Risky Business


Marketing used to equal advertising.  If you had a better product/service, or at least it was perceived as better, and you made enough noise, then you made the sale.

Now marketing equals storytelling. You must connect with your customer at a core level, reinforce their worldview of themselves, and tell a story that supports how they see your brand fitting within that framework.  

Most companies fail to differentiate themselves from the competition because they fail to tell a story that resonates with their customers - and consequently are relegated to being just another commodity.

If you are only interested in a quick buck and are okay with a race to the bottom by becoming a commoditized company, then stop reading now. If you want to stand out from the competition, lean in and then let’s talk later.

Presumably you want to avoid that. Every decision you make impacts your brand story – telling the right story and selecting the right customers, employees, and agency.

In today’s marketplace you must tell a story that connects - and prove it at every turn; every time; every day. Which means EVERY touchpoint with a potential customer either propels your story forward or derails it.

That also means that company culture must be authentic and carry that same story from top to bottom; inside and out.

The wrong hire of staff or of an outside agency will do as much damage to your brand as anything. Why? Because your team (internal and external) is the frontline to your customers.

If you select the wrong agency, your story could be jumbled and inconsistent.

Regardless of how amazing your product/service is, if you have employees and touchpoints that don’t evoke the same brand story and personality, you WILL lose customers.

And your customers are the ones that help carry your story for you over time. Once they hear the story, it is theirs to share and to modify. And they will do so according to how they are treated.


How you treat customers, how your employees treat each other, and how you treat your brand, website, store/office, emails, phone calls…everything…. tell a story.

Start by treating everyone well and removing the people or things that don’t align with your brand. (And yes, that means employees and that means customers.) Not everyone is for you. Quit trying to make your brand work for everyone and everyone work for you. It doesn’t work and costs you time and money.

Being selective and focused provides clarity. People want to feel special regardless of your industry. By speaking to a narrow group, you are able to show them they matter. Which means your story treatment must point the recipient to an aligned worldview.  

Likewise, if there is any disconnect between your story and how your employees treat the customer and treat each other, there will be losses.

Meaning there is an economic cost in how we treat people.

Economics (Traditional and Behavioral)

In traditional economics we’re often taught that buyers are a homogenous group that within certain circumstances will act a certain way. But that is only partially true because everyone has different preferences and biases.

Behavioral Economics is one of our favorite topics at Paradigm. It is the study of how people actually make those buying decisions. Though it is often said, “People make irrational buying decisions”, I would say they make rational buying decisions (within their preference/bias framework) that perfectly align with their world view and the story they tell themselves, about themselves.

To the buyer their choices are perfectly rational and justifiable.

I personally don’t understand why someone would pay for a certain brand of a phone any more than they understand why I pay for mine. (Mine’s cooler than yours by the way, but I bet we would argue each other in circles.)

Both Apple and Samsung make quality and competitive phones, but both tell very different stories and speak to different audiences. Nothing is wrong with that. They seem to know their audiences and focus primarily on them. Sure, they want to pull customers away from each other with new features, but that only provides short term gains and is a very expensive way to grow your brand.

Though the actual number of sales in recent years if fairly even between the two, Apple slaughters Samsung when it comes to customer loyalty and profits. Their customers irrationally see value and benefit ratios in a cult like fashion. However, they rationally decide to purchase because their worldview aligns with Apple.

To support their brand, Apple is consistent with their products, in-store and online experiences, customer service, innovation, and perceived value.

So, as we talk about framing a story that a customer can believe in, we have to balance how that looks economically to them, providing measurable benefits, and how the business can maximize its return on investment. The customer’s worldview will influence how they see value and benefit ratios (cost and justification).

Apple does this by providing a clear story that aligns with what potential Apple owners believe about themselves – “they think differently and challenge the status quo”. Therefore, they can’t even imagine using another phone.  Good luck changing their minds.

Changing Minds

It is really difficult and expensive to try to change someone’s mind. So why waste time on that? Tell YOUR story and pursue customers that want that same story in their lives.

Most people make every decision, purchase and argument to validate what they believe about themselves and their worldview. People are not easily persuaded when dealing with things they know and have experienced.

We must provide a new way to frame the worldview if there is any chance of changing minds. This means we speak to them in terms they understand and support their worldview.

As soon as we are caught up solely on features or price point, we have lost the story. Can you obtain customers being the cheapest and having the best specs alone? Yes, but you won’t build long term loyalty and you won’t have other people sharing the story. You will be relegated to being the commodity we previously mentioned.

Think back to when the iPod first came out. It was hardly the first portable music player. But Apple was brilliant in showcasing how many songs the device could hold, how easy it was to get music from the store and how much fun you would have. Every music player before that was focused on specs. The size of the hard drive, how cheap, or other features. Apple knew they had to change the “picture frame” of the story.

Your goal should be to provide clarity and to remove as much risk as possible for the customer in their selection of your product/service.

Mitigating Risk

Owning or running a business brings risk. A lot of risk that only other business owners truly appreciate. In fact, sometimes overwhelming risk, which can generate fear or sub-optimal decisions which the compound the problems.

So, prioritizing how to manage all of the risks becomes a large task on its own. One such risk is the marketing of a business. And as previously mentioned, your marketing, your storytelling, matters a lot.

But often in the course of managing our businesses, marketing falls to the bottom of the list. After all, we think or are told “marketing is an expense”. We’ve all heard horror stories of wasted dollars on advertising, chasing tails with social media; and we can’t see the direct connection in marketing and sales.

Likewise, your business should also be just as careful in the selection of a marketing/branding agency that is tasked to guide the brand story and touch points

You might be thinking, “You are just trying to justify what you do at Paradigm so I’ll spend money with you.”  And sure, that would be great, but I do believe in the power of marketing because we have so many client success stories. I know that a company can never reach its full potential without clear marketing, brand identity, branding strategy, and execution – Consistent, Comprehensive, Cohesive.  

Can you be successful in spite of yourself and without a clear brand story? Sure, but it is much riskier in the digital and noisy environment we all live in.

To say it directly: marketing and branding actually help mitigate risk.

Clarity is essential to success – whether it means building something, changing direction, or knowing when to stop or go. Thoughtful marketing and branding clarify strategy and positioning internally and externally.

Many companies/organizations decide that they can/should handle marketing/branding internally because that will save money and give them full control. After all, an agency is going to be expensive.

While it is true that an agency can be expensive, as with any financial decision, we have to decide where the investment and return provide us the most benefit.

To just think pragmatically for a minute, if you hire a marketing person in house, you need to realize there are very few unicorns – people that are excellent at strategy, branding, design, social media, web design, writing, etc. In fact, they don’t exist. Which is why you see wise companies making one of two choices – hire a large enough staff in house with solid and diverse skills to cover design, strategy, branding, writing, web, digital and traditional advertising, PR, SEO, designed environments, photography, video, etc. -  OR outsource most if not all of the work to a capable agency.

Having the entire marketing staff internally certainly gives you control, but it also removes external resources that often have much broader and deeper experience. Likewise, you are stuck with salaries and overhead even though there are seasons in marketing and branding where they may not be needed full time and others when you need to ramp up.

An external agency truly provides greater flexibility and return on investment. They are designed to ramp up or down for your needs, and by using a larger group of people than you can probably provide internally, you have access to a broad and deep skill set without having to maintain a staff.

Now What?

Let’s say you agree with all of that. What now, how do I truly mitigate risk?

Your Agency

Select an agency that has similar core values to yours. They seem to get you, and feel right. Of course, they have to have the right skill set. But don’t make the mistake of being excited by the flash, client list, or their presentation. Now that doesn’t mean an amazing presentation, client list or a bit of flash is necessarily negative. It may be the right indicator for you. But I implore you to make sure the agency has your best interest in mind. That they will walk with you through the strategy and everything that follows.

Look for a partner, not a vendor. Vendors don’t mitigate risk, only partners in life and business do that.

Carefully select an agency that believes in your story and is focused on helping you differentiate your business as they become part of your team, just like your employees are.

Your Employees

A person that isn’t pleasant, that only believes in parts of your brand story (the parts that personally serves them) rather than how it serves your customer should be cut loose. They will undermine your brand.

Of course, you should try to coach employees that have potential, but have time limits. Short ones.

For instance, let’s say you have a middle manager. They have a real talent that you need, but they constantly create internal strife with other employees or customers (direct buyers, vendors, franchisors, etc.). They will negatively impact your brand and thus cost you money through loss of customers and employees.

They are breaking your brand story. They are working against your story. They are costing your company because they truly are only for themselves. And if an employee is consistently creating problems with other staff, customers, etc. – mitigate your risk and let them go, quickly.

Hire for culture and character. Or, as is often said – Hungry, Humble, and Smart people. If any of those three are missing you already have big problems.

Your Customers

Forget wasting time and money chasing customers that don’t believe in your story.

Not everyone is your customer. Be okay with that. You choose brands that you like because they tell you a story about yourself. Embrace that for your business and your customers.

Focus on understanding the customer and how they want to be treated. Understand their worldview and how your brand fits into it. An agency should help you with the customer profile, brand personality and bringing consistency to your story and touch points.

Next Steps

Now ask yourself these questions to see if you are mitigating risk through your brand story.

·         Do you really know who your customers are?

·         Do you know what makes them connect with your brand?

·         Do you know what story you are telling to them or should be telling them?

·         Do you have employees that don’t fully buy into your story or undermine it internally or externally?

·         Do you have the right agency partnered with you?

·         Have you considered how you are mitigating risk and pushing success?

·         Are you trying to change minds rather than aligning worldviews?

·         Do you understand the economics – financial and behavioral?

·         Are customers and employees treated as individuals rather than objects?

·         Do you have a story you believe in?

Once you have clear answers, good or bad, you need to bring it all together into the consistent, comprehensive and cohesive brand.

Remember, Marketing equals Storytelling.

Let us help you tell your story.


Charles T Gaushell, Principal/Founder

Paradigm Marketing & Creative

Limiting Choices

We love choice! We’re all different and have different needs, so clearly we want choices.

But is it actually true?

How often do you find yourself having angst over purchase decisions? Do you find it is hard to clearly differentiate which car you should buy; what shirt to wear? Should I have ordered one of those 20 other entrees?

The truth is that we actually want limitations. As crazy as that sounds, we are happier when we have fewer choices, not more.

Take the jam study conducted by Sheena Iyengar in 1995. Her team setup a booth and switched every few hours between offering 24 jams vs 6. On average, potential customers tasted 2 jams (in both offerings) and each received a coupon. 60% of the potential customers said they preferred the large assortment, while only 40% preferred the small assortment.

So choice did work!

But here is the problem – 30% of the people that preferred the smaller choice samples bought the jam. Only 3% of the people with the larger choice bought. 10 times the difference with fewer choices!

So choice didn’t work! People with fewer choices, bought more!

How does this play out in highly successful brands you ask?

Well, they tend to focus their brand story and brand personality to show that they are not for everyone. They limit their target audience and then they limit choices for you.

By brand, we mean a connection with like-minded customers. They agree with your story and believe it confirms what they already believe about themselves.

Apple has clearly been one of the most successful brands in the world and they have a huge following. But they aren’t for everyone. In fact, if you factor in all Android phones, you’ll see the market is nearly split in half.

Samsung is their closest rival, but they give customers a very different choice experience. And I’m not talking about the Samsung “fire sale” (if you’ve been living in a hole, they are having a problem with phones catching fire – not good for future sales).

Back to my point - take the Apple iPhone 7. There are 5 main models to choose from. Only 5, with minor variations in color and memory. Samsung on the other hand currently has 27 base models for sale.

I’m not saying one phone is necessarily better than the other, (fire issues aside) but one of them has a cult following.

Apple builds great products, but they also limit choices both before and after you enter into their brand.

Limit 1 – Brand - Their messaging is clear and doesn’t appeal to everyone. They think differently, they challenge the status quo, and the promise to keep things simple and make your life better. It’s more about how each iPhone user sees themselves more than it is about the specs.

Limit 2 – Options - you can’t go crazy with customization and you have very few models to choose from. Take it or leave it, they don’t try to be everything to everyone.

Result – happy and loyal customers…who don’t have phones on fire – we’ll save that for another blog.

One of the reasons that people are loyal to brands is that they know what they are getting and they believe the brand “fits” them.

How about razor blades? The Dollar Shave Club has 3 blade options. 3 limited choices and it works. It works really well too! It is easier for them to tell a story and easier for the consumer to make a choice. Will everyone use them? No, but it doesn’t matter. They save their clients time and money, they have fun branding so everyone that chooses them believes in them.

Many restaurants have learned that if you limit the menu it strengthens your brand and increases sales. Though not everyone will like what you have, you will build a loyal brand because they know what to expect. And isn’t that the point? You want customers that align with your brand. Otherwise, you are trying to please everyone and we all know that really doesn’t work.

Think about your own experiences when you are overwhelmed with choice. It can be incredibly frustrating. It literally hurts the brand experience and your sales in the long run because “something” didn’t feel right to your customer.

Your brand must be true and consistent. AND the choices should be limited.

This can scare some companies as they want to spread a wide net. Unfortunately, study after study shows that a targeted approach works better.

To put it another way, choice is good, but how that equates to satisfaction is something completely different. There are diminishing returns as we add options. Each new option subtracts a little from the us feeling good about our choice. Choice can also require more time and lead to anxiety, create unrealistic expectations, and lead to regret.

Consider limiting your customer’s choices in two areas - brand messaging and offerings (services or products). You will probably find happier and more loyal customers.  


Commodity or Oddity

Every company either thinks they are different, or they try to be. But if that were true, why do so many fail to differentiate themselves and fall into the trap of being a mere commodity in their industry?

Perhaps it is because so few companies fail to define themselves beyond the thing they sell. They talk about their services/products and they use the same terminology as their competitors. They often even tell the same stories as others too.

This leaves you with a few options – have a prior relationship with your client or provide a better price.

That seems like a bad recipe to grow the bottom line.

Look around at the companies that really stand out. They take risks; they tell a different story; they are odd! None of that means you have to be weird – though that can work too. It just means you have to know who you are, what really makes you different, and then clearly and confidently tell your story.

Chipotle is not a commodity within the fast-casual restaurant market. Their brand has positioned itself as “dedicated to creating a sustainable, healthful and equitable food future.” Chipotle’s purpose is focused on local farms, nutrition and animal welfare – each relevant and emotionally connected to their target consumer.

Cirque du Soleil reinvented the circus, was able to reach revenues that outpaced the traditional Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. They made the competition irrelevant by creating a market that could reach into markets a traditional circus could not – opera, theater, musical shows and ballet.

 You must connect with your target consumer which means you must be relevant, authentic and matter to them.

This may sound like a daunting task, and it does take a lot of effort working without outside professionals, but it is doable for any company. A few things you’ll need to figure out:

·         Your core value/purpose

·         How you approach that core value/purpose through your work/product

·         Who your core audience is. Clue – it isn’t everyone.

·         What your product is that resonates with your audience.

Then the next step is wrapping that into a story that resonates with the audience and is true to who you are.

 The real test is being willing to be different. Many companies are really scared of standing out. They are comfortable telling the same story as everyone else. They might even have continued success. But you and I both know, that if we really look at our companies, we are missing out on opportunities by being like everyone else.