Clickbait is Not the Answer. Build a Brand People Can Trust


During the Industrial Era, your identity was irrelevant. As a worker, you were merely a cog in a machine. No one really cared who you were or what ideas you had. Instead, someone was in charge of the factory (or corporation) and you were expected to do as you were told, otherwise you wouldn’t get paid. And if you didn’t get paid, then you couldn’t buy things. And in this system, buying things was just as important as making them. 

Over time, the things you could buy became your identity. You were judged based on what you had, how much of it you could purchase, and how little of it you truly needed. This, in turn, allowed corporations like Walmart to flourish, all by arguing that material goods were scarce and that you had to buy as much as possible - whether you needed it or not. And in this system, gatekeepers prospered by dominating the limited shelf space available at these superstores. To them, a brand merely meant something to make their products stand out on the shelves. Think: the bright orange of Tide, the sparkle of a Brittany Spears CD, or the vibrant whimsy of Lisa Frank folders and notebooks.

But today, things are very, very different. Right now, a single person with an idea can create a product or service and sell it online. It could very well be you! You can start your own business, podcast, YouTube channel, blog, publishing house or Etsy shop. You can decide what you want to make, and why. You can shape your own identity rather than let other people or products shape it for you. You have a microphone, and it’s up to you how you’ll use it and what you’ll say. 

Of course, if you have this ability, so does everyone else. We’ve gone from a world of scarcity to one of abundance. You can find a certain product online at a certain price and have it shipped to you from anywhere in the world. That’s amazing! But it also means that you’re competing against products and services around the entire world, which is overwhelming to consider. So how do you stand out and get noticed? 

Well, there seem to be two schools of thought: 

You can scream really loud, make desperate promises you can’t keep, produce clickbait in the pursuit of vanity metrics, and orchestrate elaborate publicity stunts to get some eyeballs on your website or social media. And you can pursue as many people as possible, even if that means scamming them. Everything is a pop-up add, a padded number and a lie, leading to the appearance of success rather than the real deal. 

Or, you can tell a story about the change you’d like to make through the way your product is made and how it makes customers feel. You can offer a service that makes customers experience that story and want to share it with others. And you can share your values through your business in a genuine and authentic way. In short, you can do the work that matters, letting that guide your connections in a truly human way. 

Naturally, we personally prefer the second school of thought. Why? Because clicks and likes are cheap. Connection is the true scarcity, and it’s the most valuable asset a business can have. Attracting a crowd is one thing. Making them trust you is quite another. 

And that’s where your brand comes into play. People want to know where they belong - to which community. And they have a deep desire for products and services that reinforce that identity. They’re looking for something that’s as unique as they are - not something common, industrial, or cheap. They want something meaningful. 

People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories, and magic.
— Seth Godin

When you look at your brand from this perspective, you can then begin to shape a culture. But in order for your message to truly resonate with others, you need to think smaller than the mainstream market. You need to first reach out to a niche community and work to forge a genuine connection with them. Seek out the mini-markets and grow from there. 

Consider these quotes from the founder and former CEO of Jones Soda, Peter van Stolk. He started out by selling his unique product only in surf, skate and snowboard shops, tattoo & piercing parlors, and music stores - where he knew his customers would be (and his competitors wouldn't). Then the company put photos of actual customers on the bottles of each and every soda, all submitted and voted on by the customers themselves. For Stolk, it wasn't about growing fast, but about demonstrating authenticity to true zealots of their brand before moving towards the mass market. Here's what he had to say: 

“We started this company with the philosophy that the world does not need another soda. That forces us to look at things differently: how could we create a connection with customers, let them play with the brand, let them take ownership of it? It’s hard for marketing people to let other people play with their brand. For us, it’s our whole existence.”

“We’re playing a different game than our ‘competitors.’ My fundamental belief is that great brands create an emotional connection. In our case, that means individual ownership: my photos, my bottle cap, my music. Everything we create has to enhance that connection.” 

“If you believe that a brand has to have a set of convictions, then you have to be prepared to piss people off. We don’t have to appeal to everyone. My attitude is, if you don’t like Jones, that’s cool. Don’t buy it, and have a nice day.”

For the full story, read Mavericks at Work

So, start small with a meaningful specific - in a way that reinforces your identity - then work to dominate that smaller market. That way, you can make more mistakes, take bigger risks, and ultimately learn more about your customer in the process. The knowledge you gain will ultimately cement your identity, and help you do the work that matters. Because only then can you stand out on a bigger stage. 

In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failure. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible.
— Seth Godin 

In closing, ask yourself:

  1. Who is my next customer? What’s their outlook? What are their hopes, desires, needs and wants?
  2. What story is my customer telling themselves right now?
  3. How can I tell the customer something they don’t know, while also building trust?
  4. What changes am I trying to make in my customer’s life? 
  5. What might surprise them?

These answers should come before investing in scalability because trust is far more valuable than mere clicks.