Welcome to 99U’s monthly Book Club, where we look at book releases that challenge us to think deeper, explore new perspectives, and spark a better understanding of the nuances of a creative career, from leadership and community building to productivity and everything in between.
Red Antler, the Brooklyn-based agency founded in 2007, is behind some of the most memorable campaigns of recent years and is responsible for the branding of some now-household names. Casper, Allbirds, Snowe, Hinge—the company has a knack for developing the stories of start-ups and new ventures, with a fine-tuned radar for what draws us to a brand.
Co-founder Emily Heyward works with brands from their inception, during those heady first days of launching a product, so she has deep insight into what makes some brands stick. With an eye to the psychology behind consumer decisions, and a keen knowledge of cultural shifts that shape our choices, Heyward’s book Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One, is a blueprint for anyone thinking about branding and how to create a sustainable connection around a product or service.
We drew out some key lessons from Heyward’s book, and what her branding strategies can illuminate about integrity, community, and storytelling.
Start before step one
Red Antler starts working with their clients long before the product launch date. As Heyward says, “Half of our clients are ‘pre-launch,’ which means that we meet founding teams before they’ve launched their businesses, and help them to create the entire consumer-facing experience through the lens of brand.”
It’s here that the work of brand building begins, and where the big questions need to be addressed and answered. With any venture, whether it’s launching your own studio or embarking on a freelance career, it is crucial to examine your intentions and take a step back to look at the big picture view. Long-term success is impossible without a deep understanding of your purpose and answers to the inevitable questions of who you are and what you stand for.
Heyward says, “Founders need to be thinking about brand from before day one; it needs to be embedded in their culture from the very start.” By weaving it into the DNA of everything you do, your brand will always reflect a fundamental purpose, and help act as a North Star with any tough decisions. Think of branding as woven into your entire being, not a surface-level afterthought. “Leading brands are able to form deep emotional connections because they stand for something that people care about. When I talk about brand, what I’m actually talking about is what a business stands for, at its very core.”
Follow the “Why?” questions
Obsession arises from the personal connection that consumers when brands speak to them on a deeper level—or when they encourage alignment of their lives and the product. Asking “Why should people care?” prompts a host of philosophical questions, and in Heyward’s experience, many of these eventually circle back to the big one—fear of death. This isn’t necessarily the grim concept that it sounds like! “To successfully launch something new and have people fall in love with it, you need to tap into a need that’s deep and true, and that has existed for a long time before you came on the scene, perhaps as primal as fear of death itself.”
At its core, it is about digging into what is behind all of our decisions, and following the trail of “Why?” questions to come to a common ground. Once you think you've reached the deepest level of understanding someone’s needs, go a step further. Does it connect to a universal, primal notion that we all share? That's where you'll find the answer to the real problem you're trying to solve.
Create community at every stage
Connecting the product to the personal story arc behind it is the strongest bond you need to create. The emotional idea needs to be backed up by practical function. If these don’t line up, your project will always be shrouded in inauthenticity. Start by forging connections between people, which will, in turn, create deep bonds to the brand. Even if you don't have a brand that naturally lends itself to creating a robust community (Heyward cites Spotify’s playlist ads as a hugely successful illustration of the strong community the brand created), examine where there is potential to nurture community, create a shared vocabulary, and a sense of kinship among those who are users of the product. Heyward notes, “Brands build successful communities when they create a powerful feeling of inclusion. This does not require purposely leaving people out, but it does require a willingness to put a stake in the ground about who you’re for and what you stand for.”
Part of inspiring genuine passion for your product means recognizing that you must make some savvy decisions—about who you're brand is for and who is not part of your target demographic. Attempting to be all things to all people is a telltale sign of insecurity and lack of understanding of your purpose. Nobody wants to be talked down to, but at the same time, you don’t want to shut an audience out with impenetrable terminology or arcane references. Walking that fine line creates a community of insiders, with a shared passion, and as Heyward notes, “Passion is powerful within an individual, and unstoppable when it’s shared. When a brand creates a movement, it’s because of shared passion.”
The power of the personal
Today, it might feel as though the world is saturated with new brands, spin-offs, and product launches. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed, cynical, or even wish to opt out altogether. Even for dedicated minimalists, though, consumer decisions come into play every day. So how does a brand appeal to those who are wary of the whole prospect, and what makes the brand-consumer relationship go beyond a merely transactional one? Heyward makes note of the glut of similar ideas that are cropping up in the marketplace, and how branding is ultimately what sets them apart from the rest. “Now, within a month, we’ll sometimes meet with three different teams launching nearly identical ideas. Because it’s so much easier to get things off the ground, and because technology has lowered the barriers to entry for everyone, the difference in success largely boils down to brand.”
The success of a brand rests on making it personal and bringing customers into your world. Those who understand how to align their values with their venture are much better placed to succeed. Think about why you have embarked on starting a brand, project, or collaboration. What is driving you to work on it every day and to dedicate your time and energy? Where does your inspiration and motivation come from? Heyward mentions engaging with several clients whose personal stories behind their decision to start a brand set the tone for their story arc and subsequent messaging. This idea of personal alignment can always be traced to the founding team and staff. “Even if you don’t exactly mirror your target audience, you need to embody the values and spirit of the brand you seek to create.”
Start a conversation
We know that the days of relying on television commercials and newspaper ads are long gone. To succeed in the now, a brand must be nimble and ready to adapt to ever-shifting arenas. Heyward is all too aware of how a brand needs to navigate this changed landscape, “With all the places a brand needs to appear today, you have to bend and flex to keep things interesting.” What’s more, the idea of a static, perfectly polished brand no longer rings true for most of us. We know all too well what goes on behind the scenes, and perhaps even have a healthy skepticism for advertising and targeted marketing.
Honesty, transparency, and humility are the cornerstones of creating a foundation of trust and making the consumer part of the story. So how do you draw someone in and make them stick around? In Heyward’s experience, the key is to start a conversation. Sparking dialogue between the customer and brand is a way to invite them on the journey, with all the pitfalls and successes. This might mean relinquishing control, which is understandably a daunting risk with any new venture. But that can pay off with remarkable results. “Letting go of control is what allows consumers to become part of the story. Their content gets featured, they see themselves in the brand’s narratives, and they feel more invested. Instead of a top-down approach, it’s a conversation, and conversations are by their very nature unpredictable—at least the good ones are.”