The brand checklist

How brands fare on the four criteria

For those interested in gifting my book to friends, team members, clients or business partners for holidays, head over for a special 30% off sale at the publisher’s website.

Last week, I wrote about the signals to look for when predicting a brand’s success. This is the second part of that analysis, and includes evaluation of a sample of brands according to the set of 12 criteria grouped into four segment (culture, consumer, category, and company).

Culture refers to the emerging social, cultural and political values; it also refers to definition of the core social terms (e.g. influence, community, taste, equality, aspiration); mood, attention and vocabulary. E.g. early on, Glossier mastered the language of modern culture: BFF, intimate, personal, direct. The brand behavior reflected how modern culture socializes.

Consumer refers to how well a company can define and understand who its consumer is and the context they make decisions; what they pay attention to and what they spend money on; what they value and expect from the world and each other. E.g. Looking at taste communities is here more important than zooming in on the individual.

Category refers to the existing playbook of brand growth in a specific vertical and explores how to capitalize on its strengths and limitations. E.g. IKEA capitalized on the limitation of the furniture industry by: a) challenging the assumption that furniture needs to be put together when delivered and b) defining itself as the source of “well designed everything” (not just furniture).

Company refers to the 1+1=3 of a company’s team, culture, processes, organization and workplace dynamic. It looks into the social and cultural capital of its founders and the leadership team, the size and composition of their network, and alignment between internal and external cultures. It answers questions of the leadership vision and values. E.g. There’s a slew of recent brand exposes (Away, Everlane, Reformation, Outdoor Voices, etc), where it was revealed that a company’s external perception wasn’t aligned with its internal culture.

As a reminder, the specific evaluation criteria (you can see them elaborated in my last week’s post) are:

  • Does a brand have a cult object? Did it manage to turn its product/s into a cult object? Examples of cult objects are Air Jordan's 1, Birkin, Peloton, White Claw, Jade egg, original Vejas. They incite fan fashion, fan fiction and fan art.

  • Is a brand attractive to collaborators? GOOP collaborates with everyone from CB2 to Christian Louboutin. Supreme collaborates with a brick, Colgate and Louis Vuitton. Hodinkee is attractive to collaborators across the board.

  • Is a brand present in culture but also profitable? In recent years, we have seen a slew of brands with oversized cultural perception unaccompanied by sales. PR doesn’t equal economics.

  • Does a brand have empathy for a particular group of people? Fenty Beauty started from a REAL unmet need of its audience. It’s not improving the quality of life for a privileged group of people, but including a diverse audience into the beauty space.

  • Does a brand have fans before it has customers? Tesla has more fans of its vision than it has Tesla drivers. GOOP has more haters than it has customers.

  • Does a brand pursue a portfolio strategy? This means that a brand doesn’t market to one group, but thinks of its audience as an aggregation of niches. Peloton is an example, with its continuum of diversified taste communities.

  • What would be missing if a brand didn’t exist? If Fenty Beauty didn’t exist, a large number of persons with diverse skin colors wouldn’t have a product for their skin tone, and would have still feel excluded from the beauty market.

  • Does a brand purpose support or constraint growth? Steadily growing companies do not define themselves in terms of their category. Examples are IKEA, Virgin, Tesla, GOOP, Uber, MSCHF.

  • Is a brand easily confused with another brand? This un-confusability has to go beyond the brand aesthetics, name or a tagline and into the domain of the brand ethos and behaviors. Apple’s competitors can’t copy all its elements; Aesop’s competitors can’t re-enact the brand narrative, and Peloton’s competitors can’t easily steal its community.

  • Can a brand be described in 3 words? Operative term here is “brand.” Most people describe products when they are asked to describe a brand. Brand description refers to intangibles, like a modern luxury lifestyle (GOOP) or the atmosphere of “no laws when drinking claws” (White Claws).

  • Is brand part of the balance sheet? Is a company creating culture as much as it is making money? How well are the business and cultural sides connected? Brands with a considered growth, like DÔEN, Tracksmith and VEJA fare well here.

  • Does a company know what it doesn’t know? The attitude of constant learning is key and needs to be an organizational feature. Many a brand failed because its young and inexperienced founders thought they knew best.

The idea of a checklist is to go beyond the usual VC signals, which prioritize rapid financial growth and return on investment and short-term brand differentiation, and to offer a holistic view with a more diverse set of measures to evaluate a brand’s long-term staying power. The idea is also to give startup teams a set of guiding principles to create a more balanced growth strategy.

Ideally, this checklist will allow teams to keep evolving without becoming prisoners of their own success, keep the spark going and stay focused.

The checklist above is a sample.

Most of the sample companies perform well in one or two segments. The exception is GOOP, which features in all four segments. Companies like Tracksmith, Veja and Dôen do well in their considered growth and balanced brand and business investment. Peloton captures cultural imagination as well as its customers’ needs. White Claw created a fandom and Tesla, MSCHF and Fenty Beauty change the rules of their respective categories (with MSCHF being un-categorizable, by design).

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In my latest special report for Highsnobiety, published on November 10th, I wrote about why good collaborations are art, but great ones are kitsch. Read the excerpt below and the entire piece here. Editor: Christopher Morency.

Good collaborations are art, great collaborations are kitsch. They fit into the definition of kitsch perfectly: a replica that’s purposefully fake, and that’s where the joke is. Take it seriously, and you are a goon.

There are already obvious parallels between collaborations and the world of art (and kitsch): there are auctions, collectors, dealers, critics, resale marketplaces, monographs. Just like art, collaborations aim to shock and surprise. They can’t be criticized, and they strive to reach high prices and cultural immortality.

“You know it’s art when the check clears,” said Andy Warhol. With Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Indiana, Warhol made his way into museums by turning the mundane world into works of art by enriching it with pop references, connotations and associations. Warhol’s art is commercial and his commercials are art (a Warhol ad launched Absolut vodka in 1986).

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My book came out on October 27th. It’s about what happened to taste, communities, and social influence when the economy shifted from manufacturing things to manufacturing aspiration. It’s also about how this shift changes what we find valuable and worth paying for and how brands should transform their strategies to adapt. You can order from a number of mainstream and independent booksellers listed here.