[Podcast] Debunking Branding BS with Austin Franke

[Podcast] Debunking Branding BS with Austin Franke

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Austin Franke is a brand strategist and the founder of WooPunch, a brand & design consultancy rooted in the science of how brands grow.

Austin is going to be sharing his approach to brand, which is a less conventional approach, based on behavioral science and other evidence-based fields.

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We’re going to “debunk” or at least throw a few punches around in regards to what Austin calls “Branding Bullshit”.

In particular, brand differentiation, customer engagement, brand purpose from a values viewpoint, loyalty marketing and how designers can truly help a brand grow beyond the typical clichés.

Now get into your corners, and welcome to the ring, Austin Franke.

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Transcript (Auto Generated)

Hello, and welcome to JUST Branding, the only podcast dedicated to helping designers and entrepreneurs grow brands. Here are your hosts, Jacob Cass and Matt Davies.

Hello, fellow branders. Today we have Austin Franke with us, who’s a brand strategist and the founder of WooPunch, which is a brand and design consultancy. Rooted in the science of how brands grow.

Austin is going to be sharing his approach to brand, which is a less conventional approach based on behavioral science and other evidence-based fields. We’re going to debunk or at least throw a few punches around in regards to what Austin calls branding bullsh**. In particular, we’re going to be talking about this one myth he believes debunks brand differentiation, brand purpose, loyalty marketing, customer engagement and others.

Also, we’ll also suggest some evidence-based alternatives that can help strategists grow brands more effectively. So get into your corners and welcome to the ring, Austin Franke. Welcome.

Thanks for having me.

Welcome, Austin. I’m already on the back foot, right? Because I don’t swear because of my Christian background and morals and all that stuff.

So I’m just coming clean with that for listeners right now. You’re going to hear me dance around all of that language as best I can because if my mom ever hears this, I will get shot. But welcome to the show, Austin.

Excited to have you on and get your viewpoints.

Yeah. Yeah. Thank you very much.


All right.

So let us know who is Austin. What’s your story before we get into it?

So like you said, I’m a brand strategist, founder of WooPunch. It’s a one-man consultancy, so it’s just me. But I started on my career after college as a ministry consultant for a Catholic nonprofit actually.

And yeah, right. So I use the word, but I use it kind of carefully. So I kind of reserve it as well there, Matt.

Well, in the Catholic tradition, you can go to the priest, can’t you, and get forgiveness. So, you know.

And in the Catholic tradition, if it’s not hateful speech or if it’s not offensive to anyone or not a joke at someone’s expense, you can say bulls**t, but. Yeah, there’s actually an entire philosophy around the word. So that’s why I’ve chosen to use it.

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But yeah, so I started my career at a Catholic nonprofit as a consultant. And for the first five years there, I would travel around the country and I’d help ministries to grow. And that’s kind of where I got some initial kind of consultant chops and navigated different groups of leaders towards a unified goal.

Often with differing opinions and egos and spiritualities. And then I was also kind of able to learn how to simplify a very complex idea into kind of an easier kind of step-by-step path to move forward from there. And then around the five year mark, working for them, we started to look for more efficient ways to work with ministries.

And this is where kind of the media comes in. And we wanted to work with ministries. You couldn’t afford to fly us down in person.

And so we started developing this online resource with a ton of videos and print materials and that kind of stuff and a website, all of that. And I graduated with a film degree. So I was kind of tapped in to start to shift towards media and a media role.

And that’s kind of where a design comes into play. That’s where I recognized we were outsourcing our design to a production company. And I felt if I can just learn the tools, then I could probably do this myself.

And within a year, I was doing all the design for the organization. And I had learned a lot of techniques from some of the gurus that are out there that I’m sure many designers are familiar with, in particular, Christo and the Future Academy. And then eventually I kind of shifted away towards that, or always from that.

But yeah, that’s kind of how I got started in branding in general.

Okay, so you said you worked in film for a while and then you moved into design. So is that your kind of…

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Yeah. So when did you kind of go from design to strategy then?

Yeah, yeah, so that’s a good question. So I was kind of tasked to design a brand. That’s kind of how it started.

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And I thought, you know, there’s gotta be more to this than just designing something beautiful and sending it out there, right? And so I started consuming just about every resource that the Future Academy had and Christo, in terms of selling design to clients. I was also daydreaming about kind of leaving this nonprofit to start off on my own.

I really wanted to design brands from scratch and wasn’t really able to do that very often there. And anyway, I started just kind of consuming all of these resources and strategy and kind of just took it all as gospel, really, in a lot of ways. And then at some point it started to shift.

Okay, so when was the shift between, you go from this Marty Neumeyer, Chris Doe camp into folks like Brian Sharp and others? When did that happen?

Yeah, so it mostly started when I finally did take a leap of faith and left the nonprofit to start my own consultancy. Clients were a little slim to nine at the time. So I had a lot of time on my hands.

I was lucky to have some freedom to really try to become a deep expert in branding as much as possible, which I know a lot of strategists don’t really have the freedom to do or have to do it kind of intermixed between clients. So I had just this huge chunk of time on my hands. And so I was reading a lot of books at my local library, actually.

I was trying to find resources that weren’t easily accessible in some ways. And that’s when I stumbled upon a book that kind of introduced me to branding and behavioral science and kind of combining that and what that might look like. And before I read this book, I was ready to buy Christos and The Future’s brand strategy workshop template.

And I was ready to master that and start charging clients and take them through it and really get good at all of those principles. And by the time I was done reading this book, I kind of changed really my entire trajectory. It wasn’t quite that instant, but it definitely kind of started to give me a spark.

And the core tenet behind behavioral theory is essentially we make a lot of automatic subconscious decisions. Most of our decisions are automatic and subconscious. Occasionally we take more deliberate time and energy to think consciously through problems and try to solve those.

But even then sometimes our kind of, as Daniel Kenneman, who’s a researcher, would say our system to thinking kind of justifies reasons for why we might’ve made particular decisions. So whereas Marty Neumeyer and Christo and others might say that branding gurus, that consumers buy Coke over Pepsi because of some feeling that’s evoked of happiness or optimism and there’s other things too. It’s not that simple, obviously, but behavioral theory would say that there’s a deeper level before we get to feelings even, before we get to reason or feelings.

And that’s kind of this instinctual emotion. And we’re riddled with biases. And one of the most common ones is availability bias, which is our bias towards the familiar.

And so I started to think about what that might mean for how we buy brands and started to kind of think about this idea that maybe we buy brands for the familiar and we just buy the brands we’re most familiar with. And that’s when I stumbled upon Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. And so I had this theory-

Austin, try to interrupt. What was the first book that you were referring to?

Yeah, the first book that I read was called Brand Seduction, which quickly led me to Daniel Kinneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Brand Seduction has a lot of good points. I don’t agree with everything in there now, but it was really instrumental in introducing me to behavioral science in general.

And thinking about behavioral science and branding.

Yeah, I was going to say, there’s one I read on this subject called The Science Behind Why We Buy by Phil Barden. I don’t know if you’ve come across that, but he makes very similar points to what you’ve sort of opened with there. And yeah, I’ve got a view on that, but I want to listen to what you have to say first.

So just set it up for us in, I know it’s not binary, right? But just simplify it for my poor brain. On the one hand, we’ve got Marty, Chris and others.

Simplify that view. And then on the other hand, we’ve got these highly, scientifically based sort of theories on the other side. Just simplify those for us one more time, just so we get that in our heads, if that’s okay.

Yeah, sure. Yeah. So I don’t really want to like, I might be missing something.

I wasn’t like a big Marty Neumar evangelist, but I did watch a lot of Chris Noah videos in the time. But essentially what I kind of gathered from them was that if you can get a customer to think about your brand in a different way, or you can get them to experience positive emotions and feelings, which emotions and feelings are two separate things, which many people don’t talk about. But if we can link those brands to positive feelings of whatever we’re trying to get the customer to experience, or in many cases, what the customer is experiencing on their own without you doing anything.

A lot of people say branding is the customer’s experience of your brand and not what you help them to see is the experience of your brand. But essentially it’s this idea that if you can get customers to, if you can stand out in the market conceptually, and you can get customers to identify with what you’re doing and your brand, then those customers will go beyond just buying your product. They’ll essentially be loyal to your product where they exclusively buy your product or buy it more than others.

And in many cases, people like Kevin Roberts and Love Marks, the book that he wrote would say that it creates loyalty beyond reason among consumers. And then they began evangelizing your brand. So that’s kind of the backside of the coin.

It’s a mixture of a lot of different, what I call gurus, but that’s kind of in a nutshell how I see it. And then on the other side with Byron Sharp, and I haven’t looked too much in the field, but then I know about him. I originally kind of got off into a neuroscience kind of start when I started questioning all of this.

And I’ve since kind of leaned away from that. There’s a lot of kind of pseudoscience in that field, but in terms of behavioral science, that was where I really kind of leaned towards. But then Byron Sharp and the Amber Bass Institute have empirically studied and observed how brands grow over time.

So you have a theory with behavioral science, and then you have empirical data on what we’re actually seeing in terms of how brands grow. And if they don’t line up, somebody’s wrong. If they line up beautifully, there’s something going on there, right?

And of course they line up beautifully. And then I started thinking of my own experience as well. And their idea is essentially that it is that light buyers, and we can go more into the non-binomial distribution Dirichlet model, but light buyers make up the vast majority of a brand’s customer base and the vast majority of their revenue.

And so loyal customers to try to target them to grow a brand it’s never actually been done before as far as researchers have been able to identify. And so it can’t possibly be a better approach than going after light buyers who aren’t very involved in their decisions at all. Does that make sense?

Did I clarify that well? I was probably jumping around a little bit.

I think so, but so light buyer is somebody who’s casually just looking to buy a good, you know, a product or something and is there and is not thinking too hard about it. They just go to purchase it. Just that would be helpful as well just to define that.

Yeah, yeah. So not necessarily. So a light buyer is simply someone who in relative to other buyers of a brand’s customer base buys very little.

So it’s not about what they’re thinking about. It’s about what they’re actually, you know, putting their money towards, right? So in Coca-Cola, a light buyer is someone who buys one single can of Cola a year or less.

Or maybe it’s one to two, I think a year. And a heavy buyer of Coca-Cola is actually much smaller than you think. It’s someone who buys four to five single cans of Cola in a year.

That’s a heavy buyer to Coca-Cola. So most of their customers are buying very little cans of soda throughout the year. So that’s what I mean by light buyers.

It’s about purchase frequency, not about how they’re thinking about it. They might actually believe they’re loyal to the brand and still be a light buyer. That’s pretty common.

Have you got your gloves on Matt? I feel there’s some questions.

I mean, it’s one of these things. So I’m not gonna disagree with the science. I don’t think you can disagree with the science.

I just have a view on it from a strategic perspective. So I think I’d like to dive into that Austin and get your views on the strategy side. And I’ll put my cards on the table because I work a lot with leadership teams in businesses.

And so, you know, I come at it not necessarily from a buying decision perspective initially. I come at it from an alignment, an internal alignment perspective. So a lot of my work from a strategic perspective is to align people internally around an intent, you know, around a potential future that’s coming, you know, that we imagine before it’s here today.

So looking at the data today, we can get insights, we can mine for that. But often, sometimes a lot of my work, you know, with my clients is literally like, well, what if we move into this space and no one’s really done that? We’ve got some insights which indicate we could move here and it’d be great, but we’ve not, no one’s been there.

And so, you know, and that there’s obviously a ton of things we can talk about there. But the point I’m trying to make really here is that, you know, if we go into purpose and topics like that, I think it’s fair to say, do I buy my toothpaste because, you know, the toothpaste brand has a purpose different to the other toothpaste brand? Probably not, you know, if we’re honest about it.

But if that toothpaste brand wants to rally a load of people, thousands of people across the world around, you know, innovating or repositioning their brand and give them meaning and the sense of purpose in everything that they’re doing and ladder all their initiatives into something, do they need purpose? Hell yeah, because that toothpaste is not going to arrive on that shelf, you know, with the packaging and all the thinking behind it and all the departments that have gone into it, if someone somewhere in that business had said, hadn’t sort of at least articulated some vision of what that might be before it even happens. So I think I come at it from that perspective and I want to defend that perspective.

So there’s my glove, bam. So my worry is that if we pull down things like, fluffy things like purpose and that kind of stuff, what you’ll then potentially end up with is a difficulty for businesses to rally behind something and align behind something. What are your thoughts on that, Austin?

Come on in, feel free. I mean, you know, I just laid a, well, I just put a glove on. I don’t know if I laid a punch, but you know, you can lay your punches now.

A swung, I probably missed that off the map. It’s probably Jacob, but that’s fine.

You’re going to be sadly disappointed. I don’t have punches to throw on internal culture, okay? So for me, I don’t really work too much with internal culture.

I started to in the beginning. I’m open to still doing it with some clients, but I’m really focused on advertising effectiveness and packaging effectiveness, right? And getting buyers to buy, right?

So when you talk about aligning employees or internal executive staff on a brand purpose, that’s not the brand purpose I’m speaking of. When I speak of brand purpose, I’m talking about advertising some moral values to the consumer and expecting to either increase purchase rates from those consumers or them to kind of experience feelings of love towards your brand. That I don’t think happens very often at all.

And there’s no evidence right now to support that. It’s never happened, really. There’s survey data from Gen Z saying, oh yeah, of course I buy brands that I believe in their values and align with, but there’s not actual purchase data supporting that behavior.

One of the, that myth in particular came from Jim Stangles’ book, Grow, which used all kinds of cherry picking data and false research and terrible math to make the claim that businesses with an ideal beyond purpose grow faster and stronger than businesses that don’t have that. That idea has been completely debunked. But when you’re talking about internal executive staff and employees who think about your brand every day, day in and day out, of course brand purpose can work really well with them and work wonders with them.

Consumers don’t think about your brand day in and day out. They don’t think about your brand hardly at all. That’s the difference.

What about some examples here? You know, Matt likes, knows how to like examples, but some brands that may be the exception to the norm perhaps. You know, if we’re going through the advertising, packaging and purpose and how that all aligns, you know, a brand like Patagonia, for example, who’s huge on sustainability, it is part of their purpose.

Do you believe customers would buy into part of that brand because of that purpose?

I believe some customers do in some situations at some times in their life. So, you know, I’d be really curious to look at the customer base of Patagonia just because almost every other brand that’s ever been measured has shown a pattern called, again, I’m missing it again, the non-binomial distribution dereclay model, which essentially states that what I said before, which is light buyers bring in more revenue and there’s more of them for every brand that’s been measured over the course of three years or longer. So loyal buyers might be more common when you measure a brand six months to a year, but they start to drop off over the course of three years.

And that’s because loyal customers are never always completely loyal for the rest of their life. That’s not something you can achieve as a brand. Very rarely do you come across a customer who buys from a category often.

So let’s say they buy outdoor clothing all the time. They’re likely not going to buy Patagonia exclusively. They’re going to buy all kinds of different brands.

Someone who rarely buys outdoor gear might buy Patagonia exclusively because that’s the brand they’re familiar with. And that’s really kind of where that in. So I think this is kind of telling when you look at Patagonia versus Nike, there’s a reason Patagonia is not dominating the overall clothing market share when they’re competing with Nike.

So that’s another piece that Byron Sharp talks about is you want to expand the category you’re a part of. Patagonia is not just a part of an outdoor clothing category. That’s a subcategory.

They’re part of clothing in general. And in terms of the overall category of clothing, they’re not doing very well at all in terms of becoming a market leader. So yes, there are some consumers that are loyal to brands like Patagonia because of that mission.

But then a year later, they stop being loyal to that brand. And then they might come back in a few years after that. But even those buyers are fairly rare.

Most people, they want to buy Patagonia because their friends have it, or they’ve seen people walking around with it, or maybe they even want to signal that they care about sustainability when all of their other purchase decisions aren’t really showing that. All right.

There’s so many ways we could take this. I know there’s, you know, we can unravel loyalty. You know, differentiation is probably another one we could explore.

I should share on your website, you have probably a dozen different myths that you’ve crossed out very, I don’t want to say aggressively, but with distinction about the myths around branding. So I think we’ll tackle a couple of them, but differentiation, you’ve said you’ve crossed out differentiate or die, and next to it, you’ve written distinctiveness or die instead. So do you want to just share your thoughts on that?

Yeah, so I was planning on going into more in-depth of the big alternative to loyalty in general. I’d love to tackle that first. So the big alternative to…

Yeah, yeah, so the main alternative to trying to attract customers that have the potential to be loyal or reaching customers that are already loyal to your brand and then expecting them to tell everyone about it and then you grow to people that are less loyal, that whole myth, there’s a great alternative to that. And it’s two-sided. It’s distinctive design and it’s relevant associations or category entry points to put it in different terms.

So, but even behind these, there’s two fundamental ideas of business in general and how brands grow, not just from a brand design standpoint, a marketing standpoint, but also from an overall business standpoint. And those are mental availability and physical availability. Physical availability is the ease at which consumers can find and buy your brand.

So it’s mostly regarding distribution and search engine optimization can also fall into this category. Mental availability is the probability that a consumer will notice, recognize, and or think of your brand in a buying situation. So it could be one or all three of those.

And mental availability is really where branding, I think comes into play or communication. Communication marketing is essentially revolves around mental availability, but so does package design as well. And first with relevant associations or category entry points, essentially think about, let’s say you’re thirsty, if you’re thirsty, you have some different options to buy different types of products or different particular brands.

You might also, and that kind of cues you to start thinking about, all right, which path do I go down? Where am I gonna end up in terms of which brand that I buy? And then you could have another cue, which is somebody wanting to pick me up.

They’re just wanting, they’re tired and they want some energy or whatever, right? And so these two different paths lead down different directions, okay? And some are similar too.

So let’s say you’re Coca-Cola or you’re a soda, okay? Coca-Cola can either sit in either too. Some people might use Coca-Cola as a pick me up and some people might use Coca-Cola because they’re thirsty.

Coca-Cola wants to be there in both situations and other situations. And these cues that they wanna be at are called category entry points. They’re essentially situations that consumers find themselves in when they’re ready to enter a category as a whole before they even think about brand choice.

So before someone’s thinking about Coca-Cola, they’re thinking about, do I want soda, water, juice? Then they’re thinking, do I want cola, Sprite, or sort of lemon, lime, soda, whatever the case may be. And category entry points can include why a consumer is entering the category, so thirsty or needing a pick-me-up.

But they can also include when someone enters the soda category. Maybe they’re at the movies with friends, or it’s hot during the day, they’re at the beach or whatever. Again, it’s who they’re with when they enter the category.

And then it can also be with what other categories are they buying from when they buy from yours. So someone who buys rum might then buy Coke to make rum and Coke, right? So Coke wants to look at all of these different situations that consumers find themselves in when they’re ready to enter a category.

And Coke needs to be, there’s been studies on this, especially How Brands Grow 2 is a great book for these resources. They go into more depth on this.

So Austin, I think I get what you’re saying. So, there’s these kind of key points in the customer journey, if we can call it that, and different pathways into making a purchase decision. So, where are we going with this?

What’s next along the thinking from a strategy perspective?

Yeah, yeah. So there’s this piece of relevant associations where a lot of people, when they practice differentiation, for example, they’ll kind of say, well, we’re different because of our tone of voice or our personality, or we own this particular attribute. So let’s say it’s Volvo equals safety, Apple equals innovative, whatever the case may be.

And the attempt is to really kind of own that one attribute. And what category entry points this idea actually proposes is that what you really want to do is you want to be there for all of those different situations consumers find themselves in. As many as possible, especially the most common ones, not the different unique ones.

And the reason why the Ehrenberg Bass Institute comes to this point is because they’ve done research to study large brands and all large brands have more category entry points that consumers link to them. So more cues that are linked to their brand when consumers enter into a category. And they’re all pretty equally linked depending on which one is the most common.

So, you know, sweetness is probably Coca-Cola’s most common. So that’s gonna probably be the most common association that consumers link to it. And then maybe there’s thirsty and then maybe there’s a hot day and then maybe, you know, whatever those might be.

What they found is that larger brands, if differentiator die or differentiation is true, then larger brands should be really strong with one category entry point that other brands aren’t owning. And that’s not what’s found to be true. The bigger the brand, the more category entry points that brand owns, not the like more refined those category entry points are.

Can I come in? Can I come in?

Can I come in? I’ve got some questions. I want to ask you about this, right?

Because here’s the question. You’re absolutely right. The big brands, the big players, the massive corporates, the global conglomerates that kind of dominate, dominate, you know, you know, the world.

You’re absolutely right. Of course they cover a wide breadth, but a lot of those brands didn’t start in that way. They started small, focused, you know, solving a customer problem or a need usually in some way, and then slowly grew and took over categories and expanded their portfolios and so on and so forth.

So what are your thoughts on that? So I guess if you are a big company, right, there’s no point in you niching down, right? Because you’re dominating anyway.

But if you’re an entry, if you’re a startup, would, Austin, I don’t know what your thoughts are from a strategy perspective. Do you say to startups, hey, let’s try and go wide. Let’s try and go for it.

What are your thoughts on that? Whereas it seems to me that that’s innately what people try and do, and then they find that their resources have spread too thin, and that’s strategically difficult for them. What are your thoughts on that?

I say plan to go wide. You can start specific if you’d like, but you better plan to go wide. And the difficulty with, especially from a design standpoint, when people narrow down a particular personality or attribute or differentiator, they design accordingly.

And then they pigeonhole themselves because they can’t use the design that they started with when they start to venture into those other category or those other category entry points, right? And so now they’ve shot themselves in the foot, really, and they’re probably going to stay a niche brand. That’s the first point.

The second point is that, you know, going back to the non-binomial district, I just love saying it, you know, but I’ll just say the key curve of it.

I think we should do some outtakes at the end on the amount of time to say it. But yeah, it sounds great. I don’t even think I could repeat it back to you.

You need to say it a few more times.

What’s important about the non-binomial distribution, do you agree?

Is that it’s found in small brands and large brands. So the misconception that, so that’s the thing is that’s kind of the key really, is that if small brands and large brands both follow this pattern, it must be the case that large brands become large brands or small brands become large brands by continuing to follow that pattern. So yes, you could enter a market, a niche market and then eventually expand and that could be a really valid business model.

I don’t think there’s anything that I know of that like directly debunks that idea, but you should be thinking from the very beginning, no matter how niche you start, that we’re gonna go wide eventually. And make sure that you do not isolate those potential light buyers who are not gonna identify with their values. They’re not gonna identify with your differentiator.

And then the other piece is most brands when they start out, they cater to or they end up attracting heavy buyers of a category at all. So people that are buying a category often are more likely to try new brands. It makes sense, okay?

If someone’s rarely buying from a category, they’re not gonna take a chance on some brand they’ve never heard of. They’re gonna stick with the three or four that they know. And so you might get a lot of heavy buyers in the beginning.

You might be able to track them with a very specific differentiator, but at some point as you grow and you should always be trying to grow, that’s gonna, you’re gonna have a cap for growth if you stick to that really strong differentiator. And with category entry points, you’re right, there’s a lack of resources. If you’re McDonald’s, you can be linked to infinite category entry points almost, it feels like at least.

And if you’re a small business, you really can. And so you should start with one particular category entry point that you go after. And once that’s established, you need to start adding more and trying to establish those while even going back to the first one that you established to make sure that it’s a really strong link and that it’s fresh in consumers’ minds.

So you’re right that you could start that way. And it might even, you know, everything that I’m saying might not even apply to you in the first year of your business. But the danger is if you don’t start thinking about it now, you’re gonna pigeonhole yourself into a niche and you’re gonna have a stunted growth because you’re just gonna appeal to those heavy buyers of a category to begin with.

So also I’ve got another question. Is this, what are your experiences in say more like B2B or service-based brands? Is it a similar pattern?

Do you find, or do you find it’s mainly consumer goods?

Yeah, so it is a similar pattern. At least what the Aemberg-Bass Institute has studied, B2B businesses are very similar. It is mostly awareness.

You have to, essentially the Aemberg-Bass Institute also talks about mass reach and broad reach and trying to get in front of as many people as possible. Otherwise you can never be considered as even a choice to be bought in the first place. And so most of B2B business should be an effort to increase initial awareness of their brand to begin with.

Before they start thinking about differentiators and how they can be different from someone else, they need to try to get in front of as many people as possible. The only real way to do that is paid advertising, unless you show up on podcasts like this, because you don’t have any budget, right? So, but eventually that’s kind of the path.

Wait, wait, wait, you’re not paying us? What? What’s going on?

Just kidding, just kidding. Yeah, no, no, I think you’re right. It’s an interesting thing.

I think early days is about getting noticed and getting awareness. But I guess then when you show up, right? If you don’t have something different, something interesting, something, I think you used the word distinctive.

Well, in fact, let’s do that. Let me ask you that question. What’s the difference in your view between some differentiation and distinctiveness?

Can you define that for us as well? Let’s dance around that for a bit.

Yeah. In other contexts, the words could probably mean the exact same thing. In this particular context, they mean something very different.

So in terms of marketing science, differentiation is mostly conceptual. It is, this is the concept that makes us different. Distinctiveness is mostly in terms of visual and audio.

It’s sensorial. It is, you literally look, yeah, distinct. You literally look distinctive from your competitors.

That’s a different thing. So with differentiation, it can be functional differentiation. And here’s the thing with that.

You could be, if someone comes to you, the only business that does this particular thing. If you’re really good at it, you’re gonna get copied. If you’re not really good at it, you’re gonna fail.

So if it’s not something people want, they will copy you. If it’s not something people want, then you’re just gonna die off as a business. So functional differentiation can only really last so long.

The second point is how many brands are actually differentiated in consumers’ minds. And that’s another piece of the puzzle that Ehrenberg-Bass Institute has studied, which has shown that the vast majority of consumers, even users of products, don’t perceive the product they buy as different from the competitor product. And so you could say you have to have something different, you have to have something different.

In reality, that’s really difficult to do because brands within categories are pretty similar within nature. So that’s really difficult to do unless you have a functional differentiator, which again, like I said, can only really get you so far in the beginning.

Just to unravel that a little bit more, because it can get a bit blurry, right? It’s a bit gray. So I’m trying to think of some examples of, you know, differentiation in the market, or perceived differentiation, I guess.

Yeah, so perhaps like car brands, I think, you know, something everyone can relate to. There’s certain brands, like you said, Volvo, you know, they become known as, you know, the safe car, for example, or the luxury car or whatever brand it is that you want them to say. So they’ve kind of owned a certain idea in the eyes of the consumer.

Do you think that is because of their distinctiveness or differentiation or what do you think’s the reason?

I will say this, to marketers, they have that idea linked to them. Volvo equals safety for marketers, no one else. Trust me, I’ve asked countless people, I’ve told people, you know, whenever I debunked the differentiation myth, people who aren’t marketers, my family, my friends, and I say, you know, the idea is that Volvo equals safety.

Everyone looks at me with a blank stare. And then they say, wait, what? Volvo equals safety?

I had no idea. That’s the thing, right? So to marketers and brand strategists, we get in this bubble where we start to believe that brands are very differentiated in consumers’ minds, when in reality, they’re not.

And that’s a big important point because most normal people, I’m sure probably the vast majority, maybe the half of the listeners who are listening to you right now, do not equate Volvo with SAP. That’s not something that they’ve learned over time.

Okay, so perhaps other brands, they become known for something based on their marketing, right, the BMW, for example, like the ultimate driving machine, they may associate it with that. So Volvo, perhaps we can debunk, but perhaps other brands are known for something because of how they stood out in the marketplace because of how they’re different. So I’m just trying to curious on…

So most examples that people give, I don’t believe they are differentiated in the market. So BMW is differentiated from Honda and that BMW is a luxury car and Honda is not. So Honda is cheaper, BMW is more expensive.

I know a very few people that probably differentiate BMW from Audi in their minds, right? Those are very similar companies with very similar products, very similar, you could say selling propositions. They’re not really unique from one another.

They’re pretty much the same. What really people in their minds, when they think of the difference between Audi and BMW, they think of that little blue circle with the propellers. And then they think of those four or five little circles linked together for Audi.

That’s essentially like the extent of what people think of when they think of brands within the same category is essentially they’re looking for cues to tell them, this is this brand and not that brand. But there are some examples of brands that have grown in the market through strong differentiation. My favorite example is Harley Davidson.

So Harley Davidson is actually headquartered here where I live in Milwaukee. And I even went to the museum with my family the other day. So I learned a little bit about their history, which is fun.

And Harley Davidson is really struggling right now. And they’re struggling because for so long, they leaned into old, well, they were young at one point, but white men who viewed themself as tough or rebels and who wanted to experience freedom like they’d seen in the movie, Easy Rider. And for a long time, Harley Davidson did really well because that was a fad.

People were all into leather jackets and big, loud motorcycles for probably between the 60s and 80s, maybe up to the 90s. But after all of those years of differentiating themselves as this kind of tough, rebel, American spirit motorcycle, for one, the entire time Honda was killing them everywhere else in the world, no one buys Harleys outside of the US, hardly at all, right? Honda is just crushing them.

And two, even in the US, in the very beginning, when Honda first arrived to the US, it got so bad. They were crushing Harley so badly. Harley was slipping into bankruptcy.

The US government had to intervene and pause all Japanese imports of motorcycles until Harley could get their shit together, basically. And then eventually they did, and they did some things where they could increase their profit margin and make a little better quality motorcycles and then charge more for them. And that was kind of a business decision that they did.

But today, Harley is desperately trying to appeal to someone other than old white men who are the only people buying their motorcycles. And so now they’re in a real, they have a real problem on their hands because Harley is a very specific differentiated brand that only a few people really would identify with or want. And even the other interesting piece is that Harley Davidson also follows the non-binomial distribution deer clay model and that’s both Harley riders or buyers buy Honda twice as often as they buy Harley.

And most Harley riders have bought their motorcycles used. The loyalists, the enthusiasts, not most, but the loyalists and the enthusiasts bought their motorcycles used and they make, I think it’s like, they make up like 3.5% of all of Harley’s annual revenue. So they’re enthusiasts, they’re loyal customers who really identify with this strong differentiator aren’t really helping their business to grow.

And even now it’s actually hurting them and shooting themselves on the foot because they’re so strongly tied with this tone that so many people who just want a motorcycle to commute to work or an electric motorcycle are not going to go for it.

Yeah, but they’ve kind of stood for that for a while, like freedom, right, is what they go after. And why do people buy a Harley? It could be because of what status it gives them.

People buy for different reasons. And that’s just one example, but other brands and perhaps in the luxury market, people buy for status, for example, and it may not be, well, it could be because they’re different, right? Any of the luxury brands, like why do people buy that?

Is it because of their distinctiveness or because they’re different? I’m just curious on your thoughts on the different categories as well.

Yeah, people buy those brands because those brands are linked to category entry points. So BMW is linked to the category entry point of, I moved up in economic status, now I can afford a nicer car. BMW is linked to the category entry point of, I’m a consultant and I really need to help people believe that I know what I’m doing.

And so if I buy a BMW, I can show them that I’ve made a bunch of money from what I do. It’s linked to the category entry point of, this is a very real problem apparently, speaking to my stepbrother, doctors feel constant pressure to have really nice things, even when they don’t have the budgets for them. That’s another category entry point is just keeping up with the Joneses, right?

Very few people buy BMW very specifically because of some differentiator that BMW has. They buy it because it’s linked to so many different reasons to buy in general, a luxury car. And that’s really the key.

That’s where brands need to be. They need to be at the category entry point, not further down the line asking themselves, how are we different from Audi? BMW should be saying, why would someone buy a luxury car to begin with?

Let’s be there.

So coming back to those customer entry points, I was going to ask this before making this a little bit more approachable for smaller brands, for example. So if people are trying to, I guess, reach a wider audience, what kind of order would you go in to reach these different entry points that you talked about earlier?

You look for the most common one. So again, this is really like, this is unintuitive for the differentiator, people that are really sold out on this approach, because it’s the exact opposite of what they would ever think. But again, consumers aren’t thinking too much about the differences between brands.

They’re thinking, I need something from this category because I’m in this situation. Who am I going to go to? I’m going to choose between the three or four brands that I know, that I’m familiar with.

And so if you’re a small brand and you’re looking to grow, again, the non-binomial distribution deer clay model would suggest that even that small brands go from small brands to large brands by reaching light buyers of a category. And so you’re not going to reach light buyers with a very specific differentiator. You’re going to reach light buyers through the most common reason that they’re coming to the category to begin with, and so you’ve got to really identify what that reason is, or that situation therein is, and advertise a link to that situation between that situation and your brand.

And you want to really just reinforce that in consumers’ brains as strongly and as freshly as possible. And then eventually you can move on to other category entry points, but you want to start with the most common one. What you want to do is if you want to stand out in a market, you have to do marketing well.

You have to do it right. You have to look at the evidence. You have to look and see, you know, what does the science say about how brands actually grow?

And trust me, you will differentiate yourself in the market because everyone in all of their advertising is teasing their brand until the very end when they show the logo blip at the very end while trying to pump a bunch of brand purpose messages throughout and consumers who are just glancing up once or twice at the screen are never going to perceive the brand or process the brand being advertised. And therefore that advertisement to that consumer is wasted. And more importantly, that advertisement to most consumers is wasted because most consumers do not pay high levels of attention to advertising.

They’re not staring up at the screen, like consciously thinking about the advertising. It’s happening around them, it’s surrounding them. And this is where you can really disrupt the market.

Not from a, I need something different, I need to be innovative, I need a functional differentiated brand or a conceptual differentiated brand, but you can disrupt the market by really good marketing. And right now, the market is, just about every category is suffering from really bad marketing. There are some categories that would be really difficult to disrupt.

The car insurance category is killing it with branding and advertising right now. They’re absolutely crushing it. But if you want to disrupt Airbnb and Verbo, go nuts because they are not doing well right now in terms of making sure their brand, their advertising is clearly branded.

And for a long time, they never even advertised. And that was a big failure on their part. So there are plenty of different categories where you could disrupt by just doing really good marketing.

And one of the best ways to do this is with distinctive design, which in addition to the relevant associations, distinctive design is the other side of the coin of mental availability. And without distinctive design, consumers will be confused and they won’t buy your brand. Or they’ll buy your brand thinking it’s someone else’s brand, or they’ll buy someone else’s brand thinking it’s your brand and whichever brand they buy, whichever one is the largest, they’re going to win.

So if you have a generic logo design, that’s really common. Let’s say you are in the coffee industry, and you design a logo that has some coffee bean on it, pronounced coffee bean or whatever. No one is going to recognize your brand is distinct from anyone else’s.

And really, any advertising you do is going to be wasted and it’s going to be spit on the biggest brands in the category. People will confuse your coffee bean logo for whichever logo that has a coffee bean is the biggest brand in the category. Does that make sense?

So that’s the one piece, it has to be distinctive design. And then the other piece is that in advertising, you have to not be ashamed of your design. And that’s the other big piece with advertising in particular, which is where I help a lot of my clients is to really execute advertising that is actually effective.

It might not be remembered, it might not be that clever, they might not identify with the values in the ad, but they process the brand being advertised. And the more they’re exposed to those distinctive design elements throughout that advertisement, the more familiar they’re going to become to that brand, and the more likely their chances are going to be of buying that brand. So in order to reach light buyers, distinctive design is the greatest disruptor, not functional differentiation or conceptual differentiation.

It’s simply just exposing them to design that looks like no one else’s.


You got on your roll there. So that’s some of the alternatives, I guess, to differentiation, distinctiveness. And I think that kind of wraps up a lot of the things you talked about in terms of loyalty and how you can actually use distinctiveness to stand out, confusing myself there.

So I’m not sure if there’s anything else to add. We’re kind of coming up on time, but I think it was a good summary here on both sides of the camp. Would you have anything else to add in terms of other alternatives for people to help brands grow?

Yeah. So I want to add a little bit more to distinctive design. So I know you have a lot of designers listening, and a lot of designers become strategists from designers because they want to make money.

They want to work with higher-end clients. And so they listen to Christo and they listen to The Future and they listen to Seth Godin and Simon Sinek and all of these other people. And then they start to compile all of these different strategy tactics to try to charge more and more money for clients.

And I’m not saying this is like a bad actor kind of mentality, I’m just saying they want to support their families and there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of what most clients believe is probably the case and then pretending that it is. Or not pretending, but believing that it is and practicing that way. But if you’re a designer who really cares about effectiveness with your design and you’re not as interested in being able to charge clients for a bunch of money for a strategy workshop, but you’re more interested in charging clients a bunch of money to execute really well thought out branding, then there’s different things you can do with design.

Distinctiveness is key with design and there’s ways to actually measure distinctiveness. If a brand comes to you wanting a rebrand for whatever reason, maybe it is just a logo, maybe it is a quick update, maybe it is they feel like they’re not relevant in some particular market, you could actually go in and take their logo, their color scheme, any other distinctive elements they might have. Maybe it’s a jingle, maybe it’s a sonic logo, maybe it’s a spokesperson.

And then you can actually measure consumers to tell which of those design assets are being confused with other brands in the market, which of those design assets are working really well. They’re very highly distinctive, but maybe they haven’t been advertised really well, so people aren’t very familiar with them. You can even look at past assets that companies like Toys R Us used, like the Toys R Us jingle, which they abandoned in the early 90s, made no sense.

It was highly distinctive, was really helpful for them to grow in their market share, and then they dropped it because some marketer was bored with it. If you’re a designer, you can go in and measure that jingle, whatever that may be, among consumers, and see if you need to resurrect a design asset that was previously abandoned due to boredom or some other reason, or turnover in the organization. That’s really the key.

As a designer, if you can position yourself as, and I don’t mean as a differentiator, but as an actual, real attempt to help brands grow, as a designer who is really careful with rebrands, who doesn’t just throw some trendy logo on a package and calls it a day, and then adds a bunch of strategy, like differentiation and brand purpose and personality and attributes and tone of voice and all these other things. But you really want that brand to grow in market share. I think that’s the route you want to go.

It’s more, it’s evidence-backed. There’s a great book called Building Distinctive Brand Assets by a researcher with the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute called Ginny Romanak or however you pronounce her last name, but it’s evidence-backed as opposed to differentiation, which has no evidence to support it. Brand purpose has no evidence to support it.

And this in terms of market share and growing in your market share. Differentiation has no evidence. Brand purpose has no evidence.

Online engagement metrics are essentially tools that are used by ad agencies to pretend that they can measure the effect of your ads. In reality, advertising is very difficult to measure, but online metrics give you really easy numbers to point to clients to say, see, we did our job. There’s all kinds of things that you can do to take a smarter approach to design that flies in the face of a lot of the conventional approaches that most strategists take and is more effective.

Our designer brain is thinking how to do this on a tangible level, and looking at your competitors is gonna be the easiest way to see how you can differentiate yourself, be distinctive against these other brands. So seeing how they show up visually or sensory, like mapping them all out, and then seeing how you can actually stand out visually and sensory, for me, it seems like the easiest way to actually be distinctive. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I would agree with that. And there’s a loose way to do it, and if you have some sort of intuition about how to be really distinctive with your design that’s gonna disrupt the market, you can maybe do it without research, but I think it’s probably a dangerous approach. The smart approach is to really measure your distinctive brand assets, is what they’re called, different design elements that you have against the consumer with other brands in the category.

So that’s the smart way to do it. And always keep in mind that your most important buyers for your brand are not paying attention to you enough to ever perceive any sort of differentiation. They’re simply buying you because you’re familiar.

And if you can reach more of those light buyers and become more and more familiar with them by exposing them to your distinctive design over and over and over again, and then linking those relevant associations, that’s really the key to effective growth.

An example that comes to mind is Heinz. I’ve seen some studies on that, like the label shape was a distinctive asset, which they really doubled down on and used that in their marketing campaigns. That’s what made them distinct.

So I’m sure there’s some other examples you may have.

Well, there are all kinds of, yeah. I mean, yeah, distinctive brand assets can be a bunch of different things. If you’re really curious to see distinctive brand assets done really, really well, look at Geico, look at State Farm, look at Progressive.

Those guys are like by far the best I’ve seen out there in terms of reinforcing really distinctive design. And I want to add to with distinctive design, a very important point, meaning less design. So design that’s not packed with rich meaning is more effective than meaningful design, meaning that’s packed with rich meaning.

And the reason for this is because, you know, let’s say you are a coffee company and you want to pack your logo design and communicate some message about your brand, you’re probably going to end up communicating something with some earthly tones, some sort of coffee beans, some sort of coffee cup. You’re going to probably communicate something that’s really common in the market. And even if you do communicate something that’s unique, but are unique in the market right now, but is really commonly associated with coffee, for example, someone can then easily come along and copy you in the future, meaning less design, like the Geico Gecko, who has nothing to do with car insurance whatsoever, is a much more effective way, because no car insurance company is going to try to come up with their own Gecko.

It makes no sense. It has nothing to do with car insurance. And there’s different levels of that as well.

But I’d say also that industry is really good at making sure distinctive assets are incorporated into the storyline of their ads and are present throughout. So there’s really no mistaking who’s being advertised.

That’s a great example. You know, Geico does stick in my mind with the Gecko for sure, but we’re probably going to go down another rabbit hole here, but isn’t that distinctive or differentiated in a way?

So here’s the thing. Geico can’t really differentiate itself as the cheap car insurance. It’s kind of done that.

15 minutes or more could save you 15% or more on car insurance, that’s their tagline. But the tagline doesn’t work because of the message behind the tagline, that you could save you 15% or more on car insurance. The tagline works because the same narrator says it every freaking time, in the exact same way, with the same cadence, and it’s at the end of every single Geico ad.

And that is actually more important to the success of Geico growing. In fact, in the beginning, the car insurance industry wasn’t very playful at all. It was very serious.

It was very much, we’re gonna keep you safe. At this point, Allstate is really the only company that really tries to do that now with their branding. And thankfully, they have some distinctive assets, or they did, at least with their spokesman.

I think they shifted recently, but yeah. So yes, some people will pick up on that message. Some people will think, oh, if I switch to Geico, which no one used to ever switch between car insurances because it was like this, your dad had this car insurance, he just stuck with it.

And no one ever did it online, that’s for sure, through a phone call. And so that obviously captured a lot of people and that changed the market in a lot of ways. But now, Geico is not functionally different in the way that you can just switch between brands because you can switch between them all now very, very easily.

But that Geico and that tagline, the way it was said, the cadence it was set in and the narrator who spoke it was really the key to that whole ad campaign, which has been going on for 25 years now.

There’s so many different layers to it. And I think you’ve kind of broke it down there to show that it’s not always as black and white as it kind of sounds when you just say distinctiveness versus differentiation is not as many levels. So I think we’ve explored many of those levels.

So thank you for sharing your thoughts on the matter and throwing a few punches around.

I was gonna say, yeah, you’ve given us loads to think about and I love hearing other ways of thinking. And I think you were right to prod and to challenge. Particularly, I think we can get in a bubble and it’s good to get that burst.

And having scientific provable aspects to definitely to marketing, I think is absolutely crucial. So thanks for coming on Austin and taking your time. I was gonna ask, where can folks get in touch with you?

You mentioned you’re not on social media.

Is that the plan?

I thought you were gonna drop an F-bomb for a second there. Yeah, I was like, whoa, I thought that too. So, I put my trust in the Lord and I focus on being really good at what I do instead of trying to just be another name or voice on social media.

So you can find me on my website, woopunch.com. There’s plenty of contact forms there for you to sign up for or you just emailed me directly at austin at woopunch.com. I want to mention, I have a newsletter that I send out that you mentioned Steph Hamerlink in his podcast, Let’s Talk Branding, that’s how he found me and invited me on his podcast because he liked my newsletter so much.

So maybe you would too. So you can find that as well if you go to woopunch.com/branding. You can sign up for my newsletter there.

Do it now folks, do it now. Great stuff. Thanks for coming on, Austin.

With all of this, don’t trust me. Do your own research, you know, have an inquisitive mind, question what you’ve thought before and come up with your own conclusions.

Great. Thank you so much, Austin.

Thanks, everyone.

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