How Will Your Brand Survive These Crises? with Deb Gabor
Deb Gabor is the brand guru who has studied how brands create irrational loyalty…that loyalty that survives any crisis. Want to know her secrets?
Deb is not just a “Leading Expert.” That doesn’t come close to describing her passion for brands. More accurate? Brand Guru. Brand Impresario. Brand Evangelist. She’s written the book on branding (twice!) with bestsellers Branding is Sex and Irrational Loyalty. She’s the founder and CEO of Sol Marketing, a strategy-led marketing firm obsessed with solving major business and branding problems for clients in every industry. Companies throughout the world use Deb’s Brand Values Pyramid, Ideal Customer Archetype, and “Brand Swagger Questions” to align their teams and articulate their brands to audiences.
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Read Along as Karla and Deb Discuss Brands that Surive Crises
Karla Nelson: And welcome to the People Catalysts’ Podcast, Deb Gabor.
Deb Gabor: Hey, how are you?
Karla Nelson: How are you doing today?
Deb Gabor: I’m a little spent, but as always completely energized. I keep going and going and going. I don’t remember which brain that was but that’s kind of how I feel right now. I’ve never worked so hard, hashtag hustle.
Karla Nelson: I know. There’s never a shortage of problems to solve, especially during this time. And with your new book out, Irrational Loyalty: Building a Brand That Thrives in Turbulent Times. Gosh, you called the market on that one there, Deb.
Deb Gabor: Yeah. That book, I really sort of … I want to say I started that in late 2015, and it spans the time period between 2015 and early 2019, where we saw a huge change in people’s expectations of the brands that they love and just how brands need to show up and more importantly act in this world.
And the whole book is about, what are the foundations that tie together the brands that are able to endure big crises? Whether it’s a crisis of leadership, or a crisis of culture or a crisis that maybe wasn’t even their fault or they weren’t directly involved in. And what is it about those organizations that help them endure and have their brands emerge on the other side being stronger than they ever were? If ever there were a book for right now, it would be this one.
Karla Nelson: Definitely. Well, and I think this is really interesting. And later in the podcast we’ll talk a little bit more about marketing because I think so many people want to just start at marketing, but they don’t understand really the dynamics of a brand. I actually feel a lot of marketing firms it’s like, “Well, you kind of have to do both.” Because if you don’t build a brand marketing is the delivery of the brand. So, can you share a little bit about your book and within the book, what those companies do to fulfill their expectations and truly understand what their brand is?
Deb Gabor: Yeah. So, it really starts with this concept of irrational loyalty. And when I talk about irrational loyalty, irrational loyalty is that condition in which customers are so bonded to a brand that they’d feel like they were cheating on it if they were to choose an alternative. A really good example of this is how I feel about my iPhone for instance, so I’m a big Apple fan. I have every i-thingy ever made. I’m one of those people who when they announce a new product, I’m waiting in line with my lawn chair outside the Apple store, before the store opens. You know the type, right?
Karla Nelson: Yes, I do.
Deb Gabor: Yeah. And so, a couple of years ago, a competitor came out with a new product that was available for sale at my local best buy. And I was like, “You know what? I’ll go give it a try. I’m willing to take a look.” So, I go to the store, I talk to a very knowledgeable sales associate who can tell me everything that I need to know about this thing. It’s the Samsung Galaxy S whatever. It’s functionally superior to the iPhone. Everything about it is better than my freaking iPhone yet when I held it in my hand, I felt dirty.
And it’s the way that I feel. Like one of the guys that I work with, he uses an Android phone. And when I get text messages from him, they come up in green bubbles and it makes me feel weird. So, when I say irrational loyalty, that’s the very embodiment of it. I grew up in the Midwest and one of the things that was really, really divisive for us as we were growing up was, are you a Coke person or a Pepsi person? So, this idea of irrational loyalty kind of comes from when brands have a solid enough foundation, they actually become part of the person who uses them. So the brands that create this condition, it’s pretty simple what they do. The first thing is, they aim their brand at a singular ideal archetypal customer, meaning an actual human being, not a nameless, faceless, automaton, not a clicker or a conversion, or some kind of marketing unit, but they actually aim the brand at an archetypal human being.
And it’s only one, they build the brand for one, that’s the North star, and then they answer these three questions. What does it say about that person that they use this brand? So that’s the essence of that self-expressive thing. Like, “What does it say about me that I use an iPhone and not an Android.” The second question, which is about differentiation, but my belief on differentiation is it’s not enough to be different you have to be unique. So, the second question is, what is the one thing that customers get from us that they can’t get from anyone else? And then the third question, which this is the branding a sex question. You didn’t mention that my first book is called that, but the third question is how do you make your customer, that ideal customer, how does your brand make them a hero in their own story?
So, the brands that were able to endure the most troubling and turbulent crisis-laden times did those four things. And those four things are again, they aim their brand at a singular, ideal, archetypal, human being customer. And they use that as their North star. And they use that so that they could broadcast their values and beliefs to that person’s values and beliefs and align them. And then they did the other three things which were, answer the question of what does it say about that person that they use this brand? They actually became part of the person who uses them. They were unique. They were singular. It’s not enough to just be different. You have to be meaningfully different. And that only comes from being singular. And then they answer that third question which is how does my brand make that person a hero in their own story?
So the brands that were able to endure these big crises, whether it was a dumpster fire, or of a crisis of leadership, or for instance, it was something where the leader of the company did something illegal or untoward, or it was something that was not at all of the company’s creation that could have taken the company down, the ones that endured had all of those characteristics.
Karla Nelson: I love that. So, what are some of the brands that you identified and studied with your book, Irrational Loyalty?
Deb Gabor: Oh gosh, we talked about Uber. We talked about Nike. We talked about-
Karla Nelson: I’m so an Uber fan. And believe this or not with Uber, they went into all of the TEDx events. So, I did a TEDx talk … I don’t know, 2015 or something. And when I got there, Uber was a sponsor and they gave you a whole bag of goodies and an Uber shirt. And I was like, “What the heck is this Uber?” And actually, it must have been a couple years before, but just the fact that gave me a stinking T-shirt, I’ve never once gone on Lyft and I don’t even know why exactly. But it’s interesting because I can’t even explain why that brand to me means so much more than some of the other-
Deb Gabor: I can probably tell you a little bit about why and then I can tell you a little bit about why they were able to endure were a lot of crises, both a crisis of culture and a crisis of leadership-
Karla Nelson: Yeah, a legal crisis, leadership crisis, all sorts of good stuff.
Deb Gabor: Yeah. When you think about the Uber brand, despite what you may think about them in terms of being overcapitalized and all of that kind of stuff, the Uber brand really gets credit. They get credit for creating the category, but the interesting thing is they didn’t create it. It was actually Lyft that created the category and Uber improved upon it. And we don’t say that … like if you’re out someplace with a bunch of friends and you’re going to catch a car to go home, we don’t say, “We’re going to Lyft home.” We say, “We’re going to Uber. Are you going to Uber? I’m going to Uber. I’m going to Uber from the airport.” So, it’s become part of our vernacular. When your brand becomes a verb, that’s truly when you know you’ve made it. But the interesting thing about Uber, the reason that they really are … I still think that they’re fighting from a brand perspective. It was a dumpster fire there from a brand perspective for a really, really long time.
And I see them making the turn out of it. Crisis of leadership, God bless that founder who just held on for dear life despite everything that came out about that business, and how they treated employees, and how they treated women and just what their corporate culture was from the top all the way down, all of the staff changes, et cetera. I think that they’re on the right path. And I actually saw evidence of it during COVID time, they were one of the first brands to come out and say, “Don’t use our brand right now.”
And I think that that is one of the things that is going to help that brand endure, plus the fact they have a very large footprint and they have become synonymous with the category of ride sharing. Now, how do you become synonymous with the category of ride sharing? Well, you have to have lots and lots of top of mind awareness, which means you ask people, “Off the top of your head, when you think of a ride sharing brand, which one comes to the top of your head?” Uber is going to be mentioned most of the time. And I used to work in market research. That’s the strongest predictor of whether or not a brand will be bought really in any category, but then you have to have this clarity and consistency. And it makes you a hero in your own story.
It has to say something about the user. It has to be singular, and unique and something that nobody can get any place else. And ultimately, it has to make the person who uses the brand a hero in their own story.
Karla Nelson: I love that. Okay. So now let’s shift gears and how do you then take that brand and then focus and market? Regardless if it’s online marketing, but there’s some really cool counterintuitive things in marketing tactics that are, like you were saying, counterintuitive. People wouldn’t think of doing those things now that is a great time to take advantage of what’s old is new, right?
Deb Gabor: Yeah. It’s really interesting. The COVID situation has really made everybody have to take a step back and pivot their marketing. Not only pivot their business and pivot how they’re serving customers and even for businesses that people can’t patronize right now. They’re having to change everything, but it is true … I love what you said about everything old is new again. Here’s a couple of examples. I’ve been out there, I’m a branding person and a marketing person. And I explained that what I do is sort of strategy led brand driven marketing. We want everything to emanate from the brand. So the first thing that I’m telling people to do is go back and take a look at your core purpose and your core values and remind yourself, why are we here? And why do we even do what we do?
And then ask themselves this question of how can we be indispensable to people at this time? And so that’s the first thing. And then the interesting thing is now is a time to unautomate your marketing. The last couple of years it’s been this push to automate everything, and make these funnels, and automate them, and hook them together and make sure that the marketing is running for you without you having to touch it, which I’m a firm believer in automation but now is the time to think about what is the role of automation in marketing? And I say-
Karla Nelson: Wow. We have such a captive audience right now. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been using LinkedIn for a while and I have met more people in the last 45 days on LinkedIn.
Deb Gabor: Yeah. And you’ve probably not met them off of automated lead gen messages. You’ve met them off of real human-
Karla Nelson: Yeah, just, “Hey, how are you? You have a real cool interesting story. Let’s jump on a call since we’re all stuck at home.”
Deb Gabor: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. And so, I’m telling people, I’m like, “Turn off your marketing automation and humanize the marketing. Reach out to people, engage with them, have a telephone conversation with them.” Which brings me to counterintuitive point number two. Pick up the phone. So quick story. I have a client. They have their software company. They have 350 business customers. Right when COVID hit their phones stopped ringing, inbound sales stopped ringing, customer success stopped ringing. They have all of these existing customers they applied for; they received a PPP loan. They said, “Deb, what do we do with these people? We have customer success in Biz Dev sitting around.” And I said, “Why don’t you get on the phone and call every one of those existing 350 customers.” And they said, “What do we say?” And I said, “How about, are you okay? Just engage in a conversation.” And so-
Karla Nelson: Imagine that, Deb. That used to be marketing back in the day.
Deb Gabor: I know. I know. Counterintuitive, but here’s the proof point on that, is that over a three day period, taking that team of customer success and business development people and taking them out of their roles and putting them on the phone, they reached out to all 350 customers and they reached 44% of them live. When are you ever going to have a conversation with your customers? I would say third counterintuitive thing that I’ve seen is, now is not a time to discount. So, this is interesting. Same client, they said, “You know what? Our software is kind of expensive. Do you think we should discount our software right now to our existing customers?”
And I said, “Why in the world, would you ever suggest to your existing customers that you were anything but indispensable? Why not instead of discounting, why don’t you tell them that you’re doing something extra? Why don’t you add value to the relationship by giving away something for free? Package up three things that you can do as an organization that don’t you to buy anything, hire anyone, or use a platform or a technique that you haven’t already used before and make an offer of, these are three things that we’re doing for our customers right now to help them during this time.” And so counterintuitive to generously give away your expertise to add value to a relationship, to an existing customer, that’s one of those things that does not compute.
Karla Nelson: Yeah. And you know what, Deb? Those of us that were around in 2008 … and my background is finance and I still work in those areas because when you’re training organizations, they have to have some type of a capitalization strategy. And I think I made the most rock solid for life client relationships during the downtime way more than the upside. So, standing beside somebody when they’re facing a challenge or even just taking that time to pick up the phone, that’s really the stuff that long-term relationships are forged of to. Just this really unique way of going, “Hey, I care about you.” Like you were saying, the counterintuitive marketing, pick up the phone and say, “How are you doing it?” It means a lot.
And to think about the fact that, “Hey, I’m just thinking of you and I just wanted to check in.” And then adding some additional value during the challenging situation that we’re all facing. It really speaks so highly. They will not forget you-
Deb Gabor: They will never forget you.
Karla Nelson: When you’re talking about the one thing that they can’t get from anyone else, that honestly could be the empathy, compassion, and “Hey, I’m here to help you. What do you need? And how can I help you?” It doesn’t have to be some … I think we use examples like Uber and Apple because everybody gets it. At the same time, it doesn’t matter how big or how small your company is. You can use those same exact principles and apply them in that way of, what could you give that nobody else can give them?
Deb Gabor: Yeah. And so, here’s a hint about that singularity because in my work as a brand strategist, the hardest question to answer is, what is the one thing they get from you they can’t get from anyone else? And here’s a hint for everybody. It is never a feature. It’s never a feature, it’s never anything functional. It is always about the you-ness of your brand. And this is really, really important because in today’s day and age, with the proliferation of markets and media and the lowering of the barriers for people to start a business, stand something up, sell something, a product, a service, a personal brand, information, everything everyone does is imitable. That is why you have to transcend the functional benefits of what everyone does to create relationships. Brands are-
Karla Nelson: That is a great point because when you think of the iPhone and the Samsung, it does have a better camera. It does have-
Deb Gabor: It’s better of everything.
Karla Nelson: … every exceptional functionality. You don’t have iTunes launching every other second because-
Deb Gabor: Right. But I don’t want people to see me using a Samsung phone.
Karla Nelson: Yep. I know. Isn’t that crazy? That is so interesting.
Deb Gabor: That’s irrational loyalty. So, when I think about the counterintuitive things, I always remind people that the best brands in the world are the ones that truly are singular because today’s options packages are tomorrow’s standard equipment. I am old enough to have purchased a car where I paid extra for power door locks and power windows.
Karla Nelson: I remember it didn’t actually come with that; my first car didn’t have that.
Deb Gabor: No, I paid $400 for a vanity mirror, which is that mirror that’s on the back of the visor. And so as soon as some car manufacturer made those things standard equipment, it became standard equipment for the entire industry, the entire category. And so it’s really, really important that when people think about how they can be meaningful to their best customers, they need to differentiate themselves on things that are part of the relationship that people have with the brand.
Karla Nelson: Yeah, and there’s an emotional nature that happens with that because features are features. And I love how you say that a feature then becomes standard equipment. So, something that you’ve got that another company can come alongside and go, “Okay, well, I’m just going to do that too.” And now what was a bonus becomes a standard. There is an emotion that happens with a brand-
Deb Gabor: And it’s more than emotion. And this is what separates the best brands from just good brands. So yes, it creates an emotional connection and emotional benefits can also be imitated. And that’s the thing, the emotional benefit of confidence. You can buy five different things that give you confidence. The benefit of your bells and whistles and your special things can be imitated. You can look in any category and you can see that everything in the category is imitable. Take travel for instance, travel takes you on a journey of self-discovery, regardless of which travel business you’re using, which part of the travel category you’re using. It all shares similar emotional benefits. The best brands are the ones that get up even higher than that, to those self-expressive benefits where use of the brand actually elevates the person’s self-concept, where it tells a story about that person, not just to the outside world, but to that person.
So back to the iPhone, the iPhone tells a story about me that I’m cool, I’m creative. I’m 20 years younger than I actually am. You know what I mean? That I’m hip, that I’m connected, all of those different things.
Karla Nelson: And honestly, entrepreneurial. Remember that commercial, one of the first ones, “Here’s to the misfits” and how, oh my gosh, everyone was like, “I’m a misfit.”
Deb Gabor: Oh, yeah. The square pegs in the round holes. That was the brand manifesto for Apple.
Karla Nelson: Yep. Yep. Yep. Exactly. Okay. So with that, can you just share a couple little tips with our listeners in regards to encapsulating that brand, but then using marketing as the … because I think people talk about marketing, but you got to forget, you’ve got to do your brand first and then move to marketing. It’s just the extension by which you’re connecting your brand to your potential ideal clients. Can you share a little bit about some of those techniques that you can use? Because we’ve gone through brand strategy here and this has been awesome stuff, but then how you think about marketing and extending that reach out to the customers and elevating the brand to your ideal client.
Deb Gabor: Yeah. I appreciate that you’re saying you need to really build the foundation of the brand first because ultimately marketing needs to help you sell product, or service, or yourself, or an idea, or information or whatever. And the very definition of marketing is to create a market, it’s to bring buyers and sellers together. And there’s lots of different ways to bring buyers and sellers together. It’s not selling, which selling sales is exchanging money for something. We’re talking about creating a market. So, if you want to create a market for your product, your service, your brand, yourself, your information, your content, your thought, leadership, there are many, many techniques to that. One of my favorite, really one of my favorite techniques and sort of what is the, I’ll say, the very foundation of modern B2B marketing today is content marketing one-to-one marketing, which is being able to put information out into the world for free that people can engage with.
It intrigues them. It engages them. It teaches them something. It takes them on a journey where they can go find more information. And as they’re moving through information all over the internet and off the internet … and today frankly, everything is happening on the internet more so than it ever has because for the last 70 days, we have all been plugged into every device. But you can create a marketing scheme where your information can respond to potential customers digital body language, and then serve them up the very next thing that they need to see. You never really have to sell them anything if you’re doing a good job at this. What you’re doing is you’re changing the relationship when you’re creating that market, when you’re bringing buyers and sellers together. Instead of pushing out to them, you’re pulling them in by engaging them with intriguing ideas, and thoughts and they can picture themselves in your brand and it brings them to you.
So here’s a real quick example. When this whole COVID thing went down, one of the … and you and I experienced the same thing, I lost all my speaking engagements. Then I was like, “All right, what can I do with my time now?” I shifted immediately into spending my time creating and sharing content without obligation to anybody with as many people who needed what I had to say to help them elevate their brands, mitigate crisis and be able to do their pivot or survive this time so that they will be able to thrive in a post pandemic world. And I’ve been sharing that information gratuitously without any expectation of anything in return, just giving that stuff away for free. And what it’s done is I’ve grown my community and my community is now telling me … and when I say I’ve grown my community; I’ve grown it exponentially.
I went from … I don’t know, I had a house list of maybe 4,500 people, I’ve grown to well over 20,000 people, some of which I’m engaging on a now regular basis. And the community is telling me what they want to buy from me.
Karla Nelson: That’s Super cool. I love that. And that is unique and such a good use of time right now. It’s interesting, all of us probably have read … and I know I did about seven times, the E-Myth. Work on your business not in your business. And it’s just a great time because brand is one of those things that really truly is working on your business, not in your business. And it’s absolutely critical that you give that time and that space. As soon as you get busy though, it’s the first thing that … it’s important, but it’s not urgent to quote Steven Covey.
Deb Gabor: Right. It’s all I’m doing. It’s all I’m doing now.
Karla Nelson: Well, Deb, this has been amazing. Thank you so much for your time. And how can our listeners get ahold of you?
Deb Gabor: Well, probably the easiest way to get ahold of me is just go to debgabor.com. Everything is there. There’s information about both of my books. There’s the brand-new world online video series, where I bring really cool thought leaders in and we ask them all kinds of interesting things to help you build a brand that thrives. And it covers all aspects of business. And then there’s a link on that page where you can book a 15-minute meeting with me directly on my calendar. And I love emails. I love to hear from people. I love to do these 15-minute meetings. I have met so many incredible people including you, through just making these connections and you never know what that’s going to lead to.
Karla Nelson: Oh, my goodness, Deb, I completely agree with you. I’ve met more people that are just all around the world in the last 45 days and it has been really super fun. Fantastic. Met some of the coolest people, that’s how we met, right?
Deb Gabor: It is. Totally.
Karla Nelson: So that’s awesome. Well, thank you again so much, Deb. And you’ve got to check out her book, Irrational Loyalty: Building a Brand in Turbulent Times.