How Verbal Branding Can Amplify Your Transformation

Story-telling, innovation and personalization all help differentiate, deliver and win in the market.

With rising customer expectations, companies across industries are investing in innovative experiences, digital marketing capabilities, and organizational change to attract and retain talent. But with fast-moving timelines and competing demands, they can’t always invest in storytelling, a key component in influencing and driving change.

Verbal branding—or the strategic deployment of language through tools like voice, messaging, content strategy and copy—plays a key role in optimizing the return on these investments, ensuring companies make thoughtful choices about their communications in these high-impact moments.

In this article, we offer three imperatives for organizations to consider when using their verbal branding to differentiate, deliver their promise, and win in the market.

Meet Customers’ Expectations for Personalized, Connected Communications

More and more, customers expect a consistent experience across channels – from mentioning a brand on Twitter to calling customer service. They expect their interactions to be seamless, with one channel easily picking up a conversation started in another (for example, starting in a chatbot and following up by phone—these two interactions use different systems but are ideally connected by a centralized customer data platform to create a unified customer picture). In short, customers want brands to recognize them as the same person across different channels and interactions.

While these channels and interactions have different formats, functions and requirements, they need to feel creatively and strategically cohesive. The implication for brands is ensuring that all these channels—whether automated or human-enabled—are on-voice and on-message.

But cohesive doesn’t necessarily mean uniform. The best service interactions modulate based on user sentiment. They can sense excitement, frustration, confusion, and adapt as needed. This can be achieved through both human and digital capability.

For example, it can be as simple as empowering call center reps with cues on how to identify customer archetypes based on emotion and providing discrete service journeys and scripts for them. This is particularly important for industries that customers approach with sensitivity or trepidation, such as financial services or healthcare.

“Verbal branding plays a key role in optimizing the return on these investments, ensuring companies make thoughtful choices about their communications in these high-impact moments.”

At the same time, brands using natural language processing tools, such as in-chatbot experiences, can similarly “train” their Natural Language Processing (NLP) tool to not only identify the customer’s desired “job to be done,” but to detect underlying emotion and adapt responses accordingly. For example, a chatbot that can sense a customer’s frustration about a delayed order, offer sympathy and quickly route them to live chat support, can help repair the customer’s brand perception in a tenuous moment.

Invest in Innovation—and its Expression

While many companies prioritize investing in new products and experiences, sometimes they don’t consider the importance of the words used to guide their audiences through them.

Rather than viewing product and expression as separate steps in the process, they should be developed in tandem as complementary assets, working together to shape how customers interact with and perceive the brand. Effective verbal expression (in this case, UX writing) bridges the gap between the layout and usability of the product.

Regardless of how brilliantly developed the product is, without clear and engaging written cues, the audience (customers or employees) may struggle to use or navigate it. More broadly, however, approaching innovation solely through a product lens misses an opportunity to embody the brand’s verbal identity. Effective copy can help a brand make a human connection with users that’s often not possible through design alone.

Brands should develop on-voice UX writing that has clear user goals in mind and reflects the likely emotional mindset of customers at various stages of their journey. Using this approach, copy can help drive self-progression or clarify complex topics in an engaging, on-brand manner—without disrupting the experience.

Brands that harness the strategic prowess of UX writing will excel at forming closer bonds with customers over brands who merely prioritize function in their innovations.

Use Storytelling to Galvanize Employees Around a Shared Vision, Meet Mandates and Drive Retention

The “Big Quit” is upon us. In an increasingly competitive talent market following a year that has upended what work looks like, employee expectations are rapidly changing. To meet this upheaval, impactful verbal expression can play a vital role in shaping experiences that respond to employee needs and catapult desired organizational change.

From crafting a meaningful shared vision to galvanizing employee sentiment, retaining key talent and attracting prospective candidates, transformational organization change requires a comprehensive accompanying voice and messaging strategy.

For example, how might we excite employees about new innovations? Inspire employees to care about new internal initiatives? Bring new hires into the corporate culture and values? Present a compelling case for change?

Like customers, employees are not a monolith. Different customer segments have different needs and respond to different ways of messaging. Companies with robust customer segmentation strategies can take the same approach with their employees, creating targeted messaging to meet specific employee audience group needs.

Taking a strategic messaging approach allows brands to connect external brand ambition to internal employee communication and experience, ultimately aligning the organization behind shared ambition, values, and purpose.


Words shape how we see and experience the world. Now more than ever, verbal branding can play a crucial role in driving and amplifying transformational change. To capitalize on this opportunity, brands should prioritize verbal expression when shaping service and support channels, developing new product experiences and engaging employees along the way.


2021 Brand Winners and Losers: From Taylor Swift to Billionaires in Space

Colleagues helped me name seven brands that won the year, and five brands that simply blew it.

Just a year ago, I talked about how 2020 was unprecedented for so many reasons. And 2021 seems to be a “rinse and repeat” of the same themes, relative to the brands that showed up to surprise and delight us, as well those that failed or disappointed us. Once again, I turned to my 500 Prophet colleagues around the globe to help decide which brands won and which lost.

There was a lot to chew on. In a year when Square turned into a Block, Facebook became Meta and the Cleveland Indians transformed into the Guardians, the debates got intense.

For instance, last year’s clear-cut winner, Peloton, got votes on both sides. Is it a winner because people still love it? Or a loser since it just slashed its annual sales forecast by $1 billion, as more consumers head back to the gym? Zoom, another of last year’s winners, continues to be as integral to people’s workday as that second cup of coffee–and is on its way to becoming a leading tech sector brand.

Many mentioned the streaming wars, which rose to a whole new level. There’s the introduction of Paramount Plus. HBO Max is taking a gamble, streaming new theatrical releases, like “The Many Saints of Newark.” And then there’s Netflix, which may have seen new subscriptions levels drop but also saw “Squid Games” become the most popular show in its history, pulling in an astonishing 1.65 billion hours of viewing in just 28 days.

Some of our favorite ‘new’ everyday brands went public, including Sweetgreen, Roblox, ZipRecruiter and Instacart, while many crypto brands saw their market value aspire toward FANG territory, only to correct themselves dramatically.  Every year, we think we’ve reached the apex of DTC brands, only to have us see another set of stellar performers. This year, those stars include Away, the ever-expanding Bombas, weight loss king Noom and the “lit” cosmetic world of ColourPop and Glossier.

And while everyone wants to pounce on Facebook renaming itself as Meta (and this would be an easy one to put on our brand loser list) as a colossal misstep, we do think the jury’s still out and want to revisit this a year from now. It’s a strategy that’s worked well for Alphabet and Google and, if they pull off the idea of taking us all into the next digital era, exploring augmented, virtual and mixed reality technologies, while working deeply on the many issues facing the brand, this could be a different story a year from now

“Every year, we think we’ve reached the apex of DTC brands, only to have us see another set of stellar performers.”

We also took a close look at the sports betting business. While it’s currently dominated by FanDuel, followed by DraftKings, newcomer Caesars Sportsbook is also making a splash, vowing to spend $1 billion to build its fan base. That includes a deal putting its logo on the jerseys of the NHL’s Washington Capitals. Speaking of sports, we still embrace our love/hate relationship with Tom Brady as both the GOAT/Sports Illustrated Person of the Year, as well as becoming an increasingly influential commercial representative…see his star turn in Hertz’s new Tesla ads.

Finally, we still love our LEGO as it continues to lead the way in reducing gender bias and increasing inclusive play. We also love Target for putting the permanent kibosh on Black Friday, starting on Thanksgiving. Rarely do airlines get a mention, but three cheers to United Airlines for becoming the first to make vaccines mandatory, the first to fly passengers using 100% sustainable aviation fuel and the first to ensure that 50% of its flight school students are women or people of color. We also have to give kudos to Sesame Street, one of my favorite clients from a few decades ago, in continuing to give us all timely lessons on how to deal with racial challenges, inclusivity, diversity and empathy. It’s a brand that is as ageless as it is wise.

Now that we are done with the warmup act, let’s get into the winners and losers for 2021.

The Brand Winners

Moderna and Pfizer

It’s no surprise that Merriam-Webster named “vaccination” as the word of the year, injecting people everywhere with much-needed hope. Moderna and Pfizer top our list. (Johnson & Johnson misses, both because it was later for approval and because while its one-dose advantage could have been a game-changer, it suffered by being perceived as less effective.) With more than 8 billion jabs given, experts say vaccines are still our best shot at stemming the ongoing global health crisis and these two brands continue to lead the charge.


TikTok is now so much more than the 1 billion monthly users who vibe with its dance challenges or laugh with its happy pranksters or wiseass dachshunds. TikTok directly influences all forms of entertainment, all forms of business and pretty much everything in between. Just a few years removed from Lil Nas X and his Old Town Road becoming the O.G. for viral musical successes, TikTok creators used Adele’s Easy On Me in almost one million videos in the first month after its release, helping it go viral on the app alone. To say that TikTok has become the No. 1 global influencing platform would be the understatement of the year.

Feeding America

I’ve never put a nonprofit on the list of winners. But Feeding America continues to astound us with its rapid growth, canny corporate partnerships and ability to connect people even in these divisive times. It’s grim, but the U.S. is finally hunger woke, recognizing that 38 million people, including 12 million children, are food insecure. Feeding America’s brand makes it easier to help and, potentially, see an end to hunger at some point in our lifetime.

Tesla (again)

In a year when many automakers saw sales decline due to supply-chain shortages, Tesla sales hit new records. And with revenues and profits that are beating analysts’ expectations, its soaring market value shows just how deeply people love the house that Elon built. Even more amazing? While Tesla’s cars still rank nearly last in reliability surveys, it sped past Mercedes-Benz to become the third most popular luxury ride in the U.S. (Lookout, Lexus and BMW. It’s gaining.)


Think of it as the anti-Nike, with the determination to move in on Lululemon and the athleisure market. This Gap-owned retailer welcomed high-profile athletes like runner Allyson Felix and gymnast Simone Biles, who publicly broke with Nike over its treatment of women athletes. And, with the Power of She campaign, it’s winning with teens–and well on its way to becoming a $2 billion brand by 2023.

Taylor Swift

Demonstrating that she’s one of the best marketers in the business, the singer struck back against the music machine by re-engineering 2012’s “Red” album, igniting her fan base and winning new admirers. The centerpiece is a 10-minute version of the heartbreaking “All Too Well,” which became the longest song ever to reach Billboard’s No. 1. (Adios, “American Pie.”) We’ll just quote Ms. Magazine here on Swift’s feminist tour de force: “Taylor Swift didn’t just re-record an album—she reclaimed her humanity.”


Yes, Bitcoin and cryptocurrency prices have fallen sharply recently, wiping out almost $500 million worth of value from the overall crypto market in just a few days. But cryptocurrency still had a breakout year, moving towards the mainstream. Celebrity endorsers are all in, with Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen telling us, “I’m getting into crypto with FTX. You in?” And Matt Damon is representing, which is also the new name of the Staples Center. Like electric cars and Tesla, Bitcoin still dominates any conversation about crypto.

The Brand Losers


Some of the most disturbing allegations from Facebook whistleblowing centered on Instagram. Turns out the company has known for some time how toxic the platform can be to the teens who love it, with 32% of teens saying that when they feel bad about their bodies, Instagram makes them feel worse. Concealing that, in our book, is downright shameful. With just over a billion active users, it’s not going away anytime soon. The reports are damning enough that Lush, the body care products company, recently shut down its social media accounts, saying they risk customers’ mental health.

Billionaires in Space

I’m as eager as the next person to boldly go where no human has gone before, but companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin show they’ve got the wrong stuff. At a time when tension between the haves the have-nots keep growing, especially within Bezos Amazon world, these ego-boosting launches are about little more than celebs in space.


We’ve always wanted to love the Chevrolet Bolt. Not only is it the second-best-selling EV brand in the U.S., but it also beat No. 1 Tesla with a genuinely mass-market EV. And its vow to be all-electric by 2035 got our attention. Then came the massive recalls for defective batteries, with severe design concerns that shut production down for weeks. Then Bolt owners got more bad news when GM advised them to park at least 50 feet away from other cars to reduce the risk that a spontaneous fire could spread.


Robinhood started as an exciting brand, promising to democratize investing. With no fees, it’s tempted 19 million new investors into the stock market, gathering $95 billion in assets under custody. But with the GameStop frenzy, it closed trading, earning the enmity of both regulators and the Reddit bros that are its customer base, with a backlash that’s still generating contempt. The move was anything but customer-centric and now the brand is paying for it.


For years, branding experts (even us, sometimes) loved the way Casper, a DTC upstart, vowed to “own” sleep, with showrooms offering complimentary naps and ancillary products. But a year after its disastrous public offering and mounting losses, it’s gone private again. Besides illustrating its operational immaturity and brand braggadocio, it underscores the DTC dilemma. Acquiring new customers is expensive. And really, people don’t buy new mattresses all that often.


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.

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Driving Growth With a Purpose-Led ESG Strategy

Communicating where you stand is critical: Most Americans choose or avoid brands based on social issues.

Delivering “impact” has taken on extraordinary new meaning in the last two years. Across the world, consumers, employees, and other key stakeholders became focused on how brands deliver impact through ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) practices with 2 in 3 consumers willing to pay more for products and services from brands that are committed to making a positive social impact. As a result, the challenge for brands has shifted from talking the talk to walking the walk.

It has become clear simply articulating and communicating purpose is not enough to drive meaningful value. Case in point: according to a global survey of 474 executives conducted by Harvard Business Review, 90% of executives said their organization understands the importance of purpose, but only 46% said it informs strategic and operational decisions.

To create value, we believe purpose must act as the North Star across the organization. At the epicenter of all activity, purpose has the power to drive business transformation including new business models, product and service design, employee engagement and more. Specifically, organizations that tie their ESG strategy to purpose—and thus, business and brand strategy—shift away from risk mitigation towards value-additive action better integrated with the business.

Today, ESG strategies are too often isolated from the business and either focused purely on hitting rating agency benchmarks or generating positive publicity. Using purpose to drive a linkage across the business, brand and ESG strategy prevents risks associated with virtue washing and ultimately drives competitive advance with differentiated value propositions.

How to Activate ESG to Create Value

So how does a company tie its ESG strategy to its purpose? First, it must build a statement of intent, defining specific plans to deliver its purpose to its community and society at large. For example, ING Bank demonstrates its purpose, “empower people to stay a step ahead in life and in business,” with a slightly more specific ESG strategy aimed at “helping customers and society stay a step ahead of the challenges they’re facing.” By honing its ESG strategy on the “challenges they’re facing,” ING is able to define how it fulfills its purpose in the communities it operates with.

“2 in 3 consumers willing to pay more for products and services from brands that are committed to making a positive social impact.”

While an ESG strategy states how the purpose will come to life, related impact areas allow the organization to focus on its activation efforts. An organization’s impact areas are thematic areas the organization will execute against to bring the ESG strategy to life.

To define these impact areas, organizations should consider four lenses while remaining focused and meaningful in their efforts and, without spreading themselves too thin. Impact areas must be:

1. Specific:

Do impact areas clearly align with the organization’s core business offers and enable necessary choices and tradeoffs? P&G manufactures thousands of products that consumers use in their everyday lives. Because the production, distribution, and waste of these products can contribute negatively to the effects of climate change, P&G has focused one impact area on packaging sustainability, committing to 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2030.

2. Ownable:

Do impact areas build from strengths and competencies the organization has today to ensure it can have a unique and material impact in the market? BlackRock’s purpose is to “help more people experience financial well-being,” resulting in an embedded focus on long-term financial sustainability across the business. In pursuing this focus, Blackrock saw an opportunity to focus on impact, setting out to build a new platform to invest in mission-oriented businesses. In 2019, the new platform launched, leveraging existing scale and expertise to strengthen Blackrock’s position while bolstering its intention to make a long-term impact.

3. Applicable:

Are the impact areas appealing and applicable to the organization’s colleagues, customers and communities? The aviation industry accounts for roughly 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Delta Air Lines’ carbon footprint is its largest environmental impact, with 98% of emissions coming from its aircraft. In 2020, Delta focused on carbon neutrality, with the goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral airline globally.

4. Measurable:

Are the impact areas conducive to being objectively measured? ABInBev, the world’s largest brewer, embarked on a goal to ensure 100% of its communities in high-stress areas have measurably improved water availability and quality by 2025. Within its breweries, teams leverage internal systems to monitor water use on a routine basis and develop bespoke tools to review operations on a quarterly basis.

“We aim to lead a corporate shift toward measurability and accountability, ensuring that our local investments and programs translate into lasting impacts on water quality and availability for our communities and our operations around the world,” states ABInBev’s stewardship campaign.

Making an Impact in All Directions

The need to connect ESG to purpose has never been more urgent. In 2020, almost 60% of Americans said they would “choose, avoid, or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues,” compared to only 47% in 2017. And more than half (53%) of consumers who are disappointed with a brand’s words or actions on a social issue complain about it.

Companies that build their ESG strategies and related impact areas to deliver on their purpose will create memorable, human-centered experiences that allow customers, employees, and other stakeholders to grasp the power of the organization’s efforts. Capturing impact through signature stories creates memorable, human-centered stories for customers, employees and other stakeholders to grab onto as examples of the impact of your ESG impact areas.


We are all learning how to move forward together, and business leaders are no exception. The challenges of tomorrow have arrived, and the world is eager to witness how companies respond. Any brand can tell a story about how they plan to make a difference. However, the most relentlessly relevant brands are those that put words into action.

Contact us to learn more about how to create a purpose-led ESG strategy that drives growth for your organization.


The State of New Consumer Brands in China

Disruptive brands are redefining the status quo, pushing mature competitors to redefine themselves.

The rapid rise of the so-called “new consumer brands” in China has led many marketers to invest in understanding the secrets to consumer brand success. Based on decades of experience building relentlessly relevant brands, we will take a look at the emergence of this phenomenon and its foreseeable challenges.

On October 20, the 2021 Singles’ Day Shopping Festival was officially launched. The sales from Austin (Jiaqi) Li and Viyaaa’s live broadcasts reached $1.8 billion and $1.3 billion USD, respectively. The emerging domestic cosmetics brand, Bloomage Biotech’s QuadHA, which only gained traction in the last two years, had a single-day sales volume of $52.3 million USD. Amidst this unparalleled growth frenzy, what are the driving forces accelerating the success of new consumer brands?

The rapid rise of new consumer brands is defined by three major drivers – people, goods and channels.

First, the post-95s generation possesses huge buying power and is the main force driving consumption upgrades. As digital natives, this generation is constructed of eager online shoppers who are prone to impulse buying and willing to pay for aesthetics and good design.

“Digitization has redefined the entire shopping experience, enabling multiple business models to exist simultaneously.”

Next, fueled by enormous capital funding, new and evolving brands have continued to energize the consumer market. During 2021’s 618 shopping festival, 459 new brands topped the Tmall industry bestsellers list, whereas 2020’s Double 11 festival only had 357 new brands as top sellers.

Lastly, digitization has redefined the entire shopping experience, enabling multiple business models to exist simultaneously. For example, HeyTea enables seamless online to offline transactions through its WeChat mini-program, helping customers avoid long queuing times. The C2M (consumer to manufacturer) model sends customer feedback directly to manufacturers, empowering them by providing closer linkage to consumers’ needs and wants. Genki Forest leverages both convenience stores and e-commerce channels to test and incubate new products.

Source: Genki Forest

With the gradual saturation of the new consumer market, top brands are becoming more mature. In turn, investors’ strategies have also begun to change. They are no longer casting wide nets and testing multiple routes; instead, they are focusing on developing resilient brands by carefully selecting investment opportunities with disruptive potential.

So, how can emerging brands showcase their potential, and how can mature brands solidify their advantages? In this article, we’ll explore what it takes for consumer brands to win in the market today.

Four Key Aspects of the New Consumer Brands Phenomenon

Today’s new consumer brands have acquired the foundation and engine for the steady rise and explosive growth. This has accelerated the consumption upgrade and innovation trends in the market. While emerging brands are creating new subcategories, mature brands are also actively evolving and transforming. Among the leading brands, many are continuously optimizing their supply chains and leveraging sophisticated social commerce strategies to establish deeper connections with consumers.

With the continuous evolution of the new consumer market, we need to pay attention to four key aspects:

1. Disruptive Brands Redefine the Status Quo

Amid ongoing pressure from mature, traditional brands and ever-rising consumer expectations, many disruptive new brands have broken through and continued to expand by creating new subcategories or capturing existing ones.

Launched in 2018, Zihai Pot disrupted the concept of traditional hot pot by creating a new subcategory – instant hot pot. Different than the conventional hot pot that is eaten in a group setting at restaurants, Zihai Pot can be enjoyed by oneself anywhere and anytime. As “hometainment” became a prominent trend during the Covid-19 pandemic, Zihai Pot saw accelerated growth, surpassing $94 million USD in sales in the first half of 2020. Within four years, “Zihai Pot” is no longer just a brand name; it has become a category name in itself, with consumers associating the brand with all types of self-heating food. This has created a perception in consumers’ minds that the brand is the category, and the category is the brand.

Another interesting example is Cha Yan Yue Se, a highly sought-after Internet-famous milk tea shop. Notably, it did not follow the rapid expansion strategy of competitor brands. Instead, it deeply rooted itself in Changsha, offering limited locations in other cities and creating a sense of scarcity and mystery. This strategy allowed the brand to become an entire cultural phenomenon. Chan Yan Yue Se is now a major landmark in Changsha, attracting tourists from all over China as they embark on “The Pilgrimage” to visit.

Young consumers lining up for Cha Yan Yue Se (Source: CBNWeekly)

2. Mature Brands Reimagine Themselves

Faced with increasing pressure from cutting-edge brands, mature brands are actively undergoing their own renewal and transformation. They have accumulated unique cultural connotations over time and then leveraged technology to maintain their advantages.

One of the most successful examples is the skincare brand, Pechoin. In recent years, Pechoin, recognized as one of China’s time-honored brands, has refreshed its brand image many times. For instance, new product lines, such as “Sansen,” incorporate youthful design elements to target younger consumers while also leveraging a new concept of “herbal technology.” This concept deepens brand heritage by reflecting Chinese culture while also infusing technology to meet the increasingly high standards of product ingenuity and quality that sophisticated consumers demand.

In terms of cultural heritage, Li-Ning is undoubtedly one of the leading brands in the country. To shatter its old-school image, the sportswear brand showcases its newest designs in the top fashion weeks three times a year, embracing conspicuous Chinese characters, ink painting patterns and other Chinese elements in its designs. Additionally, Li-Ning has gone above and beyond the product to establish meaning for the brand itself by creating an emotional connection with a new generation of consumers, who have a strong sense of national pride.

Li-Ning at the New York Fashion Week (source: iFeng)

3. “Private Traffic” Connects Users

Another widely recognized trend in new consumption is dubbed “private traffic.” “Private traffic” describes the customer engagement channels used by brands on non-public social platforms, such as WeChat groups or QQ messaging. In this way of personalized communication, brands gain full control over the content, frequency, and most importantly, customer data. On the other hand, for so-called “public traffic,” aggregated customer data is conveniently provided by digital platforms such as Taobao, Weibo or TikTok, but often with significant limitations. While these platforms provide bigger traffic pools, to sustain growth, brands must continually invest to increase their rankings and visibility on the platform and win customers.

An early success story of leveraging “private traffic” is from THE BEAST – a florist that has grown into a successful lifestyle brand. However, its origin story of becoming the legendary flower shop it is today started with customers ordering flowers via the social media platform, Weibo. THE BEAST listened to customer stories, invited them to create together, and then transformed these stories into products in the form of flower bouquets. Since then, this purpose-led branding approach has effectively attracted many loyal customers.

China’s leading electronic vehicle brand NIO is committed to building a user-first brand. Its highly applauded membership program has been a case study for many and contributed to its commercial success and loyal customer base. In 2018, NIO expanded its membership program by launching “NIO Points,” the content of which was a result of NIO members’ discussions and brainstorming. On top of the existing reward system where users exchange points for gifts, this new user credit system allows users to increase their credit level by interacting with and contributing to the community, thereby gaining access to opportunities such as getting to speak at major brand events. Through consistent product iteration and innovation, users continue to grow into the brand community.

NIO House provides community spaces for its members (source: SHL)

4. The Supply Chain is Optimized

China’s supply chain technology and talent have reached a highly mature stage. Many emerging brands have been able to build on this solid foundation to continue developing modern operating concepts and innovative business models through deep optimization of the existing supply chain.

Wangbaobao, an innovative new cereal brand, differentiates its product through low-temperature baking and the unique inclusion of large, dried fruit pieces. To successfully bring the innovative brand to life, Wangbaobao worked to restructure the production line according to new consumer needs, setting new standards for modernization of the manufacturing process. Additionally, in order to maintain the product quality, Wangbaobao invested in building its own factory to bring to fruition this re-engineered production process.

Additionally, new retail players such as Freshippo, Alibaba’s supermarket concept, have converged their online and offline channels to achieve centralized operations and data tracking. By analyzing supply chain and e-commerce data in real-time, they are able to better predict demand, automatically allocate and restock goods, and minimize management costs.

Opportunities and Challenges Facing New Consumers Brands

Although many new consumer brands have taken the lead with outstanding innovation, branding, operations and supply chain management, they still must overcome fierce competition and a rapidly changing market to remain ahead of the pack. For example, in the Top Brands 2021 survey published in Yi Magazine, Genki Forest was classified as an “at-risk brand”. In the bottled tea category, its ranking dropped 31 places from its top five standing last year. We expect that new consumer brands will encounter the following challenges in the next few years:

  • The marketing dividend on seeding influencers has disappeared: The short-term high traffic brought by social media seeding is unsustainable. Consumers are tired of being pushed “tailor-made” content, and their trust in KOLs is also declining.
  • Viral products fail to retain customers: Most of the new consumer brands quickly breakthrough with viral products. However, afterward, due to a lack of both effective product portfolio management and brand purpose, they face the loss of old customers and the inability to develop new ones.
  • Supply and demand lose balance: The new consumption trends make agility a desirable attribute, but the flexible and diverse supply chain makes managing it more complicated, and it can be difficult to balance efficiency and cost.

With the continuous rise of new consumer brands, emerging players must actively optimize their brands and marketing strategies to balance short-term conversion rates and long-term customer loyalty to achieve sustainable growth. Brand building has become the next key area of focus.

For new consumer brands that have been successful, their next step is to establish themselves as the exemplar brand of the entire product category, while also creating emotional value that can resonate deeply with consumers.

At Prophet, we firmly believe in building brand strength through relevance with a customer-centric approach. To learn more about how your brand can improve its relevance and continue to grow in the rapidly changing new consumer market, contact us today.


What makes a brand relentlessly relevant?

Relentlessly relevant brands engage, surprise and connect. They delight, disrupt and deliver. They are restless. They push themselves to earn and re-earn customers’ loyalty — and they define and redefine what’s possible in their categories and in our world. The companies that have built relentlessly relevant brands generally have four common principles: customer-obsessed, ruthlessly pragmatic, distinctively inspired and pervasively innovative.

Click here to read our expert panel to learn more about how to build brand relevance in the Chinese market.


Facebook Goes Meta: But Will it Work?

This branding direction makes sense for tech companies, especially in clarifying their story for investors.

Within moments of Facebook’s announcement that it’s renaming itself Meta, the world swiftly reacted. The Twittersphere sniped the loudest, pointing out that the new name won’t change any of the company’s problems: It’s still one of the most controversial companies and in the crosshairs of regulators all over the world.

So, is rebranding a mistake? Far from it. As branding experts, we think it’s a smart, strategic decision. Meta is a bold new brand, one with ambitions far broader than its current social-media properties. And it makes it the first company to stake a claim in the much-coveted metaverse, something so large and nebulous that even many tech people still can’t define it.

The name certainly has its strengths. It’s short, simple, and clearly grounded in the frame of reference the business intends to exist within — and redefine. With only a day of storytelling behind it, we’re curious if there’s more to the Meta-metaphor beyond the metaverse. Is it a wink to the alternate reality that’s created through all social media? Is it a self-deprecating nod to Facebook’s size and scale? Is it a reference to the expression of irony or self-parody of “that’s so meta?

“Meta is a bold new brand, one with ambitions far broader than its current social-media properties.”

It’s a branding direction that makes a great deal of sense for tech companies, especially in clarifying their story for investors. (And it’s not surprising that Facebook shares rose following the announcement.) Just as Alphabet made it possible for the company to grow beyond Google, this new name will pave the way for Meta to broaden its brand portfolio.

We expect that Facebook will still be Facebook to its users. So will Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp. Each of those brands can–and should–have narrower definitions and fulfill every expectation users and customers have for them.

But other parts of the company will be rebranded. Oculus, its VR division, will become Meta.  And Facebook Portal, its smart display products, will become Meta Portal.

As Meta, the parent company becomes more expansive and is well-positioned to move into the future. And the new name comes just days after the company announced it would invest $10 billion in developing the metaverse, moving in directions far beyond its social-media roots.

“In the metaverse, you’ll be able to do almost anything you can imagine— get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in the announcement. That includes “completely new experiences that don’t really fit how we think about computers or phones today.”


It’s gutsy. And risky.

While there’s a lot to be said for the strategic decision to rebrand, the move is also audacious in terms of timing. Typically, companies make monumental announcements like this when there is a shift in their business model, and they often feel celebratory. Not in this case. The decision to make this change when the company is so publicly under scrutiny is a telling choice.

Cynics may interpret the decision to introduce its new name now as evasive. But it can also be seen as an indication of how deep its commitment to growth and expansion is–even if it seems like the company is poking the regulatory bear.

It’s almost as if Meta is saying, “You think we should be smaller and spin-off divisions? Nope. We’re planning on being bigger than you can imagine. ”

Facebook is betting that boldness will lead to bigger opportunities–but that also means bigger risks. If Meta raises the bar: What will it do next? Will the company be able to deliver on the new name? Can it live up to its ambition? And what are the repercussions if it can’t?

For additional insights on how to create a successful brand portfolio and naming strategy, talk to our team today.


Prophet Launches Extended Pro-Bono Consulting Program

Using a new agile-sprint approach, our pro-bono team helped this nonprofit in Kenya formalize its brand.

We’re shaking things up at Prophet Impact! This year we are using a new rotation model to offer uninterrupted support and build stronger relationships with our non-profit partners. Though pro-bono work with organizations that speak to our heart continues to fuel our passion to make the world a better place, we’re doing it differently.

We’ve dedicated a team of Propheteers that’s sole responsibility is to dive into the pro-bono work for non-profits, including the sourcing of organizations as well as the projects themselves for a month or more at a time. By fully immersing themselves in the project, the Prophet Impact team finds solutions that are on target and transformative, helping worthy nonprofits achieve next-level growth, just like our corporate clients.

Our First Pro-Bono Client

KenSAP, an educational organization based in Kenya, became the first to benefit from this pod-based transformation, thanks to Shina Leboo, a senior associate based out of Chicago. The nonprofit guides gifted students, many from remote rural areas, to distinguished U.S. colleges by helping them navigate the complexities of the U.S. immigration system, college entrance exams and university applications.

Shina, an alumna of the program and on KenSAP’s board of directors, knew the organization could benefit from Prophet’s insights and strategy work, specifically when it came to storytelling and communications. It needed a formalized brand and a standardized story.

“The deliverables were exactly what we needed and came with a level of detail we wouldn’t have reached on our own.”

With Prophet’s expertise in developing brands and brand stories, KenSAP was a natural fit for the first pod-based approach. “Pitching KenSAP for Prophet Impact was a quick conversation, and I didn’t feel like I had to struggle at all to explain it,” Shina says. “It made me realize what a good decision I’d made in joining Prophet. In some companies, you need to be around for years before you can speak that openly.”

Jill Steele, partner and leader of Prophet Impact, says Shina’s intense connection to the organization kicked off the program strongly. “She had so much passion for KenSAP – both as a participant and a board member – and that’s what makes the difference,” Jill said.“There are many great nonprofits we could work with. But by selecting those that are not only aligned with Prophet’s social impact focus areas but also deeply meaningful to our people, we can create solutions that have maximum impact.”

Elevating Brand Story and Impact

Free from other client duties, the team dug right in with a four-week, agile sprint to develop the brand story and corresponding tactical communication tools. Building on interviews with stakeholders — students, alumni and donors – the work showcases what makes KenSAP unique and important. Instead of focusing simply on programs and activities, it elevated the brand story, emphasizing aspirations and impact.

Most importantly, the frameworks were designed to easily adapt across audiences and channels and effortlessly executed by the organization’s small staff, which is often pulled in different directions. The marketing roadmap provided a foundation for communicating with universities, employers and donors and functioned well on its website, in digital communications and in the organization’s annual report.

The result was a major win for KenSAP.The Prophet team listened, not overwhelming us and understanding that we’re a small organization,” says Alan Davidson, Executive Director of KenSAP.

Rewarding Work For Prophet’s People:

Jarrett Fein

Jarrett Fein, San Francisco

“Of course, we always believe we are doing good work for our clients. But at the end of this engagement, it was so gratifying to hear the client say, ‘You can’t imagine how much this is going to help us.’ That confirmed everything – not just the solutions we provided but also to validate this immersive, fast-paced approach we designed worked.”

Shina Leboo, Chicago

“My role on this project was advisory, but even from that vantage point, it solidified my perception that Prophet fully intends to do as much as possible with each pro-bono project. It was also fascinating to see where the work led. Because the group was 100% devoted to the project, it was easier for KenSAP to achieve a much higher confidence level. ”

Ammar Mahesri, Chicago

“I was moved by how focused KenSAP is on achieving its mission and serving its communities, despite being burdened with the administrative hurdles that nonprofits face. And I’m most proud of how quickly we were able to do it, delivering a complete solution to a complex problem. Because of this work, more young people are going to get the education they deserve.”

Becca Thorpe, New York

“Navigating cultural differences can be a lot, and I’m so impressed that these students are able to balance it all on top of a heavy academic load. On the project, I loved the way the team jumped right in and I felt like it paid off. ”


Prophet is committed to moving society forward, focusing on equality, social mobility and sustainability. This year alone, we will donate more than four thousand hours of pro and low-bono work to help organizations achieve these goals. Learn more about Prophet Impact.

Are you our next nonprofit client?

If you think we might be a fit, reach out today!


Three Ways to Personalize Customer Experience – Lessons From Successful Streaming Brands

With richer algorithms, find microaudiences. Then woo them with compelling content.

Although personalization has become a key way for brands to build meaningful connections with consumers across categories ranging from shampoo (Prose, Function of) to vitamins (Ritual, Care/of) to entertainment (Netflix, HBO Max), personalization has been ingrained in the DNA of streaming services like Spotify and YouTube since their inception. In the 2021 Prophet Brand Relevance Index ® (BRI), we identified a key difference between leaders and laggards in the music industry: how effective brands are at personalization.

Data from the BRI showed that customers feel more emotionally connected to the streaming brands that offer deep, personalized experiences. While customers enjoy Pandora’s personalized playlists, Spotify is the clear winner with 99% of users saying the brand connects with them emotionally. Spotify, which consumers ranked as the twelfth most relevant brand in this year’s study, creates its emotional connection with consumers through its rich personalization algorithm. It also ranks significantly higher than Pandora in terms of engagement in new and creative ways (with 90% of customers surveyed agreeing to this statement, versus Pandora’s 63%). Spotify continues to double down on this competitive advantage as it invests heavily in more personalized playlists, podcasts and more.

“Customers feel more emotionally connected to the streaming brands that offer deep, personalized experiences.”

Additionally, Spotify enjoys strong consumer perceptions by making its personalization capabilities clear through tongue-in-cheek ad campaigns, as well as a continued focus on strategic product innovations. In its latest “surprise and delight” personalization move, Spotify launched its “Only You” feature, which leverages listener data to show amusing trends in users’ listening habits. In contrast, Pandora hasn’t rolled out any major personalization updates since 2019. It’s no surprise then, that 88% of consumers believe Spotify “is always finding new ways to meet my needs” whereas only 24% of consumers felt the same way about Pandora.

How Can Brands Deliver More Personalized Experiences?

  1. To become relentlessly relevant, you need know your audience. Create audience archetypes that go deep into what your customer loves and is inspired by, not just their age and geography. Find out what your customers are doing on your platform as well as off-platform. Why is your customer using streaming services? Why do they skip certain songs? You can’t get to the beauty of personalization until you know who your customers are, and just as importantly, who you haven’t acquired as a customer yet.
  2. Create content specifically for those micro-audiences. As there’s more competition for consumer attention, from video games to podcasts, content needs to be laser-focused on the needs of the customer. In working with leading streaming companies, Prophet has helped identify micro-audiences and the type of content that will appeal most to them to create lasting brand loyalty.
  3. Create richer algorithms that suggest more content in line with what customers want. Even a leader in streaming like Spotify is losing customers’ attention because of newer players like TikTok, and its widely recognized algorithm. As more people discover music off-platform, Spotify will need to continue to innovate to garner consumer interest in an environment of increased competition.

With 89% of those surveyed saying they ‘can’t live without it’, Spotify continues to stand out in an increasingly competitive space by doubling down on its personalization assets, serving as a strong example for any entertainment brand looking to find new customers in 2021 and beyond.


Streaming services that view personalization as a benefit and not a requirement will fall behind industry players that consider it a priority. Personalization helps brands attract and retain customers by offering innovative ways to surprise and delight them. Brands that have stellar personalization tactics are more likely to attract customers and become more relentlessly relevant.

Prophet is working with leading streaming companies across the industry on brand strategy, growth strategy and performance marketing. Interested in finding out more? Contact us today.


The Art of Strategic Storytelling: Behind the Scenes of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s “Race for the Vaccine”

This compelling narrative offers lessons for businesses everywhere.

The biggest challenge for today’s businesses is to consistently produce personalized content at a large scale, deliver it at breakneck speed, and credibly have an impact on revenue. The businesses that are successful in this endeavor have invested in an innovative set of capabilities that make up an “Agile Content System”.

Imagine you had a front-row seat to the world’s foremost scientific teams as they worked to develop a life-saving vaccine. The filmmaking team behind CNN’s “Race for the Vaccine“ recently did just that, and Prophet’s healthcare team sat down with a few of them in conversation.

“To be a strategic storyteller, acknowledge that every interaction is an opportunity to build the relationships that could lead to the next great story.”

Produced by the Global Health Reporting Center and narrated by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, “Race for the Vaccine” tells the story of the Oxford University, the NIH, Pfizer, University of Queensland and China’s CDC teams that undertook the heroic task of developing a COVID-19 vaccine as the virus swept the globe. Co-Director Caleb Hallerman and Editors Brain Truglio and Shayon Maitra joined the healthcare consulting team to share their experience making the documentary and how their efforts were designed to build confidence in the scientific processes that underpinned the vaccine development.

Whether in journalism or business, well-crafted narratives can engage audiences in an authentic and persuasive way – what Prophet’s founder emeritus David Aaker likes to call “signature stories.” Here are our takeaways from the conversation – which provide lessons for anyone who tells stories in a business context.

Lessons from Filmmakers: How to Tell Stories in the Business World

1. Know Your Beat: The Power of Relationships

Relationships unlock access to great content. In the case of “Race for the Vaccine,” relationships allowed the documentary to tell a truly global story. Because of former projects and collaborations, Caleb and the Global Health Reporting Center were able to get access to research institutes including China CDC. As Caleb pointed out, “the most important relationships you have are the ones you have before the story breaks…to make those connections before you’re in the midst of a crisis.”

To be a strategic storyteller, acknowledge that every interaction is an opportunity to build the relationships that could lead to the next great story. In doing so, you’ll build credibility and trust not only through direct interactions but also by virtue of second-degree connections to other people, expertise and opportunities. Also, the broader that network is, the greater the opportunity to bring a diversity of perspective and experience to strategic recommendations and communications.

2. Find the Right Source: Characters Who Make the Story

People want to connect with other people. And to create a powerful story you need characters that keep audiences interested and invested in the story you’re telling.  As Brian Truglio pointed out, “Character is really what drives the story…the most important thing is that you have interesting people who bring energy to the topic, and who can explain it. If you don’t have that…it’s not going to stick with people.” In “Race for the Vaccine,” this meant finding the scientists who could guide audiences on this complicated scientific journey such as Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett (NIH) and Dr. Keith Chappell (University of Queensland-Australia).

As business transformation leaders, it’s equally important to identify the central characters in any team you lead. What are individuals on your team passionate about? Where do their strengths lie? And where do the two come together to influence the business to adopt a strategic decision? Identifying what makes for a strong character at your organization can help rally it to change by clearly communicating its benefits to the market and modeling the behaviors that will lead to its success.

3. Go Beyond the Headline: Context Matters

It probably won’t come as a surprise that one of the challenges the filmmakers faced was capturing moments with the scientists in their labs. In early edits, one the biggest problems they identified was the lack of footage showing scientists in lab coats. It ran contrary to Brian and Shayon’s mantra for editing documentaries, “Show, don’t tell,” and required additional shoots and thoughtful editing to ensure that there was the right context to establish the credibility of these scientists. If the filmmakers had only had images of Dr. Corbett or Dr. Barney S. Graham at home, it may have limited viewers’ confidence in the safety and scientific rigor behind the vaccine research.

This experience highlights just how much context matters in strategic storytelling. In any business transformation, understanding the starting point – and how that starting point impacts any solution proposed to a business challenge – is critical to how a story is shaped to business leaders and executives. The synergy between story, strategy and action is the basis for credibility and trust, and the foundation for business success.


Telling the story of the development of the COVID-19 vaccine is (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for the filmmaking team behind “Race for the Vaccine,” but it doesn’t mean that the story is over. As governments continue the vaccine rollout, they are faced with overcoming the fear and biases that prevent people from getting vaccinated.

In this blog, David Aaker argues that storytelling, with the right frame of reference, is one of the best ways to connect emotionally, attract attention, distract from counterarguing and ultimately change the hearts and minds of those who may be vaccine-hesitant or resistant. Whether you’re a documentary filmmaker, a consultant or just a friend and neighbor, the stories we tell have the power to shape the world around us.

Thank you again to Caleb, Brian, and Shayon for speaking to our team. You can learn more about the Global Health Reporting Center’s mission to create in-depth health journalism here.

If you’re interested in working with Prophet’s healthcare growth strategists – or are interested to learn more about opportunities to engage our network of industry experts – reach out today.


The Cure for Stalled Transformation? Your Brand

This valuable asset can be the most effective catalyst for change.

It’s no secret that many companies struggle with transformation. A recent survey from the Harvard Business Review reports that only 20% of executives believe their efforts are working. While there are complex reasons behind these expensive flameouts, an often-overlooked factor is brand. Leaving brand out of the transformation equation can be a crucial mistake when implementing a business transformation.

Thanks to Prophet’s ongoing research into brand relevance, we’ve seen what happens when businesses get it right. Companies as diverse as Costco, Peloton, LEGO and Apple use the strength of their brand not just to sell more products but as catalysts for change. Brand continually fuels revolutionary growth in every function of the organization.

Brand–is often a company’s most valuable asset – it can drive transformative growth. And when companies fail to weave brand into the entire transformation strategy, they make costly mistakes.

For brand to play a genuinely transformative role, it requires a fusion of an integrated brand and business strategy. Brand becomes accountable for growth and investment both inside and outside of the brand function. Brand strategy doesn’t just follow business decisions, it guides them at the highest levels of the organization. In these companies – the ones most beloved by their customers – brand always has a seat at the table.

Four Requirements for Brand-Powered Transformations

A brand-driven transformation is the intentional use of brand strategy to ignite tremendous change. To reach that level, companies need to make four critical shifts.

Brands must become purpose-led, rather than product-or offer-driven

Organizations must consider the impact they want to have on the world – not just shareholders, but customers, colleagues and the broader community. Companies based on a strategic brand purpose create shared value and resonate with key stakeholders. They know why they exist and the difference they are trying to make in the world. Most importantly, they know how to deliver on those promises.

Thrivent, a financial services company, recently redefined its purpose to become much more than a business that sells insurance policies or investments. Based on the conviction that humanity thrives when people make the most of what they’re given, its brand now stands for helping customers achieve financial clarity. Thrivent believes that money is a tool, not a goal that enables people to fill their lives with meaning and gratitude. And that’s led to massive changes in how the brand shows up for customers, especially in digital offerings.

Thrivent’s shift has opened the aperture of how it can engage customers, propelling growth that isn’t available to the hundreds of competitors that simply sell annuities or mutual funds.

Brand teams must become experiential leaders, not just a communication-oriented function

Messaging to customers alone isn’t enough. To build relevance, companies need to engage audiences through cohesive experiences, including the seamlessness of how a brand integrates products, services, communications and its culture. The most relevant brands create experience innovations that deliver on their positioning, ensuring impact with both employees and consumers. They can flex and change while still standing up for their purpose, promise and principles.

T-Mobile continues to be a favorite example. Customers hated everything about the cell phone industry, and T-Mobile knew it. The weakest player in a growing category, it needed a radical strategy. Working with Prophet, it transformed from an also-ran to the Un-Carrier, helping consumers break free of contracts and credit checks, adding the freedom of unlimited talk, text and data

“Brand strategy doesn’t just follow business decisions, it guides them at the highest levels of the organization.”

T-Mobile became the wireless carrier that didn’t act like one. With then-CEO John Legere as its highly visible trash-talking cheerleader, consumers flocked to its brash branding and the simplicity, fairness and value it provided. Well-orchestrated “rolling thunder” of activation efforts added 1.1 million new customers in the first quarter of the relaunch.

The brand must ignite the passion of employees to embrace and drive change

Businesses built just for customers, with little consideration for employees, struggle. Strong enterprises fuel growth from the inside through culture, capabilities and engagement. They work from the brand’s DNA, constantly articulating the “why” of the transformation to rally colleagues.

When Plantronics, the audio pioneer, acquired Polycom, with its secure video, voice and content solutions, for $2 billion, it needed a new identity to demonstrate its combined might–not just to investors but apprehensive employees. The new brand needed to reflect each legacy company’s heritage, aspirations and passion, while signaling a unified, modern technology product suite. The Poly brand needed a look and feel that conveyed ease-of-use and accessibility with input from top leadership, including teams from mergers and acquisitions, communications and finance.

While the merger came from outside forces, the reinvention – a global communications company that powers meaningful human connection and collaboration – came from within. It gave every employee a mantra to help build this new technology brand, already generating record sales.

Brands must develop cross-functional, full-funnel activation strategy, not just serve as an internal creative team

Instead of simply approving, protecting and managing the brand, it’s time to lay a brand foundation for the entire customer journey. The most relevant companies create signature brand moments in the most fertile opportunity areas.

Nike’s ongoing success in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement continues to be a powerful example. While Nike had long led the way among purpose-driven brands, it did the unthinkable in 2018, launching a full-scale marketing campaign starring Colin Kaepernick, perhaps the most polarizing figure in all of sports.

To some, the “Dream Crazy” campaign sounded just plain crazy, sparking boycotts and bonfires of Nike gear. But quickly, it built new brand strength. Moving beyond the campaign, it empowered its many Black athletes – as well as its passionate, young consumer base – to speak out for racial justice. The company’s stock hit new highs, and engagement broke records as it gained market share. It built unparalleled relevance.

It’s this kind of transformation that can only come from brand teams working closely with top leadership. “You can’t be afraid of offending people,” Phil Knight, Nike’s chairman emeritus, told Fast Company. “You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked.”


A brand-driven transformation goes beyond brand modernization or activation. A brand-led vision spans marketing, customer experience, product innovation, sales and distribution and much more. It embraces culture and technology as it directs cross-functional change. It’s the kind of substantive direction that allows companies to transform while staying true to what they stand for. And it leads to new customers, more revenue and uncommon growth. If your transformation is stalling out, make sure to recalibrate your brand at the center to drive your own success.

Get in touch to learn more about we help our clients achieve uncommon growth through brand-driven transformation.


Should Brands Still Be Thinking About Clubhouse?

If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that every company doesn’t need to be on every channel.

If the kids had TikTok to get them through the pandemic, the adults (or at least the business elite) had Clubhouse. The much-lauded digital audio chat platform was the hit of the summer last year, and many regarded it as the first of a new wave of social media innovation. Companies scrambled to figure out their “Clubhouse strategy,” while competitors like Facebook and Twitter fast-tracked their clone offerings. For a while, all anyone could talk about was how Clubhouse was the future of audio.

This summer, not so much.

Clubhouses’ monthly downloads are in a steep decline, going from 9.6 million in February to only 900,000 in April. At first glance, this looks pretty ominous for Clubhouse. It would imply that it’s quickly reaching the point where everyone who would want to download it will soon have already downloaded it. However, that might not be such a bad thing. By focusing on monetizing a core, loyal audience, Clubhouse can build a very sustainable business, while continuing to test and innovate with new features. Furthermore, the fact that Twitter and Facebook jumped in so quickly to compete validates the opportunity in this space. The value being provided by audio-chat platforms is clear, and so it’s my view that reports of Clubhouse’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

“By focusing on monetizing a core, loyal audience, Clubhouse can build a very sustainable business.”

That isn’t to say there aren’t problems. Twitter and Facebook may have validated Clubhouse’s value proposition, but that also makes them giant predators waiting to either acquire or kill the competition. And unlike Clubhouse, they won’t be in a giant rush to monetize the audiences.

So if you’re a business that feels like Clubhouse is a technology you need to be leveraging, what do you do? Well first of all, why?

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from 20-odd years of social media, it’s that every company doesn’t need to be on every channel. In fact, successful companies have smartly chosen the channels and platforms that most closely align with their brand identity, business needs and most importantly, audience presence. It’s a model perfected by individual creators or influencers, who’ve chosen to become famous on a single channel, whether it’s YouTube, TikTok, Medium or Instagram. 

Following that strategy really narrows down the list of businesses that could leverage a platform like Clubhouse. If we think about it purely in terms of content strategy, it is companies that benefit from regular conversations and feedback with a dedicated community of users and enthusiasts for their goods and services. Think of companies like REI, who’ve created an entire content stream based on contributions from outdoor enthusiasts.


Depending on your product and engagement strategy, having a bunch of audio conversations can be a fantastic way to build credibility with certain communities, while also promoting positive brand sentiment. And if you fit that bill, this is an opportune time to wade into the social audio territory. But beyond that, I would wait and see, but stay in my lane.


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.