All Posts By

Aaron Shields

Top 5 Cult Branding Blogs of 2022

Cult Branding's Top Loyalty and Crisis Blogs of the Year

Below are the 5 most popular blogs of the year.

They cover everything from social media to customer trust to the power of gratitude.

If you’re reading them for the first time, we hope you find new insights. If you’re reading them again, we hope you find a valuable reminder that you can put to action in the new year.

We wish you and your family a happy, healthy, and fantastic New Year.

Is Your Social Media Strategy Really A Social Media Strategy?

The social media landscape changed a lot in 2022. But its core function hasn’t changed. In “Is Your Social Media Strategy Really A Social Media Strategy?” we look at the core function that many businesses miss.

Three Vitally Important Lessons I Learned About Trust While In a Filthy Gas Station Bathroom

A lot is written on customer loyalty. But most of it ignores the precursor to loyalty: trust. Without trust, you can’t get to loyalty.

In “Three Vitally Important Lessons I Learned About Trust While In a Filthy Gas Station Bathroom,” we look at how easy trust is to break and how competitors can use another company’s failure to gain trust to wow their own customers.

Can Customers Trust Your Brand?

Another article on trust. We expect to see a lot more articles written next year on trust (and we plan to write a few ourselves).

In “Can Customers Trust Your Brand?” we look at how brands are outpacing governments in their ability to create trust.

Where Is the Love? Understanding What Went Wrong for Netflix

Even big brands with a lot of customer data can make big mistakes (just look what happened to the ones featured in Good to Great).

In “Where Is the Love? Understanding What Went Wrong for Netflix,” we look at some of the missteps Netflix has made lately and how it could affect customer loyalty.

Four Ways to Make Gratitude a Daily Practice

There’s plenty of research out there showing how adding daily practices of gratitude can improve your well being.

In this “Four Ways to Make Gratitude a Daily Practice,” we describe four ways to easily incorporate gratitude into your daily life.

Is Your Social Media Strategy Really A Social Media Strategy?

how can you use your brand to help customers tell their stories?  how can their stories help you tell your story better?

Native American Proverb

Pull up almost any major corporation’s Facebook page and look at how they respond to negative feedback. Often, it’s ignored. When it’s not, it’s usually a copy-and-paste response that reads like it spent several weeks losing its humanity in the legal department: “Sorry you didn’t have the perfect experience we’re committed to delivering. Please call 1-800…”

In the latter case, not only does the customer have to make the effort to call, but they also have to re-explain the issue. And, they’ll likely get put on hold. This is hardly a commitment to a great customer experience.

This isn’t just reserved for negative posts; positive posts usually get the same responses: no answers or cookie-cutter answers that aim just to try and make the algorithm see a boost in engagement. 

Behavior like this should be shocking at this point: experts have warned companies for well over a decade to use social media to primarily communicate rather than broadcast. Yet, most still predominantely use social media as little more than a glorified broadcast platform.

Whether this usage stems from ignorance or inability (or both), ultimately the issue is that companies are ignoring the true nature of branding: authentic brands are co-authored experiences with customers, employees, and the brand; authentic brands are not broadcast experiences.

In October 2012, I attended AdAge’s Social Engagement/Social TV Conference in Los Angeles. The most interesting thing I heard there was an offhanded comment by Kay Madati—then the Head of Media and Entertainment for Facebook who later worked for Twitter and LinkedIn and now works for FIFA. He said that internally Facebook refers to posts and their threads as stories.

In that context, most of Facebook’s moves—even the controversial ones—over the last decade make sense: how do we allow our users to better tell the stories they want to tell and see the stories they find meaningful?

But, social media isn’t just great for customers to tell their stories; it’s great for brands to tell their stories too. How much different would your brand’s Facebook page be if its only goal was to tell the story of your brand in a way that’s meaningful to your customers’ lives?

If customers are trying to tell their stories, how can you use your brand to help them tell their stories? And, how can their stories help you tell your story better?

Next time you consider your social media, think about the platforms as tools for co-authorship and storytelling.

What Are the Top 10 Business Books I’ve Read in the Last Few Years?

Without new input, it’s hard to create truly new ideas

Without new input, it’s hard to create truly new ideas, since you draw on the same bank of knowledge. Starting at my #10 and finishing on my #1, here is my list of the top 10 books I’ve read in the last few years that influenced my thinking about business the most:

10. Dream First, Details Later: How to Quit Overthinking & Make It Happen! by Ellen Marie Bennett


While she was a cook, Ellen Marie Bennett set out to make a better apron so cooks would be inspired by what they wear. Dream First, Details Later traces the early stages of her career to the current day, as she created the world-renown kitchen-gear company, Hedley & Bennett. This book offers the wisdom of an entrepreneur finding their way and encouraging all those that want to run their own business—or are already running it—to not hesitate, to dream what they want, and then figure out how to get it done along the way. 

9. You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most by Leonard J. Marcus, Eric J. McNulty, Joseph M. Henderson, and Barry C. Dorn

“The transformative leader finds patterns in a situation and then takes action to generate new patterns, initiating a fresh and different order.”

Influenced by the pandemic, in 2020 we dove deep into the literature and personal consulting experience and published a blog on how to navigate a crisis or any period of change. While researching the article, the most comprehensive book I found on crisis management was You’re It. It’s a bit academic, but all leaders are bound to face a period of change in their careers and this book offers great insight into how to manage it with case studies on how others have managed it too.

8. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

“Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that transference, is the oneness that the mystics talk about.”

In Shoe Dog, Phil Knight takes readers on a wild ride through his youth into building Nike into the powerhouse it has become. Phil Knight faced a constant barrage of obstacles in building Nike and this autobiography provides inspiration on overcoming any obstacle you may face. 

7. The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance by Steven G. Rogelberg

“There is compelling evidence suggesting that we are poor judges of our own leadership skills when it comes to meetings. Namely, we have an inflated view of our skills.”

One of the biggest complaints I hear—and I’m sure you do too if you work in a large organization—is how much time is wasted in meetings. In The Surprising Science of Meetings, Steven G Rogelberg examines meetings through the lens of the academic literature and offers a guidebook on how to improve meetings (and to know when to cancel them). Anyone responsible for creating and running meetings would benefit from reading this book. 

6. The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker

“But here is the great paradox of gathering: There are so many good reasons for coming together that often we don’t know precisely why we are doing so. You are not alone if you skip the first step in convening people meaningfully: committing to a bold, sharp purpose.”

As humans, we gather together a lot. In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker takes a look at how to organize and run important gatherings—whether it’s a family gathering or a negotiation or a workshop—to provide maximum effect and meaning for all participants, making everyone feel they spent their time valuably. For anyone running events, this book is a great guide for making sure the event achieves its purpose—and has a clearly defined one in the first place.

5. Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World by Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace

“Big data tells us who people seem to be, but not who they really are; surveys tell us what they keep on their shelves, but not what they keep in their hearts.”

There have been a lot of books published over the last few years about incorporating the dynamics of storytelling into creating powerful messaging. Storynomics is the most comprehensive book I’ve found on the subject. In the book, story-structure expert Robert McKee and marketer Tom Gerace examine the biological function of storytelling, the structure of storytelling for connecting with customers, and how that structure differs from more traditional examples of storytelling. Storynomics is a valuable read for anyone involved in customer insights or advertising. 

4. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

“Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.”

When we think of accomplishments, we tend to think of something big. We often forget or don’t realize all the little steps it took to achieve something big. In Atomic Habits, James Clear offers a comprehensive guide to creating big change by just getting 1% better every day. This is the most comprehensive and practical book I’ve read on creating change by building new habits that stick. A great book for anyone that wants to create change in their life.

3. Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become? by Michael Schrage

“Customers don’t just adopt innovations; they alter them, adapt to them, and are changed by them.”

Schrage builds on the work of Peter Drucker and Theodore Levitt and provides a great question all business leaders should ask themselves: who do you want your customers to become? Innovation changes customer behavior and companies can use those behaviors to not only make customers better customers of the brand but also more fulfilled people. This is a short and overlooked must-read for anyone in marketing. 

2. Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling by Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein

“Don’t jump in telling answers until you know what the other person really needs to know. Don’t assume that the person with the question has asked the right question.”

Edgar Schein is arguably the GOAT of organizational consulting. In Humble Inquiry, I found a kindred spirit in Edgar Schein. He lays out his philosophy on how human interaction and problem-solving are improved by inquiry instead of just skipping to making assumptions and giving an answer based upon those assumptions. Schein has other books that elaborate on the concept of humble inquiry for specific contexts—Humble Leadership and Humble Consulting—and one that places humble inquiry into a larger context—Helping—but Humble Inquiry is the best introduction to the idea. A valuable read for anyone, especially leaders and managers.

1. Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle

“Every sports team needs a coach, and the best coaches make good teams great. The same goes in business: any company that wants to succeed in a time where technology has suffused every industry and most aspects of consumer life, where speed and innovation are paramount, must have team coaching as part of its culture. Coaching is the best way to mold effective people into powerful teams.”

Outside of Silicon Valley, Bill Campbell was an unsung hero. Inside of Silicon Valley, Bill Campbell coached people like Larry Page and Steve Jobs. In Trillion Dollar Coach, ex and current Google leaders Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle reveal the wisdom of Bill Campbell that made him a sought-after executive coach and the secret sauce behind many of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies. This book is an expert-level course in leadership, management, and coaching. But, at the same time, it’s accessible to everyone. It takes my top spot and is a must-read for anyone in any leadership or management position. 

Top 5 Cult Branding Blogs of 2021

Cult Branding's Top Loyalty and Crisis Blogs of the Year

Taking into consideration your opens, shares, and clicks, below are our five most popular blogs of 2021.

We thank you for your continued readership. We wish you and your family a happy, healthy, and fantastic New Year.

BJ, Salim, and Aaron

Make Business Matter

In August, we launched our podcast, Make Business Matter with two episodes:” What is the Purpose of Busines?” and “What is Branding?”

We will return with more episodes in 2022, including some episodes featuring guests that we’re fans of.

The Power of Thank You

In a year that refocused many people and organizations on what is meaningful, it’s not surprising that our post “The Power of Thank You” was one of the most popular of the year. Sometimes simple gestures can have meaning that far outweighs the effort.

Seven Easy Ways to Make Customers You Meet Feel Important

Customers are increasingly looking for businesses that value them and their business. In “Seven Easy Ways to Make Customers You Meet Feel Important,” we reveal seven ways anyone in an organization can make customers they encounter feel valued.

How to Start a Cult … Brand

If you want to do something well, it helps to study the best. In “How to Start a Cult … Brand,” we discuss 5 things Cult Brands do to create high levels of loyalty that can be applied to any business (even if you don’t want to go full-on Cult Brand).

How to Put Archetypes to Work in Your Business

Archetypes are like software programs that come preinstalled on your computer (mind). You may not know they exist, but they are always either running in the background or ready to run after a single click.

In this blog, we show how you can mimic great brands and use archetypes to create and keep customers.

How To Achieve Audacious Goals

We made the impossible possible by our teamwork. Good leadership is also required to achieve success.              —Mingma David Sherpa

In 2019, Nirmal “Nims” Purja set out to climb all 14 of 8000+ meter mountain peaks. The previous record was 7 years. He set a goal of doing it in 7 months. 

Everyone thought it was impossible. He couldn’t get any sponsors and had to remortgage his house to fund the expedition. 

He completed his climb in 6 months and 6 days.

If you haven’t watched the documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, you should: it’s a great lesson in leadership and what it takes to achieve audacious goals.

Here are five leadership principles that enabled Nims and his team to make the impossible possible.

1. It Takes A Vision

In life, you have to keep doing what you believe. You have to ask yourself, do you really want this from your heart? Is it for the self-glory? Or is it for something bigger? Sometimes, the idea that you come up with may seem impossible to the rest of the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to you. And if you can inspire one or two people in a good way, then you can inspire the world.Nims Purja

Without an inspiring vision, you can never achieve audacious goals. 

The vision must be driven by something deeper than just profit or competition. It must be driven by a purpose that seeks to create a positive change in the world. 

A vision points the direction of change. It says how you believe the world should be in a way that can be meaningful to everyone in the organization. 

Think about the changes you plan to make this coming year and consider if they are truly meaningful. If they are not, how can you replace them with something that is?

2. It Takes Grit

Nims: Giving up is not in the blood, sir. It’s not in the blood.
Don: That was the first daylight for me about his project. This guy believed that they were going to do it. And they pushed through.Nims Purja and fellow climber Don Bowie

To achieve an audacious vision, you need to have an unwavering belief that you will actually achieve it with enough confidence to make your team believe it too. 

Any roadblocks you run into shouldn’t make you waver from the larger vision. 

Great leaders show daring, determination, and grit. 

3. It Takes Constant Improvement

In early life, I always used to compete against other people. I never knew how to back off. When I joined the Gurkhas, the biggest thing I learned was I have to compete against myself. To be better than who I was yesterday.Nims Purja

Great leaders have the desire to constantly become better, even if it’s just 1% each day. 

This is in contrast to many people in leadership positions who get stuck in the day-to-day and don’t set aside the time for improving both themselves and their ability to lead others.

Constant learning and setting aside time for reflection are hallmarks of leaders who can achieve what others believe is impossible.

4. It Takes Compassion

In the military, I have never left anyone behind. I wasn’t gonna do that on the mountains. So we gave the climber our oxygen. And we made the radio contact on all the camps saying, “Hey, guys, we need help.” … It’s not in my blood to leave a person behind.Nims Purja

In business, we’re often taught that success is a zero-sum game. But, when you’re motivated by a vision that’s greater than yourself, achieving it can’t solely be driven by the ego. 

Just because you pause to help others, doesn’t mean you can’t still achieve what you set out to do, even if what you set out to do seems impossible. In fact, sometimes if you want to truly live up to the values it will take to achieve that goal will require you to pause, offer help, and bring others along with you.

5. It Takes A Team

So many Western climbers have climbed with a huge help from the Sherpa. What I have herd most of the time is, “My Sherpa helped me.” And that’s it. That is wrong because he has a name. What they should be saying is, “Mingma David helped me.” … Or, “Gesman Tamang helped me.” … If not you are a ghost.Nims Purja

Nothing great can be achieved alone. It takes a talented team. 

A leader needs to set the vision and inspire the team. But, they also need to both believe in the value of the team and give credit to all the team members.

A team that feels uninspired and underappreciated will never achieve greatness. And, if the teams can’t achieve greatness, an organization can’t make an audacious vision a reality.


We made the impossible possible by our teamwork. Good leadership is also required to achieve success, and Nims demonstrated that very well.Mingma David Sherpa

The combination of vision, grit, constant improvement, compassion, and teamwork can transform what is seemingly impossible into something possible over and over again.

In 2021, Nils and his team became the first team to summit K2 in winter. 

The #1 Way to Be Kind to Employees

Clarity is kindness.

Jack Barker: Growth. The more brilliant people we can get working here, then the faster we can get whatever’s in your head out into the world. Let me tell you a story. In 1999, Google was a little startup just like we are. And when they started bringing in chefs and masseuses, we thought, they’re nuts.But they were attracting the best possible people, and they were able to create the best product. And now they’re worth over $400 billion. And do you know the name of that company?

Richard Hendricks: Google, right? You said it at the beginning of the story.

Jack Barker: You’re right. I did that wrong. And the whole point is that all of this is a sound investment as long as we are able to get the best people and make the best possible product. Silicon Valley1

Talk of taking care of employees is popular. Whether it’s the recognition that many employees want more than just a paycheck, offering Google-like perks, or employees demanding a better life-work balance, many businesses are rethinking the company-employee relationship.

The problem is that many efforts are patchwork solutions: they provide benefits that hopefully outweigh the negatives of the work and, as a result, make the work more bearable. 

Instead, businesses should start by thinking about how they can actually make the work easier and more enjoyable. And, the single easiest way to do this is by providing clarity.

Bringing Clarity to The Workplace

CLARITY IS KINDNESS!Ellen Marie Bennett2

When someone isn’t clear about their role, work becomes stressful.

Clarity in a business can take two forms:

  1. Day to Day: Being clear about an employee’s roles and responsibilities.
  2. Long-Term: Being clear about where the business as a whole is going and what it is trying to achieve, beyond just profit.

Without long-term clarity, you can’t offer day-to-day clarity to employees. And, you can’t expect them to be motivated by the work or be able to make the best decisions for the business. 

Lack of clarity often starts at the top. Before a business can offer clarity to its employees, leadership must have clarity about where the business is going. Without that clarity, the bigger picture can’t be communicated to employees and it’s difficult to be able to tell employees what is important in their daily work that will help achieve a larger goal. 

This lack of clarity has resulted in the plethora of vague job descriptions, core values that just exist on a poster on a wall, and business environments the produce managers that constantly change their minds and behave as poor leaders.

To have clarity, leadership needs to have—and communicate—a vision of what it wants the company to be like in the future. 

Vision: Why You Need More Than a Statement

If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.Zig Ziglar3

To create a vision of the future, most companies create a vision statement. In the best-case scenarios, this gets repeated regularly. In the worst-case scenario, it gets buried in the employee handbook. In every scenario, it’s not enough.

Vision Statements are necessary because they point to a goal beyond profit. But, they’re not bound by time: they don’t tell anyone what a business with that vision should look like a year, or two years, or ten years down the line. 

Without a time-bound company vision, it’s impossible to connect today’s work to tomorrow’s outcome. 

A time-bound vision should be both something that can be seen but that is also motivating. In other words, it shouldn’t be so far in the future that you could never predict what the business will look like in that time, but it should be far enough in the future that it creates an ambitious goal—something that isn’t ambitious will never create long-term motivation.

For most businesses, we’ve found that creating a 3-year Company Vision best fulfills the balance between creating something that can be both imagined and ambitious.4

Creating a 3-Year Company Vision

And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”Talking Heads5

A 3-Year Company Vision should be detailed: it needs to answer the question of what should the company look like in 3 years, in as much detail as possible—it should run several pages.

Although what this looks like and what areas of the business need a detailed vision will be different for each business, we’ve found that there are four critical sections required for all companies looking to create a strong brand and clarity for their employees. 

These four sections derive from the three elements from our model of building a strong brand: vision, culture, and customer. In our model, leadership creates a vision that inspires employees who translate your brand—through direct interaction, marketing, and products—to your customers.

Section 1: Overall 3-Year Company Vision

This section answers: what are the big goals—in line with your vision statement—that you want to achieve in 3 years?

These should be goals that significantly transform the business. They can be numerical goals or qualitative goals. But, the key is that should make the business different than it is today and make the business a better expression of its vision statement.

Section 2: Culture

Part of the reason for creating a 3-Year Company Vision isn’t to achieve the vision. It’s to become the type of company that could achieve that vision.

This section answers the question: what type of culture do we need and want to have in place to achieve our Overall 3-Year Company Vision?

Section 3: Marketing

This and the following section split the customer piece of our model of brand-building into two sections based on Peter Drucker’s idea of the functions of a business. 

Peter Drucker wrote, “Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two—and only these two—basic functions: marketing and innovation.”6

True marketing involves understanding the customers’ needs and tensions and then translating how you solve those tensions and fulfill those needs back to them over and over again.

This section answers the question: what do we want and need our marketing to be like in order to achieve our Overall 3-Year Company Vision?

Section 4: Innovation

The final section is the second piece of the customer element of brand building: innovation.

This section answers the question: what do we want and need our products and/or our services to be like to achieve our Overall 3-Year Company Vision?


There are three kinds of relationships one can have with work: you either have a job, a career, or a calling.Chip Conley7

Perks are great, but they’ll never make employees stop thinking of their work as a job and instead embrace it as a calling. And, in most cases, they just cover up underlying problems like a stressful job due to a lack of clarity in one’s own roles and the business’s direction rather than solving the underlying issue by giving clarity to the entire organization. 

Creating clarity about the vision of the business is the best way to be kind to employees because it influences every part of their workday. And, having clarity allows leadership to be kind to themselves: it enables leaders to better understand what intitiatives will actually contribute to the long-term health of the organization. 

Creating clarity starts with creating a vision statement and then translating that Vision Statement into a detailed 3-Year Company Vision that is easily understood by the whole organization. It lets them know where they need to go so they can evaluate decisions in the context of how to best get there. It stops them from guessing because they have a better idea of how to connect today with tomorrow in a way that’s compatible with everyone else in the organization. 

That can reduce a lot of stress. It can even give your employees a calling. 

Be kind. Create Clarity. 


Holographic Advertising

Have everything the customer interacts with become a reflection of some aspect of your brand’s archetype.

Frederico Fellini was a critically acclaimed Italian film director who earned three foreign-film Oscars and a lifetime achievement Oscar. Many of Fellini’s films are counted among the best films ever made. His early films were part of the neorealist movement, which centered on the lower class, depicting their troubles and the moral environment of Italy. These early films had an easy-to-follow narrative plot. Starting with La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s work took a different turn. La Dolce Vita consists of a series of episodes in a reporter’s week that collectively add up to the plot.

In 1961, Fellini became fascinated with Jung’s idea of archetypes. In subsequent films, Fellini combined the style he used in La Dolce Vita—where the film consists of a series of episodes, rather than a traditional, linear plot—with the ideas of Carl Jung. This resulted in outrageous dream sequences heavy with archetypal influences interspersed with non-dream sequences throughout his films, like his most famous work, 8½. Collectively this odd mix creates a singular meaning from a series of events.

So, what does this have to do with advertising?

First, all strong brands tap into an archetype and consistently sell it over and over again. The content of the messaging changes, but the archetype remains the same. Without a consistent archetypal focus, the brand lacks continuity.

The second reason is contained in the first. During his Jungian period, Fellini’s films are a series of scenes that collectively add up to the greater meaning of the film. These films are like a hologram: each piece reflects the meaning of the whole film, but since each piece is small, on its own it may be too hard to see. Taken together, the image is bigger and clearer. And, meaning can be extracted from the whole.

This is the same way great campaigns work. Every commercial reflects the central idea of the brand. Collectively, the group of commercials makes it undeniably clear what the brand represents.

Fellini actually directed a few commercials: Campari, Barilla pasta, and a series of three for the Bank of Rome. The three from the Bank of Rome comprise the last footage Fellini filmed before dying. In all three, a man has a nightmare and then goes to see an analyst. The analyst tells him his fears will be relieved if he uses the Bank of Rome.

All three use the same premise and collectively indicate that fears customers may have about their money can manifest in different ways. Granted, the Bank of Rome commercials are a bit “out there” but they confront a real idea that a person may have in choosing a bank and do it consistently. I for one would be interested to see where Fellini could have gone given more time in the advertising medium.

Never stray from the archetype of your brand. Have everything the customer interacts with become a reflection of some aspect of your brand’s archetype. Then, your brand will be delivered to your customers like one of Fellini’s greatest films.

The Paradox of Creativity

Creativity doesn’t blossom when it’s a free for all. Creativity needs constraints.

Educational systems tend to place an emphasis on a way of doing things, rather than giving the tools necessary to complete the task. I remember several arguments with my high school English teachers. They would insist on a particular interpretation of a passage—usually heavily influenced by Freudian interpretations that reduced everything to a narrow range of possible meanings.

In retrospect, it’s probably not surprising. My English teachers were educated in an age where deriving meaning from text and subtext was heavily influenced by Freud. Their teachers probably gave them the standard readings and expected them to repeat them on the tests. They weren’t encouraged to find their own interpretations, so how could we expect them to act any different towards us?

In biology, at a conceptually opposite end of the education spectrum, the experience is generally no different. Most people get a job in a lab, then pursue PhD research along the same lines and end up carrying the mantle of whatever researcher they apprenticed under. It’s not surprising that the majority of biologists are researching some protein eight steps down a cascade chain, waiting for the next new thing to open up in their field so they can jump on discovering protein four of that cascade. Generally, there is a lack of big ideas.

The Apple Tree Problem

Imagine a tree on a hill accompanied by a group of people who have no knowledge of botany or horticulture; they can only describe what they see. A person observing the tree from a distance will be able to say it looks like a tree of such and such a height, the leaves are green, and the trunk is brown. A person a bit farther up the hill will say well a certain section of the leaves are brown, and the trunk has ridges. As people get closer and closer to the tree they will only be able to better describe things they already know about. But no matter how close they get, they can’t get any truly new information about the tree. They’re stuck in a single way of looking at the tree: get closer and closer until you can describe it better. This is pretty good analogy of the way science generally operates.

Now imagine a new person looks at the tree, but instead of getting closer, they step around the other side. What do they see? A red, spherical object. This is something new that no one could describe before and never would if they never bothered to look at the other side of the tree. The person is still solving the same problem (the same box)—describing the tree—but they’re taking on a differerent perspective, leading to new solutions.

This is the way most creativity works: making associations to create ideas that weren’t there before. In this case it’s applying “walk around the object” to a domain where people are only using “walk toward the object.”

In Search of Big Ideas

At the other end of the spectrum is “out-of-the-box” thinking. This was championed in many circles, especially business ones, as a way to unleash creative impulses and come up with the next big thing. When you think out of the box, anything goes.

But, the truth is that it’s as ineffective in generating great solutions as is giving people a single set of tools to solve problems. When anything goes, it tends to block people from generating any ideas as they don’t know in which way they should start thinking about a problem.

Creativity doesn’t blossom when it’s a free for all. Creativity needs constraints.

The Creative Paradox

Creativity is a paradox: it requires an odd blend of open idea generation but with the restriction to a specific problem with specific constraints. It requires new ways of seeing the same problem.

Great Cult Brands are exemplars of creativity, giving us new ways to think about old businesses: Harley-Davidson gave us new ways to think about motorcycles, Apple about computers, and Oprah about talk shows. They moved beyond business as usual and industry status quo, and in doing so, they entered into their customers’ hearts.

What sort of boxes are you using in your organization? Are they turn-by-turn roadmaps or do they allow people to map their own course to the destination, with room for detours on the way?

How to Ask the Right Questions

Answering big questions can also help you reveal unspoken customer desires: desires customers can’t even articulate themselves.

I’m continually struck by how often companies conduct research without asking any big questions. 

Companies conducting research tend to ask a lot of questions with the belief that, from the mountain of data, they’ll be able to find a big answer.

But,, what they usually end up with is just a bunch of data that gets read in a report and then tucked away in a drawer that houses piles of past research efforts. If they’re lucky—and it usually is more luck than intent—they’ll glean one or two pieces of information that they can see themselves possibly applying, someday.

Data doesn’t reveal answers, questions do. To conduct effective research, you have to start by asking the big questions and then using research questions to attack those big questions from multiple angles. And, those big questions have to target something that can create action.

Knowledge is only power if it can be transformed into action.

Asking The Big Questions

Research that can’t be turned into action wastes time and money. Company time is wasted conducting the research and then spending countless hours digging through the data to try and find the secrets within. Customer time is wasted because customers spend time answering surveys in the hopes that their answers will create change in the company, which it rarely does. And, finally, company money is wasted because the research rarely results in actionable results.

Even if you get some useful answers from a survey just by asking a lot of questions, you’re likely to wish that you asked a few other questions that clarified what you found in the data. 

This is why you need to start with the big questions before you create survey questions. 

Determining the big questions to ask isn’t easy. It takes time. But, it makes the end result more effective and saves time and money in the long run.

The difficulty of asking the big questions is one of the reasons why demographic research is popular: demographics are easy to accumulate without asking any big questions as they’re based on numerical, census-style, generic questions, and they generate obvious answers: what groups are we serving and what groups aren’t we serving. The inevitable result is that we need more of some age and economic group. These are poor questions, not big ones.

As Einstein said, if he had an hour to save the planet, he’d spend 59 minutes coming up with the question that needs to be answered, and 1 minute solving it. Marketers I’d guess would spend 1 minute coming up with the question and then 59 minutes solving it, only to determine that it requires annihilating all males in the 30-40 age group as they’re polluting the planet the most.

The Danger of Easy Questions

Many years ago I was sitting on a bench at Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia when a man approached me and asked if he could ask me a few questions. He showed me the trailer to National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets and asked me questions concerning my age, what I thought of the actors and director involved, would I see it in the theater, and what age group I thought would be most likely to see the movie. I told him I had no intention of seeing it in the theater but that I thought the most likely group to see the film was my age group. He looked puzzled: how could I not want to see the movie but think it’s most appropriate for my age group?

Think about it for a second: If a friend asks you whether or not you think he would like a comedy that just came out, would you say to yourself: “Well, he’s between the ages of 30 and 40, male, earns $50,000 a year, Hispanic, single, heterosexual, and lives in the Midwest, so I don’t think he’d like it.” Or, would you think about the type of humor he likes, what other movies you know he likes and make your recommendation based on the way you see him as a person, instead of numbers?

If you didn’t bother to collect the proper information to solve the real problem, you’ll inevitably end up with a bad answer, unless by chance you happen to capture what you need. 

The only way to be sure to collect the proper information is to start with big questions.

Down The Garden Path

When you ask big questions, you’re forced to translate it into multiple questions that tackle the problem from several angles. Big questions potentially have multi-dimensional answers; they are unlikely to be answered by a single data point.

In fact, single data points can lead you down a garden path.

Imagine a hypothetical, underperforming lawnmower manufacturer is trying to decide what percentages of red and green lawnmowers they should ship to Lowe’s. They analyze last year’s data and see that nine green lawnmowers sold for every red one. The company changes it’s production to make 90% of their lawnmowers for Lowe’s green and 10% red. When it came time to look at sales, hardly any of their lawnmowers sold.

Repeated statistical analyses show no cause for the increase in sales of red lawnmowers. The company hires a consumer insight firm to discover what went wrong. The firm looks at the Lowe’s stores and the purchasing decisions of Lowe’s customers. Looking at the stores, the firm finds that the previous year Lowe’s displayed green lawnmowers at the front of the store. But, this year there wasn’t a display at the front of the store. When asking the customers what color they wanted their lawnmower to be most customers answered red. But when the insight firm showed customers different colors and asked them to select their favorite lawnmower color from the group, 80% said orange—a color no lawnmower company was making. The next year the company released a slew of orange lawnmowers and outsold all other lawnmower makers in the Lowe’s stores.

Analyzing the manufacturer’s data would never have revealed anything. Sense was created from nonsense by coming up with questions to ask that answered a bigger question about customer behavior.

Before you start gathering data, ask yourself what you really want from the data and plan accordingly. If you don’t, your conclusions, if you have them, are in danger of providing inaccurate results.

Existing Data ≠ Hidden Desires

Answering big questions can also help you reveal unspoken customer desires: desires customers couldn’t even articulate themselves.

In a 2004 talk for the TED conference, Malcolm Gladwell spoke about his friend Howard Moskowitz, an experimental psychologist and president of Moskowitz Jacobs, Inc., a consumer insights research firm. Moskowitz conducted research for Prego to discover the best type of tomato sauce. His research was influenced heavily by a study he conducted years before for Diet Pepsi: how much aspartame should be added to the mix to create the ideal Diet Pepsi. The Diet Pepsi experiment was inconclusive; the data was all over the place. Years later Moskowitz made sense of the data. There isn’t an ideal Pepsi; there are only ideal Pepsis. In other words, there should be multiple categories. It’s this thinking that he took to Prego and resulted in the creation of the much-beloved category of chunky tomato sauce.

Just because a lot of data is out there doesn’t mean anyone has ever collected the relevant data. This is exactly what Howard Moskowitz discovered with tomato sauce: no focus group from Ragu or Prego ever came up with the idea of chunky tomato sauce as a type of sauce they would like until they were given the option. And no amount of data would reveal the observation that green lawnmowers were displayed at the front of the store the year before.

 Only by understanding the customers can we give them what they want. On their own, they don’t know. This has been a guiding force for Steve Jobs at Apple: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new. … If we’d given customers what they said they wanted, we’d have built a computer they have been happy with a year after we spoke to them—not something they want now.”1

Observation and questioning gives us insight into what customers want. Statistical analysis only shows what they’re doing and is best used as a check and balance system to make sure the observations you made and the questions you asked were the right ones. Don’t let anyone try to fool you into believing it’s the other way around.

Big Questions, Big Answers

Too often research is conducted just because companies believe it should be done. In our consulting work, I’ve watched companies spend immense sums of money on research that didn’t tell them anything they didn’t know before. And, I’ve watched companies spend immense sums of money creating reports that didn’t translate into any action. Both could be corrected by starting with big questions before thinking about the questions that get asked in the survey.

When designing customer insights research, you need to start by brainstorming one or a few big questions you want to answer. And, then spend time brainstorming multiple questions you can use to attack those big questions from multiple angles. Just using the questions that are currently popular in market research is unlikely to answer the questions that are unique to your company.


How Mystery Can Engage Your Customer

Mystery engages customers and drives them to create a strong relationship with your brand.

Humans are obsessed with the unknown.

Although our psyche fears the unknown, that fear is balanced by the innate drive of curiosity: we want to uncover the wizard behind the curtain.

This sense of mystery is present in all great storytelling: you can’t wait to hear what happens next. When you hear someone say, “I saw the ending coming,” you assume they didn’t enjoy the movie and that it’s unlikely you would either. Without mystery, our interest fades.

The same principle holds true in business. Everyone has heard the local car dealership advertisement where nothing is left untold: “No credit, no problem. Every car, every model.” You could probably figure out what they’re going to say as soon as the ad starts.

Not everything needs to be directly presented to your customer. This is counter to many modern marketing practices where companies constantly try to expose different aspects of the brand in the hope that something might stick. Enticing customers to discover positive things about your brand on their own creates a deeper relationship and increases the chances that they will talk positively about you.

The VW Beetle

Creating mystery is something great advertising has been doing for decades. But, the form was different.


In 1960, Bill Bernbach led art director Helmut Krone and copywriter Julian Koenig to create one of the most famous and successful ads in marketing history: a photo of a VW Beetle with the declaration “Lemon.” It’s almost impossible not to think: “Why is this car a lemon? It looks perfectly fine.”

And, you’re compelled to read the next seven paragraphs of the ad to find out why. In reading them, the consumer develops trust for the brand and ends up feeling closer to the brand—spending time (a valuable commodity) with a brand creates a stronger relationship.

The Man In The Hathaway Shirt


In 1951, David Ogilvy used the same tactic when he created the first ad in his “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt” campaign. In the photo, he placed an eyepatch over Baron George Wrangell. How can you not wonder: “Who is this man and why does he have an eyepatch?”
Rather than explain who the man was, in the longform copy he explained what type of person would wear Hathaway shirts. And, how could you not want to be that type of person, one who evokes an air of mystery?

In the first week, all of the Hathaway shirts in New York sold out and a small, unknown 116-year-old company became a major competitor.

The Most Interesting Man In The World

You may be thinking that there is no way the modern consumer would read seven paragraphs of copy in your ad. But, that’s really an irrelevant question. You have a much easier job: you have the Internet. On the Internet, consumers can easily interact with the brand in multiple dimensions.

The key isn’t the long-form copy, but rather to actively engage customers in positive ways with the brand.

In 2006, Dos Equis launched its nod to Ogilvy’s Hathaway man with its highly successful “The Most Interesting Man In The World“ campaign. Throughout a decade of commercials, Dos Equis slowly released fantastic information about the man: he lives vicariously through himself, mosquitos refuse to bite him purely out of respect, his two cents is worth thirty-seven dollars in change. Inspired by his crazy accomplishments and debonair appearance, people jumped online to learn more about him: What actor plays him? Where is he from? What other things has he done?

In exploring The Most Interesting Man in The World, you can’t help but develop positive associations with him and the brand. And, not only do you end up wanting to be like him, but he’s also like you—he doesn’t always drink beer. Even though he’s fantastic, he’s easy to identify with.

The strong relationship The Most Interesting Man In The World created with consumers resulted in strong sales: they shipped 116.6% more barrels in 2013 than 2008, making them the fastest-growing beer brand.1

Create Your Own Mystery

Mystery is a powerful marketing tool: it engages customers and drives them to create a strong relationship with your brand.

When thinking about how mystery can work for you brand, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How can I capture the imagination of my customers and compel them to learn more?
  2. What should they find when they start to dig deeper?
  3. How does what they find contribute to positive associations with the brand?
  4. How does what they find contribute to their identification with the brand?

Stay mysterious my friends.