If You Want to Build a Cool Brand, Stop Trying to Build a Cool Brand

The keys to building a brand: authenticity, appealing to the "fanatical few," and "marketing without marketing"

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About Lucky Maverick

About Jonathan Bales

First of all, what does this image have to do with branding? Literally nothing. I don’t even know what it is. Okay, had to get that out of the way, let’s start the article…

My high school didn’t have a football team, so they let me go play football for the neighboring high school. It was kind of surreal—they were our rivals in other sports—but it was also pretty awesome.

At my high school, I was known as pretty shy. I’d say I was sort of in the cool groups—mostly because I played sports—but I certainly wasn’t one of the coolest kids. I didn’t really try to be popular, mostly just doing stuff I found interesting even if others didn’t. I also got really good grades, so I’d say my “brand” in my high school was like shy/nerdy/loner/not-good-with-girls.

But when I went to play football, something crazy happened: I became way more popular at the neighboring high school. I was good at football, so that helped, but I also think there was like this air of mystery surrounding this kid who barely spoke and just came to play running back—THE running back y’all—for the school. With literally zero change in my behavior, my brand at that school was probably more like cool/jock/athletic/still-not-good-with-girls-but-this-time-they-like-me-idk-why.

There’s a lot that goes into people’s perception of you (or your business). Mostly, I think both people and companies really try too hard and focus on the wrong things when they’re aiming to shape their brand. I’m no brand expert, but these guys are…

Invest Like the Best

My buddy and FantasyLabs co-founder Peter Jennings is always touting the Invest like the Best podcast from Patrick O’Shaugnessy, and he recently sent me an episode called The Power of Brand that I really enjoyed. From the show description:

My guests today are Jason Karp and Rohan Oza. Jason is the founder and CEO of HumanCo, a holding company focused on building businesses that help people live healthier lives. Jason formerly ran the hedge fund Tourbillon Capital and was an audience favorite when he was on the podcast several years ago. Rohan is the co-founder of CAVU Venture Partners, one of the fastest-growing venture funds in the CPG space. Before Cavu, Rohan focused on supercharging brands like Vitaminwater and Smartwater at Glaceau which was acquired by Coca Cola for over $4b dollars. You may also recognize his name as a recurring Shark on ABC's Shark Tank.

The people who seem to do the brand-building thing best are the ones who appear to not really care much about it. You can’t really be cool if everyone sees you trying to be cool. Further, it’s difficult to maintain that “cool” factor as you grow. I’m interested to see how Supreme—a company that’s been the best I’ve seen at building a “cool” brand at scale—maintains their image now that they’ve been acquired by Vanity Fair.

I’ve never really focused on “building a brand” on a personal level, but I think we did it pretty well at FantasyLabs. That was sort of unintentional, with the only concerted effort being to build stuff for super-hardcore users; we basically just made shit we wanted to use as DFS players and thought pro-level players might use.

I’ve always thought the idea of “building a brand” is kind of douchey, but whether you like it or not, you have a “brand”—a general perception about who you are, what you stand for, and so on. This might not matter to you, but if you’re trying to make money online, your brand likely matters quite a bit.

As I listened to this podcast, I realized I’ve kind of unintentionally done some of the things that convert well to building a respected brand—mostly centered around authenticity—and I thought it might be cool to run through some of Rohan and Jason’s main points from the show.

Using their advice as a springboard, here are the most important steps to building a desirable brand. Note that I’m using “brand” loosely here; it doesn’t apply solely to business or even to making money. If you’re going on a date, for example, your “product” is you and the same general principles still apply.

  • Have a real product.

In the words of Rohan: “Sizzle is a bad word if there’s no steak. You have to have steak.”

Before you do any advertising, before you market at all, before you ask anyone for anything, you absolutely need to make sure you have something that’s worthy of people’s attention. In my experience, most companies’ failures stem from “putting lipstick on a pig.”

As this relates to marketing yourself…well, don’t do it unless you’re truly working on yourself and confident you have something special to offer. Branding is easy for something that truly rocks. And, in some ways, when you really have something that works, it’s cooler to not even really advertise it.

In the words of the Geto Boys:

Real gangsta ass ni**as don’t flex nuts
Cause real gangtsa ass ni**as know they got ‘em

Building a great brand—or at least one that’s cool—is kind of a “marketing without marketing.” Can you be cool, relevant, revered…without people knowing you’re even trying?

The easiest way to do that? Just be real. Focus on improving yourself, your product, the “steak,” and everything can fall into place after that. Without that steak, you can’t be a real gangsta.

When looking for companies in which to invest, Rohan looks for three things: a founder with a real story, a product with a real need, and a real ability to disrupt the market.

The key word in all this: real. That’s because another key element of building a brand is…

  • Have a real story.

Rohan says “Authenticity is critical. It has to feel real.”

I’d go a step further and argue in order to feel real long-term, it has to be real.

Rohan looks for founders with a real story because customers eventually sniff out how real you are. It matters. You might be able to fool people temporarily, but it won’t last unless you’re genuine. Even after an acquisition, Jason argues that founder story needs to stay intact, even at scale.

People connect with authenticity and can uncover it a mile away.

  • The founder must be fanatical about the product.

Related, the founder absolutely must be a power user of their product and a respected expert in their field. From Jason: “If the founder is (respected and) crazy about the product, the public can look and say ‘If it’s good enough for them, I know it’s good…With Apple, if it’s good enough for Steve Jobs...”

I never really consciously considered this, but it’s likely the single largest reason for our success at FantasyLabs. Peter and I were DFS players simply building tools we wanted to use. We were respected in DFS, and so when we built awesome stuff that we actually used, people took notice. Marketing is easy when your brand is built from a place of authenticity by people genuinely in love with what they’ve created. Most of our success was effectively, “Well if it’s good enough for CSURAM88 to use, I’m sure it’s good enough for me.”

Note that the first three bullet points for building a great brand are pre-marketing. They’re things that need to be accomplished before you tell a single soul about what you have going on. Jumping right to sizzle without cooking the steak is like learning all kinds of interesting pickup lines or making an interesting resume without being an interesting person. It’s actually worse than doing nothing because not only are you going to fail, but it will take a longer time for you to fail, and thus a longer time to adapt and improve. In my post on the secret to success, I discussed the importance of improving the speed of your trial-and-error cycle.

This idea of “pre-marketing” with substance is one reason I think it’s so pivotal to focus on your passions. Not only is it sustainable—an opportunity for you to live a happier life by simply enjoying what you do—but people will detect that passion, which will inevitably dictate your success.

  • Find the 1-in-10—the “Fanatical Few”

Once you have something of substance, you can begin to grow. You can expand without really advertising or “brand building” or marketing at all—especially in an age of permissionless leverage—but you can certainly pour fuel on the fire once the pre-marketing is complete.

The place to start: the most hardcore users.

Rohan calls it finding the 1-in-10.

Jason calls it “the fanatical few.”

Taleb calls it fat tails.

Science calls it the Pareto principle.

Kevin Kelly calls it finding 1,000 true fans, and Andreessen Horowitz has said try 100.

If you want to grow big, first grow small. Focus on finding your superusers—the customers who really crave your product and will become influential in getting other people to use it, too. As Rohan says, “1-in-10 Americans influence the other nine. You have to find a way to get to that one.”

This is one reason Jason is so adamant about a fanatical founder. Not every customer is created the same; some are of far more importance to you—not just in dollars spent but primarily in influence over others—and the route to scale is through impressing those high-end users.

Great brands build for and market to the fanatical few.

  • Focus on engagement over reach.

“Two people can have one million followers each, but one has far more influence than the other, even if the reach is the same,” says Rohan.

It’s not just reach that matters. It’s “how much do people care what you have to say?” Followers without engagement is like getting famous without the ancillary benefits, like getting rich. As Nelly said, “What good is all the fame if you ain’t fuckin’ the models?”

And to get rich, you need not only reach (followers/fans) and engagement (they care what you build/say), but you also need the right types of fans (i.e. those with disposable income). This could be a strong reason to be even more bullish on esports in the future, as the industry has world-class reach and engagement, and as the audience (overwhelmingly young) ages, they’ll have more money.

These reach/engagement effects are not linear. Ten-thousand followers who have 5x the engagement as 50,000 followers will be far, far more valuable. There are exponential returns to finding the most engaged fans, as demonstrated by Taylor Pearson in his article on finding luck.

Not only do the fanatical few pay exponentially more money for products they love, but they’re also the most effective means of advertising to the masses—the 9-in-10 who aren’t yet but could potentially become one of your true fans.

  • Data won’t help with vision.

I don’t know where I heard the analogy, but I like the image of someone “perfectly following a map without knowing where they’re going.” It seems like so many people/companies have become obsessed with optimization over innovation—the equivalent of following directions, carefully planning everything to take the most efficient route possible…and then ending up in the wrong place.

Being data-driven can certainly aid in identifying and fixing inefficiencies, but I’d argue not as much in innovating. Almost all the time, you should be focused on innovating, not optimizing. Don’t just find the most efficient way to do what you do; think about completely new paths altogether.

Again, this is why a fanatical founder is so pivotal. In the same way you can’t successfully survey your customers to determine what to create (they’ll suggest small optimizations, not paradigm-shifting products), you can’t rely on data to tell you where to go. That must come from the heart of the leader.

As Jason said on the podcast, “Investment folks want to live in the quantifiable realm and not the qualitative, emotional realm. But I always come back to ‘Do they make epic shit?’ When you come across something epic, you know it, and it’s rare.”

Use data to inform but not completely dictate your vision. You can’t use data to back your way into making epic shit.

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How to Start a Movement

One last related item before I head out: I’ve been getting a lot of great content recommendations from readers—keep them coming!—and one was this very short TED talk (just a few minutes) on how to start a movement.

The key components of a movement:

·        A leader with the guts to stand out and be ridiculed

·        A first follower(s) with the guts to join in

·        The acceptance of the early followers as equals

·        Movement is public

Movements—which are really what brand-building is all about—are started by a leader with courage. Jeff Bezos has said entrepreneurs “need to be willing to be thought a fool for long periods of time.” If you’re worried about what other people think—or just delivering what you think they’ll want—you’re going to have a tough time starting a movement. Read: Never Become the Person Your Followers Want You to Be.

A leader needs followers. Movements start when a leader convinces initial followers to buy in, and following itself takes a lot of courage. The leader must accept these first followers as equals, and this must be done in some sort of public forum for others to see and join. At a certain point—as potential followers see more and more acceptance of the movement—there’s less social risk in joining.

I’d argue a great movement needs one more element, which is time. A movement needs time to reach a tipping point—a critical mass at which point there’s enough momentum such that the movement cannot be reversed. Movements grow exponentially; exponential functions look quite like linear ones early on, so the leader needs enough belief in what they’re doing to stick with it long enough to reach that tipping point.

My favorite quote from the talk: “If you really want to start a movement, have the courage to follow and get others to follow. And when you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first one to stand up and join in.”

I don’t know if I’m going to start a movement with Lucky Maverick. But I do know I’m a lone nut having some fun.