author 

David Aaker is the author of more than one hundred articles and 18 books on marketing, business strategy and branding that have sold over one million copies. A recognized global authority on branding, he has developed concepts and methods of brand building that are used by organizations around the world. 


Want to interview David Aaker or feature him on your next podcast? Please connect with us or David directly. Reach out to learn how David and Prophet can help your business create signature social programs that capture the hearts of leadership, customers, employees and brand followers.  


Leaning Into Leadership: A Q&A with David Aaker

About the Series

Throughout my career, I have been fascinated with the building blocks of leadership, from motivation, coaching and communication to mentorship, empathy, inspiration and more. Unraveling and understanding what makes a strong and impactful leader tick can help each of us implement new strategies to grow as individuals and leaders ourselves.

Over the years, I’ve listened to podcasts, read books, attended conferences and listened to TED Talks about various leadership topics, but some of the most impactful lessons and pieces of advice I’ve learned have been from those around me—my mentors, colleagues and industry peers. This has led me to create this interview series, “Leaning Into Leadership.” I invite you to join me as I interview various leaders in my network to share new tools and wise advice from them that you may just want to add to your own leadership toolbox.

My first interview is with Prophet’s own Vice Chairman, David Aaker. To start, David is humbler than he should be. Since Dave is all about storytelling, I’ll start with a story: During my first week at Prophet, I was sent to Switzerland to work at an event where he was giving the keynote speech. I was young, new to the company, and hanging with the Vice Chairman. Though he was treated with white glove, celebrity treatment at the event, to me he was kind, generous and funny. David welcomed me to Prophet in a down-to-earth way that never changed throughout the years.

I’ve worked with him on writing thought leadership and speeches, books and book launches, and have attended award ceremonies and events with him throughout the years and his kindness always prevailed. I will always admire his straightforward and practical advice, his style of leadership and his continued commitment to teaching and learning.

I hope you enjoy my inaugural interview with the Father of Modern Branding himself, Mr. David Aaker!

Amanda Nizzere: What do you do at Prophet?

David Aaker: I’m Prophet’s Vice Chairman and support Prophet’s Board of Directors. I am always available to help client teams chat or brainstorm about any issue that comes up in a pitch or engagement. My primary “job” is author. I write books and blogs about strategic branding and marketing, with over 17 books written to date (with a new one on the way). I also regularly participate and podcast interviews and speaking engagements, primarily in Asia.

AN: What’s a skill you’re currently working on?

DA: I am working on my new book, “The Future of Purpose-Driven Branding,” so that is taking up most of my time. I am also working on my golf game but as a very amateur player.

AN: What’s your go-to productivity hack?

DA: In grad school I started doing three hours of solid work each day before procrastinating. It works.

Image: David Aaker, Vice Chairman at Prophet

AN: Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?

DA: Peter Drucker and Phil Kotler are my role models for what they have accomplished in thought leadership.

AN: How do you prefer to start and end your day?

DA: I start each day with an hour of exercise and like to end each day watching a bit of YouTube to decompress.

AN: What energizes you at work?

DA: Talking to my colleagues about their work and discussing ways to overcome challenges.

“I have been amazed at the continued growth, the talent and insight of the leadership…”

AN: What’s one thing that surprised you about working at Prophet?

DA: It’s not really a surprise, but I have been amazed at the continued growth, the talent and insight of the leadership, and the impressive quality and skills of people throughout the organization.

AN: If you could snap your fingers and become an expert in something, what would it be?

DA: I love history and could easily write books on history.

AN: If you could trade places with anyone for a day, who would you choose?

DA: My daughter Jennifer Aaker. She’s a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, an author, speaker and researcher. She always does the coolest stuff and hangs out with the most amazing people.


Known as “The Father of Modern Branding,” David Aaker is Vice Chairman of Prophet, creator of the Aaker Model and a revered author, speaker and thought leader (and a man I’m lucky to call a colleague and friend). A professor true to his word, if you have any additional questions you’d like to ask of David, feel free to send them to him directly!


Brand Equity vs. Brand Value: What’s the Difference?

Each offers a different way to increase loyalty, but require different metrics.

  • Brand equity refers to the importance of a brand in the customer’s eyes, while brand value is the financial significance the brand carries. Both brand equity and brand value are educated estimates of how much a brand is worth.

What’s the Difference Between Brand Equity & Brand Value?

Brand equity and brand value are similar, but not the same. Oftentimes, there is confusion around how each differs so let’s look at exactly what each means:

Brand Equity

Brand equity is a set of assets or liabilities in the form of brand visibility, brand associations and customer loyalty that add or subtract from the value of a current or potential product or service driven by the brand. It is a key construct in the management of not only marketing but also business strategy.

In the late 1980s, brand equity helped create and support the explosive idea that brands are assets that drive business performance over time. That idea altered perceptions of what marketing does, who does it, and what role it plays in business strategy.

Brand equity also altered the perception of brand value by demonstrating that a brand is not only a tactical aid to generate short-term sales, but also strategic support to a business strategy that will add long-term value to the organization.

Brand Value

Brand value, on the other hand, is the financial worth of the brand. To determine brand value, businesses need to estimate how much the brand is worth in the market – in other words, how much would someone purchasing the brand pay?

It is important to note that a positive brand value does not automatically equal positive brand equity.

How Should Brand Equity & Brand Value Be Measured?

While measuring brand value is fairly straightforward, the process for brand equity is not quite so simple. Brand equity is a set of assets or liabilities in the form of brand visibility, brand associations and customer loyalty that add or subtract from the value of a current or potential product or service driven by the brand. Here we’ll dive into each.

Brand Visibility

This means that the brand has awareness and credibility with respect to a particular customer need—it is relevant. If a customer is searching for a buying option and the brand does not come to mind, or if there is some reason that the brand is perceived to be unable to deliver adequately, the brand will not be relevant and not be considered.

Brand Associations

Brand associations involve anything that created a positive or negative relationship with or feelings toward the brand. It can be based on functional benefits but also a brand personality, organizational values, self-expressive benefits, emotional benefits or social benefits.

Customer Loyalty

Customer loyalty provides a flow of business for current and potential products from customers that believe in the value of the brand’s offerings and will not spend time evaluating options with lower prices. The inclusion of loyalty in the conceptualization of brand equity allows marketers to justify giving loyalty priority in the brand-building budget.

Driving Brand Value in the Short Term

The value of a brand represents its impact on the short-run and long-run flow of profits that it can generate. With respect to short-term profitability, the problem is that programs that are very good at driving short-run products – like price promotions – can damage brands.

Looking at the ways a brand can help drive short-term financial performance can help mitigate this tendency:

Brand Loyalty

  • Reduced Marketing Costs
  • Trade Leverage
  • Attracting New Customers via Awareness & Reassurance
  • Time to Respond to Competitive Threats

Brand Visibility

  • Anchor to Which Other Associations Can Be Attached
  • Familiarity Which Leads to Liking
  • Visibility That Helps Gain Consideration
  • Signal of Substance/Commitment

Brand Associations

  • Helps Communicate Information
  • Differentiate/Position
  • Reason-to-Buy
  • Create Positive Attitude/Feelings
  • Basis for Extensions

Improving Brand Value in the Long-Run

One of the ongoing challenges of brand equity proponents is to demonstrate that there is long-term value in creating brand equity. The basic problems are that brand is only one driver of profits, completive actions intervene, and strategic decisions cannot wait for years.

There are, however, some perspectives that can be employed to understand and measure the long-term value of brand equity:

Brand Value Approach #1: Estimate the Brand’s Role in Business

One approach is to estimate the brand’s role in a business. The value of a business in a product market such as the Ford Fiesta in the UK market is estimated based on discounting future earnings. The tangible and intangible assets are identified and the relative role of the brand is subjectively estimated by a group of knowledgeable people, taking into account the business model and any information about the brand in terms of its relative visibility, associations and customer loyalty.

The value of the brand is then aggregated over products and markets countries to determine a value for the brand.  It can range from 10 percent for B2B brands to over 60 percent for brands like Jack Daniel’s or Coca-Cola.

Brand Value Approach #2: Observe Investments in Brand Equity

A second approach is to observe that, on average, investments in brand equity increase stock return, the ultimate measure of a long-term return on assets. Evidence comes from a series of studies I conducted with Professor Robert Jacobson of the University of Washington, using time series data which included information on accounting-based return-on-investment (ROI) and models that sorted out the direction of causation.

The consistent finding was that the impact of increasing brand equity on stock return was nearly as great as that of an ROI change, about 70 percent as much. In contrast, advertising, also tested, had no impact on stock return except that which was captured by brand equity.

Brand Value Approach #3: Reflect on Other Valuable Brands

A third approach is to look at case studies of brands that have created enormous value. Consider, for example, the power of the Apple personality and innovation reputation, BMW’s self-expressive benefits connected to the “ultimate driving machine,” and the ability of the Whole Foods Market brand to define an entire subcategory.

Or, the fact that from 1989 to 1997 two cars were made in the same plant using the same design and materials and marketing under two brand names, Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet (GEO) Prism. The Corolla brand was priced 10% higher, had less depreciation over time, and had sales many times more than the Prizm. And consumers and experts both gave it higher ratings. The same car! Only the brand was different.

Brand Value Approach #4: Consider the Conceptual Model

It’s important to consider the conceptual model surrounding a business strategy. What is the business strategy? What is the strategic role of the brand in supporting that strategy? How critical is it? Is price competition the alternative to creating and leveraging brand equity? What impact will that have on profit streams going forward? Management guru Tom Peters said it well:

“In an increasingly crowded marketplace, fools will compete on price. Winners will find a way to create lasting value in the customer’s mind.”


Brand equity continues to be a driver of much of marketing, indeed business strategy. For it to work, it needs to be understood conceptually and operationally. And it is important that it be tied to brand value in credible ways.

Discover how Prophet helps companies establish a brand strategy that drives business growth.


Three Branding Trends to Know for 2022

Launching products and services in new subcategories is increasing, fueled by AI and social commerce.

This year presented new challenges and unexpected surprises for brands. After 2020, companies were pushed to become more innovative to meet raised consumer expectations and behaviors around digital experiences. In 2021, consumers began to travel again, brick and mortar retailers, restaurants, entertainment venues and in-person businesses “opened up” with new rules and regulations, and employers sought creative ways to keep their employees happy amidst the “Great Resignation.” Some brands have navigated this tumultuous time better than others. Over the past year, I’ve observed three accelerating branding trends that are affecting nearly every business. The brand leaders of tomorrow are going to be riding these waves rather than swimming against them.

To make a splash in 2022, you’ll need to know these three branding trends:

1) Subcategory Competition

There is a growing trend of organizations realizing that real growth will almost always have to involve disruptive innovation, the creation of a set of “must-haves” that will define a new subcategory competition for which competitors will struggle to be relevant. It’s hard to find examples of growth surges that were not driven by subcategory creations. Consider the Prius, Tesla, Dollar Shave Club, Airbnb, Amazon Alexa, and so many more that created and leveraged new subcategories.

This trend has been put on steroids by the digital world. The emergence of IoT and AI provides new avenues for subcategory creation. The presence of social media, websites and digital communication means that the introduction of a new subcategory no longer needs expensive advertising with a long lead time. And e-commerce options avoid the need for getting a retail presence or creating or accessing a salesforce. As a result, new subcategories are now more frequent, scale faster and have a higher impact than ever before.

Implications for brands:

  • Shift some investments from incremental innovation to “big” innovations
  • Enhance your organization’s ability to recognize what is a “must-have” in the marketplace, what is not and then to act when disruptive opportunities arise
  • Understand the role of branding and build strategies to be the exemplar for the subcategory, using that brand to position, scale and build barriers to competitors

2) Higher Purpose

More and more organizations are elevating higher purposes driven by environmental and social programs, now often labeled ESG programs (social, environmental and governance). Examples are everywhere. Starbucks’ quest to inspire and nurture the human spirit “one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time” provides a way to connect that means something to customers. Patagonia, known for having environmental considerations in their heritage, in their products and in their programs, attracts customer loyalty among those that share their values.

The visibility of society problems such as global warming, inequality, unhealthy eating and living, unequal education opportunities and more have made this trend turn social efforts from “nice to haves” to strategic imperatives.

There is increased pressure from stakeholders for leaders to think beyond financials and instead prioritize creating meaningful help and shaping society. Employees, especially the younger set, have shown that they are reluctant to join or stay with organizations that lack an inspiring higher purpose. Segments of customers are looking for a relationship with brands they respect and admire for their higher purpose. Even a significant part of the investor class has “changed sides” and now evaluates the higher purpose programs as part of their investment choices.

Implications for brands:

  • Revisit your organization’s mission, purpose, values, and priorities and modify or supplement them so ESG programs can thrive
  • Develop impactful and implementable ESG programs that resonate with your organizational culture. A higher purpose cannot be empty words. To impact internally and externally, it needs to be and feel genuine with substance behind it
  • Become an active rather than passive partner in the development, implementation and measurement of the strategic communication plan
  • Facilitate the ability of the ESG program to enhance the business brand to support a long-term commitment to the social program

3) New Communication Programs

There is a growing shift from communicating facts about a brand’s offerings or programs using conventional media to finding other ways to communicate and, more generally, connect with stakeholders. Among the forces driving this trend is the reality of information overload, media clutter, disinterested audiences, and the growth of social and digital communication.

The tragic reality is that people are not interested in brand facts. They are just not. An alternative is to use research to discover what they are interested in, what activities occupy them, what they talk about and what their passions are. I call the attitudinal data the customer “sweet spot.” Find or develop content or programs around this data on interest areas with the brand as an involved partner.

Implications for brands:

Create brand communities: groups that share values, interests and activities with each other and a brand. This becomes a way to engage customers and others with the brand in a context in which the brand is not in a “selling” role. One example is the activities and social experiences of the Peloton community.

Develop a content strategy that prioritizes compelling storytelling. Stories gain attention, are remembered and avoid counterarguing. As a result, they break through the clutter and communicate in an age of major information overload.

“The future of your brand hinges on the decisions you make today.”


The future of your brand hinges on the decisions you make today. The world is evolving and changing rapidly, including how people interact with the brands around them. By prioritizing subcategory competition marketing strategies, integrating higher purpose programs into business objectives, and creating powerful stories and brand communities that communicate these efforts can help you stay ahead of the curve as we move into 2022.

Follow me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to read more about branding for the future of work.


Converting Anti-Vaxxers: The Power of Fear & Stories

Evidence is mounting that even entrenched positions can be changed with the right appeal.

The country’s economic and social well-being, as well as the mental health and lifestyle of its people, is dependent on cooperation from those who are skeptical of or refuse vaccination. And that cooperation is being withheld by many people. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 17% have a wait-and-see approach and another 20% say they will never have the vaccine unless required. An NPR/Marist poll found 25% would refuse the coronavirus vaccine and another 5% are “undecided.” According to these statistics, around 20% of the population is made up of committed anti-vaxxers. Current projections indicate that herd immunity may not happen, and that would be a disaster—unless some of these people get motivated to change their minds. So, what should be done? 

Those that are reluctant or undecided may be influenced by the right medical authorities, such as the family doctor or the hospital consortium led by Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Hospital who can reassure them the vaccine is safe. Other reluctant individuals may be open to incentives. A $100 reward for vaccination has been shown to work on some. Still, others admit that their opposition will only be affected by needing a vaccine to gain admission to activities, such as going to work, traveling or attending a sporting event. The Ad Council’s “It’s Up To You” campaign highlights the “treasured moments” that will be missed and has tested well. But these efforts will still leave many of the people on the sidelines and will not impact those fixated on not vaccinating. 

Some leaders have made the judgment that the committed anti-vaxxers, those who have hardened views based in part on political, religious or ethnic views, are a “lost cause.” In my view, that position is misguided for two reasons. First, however difficult, it is crucial to convert at least a part of this group (and more of the skeptical whose reluctance persists), because achieving herd immunity may depend on it. Second, there is evidence that entrenched positions can be changed with the right appeal. We do know that framing the discussion around safety, incentives or lost special moments will not be effective enough. Research on similar contexts has shown that it will only elicit coping strategies. They will ignore, distort, forget, counterargue and actually be reminded of why they oppose vaccination in the first place. But what can work is framing messaging around tragic coronavirus outcomes using powerful first-hand stories.    

Vivid Stories of Death and Long COVID-19 Suffering Can Work

The role model is the “Stop Cigarette Smoking” experience campaigns. The government and other institutions challenged long-term smoking habits with campaigns that featured highly emotional personal stories about people struggling with smoking-related health issues, including cancer, gum disease, premature birth and stroke. The stories, often graphic, showed suffering people who told of or implied how regretful they were about cigarette use—some when the end was clearly near. Studies showed they were effective. For example, the CDC ran two short bursts of anti-cigarette advertising in 2012 and 2014. By 2016, over 400,000 people had quit smoking for good and millions more attempted to stop. In contrast, arguing whether smoking caused lung cancer or other diseases was not effective. The fear appeal worked then, and it can work again.   

“The effort needs to involve vivid, emotional, personal stories that dramatically show the unbearable grief over a virus-caused death or the destructive effects of lingering symptoms.”

The urgent task at hand is to create a communication effort that reframes the discussion around the “long COVID-19” outcomes that degrade or destroy life, outcomes that can be prevented by vaccination. And communicate the messages relentlessly. Watching from a distance as a beloved family member takes their last breath. Seeing a real person living with debilitating long-haul COVID-19 effects, such as the lack of energy to even function, brain fog, dizziness, memory issues, breathing problems, the loss of taste and smell, or the need for a lung transplant. That is the frame in which those opposing vaccination will become uncomfortable and a change in beliefs or behavior will become possible.   

The effort needs to involve vivid, emotional, personal stories that dramatically show the unbearable grief over a virus-caused death or the destructive effects of lingering symptoms. Stories are powerful. An enormous body of research shows that involving stories attract attention, distract from counterarguing, are more memorable, and are much more likely to persuade than facts and logic.  

Facts can still be presented, but they need to be motivated by or embedded in a story to penetrate and make a difference. For example, a vivid story featuring a person living with long-term COVID-19 effects compounded by the fact that 500,000 people in the U.K. are sharing that fate will be processed, whereas, without the story, it would fall on deaf ears. Such facts or logic by themselves just will not breakthrough. 

These stories need to be part of a professionally produced communication effort that is strategically targeted and given enough time, enough stories and adequate resources to complete the job. Repetition and story variety will be needed for the campaign to maintain energy and create a change in mindsets. Powerful videos that are graphic, emotional, personal and memorable with visible and credible spokespeople telling their personal stories will be effective in part by gaining exposure through news, commentaries and interviews on various media platforms.  


The best way to convince the inconvincible is to leverage storytelling as a mechanism to connect emotionally, attract attention, distract from counterarguing, and ultimately change the hearts and minds of enough of the anti-vaxxers to make a difference. If the media, government and consumer brands lean into the storytelling to push the pro-vaccination message, we will see greater majorities scheduling vaccine appointments. It can work, but we must act now.  

If you are interested in further discussing this topic or know someone who can help make this change at the national level, please email me at, or please pass this message along to anyone who can help influence anti-vaxxers. 


Four Ways Social Programs Yield Employee Engagement

Social efforts boost retention, aid in recruiting and increase energy and engagement at work.

Employees need a higher purpose in today’s world. Increasing sales and profits and getting a paycheck are not enough. Even building great products or delivering exemplary service may not give an adequate answer to the “Why?” question employees ask when they sit down to do their work. Having an authentic, substantive set of social programs and compelling social purpose can be an answer for business leaders seeking to motivate and engage their employees.

Employees, including executives, want their jobs to have meaning in their professional lives. Employees motivated by a social purpose will be more likely to join a firm, turn their back on opportunities to leave the firm, and work effectively and enthusiastically toward the firm’s goals. They will be engaged.

Consider social programs like Lifebuoy’s “Help a Child Reach 5,” Dove’s Self-Esteem Project, Barclays’ Digital Eagles or Salesforce’s 1-1-1 Philanthropic Model. They are not about a commercial offering. These firms are no longer in business solely to deliver functional benefits and provide stockholders and others with the benefits that flow from generating sales and making profits. They now have a social purpose with substance. And that changes their relationship with employees in four ways.

Four Reasons Why Social Programs Will Help Engage Employees

1. Garners brand respect, even inspiration

One driver of employee engagement is simply to garner an employee’s respect and admiration for the firm’s brand. Take Lifebuoy and its “Help a Child Reach 5” program: it aims to reduce the number of kids that die from contaminated water by changing hand-washing habits using multiple initiatives including in-school programs. If an employee respects such a program because of its purpose, that respect will be transferred to the firm behind it. The ultimate connection will come when a social program brand not only impresses but inspires and this feeling of inspiration becomes embedded in the relationship an employee has with his or her employer.

2. Produces self-expressive benefits

The values and priorities of employees are not communicated by telling people but by the people they chose to associate with, the activities they pursue and, most importantly, the firm they work for. “Where do you work?” and “What do you do?” are common “get to know you” questions. Working for a firm that has developed social programs that are creative and impactful will reflect on the employee. They will represent his or her values and priorities. For example, one role of Dove’s Self-Esteem Program is to provide self-expressive benefits to the Unilever workforce. They are proud to represent a program that empowers self-confidence in young girls and to be a part of a firm that is willing to make such a program successful.

3. Creates opportunities for involvement

To address a trust crisis in 2011, Barclays empowered employees to develop social programs. A group of 17 employees started the Digital Eagles to create a set of social programs to teach the public about thriving in the digital world. Among its programs are informal “Tea and Teach” sessions for digital skill-building and Digital Wings, an online series of courses that advanced people from newbies to experts. The effort grew to involve over 17,000 employees. The result was a strong sense of community and an enhanced employee experience that is based on shared involvement in a program in which there is both individual and collective pride.

4. Provides natural talking points

What do employees talk about when they get asked about their job especially when the firm is unknown or when there has been negative publicity? How do they describe their firm? Social programs give employees a vehicle to describe an organization they are proud of because of its values, priorities and ability to make the world a better place. While talking about offerings and operations can be dull and uninspiring, a social program can be enlightening and perhaps intriguing. Of course, that which makes an employee’s firm more interesting and appealing will reflect positively on him or her and could even lead to business opportunities. Think of Salesforce’s unique 1-1-1 commitment and challenge, which invites companies to join them in committing 1% of employees’ work time to volunteer, donating 1% of their product to people in need and giving 1% of their equity to a nonprofit. It’s been accepted by some 10,000 firms, providing a meaningful way for employees to share the core values of Salesforce.

“Employees motivated by a social purpose will be more likely to join a firm, turn their back on opportunities to leave the firm, and work effectively and enthusiastically toward the firm’s goals. They will be engaged.”


If you’re a business leader hoping to make an impact on the world today, you’ll need your employees to believe in your organization’s purpose. In Prophet’s Human-Centered Transformation Model, the firm’s DNA, which is comprised of purpose, brand and values, is at the center of employee engagement strategies, and it’s going to be even more powerful when a social program is a part of the business model.

You can find more of my perspectives on branding on the Aaker on Brands blog and by following me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.


Expert Panel: Building Brand Relevance in China in the Era of Restlessness

How Colgate, COLMO, Alibaba and Vogue Business are navigating changing regional consumer sentiment.

Brand relevance is the most important element in determining the long-term success of a brand.

In his book, Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant, David Aaker, the “Father of Modern Branding,” describes his strategic theory on brand relevance for the first time. Aaker emphasizes: “Instead of promoting the superiority of the brand, consider framing a subcategory such that competitors are excluded or placed at a disadvantage. Ensuring that the subcategory wins is a route to brand growth.”

But as a brand marketer, are you sure of how to build and grow brand relevance in today’s rapidly changing business landscape?

In recent years, the China market, in particular, has proven to be especially “restless.” Growing capital sources coupled with hypergrowth e-commerce platforms have lowered the barriers to entry to an increasingly sophisticated and demanding consumer market. Brands must compete to capture consumers’ screentime and customer data through constant innovation, in terms of both products and marketing & sales tactics. But to win in the long-term under these conditions, brands must also focus on relevance now more than ever.

“Instead of promoting the superiority of the brand, consider framing a subcategory such that competitors are excluded or placed at a disadvantage. Ensuring that the subcategory wins is a route to brand growth.”

David Aaker

With the launch of the 2021 Prophet Brand Relevance Index®, we invited four senior experts in consumer brands, e-commerce, and media to sit down with Tom Zhang, senior engagement manager at Prophet. Together they discussed how to effectively establish brand relevance in China, along with key trends, opportunities, and challenges they anticipate.

Expert Panel

These four experts shared thoughtful perspectives on brand building in the China market. Despite the diversity in their thinking and experience, we found some common themes.

Three Core Principles for Brand Marketers Seeking to Drive Relevance

1. A Customer-Centric Approach to Meet Multi-Layered Needs

There’s no question that a brand must be clear about its target consumers as well as their needs and preferences. However, the new generation of consumers is increasingly complex. Information channels are highly fragmented leading to content that is more diverse. The result is a multitude of consumer preferences and values that translates into more nuanced and multi-layered needs. Cenran Hu, Strategy Director at Tmall Fashion, who has been closely tracking the evolution of consumer trends from the platform side, pointed out:

“Chinese consumers are very open to new things, but they can also be quite uncompromising. They have wants, needs and interests. Therefore, brands must take into account these many layers and continually find ways to surprise and delight them.”

— Cenran Hu, Strategy Director of Tmall Fashion (Alibaba Group)

Cenran also added that the high expectations of Chinese consumers mean that brands cannot become “one-trick ponies” and need to constantly create surprises. In this regard, Starbucks is a strong example, as it continues to boldly explore opportunities for product innovation and new digital experiences in the China market. Cenran gave the example of beverage brand Yuanqi Forest (元气森林). In less than 5 years, Yuanqi Forest has grown to become a sought-after 6 billion USD company. The success of Yuanqi Forest is undeniably linked to its ability to redefine its subcategory – sparkling water – from multiple dimensions, including a healthy lifestyle (0 sugar, 0 fat, 0 calories), unique taste and trendy design. Compared to traditional brands such as Perrier, Yuanqi Forest is more in line with Chinese consumers’ demand for differentiated products that meet multi-layered needs.

Yuanqi Forest

Colgate’s Core Brands Marketing Director, Vicky, shares these same views. Colgate believes that increasingly sophisticated young Chinese consumers will force brands to dig deep into pain points to create relevance. A prototypical example is the launch of Colgate’s Miracle Repair toothpaste, which is made with concentrated amino acids. The product was specifically designed to meet the deeper oral care needs of young consumers (anti-premature-aging) as well as their expectations for new offerings.

“Brands must provide tangible benefits to solve practical problems and pain points in consumers’ lives. At the same time, they must inspire when it comes to appearance, design, and experience so that consumers are willing to share and recommend.”

— Vicky Hu, Marketing Director, China Brand Marketing, Core Brands of Colgate China

Click to read how Prophet helped Colgate to refresh its positioning in China

2. Balancing Functional & Emotional to Capture the Minds & Hearts

Functional benefits can help brands quickly seize subcategories, and emotional resonance can help them further secure their place in the hearts of consumers.

In 2018, Midea Group launched its AI-powered home appliance premium sub-brand COLMO, with a clearly defined brand essence – “Simply Extraordinary.” Based on this positioning, the name, visual identity and experience all highlight the concept of “keep climbing,” allowing the brand to have an emotional connection with the target consumer. Arlen, Director of Brand Marketing at COLMO, noted:

“When a brand enters a subcategory, it must achieve a balance between functional and emotional values. Even if the brand defines a new functional subcategory, it must lay the groundwork for emotional resonance in order to establish a higher degree of brand relevance.”

— Arlen Huang, Brand Marketing Director, COLMO (Midea Group)

Click to read how Prophet created COLMO

Denni, Senior Editor at Vogue Business, shared her observations on the fashion industry. Denni believes that in addition to distinctive styles, fashion brands also need to amplify the story behind the design (e.g., designer crossovers, sustainability). Moreover, offline retail and brand experiences play a crucial role in creating emotional connections.

“Brands need to ‘iconize’ their own styles and ideas to lead the market, creating communities like missionaries, thus inspiring consumers and creating deep resonance.”

— Denni Hu, Senior Editor, Vogue Business

3. Playing Offense & Defense in a Restless Era

To take advantage of growing e-commerce platforms and new sources of capital, countless new brands continue to emerge in the China market. For both emerging brands and mature brands, it is increasingly difficult to gain traction in a market that is fiercely competitive and constantly changing.

Today’s restless era and high-stakes environment require brand marketers to maintain both “courage” and “consistency.” While disrupting the status quo through trending hashtags, creative products and maximized traffic, it is also critical not to lose sight of the “core” of brand building. A clear and compelling positioning should serve as the North Star of marketing and innovation; only then can the brand maintain long-term relevance and build brand equity.

“Emerging brands need to be repeatedly refined in order to establish a positioning that is both clear and malleable. Consumers need constant surprises. However, if the core of the brand is not strong, the initial surprises will eventually be short-lived.”

— Cenran Hu, Strategy Director of Tmall Fashion (Alibaba Group)

“In today’s world, to build a strong brand, you must balance ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ tactics – not only leveraging traffic and hot-selling products, but also continuously strengthening the brand ‘moat.’ Companies with multiple brands should proactively find ways to adjust their brand and product mix according to market segments and industry trends, define the role of each brand, and balance sales maximization and brand development.”

— Vicky Hu, Marketing Director, China Brand Marketing, Core Brands of Colgate China


We are delighted to see emerging brands in the China market leveraging e-commerce and social media are creating many new spaces for brands to play in. But as mentioned above, despite the gains from the “speeding up” of traffic and capital, it is particularly important for brands to “slow down.” Brands must be guided by consumer needs, emotionally resonant and clearly positioned in order to ensure brand relevance.

After clarifying these core principles, how can companies effectively measure and improve brand relevance? To learn more about the application of these dimensions, download our 2021 Brand Relevance Index®.


Why Brands Rise—Lessons from Prophet’s BRI

United Airlines, Charles Schwab, Electrolux and Peloton all offer lessons in customer-centricity.

How do you make your brand advance—really advance? Or how do you avoid seeing your brand decline or even crash? One answer is to look at other brands that have recently experienced a dramatic rise in relevance…and learn from them.

This year’s Prophet Brand Relevance Index® (BRI), surveyed 13,000 U.S. consumers to measure the strength of 228 brands from 25 categories across 16 dimensions. In a year of uncertainty, our findings revealed some of the biggest role model brand risers, which are the brands with the biggest jumps on relevance scores across Prophet’s four pillars of relevance: customer-obsessed, distinctly inspired, ruthlessly pragmatic and pervasively innovative. The research conducted by Prophet includes respondents that were active in the category and familiar with the brand. In other words, unlike other brand surveys, the affinity toward the brand is represented rather than distribution scope and awareness levels.

Brands with Rising Equity

There were six brands that increased their overall relevance score significantly during the last two years. Each has a story.

Electrolux had a meaningful brand uptick to reach No. 85 in the BRI rankings. While still lagging behind brands like KitchenAid (No. 3), Keurig (No. 34) and Dyson (No. 30), its rise was due in part to its increase on the innovation scales, likely driven by its new smart appliance products. Its name itself communicates a high-tech connotation in an increasingly digital-savvy era. Electrolux specifically enjoyed a notable increase in “Customer Obsession” or, let’s call it, brand loyalty. The introduction of a sustainability program and the announcement of a vacuum cleaner made out of recycled material most certainly played a key role. As the brand continues to expand in the U.S. market, expect to see more bold moves from Electrolux and growing relevance among consumers in the future.

While Charles Schwab (No. 114) trailed several category leaders—Vanguard (No.27), Fidelity (No. 56) and Robinhood (No. 50)—it still moved comfortably ahead of nine of the 15 financial services brands, increasing its marks on all dimensions. The Schwab appeal to “make managing money as easy as shopping on Amazon” probably felt right to people dealing with the pandemic. The brand played a leader role in mobile-first technology and integrating Google voice commands. Imagine saying, “Hey Google, check my Charles Schwab portfolio.” That’s a win for financial services.

USA Today (No. 214) rose from a bottom position to join the six mainstream media brands such as The New York Times (No. 125) and The Wall Street Journal (No. 201), both of which also rose. While still trailing far behind NPR, it gained impressive ground on “customer-obsessed” and “pervasively innovative.” The pandemic environment may have advanced its accessible and easy-to-read content and contributed to increased downloads of the USA Today mobile app.

“Success creates energy as well.”

United Airlines (No. 211) moved sharply up in 2020, even more so than other airline brands like Delta (No. 146) and American Airlines (No. 180), an interesting trend given our limited ability to travel during the pandemic. While still trailing Jet Blue, Southwest and Alaska, United earned consumers’ trust by partnering with Cleveland Clinic and Clorox to provide CleanPlus protection, offering in-airport COVID testing and much more.

Lemonade (No. 76) jumped to the top with USAA amongst the seven-brand insurance sector with advances in being “customer-obsessed” and “distinctly inspired.” With all the chaos of 2020, consumers no longer consider insurance an annoyance but rather an indispensable partner. The “new brand” has shaken up the industry by introducing an AI model that uses big data to offer a low price, a novel brand image that delights instead of scares, and a big heart that donates up to 49% of unclaimed premiums to nonprofits. These efforts help the brand become more visible, attractive and successful. Success creates energy as well.

Peloton vaulted to the No. 2 position behind Apple, edging out KitchenAid (No. 3) and Mayo Clinic (No. 4) in part based on large increases in being “customer-obsessed” and “ruthlessly pragmatic.” In a year when gyms shut down, Peloton moved quickly to set up instructors to lead classes from home and offered a 90-day free trial, all while delivering more than just an exercise platform, but rather a way to connect to a community that people desperately missed. In some ways, Peloton was in the right place at the right time with the right product, but they also hit the mark by being agile and innovative to quickly meet customers’ needs.


Learnings from the biggest risers in the 2021 Prophet Brand Relevance Index®:

  1. It’s clear that innovation is important. When innovation includes digital and mobile-first strategy, it makes it more impactful and sometimes more visible.
  2. Having a clear and authentic social purpose and social programs can elevate a brand.
  3. Excellence in creating strategy and implementing matters.

Want to learn more about the most relevant brands? Download the 2021 Prophet Brand Relevance Index® today.


David Aaker on COVID-19 & Its Implications for Brands

As consumers value the basics more, companies promising simplicity and reliability have a new advantage.

Branding expert David Aaker recently launched his 17th book, Owning Game-Changing Subcategories: Uncommon Growth in a Digital Age. Associate Partner Bernhard Schaar from Prophet’s Berlin office spoke to Prophet Vice Chairman David Aaker to discuss the background of his new book, his perspectives on COVID-19 and its implications for brands and branding.

Bernhard Schaar: Your latest book, “Owning Game-Changing Subcategories: Uncommon Growth in the Digital Age,” explores why growth is so important for companies. Could you explain briefly why that is and what you mean by the term “uncommon growth”?

David Aaker: Growth is healthy because it brings benefits to different stakeholders. For customers, it generates reassurance and credibility and often energy and excitement as well. For organizations, it represents momentum—growth creates growth. For employees, it represents opportunity, pride in the organization and even meaning in work-life—the absence of growth can be discouraging or even depressing and job-threatening.

Uncommon growth is growth that is substantially higher than the expected growth year-to-year. It is out of the ordinary.

BS: What are the key learnings you would like readers to get from your book?

DA: I would highlight four main learnings.

  • First, real growth comes from new subcategory creation defined by attributes that customers view as “must haves”, not from a “my brand is better than your brand” strategy. Competing only on incremental improvements is no longer enough.
  • Second, to grow you need to become the exemplar brand of the subcategory, to position, scale and build barriers.
  • Third, brand communities are an important way for customers to become involved in the subcategory and bond with the brand and others who share a common interest and/or activity.
  • Fourth, digital has put subcategory creation on steroids, with the rapid acceleration of e-commerce, social media, live streaming, O2O and Internet of Things (IoT).

BS: Let’s talk about each of these to better understand your perspective. What do you mean with subcategories and why are they important for growth?

DA: A key element to successful subcategory competition that is ignored in most innovation and strategy books is branding. I wanted to introduce brand into the arena of strategic innovation and market disruption. An exemplar brand has three jobs in addition to refining and testing the “must haves”:

  1. It needs to position the subcategory, making the “must haves” visible.
  2. It needs to be scaled to create the momentum of fast growth,
  3. It needs to create barriers, one way of doing that is storytelling – which, by the way, was treated in my previous book “Signature Stories” in great detail.

BS: You mentioned branded communities as one of the key insights of your book. What role do they play in helping brands to own a subcategory?

DA: Branded communities are groups of people that bond because of shared involvement in some activity or interest area connected to a brand. Brand communities create or enhance brand relationships, add energy and involvement, provide credibility and build barriers to competitors. It is hard to draw a customer away from a brand community they are engaged in to another. Nike, for example, has built a strong brand community of sports lovers who share the same passion and aspirations. It has been built in part by integrating its digital platforms to connect and engage. Its agility and creativity was shown when it rapidly launched its virtual workout classes via their Nike Training Club app.

BS: What has been the impact of digital on the creation of new subcategories?

DA: Creating new subcategories has always been, with rare exceptions, the only path to real growth. But the arrival of digital in the last two decades has put subcategory creation on steroids. They are now more frequent, they grow much faster and they have more upside, by a big margin. In the digital era, a huge number of subcategories have been generated or enabled by:

  • The Internet of Things (IoT) has created smart homes with products like the NEXT thermostat and forced manufacturers like Bosch to adapt by adding digital features to their product portfolio. Other technological advances such as GPS, which has enabled Uber and the expanded Internet, made the iPhone and thousands more products possible.
  • E-commerce. Entrepreneurs no longer face the barrier of getting into retail or creating a salesforce. Brands like AirBnB globally, or fashion brands like Zalando, or digital pioneers like eBay and online automotive retailer Mobile Dealer have enjoyed almost instant distribution and access to markets.
  • Social media. For some that are skilled and lucky in using social media and websites it can replace months of planning and a huge media budget with fast and sometimes very inexpensive communication. Dollar Shave Club started with a video that cost $5000 and attracted 12,000 members in two days starting a firm that was sold four years later for one billion dollars.

BS: What recommendations do you have for brand executives to achieve uncommon growth through owning game-changing subcategories?

DA: In the start-up world, this thinking is fundamental to their business – they are doing exactly that already. But large established firms need to prepare for this new reality by keeping up with technological development, adapting their distribution to include e-commerce and becoming good at communication in the digital age. Strategically, there needs to be a realization that the best path to growth is now owning new subcategories that change the customer experience or brand relationship.

BS: Your book was written pre-COVID-19 but as we are moving towards a New Normal, we can see changes happening and priorities shifting both on the consumer and brand side. What is your point of view on this? How have consumers and their expectations changed?

DAa: There are a host of changes in behavior caused by the crisis – among others, people are valuing the basics more. The search for simplicity and reliability is more pronounced. More fundamentally, peoples’ values and acknowledging what is really important to them have changed. Social contacts, trust, authenticity, higher purpose and keeping safe have all been dialed up. Some of these changes will represent opportunities for new ways of serving customers.

BS: What is keeping brands from doing this? What can, for example, companies do to create and own more of these game-changing subcategories you highlight?

DA: This is probably an organizational issue. Much of what we, at Prophet, talk about in management culture and digital transformation applies. The basic problem is that established businesses within big firms are generating strong profits and have financial and political control over budgets and strategies. They are really adept at operations, making incremental improvements in offerings and marketing and showing positive return for those improvements. They are also good at pointing out flaws in strategies that have not been fully developed and tested. As a result, moonshots get killed or starved.

“Uncommon growth is growth that is substantially higher than the expected growth year-to-year. It is out of the ordinary.”

A good way to move ahead is to protect the future efforts by creating a new subcategory and giving a separate budget, and perhaps even a separate organization, that physically is separated from the core organization. A flat organizational structure can also help. Additionally, a firm can work on its culture and decision-making process to allow the innovation around new subcategories to live or even thrive. The measurement of people needs to reflect a risky mission and should not be mainly geared to running the existing business well. Game-changing subcategories don’t create themselves; you need to find and promote them.

BS: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?

DA: In regular times, and even more so in challenging times such as today, those brands that disrupt the marketplace by creating new subcategories that are anchored on a set of “must haves” and effective exemplar brands are the ones that will continue to achieve uncommon growth. If a loyal brand community can be developed, then success will be assured.


In the future, the successful brands, in my view, will often be those that are agile and flexible, have employed digital effectively, are truly empathic and have a higher purpose and find ways to connect with customers in a meaningful and involving way.

Want to interview Dave or feature him on your next podcast? Please connect with David Aaker directly.

Explore how David Aaker and Prophet can help your business create game-changing brands that resonate with both your customers and employees.


Winning in the Post-COVID-19 World: Trends Here to Stay

Employees yearn for more meaning at work and customers are looking for brands they can respect and admire.

In the talk themed “Winning in the Post-COVID-19 World,” I reflected on what changes prompted by COVID-19 are likely to persist and what strategies and programs winning organizations are likely to employ, drawing from the books Aaker on Branding, Creating Signature Stories and Owning Game-Changing Subcategories.

There have been a host of changes in human attitudes and behaviors that have been stimulated or more frequently accelerated by COVID-19.  Many of these will persist, some at a high level, and will affect the strategy options for many industries.

Here are the changes that are here to stay beyond 2020.

1. Search for meaning in life and work.

The virus has prompted many to reevaluate their life and work and assess what is really important. The result is often a realization that their hopes and time allocation need to change to elevate what is truly meaningful and rewarding to them.

One implication is that it is more important than ever for organizations to have a higher purpose that engenders inspiration among both employees looking for meaning at work and customers looking for brands they can respect and admire. A higher purpose can be offer-driven (we make insanely great products), culture-driven (our students and faculty have confidence without attitude) or social/environmentally driven (Avon walk for breast cancer; Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan)

2. Need for social connections.

The shelter-in-place world made even more vivid what is universally known and true, that for most people, social interaction and connection is a valued and, indeed, a necessary part of human existence.

“It is more important than ever for organizations to have a higher purpose that engenders inspiration among both employees looking for meaning at work and customers looking for brands they can respect and admire.”

That means that brand communities will be even more valuable to both people and brands. A brand community is a group of people that share involvement in an activity, issue or interest area with a brand as a focal point.  Examples are the Harley-Davidsons HOGS (motorcycles and rides), Etsy craft makers (how to make and market crafts), Sephora Beauty Insider (talk, be inspired and get advice about beauty).  They all provide opportunities to interact, connect and belong to a group in addition to providing the brand with a strong link to a committed customer base

3. Valuing trust and authenticity

The importance of earning trust in brands and institutions, which has been eroding for well over a decade, was reaffirmed in the days of the pandemic and surrounding events.  In this context, being able to communicate in an authentic, trustworthy way becomes critical. That means that stories must play a more important role because facts by themselves are not effective communication vehicles and often do not suggest trust or authenticity.

Stories, particular signature stories that “Wow!” and communicate a strategic message, are more able to communicate values and programs that engender trust and authenticity.  When well selected and presented, they will attract attention, change perceptions, distract from counter-arguing, affect behavior and be authentically remembered.

4. Acceleration of change

There were a host of changes that were underway before COVID-19, like working from home, the use of remote conferencing, concern about health and safety, the rise of e-commerce and the power of social media. But all these trends and more have accelerated as has the level of market dynamics. It is increasingly problematic to assume that future business will look the same as the past and that a “my brand is better than your brand” marketing strategy will work.

Strategically, there needs to be a realization that the best path to growth is now owning new subcategories that change the customer experience or brand relationship. The first task is to find or create a compelling set of “must-haves” that are valued by a core customer group. The second is to become the new subcategory exemplar brand that positions, scales and builds barriers.

On May 22, 2020, David Aaker shared these insights with a live audience of 180,000 in India at the MastersSpeak series sponsored by Future Generali, a major India Life Insures Company.  To learn more about creating subcategories that drive uncommon growth at a time of disruption, pick up a copy of his new book, Owning Game-Changing Subcategories: Uncommon Growth in the Digital Age. It is available wherever books are sold.      


As the world moves through the pandemic, marketers must stay alert to the zeitgeist. Many of these changes–especially the need for human connection,, the search for meaning and comfort with the ramped-up pace of change–will be with us for some time. Brands should respond accordingly.


Owning Game-Changing Subcategories: A Conversation with David Aaker About His 17th Book

Digital powerhouses like Airbnb, Salesforce and Dollar Shave Club demonstrate the transformative power of subcategories.

It’s been nearly 20 years since I started working with my mentor and friend David Aaker. Dave inspired me to write my first book, Brand Asset Management and my second, with my Prophet partner in crime, Michael Dunn, called Building the Brand Driven Business.  Dave remains a shining light in helping all of us think of brands as true assets that cannot only unlock true accretive enterprise value but can be also leveraged as a strategic north star in helping a company reach its longer-term growth aspirations.

“To grow you need to become the exemplar brand to position, scale, and build barriers.”

David’s ability to evolve his business acumen, while grounding it into his key landmark idea – brand relevance – has made him an icon in the eyes of generations of marketers like myself. His 17th and latest book, Owning Game-Changing Subcategories: Uncommon Growth in the Digital Age, tackles brand-building amidst digital transformation – a topic that could not be more important today.

As organizations and brands face unprecedented change, opportunities and challenges (i.e. coronavirus), they must turn to digital to continue to grow. Dave and I had a (virtual) catch-up recently to learn more about his book and what marketing leaders can gain by creating “must-haves” in the digital age.

Your new book, Owning Game-Changing Subcategories: Uncommon Growth in the Digital Age, is launching in early April. Why did you pick this subject and why now? 

I observed in category after category— from Japanese beers to automobiles to computers— bursts of growth were almost always explained by the formation or reframing of a subcategory created by a new or improved customer experience or brand relationship.  It almost never was caused by a “my brand is better than your brand” strategy.  So, I felt that there would be value in a compact book that explained why that assertion was true and how to implement a subcategory growth strategy.

Of course, digital is putting subcategory growth strategies on steroids by enabling subcategories and their exemplar brands to pop up more often and grow at incredible rates. I knew that I needed to factor in digital’s prominent role into the book’s insights as it is a true accelerator in both overall brand and the use of subcategory growth.

You dive into several real-world examples of brands that are achieving growth by creating categories of their own. What are some of your favorite brands you discuss? Why?

The first was Asahi Super Dry which immediately took 10 share points from Kirin because it defined a new subcategory with a new taste AND a young, cool personality. Then there was the Chrysler minivan, which created and owned the minivan subcategory for 15 years with no competition. Enterprise Rent-A-Car became, for decades, the exemplar and only relevant brand for a subcategory that targeted an underserved market, those with a car under repair.

My favorite brands of the digital age include Airbnb, Dollar Shave Club and  Each developed a new subcategory and customer experience and then expanded and enhanced that experience over time.  Each also created a persona and brand relationship that delivered energy, passion, and creativity.   Airbnb inspired and enabled the owner/managers to be entrepreneurial hosts.  Dollar Shave Club and both burst onto the scene as a feisty underdog ready to take on the established giants with an irreverent sense of humor.

What is the biggest takeaway you hope readers gain by reading your book?

There are four takeaways.

First, real growth comes from relevant subcategory creation, not from “my brand is better than your brand” competition based upon differentiation.

Second, to grow you need to become the exemplar brand to position, scale, and build barriers. Unlike other innovation strategy books, this book recognizes the role of brand building that makes a new subcategory come to life and win the day both win the short term and over time.

Third, brand communities in the digital age are an important way for customers to become involved in the subcategory and bond with the brand and others that share a common interest and/or activity.  Brand communities can be built around B2B products or even at companies with ‘commoditized’ products or services but a social program that has relevance and energy like that illustrated by Dove’s self-esteem initiatives.

Fourth, digital has put subcategory creation on steroids through the Internet of Things (IoT), e-commerce, social media and websites, and brand communities.

You wrote your first book in the seventies, now you’re about to publish your 17th book in 2020.  What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the decades?  What has remained the same?

The concept of brand equity is the same.  It is brand visibility, brand associations, and the size and strength of the customer base.  And the process involved in creating and building brands is much the same as well.

One change is the enhanced role of higher brand purpose, particularly social higher purposes.  Employees, especially, younger ones, need motivation that raises above increasing sales and profits.  And customers increasingly value a higher purpose as part of a brand relationship.

Another is the power of digital—the IoT impact on offerings, e-commerce and social media providing customer access, and brand communities all have created a more dynamic marketplace, accelerated innovation and new subcategory formation. The digital era makes it more challenging to create messaging that breaks through. One answer is to package content into stories that involve, entertain, engender emotion, intrigue etc. in order to attract attention, change perceptions and avoid counter-arguing.

How has the necessity for brands to “go digital” shaped your current perspective on topics like “brand equity”?

In my view, digital transformation has an important strategic role to play in marketing and organizational strategy. Digital can enable the creation and success of new subcategories providing strategic growth platforms that become the basis of strategic vitality and success.  Too often the focus is on the tactical role of digital. Its exciting to see the way Prophet is changing to help our clients with their digital transformations.

One of your passions is brand relevance. Not only did you write the book about it, but you’ve entered it into the lexicon of marketers and executives everywhere. What does it mean to be a relevant brand in the digital age?

Being relevant means being visible and credible with respect to a subcategory.  So, it is context-specific.  A brand that is relevant to automobiles does not mean it is relevant to compact hybrids.  Becoming the exemplar brand is critical because it is not only the one positioning, scaling and building barriers, but its status as the subcategory representative makes it the most relevant or even the only relevant brand.

In this digital age, the road to relevance almost always needs to involve digital-enabled communication to provide both visibility and credibility and a website to represent the brand message in all its multiple dimension richness.  And digital enables brand communities, a loyalty driver, to thrive.

You’ve been called the “father of modern branding.” What is your personal brand?

My purpose and my brand has been to encourage organizations to manage for the long-term by building brand assets that will be the basis of their future success.  That has not changed even though digital has expanded the challenge and enabled new routes to that goal. My brand also involves aspirational process elements such as research-based ideas, rigorous conceptual thinking, and humor.

Look out for David Aaker’s book wherever books are sold, including online and e-book retailers. Learn more about Owning Game-Changing Subcategories and reach out if you’d like to connect with David or any other experts from Prophet.


While many of the principles of modern branding remain the same, digital continues to make some more powerful than ever. The right subcategories can add rocket fuel to growth strategies.