Today, we’re talking to an author whose first book I absolutely loved, and the second is sure to be on my favorites especially after this conversation. Deb Gabor is an all-around branding badass, and this new book of hers is called Irrational Loyalty.
Eventually, every organization faces a serious branding disaster. Think of United Airlines, Wells Fargo, Uber, and many others. Poor business decisions, corrupt cultures, or just plain bad luck sometimes can lead to major PR meltdowns and send customers fleeing. But there’s a right way to handle controversy and come out stronger on the other side, and that’s what Deb teaches us. Here’s Deb telling us how to build Irrational loyalty.
Deb Gabor: I grew up as a marketer in the technology industry, and I became fascinated with the practice of branding. This idea of making deep emotional connections with buyers was something that completely counterintuitive in the technology industry when I was working there, both on the client side as well as when I had gone to the agency side.
I found this little nugget of knowledge that helped me unlock a lot of potential for the companies that I was working with in the tech industry. That was this idea that all brands really, at their core, are about creating deep emotional connections with their buyers. Even for technology products that are sold by companies to very high tech engineering, software, analytically driven kinds of people, they’re still human beings behind those purchases.
In an especially difficult consulting session with some high tech people and the founders of one of the biggest technology companies in the world now who were really struggling with this idea of making deep emotional connections with their buyers, in a moment of frustration, I just kind of let everything go.
I said all right, “At the end of the day, how do these blade servers get that IT guy laid?”
Time stopped, right? The people in the room almost took a collective breath and they were like, “My god, what is this crazy woman saying?”
But it lowered the intensity around this idea of creating deep emotional connections, and that’s kind of where this idea of Branding Is Sex was born from.
The way that I do brand consulting hands on with clients and the way that I’ve done it for the last like probably 20 years and how I’ve trained all of the people who have worked at my company and frankly how I’ve trained my clients to think about branding opened up a lot of conceptual territory for folks and financial territory for them.
I felt like people needed to know what I knew.
I have a mission inside of me, that is my big goal, which is to create over a billion dollars’ worth of business value for other people’s businesses through the practice of branding, through making these deep connections. Writing a book to basically give away the methodology was kind of manifest destiny.
That’s where the first book came from.
Then, this new book, Irrational Loyalty: Building a Brand That Thrives in Turbulent Times, it basically wrote itself. It was the next logical follow up in that, Branding Is Sex came out in 2016 and we were in the throes of a really tense time as a country. We had been handed to us the masterclass and strategic branding that we got from Donald Trump as a presidential candidate who went straight for the feels in getting people really riled up and continues to do that. Then we saw just through reactions to how president Trump reacted in Charlottesville and how companies aligned themselves against the president for gun control, for guns. We started to see organizations really take a stand.
“What I saw was this turning point for branding as a practice.”
All of a sudden, this idea of permeating somebody’s emotions and making these deep emotional connections like what I talked about Branding is Sex became a higher stakes kind of activity. Brands were being forced to put on display their values and beliefs and use those values and beliefs as a magnet to attract the kinds of customers they wanted while they repelled the ones that they felt didn’t align with their brands.
What we saw in the two years since Branding Is Sex was a lot of, I call them branding disasters. What we saw with Travis Kalanick and Uber and crisis of leadership like we saw with the Papa John’s corporation. The kinds of brand crisis that companies actually created for themselves, like United Airlines. We can’t get away from that.
At the same time, we saw lots of really strong brands emerge in a way where they were able to face crisis head on and endure that crisis because they had a really strong brand foundation.
The book wrote itself. I think everything in Irrational Loyalty is ripped from the headlines, right? These are stories of things that actually happen to real live companies and an analysis of why some of those companies came through those crises with flying colors.
I think of Southwest Airlines. They had a horrific accident that happened on one of their planes back in 2017 and people died and people were injured and it was really awful. Yet we’re not still talking about it.
Starbucks being another one that came through their crisis, which was a crisis of their own creation. They came through these things successfully because they had a very strong brand foundation.
It was an opportunity for me to demonstrate to people, here are the lessons that you can learn from what’s happened in real life from the brands that you know and love and that you’ve experienced and that you’ve used. This ties back to what I was talking about in Branding Is Sex, which is all about building a strategic foundation that will enable you to endure anything that comes your way as a brand.
Rae Williams: What is the biggest branding disaster you have seen that brands that have come through?
Deb Gabor: I always tell the story of Blue Bell Ice Cream. I live in Austin Texas and I’m not a native Texan but I’m a naturalized Texan. I got here as soon as I could and I’ve been here for 22 years and the very first Texas brand I ever experienced when I came to Texas was Blue Bell Ice Cream.
I was working for a company that, the first day that I set foot in Texas, I went to the company picnic and they were passing out those little individual cups of Blue Bell Ice Cream with a little wooden spoon to all the kids and the kids were screaming. I was like, what is this? I need this. That was my first taste, and Blue Bell Ice Cream to Texans is more than just ice cream of course.
It is like, it’s memories, it’s expectations, it’s nostalgia, it’s a story, all that kind of stuff.
Then back in 2015, the Blue Bell Ice Cream plant had to shut down because it broke out with this case of listeria, which is a killer bacteria. Three people died from eating Blue Bell Ice Cream that was infested with this bacteria, and another eight people were seriously ill.
The plant shut down and was shut down for two years. During that time, Blue Bell was incredibly open and transparent and generous and continued to communicate with the public. It got to the place that after having the plant shut down for two years for literally killing customers, when Blue Bell Ice Cream came back on the market, at least at my local grocery store, people were lined up out the door, down the street, around the corner to get in to the grocery store to get their hands on a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream.
When I think of the worse disasters that face a brand, that’s the worst that I can think of. Where customers actually die. That’s an extreme case, but over the last two years, we’ve seen United Airlines who ironically has the brand promise to be the most caring airline in the world.
If you’re the most caring airline in the world, do you drag a guy out of his seat and down the aisle of a plane, kicking and screaming and drawing blood while passengers look on? No.
Do you put someone’s family pet into an overhead bin and it dies? No.
If you’re the most caring airline in the world, do you send someone’s dog to Japan by mistake? You know, we keep seeing this over and over again. This is a brand that just can’t seem to get it right.
We’ve seen the disaster, I brought up before, Papa John’s. We saw the disaster of Papa John’s. John Snider, the very visible founder and face of the Papa John’s brand—the John who is Papa John. Came out that he actually had made some very strong racist comments in a meeting and subsequently, was asked to leave the company. He dug in his heels and was refusing and actually started a fight with the leadership and the board of the Papa John’s corporation, refusing to distance himself from the brand. We saw a crisis of what happens when it’s poison at the top.
What happens when you run the risk of having a brand that’s associated with a singular human being?
I think about Subway and Jared Fogul. I mentioned Starbucks being a big disaster. Southwest Airlines. Other big branding disasters like Pepsi and that unfortunate Kendal Jenner commercial that seem to appropriate a white washed version of the Black Lives Matter movement—all these kinds of things.
This book covers all of those things that we all know and love. At the same time, it also covers some areas where brands did exactly the right thing for their customers.
Brands Are People
Rae Williams: One of your chapters is “brands are like people.” What makes brands so much like people?
Deb Gabor: Brands are like people in that brands have a set of values and beliefs and a purpose and are able to create this emotional bond. This idea of brands being like people is something that started with Branding Is Sex. If the idea of a brand is to attract to it, people who share similar values and beliefs, it’s a little bit like dating, right?
If you think about the things that you buy, that you eat, that you drink, that you wear, the car you drive, the soda that you choose, the booze that you like…I love Deep Eddy, ruby red vodka, right? I’m irrationally loyal to it.
We become so bonded to these products and these companies and the organizations behind them, not for their functional benefits. Not for what the brands are or what they do, but more for how they make us feel and more importantly, for how they help us show up.
When you think about an interpersonal relationship, when you are going out there, you’re dating or you’re looking for someone to marry or you’re just looking to couple up, you go through the process of putting your own values and beliefs on display and you how you are attracting someone who shares those things.
You think about a first date, you learn a lot about the other person by how they behave, what do they want to talk about, do they pull out the chair for you, do they stand up when you come to the table? Do they hold the door open for you, do they talk about children, do they love their mother?
Brands are the same in that we have such an emotional connection to them, they have to be like people.
Where to Begin
Rae Williams: If there’s one unique idea that listeners can take action on for their brand, if it’s a smaller brand, if it’s a personal brand that they’re trying to build, what would that be?
Deb Gabor: The big takeaway here is that you must think of yourself as a brand. You have a brand whether you like it or not, and hopefully I’ve given you the tools that you can use to dial in the part of it that you own, which is the identity. How you construct the identity of the brand is as simple as answering what I call the three brand swagger questions, I think that’s what we call them in Branding Is Sex.
Those questions are, “What does it say about a person that they use this brand?” That speaks to the self-expressive benefits of the brand. What does it say about me that I love southwest airlines, what does it say about me that I love Deep Eddy ruby red vodka, what does it say about me that I drive an Infinity, right? That gets to, “How does this brand elevate a person’s self-concept?”
The second question that I want people to ask about their brand is, “What is the singular thing that my customers get from my brand that they can’t get anywhere else?”
This really speaks to differentiation, and it speaks to meaningful differentiation. We spend a lot of time as business leaders and executives, entrepreneurs, founders, investors, really trying to get to the nut of what makes something different, what makes your brand different, what makes a product different? A lot of times, the differentiators are things that other brands, products, services, people can imitate.
They’re not long-term sustainable or meaningful differentiators.
When you turn the question about differentiation on its head and ask the question of what is the singular thing that a customer gets from us that they can’t get anywhere else, you’ve really gone deep into identifying what is truly unique about a brand. This speaks to the idea of what’s the particular job that a person is hiring your brand to do for them?
“Here’s a cue for all the people who are listening: it’s never a feature.”
It’s never a feature, it’s never functionality, 100% of the time, it’s an essence, it’s a feeling, it’s an emotion, right? Asking that question helps you get to that.
Then the third question, which is the ultimate question if you answer none of these questions, if you think this is complete BS, and you’re like, all right, Deb is just talking out of both sides of her ass right now, ask this question. This is the main question of branding and this is the Branding Is Sex question, which is also covered in Irrational Loyalty. The question is: “How do you make your customer a hero in his or her own stories?”
Every individual, you, me, every member of my family, everyone I know is trying to create a story for our lives in which we’re the protagonist. It’s not a good story unless we win.
The things that we buy, that we eat, that we drink, that we wear, that we drive, the software that we buy to run our businesses or the organizations that we hire to help us get our message out there, like a Scribe Media, they all are part of us being the hero in those stories that we tell about our lives.
If you do nothing else, as a person who is interested in working on your branding, ask that question. How do we make our customer a hero? And make your brand message about that—about them rather than about you.
The Details of Branding
Rae Williams: When they think about branding, people don’t necessarily think about the customer making the customer the hero, they think about colors and look and feel in terms of the physical things. How important is that in branding and creating loyalty?
Deb Gabor: All of those things are vitally important, but the more important thing is making sure that you understand why is your brand blue or why is your brand green or why are you using an italic font or Sans Serif font or capital letters in your marketing. Why are you using certain imagery, photographic style, editorial voice, all of that kind of stuff?
That is the essence of strategic branding. Those things are vitally important because you want to have those things be 100% aligned with the strategic foundation of your brand. Asking the brand questions and identifying who really is the ideal customer, the target audience for the brand and who you’re building the brand for. Really understanding what is the promise of how you make that customer a hero, and ultimately, what’s the role that you play for them.
That should dictate all of those little things.
So I talk to a lot of people about branding in my business and in my personal life, and I have a lot of business founders asking me, “Can you do branding for us?” Which in their mind what they are thinking is, “Can you make us a logo?”
“I don’t work with anybody who has an ‘I just need a’ project.”
If somebody comes to us and just like, “I just need a brand refresher. I just need a logo,” or “I just need a website,” or something like that. Every single thing we do as an organization, everything that I do personally is strategy informed. You have to have this foundation because I need to know what I have to work with.
I don’t just make a logo purple because purple is my favorite color or I don’t make a brand image using a saturated photographic style because that is what I happen to like personally.
It all has to tie directly back to what is the hero’s story that you are creating for the customer, what is the role that the brand plays? Is the role of the brand to be a caregiver? Is the role of the brand to be a wizard or a magician? Is the role of the brand to be a ruler that gives somebody control over chaos? That should dictate all of those little things as you refer to them rather than having those be the first thing that you do.
The Reality of Bad Branding
Rae Williams: What happens to an individual, to a smaller company when they brand wrong?
Deb Gabor: There are a lot of ways that that idea of branding wrong can be interpreted. You know, there is the minor flub of branding wrong, which is you have an ugly logo and maybe an advertising campaign that bombs, right? That is pretty minor. There is the kind of branding that goes wrong where the experience that customers have with your brand isn’t exactly aligned with the promise of your brand, right?
I think about let’s just take for instance like a local business that people might be familiar with like your local pizza delivery. So not your Dominos but like the neighborhood pizza joint. Let us call it Austin’s New York Pizza. I don’t even know if that exists, but this would be the joint if I were to order pizza for my family, I would probably order from them because they are a local brand. They are in the neighborhood. They are family friendly. They emphasize using, not gourmet ingredients, but ingredients that have a very high quality, maybe they have an emphasis on local and sustainable things. Fresh, hot, healthy, delicious, etc.
Let’s say that that’s all part of their brand promise—and I am just making this up off the top of my head but, “This is Austin’s New York Pizza. This is pizza that you can feel good about feeding your family” right?
And then, here is bad branding. I order it, it shows up not like in 30 minutes, but 130 minutes. When I open the box, it’s full of congealed cheese, the lid of the box is like smooched down on the pizza so when I open it up all the toppings are stuck to the cardboard and everything looks like it’s two days old. It doesn’t have that fresh feeling to it. I am embarrassed to feed it to my family.
This is what I mean when the brand and the image are bad when you have bad branding.
“I actually refer to bad branding as a broken brand promise.”
When the experience of using the brand doesn’t match with the expectations of the brand, that is the worst form of bad branding. That is the very, very worst form of bad branding. So we brought up that Pepsi and Kendal Jenner experience there. Pepsi on the whole is a pretty good brand. They have been around for a really, really long time. They are pretty solid and consistent on delivering on their promise of being at every point of thirst, right?
And they have products and advertising and they have people and our experience on the whole with Pepsi has been pretty good, because everything they do as an organization through the normal course of doing business builds up positive equity in our emotional bank account with them.
So when they screw up and they do something that’s completely tone deaf like that stupid Kendal Jenner ad, we forget about it pretty quickly.
Even though social media blew up immediately, there wasn’t really a lasting impact because on the whole, the Pepsi brand has built up that equity. So if you take it back into the realm of this small business example that I gave of this fictitious pizza restaurant, if every other experience I’ve ever had with this brand, they’ve lived up to their promise with me and one bad thing happens—it’s like I get one crappy pizza delivered to me, I probably am going to be disappointed. But it’s more likely that I am going to give them another chance.
Bringing it back to your first question, how are brands like people, it’s the same thing. You and I are friends, and part of our relationship is that we showed trust and respect for one another, which means if you invite me to lunch and I am going to be late, I am going to shoot you a text message or give you a quick call and say, “I’ll be there in five minutes.”
I am not going to no call no show.
I might get off the hook three or four times being late, but if I show up late every single time it is going to start to chip away at the positive equity in our emotional bank account together.
The relationship with brands and bad branding are when we don’t trust and respect our friend, right? It feels like that.
So brand branding in the form of a really shitty looking sign or a stupid looking logo or a dumb advertising campaign is just the tip of the iceberg. The worst types of bad branding are the ones where the promises are broken.
Uncovering Your Brand Identity
Rae Williams: Share with us a few of your personal success stories, whether it’s with brands you’ve worked on personally or brands you’ve just advised against—what are some of your personal success stories?
Deb Gabor: I have some favorite brands that I have worked with over the years where the folks at these companies they just get it. One of them that I think about is this company, they’re called Indagare. They’re a very, very high end travel membership for like the one-percenters. Most of their clientele are people who are on the Forbes richest people in the world lists.
It is out of this world, very bespoke travel experiences that are for a very discerning travel customer. One of the things that I am really, really proud of from working with this brand is how they took this methodology, this idea of making this brand like a person and having a set of beliefs and values and using them as a magnet to attract customer to them, and then really being clear on what the role is that they play in their customers lives.
The way that they’ve done all of this and they’ve packaged it all together for the benefit of the organization—here is just a quick example of why I really admire this brand for the way they’ve handled branding.
We do an exercise as part of brand consulting, and I have written about this extensively in Branding is Sex. This exercise is called the brand archetypes exercise, where we use the 12 classic character archetypes from literature to identify if this brand were an archetypal character in the story of your customer’s life, where the customer gets to be the protagonist. What is that character?
So Indagare being a travel company, when I said, “Hey, what is your archetype? What do you think you are?” they immediately went to what the entire travel industry is, which is the explorer archetype. The explorer archetype is a character archetype that takes you on a journey of self-exploration, right?
It takes you on a journey, it helps you broaden your horizons and experience the world. So I challenged them a little bit and I said, “You know the entire travel industry, everyone is an explorer. Everybody is an explorer. How can you stand out, what do you really want to be? Let’s think about who your target audience is. What do they want most?”
What we determined was that actually, they should be the magician.
“The magician archetype is somebody who just makes things happen.”
They transform things, they make things happen, they do it for you, they make you ask not how did you do it but they make you say, “Wow.”
Real quick anecdote about that, in determining that they were going to be the magician archetype, we looked at a bunch of different touch points in their business where maybe they weren’t behaving at a very magician like way. One of the things that we came up with was travel medicine.
So if you travel to Africa or certain places in south America and Asia, it is recommended that you actually get some shots to guard you against things like malaria and yellow fever and dengue fever and things like this. So what this company previously was doing for travel medicine was sending their members a big email with a lot of scientific information about all of these diseases complete with really hideous pictures of what could happen if you got dengue fever or yellow fever or something like that.
Frankly scaring their members and also not being especially helpful. They were behaving in a very sage like kind of way by sharing this information.
Just by asking the question of, “What would a magician do with travel medicine,” we came up with a hack to the way that we are delivering this experience to our clients and our members. Instead of sending out the information about travel medicine, what if we just sent a concierge doctor to their home or office to just take care of the whole thing for them?
That’s the way the magician would handle it.
So it’s a success story in that this is a brand that really, really took to heart this methodology and internalized it and turned it into something where the brand really could show up with human characteristics and behave in a way that delivers on that brand’s promise with every interaction they have with their customers.
Rae Williams: What is one thing listeners can do from your book or just from your personal experience to change their brand to enhance their brand today or tomorrow?
Deb Gabor: So besides answering those three brand questions, the one big thing they can do is really, really get clear on who the brand is for. I call this the ideal customer archetype, and this is a controversial area of what I do. I encourage organizations and individuals who are trying to build brands to point their brand at a singular north star customer, like the one customer who is most highly predictive of their success. The one customer who is going to be ultimately the champion for the brand. Who is this brand made for?
The challenge for everyone listening to this is to actually go deep and create a profile of who that person is. That means going beyond just basic demographics. That means creating a real profile like is this a 35 year old woman with two kids who drives a high end luxury SUV, who wears lulu lemon clothes and shops at Whole Foods. And the most important thing for her in her life is being seen as the best parent with the coolest snacks on the block.
Is she a really resourceful individual who recommends to other people the services and the products that she buys, like a maven in her group? What does she look like? How tall is she, how long is her hair? Does she wear makeup? What brand of shoes is she wearing? What brand of SUV is she driving? Like really having a really, really clear picture of who this avatar is and pointing the brand at that one person.
The challenge here is to narrow the field to that one person, but if you have that in your mind and you have that as an avatar, you have that as this sort of guiding light or north star for the brand, it gives you this crazy focus when you are thinking about activities that you might be doing or marketing tactics you might be using and questioning yourself—“Is this going to work? Am I doing the right thing?”
If you refer back to the ideal customer profile, you could answer the question pretty quickly yes or no.
So that would be the one big thing besides answering those three varying questions that I would encourage people who are listening to this to do.
Connect with Deb Gabor
Rae Williams: Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you think is really important for people to know, for people to take action on today before they even read the book?
Deb Gabor: I would say the big, big, big thing is before you read this book or before you read Branding is Sex, just think about what are all of the big brand disasters we’ve seen in the last couple of years and really hone in on what is the role that customer sentiment played in those things.
If there is one big takeaway for me in the past couple of years of branding, it is that in many cases these things that we are calling disasters, they only really became disasters because the companies themselves didn’t actually take control of the narrative.
By taking responsibility, by apologizing, by showing regard for humanity, by being open, by admitting fault to an accountability for things and so if you want to really, really reflect on how the world of branding has changed think about what is the impact of social media, what is the impact of people posting on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook about your brand.
“How quickly do narratives take off today?”
The whole world of branding has changed because of technology, because of social media, and companies today do not own their brand narrative. Customers and even non-customers who have a Twitter handle own the narrative, right? Before you read either of these books, just think about what could happen if you didn’t have a strong brand foundation and then you didn’t have a strong response if something bad were to face your brand.
Hopefully that will encourage you to pick up one or both of these books and learn how to do it for yourself.
Rae Williams: How can people contact you?
Deb Gabor: I am all over the internet, but the easiest way to get me, you can go find me at debgabor.com. There are a lot of different ways to contact me there, or send me an email, super easy, firstname.lastname@example.org.