Passion Play: The Modern Rules of Branding

Apple. Harley Davidson. Patagonia. What do these three brands have in common? Their customers love them. Not just love them, but looove them. This is a stand-in-line-for-12-hours-for-the-latest-product type of love. A brand-your-body-with-a-logo type of love. A this-label-represents-who-I-am-as-a-person type love. These are passion brands. Brands whose connection with consumers are so intense that there are entire subcultures whose very identities are defined by their proximity to these products. Brands who achieve this level of love have reached the holy grail of marketing. Though they have different products, different approaches, and different consumer bases, they all have four things in common that have contributed to creating their die-hard fan base. By following these four steps, you’ll be setting your business up for a consumer/brand love affair.


Understand your customer.

This is easily the most important step in branding, and one that is, surprisingly, often overlooked. In order to create a brand your customer will love, you have to really understand what makes them tick. This is what’s called creating your buyer persona. It involves looking at your ideal customer from a variety of angles and developing a solid picture of who they are, what their day-to-day looks like, what challenges they might be experiencing, and what they like to do for fun. If this sounds overwhelming, don’t worry, Hubspot has developed a great worksheet to help guide you through this exercise. Once you know who you’re targeting, it becomes much easier to identify how to speak to them.


A brand that has really nailed this is AirBnB. They’ve honed in on travelers looking for more authentic travel experiences and made it so they can “belong anywhere”. Although we don’t know the details of their actual buyer personas, we can guess that they likely include: adventurous younger backpackers who want an immersive travel experience on a budget, families with children who want the comfort of home while away, and solo travelers who want the benefits of staying with a host without having to personally know one. Each one of these persona types is catered to on their website where the user can navigate by location, accommodation type, or experience, and on their Stories section where personas are targeted even further. AirBnB speaks directly to their target audiences and delivers content and experiences relevant to their wants, needs, and desires.

AirBnB Solo Vietnam Escapade


Create a solid brand identity.

Now that you know who your ideal customer is, you should have a better idea of what type of brand identity would appeal to them. Incorporate these persona types with what you already know about your brand and conduct some brand exercises to define your core brand values.  Successful brands, like the ones we’ve discussed, have honed in on their niche market and created distinct identities that separates them from their competitors. In the words of Virgin’s Global Head of Brand, Fiona Ross, “Great brands have different approaches, but what is consistent is that they all have a clear focus or purpose that directs the business in all the decisions it makes.” This means carving out your niche and really owning it. If you want your brand to be sassy and edgy, that needs to be reflected in everything from the font in your logo to your core brand colors to the way the brand talks about itself.


A brand doing this really well is Taco Bell. Since undergoing a rebrand in 2016 they’ve embraced an edgier yet approachable brand identity. Their minimalist, playful new logo in combination with their youthful, party-like essence exude the life-embracing mantra of “live mas”.  With blogs dedicated to Taco Bell-themed maternity shoots and a clothing and accessory line, the new Taco Bell brand identity is showing the world that, while its serious about its tacos, it’s got a great sense of humor about everything else.

Deliver on your promises.

As Warren Buffet says, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and 5 minutes to ruin it.” This is especially true when it comes to brand and marketplace perception, especially in today’s digital ecosystem. Your brand must deliver on its promises and stay true to its core values or risk losing trust from the marketplace.


A great example of a brand that failed to keep its brand promise is Blackberry. When Blackberry hit the market they were the hottest phones on the market. They ushered in a new era of work mobility and transformed the modern day workforce. This first-of-its-kind mobile phone even earned the nickname “CrackBerry” for its addictive nature. However, a failure to innovate its features in combination with widespread service outages and delayed product launches, dethroned the company from its smartphone reign and handed Apple the crown. The company fell so far from its heyday grace that in 2017 they announced that they would stop making phones altogether.


It’s not about you.

It’s about your customers. A great product is nothing without customers to use it, and brands that know this are the ones that are killing it in the marketplace. These brands know that it isn’t just about logos and taglines, it’s about evoking an emotional reaction. It’s about exuding an essence that people want to associate with, tapping into (or better yet, creating) a movement that people want to be a part of, or starting a conversation that people want to engage in. Great brands don’t focus on pushing their product benefits or corporate slogans, they hone in on their target market and develop experiences their customers can be a part of.


One brand that’s really great at this is Starbucks. For the the past 20 years as countries around the world gear up for the winter holiday season, the anticipation of the unveiling of the new Starbucks holiday cups comes to a fever pitch. And whether you’re a Starbucks drinker or not you’re sure to see the annual holiday cup design in the news, or, at the very least, in one (if not all) of your social media news feeds. Similarly, the You Are Here mug collection has a cult-like following with entire Facebook groups devoted to its collectors, the most popular of which boasts over three thousand members. Rare versions of YAH mugs can sell for more than $300 on eBay – that’s 1,665% more than the average cost at retail! On its surface Starbucks sells coffee, but through its cups and mugs Starbucks has created a global community connected through tangible manifestations of the company’s mission statementTo inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time”.

Starbucks 20th anniversary of holiday cups photographed on Monday, October 23, 2017. (Joshua Trujillo, Starbucks)


Branding isn’t is as easy as it looks, nor is it as hard as it seems. It takes time, strategy, and commitment to consistency both internally and externally. Adapting your strategy to these four tenets will help guide your business through the process and set the stage to take your brand to the next level. Need help getting started? Give us a shout!