Category Archives: Marketing

Becoming #1

Long ago a colleague recommended that I read the book Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan. I did. At the time, I thought it was interesting, if simplistic. And then I continued to use it as a key tool in my professional work for the next dozen years.

The core idea in Eating the Big Fish is that there are large incumbents in every market space, but “little fish” can come to dominate the ecosystem through effective brand-building and communication. The book came out at a time when “brand” was the buzziest of buzzwords, one that could smother any attempt at critical thinking. Yet the book has endured as a modern business classic.

Eating the Big Fish starts with the thesis that in every competitive environment there are two leaders: a market leader and a thought leader. The thought leader—aka the “challenger brand”—must do several things to create awareness and pull attention away from the market leader:

  • Break with the immediate past.
  • Build a “lighthouse identity.” Stand for clear and different ideas,
    communicated loudly.
  • Reframe the conversation.
  • Create symbols of re-evaluation.

There’s perhaps a mixed metaphor here, with small fish building lighthouses (underwater?), but I’ll forgive it. This is a really good list. And its logic makes sense: if you’re not the leader yet, you must create a unique, compelling, and highly visible presence. Otherwise, no one will be able to remember you or understand why your offering is better.

As I said, over the past decade or so, I have found myself often returning to this idea of the challenger brand, and using it with a wide range of clients. The wisdom of Eating the Big Fish appears to be broadly useful. But why would that be?

I think the reason the book remains relevant, and broadly so, is that its narrow focus obscures a deeper insight about our current economy and media ecology:

Every brand communicates as if they are #1 in their respective space.

To explain why this might be, I want to share an adapted version of the Eat Big Fish framework that retains its original metaphor, but extends it to make a few additional points.

In every “space,” we find:

  • A monopoly or ecosystem owner
  • Optimizers within that ecosystem
  • Niche brands who are only going after a small part of the overall opportunity



Each of these levels has an objective leader who owns the largest share of the overall market. All these leaders are #1.

Each of these levels also has a primary market challenger, a disruptor who is trying to change the terms of the overall space. Like the market leaders, these challenger brands are also #1… in leading the new categories that they themselves are defining.



This crude breakdown gives you a sense of why every organization positions itself as #1. It’s not that they’re all lying—it’s that, in a way, they are telling the truth. They are each excelling at the unique thing they are trying to do. And Jack Welsh’s famous notion, when not taken to extremes, remains correct: if you can’t be #1 (the market leader) or #2 (the thought leader) in your core category, you do not have a future.

If you’ve been in business long enough, you begin to understand that being the challenger—the category disruptor—is the only way for the mid-sized and bigger fish to survive and thrive over the long haul. Companies die quickly or slowly when they optimize within the parameters of their existing space. They run out of room to grow. Geoffrey West has written about this poignantly, and it’s one of the reasons companies like Amazon, Nike, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Tesla are always signaling that they are, in Jeff Bezos’ words, “Day 1” companies. Permanent disruptors.

The corollary is that every organization finds based on its environment that it must become either a small, niche success or a “challenger brand.”

So… the reason every brand communicates as if they’re number one is not that they’re blind, smug, stupid, dishonest, or lucky.

It’s because—they have to.

What is marketing?

Marketing is one of those words that seems to have a different definition depending on who you ask.

If you explore the huge volume of resources, history, and commentary out there regarding marketing, it quickly becomes obvious that these voices have little to do with each other. It’s hard to believe that they all describe aspects of the same general craft.

I work with companies across a wide range of industries and levels of scale, so it helps to have frameworks that are easy to understand and broadly applicable.

That in mind, I’ve found it most useful to think of all marketing as communication.


I’ve written previously that business strategy is essentially about opportunity — seeing clearly what you want and how you will apply physical and financial capital to make it happen.

I’ve also written that brand strategy is essentially about relationships — cultivating deliberate long-term bonds with specific groups.

Marketing strategy is the last piece and is essentially about communication — what you say and (equally important) how you listen.

Connect opportunity, relationships, and communication on an ongoing basis and you can build a powerful engine for long-term business success.


This definition of marketing is perhaps so simple that I can risk complicating it slightly. I’ll do so by introducing a classic marketing framework called the customer acquisition funnel, purchase funnel, or sometimes just the marketing funnel.


Marketing funnel


Everyone labels this framework differently, but the general concept is more important than the details.

If you’re unfamiliar with the tool, one important thing to note is that at each step of the funnel, you lose a very large portion of your audience. Not all people who become aware of your brand proceed to visit your website. Not all of those window shoppers pay you money. And not all of those first-time customers come back, etc.

When many people think of marketing, they picture activities at the top of the funnel that create awareness or drive new traffic: TV ads, promotions, blimps, etc. But savvy marketers know that the most value is at the bottom of the funnel, working with the existing brand evangelists who will sing your praises for free. Unincented positive word of mouth is the most cost-effective marketing technique because it works the best and costs nothing.

It’s nearly impossible to execute the funnel well without data. I’ve said that half of all communication is about listening, and to a large extent, data is how most companies listen. This is too big a topic to cover completely in this one blogpost, or even an epic series, but suffice it to say that for every type of organization, channel, activity, and level of scale, there are “gold standard” metrics for measuring brand and financial health at each step of the marketing funnel. (Note though that these two kinds of metrics — brand and short-term financials — are often in dynamic tension with each other.) Avinash Kaushik is a master of this topic when it comes to digital channel analytics, and for quant jocks, his website is well-worth reviewing in detail.


Top-down and bottom-up segmentation


A business’s efforts at the top of the funnel (TOFU) are designed to capture very specific audiences. On a regular basis, we can also perform cohort analysis to see if our converted customers, retained customers, and brand evangelists at the bottom of the funnel (BOFU) match our original audience targets. If they don’t, this will likely give us good ideas about how to revise our business, brand, or marketing strategy. (E.g., Huh, we seem to be having more traction with women than men…)

And for each of these “bottom of the funnel” cohorts, with increasing degrees of finesse, we can also track:

  • their lifetime financial value to us
  • their brand loyalty
  • the cost it took us to acquire them

With this infrastructure in place, any business can have excellent visibility into the effectiveness of all its marketing activities… everything needed to smartly evolve its marketing strategy on an ongoing basis.


God is in the details of course. The definitions and models above admittedly cover “what” marketing is but don’t spell out “how” to do it. Those “how” details vary significantly depending on whether you’re a local gym or General Electric.

But the beauty of these simple frameworks is that they highlight the major marketing errors that many businesses — big and small, old and new — fall into. Here are some gotchas to look out for:

  • The marketing approach doesn’t sync with the underlying business and brand strategy.
  • We don’t know who the customer is, or our unique value to that customer.
  • We’re aren’t appropriately balancing “top-of-the-funnel” traffic acquisition with “bottom-of-the-funnel” relationship-building.
  • We lack full-funnel visibility, with metrics in place to measure brand and financial health at every step.

Finally, black belt marketers always heed the advice of Meryl Streep. When asked by James Lipton, “How important is listening?” she said:

“It’s everything.”

What is brand?

Brand is a top priority for many businesses, but it often lacks a clear definition, owner, or action plan.

People frequently conflate the term “brand” with related concepts like vision, awareness, positioning, and design, and so it never really gets articulated, and therefore never really gels.

I’ve been doing brand work for a long time, across a wide range of clients—from massive global conglomerates to edgy startups to small local businesses, and everything in between.

Personally I’ve found that the most effective way to think about brand is to replace it with the word “relationships.” Not relationships in some abstract sense, but specifically: human relationships.

In my work, I often depict these relationships using simple Venn diagrams.


Brand diagram #1


Brand diagram #2


The health of these relationships, individually and in aggregate, is the brand.

Note that:

  • These relationships are all specific and deliberate. A strong brand doesn’t appeal to everybody: it appeals to clearly identified groups.
  • Not all of these groups are customers. They include any stakeholders who are vital to the organization’s long-term success.
  • Internal and external relationships both matter. The internal relationships (aka “culture”) are aligned and optimized to maintain, extend, and deepen the external relationships.

Brand = relationships

This simple way of looking at brand has advantages over others you might encounter. I’ll consider a few of these one at a time. Brand is not…

    • Design. Design is wonderful. It’s an integral part of sustaining relationships and facilitating clear, consistent bi-directional communication. I love high-quality design. But the truth is that some beloved businesses have mediocre design (e.g., Craigslist), and some companies and products with exquisite design fail against objectives and/or fail to connect with consumers (e.g., the original incarnation of Google+). Having the perspective that design supports brand, not equals brand, typically leads to better thinking about both.
    • Reputation. Reputation management is important, but just as managing your personal reputation doesn’t create character, managing general external perception of your business doesn’t in itself build long-term, strong relationships with specific groups. In reality, many companies survive major PR gaffes but still have strong brands. (Uber, Lululemon, Apple, and Whole Foods all leap to mind.) As with “design,” it’s helpful to look at brand and reputation as related but separate.
    • Trust. Trust is a good word, a feel-good word. But it’s also very vague. In practice, how does one become “trusted”—to whom and for what? I’ve seen many companies become smitten with the word “trust” as a key tenet of who they are and what they do and then get bogged down defining the intent and boundaries of what “trust” actually entails.
    • Magic. There are many bad actors and bad practitioners out there who insist that brand is ineffable but essential, and that only they have the mystic intuition and creativity to tell you what yours is, for a princely sum. Don’t hire these people. Good consultants can always explain the practical value of their deliverables.
    • Bullshit. Given the huge volume of muddled thinking on the topic, I’ve seen many companies reject all discussion of “brand” entirely… then be nagged by questions about how to tell their story, how much to invest in design, who their customers are or should be, or whether their culture is firing on all cylinders. “Brand” admittedly is an imperfect container for all these discussions, but right now, most companies I work with find it easier to live with it than without it.
Santa Brand Book

This Santa brand book parody from Quietroom is painfully and brilliantly representative of the nonsense you’ll see from many “brand” agencies.

Here are some alternate definitions of brand that I believe are very close to the mark, but still slightly lacking:

    • A promise. Cheryl Heller is a heavy-hitter when it comes to writing and thinking about brand, and she and others have used the phrase “brand promise” to good effect. I recommend her work highly and agree with her general line of thought, but in this instance I quibble with the word choice. To me, a promise is a very narrow agreement—e.g., I promise to take out the trash each Thursday—but a relationship is richer, with multiple dimensions, expectations, shared history, and mutual benefits. Is a relationship reducible to a promise? (E.g., is a marriage reducible to a contract?) I don’t think so.
    • A pattern. Marc Shillum of Method wrote an excellent paper a few years ago entitled “Brands as Patterns.” I agree with this paper 100%. If you’re an expert practitioner when it comes to brand, or you want to be, I recommend it highly. But for many businesses, and many CEOs especially, talking about brands as patterns is too esoteric. My plain-English and somewhat crude simplification of Shillum’s paper is that brands are relationships, and all relationships tend to be ritualized: the family dinner, the Amazon 1-click, the Apple product launch experience. With many CEOs, product teams, and marketing teams, I ask: what specific rituals bring our brand to life? This provokes good discussion without having to use the word “patterns” or assume a shared and nuanced understanding of cognitive psychology.
    • An experience. It’s vogue-ish now to talk about brand as an “experience” and there is a lot of excellent work being done under the aegis of “brand experience design.” One gotcha with this way of thinking is that it can lead to an impression that “brand” is a carefully curated, Disney-esque, self-contained reality. Experiences are designed; relationships are co-created… depending on the nature of your business, this might be an important distinction. Also, practically speaking, the organizational owner of “experience design”—whether that’s a CXO, CTO, CMO, creative director, product owner, or agency of record—often doesn’t own all aspects of external and internal relationships, and so they don’t really own the brand. Letting experience design be experience design and not “brand experience design” will often foster clearer thinking and expectations regarding accountability.

Think better

I find this overall way of looking at brand very helpful for a number of reasons:

  • It’s simple, memorable, and easy to act on.
  • It provokes the right kinds of questions.
  • It highlights the importance of human relationships to overall business success.
  • It scales across many different company sizes and types.
  • It makes useful distinctions between brand and design.
  • It also makes a useful distinction between brand and marketing, since the two are sometimes unproductively clumped together. (More about this in a future post…)

Also, it includes culture, but in a useful way:

  • It clears up a misconception that internal culture and external brand should be identical. Optimal cultures are skillful at maintaining, extending and deepening external relationships. Sometimes this means that the internal culture and external brand mirror each other, sometimes not.
  • It clears up a misconception that optimal cultures maximize “niceness” or the comfort of the internal team. Culture is focused outward, not inward. Companies run into trouble when they become too insular and caught up in their internal story. Also, many employees tend to find it vitalizing to give to the world and think beyond themselves.

In other words, brand doesn’t have to be bullshit. It can be what gives business meaning.

Who is your customer?

Every business at every stage must be able to answer two questions:

  • What do you want?
  • Who is your customer?

I’ve written about vision recently. Vision is essential because it focuses your attention. Where you focus your attention creates your world.

Knowing your customer is also essential. But surprisingly, in all their day-to-day busyness, companies can easily forget exactly who they are trying to serve.

The art and science of customer segmentation can get a bit complicated, but there’s a simple framework I’ve been using with enterprise, SMB, and startup clients for the past few years that seems to work well to sharpen thinking and provoke new insights.

If you’re an entrepreneur planning a new phase of growth, I suggest using each of the four filters below to identify your current or ideal customers. List the possibilities for each one, taking breaks in between to recharge your mental batteries. Then look at your answers, cluster any groups that naturally go together, and prioritize where to focus your energy.

The Four Filters

1. Demographics
2. Psychographics
3. Occasions
4. Categories


Demographics cover basic objective data about your customers, including their gender, location, and economic status.

Almost all enterprises know this information cold. By contrast, many small business owners don’t articulate this precisely for themselves. But it’s useful to get really specific here; it narrows your focus and highlights things you might not otherwise see.

Tip: Everyone at first thinks their customer is “everybody.” Move quickly out of that trap.


Psychographics refer to your customers’ values, wants, and needs.

To be honest, many companies are terrible at this kind of segmentation. Asked to describe their target customers, they respond with some version of: “People with a vague spiritual ache that can only be met by our current offering exactly as it is today.” Their error in other words is projection, seeing others through an overly subjective filter.

Good psychographic profiling requires data—quantitative data—about how your customers experience the world from their point of view. Luckily, many people know how to do this kind of research, and if you’re in a mature category, there are often freely available reports that can help get you started.

If psychographic research is new to you, never fear, simply start with your best assumptions about what your customers value and find smart ways to test those assumptions.

Tip: Avoid projection. Get data.


Some situations create their own customer segments, where the usual demographic and psychographic differences between people cease to matter as much. People standing in line at the post office tend to behave like people standing in line at the post office. Planning a wedding, searching for a divorce lawyer, or finding a last-minute table for four with no reservations are all occasions that generate their own set of predictable human behaviors.

If you’ve been running your business for a while, you probably have a good sense of how and when people come to use your services. Write down these different occasions, and try brainstorming some new ones.

Tip: Occasion-based profiling can often unlock some powerful new ideas about how to market your business or extend your product and service offerings.


And last, most mature categories come with their own built-in expectations. If your business doesn’t meet those expectations, you have to call out those differences and spin them as positives, or else commit to adding the services and features that your customers expect. Example: an urban coffee shop that does not offer wi-fi could market itself as a place for in-person socializing and personal connection, free from digital distraction. Or it could invest in wi-fi.

Tip: Compare your psychographic targets to the expectations for your category. Anything that makes you different must be a plus to the customers you are trying to reach.